Monday, January 30, 2017

Imperial squadron review: TIE Fighter aces

One last bit of TIE Fightery goodness before proceeding on to other matters!

So we covered the basics (and then some) of TIE Fighters in my previous article. Here I'd like to briefly go over their unique counterparts...

For when only the Emperor's most committed masochists can get the job done

Black Squadron takes your regular ol' TIE Fighter and for +1 point you get:
  • Gains Counter 1
  • Gains Escort
  • Loses Swarm
Otherwise everything else is the same. The main problem you can see with Black Squadron is it clearly wants to meat shield for its fellow TIEs (with the Escort+Counter combination) but it is not well situated to survive being a meat shield. Losing Swarm also hurts a bit as it means Black Squadron gains no benefit from Howlrunner and is weaker on the attack than a generic TIE Fighter.

The primary competition for Black Squadron is the TIE Advanced, which for 3 more points provides us with a much more durable Escort squadron (5 hull points) that although it lacks Counter 1 is superior against ships with a black die. So when would you want to use Black Squadron? Two situations come to mind:
  1. Black Squadron can present a useful Escort for a squadron group including Dengar - Dengar himself is fairly durable so far as ace Intel squadrons go with 4 hull and a Scatter+Brace defense token combination, but he likes to avoid getting pounced on too early. Even adding one more turn before he needs to worry too much can be very valuable and Black Squadron provides this service for cheaper than a TIE Advanced and goes up to a respectable Counter 2 in the process thanks to Dengar.
  2. If your squadron points are under intense pressure but you want an (additional) Escort squadron in there, Black Squadron is the compromise option between "TIE Advanced" and "nothing."
Who is Samus Aran? Why do people always call me that when I take off my hat?
Howlrunner is 16 points, the cost of two generic TIE Fighters. She otherwise has identical stats plus the standard "TIE ace" defense token combination of scatter+brace. Having a scatter token available can be extremely useful but it is difficult to rely on against squadrons rolling enough blue dice at you. In some games where the dice favor you, scatter-capable aces seem to be able to take more punishment than even two generic versions of their same fighter. In others, it feels like the Scatter gets locked down against most attacks and the improvement in defense is largely illusory. In short, the less blue dice are being rolled at you, the better the scatter becomes. It's particularly useful in situations where you are facing only one or two attacks per turn and those don't feature many blue dice. It's great against flak, Counter attacks, and red or black dice anti-squadron attacks (such as the Z-95 Headhunter or Decimator) for example. It's horrible against Wedge Antilles rolling 6 blue dice, though, so try to not lean on it too hard in situations where it's unlikely to help you.

With that brief side note about the scatter token, let's move on to Howlrunner's buff aura ability. It is frequently misunderstood by newer players so I would like to spell out exactly how it works. In order for her ability to trigger, you need to answer "yes" to 3 separate questions:
  1. Is Howlrunner at distance 1 of a friendly squadron?
  2. Does that squadron have the Swarm keyword, regardless of whether or not Swarm is being used?
  3. Is that squadron attacking another squadron?
Question #2 frequently ties people up, as Howlrunner is often misunderstood to only benefit attacks where Swarm triggers or misunderstood to only benefit attacks where Howlrunner is allowing the attacker to trigger Swarm (by also engaging the defender). That is incorrect. Howlrunner can provide extra blue dice all day while situated on the opposite end of a furball so long as she's at distance 1 of the attacker. It should also be noted that her ability stipulates it only works on another friendly squadron, so Howlrunner does not buff herself.

