Author Archives: Adam Horton

Dominion: Combos

I’ve given a lot of advice about how to build good decks in Dominion. The idea of early-game priorities being thinning and junking, then gainers, then draw, then payload, etc. applies to most games of Dominion and most decks you’ll want to build. But of course there are exceptions to just about everything in Dominion, and my advice has plenty of those.

This article is about a certain type of exception to these rules, combo decks. Sometimes the synergy between exactly two cards is so incredibly powerful that you throw the rest of the rules of Dominion out the window and now the entire game is focused around those two cards and the different ways you can support or counter them.

What makes a combo? Well it must be two cards and not more. Sure, combinations of cards or types of cards can be powerful, but there are enough cards in Dominion that it seems silly to me to write an article about something more specific than two cards, because you may never actually see it come up. The ones here are already rare enough. Past that, it just needs to be powerful enough to make you change the way you build your deck, so that it revolves around the combo.

I’ve compiled a list of every known combo deck, with links to articles about each one if you want more detail. They are divided into two tiers: “Tier 1 combos” are so powerful that unless there is a hard counter present (which sometimes doesn’t exist), you can expect to lose to the combo basically all of the time. “Tier 2 combos” can have a bit more counterplay, but are still powerful enough that the focus of the game is often completely around the combo deck anyways.

Tier 1 Combos:

Capital/Mandarin
Counting House/Night Watchman
Counting House/Travelling Fair
Hermit/Market Square
Hunting Grounds/Lurker

Tier 2 Combos:

Baths/Salt the Earth
Bridge/Native Village
Bridge/Royal Carriage
Guildhall/[Beggar/Delve/Masterpiece]

Guildhall combos: Beggar, Delve, and Masterpiece

Guildhall can enable some very fast, consistent “big money” decks that drain Provinces before other, more elaborate strategies have time to get enough points to win. Most treasure gainers have strong synergy with Guildhall, but three of them are powerful enough to be called combos.

Each of these decks is somewhat vulnerable to attacks, just like any other “money density” deck might be — if you’re being hit with a junking or discard attack, you can expect to be slowed down by a few turns, so consider investing in those attacks to fight a player who wants to go for these.

Guildhall/Masterpiece

Guildhall/Masterpiece can buy its fifth Province around turn 11, and its eighth Province around turn 15. The combo is very consistent in getting to these points in time, mostly because it uses Coffers as its main form of economy rather than relying on getting a good hand to hit Province.

You’ll want to open in a way that maximizes your chances of hitting $5 on turn 3 or 4 — Silver/Silver is pretty good for this, but you can often find some kingdom support to help you out here. Get a Guildhall on your first $5 hand and at that point, get a Masterpiece on every $4+ hand, spending all of your Coffers each time. Do this until you have at least two $7+ Masterpieces, and consider getting a third Masterpiece like this if you think you’ll need more than 5 Provinces to win the game. If you have $3 or less, just get a Treasure card.

After this point, just use your Coffers to buy a Province every turn, usually starting around turn 7 or 8. If you don’t have enough coffers to get a Province, just get another Masterpiece to stock back up.

Guildhall/Beggar

Guildhall/Beggar does not have the same consistency as the other two combos in this article. Because of the risk of colliding Beggars, you can get a bad draw, slowing you down a few turns. Without any collisions, you can expect to have your fifth Province around turn 12 and your eighth Province around turn 16.

You’ll want to open Beggar/Beggar and get a Guildhall on your first $5 hand. After that, you’ll immediately want to either spend your Coffers to buy a Province, or get another Beggar (or just a Treasure card if you don’t think you’ll play the Beggar before the game is over).

Guildhall/Delve

Similar to the Masterpiece combo, you’ll want to open in a way that maximizes your chances of hitting $5 on Turn 3 or 4. Frequently you’ll get two Silvers on your $4 hand and something else to help out on $3. Get a Guildhall on your first $5 hand.

After you have Guildhall, you’ll want to spend your turns up through turn 7 (the third reshuffle) just getting Delves and stockpiling Coffers — make sure to buy a Copper at the end of your Delves each turn, and if you have an odd amount of money, spend a Coffers to get an extra Delve. If you have $7 of more without spending Coffers, it’s Ok to get up to one Province before this shuffle if you think you’ll need more than 5 Provinces to win.

After this point, get a Province at every opportunity, spending as many Coffers as needed. You’ll usually have your fifth Province around turn 12, and your eighth Province around turn 16.

Video

A video of these “combo” decks can be found here. This article is a summary of that video, but note that there are a few discrepancies — when playtesting for this article, some optimizations were found that improve the play of these combos beyond what the video suggests.

Combo: Hunting Grounds/Lurker

Hunting Grounds and Lurker combine to form a strategy that is extremely fast to end the game, and scores enough points that it’s extremely difficult to compete with. The synergy between these cards is so strong that there is usually no counterplay or support available that actually makes a difference.

