Gwent’s Mulligan Update: What Is It and What Does It Mean for the Meta?
February 1, 2019 by JMJWilson23
Recently, Gwent saw its first major content update in the Homecoming era. Once again, the core gameplay saw changes; this time through alterations to the mulligan system. Such a shift completely changes how games play out and how decks are evaluated. In this article, guest writer JMJWilson analyzes the impact that the changes of the “Mulligan Update” imparts on the metagame both now and in the future.
What Did the Mulligan Update Do?
The most recent major patch to come to Gwent was received under the banner of the “Mulligan Update,” which both revamped the game’s mulligan system and incorporated leaders more directly into the provision system. Instead of each leader having a fixed number of mulligans for the entire game, both players now receive two mulligans in each of the three rounds - with the player leading off the game receiving one additional mulligan in the first round. In turn, the leader balancing system received an update. Instead of leaders being balanced by number of mulligans, they are now balanced by provisions. All decks have a “basis” of 150 provisions and receive an additional amount of provisions between 10 and 19 (as of now) added by the leader of choice. For a more complete analysis, I highly recommend reading lordgort’s Rapid Reaction article for additional insight about what such a change may mean for the game.
What this analysis aims to achieve is slightly different; instead of analyzing the changes at a high level, I will delve into the effects that the update may have on the competitive metagame directly, focusing on impacts to Pro Rank. In a sense, the update reinforces concepts that we have already seen play out, yet at the same time provides a more flexible framework to compensate for imbalances such that the overall metagame becomes more diversified.
How Much Did the Mulligan Update Change?
In essence, the Mulligan Update boils down to incentivizing the same theme we have seen play out in the Homecoming period: playing the leaders with the strongest ability. Thus far, that has come with the caveat that one must consider the mulligans available for that leader, although even this became less apparent as time went on. An example of this is the dominance of Harald the Cripple decks (illustrated below) near the end of the pre-patch period despite Harald being a leader with only two mulligans. Such a debilitating setback was overcome with a strong leader power and, importantly, card pool quality. The quality of a faction’s card pool weighs significantly on the viability of its leaders. It is important to bear this fact in mind and it explains why some powerful leaders, such as Harald the Cripple, Emhyr var Emreis, and Woodland Spirit, see widespread competitive play while others, such as Francesca Findabair and King Henselt, see minimal play due to the lackluster card pool in their respective factions.
The graph displays the average fMMR scores of the top 10 players from Season 7. As you can see, Skellige stands dominant with Harald the Cripple led decks accounting for the vast majority of this success.
So What Did the Mulligan Update Actually Change?
The main impact of the Mulligan Update was mentioned as one of the first points in this article: The update provides a more flexible framework which promotes leader and deck diversity in new ways. There are two main forms that demonstrate this and I will cover both in detail.
A Boon to Decks with Unique Play Styles
Previously, the mulligan system heavily incentivized using mulligans as a form of carryover value into later rounds. That is, using mulligans in the first, and in some cases second, round amounted to a reduction of points in later rounds (on average), and most decks preferred to save their mulligans as long as possible. Now, this is no longer the case and either player can seek to improve their hand in all rounds equally. This provides a new opportunity for decks that strongly prefer to win the first round. There are typically two types of these decks:
- Decks that play far into the second round to shorten the length of the final round and force resources out of the opponent, “bleeding” down to a strong finisher.
- Decks which require a long (typically 9-10 cards) final round in which they have the last action to make best use of their control options.
The most prevalent example of the former type is the post-patch rise of Unseen Elder Deathwish decks. This leader previously double dipped into problematic elements. First, Unseen Elder was a low mulligan count leader (it only had two), and the deck also had to use early mulligans in the first two rounds to get maximum value out of the leader ability. In addition, winning the first round was very important for the deck, which wants to control the second round and preserve its strongest cards for the final round, where the opponent will be at a disadvantage. Now, taking these additional mulligans to increase the likelihood of winning the first round isn't associated with a "cost" of points later in the game.
Sample Unseen Elder Deathwish deck provided by the duo of Gnurrgard and Wusubi
An example of the latter category is Eithné Control, although this type of deck has not yet seen a massive spike in play rate. These decks attempt to take advantage of Eithné’s leader ability to line up the power of enemy units and take advantage of large “board clear” tools afforded to them - Scorch, Regis, Schirrú, and other similar cards. Since a great deal of the power of these decks stems from the ability to remove large amounts of points from the enemy at once, they are weak to being bled in the second round to the point where their alignment tools are ineffective. Additionally, these decks are weak to the opponent possessing the final action, where they can stockpile as many points as possible, free from the removal of the Eithné player. Thus, a strong hand from using mulligans in the first round is vital.
