Vanilla ICE: An Analysis of Defence

In nearly every Corporation deck you build in Netrunner, you will include a number of ICE. Most of the time, this number will be upwards of 12, probably in the range of 15-20.

When you couple this with an average of, say, 9 agendas, that’s around half of your deck already dedicated to particular types of cards.

Most ICE at this point in the game is very boring. It’s samey.

It’s vanilla.

I routinely reach for the same hyper-efficient pieces of ICE such as Eli 1.0, Enigma, Quandary, Wraparound, Ichi 1.0 and Archer because they do the core things well. They keep the runner out either directly, through “End the Run” subroutines, or by trashing the programs that the runner will use to break future “End the Run” subroutines.

What do you need ICE for? For keeping the runner out, for the most part. So of course people are going to use the most efficient ICE to do so if that is all that ICE can realistically be expected to do.

There are a number of ICE which don’t tend to end the run or contribute to keeping the runner out but which advance your game plan as the corp, but very few of these are playable because they are too expensive and unreliable, (with Pop-Up Window and Architect being notable exceptions).

The ‘aggressive’ ICE, usually AP-type, are usually risky to include in your deck unless they also help in keeping the runner out because so many runners can punish you for having porous servers. If you have a draw that includes only AP ICE (or Destroyers that don’t end the run), you could be punished by bleeding agenda points. Runners have so many tools to deal with damage during runs now (I’ve Had Worse, Earthrise Hotel, Feedback Filter, Deus X), that ICE like Shinobi and Cortex Lock have an even harder time being threatening even in the phase of the game where they should shine – early.

Tracer ICE has proven to have a low power level since the core set. How many people have tried to include a Shadow, a Caduceus, a Draco, a TMI, a Uroboros or a Hunter in their deck, only to find that even when they can fire their subroutines they face an uphill battle to have their ICE do anything at all?

The design philosophy around ICE should change, and I am encouraged that it will. Relying exclusively on subroutines makes ICE very vanilla and samey, and (in the most part), prevents corps from being able to extract usefulness from ICE beyond basic taxation once the runner has a Decoder, a Fracter and a Killer in play.

Below are some ideas that I think would rejuvenate Corporation play and deckbuilding.

More Impactful Subroutines

One of the reasons that ICE diversity is low at the moment, and that only the most efficient ICE (rez cost-strength-effect-wise), see play, is that most ICE rely on subroutines for effect. When the runner is able to break those subroutines with an Icebreaker, the ICE does not have the effect printed under the subroutines anymore, but rather has a second ‘mode’ – taxing a number of credits per run equal to the cost of breaking with that Icebreaker.

As runners commonly play with a limited range of Icebreakers, it is usually easy to calculate how effective this second ‘mode’ of your ICE will be. Paper Wall has no second mode, whilst Curtain Wall places a very high tax on any common Icebreaker used to break it.

It’s worth also mentioning that having a strength above 2 is also useful as it gives a level of resistance to Parasite, another commonly played answer to ICE.

Because of the ease with which most runners can now assemble a rig and get their economy online, there is a very narrow window in which the first ‘mode’ of the ICE is active.

There are effectively only two strategies that corporations can use to make their ICE serve some purpose:

1) Attempt to exploit the narrow window in which the first mode is active (the subroutines as printed), by:

a. Presenting a threat the runner must respond to (threatening to score and forcing them to run a remote or central server); and

b. having an ICE or combination of ICE that will hamper the runner, (a Destroyer and an “End the Run” subroutine perhaps).

2) Attempt to reactivate the first mode by:

a. Using the second mode to tax the runner’s credits to the extent that the first mode on some or all of your ICE is active again; or

b. interfering with the runner’s Icebreakers by destroying them or otherwise removing them from play (Destroyers, Marcus Batty, Will o’ Wisp).

If a corporation can’t do either of these things, they will struggle to score out of remotes and escape HQ or R&D lock.

This is one of the reasons that I think Marcus Batty is very good for the game. He is one of very few cards that enables corporations to make use of 2(b) above and interfere with Icebreakers, particularly once a Killer is active and your Destroyers are otherwise neutralized.

More impactful subroutines would allow phase 1 to be more threatening. In tandem with implementing more triggered and constant abilities as discussed below, this would broaden the game beyond ‘can you get in?’, making breaking subroutines and interacting with ICE a lot more strategic.

