Back in the Saddle
Stimhack Weekly editor Simon Moon tapped his desk with his pen and exhaled. He’d been trying to write an editorial about the West Coast Runners innovative running technology, but everything he wrote sounded snide and sarcastic. He had to put out a good piece on this or he risked losing more loyal readers, the thought of what happened to the Board Game Geek Monthly causing him to shudder.
Suddenly his office door burst open. “Haven’t you heard of knocking!” Simon exclaimed before looking up and stopping short. He’d expected an overexcited intern or tactless secretary, but instead veteran journalist Zachary Xylophone stood there, looking more alive than Simon had seen him in years. “Jesus Zachary what the hell are you doing in my office?” Simon demanded.
Zachary Xylophone looked different to the last time Simon had seen him. His newly clean shaven face, wild yet short hair and dark marks under his eyes made him look like a pop punk frontman from the early 2000s. He also looked like he was very excited about something.
Words spilled out of Zachary’s mouth at an impressive pace “Simon I’ve found who’s behind it all and it makes so much sense! How has it even taken me this long! Of course the stakeholders are in control of the media, why wouldn’t they be! And the actors-”
“Zachary slow down.” Simon tried to speak slowly and calmly, hoping Zachary would follow his lead. “What exactly are you talking about and why should I care.”
To Simon’s relief, Zachary took a second to take a breath before continuing, slower this time. “I’ve found out how the mainstream media is linked to the banks and a bunch of shady global programs, and I think I’ve found out how we can strike back against them. I’ve got the column basically written and I want you to publish it. I’d go to Fetal.ai but ever since memes won the US election I can’t help but be suspicious of Fetal’s editor.
Simon sighed. Zachary was one of the few journalists on his payroll that had a name that shifted papers. He didn’t quite have the brand recognition that Spags did, but he didn’t have the ego either, and it was a worthwhile tradeoff. Even when Zachary turned in bad articles they tended to at least be interesting, and nothing kills a paper faster than dull.
He also couldn’t help but wonder if Zachary was onto something.
“Fine”, Simon said finally. “We’ll publish your nonsense. What’s the column title?”
Zachary grinned. “Controlling the message”.
As of this article, NBN: Controlling the Message has firmly cemented itself as the archetype to beat in tournament Netrunner. Of the Worlds Top 16 players, 9 were running Controlling the Message (myself included). At the UK Players Circuit finals Controlling the Message dominated the top tables, and was the only Corp represented in top 4. The SYNC deck popularised by Ben Ni after his finals finish at Worlds 2016 is also picking up steam now, but the fact remains that if you want to have any success in competitive Netrunner tournaments, you’re going to need to be able to take wins off NBN: Controlling the Message. This deck can be pretty tough to play against, and has gained a reputation as a Swiss powerhouse because a lot of players simply don’t know how to approach the matchup. They end up poor, tagged and simply waiting for their opponent to Exchange of Information or Psychographics for the win. Hopefully I can teach you how to avoid becoming one of these players. Thankfully there’s something you can do about this other than complaining about broken cards on Reddit.
A note on decklists before we begin. I will be using Chris Dyer’s Worlds winning deck Snekbite, as the template for the standard CtM lists you’ll be facing. There are definitely variations, including but not limited to playing Biotic Labor, ditching Mumbad Virtual Tour for more Ice or money, and exactly which econ assets are played. However the play advice in this article should apply to most CtM decks you’ll encounter.
I’ll begin by exploring the various decks available to you and how they should aim to approach the CtM matchup, moving on a brief discussion of the various silver bullets you could play against CtM and finishing with various tips that should help you in CtM matchup.
Obviously your first step towards having a positive CtM matchup should be to pick a deck that doesn’t suck against it. Fortunately there are a wide variety of Runner archetypes that can bring it against CtM, and you’ve got plenty of options. I’ll go through some major Runner archetypes that have a solid CtM matchup, and why this is the case.
