Tuesday, 22 March 2016

"There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?" - Jumpmaster, he's so hot right now

Wave 8 hasn't even been available for a full 7 days and already we are starting to get a pretty clear view of the impact it's going to have on the X-Wing metagame, with several Store Championships at the weekend falling to the new "Triple Jumpmaster" squad, which is based heavily on the new ships and upgrade cards of the latest wave of expansions.

I'm not one to be a Chicken Little 'the sky is falling' type when something big hits and shakes things up, but it's clear that the basic Jumpmaster 5000 is bringing something very powerful to the table for a very low points cost.  It's not immediately obvious to the casual observer quite why the basic Jumpmaster is so good, though, so in this blog I'm going to put forward my theory for what the Jumpmaster is doing that previous ships have not been able to do.

In short: the Jumpmaster 'solves' Ordnance.  Almost ever since the Core set was first released four years ago the history of X-Wing expansions has seen repeated attempts to try and 'buff' what was considered one of the weakest strategies in the game: disposable one-shot Torpedoes and Missiles.

Ordnance like Torpedoes & Missiles have perpetually been the poor relation of simply flying up behind somebody and shooting them with your blasters and laser cannons.  That they've spent so long as the whipping boy of X-Wing is testament to just how many little things were going against the humble Proton Torpedo in Core Set - little things that alone weren't a huge problem but added up to a powerful disincentive to run Ordnance.

One by one, the Jumpmaster 5000 ticks off every one of those weaknesses.

1) Torpedoes and Missiles are expensive

With most of the good Torpedoes and Missiles clocking in at 3 to 5 points for a single attack it's not cheap to add them to your ship.  This extra cost works against them being used by high cost 'aces' where you've already spent a bunch of points building a formidable high Pilot Skill ship.  Take Poe Dameron, for example - he usually clocks in at 35 points for a Poe Dameron with Veteran Instincts, Autothrusters, R5-P9.  Once you've already spent that many points on a couple of aces you're finding yourself squeezed for points.  If you had to make a decision between flying a strong 3rd ship or a weaker ship and giving Poe Dameron some Proton Torpedoes then the Torpedoes don't offer much extra punch than your ace was already bringing to the table.  As well as the cost issue a lot of expensive aces have already boosted their natural firepower, which devalues the Ordnance - by the time you've give Kath Scarlett the elite pilot talent Predator and a Gunner for her crew then she's already dealing a lot of damage with her primary weapons and a Concussion Missile doesn't add a whole lot extra.
The extension of this is that when Torpedoes and Missiles have managed to break into competitive lists they've usually proven most useful on cheap generic pilots, where they add a significant 'alpha strike' onto an otherwise expendable ship that didn't cost you much to put onto the table.  Adding one copy of Proton Torpedoes to Poe Dameron doesn't add much, adding five copies of Proton Rockets to five A-Wings is a whole different matter.

This shifts the focus for the Jumpmaster 5000 away from the exciting potential of Dengar and his Punishing One title and onto the humble Contracted Scout.  Fortunately, the Contracted Scout has one unique trait - it has an Elite Pilot Talent Slot.  

That's about to become extremely important...

2) Cheap generic pilots with low Pilot Skill struggle to Target Lock

Once you've accepted that Torpedoes and Missiles are most attractive for cheap low-PS pilots you immediately run into another problem.  Firing most of your Ordnance requires that you have a Target Lock on the ship you want to fire at, but when your low-PS pilots are moving first this is pretty difficult to do.  This is for two main reasons:
  1. Your opponent's ship may be out of range when you take your Target Lock action, then move into range later in the activation phase
  2. If your opponent's ship is in range when you take your Target Lock action then they might move out of your firing arc later in the activation phase

Basically, trying to Target Lock and fire Torpedoes with a low Pilot Skill ship is a bit of a lottery.

The A-Wing expansion pack in Wave 1 brought a solution to this in the shape of an Elite Pilot Talent that allowed you to fire your Torpedoes with a Focus token instead of a Target Lock: Deadeye.  Now a low pilot skill ship could simply stock a Focus token on their turn and then fire at anything that comes into range/arc.

The only problem with putting a fix for Ordnance onto a Elite Pilot Talent like Deadeye is... uh... that most of the ships that have a low pilot skill and need Deadeye don't have an Elite Pilot Talent slot to equip Deadeye with!  So although Deadeye has been in the game for over three years it's rarely used - until now it's been the sort of upgrade card you're more likely to use to prop up the leg of a wobbly table rather than actually playing with it on that table!

But remember, uniquely the Jumpmaster 5000's cheapest generic title has an Elite Pilot Talent slot.  Deadeye engaged, and a major problem in bringing Ordnance to cheap ships is overcome for the cost of just 1pt! 

3) Cheap missile-carrying ships are destroyed before they get to fire

When players have been able to field a squadron of cheap missile-carrying fighters the low pilot skill and lightweight scout ships they're attached to find themselves facing another problem.  A low pilot skill ship shoots late in the Combat Phase, and with only a few precious Shields/Hull on the likes of an A-Wing or Z-95 Headhunter there's a good chance that one or more of your missile boats will be destroyed before they ever get to deliver their pricey payload!

