Netrunner, Begin Again

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  • As the Police crooned many decades ago, there’s a hole in my life. The size of this hole has only come into relief while recently dipping into the Final Fantasy Trading Card Game. A surprisingly agile affair, FFTCG runs quick and lean, powered by nostalgia for chocobos, crystals and your favorite characters from whichever game(s) may have burrowed into your heart early on (Kain, Celes, Vivi, moogles, obvs). The art is a major draw as well, and while it’s mostly splendid, the slew of titles and their shuffled aesthetics can’t help but to sprout some off-putting onions (that CGI just doesn’t look as good in print).

    The mechanics themselves, while severely indebted to Magic: The Gathering as expected, refreshingly collapses the mana-based filler card economy by making every card both the currency and the product. They’re worth a couple “crystal points” when discarded, which are then used to install other cards, condensing the costs of play and allowing rapid setup of the board. There’s an aggressive frontline and a supportive backline, with summons and monsters mixing up the exchanges of artillery. Each player summons their armies to clash in their honor. The battles can drag out, but the game often ends when one player edges their setup far enough to drop the ax in a final, spectacular turn.

    Between the further pinpoint commercialization of my youth and a lower hurdle of entry, FFTCG scratches a very particular itch. But the more I scratch, the more I realize it’s just clarifying the depths of the aforementioned hole in my life, Netrunner. I am not a great Netrunner player, not as dedicated as many others to the cause of deck-tuning and live-streaming, not nearly as versed in the minutiae of card interactions and combo potential, no authority on the game outside of my tiny meta and forum lurking. But the comparative simplicity of FFTCG reminds me how deep, unique and particular Netrunner was, and hopefully, still can be.

    There’s a fantastic group of true Netrunner gurus and mystics called NISEI, the true heroes volunteering not only to keep the game alive but growing. They hit November running, announcing their own “game night kits” with delectable prizes, exhaustive clarifications to the rules of the game and, finally, a restructuring of the core set of cards that provides the foundation for learning the game, the System Core 2019. Within the community there was, and continues to be, spirited debate about the ideal possible state of this game. This includes evolved formats for tournaments, online and virtual, ad-hoc collaborations to meet-up and just keep the love of running alive.

    And yet, little more than a year after the release of the Revised Core version of the game (itself the second iteration of the original from the 90’s) System Core 2019 delivers another fresh spread that brings back previously rotated out cards like Fetal AI and R&D Interface. It also yanks a few from the mostly mediocre Terminal Directive, while exiling the rest from that box. NISEI broke down their decision making process in their announcement of the another revamped core set, and I trust them to do right by the mechanics of the game. But at the same time, I’m somewhat overwhelmed. As a pledged mid-level member who mostly plays with people that I’ve taught the game, I’m just not sure what the best way to keep leading a flock of dewy players in might be.

    My FFTCG buddy recently cribbed one of the now out-of-print Revised Core sets for Netrunner, because while FFTCG is fun, the key draw of Netrunner is how it forces you to make calculated and interesting decisions and interactions. FFTCG mostly serves to remind us of this. But I’m not sure what to tell him about his now already incomplete core set, how to get cards for this setup. Proxies, home-printed versions of cards, are definitely an option but honestly it’s kind of annoying to find decent quality mock-ups, print and cut them out, find other cards and sleeves to set up, and keep track of it all. I can’t honestly recommend he do that, especially as a beginning player testing the variety of mechanics without even glancing towards the wider card pool.

    With the imminent release of Artifact, as well as other digital card fare like Slay the Spire, Gwent, and the continued success of Hearthstone, perhaps it’s time for NISEI to acquiesce towards a primarily digital life for Netrunner. The alternate art cards and fan created pieces are fantastic, and I do truly believe Netrunner most shines when played face-to-face, but I spent hours organizing cards, building decks, checking what I had picked against the System Core list and the Most Wanted List and the cards both kept and removed from Terminal Directive, digging up old ones that I thought had been rotated forever, and I’m still not sure that I’m all set. There’s a robust online portal for playing Netrunner online at jinteki.net but of course it’s not the same in a chat window, net-code doing all the math and keeping track of most of the card interactions for you, but I think this is the clearest path to keep bringing new players on board before overwhelming them with the sheer history of the game.

    I’m sure that NISEI has plans in this regard, and I’m excited to see what they continue to come up with in service of this incredible game. Netrunner will always be one that I pester people to try, knowing that it has irresistibly sharp hooks and savory tension at the cost of a higher than usual learning curve. For the game to truly live on and thrive, the energy of the hardcore player base isn’t enough. We need to proselytize with grace by encouraging junior runners and corps into the fold in the most concise and clear way possible. Maybe the optimal way for this is to focus on an online portal, a digital entryway that easiest players in before demanding craft time, for the juiciest analog game about cybersecurity perhaps to ever exist. Netrunner has cheated death and continues to put other card games in their place, and I only hope that more than the choir gets to hear the good word for years to come.

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