This article is written by WanderingWinder, originally posted on the forum.
I know there’s already an article on the blog on Ambassador, and I’m not trying to say it’s a bad article in writing this. Only, Ambassador is an extraordinarily complicated card, and I wanted to add some beef to its analysis. In fact, if you are newer, you should go read it now, because I’m assuming you already have some basic familiarity with the card throughout this article.
I used to hate Ambassador, but now, even in second position (and it has MASSIVE first player advantage), I’m pretty unlikely to veto it.
I should note that I don’t think this is a definitive article on the card that will stand up to the test of time – it’s too complicated for that. But I do hope that it will be found mostly insightful, if not all-encompassing, on down the line. For one thing, this has only the barest treatment of Dark Ages, since I’ve yet to play a game with Ambassador and DA cards together. Further, this is entirely dedicated to the 2-player version of Dominion; Ambassador plays entirely differently with more players, probably most significantly out of all the cards. For one, repeated use of Ambassador drains the piles in 4-player: even if you return 2 copies, three copies are distributed. Many Ambassador games in 4-player end on piles for this reason.
What does Ambassador want?
The absolute number one thing to understand about Ambassador is that you desperately want card draw – some way to increase your hand size (whilst still having an action left). Look at it this way – if you return two cards from your hand, and you haven’t drawn anything, then that leaves you with a two-card hand. Well, even the best two-card hands are generally pretty lousy. This can actually work sometimes, Ambassador is that powerful, but you don’t want to have to make it work if you don’t absolutely have to (and more on that subject later on).
Looking at it another way, why are you thinning your deck out in the first place? Answer – to get rid of bad cards (and/or give them to your opponent). Right? Okay, but why? What makes them bad cards? Virtually every card actually gives you some kind of benefit over having no cards (exceptions being Curse and some of the Ruins and such); terminal actions can be worthless if you have too many, but generally why these things are bad is because they get in the way of more important cards. You draw them instead of drawing a better card. But of course, this is only a problem because you are limited in your draw. If you had unlimited drawing, you’d have no problem at all. So to the extent that you can be drawing through your whole deck even with things like Copper and even Estate in them, then they are actually decent cards rather than bad. Of course, this comes with the caveat that you need to be able to keep drawing your deck through them, and its rare that you can do this indefinitely with lots of them. But if you can, then so much the better.
And here’s where we come to a really important point about Ambassador wars: one Ambassador can counter two, over the long haul. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Ambassador War
Very often, both players go for Ambassador, and take turns (often very many turns) flinging junk at each other in an attempt to win what is known as an ‘Ambassador war’. In such a situation, the thing which is in the foremost of your mind strategically is what I call one player getting ‘snowballed under’ – getting so flooded with junk, having such a high percentage of your deck be junk, that you basically can’t do much of anything. You play maybe one action (usually none) in a turn, make maybe $4 or so on average, and buy something. For the whole game. It can be pretty depressing.
Anyway, this is where the property of one Ambassador countering two comes into play. Playing two Ambassadors can only give two cards’ worth of junk, which is the same amount which can be gotten rid of by a single Ambassador. So a deck playing one Ambassador consistently won’t need to be taking on any water against one which can play two. Flinging different kinds of junk can make more of a problem, but over the course of two turns, you can get into a syncopated rhythm where you return two of one on one turn, then two of the other, then two of the first again, and keep yourself almost as clean anyway – just with one extra card of junk all the time. Actually this generalizes – for every different kind of junk card past the first, they can make you keep one extra junk in the deck all the time. But generally, there aren’t very many different kinds of junk.
Of course, it’s important to note that for this defense to be able to work, you need to be playing the Ambassador every turn, which generally means drawing at least most of your deck. This underscores the importance of being able to draw cards, and it also means that at the beginning of the game, where you can’t draw a super high proportion, you’re vulnerable – hence the reason you very often want two Ambassadors early on.
But the upshot of all this is, it’s quite possible for nobody to get snowballed under, for neither player to lose the Ambassador war, and for the game to just continue to go on, with an eventually more or less steady state, usually with some Estate tennis going on. Now, you can try grabbing lots of extra Ambassadors to really force through the snowballing, but it’s basically just a losing proposition. On the one hand, to defend themselves, they only need to have half as many Ambassadors as you need to attack with, but more important even than this is that once they get themselves thinned enough, it’s just going to be more cost efficient to build up their draw in most cases.
