Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Fighting Fleets: Whale Hunting

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee!
Alright, so Eric and I are going to start talking about fighting specific builds.  I volunteered to take on taking on an ISD, but let's talk whaling in general.
First, what is a whale?
Well, in general terms, a whale is any large ship.  Certain medium ships could be classified as small whales (so, Killer Whales? Orcas? Narwhals?), but generally we use it to describe a large ship that's not easily killed.  I first heard the term from Biggs, and it makes the most sense to keep using it.  There's several types of them, and I don't want to get into too many specifics, but a general Rebel example is an MC80 or a Starhawk, and the basic Imperial example is almost any ISD or the Super.
"But there aint no whales so we tell tall tales and sing a whaling tune!"
Whales (just based on how FFG has designed them) tend to have really good arcs that can end small ships.  They have a not insignificant amount of hull and shields, which means they can take a lot of pain before they die.  Just LIKE Moby Dick, whales will end whatever tiny rowboats you send out after them, Queequeg be damned.  But you didn't come here to have me bemoan the current state of how big ships are hard to kill.  You came here to read an article about KILLING them.  So let's get to it!
Right now
So, let's talk about what both whale examples I cited above (ISD, MC80s) share.  And while they are applied differently, there's a lot of similarities in them.  Enough that we can talk about fighting them similarly enough.

First, they share the same defensive token suite.  One Brace, one Contain, and 2 Redirects.  It's a strong suite, but as soon as they're out of shields in a side they can use them to push towards, those Redirects are useless (if you're hitting the MC80 in the same side every turn, the opposite side will be unable to be redirected to.  Same with the ISD front and its back shields).  Now, mind you, a SMART commander will use a repair command to push those opposite side shields to the side you're hitting, but that also means that he's not regenerating them OR healing damage.  4 Engineering points (6 with a token) means you can push 3-4 and either heal one damage or regenerate one shield.  That IS significant, yes, as it acts like 4 more health that you have to chew through.  But one solid shot will take away those 4 shields.  Moving them around is a stopgap measure, and unless you have 4 more shields coming next turn, it will not be enough to keep the ship alive.  Heck, I'd say that your opponent moving his shields around is a sign that you're actually affecting him and you need to keep at it!
Shoot her! Shoot her!
And that leads into another point about whaling.  You need to put a LARGE amount of damage into whales to kill them.  The default Defensive Retrofit (if you can only have one, as in ISDs) is Electronic Countermeasures, to ensure that you don't get your brace locked down every turn.  So they'll be able (barring your use of MS-1 Ion Cannons or something else that taps upgrades) to use the Brace against your strongest attack.  You can put out 16 damage from an Ackbar MC30 side arc with Expanded Racks and Enhanced Armaments (I've rolled it, it's delightful fun), but if they see it coming, they'll still Brace it down.  Now, mind you, they can only ensure they get the defense token against one attack, but removing 8 damage from the pool? Yeah, I'd save it for that, too.  You (generally) aren't going to kill an ISD or MC80 in one attack.
So they share decent to good shielding and, right now, whales share the ability to put out crazy damage from SPECIFIC arcs.  ISDs look scary all over, but their side arc is only dangerous if you're already wounded or in close range.  Similarly, the MC80 front arc is 2 reds and a blue.  I'm not saying you can ignore a CR90 or the arcs I'm describing here, I'm simply saying that moving into their biggest arc with significant shielding and where they have all their dice clustered is not a smart way to stay alive.  Just like the forest moon of Endor, hit them from a different side.  Or at the very least, stay out of that arc as much as you can.
If you do it right, you get to make this face
That's not really an easy thing to do when the ISD is barreling down right at you, or when Ackbar is throwing 6 red dice from long range.  First, as is my usual argument, knowing your ranges is very helpful and will keep you alive.  Second, you're going to have to make a call as to whether or not you trading whatever ship is getting shot at is a good trade for your opponent's whale.  You CAN keep rushing your VSD towards my MC80, hoping you'll get in close enough to use those black dice.... or you can realize that you're never going to get there and you'll send Demolisher instead.  Similarly, if you're sending Chimaera towards me, I'm going to have to see if I'm willing to trade whatever ship you're headed towards for an Chimaera.

This is NOT me saying "throw your ships away in order to kill the whale."  This IS me saying "piece trade."  If I can keep your ISD stuck in place because it has to kill Admonition on its turn AFTER I get Admonition to fire, that's a general win for me.  I say general because the first thing to look at while whaling is deciding whether or not you CAN kill the whale.