Combo At-A-Glance

The combo deck begins by opening Lurker/Lurker, regardless of your opening split. Every time you play a Lurker, trash a Hunting Grounds from the supply, gaining a Duchy, until the Hunting Grounds are empty (if the Duchies empty first, gain the Estates, of course). Buy Lurkers whenever you’re able, and trash Lurkers from the supply after the Hunting Grounds are gone.

This combo/rush ends the game reliably by turn 11 with 27-33 points. The game usually ends on a 3-pile with Hunting Grounds, Lurker, and Duchy; but sometimes you’ll empty Estates instead of Duchies if the Hunting Grounds are contested. It’s extremely difficult to compete with something that ends the game so quickly while scoring this many points, so whenever you see these two cards, you’ll be pretty safe just going for this combo deck and ignoring whatever else is going on.

Support

I’ve only found two cards that can actually support this combo:

Catacombs: On turns 3 and 4, your Lurker plays can go towards trashing a Catacombs and gaining more Lurkers instead of directly trashing Hunting Grounds. If your opening Lurkers don’t miss the shuffle and you’re uncontested, this can speed up the end of the game by 1-2 turns.

Stonemason: You can open with three Lurkers by using Stonemason’s overpay ability, which helps out a bit. Trashing Coppers with Stonemason can be nice, but don’t do this over buying another Lurker, and don’t attempt to gain Hunting Grounds from the trash in hopes of trashing it to a Stonemason.

While other combo decks have room for other kingdom cards to give some optimization, even extremely strong cards like Donate don’t tend to matter much when compared to Lurker/Hunting Grounds.

Mirror

When uncontested, the combo wins games because it ends the game extremely quickly, so that should be your focus. When mirrored, you are faced with a reality of this combo deck: it is hard-capped in the number of points it can score. Getting more points, particularly winning the “Duchy Split” is usually what decides these games.

“Duchy split” is in quotes, because the main way of scoring points is by trashing Hunting Grounds. The way to get more points is to trash more Hunting Grounds, plus buying up to 2 Estates after you have 4 Lurkers (provided you feel like you’re not sacrificing the Trashing-Hunting-Grounds-split to do so).

The other forms of interaction you care about in mirrors are Action-Victory cards. Nobles, Mill, and especially Distant Lands end up mattering a lot. Never leave these cards in the trash under any circumstances.

The presence of Pasture (Shepherd’s Heirloom) will cause you to prefer the 3 Estates over the Duchy when trashing a Hunting Grounds.

Counterplay

There are a few forms of counterplay to the combo, but let me be clear: they are just a drop in a bucket of what you’ll need to compete against the combo deck without going for it yourself.

Contesting Hunting Grounds: If you can get 3 or more Hunting Grounds before the combo player empties the Duchies, you can force them to aim towards emptying Estates instead. The combo player can easily see this coming and play around it — you usually don’t slow them down by doing this, but you can decrease the number of points they can score.

Attacks: they do pretty much nothing against Lurker/Hunting Grounds. Sure, cursing is probably better than not cursing against the combo, but don’t expect to get very much out of it.
The main exception to this is Enchantress. If you open with two Enchantresses and focus on having an Enchantress in play on most turns, you can expect to slow your opponent down by a turn or two, meaning that you’re looking at trying to get 4-5 Provinces by turn 12 while needing to play an Enchantress on most turns.

Combo: Bridge/Royal Carriage


When Bridge and Royal Carriage are in the kingdom, you should always consider the possibility of going for the “combo build”. With only these two cards, it’s possible to build a deck that empties Provinces around turn 12-15*. In some cases, you may be better served by going directly for a “combo build” rather than trying to build a more generally good deck that trashes or draws, and doesn’t build for a megaturn.

Combo At-A-Glance

The most important thing about this combo is to get six Royal Carriages as quickly as possible. You’ll usually open Bridge/Silver to achieve this, and put up to 2 more Silvers in the deck to help. On a 5/2 opening you’ll usually find a $5 card that offers some support, such as something that can gain Royal Carriages or Estate trashing to help you hit $5 more; but if that’s not the case you’ll prefer to open Royal Carriage/nothing instead of getting a Bridge. Your goal is to get 6 Royal Carriages as quickly as possible. Feel free to call Royal Carriage on Bridge to help you gain more of them. You’ll typically get your sixth Royal Carriage around turn 7-10*.

Once you have 6 Royal Carriages in your deck, you will inevitably have a turn where you can get all of the Provinces. Get all of your Carriages onto the Tavern mat as quickly as possible, and along the way you’ll want to pick up a second Bridge. It’s OK to get more Carriages if they’re available, but make sure not to call any until your megaturn. Beyond the second Bridge, you usually don’t want to buy more cards other than cantrips, sifters, and possibly a third Bridge. If you know you won’t shuffle before the end of the game, you can get some Victory cards as well.

