Howdy folks, and welcome to the Crystarium! Today I want to talk about a word that has become something of an insult over the years: “netdecker.” I’ve seen netdecker come to refer to a spectrum of people. I think no one can argue that it applies to those who copy another person’s deck 50 for 50, but a less prevalent yet still widely used definition is anyone who plays a deck that is widely represented in the meta, even if they have personalized it somewhat. I’ve seen it asked before what it is that drives people to netdeck, and as an unrepentant netdecker I wanted to take some time today to explain the thought processes behind this common practice. Now, I surely can’t speak for everyone. This game attracts a hugely diverse sea of players, all of whom are unique individuals with their own goals, and their own reasons for enjoyment of the game, but I aim to do my best at representing as many schools of thought as I can.

It’s important that we understand first why it is that netdecking has become a derogatory term. For many, the creative passion behind deckbuilding is a large draw to the game, and these people enjoy testing their latest creations against those around them. When these decks are played against a netdeck, this can be a frustrating experience for many reasons: they were hoping to play against new and exciting strategies, not the same couple over and over; the netdeck is too finely tuned and has no problem dealing with an early draft of a rogue deck; the player enjoys seeing what new and interesting concepts others have come up with; the player feels they would learn best by playing against a varied field of decks. Let’s for a moment compare deckbuilding games like FFTCG to fighting games like Street Fighter. In Street Fighter, you have one decision point as the match begins: which character do I choose? That character has a prescribed movelist, and every single person who picks that character has the same exact tools. In FFTCG, you choose 50 cards. Even if two people bring an identical archetype, for example Wind/Water, their decks can vary by 20 cards or more! The opportunity for personalization is so much higher in deckbuilding games than in many other competitive avenues, and that is hugely attractive for many people.

Throughout the course of this article, I don’t mean to in any way diminish these reasons. They are real and valid feelings. Many people who feel this way find it difficult to understand why people would netdeck. For them, the creative process behind their decks is an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding experience. They feel a strong sense of pride when piloting decks that showcase their talents as a deckbuilder. Why, they wonder, would someone forgo this, and take a deck that they didn’t build?

Here’s the big secret: not everyone likes deckbuilding. When confronted with a blank page on FFDecks, it’s easy for Decision Paralysis to set in. “Where do I even start” people ask. Even more than not enjoying the process, not everyone has time for deckbuilding. For people with real world time constraints, whether those be a demanding job, or the responsibility that comes with a family, they simply aren’t able to set aside the time it takes to construct a deck of their own. For those who do have the time, many may even consider deckbuilding to be a loss of time that could be spent in testing. They feel that they can improve as a player better through more games played. There is a sentiment that, since formats change, because new cards are always added, since you will use dozens of different decks throughout your FFTCG career, it’s better to practice the fundamentals. These can be applied to every game, whereas working on an ideal deck is only useful for the games in which you are playing that deck. This line of thinking leads to the conclusion that having a diverse range of useful tools is better than having one very powerful tool, that having the perfect deck is meaningless without the ability to translate that deck into a strong winrate. Of course, winrate isn’t everything, in fact for many people it is all but meaningless, but many find it to be a valuable goal worth chasing.

Some people aren’t willing or able to invest much money into Final Fantasy, and find that the most cost effective way to participate in the game that they love is to purchase the individual cards that they need to create one single deck. Without the financial investment to test various builds in order to come to a single build that they like, it is instead much more efficient to simply use an existing build that has been proven. When I played MTG competitively, I was a young adult with a low-paying job, and I didn’t have very many resources to pour into the game. I was limited to playing one standard deck per set. I definitely did not have the liquid assets to mess around with multiple decks, or even multiple versions of the same deck, I had bills to pay. And I -loved- MTG; you can imagine my unwillingness to spend money would have gone double if I were simply using it as a way to spend time with friends, or were otherwise less invested in the game than the people I played with. Granted, Final Fantasy is a much cheaper game for several reasons. Card prices are lower, only 3 copies of chase cards are needed, and a deck can only contain 50 cards. It still costs money, however, and for some, every penny that can be saved is important.

When I said earlier that “not everyone likes deckbuilding,” I am included in that statement. I hate deckbuilding. I don’t even pretend to be good at it. What I am good at is taking an existing build and finding bits and pieces of it to improve. I can fine tune a deck against a metagame, but actually building a whole deck from scratch? I would much rather spend that time playing the game. There are people out there who are MUCH better at deckbuilding than me, and I have no problem standing on the shoulders of giants. As far as my personal experience goes, deckbuilding is not an efficient use of my time. I am bad at it, so I could be spending my time more effectively. It comes down to the ratio of time invested vs results, and no matter how much time I spend building a deck, I don’t believe that I will improve nearly as much I could by practicing matchups. What entices me about the game is the competition, the thrill of two skilled players piloting two finely tuned decks against each other. Would being a skilled deckbuilder make that even more exciting? Absolutely. But not so much more that I believe it to be worth the time it would take for me to become one. I am not a skilled deckbuilder, and I’m okay with that.

But let’s say I have a great finish at a major event with a deck I didn’t build. A fair question to ask is “wouldn’t you have been more proud to have brought your own deck?” Absolutely. However, that pride doesn’t matter to me. The pride of having built a great deck isn’t something that I look for, it isn’t something that I want. Even if I somehow got it, it isn’t something I would dwell on. Of course, this is a personal sentiment, and surely there are tons of people who cherish that pride, but I want to point out that there are lots of people who wouldn’t, as well. I don’t think of myself as a deckbuilder, so earning some sort of deckbuilding accolade means nothing to me. I want to be clear here, I don’t mean that someone else creating an incredible deck means nothing to me, it’s a great feat and I’m always ready to give praise where it’s due, I’m strictly speaking of my own goals in life.

I even think it’s fun to credit other people with the construction of my deck. I took a mono-water list to nats that was largely inspired by Aakash Gopidi, one of my teammates. It felt great to represent a friend like that. In my tournament report for CC Portland 2019, I talk about how Faulkner, JFB, and Chris Lopez were huge influences in the E/W deck that I won my nats invite with. Prior to my 3rd place finish in the Zanarkand Open with Samurais, I explored several people’s takes on the deck, and found that I most resonated with Kakka’s build. I netdecked all of them in my tournament prep, and learned crucial lessons from each. By netdecking them, I was able to see the unique way that each of them plays the game, and while I approach the game in a different manner than each of them, seeing the archetype through their eyes taught me invaluable concepts that I was able to add to my toolbox. I grew as a player by exploring how other people play. By putting aside my pride, by accepting that I don’t have to build my own deck, I opened myself up to learn from the best. I don’t have to be proud of my own decklist. It’s ok to be proud of the person who’s decklist it is. Any chance I get to play a deck made by a good friend or a respected colleague is a cherished opportunity.

Also, many people who play netdecks consider it to be a major part of the deckbuilding process. Let me ask a question to lead into this: at what point is a deck “complete?” To give my own answer, I would say that a deck is never complete. As we practice, as we learn more about the deck and about the cards and strategies we expect to play against, we are able to make better and better versions of the deck. As I play more and more games with a netdeck, I learn how better to refine it to my own playstyle, and gain a better understanding of how it interacts with the meta. I can then pass this knowledge on to other people who are playing the deck, and together we can all work on making the best list we can come up with. This explains why many people who netdeck are confused when people say they aren’t deck builders. To them, they simply build decks collaboratively instead of independently.

