Monday, June 8, 2015

Appendix 1.B - Power Creep in Netrunner

Power creep is the gradual unbalancing of a game due to successive releases of new content.[1] The phenomenon may be caused by a number of different factors and, in extreme cases, can be damaging to the longevity of the game in which it takes place.

Android Netrunner has been very successful in the years it has been released. It has gathered a following that is growing in number, it continues to sell well with every new datapack and deluxe expansion. It remains a competitive game with many ins and outs and while certain strategies are dominant for a time, there are always exceptions to their rule, and as cards are released new strategies emerge.

One of the reasons that ANR is so successful in this is that they have very well avoided Power Creep. While the definition above fits very well, for the purpose of ANR there is one thing to look at when defining Power Creep. Is this card a strictly better, in all situations and senses of the term, than another?

There are cards that seem like direct ‘better’ versions than other cards, but in reality there is very little of even the appearance of that in Netrunner. The designers have done very well in designing a ‘Horizontal Growth’ to the game; that is, instead of making cards that are more powerful and stronger than before, they introduce cards that fill new design spaces and encourage new strategies. There may be one exception to this, and that is Economy - but even so, that is not entirely a true Power Creep, only an increase in availability.

Interested in looking more into Power Creep? Check out Extra Credits: Power Creep - which even talks a bit about Collectible Card Games, but mostly talks about it in terms of video games.

Power Creep - This card is just better!

First, there are a few cards that seem to just be better versions of other cards. Cortex Lock and Neural Katana is a prime example of this. This is simply put, the closest to true Power Creep that ANR has come, and it is a dangerous place to be.

Neural KatanaCortex Lock

Cortex Lock costs less for more strength than Neural Katana. Then it does the same thing - a big chunk of Net Damage that is dangerous when face checked on a single subroutine. Then it turns off relatively the same way - a Killer in play, and its done for. What do most runners look for when going up against Jinteki, or really any early game ICE? A Killer is most common.

Add in to the fact that Cortex Lock is strength four, putting it outside of Mimic range, this makes it seem like Cortex Lock is just a straight swap in for Neural Katana. They are even the same influence, so if a non Jinteki corp was running Neural, Cortex Lock just slips right in without any deck changes.

Face it too, in most situations Cortex Lock is simply straight up better than Neural Katana. Even if the runner installs a Mimic, Cortex Lock is still going to do three net damage - exactly the same as Neural Katana.

Only, this isn’t a straight up swap. While in most situations Cortex Lock is going to not only hurt more (being four, possibly even five net damage and a kill if the runner installs say Desperado and runs head first into it) it is also going to cost less, there are easier ways to get around it. Simply installing that Self-modifying Code already makes Cortex Lock only two net damage, and that is without even spending anything, or even using SMC to find the breaker. Throwing down a few cheap programs and Cortex Lock is dealt with even if there is no way to get a Killer on the board.

Situational, yes. Yet in this case, highly important. As many players seem to have swapped in Cortex Lock for their Katana’s, it becomes a viable strategy to install a few cheap programs that the runner will need anyway, and effectively turn off Cortex Lock.

Then there is the possibility of late game surprises. Cortex Lock is not going to do anything with a Corporate Troubleshooter late game. It is not even going to be a tax; Katana will take at least one credit from the runner for just running through it. Katana could also be rezzed when the runner is a credit or two short of being able to break it, having just gotten through a bunch of other ICE. Maybe the runner will need that credit to break Katana to be able to play a Psi game with Caprice or steal an NAPD.

It is truth to be said that Cortex Lock and Neural Katana are the closest there is yet in ANR to an actual Power Creep. In most cases where Katana was wanted, Cortex Lock is strictly better. Early game damage, slowing down the runner, trashing important cards from their grip, and forcing possibly a need for multiple cards (Mimic and some sort of strength reducer) to get through it as opposed to just one.  

That said however, it comes with drawbacks, and that is late game viability. It drops off fast, and after a point it isn’t even a small tax that can keep the runner from running willy nilly. While there are drawbacks to using the new card that weren't there with the old one, those drawbacks are mitigated by the fact that they occur at a different time phase of the game then when the card is most effective, which for most situational purposes makes Cortex Lock simply a better card.

Power Creep is not something that happens often in Netrunner - Most cards do not do this. There are a few, such as the above example, that is the closest ANR comes to having a direct replacement for an older card. It is a strategy of development that FFG tries very hard not to allow to happen, but for all practical purposes might on occasion. They work hard to provide horizontal growth instead.

Horizontal Growth - Oh wow, this card is now useful!

Horizontal Growth is the secret to keeping ANR out of the Power Creep trap. Rather than designing cards that do the same things, only different, most cards released do new things. Not just new mechanics (though things like Currents and the new Public agenda’s are an example of this) but also just do things in a new way.

Prepaid VoicePADCrescentus

The above two cards were released a long time ago - PrePaid was back in Second Thoughts, the second data pack of the second cycle, Crescentus was in the fourth pack of Genesis, A Study in Static. Now both cards are integral parts of two of the stronger runner archetypes right now - PPvP Kate and Headlock Reina.

