A Look Back at the Borealis Cycle – by Eric Keilback

Author’s Note: This article was originally written before the 23.03 banlist. 

The first half of the Borealis cycle was released in the summer of 2022. Later that year in December the second half was released: Parhelion. We have had a Continental season, Nationals season, World Championship and invitational in this format. I’ve had the pleasure of attending most of these events, performing well in a select few. 

Borealis has had some massive successes. The art, theme and flavor of the sets that Null Signal Games releases continues to rise in quality. Many of the cards released in this set are fun! Charge, Sabotage and Mark are all different and fun ways to play the game, as well as being in flavor with their factions. Finally, Ob has been a runaway competitive success, allowing players a new way to play the game, and providing an interesting puzzle in deckbuilding and play.

However, I can’t ignore the negative effect Borealis has had on the competitive meta. This negative effect has trickled down to the low and mid tables, where even non hyper-competitive players engaging in tournament play feel the effect of the Borealis cycle on their games. Cards such as Endurance, Drago Ivanov and Pinhole Threading have come to define the last year of competitive play. 

While certain cards from Borealis have dominated the competitive season, it is not simply an issue of a too-powerful card that needs to be banned. Instead, the issues are systemic in nature. I plan on exploring why a lack of support for scoring corps, prison-enabling corp cards and a meta full of constrained good stuff runners has made the last year of competitive Netrunner worse, not better.

The Previous Year of Play

The first meta after Midnight Sun released was the Continental meta of Summer 2022. Very quickly players identified the dominant strategy on the runner side was to abuse Endurance. Precision Design was the premier corp in the previous meta. While long in the tooth, PD was beloved by many players as it delivered on the promise of “ice and agendas” that many players enjoy. Once Continental season arrived it became clear that this strategy was no longer potent.

Originally in Shaper, by the time the Continental season had wrapped up Endurance was being played in Anarch to great effect. The Shaper deck known as “Taps Lat” was not interested in advancing the game state. Instead, it relied on drip economy from Pad Tap and Rezeki to remote camp and slow the game down. Answering every Corp threat, it abused the Shaper economy, tutor effects and Endurance to melt through any ice-focused strategy. 

Corporations began to struggle in the face of Endurance-based Runner decks. R+ prison became the premier corp deck. Focusing instead on grinding out the Runner through repeated uses of Drago, the deck was potent and obnoxious. While PD continued to be played at the highest level, it grew more shaky as Runner lists began to refine themselves. Ob also began to see play with Bridgeman winning Intercontinentals on a tempo kill list.

The banlist update before Worlds aimed to gut Taps Lat and shave power off of R+. The Worlds meta was quite well received by players at the event, with many citing the variety of runners and corps played as a sign of the meta’s health after the ban list. Ultimately, the Worlds format was loved only while it remained underexplored. The game continued to coalesce around Hoshiko and R+. Precision Design was seen as too soft in the face of Criminal and Hoshiko. Loki Aginfusion was another prison deck, but saw little to no play.

Post-worlds, the largest event was UK Nationals. By this point the fall banlist meta had crystalized with shocking clarity: Hoshiko and 419 on the Runner side, R+ and varieties of tag NBN on the Corp side. While Extrac would win the event on a tempo Azmari build, the story of the tournament was the prevalence of R+ throughout the cut. Many competitive players felt that it was clearly the best Corp, and runners had to bend themselves to beat it.

With December came the release of Parhelion. Nanisivik Grid and Vientiane Keeling were both seen as enablers for a new style of Jinteki prison. At the Circuit Breaker Invitational in January we saw just that. R+ and Nani Aginfusion were both played – R+ to much more success, as Nani Aginfusion was underexplored in the format. Almost no new Runner cards saw play, as Hoshiko with Endurance and 419 were played in favor of anything new.

Since January we’ve had very few events. Many players have opted out of tournament play, citing a stale meta and unfun decks at the top end of competitive play. With nearly 9 months of Borealis under our belts, we can now begin to look back.

But Were the Games Good?

The most worrying trend from the Borealis cycle has been the slow death of scoring corps. Why score agendas in this environment? While this is in some sense a function of the strong divergent win conditions, it is mostly a function of Endurance and Pinhole Threading. Consider that when System Gateway released, the scoring corps had two powerful upgrades printed that supported that strategy, Anoetic Void and Managarm Skunkworks.

