This article was originally published on Medium and is reprinted here with Kevin’s permission.
My very first competitive event was a Store Championship at Games and Stuff in Glen Burnie, MD. I had been playing for a few months and didn’t know anyone there. My first match I faced off against Brandon Hauk and as we were setting up to play he laid down his Worlds Top 16 playmat and I panicked a little bit. I personally didn’t even have a playmat and was playing on the hard surface of the table. In that moment, I felt pretty small. Our first match he played the Food Coats deck that he had piloted to first in swiss at Worlds. My very meager Noise deck maybe milled an agenda. I honestly can’t remember if it even went that well.
After that match, I ended up getting my legs underneath me a bit and ended up finishing the day in 5th or 6th place, just short of a playmat. The funny thing is I was pretty jealous of the top 4 because I really wanted a playmat. Having a playmat kind of felt like a rite of passage and I wouldn’t ever be a real competitive player without one. I obviously didn’t deserve one, but it so happened that one of the top 4 players had already won a mat at a previous event and graciously gave me theirs. I was stoked.
Note for competitive players: This was a simple gesture of kindness and set into motion me wanting to play more competitive Netrunner. Many of you probably have had someone be kind to you. Pay it forward and the community will continue to grow.
When I got home, I reflected on that day and realized that the guys in the top 4, like Brandon, were playing a different game than me. They knew the lines of play better and they didn’t seem to make mistakes. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be better at Netrunner and I wanted to be just as good as them, but I didn’t really know where to start.
I began my quest by scouring the internet for strategies and tips and I happened to run across an article on Stimhack by Noah McKee titled, “The Two Year Turn.” The article shares Noah’s journey of how over two years he worked to improve his play and practice of Netrunner. Immediately after reading it, I had this “ah ha” moment. There was a book I had read a few years earlier titled, “Talent is Overrated, where it discuss the concept of deliberate practice and Noah’s article was basically describing this concept. I knew i had something good and it was just a matter of time for me to figure out how to implement this deliberate practice into my own Netrunner improvement regiment.
Since discovering deliberate practice for Netrunner, my personal practice time has changed throughout the years to better fit my skills and style. For the purpose of this article I’ll share with you my current thinking on deliberate practice in Netrunner and how I approach improvement. Hopefully it will help you get started on your own systematic approach and provide you with some ideas of how to improve.
What is Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice refers to a type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. Regular practice usually is mindless repetition of some activity. Have you ever played a bunch of games of Netrunner and when you were done you couldn’t identify why you won or lost some of your matches. This is usually a telltale sign of me being in “regular” practice mode. Personally, I find myself not deliberately practicing when I’m jamming online games before a tournament. To deliberately practice it requires focused attention with a specific goal of improving performance, not just going through the motions. In the book, “Talent is Overrated,” the author talks about the three areas that all activities fall into: The Panic Zone, The Comfort Zone, and The Learning Zone.
- The Panic Zone – Activities done in this zone consists of things that are so difficult we don’t know how to approach them. For me, this is probably flying a plane.
- The Comfort Zone – Activities done in this zone consists of things we have already mastered and we really aren’t improving. For example, I’m pretty comfortable with the game Agricola, I play solo mode on my phone and I just mindlessly play. I’m not actively trying to make myself a better player.
- The Learning Zone – This is the zone where progress is made. Skills you are working on are just out of reach but they aren’t so difficult that you don’t know how to improve them. I’m hoping this is where I land when I practice Netrunner.
Great performers refuse to allow their performance to become automatic. They use deliberate practice to get outside of their “Comfort Zone” and push themselves. The other key thing they do is they find mentors, coaches, and people better than them to help them move from the “Panic Zone” to the “Learning Zone.” When they practice they are deliberate, conscious, and controlled.
Over the years, there has been a lot written about deliberate practice and I don’t want to go into too much more than I have above. For the purpose of this article all you need to know is that jamming lots of games is important, but it isn’t enough if you want to get better. You must develop a systematic approach to practice in order to really improve. Get out of the “Comfort Zone” and use online resources and people better than you to help you get out of the “Panic Zone.” You want to be in the “Learning Zone”
If you are interested in learning more about deliberate practice I’ve shared several links at the end of this article that you can read.
Below are six insights I have for implementing deliberate practice into your Netrunner practice
Insight #1 – Record your games
There are two ways that I record my games. I record them with a screen capturing software and I use a custom jinteki.net parsing tool to log the data of the match. Having the match recorded and the data available makes it easier to reflect on my performance. See Insight #2 for info on how I reflect.
Screen Capture Your Game
I personally use a tool called ScreenFlow to capture my matches but it costs money and there are other free solutions that work great. I think OBS is probably the easiest and free-est way to get set up and start screen capturing right away. Below is a little video I created on how to setup OBS to do a screen capture.
