The following article is from forum poster jsh357. You can read the original article and comments from the community by following the link.
Recognize the Elephant in the Room
Not too long ago, I reached #3 on the Dominion Online leaderboard, the only two players above me being two of the best players the game has ever seen. It was a surprisingly humbling experience; I had come off of a hot streak, and didn’t feel I had truly earned my placing. Since then, I have stayed in the Top 8 or so, and the experience got me thinking about the way I play, the way my opponents play, and the future of myself playing this game.
In reflecting on this, I came to an important realization: my greatest opponent in this game was not Stef, who was #1 at the time, but my own dumb self. I remembered the only time I had a tournament match against Stef, the SemiFinals of last year’s Dominion Strategy Championships. Without getting into too many boring specifics, I threw two of those games: one by making a tragic endgame mistake and misjudging his number of buys, another by missing a complicated pile-out that I recognized on the next turn. If I had won those two games, there’s a chance I would have been “the best” for some period of time. To be honest, I was broken up over this for about two weeks. But truthfully, what would that win even have meant? I certainly wouldn’t be the best Dominion player in the world! Obviously, Stef still existed—he would have just played some cards incorrectly and let me win on a fluke.
However, in thinking about this reflection, I realized the best thing that tournament had done for me: it forced me to carefully consider these two critical decision points that I ruined for myself. Sure, Stef took advantage of my mistakes, but there was nothing I could have done (short of blackmail) to influence that. To find those winning plays, I had to go back and look at the dumb idiot who made the bad plays and figure out how he could fix them. There’s a natural resistance to doing this, as we want to believe we played games well and don’t want to dwell on errors, but AS I SEE IT this is the path to reaching the top. It dawned on me that certainly Stef and any other top player did the same thing, consciously or not, and that was what separated them from players who always seemed to miss the things top players saw.
Preface and Plugs
This article won’t be long—it’s simply a bulleted list of points I want players who wish to reach the top to consider. My audience is online players in the 2 player metagame, but hopefully some of these lessons can apply to other metagames as well. These are lessons from my own perspective, and they are primarily about maintaining a winning mentality. If you want specific strategy advice, do check out the Strategy section on the dominionstrategy wiki or other good resources like the Dominion Discord channel. (Yeah, yeah, I have to plug it once in a while so it stays alive)
A quick note about Simulations: I don’t use them, but they are certainly a tool that Dominion players should keep in mind. If you want to reach a high level at the game, it will suffice to learn basic lessons from sims, such as which Big Money strategies are good on dead boards and which simple engines beat others. The reason I bring sims up at all is because using them falls under the category of reflective thinking, so if you are a mathematically minded person, this could be up your alley. My one warning is not to take sim results as gospel, as it’s a rare game of Dominion where other factors aren’t in play besides the ones you analyzed.
Things a Top Player Does (Or at Least I do)
1. Play less and be careful when you play. Yeah, play the game less. Odds are, you got to where you are by playing lots of games and learning how all the cards work, so this might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s one of the secrets to my success. I went from playing 10-20 games a day to playing 1-5 on average, taking breaks in-between, and saw considerable growth. I’m not a scientist, but I believe there are some key reasons this matters.
a) I reiterate: take breaks. Don’t play a zillion games in a row.
b) Auto-piloting. Even the best players aren’t “on” in every game they play. Maybe you start getting sleepy, maybe your mind wanders, and maybe you get fixated on playing certain sequences of cards without considering other options. The best way to avoid auto-piloting is to play less. You’re only human; you can’t play optimally every time.
c) Don’t play ranked games when you’re sick, tired, stressed, or under any other condition that might affect your play. If playing Dominion is therapeutic for you, I’m not here to judge, but you will do yourself a service by playing unranked or Bot games. Maybe ask a friend or someone on Discord if they want to play. This might seem like obvious advice, but I’m guilty of it myself: one time I even showed up for a tournament match with a death flu. It went really, really poorly.
d) Taking an extended break and returning with a fresh mentality can do wonders. I recently took about one week, maybe more, off the game and came back with my hottest win streak ever. I saw combos I had never even thought about before. Maybe it was all in my head, sure, but I believe I was in a rut with the game. When you find yourself in a similar slump, consider the benefits of getting a fresh set of eyes.
