Image via CD Projekt Red
This week the Midwinter Update for Gwent, CD Projeckt Red's card game based off The Witcher 3, finally went live. Gwent, which is still in beta, gets patched pretty regularly, but not like this. Popular cards have seen their abilities simplified and weakened, and text descriptions that added flavour to the game have now been removed. On top of all that, Projeckt Red also overhauled much of the user interface. As a result, the most vocal parts of the Gwent community have revolted.
The giant update was long overdue and included things that were nice to finally see, such as the merging of the deckbuilding and card collection areas. Previously the screen where you built new decks was different from where you could craft cards, leading to a frustrating back-and-forth when constructing something new.
Other changes have been more controversial, including a limit to the number of cards that can be placed on a single row and tweaks to the game's presentation that make it more colourful and action-oriented. In addition to adding over 100 new cards, the Midwinter Update also changed a number of existing ones in substantial ways. The changing of cards is what has drawn the most scrutiny.
For example, Clan Hunter is a bronze Skellige card that was quite popular in recent weeks. Prior to the patch its ability read "Whenever a Unit adjacent to this one is Damaged, Strengthen Self by 1. Deploy: Damage a Unit by 4." Players could combine Clan Hunter with other Skellige cards that damaged one another to get stat buffs. For instance, Light longship damaged the card to its right and strengthened itself every turn, while Clan An Craite Greatsword reset any damage it had taken every two turns and then strengthened itself by two.
In combination, these cards would automatically get more powerful each turn if placed in the right configuration, a strategy that plays into the principles of positioning and placement synergy that help set Gwent apart from other card games.
Now, after the Midwinter update, Clan Hunter's card reads "Deal 5 damage." Gwent streamer Mogwai's reaction to the card on a recent stream sums up many players' feelings on the change. "This guy's effect was really cool, why dumb him down like this?" he said. "That card had a lot of flavour." Previously a unique weapon with very targeted abilities that made it a key part of "self-harm" Skellige decks, Clan Hunter is now a blunt force hammer.
In keeping with this line of thinking, Projekt Red also changed the name of the card, which used to be called Clan Brokvar Hunter. Skellige cards drawn on Nordic culture, and their titles often reference specific clans in The Witcher series more generally, each with their own attributes and back story.
Clan Brokvar, for example, are considered cowards by the islands' other major families, but also great archers. The original version of the card played off this dichotomy. Now it feels generic and toothless.
For the dedicated Gwent players who have been living with the game over the course of the last year, little things like clan titles go a long way. Callbacks to the larger world of The Witcher games are part of Gwent's charm.
Players were sceptical about this shift even before the latest patch went live, seeing it as an attempt to simplify the game before it officially releases and possibly makes its way to mobile (currently you can only play on PS4, Xbox One, or PC). Accompanied by the laundry list of other nerfs and reworks, however, the loss of proper nouns has become added salt in the wounds of a player base struggling to square where the game is headed with where it was during the rest of 2017.
The overhaul of the game's UI is a good case in point. On the one hand there are things that make it easier to follow what's going on during matches. Gwent's a complex game, in part because of the ways it deviates from normal card games. There's more to it than just two players facing off, bashing one another with monsters and spells until someone's life total reaches zero.
Unlike in Magic: The Gathering, Gwent revolves around players earning points by placing cards on different rows of a board with opportunities for bluffing and folding. It shares something in common with poker and dominoes in this respect, and can also be harder to follow as a newcomer for these very reasons.
The new UI tries to make the game easier to read by having unique animations for when cards are attacked, healed, or destroyed, as well as by introducing new menu screens for when players mulligan, or replace, cards. There's more colour overall as well, which can make the game more inviting or more distracting depending on how you look at it.
One popular thread on the Gwent subreddit that blew up was from a graphic designer who goes by PaleAleDale. "I've seen a lot of complaints on here about the design being 'plain' or 'ugly,'" he wrote. "As someone who's done graphic design work for years, I don't entirely agree because all of the newest elements are pretty cohesive on their own."
What he did think the update did was diminish Gwent's unique identity. He went on,
"The colours are brighter, the sights and sounds are friendlier, cards hover and flip and gently land on the board. Gone are the bloody consumes, whiplash-inducing trebuchet hits, and the feeling of walloping the board with a card like it was a two-ton slab of metal. There's no more visual weight to anything, really."
From the visual overhaul to the oversimplification of previously beloved cards, many Gwent players have found something to complain about with the latest update. Either the cards are too small, or the overlays are too ugly, or names have gotten too boring. Other players are worried about the rise of certain cards that rely on luck, like Hym, which lets you spawn a random silver card from the enemy's deck.
In the end, part of why the community is freaking out about all of the latest changes revolves around the elephant in the room: Hearthstone. Ever since Blizzard nailed how to do digital card games with its 2014 release, other card games have struggled to both learn from it and also differentiate themselves. Everything from the streamlined card art to the generic fantasy presentation have helped make Hearthstone look as enticing and intimidating as Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and other popular smartphone games.
Gwent escaped this in part because of its strange journey from being a niche distraction in a sprawling open-world RPG to a stand-alone card game. A carryover from The Witcher 3, it's retained most of that game's gritty character and charm. The Midwinter Update is different, in part because it's easy to see traces of Blizzard's popular card game throughout.
As someone who's fallen down the Hearthstone well plenty of times, I can appreciate that concern, not because I dislike the game but because I originally came to Gwent for something different. Something darker and a bit more esoteric. Something more, well, Witcher-y.