Thursday, 5 June 2014

Lucky Is As Lucky Does - A Study In Variance

It's been a long while since my final Netrunner tournament report got cut off midway through by the onset of extreme apathy.  Apologies to those still waiting on tenterhooks to learn about how that random tournament went (short story: I won some games of Netrunner and lost some other games) but since then I haven't lifted an Icebreaker or Asset in anger, and to be honest I haven't really felt like I missed a thing.

However something happened this past weekend that has given me something that I want to write about, and a lesson that I think it's important to try and teach.  This is going to be a blog inspired by my experiences at the Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix in Manchester, but fear not Netrunners because I think the lessons apply to most card games, Netrunner included.  I'll try to keep it grounded enough in clicks and credits that you can follow me.

I want to talk about a vitally important (but often-ignored) topic: I want to talk about Variance.

Variance 101

Variance is a term that that comes originally from statistic and probability analysis, and it has bled into CCGs/LCGs primarily via the players who crossover into Poker tournaments.  In a nutshell Variance is used to define how much each individual result can be expected to vary away from the average result. For example, consider if I asked a hundred people to pick a number between 0-20, the average would be 10.  If I then asked a hundred people to pick a number between 8-12 the average would remain 10, but the answers would be much more tightly grouped.  
In a 0-20 range there is a higher 'variance' on the possible answers than in an 8-12 range.

Variance is closely related to what you may classically have thought of as being 'lucky' or 'unlucky'.  In truth the terms are pretty much interchangeable but because luck tends to bring a lot of superstitious connotations along with it most serious players prefer to talk about variance.  Once you stop talking about luck and start talking about and understanding variance you can start to take control of that element of the game you are playing and you can make it work for you.

Let's talk about what happened to me in the Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix in Manchester.

Firstly: I don't play Magic: The Gathering.  

Don't get me wrong, I used to play Magic A LOT.  Back in the late 1990's I was probably playing Magic up to a dozen hours a day and when I wasn't playing Magic I was thinking about playing Magic.  It was something of an obsession.  I was playing in tournaments every week, I was travelling around the UK to PTQs and (once or twice) earning my stripes on the Pro Tour - I wasn't great at the game but I was definitely very good at it (probably in the top 1% of players).  In the 2000's I walked away from Magic before returning between 2005-13 as a coverage writer, working for Wizards of the Coast at Grand Prix and Pro Tours by providing match reports, players interviews and strategy insight.  

So it's not like I was completely out of touch with the game, but I had pretty much stopped playing entirely.  I've worked out that before Grand Prix Manchester my last tournament had been the Gatecrash pre-release nearly 18 months earlier, and before that it was Grand Prix Toronto at the back end of 2010.

On top of being out of the game a long time my preparation for Grand Prix Manchester was precisely zero.  On the Friday I phoned a friend who was at the venue and asked him to register me into the tournament, and he agreed to lend me a deck to play.  On Saturday morning I collected the 75 cards I was going to play with and sat down to play Round 1.  I wasn't there to win, I was there to hang out with my Magic friends. 

The format was Theros Block Constructed and I hadn't even seen a single Theros card.  I didn't know what any of the cards in my deck did.  I didn't know what any of the cards in anybody else's deck did.  I didn't know any of the decks in the format and I didn't have any byes to help me out.  

In short: I didn't know jack and I was starting from the basement against players who knew more, played more, and in many cases had the head start of byes.  I was dead meat and I knew it.  I figured if I did really well I might be able to win more games than I lost and finish on a 5-4 record after the first day, but I knew even that was a serious long shot.  

There was a realistic chance I would finish dead last, but out of over 1,400 players I finished 81st and won $250, with a final record of 10-1-4.

Why did I do so well?  Because I embraced variance.

Variance in Deckbuilding

Not all decks are made equal.  We commonly talk about decks being 'better' or 'worse' than other decks and while it's certainly true that good and bad decks exist there is also another subtle factor that is often overlooked - how much variance the deck allows to occur.  

Some decks are capable of getting a particular opening hand or combination of cards that will mean it beats almost anything that the opponent can do - it's just an unstoppably powerful opening that either wins outright or puts you so far ahead that it's an unassailable lead.  The price for having this potential for extreme success is usually including the potential that whenever your opening hand is poor, or you don't see that particular combination, you're at a significant disadvantage.  These types of decks are high variance strategies - they can be extremely powerful in one game, then completely impotent in another.  Other decks, however, can build in layers of redundancy and support so that they're very consistent in executing their strategy, although the price for that reliability is usually that they sacrificed the potential for that unstoppable knockout blow.  High variance is 'go big or go home', while low variance is 'we'll be there or thereabouts'.

A classic Netrunner example would be the difference between the Criminal IDs: Gabriel Santiago and Andromeda.  Andromeda's huge opening hand size means that she is very consistent at seeing the cards she wants to see - she's the poster child for a low variance strategy.  Gabe starts the game without Andromeda's 80% opening hand size boost but what Gabe brings to the table is a powerful ability to gain a lot of credits freely and easily once he's set up.  

Compared to Andromeda's reliable and steady approach, Gabe is high variance - he's far more likely to draw an opening hand that doesn't hold Desperado/Account Siphon/Icebreakers, but if he DOES draw those cards then he is virtually always more powerful than Andromeda thanks to the free credits he gains from accessing HQ.  

