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The Final Days of 'Netrunner'

What happens when your hobby is cancelled.

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Oct 22 2018, 5:55pm

photos by author

In one of a cluster of small industrial buildings just outside Roseville, Minnesota, something is happening for the very last time. On either side of an oversized table, under a bank of office-style fluorescents, two men sit compulsively shuffling the cards in their hands. A few dozen spectators crowd them, watching over their shoulders, while a set of cameras streams the game to the rest of the world.

This is the official world final of Android: Netrunner, the last one that will ever be held.

Back in June, Fantasy Flight Games—the board game company which owns the building in which these two men sit—announced that it had lost the licensing rights to Netrunner. As of 22 October, it would stop producing cards, stop running events and, after six years, the game would be over.

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One of the two men sitting at that table, Chris Dyer, tells me that, due to playtesting work he was doing on the game, he had an inkling that the end might be nigh. “Despite that, it was still an extremely hard piece of news to hear,” he says, “and I think I went home and opened a tub of ice cream.”

Dyer, a self-described “Netrunner addict,” is one of 400 players who’ve gathered in Minnesota for the game’s last World Championship—making it the largest attendance in the event’s history. Over three days of competitive play, that field of 400 has been whittled down to two. Dyer, who flew in from England a few days earlier, and his opponent, Wisconsin’s Joe Schupp, playing on relative home turf.

On the table, though, they’re not representing their home nations but two factions within Netrunner’s world. Dyer plays as a subsidiary of the mass media conglomerate NBN—imagine Fox News crossed with Big Brother, a brand so huge that it etched its own logo onto the surface of the moon. Schupp, meanwhile, is playing Valencia Estevez, an Ecuadorian hacker belonging to the Anarchs faction, a loose collective who embody the ‘punk’ half of the cyberpunk equation.

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'Astroscript Pilot Program' art by Matt Zeilinger, courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games

If this sounds a little unfair, well, it’s by design. Netrunner is an asymmetrical card game where one player is a huge Corporation, the other an individual Runner.

“Usually, when you sit down at a table to play a card game like this, ultimately you and your opponent are doing the exact same thing,” explains Nels Anderson, a videogame designer who, up until recently, co-hosted Idle Thumbs’ Netrunner podcast Terminal 7. According to Anderson:

If you’re playing Magic, or the Game of Thrones card game, or even a digital game like StarCraft or Street Fighter—you may be playing different characters or have different decks, but ultimately the way you’re trying to achieve your goals and the fundamental verbs of what your cards do in the game is going to be exactly the same.

Netrunner was so special because that’s not the case at all. What the Runner does is absolutely different from what the Corporation is doing. Even the way that they win is completely different.

The Corp wins by playing its Agendas—cards that represent initiatives like equipping its security teams with privacy-breaching data systems or running a scandalous news story on their opponent—facedown on the table and spending time and money to advance them. The Runner wins by breaking into the Corp’s servers and stealing these Agendas from under them.

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Which, on that Minnesota tabletop, is exactly what Joe Schupp’s Valencia is doing.

15 minutes into the game—competitive matches are capped at an hour—he’s 4-1 up, having plucked two Agendas from Dyer’s R&D. In standard card game terms, “R&D” is his deck—in Netrunner, a tangible object on the table that the Corp needs to protect.

Dyer, already on the back foot, finds his hand flooded with more Agendas. Rather than play them out on the table, where they might be vulnerable, he ditches them all—again, facedown—into Archives, his discard pile, hoping Schupp won’t go poking around in his trash.

Schupp’s gaze immediately darts over to Archives, and he asks Dyer to count out how many cards are in there. He’s almost inside Dyer’s head, almost figured out what Dyer has just tried to bury… and then Schupp moves on, gets on with his own plans. Even as a spectator, it’s hard not to exhale in relief. Look closely, and you can see the cards shaking slightly in Dyer’s hand—but he stays cool, maintains the bluff.