About the most common, solid Runner deck available right now, Temujin Whizzard aims to leverage standard Anarch Icebreakers and lots of good economy to find its way to 7 points. It plays a classic game of Netrunner. Whizzard’s ability gives you good board control against CtM, at least allowing you to not pay real credits to clear out the Assets and Upgrades that CtM looks to leverage to win. Whizzard’s solid economy will also allow you to get out of Hard-Hitting News range if you play carefully. Generally however Whizzard won’t be able to enact total board control against CtM unless things go fantastically for him. The key to this matchup is angling towards a game winning Medium dig right from the start. The richer you are and the better your program suite when you eventually go for a big dig, the more likely you are to get to 7 points before them. Try to leave the Medium dig until as late as possible however. Keeping pressure up on HQ will also allow you to occasionally snipe Agendas and clear out Assets and Upgrades before they get installed and protected by the CtM ability. In a nutshell, you want to play the early to midgame carefully before eventually throwing caution to the wind and Mediuming for the win.
Disclaimer: I haven’t played many games as Tag Me yet, so my advice here is mostly based on observations, theorycrafting, and playing the other side of the matchup. Tag Me Whizzard had a great showing at Worlds this year, the most powerful version being the Hate Bear deck built by the West Coast testing house. Playing Tag Me against decks with tag punishment may seem unintuitive, but if piloted correctly you can actually boast a good matchup against CtM. While you’ll be punished for the volume of tags you’ll inevitably float, you can punish them right back with Account Siphon. Because Faust and D4v1d are your primary breakers you can continue to make successful runs through Closed Accounts, using the free cards from Obelus. The key to this matchup is using your Siphons to keep CtM poor and fund insane deep digs with Medium. If they ever get enough breathing room to get rich you may well lose to Psychographics. Don’t be afraid to go Tag Me right from the beginning in order to keep their board in check.
Because of its insane lategame, Nexus Kate is one of the only major Runner archetypes that can aim to play the long game against CtM, and just push for a board state in which CtM has no way to win the game. You need to get Magnum Opus early, and Rabbit Hole pretty quickly too. Don’t be afraid to float tags in the early game while you’re trashing Sensie Actor’s Union and Commercial Bankers Group. You don’t have any Resources you’re worried about and Magnum Opus lets you recover from Closed Accounts quickly. Artist Colony is your game winning card here. Don’t be afraid to forfeit real Agendas with Artist Colony to set up a board, and make sure you enact Clot lock as soon as possible. You’ll also lean on Artist Colony to get breakers and Clot, and to forfeit Agendas to prevent Exchange of Information. Artist Colony is so good here that you may want to forfeit an Agenda to get a second one if they score a Breaking News to trash it. Once you’re able to run every new card they install, stealing Agendas and killing SanSan City Grids, you’ll have the game locked up.
The best weapon Criminals have against CtM is the fact that they can get rich quick. An emptied Temüjin combined with a Desperado alone will make you some serious bank. If you’re able to do this, the only major worry is getting Closed Accounts off either a snuck out Breaking News or a SanSan Breaking News. You need to assemble Icebreakers as soon as possible and keep any SanSans off the table. If you can’t halt a Breaking News threat for whatever reason, try to hit centrals and keep the pressure up. Beyond this, play a good solid game of Netrunner and bear in mind the play advice I’m about to give below.
CtM is common and powerful enough that it is not only defensible to play cards to target it, its fairly advisable. However before including these cards it’s important to understand how to use them, and what they’re going to do for you.
As a card that has value in a wide variety of matchups, Employee Strike is a solid choice for any Runner deck provided you’re happy to pay the influence. It will let you trash stuff to your heart’s content without the CtM trace tax. You’ll gain utility from the fact that it isn’t a Resource, and so it won’t go away if the CtM player can stick some tags on you. The Current aspect is clearly a bit of a weakness, but it isn’t a huge problem. CtM rarely finds the room for Currents of its own, and if your opponent scores a Breaking News from hand you’re pretty happy that they’re not using it to punish you. If you do have an active Employee Strike just try to be sure that they don’t have a SanSan or a remote you can’t get into. Also bear in mind that Employee Strike has extra utility if you’re running Ice destruction in your deck, because otherwise CtM’s ability will fire when you destroy installed Ice as well as when you trash installed Assets and Upgrades.
