Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Woes of Weyland - Part IV: Flatline Frustration



A Tragic Trajectory


The glory days.

I'm sure this part came as no surprise to you all. Since Core Set days, flatline has always been one of Weyland's 'things'. One of their most influential cards is the notorious Scorched Earth - the bane of many a careless and/or unlucky Runner, depending on who you ask. In the earliest stages of A:NR history - from 'pure core' through early Genesis Cycle - Weyland was a genuine force to be reckoned with. Its ability to rapidly rush out agendas behind small gear-check ice like Ice Wall and Wall of Static, transitioning into Archers and Oversight-ed Hadrian's Walls, all while maintaining the ever-present threat of flatline - in the form of the dreaded SEA-Scorch combo - was something that none of the other Megacorps were capable of at the time.


Weyland's deadly dominance was very short-lived, however. On top of packing Plascrete Carapace in triplicate, Criminal decks received several devastating tools in the Genesis Cycle, tools that were most effective against Weyland - Faerie and Emergency Shutdown versus Archer, in particular. When Creation and Control hit, and Same Old Thing emerged, functionally doubling the number of times a Criminal could Account Siphon per game, Weyland's hybrid rush-kill strategy faltered heavily. While this style of Weyland did continue to see play, particularly throughout the Spin Cycle, it was far from the terror that it once was.

The resurgence of meat damage kill decks was, expectedly, brought about by Weyland's deluxe expansion, Order and Chaos - however, Weyland was not to be the recipient of the consistent kill card. In fact, in said deluxe expansion, Anarchs received the mighty I've Had Worse, which painfully neutered the regular SEA-Scorched-Scorched play that Weyland was known for, as Runners could secretly hold onto the card only to have it save them when the Corp attempted the kill. Admittedly, Weyland did receive Government Takeover - a card which vastly empowered Punitive Counterstrike - however, Takeover is also the sheer embodiment of variance. While including the card in your deck drastically reduces your agenda density, it also opens up possibilities of just auto-losing on a lucky Runner access. Unless Takeover is the first agenda the Runner steals, where, to be fair, it strongly opens up a Punitive flatline, the card becomes a pure liability and automatically loses the game for you the moment it is stolen.

Things done changed. A lot.

No, meat damage flatline's comeback was in the form of Traffic Accident - ushering in the NBN archetype 'affectionately' known as Butcher Shop. Traffic Accident, by contrast to Punitive-via-stolen-Takeover, is all about increasing the consistency and ease of kill combos. With three copies of Traffic Accident and three copies of Scorched Earth, a deck can have six cards dedicated to flatlining the Runner with the same conditional requirement (a tagged Runner). Furthermore, Traffic Accident into Scorched Earth has a much higher chance of killing an Anarch Runner holding an I've Had Worse in hand than a double Scorched.  All of this would be fantastic news for Weyland - except Traffic Accident requires 2 tags to be played, which basically ensures that NBN will forever utilize this card far more effectively than Weyland. On the subject of NBN...

NBN just does tag-and-bag better.


Eat your heart out, Weyland!

To elaborate on the point about Traffic Accident, the only realistic way for Weyland to reliably land multiple tags on the Runner is by making use of NBN's Midseason Replacements - 4 influence per copy. While, on the surface, this seems reasonable enough (NBN has to import all the kill pieces with all of their influence, after all), Weyland already lacks all of the other draw- and tag-oriented cards NBN possesses that really make its 'Butcher Shop' archetype sing. When you already have to spend 3 influence on a trio of Jackson Howards (all the more essential for a kill deck, as the draw ability allows accelerated assembly of combo piece) or Anonymous Tips (for the truly brave), something that NBN does not have to concern itself with, the issues begin to rise to the surface. This is very clearly by design, as demonstrated below by various, functionally similar cards from each faction:

Agendas: As the 'tag' faction, NBN has several agendas that involve tagging - both tag-infliction and tag punishment. Specifically though, the faction has an agenda that tags the Runner when scored - and it's pretty similar to Weyland's equivalent agenda, which just so happens to be Weyland's only agenda involving tags. It also just so happens that NBN's Breaking News is superior to Weyland's Posted Bounty in basically every respect, especially where flatlining is concerned: 2-for-1 versus 3-for-1; 'on score' effect versus 'forfeit' effect (even with bad publicity attached); 2 tags versus 1 tag. Breaking News' 'disadvantage' of the tags disappearing at the end of the turn is irrelevant if the Runner's already a smoking corpse. That Breaking News is better than Posted Bounty is to be expected; the level to which it is better, not so much.

ICE: Like with its agendas, NBN has a far vaster (and more effective) array of tagging ice than Weyland. Such a statement really isn't remotely contentious. Despite also having pitiful dreck like Matrix Analyzer (which amusingly would be far preferred in Weyland), NBN's Data Raven and Gutenberg are drastically more potent tagging ICE than the likes of Weyland's Shadow and Searchlight.

Operations: NBN has Midseason Replacements and SEA Source as proactive cards designed to tag the Runner on the Corp's turn, as well as Manhunt and Casting Call to give tags during runs. With Data and Destiny, NBN now is even able to play 24/7 News Cycle for Breaking News's "on-score" effect to proactively give the Runner 2 tags, without any Runner interaction. The only non-NBN 'tagging' operation is Jinteki's Cerebral Cast, which, on a successful psi game, forces the Runner to choose between a tag or a brain damage (hardly a guaranteed tag). Weyland does not have an operation capable of tagging the Runner, proactively or reactively. It gets far worse though...

How would you like to lose today?

To truly seal the deal, the mere existence of Astroscript Pilot Program (and SanSan City Grid, to a lesser extent) makes NBN's kill-oriented decks all the more superior to Weyland equivalents. NBN's fast advance measures, exemplified by Astroscript, prevents Runners from playing passively or simply camping scoring remotes. NBN will either scorch fast, or score fast. By comparison, aside from Hostile Takeovers, Weyland is forced to actually score out most of its agendas the hard way - behind an iced remote. That NBN has all the tagging cards - enabling their second kill card - while also having the superlative agenda suite just makes Weyland attempts at building viable kill decks, with or without a secondary scoring condition, substantially inferior. While Weyland certainly still has unexplored territory (as do the other Corp factions), I really don't think the severe disparity in kill potential between NBN and Weyland is something that can be 'undone' with what solutions we possess in the current card pool.

Before I address potential solutions to Weyland's killing issue, however, the NAPD apparently have an announcement to make. Don't worry, I'm sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand...

"I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further."

Well. This is happening (finally). It is here that I must note that NBN tag-and-bag decks will shortly be quite considerably defanged by the new NAPD Most Wanted List. The inclusion of Astroscript Pilot Program on the list prevents NBN lists (even out of Near-Earth Hub) from running the full kill package (3 Scorched, 3 Traffic) alongside 3 Astroscripts - they simply lack the influence. It's still too early to determine the exact effect the inclusion of Astroscript on the Most Wanted List will have on the NBN kill archetype, but I have my suspicions. While I don't think the archetype is dead (far from it), I believe it is likely to lose a fair amount of consistency. If you were running kill out of Haarpsichord, either the Astroscripts go (presumably being replaced by Beales - a substantial downgrade) - thus hamstringing the archetype's ability to fast advance out against cautious Runners - or a Scorched Earth leaves (being replaced by... something? Psychic Field might be reasonable) - which undoubtedly will worsen the deck's consistency in finding the kill combo. That being said, one could shift one's ID back to the ever-oppressive Near-Earth Hub, instead dropping a Traffic Accident. Even then, important consistency will be lost, as the looming threat of Medium multi-access would return in full force.

All the same, despite the hit that NBN tag-and-bag will take Post-MWL, many of the aforementioned advantages NBN has over Weyland regarding killing (superior tagging agendas and ice; tagging operations; draw acceleration) are likely to ensure that it retains its superiority in the domain of bloodshed. What then for Weyland?


Solutions?


Having acknowledged that Weyland has been usurped by NBN regarding its flatline supremacy, how are we to rectify this issue, to at least bring Weyland to parity, if not reestablish its dominance? I see two solutions.

Improving Weyland's tagging measures.

As previously mentioned, Weyland's ineffectual, limited tagging methods significantly impede its ability to flatline via meat damage, particularly when compared to NBN. 
To reiterate, this is very clearly a conscious choice by the designers. Additionally, the very fact that Traffic Accident is but 1 influence strongly suggests that it was ultimately meant to be used out of faction (NBN, specifically). On another note (observed by others also), the fact that Breaking News and Traffic Accident both involve flying cars travelling at high speeds is fairly apt. But I digress.

Point is, I think that it is fairly clear at this stage that NBN is intended to be the only Corp readily able to dole out individual tags, let alone multiples. Weyland does have a few tagging cards in faction, but they are exceedingly limited in scope and effectiveness - again, very intentional. I think the designers would be fairly hesitant to suddenly give Weyland easy, efficient tagging at this stage. Typically, Weyland has to sacrifice something to achieve its strongest effects - often via forfeiting agendas, as in the case of Archer and Corporate Town. Why not a powerful kill-enabling card, attached to a forfeit effect? Also, I'm in the mood for some funky design space, so here goes:

I haven't even played any of the Mass Effect games.

Who's up for some self-dispatching ice? As mentioned earlier, Weyland already has a dearth of just straightforwardly good ice... and
Stalker isn't solving that issue. In the sense that it isn't especially straightforward, that is. It's very hard to determine just what the right numbers for this type of card would be (given that there isn't presently an example of one), but this is a design space that I think would be interesting to explore. The strength of Stalker lies in its multi-functionality - as both a piece of ice and a combo card, all in one, Stalker may well earn its keep in a deck before cards with more limited effects. With that said, Stalker's actual purpose is actually fairly narrow - outside of a kill deck, this card is basically dead. When used to stick tags for subsequent murder, however, Stalker is well ahead of Weyland's typical run-of-the-mill tagging tech - remember, we are very much aiming for power cards here!

On top of its unique 'self-destruct' ability, Stalker's subroutine also enters previously unexplored design space - the disabling of tag removal. Frequently, when a Runner encounters a trace-to-tag ice, such as Hunter or Gutenberg, they will take the tag and then shake it on their next click - Stalker forces the Runner to reconsider. In this sense though, Stalker is ultimately a combo card - other tagging cards are required to be installed in order for Stalker's subroutine to sting (unless it self-destructs - more on that shortly), though it should be noted that it would inherently combo with Argus Security nicely. Also, beware the Snare.

The 'forfeit' ability on the card, however, is the real meat of Stalker, though it comes at a steep price. Unlike much of the game's tagging ice, which frequently are designed to consistently tax the Runner, Stalker's tag-trace is a one-shot that requires a major sacrifice. As such, the trace effect is much higher impact than your standard mid-run tag-trace - tagging the Runner and trashing a key piece of hardware for a single trace is an extremely powerful effect that could well lead into a barbecue of the Runner's apartment. This 'forfeit' trace is made all the more powerful by the fact that, as it is not attached to a subroutine, it is unavoidable, assuming the Runner passes the 'Stalked' server's last piece of ice. Icebreakers won't save you this time, Runner scum.

Despite my proposed buff to Weyland's ability to tag, I nonetheless recognize that tagging, especially in multiples, should primarily be NBN's territory. There's only so much support we can afford to give Weyland in this regard without screwing with both theme and balance. Thus, we turn to the other solution to Weyland's 'living Runner' problem...

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Improving Weyland's meat damage capabilities.

Unlike cards that tag the Runner, which have been few and far between for Weyland, meat damage cards have been coming for Weyland since the Core Set. Genesis's Dedicated Response Team was an early (albeit highly conservative) effort to add more meat damage to Weyland's arsenal; Spin Cycle brought us the much more broadly usable Punitive Counterstrike (particularly suited to Government Takeover decks); and Order and Chaos gave us Argus Security (a huge step in the right direction for Weyland flatline), the oft-mentioned Traffic Accident (a huge step in the right direction for NBN flatline) and Checkpoint (a wavering step in an indeterminate direction). The message - the designers do not appear hesitant to print more Weyland cards that inflict meat damage. Unfortunately, a number of said cards simply missed the mark - Dedicated Response Team lacks the in-faction tagging support (as previously mentioned) to actually be an effective damage-deterrent, not to mention Weyland's penchant for bad publicity corroding its only average trash cost, while Checkpoint, like the majority of illicit ice, simply isn't very good (fight me [please don't actually though, I'm very frail]).

As such, I am of the opinion that what Weyland needs is another, highly playable meat damage card. The idea, in and of itself, is hardly outlandish, but the actual implementation may just be. While simply 'going bigger' often feels like a lazy way to solve a balance problem and threatens to dredge up the ugliness that is 'power creep', I think Weyland of all the Corp factions, thematically, has a 'might is right' policy, and mechanically, has a tendency for getting 'bigger' cards that are not strictly superior to their humbler predecessors (Ice Wall to Fire Wall, Hadrian's Wall to Curtain Wall, Government Contracts to Government Takeover). As such, I suggest a similar approach regarding meat damage:

Yippie-ki-yay, mother...

I readily attribute my inspiration for the card's condition to Willingdone's fantastic redesign idea for Aggressive Negotiation. His "Core Set Retrospective" series really is fantastic (as is his current content, of course) - check it out if you haven't already. Anyhow...

Sometimes parallel cards are important. Urban Renewal is largely a reprint from the original CCG, with a reduced play cost but an extra condition thrown in. Now why play this when Scorched Earth frequently achieves exactly the same thing (a smouldering Runner corpse) for two less credits, without the conditional play requirement? Firstly, you play both - 5-6 kill cards in a deck is a whole lot better than 3. A major contributing factor for why Butcher Shop is far more consistently lethal than equivalent Weyland kill decks. The terror of the card really becomes apparent when you realize that, excepting hand-size increasers or damage prevention, the Runner has to end every turn with a full hand, assuming the Corp has a substantial credit lead and SEA-Renewal in hand. Furthermore, Renewal/Scorched will kill a Runner with a single I've Had Worse in hand and double Renewal will even kill a Runner with a Plascrete Carapace. Obviously, this is a really high power level card. So how is this justified?

Firstly, it's 5 influence. At 5 pips, it almost exclusively rewards the faction (the archetype, to be precise) that has been lacking since Traffic Accident brought about the rise of Butcher Shop - good ol' Weyland flatline. I realize 5 influence cards can be controversial as they may as well just have "faction-exclusive" stamped on them, but ultimately, I think this is a good way to empower Weyland flatline decks without giving any more love to the Butcher Shop monster. I also think the 5 influence is pretty well justified, thematically, by how very Weyland the card is (meat damage, bad publicity, Lizzy Mills being a meanie).

Additionally, the requirement prevents Urban Renewal from being simply an auto-include or staple in Weyland kill decks and keeps its power level in check. While many Weyland kill decks already run Hostile Takeover, Urban Renewal definitely favours decks that go all in on bad publicity (illicit ice, Profiteering, etc), so as to fulfill the requirement as early as possible. Weyland decks hoping to maintain a good public image, with the intent of still taxing with their ice, will have to stick to the standard Scorched package. Thus, Scorched Earth remains the generally superior, all-purpose meat damage card, which I believe is appropriate, given it is a core set card.

Related to the above point, Urban Renewal's play requirement rewards the player for including bad publicity in their deck, thus rewarding deckbuilding decisions, giving special love to 'Weyland played shady'. I would argue (and am not alone in this respect) that bad publicity is simply too detrimental in many instances to warrant the economic benefit provided by most cards that dish it out. The requirement definitely also gives GRNDL some added menace and potency (certainly not a bad thing), given that they need only rez a single Grim or score a Hostile Takeover to enable their plans for Renewal.

Initially, I had the requirement at '1 bad publicity' (which would be an even bigger buff to GRNDL), but I thought it was better that the card rewarded multiple bad publicity, to add some granularity to the bad publicity mechanic. Also, the card is pretty evil and junk. The specifics of Urban Renewal would of course end up being tweaked were such a card ever to be playtested.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

If the notion of Urban Renewal just seemed too outlandish and/or game-breaking, a more niche alternative to the bigger-is-better idea behind Renewal would be to make a card that specifically techs against Weyland Scorch attempts' most common enemies, Plascrete and I've Had Worse. Thanks to llama66613 (who provided the card idea), here is just such a solution:

Mikey, Brand, Mouth, Data... Where you at, Chunk?

In come the Goons. Quite unlike Urban Renewal's "just hit everything - the Runner is bound to be in the blast zone" philosophy, the Goons are all about targeted destruction. The 'priority' clause on Goons is a major limitation, however - SEA Source into Goons is not a happening thing. In order to hire Goons, the Corp is going to have to heavily invest in multiple tagging measures that work on the Runner's turn - the likes of Data Raven, Shadow and Stalker (my hypotheticals have mad synergy, son) - in order to have one (or more) 'stick' and carry over to the Corp's turn. Alternatively, a Posted Bounty which already had three advancement counters could be scored at the beginning of the turn, but that scenario is decidedly more difficult to achieve.

If one does manage to successfully stick a tag to the Runner, however, the upside to Goons is huge. Unlike Traffic Accident, which primarily serves to circumvent I've Had Worse, Goons has the flexibility of being able to do Traffic Accident's role, if IHW is suspected or you simply want a little extra damage, or shatter protective hardware, such as Plascretes (or the coming Sports Hopper), before treating the Runner to a fiery death, courtesy of Scorched Earth. Goons is also a deterrent to tag-floating Siphon spammers that are content to simply drop a Plascrete Carapace down, considering themselves safe until the Corp finds the third Scorched Earth (and has the money to play all three).

While its play condition is not easy to satisfy, Goons would be a nasty addition to Weyland's butchering arsenal, and one that it would be able to make much more effective use of than Traffic Accident. Goons always say die.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And that's it for Weyland murder material. After all these funky new ideas about how to revitalize Weyland as a faction, from ice to upgrades to explode-y things, we are really only left with one final matter - how are we to afford all of our cool new tricks? Weyland is still the richest Megacorp... right? I will probably answer that question in Part V, the conclusive chapter of the series.


1 comment:

  1. I haven't played this game but it looks good and must to play. I am going to play it and hope that it will be worth spending time. Thanks for sharing it with us

    ReplyDelete