Friday, 17 June 2016

"Strike me down..." - How To Lose At X-Wing

I'm a fan of a big bold headline.  Something where you've been able to boil a big idea down to a soundbite.  So check this out:

There are only four ways to lose a game of X-Wing.

A pretty bold statement but also one I think is broadly true.  In this blog I'm going to look at what those four ways of losing are, and I'm also going to look at how we can best respond to those different type of defeats so that we can bounce back stronger.

What prompted this blog is the realisation that at the recent Yavin Open & Regional I lost four games and, by sheer coincidence, each of those defeats was because of a different one of those four ways to lose.  I'm going to draw on my specific examples of what happened to me at Yavin to illustrate each one.  

1. You Messed Up

Hurts, doesn't it?  You had the game in the bag except your concentration slipped for a second and the game turned on a dime, ultimately sending you home in defeat...

X-Wing is a complicated game and has a multitude of ways for you to shoot yourself in the foot.  Most of the learning curve of becoming better at X-Wing is about gradually reducing the % of games that you just randomly hand to your opponent by making a bad play.  There's so many potential pitfalls to avoid that I won't even attempt to list them all, but what I can do is share the example of a dreadful mistake that cost me a game in the Regional tournament the day before Yavin Open.

My mistake was one of target priority, which is something that I think is perhaps the single most common mistake that players make once they've learned not to crash into everything.  I was playing my 'Slaughterhouse' Crack Swarm variant against Lewis Whitham's Imperial Aces - Darth Vader, The Inquisitor, and Emperor Palpatine aboard a Lambda Shuttle.  My playtest group had discussed the target priority in this precise matchup and so I knew that the correct way to approach the match was to target Darth Vader first, then the Lambda Shuttle, and then finally round up The Inquisitor.

I started off correctly and downed Darth Vader in a hail of gunfire to put myself well ahead in the game, then looking at the table I decided that The Inquisitor was actually in a pretty bad position and I would be able to attack him without taking care of the shuttle first.

After two turns of ineffectually chasing the nimble TIE Advanced Prototype with nothing to show for it thanks to his Evade tokens, Autothrusters, Focus tokens and Palpatine's insidious use of the Force I realised I had missed my window and was going to lose.

What To Do About It

The first thing to do when you screw up is often the hardest, which is to forgive yourself.  The mistake was made and it's in the past so holding a grudge against the idiot who made that mistake isn't going to be very constructive for the future.  You're going to just have to kiss and make up with your past self, however you much you really want to just punch them in the face. 

There's no benefit whatsoever in carrying that mistake around with you through the next few turns, games, or even tournaments - "I wouldn't be having to make this maneuver if I hadn't screwed up" or "that ship wouldn't even have been there to shoot at me if I hadn't screwed up" or "I'd have been able to afford this loss if I hadn't lost that game I screwed up earlier".  If you catch yourself having thoughts like that then it's all distracting you from making the best play from the position you're in.

Once you're back on speaking terms with yourself then it all gets a lot easier.

Be clear about the mistake you made and why it happened.  If you can't be brutally honest with yourself then who can you be honest with?  This is not just "because I flew onto that rock" but asking WHY you flew onto that rock.  Was it because you were too tired?  Because you didn't really think about it?  Because you've never sat down with all the templates and some bases and tried to learn ways of predicting what maneuvers look like?  Because you just went 'screw it, no guts no glory, where eagle's dare, the force be with me... aww crap I landed on a rock'?

Once you're clear about the mistake you need to put a mental bullet point on it.  Something that will trigger the next time you're in the same position and make you stop and think so you at least give yourself the chance to avoid history repeating itself.  

If nothing else just think of George W Bush.  

Bottom Line: Mistakes are how we learn.  If you don't recognise your mistakes, don't understand why they happened and don't try to avoid repeating them then you're not learning.