A whole set later and scoring corps had a few cards printed that support them. Instead, Sandbox was banned and Pinhole Threading was printed. Now runners had a flexible tech card they could use to disable any remote dependent on scoring upgrades. Endurance was the final nail in the coffin. While Precision Design and other scoring corps relied on taxing ice with a variety of subtypes to force out breakers, runners could now use a single tool to cut through any server. Subtypes no longer mattered, as corps who wanted to rush early points or establish a scoring remote were run down on centrals by an Endurance growing in strength.

While PD had success in the first half of Borealis, once Runner decks were refined the whole show fell apart. I’d actually hazard that PD was only ever viable at the highest end of competitive play. At Worlds some of the strongest players were able to make the cut, but often had to play PD decks with more variance. This is a far cry from the PD popular in the long System Gateway meta, where players felt they could leverage their skill and decision making to beat Maxx and other decks.

Endurance has also had the effect of annihilating any tier 2 or lower corps from the meta. This downward pressure on mid and lower tables has made Netrunner worse overall to play. The strongest players can play scoring corps and outwit a boat player, but for the majority of the player base playing a midrange scoring corp isn’t in the cards. For all players now, it’s play something that beats Endurance or die, there’s no middle ground.

The negative effect that Endurance has had on the meta is palpable. It wiped an entire archetype off the map. One of the core concepts of Netrunner is that people should be able to play a corp deck that tries to score agendas. Right now, scoring agendas is one of the worst strategies you can pursue, in large part due to the pressures of Endurance. 

One of the problems with Borealis is it has failed to deliver on a core promise of Netrunner, that corporations are interested in scoring agendas, and runners are interested in stealing them. While divergent decks and combo decks have existed before, we are reaching a truly extreme period. Some players don’t mind the interplay between reg runners and prison decks, but for a large majority this is a distorted view of what Netrunner is. Even worse, it is the only view available.

Drago has managed to define nearly a year of competitive play. R+ is a prison deck that seeks to do nothing, but repeatedly give the runner tags. While frustrating to play against, it’s also the best deck in the format. Games can often drag out as the corp player can’t draw the BOOM! But can keep the runner in a lock of poverty. 

Ultimately, R+ is just miserable to play against. The winning strategy is not to try and win, but simply to contest Drago until the R+ deck runs out of cards. The game breaks down into its constituent components as both sides passively click for credits at each other until the next Drago is drawn, installed and contested. Even amongst top competitive players, once the matchup is understood it can feel extremely draw dependent. Was the Drago drawn early? Did the runner see their pinholes? 

If Drago was the sin of Midnight Sun, Nanisivik Grid is shaping up to be the sin of Parhelion. Nani Ag again doesn’t want to proactively score, instead using Nani Grid on archives to create an unassailable server, and then either getting a kill with Vientine Keeling or slowly scoring Obos out of a remote behind another Nani grid once a true lock is established.

Not only do these games drag out and take long, but they also strip agency away from players. Instead of a back and forth, runners are incentivized to prep as much as possible, getting ready to contest the next Drago or Nani Grid. The defensive tools available for the corps are quite strong, as many don’t need to play an agenda suite they’d ever consider scoring.

While proactive win conditions for corporations isn’t necessarily a bad idea, the way they’ve manifested in Borealis has made the game worse. Both Drago and Keeling seek to deny the runner opportunities and keep them in a lock. Vulnerable to Self Growth Program or Market Forces runners can be broken and cardless, unable to steal any agendas. Keeling is slightly better as it at least ends the game. Practically it means that runners spend all their time endlessly contesting Keeling while dealing with a hostile suite of net damage cards.

These decks make competitive Netrunner worse because there’s very little interplay between the runner and the corp. Runner decks are forced to be generalists to deal with these very strong divergent win conditions. Because these win conditions are divorced from scoring, they need to be dealt with in specific ways. As the power of these linear corp decks have increased, players have less opportunities to play their own game, instead massively conforming to Drago and Keeling.

The last issue of the Borealis cycle has been its weird inability to affect runner side play. While powerful tech cards and the Endurance have made a big splash, none of the 3 mechanics have seen any competitive play. Instead, decks that try to be as generic and flexible as possible rule the day. With the full set of cards released for each new mechanic, they’ve failed to make an impact.

