A Corp in Netrunner is in a fairly unique position for a CCG. In most card games, the uncertainty comes from the cards in the opponent’s deck and their cards in their hand. A few card games also have some face-down traps, which put a little guessing into the game. But in Netrunner, every card you play that enters play does so face down, giving you massive bluffing potential. In addition, the only way the runner can really win the game is by braving your face-down ICE and Traps and hopefully snagging enough agendas to win. So obviously, there’s a massive amount of bluffing in this game for the Corp.
But since this is fairly unique to Netrunner, a lot of people don’t really know what to do when they’re given this access to bluff. Many people don’t know what to do with this great bluffing potential, as it’s not something you run into in most games. They want those shiny traps to hit, but they don’t know how to make it work. It seems like every time they play a trap, the opponent seems to know, and just avoids it.
Don’t worry; it’s not actually that hard. I’m going to lay down a couple of guidelines for when and how make your bluffs believable, and a couple of bluffing philosophies. Next, we’ll talk about the differences between traps with different numbers of tokens on them. Then, I’ll go into some detail on how to play around Infiltration, how to take advantage of predictability in your local metagame. Then, we’ll look at the other side of the coin and discuss how to beat your opponent’s bluffs. Finally, I’ll briefly discuss more unorthodox advancement patterns and why I don’t think they’re worth the trouble.
(This article will not cover the concepts of physical tells, like nervous tics, false tells, or anything else like that. Those kinds of things vary greatly from person to person, and are really outside the scope of this article. There is something to be gained in studying this, though, and if you really want to dive down that rabbit hole, there’s a lot of information online about reading physical tells.)
Sell your traps as if they were agendas
The most important point to make is that your traps will never catch the opponent if you don’t sell them on the idea that it’s actually an agenda or an upgrade. A trap with a couple of advancement tokens on it which sits there for 3 turns isn’t going to fool anyone… Who leaves an agenda sitting around with 2 or 3 tokens on it?
Also, the idea of playing your traps and agendas unprotected as if they were kind of a shell game doesn’t really work out that well. Installing assets into a ton of remote servers with no ICE on them and advancing random cards falls apart if the opponent plays intelligently. If your opponent only runs when they have enough cards in hand to eat a trap, then they’ll be able to run those servers with near impunity, and their ability to make 2 or 3 runs a turn will quickly outstrip your ability to lay traps and put enough tokens on them to be effective. (Wyldside in particular really hurts this strategy, and that card sees very heavy play.) And if they play Infiltration or Satellite Uplink then you’re just totally hosed.
So how exactly do we play our traps and actually get the opponent to fall for them? You probably won’t be surprised to know that we can steal a good lesson from poker. In one of the bibles of Poker, ‘The Theory of Poker’ by David Sklansky, he describes how strong poker play must involve bluffs to keep the opponent from knowing your intentions every time you bet. He says that you should not be on the lookout for situations in which to bluff, but instead that you should try to mix in your pure bluffs randomly, and should play them in the same way as you play your legitimate hands. A large portion of this information applies very well to Netrunner. (Really, I could practically write an entire article applying things from this book to Netrunner, it’s an amazing book.)
So, following this advice, we’re going to play our traps exactly as if they were agendas or upgrades. We’re not going to give up information by only playing our traps in under-defended servers, only in certain situations, and so on. We’re going to pick a strategy to use for playing all our cards into our servers, and use it for both our agendas and traps to make sure that we’re not letting anything slip when we try to trick the opponent. In addition, we are going to try to mix in our bluffs as randomly as we can. (With a few exceptions where bluffs have very low expectation due to the rules or the game… Those situations will be noted below.)
Playing things randomly is something we can get out of the way quickly. We don’t always have the option to bluff randomly, because we are required to have certain cards in your hand in order to lay a trap. But if you have the option to play a trap or an agenda and you want to do so randomly, you can use any number of randomizers, like a watch, a scentence from your favorite book, and so on. Exactly how often to bluff is too complex for this entry-level article, and something which I have not researched enough to comment on, but I might look into that later.
