Pawnshop 2020: A Primer, by Greg Tongue

Hello, this is Greg Tongue (CritHitd20 on most social medias, former NISEI Lead Designer), and welcome to me talking about Pawnshop even more than I normally do. I’ve been playing variants on the deck since 2017 and I’ve had a long history of success with the archetype, including a second place finish at Worlds 2017. Most recently, I placed 12th at the Euro/Africa Continentals, where it carried me despite a mediocre Corp record. There are some existing resources on what the deck does and how to play it on a basic level, so I wanted to give a bit more of a deep-dive analysis, examining what is good about Pawnshop in the Summer/Fall 2020 meta, what has changed about it given the most recent banlist and rotation, and how to evaluate some of the more complex plays. The article references this decklist.

Pawnshop Basics

If you are new to Netrunner, or perhaps have managed to avoid the concoctions of Spags circa Hayley’s print date, this section is for you, otherwise head to the next section of the primer. The Pawnshop style of deck usually relies on the economic synergies between Hayley Kaplan, Professional Contacts (Proco), and Aesop’s Pawnshop. There are admittedly some variants using Kabonesa Wu and Reaver, but I believe these to be less powerful by merit of how good Hayley’s ability can be given some experience with the deck. The basic idea is to find a copy of Pawnshop and Proco, and then use those cards to continually take turns that generate a lot of resources on an incredibly consistent basis. A common turn can look like this:

  • Clicks 1 and 2: Use Proco to draw 1 and gain 1.
  • Click 3: Install an icebreaker and a Harbinger.
  • Click 4: Run.

This turn has the runner take 7 clicks of actions in one turn without playing an additional economy card (2 draws, 2 credits, 2 installs, a run), and the Harbinger will clicklessly generate 6 credits from two turns of Pawnshop activations in the future. With the addition of your burst economy cards like Sure Gamble or Stimhack, or possibly taking a turn with extra clicks with cards like Hyperdriver or Beth Kilrain-Chang, you can take turns that can offer incredible credit swings that the Corp cannot easily prepare for. The other interaction that a new player needs to be aware of concerns Hayley’s ability in combination with Self-Modifying Code (SMC), Simulchip, and Stimhack. Stimhack has long been used as a tool to help the Runner install their breaker suite quickly with SMC; if you make a Stimhack run with an SMC already installed you can spend the credits from Stimhack to use SMC’s (or Simulchip’s) ability and install a program. Hayley offers you additional benefits with this interaction; if you haven’t installed a card that turn, you can use Hayley’s ability during the Stimhack run for additional benefits. It is fairly easy to make a Stimhack run using SMC to install Engolo which triggers Hayley and lets you install an additional icebreaker. SMC and Simulchip also can be used to trigger Hayley’s ability on the Corp’s turn, which is less powerful than it was during the era of Clone Chip since both cards require you spend something to use, but is still extremely valuable in helping you should you need to install a Clot that you have already drawn during the Corp’s turn.

Why Play Pawnshop?

In essence, I believe Shaper to be powerful right now because of the consequences of the environment that Criminal decks have produced, rather than Shapers actually being a superior faction. Criminals are so fast, and extend the length of the midgame so long, that many corps have chosen to either go even faster (Lakshmi Asa, Titan, Outfit) or incredibly slow (GameNET). This is in an attempt to capitalize on the phases of the game where Criminals cannot favorably interact with the Corp. Notably, popular fast corps rely on a mix of fast -advance and operation-based win conditions, neither of which Criminal can disrupt. Defensive agendas that feed into these win conditions such as Project Vacheron and City Works Project are also very popular. This is where Shaper shines; they have access to Clot for fast -advance, Imp for operations/Lakshmi/defensive agendas, and Self-Modifying Code/Simulchip to make sure that their ability to disrupt is reliable.