Why would you play Esa when you could play Hoshiko? Sable over 419? Padma over Lat? Playing these mechanics requires sacrifices in deckbuilding and exposes yourself to weaknesses. Esa is great on paper but soft against kill combos and Jinteki Net damage. At the competitive level it just makes much more sense to play Hoshiko and call it a day. Do all these mechanics need to be tier one competitive decks? No. But a middle ground should be struck.

Many Runner decks are not playing any new cards from Parhelion, and those that do are only playing niche cards such as Katorga Breakout in Apocalypse or Hush. When cards do make an impact they end up being nearly format warping such as World Tree.

The one impact Borealis has had on runner side play is to constrain it. Runners are nearly obligated to play a playset of Pinhole threadings in their deck. Large swaths of influence go towards Endurance as decks become even more homogenized. Trying to play your own game plan fails as you instead need to be reactive as possible, responding to Drago or a Keeling kill lock. What matters most nowadays is the tech you pack.

What the Future Might Hold

Just because certain ideas and cards in Borealis didn’t pan doesn’t mean the future can’t improve. NSG has two tools available to them, the SBL and future set releases. An SBL update should be released soon that will be able to respond to the past months of tournament play. The next set for NSG is currently in development, with its release aimed for the summer of 2023.

Attacking problem cards such as Drago or Endurance might provide temporary relief, but the underlying principles in Borealis will remain. PE Assets or Thule with Nightmare Archives, Stock Buy Back and Hangeki looks to both be awful, in the sense that scoring agendas is a non factor, instead looking to grind the runner out. Banning Endurance will most likely not solve the issue that 419 or Hoshiko both have enough generic economy and efficient breakers to melt any ice suite. I suspect Turbine will be the next menace, and would be shocked if it was still legal within a year. The ability to tutor for two ice carvers stapled together in some sense enabled World Tree Wu to be so efficient at breaking ice. 

The SBL should undertake a radical project of bans to correct for the effect the Borealis cycle has had on the meta. While previously I’ve been in favor of small ban lists aimed at tuning metas, it has become apparent to me that a large shakeup is needed. Drastic times call for drastic measures. I propose that the SBL should ban large swaths of Borealis cards with the aim of constructing an ideal meta. Drago, Endurance, Keeling, Nightmare Archive, Turbine, Wu and perhaps 419 should be banned. Another look at the runner side economy will probably be needed. This would require extensive testing, but Daily Casts, Fermenter, companions or Bravado are all reasonable targets.

Regardless of whether these cards are banned or not, it is also unclear whether scoring corps will be back in the realm of viability. Perhaps PD can be good again, but with Sandbox gone I am suspicious of its long term strength. The Banlist alone cannot solve this issue, we need new cards. Borealis has had many successes, but we need to take stock of the issues. Future sets should provide more support for scoring corps and bread and butter win conditions. Scoring upgrades, agendas with real payoffs for scoring them, and perhaps even tempo positive assets that encourage you to score such as Team Sponsorship. 

On the runner’s side it needs to be ensured that at least some new archetypes see support, instead of another year of good stuff runners. Big pay off win conditions such as Endurance are fine in concept, but need to be kept within their mechanic instead of generalizable to the field. Tech cards are okay to print but either need to be more niche or the format shouldn’t demand that you put them in your deck.

The next set from NSG should be released this summer. NSG also improves their releases every time. I have a lot of faith that the next set has learned from the issues stemming from Borealis. At its heart, Netrunner is a great game, truly the best. Even in a format rife with prison corps and runners skipping over ice, we all found ways to have fun. If the next set can more directly deliver on the core promises of Netrunner and deal with the issues arising from Borealis, we’ll be in a great spot. To borrow a phrase from my friend Peter H, Netrunner is a great game, we just need cards that let us play it. 

I’d like to give special thanks to Jonas, Jeff, Morgan, Dee and Peter for their advice and suggestions on this article. They helped turn it from a jumble of ideas into a well written article. Thank you. 

Eric Keilback (Whiteblade111) is a competitive netrunner player focused on high-level tournament play. He is a top 16 worlds finisher and former national champion. His hobbies include going to law school and complaining about meta health.

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