Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Endgame Dive #1

Game Log

Not a ton to talk about here. The basic strategy is to go for thinning your deck into a Grand Market-based engine to power through the endgame. I prefer using Lookout into Junk Dealer (depending a bit on draws), whereas my opponent aims for pure Junk Dealer. I still like my plan overall, but I doubt it makes a big difference.

Anyway, what gets interesting here is the endgame. Between his turn 14 and mine, our decks look like this:

...where one of my Merchant Ships is in play. Given that I can't profitably play Junk Dealer, I have exactly $24 in my deck. If I'm unable to draw the deck without Apprenticing a Silver, I'll be down to $22, at which point I can double Province and Duchy, and hope to do the same the next turn. My opponent's optimal turn can net him a free Province gain off Graverobber with $17 left over. In this case, I would have a decent chance of double Province + Duchy the next turn, and, as we're assuming I don't have a good hand here, basically a sure thing that I can at least Double Province and (double) Estate, which puts me in pretty good shape, as Triple Province lets me Double to win, which is close to assured, so he would have to go for double Province + Duchy + Estate(s), which leaves his deck somewhat crippled - it's important to note that he is running out of fuel for his Apprentice and Graverobber in order to get this to work.

The better news, though, is that I'm actually a favourite (about 60%) to connect an Apprentice with either the other Apprentice or (ideally) the Junk Dealer, at which point I can triple Province and take a big lead. I could be in pretty bad shape if I miss my Apprentice entirely this turn (though even then, hitting enough GMs and getting MS in play is okay at least), but this is fairly unlikely.

As it turns out, I did hit the optimal Apprentice -> Junk Dealer. My opponent does have his ideal hand in response, and gets a Province and three Duchies. It may seem at first as though this is a mistake, but I don't think it is. The problem is, I need to not be able to double Province for him to have a chance. If I draw an Apprentice at all, it's just over (this is what happens, and I chop a Province). I'm 73% to do that. On top of this, in a pretty substantial portion of the 27%, I am going to be able to double Province anyway, as what I've drawn will largely have been economy. But his alternatives aren't great: if I am able to connect Apprentice with Province, I am going to win anyway. And in any other case I am double Provincing, I'm going to be taking a near-insurmountable lead anyway. So it seems he has to take a risk. The only other question, then, is whether to go greedier, and take another Province, giving himself a better chance of finishing the game off the next turn. But this really seems too greedy, as I ned to have a hand of exactly all 3 Provinces, no Grand Markets, and no Apprentice, or I would be able to get the last Province and just win.

Quick Game #1: Turn 8 Estate

Game Log


Not much to comment on in the general case here. Apothecary engines are the obvious best thing, with Stonemason, Warehouse, and Mystic all as quite good support. We mirror, with me going second.

I want to join the game after the Apothecaries ran out, which happened on my opponents seventh(!) turn:

As we can see, I have a fairly small-looking, but quite significant advantage, based mostly on my two extra Apothecaries. This was more or less down to pure dumb luck in getting very nice connections of 4p to Stonemason into double Apothecary. It's also worth noting that I've Stonemasoned a Stonemason into a pair of Coppers. Copper is easier to draw in my deck of 6 Apothecaries, though of course this is going to be offset by having a higher number of non-drawing cards. So if we take the overall draw-ability as about a wash, the big advantage here is that I have just a little more money - and enough to buy a Province.

But at this point, I am already in Endgame mode. Apothecaries are an empty pile. Four Warehouses are gone, and Stonemasons are both lowered and very easy to run. The game can't end right away, but jockeying for position is something you already need to think about. On my next turn, I draw my deck (sans one estate). I turn my potion into a pair of Warehouses, for improved reliability (and the key thing here is to discard Coppers - later Apothecaries become AMAZING). And then I have 9 - I could buy a Province, and that's probably ok, but I feel like it doesn't position me well for a long game. And while I am already considering how piling out can happen here, it isn't going to happen just yet, so I do need to be prepared for a longer game. For this reason, I take Stonemason for a Festival and a Mystic. The Mystic is a significantly better card for the deck, as it's going to hit a huge percentage of the time, but the Festival gives me access to an extra buy, an extra Stonemason play, and TONS more pile control. It isn't terribly common that two different cards off a Stonemason overpay is the correct way to go, but I think it's definitely the right call here, as the festival is really needed right away, and the Mystic is a clear step better after that.

