Friday, 20 November 2020

X-Wing Buying Guides Updated

This is a quick note to say that I've finally gotten round to updating my Buying Guide pages, which were getting a little bit out of date seeing as they still talked about Vonreg's TIE as coming soon!  I've  been working on this haphazardly for a while now (Rebels got updated in August) but I've recently knuckled down and made it happen so that I'm going to be fully up to date once the new wave of ships land at the end of this month.

Amendments include:

  1. Card Packs (Hotshots & Aces, Fully Loaded, Never Tell Me The Odds) added to Introduction page
  2. Revised faction descriptions on Introduction page
  3. Updated all beginner recommended squads to latest points costs/releases
  4. Updated all ship descriptions/reviews
  5. New Purchase Priority tables for all factions
Links to all sections of the Buying Guide are below:

*** ALL Updated November 2020 ***

Happy shopping!!!

:-)


Thursday, 12 November 2020

"There's too many of them!" - Why Generic Efficiency Has Gone Too Far

So I was really proud of my last blog.  It was on a topic I'd been wanting to hit for a while (the importance and value of variance), the juxtaposition of the two different player reactions from one tournament seemed like a perfect hook for the topic, and talking to Niels Vos gave me loads of extra unexpected colour and dimension to the blog as it turned out he shared a lot of my viewpoints.  I thought it was great, wrapped the whole thing up with a nice bow on top and posted it up online to await all the positive feedback.

The unintended consequence was that a few people thought the blog was about picking a fight with World Champ Oliver Pocknell, or running him down for the post of his that I'd shared in the blog.  Hopefully I've now smoothed most of those ruffled feathers out but I wanted to be clear that it wasn't my intention at all.  I like and respect Oli a lot, we share some of the same online spaces and chat from time to time, and as a World Champion you couldn't really ask for somebody who has worn the crown with more dignity and tried to be a positive role model across not just his own channels but lots of other podcasts and streaming channels as well.  I was taking it as read that everyone shared that very obvious opinion of Oli and to me it made it all the more interesting to finally see it slip a little bit in that Facebook post and see what really grinds his gears.

I've said it elsewhere and I've said it to Oli himself, but for the record: that wasn't my intention and I'm sorry if anybody took it that way and was unhappy with how I'd phrased anything.

The great consequence of the blog is that we've had some really interesting discussions around the topic on places like Facebook and Reddit, both about the nature of variance but also about the state of the current metagame.  I think there's been a bit of confusion in the message in my blog here, with a lot of people believing that my defense of the variance in playing higher ship count generic squads was also saying that I thought the current metagame was in a good state.  To me those are two separate issues - I absolutely want to see high ship count squads like this possible and I want to see the variance that allows upsets against good players and creates exciting games with uncertain outcomes to continue... but I also think the swing towards low cost generics has gone too far right now.

On some specific points costs I completely agree with Oli and would actually go further than I think he would.  Like I said in the blog: I know why I'm playing Scyks - it's because I think they're too cheap and hand me a big advantage!

Now if the World Champion can click his fingers and get Nantex nerfed instantly (I kid) then let's see if I can work some magic too...



THE PROBLEM

The game is trapped in a mechanical feedback loop by making cheap ships with 2 red dice and either 3 Agility (or 2 Agility and lots of hull) very efficient. 

When 3 Agility is good people play Scyks/FOs/Nantex/Aggressors etc and that in turn means the average number of dice/hits rolled per attack drops (you go from flinging 3 or 4 well-modified red dice to more ships each rolling 2 single-modified attacks). When the average number of hits rolled per attack drops it makes high Agility more important as you're more likely to evade attacks entirely, while Agility 1 ships will still get chipped down rapidly by lots of incoming shots.  I talked about this impact when I revisited Generic Efficiency: 1 Agility ships get a lot worse when facing 2 red dice while 3 Agility ships benefit.

So Agi 3 is good which makes 2 red dice dice popular with makes Agi 3 better which makes 2 red dice more popular which makes Agi 3 better again...

With so many arcs on the table (including dangerous range 3 cannons, or multiple arcs with turrets) it's incredibly difficult to fly aces into safe positions, and because the ships carrying those guns are defensively efficient those aces can't reliably switch modes and try to punch through and remove threats before they fire.  And it's not just aces that suffer - the sheer defensive efficiency of these ships is what I first highlighted and it's what makes it almost impossible to joust them with the likes of Rebel Beef or four-ship Resistance/Rebel lists - you have to work incredibly hard to kill a 25pt TIE/fo before it fires and even if you're lucky enough to do so you're likely to lose 50pts of Braylen Stramm in return.  Similarly, if you invest in big alpha strikes with torpedoes it's an unreliable payoff as a 3 Agility ship could easily see just a little bit too much paint on their green dice and the attack bounces off, and if you try to run big ships like Falcons or Dash your traditional advantage of having lots of hitpoints will be burned away very quickly by so many guns.

With few exceptions (Boba is still good in this metagame) what you're left with is fighting fire with fire, and every player that turns to playing these lists just adds further momentum to the metagame shift and makes it harder for everyone else.

