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Designing an Android: Netrunner deck

I’ve stumbled across a few blog posts recently that discuss how to build Netrunner decks, and while they’re good articles in their own right, I think there’s certain missing aspects. This is my own attempt to fill that gap. While the articles that inspired me to write this one cover a lot of the mechanical bases from which to actually construct a deck, and try to get the ratio of cards right in doing so, they are missing the fundamentals: designing a deck to do whatever it is intended to do.

A caveat first up: I’m an inveterate list-maker – not just with regards to deck lists, but customisable card games make for an excellent outlet for my OCD in this regard. I have dozens of deck lists (and variant versions thereof) archived and really there’s so many that I’ve probably played less than fifty percent of them. What this does mean, though, is that if you’re the type of player who builds decks by throwing a wodge of cards together, playing the deck and then winnowing out the chaff1, then there may not be much in this article for you. Or perhaps it may let you think about deck design in a different way. Allons-y!

If, like me, you like to plan out your decks in minutiae (or even just sketch out the basics) then my first piece of advice would be:

  • Pro-tip #1: Get a deck builder: find a deck builder that you like and use it.

There are plenty to choose from, that’s for sure. From cardgamedb.com (now owned by FFG, so it is kind of “official”), meteor, Little Chiba, and Alciende’s new deckbuilder at http://netrunnerdb.com/ you should be able to find one that you like. I  personally use a custom Excel spreadsheet, mainly for historic reasons of having started to use it before discovering CGDB and the others emerged. From a mobile POV, I find CGDB to be awfully clunky, and Alciende’s effort to be very smooth. Others I can’t comment on much. I’m also not a huge fan of publishing deck lists online, particularly because of my own attitude towards net-decking in Netrunner (despite having exploited other’s lists for inspiration in the past).

Deck design for Android: Netrunner is, I believe, broadly similar for both Corporation and Runner despite the obvious differences in the two sides. As such I’m going to present the design methodology that I try to use in a flowchart which covers all the major stages and decision points consistent with both sides. There are a couple of obvious branch points where different things need to be considered, but each stage of the chart should be accompanied by a section below, and hopefully for the majority of common sections I can treat both sides equally and appropriately.

Flowchart

deck design flowchart

Stage 1: Concept

Broadly speaking, you want to have a plan in mind when designing your deck.The question is “what is this deck going to do?” and the answer better be something less vague and ambitious as “try to win.”

So, for example, for a Corporation deck, are you trying to flatline the Runner somehow? Is your deck intending to build one massive remote server to drain the Runner’s resources and then try to score Agenda safely while they seek to recuperate from (hopefully) fruitless runs? I.e. are you going to go vertical (one big server) or horizontal (many lightly-defended servers)? Will your deck employ fast advance to try an minimise the opportunity for the Runner to steal Agenda from remotes? Will you employ upgrades to deny the Runner the chance to steal (i.e. Red Herrings, or Ash)? Does your deck incorporate Ambushes, and if so what types: damage, (program) trashing or tagging?

On the Runner side of the equation, is your deck intended to apply constant pressure to the Corporate servers, or does it turtle along building up the entire Rig before running proper. Will you be making multiple runs, or does the deck go for a ‘power turn’ that will allow it to hopefully win outright? Is your deck predicated on attacking centrals or remotes or all servers equally? Is it intended to clear tags, or ‘float’ them (tagMe-style), daring the Corp to try and punish this state of affairs? Are you going for a ‘mill’ victory by decking the Corp? Are you trying to win through credit denial (i.e. resource draining) and if so, by what route: derezzing/destroying Ice, upping the Ice costs to prohibitive levels (a la Xanadu & Rook), or by outright Event-based draining credits (i.e. Account Siphon, Vamp)?

With all of these options, keep in mind:

  • Pro-tip #2: Don’t try to do too much (or too little): aim for flexibility in your victory condition, but not too much.

A deck design that attempts to encompass too many concepts will end up being a bugger’s muddle, being unable to effectively exploit any one victory condition or strategy. Swiss Army Knife-decks do have a place, but this is a different thing from trying to do too many things; a Professor (say) deck that brings the perfect tool to bear to break any or all Ice is the kind of thing that I’m referring to in the former case, and the latter doesn’t have a named archetype beyond “bad deck”. Swiss Army Knife decks can provide the flexibility needed to answer any challenge, meaning that you can potentially face any opposing deck moderately well, but if this is your design, then recall the maxim: “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Diluting the focus of your deck perforce waters down every theme in your deck, to the effect that none of them work as effectively as they might. Equally, in converse, any deck with a singular (i.e. single-minded) focus potentially becomes crystalline, or brittle by losing the flexibility to switch focuses when the perfect (“hard”) counter gets played by your opponent.