My opponent counters with an identical turn.

And then I have a complete dud, producing only $3. I buy an Estate. This is actually absolutely critical. The game can already end at any time. Overpaying for Stonemason to get Warehouses (only 2 left) and then again for Stonemasons themselves (4 left right now, down to 3 after the Warehouse overpay) will end the game. So the point is actually pretty important to hold off pressure from my opponent doing this (he could potentially still win this turn, but it would require a near-perfect draw to empty AND score 2+ points), as well as to be able to more easily threaten this myself. On turn 9, my opponent builds more, getting another Mystic and a Cellar. It's possible he should try to score some points, in order to block me, especially considering that my previous-turn dud means I'm pretty likely to go off this turn. He's in a very tough spot, though, because scoring points is going to continue to hurt his long-game chances.

In any case, I do have the monster hand I need, and finish it out.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Instructional Game #3: Jack, Duke, and Engines

Game Log


There's two main plans here: Jacks into Duchy/Duke slog, or Engine into see-how-you-need-to-adjust. I want to stress that the engine player should not commit himself, in his own mind, to any kind of VP plan. That would be throwing away one of the biggest advantages of the engine: its flexibility. Ultimately, the decision of how and when to green should be a tactical one, based on the matchup and, more significantly, the game-state.

He goes for the slog plan. I go for the engine. I open Jack/Village. Jack in an engine is really quite reasonable, and it makes me think of my friend Adam Horton, who is a skilled proponent of this kind of strategy. Now, opening Village is something I rarely do (in fact, I think it has been years and several thousand games since it's happened), but there are several factors that lead me to it here, the lack of a $5 I want early is the biggest one. I am also eventually going to want LOTS of villages pretty clearly, and while Silver is a fine card for my deck, I figure I will get enough from Jack.

I am not going to talk too much about how my opponent played here - he got a stash before his second Jack, which seems pretty wrong to me, but other than that, he plays quite reasonably. He definitely did not have the best of luck down the stretch, but for the most part, his play seems quite textbook.

On my side of things, there are a few big decision points I would like to cover.
I get a Forge pretty quickly, despite having a fairly thin deck, no estates left, and Moneylender to take care of all the rest of my Coppers within the next 5 turns or so. The big reason for the Forge is that 1) it speeds me up a little in finishing to trash down, and 2) it lets me go Silver+Silver->Hunting Grounds, which is something I will want in order to keep my deck-drawing going, and potentially with Jack, in a nice draw-positive way. In general, it also gives me some control over how things are going.

I'm going to italicize the next three paragraphs, because I think they're really critical for wider strategy.

But the big decision-point I want to focus on is whether or not to contest Duchies. This is always a pretty key point. I actually think that, as it turns out, I would have won this game either way. But that isn't always the case, and so I want to look at the factors that go into it. First of all, the dangers. Contesting the green early can really choke your deck down and increase your chances to misfire. Furthermore, it can sometimes simultaneously hasten the end of the game on piles, which is generally not in favor of the engine, which is better suited for the long game. On the other hand, there are benefits as well: The Slog's game-plan often involves getting an insurmountable lead, and contesting can allow you to break up that unbeatable matrix of VP. 

In this case, stealing three duchies is enough to mean that ALL the Dukes isn't enough for the Slog player to lock it up (as is generally the case with Duchy/Duke) and there likely isn't a three pile coming until AFTER the Dukes are gone - certainly not if the Engine player is careful, as there just isn't any pile the slog player can realistically empty quickly. So the question becomes whether or not taking these three Duchies is too much trouble for it. To know that, we need to look at the other side. If we don't contest Duchies at all, they would typically need 11 5-cost VP cards to set up their matrix. In this case, though, we have the ability to grab Estates via trashing extra Hunting Grounds. So realistically, they'll need 12 of them. Whereas if we get the three Duchies, then 13 will be insufficient - they either need to empty 13 and then a third pile, or get 13 with a Province as well. So with any amount of realism, you're looking at 14-16. Basically, the question is whether this disrupts you enough to forego contesting or not. Getting 2 more 5s and an 8 or 1  more 5 and emptying a pile will cost them some amount of time. The question is, will that amount of time be more significant than the amount of time you are investing as the engine player? At the time of the game, I decided it was worth it to contest on turn 9. Looking back on things now, I think I would lean the other way. But it's definitely a close call.

