Link with a View: Degenerative Strategy

Krystian Majewski recently published a post called Netrunner: The Way to Win is Not to Play in which he discusses the way in which certain powerful strategies in Netrunner function by subverting the normal flow of play and ideally cutting out your opponent’s ability to do anything. Go read that now, because it’s an interesting look at this phenomenon from both the standpoint of game design and of the competitive environment.

It put me in mind of when I used to play the CCG Legend of the Five Rings. For the entire span of time I played L5R (from Gold Edition up through Lotus), it was a truism that the less you had to interact with your opponent to win, the better. The strongest and most reliable competitive decks were the ones that did not require your opponent to do, have, or be anything, and which furthermore reduced your opponent’s ability to do anything to you as much as possible. Now, on one level this is basic strategy. Naturally, when going to a tournament in which you will be facing a variety of decks, you want to avoid making assumptions about what they will be using, and limiting risk is a necessary step in building a reliable deck. The problem was in how easy it was to accomplish these goals with just a few cards. Meet Deadly Ground:


Deadly Ground, along with power rare Sneak Attack, formed the basis of most offensive decks in Gold Edition. If you could ensure that your army would be slightly stronger than your opponent’s at a given location, all you had to do was drop Deadly Ground and the battle was yours. Its defensive counterpart was Entrapping Terrain:


Entrapping Terrain ensured that no matter what happened at the battle, the ultimate outcome was a draw, buying the defender another turn. It was a must have in any defensive honor deck. The presence of both Entrapping Terrain and Deadly Ground in the environment meant that everyone had to run cards like Superior Tactics in order to counter those terrains and preserve some hope of actually being able to affect your opponent. Neither of those terrains made it out of Gold Edition, and with good reason.

Moving forward from GE, though, another problem cropped up. L5R had two blanket rules for how actions could be played in battles: The Rule of Presence, and the Rule of Relevance. Presence meant that you had to have personalities present at the battle to take actions during it, while Relevance meant that actions taken during a battle had to have some impact on the battle itself (I’m oversimplifying a bit, but this is the gist). These rules were obviously designed to prevent players from using empty battlefields to take a bunch of actions unopposed and so promote interaction and risk. In the Diamond environment, though, personality removal was very, very common. As a result, battles quickly turned into a race to see who could kill (or barring that, send home) all of their opponent’s personalities first in order to stop them from doing anything. This sort of repetitive bloodbath was not incredibly more interesting than the foregone conclusions of Gold Edition.

I guess my takeaway from all of this is that in a competitive game, people are always going to be looking for the strategy which renders their opponent irrelevant and impotent, and this is usually not fun for either participant. If you want your game to be fun in a competitive setting, you have to watch carefully to make sure you do not give the players the tools to do this, or at least do it easily.

0 comments on “Link with a View: Degenerative Strategy

  1. Your link gave me lots of feels, Seth, and I need to work through them.

    Maybe I’m just a bit of a sheeple, but when I hit the part where he is essentially comparing these strategies to those RPG players who seek to completely break through the game via, well, powergaming, he lost me a bit.

    Fast Advance, Scorched Earth, the Anarchs…those aren’t loophole strategies. They aren’t the result of pouring over the rules to find that one combo unintended by the creators. They’re explicitly written into the game to work the way they do. As such, there are ways to counter them within the game, and while they do seek to limit the opponent’s choices (FA requires you to run on a particular server, SE makes you want to remove tags/keep your hand full, Parasite’s going to see you spending one turn to remove tokens…), I don’t quite follow that as being as boring or egotistical or even really breaking free from the rules of the game as he seems to suggest.

    I get that there’s a fine line between Player Disruption that’s good and Player Disruption that’s bad (nobody likes that board game where it’s fifteen minutes ’till your turn and “Whoop!” your turn got skipped!/nobody likes that DM who pops a flying Dragon on a party that’s made up entirely of melee characters and, god help him, keeps that !$*(!ing Dragon in the air)- but I guess I don’t see those strategies as necessarily ruining the fun of the game. They’re added complications that the opponent has to work around, but it doesn’t even necessarily stop them from being able to run their own strategy with it.

    Or so’s my thoughts, at least. Maybe I think Player Disruption is a better term- it’s a bit less loaded.

    1. I do think that the comparison between RPGs and Netrunner is not a perfect one. In a single player RPG, you will find people complaining that certain combos/strategies are “too good,” but there is always the option of not using those tactics. Expectations are different in a competitive atmosphere where everyone is expected to push the cards for all they are worth.

      There’s a certain degree of subjective analysis that comes into play as well. I remember long and frequent debates on L5R forums over what counted as a “Negative Play Experience,” as the parlance went. You want the players to be able to punish certain strategies without shutting them down entirely. I certainly haven’t played Netrunner enough to know if the SEA Source + Scorched Earth’s combo amounting to “don’t run on the corp unless you have Plascrete/more credits” creates an interesting complication or deforms the metagame.

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