A top-tier pilot with above average dex usually outperforms above average pilots with top-tier dex in ANR. — spags
It’s a common saying among Android: Netrunner players that your overall skill level is a bigger factor in winning games than the power level of the deck you choose to play. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence supporting this view, but you don’t really need to look much further than spags’ published decks on NetrunnerDB.
About a year ago, I was the above average pilot with top-tier decks, and I felt like I’d reached a ceiling — good enough to make the cut from time to time, but not good enough to win when I got there. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked, and the community responded with all kinds of useful advice. I tried to internalize as much of it as I could manage over the following six months or so. I won’t review all of it here, but the highlights are:
- Play the decks that you lose to
- Play against people you don’t know (e.g. in the Stimhack League)
- Go back and forth between testing netdecks and brewing yourself
- Make sure you stay fed and hydrated during tournaments
Between the weekly league at Mead Hall here in Minneapolis and weekly practice with some of the best local players, I was about as prepared going into King of Servers and Worlds as I could possibly have been. The Mead Hall league is a murderer’s row: we play three rounds of Swiss pairings once per week, with your scores stacking up over the 10-week league, leading into a cut to top 8 and a double elimination bracket on week 11. You get the equivalent of one extra win in league points per week if you bring one new identity, so there’s some incentive to explore the metagame. I recounted my KoS and Worlds stories in the thread linked above, so I won’t recap them here beyond saying that KoS in particular exceeded my wildest expectations and left me thinking I might have finally crossed the threshold from ‘above average’ to whatever comes after that.
I set a goal for 2016 of winning a tournament that had a cut. A Store Champ, Mead Hall League, or something bigger — it didn’t matter which. That was the next step.
The announcement of the NAPD Most Wanted List, however, took quite a bit of wind out of my sails. I’d been very committed to Prepaid Kate more or less since it was invented, and I even stuck with the VoicePADs for a while in my MWL testing, but ultimately slumped my way to an 11-13 Mead Hall league record in January because I just wasn’t feeling good about the game or the decks I was playing. After looking around for something new, I picked up a Ken deck on a whim, had some fun with it, and decided I’d play it at the Mead Hall Store Championship after one test game and a 3-0 night at league. On the Corp side, I stuck with my trusty Astrobiotics, tweaked for MWL but keeping the Team Sponsorships — that is to say, it was spags.dec. I wanted to do well, but with my general enthusiasm for the game at a low point, I was also focused on finding the fun again.
Store Championship #1: Mead Hall Games, 48 players.
Round 1: Butchershop NEH / Keyhole MaxX. Nothing unusual about these games. I messed up my ice placement in the MaxX game and opened myself up to Keyhole too early. Oof.
1-0 Ken / 0-1 NEH.
Round 2: IG / Adam. After struggling to beat Chris Hinkes’ IG deck in a half-dozen tries with various incarnations of Kate, Siphoning it into the dirt was immensely satisfying.
2-0 Ken / 1-1 NEH.
Round 3, RP / Stealth Andy. RP is supposed to be a bad matchup for Criminals other than Stealth Andy, but you can flip that on its head if you win psi games.
3-0 Ken / 2-1 NEH.
Round 4, RP / Noise. Siphons and a well-timed Fisk Investment Seminar did work here. Noise / NEH is a coinflip, and I happened to win.
4-0 Ken / 3-1 NEH.
Round 5, Birdsall RP / CT. This was Ian Birdsall of FFG fame, who made the cut and showed up on stream at least twice. His RP was much worse for my Ken than standard RP: Hostile Infrastructure, Komainu, Tsurugi, and Susanoo-no-Mikoto made Ken very, very sad. To make matters worse, Ian absolutely had my number on psi games: I won a grand total of zero against him. He commented later that he usually isn’t a psi game master, but I guess some people are just a bad matchup on some days.
The CT build was interesting, and featured Clot, but I was able to bait at least one unnecessary Clot. Shipment from SanSan got me another sneaky score, so I won that one.
4-1 Ken / 4-1 NEH.
Notably, I avoided theBigBoy all day. He was the first seed out of Swiss and I was the second.
