Monday, 20 February 2017

"THE STATE OF X-WING" - PART I: A PHANTOM MENACE?

There has been a recent rise in discontent among X-Wing players, with a growing chorus of unhappiness at the state of the game.  There are always those who aren't happy with everything and want something to be different - the perpetual 'buff the T-65 X-Wing'ers, for instance - but it seems as though we are hitting a low point in the number of people who are complaining.  A recent podcast by the Mynock Squadron boys became a lightning rod for much of that dissatisfaction, leading to extensive discussions on forums.

I've made it clear in recent blogs that I feel somewhat the same way, and indeed I agree with most of the things that the Mynocks raised in their podcast.  I want to use this blog to tackle that head on, lay down my own take on what the issues are, whether they're real or not, and what possible solutions might be.

To summarise, I think there are four key areas causing unhappiness, and I'll look at each one in turn.
  1. Power Creep
  2. Complexity
  3. Mechanics Balance
  4. Theme


1. Power Creep

Definition: recent waves have been more powerful than older ships/pilots - this is both a common player perception and appears to be borne out in recent results from Regionals/Opens.  It seems very difficult to create winning squads without playing these new ships.

Recent Regionals are weighting heavily towards new ships being the best chance of winning

Power creep is perhaps the toughest of these four topics because it's genuinely not clear what the right answer should be, or even what criteria you would use to decide that answer.  Power creep is a meeting point of several pressures all working against each other:
  • Some players don't want their old investments to be rendered worthless, they also don't want the ships and pilots they like playing with rendered obsolete.  This is bad for players, thus bad for the game.
  • Part of the attraction of a 'living' game is that it changes, presenting both new problems and new solutions to old problems.  If new expansions don't challenge the status quo then the game is stagnant and some players get bored, this bad for the game
  • A game that doesn't continue to sell new expansions effectively ceases to exist once the company making it stops making money.  New expansions need to be good enough to persuade people to buy them because the contents look interesting/powerful.  If you don't sell expansions it's bad for the game.

So you need a solution that doesn't change the game while keeping it fresh, and doesn't render old investments useless while encouraging players to invest in the new stuff as well.  

That's quite a trick if you can pull it off!

My experience of these sorts of 'living games' like X-Wing comes primarily from Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft TCG and Netrunner, and they all arrived at the same solution - set rotation - but for different reasons (WoWTCG for a very cynical reason that it's not worth sharing).

Magic arrived at set rotation very early in its life cycle as a necessary result of its explosive growth from a game printed in somebody's basement to the biggest game in the world.  Some of the older cards were poorly balanced and not just were they better than newer cards but there simply weren't that many of them in existence - there literally weren't enough Black Lotus cards in the world for everyone to have one.  Magic established a two year set rotation for it's 'Standard' format (since added to by formats that rotate over longer periods, like 'Modern') and this meant that most players only need to keep up to date with the most recent releases.  This had two big benefits for WotC: first, it continually drove sales of their newest products, and secondly it allowed them to sidestep power creep entirely.

Every few expansions WotC will deliberately release a wave of Magic sets that suck.  These expansions come out and people will buy them a bit but not as much as other waves because the cards just aren't as good as cards from the years before.  Isn't this commercial suicide?  No, it's commercial genius!  When the older powerful sets rotate out of the Standard format the weaker expansion becomes the new baseline - power level is relative, after all.  This means WotC don't inexorably crank up the power level on Magic: The Gathering, instead they go through cycles of ramping it up then resetting to do it all over again.  Magic has been around for nearly 25 years now, and still a lot of the best cards were the earliest cards, proving that rotation can be a long term answer to power creep.

Netrunner arrived at set rotation for a different reason, which was that the ever-growing range of expansions became a daunting obstacle to new players jumping into the game.  Netrunner didn't particular have an explicit power creep trend as much as a cynical strategy of seeding one or two great cards in each expansion to make sure that players felt obliged to buy almost every set when it came out.  That meant it was very difficult for new players to get up to speed without buying up an exhaustive back catalogue, and that back catalogue was only going to grow.  Rotation locked the amount that players would ever need to buy, and also meant old cards would drop out of the game to leave new design space for future cards to revisit themes and mechanics in new ways.

So would set rotation work for X-Wing?  Well I think it's extremely problematic because most of the 'iconic' Star Wars ships were in the early waves so they would be the first ships rotated out of the game.  

As a result X-Wing doesn't rotate its ships from earlier waves and that leaves you dealing with the problem of power creep.  Make new ships better than old ships and the game suffers, make new ships worse than old ships and the game suffers.  So what the hell are you supposed to do?


Churn, Don't Creep

The answer might be to rotate sets, but do to it implicitly through game mechanics rather than explicitly through removing sets from play.  This is something that I know by the term 'churn'.  When you 'churn' something you're cycling it and in game balance terms that means you give everything it's time in the spotlight but then the spotlight moves and something else gets the chance.  The game changes, everything is relevant at some point, old players get some use of old ships but there's also incentive for them to buy new ships.  The wheel ever turns.

I think FFG's strategy is probably to 'churn' X-Wing rather than to power creep it.  While my graph on wave balance was alarming not every ship released is immediately powerful, even in Waves 8 and 9, and indeed it's taken Wave 9 to really shine the spotlight on ships like the YV-666 and K-Wing from Wave 7.  A lot of the ships from Wave 10 look pretty underpowered on first inspection which makes me doubt 'power creep' is fuelling them, but instead that once released they're waiting to be churned to the top for a while.

Churn doesn't have to be as specific as picking a ship and buffing it until it's the best ship in the game then next wave picking another ship and buffing that until it's better, though.  That's a really blunt and unsophisticated way of approaching churn when you can move whole blocks of ships and strategies at once... make having lots of green dice a good strategy, then make having a lot of hull a good strategy.  Give players a reason to bring a lot of small ships, then a reason to play just a couple of ships.  You're cycling play styles not specific ships, letting players adopt the ships and pilots that fit those play styles.


In principle I really like the idea of 'churn' as a solution to a game like X-Wing as any time you're in a period of the game's ever-turning wheel where you're not having fun then a little patience will see the wheel turn again and maybe you'll like it more.  When you know everyone is getting a turn it's easier to be patient and wait for your turn to come around. 

I have two specific concerns: 
  • FFG haven't said that's what they're doing so when you see things like the dominance of Waves 8 & 9 it makes you think maybe they're just cynically emptying your wallet.
  • It's a tricky thing to judge without robust playtesting that can accurately predict the metagame impacts of new releases.  Not just the impact of what you're playtesting now but of unreleased product on that metagame and of these new things on the metagame that the unreleased product is going to produce!  Still with me?  Basically FFG are designing a couple of waves into the future, so if they're designing Wave 12 but have misread what Wave 11 will do to the metagame then Wave 12 might not have the desired effect when it comes to be released.

In addition to this, the dominance of Waves 8 & 9 right now aren't just churn as there's a clear power leap in cards like /x7 and ships like the Shadow Caster, Jumpmaster and Protectorate Fighter.  Were they genuine mistakes or a cynical cash grabs?  It's hard to tell when FFG largely refuse to engage in a dialogue with the community and keep their intentions so closely guarded.  


2. Complexity

Definition: X-Wing used to be simple.  Go back far enough into the past and you had two ships, two dials, a couple of actions and pilot cards.  Each successive wave adds new abilities, new mechanics, new titles, new card combinations and the game is losing a lot of what made it good to begin with.

