It's modeled after real time strategy games (Warcraft 3 especially), and was designed by David Sirlin. Sirlin writes about game design, and I've really enjoyed his commentary on competitive systems. He did the rebalancing for Super Street Fighter 2 HD Remix, and the changes he made are discussed in a series of articles here: http://www.sirlin.net/articles/sf
You can various other articles he's written by clicking around that site.
You can even do play by post, since you only make decisions on your turn. You have to trust the other person to shuffle, but it works
But if you like the base game, you can probably snag someone's collection on the cheap, on Craigslist.
I'd bet the overwhelming majority of Dominion games are not just using the base set, but the "recommended first play" card selection.