Cut round 1, Whizzard. This was Fictional, who won two Store Championships and our Regional Championship here in 2015, defeating theBigBoy in the finals. It wasn’t Dumblefork, though, it was Desperado/L4J Whizzard. I blasted out of the gate with Biotic AstroScript and didn’t look back. He made a game of it, but I got the final points with the usual Fast Track shenanigans you can pull off against non-Clot decks.
4-1 Ken / 5-1 NEH.
Round 2, Birdsall RP. I again won zero psi games and again lost the game. I was definitely tilted after this one. This game was streamed, but it looks like the video wasn’t saved.
4-2 Ken / 5-1 NEH.
Cut round 2, Noise. My NEH coughed up its first actual dud on the day, with an awful mulligan and draws comprised primarily of Explode-a-Paloozas. I was out, ending in 5th place.
4-2 Ken / 5-2 NEH.
I felt pretty good after this tournament, but also felt like I’d gone about as far as I realistically could with Ken. It did make me realize that what I’d grown tired of was the remote-camping playstyle of Prepaid Kate, not the game in general. So if people in my meta were determined to stick with RP, I figured punishing them by playing the best deck in the meta — without losing any game against NEH — made sense. Accordingly, I chose Dumblefork for my second Store Championship. I stuck with my trusty NEH on the Corp side, though, because I expected at most two other Dumbleforks.
Gamers Den in Cambridge, MN has one unique feature that makes it one of my favourite tournament venues in the state: a co-op around the corner that sells a variety of prepared foods. It’s easier to stay well-fed while playing at Gamers Den than it has been at any other game store I’ve ever played a tournament at, including the FFG Event Center where the food is literally on the premises (but takes time to prepare). The quantity and variety of food available combined with the fact that I was playing the fastest Corp deck in the meta meant that any time I was hungry, I could just run over there between rounds and pick up tuna salad, chicken curry, or whatever my brain needed to keep grinding away at Netrunner.
Store Championship #2: Gamers Den, 19 players.
Round 1, NEH / Sunny. This was inqueblot, the local player who dealt me many frustrating losses in the 2015 Store Championship season with Keyhole MaxX, and who you may have seen on stream in Round 1 of King of Servers winning his first game in about three minutes in the public debut of his Apocalypse MaxX brew created with theBigBoy. Unfortunately, I was packing the nightmare matchups for his decks, and I knew the dark secret of his Sunny brew (Vamp).
1-0 Whizzard / 1-0 NEH.
Round 2, Blue Sun / Leela. This was Alex, an FFG employee who I believe works on X-Wing. We’ve played before, and in fact he was one of the first people to crush me when I started showing up to FFG’s weekly Netrunner night in the fall of 2013. He’d picked up bblum’s Blue Sun deck, which unfortunately I knew very well from having played it extensively in 2015. The Leela game was tricky at first since my draws weren’t stellar, but he couldn’t draw Siphons and therefore couldn’t stabilize economically, which enabled me to stick a Team Sponsorship and live the combo score dream.
2-0 Whizzard / 2-0 NEH.
Round 3, EtF / Stealth Andy. Another local, gh0st_b1rd, who took 2nd in one of our leagues last year. There’s probably an archived game of him beating my NEH with Andy from back then. Fortunately for me, in this game he whiffed on a Legwork when I had two Astros in hand from an exceptionally greedy keep. That led directly to me scoring out post-haste. In the EtF game, I mulliganed a marginal hand into an awful one and made the critical mistake of leading with Medium dig. That allowed him to stick an Accelerated Beta Test and ride it to victory before I could get set up. Dumblefork players: don’t go for Medium unless your economy is stable, even if R&D is wide open! Take a free access here and there, but focus on getting set up.
2-1 Whizzard / 3-0 NEH.
Round 4, Quetzal / Team Turtles NEH. Another solid local player who I’ve faced many times before, but as in Round 1, the matchups favored me.
3-1 Whizzard / 4-0 NEH.
I was the first seed out of Swiss, and my first round was against norwegiangeek, who has been known to netdeck my decklists. He recorded most of the games in the cut at this Store Championship, and he and I did commentary on them together, so I won’t recap the games here — just link them.
