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Zen and the Art of Thugging

Author: Baalz
The original guide can be found here

Note, this is version 2.0 of this guide. The original was published on the Shrapnel forums in 2009 for Dominions 3. I’ve made an effort to update the things which have changed, please comment if I missed any mechanics that need updating here.

Taking a break from my usual M.O. of writing nation guides I decided to delve into some more general overall strategy applicable to all nations. This is intended to give you the theory and some tools with which you’ll hopefully be able to do interesting things far beyond what’s specifically spelled out here. This isn’t anything revolutionary, but hopefully this will be helpful to some newer people and I do think even the more experienced players tend to get set in their ways and miss some opportunities to field different things.

Alright, everybody knows about the super combatants. Stick a couple artifacts on a Tartarian and presto you’re carving up the countryside. This is true, but not terribly interesting from a design point of view. What I’m more concerned about is using tanks at a much earlier point, and in particular with a minimum of cost. It’s almost always better to field 2 guys who each are mostly effective rather than one premium guy for the same price. Fielding thugs early in year two is not even in the same ballpark as fielding heavy hitters in the late game (when your opponent has heavy counters). You could probably argue all day about what the difference is between a thug and a SC and I’ve got no interest in doing that. Suffice to say I’m focused on economical killing machines with things we can cludge together early rather than the top of the line jet fighters with all the bells and whistles.

It's all about the Benjamins

Before we start talking about specifics I wanted to clearly define the target we’re shooting for. The ideal thug is one that’s about 98% effective and doesn’t cost one gem or gold more than it needs to. Cost is the most important factor in thugs, the whole point is to field something which gives you the most bang for the buck possible and that’s a whole lot easier if you spend less bucks. Cost is a terribly relative thing and I wouldn’t imagine to give cost targets. Is a Niefel Jarl equipped with a Frost Brand more expensive than an Ulmish Black Lord fully loaded with lots of equipment forged at half price? It’s a pointless question because Niefelheim can’t get Black Lords and Ulm can’t get giants. The question you should be asking is “What’s the most cost effective thing I can field, given this nation, this gem supply, this research, and that expected opposition?” It’s not always a single answer, you might field one thug with your fire gems and a totally different one using mostly pearls. Designing a good and efficient thug is one of the best aspects of Dominions, let me share how I generally go about it.

The Shakedown

Frost Brand

Fire Brand

Snake Bladder Stick

Demon Whip

Bane Blade

Axe of Sharpness

Serpent Kryss

Horned Helmet

Dancing Trident

Boots of the Messenger

Shroud of the Battle Saint

Thugs come in many different flavors. The primary characteristic of a crowd control thug is that “normal” troops (whatever that means for your particular situation) can’t damage him fast enough to kill him, and his secondary characteristic is that he lays out enough damage that he can carve through at least moderate amounts of troops before the turn limit runs out. Generally they’re used for raiding or indie clearing, though they certainly can be valuable additions to a larger army. Let’s look at the damage outlay first.

Many people consider a Frost Brand or Fire Brand a necessity for a thug, and might condescend to look at a Snake Bladder Stick stick or Demon Whip if they must. Well, these are all generally effective and there is a reason they’re staples, but there’s no reason to limit yourself to them. Does your thug chassis have a second attack (a hoof, a bite, etc.)? A high strength? A 0 encumbrance? How about a high magic path? All of this can often be translated into an offensive punch sufficient to go through the medium resistance these guys are intended to confront.

As a general rule of thumb being reasonably sure to kill 20-30 humans over 50 turns is often enough to accomplish this task (depending, of course, on what you’re attacking). Remember, you don’t need to kill them all, just enough to start those morale checks, which they’ll eventually fail. Once you realize how low this bar is you start realizing that as nice as the brands are they’re often a bit overkill for what you need. Why spend 10 gems on a Fire Brand when your guy has a nice Bane Blade and high strength at default? Would an Axe of Sharpness or a Serpent Kryss accomplish the same thing for half the price and be more easily forgeable? How about slapping on a Horned Helmet or Dancing Trident? Don’t limit yourself to the staples and tons of options start opening up for whatever gems you happen to have in surplus. Trampling is great, so long as you’ve got a zero encumbrance. More than that and it’s practically impossible to kit yourself economically to handle the fatigue you’ll rack up.

