Today we’ll finally touch a subject I’ve been building up towards through a lot of the previous articles. What is the reason i write about skill and game-design? One main reason is that i want the game to be as good as it can be, and i want players to see and experience it.
There are many pitfalls in card-game design. It is perhaps the hardest type of game to design, for good reason. We’ll end with some detailed thoughts on what makes a good game, how NISEI has handled this so far, and comments of the different formats. But first, we need to talk about..
What is Power Level?
Before thinking about what separates the formats we need to look closer at a concept i described in the 2016-article The State of Netrunner, ‘Power Level’. This is an intuitive way of saying that, on average, a deck or card is inherently better than another deck or card at winning the game. This also applies to whole formats, as a format is defined by the dominating decks in the existing cardpool. The ‘metagame’.
What separates formats is, of course, the pool of available cards, and since cards and combinations of cards (‘combos’) differ in power, naturally with more available options the potential power of decks increase.
Now, what is the difference between a matchup of evenly balanced high-power decks and that of low-power decks?
Clicks become more important!
Games are quicker since the average action on both sides advance towards the win-conditions faster. Since you have less clicks, they become more valuable. If you or your opponent make a mistake there is less time to compensate for it. The game becomes compressed. The game will be more intense and punishing.
This emphasizes Tactical-Skill and Yomi-Skill. it also emphasizes Efficiency-Skill since it makes taking ‘basic actions’ worse.
This is usually seen as a positive by experienced players, but it is not always good for new players. A larger card-pool also is a challenge for newer players.
Cards become more important!
As a natural effect of more cards, it means that combinations of cards will be more powerful. The game becomes less about the effect of individual cards and more about powerful synergies.
Strategies and decks that have a powerful win-condition based in a combo instead of in basic Netrunner (Running, Installing&Scoring) become more prevalent.
This emphasizes decks more and interaction with the opponent less. This de-emphasizes Tactical, Yomi and Strategic skills. Too much of this can make the game become all about draws and decks, and less about playing the game skillfully.
Variance becomes more important!
Since actions are more powerful and games are shorter, the natural tendency is for draws and accesses to matter more. Higher power-level card-pools must compensate with good options for draw, multi-access and variance-mitigation like ‘Spin Doctor’ to prevent games from becoming too variance-dependent.
Since powerful actions are tied to cards it will matter a lot which options the players have available. Does the opponent have Hard Hitting News or not? That may decide the game.
This can increase luck but often be mitigated in deck-building and play if the card-pool allows it.
Balance becomes more fragile!
With more cards and interactions the potential for a few decks dominating the meta becomes more of a risk. With cards and combos being more powerful, maintaining a healthy and balanced game becomes harder as play-testing and design will be more of a challenge.
A high-power game is more ‘fragile’ and requires more of the designers of the game to prevent few decks from dominating the meta. This defeats the potential for variability which is why players usually want a larger card-pool.
To summarize, a high-power game has a lot of good properties, and while it can be even harder on new players this is always the case in high-skill games.
However, with power comes the risk of two factors that can take away from the potential of a good game. If these are not properly mitigated the game can tend towards a random and narrow experience.
At a certain level of power the game will always become less about the basic game-mechanics and more about the cards, which means there is a ceiling of power that, if approached, will eliminate most of the skill and interaction from the game. Regardless of balance.
What makes a healthy meta?
To illustrate this further, lets look at the graph below. Imagine this represents all decks you can build in a card-pool. You can imagine the bottom curve representing a smaller card-pool, much closer to the basic game-mechanics.
For the small card-pool, differences between decks become less important, and the closeness to the basic game-mechanics makes the game less about the cards. At the same time, there is less variation.
The metagame is defined by the peaks in the curves. Tournament-play will always find and use the most powerful decks after some time. Assuming other players follow and use these decks, as is often the case. The ‘experienced’ game that most players will play can be seen only as the different peaks in the landscape. The good decks. The inferior options do not matter for most players.
The effective variation of the game is determined only by the meta-decks. A healthy meta is, in my opinion, is determined by three factors:
- A large amount of viable deck-options
- No deck short-circuits player skill with powerful-combos
- A good balance between card-power and base game-mechanisms
Above is this concept illustrated with the Green curve for a healthy meta and the Red curve for an unhealthy meta. The green curve has several viable decks, and none of them eliminates skill from the game. The red meta has two very powerful decks, and they are not that interesting to play since it is more about who draws their combo, or counter-card first.
Since the game is more interesting at a higher power level, but too high power-level creates issues, there is a ‘goldilocks-zone’ where the game strikes a good balance between powerful cards and the base game-mechanics.
Historical Issues in Standard
Netrunner is a fantastic game, however, there has been a lot of ‘red metas’ in Netrunner history. Notoriously ‘Red Sand’ with the onslaught of asset-spam made players start leaving the game. It had become much less about actual choices and more about playing against an unfavorable math-machine. let’s take a short trip down memory-lane..
Cards like Sifr, Temujin Contract, Astroscript Pilot Program, Estelle Moon were simply too powerful. Many cards have been printed that are simply better than they should be, as in way outside of the ‘goldilocks-zone’ for card-effects.
Even cards that are otherwise powerful but balanced can become a massive problem if enough synergy exists between them such as Faust and the ‘Pancakes-combo’. Cards like Medium or Parasite, as well as Account Siphon were meta-defining but never too good, until certain cards were printed that made them oppressive.
Several times the imbalance of one card such as Caprice Nisei has been attempted to be fixed by printing equally powerful counter cards like Rumor Mill. This has only ever resulted in a too high power-level making variance and card-draw dominant.