Complexity is a similar problem to power creep as you're really talking about complexity creep.  It's caught on horns of the same triple-pronged dilemma:
  • Make the game more complicated and long-time players who were attracted by the simplicity and elegance of X-Wing will be turned off
  • If you don't make the game more complicated then where is the design space for new cards that don't just retread old ground?  A game as simple and elegant as basic X-Wing leaves little room for future design.
  • A more complex game is just as likely to attract new players who are used to other complex games as it is to turn off old players.  

Personally I come from a background in games vastly more complicated and intricate than X-Wing will probably ever be, but I can step into the shoes of the guys who loved the elegance of move/shoot/move/shoot in Wave 1 X-Wing.  I understand that it's a turn-off for a lot of players, especially the old-timers.

If you're not going to rotate older simple cards out of the game to make room for new simple designs then the only design space left is to make increasingly intricate & complex designs.  You're going to get ships like the ARC, which is the first to pair an astromech slot with a crew slot and thus the first to create new potential combinations... but what else was the answer: to not give it those slots, to not explore new design space?


One of the best examples of this new 'complexity' in the game, which I happen to really like, is that pretty much every new ship comes with either a title or bespoke upgrade that only that ship can take.  By design this makes all new ships more complex than old ships because the ship isn't just 'Statline + Dial' but 'Statline + Dial + Title', but is also means that ship has something unique in how it behaves.  The TIE Advanced Prototype gets Evades when it target locks, the Quadjumper has a tractor array, the ARC and TIE/sf are the same many ways but treat their rear arc differently.  Giving each ship a unique identity was previously something that lay primarily with the dial, but as design space for the dials filled up adding the titles gives more room to create unique ships.  

Personally I like the titles that gives ships more character, but I also understand it's a step away from the simple elegance of what X-Wing originally was.


Too Much Of A Good Thing?

The complexity creep is probably harder to solve than power creep without resorting to rotation.  It's a lot harder to 'churn' upgrades and complexity in out of the game, at least without resorting to forcing it with power creep by making new ships that are very simple but overly efficient and demand play.  Instead we are going to get more and more upgrades that interact with exponentially more and more upgrades, on ships presenting new potential combinations of upgrades (like the ARC's crew/astromech slot), creating more and more potential for unhealthy combinations.


The solution might be to adopt rotation of upgrade cards to at least limit the number of possible combinations, and mean that if any particularly powerful combinations do crop up then there's a lifespan on how long that can exist.  Rotation of upgrades would actually fit extremely well into FFG's current distribution model as we're used to sets reprinting old upgrade cards anyway, and now those reprints not only serve to put the cards into the hands of new players but to move the cards in and out of tournament legality.  It creates new design space for new cards, and keeps formats and ships fresh and ever-changing not ever-preserved legacies of waves from years ago. 

Hell, if you rotate your upgrades you might even coincidentally create the churn of ships desired as an answer to power creep!



3. Mechanics Balance

Definition: a growing perception that better dice modification and dice inflation (having more dice - Finn, Fenn Rau, Ghost etc) are making how you actually fly your list less relevant.  To some players it seems like X-Wing has become a game about building a effective squad, rather than flying a squad in effective ways.

So far I've been able to remain a largely neutral narrator as both power creep and complexity creep are issues that don't directly affect how I feel about X-Wing as a player.  Mechanics balance is one that I do feel passionately about, though.

The game of X-Wing runs in three phases - Planning Phase, Activation Phase, Combat Phase - and feel like the balance of the importance of these three phases has been badly warped by recent releases.  In short I feel like the Activation Phase is now so powerful that a player who maximises that phase can largely ignore deficiencies in either of the other phases.  It's possible to make your ships so powerful with multiple actions and interlinked upgrade effects that you can largely shrug off mistakes in the Planning Phase or bad luck in the Combat Phase.

I quite like the idea of a game about maneuvering for position in dogfights.
I think this is a problem, but it's also something that I think especially hurts players who came into the game a long time ago, when the game was dominated by the Planning and Combat Phases, and Activation Phase was largely just bookkeeping between those two phases.

The first thing to make clear is that the Activation Phase doesn't work alone in this, indeed much of what is happening in the Activation Phase is just following through on decisions and combinations that you worked on during squadbuilding long before the game even began.  It's here that you take advantage of the fact that you've built a squad where you can take three actions with your ships.  Combined, Squad Building and Activation Phase now take what I view to be an unhealthy slice of where the game's balance lies, which is a problem not just for game balance but also for the 'feel' of a game that was ostensibly about the cat and mouse dance of manuevering and positioning.

The advantage gained of taking multiple actions in the Activation Phase is now enough to entirely eliminate any advantage you might get from superior positioning you created when you set your dials in the Planning Phase.  

Lets' look at an example: Rookie Pilot X-Wing vs Countess Ryad with Push The Limit and TIE/x7.
If the Rookie Pilot tries to joust the TIE Defender one-on-one it's going to end badly, as it's going to take the Rookie Pilot approximately 35 shots to push 6 damage past the Defender's Focus and Evade tokens while Ryad will destroy the Rookie Pilot in just 4 shots, on average.  Now it's a fair argument that you wouldn't expect a basic pilot to beat a much better ship that costs more points one-on-one, but as Countess Ryad only costs ~70% more than a Rookie Pilot is is really fair that the TIE Defender is approximately 900% better?  
The imbalance in cost/reward is so great that even two Rookie Pilot X-Wings firing at Countess Ryad should be destroyed with the TIE Defender on one hull left.

That's bad enough, demonstrating how the Activation Phase is dominating the Combat Phase, but it also undoes the Planning Phase as well.  If you plan your X-Wing dial very well and get into the TIE Defender's blind spot then the reward for doing so is... an 85% of doing no damage, because of their tokens.  If you had both X-Wings in play and managed to bump the TIE Defender it would still an Evade token and your second X-Wing would still be odds-against to deal any damage!  Attani Mindlink ships still get focus, Dengaroo still got his focus, the Party Bus doesn't need actions for his crew abilities anyway... there's an increasingly large amount of this stuff about and it pretty much all arrived in Waves 8 & 9.

It doesn't matter how you stack it for the X-Wings, the action economy that the /x7 and PTL TIE Defender is able to generate in the Activation Phase is enough to mean that it cares relatively little about the distraction of either the Planning or Combat Phases - it knows it's going to win anyway.  The problem with the tension between 'cheap cost-efficient ships' and 'expensive ships with lots of upgrades' is that nothing stacks cost-efficiency better than packing the upgrades, and that the traditional counterstrategy of the cheaper ships (bumping the expensive ship to prevent access to those upgrades) has been undermined by recent upgrades like /x7 and Attani Mindlink.

That's one example but you can apply it in similar ways to Colonel Vessery, to Asajj Ventress with Push The Limit, to Fenn Rau with his Attani Mindlink focus and the Evade from Autothrusters or Concord Dawn Protector, to Soontir Fel's turtling last year, to the corrupted action economy of Dengaroo and Zuckuss, to the combined dice modification of the Party Bus, to the SLAMmed bombs of the K-Wings.  The biggest problem with all of this imbalance, to my mind, is that it's so selective in which ships can really benefit from it and that means it's playing a large role in ensuring that whole waves of ships are rarely seen in competition.


The strength that all this action economy generates - planned for in Squadbuilding, achieved usually in the Activation Phase - means that the positioning of the Planning Phase is increasingly denied the ability to reap rewards in the Combat Phase.

