Tom Rosen: Netrunner Diaries

Android: Netrunner arrived on the scene almost a year ago in September 2012.  Little did I know at the time that it would dramatically reshape how I spent my board game playing time.  I’d learned the original Netrunner a couple years earlier in 2010 and had played it about 75 times over the course of three years.  The new Netrunner is different though, I’ve already played it over 160 times in less than a year.  The game is almost the same, but its pervasiveness and the availability of opponents has skyrocketed.  In addition, the “living” nature of the card game with ongoing releases cleverly keeps players engaged month in and month out as the landscape of the game slowly evolves. I was skeptical at first, but have since been won over by this remake of the classic card game.

The first cycle of data pack expansions has recently concluded, so it’s a good time to look back over how the game has evolved in the months since it was first released.  The game has changed so much in under a year.  I played the game 36 times with just the base set in those first few months when the universe of available cards was rather small.  I actually tired of the game in early November due to its relatively limited scope and variability, but picked it back up after the first data pack was released in December and have been enjoying it more and more as the card pool continues to expand.  The addition of new cards actually has a directly positive impact on the gameplay itself because Netrunner is a game of bluffing and out guessing your opponent, which is less interesting when there’s a limited number of card combinations possible.  It’s a lot harder to legitimately trick someone if there’s just a small handful of possibilities for that face down card you’re advancing.  But as the number of cards available increases, the challenge of anticipating your opponent’s moves goes up and the game becomes more interesting as a result.  I suppose it’s possible that this curve could eventually switch directions if things became too unpredictable and unwieldy, but I don’t think that’s a real concern any time in the foreseeable future.

September 2012

Let’s travel way back in time to September 2012.  When the game started back then there was a tiny world of possibilities.  There was little that the Corporation could do to customize their deck and they were particularly constrained on agendas, having almost no flexibility whatsoever.  The idea of factions was new to the world of Netrunner so it was interesting to try the different factions with their varying slants on the game, but there were still few decisions to be made in the deck-building aspect of the game.  It was mostly about finding your favorite out-of-faction cards to splash in the faction you were using.  I was a particular fan of the ice Tollbooth and the upgrade Red Herrings, but didn’t especially care for the NBN faction, so found myself trying to work those into my other decks.  Tollbooth was, and continues to be, such an expensive piece of ice for the Runner to get through due to its base cost outside of the subroutine and its high strength, so is particularly good at shutting down reasonable access to R&D or HQ.  At this point I was having fun trying to flatline the Runner with Jinteki, but not having much luck, and having better success with Haas-Bioroid even if I didn’t find them quite as interesting to play.  So I’d tend to bring Tollbooth and Ice Wall over to HB, and especially enjoyed Red Herrings because I was used to upgrades not being so useful from the original Netrunner and happy to see more viable upgrades in the game (including Corporate Troubleshooter, SanSan City Grid, and Akitaro Watanabe).  Although I do miss the old Namatoki Plaza upgrade that allowed a second agenda or asset in the same server and hope that it eventually returns in some form.

On the Runner side of things, I had a similar dilemma, where I found Anarch somewhat more interesting to play, but wasn’t having much luck making Noise and his viruses work too well.  I was glad to see the old Newsgroup Filters reprinted as Magnum Opus though and could see that the Runner wasn’t going to have as big financial troubles as in the original Netrunner between that and Armitage Codebusting.  However, there were still plenty of Runner cards that I didn’t particularly want to use but was forced to, given the limited card pool available.  Overall it was nice to have the game out there in so many more people’s hands, but the full potential of the concept was far from realized and left me needing much more flexibility and variability to hold my interest.

December 2012

Thankfully, the first data pack – What Lies Ahead – was released in December 2012.  Even with just 20 new cards being added to the pool, it did wonders for reinvigorating my interest in the game.  The key for me was the addition of 4 new agendas, which made it possible for the Corporation to actually make some limited choices about how to get to 20 agenda points in their deck.  No longer were you forced to use Private Security Force in your deck if it didn’t make any sense.  Don’t get me wrong, I actually think Private Security Force can be a fantastic agenda, just as its predecessor On-Call Solo Team was, but only in certain decks, not when forced into every deck.  So the addition of cheap agendas, like Braintrust, and useful agendas, like Restructured Datapool, was an extremely welcome addition.  I’d go so far as to say that What Lies Ahead is truly an essential piece of the puzzle to making Netrunner playable over an extended period of time.