Jinteki.net Parsing Tool
On Dan “Code Marvelous” Spinosa’s amazing podcast, “The Netrunner Quest“, I heard Nathan Foley describe a jinteki.net tool that he had for analyzing the decks he built. I was extremely fascinated with this idea so I reached out to him directly and he shared with me what he had built. Over the next several weeks I improved upon it and made it a little more robust. Basically the tool allows you to copy the log of the game from JNet into the spreadsheet and then it will parse out the relevant data for you. It isn’t perfect and I don’t use it all the time but I believe it is a very helpful tool in understanding how a deck works and how your game went.
Here is a link to a template of the tool. Feel free to download it and manipulate it as you see fit. If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.
Below you can find a video I create about how to use the tool. The tracker is not a perfect solution and a bit hacky so I suggest watching it to understand the nuances of the tool.
Message for Code Marvelous: Hey Dan, The Netrunner Quest Podcast was such a good podcast. I’d love to see that come back even if all of the panelist can’t make it. I’d be happy to help in anyway.
Insight #2 – Reflect on your games
Recording your games is not enough and only a piece of the puzzle. The real magic of learning happens when you go back and rewatch your matches and look at the data of the game.
During my deliberate practice session, the first thing I do is immediately go over the data from the match and try to identify any odd trends. The tracker records things like the amount of times the runner or corp clicked for a credits, clicked for draw, and installed cards. It also tracks the turns in a match, runs, flatlines, and if I won. If one of these items are out of wack I use the information as a primer for when I rewatch my match.
As an example, the CI moons deck I was running pre-worlds lasted around 12.4 turns on average. Interestingly enough, I often lost the match if the turns were + or – 5 from the average. From this data, I was able to identify that I would lose early to indexing and lucky accesses by not protecting my key centrals and also I would lose to control decks late if I let the match go to long. This information was helpful to know because during a game I was able to quickly adjust the pace of the game depending on the match I was facing. The corp is the pace setter of the game, so I found if I sped up the game when it was facing a control deck and slowed down and turtled up a little bit if it was an aggressive deck, I would win more often. Another key piece of data I discovered was that for the games I won I should only click to draw or click for credits two or three times a game. If one of these numbers was really high I often lost. In Netrunner, you want to be hyper efficient with your clicks and clicking for credits and cards is a great way to judge this. Now some deck types require you to click for credits or cards a lot, and that is ok. What the data is there for is to see trends and identify why a certain match was not in the norm. Seeing this data on my tracker has become extremely helpful in my ability to understand the value of a click and how an average game should go.
Reflection of Play
Once I examine the data of a match, I open up my video and watch it in double time. The goals if for me to critique each decision point and ask myself if I made the right play. A number of things I evaluate are as follows:
- Was keeping/mulliganing my starting hand good or bad? Avoid hindsight bias here because you know the outcome already
- When I click to draw or click for credit was that the best option?
- Did I make suboptimal plays? For example clicking for draw last click is usually suboptimal and indicative of poor planning
- At key decision points, was I too risky or too conservative?
- At key decision points, did I make the right call?
- As what point is was the match won or lost? In almost all matches there is a point where the match is most likely won or lost. It is usually in the first few turns and it is a critical thing to be able to identify so that you can figure out how to be on the winning side of that point in time. To be honest, there are sometimes really clear answers here and sometimes it isn’t very clear… just do your best in trying to find those moments. CI Moons has a clear one… When I get a bunch of counter on Moon pop it and score Successful Field Test. That is usually when the game is lost for the runner.
Below is an example of me commentating and reflecting on one of my matches. This is obvious a public video so I’m talking and explaining a little more than I would actually be thinking about in my head.
Insight #3 – Coaching and Learning
Get a Coach
Working on your own is where most of the work and learning happens, however it can only get you so far. I learned this the hard way. In the past, I thought my own hard work could help me become better. If’ I played more games obviously I’d get better, right?!. This isn’t true… you will get better but there are opportunities to get even better. My own pride was clearly getting in the way of my own improvement. It wasn’t until I read Ajar’s article, “Roving Submarine,” where he shares about how being coached by Dan D helped him improve his game. I asked myself, “Why shouldn’t I get a coach?” So, I reached out to my friend and excellent Netrunner player, Jonas “thebigunit3000” Wilson, and asked if he’d be my coach. He agreed and we have been meeting biweekly now for a little bit. His insights about a deck and matches have been very valuable. The coaching sessions are obviously valuable but it’s more than that. For example, in the last store championship I was playing Jesse Vandover in the cut and Jonas watched my match. After I lost, he mentioned that I had made a critical mistake on my first turn that made the game very hard for me the rest of the game. It was glaringly obvious when he told me, but I don’t think I would have realized it unless he pointed it out.
If you want to see some our coaching sessions you can check them out here.