And this is where a lot of the interplay comes in. The less the Engine player wants to contest, the more incentivized the Slog player is to build her deck up before turning for the green, so that she will be able to power through to her completed VP lockout more quickly. But the more the Slog player is building, the more incentivized the Engine player is to contest, since in this case, it hurts him less (since he's already built up more to be able to sustain green) AND it is more damaging to the Slog Player's VP Matrix. And all of these decisions have to be made based on the game-state as unfolding, but before the game is really clear - in my opinion, probably the most interesting part of a game.

Okay. So after the dust settled from that decision, following 11, our decks look liked this:

At this point, it's going to take him at least 7 turns to finish out the Dukes, after which he needs to empty a third pile (or at any point he can, take a Province). It's of course highly unrealistic for him to be hitting this every turn, though, so more realistically, I look to have a dozen turns or more to empty out the Provinces. Incidentally, his best bet is probably to spike a Province himself, so if he is ever hitting 6 soon, he can seriously consider taking a Gold, or possibly even a Hunting Grounds.

For my part, I ought to be able to get that Province-running task done with relative ease. The trick is to build my economy a bit whilst simultaneously keeping my deck at least as reliable in drawing as it is now. It is just barely drawing the deck now, if all falls perfect; it will fall well fairly often, but it will fail pretty often too, which means I would not actually consider it very consistent as is. So if you go through the log, you can see that I make a number of small errors from this point, mainly in not maintaining quite enough draw to be as reliable as I ought to be.

Nevertheless, a mere 6 turns later, following turn 17, the situation looks like this:
And despite having a complete dud on turn 18 (no Villages, which is less than 20% at this point, though obviously the chance to dud is a fair bit higher, as you could also find no Hunting Grounds), I was able to close things out on turn 19, for a fairly easy win: the Engine is just too strong here.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Instructional Game #2: Scrying Pool, Saboteur, and Switching Gears

Game Log

The card that jumps out to me here is Scrying Pool. Scrying Pool is incredibly powerful, on many boards drawing huge amounts of cards non-terminally. Something to note, though, is that, without trashing, you need other cards that draw cards in order to draw your deck. They don't have to draw many cards - cantrips work just fine - but they do need to draw some. Oasis is pretty good with Pool, but doesn't actually fill that role. Which means that here, you actually need a good amount of Worker's Villages. I do think that Pool is probably still worth it - it's really that good - but it is not as much a slam dunk as you might think (or as I thought at the start of this game).

Something I want to note at this point is that you will definitely want Marauder here. People think that Scrying Pool negates Looter attacks, but this isn't really true. Sure, it's less bad for my Scrying Pool deck than it is against a lot of other decks, but it's still a real pain. There's a couple reasons. First, the subtle one is that you can have Ruin on top of your deck followed by non-action: in this case, you will keep the ruin, then not draw all that much, whereas if the ruin wasn't there, you'd skip your non-action, and at the end of all this, you've drawn FEWER non-ruin cards than you otherwise would have (and drawing extra ruins really doesn't compensate). Second, and I think more important (though I'm not sure, as it's a bit tricky to quantify), you are just less likely to start with a Scrying Pool in your hand, which means you end up drawing stone nothing significantly more often than if the ruins weren't there. So this is really a pseudo-counter. While the Spoils do also reduce your ability to draw, they do so less offensively, especially since you can get rid of them at will, which isn't true of the ruins.

