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How to Win at Dominion with Minimal Jargon
Original Article by Titandrake
How do you win a game of Dominion?
You win by ending the game with more points than your opponent.
How do you do that?
You do it by buying cards that let you win the game, and playing those cards more often than your opponent does.
How do I identify which cards let me win the game?
Generally, you want to look for cards that either give you lots of coins, give you lots of VP, or let you quickly end the game while getting a small amount of VP. You want to combine these cards with a story for how it’s going to come together.
Here are some examples.
- I’m going to play Golds and Silvers to get lots of coins.
- I’m going to play a lot of Bridges in one turn, to get lots of Buys while making cards very cheap to buy.
- I’m going to play Ironworks to gain Ironworks and Gardens, aiming for a 3-pile ending.
- I’m going to play a lot of Goons to get VP tokens.
Sometimes, it’s enough to look for cards that stop your opponent from winning the game. Examples:
- I’m going to play Militia every turn, to force my opponent to start their turns with 3 cards instead of 5.
- I’m going to play Witch to drown my opponent in Curses.
The avenues-to-victory aren’t mutually exclusive. In a given game, your plan might be to play Festival/Library, but also with some Bridges and 1 Militia thrown in. Or, your plan could be to play Witch, while buying Golds and Silvers to hit $8 for Province. The strategy comes in figuring out which avenues-to-victory are fastest, strongest, and most complementary to one another.
Most games are decided by the person who makes the most coins each turn, and that’s the case I’ll be implicitly talking about for the rest of the article, but there are exceptions where having more Buys or more VP-giving cards is more important, and it’s worth keeping those exceptions in mind.
Before continuing to the next section, an important distinction. Cards like Smithy, Village, and Council Room are not winning cards.They are cards that let you draw your winning cards, but they don’t win games by themselves. Nobody wins just by drawing lots of cards. They win by drawing lots of winning cards. And again, an important clarification: this doesn’t mean buying Smithy, Village, etc. can’t help you win. In fact, they often do help you win, just in a different way.
I’ve identified my winning cards. How do I play them more often?
Broadly, there are two approaches.
- Buy lots of winning cards and try to win on pure quantity.
- Buy Actions that let you cycle through your deck quickly, then play a few winning cards very often.
Let’s bring this back to the terms commonly used in the community. Cards that directly win you the game are payload cards. Generally, these are the cards that give you coins, or buys, or gains, or some other resource that lets you obtain VP cards or stops your opponent from getting VP. Cards that help you draw your payload more often are cycling cards. Smithy and Village are cycling cards because they draw more cards. Cellar is a cycling card because it lets you discard bad cards to draw better ones. Chapel is a cycling card because it trashes away your low quality cards, which makes it easier to draw your winning cards more frequently and to shuffle more often. Cards like Chapel are called trashers, and they are often the first cards top players look for when deciding how to approach a Kingdom. Although trashers don’t directly draw cards, their effects are among the strongest in the game.
Again, repeating for emphasis: Payload cards directly give you what you need to win. Cycling cards help you play your payload more often.
Some cards straddle the line between both categories. Poacher and Market both draw cards and give some coins. Minion also straddles the line, because you can either play it for +$2 (payload) or discard and draw 4 (cycling). The one truth of Dominion is that the categories are always a bit loose.
When it comes to overarching strategy, there are usually two broad approaches: buy mostly payload cards, or buy mostly cycling cards. A payload-focused strategy is historically called Big Money, since it usually applies to decks where your payload is Gold and Silver. More recently, some people have called payload-heavy strategies “the good stuff deck”, to indicate that the payload isn’t always a Treasure card. For example, Haggler is a perfectly fine payload card. A cycling-focused strategy is historically called the engine, because it focuses on buying Actions and combining their effects to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.
Let’s say I want to play the “good stuff” approach. How should I do so?
Buy payload cards instead of cycling cards.
Let’s say I want to play the “engine” approach. What should I do?
Buy cycling cards instead of payload cards.
That didn’t really help, you’re just repeating the definition! Which approach is best?
Trick question! In most games, you do both.
Whenever you gain a card in Dominion, you have to make a choice: payload or cycling? Sometimes you can buy a card that does a bit of both, like Market. But usually, you have to make a choice between a card that will give you more money / attacking power / VP, or a card that helps you draw other cards more often. Each choice has trade-offs. A payload card increases what your deck can potentially do, but it doesn’t help you play your existing payload more often. A cycling card lets you play your existing payload more often, but may not increase what your deck can do.
