Has Gwent been improved by its updates?

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Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.

I should’ve been out killing griffins, goblins, and other gribblies, but for much of my Witcher 3 save file, it was Gwent that had its claws in me. It says something about me, I guess, that I preferred to stay in the pub and play cards than go out into the dangerous world outside, but it’s clear that CD Projekt RED hit on something fairly special with its throwaway minigame.

Now a proper game in its own right, Gwent — or Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, to give it its full and very explanatory title — has been in open beta since May this year. Developer CD Projekt RED has offered real money microtransactions for the same length of time, allowing players to build their decks as they’ve tweaked and changed the game with a steady stream of patches and updates.

The core of the game remains the same, though. Players have three rounds to add cards to three ranks, each representing elements of a pitched battle: frontline troops (represented by a sword), ranged soldiers (crossbow), and artillery (trebuchet). Each card has a value attached to it, and the player with the highest value on the field when both players have passed is the winner.

Certain cards can remove value from their opponent’s ranks, but by default, standard cards serve only to add points to your side. That means that Gwent can feel more passive than big-name peer Hearthstone, but the decisions on when to pass a round — how to bait an opponent into wasting their best cards, when to bluff, and when to fold — make CD Projekt RED’s game an intriguing and tactical entry in an increasingly crowded market.

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The developer hasn’t been afraid to make big changes to its card ecosystem in the months since open beta started, either. Coming from the Witcher 3’s version of the game, the biggest shift for me was how standalone Gwent handles the Decoy card. Previously, a Decoy allowed players to return a card to their hand for use on future turns — or even future rounds. Now Decoy-ed cards need to be played again immediately, as part of the same action. The shift means that the card serves not as the bait-and-switch it was before, but as a reliable buff and a chance to re-trigger a valuable deployment effect.

It feels like a good move by CD Projekt RED; it certainly makes the first turn more enjoyable. My staple approach in OG Gwent would be to throw down a medium-power card in round one, then immediately yank it back into my hand, luring my opponent into wasting something semi-reasonable of their own. It became an auto-play move, but I found out quickly that this no-thought bit of bastardry doesn’t fly any more. Now I use my Decoys on my Harpies, ensuring they get to lay a second clutch of eggs for my tag team of hissing Ekimmara vampires to feast on. That in turn boosts the bloodsuckers beyond their usual power, and makes the decision to play a Decoy one that involves more thought than it ever did before.

I’d like to pretend I worked out this power combo by myself, but I’d be lying. I picked it up from a handy list I found online, written by a helpful type who explained which cards I should craft first, how I should be using them, and where I could go next with the deck. I went looking for a list like this because I’m lazy, sure, but also because Gwent doesn’t do a good job yet in guiding new players on where to go. After completing the short tutorial and the 30-plus challenge missions on offer, I still felt like I didn’t have a proper grip on what exactly the various factions were good at.

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Gwent’s promised story mode — recently delayed to next year with the game’s full launch — may go some way to assuage these problems. But for now, new players are turfed out on their own and forced to either sit and read hundreds of card descriptions, somehow keeping track of their potential interactions like a card-counting computer, or to steal ideas and lists from much better players.

My anonymous internetter had done me right, though: at lower ranks, I was able to consistently win using the Monster deck I’d borrowed, facing up against opposing decks that didn’t have the coherency or gameplan that I had (shamelessly stolen).

What they did have was variety. I faced up against a few other Monster users during my matches both casual and competitive, but there’s a healthy division of labour in the Gwent community, with very different decks on display from all the other factions. But that brings its own problems for new players: because the factions do play so differently, it takes a good long while to get the deck you want.

Cards come in kegs, awarded for levelling up, gaining new ranks in competitive mode, and completing challenges. Kegs are unlockable for free, thankfully, but it’s still a drip-feed of a system, with each keg only paying out a maximum of five cards and the rate of acquisition slowing down sharpish once you start to hit the higher levels. There’s no guarantee you’ll get the right cards for your favoured faction, either. My planned “budget” deck revolved around weather cards and Monsters that took advantage of their bonuses, but weather-focused Monster deck, but I was a few thousand scraps — earned over several tens of hours of game time — away from creating my ideal deck.