As an influence-free include for Anarch decks, Salsette Slums is a great hate card. It also has some uses against Industrial Geonomics or decks that aim to leverage Team Sponsorship. If you’re using Salsette Slums to avoid CtM tax, just be careful to not dip yourself into Hard-Hitting News range needlessly. As a Resource, Salsette Slums is vulnerable to tags. Also try to ensure that CtM won’t sneak or SanSan out a Breaking News to kill it. If you can keep it in play for the whole game you’ll leverage a big advantage. Also remember that if you Slums an installed card you can then destroy Ice without CtM firing.
While Networking has more utility in the SYNC matchup, it’s a solid economy card against CtM. Just be aware that all it does is alleviate the Hard-Hitting News or CtM tax. As CtM I’ve beaten plenty of Networkings by using Breaking News + Closed Accounts to keep the Criminal player poor, and then landing a Hard-Hitting News for very few credits. Even if you avoid spending 8 credits clearing Hard-Hitting News tags, the 4 lost clicks can still give CtM a big scoring window. Just treat it as another economy card (albeit a powerful one), and don’t expect to lean on it to win the game.
New Angeles City Hall
New Angeles City Hall sees a lot of play as an answer to Breaking News or 24/7 News Cycle combos. While decks that play it do tend to use Film Critic to keep it in play as they grab Agendas, you won’t find that it does much for you against CtM. CtM’s ability can’t be prevented, so NACH literally does nothing against the ID. It does save you some clicks against Hard-Hitting News, but the 8 credits will still pose a problem. More importantly, good CtM players will be able to exploit the tempo that you lose every time you’re forced to spend an extra 2 clicks to steal Agendas when you take them off Film Critic. If you don’t have Film Critic they can simply feed you an Agenda to kill it, or score out if you want to protect your NACH. If you’re including NACH in your deck for SYNC or Shutdown Combo anyway, there will be game states where it will help you along against CtM, but the mileage you gain from it is so marginal that you shouldn’t really count it as a hate card when building or choosing a deck. In fact, it’s not uncommon for it to be correct for you to not even bother installing it when you draw it against CtM.
What to Do Against CtM
What follows are various snippets of play advice that you should always bear in mind when facing CtM.
Sensies Must Die
Sensie Actors Union is the glue holding Controlling the Message together. Every good CtM deck will pack the full 3 (every top 16 CtM deck at Worlds was). It fixes their hand, and finds all of their other great cards. If left unchecked, Sensie Actors Union will quickly allow the Corp to find the SanSans, Breaking News, Astroscript or whatever else is going to win the game for it, as well as the money to fund it. If there’s ever a Sensie Actor’s Union rezzed you should be going to trash it. If the Corp installs early facedown cards, you should be checking them to trash any Sensie Actors Unions before they even fire once.
“But Alex”, I hear you cry, “it’s not as simple as that. Once I’ve dealt with the CtM ability I may well have opened myself up for a Hard-Hitting News, putting me in the tag hole that CtM is built to exploit.” Try not to worry about this. While you may be risking a Hard-Hitting News if you do go and trash Sensie’s, you’re risking losing the game in a myriad of other ways if you let it live. Even if Hard-Hitting News would be a huge problem for you, you’re almost certainly better off risking it and trashing the Sensie Actor’s Union anyway. Many CtM lists are down to one Hard-Hitting News, so this is a worthy risk. Even if they do have it and land it, you’re probably still better off than you would be if you’d allowed the Sensies to go unchecked.
No matter what your Runner, you want to destroy those Sensie Actor’s Unions as soon as possible.
Find Those Breakers
One of the lesser known ways that good CtM players will beat you is by gear checking you at bad times. Gear checking is the term used for keeping you out of a server because you don’t happen to have the right Icebreaker for their Ice at that point. A lot of the time CtM will begin to pull ahead by using a Gate or Barrier to score out an Astroscript or a preinstalled Breaking News, thereby giving themselves a big tempo boost. Sometimes they’ll do the same thing with a protected SanSan City Grid, pulling two or three turns ahead of you. If you can afford to, spend your early game as Runner finding breakers for all of CtM’s common Ice, and the money to install and use them if needs be. Often CtM will let you assemble a great big pile of money to trash Assets and avoid Hard-Hitting News before slapping a Breaking News behind a Tollbooth and playing Closed Accounts next turn. Make sure that even if CtM isn’t pressuring you to have the right Icebreaker right this second, you’ll be ready when they do. This is often how good CtM players look to pull ahead when it looks like they’re slipping behind. Note that this may also lead you to make plays that will let you deal with Ice in the future. For example, if you’re holding a Parasite or two you may want to build up some Datasucker counters to allow you to Parasite and kill any Ice the turn it gets rezzed. This often particularly applies to Anarch decks that don’t have D4v1d, since they’ll want a Tollbooth answer ready to go.
