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Power creep in Gwent (Why is Skellige so good?)

Twelve new cards have arrived with the patch 8.3. If you frequent Twitch chats or the Gwent subreddit you may have seen some complain about Eist Tuirseach. Is he or the Skellige faction too strong? Do new cards have to be much stronger than the old ones? I would like to look at the bigger picture rather than discuss Eist in particular. So, let’s have a discussion about power creep, it’s possible benefits or downsides, and finally determine whether it can be an issue for Gwent.

Power creep and game balance

There are many games that add new content over time while keeping old things. It can be new quests, new items or, in the case of Gwent and other card games, it is cards and new mechanics. What happens in most cases is that developers tend to make these new things more or less better than what was already present in the game. And this is called power creep – new content is better than the old one and makes it to a certain degree obsolete. Thus, players who want to use the best options available shift towards new content making old cards much less preferred.

Why does power creep exist?

Well, the answer is rather simple: Main goal of games is to be played and generate income for the developers. When something new is added, it changes the players’ experience a bit, as out of sudden the game feels fresher, and thus keeps the interest of theirs. This helps to keep the player base numbers high, and at the same time it encourages the players to spend their money on the game. New expansion usually forces players to adapt to it and get their hands on it. Why does this all matter? Because it’s especially true if new cards are in many aspects much better than previously available options and that’s when power creep comes to play.

How does it influence the game?

Expansions and new content are not necessarily a bad thing, of course, they also provide developers the opportunity to build on things already existing and to broaden the possible options which can make the game much more complex, interesting and subjectively, though perhaps most importantly, more fun. Moreover, new content is needed in the case of multiplayer games more than often to keep players engaged as they are key for these games given that they last only if people are interested in them.

Change of pace is usually something welcomed, but it can come with a downside to some players. Those who enjoy a certain strategy or an archetype might find out that their favourite playstyle is much worse than it used to be. Many of us have a favourite faction in Gwent, an archetype or a card, and with every expansion or patch there might come changes affecting them. These can make whatever is close to the player’s heart rather underwhelming, and while sometimes it is possible to adapt old strategies and veteran cards to a new meta, it is definitely not always the case. The decks that tend to be most affected by this are the ones that are not trying to be the most competitive but aim to utilise niche cards or strategies. In other words, you could call them memes. You can find a bit more about the struggle of memes in Gwent in Sawyer’s article.

How is Gwent dealing with power creep related issues?

I think that there is a consensus about Gwent being one of the very few genuinely Free to Play games, as it is not too hard to acquire cards from the game’s expansions. This would apply even for a brand new player or someone returning to the game after a long break. Although, the fact that the expansion kegs, apart from the most recent expansion at that very moment, are not in the game shop anymore might come up as a potential issue in the future. Why? Because it can make it slightly harder to get specific cards, but luckily, you should still be able to eventually get enough scraps to craft them even in spite of Shupe’s reluctance to give you what you wished for.

A point related to this is the frequency of new content addition. The more often you add new, slightly better cards, the sooner power creep can become an apparent issue. Players often call for something new, and it is certainly not easy to figure out how often to shake things up. That is where regular monthly patches are helpful to not only fix obvious issues but also to buff older cards which don’t see play.

Right before patch 8.3 a Gwent roadmap for 2021 was announced informing us about more frequent new cards but smaller amounts of them each time they drop. This could potentially cause problems very soon if we get new cards better than everything else every two months. At the same time, Gwent developers have proclaimed they want to avoid filler cards in expansions and avoid power crept cards, so they are well aware of this.

Evolution of Gwent

At the very beginning of this article, I have asked the question about power creep affecting Gwent. Now it is time to delve into it and look at cards added to the game throughout history. There are many types of cards that are either relying to a certain degree on either other cards, leader abilities, or are gaining points over time (engines). This unfortunately makes it quite hard to quantify their value and compare them with one another. For this reason, I have decided to choose specific examples of cards introduced at different time points and demonstrate power creep on them.

Why is Skellige so good?