I played Netrunner 11 more times after What Lies Ahead was released (and before the second data pack came out in January).  I found myself really enjoying the game again after a hiatus in November and early December.  On the Corporation side, I was happy to have Ash 2X3ZB9CY as another agenda denial tool like Red Herrings, although it’s a terribly annoying card name for such a great card.  I also continued to be drawn to HB because of the addition of Janus 1.0.  It became my Everest to try to rez this massive piece of ice for free using Priority Requisition or Accelerated Beta Test, both core cards that were given new meaning with the release of Janus.  While it meant that Janus wasn’t going to catch the runner by surprise, it was still going to be quite the obstacle once rezzed.

On the Runner side of things, I was happy to add Imp to my Anarch arsenal of virus cards.  It was nice to finally have a way to get rid of operation or ice cards from the corporation’s HQ or R&D, when before such a feat was only possible with Demolition Run, which had to be committed before seeing the results of the run.  However, I continued to be frustrated with Gabriel’s icebreakers.  Peacock did nothing to make me want to use in-faction icebreakers in my Gabriel deck, so I continued to be stuck bringing in cards like Corroder and Gordian Blade, still two of my favorite icebreakers.  Then again, Gabriel has my favorite event cards so there’s definitely an interesting trade-off in deciding among the Runner factions.

January 2013

After the new year, the second data pack – Trace Amount – arrived in mid-January and I played the game another 22 times in the month that followed.  These 20 cards were not as transformative as the first data pack, which had brought back to life a game that desperately needed new cards, but it was still a most welcome addition to the card pool.

I quickly took apart my HB deck and built two new Corporation decks to replace it.  I was inspired by Fetal AI to revisit Jinteki and now it’s hard to imagine Jinteki without Fetal AI, which is such a helpful way of making the runner pay for stealing an agenda. Sensei was also a nice Jinteki trick for making all that ice from the core set that didn’t end the run finally do so.  I’ve always been amazed how much ice in the new version of Netrunner doesn’t end the run!

At the same time, I was convinced by Trick of Light that I could finally build an interesting and competitive Weyland deck.  I could bring back out Ice Wall and Hadrian’s Wall, putting safe advancement counters on these ice and waiting to transfer them to an agenda until I was sure I could complete it.  This also meant I could try to use Priority Requisition to rez Archer without paying the exorbitant fee of sacrificing a scored agenda. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work as well as I’d hoped and I would actually continue to try to tweak and improve this Weyland deck for months to come to little avail.

On the Runner side of things, Notoriety easily had to be my favorite new card.  The mere concept of being able to score agenda points without finding one of the Corporation’s agendas was a great addition to the game.  While Notoriety was tough to accomplish in many situations, I was dedicated to trying and was happy when I managed to pull it off every now and then, even if I doubt it was actually decisive in many games.

In this month my second copy of the core set also arrived.  I’d put off getting a second copy until after the data packs started being released so I could see where the game was headed, but eventually it became clear that additional copies of many core set cards were crucial.  It was frustrating that FFG made the card distribution lumpy in the core set and didn’t release a smaller expansion pack to round it out, but a second core set gets you most of the way there.  I was happy to finally have a second copy of the base consoles to improve the chances of drawing one early in the game, as well as key cards like Ice Carver, Corporate Troubleshooter, and SanSan City Grid (even if Ice Carver is unfortunately unique unlike its predecessor Clown).  It was also nice to finally have a third copy of cards such as the obvious Rabbit Hole as well as Red Herrings.  Now part of me wants a third core set to get one last copy of those singleton cards, but I think my willpower will hold strong and the need should go down as more and more new cards are released.