2. You Got Outflown

Sometimes you just meet somebody who plays better than you - he just seems to have your number, predicts your moves and finds the perfect position on the board to destroy you.  You never seem to be able to get a shot away, or when you do it's at range 3 through an asteroid, while he's constantly nudging into range 1 behind you to do maximum damage.  They're always thinking just that little bit ahead of you, baiting you into bad shots or terrible positions.

In truth the specific boundary between "You Messed Up" and "You Got Outflown" is a bit of a grey area - if he saw that a move would put him in a great position then did you mess up by not spotting what he was going to do?  I prefer to leave the "You Messed Up" definition to something that was a clear mistake on your part and give credit where credit is due to an opponent who simply flew his list better than you - sometimes with a key strategic masterstroke and sometimes by simply not making any big mistakes.

At the Yavin Open I lost my last round of Saturday to precisely this - an opponent who was one step ahead of me the whole way.  Once again it was Imperial Aces (this time Carnor Jax, Omega Leader, Wampa and the Emperor in his Shuttle)  but unlike my defeat against Lewis this wasn't one that I threw away by making a terrible error because, at the time, I thought it was a masterstroke!

Ion approached me head-on down the flank of the table with the bulk of his ships, while Carnor Jax tried to flank my through some asteroids to the right.  On the first turn I drove my TIE Swarm hard and fast at his ships then, thinking myself rather clever, I jammed everyone into a hard turn to catch Carnor by surprise as he swept in from the flank.  It was a huge success and Ion's elite Interceptor crumpled under my swarm's fire.  Hurrah!

Except, actually, Ion had just won the game.  He had been fully prepared to lose Carnor Jax if it meant pulling me out of position.  I was now flying into a sea of asteroids with Ion's ships closing in on my rear.  My TIEs fell rapidly thanks to his aggressive use of the Lambda Shuttle where most players are defensive with it.

I didn't destroy another ship and the game was over.

What To Do About It

For the flipside of 'you made a mistake' it makes sense that the response is also the flipside.  If it's important to forgive yourself when you screwed up it's equally important to summon your inner drill sergeant when you get outflown.  Yeah, your opponent is a multiple Regional champion, yeah he played a great list perfectly... but did you just give up and let it happen?  

When you turn up at a game expecting to lose there's a very good chance you are, in fact, going to lose.  It's very easy to slip into the routine of "yep, I do this and then you do that and then I do this but then you already had that covered and then I lose".  Going through the motions, when those motions involve getting beaten, isn't a great way to try and beat the odds.

But more importantly than that, when you expect to get beaten by a better player then go in watching what he's doing that makes him better.  X-Wing isn't a game where physical advantages matter, it's not like you're playing Basketball and it turns out he's 6'8" and you're only 5.'4" - whatever he's doing is something that you can learn to do as well, so work out where they're getting those advantages.  Getting beaten by a better player can be one of the most rewarding games you'll ever play, but only if you decide you want it to be. 

One of the things I always do after a game when I feel that I've been outflown is ask a pretty obvious question: "What should I have done differently?".  Virtually everyone I've ever played X-Wing with is happy to open right up and help you learn.  They'll point out the things you did that really helped them out which you had never even considered, and they'll also tell you what they were worried you were going to do, but didn't.

The ticket to becoming a better player is standing right in front of you in the shape of your opponent.  Take the opportunity.

3. Dice, Dice, Baby.

Right, let's sort this out right now.  You've almost certainly not lost as many games to dice rolls as you think you have.  You may think it's 50% of your defeats are because of unlucky dice, you may think it's only 20%, but whatever % you think the true answer is almost certainly less.  This is because it's human nature to try and deflect the 'blame' for a defeat and externalise it onto the dice.  But in blaming the dice are you ignoring that you missed play opportunities to modify those dice with Focus or Target Locks, or to have dialled a different move and not even been in a position to get shot at in the first place?

To paraphrase the NRA: "dice don't kill people.  People kill people".  

Most of the time.

