Defining Fairness: My Vision for a Healthy Metagame

As everyone who reads my content should know, I am an unwavering proponent of Fair Netrunner. For those of you who have not yet figured out that Battle of Wits was satire, it should be clear that I only champion decks that I believe embrace just and true Netrunner as it ought to be played. I often scold people for playing with Personal Evolution shell game, Blackmail Spam, CI7, and other combos and gimmicks. It is my belief that the death of a game comes when players feel that to be competitive they must subvert one or more facet of the game’s core mechanics.

There has been much debate in the community lately around what makes a deck fair or unfair, overpowered or not, or if fairness and power even have anything to do with each other. I like to think of fair and Unfair decks as components of a meal. The fair decks are the meat and potatoes, the Unfair ones are the spices and seasoning. You need some unfair decks to keep things interesting and exciting, but with no fair component, a Meta just becomes an unpalatable mound of spice. Additionally, some spices are just too strong or aggressive for most people, and the presence of even one of these can ruin the whole dish.

For this reason, I think a good rule of a healthy, diverse meta is:

There should be numerous options for unfair strategies, but they should all be limited in their unfairness. There must always be multiple fair options for each side at the top tier of competitive play.

What makes a deck unfair?

The unfair decks are the ones that provoke these reactions from their opponents:

“How am I supposed to stop that?”

“I didn’t feel like anything I did mattered.”

“My decisions felt pretty random this game.”

“I didn’t feel like I had any control over how this game went.”

“I don’t think I could win after how the first few turns went.”

“Do you ever run?/Do you ever try to score out?”

“Do you even have any Ice/Icebreakers in that deck?”

“Don’t show that to a new player, they might get the wrong impression about the game.”

“That didn’t feel like Netrunner…”

I’ve tried to take the emotions behind these statements and concretize them into a few core tenets of the game. These are statements about how the game should be played so that it feels fair and pure. Remember that violating one of these is OK, just so long as a deck does not do so to an unacceptable extent, and that multiple competitive options exist that do not violate any.

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Non-Interactivity is Unfair

The most impactful plays should involve decisions made by both players. You should feel like you care what your opponent does on their turn and they should care about what you do on yours.

mushin

High Impact Hidden Information is Unfair

Players should be able to use hidden information to create advantages, but a single piece of hidden information should be limited in its impact, especially if high impact instances can be created frequently.
sensiewyld

 

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game, is Unfair

Players should be able to make meaningful decisions and leverage their skill before a random occurrence determines or strongly influences the outcome of the game. Opening hand strength should be of minimal importance.

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Ignoring Large portions of card-types/game actions is Unfair

Players attempting to play a simple strategy should not feel like their deck contains an overwhelming number of useless cards. Players should feel like, although some cards are more effective against a given strategy than others, most of their deck will be relevant every game. Corp decks should, to some extent, attempt to protect servers and score agendas. Runner decks should attempt to make runs and steal agendas.

To illustrate these metrics, I will now go through several competitive archetypes that have been present in the game over the last 2 years, rating each of them. I accept that my ratings are purely executive and that you may disagree by 1 point here or there, but this should still give some semblance of objectivity to the question of whether a deck is unfair. I also know that I have not covered every competitive deck, but I leave it as an exercise for you to rate whatever you feel I’ve left out for yourself.

For each category above, I will give a rating of 1 to 4 for each deck:

1: Acceptable

2: Potentially Frustrating

3: Often Frustrating

4: Unhealthy

Totaling the 4 categories gives the deck’s overall rating:

7 or Lower: Fair (We need at least a few of these to be viable for each side)

8-10: Unfair (These are OK, if they are not obviously better than all fair options)

11 or Higher: Too spicy (These decks can exist, and are cool to see occasionally, but should never be commonplace at top tier play. When one makes the cut, we should feel excited by it as a rare occurrence, not roll our eyes saying “not again…”)

Remember that these final categorizations are still based on a spectrum. A deck coming in at a 7 may still feel unfair to many players, whereas a deck coming in even as high at 10 may seem fair to those with a high tolerance. These are just rough guidelines.

Corp Side

24/7 Boom SYNC

A 24/7 combo deck that tags and kills the runner without a trace (or even a run), while hiding behind extremely difficult to handle tag ice. Essentially never scores non-2/1 agendas.

Non-interactivity – 4

Impact of Hidden information – 2

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game- 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdict: Too Spicy

 

Power Shutdown Boom Combo

A Combo deck that uses Power Shutdown, Accelerated Diagnostics, and 24/7 to Boom the runner extremely quickly.