February 2013

February saw the release of the third data pack – Cyber Exodus – with 20 more cards that added interesting and helpful new cards for the Corporation and Runner alike.  I continued playing Netrunner at a fervent pace, getting in over 20 more plays in the month that followed the release of Cyber Exodus.

The first and foremost thing that excited me about Cyber Exodus was the new Shaper identity Chaos Theory.  I was happy to see the game finally experimenting with the heretofore fixed numbers of 45 for minimum deck size and 15 for allowed influence.  The idea of a smaller, more focused deck was a great addition to the game and I immediately put together a Shaper deck with just the most critical cards for hacking into the Corporation’s servers.  On the other hand, I couldn’t get excited about the card that seemed to gin up so much interest among my fellow players, Personal Workshop.  I like to hold back my cards as the Runner as much as possible, not revealing that I have a particular icebreaker until absolutely necessary for instance.  So the one money per turn economy provided by Personal Workshop was outweighed negatively for me by the need to reveal the tricks up my sleeve.  I’d personally rather stick with Magnum Opus, Sure Gamble, and Armitage Codebusting, so I can play my cards and use them right away.

The other Runner card I particularly enjoyed adding to my decks was Emergency Shutdown.  This added to the already many great event cards at Gabriel’s disposal, from Inside Job to Forged Activation Orders to Special Order and Account Siphon.  The idea of being able to derez something like Archer or Janus was too good to pass up, or even expensive ice like Tollbooth and Heimdall 1.0.  It’s so sweet when you pull off a big Emergency Shutdown, putting the Corporation’s defenses back to square one.

Both my Jinteki and my Weyland Corporation decks got new cards in the Cyber Exodus expansion as well.  Edge of World was an interesting new trap for Jinteki that didn’t have to be advanced unlike old favorite Junebug and could even trigger off of unrezzed ice, but was still difficult to bait the runner into hitting.  And Chimera was a versatile new ice for ending runs early in the game before the runner had built up their rig, although the cost proved tough for a poor faction like Jinteki to sustain.  As for Weyland, I was happy to finally see a new transaction operation in Commercialization to make more use of the base faction identity’s bonus.  But I was even more excited about Woodcutter and the new concept of advanceable ice that added subroutines rather than just strength.  Then again, I cooled a bit on Woodcutter after the second or third time that I had a nicely advanced copy destroyed by a Parasite.

March 2013

In late March, the fourth data pack – A Study in Static – was released and Netrunner began to really hit its stride with the addition of these 20 new cards to the card pool.  I got in another 10 plays through the end of April when the subsequent data pack was released.  Many of those plays centered around me trying to get my Weyland deck to work right.

I was definitely excited about the recurring credit for advancing ice provided by the new Weyland identity, which paired well with the money maker Commercialization and the cheap Ice Wall.  It was also great to add another way to rez ice without paying its cost through Oversight AI.  This provided a much easier and more reliable way to rez hideously expensive ice like Archer and Janus for free, albeit with the huge downside of being trashed if all the subroutines were broken.  An early Oversight AI on a strong piece of ice could make scoring an agenda eminently feasible near the beginning of the game.  And Weyland got a third new trick with Tyrant supplementing the previous pack’s Woodcutter.  Ultimately though, while I was initially optimistic about Tyrant and Woodcutter, they didn’t end up working so well for me in practice.  They had no element of surprise since they couldn’t be advanced while unrezzed and they took a lot of actions to add enough subroutines to deter the runner, without being able to raise their strength in contrast to the core set’s advanceable ice.

I did appreciate a couple of the new Runner cards released in A Study in Static.  Crescentus was a welcome addition to my Gabriel deck that piled on top of Emergency Shutdown yet another way to derez the Corporation’s expensive ice.  The combination of Crescentus and Emergency Shutdown really made the Corporation think twice about bothering with the most intimidating of ice like Archer and Janus.  If the Runner could easily and frequently derez such ice, it began to seem like lots of cheap ice was perhaps a better route to protecting your servers.  At the same time, the Runner added yet another strong economy card with Underworld Contact, which paired well with Rabbit Hole.  Between Magnum Opus, Armitage Codebusting, Sure Gamble, Liberated Accounts, and now Underworld Contact, the Runner was rolling in cash, but it turned out that one of the best was still yet to come.

