Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Three Runners - Hunter, Digger and Harvester

How do you win games as a Runner?  

Well, you need to get some economy together so you can pay for stuff, and then you need to assemble your rig of Hardware and Programs so that you can evade the Corporation's Ice and steal Agendas.

It sounds pretty obvious but we all know that there are many different routes of going about all of this - is your economy dripfed by the likes of Daily Casts, Pre-Paid Voicepad, Cyberfeeder, Desperado?  That's a slow way of gaining cash but quite efficient as it's low on clicks.  Is it click-intensive like Armitage Codebusting, Kati Jones, Magnum Opus, more effort but more cash?  Is it trying to 'surf' from one efficient one-off economy card to another, like Sure Gamble, Modded, Dirty Laundry or Cache, great so long as the supply remains steady but prone to breaking down?

And your rig can be built any number of different ways - using Datasucker and fixed strength breakers, flexible breakers like Corroder/Gordian Blade and lots of cash, finding ways of 'cheating' big breakers into play like Femme Fatale/Morningstar.  Beyond that do you run one of the AI suites instead - Knights, Eaters, Atman etc - or do you plan on just trying to avoid the Ice entirely by either destroying it with Parasite/Knifed or slipping past it with Inside Job, Escher and Blackmail?

A lot of the time it's going to be a combination of the above option - some economy, some breakers, some frustrating Events.  Whatever the combination you choose, usually the vast majority of a Runner's deck will be dedicated to making sure that all of the above happens.

But that's not how you win games as a Runner.  

That's all the stuff that you're doing just to get you to the position where you can execute your strategy, steal Agendas and win the game.  If 90% of a runner's deck is dedicated to getting the runner into the position where they can break Ice and successfully complete runs then I'm interested in the remaining 10%... the 10% that says "right, I've got my rig and some money... what happens next?"

Once you've got your rig I think there's three main routes to Runner victory, depending on where you go looking for those game-winning agendas.

Remote Servers - "The Hunter"

Signature Cards: Femme Fatale, Blackmail, Inside Job, Test Run, Knight, Stimhack

The Hunter is perhaps the most passive of the three strategies because a lot of this strategy just involves waiting around for the Corporation to give you something to hunt.  The main aim of the Hunter strategy is to ensure that, when the Corporation thinks it is position to score an Agenda and puts it on the line in a remote server, the Runner has the tools to burn through the Corp's defences and steal it.

There are two common approaches to playing the Hunter: either building a powerful rig with A LOT of credits behind it so you can break through several layers of even the biggest Ice, or using cards like Femme Fatale, Inside Job, Blackmail etc to skip past as much of the Ice as possible.  The recent hound Icebreakers like Lady or Cuj.0 also help a Hunter plan, fittingly, as the power counters are perfect for breaking through big Ice relatively cheaply and the Hunter doesn't need to use them so often.

A lot of time it's helpful for the Hunter to APPEAR to be in a weaker position than they really are so that the Corp thinks they have a scoring window that isn't really there.  Once the Corp has installed an Agenda (ideally advancing it a couple of times for good measure) the Hunter can then spring their trap with a Test Run/Scavenge for Femme Fatale, or a Stimhack/Running Interference that dramatically swings the odds in their favour just long enough to steal the Agenda.  A key distinction here is that long term power isn't the objective of the Hunter because he doesn't need to be able to run every turn, he just needs to be able to run big when there's an Agenda on the line.

A real benefit of the Hunter plan is that it doesn't require anything that the Runner wasn't already playing - ways of beating Ice, and economy to pay for it - but there are also a few key weakness to the Hunter strategy: 
  • A Corporation that plans to fast advance its Agendas need not ever give the Runner a target to shoot at.  A lot of Corporations fast advance.
  • The strategy as a whole allows the Corporation to decide when the battles are fought, with the Runner relying on the Corp misjudging what the Runner is capable of.
  • Because the Hunter's rig maximises the ability to produce a short term 'burst' of power over long term efficiency any wasted run (either unsuccessful, or suckered into hitting a taxing ambush or decoy) is bad news.

Of these it's perhaps the first point that has historically played strongest against the Hunter strategy, and there are few tools available for the Hunter to avoid a Corporation that simply wants to score its Agendas directly out of HQ.  Until recently the best weapons were either Chakana or The Source but the addition of Clot gives Hunters a whole new weapon by forcing the Corp to leave their Agendas dangling in a remote server for at least one turn.  