If you'd followed my blogging this past 12 months none of this should be news to you as I've hit this topic many times, especially before the pandemic derailed everything:

December - Generic Efficiency 101

JanuaryFirst Order & Separatists swarms in Hyperspace, including predicting the Hyena Bomber's rise 

February - Sloane Swarm and the Scyks/Fang list bag me a ticket to Worlds

March - Generic Efficiency Revisited and more Scyk Swarms

And I've also spoken about some of these issues in places like the FFG Forums:

June - TIE Aggressors are a sleeper 

I believe we've been on this road for over a year and although the maturation of this metagame has been hampered significantly by Covid and the Nantex but it's been pretty much inevitable that we would get here as the fundamental maths of X-Wing combat are out of balance.  Without a proper competitive season in the first half of the year players like Akhter Khan and Nicolas God were finding it and leading other players to joining them in the summer.  After the July points changes the Nantex did a fantastic job of suppressing all the swarms for a few months but I fear you're going to see it in full effect now, though.


THE SOLUTION

I would increase the following ships cheapest generic pilots points cost by +1 point:
  • Vulture Droid
  • Hyena Bomber
  • M3-A Scyk
  • Fireball
  • TIE Aggressor
  • TIE Bomber
  • TIE Advanced v1
  • TIE/fo
  • Auzituck Gunship
  • T-70 X-Wing

There might be some following points cost through the lower end of the other points ranges, eg if you make Epsilon Cadets +1pt you'll need to move the Zeta up from 26pts.  You probably wouldn't have to increase Lieutanant Rivas, though, as this points change is aimed at the multiplicative value from bringing lots of the cheapest ships and you can only bring one Lieutenant Rivas.

Now when I've suggest these type of changes to so many ships one of the common responses I have received is something like "Wait, why are you putting up the cost of [insert ship here]?  The [insert ship here] is hardly dominating tournaments!".  And it's a fair question because you're right, they're not.  Yet.  These changes are needed to solve future problems too.  A month ago nobody thought the TIE Aggressor was a problem (except me) because the focus was on the Nantex.  When people were celebrating the Nantex points changes I always cautioned that all this was doing was unlocking all the other cheap generics that the Nantex were oppressing and that's what we're seeing now.  

ALL of these ships are too cheap.  In most cases they're unbalanced vs other competing cheap ships (TIE Fighters, RZ-1 A-Wings, Torrents etc) and their sheer efficiency is suppressing a host of more expensive 3-dice ships and making it extremely challenging to fly lower ship count lists.  In other cases (like the Auzituck and T-70) they're a little too far ahead of the other 3-dice ships and would remove diversity once the swarms were removed.

It's like peeling an onion - remove Nantex and now TIE Aggressors are a problem.  Remove Aggressors and it'll be Scyks and TIE/fos.  Remove Scyks too and it'll be TIE Bombers and the Vulture/Hyena swarms will be back with a vengeance (it's the 3 Agility swarms keeping Vultures down as their red dice bounce off a little too often).  If you're going to wait for 6 month point cycles between each little change to the current best thing then we'll still be playing this high ship count metagame in two years time.

And you know what?  A 26pt TIE/fo or Scyk is STILL really good value.  Although hitting so many ships may look dramatic I think it's actually conservative and may not be going far enough - in most cases it's still lower than the ships were costed originally and it's still a significant discount on their First Edition price point.  We're not bombing these ships back to the stone age by adding +1pt, just clipping their wings slightly... and quite possibly by not enough.

I'd like to hold a principle where ships like these remain about as good as it gets for generic efficiency on the cheapest ships.  We've seen that if things get much better than this point then the game can quickly spiral to the point where most other styles of play are driven away.

  • TIE Fighters
  • Mining Guild TIE
  • Z-95 Headhunters
  • Torrents
  • RZ-1 A-Wings

Ships like the TIE/sf or the RZ-2 A-Wing I think are fine.  The TIE/sf is probably a victim of this trend as much as a part of it, while the RZ-2 A-Wing is doing well but it's not an I1 generic spam issue that's driving that success.


AND ANOTHER THING...

In addition I'd prefer to see Cannons upgrades given a variable points cost based on the primary front arc attack value of the ship.  When you add an Ion Cannon to an M3-A Scyk you're gaining an extra red dice to roll, and unlike Missile or Torpedo upgrades there's no awkwardness of getting target locks that red dice is easy to use and has no charges to use up.  I don't believe it should cost as much to add a cannon to a B-Wing or Upsilon Shuttle as it does to add them to an M3-A Scyk or a Jumpmaster where you're gaining a whole new arc.  

This change wouldn't just be about sitting on Scyk Swarms as much as a quality of life change that would encourage players to bring cannons more often on all those ships that have unused cannon slots.  Some ships may need a base points adjustment where the design intention is they use a cannon, eg. the base TIE/rb Heavy cost could come down to the keep the TIE & Cannon cost where it is.


SUMMARY

Variance good.  Uncertainty good.  Excitement good.  Oliver Pocknell good.  Scyks... too good.

Let's see if my finger snap works or not.  As much as I love playing generic swarms there's a hell of a lot of pilots that have been effectively erased from existance right now and I'd like to see them back on the table.