Stage 1/ Step A: Metagame Considerations

Metagame definitions abound out there, so I won’t retread the territory by offering my own definition. When playing Netrunner, obviously you’re not playing your deck in isolation. There is your opponent’s deck to consider, and your pool of likely opponents forms your (local) metagame. Two things come into play here: what decks you are likely to face and your opponent's play styles. The latter impacts on both this and the following consideration, but the former really only factors in at this step.

What decks are popular in your area, and what cards? Playing a “mill” deck in an area where Jackson Howard is new – and likely popular given the hype – may turn out to be a bad plan right up front, no matter how effective your deck is, if you want to win. Taking a Tag’n’Bag (Scorched Earth flatline-oriented) deck into an environment populated by tagMe (tag floater-type decks that don’t worry about clearing tags and are prepared to deal with Meat damage) is also potentially a bad plan.

This stage of the deck design also ties back to the conceptual design stage consideration about fragility. If a certain deck archetype is moderately common, but not predominant in your meta, you might gamble on not meeting such a deck, so long as you have some degree of flexibility to cope with the situation when you do end up facing one. Running with your primary game plan until you sniff out a hard counter to your deck and then resorting to a secondary strategy may still allow you to get the win, although the second path may be a more difficult game.

Bringing a singularly focussed deck into a meta that you have misread is disastrous.

  • Pro-tip #3: Read the meta. Learn what you’re likely to face and factor that in.

Easier said than done; how does one ‘read the meta’? You need to play, lots! Get to the regular gaming events in your area as much as possible. After a few games with a new deck, break it down on the table with your opponent and seek advice on how to improve it. Don’t be afraid to get kicked, so long as you can learn from the experience. In a recent article on testing published at cardgamedb, João “Hraklea” Almeida suggested that one of the better ways to improve your decks is to be part of a team of dedicated players who can challenge each other and work together to improve the teams performance. While this may be the ideal, the acknowledged point is that it isn’t within the means of every player, and so the local player base may be simply the best one can hope for.

Talk to your fellow players; in my local area, at least, the community is friendly and open enough to engage in all sorts of discussion about the game, what cards are strong (expect to see these), what decks work well (expect to see these), what they lose to (which tells you more about what is out there), and what decks don’t work well. You can take the latter as a warning to not try a weaker concept that has been tested by others (many minds can do better than one at working out what’s good in the game right now).

You could also see it as a challenge (opportunity)  to try and refine that idea into something workable. The benefits of doing this are twofold: if someone sees your deck and interprets it as the weaker, unrefined variant then they won’t expect your deck to be as strong as it might turn out to be. The second benefit is the kudos that come with making a decent archetype from something that the community discarded, which is a nice piece of reputation to garner.

Furthermore, don’t underestimate the potential of bringing a novel deck into a competitive environment. When your opponent doesn’t know what the deck that you’re playing is going to do, this uncertainty can potentially throw them off their game plan, or make them more cautious, which can work to your advantage. Knowing what is prevalent in your meta, and what hasn’t been tried and tested can help to identify deck concepts that may catch you opponents out and possibly bring victory.

Stage 1/ Step B: Plan for Sente

Sente means controlling the game state outside of the norms of the Three Phases of Netrunner. For a fuller discussion of the notion of sente, as applied to Netrunner, see my earlier essay on the topic, but in short, holding sente in a game means that you’re (more) likely to win, unless your opponent is able to wrest it back.

  • Pro-tip #4: Design for sente. Your deck needs to have a way to control the (flow of the) game.

In designing a Netrunner deck you should try to consider what your ideal board state looks like2. This may consist of a state of your servers/Rig set up, number of Agenda scored (if using this to pressure the Runner), number of credits available, or other manipulable game elements from which you should be able to achieve victory. Your deck should be designed with this ideal in mind, so that as you are able to progress towards achieving it, you are confident enough to win the mental battle as much as the purely card-oriented one.

Consider also here the question of tempo – how quickly are you able to achieve the ideal b.p. that represents your conception of sente with regards to your deck design? The most potent combo in the world isn’t much good to you if your opponent is going to win three turns before you can pull it together. How many moving parts need to be assembled before you can achieve the b.p. sought? Is your deck able to viably threaten victory before you achieve the set up, or do you intend to disregard the early play of your opponent while working towards the idealised b.p., trusting that when finally achieved this is enough to assure the win? Or are you giving up too much initiative in striving for the sente position without other forms of attack?