As for the more complex issue of playing things the same and how exactly to play your traps and agendas, read on.
Over-Protect everything or Under-Protect everything?
Now that we know that the traps only work if we play our traps and our agendas in the same way, we’re led to the next obvious question… How should we play all our agendas and traps? There are two basic schools of thought here. One is to protect everything and make sure that it’s difficult for your opponent to access your traps and your agendas. The other is to protect everything a little more lightly than you otherwise would, and rely on the fact that you’re playing some traps to provide your extra protection.
In over-protecting everything, you’re making it look like it’s always going to be difficult to get in, and there may still be a trap waiting for them after they spend 10 credits to get in. The basic idea here is that it’s the safest way of bluffing. You’re trading ease of access for your traps away in order to make it more difficult and more expensive for your opponent to run away with an agenda.
On the plus side for this strategy, it’s fairly resistant to Infiltration and other peeking abilities. A server which is difficult to access serves as a second layer of protection if your opponent peeks and realizes that there’s an agenda in the server. You’re essentially using your ICE as a backup plan, just in case your opponent picks up a tell or peeks at the card in the server. And of course, if your opponent thinks they’re outsmarting you or tricking you by playing that Inside Job they splashed in, then they’re probably very much caught off-guard by a trap they’re not expecting, and there’s a greater chance that they weren’t prepared for it. A problem with this strategy is that sometimes your traps are going to fail just because the opponent will be too scared to run. If you’ve got a server with three pieces of ICE and a fourth unrezzed one on top, he might just decide he’s unlikely to be able to run that server, and all you’ve done is waste a turn.
In under-protecting everything, you’re leaving your servers a bit easier to access, so your opponent likely knows that he can get into a server, but he also knows that it may be a trap. This way of playing is slightly more consistent with the philosophy of playing traps; we don’t need to protect our servers quite as heavily when we have the added protection of traps.
On the plus-side, your traps will always have a chance of hitting if your opponent knows they can likely get in. In addition, if you do this, you can either get away with running less ICE, or play the same amount of ICE and use it to protect other servers you might otherwise have to under-protect. If you only need to play three pieces of ICE on your remote server because you are expecting traps to scare the opponent, then you might be able to afford that extra piece of ICE protecting your discard pile from the Sneakdoor Beta that Gabe has out. On the downside, it’s not expensive for your opponent to try and call your bluff. If your opponent has four or five cards in hand just in case that 2-token card is a Project Junebug, then they can pretty much run your lightly-defended server with impunity. If you under-protect your servers, expect your opponent to run your servers more often, ‘just to keep you honest.’ In addition, this strategy can fall to Infiltration-type cards. If your server is relatively easy to get into, then if your opponent somehow knows there’s an agenda in there, then it’s simple to steal it.
There’s no right answer to how to play your traps, as long as you’re playing your traps and agendas in the same way. Under-Protecting and Over-Protecting are both fine, as long as you’re doing it in a way which doesn’t give your opponent any information. You can play safer against Criminal decks which are likely to have Satellite Uplink, and riskier against a Chaos Theory deck which doesn’t have enough space for such niceties. You can even start off under-protecting, and then over-protect after your opponent uses their first infiltration to spot a trap. Under-Protecting versus Over-Protecting is not a scale of correctness; it’s a scale of riskiness.
So now that we have a good idea of how we are going to play our traps, let’s look at some specifics about each type of trap you can play and how you can trick people with them.
Assets without Advancement Tokens
There’s something to be said for traps and assets which you can’t install tokens on. These traps only take one click to lay down, and they work without any extra investment. They don’t usually kill the opponent, but are very low risk, and they also have the most bluffing potential by a long shot.