Variance can also be a factor of how much the deck wins/loses depending on the deck it plays against, for example Cerebral Imaging is quite a high variance strategy in that it is very strong against most Runners but very weak against Gabe's Sneakdoor Beta and HQ accessing plans.  Individual card choices can also make significant impacts on the variance of a given deck - choosing to take out three copies of Plascrete Carapace to play Same Old Thing is a double-edged sword as you've made your deck much worse in matchups against Scorched Earth but better in matchups against pretty much any other Corp deck... you've increased the variance of your deck.  Another classic example is Anonymous Tip vs Jackson Howard - Jackson Howard is steady reliability while Anonymous Tip is short term power traded for long term consistency.  Maker's Eye vs R&D Interface is similar from the runner's point of view.

Variance is therefore a characteristic of the deck you choose to play and it's in your power to determine how much variance you allow into your strategy.  Hopefully you see now how we can begin to take control of variance and use it to our advantage.  We've taken a series of steps away from the idea of "I am lucky" being a characteristic attached to you that was out of your control, and how those steps have brought us to "I have chosen to use a high variance strategy" - a characteristic attached to the decisions you've made in deck construction/selection.

Variance is another tool in your deckbuilding arsenal.  Learn when to maximise and minimise its influence and it will serve you well.

Making Variance Your Friend

I talked earlier about an example of asking people to choose a number between 0-20, well lets turn that into a game.  We're going to use dice to choose a number between 1-20 with the aim being to roll the highest number, but you've got a choice about which dice you want to use:

  • A single 20-sided dice (1x D20)
  • Two 10-sided dice (2x D10)
  • Three 6-sided dice (3x D6)

Lets compare these options:

What sounded like a pretty simply decision is in fact quite complex.  The D20 is a high variance strategy - you've got the highest chance of rolling a number of 16 or more (25%) but also the highest chance of rolling 5 or less (also 25%).  At the other end of the scale is 3xD6, which is the low variance strategy - it's impossible to roll a 1 or a 2 as your worst possible result is to roll three 1s, but it's also impossible to score 19 or 20.  With 3D6 the odds of rolling particularly low or high scores is much lower than it is with a D20 (just 4.6%) and in fact the variance is so low that you've got a 48% chance of rolling a pretty middling score between 9-12!  Sitting in the middle of the variance range is the option to roll 2xD10, and in fact this option has a little unfair advantage over the others - it's impossible to score just 1, but still possible that you'll score 20 by rolling two 10s - the Mean score is therefore slightly higher and the odds of scoring a high number are better than your odds of scoring a low number.

So, in the unlikely event that somebody ever offers to play this game with you, statistically you should play with 2xD10.

But that's not all, in fact I'm just getting warmed up.  

The above is true if the game only involves two players, but what if there's more players?  What if there were 8 players all rolling dice with the prize going to the highest number?  If that's the case then you can be pretty sure that at least one of your seven competitors will roll a high number, so in order to win you'll need to roll at least a 16 to have any chance of winning, and ideally something like an 18 or 19.  Suddenly that D20 option starts to look pretty good - it gives you a 25% chance of rolling 16 or more, and you've got a 5% chance of rolling a straight 20, while the 2xD10 only has a 1% chance of scoring 20 and the 3xD6 can't score it at all!

So if you're playing the game with 8 players, you probably want to use the D20.

But that's not all, let's take it even further!  What if we change the prize structure of the game?  What if instead of giving out prizes just to the winner we just give out prizes to the Top 6 players, with the Top 2 players getting a a bigger prize than the others?  Now you've got a really tough decision to make.  The best way of ensuring you don't roll one of the lowest two numbers and miss out on a prize is by rolling 3xD6, but if you roll 3xD6 you're probably ruling out your chances of finishing in the Top 2 and getting the biggest prize.  The D20 becomes a huge wild card because you could get nothing or everything, while the 2xD10 plan sits back into the middle of the pack - you've got some chance of coming in the Top 2 and a reduced chance of missing out entirely.  What it comes down to now is a personal choice - what's important to you?  Do you want to win the big prize or do you just want to avoid coming away empty handed?

I could expand this example further and further if I cared to.  What if the prize structure was weighted with big prizes at the top but very little at the bottom?  What if the difference between 6th and 1st was pretty small but coming 7th meant missing out on a lot?  Beyond that there's a metagame - what if you think a bunch of people are going to choose to roll D20, how does that change your decision?  What if you think most people will roll 3xD6?  What if there was the option to roll 5xD4?

We'll return to the dice game shortly, for now let's talk about how I decided what deck to play in the Grand Prix.

Variance, Skill and Heroics

At Grand Prix Manchester there was a choice of three decks available to me and the one that I ended up playing was the one that seemed like the strategy with the highest variance: U/W Heroic.  

This was entirely deliberate.  My one real target at Grand Prix Manchester was to win enough games on Saturday to make the cut into the second day, with the chance to win up to $4,000 for the ultimate winner of the tournament on Sunday.  To qualify for Sunday I would have to win AT LEAST seven of the nine rounds on Saturday, each of which would be played against players who knew the format far better than I did.  To use the dice example: I needed to roll a high number if I was going to progress to play on Sunday because there were another 1,400 players all trying to roll a big score as well and I needed to be in the top 10% of scores.

