Bringing Your A-Game: Deck and Pool-Building Games

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Whether you’re a beginner or a champ, a solid grasp of the fundamentals can help pave your way to victory. Deck-building and pool-building games are no exception. When it comes to games like Ascension, Thunderstone, Star Realms, and the classic Dominion, a good understanding of the basics–from economy, to strategy, to mechanics–will always give you a leg up. This quick guide will give you some of the fundamentals necessary to bring your A-game the next time you play a deck-building game.

Before we start, I am sure most of you are probably familiar with deck-building games, but there are also dice and tile-building games which are all subgenres of the pool-building genre. I will primarily be focusing on the game Dominion in my examples, but nearly all of these tips can be applied to any kind of pool-building games.


In nearly every single pool-building game, it is necessary for you and your opponents to spend some kind currency to acquire additional cards, dice, or whatever components they use, for your pool. In Dominion, you have dedicated Treasure cards that, when played, provide the resources necessary to buy and add additional cards to your deck. It may seem like a no brainer, even to a novice, but you would be surprised how often people will choose to buy an Action card that provides a unique function over a Treasure card, and soon find themselves unable to purchase more important cards on future turns. So when you begin playing, you should strongly consider improving your economy before getting cards with unique functions, so you have the buying power to continue developing your strategy throughout the game.

It is not strange to learn than a common strategy in Dominion, called “Big Money,” encourages you to buy Treasure cards until you can consistently buy high yielding victory point cards each turn for the rest of the game. This is not always the best strategy, but it can be rather consistent because of how important your economy is to these kinds of games.


When you’re playing a pool-building game, you will want each turn to be as efficient as possible; ideally you want to draw just the right cards each time so that you can play them to their fullest potential, no more or less. People who play competitive card games like Magic: The Gathering will be familiar with a concept called Card Density, which is all about managing the number of cards that go into your deck, and how many of each unique card is included. This concept can be easily applied to pool-building games.

When given the opportunity to acquire a new card or remove a card from your deck, you need to ask yourself how it will effect your Card Density and therefore the probability of drawing important cards. Do I really need five of those cards, or can I get the same effect out of three… or even one? Do I really need this old card, or should I remove it from my deck so it is more likely I will draw a new card I do need?

If you have every played Dominion, I am sure you have found yourself in an overzealous situation where you bought too many of a single card and drew them all at once. Likewise, there are cards that are great during the beginning of the game that you simply do not need later. Considering that you have Gold and Copper in Dominion, you can start getting rid of your Copper after getting some Gold, because having a single Gold card in your hand if far more efficient than three Coppers. That said, the ability to remove cards from your deck can be just as valuable as the ability to buy or add cards to your deck.


It is easy for us to devise a strategy based on the cards or dice we see on the table at the beginning of the game, and then change our minds midway through if we feel like it’s not working out, only to have everything fall apart. The lesson here is knowing when to change your strategy, but more importantly knowing when to stick to it. Take into account when the game might end; if it is going to be fewer turns than you’ve taken to develop your current strategy, you’re better off sticking with it until the end. If the game has just started or you are nearing the halfway mark, you may consider changing your strategy, but it will likely come at a cost.

Many strategies do not fully mature until later anyways, or maybe you have too much of a good thing and need to consider removing a few elements of your strategy to get focused. In games like these, a deck that does one thing well is usually better than one that can do many things poorly. Other strategies work great at first, and then plateau as the game progresses. In any case, give your strategy a chance to develop. If you do plan to change your strategy, try to adapt the one you have instead of trying to change everything.


Getting good can take time. Aside from playing often, don’t ignore the value of reviewing what you’ve done each time you play. It’s common for us to quickly begin putting things away when we’re done playing, especially when we lose. Instead, when you finish playing, look at all the cards in your deck to see what you ultimately built, think about how many turns it took you to get it up and running, and ask yourself if each card included was the right choice and if the quantity of each of those cards was helpful or not. This review can give you invaluable insight into the next time you play.

This is only the tip of a massive iceberg of concepts and strategies that can be employed in your pool-building games, and in no way will this be all it takes to become a master. But I have found that by becoming aware of these concept and keeping them in mind as I play, I have greatly improved my ability to win games.

Give these tips a try and tell us what fundamentals and strategies you like to use in your games. Do you have any other basic tips and tricks that you use when it comes to deck-building and pool-building games? Let us know!

Photo Credits: Robert Hornbek

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