Addendum: it's also fair to point out that there's recently been a rash of effects that allow your opponent to interfere with where your ship actually is - cards like BoShek, or Tractor effects like Ketsu Onyo or Spacetug Tractor Array that don't require the opponent to give up their shot in the Combat Phase.  This is a direct assault on the Planning Phase, over and above whether good positioning is actually worth anything much against token-laden defenders.


Change = Bad?

So, let's set aside the argument about whether that's happening or not and deal with the hypothesis that it is.  Is it a bad thing?  The game has changed but has it changed for the worse?  For some people the answer will be no: they'll adapt or even thrive in a world where success is something you plan for in advance with strong squadbuilding rather than something you achieve on the day with inspired flying and positioning.  For other players, though, its certainly a bad thing: a sudden swing in the game away from what they've enjoyed in the past and what they believe the game of X-Wing was about.

I'm one of those people.  I think that most of the activation phase is just what I described it as at the top of this point - bookkeeping of tokens and effects - and I think that bookkeeping is a lot less interesting and enjoyable than playing for position and taking your best shots where you can.  


Personally although I approach games in quite a dedicated high-intensity way I'm ultimately in a game for the enjoyment not the competition.  The 'enjoyment' in X-Wing comes in the Planning Phase for players like me, while tokens and action bookkeeping is a chore that slows the game down and interferes with the flow of move/shoot.  It might lead to a fantastic cerebral challenge of trying to ensure your actions are better than your opponent's actions, but it's not exactly exciting - I don't sit at home of an evening and amuse myself with a nice bit of admin and filing.

Even if a game is balanced why would I play it if it's not also fun?


4. "It's not Star Wars"

Definition: the earliest waves had the most famous ships, but there's not an exhaustive supply of them so it had to run out eventually.  As recent waves are getting played far more heavily than older waves we've stopped seeing X-Wings and TIE Fighters so it's stopped looking and feeling like Star Wars.  To some players we're now playing "Generic Science Fiction Space Battles: The Miniatures Game".

This is one that is hard to approach rationally because it's an emotional response.  If we were dealing with anything other than Star Wars then you could happily rotate & churn sets all day long, do your job as a designer perfectly and keep the game extremely well balanced but continually healthy and changing.  It's the holy grail.  But if you do that with Star Wars you're going to hit a real problem, because to an awful lot of your customer base the ships are not being rated and weighted based on their game mechanics and balance, but on an emotional basis to how much they make people feel like they're really playing Star Wars.

This is a toughie!   How can you churn/rotate the ships in your game but also lock off ships like the X-Wing/TIE Fighter/Millenium Falcon and ensure that that they're always near the top of that ever-turning wheel?  It's probably close to impossible.

And yet, for a group of players they really do need that to be the case.  They don't need the X-Wing to be at the top of the wheel but they'd really like it not to ever drop into the lower half, or be dragged through the mud at the bottom.  And also they're the first ships so the least complex, but please don't make them more complex.  Or more powerful.  Or less powerful.

It's an impossible ask and yet at times like these, at this specific point in the metagame that we find ourselves in now, a failure to address this can have a huge impact on how much people actually enjoy playing X-Wing.  X-Wings are bad, TIE Fighters are bad, TIE Interceptors are bad, A-Wings are bad, B-Wings are bad... about the only ships from the original trilogy of films that are knocking on the door of being considered 'good' are Rey in the new Millenium Falcon, and Y-Wings with their pesky Twin Laser Turrets.  It's probably fair that for a lot of people the competitive metagame doesn't look or feel very much like Star Wars, and it's probably also fair to say that this is affecting how much they enjoy playing it.


It's something that is personal to each player.  Some only want to see the ships from the original trilogy, but others have gobbled up every bit of expanded universe Star Wars and are super-hyped to get an E-Wing into the game.  Some are disappointed that a central hero like Luke Skywalker is rubbish, but some love seeing Manaroo and Dengar working together on the table.  It's not something you can easily legislate for as a designer, but I think it's something you can address by trying to ensure that the fundamental cost efficiency of the most iconic ships and pilots remains attractive to ensure that they'll always be playable.  You can then work to ensure that new cards and mechanics don't invalidate what had gone before.

And once again, as with power creep/churn having a dialogue with players so that they can understand that, although their favourite ships might be bad right now, that FFG plan to address this in future helps you to be patient.


"You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion"

What's happening right now in all this recent fuss about the state of the game is that all these four factors are combining to hit a lot of the same group of players.  If you like the older ships or object to being forced to play the new flavour of the month, if you like the elegance of the basic rules of X-Wing, if you like the importance of positioning on the table, and if you like playing with the most iconic ships in Star Wars... then everything is set against you.  

Those players feel under attack, and they feel like they're being pushed out of the game they enjoy.


I think that's why the complaints have reached a peak at the moment, because for a lot of players there's very little going right and there hasn't been for a long time.  They've been patient, and that patience has been rewarded by more and more things coming along that they don't like.  They're genuinely approaching breaking point in their relationship with the game, at least with the competitive forms of the game.

So what do you do when Order 66 gets proclaimed?  When the clones turn on you do you die fighting for your way of life, or do you run and hide in a distant corner of the galaxy and practice the old ways?

I'll look at some answers to that question in my next blog...

Monday, 13 February 2017

"Turn To Point Oh-Five, We'll Cover For You" - Introducing Phoenix Squadron

When I first picked up my 'Slaughterhouse' TIE Swarm last year something clicked for me and it instantly felt like it fit me, and I loved playing with it.  I loved how aggressive it was, that was definitely part of it, but I also really enjoyed having that many ships at my disposal.  I know a lot of players find a swarm quite a challenging prospect but I was the opposite and loved the way that I could use my ships together - one ship looking to take up a blocking position when the others took position to fire.  Maneuvering and positioning is everything when you play a TIE Swarm - you need it both to stay alive and to deal damage - and with only a Barrel Roll at your disposal it can need real cunning to lay your traps in the right place at the right time.

'Crack Swarm'
  • Howlrunner - Crack Shot (19)
  • Omega Squadron Pilot - Crack Shot (18)
  • Omega Squadron Pilot - Crack Shot (18)
  • Black Squadron Pilot - Crack Shot (15)
  • Black Squadron Pilot - Crack Shot (15)
  • Black Squadron Pilot - Crack Shot (15)

While most Crack Swarm players last year were using TIE Fighters there was a limited outbreak of the Rebel variant using A-Wings, especially in regionals in the USA.  Although on the face of it the A-Wing Crack Swarm was similar it in fact had some key differences that meant it would play very differently.  Most telling was that the firepower of the 'Chihuahuas' was a lot lower as five A-Wings clearly couldn't match the damage output of six Tie Fighters, especially with Howlrunner rerolling their attack dice.

This was more than just a small increase in firepower, by the way - the TIE Swarm was 42% more aggressive, rolling an average of 10.7 hits in a volley compared to just 7.5 hits from the A-Wings!

'Chihuahuas'
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Crack Shot, Adaptability, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot, Autothrusters (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Crack Shot, Adaptability, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot, Autothrusters (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Crack Shot, Adaptability, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot, Autothrusters (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Crack Shot, Adaptability, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot, Autothrusters (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Crack Shot, Adaptability, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot, Autothrusters (20)
What the A-Wings got back, though, was more maneuverability and survivability.  Each A-Wing has an extra point of Hull/Shields, and with Autothrusters equipped they performed much better at range 3 or against turrets.  The 'Chihuahuas' may not have stung as hard as the Tie Fighters but they could dance and weave and wear their opponents down over time.

