Wednesday, 26 February 2014

SHIELDS UP! - Understanding Ice

Ice is possibly the most important card type in the game of Netrunner - it's what the Corp uses to protect it's Agendas, and it's what the Runner has to structure their whole deck to be able to bypass.  There's probably no single topic worth talking about more, and it's why I've labored on it in the past, analysing the Ice from Worlds up and down and back to front.  Stats and numbers from the past are great, but it's also  important to understand the theory that drives these successful decks and successful Ice configurations.  

That's the topic I want to talk about today, breaking down Ice into various distinct groups and talking about when to use them, how to maximise them, and also how to avoid your Ice working at cross-purposes to the rest of your deck.


Let's start with the absolute basics and work upwards.  Ice is what the Corp uses to defend its servers from the Runner, but precisely how the Ice achieves that goal can come in a wide variety of ways.  Although Ice comes in a bewildering array of sizes and shapes it can actually be divided quite neatly into two camps:

ETR - the most obvious way Ice can stop the runner is simply to carry a straight-forward "End The Run" subroutine.  That does exactly what it says on the tin and it's perhaps the most commonly-played type of Ice, with common examples being cards like Wall of Static, Enigma or Chimera, right up to the imposing Curtain Wall.  Playing with ETR Ice forces the runner to install the appropriate Icebreaker in order to proceed.

TAX - taxing Ice is more porous than ETR Ice as it doesn't carry a fixed "End The Run" subroutine.  The runner can usually get past this type of Ice without needing to install an Icebreaker... it's just a matter of how much it will cost them.  This 'tax' can come in the form of a Trace attempt they have to pay credits to match, or a Bioroid subroutine that will End The Run if the runner doesn't pay a cost (eg. Viper, Eli) but the tax can also be one that never threatens to End The Run at all imposes a high enough cost that the Runner chooses not to run past anyway (eg. Hunter, Data Raven, Data Hound).  As well as asking the runner to pay a charge in clicks or credits Taxing Ice can also take the form of more aggressive Ice that deals damage or trashes programs  (eg. Chum, Neural Katana, Grim or the deadly Janus) forcing the runner to pay for their access in blood or premium-priced software.  Because Taxing Ice doesn't carry a straightforward End The Run subroutine the runner doesn't need to install an Icebreaker to go past, but the cost of not doing so is frequently quite high, meaning the runner will often prefer to find an Icebreaker anyway.

The choice of which Ice to play - ETR or Taxing - is a critical one.  It's definitely a point where many players go wrong, often by playing Ice that they like or have seen used effectively in other decks but which doesn't fit into their current deck.


The Bluffers Guide to Ice

As a generalisation ETR Ice is better in the early game when the runner doesn't have any Icebreakers but rapidly gets worse as the runner builds their rig.  This means ETR Ice often works best in decks that are trying to score Agendas quickly - put an Agenda behind your ETR Ice then bounce the runner out for a turn and score the Agenda before they can come back equipped with an Icebreaker.  You'll see a lot of ETR Ice in decks like HB Biotic Rush but pretty much every deck needs some element of ETR Ice to help them score Agendas in the early game.  

By contrast Taxing Ice is actually very bad at protecting Agendas in remote servers as when the runner feels an Agenda point is on the line they are usually willing to pay whatever Tax is necessary to gain access.  However Taxing Icet makes repeated runs on Central servers expensive and Taxing Ice often holds its value more once the runner has Icebreakers installed, making it better in slower decks looking to tire the runner's economy out over a longer game (eg. NBN Midseason Replacement decks, or Cerebral Imaging combos).

I want to overlay the next level, though - all this is what the Ice does when the Runner doesn't have an Icebreaker but I want to overlay how the Ice changes function when an Icebreaker is present.

Disclaimer: the following section talks about how Ice changes as Icebreakers are played.  I make several assumptions about the Icebreakers you will most commonly face and if you are facing different Icebreakers then you'll have to adjust accordingly.  For guidance I'm going to primarily discuss the most commonly played competitive icebreakers - Mimic, Garotte, Ninja, Yog.0, Gordian Blade and Corroder.  I will discuss special cases like Femme Fatale, Atman and Knight later.


