Everything You Need to Know About the National Cyber League Individual Game


by Taisa

The Individual Game is the one that your Scouting Report is generated from. This is probably the most critical Game in the season.

– CryptoKait, Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for the National Cyber League Games

CryptoKait says it best: “The Individual Game is for all the marbles” (*), meaning it (and the Team Game) are the ones that will primarily comprise your Scouting Report at the end of the season.

You want to bring your all to this Game.

This latest “Everything You Need to Know” Guide endeavors to compile the wisdom of the Player Ambassadors, National Cyber League (NCL) Game-makers, and past training guides into a single blog post, with any additional pro tips that yours truly can offer.

Please add your own tips and feedback in the comments! (And consider applying for Feature Friday if there’s a technical subject you could write an entire blog post about!)

Before the Individual Game Begins

Know the Rules

Above all else, familiarize yourself with what does and does not constitute cheating.

Helpful analogies:

Players == Spy vs. Spy

Pretend you’re a spy, uncovering secrets and protecting them from other spies! At least for the weekend, anyway. Do not talk with anyone about the Individual Game while the Game is ongoing.

Cyber Skyline == Terminator

Pretend that Cyber Skyline’s Cheating Audit System is advanced and ruthless, like The Terminator. Because it is. It will go back in time, know everything you did, and eliminate its enemies from the leaderboard.

You may find yourself in an awkward situation if a friend begs you for clues or answers. Of course you want to help your friend, but the right way to respond is to share your sympathy—and nothing else!

Here’s an example of something you could say:

“Yeah, that challenge is a tricky one! I can’t wait to talk about it after the Game is over. For now, it is my solemn duty as your friend to protect both of us from Cyber Skyline’s advanced and ruthless Cheating Audit System. You’re welcome!”

– You, Being an Excellent Friend

Think of it as practice for the cybersecurity working world, where you’ll need to remain hush-hush about daily operations and client information and whatever exciting government shenanigans you get yourself into. NCL Game values translate to workplace values—put yourself to the professionalism test!

You can review NCL’s rules here.

Take Advantage of the Gymnasium

There is no better preparation for the Games than the NCL Gymnasium!

  • You’ll learn to navigate the Cyber Skyline platform.
  • Sample challenges are representative of what you’ll find in the Games.
  • Nothing you do in the Gym will show up on your Scouting Report.

I personally like to use the “Click to reveal solution” feature with reckless abandon. Even if you don’t need help to complete a challenge in the Gym, you learn from seeing how someone else would solve the same problem.

[The Gym] will open your eyes to a whole new realm of tools and skills that will help you develop within the Games, and it’s included in your NCL cost!

–Fred Stinchcombe, Everything You Need to Know About the NCL Gym (but Were Too Afraid to Ask Someone)

I have definitely had people reach out to me after the competition ended saying that they should’ve listened when we said to do the Gym so here’s to hoping you all can learn from others’ mistakes.

–JeanaByte, What’s the National Cyber League Gym and How Do I Use It?
You can read JeanaByte’s Spring 2020 tips for the Gymnasium here,
and Fred’s Fall 2020 tips here.

Participate in the Preseason

“Participation” in the Preseason Game is defined pretty loosely. You must make at least one submission attempt, and the answer doesn’t need to be correct. If you don’t participate in the Preseason, you’ll be placed into what’s known as the Pewter Bracket for the Individual and Team Games.

What placing in Pewter means is that you cannot officially rank on the leaderboard, and you will not receive a Scouting Report at the end of the season, effectively making your participation in the Individual Game somewhat of a waste of time and money.

– JeanaByte, Everything You Need to Know about the National Cyber League Preseason Game

Your overall performance in the Preseason Game will appear as a tiny blurb at the bottom of page 2 of your Individual Game Scouting Report, but it’s not a highlight of the report, just evidence of your Bracket placement. You can see an example of how it will look in this sample Scouting Report.

You can read JeanaByte’s Spring 2020 tips for the Preseason Game here,
and FiFi aka ZeroTrail’s Fall 2020 tips here.

Do a Preseason Recap

Remember, you may only share methodologies, not answers, and only while a Game is not in progress!

