Dominion: Apothecary

Many people attempted to write articles about this card a long time ago, and even more articles about various combos with Apothecary. Unifying those articles into something that takes more modern knowledge of the game into account is something I think would be beneficial; so here I am, writing this article.

I hope this article serves as a primer to general strategy with Apothecary: when the card is good, when to go for it, when you shouldn’t. What are the amazing combos that make Apothecary truly shine? Which cards serve as the best enablers to an Apothecary deck? And most importantly, how to build and play those decks to the best of their potential.

1. The basics, from really high up

Apothecary + Big Money should just lose to Big Money. Why? Well you have to put this silly Potion in your deck which is only good for buying Apothecaries, and you don’t want your economy to just come from Apothecaries and Coppers, so Apothecaries aren’t really doing that much for you. Sure it’s a little more complex than that but the important point here is that Apothecary needs support or else it’s not going to be very good. The most important form of support is +Buy, without +Buy, you almost never want to go for Apothecary.

Apothecary does best at the beginning of the game, for the simple reason that most of your cards are Copper or Potion, so Apothecary has the best chance to draw you lots of cards — when Apothecary does its thing, you’ve just played +5 Cards/+1 Action — even though the cards you just drew weren’t the best, you still have a huge benefit for this hand, along with the increased cycling you got which is not to be underestimated in a deck with so many Coppers in it — playing that one card and having that outcome just sped you up a whole turn…

…Which is a little unfortunate, because there are very few ways to set up such an awesome Apothecary draw, and all of the practical ones involve you drawing your deck first, which is kind of a tough thing to do. So sometimes you’ll play your Apothecary and amazing things will happen, but other times you’ll draw a Copper, then reveal three Estates and another Apothecary and be very, very sad.

This is part of the reality of Apothecary, and understanding that reality will help you get the most out of decks that use the card. The kind of support you need to make Apothecary shine is exactly the kind of thing that will make this situation less likely to happen.

Just for completeness, I’ll mention this specific scenario for emphasis: you really want to be drawing lots of cards with Apothecary to get the most out of it, meaning you want a high concentration of Coppers/Potions in your deck. During most games, you’ll buy green cards, which causes this to become an issue. Maybe you’ve played an Apothecary deck where you draw like 16 Coppers and you buy two Provinces and everything is going great, but then all of a sudden your deck falls apart because you have four green cards on top of your deck and your Apothecaries are helpless to get past them. The point here is that Apothecary decks stall and unless there is a plan to deal with that fact, Apothecary shouldn’t be the centerpiece of your deck.

2. How to play your Apothecary deck

First, let’s define what I mean when I say “natural” draw – it’s the distinction between putting a card in your hand because Apothecary tells you to put the Coppers and Potions into your hand, and between putting a card in your hand because a card says “+X Card(s)” – the +X Card(s) is natural draw and the other one is Apothecary-draw. So when you play Apothecary you get one natural draw and then 4 potential Apothecary-draws; all other cards just give you natural draw. You can think of the five cards in your opening hand as natural draws as well, and anything you did on your previous turn for consistency (which is important enough to have a whole section later on) helps you out with these natural draws – it’s a similar concept.

So the objective is to never draw Coppers or Potions naturally – if you can do this or at least minimize it, you’ve gotten 95% of the way towards perfect play with Apothecary, and I should mention that these principles can even apply when you have zero Coppers or Potions in your deck (say you opened Apothecary but ended up trashing your Coppers later or something).

The simplest thing to do is just use the rule “play Apothecary first.” OK, this rule will get you through the first Action card you play on each turn… most of the time. If you blindly follow this rule by always playing Apothecaries first when you have them in hand, I’m afraid you’re missing the point of Apothecary’s sifting. Your objective is to maximize the number of potential Apothecary-draws off each Apothecary you play, meaning that your Apothecary “sees” the most cards that could potentially be Copper or Potion. From a different perspective, this comes down to wasting as few potential Apothecary-draws as possible.

Example: I’ve just played an Apothecary and revealed four Provinces, I put them back on my deck IN ANY ORDER RAWWRRRR!!!!!! In hand I have 4 Apothecaries and 4 other cantrips (let’s just say they are Schemes), what do I do?