May 2013

After releasing a data pack every month for four months, FFG must have hit a little snag in the process because no data pack was released in April.  Instead, the fifth data pack – Humanity’s Shadow – slipped until the very beginning of May.  That was alright though because I was beginning to feel like I needed more time between new releases to fully explore the new card combinations and possibilities.  With every expansion it felt like the complexity of the universe of cards was increasing exponentially since there were more cards that every new card could potentially interact with.  Sometimes keeping up with the pace of Netrunner over the past year has felt like a bit of a challenge.  That’s one of the things that drove me away from Magic back in 1999, so I hope that Netrunner manages to walk the fine line of adding to the game without making it feel like a deluge.

I got in 12 more plays in May to experiment with the latest additions to Netrunner.  The 20 cards that made up Humanity’s Shadow were all about the Runner side of things for me.  The big new card on the block was definitely Kati Jones.  This reprint of the old card Broker is an incredible neutral card that can give any Runner faction a strong economy.  With Newsgroup Filters reprinted in the core set, it was only a matter of time until we saw Broker again, and now that it was back, the Runner finally had a plethora of good money making options.  Not only did Kati save me the influence of splashing Magnum Opus out of faction, but it also saves on the precious memory units that Magnum Opus takes up, especially in Anarch decks that often find themselves running short on MU.

But I was torn in two Runner directions by Humanity’s Shadow.  On the one hand, I was eager to try the new Criminal identity Andromeda.  Reminiscent of the previously released Chaos Theory identity for Shaper, the new Andromeda effectively reduces your deck’s size by increasing your starting hand size.  However, I don’t think Andromeda really came into her own until the next expansion was released in June.  In the meantime, I was having fun digging back out my Anarch cards and using Surge to supercharge previously beloved viruses like Medium that I hadn’t tried playing with in a while.  The speed of adding two extra virus counters was certainly a new thrill.

There wasn’t much new from this pack for the Corporation in my mind, but Simone Diego was yet another card for my long beleaguered Weyland deck to help advance ice and agendas efficiently.  Ultimately though, after several months of refining the Weyland deck and trying to make it work, I gave up after May and switched to a couple of different Corporation factions that I hadn’t used in a while, as described below.

June 2013

After the longer than usual lag between the fourth and fifth data packs, the time between the fifth and sixth packs was particularly short.  The sixth data pack – Future Proof – actually arrived on May 31, in the same month as the previous data pack.  From the release of this final data pack in the first cycle on May 31 until the arrival of the first deluxe expansion – Creation & Control – two months later on July 31, I was able to get in a good 43 plays of Netrunner.  After the relatively minimal impact of the previous data pack, except for Kati Jones of course, I was happy to see that Future Proof had many more cards that I was interested in trying out.  I’ve always thought it was odd that I eagerly paid $10 each month for a pack of 20 new cards when I ultimately would only use around five to seven of those cards.  Still a few cards can make a huge difference in the tenor of the game, so I’ve been fairly pleased with the format so far.  I know the “living card game” format is nothing new to FFG and many people, but it was my first experience with it and a novel one at that.

Future Proof introduced 9 new Runner cards and 11 new Corporation cards to the mix.  I was personally most interested in the new Runner cards, which convinced me to take apart the Anarch deck I’d been working on, and switch to a Shaper and a Criminal deck instead.  The Shaper deck I tried was entirely focused on accessing R&D.  The trio of Indexing, R&D Interface, and Deep Thought was too much to resist.  I built a Chaos Theory deck that used Surge to buff up Deep Thought and Medium.  The problem was that once the Corporation player realized that my sole focus was on R&D, they could throw a few ice in front of there and it became almost prohibitively expensive to access R&D each time.  I’d have to wait until I could pair a Maker’s Eye with a couple of R&D Interfaces so I could access 5 cards at once before it became worthwhile.