The most egregious of problems, however, must be awarded to cards that enable game-breaking combos as a win-condition, instead of interaction with the game-mechanisms. Notorious decks like ‘Dyper’, ‘IG asset spam’, even some players’ beloved ‘CI Combo’, a deck that makes the game about one player solving a flowchart-puzzle while the other player fiddles their thumbs..
All of these balance-issues eliminate interactive skill from the game. The Netrunner meta has not always been good, and for large windows of the game’s history the good game of Netrunner has been hidden behind these problematic cards and decks.
These are all examples of the difficulty of maintaining a high Power Level and a good meta at the same time in a card-game. Card-game design is hard. The safer option is to print lower power-level cards, but that eliminates a lot of things players want.
On Startup and Standard
So far, NISEI has learned their lesson it seems. The challenge the organization has taken up is one of the most difficult in game-design, but their love for the game shows in their understanding of the above historical problems. Luckily NISEI has a lot of this history to learn from, and I doubt that the FFG design-team could have taken this step when Android Netrunner was first launched.
An interesting choice they have done is to split the game into formats, separating into different sizes of card-pool and thus also power-levels. Naturally, maintaining a healthy meta is easier for a smaller card-pool, which means that NISEI can offer this experience regardless of possible issues in the larger formats.
A large benefit of this strategy is that it allows an on-ramp for newer players where they can learn the game in a more forgiving environment while learning the cards.
Above can be seen my (very personal) impression of the formats right now. The width of the line represents viable options, and the color represents ‘in-game skill’.
I would never personally touch Eternal. I prefer my games about interaction with the opponent, not about drawing cards. It’s not why I play Netrunner. This is a personal preference of course, and it is good that players who want that type of experience can have it.
For Standard the meta seems fine to me, by historical standards. I enjoy the thrill of the tense matches and the game-deciding decisions. Surely the meta has been much much worse, but there seem to be some remaining issues. Some decks seem too easy to play for their power-level on the Corp-side and parts of the tactical skill of base-Netrunner is eroded by the power of certain cards.
+ Eliminating Currents was a good choice by NISEI, as they leaned into the ‘power card’ effect too much and introduced variance, away from the core mechanisms.
+ Recursion-effects are nerfed or removed, which is good as they enabled the powerful cards to be played over and over. I miss some of the consistency, but this is for the best, and allows more varied powerful cards to be printed. Precision design is maybe a bit powerful.
+ Powerful combo-decks that eliminate game-skill are basically broken up. All dominant decks play Netrunner, more or less.
+ Replacement-cards necessary for classic archetypes have been printed, with Glacier getting support in Skunkworks & Anoetic, and never-advance getting a powerful boost with Seamless Launch (perhaps Seamless should have costed 2 credits). The other classic Corp-archetypes seem viable.
– A few ICE with too powerful face-checks or strength for their cost and subtype still dominate the game (Fairchild 3.0, Surveyor, IP-block, few others). These ICE eliminate the tempo-game of face-checking from the game, nullifying a core skill. Especially for Criminals.
– The new tempo-less agendas (Offworld Office, Cyberdex Sandbox) counteract a core part of Netrunner: the tempo-play between Corp and Runner. This window of vulnerability that creates tough choices for both sides. These are a tad too powerful and should probably have been nerfed 1 or 2 credits each. Corporate Sales Team works because it still creates this window.
This is NISEI’s only design-mistake so far, in my opinion. EDIT: Gold-farmer is a problem.
– Minor gripes are Aumakua, meta-defining in a bit of a boring way, and Border Control (fine, but stacking too many ETR-effects is unexciting). Also, NGO Front and Rashida Jaheem should both probably give 1 less credit. Neutral economy-cards that give their tactical value and efficiency will be used in almost any deck.
We will see where it shakes out as we are still early in the release-cycle, and everything can be fixed with bans. I have a lot of trust after I’ve seen NISEI work though, and i think they will sort this out.
In my opinion, meta in the different formats is very good for Startup and System Gateway right now. There is a large variation of decks in Startup, and since the power-level is closer to the game-mechanics of base Netrunner there is a lot of depth and skill on offer in those games. The above-mentioned agendas is less of a problem here.
I have been playing a lot of Startup lately, while also introducing several completely new players to the game. I have explored several deck-archetypes that have been historically viable, and to my initial surprise they basically work.
For Startup especially a lot of classic deck-archetypes on the Corp-side work well enough, such as Weyland Rush, Jinteki & HB Glacier, NEH Fast-advance, Never-advance, Jinteki-kill and others. The one perhaps missing is tag-and-bag, but that offers some design-issues and I recognize why it is kept out of the format. Let’s hope they find a fix.
Overall i can strongly recommend Startup. Honestly, i could play only startup for a long time. It does not replace the Standard format on its good days, but both as a starting-place for new players and as a safe-haven when Standard does not live up to its potential it is a very good place for the game.
The offering of multiple formats have given us a ‘safe haven’ in Startup whenever Standard is feeling wonky. NISEI card design is leaning on a history of learnings and is moving in a good direction.
Most problems remaining in Standard are minor, by historical measures, and NISEI is eliminating problems to a much greater extent than they are creating them. I do think the tempo-less agendas are a bit of an issue, however.
Startup is not well explored yet, but so far offers a core-Netrunner experience like the ‘early days’ of the OG Core-set but with all problems from that meta solved in elegant ways. It very much feels like OG-Core +Genesis & Spin in how it plays. I encourage more experienced players to check it out, and take it seriously. It stands on its own.
I look forward to the future of the game, and times have probably never been better for Netrunner. As the world opens up again, keep one eye on the horizon and the other on showing the game to potential new players.
NISEI has given us the tools, but we all need to build up our local groups again. Peace.