In Service of the Dark Lord AKA Fan Girl Freak Out

With UK Nationals and Worlds having been and now gone, signalling the end to the official FFG Netrunner season, I decided to look back at my results. Overall I ended up finishing top sixteen at UK Nationals and in all five regionals I competed in, the highlights being second place in Huddersfield and fourth at Reading. Consequently, I now feel confident enough in my results, consistency and achievements in the competitive side of the game to discuss my progression from being a fairly run of the mill newb, to Dark Lord’s apprentice and coming out the other side as now being half decent. Hopefully I can continue that upwards trend to become one of the best players in the UK.

It has been a fairly long road, not just in miles travelled around the world to tournaments (of which there have been many), but also what is probably months in real time of practice, soul destroying defeats in tournaments and countless evenings of being “Hoylanded”. I felt like I wanted to, and ought to, share my experiences and determined story for two reasons. Firstly I wanted to encourage those who are either new to the game and want to get competitive or have been playing awhile but want to take it more seriously. Secondly for my own sanity so I can look back at how much I’ve developed as a player.

Beginning–the art of begging and annoyance

For those of you who don’t know me, but frequent the tournament scene, I’m the one who’s usually with Dave Hoyland, my teacher and now deck testing/deck building partner. I first met Dave down at our local meta evening in February of last year. I had been playing the game for less than a month at the time, and had only really then been playing core set games. I’ve of always been a competitive person in whatever I have determined to be my particular vogue. I have an addictive personality type and if I’m going to do something I either do it properly or not at all.

I played a few games that evening both with my friend who had brought me and also some others who were there and managed to hold my own for the most part. I knew beforehand, that the UK national champion and top eight world’s competitor was there. It wasn’t hard to spot him with his twins “World Championship 2014” mat. We played a game towards the end of the evening – he absolutely wrecked me. What was worst about it was that it was quite apparent he wasn’t even trying. I’m not sure what most people’s reaction to that would have been, but I was hooked from that point on. I’m not sure how many times I emailed Dave on the forum the week after that – it was a lot. Every email was asking if he would consider teaching me so that I could to improve. Thankfully Dave is quite nice when it comes to giving out advice.

I like the theme of Netrunner; I love the mechanics, asymmetric nature and bluffing but what really keeps me coming back is the competition. The depth and skill to the game that allows for such a broad level of skilled competitors and play styles, for me, is what makes that competition so rewarding. I fully believe if you put in the time and effort in the right kind of way to get better at Netrunner, or whatever it is you are passionate about, then you will improve. I feel I am proof of that.

Help began just on our normal weekday meets up, but eventually grew in to more crushing defeats on weekdays evenings and online. I think once Dave realised I wasn’t going away any time soon, clearly not being discouraged losing 10-15 games in a night; he offered some more proactive improvement tips. At least I hope this is what it was rather than my ridiculously bad plays just wearing him down to the point of depression forcing action.

If you haven’t read Dave’s article on how to get better as a runner, then it’s here. I recommend you go and read it as it’s very good. All of the examples of what not to do are me…

The Basics

The first step on the road to improvement is knowing where your deficiencies lie. Mine, similarly to most new players, were the two main ones. The first too much focus on your own board state, and getting set up. The second is sticking to plan A.

Quite a lot of the games I played with Dave to begin with we would regularly stop and discuss the board state. He’d ask me what a card was in a remote server, or what I thought his next click was going to be. My answer was often I didn’t know because I was playing my game and no one else’s. Changing that thought process was incredibly difficult to begin with as I needed the time to think how I was going to get my rig set up, or score my first agenda. That lack of interaction is how you lose quite often, and how better players get an advantage. Say there is what I think is an agenda in a remote. I may not have the economy to go and get it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make him rez other ice to protect HQ or R&D and then the corporation may not have enough money to rez the remote ice. Additionally you’ll get a lot of free information from that interaction. Indeed, if they rez HQ ice even though money is tight, they are probably flooded. If they don’t then that’s also useful to know…. Run R&D. Example: if you are playing against ETF and there’s an unrezzed card in a remote, check it – if it’s a Jackson they’ll potentially fire a risk free Accelerated Beta Test. If you don’t check it, that lack of interaction and spending of three credits can cost you a game you might have otherwise won.

