Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Stacking the Deck: A Dominion Strategy Guide (Part 1)

So you've got a copy of Dominion and a group of people to play with. You enjoy it, but you've found yourself on the losing end of far too many games, and you're ready to step it up.

You've maybe looked up a few guides on the Internet (or maybe you haven't), but they've all been too technical, too mathy, with too many statistics. You just want to play, but you want to play well.

Well, look no further, friend, fellow player, and loyal dragon-slaying compatriot! With this guide, I aim to teach you a few principles that will help you improve your game with any set of cards. I won't just give you strategies, but the concepts behind the strategies that will help you understand not just what to do, but why you do them, so you can make quick decisions on how to build your deck after a quick glance at the cards available. And finally, I think these tips will help you not just play better, but have even more fun with a delightfully well-designed game.

In this multi-part series, I will start with basic and general deck-building concepts, which will help you understand any deck-building game a little better. In the next part, I'll delve into Dominion-specific strategies, focusing on concepts that will help you play better and understand how to see when and where cards will be useful. Finally, I will look at some specific cards, pointing out some of my favorites and how they can be used to deadly effect, as well as cards that I don't think are all that great.

Reading and mastering these tips will not guarantee your victory every time, but when you learn these things, you will certainly play better, win more often, and have a whole lot of fun while doing it!  Read on, compatriots!

Part I: Understanding Deckbuilding
The key to being a great Dominion player is to understand deck-building. Do you understand deck-building?  Do you really understand deck-building? Let's take on some key points about deck-building in general, then we can start talking about the deck-building in Dominion.

Key Point #1: It's not just about adding cards.
That's right. You may think that you need to buy something new every turn to keep adding to and growing your deck. But you know what? Deck-building doesn't always mean adding cards; and adding cards doesn't always improve your deck. The size of your deck doesn't matter. What's important is the quality of cards in the deck. In most deck-builders that I'm aware of, your starting deck has sucky cards, cards that ultimately slow you down once you get the good stuff in. If you can get rid of the bad, that's often better than adding more "good." And sometimes a card is useful early on, but less so laterso adding it, using it to its potential, then ditching it is important. If your deck has only three cards in it, but those three cards are all Gold, you have an awesome deck. Trashing cards and replacing cards. Focus on those, because adding cards is natural.

Key Point #2: When you add cards, add the right ones.
Buying a useless carda card that doesn't actually increase your buying powercan be worse than buying nothing. Not every card works with every strategy, and buying cards that don't help your strategy will ultimately slow you down. Avoid temptation. I know that sometimes very fancy, awesome-looking cards beg you to take them, but trust me: you don't always need them. My worst games stem from flailing around without a strategy, buying cards willy-nilly that end up not working well together.

Key Point #3: You make your own luck.
There is an element of luck present in deck-building games. It's true; you shuffle the cards you buy, and you might not draw them in the optimal order. But if you are complaining too much about bad luck, the real problem is that you aren't buying the right cards in the right quantities, and you're not getting rid of the right cards. You start with the same thing everyone else gets, and you decide what goes into your deck and, thus, what you're going to draw. It's true that randomness can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing by a few points, but don't complain about bad luck; buy the right cards.

Key Point #4: Keep in mind the goal of the game.
The point of every deck-building game I've ever played is to make your deck extremely efficient at accomplishing the goal of the game. If it's to kill monsters, you need to make a deck that gets you really high attacks in your hand. If it's buying very expensive cards (that are also useless), you need a deck that gets you lots of cash and buys and enough padding to take a few hits (in those useless cards) and still keep going with strong hands. If you're wasting time buying cards that attack when you really need more money, or buying cards that help you buy things when you really need stronger attacks, you're wasting your time and your luck, and you're going to lose.

Key Point #5: Look for unexpected side effects.
Many cards seem to have a straightforward ability. And yet they seem to have a weird effect on your game. Maybe some cards that seem terrible always seem to help other players when they use them. Maybe a card that seems great just doesn't do it for you. Remember: pretty much every card in your deck has a direct effect, such as the action listed on the card, or the value of treasure, but it also affects your deck as a whole. Some cards with seemingly pointless direct effects actually do some important things to your deck overall. Sometimes you can figure out what that side effect will be; other time you'll just have to try it out and pay attention to what happens.

Key Point #6: It's okay to experiment.
I will get to specific overall Dominion strategies and even talk about some specific cards, but I'm not going to explain every single card to you (unless a ton of people beg me to do that. What can I say, I'm a man of the people!). Once you get some of the basic concepts down, a great way to figure out which cards are the best is just to try using them and see what happens. Don't buy willy-nillypay attention to what's happening when you play a card, and see how it interacts with other cards. You will probably lose disastrously many times, but if you pay attention to what's happening, you will learn a lot. And sometimes your crazy experiments will work and bring you a victory in an exciting, interesting new way.

Check out part II, in which I discuss general strategies as they apply to Dominion.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article Wolfie, it's easy to take for granted some of the basic principles of deck building games when discussing strategies so it's nice to see some tips for new comers.

    My personal favorite of these tips is #6 (It's okay to experiment) because I think that's what makes Dominion fun. Whether it's trying out some cards that I don't use very often, spotting a really neat synergy between cards that I haven't seen together yet, or trying to make my favorite card work in less optimal sets. I don't want to win by buying the exact same cards I bought in a previous game, experimenting is what keeps the game fresh in addition to making you a better player.


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