There wasn’t another clear path I could’ve gone down, either. The five Starter decks feel a touch too aimless to really build around, and the potential combos I could identify were still several card crafting sessions away. Even to build my cheapo Monster deck, I had to burn some pretty good cards, turning them into scraps that could then be reforged into other units. With no way to test the cards ahead of time, I had to place all my trust in the guide, destroying cards from my Nilfgaard, Scoia’tel, Skellige, and Northern Realms decks in the hope that my Monsters would benefit.

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To that end, while Gwent is a free-to-play game, the one-off $4.99 Starter Set feels like a must-buy. It offers 10 card-carrying kegs for a lower price than you’d normally pay, as well as a guaranteed Legendary gold card. I didn’t get any of the cards I actually needed as part of the package, but it did provide enough junk for me to (eventually) craft the cards I’d need for a solid early deck.

Those cards are split into bronze, silver, and gold tiers, with the cost in scraps of crafting each one rising per tier. Getting gold cards is the hardest — there’s no way to buy specific cards, nor the scraps needed to craft them, with real money or in-game currency — but that’s not too much of a problem when gold cards aren’t always that great. In August of this year, CD Projekt RED updated the game so that bronze and silver cards — previously incapable of hurting big bad golds — could now damage them and shift them around the board.

Gwent decks can only have four golds in amongst a minimum of 25 cards, but the so-called “gold immunity” update still opened up more combo potential, and made the game feel less static. My beginner deck, for example, builds on the idea that I’ll be able to freeze an enemy rank with a Biting Frost card, before using a Jotunn giant to shuffle opposition units into the danger zone I’ve just created. Previously, gold cards — characters like Witcher 3 stars Triss Merigold and Eskel — would’ve been impervious to my machinations. Now they die just the same as their bronze and silver deckmates.

It makes the game feel quicker, but the loss of gold immunity does make these named characters — many of whom I know pretty well after 80 hours of RPG-ing alongside them — feel a little less impressive. Geralt, for example, is the White Wolf of Rivia, the Butcher of Blaviken, and a superhuman mega-mutant who takes down building-sized beasts for fun, but he’s cast here as one of Gwent’s most boring cards: a simple warrior who comes with a hefty power rating but is often tossed out by many players as chaff in round one.

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That’s assuming you even know who these people, monsters, and machines even are. Witcher 3 players should recognise a good number of the humans, elves, and dwarves that make up the cast of silver and gold cards, but you’ll need to have paid special attention to know your Vrans from your Chorts, and your Northern Realms soldiers from your Nilgaard men. It only took me a few games to get used to each faction’s starter decks, but without Hearthstone’s cheery colourfulness, and with an army of army men to wade through in a number of the decks on offer, it’s not immediately obvious what cards can actually do.

The card art is pretty, though, and the cosmetic system doesn’t feel like it intrudes onto the game itself. Gwent cards can be “transmuted” using Meteorite Powder, animating their card art in the process. There’s no in-game benefit to transmuting cards, beyond the show-off potential of having your favourite cards jiggle around in your enemy’s face, meaning that players can totally ignore a real-money part of the game if they so wish.

They will need to invest either money or serious time into the game if they want to get a decent deck, though. Gwent’s starter decks hint at a tense and tactical game, but players need a touch more guidance on where to go next before many will be willing to commit the time to get the cards they need.

25 Comments

  1. Fade2Gray says:

    I had a lot of fun with Witcher 3 Gwent, but I found standalone Gwent too fiddly and overwhelming.

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      Your experience exactly mirrors my own. Also I didn’t enjoy it. I doubt I’ll be back even for the single player. I haven’t got the desire to learn these card games any more, especially when my experience was just not fun.

      • Vilos Cohaagen says:

        My comment sounds more negative than I intended. Gwent wasn’t for me mostly because of the type of game it is but I can see the appeal. I enjoyed it as part of W3 but not in isolation

  2. LTK says:

    Geralt, for example, is the White Wolf of Rivia, the Butcher of Blaviken, and a superhuman mega-mutant who takes down building-sized beasts for fun, but he’s cast here as one of Gwent’s most boring cards: a simple warrior who comes with a hefty power rating but is often tossed out by many players as chaff in round one.

    Sounds exactly like how Geralt is regarded by the rich and powerful in the Witcher world! If you were a general you’d probably send him out on the front lines too.

    I’ve dabbled in Gwent a bit but after putting together a half-decent Dwarf deck, I found I could win games but I would be absolutely trounced by anyone who had my deck, only better. I couldn’t see a way to make up for this sheer gap in power than to grind out more and better cards, which I wasn’t particularly looking forward to. Right now, I’m just waiting for the single-player campaign.

