Payload cards are the cards you play that will enable you to do things that win the game.
Most of the time this directly relates to scoring points; money and buys can be used to buy green cards, so if you plan to do that to win the game, then money and buys are payload. Your payload could also be in the form of a card that gains VP cards without buying them.
Maybe your payload is Monuments or something because they give you VP tokens. Maybe your payload is something that hurts your opponent‘s ability to have his payload, like an attack or even denial of resources they need like a key split.
Why is it that hurting your opponent counts? When it comes to thinking about payload, you can think of it as zero-sum, meaning that you care mostly about the difference between your deck and your opponent’s deck. Hurting your opponent helps this comparison.
If the game situation is right for it, your payload could be the ability to empty piles with a lead, or even just the ability to threaten it.
While your strategy should remain focused on the long-term goal of winning the game, your payload will probably not be directed towards scoring points until the end of the game. Cards like Workshop and Quarry are great payload cards early on in the game because they help you grab more good stuff for your deck, even though later on in the game they aren’t fantastic at getting points.
The biggest takeaway to get from this definition is that before the game starts, you should have an idea of the best payload your deck could have given the kingdom. By planning this out, you can get a rough idea of how much you want to build, and prevent the situation where you make a glorious engine and then realize there’s no +Buy, and your opponent already has 4 Provinces.
Many people have wildly different definitions of payload. It’s OK to have different definitions of this, the point of this article is not to change your mind, but rather to lay the groundwork for good deck building by distinguishing the roles that certain cards play in your deck. Your definition of payload doesn’t have to be the same as this; as long as you get the idea, you should be OK grasping the point of this article.
With that in mind, let’s define another term to go along with payload…
Deck Control cards are the cards whose purpose is just to enable you to play other cards.
So this is +Cards and +Actions, also trashing, sifting, that kind of thing. Even junking your opponents fits here because it makes it harder for them to play their payload cards. Once you’ve identified your payload, the deck control cards are the ones that answer the question “how do I play my payload cards?”
Keep in mind that while Villages and Draw are great examples of Deck Control cards, cantrips fit into this category even if they aren’t Villages or Draw since they will at least give you +1 Card and +1 Action.
Understanding the distinction between Payload and Deck Control, why it’s important, and how you can apply it to actual games of Dominion is the important thing here, not the minutiæ of the definitions.
If a card is neither payload nor deck control, then we can call it a dead card. So most green cards once they’re in your deck, Curses, a trasher you aren’t using anymore, etc. these are dead cards. Other definitions of dead cards are a little more broad, like any card that does nothing when drawn.
It is possible for a card to have both payload and deck control elements — Torturer and Grand Market are great examples of this. Usually these cards are cantrips, or draw cards with an extra ability; and usually they’re very powerful.
So let’s go into a little bit more detail on how we can use these concepts to play better Dominion.
The first major thing here has already been mentioned, but it’s worth mentioning again. Knowing the best payload your deck can have before the game starts will prevent you from building too much on a board where your payload is limited.
If we extend this concept to deck control, we can prevent poor building on boards where the deck control resources aren’t adequate as well — if villages, draw, or trashing is not present, it may be difficult to actually pull off a turn where you get your full payload.
With a lot of experience, you can use all of these metrics to get a feel for how various decks will play out before the game starts, which is a decisive advantage, but just trying decks out and seeing how they function will help you dial in this skill over time.
The concepts of payload and deck control are not just limited to forming your strategy at the start of the game. We can get insight on how to improve our deck building through this viewpoint as well. There are other related concepts like overdraw that I won’t go into detail on here.
The main takeaway is that once you have control over your deck, you want to strike a balance between increasing your payload and still being able to draw most or all of your deck each turn. Identifying which role each card in your deck plays will help you make better decisions when adding cards to your deck.
It also will highlight the importance of the cards that serve both purposes: payload and deck control. Frequently there will come a time when the thing you want to do is just shove these cards in your deck as quickly as possible, and this makes your deck much easier to build.