As I've mentioned, there were three decks that my friends had available to choose from, each of us would play one of these decks:

WBG 'Junk'

'Junk' is perhaps the defining deck in Theros Block Constructed, bringing together most of the best cards in the format into a single deck (Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, Fleecemane Lion, Elspeth, Hero's Downfall).  Undoubtedly 'Junk' is a very powerful deck but it was also going to be one of the most commonly played and you could expect to face many matches against virtually identical decks.  'Junk' was the low variance option - very solid and very reliable, but with little ability to create rapid blowout wins.  In dice terms, it's 3xD6.

Mono-Blue 'Scourge'

The mono-blue control deck my friends had built was a good metagame contender, in that it played cards that weren't naturally amazing but which were well-positioned against the most popular decks in the format (Whelming Wave, Scourge of Fleets, Perplexing Chimera, Prognostic Sphinx).  Scourge was the 2xD10 option - it was quite consistent because there was a lot of redundancy in the cards it played but there were some matchups that were distinctly better than others, so there could be a higher range of variance due to your matchups.

U/W Heroic

The high-variance option, U/W Heroic pretty much always wins or loses the game in the first few turns.  You need to play a creature on your first or second turns, and then you need to rapidly make it both bigger and unblockable by layering Aura cards onto it, each Aura triggering the creature's 'Heroic' keyword to make the creature bigger (Netrunner parlance - you're playing Darwin and 16 copies of The Personal Touch). By the fourth turn you either have a huge unblockable creature that the opponent couldn't deal with, or you've probably lost.  U/W Heroic could beat any deck with the right draw, but a bad draw could easily leave you helpless.  That's pretty much the definition of a high variance strategy... 

There's was another factor behind my decision to play the high variance strategy, though, and it's a critical one.  Rather than just needing to score in the top 10% of players I knew that I was going to be one of the worst Magic players in the Grand Prix.  Not because I'm completely rubbish at the game but because I was completely out of practice and completely out of touch with any of the cards or decks in the format, while most other players had been practicing for weeks.  I needed enough positive variance to not only score within the top 10% of players in the room, but enough positive variance to also wipe out my natural disadvantages in this particular format.  

You can feed the impact of player skill into the dice game to illustrate how much this changes your decision making.  Let's say you can apply a modifier to your roll of between -5 and +5: a -5 is somebody playing the game for the first time, while a +5 is the best player in the world.  Let's repeat that game of the 8 players trying to roll the highest number, but now let's see how the decision changes for a player with -2 modifier, and a player with a +4 modifier (for the purposes of the example we'll assume everybody else in the game has a 0 modifier).

A -2 modifier probably accurately reflects where I was at going into Grand Prix Manchester - if it had been 1998 and I was playing regularly and on top of the format I might be worth as much as a +3, but my complete ignorance of the format was easily knocking 5 points off that, leaving me at -2.  From that position the odds are stacked against me whichever dice I choose to use, but although the D20 gives me the highest odds of rolling a low number and crashing out of the tournament straight away it's also the one that gives me my best chance of scoring something that might be high enough to make the cut. 

A +4 modifier probably represents the very best players who were at Grand Prix Manchester - your Kai Budde's, Samuele Estratti's and Martin Juza's of this world.  To the best players a high variance strategy like rolling the D20 represents an unnecessary risk - a 30% chance that you'll still wind up in the bottom half of the results.  Rolling 2xD10 instead gives you the same chance of rolling a high number and doing well and halves your risk of a low number (15% vs 30%).  You can also go one further and cut those odds again by rolling 3xD6, although this time you also cut your chances of rolling a really high number.

In a Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix many of the top players will choose to roll 3xD6 every time.  They know that in an open field of 2,000 players their chances of actually winning the top prize are slim no matter what deck they play, but they want to ensure that they finish in/around the Top 100 where they can pick up some money and valuable Pro Points.  It creates a pattern repeated again and again at Grand Prix around the world - the Top 8 and winner are rarely one of the very best players in the world, but if you check out who came in the Top 64 you'll find the same names popping up time and time again, quietly putting away cash and Pro Points outside the Top 8 limelight.  Grand Prix are such big and competitive events that it's impossible to guarantee finishing in the money every time, but by playing a low variance strategy the best players maximise their chances of consistently doing so thanks to their skill advantage.

Summing Up

Replacing 'luck' with 'variance' brings it under your control.  When you're building and selecting your deck you are able to make decisions that will either increase or decrease the amount of variance you will experience when you play the deck.  Increase variance and you buy a shot at getting lucky, decrease variance and you limit the risk of being unlucky.

What are the factors you need to take into account?

How many people do you need to beat?
The more people you're up against the harder it is to finish ahead of all of them, and the more positive variance you will need in order to be the champion.

How are the prizes distributed?
This can make a huge difference to your decision.  Two Netrunner tournaments could have exactly the same players in but require completely different approaches.  Consider how you would approach a tournament where the thing you really wanted was a Top 8 playmat and alt-art card, then consider how you would approach playing in Nationals where the prize for first place is a flight and invite to Worlds while second place only gets a playmat.  With so much of the prize pool focused onto first place a higher variance strategy becomes more attractive.

What does success look like to you?
This is personal choice - you may enter the same National Championships and say "Realistically I just want to finish in the Top 4, if I win that's amazing but just being in the Top 4 would be great".  That requires a different approach than that of a player who says "I want to go to Worlds - second place is as good as last" - the second player should embrace variance and try their luck, win or bust.

How good are you, relative to the other players?
This can require some real soul-searching, but if you decide that you're either significantly better or significantly worse than the people you're up against it can be a powerful factor.  It helps in deciding whether you attempt to limit the impact of variance and simply win games by being better at the game, or whether you throw caution to wind and let the fates decide if you can perform way above your skill level should allow.

