(2015) The Two Year Turn: How I Learned Netrunner by Noah McKee

Back in 2015, Noah McKee wrote this great article about his start into competitive Netrunner. It is with deep sadness that we heard this morning that Noah has passed away. In honor of his indelible mark on the game and its community, we’ve reposted the original article. Please see the thread in Netrunner Dorks to see and share other memories of Noah.

I started playing Netrunner after stumbling across the subreddit two years ago, right around the time Worlds was taking place. I had no experience with card games or games in general, but I was looking for a way to meet friends. After a quick search I found that an LCG night was happening at a game store near me that same day, so I decided to just show up and see what would happen. I believe I walked right in and said something overly straight to the point, like “will someone teach me this game?” One of the local players was kind enough to spend the whole night teaching me, which I imagine was entirely agonizing as I often need things to be repeated a second time (and it’s a complicated game). So while a few hundred of the best players were slogging it out halfway across the country at Worlds 2013, I was making my very first runs.

I met most of my best friends through Netrunner, and soon enough we were going to GNK’s and Store Championships all across the Bay Area. I was really bad. Like, unbearably bad. I don’t learn very quickly to begin with, and I had no context for intellectually competitive activities. However, we were playing so much that I eventually started seeing improvement. This came in ways I’m sure most people will be familiar with; giving up your pet cards, thinking about your turns harder than you usually would, familiarizing yourself with the card pool and standard decks, and of course just playing all the time.

My first big tournament was Northern California Regionals 2014, and in hindsight I got ridiculously lucky. My Gabe deck had three Deja Vu and three Same Old Thing, and my only strategic consideration was that I should play Account Siphon as many times as possible because that card seemed good. I don’t know how, but I managed to get 3rd place in a field full of far more experienced and skilled players. More important than placing at the tournament was meeting the guy I lost to, Jon Delasandry (@sirris). He got 1st place, and he was the first Netrunner player I met who seemed totally out of my league. I very clearly remember thinking “No matter how long I play this game, I’ll never be able to beat that guy.” I started practicing with him online and in person whenever I could make it down to L.A.

Jon and I along with some other friends ended up going to Gencon 2014, where we would end up placing in the mid-twenties, missing the cut. We all stood around and watched Zach Cavis (@webster) place 2nd. Zach was way too cool. He had this whole poker thing where you could never tell what he was thinking, and I remember thinking he was the sickest player I had ever seen. I was absolutely perplexed as to how one could get so good at the game. I tried to get some games in with Zach later on at Worlds, just to get a sense for how he played, but he was burnt out from the tournament. My friends and I would sit around in living rooms and hotel rooms after tournaments just watching Team Covenant videos, mostly of Zach, in semi-ironic awe of his plays. Then we went to Worlds 2014. I believe I got somewhere around 66th. We stood around all day Sunday, despite being hugely uncomfortable (FFG did not provide enough chairs), and watched Jon play T16 games, and eventually Dan as he took the title.

At this point I really didn’t have a cohesive idea about how to improve my game, so I started with the obvious: play errors. I wanted to put a stop to the errors I repeated most often, so I started writing down every mistake I made after every game in a notebook, and then reviewing the notebook periodically. I started playing in Stimhack Leagues so that I could get in large amounts of games while continuously tracking my errors, and in this fashion I started getting better basically by rote.

While I probably wasn’t refining my play on a strategic level, I was gaining a better intuitive sense for the game while learning how to play with minimal click errors for longer periods of time. This type of practice paid off, and to my surprise I ended up winning the Northern California Regionals 2015.

Regionals season ended up going really well, and it was interesting to see how much I improved between the first Regional of the season and the fourth, even though the first one was the only one I ended up winning. I improved more in the four weeks during Regionals than in the six or so months since Worlds, which wasn’t a coincidence. I was playing against great players, playing against decks I had never seen before, playing on camera or with a crowd more often, and playing for longer amounts of time.