Saturday, 7 November 2020

Variance, Oliver Pocknell, Niels Vos, Scyks and Pack Rats

juxtaposition

noun: the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect.

eg. "the juxtaposition of these two images"

 

Exhibit A)


Exhibit B)

What's going on in these two pictures?

The first picture is a screengrab from the final game of the Mustafar Hyperspace Galactic Championship Qualifier (from the last weekend of October), and in the chat box on the right you can see how much the audience watching the game have been enjoying it.  I was actually watching the match live right along with everyone else who is participating in that chat and I can attest to just what a fantastically exciting match it was.  It featured Niels Vos playing the same Fangs & Scyks list that Akhter Khan succeeded with during lockdown earlier this year (and which I had played at the Milton Keynes System Open in February) and he was up against Ben Doyle's Boba/Fenn list.  It was a great game that saw Niels take an early lead by pummelling fire into Boba Fett and landing a Structural Damage critical hit, only for several turns of bad dice variance to rip victory away from him and hand it to Ben after he'd managed to protect Boba while Fenn deleted a couple of Scyks.


The second picture is a screengrab of what reigning World Champion Oliver Pocknell posted to Facebook just a few hours after the Swiss rounds of the Mustafar Qualifier had ended.  Ending the tournament with a 3-3 record was the final straw that broke the camel's back and we saw the frustration that I know Oli has been struggling with for a while come bubbling out.  Oli has long been concerned at how cheap and effective some of the generic pilots are and has watched the repeated points drops they've received with growing concern.  Generic pilots tend to bring few abilities that would reduce the impact of dice variance, often taking a single focus token to cover both red and green dice with no rerolls or linked actions.  To quote from his Facebook post: "What is great for the casual player (variance making everything a large unknown going into each engagement) makes the competitive game incredibly difficult to play consistently".

And yet... that very variance is why the final game of Mustafar was so exciting.  The game swung back and forth over the turns and every time players picked up their dice the whole audience watching were on the edge of their seats.  There was one turn in particular where Fenn Rau destroyed a Scyk in one shot then rolled precisely the natural Evades he needed to see off both a Tractor Beam and Ion Cannon attack from two Scyks that would have ruined him.  The crowd elated and groaned in equal measure at the fortunes of the dice...


I was unashamedly rooting for the Scyks - it was my list after all, and one of the two games that I'd lost at Milton Keynes had been to almost exactly this Boba/Fenn squad and saw me get almost exactly the same sustained run of extreme variance.


The Beginning

I reached out to Niels Vos and we talked about several things: list choice, variance, and even Oli's Facebook post came up.  Interestingly, even though I'd approached Niels because he'd suffered such a bad run of variance the first thing he told me was that variance hadn't cost him the match!
"If you watch that match there's one turn where I make a sequence error and that cost me the game.  I moved a Cartel Spacer before my Fang and then bumped the Fang.  If I hadn't bumped then that Fang would have Focused and Boosted and had a range 1 shot on Fenn Rau.  So I don't blame variance for the loss - yes I was unlucky on dice, but I was also really lucky when Boba Fett pulled the Structural Damage critical hit because he hates to see that. It's probably the worst crit Boba can have.  Variance always balances out.  In an earlier round I won a game by one-shotting an ARC with four natural hits into a blank green dice so when Fenn one-shotted my Scyk that was just balancing what I'd already benefited from earlier."
This echoed my own experience at Milton Keynes - I had a bad day of variance on the Saturday then it flipped on Sunday and a following wind of good fortune swept me to an unbeaten record, top MOV and a ticket to the World Championships that never were.  It's not easy to maintain that longer view of variance when you see those blank green dice staring up at you, though, so all credit to Niels for that.  

But it turns out Niels is comfortable taking his chances with variance, and as conversation moved on to talking about Oliver Pocknell's post, it turned out that Niels was the perfect person to be talking to once again!
"Last year I was playing Torkil Swarm - you know Torkil with Seevor and the three Kihraxz - and I liked that list because I always felt like I was the strongest jouster in the metagame at the time.  I could joust anything head on with that list.  I played it at Worlds last year and I won Belgian nationals with it as well."
 
"I actually played against Oli at Worlds.  He was flying his Imperial Aces while I was playing the Torkil Swarm and I actually won that match.  I really enjoy those type of games  against aces, to be honest.  They're trying to get the perfect engagement with range control and escape, just chipping away at my ships and I'm trying to ensure that I get the chance I need to trap his ships and get shots on them.  I think they're interesting games, and yes I don't get many shots in the game and I need variance to help me make them count but I'm having to play well to get those shots and those chances.  And I'm not sure the generic lists are 'high variance' anyway - you roll lots and lots of dice over a game and the more dice you roll the more likely it is that the results are going to average out.  It's a different way of looking at variance."

And it's exciting, right? 

"Oh definitely.  I've been practising for Coruscant with some friends - I'm going to fly the same Scyks and Fangs squad at Coruscant and we were playing some games against 5 A-Wings to practice and in those games you're just throwing dice all the time.  Like you're throwing 50, 60, 70 dice over the course of a match and I love games like that.  When you throw that many dice you're going to have some good luck and some bad luck but it's going to be a great game."

