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This post could use citations, but I haven't the time to add them all right now and I wanted to get this out there first. The most important pages to check out are 21-22 of the core rule book, where the different types of abilities and simultaneous effects are explained pretty thoroughly, albeit unclearly. This post seeks to explain the subtleties of those pages.

As the card pool for Netrunner gets bigger and bigger, it becomes more and more likely for any given card to come out and raise new rules questions. Some of these are indeed novel interactions, which can lead to new rulings and even updates to the FAQ. Many rules questions, however, can be answered with a more complete mental model of the inner workings of the game. By having a more accurate version of the "source code" of the game in your mind, it becomes easier to interpret any given card accurately, and with practice it can even become second nature to deduce the nature of a card rather than rely on shortcuts that previous cards may have established.

The core of Netrunner is, of course, the cards themselves and the abilities they have on them. Understanding how card abilities work is one of the formative learnings that helped me develop the deep rules knowledge I have of Netrunner. At first, it may seem rather complex to figure out which abilities are which types and how/why/when they will take effect. Hopefully with the below guide, we can unpack some of the key elements of Netrunner card abilities and make it clearer.

Classifying Abilities

First off, it is essential to establish the basic terminology necessary to discuss Netrunner card abilities. All abilities are either:

  • Constant
  • OR Triggered. All triggered abilities are either:
    • Conditional
    • OR Paid.
      • Some paid abilities are click abilities and thus actions.

Any ability can be a prevent/avoid ability, regardless of main type.

Constant Abilities

Constant abilities just are. They don't adhere to a condition>trigger>resolve structure, they simply occur if and when they apply. Constant abilities generally describe states of being, but they can also stipulate specific "conditions" (not to be confused with trigger conditions) under which they apply, such as "while the Runner is tagged." Assume any ability that is not in the form "cost: effect" is a constant ability unless it falls under a specific timing structure of some kind (more on that below). Constant abilities include ones that use if, while, and until.

Triggered Abilities

In contrast to constant abilities, triggered abilities are ones that can only apply when a specific trigger condition of some kind is met. This includes all paid abilities and any non-paid ability with a specific timing condition that triggers it.

Paid abilities are the easy ones - they are always written as "cost: effect", meaning you must pay the cost in order to trigger the effect. Paid abilities can only be triggered during the specified paid ability windows in the timing structures.

If a paid ability costs 1 or more click, then it is a click ability, and as such it can only be used as an action during the action phase.

Conditional Abilities

Conditional abilities are the weird ones. They have all the extra rules that we know and "love", especially when it comes to simultaneous effects. All conditional abilities define their trigger condition in their text. Usually, this takes the form of when or whenever, but it also includes such structures as before, after, unless, and ordinal events like "the first time" (note that this is not the same thing as the first ice, or the first program, etc.). You can usually tell an ability is conditional if it has a comma in it separating two clauses, one being the trigger condition and the other being the effect.

Conditional abilities have three steps to their resolution:

  1. Trigger condition met - A trigger condition is what separates a conditional ability from a constant one. While a constant ability would just happen immediately once it becomes relevant, a conditional ability essentially waits and listens for its trigger condition, and then when that trigger condition occurs the ability must prepare to resolve.
  2. Trigger - A conditional ability that has triggered is one that will resolve. Once triggered, an ability exists independently of its source. This is the "point of no return" for the resolution of an ability.
  3. Resolve - The actual resolution of a conditional ability is when its effects take place. The exact timing of the resolution of a conditional ability can vary from its trigger condition, especially in situations involving simultaneous effects.

Now, normally steps 1 and 2 are concurrent. HOWEVER! this is not always the case. If there are ever simultaneous effects, then steps 1 and 2 can have a pretty wide segment of time between them. This is where the weirdness occurs. When there are more than one active ability that care about any specific moment in the game, then you must follow all the steps individually instead of immediately triggering and resolving an ability. Why does this matter? Namely it's because the order of operations can sometimes affect the outcome - whether that's because both players control some of the simultaneous effects or because some parts of the abilities are dependent on others. The other important reason it matters is because during step 1 a trigger condition can become invalid before step 2 occurs - this causes the ability to fizzle and never move to step 3.

