Evaluating Cards and Bad Math
If someone asks you why Aen Elle Conqueror is a good card in a devotion deck, the answer is pretty easy: “it’s a 7 for 4, no questions asked. And veil is a little bonus upside”. Anyone can see that a 7-strength card for 4 provisions is a good amount of points for its deckbuilding cost. And who doesn’t like upside on top of that? But most cards you play aren’t that straightforward (and that probably helps make Gwent an interesting game).
If you spend time in Gwent communities like r/gwent or some of the discords or the Gwent Twitch channels, you’re bound to run into someone whipping out numbers when evaluating cards. And I’ve seen a lot of attempts to do some pretty questionable math to justify opinions on cards. Now, I should say, I am not great at math, I didn’t study it at my university or anything like that, and I often get calculations wrong. But there are a couple things you can look out for, even if you are garbage at math like me, to avoid some common pitfalls.
Three common mistakes I see people make evaluating cards are the following: double-counting, unchecked sources, and quantifying context-dependent cards. And I swear, many of the people making these mistakes aren’t dumb people who are bad at the game. But it’s really easy to get lost in someone’s rhetoric and not take a closer look. But let’s take that closer look.
First, let’s talk about double-counting. What I mean by this is duplicating the number of points a card produces. You’ll often see this when a card works with a setup/payoff dynamic. Basically, you need to be careful that you don’t accidentally count the payoff in the setup or vice-versa. This might sound a bit abstract, so let’s dive into a famous example.
“Philippa Eilhart is a 21 for 10, this card is insanely broken”.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, when the Novigrad expansion dropped in the summer of 2019, the Syndicate Faction was added to the game, along with the coin mechanic and a bunch of crazy cards. One of them was a card that’s actually remained pretty much unchanged since release: Philippa Eilhart. She’s a 3-strength, 10 provision card that spends a number of coins equal to the strength of an opponent’s unit, then seizes it.
Now, if the opponent has a 9-strength unit and you have 9 coins, you can play Philippa and empty your bank to seize it. This subtracts 9 points from your opponent’s side of the board and adds them to yours, for an 18-point swing, plus 3 points on Philippa herself. 9 + 9 + 3 = 21. Thus, 21 points for 10 provisions.
Except where did we lose track of the coins? If you have any other way to spend those coins, you’ll still be getting points for them. Let’s say you’ve got a Street Urchins down, which can spend a coin to boost itself by 1. If you don’t spend those 9 coins with Philippa, Street Urchins can spend them for 9 points. By spending with Philippa, you’re sacrificing those 9 points you’d gain another way. So if Philippa seizes a 9, since she spends coins at a rate of 2:1 (your opponent loses that many points and you gain them), you’re effectively getting 3 + 9 + 9 - 9 = 12 points. The first total comes from counting your setup as part of your payoff.
Don’t get me wrong, Philippa is a great card for a number of reasons, particularly if you’re either denying your opponent an important card or stealing an engine you can also use. And it was easy for people to also conflate this case on top of the 21-for-10 error. So we were looking at people saying, “If you steal a 9-point engine, it’s even more! CDPR pls!” But among other things, your opponent is unlikely to give you a 9, let alone a 9-point engine. We'll talk a bit more about card context and complex cards later.
Let’s instead move on to another, simpler case. Consider the card Zoltan: Warrior, specifically his mode to be played on the ranged row. He’s got 6 strength, costs 12 provisions, and boosts all Rowdy Dwarves by 2. You might not hear people talking about him much these days, but he still showcases a kind of double-counting you see a lot.
If you play Zoltan's Company, which spawns 3 Rowdy Dwarves, Zoltan plays as an effective 12. As you increase the number of cards for spawning Rowdy Dwarves (like playing Figgis Merluzzo), Zoltan’s best-case scenario gets better. If you play every card that makes Rowdy Dwarves, we could be looking at something like 8 Rowdy Dwarves (2x Dwarven Chariot, Zoltan's Company, Figgis Merluzzo, Saskia), which would make Zoltan play for 6 + (8x2) = 22. That’s a bunch of points.