Let’s have a look at three units from Skellige: Tuirseach Veteran, Drummond Berserker and Bear Witcher. Tuirseach Veteran has been present in Gwent for a long time as a part of the starter set. But the other two 5 provision units were introduced in two most recent expansions (Master Mirror and Way of The Witcher). There is one more thing they share, namely that when they are played, they all enter the fray as 5 powered units, but there is a difference in their points output. Veteran relies on external factors (self-wound strategies) to be worth more than 5. Berserker will deal 2 random damage pings and transform into 6-point Bear Abomination, and finally Bear Witcher can deal 3 damage if his adrenaline condition is met (both are worth 8 points).

In vacuum there is not that big of a difference between the last two, but in practice the situation is different. Veteran needs help from allied units while his counterparts need something to damage. When MM or WoTW were released these new 5 provision bronzes soon became staples (here it is worth noting Drummond Berserker after release had one-point higher ceiling before a nerf). Simply because existing synergies allowed them to play for even more points while there was close to no downside. Another reason why Tuirseach Veteran sees less play is that if he is answered (opponent destroys him) he leaves nothing behind. This can be best demonstrated if all the three mentioned cards are destroyed by a 5-point removal right after you play them. Veteran traded equally and you get no points, Berserker dealt that 1 random damage, so you gained a point this turn and finally Bear Witcher granted you 3 points. Damaging units also synergise well with many other Skellige cards enabling their Bloodthirst.

When you go through neutral 5 provision cards but also other factions’ ones you will notice there aren’t many cards worth 8 points. Only engines if not answered can gain you this many points. And yes, Endrega Larvas or other cards can play for 10+ points quite often but they need few turns while Skellige can get it in one turn. I admit this is looking only at specific provisions so overall the difference may not be so big.

Cards vs. Archetypes

I would argue, using this example, that the point ceiling of the same provision cards doesn’t change drastically and can be seen only over an extended period of time. Nonetheless, new cards gradually increase their strength, and many old cards can’t compete with them anymore. Something else changes more and that is the strength of synergies and archetypes surrounding these cards. Berserker was part of the first iterations of the SK Warriors decks not just because of his strength but due to his Warrior tag fitting perfectly into the deck along with the random pings. Similar point can be made about Bear Witcher – he is slightly better providing 3 targeted damage, but the synergies made him shine. With Haern Caduch or Geralt: Quen he could become the face of Skellige after WoTW release even if he lacks the Warrior tag.

Forgotten cards and keywords

This illustrates how older cards are not always lacking too much in raw power, but the existence of neutrals such as Wolf Pack or Peasant Militia should not be forgotten. Squirrel same as them can be only 4 points for 4 provisions which is rather underwhelming but there is a potential upside of banishing an Oneiromancy or Madoc. Wolf Pack shares the Beast tag, and I can’t think of a scenario when you would prefer it over Squirrel. Number of bronze cards have received a buff or a rework in the past year and suddenly they have seen much more play. This is a step in the right direction which should continue.

There are several cards which stayed the same since Homecoming. Some of them even still see play and aren’t a source of complaints, for example Tridam Infantry. But others don’t fit into any of existing archetypes, are extremely conditional or simply lack points. These cards deserve either reworks, which have proven to be a possible solution, or to receive support from newly added cards. A vital piece of this can be new keywords – think of Adrenaline and the witcher trio (it is not included in every deck, but it sees regular play now). The developers have shown they can make bad cards playable again, and that they are able to invent mechanics which are beneficial to the game. Still, it is a bit sad those aren’t used more often in following expansions or to rework older cards. Luckily, this might be changing as we have seen the Devotion keyword used on the most recently released cards.

Conclusion

Power creep is present in Gwent, which is not surprising, but developers of the game are utilising a number of strategies to limit it. They are creating strong archetypes rather than printing overpowered cards. Furthermore, there are also many useful mechanics and limitations allowing careful balancing of the game. Such mechanics would include the minimum units requirement or provisions when it comes to deck building and mechanics like Adrenaline or Devotion for specific cards. Along with the generous in-game economy, this should hopefully mean a bright future for Gwent.

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