On the decade-end round up episode of the singular Bad End podcast, co-host Joshua Calixto and guest Ben Pack quickly pour one out for a few games that came and went before their time. They included Netrunner in this rundown, on the plausible assumption that the living card game no longer drew breath after being dropped by Fantasy Flight Games and original license holder Wizards of the Coast. But contrary to this and my own moratorium, Netrunner lives—through the collective efforts of a collective of die-hard volunteers, long-time stalwarts regularly building decks and streaming games, and the students they manage to wrangle into the network.
My lungs swelled to shout out through my headphones that not only is Netrunner still being played regularly, but the rules are kept updated and fresh, older cards are being rotated out to shake up the meta, and new ones have been designed, playtested, and made available through print-on-demand houses like DriveThruCards and others. This has all been coordinated through NISEI, a fan-run organization that took it upon themselves to make sure the game didn’t evaporate simply because the product on the shelves did.
The DIY spirit of this group has pulled together a board stocked with designers, project managers, community engagement, and anything else necessary to hold the pulse in a game that thrives on shake-ups and waves made within the player base. This was a difficult enough task for FFG, staffed with professionals and veterans of the collectible and living card game scenes, let alone an all-volunteer group that seeks to maintain not only a delectable friction between piloting runners and corps, but a sense of balance over the hundreds of cards that can spin each other out in wild ways. Beyond the stacks of work in designing cards, including paying artists and setting updated design elements, they’re also creating kits for local store game nights and tournaments to use as prizes as well as supporting regionals and a world championship tournament. Netrunner has hardly skipped a cycle.
These tournaments spilled over into PAX Unplugged thanks to forward thinking organizer and fan Dan B., which proved to be a major highlight of the convention. At the start the tournament team announced that this event had 58 players, which was one more than the US regionals held on the west coast, to a raucous applause in an already high-decibel convention center. Fresh meat and old warhorses abound, everyone was welcome and plenty of passers-by stopped for a gander at a game once rumored to be buried. My first opponent was a former Worlds contender who kept my credits spent and my brain dizzied with combos, but he was gracious all the while. Later I would play someone who’s father taught him the game mere weeks ago and who had gifted his son with fancy tokens and proxied power decks. He was worried he’d leave this event without a single win, but I was happy to provide him otherwise. When asked what hooked him into this game, he said the headspace of a cunning corp was a singular thrill.
Teaching Netrunner brings me the most joy, but I’m familiar enough with the gnarlier mechanics that I’ve also found my few tournaments to be incredibly nourishing. This one at PAXU held to the tradition. My later matches revealed the rhythm of my decks, and after being paired with more appropriate bottom-rung players I managed to eke out a 50/50 split by the end of my time. I was awarded my first playmat, a few sets of alternate art cards, even a heavy-ass die for counting tokens. But that’s all gravy on a glorious day playing a game that simmers in my brain almost every day. And the matches kept on well past the convention center’s midnight closing, the ultimate winners decided hours after I’d been shuffled off. And though I’m shit at deckbuilding, I love to trawl netrunnerdb.com to see what mayhem these champions wrought, and what archetypes would be the most rousing to attempt to pull off in play.
My home holds a bounty of dedicated players on a regular night that isn’t great for me, but I should still make it work. But I still badger everyone with the merest scent of an interest in games like this, and seeing people pull off their first devious exploit or Hail Mary agenda-pull to win a game truly glows me up. Netrunner could have easily dried out and blown away (like its first iteration), but the sheer willpower of this magnanimous fanbase working through NISEI and beyond has kept the game on more than life-support; it’s a full-on rehabilitation. FFG dug some deep roots in establishing this base in the first place, and in many ways those energies are still cascading out today. But it’s the real ones, free from a profit motive and driven by pure desire to slap cards, pumping the blood into Netrunner.
NISEI has hinted at their plans for the future, and it’s drenched in neon. They recognize the need to draw new players in, which is obviously difficult for an out-of-print game. But their next project is the System Gateway, a collection of cards that does more than just set up the base game again, but offers pre-constructed decks with elements both cutting-edge and familiar. Fresh faces can dive right in and the old overseers will have shiny tools for the tinkering. From this point hopefully Netrunner can be fully reborn, easy to recommend to the uninitiated, maybe even blast into end of the decade lists in ten years. It all depends on the steadfast determination of the fans, having stripped mere consumerism from the engine that drives the game forward. Perhaps NISEI will wither like most volunteer-run DIY initiatives eventually do, but for the time being, they’re building a sturdy beanstalk to the sky and I’m enjoying the elevator ride way past the last cloud.
// Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com.