Non-interactivity – 4

Impact of Hidden information – 3

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game- 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdict: Too Spicy

 

CtM Tempo Tag

A rush/tempo deck that uses the pressure of must-trash assets alongside the Controlling the Message ID to keep the runner at bay while it rushes agendas and disrupts the runner’s board and credit pool with Breaking News.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 4

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 2

Verdict: Unfair

 

Mushin PE

Uses Mushin No Shin to create high-variance situations that are weighted to favor the Corp. Attempts to hold off central server pressure with the threat of a net-damage flatline.

Non-interactivity – 2

Impact of Hidden information – 4

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 3

Verdict: Too Spicy

 

Russian NEH

An extremely fast Near-Earth Hub deck that uses Team Sponsorship to chain agenda-scores together, and a multitude of assets to stress the runner’s clicks and early-game economy.

Non-interactivity – 2

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 3

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

CI 7-Point Shutdown

A Combo deck that uses Power Shutdown and Accelerated Diagnostics to score 7 points in a single turn.

Non-interactivity – 4

Impact of Hidden information – 3

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdict: Too Spicy

 

Astrobiotics (Historical, Post Clot, Pre MWL)

A rush deck that uses Biotic Labor and Sansan City Grid to safely Fast Advance an Astroscript Pilot Program, chaining into more Astroscrips for a quick and inexpensive 7 points, often without ever putting Ice on a remote server. Thought to be too fast and resilient.

Non-interactivity – 3

Impact of Hidden information – 2

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 3

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 2

Verdict: Unfair (Pre-clot this deck certainly scores far higher)

 

Standard Palana Foods

This deck leverages the interaction of Caprice Nisei and Nisei Mk 2 to create a very secure remote server powered by the reliable economy provided by the Palana Foods identity and high impact operations.

Non-interactivity – 2

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

Foodcoats

Uses Breaker Bay Grid + HB Campaigns to generate a huge amount of money to rez several mid-range ice and score out with Ash and/or Caprice.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

HB Fast Advance

Uses never-advance tactics and burst economy to sneak out 1-2 agendas, then closes the game with Biotic Labor.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

RP Glacier

Use the economy engine of Sundew to rez several pieces of taxing ice, eventually scoring out with the Caprice Nisei + Nisei Mk2 Combo that makes a remote server nearly impossible to access.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

Blue sun Bootcamp Glacier

A Glacier deck that uses the economy engines of Oversight AI and Adonis Campaign to create an extremely taxing Ash server that the runner cannot afford to run more than once. Often audibles into a rush strategy against decks that it cannot tax in the late-game.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

IG 54 (Historical, although MUCH weaker versions are still being attempted)

A prison deck that uses Mumbad City Hall to repeatedly search for assets and Heritage committee, allowing it to quickly assemble a lock of Bio-Ethics Associations and Hostile Infrastructures protected by the Industrial Genomics ability. Thought to be too powerful, unfun, and non-interactive.

Non-interactivity – 4

Impact of Hidden information – 2

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdict: Too Spicy

 

IG49

A combo kill deck that uses a combination of Psychic Field, Ronin, Bio-Ethics Association, and Chairman Hiro to flatline the runner. The Industrial Genomics ability forces the runner to spend clicks and cards building credits, rather than just checking every new server for kill pieces.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 2

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 3

Verdict: Unfair

Runner Side

Blackmail Spam Valencia

A control deck that uses Blackmail and Rumor Mill to lock the Corp’s remote while it sets up large Medium digs. Often played with Account Siphon as well to create another angle of attack.

Non-interactivity – 3

Impact of Hidden information – 2

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdict: Unfair

 

Dyper

A Kate deck that uses the Ddos, False Echo combo along with 3 Hyperdrivers to Keyhole the win in a single turn.

Non-interactivity – 4

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 3

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdict: Too Spicy

 

Andysucker

A tempo-oriented Criminal deck that uses the Anarch Icebreaker suite to invalidate cheap ice, and economic pressure to keep larger ice from being rezzed.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

AggroCrim

Aggressive criminal, played usually out of Gabe but possibly out of Andy or Ken, that Siphons aggressively and floats tags against all Corps with no punishment. Aims to keep the Corp in the early game until it can score 7 points, often with no solid plan for late-game.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 2

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

SiphonWhiz/Hate Bear

Use Ddos and Faust to land early Account Siphons, crippling the Corp and pounding them with Medium digs before they can set up a board-state that can stop the momentum of Obellus-power Faust runs.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 4

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 3

Verdict: Unfair

 

Temujin/Reg-ass Whizzard

Uses Temujin Contract to build credits quickly and Anarch Icebreakers with Datasucker and Ice Carver to invalidate most problematic ice.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

Dumblefork

Uses Whizzard and a critical mass of Ice destruction to continually rewind the Corp’s board-state. Powered by the Wyldside Adjusted Chronotype draw engine and Faust as essentially its only breaker.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 3

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 3

Verdict: Unfair

 

Stealth Shaper

Played out of Smoke or Kate, this deck aims to set up a stealth rig powered by recurring credits, allowing it to break into either the remote, R&D, or both, for close to 0 credits.

