Friday, 30 October 2015

Dominion: Treasure Map

Treasure Map is one of the most misunderstood cards in all Dominion. Often cited as the prime example of a card which going for can sometimes bring a weaker player a luck-based win even when it's not the optimal strategy, it is actually a card which is fairly high-skill, and which by its presence will lead the better player to win more often.

The Level Zero Strategy

The most basic thing people do with Treasure Map is buy two as fast as they can, maybe get a third to help them collide, buy some treasures, and then use the golds off the collision to rumble in for Provinces.

This is a bad strategy. A really bad strategy.

In fact, the optimal play with Treasure Map and no other cards on board barely defeats not getting Maps at all. If this were all that was going on for a given board, then it really would come down to luck in if the Map player collides fast enough. (On the other hand, that's not really much different than straight Big Money, where it's all about how well that money clumps together).

Fortunately, there is almost always something better available on the board. And the big point here is that even when the Map player collides immediately, on the vast majority of boards, the other strategy is STILL going to beat this naive one. There is just so much else you can be doing, and four Golds is not really enough to finish the game out without support.

The Level One Strategy

The next step is to add in cards to help your Maps line up with consistency, greatly accelerating when they collide and give you the pay-off. The classical combos here are Haven, Warehouse, and Chapel (though to be fair, Chapel tends to help other things more). This is way stronger than the level zero strategy, and has enough raw power to be more or less correct on a non-trivial, if still small, number of boards.

Four golds probably still isn't enough, but a key point for this strategy is that the helper card helps you to smooth out later draws as well - this is the classical purpose of Haven, if you notice, and one of the main roles of sifters - at least in money-based or "good stuff" decks.

Still, this strategy tends to not be terribly strong, because though it has some punch, it isn't anything special - just a decent version of Big Money, and not even a great one.

The Best Usage

All this might lead you to think that Treasure Map just isn't a very good card and that you can pretty much ignore it. For the most part, you would be right. But there really are some cases in which it can be key. I am taking about cost-caring trash-for-benefit cards a la Salvager and most especially, Bishop. In this case, Maps are basically a way to use 2 buys and $8 to get 4 6-cost cards of value to trash.

In order for this to work, you need a very potent engine - you're gaining 4 golds with this every turn, and what's more, you're putting them on top of your deck. You need a lot of drawing power in order to break through all those stop cards. This tends to be pretty slow to set up. But if you can get it going, this really is a lot of fuel. For this reason, Bishop really is the best combination - the Golds provide you with a huge source of points to overcome even a big deficit of green cards, and the player who is trying to buy victory is probably going to stall, trying to grab them all.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Dominion: Embargo

I have long held that Embargo is the card which is probably most often misplayed. The reason for this is simple: it gives you the most options when you play it, as there are going to be 17+ places to put your token. Lots of choices mean that it's really hard to evaluate them all and pick the absolute best one, and there are some pretty weird, non-intuitive routes to consider. Let's dive in!

Where to put the counter

This is perhaps the most natural question with embargo, and the one for which it has the multitude of possibilities. The general consensus on this issue has long been to put it where you have the most advantage over your opponents, i.e. if you have 2 more of a key card than your opponent, stick it there. However, figuring out where you have this advantage isn't always so simple, and in general, things can be more nuanced than that.

For instance, let's say the best thing on the board looks like it's a minion deck, and you have a 3-1 advantage on Minions when you play your embargo - your opponent has gotten some bad luck and has silvers instead. Traditional wisdom may have you slam that embargo down on your Minions, as that's where you have your lead. In general, this is going to be a mistake. 3 Minions doesn't make a Minion deck, and by locking each of you out from Minions, what you're basically doing there is making your minions much closer to her silvers, and that actually reduces your advantage.

Instead, you need to look at where you can cut their strategy off without cutting off your own. Or, failing that (as you often will), figure out if cutting both of you off is more beneficial to you or them. And failing both those things, finding somewhere to stick the token that it does nothing. Generally, there's going to be *somewhere* in which you have an advantage, and you will try to maximize that. In the case that you're just behind everywhere, you can try to minimize it by making the game some kind of bizarre luckfest - this probably won't work, but you were probably losing anyway.