1) Binary ETR Ice

I've coined the term 'Binary Ice' to describe ETR Ice that is basically either 'On' or 'Off', depending on whether the Runner has an appropriate breaker or not.  The most perfect example of this is low Strength Code Gates like Enigma or NEXT Bronze, which are broken for free by Yog.0, but I would expand the 'Off' side to include Ice that is broken for a minimal credit cost, eg. Corroder will break Wraparound for just 1cr, Mimic will punch through Rototurret or Fenris for 2cr.  Where precisely the line is drawn for 'minimal cost' is a subjective one - I think breaking Ice for 3cr (eg. Corroder vs Bastion) is a real grey area that probably depends on efficiently the Runner can generate those credits, but once it's costing the runner 4cr+ to break past a piece of Ice I don't think you can really call that a 'minimal' cost.

Binary ETR Ice, therefore, is Ice that carries a huge amount of value up until the point where the Runner installs an Icebreaker then sees most of that value wiped away.  10 turns into the game it probably costs you more to install an Ice Wall on the end of your server than it costs the Runner to break it, so why bother?

  • Binary ETR Ice tends not to care too much about Bad Publicity for the Corp.  The Runner can use those credits to break the Ice for free but the Ice wasn't putting up much of an obstacle anyway.
  • Binary ETR Ice can be supported by effects that trash programs, effectively turning them back 'On' by removing the Icebreakers.



Analog ETR Ice

'Analog' ETR Ice is Ice that carries an ETR subroutine but which is also large enough to still provide a sizeable obstacle to the Runner once they have installed an Icebreaker.  We've already discussed that Bastion sits right on the dividing line of being Binary or Analog but some more obvious examples of Analog Ice are cards like Wall of Thorns (5 cr to break with Corroder), Tollbooth (7cr to break with Gordian Blade) or Archer (8cr to break with Garotte, 10cr to break with Ninja!).

While Analog Ice carries on functioning to a high level when the Runner has an Icebreaker this usually comes at a price, with these Ice frequently costing much more to rez than Binary Ice and being vulnerable to cards like Inside Job/Forged Activation Orders/Emergency Shutdown.

  • Analog ETR Ice can be badly degraded by handing out Bad Publicity, which gives the Runner free credits to throw at breaking through.  The amount that this impacts the Ice depends largely on how much Bad Publicity we're talking about and how much it costs to break the Ice to begin with, but you can find yourself paying over the odds for a Wall of Thorns that's not significantly more of an obstacle to the runner than a Wall of Static.
  • Analog ETR Ice is often (but not always!) best positioned over Central servers.  When there's no Icebreaker around it's expensive to rez something big like a Hadrian's Wall when a Wall of Static would do the same job but once the Runner has an Icebreaker they can pay to punch through the Hadrian's Wall if there is an Agenda on the other side.  If it's over R&D or HQ, though, the runner has to pay a lot of cash to get past that Hadrian's Wall just for a 20% chance of hitting an Agenda.



Binary Taxing Ice

Similar to Binary ETR Ice, Binary Analog Ice is those pieces of Ice where the taxation is virtually entirely removed when the Runner plays an Icebreaker - some good examples are Neural Katana (1cr to break with Mimic vs 3 clicks to redraw lost cards from Net damage) or Viktor v1.0 (completely ignored by Yog.0 instead of taxing two clicks to break the Bioroid subroutines).  

  • Binary Taxing Ice usually DOES care about Bad Publicity (unlike Binary ETR Ice).  Although it costs a minimal amount to break Binary Taxing Ice the whole point of playing Taxing Ice was to economically drain the runner so handing out any amount of Bad Publicity often runs contrary to that goal
  • Binary Taxing Ice can be supported by playing Assets and Upgrades with a high Trash cost, or which further drain the runner's resources (eg. Private Contracts, Eve Campaign, Red Herrings, Caprice Nisei).  In this style of play the runner can pay to get get past your Ice but can't achieve anything once they're through.



Analog Taxing Ice

You've probably got the hang of this by now but Analog Taxing Ice is the bigger pieces of Ice that still require some effort to break through once the Runner has their Icebreakers, and in many cases it may even be cheaper to carry on paying the tax instead of breaking the subroutines with an Icebreaker!  The popular barrier Eli v1.0 is perhaps the cheapest Ice that we can consider Analog Taxing Ice, as even with a Corroder in play it costs 4cr to break through and it may well be better to use 2 clicks instead.  Other examples might be Flare (5cr to break with Garotte, 7cr to break with Ninja, or fight the Trace attempt) or the big Bioroids like Heimdal, Janus or Wotan (frequently easier to click past than break with Icebreakers).