Thus, in the Ambassador war, you’d like to keep your deck squeaky clean, but you really need to work towards getting your engine up whilst of course all the time making sure you don’t get snowballed under. Once that happens, you’ve generally just lost.
Still talking about what Ambassador wants, well it is obviously a terminal action, and it’s a card that wants to have an engine. So generally it needs sources of +Actions – some kind of Village. This will help you get two Ambassadors played on a turn, which is often important in the early going, it will help you play draw cards most usually, and it will let you play the other juicy terminals you want to. You very often want LOTS of actions, so lots of Villages can well be in order. The nice thing about Ambassador is it makes the game long enough that you have the time to accumulate them.
Cards which draw to a fixed handsize can work really well with Ambassador, because Ambassador makes lots of cards disappear from your hand. The big thing to note, though, is that you’re going to need just tons and tons of actions in order for that to work.
So, with Ambassador, you’re trying to thin your deck, and the clog problem is the reason you want to get rid of your junk. But cards with the cantrip property – at least +1 Card, +1 Action – are essentially ‘free’ cards; unlike Treasures, Victory cards, and Actions that don’t draw, they don’t count against your effective deck size. So they go really well with Ambassador. The best variants are those like Laboratory (+2 Cards/+1 Action); that extra draw is really nice, as described above. Villages which draw, again like talked about above, are also quite beneficial.
But it’s also worth talking about the third big category (there are some cantrips that fit into none of the three) of cantrip, which is some kind of Peddler-variant (+1 Card/+1 Action/+$1). These help you build money while keeping card neutral, and so it’s actually possible to build a deck from these and Ambassador with no card draw, and have it be decently strong. If you Ambassador your deck thin enough, you can play a big chain, make a bunch of money, and get some nice things.
The best card here is unsurprisingly Grand Market, if you can get to it. Conspirator also gives good cash for the card, but it is a little risky in that you definitely need to get it in the right order with other cantrips to make sure it is activated.
Bad engines can work in the same way as this kind of deck; specifically, I’m referring to those where the drawing power is equal to Moat’s (and terminal) and the Village nets no cards, such as Festival or importantly, Hamlet (which can’t be a cantrip and a village simultaneously). If you can pick something up along the way with these, they work like cantrips that you need to get in the right order. Of course, with no other ancillary benefits, they wouldn’t be worth it at all.
In either case, the biggest problem this kind of deck runs into is that it needs to be very thin to work right, which means that when it starts greening, it’s very liable to falling apart pretty quickly. This makes it particularly vulnerable to things like slogs, but just not terribly strong overall anyway, considering its slow set-up – decently strong big money can usually beat it.
Fighting Ambassador Entirely
Few decks can beat Ambassador when it has all its toys, but when its missing something, there are a number that can. And this is more of a sliding scale thing – the more things the amb deck is missing, the less strong the counter has to be.
It’s very easy to look at a number of cards and think that, because Ambassador tends to sink us in a bunch of a particular kind of card, other cards which make those cards useful can counter it. That is not a very clear sentence, so let me give examples. Counting House, we might expect to be great, because our deck will be huge and full of Copper. Similarly, we might think Apothecary or Crossroads or Baron will counter it nicely. But one of the big problems in trying to do this is that Ambassador players don’t have to pump you full of Coppers for your Counting House – they will start giving you Estates, or if you have Barons, they’ll flood with Copper.
The more of the pseudo-counters you have available, though, you can more get away with it – if you have something to deal with Copper AND something that uses Estates, it might work. But the tricky bit is that if you need some of them to collide right, the bigger your deck, the less likely this will happen.
Some of them, though, particularly the more engine-oriented ones, can help WITH the Ambassador to get your deck up and running in the middle of the war, as they will defray the pain of what your opponent is flinging.
One way to fight Ambassador entirely is to go for a slog. Estates aren’t so bad for you in a slog as in most other decks, and Coppers are downright helpful. Horse Traders is particularly noteworthy here, as its reaction will frequently trigger for nice six-card hands. Gardens of course benefits no matter what they give you, and so can be quite nice. Silk Road will like the extra Estates and can grow VERY powerful. And Duke gives a long potential for points and forces them in some cases to get all the Provinces quite quickly, or quickly for an Ambassador game at any rate. In any of these cases, though, the Ambassador deck should win if it has decent enough support; you definitely need to watch for slogs, though, with Ambassador, particularly on the weaker boards for it, like those cantrip-centered decks discussed above.