Determining whether or not you CAN kill it based on how you've deployed and how your opponent has deployed is a good skill to develop.  Unfortunately, it's going to come mostly through practice.  Realizing that ISDs have 11 health that you need to chew through AFTER you get through most/all of their shields means that you have to put a lot of damage in.  If you don't have a way of generating significant damage, you're gonna be in trouble.

So how do you generate significant damage?

With panache! Wokka wokka!
1) Squadrons
Yes, ISDs have 4 shields in the front.  Even something as simple as 6 A-wings throwing black dice at it should on average get rid of those shields for you.  Because the attacks are small and one damage, your opponent is not really going to want to use a redirect to push one damage, as that then exhausts the token.  The damage amounts go up with bombers, and I've written a lot about how to use squadrons and how to build them all.  If you're going Rebel, you've got Norra Wexley usually to help evaporate those shields, and if you're Imperial you have either Major Rhymer or Admiral Sloane to help you start wrecking their day.

The FUN thing about squadrons is that they generally (non-Gunnery Teams excepted) don't mind being in the heaviest damage arc.  As flak is at best 2 dice (without Agent Kallus anywhere), you can suffer through an attack or two while you put some good damage into his ship.  Sure, he may have Gunnery Team/Advanced Gunnery may be in play, but that's ALSO an entire attack that ISN'T going into your ships, keeping them alive just a little bit longer.  Just don't send in your squadrons with 1 health left on them unless you are VERY SURE that they need to trade their lives for one bomber shot on the ISD you're shooting at.  They WILL get flakked and die, and then you wasted your attack run with them.
Well, almost wasted
(Please note, ISD/MC80 players, I am not advising you to NOT flak things, that way results in you losing).

2) Critical Effects
Assault Proton Torpedoes (APTs) gives a free damage to the hull face up, and Assault Concussion Missiles (ACMs) starts evaporating shields fast, followed by putting even more damage into the hull when the shields are down.  Heavy Ion Emplacements (HIE) are even better at wrecking shields, but it's ONLY shields.  The added benefit of ACMs is that they discourage redirecting, as every shield your opponent redirects to is one more closer to your ACMs hitting the hull.  The extra damage provided by black dice crit upgrades will get you closer to your goal of a dead whale.  Or at the very least, provide more reasons for your opponent to repair the damage on his ship as opposed to his shields.  Repair commands are less useful for repairing damage, as it takes 3 points to heal a damage card and 2 to "repair" (restore) a shield.  6 points (dial and token) is either 3 shields (3 FAKE health) or 2 damage cards (2 REAL health), and if you have redirect tokens still....

ACMs and HIE are GREAT at evaporating shields and then just putting damage on the hull.  The only downside is that the damage isn't then faceup and you won't be getting Structural Damage pinging from ACMs.  Small price to pay for one black dice doing 4 total damage (the base hit and crit, combined with the 2 on the adjacent hull zones), which can only be braced down to 3 (base hit and crit becomes 1 total, then the crit effect adds in 2 more) or the same with one blue crit (one base damage, one to each of the 3 shield zones).

Mind you, APTs are good too.  Just putting damage into the hull RIGHT through the shields, and it's face up.  You can always hit a lucky Structural Damage, Comms Noise, Projector Misaligned, etc (this is much easier with Dodonna).  There's a LOT of good crits in the deck that any whale commander needs to be aware of when that damage gets through.  There's a reason most commanders don't just run their ISD/MC80 right over an asteroid unless they HAVE to.  Furthermore, it gets right to the heart of that "repairing damage versus shields" argument I was making a few paragraphs ago.  If your opponent needs to repair a crit to get rid of it and make the whale able to do its job semi normally, that's not the best use of engineering points.  And you forced your opponent to use them inefficiently through your black crits.  The issue there is even with Dodonna, you may not see the crits you want.  You may get an inability to attack at long range on their Kuat or one that has to remove a dice before attacking squadrons.  Helpful, yes, but not as helpful as the crits I mentioned earlier.

Take a look at the linked articles for Ordnance Upgrades for further analysis of what you'd rather have in your fleet.
I don't have a segue into a joke, so here, it's cartoon Demolisher from Droids!
(Whale players, there IS an argument to be made for including Damage Control Officer there, but you only then have the ability to get rid of crits as long as you have that contain.  Sometimes, against Demolisher, it's worth it though. Argument for another time.)

