Guess Your Opponent's Hand (Information Play)
This article is also available in video form on Youtube.
The number one thing which distinguishes good players from consistently excellent ones is the way in which they handle information. To be successful at card games, you have to be aware of all the information that is available to you – and you have to process it effectively.
The first thing I’ll do in this article is to try and list all the pieces of information that players usually miss in the context of a game. This list will probably not be comprehensive – it would be very hard to cover all the possible sources of information in any given game. You can generally divide the information you get during a game in two types: Game Knowledge and Conditional Information.
Game Knowledge is the obvious one – it’s the thing that separates someone who’s never played a game of Gwent from the people with 200 hours logged on it. As you go into a game and see your opponent’s leader, you’re immediately called upon to make decisions – which cards do you mulligan? Which do you keep and what do you play first? Do you want multiple Priestesses of Freya in hand, or is one enough? Or none? The answer will hinge on how much removal your opponent runs, how much you depend on that Savage Bear sticking in order to have a win condition, how much it’ll hurt you if you have dead cards in Round 1. These are all key questions whose answers come not from logic as much as from knowing the state of the game. You either know that you should not mulligan away First Lights against Dagon, or you don’t. Of course, this is much broader than just mulligans, and it affects your play at all stages of the game. It’s just as important to know what to mulligan as it is game-winning to know that you need to play around Villentretenmerth in the third round – and your winrate will surely plummet if you don’t consider the possibility of Tibor Eggebracht if playing against Nilfgaard.
Where you get your Game Knowledge from matters – while you could just ask someone who’s played a lot what you should be taking in consideration, this isn’t always reliable. Ultimately, the only real way for you to improve your Game Knowledge is to play the game, or to watch streams of people playing the game. Fortunately, it doesn’t take too long comparatively – in fact, it should only take you a few games against meta decks to identify their main threats and things of which you should be wary. That isn’t to say that this is perfect knowledge – in fact, you can and should play against common decks as much as you can, and you’ll still learn new strategies and interactions after hundreds of games: such is the beauty of Gwent. But you can be very competitive while just playing around the biggest and most common threats in the meta, and an overall understanding of the meta requires only that you play, and pay attention.
A much harder kind of information to process effectively is Conditional Information. This is the sort of information that your opponent must be the one to provide – and it’s not even certain how much, or what sort, they will actually give to you. As such, it’s very important that you’re ready to capture every piece of information that does get offered to you. Not even the very best players can entirely stop themselves from giving away information, although they do know how to minimize it.
But what specifically is this information? For one, it’s information you get from the sequencing of your opponent’s plays. This is the hardest kind of information to deny your opponent, because very often the optimal sequencing for your plays is also sequencing that reveals the contents of your hand. A very good, obvious example of this is the current iteration of Spella’tael. If during Round 3 Villentretenmerth gets played while the Scoia’tael player has 6 cards in hand, you can safely infer that he wants to play three cards after Villentretenmerth’s effect triggers. Usually, those will be triple Dol Blathanna Protectors, or two Protectors and a spell card, or Ithlinne and two other cards. Regardless, you can infer from their line of play something about the content of their hand – usually, looking at the cards played and counting the number of spells is enough to guess whether they’re holding on to spells, Protectors, or golds with a certain level of security. You can then adapt your play accordingly – while you can never be entirely sure, you can know, for instance, that there’s a very low probability that your opponent has a Dimeritium Shackles in their hand, since they would have played Villentretenmerth a turn earlier to guarantee that they could play around a Shackles of your own. This kind of information reaches you in two stages – first, it is given to you by the lines of play chosen by your opponent. Every single play your opponent makes is in lieu of another one. Trying to understand why the person you’re playing against would play a particular thing as opposed to another is a good habit that should generally influence your line of play. Of course, there is also the issue of misinformation – your opponent can specifically play in a certain manner to make you think he has a particular card. But that’s very high level play, and outside the scope of this video. For now, what matters is that the information is available for you to pick up on, IF – and this is an important thing – you are aware of its existence and of how to process it. Most top level players are constantly trying to infer the contents of their opponents’ hands, and they’re very diligent in using every bit of information available to them – but this is a skill that most good players don’t exercise enough.
Another kind of Conditional Information is that which comes from sources other than the actual play of your opponent. This includes things that would generally not be considered important in the scope of a game: for instance, how long your opponent takes to choose a line of play or the cards upon which he hovers. The most obvious example of this is graveyard disruption – if you’re playing against someone who doesn’t know how important it is to hide information, assuming once again he’s not giving you misinformation, it’s very easy to notice when things like Caretaker, Katakan and other sorts of disruption are in their hand, because they’ll spend a fairly long amount of time looking at your graveyard. With cards like Renew and Katakan, for instance, they’ll spend a long time checking both graveyards. If they have Yennefer in hand, they’ll hover all the cards on the field while they count them to decide whether to spawn Unicorn or Chironex. These are all things that you can use to infer the contents of their hands – and while very good players will generally send false signals or try to hide this information as much as possible, you need only see the VODs of the last couple of tournaments to realize that information like this slips through the cracks at the highest level of play as well.
Conditional Information also includes the amount of time your opponent takes to make a decision – in fact, in Yu-Gi-Oh, it’s normal for most competitive players to purposely take a long time with their turns in order to hide this sort of information. Imagine your opponent has two lined-up Dol Blathanna Protectors that just so happen to be in the same row. You then instantly play Scorch. What kind of information did you give him? Probably that you don’t run or have Geralt: Igni. Of course, this is only relevant in some very specific situations – but if you take a long time to decide, you might be able to get your opponent to think that you’re trying to decide between playing Scorch and Geralt: Igni, and thereby push him to make a suboptimal play to go around the latter. Some decisions are easy if you have a given card in hand – and if you take a very long time, you hint at considering a very hard decision. This is also important in that it might help you judge when your opponent is considering when to pass or when to play more into the round. If he takes a long time deciding without hovering anything, and plays something at the last minute, that might be an indicator that he’s running out of things he wants to play this round and looking for a way to get out. It’s exactly because this information exists that a lot of very high level players purposefully rope until the last second – if you always take the same amount of time to decide on your play, your opponent can’t reasonably deduce the contents of your hand because of it.
The last card of Conditional Information that I want to talk about is that which is given to you by the actual mechanics in the game. This is the information you get from cards like Brouver Hoog and Ge’els. If your opponent uses Brouver Hoog, you can immediately infer approximately how many silver cards he has in his hand, since using Brouver shows you how many silver unit cards he has left in his deck. Noting this information down is very important – later, when you’re trying to predict the exact content of your opponent’s hand, you can use this information to complement all the other kinds of information we’ve talked about: he’s played 2 silvers and has 3 silvers in deck, so he likely has one silver card in hand. Perhaps he’s allowing you to buff your Morkvarg because he has ways to stop it, which implies that the silver left in his hand is a lock effect. Knowing this, you can effectively play around it by saving your own locks, Decoy or a silver resurrection. If your opponent uses Ge’els and you’re shown only one card, you know that he is out of either silver cards or gold cards in his deck. And if he selects a spell card and hovers it over one of his own cards, but then cancels it, you know for certain that that card needs to be something that can target their own side of the field – which means that it isn’t a weather card or something like Scorch.
Being aware of all the information that is given to you during the course of a game is invaluable, and it will have a noticeable effect on your winrate. By simply knowing that all of these sources of information exist, and by training yourself to try and notice them as much as you can, you can make more accurate predictions and be more secure knowing that the line of play you choose is the optimal one.