Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Three Phases of Netrunner

When you start playing anything like a new TCG or LCG it can be really confusing – you’re trying to understand the rulebook with one hand and then taking in new cards you’ve never seen before with the other. 

What does that card say?  What does that mean?  Is it good?  Can I do anything about it?
It’s like being cast adrift on the ocean – unending waves in every direction and no fixed landmarks.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, so long as you’re enjoying the journey and this is how many players experience and enjoy TCG/LCGs.  They break out the cards with no intention of doing anything more than seeing where it takes them.  Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but they enjoy the journey.

One of the key moments in mastering a game, however, is when you stop to take the time to look for the common landmarks unique to that game.  Every time you play the cards will arrive in a different order so it will never be exactly the same but you will find patterns behind the cards that help you to take control.  No longer are you just enjoying the experience of being swept away by the game’s currents: now you’ve got a say in where you want it to take you, and in how you’re going to get there.

So much for my obscure analogy that was primarily an opportunity to use a still from Life of Pi.  Let’s talk about Netrunner…

Netrunner has a pattern to it.  Every game of Netrunner is different, but every game is a duel between and Runner and a Corporation.  Every game of Netrunner is different, but every game sees the Runner and Corporation faced with similar problems that require similar responses.  Recognising the patterns in the game, and where you fit into that pattern, helps you to understand what you need to do.  It can help you when deckbuilding, to put in cards that will work towards a goal rather than working against each other, and it can help you during the game to help you make the right play for that point of the game.

DISCLAIMER: I’m about to make a lot of generalisations about Netrunner games.  Not all of these are true all the time.  There are exceptions.  Games are different, decks are different and aim for different objectives, but these generalisations will be true more often than not.


1) Early Game – Runner Advantage

The early game in Netrunner is the first few turns and the defining characteristic of this portion of the game is that it puts a huge amount of time pressure onto the Corporation.  The Corp starts the game with a To Do list as long as your arm and simply not enough hours in the day (or clicks in the turn) to do them all:
  • Protect HQ
  • Protect R&D
  • Establish Remote servers
  • Protect Remote servers
  • Gain the cash needed to pay for all of the above

Typically it will take the Corp three or four turns to do all this and while the Corp is struggling to install some web protection more robust than Norton Antivirus the Runner has a chance to exploit the holes in the Corps defences.  This ties back to my article about the risk/benefits of the Runner being aggressive in the earlygame and explains the common adage “Run Early, Run Often”.  The early game belongs to the Runner because the Corp is starting from zero while the Runner can run from click one.

Corporations often aim to bring the first phase of the game to an end as quickly as possible, which is usually done by playing a suite of cheap Ice that helps you to secure your servers without spending too much cash.  If you rely on Ice that costs 4 or 5 credits as your early defense you CAN rez a piece of Ice on one server but you’ll be struggling to then protect other servers.  Now the key word I used here is ‘secure’ the servers, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as ensuring the Runner can’t access them by using Ice that ends their run.  While the humble Ice Wall is the king of the early game by locking up a server for a single credit you can use other effects like Neural Katana, Hunter, Data Raven etc to secure a server simply by making it too painful for the Runner to run on it.

On the Runner’s side of the equation some Runner decks try to make Phase 1 last as long as possible by disrupting the Corp’s ability to get his basic defences set up.  This is a strategy that you probably associate more with Criminal Runners, who use cards like Account Syphon, Emergency Shutdown, Crescentus and Inside Job to stretch the cash of the Corp to breaking point, while the Anarchs bring some early game pain in the shape of cards like Vamp and Parasite.

2) Midgame – Corp Advantage

The second phase of the game is underway once the Corp has set up his defences to the extent that the Runner now has to spend time and resources going away to build a rig – a mix of economy and Icebreakers that will let the Runner efficiently attack the Corps defences.  It is in this second phase that the Corporation is best able to pursue its goals, relatively safe behind Ice that the Runner doesn’t want to tangle with.

