Generally, in a game of Gwent, one player wins the first round, the other player wins the second round, and the outcome of a match is decided in the third round. The only variations to this occur when the first round's winner decides to go for a 2:0, or if there is a tie somewhere in the mix, and both are quite rare. Regardless, we will discuss those cases later - for now let's focus on the standard three round framework.
Round 3: The only round that matters?
In round 3, you're in it to win it. You're going to play all your cards (with few exceptions), and the things that will determine the victor are:
- Who has card advantage
- Who is playing first
- Who has better card quality
- Anything carried over from previous rounds (most often through resilience)
- Round length
- The outcome of random effects
- Mistakes - most notably what you choose to play into or around
All of these are partially determined by your opponent, and partially by fate too. But you can swing these in your favour almost every game. What is important however, is that the majority of the factors that decide who wins or loses in round 3 are determined before it starts. In most cases, if players revealed their hands at the start of round 3 an inquisitive observer would be able to predict the winner of the game with very reasonable accuracy.
The factors you can affect during round 3 - making less mistakes and having better sequencing can only really improve with experience (as you learn about your deck, the meta, what to play around, etc…). Thus, the focus of the next few ‘Gwent Concepts’ articles will be about how you can maximise the other factors over the first two rounds in order to emerge victorious in the final round. And we begin with one of the most important Gwent Concepts…
What is card advantage?
Card advantage refers to the difference between the number of cards in your hand and your opponent's hand. Unlike some other card games, we don't take the number of units on the board and things like 'two-for-ones' into account. Assassination might kill two of your opponent's units, but it is not a card that usually provides you with card advantage (although it can give you a lot of tempo, which you can later convert into card advantage - more on that later). Similarly, a 10 power unit is very similar to two 5 power units. We say that a player with more cards in hand has card advantage.
Why is it important?
More cards = More points
Generally, the more cards you have (compared to your opponent), the more points you'll be able to put out on the board, and the more likely you are to win. This can vary (sometimes, quite wildly) due to round length (for instance, weather is worse in short rounds), card quality and carryover. But, all other things being equal, you'd always rather have more cards in hand than less.
Importance of Last Play
Perhaps more importantly, the combination of card advantage and who plays first determines who will have the last play of the round (sometimes multiple last plays in a row, if the card advantage is large). The importance of this varies from deck to deck and from match-up to match-up. Some examples of cards that care about this are:
- Succubus - The later you play this, the less likely it is that your opponent has an answer. More importantly, if you have double last play, she cannot be responded to and is guaranteed to steal a unit.
- Merigold's Hailstorm - Playing this as the last play can allow you to hit more units.
- Kambi - Nullifies any points either player has accumulated so far. The outcome of the round will depend on how many cards players have remaining (and the quality of those cards)
- John Natalis, Queensguard, Joachim de Wett, etc… - High point plays such as these become better if your opponent doesn't get the chance to respond to them (with something like a Merigold's Hailstorm or Geralt: Igni)
Note: both of these are usually only important in round 3, as it is quite rare that players play all the cards in their hands during one of the prior rounds. However, keep in mind that your card advantage in round 3 is determined almost entirely by what you do in earlier rounds.
How do you gain card advantage?
If you want to gain something in Gwent, there is always a tradeoff. To gain card advantage you often need to sacrifice card quality, points, or another valuable resource.
A negative 11 or 12 point play might not seem good on the surface, but the key with these spies is that they draw you a card. Because Gwent restricts people to playing one card a turn, this allows you to gain card advantage, as your opponent's hand size decreased while yours did not (on the turn you played the spy). Spies are especially good when you can minimise the impact of the points they provide to your opponent. This can be done by playing them into weather, lining them up for a Merigold's Hailstorm or Geralt: Igni, or using them during a round you're planning to lose.
Instead of the spies' drawback of negative points, Ocvist and Ciri grant you card advantage at the expense of being quite conditional. Both require you to keep them on the board without getting killed or locked, and return to the hand when the condition (4 rounds passing or losing the round) is fulfilled. While these give you an extra card in your hand, that card's quality is quite subpar, and you would usually want to get rid of it somehow before the final round. This can be done through playing it in a round where points don't matter (when you're far behind or ahead) such that the low point play wouldn't change the outcome of the round, or affect card advantage for future rounds. Alternatively, you can just discard or mulligan these away. Finally, because card advantage is very powerful, Ocvist and Ciri can act as a lightning rod for your opponent's spells.
Passing when ahead (or at parity)
If you pass while you have more points on the board in round 1, your opponent has two options. They can pass, allowing you to win the round - this is usually a very good outcome for you, as that means they had essentially thrown away a card last turn (they could've passed instead, which would've resulted in the same outcome, but they would get to keep an extra card in hand). More often, they choose to play one or more cards in order to overcome your score, which would improve your card advantage. In round 2, the former is not an option if you had won the first round, so your opponent is obliged to play more cards. Situations where this might gain you card advantage include:
- Making higher point plays than your opponent (because they are setting up their engine e.g. weather) and passing quite early in the round.
- The 'dry pass'. Passing in round 2 after winning in round 1, forcing your opponent to play a cards (provided they don't have carryover, or more precisely, more carryover than you).
However, there are a couple of caveats with this strategy. Allowing your opponent to win round 1 is a huge cost (especially because winning one card down is usually better than losing one card up). And, you are usually required to play very high tempo in order to squeeze more than 1 card's worth of advantage out of your opponent. If you choose to do so, you might be sacrificing more in card quality than the card advantage allows you to recuperate.
Card advantage isn't everything?
Card advantage almost always comes at a cost - whether that be having to use better cards than your opponent before round 3 or not achieving other important objectives, such as thinning or winning the round. It is important to not get carried away and spend too many resources in the pursuit of card advantage, as that might lead you to not having enough firepower to win the match.
That was a rather brief introduction to the nuanced concept of card advantage. I’m sure we’ll encounter more of it further in this series, because it is so integral to a game of Gwent. Next time, on Gwent Concepts: We examine the drawbacks of going first!
Past installments in our Gwent Concepts series:
- Gwent Concepts: The Mulligan 'Bug'
- Gwent Concepts: Mulligan and Blacklisting
- Gwent Concepts: Thinning
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