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This is Dyer’s fourth World Championship—he won the title in 2016, and ranked in the top 16 at last year’s event. Schupp, much like the Runner he’s playing, is the underdog here. He’s been coming for five years, but has never reached the top 16 before.

But with another few dips into Dyer’s R&D, he’s about to become the game’s final world champion, reigning, essentially, in perpetuity. The crowd erupts, teammates grabbing Schupp for a hug, cards and tokens raining from above as Dyer—ever the professional—shuffles his binned Agendas away, making sure Schupp is none the wiser about that backdoor he’d left open.

I ask him afterwards whether the knowledge that this was his last chance at the title impacted the game at all.

“Through the years and all the final games that I've been in I've found that you tend to focus on the game that's being played, and you tend to blot out all the spectators, the cameras and even the consequences of the game to a certain extent; it's just you and your opponent playing Netrunner,” he says. “So at the time it didn't really hit me that it was the last official game that I'd play.”

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'Editing Symphony' by Aurore Folny, for Leigh Alexander's 'Monitor', courtesy of Fantasy Flight

This isn’t actually the first time that Netrunner has died.

The game was originally created back in 1996 by Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame, currently working with Valve on the forthcoming Artifact.

As Lukas Litzsinger, the man responsible for bringing Netrunner back to life in the 21st Century, tells it: “Richard Garfield designed it as a follow up to Magic: The Gathering, and the two games could not be more different. While everyone else was copying Magic, he went out and made a game where cards do not tap and removal is scarce. It’s absolutely brilliant and in my mind enshrines Garfield as the greatest game designer of all time.”

But the game failed to find the same audience that has sustained Magic for a quarter of a century, and it went out of print around the turn of the millennium.

Netrunner was resurrected in 2012 by Fantasy Flight, under license from original publisher Wizards of the Coast. With Litzsinger at the helm, the game was updated and decoupled from its original setting—one borrowed, perhaps notably, from the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game, the same setting that is about to spawn CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077—moving instead into the pre-existing Android universe.

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Fantasy Flight had already published a few Android games, but it was Android: Netrunner which truly cemented the world. It did an incredible amount with card names, art and flavor text to establish a sunnier take on cyberpunk—similar, actually, to our first look at 2077’s Night City. This was a future with dystopian power imbalances, but one where it didn’t need to be raining all the time to underline that.

“The game always felt like it was a lot more of an honest extrapolation of where our world is now,” says Nels Anderson. That extrapolation included a more representative population than you see in most card games, or most science-fiction worlds.

“The game’s characters were this wonderfully encompassing broad swathe of people in the world, in a way that was very inviting but never tokenistic,” Anderson says.

White male characters weren’t the default. The cast of playable Runners maintained an even split of male and female. There was queer representation, including trans and non-binary characters. And it was the rare cyberpunk game “that let Asian characters actually be the protagonists in their own stories,” as pointed out by writer and Crazy Rich Asians’ actor Calvin Wong on Twitter.

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'Encore' art by Aurore Folny, courtesy of Fantasy Flight

The setting wasn’t the only major change for the revamped Netrunner. It moved away from a Magic-style collectible card game model, where cards are distributed in randomized booster packs, similar to loot boxes in video games. Instead, Android: Netrunner pitched itself as a “living card game,” with new cards released in fixed expansion packs, so there was no ambiguity about what you were buying.

This meant that all players, as long as they were willing to invest a steady stream of money into the hobby, were on a level playing field. Anyone could participate in what’s known as the “meta”—a constant dance of strategy and counter, as the weight of what is considered dominant shifts in one direction and the game, through the release of new cards, or the player base, by changing what’s in their decks, adjusts in response.

It’s like being a sports fan. Find yourself in the same room as a fellow Netrunner player, and the current state of the meta will provide fuel for hours of conversation.