Ambassador is a very slow card, so Rushes tend to just float by it without noticing all that much, particularly as the extra cards here, like the slog, give extra points; and the speed at which rushes go helps out even moreso. Furthermore, lots of the engines that Ambassador wants to go into are going to be curtailed against a rush, because they’ll have to worry about getting 3-piled.
Nothing is safe from a really good combo deck, and Ambassador is no exception. The attack can give you leverage against some of the more precarious ones, like the Golden Deck, and give you enough time to get an engine up to outrace others, but there are some decks – like Chancellor/Stash, or various other decks which have a way of manipulating their start hand (mega-scheme comes to mind) – which will be able to withstand you, no problem. Your best recourse here is either some kind of hand-size attack, or sometimes just to join them, and not go with Ambassador.
Big Money can blast right though Ambassador under the right circumstances. Mostly this means that the money deck needs very good longevity. Jack can of course give this. Trader is good here, too, better than normal since it can turn the attack into quite a nice positive. Wharf can blow past, but then, if there’s almost any Village, you’ll want to go engine with Wharf and Ambassador. Courtyard can sometimes get through, but it needs to be a weakish Ambassador board. And the number one candidate is Vault. Vault only needs to be able to hit one Gold or two Silvers, and then it doesn’t matter what other junk is there, it’s got a Province. It’s fast. And the drawback (letting your opponent discard two to draw one) doesn’t hurt much either, because it’s usually the exact opposite of an Ambassador deck wants anyway.
Other Junking Attacks
Generally, trying to fight Ambassador with junking attacks is a losing proposition – you give one junk, they return two and give you one. When playing the Ambassador side, you will usually be able to get ahead, as though Ambassador is pretty slow, the game will most often last more than long enough for the Ambassador to come back. It’s possible to use another junking attack in conjunction with Ambassador, but generally if you do this, it should be largely because you want the ancillary benefit of the junker, more than the actual junking attack itself. The big exception here is Mountebank, which actually gives two bits of junk rather than one, and of different kinds. This makes it hard for Ambassador to deal with, and although it should *eventually* be able to, if the Mountebank player can make the game end with halfway reasonable speed, it might not last long enough for this to matter.
Tactics Against Ambassador
Trashing can work against Ambassador, but generally, if you are trying to thin, it’s better to go with Ambassador to do it, as it will keep on giving that persistent attack and is generally stronger over the long haul. Of course, there are some exceptions to this, if the trasher is strong enough, and in the right circumstances. Masquerade, for one. Remake can work occasionally, but it’s a little sketchy if there aren’t gobs of great $3 and $4 cards you really really want. Steward gives you cards or money down the road, and so can be an option. And Chapel has the virtue of costing 2 (if you get that split), and is generally a little faster to get off the ground, so if you can get your other components up lightning fast, it can be the way.
Let’s look at the Chapel case specifically to get a picture of what I’m talking about. Ambassador will sooner or later pass all of its starting cards to the Chapel player. This will take at least 6, but often will be 7 plays. This means Chapel will have to trash 16-17 cards, which would ideally be 4-5 plays, but more likely will be at least 6, given the fallout. All of which means that in terms of thinning, they look fairly similar. The advantage of chapel is that it’s usually a little faster. But Ambassador can be useful on down the line, which means that it’s a pretty close call – and often dependent on whether there are nice cards for Ambassador player to pick up while trashing down, or whether the speed of Chapel will give it a decisive head-start on the engine building. Or if it’s a 5-2 split.
Forge can of course take care of everything at once, but it will be hard to set this up. And everything else will markedly fail to Ambassador in terms of deck thinning – if they are to make up for this, they have to do it in other ways (and sometimes this is possible).
Playing against the thin deck
Most of the methods that generally work against thin decks are good here, too. Handsize attacks are powerful (but not Torturer!), even moreso than normal – but less potent in the early stages than they are against something like Chapel. Council Room’s downside isn’t a big deal if they’re drawing their deck anyway. Ditto on Governor for the cards. Governor for trashing is generally not so bad, either, as they won’t be trashing Copper or Estate with it so much, but if there is something they might want to upgrade, you need to watch out. Bishop’s drawback is almost entirely negated, though with the thin deck, Ambassador will sometimes be able to get better use out of it than you. But actually the magic bullet here is masquerade. It gets you the drawing right there, and it’s definitely faster at getting up to speed than Ambassador. And against a thin deck, the passing can be downright attack-like. It isn’t foolproof of course, so it still needs to watch out for getting snowballed under.