Non-interactivity – 2

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

DLR Maxx

A tag-me deck that aims to break the Corp with Account Siphon recursion and close the game by installing a Data Leak Reversal set-up that the Corp cannot afford to trash.

Non-interactivity – 2

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 3

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdict: Unfair

 

DLR Val (Historical)

Similar to DLR Maxx, but with no Wireless Net Pavilion errata in place yet, and with the additional remote pressure of Blackmail.

Non-interactivity – 3

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 3

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 4

Verdit: Too Spicy

 

Prepaid Kate (Historical)

The classic Shaper. Apply pressure to scoring servers with Self-Modifying Code, efficient specialty breakers, and burst economy. Punish Centrals with The Maker’s Eye, Legwork, or Indexing when the Corp is forced to overextend to score safely.  Thought to be too flexible and universal.

Non-interactivity – 1

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 1

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 1

Verdict: Fair

 

Wyldcakes Noise (Historical)

Install “Exodia” (Wyldside, Adjusted Chronotype, and Aesop’s Pawnshop) and use the disruptive viruses it supplies and pays for to force the Corp to protect their board-state rather than score. Eventually win with Noise’s ability if the Corp does not score out quickly enough.  Thought to be too difficult for the Corp to interact with.

Non-interactivity – 3

Impact of Hidden information – 1

High Variance, Especially Early in the Game – 2

Large portion of card-types/game actions ignored – 3

Verdict: Unfair

Hopes and Dreams

Now that I’ve provided a multitude of examples of fair and unfair decks, I can present my vision for a healthy Netrunner Metagame. Ideally a top 8 cut at a healthy tournament would have:

4 Fair decks (best if they are not all the same)

3 Unfair decks (better if they are all different from each other)

1 Very Spicy deck

Now let’s look at the worlds top 8 cut from 2016 and see how close we came (The tournament had a top 16, but lists are not readily available for all the decks that placed 9-16. Feel free to track them down yourself.)

Corp: 6 Unfair, 2 Spicy

Runner: 3 Fair, 5 Unfair

This is pretty far from what we would like to see. Now let’s look at 2015:

Corp: 6 Fair, 2 Unfair

Runner: 4 Fair, 2 Unfair, 2 Spicy

Even without the Most Wanted List to reign in power, and with Wireless Net Pavilion un-fixed, 2015 was a fairer Metagame than 2016 (It did still have a diversity problem, but this is easier to fix with the printing of new cards than a fairness problem). This shift happened for a few reasons. First, aside from Astroscript Pilot Program, all the cards on the original Most Wanted List were cards that enabled fair strategies! The second Most Wanted List certainly included more unfair cards like Faust and Wyldside, but the damage had already been done, since fair strategies often rely on their influence to import win-conditions, while unfair decks exist that can run on close to no influence. Second, so many powerful runner hate cards have been printed, nearly all targeting Corporation Win-conditions, that every fair deck in the game right now has at least one extremely problematic match-up. For more on this, check out Kenny Deakins’ Stimhack article on the subject:

Kenny’s Article

Conclusion

A lot of people have asked when I am going to write my next deck article and the truth is: I can’t. I have not been able to make a successful new fair deck on either side since Sleeper Hold (which is actually even better now than when I wrote about it). Until something fundamental changes about the current environment, you probably wont be hearing much from me on this platform…

I’m not here to propose that any action be taken, just to provide a foundation to have a discussion around. Can you build fair Corporation decks that can survive in the current environment? Do you agree with my assessment that the presence of fair decks is necessary to the health of the game? Do you just want me to just brew toxic nonsense and post it here? What, if anything, do you think should be done?

Thanks for reading.

-TheBigBoy

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5 thoughts on “Defining Fairness: My Vision for a Healthy Metagame

  1. Wow! What a BRILLIANT article!
    Since some months ago I’ve been thinking about this feeling of “unfair” (and frustrating) games and you have perfectly described it! Not only that you, you have provided “objective” arguments for it.
    Kudos, sir!

    Like

  2. Thank you for articulating the somewhat random noise distracting me from enjoying Netrunner the way I used to when I first started brewing up decks. Thankfully my tiny local meta is a healthy, diverse collection of Timmy/Johnny/Spike (Tammy/Jenny/Star?) but even that has seen the power creep of netdecking as one or two are drawn to the unholy lure of stomping our friendly weekly meetup or monthly tournament with their bullshit CtM and Hatebear. As great a resource as Jnet is, it certainly doesn’t forster the kind of player experience (for the most part) that I envisioned for this amazing game.