Stage 1/Step C: Combos, Synergy, FM and EBA

Combos should be a well known enough term to the card gaming community to obviate the need for a definition here. Synergy is, by my definition, a series of set of combos that allow a deck to better function across the board. FM is “force multiplication”, which is my term for cards that work better when multiple copies are in play, e.g. Ice Analyzer; each one gains a credit per rez, increasing the effectiveness of all of them when seeking to install a program. EBA is short for “effects-based analysis”, which is my term for looking for cards to include into a deck that may not all perform the same function, but working together serve to create a greater effect than any one specific card might, e.g. Compromised Employee, say, coupled with Xanadu and Forged Activation Orders, might create the effect of damning the Corp into a situation where they do not wish to rez ice, due to the gains the Runner will make in credits, and cost involved, but this sets them up for an Ice/credit denial strategy exploiting FAO. All of these notions I’ve discussed in a previous article as well, with the exemplar of a Darwin deck.

  • Pro-tip #5: Consider Combos, Synergy, FM & EBA.

Combos tend to emerge early on in the deck conception, possibly as far back as the initial Stage 1 idea. They may even be the central notion of a deck, such as the John Masanori/Data Leak Reversal/Crash Space combo as the core of a deck. Synergies tend to emerge through the design process more organically, although previous experience with Netrunner deckbuilding might lead you to card choices that you know will all synergise with one another, e.g. Darwin, Cyberfeeder, Datasucker, Parasite and Surge, say.

When designing a deck, I also try to look for FM and EBA, from which to better focus the deck. Some of this is also going to inform card choices such as how many of a certain card to include. Consider Professional Contacts for example; the FM from having two is minimal and so not worth including more than two in many decks, because after the first is in play each one after is a dead draw.

I also try to consider EBA so as to gain an idea of additional card choices; as another example, where Compromised Employee is useful in making the Corp reticent to rez certain Ice, adding in Ice Analyzer might have the effect of neutralising a number of the Ice cards in the Corporation’s deck – permitting easy installs of efficient breakers that can counter the Ice totally, and so making those cards dead draws for the Corp. An easy example of EBA from the Corp side would be the NEXT Ice series, where a future NEXT Barrier or Sentry class would equally support the NEXT Bronze Code Gate.

Stage 1/Step D: Deck Core

Here’s the first point of divergence for the Corporation and Runner sides in my flowchart. The asymmetry of Netrunner means that the two sides play different cards, and that needs to be recognised early on. For the Corp, Agenda are the key to (normal) victory and a mandatory inclusion in the deck; on the other hand, few (no?) Runner decks can operate successfully without Icebreaker Programs in their Rig. Deciding what your breaker suite will look like is an early design consideration.

  • Pro-tip #6: Get your core right.

Corporation: Agenda Scheme

How many Agenda an which to include in your deck is an important decision. There are two main approaches to determining your scheme: agenda point structure, or deck concept. A classic example here is Weyland. For Weyland, a common consideration is to go for very few that do not give credits, so focussing on Government Contracts, Geothermal Fracking, Hostile Takeover and then rounding out with possibly one or two Project Atlas. If the deck is seeking to achieve a flatline Tag’n’Bag victory, Private Security Force might be a consideration, for the ability to snipe Plascrete Carapace counters.

Focussing instead on the point structure, one might decide that three 3-point Agenda, three 1-point Agenda and four 2-point Agenda cards gives the optimal spread of points across cards, or alternatively 2× 3-pt, 6× 2-pt and 2× 1-pt is a better spread of points across cards. Like the first structure the agenda points are concentrated in ten cards, but is less likely to give the Runner a 3-pt steal and improving the chances that they will need to successfully steal four cards to win.

One alternative way of thinking about this is to consider the action investment required to score the Agenda needed to win. I discuss this in another article, here, but the basic point is to look at the number of actions you expect to have to invest in drawing, installing and advancing your Agenda cards to achieve victory, and then selecting the scheme that minimises this. The math is fairly basic probability / combinatorics, but may be a touch daunting for some to approach.

Runner: Icebreaker Suite

A Runner that doesn’t run is very likely going to lose the game. To run, in almost all cases, you need to have Icebreaker programs – I have won games with nothing on the table except a Datasucker, and an Exile deck I used a while back won (protracted) games without ever installing a card but these are the exceptions. Very likely the deck needs breakers.

Again there’s two main points of departure for this design choice: do you go with a full suite (Killer(s), Fracter(s) and Decoder(s)) or focus on a sole, generic breaker – usually an AI like Crypsis, Darwin or Atman, but very rarely Wyrm – with support from other cards. The choice to include a full suite is sometimes determined by efficiency, as in Criminal decks that choose to import one or two of the static (fixed strength) breakers from Anarch coupled with Datasucker support, devoting valuable influence to efficient running. Shaper decks sometimes choose to deploy a full suite of in-house breakers, excepting a killer, where the in-faction Pipeline and Creeper are clearly inferior; either Atman as an in-faction AI, Crypsis as an expensive alternative, or splashing Femme Fatale &/or Faerie with Sacrificial Construct to prevent its destruction, or Clone Chip to retrieve it.

