Five Days at the World Championship of Competitive Cyberpunk Card Gaming
I was no match for Netrunner's elite; I finished 109th.
Toronto's local Netrunner team, The Four Run Sixes. Image: Dien Tran
In the fictional world of Netrunner there is a city called New Angeles. This city, like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, is a dark, noir-laden place. It is filled with skyscrapers, grungy nightclubs and the arcologies of the super-rich. Located in present day Ecuador, where the United States has purchased 75,000 square kilometres of land, New Angeles is also home to the head offices of mega corporations and a space elevator, called the Beanstalk. It's well suited to hackers and ruthless capitalists.
The Netrunner World Championships, where the best Netrunner players in the world converged from November 4-8, took place in a much more prosaic place: Roseville, Minnesota. This is the home of Fantasy Flight Games, one of the largest board game publishers in the world, and they are the current developer of the popular cyberpunk card game (which, strangely enough, is licensed to them by another well known card and roleplaying company: Wizards of the Coast). Located in what can only be described as a light industrial park, FFG's headquarters do not look like they would be very different if, instead of designing card games, they manufactured boxes.
It is particularly fitting, then, that while the speculative future of the planet has a dark appeal, the reality of Netrunner's game design and tournament play is grounded in the reality of the post-industrial United States. It's here that I played Netrunner, pretty much non-stop, for five days.
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What sets Netrunner apart from a lot of other card games is what's called an action economy; there are only so many distinct things you can do in the game per turn. Each turn is measured in clicks, and to me they serve as metaphors for both energy and time. As a corp you have three clicks. As runner, four. Install a piece of ICE as a corp? One click. Make a run on server and try to get in? One click. Go to your day job and get paid? Four clicks. Use your artificial labourers, called Bioroids, to increase your corporate productivity? Gain two clicks.
Clicks are maybe the most precious resource in Netrunner, followed closely by cards and credits. You can have a lot of cards and a lot of creds, but there's only so much time in a day.
Playing in a Netrunner tournament is itself a test of your energy, your real-world clicks. Games are often long, gruelling affairs that test your mental faculties more than most games. They can even be physically exhausting if you forget to bring snacks and water to keep your brain sharp. But they are also exhilarating. Each game involves the high of success—stealing and scoring agendas, maintaining your tempo to keep the other player on the back foot—and the low of failure as you realize that the opposing player has out-played you.
By Saturday night, when all was said and done, I was out of clicks. I had nothing left to give. I was merely a pile of bone and meat, ready to sleep.
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The World Championships are a slog for players because, from the first day you arrive, you're already knee deep in competitive practice. As fellow players from my local meta in Toronto arrived—meta, as in the "metagame" of different players and different decks that exists outside of each individual game—we convened in the hotel boardroom to practice.
Naturally, we took a photo that looked as much like the sinister boardroom of Weyland Consortium as we could make it.
Netrunner tournaments are by far one of the most egalitarian forms of play I've seen in competitive games, and this is because of Swiss format. The goal of Swiss pairings is to ensure that everybody gets to play an equal amount of games, avoiding the frustration of formats that require elimination.
Every player is initially paired randomly in the first round. They play a round, which consists of two games. Each player takes a turn playing as both the runner and corporation. Each player's score, either a sweep or a split, is totalled, and then they are matched in the second round with players that have the same score. This continues for a set amount of rounds.
Tie breaking for the same score is determined by what is called strength of schedule: those who lost to players with better scores than everybody else rank higher than those who beat players who lost most of their other games. The points are totalled, and the winner of the Swiss rounds is chosen. From here the "true" winner is found through a series of traditional double elimination rounds. As a result of this choice of format, everybody gets to play a lot of Netrunner, and also play people of a similar skill.
In the case of the world championship tournament held this past Saturday, those who made the top 16 would then play a series of double elimination rounds, determining the final winner.
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By Saturday, I had been playing Netrunner nearly non-stop for three days. Day one we practiced. Day two there was an icebreaker tournament, which consisted of five rounds where I placed well: 28th out of more than a hundred. Day three I played for Toronto's team, The Four Run Sixes, in the community organized King of Servers tournament, located in a nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. Day four was the main event: 8 rounds of Netrunner in the World Championships.