EXAMPLE TIME! Consider two classic scenarios.

Example 1

The Runner has Wyldside and Aesop's Pawnshop installed. Both have abilities with trigger conditions "when your turn begins". Because they share a trigger condition, both will meet their trigger conditions at the same time (step 1). Both Wyldside and Aesop's are Runner abilities, so the Runner chooses the order they will trigger in. The Runner chooses Aesop's first, so Aesop's triggers first (step 2). Aesop's then resolves, and the Runner chooses to trash Wyldside (step 3). There are still simultaneous effects to worry about, so next up is Wyldside, which is still stuck back at step 1! So Wyldside goes next, but lo and behold, it is no longer active, so its ability fizzles. It never reached the all important step 2, so it can't continue onto step 3 either.

Example 2

The Runner has a Femme Fatale installed, targeting a Tollbooth. Both have abilities with trigger condition "when the Runner encounters Tollbooth". Because they share a trigger condition, both will meet their trigger conditions at the same time (step 1). It's the Runner's turn, so the Runner goes first with Femme (step 2). Its ability resolves, and the Runner pays 1Cr to bypass the Tollbooth (step 3). There are still simultaneous effects to worry about, so next up is the Corp's ability on Tollbooth, which is still at step 1. Tollbooth is still active, so that's good, BUT! the trigger condition is no longer valid. The Runner is no longer encountering Tollbooth, so its ability fizzles. It never reached step 2, so it can't continue onto step 3 either.

The most important feature of this to remember is that only an ability that has triggered (reached step 2) is one that can and must resolve. If an ability never gets to step 2 for any reason - because its trigger condition is no longer valid, because the card its on is no longer active, or whatever - then it will never resolve because it will never reach step 3. This condition>trigger>resolve structure forms the basis of a great number of rules answers in Netrunner. Study it. While these two particular examples seem old hat at this point, even seemingly more complex situations like Salsette Slums vs Controlling the Message often distill down to a variation of on these examples, and once broken down to the individual steps can become much clearer.

Summary

Here are a few of the key points to take away from this post:

  • Constant abilities are faster than conditional abilities
  • Conditional abilities do not always necessarily trigger at the precise moment that their trigger condition is met
  • Once triggered, an ability exists independently from its source
  • In order for an ability to trigger, the card the ability is on must be active (and not blank, thanks FFG) AND the trigger condition must remain relevant all the way up until the card begins resolving

Bonus Weirdness

But Jake! Some abilities use both constant ability words and conditional ability words in them. How do I figure out how an ability works if it says both "if" and "when" somewhere in it?

Abilities that both say "if" and "when" in them are still conditional abilities not constant ones. The "if" in this case modifies how the ability works in some way. There are two ways that these types of abilities can work, and it all depends on where in the ability the "if" is.

  1. If the "if" part of an ability is in the trigger clause (e.g. "When X if Y, do Z" or "If Y when X, do Z"), then it is a conditional ability in which Y must be true at time X in order for the ability to meet its trigger condition. For example, Quantum Predictive Model says "If the Runner is tagged when Quantum Predictive Model is accessed, add it to your score area." The Runner must be tagged at the time the access occurs in order for this ability to meet its trigger condition. If the Runner isn't tagged at that time, then QPM never meets its trigger condition in the first place, and if the Runner becomes tagged at any point after the access occurs then the ability can't go back and trigger retroactively.
  2. If the "if" part of an ability is in the effect clause (e.g. "When X, do Z if Y"), then it is a conditional ability that will always meet its trigger condition X, but Z will only occur if Y is true when the ability resolves. For example, Underworld Contact says "When your turn begins, gain 1Cr if you have at least 2L." Underworld *always* meets its trigger condition at the start of the Runner's turn, but when it resolves the Runner only gains 1Cr if they have the 2L at that time. If the Runner doesn't have 2L when Underworld meets its trigger condition, but by the time it triggers the Runner does have 2L, then the 1Cr is gained.
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