The Curse Trick
If your opponent isn’t fighting you at all, you can pull the trick where you buy a Curse and then over some number of turns, pump all of the curses in the supply over to the opponent. This can clog them in a way that can’t be pseudo-countered, and perhaps more importantly, give them a big stack of negative points.
It’s important to know not to go for this too early. You want to really be snowballing them under, drawing your whole deck very reliably, before you go for this. And you almost never want to do this out of an Ambassador war, unless you really really have it lock-down won. Because you’re voluntarily grabbing extra bloat, and if you aren’t very careful, and their deck is at all thin, it can let them right back in. In an Ambassador war, to slam the door, you usually just want to build your engine and do something big for yourself with it.
It’s also worth noting that due to three pile ending concerns, you should not give them the WHOLE stack all the time; often you want to leave one, and if one then usually two or three, so that they can’t snap the game over before you are ready.
The Province Trick
On the last turn of the game, you often Ambassador to reveal a Province, returning none, so as to make sure the pile is empty at the end of a turn. Now it’s true that you are usually going to win anyway if you’re in a position to do this, but it can be important in some cases, particularly if your deck is getting to the point where it is going to start having trouble maintaining a running engine and/or the game is close (though, obviously it’s not THAT close if you can gift them a Province).
Typically this happens when:
- There are two Provinces left, and you have a tiny lead right now and can buy a Province. You return one Province and buy the other to maintain your current lead.
- There is one Province left, and you lead by more than 6 points.
This can also be done, of course, with Colonies, but more important, with any pile which is going to end the game. So watch out for being able to force a three pile ending this way, it can actually win a decently high number of games.
I want to look specifically at Possession for a second, as something which looks like it counters Ambassador, and sometimes does, but actually usually ends up supporting it, but in a weird way. If you can Possess a player who has Ambassador and get their Ambassador in a hand with, say Province, you can have them conduct very generous diplomacy toward you by forcing them to gift you that Province. This is an enormous point swing (and with two Colonies, it’s up to a 30 point swing.) But, usually a deck with Ambassador is going to be able to play Possession faster and more often than a deck without it, so it’s not like you can just ignore Ambassador. And this is particularly true in that you can Ambassador them an Ambassador. If possible, the answer to this dilemma is trashing – trash that Ambassador, and trash to thin. But it’s tough – you are almost never totally safe until the game is over.
Playing with Ambassador
As alluded to above, the reason you have Ambassador is to get rid of bad cards. More explicitly, you are thinning your deck to build up an engine. Until you have such an engine going, you want to have as few stop cards as possible. A stop card is any card which doesn’t help you get through your deck any more – basically anything that doesn’t draw. Now, Ambassador itself is a stop card, but it helps you get rid of others so it’s okay (but not too many! Three is almost always overkill, and I’ve never seen four or more be optimal).
But anything else, you want to ask yourself, do you really need it? Because until you get to drawing most of your deck, most of these cards are poison to you. Now, sometimes you will need some – a Silver or two, some kind of economy is necessary to get that engine up in the first place. But you really want to keep this as minimal as possible until your engine is up and you can handle them – even Platinum could be an annoyance to you, because it can get in your way. So you want to keep your deck very tight, and then, once you’ve built up to where you can draw your whole deck, you start adding in some cards to help you build up your buying power and such, adding in extra drawing components at the same time to make sure you can keep drawing your deck.
Eventually, you will almost always HAVE to go for some stop cards, which will risk your engine not firing some times, if for no other reason than most of the Victory cards fit this criteria, and you almost always need them to win. But time your push towards these, particularly if it makes it reasonably likely for your engine to break sometimes, as late as you can get away with. Still, be cautious of three pile endings, as with any engine.
Two Copper or One Estate?
This question of what to return is an oft-asked one by Ambassador players; if you have the same number of either card, you usually want to return the Estate over the Coppers, as Copper do stuff for you (you can buy things, huzzah!), which while not great, is better than Estate until very very very late in the game. But what about returning TWO Coppers vs Estate? Perhaps most important is when this question comes up on an early hand of A/C/C/C/E.
Long story short, in an Ambassador war, you usually want to return two Coppers, unless you have a good reason to go the other way. The reason being, two cards is one more than one, and your goal is to get thinner faster than the other guy, really; one fewer card is one fewer card to cycle through, which gets you through your deck and back to your important cards faster. It’s also a more efficient use of the Ambassador – you’re getting your whole money’s worth, which is important because you’re probably going to have the chance to return the Estate with a partner later on.