At Grand Prix Manchester I was dead meat going into the tournament.  I didn't know what any of my own cards did, let alone the cards of anybody else.  But despite all this I finished ahead of 1,320 other players, coming 81st and winning $250.

Did I get 'lucky'?  Yes, of course I did (as well as playing pretty well, IMHO, given my ring rust).  But I had made a decision to allow myself to be lucky.  I had weighed up my chances and decided that my best chance of success was to play a high variance strategy.

Did I get 'lucky'?  Yes, but I was also smart.

The classic line from Dirty Harry is "do you feel lucky, punk?".  

When it comes to working out how you should approach variance in Netrunner (or any game) the real question should be: "do you need to to be lucky?"

Well.  Do you?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

“I’m Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today!” – Part One

“Didn’t you quit?”

“Are you having second thoughts, then?”

"What are you doing here?"

“I thought you’d stopped playing”

Word travels quickly around the Netrunner grapevine and it seemed every round I had to explain what I was doing playing in another Netrunner tournament.   It’s a fair question and my answer was the oft-quoted line from the movie Clerks:

“I'm not even supposed to be here today!”

In my defence, I hadn’t lied.  I am quitting Netrunner.  In fact I had already quit - my decks were disassembled and my cards were packed away for shipping.  Then my girlfriend told me she was going down to London for the weekend to see family and I was left with a long Easter weekend on my own with no plans.  And a Chronos Protocol tournament scheduled.   In my home town.
I guess some greater power obviously has plans for me that don’t involve quitting Netrunner, so I spent last night hastily building some decks back up.

This is what I played at the Chronos Protocol Tour:


Andromeda Dispossessed Ristie

Event (20)
3x Account Siphon
3x Dirty Laundry
3x Forged Activation Orders
2x Hostage
3x Inside Job
3x Special Order
3x Sure Gamble

Hardware (8)
3x Desperado
1x e3 Feedback Implants
2x Plascrete Carapace
2x R&D Interface ••••

Resource (5)
2x Bank Job
1x John Masanori
1x Kati Jones
1x Professional Contacts ••

Icebreaker (9)
2x Corroder ••••
1x Crypsis
3x Faerie
1x Femme Fatale
1x Mimic •
1x Yog.0 •

Program (3)
3x Datasucker ••• 

See this deck at NetrunnerDB

This is the latest iteration of my hugely successful Andromeda deck.  I’ve never really laboured the point so let me make it now, seeing as I'm leaving.

Andromeda.  Is.  Nuts.

This deck began life as the World Champion deck from November and throughout virtually the whole of Spin Cycle I haven’t had to change a single card.  I found room for a 3rd Faerie, partly to protect against Power Shutdown and partly because Faerie is just really good.  The final changes were to drop the Emergency Shutdowns and Easy Marks to play an E3 Feedback Implants and Bank Jobs – this is a direct response to the rise of Bioroid glacier decks, both in HB and Jinteki:Replicating Perfection.  

E3 Feedback Implants should really have been mentioned in my list of cards that have got better since Caprice Nisei and NAPD Contract arrived, simply because Eli and Heimdall decks are going to proliferate.  When you use E3 Feedback Implants to break Heimdall 1.0 instead of Corroder you spend a click and 2 credits instead of 7 credits, meaning that click you spent saved you 5 credits!  5 credits for a click is a CRAZY payback (3 credits for clicking past Eli).  Bank Job replaced Easy Mark because the number of economy assets gives you that many more targets for your heist, and because it helps you fight the economic taxation twice as well as Easy Mark does.

How good is this deck?  Through five Store Championships and then this Chronos Protocol tournament today I have played 30 rounds of Swiss with Andromeda and won 25 of them – an 83% win rate at the sharp end of some very competitive tournaments.

Andromeda.  Is.  Nuts. 

Throughout Spin Cycle I have remained absolutely convinced that Andromeda was the best Runner by a considerable margin.  When you switch from playing any other Runner to playing Andromeda (and playing her well) the step up in power level is simply absurd.  But as much as I’m a devout Andromeda fan I’m prepared to finally accept that Gabriel Santiago is now right on her shoulder in terms of power level, and maybe even slightly ahead because he copes with the new taxation decks much better.  Gabe’s HQ-running ability helps fight off the tax and Sneakdoor Beta spreads their central defences 50% thinner, making it much harder for the taxation Corps to fight Gabe to a standstill.  Andromeda can certainly adapt to win those matches but Gabe is naturally superior in them, much the same way Andromeda’s consistency makes her naturally superior against the rush/Fast Advance decks.

The Four Horsemen

NBN Making News

Agenda (11)
3x AstroScript Pilot Program
2x Breaking News
3x NAPD Contract
3x Project Beale

Asset (5)
3x Jackson Howard
2x Melange Mining Corp.

Upgrade (4)
1x Caprice Nisei ••••
1x Red Herrings
2x SanSan City Grid

Operation (11)
3x Hedge Fund
1x Interns
2x Restructure
2x Subliminal Messaging
3x Sweeps Week

Barrier (6)
3x Eli 1.0 •••
3x Wraparound

Code Gate (7)
3x Pop-up Window
2x Quandary
1x Tollbooth

Sentry (5)
2x Dracō
1x Ichi 2.0 •••
1x Shinobi •••
1x Tsurugi ••

See this deck at NetrunnerDB

Halfway a theme deck, this list came about from my wanting to use Shinobi in NBN: Making News and really not taking the tournament at all seriously so being prepared to simply try stuff out for a lark.  Although I made this on the night of the Chronos Protocol (so had 0 testing) I had spent the Store Champs playing NBN in various guises so I was comfortable that my deck wasn’t going to be completely awful.  