Compare this to the practice of speedrunning. Speedrunning is a massively collaborative hobby. It may seem otherwise at first glance, as each game is run by a single runner (or team for multiplayer games,) but a speedrun’s route is made through a union of many people’s efforts. No single person discovers all the glitches, tactics, and exploits that make up a run. They all share their discoveries, their explorations into how best to break the game, and they pool this knowledge in order to get their times as low as possible. It takes the combined work of those who delve into the nit and the grit of the game, and those who have the dextrous skill to pull off all the strategies needed to make a world record.

There was an idea I heard some years back, that some people are more gifted innovators, and some are more talented honers. The argument was that for some, it’s easier to generate new and interesting concepts, while some others find more enjoyment from taking concepts from other people and polishing them into a more finalized product. By understanding their individual strengths, innovators and honers can work together to form a strong synergy.

Let me make an analogy. Person X is an excellent writer, and crafts an interesting and engaging book. However, X doesn’t have a comprehensive understanding of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. X’s narrative is compelling, but the syntax is a mess. X hires Person Y. Y is not a creative person at all. In fact, Y has never written anything not mandated by a school assignment. But Y is an editor without peer. By working together, the two manage to create a New York Times bestseller, where neither could have done so alone.

X innovated, and Y honed. Taking that to Final Fantasy, we can think of deckbuilders as innovators. It follows that there are those who are more interested in using the product of these innovators and polishing it for use in a competitive space. These people will find where the deck is weakest and supplement or replace those parts. They will find where the deck is strongest and find ways to better leverage and protect that strength. By combining the builder and the polisher, the two may end up with a tournament-winning deck. This isn’t to say that one person cannot be good at both, only to recognize that many are not. I have a roommate who always starts and then abandons art projects, whereas I often have trouble coming up with ideas for articles but never have an issue finishing them off. It’s important to know ourselves, so that we may better apply ourselves.

So let me talk about this from the perspective of a tournament grinder. I went to three Majors in 2019, CC Water in Oregon, CC Earth in Arizona, and NA Nats in Cali. During my preparation for each of these, it was important to me that I had a deep and comprehensive understanding of the metagame. When we talk about metagame, here is the most pure expression of the term: what strategies am I most likely to play against, and how can I best deal with them? With a strong grasp of the meta, you stand the best chance against the meta. To this end, I netdecked multiple decks that I expected to contend with, and not only did I play my chosen deck against them but I played them against my chosen deck.

More than any other TCG, Final Fantasy heavily rewards specific matchup knowledge. This is because of the core mechanic of FFTCG, discarding for CP. It is critical that you know not only which cards are key to your strategy and which cards are crucial to disrupting your opponent’s strategy, but more importantly which cards you should be discarding. Knowing the least impactful cards in your deck allows you to accurately use those cards for resources, instead of trying to leverage your weakest tools. You can learn this through enough practice in the matchup, but there are things you will only learn by playing as the opposing deck. This paradigm shift lets you really appreciate the matchup from your opponent’s point of view. By getting in your opponent’s head, you learn which cards they’re concerned about. By understanding how they are seeking to enact their gameplan, you learn how best to disrupt it. Netdecking the meta is one of the best ways to understand the meta.

There’s an aspect that I’ve touched on here and there, but haven’t yet spoken to directly. Many feel that the bulk of the game lies in the actual gameplay. The decisions one makes during a real game are the most important thing. To them, deckbuilding is just a chore they must perform. It provides the framework for making in-game decisions, but consider the following: is a well-made building the result of the architect, or the tools? A well made deck is a powerful tool, but it must still be wielded expertly if it hopes to take down a tournament. There are those who are capable of taking weak decks and piloting them to impressive results, based on their skill as a player. Should a painter be chastised for not crafting their own brushes? Should a chef be lambasted for cooking with an existing recipe?

It’s time I address the most common counterargument to all of this: Everyone should be able to play however they wish. I have no defense against this argument. In fact, I am in massive agreement with it. Some people are hugely invested in building custom decks that are great showcases of their own personality and identity, and they want to play with other people who enjoy the same, and find netdecking to be hugely antithetical to their goals. And despite my staunch attitude towards netdecking being a positive thing, I still absolutely support them. We have spaces for competitive people to be competitive, and we should have spaces for players seeking other thrills as well. But here’s the brutal truth:

It is not anyone else’s responsibility to make these spaces, or play in a way that suits others.

