Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Six Ages of X-Wing: 1) Jurassic Park

Welcome to the first in a little series of blogs in which I'm going to run through three years of X-Wing metagame history.  

Many of you will know how enamoured I am with Meta-Wing, and as part of that I had been collecting the Top 20 pilots each month from Meta-Wing's ranking.  Over time I've also had my curiosity piqued and so look backwards at previous months, going all the way back to January 2015.  It's a long term top-level view of the X-Wing metagame that I've not really seen people discuss very often, and which I personally find pretty fascinating.

While these days we become obsessed with churning the metagame almost week-on-week, a view back over three years is a very different perspective and can tell us a lot about how we got to the place we're currently at.

In brief I think I can split a little over three years of X-Wing history into six 'ages', which are often very clearly delineated from each other as new expansions arrive and throw the game off into a new direction.  Those six ages are:
  1. Jurassic Park
  2. Twin Laser Palps 
  3. Scouts
  4. Veterans
  5. Mindlink
  6. Rebel Revenge
In the coming blogs I'm going to lead us on a whistle-stop tour through the last few years and how these epochs differed from each other.

Jurassic Park

The earliest period I've gone back to, what I call Jurassic Park covers the period in 2015 before Wave 7 including the arrival of Scum & Villainy as a faction in Wave 6.

And why call it Jurassic Park?  Well it was nearly titled 'The Land That Time Forgot' because for many players peering back this far through the mists of time will reveal that the metagame was almost unrecognisably different to the one that we play in today.  By way of illustration: here are the Top 20 pilots for the months of 2015 up to the release of Wave 7.

Obsidian Squadron TIE Fighters?  Captain Oicunn?  Whisper and Echo?  B-Wings and Z-95s?  What the hell was going on?!?!?

Welcome.  To Jurassic Park.

Even though they'd just been hit with a rules change that they gave up half MOV when damaged, large-based turrets were at the top of the X-Wing food chain.  Even though there was only three ships that fit the bill for this (YT-1300, YT-2400, VT-49 Decimator) there was typically five or six pilots from those ships appearing in the Top-20 each month.  

The turrets rode at the head of the metagame so strongly that it wasn't just the names we recognise now, like Han Solo, Dash Rendar and Rear Admiral Chiraneau that were at the top of the food chain.  Alongside them there was room for Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, Leebo, Eaden Vrill, Captain Oicunn and Commander Kenkirk too.  It didn't really matter too much what the pilot was - so long as they were in a large-based turreted ship they were going to be punching their weight.

These big guys most frequently worked alongside an ace pilot - Whisper or Echo on the Imperial side, Corran Horn on the Rebel side, as we can see in these examples...

The large based turret ships were already a heavy points investment to begin with and you commonly saw that investment protected by sinking even further points into a raft of upgrades.
  • Rear Admiral Chiraneau - 46 + 18pts of Upgrades = 64pts 
  • Han Solo - 46 + 17pts of Upgrades = 63pts 
  • Captain Oicunn - 42+ 17pts of Upgrades = 59pts 
  • Dash Rendar - 36 + 22pts of Upgrades = 58pts

When you've sunk 60-65% of your squad points into a single ship it's important that it delivers value for those points, and although they might start out in different places you tended to see very similar thought processes going into what was loaded on the ship - dice mods & engine upgrade were pretty much all anyone cared about!  That meant offensive dice mods like Predator/Lone Wolf, backed by Gunner or Luke Skywalker for pushing damage past those pesky aces and their defensive tokens.  On the defensive side it meant things like C-3PO, the original Millenium Falcon Evade title, Ysanne Isard or Rebel Captive.  And a lot of the time it meant Engine Upgrade to boost out of arc of enemy ships, which was why it was so important to have upgrades that worked without requiring an action to be spent on them.

Dash Rendar and the YT-2400 didn't have access to a lot of these tools, but it's worth taking a moment to look at just how Dash was being kitted out back in 2015.  It turns out that there was two clear routes to putting Dash onto the table, both of which are familiar to us now.