The theme is The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, with four big pieces of Ice headlining my defences and catching out unwary runners:

Famine (Tollbooth)
A staple in NBN for good reason, Tollbooth represents Famine as it keeps the Runner poor and unable to pay for food.

Pestilence (Ichi 2.0)
Ichi 2.0 is an excellent card to splash into NBN: Making News because you get to benefit from that trace to both tag the runner and deal a Brain damage.  I played Ichi as my 13th-15th Influence in a deck with 3x Scorched Earth and he won me a game when a runner faceplanted into him on R&D, so I was happy with his inclusion in this deck.

War (Tsurigi)
Tsurigi was the last addition to the deck, with those final two influence points wavering between Archer and Heimdall 1.0.  I felt that Heimdall would give me too many expensive pieces of Ice and Eli was already covering Barriers off, while although Archer was a great card I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to rez it.  I had two Breaking News to RFG for Archer, but even if I had a 1pt Agenda to lose the fact that everything else in my deck was worth 2 pts meant I would probably be condemining myself to needing 8 points to win because I was unlikely to ever get to 7.  Tsurigi offered a middle ground – a reasonable cost, a piece of ETR Ice I would be happy to rez and which had an impact and which offered good taxation even after an Icebreaker was around.  There were two other factors which I specifically liked about Tsurigi – if anybody was deliberately running low on cards to avoid Sweeps Week they could easily get flatlined by unexpected Net damage, and I really felt like Tsurigi was good Faerie-bait, leaving them defenceless for a more painful Ichi or Shinobi hit later on.

Death (Shinobi)
A one-card kill if you can pull it off, and the Trace works with NBN: Making News, but the downsides are that you need a LOT of money to kill a runner with Shinobi (unless they run blindly into it) and the Bad Publicity doesn’t really work with the rest of the deck – either the taxation plan or the NAPD Contracts.  But what if it worked?  What if?  With dreams of killing the runner on their first turn as they stumble onto R&D with their last click and no credits... I had to give it a try!

And because you simply can’t have an apocalypse with an Antichrist:

The Antichrist (Caprice Nisei)
Yeah, she may look innocent, pruning her little bonsai tree over there.  Doing the gardening.  How adorable.  Don’t be fooled, she’s the devil incarnate.  Kill her.  KILL HER WITH FIRE!

Outside of that my deck is pretty standard NBN fare, I think, but I made sure I was playing A LOT of economy to be able to rez my big ice and win Shinobi credit wars.  The one random-ish card is Interns, which I really like because it’s so flexible in this deck, with several distinct modes: recur SanSan to push for the win, recur Caprice Nisei to maximise taxation, recur Melange Mining Corp to build cash, or simply use it to install a 3rd or 4th layer of Ice while keeping credits open to rez it.  There’s some taxation, some fast advance, and some threats of random big Ice killing the runner if they screw up.  Somewhere between those three points I felt like I would be able to win some games, and maybe even win a couple in a cool way.

So those were the decks I played, and in Part Two I'll give you a tournament report of how they fared for me as I embarked on the Chronos Protocol Tour for what was Absolutely Definitely Probably Maybe My Last Ever Netrunner Tournament Ever!!!

Monday, 14 April 2014

Double Trouble - Caprice Nisei, NAPD Contract and... Morning Star?

Double Time is here, and with it comes yet another shot in the arm for Corporation decks with powerful new cards.  No longer can Corp cry foul at the power of Runner decks because the pendulum of power is swinging inexorably towards the men with suits and spreadsheets.

There are many powerful cards in Double Time but there are two in particular that I want to talk about because they're probably the most influential and game-changing in this data pack, and they work well in tandem: Caprice Nisei and NAPD Contract.

These cards combine to threaten widespread changes to the Netrunner metagame which has remained dominated by Fast Advance builds - Biotic Labor and SanSan City Grid - or the impending threat of flatline from aggressive Weyland builds - Scorched Earth.  Those three cards are all high-influence and high-impact cards that define the Corp strategies to a large extent, one representing Weyland, one NBN and one Haas-Bioroid.  In Caprice Nisei the Jinteki shareholders finally have a high influence powerhouse to rival the others, although she plays very differently and requires different tools to support her.

You can explain what Caprice Nisei does by going back to my blog about the different types of Ice.  Caprice sits behind your Ice defenses and adds an extra unbreakable End The Run effect, although one that you can't always rely on.  If you wanted to try and fit Caprice into one of the pigeon holes I used for classifying Ice (even though she's not Ice) then she would probably count as Analogue ETR in that she's designed to end runs, is certainly not Binary as she's unaffected by Icebreakers, and that quite how much she costs to get by her is entirely analogue - anywhere from 0 credits to infinity clicks and credits!  How long Caprice delays the runner for is largely random - it could be that they get in first time, or it could be at the twelfth attempt - but If the runner runs Caprice enough times they will eventually slip by your psychic detective and trash her.  For this reason Caprice works MUCH better with analogue Ice than with Binary Ice - if the Runner can plow through your Ice cheaply and quickly then Caprice can't hold them off for long, but if your Ice is big and expensive enough to break then the Runner will have to pay dearly for each Caprice lottery ticket they buy and may well decide it's simply not worth trying to get in at all.

