Hi Stimhack community,
I was thinking about deckbuilding the recent days and wanted to put my thoughts down. This is what came out of it.
In this post, I discuss the different approaches to deckbuilding one can take and reflect on the motivation behind building decks using examples of current and previous decks made by others and myself. Skim over the section titles and you should have a fairly good idea on what this post is about.
I’ve been playing the game for over 2 years now and have been loving the deckbuilding aspect pretty much since day 1. No other game was able to give me the same joy of the preparation phase for a big Netrunner tournament. That excited and nervous phase of picking a deck and then thinking and rethinking and doubting every decision until the very last minute when you need to send in the decklists and sleeve the decks… and then doubt your decisions a bit more.
For the longest time, I had set myself the goal of bringing at least one completely self-made deck to every tournament I visited and I’ve learned a lot (read: failed a lot) doing so. If you are inclined to take interesting ideas and try to build a functioning deck out of it, this might be the right post for you. In this essay, I want to take an in-depth look into how I personally have come to think of the game and - if you want - the philosophy behind building decks.
All of my statements are based on one central premise: You’re building a deck to win the game. If you want to build a deck, that tries to put all of its 27 upgrades into a single big clown car remote and watch the fireworks as the Runner runs into it, sure, go at it! Have fun in every way you want! This can be your own win condition and very fun on its own. You can even organize tournaments with alternative win conditions.
But this essay aims at the typical standard tournament environment, where the participants agree on one single point: The goal of the game is winning the game.
Categories of decks
As with every categorization, this overly simplifies a lot of things. But it can be helpful to think about decks in these three categories to understand the role and position of a deck in any given meta.
1. Good stuff decks (RegAss <insert Runner here>)
This is the easiest of them all and what most people are suggesting to you, if you ask for advice on your “janky” pile of cards. Just remove the jank and add econ and draw…
If you want to build a good stuff deck, you typically start by picking a plain good ID. Corp-side this would be Palana, Azmari, BABW,
HB:Engineering the Future Sportsmetal/Asa. Runner-side this is Val, Lat/Hayley, 419/Leela. This is your foundation. Now add at least 15 Money cards. Add breakers / ICE in meta-typical amounts. Add 9-12 draw cards. Now add 1-5 flavor cards. Still some slots left? Add more econ and/or draw. Done.
These decks don’t try to do anything too fancy. They are just a reliable, strong, low-variance deck that typically depend a lot on the skill level of the player to excel and is pretty good in most matchups overall.
2. Meta call
You’re observing something in the meta and build a deck that specifically counters this one deck / archetype. There are a lot of possibilities in this category. For example, you could pick Titan Fast Advance when you expect a rather slow runner field, that is unable to contest your tempo and early board state. Or you see an arms-race between glacier-y Corps and Runner decks that get ever more efficient at breaking ICE. In this case, you might bring a heavily horizontal deck that just spews assets faster than the Runner has tools to deal with.
Building these decks brings two challenges: First and foremost, you need to correctly evaluate the state of this elusive thing called meta. What decks will the other players bring? What key cards do you need to play around? Do they all share a common weakness, that you can try to exploit?
Once you did this, you need to build a deck that specifically targets these weaknesses. A good recent example are the Runner decks that tried to counter the big SIU + Zealous Judge Gagarin decks in MWL 3.2. They correctly identified that the Gagarin deck leans hard on a central win condition: Winning by tagging through a combination of HHN / SIU and Zealous Judge. Then they included cards like No One Home, Misdirection and Political Operative to fully counter that win condition of the Corp and force them to score out.
While this kind of deckbuilding is interesting, it needs a stable meta, where most of the field has decided on the “decks to beat”. Of course, it can also work in uncertain metas, but is very hit and miss. If you manage to correctly predict the field, you will certainly have a strong advantage. A good example for when this can work was my winning Eternal Barricade EtF deck, which just walled itself off behind Jinja and a lot of ice and then scored out of hand. I managed to get lucky with that (admittedly very boring) prediction, but could just as well have lost to e.g. a strong Noise deck that I just didn’t think about.
3. The real jank town
This is what this essay really is about. If you ever looked at a card for way too long and really wanted to make it work NO MATTER THE COSTS, you know what I’m talking about. This is where the jank lives and Puppet Masters control your every single move. Where you jump on your Qianju PT and drive your penguin into HQ for 9 credits. Where you inject 4 cards and the Corp stops you to pick up every single one of them and starts reading confusedly.
This is where I’ve started my time in Netrunner and where I’ve failed the most (read: learned the most). But this is one of the most mis-understood parts of our little card game as well. In my opinion, most of the decks that people call “jank” are not that. There is of course such a thing and I will try to define it here as precisely as I can.
Jank is a pile of cards without any cohesion. It lacks a clear line of play. Sometimes it even lacks a win condition. It often has a vision in mind of a board state, where everything works perfectly, but it lacks the draw and econ to get to that board state anywhere in the first 30 turns of the game. And this is what I kept building most of the time when trying to think of a fun deck to bring to a tournament.
