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Running the Nets: One Year Later

Back when I first reviewed Android: Netrunner, the two-player “Living Card Game” from Fantasy Flight Games with a decidedly cyberpunk theme, I was enamored with it. My only problem was that I had very few friends who knew the game — precisely one, actually; my boss — which led to my becoming only casually acquainted with it. After putting together some recommended decklists from and binging on Netrunner with my boss for a few months, we moved on to other games, and the pair of core sets and data packs I’d bought went onto a shelf in a back room of my house.

Then, last summer, we brought on a new hire at the office who knew the game — and wow, was he better at it than we were. My boss decided he’d rather play other stuff, but I played a few games with our new colleague and had my head handed to me in a wicker basket. I’d never seen half the cards he was playing so there was a lot to learn about the packs that had come out since. But more importantly, he taught me important lessons about play styles, and some basics about how decks are engineered with a certain objective in mind. Back then, for example, the Jinteki corp was usually successful only at flatlining the runner through excessive damage, not outscoring him.

I was also introduced to OCTGN, a PC-based tabletop game simulator that supports the concept of “plugins” for a wide variety of different games, such as Magic: The Gathering or Netrunner. Finally, a way to play Netrunner with people online, meaning my woefully small player base could be expanded! At the time, though, the Netrunner OCTGN plugin was pretty clunky, and after becoming thoroughly intimidated by the whole thing I decided to put it on the back burner. Once more, my Netrunner decks sat dormant for months.

We recently brought on yet another new employee at the office, and not only is he a friend of our last Netrunner player-for-hire, he’s also a multi-tournament winner. This guy plays Netrunner at a very high level, keenly aware of the game’s current “meta” for each faction, able to think spontaneously of amazing new deck builds and rush off to put them together, and host to a steel-trap memorization of almost every card available for the game. Most importantly, he’s a sublime player, able to adjust strategies on the fly, fish for the exact card he needs at the moment he needs it, and all the while maintaining a cool, calm and collected poker face that can be more unnerving to his opponents than the state of the board.

And yes, once again, I’ve dusted off my Netrunner stacks and dived head-first back into it. To be honest, what I’ve seen in the last couple weeks has been incredibly daunting. It’s amazing to think that I’d ever be able to memorize all those cards, know on instinct what my opponent is trying to do, or out-think him just by deducing what he might have in his deck as-yet unseen. There are times when I feel like I should just give it up because I’ll never be that good, but then I remember that of all the dozens of games I’ve played with my friends at work, the only one I’ve ever laid out $150+ dollars for my own copy of is Netrunner. When I think back to all the great cyberpunk games like System Shock that I’ve enjoyed, the books I’ve read and the worlds I’ve created myself on typewritten pages, I realize that if there was ever a game I should at least try to get good at, this is it.

So for the last week, while the other half of our gaming group spends a month overseas working closely with our Asia-Pacific division, our resident Netrunner expert and I have been going at it, mano-a-mano style. He’s helped me build brand new corp and runner decks, replacing the dusty old early-2013 decks I was using before. I’ve studied game after game on genestealers’ channel, learning what to do, what not to do, and what’s just plain dumb. I’ve visited Madness Games and Comics in Plano to try and stock up on the data packs I’ve missed over the past year, slowly working my way up to some semblance of currency.

And of course, I’ve been playing the game, each day over lunch.

I started by playing my tournament-winning friend once as runner and once as corp, using my year-old decks. It was an embarrassment. Not only had I not played in 6-8 months and could barely remember what to do, he threw all kinds of things at me that I’d never seen. My corp deck was a particular disaster; it was way too big, a Jinteki identity that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be (Flatline? Big ice?). That drubbing was all I needed to really motivate me to get serious. After picking up Creation and Control plus the next three data packs from Madness, I replaced all but six cards in my Chaos Theory runner deck and built a completely new corporate identity based on the Weyland Consortium, using tournament-winning decklists from as reference. The Weyland deck, in fact, is very similar to the one my friend runs with great success, and I’ve gotten to play against his version of it a couple of times.

My first time playing my new runner deck, in fact, was also my first encounter with my friend’s Weyland corp. Through liberal use of The Maker’s Eye early on, plus a lucky snipe from HQ, I managed to score 6 of the 7 agenda points I needed to win fairly early in the game. But it was all downhill from there: despite a full deck of Self-Modifying Codes and Clone Chips which would let me fish for cards and then pull them out of the trash, I finally ran out of methods to get my barrier breaker back online after the corp kept trashing it. For the last three turns I could only poke around and collect credits while my opponent, his servers safe from prying runners, leisurely scored enough points to take the win. (Later, he told me that was how his Weyland deck — and by extension, mine — was expected to play.)

For the following two days we reversed sides, and I worked on my corping skills (since I feel much less confident as the corp than as the runner). Again I got served — worse today than yesterday, in fact — but I have learned quite a few things, and this experience has gotten me thinking about how I can deal with Datasuckers, one of my opponent’s favorite programs. (To my embarrassment, I forgot that the corp can forfeit a turn to purge the runner’s virus counters, which are Datasucker’s fuel — not that it would have entirely helped me, given the mistakes I made with my ice placement.) I’m still not that good, but I’m starting to feel like I can get better the more I work at it, which is something I might have stringently denied just a week ago.

I still feel pretty self-conscious while playing, due to my lack of experience, the fact that Netrunner is a two-player game (so all eyes are on you when it’s your turn), and of course the fact that my opponent is so very far ahead of me. It’s a bit like picking up a tool for the first time and trying to figure out how to use it in front of a skilled, veteran craftsman. Except this tool requires on-the-fly strategic thinking, something I’ve always felt that I woefully lacked. While I definitely doubt I’ll ever become much of a strategist, there’s at least a chance I could become good enough at Netrunner through experience alone that I could at least enjoy playing competitively, even if I don’t rise to the top of the leaderboards.

To that end, I’ve joined a local Facebook group of Netrunner players, and am interested in going down to Madness Games for meet-ups once in a while to see how I fare against other players. I’m also thinking about trying my hand at OCTGN again, now that the Netrunner plugin has considerably evolved. Given my schedule and family obligations, it’s tough to drive all the way down to Plano for game nights (plus there’s that self-consciousness angle again that is less of a problem when you’re behind a computer screen!). My co-worker has regaled me with tales of all the swag he’s won just for showing up to tournaments, and I’ve seen for myself his custom Netrunner play mat and alternate-artwork cards, all of which he earned either for participating in or outright winning competitive matches. I’m not convinced that I’d ever be able to compete at that level, or even that I’d want to, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain allure to it.

In the meantime, with my eyes filled with visions of new card storage solutions, new data packs and expansions and hours spent studying the card pool, I’ll carry on this effort and see if my net-running (and corping) skills yet might be salvaged.

Hopefully, I’ll at least be able to stay out of the danger zone.