The most common mistake I see players making in Netrunner, at all levels, is failing to understand when there are agendas in HQ. Proper timing on a Legwork is often the difference between 4 points and whiffing on an empty HQ. The flipside of understanding when there are agendas in HQ is understanding how to play as the Corp so that you aren’t in a situation where your HQ is full of agendas that your opponent can easily access. Throughout SC / Regional / National season I played 40+ Corp games, and in zero of them was I agenda flooded. This wasn’t because I was lucky (though I did dodge the 4+ agenda starting hands that can happen to anyone), but because I played in a way that prevented agenda density from ever building up into a problem.
Firstly, I’ll talk about how to have a mechanical understanding of where agendas are. Secondly, how to read the actions of the Corp to understand when they have agendas in hand. Finally, while I’ll mainly focus on the Runner’s perspective, throughout will be various lessons for the Corp based on these two points.
The first part of understanding where agendas are is understanding how agendas flow through the game. When the game starts, R&D and HQ can be considered equally dense (agenda density being the fraction of HQ or R&D that are agendas). This is because both R&D and HQ start the game as subsamples of the same population (your entire deck), so without any other information the runner assumes they have the same distribution of agenda density as the deck. Then the Corporations turn begins and the agenda density of HQ and RD begin to get out of whack. The Corporation mandatory draws and then plays one or more cards. Now HQ is more dense than R&D. The reason for this is simple: the Corporation has only played non-agenda cards from their hand, so the remaining cards are more likely to be agendas.
As an example, a standard Foodcoats list has 9 agendas, so 9 / 49 cards means 18% of cards in the deck are agendas. Foodcoats opens with the standard Hedge, Ice, Ice and now has 3 cards in their hand. R&D’s density has not changed, but HQ has gotten more dense than it (or R&D importantly) started the game at. They started the turn with 6 cards at .18 density, and end the turn with 3 cards in HQ. Since they haven’t removed any agendas from hand, each card in hand is now roughly twice as likely to be an agenda as when you started (6 * .18 / 3). There is obviously some hand waiving going on here, as playing Hedge, Ice, Ice means something about the contents of the Corp’s hand. The key point is that if the Corporation is drawing cards (which mandatory draw forces them to do) and playing non-agenda cards, HQ’s density is steadily increasing. In the core rules of Netrunner, the only ways to reduce your HQ agenda density are to score an agenda (or have one stolen).As long as the Corporation is not scoring their HQ agenda density is increasing.
There is a very important lesson here for both the runner and the Corporation. If you prevent the Corp from scoring, HQ will fill up with agendas. This is one of the best ways to win as a runner, as if you can prevent the Corporation from ever scoring then it becomes trivial to win from single HQ accesses (or running archives as they’re forced to discard). What this means for the Corporation is: if you don’t build a remote game capable of scoring (or kill the runner), you will lose the game.
A variety of cards have been printed that allow the Corp to manipulate the fluctuating agenda density of their central servers. These cards have been crucial in allowing strategies that cannot immediately score to exist, and are fundamental in diversifying deck archetypes. I’ll focus mainly on the cards that see significant play.
Jackson Howard is almost certainly the most important and defining Netrunner card of all time. Almost every Corp deck I’ve played has run three copies, and Jackson is probably the most powerful tool for manipulating agenda density in the game. Jackson’s first ability, draw 2, lets you rapidly increase the agenda density of HQ by drawing large amounts of cards. His second ability lets you transfer this agenda density from HQ to R&D through archives, as well as allowing you to shuffle non-agenda cards back into R&D to lower the R&D density. This second ability is what makes Jackson so important. Jackson was the first card that let you lower the agenda density of HQ without scoring or having agendas stolen. Without Jackson or Jackson type effects, decks that cannot score quickly (Glacier, Pure Kill IG, etc.) cannot exist.