The down time in between Games—that time after the Preseason Game ends but before the Individual Game begins—is prime time to run a recap of the Preseason.

The purpose of a recap is two-fold. You want to identify and address your areas of weakness, and you also want to celebrate your successes by sharing them with others, who will benefit from your mentorship.

There are lots of ways you can recap:

  • Compare notes with friends.
  • Check for methodologies (and share your own!) on Slack.
  • Refer to the CryptoKait.com blog for training and practice on domains where you struggled.

Now is the time to regroup and evaluate what everybody thought about their first real taste of the competition. Go over confusing topics and have everybody discuss their strategies together. Once the Individual Games start, they’re not going to be able to do that anymore. You want them to go into the Individual Games with as much prerequisite knowledge as possible. After it starts, they’ll be on their own.

– Aaron James, Using the NCL Games to Start a Cybersecurity Organization
You can read JeanaByte’s tips for running a Preseason recap here.

Tool Up

You may only use tools and resources that are freely available to the majority of players.

Examples of tools that are OK () and NOT OK (❌) to use in the NCL Games:

✅OKPublicly accessible, free tools. This includes free versions of tools—e.g. while IDA Pro is out, IDA’s free version is A-OK.
✅OKStudent versions of software.
✅OKCustom tools you’ve made yourself.
✅OKUbiquitous, widely-available tools, such as the Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, etc.).
✅OKAny hypervisor (software that allows you to run a virtual machine); all are functionally the same for the purposes of NCL, but be mindful not to take advantage of any commercial integrations.
❌NONo software your company has made that can only be used internally.
❌NONo resources that are free to you now based on a prior subscription or fee.
❌NONo pay versions of software, with the exceptions of those that are widely distributed and freely accessible to most players (e.g. Windows, Microsoft Office Suite).

All Internet resources used during the game must be freely available to all players.

NCL Rules of Conduct

If you didn’t do it during the Preseason Game, now is the time to set up your CTF environment! Depending on the equipment that’s available to you, and also your comfort level, this can mean different things.

  • If you have equipment limitations: NCL Player Ambassadors have played the Games on the road (*), from the back of a minivan (*), on a boat (*), from a tablet (*), and from a browser-only Chromebook (*).
    • Read posts tagged Low-tech Tools for tips on how to make this work.
    • Cyber Skyline also provides built-in tools for many challenges!

Once you have your environment set up, ensure you have your tools at the ready! Review the solutions in the Gymnasium for a starter kit, and browse through blogs in the NCL Toolkit category for additional ideas and recommendations. For more advanced players, check out the Advanced Tooling tag.

Prepare Your Snacks and Your Roommates

When you’re in the zone, it can be easy to lose sight of priorities—food, sleep, hygiene, school, family. Here are a few NCL Player Ambassador tips and war stories to meditate on before the big weekend:

It’s easy to get so sucked into the games you forget to eat and drink. I recommend stocking your workstation with water and snacks.

– CryptoKait, What’s New at NCL 2019?!

Your health (and mental health) comes first and foremost. But also make sure you know where school, work, your family, your friends, etc. fall on the scale vs. NCL.

Note: If you fail out of school because you spent all your time on NCL, you will not be qualified to continue to play in the games. Therefore, Schoolwork > NCL. My family and friends all know in advance when NCL is coming. They know NCL weekend > family and friends (barring an emergency.)

For example, I didn’t know that my now-fiancé was going to propose on our cruise when I thought, “NCL is more important than my vacation to me. I can definitely compete from the boat.” But when he did propose, I knew that celebrating our engagement was then more important to me than NCL.

– CryptoKait, Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for the National Cyber League Games

Let your friends and family know ahead of time that you’ll be busy and probably won’t be talking to them the entire weekend, but also don’t yell at anyone because you’re frustrated with a challenge (I learned that lesson the hard way my first season).