    • Coming Second says:

      You definitely wouldn’t send a Witcher out to the front lines, unless you’re moronic and/or vindictive. Which, fair enough, most of the monarchs in the Witcher universe are.

  3. GlasWolf says:

    As a bear of very little brain, I now have the urge to go play Pazaak.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Hah. Pazaak was the first thing that came to mind for me, too. And that even though I have played quite a few ccg’s and the last time I played KOTOR was.. I don’t know how many years ago.

    • msterofthe says:

      I’m glad others haven’t forgotten this gem of a mini-game. Gwent in The Witcher 3 felt incredibly shallow to me as a long time CCG player, winning was simply a matter of gathering the most powerful cards and putting them in your deck, with little or no strategy required. Likewise, if you didn’t spend much of your time collecting cards, some of the opponents you meet later in the game roll you over simply because their decks’ power level is higher than yours, not particularly because the AI plays well (it doesn’t). Pazaak on the other hand tickled my fancy perfectly… now if only someone released a proper standalone version of it.

      Is the PvP in standalone Gwent any better with regards to the strongest deck not always winning?

      • Masked Dave says:

        It’s basically an entirely different game to the one in The Witcher 3, and yes that “most powerful deck wins” thing no longer exists. It’s all about picking your strategy and learning how to defend against/break other people’s.

  4. Booker says:

    When is the single player campaign finally coming? Are there any news? I’m waiting for over a year now. :P

    • Cazier says:

      The Thronebreaker campaign is coming some time in 2018.

      There have been some good seasonal singleplayer challenges too (Mahakam Ale Festival & Saovine) – although these are no longer running.

  5. Pupps says:

    It’s worth mentioning that one of the biggest updates yet is coming this month after the Challenger tournament. 100+ new cards and a ‘tech’ update that includes many UI and gameplay changes. I’m hoping the UI updates will help with retaining new players that find it too annoying/confusing

  6. Ivan says:

    I have the same issue with Gwent as I did with Hearthstone and every other thing of this sort. Or, really, issues, that all intertwine.

    The drip, drip, drip of card upgrades is so miserly it feels like a punishment. But then, matchmaking doesn’t take into account your card library or deck composition as much as it should, meaning you inevitably have a slog against folks much higher, or lower, on the deck power curve than you. It’s just not very fun, most of the time. And then there’s not really anything to do other than random matchmaking.

    For example, Hearthstone’s Arena mode should have a free/no entry version where you don’t get to keep the cards. I’d play that a lot. I’ll play Gwent’s single player campaign too, but then I’ll stop when I’m done. If these games adopted an LCG-esque format (some buy-in gets you 100% of the cards and the rest is up to player skill), I think that’d be better, but I realize monetization etc. etc. It just doesn’t make for a good experience, and the games feel even less balanced than when I was a teenager playing M:tG inside of game shops between the haves and the have-nots.

    • Skandranon says:

      Its funny you talk about a free Arena mode, because the new Dungeon Run is essentially that, but single-player.

  7. Rindan says:

    I like playing these games, but I loath the deck building aspect, which is why I inevitably bounce off of them. I’m not going to even bother with Gwent. I don’t really love deck building when the cards are free, but when you add all of this crafting nonsense and currencies and all that other garbage? No.

  8. Tapkomet says:

    As a fan of Gwent both in W3 and the standalone, a few things I want to comment on or add to:
    – the rewards are in principle similar to Hearthstone, but are much more generous. For instance, daily you can get 100 ore (enough for a keg) for winning 6 rounds (not games, rounds. You generally win a round even if you lose the game, so that’s 4 games on average). But the true difference is in competetive rewards: start laddering, even with a mediocre deck, and you’ll be swimming in ore and scraps. I’ve been playing on and off since closed beta, haven’t spent any money, and can build several new decks from scrap in addition to those I have already
    – Gwent’s kegs are also a lot better individually as the best card is a choice from three options
    – saying that card art is “pretty” is a gross understatement, it blows Hearthstone out of the water, especially the premium cards. Feast your eyes on these: link to cloud-3.steamusercontent.com link to youtube.com

    Next up, some advice:
    – probably not a good idea to scrap all your other factions if you intend to play any length of time
    – bronzes make or break your deck. When building a deck, craft any missing bronzes first, then silvers, only then golds. Until then, sub in some of the golds you have from the start. E.g. as Nilfgaard, you’ll start with Cahir, who is excellent. Add in the neutrals: Triss (pretty good), Geralt (eh), Royal Decree (as good as the rest of your golds) and you have yourself a decent deck.

