Gwent Concepts: Going First

Last time, we proposed that in order to win most games of Gwent, you need to win round 3, and that its outcome depends on the following factors:

  • Who has card advantage (Covered in our previous article)
  • Who is playing first (This article’s focus)
  • Who has better card quality (Future articles)
  • Round length
  • Anything carried over from previous rounds (most often through resilience).
  • The outcome of random effects
  • Sequencing
  • Mistakes - most notably what you choose to play into or around.

This article will explore how good it is to go first (spoilers: not very), and why that is the case.

Who goes first?

  • Round 1: Randomly determined by the infamous coinflip
  • Round 2: The winner of round 1
  • Round 3: The winner of round 2
  • In the case of a round 1 tie, the player who went second in round 1 goes first.

So in order to go second in round 3, you just need to win round 1! While this may sound easy (we’ve all won a few round 1s in our life), winning usually involves committing more resources in round 1 than your opponent, a disadvantage that you may struggle to reverse in round 2. This can ultimately lead to you playing at a card disadvantage and/or with inferior card quality in round 3.

But, why is it a disadvantage to go first?

In other card games, going first is usually an advantage, allowing you to start developing your plays and interacting earlier in the game. It can be such a great advantage that the player going second is given an extra card and/or other bonuses to compensate. However, in Gwent, going first is almost always detrimental.

Going first does have a few situational advantages. It can be beneficial to go first if:

  • Your deck requires setup which can help eliminate your opponent's setup.
    Example: You might want to go first in a King Bran or Morvran Voorhis mirror match so that you can develop warships and mangonels earlier than your opponent, and threaten to kill their developments using yours.
  • You are fighting over a common resource
    Example: You want to resurrect your Prince Stennis before your opponent can Caretaker it.
  • You need to make a play before your opponent has a chance to act
    Example: Decoying the Combat Engineer'ed Avallac'h before your opponent can Assassination it.

As you can see, these are all quite niche and are usually outweighed by a combination of the following disadvantages:

  • Less reactivity
    Going first decreases the value of your reactive plays. On your first turn there is nothing for you to damage with Alzur's Thunder or Impera Enforcers and no obvious row to apply weather to. By your second turn your opponent has only played one thing to interact with, whilst by their second turn you've played two.
  • Less information
    Going first gives you less information about your opponent's strategy (for instance: should you play your units into weather or risk giving your opponent Drowner value?).
  • No opportunity for last play (when on equal cards)
    If both players have the same number of cards in round 3, going second gives you last play, which allows you to make better reactive plays, or play a card that your opponent cannot react to (for more about the importance of last play see last week's article)

Going first in round 2 is a disadvantage, however this scenario is always coupled with the fact that you won round 1 (which has a lot of advantages). Finally, the additional disadvantages of going first in round 1 deserve their own section:

The Flipping Coin

When one of the players passes in round 1, the number of cards in players’ hands at that point is determined by the initial coinflip. Without the meddling of card advantage spies, or Ocvist the following can occur:

Going First

  • If you are the first to pass, you will have the same amount of cards in hand as your opponent (at that point).
  • If you are at any point unable (or unwilling) to overcome your opponent’s points, their pass will force you to play an additional card, allowing you to win the round, but at the cost of being 2 cards down. However, this can be somewhat difficult to accomplish for your opponent, as it means that (for example) their first 5 cards were stronger than your 6 (or 9 stronger than 10).
  • It is possible that your opponent will focus their efforts on beating your score, giving you little to no opportunity to pass while ahead, and forcing you to lose the round on even cards if you do.

Going Second

  • If you are the first to pass, you will have one more card in hand than your opponent (at that point).
  • You have the option of passing first and losing the round 1 card down, which the player who went first does not always have. That is, of course, unless your opponent passes earlier than you anticipated.
  • If the round continues until the very last card, you have the advantage of last play (or the option to pass instead of playing perhaps your most valuable card).
  • Overall, you have a lot more room for error, and a little more control over the length of round 1 than the player going first.

Even if you use a spy to ‘reverse’ the coinflip after going first, you would generally end up worse off than if you went second (under the same conditions).