Traps which work without agenda tokens have a subtle advantage over the ones which do. They can sometimes sit in servers for a very large number of turns without being suspicious, because of multitude of options they can represent. For example, if I install an Edge of the World into a server, I am attempting to pass it off as a 3-point agenda which I will score next turn. If the opponent does not access it on that turn, though, it does not look as suspicious for me to leave it in the server. In fact, even if I leave it in a server for two or three turns, it regains its threatening potential once again if I install an upgrade into the server, like Akitaro Watanabe or Corporate Troubleshooter. Now it looks like my original trap which has been sitting there untriggered was the protective upgrade, and the second card is finally my attempt to put an agenda into the server.
In fact, you can even use non-trap assets as traps on occasion. While traps usually cost the opponent cards in hand or installed programs, a harmless asset costs credits. For example, in a recent game, I was at 5 points playing Jinteki, and had a reasonably well-protected server, but one which the opponent could get through at a high cost. (About 10 credits) This was something that both of us knew, all the ICE was face-up. Nothing was going to change the fact that he could access that server. But the risk of me scoring immediately pretty much meant he had to run the server and try and stop it, no matter what I put in. My opponent was prepared for the worst, with a Wyldside in play keeping his hand big enough to stop any crazy traps from killing him. So I simply played a Zaibatsu Loyalty into that server and next turn, my opponent paid 10 gold to make sure it wasn’t a Braintrust and I couldn’t win next turn. If Zaibatsu Loyalty’s card text said, “Next turn, your opponent loses one click and ten credits” I would play it all day long. And if he didn’t access it, I wouldn’t feel too bad about just trashing it and trying again later after installing some more ICE and making him guess again.
The real killer trap here is Edge of the World. Brain damage really hurts, and makes your future traps even more threatening. But since it has to be in a server which has ICE in front of it, you pretty much have to install it in your main remote server, and pass it off as an agenda or an upgrade. Snare is a great surprise, but there’s a big benefit to just keeping it in your hand and trying to punish people for accessing that. (Although passing off a Snare as an unprotected Pad Campaign very early game can work pretty well.)
Bluffing with 1 or 2 advancement tokens
Assets which require advancement tokens to work (like Project Junebug or Aggressive Secretary) are much more straight-forward. When you install a trap like this, you are attempting to convince your opponent that it is a 4 or 5 cost agenda that you will score next turn if they do not stop you. If you fool the opponent and they access your trap, you will probably get a nice payoff, which, in the case of two tokens, is probably greater than the traps which you can’t advance. If the opponent doesn’t run them, you just wasted a couple of credits and clicks, and it’s time to trash them and install something else, starting the guessing game again. That’s the biggest issue with these traps. They take so much setup that it’s pretty painful if the opponent does not fall for them. If I install and Aggressive Secretary and advance it twice and the opponent doesn’t run it, then I’ve wasted an entire turn.
These traps have their best chance of ‘trapping’ the opponent when they are dropped and advance them once or twice immediately, because that looks so unsuspicious. But once you advance them, they basically have a one-turn window to fool the opponent, because nobody leaves partially-scored agendas sitting around if they can help it. You might be able to drop the asset on one turn and then advance it on another turn, but that starts to look a little suspicious. You might be able to sell it if your remote server is much more protected than your hand and it looks like you’re installing it there for safety. And, of course, if the runner accesses these assets with no tokens, then they don’t get trapped, but they waste the money to access the server, which is a nice return on the investment. (But it lacks the subtle pleasure of yanking four cards out of the opponent’s hand.)
At one advancement token, Aggressive Secretary stands out. With only one token, Project Junebug just tickles the opponent a bit, which Aggressive Secretary can get rid of a key Magnus Opus or Yog-a-saurus. With two tokens, Project Junebug really starts shining, as losing four cards is really painful. (If not outright deadly.)