The correct answer is to play three Schemes, then play an Apothecary; why? You already know those next four cards are not Copper or Potion, if you play an Apothecary as any of your first three plays at this point, you’re wasting potential Apothecary-draws on a card you already know can’t be drawn that way. Those four Provinces have to be naturally drawn (man, where’s my Scout when I need it?) so you should use the cards that are only good for natural draw to draw them (your Schemes). Once you’ve played three of these and drawn three of those nasty Provinces, you can play an Apothecary to naturally draw the fourth Province, and look at four fresh, new cards that could potentially be Apothecary-drawn. This way you don’t waste any of the potential Apothecary-draws.

I’m going to say the reasoning behind this example in a couple of different ways in case that helps someone understand better; it’s really important to understand why we’re doing this so you can apply that to lots of other situations I’m not going to talk about here.

Apothecary is best played when you know nothing about the 2nd-5th cards on your draw pile (or maybe you have a reason to think they are more likely to be Copper or Potion. BTW this almost never happens). To set up a play of Apothecary like this, you want to play three Schemes first so that the top card is a Province and the next four cards (2 through 5) are unknown.

You’d like to maximize the “reach” of your hand, meaning that you want to be able to draw from a selection of cards that extends as far down as possible into your draw pile. Apothecaries are better than Schemes at reaching, because they can draw Coppers and Potions, plus bring a card that’s five cards deep into your draw pile up to the top of your deck. If I played my Apothecaries first, I lose out on potential Apothecary-draws, which would have given me more reach into my deck.

Of course a lot of times you want to save a cantrip so you can actually draw that card you just stuck on top with Apothecary, that’s the principle behind why you would play Apothecary first if your starting hand was Apothecary/Scheme/3xProvince – saving that Scheme lets you select which card out of four you want to naturally draw next. If I only had one cantrip left in my hand I might consider playing Apothecary first even if I wasted a potential Apothecary-draw doing so, just to try and find and draw that card that keeps my turn alive.

Example: I have a Scheme in hand, I’ve just played an Apothecary and revealed (Apothecary/Scheme/Scheme/Scheme), what do I do?

Put the cards back in the following order: [deck top]/Scheme/Scheme/Apothecary/Scheme/[rest of deck]. You’ve maximized the potential draw of this next Apothecary while leaving a cantrip in your hand to make use of whatever amazing card(s) your Apothecary may find you – in other words, you don’t risk naturally drawing a Copper because no card you can draw hasn’t been pre-screened by an Apothecary first (OK, OK, if that Apothecary picks up four Coppers then you still could naturally draw another Copper with that last Scheme play, but there was nothing you could do about that).

Sometimes you don’t have these luxurious choices, but every card you play, every card you put back on top of your deck, it should all be done with the intent of wasting as little of Apothecary’s sifting as possible – once an Apothecary has seen a card, you don’t want future Apothecaries to see that card again if you can help it. It may seem like this doesn’t matter that much and that it’s only a slight optimization to the way you play your deck, but it has huge implications. Every time you waste a potential Apothecary-draw, you throw away a chance to put a Copper or Potion in your hand for free. Every time one of those chances works out for you, you dig one card deeper into that deck, which increases your chances at least that much of finding a key card in your deck that either keeps your turn alive or gives you that +Buy you need or something else. This also tends to make the Apothecaries you play later that turn better. Always think before putting your cards back on deck, and if you’re going to waste any of Apothecary’s sifting, make sure there’s no way you can play your cards to prevent that.

3. Support

So we’ve identified the weaknesses of Apothecary: decks built around it are inconsistent and they stall hard. The thing is, Apothecary is so good that it’s often worth going for anyways; the effect can be so powerful if you have the right tools to take advantage of it, so let’s talk about those tools.