At the moment, the common serious penalties you can get from ‘face-checking’ ICE are:

a) Tollbooth taxing some of your credits
b) Archer, Ichi or NEXT Gold destroying a swathe of your programs
c) Cortex Lock, Neural Katana or Shinobi dealing you some amount of net damage
d) Fenris or Heimdall dealing you some brain damage

These penalties have been useful and impactful, but as the runner card pool grows, the window of opportunity for corps to fire these subroutines narrows and their impact also shrinks.

If we assume that you will not be firing these subroutines every game, and instead these ICE will often revert to their ‘second mode’, there is room to play around with power level by balancing the two modes.

We could have more powerful ICE in mode 1 that is weaker in mode 2. Cortex Lock is a good example of this, as its subroutine does not even need to be broken in many cases later in the game as it will have no effect.

But Cortex Lock doesn’t go far enough. It should be assumed that subroutines will rarely fire. They should therefore be more impactful than they currently are.

I think that it would make the game much better if almost every “End the Run” subroutine instead read “End the Run and the corp gains 1 credit”. Corporations should be rewarded more than they are for having subroutines fire. Subroutines simply do not resolve often enough.

Constant and Triggered Abilities

There is a reason that Tollbooth, Pop-up Window and Data Raven continue to see play so many years into the game. The “on encounter” ability provides a refreshing point of difference from the ‘subroutine only’ trend across the vast majority of other ICE. This gives these cards some beneficial effect even once the runner can break them with Icebreakers.

Abilities on ICE don’t have to trigger only on encounter, or even trigger at all. Architect has a valuable constant ability that protects it from being trashed by Parasite or Forked (and also prevents rules headaches at the same time!), while Turing has two useful passive abilities; a positional bonus in strength and a resistance to AI breakers.

If we saw more ICE with constant abilities, corporation deckbuilding would become a more interesting exercise, as you would be able to more reliably supplement your strategy using ICE, rather than building your ICE suite in a largely formulaic way.

Some ideas for other constant and triggered abilities include:

“When the runner uses an AI Icebreaker to break subroutines on ~ or another Sentry during a run on this server, the runner trashes one installed card/card from their grip”.

“Each rezzed piece of ICE in this server has +1 strength”.

“When the runner initiates a run on this server, you may trash a card at random from HQ. If you do, the runner must pay 4 credits or end the run.”

“If the runner breaks all subroutines on ~, the next piece of ICE the runner encounters has +2 strength.”

“If the runner breaks all subroutines on ~, the runner must pay an additional 1 credit to access any card in this server.”

“Whenever the runner breaks a subroutine on ~, Trace 2 – if successful, give the runner 1 tag.”

“Whenever a rezzed piece of ICE protecting this server is trashed, place a power counter on ~.

Click, Hosted Power Counter: Trash 1 program”.

Many of these ideas, or variations on these ideas, exist as subroutines on positional ICE or as assets and upgrades. If these effects are not condensed onto ICE cards and paired with other beneficial effects (such as an “End the Run” subroutine, or even a Pup subroutine), they are too low impact and narrow to find their way into decks.

It’s time for many of the effects that have until now been given their own card to be included as passive abilities on ICE that also has other subroutines.

This would make games more dynamic, presenting runners with more choices about when to break, rather than the answer almost always being that it is right to break subroutines if you are significantly ahead on credit economy.

This would also mean that ICE would be less binary, and prevent it from being rendered ineffectual except as a credit tax once the runner has Icebreakers in play.

The runner would have to calculate the strategic costs of running on particular servers in broader terms than simply their credit economy, and the corporation would be able to present the runner with some clearer choices in the midgame.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion and would love to hear all of your ideas on how we can make ICE a more interesting part of the game. A more diverse ICE card-pool will improve the interactivity and decision-making involved in the game and make it more exciting for both players!

Jesse Marshall is the 2014 Australian National Champion and Panelist on The Winning Agenda. When not advocating for air-strikes on the apartment buildings of known hackers, he is a corporate drone, avid Netbal, Cricket and AFL fan. You can check out his ramblings on twitter @jessedgmarshall

Vanilla ICE: An Analysis of Defence

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