Bluffing with more than two advancement tokens
Here’s where things get silly. Traps with more than 2 advancement tokens are a much rarer scenario, as they usually represent an investment of more than one turn into tricking the opponent. It can be incredibly costly if these traps fail, but of course, the payoff is huge. A three-token Project Junebug kills just about any runner, and a three token Aggressive Secretary can practically wipe the runner’s whole rig. (And a three-token Ghost Branch… tags them three times.) And like the other examples, if the trap is accessed the turn you laid it down with no tokens on it, then you’re presumably draining the runner’s credits.
But if you want the big payoff, the big issue is to actually convince the opponent that the card with three tokens on it is an agenda. This is difficult; the only agendas which really make sense to play in this way are Mandatory Upgrades, and agendas like Project Atlas or Project Vitruvius which can be advanced beyond the amount they need to be scored. (And really, three or so tokens is kind of a practical limit to how many tokens you can put on a card before the opponent gets suspicious. After you fish out your Sea Source and your two Scorched Earths, how many other cards do you need to get out of your deck with Project Atlas, anyway?)
If your opponent sees that you’re running these kinds of cards, then you’re good. For example, if he steals a Project Atlas from you, then he knows there’s potential for it to pop up and be advanced more than three times. But think about the story you’re trying to sell the opponent. If they stole your first Project Atlas and it looks like you’re desperate to fish out those pieces of the Scorched Earth combo a few turns later, then that looks believable. If the opponent has seen both a Sea Source and a Scorched Earth by accessing your hand, are they really going believe you need more cards from Project Atlas?
This is the main reason I like to play Mandatory Upgrades in HB. It gives me the ability to really sell a Project Junebug with three tokens on it as if it were an agenda. If I score one, if definitely doesn’t preclude me from trying to score another. And aside from the obvious benefits of scoring it, it makes laying down an asset/agenda and immediately giving it three tokens on the same turn a very reasonable course of action; it looks like I want to score another Mandatory Upgrades. So we can make it look like we have a valid reason to have 3-token agendas multiple times in a game, which really helps to make those game-ending traps land.
But the real problem here is that some opponents simply won’t run on a card with that many tokens, ever. Here, mixing in a random bluff has a low expectation, so it’s not worth it to throw in those three-token bluffs. If you find yourself playing in that kind of environment, you can only really expect these traps to work when your opponent must run, or they just lose. You might be about to get away with feigning a big Project Atlas at any time if you’re playing Tag and Bag, since a 6-point Project Atlas gets all the points you need to kill almost anyone… But that’s really only an option for a player who is willing to devote almost all of their deck’s influence to throwing traps on top of the typical Tag and Bag setup. If you’re playing traps out of HB, you might want to consider only playing these traps when you have 5 points scored already, and another Mandatory Upgrades would win you the game.
If your opponent plays cards that reveal your traps, then as we pointed out earlier in the article, you might want to swap to a more protected method of play, which makes your traps a little less likely to hit, but makes it so Infiltration doesn’t give the opponent a very cheap agenda. You can’t do anything else about it if they have Infiltration in their deck, so just keep playing the traps and agendas and mix things up like you normally would, and hopefully, you will be able to force them to take a guess without a copy of Infiltration in your hand. Smile, congratulate them on spotting your trap, and move on quickly.
Your deck construction shouldn’t change because of the existence of this card in your meta-game either. If you’re playing a Jinteki deck which is relying on only traps to win, throw in Zaibatsu Loyalty (which should probably already be in the deck anyway.) If you’re playing a deck with a few traps here and there to surprise people, then just leave your deck be and tune your play a bit.
If the player you are playing against or your local meta-game plays in such a way as to give up information or removes uncertainty, then you can take advantage of it. For example, I have heard a disturbing number of players in my area say that they simply refuse to run on any server which does not have an advanced card in it, for fear of it being Edge of the World. If you are a situation where you opponents will play this predictably, then there are two ways you can take advantage of the situation.