Choosing to deploy only one or a couple of AI breakers that can break any class of Ice is often motivated by efficiency of setting up the Rig instead of running efficiently. The argument goes that having to find and install only one breaker means that the Runner can pressure the Corporation across all servers that much faster, so the Runner can move the game into Phase 3 extremely quickly. The success of Justin Kopinsky’s Katman (Kate + Atman) deck at the North American 2013 Nationals has increased the stock of Katman considerably, although this popularity is not being reflected in the winner’s circles of the Plugged-in Tour rolling event currently taking place in the North Americas.

Whatever scheme you choose for your Runner deck, it is important to be able to break (almost) every class of Ice. Traps are sometimes neglected as a consideration, and for the moment I think that most Corporations are avoiding them, due to the prevalence of AI breaker-focussed decks, which treat them as just another generic Ice to be broken. As noted above, some deck designs choose to ignore a certain class of Icebreaker (i.e. Killer/Fracter/Decoder) in favour of a generic breaker alternative, and with the prevalent use of Yog.0 in both Criminal and Anarch decks apparent in the US meta, Code Gates are low in stock these days, so a backup AI for the occasional Tollbooth may be all that is required.

Stage 1/Step E: Economy, Economy, Economy

I don’t know if I can stress this enough – a deck with weak economy is a losing deck. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that money is a polite fiction used to facilitate the exchange of goods, a rude fiction used to reinforce the distinction between classes, or is what makes the world go ‘round. In Netrunner, money (credits) is the engine that drives your deck. Without credits, Corps can’t advance Agenda, and Runners can’t power their Icebreakers to break Ice, let alone either side being able to install (&/or rez) the two sides of the game’s fundamental point of interaction.

Credits cannot be an afterthought to an otherwise beautiful deck design, or you end up with a beautiful stillborn that can’t run for beans. Credit generation comes in a couple of axes: one-shot (Events/Operations) vs. ongoing (Resource & Program/Assets & Ice), and trickle (slow bleed credits like Daily Casts or the various Campaigns) vs. burst (Stimhack and Melange Mining Corporation). Getting the right balance of credit generation into your deck is perhaps one of the trickier elements of deck design – trying to calculate the likely credit expenditure over the course of a game and comparing that to the expected credit generation (setting aside all debate about evaluating the return on investment (ROI) of certain cards) – you might see can be done in a number of ways.

  • Pro-tip #7: Don't build your economy as an afterthought.

You can try to calculate the expenditure/generation through various metrics: devoting a certain percentage of your deck to economy cards, or calculating the expected income of the deck balanced against the opportunity cost (due Hraklea again, discussed here and in part 2 here), or seeking to employ some kind of utility function to determine the value of your economy cards and then project whether this is going to sustain your deck’s credit requirements. I guess it is unavoidable to mention that how you calculate the ROI for your cards will impact on your assessment of the economy of your deck, and that the issue of considering whether you factor in the “click to draw” is a contentious one. It may be more than merely philosophical debate, and perhaps the only way to resolve it is through empirical testing to determine if your chosen assessment bears out in the course of actual play.

One alternative to the above methods is to try fishbowling the deck; play against an imaginary opponent who may, if you’re tuning your deck towards competitive levels, experience ideal draws to get exactly what they need in the situation you generate with your own b.p. The idea is to try out over multiple imaginary games to get your scheme set up with what credits you can generate. One method I use is to try and lay out a median board state based on the top X cards of your deck (or an imaginary approximation if you’ve not built it at this stage), and discard any other cards that would not be installed in the Rig. Determine the cost of what’s on the board and how many credits you would have generated over the turns required to install; this gives a sense of the tempo of the deck, how many additional turns you would have spent (as a total) in drawing credits from actions, etc. This rough metric may hint at the need for more or less economy cards, but exercise caution here: if you feel like the deck is swimming in credits, beware trimming the ‘fat’ if your tests are in fact revealing more than a fair share of the economy cards rather than an average ratio. Nothing, of course, substitutes for actual play testing to tell you whether the deck is actually workable or not.