    • Tapkomet says:

      Addendum: and at any rate, keep in mind, Gwent is a niche game. It’s a CCG with a lot of complicated interplay and high emphasis on skill over RNG. Not everyone will like it (and the UI doesn’t help, let’s hope they fix that), but it’s very rewarding when you get into it.

    • Masked Dave says:

      Definitely agree that Bronze cards are more important than getting a lot of Golds.

      The starting Golds are pretty okay, and while there are ones out there that will work better for your particular strategy, your strategy is defined by your Bronze cards.

      Disagree about not-scrapping the other factions, but then I’ve always chosen one faction and stuck with it until the next big reset came (Skellige in Closed Beta, Northern Realms in Open Beta Season 1 and Nilfgaard in Open Beta Season 2).

      I appreciate you might technically get bored and wants to switch, but you can always keep 1 other back-up faction on the go just incase. I’ve done that but never actually gotten around to switching.

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    phuzz says:

    I’ve not fired it up for months now, but I did enjoy it somewhat (the grind for new cards put me off).
    One thing I did miss was the ability to communicate with my opponent. Of course, I can see why they didn’t add a chat window, but just occasionally I wanted the ability to congratulate a player on destroying me, or to apologise for using a really overpowered combo on someone who had clearly just started and only had a few cards.
    I still remember one game where it came down to the last round, and was looking fairly even, until my opponent played a card that received some buff or other from *any* weather cards previously played, of which there had been many. I had to sit there while the enemy was buffed (or maybe hit my cards, I forget), for about thirty seconds, during which I just applauded at how well this person had pwned me.
    However, in the end I didn’t even have the option to send a little “gg” or anything.

    • Tapkomet says:

      You must have played at the very start of closed beta or something, because now while you can’t actually chat, you can use “taunts”, short phrases very similar to Hearthstone’s emotes. Taunts vary depending on your character portrait.

      Also at the end of each game you have the option to mark the game as a “good game”, which rewards your opponent with a small amount of ore or scrap and sends them a message to that effect.

      Also also, I don’t think there are any effects in the current version that take more than a few seconds to resolve.

      • Masked Dave says:

        Yeah, I was usually able to get a decent “conversation” out of just taunts.

        Especially when you send out a really cocky one just before they destroy you.

  10. Masked Dave says:

    I was getting super into the Gwent beta, had unlocked ranked play and was slowly climbing my way up. Then I realised that instead of being something I played for a quick half hour to get to the 1st Daily Reward tier (requires 6 round wins which generally takes 3 – 6 games to achieve) it was something I was playing at the expense of all other games with no obvious end in sight.

    So I moved on, not because it wasn’t good, but maybe because it was a little too good. And I still hadn’t gotten around to Dishonored 2 or Prey yet.

    That said, playing to the 1st reward tier everyday, getting that barrel of cards and scrapping everything that wasn’t my chosen faction, made me build up a stock of cards for that faction pretty quickly that at least let me keep up with other people at my level, which are who you play against. Getting a great deck may take a significant time investment, but you are never unable to play.

    The discovering of strategies you can do with those cards and then looking for new ones as you go up the ranking and find yourself being beaten more than winning again was a large part of the fun.

    Also winning. Winning was fun.

  11. Hieronymusgoa says:

    I have played so many TCGs digital and in reality and the only game which made me more happy than Gwent was the (physical) TCG from Vampire: The Masquerade. Gwent is so deep and skillful in comparison to most (especially compared to HS because of much less RNG) that I can’t get enough from it since the close beta. (And I have only played half of Witcher 1, regarding lore). I really hope that especially after launch lots more people have the same fun I have with it.

  12. RuySan says:

    Problem i have with gwent is that deck sizes are very small so there isn’t much design space.

  13. timzania says:

    Unfortunately without card costs, the core of this game was doomed from the start. Everything that’s interesting or strategic has to take the form of card interactions layered over an insufficient foundation. I’m honestly sad about this because I wanted it to be good, but I don’t think it can be. Lesson learned, make sure your deckbuilding CCG has an economy at its core.