So let’s say you’re making your Rowdy Dwarves deck and show it to a friend, who we’ll call Horatio. Horatio takes a look and says “Isn’t Dwarven Chariot kinda bad? It’s a 5 for 5 the first time and a 7 for 5 the second time. Those are rookie numbers. Look at that beefcake Dwarven Berserker. With the leader we’re using anyways, he’s an 8 for 5. That’s better than even the second one”.
But clever you, noting that Horatio hasn’t looked too closely at the list, point out that actually, you’re providing 2 more points for Zoltan with the first Chariot, and 4 more with the second, so they’re actually a 7 for 5 and an 11 for 5. You guys keep talking about the deck and you point out how thicc this Zoltan is gonna be. A whopping 22 points in an ideal scenario, but still way more than 12 points even in other scenarios. But Horatio then gives you a puzzled look.
Do you see the problem? If you’re counting the Chariots as 7 and 11 points each, then Zoltan isn’t 22 points. You’ve added Zoltan’s points onto the Chariot, but you didn’t subtract them from Zoltan. Either your chariots are 5 and 7 and zoltan is 6 + (8x2) = 22, or they’re 5 + (1x2) and 7 + (2x2) and zoltan is 6 + (5x2) = 16. You can't count Zoltan's points in both the setup and the payoff.
And you’ll see this kind of math all over the place. People say Vernossiel is worth 13 points because of Isengrim and also Isengrim is worth 7 points with only Vernossiel. Then you look at the score count and realize it doesn’t say 20, but 18. Be sure you’re counting the payoff only once.
While double-counting stems from attributing your points to the places they belong, unchecked sources stem from either not attributing your numbers to the same type of source or creating an extra source. This might seem obvious to you. If I asked you to add 3 cubic centimeters and 1 kilogram, surely your answer would be “That’s enough rum for you tonight, Johaggis.” Anyone who has taken a science class knows you can’t do mathematical operations on numbers with different units. And yet...
If you were floating around Gwent communities during the Master Mirror spoilers, you definitely saw people debating the merits of Amphibious Assault (hereafter AA). For those who don’t know it, AA is a 12-provision special for Northern Realms that reads “Echo. Play a Northern Realms unit from your deck with provision cost 9 or less, then boost it by the difference between its provisions and 9.”
Now this is a complicated card. If you draw it in rounds 1 or 2, you’ll probably get to use it twice over the course of a game. And there are a lot of moving parts to this. But before diving into how I feel this card should be evaluated, here’s an argument someone made to me on a twitch stream (paraphrased):
“AA pretty much caps out at 11 points for 12 provisions, so it’s not very good. The reason being that you’re getting 2 9s from your deck, but you have to subtract the average points of a card in your deck, since you’re replacing the top card of your deck with this card the round after, which is around 7 points. So it’s 9 + 9 - 7 = 11.”
Roughly my reaction
There’s a lot going on here. We’ve added 9 provisions + 9 provisions, subtracted 7 points, and ended up with 11 points. This should ring some alarm bells. Why are we adding provisions, subtracting points, and coming out with points? Even if we have a general sense of how many points there are per provision on average, we should absolutely do our math in the same units. For simplicity, let’s say we’re able to convert 7 points to 7 provisions, and make our total 11 provisions. Already, it has become a lot easier to reason about this. Now we’re saying that AA is worth 11 provisions, because we’re getting a 9, and replacing a 7 with a 9.
The next thing to consider in this argument is where we’re getting these numbers from. The 9s are because that’s the maximum provision cost of a card you can get from AA, and the 7 is the average provision cost of a card in our deck. Are these actually the numbers we should be considering?
After all, it’s not all that likely that you’re going to get two 9-provision cards with amphibious assault, and if you do, you’d have to also factor in that you’re removing 9 provisions from your deck each time. It’s not inherently crazy to try and evaluate a card purely based on perceived provisions, but since the object of the game is to accrue points, ignoring points in evaluating a card does seem like an oversight. Moreover, if you’re not getting two 9-provision cards, then you’re trying to equate a 4 provision card + a point boost to an amount of provisions. Unless you can convert the boost to provisions, you’re still running into mixing provisions and points.