There are a couple of important things to understand beyond Jackson allowing the Corp to shift agenda density from HQ to R&D. One, it’s important to recognize that typically after a Jackson shuffle, R&D is more dense than it was at the start of the game because there’s typically at least one agenda being shuffled back, and ⅓ is greater than the starting density of R&D, and this is larger than the starting agenda density of HQ. Ultimately this means that if the Corporation doesn’t score, and continually uses Jacksons to clear out HQ, R&D will become extremely dense (which will then flow back into HQ). The second important thing is that if the Corp uses Jackson to hide agendas in archives and doesn’t shuffle them back in, this effectively lowers the agenda density of HQ / R&D, with both HQ / R&D accesses being of lower quality. It’s very important to kill Jackson as the runner, because Jackson allows the Corp extreme control over the quality of the runner’s accesses, which puts the runner at a huge disadvantage.
Daily Business Show / Sensie Actors Union
Daily Business Show and Sensie Actors Union work in very similar ways, they both trigger once per turn and both help you filter your draws. If they stick around the Corporation gets to control how many agendas are in HQ, with some slight differences. DBS can’t retroactively fix draws, but also doesn’t add draw power – the Corp can completely prevent agendas from hitting HQ. SAU on the other hand allows for a small amount of retroactive filtering, but will also occasionally draw too many agendas for the Corp to effectively bottom. However, the end result for either asset is that given enough time rezzed, the Corp has complete control over the agenda density of HQ.
Additionally, if the Corp chooses to bottom agendas, then in the short term R&D has the same density (as the distribution of the top cards is still the same), while HQ has a lower density. Until R&D is shuffled or they go all the way through their deck, the Corp will have lower overall agenda density available to accesses than they did at the start of the game. After the shuffling happens, if the Corp has been avoiding putting agendas in HQ, R&D will be very dense, as a large chunk of non-agenda cards have been removed (or played) without removing agendas. Thus neither SAU nor DBS overcome the long term problem that if you don’t score agendas, R&D will continue to grow in density.
Museum of History
Museum of History is the most recent card to manipulate agenda density, and is probably one of the most disliked cards in Netrunner. Like it or not, it’s important to understand what MoH does to the agenda flow. Unlike Jackson, which was typically used to move agendas from HQ into Archives, the majority of the cards MoH shuffles back will be non-agenda cards. This means that MoH acts as a force that counteracts the natural increase of agenda density in the game, and in fact lowers the agenda density of R&D (and subsequently HQ). As agendas are scored or stolen, R&D’s density can get extremely low. However, as these decks are often unable to score, and MoH does not provide a mechanism for recycling agendas, HQ will still build up if the Corp cannot clear it. Notably, as more and more cards are installed on the board even with MoH running continuously the denominator of R&D density can only get so high (if there are twenty cards installed, these are twenty non agenda cards that are not padding R&D).
Before the rule change involving Heritage Committee (previously, Mumbad City Hall let you look at the top 3 cards of your deck before deciding what to play with it) , its vast draw selection power meant that the Corp could draw large numbers of cards without having any enter into HQ, and use MoH to keep R&D full of non-agenda cards as well. This meant the engine, if left active, gave the Corp perfect control over where agendas were, making it extremely hard to attack. Museum then counteracted the increased draw (and R&D thinning effect) of Heritage by continually putting non-Agendas back into R&D. As long as this package was up, the Corp had complete control over the location of Agendas and the density of any given server. This made it basically impossible to steal agendas, and helped IG completely lock out the game past a certain point.
Reading the Corp’s Play
So far I’ve talked mainly about the mechanics of how agendas flow through the game, and how that should help dictate where you want to run in order to maximize the value of your accesses. However, as this mainly deals with averages and probabilities, it won’t translate into an absolute number of agendas in HQ. The second part of understanding where agendas are is to read what the Corporation is doing and understand what it means about the composition of their HQ.
