Now that it’s been long enough since the release of the latest Netrunner banned and restricted list for better players than myself to express their opinions on it, I shall spend a few pages stroking my chin and pretending I’m as smart as they are. First I’ll talk about each change individually, what the intention behind it was, whether I think it will have the effect the designers intended, and what other effects it will have on the meta. Next I’ll go over how I think the competitive meta will shake out based on these changes.
As a preamble, I must say I appreciated the detailed reasoning behind each choice which Michael Boggs gave in the article announcing the update. It has reassured me that a lot of thought went into each choice, and, most importantly, it is a first step towards correcting FFG’s greatest flaw: terrible communication. A tad more about that at the end.
For anyone who hasn’t heard yet (or has forgotten), the changes are as follows:
Rumor Mill – unbanned, now restricted
Tapwrm – restricted
Brain Rewiring – restricted
Mother Goddess – restricted
Whampoa Reclamation – restricted
Mumbad City Hall – unbanned, now restricted
Violet Level Clearance – removed (banned)
Let’s look at each change in a bit more detail:
Rumor Mill: Possibly the most hated card in the Flashpoint cycle has been removed from the Removed list and restricted to the Restricted list (try to keep up). This is possibly the biggest shock, and the most controversial item in this update. Having read Mr. Boggs’s reasons for doing so, however, I’m reassured that there is sound reasoning behind this, and he didn’t just decide one morning that he was sick of the community moaning one day and say “You think the game is unbalanced? I’ll SHOW you unbalanced!” Rather, it is a calculated response to the best corp decks’ reliance on unique assets and upgrades such a MCA Austerity Policy and Bryan Stinson. These cards being blanked by Rumor Mill provides a counter which runners can opt for if those corps continue to be dominant.
Exactly why Stinson and/or MCAAP weren’t restricted themselves, instead of RM being unbanned, I am uncertain. When the Banned & Restricted list was first introduced, there were some suggestions that an effort was made to keep the number of cards on it low, though whether this was due to pressure from FFG management is unclear. Unbanning one card is certainly more elegant than restricting two, and RM would certainly be a very hard counter to Reversed-Stinson CI. Perhaps they were also unwilling to hit the Worlds-winning CI deck even more considering Violet Level Clearance is now banned, but wanted to provide a counter to it in the meta.
However, I still hate that this card is back in the game. Not for reasons of balance: it no longer nullifies glacier decks like it used to, since they’re no longer as dependent on unique upgrades (more on this later). Nor do I think most decks will even opt for it, with so many other great options for a restricted card. But it is such a badly-designed card that it simply offends my sensibilities (game design, not artistic – the card art is some of the best in the game). Its ability is overly broad, and blanks a huge number of cards with no counterplay possible on the turn on which it is played. I just feel that it does not belong in a game as elegant as Netrunner. It might not hurt the game to bring it back in, but I’m genuinely embarrassed that it exists in the card pool, and I feel it would have been better to just leave it on the banned list and pretend it never existed.
Tapwrm: This restriction is intended to hurt the Lock Hayley decks which dominated Worlds 2017. With 9 out of the top-16 spots, Hayley was definitely the best runner at Worlds, but there was a decent amount of deck variation in those Hayleys, with some choosing Clone Chip as their restricted card, some Levy, and one (Greg Tongue’s 2nd place deck) choosing Aesop’s Pawnshop. However, of those 9 Hayleys, all except Greg Tongue’s relied on Tapwrm for economy, and 7 of those 8 combined Tapwrm with Peace In Our Time.
Tapwrm was therefore a key component in Hayley’s dominance, as it allowed her to gain credits clicklessly while spending her turn digging through her deck for the cards needed for the specific matchup. With most of the top decks packing either Clone Chip or Levy AR Lab Access, and every single one of them having 3 Sacrificial Constructs, the corp’s attempts to purge the worm and deny the money drip resulted in lost momentum while their hand got flooded with agendas.