Shapers also have a powerful breaker suite thanks to Engolo and… well ideally that’s it. Engolo rightfully was restricted back in the Banned & Restricted days of yore, and its freedom means a lot for the viability of both high strength code gates and rush in general. Engolo is a major piece of the puzzle that allows Shapers to reach the midgame state where corps cannot reliably rush out points/Rashidas and expect them to land. If the game does go longer, Na’Not’K is an effective killer for most of the ice that you wouldn’t want to break with Engolo, and Gauss is…fine? The most popular barriers in the game right now are Hagen, Sandstone, Vanilla, Border Control, and Gold Farmer, all of which Gauss breaks for acceptable prices.This is enough in my opinion to justify its inclusion over influence-based options. On its install turn it is even decent (gasp) against Chiyashi/IP Block/Eli 1.0. Neither Nano nor Gauss are the ideal icebreakers for this meta, but Engolo is so good that you can get away with these “acceptable” options. Keep in mind that the first goal with this deck is to reliably get into a remote server when needed, as opposed to needing to make aggressive and sustained early attacks, so a minimalist breaker suite compliments that goal.

How to Set Up

One important skill to develop with this deck that takes some getting used to is learning how to mulligan. You have two economy engines you need to establish in Aesop and Proco, you have defensive tools you need to find in SMC and Stimhack, and you have to balance MU between your greedy programs Hyperdriver and SMC. It can be overwhelming, and the best way to plan your mulligan and opening turns is to prioritize cards based on the opponent’s ID.

For Asa and Titan, you really want the card draw of Hyperdriver and Diesel first, followed by SMC. Against Titan you need to contest (in order):

  • Fast advancing for Atlas (with SMC)
  • Rushing behind early efficient ice (with Stimhack for Engolo, and special guest Gauss)
  • Play the subgame of “Find the CVS” with the same tools
  • Finally you need to find Simulchips to continue to threaten Clot after the first purge of the game. 

That is a LOT of different threats you need to respond to, so having your burst draw to help you burn through a good chunk of your deck in the first few turns helps a lot with avoiding wasteful runs. If you end up having to spend SMCs and Simulchips in ways you don’t want to in order to stop Titan’s threats you can fall too far behind in credits or Clot support, and that is the easiest way to lose, so starting your hand with a Diesel or Hyperdriver to develop your credit total and find the tools that you want in the correct order improves your matchup a lot. 

For Asa, the card draw is equally valuable for similar reasons, though the order of threats change. There is less to fear in the first few turns, though they will develop a wide board quickly since it is too challenging to reliably contest a turn one Rashida, so I would look for Proco after your card draw when mulliganing since you have a bit more time to find your tools. In order:, you want to find Proco and draw into burst econ, then draw into SMC/Stimhack for Engolo to threaten rush, then find Simulchips to be able to find Imp or Clot based on what win condition Asa chooses to go for first. Asa rarely runs CVS save for Team Sponsorship combo decks, so you don’t need to look for that card in the midgame and your Clot is much easier to protect. Note that Aesop is not a card I actively seek in my opening hand for either of these matchups; you want the ability to interact quickly more than you want to make a lot of money quickly in this meta, and you will find your Aesop soon enough through Diesel/Hyper/Proco.

Against GameNET and Palana/Aginfusion I want my Proco and Aesop in my opening hand. Hyperdriver is fine with Proco in these matchups, but Diesel is actively bad. You want to maximize credits generated by your economy cards, which means firing Aesop as many turns as possible and having as many draws be from Proco clicks as possible. This hopefully makes rushing points as unattractive for the glacier player as possible, and then you can sustain pressure by using Stargate on R&D or Imp on HQ to further extend the midgame. If the Corp player overcommits to defending central servers they cannot afford to defend their remote in the way they need. Your value one-of cards like Kati Jones and Beth shine in these matchups, but they are lower priority than the engine. The last important matchup to mulligan for is Outfit, which is honestly a very challenging matchup to mulligan for since their gameplan really is dependent on their opening hand. I’d say that the value of Stimhack is very high in this matchup for contesting early rush against Bulwark or Trebuchet; you want a hand and credit total that is resilient to double Punitive at most times.

