Push Your Luck – Entering the World of Competitive Netrunner

I can still remember how intimidated I was going to my first competitive Netrunner tournament. I’d seen they were happening on a monthly basis at the local games store, and I had some friends who played, but the idea of spending a day playing against people I didn’t know – all of which I knew would be better, smarter, and more cunning than me – and getting crushed in game after game filled me with a kind of existential dread that I am sure a lot people would recognise.

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What made me get over that initial fear and sign up for the event was the Chronos Protocol Tour – and I wanted to vote on which ID I wanted to get printed, and for that, I had to play in the tournament. I turned up with decks I had designed myself, having never read a single article about Netrunner online, never looked at someone else’s decklist, never read a tournament report. I went in expecting to lose every game on the day.

But I didn’t. I won a couple of games and had a lot of fun; the gulf between my expectation of the event and the reality was as wide a gap as I could ever have believed. Having played in some competitive Magic:The Gathering events, my visions of shark-eyed ‘pros’ scoffing as I installed cards they wouldn’t dream of playing, followed by them dismantling me and rolling their eyes as they left me crushed, were washed away. Instead what I found was a friendly, welcoming, but definitely competitive group of people who were thrilled to see new players entering the local scene.

With the recent announcement of FFG’s NAPD Most Wanted List shaking up the established decks, and the beginning of Store Championship season upon us, there might never be a better time for you to overcome your fears and take the plunge into competitive play. Still not convinced? Then let me try and debunk some myths about these events, give some tips for how to approach your first tournament, and what you should do and where you should go once your first event is over.

The Myths

Here in Sheffield, the group of Netrunner players seems to widen every month, and some of these concerns are things people have mentioned to me as reasons why they haven’t, or are worried about, playing in a tournament.

“There’s so many technical rules in Netrunner I don’t know, I’m going to get disqualified because I did something wrong I didn’t know about”

lawyer-upThis is something I have heard from more than a few people – a perception that entering a tournament is going to be a minefield of unknown or misunderstood rules where, and when you say something nonsensical like “I flip my Jackson facedown in Archives”, instead of a puzzled look from your opponent, instead your opponent calls a judge and Rules Lawyers you out of the event for something you didn’t even know was a mistake.

The reality is than in 16 months of regular tournament attendance, including Regional and National Championships, I have seen only a handful of judge calls, and none of them resulted in disqualification. I have seen one game loss in an event, and the person in question volunteered to take it when they realised they had an illegal deck by mistake.

The people who you play against, especially if you mention this is your first tournament in the pre-game setup chit-chat, will all either be just as inexperienced as you, or remember their first tournament experience and be generous and sympathetic to your rules concerns. 95% of rules disputes can often be walked back at the table without the need to call a Tournament Organiser or judge to make a ruling. If you do have a rules query, a concern, or something doesn’t look right to you, each event should have someone knowledgeable and neutral on-hand to resolve these kind of disputes. Despite not having an official judges program, every event you go to should have any number of people who can cite chapter and verse the rules, ruling, or timing issue you are trying to straighten out.

the foundryThat’s not to say you should walk into a tournament having only skimmed the rulebook once – if you are planning on playing in any kind of competition, having a core understanding of the rules should be part of your preparation. However, as long as you understand the basics, anything up to a Store Championship level should mean that your opponents aren’t going to react too harshly to any missteps you make. It’s not until you reach the highly competitive climate of Regionals and Nationals that you need to have internalised all the rules, but I wouldn’t recommend making a Regionals or Nationals your first taste of competitive Netrunner either.

So go out there, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You are going to encounter rulings that seem counter to what you think must be true (I can still remember first encountering the The Foundry-Accelerated Beta Test interaction in a game against World’s Top 16 player Gary “evilgaz” Bowerbank and spending the rest of the game thinking “that can’t be right” as he trounced me in the first of what would become several encounters between us), but at the same time you are going to learn a lot about how some of the stranger corners of the game function, get a better understanding of some of the timings and wrinkles in Netrunner play, and you’re definitely not going to get thrown out of the event for any of it.

“The card pool is huge and intimidating! I don’t know what every card does, and I can’t learn all 800+ cards before an event. I am going to lose to something I’ve never even seen before!”

Yes, Netrunner has a big card pool. There are a lot of options out there. However, a lot of movies get made every year, but I bet you could take a decent stab at naming a bunch of high profile movie releases from 2015.

Someone brought this up with me during a regular casual Netrunner night in the Pub in Sheffield where I play, and it got me thinking. I contacted FFG Data guru and Netrunner player Jaffer Battica (@jafferbatica), who was compiling some data from the Top 16 of Worlds, and based on the top 16 decks featured at World’s this year, only 73 different Corp cards and 84 different Runner cards were played over all those decks – a far less intimidating number of cards to be familiar with, especially when several of the greatest hits are no doubt cards you have come across already.

hard-at-workIf you are here, reading this article, you’ve already found a great resource for familiarising yourself with what cards you might reasonably expect to see – the internet is full of fantastic guides to the world of competitve Netrunner, from this fine website, to Netrunnerdb.com (especially its ability to search for decks which placed highly at tournaments), to Stimhack, as well as plenty of video content on youtube provided by channels like Facecheck and NeoReading Grid, and a raft of excellent Netrunner themed Podcasts like RunLastClick, Terminal7 and The Winning Agenda, all of which can give you a leg up on your understanding of the cards you are likely to see across the table from you.

But if all that sounds like too much hard work, the real secret is – you don’t need to have memorised the text on every common card to play in a competitive environment. You’ll have plenty of time to read cards as they are played, and while knowing what cards you might expect your opponent to be holding, or have installed over their servers can be the key to winning games, that’s something that you will pick up naturally as you continue to play. Every game, win or loss, is a lesson in what is possible as you start your journey into the competitive scene.