Sometimes, though, the dice ARE going to cost you.  X-Wing is a dice game, variance happens, and in some games the impact of that variance is going to be weighted against you heavily enough that you lose the game.  It's unavoidable that this will happen to you in at least some percentage of games.

At the Yavin Open I played a match where my red dice were so bad that it was, in the end, actually funny.  Playing against a mix of Rebel ships with Biggs Darklighter in the rear my opponent did a fantastic job of splitting my fire on the initial engagement, meaning that instead of destroying any of his ships I only stripped the shields off his Stressbot and put a couple of damage onto Biggs.

Six or seven turns later, when the game finally ended, I hadn't dealt a single extra point of damage - Biggs was still happily cruising around with his one Hull point left.  My TIEs all died with their Crack Shots unspent because, for all my maneuvering for position to try and keep myself in the game, I simply couldn't roll enough hits that I had a reason to spend Crack Shot!  I finally got Biggs in the sights of Omega Leader, with his Target Lock and Juke, only to have his stressed K-turning Biggs roll three natural evades as variance flicked me one last middle finger.  It had been that sort of game, and perhaps the longest and most consistently poor run of variance I've experienced since I started playing X-Wing.

By the way, all of this has been about the impact of dice but I should make it clear that variance also extends to the critical hits that come out of the damage deck.  You could pull a critical hit that has very little effect, or one that completely cripples or outright destroys your ship.  You could easily imagine situations where if you dealt yourself a different critical hit the outcome of the game would have been different.

What To Do About It

The biggest problem in defeats that were down to dice is that, probably, it wasn't actually down to the dice at all and you're just kidding yourself.  You need to really interrogate the hypothesis that it was the dice at fault in the game and, if possible, reclassify the defeat as actually having been down to one of the other three ways of losing.

Yeah you got that bum roll of the green dice, but didn't he get a bum roll too?  Are you sure he didn't?  And didn't you also spend three turns dodging fire like a demon before that bum roll came in?  And didn't you roll those two crits that crippled his ship when he got a Damaged Sensor Array?  Are you sure?

And yeah you got that bum roll of the green dice, but shouldn't you have maybe predicted what he was going to do and never been fired on anyway?  Maybe if you'd thought to make a 2 Turn instead of a 3 Turn you would have had room to Barrel Roll out of his arc?  Maybe if you'd taken an Evade instead of a Focus you'd have survived, sure you would have taken a bit more damage on average but there was no chance you would actually explode and if you'd survived to shoot then you would have won the game...

And yeah you got that bum roll of the green dice, but couldn't you have recovered from that?  Did you need to let it all go to pieces like it did?  Did you need to start throwing ships around stupidly because "it's one of those games, my luck is awful I might as well just try and get a bit of MOV because I can't win with these dice"?

But sometimes, just sometimes, it's definitely the dice.  Not even that over the course of the game they were imbalanced, but that when it went right for you it didn't really matter but when it went wrong it was at a crucial moment.  Or maybe it just went wrong and kept going wrong, no matter how calm you stayed or how well you tried to play.  

What do you do if it really was the dice?

You forget about it.

There's nothing else you can do.  If you're happy that you played as well as you could, that you responded to a bad dice roll as well as you could and simply got another bad dice roll, and another, and another... forget about it.

Don't tell your friends, don't turn it into your killer after dinner story, don't make it the anecdote everyone rolls their eyes at hearing again, don't make it into a forum post, don't mythologise what could have/should have been.  

There's nothing to learn and nothing to benefit from dwelling on it.  Just get onto the next game.

4. A Bad Matchup

A good squad is not equally good against all opponents, nor a bad one equally bad against everyone.  Usually there are specific strengths and weaknesses that make some matches much harder or easier than others, at which point if none of the three things above happen to change the result then you can pick the winner just from looking at the how the two squads line up against each other.

