Standing on the Servers of Giants is a series written specifically for new Netrunner players. Using a lens of classic Magic the Gathering articles, this series explores the theoretical framework of Netrunner, and helps players make better decisions in card evaluation, deck building, and game play. Click here to see the overview of the series, and all the associated articles.

 

Game theory is only as valuable as it’s ability to be applied to real-life games. In my experience, the most important Magic theory article of all time then, is Mike Flores’ The Breakdown of Theory. The gist is pretty much this:

  1. Pretty much all Magic games evolve the same way.
  2. There are three stages in a game of Magic.
  3. Each stage has particular characteristics.
  4. You really want to be trumping your opponent’s face in Stage III; he wants the same thing.
  5. People generally hate it when they don’t get to play Stage II.
  6. All of this can help us infer the best play.

Although Magic and Netrunner are vastly different games, these points are true when you’re running the Nets as well. In fact, many people already see Netrunner as being divided into three stages. Let’s take a look at these stages and see what they can tell us about how a Netrunner game develops:

Stage 1: Before the minimum game threshold

Stage one is defined as any part of the game before you cross the Minimum Game Threshold. That’s a fancy way of saying, you are too poor to actually operate your deck. In Magic, this is generally before you have enough lands to cast your spells – your manascrewed.

Although Netrunner  allows players to start with 5 credits worth of resources to start the game, that doesn’t mean a player can cross the minimum game threshold on turn 1. If your Corp deck only has expensive ICE, you aren’t rezzing them for a few turns. And while a Runner can always spend a Click to initiate a run, if they don’t have enough credits to use their ICE Breakers, they might not actually be operating either.

A common theory of Netrunner is that the Runner has an advantage in this Stage. They say that since the the Runner can always initiate a run, but the Corp has to use click and econ to develop a board, that the Runner has is inherently advantaged. I disagree.

Now it is true that the Runner has an easier time accessing servers in Stage I, but does that do anything to advance their game plan? For an aggressive runner, who is using the early game to run rather than establish board presence, the goal of a run is to access agendas and score points. But what is the likelihood of scoring on a random access?

Let’s do the math: A 49-card Corp deck has approximately 20 agenda points in their deck. If the average agenda is worth 2 points, then you can expect the Corp deck to have about 10 Agendas total – or 1 Agenda per 5 Cards. A random run should have about a 20% chance to hit an agenda. Unfortunately, a single run also takes up 1/4 of the Runners actions for a turn. That means the Runner is giving up 25% of their resources for a 20% shot at points.

The math only gets worse is the Corp is smart and lowers their agenda density by playing 3-point agendas.

The truth of the matter is, neither player wants to remain in Stage I for long.

Stage III: Trump Mode

In Stage I, you don’t have the ability to play your game because you don’t have enough resources. There is little interaction because neither player is doing much.

There is little interaction in Stage III too, but for completely different reasons. In Stage III, a player is both dictating the terms of battle AND only a very small number of opponent’s cards (if any) still matter. In this stage, one player has fully executed his or her game plan, and there is very little the opponent can do about it.

  
 

It might take one turn or 20, but the player who maintains position in Stage III will almost assuredly win the game.

Stage III is the NBN Fast Advance deck sitting on 6 points, with an Astroscript scored and a SanSan City Grid in a protected remote.

It’s the Runner with 20 counters on his Medium, with Blackmail and DDoS.

It’s a Jinteki: Potential Unleashed deck that has trashed all the cards in the Runner’s grip and deck.

All winning decks eventually get to Stage III. Some only for the split second before they actually win, and other that are designed to get there as fast as possible.

Existing phase theory claims that the Runner has advantage in Stage III as well. Again, I think that is incorrect. The game has moved beyond a Stage III where the Corp has basic ICE, but the Runner has a full rig. Both Runner and Corp have powerful Stage III strategies these days.

Stage II: Mostly Netrunner

If Stage I scarcity, and Stage III is the end of the game, then Stage II is… everything else.

This is generally what people talk about when they discuss playing Netrunner. This is the stage defined by interaction. It is where players try to eek out advantages and open scoring windows.

This is where decisions get made, and mistakes happen.

Some say the Corp has the advantage here. Again, I think that is limited thinking.

When the Corp rezzes a Tollbooth and the runner doesn’t have the correct ICE Breaker, the Corp might have an advantage to open a scoring window. But what about a Runner like Rielle “Kit” Peddler? All she needs is one code gate breaker, and she’s can bust through lightly defended servers. That’s straight up a Stage II play.

  
 

So what? Doesn’t this just describe how a game plays out?

I think it does a lot more than that. In fact, I believe that properly understanding Stage Theory is essential in making good choices in deck building AND in making the right decisions during games. There are three immediate takeaways:

  1. Successful interaction is largely based on suppressing your opponent’s ability to reach the next Stage
  2. “Broken” strategies generally mean jumping or accelerating to Phase III
  3. When people complain about Negative Player Experiences, or not playing real Netrunner, what they tend to mean, is playing a game with a very short Stage II.

Understanding Stage Theory helps us define why certain cards are good AND understand the best ways to play them in a given strategy. Take Account Siphon for example. Everyone agrees that Account Siphon is one of the best Criminal cards in the game, but why? Let’s take a look at it though the lens of Stage Theory:

  1. Account Siphon takes a sizable chunk out of the Corp’s resource pool. This often keeps the Corp in Stage I and accelerates the Runner into Stage II.
  2. In Stage II, Account Siphon can also be very powerful as it can knock the Corp back into Stage I giving the Runner the ability to define potential scoring windows.
  3. Account Siphon, as traditionally used, is significantly less good as a Stage III card. If the Corp has you locked out behind Hostile Infrastructures and Bio-Ethics Associations, Siphon isn’t much help. From the Runner’s perspective, a single Siphon doesn’t help advance their Stage III play either. It might help suppress the Corp’s shot at coming back, but it really acts as a win-more in that case.

Theory is only as useful as it’s application to real-life games, so what does this analysis tell us? It tells us that if our deck is designed to quickly enter Stage III, maybe we don’t need to auto-include Account Siphon. It tells us that in-game we should consider Siphoning earlier than later if given the option. And it tells us that we should be looking for other interactions that benefit from keeping the Corp a Stage behind.

  
 

This analysis also helps when picking things like ICE Breakers. The current mindset seems to be, pick the most efficient ICE Breaker, and jam it in. I see this a lot in Stealth builds. Many deck designers are playing Corroder or Paperclip instead of the on-theme Blackstone. I think this is because these designers are only looking in Stage II. Sometimes efficiency is the correct play, but if you are designing your deck to dominate Stage III, maybe you want to spend a little more for the Breaker that maintains strength when running a deeply ICEd server.

But the biggest lesson from Stage Theory is that you want to be picking and building decks hat have clear and consistent ways of dictating the field of battle. Too many players get stuck on playing in Stage II. They seek out small advantages and interactions, in hopes that they get a random win. But by doing that, they often give up on the other 2/3rds of the game. This isn’t to say that current Netrunner players are bad – but that as a community, we are often not exploring the full world of deck building and strategic opportunities.

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