Economy in Netrunner doesn’t just mean credits, however; different Corporation decks may attack the Runner along distinct resource axes. Cards in hand is the main Jinteki Personal Evolution attack vector, as is that of any Weyland or NBN deck aiming for a Scorched Earth or Punitive Counterstrike flatline victory. Jinteki Replicating Perfection decks may choose to attack the Runner along another precious resource: clicks. Economising your deck is also about trying to make efficiencies in these areas as well. A potential future Runner attack vector may also emerge in the Spin cycle, in the form of Bad Publicity. NBN decks especially may begin (have begun?) to treat tags on the Runner as another resource, for either credit denial or for advancing their own Agenda victory. This latter point possibly resurfaces in a later section on defences, so I’ll leave that for now.

Stage 1/ Step F: Defences

When designing a deck, based on metagame considerations, it’s valuable to consider what defences, if any, your deck could include. In a heavy Tag’n’Bag environment, a Runner deck designer might need to consider how to not get Scorched out of the game. Do you go with tag prevention (e.g. base link strength, Decoy, New Angeles City Hall) or accept the inevitability of tags (e.g. Breaking News, Posted Bounty, etc.) and instead concentrate your defences on Meat damage prevention (e.g. Plascrete Carapace)? In either case, how much is enough? One Plascrete might never show up in the game where you desperately need it; or two to allay the possibility of double Scorch, or do you opt for three to have a degree of surety of getting at least one down at the cost of three valuable card slots in the games where your opponent isn’t playing Scorch at all.

  • Pro-tip #8: Consider if (and how) you counter threats to your victory scheme.

On the Corporation side, a primary defence is that of Ice, though not always. Jinteki, as a counterexample, tends to use Ice more for harassment and furthering the compression scheme each Identity seeks to exploit. Given that Ice is your primary defence, another metagame-informed decision might need to be made: where Atman is a prevalent Icebreaker choice, your Ice scheme may need to be more diverse, seeking to range across all strengths. Where Criminal (primarily) anti-Ice strategies prevail, attempting to deploy “big Ice” can lead to economic woes as such expensive Ice is repeatedly derezzed. Against a predominant Anarch fixed strength (static) breaker suite environment, big Ice becomes more attractive due to its resilience to the Parasite / Datasucker destruction strategy,

Other Corp attack vectors can include resource destruction (through tagging, or through Agenda that obviates the need for such, a la  Character Assassination), program destruction (through Destroyer Ice or Aggressive Secretary, etc). Defences here can be as diverse as expose effects, never running without a Sentry breaker (available) and sufficient credits to power it, or simply redundancy of resources, thus taking your lumps and paying the price of installing a backup copy. Card compression can be countered by additional draw effects, or exposure effects that reveal the traps, or simply boosting your hand size out of the danger range.

Runner attack vectors can be anti-Ice strategies, credit ‘denial’ (e.g. Account Siphon, increased rez costs such as Rook and Xanadu), hyper-efficient running targeting known or suspected Agenda, and so on. As you can see, the multifaceted nature of the game means that no one deck could possibly counter all of the attack vectors available to the opponent. As such leaving a deliberate weakness (a ‘hole’) in your deck is a metagame consideration. Pre-emptively seeking to counter a threat that doesn’t see play in your local region weakens your deck by diluting it with dead draws.

One final thing to note here is whether your environment is generally offensive or defensive. In a highly defensive environment where the majority of decks are running countermeasures to your preferred attack vector,  it may be an option to consider employing counter-countermeasures, e.g. Power Grid Overload (or Flare) vs. Plascrete Carapace, or using Invasion of Privacy to set up the flatline attempt.

Stage 1/Step G: Tutors

“Tutors” (the term comes from the Magic: the Gathering card Demonic Tutor, back in the day) are cards that let you search your deck for a specific card (type) and bring it into hand or play. The obvious advantage of a tutor card is that it obviates the arbitrary nature of drawing a card from a randomised deck. Just over a year ago (so long ago?) there wasn’t much option for either side: Special Order could fetch Icebreakers, and Djinn would tutor for viruses. For the Corporation there was Weyland’s Aggressive Negotiation, and that was about it.

Now, circa Opening Moves there are tutors for:

Corporation:

  • Ice: Levy University
  • Generic: Aggressive Negotiation, Project Atlas (Weyland only)

Runner:

  • Hardware: Replicator (of sorts)
  • Programs: Self-Modifying Code, Test Run
    • Icebreakers: Special Order
    • Viruses: Djinn
  • Resources:
    • Connections: Hostage

with undoubtedly more to come.

  • Pro-tip #9: Consider if you need tutors. How reliant is your victory scheme on specific cards to work?

Outside of permitting the Runner to more efficiently establish a Rig, where efficiency here refers to deck space, tutors are useful for two main purposes: setting up combos and removing redundancy. The first is most likely seen in the case of decks with multi-card combos, whereby the tutor card can fetch the missing piece, e.g. using Hostage to fetch John Masanori in the aforementioned DLR combo.