Ok, on to the game:
I open with Oasis/Potion. My opponent is on a 2/5 and gets a Saboteur. Ok, let's talk a bit about this decision. Saboteur is not a very good card. Really at all. However, I find it to be quite a reasonable opener on some boards. It will usually completely desctroy one of the opponent's opening buys, which is really a serious setback so early in the game, and then it provides some added value. It's still not great, and lots of other cards are better, but it's something you can do in a pinch.

His Saboteur hits my oasis on turn 4, and then it nails my potion on turn 5. In the meantime, he's added a potion of his own, but I've been fortunate enough to get two Pool buys in before my Potion goes down.

At this point, I decide to shift gears. Instead of rushing on focusing to re-buy my potion and continue with my original plan, I decide to play anti-Saboteur. There are a number of factors that lead me to this. Perhaps the biggest thing is that the Pools themselves are immune, which means that he's going to be able to nail my Oases, Potion, and Worker's Village with pretty high regularity. And since there are no decent 2-costs on the board, I end up getting nothing for them. So instead, I go for the anti-Saboteur strategy of "buy the most expensive thing possible". This will let me downgrade into those Potions if he hits my Gold anyway, and in general really lessens the effectiveness of his Saboteur. It's also fast enough that I figure I won't be too bad off against the Pool player, especially given that I already have a couple myself, and he was slow to start getting them. I am definitely still looking to pick up actions, when that's reasonable on a price-point, as they work much better with the existing Pools I do have.

I get a key stroke of luck on turn 11, when he ends up hitting 1p, which slows him WAY down in getting to his second Scrying Pool. At this point, he's going to be very, very slow at maneuvering the game into the state he needs. On that same turn 11, his Saboteur hits of my Golds, and I turn it into a Potion - I actually think this is a pretty serious mistake on my part, as it's a bit late to try to go back into pools, and I would have been much better served by simply taking a Marauder.

By the time we reach the end of turn 16, our decks looks like this:
His deck is going to be humming pretty nicely here, IF he can find his Scrying Pools often enough. My main trumps are my lead and his relative lack of Pools. I am also very well-positioned against his Saboteurs. The most damaging card for him to hit would be the Marauder, followed by the Oases. Nothing else is really close. Hitting Bank or Gold is not going to be much of a downgrade for me. And hitting my Provinces, at this point, increases the strength of my deck, dramatically increasing my chances to make MORE provinces. Three pools are also not really enough to zero in on my good targets with reliability. Still, there's some danger left for me, and if he can get a couple more Pools, his deck will suddenly be firing with pretty good regularity. I still like my chances here, because I only need a couple more Provinces to put him in a very difficult position (and he should seriously consider not playing his Saboteur starting around this point). And he definitely has some more building to do in the mean-time.

After some reasonably favourable draws for me, we reach the following state after turn 21:
...where it's very important to note that there is a province in the trash. What this means is that I believe I'm actually in very good shape. It's true that his deck is much better at this point, but I am closing in on having a fairly insurmountable points lead. I also have a Pillage, which apart from giving me safe sources of money, will, I hope, more importantly steal a big chunk of one of his turns by nabbing a Scrying Pool. Now, you might think that having such a big point lead doesn't mean much, given his Saboteur. The problem with this is, he really needs to train that Saboteur very well in order to hit what he wants - otherwise he's pretty likely to actually score me points by playing it. And even if he hits Province into Duchy, that is not such a huge blow for me. Indeed, he's in the difficult spot of needing his deck to maintain reliability whilst also running out the Duchies (to make his Saboteuring of Province that much more effective). Simultaneously, he has to worry about three-pile endings in that plan: Oases are gone, and only one Scrying Pool remains. So perhaps his best chance is to actually get a huge economic thing going and score a bunch of points at once. Triple Merchant Guild can help, but it will take a while, and my deck is not so bad - and he's running out of VP left in the supply, meaning he's running out of time. On top of this, he's still not actually that reliable to find a Scrying Pool. Yes, he is a favorite to do so, but not a huge one.

Despite him hitting some of my Victory cards, I am able to cash them in for other VP, and he has another dud turn. I more or less seal the game by grabbing another Province on turn 24.