So is Oli just wrong to have said what he did?
"No, I understand Oli's frustration and I see what he is saying.  I think there's a few ships that are too cheap now, like the Wookiees are too cheap, probably the TIE/fo and the Cartel Spacer are a bit too cheap and those ships are really good against the way he wants to play.  I think overall the game is in a good state, though, like aces can still win.  And I prefer this to what we had in 1st Edition when the dice were almost pointless as everyone had all the modifications they needed to just make the dice whatever they wanted.  I feel like, you know, X-Wing has dice, right?  It's a dice game and that's a big part of the game we're playing that we don't know for sure what's going to happen."

"I think you saw some frustration from Oli that he's tried a few times to qualify for Coruscant and missed out each time.  I actually like the Dash/Wedge/Jake list that he played at a couple of qualifiers, it's a good list, but I think at Mustafar that B-Wing and Y-Wing squad he used is probably just not a very good squad.  I think Wookiees are too cheap but my squad would love to play against them and Oli's list just looked a lot like a bad Wookies list.  And there are players who've been successful consistently, like Faan did and Akhter did, there's good players doing well in these events.  I think if Oli had stuck to his aces he probably would have qualified for Coruscant because aces are still really good.  We tried it just taking Whisper out of his World Champion squad to use Echo instead and once you learn how to fly Echo... that list is still really good.  "
So there you go, I didn't know it going in but it turns out Niels Vos and I are twins separated at birth and I doubt I could have said any of that better than he did.  I know why I'm playing Scyks for example - it's because I think they're too cheap and are really good!


The Middle

There's one other thing that I want to pick up out Oli's Facebook post and talk about it some more.  It's in the quote that I've already repeated, but let's look at it again: "What is great for the casual player (variance making everything a large unknown going into each engagement) makes the competitive game incredibly difficult to play consistently".

But is it just the casual player who benefits?  Certainly Niels Vos isn't a casual player, he's a national champion and made it into the cut at the last World Championships.  Faan Langelaan and Ahkter Khan aren't casual players either and both stacked up repeated success with squads of generic pilots and Focus tokens.  I don't have any of the major titles to my name that those guys have but I'm not a casual player either, I'd like to think I'm a student of the game and I make my decisions based on a pretty good understanding of how the game works and where I will give myself the best advantages.  I didn't invent the squad that Akhter and Niels have used to such success because I wanted to flip coins to see who won, I invented that squad because I'd done a lot of maths and worked out that the squad was likely to give me a significant advantage.

So it for casuals, or is it also for good players who just happen to have a different skill set?  Maybe.


And as Niels said, is it really a higher variance strategy anyway?  Rolling lots of dice is, in itself, a form of controlling variance.  It's not what we've been used to as 1st Edition was all about powerful Evade tokens and passive dice mods like Expertise and Glitterstim, but spreading your bets across so many more ships and shots is a valid way to mitigate risk.  One bad roll of green dice can end Soontir, Fenn or Vonreg's day real quick but one bad roll of the dice with a Cartel Spacer and... so what?  I've got 5 more ships left and the game is very much still on.  As we saw in the final of Mustafar it often takes repeated bad variance turns to overwhelm the sheer natural efficiency of the Scyks and Fangs.

And finally.  If there IS more variance as a result of generics being good now.  And if there IS more casual players beating good players.  Is that actually a bad thing?


I poked Oli about this assumption in reply to his Facebook post, and his reply was that there were some players who were so good that he would expect them to be going 5-1 every time they play.  There has to be something wrong with the game if this isn't happening.

Oli also went onto the Thule Squadron Radio podcast last week (which is a particularly interesting listen as they were recording when the Nantex points were changed and you hear them take in the breaking news) and he said that currently he feels like he's only winning 70% of games because of player skill and in the past it was more like 85% of games.

And that makes me uneasy for a couple of reasons.  In the first instance I'm not sure about the assumption that a couple of players are so far and away better at X-Wing than anybody else that it means the game is broken if more than one person beats them in a 24 hour period.  It might be true and I've not got direct experience of any of these players to say if that's right or wrong.  But it makes me raise an eyebrow.


And in the second instance, let's say that is true and that until now skill has been the sole determining factor in 85% of games and now it's only 70% (to use the numbers that I'm sure Oli wouldn't want to see set in stone as he was just shooting from the hip in a podcast, so apologies to him that I'm nailing them down like this).  If this IS true... I think skill being 85% of the game and players being all but guaranteed to go 5-1 is a problem and it's bad for the game.

Because while that works out great for the guys at the tip of the iceberg who get to win time and time again it sucks for everyone else.  Who wants to play a game where you know you can't win?  Looping back to where we came in you can see just how exciting variance and uncertainty is, but it's more than just exciting it's egalitarian too.  It spreads the wealth of prizes further and wider than it might otherwise get spread.  More people get to experience what it's like to win.  Better yet they get to experience what it's like to beat somebody like a World Champion (and be absolutely buzzing from doing so).  It makes for a healthier game - one that's both a better spectacle to the observer and also more rewarding for more players.