Netrunner is a lifestyle game,” says Anthony Giovannetti, lead designer on digital card game Slay the Spire. “It’s a game you really devote yourself to. You spend a lot of time thinking about it and brewing up lists, as well as just playing it.”

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'Big Brother' art by Matt Zeilinger, courtesy of Fantasy Flight

A cottage industry quickly sprung up around Netrunner, with websites, podcasts, YouTube channels and video streams all dedicated to the game. Giovannetti founded the Stimhack website and forum—“a place where more competitive players could talk and get involved and build a real sense of community,” he says—and it quickly became a focal point for the community.

Nels Anderson says that his relationship with Netrunner is inextricably linked to founding the Terminal 7 podcast with Jesse Turner, an artist at video game developer Klei Entertainment. The pair formed a friendship around the game and, says Anderson, “there’s a higher chance both of us would have fallen off the game at some point if it weren’t for the podcast.”

Online tools began to offer ways of building and sharing deck lists, and even playing the game remotely. One of the most popular of these was—and remains—Jinteki.net.

“I was very passionate about Netrunner and the weekly meetups at the local game store were not enough. I wanted to play more than only a few games once per week,” says Minh Tran, a Belgian developer and finalist in the 2014 Netrunner World Championship. “So I started coding Jinteki.net in the evenings after work and during weekends.”

After a year of development, Jinteki.net replicated perfectly the experience of playing Netrunner within a browser window, with constant updates to include all the latest cards.

“It thought it would be a great way not only to keep existing players engaged but also attract new players who would eventually buy cards and grow the Netrunner player base,” Tran says.

Fantasy Flight did not agree. In 2014, it sent cease-and-desist letters to Tran and to Cedric Bertolini, developer of online deckbuilding tool NetrunnerDB. It never followed through on these threats, though, and both sites are still operational today.

Tran himself has stopped playing, but says: “The project is still maintained by the dev team. I will continue to run the server as long as there is an interest from the players.”

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'Ice Wall' art by Matt Zeilinger, courtesy of Fantasy Flight

This community spirit, and the resources that grew out of it, helped the game feel robust and alive for years beyond its launch. When I heard news of Netrunner's imminent demise, it felt like the game was being cut down in its prime.

So I'm surprised that some of the people I speak to, at the very heart of that community, feel like Fantasy Flight may actually have been putting the game out of its misery.

“When I heard it was ending, I was very, very sad—but I wasn’t super surprised,” says Anthony Giovannetti. “The trajectory of the game was downward.”

Tran agrees: “After Lukas Litzsinger was replaced as the lead designer [in 2015], the balance of the game started to degrade quickly. Many absurdly overpowered cards started to appear and they broke the game. It was really not fun to play anymore.

“Many players I knew stopped playing and it had a snowball effect on the rest of the player communities. Attendance at tournaments decreased. Netrunner was dying.”

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The problems they raise are fairly wide reaching. “Community management, organised play stuff, not giving proper support to what was such a hugely popular game at the time… and I think the set design was kind of weak in a lot of areas too,” says Giovannetti. “Fantasy Flight was not a good steward of the game, to say the least.”

The difficulty with a living card game is that, once cards are printed, they’re out in the world permanently. One bad decision, like missing an unexpectedly powerful combo between a new card and an old one, can haunt a game for the rest of its lifespan. Netrunner eventually settled on two solutions to this problem: the Most Wanted List, a regularly updated index of banned and restricted cards, and rotation, where earlier sets were removed from the active cardpool.

These are slightly inelegant fixes—and they obviously won’t be updated any further—but they did result in a game that was less stagnant and reliant on certain “auto-include” cards. It was topped off earlier this year by the release of a revised Core Set, setting a fresh foundation for the entire game.

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'Dinosaurus' art by Matt Zeilinger

“The meta right now is tremendously healthy and interesting—the field is a lot broader,” says Nels Anderson, a firm proponent of the optimistic view on the state of modern Netrunner. “One of my favorite IDs in the entire game is Mti Mwekundu, which came out in the second-to-last expansion for the game ever.”