The arrival of TIE Defenders rang the death knell for the Crack Swarms, at least in competitive play.  The Defenders themselves were bad enough, with all their green dice, tokens and hull points each one was like a miniature IG-88 Aggressor, but the firepower everyone else was bringing to defeat Defenders would swat your flimsy ships out of the sky before they could fire.

RIP Crack Swarm: 2016 - 2016


Risen From The Ashes

In faint signals from a remote parts of the galaxy I heard tell of a new type of A-Wing swarm...

'Snap, Crackle and Pop'
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)
Abandoning the safety of Autothrusters for the new Snap Shot EPT, the 'Snap, Crackle & Pop' or 'Snap Snacks' A-Wings brought a new tool to the swarm player's disposal.  Perhaps the best way to think about Snap Shot is that it's 'area denial' that makes life hard for your opponent, continually chipping away with weak attacks that eventually add up.  You're not just looking to line up shots for your combat phase, but to opportunistically disrupt the opponent's planning.

The way I imagined the Snap A-Wings playing was a lot less direct than a classic Crack Swarm, and instead the objective would be to basically just stay alive as long as possible and let the gradual attrition of Snap Shot attacks build up.  The more ships you have on the table the more the opponent has to avoid, so you're not trying to outjoust the opponent but trying to block him, flank him, frustrate him.

It sounded like an interesting flying challenge but I didn't have the A-Wings or upgrades to give it a trial run, so I steered clear.  The arrival of Sabine's TIE Fighter in Wave 10, then, removed a lot of those obstacles  of my own private collection being lacking.  It also brought a really interesting new potential synergy to the list.


The problem with Snap Shot is that your attacks aren't modified so a lot of them miss.  The problem with Operations Specialist is that you don't tend to build lists where you're going to miss a lot of shots and 3pts is a lot to spend for a Focus token as consolation prize if you do.  The beauty of putting Snap Shot and Operations Specialist together is that you can easily generate three or four Focus tokens per turn due to the iffy nature of your Snap Shot attacks.

This is a sweet enough synergy to be worth including Sabine Wren in her TIE Fighter just for the Operation's Specialist, but the really nice thing is that you've also got room to include Ahsoka Tano in her TIE Fighter too.  

The tough thing about Ahsoka Tano is that you rarely want to leave her without a Focus token just to help another ship out, but with Operations Specialist feeding her a second token a lot of the time Ahsoka becaomes an action economy 'fence', turning your Operations Specialist token into an Evade, a Boost, a Target Lock... whatever you need!

The final squad I wound up building was this:

Phoenix Squadron
  • Ahsoka Tano - Snap Shot (19)
  • Sabine Wren - Snap Shot, Sabine's Masterpiece, Operations Specialist (21)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)
  • Green Squadron A-Wing - Snap Shot, Crack Shot, Chardaan Refit, A-Wing Test Pilot (20)

Oh, how I love Sabine Wren.  

I obviously love TIE Fighters already after playing with Slaughterhouse last year but Sabine Wren has taken that romance to a whole new level.  With her pre-dial boost/barrel ability she behaves a lot more like a TIE Phantom than a standard TIE Fighter (and I love Echo already) so she has rapidly become a favourite.  The addition of the Operations Specialist has also proven to be a perfect fit, especially for a squad that gets caught in tight furballs a lot, bumping into each other - getting a Focus token onto an A-Wing that lost it's action can easily be the difference between life and death.

My love affair with Sabine is so great that I have been inspired in poetic form:

Snap Shot Sabine, a haiku by David Sutcliffe
Sabine's TIE, dancing
Brings death by a thousand cuts,
With Focus for all
Nice.

Sabine's maneuverability is an incredible benefit to a list that is all about landing bumps and placing Snap Shot arcs in awkward places.  One turn she will barrel roll left to hard turn right and maneuver a shot in a tight space, another turn she will boost left and then drive a 5-forwards across the table, landing a bump that seemed almost impossible.  This graphic shows just how much her ability changes where you can place your Snap Shot arcs, as well...


Ahsoka Tano, another haiku by David Sutcliffe
So-so Ahsoka,
Much better than an A-Wing?
She will do for now
The deep and profound love I have for Sabine is matched only by the apathy I currently hold towards Ahsoka Tano.  Although your squad may initially start up in formation the unpredictable furball nature of how Snap Shot makes you fly means that all too often she's just outside Range 1 of the person you really want to give an action to.  If her pilot ability was Range 1-2 then I would be lining up a menage a trois with myself and Sabine, but as it is I'm a lot cooler on the deal.  I'm not swiping left just yet, though don't worry!  Sabine with Operations Specialist comes in at 21pts which means I need to save a point somewhere and I think Ahsoka is better than 19pts of A-Wing (say, just with Snap Shot and no Crack Shot) but she's not as exciting as I wanted her to be.

Sometimes, though, Ahsoka really proves her worth.  In this example picture below one of my A-Wings was able to Snap Shot the IG-88 as it moved into position, then Ahsoka fed him an action to Boost out of the IG's arc and fire on Boba Fett in the combat phase!  Moments like that are really sweet and maybe with a bit more practice I'll get better at keeping Ahsoka in range of the people who need her help.

The template shows how my A-Wing was able to boost away from the IG to attack Boba as well.
A neat little side effect of bringing Sabine and Ahsoka into the squad to replace two A-Wings is that you're increasing your pilot skill.  At times this can be a headache as ships won't move in the order you really want them to, but with Snap Shot in particular I think it can be a big benefit to have some of your arcs moving early in the Activation Phase and some moving later - it can create a tougher obstacle course for the opponent to thread their ships through.

And that's really the driving principle for the least, and it's why I'm enjoying it so much - positioning is everything.  Your attacks are rubbish and you can't modify them, but if you fly well you get so many of them that it doesn't matter!  The combination of low and high pilot skills, of boosting A-Wings and Barrel Rolling TIE Fighters, of Sabine and Ahsoka's abilities to reposition before you move or after everyone has moved... it all demands real attention but rewards the skillful flyer.

My forces split, with the Blue A-Wing charging forwards to block Rey while my main force Snap Shot Poe over two turns.
Although I love playing Phoenix Squadron I'm taking it slowly with this list as learning to fly Snap Shots is an unfamiliar challenge in itself.  That means I'm only gradually increasing the difficulty of opponents I seek out with it, and it's certainly not been tested to the max yet, but so far it's passed every test with flying colours and I've won every game.  It causes the opponent such difficulties that a single mistake by them can lead to a bad bump that they'll never recover from, or to them sitting in arc of multiple Snap Shots and losing a ship as a result.

Here Sabine leapt forwards to bump Rey onto debris then my squad swarmed around her so she couldn't move away.
Lots of ships, lots of attacking, lots of actions, extreme importance of positioning and facing?  Phoenix Squadron is proving exactly my type of list.  As I push the difficulty level of my opponents over the next few weeks I'll get a better idea of quite where it sits on the power tiering in this highly cutthroat competitive metagame, but I already know where it sits on my personal fun tiering.  Hell, this squad is worth the entry fee just for Sabine alone!

If you're after something a bit different that will really put your flying skills to the test, then maybe Phoenix Squadron can work for you too?



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

"Many Bothans Died To Bring Us This Information" - A Regionals Metagame Snapshot

I've been compiling results from a number of Regionals since the start of the year, seeing what that could tell me about 'the metagame' and the state of X-Wing at the moment.  I've picked up the results from the online resource Listjuggler for the Top-8 lists at a bunch of Regionals.  This isn't every regional, but I've tried to grab the bigger events, and in particular those from USA and Europe where I know the game is strong and all releases are up to date (sorry, Brazil!).

What you see below, therefore, is a snap shot of the top end of the metagame during the period between TIE Striker & UWings becoming legal and the rest of Wave 10 arriving (Upsilon, Quadjumper, Sabine's TIE).  Because all of this data comes from squads that made Top-8 it's a focused look at what has proven successful, and in particular what has been repeatedly successful.


Overall this is data on 523 ships from 186 squads in 26 Regionals.  (yes, I know 186 divided by 26 is only 7.2 squads per Top-8 - not every regional had all their Top-8 squads filled in)


FACTION BALANCE


At the very highest level of breaking down the lists Scum & Villainy edge the battle of the factions slightly, but overall you have to say this appears to be pretty healthy - far different from the way it looks about a year ago, before the Punishing One expansion really thrust Scum into the limelight.


POPULAR SHIPS


All hail the TIE Defender, most ubiquitous of all ships in the metagame today!

Once again this isn't a result you could possibly have called a year ago, when TIE Defenders were stuck on player's shelves gathering dust at an impressive rate thanks to their multi-angled solar panels   Of course it's all down to one card, really, the /x7 title, and it's not really a surprise to learn that of the 91 TIE Defenders featured in these Top-8 squads 89 of them equipped the /x7 title.

/x7 is crazy good.  I say that in the sense of: "they must have been crazy to make an upgrade this good".


Below TIE Defenders the Jumpmaster 5000 has survived the nerf to Deadeye and simply morphed into Manaroo action economy and Dengar double-taps.  You can't keep a good ship down and the Jumpmaster 5000 is a VERY good ship.  Joining the Jumpmaster in Scum lists are the two Wave 9 Scum releases, the Protectorate Fighter and the Shadow Caster.


Rebels, meanwhile, have run to the safety of their K-Wings.  That's right, their K-Wings.  When you break down the popular ships by Faction, though, what rapidly becomes clear is that Rebel players are still casting around for that 'killer app' ship, especially once you get beyond the K-Wing in first spot.  35% of all Rebel ships were not in the Top 5 choices, while for Imperial and Scum players it was much easier to pick a ship to fly and only 14 and 17%, respectively, selected something for from the norm.


In actual fact over 50% OF ALL IMPERIAL SHIPS were TIE Defenders.    The TIE Defender has basically replaced all other TIE Fighters in all their specialist niches.  Want to play TIE Swarm?  Use Defenders/  Want to play PalpAces?  Use Defenders.  Want to partner your Decimator with something?  Use a Defender.

Did I mention yet that /x7 is crazy good?



"% PROGRESSED"

Let's stop to talk about one of the statistics I've presented in that table above.  The '% Progressed' column is looking at what % of that ship in the Top-8 then won it's first match after the cut and got into the Top-4.  I think it's something that can be really revealing about the ships/pilots/squads that are good enough to beat average players and get you into the cut but then be found out by the stronger players who were also in the Top-8.



There's actually a clear trend behind the big losers in "% Progressed" which I think is very important.  If you look it's the little vulnerable guys like Z-95s and TIE Fighters, and the big hog large ships with low agility - YT-1300, YV-666, Ghost, arguably even the ARC-170 fits this bill.  This is interesting because it shows that it's not just particular ships that are struggling in the cut, but that there's consistent reasons why they're struggling that appear to be common across different ships.  When you get up to the best squads the TIE Fighters and Z-95s can't really trouble the better ships with just two red dice, or are flattened by attacks, while the big hogs that rely on a lot of Hull/Shield to stay alive are losing an attrition race against the big ships that also have more green dice/tokens to prevent damage.


POPULAR PILOTS


The list of popular pilots largely repeats some of the information from the ships side.  If TIE Defenders are highly played then of course Countess Ryad and Colonel Vessery will be played a lot as well.  There are some interesting things we might be able to draw from this extra detail though.

The '% Progressed' difference between Manaroo and Dengar is stark, for instance.  Although Jumpmasters as a whole do ok there's actually a world of difference between the success rate of Manaroo and Dengar, who actually behaves more like the 'hogs' of Bossk or Rey.

Another example: I personally would always have championed Commonwealth Defenders with their Palpatine Shuttle over Triple Defenders, and yet the success rate of Delta Squadron Pilots looked a lot higher than it is for Omicron Group Pilots - that might be something I've been getting wrong (although it might not be correct to assume they're always appearing as the third ship alongside Ryad & Vessery).

Warden Squadron Pilot stands out once again as one of the strongest choices - more on those guys later.

There's a couple of interesting things to note that actually happened just below where this chart cuts off.  The 5th most common Scum ship with the Scum HWK and when Palob Godalhi was on board it progressed 80% of the time but when it was Torkil Mux is progressed 0% of the time.  Similarly although Ryad, Vessery and Delta Squadron TIE Defenders all did very well in progressing there were only 4 copies of Maarek Stele in the Top-8, and none of them won their matches to make it into Top-4!

Oh and Soontir Fel?  Yeah there was no copies of the once-feared Imperial ace, and in fact the only Interceptor pilot to dare show his face was Carnor Jax (3 copies).


POWER CREEP?  POWER LEAP!


Let's cut to the chase.  While the Faction split looked very healthy the split by Wave looks anything but.

It's really hard to deny that power creep is happening when you get something like that - 78% of ALL PILOTS came from Wave 7 or later.  There was just one lonely entrant from Wave 2 (Chewbacca in the Millenium Falcon) and two ships with Wave 3 (two copies of Jan Ors in the HWK)

For transparency I'm making two key assumptions - I'm calling all Lambda Shuttles with Palpatine as effectively being released with the Imperial Raider (Wave 7) and all TIE Defenders with /x7 as effectively being released with Imperial Veterans (Wave 9).

2016 saw the power level of X-Wing rocket through the roof, and quite simply if you're not playing ships that were released in 2016 or the back end of 2015 then you're making life hard for yourself.  Anything dated before that faces and uphill battle to even make it into the Top-8 cut, let along progress further than that to actually win the tournament!

Wave 7 is rescued by Emperor Palpatine, K-Wings and the Hound's Tooth although, as we've seen, the Hound's Tooth and Shuttle are odds-against to progress beyond the Top-8 and you're better off playing more Wave 8 and 9 stuff if possible.


POPULAR UPGRADES


50% of ALL Scum & Villainy ships equipped Attani Mindlink.  50%!  

When you rule out all the two ship lists that don't really benefit enough from Mindlink, and all the generic pilots that don't have an EPT slot available, it adds up to almost every Scum pilot that could reasonably play Attani Mindlink chose to do so.


Attani Mindlink is also crazy good, especially in conjunction with Manaroo.

If you want to do well you will probably want action economy, and Attani Mindlink and Push The Limit are bringing that in spades - by far the two most common Elite Pilot Talents.  And you can see similar weighting towards a few key upgrades across other types as well.



I'm going to get a bit personal opinion here: Push The Limit and Attani Mindlink are terrible for the health and diversity of X-Wing and need to be banned or errataed to the point where their cost is so high people don't use them in most circumstances.  The power of the action economy they drive FAR outweighs the cost (both points and stress) that is incurred.  Look at this table...

Push The Limit and Attani Mindlink are the gatekeepers for how competitive new ships are likely to be.  Do you have the green maneuvers to make use of Push The Limit?  Great, you're probably a good ship.  No?  You're probably bad.  And this does not bode well for the ships we've just got in Wave 10 because none of them look like a natural home for PTL or Attani Mindlink, with the possible exception of the two Quadjumper pilots that have an EPT slot and may be good enough to fit Attani Mindlink on over similar cheap options that are already available.

I'm not saying "all ships that can't use PTL are shit" but the correlation between the ships that regularly and consistently do well and those that don't is a strong one.  There are exceptions (those pesky K-Wings again, for instance) but more ships fit the rule than don't.  Trying to compete with the inherent advantages these ships have drives away a huge range of more diverse ship/upgrade combinations that we would otherwise be seeing on the table a lot more.


POPULAR SQUADS


Paratanni heads the list with the most appearances in Top-8s (17), a very strong win rate to progress to Top-4 (71%), and also winning the most of this selection of Regionals (5).  For those unfamiliar with Paratanni it's a deceptively simple list that maximises the value from Attani Mindlink (see above for my opinions on that).
  • Fenn Rau - Attani Mindlink, Concord Dawn Protector, Autothrusters
  • Asajj Ventress - Attani Mindlink, Latts Razzi
  • Manaroo - Attani Mindlink

Only 8 points of upgrades means you're buying a tremendous amount of ship for your points, and it's all Wave 8 onwards so all that juicy 2016 power creep is baked in as well... in fact only 2pts of Autothrusters are pre-2016!  Paratanni is hugely successful and very fun to play and challenging to play against.  It's also probably the single strongest X-Wing squad ever in the game so far, with no particularly bad matchups that have currently been exposed.  It's got portions of the Rebel Toolbox list (tough ships, stress control) with other traits that are very similar to Palp Aces (Manaroo's focus/target lock passing is equivalent to the Palp Shuttle, Asajj turtles harder than Soontir Fel, Fenn Rau punches like Prockets Darth Vader).  It look innocuous but is actually a monster of efficiency.
Fangaroo is similar but a bit more dicey - it trades out the tanky Asajj Ventress for a second Protectorate Fighter and some more toys on Manaroo.  You can see from its '% Progress' that it's a step behind Paratanni, but still a formidable threat.

The two lists based around TIE Defenders are about as strong as Paratanni in this data sample.  Interestingly this reverses the apparent advantage Triple Defenders had over Commonwealth Defenders when we compared the particular pilots earlier on.  It must be that the shuttle was appearing in some non-Defender lists that weren't doing so well, or that the Delta Squadron Defender was doing well in some lists outside of Triple Defenders.

The list that is missing here due to some minor variations, but still proving very successful as we've seen from the Ships/Pilots tables is the K-Wings so let's finally take a look at them.  I've spoken before at length about just how good Miranda Doni is right now and you see that reflected in her appearance as the #1 most popular Rebel pilot in these Regional Top-8s, but it was the Warden Squadron Pilots who boasted that hugely impressive 91% progression into the Top-4, and they look more like this...
  • Warden Squadron Pilot - Cluster Mines, Seismic Charges, Extra Munitions, Advanced SLAM, Chopper
  • Warden Squadron Pilot - Cluster Mines, Extra Munitions, Advanced SLAM, Sabine Wren
  • Warden Squadron Pilot - Cluster Mines, Seismic Charges, Extra Munitions, Advanced Slam, Intelligence Agent

Bombs, bombs, bombs!  The Warden Squadron lists play X-Wing in a completely different way, eschewing their primary weapons almost entirely to instead SLAM their way around the table dropping Cluster Mines in their wake.

When I discussed Paratanni I made the comparison to Palp Aces, which isn't necessarily a link that I think many players would immediately make and with Warden Squadron I'm going to make a similar tenuous link, this time to the Triple Jumpmaster lists from summer 2016!

If you replace the high damage output from Plasma Torpedoes with the high damage output from Cluster Mines (just a different type of Ordnance) then most of the other pieces kind of fall into place.  Advanced SLAM gives the K-Wings the maneuvering and repositioning that Jumpmasters could have with their big bases, strong dials and Barrel Rolls.  It also gives them some of important action economy Jumpmasters got from R4 Agromech.

Away from the ordnance Jumpasters and K-Wings are both tough ships with 2 dice primary turrets to mop up what the ordnance left behind.  It's a bit of a stretch to say "they're just Triple Jumps again" but I think sitting them side by side helps to frame what Warden Squadron actually is, and that it's not a fluke it's doing so well.

And bombs, right now in this metagame... especially at the top end of tournaments... their time is now.  There are so many tough ships up that rarified atmosphere that the automatic damage of Cluster Mines and Seismic Charges is very attractive.  You don't need to worry about the free evade token of /x7 Defenders, you don't need to worry about all the focus-stacking and Latts Razzi evading of Paratanni... they hit the template they roll the dice, that's all there is to it!  And more than that, when you've got TIE Defenders flying their very predictable straight lines up and down the table, and the huge Shadowcaster bases whizzing about on their big green moves then lining up those Cluster Mine drops is actually pretty easy.

It's great to see K-Wings and bombs doing so well - I said as much when I talked about Miranda - but at the same time it's kind of worrying too.  It's worrying that best answer to all the token-stacking that's going on seems to be to just given up trying to beat it at all and just drop bombs.  Has defensive dice modification gone so far that it's not even worth trying to beat it?  Hopefully not.


TO INFINITY... AND BEYOND!

This is a snapshot of two dozen big tournaments.  It's not every game of X-Wing, it's not even every Regional and it's certainly not what games of X-Wing will be played next weekend, or the weekend after that.  Wave 10 could change all this, or it could change nothing.  Learn what you think you can from it, ignore what you think is misleading or where I've drawn the wrong conclusions.

And bring bombs.  Lots of bombs.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

A Gaming Life

I've always been a gamer.

I was never really given much of a chance to be anything else in life.  My Dad had been a founding member of the local Historical Wargames Society 20 years earlier and, as those of you which children of your own will know, the decision to have kids is basically just a long term plan for ensuring you'll always have somebody to play games with.

By 4 or 5 years of age my creche on a Sunday would be in the corner of the church hall where the Wargames Society met to play, and by 6 or 7 I was fully engaged in gaming.  My Dad and I fought across the millenia, pitching ancient Byzantine armies against the Han Chinese in 15mm scale, launching epic charges with Polish winged hussars, fighting skirmishes in the ruins of WWII Europe, right up to duelling out the opening exchanges of WWIII with ultra-modern micro armour as my Soviets would attempt to subdue France.

Each year we would eagerly await our city's annual wargaming convention and one year. in one of the gaming demo tables, somebody showed my ten year old self one of these.


Life would never be the same again.


SPACE WOMBLES

You can measure when somebody was first caught in the event horizon of the Games Workshop financial black hole by the first White Dwarf magazine they bought, and for my brother and me that was White Dwarf 105.  I'm actually proud to look back on 105 as my starting point as it featured the first ever Space Marines army list, rules for Chaos in Blood Bowl, Land Raiders, and introduced the incredible Eldar Harlequins (the full Harlequins army list arrived in 106)!

A lot of Warhammer history began with White Dwarf 105, and not just in the Sutcliffe household.


My brother and I went on to buy pretty much everything Games Workshop put out for the next 10 years or so, good or bad.  Every rulebook, every big box game, and (almost) every army - neither of us liked Squats or Dwarves much.  We basically did the lot, and you can write off pretty much my whole teenage years of gaming to this timeline of following the Warhammer universe.