Why did these two become strong  cards after so long in the pool? What changed that made these strategies, where before were simply not top tier, become better? It is a combination of many factors; a changing Corp environment, experimentation by the best players, but also - horizontal growth. New cards being released that encourage different strategies. Where runners started off with a run economy model (Desperado, Dirty Laundry, Datasucker, to cram as much benefit out of as single click as possible), PPvP allowed a different sort of event economy. Combined with Kate’s discount, there was a substantial about of money to be made in extra small bits - like the constant drip of one credit from Engineering The Future, only in reverse.

Crescentus found its power after Eater - Only needing one breaker on the table to get through any ICE, one breaker that also combo’d well with other strategies that had been developed (Keyhole in this case)

Both of these cards gained strength because new cards were released. Cards that did not immediately slot into the available strategies and did not immediately become important to the current reigning decks. With every data back there are ten new cards for each side, and of those ten maybe one is useful for the current dominant strategies. There are always more cards that push for new ideas, new archetypes, new decks.

Net-Ready EyesSelf-Destruct Chips

Like these two recently released cards. Net-Ready Eyes isn’t being hyped so much because it will slot right into PPvP Kate. It is being looked at primarily for Anarch breakers, and there are a ton of decks already that are using it with fixed breakers, pushing out archetypes into serious play that weren’t as popular, or bringing back old ideas into new, slightly different, strategies. Imagine, combined with Ice Carver, Yog and Mimic can deal with any Strength 5 or less Code Gate or Sentry, and D4v1d can deal with all the rest. Ice Carver hasn’t seen a ton of play, mostly because of its unique status - It must be seen, but having two more dead draws potentially make that a bad thing. However, the meat damage from Net-Ready Eyes means that there will be a need for cards that can be tossed to meat damage without care. Plus the potential to allow fixed strength breakers like Yog to break say, Tollbooth? That knocks the tax of Tollbooth down to its minimum ever of three credits, a very useful situation to be in.

Self-Destruct Chips may not be very powerful in the long run - only time will tell if the Handsize reduction/brain damage/kill HB Decks have a sufficient consistency and power to stay on the field. Yet for the point of this article, it illustrates nicely the horizontal growth of new strategies. HB Kill was never very consistent. It was always a novelty idea, that maybe somehow enough damage from ICE would be driven home to force the runner to run on a Overwriter or Edge of World. Tricky proposition. Self-Destruct Chips helps to bring the runner closer to flatline, at the exact same time as advancing the scoring strategy of the corp. That is a win win - Pressure from agenda’s scored, as well as pressure from the possibility of flatline. Tough situation for the runner.

Horizontal Growth is important, as it keeps the game interesting, keeps players innovating, and makes sure that no one deck becomes the deck. While certain Archetypes are the strongest at any given point, that is always going to be true for the entire life of the game. The important thing to remember is that those archetypes drop off, or are replaced by others that show their strength. Even more important is to remember that because of Horizontal Growth, a skilled player with a deck that is not one of those dominant archetypes can still win, if they know their deck well enough for how it works with and against those powerful strategies.

Economy - The Power Creep to rule them all?

Sure GambleLucky Find

If there is one area where there is a sort of power creep in Netrunner, it is Economy. While, but the explanation of what Power Creep means for Netrunner in the opening paragraphs, it is not strictly true (There are no economy cards that are hands down strictly just better than another - all come with some sort of drawback - more to invest, more time (clicks) influence, or situational) there is still an increase in the economic strength of both the runner and the corp.

Any long time player of Netrunner will be able to point out that Economy has gotten more powerful as the game has progressed. Gone are the days of lean running, or relying heavily on recurring credits (though that is still a viable strategy). Gone are the days the only way to really avoid SeaScorch combo was Plascrete. Having twenty, thirty, even forty credits is a distinct possibility for a lot of decks. Why is this the case?

It is not so much that the new economy cards released are better - sure most of them give more credits overall than previous ones (Lucky Find gives Six credits, Sure Gamble only gives four) but they often have more restrictions to their use (An extra click plus influence cost for Lucky Find, versus just one click for Gamble).  It really comes down to the fact that there are so many more of them then there were before. At the beginning of the games life, there were very few ways to make money - Clicking for credits was common, simply because there wasn’t an option otherwise - All the Gambles and Hedgefunds had been played, all the resource economy was tapped out, the drip asset economy trashed. More economy cards kept being released however. More economy cards that while not strictly better than older ones may be more in tune for the strategy of the deck than the fewer options there were before. PPvP Kate likes event economy because it synergies with the VoicePADs. Why would she want Armitage clogging up not only deck space, but time (using too many clicks)?

It just comes down to availability of options. As more cards are released, there are more options that fit different strategies - more variety to offer more tools to more types of decks. That is a perfect example of Horizontal Growth - these cards don’t really always work together, due to the emphasis on certain strategies - yet they are the same type of card, that basically do the same thing. That is a form of Power Creep, closer to the wiki’d definition on the top of the article. There is more money, meaning that games are faster, runners can get in more often, corps can rez bigger ICE to make it harder. Economy is growing in power for all decks, no matter the archetype, and that is a place to see concern. Taking that first definition, the gradual increase of economy options, meaning a stronger and more healthy economy for both sides of the game, is slowly increasing the powerlevel of the entire meta. The question is, is it harmful to ANR or not?

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