A good stuff approach focuses mostly on buying payload, but may buy Cellar over Silver because it wants to cycle a bit faster. An engine approach focuses mostly on cycling, but may pick up an early Silver or Gold because it lets the engine buy more powerful cycling Actions. Focusing on only one kind of card or the other is overly simplistic and can lead to bad play – I have lost several engine games because of underestimating the value of an early Silver.
Okay, okay, I get it. Which is the better approach on average?
With the caveat that there are very few 100% truths in Dominion, most new players overestimate payload. On many boards, it’s better to focus on cycling cards, and a properly built engine will beat everything else.
Why is the engine often better?
It’s more efficient.
Here’s one way to think about Dominion: after buying a card, you get to play that card at most once per shuffle. (There are cards that get around this, like Harbinger, but let’s ignore those for now.) Given this, if you want to get as much value out of each buy that you can, it helps if you can shuffle your deck more often. And how do you shuffle your deck more often? You do so by buying cycling cards! Cycling cards let you get through more of your deck each turn, which lets you reach the end of your shuffle faster. Again, this is why trashing cards is good – a small deck shuffles itself much faster than a big deck.
Another reason to favor the engine is that there’s a higher ceiling on what an engine can do. Let’s say you want to play Witch every turn. You buy lots of Witches. Okay, cool. But what if you also want to play Militia every turn? Ignoring Action constraints for a second, if your deck can’t draw lots of cards, you have to buy lots of Militias too. Buying both a lot of Witches and a lot of Militias is a lot of buys to spend, and often Buys are the limiting resource in Dominion. Add back the action constraints, and it quickly becomes infeasible. In contrast, if you can set-up an engine that draws itself every turn, you can buy 1 Witch and 1 Militia, and then draw and play them every turn.
Engines are like an investment. You invest your early buys on cycling cards, even though the only payload you have is Coppers, because it will pay off in the long term when your payload is higher quality.
Is the engine always better?
No. It isn’t better when the investment takes too long to pay off. In those games, if you try to go for the engine, you durdle around for a long time, your opponent Keeps Calm and Buys Provinces while you’re still building, and you lose while feeling really silly. This has happened to everyone – don’t feel too bad when it happens to you, and don’t let it stop you from trying. Because every now and then, you’ll identify an engine that’s just barely better than the payload-focused deck, win the game by 1 VP on your final turn, and feel like a legend.
Cool. How do I actually implement any of this?
Like most things, practice and experience.
At lower skill levels, games are won and lost by whether you correctly identify when to go for a cycling-light approach or a cycling-heavy approach. This is the level where boring strategies like Smithy-Big Money tend to dominate, since it’s harder to play those strategies badly.
At higher skill levels, players will often agree on the broad approach of a board. Top players will certainly still disagree on whether the engine is good enough, but the main differentiator between players is the execution of an overarching strategy.
This, to me, is where the depth of Dominion really expands. Remember earlier, where I said you have to choose between payload and cycling on each buy? Those choices are where games are won and lost. If you buy cards in a more optimal order, it’s common to hit the deck you want 1-2 turns faster than a worse order. Dominion is all about snowballing incremental advantages. Small mistakes add up, and proper sequencing is just ridiculously hard to do consistently, especially when you factor in the inherent randomness of card games.
Dominion isn’t like Chess or Starcraft, where a new player can memorize a well-studied opening and copy it until they understand how it works. The random Kingdom prevents this – you have to learn good game intuitions to do anything productive improvement-wise.
If you’re new to the game, like it so far, and want to get better, here is what I would recommend.
- Play whatever you want. Over time, you’ll naturally notice which cards tend to be more important. (Reading the Qvist card rankings can shortcut this step, but it helps to experience the strength of cards firsthand. I didn’t understand Ambassador until somebody destroyed me with it.)
- During that period, play a few Big Money decks. I’d recommend Smithy + treasures, Council Room + treasures, Courtyard + treasures, and Witch + treasures. These are all surprisingly effective, and it helps remind you what you’re racing against if you decide to go for an engine.
- Once you get a handle on the cards, practice making judgments on whether you would play an engine. Err on the side of playing engines more than you think you should. They’re often better, and cycling-based decks usually have more decisions than payload-based decks. It’s hard to practice engine decision-making if you’re only willing to play the obvious engines.
Finally, when your opponent beats you, don’t look just at what their deck did at the end. Look at how they built their deck, what cards they bought on which turns, and try to spot what made their deck work when your deck didn’t. You will certainly have games where your opponent plays poorly and wins because of luck, but that doesn’t mean there’s no lessons to learn from the game.