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Neal's Last Words


Neal's Last Words

by Byron "Neal" Massey

Eleven Expansion Elements

Last week I reviewed Skipper Pickle'sChrysalid Matrix expansion. Since that time, many players have posted their own reviews to the Netrunner mailing list, expressing their opinions on various cards and their potential for abuse or neglect.

This week I'll offer some guidelines for any future expansion sets that might be released.

Trademark and Copyright

You can't use the trademarked symbols or words if you charge anything for your cards. Free distribution is dicey, since WotC will probably only sue you if your cards become popular. My recommendation is to either use text characters for symbols:

"T" for the "Trash" symbol
"(3)" to stand for three bits

or to use similar symbols from the public domain:

A dumpster icon for the "Trash" symbol
A five-pointed star with an embedded digit for bits

You can be almost certain that players will be able to understand the symbols, but that WotC cannot sue you for using their proprietary art.

"Show respect for the game by expanding it without destroying it."

Color and Art

Use color and include art on the cards. This is tricky, too, because the card layout is WotC property. Changing it slightly in regards to colors or shapes is a great plan. Make sure the art you place on cards is in the public domain, or that you have secured the rights to use it.

Black and white cards are a real step down in quality. They might satisfy the cravings of an old-timer, but they are a big turn-off to new players, especially without art.

Easy to Use

Distribute the cards in a ready-to-use format. Putting out text spoilers for your great ideas means that somebody has to retype them to fit on a card, print that retyped page, cut out the card text, and glue it on an existing card. That's too much work.

Using Adobe Acrobat to put out precisely formatted card templates is a great idea. Be sure to include color information, and a note that authorizes players to make color photocopies of the printed sheets.

The other option is to have a print shop take your color layouts for pages and print them on very thin sticker sheets. There is some cost associated with this process, and you will have to charge for the sheets to recoup that cost. It's great for the players, though. They just peel off the cards and stick them on their copies of Codeslinger and Polymer Breakthrough.

Size Matters

Put out at least 144 cards. That's the size of the Proteus expansion, and the smallest number of cards that can provide multiple new game ideas and flesh out a storyline. If it turns out to be easier to publish 135 or 126, so be it. Just make sure there aren't any dogs in the set.


Sort your cards by rarity. This has no meaning in constructed deck play, since players can get as many copies of a single card as they like (photocopied or printed). It means a lot in sealed-deck play, though. Creating a random "booster generator" for your expansion and putting it on a web page is a great way to ensure you get players to use your cards.

A Storyline

Design your cards around a storyline. The Proteus story is weak but it does explain both Corp and Runner cards, like Morphing Tool and Sumo 2008. The Chrysalid Matrix storyline is easy to understand, but not explained by the card effects. The better your cards fit an interesting story, the more fun they will be to use.

Useless Cards

Don't accept a useless card. This rule is hard to follow completely, since the use of cards is difficult to predict. If you are even vaguely worried that you have created a card without a good use, throw it out. There are a lot of useless cards in Proteus, including a remarkable number of useless ICE. Set a higher standard.

Game Breakers

Don't create a card that is too powerful. Volumes could be written on this subject. Proteus brought us Viral Pipeline, Scaldan, Time to Collect, Identity Donor and Death from Above. That's way too many cards that interfere with basic game mechanics. Stretching the boundaries is great, but if you break them, there is no way to apologize other than banning or restricting. That's embarrassing.

There are distinct rules for building Netrunner cards. Matthias Nagy of The Netrunner Weekly hosts a series of articles by TRC President Argi Flack that cover some of the details. You can also discover them by carefully examining the text lists of all the cards. Don't let these limitations be an absolute restriction on the cards you create. You should, however, do a lot of playtesting and have a great rationale for a card that overtly breaks these limitations.

Netrunner v1.0 is an incredibly balanced set of cards. Don't be the one who upsets that balance. Show respect for the game by expanding it without destroying it.

Expanding the Game

Create new game ideas. This blanket statement covers the entire creative process. One of the most important ideas in WotC's Expansion Submission Form was that there must be new game mechanics and ideas. Making a Wall that has rez cost seven, strength six, and one "@ end the run" will not break Netrunner. It's also boring. Treat every card in your set as a chance to open new creative possibilities for players.

Harsh Evaluations

Be critical of your own work. You have to take each card you create, in isolation, and consider every possible abuse. For the cost of a single installation action, I can save tens of bits by trashing a Namatoki Plaza/Virus Test Site fort with Death from Above. That ruins a lot of the fun possibilities for Netrunner, and hurts the game.

Get your friends to help you test the cards. Distribute them to as many people as you can find and challenge them to make decks that are too powerful. If they do it (and they will), be honest with yourself and change or remove a card that eliminates fun ideas or makes games too easy.

Netrunner is a very strategic, very intellectual exercise. It involves planning, mathematics, bluffing, and tactics. Don't cut into the existing complexity with a card.

Fixing Broken Cards

Don't worry about fixing broken cards. This is probably the most controversial point in this column. Many people feel that cards like Viral Pipeline and Loan from Chiba could be reduced in power with an appropriate "counter-card". There are a few reasons why this almost never works.

The first is that Netrunner is already a "rock-scissors-paper" proposition. My ICE destruction stack is not very efficient against your iceless ambush Corporation. My Nasty Code Gate Deck is not very good against your Bozomatic stack. My Tag 'n' Bag Corporation is not very good against your TagMe stack. It is often a question of guessing the right strategy to counter your opponent.

Adding "counter-cards" to the mix makes this guessing game worse. If a single Corporation card can stop TagMe, each Corp must decide whether or not to use a few spaces in their deck to include that card, recognizing that many Runners will not be playing TagMe. As the number of different "counter-cards" increases, games become increasingly dependent on lucky guesses in deck construction.

The second is that it's very difficult to design a card that only "counters" a single strategy. The entire Precision Bribery problem was created out of a desire to stop decks like Psycho Tycho.

A third reason is that Netrunner is much more fun when strategies revolve around the interaction of many cards. Installing a Death from Above and then running does not require any careful planning or tactics. If the run is successful, it always works. That's not very entertaining for either side.

My expansion effort, "Dangerous Allies", is in the final design stages. It still needs a lot of playtesting and plenty of graphic design, but I am working hard to follow these guidelines. I'll post the storyline next week and solicit feedback.