Engines are often super reliant on a particular card - if it's the only village, if it's the only draw card, if it's the only +buy (though on the last point, once they've gotten a couple, that's often enough). Stopping this up can be pretty devastating for many opponents if you can do it soon enough. On the other hand, engines are often the kinds of decks which can most use the card - they're most likely to have the spare $2 and a buy laying around, and to be able to get back to the bought Embargo quickly

Big Money

At first glance, you might think that big money is not super dependent on any card, and thus pretty immune to Embargo, since there's usually some different options you can go with, and going down to the next one down usually wouldn't be just tons worse. However, there are some cards which Big Money is absolutely reliant on: the treasures! It's not super uncommon for a well-timed Embargo on Silver or Gold (or especially Fool's Gold) to be pretty devastating.

Other cursing

The most distinctive case where Embargo plays differently than all others is when there is some other curse-giver on board which is worth going for. The key thing to note here is that when you choose to embargo something, it's a far more temporary thing than normal: the curses will eventually run out, at which point it won't matter. So you want to pick something to delay both players getting to, rather than to really stop up. Of course, the big thing is if you can get a curser and then slam the door on your opponent. In this case, they should bite the bullet and get it anyway - otherwise, they'll lose 10-0.


Trashing is somewhat similar to cursing. Players will want to get their deck size under control, get to basically drawing it, before they start adding cursed cards. The difference here is that they will be slowed down in having to continually take some time - and often a terminal action - to trash a curse.


Getting a gainer, then slamming down embargo tokens on the gainer pile, followed by another key pile, can be absolutely massive. This is especially true when the gainer IS the key card - such as with Horn of Plenty or most gainers with e.g. Highway present.

What about when to get Embargo?

As it turns out, this is way more important to how the card plays than where to put it, although obviously the two things are related. In general, the big problem with Embargo is that it slows you down too much to buy it and play it. In other words, opportunity cost. The simplest explanation is, if you're wasting time buying a 2 cost, then drawing and playing that terminal action, your opponent is going to be getting good cards for their deck. You need to have your 1-shot $2 of economy be worth MORE than what they have done in the mean-time, and even if you shut down some strategy, chances are they can just audible into yours, and because you wasted time doing the Embargo thing, there's a very good chance they'll be ahead of you, even if their buys weren't optimal for what you were planning. I would be remiss if I didn't note that part of the problem is that usually when you buy the card, you can't count on having any particular advantage by the time you draw it, or if you wait until you're drawing your deck, the curses are less likely to be so impactful.

There are lots of exceptions, of course. The #1 case is, of course, on one of the first two turns of the game, when there aren't any other decent 2s - i.e. the opportunity cost is getting nothing. Beyond this, there are a number of times where you might have the terminal space (and card space) and a spare $2 and a buy, but it doesn't come up much - and pretty often, there are other, better 2s anyway. But when it does come up, it will most often be in an engine.

There are also a number of roads the opponent can go down which commit them to needing lot so fa particular card to have any success. Foremost here are potion-cost cards. You can make a move to bet your embargo as soon as they get their potion, and that means they're going, on average, to probably get just under one of their intended target before you can get the token down (obviously it depends a bit on the shuffles). Depending on which card this is, this can be very profitable. It seems like you could make a similar play on Treasure Map, but the problem there is, if Map is good, it's probably either for Trash for Benefit and/or they'll be able to trigger pretty reliably with exceptional sifting - which means that your embargo will probably be either too late or ineffectual. The same kind of thing is true for Fool's Gold - they will get 3-4 by the time you get your token down, and that is usually going to be enough that you won't be much up. It's actually pretty disastrous for you if you're missing a shuffle or they have extra gains - if they can get to something like 5 Fool's Golds, the game is probably reasonably close to being over...

Examples (certainly not comprehensive, as the most common thing is that you should just not buy the card)
Probably my favorite trick with Embargo is to stick the token on curses and use that as a way to pile out fast. This is actually a tactical little trick to keep an eye out for, though obviously it requires a big lead. In this game, my opponent does half the work for me :)
In this game, my opponent gets a token down on Gardens. I shrug this off pretty easily, as my deck doesn't really want to hit tons of money anyway, playing a slog. The second token, though, is on Copper! And this is surprisingly more effectual, as quite a bit of my plan was to buy a zillion coppers per turn, and carrying a curse is too steep a price for that. I do have to look at some point, once again, for piling out curses, but the bigger saving grace for me is that A) coppers weren't tainted earlier, and B) gaining silver is also very good for the slog.