First, you can only play traps which take advancement tokens. If you only play traps like Aggressive Secretary and Project Junebug, then you’re simply tweaking your traps to make them more likely to hit these players. This will work just fine, and as we know, those traps with 2 or 3 tokens on them can be truly brutal when they hit.
Second, you can play more agendas which can be advanced in a single turn, essentially calling their bluff. If you know that your opponent refuses to run anything without advancement tokens, then you can take advantage of this by either running more 3-cost agendas and scoring them the turn after they are installed, or by simply playing a fast-advance deck which scores agendas on the same turn they are dropped. So if you’re playing HB, for example, you might consider running both Accelerated Beta Test and Project Vitruvius. Or you might want to pull out your NBN Fast-Advance deck and never let an agenda sit on the board all game. Once you opponent catches on that you’re taking advantage of this hole in their game and starts running on un-advanced cards again, you’ll be able to play in a more regular style. And if they don’t catch on? Great, take advantage of it all day long.
So how do we beat a good bluffer? If your opponent is bluffing perfectly, then there’s nothing you can do about it. The simple answer is you can’t really BEAT them, the best you can do is make your guesses as good as you possibly can. Since we’re playing a good bluffer and we have no tells to work with, we have to use game theory and think about risk versus reward. If we are at 5 agenda points and our opponent is at 3 agenda points, and he lays an unrezzed card in an empty server with three pieces of ICE protecting it, there are four real possibilities we need to consider:
- It’s a Snare
- It’s an Edge of the World
- It’s an Agenda
- It’s some upgrade or unadvanced trap.
If we have no other information about what could be in server, then we have to make an educated guess about whether or not to run it. If we had all the time in the world, we would make this decision with game theory. We’d assign a probability and a payoff to every event. For example, we might say that the odds that he played Edge of the World are 20%, the payoff if we don’t run it is 200, and the payoff if we do is -800. Then we’d multiply everything together, hope our percentages are accurate, and make the decision which gives us the best payoff.
However, coming up with good probabilities is hard (if not impossible), this is a lot of mental math to do, and we’ve got a time limit in this game. So instead, we’ll try to do a more shorthand form of this. We’ll see how many of his traps and agendas he has played so far and make a guess based on that. So let’s say that we’ve seen two of his Edge of the Worlds already, but none of his snares, and he has about half his deck left. So we suspect that the odds of it being an Edge of the World are fairly low, but the odds of it being a Snare are much higher. And the odds of it being an agenda are also fairly high. If we run into an agenda, we likely win the game, if we run into a Snare it’s kinda bad, but if we run into the last copy of Edge of the World, it will really hurt. So we balance the risk versus the rewards and take a guess. Since we can’t assign real percentages to everything, there’s no real right guess here, you kind of just have to trust your gut. (Which just seems poetic and right when there are bluffs involved.)
As a final point, this entire article is based on the use of fairly normal patterns people use to advance agendas, such as installing a 3-cost agenda on one turn and scoring it next turn, or installing a 5-cost agenda and putting two tokens on it in one turn and scoring it on the next turn. These normal methods of advancing agendas are in place for good reason; they expose your agendas to the opponent for the fewest turns possible, making it harder to steal them.
If you play all of your traps AND agendas in strange ways, lackadaisically putting tokens on them here and there, then sure, you’re bluffing your opponent well by playing your traps and agendas in the same way, but there’s going to be more times when you have agendas with one or two tokens on them which your opponent can decide that they’ll only run whenever they have the protection. And since you’re stretching the game out by leaving things in play longer than they normally would be, you really aren’t in a place to take advantage of the fact that they are being so slow and cautious. (And really, the Corp can make things dangerous for themselves by playing too slowly, as they’ll have more chances to draw agendas they have to protect.
But if you DO regularly leave advanced agendas sitting around for multiple turns before scoring them and kill your opponents off with five-token Project Junebugs, you might want to get into poker. I think you’d do well there.