Another thing people tend to overlook is the very effective and very low fatigue point blank combat spells. Dominions has a mechanic where most casters have a hard time casting spells while they’re in melee, but pay special attention to anybody with “innate spellcaster” or “combat caster”. In a pinch even regular mages will cast the odd spell in combat, though that’s a bit of a gamble if you’re counting on it. If your intended thug has a 3 or 4 in one magic path without crippling spell casting encumbrance chances are he has a very effective point blank spell the AI will be kind enough to cast given the opportunity. Shock Wave and Immolation are the flagships, but don’t overlook things like Fists of Iron, Hand of Death, Cold Blast, Acid Spray, & Leeching Touch. Really only Astral and Nature lack enough punch to lay some serious damage down as long as you’re gonna be at short range anyway. The fatigue on these spells is so low and damage output so high that you can often count on simply routing your opponents before fatigue is an issue. Of course cheap reinvig is even better, so consider this angle for your Earth bless, anybody who can Summon Earthpower and also consider investing 5 gems in Boots of the Messenger or a Shroud of the Battle Saint rather than a weapon. Note, if you’re using this sort of tactic it’s important to be aware what the AI is going to try to cast by testing it out. If not having ie raise skeletons researched leaves open a useful thug for you it might be worthwhile to focus your research elsewhere for awhile.

Special consideration goes to a fear aura. As your whole goal is likely to route PD you don’t care how many you kill, you just want the buggers to run. Fear auras cause morale checks, and it doesn’t have to be a big fear aura. Fear-0 is often the only weapon you need to route PD…you’re gonna cause close to 50 morale checks and PD doesn’t have great morale so they’re gonna miss one of them. Feel free to terrorize them with that useless kick.

Another special consideration goes to fire shields. Any fire mage can cast one, some thugs get them natively, and you can also get it on a bless. A fire shield is usually all you need as far as damage to kill PD. Note, the fire shield is only going to trigger when hits are landed so the best synergy is high hp thugs designed to take hits rather than dodge them.

Finally, consider that it’s often a better idea to double up your thugs rather than equipping them better. If your damage output is too low and your opponent is pumping up his PD, but another thug is cheaper than a fire brand…well just make sure you weigh your options before going with the default. 2 thugs working together is often more than anything but absurd PD can stop.

Living that Good Life

By now you’ll probably see my point that damage output can be almost inconsequential for this type of thug. The tricky part is being pretty sure that after 50 rounds of a whole lot of guys whacking at you you’re still standing. There’s several ways to accomplish this, and ideally you’ll combine more than one, but never forget our goal is to pay for only exactly as much as we need.

Before I get into hitpoint preservation I wanted to discuss fatigue. Fatigue is the downfall of many a newbie thug swinging their quickened self into a coma. After their initial blunders many people consider getting their reinvig to equal encumbrance the whole issue and don’t give fatigue another thought. This misses several subtleties which should be considered for optimal thugging.

The first thing you need to consider is that merely keeping yourself from climbing to 100 fatigue and passing out isn’t enough. The chance of critical hits rises with your fatigue, as your defense drops. This nasty one-two punch means that a thug who would easily wade through the chaff consistently dies with a fatigue of 50. This is a very important consideration for thugs who self buff as this lands them in the first round of combat with a heaping of fatigue even if their encumbrance is low and can often mean it’s just a matter of time until somebody gets a good roll and chops their head off. Fatigue is so important it’s often a better idea to skip one or two of the self buffs you thought you wanted and instead meet those pitchfork waving peasants refreshed and ready for mayhem. It’s also not a bad idea to consider giving reinvig to zero encumbrance guys who plan to self-buff for this reason.