The Ice that support Caprice Nisei decks are therefore almost the antithesis of the Ice that support Biotic Labor/SanSan decks.  Cheap Binary ETR Ice like Ice Wall and Wraparound are far less useful than Analog Ice like Eli v1.0, Heimdall v1.0 or the new Hive in Weyland.  Similarly the default Enigma and the new Quandary are less attractive than Viktor v2.0, and in Sentries Rototurrets and Neural Katana are weaker cousins to Ichi v1.0 or Tsurigi with their many subroutines.  You want big strength Ice and lots of subroutines so that the Runner has to bleed credits to get past even after their rig is established, and Caprice will be waiting to play Rock-Paper-Scissors at the end of their run... "you paid 7 credits and didn't access any cards.  Unlucky.  Want to try again?"

Rezzing a Heimdall instead of Ice Wall takes money, and money takes time.  These new decks are slower and greedier so the Ice defenses are typically supported by heavy duty economy Assets that will deliver huge cash benefits if left alone by the runner (with taxing Ice in front of them to deter the runner from trashing).  This is a second seismic change, after the impact on Ice choices, which is that these decks largely abandon the Operation-based economy (Beanstalk Royalties, Sweeps Week, Green Level Clearance) that we've seen from Corps in Spin Cycle and often return to the more old school cards like Melange Mining Corp, Adonis Campaign, Eve Campaign, Sundew in Jinteki and even PAD Campaign.

So far we've talked about how Caprice Nisei has created an opportunity for new deckbuilding strategies but where does NAPD Contract fit into all this?  It turns out that NAPD Contract fits perfectly into a deck that has a lot of taxing Ice but little Binary ETR.  Fighting through a bank of Ice and Caprice Nisei (and cards like Ash or Red Herrings as well) only to find yourself unable to pay 4 to steal NAPD Contract when you access it is an enormous kick in the teeth to the runner.  NAPD Contract joins Nisei MkII as the best possible Agendas for a taxation Ice strategy, not just safe in your remotes but also in R&D and HQ.  NAPD Contract also has fringe benefits with Caprice Nisei - if the Runner is on 5 credits when they break through your Ice you know you are safe to bid 2 credits with Caprice, even if the Runner matches your bid and access NAPD Contract they'll be a credit short of stealing it!  Finally, the downside on NAPD Contract is that you can't run Bad Publicity with it easily, but in a taxation/Caprice strategy you have already avoided Bad Publicity like the plague anyway (if you're smart)!

Let's pause now to give you a look at what these new decks might look like, one in Haas-Bioroid and one in Jinteki...

HB Redcoats Caprice NAPD

Haas-Bioroid: Engineering the Future (Core Set)

Agenda (9)
3x Accelerated Beta Test (Core Set)
3x NAPD Contract (Double Time)
2x Priority Requisition (Core Set)
1x Project Vitruvius (Cyber Exodus)

Asset (10)
3x Adonis Campaign (Core Set)
2x Aggressive Secretary (Core Set)
3x Eve Campaign (Humanity's Shadow)
1x Jackson Howard (Opening Moves) •
2x PAD Campaign (Core Set)

Upgrade (4)
2x Ash 2X3ZB9CY
2x Caprice Nisei (Double Time) ••••• •••

Operation (7)
3x Hedge Fund (Core Set)
2x Interns (Mala Tempora)
2x Restructure (Second Thoughts)

Barrier (8)
3x Eli 1.0 (Future Proof)
2x Heimdall 1.0 (Core Set)
2x Heimdall 2.0 (Creation and Control)
1x Wotan (Second Thoughts)

Code Gate (6)
2x Quandary (Double Time)
3x Tollbooth (Core Set) ••••• •
1x Viktor 2.0 (Creation and Control)

Sentry (5)
2x Ichi 1.0 (Core Set)
1x Ichi 2.0 (Creation and Control)
2x Rototurret (Core Set)

This is a variant of the upcoming 'Red Coats' Haas-Bioroid deck that has been picking up Store Championship wins at the end of the season, and you can see here many of the hallmarks of what I was talking about above - multiple economy Agendas, big Taxing Ice and upgrades like Caprice and Ash to protect their Agendas.


Jinteki: Replicating Perfection

Agenda (10)
1x Braintrust
3x Fetal AI
3x NAPD Contract
3x Nisei MK II

Asset (16)
2x Encryption Protocol ••
2x Jackson Howard ••
3x PAD Campaign
1x Ronin
3x Shock!
2x Snare!
3x Sundew

Upgrade (6)
3x Caprice Nisei
3x Hokusai Grid

Operation (3)
3x Celebrity Gift

Barrier (5)
3x Eli 1.0 •••
2x Wall of Thorns

Code Gate (4)
2x Chum
1x RSVP ••
1x Tollbooth ••

Sentry (5)
2x Ichi 1.0 ••••
3x Tsurugi

This Jinteki deck relies on the power of its identity, forcing runners to hit Centrals before coming to look at remote servers.  That alone wastes clicks and plays into the hands of Caprice Nisei, but on top of that ALL of the ice is intended to be expensive to break with the classic Icebreaker rig - there isn't a single Binary piece of Ice in the deck!  It's painfully expensive for the runner to get anything out of this deck, which then compounds the issue with long term drip feed economy from Sundew and PAD Campaign, and Encryption Protocols to make trashing even more painful.  When Honor & Profit arrives this deck will benefit from the addition of cards like Inazuma, Komainu and The Future Perfect to further tax and frustrate the runner.