I was feeling pretty good, but I was in for a bit of a rude awakening. During the time between Regionals and Gencon I was mostly playing online. I was on vacation one night when I ended up playing a few Stimhack league games against Josh Wilson (Josh01). He was super far out of my league, and I was amazed at how completely and easily he beat me, game after game. We had both won similar sized Regionals, but it was very clear to me that there was still a class of player out there that I was just no match for.

So I started thinking about what goes into winning a game, and what I should be trying to accomplish with every turn. My sequencing was good, I was making minimal play-by-play errors, but my games lacked overall direction. So I came up with an order in which things should generally be accomplished in a game, and I simply called it The Plan:

Stages of The Plan 2.0

Establish Econ Advantage

  • Credits to rez anything that might be relevant on your board
  • Credits to threaten a scoring remote or trash high-impact assets and upgrades

Secure Your Board

  • Place ice and upgrades against multi-access and important events
  • Find ice-breakers necessary to threaten the scoring remote

Disrupt Your Opponent’s Game Plan

  • Trash high priority assets
  • Trash programs/resources as necessary

Score Out

  • Multi-access/Advance out agenda
  • Repeat from the beginning

Developing a more systematic way of figuring out what I should be doing really helped during long tournaments. Most of this stuff sounds obvious, but games are won by either side executing turns in a way that helps build towards and maintain an advantageous momentum. If that momentum is thrown off by say, trying to make a multi-access play too early and not taking the time to assemble your breakers to prevent your opponent from scoring, then you can lose your entire line of play. The Plan also helps in regards to endurance, because once you combine good sequencing with a clear goal your turns kind of end up playing themselves.

I think this was the development that brought the greatest improvement to my play. The swiss rounds at Gencon 2015 flew by easily, with only a few games requiring extra attention, and before I knew it I had finished 1st seed. I think I owe that largely to having this system that I could fall back on, rather than having to think long and hard about every turn all day. I was playing great opponents and challenging games, but the decision making just seemed to flow much easier, and I felt less doubtful about my turns.

I memorized the checklist, but I found it slow and unnecessary to repeat the whole thing back to myself every turn, so I further developed a way of thinking about turns that was a little more accessible and that I could just bring up in my head every time I had doubts about what to do. This is the latest incarnation of what goes through my head whenever I have a complicated turn:

Workflow as of 11/6/15 (Worlds 2015)

  1. Consider everything on your opponent’s board and what could be in their hand
  2. Identify which stage of the Plan you are in
  3. Identify an Intuitive Solution (what do you think you should do this turn) and a Refined Solution (what are the clicks best suited to accomplishing what you think you should do)

Most of the time the turn you come up with in the first five seconds is the correct line of play; this is the intuition we develop as players. However, it can help to develop a buffer — so you’re not taking clicks reactively —  instead using your intuition to inform your final turn.

So the crew and I flew out to Worlds again. We were joined by our latest addition, Phil Dickinson, an ex-MTG player who picked up Netrunner only a few months before Worlds; and was immediately one of the strongest members of our meta. I couldn’t help but notice how what took me two years to learn had taken him a matter of weeks. I suppose there will always be inherently strong players: people who just understand games. In a way, I think I’m lucky that I’m not one of them. I can roll with the hyper-intelligent (Timmy), and hold my own with the veteran card gamers — not because I have something they don’t — but just because I understand how to play good Netrunner. I’ve gone out of my way to understand how to play good Netrunner.

While we were not sitting in the hotel room watching Team Covenant videos this Worlds (admittedly, that’s mostly because no one brought an HDMI cable), we were in the lobby of the Radisson every night getting the scoop on the meta. Andrew (@thesenorcortez) and I knew Replicating Perfection was going to be well equipped for the field, so we broke down every slot and found a build that was suitably teched for DLR Val and Kate equally. Wes (@westonodom) and I had a last minute realization that Sacrificial Construct would be a choice include not just for the NEH matchup but for Haarp as well, as a last ditch Plascrete saver. It was cool to see how the team had improved. We had spent basically all day Saturday for the past three weeks preparing, and the experience was entirely different from the year before.

