Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Fighting Fleets: Swatting Swarms/MSU

Some of the most common types of questions John and I see online about Armada come down to "my local meta seems to be dominated by (insert archetype) fleet and I'm struggling to beat it, what do I do?" With that said, John fired off the first article about how to handle well-defended large ships that require a lot of firepower to bring down. I'd like to discuss another major archetype which in many ways is the opposite of a fleet with one or more tough large ships, the MSU swarm-of-small-ships fleet. I've run MSU fleets competitively for a few years now, so it's something I know pretty well. It's not unbeatable by any means, but without an understanding of how it works it can feel that way sometimes.
Cue the Aquabats' Shark Fighter, please!
What exactly is an MSU fleet?
The most concise definition I can come up with is "a fleet primarily (or even completely) consisting of small generally cheaper ships that aims to benefit from having more activations than its opponent, often with a bid for first." This is referred to as an MSU fleet, or MSU for short (MSU standing for "multiple small units," which is some standard wargamer slang from earlier minis wargames).

Given that fleets with 3-5 activations(/ships) are fairly common in most communities, an MSU fleet will usually have 6+ activations; depending on what is common in your area, however, the required number could be less or perhaps even more.

How does MSU work?
Because MSU has more activations than its "generic" opponent, it can use its activation advantage to its benefit. Earlier in a round if there aren't any pressing "must activate immediately" ships, it can activate its less important ships (not necessarily there just for activation padding, just not as important that turn - they may become very important in later turns). while it waits to see where the opponents' most important ships will end up. Once the opponent commits his most important assets, MSU can ideally attack those ships without further retribution (that round) and maneuver its remaining ships to line up attacks and/or avoid the opponent's best attacks next round.

Because many MSU fleets feature at least a modest bid for first, it's fairly common for them to want to pull off a "last+first" maneuver, which I covered a bit in my how to use black dice article. In short, MSU fleets usually have one heavy hitter they use to crack serious threats, whether that is a Demolisher Gladiator, Admonition MC30, or dabbling in Big Heavy by bringing in a large or medium combat ship. These types of ships are to some degree glass cannons - they can cause a lot of damage but they won't last long if the opponent can focus his fleet on them. An MSU fleet can wait until its final activation to move its heavy hitter into range of its prey and will usually double-arc its target. It then activates first in the next round and is able to destroy or at the very least badly wound its target, and all without taking any strong attacks prior to its own attack run.

While positioning and exerting control over your ship's positioning (both relative to the attacks you expect to receive and the attacks you would like to deliver) are important to every fleet in Armada, they're particularly important to an MSU fleet. Because MSU wantss cheap ships but also wants to be able to present legitimate combat threats beyond their heavy hitter, it's often relying on lighter corvettes like CR90s, Hammerheads, or Raiders or slightly heavier ships like Nebulon-Bs or Arquitens Light Cruisers to assist with getting damage into enemy ships. All of these ships (particularly the corvettes) rely on positioning to avoid taking serious attacks, and with an activation advantage, the maneuverability of such ships allows them to arc-dodge and set the terms of engagement very favorably. A multitude of attacks from these smaller ships can also overheat defense tokens even on heavier prey, so they can be dangerous when properly coordinated.

In short (too late, I know), MSU succeeds by controlling the tempo of the game due to its activation advantage. It has the advantage in deciding where fights will happen and when and has an advantage in terms of positioning its ships due to their high maneuverability.

Look at this nonsense. I count at least six activations in this shot alone!

How do I beat MSU?
This is the big question behind this article, of course, and the first step towards understanding MSU's weaknesses are understanding how it works, which I outlined above. When you're up against MSU playing its own game perfectly, it feels like you rarely get in the attacks you want to make from your best arcs against the targets that you wanted to attack. Frequently your opportunities are poor but your opponent seems to always be getting in his best attacks at the best times. It can be very frustrating - you're effectively playing someone else's game that they've stacked in their favor. In order to combat that, you'll need to have a response both at the strategic and tactical level. Let's start with strategic.