In the second case (of which efficient breaker-suite establishment is perhaps a special case) multiple tutors can replace the redundancy of the cards tutored for. For example, prior to Cyber Exodus’ Test Run the Icebreaker allocation for many Runner decks was a 3-of each breaker class with potentially one or more Crypsis as a backup generic breaker to deal with the absence of a required specific killer/fracter/decoder. Decks also included as many Special Orders as Influence would allow. This was because the potential of any shut-out from a server due to a piece of Ice that could not be broken could be game-ending.

Comparing this to the average (non-AI only) deck of today, which run three or more program/breaker tutors (Special Order, Test Run, SMC, etc) and a very tight suite of perhaps 5-6 breakers. Likewise, Hostage allows a deck that employs Kati Jones and Professional Contacts to drop from three of each to one (or two depending on your expectations of Resource-hate) and several Hostages instead; this speeds access to the Connections, and reduces the chance of dead draws of redundant Kati Jones’, Professional Contacts, John Masanori, Mr Li, etc. To my mind, running a deck of two Test Runs/SMC, two Special Orders and one Snowball is equivalent to running five copies of Snowball as far as the chances of any one drawn card resulting in the Snowball coming into hand/play.

Stage 1/Step H: Retrieval

There is a growing trend in the game towards an attrition element to the conflict between Runner and Corporation. At its outset, the primary elements vulnerable to destruction were Programs (Destroyer Ice and Ambushes), Resources (to tagging), and Assets (trashing). There was the option of Demolition Run being used to trash cards from HQ, but this saw little play with limited means of accessing more than one card at a time.

Now, Hardware, installed Ice, Events (by Invasion of Privacy), uninstalled Programs in hand (Data Hound), etc. may all be slated for destruction or discarding. The Corp also faces the possibility of any card in HQ or R&D that the Runner accesses being trashed at no cost by Imp. The loss of a key breaker (or Magnum Opus) to an early game Rototurret, Neural Katana or Snare! can be a significant setback, to the point of potentially losing the game.

To counter this, alongside Deja Vu (from Core), there are now a significant number of retrieval or recursion cards for Programs (Test Run (Cyber Exodus), Clone Chip and Scavenge (Creation and Control), and Retrieval Run (Future Proof) – all of which can trigger Exile’s ability, as an aside. Events can recur through Same Old Thing (Creation and Control), and even your entire deck, using Levy AR Lab Access from the same set. The options for the Runner are strong, especially for Shapers as most of these cards are specific to that faction.

For the Corporation, there are fewer options aside from Core’s Archived Memories, including Project Vitruvius (Cyber Exodus, an HB-specific Agenda), and Director Haas’ Pet Project (Creation and Control, another HB-specific Agenda), and Howler (Bioroid Ice only). The one of especial note is the most hyped card from Opening Moves: Jackson Howard is an NBN Asset: Executive that can be removed from the game as a paid ability to shuffle up to three cards from the Archives back into R&D. Due to the paid ability nature of this effect, it is effectively unpreventable (as of the cards currently known). Enough has been said elsewhere about the efficacy of Jackson Howard and why he belongs in every Corporation deck built since Opening Moves was released that it doesn’t bear further discussion here.

Stage 2: Compose your Decklist

After thinking about all of the above – congratulations if you have covered all these bases in your design, BTW – it is time to take the notes made along the way and turn these into card choices. Break out the deck builder of choice and start assembling the cards into a list. I tend to iterate over multiple versions of a deck list, sometimes two or three before settling on a final design, prior to testing.

If your design is a tight one, you may find that you’re below the minimum deck size required by your Identity. This is a happy and enviable position to be in, one that I rarely experience and is usually a sign to me that I have missed something crucial. If you are at this point, then additional cards to bring you up to the minimum deck size are potentially just gravy on an otherwise very tight design (possibly with some deliberate holes in it).

Almost invariably. however, I find myself in the other position of being way over the minimum deck size. This is a sad state of affairs as it means that it is time to start cutting out the cool toys that you wanted to include, possibly severing some potential synergies that you were looking to include. It is also a warning heuristic that your design may be trying to encompass too many concepts or themes. A visit to the chopping block may be on the cards (pun intended).

Stage 2/Step I: Card Count and Influence Check

Either count your cards or in your deck builder application check the number of cards in the list. A decent deck builder will highlight any illegality in the build, which is what you’re checking here.