This is especially true if you've needed to have a Target Lock action, or need to preserve a Focus to fire your missiles - you'll be taking incoming fire from more powerful ships, and unable to modify your green dice to defend yourself.

This is another ticked box for the Jumpmaster 5000.  Yes it has 2 Agility to defend itself with, which is great for a Large ship, but it also has a hefty 9 Shields/Hull points.  A Jumpmaster 5000 can soak enough damage to destroy two A-Wings and still come out fighting on the other side.  If you load your Jumpmaster up with Torpedoes you can be confident that you'll actually get to fire them!

4) Torpedoes & Missiles can only be use once.  Miss and you've wasted points.

After the X-Wing Miniatures Game had been out for a couple of years it was becoming obvious that the Ordnance was still being ignored by most competitive players, and one of the reasons for this was that it was a still a one-shot weapon that was rather hit or miss.  As we'll see shortly, spending a Target Lock to fire was making the actual damage output of your Torpedo pretty random - you could roll four hits or four blanks with equal chance of each, as you couldn't reroll your dice.

FFG tackled this problem with upgrades not just once, but twice, trying to fix it and give players reassurance that their points spent on Ordnance were a safe investment.  In Wave 5 we got the Munitions Failsafe, a 1pt Modification that any ship could carry and which would give you a second chance of firing your Ordnance if the first attempt missed.

Munitions Failsafe was a step in the right direction but it didn't immediately bring Missiles and Torpedoes back, so in Wave 7 FFG returned to the theme by creating Extra Munitions - a Torpedo upgrade that doubled-down on any Torpedoes, Missiles or Bombs already equipped to your ship.  Extra Munitions was a much more comprehensive and powerful 'buff' to Ordnance than Munitions Failsafe, for several reasons:

1) Being able to fire twice and hit twice (with two Torpedoes) is better than having two chances to hit once (with a failsafe if the first shot misses).
2) Bringing in a second copy of existing Ordnance for just 2pts makes for better value for money.
3) Extra Munitions buffed Bombs as well as Torpedoes and Missiles.
4) It wasn't a Modification, so wasn't competing with other powerful upgrades like Engine Upgrade or Autothrusters

The only real drawback to Extra Munitions was that it required a second Ordnance slot to use, as you needed to equip a Torpedo to begin with before you could then load of the Extra Munitions into a second slot.

Do you know what ship has two Torpedo slots?  That's right, the Jumpmaster 5000.

5) Discarding your Target Lock to fire makes Ordnance deal less damage than just shooting your opponent with a Target Lock.

Throughout the entire history of X-Wing perhaps one factor has held back Ordnance more than any other - they simply don't deal that much extra damage over simply shooting at your opponent with your ship's primary weapons and using a Target Lock or Focus to modify your dice.

In fairness to them, FFG's design boffins have recognised this problem right from the very beginning - after all, they gave the Core set Proton Torpedoes the ability to flip a Focus into a Critical Hit to help - and it's something that they've returned to time and again over the history of the game.  Over the course of the 8 Waves of X-Wing we've seen incrementally more powerful and dangerous Torpedoes and Missiles drip-fed into the game to try and bribe players into taking the risk of playing them.

Wave 8 brings the latest step in that arms race, Guidance Chips, which significantly buff the damage output of all the existing Torpedoes and Missiles by removing a lot of that unpredictability of firing without a Target Lock or Focus to spend.  Yes, Guidance Chips are a Modification so they prevent you from playing popular upgrades like Stealth Device, Autothrusters, Engine Upgrade etc, but as we've already learned that Ordnance is best on stripped-down cost effective ships that's not much of a problem.  Guidance Chips offers a huge increase in the damage output of Torpedoes and Missiles for no cost, representing approximately a 30% increase in hits rolled.

So the Jumpmaster 5000 arrives at the same time as Guidance Chips, but anybody can equip a Modification so that's not something unique to this ship.  What the Jumpmaster also brings, though, is two slots to further upgrade your damage reliability with either Crew or a Salvaged Astromech, with R4-Agromech in particular combining perfectly with Deadeye.

The Finished Product

So in one little package the Jumpmaster 5000 solves pretty much everything that has been wrong with Ordnance and pulls together three years of buffs from across the Waves to be a powerful new threat.  For a default 33pts you can put a heavily-loaded Jumpmaster onto the table, and the really lovely thing about Jumpmaster's costing 33pts is that it means you can play three of them at once!

If you haven't played with/against this list already then you can expect to start seeing it soon because the triple Jumpmaster is hitting the Store Championship season running, already taking titles just 48 hours after Wave 8 was released.  Combining a tough ship with both Hull & Agility, a very strong maneuver dial with a white S-Loop, the flexibility of a large ship's Barrel Roll and now hard-hitting and easy-to-use Torpedoes for amazing damage output has catapulted the Jumpmaster to the front of the pack.