Quantifying the value of going second (in round 3)

We attempt to answer this question by looking at two extremes.

Typical ‘worst case’

Going second gives you no advantage if both players are playing cards that do not interact with their opponent in any way. Admittedly this is a very rare scenario, but can occur in (for instance) consume mirror matches. In this case there is pretty much no value in going second (compared to going first). Theoretically, there can be situations where going first is an advantage (such as when fighting over a common resource), and there are no drawbacks to going first. But that possibility is just so unlikely that we can safely ignore it, and say that the value of going second is at worst 0 points in non-extraordinary circumstances.

Typical ‘best case’

How much can going second be worth, in terms of card advantage?

Let’s consider the following thought experiment. Player F and Player S go into the third round with 5 cards in hand (which have about the same total power/value), but with player F going first. Player S has some level of advantage x because of the benefits of going second. Now suppose we give player F an extra, 0 point card (for example, a Renew that has no way to find a target). Player F can play that card first, and after doing so, both players will have 5 cards in hand, but it would be player S’s turn, and now Player F will have the advantage (x). Thus, an extra card, no matter how bad, will at worst reverse the advantage (at worst, because player F is not obliged to play it first). Thus, the advantage of going second is worth half a card at the very most. So don’t trade away card advantage solely for the ability to go second in round 3.

How much can going second be worth, in terms of card quality (points)?

This is a little bit harder to quantify. So let’s look at some (egregious) examples:

  • Example: Suppose both players have a hand full of (equal numbers of) Iorveths. Each Iorveth except the very first will kill an opposing Iorveth, and the player going second will win by 7 points (no matter the amount of Iorveths).
  • Example: Suppose your finisher is Zoltan Chivay into Merigold's Hailstorm. By going second you can often move an extra unit with Zoltan Chivay and damage it with Merigold's Hailstorm. This is worth slightly more than half a card worth of points (if you get to combo an additional 17 strength Spotter, you will get 10 extra points of value). However this card might not be your opponent’s best.
  • Example: You get to Scorch an extra Dol Blathanna Protector.
  • Example: Your opponent has no way to gain card advantage, and you have Frightener and Succubus, allowing you to guarantee a steal.

As you can see, this can vary quite wildly. In some match-ups, you’re willing to give up only a little card quality to go second. However, when going second is instrumental to disrupting your opponent’s win condition, or accomplishing your own, you may be willing to spend many of your silvers and golds to guarantee going second.

Important Note: I have deliberately avoided analysing the value of going first in round 1. Firstly, you have no control over it, so talking about tradeoffs is somewhat pointless. Secondly, the devs have acknowledged that the coinflip is an issue (but not as much as we think), and are working hard on finding a good way to balance it. And when they do, I will definitely cover it!

How valuable is it to win round 1?

If you win round 1, you are guaranteed to go second in round 3, which has a number of benefits, as we have learned. But perhaps more importantly, you get to choose when to pass in round 2 and dictate the length of round 3. This gives rise to a plethora of strategies, including the immediate dry pass (forcing opponent to play one card if they don’t have carryover) and bleeding (ridding your hand of low value plays).

Generally, the difference between winning and losing round 1 is worth around 2 cards, and I would rank the common round one outcomes as follows:

  • Win at parity OR Lose 2 cards up (Good)
  • Win 1 card down OR Lose 1 card up (Neutral)
  • Win 2 cards down OR Lose at parity (Bad)

The outcome in which you win is usually slightly better out of each of those pairs (though that can vary between match-ups and board states). But in order to understand how you want round 1 to end (in a specific match-up, game, situation), we will need to dig deep into what you can do in round 2 after either winning or losing. And that will happen next time, in Gwent Concepts: Round 2 Strategies!


Past installments in our Gwent Concepts series:


I love feedback almost as much as I love Gwent. Please leave your comments or suggestions below or send me a message on twitter at @AychGwent!

About the author


Aych discovered his love of card games at the ripe old age of 11, as his Bulbasaurs were brutally massacred in the brilliant Pokemon TCG. The original Witcher was his gateway into the wonderfully time-consuming world of RPGs. And then... his two passions converged with the creation of Gwent! You can find him on Twitter and YouTube.


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