Perhaps one of the more surprising Corp favorites on the competitive scene of late is Cerebral Imaging. Seen as a completely unsalvageable trash identity by most players upon release, it’s now at a stage where it’s a fair contender for classification into Tier 1 of competitive play. Having played a fair bunch of various variants, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the identity in general, the common traits of its builds, how they differ, and lastly spend some time discussing its vulnerabilities and how a runner can best handle the matchups.
Coming out in a time of extreme economical runner dominance, Cerebral Imaging was completely unplayable. That wasn’t really a surprise – most corps already have a super-tough time when they’re knocked down to the 0-3 credit range repeatedly, and CI also loses its hand whenever that happens. Over the course of the Spin Cycle, however, this shifted as several important cards were released. Here they are, in order:
- Celebrity Gift – Sure, it’s a Jinteki card that costs a ton of influence, but if you’re holding a lot of cards, you’re negating its downside completely. A way of getting Melange-level money with just two clicks, this was an auto-include for CI.
- Restructure – Restructure’s “if you have a ton of money, you get to make another ton of money” mentality is ideal for CI, who wants to sit on a big bank at all times anyway. It’s a neutral card, and it’s another economic Operation to help make completely remoteless play feasible.
- Shipment from SanSan – For the meager cost of one influence, this card turns Efficiency Committee from a weird gimmick into a Fast-Advance Beast™. This card quickly became mandatory in most HB builds running Committee, and CI is no exception in that regard (especially since it can usually afford to hold them until they’re best used).
- Blue-Level Clearance – This card combines the two things CI wants to be doing: making money and drawing cards. Being an HB card, it can actually take the place of Celebrity Gift to some degree, potentially freeing up influence for the deck to play with.
- Subliminal Messaging – If it bounces back to hand once, it’s equivalent to Green-Level Clearance. If it bounces more than once, it’s even better. CI usually has the handsize to hold all bounced copies in hand for multiple turns, and servers taxing enough to make runs every turn unsustainable in the long run – both of these factors further improve Subliminal for CI.
- Hive – It costs influence, but the level of taxing this piece of ICE brings to CI fortifies its early game greatly. The drawback is much less pronounced here than in other decks, as the increased handsize means CI is able to delay scoring the first points until it holds all the pieces needed to win in the next couple of turns. That basically means Hive will be running at full power (or very close) for the entire duration of the game.
- Reclamation Order – Coming out in the last pack of the cycle, this is the card that pushed CI over the top, in my opinion. It perfectly solves the issue of being overly dependent on multi-Biotic plays for scoring, as well as being able to effectively recur economy Operations already spent. Whereas other decks probably can’t fit three copies of a Reclaimed card into their HQ for multiple turns, CI doesn’t suffer this problem. Repeatedly Reclaiming three copies of whichever economic Operation you get three copies of first gives CI an economic pace that’s hard to match for the runner, even with a Magnum Opus installed.
This brings us to the current CI builds, with their common core:
Taxing ICE, reasonably low agenda density in RnD (which only decreases as agendas are drawn and held in HQ), Operations-powered economy, Fast-Advance as a primary scoring mechanism (either eschewing remotes completely, or only using temporary ones), a fair amount of recursion for the key pieces. Gigantic hand size is used both to decrease the likelihood of agendas being stolen out of HQ, and to hold multi-card combos.
So, how do the various builds differ?The first important point of variance among the builds are the agenda compositions they use. This will in turn affect how they plan to close out the game.
All 3-advance agendasThis version actually plays closest to classic HB: EtF fast-advance. The most common agenda composition seems to be Accelerated Beta Test, Project Vitruvius, Gila Hands Arcology and then either NAPD Contract or Efficiency Committee (depending on whether Shipment from SanSan is present), to round out the lineup. The goal here is to use Biotic Labor to score three 2-pointers and a 1-pointer, closing out the game. Probably the most consistent in regards to early runner accesses (since he’ll need to steal at least four agendas to win), this version pays for it with the price of taking longer to win and almost always needing four Biotic Labors to do it. This, with the recursion needed, brings the total of scoring (or scoring-related) turns needed to at least five, which is longer than the other variant.
