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Neal's Last Words


Neal's Last Words

by Byron "Neal" Massey

Czar Today, Gone Tomorrow

Unfortunately my Last Words have not been getting the attention they deserve. Running the store keeps me very busy, and the graceful but marked decline in Netrunner participation and support has really hurt my motivation. But fear not, gentle reader! The Fall Guy is here with a history and discussion of Netrunner rules and rulers.

In the Beginning...

The Highlander format for Netrunner suggests that "There can be only one." It's not quite true in the history of Netrunner rules Czars. In fact, there have been five.

Think back to a better time, the middle ninties of the previous millenium. Magic cards are being sold at an astounding rate, and Richard Garfield and his game buddies have been teasing us with news of Netrunner for two years. Recognizing the intricate and elegant design of the final product, WotC commits to the biggest print run in collectible-card-game history. Oops.

With the initial investment in Netrunner came something that seems impossible to newer players - WotC support. Wendy Wallace handled a lot of the rules questions in the early days, mostly clearing up issues in the rulebook with basic game mechanics. Glenn Elliot trolled the list, looking for people to make angry (and successfully, too!). Then there was Sparky.

Mark "Sparky" Schmaltz was the first true Rules Czar of Netrunner (although Wendy was certainly a protoczar). He tackled tough issues with aplomb, only occasionly stumbling. He had a great sense of humor and easy access to Tom Wylie (rumored to be the illigimate but true father of the game). The game was still fresh, organized competitions were low-pressure and low-stakes, and we all wondered what secrets and tricks the superb WotC playtesters were holding back from us. Oh, to be young again!

The Big "Oops"

A year later, the bottom had fallen out of the market and the clone games were dying on the vine. Fallen Empires, a Magic Expansion, was going down like the Hindenburg (you can buy packs of this expansion today for fifty cents). The joyride was over at WotC, and Netrunner was the Fall Guy (or was that me?). Sparky and Glenn Elliot left us for the promised land of Battletech (I laugh openly as I consider this). Netrunner was placed on the "dud" list as sales sagged under the weight of hilarious overprinting. Enter J.D. Wiker.

J.D. was the last WotC employee to serve as rules Czar, and the first to be openly trashed on the Netrunner mailing list. He clearly had little knowledge of the game, was not particularly interested in it, and his access to Tom Wylie was limited. Netrunner was an annoying financial failure for a company that was accustomed to the early success of Magic, and employee time was not fit to be spent on the game unless absolutely necessary.

J.D. left abruptly but without much sorrow, part of the corporate shuffle. Netrunner remained without any rules authority for some time. Jennifer Clarke Wilkes took a strong interest in the game, lobbying heavily to invest a non-employee with the title of Rules Czar.

Just Saying "No"

I turned the job down for a few reasons. The most important was that Rules Czars had always been paid in the past, and the new position was strictly volunteer. I knew that Czars took lots of heat on the Netrunner mailing list, and I had no desire to make big decisions and take big hits without being compensated.

The second was that I didn't want to give WotC an easy way to further reduce support for the game. I thought it was important to keep the position open until they saw fit to put an employee in it. This was not to be, but it made sense at that time.

The last reason I turned down the job was my very bad experience with the Duelists' Convocation International (DCI). This group had been formed early in the history of Magic to create and enforce rules for competitive tournament play. They soon evolved into a kind of Magic Congress (US readers will understand), taking bribes, playing favorites, creating bad rulings and reversing them several times. I had no desire to be involved with them. The new TRC (Top Runner's Conference) was just getting started under the direction of Argi Flack, and working with the DCI was a top goal.

A Fine Pickle
(Sorry, I couldn't resist this obvious headline)

So who would fill the role? Skipper Pickle.

When I first read Skipper's name, I assumed it was a pseudonym (like mine). Apparently it isn't. Skipper was a very well-liked, not too successful player who spent a lot of time filling in the social corners of the Netrunner mailing list. His brother worked for WotC, and he had almost gotten a job there before being jerked around and not hired. Despite this bad treatment, he jumped into the role of Rules Czar. He asked me if he should take the job, I told him "No," in no uncertain terms, and he took it.

Perhaps Skipper's greatest fault as a Rules Czar was his inability to cut simply and quickly to the core game issues. He seldom seemed to be concerned (or even aware) of what made a Netrunner game most fun. He ended up creating (with a lot of help), a whole series of general rulings about taking actions that are completely meaningless, all to resolve an obscure interaction between Valu-Pak Software Bundle and Haunting Inquisition.

I have to admit I did more than anyone to keep this issue burning. It really bothered me that Skipper would go to so much trouble and do so much damage just to keep a very rare combination, without game-breaking power, from happening. In any case, his rulings are still on the books, but he is gone. The argument was too much for him, got too personal, too complicated, and too unpleasant. As far as I know, he doesn't even play any more. But that could be said about a lot of people...

The Calm Before the Holger

After this bad experience, Netrunner fans seemed happy without a Czar. The rulings were conglomerated by four different authors, and Tom Wylie was occasionally consulted by Jennifer, further muddying the waters. The most elegant card game ever had become a mass of unecessary and conflicting rulings and errata. Had the game held more popularity, it would have been a disgrace. As things stood, it was just depressing.

Once again I was offered the job of Rules Czar, and again I turned it down. I recommended a few names, feeling guilty since it was obvious now that the position was a sure way to leave Netrunner forever (with bad feelings). Eventually Holger Janssen was selected. His saga is ongoing, although his command of English as a native German has already caused some short and direct comments to be made on the mailing list. I have always admired Holger's play. He is clearly the most skilled Netrunner to hold the title of Rules Czar so far. But I fear for him. He doesn't appear willing to make the sweeping edits that the remaining Netrunner faithful are hoping for. And if the past is any guide, he is looking headlong down the Well of Sorrows.

The Netrunner mailing list has been quiet for several days, perhaps the Classic expansion was too unwieldy, or the critical mass of popular support was too small. Perhaps Holger will be the final Czar, ruling over a fantastic game that was doomed from birth.

What, you expected a happy ending to this sordid tale?

Netrunner suddenly became very popular and Seven-Eleven started selling Proteus packs at the cash register. There was a cartoon show called "Rache Bartmoss' Crash Space" that featured a talking dishwasher and Mean Mr. Netwatch. WotC published several innnovative, coherent, balanced and interesting expansion sets, and the Pro Tour began paying out large purses for constructed and sealed games.