Chris Dyer, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone willing to fly out to Minnesota for three solid days of the game, agrees: “Netrunner is actually fairly unique in that it's finishing while the game is still great, there's still a large and enthusiastic player base and we've just had easily the biggest event in the whole history of the game. That's a great way to go out.”

Both Anderson and Dyer agree that, while the current good health of the game made its premature end more surprising, it’s certainly better than the alternative.

“I’d much rather it be that way, versus the way that a lot of these things end, which is just the slow sad attrition trickle,” says Anderson. “Where it slowly, sadly decays and falls away until finally someone pulls the plug on the iron lung.”

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The end of Netrunner isn’t quite as clear cut as it might first appear, however, because a segment of the community isn’t quite ready to let go.

“I was pretty devastated, and it was hard to process,” says Catherine Underwood—another Brit who flew out to Minnesota for the final World Championship—about her reaction to the game’s cancellation. “But three months on, it feels like there is still a future for Netrunner, maybe a little different but hopefully for the better.”

Underwood is actively involved in creating that future, as part of the selection committee for the NISEI project. (That’s the Nextrunner International Support & Expansion Initiative, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.)

“It's a fan-run organization dedicated to keeping the game alive,” she explains. “The goal is to try and do everything that FFG did from organized play, maintaining the card pool and even designing new cards. As soon as the news came out, there was a huge outpouring of energy across various forums along the lines of ‘how can we keep this game and community going?’”

The spirit of the project is probably best summed up by the quote it borrowed from Stacker Pentecost, Idris Elba’s character in Pacific Rim, for the post announcing NISEI’s formation: “Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!”

Anthony Giovannetti is also serving on the NISEI selection committee, helping to pick the figures who will lead this initiative. For him, NISEI represents a fresh start for the game, and despite his pessimism about recent official support for Netrunner, he’s hopeful about the project: “Things like this have been done for other games in the past, successfully. So I’m optimistic that, with the people we selected, Netrunner can keep going on, and maybe even improve from some of the decisions that Fantasy Flight made.”

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'The Personal Touch' art by Aurore Folny, courtesy of Fantasy Flight

NISEI might well manage to cancel the apocalypse—but it’ll only ever be for a segment of the most dedicated players. Without official support, these fan-generated cards and rule changes aren’t going to be accessible to new players. In fact, as starter packs get harder and harder to come by, the game and its community will inevitably become hermetically sealed, a space containing only those who were already inside.

If you’re looking for the real legacy of the game, one that extends beyond the immediate community, it’s likely to come through in places that don’t bear the name “Netrunner.” In the card games that will fill the gap, like KeyForge—another Fantasy Flight-published, Richard Garfield-designed game that specifically feels like a reaction to the problems of a stagnating meta.

And, perhaps less obviously, in the video games created by its community. Anthony Giovannetti tells me his digital card game Slay the Spire took a lot of lessons from his time playing Netrunner, especially his issues with card balance. Nels Anderson isn’t sure yet what influence the game will have on titles produced by his new studio, Caledonia, but confirms that it definitely informed his ex-colleagues at Klei Entertainment when they were developing Invisible Inc—a tactics game that, on its surface, has no connection with Netrunner.

In this light, NISEI takes on a different quality. It’s not an act of life support, doomed to become that very iron lung Anderson references, but a tonic specifically for the players who are mourning a game they loved and aren’t ready to pack away just yet. That’s not every player of Netrunner. For some, even the most dedicated, the cancellation has actually provided closure for their relationship with the game.

“Everything ends, or changes, and trying to preserve something in amber as this thing you’re always going to do… it doesn’t seem like necessarily a realistic expectation,” says Anderson. “I’m a lot happier having Netrunner just be a chapter in the big book of how I’ve engaged with games over the years. It was a really awesome chapter, but it doesn’t need to be the entire book—and that’s fine.”