When a beginning player comes to you with a decklist and asks for advice, it is hard to not go the way of cutting every fun bit of the deck down and replacing it with draw and econ. And often good players will end up with the opinion that it is hard to help new players, because all they want to do is “build jank around bad cards that can never win” (ok, we’ve heard enough Mr. Strawman).
And while this may be the case (see Introduction), often they play the game with the same motivation as the top players: to win matches. What they lack is either the knowledge about the card pool or experience in more advanced game mechanics to select the correct cards that will lead them to this goal. This is where I want to come to my conclusion in the form of deckbuilding principles that will take a given deck idea and make the best possible deck out of it.
Pick a central premise
During the last weeks of the MWL 3.2, something extraordinary happened: Qianju PT became part of some Tier 1 decks (read write-up here). The meta revolved so much around the Gagarin deck, that Qianju PT with its ability to nullify SIUs effect became the correct card to slot. Over time there have been several of these cards that were deemed to just be binder fodder for the rest of eternity, up to the point where they were not. This leads me to a central conclusion:
There are no bad cards in this game. (…ok, maybe Tyr’s Hand)
You can take every single card in this game and pick it as the center point of your deck. If you set out building a deck, take this as the first unalterable axiom for all your coming decisions: I’m am building a deck that tries to do X.
This X may be a Gnat Deck that wants to trigger its ID ability often. Or an NEH deck, that spams remotes to power their Khondi Plaza based scoring remote. Or a Mushin AgInfusion that boops the Runner into their inevitable doom presented by a 15-advanced Junebug and a Labyrinthine Servers. Just to pick some random examples, that no sane person would ever attempt .
Most of these ideas will not lead to a tier 1 deck, but hey – not every deck can be tier 1. What you can do is take your deck idea and build the best possible deck, that wins by executing your central idea. This is the premise which every following decision will be is measured against. You will maybe not make the tier 1 Gnat deck you always dreamt of, but you can strive to build the best possible Gnat deck. And if you’re really lucky, your whacky idea becomes the next Tap Dancer 419 or RGB Hayley that was always thought of as “pure jank” up until the point it was not.
There are no bad cards
The next step is the hardest part for newer players, since it necessitates a near encyclopedic knowledge of the complete cardpool with all of its quirks and weird interactions. You will need to look at every possible card from all factions and evaluate them against your central premise. Is this a card that can help me do X? If so, add it to the pile of cards.
Once you’re through all of your binders and have collected every fun piece of hardware, program, resource and event that you could find, you’re probably looking at a heap of about 30-50 cards. Now you have to hold in your tears, while you meticulously reevaluate every single one of these cards and ask yourself, how well they really fit into your game plan.
Sort them into three piles: irremovable, strong, weak. At this point you’re not evaluating them independently as good or bad cards – you would do this while building a good stuff deck. You should be evaluating them against your plan X and decide whether it is central to your plan, helps it strongly or is just weakly aligned with it. Add in all the irremovable cards, then prune all the weakly aligned cards until you’re left with a pile of about 15-20 cards (including 2-of and 3-ofs).
Now draw the rest of the f-ing owl
If your plan X was not “build a good econ engine” (and let’s be honest: who starts building their jank with that premise?), you will now need to create a functioning deck around those pieces. Now you’ll need to add the engine that helps you bring those cards to the table fast enough. As a Runner, this is your draw and econ engine. Most corps are happy with their mandatory draw and will focus on the econ engine more.
Take a look at the good stuff decks that are around, and pick the best cards out of them. This is your Sure Gambles, your Hedge Funds and IPOs, your Diesels and Earthrise Hotels. If you were focusing on Assets, Upgrades and Operations, now is the time to pick ICE. If you’re over the influence limit at any point, just keep on picking cards. Do so until you’re at your 40/44/45/49/50 cards. Only then start to reevaluate your cards to stick to the influence limit. Finally:
Keep on iterating
Most of the time, it is best to simply jump on jinteki.net now and start testing the deck. You will realize that either you’ve forgotten something central about your deck (let me tell you about the vast number of games, where I’ve forgotten to include a Decoder…) or that some parts are not as effective as you’d like them to be. This, for me, is the most fun part of deckbuilding. You now iterate on your deck idea. Keep replacing cards with others. Look back at your “strong” and “weak” piles and maybe try out some of those and see if your analysis of them was correct.
Keep on doing this until you’re fed up with the deck. Maybe post it on NRDB, ask for comments and finally archive it, but most importantly: don’t forget about it. There have been enough times in the game, where old and forgotten jank decks have seen a great revival. The most recent one being Au Revoir Wu, which has been around for Worlds 2017, but was held back by Mti. Once Mti was banned, it finally had a place in the meta that even lead to the MWL 3.3 having to restrict Au Revoir as an answer to the deck.
I hope this was informative or fun to read (hopefully both). Happy Netrunning everyone!