Cut round 1, NEH. Dumblefork shows its power.
4-1 Whizzard / 4-0 NEH.
Round 2, Sunny. Whoops!
4-1 Whizzard / 4-1 NEH.
I couldn’t believe I lost this one, but managed to avoid tilt.
Round 3, EtF. A rematch. This game didn’t get recorded, but I was determined to get revenge. gh0st_b1rd rushed as much as he could, but I had a better opening than the previous time and followed the classic Dumblefork plan of setting up, blowing up his remote and R&D ice, then winning with Medium.
5-1 Whizzard / 4-1 NEH.
Finals, Sunny and Haarpsichord. Revenge with NEH, and supremacy with Dumblefork.
6-1 Whizzard / 5-1 NEH.
I did it! I won a Store Championship! Sure, theBigBoy wasn’t there, but Fictional was, and so were quite a few other talented locals. Not to mention having to win two straight in the finals. I definitely felt a weight lift from me emotionally after the win, since I knew people looked at me as one of the best local players, but I didn’t feel I’d performed up to the standards of Fictional or theBigBoy in my tournament play until King of Servers; this confirmed that it wasn’t a fluke, that on a good day I could compete with anyone. It was the first time I’d ever looked around in a room of Netrunner players and consciously thought “I’m the best player in the room today.” Fortunately for my ego, that turned out to be true.
It also meant that I’d met my goal for 2016, which implied that I don’t have to be in full tryhard mode for pretty much the entire rest of the year — unless there’s beer on the line at King of Servers again this year. If that happens, you can expect me to be utterly ruthless in the pursuit of victory.
So, I was looking for new decks. This was around the time that bblum started the Cerebral Imaging combo puzzle thread. I’d played some CI in testing during the summer of 2015, but then Faust got printed, Noise came back, and I had to put the deck away again. The puzzle thread rekindled my interest, and I solved half a dozen of the puzzles to warm up before bringing it to FFG, still uncertain if I was actually going to play CI at a tournament. After consulting with Lukas, though, I decided to go through with it.
Since I’d already won a Store Championship, I wasn’t going to play Dumblefork here. Instead, I played a deck I’d picked up out of interest after Worlds and piloted to middling success and significant anger directed my way in the Stimhack League: Minh MaxX, the DLR monster that Minh Tran shredded Swiss with at Worlds 2015.
DLR and combo CI are widely regarded as uninteractive or “solo” decks. I don’t really agree, and find both very interesting to pilot, but I do think they can lead to unfun play experiences for people facing them — especially people who haven’t played against them before, or often. So I decided I’d start the day at FFG with a beer, lose quickly, and then enjoy the rest of my day.
Store Championship #2: Fantasy Flight Games, 46 players.
I put tournament reports in my published decklists: 7-point CI and Minh MaxX. Spoiler alert, I reached the finals! Sadly, I was in rough shape mentally by that point, and you can see how it all played out here with commentary from both me and norwegiangeek.
6-2 MaxX / 7-1 CI, second place.
Not quite there this time around. A couple of things things did play to my benefit on the day, though. First, my longtime testing partner, xavi, was on Noise. He was the second seed out of Swiss (I was the first seed), and just like I dodged theBigBoy at the Mead Hall Store Championship, I dodged xavi at the FFG Store Championship. He and theBigBoy are probably the two local Noise players who know the most about the CI matchup. The second thing is tied to the first: most of the other players didn’t know how to play against CI. In fact, even in the Finals, Fictional didn’t realize I had Reuse in my deck until I played it. In a better scenario, that could possibly have won me the game (I hadn’t drawn Shutdown yet when he Vamped me, so Shutdown would have had to be in the next 3-4 cards if I had held or retrieved the Reuse). I’m a little disappointed that the only recorded game of me playing CI features three huge unforced errors and no combo.