A common trap for a Corp player to fall into here is to immediately re-invest in deeper and deeper defences rather than using this window to advance and scoring Agendas.  The incremental advantage you gain from deeper Ice towers WILL make a difference later in the game, but in this stage simply having a Code Gate/Sentry/Barrier that ends the run is keeping the Runner out – you don’t need Chum and Corporate Troubleshooter installed to make sure that happens.  The more you spend time adding redundancy to your Ice layers, the more time you give to the Runner to start making your Ice layers redundant.

While some Corporation decks play cheap Ice to try and force a transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 as early in the game as possible some Corp decks run the opposite strategy and use big expensive-to-break Ice like Tollbooths, Archers, Heimdalls and the like to raise the bar the Runner has to reach before they can really have efficient routes through to the Corps servers.  Whether you’re trying to get into Phase 2 quickly or prolong leaving it, most Corp strategies involve making Phase 2 as long as possible.

For Runners the objective is to set the rig up as quickly as possible and force the game into Phase 3, and if Criminals and Anarchs are the Runners who most frustrate the Corp in Phase 1 it’s Shapers who are the best at assembling a dominant rig in super-fast time to get into Phase 3.  This is where your Self-Modifying Codes and Test Runs help the Shapers to assemble a suite of Icebreakers more quickly than simply having to draw to find them, while Criminals and Anarchs often put their faith in Crypsis to break all types of Ice, but then need to find a strong supply of cash to keep Crypsis fed with credits.

3) Endgame – Advantage Runner

Phase 3 is the endgame.  It’s where the Corp has Ice installed and rezzed and the Runner has Icebreakers installed and fuelled.  It’s a battle between the two economies – the Runner can break through anywhere so long as they have enough cash, and all the Corp can do is make it more and more expensive to do so.  Unfortunately for the Corp it becomes more and more expensive to install extra layers of Ice so the endgame battle is weighted in the favour of the Runner, who doesn’t have to spend their clicks on installing more and more icebreakers.

The Corp needs a plan for the endgame, which is where many of the Fast Advance strategies come in, such as SanSan City Grid or Biotic Labor.  With it becoming increasingly difficult to secure a remote server long enough to advance and score Agendas the ability to install and score in one turn becomes invaluable.  Other approaches are cards that will temporarily keep the Runner at bay for a turn: Corporate Troubleshooter or Ash 2X3ZB9CY are good examples, but without that the Corp has to and distract the Runner and make him use his cash on runs that don’t matter, leaving them short when an Agenda is on the line.

For the Runner the object of the endgame is simply to take advantage of all the hard work you put in while building your rig.  You can focus on Central server assaults with R&D Interface or Medium, or simply build resources and wait for the Corp to give you Agendas to run at in remote servers.  This is your time to shine.  It doesn’t mean the Runner can’t lose a game, especially when the Corp is bringing its Fast Advance tricks, but the odds are now stacked in your favour.

Summing Up

Hopefully this gives you a structure to start thinking about both your deckbuilding, and your games of Netrunner.  If you’re building a Corp how are you planning to expand the second phase of the game – are you going to play cheap Ice or expensive Ice?  How are you planning to squeeze out the last few Agenda points once the game gets into Phase 3? 

If you’re the Runner you have the opposite problem to worry about – are you going to try and extend the early game, or abandon it completely and start planning for the endgame right away?

Trying to do both with one deck is very difficult because it’s likely to make your deck quite inconsistent – you can’t guarantee seeing your early game cards early and your late game cards late, and are likely to get them the wrong way around.  Account Siphon and Vamp are great early on, but drawing it on turn 10 is a lot less impressive when the Corp has a couple of rezzed Ice over HQ already.  The Corp gets this same problem as well – Ice Wall on turn 10 probably costs the Corp more to rez and install than it does the Runner to break past it, and Archer or Tollbooth in your opening hand does little to help you set up.  Does this mean you can’t play Ice Wall and Archer in the same deck?  No.  But you have to weight one way or the other, and particularly if you’re trying to max the early game then Tollbooths and Archers are to be used only sparingly.