Dominion: Discipline in the Opening

One of the easiest ways I have of telling that someone isn’t fantastic at Dominion is that they open with a village. Sure, there are some edge cases where opening with a village isn’t all that bad, like opening Fishing Village or a very sad Bazaar, but these are the exception. Opening with Village or Farming Village or something is pretty much never best; you can do better.

Every card you buy and the order in which you buy those cards should have a specific purpose in mind; if a card isn’t helping you directly towards where you want your deck to be, then you shouldn’t get that card. Having focus on where you’re going and getting there as quickly as possible is how games of Dominion are won (it’s also pretty good general life advice), but it’s not exactly where I’m going with this article.

Your opening buys are the most important buys of the game; messing them up can set you really far behind, and it’s very possible that you can be dead in the water after turn 2 against an opponent who makes a better decision here and has reasonable draws. How will you know what to buy? The purpose of this article is to provide a general outline of the thought process for the first two turns of Dominion.

From a long way up, a game of Dominion should have the following rough outline:

1. Get control over your deck
2. Make your deck do good stuff
3. Win the game with your deck

Your priorities should start at 1 and shift to 2 and then 3 as the game progresses, so for the first two turns of the game, you usually want to get cards for the purpose of getting control over your deck. If that is not possible or can be accomplished with only one of your buys, then the next best thing is a card that makes your deck do good stuff. This is not very specific, but I feel like the “why” is much more important than the “what” here — I’m not going to be there to give you advice for every single kingdom you play, but you can always ask yourself “are my opening buys helping me get control over my deck?” and if the answer is no, find something better.

So we know what our purpose is, but let’s go into a bit more detail. Your priorities (again, ordered like the above list) should go something like this, keeping in mind that if you’ve decided you can’t or don’t want to pursue some of these steps, you’ll just skip over them:

A. Thinning and junking
B. Gainers
C. Draw
D. Payload
E. How do I win?
F. Endgame play

A and C correspond to 1, B and D correspond to 2, and E and F correspond to 3 — in terms of the opening, you can prioritize your buys according to this list. That’s the really short version, I’ll go into a little bit more detail now.

Thinning and junking: so these are both kind of serving the same purpose, if you’re junking your opponent then it’s harder for them to get thin, so both of these have sort of equal priority. If you can do both of them, I’d say I pick up the junker before the thinner more often than the other way around, but it depends on a lot. Keep in mind that a lot of the best cards for thinning and junking cost $5 and you don’t usually get to open with those cards, so buying a Silver or some other card that helps you hit $5 counts as working towards this purpose.

Gainers: the earlier you can pick these up, the more of an effect they can have on your deck, and the faster they can “pay for themselves” in terms of giving you a tempo boost when building your deck. So it follows pretty easily that opening with a gainer is a pretty good play. Be careful, though, since most gainers are going to actively hurt your chances of hitting $5, so while it’s sometimes good to open Ironworks/Silver and hope to high-roll and hit $5 anyways, you may be better off opening double Silver and picking up Ironworks later. Just keep in mind that thinning and junking should be your first priority and make sure you don’t lose sight of that goal.

The rest of the items on this list usually don’t drive your opening buys all that much, so I won’t talk about them here.

I have just one more main idea I want to get to in this article: we’ve stated the goals we want our opening buys to accomplish, but sometimes it can be tricky to evaluate how well cards can help us reach those goals. The rule of thumb I have is that if your opening buys aren’t going to do something for you on turn 3 or turn 4, you should try really hard to find something better. I have a few more specific things to look out for:

I really don’t like opening with Duration and Reserve cards because they so often miss that second shuffle. Sometimes their effect is so good (Amulet, Transmogrify, Ratcatcher, basically the trashers) that you want to open with them anyways, but so many of these cards are really bad unless you draw them on T3 so you’re better off not going for that 40% chance of greatness and dealing with these guys later.

Keep in mind that cards don’t have to be orange or tan to have these issues, a Warehouse (or Dungeon) opening is really only good if you draw the Warehouse on T3, since if you draw it on T4 and play the Warehouse, then the amazing card that Warehouse helped you buy doesn’t get shuffled in. Another one to look out for is Ranger, since it doesn’t do anything the first time you play it.

Opening with two terminals can be a little suspect if your goal is to hit $5, even if both of them give you $2 to spend; in general, you should think about the cost of the cards you want to buy/gain on T3 and T4 and put some focus on hitting those price points, especially if those cards you’re aiming to buy are trashers or junkers. More generally, if you are unlikely to hit a price point you really want, then think really hard about your openers.

Make sure you aren’t putting something higher on your priority list than thinning/junking, and you aren’t putting anything else higher than gaining good cards.

Consider the chances of denying your opponent a $5 hand with a well-timed attack like Militia or Cutpurse if you’re first player — as a later player this gets much less good since you pretty much have to draw your attack on T3 for it to have the desired effect. If the trasher or Junker costs $5, then denying your opponent the fiver is on that level of importance.

There are many more nuances that I could list, but the more important skill is to know the right metrics to use to guide your decisions when you open. Think about what your T3 and T4 will be like, and make sure your priorities are in order and that you stay focused on them, and you will find your way to the best opening.

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