By far the most popular was Push The Limit with Engine Upgrade, using Dash's repositioning ability to keep his opponents at arms length.  A critical difference to modern versions of Dash, though, was that Kanan Jarrus was around yet so the YT-2400 was pinned to its limited green moves if it wanted to clear stress.  By comparison there was a cheaper version that ran Lone Wolf and no Engine Upgrade, living with Barrel Roll as its only reposition but able to call on the full might of the YT-2400's dial each turn.  Push The Limit was more popular, but if anything Lone Wolf was a little bit more successful, in part because it let you invest more points into a stronger wingman - in this example it was the difference between Corran Horn taking an Engine Upgrade or not.

And after Wave 6 brought Autothrusters into the game the aces of choice rapidly changed to those who could equip them.  With so many players using big turrets it made sense to fly an ace that had some protection against a turret, so you saw Soontir Fel and Jake Farell really taking over the top spots...

The truth is, though, that the large-based turrets were so popular in the metagame that it didn;t really matter too much what you paired them with.  While most people chose a high PS ace there were successful builds that simply managed to cram two of the large turrets into one squad, like Double Decimators or the 'Flying Pancakes' archetype that was various recipes of cutting corners to fit a YT-1300 and YT-2400 into 100pts, like this example...

These large based turrets were the dominant force in the metagame, and what else could prosper was determined, in large part, by whether they had the firepower or numbers to drag down one of these large lumbering beasts.

The main competition for the large turreted ships was swarms of cheap and efficient generic fighters.  In most cases this was the opposite end of the spectrum to the likes of Fat Han, with many squads eschewing upgrade cards entirely to maximise the raw number of red dice and hit points it could throw onto the table.  This worked pretty well against the big turrets in some ways - it would take Han several turns to chew through a B-Wing, and C-3PO can only add an evade to one attack, not five - but in other ways it was weak, as trying to keep those big turrets in the arc of multiple ships with lower pilot skill was... problemetic.

The low pilot skill jousters created their own little metagame way down at the opposite end of the field, as they jockeyed for the highest PS with each other, and this explains some of the more unexpected choices here.  From a modern perspective the Obsidian Squadron TIE Fighter is an anathema, and yet we find it the most popular TIE back in 2015.  The Obsidian Squadron TIE was part of a pilot skill food chain, preying on PS2 Blue Squadron Pilots and Bandit Squadron Pilots, who in turn preyed on PS1 Academy Pilots and Binayre Pirates.  Obsidian Squadron TIE had it's own predators as well, though, as the Tala Squadron Z-95 and Dagger Squadron B-Wing could trump it at PS4.

It was a different world, a different metagame, a different time.  Low pilot skill swarms like this were pushing right at the bleeding edge of raw cost efficiency that you could achieve in the game, and reaping their rewards.  And as well as fuelling their own dedicated swarms this was also really the last era where the concept of the 'mini-swarm' really made sense.

Trying to have their cake and eat at least some of it, you'd see fat turrets and a few cheap jousters, or an ace and a few cheap jousters.

There's one other squad that I want to highlight here, which is really a brand new efficient jousting squad made possible by Scum & Villainy.  It's worth the highlight not really so much because of how popular it was at the time but because of what it's about to become...

Twin laser Turret didn't exist yet, but there were still some brave fools running quad Y-Wings and using the BTL-A4 title with Ion Cannons.  Like I said, this early incarnation of Thug Life wasn't a big deal at the time, but it was the first sign of what was coming down the pipe in Wave 7...  

Three Pillars of X-Wing

A classic piece of X-Wing theory is that there's three pillars to the game: Jousters beat Turrets who beat Arc-Dodgers who beat Jousters.  I'm not sure how true that maxim is today as the game has become more complex, but back in Jurassic Park it's actually kind of staggering just how cleanly you can split the entire metagame into those three pots...

If you think I'm being pedantic and that I'm just trying to fit all these things into the three pots then I'll challenge back and say that, in modern X-Wing, there's many ships that wouldn't fit so neatly.  Would Lowhrick fit into any of these categories?  Or Norra Wexley?  Or Captain Rex, or Asajj Ventress, or Colonel Vessery, or arc-locked Rey...

I've not had to work hard to apply these three pillars to the 2015 metagame... because they WERE the 2015 metagame.

Scum & Villainy

And into this mass of large based turrets, aces and jousters was dropped the Scum & Villainy faction, with an initial wave of ships noticably absent of large based turrets, competent aces, or cheap effective jousters.  Good luck!