While we spent most of our time amassing armies to duke it out in Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40k I'd like to give a big shout out to what I think were the three best Games Workshop products, each a big box game of its own:
  • Blood Bowl - recently re-released, Blood Bowl is probably Games Workshop's best ever game but also their biggest mistake.  How can it be both?  Because Blood Bowl is such a great game that you don't need to keep buying figures for it.  The box, a team, a star player or two... you're set.  I'm sure that's the reason they kept it out of stores for all those years, because players who are happily playing Blood Bowl are players not collecting another 1,000pts of Imperial Guard hardware.

  • Advanced Heroquest - I've never played Warhammer Quest so I can't attest to whether that recaptured the glory of Advanced Heroquest or not, but I'm going to assume it doesn't and that my rose-tinted glasses remain intact.  Advanced Heroquest was decades ahead of its time, as it's basically Descent/Imperial Assault.  Awesome components, great adventures, hugely customisable if the GM has even an ounce of desire to do so.  It's a shame it's gone.

  • Space Hulk - I always loved Space Hulk's 'Warhammer 40k meets Chess' approach and some of the missions were insanely finely balanced.  Even the very first game that you play, the first mission in the first Space Hulk rulebook, is right on a knife edge for who wins it.  I could never justify springing for the lovely re-release that came out a few years back, because I knew I'd have nobody to play it with.  At the time though, my brother and I loved Space Hulk a ton.

Should I recount to you my dreaded Harlequin army?  The many Blood Bowl seasons we played through, with my glorious Praag Dragon's trapped in a perpetual duel for the title with my best friend's Undead team?  The massed ranks of Chaos I fielded in epic games, or the many daring dungeon crawls in the fantastic (and outrageously forgotten) Advanced Heroquest?


Games Workshop was every Saturday trip to the shops.  It was every Christmas list, every birthday present, every little bit of pocket money scraped together.  

But while I was growing up Games Workshop was expanding and changing rapidly as well.  At first I had been the youngest person in the store, surrounded by beer guts and beards, but by the time I was finished with Games Workshop five or six years later I was more likely to be the oldest.  The last time I played a game in-store at Games Workshop a player on the table next to mine threw a tantrum when his Eldar Farseer was assassinated on the first turn.

It was looking a lot like time to leave.


THE LURE OF CARDBOARD

One day a schoolfriend of mine, who had played Warhammer with us, spent a lunch break showing me a revolutionary new card game.  Before you ask it wasn't Magic: the Gathering, no it was something far far worse...


Let me be entirely clear: Spellfire is garbage of the highest order.

As Magic: the Gathering exploded in popularity ever other games manufacturer wanted to jump onto the CCG bandwagon and Spellfire was the Advanced Dungeon's & Dragons entry.  Random cards varying in rarity, glossy artwork and high production values, whole universes of fan-favourite characters from the AD&D worlds to call on, such as Drizzt, Elminster, or Count Stahl of Drakenloft.  Everything was set for Spellfire to be a massive hit.  

They were missing just one vital ingredient: a game worth a damn.


In most games there is a cost/power balance to be struck.  In X-Wing Han Solo is better than an Outer Rim Smuggler, but he also costs more points.  In Magic the Gathering some creatures were more powerful than others but they were harder to summon into the game - you could lose to a lot of cheap/weak creatures before you big/powerful creature ever saw play.  It makes so much sense even Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh do it!

Spellfire saw this system and thought "let's not bother with that and just make everything cost 0 instead".  So the card that gave you +1 attack was just as easy to play as the card that gave you +8 attack, the only difference being that the card that was +8 was rarer than the card that was +1.

It was pure Pay To Win.  You opened enough packs to only have +4 as your weakest buff, then your friend would buy more packs and get to only +5 being their weakest so they'd beat you.  Then you'd open a bunch more packs.... etc etc.  

Imagine if every TIE Interceptor cost 18pts and the only difference between Alpha Squadron Pilot and Soontir Fel was that Soontir was extremely rare and the Alpha Squadron Pilot was common.  My brother and I went a long, long way down that particular rabbit hole before we saw the light.

Unfortunately the light turned out to be an oncoming truck.  A truck with the Magic: The Gathering logo on the side.



A MAGICAL  UPBRINGING

I'm not going to recount my years with Magic: The Gathering blow-for-blow, don't worry, but it wouldn't be doing the subject any justice not to spend time saying how much it changed me.

The short version is that for my best friend Neil, and I, Magic became an obsession.  At our peak we probably played for up to a dozen hours a day, repeating matchups endlessly to find the best strategies and approaches.  I went away to university and got my Magic education there, hooking into websites like The Dojo and the nascent internet via the unversity's shiny 56k modem.  I learned to cut my decks down from 120 cards, although by the time of my first ever tournament I couldn't quite get it below 70 as I knew I couldn't live without the third Prodigal Sorceror.  I would buy copies of The Duellist and leave them ruined forever with highlighters and frantic text in the margins - card advantage, tempo advantage, Necroptence, Forgotten Orb, Orcish Squatters... I remember each of these articles today as though they were fresh off the printing press.

I breathed in Magic: the Gathering and I breathed out mana symbols as I exhaled.

Neil was the first of us to make it onto the Pro Tour and play Magic on the big tables for serious money, though.  While I was away at university learning the theory of Magic he was putting it all into practice and playing in much bigger tournaments much more regularly.  When my degree ended and I came home we teamed up, smashing our way through the 1998 tournament season of Rath Block constructed tournaments.  We both qualified for the Pro Tour that time, with a friend of ours borrowing my Sligh deck to become the first UK player to win a premier-level Magic tournament.  At Grand Prix Birmingham the world's best players came to play us, and we sent them packing.  Neil and I had made it, and as I prepared to take on the Pro Tour the doors to us becoming the greatest players in the world swung open...



...then slammed shut.  It took a few years for the bomb to fully detonate, but I think making it onto the Pro Tour in the way that I did was the poison pill that killed Magic for me.  I never replicated the dominance that Neil and I had managed through the summer of 1998 and the continual striving for that glory ultimately chewed me up inside.  By almost any measure I had a lot of success in those next two years, both as a player and a deck designer, but by the measures I was judging myself by I was a miserable failure.   Alongside playing success had coming writing success as well and I got a slot writing for Starcitygames.  Thankfully none of my old writing still exists because it would read like the slow descent into self-absorbed mania and ranting self-justification that I'm sure it was.

I walked away in 2001, the UK Nationals that year remaining my last big Magic tournament for the best part of a decade.

In 2006 Magic came back into my life when Richard Hagon decided to set up one of the first Magic podcasts, called Moxradio, with Neil and I joining others as regular panelists.  Moxradio's business plan might have been critically flawed (Rich understood perfectly well how to make a great podcast, but didn't quite grasp just how few people would be willing to pay for one!) but it opened some incredibly important doors while it existed.  Moxradio travelled to Gran Prix Turin to provide podcast coverage shows alongside the established text coverage, and a star was born.

Today Rich is the face of the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour, and oversees a whole video/text coverage crew at events around the world.  I followed Rich through the doors he kicked down and spent six years travelling to Grand Prix and Pro Tours around the world to provide strategy analysis, player interviews, and my fair share of blatant marketing and PR schilling.  An awful lot of what I wrote was only of temporary interest (if you cared how Player X's performance with Deck Y in 2010 then I'm your guy.  No one cares.) but in and amongst the fluff pieces and drudgery of trying to find as many new ways of saying "he summoned a creature and attacked" there were some great things that I'm very proud of having written.