With all that said, her buff aura is deceptively powerful and has some interesting ramifications. Its most basic use is to simply park Howlrunner at distance 1 of as many TIE Fighters as possible and enjoy the extra blue dice, which when combined with the Swarm special rule improves their anti-squadron attack to an average of 2.47 damage per attack, only barely worse than a 5-blue-dice battery on an extremely cheap squadron. You can leverage the ability more strongly with TIE Interceptors or TIE Fighters under the effect of Dengar's aura, as Counter attacks are attacks in all senses of the term (the only difference from a "normal" attack is the circumstances under which they trigger), which means Howlrunner provides an extra blue dice on Counter attacks made by Swarm friendly squadrons, and those Counter attacks will also benefit from Swarm, which makes them particularly deadly - TIE Interceptors with Howlrunner nearby will effectively go up to Counter 3 with a possible Swarm reroll, which is just as good as a regular TIE Fighter's unbuffed attack but made at any foe who takes a swing at the Interceptor! One final note is that Howlrunner also adds a blue dice to the Snipe attack made by Saber squadron (as it replaces its anti-squadron battery with the Snipe battery and she adds a blue dice), allowing it to go up to Snipe 5 effectively, and can add a helpful blue dice to Valen Rudor as well (more on him soon!).

For this reason, Howlrunner is often public enemy #1. Because she does not buff herself and has the illusion of safety due to her Scatter token, it's not uncommon to see her run into the middle of enemy squadron balls as the initial attacker and then followed by generic Swarm-friendly TIEs afterwards who will benefit from her ability and get the reroll from Swarm due to her engaging their targets. This offensive hits like a ton of bricks but often ends with Howlrunner quite dead by the resumption of dogfighting next turn. It's often better to keep Howlrunner in the center of the periphery where her ability is easily dispersed but not so deeply in that she's easily ganged up on. Her scatter should be able to keep her safe for at least one turn in those circumstances. Some like to bring an Escort squadron to tank for her, but I find the total investment required for that is rather high and Howlrunner herself does not benefit TIE Advanced or Black Squadron due to their lack of Swarm so the synergy is lacking.

So when should you consider including Howlrunner? I like to consider Howlrunner once I'm bringing an adequate number of Swarm fighters for her buff to be worth the additional cost (at least 4) and I'm beginning to run low on my ability to command more squadrons regularly. She makes my current squadron command potential more potent, and thus the +8 points I spend on her beyond a normal TIE Fighter are effectively spread across the other Swarm fighters, improving the quality of my squadron commands when improving quantity is beginning to get questionable.

Mauler Mithel, stop watching C-SPAN and get back to work!
Mauler Mithel used to have the distinction of being the cheapest Imperial ace, but he's still doing fine being tied for second place as of wave 5. For +7 points over a normal TIE Fighter, you get the TIE ace defense token suite and an offensive ability that can do phenomenal amounts of damage. It should be noted that his ability has two requirements:
  1. Mauler Mithel needs to complete a movement. This means he will not trigger on placement (such as if he is overlapped and redeployed in base contact with the overlapper) and he will not trigger unless he is able to move and chooses to do so (even if he just flies around doing space-donuts and lands in exactly the same place).
  2. He deals damage only to foes engaged with him after the movement.This means that enemy squadrons that are obstructed to him (hiding behind ships, hiding in obstacles) after he ends his movement are not damaged, as he is not engaging them.
Mauler Mithel is effectively a TIE Fighter on steroids that specializes at dealing lots of small amounts of damage to numerous squadrons, which in a kind of twisted way makes him particularly good at facing other Imperial fleets using TIEs. He's particularly useful nowadays for landing and dealing gobs of damage to a big blob of bomber squadrons and their enablers (Intel squadrons, Escort squadrons). You need to be careful of not biting off more than you can chew, however, as landing in a prime location to deal tons of damage often gets Mauler stuck and then picked apart by the squadrons who are rather unhappy about having their party crashed by Mr. Mithel.