Eventually you’ll find yourself with a Bridge in hand and at least 6 Carriages on your mat. Play the Bridge, replay it with all of your Carriages, and empty the Provinces.

*The turn benchmarks given here are best-case scenarios for the combo deck. It’s possible that you can have very bad draws, which can delay you by several turns, just from not hitting $5 enough.

Counterplay

It’s absolutely critical that the deck described above gets six Royal Carriages. Without six Carriages, the deck can’t threaten to win the game, so the focus of most counterplay and the measure of its success is preventing the combo player from getting enough Carriages.

Royal Carriage is a good card in just about any deck, so denying them to your opponent has its perks for you as well.The tough part is that the combo player can get 5-6 Carriages pretty quickly, so just outracing them usually doesn’t work well. We want to find ways to slow them down.

Fortunately, just about every attack in the game slows down the combo deck in a significant way. Discard attacks severely hurt their ability to hit $5 often, junking attacks are brutal, and even the weaker attacks like trashing attacks are still devastating when you manage to connect with a single Royal Carriage. In the presence of just about any attack that can be played early on, the combo deck needs to invest in building more in order to deal with them, and while the focus of the game usually still revolves around winning the Royal Carriage split, attacks shift the game’s focus away from the combo and toward other interactions in the kingdom.

Support

Most types of support will improve the combo deck when uncontested, but when Royal Carriages are being contested, especially in a mirror, a lot of the support you would use comes at the cost of getting more Carriages ASAP. When attacks are around, support (including the attacks) becomes a lot more important.

The strongest type of support for this combo deck are cards like Warehouse, which help you get your Carriages on the mat more quickly and increase your consistency with hitting $5. You’ll still want to open with a Silver but then get these cards over Silver later on. The next strongest form of support is trashing, especially those costing less than $5. Other sub-$5 non-terminals like Peddler, Caravan, and other cantrips can help a bit.

Gainers are usually a bit weaker, because you really want to be gaining Royal Carriages with them, but there are a few exceptions: Vampire, Alms, and Talisman are reasonable support, as well as things like Altar if you’re lucky enough to hit $6 early enough for it.

If you open with a 5/2, you’re looking for good trashing, gaining, and economy cards at those price points, as they are often better than just opening Royal Carriage/nothing and being sad about it.

Mirrors

In the presence of most attacks, you’ll want to go for them as mentioned before, and frequently this causes you to move away from the combo build. In either case, getting 6 Royal Carriages is usually game-decisive because you just can’t do anything when you only have access to four of them.

The interesting part about being mirrored is when the Royal Carriages are split 5 each. You still want to have a megaturn, but it’s unlikely that your megaturn will end the game — you usually end up buying 4 Provinces and 2 Duchies, and the game can come down to other VP you can buy on your other turns. If you’re lucky enough to find $4 in addition to your Bridge on your big turn and kick off before your opponent, you can get 5 Provinces and pretty much lock the game up.

Getting more than 3 Silvers in this case is great for increasing the chances at a 5-Province turn, and other sources of non-terminal +Buy or cost reduction works well for this situation as well. Aside from that, you would prefer to have your megaturn first so you can just go hard for green afterwards.

Bite-Sized Articles: the most powerful Dominion cards

While it’s not clear what exactly makes a Dominion card “good” or “powerful,” people do card power level ratings anyway. There are many valid and conflicting reasons to rate a card as good or bad, but some cards are consistently rated as very strong across all of these definitions. Knowing which cards are rated this highly can impact the way you look at kingdoms, as they either have very strong effects or are strong enough to include in a wide variety of decks; knowing what these cards and why there are powerful can be very helpful to you as a player.

So I’ve compiled a list of roughly the top 10% of all Dominion cards and, with some help, written a short blurb on why each of them is rated so highly. Below is a list of those cards, with links to the appropriate articles. If there is a more detailed (and good) resource on that card, the bite-sized article will link to that as well.

Ambassador

Cathedral

Chapel

City Quarter

Cultist

Dominate

Donate

Familiar

Ferry

Fishing Village

Goons

Governor

Grand Market

Highway

King’s Court

Lost Arts

Margrave

Masquerade

Minion

Mountebank

Overlord

Peasant

Page

Pathfinding

Rebuild

Recruiter

Sauna/Avanto

Scrying Pool

Seer

Silk Merchant

Star Chart

Torturer

Tournament

Vampire

Villa

Wharf

Witch

Bite-Sized: Villa

The Bite-Sized series of articles is meant to take the most powerful cards in Dominion and give a short explanation of what makes them powerful.