How to Use Your Cards

The weirdest and coolest change to Pawnshop in modern Netrunner is the applications of Simulchip. While it is less uniformly functional than Clone Chip, it also can oddly function as economy and/or Scavenge if you know how to optimize its use. The ability to discount installs with Simulchip is actually quite powerful, and in many slower and more “traditional” matchups the option of overdraw a breaker, discard, and then install with Simulchip after selling a program to Aesop can accelerate setup with an otherwise awkward hand. Against Asa and Titan you really REALLY want to save your copies of Simulchip for Clot and Imp, and with that in mind you really want to have a fresh Harbinger on the board to serve as an activator for Simulchip on the Corp’s turn after your Clot has ended up in the heap. In glacier matchups with IP Block or Eli your Simulchips are excellent as “economy” through selling Gauss to Pawnshop and then immediately reinstalling. One interaction I have found relevant and really cool is using Simulchip as an instant-speed Scavenge for Imp; if you need to Imp a card but your opponent is playing CVS you can refresh your Imp by trashing it and reinstalling it midrun after they purge; just make sure you don’t sell a program or use an SMC on the relevant turn, as you cannot use Simulchip to trash a program unless nothing else has been trashed that turn.

Using Aesop has gotten more finicky as well, as there are fewer cards to sell in this list than ever before. Of course you have a potential 6 sells through your Harbingers, but other good targets include redundant copies of SMC, one copy of Akamatsu Mem Chip, your Imp or Clot once no longer useful, and Daily Casts with two credits remaining. Two unintuitive sells are your Proco in the late game, and using the trash ability on Hunting Grounds for 3 facedown cards to sell (this can also serve as card draw for breakers if you have Aesop and the other needed tools to install them from your heap). Given that Aesop costs one credit, and it isn’t hard to sell at least 5 things, I believe it more than makes its slot valuable. The fact that Harbinger is so good at solving the issues with the very powerful Simulchip further raises the value on Aesop in my opinion.

Learning the most common icebreaker math will help you a lot in determining when to use Engolo’s ability vs using Nano or Gauss. Sentries with 6 strength such as Trebuchet or Archer often end up better to break with Engolo than Nano, so I often do not need to install a killer at all against Outfit or Titan. When to save or install Gauss can be critical against GameNET or Aginfusion; I would suggest against installing it if you don’t intend to run that turn.

The Big Secret

Most of the strongest Runner decks of any era of the game have been run-focused. The best Shaper decks of the game’s history, by comparison, tend to play very defensively and cannot make repeated sustained runs against defended servers. The choices I made to focus on setup tools and weaker burst economy like Dirty Laundry over the “strongest” missing economy cards (Technical Writer performed well in my initial testing) addresses this issue while maintaining the advantages of Shaper’s cards, but at a cost. This deck does not have the sustained endgame power of older Pawnshop lists, and you do not generate a “dominating” board position in the way that other defensive runners can. One of the best ways to reliably win with this deck is to pick your battles and feel ok with losing parts of the game.

Often times I allow Titan to score what I believe to be a Hostile Takeover because I value my Clot uses more for Reconstruction Contract/Biotic plays, or I don’t run the GameNET remote because I know I may only have one really good run on the remote depending on how many copies of Surveyor they run. Sometimes I will sell an installed Stargate after the Corp defends R&D because I need the MU. Oftentimes I discard Hyperdrivers or Diesels because they aren’t needed for the matchup I’m having. You rarely win a game 7-0, which feels bad, but if you put in the effort you’ll find that the deck wins a LOT despite the games feeling close.

If you are overly worried about Outfit/GameNET there is an Apocalypse version of Pawnshop that is quite powerful, though heavily unoptimized, and I think the list I’m championing can still win against those decks with enough experience. As the meta evolves there may be opportunities to cut some of the setup cards like Diesel in favor of economy like Technical Writer, which would be very exciting, but as long as you expect a field of Titan and Asa I think that this deck is where it should be. If you have any additional questions please let me know, and thank you for reading.

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