Keep HQ Honest
Even if you lack cards that give you benefit for running HQ like Datasucker or Desperado, occasional HQ pokes against CtM often go a long way. Often they’re holding onto a Breaking News they’re looking to leverage, or they’ve got Global Food Initiatives that they can’t do anything with. Also remember that the CtM ability doesn’t fire if you trash cards out of Centrals, so trashing SanSan City Grid or Sensie Actor’s Union from HQ before they’re protected by CtM is another benefit to hitting HQ. This is particularly true for Whizzard. Getting some HQ pokes in will also let you know what tag punishment they’re holding, and should let you go some way towards mitigating how much of a blow out these punishment cards will be. The fact that HQ accesses are generally worth seeking out against CtM may lead to to include a bit of extra HQ pressure in your decklist, with cards like Bhagat or Datasucker getting plenty of chances to do their thing.
Astro is Going to Hurt You
If the CtM player is able to get their Astroscript scored, either through SanSan or off the table, know that it is probably going to be used to make a strong play against you at some point. If your Runner deck doesn’t play Turntable, this is something that you’re probably just going to have to accept. Don’t panic or tilt, simply start trying to mitigate the Astro counter with your plays. Try to play around Closed Accounts or Exchange of Information, since that Astro counter will almost certainly get used on a Breaking News at some point. It can be tempting to just go Tag Me and try to grab 7 points as soon as they get that Astro counter, but if you can instead pull ahead on board you can try to shoot for the situation where the Astro counter simply pulls the CtM player back from behind, instead of putting them way ahead. If you can pressure them into using the Astro counter for less value than they might get down the line, that’s ideal. For example if you’re putting on a lot of HQ pressure, they may simply use it to score a Project Beale that would otherwise be stolen.
This tactic will generally serve you well against all manner of tag punishment decks. Because CtM will often only have you tagged for a one turn window through the power of Breaking News, they’ll often only have 1 or 2 clicks to play their tag punishment cards. You can mitigate their power if you have a variety of resources that aren’t dealt with with a single card. For example, if you’re rich and you draw a Liberated Account, consider simply installing it and refusing to use it, even clicking for credits with the Liberated sitting there. This means that if the Corp is able to play a Closed Accounts you have a nice full economy Resource sitting there ready to go. Maybe hold back on installing all of your Daily Casts if you’ve seen that the Corp has All-Seeing I in HQ. Generally keeping your credit total and Resource count evenly divided will see you well against Controlling the Message. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Creds on Tour
Mumbad Virtual Tour has become a CtM mainstay due to its ability to both act as a trap and protect your important Assets and Upgrades. You should try to be aware of it when fighting CtM’s board, but the most important rule is to not get too worried. It’ll end up attached to something you want to trash anyway, so chances are you’ll be paying that 5 at some point. Don’t try to play around it so hard that you let Sensie Actor’s Unions and Commercial Bankers Groups fire.
If CtM ends up with a valuable Asset/Upgrade with an unrezzed card in the same server, you can usually assume it’s an MVT. If you can try to make sure you’re on fewer than 5 credits when you access it, always trashing the rezzed Asset/Upgrade first. The downside to this of course is that you may be opening yourself up for a Hard-Hitting News play, so having an economy Resource like Liberated Accounts or Temujin Contract ready to be used once you’ve run the MVT server will go a long way. If you’re able to trash their Asset, going to 4 credits, shake the CtM tag and then take 8 credits the MVT won’t hurt you nearly as much.
Hopefully these simple pointers will help you approach your Controlling the Message matchups better. If you have any questions or think I’ve forgotten any major points, please don’t hesitate to comment.
Thanks to Adam Higuera, Raja Doake, Luke Rule and Simonmoon for their help with proofreading and editing.
Thanks to SierraXylophone for her insight into the Nexus Kate vs CtM matchup.