The first decision the Corp makes is whether or not to mulligan, and already you can start to learn information about the location of their agendas. If they do not mulligan, they are less likely to have agendas in their hand, and are extremely unlikely to keep a flooded hand. If they mulligan, then you can assume their hand has a similar composition to R&D. Depending on how they play from there you can learn even more. If the Corp opens with a mediocre start of Ice, Ice, Credit after keeping, it’s very likely they wouldn’t have kept this hand with little upside if it had two or more agendas in hand. The reverse applies: with a strong opening of Hedge, Hedge, Ice HQ it’s very likely they do have agendas in hand because they had incentive to keep a hand with agendas (the strength of Hedge Fund) and are committing to protect HQ.
The previous example briefly touched on the Corp placing their first ice on HQ, and ice placement is probably the biggest signal the Corp is giving you about what their defending priorities are (and by extension, where agendas are). In general, if they place lots of Ice on HQ, they either have agendas there, or are worried about strong HQ pressure like Account Siphon. Lots of Ice on R&D means they’re worried about R&D lock, which means agendas are more likely in R&D than HQ. One important skill for runners is learning to read how much of the Corp’s Ice placement is based on agenda location, and how much of is based on responding to threats in your deck like Siphon or Lamprey. The Corp is basically always going to Ice HQ a lot against Criminal because they need to defend against Siphon anyway, so that shouldn’t usually be taken as a sign of flood.
Icing of remotes needs to be treated a bit differently than the central servers. For any sort of glacier deck that scores out of remotes, it’s imperative for the Corp to create a server for this purpose. There are plenty of runners with strong enough late games that eventually they reach a state where the Corp is unable to score any more, so the Corp needs to quickly assemble a strong remote capable of scoring out or they’ll lose. In these situations, the Corp icing a remote instead of centrals should not be taken as a sign that there are no agendas in HQ. They need to play this way because if they slow down to Ice HQ even though there are agendas in there, while it might protect the agendas for now, it will mean they will be later vulnerable when they are stuck in hand, unable to score. So if you’re playing a deck with a strong late game and no HQ pressure, do not simply assume that HQ is empty when they don’t ice it (though also keep in mind that keeping them honest will slow down your own build up to your late game).
One important factor in reading ice placement is how the Corp responds to R&D pressure. If you drop a medium and run R&D three times, and the Corp responds not by shoring up R&D but by making some sort of remote play, it’s a strong signal that they have enough points to win in their hand. They are basically betting they can score out faster than you can win on R&D, which means they have at minimum enough points to score out of R&D lock, and more likely points beyond that that let them feel that giving up R&D is a strong play.
Probably the most important read you can get on the Corporation is understanding whether or not they have a scoring window. If the Corp has a good scoring window (plenty of money, two Ice on remote, one upgrade installed, no breakers out) and don’t go for a score, you should take that as a strong sign they do not currently have any agendas in hand. Additionally, if your opponent draws a bunch with a strong scoring server and a weak HQ, it means they’re almost certainly not going to end the turn with any agendas in HQ. The agendas are safer in the remote, so even if it’s a 5/3 that will take two turns to score, they’re going to slam it into the remote if they draw it. Even though typically if the Corp has drawn a bunch and not scored an agenda you’d assume they’re going to be flooded, if they have a clear scoring window it’s a sign that HQ is actually a bad target.
It is important to think about not just if the Corp can score, but if the Corp wants to score. For example, if you’re playing Leela and NEH is on 12 credits, you’ve seen a Biotic, but they only have One ice on HQ. Even though they can score, this isn’t actually a good window for them because you’ll bounce and then blast them with Siphon -> Legwork. So the key question is, “If my opponent had an agenda in hand, would they try and score it?”. If the answer is Yes, and they don’t try and score it, don’t run HQ trying to find agendas.