If we agree that everyone should be allowed to play how they wish, it follows that shaming other people for playing how they wish is hypocritical. If a person created a tournament or format with the express intent of having a showcase of deckbuilding skill, then absolutely it is reasonable to be frustrated with someone for bringing a netdeck, but to shame a person for their choice to bring a netdeck to a standard competitive event, or at an event where no mention was made of bringing unique concepts, is inherently toxic. It is perfectly understandable for a person to dislike netdecking, and it is commendable to create one’s own environment that rewards creativity and punishes or outright bans netdecking, but it is not acceptable to police the way that other people enjoy the game. If a person enters competitive events, then realistically that person should expect to play against some amount of the most represented decks in the meta. Joining a Crystal Cup, or even a locals at a nearby game store, there’s going to be people who want to play netdecks. Even if you don’t understand it, even if you disagree with it, you need to respect it. It’s ok to be proud of your accomplishments, but don’t belittle others. Consider the difference between these two statements: “I may have lost, but at least I got to showcase a cool deck I built!” versus “I may have lost, but at least I wasn’t playing a boring netdeck!”

On the reverse side of the coin however, it is crucial that people who do enjoy netdecking, who do enjoy hypercompetitive environments, respect when other people do not. If someone creates a tournament intended to showcase skills other than wholesale dedication to victory percentage, it is on us not only to respect that, but to encourage it. We had the League of Light’s first season recently, which featured a division for people who aren’t seeking that cutthroat competition, and I think that’s great. It went super well, and from talking to the people in it they really enjoyed themselves! I was actually super tempted to join it, instead of the competitive division, so I could show off my love for underappreciated cards like Gullwings Yuna, Dark Lord, and Agrias (these are all decks I’ve played in qualifiers.) I think it’s a great environment for seasoned players to mess around with builds they could never play in higher tournament scenes, and a great environment for new players to explore high quality meta decks that they have no idea how to pilot if they so choose. But you better believe if we saw Nationals level players playing Crystal Cup caliber decks in Division 2, there would have been some drama.

Ultimately, for standard tournaments, what it all comes down to is that by and large people just want to win. If bringing a non-innovative deck is the best way to win, then that is what most people will do. They will use the optimal tools in pursuit of their goals. Without the time and resources to perform countless hours of exploration, it makes sense to fall back on the shared wisdom of the meta. Without the ability to build and test every single possible deck, shortcuts have to be taken. By narrowing the possibilities of deck choice to a small handful, it becomes much easier to decide from amongst them. An established meta helps to provide several strong and proven suggestions for this.

To quote Tim Minchin, “do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? – Medicine.” To apply that sentiment to FFTCG, strategies that can consistently win against the meta BECOME META. Even the most rogue of decks, even the most unique of strategies, can become a netdeck. If a deck wins, people will play it. To take the inverse of this argument, every deck that is currently meta started off as someone’s pet project. Even obvious decks like WOFF, for which a huge amount of the deck is essentially “pre-built” by the designers, we saw lots of variation between fast and slow strategies, with different people teching different packages to respond to their expected opponents. When you see a netdeck, you see a non-meta deck that was strong enough and interesting enough to be copied. What is netdecking, then, but a celebration of those who spent their time and expertise in the creation and perfection of that deck?

Hopefully all of my rambling regarding the topic has shed some light on how people use netdecking as a means of self-improvement, and why most people don’t see it as an inherently bad practice. We all have parts of the game that we enjoy more than others, and by working together, we can create a thriving ecosystem where we all live in harmony. Thank you for reading this article, and I hope to see you again soon, here on the Crystarium.