This article was written by Titandrake, with minor adaptations for the blog. Interested in writing for the blog? Check out this F.DS thread for details.
I like to model Dominion gameplay as two broad categories: strategy, and tactics. Strategy is your plan for the entire game, and tactics is your plan for this turn. In this article I’m going to focus on just one aspect of the tactics: how to play your hand. This is the nitty-gritty of Dominion optimization – it’s easy to autopilot your hands, but you can get surprisingly large gains from tightening your play. These small edges can add up to 1-2 turns of speedup, which can be enough to decide the game.
1. Watch Your Shuffle Timings
If you only get one thing out of this article, it should be this.
shark_bait’s Deck Control article is 7 years old, but still holds up well. Whenever you run out of cards in your draw pile, you reshuffle your deck. All cards in play and in your hand will miss that reshuffle. If you can control when you reshuffle, you should try to do so when your discard pile has good cards and your hand has bad cards. If you have a lot of good cards in play and a lot of bad cards in your discard pile, you may not want to reshuffle at all.
Whether you want to reshuffle or not is very context dependent, which makes it hard to give general advice, but I’m mentioning it because it’s that important to keep in mind.
2. Draw Cards First
Most gainers gain cards to your discard pile, which influences your next shuffle. If you want to draw the card you’re planning to gain, you want to play these gainers before reshuffling, since that will let you play it sooner. Conversely, if you don’t want to draw the gained card, playing the gainer after the reshuffle guarantees you can’t draw that card for 1 cycle through your deck.
In either case, you should play the gainer as late as possible – right before the shuffle if you want to make the shuffle, or at the end of your turn if you don’t want to make the shuffle. Delaying the decision gives you more information – depending on what you draw, you may decide to gain a different card than you intended.
For cards that trash from your hand, play them later rather than earlier. It doesn’t matter when you trash your cards, because you’ve already drawn them. Trashing them now won’t retroactively save the draw you spent. The only thing that matters is that they get trashed before you finish your turn, so that you can stop spending draws on bad cards.
This is most important for Junk Dealer and Upgrade. These cards are cantrips, which makes it tempting to play them as soon as you draw them, but unless you need that card now, you should play your other draw cards first, to see if you can find a better trash target.
3. Card Revealers and Shuffle Timings
Consider Wishing Well. It both draws a card and reveals a card, which triggers a reshuffle if you have fewer than 2 cards in your deck, even though it may only draw 1. Let’s say your hand has a Peddler and a Wishing Well, you have exactly 2 cards in your draw pile, and you don’t want to trigger a shuffle. To get the +$1 from Peddler, you need to play Wishing Well first, wishing for a card you don’t have, then play Peddler to draw the 2nd card.
Similar principles hold for Sentry (reshuffles with < 3 cards), Cartographer (reshuffles with < 5 cards), Patrol (reshuffles with < 7 cards), and others.
4. Unintuitive Discards
If you get hit with a discard attack like Militia, you have to choose the best 3-card hand. Note this may be different from the 3 individual best cards in your hand.
Let’s suppose you’ve built a deck that can usually draw itself every turn. Your hand is:
Village, Smithy, Smithy, Gold, Gold
If you get hit with a Militia, you should discard the two Golds. Sure, Gold makes a lot of money, but if your deck is consistent enough, keeping the draw cards will let you draw through your deck until you redraw the discarded Golds.
Here’s a real world example. It’s early in the game. My draw pile has 2 cards left. My hand is:
Warehouse, Copper, Copper, Estate, Estate
My opponent plays a Militia. I decide to discard the 2 Coppers.
Why? I’m not going to buy anything that costs $2, and because it’s early, it’s unlikely I draw many good cards from my Warehouse. I also know that playing my Warehouse will trigger a shuffle. If I keep my Estates, I can make both Estates miss the shuffle. Sure, the Warehouse misses the shuffle too, but that’s worth it. This was a scenario where the best hand was actually one that had Estates in it.
5. Saving Your Throne Rooms
Some cards are better to copy than other cards. You always want to double the Action that gives you what you’re lacking the most. If you need draw, then Throne Room a Smithy. If you can comfortably draw your deck, save it for a card that gives +$ or +Buy. If you need Actions, then save your Throne Room for a card giving +Actions.
In all these scenarios, it is better to hold onto Throne Room until you know what you need this turn. If you draw poorly, you may need to double a +Cards action. If you draw well, you’d rather double an Action that gives +$.
If you draw a hand of Throne Room and 4 other Actions, then playing Throne Room first is probably wrong. You want to play your other Actions first, to see if you can draw a better target for Throne Room, and then play Throne Room only when you’re at-risk of running out of good Throne Room targets. (Either because you are running low on Actions, or because you are drawing too many Throne Rooms and not enough non-Throne Room actions.)
This logic is especially important for King’s Court – the best target for King’s Court is almost always another King’s Court. Saving King’s Court to the last second gives you the best chances of tripling a King’s Court.
Throne Rooming a Throne Room is usually correct, because it let you play a Throne Room twice while using only 1 action. However, if you have plenty of actions, it’s better to play your Throne Rooms individually. If you do TR-Action1, then TR-Action2, you still get to play Action1 twice and Action2 twice. However, splitting the Throne Rooms gives you more flexibility if you want to play another Action in between the two doubled Actions.
It takes a bit of practice to keep these tactical decisions in mind, but there’s no reason not to do them. With some practice, many of these choices become second-nature, leaving you free to focus on the important strategy questions.