You'll hear people talk about this a lot because it's a pretty convenient shorthand to say something like "Crack Swarm beats Jumpmasters".  It's a useful bullet point, a way of mentally logging a bit of metagame knowledge so you can start thinking about something else, although really it should be caveated a little bit more heavily as "MOST Crack Swarm variants beat MOST Jumpmaster variants MOST of the time IF the Crack Swarm player doesn't make a mistake AND the Jumpmaster player doesn't play very well AND the dice don't have a particularly big impact on the game".

Regardless of how much you want to caveat that statement, though, it's true that in general Crack Swarms have a good matchup against Jumpmasters.

The last defeat I want to share with you from the recent Regional/Open is an example of where the specific matchup of our squads turned that bit of common knowledge on its head.  I had played against Jumpmasters many times while practicing with my Crack Swarm and I knew how the matchup worked - in a straight-up joust I was heavily favoured so long as I avoided getting bumped so my guys couldn't Focus.  I was playing against Cormac Higgins who was using a variant of Jumpmasters that used two ships with Overclocked R4 in place of R4 Agromech, and Manaroo equipped as a 'bumpmaster' with Feedback Array.  We played through our approach at an angle from each other and I judged it perfectly, lining my TIEs up to unload on one of his two leading Jumpmasters while Manaroo hid at the back out of range.

I began to unload my TIEs onto one of his Jumpmasters but Cormac kept using Overclocked R4 to continually Focus his green dice, stacking a bunch of stress tokens onto his ship.  I'd never played against this style of Jumpmaster before and it materially changed the maths in how the initial engagement would play out - I was no longer 85% likely to kill his ship before it fired and in fact would be lucky to remove all his shields!  My whole gameplan for the Jumpmaster match was practically null and void at that point.  What should be a positive matchup, where my five Elite TIEs destroy 1/3rd of his fleet before it could fire, was transformed into a poor matchup where I would be punished for sinking all my points into fewer ships.

After I had finished losing I did a mental check of why I'd lost.  

Had I made a mistake?  Well, perhaps - I'd definitely misread how his list was going to work against me but it wasn't really altogether clear that I had much alternative for how to approach it - but in terms of my actual play on the table it had all been executed in precisely the way that had destroyed so many other Jumpmaster opponents before.  

Had I been outflown?  Well again, although Cormac didn't make any mistakes it wasn't really that he'd done anything particularly special because my approach suited him just fine.  

Had the dice decided the result?  Nope, not really, they'd behaved pretty much as expected.  

It was the matchup that had made the biggest difference, the changes in Cormac's list which meant I had taken my squad in the wrong direction if I wanted to beat him.  The Crack Swarm that Cormac's list fears isn't one that's maximising high Pilot Skill pilots, like mine was, it's the one that brings the PS1 Academy Pilots mixed in along with the Black Squadron Crack Shots because the Academy Pilots are a threat to bump his Jumpmasters on the approach and prevent them stacking that first Focus token.  Yes, Manaroo can hand one of them a Focus but if you've blocked both then you can shoot at whichever wasn't focused.  If I were to play the match a second time I would definitely have tried to find a different approach because jousting wasn't going to work, but there's no doubting that it would have been an uphill struggle against the extra Focus defense dice.

What To Do About It

The matchup losses are often the last refuge for deciding games that weren't already decided by another factor, and that's a good place to start unpicking how to respond to them.  Neither bad dice or your mistake contributed to you defeat, but you can't produce a battle plan for the future of "I'm going to hope my opponent screws up or every red dice comes up a hit" to try and change the result next time.  What you can do, when you're facing a bad matchup, is ask how you could have changed the matchup if you approached flying it differently.

Could you have outflown your opponent to reduce how bad the matchup was?

I've shared some examples of my defeats at Yavin and this is a good time to share an example of a game I won instead.