Now, the astute among readers may point out that the advantages described in this section are symmetric; that is, both players have them. This is absolutely true, and I don’t mean to imply that these types of leaders and decks have an advantage in utilizing the new mechanics (although the deck composition should lend itself to do so). The update merely eliminated the disadvantage previously placed upon them. The inadequacy of this advantage due to its symmetric nature is one of the factors preventing these decks from taking over the metagame, though these factors will be addressed shortly.
Provides Compensation for Weak Leaders
Although the mulligan changes provided advantages to, or perhaps more accurately removed disadvantages from, some leaders to generate additional diversity, the true genius of the update comes in the form of the new balancing system for leaders. Weaker leaders are now provided with more provisions in comparison to stronger leaders. Although this balancing method still favors the leaders which are stronger, as additional points on a leader (particularly a one-time use one) are more impactful typically than extra provisions spread throughout the deck, it does provide incentive for other leaders and in some cases whole factions to see play despite limitations.
This impact has already been felt in one notable way. Prior to the update, Emhyr var Emreis was essentially the only Nilfgaard leader that saw any play in the upper stretches of the ladder, due to an equal spread of mulligans among the Nilfgaard leaders and the power provided by his leader ability. With the update, the game has seen a rise in Morvran Voorhis decks, to the point which he has likely overtaken Emhyr var Emreis for the most utilized leader in the faction. While Morvran’s ability is relatively low impact, only providing 6 points across the whole game, its utility and value are enough to justify his use to increase the provisions of the deck. An example of such a deck is provided by Team Aretuza’s own shinmiri2, in the guide for his deck titled “Bribery is my New Best Friend.” It uses the added provisions to play additional high value cards such as the titular Bribery, Ocvist, and the package of Slave Infantry and Vreemde to make high impact plays on most of its 16 turns. This is merely one way to utilize the extra provisions. They could also be utilized to further polarize the provision curve, meaning that the deck runs many low provision cards to serve as mulligan targets and many high provision cards to serve as the impactful “bombs” providing power to the deck. The end result is the same - a higher average point output from game to game at the expense of less power from the leader.
Sample decklist of shinmiri2’s “Bribery is my New Best Friend” deck
Some other leaders fit into this category as well, with varying degrees of presence in the meta. Crach an Craite saw a reasonable play rate before the update but is in line to see more play now as an alternative to Harald the Cripple. In fact, Crach an Craite decks have recently surpassed Harald the Cripple decks in popularity and power level due to the extra provisions allowing the deck to include strong cards such as Commander's Horn, at the expense of Harald's powerful finisher. Eithné fits into this category as well, leading to many competitive players referring to her as a sleeper to become a much more viable in the near future. Other leaders such as Princess Adda, King Demavend III, and King Henselt have not been able to translate the extra provisions into competitive viability yet, but they too may one day share the limelight once additional restrictions from them are removed.
What About the Rest?
In summation, the Mulligan Update generated a healthier game state by developing a more stable balancing tool for leaders, while at the same time incentivizing the use of new decks and leaders to take advantage of the changes to the mulligan system. However, as we can realistically expect, this update was unable to make all leaders, decks, and factions playable. Some leaders were left behind for various reasons, namely a lack of the provision compensation mentioned above. So fans of Usurper, Arachas Queen, Bran Tuirseach, and the like will have to wait longer to see those leaders in action at high levels. At a basic level, all leaders are capable of reaching a degree of competitive viability through a large enough provision value. However, it is important to note that the balance between leader ability and provisions paints only a portion of the total picture.
The majority of the leaders described throughout this piece that come up short of gaining a foothold in the meta find themselves in that situation for the same reason: a limited faction card pool. In the current meta, it appears that that the cards available to Northern Realms and Scoia’tael are weaker than the cards available to the other factions, which explains why three of the leaders from Northern Realms were mentioned in the previous section as seeing little to no competitive play despite receiving a provisions boost. As expansions come along however, and the card pool is fleshed out, it is quite possible that the gap between the elite and the rest of the pack is diminished and these leaders find themselves at the forefront of the scene. So even though the update has not entirely diversified the meta - adding Morvran Voorhis, Unseen Elder, and to a much smaller degree Eithné to the pool of commonly seen decks - thus far, it has laid the groundwork for future expansions to provide the missing pieces in this meta-shaping puzzle. And that, by far, is the most exciting prospect to a diversified metagame to come from Gwent’s Homecoming up to this point.