Another thing to consider on fatigue is external things which cause fatigue. Heat/Cold auras, Stellar Cascades, Grip of Winter, etc. Having a strong reinvigoration is not going to make you immune to this by a long shot, but it can make you considerably resistant if you’re working with an army and not being focused on. Having several thugs resistant to everything (but immune to nothing) laying in the body blows while your mainline troops take the licks is a great tactic.

Also consider the opposite angle, it’s not always necessary to mitigate your encumbrance at all. If you’ve got a 3 encumbrance and hit like a ton of bricks without self buffing, you can often just count on squishing everybody before you need to worry about tiring out. Adding Quickness in this situation can make a lot of sense as well, which is something that is often the bane of thugs with non-zero encumbrance.

One final consideration is that there is a special magic to being size 6, the biggest size in the game. There are a couple mechanics in the game that only work on units that are smaller, like swallowing, but by far the most common is trampling. Size 6 thugs can’t be trampled. That is helpful in a number of situations, but one of the big ones is that air elementals can’t trample you. Cloud Trapeze, Summon Air Elemental is one generally pretty effective thug counter that you’re likely to see. Size 6 thugs, if you have access to them will stop that dead if they also have lightning resistance.

Protection Racket

So, finally we get to the most obvious way people are going to try to kill your thugs, hitpoints, and I’ll start with the most straightforward way to protect them – protection. Protection is your last line of defense and a factor that you’ll want to carefully consider for most thugs. Even if you’re focusing primarily on other methods of hitpoint preservation, protection is important because it’s going to change that one lucky hit from a catastrophe to a scratch. The amount of protection you’re gonna need is obviously going to vary quite a bit, but most of the time you’ll want to aim for at least 20 (don’t forget your helmet!). This will put you in the range that a hit from most “normal” troops will have to be pretty lucky to damage you. Note: protection alone is almost never enough to keep you alive by itself no matter how high it is. This is because you’ll obviously be taking a *lot* of hits, and even with 0 fatigue you have a small chance of taking a critical hit which will halve your protection. An awesome 30 protection is then just a nice 15 and not all that hard to puncture by a human wielding a spear. Trust me, it’ll happen with more regularity than you want to replace your thugs.

This leads to the next concept: successful thug preservation is all about reducing the number of attacks you take. Dominions uses open ended dice rolls, and that means no matter how good your defenses are, if you get attacked enough times you’re gonna take it in a place you’d rather not. Increasing your protection is a diminishing return prospect, at some point it’s a much better idea to focus on stopping those attacks from ever occurring. This is really the very heart of what makes a thug more so than anything else. The primary ways this is accomplished are awe, etherealness, luck, and a Vine Shield, though there are some more exotic avenues like damage reversal. Each of these options shines in different situations but generally it’s not possible to make a crowd control thug without one of them. Certainly their effects stack beautifully together and having two or more is generally enough to guarantee successful thugging (assuming you satisfy the other requirements).

The Best Defense

Vine Shield

Shield of Gleaming Gold

Reducing attacks is critical to your second line of defense, um, defense. Defense is great, it’s not hard to get a hero with a high one who can parry an incoming attack with ease. Problem is each attack drops his defense for the next attack for a short time by 2. Doing a little math, surrounded by man sized guys on 5 sides means the last guy is stabbing at you with a +30 to his attack. How high was your defense again? Fortunately, attack reducers come to our aid. If awe prevents half the guys from attacking, and our high defense blocks most of the rest then there’s not many who get to try for a lucky roll to punch through our armor. Because awe and vines prevent attacks from happening and thus dropping your defense (unlike etherealness or luck), Vine Shield and Shield of Gleaming Gold are staples that are much harder to replace than brand weapons. Still, give special consideration to anybody who has natural awe, there’s a good chance you can leverage that into extra economical thugging.

Another way to reduce incoming attacks is via repel, which can function as a “poor man’s awe”. How this works is if your thug has a weapon that is longer than the attackers, and can hit them, and can damage them then they’ll need to make a morale check to attack - similar to awe. There’s a lot of ifs there, but stacked with other attack reducers it can make the difference.

