While playing each turn in Gwent may appear simple, it is anything but. A player may use one card from their hand per turn until they either pass or run out of resources. However, many complex concepts are found within this simple-looking situation. One of these concepts is key to becoming a better player: card advantage.
Unlike other card games, your ability to draw cards in Gwent is limited to your opening hand, two cards at the beginning of round 2, and one card at the beginning of round 3. This puts high importance on creating situations where you have more cards than your opponent. A simple way of viewing this is that more cards equal more points, but almost as important is that possessing card advantage allows you to have the final play of the game.
“Spies” are a great way to generate card advantage in Gwent. While “spying” is a tag for any disloyal unit, the term “spy” commonly refers to a disloyal unit that allows you to draw a card (as a reference to the original Gwent minigame in the Witcher 3). Normally playing a card each turn reduces your hand size by one. However, playing a spy will keep your hand size the same it was at the beginning of the turn. This effectively gains you a one card advantage, as your opponent still has to play a card for their turn. Keep in mind that if you play the spy after your opponent has passed, you don’t gain any advantage! You are basically redrawing a card.
When to play Spies:
1) When losing a round
This is the easiest situation to play a spy. Most commonly you’ll do this in round 2 after having won round 1. Since your opponent is required to win the round, giving them a meaningless unit in exchange for a card is appealing. You still have to be careful, however; by playing a spy, your opponent is given a window of opportunity to play their low-tempo cards while staying ahead of you in points.
Even though points don’t matter as much in round 2, staying ahead of your opponents score does. By staying ahead of your opponent, you will be able to win the round after they pass without wasting additional resources to beat them. If you can afford it, bluff the fact that you have a spy by playing your other useless cards in round 2 to bait your opponent into using stronger cards for fear they will fall behind. Similarly, you can play your spy in round 1 if you find yourself in a tight spot and have to forfeit the round. This allows you to create card advantage out of an otherwise poor situation. Your opponent will be inclined to pass when they see you play the spy, otherwise they will mostly likely end up having 2 cards less than you do. This creates some interesting situations where you can still win round 1 after playing a spy if you have a card in your hand that is a big tempo swing.
A great example for that is the Cantarella+Treason combo. Cantarella is the “spy” unit for the Nilfgaard faction and Treason is a Nilfgaard Special card that allows you to move a “spying” unit from the opponent’s side to your own and add 8 strength to it. While Cantarella loses 6 strength in the exchange due to her ability, it’s still a 26 power swing that also gives you card advantage.
2) Extending a round when ahead
Many decks need to win the 1st round to have any chance of winning the 3rd. Usually, these decks can create a large point gap between you and your opponent. Even while far ahead however, there is a chance you don’t want to be the first one to pass, as your opponent could take the round in one card (weather, for example). In those situations you can slow the game down by playing a spy. You close the gap in points, but you remain far enough ahead to make sure you win the round while maintaining card advantage. This is preferable to being slowly bled of your strong cards that you would prefer to hold for the following round.
3) In response to a Spy
Even though spies are great cards, you can still top-deck them in unfortunate situations e.g. in round 2 when you’ve already lost round 1. In these situations you can find a window to play your spy out when your opponent plays theirs, such as the scenario described above. You shouldn’t lock yourself in a situation where you keep your spy in round 3, as that’s when they are weakest. Even though those free 12 points your opponent is giving you are tempting, it may be correct to trade them back for an additional card. By doing so you maintain even card advantage while ensuring you are not stuck with a spy in the final round.
4) Scorch Protection
This is a niche situation which will not always be relevant, but with Scoiatel’s current popularity it’s worth mentioning. We’ve all been in situations where we had a great combo to play but have to worry about Scorch. With their high strength, spies will often be the strongest unit on the board and can “block” the opponent from playing Scorch.
So should I include a spy in all of my decks?
Sadly, no. Spies used to be auto-include some patches ago, but since they were nerfed to give your opponent an average of 12 points, you still have to consider if they have synergy in your deck. Keep in mind, that in Gwent you can also generate card advantage by staying ahead of your opponent and passing whenever the gap between you and your opponent’s score if big enough that they would have to waste more than 1 card to catch up to you. Before including a spy in your deck, think of your gameplan and evaluate if card advantage will help accomplish it. Being the one that plays last is very useful if you have control elements in your deck like Scorch, Geralt:Igni, or weather effects, but is less useful when your win condition is to outvalue your opponent.
In conclusion, “spies” are very valuable cards that you should think twice about before including or excluding in your deck. They can be tricky to play; choosing the incorrect moment to play one might actually lose you the game. Before dismissing the card from your deck, play a few games with one in your deck and try to recognize if you are in any of the above situations, and how playing the spy may or may not have helped you. Giving your opponent strength points doesn’t feel easy, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the road to victory.