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Subject: Core Concepts of Dominion Strategy rss

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Matthew Calhoun
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There are several core concepts which underlay optimal dominion play. The most important and fundamental of all is that you must understand the possible strategies which are available on a given board before play begins, and to choose the best possible deck type from those which are available; obviously it's only possible to know which strategies are the best after many plays with all of the different combination's of cards on the board. The true secret of dominion strategy is familiarity with all of the possible strategies which exist amongst the current set of available cards, and to know the relative power of the different strategies against each other. The best decks are highly focused in accomplishing a number of specific objectives. A good way of thinking about a general board is to divide the cards into three types: major cards, minor cards, and worthless cards. The viable strategies which exist depend upon the major cards, but each board possesses its own unique qualities, and the balance of strength between different viable strategies will hinge upon the minor cards which are available to complement the strength of the strategies made possible by the major cards. A good example of a major card is minion, since the minion strategy is one of the most powerful in the game at this point; however on certain boards there just aren't enough minor cards to support a minion strategy and there may be another major card or two which tip the balance of power to another strategy.

The second core concept is that the decisions you make on each turn are tied together through the order in which cards are chosen and trashed, and that optimal play is precisely choosing the correct order to buy and trash cards , not in a vacuum, but rather based on the random sequence of draws which you are dealt and the actions of the opponents. A game of dominion can roughly be divided into three stages, the early (decks are highly similar and just beginning to develop), middle (decks are still developing but players have chosen strategies and deck types), and late game (VP race). It's important to understand the dynamics which dominate these different stages; you want to gain/trash in an order which will allow you to pass from one stage to the next as quickly as possible.

The third core concept is that you must always keep track of the exact contents of your entire deck, as well as which cards are in your discard pile and which cards remain to be drawn, as well as the total number of victory point all the opponents have. Every card you gain needs to be taken for a purpose, every decision that make is important and needs to be thought about carefully. In the mid-late stages the decisions can be confusing and it's important to shift gears from what you are doing as your deck grows, and not to get stuck building a combo when you should buy money cards, or to keep getting VP even though you are setting yourself up for disaster later in the game. A mathematical analysis of optimal strategy requires making probabilistic calculations in order to choose the correct order to gain and trash cards. In the early game, its important to make decisions which on average give you the best possible path towards building your deck. Dominion is after all a game with a luck factor, and this luck factor needs to be overcome by starting off with the sequence of buys and trashes which, on later turns, will produce the strongest average draws. In the late stages of close games you will sometimes need to gamble in order to win, in the sense that on occasion you might be compelled to make a play which gives you a strong chance of winning but also of having a poor turn if you don't get the draws you need later on; for example whether or not to buy a province when this will cause you to potentially stall out in later turns, or a choice between two action cards when one of them is pretty good but the other allows you to draw a card or two which potentially would allow you to buy a province. Knowing the exact contents of your remaining deck as well as the VP of all players will enable you to make correct decisions when faced with many types of choices, and making the correct decision in difficult spots is what winning competitive games is all about.

The fourth concept is that your decks should be focused on gaining victory points, and gaining them as quickly as possible without creating a deck which is likely to stall out. Gaining victory points is the only way to win after all, there are no bonuses for having a really cool combo deck if you can't win the game. However, you must balance the rush to buy provinces and other victory cards against the need to continue building your deck in the early-mid game so as to not stall out on future turns, and many close decisions will involve problems of this type. Cards which give your opponents curses are very important in close games because they give you an powerful edge in the province race. Winning by one point is often more gratifying than winning by 10, and even estate can be a game breaking card. Many close calls are decided based on how many victory points the opponents have at that time, and how close the game is to being over. It is crucial to buy money cards early in the game, and this strategy has been discovered by most players; however the correct way of gaining money cards needs to be considered in the context gaining victory points as quickly as possible. Past a certain point in the game its better to buy a duchy than a gold, and its important to know when to shift gears from buying VP to building your combo (or from buying VP back to building your combo).

The fifth concept is that you should try almost always to use attack cards to disrupt your opponents, but that you must carefully balance making attacks with building your deck properly. The best attack cards are those which have side abilities which fit very nicely with the other cards in your deck. It can be correct to not take certain attack cards, but there needs to be a good justification because attack cards are a very important dimension of the game and must be exploited to play optimally. Furthermore, its important to understand that the value of attack cards, as well as the need to buy attack cards, increases with the number of players in the game, for the obvious reason that these cards disrupt the play of all the opponents at the same time in multiplayer games, giving you alone an advantage (of course some cards get better than others in multiplayer games, thief for example is much stronger in a 4 player game than in 2)

The sixth concept is that trashing cards is very important, especially in the early game. Gaining cards with the trash ability is a fundamental way of building your deck, along with making buys. Trashing cards like estate and copper early will vastly increase the value of your draws, but gaining cards with the trash ability is a delicate process and many difficult decisions will revolve around if/how to trash and buy in the same turn, or whether or not to gain a slow trash card like remodel or to continue building your deck in another direction.
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