Strategic tools against MSU
"Strategic" in this case meaning "decisions made prior to the game" and concerning fleet building and the like. Every fleet building exercise is effectively a conversation between what you want your own fleet to do against your opponent's fleet and concerns about what your opponent may want his fleet to do to yours (see: why it's smart to show up with fighter squadrons, even if squadrons aren't a big part of your game plan - they may be an important part of your opponent's game plan and you need some kind of an answer to that). Your fleet should have some anti-MSU tools available, just like it should have some anti-squadron and anti-heavy ship tools too. I don't recommend building a specific anti-MSU fleet, but I'll be presenting some topics for consideration below for integration into your current fleets.

Number of ships in your own fleet
The more out-activated you are, the rougher a time you'll have of it as a general rule. If your local MSU fleets are running 6 ships and you have only 3, then they've got 3 more activations than you, which gives them a lot more wiggle room: they can have the most dangerous half of their fleet wait out your entire fleet and then commit to their positions. Less ships also means less table coverage in general, which means more areas of the board that are safe for the more fragile corvettes to hide in.

This isn't to say you can't do well with fewer activations, merely that the less of a gap you have between your activation count and the MSU fleet activation count, the less extreme the activation disadvantage will be against you. There's also the issue of pass tokens now in Armada 1.5, which we're covering right now!

Pass tokens and how to use them
In Armada 1.5, a fleet with less ships than its opponent receives X pass tokens, where X is the difference in ships. This number is reduced by 1 if you're first player. This can help ameliorate a difference in activations on a crucial round but it's important to note that you can't spend a pass token twice in a row. So if your fleet with 3 ships meets an opponent's fleet with 7 and you're second player, you can spend every pass token possible and you'll still be out-activated. Here's what I mean:

  1. MSU activation 1
  2. Your pass token 1
  3. MSU activation 2
  4. Your activation 1
  5. MSU activation 3
  6. Your pass token 2
  7. MSU activation 4
  8. Your activation 2
  9. MSU activation 5
  10. Your pass token 3
  11. MSU activation 6
  12. Your activation 3
  13. MSU activation 7

At the end of all this, you'd still have one pass token remaining to use in future rounds. Those pass tokens can buy you some crucial delaying against the MSU fleet, but they still don't stop it from out-activating you if the difference in ship count is high enough (if they have more than twice your ship count).

That said, you need to commit to delaying with pass tokens in situations like this from the beginning of a round as you need to spend the pass token every opportunity you can just to break even, assuming that's even possible. A canny opponent relying on activations shenanigans may play it safe one round to set up his plan for the next. It's up to you to try to find some way to punish him for such hesitation.

If you know that your fleet struggles against MSU, then reexamining your objectives should be a top priority - most MSU fleets want to go first and frequently bid points to do so. If you're not punishing them with a selection of objectives that help your fleet and hurt theirs, then you're going to have an even rougher time of it. Objectives like Opening Salvo or Fleet Ambush that can be turned against you by a more numerous and aggressive fleet should be immediately dropped in favor of something else.

Anything that allows you to harvest an awful lot of points from objective tokens, particularly if you can find room for a Strategic squadron or two, is worth considering. When used well this way, an objective like Fire Lanes or Intel Sweep or Sensor Net put the onus on the MSU player to stop you from winning the game as quickly as possible. Because the objective points are the clear focus for both your fleets with those kinds of objectives, the MSU fleet will find itself needing to decide between its usual playstyle of cagey maneuvering at the expense of an extra round or two of your fleet gobbling up victory points or a more straightforward rush to stop you, which comes at the likely expense of the destruction of several of his ships. Contested Outpost and the like are easier to fit into most fleets but the risk of the second player scoring lots of points is much lower, so you'll find some use from them but not nearly as strongly. Or to put it more straightforwardly: if I play a MSU and I am cagey for the round against Fire Lanes, I lose 45 points. If I largely wait out the round against Contested Outpost, I lose 20. One of those is a much bigger incentive than the other, and Strategic squadrons keep the Fire Lanes tokens in play as a scoring threat to me until I do something about it.

