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- Famous Netrunner Stacks -
#10: Masochism Rules

by Jens Kreutzer
with input by Derek Evans

"The sacrifices one must sometimes make for the common good!

" - and, one might add, a few thousand eurobucks ... ."

    - Stephen Holodinsky

The biggest impact of the release of the Proteus expansion in September 1996 was arguably the introduction of Bad Publicity as a game mechanic: Virtually overnight, there was a new avenue of winning for the Runner that did not depend on agenda points. While many Bad Publicity (BP) cards require interaction with the Corp (among the most powerful ones are Scaldan and Identity Donor), there are also some that don't. More on those below.

At first glance, giving the Corporation 7 BP points looks the same as scoring 7 agenda points. After all, it's still the number 7, and (in the case of BP, most of the time) the Runner has to run to get to 7 points and victory. However, in a tournament, a BP strategy has a slight disadvantage in comparison to the standard agenda-liberating approach: Most tournament scoring systems take into account the number of matches a player has won, and sometimes even the total number of scored agenda points is of importance. If a Runner goes for BP instead of agenda points and loses a game, it doesn't matter whether he or she has given the Corp 0 or 6 BP - 0 agenda points is entered on the scoresheet in both cases, which means that the entire match will almost certainly be lost as well. Some players have argued for altering the status quo, suggesting that BP points should be counted as "victory points" in the same way as agenda points.

This disadvantage, next to many BP cards' depending on certain Corp cards like black ice, is the main reason that an "interactive" BP approach (apart from Scaldan and perhaps Frame-Up) is deemed unfeasible by most players and therefore not used in Constructed tournaments. However, two BP cards do not require any interaction with the Corp: Faked Hit and Poisoned Water Supply. Each comes with a price (brain damage and having to trash certain resources, respectively), but they avoid Corp interference almost entirely. Thus, they lend themselves to becoming the core of a well-oiled, no-run BP engine that pays this price in the fastest and most effective way.

A deck that uses Poisoned Water Supply to best effect is one of the most powerful and dreaded Runner stacks at the time, but this article focuses on its predecessor, the Faked Hit strategy. Its most famous incarnation is the "Masochism Rules" stack by Stephen Holodinsky, with which he completely surprised his opponents at a tournament in Berlin, shortly after the Proteus release, and finished in first place. Although players like Steve Bauer, Len Blado, William C. Brandt, Stephane Bura, Stephen Lake, Eric Rodriguez and Chris Wagner (a.k.a. Foolkiller) pointed out the potential of Faked Hit right away on the Netrunner-l mailing list, no-interaction BP decks had not yet been canonized as a deck archetype by the time of the Berlin tournament, and when Stephen installed neither icebreakers nor anything else that would help with accessing cards, his opponents at first believed themselves completely safe. Since then, however, players have learned to be wary whenever Top Runners' Conference shows up in numbers.

The decklist shown below was originally published as a "deck of the week" on Matthias Nagy's "The Netrunner Weekly" website, and this article is largely based on Stephen's own comments that came with the list.

    9 Faked Hit
    9 Top Runners' Conference
    9 Bodyweight Synthetic Blood
    6 Militech MRAM Chip
    3 Preying Mantis
    2 Junkyard BBS
    2 MIT West Tier
    3 Total Genetic Retrofit
    2 Nasuko Cycle

Perhaps the most characteristic attribute of Masochism Rules is that it, as a no-run stack, does not include any programs. Of the nine Faked Hits, the Runner intends to play seven to give the Corp 7 BP points and win. Ideally, this is done in one quick stroke, over just one turn (or at most two), to keep the Corp in the dark about the Runner's intentions until it is too late. Three Preying Mantises make a seven-actions turn possible.

Since playing Faked Hit means suffering 2 points of unpreventable brain damage, and activating Preying Mantis' ability also results in unpreventable brain damage at the end of the turn, this deck is built to withstand cruel amounts of brain damage. It has six Militech MRAM Chips and should install at least five of them, for a whopping total hand size of 20 (or ideally, all six for hand size 23). Even reduced by the 12 brain damage points dealt by seven Faked Hits, the resulting hand size of 8 is still enough for a couple of Preying Mantis shots with room to spare. However, seven Faked Hits plus the twelve cards that are discarded due to brain damage means losing 19 cards in all, and these must all be in the Runner's hand at the start of the final turn. Note that the seventh Faked Hit doesn't do any damage to the Runner, because the Corp immediately loses on the 7th BP point, ending the game before the final 2 brain damage is dealt.