Is it unstoppable?  Is it too good?  

It's way too early to answer questions like that but what seems clear is that a lot of the current metagame is falling easy prey for the Torpedoes of the Jumpmaster.  The 'regen Rebels' like Poe Dameron and "Red Ace" simply can't handle the initial damage output of the Torpedoes and fold up - they'd much rather fight other small ships over a bunch of turns than take 12 red dice to the face from a salvo of rockets.  The Twin Laser Turrets of Y-Wings and K-Wings are consistent damage dealers but too slow to trade hits with the Jumpmaster - they'll be torpedoed down before they can combine their turrets to take out the Jumpmaster.  The type of upgrade-heavy lists that put 50pts+ into a single ship are offering the Jumpmasters a juicy target for them to nuke down.  All this means that the Jumpmasters aren't just a good idea waiting for the right time to shine - their time is now.

The metagame will respond to the new threat and search for answers.  Spreading your points across more ships in one option, as is turning extra-defensive and trying to 'tank' the damage from the Torpedoes.  If you can do that and get into a late game where the Jumpmasters are down to just their 2 red dice Turrets then they lose almost all their teeth... the trick is going to be getting there with enough of your squad left to mop up the weakened Jumpmasters as they try to run away.

I blogged a while back about the value of setting your opponent a new puzzle and that's what the Jumpmasters are.  For the first time since Core Set the Torpedoes are a real threat, with a suitably powerful ship to carry them into battle, it's not something that's really been part of the game before and it's going to challenge people to come up with new solutions.

The Jumpmasters are so hot right now.  What are you going to do about it?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

"In my experience there's no such thing as luck" - Variance, TIE Interceptors & Novak Djokovic

While X-Wing is definitely my current obsession t'was not always so, and in the past I've blogged and written about several other games, most notably Magic: The Gathering and Android: Netrunner.  Perhaps one of my very best blogs combined those two games to look at how Variance could be understood and tamed in card games, where 'luck of the draw' is a very real random factor.

Miniatures games like X-Wing have their own random factor in the form of dice and so today I want to look at how variance affects X-Wing, what you can do about it, and when you should be trying to add or remove luck from the game.

My revisiting the theme of variance, now with a dicey spin, was inspired by reading a recent frustrated post on Reddit from a player who had reached their wits end with the green dice...

Reddit user rubsnick rolled a bunch of green dice but got no Evades and lost the game.  Understandably frustrating but also, as I'm going to try and show, frustratingly understandable.

Variance 101

First off, I'm going to spend very very little time talking about 'luck' because we're better than that.  I don't turn up to my X-Wing tournament trailing a rabbit's foot and four-leafed clover after walking a half block around any black cats I see.  Hopefully you don't either, because we're all adults and we understand that luck is out of our control.

I'm not going to talk about luck at all, instead I'm going to talk about variance because to a certain degree variance is within our control.  Even though variance in X-Wing is almost always in the form of raw dice roll we have a say in how much variance we invite into our games, when we invite it and how we prepare for the positive/negative outcomes of that variance.

Let's start with a really simple example (that, handily, rlates to rubsnick's case): the survivability of a Tie Interceptor vs a B-Wing

If you shoot at a focused B-Wing with 3 red focused dice, with their 1 Agility but 8 Hull/Shields then you're going to destroy them in 4.9 shots.  If you shoot at a focused TIE Interceptor with the same 3 red dice, with their 3 Agility but only 3 Hull then you're going to destroy them in 4.7 shots.  Although the two ships you're shooting at are VERY different in terms of how they defend themselves they're actually very similar overall in how long it will take you to kill them.  On average.

They key there is the 'on average' part.  What's actually happening is that Variance plays a large part in how that 'average' of 4.7/4.9 turns actually works out in reality.

A TIE Interceptor's defense is based heavily on its ability to roll Evades with the 3 green dice it has at its disposal, because in a worst case scenario the measly 3 Hull it has can be wiped out in a single shot!  Fortunately the green dice mean that on any single shot the TIE Interceptor is actually odds-on to avoid taking any damage at all, with a 54% chance to dodge all incoming hits!

The B-Wing rolls fewer green dice in its defense and so much less Variance is introduced into the equation of how long the B-Wing is going to stay on the table.  Unable to throw many Evades in its defense the damage piles up at a very steady 1 to 2 per shot until the B-Wing is finally put out of its misery.

If you look at the shot-by-shot survivability of the two ships then the impact of variance is made very clear.  Right from the very first round of shooting there's a chance that the flimsy TIE Interceptor could roll a bunch of blank green dice against a bunch of hits and explode immediately.  Yes, it's only a 2% chance but it's a chance that the B-Wing isn't taking.  With 8 Hull/Shields and only 3 red dice against it then the B-Wing knows with utter certainty that it can ride out at least two shots with 0% chance of exploding.

If that sounds bad for the TIE Interceptor then it gets worse, because by the third shot there's a whopping 32% chance that the Interceptor will be toast, while the B-Wing is still rumbling along with only a 4% chance that it's taken 8 damage from the 9 red dice thrown its way.

4% vs 32%  

It's a huge difference in the performance of these two ships who are, on the face of it, taking the same number of shots 'on average'!

So far the increased Variance of the TIE Interceptor's defences have been working against it but over the next three turns the situation flips on its head.  The steady rate of damage that's accumulated by the low Agility ship starts to catch up to the B-Wing, and in fact 83% of all B-Wings will be destroyed in 4 to 6 shots!  Meanwhile any TIE Interceptors still standing after the first few turns still have a 54% chance of dodging all damage from incoming shots.

After 6 rounds of shooting only 13% of B-Wings are left on the table, while you've a 26% chance that your TIE Interceptor is still flying.  Virtually no B-Wing will survive 8 shots, while even out at 10,11,12 shots there are TIE Interceptors that are still refusing to die and rolling multiple Evades every turn.

And that, in a nutshell, is how variance affects X-Wing.  'Slow & steady' won't necessarily win the race, but it at least guarantees that you're in the race for a decent amount of time.  u/rubsnick, however, was running TIE Interceptors whose performance, as we've seen, is less reliable - they can be superstar dodgers one game and little more than shiny pinatas in the next.  He'd built his squad to try and minimise this risk by playing Stealth Device to add an extra defense, and by stacking Evade tokens whenever possible, but underlying all that was a dependence on the green dice to keep his ship on the board.

Embracing Variance

The root of rubsnick frustration isn't just that the TIE Interceptors were bringing variance into his games, it appears.  Rather it seems like it was bringing variance that he wasn't really psychologically prepared for, and when it went against him he felt betrayed by his dice and the game.

Firstly, this isn't a particular failing of his because it's human nature that we will often ignore the moments where luck went our way but we'll remember the times when it went against us.  This is how memories are formed, ultimately: bad memories stick better than good memories (it's known as Negativity Bias, and its a pretty well-researched psychological effect).  

When rubsnick rolled his blank green dice he suffered a very strong negative emotional response to watching Soontir Fel explode, but if you asked him I doubt he could clearly recall any detailed incidences where the opposite had happened and he had rolled nothing but Evades against several incoming shots.  Statistically speaking it must have happened at some point, but it won't have stuck in rubsnick's memory in the same way.  

This is entirely human.  We tend to class the moments of good variance as 'business as usual' or attribute the success to our own good judgement - "of course I rolled 4 Evades, I picked a ship with high Agility and used a Focus token".  But when that same variance that we invited into the game goes against us we will usually externalise the blame so that it's not our fault "the dice were terrible for me today, I'm so unlucky".  

When we win it's because we were good, when we lose it's because we were unlucky... if we're honest with ourselves then we've probably all been there and thought that way.  It's just our ego playing tricks on us, though, and when you go with a high variance strategy you need to be more phlegmatic and adopt a win some/lose some attitude.

You need this attitude because playing a high variance strategy, when you're not ready for the consequences of that, is only going to piss you off.  This is what happened to rubsnick.

A Magical Anecdote

In my past life as a Coverage writer for Magic: The Gathering I was privileged to get to know many of the best Magic players to have ever played the game, and one of the first things that struck me was how well they handled defeat.  The best players trusted their ability and understood that in the long run they'd still come out ahead, so on the days when variance had gone against them and they'd gone 0-3 and dropped out of the tournament they would just shrug their shoulders and get ready for the next one.  Eventual success was almost guaranteed, they just couldn't predict when that success would come because variance would always play a part.

This attitude came in sharp contrast to the attitude that I'd seen in players a level or two below the best players, and in sharp contrast to my own attitude when I was playing.  For many players like that the desire to prove that you are good enough to win something can remove that healthy perspective on the impact of variance.  When a day lost to variance that should be "oh well, maybe next time" becomes "it should have been last time" then you are on the path to the dark side.

At the same Grand Prix that Raphael Levy (one of the all-time Magic greats) had done terribly but dropped out with a smile on his face I interviewed a Belgian player called Geoffrey Siron.  He looked me right in the eye and said that his recent Pro Tour win had vindicated him, and now that he knew he was good enough he entered every tournament expecting to win it.  There was no room for variance in Geoffrey's worldview - he took victory personally, and he took defeat personally too.  Geoffrey Siron was finished with the game a year later, chewed up by not being able to replicate his success, while a decade later Raphael Levy is still losing in major tournaments... and winning in others.

Why Variance Can Be Your Friend

So if playing a high variance strategy is frequently a one-way ticket to bitterness and bad times then why would you ever do it?

The answer is because high variance strategies, when the variance goes your way, will enable you to overperform the low variance strategies who are sticking closer to the average outcomes.  Yes, there will be a bunch of times when variance is either against you or roughly evens out to neither good or bad, but sometimes it's going to be overwhelmingly in your favour.  It's those overperforming occasions that you're really in the high variance pool for, and that you would choose to play this way then comes down to a meta decision with a number of other factors:

What does success look like to you?
What is the prize structure (if any)?
How good are you?
How many chances do you have?