Variance is often talked about like it's a one-way street where More Variance = Bad and Less Variance = Good, but I think most game designers you talk to would say that actually there's a sweet spot you want to hit with this.  You want to reward skill but you want to allow upsets to happy relatively often because it keeps more people more engaged with the game over a longer period of time.  


And games have died and gone away when they got that mix of variance wrong.  The original VS System card game was launched to huge fanfare and an ambitious competitive scene with huge prizes off the back of marketing itself to professional Magic: The Gathering players as 'Magic without the luck'.  VS System won several Game of the Year awards for its design... and then it died after only a couple of years because it turned out they'd made a game where the person with the best Maths degree pretty much always won.  So everybody else stopped playing.  (VS System has since returned as a Living Card Game though I don't know if they changed the gameplay to increase variance).

And Magic itself has a storied history with variance.  The dreaded 'Mana Screw' (variance being so poor you simply cannot play your cards at all) is often cited as bad game design, a legacy of Magic being such an old game before people knew how to make games properly.  And yet when Wizards of the Coast launched a reality-TV style 'Designer Challenge' with the prize of a job designing Magic cards one of the initial qualification questions was "Explain three positive ways Mana Screw affects Magic" because WotC understand that variance is important and that uncertainty is exciting.  

On another occasion, during design for the Return to Ravnica expansion, their playtesting revealed that the set was incredibly well designed for Limited play... too well designed in fact, because the best players always won.  WotC deliberately designed a broken card (Pack Rats) and inserted it into the set as a way of curbing the guarantee that the best players would walk to victory every time.


The End

So I don't know if skill used to be 85% of X-Wing and now it's only 70%.  But if it WAS 85% then I'm glad it's now only 70%, which feels like it's still making skill an important factor but leaving the door open to exciting upsets, or to players like Niels whose skill in X-Wing comes from being able to adjust and adapt when uncertain outcomes go against them.

Personally, I've got a feeling that a lot of Oli's struggles in these qualifiers stem from him picking bad squads and trying to swim against the flow of what's good right now.  Flexible points costs for ships mean the game can change direction more dramatically in Second Edition than we're used to and I think players are being rewarded if they can bend with those changing winds of fortune.  

And I prefer to look forwards not back.  Our reigning World Champion may not be playing at Coruscant but a lot of great players will be, and I'm sure we're going to see some incredibly exciting games where it's hard to call who is going to win.  And that's going to be great.


I'll be rooting for the Scyks.  ;-)

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Starbird Slashing & You: The Value of Strain

 

Heralds of Hope is here and when the points were revealed last week one of the things that got the strongest immediate responses was that Starbird Slash was only 1pt.

Already one of the cards that players were looking forward to just from the thematic point of view of performing Maverick-style flypasts of opponents ships it seemed like players were really expecting Starbird Slash to cost more as the ability to give Strain tokens was something they really valued.

I'd actually been hoping that Starbird Slash was going to cost so little because I wasn't prepared to pay 2pts for what I thought was an effect that was both hard to pull off, and of limited value when you landed it anyway.

In this blog I'm going to explain a little bit why I think that - we'll look at Starbird Slash in a bit more detail and also the value of a Strain token in general.


The Awkwardness of Starbird Slash

First let's look at Starbird Slash, which wants you to fly through an opponent's ship (overlap it with your maneuver template), in order to give the enemy a Strain token.

Landing the Strain token onto the enemy you want to fire at is less straightforward than it may seem and there's different hoops for you to jump through depending on whether your ship is moving before or after the opponent's ship.

Starbird Moving First

  • The opponent may perform a blue maneuver and clear the Strain before you attack  
  • The opponent may move out of firing arcs after you gave them Strain
  • If they don't move out of firing arcs they're likely to move a range band further away and reduce the value of the Strain token anyway
  • In the ultimate worst case (eg. vs Boba Fett) you could find yourself strained by landing in his rear arc then have him do a blue maneuver and clear his stress so your Starbird Slash was actually hurting you and not affecting the opponent at all!

Positives - you know where their ship is and can be sure of hitting it with your Slash maneuver.


Starbird Moving Last

  • You have to predict where the opponent's ship will be in order to fly through it
  • In a dogfight the natural flow of ships turning around means opponents are more likely to have moved behind you or to places you can't reach with your Slash maneuver
  • Opponents can deliberately set dials or reposition to avoid (or block) obvious Slash maneuvers

Positives - if you land the Slash maneuver successfully the opponent cannot avoid the Strain affecting them.

I'm not sure yet which of these two situations I prefer and I wouldn't want to underplay just how awkward either one can be.  For high initiative ships with Starbird Slash I can foresee that a lot of the time that enemy ships are close enough for you to Slash them they might also be close enough to k-turn in behind you.  with low initiative pilots I think you'll find it easier to land the Slash but derive much less value from the Strain tokens you hand out - not least because half of them are going to be given right back to you when the opponent performs a blue maneuver!

Thinking a bit further... I suspect there's elements of different range control to these two options as well.  If you're moving your Starbird before the opponent's ship you want to engage  them in pretty close (R1 ideally) so you can overshoot them safely next turn.  However if you're moving your Starbird after the opponent's ships you probably want a R2-3 engagement that would mean they're closer to you after their next move so they're easier to overshoot, and which also means less likely to be able to k-turn past you as your ship will be in the way.


