Hotfixes, Patches, and the Genius of the Provision System
November 15, 2018 by lordgort
Post-Homecoming Gwent has seen its first competitive balance change, a hotfix affecting artifacts and Golden Froth-style effects. But the cards themselves didn't change; their provision costs did. What does that mean for Gwent's present...and future?
No collectible card game is balanced right from the start. Magic: The Gathering had its ridiculous Power Nine in Limited Edition Alpha. Hearthstone has a long history of patches. Artifact isn't even in open beta yet and people are already getting salty on Reddit.
It hasn't happened in 25 years of the genre. It never will.
How a company responds to early evidence of brokenness is critical. Too heavy a hand, and players become fearful to invest in cards; too cavalier an approach, and players will stop participating in a game they no longer find fun.
Gwent's first post-release change, a hotfix to provision costs of artifacts and Golden Froth effects, is one of the most on-point responses I've seen in more than fifteen years of CCG experience. I'm far from the first to sing the hotfix's praises, but that doesn't make the words any less true.
What changed: Several artifacts such as Mastercrafted Spear and row-stacking cards such as Golden Froth were made more difficult to play in decks.
Why it changed: Unintended, unfun gameplay. As CDPR noted in the hotfix announcement, "It was never the intention to enable decks based solely on Artifacts." Had artifact-based decks been fun and not broken, they would've stayed as they were. They were neither.
How it changed: CD Projekt Red increased their provision costs, making them take up more of the recruit cap in deckbuilding. All cards still play exactly as they did before, but decks containing those cards can no longer be built as they were.
Hotfix vs. Patch
Most games with competitive seasons, whether those are defined by one-month ladders or a constant rotation of cards in and out of formats, have natural breakpoints where changing the game makes sense. Whether they're called "patches" in digital games or "banned list updates" in paper, they usually come announced in advance and players can plan around them.
Hotfixes, on the other hand, can happen at any time. They are unpredictable for players, done swiftly, and (for rationally administered games) applied only in emergencies. A hotfix is logical only if the harm over the time until the next patch is perceptibly greater than the disruption the hotfix itself will cause.
The ideal hotfix, then, is minimally disruptive. Paper games such as Magic: The Gathering have difficulty hotfixing themselves; their tools largely are limited to emergency restrictions or bans, or else errata players must memorize. Digital games can replicate bans and restrictions, but also manipulate game elements such as costs or mechanics. Similarly, applying errata is near-seamless in digital.
CDPR clearly thought the new Gwent had a problem. Make that two problems: artifact-based control decks and Golden Froth decks. Two problems big enough, at a critical enough time for the game, that hotfixing was better than waiting for a patch. But what was the best way to hotfix things?
Mechanics vs. Costs
While applying true errata isn't a big deal in a digital hotfix, reducing the power of mechanics on the fly is perilous. The history of CCGs is littered with "nerfs" that turned out to be game-breaking mistakes, such as Magic: The Gathering's Skullclamp. Making new cards in a proverbial afternoon and hoping they aren't broken is no way to run a game, and CDPR didn't choose that route.
Increasing costs is a more reliable form of reducing power available to digital (and occasionally paper) games, though this approach has its own pitfalls. Too soft an approach, and you've messed with a problem without fixing it, losing credibility; too harsh an approach, and a card goes from broken to unplayable, upsetting the minority of players who enjoyed it.
Usually increased costs apply to resources required to cast a card. Yet Gwent, unlike most other games, does not have a resource system along the lines of Hearthstone's mana crystals. Instead, it has a provision system that caps the total power of a deck — a system, notably, that did not exist during Gwent's Closed or Open Beta periods.
Passing the First Test
The artifact and Golden Froth provision changes have shown how remarkably flexible the provision system is, and how well it serves as a tool for hotfixing.
Changing a Gwent card's provision cost does not alter its function. It does not break up any combos. Instead, it simply decreases the amount of provision left for other cards in the deck. For example, keeping two Mastercrafted Spears and Sihil in one's deck costs a total of seven more provision than before.
Instead of abandoning the Spears and Sihil, players can find cuts elsewhere, such as by changing a high-provision gold card to a low-provision bronze. Of course, such a change will affect a deck's power level over many games. It's the equivalent of drawing an Alba Armored Cavalry instead of Royal Decree every time. Still, the option remains, and deckbuilders have a new challenge.
To December and Beyond
As CDPR noted, the provision-cost hotfix is a temporary, locally disruptive solution until the planned wider-ranging update in December. Artifact-based control decks are less popular in Pro Rank, though by no means eradicated. Golden Froth and other row-stacking strategies are also less common. Gwent is in a decent place, and the December patch stands every chance of making the game even better.
CDPR didn't get everything right the first time. Still, the artifact/Golden Froth update is a step in the right direction; what's more, it's a promising sign of balance improvements to come.
Until then, may you always spot a bargain when you check your provision costs.