Instructional Game #1: Of Ambassador

Game Log


The first thing to notice here is that Ambassador dominates the board.

I am going to go ahead and make a quick note here, that it may look like Possession counters Ambassador. But that isn't really the case - generally, for Possession to work, you need to be able to play it pretty often, and if you skip Ambassador, you're not really going to be in a position to do that - and indeed, you will have trouble even getting to buy Possession. When you add in that the thin-deck Ambassador player can force her opponent to take an Ambassador anyway, the "counter" really looks like it falls apart, at least in the vast majority of circumstances.

Okay, having said that, getting thin with Ambassador tends to just be dominant. This board is a bit tricky, though, because there's not really much to do after you do get your thin deck. Still, you need to go for Ambassador, because there also isn't much to do against it anyway, and there are at least SOME support cards. If there were a good Big Money enabler, a la Vault or Embassy, you could consider skipping Ambassador here. But there isn't.

Okay,s o the next thing to notice is that ways to increase your hand-size are VERY scarce. On board, there is only Wishing Well. And then in the Black Market, you can get Minion, Masquerade, Vagrant, Native Village, Throne Room and Governor. That's it. And it's pretty slim pickings. Some of those are VERY conditional. Being able to increase your hand-size is absolutely massive, especially in Ambassador games, so you will want to go after this hard.

Let's talk a minute about Black Market here. It's possible to go for it - pulling a Masquerade or Governor or Goons can be very, very nice. But I don't like it here, at least early, because you really need to focus on getting to drawing your deck, and Black Market is pretty thorny when it comes to that. Realistically, you aren't going to be able to get to Governor or Goons quickly, so you would really be hoping for Masquerade. And then you have to ask the question, how much better is Masquerade than another Ambassador? It probably is some better. But you've also spent $3 to buy a terminal that doesn't draw anything, and you need to get lucky to rip the Masquerade off the top. Even if you do, having BM in your deck, I am not sure that you're actually ahead of where you would be if you'd just have other 3s instead.

So on a 4/3 opening here, you need to go for Ambassador, and then you have a choice. You could go Fishing Village, which isn't crazy, but I really think it isn't good here. What is it for? The answer has to be another Ambassador, in which case it's mostly just better to get that second Ambassador before the FV. Yes, you can definitely construct shuffles where it would be better, but things are more likely to not collide than to collide, and anyways, getting to play Ambassador on both turn 3 and 4 is a way bigger benefit than the Fishing Village will ever get you. You are much further ahead. So I think you need either that second Ambassador, or Wishing Well. I'm really not sure between the two, but I tend to lean slightly toward the second Ambassador - there's just more upside, I think.

Anyway, on to the actual game:

I get a 5/2 as it turns out, and go in for Ambassador/Hamlet. Hamlet is hardly going to do anything for me here, I figure, but it has to be better than nothing. My opponent opens Ambassador/Ambassador. And I'm already at a significant disadvantage, but the next draws tend to be more important than the opening draws, so I am certainly not out of it.

On turn 5, my opponent buys a Mining Village. I think this is already a pretty significant mistake. He already has a Fishing Village to let him play both Ambassadors. While Mining Village is by no means the worst card available, as a cantrip, and a card that makes it less likely for him to get terminal Ambassador collision, I just don't think it does all that much for his deck, really. I would be much more interested in starting on the Wishing Wells.

Nevertheless, my deck remains slightly worse than his for many turns, as it takes me a long time to get a Fishing Village, which relegates me to getting 2 an awful lot, whereas he can start to build a bit on 3s. By the end of my 15th turn (and I went second), our decks look like this:

As you can see, I have a little more junk than him, and on top of this, it's his turn, so he gets to hit me back harder before I do. Perhaps even more importantly, he has two Wishing Wells already. This is a very significant advantage, and I really ought to be just losing already.

However, on his turn 16, he does something which I believe is a bit rash: he buys a curse. This really is how you want to pound someone in many cases, but you really need to be well set up for it first, because you are adding junk to your deck, which, if it doesn't go well, can potentially backfire. Adding a third type of junk to the mix means that you are really making the game about slinging that junk back and forth (though largely, these games already are, to an even greater extent than people realize - perhaps more games on that in the future). You need to make sure you are going to win that fight; otherwise, you should have built more. I am still significantly behind, though, with quite a lot more junk than him.

