For Netrunner, the rules can only bend so far.
Netrunner is a beautiful game. Its theme resonates wonderfully throughout every set of cards, and the asymmetrical gameplay makes for a rare and deeply compelling power struggle between corporations and hackers. I love it, I really do, but I find myself unsatisfied with its lack of a distinct casual format, especially as a means of recruiting new players.
I have tried about a dozen times to get my friends into Netrunner. For a game that features punk rock hackers and corporations that create murderous sleeper clones, it’s a surprisingly difficult game to proselytize. The game is popular, absolutely, and those that get into it tend to border on the obsessive once they go all in, but making the game truly accessible to new players is difficult.
At first I thought it was just the identities that I was using to teach people and the sometimes strange cards in my decks. Years into the game, all the weird virus shenanigans of Noise makes sense to me. When I tutor a card using clone chip, I know exactly what I need and when I need it. For those new to any CCG, familiarity with the card pool is a daunting obstacle. It makes much more sense to learn a robust card game like Netrunner by using custom learning decks. These learning decks can cut away some of the more complex mechanics and leave the heart of the game intact.
Even so, of the five or so times that I’ve used learning decks, it’s impossible to dodge the question about the ever-expanding card pool. Why should someone get into Netrunner when the price of entry is so high? I inevitably counter by describing the game as a so-called Living Card Game. If you built a deck online, it’s absolutely feasible for you to only buy the subset of data packs that include the cards you need. But how do you know what you need in the first place? Where do you start as a new player? And if you play with someone constantly tweaking their own deck, given all the cards at hand, would it still be satisfying?
Increasingly I am finding more value in the Magic the Gathering experience than I thought that I would years after getting into Netrunner. Roughly this time last year I wrote about Commander, also called EDH, a casual Magic the Gathering format that revived my interest in the game. Commander is notable for its fairly extreme deviation from the normal Magic format. Instead of the usual 60 card deck, players construct a 99 card monstrosity without a single duplicate card save for basic lands. It’s a treat to play, which is why I now have an embarrassing collection of decks exclusively built for this format.
Playing a casual format like Commander must be a more appealing experience than diving head first into the traditional rules deep-end. Everyone is sort-of making it up as they go along, and no two games are alike. There’s a sense of frivolity built into the rules themselves, and players are rewarded for playing weird cards more than they’re rewarded for dominating their opponents. It’s not just Commander that mixes up how people new to Magic can participate. Tiny Leaders, casual drafts among friends, Two-Headed Giant, and Fat Stack offer alternative ways to introduce new players to the game without expecting their commitment to the deeper rules still present in the game.
Fantasy Flight released two draft sets for Netrunner, but it didn’t take off when most hardcore players already owned all the cards that they needed. The odds of getting duplicates is just too high to justify the steep cost of playing Netrunner draft. Fantasy Flight built a game so good that they constrained themselves from having the space to adapt and transform the fundamental way that we play it.
When you enter the world of Netrunner completely, there are numerous tools at your disposal for making fun and interesting choices. From the outside looking in though? I’m not so sure. Bending the rules is sometimes the best way to introduce someone to a game, but for Netrunner, the rules can only bend so far.