Sunday, 24 May 2015

Engine Theory: Consistency and What You Need

Following on from these two posts, let's continue our look at engines. We know what the payoff is, and we know the difficulties of getting them set up reliably. So when do you go for them? Well, as with most questions about Dominion, this is going to vary a good bit based on what's available. You always have to ask yourself, for any strategy, "what's the alternative?". Nevertheless, there are some things we can cover in general, and as long as we know there are going to be exceptions, and remember that context is king, we can learn some things.

Ok, so the biggest problem we were left facing at the end of the reliability article is that it's difficult to get to the point where we're consistently drawing our deck. We have basically four main ways of dealing with this.
  1. Buy lots and lots of components for redundancy
    This one is tempting, because it's going to be possible every single time you have a draw engine that's at all possible, and getting stuff is what you want to do anyway. Unfortunately, if you check the math on things, it basically just doesn't work - to even get 3/4 reliable, you basically have to empty two stacks, and that's with pretty small payload. For sure this strategy is something you want to look to in order to complement the others, but in terms of getting it to work just on its own, you need to be gaining something like 3 components per turn every turn somehow, all while not emptying too many piles - and even then, it isn't great.
  2. Don't Care About Consistency
    This isn't really something you can do terribly often - you are just eschewing the big benefit of engine economies exploding in on themselves like breeder reactors. Nevertheless, it can really be a viable thing on some boards. Much as I think people tend to overestimate their chances of drawing their deck every turn when it's 75-90% (i.e. you SHOULD dud out every 4-10 turns on average), I think people feel cheated when the other person 'gets lucky' and strings things together. Well, if they're 25% to do so on any given turn and they have 5 shots... they're going to get there over 3/4 of the time. In order for this to be at all viable, of course, you need some REALLY powerful payload. Traditional Megaturns are the order of the day here - 7 Bridges or Horns of Plenty, and it won't really matter that you won't get them together again. And this can lean your engine a bit more towards a 'combo' feel.
  3. Thinning, as my friend Adam Horton would tell you, whinning. =D Seriously, though, the consistency numbers get a LOT better when you have fewer dead cards to draw. Good thinning also speeds you up quite a bit, because it's just a lot faster to get rid of cards from your deck than to add cards to be able to draw it, considering that whilst adding cards, you have to draw all of those, too! Now, it might surprise a lot of you that I'm listing this here, and not last, because you would think this is the biggest solution to the consistency problem. But while it does give you a very good amount of speed, and it helps the consistency some, it doesn't really solve the problem. You're still going to want payload at some point, and it's almost always going to be more than the 5-6 cards for which you can be very confident to draw it all. That means you are going to be somewhat inconsistent unless you're significantly over-drawing. And well, you can usually just overdraw a bit, but that leads to inefficiency, which costs you time. And if the thinning isn't fast, you can have some real problems - even something pretty quick like Steward will take a couple of shuffles before you're reaping real benefits, and if it's slower like Trade Route? Yeah, good luck with that. So it turns out, even with trashing, you want something more....
  4. Sifting
    Really? I know that's what you're asking. Yes. Sifting is amazing. It doesn't help you get to the point where you can draw your deck - in fact, a lot of what is traditionally considered sifting hurts you there - but once you are there, it starts becoming very, very valuable. The thing is, how are you dudding out? You draw all of your dead cards together, without having the cards you need to kick off. Sifting cards let you see LOTS more cards to get to your key starters. And when you are engine building, to get your consistency up, you would otherwise need to buy lots of extra draw cards anyway, for redundancy (a la point 1). This would lead to you overdrawing anyway, at which point it's just much more efficient to get some sifters instead of pure draw-more. The big thing to note here is that we are traditionally thinking of cards like Warehouse, Cellar, and Dungeon, but something like Cartographer, Journeyman, or Catacombs can fill this role as well. It's just worth noting that for these, they don't really help you find that first village. Even more important, cards that let you mess with the random draw of 5 cards to start your hand work here, too - Scheme, Guide, and even top-deckers like Watchtower and Royal Seal.

Of course, the real thing that you need in an engine is a good payload and enough time to effectively deploy it. Consistency helps you here, because it speeds you up through the late game. Thinning also speeds you up through the early game. In general, though, this won't be enough. Gainers which are cost-limited (e.g. Workshop) are going to help you through the midgame, because they let you grab more components to get your draw going or stabilize it somewhat (a la point 1).

But in general, +buy is going to be superior, and quite necessary. Why? You will need to be able to string together multiple big things at once - usually victory cards, really, but frequently some more expensive economic bonuses and/or engine components as well. Let's look a little more in depth at this. Getting one Province per turn is going to be too slow might be your first thought. And that's generally true. But even when you can get to this point pretty quickly, you are still going to have a problem: if you are only buying one card a turn, your engine is going to be consistently degrading as you get that Province - and as we saw, this is actually even true if you can add a Smithy and a Village with the Province. So unless your deck will be inconsistent as you continue down that green path. And really, who is going to be duchy-dancing better, your engine, or the opponent's money deck? If you are doing this in a protracted fashion, it's the money deck; it just degrades a lot less. So, instead, you want to plan to have the game end before this breakdown happens. This leads to a guiding principle of engine play which I'll cover more in a later article: Don't green until you have a way to end the game in sight. There are a number of exceptions to this, of course, with the biggest one being (unless you need the points to not immediately lose).

The concept of time is the most important thing here. It's a shifting scale with multiple axes. In general, in a non-mirror, the Engine will be playing the role of Chaser, whilst its opponent will be the Pace-Setter. But that will be in another article!

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