Between his twenty-first turn and mine, our decks look like this:
The big thing to note here is that he has 7 Wishing Wells to my 3. That should allow him to maintain drawing his deck way better than mine, and he can even, with extreme care, slowly build his way up to getting Provinces. Meanwhile, I need to constantly be on vigilance about deck-size, and track my deck very well to make those Wishing Wells count. Fortunately, that isn't actually all that hard to do, and by playing the Wells late, and making wishes based on strategic considerations as much as probabilities, I can draw my deck pretty reliably. What I mean by that is, if I don't have more drawing cards behind, I can wish for a draw card. But if I do (say I drew one off the first part of the Well), then I can wish for a dead card, knowing that if I hit another draw card, I can be fine anyway; if I would wish for a draw card and the dead card is on top, it can be much worse. Of course, this needs to be balanced with raw probabilities.

The bigger thing to note, though, is that I can't really maintain this off of three wells if I need to 'go big' and contest on expensive cards, since the only way to GET to those expensive cards is by buying more stop card, as those are the only things to produce money. Given that, I need to win the game via the deck-size war. So I chip him back the Curse and the Estate and buy a third Ambassador. On his next turn, he returns the estate and ONE of the two curses he has, and buys a Black Market. I believe this is the key mistake in the game. I believe the best play would be to both return the second Curse as well and buy a third Ambassador of his own. I believe that he effectively can't lose the game at that point - it's not as though I can afford to not return the junk cards, as he could pump me full of coppers, at which point my deck would collapse, and he could win in many different ways. And if I do return junk to him, he can always do it at least as well, if not better. He can add a third Fishing Village and a fourth Ambassador and just pound me into submission. Or he can commence building up slowly at that point. In any case, I would basically have no way to win, given the Wishing Well split, as my deck just can't maintain very many cards. So I would just be stuck treading water, and he would have a long time to pick his spots, very safely. On the other hand, taking Black Market is probably also fine, if he returns both curses as well. He can build up, and he should be able to maintain his deck as fairly clean off of two Ambassadors. He could also keep a curse and gain the third Ambassador, which should be safe and allow him to pound me on deck-size at some point. The big point here is that trying to BOTH build up his economy and half-pound me into submission is biting off more than he can chew. I don't think it's actually doomed to fail (he at least should have some time to change his mind and flip back), but it's at least opening up this hole for me to have an advantage, which he didn't really need to do.

At this point, I want to stress that my opponent in the game is a very VERY good player, and has bested me more often than I have him. I certainly don't want to make it seem like the decision was stupid, or anything like that. I do think it was the wrong call, but it's really hard, really really tricky to make these decisions in the heat of a game, and even the best of players - with Mic certainly being in that small group - can make the wrong call, particularly in such a tricky situation as this.

He pulls a Governor out of the Black Market, but the third Ambassador makes pretty quick work of slamming him with curses, and he is unable to keep up. By turn 26, I have a forced win (though I missed it - it was actually Mic that pointed this out to me), and on turn 27, I empty Curse as the third pile, winning with a score of -2 to -3.

Intro and About

I'm not sure exactly what this blog will become. I hope that it will be both entertaining and informative. Edutaining. My vision for now is to mostly post annotations of game logs, walking through thought processes and key decisions. I expect I will post disproportionately from my own wins, not because I want to give the impression of how great I am (because I don't think I really am "all that"), but because I hope to be instructive, and I feel like I am more likely to understand what I am doing in games I won, and thus give better explanations. Hopefully I will also post some about how luck is part of the game and can rule the roost, some about how a better plan can sometimes overrule the inherent luck of the game, and, if there's enough interest, some 'you make the call' kind of decisions: interesting situations where it's not clear to me what is best, and we can work through things together.

I expect mostly to talk about Dominion, but I might also discuss some other games I have interest in as well - be it Magic, Chess, Spades, or any of a number of other things.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy.