Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Ion cannon upgrades: she blinded me with science!

Time to finish off our weapon upgrade reviews with the ion cannons!

Now you too can make little "blep blep" noises.
I'll review each ion cannon upgrade in alphabetical order (regardless of when they were released). Don't like alphabetical order? Blame the Phoenicians. I will add that a number of ion cannon upgrades trigger on a blue critical and so understanding the attack sequence and when criticals happen will be very helpful. Let's get to it!

Remember, kids: recreational taser play while piloting a starfighter is bad news.
 Heavy Ion Emplacements
  • The effect only resolves if you have a blue critical icon showing when the time comes to choose your critical effect.
  • Heavy Ion Emplacements exhausts upon use, which means it can only be used once per activation (as it will be exhausted when used the first time) and can't be used at all if it has been exhausted preemptively by something like the MS-1 Ion Cannons.
  • You must apply as much of the card as possible, so if an eligible hull zone is missing shields, then HIEs won't affect that particular hull zone.
    • Don't forget you always have the option of using the default critical effect if you get a blue crit but your target has few to no shields remaining.
    • Because of the timing order, HIEs trigger before damage in the pool is applied, which can have consequences for redirect tokens and how much hull damage gets through the suddenly-reduced shields.
Why would you want to use Heavy Ion Emplacements?
Because it's a critical effect that adds three damage. There aren't even any black critical effects that directly add three damage to whatever they are targeting, and Heavy Ion Emplacements can even trigger from long range when used with effects that add blue dice at long range (like Quad Battery Turrets) or when your blue dice range gets extended from Disposable Capacitors. HIEs can add a lot of extra damage over time, but it's important to realize that you'll really only want one or two in a fleet because the more effective they are at removing shields, the less effective they are in future attacks against targets with depleted shields: they're effectively an upgrade that shines brightest in the early-to-mid-game, but there's nothing wrong with being good at softening up targets for easier destruction.

Heavy Ion Emplacements have competition from other ion cannon upgrades, particularly the "standard" SW-7 Ion Batteries and Leading Shots, which are generally better for smaller double-arcing ships (SW-7s) and larger mixed-dice battery ships (Leading Shots). Heavy Ion Emplacements can act as a replacement for SW-7s on ships like CR90Bs or Interdictors, provided the player is comfortable with gambling a bit on the effect triggering or (more likely) has a commander that can assist with rerolls or guarantee critical results, like Commander Leia (concentrate fire to add a die and reroll), Commander Vader, and Admiral Screed. On larger ships, they can replace Leading Shots when used with similar commanders, provided you feel comfortable giving up the "bad dice insurance" of Leading Shots in favor of something that produces more raw damage when you get the critical.

Heavy Ion Emplacements are particularly appealing on small and medium ships with offensive retrofit slots that are already keen on using Disposable Capacitors, such as Raider-IIs, Interdictors, and VSD-IIs (usually if that VSD has some kind of dice-control commander). Disposable Capacitors and HIEs synergize very well in that they will often let the expensive HIEs start triggering one round earlier, helping to subsidize the high expense of the upgrade, but also because long-ranged attacks are often made against targets that are still pretty healthy, increasing the chances of the HIEs triggering for full effect. The Raider-II in particular is a big fan, because it generally did not gain as much from SW-7s as its CR90B cousin and it previously lacked a strong ion cannon upgrade: with one strong arc (so it doesn't matter if HIEs only work once per activation) and access to Disposable Capacitors on the cheap, the Raider-II seems designed to cooperate with Heavy Ions.

The last thing I'll add to this review is to understand the importance of target selection with your Heavy Ion Emplacements: the upgrade is stronger against ships with redirects (as it not only depletes a shield in the arc you're targeting, but also in both arcs the damage can get redirected to) and weaker against ships with evades (as if you can't lock down the evades or produce more than one blue critical result, the blue crit die will likely be rerolled into a non-crit or removed from the pool altogether). This means that in general, you should be looking to go after bigger ships with your HIE-equipped ships.

They all laughed at my plans for a giant battle WALL-E, but I'll show them!
High Capacity Ion Turbines
  • You add dice to your battery, so these dice are factored in during your initial attack and work for Fire Lanes
  • It's a Modification so you can't have another Modification equipped
Why would you want to use High Capacity Ion Turbines?
Extra blue dice out the sides never hurt. The main problem is it eats up your Modification slot, it's expensive, and smaller ships often would prefer SW-7 Ion Batteries and larger ships would prefer Leading Shots or perhaps a blue crit upgrade instead. There is one specific case that comes to mind, and that is the ISD-I. In the case of the ISD-I, it has an ion cannon slot but only has blue dice in the front and the rear. By equipping High Capacity Ion Turbines, it gains blue dice in the side arcs which allows it to more capably swat down fleeing smaller ships that can escape from its deadly front arc and it then means that H9 Turbolasers are able to guarantee an accuracy in every arc as well as blue dice will either roll an accuracy naturally or (more likely) roll a hit or crit, which the H9s can convert over for you.

Ever since we bought those sweet purple lasers from the Decepticons, we can't hit anything!
Ion Cannon Batteries
  • The effect only resolves if you have a blue critical icon showing when the time comes to choose your critical effect.
  • The effect first looks to discard a command token (of your choice!) from the defender. If that is impossible, then the defending hull zone loses one shield instead (if it has one).
    • If you can't trigger either of these effects meaningfully, I would recommend choosing to resolve the standard generic critical effect instead.
    • The shield is removed as soon as the crit resolves, which happens prior to resolving damage like usual.
Why would you want to use Ion Cannon Batteries?
Ion Cannon Batteries are pretty helpful when you have a ship that already throws a decent number of blue dice (I'd say 3+) and isn't very interested in other ion cannon upgrades. In general it's most comfortable on the Suppressor Interdictor which loves double-arcing enemies and has 3 blue dice in the front and side hull zones. Ion Cannon Batteries are also helpful compared to other blue critical upgrades in that they can add damage (by removing shields) rather than mess around with enemy ships in more indirect ways. If you can get access to another source of rerolls (notably Darth Vader), then large ships can use this instead of Leading Shots. It also has some niche use at removing command tokens if you're trying to exploit raid tokens to their fullest.

The main competition for Ion Cannon Batteries is the Heavy Ion Emplacements, and the main arguments in favor of the ICBs are:
  1. They are cheaper.
  2. They can be used on both attacks, so are good for double-arcing.
  3. They can remove command tokens, which can have some niche but circumstantially strong uses.
I said across her nose, not up it!
Leading Shots
  • Leading Shots can be used on any attack and that includes against squadrons. If you have Leading Shots equipped on a ship with two flak dice and at least one of them is blue, then you can reroll an attack against a squadron by spending a blue die if none of your original dice were behaving themselves.
  • Leading Shots doesn't care what range you are at, it just wants a blue die to eat. If you can add a blue die at long range (through Opening Salvo or Commander Sato or the Defiance title, etc.) then you can use Leading Shots.
  • This is a "while" effect, which means it tells you when it triggers but also that you can do it once. No pitching one blue die after another to keep triggering Leading Shots!
  • You can choose the order in which your "resolve attack effects" effects resolve, so I'd recommend waiting until you've added all the dice you want to add before using Leading Shots.
Why would you want to use Leading Shots?
Leading Shots provides a lot of control over your dice pool for a very cheap cost. Its most straightforward use is to spend a blue die to reroll blank red and black dice. More nuanced uses of Leading Shots allow you to tinker with your dice pool by rerolling excess accuracy icons you don't want, rerolling blue (and in desperate circumstances, red!) dice with other icons to go fishing for accuracy icons you desperately need (like when you're shooting at flotillas), and rerolling dice while fishing for a critical symbol.

The main problem with Leading Shots is it consumes a blue die for this benefit and blue dice never roll blanks so you're giving up a sure thing for that flexible reroll. For smaller dice pools it's really not worth it as you're giving up a larger percentage of your dice. Once you get to about 6 dice, though, I'd give it serious consideration. For that reason it's fairly standard equipment on heavier ships with blue dice in every arc and an ion cannon slot. You can't afford to have your large investments flubbing their dice rolls and they've got large enough dice pools to afford to give up a die to fuel the effect. You won't always need Leading Shots (if you roll well enough initially, then you won't need it) but when you do need it, you really need it.