The Value of Strain

In general terms, I think players tend to overvalue how bad a Strain token is.  

In the way I see players respond to things that hand out Strain tokens I feel like they're mentally assuming that a Strain token is roughly equivalent to 1 damage being suffered, or at least close to it.  However, as I found when I first mathed out how good the First Order Provocateurs were, it turns out that the average value of a Strain token is a lot less and you don't need to be so scared of them.

On average a Strain token is just 0.3 damage.

The actual expected damage value of a Strain token depends entirely on what number of dice are being thrown (red and green) and how many dice mods are available.  The table below has a pretty detailed breakdown of what you can expect, but there's a useful shorthand to remember... the better both ship's dice modification is, the better a Strain token is.  


If the green dice are well modified then there's more chance that the dice the opponent didn't get to roll (because of Strain) would have ended up as an Evade.  At the same time if the red dice are well modified there's less chance of one of them being a blank that the opponent didn't need an Evade for anyway so he dodged the damage even with one less green dice.

Throw unmodded red dice at unmodded green dice and a Strain is only ~0.2 damage on average.  Throw focused red dice at focused green dice and a Strain is worth more like ~0.5 damage ... a lot better than 0.2 but still less than I think most players assume when they cower in fear from the sight of those Strain tokens.

ASIDE: this is why I'm a fan of Seventh Fleet Gunner on a LAAT Gunship instead of Clone Commander Cody.  Cody hands out a Strain when the opponent cancelled a hit result from the LAAT's attack so you know there was already a chance for the opponent to have spent Focus on the LAAT's attack.  If they did spend focus then it's reduced the value of Strain taking a green dice off them in the next attack.  Seventh Fleet Gunner adds a red dice to the attacking ship, which we know we have great dice mods for as Fire Convergence will be online to help reroll those dice.  
It's often the difference between Seventh Fleet Gunner adding a red dice which has a 7-in-8 chance of being hit vs removing a green dice with Strain that only had a 3-in-8 chance of being an Evade.  Seventh Fleet Gunner costs a lot more than Cody but it delivers a lot more benefit too (and being able to use the gunner on high Initiative attacks and get PS-kills is extra gravy).


But enough about Seventh Fleet Gunner, let's talk specifically about Starbird Slash.  You're going to see Slash on A-Wings, and mainly on RZ-2 A-Wings who can capitalise on the overshoot with their rear arc.  I've mathed for Focus in that table able, but lets add Heroic and Advanced Optics and assume that we're using Starbird Slash to try and crack the A-Wing's nemesis - a 3 Agility ship with a Focus token.  This is the sort of target that A-Wing players are really hoping Starbird Slash will kick in against as they struggle to deal damage currently.


It turns out that being able to get a Range 1 shot with a 3rd red dice is hugely important for Slash - you get +0.5 damage from Starbird Slash at R1 but only +0.3 damage at R2.  This is because when you're only throwing 2 red dice the opponent still has a pretty good chance of dodging it with 2 focused green dice.

And this reinforces the importance of whether your ship is moving before or after the opponent, which I talked about earlier.  If the enemy ship moves after you it's got a really good chance of at least moving into Range 2 when it does so, and that alone takes 40% of the value from Starbird Slash away even if they don't perform a blue maneuver and take away 100% of the value by giving you the Strain token back!


So, Do I Like Slash?

I do.  Because it's cheap and it's good against what A-Wings were struggling with anyway (ships with good green dice that 2 highly modified red dice tended to bounce off too often).

But I still don't love it.  I don't think it's going to do enough to switch those hard matchups into easy matchups so I still expect that a single-issue squad like 5A (five A-Wings) is going to hit a lot of problems that Slash won't solve single-handedly.

I'd probably put it onto RZ2 A-Wings before Heroic.  I probably wouldn't put it onto Rebel A-Wings.  Like Heroic I'd be happy when Starbird Slash does something but not go out of my way to force it to happen... because it's just 1pt invested.  And it's not worth 2pts.  Which is where we came in, so the circle is now complete.


Wednesday, 7 October 2020

DO I WANT... a HMP Droid Gunship expansion pack?

I've already looked at the Xi Shuttle and LAAT Gunship from Wave 7 and now it's the turn of the HMP Gunship that's joining the Separatist arsenal.

It's not a ship that I know very well but that seems to be 100% because I haven't watched the Clone Wars cartoon series yet, and a lot of players have been looking forward to adding the iconic HMP to their squads.

But is the HMP any good?  Do you want to buy one?


PILOTS

When I looked at the Xi Shuttle and the LAAT Gunship expansions I started by trying to benchmark the basic cost of the chassis against some existing ships.  For the HMP gunship that approach is a bit less useful than it usually is because the ship is so unusual it doesn't have anything else that's a particularly great comparison.

Let's have a look at what it does compare to, but I don't want to spend too much time on it.

The HMP's 2/1/5/3 statline is identical to a Resistance Transport (32pts for a Logistics Division Pilot) and it's also very similar to the Y-Wing's 2/1/6/2 statline (30pts for a Gray Squadron Bomber or Crymorah Goon).  At 34pts for a basic Baktoid Drone the HMP Gunship is a little bit more than the obvious comparison ships, plus it's not like people were flying around with swarms of naked Logistic Pilots anyway so the HMP Gunship seems more expensive than stuff players already don't like.