I've put these questions in roughly the order that I think you would approach them, so let's go through one by one.

1) What does success look like to you?

This one is multifaceted and is really asking what you want to get out of playing X-Wing at this particular time.  If you're playing casually and just want to have a good entertaining game where the best pilot wins then variance is not your friend because both extremes of variance will destroy this casual gaming experience.  The game where your opponent flies very well but simply can't beat your dice rolling is not an enjoyable game for him, and neither is the game where your ships explode at the first touch.  Sure, a lot of the time variance won't be working to those extremes, but some of the time it will and those games will suck.

To my mind the high variance strategies are often about embracing a very cold-blooded mindset that you really care most about winning, and not just winning more than they lose but winning EVERYTHING.  It works best for players who understand that they've taken a gamble of poor performance in a trade-off to try and achieve a strong performance, either that or you're so casual in your approach that you're happy to play X-Wing even if your ships die right away!

2) What is the prize structure (if any)?

Pursuing a high variance strategy is usually about attempting to maximise your chances of being 'lucky' because the rewards are distributed most heavily towards the top few (or top one!) positions.  

If you're in a 10-man tournament with some cool token prizes for the Top 8 and nothing else then there's virtually zero incentive to play high variance - all you're doing is increasing your chances of bad variance making you one of the two people who miss out on the Top 8 prize!  If, however, you're in a Nationals tournament with 200 players and the winner gets a flight to the World Championships while second place gets little more than a hearty handshake... then variance starts to look a lot more attractive.  

If you're really committed to winning, and winning means finishing 1st out of 200 people then an attitude of "if you ain't first, you're last" makes it sound like time to line that variance up and go for broke. 

3) How good are you?

This may require some real soul-searching but it's an important factor.  Choosing high variance is about trying to OVERperform for your skill level.  If you're already one of the best players in the room then you may not need to overperform, you just need to avoid UNDERperforming.  At that point the addition of variance is indesirable.

When I try and explain variance to non-gamers I often use a Tennis example.  It's great at illustrating how the difference skill between you and your opponent will change your decision so I'm going to wheel it out again...

You're a pretty good tennis player.  You're a member of a club and you've played in a few local competitions.  You're never going to turn pro, but you know your way around the court.  Although you're pretty average overall you've got one great weapon up your sleeve - god damn, but you've one hell of a serve! 

You smash that thing down the court so fast that the other guy has almost no chance of even getting a racquet on it!  The only trouble is that your big serve is also pretty wild, and like half the time you're double-faulting like crazy, then other matches you're lasering it down the line like an unbeatable end of level boss.  The rest of your tennis game is actually pretty average, but that big serve has dragged you through some games you know you should have lost.

There's a tennis competition in town, and it's big money.  You play just one point against your opponent and if you win the point then you get $10,000!  For just one point!  That's crazy.  So you go along and, lucky you, you're get picked to go up and play and take your shot at that $10,000.  

Now you're on the baseline and about to serve.  Win this one point and it's $10,000 in the bank, lose and you get nothing.  

So... do you serve big, or you do you play it safe?

The correct answer is that I've not given you all the information that you need to decide, because I've not told you who you have to score a point against for the $10,000.  And who that is will decide what you do.

Scenario A: it's a big Nike endorsement event and they've got Novak Djokovic on court.  You need to score a point against the best player in the world.

Scenario B: it's a TV show where they're trying to give money away for publicity, and all you have to do is score a point against sometime comic Jack Black.

So let's try it again... do you serve big, or do you play it safe?

Well by now it's hopefully obvious that your big serve is a high variance option - when you slam that ball you've no idea if it's going to be in or out, but you know they can't return it so skill is almost entirely removed from the equation.  

The answer is that in Scenario A you hit that ball as hard as you possibly can.  Yeah it could go wide but if you connect with it right then even Novak Djokovic has no chance of returning it and you can sleep on a pile of money that night.  A safe serve would definitely be in, but then Djokovic will almost certainly tear you apart if you actually have a rally with him so that's not an option.

In Scenario B the chances are that you're a better tennis player than Jack Black so you don't need the big serve, and in fact it represents an unnecessary risk.  Just get the ball onto the court and even if he manages to return it over the net you should be able to beat him for a point in a rally.

4) How Many Chances Do You Have?

If a high variance approach is 'gambling' on getting a good result, then how many times are you going to get to take that gamble if you only need it to pay off once?  

The current Store Championship season is a good example of this... if you can only make it to one Store Championship then there's a bit more on the line if you choose to play high variance, as if you crap out then it was your one shot.  But if you're going to five Store Championships then you've a good chance that variance will go your way in at least one of those events, which might be a significant helping hand in bringing home a plaque and some bragging rights.

More chances at success mean you've more chances of a high variance strategy delivering an overperformance at least once.  Fewer chances make it more of a risk to put so much to the roll of a dice.