I had more luck with a newly minted Andromeda deck that used the new Mr. Li and the new Faerie (paired with the old Sacrificial Construct).  I used Mr. Li to make sure I could find Kati Jones quickly and set up a full rig with not only Faerie, but also good old favorites Corroder and Gordian Blade.  I was happy to finally have a cost effective sentry breaker in Faerie, even if the downside of trashing the ice breaker after using it was huge.  It was also interesting to have a good use for Sacrificial Construct to keep Faerie around for an extra use.  I had reasonably good success with this deck and found it to be one of the more effective Runner decks I’d tried.

The last Runner card that really interested me in this pack was Data Leak Reversal, but I still haven’t figured out how to make it work effectively.  I want to be able to win as the Runner by emptying the Corporation’s deck, but I can’t see it being a viable strategy yet.  Data Leak Reversal could be a useful tool toward that end, but the fact that it’s a resource card that will quickly be trashed by the Corporation if tagged means that I can’t see how to keep it around long enough to play a meaningful role.  I fondly remember a virus card from the old Netrunner called Cascade that would gain a virus counter for every successful run on R&D and require the Corporation to trash one card from R&D for every two counters on Cascade at the beginning of each turn.  I’d love something like that for making a “millstone” deck work in the new Netrunner.

As for the Corporation, I mentioned above in May that I finally gave up on Weyland, and with the release of Future Proof, I traded it in for new decks of NBN and Jinteki.  I was excited to finally try NBN after having ignored them for so long, except of course for using cards like Tollbooth and Red Herrings in other decks.  The release of Midseason Replacements and Flare prompted me to quickly build an NBN deck.  The idea of giving the Runner many tags at once with Midseason Replacements was very intriguing since it would mean they couldn’t clear them as quickly as in the past.  Then you could follow that up with the classic Scorched Earth or Private Security Force, as well as cards like Closed Accounts and Psychographics.  The combination of these meant that through tags I could theoretically win by flatlining the Runner or emptying their bank account or quickly advancing agendas.  I also found new use in the previously overlooked Net Police from A Study in Static, which could combat the prolific Rabbit Holes that abound.  The NBN deck was great in theory, but had so many intertwining elements that it only sometimes came together in practice.

At the same time, Ronin breathed new life into Jinteki by providing the perfect counterbalance to Junebug.  Previously a card being advanced by the Corporation that the Runner suspected of being a trap was one that the Runner could safely ignore, but now a potential trap being advanced could be a Ronin that would gain the ability to do significant damage once it reached four advancement counters.  This meant that a card being advanced really had to be investigated by the Runner either by being accessed or exposed.  Finishing off a Runner with Ronin is a particularly sweet victory I’ve found.  This also upped the importance of the core card Zaibatsu Loyalty for keeping Jinteki cards hidden, giving me another reason to wish I had a third core set.  On the other hand, Jinteki still lacks an in-faction way to make money, so either needs to rely on inferior neutral cards like Private Contracts or use up its influence bringing in good money makers like Adonis Campaign.  I enjoy playing Jinteki, but always feel like I’m short on cash, which is particularly dissonant when the Runner is flush and I’m used to the original Netrunner where the financial tables were almost always turned the other way.

August 2013

With the initial cycle of six data packs completed, the first deluxe expansion – Creation & Control – was recently released at the very end of July.  While the data packs each added 20 new cards to the Netrunner universe, this deluxe expansion adds 55 new cards.  However, they’re entirely focused on the Shaper and HB factions, along with a handful of new neutral cards.  It’s interesting and a bit odd that they decided to make the card distribution among factions so lopsided.  I understand that it will presumably balance out eventually through future deluxe expansions that focus on other factions, but Netrunner is a “living” card game so it will now live through a prolonged period of strange lopsidedness.  It doesn’t necessarily make these expanded factions better, but certainly gives them more possibilities to work with and more flexibility, meaning that they’ll very likely see a lot more use.  It’s too early to tell whether this will have a positive or negative effect on the game.  So far I’ve only had the chance to play 12 more times since the release of the Creation & Control expansion.