I don't want to dedicate too much space to talking about a single card but it's worth saying the best way to maximise the irritant of Clot is to have ways of installing on the Corporation's turn, just before they stick the final Advancement counter onto their Agenda, so having something like Self-Modifying Code or Clone Chip in your rig makes Clot MUCH better at spoiling the Corporation's party, and thus much better for the Hunter style of play.

R&D - "The Digger"

Signature Cards: Medium, Maker's Eye, R&D Interface, Keyhole, Indexing

Where the Hunter is all about waiting for the Corporation to decide when they want to fight the Digger strategy puts the Runner into the driver's seat.  The plan is to hit R&D hard and often, at least once per turn and ideally accessing multiple cards every time.  The logic behind this plan is that the Agenda's are in there somewhere and so long as you keep digging you're going to find them eventually.  Whatever else the Corporation is up to doesn't bother you too much, you just want to get your head down and dig for victory.

Unfortunately the Digger plan is quite a common one and also quite predictable so often the Corporation will lay defences down against it by default, then will be quick to reinforce those defences when you show your hand and install something like a Keyhole or R&D Interface.  

As a Digger you can expect to have to punch your way through a few layers of Ice every time you want to access R&D, and unlike the Hunter you know you're going to want to run much more frequently if you're going to find enough Agendas to win.  This requires a strong but efficient rig to be built that can stand up to the hard work of bashing the Corp's defences down time after time.  The classic Andromeda deck used the Datasucker/Desperado engine to make it cheap to break most Ice, for example, a mode which has been commonly replaced by a Stealth breakers combination in many modern Criminals.  The Runner can also gain strength from knowing they're going to be focussed on R&D in the game, which is the theory behind the Breach/Alias/Passport Icebreakers that trade power for flexibility, or the recent crop of Eater/Knight Anarch decks using Keyhole.

The ultimate endgame of the Digger is the 'R&D lock', which is the point at which the Runner is able to dig so deep into R&D every turn that they'll always see an Agenda before the Corp has the chance to draw it.  Establishing an R&D lock is not a guarantee of victory but unless the Corp has the Agends he needs already stashed away in HQ then it's pretty close.

The reason that Corporations know to prepare for R&D dig is precisely because it's proven to be a hugely effective way of winning games, but it certainly doesn't mean that it's infallible.

  • The Digger is in a race with the Corporation, gambling that they can find and score Agendas from R&D before the Corporation can score Agendas from HQ.  If the digging start early then the odds are firmly in the runner's favour, but if the Corporation has already scored a few Agendas before the Digger really gets going then it could all be too late.
  • Against Jinteki net damage decks the Digger strategy becomes a liability as it's all too easy to hit two Snare! at once and be ending your run in a body bag.  Although Keyhole can't force an R&D lock like Medium it at least retains usefulness against Jinteki.
  • Corporations are getting more and more tools to evade the R&D lock such as Jackson Howard, Daily Business Show and Fast Track, and there are more Agendas that are tricky to steal out of R&D like The Future Perfect or NAPD Contract.

All that said, there's a reason why Diggers have been among the most popular runner strategies - it's hard to ignore the near-inevitability that Diggers will score Agendas if they can just keep digging.

One special case is worth mentioning: I think a lot of players might read this and wonder where Noise fits into these strategies, with his virus-led trashing effect.  

I would argue that to most intents and purposes Noise is a Digger, he's just using viruses to dig through R&D rather than the traditional options.

HQ - "The Harvester"

Signature Cards: R&D Interface, Nerve Agent, Legwork, Wanton Destruction, Utopia Shard

Hunting for Agendas in HQ is traditionally one of the least rewarding ways of playing the game: many Agendas will pass through HQ only briefly on their way from R&D to remote server, and unless the Corporation is flooded for Agendas you've frequently only got a 20% chance of any HQ run ending in a score.  If all there was to the Harvester's gameplan was randomly accessing cards from HQ then it would be called 'The Fisher' instead', and would be just as slow, boring and pointless as it's real life counterpart.  The Harvester has bigger plans than that and wants to improve the odds of their HQ runs paying off in scored Agendas.