However, the HMP Gunship has lots of built in advantages like a 180 degree firing arc and a ship ability in Networked Aim that's almost like bringing your own Fire Control System.  So we could take a basic Y-Wing and spend 2pts for a Dorsal Turret to get a 180 degree firing arc, and spend another 2pts on a Fire Control System (if we pretend there's a System slot on the Y-Wing) and you come out at the 34pts of the Baktoid Drone.

Hol up

So the basic 34pts kind of makes sense.  It feels like a lot but, similar to with the LAAT's expensive reroll ability, there's built-in advantages that you're having to pay for which justify it.

But you're never going to fly a HMP naked so it's all basically irrelevant.  You're pretty much guaranteed to add the Repulsorlift Stabilisers to every single HMP Gunship you play with and that's where the magic happens.  For +3pts the Repulsorlift Stabilisers add incredible value in changing how the HMP moves around the table and make the HMP Gunship a much harder ship to pursue and predict how it's going to move (there's more on this in the Upgrades section below).  But you're still only flinging 2 red dice, and the Separatists can buy a Vulture Droid for 20pts so you're almost certainly going to want to buff the HMP Gunships offense with some secondary weapons.

The Hyena Bomber set a standard for every pilot having different upgrade slots and while the HMP Gunship doesn't go to that extreme there is one pilot that is different to the others which is worth pulling out separately.  Most of the HMP pilots bring a Crew slot and a Device slot but the Geonosian Prototype eschews that slots in favour of two Cannon slots.  Now this might be a cynical exercise on FFG's part in justifying putting a cannon upgrade into the pack so players will have to buy it but it's also made the Geonosian Prototype probably the best of the HMP Gunship pilots.

A Geonosian Prototype (35pts) with those Repulsorlift Stabilisers and the new Synced Laser Cannons comes in at a smooth 44pts and now we can compare that to a different group of ships.

You're now in B-Wing with Fire Control System (44pts) territory but with the HMP Gunship being able strafe unpredictably and having a 180 degree firing arc (even if it's only 2 red dice outside of the main front arc it's more than a B-Wing gets).  Or alternatively you're in Auzituck Gunship (42pts) space with that 180 degree arc, but with the benefits of the Networked Aim and Repulsorlist movement to offset that the Auzituck is 3 red dice on all it's 180 degrees.  Neither of the comparisons are perfect - you don't get a 4th red dice at Range 1 with Synced Laser Cannons, but you are better at Range 3 if they don't get to roll an extra green dice - but I think you can see that the Geonosian Prototype sits pretty comfortably in that type of company even before you start to factor in the extra value of your unique strafing ability.  It's probably a good job that they're a ship you're only allowed 2 copies of because I can imagine a squad of 4 of these things would work really well - toss in some Shield Upgrades and bombs and you'd be good to go.

So I like the Geonosian Prototype a lot but that's because it gets a cannon.  None of the other HMP Gunships get a cannon slot so are they any good?  Well I think it immediately becomes more problematic because if you're using missiles instead of cannons then you're straying right into 'why I don't just play a Hyena Bomber and save 12pts' territory.  Networked Aim is less useful than the Hyena's and Vulture's Networked Calculations for borrowing in focus modification on weapons when you need a target lock to fire them.  The other HMP Gunships can use the new Multi-Missile Pods but currently they're way overcosted - compared to adding Synced Laser Cannons to a Geonosian Prototype you're paying more points to gain a lot less (no Range 3 attacks, draining two charges to roll 3 red dice in front arc).

Most of the HMP Gunship pilots don't actually make for good gunships, unfortunately.  That goes for the Baktoid Drone, the Separatist Predator, the Onderon Oppressor, DGS-047 and DGS-286 - there's a fundamental problem because you're squeezed between the high cost of Multi-Missile Pods and the sheer bargain efficiency the Hyena Bomber for doing much of the same thing if you're bringing missiles instead.  Thinking longer term I'd say the Baktoid Drone and DGS-047 are a nice and cheap basic chassis so down the line I think they'll do fine at some point.  I like the Onderon Oppressor's ability as it really opens up WAY more lateral movement and it could well be worth it, though +6pts on a Baktoid Drone seems a massive hike.  DGS-286 is +8pts on the Baktoid Drone and I can't see it justifying that expense when it's basically a reverse of DFS-311 which only costs a few points more than a basic Vulture.

But if the HMP Gunship isn't actually a great gunship I think it does have another role it CAN play very well.  The Repulsorlifts are good at keeping it out of trouble in a fight and it has a Tactical Relay slot and a Crew slot, so  I think the cheaper Gunship pilots make a good platform for a support ship and it's probably one of the cheapest ways to get a Tactical Relay onto the table (and keep it there) or be a shuttle for somebody like Count Dooku, Chancellor Palpatine or the new crew options coming in Jango Fett's Firespray.