The only Scum archetype to really meaningfully stick during this period was Brobots, which kind of ploughed it's own furrow as an offshoot of running two aces alongside each other.  

Although they didn't fit cleanly into any of the three pillars the Brobots were able to carve out a niche as a frankenstein's monster of all the pieces that had been working for other squads during this era.  They combined impressive action economy and token defence thanks to Push The Limit and IG-88C's pilot ability, an equivalent to the Gunners that the fat turrets used in IG-88B's pilot ability, a slice of the large-based turret's raw hull points stacked behind the ace's green dice, a higher pilot skill than the swarms, and access to the hot new tool of Autothrusters to fight the turrets.  

They might not quite have fit the three pillars so cleanly but all the pieces that went into the Brobots had been proven strong in their own right in other squads.  As the rest of the scum faction struggled to make an impact the IGs were a beacon to anybody looking to use their new bounty hunter toys.

Exit Through The Gift Shop

So as we prepare to leave Jurassic Park behind and move onto the next age, what have we learned that's important to us in modern X-Wing?

Well, first of all I'd like to say that a lot of this is just setting the scene for what is to come.  We have to establish the players in our drama (Rebel, Imperial, Scum) and what they were like before events outside their control thrust them into motion.  In the actual Jurassic Park movie this is like the part where Sam Neill is scaring the kid with the Velociraptor claw, or the hapless worker is dragged into the raptor cage.

But, even so, there are things that we can learn here that matter today.  The first, particularly for players who've joined the game in the last two years, is a better understanding of where some of the complaints and nostalgia from older players come from.  If you've got that one guy in your playgroup who is constantly harping on about needing B-Wings to be good again, well the chances are that this is what he's dreaming of.  Don't worry, in a few years you'll be doing the same thing about wanting to put your Auzitucks and K-Wings back onto the table again.

It's also where, I think it's fair to say, the concept of the 'miniswarm' last really made any sort of sense.  That sort of 'I can half make an ace squad and half make a swarm squad, and it'll just work out in how I fly them on the table' bit of game theory was about to get left in the dust as X-Wing kicked up a gear.  Modern squads need strong plans and they usually need to commit fully to them but I think you can see in some of these squads above that it wasn't always so.  What you took to the table tended to matter less than what you did with them once they were there.

And that, in turn, is where a lot of the complaints about modern 'Combowing' come from.  Look how many squads were running with bare minimum upgrades or none at all.  Although I'm going to immediately call BS on that, because we've also seen just how much the large base turreted ships and their accompanying aces were deep into 'Combowing' territory already.  What's changed, I think, is that back here there was alternatives to 'Combowing' if you wanted to explore them, and if you just wanted to throw a naked swarm of B-Wings and Z-95s onto the table then you could fly them well and get results.

Today those sorts of upgrade-free experiences are much rarer.

So far, so negative.  But there's another bank of learnings to take away... although these dinosaurs may no longer rule the world they're not entirely extinct.  There are odd sightings here and there, and more importantly there are many strands of DNA that are being used to recreate them into the modern world.

We've talked about Dash Rendar and how there were two versions - Push The Limit and Lone Wolf - those builds consolidate into the Push The Limit version when Kanan Jarrus arrived to help Dash clear his stress.  For a long time Dash was superglued to his Push The Limit EPT, but when he was finally driven from the metagame is was the players with the longer memories who remembered the Lone Wolf version, and began working on bringing Dash back in a new form.  Similarly although many players scoffed when Leebo won the European Championships I'm sure George Dellapina (who bagged that title) will have been mindful that there had been times in the past when Leebo had been a perfectly decent option in place of Dash.

Gone.  But not forgotten.  

There are good reasons why most of these squads and builds disappeared from X-Wing tables.  But there were equally good reasons why they had once been dominant.  Smart players with long memories will occasionally pull on those strands to revive, re-engineer and re-envision what had gone before, ready for a new age.

Now you can too.

NEXT UP: Twin Laser Palps


  1. great post! glad to have you back, looking forward to the next ones!

  2. count me as one of the salty mini-swarm loving dinosaurs :(

  3. Fantastic! As someone who has only been plating for 6 months this is what I need to get a better picture of the game as a whole, history is awesome!

    Thank you very much looking forward to the next chapter.