3) Multiple Attacks/Getting Around Defense Tokens
I mentioned earlier that when the shields are gone, the redirects are useless on a whale.  I also mentioned that if you can force your opponent to take a bunch of damage in one shot they'll likely brace it down.  What if you hit them with 5 CR90s with TRCs? That's 5x2=10 damage total, minimum (assuming your other dice all rolled badly) in 2 damage increments.  He CAN brace one of those, but that brings the total damage he has to take down to 9.  He can redirect 4 without losing any defense tokens (2 each redirect), but that means:
  • His non-contain tokens are all exhausted, so he can't get rid of more attacks unless he wants to discard those tokens forever AND
  • He still (in this example) has to take 5 damage in whatever hull zone you've been shooting at AND
  • He's reduced his shields in the adjacent sides of wherever you WERE shooting him and has none in the side all your damage originated from.  Hit him there AGAIN.
Where are my detonators, McClane?
Remember, in this example you ONLY had a guaranteed 2 damage each from 5 different CR90s.  I really hope you're rolling better than that, where every red dice you had came up blank and you had to use the TRCs to put some damage in.  Squadron lists are very similar, where if I throw 6 Y-wings at my problems, that's 6 (bomber!) black dice in individual increments your opponent has to deal with.  OVERLOADING the defense tokens this way is a good way to make sure a lot of your damage "sticks" to your opponent.  Similarly, if your opponent can see that he's in the firing arc of your own ship that's going to put out significant damage (Ackbar MC30, your own whale), he's likely going to want to save his brace for whatever horrid attack you hit him with.  Which means your other ships have free rein to hit him with everything they've got, pouring damage into them as hard as they can in order to bring down that whale.

Keep in mind that when you go with the "More damage from everyone plan," you should really make sure that you don't then END in close range and the good arc of those whales, as you're going to end up having a bad time there.  Your CR90 loves firing its turbolasers into that ISD! It doesn't like taking back the ISD's OWN turbolasers!
Press X to not die
There's all sorts of upgrades you can use to either "turn off" defense tokens (Heavy Turbolaser Turrets, XI7 Turbolasers, H9 Turbolasers, Quad Turbolaser Cannons, Sensor Team) or ensure that your opponent can't keep spending those tokens for long (Intel Officer, other "not great" ion cannon upgrades that I don't plan on suggesting), and each of these has some merit and some detriment.  See the linked articles for more of Eric's and my thoughts on each of those upgrades.

The biggest thing to concern yourself with is the Brace, as I've mentioned.  Its ability to reduce your damage in half is great, but the basic whales only have 1.  A good opponent will only discard his brace if it's worth it (reducing 3 damage down to 2, if it's not going to kill you, is NOT worth it), so you're going to need to overload him with attacks.  Hit it with everything you've got, and even if he braces down your best attack, your others got through unscathed, which is significantly helpful.  You're going to have to force your opponent into some hard choices, where he has to either take full damage from other attacks or lose the brace; one big attack a turn that he braces down isn't really enough to ensure the whale dies.  Just like REAL whaling, you'll need a crew of several boats hitting it in order to make sure you win.  In an ISD vs ISD matchup, do you want to JUST bring your ISD to fight his, or would you prefer to have your Raiders and Arquitens putting contributing damage into your opponent's ship so that way it dies faster? It's the same thing even if you don't have an ISD of your own.  Teamwork and togetherness, that's how you fight a whale.
"Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Heart!"
The last point I'll make is about what you do if your opponent chose a different Defensive Retrofit than Electronic Countermeasures (such as Reinforced Blast Doors under Motti).  At that point, the Whale has an obvious weak spot of the fact that one accuracy can lock down the Brace and you can just keep pumping damage into the ship.  It is for this fact, and the fact that a lot of people run Multiple Small Unit Swarms (AKA MSU Swarms, our second topic in this series, haha!), that you GENERALLY see Electronic Countermeasures on there.  Usually on an Assault MC80 you'll see BOTH, because it's the only ship with 2 defensive retrofit slots.  Does the ability to regenerate 3 health make up for the inability to use a brace that has been targeted with an accuracy result? Eric seems to believe "not really" but a janky 17 health ship IS HILARIOUS and a colossal pain in the butt to kill.  Having fought against it once or twice, I can agree with that assessment.