When considering your Influence count, as either Corp or Runner, it is debatable as to whether using up to your cap is required. There’s no need to ensure that all your Influence is expended, and some decks remain stronger by sticking with in-faction (and Neutral) cards as much as possible. At other times, a deck concept revolves around importing certain out-of-faction cards to establish a potent combo or synergy within a non-native faction, e.g. trying to maximise the Jinteki Replicating Perfection Identity’s ability through the use of, say, Ruhr Valley. The expense of Ruhr (lll) in this instance means that a delicate balancing act between under-spending Influence on the imported cards and over-committing to the combo to the detriment of the rest of the design must be struck.

Corporation: Deck Size, Agenda Ratio & Influence Count

Corp decks have three elements that need to be confirmed for legality: minimum deck size, influence check and agenda:card ratio. Each Identity has a minimum deck size, ranging from 40 for NBN The World is Yours* up to 45 for every other Corporation and Division thus far.

There are two schools of thought with regards to Corporation deck size and agenda:card ratio. One suggests that the Corp deck should be at or as close as possible to the absolute minimum for the efficiency of draw – the less cards in your deck, the greater your chance of any one draw being the specific card that you’re looking for. The second and probably predominant school has it that the Corp deck should be built to the upper limits of the range permitted by the agenda points in your deck. This theoretically works to reduce the chance of any one card accessed (from R&D) by the Runner resulting in an Agenda being stolen. At extremis, this suggests an All-3s Agenda scheme in either NBN or Weyland, up to 27 points in a 64 card deck, for an ≈7% chance of any one card being an Agenda. Few people consider this extreme a viable choice, but I think there are far more 20pt/49 card decks than 20pt/45 card decks. A notable exception may be dedicated Tag’n’Bag Weyland decks running 45 cards with the intent of drawing into the double Scorch as quickly as possible.

Finally, double check that your Influence points are within the maximum allowed by your Identity. Again, this is a range from 12 for NBN TWiY* (or 10 for the forthcoming GRNDL Division of Weyland in Spin Cycle #5: Fear and Loathing) up to 22 for Haas-Bioroid’s Custom Biotics Division (at the cost of not being able to include Jinteki cards, making it a completely unviable Identity in my opinion Smile).

Runner: Deck Size & Influence Count

Runner decks equally must meet a minimum deck size and come in under an Influence cap for legality. For the minimum Runner deck size, the predominant school of thought is “less is more”: the closer your deck is to the minimum allowed, the better your chances of drawing into one of the crucial 3-ofs in the opening hand or early game. The minimum deck size and improved odds sees its extreme in many Chaos Theory decks, where a 40-card minimum and high degree of redundancy can result in strong opening hands and more readily assembled combos. There is a decent argument that Andromeda does a better job, with a starting hand size of 9, of getting optimal opening hands; it is in the longer game (which Shaper tends to excel at) that Chaos Theory’s smaller deck plays into its strengths, pace dead draws. What holds for conforming to the Influence cap for Corporation also holds true for the Runner.

Stage 2/Step J: Look for Gaps

Once you’ve “finished” the deck list, it’s time to review it. You’re looking for gaps or holes in the design that might need filling. Again, a good deck builder application may be able to help here: does your Corp deck have a decent spread of Ice of all types, and at varying rez costs (cf. the Ice Shelf article at Strange Assembly). Do you need to buff the number of, say, Code Gates; meta considerations can come in here again, as if Yogosaurus is prevalent in your area then are those two Enigmas going to be working in the deck design?

Hearkening back to an earlier (unpublished) essay of mine, it is also worthwhile to consider my 3Ms maxim: money, MU and maybes. I’ll include an except here:

On the Balance Sheet

Making sure there aren’t hidden flaws in the game plan. Before all the cards are assembled and shuffled together to make the deck complete, it might be best to consider a few more things, so that you aren’t going back to the drawing board mid-game. Think about Memory, Money and Maybes.

Do you have enough MU?

When the deck design is almost complete (or sometimes when you know you’re building an MU-heavy scheme from the outset) it is a good idea to lay out the ideal board of cards that you want to have in the final phase of the game, when your Runner’s rig is completely established. Granted this is only in an ideal, and will probably only happen in protracted games that head towards an impasse. Even so, when you’re about to lay the dirty Corporation low with your nefarious tactics, it’s best to not face hard choices about which program you have to trash because you can’t fit them all in the starting 4MU.

Suppose that your idea setup is a Ninja (1MU), Morning Star (2MU), Peacock (1MU) and Magnum Opus (2MU). Simply laying out this “board” and counting the MU cost tells you that you’ll need more space; a Deck or Mem Chip, or even a Daemon is required. Looking at the setup again, you can’t rely upon the Daemon solution as the breakers alone require 4MU so you need to consider a hardware solution to fit first the Daemon and then the Magnum Opus inside that; or go with a Hardware-only solution.