After developing a degree of this interaction, Dave insisted on sitting behind me during games against other people in testing. Looking at what I had in my hand he would make me talk out my entire turn, before I did anything. This is what you should do too, but this should never be set in stone. It should always be reactive. If your first turn is run and you see a scorch in a HB deck or you hit a snare, how does that change your game plan? If you draw first click in to the breaker you need, or an econ card how does that affect your decision. You should always have an objective and never waste a click. If you are drawing last click you have usually done it wrong!

Ultimately all of your turns should contribute to your overall goal of what you are trying to achieve. You might think “that’s obvious, I want to win the game”. I disagree with that. Yes you are obviously trying to win, but just saying that is not how you achieve that goal. There isn’t a formula for winning Netrunner – if there was I probably wouldn’t play the game. It’s about the board state and putting yourself in a position where statistically you are going to win more often than lose. I’m not going to go into the details on this point, because Noah Mckee who I met at worlds, wrote this article which explains it far better than I could.

When my tournament results first starting improving (I think I finished top twenty in a regional) I had done so with decks I’d gotten used to and have a very specific game plan (Prepaid Kate and Fastro Biotics). That was fine, but they are strong decks and so the result was essentially a false showing. Better players who see Prepaid Kate will put a lot of ICE on R&D as you’re going for big digs. But what if the game is in HQ or they rush out agendas in a remote? You shouldn’t always stick to plan A (this being big R&D digs for Prepaid Kate). You should also be considering what your opponent’s plan A is and what you can do to disrupt this. The more you can disrupt your opponent from what they want to do, the more chance you have of winning.

To work on improving this I would suggest you play out and try and win games with your decks without those key cards. For example, if you’re playing Kate chuck that Maker’s Eye in the bin; same goes for Account Siphon as Criminal. Can you win without them? Dave often reminds me how he won his national championship with a deck that had no multi access. Pure control and reading your opponent. If you can win on your plan C or D, which you will need to in those close games against the better players, then you’ll increase your chances of winning.

Knowing yourself

With these basics instilled I found myself winning a few of the smaller GNKs and making the top four cuts at the BABW (Bring Another Brit to Worlds) events from time to time, but never with any consistency, nor did I win any games in the cuts I played. This was more about being incredibly comfortable with my decks, knowing most of the match ups I was facing and a hell of a lot of practice. I was still losing games against the best players and, more frustratingly players who often bring janky decks to tournaments to catch people out and ultimately have fun.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of jank – some cards will always be in the binder for me and playing sub-optimal cards or combo decks just doesn’t make sense in my head in a game I ultimately am looking to win. They are just too inconsistent in terms of variance and don’t reward what I would deem to be good solid playstyle fundamentals. However, they will always have a place in the game and some of my close meta friends will always play them and they get a lot of enjoyment from it. Each to their own and I am not one to criticise, especially when I always bring and play the serious “try-hard” decks. People after all derive fun from different aspects of the game that is also an important point to recognise as a competitive player.

My inconsistency in tournaments around this time is something Dave pointed out to me as coming down to my first round of swiss match ups. If I played something janky that I didn’t understand, and lost as a result, I would be in jank land for the remainder of the day. However, if I played something that I knew and won, I would be towards the top of the swiss at the end of the day. I found this really difficult to overcome – solid fundamentals and card knowledge was the only response I got from Dave when I asked how he overcame these players.

I have probably watched Dave play Netrunner more than anyone else, save from himself. I often sit behind him during top end matches once I’ve been eliminated (I still do now). I don’t do this because I’m a massive fan girl, I do it to understand his thought processes and decision trees. To see if I would make the same play in the same situation and if he made a different play try to fathom why he made that play. The more I did this the more I became similar in terms of play style and making those solid plays allowing me to get the opportunities to win.

