Gwent Preview: Watch Out, Hearthstone

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Having spent dozens of hours in The Witcher 3, I can attest to the fact that at least a third of the time I played was within the “game within a game,” Gwent—the card game set in the Witcher universe.

In Gwent, two players face off in the battlefield armed only with a deck of cards made up of ones you pick up throughout your adventures—be it from quests, or by winning rounds of Gwent against easier opponents. In CD Projekt Red’s new standalone version, much of the rules remain the same, but like any commercial TCG, they’re earned through the purchase of blister packs—or Kegs, in this case.

Going into Gwent, I knew what to expect from it, but the game managed to surprise me in several ways. For the most part, playing Gwent in The Witcher 3—while somewhat strategic—depended mainly on the quality of your deck. Once I acquired the best cards, the challenge became an afterthought.

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This isn’t so with the standalone version, which employs real strategy and requires an understanding of the how each of the cards works in cohesion with the rest of your deck. You can’t simply acquire the best cards and hope to win by throwing your heavy-hitters at your opponent. The new, and proper ruleset forces you to pick a deck limited by three categories of cards: bronze, silver, and gold. You can only have so many gold and silver cards, but as many bronze cards as you like under the 40-card limit.

Gwent itself is simple enough to play. It’s like liar’s dice but with trading cards. The goal is to outsmart your opponent by anticipating their moves and occasionally bluffing. Drawing an especially high-damage card might encourage your opponent to using his most powerful spell to rid the field of it instead of following through his pre-determined strategy, and hamstring him in the long run.

Each game is played in a best of three rounds. Win two, and you win. In each round, the player with the highest stack of points wins. It’s often necessary to throw a round by forcing your opponent to play all of his best cards early so you can get the upper hand later on.

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Having that many cards in your deck will also hamstring you, given the nature of the game’s RNG. The mathematical odds of drawing a silver or gold card decrease for each other card in your deck, so it’s important to keep them at the bare minimum while still retaining the effectiveness of your deck.

With four existing decks to choose from (the Niflgaard black deck is being added later), there’s also a lot of meta to consider as each suit has its own playstyle. There’s the Northern Realms, which is the easiest to grasp. Your units support each other as a standard army, generally favoring siege units. The Scoia’tael deck relies on trickery and many of its cards can be placed in multiple rows. Skellige cards draw upon the game’s graveyard mechanic, allowing you to resurrect them after they’re wiped from the field with even higher strength. Finally, the Monster deck, which also includes the Wild Hunt, relies heavily on swarm tactics and weather effects. Some cards, like those in the Monster deck, can multiply.

Did I mention rows? Because each card can be placed in either melee, ranged, or siege rows. These rows can be affected by specific spells—including buffs and debuffs.

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In any case, it’s a fairly complex game, and perhaps not one that’s as easy to pick up as Hearthstone—but it’s certainly worth the effort to play. Building the perfect deck and figuring out which cards work best for your strategy feels rewarding, especially when you take them into battle and win.

The standalone Gwent is more than just a rule-based update of the one in The Witcher 3. It has totally new visuals and a very respectable interface. It’s very pretty to look at, and it makes me wish they’d port a simplified version of it into The Witcher 3, just for players who are replaying the RPG.

Like other TCGs, Gwent is free to play. It is possible to earn the cards you want just by playing and winning. The scrapping system allows you to get rid of duplicate cards and construct new ones.

If I’ve any complaints, it’s with the game’s present matchmaking system. I’m often paired up against players who’ve obviously spent hundreds of dollars building their decks. There’s no question that they’ll be more prepared to win than any newcomer who picks it up. With any luck, CD Projekt Red will add a ranked system to pair players of equal skill or deck quality with each other. The studio has announced plans to add single-player adventures and AI modes—as well as new cards and mechanics as development continues.

It’s currently in beta, but once it’s live, players will be able to check it out on the PC, Xbox One or PS4. Mobile versions may be in the works, but the developers haven’t said anything about them yet.