On the flip side, some things played against me, like the MaxX game I played against EtF where I accessed Archives with 40% of R&D in the bin and the game-winning GFI in the remote, but only got 4 points and lost. And there was the game loss ruling in the first round of elims…
…yeah, I should maybe talk about that a little bit. I was playing the same Haarpsichord Butchershop player I’d milled out in the last round of Swiss, and was on the same plan. DLR lock was set up; I was milling, but had a Utopia Shard installed from the run I made to get DLR installed. After the Corp drew, I cracked the Utopia, grabbed one of the cards, and… flipped it over. Whoops. I’d seen it, couldn’t unsee it, and it was a Breaking News. Normally, that would be pretty critical information, but in this case I don’t think it actually mattered. The Corp had two scored copies of Breaking News already, no money, and there were 10+ cards in Archives — I wasn’t going to be running there due to News Team, and I was quite possibly never running again in the whole game other than for more Account Siphons.
Since Lukas was standing right behind me, we consulted him immediately. He had two options under the floor rules: hidden information reveal (warning) or illegal game state (game loss). He decided that because the card was an agenda, the ruling had to be a game loss.
I was disappointed, of course, but I do consider that to be a fair ruling. I think it’s best to be consistent: if accidentally revealing the location of an agenda is important enough to fall under illegal game state (and I think that’s very reasonable), then it should always be illegal game state. Otherwise, you introduce the possibility of a judge misconstruing the game state and making the wrong call. Other players I’ve talked to about it had similar thoughts on the matter.
I’d never accidentally flipped Utopia Shard cards before then, and hopefully I’ll never do it again. Be careful before you touch your opponent’s cards, people! Or better yet, roll a die, point to the ones you want to access (or not access!) and let them flip or not flip as appropriate.
As I mentioned in the Finals recap, I ran out of gas hard late in elims. Because I was in the lower bracket after the game loss ruling, I didn’t get an opportunity for a dinner break, and was running on fumes by the end. I didn’t take advantage of a pre-Finals break offer from Lukas to place a food order, and I definitely should have.
Finally, I need to send a shout-out to the Netrunner meta in Perth, Australia. The CT / PE player I faced both in Swiss and Elims was from that faraway borough and happened to be in the neighborhood — that is, on the continent — so he stopped by for this tournament. He got to meet Lukas and made it deep in elims, which was awesome. I felt bad about knocking him out, but when I sit down to play Netrunner in a tournament setting, I’m doing my best to win the game.
Coming off the second place finish at FFG, I was still feeling pretty good about my play. It seemed like I could perform with any deck I was willing to get comfortable with, and doing so well with CI was very satisfying since I find that deck a lot of fun to pilot. But the moment theBigBoy saw CI succeed locally, he immediately informed me that he would be playing Noise until I disavowed CI. I didn’t see that as a huge problem initially, since my position in the Mead Hall League was precarious at that point between my January slump and having missed a couple of weeks (only your worst score is dropped) and I didn’t expect to make the cut. But the last week of Swiss was the week after FFG, so I showed up with Minh MaxX and CI, went 5-1, and squeaked into 8th place… pairing me up against theBigBoy for the top 8 double elimination the following week.
He reiterated his threat to play Noise unless I expressly renounced CI. Naturally, I refused to compromise my deck options in the face of this naked extortion, and remained cagey about what Corp I’d actually play. Meanwhile, I secretly brewed an anti-Noise NEH with calimsha, and I brought both it and CI with me to the top 8. My other deck was Dumblefork, both because it was the best deck and for one other reason you’ll see below…
Mead Hall Winter League Top 8
Round 1. The TO took theBigBoy and I aside separately so we could inform him of our deck choices. I knew theBigBoy was dying to play Stealth Andy, but I was also pretty sure the mere threat of me playing CI would put him on Noise. I’d surveyed the field and was confident I could beat everyone else in the room with CI, so I chose CI anyway. theBigBoy chose Noise, no surprise. I kept a double Blue Level Clearance hand with no ice in the hopes of lucking into a fast combo, but instead I drew five agendas and theBigBoy won in about 5 turns.
0-1 CI / 0-0 Whizzard.
