Friday, 6 May 2016

"I've got a bad feeling about this" - Phantoms, Punishers and Ion Bombs? Oh my!

So a few blogs ago, after being roundly defeated by an unexpected Scum list and a wacky pirate hat, I made a commitment that I was going to try and set my opponents some new puzzles they might not have seen before.  Then said not one more word about it while I blogged about Jumpmasters, IDs and metagames.

So what have I been up to in the meantime?

Well in truth there's probably been two clearly distinct strands to my X-Wing play in the last two months.  On the one hand I've somehow managed to talk my way into the middle of a group of strong players all preparing for Regionals and what looks like it could be the biggest X-Wing tournament of all time (a 500-player Yavin Open in June).  On the other hand I've also been true to my word of experimenting when I get the chance, and giving less popular ships a run out to try and make my opponents worry about something new.

And sometimes, just a little, those two strands have crossed over, and through experimenting I've hit on an idea that either I or a friend has taken into their thoughts for Regionals.

I'm going to save my Regionals 'taking it all a bit seriously' blog for another time, not because I'm precious about protecting what I'm playing but because it's all going to sound a bit like hard work not fun, so instead I'm going to blog about the roundabout way in which I've landed on a squad of previously unloved ships that I've actually enjoyed playing recently.


Wind back to long before I made the commitment to experiment more, and I had already discovered that I really enjoyed playing with TIE Phantoms - whizzing around the board with Whisper was a ton of fun and I enjoyed the 'stealth' aspect of outhinking and flanking opponents.  Trying to be a smart alec for fun and profit?  Where do I sign?!?  So when I was starting from a blank slate of what I should play there was an obvious candidate... I wanted to put a TIE Phantom onto the table again, but if I was committed to doing something different than it couldn't be Whisper, it would have to be Echo.

The other ship I wanted to fly, for literally no better reason than that I'd just finished painting the model, was Kath Scarlett's Firespray.  Now the Imperial Kath has a slightly different ability to the popular Scum version, handing out stress for cancelled Criticals.  So what if I paired her with a Tactician and Mangler Cannon as a sort of 'Imperial Stressbot', and then flew Echo with Tactician as well in the Phantom's crew slot?  I managed to squeeze a humble Academy Pilot into the list as well and flew this for a few games, where I really learned three things:

1) Academy Pilots can do a ton of work when they get left alone to focus on bigger targets

2) Firesprays don't last very long when you force your opponent to shoot at them

3) I  $@#&ing LOVE Echo!

Seriously, that one point of Pilot Skill aside. Echo is so so SO much better than Whisper.  Until I put Echo onto the table I simply hadn't appreciated how transformational his pilot ability was for how you can play him, and how much it messes with your opponent's thinking.  Do you decloak forwards to the left then throw a hard 1 to the right?  Do you decloak off to your right then pull a hard 3 to the left?  And a personal favourite (and great to manage the range with Tactician) do you decloak away from the opponent than pull a hard 1 back towards them, swinging your arc but barely moving your ship?

It was carnage - the rest of my list was flimsy but Echo alone murdered three Jumpmasters with ease and took only a single Shield of damage back, constantly dancing out of arc - stinging like a hornet then disappearing, only to flit back into view at range one and out of arc.  

Pew pew pew!  *HIDE*  Pew pew pew!  

It's literally the most fun ever.

Since then Echo has found his way into a bunch of different 'casual' lists of mine alongside other ships as I've experimented with new Decimator builds or even considered fielding a couple of Lambda Shuttles.  Echo's power is clear and with the Wave 8 metagame moving the pilot skill race back down to PS8 recently I've not been surprised to see Echo starting to appear in a number of extremely successful squad lists in the Regionals season.

...and The Beast

So if Echo is an example of a pilot who I stumbled upon because I knew I wanted to play a TIE Phantom then what I've ended up pairing him up with is a whole other kettle of fish.  It's pretty much literally the ships I wanted to fly the least.  In fact ships I wanted to fly so little that I didn't even own them!

Part of the 'serious Regionals testing' side of my playtime over the last few months has been dedicated to working out just how good the Triple Jumpmaster list actually is.  That's meant purchasing three Jumpmasters, but it's also meant accruing all the various upgrade cards and equipment needed as well - Deadeyes, Guidance Chips, Plasma Torpedoes, that sort of thing.  

And Extra Munitions, which turned out to be the tricky one.

Extra Munitions only comes in two expansion packs - the K-Wing pack, which I had already bought for the Twin Laser Turrets, and the TIE Punisher.  So, sucking it up I bought a TIE Punisher, ripped the Extra Munitions out of it and left everything else still intact in the packaging on a dusty shelf in my spare room.  If this was Toy Story 2 then the TIE Punisher was the pristine prospector Stinky Pete in his box, certainly no well-loved Woody or Buzz (that would be the T-70 and new fangled Jumpmaster).  Not even Mr Potato Head (probably a Y-Wing).

