Since the very beginnings of competitive turn-based gaming, there has always been a delicate balance between going first and second.
In chess, for example, there is a clear advantage for the player with the white pieces, with the highest level players able to capitalise on the tempo granted by going first more often than not. Other games like Hearthstone have found an answer to this debate by adding a separate card entirely – called “The Coin” – which gives players an extra mana to work with for one turn, neutralizing the advantage of going first. Lastly, some games like Gwent are struggling to find the solution to what is known as the “coin flip issue”. What exactly is the coin flip issue? Why does it matter so much in Gwent? And if Hearthstone has found such a solid answer, how can it be looked at to help Gwent?
The Coin Flip Issue
In Gwent, the coin flip issue refers to the uncontrollable outcome at the start of the game for who goes first versus second, where players who go second have a large advantage over their opponents.
Because in Gwent players are able to play one card from hand a round, gaining even a single-card advantage on your opponent can often mean the game. Since the player who goes first is always playing a card before the other player, the other player always can pass the round and give up the round but take a small card advantage.
The player who goes first has to be afraid of falling behind in points or losing the round down multiple cards. Often, the coin toss can be so impactful that a mirror match between identical decks often comes down to who wins the coin toss, rather than the play itself. At the highest level of tournament play, where misplays are less common and more miniscule, a coin toss that inherently disadvantages players 50% of the games can often taint tournament results over a short period of time (in a single-elimination format, for example).
Some games, however, have found the solution at the tournament and casual level. That’s where we’re looking for inspiration today, in Gwent’s most common comparison, Hearthstone.
In Hearthstone, the coin gives the player who goes second an extra mana crystal for one turn only, allowing them to play a more expensive card one turn early or multiple low-costing cards. The Coin temporarily gives tempo edge back for the turn it is used because it allows cards to come down one turn earlier than your opponent’s. The Coin effectively allows the player who went second to take control of, for one turn, the tempo their opponent had been dictating thus far and hopefully ease the game to a stable position. Most top-tier decks can easily abuse the coin when having to go second in Hearthstone. Some decks even want to go second specifically for the coin and its synergy with the deck (Miracle Rogue being the most obvious example). So what about Gwent? It’s true that Gwent is a vastly different game but there is inspiration to be found in “The Coin”.
In Gwent and Hearthstone, going first means tempo and going second means reacting. This is bad in a game with a mana system like Hearthstone but excellent in a game like Gwent. In Gwent, one card a turn means that you as a player can react to that card with your own one card. Going second in Gwent means that your cards are better suited to react to your opponent and respond accordingly.
How Gwent can Tackle The Problem
So what if going first meant having an overall higher card quality? What if the player that went first got to have an extra mulligan at any mulligan stage during the game, whether it was round one, two, or three? By raising the opening player’s overall hand quality, it would up the likelihood of their hand being able to accomplish the deck’s optimal strategy. This would mean that even though the player going second gets to react, the player going first would have better average plays each turn.
In a similar vein to looking at the mulligan phase, Gwent should also introduce a feature that informs both players, before receiving their hand, who is going first versus second. This would go a long way towards helping the player who went first have more options open to them.
The mulligan fix, while addressing one part of the problem, would still lead to some issues with the player who went first falling behind in points. Falling behind would trap players into having to pass and lose the round on even cards or go two cards down to win the round, resulting in their opponent being a card up for the final round.
The simplest solution is this: give the player that goes first an arbitrary number of points at the start of the game.
This solution is the least flashy of what I’ve talked to top-tier players about and what I’ve read, but I feel it’s the most practical since it approaches the core problem directly. If a player that goes first falls behind in points, they are forced out of the round by just a small margin of points, but enough that it costs them the game. These added points are not attributed to a row or to any sort of token, but instead are simply a feature that just is a part of the point count, “phantom points”. This helps prevent the points from being removable by spells like Alzur’s Thunder or activating cards like Geralt: Igni while helping the player going first avoid being overtaken so easily.
The issue of going first or second in CCG’s is always complex, but it must be resolved because it adds an uncontrollable factor to the game. This problem is particularly prominent in Gwent, a game known for its lack of RNG. At all levels of play, the coin flip issue continuously decides the outcome of games, which can be increasingly frustrating, because it does not take player skill level into account. The solutions I’ve outlined aren’t necessarily the right solution, but ultimately this issue must be resolved sooner rather than later, particularly as Gwent grows as an Esport and prepares to leave beta.