Netdecking: A Fundamental Part of TCGs

cvhWell, the Winter KMC season is behind us.  The second Kaijudo Championship wrapped up two weeks ago (you can find the tournament report I posted last week here on ARG), and aside from some stops on the ARG Circuit Series and other store-hosted events, the community basically has some competitive downtime.  While we're all waiting for the news and other announcements regarding the upcoming Spring/Summer KMC season, now is as good a time as any to talk about one of the more controversial subjects in card games - one that not only eternally applies to Kaijudo, but all games.  I'm talking about netdecking.

Netdecking, which is more or less the copying of existing decks found online, will be around in trading card game communities for as long as there are two things: players who want to win and mass media.  Since it doesn't look like people are using YouTube, Facebook, and article sites like this one any less, I think it's about time we come to terms with netdecking and stop viewing the term as something to avoid at all costs.

A Novice's Savior

I don't mean to cast the term "novice" in any sort of negative light, quite the contrary in fact!  Without an influx of new players, any game would be doomed to die.  These new players aren't to be looked down on; being inexperienced is hard for a multitude of reasons.  Besides having to learn the basics and interactions within a game, a new player would have to familiarize themselves with whole sets of cards and metagames.  To be fair, it's a lot to catch up on, even for a game like Kaijudo that's still relatively new.  I remember playing other games in the past when I was younger, and I was far from an expert.  The players who really defined the metagame with their innovations were incredibly skilled, and since I aspired to reach that level one day, I copied what they did.

It's not like I expected to have overnight success with a deck that won some large tournament, but I did have reason to believe that a well-established player who won a major event probably knew a few things I did not.  Netdecking gave me a viable deck to work with in those instances, and I learned aspects of deckbuilding while assessing the choices the original pilot made.  If I jumped into a new game tomorrow, my first instinct would be to netdeck, because I firmly believe it's the best way to learn the meta.

We've all seen new players run some pretty arbitrary piles of cards in Kaijudo.  We try to help them out and suggest better card choices, but the main thing I try to emphasize when dealing with new players is the necessity of taking advantage of the information around them.  All of the media I mentioned before like articles and YouTube exist for a reason.  Top decklists and deck profiles are recorded online so that people get an idea of what's doing well, and a new player can use them as a starting point.  Going at it blind, it would take weeks or months of trial and error and feelings of hopelessness before a new player finally got a grasp of what a good deck looked like.  Being able to take a list from someone more experienced allows for more focus on the mechanics of the game and learning why the deck works well, things that are much more beneficial in the long run.

In a Competitive Context

Contrary to popular belief, there's really no time in a player's career when they "out-grow" netdecking.  At least, in my opinion, not if they want to see continued success.  Netdecking helps those with experience and a drive for competition in much the same way as it helps new players.  It allows them to become familiar with a given metagame, assess the top decks with a hands-on approach through playtesting, and gives them viable options to consider for tournaments.

Deck building and in-game skill are two different beasts entirely.  For a variety of factors, not everyone who is a great deck-builder is going to be an expert player, and not all of the best players are great deck-builders.  There's usually some crossover; in order to build good decks, one has to understand how they function (this requires the knowledge of proper play) and in order to play well, one has to have a solid knowledge of the metagame (meaning they have a good understanding of why certain card choices work and are popular).  However, both of those skills are a work in progress for everyone and everyone has their weaknesses.  The goal is always to work on those weaknesses.

I've never been the guy to really innovate whole new strategies.  I'm able to innovate certain card choices, but there are many others out there better equipped to coming up with "the answer" to a metagame, and it's a skill I'm working on.  I'm much better at actually playing and making meta calls; while I don't normally come up with completely new strategies, I'm usually able to decide which option is best for a given tournament.  This has also helped me to an extent in the limited formats of Kaijudo like booster draft.  Looking back on tournaments I've been successful in, there is a definite trend of building on existing ideas.  My Summer Championship 2013 performance, arguably my "biggest" achievement, even came as a result of using a friend's list with one card difference.  Sure, I think I made the right call for the day, but it's not as if it was a stroke of genius on my part for building the deck.

That's the thing about netdecking.  People always say those who utilize it are merely stealing ideas, but the origins of those ideas is often far deeper than meets the eye.  Inspiration can come from anywhere, and as players, we need to learn to embrace that rather than trying to take credit for every idea and berating those who use them after the fact.  A prime example is when my teammate Carl Miciotto made Megabugs popular in the Summer season (at a tournament in which I got second using a heavily-borrowed control build with added tech).  He made the LWN list popular, but even he will admit to taking inspiration from players at a previous KMC whom he saw using a different variant.

