(This review is primarily for Standard. It does include some speculation about Startup, but I haven't yet tested Public Trail there, nor in Gateway, so most of the conclusions are based around the current Standard metagame.)
Two years ago, I published a review of SEA Source. At the time, it was the primary "same-turn" tagging operation. But times change, and the cardpool rotates. SEA Source has left Standard, and Public Trail was intentionally designed as a replacement for it:
By way of example, Public Trail fills the role that SEA Source occupied, but in a way that’s simpler to grok. It leads players to the same play pattern but without the extra mechanical baggage of trace.
This might lead you to think that the two cards are quite similar, but in practice, the play pattern is very different, with Public Trail playing a somewhat different role in the decks it's in.
SEA Source was, in its first iteration, primarily a win condition: in the original Core Set, if you were sufficiently richer than the Runner (and they made a successful run), you could generally flatline them on the spot by playing SEA Source followed by double Scorched Earth. The most obvious equivalent when looking at today's Standard is Hard-Hitting News, which lands 4 tags on a Runner who is poorer than you and (if they can't or don't clear the tags) turns on tag punishment cards like BOOM! on the following turn. When used against a rich Runner, both of these combos are "all in" combos – you will be spending most of your credits to land the tag, leaving you a long way behind if you can't take advantage of them before the Runner clears them. SEA+Scorched is the stronger combo, as if you have the cards in hand and land the tag, it's an immediate win (and it would probably be unbalanced in modern-day Netrunner); Hard-Hitting News requires the tags to be floated for a turn cycle (i.e. 4 Runner clicks), and as clearing its tags with basic actions costs , 8, a rich Runner will always have access to a method of escaping the tags, thus Hard-Hitting News only really works against poor opponents.
The upshot of this is that operation-based tag-based decks had, before the release of System Gateway, two main modes of operation – either they tried to keep the Runner poor, allowing a Hard-Hitting News kill; or else they tried to keep themselves rich, allowing SEA Source to be landed. The latter is easier to accomplish (identities like NBN: Controlling the Message and The Outfit: Family Owned and Operated can easily make huge amounts of money and are good at tag-based strategies), but the rotation of Scorched Earth means that it had a lesser impact, needing to rely on more situational tag punishment cards like Exchange of Information, or on resetting the credit war with Closed Accounts. So Hard-Hitting News is based on the Runner's credit pool, whereas SEA Source is based on the credit differential. This made them good in different situations, so they didn't directly compete, and could even coexist in the same deck.
What about Public Trail? In order to land a tag reliably, the Runner has to be at less than 8. This is the same number that (against a Runner who isn't running tech cards or clickless economy) allows you to reliably float a tag around to your turn when using Hard-Hitting News. In other words, it's mostly just worse than Hard-Hitting News is at punishing a Runner on a low credit total; landing Hard-Hitting News against a poor Runner is going to tie up their economy for clearing tags for quite a while even when it doesn't outright win the game, whereas Public Trail just gives you one tag, and two clicks to do something with it before the Runner pays , 2 to clear it. As such, unlike Hard-Hitting News, and unlike SEA Source, Public Trail is bad at being a win condition; it's pretty much just outclassed by Hard-Hitting News against poor runners, and can't serve the same role as SEA Source because it can't reliably land a tag against rich Runners.
However, just because it isn't a good win condition, that doesn't mean that Public Trail is worthless; decks need cards other than their win conditions. In particular, profiting from a Hard-Hitting News requires the Runner to be poor; as an aspiring NBN tag-and-bag player, how are you going to make the Runner poor? The obvious answer to this is Economic Warfare, and that does indeed get run in most all-out tagging decks nowadays; but frequently, three Economic Warfares are not enough on their own (your reverse Sure Gamble gets cancelled out on average by the Runner's regular Sure Gambles, and they almost invariably have economy on top of that). The less obvious answer is "OK, let's get richer than the Runner, then start pumping a few credits into traces on cards like IP Block and Citadel Sanctuary – not enough that they won't pay, but enough to gradually and symmetrically wear down both players' credit pools over time". This sort of symmetrical credit erosion is a really powerful tool for tag-based decks, but sadly, just like the Economic Warfares, you often don't get enough opportunities to use it to keep the Runner's credits low enough.