Controlling Variance

So hopefully by now you've got a good idea of what Variance means in X-Wing, and when you should try and use it to your advantage or try and minimise its influence.

What we've not really looked at is how you can actually control the amount of variance either way.  In some games this can be quite hard to work out, but in X-Wing there's a pretty good rule of thumb to remember:
  • If MORE dice are being rolled then you are increasing variance.
  • If LESS dice are being rolled, or you can modify/reroll the results of those dice, then you are reducing variance.

When you look at how players are building their squads it's clear that the cards which reduce variance are valued much more than those that increase it, but I'll have a quick look at both, if only because some of the examples are really interesting examples of why one upgrade is played much more often than the other.

High Variance
  • High Agility/Low Hull ships
  • 'Swarm' tactics
  • 'Alpha Strike' tactics using a lot of one-shot Ordnance
  • Stealth Device
  • Lando Calrissian
  • R2-D2 (Crew)
  • Ion Projector

Low Variance
  • High Hull/Low Agility ships
  • Emperor Palpatine
  • Predator & Gunner
  • Darth Vader
  • C-3P0
  • Twin Laser Turret
  • Autothrusters

There's some interesting comparisons there that I'd want to highlight, C-3P0 being one of them.

The popular C-3P0 crew card is basically asking you to gamble on a dice roll, which is surely adding variance not taking it away?  Well, yes that's true but what players are actually doing is using C-3P0 to remove variance from ships with 1 Agility by always gambling on 0 Evades being rolled.  So where you'd normally roll your green dice and be uncertain of getting an Evade you now now that you're either going to roll an Evade, or roll 0 Evades, and so get to add an Evade.

Lando Calrissian, on the other hand, will almost never be played despite the fact that in the long run he's going to be more effective than making a Focus action every turn (you've got two 5:8 chances of getting a Focus or Evade, so on average you'll get 1.2 Focus/Evade tokens each turn).  This is because you can't rely on the variance going your way when you need it to and 3pts is a lot to invest on that incertainty... especially when those same 3pts can be invested in the certainty of C-3P0!

And let's look at the specific of rubsnick's situation and his TIE Interceptor.  He didn't just take a blank Soontir Fel into the tournament, he had already tried very hard to reduce variance.
  • Stealth Device - adding Agility doesn't reduce variance, but it stacks the odds in your favour
  • Push The Limit - for either maneuvering to avoid rolling defense dice at all, or for stacking Focus and Evade tokens to reduce variance
  • Autothrusters - for adding free Evade results, reducing variance
  • Emperor Palpatine - nearby on his Lambda Shuttle, the Emperor is the ultimate Variance reducer

In fact rubsnick had worked very hard to reduce the variance involved in keeping Soontir Fel alive.  He'd ensured that he would be ok in pretty much any scenario other than rolling all blank dice.  But that still left a variance window for the odds of rolling all blank dice - a small window, but a window.  The mistake and frustration stems from thinking that shrinking the chances of something bad happening is the same as eliminating the chances of something bad happening.  The real extremes of bad variance are still there, and even with all those tricks added... sometimes a TIE Interceptor is still just a TIE Interceptor and will explode when a B-Wing would not.


I started this by picking out a post by a single person, but really this isn't about rubsnick because I think these are issues that we all face.  X-Wing is a dice-rolling game, and however much you can spec your squad out to fix the odds of that dice-rolling in your favour with Upgrades and Crew and pilot abilities... sometimes the dice will be bad and you'll lose.  It doesn't need to be about green dice, it could be about endless blank red dice.

Variance is ever-present in X-Wing.  So the lessons about being psychologically prepared for when that variance goes against you are valuable for everyone.

But the extent that you rely on variance is something that you can control.  You can play Interceptors or you can play B-Wings, and whichever you choose you'll have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.  If you don't appreciate both sides of the decisions that you make then it leads to frustration and anger.  

That's the dark side.  Don't do that.

When you pick Interceptors understand that you'll win 100-0 one match and lose 0-100 the next, and sometimes that will be out of your control.  And when you suffer the 0-100 you have to take a deep breath, count to ten, and remember that it's also part of why you went 100-0 before.  And if you're a weaker player then maybe a run of hot dice will take down a better player.

When you pick B-Wings those 100-0 wins are harder to get because your low-variance ships all have a pretty well-defined lifespan, and some of them aren't going to make it out the other side.  But equally, the 0-100 defeats are less likely, and if you're a better player then there's more chance that you'll be given the chance for superior play to carry the day for you without your dice crapping out from under you.

And me?  Two years ago I played in a Magic tournament where I had no knowledge of ANY of the cards in my deck, let alone the cards in my opponents decks.  I was the least prepared player in the room and by all rights I should have finished dead last, but instead out of nearly 1,500 players I finished in the top 100 and won $250.  Because I embraced Variance.  I asked myself what success looked like and I looked at what the prize structure was, I understood that I was an underdog in the tournament, and even though I only had once chance at the risky play, it was probably my only chance.  Know when variance is right for you and you can reap the rewards.