2. Look for your mistakes and figure out what you could have done better. Do this every time you lose, and do it when you won but felt shaky. You don’t have to read the log line by line and scan for every single mistake (Though that will be hugely beneficial to you) but you do need to be AWARE of why you lost a game or won it less efficiently than you could have. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take the word of Armada (the current top Super Smash Bros. Melee player). After every tournament, he watches all of his matches and some of others’ back and looks for improvements (often on stream so others can give input). This is a common practice among the best players in pretty much every game out there, and it’s ultimately very logical stuff.
a. One approach I like to take is to answer a simple question: Where did I go wrong? See if you can find the exact turn. You might be thinking, “it’s around turn 12 when I got a Gold instead of a Duchy, so I didn’t have enough points.” Sometimes it’s that simple, but usually it isn’t. Try to think several steps BACK, the reverse of how chess masters think several steps FORWARD. What got you in the position of making that Gold mistake? Often, this process can take you all the way back to your opening. You don’t have a time machine and you can’t fix what you did, but when you inevitably run up against a similar situation, your brain will have a better idea what to do.
b. Don’t blame bad luck. It happens and there’s nothing you can do about it, but I would venture that 9 times out of 10, you still made some mistake prior to the bad luck event or a mistake after the bad luck that made things worse. If you got shafted during a game, ask yourself instead: is there something I could have done to make this better? Really grasp at straws if you need to.
3. Don’t underestimate anyone. Sure, maybe you got matched against a guy 40 levels below you and now think your silly Duchess-Oasis rush is going to win. Maybe it even will, but if you won that game you did nothing to improve as a player. Even good players play poorly, and playing against bad plays is just as important as playing against good ones. Also don’t assume your opponent is going to miss a high-level tactic; you can’t magically make them ignore a pile-out or ignore a key card. The reason I’m bringing this up is because I do it all the time—we all do. We get fixated on irrelevant factors like level numbers and miss the fact that any player can play the same cards we do or play around their draws better than we do. If you see a silly experimental strategy, consider playing it afterward in an unranked game, but don’t try it on ranked mode unless you are okay with potentially losing the game.
4. Play your Opponent’s turn mentally. I have a bad habit of talking to myself and narrating my decisions, which drives my wife crazy. Maybe you do this in your head. At first, I only did this for my own thought process, but after a while I realized that understanding my opponent was equally important and I started asking what I would do in the other position. When your opponent is at a decision point, ask yourself what they should do, take mental note of what they actually do, and then ask yourself if any defied expectations seemed better than you thought (often this is easier to tell after a game). Reading your opponent is an art, but it’s helpful because you effectively get to think through each game from two different perspectives at a time. Be generous and recognize when your opponent makes a good play—maybe you’ll use it in the future. The most obvious benefit of watching your opponent is that you become more cognizant of what his deck can do. For instance, if they have 5 Markets, you should be aware that they have six Buys, so leaving an easy pile-out for them is not advisable. However, it’s just as important to get a feel for how other players make choices so you can look for improvements in your own play.
5. You aren’t the best, even if the numbers say you’re the best—getting cocky and putting all the importance in scores is going to make you fall hard and feel terrible when you start playing poorly because of it. There is always room to improve, so don’t assume that having some internet points automatically makes you a good player. I learn new things about this game all the time, and I’ve been playing it a criminal amount of time. Improving at Dominion is a process that doesn’t end because there is simply too much to consider.
6. Finally, when you watch other good players play, don’t do it passively. This is like playing your opponent’s turn in stereo: 3 different perspectives are at work, and you can learn from them all. Personally, I don’t watch other players much anymore myself, but if I truly cared about reaching #1, this is something I would try and do more often.
I hope if you read this it helped you think about playing Dominion better, and if you knew everything I said, that’s cool too. Remember that you are human; you make mistakes and are subject to any number of vices or outside factors that can hurt your gameplay. Your opponents are human, too, and the best ones will be improving in their own ways at the same time you are. Don’t take your current knowledge for granted!