Friday, 24 February 2017

"THE STATE OF THE GAME" - Part II: A NEW HOPE?

In the first part of this 'State of the Game' review I looked at some of the common problems players are raising with how the competitive side of X-Wing has developed recently.  In this second part I'm going to look at how players who are feeling the pinch can try to weather the storm.


Patience You Must Have

If you're not enjoying what the tournament X-Wing metagame looks like right now then the easiest solution (in the sense that you don't have to do anything) is just to sit tight and wait for things to get better.  You're going to maybe have a rough few months but just go with it, maybe even switch to playing Paratanni yourself.  Wave 10 hasn't really been digested by the player base yet so maybe somebody will come up with a squad that switches the metagame around, maybe there's going to be something in the next Wave, who knows?

The downside with this is that I recognise that a lot of players have basically already been doing this for nearly a year already.  When Soontir/Palpatine ran riot last year they sat and waited patiently, then it was Triple Jumpmasters and they sat and waited patiently, then it was Dengaroo and they sat and waited patiently, then it was /x7 Defenders and now it's Paratanni.  

It's been a looooong long time since the game looked very much like what a significant portion of the player base want it to look like.  Ever since Palpatine pushed the green defence dice of Soontir Fel over the top there's been little room for any of those players wanting to push around the likes of X-Wings and B-Wings.  That's not what the game's about any more at the top level, and it hasn't been for a while now.

Patience is a virtue, they say, but if there's no reward for that patience then it can be hard to maintain your zen focus indefinitely.


Into Exile I Must Go.  Failed I Have

If tournament X-Wing is your problem then, just... stop playing tournament X-Wing.  It doesn't have to mean stopping playing X-Wing altogether, though.  One of the cruel ironies of the current situation, to my mind, is that once you get away from all the hyper-tokened dice-inflationed power surge of Waves 8 & 9 the rest of the game is actually in a pretty good place!
  • Heroes of the Resistance gave us some fun new T-70 X-Wing pilots along with a new take on the Millenium Falcon.  The ARC and Sabine's TIE given Rebel players all new strategies and Crew/Astromech combinations to explore, while the Ghost expansion is still a triumph of thematic design with so many different configurations available.
  • Imperial Veterans might have brought the accursed /x7 title but if you pretended that card wasn't in the box then the /D title and the new pilots give you a good reason to use TIE Defenders for the first time, and even TIE Bombers might be worth a look (I'm a big fan of Deathfire).  The Upsilon Shuttle is a big brawler you can kit out in different ways, the TIE/sf's rear arc mean it flies in very different ways to anything else the Imperials have, and the TIE Striker whizzes about in crazy shapes and is fun to fly.
  • Scum might have been turbocharged through Waves 8 & 9 but at least now they're playable!  Attani Mindlink does have some uses that aren't completely absurdly good, the Scyks got a buff, the Shadow Caster is actually pretty balanced when it's not loaded down with Attani Mindlink or Push The Limit and the new Quadjumper is a delicious dose of jankiness.

The top tier tournament lists might completely wipe the floor with almost anything I just discussed, but if you're not playing with/against the top tier lists then there's actually an awful lot of good stuff to explore and enjoy.


This has been my path the last couple of months.  I worked out that the enjoyment I got from both attending tournaments and playing against players who were practicing for tournaments simple wasn't worth my time.  There's a great saying that dates back to medieval times which is "the game's not worth the candle" and what that saying means is that, back in the olden days you'd be playing a game in the inn but you'd need light to play by so you'd have to buy a candle. When the candle ran out halfway through the game you'd need to buy another, but if you weren't enjoying the game then you'd just give up on it rather than waste money on a candle.  And that's how I felt about playing X-Wing against the strongest lists.


My local metagame is quite competitive - in my immediate test group we had a couple of players who made Top-16 at Worlds last year - but I was fortunate enough to have other players I could seek out who weren't dedicating themselves to trying to compete for as many prizes or wins as they could achieve.  Now I'm enjoying playing a lot more because I get to experiment and play the lists I want to play instead of the lists I need to play.

The only real downside for me, as somebody who likes to create his own squads and trying to find new ways to attack the metagame, is that I've always got that nagging question of 'I keep winning with this thing... is it actually properly good?'.  Without pitting myself against those players and squads that I'm specifically avoiding then it's impossible to tell.  Is my new squad another Sutcliffe Sligh (the first deck to win a major Magic even for a UK player) or is it another Death Star (a deck so named because it always blew up seconds before it won).

If I turn that part of my brain off then so long as I'm enjoying playing the game does it really matter if I've accidentally blown the world of X-Wing wide open or not?  No, it doesn't.  