These two decks are very different in cards but very similar in ultimate strategy - overload the runner's economy.  An initial layer of Ice is there purely to slow the early game bleeding of Agenda points and protect economy assets.  Those assets provide the Corp with the cash to install a second layer of defenses - Ice, Caprice, or Ash - and slow the game even further.  At this point the runner's short term economic gains from cards like Sure Gamble/Daily Casts/Dirty Laundry are probably a distant memory, and even top notch Desperado/Datasucker rigs can't make accesses cheaply enough to make runs economically.  Sucks for the runner, but the Corp's assets are still pulling in more money and laying down yet more Ice and then the runner is shut out.

So you fight the economy assets, right?  But that's expensive too.  If the runner trashes Eve Campaign and PAD Campaigns the Corp doesn't benefit but the runner is bankrupting themselves in the process which just helps the Corp anyway.  And all the while the Runner is having to worry about having money aside for Ash, Caprice or NAPD Contract.  Nothing comes cheap and most runners simply don't have the funds to pay for everything they need.

So, as the runner, how do you fight this?  I think Caprice Nisei triggers changes in Corp decks that have some surprising knock-on effects in how Runner cards are valued.  First of all, here are some Runner cards that we are used to seeing a lot of, but which I believe get worse as Caprice Nisei bleeds into the metagame:

One of the best Runner cards today, Corroder, is actually one of the biggest problems with facing Caprice Nisei taxing decks.  Corroder is perfect to face Ice Wall, Wraparound, Himitsu-Bako or Wall of Static but becomes incredibly expensive against cards like Heimdall v.1 (7 credits), Hive (6 credits at full strength) or Wall  of Thorns (5 credits).  As soon as you pay that sort of money and run into a Caprice Nisei on the far side the Corroder seems a lot less like value for money.  Datasucker and Desperado are two cards that suffer from the Corp giving you no cheap runs, they're still great cards (Datasucker in particular can really help with big Ice) but can no longer be relied upon to power you through time and again, paying you back more than you invested in making the run, because the taxing Ice is so expensive to hit.  If you're running the classic Mimic/Yog.0/Datasucker rig it's entirely possible that the Corp will be able to cover all their Centrals with sizeable taxing Ice you need Datasucker counters to break and then purge Viruses, effectively locking you out for good.  

Dirty Laundry is similar, although the effect is more pronounced - a taxing piece of Ice in place can quickly make Dirty Laundry a losing proposition and although you get valuable cash back that happens AFTER the run, meaning you're 2 credits down when facing Caprice or Ash, or trying to steal an NAPD Contract.  Inside Job is similar again - against a big taxing piece of Ice an Inside Job is going to be a money saver but the difference is that you can no longer rely on Inside Job as a cheap way to snipe Agendas in the early game - there are more cards that will be installed that look like Agendas, and Caprice Nisei loves randomly cancelling any Event runs and wasting your investment.

Finally, R&D Interface is less about either Caprice Nisei or NAPD Contract and more about the rise of Jinteki decks in general.  When Jinteki is around in the metagame you will have to be VERY careful about playing multi-access cards that could mean you access multiple Ambush cards at once and I think there is a swing between R&D Interface and Indexing on the cards.  Indexing allows runners to dig deep while avoiding accessing cards they don't want, although the downside to Indexing is having to plow through taxing R&D twice in order to steal any Agendas you see.

So much for cards that I think have got worse, here are some Runner cards that I think get better in a Caprice Nisei metagame:

*** Edit - in the original entry of this blog I had misremembered Morning Star as a STR 7 base breaker, and thus got a little overexcited about it's meta-busting potential.  I've amended the following paragraph to allow for that ***

Morning Star is a card that can have a big impact on the Caprice Nisei/taxing matchups because it changes the nature of what their Ice actually does.  If we go back to my article about Ice types for a second time I mentioned in my analysis that the the classification of each piece of Ice changes depending on the type of Icebreakers you play against and what Morning Star does is transform pretty much all the Analog Barriers in the game into Binary ice that you can crush with a single credit.  Eli, Bastion, Rainbow, Wall of Thorns and Hive - Corroder hates playing against all these cards but Morning Star doesn't care.  Throw in some help like a Datasucker or Personal Touch/Dinosaurus and the Morning Star smashes through the Heimdalls of this world too - only an advanced Hadrian's Wall or well-positioned Curtain Wall truly can stop the Mjolnir of Icebreakers!

Switching Corroder for Morning Star critically damages a key part of the taxing Corp's gameplan.  If you can get through the Ice cheaply then you can afford to run multiple times against Caprice.  If you can get through the Ice cheaply then you can afford to trash the economy assets behind them.  If you can get through the Ice cheaply then you can score NAPD Contract when you access it.

Joining Morning Star in hogging precious MU is Magnum Opus, which is the runner's best option for simply overpowering the Corp's taxation Ice by drowning you in credits.  Where other economy cards like Sure Gamble, Daily Casts and even Account Siphon are one-shot affairs that will soon see their credits hurled against a big piece of Ice in a single access, the Magnum Opus keeps paying out for the entire game.  Similarly Kati Jones increases in value for the same reason - she's the economy Resource that is reusable and forms a key part in ensuring that the Runner economy can stay strong enough for long enough to match the Corp's Eve Campaigns and PAD Campaigns in a longer game.