Hitpoint preservation is a big give and take. The more defense you have, the less protection you need. The more attack nullifiers you have, the less defense you need. There’s another couple factors that go into the same pile: the more hitpoints you have the less of everything you need, and the more regen you have the less hitpoints you need.

Synthetic Drugs

Hydra Skin Armor

Ring of Regeneration

Lcanthropos' Amulet

Blood Thorn

Wraith Sword

Hell Sword

Before going on I wanted to touch on a wonderful little spell that opens the doors to thugging to many guys who would otherwise be too fragile - Mistform. Every thug (unless you’re spending way too much on them) is going to take an occasional hit, and without Mistform it’s a pretty good bet that human hitpoint guys are going to at least take an affliction if they don’t straight buy the farm. Mistform though allows those low hitpoint humans to slug it out as if they had tons more hitpoints than they do, it’s the first way to synthetically gain hitpoints for a unit. In light of what I just said in the previous paragraph this is usually the difference between being able to make a cost effective thug or not - without sufficient hitpoints the bar (and cost) is a lot higher on avoiding hits.

The second way to synthetically gain hitpoints is regeneration. Look at it this way, if you were to consistently take 1 point of damage every round, while having one point of regen, well then your regen effectively gave you an extra 50 hitpoints over a 50 round battle. That’s a drastic gain for a 15 hitpoint Vanjarl or Sidhe. This has an amazing synergy with Mistform which conveniently enough makes your hits all cost a consistent 1 hitpoint. So as long as you can keep from getting hit more than once per turn on average you’re golden. I’ve had many people question the efficiency of investing in a regennature bless on lower hitpoint units, but examined in this light you can see why this is so powerful.

Of course the same logic applies to units without Mistform’s synthetic hitpoints but more real ones. A Skratti werewolf regenerating 6 hitpoints per turn will potentially gain a whopping 300 hitpoints in a long fight, you can imagine how this starts looking when you stack more regen up. High regen is one of the seldom appreciated and used facets of thug preservation. Most know how hard it is to bring down that water queen regenerating 50+ hitpionts per turn, but few apply that elsewhere – a more modest 10 hitpoint regeneration is still incredibly hard to get on top of by “normal” units combined on an already tough thug. One of my favorite SCs was an elemental earth king with Hydra Skin Armor and a Ring of Regeneration. When I watched him wade through anti-SCs shrugging off the 30 or so damage which penetrated his protection every turn I fell in love with this strategy. There’s several ways to get regeneration, and I believe every one of them stacks. Natural regeneration, a blessing, Hydra Skin Armor, Ring of Regeneration, Lycanthropos' Amulet, and a spell buff (self or other).

The final way to synthesize hitpoints is life draining attacks. These are fabulous as they not only gain you hitpoints they also drop your fatigue. This two for one special is one of the best things for thugs – except it’s rare and often too expensive to be economical. Still, if you’ve got blood slaves to burn on Blood Thorns, or a national summon with a natural life drain attack (say a Civateteo or Umbral) give it special consideration for thugging. Wraith Swords and Hell Swords are a bit more expensive, but can be what you need. When using life draining attacks you mostly don’t need to worry about fatigue at all, so stack that Quickness on. Do be aware that you won’t be able to drain the life from lifeless units, so be careful about running into skellispam if you’re reliant on this to keep your fatigue down.

Shady Shit

Winged Shoes

Shademail Haubergeon

Charcoal Shield

Eye Shield

Don’t neglect the advantages of flying in a crowd control thug. Not only does this allow drastically better strategic deployment, it also allows them a much greater chance of fleeing if things go bad. Often, the equipment is the most expensive thing about a thug, so even if he gets greatly afflicted it’s often much better if he can run off to pass the equipment onto a fresh chassis and retire to research or something.

Stealth is another attribute that bears special consideration. Because of the way the turn sequence resolves, stealth units go under cover before ritual spells go off. Combined with the fact that most spells won’t hit stealthed units this means used cautiously (attack, then sneak, attack, then sneak) stealth thugs can be extremely hard to counter. Seeking Arrow, Earth Attack, Infernal Disease, teleporting responses, etc. just can’t catch them. The one exception is Mind Hunt which does catch stealthed units, Mind Hunt is really pretty much the best anti-thug spell in the game.