Failing that, anything that helps you put extra hurt on MSU with little risk to yourself is good. Most Wanted is a classic and works fine against MSU - just slap it on your flotilla and target the MSU's heavy hitter - it's generally relying on blowing out serious opposition early and then jetting out before things get too bad, but with an extra die getting added in constantly, it can often be overwhelmed even if it succeeds in its attack run against your strongest ship, and gives you double base points too. That usually means the heavy hitter needs to decide between playing it safe and going after weaker less rewarding prey on the outskirts or taking a big risk. Reclaiming the deployment advantage that is usually lost to MSU through Superior Positions or Solar Corona is also good and disallows the MSU fleet from setting up its heavy hitter opposite its preferred prey. Worst case, something like Planetary Ion Cannon helps to get some extra damage into the small ships early, which makes destroying them early a more likely possibility, which can help diminish your activation disadvantage.

There are a lot of good options here but they'll depend greatly on your fleet composition and the styles of MSU that are common in your meta. For example, Advanced Gunnery for your HMC80 is swell in metas with more conventional MSU, but it's not going to disadvantage a Kuat ISD that's in an MSU/Big Heavy hybrid fleet that's happy to make two attacks against two different hull zones with its front arc.

A bid of your own
I recommend this with some hesitation, but outbidding an MSU fleet that relies on going first for a last+first activation can take some wind out of MSU's sails because they can't set you up for an attack run you don't get a say in. By going first, you will at least get your first best attack in once combat begins prior to the MSU fleet having a say, which can let you start chiseling away at weaker ships in particular earlier in the game. I recommend this with some hesitation because bidding wars can start with this kind of approach, with each fleet over time making larger and larger bids for first until they both get wrecked by a fleet that knows how to milk being second player with some strong objectives. In short, it can become mutually assured destruction over time so be careful here.

Offensive upgrades
I want to break down "improve the quality of your activations to compensate for your deficiency in quantity" into a few sub-headers, which we'll start with offensive upgrades. What you're looking for here is anything that allows you to make more and/or higher-quality attacks despite MSU's activation and positioning advantage - you should expect most of your attacks to be made in the following types of circumstances:

  • Your good arcs can expect to get long-ranged attacks in, particularly earlier in the game when MSU is on the approach and can't arc-dodge as well until ranges get closer.
  • Your weaker arcs can expect to get up to even close range (when MSU ships are dodging around/past you) periodically.
  • MSU corvettes will be using every trick to dodge out of your best arcs and/or to limit the amount of attacks you can make back at their fleet, which means they're frequently navigating to get into the best position and to manage their speed.
Upgrades that can help you in those circumstances would include the following examples:
Gunnery Team on your big hitters, as it means MSU can't profitably hide all possible targets in one arc. It also means that your good arc will at least get to use its red dice pretty reliably in a target-rich environment (especially early on). Given small ships have evades, you're not going to generally be doing much damage at long range, but every point counts and can bring those ships into range to get destroyed by subsequent attacks later. Gunnery Teams are also helpful for forking, which is a good tactic to use against MSU when you can.

Any kind of weapon upgrade that can increase the reliability or potency of your attacks, especially from any arc (as you can't count on getting your best arcs in consistently) is a good choice against MSU. Quad Battery Turrets merits a special mention as MSU ships will often be going faster than your heavier combat ships, but there are a lot of options here.

Otherwise, if you can throw a monkey wrench into the navigation commands required to keep MSU corvettes safe, they'll often find they can't maneuver out of trouble and get promptly blown up. The most mainstream tool for doing so is Slicer Tools, which is versatile if dangerous for the user. More dedicated tools like Phylon Q7 Tractor Beams and G8 Experimental Projectors can be extremely effective for denying navigate tokens to small ships and slowing them down when they'd rather be making a getaway, but they're not the kind of things that are easily added to most fleets.

