Brendan’s recent post “on Scorched Earth” lamented that the Netrunner card Scorched Earth was “inelegant”. I can see where he’s coming from—I’m certainly not going to claim that Scorched Earth is a paragon of elegance—but I think he undersells the card. In particular, while I think his alternate proposals would all make for interesting cards, I think that Scorched Earth enriches Netrunner in a way that his proposed replacements wouldn’t.
There are two ways for the Corporation to win in Netrunner: by scoring seven agenda points, or by forcing the Runner to discard more cards than are in their hand. These aren’t parallel—the former is the primary way for the Corporation to win, and most of the interactions revolve around that mechanism—but they’re both important, because without the latter, the Runner could be a lot more careless. For example, the presence of Snare means that, if the Runner has fewer than three cards in hand then they should think twice before running on a server with an unadvanced card in it, or even running on HQ or R&D: if they hit a Snare, they’ll lose the game.
In go, there’s a concept called “honte”: this translates as “proper move”. When responding to a situation, you’ll have different ways to play, but frequently local pattern matching will mark one of them as proper. That doesn’t mean that that proper move is always the best move—sometimes the global situation suggest otherwise, and sometimes detailed reading of the local situation will reveal that the honte isn’t the best move even locally—but nine times out of ten, it’s the right thing to do. These proper moves sometimes look a little slow (especially for those of us who aren’t good enough at the game to appreciate the down sides of not playing the proper moves), but if you stick to them, you’ll generally end up with a solid position while your opponent’s risks mean their downfall.
In Netrunner (and indeed in most other games!), this concept of proper moves also appears. It’s more likely to appear in a negative sense in Netrunner than in go: as discussed above, Snare means that it’s generally not proper to make a run with fewer than three cards in your hand, for example, and the threat of tags (which Snare can also produce, it’s pretty vicious!) also means that in general it’s not proper to run on the last click of a turn, because otherwise you’ll be tagged during the Corporation turn. So it’s not so much that certain moves are proper as that certain moves are improper; it boils down to a similar effect, though.
So, to sum: card damage is one route to winning, but that’s not its main role in Netrunner. It’s mostly there as a mild risk task on the Runner’s actions (at least mild if the Runner doesn’t overweight loss aversion), and by playing proper moves, the Runner can almost always avoid losing for that reason. In particular, it’s almost impossible for the Corporation to create an active strategy to win via card damage.
Or rather, it would be almost impossible for the Corporation to do so without Scorched Earth. Because Scorched Earth is one of the few cards that lets the Corporation cause significant amounts of card damage during the Corporation’s turn. (In the core set, the only other such cards only cause the Runner to lose one card at a time; I haven’t exhaustively surveyed the expansions, but I think it was about a year before second such damaging card showed up, with Punitive Counterstrike.) So, without Scorched Earth, the Corporation would have no active way to win by card damage; and while I do think it’s better for the Corporation’s winning strategies to be focused on scoring agendas, I also think it would be a shame if there weren’t any active card damage routes to victory at all.
And it’s not like a Scorched Earth win is easy to pull off. You need two of them to flatline the Runner (assuming they keep their hand properly full), so even assuming that the Corporation has three of them in their deck, the Corporation will expect to have to get to make it through most of their deck to have a chance of a Scorched Earth win. And to pull it off, you need the Runner to be tagged; but almost all of the ways to get tagged take place on the Runner’s turn, giving the Runner chances to clear their tags. (Or they can try to be careful and avoid getting tagged at all.) There are ways for the Corporation to tag the runner during the Corporation turn (SEA Source, for example), and I’ve certainly won my fair share of games by playing SEA Source plus two Scorched Earths, but doing that is going to require the Corp to have noticeably more credits than the Runner (enough to make the SEA Source trace stick while having credits left over for the Scorched Earths), so the Runner can foil that plan by staying rich.
