In the last month or so I feel like I've seen a lot people being surprised when unfashionable little ships turn up in successful squads. In various Grand Championships, and even from Worlds, it's seemed like many players just don't appreciate the simple things in life...
"Who ever would have predicted a Z-95 Headhunter would be in the final of Worlds?!?"
Well, Z-95s have already won two World Championships in First Edition and are a hallmark of efficient squadbuilding. It shouldn't be a surprise. When I clicked into the stream from the final game and saw what Daniel Taylor wasn't playing I wasn't shocked, instead my immediate reaction was "oh, of course it's Z-95s in the final of Worlds".
Daniel Taylor's Z-95s are maybe the most obvious example but I've also seen plenty of people confused by the success if Oldpara's First Order squad at Polish Grand Championship (which was in turn based on a successful list that went 5-1 on the first day of Worlds). Epsilon Squadron Cadets and naked Zeta Survivors? Madness! From the Swedish Grand Championship a list of four Logistics Division Resistance Transports with Ion Cannons shocked many who saw it, and there's still a lot of players who think V-19 Torrents are awful and don't understand why you'd use them.
So why are these 'bad' ships good? What is it that's making them sleeper successes waiting to happen? And if you can apparently overturn the odds with a Bandit Squadron Pilot, Epsilon Squadron Cadet or Gold Squadron Trooper then why can't you do it with a Phoenix Squadron A-Wing, or a Cartel Spacer?
I did some maths.
Actually, I didn't do any maths at all really. Punkuser's helpful X-Wing calculator did some maths, all I did was type some numbers into a spreadsheet and make them pretty colours.
The first thing I looked at was a very broad "how many shots does it take for this ship to die" and then compared that to the cost of putting the ship onto the table. How many points is the opponent earning each time he fires at this ship?
Punkuser's 'Durability' calculator worked this out for me but I know it doesn't give the defending ship a Focus token (which helps ships with more green dice), so I followed that up by using his calculator separately working out how likely a ship was to receive lethal damage from multiple shots in a turn, assuming the defending ship had a Focus to spend.
NOTE: my assumption here is that it's a Range 2 engagement (so no extra red/green dice) vs attackers with 3 single-modded Red dice. A very average situation. The maths would change for each scenario, or if you assumed attacker had double mods etc. This is just guidelines of the results.
It's long been held as a rule of thumb that the Academy Pilot is the benchmark for ship efficiency so I then compared all the other little ships vs the TIE Fighter and it's 23pts for an Academy Pilot.
So, how to read this table: the Bandit Pilot is less likely to die in 2 attacks due to it's extra hull (18% chance of dying vs the TIE's 21% chance), but more likely to die to concerted fire from 3 or 4 attackers as having 1 less Agility on each attack starts to add up. Because the Bandit Squadron Pilot costs the same 23pts as an Academy Pilot this variance translates directly to over/underperformance in defensive efficiency.
The Phoenix Squadron A-Wing, though, has the same agility as the TIE Fighter and one more combined Hull/Shield. An A-Wing is 15-20% less likely to blow up than a TIE Fighter, and that's a pretty similar difference across 2/3/4 incoming attacks. But because you've had to pay 30% more for your A-Wing than you do for an Academy Pilot a 20% increase in survival odds actually makes the A-Wing less defensively efficient.
With me so far? Good. So let's look at some learnings from this table...
Torrents & Epsilon Cadets are really efficient little fighters. Although having less agility catches up to them after 4 attacks vs a smaller number of enemy ships a Torrent is 20% less likely to explode than a TIE Fighter and only costs 9% more. The same is true of Epsilon Cadets in their newly-discounted TIE/fo. It turns out that there's a clear step-change in survivability when you add either a 5th hitpoint at 2 Agility, or a 4th hitpoint to a 3 Agility ship, and it gives you a very good chance of surviving shots that would kill a TIE Fighter or Z-95.
When I wrote my buying guide for First Order the exact description I gave to the TIE/fo was "Although it doesn't sound like it would make much difference the extra shield that First Order TIE Fighters get does make a pretty big difference to how frequently they'll explode on you". At the time I wrote that I hadn't run all this analysis but here is the mathemetical proof of precisely what I said in the buying guide. You don't immediately think a shield would make that much difference, but it sends the Epsilon over a defensive tipping point to become much more draining on the opponent for him to kill it.
It's also clear Networked Calculations is a big deal to how effective Vulture Droids are. I suspected this would be true so I ran the Vulture Droid numbers twice, once with just one Calculate token and once where I assumed that they had access to 3 Calculates thanks to nearby ships. The difference in being able to mod dice vs multiple incoming attacks was the difference between being 9-12% worse than a TIE Fighter even after you account for their lower cost, or being pretty much on a par with a TIE Fighter for defensive efficiency.
Moving up into the more expensive ships and it's hitpoint count that really starts to make the difference. Scimitar Bombers and Zeta Survivors both have 6 health, meaning that they're actually about as defensively efficient as a TIE Fighter despite costing significantly more. And the Nu Squadron Pilot's StarWing and the Resistance Transport are similarly buff.
Now is a good time to pause and reflect on what isn't being taken into consideration. None of the wonderful maths above cares that A-Wings have a much better dial than a Torrent and access to linked Boost actions. None of this wonderful maths is aware than the Zeta Survivor and Blue Squadron Recruits have rear arcs. This is a pure stat comparison. Ships have their own strengths and weaknesses and you could argue about the correct costing on any ship. The above table isn't saying "Ship X is 20% better than Ship Y".