    I guess I’m feeling disappointed that the high-end game is headed in a direction that I’m uncomfortable going towards. I miss the days when I would look at a pack and see all sorts of weird and wonderful opportunities. Now I see a handful of cards that make me shudder and think “I don’t want to play with that, but it’ll be in every deck I see on Jinteki and NRDB, what do I do?” When a card gets printed that becomes an auto-include across every faction and every archetype, there’s no interesting decision involved in that… and that’s what Netrunner used to be about, at least for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very good read! Thank you for sharing your very organised thoughts. It’s music to my ears and I really like your rating system.
    Spoiler, this reply comes from a newb who doesn’t own all the data packs (almost there), is not English native speaker, and play very little outside of their own meta. You’ve been warned!

    Now, I’m in two minds about the overall point of your post.
    1/ I fully agree with the healthy Worlds’ concept. Because I’m so far from reaching that level 😉 and it wouldn’t be fun to watch all top tier players playing the same unfair decks. There is no question about that.
    2/ I also perfectly understand the frustration coming from playing against the kind of spicy decks you’re listing. I play in a very small meta where my opponents take the best rated decks on NRDB while I’m trying my best to try new ideas and to design my own decks from scratch. So you can imagine how many games I’ve lost 🙂 But in this process I humbly feel that it made me a better deckbuilder. Every time I build a new deck I think “what if this combo comes back?”, “how can I prevent this to happen to me again?”. Not to say I’m putting a Swordsman in every corp nor a Plascrete in every runner but at least I try to create decks that can deal with most kind of opponents. And yes, it’s not always sufficient but after a few years of that treatment, fighting against all sorts of spicy decks, I have the feeling I improved. I actually just started some win streaks on Jin.net and in my small meta. So the “unfairness” of their decks was good for me in a sense, right?
    Going a step in your direction though, by trying not to get hammered down by those decks, I ended up creating way too spicy decks myself. One of them you sort of listed above (Valencia/Rebirth/Omar/BM/En passant/DDOS/SOT/AS/Medium/Nerve Agent). It’s evil! I was very happy at first as I managed to win a lot. Now I read your post and I almost feel bad I came up with it… But if a meta was to play this deck often, everyone would put some bad pub removal cards, or play more Jinteki corps, or revive biorid efficiency research, or, or, or,… This deck is not immuned to losing and with a little bit of tweaking it can become completely useless. Isn’t that the point of having an evolving meta or an MWL or printing new cards?

    Sorry If my rumbling shows my lack of expertise in NR but as someone who got slammed so many times by those decks I still love this game so much that I’m willing to put the effort to slam them back with all I’ve got. Maybe I won’t feel the same after playing for 10 years and seeing those kind of decks over and over again.

    Thanks again for showing me an angle I hadn’t thought about before. I’ll try and use your system when I create new decks.

    Like

  4. great article, and I couldn’t agree more (well, a few of your numbers for the deck you like seem a bit generous, but I believe your point stands regardless).

    I took a break from competitive Netrunner last May when my son was born, assuming I would get back to it once I had more time/he was old enough for a babysitter. I have to say though, just from following releases and new directions in the meta, I realized how much I had already come to be frustrated by a game I once un-ironically presented to friends as “the absolute best game I have ever played.”

    I think the source of this drift comes from the fact that in the beginning, the game was primarily about optimization: everyone was doing essentially similar things (get past ICE and into servers/score agendas one at a time) with just a few fun or wacky exceptions (early green meat damage decks, early noiseshop virus mill decks).

    The issues arose when FFG realized that many players are bad at/frustrated by games that are purely about mathamatical optimization, and began releasing cards that were aimed at being interesting “workarounds” to the basic mechanics. The problem, of course, was as you describe above: if something lets your “workaround” a huge portion of the cardpool (like ICE for example) then it will always be better to min/max *that* strategy than to stick with the so-called standard decks.

    Do you think that this issue can still be addressed with a ban list, or are we too far gone? before my hiatus I was having a blast with your “BB45” format which seemed to solve many of these problems (in a way that the limp MWL did not). Is this still a viable solution or do these problem cards permeate too much of the cardpool to be truly addressed with a concise ban list?

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  5. Very interesting analysis, especially as the fair decks you listed didn’t neccessarily always interset with ‘fun’. RP was completely soulcrushing, Fastro could at least be exciting. I’m not sure how you’re categories capture effects like Yog, Caprice, or Siphon spam but I agree on the fundamentals.

    What do you make of Consulting Visit Weyland decks, or Stinson decks? I’m not sure whether they count as fair, but if so then they seem to be as good a shot as fair corps have right now.

    Like

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