3a. +Buy

This was important enough that I mentioned it in the first part, it’s important enough that it’s most of the reason I’m writing this article — no other Apothecary article I’ve seen even mentions the term, and it’s so, so, critical. If you don’t have +Buy, you’re likely to find yourself with hands full of a bunch of Copper and a Potion and only one buy; you’re forced to decide between Apothecary and something else that’s good for your deck. Wasting a Potion doesn’t feel good, and neither does paying $6P for a card that only costs $2P, and these things shouldn’t feel good — they’re not good. They’re actually bad, which is the opposite of good. If you have to make this choice too many times, you’re losing lots of value and usually tempo as well; winning strategies don’t give you this situation very often, so +Buy is really important to making sure this doesn’t happen to you. Yes, there are the rare exceptions, but you need to think long and hard about going for Apothecaries if there’s no +Buy, and you need to land on the “no” side of that coin most of the time.

Even a terminal +Buy on a board with no villages is often enough to make an Apothecary deck viable — in the two-card kingdom of Apothecary and Herbalist, I’d probably play that deck, aiming for Province+Apothecary turns. And for reference, if I was uncontested I would consider picking up a second Potion; if we sub in Woodcutter for Herbalist I definitely get the second Potion. Also for reference, this deck without any additional support should still only be slightly better than Big Money, but hey we’re making progress.

3b. Other sources of draw

Apothecary draws cards, it increases your hand size, why do you need more draw? Well Apothecary can’t increase the number of not-Copper-and-not-Potion cards in your hand, and this includes green cards, so even in the best case where you draw a whole bunch of stuff with Apothecaries and you can control it to where you are always drawing something useful with that one card you get before the revealy bit; all you have is a super-thin deck that can draw a bunch of Coppers for free and have up to four stop cards (including Coppers you draw in your opening hand and off that “natural” card draw part of Apothecaries). This deck won’t green very well, in fact it comes crashing down super-hard once that fifth stop card gets put in.

So you need a way to draw things that are not Copper and Potion. Yeah any card that’s good for draw will work here, especially non-terminals, that’s always been true. Some other things are particularly well-suited for this, and they’re worth mentioning:

Wishing Well: it’s the big winner! Apothecary is a prime Wishing Well enabler, just load up on these guys with your +Buy that you definitely have (right? Or you have Ironworks or something I hope) and this is good enough to get you past a lot of that stuff that junks up the top of your deck so your Apothecaries can draw like champs.

Vagrant: Almost as good as Wishing Well, but a little more conditional. Setting up a Vagrant-draw is pretty easy to do with Apothecary around, as long as there are green cards (or other assorted colors of junk) around to draw. Be careful with this, because Vagrants can’t draw other Vagrants like Wishing Well can, so you don’t really want to load up on them.

Cellar, Warehouse, Storeroom, etc: you can see it, right? Draw a bunch of Coppers, then use these guys to cycle those Coppers for other cards. Then, when there are a bunch of Coppers in your discard, just play one or two more Apothecaries and draw them back up very efficiently! WOOOO!!!!!! Let me temper your expectations.

Yes, this is pretty good, and yes you can increase your hand size this way. The thing is, if this is the only way to increase your hand size, it’s not going to suddenly make a strategy that needs draw more viable or anything like that. These are useful for helping your Apothecary deck to not stall. The Warehouse effect is great for clearing green off the top of your deck so you can move on with your life, Storeroom gives you that +Buy that you wanted so badly, but it’s terminal so you really need lots of villages to make this any good. Also, you aren’t getting a huge benefit from these cards if you’re drawing enough to pick up the Coppers after you shuffle, so make sure you are very careful with your shuffles when using these.

Scout: HAHAHA Adam made a funny! Everyone knows that Scout is terrible and Adam is just trying to find a reason to mention Scout for the lolz. I’m never buying Scout, you can’t trick me!

Actually I’m serious. If I could name one card that makes Scout viable (actually worth buying) more often than any other card, it’s Apothecary. Not Great Hall or Nobles or Crossroads, no. Scout is still not good with those guys around.

If you’ve ever experienced the wonderful torture of playing an Apothecary deck with too much green in it, you will definitely find yourself in a situation with two Apothecaries in hand, staring at three Provinces and an Apothecary you need to put back on your deck, and knowing that your turn is dead, agonizing over whether or not you want a chance at that one extra Copper you might draw versus just punting and leaving that Apothecary on the deck for tomorrow. It doesn’t feel good. And if you just play a Scout, all of your worries vanish. Keep your eyes peeled for this synergy…

Farming Village, Venture, Golem, these guys: there are cute tricks you can pull with these cards, they accomplish something similar to Scout’s effect with some restrictions or bonuses.