Organised Fun

I would always have championed Organised Play structures in the past as one of the best ways to jump into a game.  I know a lot of new players are terrified of setting foot into a tournament but usually it's the best way to meet people who play the same game as you and have the same interests.  Yeah you'll probably lose a bunch of games but what you gain from the experience is much more valuable.

BTW if anyone reading these blogs is coming away going "well, I was going to play in my first tournament until I read this but not a chance now!" then: please, go anyway and make those friends.  You'll probably lose  bunch of games if it's your first time, you may well even meet some people who don't play the game in a way you want to play it, but you're also going to meet people who DO play the game the way you want to play.  Go and meet them, it's worth it in the long run.  Trust me.

Another advantage that Organised Play structures have is that everyone there knows what the rules are and is, ostensibly, there for the same thing: to try and win.  The rules of the tournament say what is allowed and what isn't, and it's usually a pretty clear black and white about what's acceptable.  Often when you play in casual settings that black and white clarity becomes very muddled.  As an experienced tournament player who has recently dropped down to playing more casually I'm taking care to 'pull my punches' a bit both in the squads I make and sometimes even in how I play them on the table - the game experience of my opponent is more important to me than whether I win or lose.  

But how much should I pull those punches by, and should I be unhappy if my less experienced opponents bring the tournament quality lists I'm trying to avoid playing against?  Without the framework of a tournament finding that 'sweet spot' where both players enjoy the game involves a bit more of a dialogue between everyone to try and work out quite where the power level of those games are being set at.

This is where other clearly-defined modes of play can come in, such as Epic, Hangar Bay, or playing the Missions that come with the various expansions.  Alternatively you can come up with your house rules for what is allowed and what isn't.  FFG had an article last year about different ways of playing to take a break from hardcore tournament deathmatches that covers a lot of this ground so I'm not going to go into too much depth, I'm just going to point you to it and let you go have a read of that.


The main thing that the FFG article doesn't really touch on is Heroes of the Aturi Cluster, which is a fan-created campaign mode for X-Wing.  I can't give it a personal thumbs up as I've not tried it, but it gets talked about in such glowing terms that it might well be worth a look if you're searching for new ways to play X-Wing than standard 100pt deathmatch games.


There Are Alternatives To Fighting

We're very used to looking towards FFG for how the game develops, putting everything on them and their organised play team to manage and maintain the game in an enjoyable state.  Those wheels can turn painfully slowly, though, and at this point it's probably fair to say that the lack of responsiveness from FFG is now feeding into the problem as much as it's solving it.  Players have been calling so consistently for a T-65 X-Wing buff for so long, for instance, yet never got a whiff that their concerns were even being heard let alone taken seriously or acted on.

FFG prefers to act on metagame issues through releasing new cards to attack strategies that are too popular.  This works in the end but it can be an incredibly slow process, taking 18 months between a problem being identified and a solution getting into players hands (via design, playtesting, printing, and the inevitable 'Boat Phase').  I went through this process when I played Netrunner, with years of critical design issues being unsuccessfully corrected through releasing new expansions.  Finally, Netrunner changed designers and they acted to restrict the problem immediately cards through errata and new deckbuilding rules.

After years of failing to fix basic Core Set issues Netrunner's 'Most Wanted' list made key cards more expensive to use.

So all the evidence is that waiting on FFG to fix something is likely to require an awful lot of patience, and even then it might never happen.  One option, therefore, is to cut FFG out of the loop and put the power into the hands of the community.

This probably sounds like a real homespun route doomed to die a slow death without support from FFG.  Amazingly, though, there are numerous examples where this has been successful, and ultimately led to the community's changes being adopted by the people who make the game.
  • Perhaps the most significant example is Magic: The Gatherings 'Commander' format.  For years Commander was a casual-only format that was played a loooong way from anything competitive.  I knew it under it's old name of 'Elder Dragon Highlander' format and most of the players who I saw playing it were actually judges at big events, winding down after a long day of rules questions and player management by flinging crazy theme decks at each other in the hotel bar.  It wasn't just a random format, though, the community came together to create a rules committee for deciding the appropriate banned & restricted cards to make it a fun way to play.  Ultimately Elder Dragon Highlander proved to be a bit of a clumsy name but 'Commander' stuck and it was adopted by WotC as an official format and even led to a raft of specific Commander products and decks being printed.  From casual fan-made format to bespoke official expansions, Commander made it all the way to the promised land!