Another consideration you want to make for your thugs is resistances. Resistances can make a solid thug almost invincible against the right opponent. Being frost and lighting immune is a serous pain to Caelum. Being fire immune cuts way down on the things Abysia can drop on you. Consider what counters your opponent is likely to use and it is often worthwhile to put an extra item or two on your thug. In general I don’t like to invest in MR buffing items for thugs, preferring instead to invest in more thugs and trying to avoid putting them in situations where they have to make that roll. This goes right to the heart of what it means to be a thug, they should be fairly expendable and trying to bump up their MR can often double or triple their cost. Of course, there’s nothing for it in some situations except to suck that up, but it’s not where I aim by default.

I also wanted to talk about damage reversal. This is a rare ability (or buff) that causes a bit of confusion. The way it seems to work is that once you’ve been hit the blood vengeance is checked to see if damage is rolled against you or your attacker. This means that damage reversal has a poor synergy with high defense and attack nullifiers like awe or etherealness because they negate the hit before it gets to the reversal roll. It has a great synergy though with high protection and high regeneration and things like fire shields or Eye Shields – you take just a little damage you regenerate while everyone around you keeps hitting themselves in the face.

Pimping that Ride

Blacksteel Tower Shield

Finally, I wanted to talk about buffing. Many spells are standards for thugs from Summon Earthpower to gain reinvig to Invulnerability or Mistform to that yummy Soul Vortex. As I mentioned in the fatigue section you really need to balance the benefit of any buff against the drag of the fatigue it bestows in light of the reinvigoration you have. It’s seldom a good idea to lay down 5 buffs then attack, you’ll often want to lay down a couple then rest a couple turns before attacking. Also don’t forget that most buffs can be bestowed by a mage onto another. This can often open up doors to thugging which are not obvious, a cheap Blacksteel Tower Shield is often all it takes to make a mage archer-proof enough to lay a couple buffs down and retreat while the beefy guy runs forward with 0 fatigue.

Note: your mage is going to have to be tough enough to fend for himself against flankers if he intends to hang around which often defeats the point of having a separate thug, but some mages can handle it. Also don’t forget that berserking units will fight on after their leader leaves. Have a guy guard commander and the last buff the mage lays berserkers and presto that Iron Warriors’ed, Body Ethereal'ed non-leader is now chewing through everything there without the need of any equipment or a Gift of Reason.

Specific Examples

So, as a practical exercise let me list out a couple concrete examples using the theory laid out here. All costs don’t factor in any forge bonus or hammers. Yes, everybody knows a Bane Lord with a Fire Brand and Vine Shield, and Horror Helm works. Let’s see what else we can do with a little bit of creativity and a lot less resources. I do want to reiterate that everything always needs to be tweaked in light of what you expected to face, and what you’ve got on hand, but these are some general ideas.

Example budget thug:

A Jomon Shura equipped with a Shield of Gleaming Gold.
Cost: 20 gems.
The Shura immediately catches your eye in light of what we’ve been discussing. He’s ethereal and has a fear aura, has good armor and hitpoints and like all undead he’s cold immune with a 0 encumbrance. He is undead which opens up several counters, but still an outstanding value. His strength is 16 so the punch he’s throwing isn’t completely worthless, but the real charm is the fear aura will usually be all he needs to run off PD.

Example great thug:

A Mictlan Civateteo equipped with a Vine Shield & any decent armor & helmet.
Cost: 36 slaves and about 20 gems.
Like the Shura she’s ethereal with a fear aura. Unlike him she’s got a life draining attack and self blesses and is stealthy. It’s not like Mictlan is likely to have a good bless or anything…. Adding flying boots are nice options if you’ve got the gems and she’ll be sneaking around terrorizing everybody, and very hard to counter (remember what I just laid out about attack, sneak, attack, sneak…with flying!)