So how to go about killing an ISD/MC80? Realize that because it's a significant portion of your opponent's fleet that you're going to need to dedicate a significant portion of yours to handling it. Keep hitting it until it's dead, and use those ways above to contribute to putting extra damage into attacking it and killing it dead.  Ram it if you have to, but keep putting damage into it and it WILL die.

4) Your Own Whale
All of these suggestions of course, can combine very well with bringing your own large ship that puts out significant damage into your opponent.  They combine even better if you add in your own whale to the listed methods above.  If their Starhawk was 6 red tokens from repeated attacks before yours goes (with its 6 green tokens) then you've got a great setup to put some good damage onto your opponent. Significant damage braced is still good damage, of course, and a stressed brace token.  You don't necessarily need a whale of your own, but I'd send yours in to fight theirs if you both bring one.

What about those Moby Dicks? The biggest whales of either faction, the SSD and Starhawk?
The two biggest whales from either GCW faction (the SSD and the Starhawk) are heavily dependant on their defense tokens, and those defense tokens mitigate damage well.  The ships make up a significant portion of each fleet, but they max out at 6 defense tokens each.  Grinding the damage into them and overloading those defense tokens is the best way of killing them.  They can brace once, but they can't brace 8 times in one round.  The more attacks you do, the better chance you have of getting damage through and actually hurting them.  Think of it like this: to kill an Assault Frigate, the first shot can be hit by all 3 defense tokens; evade, brace, and redirect. It's the SECOND shot in the turn that gets dangerous for it.

I've found success with stressing the braces with repeated 4-5 damage shots, stressing the redirects with repeated squadron shots into the same hull zone, or stressing the contains with critical effects (Norra or the ones listed above, which conveniently all also stress the shields/hull).  The Agate Starhawk lives and dies by its tokens, so you need to stress them.  Boarding Troopers helps a bit there as well, preventing A usage of those tokens (and forcing discards if they do want to use them).  With the SSD's tokens and the usual Agate Starhawk loadouts resulting in dual braces and redirects in some fashion, you need to make sure that you're stressing those tokens repeatedly each turn in order to get damage through into those ships.  If they aren't having to think about discarding tokens because of what you're doing, you're not hitting them hard enough.  Agate Starhawks at speed 1+ can't have their tokens locked down permanently, so repeated accuracy generation doesn't work as much as you'd want it to.  Stressing the tokens is more helpful in that instance, which means keep hitting it as hard as you can.  Send your whole fleet at it, and keep pouring damage into that whale.
"And he piled on the whale's white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race.  If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it."


  1. I feel like this article was written just for me ;)

    Thank you for more great content!

  2. Wether you pick ECM or RBD for your whale just depends on the meta. In a meta with a lot of ships rolling accuracies you want ECM. In a meta where most people attempt to overload defense tokens you want RBD

    1. I think ECM is almost always the correct choice for a ship with a brace token. RBD is for ships without a brace, or as a second defensive retrofit for a pickle.

  3. There is a new whale in town - the Starhawk (and I suppose also the SSD, but at least that got the Crippled condition).
    I am very scared of the Starhawk, because my brother in law are going to run a Rebellion in the Rim campaign one (post-Corona?) day, and he's going to use it.

    Sure, it's an expensive ship in a 200 point budget, so whatever he has in addition to it is vulnerable and one could still win by points...

    But any additional advice for this ship?

    1. John may respond as well, but my short take is: the same basic tactics work on either. The main thing to keep an eye out for with the SSD and Starhawk (with mandatory Agate commander) is the double brace tokens, which makes locking down the brace difficult (impossible with Agate's ability). This means you either need even stronger defense token denial OR you need a higher volume of attacks. Either works fine. Starhawk in particular tends to struggle against a large volume of attacks, which makes getting mileage from Agate's token shtick more difficult.

    2. What Eric said, but i'll take a look at the article in the next few days and update it for those ships along with a few other tips.

    3. Thanks for the response! Your blog is really informative and enjoyable to read!

      It's nteresting to what works for the "tournamenent" scene, and more importantly also why. Though admittedly, I'll never be involved in a tournament, I am playing far too casually for that. Still, it would be interesting to see what you would come up with for campaign play (particularly with Rebellion in the Rim because it has more restrictions on how to build your fleet - Eric mentions the Agate ability, but to get that, you first need to fight at least once without it until you can manage to assault a location that awards the right type of unique ugrade, because out of the gate, you have no unique upgrades). It is always intersting to see how people adapt to restrictions and see what kind of creative approaches they find.

    4. Updated it a bit! Nothing too major, but basically what we said in the comments above