  • In miniatures game there is the example of Blood Bowl and its Living Rulebook, which curated the rules and structure of Blood Bowl for the 15 years that it was effectively ignored by Games Workshop.  A mix of Games Workshop staff and players, the Blood Bowl Rules Committee helped to keep the game alive and healthy through six editions of the Living Rulebook, bringing in new teams, players, rules, skills, everything.  So successful was the Living Rulebook project in keeping the game of Blood Bowl alive that ultimately a couple of official video games were made that restored some of the game's profile, and then finally Games Workshop caved in and re-launched the game at the back end of 2016.
  • Another example, back to Magic, is of what we now know as the Legacy format - one of the formats that allow players to use cards from pretty much the entire 25 year history of the game.  Originally, though, Legacy was known by the catchy name of 'Type 1.5' and it was the bastard child of 'Type I' (which let you use everything) and 'Type II' (which was rotating the two most recent years of expansions).  That it only got the moniker of Type 1.5 showed just how much of an afterthought the format was and it was pretty much entirely unsupported.  Without official support the Type 1.5 player community set up their own system of tournaments and kept it all ticking over.  Years later, when WotC were faced with the problem of trying to bridge the huge gap between 'Type I' and 'Extended' (like Standard but with five or six years of expansions, rather than just two) they saw that Type 1.5 had a following, dusted it off and gave it a dedicated Banned/Restricted list and official tournaments - the popular Legacy format was born.


A more general example from Magic was the formation of the Casual Player's Alliance (CPA) around 1999/2000 when the game went through a bit of a sticky patch of unpleasant overpowered combo decks.  The CPA had no specific agenda and championed no specific formats or playstyles, they just wanted to be a home for players who wanted to be able to talk Magic away from the competitive strategy chat that dominated on the main websites.  These days visiting the CPA is a lot like walking through an old abandoned hotel, with only a few guests and staff left shuffling around its dusty halls, but the fact that it's so quiet in the CPA today is largely because, well... they won.  WotC recognised that the competitive metagame they had created was unpopular with a large portion of their player base and refocused their future sets on changing that fact.  By 2002/2003 the CPA's unique purpose was no longer essential and as old members drifted away over time the site wound down.

What this all demonstrates is that community action can successfully curate a game or format of play.  Indeed,there are examples above of times when they've been able to do that more successfully than the company who made the game!  Often this is because those players communities cared more about the key issues of that niche interest than the company who had to spread their attention across a broader canvas.

Will it definitely be a success?  No.  But can it be?  Yes, certainly.


The Man Who Would Be King

So much for various things that you could do in response to the current situation.  This is my blog so I'm putting myself in charge... what would I do to try and reshape the competitive tournament format to one that would make me want to return to playing in tournaments?


In the last part of this two-parter blog I identified four problem areas.  Let's take a working hypothesis forwards for what we need to solve:
  • FFG are not cynically cranking up the power level but attempting to churn ships in and out of fashion, Wave 8 & 9 just happened to feature some mistakes in how much they felt they needed to buff things up that were previously underplayed.
  • Some added complexity is inevitable and healthy for a game to not stagnate, but an ever-growing card pool produces increasing potential for unhealthy card combinations.
  • The valid options for competitive ships have been restricted significantly by the dominance of action-economy engines that can't be easily disrupted, as they are the most cost-effective.  Re-emphasise the importance of the Planning Phase.
  • We want it to 'feel like Star Wars' and to see ships from the films used in games more often.


Solutions to propose:
  • Nerf some specific Wave 8/9 cards to flatten them back towards other waves and open up more valid squad choices.   As players: if our favourite ship isn't hot right now then be patient and trust that its time will come.
  • Rotate non-title upgrades from older waves out of the game, reprint the ones you want to see remain available beyond their rotation date.  Keep a manageable limit on the complexity of interactions within the upgrade pool.
  • Nerf or remove specific action economy options that are either especially efficient or especially difficult to disrupt.  Buff or design cards that reward or facilitate good positioning.
  • When balance is concerned err on the side of boldness with the most 'iconic' ships and pilots to ensure they're less likely to become obsolete as the ships churn.


I want to look at these out of order.  By far the most impactful change would be to begin rotation of upgrades from earlier waves, which would remove dozens of cards from the competitive cardpool.  
  1. All ship-specific Titles and upgrade cards remain 'Evergreen' and do not rotate out of use (eg. Slave I, Millenium Falcon, Chardaan Refit, Bomb Loadout)
  2. All Unique Crew remain 'Evergreen' and do not rotate out of use (eg. Darth Vader, C-3PO, Rebel Captive)
  3. All other Upgrade cards that do not appear in expansions from Rebel Aces/Wave 5 onwards are rotated out of use immediately following the World Championships.
  4. Each year the World Championships will rotate out a successive two waves of upgrades

There are a few dozen upgrades in Waves 1-4 that have not been reprinted in Waves 5+ and would be lost from the cardpool.  Most of these cards would not really be badly missed (Swarm Tactics, Elusiveness, Blaster Turret, Ion Pulse Missiles, Decoy) but there are some tournament level staples that would rotate out of use and these changes alone would have huge potential to shake up the metagame.  