  • As with Binary Taxing Ice, Bad Publicity usually works against the principle of taxing the runner's economy with Taxing Ice - you will rapidly destroy Eli v1.0 as a tax if you hand over Bad Publicity counters.  But...
  • ...some big Analog Taxing Ice (particularly Bioroids) can be so prohibitively expensive to break with Icebreakers that even Bad Publicity doesn't help much - if you hand the runner 3 Bad Publicity credits he'll may still click past Janus v1.0 and take a Brain damage rather than spending another 7cr of his own money to break all the subroutines with Garotte or Ninja.



At the top of this section I said I would discuss the impacts of some of the non-standard Icebreakers, like Femme Fatale, Knight and Atman.  

Femme Fatale's ability to bypass Ice makes her virtually unique and it's easy to explain both her power and popularity when you understand the difference between Binary and Analog Ice - Femme is perhaps the best card for converting troublesome Analog ice into Binary Ice, which can completely disrupt the structure of the Corp's defenses.  A Tollbooth could cost you 7cr to break with Gordian Blade or 1cr to bypass with Femme Fatale, a Heimdal could be swung past for 3cr instead of 7cr, and even the lethal Archer or Janus become little more than speed bumps once they're in Femme's sights.  


Knight is a popular AI Icebreaker that targets Ice in a similar way to Femme Fatale, but because it costs 2cr to break a subroutine with Knight the effect is different - more like converting everything into a taxation Ice.  When the Runner knows that they will be running Knight they can prepare to pay this taxation with the minimum fuss, while for the Corp having your Binary ETR strategy converted into a Tax strategy can be enough to force them into trashing their Ice and installing a new piece of Binary ETR Ice in it's place.  

The final card to talk about is Atman, once a scourge of Corp decks but now reduced to a bit-player the Shaper AI still warrants a mention because she does something different again as Atman has the potential to turn EVERYTHING into Binary Ice so long as she is kept stocked with enough Datasucker counters to reduce their strength.  That was the power of the Katman decks - although it might take time to deploy the full 2x Atman, 2x Datasucker rig was capable of making light work of virtually any server.  Many decks today use Atman as another type of Femme Fatale, bringing her in to troubleshoot particular problem pieces of Ice and make them Binary when other traditional Icebreakers might leave them Analog. 



Exemplary Examples

To show you how the Ice you use can be mapped to match your deck's objectives let's look at a couple of successful decks and see how their Ice was sculpted to suit their purposes....

Deck #1: HB Fast Advance


This deck was one of the early winners in the Plugged In Tour season last year and I like it because it very clearly demonstrates the Binary ETR Ice in action.  There is a very clear plan here - the Barriers and Code Gates are all Binary ETR Ice that support the deck in rushing out it's early Agendas.  As those Agendas are 3/2s the deck can move quickly to install them behind Ice without having to invest in advancing them, and the ability of Engineering The Future pays back as the deck makes that rapid expansion of installs.  The deck forces the runner to installs Fracters and Decoders to break through this Ice but because the deck is also moving quickly the Runner may not have time to find a Killer for Sentry Ice, leaving them exposed to the program trashing of Rototurret and Grim, which then send them back to square one.  The deck's cheap binary Ice is turned 'Off' by the Icebreakers but program destruction turns it back 'On' again.  Notice also that Travis had no qualms about running the full playset of Grim - the Bad Publicity he was handing out wasn't a problem if the Runner didn't have any Icebreakers to spend it on!

As well as the Ice that the deck DOES play some of the most interesting choices are about the Ice that it DOESN'T play.  When Travis posted his winning decklist onto the BoardGameGeek forums one of the very first questions he was asked was this one:

"Why do you run Grim instead of Ichi 1.0? And Enigma instead of Viper? Bastion instead of Eli 1.0?"

On the face of it these are all great questions - Ichi costs the same as Grim but trashes two programs and doesn't hand out a Bad Publicity, Viper costs the same as Enigma but has +2 Strength so doesn't fail against Yog.0 and Eli v1.0 costs one less than Bastion and brings a second subroutine.  They all sound better than the neutral options Travis decided to play instead, so why was he ignoring his in-faction HB Ice?

