Guest author Philo delivers the basics on how to correctly predict the contents of your opponent’s hand – and what they plan to do with it.
What are reads?
Making a read is making an educated guess at the cards that your opponent has in their hand. Additionally, it may also refer to educated guesses about the contents of your opponent’s deck, and what they are likely to draw next.
Why are reads important?
Most card games, and all collectible card games (to my knowledge) are games with imperfect information, meaning you generally don’t know everything about what resources your opponent has and what they are capable of doing. Compare this to games with perfect information, like Chess or Go.
In most card games, imperfect information adds a layer of complexity in decision making. Imagine a game like Poker without imperfect information. If everyone knew everyone else’s hand and what cards would be drawn next, the game would be trivial. Imperfect information can lead players to make suboptimal decisions. The player who possesses more information has the advantage, other things held equal. Let’s go through the fundamental processes of reading your opponent’s hand, one piece at a time.
Step 1: Knowing the Meta
For all deckbuilding card games, the first and most important step in making reads is knowing the metagame. Most deckbuilding games will have a large enough pool of available cards to allow for the possibility of many different kinds of decks. As such, without any knowledge of the kinds of decks that are the most popular, it would be nearly impossible to be able to predict exact contents of your opponent’s deck, let alone their hand. If you want to make reads effectively, then make sure you know what decks are popular and what’s in those decks.
Step 2: The mulligan and the opening hand
Many CCGs operate with some kind of resource system that constrains the number and types of cards you can play on a given turn. The most prominent example of this is the mana system in Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone. Mulligans play a big role in games like these, since there are limits on the kinds of cards you can play on turn one. As a result, making reads on the mulligan will matter in these games. An opponent who mulligans their entire hand is less likely to have a turn one play than an opponent that keeps several cards in their hand.
The purpose of a mulligan is to remove undesirable cards in the hopes of drawing desirable cards instead. One can make reads on the quality of an opponent’s opening hand based on their mulligan and possibly make reads on their early game options.
Step 3: Thinking like your opponent
During the game, making reads effectively generally requires that you make a certain assumption about your opponent. You must assume that your opponent is a competent player that knows how to play their deck well. With this assumption in place, the question you must ask yourself after every turn is this:
“What was the best possible play that my opponent could have made? Did my opponent make that play?”
If the answer to the second question is “no,” then it is likely that your opponent did not have that card. This is the fundamental, bread-and-butter technique of making reads.
Step 4: Tracking your opponent’s hand
For most digital CCGs, the back of your opponent’s hand is visible to you, and the arrangement of your opponent’s hand is fixed, starting with the earliest card the opponent drew on the left end and the most recently drawn card on the right end.
Using this information along with the method given in step 3 allows you to make certain inferences about cards that your opponent has held over a number of turns. Again, assuming that your opponent in competent, if she’s been holding on to a card for a while, you can reasonably infer that the card’s use is situational. Perhaps it’s a removal of some kind. Alternatively, it may be some kind of finisher, or a combo piece.
Step 5: Tracking your opponent’s deck
Playing to your outs is another important skill in card games. What does it mean to “play to your outs?” Roughly speaking, playing to your outs means that at any point in the game, you recognize what strategy gives you the highest probability of winning, identifying the cards in your deck that will enable you to execute said strategy, calculate the odds of drawing those cards, and if the odds are acceptable, applying that strategy to your current hand.
Again, if your opponent is competent, it is likely that they will play to their outs as well. By tracking the cards that they’ve played, you can arrive at reasonable conclusions on what cards they have remaining in their deck. This information in turn allows you to calculate the probability of your opponent drawing into their outs and compare that with your own probability. This can have a major impact on your endgame strategy.
Step 6: Tells and Bluffs
Even though you can’t physically see your opponent, you can still observe some aspects of his behavior. Most, if not all digital CCGs have UI features that will show certain actions that your opponent makes. For instance, you might be able to see your opponent grab a card from her hand before she plays it. You might also be able to see if your opponent’s mouse cursor is floating above certain areas on the game board, like your hand or the graveyard. All of these little things can serve as “tells,” i.e. behavior that indicates something important about your opponent’s hand.
When both players are skilled at making reads, another layer of complexity appears. Since your opponent is paying attention to everything that you do, you can try to mislead by using what would normally be considered tells. This is fairly common at high levels in games like Hearthstone, where players might grab a card and point it at a minion, and then place the card back in their hand, leading their opponent to think that they might have a removal. This kind of bluffing only works when players are already skilled at making reads.
Making Reads in Gwent: Discussion
Gwent has game mechanics that make it unique among other card games. Here are some of those mechanics that are relevant for the purposes of making reads.
- There is no resource constraint (like mana) on playing cards. You can play any card in your hand at any turn.
- Generally speaking, you can only play one card from your hand per turn.
- The object of the game is not to bring your opponent’s health to zero. The object of the game is to have a greater total score than your opponent at the end of two out of three possible rounds.
- Outside of features particular to certain cards, there are no draw mechanics in the game after drawing at the beginning of the round.
- Both players draw 10 cards at the beginning of the first round, 2 cards at the beginning of the second round, and 1 card at the beginning of the third round.
- Both players can mulligan up to 3 cards at the beginning of the first round, 1 card at the beginning of the second round, and 1 card at the beginning of the third round.
- Outside of mechanics stated in the card text, there is no interaction between units either on the same side or on the opposing side.
- The minimum deck size is 25 cards. There is a maximum of 4 golds and 6 silvers that can be added to a deck. There is a minimum of 15 bronzes that must be added to the deck, and a maximum of 40.
Here are some of my observations on how reads might work in Gwent compared to other CCGs.
It seems that in some sense, making reads in Gwent is more difficult than in other CCGs. First, since other card games have a mana system or something similar, you know that, generally speaking, the majority of an opponent’s deck is not going to be playable during the early game. During later turns, you generally know that the strongest play that your opponent makes will be to play the card that uses all of the mana that they have available that turn. If you know the composition of your opponent’s deck, then you can generally infer what an opponent is going to play on a particular turn by narrowing down your opponent’s deck to the cards whose mana cost matches the mana available that turn. (This of course is extremely broadly stroked, and I am aware of many decks that don’t just play on the mana curve.)
Since there are no mana constraints in Gwent, it is not enough just to know the contents of your opponent’s deck. What you must also know is your opponent’s game plan. You need to know what their strongest opener is, how they intend to generate tempo, what they will do to disrupt your own tempo generation, whether they intend to win the first round, how long they want the third round to be, and what their strongest finisher is. By knowing your opponent’s game plan, you will be able to make effective reads by noting any deviations from this plan. If you don’t know your opponent’s game plan, then it will be difficult, it not impossible, to make any reads based on deviations.
Here’s a simple example. A common opener for a Dagon Swarm deck that wins the coin flip is to either play Woodland Spirit, or play Royal Decree and pull Woodland Spirit out of the deck. If you observe that your opponent is going second and has not played either of these cards, then you can reasonably infer the she doesn’t have either in her hand. This will significantly alter how you approach the first round of the game.
Knowledge of your opponent’s game plan is essentially not only for making reads in game, but also for making reads during the mulligan. The purpose of mulliganing in Gwent is not to find cards that you can play in the early game. Rather the purpose of mulligans in Gwent is to find cards that make the most impact in furthering your game plan. What sorts of reads you can make from your opponent’s mulligan will depend on your knowledge of his game plan. And it will be these reads that may swing the odds in your favor – whether in ranked, on the pro ladder, or even tournaments.