Indexing and Parasite are two cards that both gain and lose value at the same time.  I already discussed why I think Indexing becomes an attractive option to R&D Interface when Jinteki brings more Snare! and Shock! into the metagame, but that it requires multiple runs through taxing Ice to secure those Agendas, and in Parasite there's another double-edged sword.  If Corps are running Eli instead of Wall of Ice and Viktor 2.0 instead of Quandary then Parasite takes a big hit because Ice is that much bigger, but on the other hand the game is going to last longer and being able to remove an expensive piece of Ice with Parasite is probably the most efficient long term solution to many of the taxing pieces of Ice you'll meet.  What swings Parasite towards gaining more than it loses, in my eyes, is twofold - if your deck is focussed on breaking Heimdall and Tollbooth then you will benefit from a cheap answer to Wall of Ice and Quandary in the form of Parasite - and if Jinteki is coming to the party then cards like Tsurigi and Komainu are likely to be among their taxing Sentries of choice, and both are juicy Parasite targets due to their Strength/Subroutines imbalance.

The final card I want to highlight is Whizzard, and the Master Gamer has been waiting a long time for his moment in the sun.  For the longest time the go-to Anarch Identity was Noise, with many games won by simply flipping a dozen cards into the Corp's Archives over the course of the game then cashing in multiple agendas at once.  Jackson Howard spelled the end of that strategy when he was printed because the Corp could now shuffle the Agendas back into R&D.  It seemed as though Whizzard was primed to take over but in fact Jackson Howard also nerfed the gamer as well as the punk because by adding more draw power to Corp decks Jackson Howard played a key role in switching Corps away from asset-based economies into being able to reliably keep up a supply of Operation economy cards - just as Whizzard was rubbing his hands at trashing Adonis Campaign and PAD Campaign those cards got taken out of Corp decks.  Then partway through Spin Cycle Reina Roja came along, everyone got excited about playing with Caissa and Whizzard went for a lie down and a sulk.  But now might be his time.  If Caprice Nisei is bringing longer games back, and with it asset economies, then Whizzard could be the perfect man for the job of fighting the Corp's economy and keeping them poor.

I'm going to finish by showing you a sample Runner deck that I believe is well-equipped to fight Caprice Nisei.  I'm going to hold my hand up and admit that this deck is almost entirely untested, I simply pulled 45 cards out of my binder and threw them into combat, but the results were pretty much exactly as expected - Morning Star and Whizzard combined to shred the game plan of both the Replicating Perfection and Weyland Big Ice decks I played against.  The Replicating Perfection deck had repeatedly left my successful Andromeda deck gasping for air but with this Whizzard deck the matchup was for more comfortable.  

While I'm sure a lot is wrong with this deck as it is, I'm happy that it's heading in a direction that has real benefits to bring out as the deck is refined...

Magic Hammer

Whizzard - Master Gamer

Event (11)
2x Déjà Vu
3x Quality Time •••
3x Special Order ••••• •
3x Sure Gamble

Hardware (7)
2x Cyberfeeder
3x Grimoire
2x Spinal Modem

Resource (9)
2x Armitage Codebusting
3x Daily Casts
2x Kati Jones
2x Liberated Account

Icebreaker (7)
1x Corroder
2x Mimic
2x Morning Star
2x Yog.0

Program (11)
3x Datasucker
2x Imp
1x Medium
3x Parasite
2x Self-modifying Code ••••• •

All the Influence spent goes on improving consistency, which has long been the bane of Anarch decks I've seen, while the rest of the deck is quite familiar, I guess.  There is lots of economic resources and plenty of MU available for all the tricky viruses to sit alongside Morning Star.  Playing two banks of Consoles is something that looks pretty ropey but you HAVE to get that +2MU down if you want to support Morningstar + Datasucker + Parasite in your rig.  Having five cards to find (plus three Quality Time to help you power through and find them) means you should see a Console early in >75% of your games and while in some matchups the downside of Spinal Modem will prove horrible, in other games those 2 recurring credits will be a perfect compliment to your fighting a taxation Corp.

The real trick is combining a deck that can cope with Caprice Nisei with a deck that can still move quickly enough to threaten Fast Advance.  Anyway, as I said this is 100% a very rough draft, but indicative of what type of decks I think may arise to tackle Caprice Nisei, if she comes to be a large part of the metagame.  It could just as easily be built in Shaper, I guess, using Test Run/Scavenge to get Morning Star out (and then you've got that tempting Paintbrush/Morning Star combo to look at) but I wanted to run the Parasite package alongside Morning Star, which sent me down the road to Anarch and Whizzards ability.

The Bottom Line

All told, I think NAPD Contract and Caprice Nisei are going to make very real and sizeable changes to the Netrunner metagame.  A lot of people are exploring how to maximise them in Corp decks but I'm just as interested in how the Runners will respond, and I can see some fascinating possibilities opening up that may challenge the accepted wisdom about a lot of cards.  Until now competitive Runners have really only have to worry about variations on a single theme - quick Corp decks looking to get to 7 Agenda Points as quickly as possible by any means necessary.  If a genuinely different Corp deck style comes to the fore it is likely to lead to radical changes on the Runner side, and that could freshen things up considerably by challenging some well-established preconceptions.

Fingers crossed!