Losing to Win in ‘Netrunner’

Netrunner is a constant battle of wits and aggression, a struggle for power, for constant dominance... except when it isn't.

Netrunner is a game of mega-corporations advancing their nefarious agendas while protecting their servers against anarchic, criminal, and DIY hackers. The game creates a beautiful asymetric system (which I delve into in greater detail here), a tense and shifting play space that creates some of the most exhilarating tabletop gaming matches you can experience. Netrunner is a constant battle of wits and aggression, a struggle for power, for constant dominance… except when it isn’t.

Like so few games on the market, tabletop or digital, Netrunner upends its own norms. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the fabulous Iain Stirling. Before we get into details, we should cover some basic groundwork best elucidated by David Sutcliffe of The Satellite Uplink:

Netrunner has a pattern to it. Every game of Netrunner is different, but every game is a duel between a Runner and a Corporation. Every game of Netrunner is different, but every game sees the Runner and Corporation faced with similar problems that require similar responses. Recognising the patterns in the game, and where you fit into that pattern, helps you to understand what you need to do.

Sutcliffe breaks each match into three phases: Early Game, Midgame, and Endgame. As he describes it, Early Game advantage goes to the Runner, who can provide a lot of offensive pressure against a corporation that has yet to build up a healthy economy or strong layer of server defense. During this phase, the Runner may steal one or two agendas from a poorly guarded server.

Midgame tends to favor the Corporation, who by this point should have a decent economy to pay for a decent layer of protective “ice” over each server. Conversely, by this point in the game, the Runner is unlikely to have their entire suite of breakers or their own economic engine fully powered, which allows the Corporation to sneak through one or two agendas of their own.

The Endgame once again belongs to the Runner. By this point, while the Corporation has installed and rezzed various layers of ice, the Runner should have their suite of icebreakers and enough money to fuel frequent runs. At this point, the Corporation must either become very sneaky or very lucky.

Of course all Netrunner matches are different, but David’s partitioning of a general match is incredibly useful for understanding the flow of play. For the most part, all games are struggles to extend or shorten one phase or another. A fast-advance Corporation deck seeks to drastically shorten the Early Game by getting up cheap ice and then being as efficient as possible in the limited Midgame phase, scoring a bunch of agendas before the Runner can build up their rig.

Meanwhile, a classic Shaper deck might seek to shorten the Midgame phase by building up their icebreaker suite and economy engine as fast as possible, rushing to the Endgame and their inevitable dominance. By elongating or shortening these natural game phases, players struggle to maintain every advantage that they can muster during a “classic” Netrunner match.

However, Iain Sterling (released in the latest expansion Honor and Profit) dramatically reconstructs our understanding of game phase advantages. Sterling, like any Runner Identity, augments the rules of play for that particular Runner. The card text reads as follows: “When your turn begins, gain 2 credits if the Corp has more scored agenda points than you.” The idea is simple, if the corporation is essentially winning, Sterling provides a helpful “drip” economy to get the Runner back in the game.

While two credits might seem minor, over time it can lead to a devastating economic lead in favor of the Runner. This is where things can get crazy. In David’s analysis of Netrunner’s Early Game, the Runner is applying pressure and stealing one or two early agendas. However, if Sterling snatches an agenda, his power never triggers. In fact, Sterling wants the Corporation to score an agenda early so his drip economy can churn out a comfortable profit. During this early stage, a resource-based Sterling deck may use time they have otherwise spent making runs instead establishing additional economy and security that they’ll need in the Endgame.

Come the Midgame, when other runners may seek to shorten this phase, a daring Sterling player may seek to extend it as long as possible. The longer the gap between a Corporation scoring one or two agenda points and a Corporation scoring up to match point, the better. To this end, my own Sterling deck includes The Source, which makes agendas harder to advance and therefore more vulnerable, and Imp and Keyhole, which allows me not to score, but to trash Agendas, preventing Corporations from scoring it themselves.

The result is a manic game of chicken, what a fellow player recently called “riding the edge.” By scoring just enough agenda points to stay in contention, Sterling can maintain an economic edge and squeak by in the Endgame, intentionally losing right before winning — or losing to win.

Sterling is just one card, but the Honor and Profit expansion contains 54 more, all that augment play in interesting and unique ways. This particular set, easily one of Fantasy Flight’s strongest, adds ingenious and influential mechanics into the mix, reinvigorating old cards (selling Shi.Kyus to Data Dealer anyone?) and upsetting norms of play. Sterling beautifully captures Fantasy Flight’s expertise at developing their own wonderful system of play, a card that both honors and overturns everything we know and love about Netrunner.