46 Tech Cards and Hedge Fund

Jinteki: Replicating Perfection

Agenda (8)
1x Global Food Initiative •
1x NAPD Contract
3x Nisei MK II
3x The Future Perfect

Asset (10)
1x Executive Boot Camp •
3x Jackson Howard •••
3x Mental Health Clinic
3x Sundew

Upgrade (6)
3x Caprice Nisei
1x Crisium Grid •
2x Cyberdex Virus Suite

Operation (9)
3x Celebrity Gift
1x Cerebral Static
1x Freelancer
3x Hedge Fund
1x Interns

Barrier (4)
3x Eli 1.0 •••
1x Himitsu-Bako

Code Gate (6)
2x Crick
1x Enigma
2x Lotus Field
1x Tollbooth ••

Sentry (6)
2x Ichi 1.0 ••••
2x Pup
1x Susanoo-No-Mikoto
1x Swordsman

15 influence spent (max 15)
20 agenda points (between 20 and 21)
49 cards (min 45)
Cards up to Data and Destiny

The Book of Kate

Kate “Mac” McCaffrey: Digital Tinker

Event (21)
3x Diesel
3x Dirty Laundry
1x Legwork ••
1x Levy AR Lab Access
3x Lucky Find ••••• •
3x Quality Time
1x Scavenge
3x Sure Gamble
3x The Maker’s Eye

Hardware (10)
2x Astrolabe
3x Clone Chip
1x Plascrete Carapace
3x Prepaid VoicePAD
1x R&D Interface

Resource (5)
1x Film Critic
1x Sacrificial Construct
3x Technical Writer

Icebreaker (5)
1x Atman
2x Cerberus “Lady” H1
1x Gordian Blade
1x Mimic •

Program (5)
1x Clot ••
1x D4v1d ••••
3x Self-modifying Code

15 influence spent (max 15)
46 cards (min 45)
Cards up to Data and Destiny

At the first round of the swiss I was randomly assigned to table 9. The top table in the room ran numbers 1-10, and I didn’t leave it all day.

The swiss was, in all honesty, uneventful. I dropped a game to a bad mulligan, I dropped a few more to psi games, but most everything else happened exactly as planned. No huge misplays, not a whole lot I would have done different. I think maybe that’s a more important indicator of progress than any particular finish.

The cut to T16 went great as well. My last game of the day was against Dave Hoyland (@cerberus), a super nice guy who played with a very thoughtful, well-organized style. When he won the last psi game against me I wasn’t thinking about about how I got unlucky. I wasn’t thinking about the 50+ crowd watching us, or how my Worlds run was over. I was honestly just thinking about what I needed to write in my book!

“ . . . should have ditched Jackson instead of Caprice to leverage Crick turn 2, needed Caprice late game and Jackson would have been a more compelling target anyways.”

It wasn’t a huge blunder, but it might have made a difference. I didn’t want to look weird and immediately start scribbling away, so I just shook Dave and Lukas’s hands and took in the moment. I had just T4’ed Worlds — the note could wait until after a post-elimination beer.

It’s really funny to think that someone like me did well at Worlds when I so vividly remember standing around watching it from the sidelines with my friends last year. It’s a great feeling to have someone who you admire beat you, help you improve, and then finally compete with you and go all out. Never be hesitant to ask an experienced player for advice, or even just for a pick up game, because I think you get better at Netrunner by having people show you their own play skill, thus giving you an idea about how to match it. Whether it’s someone explaining the game to you for the first time at your LGS, or sitting across from a seasoned player in a Worlds T16 match; we are all just learning.

Hit me up if you want to get in a game some time,

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