What follows from this is that typically the best time to run HQ is the exact turn before a scoring window opens. This isn’t always possible, as when you have the money and breakers to contest a score, there often won’t be an obvious window. There are two common situations where this happens that I’d like to highlight. One is when a Glacier type deck is stacking Ice on a remote to create a scoring server while an Adonis Campaign or Sundew ticks down. Since they need to establish a scoring window, they won’t use as many Ice protecting HQ. And even though they’re creating a server you can’t get into, HQ will not be as strongly defended. The turn they place enough ice that you know you can’t get in, or the turn before Adonis ticks down, are usually great times to strike at HQ because agendas are typically about to start leaving HQ and going into the remote. Another classic situation is when you’re checking all of Near Earth Hub Fast Advance’s remotes, and finally a turn comes where you’re forced to let a SanSan City Grid go untrashed. This is a great turn to attack HQ, as the agendas are likely about to start leaving HQ through San San. FA decks are often bottlenecked on FA pieces, so if you run HQ the turn before they’re finally able to score you’ll typically score massive points.
When the Corporation has a bunch of cards that give them strong control over their agenda distribution (e.g. the aforementioned DBS, or the old MoH + Heritage combo), it’s important to understand how they’re going to distribute their agendas. The easiest and most extreme case is when they have either HQ or R&D locked down completely. In these cases, they’re going to just make sure every agenda they aren’t scoring is in the locked down server. As the runner then, rather than getting easy (but worthless) accesses on the open server, you want to be trying to figure out a way to get into the server where they’re going to hide all the agendas. In less extreme cases where a server isn’t completely locked down, the Corp is going to try and distribute agendas in a way that any server you attack will have roughly the same value (if you can make five HQ runs or one The Maker’s Eye R&D run, the Corp will distribute agendas to minimize the maximum of these two). The core takeaway here is that allowing the Corp to completely control where agendas are is a bad idea, as it means they can focus all their defenses exactly where they need them to be and make it very hard the runner to win.
There are a variety of decks that have unique ways in which agendas move through them, as well as individual reads. I’ll discuss a couple of common decks that you’ll face, and this will hopefully give you a good idea of how to think about other decks you face as well.
Controlling the Message
Controlling the Message is the new kid on the block, and while there are a couple of builds, I’ll take TheBigBoy’s original list as a point of reference. Its agenda suite is 3x Global Food Initiative, 3x Breaking News, 3x Project Beale and 1x Astroscript Pilot Program. There are a couple of important points about this suite. First, while BN can be FA’d at any time, it is much more typical for it to be Never Advanced to lead into strong tag punishment (Closed Accounts, All Seeing I, Exchange of Information). Additionally, as a lot of the scoring plan is based around never advancing in taxing remotes, GFI is hard to score outside of Exchange of Information. Since the deck wants / needs to score out of remotes (or naked agendas), this is a good deck to hit HQ against as soon as you are about to give up a scoring window. However, if you let SAU live, HQ will no longer be dense as they can remove agendas from hand, so it is extremely important not to let them fire SAU in the early game.
Foodcoats, has an increasingly common agenda suite of 7x 2 pointers and 2x GFIs. Unlike CTM or pure Kill decks, Foodcoats fully intends to score 5/3s in its remotes, and for the most part develops 5/3 scoring windows a reasonable amount of the time (though slightly less frequently than its 3/2 windows). Additionally, despite its reputation as a Glacier deck, Foodcoats is quite capable of creating quick scoring windows. It typically leaves centrals relatively unprotected and uses its early ice to create scoring remotes that both gear check and tax. One key feature of the deck is that it usually has one remote used for both Adonis/Eve Campaigns and scoring, so if there’s a campaign ticking down it often means they can’t score. A good time to run HQ is therefor the turn before the Campaign runs out, as the Corp will have had several turns to draw an Agenda without having a clean window to put it in the remote.Overall Foodcoats is a very traditional Netrunner deck, scoring out of remotes and without any tricks for agenda manipulation beyond Jackson.
