Gwent artwork featuring Geralt and Ciri playing a match

Gwent has undergone a massive transformation from a simple mini-game in The Witcher 3 to a fully standalone game, but all of that pales in comparison to the amount of changes that happened between the Closed and Open Beta. All of the factions have been redesigned, all of the cards rebalanced, and most of the special effects have been changed in order to promote a wider variety of playstyles.

So if you're wondering what exactly is the current state of Gwent in regards to balance, the free-to-play experience, and the overall enjoyment one gets from playing a match, allow me to give you my thoughts after spending about 30 hours with the Open Beta. Without spoiling too much, let's just say that it has been a giant leap in the right direction, and one that will most likely lead to a very bright future for Gwent.

Video version of this review (~12 minutes)

Gwent has always been a deeply strategic game, and as such I am very happy to say that the Open Beta has only expanded upon its potential. The previously obnoxious cards such as weather have been redesigned to offer more counter-play, while most of the vanilla cards have been given unique effects in order to make them more than simple stat-sticks. Add to that a variety of new effects and you've now got more viable decks per faction than what previously existed as a whole! 

Naturally, there are still some problematic cards that will need to be tweaked somewhere down the line, but the good news is that Gwent's foundation is rock solid. For example, at the time of writing Skellige's Savage Bears are the most problematic card given that they are not only incredibly powerful for a bronze (common) card, but also bugged in such a way that they continue dealing damage even after being sent to the graveyard. Its a serious problem, but due to all of the newly added tools its not a problem that can't be overcome through a bit of cunning and some clever deckbuilding. These types of troublesome cards will eventually get fixed, but until that happens there are plenty of counters available to prevent potentially overpowered combinations from becoming overly dominant.

Gwent open beta screenshot of numerous weather effects

Weather effects are still powerful, but they are no longer opressive

Another area Gwent has seen incredible improvements in is card acquisition. When I first started the Closed Beta I found it highly difficult to assemble a deck of my own design since the card packs (or kegs as they're called) were given out fairly infrequently. These days, however, you can quite comfortably assemble the top-tier meta deck within a week or two of starting - its that easy! By playing 30 minutes a day you can get 1 card pack for free, as well as bunch of small goodies that quickly snowball into yet another card pack or a high-rarity card of your choice. If you're playing for an hour or more you can easily acquire 2.5 card packs a day, which will take you a lot further than you might expect. Each pack gives you four random cards, after which you have the ability to choose one extra card out of a newly generated trio. This way you not only have the ability to target a specific faction, but also cherry-pick the very best cards in the game in order to assemble a proper competitive deck. Its an absolutely brilliant free-to-play system, and if I owned a hat I would tip it to however came up with the idea!

There is one little problem though, both for the players and CD Projekt Red themselves, and that is the simple fact that buying card packs is not a wise investment. Gwent is still in its early stages so it doesn't sport a massive repertoire of cards, which means that after 30 or so card packs you're going to start seeing duplicates, and a lot of them. This issue is then further exasperated by the extremely low drop chance for legendary and epic cards, which combined with a $1.5 price tag for each card pack makes for some highly unrewarding purchases. In other words, if you really want to spend some money and have it actually mean something, make sure to do so at the very beginning by buying one of the larger bundles - that will give you a nice head start without filling you up with a ton of duplicates. 

Gwent lets you choose a card from card packs

You actually get to chose your favorite card!

Continuing on with the new player experience, it is worth mentioning that the Open Beta has brought with it an extremely useful tutorial. The first part, as you would expect, revolves entirely around explaining the controls and what exactly each type of card does. Its not overly complex, and it probably won't teach you how to play Gwent at any serious level, but it does a good enough job of introducing new players to all of the concepts they will be seeing throughout their journey. And best of all, it gives you an absolute ton of card packs for the effort! 

You might think the whole "effort" thing is just a figure of speech, but if you're a new player you might genuinely have a bit of trouble against all of the AI opponents that make up part 2 of the tutorial. They aren't incredibly tough and they do make some underpants-on-head insane moves, but if you don't give them the respect they deserve they will quite handily beat down your starter decks. Besides teaching you how your deck works and what your win condition is, these tutorials are great because they expose you to watered down versions of powerful archetypes you will meet later. Beating an AI opponent that's using a Weather Monsters deck is not going to teach you how to counter a fully optimized version, but it will give you a glimpse at some of the strategies and cards such a deck might utilize, and for beginners that is worth its weight in gold. 