Fast forward a month or so from there and my local FLGS Fanboy 3 was hosting a Spring Kit tournament where they waived the entry fee if you purchased a ship.  Ok, nice deal, I like it and I'm happy to oblige by expanding my fleet.  There's not much I need right now but with Imperial Veterans on the horizon I decided to begin stocking up on TIE Bombers and picked one up.

Great, so now I've got TWO heavy TIEs that I've no intention of using any time soon...

"Target Locks & The Three Bears"
(aka. Daddy TIE, Mummy TIE, and Baby TIE)

TIE Punisher - "Redline"
Plasma Torpedoes, Ion Bombs, Extra Munitions, Guidance Chips

TIE Bomber - Gamma Squadron Pilot
Proton Torpedoes, Extra Munitions, Guidance Chips

TIE Phantom - "Echo"
Veteran Instincts, Fire Control System, Recon Specialist, Advanced Cloaking Device

Total: 98 Points

I've only played a few games with this list but I've won them all pretty handily.  And more than that I'm beginning to develop a feel for whether the games I win are down to my opponent's list being bad or my list being good... and so far this has felt a lot like a good list.  

Most importantly all the pieces fit together and make sense as a tactical whole.  When you play a TIE Phantom like Echo or Whisper what you typically need is an 'anchor' for your squad that will keep the opponent occupied while your Phantom nips round the flanks, it's one good reason why you most commonly see the Phantom teaming up with a Decimator like Rear Admiral Chiraneau.  You need to strike a neat balance with something that the opponent can't ignore to focus on your Phantom, but which will also be able to cling on in the game long enough for your Phantom to get a few shots in.

For the Imperial forces of flimsy shieldless TIE Fighters there are precious few options for striking that balance.  I think this squad strikes it, though.  A combined 15 health on the TIE Bomber and Punisher are equivalent to the 16 health of a Decimator, and with a stash of the new improved Ordnance the TIEs are actually a much bigger damage threat than Chiraneau!  If you dare to ignore the Bomber and Punisher to chase Echo then I'm happy to unload my Torpedoes into you, but if you decide to take the heavy stuff down first then they're still dangerous - happy to target lock one turn then K-Turn and fire the next - and it gives Echo the chance to get behind you and start rolling 5 dice attacks at Range 1.  

Rock & Hard Place - a proven X-Wing strategy!

The individual loadouts on the ships all make sense as well.  Although I introduced myself to Echo with Tactician as part of a Stress build I've long since switched to Recon Specialist for the extra punch it gives to the Phantom, being able to attack with 4 focused dice then evade with 4 focused dice as well, or simply hiding from multiple incoming shots with a second focus!

In the TIE Punisher "Redline" is a pilot that, to be honest, I'd never even properly stopped to read before.  As soon as I did read him though the first I thought was "oh, he's kind of got a free Deadeye/R4 Agromech combo.  That's awesome with Ordnance", so I kitted him out as much as possible like the successful Contracted Scout builds.  The cheaper TIE Bomber, on the other hand, got pitched at PS4 to ensure he could fire ahead of the Jumpmasters in that matchup and without the helping dice modification of Redline's ability or anything like an Agromech I didn't really have much option but to give him Proton Torpedoes to flip Focus result into hits after he's spent his Target Lock to fire.  Which actually works out fine, because in a showdown he's going to shoot last out of my team and so be most likely to push a critical hit through shields anyway!  For 24 points - 9 less than a Jumpmaster - the TIE Bomber brings a very similar double Torpedo threat and plenty of red dice.

The final piece of the puzzle, which I didn't even realise was going to be as important as it's proven, are the Ion Bombs I equipped to "Redline" as a last resort.  Firstly, the Ion Bombs originally arrived in my list almost exclusively because I was still trying to experiment and set new puzzles, and they were cheap enough for me to still get away with a decent initiative bid to ensure Echo would have the jump on other PS8 pilots like The Inquisitor or Carnor Jax.  In as 'filler' the Ion Bombs have vastly exceeded expectations because of just how great they are in conjunction with a squad of ships that really wants to know where the opponent is going to be next turn.  Echo wants to know so that he can plan his decloak, and both the Bomber and Punisher want to know so they can set their ranges to fire Torpedoes.  

So far the Ion Bombs, which I've effectively purchased in a 'Buy One, Get One Free' deal thanks to Extra Munitions I already had equipped, have been crucial at crunch moments in almost every game.  For the minimal investment of 2 points a humble bomb - a BOMB - has been pivotal.  And it's not escaped the notice of either myself or the gods of irony that it's an Ion bomb that's doing the work, after this whole drive to experiment was kickstarted months ago by my flying through an errant Conor Net.

What goes around comes around, they say... apparently it also applies to Ion tokens!

I'm happy to at least be the one dishing the Ion out rather than receiving them, and I'm also happy to report that my quest to experiment seems to be reaping some rewards.  I won't be flying this list at Regionals, I'll be using something much more familiar and dangerous, but now I can genuinely say that I can't wait for Regionals to be over so I can step back from playing serious lists and get back to testing the limits full time... after all, I've got a hell of a backlog of bad ideas to try out!