Sunday, 8 September 2013

Corp Deckbuilding: Is It The End For 49 Cards?

One of the most common deckbuilding mistakes in TCG/LCGs that new players make is playing too many cards.  Constructed Magic formats have a minimum deck size of 60 cards, and as a result 99.99% of all good Magic decks play exactly 60 cards.  New players often struggle with this, with lots of cards they want to play in their deck for specific circumstances, and lacking the discipline to cut their deck down to the bare minimum.  It’s not a crime to play 65 cards but if you’re trying to be serious about your chances of winning you’re only making them worse by going over the minimum – it reduces the chances of seeing your best cards, and increases the chances of seeing cards that shouldn’t really be in your deck to begin with.

60 cards?  You folks ain't from round here, are ya?

The minimum deck size rule holds true in almost any TCG or LCG, but it’s one of the many sacred cows of TCG strategy that doesn’t apply in Android: Netrunner.  Specifically, the Corp has a really good reason for wanting to play more than the minimum cards because it allows him to spread his Agenda cards more thinly through his R&D.  Playing 49 cards (the most you’re allowed to play with only 20-21 Agenda points in your deck) makes it less likely that you’ll draw a clump of Agendas at once that stock up in HQ, and also makes it less likely that the Runner will hit an Agenda if they run the top card of R&D.

For a long time 49 cards has been the accepted staple size of competitive Corp decks, as decreasing the percentage of Agendas in R&D has been a desirable strategy.  There is a growing argument now, however, for Corp decks to return to their minimum 45 cards specifically to INCREASE their Agenda density.

Two factors are merging that encourage this trend:

1)   The rise of Runner decks using Medium and R&D Interface means that mid-game the thin Agenda density does a lot less to protect you from the Runner scoring Agenda points off the top of R&D.  In many cases a thin Agenda density actually works AGAINST the Corporation because the Runner becomes better at seeing cards in R&D than the Corp is!  In the lategame it can be very difficult for the Corporation to see new cards out of R&D without the Runner having already accessed them.  Playing fewer Agendas still slows down the rate at which you’re losing, but by making the game longer you often play further and further into the Runner’s hands.

2)   One of the best ways to combat the late-game power of current strategies likes the R&D Interface or Atman-Datasucker combination is to prevent the game actually getting into the late game by winning early.  To win early you need to draw Agendas, and to draw Agendas you need to increase your Agenda density.

 A common position in Netrunner is for the Corporation to score a couple of Agendas, and to be on 4 or 5 Agenda points, and then wait to draw another Agenda so they can win.  The Runner can punch through the Ice at that point but with upgrades like SanSan City Grid or Ash 2X3ZB9CY, or ‘fast advance’ tricks like Biotic Labor and Trick of Light the Corp can sneak their final Agenda point out and win the game.  More and more, however, the Corp gets to 4 or 5 Agenda points and then finds the Runner denies them the chance to ever draw another Agenda by powering through into R&D every turn or two, looking at three or four cards at a time.  

More and more, the Corp’s late game tricks for scoring an Agenda are being devalued by not being given an Agenda to score – keeping Agendas thin in your deck just prolongs the inevitable moment when the Runner steals them from R&D.

This anecdote comes from Magic: The Gathering.  A friend of mine was playing in a tournament and he was winning his match but his opponent kept playing spells that gained him a lot of Life points and my friend was struggling to actually chase his opponent down and finish the match.  We had long since finished our games and went over to watch the end of his match, which our friend eventually (and inevitably) won.  He breathed a huge sigh of relief at having won what he considered a tough game, but we were of a different opinion…

“That was tough”

“What?  His deck was rubbish.  All he ever did was gain life.”

“True, but look how long it took me to kill him”

Look.  How long.  It took me.  To kill him.  

That’s a very telling phrase, the most important part of which is that our friend did eventually kill his opponent.  In fact with each lifegain spell his opponent played our friend’s chance of winning the game actually increased, because it was another spell that did nothing to actually change the game.  By gaining lots of life his opponent had ensured that a short game he could win turned into a long game he couldn’t.


“Look how long it took me to kill him” has become a bit of a catchphrase among my Magic friends for the futility of playing cards that only prolong your defeat, and it’s kind of the way I feel about some Corp decks that run 49 cards.

Don’t get me wrong, for a lot of Corp decks 49 cards is still right.  If you’re not trying to score 7 Agenda points quickly then 49 cards is probably the right call.  If you’re trying to set up a Midseasons/Psychographics combo with Project Beale; play 49 cards.  If you’re trying to win a long game of economic attrition with cards like Gila Hands Arcology and Archer; play 49 cards.  But more and more the best play for a Corp under pressure from Atman-Datasucker is to get the game over with ASAP, and that requires seeing Agendas.  Yes, sometimes you risk drawing too many Agenda in the early game but that's the counterbalance to the risk of NOT seeing them in the late game, and in a deck with a lot of cheap End the Run ICE you have a good chance of scoring those Agendas in hand before the Runner has even finished breakfast.

How many Agendas is TOO many?
Both my current Corp decks are 45 cards, and the NBN identity “The World is Yours”, which has a minimum deck size of just 40 cards, has recently been creeping up the win percentages on Octgn (as you can read about HERE), powered partly by the excellent Jackson Howard.  We aren’t seeing the end of the 49 card decks just yet but I believe we are in a period where there is now a legitimate decision to make between the two strategies and the two deck sizes.  If you’re trying to be quick, which is a good tactic these days, then 45 cards may well be your best option.

 This topic was initially discussed on Boardgamegeek HERE.