Gwent tutorial screenshot showing the singleplayer challenges

Beating all of the challenges takes about two hours, but you will learn a lot from it

Unfortunately, not every part of Gwent is player-friendly. In an effort to make the UI (User Interface) equally as good on PC and consoles CDPR has created a monstrosity that is simply tedious to use. You can still play Gwent perfectly fine, that part of the UI is thankfully unaffected, but when it comes to exploring the graveyard or choosing a specific card you will be met with a giant carousel that's about as annoying to navigate as you might imagine. It also doesn't help that when your opponent is doing these actions as a part of a card effect the upper half of your screen becomes a blurry mess of fast-moving images and pure darkness. But when it comes to irritating UI design choices the crowning champion is the full-screen blur effect that occurs every time your opponent is choosing which cards to replace from their hand. It might not sound like much, but when you're staring at a half-black, half-blurry screen for upwards of 30 seconds per game it really starts eating away at what little sanity you have left.

And speaking of sanity, trying to create a deck in Gwent is pure insanity. Despite there being rows where you can place cards in order to sort them and give yourself a better overview of your deck, almost all of them will pile into one gigantic and incomprehensible line the moment you press "save". Things get even worse when you decide your deck is missing a certain card as the process of going from the deck builder to the card crafter takes you through 5 loading screens and pointless menu transitions. And no, I'm not joking, you seriously have to sit through loading screen after loading screen in order to craft a single card to put in your deck! As far as strategy is concerned Gwent is a brilliant game that can easily compete with the already established giants, but when it comes to the UI its sadly one of the very worst. CDPR is thankfully aware of these issues, however, so hopefully they'll be able to sort them out by the time Gwent reaches full release.

Gwent's loading screen from the Open Beta

I hope you like this loading screen image, you'll be seeing it a lot!

I'm not sure if the ranked system was changed or tweaked for the Open Beta, but whatever the case may be it does a surprisingly good job at keeping players motivated. In order to participate you will need to reach level 10, which means you'll probably unpack somewhere around 30-40 card packs before you even begin your ranked adventures. This is important because it ensures that everyone who steps foot into ranked is going to have at least some sort of competitively viable deck. But more importantly for balance, not everyone starts on the bottom of the ladder! Instead, your initial position is dictated by your performance in all of the matches you need to complete in order to reach level 10. Its a simple little feature, but it goes a long way towards avoiding the problem of experienced players stomping all over those that are still learning. 

Another reason why I love the ranked system in Gwent is because it actually rewards you for your progress and skill, something Blizzard has still not managed to properly implement into Hearthstone. Every single rank you achieve, of which there are 21, gives you a whole bunch of goodies that scale upwards. For example, by reaching the rather low rank 6 you will receive 2 card packs, while climbing up to rank 11 will give you double that amount, as well as all of the rewards for all of the ranks below it. What this means is that by simply playing the ranked mode you will gain a considerable amount of card packs, meteorite powder which is used to create animated cards, as well as scraps with which you can craft specific cards. Add to this extremely generous rewards at the end of the season and you're looking at one of the best ranked systems I've had the pleasure of messing around with in a card game. It definitely has some flaws when you get to the very top of the ladder, but for the common player it represents a great way of acquiring a ton of cards while playing against equally skilled opponents, and honestly that's all you can really ask for.

Gwent's ranked rewards from the Open Beta

Climbing the ladder is always fun when you have these types of rewards ahead of you

Closing Thoughts

I have spent a ridiculous amount of time playing Gwent in The Witcher 3, and I am very glad to say that it has only improved since. The balance is much tighter, the card interactions are much more interesting, and the free-to-play model is so good there is basically no reason to spend money. It certainly has some areas that will require a lot of attention from CD Projekt Red before they are finally up to par, but when I look at Gwent as a game I simply cannot find many reasons to complain. So if you're up for a deeply strategic card game with almost no random elements then Gwent might just be the game you're looking for. I'll be the first one to admit that Gwent is not going to appeal to everyone, but it is completely free, so do at least give it a try if you're into card games.

Gwent has some very complex strategies

Sometimes you need to lose the battle in order to win the war, a strategy that Gwent will quickly impart upon you

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