In addition, the idea that you’re replacing a card that’s on average 7 provisions with AA isn’t quite right either. This is because of the card we pick with AA and the fact that there are mulligans in this game. While your deck might have 7 as its average provisions, you’re more likely to mulligan your weaker cards, since that means the cards you’ll have in hand will be your better ones. And if you’re pulling a 4-provision card like Radovid's Royal Guards with AA, then you’re removing a definitive 4-provision card from your deck and guaranteeing you’ll draw AA again. So the provision shift is still more favorable than the average provisions of your deck.
The person’s argument that I’m evaluating isn’t completely ludicrous, but failing to source numbers appropriately and conflating different units definitely obscured the answer of AA being a stellar card.
(For those who are curious what my reasoning on this card is: AA pulls either a crucial engine or a low-provision card for often minimally 11-12 points for 12 provisions, and then gives you extra points on whatever you wanted to play with it in the next rounds.)
Another good example of these conflations is the card Matta Hu'uri, which was released with the Merchants of Ofier expansion last December. She’s a 6-strength, 9-provision card that reads: “If neither player has passed and neither player’s hand is full, draw your highest-provision card, and your opponent draws their lowest-provision card.”
People lost their minds over this card.
1) “It’s Royal Decree + 6 points! That’s absurd!”
2) “You get your best card and your opponent gets trash? How is that fair?”
3) “Well, it’s your best card - 4, and Matta herself is worth 6 points”.
All of these statements are nonsense. Obviously, statement 1 is just ignoring the card that Matta gives your opponent and is just a sheer knee-jerk panic response. Statement 2 doesn’t understand that Matta is effectively a tutor for your highest-provision card, similar to Royal Decree in some ways. And statement 3 is an argument with bad math.
So let’s talk about statement 3. “Your best card - 4 provisions + 6 points”. Now we’re ready to call this out. People making this argument would actually probably calm down if they just replaced their numbers with actual cards and looked at points. And we’ll assume that this is a case where you have something good in your deck to pull and your opponent isn’t somehow out of 4-provision cards.
So let’s plug some things in and see what we get. Let’s say you’re Northern Realms and you pull Falibor from your deck, and you give your opponent Mahakam Marauder. We’ll say both play for full value. So Falibor plays for 13, and Marauder for 6. Our math with Matta would be 13 + 6 - 6 = 13. Huh. Well that looks a lot like if you’d just used Royal Decree now, doesn’t it? Now Matta can be better or worse in some circumstances, like when a player wants a longer round, or you give your opponent a particularly good card, but rare cases aside, we can see that Matta wasn't worth panicking over.
In both cases, we've got issues with conflating points and provisions, and then a couple other numbers thrown in that muddy the waters. Once we start plugging in real values and consider what each number corresponds to, we get a much better sense of their power level. AA was a lot better than the above person argued, and Matta was a lot worse than some of the Gwent subreddit believed. When you encounter these arguments, look at what the numbers correspond to and what units they use.
If you can parse arguments for double-counting and solid sources, you’re already much further better-equipped to evaluate cards and arguments.
Finally, let’s talk about cards that are just plain hard to quantify. These are cards that have effects that often don’t directly correspond to a fixed number of points. And everyone makes mistakes on these.
Oftentimes, the power of these cards will vary wildly in the context of other cards that are played. If you see a card that’s extremely flexible, or has a weird, crazy effect, I’d put it in this category.
The first example I want to tackle is a new card from Master Mirror, Lonely Champion. He’s a 4-strength, 4-provision unit with 2 armor. His effect reads: “Immunity. Destroy all Firesworn Tokens on this row and boost self by their combined power.”
Wow, what a wild line of text. This card stores all of the power from your tokens on a single, armored, immune body. His strength is only 4, which is pathetic, but his value comes from things like freeing up row space and dodging cards that would punish your row, like lacerate. How relevant is that? It's hard to say without knowing how played Firesworn and punish cards are, and how often Firesworn will require additional row space. These are all very context-dependent conditions that make evaluating this card also require a bunch of predictions about how people are going to be playing the game after the expansion hits.