But what I think this maths IS doing is highlighting defensive strengths that might not immediately be apparent. The Phoenix Squadron A-Wings pilot card says it can link a Boost action so everyone knows about that strength, but the Gold Squadron Trooper's pilot card doesn't say 'probably lives a turn longer than a TIE Fighter would'. A lot of people instead look at the Torrent's maneuver dial and, assuming it's the whole story, are surprised you'd ever use it.
All that maths analysis assumed the defender had a Focus token and this favours the ships with more agility. A Torrent or a Logistics Pilot benefits a lot less from having a defensive Focus token than a TIE Fighter does. So I went away and reran the table a second time, this time removing an action's worth of defensive mods from the ship in question.
What came back made some of the defensive efficiency benefits even more stark, and it's because there was another hidden mathematical quirk in here. It turns out that with so many green dice and so little Hull the TIE Fighters *REALLY* need that Focus token to survive. TIE Fighters are forced to spend their Focus token earlier and more often than any of the other small ships.
This became a massive benefit to the tougher ships, particularly at lower incoming shot counts. It also threw a massive spotlight on just how good Networked Calculations was. If you lose a Calculate token from your droid swarm the rest of the squad can carry the load, and the Vulture Droids carry on surviving pretty much exactly as long as they would have if they'd taken an action.
But you're going to Focus as often as possible, right? Especially with a TIE Fighter as it's so important to have a green token. Does the table where you don't have a Focus token really matter that much?
Well yes it does and that's because the more often you're forced to spend your Focus to stay on the table, the less often you have that Focus token to support your own attacks.
A Good Defense Is The Best Offense
What we're looking at in this analysis is the cheap ships, the grunts of the litter. The little guys everyone ignores and forgets about. Low cost, low Initiative. When you're at the bottom of the Initiative pecking order you often need to earn your right to throw red dice by surviving to the end of the combat phase.
If you died before it's your turn to shoot you got to roll no red dice at all. If you had to spend your Focus token to avoid dying then your red dice were only at 2/3rds their potential strength. We can apply some quick maths to this and work out how many hits a cheap ship is likely to roll once it starts drawing fire from opponents.
Let's take the TIE Fighter as the example from that table. If a TIE Fighter is attacked three times it will explode 50% of the time, meaning it got to roll 0 hits. A further 24% of the time it will have had to spend its Focus token to stay on the table, meaning it rolled an average of 1 hit. The remaining 26% of the time the TIE Fighter is still on the table with it's Focus token and is able to fire at full strength for an average of 1.5 hits.
50% x 0.0 = 0.0
24% x 1.0 = 0.2
26% x 1.5 = 0.4
Average = 0.6 hits
What does that mean?
The best way for a cheap ship to deal damage is to not die, and ideally to be so defensively efficient that you're a low-value unappealing target and nobody even bothers to shoot you at all. Target priority plays a massive part in this, of course and it's one major reason why this sort of 'mathwing' analysis can only ever be a small part of the story. But in isolation I think it's true that many players underestimate how resilient some of these cheap ships are, and undervalue how offensively important it is that they are defensively cost-efficient.
A big part of this learning, for me, has been that the lowly Academy Pilot is a lot worse then I really appreciated. TIE Swarms aren't exactly rocking anybody's world right now and the most successful ones tend to be using higher Initiative pilots and trying to flip that 'best offense is a good defense on it's head' - if you can kill a ship before it fires then your offense becomes your defense!
The other side of that learning is that it's surprising just how much better the Torrents and TIE/fos of this world actually are, in ways that really weren't obvious to me. Little incremental steps in how tough these ships are have manifested as significant improvements in damage output, and as big changes in target priority because the opponent has to dedicate so much more effort to killing them.
What To Take Away
These efficiency tables all work on theoretical situations and I'd be the first person to say that they're only a part of why you would choose to use a particular ship in your squad. But they're all things well worth knowing, and which really speak to why a clever player will know when best to deploy these ships and let them do a job on the table.
So which is the 'best' efficient generic?
Well there's no such thing of course because each fits into its squad and the ships around it in a unique way. A good example of this is that the Academy Pilot comes out of this analysis looking pretty poor and yet Vader/Soontir and three Academy Pilots has been a successful archetype - when they were put into a squad with two massive ace threats the Academy's defensive frailties weren't really tested as it wasn't what the enemy needed to kill first. But a lot of the time the cheap ships you put onto the table need to be able to stand their ground and stay alive longer, and you see that a lot in squads where they're more of a centrepiece like Sinker Swarm or the First Order swarm that did so well in Poland.
If there is an all-round 'best' then it's probably the Epsilon Squadron TIE/fo, which at 26pts has all the defensive efficiency of a Torrent but none of the dial limitations, although the Torrent's linked Evade action makes a strong argument that the Torrent would edge it. I'd also say that the most underrated and underrused is the Scimitar Squadron Bomber: so many players think Barrage Rockets are stapled to this ship that they miss just how crazy it is on it's own merits. When you look at how resilient the Bomber is when it has Focus available for defense I think Barrage Rockets (which require Focus to fire) are almost a bad upgrade for the ship to take. I took a pair of Scimitar Bombers with Proximity Mines to within touching distance of qualifying for Worlds earlier this year and this analysis backs up that the base chassis is so efficient that I was onto something all along!
And that's what's hidden in these unfashionable ships, still. So long as the little guys' strengths go ignored and unloved it seems like players are going to continue to be surprised when they suddenly appear out of left field in the sharp end of a big tournament. Right now there's a discussion in the FFG forums about how much cheaper the TIE Bomber needs to be when it's already over the curve on efficiency, which proves just how little people appreciate these things.
We would all do well to remember Rule #32...