This article was written by Puzzle Box in collaboration with the Dominion Strategy blog team.
When things line up well, Shepherd is an extremely potent card. Turning your least useful cards into draw is excellent, and Shepherd’s ability to do so is limited only by the number of Victory cards it can manage to connect with. This, however, can turn out to be quite a large limitation, since without one another the Victory cards and the Shepherds will typically do nothing at all. Shepherd typically plays out according to one of two patterns, each of which will be discussed here: Shepherd-As-Sifter and Shepherd-As-Primary-Draw. The latter will be explored in greater depth, as it is complex and unlike the pattern of any other card in Dominion.
Shepherd as Sifter
In this mode, you have Victory cards in your deck for for some reason other than Shepherd, and you’re adding a Shepherd or two to sift past them. Shepherd only needs to collide with a single Victory card to be card-neutral, so the bar for it to be an effective sifter is not particularly high. Any time you expect a Shepherd you add to see one or more Victory cards on average, this is an option worth considering. Decks that non-terminally increase their hand size are typically the ones where this is most appealing, since doing so is a great way to help ensure that Shepherd lines up with the Victory cards you want to sift past.
Typical situations where you might use Shepherd this way include boards where Estate trashing is difficult or impossible but you still want to play a fairly controlled deck (in which case adding Shepherd early is likely wise), and any board where you play a controlled deck that is scoring by buying Victory cards (like Province or Colony) over the course of multiple turns (in which case adding Shepherd as you begin to score may be wise). There are also some occasions where sifting past Estates in the early game is so valuable that it’s worthwhile to add a Shepherd even if you will trash your Estates after a bit of time–for example, some games where quickly activating Magic Lamp is your highest priority.
Shepherd as Primary Draw
Without a doubt, it is tricker to use Shepherd as your primary draw. Here, you are not simply using Shepherd to deal with Victory cards you already have, but rather buying Victory cards specifically for the purpose of pairing with Shepherd. There is great potential here–Shepherd alone promises the possibility of drawing your entire deck, and Pasture provides an extra wellspring of points to extend the game, buying you the time to capitalize on this. However, be warned! Without the support of other kingdom cards, this strategy is extremely inconsistent. Shepherd needs to be paired with 2+ Victory cards to increase your hand size at all, and you will need to make such a pairing multiple times during each turn to have hope of drawing your entire deck. There are a few different elements that are especially valuable for supporting this strategy:
Non-Victory stop cards are a huge liability to decks that use Shepherd as their primary draw. As such, the ability to trash coppers is very important to making them function. As usual, faster is better for this (a copper trasher as weak as Develop may not be sufficient, depending of course on context), though note that Remodel variants are much better than usual as copper trashers here, since Estate is actually a valuable card.
Start of Turn Draw and Sifting
Drawing and sifting at the start of your turn are great boons to your consistency, and this is as true as it’s ever been with Shepherd. Cards like Wharf, Den of Sin, and Dungeon are massive boons to a Shepherd-based deck.
The ability to topdeck cards is much, much better for Shepherd than it may appear at first glance. Once a Shepherd deck has nearly drawn itself, it’s typically capable of topdecking a number of Victory cards by discarding enough of them to trigger a reshuffle, but not enough to completely draw what has been discarded. For example, with 4 cards left in your deck and an empty discard, discarding 3 Victory cards to a Shepherd will topdeck two of them. As a result of this, having an extra Shepherd and topdecking it with something like Mandarin, Count (who can also gain Duchies while doing it!), or even an opposing Haunted Woods is enough to essentially guarantee the consistency of a Shepherd deck.
Since Shepherd is so averse to non-Victory stop cards, high-density payload is at a premium. Silvers are worse than usual, powerful actions are even better.
More notably, since a Shepherd deck that is barely consistent at the start of its turn will massively overdraw at the end, Shepherd has a strong affinity for discard-for-benefit types of effects. The likes of Artificer and Vault are a big pull towards a Shepherd-based deck.
Finally, if there’s no other way to deliver it, megaturn potential can sometimes be a pull towards a Shepherd deck that would otherwise be too inconsistent. It’s not so bad to have a few bad turns if one good turn means you win!
Because Victory cards are an integral part of your deck, you will eventually reach a point where scoring actually improves your deck! Being able to fearlessly engage in extended greening without too much regard for which Victory cards you add is fantastic.
For the same reasons that copper trashing is important, if an opponent can junk your deck faster than you can remove it, drawing your deck with Shepherd is likely impossible.
Discard attacks and -Card tokens are very bad news for Shepherd. It is most vulnerable to dudding at the start of its turn when your hand size is smallest, and these all accentuate that weakness. Start-of-turn draw can potentially bypass this weakness, but without that kind of support, you should not build a Shepherd-based deck in the face of these.
- Shepherd can play either as an unassuming sifter or a highly fragile but potent source of draw.
- Add it as a sifter if you will have Victory cards in your deck anyways and it will typically see one or more of them.
- Using it as primary draw requires full commitment, a high percent of Victory cards, trashing of your other junk, and either powerful payload or additional consistency support. Topdecking effects are fantastic. Attacks on your hand are devastating to it.
- When you can use it as primary draw, discard-for-benefit is a major pull.