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CD Projekt's standalone card game Gwent is popular enough to be a burgeoning esport, but what is it exactly that makes people enjoy it? To find out, you might want to check out this Kotaku article that offers a detailed overview of Gwent's existing and upcoming features and talks about a year's worth of changes that have made Gwent into what it is today. An excerpt:
You could be forgiven for thinking building-sized murals of the game at this year’s E3 meant that Gwent was already out. For most people’s purposes, it is. You can download it on PC, Xbox One, or PS4 right now. It’s clear though that the game hasn’t just been languishing in open beta making money off of people buying ornately illustrated packs of cards just because it could. New sets of cards, continued re-balancing of old ones, and now three separate sets of single-player challenges against AI opponents have all helped usher Gwent into something that’s both complete and goes beyond just another “me too” collectible card game.
Over the past year the game, which already deviated from the Witcher 3 version in important ways, continued to evolve. CD Projekt Red released Gwent’s first update in mid-November of 2016. In addition to tweaking the UI and fixing various bugs, it changed leader cards from being like all other “Legendary” ones and made them into unique “Epics.” They still counted as a card in your hand but would only last one round and were immune to certain effects.
In Gwent, every deck is built around a faction leader. When the game was first presented for people to play in The Witcher 3, that leader was simply a stand-in for a special ability that would trigger under certain conditions. By the standalone Gwent’s closed beta, leaders had become distinct cards that could interact with others on the board. For example Eredin, the head of the Wild Hunt that you battle at the end of The Witcher 3, went from being a special ability that could summon rain or fog in the original mini-game to an actual card that could be played as a unit like any other. This change helped make them feel more like generals leading the charge than just personas to be adopted by the player. It’s also an example of how every card from the original set has been given new ways to interact with one another. Cards that once simply had a high or low power number now have secondary effects that lead to interesting trade-offs when deciding which ones to include in a new deck. Subsequent patches made even more drastic alterations, to the point where someone who had ducked out of the game after a month of playing would find many of the current decks and strategies in popular rotation unrecognizable.
Another big change to the underlying game was the decision to do away with invincibility. In the beginning, Legendary gold cards were untouchable. Like all card games Gwent has tiers to denote how rare and powerful a given card is. Bronze are the lowest, followed by silver and then gold. Every deck can only have a certain number of silver and gold cards, with the latter at one time being invincible to enemy spells and abilities. This made them feel true to the characters they represented in a way. Yennifer would never succumb to a single fireball. But it also made the game more prone to deadlock and offered less opportunities for interaction between players. In Gwent, rather than targeting another player or the creatures laid out in front of them, most cards simply do a thing. Tactics and strategy are more global as a result, and making a Geralt or a Ciri impervious had a way of disrupting combos and more complex outcomes.
Finally, perhaps the biggest improvements to Gwent have come in the form of weather effects. As a game played along three mirrored rows, matches play out like opposing armies lined up across from one another and trading volleys. When Gwent was still just a mini-game in The Witcher 3, a weather spell would immediately drop the power of all units on a particular row down to one. It was devastating and overly simplistic. Players would simply counter with Clear Skies, a card that erases weather effects, or simply counter with their own bad weather. As a result, the studio decided early in the closed beta to make these effects more granular. Currently, dropping frost or heavy rains on an enemy does a small amount of damage each turn instead of all at once. This means some players will decide to try and cope with the effect and play from behind while others will add protection to their units to stave off the damage.
There are simply more things to consider with more possible solutions that can be explored. While the competitiveness of decks built around weather still comes and goes with each new patch, the mechanic itself has become much more interesting to play around with since back when the closed beta originally launched.