As someone who has built upon the ideas from others and even used them outright to a good amount of success, I find the idea that netdeckers "have no skill" to be somewhat laughable.  Innovating is just one skill of many in Kaijudo, and not everyone is going to create whole new meta-defining decks from scratch every few weeks.  Sometimes, a single card change can be brilliant, and I applaud those who can see changes like that just as much as I applaud those who come up with the next tier one strategy.  Just as we all watch great players to soak up their technical play abilities and become better ourselves, we should take note of great decks and learn to use them ourselves, both for potential short-term use and to help brainstorm the future of the metagame.

People also try to discredit netdeckers by saying they sap the creativity out of the meta.  I find this to be false because innovation only comes out of established metagames, and established metagames basically come from netdecking.  That's right - in various forms, netdecking is responsible for all the innovation to be seen at high-level events.  The first way this happens is through playtesting.  Any group of players worth their salt, when testing for large events, is going to take lists from the internet that have been performing highly in recent weeks and run the gauntlet; that is, pit their ideas against the existing meta.  Maybe they'll find something new that beats the majority of the field, maybe they'll tweak one of the existing top decks and deem it the best option, or maybe they'll stick with something already tried and true that they're comfortable with, but without netdecking, these insights wouldn't be possible in a testing environment.

The other way netdecking impacts the meta is by giving players something to innovate against.  When something is proven to be good, people copy it, and thus define the meta.  It's happened  time and time again throughout the game's history.  Here are a few examples:

The Evo Fury meta:

  • WD Blurple tempo with [ccProd]Emperor Neuron[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Hydra Medusa[/ccProd] was the initial deck to beat.
  • Matt Segura popularized DFN "Dark Saber-Bolt" to overwhelm Blurple strategies with [ccProd]Bronze-Arm Sabertooth[/ccProd] and finishers.
  • LWD "Cobalt Control," created by Texas players including Bobby Brake, emerged as the control option most capable of handling the previous two decks.

The Dragonstrike Infernus meta:

  • LWD Dragon Control began to phase out the existing popular decks mentioned above and was seen in droves.
  • LWDFN "Greed Dragons," created by the former Team SBK, proved to dominate those control decks by overwhelming them with finishers.

The Clash of the Duel Masters meta (possibly containing the most visible metagame changes in Kaijudo's history to this point):

  • Testing against the above Dragon variants allowed control decks with [ccProd]King Tritonus[/ccProd] to take the forefront in the first few weeks.
  • Other strategies were discredited, and in the race to win the control mirror, greedier control decks using Nature were gaining popularity.
  • Megabugs emerged as an answer to those greedy control decks through using [ccProd]General Finbarr[/ccProd] and other tempo cards to get under their curve consistently.
  • Dragons were immensely popular at the Summer Championship, as testing against Megabugs revealed a very positive matchup.  I chose mono-Light which wound up putting it on the map as a viable deck for the same reason, and due to some limited testing against Dragons which also yielded positive results.
  • Bobby Brake's LWD Leviathan control had positive results across the board against the field of aggression and Dragons and won the event.

The list goes on and on with every passing set.  If the Clash meta had continued evolving, perhaps the amount of people netdecking Bobby Brake's list would have incited a resurgence of the LWDN ramp/control decks with [ccProd]King Tritonus[/ccProd].  In my personal local metagame, the amount of people who began running mono-Light, other rush decks, and Dragons signaled me to begin running a slightly modified version of Bobby's control deck since I knew it had such a favorable matchup.  This is where the context of the winning deck lists comes into play.  Merely netdecking whatever won the past week at whatever tournament might give you a well-built deck, but it might have been built for that specific tournament.  Metagames are ever-changing, and to really get the most out of decks you see other people using, you have to ask yourselves the important questions such as why the person used that deck and what made it do well.  Only then will you have enough information to decide whether or not it warrants your use.

Back to the list, all of these changes in the competitive scene were bred from people copying the ideas that worked.  Those who learned the ins and outs of each deck through playing against those who netdecked as well as netdecking for the purposes of playtesting were, and will always be, at an advantage.  Of course, like I mentioned above, innovating is a skill worth working on, as are all of the other skills such as correct technical play.  Embrace what each of these skills do for your game, and embrace the knowledge that netdecking can give you.  To quote great MTG player Patrick Chapin, "If you typically net deck, you should innovate more.  If you typically go rogue, you should imitate more (both assume your goal is to win more)."

Hopefully you all enjoyed my take on the subject, and if you have any thoughts, make sure you leave a comment down below!  Until next week, Play Hard or Go Home!