Example of a buff-other thug:

Argathan Oracle of the Dead leading 2 Umbrals wielding a couple Fire Bolas.
Cost: 400 gold and 12 gems.
Umbrals are ethereal and have high hitpoints and a life draining attack. Stack Iron warriors on them and they’re incredibly hard to take down. The Oracle meanwhile gains reinvigoration from Summon Earthpower and possibly a blessing, and protection from Ironskin/Invulnerability and should be down to very low fatigue and able to handle a couple flankers (assuming they don’t just get pelted down by his high strength bola attacks firing at closest)

Example of a caster thug:

EA Abyssian Anointed of Rhuax sporting a fashionable Blood Stone, Boots of the Messenger, Enchanted Shield and Hydra Skin Armor.
Cost: 32 gems, 12 slaves & 440 gold.
With an earth/nature blessing and Summon Earthpower you’ve got a powerful reinvigoration, buffing Invulnerability brings your protection soaring up to the point your powerful regeneration is generally enough to ignore the hits which get through your high defense and burn the crap out of your attackers with your powerful fire shield. You’re vomiting Immolation every now and then in a wide area – the potency of this thug matches his high cost. If you’re lucky enough to land any of the 10% randoms other than fire even more buffing options become available.

Example of a high offense thug:

Same thing as the one above, only using Anathemant Dragons, substitute in something like Marble Armor & a Shield of Gleaming Gold and add a Pendant of Luck and Bracers of Protection and you should have the staying power it takes to crisp enough PD guys to carry the day. You’re not nearly as tough as the Annointed, but you should be tough enough given your damage outlay.

The Po-Po (anti-thugs)

Demon Bane


Moon Blade


Gate Cleaver

Axe of Hate

Flesh Eater

Sword of Swiftness

Wave Breaker

Stone Bird

Ring of the Warrior

Serpent Kryss

Astral Serpent

Anti-thugs are intended to carve up much bigger targets. Generally they’ll be targeting other thugs and SCs, but they can also be a good option for dealing with particularly tough troops like Niefel giants or Palashankas. The big difference between an anti-thug and a crowd control thug is the anti-thug is much more concerned about damage outlay than damage avoidance – the idea is to kill them quickly before they can hit you back much. Anti-thugs are seldom going to have shields, preferring to dual wield or go for the big two handed weapons. Foregoing their own buffs and flying in to smack the bad guys before they lay they can get their own buffs up is how they like to roll, but this is often complicated by wily opponents placing chaff around so some cleverness is often called for. Weaponry obviously varies a lot, but a couple weapons bear special consideration:

Demon Bane, Flambeau, Moon Blade – many of the things you’ll be targeting anti-thugs at are undead, demon or magic beings. These items lay out a lot of damage themselves, which stacks with your strength then multiplies. It's not uncommon for thugs to have strengths in the twenties (particularly if you kit them for it), it’s not hard to figure out what happens when you add a big number to that then multiply.

Duskdagger, Gate Cleaver – AN damage is great for taking down notoriously tough guys as not only does it ignore their armor, it also ignores their shield – punches right through it. Duskdaggers can be dual wielded, gate cleavers add a ton of their own damage, both are great in the right situations.

Axe of Hate – causes a fatigue effect which is a great way to bypass the rest of a SC’s strong defenses, particularly dual wielded by quickened guys.

Flesh Eater – This dirt cheap item not only delivers a large amount of damage, the chest wound it inflicts can be a death sentence for non-zero encumbrance SCs even if they kill your anti-sc. They start racking up the fatigue, and…well I already covered what happens then.

Sword of Swiftness, Wave Breaker, Stone Bird – anything which gives you multiple attacks is invaluable for breaking through high defenses. Make sure you stack this with Quickness and attack boosters like the Ring of the Warrior.

Serpent Kryss, Astral Serpent – often overlooked, death poison can be a great way to take down guys who aren’t poison immune if you expect your anti-thug to be on a kamikaze mission anyway. Particularly consider this if they’re using Luck.

baalz-zen.txt · Last modified: 2022/01/05 21:39 by dude