NISEI World Championships 2019 | Always Be Running

Mark Broadbridge IT Support Engineer
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YellowDog’s Senior Render Wrangler, Mark recently attended the Nisei World Championships 2019, in Rotterdam. If you’ve never heard of the sci-fi card game, Netrunner or have no concept of the scale of this event – have a read of his experience and learn about the dystopian world of ‘Corporations’ and ‘Runners’. 

Spoiler alert – not only did he just attend, but he also came in 42nd place out of around 300 competitors! 

Just enough luck

It’s not every day you get to compete in a World Championship. This definitely isn’t where I expected to end up when I started playing card games many years ago, but here I am in Rotterdam about to face some of the best players in the world. Roughly 300 people are packed into the Schiecentrale turbine hall, ready to play back-to-back games for the next two days and decide the new Champion, and I’m nervous as hell.

The game we’re about to play is Netrunner. A sci-fi card game of dystopian ‘Corporations’ trying to defend the servers that hide their dirty secrets, and the hackers known as ‘Runners’ who try to steal them first. It’s an asymmetric card game that loosely feels like a mixture of chess and poker. Bluffing, lies, moves and countermoves. It’s all here. It’s a high-skill, high-strategy game, but with just enough luck thrown in to keep things exciting.

There’s something special about Netrunner

To a lot of people, the idea of playing any board game at a globally competitive level is absurd. After all, board games are what you play at Christmas with your Grandma, right? But the reality is that games have moved on from Monopoly in the same way that films have moved on from Charlie Chaplin. We’re in an era of billion-dollar blockbusters, and the gaming industry is a reflection of that.

But here’s something extra special about Netrunner. It attracts an inspiring, wonderful community of people dedicated to making the game the best it can be. This is exemplified by the fact that while this is the 3rd biggest World Championship in history, less than a year ago, the plug was pulled and the game was cancelled by the publisher. Refusing to see the thing that they love die, players banded together and took ownership of the entire creative process: giving the game new life under the community organisation ‘Nisei’. This gives the game a special edge. This is no longer something we play; this is something we own.

Photo Credit: Project NISEI

Fuelled by stroopwafels

The format for the tournament itself is simple. You play a game against a random opponent, and then play against a random opponent who has the same number of wins or losses as you. Winners float to the top, losers sink to the bottom. Repeat this for seven rounds of two games each and eventually you have a top group of people who are sent into the finals. The day starts with you staring down the barrel of needing to win nine games to make it into the next phase, which is no mean feat considering the people you’re up against.

Fuelled by stroopwafels and far too much coffee, I go into my first round nervous but hopeful. I’ve spent weeks, if not months, refining my decks with friends from my local Bristol group. I know exactly my strengths and weaknesses, and I just hope I don’t mess things up.

The first few rounds go smoothly. I’m 5-1 up by midday and finding my stride. I’ve already faced competitors from Spain, Italy and Germany, all with wildly different play styles and decks. This is the great thing about the World Championships: you get to play the game as the whole world views it, not just your local players.

With that in mind, the pairings get announced for the next round and I laugh. Of all the people in the room I could face, I’m playing my friend from Bristol. We play every single week. We got the same flight here. We even have the same decks! I know how to beat him…but he knows how to beat me…and unfortunately for me, he happens to be the current European Champion.

We wish each other luck, start playing our first game, and he absolutely obliterates me. By making things far too difficult for my runner to contest any of his servers, he easily scores his way to victory. But in game two the tables turn. He can’t get set up quickly enough and I gain an early lead. I force him to keep running to slow his turns down as much as possible. I keep him hanging on just long enough to draw the final few cards I need, and win! A draw – this feels right. Neither of us have knocked each other out of contention for the finals, but we have made it a bit trickier to get there.

The day moves on and more games are played. Sitting down and focusing this hard for 10 hours starts to take its toll and tiredness sets in. Silly mistakes are made under pressure but by the final round my score sits at 9-5. I’ve qualified for Day 2.

Definitely not last

When I left Bristol in the UK a couple of days ago, I told others that my goal was “not last”. My real goal was ‘Top 100’. I can’t really say I’m top 100 in the world for anything. Certainly not something that actually spans the world. So that would feel pretty special. Now I’m facing the prospect that if things go to plan, I could actually make it into the finals. A pipe-dream probably, but there’s a chance.

Trying to sleep when you’ve been this single-minded for an entire day though is another matter. My head is in an infinite loop of the day’s events and my brain refuses to shut down. I don’t know if I’m half-awake and thinking, or half-asleep and dreaming. It doesn’t matter either way because my mind is not getting a break. I wake up a few hours later feeling much the same as when I went to bed – my brain is still racing.

More coffee needed.

Birthday luck

On Day 2, the hall is much quieter. 300 people have been condensed down to 70 and we’re starting even earlier. Everyone sits around nervously fiddling and checking their decks. The reality is that most of us need to win all of our next four games to make it into the final 16. In these situations, the only sensible thing to do is to play 2-for-1 games, which effectively make draws impossible, but make the stakes twice as high.

I’m paired against my opponent and we roll to see which side we’ll play. This is it for me. I need some good luck …

… and it’s my actual Birthday …

… I draw my starting hand and it glows back at me. It’s literally perfect. ‘The Birthday Gods’ have been very kind. The game starts fast but my opponent plays well and keeps up, but it’s not enough. I have all the tools I need to win already and the game ends after only 20 mins. It’s a small miracle but puts me just 2 games away from the top spots.

But there’s only so much luck you can have.

My next game goes sour. I start badly and my deck spits out all the cards I don’t need and none that I do. My opponent outpaces me and it’s impossible to recover. I bluff. I fake. I ruse. It’s pointless. He wins with relative ease and takes with it my chance of the finals.

The disappointment quickly fades though when the reality sinks in. This is my first ever World Championships and I came 42nd. Definitely not last and far better than I’d ever hoped for. And things can only get better, right? Maybe next year?


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