IG-49 is yet another Jinteki kill deck from mastermind Chris Hinkes. It is all in on kill and has zero scoring plan. As such, as the game progresses, agendas will tend to stick in hand as they are unable to leave the game. However, IG has two strong plans for dealing with agendas that most decks do not. As the deck naturally wants to protect Archives more than normal decks, agendas can often be hidden in Archives, especially since Jacksons are protected by increased trash costs. Additionally, as the deck is playing Psychic Field and building a minefield of remotes, agendas can be hidden among these remotes (especially Fetal AI, which plays a dual role as defensive agenda and trap). Normal decks usually only have the option of trying to distribute agendas between R&D and HQ, but IG lets you distribute them between Archives / R&D, HQ and naked remotes in a way to dilute the value of any strategy focusing on a single server. Finally, as the deck plays eight agendas, SAU is especially powerful as every agenda it bottoms effectively represents ⅛ of the agenda total, and after 2 or 3 fires it becomes extremely hard to beat as a large fraction of the stealable points will be effectively removed from the game.
While NEH Fastrobiotics has largely fallen from its once dominant metagame position, there still exists a lesser form of it in Russian NEH. It runs 13 agendas and relies on Jeeves / SanSan to Fast Advance them. It notably runs 3x Explode-a-Palooza which it basically isn’t capable of scoring ever, and 6x 3-Advance agendas which it typically scores with FA (though it can also gear check through a remote). The deck has a plethora of draw (Jackson, NEH, SAU) and since it plays 13 agendas has a hard time scoring agendas as fast as it’s drawing them. Assuming it draws 2 cards every turn (Mandatory + NEH draw) it will draw an agenda every other turn. As the deck runs no Biotic Labor, it’s main plan for scoring is all trashable. If you trash their ability to score for as long as you can, you’ll typically discover enough turns have passed that their hand is full of agendas (or even that they’ve been forced to pitch some without Jackson).
Cerebral Imaging 7 Pt Combo
When it comes to scoring patterns, Cerebral Imaging is a very weird deck. It doesn’t score until the turn it wins, but also has no agenda filtering whatsoever. As cards are played and more cards are drawn without ever being cleared, HQ will quickly fill up with agendas. However, due to the increased hand size HQ will not end up being just agendas, but will still become way more dense than R&D. Single accessing HQ will usually be extremely high value by the end of the game, in addition to the fact it will also contain combo pieces (Eff Com, Jackson) that you can snipe to slow down the combo. Counting up the cards that have been played (Ice + Archives count + HQ count) x 9 / 49 – Agendas stolen will give you a good estimate of how many agendas are in HQ, while R&D will basically always be 9 / 49. The key takeaway here is HQ will usually get at least twice as dense as R&D.
Haarp is a really funky deck when it comes to agendas, and while it’s not a relevant deck at the moment, it works in an interesting way that’s worth talking about. Haarp tends to play a lot more agendas than most other decks, with Regional winning decks hitting as many as 17 agendas. Because of the number of agendas, they’re much more likely to be evenly distributed. Additionally, due to the ability of the ID to pseudo FA 3-advance agendas (install two of them, runner can only steal one and then Haarp scores one on the next turn), Haarp is able to avoid ever getting flooded. If they have more than one agenda in hand, they simply install both and Runner / Corp each score one. However, if the Runner is in some way able to disrupt this analysis (e.g. being on match point or playing Leela, Employee Strike, or Film Critic), then the Corp will once again have the possibility of flood as they will be unable to rely on their ability to simply install two agendas.
As stealing agendas is the primary win condition of basically every Runner deck, it is extremely important to understand how likely you are to find an agenda in any given server. Having an understanding of the mechanics behind the movement of agendas, as well as a read on what the Corp is doing, are key to doing this. It is also crucial to understand these concepts as the Corp, as if you do not build a board state capable of scoring agendas faster than you draw them, your hand will fill with agendas. Especially against runner decks with strong late game remote pressure, it’s extremely important to focus early on building a Remote capable of scoring before the investment needed to do so grows out of hand. Overall, Agendas are the main win condition for both sides, and understanding the mechanics behind where they’ll be is fundamental to playing both Corp and Runner well.