But in the meantime, there were all sorts of discussions about scenarios where you have Grand Inquisitor Helveed, you’re spamming out tokens and then making more space for yourself. Is that a common scenario? No one knew for sure, as it depends on what people would play when the expansion hits. What’s the right scenario to consider? Well, that takes a good prediction of what the meta will be post-patch. And that’s not an easy requirement or something that’s easy to quantify either. That's a lot of arguments before you can get to what the actual numbers on this card are.
A sampling of Team Aretuza's ratings for this card, out of 5. All over the place, with my favorite being "Schrodinger's rating".
And for the final example, let’s discuss Yennefer's Invocation. It’s a 9-provision special that reads “Put any unit on top of your deck”. If we ignore the “top of your deck part” and treat this as a catch-all “banish any unit”, how many provisions is that worth? Korathi Heatwave, which also hits artifacts, costs 10, but is a neutral card and also wasn’t played much until recently. It provides no points on the board, and against decks that have their points distributed across multiple units or do a lot of “deploy: damage a unit” effects, this card might be worth between 5 and 7 points. But being able to answer any engine or tall unit that becomes a problem is a strong effect, as it always gets rid of it, no questions asked. Getting rid of something like Yghern also can make follow-up effects for your opponent weaker (such as Ozzrel, to eat Yghern). Being able to also remove something like Reynard Odo is great flexibility, and few cards answer so many different threats sufficiently. Not needing to worry about whether you need Assassination or Treason or Tourney Joust or a lock is certainly worth something.
But how do you quantify flexibility? You’re paying 9 provisions for something that has a lot of different cases where it is a good answer for something, even if it often isn't the most efficient answer. Is it worth 10 points? Is it more? Is it less? This makes it hard to make an exact points-per-provisions evaluation of a card like this.
And then there’s also the fact that it puts a card on top of your deck. If you’re playing this in a round before round 3, you will draw into the card you removed next round, and if you’re playing Joachim de Wett, using Tactical Decision as a leader, or playing a tutor, you can access the card you took in the round you took it. But certainly not every card that you want to remove is going to have similar value when you play it. For example, using Invocation on a giant Sea Jackal would actually make your draws/Joachim/Tactical Decision worse. But if you get Falibor in round 1, well, your draws just got better, even if you only played Invocation for 7 points at the time. So how much is the top of the deck effect worth? It varies wildly, especially if your opponent is expecting Invocation.
Cards like Lonely Champion and Yennefer’s Invocation are cards that you can see a lot of people throw math around for, but I’d pretty much always try and figure out how they’re attempting to quantify these, and what kinds of scenarios the math is expecting. While certainly there ways to quantify these (the provisions on Invocation and points on Champion aren’t arbitrary), two people throwing math around for these cards can often make vastly different assumptions. In that case, it’s actually more important to look at their scenarios than the actual math they’re doing.
Gwent is a tough game with a lot of weird math, and predicting what cards will be good in a meta no one has ever seen is definitely tricky. Hell, we at Aretuza tried predicting the strongest cards from Master Mirror, and there were definitely some wild answers that were proven wrong. Many of us also underestimated the “patience engines”, like Herkja Drummond.
But oftentimes people fall into one of the traps explained above, and can mislead others with good rhetoric that disguises mistakes. And I want to be clear, I have no doubt that the people posting this math have no intention to deceive. But it’s easy to get caught double-counting, mistaking your sources, or trying to quantify complex cards based on your imagined scenarios.
So when you’re looking at a spoiler thread for a new card or someone’s review of a new set, just be on the lookout for these traps. And don’t be afraid to ask people to explain their numbers and how they arrived at them. And hopefully we won’t all be terrified of the next Matta Hu’uri.
Johaggis, or as some call him, “Peter”, started playing Gwent as soon as it went into closed beta. During closed beta, he peaked at #75 on ladder, but took a break from the game after open beta began. He started playing again in late 2017, and has been a consistent Pro Rank player since February 2018. Lately, he's been writing articles and doing casting for community tournaments. As a Gwent player, he tends towards Scoia’tael, particularly Francesca, though the only faction he really doesn’t play is Monsters.