Vashon’s own Abraham and Charlie McBride have returned from a week of hacking megacorporations, infiltrating sensitive servers and advancing agendas for world technocratic domination — all in the world of Netrunner.
The brothers represented the island in the cyberpunk-themed trading card game at the World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, in three days of competition from Oct. 13 through 15.
The brothers took second place in the tournament’s team event, in which they joined forces with some friends in the Seattle area as Team Radiant. Close to 200 people competed in teams of three during that event, Abraham said.
After “a lot of close games that could have made us take first, we just barely got edged out and took second,” Charlie said.
In the main event, both Abraham and Charlie were eliminated before reaching the top 16, taking 186th and 85th respectively in a field of 254 players. But they’re happy with their performance and learned a lot from the competition, they said.
“Overall I’m still happy with it,” Charlie said. “My goal going into the tournament was to be a contender for the top cut, whether I placed there or not. I’m happy with the performance, and I learned a lot from the event — I was able to talk with a lot of really good players … and I was able to learn a lot about the game in general, and how to prepare for future tournaments as well.”
The two ran their own side event on the final day — a new game format called “Chimera” that Abraham and Charlie have been cooking up on their own. They’ve created a website for it which can be found at www.playchimera.net.
For the love of the game
The brothers moved to the island as elementary-age students. Charlie, 25, left to study computer science at the University of Washington and has now worked for Microsoft for three years as a software developer. Abraham, 28, has followed numerous passions: He operates a small pottery operation, a parkour program at the UMO Ensemble, and has a private practice for helping people who are recovering from injury.
Both grew up playing games from an early age. But it was around their teens when, at a summer camp, the brothers took a “How to win Settlers of Catan” workshop.
Suddenly Charlie was exposed to the math, broad strategic odds, win conditions, build orders, optimal trading times and the other intensely nerdy elements that make up strategy games. It got both of them deeply into Catan — which was a gateway to a deeper appreciation of strategy games overall.
Netrunner, a trading card game from the 1990s that has developed a devoted cult following, became one of their great loves.
For both brothers, a no-brainer reason to love Netrunner is its community and ease of access.
Charlie said he hadn’t bought any cards the first six months he played the game; he just showed up and borrowed decks from other players, who were happy to share.
His first tournament, Charlie printed “proxies” for much of his deck; proxies are cards one prints or makes themselves that stand-in for official game cards.
Trading card games all fall on a spectrum when it comes to allowing proxies, but Netrunner is one of the most liberal. Running a tournament deck with nothing but your own printed cards is A-OK. The World Championship even featured a printer at the judges’ table for players to build their decks, a testament to how accepting Null Signal Games is toward proxied cards.
And even when one does buy cards, it’s affordable compared with other games, Charlie said, because players can buy full sets of cards at once rather than needing to collect packs or individual cards. Those who want to test the game out can play it for free online at www.jinteki.net, a fan-made recreation of the game.
Their love for the game has translated to tournament success.
Abraham won the Canadian National Championship in July this year; Charlie won the Asian Pacific Australian Continental Championship in August; both placed in the top six at the North American Continental Cascadia tournament; and Abraham also won the Intercontinental Invitational tournament on Sept. 2, with Charlie taking 5th place at that tournament.
Winning that last competition means Abraham’s likeness will be forged into the alternative art of a card of his choice, immortalizing him in the game forever.
Winning is great, the brothers said, but it’s not the only thing.
“As much as I’d like to do really well in big tournaments, I mostly look to inspire people and help grow the community,” Abraham said. “It’s such a wonderful, really interesting game, and the community is really wonderful. And the more that we can grow it, the better.”
Cards on the table
Netrunner was designed by Magic: The Gathering (MTG) creator Richard Garfield and published by Wizards of the Coast, but the most popular iteration of the game is now run by Null Signal Games, a nonprofit, volunteer-powered game publisher.
The game is different from modern hit card games like MTG and Pokémon due to its asymmetrical playstyle. Most trading card games feature battles between players operating on equal footing and with access to the same card pool — such as in duels between Pokémon trainers or MTG’s mighty plansewalker wizards.
In Netrunner, however, one player takes the role of a secret-agenda-driven global mega-corporation (the Corp) and the other plays a computer hacker (the Runner) trying to disrupt and steal data from the Corp. The sides are balanced but they aren’t identical. At tournaments, players must be prepared to play each side.
The game’s smaller community, at least compared to other card game titans, is a double-edged sword, Charlie said — wonderful because players are still unveiling decks and strategies no one has ever seen, and aggravating because sometimes, you have to play against those decks.
The more a game is played, the closer it gets to becoming “solved” — a state in which players know the pieces and mechanics so well that the optimal decisions or playstyles in any match are already mapped out, or can be calculated. (Connect Four was “solved” in 1988, for example, and IBM supercomputer Deep Blue famously defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, though chess itself may never be fully solved.)
At Worlds, “the deck on Corporation side that won the tournament was one that people had not seen before,” Charlie said. “So there’s an aspect of the game of … finding decks that are new and unique, that people haven’t actually discovered yet, and then workshopping that with your friends and … bringing it to events.”
At the “top cut” level — when a tournament is down to the best-of-the-best and single elimination rounds — all players’ decks become open information, so each player knows their opponent’s decks exactly. From there, one can puzzle out how they plan to face their foe, Charlie said, which is one of the competitive aspects he enjoys the most.
Abraham, meanwhile, loves the “hidden information” aspect of the game; the Corporation plays their cards face down, only revealing them when the Runner starts interacting with them. It leads to bluffing, mind games and layers of intrigue as both sides try to claw a victory from a match.