The secret to Public Trail is that it's actually really quite good in the role of "wear the Runner's credit pool down to make landing a Hard-Hitting News possible". The key observation is:
- With SEA Source, you expect the Runner to take the tag. If they even can pay the trace, something has probably gone drastically wrong.
- With Public Trail, you expect the Runner to pay the credits. Your tag punishment is included to deny the Runner the option of taking the tag.
The thing is, SEA Source's effect in the case where the Runner pays the credits is really quite bad – you have symmetrically reduced both credit pools, but you spent a card and a click to do so, and although a symmetrical reduction in credit pools is something that helps to enable Hard-Hitting News decks, the cost that you're paying to be able to do that is really quite high. Symmetrically reducing both players' credits is something that's only really worthwhile when you can do it for free as a side effect of something you wanted to or had to do anyway. On the other hand, Public Trail's effect in the case where the Runner pays the credits is pretty good! You reduced your credit pool by 4 to reduce the Runner's credit pool by 8 – or in other words, your click and card got you an Economic Warfare (an effect that you were running a playset of anyway and that is really valuable to your deck) plus a symmetrical reduction of 4 thrown in on top of that. As a consequence, SEA Source can only really play the win condition role, but is pretty good at that, working in many situations where Hard-Hitting News doesn't. On the other hand, Public Trail is pretty bad at playing the win condition role, but fortunately it isn't restricted to doing that: when it can't get you a win (and most of the time it can't), it can play the role of the enabler instead, making your future tagging operations more likely to work.
All this means that playing Public Trail is similar in nature to playing other cards that give the opponent a choice. Wildcat Strike ("cards or credits?") will be the most familiar to System Gateway players, and I went over a long analysis of that card on its reviews page (but as a summary, it's a card you only play when the cards are valuable enough that the opponent is forced to give you the credits instead). Cerebral Cast is a more directly comparable example of the same sort of card ("tag or core damage?") – the play style of Cerebral Cast was to have enough tag punishment available to cut off that option, with the rest of the deck benefiting from the core damage. In both these cases, your deck has to be built so that it works regardless of the option that the opponent chooses; this isn't just "gets advantage from either option". but more like "one of these options is so good for me that I can force the opponent into taking the other, and that option is also good enough to make the card valuable".
Public Trail is very similar; the "I lose 4 and you lose 8" option is clearly the "good enough to make the card valuable" option (being slightly better than Economic Warfare, a card that you already wanted a playset of), so the tagging option needs to be the "don't you dare" option. So to make Public Trail work, your deck needs to contain cards that can gain a large advantage off a single tag. This might seem similar to SEA Source, but SEA Source needs a really big swing from its tag punishment to be playable, because landing the tag is so expensive; paying 20–30 to land a SEA Source tag is not unusual, so you need around 30 of value from the tag to make playing the operation worthwhile. With Public Trail, all you need to force the credit option is to be able to get at least 8 Runner credits' worth of value from the tag, pretty much by definition, and that means a much wider choice of tag punishment is viable. SEA Source was pretty much limited to Scorched Earth, Closed Accounts, Exchange of Information, or occasionally The All-Seeing I, but three of those cards have rotated and the fourth is situational (and not particularly good in the current metagame). With Public Trail, you can get away with lower-impact cards, like Retribution, Self-Growth Program, or maybe Trust Operation; these aren't good enough to be worth spending tens of credits on, but are strong enough to force the Runner to spend the 8 to avoid them. (Cards which benefit to a lesser extent from one extra tag, such as Market Forces or Predictive Planogram, won't be strong enough to steer the Runner into paying the credits; these can often go into the same deck as Public Trail does, but not because they're good as Public Trail follow-ups.)
