On Jank, or: Why aren't you Playing the Main Game?

Posted on September 15, 2019 by Jack Kelly
Tags: netrunner, gaming

Between 2012 and 2015, I played a lot of Android: Netrunner, almost all of it at organised competitive events. Despite all that, my tournament results were never particularly good. I made Top 4 at a Store Championship once, and at larger events (regionals or above) I’d sometimes squeak into Top 16 if I had a lucky strength of schedule (the sum of all your opponents’ points, used as a tiebreaker at the end of the Swiss rounds).

Why wasn’t I doing better? A big part of that was my refusal to play the known-good decks other people were playing. Why not? To answer that, we need to talk about Jank.

Jank

ANR is one of those card games where the main tournament format is constructed play: players enter decklists as part of their tournament registration (one for each of the game’s two sides, “runner” and “corp”) and play those decks unchanged for the entirety of the tournament. Players have to look over the cards available to them (over 1000 in ANR’s case) and put together a plan that they think gives them the best hope for victory on the day. There’s a delicate balance between selecting cards that are straight-up good, cards that are good against strategies your opponents are likely to play, and cards that are good because your opponents are unlikely to expect them. There’s also a personal angle: some players gain an edge by knowing their favourite cards and how those cards interact with the rules better than the rest of the field, and in doing so exploit opportunities that other players overlook.

This is one of the most engrossing features of a customisable card game like ANR: poring over a collection of cards, trying to evaluate their potential in the right situation, in the right deck. That potential manifests in different ways: sometimes it’s blowing the runner up with more damage than they can handle in one hit, sometimes it’s building an economy so strong that you can’t be taxed out, and sometimes it’s firing off a combo that nobody’s seen before.

And now we’re ready to talk about Jank. People play card games for different reasons, and we’ve been implicitly talking about people whose primary goal is to win the game. There’s another type of player, who looks at a game and plays around with the rule system as an end in itself. This mindset feels similar to what people used to mean by hacker, and there have been some amazing decks that are high in hack value. (Standout example: a Turing Machine implemented inside Magic: The Gathering). It’s hard to find a concise definition anywhere, but to me Jank decks are decks high in hack value that fail to do well in competition.

“Failure to do well in competition” is an important part of the definition. Why? Jank quite often wants to win by following a nonstandard line of play. In ANR, the corp loses if it is forced to draw a card when their draw pile is empty. This means means that for as long as cards existed that made the corp lose cards from their draw pile, intrepid deckbuilders tried to mill the corp out (the name comes from a classic Magic: The Gathering (MTG) card called Millstone, as MTG has a similar rule about empty draw piles). For most of ANR’s lifespan, there weren’t enough cards that “milled”, or they were too risky to play, or you couldn’t put in enough of the fundamental cards (draw and economy) to make a competitive mill deck.

What happens when Jank starts winning tournaments? It becomes Oppressive. People who want to win tournaments move across to play decks that used to be Jank. Then other players are forced into dealing with those decks, and alternate lines of play dominate, instead of the game designers’ intended “main” lines of play. At one point, someone made a mill deck that could reliably remove about 75% of the corp’s draw pile by turn 6, and the corp couldn’t do much about it. It took about two weeks before the cards that enabled it were banned from competitive play, but until then its shadow hung over the competitive metagame.

My History with Jank

I have pretty much always played Jank. The idea of finding something completely out of left field and blowing everyone away with it has always appealed to my inner Mad Scientist. I wanted to build decks that were unambiguously “mine”, and win with them.

Unfortunately, the tyranny of distance meant that new cards hit Australian shores weeks after the rest of the world. By the time I’d get a chance to playtest a new idea, all the major discoveries and incremental updates to existing strategies had already happened, and credit for those discoveries already assigned. I found this incredibly frustrating.

The other frustration was that I just wasn’t doing well in tournaments. I took refuge in the excuse that I was “there to play jank”, but that was a lie. I was trying to opt-out of the “main game” of the tournament - the competiton to achieve the best result on the day - and claiming to play a side game that had its own measure of success. Not only that, but as the skill of the local scene improved, the losses to better players were faster and more frustrating, and I ended up dropping the game from my regular schedule.

Had I been honest about what I wanted from the game (to do well competitively), I would have prepared for tournaments very differently - bringing tested decks would have been a start. That might have improved my results, which would have improved my enjoyment of the game and made burnout less likely. Going to game nights with clear objectives in mind (am I going to test brews or to play to win?) would also have helped me be honest with myself and what I wanted from the game.

Why aren’t you Playing the Main Game?

I hid from my poor performance in the main game (tournament success) by claiming to be playing a different game (Jank); this was a demoralising and limiting mindset. (Sirlin calls this “scrub” thinking, and while I never called the good decks or the players who piloted them “cheap”, there is a grey area between legitimate balance issues and calling things “overpowered”, “broken” or “cheap”.) I’ve seen this elsewhere in my myself and in other people; not just with card games but also in the wider “games” and hierarchies that make up modern life. It is much better to be honest about what games you choose to play, how you choose to engage with those games and what realistic success looks like. Once you know which games you’re actually playing, only then can you begin working on improving your results.

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