When you play Villa, it’s not the most impressive effect, it doesn’t draw any cards and only gives you $1. On the other hand, Villa has a unique effect in that it allows you to return to your action phase when gained; there are some synergies here that allow you to do some very powerful things.

The most common synergy with Villa’s on-gain ability is that you don’t have to worry so much about running out of actions as long as there are Villas in the pile and you can come up with $4 to get one; this is especially strong with draw cards that want the support of a village, as you can build much more aggressively, delaying your village buys until you actually need the actions, and since you usually immediately play the Villa, you don’t lose a buy and get $1 back right away, softening the blow. Villa loves cost-reducers when being used like this, because they further reduce the opportunity cost of gaining a Villa to keep your turn going.

Some more exotic tricks that Villa can enable would be synergy with draw-to-X cards, since you can play your treasures in the buy phase, buy a Villa, then play your draw-to-X card for lots of value. If you’re overdrawing a lot, you can draw your deck but keep extra draw cards, buy additional payload cards in that same buy phase, then draw and play them in the same turn. While Villas are still in the pile, you can use this to explode in growth very quickly, which means that emptying the Villa pile for denial purposes is often a consideration.

Bite-Sized: Tournament

The Bite-Sized series of articles is meant to take the most powerful cards in Dominion and give a short explanation of what makes them powerful.

At the start of the game, tournament is already quite strong. Cantrip +$1 has an economic impact similar to Silver, and as your deck improves, it gets better than that fairly quickly. Additionally, compared to a pure payload card like a silver, the cantrip nature is much better for deck control, letting you more easily start chaining cards together..

Obviously, the other text on the card is important, too. Note that turning off your opponent’s Tournaments by revealing a Province can be a very big deal – often even bigger than gaining Prizes. If they would draw 3 tournaments in their turn, then by having a province in hand, you’re denying them drawing 3 cards, plus 3 coins, and potentially more than that, as the lack of ability to draw also increases the chances that their turn stalls out.

The prizes are also strong. Generally, Trusty Steed, Princess, and Followers are the strongest, and one of them is almost always taken first. Which of them is best is board-dependent – usually, look for what the rest of the board is missing (village, +buy/payload for many-buys deck, discard attack). Taking other prizes – including duchy – is usually a consolation or an endgame play.

Because of the importance of Provinces on both these axes, getting to $8 faster is generally more important than normal.

Bite-Sized: Wharf

The Bite-Sized series of articles is meant to take the most powerful cards in Dominion and give a short explanation of what makes them powerful.

Over two turns, Wharf draws a lot of cards (four in total) and gives additional buys to take advantage of the increased hand size. This combination is strong in almost any deck, with or without the ability to play multiple Wharves in the same turn, because of its independent strength on top of the fact that the effect stacks very well.

Wharf decks take a couple of extra turns to draw a lot of cards; and while it might look like an overall weakness to have to wait until your next turn to draw the other two cards, this is where Wharf’s true power lies. The start of your turn is the best time to draw cards because that is when many decks are most vulnerable to stalling. The duration draw of Wharf is strong enough that you don’t even need to trash your starting cards to have a very consistent deck, even though trashing still improves these decks significantly. You can have a lot more non-drawing payload cards in your deck and not have to worry about stalling.

Bite-Sized: Witch

The Bite-Sized series of articles is meant to take the most powerful cards in Dominion and give a short explanation of what makes them powerful.

Witch is the first junker Dominion ever knew, coming from the base set, and to this day is one of the most powerful. The combination of giving out a Curse and being a halfway decent card to put into a deck is what makes Witch powerful.

Junking is a very strong effect in Dominion, strong enough that even if the Curses can be trashed, you still usually want to go for Witch along with the trashing just to slow your opponent down.

Bite-Sized: Vampire

The Bite-Sized series of articles is meant to take the most powerful cards in Dominion and give a short explanation of what makes them powerful.

Vampire’s strength comes from the fact that it does several different things for you. In many decks you build, you’ll be able to make use of at least one or two of Vampire’s three capabilities: gaining, attacking, and trashing.

The ability to gain a $5-cost card without spending an action is not common, but is very powerful. The combination of this plus the fact that Bat trashes cards, push you towards gaining a Vampire the first time you hit $5 in a lot of cases. Be advised, though, that Vampire/Bat’s gaining and trashing together make it difficult to increase the size of your deck over time.

Bat’s trashing is fairly slow to get online, you have to hit $5, then play your Vampire, then play your Bat. In addition, without any draw it can be difficult to line your Bat up with things you want to trash by that point, making the trashing part one of the weaker abilities of the Vampire/Bat duo, but still nice to have in most situations. Similarly, the hexing attack will sometimes not have a huge impact on your opponent, but is almost always nice to have in addition to the other things Vampire is doing for you, mostly gaining $5-cost cards.