Originally I was not keeping the unique Crew cards 'Evergreen' but when I looked at that list it seemed to be in direct opposition to the 4th objective of the changes, which is keeping it feeling like Star Wars.  If that was an objective for these changes then I didn't want to be the guy responsible for killing off Lando Calrissian, or consigning C-3PO to the scrapheap!


The list cards not printed since Wave 4 that would rotate out includes:
  • R2-D2 (astromech)         
  • R5-P9
  • R3-A2
  • R4-D6
  • Push The Limit
  • Fire Control System
  • Tactician
  • Advanced Sensors

If FFG adopted a rotation system like this then some of these cards could be reprinted in future expansions, or have new version printed.  If it's a community-run list then when it's gone it's gone, though.  

Next up after that rotation the priority would be to try and trim the worst power excesses Wave 8 & 9 down a little.  I don't think there needs to be drastic changes in most cases, just gentle tweaks.  What I'm limiting myself to doing with this is some minor points adjustments to cards, I'm leaving FAQ or card rewrites out of scope because that creates a whole new set of problems!

  • Attani Mindlink - I can't remember the last time I saw something go from cute to terrifying in such a short space of time.  Attani Mindlink is winning pretty much everything in sight, and as it's Scum-only this is warping the whole game around that faction.  At the recent Yavin Open 48% of lists that made Day 2 were Scum and 68% of the lists with 6+ wins at that point were Scum.  By the time it got to the Top-8 it was 88% Scum.  I really like a recent suggestion to make Attani Mindlink Small Ship Only, which might help return it to that cute card I want to play with, but without that errata I think it needs tuning down a notch in the sheer efficiency it offers.
  • Extra Munitions - Extra Munitions is one that is trying to get ahead of future problems as much as solving current ones like the mass K-Wing bombing lists.  Wave 8 & 9 has finally given us lists with viable Ordnance but what it's also demonstrated is that viable Ordnance tends to lead to pretty annoying lists that overpower a lot of other ships.  Increasing the cost of Extra Munitions doesn't make Ordnance worse per se, but does make it a little harder to rely on it entirely and hopefully encourages more balanced listbuilding.

  • /x7 - The TIE Defender has replaced the vast majority of other Imperial ship choices and for the sheer sake of diversity it needs to be reined in.  By removing the points discount TIE Defender players now have a straight choice between extra defense with /x7 or extra firepower with /D, and a whole host of other Imperial ships come back into the discussion.
  • Zuckuss - As I've discussed in more detail already I think Zuckuss is simple bad design.  It's clear that we can't rely on the 'stress cost' to control Zuckuss' use, so I'm adding to the points cost significantly.  Frankly I'm one step short of banning it entirely, but at least now you have to pay a fair points cost for the effect once you've built a ship that can accommodate the stress.


Thirdly: trying to rebalance the mechanics of the game, although a lot of this has I think been already achieved by rotating out cards like Push The Limit, and increasing the cost on the most recent action economy cards like Attani Mindlink and /x7.  Above is a list of points changes I would make with this intention, and I've tried to keep the list very brief rather than go point-by-point through every upgrade and rebalance it. 

Really here I'm focusing on slightly increasing the price of four upgrades that I think get played a lot, and in particular those that either reduce the importance of positioning (turreted ships: TLT, Gunner) or provide offense that threatens to overwhelm the defences of smaller ships (Crack Shot, Gunner).  I'm also making a few other less-played cards cheaper to try and encourage their use as viable options (a carrot to go with the stick).

The final part of the problem - making the iconic ships more attractive - is the hardest to fix retrospectively, especially without getting into FAQ or errata, improving dials, creating new titles for old ships etc.  I'm not going to try tackling that problem other than to propose a very simple but sweeping change:
  • All Unique pilots from Wave 1-3 have their points cost reduced by -1pt.

This is a pretty minor change but it might give you more reason to bring in those iconic pilots from the earlier ships and put them onto the table - assembling a thematic 'Rogue Squadron' of X-Wing pilots would be easier then ever, for example.  There are a few notable tournament staples who get a little bit cheaper (Biggs, Howlrunner, Han Solo, Darth Vader) but that there's so few Wave 1-3 pilots we're seeing played really just highlights how much everyone else around them needs that bit of extra help.  Yes Biggs Darklighter gets cheaper, but as all his most comment Astromech options just rotated out with Waves 1-4 maybe that's not such a problem after all?

So... those are my changes, and what format would it create?  No Rebel Regen, no Push The Limit, Attani Mindlink is double the price and Scum can't use Zuckuss so easily.  There's fewer card combinations to worry about and the most iconic named pilots in Star Wars are cheaper than ever.

Instant fix?  Hell no, I'm sure it would take more than myself on my own with an evening to spare in front of a word processor but, y'know... it seems like a start.

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.