Monday, 7 March 2016

"You Came Here In That Thing?" - The Value of Surprise

I knew what this blog was going to be about a couple of weeks ago, because I played a second Store Championships this past weekend so it was going to be a report about that.  I was going to talk about how I'd switched sides from Rebels to Imperials.  I was going to talk about how much I loved Soontir Fel and the annoying Omega Leader.  I was going to talk about making a tough decision between Whisper and Darth Vader for the final slot on my team.

That was the plan.  In actual fact I played so badly at the Store Championship that I walked out after two rounds to avoid doing any more damage to my ego, so I could go home early and play Fallout 4 instead.  Then my train home set on fire.  It was that kind of day.

But out of the ruins of a Saturday morning I will rescue a blog about something else, have no fear!


I've been watching a lot of the results come in from Store Championships around the world and one of the things that has most struck me is how varied the winners are.  Coming from a background in card games where it's common to see a particular deck type really take off and dominant a season there's not really been much evidence of that, with odd and surprising decks picking up wins all over the place.

I think there's a reason for that.  When you present your opponent with a new puzzle that they've not seen before you give them an opportunity to make a mistake, and X-Wing is the type of game where a single mistake can rapidly snowball into a major problem.

This is the squad that my first round opponent played against me at the Store Championship this weekend.  A Scum list with Kath Scarlett carrying Conner Nets and an odd supporting Hounds Tooth build from Latts Razzi.  Now I'm fairly new to the game so perhaps it blindsided me more than it would most other players, but this was absolutely something I'd not faced before and it gave me plenty of opportunities to screw up.

I think I took all of them.

Before the game even started I was looking here at a list that I'd not faced before and a lot of cards that I'd not faced before (Latts Razzi and Conner Net the most important gamechangers I'd no experience of), so I needed to decide very carefully how to face it.  

My thought process was:
  • He's playing bombs.  Haha, what a noob!  (I know, right?  I was being a complete tool and making stupid snap judgements)
  • He's wearing a wacky pirate's hat.  Haha, what a casual noob.  (It gets worse - I think I'd begun method-acting the arrogance of an Imperial officer.  In my defense, my Magic record against 'guys in wacky hats' is like 23-0)
  • I've played against a Hound's Tooth before and won easily, I know I can get behind it and stay there.  Not worried about that.
  • Kath Scarlett is pretty good with her extra dice, though, so I'll need to take her seriously and she's the main threat.  
  • The Plan: I kill Kath first, then mopping up the Hound's Tooth will be easy.

An excellent plan, with only two minor drawbacks:
1) It's shit.
2) It's shit.

Threat Analysis:  With Gunner and Bossk on board the Hound's Tooth is absolutely the big threat - that's where the damage lies and I need to get it off the table.  Yes Kath is a problem but she's much MORE of a problem when Latts Razzi is flying around sucking Agility off my ships whenever she fires at them.  

Strategy: I dealt with the last Hound's Tooth I flew against precisely because I recognised it was a massive threat and got behind it all game.  So WTF was I thinking in going after Kath and thus sitting in front of the Hound's Tooth?  Worse still, with her rear arc and Conner Nets I'm far FAR happier forcing Kath to chase after me than I am chasing after her.

Basically, the whole thing was fucked from the get go.  I set my ships up on the wrong side of the table to go after Kath, I didn't understand how Conner Nets worked so got annihilated by them (I thought they dropped before he moved, not as an action), and I utterly underestimated how good Latts Razzi was vs my team and got Soontir Fel one-shotted by Kath's rear arc.  By the time I'd actually woken up to the fact I was in a real game I was flying Omega Leader alone against his entire team!

You know how in The Empire Strikes Back there's that bit where the Rebels are fleeing Hoth and the first transport takes off?  There's a Star Destroyer waiting and the Captain arrogantly sneers "Good, our first catch of the day"... and then a couple of Ion Cannon shots leave him looking like a tool as the transport flies past unharmed?

I got what I deserved.


So, let's back up away from that startlingly bad bit of play on my part to a more general point.

That entire disaster began when I lined up against a puzzle I'd not seen before.  I could have judged it correctly and won, but my opponent simply asking the question gave me the opportunity to get it wrong.  By contrast, when I line up vs many of the more common lists or stock ships and aces, like "Super Dash" a Stressbot or the Palpmobile, then I know exactly what I need to do - half the battle is won before I even get onto the table.  I've practised for this.  I know where you threat is, and I know where you weak point is (FYI: it's a small exhaust port, just above the main port).

So is all this wonderful hippy 'value of surprise' thing a license for you to play whatever you want and rely on puzzling your opponent to give you an advantage?  

Well, no, I don't think it is.

I think I did my opponent a serious disservice when I underestimated him due to his use of less popular cards.  I also think it would be doing him another disservice to say that he'd just picked his list at random.  I'm sure that's not true - I'm sure he had worked out a list and knew how the pieces fit together, how they could be used against various opponents.  

He didn't just have 100pts of lucky dip, he had a plan.  And that's essential.