Round 2, RP. kalennoreth, a strong local I’ve battled many times. He rushed out two Niseis before I could get set up, but when I started blowing up his ice, he got low enough on money that he had to show me the third Nisei with Celebrity Gift. I immediately started running HQ, and he decided to use the tokens rather than trust RNG to protect him. Unfortunately for him, I got the Nisei anyway on the last run, then found a GFI in R&D a little later. I installed Wyldside to power up Faust, which was a mistake, and one which he punished by playing Enhanced Login Protocol. He IAAed behind Lotus Field, an unknown ice, and a Caprice. I ran it, got in, and won both the psi game and the actual game on account of it being The Future Perfect.
0-1 CI / 1-0 Whizzard.
Round 3, Titan Rush. fiorillo.sj, the unflappable. A scary player, running the marcellus special! Turn 1 Hostile Takeover, turn 2 ice remote into Atlas. I stole a Fracking from the open R&D, but didn’t have Turntable to swap it for the Atlas. He tutored and installed the next Atlas, then scored it. I installed the Turntable I’d drawn too late for that Atlas, then ran HQ 3 times for 6 points and the game.
0-1 CI / 2-0 Whizzard.
Round 4, Stealth Andromeda. I don’t think Chris has an online presence in the community, but he’s the roguiest of rogues in our meta, always marching to the beat of his own drum. He was the first player around here to ever do the CI combo back when it was first printed, and I’d also played a test game against him before the FFG tournament, so I knew he knew what was up. He got to 4 points in the early game, then sat back and set up for a heavily telegraphed triple Siphon turn. I held my Reuse and used it to recover from that turn, so he slowed down until R&D started to dwindle. With 7 cards left, dangerously close to the point where I could possibly go off without him making a run to enable Power Shutdown, he ran R&D with RDIs, got to 6 points, then hit a rich HQ where he was about 40% to win the game… and whiffed. Phew. I went off on the next turn and won.
1-1 CI / 2-0 Whizzard.
Round 5, NEH. This was theBigBoy again with his pseudo-glacier NEH build from the Mead Hall Store Championship. I stole all three Astros: he tried to get cheeky and score two naked or behind weak / porous ice, and then I got one on a Knifed run to trash the Eli on R&D. He started trying to push me into playing faster, and he did manage to bait me into a mistake: he IAAed a GFI behind Swordsman Enigma, and I was feeling rushed enough that I forgot to install my Clone Chip before making the run. He’d also gotten a Beale, so I was only up 6-5. He started jamming cards in his remote, but I checked HQ and won. Rushing me wasn’t quite enough to stop me from beating theBigBoy with his own deck, which I found surprisingly satisfying. Another monkey off my back, and a good reminder to play my own game regardless of the other player’s pace.
1-1 CI / 3-0 Whizzard.
Finals, Sol / Noise. prox, a local who goes pretty far back, was running xavi’s Sol deck from the FFG Store Champ with a tweak or two. His Keegan and Raven remote slowed me down, but I did eventually get the Ravens blown up, and I stole a Beale along the way. He got an Astro, and I couldn’t find any agendas to Turntable it before he used the token on a Beale. Despite my frequent HQ checks, he managed to sneak out another Beale, putting him up 6-2. I rebuilt, but time was called — not many agendas had shown up to this point, and he managed to get most of them. I only had one line: forget about tags and Medium dig, since there was no Keegan on R&D. I stole two Explodas from the dig in 3 runs, then ran the remote click 4, got in, and stole the win.
1-1 CI / 4-0 Whizzard.
The next day, we realized that he could have played Predictive Algorithm on one of the Exploda steals, which would have actually won him the game since I was extremely poor — but that didn’t come up until I discovered Predictive was in his deck (it wasn’t in xavi’s version, and I never saw it in the game).
On to Noise versus CI. I didn’t think prox had played this matchup before, and my suspicion was confirmed when I saw him crack a Peddler…but I couldn’t find a Jackson. Eventually I did find one, and immediately tried to go off after his next run starting from 10c with Reuse in hand — an interesting puzzle! But after I played Power Shutdown, I discovered that I was missing two Jacksons. It turned out that they somehow ended up in Chris’ Stealth Andy deck. He apologized profusely, but there was no way to repair the game state. I resigned myself to losing the league on a game loss ruling.