Minimal Agenda Density – 3-pointersThis version runs 9 agendas total, usually with three copies of Priority Requisition, three copies of Efficiency Committee and three more 2-pointers. The goal here is to score the Committee first, then leverage it into the scoring of the 3-pointer, finishing up with a Biotic to score the final two points.
Alternatively, the first Committee can lead to a second Committee, which will enable the 3-pointer. The disadvantage of this build is pretty obvious – more often than not, you’re playing to 3 agendas stolen. If you’re unlucky, that can happen really fast and you’ll lose before you can really do anything about it. On the plus side, playing Priority Requisitions gives you two advantages: you need one turn less to actually finish the game, and you can conceivably use the free rez you’re getting to rez something really impressive (I’m talking Wotan-level here). Since you’re doing this at the time the second agenda is scored, conceivably before taking the turn to recur any of the stuff you need for scoring, you’re really cementing your win two turns before it actually happens. The overall lower agenda density is also not to be underestimated, giving you a bit more deck space for ICE or yet more economy.
“From Zero to Hero” is a variant of this build, aiming to score all seven points in one turn. These decks usually score in a different way, but still run the same agenda composition. An example of this kind of build would be CrimsonWraith’s original Doran’s Blades deck.
NAPD Contract or Vitruvius/ABTThe release of Double Time brought with it another decision: whether to run an agenda that’s easier to score (Vitruvius, ABT) or one that’s harder to steal (NAPD Contract). This seems to be more of a playstyle preference, with one approach potentially opening ways to more easily play around one of the counters to this decktype (The Source), while the other fits very well into this deck’s main defense (taxing runs which are ultimately not worth the effort). The other important way in which various CI decks are different from one another is how they choose to use their influence. There are several ways to go here, with some choices gaining traction towards the end of the cycle, as some of the key cards mentioned above got released.
Jackson or No JacksonSome CI decks run a full set of Jackson Howard, with the logic that both card draw and recursion are highly desirable benefits. Before the release of Double Time, this was almost mandatory, because Archived Memories alone weren’t enough recursion to kick the deck into full gear (except on very good draws).
With Reclamation Order, however, Jackson usually isn’t worth the influence any longer – CI most probably won’t be able to defend him long enough to make the card-draw ability worthwhile, and recursion into HQ is better than recursion into RnD for any situation except for getting decked.
More Economy (Celebrity Gift, Sweeps Week)Always a solid choice for spending influence, Celebrity Gift is still the most obvious route to take. Seven credits for two clicks (three if being recurred with Archived Memories) is a very good ratio, and combined with Subliminal Messaging and Green-Level Clearance (or, alternatively, Beanstalk Royalties) it can also serve as a good Vamp recovery tool. Keeping 10 cards after being Vamped to zero (usually at great cost to the runner) is usually sufficient for averting disaster. Another good choice for out-of-faction economy is Sweeps Week. Most runners will dig hard for all the pieces they need to succeed against CI, making Sweeps Week essentially Hedge Funds #4-6, with the added benefit of also being a good recovery tool, much like Celebrity Gift.
An example of this sort of influence spent would be my Cerebral Imaging deck from the Vienna Store Championships.
ICEWhile HB has enough taxing ICE already, none of it has hard ETR. This can potentially lead to problems against runner decks that will capitalize on a successful run beyond the one single access (most Criminals come to mind, with some Shapers also fitting the bill). Thus, using influence for ICE that both ends the run unconditionally and is very taxing to break repeatedly makes perfect sense.
In this capacity, two pieces of ICE are most commonly seen: Hive and Tollbooth. Hive has already been covered earlier, and is spectacular as early defense – enough so that it actually warrants taking the mulligan for, in certain matchups.