“Everyone is just going to show up with these unbeatable decks from the internet and I am going to get crushed with my home made deck all day”

No-one, especially not me, is going to tell you that there aren’t going to be people at these events who are playing decks which are currently popular. But no deck plays itself, no deck has perfect draws, and no deck is guaranteed a win over any other. Player skills factors as much into the outcome of a game as the composition of cards in your deck, so as long as your deck contains the basics it needs to win (like a suite of breakers in a Runner deck, a way to score agendas and/or kill your opponent in a Corp deck) then you stand at least some chance against everyone you sit down opposite on the day.

near-earth-hubOf course, there’s nothing to stop you looking at one of those resources I mentioned above, or just asking the local players in your area about what is strong, and bringing a competitive list from the internet yourself. There is absolutely no shame in ‘netdecking’, people are not going to judge you harshly, throw stones at you, or run you out of their store on a rail if you bring Prepaid Kate and NEH Fast Advance to a competitive event – you can be sure you will not be the only one there making those kinds of decisions.

So whether you take a home brewed list or a known archetype, there isn’t a game you should feel you have lost as soon as you sit at the table. Good, experienced players might still beat you, but your deck choices shouldn’t.

“I don’t really know what I am doing! What if I do something wrong at the tournament?”

It’s pretty hard to mess up attending a tournament. Turn up on time, take two legal decks, wait for your opponent to be named each round, play them, then tell the tournament organiser the score, repeat until the end. There is no dark secret or arcane initiation to tournament structure. All you need to do is play who you get told to play, and let the tournament organisers take care of the complicated ranking and record keeping part.

“I just can’t take the pressure of playing in a tournament!”

I had someone say this to me a couple of weeks ago and it really threw me for a loop. Because in reality, the only pressure that exists in tournaments is the pressure you put on yourself. The first time you attend a tournament, the other players aren’t going to look at you and go “Hey you! Unless you come at least 5th in this event, you are banished forever from our presence!”. If you enjoy playing Netrunner, then attending a tournament should be exactly as much pressure as you feel when you play with your friends. You might have some tense games, you might get invested in the result, but the only thing expected of you by the other attendees is that you come and play.

Think of it as like the Netrunner equivalent of Speed Dating – you pay a little money to attend, you get to meet and play a bunch of new people. The difference here, is you also get prizes for participating, something that I think Speed Dating is lacking.

Fine, I’ll do it! – Attending your first tournament

OK, if I’ve convinced you it’s not going to be a scary as you thought, here’s a few useful tips for your first tournament.

Before you show up, make decklists for both the decks you are taking, and compare the lists to the actual physical cards in each deck. That’s a good way to make sure you’re not missing any key cards, and that your deck is legal (in terms of influence and card numbers etc).

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Tournaments can be long days – especially Store Championships, which can take up to 6-7 hours to finish. Have a good breakfast if you can, because sometimes lunchtimes are short and its not easy to get a decent lunch, and take something to drink throughout the day as well – you’ll be surprised how much energy you can expend playing Netrunner, and being well fed and hydrated throughout the day will stop you feeling sluggish and miserable as the day goes on.

If possible, try and take a tournament buddy. It’s always useful to have someone to trade war stories with between rounds, review decisions you’ve made, or just blow off steam with. If you are going on your own, you can always ask the Tournament Organiser to introduce to the people who are waiting for the event to start and talk with them – it’s possible you’re not the only new player, or you might just get talking with someone else playing throughout the day.

Don’t get too stressed or overly invested when you are playing. Politeness and good sportsmanship generally have been hallmarks of the Netrunner community – in 16 months of competitive play, I’ve never had a bad, surly, or abusive opponent, and it’s that part of the game which keeps many people coming back to competitive events having left other, perhaps less friendly competitive games.

Finally, set yourself a reasonable goal for the day. I ran a community event in November last year where we had several people for whom it was their first event, and I know at least 2 of them came into the event with the goal of winning at least one game (which they both did). Even if your goal is just to meet people, see some different decks in action, or find out about the larger netrunner scene in your area, try and have something you want to accomplish on the day. However, remember to keep it realistic – going into your first tournament thinking “I’ll only be happy if I come first or second” is probably only going to leave you frustrated and give you a negative experience. (unless you are a Netrunner Prodigy, or you’re participating in a 2 man tournament).

Tournament Fever – When is the next one?

After you’ve had your first, hopefully positive, Netrunner tournament experience, you might find yourself wanting to dive deeper into the competitive scene. You’ve come away with some prizes, some new friends, and a desire to go back and do better than you did last time. So what do you do next?

Reach out to the community of players you just met, through social media or casual netrunner meetups, and ask them about upcoming events. Sometimes you’ll find a group from your local area who travel around to other tournaments nearby, and you can join in on some Netrunner Road Trips, with a pre-arranged set of tournament buddies ready to roll into someone else’s town and take on their players. Most areas will have some kind of website/Facebook group/social media thing surrounding their local scene where details of upcoming events will be available for you to search. For FFG’s more organised play events, you can find listings of every Store Championship, Regional, and National event on their website.

Look out for people posting details of community-organised events near you on places like this fine website (if you are in the UK), Stimhack, or other Netrunner larger community forums. If you’re lucky, there might be a New Player Only community tournament being organised in your area, and if not, ask your local Tournament Organiser to see if people might be interested in one – you never know your luck.

Hopefully some time in 2016 I’ll be hosting a New Players Tournament here in Sheffield, as well as a second outing for my Charity Gift tournament later in the year. If you’ve still not taken the competitive plunge by then, get in touch, and I’ll make sure to save you a place.

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