But okay, what’s ‘a good reason’? First and foremost, if returning the Coppers leaves with insufficient money in your deck to buy anything meaningful down the line – i.e. if it will leave you with 1, or most often also 2, Coppers in your deck total. You don’t want to be in the position to have to buy Coppers up, that defeats the purpose.
Beyond this, you want to look at engine construction – if returning the Estate lets you buy something which immediately helps you get your drawing up (Lab, maybe Caravan, a Smithy variant if – and only if – you have a high enough number of Villages already) – then that looks much more attractive. You want to get that draw up. Basically, this means that you’re more likely to return the Estate in the midgame than the opening, where you’re all about number of junk cards all the time – if you’re already drawing your whole deck, the Coppers are often even an advantage.
Finally, if there are engine components which key off of one or the other, for one of you or more likely both, then return the thing which doesn’t help the engine. Prime examples here are Apothecary, which shoves you toward returning Estates, and Crossroads, which makes you really want to return Coppers.
If you’re not in an Ambassador war, some of the same concerns apply, but you’re much more likely to want to return the Estate. The reason for this is that you will eventually clear your stuff out anyway, but you want to have something good going on when you do, since you don’t have much impediment, so it’s a little more important to be able to get to those key cards (usually 5-costs) a little faster; you often want to get not only the key card itself, but one step further, the card which will allow you to get the key card. Also, in such situations, usually either a) you’re just going to destroy them, because they aren’t going Ambassador; or b) they are playing some kind of deck that doesn’t mind Coppers NEARLY so much as Estates. Of course, use some sense – if they are Mountebanking you, thinness is way important again, and you do still want a thin deck quickly, so if you’re likely to be able to get up to your key cards as quickly returning the Coppers anyway, go for it.
How should you open?
Depends on the board.
Okay, I’ll give you more than that. You need to look at what’s available, more precisely what you’d want, at each of the price points. I’m a fan, in general, of going Ambassador/Ambassador (hereafter A/A), particularly on a board with a Village, which will eventually let you play both. But different things can pull you different ways. Strong 2-costs for your deck (say, Native Village, Crossroads, Hamlet) are going to pull you toward A/A, as often you’ll get early hands of A/C/C/E/E or A/C/C/C/C and be able to grab a 2-cost. Good early $5’s (Lab and variants, mostly) will pull your toward A/Silver (/A), as the Silver will help you get there faster. Only, here you have to be careful and really think about what you’re doing. You probably aren’t going to get the $5 on the first shuffle anyway (though you nicely have no collision). If you draw A/S/C/C/C here, you basically always want to return 2 Coppers (and buy an Ambassador) over returning 0, because while a nice draw card is nice and can compensate for a little missed thinning, 2 cards’ worth is almost always too much (in a war, anyway; you can consider 0 if not in a war). If it’s a really nice early $5, though, you can roll those dice – and take a little comfort in that you won’t have any collision right away.
$4-cost cantrips make excellent partners for Ambassador, in general. Caravan gets you started on that draw you want; tournament gives you a little economy; and spice merchant, while not *strictly* a cantrip, might be best of all, since it helps in on the trashing. (Ironmonger from DA, one presumes, should be EXCELLENT here). Sometimes, though, you’ll want to open A/A anyway. In these matchups, A/A usually gets a little advantage if they can get through early without colliding, but the cantrip gets a somewhat bigger advantage if there is a collision from the opponent. This balance usually is on the side of the cantrip, which is safer, by a little bit, but with sufficiently strong $2’s, and depending on the exact cards available, the exact cantrip, etc., A/A is sometimes the way to go. Even Wishing Well is a decent cantrip to pair with Ambassador on the opening.
Pairing Ambassador with another trasher is certainly a viable option on many boards. Chiefly, we’re looking at Remake and Steward here – Chapel is overkill, and most of the other trashers just don’t cut the mustard, and a second Ambassador should be preferred. To want to go with Remake, you will generally want to have useful 3-cost cards – just Silver doesn’t really cut it, because that’s a stop card; generally you want some kind of cantrip and/or Village, but sometimes you can get away with a draw card, like Watchtower or Oracle, with good Villages elsewhere.