For people like me who are Jinteki players at heart, it's also worth noting that unlike SEA Source, Public Trail is usable as a bluff. If you SEA Source someone, you're nearly always paying a fortune to pump the trace to unaffordable levels, and if you then don't have a follow-up, you look really silly. If you Public Trail someone with more than 8, though, they don't know what's going to happen if they decide to take the tag, and that often leads them into making the wrong decision. I often Public Trail people without punishment in hand, and end up getting the credit swing. Sometimes, I'm not bluffing, and the Runner thinks I am, and ends up with a huge setback as a consequence. This is something that you can't really do with most tagging cards. A note of warning: the bluff does not work well when played on the last click of the turn. This seems obvious, but I somehow managed to get this wrong multiple times while testing out how Public Trail worked.
The obvious next question is "is Public Trail good?" It only really fits into specific decks – those where you're playing meaningful tag punishment that works off a single tag, and want to keep the Runner poor (either to land a Hard-Hitting News, or simply just because you want to slow them down). Fortunately, the current metagame is very much one in which single-tag punishment gives meaningful value and is very much desirable. In particular, Endurance is a very commonly played card, and this means that neither Retribution nor Self-Growth Program is likely to suffer for targets (and many decks which don't play Endurance are tag-me decks playing Obelus; Self-Growth Program is great and Retribution decent against those). Drago Ivanov has proved itself to be competitively viable, and Drago decks will typically be running the sort of tag punishment cards that work with Public Trail. In fact, there's a lot of overlap and synergy between the various parts of a tagging deck nowadays. When you have single-tag punishment cards, Public Trail helps keep the runner poor for Hard-Hitting News. Hard-Hitting News also likes the single-tag punishment cards because then it gets value even if the Runner manages to clear three of the tags. If you land any tagging combo and it doesn't win the game, the Runner frequently gets stuck in economic hell trying to clear the rest of the tags or reinstall their Endurance, opening up more tagging windows, scoring windows, or both.
The combination really seems to work if you build a deck around it (and I've been putting up decent results with it, although I haven't found a specific list that I'm happy with yet); the basic idea is to ruin the Runner's economy with operations every now and then, and just score out, or find enough ICE to block their Stargate, while they're distracted trying to fix it. This seems to be a fruitful direction along which to attack the Endurance-based decks in Standard. (Maybe I'll check to see if it also works in Startup, although the lack of Hard-Hitting News there means that it probably doesn't.)
The main drawback of the deck style seems to be deck slots. Hard-Hitting News + Economic Warfare + BOOM! is a lot of deck slots on its own; that already fills most of the space a Corp deck has for things that are neither economy, nor ICE, nor agenda. Fitting in Public Trail, Retribution and Self-Growth Program alongside that means that space starts to become incredibly tight, and in particular, the central servers start to feel the pressure against cards like Stargate, because you no longer have room for additional ICE or card draw / card selection, and thus have trouble drawing the right sort of ICE for the situation in time. I suspect this problem is probably fixable, but am not sure; maybe the correction option is to keep the Runner poor enough that even an inappropriate piece of ICE can keep them out.
In summary: when used as a win condition, Public Trail is a bad Hard-Hitting News; but it can also be used as an enabler, as sort of a jankier Economic Warfare, and it's actually pretty decent in the latter role. Fortunately, you don't need to decide; if you're building a tag-based deck, it'll be able to play both roles for you, and it synergises pretty well with both halves of your tagging strategy. (You were probably playing both Hard-Hitting News and Economic Warfare anyway, after all.) It helps to make cards like Retribution and Self-Growth Program more playable, which is great because those are the sort of cards that are really strong in the current metagame. The problem is that you're now dedicating a lot of your deck to operations that don't directly make you money, protect your servers, or score you points, so the "Netrunner fundamentals" are somewhat lacking. This is probably fixable, but makes Public Trail decks play rather differently from typical Netrunner decks (and even typical tag-and-bag decks).
Cool review = D— valerian32