Native Village: this interaction deserves a special mention, it’s pretty good — with any +Buy in the game other than the stuff that forces you to trash cards, Apothecary/NV is a tough mark to beat. You can somewhat reliably build up to Province+Apothecary turns and keep your deck viable by sticking your Provinces on the Native Village mat using Apothecary’s excellent sifting abilities. Usually Native Village tricks are a little more difficult to pull off since they will require something more crazy, like drawing your deck, then target-discarding something from your hand, then being able to play a NV, but Apothecary is really good at this. I should note that I don’t think you usually want to open Potion/Native Village for this — you want that +Buy support card first and you want to get your draw up before you put NVs in your deck. Sometimes this means opening with a Silver or a Copper

So those guys are the big winners for draw that enables Apothecary. I should mention that Mystic should not be on that list, we’re really looking for stuff that puts more than one card into your hand that isn’t Copper or Potion, and Mystic doesn’t do that, it’s just a Conspirator that costs more. Sure, cantrips are good for Apothecary decks, but they don’t solve the stalling problem.

If you don’t find any of these enablers, it’s OK! In fact, you’re usually better off with actual draw anyways, but this is the list you should go down when you find yourself saying “Apothecary is the only draw, aww shucks that Apothecary deck isn’t good enough” because these guys don’t usually draw effectively but can be enabled by Apothecary.

So you have draw and Apothecary is around, what do you need Apothecary for? Well first of all, opening Potion and getting Apothecaries early is a pretty strong play, it gives you a big economic boost early on and cycles you past lots of Coppers – To skip Apothecary on a good conscience, you usually need a really fast start that thins you AND gives you economy quickly, and also really wants you to open with a $4-cost, preventing that early Potion buy.

But the role Apothecary serves in your deck has changed at this point, you’re sort of using Apothecary as a way to smooth out your draws and sift past Coppers so that you never “naturally” draw them. The goal in this type of deck is to effectively change the text of all of the other cards in your deck from “+X Card(s)” to “+X Card(s) but don’t worry about Copper” without having to go through the trouble of trashing those Coppers AND while getting to spend them each turn.

3c. Consistency

“Thinning is Winning™”, it’s a thing I always say. Apothecary’s thing is to give you the benefits of Copper trashing without having to give up the economy those Coppers offer you, and it does a pretty good job of it… except when it doesn’t.

If you’ve played an Apothecary already this turn, chances are your next Apothecary is going to draw something good, like another Apothecary. Most of the bad stuff (Copper) is in your hand. Great! That means you just want a lot of Apothecaries, right? Well yeah, you do, but…

What do you do about the beginning of your turn? You probably have like seven Coppers in your deck, maybe even more. If you draw those Coppers to start your hand, you’re looking at a really good chance at a stall turn. This is a big negative mark for Apothecary decks: inconsistency, this is the thing you give up by not actually thinning those Coppers. Adding more Apothecaries to the mix can only get you so far, especially when you are contested and only have access to five of them. Yes, sometimes you want to open Apothecary and then go for actual Copper trashing (in which case don’t get too crazy with the Apothecaries, since they will soon be much less useful) but apart from this, having a way to put reliability into your Apothecary deck is a huge boon — you turn the lack of Copper trashing into a boon for you, and are still able to mitigate the drawback of that.

Let’s take a look at some of the best examples of consistency:

Scheme: hey, Scheme lets you put cards back on top! It’s really good here, you should get a couple of them, they make your life easier. The nice thing here is that you get to play all of your Apothecaries this turn AND top-deck them for next turn, it’s super-great.

Gear: it gets a special nod because having two Apothecaries on top of your deck is so much better than having just one of them because of Apothecary’s sifting ability.