Steward is nice in that it turns into a component after a couple of shuffles, and has very good flexibility; since you eventually don’t need two Ambassadors anyway, Steward can be a nice replacement for the second Ambassador. You still want to thin early, preferring Ambassador to thin rather than steward, if you can get 2 cards back with Ambassador anyway.
Finally, I’d like to look at Quarry. It’s an interesting card here, and I don’t have tons of experience, but the principles ought to hold – if you have $4-, $6-, and especially $5-cost actions you want to get quickly, it can be very nice. The better the $2-costs, once again, the more you want to go A/A – Quarry can always pick up $3-cost actions as well as $2-costers, so there’s no advantage there. It is a stop card, but almost any time you’d want to get a Silver, plus other times with pretty juicy $5’s, you’ll want to go quarry. A/A vs A/S/A is close, so it’s natural for A/Q/A to be a little better than A/A most of the time, though again, it is a fairly close-run thing.
What if there aren’t any Villages (or any gettable Villages within a reasonable amount of time?)
If there’s no villages at all, I would strongly consider going without Ambassador. If you think it’s necessary anyway, though, go more heavily for A/S than normal, as the collision will hurt you at some point. If you think Ambassador is still important though, you want to try to get a thinner deck (well, you wanted it for some reason), which means that you want 2 Ambassadors usually (though more apt, again, for A/S/A than normally), unless your opponent is going Amb-less, in which case you’re likely safe with one. This can be a bit hard to judge sometimes though. This also makes the Ambassador/cantrip openings no-brainers.
Now, my play here, especially early, is no paragon of perfect play, but there are some important points to make. First, the only Village is Throne Room, which especially early on, isn’t so hot as far as Villages go, particularly for getting an engine up. Wharf is an EXCELLENT drawing card, and Cellar helps me get around to my Ambassador as often as can be, providing really nice cycling here – this all contributes to the A/S/A opening choice. The Cellar gets used liberally, and this is really important – the deck is mostly junk, we want to get to the important two to three cards as much as we can. But the bigger point is that my esteemed opponent focuses too much on getting Silvers into Grand Markets. Now, don’t get me wrong, GM is really nice. But getting reliable drawing up is the biggest factor, and with Throne Room to give you the big chains eventually, that really needs to be the focus – everything else comes later. I am able to do this, and it gives me control of the game. In fact, I hardly care about GM at all here, as it’s a nice card to have, but not essential to the deck – and I can always HoP into it later.
Here we see a classic Ambassador/cantrip opening, with a second Ambassador picked up later on. I prioritize Apprentice as the first 5-cost, as Villages will take a while to come by, and it can plow through Estates. Fool’s Gold is important here, as I anticipate eventually having a very thin deck. And then the focus goes to overbuilding a strong engine, making myself unbustable. We also see the three Ambassador plan as ineffectual.
This one shows how Mountebank can be effective as a junk-dealer as well as the importance of getting the drawing up quick, with Hunting Party – which also helps a lot in a junked deck.
Here, there are LOTS of psuedo-counters, and so I go for that route. Counting House, Horse Traders, and Silk Road all come up very big for me, but of course Ambassador is nice and strong itself, and with Island, Menagerie, Pawn, and far-and-away most importantly Colonies to support, even despite my pretty good luck, -Stef- is able to eke it out.
Here I go for A/S/A against Obi Wan Bonogi’s A/A, looking for an early Stables. This, with not the best shuffle luck (look at the differences in turns 3/4), get me behind. However, the really interesting bit here is the midgame. He has $5 in coins in his deck. I am fairly swamped with little junk, but I do have enough stables to draw most of my deck, and about a turn and a half lead when we do start greening. He wisely keeps his course and just pounds the Stables – the important thing is to keep his engine from breaking. I follow him down the path all the way until they’re out, and then the race is on. Basically he needs my deck to fail to produce Province twice more than his before they all run out. As his deck is in quite a bit better shape than mine AND he invested enough time picking up Stables to stabilize it, this is a high-percentage play, and it pays off for him.
Here I hedge my bets a little with the opening (and my Ambassador serves to slow him down a good bit), but mostly ride Trader and Gardens as effective counters, particularly with the engine not being particularly great shakes.
Here I use Ambassadors, Cities, and Smithies to build up a strong engine. This gives me a very powerful lead, but I am careless in grabbing too many Duchies, and a little bad luck on not being able to connect things then totally kills me. I could have had this easily if I’d held off and made sure my engine was in better shape before plowing through the Embargoed Duchies so far.