– JeanaByte, Everything You Need to Know about the National Cyber League Individual Game

During the Individual Game of my first season, I spent hours upon hours trying to figure out one Log Analysis challenge to the point of near insanity. I was yelling at my laptop; I forgot to eat; my roommate was very concerned (Note: I don’t recommend doing this). . . . Expect to get stuck, but if you are feeling stuck, take a break. Whether that’s doing a different challenge or actually leaving your room to go eat real food instead of the snacks you stocked up for the weekend, just stop looking at it.

– JeanaByte, What to Expect Your First National Cyber League Season

I can personally attest to how my hygiene tanked during the NCL games in college. Don’t be like me. Be better than me, I beg of you.

– WebWitch, Practicing Self Care during the NCL Games

Have your own cautionary NCL tale?
Please share it in the comments!

Read WebWitch’s guide on practicing self care during the NCL Games here.

Mind the Dates!

The Gymnasium is open for nearly three months. The Preseason Game lasted a full week. But the Individual Game goes for less than three days, from Friday at 1 pm EST to Sunday at 9 pm EST.

Review the dates and times on the NCL calendar, then schedule your weekend and set reminders accordingly!

During the Individual Game

“So There’s Less Time than the Preseason Game but More Domains?”

Yup! Nine domains total, like the Gymnasium. Good thing you practiced in the Gymnasium, right? RIGHT?

It sounds harder because it is, but here’s the thing:

“Will the Individual Game be harder than the Gym/Preseason?” The answer is YES! It’s designed to challenge you. Think of the Gym and Preseason as a warm up to build your foundational skill and the Individual Game as the real deal competition.

– JeanaByte, Everything You Need to Know about the National Cyber League Individual Game

The Individual Games [are] a way for [inexperienced] players to sort of train themselves further, with no help from outside. This is where we noticed a lot of substantial growth spurts among the members of the team.

– Aaron James, Using the NCL Games to Start a Cybersecurity Organization

I tell my students all the time. I can’t promise it will be easy, but I do promise it will be worth it.

– CryptoKait, Grace Hopper Celebration (#GHC17) Why and How to Prepare for Hackathons

“I’ve Been Placed in a Bracket. What’s That? Do Different Brackets Get Different Questions?”

Every player is tackling the exact same challenges regardless of their Bracket.

The Bracketing system just creates a sub-set of leaderboards representing players’ relative skill levels. Your performance in the Preseason Game determines whether you’ll be in the Gold (top 15%), Silver (next 35%), Bronze (remaining 50%), or Pewter (other) Bracket.

The idea behind Bracketing is that it allows you to measure your performance in the Individual and Team Games against other players who are at a similar skill level to yours.

You may now find yourself tempted to ponder, “Hey, what if I intentionally hold back during the Preseason Game so I can rocket to the top of an artificially low Bracket during the Individual Game?”

But you quickly realize that would just be silly.

You can read more about Bracketing here.

“There’s a Timer? Am I Being Timed? It’s Scaring Me—What Is It Doing?!”

The timer is just an innocuous countdown until the end of the game. Don’t rush to submit answers—the timer has no impact on your rank or score.

You can read more about scoring here and here.

“Ooh, I See Hints! Hey, How Do These Work?”

Using a Hint during the Individual Game will deduct points immediately. The cost is nominal but variable. You’ll be warned how much beforehand.

Your natural next question is: “If I don’t have any points yet, is it possible to end up with a negative score if I use a Hint?” The answer to this burning theoretical question is that it is not possible to accrue negative points. You must have points in order to unlock any Hints that cost more than 0 points. (Yes, some Hints cost nothing!) Your points are like a currency that is required to purchase the Hint.

If you use a Hint, it will show up on your web score report. Currently, Hint usage does not show on the downloadable NCL Scouting Report, but that may change in the future.

You can read more about Hints here and here.

“I Have Other Pressing Questions While the Game Is in Progress! What Do I Do?”

Chances are good that your questions are answered by the NCL FAQ or the CryptoKait.com blog.

Apart from that:

It’s called the Individual Game for a reason; you play this portion of the competition completely on your own. You cannot ask anyone (this includes your professor, coach, classmates, teammates, or NCL Player Ambassadors, etc.) for any help of any kind. . . . The National Cyber League (NCL) purposely renamed this portion of the season from the Regular Game to the Individual Game last year to get rid of the confusion. If you absolutely have to ask a clarifying question, submit a support ticket to Cyber Skyline and they will give you as much guidance as they can.