Defensive upgrades
Let's cover how MSU likes to attack so we can better understand how to defend against it:
  • Corvettes are often looking to get in several smaller attacks on the same target in one turn to overheat its defense tokens rather than go one-on-one with enemy ships. 
    • Corvettes generally do not handle punching matches well and so don't expect them to hang around for more than a round or perhaps two before jetting away.
    • Some corvettes can also threaten a frightening amount of burst damage, particularly Raiders or Hammerheads equipped with External Racks.
  • The heavy hitter is looking to get the jump on the biggest ship of the opponent's fleet to go for an early knockout, usually with assistance from the smaller combat ships. In general, corvettes have a hard time coming out ahead against a heavy combat ship, so they'll need the help.
  • Because they usually don't get into slugging matches, it's common to see all the combat ships in an MSU fleet with dice-reroll/dice certainty upgrades to make the most of their attack runs; don't count on bad dice rolls to help you out much.
So with that understanding, a few kinds of upgrades are more valuable:

Lando and similar reroll effects (Target Scramblers, for example) can be a godsend for surviving a big damage spike from External Racks or for getting through the heavy hitter's alpha strike alive. Even removing just a few points of damage by rerolling blue damage dice and red or black double-damage dice can make the crucial difference between being destroyed and being alive to punch that glass cannon right back.

Similarly, anything that allows you to more widely distribute or reduce damage from multiple smaller attacks will pay dividends against MSU, so defensive retrofits such as Advanced Projectors and Early Warning System will almost always be superior to Electronic Countermeasures - it's uncertain if a specific MSU fleet will care much about generating accuracy icons (in general it's possible but typically it's death by a thousand cuts), but it will for sure be trying to blow through you as quickly as possible to then run away, so you need to concern yourself with surviving the initial run. If you can do that, your odds improve remarkably.

Squadrons and carriers
Fleets leaning heavily on squadrons are paradoxically both strong and weak against MSU, which can create some tense games.

The strengths are that MSU fleets are often low in squadrons (usually bringing 0-6 fighter squadrons only) and so getting bombers through to their ships is often quite easy. In the long run, the bombers can do a substantial amount of damage every round while most MSU fleets do it in bursts.

The big weakness is that your squadrons don't matter if/when MSU charges straight for your ships and tables you. Your carrier ships are weak and easy to destroy and because you spent so many points on squadrons, you don't have a lot of hull points standing between your opponent's fleet and you being completely tabled. Even if your opponent doesn't outright table you, carriers that get dropped early are carriers that can't command squadrons, who are going to have a tough time catching speedy small ships when they don't get squadron commands any more.

In short, if you can keep your ships relatively safe and your squadrons consistently relevant throughout the game, you can do well, but if not then you're going to have a bad time. Upgrades and options that allow for commanding squadrons from a further distance (like Boosted Comms) can allow for your carriers to play more conservatively and not need to rush into danger earlier on to keep your squadrons going. Conversely, Rogue squadrons can menace lighter ships all on their own without needing squad commands.

My bad.
Tactical considerations against MSU
Okay, so we've gone over (and over, and over) strategic tools. What can we actually do in-game to put MSU on the back foot? Some tactical element naturally pair with the strategic advice I already gave (play to your strong second player objective if the MSU player had to pick it, set your upgrades up to be relevant and succeed, command your squadrons from the safest distance possible, etc.) but there are other considerations too.

Deployment considerations, both for obstacles and your fleet
MSU wants freedom of movement, it wants to be able to hide from attacks whenever possible, and it wants to gang up on your ships when it's time to make their attack run. When it comes to obstacle deployment, give some consideration to placing damaging obstacles near other obstacles around the middle of the board (both in terms of the center point but moreso in terms of the "central row" going horizontally) to make ganging up more difficult. Obstacles placed too close to the MSU fleet's deployment zone will only help your opponent, as they can be hid behind in the early game and the corvettes can easily maneuver around them when the time comes to step on the gas.

When it comes to fleet deployment, take a moment to ensure you know how many total deployments the MSU fleet has compared to yours. It's fairly common for MSU fleets to out-deploy opposing fleets, but that won't always be the case (especially against squadron-heavy fleets). If the MSU fleet does not out-deploy you, then there you've got some more breathing room. If they do, however, then you need to be more careful than usual when being out-deployed.