Haven, Courtyard, Mandarin, the usual suspects: top-decking one Apothecary that you didn’t have to play this turn is a good thing, yes. Guide increases reliability, so do cards like Watchtower/Royal Seal that let you top-deck Apothecaries you buy this turn. These kinds of things are useful for pretty much any deck that you want to add reliability to, I’m just mentioning it because of Apothecary’s synergy with reliability. That’s really the only special thing here.

I should say that there’s the situation where you’ve drawn all of your deck except for some cards that your Apothecary is currently revealing, yeah that’s pretty good, just leave those Apothecaries on top for next turn. It’s super-great! The thing about this is that in order to get in this situation you either got a really, really lucky draw this turn (so absolutely take advantage of it) or you’ve overbuilt. Sure you can overbuild when you aren’t contested AND your opponent isn’t applying pressure, so you can tactically take advantage of this type of thing, but it’s not something I want to build my deck around. Let me be clear, overbuilding is not nearly as bad as it normally is for Apothecary decks — the best way to be reliable is often to just buy ALL the Apothecaries, so if you have the time for that, you should probably do it.

Without a non-Apothecary enabler present for reliability, I have to come to terms with the fact that if I choose to keep Coppers around, my deck will be inconsistent and I will have stall turns, and I need to factor that into the speed of my overall strategy when considering my options pre-game.

4. Building your Apothecary deck

The cases where you want to go for Apothecary at all but don’t open Potion for it are quite rare, rare enough that they aren’t worth talking about in this article – see how long it already is? See how in-depth I’ve already gone? Yeah, they’re that rare; not worth talking about. Apothecary’s early economy boost is the reason to open this card, and its ability to smooth out your draws and just drink up those Coppers are why it’s good to have around throughout the game, if these are things you want and +Buy is available, you probably want Apothecary and you probably want to open Potion for it.

You want to get as many Apothecaries as possible as quickly as possible unless you’re going to go for Copper trashing afterward, what this means is that cards like Herbalist and Stonemason are particularly strong for you (this is true of almost all Potion-cost cards) Without these, you’ll often want to pick up a second Potion if you aren’t being contested for the Apothecaries; that’s not true for most other Potion-cost cards, but Apothecary doesn’t mind the second Potion nearly as much because it’s very good at drawing Potions so your opportunity cost is much smaller. Getting some kind of +Buy soon so you can make use of bigger hands will be helpful for Apothecary + X turns in the midgame.

Buying Copper: Hey I have +Buy, should I be buying extra Copper? The simple answer to this is “usually not” but the better answer is that you should almost always keep exactly the number of Coppers you need in your deck to hit your price point and no more, which means you usually want to have more of a concrete plan when building a deck like this at the start of the game than you otherwise would. Picking up extra Coppers in the midgame to increase your payload is usually not worth the additional risk of stalling. The big exception to this is if you have some really intense reliability built in to your deck; I’m talking about King’s Court/Scheme because Throne Room/Scheme is not good enough.

So what does it boil down to? Having sixteen Coppers around to build an Apothecary deck that hits double Province just isn’t all that great – the time you take to get there coupled with the decrease in reliability just doesn’t usually compete with other stuff, like even stronger Big Money enablers. Apothecary-centered decks usually want to get to a reliable Province-plus-Apothecary-per-turn lightning-fast and will often center around playing an attack every turn to slow down the opponent, something like Goons or Possession would be really good here. If you want a deck with a bigger payload than this, you’re going to need sources of draw other than Apothecary to support that.

What counters Apothecary? Well the big offender is junking attacks. Apothecary is at its best when you have a large concentration of Coppers/Potions in your deck, so Cursers really mess with Apothecary. The other big thing that makes you not want Apothecaries is really fast trashing, Apothecaries can take 8 or 9 turns to make you feel like the Coppers aren’t a huge issue anymore, so if you can trash them all and have a decent economy by that point using other means, you’re probably better off skipping Apothecary.

5. Conclusion

If there’s something I want you to take away from this article, it’s the following: Apothecary needs +Buy in order to be viable, and playing your Apothecary deck properly makes a huge difference in its performance. Hopefully this gives you an idea of how to find the best enablers for Apothecary-based decks, how to play them right, and when to skip them.

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