The card that I was most eager to try from Creation & Control was the new Shaper identity Kit.  Her ability of treating the first ice encountered each turn as a code gate sounded like a fantastic trick for getting into protected servers more easily.  I was anxious to pair Kit with the old favorite codegate breaker Yog.0 and the Dinosaurus console.  This would allow the Runner to break through any and all subroutines for free on ice of strength 5 or less.  Along with further strength boosters like Helpful AI and Personal Touch, Yog.0 could be almost unstoppable.  That is of course unless the Corporation puts two pieces of ice on the same server and the innermost one is not a codegate.  It turns out the super powerful combo can easily be foiled by a cheap Pop-Up Window on the outside of any server.  So I’ve tried using the fascinating new Escher to rearrange the Corporation’s ice, putting codegates on the inside and scary sentries on the outside.  But so far Kit hasn’t worked out quite as smoothly as I had planned.

Creation & Control holds a lot of promise though.  There’s also the possibility of building a Corporation deck with no or very little ice using the new Cerebral Imaging identity.  There are so many money makers for the Corporation now that I immediately thought about using this identity and a deck full of money makers to hold a hand of 20 or more cards.  Unless the Runner happens to be using Nerve Agent, they’ll never find the agendas hidden in HQ.  I figured I would pair this with never playing an agenda to the table unless I planned on finishing it that turn through Biotic Labor (and Archived Memories to effectively have six Biotic Labors).  I ended up adding a few strong pieces of ice to protect R&D, and have managed some limited success with Cerebral Imaging so far.  However, it doesn’t quite feel like playing Netrunner when there’s almost no ice on the table and not much use for icebreakers.

I haven’t had much chance to experiment with Creation & Control yet, but there are a lot of cards I’m looking forward to trying out.  I’m anxious to use Same Old Thing to bring back the devastating Inside Job for a few more runs.  I think Same Old Thing could also be useful for reusing a variety of events, such as Surge and Tinkering.  I’m also looking forward to trying out some of the other new Shaper cards like Atman and the combination of Cloak and Dagger.  The former has the potential to provide great icebreaking capabilities when paired with ice strength adjusters like Datasucker.  The latter revives a great concept of noisy versus stealthy icebreakers from the original Netrunner.  It also provides a wonderfully cost effective way to break through sentries without having the big downside of Faerie.  Up to this point, sentry breakers have obviously been the weakest icebreakers around, which is fine since it makes the different ice types distinctive, but it is nice to see clever sentry breakers like Dagger introduced.  On the other hand, between the universal icebreakers like Atman and Darwin (and of course the old fashioned Crypsis), I’m beginning to wonder how much distinctions among ice types are going to matter.  It’s certainly nice as a Runner to only need one icebreaker to get through any type of ice, but I think it’ll be a shame if it becomes too common for people to not use the three different types of icebreakers.  I always find it interesting over the course of a game when the Runner can get through certain types of ice, while not others.

*                    *                    *

There can be no conclusion when writing about a game like this that is always evolving.  I’ll just say that it’s been a fascinating ride to see the game change over time.  I think Netrunner has improved tremendously since its fledgling core set under a year ago.  Many games just add more stuff without getting better when they are expanded, but the actual gameplay of Netrunner improves substantially when there is more variety to the potential card combinations.  The bluffing of the Corporation is much more interesting when there are more possibilities for what the Corporation could be hiding in that protected server.  I’m looking forward to the start of the Spin Cycle in September around the game’s one year birthday, or seventeen years depending on how you’re counting.  The game has honestly changed very little from its original 1996 version (although the elimination of blind bidding for traces was a definite improvement in my book), but the big change is really the pervasiveness of the game and the prevalence of opponents.  It’s wonderful to see Richard Garfield’s greatest design finally seeing such widespread play.

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One Response to Tom Rosen: Netrunner Diaries

  1. Jacob says:

    I wish this game was playable with three players.

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