UPGRADES

I touched briefly on how important I think Repulsorlift Stabilisers are for the HMP Gunship but didn't really go into much detail for why that is, so let's visit it again.  I've been on a bit of a journey in understanding why this upgrade is so good: at first I thought it was 'yeah it's ok I guess?' but then as I thought about it more I realised that actually banked strafing with the Repulsorlift wasn't actually very much different to using a turreted ship with the gun locked to the side - you orbit around the target facing your gun inwards with a HMP Gunship just like you might do with a Y-Wing's turret, for instance.  Repulsorlifts seemed like a bit of a gimmicky way of just operating like a turreted ship to keep people on target.

Then I realised what I was missing.  When a Y-Wing has it's turret to the side and wants to remain engaged it has to fly forwards and the range of options where it's going to end up is pretty small - a straight, a turn, a bank... they all put you in more or less the same place and the enemy can track towards you reliably.

The benefit of Repulsorlift Stabilisers is the much higher range of end positions you could be in.  Yes you could strafe to the right like a Y-Wing would bank but you can ALSO strafe to left, as though the Y-Wing had suddenly slammed itself into reverse.  And you can also still just move forwards (up to a 5 straight!) which could easily create bumps or see you scream clear of trouble.

It's much more challenging for enemy ships to predict where you are going to be while still staying engaged so the value of Repulsorlift Stabilisers is mostly defensive, I think - it makes the HMP Gunship a harder target to pin down and kill than something like a Y-Wing or B-Wing would be that has to keep moving forwards.

I've mentioned Synced Laser Cannons already but even with the requirement of two cannon slots there are a couple of other ships which can take it: B-Wings and IG-2000 Aggressors.  Both those ships have potential to 'double tap' and attack twice and the Synced Laser Cannons are the choice that is most like just firing your main gun again so it's an obvious choice.  I don't personally think the double-tapping stuff is really good right now but a lot of players like it and if you're one of those guys then you probably want to get your hands on these guns.

By crikey here's something that will make a lot of non-CIS players look at buying the HMP Gunship expansion, though: Concussion Bombs.  More charges than Proton Bombs, cheaper than Proton Bombs, deal crits through Shields unlike Proton Bombs... they're a serious step up for the dedicated bomb player and I think you'll see a lot of them about.  Concussion Bombs nay even be enough to hurl some new/old archetypes to the fore, like quad K-Wings, Y-Wing spam, TIE Strikers with bombs etc.  The restriction of having to drop them every turn is really flavourful and you can get around the biggest problems with it using Delayed Fuses.  All in all I really like Concussion Bombs and (currently) they're only in the HMP Gunship expansion.

We've touched on Multi-Missile Pods a little already so I won't linger: 8pts is too much for a R1-2 restricted weapon that burns through charges like they're going out of fashion.  At some point they'll get cheaper and be good, but I can't see them making much impact yet and outside of the obvious Droid carriers the Calculate/Target Lock restriction is really limiting.

The new Droid tactical relay is Kalani and it's... ok I guess?  My main problem with it is the competition from DRK-1 Probe Droids as another way of getting your Target Locks set up which doesn't depend on your opponents landing in your bullseye arcs.  This is where I get really hazy though as I'm not a natural Droid player and I'm probably not the best at evaluating a relay's usefulness.  One thing I'm sure about is that if you're not a Separatists player already Kalani isn't an incentive to buy this expansion!


CONCLUSION

At the start of the article I asked two questions: is the HMP Gunship good?  Do you want to buy one?

I think the HMP Gunship is actually pretty good despite it's steep starting cost but let's cut the chase: the HMP Gunships biggest problem is that the existing Droid options are so great that even if it's good the HMP struggles to compete and that colours a lot of the discussion around it.  If you're focused on winning games with Droids in the near future then the HMP Gunship is probably not good enough to shift Hyenas and Vultures (or Nantex) out of your squad.  

In isolation, though, I think the Geonosian Prototype build I talked about is a really solid and interesting pilot that you'll have a lot of fun playing around with and it may well fit very nicely with Tri-Fighters or Jango Fett once they land in the next month or two.  The dependency on cannons for the ship hurts all the other pilots but I can see them finding an unexpected home as a lone support ship for some powerful crew or tactical relays.

Do you want to buy this expansion pack?  If you're already a Droid player I think that answer depends on how experimental you want to be vs just trying to win at all costs.  Personally I've been really happy to grab two HMP Gunships to run the pair of Geonosian Prototypes and explore how they work.  I don't think they're top tier right now and I'd probably drop them for something else if a big tournament came around (which in Covid-19 times it never will) but they're good enough to justify playing and I'm looking forward to pairing them with dodgy Tri-Fighters and Jango Fett.  

If you're NOT a Droid player then I'd also say you could want this expansion for the Concussion Bombs, if you're that way inclined, and if that's true then the HMP Gunship could well be your foot in the door of starting a whole new faction.  Separatists squads are often quite 'swarmy' and that puts a lot of players off both for money reasons and simply having so many ships on the table at once.  The HMP Gunship, along with Tri-Fighter and Jango's Firespray, could mark the point where players start to make a more 'normal' squad in the faction and I think players who like B-Wings in particular could find themselves a big fan of the Geonosian Prototype's playstyle.