An MSU fleet that out-deploys you not only has the benefit of placing their heavy hitter last relative to your fleet but due to MSU's activation and maneuverability advantages over you, they can concentrate their fleet against a portion of yours while the remainder of your fleet ambles about looking for targets. For example, if the MSU fleet out-deploys you by 3 deployments, they can drop their heavy hitter and 2 corvettes facing your right flank and then once the game begins their center assets can turn to join that attack coming in on your right. Whatever they had facing your left flank has its options (between slowing down and waiting to see what happens, diving for cover, joining at the tail end of the attack coming at your right, etc.), but you'll find an awful lot of stuff coming at half or less of your fleet all at once. In short, the more deployments they have versus you the more strongly they can attempt to pursue this "divide and conquer" tactic.

The best remedy to this kind of situation is deploying your fleet compactly (but not too close!) at a lower speed (1 or 2 at the highest), with your strongest ships towards the middle so they can provide support to a flank that gets overloaded. By starting at a lower speed, you give yourself more time to see what your opponent's up to before he can actually reach your fleet, usually buying yourself another turn to reposition and navigate to meet the threat.

For example, this Madine-style Rebel fleet deployment is poor against MSU (I left out squadrons for our purposes here) - the two heaviest hitters are on the flanks and the weaker units are in the middle. MSU will out-deploy this and weight its attack on one flank or the other, leaving the LMC80 or MC30 out of the fight most of the game while MSU gangs up on the opposite flank. A better deployment would be keeping them MC30 and LMC80 deployed more centrally and at lower starting speeds and then responding to MSU's positioning in the early rounds.

Ship speed
Speaking of ship speed, it's an important consideration in terms of how much advantage you're providing your opponent. It's difficult to be specific about this as the "correct" speed setting will be very context-dependent, but in general I've found that when I'm running MSU, the easiest prey are ships that are charging in recklessly and with little support (so going too fast and out of formation) and ships that are going too slow and on the flanks or all alone (so going too slow and out of formation). Ideally, you should always be endeavoring to keep your ships in formation and able to support one another and that's particularly true against MSU which is looking to use its activation advantage to isolate and destroy your ships.

Ideally, you should be looking to maintain a speed that doesn't telegraph your positioning and rush you into more attacks than necessary. If you're a longer-ranged fleet, then maintaining a low speed is ideal because it slightly prolongs how long it takes for small ships to reach you. Don't be afraid to speed up to threaten already-activated ships for next turn (we're getting to there with forking) or possible landing zones for not-yet-activated ships. I know I keep reminding you that MSU is looking to out-activate and outmaneuver you, and by issuing navigate commands pretty regularly you can make it more difficult to predict where your ships will be.

Keep an eye on activations
The activations game is where MSU excels and so it behooves you to pay as much attention to it as the your opponent does. Realize which of your ships your opponent is trying to wait out and which one he isn't and activate accordingly - you should be able, with some experience, to have a good idea what ships will be activated after you activate a particular ship.

A basic guiding principle is that it's best to move relative to already-activated ships (as they can't attack again this round) and it's best to attack unactivated ships (as it ideally can destroy them prior to their activation but at the very least it puts pressure on those ships to avoid committing to a hot combat zone, buying you some breathing room).

Just because most of the MSU ships are maneuverable and have a high speed ceiling doesn't mean that they can go anywhere they want on the table. When maneuvering your own ships relative to them, consider their maneuverability and current speed. How much could that change given their access to a possible nav dial? Do they have a nav token or a commander that helps them navigate or Entrapment Formation or something like that? With practice, you can identify the possible end points for their maneuvers even though they haven't happened yet. Use this to set up forks with your stronger ships against their weaker ships. Anything with a lot of dice and a wide arc is harder to completely avoid than you might first think, especially once things start getting closer in.

So with that said, sometimes speeding up to fill a gap the MSU player felt would be a safe destination for later activations can really pay off. Just be careful whatever you're sending in can handle the return fire!

Final thoughts
I feel like I could keep writing more, but I've covered the main points and this article is already very long. Best of luck to you in dealing with MSU fleets and let me know if you had any follow-up questions!

1 comment:

  1. Never fear that a post is too long, keep sharing your wisdom and we'll keep reading!