Hopefully you already know the answer to this question after reading the rest of this blog, the answer being "because those are Taxing Ice, not ETR Ice".  Taxing Ice gives the Runner the chance to steal those early 3/2 Agenda that Travis is trying to score.  On top of that if you give the runner the option of paying a tax they don't need to install an Icebreaker, and if they don't need to install an Icebreaker then your program trashing Ice loses most (or all) of its value.  Travis' deck had a very clear plan, and taxing Ice was not part of that plan.


Deck #2: NBN Midseasons


This deck took Jesse Vandover to the Semi-Finals of the World Championships so we know it's a strong deck but it's striking just how different the Ice lineup is from that played by Travis Day in his HB:EtF deck.  Of all the Ice played here only 4 pieces carry a hard "End The Run" subroutine that forces the Runner to find an Icebreaker - two copies of Ice Wall and two Enigmas.  The other ten pieces of Ice are a mixture of various taxation effects with Eli v1.0 ending the run unless the Runner is prepared to pay a heavy toll in credits or clicks, Shadow and Data Raven threatening to land tags that the Runner must pay clicks and credits to clear, and a lone Ichi v1.0 lurking for unwary last click runs.  

Like Travis Day's deck, Jesse's deck also has a very clear plan and that is Midseason Replacements.  Midseason Replacements is a very powerful card that combines to lethal effect with Psychographics and Project Beale to mean the deck can potentially score 7 Agenda points in a single click!  To play Midseason Replacements effectively you need two things to be true - the runner has to steal an Agenda, and you need to have more cash than the Runner when that happens so that you can ensure landing a big Trace attempt.  Jesse's use of taxing Ice works perfectly to meet both those aims:

  • The Runner can score Agendas - only 4 of Jesse's 14 Ice actually End The Run if the Runner doesn't have any Icebreakers.  Cards like Ichi and Eli can be clicked through with impunity, and both Shadow and Data Raven do nothing to stop the runner whatsoever.
  • The Runner is drained economically - all this taxing Ice forces the Runner to spend clicks or credits, and in the case of the tagging Ice the threat of building up tags and enabling Psychographics the Runner is forced to spend both clicks and credits clearing the tags after the run is completed.

Jesse WANTS the Runner to get into R&D and HQ.  He WANTS them to access cards.  He WANTS them to score Agendas, so that he can spring his Midseason Replacements trap.  What he doesn't want, though, is for the Runner to be able to access R&D or HQ cheaply - stealing one Agenda is perfect, but if the Runner steals three Agendas there could well be a problem.  The Ice he's chosen is perfect for this, and for funnelling the Runner onto a diet of slow & steady R&D accesses while Jesse can spend his time building cash and preparing to spring his trap.


Summing Up

If you want a clear example of how the value of Ice changes based on the deck then look no further than the contrast between Jesse's NBN deck and Travis Day's HB, above.  Remember those Eli and Ichi that Travis decided not to play in his HB deck even though they were in-faction?  Well they're right there in NBN, with Jesse Vandover deciding they were worth spending 1/3rd of his Influence to bring their taxation effects into his NBN deck.  It's not the Eli and Ichi are bad cards, far from it, but they didn't work with Travis' game plan while they fit perfectly into Jesse's.  Similarly Jesse could have chosen to replace the Eli and Ichi in his deck with the Binary ETR of the Wall of Static and Ice Walls that Travis used (and saved himself Influence in doing so) but that would have run contrary to his plan too - Wall of Static does little to help him force the Runner into slow & steady Central server accesses as it's either a complete block on access or virtually no obstacle at all.  

They both played completely different Ice but they also both made the right choice, which was to play the Ice that suited their deck's plan.

What you should be taking from this is that the concept of 'good Ice' and 'bad Ice' is too simplistic.  The decision between whether to play Eli v1.0 or Bastion/Wall of Static should be more than a simple decision of whether you have the Influence or not, because they do different things.  Eli v1.0 will tax the Runner, Wall of Static is Binary ETR, while Bastion can either function as overpriced Binary ETR or as an Analog ETR depending on the rest of your deck.  The Ice cannot be taken in isolation from the rest of the deck, and instead you've got to know what your deck is trying to achieve in order to play the correct Ice to support that strategy.


Hopefully you've found this a cool article (geddit?  Ice is cold, see?) and it will help you in designing better defenses for your own Corp decks in the future!