When should you consider using Mauler Mithel? Mauler Mithel is a great meta choice for dealing with heavier-squadron fleets and he's got some good synergy with other "mass hack" effects like Raider flak for quickly doing lots of distributed damage - this approach is good against not only mook swarm approaches but also for handling Biggs Darklighter (X-Wing ace), who is able to pass around damage to other Escort squadrons - simply doing lots of damage to a group effectively decreases the size of the blood bag available to Biggs prior to real X-Wings dying. Mauler's also a very sneaky way to get around effects like Escort that serve to protect crucial aces and lynchpin Intel squadrons which help bomber blob approaches. Mauler Mithel can hop in, deal one damage to everything, and then be followed up with a Snipe 4 attack from Saber Squadron and an Escort-ignoring IG-88 to potentially clear out Jan Ors in one go before she gets a chance to make your fighters Heavy, for example.

The main concern with Mauler is getting him stuck and not able to keep using his ability (because he is engaged or destroyed). To that end, he's a great compliment to squadron groups that include an Intel squadron and/or Admiral Chiraneau on a squadron command ship so Mauler can keep moving even while engaged. Additionally, it helps to have an Escort squadron so Mauler can stay alive longer than he otherwise would and can land in the middle of a furball without being a guaranteed casualty. Those types of tools are usually already available in fleets that wish to use some bombers and so you'll often see Mauler accompanying a Rhymerball or a heavier fighter squadron approach that includes Dengar and TIE Interceptors.

You' too will soon have the same smug look on your face!
Valen Rudor is the cheapest ace in the entire game and for a mere +5 points over a generic TIE Fighter he gets the TIE ace defense token suite, has his blue dice replaced with black dice, and gains an interesting ability.

The blue to black dice upgrade is something of a "sidegrade" - it provides superior average damage (2.57 with the Swarm reroll, 2.25 without, which is about a 25% to 33% upgrade in average damage, with the greater benefit being in situations without Swarm) but at the cost of no chances for an accuracy result on dice. This makes Valen Rudor particularly good at beating up on regular generic squadrons but not great at going after aces - he still does all right against brace-only aces (by doing the occasional burst of 3 damage which is braced down to two) but he's miserable against aces with a scatter token, who can just ignore his attack. Overall, the black dice anti-squadron attack is superior, but it comes with that caveat.

His extra ability is where it gets particularly interesting. Enemies engaged with any other of your squadrons cannot attack Valen Rudor. This includes Heavy squadrons, which gets a little weird - Valen Rudor is himself not Heavy and so he prevents squadrons he engages from moving away or attacking ships but a friendly Heavy squadron also engages the enemy squadrons even though it does not prohibit them from moving away or attacking ships. The end result is Valen Rudor holds squadrons in place and disqualifies them from attacking ships but when it comes time for the enemy to attack a squadron, he hides behind the Heavy squadron. He basically makes nearby squadrons a weird kind of Escort squadron but only for him.

But wait, there's more! Due to how Valen Rudor's ability works, an enemy engaging another of your friendly squadrons cannot Counter Valen Rudor's attacks! Because Counter attacks must obey the regular rules for attacks (which is why the Escort rule notes that it is ignored by Counter so there's no confusion there), they check with Valen Rudor to see if they're allowed to attack him and he responds "no." The interaction with Counter is great for helping a group of TIE Fighters deal with Counter squadrons (such as A-Wings or Interceptors), which traditionally give regular TIE Fighters problems, but whom Valen just chews through without a care.

The ability works great with both generic squadrons (even other mook TIE Fighters) but gets extra annoying with particularly durable squadrons. Whether this is from  something like a 7-hull YV-666 or a defensive tech ace like Ciena Ree, having a friend at hand to push into danger can keep Valen ticking for some time and the occasional enemy squadron that sneaks in an attack that can't be assigned to someone else is usually covered by Valen's defense tokens.

The end result is Valen Rudor is a bully. He loves to pick on regular generic non-ace squadrons and he pushes his friends to take the hits he should have taken so he can just keep grinding regular squadrons down. So when should you consider using a bully like Valen Rudor in your fleet? He's a welcome inclusion whenever you have enough other squadrons to tank for him (so therefore he won't do well without some friends who want to be near him) and need some raw damage output and don't mind spending the +5 points on upgrading a TIE Fighter to a real bruiser.

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