Given that Magnum Opus exists as a powerful in-faction restricted economy option, I doubt that Shaper players will want to pick Tapwrm as their restricted slot. Moreover, since Greg Tongue’s Aesop Hayley was the only top-16 runner deck at Worlds that used up their restricted slot for an economy card, I believe that the “lock Hayley” archetype needs its unicorn slot for utility more than for economy. This explains the choice of Levy and Clone Chip in all of these decks except for Greg Tongue’s. Although I concede that Clone Chip, which several top-16 decks chose as their restricted card, also functioned in part as an economy option due to its ability to recur a purged Tapwrm, it has far broader utility, being able to also recur spent D4v1ds, Imps, and Ladies, retargeting Atman and Cyber-Cypher, and installing (and reinstalling) Clot at instant speed without the need for an SMC taking up 2 memory. Levy performed a similar function, but additionally recurred economy (including every copy of Tapwrm and Sacrificial Construct), and effectively gave the runner extra “hit points” versus net damage corps like Potential Unleashed which aimed to deck them and make them unable to steal Obokata Protocols. Levy then effectively performed the roles of both Clone Chip and Film Critic (which was not used in any of the top-16 Shaper decks, though it was widely played in Anarch).
The Levy variant of lock Hayley is therefore unlikely to drop Levy for Tapwrm, but may instead invest in other forms of economy. The most obvious substitutes (Magnum Opus as an in-faction, restricted option, and Liberated Account as an out-of-faction non-restricted option) are click-intensive to use. I am not saying those options are unviable, but that they would result in quite different decks: all variants of Worlds top-16 Hayleys got money clicklessly and spent their turn power-drawing for their tech cards, setting up, and making high-impact runs. A click-intensive economy engine would result in a deck that is much slower to set up. Tapwrm might still be usable in the Laguna/Levy version of the deck by replacing Levy with the inferior Trope (using the influence from either Peace or Info Sifting) to provide recursion. This deck would be fast, but would run out of steam sooner, since Trope would not recur as many cards as Levy. The simplest option might be to replace the Tapwrm engine with more event economy (Dirty Laundry, Career Fair, Deuce’s Wild etc), relying on Levy and Shadow Net to play them over and over again, or inferior drip economy options like Algo Trading. This would also be slower than Tapwrm, but not as slow as using Liberated. The Clone Chip version might be able to replace Clone Chip with the upcoming Reclaim, and thus keep Tapwrm in their restricted slot, but Reclaim seems much fiddlier to use than the excellent Clone Chip. Better Shaper players than me will have to test if this is viable. It is more likely that the Clone Chip decks will also replace the Tapwrms with event economy, and will suffer less for the loss of Señor Taps as they already run Professional Contacts (instead of Laguna Velasco District as the Levy deck does). More likely, the most probable outcome is that those dead set on still playing Shaper will switch to Origami combo decks out of Kabonesa Wu, or build slower control decks reliant on ProCo or MOpus.
While hitting Tapwrm certainly damages Hayley’s position as the dominant runner deck, it has side effects which make me think it was the wrong card to hit. When initially writing this article, I went on a long rant about what I thought should have been restricted instead. But because it was longer than the rest of the article combined, I split it off into its own post here.
Violet Level Clearance: Despite Rumor Mill getting more talk due to its shock value, this is the most impactful change. Cerebral Imaging has been the most robust corp post-rotation, because its large hand size means it can deal with agenda flood better than any other corp now that Our Lord and Saviour is gone. However, the multitude of high-impact clearances means it can also be the richest as well as the fastest corp! As Michael Boggs explained in the MWL announcement, VLC’s “trade-offs” aren’t really a factor when it’s played in CI, and it helped accelerate that deck to the point where it could be jamming MCAAPs behind Fairchildren before the runner could even afford to install their breakers! I expected his solution to the problem to have been restricting both this and Ultraviolet Clearance, forcing us to pick one or the other. Boggs instead flat out banned VLC and made our choice for us, and on reflection I like his solution better: the numbers on this card are just insane! 3 credits and 4 cards in a single click is roughly twice the efficiency of the benchmark best economy and draw cards of the game! Its terminal and trashable downsides have definitely been undercosted! Ultraviolet, though even more powerful, is a much fairer cost as a triple. This should be enough to slow down CI enough for it to be a fair matchup for most runners, while still remaining a strong corp. The upcoming Diversion of Funds should help curb it even more, as it will put pressure on its hand size by allowing the runner to interact with the corp’s credit pool.
Brain Rewiring and Mother Goddess will be considered together, as these restrictions were both intended to hurt the dumb Brain Rewiring/Show of Force combo kill deck. With both clearances letting it draw its combo pieces early, and Mythic-only ice locking out any runner who did not have an AI breaker, this combo was a lightning-fast and easy way to kill the runner, which only specific hate cards (Clot, damage prevention, Leela bounces) could stop. Its speed ensured that it could mostly pull off the combo before the runner found their hate cards, and it had room for enough counter-hate of its own (eg. CVS and Best Defense).
Whampoa Reclamation: Restricting this came as a surprise to me. I have encountered some decks that used it to great effect (like Potential Unleashed and asset spam Gagarin), burying lots of agendas and making all my R&D runs whiff. But those decks were mostly good, not great, so I’m not sure why they needed curbing. The combo with Shannon Claire (using Shannon to draw the card you just buried with Whampoa) is overrated, and I’m not sure why it’s considered oppressive. Still, I assume Boggs & co. have more knowledge of upcoming cards that may have given these decks even more of a boost. I don’t think it will have much of an effect on other corps, as other cards offer ways to deal with agenda flood or provide recursion.
Mumbad City Hall: As Boggs said, with most of the best Alliance cards also restricted, there was no real reason for this to be banned. I still hate that it’s back though, for the same reason I think Rumor Mill and Violet Level Clearance should not be in the game: it’s just too far above the power curve. A single click to tutor and install/play another card, on a stick, endlessly repeatable, is just offensive. It might not matter, but it feels wrong.
Fringe cards staying on (Gang Sign, Inversificator): This is a little surprising, as I expected any card that wasn’t in any successful deck of any big tournament in the last four months might merit another look. Come on Boggs, give the little gangsters time off for good behaviour!
Cerebral Imaging is still a decent deck! When Wilfy’s champion decks come out, you’ll be able to play it simply by swapping the 3 banned VLCs with 3 other cards, and do ok. Losing VLC slows it down a lot, but only so much as to bring it on par with other tier 1 corp decks, not enough to destroy it utterly. Despite Rumor Mill blanking MCAAP and Stinson, I expect Wilfy-style CI to still be the most well-rounded of these decks, for reasons I’ll explain below.
The one CI deck that we’ve probably seen the back of is Brain Rewiring kill combo, and that’s probably for the best. The combo is still playable, but it will have to use ordinary ice rather than the all-mythic suite, and it will have to use real 3-pointers rather than Global Food, rendering it more fragile. Combined with losing VLC, it’s no longer tournament-quality, though you might see it at casual events from people trying to lose friends.
I expect glacier to get more popular, both due to CI’s weakened state and by the release of Jinja City Grid and NGO Front. Although Rumor Mill blanks the traditional glacier defensive upgrades (well, the few that haven’t rotated out, namely Doc Brown and the Less Popular Wonder Twin), this is no longer the death knell to glacier that it used to be. With Rumor Mill restricted, seeing it means no Employee Strike, no Film Critic, and no powerful economy engines like MOpus or Tapwrm. This means you can use your ID abilities (such as being AgInfusion and booping them into an Excalibur), you can use defensive agendas like Obokata or Ikawah Project, and you can always make your servers super taxing in the knowledge they will struggle to find the money to get in repeatedly. In the previous version of the MWL, Rumor Mill had a far more suppressive effect on glacier, even at tier 3, as it could appear in any deck if they could scrounge up the influence. Now you know they would have to leave behind other cards that help against the glacier matchup, opening up other scoring avenues for the corp. Moreover, non-unique defensive upgrades like Code Replicator are unaffected by it. As such I expect a moderate decline in CI’s popularity and a rise in glacier, especially out of Asa Group and AgInfusion.
The future of more horizontal corps is more doubtful, not due to the MWL, but due to the release of Friday Chip and Freedom Khumalo galloping over the hills in the distance. I’m not talking just about pure asset spam like Gagarin, but also corps like CtM, which build a proper remote, but also rely on un-ICEd assets for economy. This also affects the Estelle Moon version of the CI deck, which relies on immense amounts of assets, Tour Guides, and Lakshmi Smartfabrics. Lakshmi, that deck’s main scoring method, is not blanked by Rumor Mill: this deck is hurt far more by Film Critic, which is what the most popular Anarch decks take for their restricted card. Those same decks also tend to use Hacktivist Meeting as their current, which hoses Moon/Lakshmi decks even harder than Critic.
So we’ve got an interesting situation in which the most powerful CI deck (Reversed/Stinson) is countered by Rumor Mill, and the second most powerful (Estelle/Lakshmi) is countered by the Hacktivist/Film Critic combo. This could turn out to be an interesting metagame of push and pull, except, frankly, there’s not much in it: the Hacktivist deck also has an ok matchup against Stinson CI, and the Rumor Mill deck is also decent against Lakshmi (blanking Estelle, Jeeves, and Sandburg, its backup scoring plan). And with Khumalo on the horizon and Friday Chip already here, the Estelle deck, though currently maybe stronger than the Stinson deck, is living on borrowed time. The metagame will be in flux for the next few weeks, but I expect the Stinson deck to remain the most dominant type of CI, and the Hacktivist/Film Critic combo to stay the most popular hate cards in Anarch decks.
On the runner side, things are much more straightforward: Anarchs are tier 1. I’m not saying Shaper has been completely eviscerated, but as our efforts to come up with alternative economy packages above show, the Hayley lock deck is significantly weaker, and that’s probably for the best. It wasn’t ok for one deck to be the best at dealing with both slow glacier corps and rushy corps with fast advance with the same 45 cards. New types of Shaper decks will appear, especially if, as I predicted above, taxing glacier decks make a comeback. Though Anarchs are the best all-round faction, Black Orchestra will struggle to copy with stacked Fairchildren or DNA Trackers.
Criminals, on the other hand, are even weaker than they were before. Restricting Tapwrm means no Employee Strike or Film Critic for them, which were cards good stuff crim decks relied on. There are a number of good criminal cards coming out in the next few months, but I’m not sure if they’ll be enough to even push them to second place.
As I said at the start, I really appreciated the write-up by Michael Boggs which accompanied the MWL update. Laying out the detailed reasons for each decision, as well (for the first time) other routes of action he had considered taking, and why they were rejected in favour of the solution decided on, is an unprecedented amount of transparency. Of course, Damon Stone was also quite open about his balancing decisions, being a frequent guest on community podcasts and an active poster on Facebook and other sites, but having all this laid out on an official article on FFG’s website is a lot more open and shows a lot of respect for the playerbase.
This still leaves us with the question of why this MWL took five months to come out, and why there was no communication from FFG on why it was delayed and when we could expect it. Late September until late February is a REALLY long time! People were furiously testing the brand new post-rotation meta all the way from the announcement of the B&R list until Worlds. By then, it wasn’t just the people who went to Worlds who were feeling tired and burned out by it, but all the rest of us who had helped them practice too! The fact that the first pack of Kitara didn’t come out until December exacerbated the burnout even more.
Worlds provides a wealth of data for designers to base balancing decisions on. Giving them a month or two to test such decisions with their playtesters, issuing a balance update on Damon Day (December 31st), and starting the SC season in January, is a much more sensible schedule than the current untenably tight one, in which the Store Championship season supposedly begins right after Worlds, yet several stores had not yet received their prize kits over a month later! Don’t make us spend five whole months in the same pre-Worlds meta we had all gotten tired sick of!
More importantly, fix some pre-determined dates for balance updates for your games, announce them in advance, and stick to them! The worst part of this 5-month wait was not knowing when the new MWL was coming! People were antsy, bored, and tired of the anticipation. Having fixed, pre-announced dates on which balance updates are to be issued will help the community realise that the game is not being neglected, and the wheels are turning inside the FFG machine. Having an impenetrable black box that spits out balance updates on an irregular basis makes us feel powerless and nervous. Fix some dates, and tie them to the competitive schedule, so that there is a balance update preceding SCs, one preceding regionals/nationals, and one preceding Worlds – and ideally more frequently than that. It’s not unacceptable to have a balance update in the middle of, say, Store Championship season either, as long as it’s been pre-announced and we know in advance that it’s coming! People have busy lives, and set aside time to practice for upcoming tournaments. Springing a surprise balance update with no warning sucks, as it might invalidate the deck that someone had scraped together all their free time to practice with only a week before the tournament they’d been eagerly preparing for is not on! If they know the date on which balance update is coming, they’ll know they’ll need to set aside time to practice after the update is due. Make them frequent, fix the dates in advance, and tell us when to expect them! Even if the balance update is “there are no balance updates this quarter”, just post a news article to say so, and for us players that is a million times better than not knowing when and if an update is coming at all!
Michael Boggs set the standard in transparency and professionalism in his explanation for the rationale between each balance change in the MWL. Now it’s Organised Play’s turn to pick up the gauntlet and set a fixed quarterly schedule for when balance updates for their games are due.