Tollbooth is also a solid choice, although a bit more expensive and diminished in value by the fact that HB already has a solid 5-strength Code Gate in-faction, in the form of Viktor 2.0.
For an example build, see the evolution of the previous deck, which I played at our Chronos Protocol tournament in Bratislava.
Accelerated ShutdownHB is naturally a very good fit for the Power Shutdown + Accelerated Diagnostics combo, as some of the higher-influence components needed for multi-agenda plays (most notably, Biotic Labor and Archived Memories) are HB. Cerebral Imaging already wants to run most of the cards needed for this combo anyway, which essentially means only splashing for Power Shutdown (and finding room for Interns) in order to open this route of play.
For an example build, see this decklist.
Tag’n’BagOne of the more outlandish choices at first sight, going this route makes perfect sense, and has proven to be very strong even in tournament play. The first person I’ve seen do this was Hollis, in a match on SneakySly’s stream.
Scorched Earth is a particularly great splash here because it not only serves as defense against Tag-me runners, it also turns the huge credit pool that CI tends to accumulate in a longer game into a win condition. The combination of a scored Efficiency Committee, Biotic Labor and Archived Memories/Reclamation Order means that with enough credits in its credit pool, CI is able to reliably single-turn kill even runners that have multiple Plascrete Carapaces out. This makes closing out games much easier, especially after runners spend most of their resources trying to exploit a presented window of vulnerability.
For two examples, see Heartthrob’s CI deck and my deck from the Chronos Protocol tournament in Vienna. While Heartthrob chose to go all-in on the kill concept (possibly giving a savvy runner plenty of advance warning by rezzing Hunters and Data Ravens), my list still looks mostly like the previous incarnation of the deck, only swapping Hives for Heimdall 2.0 (for a taxing ICE with good facecheck punishment) and Celebrity Gifts for SEA Source + Scorched Earth. Because the ICE setup doesn’t tag more heavily than the standard CI fare (with the only tag-centric addition being Ichi 2.0, which is usually pretty sneaky about it), it ended up giving me a couple surprise kills over the course of the tournament. Cerebral Imaging behaves a little differently than most other corp decks in regards to pressure applied by the runner. Early accesses are much more important, and once those are done, the runner needs to rush to his final rig setup, which will allow him to access cards as efficiently as possible. Bothering with accesses bought at a moderate price in the meantime usually isn’t worth it, especially if it significantly delays the completion of the runner’s rig.
If you’re interested in more general insight on how to play against CI, this gentleman explains it better than I could, I’ll just cover some things that are good vs. CI and point out some that, while perceived as good counters, aren’t actually all that pivotal/problematic for a well-piloted CI.
Early PressureEarly game is where CI is at its most vulnerable. The quality of the opening draw hasn’t evened out yet, there probably isn’t enough of a credit buffer to keep rezzing all the ICE needed, and a well-aimed Siphon can actually force a near-complete hand discard. Once CI has drawn a critical mass of cards (usually something in the 12-15 card vicinity), things get safe and comfortable for them.
However, the card that I most hate getting played against me early actually isn’t Siphon, it’s Indexing. Most opening plays leave CI’s RnD open – defending HQ is critical, and both drawing extra cards and getting more money are more important than installing a piece of ICE that couldn’t be getting rezzed without forcing discards from hand.
The reason why Indexing hurts so much is twofold: not only does it increase the chance of actually leaking enough agenda points to be a problem later, it screws with the draw order of things, keeping the early window of vulnerability open longer.
Repeated HQ runs with multi-accessCI tends to accumulate more agendas in HQ than other corporations, even if they’re “hidden” in a large hand. If a runner can make repeated runs with several cards accessed each time, it will quickly bring him up to 7 points. Unlike RnD, which from midgame onwards often doesn’t contain enough points for the runner to win the game with, HQ is always a liability.