And, if that weren’t enough, there’s another way for the Runner to foil the plan: it’s not in the core set, but the very first Netrunner expansion introduced Plascrete Carapace. One Plascrete Carapace is enough to protect against a Scorched Earth, so once that card became available, the proper move for the Runner when deckbuilding was to include two Plascrete Carapaces in their deck (and they’re neutral cards, so anybody can do that): that’s enough to stack the odds significantly in the favor of the Runner in the Scorched Earth battle.
So, to sum: the Runner can foil Scorched Earth by keeping four cards in their hand at the end of their turn, by avoiding ending their turn tagged, and by keeping up with the Corp on economy; these are all proper moves anyways. If that’s not enough to make the Runner feel confident, then throw in a couple of Plascrete Carapaces. Also, odds are that it will take a while for the Corp to draw enough Scorched Earths plus tag generation to win that way even if the Runner doesn’t have Plascrete Carapaces, so this also encourages the Runner to keep up the pressure on the Corp, which makes for a more exciting game all around.
Or at least a mostly exciting game all around: in Netrunner as in go, you don’t always want to play the “right move”, putting Plascrete Carapaces in your deck just to protect against Scorched Earth is grating, and you can’t simultaneously put pressure on the Corp while stockpiling money and limiting your runs. There’s a flip side for the Corp, too: you always have to do some work to pull off Scorched Earth even if the Runner lets their guard down, because Weyland doesn’t have a tag generation (in fact, no identity other than NBN has a lot of tag generation), and the splash cost is so high that you’re going to use at least 8 and probably 12 of your 15 influence on Scorched Earth if you do go that route. So this means that very few Jinteki or HB Corp decks will include Scorched Earth at all, and even NBN and Weyland decks will frequently find it better to focus on something else.
And this is where things get interesting. Given those calculations, is it really worth it for the Runner to waste two deck slots on Plascrete Carapace? Or, going a step further: some Runners will build their deck so that, in the absence of Scorched Earth, nothing horrible will happen to them if they get tagged. So, while I said above that the “proper move” for the Runner is to avoid ending your turn tagged, you can also decide to play as the Runner in a way that embraces the possibilities of getting tagged, accumulating tags right and left. If you do that, you’re vulnerable to Scorched Earth (as well as other cards, e.g. the dreaded Psychographics / Project Beale combo), but the rewards can be huge:
it turns Account Siphon from a card that (at its best) takes three clicks to get an 11-credit Corp/Runner swing into a card that (at its best) takes one click to get a 15-credit Corp/Runner swing, which is enormous. Scorched Earth probably has a larger effect on the game in the way in which it puts a real bite into tag calculations than in the possibilities that it opens up for an affirmative strategy to win the game; and yes, I would call that an elegant design choice.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t feel like I’ve been clever if I win the game as NBN by using Scorched Earths. (Though if we’re looking at NBN inelegance, I’d cast my eye first at AstroScript instead.) But I’m glad it’s there to open up my possibility space as a Corporation when deckbuilding, and to strike fear in the heart of the Runner when they don’t know if I have Scorched Earths in my deck. (Or when they’ve caught sight of a Scorched Earth in my hand and are suddenly stepping much more gingerly, wondering when the inevitable second one will appear.)
And, on the Runner side, I need to embrace probability: make judicious bets, figure out which risks are the right ones to take given my current state of the game and what I’ve seen about my opponent’s hand. If they’re NBN, I’ll try to figure out if they’re focusing on Scorched Earth to complement their tagging; if they’re Weyland, I’ll be very nervous about any glimpse of tag creation that I see in their hand.
And then, every once in a while, I’ll build a Jinteki deck with a single Scorched and just enough tag generation to get it stick right after the Runner has stumbled into some net damage. If that combo lands, it will cause the Runner to say many things about the situation, but I suspect that “inelegant” won’t be the first adjective that they’ll use.
- August 11, 2014 @ 15:58:30 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- August 11, 2014 @ 15:58:30 by David Carlton