I occasionally stepped out from behind the coverage desk to compete in events, as well.  Rich, Neil and I travelled to Grand Prix Toronto in 2010 and did far better than we had any right to expect (actually, that's unfair as we had made a conscious decision to become the best players in the world at that one format on that one weekend, and essentially achieved that goal).  When the Grand Prix rolled around to my hometown in 2015 I picked up a deck of 75 cards I'd never seen before, in a format I'd never played before, to finish up at the top end in the cash prizes.  I could still play when I had to, but I didn't the time to dedicate myself to Magic in the sort of depth that I'd need in order to compete.  I'm still waiting for my next game of Magic.

And that was Magic.  Roughly 1995-2015, give or take.  Twenty years (on and off) in which I took the full journey from kitchen table to Pro Tour, and then back again to the kitchen table.

Of the three of us I'm the only one who got out.  Rich found his niche both in front of the camera and back in the producers seat (going so far as to be the only one of us to unofficially appear in South Park, when they did their Magic episode), while Neil was always a better natural player than me and has become one of the most successful UK Magic players of all time, still travelling year-round to Grand Prix and Pro Tours.


It's hard to really express fully what Magic did for Neil and I.  It took two kids from a crummy little town in the UK and gave us the world.  Most of the places we've been, we've been because of Magic.  The friends we've made, most of them we've made through Magic.  The people we are  today, absolutely a large part of that came through all that we did while playing Magic.


OTHER GAMING ACTIVITIES

I didn't just play Magic, though.  My time at university was happy meeting point of my being the last intake year to receive student grants instead of loans, just as games manufacturers around the world went into overdrive trying to replicate Magic's card game success.  I pretty much bought them all - Battlemech, Star Trek, Netrunner, Rage, Shadowfist, Babylon 5, Jyhad, Star Wars, Middle Earth, Dune, Legend of the Five Rings.  It seemed like every IP that was just lying around got picked up, dusted off, and shoved onto a CCG game for me to acquire.  It's probably lucky that Magic got its hooks into me enough that I ultimately left all the others behind or I'd be a penniless hobo by now.


When I quit Magic in 2001 a very unusual game & hobby stepped up to replace it out of leftfield - the WWF Smackdown series of video games!  These games featured a 'Create A Wrestler' (CAW) mode where you could add wrestlers into the game who weren't included to begin with.  Randomly I discovered that I was very good at this, and for a couple of years I ran a website showcasing my designs that other players would copy into their game.  I used to turn on my PC and be bombarded by dozens of IMs from people asking for me to create their favourite wrestler in his new tights he wore at the last show - I nearly maxed out two whole MSN Messenger accounts with the people who wanted my help!  It's mental that this sort of thing even exists, let alone that you can become 'famous' for it, and in part I'm only mentioning it now in the hope that somebody reading this will go "Hey, yeah, I used to play those games too and I totally used your CAWs" to prove it even happened.  

So if you remember the name 'Ceilican' from back then, well, The Ceilican was me!

Random aside from a random aside: the guy who very kindly did all the fiddly programming of 'Ceilican's CAW College' was Mark Turpin, who went on to become Turpster and a leading Warcraft/Hearthstone/gaming youtuber.  We gamers move in small circles.

I fell hard into World of Warcraft too, spending a good five years roaming Azeroth in every spare hour.  Years later my combined love of Magic: The Gathering and World of Warcraft made me the perfect person to go on and work for Upper Deck and Cryptozoic on Magic-style strategy coverage for the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game.  The guy running the World of Warcraft organised play in Europe had previously run Magic: The Gathering and knew both Rich and I through that, so when he scraped together budget for a coverage & promotion team he knew where we were.  

We gamers move in very small circles.


INTO FFG'S ORBIT

I'd never heard of FFG.  I played Magic and I played World of Warcrat, and that was basically it.  Fantasy Flight Games?  Never heard of them.

Another Magic friend of mine, Keith, had heard me wax lyrical many times the original 1995 release of Netrunner and took it upon himself to force me to sit at a table and play the FFG re-release with him.  It was like meeting back up with your college sweetheart and finding that you're both single and wouldn't it be nice to go get a drink or two and maybe catch up on old times....?

Approximately a week later I'd bought every data pack available at the time, and my first Netrunner blog came along very shortly after that.

I plunged into my local playgroup headfirst, bringing the discipline and energy that had pushed Neil and I to success in Magic into a new game that was almost entirely unprepared for that sort dedicated approach.  The local Netrunner guys were great company, and some of them were really good at the game, but I think it's fair to say that none of them quite thought about or approached the game with quite the intensity that I did.  

I pretty rapidly became the local player to beat, then as my first Store Championship season rolled around I set about forming an elite cohort from the best of my local competition and bullying them all into playing the best decks as well they could.  Stronger together, we all made each other better which is the objective of forming a team.  Between us we took down the majority of the tournaments we played in, at least within our part of the UK.  

But the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and I was burning out fast.  My first Netrunner blog was in September 2013 and just six months later my whirlwind tour of Netrunner was coming to an end, with my April 2014 blog entry seeing me signing off out of the game.  I'd accomplished a lot in that time, both as a player and a strategy writer, but I'd simply had enough.  

I still remember the tournament that finished me - a Store Championship - that I made the cut in but ultimately didn't win because I'd just stopped caring about whether I won or not.  I'm somebody who looks through the surface features for deeper trends and patterns, and in Netrunner I saw what I considered fundamental design errors that meant games became very repetitive.  Once I'd seen the pattern I couldn't unsee it - I wasn't engaged by Netrunner any more, I was bored by it. 

In May 2015 I was back, though.  I'd never actually gotten around to selling my Netrunner cards and when I joined a local games club who occasionally played Netrunner I was bitten by the bug again.  Ultimately it proved short-lived, though, and within a few months I did finally sell all of my Netrunner cards.  I realised I wasn't actually enjoying playing Netrunner as much as I was writing about it, and once I'd had a couple of months to explore the new cards that had come out in my absence I was back to being just as bored as I had been first time around.

This time around I finally sold my Netrunner cards and bought into the new A Game of Thrones LCG.  Then shortly after that finally got released (and I mean finally - man did they botch the launch of that game) I sold those cards as well and bought...

...X-Wing!  All those years of looking longingly at the Millenium Falcon expansion pack.  All the times I'd managed to convince myself not to buy it even though I didn't play the game, just for the model.  All the decades of cardboard replacing miniatures, of shuffling replacing dice.  I finally gave in and bought a friend's collection that he wasn't using.  To reuse the meme, mistakes were made.  Rapidly and expensively.

It was Star Wars.  It was spacial awareness and dice probability.  It was mindgames with your maneuver dial.  It was painting miniatures again (which somehow I'd got much better at in 20 years of not practicing).  It was something totally new, but as I crossed back over into miniatures gaming and found myself surrounded by players who had also left Games Workshop behind (just, in most cases, 20 years after I had done so) it was also something quite familiar.



AND NOW...

You know the rest.

Everything has come around full circle.  I'd begun by playing my father's wargames with him, and now thirty-odd years later we're back doing the same thing with the odd game of X-Wing - he loves the system and keeps threatening to come along to one of the local tournaments with me.  Maybe in a few years my kids will share the same memories of gaming with me that I have of playing with my own dad -  the decision to have kids being just a long term plan for ensuring you'll always have somebody to play games with, after all.  

Maybe they'll not be interested in gaming at all.  Maybe I'll disown them.

I've always been a gamer.  I think I always will be.