MOAR purple beams!
MS-1 Ion Cannons
  • It's another blue critical upgrade, so the usual critical timing provisions apply here too.
  • Exhausting an upgrade card only has a meaningful effect if the card exhausts to do something (meaning you exhaust it before it can exhaust to do its thing), like Intel Officer, Engine Techs, or Electronic Countermeasures. Otherwise, if it has a persistent effect (like most other upgrade cards), being exhausted doesn't have any negative effect.
    • Hammerhead Task Force titles debuff their ships when exhausted, so exhausting them preemptively to debuff that ship and prevent its friends from using the title with the MS-1s is fun.
Why would you want to use MS-1 Ion Cannons?
Short version: you probably shouldn't.

Long version: MS-1 Ion Cannons have the benefit of being quite cheap but their effect is very unreliable and because it triggers on a crit, anything that would affect a defensive upgrade like Targeting Scrambler or Electronic Countermeasures is usually too late (as those upgrade cards were already used by the time the "pick a crit" step comes around). It's fun to think about tapping exhausting important enemy upgrades that exhaust to use before they can be used but it's just not very reliable. I suppose if your meta is drowning in Intel Officers you might be able to get some use from this but it's still very iffy and I'd recommend looking elsewhere.

TIE Fighter not included, but could've been if you hadn't wasted 10 points on this.
NK-7 Ion Cannons
  • It's another blue critical upgrade, so the usual critical timing provisions apply here too.
  • This is the first (and so far only) critical upgrade that also exhausts the card to use, so you can only use it at most once per activation.
  • The defender is the chooser, so he'll likely pick whichever defense token is least inconvenient to lose, likely one of the ones he exhausted during the attack.
Why would you want to use NK-7 Ion Cannons?
In general, this is another "not actually that useful" ion cannon upgrade, unfortunately. The problem is that it's expensive, it relies on a blue crit, it can only be used on one attack a turn, and it only zaps the least effective defense token from whatever ship you're using it on. If it could have been used without exhausting or on the attacker's choice of defense token, I'd feel differently.

The main problem is that the NK-7 isn't that useful when used in small doses because it will just snipe the least-helpful defense token, which in most cases isn't a big benefit to you (and certainly not 10 points worth of benefit). You can't really use it in large doses well (when used on several ships like the CR90B or Raider-II) because while being able to deliver numerous NK-7 attacks can chisel away even good defense tokens, small ships like CR90Bs and Raiders generally are successful by delivering numerous smaller attacks and don't really themselves care much about enemy defense tokens; you'd need to be relying on a larger follow-up ship and that's a ton of points to spend on helping your larger hammer ship when it could've just used an Intel Officer and/or other defense-token-screwage upgrades (like H9 or XI7 Turbolasers) for a similar end effect that's relying a lot less on a combo engine.

In short, it's not that useful unless spammed and it's not a great benefit to the ships that are actually capable of spamming it.

Okay, are ion beams blue or purple? I'm getting very confused.
Overload Pulse
  • It's another blue critical upgrade, so the usual critical timing provisions apply here too.
  • It's really important to understand that critical effects are applied after defense tokens are used, so your opponent's ship gets to use all its defense tokens before the Overload Pulse triggers and turns all the remaining green defense tokens red.
Why would you want to use Overload Pulse?
If you want a really janky combo fleet, Overload Pulse always seems like it can deliver on a combo in theory (particularly with the Avenger ISD) but it can really struggle there in practice. I outlined why I'm not a big fan in the Admiral Screed article, but here it is again:

Overload Pulse runs into similar problems as the NK-7s: it is best used on smaller attacks that don't hurt that much to set up larger attacks later but the small ships that are ideally delivering it don't really benefit from it and are mostly trying to set something up for heavier attacks later and therefore a lot can go wrong. Given that larger ships can for a reasonable cost and with much less activation awkwardness configure themselves to mess with enemy defense tokens independently, the set-up is often not really worth it even on the rare occasion it does work.