Here I have to give huge points to prox for being an incredible sport. He said he didn’t want to win the league on a technicality, and proposed that if we could finish a third game in the remaining 15 minutes, he’d let that result stand. I accepted, and we reset.
He couldn’t find Aesop’s in this game, but since money is less important in this matchup, it didn’t hurt him too badly: he still got to 6 points with mills. I was running low on cards in R&D with a Peddler on his side of the board, but he cracked it and ran R&D, missing the lone agenda left in the 6 remaining cards. There may have been a Medium, I don’t remember. I thanked the odds, and executed my combo on the following turn, winning the game and the league.
It was the first time in over a year that someone other than theBigBoy or Fictional had won the Mead Hall League, and I was very excited to be the one who at least paused their tyrannical reign over Minnesota Netrunner. If you see the three of us team up for King of Servers 2016, though, you should probably just give us the beer before the tournament begins and save everyone some time.
The Keys to Tournament Success
After wrapping up the Store Championship and Winter League season, I spent quite a while thinking about how I changed my play and how that could help others improve, given that I’d met my goal twice over before spring arrived. Little pieces of that knowledge are strewn throughout this piece, generally at the point where I realized that knowledge was helpful, but it’s also worth summarizing to drive home the points. Most of this will be obvious to high-level players, but most people aren’t high-level players — including, until very recently, me.
A lot of people say that the way to win tournaments is to play better — the ‘git gud’ argument. That’s true, but I think skilled play is only a necessary condition for victory, not sufficient on its own. In my opinion, to win a tournament, you need three things: skill, endurance, and luck.
- Know your decks.
- Know their matchups.
- Choose reasonable decks given the meta. Don’t bring CI if 50% of your meta is Noise, but also don’t force yourself to play the “best” deck. It’s okay to have a bad matchup or two.
- Be able to take your turns quickly, making most decisions on autopilot.
- Be able to detect critical turns, when you should generally disable autopilot and think your turn through.
- If you can do it with minimal effort, maintain passive awareness of what important pieces your opponent is likely to be holding.
- Don’t let your opponent’s deck, play, or demeanor throw you off your game / put you on tilt.
- Stay hydrated and well-fed. Bring snacks. I advocate having some dense, sugary snacks like Clif Bars and non-sugary but still calorie-dense snacks like mixed nuts.
- Rest between rounds. Think over the games you just finished once or at most twice to see if there are any lessons you need to take into your next round, then stop thinking about Netrunner. Try to recharge your mental batteries even a little bit.
- Plan for the long day. Not all tournament venues have easy access to food and/or caffeine. I don’t generally drink coffee or soft drinks, but sometimes you need a pickup late in the day. One thing I’ve done is bring chocolate-coated coffee beans as one of my snack options if I feel myself starting to slip.
- Regardless of how well-positioned your deck is in the meta, sometimes you draw favorable matchups, and sometimes you don’t. I happened to dodge the best Noise player in the room when I was at FFG, whereas at Mead Hall I hit an awful RP matchup (and bad psi game matchup) twice.
- Every tournament has moments where someone makes a high percentage play and the low percentage outcome is what happens. One or two of these going your way against the odds on any given day can mean the difference between making or missing the cut, or being eliminated after the cut.
- Don’t tilt if one of those moments happens and you’re on the wrong side. Stay focused on point 1. You know your decks, you know your gameplan in any given matchup; follow it. You can recover and still succeed.
A huge number of people in our community helped me learn and internalize these things, more than I could ever hope to list or thank personally. If you’ve ever talked to me about Netrunner, helped me brew a deck, tested with me, given me pointers or a pep talk, suggested a type of snack to bring, given me a Clif bar, or even just sat with me in companionable silence between rounds, thank you!
I certainly didn’t succeed in all of these elements at every tournament I went to, but I succeeded in enough of them to win at least twice, and I was 2nd, 1st, and 1st coming out of Swiss in the three Store Championships I attended — much more consistent than I’ve ever managed to be in the past. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect every time, just good enough that a little luck pushes you over the top and into the cut. In the cut, anything can happen!
Thanks for reading, and good luck with your Netrunner goals!