On “Netdecking”

The internet… how I love and loathe thee at times. Without the internet, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist. I certainly wouldn’t have this site with which I can reach out and share my thoughts, and for that matter I wouldn’t have my day job in IT either to be able to support my gaming habits. At the same time, competitive gaming, in whatever form it might exist in an alternate universe without the internet, would be a far more interesting and varied experience. Without the ability to share builds, strategies, and gaming concepts over long distances, every gaming community’s “meta-game” would be wildly different; things that see heavy use in one area might never be used at all elsewhere. Granted, gaming in general wouldn’t be quite as common, but this is my theoretical mirror universe and I’ll make it up the way I want to!

Anyway, disregarding the idea of alternate universes, let’s do some time traveling, back to the early 2000’s. I was still in high school at this point, and I had “big fish in a small pond” status as far as gaming was concerned. My school had a rather sizable group of kids who played Magic: The Gathering, and near half of that group had either learned the game from me, or from someone that I had taught to play. I funded my way into several other gaming ventures by buying and selling cards – someone would want to get rid of a box of “useless” cards for cheap, I would buy them and make a killer deck out of it, and then I would sell that deck for a hefty profit, sometimes even back to the original owner, and the remaining cards from the transaction that weren’t in that particular deck then piled up into the boxes upon boxes that I still have to this day. Those players would usually win more often than before, but they wouldn’t have the same success with the deck because they didn’t understand the concepts behind it.

To give a specific example, consider a deck containing (amongst others) the following five cards: False Demise, Iridescent Drake, Altar of Dementia, Horseshoe Crab, and Hermetic Study.

Iridescent Drake               False Demise                Altar of Dementia

hermitic study               Horseshoe Crab

For those following along but not familiar with Magic terminology and gameplay, these cards don’t do much on their own, or if played improperly, but they’re tough combos if deployed right. Playing Hermetic Study on the Horseshoe crab allows you to spend a basic renewable resource to trigger that damage dealing ability over and over, which turns that creature into a living machine-gun capable of wiping out multiple creatures per turn and burning down your opponent’s life total quickly. As to the other three cards… False Demise is basically a one-shot resurrection for a given creature, but Iridescent Drake with False Demise on it can bring itself back from the dead an infinite number of times, allowing you to completely remove the opponent’s draw pile instantly by sacrificing the creature over and over via Altar of Dementia. This in turn causes the opponent to lose the game the next time they should draw a new card into their hand.

In order to be the most effective possible with this build, False Demise is saved to play on Iridescent Drake, and only that enchanted creature is sacrificed to Altar of Dementia; while Horseshoe Crab was the only creature to put Hermetic Study on. Sure, there could be emergency uses for cards, but in general, those two combos didn’t mix. If sacrificing the Horseshoe Crab to the Altar of Dementia twice would win the game for you, by all means go ahead and play False Demise there, and do your thing. Or if your opponent was near death but had blocking creatures you couldn’t get past, use Hermetic Study on whatever you have available to do direct damage.  Still, those uses needed to be the exception, not the rule. These two are fairly obvious as distinctly separate combos to experienced Magic players, but I wanted an example that would stand out here for discussion’s sake.

Meanwhile, back to that group of Magic players… we were an odd lot in general, an intersection of several social groups. Within that group, I had a particular nemesis that I could never turn down a chance to play and beat.This young man, who shall remain nameless, had previously been unwelcome around me for very personal reasons (you might say it was a matter of honor, in the way that teenagers look at the world), but he had a reputation as a skilled Magic player and I wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. We played on a fairly regular basis for a while, and I don’t think I would have liked him even without the past issues, but I had to admit he could give me a run for my money. Soon, however, I learned that he was giving me a run with someone else’s money, and lots of it. Coming from a wealthy family, he saw no problem with spending lots of his parents’ money on buying Magic cards on the internet, and he wasn’t even picking out which cards to buy. Instead, my rival was looking up the deck lists of recent major tournament winners, and just buying everything that they used, recreating that deck, and bringing it as his own against my home-brewed decks.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of the term “netdecking” – finding a design for what to bring to a game on the interNET, and bringing exactly that as your DECK (or fleet / army /etc). This was a new concept to me at that point, and I didn’t like it. I still don’t, really. Even though I’m happy to provide some of my own ideas, I enjoy discovering a game’s mechanics and combos almost as much as I enjoy playing them. So what he was doing felt odd to me, it felt cheap, and it felt like he was cheating.

But even facing championship caliber decks, I still won more than my fair share. The decks he would recreate were designed to win high level tournament matches, and a lot of things that I did at the time wouldn’t have made the cut at that level. As a result, he would often hit a figurative Wall of Stone playing against me, because his decks didn’t have answers to the problems I presented him with; they were designed for a different setting. To be successful with a given build, it’s important to know the goals behind the design, the idiosyncrasies of the build, and what to do when your initial plan falls apart. Going back to magic terms, is it more important to do damage to your opponent early, or not take any unnecessary damage? Should all of your spells be cast as quickly as possible, or are there specific ones that should be held back for a key point in the match? Players can learn these answers for themselves as they play the game, but the answers aren’t necessarily packaged in with the shopping list they pulled off of some random website, despite the fact that the player who originally designed that list has thought those questions out thoroughly.

Fast forward back to this week: As I mentioned in my recent battle report for a tournament at a new venue for Star Trek: Attack Wing, I lucked in to facing a player who was using a variant of a Federation build which I had prototyped in a previous article as a thought experiment for fighting the against the Borg. He made me sweat, but I came away with the victory because that design (and the general tactics that I provided with it) wasn’t specific to the scenario in play. I had based my design of that ship with a standard 100 point build in mind, in which you would face no more than two heavy hitting Borg ships: Spheres, or Tactical Cubes, or even the new Octahedrons. But in this event, with 120 points, I had three such ships and as a result I was able to overwhelm his defenses; in particular, thanks to the extra shot per turn from the 3rd Borg ship, he had to load up on more Auxiliary Power Tokens to keep powering his Ablative Hull Armor than he could clear from his ship in a turn, but he continued to take easy maneuvers with his ship in order to clear those tokens, which resulted in having him unable to shoot at my fleet for multiple turns, making the problem worse.

In theory it was the right build to beat my faction (by my very own theory, no less), and I would consider what he was doing the right move if I only had one ship remaining to fire on him. But the combined fire of my multiple ships available in this scenario made his resistance… well…  futile (I couldn’t pass up on that one). Knowing that the odds were against the Enterprise E clearing those tokens off as fast as he was taking them, I would have given up on taking small maneuvers which would clear the Aux tokens, and instead I would have accepted that the Auxiliary tokens would be there and would be preventing his ship from taking utility actions like Evades or Target Locks, and I would have tried to work my way into range and finish off another ship to reduce the quantity of those tokens being given. But recognizing that situation only comes from experience, both with the game and the pieces in play, and he was not only just trying out this build for the first time, but also relatively new to Attack Wing. I’m sure once he gains more experience with both, that fight would be even harder still for the Borg if replayed.

The internet can be a wonderful medium by which to exchange ideas. A small portion of those ideas can be concerned with how to design a winning build for your miniatures game or card game of choice. But without context, without knowing the goals and constraints with which the concept was created, and without taking time to learn those for yourself, success isn’t guaranteed just because you have a superior design. That’s why here at the Tabletop General I try to give context, to share not only what I’m doing, but why I’m doing it. You might have an army of tanks to take on the enemy’s cavalry, but an army is only as good as the orders it’s given.

— The Tabletop General