If you do want to make Overload Pulse a thing despite my pessimism, I'd try to get some use out of it on larger ships with a double-arc attack starting with your smaller-dice non-primary arc attack to exhaust defense tokens and then follow up with your big primary arc as your second attack once their defense tokens are exhausted. Your big ships generally want Leading Shots a lot more, though. It can do all right with the LMC80 Mon Karren title (where your opponent can spend only one defense token before the Overload Pulse hits) but it's still janky in execution and likely not worth giving up your ion cannon slot for (or spending 8 points on, which is a lot for an upgrade).

Purple battle ball battery!
SW-7 Ion Batteries
  • This effect only works while attacking a ship.
  • The effect only works on unspent blue accuracy icons, meaning you did not spend them to lock down a defense token.
    • A fun side effect of this is that reroll effects used on your blue dice can at best turn a regular crit into a hit instead, as rerolling into an accuracy will produce an unspent blue accuracy icon. This can get mean against ships relying on evades!
Why would you want to use SW-7 Ion Batteries?
Because they are awesome on moderate to small attacks rich in blue dice (yes, the pessimistic ion cannon upgrade reviews are finally over!). Basically, accuracy icons aren't great when you're not rolling a lot of dice. Say you throw three blue dice and you get one of each icon (accuracy, hit, crit). In most circumstances, that accuracy isn't doing much of value without more damage in the pool and simply having an extra damage would be preferable. SW-7s give that to you but still let you spend accuracy icons in the rare situations where that's preferable, like against flotillas.
Take, for example, a double-arcing CR90B equipped with SW-7s and using a concentrate fire dial (I see these things all the time as one of our skilled locals loves running these with Rieekan, his favorite commander). The front arc throws 3 blue dice at you and that becomes 3 damage. Then the side arc throws 3 total blue dice at you (2 base + 1 from concentrate fire) and that again is 3 damage. That's pretty darn respectable given that your brace token only reduces damage by 1, your evade defense tokens do nearly nothing, and your redirects run out of nearby shields quickly against 6 damage from such a small ship. Interdictors and to a lesser extent Raider-IIs can pull off a very similar trick to just pile damage in and shrug at the limited effectiveness of defense tokens, which get quickly overheated against double-arcs used in such a way.

There are some circumstances in which SW-7s are decent on larger ships as well. The Mon Karren LMC80 can sometimes benefit from simply having more raw damage and not worrying much about defense tokens, relying on the Mon Karren debuff to get enough damage through and using the odd accuracy icon in circumstances where that's preferable.

Final thoughts
With some stronger contenders coming out after earlier waves, ion cannon upgrades are beginning to see the kind of strength and diversity to frequently warrant inclusion. There are still a number of more niche upgrades, but some definite workhorses exist within this upgrade type and they should not be overlooked.


  1. Another great article. I ran NK-7s on a CR90b back in one of my first games against a friend. Our fleets were fairly spaced out and my CR90 just danced around a victory the whole game plinking away defence tokens. I don't think it ever finished it off, but it was funny.

  2. Was recently in a small format tournament and this article helped me win the day. Only Rebel fleet among all the Imperialists in the tourney. Thanks SW-7s on my CR-90Bs.

    1. You're welcome! SW-7 CR90Bs are angry little knife fighters, aren't they?

    2. They most certainly are. Scenario had close proximity starts (same edge). Demolisher came in to try to swat us down. 2 CR90Bs and 2 YT-2400s removed Demolisher on turn 1, then laying waste to an Arquitens and a couple of Decimators.

  3. I want to thank you for writing this article.This is great Article for me. It also more very informative & awesome.

  4. I'm thinking of having overload pulse on a VSD II with Disposable Capacitors, along side another VSD II without OLP, but with DCaps too. Obviously the OLP ship fires first. Is this worth having in this scenario? (I would run a GSD and a Raider with a few fighters as support).

    1. It's certainly more viable now than it has been in the past, so the short version is it's worth trying out at the very least.

      I still get skeptical about Overload Pulse just because setting up the combo is tricky due to all the other conditional elements that need to fall into place, even if the Disposable Capacitors help you with the range. In particular, be careful of relying on that blue crit at long range - evade-capable enemies will just dodge the blue crit (you can, of course, get more than one blue crit at long range but it's never something I'd rely on).