Do you have enough/ongoing credit sources?

When the chips are down and the game is drawing to a close, and all your Easy Marks and Sure Gamble quick bits are in the Heap, where do you get the credits for a final run to squeeze the last agenda points out of the Corp?

At the moment almost all the credit sources for a Runner are finite; Armitage Codebusting used to be called Short-Term Contract for a reason. Only Magnum Opus comes with no end-point but has a hefty cost in MU. Even Weyland isn’t going to give you enough credits from its own Bad Publicity to power a series of game-terminating runs, and if you’re reliant on recurring credits from Hardware and payoffs for successful runs, you’ll very likely find out in the end game there isn’t enough in the tank to sustain appropriate pressure on the opponent.

Where “enough” is actually enough is if you’re reasonably certain that you can contain the Corporation and lift the seven winning points before you empty your limited credit resources (assuming the Corporation doesn’t disrupt that by trashing some of the precious resources which generate credits along the way). Determining this is a bit of an art in itself and well beyond the scope of this article.

What if?

Play a little game of “what if…” with yourself. What happens when the Corp:

  1. 1. does net damage? (Jinteki will)
  2. 2. trashes a program? (Haas-Bioroid might well)
  3. 3. closed accounts on you? (NBN would like to)
  4. 4. builds a 5-deep fort costing 20+ credits to run? (Weyland can)

1. Can you survive a Snare!? An early game Chum leading to a Neural Katana (6 Net damage total if you can’t break one or the other)? Suppose you lose a key breaker from hand early (only one Corroder in the deck, perhaps)? What can your deck do to recover?

2. Suppose you’re not losing the key breaker to a Jinteki Snare!, but rather to a surprise Rototurret ambush? Do you have backups in the deck? Do you run Deja Vu, such that you’re able to fetch back the one Magnum Opus you squeezed in under the Influence cap?

3. A deck reliant on Sure Gambles and/or Magnum Opus (and hasn’t yet got it down) is in for a slow recovery should NBN drop a Closed Accounts early game. Staggering back from zero credits to five takes 1¼ turns to recoup such a loss. Six credits for a Liberated Account is a long way from zero.

4. Stimhack makes for excellent surprise credits, but without a hefty stash already in store, even that won’t be enough to crack the monster fort on its own.

No single deck will likely have all the answers to the questions above (or send it to me, please, to prove me wrong), but thinking about the metagame of your local environment might suggest which of these (or other) questions it is most important to be able to answer.

It isn’t enough to have all the programs that you need to be able to run safely or efficiently in the deck if you can’t fit them all in play. This becomes crucially important if you intend to use either (i) lots of programs (such as viruses) in multiple, or (ii) use programs such as Magnum Opus or Self-Modifying Code (or both!) which take up 2MU. lay out your idealised Program Rig and do an MU count to make sure you can fit all the pieces into the memory structure you will run. Also be cautious about reliance on using Hardware that hosts programs (Dinosaurus or Omni-Drive) as an alternative to generic MU; the reliance upon drawing into the Hardware before being able to install the programs can seriously hamper the deck’s performance.

Stage 2/Step L: Test and Refine

At this point the deck list can be tweaked and tuned while remaining purely theoretical, but without testing in actual game play there’s no real telling behind the theorycrafting. Certain combos may be fragile or need additional support – looking for additional synergies may justify their existence or might dictate their abandonment.

In closing, it may seem to the reader that there is altogether too much pre-planning in my design process for what may result in a bad deck concept anyway. I’ve found that after putting theory into practice with numerous deck designs that a lot of the steps outlined above can be foreshortened or quickly addressed,, which speeds up the process greatly. Certain deck design stages can also be addressed modularly, whereby elements of one deck (particularly if staying in-faction) migrate well between deck designs, allowing importation into a new design. Going to a new faction will likely require starting out ex nihilo which has the advantage of beginning from a blank slate with few preconceptions.

All of this is, of course, part and parcel of the attraction of customisable card games, and certainly provides me with a nice, safe outlet for my OCD tendencies…


[1] which is a perfectly legitimate, but fundamentally opposed approach to deck-building than what I am advocating.

[2] e.g. an R&D lock – to pick one common example these days – with one R&D Interface (possibly more in a post-Jackson Howard world) and an efficient enough Rig & economy so as to be able to run once per turn. This prevents the Corp from ever drawing an Agenda without over-drawing their hand, obviously, and so leads to inevitable Runner victory. Or, from the other side, e.g. lightly defended centrals and an Oversight AI’ed Archer/Janus in a 2-deep server (vs Criminal or potential Inside Job splashes) from which to steadily advance the winning Agenda.

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