Nine Bodyweight Synthetic Blood (BSB) constitute the workhorse that shovels the whole stack into the Runner's hand as quickly as possible. Conveniently, never making a run totally negates the weakness of Top Runners' Conference, so it is the ideal bit engine for this stack.

When playing Masochism Rules, keep the following in mind: If at all possible, make sure no cards get discarded due to hand size restrictions, because they are ultimately needed to fill out the fully set-up, 20- or 23-card hand. Therefore, carefully consider when to play a BSB - when in doubt, drawing single cards might be preferable, for in the end, it's cheaper to lose a couple of actions here than pick up filler material with Junkyard BBS if the stack is exhausted. When a discard cannot be avoided, make sure never to dump a Faked Hit, since this would give away everything. At the start of the game, installing Top Runners' Conferences for bits and MRAM Chips for hand size is the first priority in order to get the BSB draw engine running smoothly.

Another serious consideration is tag protection, but since almost all of the Corp's tagging cards rely on some sort of interaction - which Masochism Rules won't provide -, threats like Manhunt or Schlaghund Pointers can't touch the Runner. That leaves Underworld Mole, City Surveillance, and "unconditional" tracers/taggers like Blood Cat. All of these can be a nuisance, but with Nasuko Cycle, Total Genetic Retrofit and a hand size that laughs in the face of Schlaghund, this stack should be able to survive a Tag 'n' Bag Corp opponent. After all, bits are plentiful after the first two or three turns, and using Nasuko Cycle or simply paying off a City Surveillance should keep the Runner tag-free. A Preying Mantis or Junkyard lost to Underworld Mole would probably hurt the most, so a careful Runner should make a point of installing Nasuko Cycle early on.

While the Cycle can be omitted to save time if the Corp obviously doesn't play dedicated Tag 'n' Bag (in the case of a Rent-to-Own deck, for example), one Junkyard BBS is an indispensable part of the setup. As soon as this Junkyard, all Militech MRAM Chips and Preying Mantises are installed, the Runner can draw the whole stack, and preparations for the final phase are complete. Playing eight BSB, six Top Runners' Conferences, six MRAM Chips, three Preying Mantises, one Junkyard (and probably one Cycle) takes 24 or 25 actions. Not playing the Cycle can theoretically save a whole turn, setting the minimum setup time to six turns. Most of the time, however, everything does not work out perfectly, and it is typical to be ready only at the end of turn eight. On the plus side, having 35 bits in the pool by that time is usually not much of a problem (barring Corp nastiness like City Surveillance).

In the next turn (typically turn nine), the first four actions are used for playing Faked Hits, while hoping not to lose any of the remaining Faked Hits to brain damage. If there are still any Faked Hits left in the Runner's hand after this, Preying Mantis actions are used one at a time for playing them. In a really lucky scenario, no more than two of the nine Faked Hits are lost, letting the Runner play seven in a row and win. But don't count on it: Most of the time, one or two too many will be lost in the carnage. When the last available Hit has been played, it's usually best to end the turn - additional Mantis actions to play MIT West Tier, for example, won't do much good in most cases, since the accumulated Mantis damage might nick a freshly-drawn Faked Hit again. It's better to wait for the next turn, which will very probably be the last. Junkyard BBS has a very good chance of letting the Runner dig up and play the remainder of the seven Faked Hits within the seven available actions. If an MIT is handy, and a Faked Hit is not the top card of the trash, playing the MIT is preferable: With nearly all non-prep cards gone from the stack, the chances of drawing enough Faked Hits (or BSB to get at them quickly) are pretty high. Then, typically by turn ten, the Corp will be finished - if it hasn't won in the meantime.

Stephen described how a perfect starting hand for Masochism Rules might look: "Bodyweight Synthetic Blood, Militech MRAM Chip, two Top Runners Conference, Nasuko Cycle. First action BSB, then MMC followed by both TRCs. Install the Cycle on the first action of your next turn."

An interesting historic sidenote is what the discussion on the Netrunner-l came up with around September 3, 1996, which was the official release date of the Proteus expansion. Actually, some players had astounding insights even before the actual release, having read the spoiler. Ideas revolved around using Loan from Chiba as a bit engine, as well as repeated self-inflicted flatlines with Faked Hit, followed by Arasaka Owns You. Though all the players mentioned above realized the potential of Faked Hit as the basis for a no-run strategy, nobody thought of using Top Runners' Conference as a bit engine at first.

Since then, Classic hasn't really done much in terms of influencing the Faked Hit strategy. With regard to Masochism Rules, one could substitute Vintage Camaro for Nasuko Cycle - but with this deck, bits are plentiful while time is of the essence, so that the Cycle is still the better choice. However, back in October 1998, a variant of the Faked Hit approach was designed by Sean Eric Ponce, which he called The Big Hurt (50 cards):

    10 Faked Hit
    17 Score!
    10 Bodyweight Synthetic Blood
    10 Militech MRAM Chip
    3 Junkyard BBS

The point of this stack is that no rare cards are needed to build it, which makes it attractive for players who don't have a big card collection (though amassing ten BSB or Faked Hits may be a quest in itself). Instead of Top Runners' Conference, Sean Eric uses Score! as a bit engine, which does the job almost as well. Tag protection is dispensed with altogether, an extremely risky move that admittedly speeds up things. The additional card slots are filled with extra copies of Faked Hit, BSB and Militech MRAM Chips. These are very much needed, since without Preying Mantis, this deck doesn't attempt Masochism Rules' plan of playing all Faked Hits in one turn. Here, the endgame invariably takes at the very least two turns (but usually three to five), with heavy use of Junkyard BBS. If bits run low, Junkyard can also recycle a couple of Score! preps, though Runners should be aware of the fact that this nets only 1.5 bits per action in effect.

When one compares Stephen's rare-heavy stack with Big Hurt, the former is probably the more elegant version. More important than aesthetic considerations, however, is the question of speed. Big Hurt has 50 cards instead of 45 but makes up for it by not having to draw the whole stack, unlike Masochism Rules. Moreover, it neither has to deal with Preying Mantis brain damage, nor does it have to hold 19 cards at a time for a one-turn win. This reduces the need for hand size a little bit, and also makes Hurt much more flexible when timing the start of the endgame. Further, not playing Nasuko Cycle and Preying Mantis saves actions.

Generally speaking, Big Hurt can start the endgame even earlier than Masochism Rules, though it invariably takes longer to execute it: Hand size 17 or 20, together with 45 or possibly as few as 40 bits, plus seven Faked Hits (or maybe six in a pinch) are enough for Big Hurt to start hitting. Masochism Rules typically finishes in an average of ten turns, while Big Hurt usually pulls it off in eleven - though it sometimes takes considerably longer, especially if not enough BSB are drawn. Therefore, quite surprisingly, Stephen's 17 rare cards net only a single turn in terms of speed; Sean Eric's stack is very much an accomplishment in this respect. But in competition, the points described above make all the difference (especially if the Corp is to be taken by surprise) - and so, less surprisingly, Masochism Rules beats Big Hurt on the tournament floor, too.

From the present perspective, Masochism Rules could be called a "poor man's Preying Mantis/Poisoned Water Supply", while The Big Hurt caters to even "poorer" players. While nine Top Runners' Conferences admittedly is harsh, Faked Hit as an uncommon card is not so hard to get in multiples, and three Preying Mantis is maybe just about doable these days - whereas Poisoned Water Supply is expected to be hard to come by, now that Proteus supplies have all but dried up.

After all of this lengthy discussion, it is almost a pity to tell players that they should not use no-run stacks in tournaments, if it can be avoided at all. Though Faked Hit is a cool card to finish off a BP stategy that requires running at least initially, a no-run stack has by definition no interaction whatsoever with its opponents, and is therefore quite boring for everybody involved. Let's face it: In this way, players miss out on a whole lot of fun that a game of Netrunner should provide (yes, even in tournaments), and what is worse, do the same to others. Incidentally, the WotC design team revealed that there were more cards like Faked Hit and Poisoned Water Supply in the original Proteus design, but that they were dropped during playtesting. Maybe Netrunner would have been better off if Faked Hit and Poisoned Water Supply had also been scrapped.

That said, there is one point in support of no-run decks: They are ideal for those moments when no other player is around and you are itching for a game of solitaire Netrunner. Imagine an evil Corp that deserves taking down, and count the turns it takes you to daub it with Bad Publicity, maybe enlisting your grandmother or little brother to deal the brain damage. This can get really exciting, so always keep a stack handy at home (and please keep it there!).

[Neal's comments to this article]
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