Learn from top players
One of my thing I enjoy, is watching top players play Netrunner. The 2017 Worlds event had some of the best games of Netrunner I’ve seen in a long time. Watching matches for entertainment is fun but but there’s a way you should watch them to get maximum benefit. At each decision point, pause the video and ask yourself what the right play is. Refer back to the Insight #2 for questions to ask while you are watching. I personally like to pause ask myself what I think I would do and then watch the outcome. If their play was different than mine, I try and figure out why their play was better. Sometimes, they will make suboptimal plays and your play is better but remember there is a good reason they are top players so try and understand why they did what they did.
Another thing you can do with top players is reach out and ask them about specific plays. I’ve reached out to players before and shared a little recording of my game. I’ve asked them to provide me feedback about the play and if they thought I made the right decision. Getting this feedback is helpful and they have been able to help me see a different view of the problem that I don’t think I would have seen otherwise.
Lastly, snoop around Stimhack forums and the Stimhack slack. There are some real nuggets and insights lurking around in there. I will sometimes just sit and watch a conversation that appears to be insightful to see what new insight I can glean.
Insight #4 – Focus on Technical Play, Not Deck Building
One of the biggest mistakes I see new players make is trying to start deck building too early. My recommendation is to start learning by playing tier one decks. Playing this game is really hard and deck building is also really hard. If you want to get better at playing the game don’t add another complex task to your plate. The side benefit to focusing on technical play first, is that as you become a better technical player you will begin to develop the ability to identify the power level of cards and how they all work together. Those two skills are some of the most important for being a strong deck builder.
If you still want to deck build, my suggestion is to get a well known good deck and play it over and over till you master it. You will start to notice the worst cards in the deck and this will provide you an opportunity to begin to improve it. One way I’ve done this is to review my jinteki.net tracker and see if I’m clicking for credits or clicking for cards to much. I then look through the deck to identify the worst card followed by my going through the cards pool to see if there is a more efficient card for me to get more draw or more credits. If I can’t find any then the deck is probably already as good as it can get or it is severely flawed.
In short get better before you try and build.
Insight #5 – Play online and in person
I’m a huge proponent for playing online. The main reasons are; you can play a lot of games quickly, it’s frictionless and less taxing on your mind, you can switch decks quickly, you can find a diverse set of players at anytime of the day, and you don’t even need to get out of bed or shower.
However, I believe there is a real added benefit to practicing in person. When you play in person the game requires more your mental capacity. You don’t have a computer keeping track of your clicks, credits, draw, etc. All of these little things add up and require some portion of our brain power. Our brains are amazing things and are extremely good and building habit and behaviors. When you play in person you get used to managing all of the little things, and it becomes easier. The truth is your mental capacity increases.
Playing online has tremendous benefit but make sure you hit up your local Netrunner group to maintain or increase your mental capacity.
Insight #6 – Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
The destination called mastery is on a road called repetition.
This really isn’t a secret. We all know that practice makes us better. In music, sports, coding, writing… whatever, repetitions is the key. The nasty truth is there are no shortcuts or express lanes to mastery. It takes hard work and dedication and it must be deliberate… but you already knew that.
I want to emphasize that it doesn’t matter where you are on your journey of improvement. Even if you are a former World Champ you too have an opportunity to improve. The insights I shared above might seem contrived but I can’t deny that they all have helped me become a better player over the months. Are there people worse than me? Yes. are there people better than me? Of course! The point is it’s all about small incremental improvement over a long period of time. I currently am on this journey of intentional improvement and I hope you will either start or continue your own improvement process as well.
As a final thought, I hope I never master Netrunner because getting too comfortable makes the game less interesting to me.
Deliberate Practice Books:
- Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (This is the first one I read on the subject and I highly recommend it)
- Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
- The Art of Learning by Joshua Waitzkin
- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner
Deliberate Practice Articles:
- The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice
- The Myth and Magic of Deliberate Practice
- If Nothing Changes, Nothing Is Going to Change
- Warren Buffett’s “20 Slot” Rule: How to Simplify Your Life and Maximize Your Results
- Fast Growth is Overrated
- Pat Riley on the Remarkable Power of Getting 1% Better
- Zanshin: Learning the Art of Attention and Focus From a Legendary Samurai Archer
- Stop Thinking and Start Doing: The Power of Practicing More
- Vince Lombardi on the Hidden Power of Mastering the Fundamentals
- Constraints Make You Better: Why the Right Limitations Boost Performance
- How Experts Practice Better Than the Rest
- Minimalism, Success, and the Curious Writing Habit of George R.R. Martin
- How to Build Skills That Are Valuable
- How to Get Your Brain to Focus on What Matters
- Why Trying to Be Perfect Won’t Help You Achieve Your Goals (And What Will)
- The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss Used to Create His Greatest Work
- Lessons on Success and Deliberate Practice from Mozart, Picasso, and Kobe Bryant
- The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs