I’ve noticed a lot of posts in online forums by people who quit the game sometime in 2015 (during the SanSan/D&D era) or shortly thereafter, wondering what happened in the competitive metagame since they last played. I started writing a response to one such question, and it quickly ballooned to several thousand words. I therefore decided to give it a more permanent home here, since it seems to be a question that gets asked several times a week, and it would be handy to have a potted answer people can simply link to.
If, therefore, you quit sometime in the last 3 years, and are wondering “What did I miss?” your answer is below the link!
The SanSan Cycle meta was when I started turning from a filthy casual into being interested in the competitive scene, so it’s really the first scene I can talk about first hand. For earlier, go find some grizzled veterans, check tournament results on acoo.net or alwaysberunning.net, or check the ANR History of Archetypes maintained by redditor /u/kata124. The following is just based on my subjective memories with no quantitative research.
During SanSan, the decks that emerged as powerful during Lunar continued to be popular (Replicating Perfection and NEH Astrobiotics on the corp side, Andysucker and PrePaid Kate on the runner side). However, the release of Breaker Bay saw the old Redcoats-style EtF glacier get a big boost in the form of Breaker Bay Grid, allowing their Campaigns and defensive upgrades to be rezzed for free, and Turing, which was a cheap and taxing code gate that let EtF players save influence for a second Caprice Nisei. On the runner side, Hayley Kaplan came out in the same pack, and, although initially judged as inferior to Kate, she would eventually be destined to become the new Queen of Shaper Bullshit. Earlier in the cycle we had the release of another new iconic runner in the form of Geist, who has gradually risen from a fringe Criminal ID to a unique archetype unto himself, although, amusingly, many of the best cards that were subsequently released to support him were also co-opted by Hayley decks that did the Geist thing better. But possibly the most important card in the cycle was Faust, which, although I suspect it was thematically designed for Geist, made it into ABSOLUTELY EVERY FACTION and was the scourge of corps for years to come. In the short term though, it was mostly seen in Noise Shop decks, which combined it with Adjusted Chronotype, Wyldside (the so-called Wyldcakes combo), and Aesop’s to both feed Faust and find their viruses.
The end of the SanSan cycle saw the release of Wireless Net Pavilion, a card that allowed runners to go tag-me and not lose their resources so easily, suddenly making Data Leak Reversal top tier. The release of Global Food Initiative (in Data and Destiny) saw glacier decks get a big boost too, so the strongest corp decks at worlds were polar opposites: NEH Fastrobiotics on the one hand, glacier ETF (Foodcoats) on the other. Runners were mostly split between prepaid Kate and various anarchs (both DLR and regular decks), with Dave Hoyland’s Leela being the only criminal in the top-16, due to Criminal’s weakness against glacier. Dan D’Argenio won it with DLR Val and Foodcoats, securing his 2nd consecutive Worlds win.
After that, Lukas handed lead designer of the game over the Damon so he could go make Star Wars dice, and we all spent a few weeks playing around with the new minifaction runners that came out in D&D (all of whom sucked, but 2.5 years later are finally becoming decent!). Damon then dropped a bombshell on New Years Eve, introducing a soft restricted list to the game, hitting the most powerful deck archetypes by making some of their best cards cost extra influence, and Prepaid Kate hardest of all. If you thought Netrunner fans were nerdy before, you haven’t seen them tapping away on their phones in panic and excitement in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party!
The 2016 store championships season rolled around, and, with all the hits to the strongest decks, people defaulted to Fastrobiotics and a newly-popular deck developed by Abram “thebigboy” Jopp (go read his blog): Dumblefork. Dumblefork, unlike the L4J Whizzard that had been popular for awhile, eschewed standard breakers for the Faust/Wyldcakes engine, supported by D4v1d and all the ice destruction they could fit in (cutlery, Parasites, and lots of recursion to bring them back). It was about the only deck that could keep up with all the assets NEH could spew out while also being able to deal with the few corps left still trying to play the glacier game. Despite Astroscript and SanSan City Grid all costing an extra influence per copy, NEH Fastrobiotics remained a powerful deck, especially with Shapers (who could effectively Clot-lock them) having been hit so hard by the MWL too. As the Mumbad cycle brought about even more powerful assets (especially ones that allowed for infinite recursion like Museum of History), Whizzard became ever more dominant, as those 3 recurring credits went a very long way. Key among those assets were the “political” assets, which were extremely powerful, but could only be placed in un-iced remotes and had low trash costs.
As a result of these assets, the late spring and summer of 2016 was dominated by oppressive “prison” style decks, based either out of Industrial Genomics or Gagarin (IDs which could protect their easy to trash but high impact political assets), and Dumblefork was the only thing keeping them at bay. A lot of people found playing against such decks frustrating, as they were very grindy, every match was a slog, and people felt those decks bypassed important elements of Netrunner, such as interaction between ICE and breakers.
A further round of errata and MWL restrictions helped hit those decks where it hurt: right in the recursion, by making Museum unique, and slapping extra influence on some of the more powerful assets. It also fixed the way Heritage Committee interacted with Mumbad City Hall, whereby, due to the order of nested triggers, corps could shuffle agendas safely into R&D when they tutor Heritage through MCH, rather than putting them on top. On the runner side, many cards in the Dumblefork machine were added to the list, leading to mono-colour Anarch decks that used the MWL as a shopping list rather than a restricted list, splashing only for 1-2 copies of Employee Strike. It also further curbed NBN fast advance by changing Astroscipt to being “limit one per deck” and slapping extra influence on Breaking News, which was well timed, as the upcoming release brought us perhaps the most powerful NBN identity to date: Controlling the Message.
The Flashpoint cycle was a departure for the game fluff-wise, in that instead of exploring a mechanic, like the first two cycles, or a setting, like Lunar, SanSan, and Mumbad, it explored a narrative event, in this case the hacking of Titan Transnational, loss of several trillion credits, and the resulting chaos and anarchy in New Angeles. It also included a wave of “farewell” cards that were themed around the runner identities that were soon to rotate, although one of those cards turned out to be a red herring… This cycle was also Damon’s attempt to rectify the accusation that card design was too conservative in terms of power level, and it showed from the very first pack, which included some powerful cards that defined the metagame for months to come, such as Controlling the Message and Hard Hitting News. Sandburg briefly gave new life to the glacier game, but that dream was soon shattered with the next pack (Blood Money), which swung the balance wildly to the runner’s favour with cards such as Paperclip, Rumor Mill, and Temüjin Contracts (the last of which went into EVERY runner deck from EVERY faction, even after it went onto the MWL and got an extra influence slapped on it). The best decks quickly coalesced into CtM on the one side and Whizzard (of a few different varieties, some with Faust and Siphons, others with regular breakers and Temüjins) on the other, and those were the decks that dominated Worlds, which happened midway through Flashpoint. Despite the low variety of viable decks, many of the top players remember this time fondly, as the Whizzard-CtM matchup was extremely interesting and skill intensive. To this day, Chris Dyer’s 2016 Champion decks are the closest thing you can buy to a pair of fun, balanced duelling decks.
However, there were a lot of good cards for other factions too in Flashpoint, and it was particularly notable for a much-needed increase in the power level of ICE, which for too long had not been impactful enough. In particular, code gates like DNA Tracker and Fairchild 3.0, with their steep break costs and punishing facechecks, pushed the design of ICE forwards and laid the groundwork for the return of ICE-based corps.
The last pack of the cycle capped off a sequence of very impactful releases by blowing the lid off the power curve completely, with cards like Sifr completely negating ice, and Aaron Marrón making a mockery of tags. For a while, it looked like corps were screwed, but soon after, Terminal Directive came about and gave rise to a powerful new corp deck: Mooninites. This was usually played out of EtF, and leveraged Estelle Moon and a ridiculous number of assets to score out quickly. Even Whizzard struggled to keep up! Mooninites being so dominant bizarrely brought new balance to the game, not only in terms of side balance, but also in faction balance: due to how fast Estelle Moon decks were, runners had to tech heavily to beat them. This made those runners that did so weaker against other, more conventional corp decks, so for a while we had a surprising amount of variety in the metagame. Although some matchups were blowouts, the sheer variety was fun, and there was a lot of skill in knowing how to handle each matchup. Moons Etf dominated the first ever European Championship, although the top spot was won by a SYNC kill deck.