– JeanaByte, Everything You Need to Know about the National Cyber League Individual Game

If you have a question either search for that question using your finely honed OSINT skills, or ask the question on a forum, unless this is during the Games of course. During the Games, this would be considered attempting to get outside help which is considered cheating. . . . I strongly suggest that if you have questions during the Games, save them for after and post your question to the world! Somebody will be more than happy to answer and help you to the best of their ability.

– MistressVenom, Four Ways to Analyze Logs Like a Pro!
You can read more about available NCL resources here.

Start Password Cracking Early

The Preseason Game doesn’t include the Password Cracking domain, so it didn’t really drive this point home, but your password cracker can take hours to work its magic. Don’t save Password Cracking ’til the end! Start cracking early, and let that process run in the background while you tackle other challenges.

Read posts in the Password Cracking category for help getting started.

Take Notes

There are so many benefits to taking good notes during the NCL Games!

  • Writing things down activates different parts of your brain. You’ll not only improve memory retention for tools and techniques you’ve tried, but you’ll start thinking about the tough challenges in different ways by taking the time involved in documenting them. When I’m stuck or frustrated, documentation becomes a zen activity for me.
  • You’ll be practicing real-world documentation skills that you’ll need in your career.
  • Notes will help jog your memory when you run your recaps.
  • Notes will also help you in future Games and competitions when you come across similar challenges.


Remember:

(1) Don’t share answers with others—methodologies only, and only while a Game is not in progress.

(2) Do not publish your notes or writeups. Republishing NCL content violates the Terms of Service.

NCL pays Cyber Skyline to run the competition, but Cyber Skyline continues to own the challenges. This is how we keep costs low. Unfortunately, that means neither we nor the players are licensed to distribute challenge content or solutions. Please be respectful of this: we can’t keep NCL priced accessibly if challenges are distributed publicly.

–Paul Buonopane, Everything You Need to Know about the NCL from Someone Who Has Been Around as Long as Kait
You can read wolfshirtz’s tips for note-taking here,
as well as more about the NCL Terms of Service.

Win Ugly—in Moderation!

“Winning ugly” is a sports idiom (and as cyber-athletes [*], are we not sportspeople??). It doesn’t mean cheating or breaking the rules. It means your path to victory doesn’t have to be pretty. Work hard, ask Google “dumb” questions, keep banging your head against different tools. You’re not being measured by your ability to make this look cool or easy. What matters is how much you’re able to achieve and how much you’re able to learn for next time.

That said, your accuracy will be affected by the submission of incorrect answers. The system won’t warn you before you submit the same incorrect answer a second time, either, so submitting the same wrong answer twice will ding your accuracy twice. (Taking notes on both your successes AND failures really comes in handy to prevent this!)

On your Win Ugly journey, “throwing stuff at the submission box to see what sticks” is the LAST technique you should attempt. But sometimes, it’s worth attempting! Just be aware of the potential consequences:

  • If you end up with the same number of points as another player, the player with higher accuracy receives the higher rank.
  • If you drag your accuracy down too low, that might be difficult to explain to whomever sees your Scouting Report.

NCL allows the student multiple attempts to get the correct answer. . . . I cannot express how important the ability to FAIL and still earn points is. I cannot tell you how many times I have learned more than I could ever have asked for by struggling through trial and error to FINALLY get the points on a difficult question I would never think myself capable of. It has allowed me to grow as a competitor and as a cybersecurity professional in ways everything else I have done has not.

And to me, this is the most important part of NCL. In job interviews, I have been able to admit not knowing the answer, but knowing how I would approach finding a solution. This skill has impressed many interviewers and gotten me multiple offers for jobs I would not have gotten otherwise.

– CryptoKait, What Is the National Cyber League and Why Is It Better Than a Norwegian Cruise?

Don’t Let the New Leaderboard Blackout Feature Take You by Surprise!

You’re not experiencing technical difficulties!