Agendas are on a conveyor belt out of R&D into HQ.  In the natural scheme of things they then pass on into remote servers to be advanced and completed.  But if a runner can prevent the Corp from moving those Agendas on into remotes then they will start to gather up in HQ and make it a juicier target.  The first step of the Harvester strategy is to do this, keeping pressure on the Corporation as much as possible so that they never feel like they can risk trying to score an Agenda.  

The tool for achieving this is usually waging economic warfare.  This might sound similar to what the Hunter is doing in building a strong economy but while the Hunter relies on looking weaker than the are, the Harvester wants to look strong so that the Corporation doesn't even try to score something.  Another contrast is that where the Hunter watches and waits, the Harvester harasses and harries.

Keep the Corporation spending money, keep trashing their Sundews and Adonis Campaigns, keep making them rez ice, keep draining their economy whenever possible while building yours.  The longer the game goes on the more Agendas are herded into HQ, and that's what you want - that's why you're the Harvester.  Account Siphon/Vamp are fantastic cards for the Herder as it's the best way of keeping the Corporation on its knees, economically, but often the key for the Harvester is to just keep pestering the Corp in a form of guerrilla warfare by constantly pecking at their defenses and demanding they spend money.  

Finally, when you judge that the time is right and HQ is ripe for the picking you turn your attention to HQ and harvest the rewards of your hard work with multi-access/trashing cards like Legwork or Wanton Destruction.

Like the Hunters and Diggers life isn't plain sailing for Harvesters, and the Harvester plan has some definite weaknesses.

  • If the Corporation's economy is too strong then you won't be able to contain the Corp.  In the worst case you could burn yourself out trying.
  • Cards like Daily Business Show and Jackson Howard give Corporations a way of filtering excess Agendas out of HQ, meaning the HQ 'fruit' never ripens.
  • The theory of the Harvester is that eventually the Agendas will arrive in HQ, but while the Digger is almost certain to find Agendas in R&D there's less certainty for the Harvester.  You could keep the Corp helpless for a dozen turns only for your coup de grace Wanton Destruction to reveal they hadn't drawn a single Agenda in that time.

That said, the Harvester also has two big natural advantages - waging economic warfare on the Corporation is obviously a good thing to be doing anyway, and in constantly probing the Corp's defences you might pick up a couple of Agendas along the way when they are stretched to breaking point.  

Split Personalities

These are the three routes that I think most Runners use to win games - there are exceptions, of course, but I think this explains the vast majority of successful decks.  

Having laid out the three distinct strategies I think it's essential to admit that it's actually relatively common for a Runner deck include elements of more than one of these strategies!  A cyclopean focus on a single gameplan is asking for the Corp to focus all their defensive efforts against it so having a Plan B is often an important part of being a runner.  But while a successful runner deck might carry an element of more than one strategy there is almost always a heavy weighting towards one over the other because it's difficult to fully support two of these plans.

You might see a deck running some Mediums and a copy of Nerve Agent, so are they are a Digger or a Harvester?  Well usually there will be more copies of one than the other, with the runner intending to have one as Plan A and the other as a Plan B in case HQ/R&D becomes too heavily defended.  Similarly you can often find Makers Eye and Legwork in the same deck, or a Hunter deck might carry some Makers Eyes so that they can go hunting for Agendas in R&D if the Corporation is slow in installing their Agendas.  But while you might find two strategies in one deck there will always be a clear main objective, which is what the Runner's economy and rig is set up to support.

Know Your Role

What is most important is that you pick at least one of these strategies when you're building your deck.  Time and again I see Runner decks that tick all the boxes aside from having a gameplan as players get so sucked into the joys of designing and crafting a rig that they never consider what that rig is actually going to be for!  If you fall into that trap then you'll never take the initiative away from the Corporation and however good your rig is you'll be fighting uphill in every game, with the Corporation secure in their central servers and waiting for you in their remotes.

The second lesson is to bear in mind what your final gameplan is when you're building your deck.  Try to make sure that everything is pulling in the same direction, from the 1st card to the 45th, and know why everything is in your deck.  If you're a Hunter you need burst economy and surprise attacks, if you're a Digger you need steady efficiency, if you're a Harvester you need to be aggressive from the outset.  Mismatching elements of those strategies is one of the most common mistakes that new players make, but also one of the easiest to avoid once you learn to think about your deck in the right way from top to bottom.