I imagine Dave probably had to learn to stick to solid fundamentals pretty quickly, and is better at doing it than anyone I know. Dave is obviously ridiculously well known within the tournament scene especially in the UK. There are only a handful of players I think who sit down opposite him and don’t either enter a mind dungeon or say to themselves “well I’ve probably lost this”. That may seem like an advantage, but I would say it isn’t. People will make risky, even stupid plays trying to catch him out – that’s something you have to take into account.

I remember a specific evening around this time that I spent deck testing with Dave. We played around ten games – I won every single one. Dave had taught me all the optimum plays, I would read the game in a similar style to him, make calculated risks and score or steal in a similar fashion. We even had to randomise psi games as the degree of one of us winning them all was verging on silly and not consistent with actual play. The next time we met up he slapped me. Not one single game was even close. He did it by playing like people play against him. He’d leave cards in naked remotes and then start slow roll advancing them a few turns later. Messed with my mind.

Consistency is key

A short while after we went to worlds. The highlight for me was finishing top ten in the icebreaker tournament a few days before the actual worlds event. I watched and played a lot of top level Netrunner in that week, and it was a spectacular achievement how well I had done I suppose, given I hadn’t even been playing Netrunner for a year at time. I came back with three main thoughts for improvement.

  • First, consistency is king.
  • Second, don’t pigeonhole myself and deck choices
  • Third, tilt and self confidence.

I am naturally a very aggressive Netrunner player, especially when I am playing as runner. When my friends see me playing a sit back and set up deck they can see I am bored. I always want to be running and getting in the corps face. I want to win quickly and brutally – that is when I am having the most fun. It’s probably not a surprise, therefore, that the two decks you’d associate with me are Prepaid Kate and Anatomy of Anarchy(Account Siphon spam in Anarch). This is a good thing, to a degree, and in certain circumstances better than being passive and timid. It does however lead to decisions sometimes where I would lose games that I really ought to have won.

One of the bigger things I have learnt from watching Dave in cuts of tournaments and matches is the degree of control he exercises. Dave has a reputation of being an aggressive player; he, like me, plays a lot of Account Siphon focused runner decks and kill decks on the corporation side. He really isn’t aggressive though, not in terms of risk taking and seeing a game out. Take for example a situation I had a UK nationals in the swiss. I am playing against BABW rush with kill. I have a Keyhole down and I am on six points, there is a Data Raven in front of R&D, nothing else. My opponent is on two points, he may or may not have Scorched Earth in hand, there is no Jackson Howard on the table. Now you may think “well you surely just take the tag’s through the data raven for three Keyholes and surely you’ll see the winning agenda”. While statistically this is probably true and I’d have been right there with you six months ago – but what happens if all the agendas are in HQ or I miss them with Keyhole and my opponent has two Scorched Earth in hand? I have lost a game I would probably have otherwise won. I keyholed once, cleared my tag having not seen the agenda I wanted and then furthered my board state. I won a couple of turns later.

Throughout games you will play there’s always the temptation, or at least in my case, to take an opportunity to win or close out the game if you have it. However, I will now consider my opponent’s board state and remember that in order for me to lose they actually have to win. If I run R&D with a The Maker’s Eye, spending all my money and seeing no agendas, I’ve now created a scoring window for the Corporation. Whereas if I wait and save my money that agenda is sitting in hand or they have to take a risk and install it. In short consider the reaction to your actions, and don’t give your opponent the help they need to close games you would otherwise have won.

Pigeon-holing and deck choices: I like a specific type of deck style and certainly have favourite factions, but I was always concerned that I was essentially a one trick pony. There are seven factions (plus mini-factions) in the game. The naturally changing state of an LCG will result in power shifts towards some factions over others. Remaining doggedly within one faction and playing only a certain type of deck will lead to inconsistency, depending on whether your beloved faction is at the top or bottom of the power tree. Further, each faction and even runners have remarkably different playstyles and weaknesses. After placing second in my first ever store championship and the impending doom of the MWL 1.0 at that time I decided to bite the bullet and spend my time familiarising myself with decks I would not normally play. I played Criminal for my first three regionals this year as a result, something that would have terrified me a few months before having only played Shaper and Anarch for as long as I had been playing.

The first set of games I played with Leela were painful and slow. I took a similar build out of Nero to an underdog GNK and I think I won two entire games in the tournament. It was pretty embarrassing, but I persevered and stuck with it. I placed in the top sixteen at three regionals playing Leela as my runner. Moreover, the change in style of thinking playing a different faction promotes is something that has helped my game overall. Playing as corp when sitting against criminal now I understand what is difficult for them and what their weaknesses are, and when I’m playing as a runner I am now more able to predict ice, or use tricks and plays to gain the end result that I am after.

Confidence and tilt: I don’t want this article to come across like a version of look at me I’m the finished article, when in truth I’m far from it. It’s an on-going process and always will be. If you stop moving forward that just gives those behind the chance to catch up. With that in mind, I suffer really badly from tilt. I hate losing, especially to bad luck when I’ve made the correct decisions. There are some game losses you can simply do nothing about. My problem sometimes in tournaments is when I lose a game I get fixated on it and can’t stop thinking about it and this often spirals out of control. This happened to me at worlds where I went from 7-1 to 8-8 and I don’t remember what happened in many of those games. I don’t really have an answer to tilt – if you have any thoughts do let me know! My main advice and coping mechanism is to take a friend with you, go outside, vent, but then put it to bed. You’ll only make it worse if you don’t.

It may seem like I love playing competitive Netrunner, and I do, but it also wrecks my mental state. I can never sleep after a tournament, replaying misplays and results. I care about my reputation of being a good player and the results of the games I play. Confidence is very swingy for me because of it, and it is still something I struggle with. I try and put this energy in to something constructive like more testing and practice but sometimes that’s not always easy to do especially in a tournament. Like I said you need a tournament buddy – Dave gets it and that’s why I travel and play with him. I very rarely go to a tournament without him. If he isn’t there we’re usually talking on IM.

Final thoughts

Now you may have gotten to the end of this and be thinking “well I’m motivated and want to get better, but I don’t have one of the best players in the world to teach me”. Now this is true, I have been very lucky to have Dave to teach me, but I have a few suggestions of what you can do in addition to the above considerations I’ve already spoken about:

  • Find a deck testing/practice partner – Make sure they want to achieve similar goals and you can play together a lot. The easiest thing to do is play a lot of games, but good games. You both need to be playing sensible decks and wanting to improve.
  • Talk your plays out loud – this may seem stupid, but it allows a verbalisation of what you should be considering and allows you to start thinking in the right way. “I’m installing this ICE in front of HQ because I’m flooded”, “I’m going to money up so I can Sneakdoor Beta next turn”. Try it, and play around it you’ll find the experience similar to playing against top players as they will read that verbalised board state. It works, really.
  • Discuss the games you have played – Try different play styles. Get feedback from the people you play helps a lot, if they play against you a lot they will have a good idea of where you are strong and weak.
  • Take “try hard” decks – The easiest get-out for not performing well at a tournament is to say “I’m playing jank”. Bad players take those types of decks to avoid embarrassment to talk about the one game it worked. You can’t do that if you take good decks. But stand there and want to win, you’ll learn more from losing with good decks and it’ll help you win more in the future. Trust me I’ve lost a lot.
  • Go to tournaments – seems obvious but the best way you’re going to learn is by playing in a lot of tournaments. It reduces nerves, you encounter different play styles and you get to see the best players.
  • Watch competitive Netrunner – whether that’s games online or the top cuts. Now when I say watch it, look at the plays they make, consider why they are making them, and try to replicate them in your games.
  • Frequent deck- building sites (e.g. NetrunnerDB, Meteor, Acoo) and read every card in new packs as you get them – The competitive scene is a fast evolving one and decks will appear out of nowhere. Don’t get blindsided. Dave and I will regularly just sleeve up a new deck and play a few games just so we know how it works and how to break it.
  • Have fun! – You’ll play better and if you’re relaxed. Easy to say having written 4,000 words on getting better at a children’s card game. If you’re investing a lot of time and effort in it you need to be enjoying yourself.
  • Talk to better players – Ask for advice. Everyone I know in the UK I would consider a top tier player is genuinely really nice and will offer their time and help. I like helping people get better – more competition means more fun.