This is a big change. During the final hour of each competition, you’ll be unable to see the leaderboard. A tentative leaderboard will be published a few days after each competition, followed by a finalized leaderboard once the cheating audit is completed. 

– Paul Buonopane, What’s New in Cyber Skyline for Fall 2020
You can read more about the new leaderboard blackout feature here.

Remember to Take Care of Yourself and Try Not to Scare People!

Your mental health and well-being is the most important asset in the Games. If you are overtired, frustrated, or in a bad mood, the best thing you can do for yourself is walk away. Take if from someone who accidentally threw a wireless keyboard out a window she did not know was open. When you need to, walk away!

– CryptoKait, Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for the National Cyber League Games
If there are any questions about this,
refer back to Prepare Your Snacks and Your Roommates.

After the Individual Game

Do an Individual Game Recap

It’s time once again to examine your areas of strength, weakness, growth, and to be a mentor and a mentee to your peers!

The procedure is the same as for the Preseason recap.

Switch to a Team Game Mindset

Even if you skipped the Preseason and Individual Games, every registered player is still eligible to participate in the Team Game!

This blog post will help you get your head in the upcoming Team Game:

NCL Question: Post-Season – Teamwork Strategies
Switching from solo competition to working as a team is not always easy (Leeroy Jenkins, anyone?). CryptoKait shares how she has handled the transition, both as a competitor and as a coach, and analyzes the team styles she’s seen in action.

Corral Teammates

Flying solo?

These blog posts will help you wrangle some mates:

Finding a Team When You’re Playing Solo
It’s harder to compete or rickroll effectively during the NCL Team Game if you’re on Team Lone Wolf™ (©2020 WebWitch). Jacob “gond0r” Corley helps you discover what kind of team you should be looking for, and where.

Forming, Registering, and Captaining a Team for the NCL
You’ve survived the Gym, Preseason, and Individual Games. They weren’t as scary as you thought! Now comes the harder part: finding a team. Hush1e explains how to rally and manage some troops!

If You’re Practicing Social Distancing, Set up a Means of Collaboration

Social distancing?

These blog posts will help you bridge the social distance:

Teamwork Strategies for Social Distancing
In an effort to ensure that no one misses out on that sweet, sweet collaboration time, WebWitch has conjured a list of tools for keeping in touch with your long-distance teammates and evaluates the pros and cons of each.

Virtual Collaboration Methods and Tools
Explore the free tools recommended by Hush1e for virtually collaborating with your cohort—from remote chatting, to video conferencing, to screen sharing, to document sharing. Hush1e Pro Tip: Have a backup in case one goes down!

Proceed to the Team Game Guide!

Ready for the next “Everything You Need to Know” Guide?

From Spring 2020:

Everything You Need to Know About the NCL Team Game
AKA WebWitch’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective NCL Teams. You’ll never envision “peak performance” the same way again!

From Fall 2020:

Everything You Need to Know About the NCL Team Game
This post by CryptoKait will become available soon! Don’t miss the newest pro tips, like how to track down which teammate is destroying your team’s accuracy!

Parting Thoughts

Watch for Your Scouting Report at the End of the Season, Even If You Think You Did Poorly

Here’s why:

The Importance of the National Cyber League (NCL) Scouting Report
CryptoKait felt embarrassed by how badly she ranked in her first season of NCL. She was pretty sure she only beat the people who didn’t log in. Later, the improvement demonstrated season over season by her Scouting Report landed her an interview with Google. CryptoKait had used the Scouting Report as both a means to improve and a validation of that improvement. Read to find out how you can, too!

Don’t Miss These Ultra Special Training Guides—They’ll Save You Hours!

Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for the National Cyber League Games
This special post represents the combined wisdom of all the NCL Player Ambassadors, the NCL Commissioner, and the Game-makers at Cyber Skyline. What single DO and DON’T would each insider advise for your success in the NCL Games?

An Introduction to Cryptography
Before there was NCL… there was a little girl playing interactive Nancy Drew games, quietly practicing cryptography without even realizing it was a cyber skill.(*) Now that she’s grown, and with a handle like CryptoKait, you know this is one introduction to cryptography that you shouldn’t miss!


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