Before Terminal Directive actually came out though, Damon Stone announced that he was leaving FFG, and was replaced by Michael Boggs, the first lead designer of the game who started out as a player and fan, rather than having had a hand in the genesis of the game. The first releases under his tenure were Terminal Directive and the Red Sands cycle, all designed under Damon. Nevertheless, Boggs got to stamp his own personal design philosophy into the game by releasing a new, bolder, and more punitive iteration of the Most Wanted List, a few months after taking over. This new list introduced multiple tiers, with some of the most egregious offenders like Faust, Rumor Mill, and Sensie Actors Union now costing not one, but three additional influence per copy. The extra influence were also changed from a reduction in your ID influence limit to a real cost, putting an end to monochromatic Anarch decks that basically included 20+ influence points’ worth of Anarch cards (and a single Emp Strike). It was also notable for including Sifr at level 3, even though it had been out less than 3 months at the time, and was the quickest card to be restricted so far. Nevertheless, most of the level 3 cards saw some play in tournaments, including Euros, where Princess Space Kitten came out of retirement to troll Estelle Moon. In US Nationals, the top runner was Cold Ones, a Shaper combo deck that included both Faust AND Rumor Mill at a massive 6 influence tax!
Terminal Directive broke from other big boxes because it was released partway through Red Sands, rather than in between two cycles. Although we talked about its impact in the competitive game with Estelle, it was also notable in getting a lot of lapsed players to come back to the game. The narrative campaign didn’t light the world on fire, with most people complaining that the story was linear and your choices didn’t impact it. But because it was designed to be played with just TD and a single Core Set, it was a great throwback to the early days of Netrunner, and lots of players came back to play it for that reason. It also included some decent Weyland ICE, which was a bit of a shock to everyone since it hadn’t happened since the Core Set.
Looking back on Red Sands, it’s hard to think of things that stand out from it. It seems a transitional meta between the turmoil of Flashpoint and the hugely transformative event of rotation. There were certainly some cool cards released, such as AgInfusion, which gave rise to some of the most interesting glacier decks around, and Jemison, which, although fun, hasn’t really been successful competitively. One new archetype that seemed like it would become good was tag-me “Clanarch” decks, but they haven’t made it to the big time yet. A dumb combo deck which milled the whole corp deck into oblivion also briefly flared up and then was gone (see below). Anarchs got other toys as well though, such as Mining Accident, that became a powerful staple in many decks, and Aumakua, a Criminal AI breaker that, at 1 influence, found a natural home in Valencia, who stole Andy’s crown as the most popular aggressive run-based runner. In the Criminal faction itself, Aumakua was (and continues to be) used in a range of decks based around exposing and derezzing the corp’s ice.
After Red Sands was finished, there was a long gap with no new releases, and no news about the future of the game. This led to widespread frustration, fatigue with the Moons-dominated meta, and speculation that the game was dead, whether because FFG had lost the licence, or because it just wasn’t profitable enough anymore. The build-up and hype preceding the release of the revamped version of Legend of the Five Rings, and the fact that many prominent Netrunner players quit the game to play that, all contributed to the feeling that the player community was being neglected. Convention after convention passed with FFG making major new announcements about other games, with no mention of Netrunner, until, finally, player dissatisfaction and online doomsaying had reached such a fever pitch that the company was forced to pre-empt their long-planned big announcement and tip their hand early: no, the game wasn’t dead. The truth was even stranger – the long-rumoured but never confirmed Core 2.0 was real!
Core 2.0 had been something that people had claimed was coming since 2015, citing unidentified sources among the game’s playtesters. Though many were convinced it was real, others (myself included) believed it to be a crazy conspiracy theory repeated ad nauseam by people who simply wanted it to be true. Those last few months before its announcement were full of people on Reddit and social media advising newcomers not to buy the original Core set because “Core 2.0 is coming any day now!” which I found immensely frustrating. But it turned out to be true, though perhaps not in the form people expected it would be. I’m sure few would have believed that iconic cards like Account Siphon, Scorched Earth, and ABT would be gone from the game! The fact that all the new cards in the box were from Genesis and Spin, though, meaning existing players already owned all the cards, was widely appreciated.
The bad news, though, was that manufacturing delays meant that the game’s 8th cycle (Kitara), as well as Core 2.0, wouldn’t be coming out for months yet! Recognising that 6 months of meta stagnation would be fatal for the game, they announced that rotation (including the Original Core Set!) would be decoupled from set releases, and Worlds would happen in a post-rotation environment! To go with this announcement, Boggs released a new MWL which took a radical new form: instead of an influence penalty, this was a true banned and restricted list, with a list of restricted cards which each deck was only allowed one of, and a list of cards that were entirely banned! This was a major departure, and made choosing from among your possibilities for restricted cards a fascinating little sub-game in the deckbuilding process, while also making the process of figuring out what your opponent’s restricted card is a crucial part of playing a game. The complete removal of some problem cards like Friends in High Places, Sifr, and Faust was also welcomed, and Salvaged Vanadis Armory became the record holder for Quickest Card to be Banned (to universal acclaim).
Overnight, the game was completely different! Old familiar deck archetypes were toast, new decks arose, everyone was testing furiously, and nobody knew what the best decks would be. In the midst of the pre-Worlds testing frenzy, a scandal broke out when it was revealed that a group of US west coast players known as “the Glass House testing group” had written a bot that scraped unpublished decklists from netrunnerdb.com and matched it to usernames in order to figure out what the top players were running. Many considered this to be outright cheating, and were hurt and offended by these actions.
When Worlds did eventually roll around, the meta was varied and crazy. Virtually every faction was well represented, with even Weyland having multiple decks in the top-50 (though nowhere near the cut). The one tragic exception was Criminal, for whom the loss of Account Siphon and Desperado to rotation, and of Temüjin to the ban list, was devastating, except for Geist, who lost almost nothing to rotation, and was even represented in the top-16.
Though a varied metagame, one ID on each side emerged as the clear best. On the Corp side, this was Cerebral Imaging, which, as many had predicted, had a distinct advantage over other corps in not being as vulnerable to agenda flooding now that our Lord and Saviour Jackson Howard had ascended to rotation. This was not, however, your dad’s 7-point combo CI: although some combo CI decks existed (the most successful of which was a kill combo using Brain Rewiring and Show of Force), and a few Estelle Moon CIs, the majority of CI decks played more conventional Netrunner, scoring through a combination of ICE and fast advance. On the runner side, a variety of different Hayley decks held the top spots, some based around Clone Chip, others using Levy as their restricted card, both relying on power-drawing through their deck to get to their variety of silver bullets to deal with any matchup. Wilfy Horig (co-host of The Winning Agenda) took first place with Stinson Reversed CI and Laguna Hayley.
There was a large range of other successful decks on both sides. Controlling the Message proved surprisingly resilient in spite of NBN losing their best cards, and a variety of Jinteki decks (some based on Potential Unleashed, aiming to deck out the runner so they would be unable to steal Obokata, others playing a glacier game out of AgInfusion) rounded out the top-16. Anarchs took up most of the rest of the top spots on the runner side, most out of Valencia with Film Critic.
Kitara took a while to get here, but it was greeted with a lot of fanfare. Although we didn’t get another MWL update until several packs in, new cards keep shifting the balance with every single pack. In particular, conventional glacier decks got a big power boost with NGO Front, one of the most well-designed cards we’ve seen in awhile. At the moment, two thirds of the way through the cycle, the metagame is wide open, with a huge variety of huge decks with competitive potential. In Titan fast advance, Weyland may have a tier 1 deck for the first time in years, and, on the runner side, we’ve even had IDs like Adam and Nero winning store championships! As I write this, the fifth pack has just been released, and it promises to shake up the metagame even more. It’s anyone’s guess what Reign and Reverie will bring! We’re in for a hell of a ride!