By this point, I had very few clicks left to give, but in I went.
I had practiced intensely, and some of the games came down to the wire (that's how you know you're playing a solid game of Netrunner). One particularly memorable loss involved what can only be described as a "jank" play: using a Sysop, an impossible to destroy piece of ICE, and a betting game to install a trap. Eventually, I sustained enough brain damage from the trap to lose the game. Another loss came down to one credit—and when you lose because of literally one credit, I don't think you can be mad. Some of my wins were just as wild: pressuring a corp's headquarters after "spooning" a particularly nasty piece of ICE is always fun.
Even with such highs, it was a slog and I ended the day with 9 wins and 7 losses, putting me at 109th place, out of nearly 300 players. It was an alright day, even if I knew I could do better.
What was more important to me, however, was Dien Tran finishing 3rd in the Swiss rounds. Tran is Toronto's best hope for a Championship plaque: easily one of the best player's in Canada, and without a doubt the best in Toronto. All nine of us from Toronto (and many others) were rooting for him.
"I've played a lot of games like Counter-Strike or Dota 2. Netrunner is the one whose community makes playing actually worthwhile"
The day started off rough for Tran. He was swept in the first round by a strong player. Clearly flustered, Tran told me in an interview that, because he believes in Karma, the loss signified that he had done something wrong in the last year. But after listening to some music and taking a walk to clear his head, Tran went on to win 13 games and only lose one more, ending the competition at 13:3—a wildly impressive record in a field so big.
When it was announced that Tran had broken into the top 16—third place overall—he was overwhelmed with joy, and the rest of the Toronto crew (as well as the rest of those who made the top cut) quickly congratulated him. It was, without a doubt, a moving sight. Tran gives a lot of himself to the Netrunner community, and I think his Karma came through.
The next morning when I talked to Tran one-on-one, he said that a lot of the reason he's so involved—working as the tournament organizer at local events, and hosting streams—is because of how welcoming the Netrunner community is. "I've played a lot of games like Counter-Strike or Dota," he told me. "Netrunner is the one whose community makes playing actually worthwhile."
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That Sunday, the final day of play, Tran was the first player up. In a twist of digital irony, it was too crowded around his table to watch, so the Toronto crew set up a computer in the corner of the centre where he was playing and opted to watch on Twitch instead. We downloaded, at a reduced bitrate, what was being uploaded at the highest quality merely 20 metres away.
The game was a close one, with Tran facing off against David Hoyland from the UK. Hoyland was able to capitalize on some early plays that put pressure on Tran, and as a result he was able to lock Tran out from the final agenda points he needed to win the game.
With Hoyland up 2 agenda points, Train, In a hail-mary play after time was called, ran David's R&D—a last-ditch attempt to luck into some agenda points near the top of Hoyland's deck. But, after having all his programs trashed, Tran was forced to play a psi betting game, because of the notorious NAPD Clone Detective Caprice Nisei protecting R&D, and lost. The top card was the agenda he needed to at least tie the game in his favour. A razor thin loss.
Tran went on to play two more games, winning one, but losing his second. He fell out of the running for world champion.
Later that day, some friends and I were in line at airport security watching the Twitch stream of the final game: Timmy Wong vs. Dan D'Argenio (last year's World Champion). Wong played a Near-Earth Hub "butcher shop" deck—an NBN deck that excels at both scoring agendas aggressively while threatening to blow up the runner's house. D'Argenio played this year's new hotness: "Data-Leak Reversal" Valencia, a deck that siphons the corp's money and R&D, and punishes it with a dangerous AI icebreaker, while using patsies and the paparazzi to keep the runner from getting killed.
The game came down to one turn that was win or lose for both players. It was close, but D'Argenio played carefully and put enough pressure on Wong to close out the game in his favour.
I was exhausted from all the games I had played—but while I was out of clicks, these amazing players were able to close out the weekend with a few clicks to spare.
Correction, 12/11: In an earlier version of this article, Dien Tran is quoted as saying "I've played a lot of games like Counter-Strike or League of Legends. Netrunner is the one whose community makes playing actually worthwhile." However, Tran was misquoted, and was actually referring, not to League of Legends, but Dota 2. The article has been updated, and Motherboard regrets the error.