Setting an opponent a puzzle they've not seen before is pretty easy, just throw upgrades and ships onto the table in a random fashion.  It's a new puzzle, yes, but there's probably a really good chance that it's an easy puzzle to solves because the pieces haven't been thought through properly.  Setting a puzzle that's tough to solve is a harder challenge.  It comes from playing with the fringe cards that others don't use and getting to know them, to understand what they're good at and what they're bad at.  It probably comes from being prepared to lose a bunch of games while you work out how the puzzle fits together and how to add mutliple layers.  It probably also comes from being prepared to lose a bunch more games against 'best lists' in order to ensure that you can benefit from their confusion.

But the end result, if you can do all that, is something that can generate a very real advantage, and can absolutely win games.

I lost my first round of the Store Championship before even a single ship had been placed on the battlefield because I couldn't unpick the riddle.  That's the reward for the hard work, and you can see from tournaments all over the world that it's a reward that is frequently paying off.  If all you're going to do is follow the herd and play it safe then yes, you'll rarely be behind the curve, but there's definitely rewards for those who can get ahead of it.

And me?  I'm making a mental note to set down the Autothrusters and Soontir Fels to run some Conner Nets and Advanced Homing Missiles for a change instead.  I've been playing this game for far too little time to be limiting myself to following the herd.  

It's time to set some puzzles of my own...

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

No Strategy, Just Showing Off - my X-Wing repaints

I've been throwing down some pretty heavy duty blogs of late, looking at the basics of X-Wing dice.

I've been exiled to card games for the past 20 years, but way, way back in my misspent childhood I was deep into minatures gaming, Games Workshop specifically, and spent many an hour painting my armies for battle.  I was never as good as my brother, who has some fantastic White Dwarf-ready paint jobs to his credit, but I at least knew one end of a brush from the other.

After shuffling for 20 years, X-Wing has reawakened this latent painting gene once more, and I've been enjoying the quiet calm of the painter's table. Yes, this blog casts me as something like the Family Guy 'look at my kids' guy, but this is my blog so I'm going to do it anyway.

I started with probably the most common X-Wing repaint: Poe Dameron.  I'd seen so many of these repaints on Reddit that when I went to my Store Championships I was genuinely amazed that I was the only person in the room flying a black T-70!  

 I followed Poe up with subtle repaints of two other T-70s to complete my Triple-X squadron of "Blue Ace" and "Red Ace".  If anything these repaints were too subtle, as although virtually the entire models are repainted you can't really tell unless you put them side by side with a T-70 fresh out of the box.  When you do so it;s obvious that there's a lot more contrast in the repainted ones, and more detail, but it's easy to miss.

Then I started flirting with using Wedge Antilles so I decided to spruce up one of the original T-65 X-Wings.  This time I went for a dirtier & more battle-worn approach, and I also wanted to lighten the ship up a lot to make it stand out from my T-70s.

With my X-Wing squadron complete I turned my attention to twin projects - converting some of my spare Imperial ships to fit the First Order colour scheme as I like the TIE/fo fighter a lot, and going a bit off-piste with my YT-2400.  

So far the paint schemes I've done have been adhering really closely to the films, and they'd all been small ships as well.  I really wanted to tackle something bigger, and also to try something a bit more creative, but I was too attached the Millenium Falcon to dare that for my YT-1300, same for Slave I or the Lambda Shuttle.  Converting the YT-2400 was the perfect middle ground so I decided to just plunge in without really planning anything through.

I went for painting irregularly by segments, I liked the white but that brown was supposed to be more yellow than that.

I went away and bought a yellow paint, and this is partway through covering over the brown undercoat.

With the yellow blocked in I started paying more attention to getting the lines between panels nice and crisp.

Back half of the ship painted up as well, now, and details of engines & guns painted in metallic paints.
While busy working through my YT-2400 I pressed on with some Imperial fighters at the same time, first with a First Order makeover for Soontir Fel, here before and after I added a grey 'bloodstripe'.  I felt like a red stripe would stand out too much against the monochrome First Order colour scheme so went for grey, and I'm happy with that.  

One of the trickiest parts of the First Order repaints are that the white solar panels aren't actually white on the TIE/fos, they're like a light grey and darker around the edges of the panels - matching close to that was pretty tough,

Next up was the inevitable TIE Phantom repaint.  There are so many AMAZING TIE Phantom repaints around, with the arcing blue lightning effect, that I just wanted to avoid any direct comparison and try to make mine look a bit different.  I went for a patchy cloak/decloak effect rather than the 'Stargate' style straight line that I see a lot of people use, and I also toned the colour down to a deep red/purple.  I'm pretty happy with the outcome, actually.

One thing I tried that was a bit different is that I decided to use a gloss varnish over the cloaked sections, which makes it very obvious that something is different when you look at the model.  It didn't come out in those pics above, but this next one shows it off a lot.

And in the background?  Yep, I'm still working on the YT-2400, and now painting up a TIE Advanced to join my First Order fleet.  A painter's life is never done!