This vulnerability increases as the game progresses – naturally drawing and holding agendas means that later on, with enough multi-access, each run has a very decent chance of ending the game instantly. This (along with economic threats like Siphon and Vamp) is the biggest reason why CI wants to protect HQ more than any other server at all times.
Chakana and The SourceCommonly seen as a good counter to fast-advance, I’ve found these two cards to actually not be that much of a problem for CI. The reason for this is that where something like NBN will start choking on the agendas it’s drawing (and won’t be able to hold both all of them and other needed cards at the same time), CI can just hold the cards until enough Biotic Labors show up to power the agenda through, then recur them to repeat the process. It does make the process more expensive, but not completely unfeasible.
Of course, if both Chakana and Source come online before the first Efficiency Committee is scored, this does effectively shutdown CI’s primary scoring mechanism (as scoring a 4-advance agenda out of hand would then require 7 actions total). The problem is that to really sustain this lock for the rest of the game, the runner has to be able to bring the Chakana back online the turn after a virus purge. This requires either three successful RnD runs in one turn (not very efficient and usually difficult to achieve against HB’s taxing ICE), or repeated Surge plays. As a result, a runner deck that can pull this off will usually struggle against the other strong corp archetypes, to the point of not being a credible threat overall.
For an example of why The Source alone usually isn’t a huge deal, see this video.
Siphon + VampIn theory, repeated Siphoning (with a possible Vamp follow-up) breaks CI’s back. In reality, this becomes rather difficult for the runner to achieve unless done in the opening window of vulnerability.
Siphon will take some money from the corp, but the run itself often costs more than the 10 credits it gains, especially after early game is over. Operations provide a reasonably fast recovery from the credit loss – this, coupled with the necessity to remove tags against some CI builds means that just siphoning repeatedly is not really a recipe for success anymore. If the corp can reliably gain more than 5 credits on the turn after being siphoned, doing this repeatedly only serves to somewhat mitigate the taxing effect of ICE and needs to be coupled with another form of pressure to be truly effective.
Vamp requires the runner to have economic superiority large enough to get through taxing ICE and still have more money than the corp to completely drain it to the point where recovery is impossible. This is not very easy to achieve against taxing ICE and potentially very high economic bursts that Operations can provide.
From what I’ve seen so far, Vamp plays take quite a while to set up, and unless the runner manages to win in the resulting window of vulnerability, it will usually cost him the game.
ICE destructionCI decks usually run pretty light on ICE – seeing how it usually needs to really protect just two servers (with Archives usually getting little more than a token defense), ICE is a natural thing to skimp on, in order to fit in more economy. Recursion helps to some degree, but if it’s being used to salvage ICE, it’s not used for the primary reason it is included in the deck.
As a result, ICE destruction decks tend to pose a problem for CI. Still, this is more of a delivery mechanism, facilitating other methods of actually beating CI (be it repeated Siphoning, multi-accesses or something else).
Card destruction (RnD Mill, Keyhole, Imp)This is by far the most difficult runner strategy for CI to handle, from my experience. Decks that primarily want to score 7 points as a means of victory can come close to decking themselves before they have all the pieces needed (especially with unfortunate shuffles), and taking out key cards with Imp or other forms of milling can delay them to the point where winning is no longer possible. Other, more combo-oriented builds are vulnerable to losing key pieces – recurring them, while certainly possible, is once again a delay in their primary game plan, which can buy the runner just enough time to win.
As a result, Card destruction-focused decks have traditionally been hardest for me to handle with CI, especially if they’re coupled with other things on this list – Siphon Noise with Parasite recursion comes to mind as a particularly tough matchup. Donut Taganes (who will make the recurring operation economy engine completely unfeasible) with Legwork a close second, but there may be other things waiting for discovery.So, there you have it – Cerebral Imaging in all its glory. So far, it’s proven pretty resilient in tournament play, and frankly, I’m a bit curious whether Honor & Profit will bring anything that pulls the rug out from under this decktype. Probably the best candidate for this that I’ve seen so far is