In preparing for Yavin I had been dealt a crushing defeat at the hands of a Boba Fett/Dengar list where both pilots were PS10 with Glitterstim.  I set out confidently to joust the two big ships, only to get annihilated when he fired before me, destroyed Zeta Leader, then used Glitterstim to avoid the worst of what I threw back at him.  He mopped up what was left in a comfortable 100-0 victory.  Fast forward into the Regional on the Friday afternoon and I faced a teammate of the player who had destroyed me a couple of weeks earlier, with a virtually identical Boba/Dengar list.  This, I now knew, was a bad matchup.  The onus was on me to try and find a way to minimise my weakness and create a chink in the matchup that I could exploit.  That meant I would have to break away from all the strategies I'd used in the past, and in fact I did what everyone knows you never do with a TIE Swarm...

By constructing a tight asteroid field and then flying right into the middle of it I was changing the odds.  I needed to attack my opponent when he wasn't Glitterstimmed, but to do that I needed to bait my opponent to use Glitterstim and then survive a round of shooting without losing a TIE.  Hiding in range 3 and behind the asteroids was my best bet, and it worked perfectly with the added bonus of then limiting my opponent's options as he then tried to avoid hitting the rocks himself.

Experience of defeat meant I understood that the matchup was poor, and it began a chain of decisions that ultimately helped me to win the rematch by outflying my opponent.  Hurrah!

That's one response to a bad matchup, but the other responses you could make really depend on how often it's happening to you.  

If the bad matchup defeats are only coming rarely then you have to try and shrug them off like you do the defeats caused by bad dice.  Ultimately the pairings of a tournament are just another form of variance and if you were unfortunate in being drawn against one of the few squads in the room that really cause you massive problems then, well, it's not something you can really allow for and you just have to take that defeat on the chin in the knowledge that there won't be many of them coming your way.

But if you keep losing to bad matchups, either to a bunch of different lists that all cause you problems or to a single list that you just keep facing time and time again... well, that's probably a sign that it's time to change what squad you're playing.  

For whatever reason you're just finding too many games that are an uphill challenge - it could be that you have stuck with a favourite list that is now past it's 'Best Before' date, it could be that people around you have all changed to the latest craze, it could be that you're playing the best list in the world but happen to live in a weird local metagame bubble where people are still playing old stuff that happens to beat it.

The reason doesn't matter, really, because the response is the same: play something different.

Right at this moment I feel like there is a whole section of the X-Wing community trapped on the horns of this dilemma.  Their favoured lists are being destroyed by the hot new alpha strikes of popular squads like Jumpmasters and Crack Swarms and they're finding themselves playing a lot of bad matchups.  The answer, if you're dedicated to learning from your defeats and doing better in future, is to change what you're playing.  Anyway, that's a digression.


Winning is easy, because you win there's not so much to analyse or worry about.

Learning to lose, though.  That's a real skill.  Learning to lose, and in losing: learn.

That starts by learning HOW you lost.  When you know that you can start to ask WHY you lost, and from there begin the road to avoiding it happening in future.  I believe the four ways to lose X-Wing cover pretty much everything, and in truth they don't just apply to X-Wing but to all games, and probably not even just to games but to life itself.

I also think that you can define people by how well they respond to each type of defeat, and what those responses reveal about our motivations for playing and what we want from the game.  But that's an issue for another day, and another blog.

Until then: lose well!


  1. Great article; I think I will share this with some of the kids I have been running X-wing games for, at the school where I teach. Thanks for sharing it :o)

  2. This is the finest article I have ever read on the subject of X wing. A+++, would recommend!

    I seem to be carving out a career as a mid-table-at-best X wing player (although I did get lucky on one occasion and win a snack tournament) and the hardest thing is letting go after a loss. The way the game is set up is that it goes quicker towards the end (less ships, quicker moves) so by the end the tempo of the game can be fever pitch. Trying to maintain composure after all that excitement is hard, and if the outcome is against you, it's really tough to rationalise it. This article covers exactly what I do... But usually a few hours later.

    Number one rule: whatever the outcome, shake hands, say thanks, fly causal.

  3. thanks

    to lose