Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Eric's post-Worlds wave 7-ish thoughts

So similar to John's more recent article, I wanted to get my thoughts down in one place about some things that have been kind of bouncing around in my brain since Worlds.You'll probably note that John and I have been thinking/talking about some of the same things. I also suspect I'll say something others won't agree with 100%, so be aware this is going to be more contentious than my usual articles are.
Who's that pokemon?
1) No squadrons is a legitimate way to play post-nerf
John covered this as well, but going zero squadrons after the flotilla nerf can be done without it being suicidal. We'll need to get an entry added to John's Squadron Encyclopedia series to really elaborate on it, but several of us from Fair Game went zero squads at Worlds and did pretty well (John, Nick, and I all went 3-1). It's really important to have a plan to handle carriers, which usually requires the ability to get damage into them early and often (usually red dice) and Slicer Tools helps pretty substantially too. In the current meta, Slicer Tools insurance is often left behind because the officer slots have gotten very competitive and the squad-on-squad considerations squadron-heavier fleets need to make when building a fleet are often of greater importance than the "what if I hit a no squads fleet with Slicer Tools?" considerations are. Rogues, of course, complicate matters (see: the rise of Hera as a good Rebel squadron), but for the most part I'm still not seeing a lot of Rogues in fleets other than Hera-aided squads and the occasional YT-2400 spam with a Raddus fleet.

Garel's Honor had the right idea all along!
2) Flotillas thoughts post-nerf
I'm still seeing 1-2 flotillas in most fleets nowadays and the consensus on the flotilla changes has been overwhelmingly positive (both online and in-person). That said, a lot of fleets nowadays are weaker to tabling due to the flotilla nerf and it's become easy to ignore flotillas and go right for the "real" ships. The best way to really handle that problem is to give the flotilla(s) a serious job, preferably one the opponent can't ignore safely. Some good examples of this would be Toryn Farr on a GR-75, a Slicer Tools flotilla, or a fleet where the flotillas are doing the squads heavy lifting (through commander buffs or Expanded Hangar Bays or whatnot while the other ships are your combat ships). Ignore flotillas with a serious job at your peril.

This is not to say it's nuts to keep using a lower-impact flotilla, like a Comms Net slave flotilla, but "it gives a token and an activation" isn't as strong of an argument for inclusion as it used to be given it no longer stops you from getting tabled. If it does those things in addition to something else more important, it's still a good inclusion. Otherwise... maybe not.

The memes are dumb. The struggle is real.
3) Squadron play might merit streamlining when Armada gets updated
Truthiness over at Steel Command beat me to the punch on this one(it's like we have discussions in similar places or something!), but I've been hearing more grumbling about the ponderousness of squadrons in Armada. I can't say I'm unsympathetic to the concerns - a lot of higher-level squad play needs to be very precise because there are a lot of "bubbles" each individual squadron needs to keep in mind: the squadron command range of friendly ships, buff auras from other squadrons and ships (like Howlrunner, Jan Ors, Bomber Command Center, Toryn Farr, etc), debuff auras from enemy squadrons and ships (like Intel or Gallant Haven), and the engagement and flak ranges of enemy squadrons and ships (in addition to Escort). It's a lot to keep in mind when moving an individual squadron and when you get two squad-heavy fleets going after one another, a serious mistake when it comes to squadron placement can cost the game. This is why the final round of Worlds was so slow and boring - neither player wanted to lose the game due to the other player's Ten Numb so they had to check ranges constantly.

Exactly how to resolve this is something of an open question: although I think Truthiness' base-to-base method for squad attacks would help, removing more bubble effects would be necessary and it's an altogether too large of a problem to do anything about except in an imaginary Armada 2.0. Obviously this would require a lot of rebalancing as well, so it would be a major project and not the kind of thing you could simply errata in right now. Would it be worth it? That's largely a matter of opinion. For me, Armada will always be a longer game than X-Wing, but anything that streamlines the game and makes it take less time allows for those of us who love it to get more games in and hopefully have more success at selling it to other people who are a bit more time-conscious.

Worlds footage
4) Imperials got kicked at Worlds
Imperials have yet to win at Armada Worlds ever, but the Worlds 4 semi-finalists were all Rebels (3 Rieekan heavy squads fleets and a Raddus moderate-to-heavy-squads fleet). It was a pretty bad showing overall for Imperials (although congrats to my buddy Nick who got 3rd with his Imperial fleet on day 1A, just barely missing the cut). Euros, thankfully, had 2 Imperials make the top 4 cut, but neither proceeded to the finals match (...which was again won by Rieekan heavy squads, causing a small riot online). Why, exactly, are Imperials having such a tough time of it?

It's a simple question without a simple answer. I think in part it's not helped by the fact that two of the most popular Rebel commanders right now, Raddus and Rieekan, do very well against Imperials. Raddus is strong against large ships, particularly if he can place in the side of a front-arc large ship (the very common ISD) and Rieekan squad-heavy builds outclass most Imperial squad-heavy builds (paradoxically, Sloane aces in particular due to Ten Numb hiding behind 2-3 Escorts) and are still quite potent at crunching through heavier Imperial ships too. One thing that I've found common to both Rieekan and Raddus is they minimize the benefits their opponent usually derives from aggressive play: coming in hot at Raddus pre-Raddus drop is setting yourself up for a very rude surprise when the Raddus ship drops in at the worst possible place and your fleet is simply too dedicated to its current approach to change its positioning in time. Imperials can't use their alpha strike offensive advantage very well to dismantle a Rieekan squadrons combo engine because whichever important component gets knocked out is just kept a zombie for the round in question and then the Imperial fleet takes its lumps in return.

In short: if you can reverse or at least minimize the benefits of offensive play for Imperial players, it seems to me (from both my own experiences and what I've witnessed in others' games) that it's a tough situation for Imperial players to handle. It's my belief that Imperials as a faction for the most part are not well-designed to play more defensively/reactively (in general ranges are shorter,  defensive retrofit slots are rarer, and squadrons are flimsier but more potent on the attack) and correspondingly, many Imperial-only players don't have a lot of practice at playing that way to boot. There are other areas to focus on, of course, but that's my kneejerk reaction to the triangle sadness at Worlds. Speaking of triangle sadness...

5) Imperial fleet building is tricky compared to Rebel fleet building
This isn't to say it's easy street for anybody, but having played Rebels a lot lately (I'm not planning on making the shift permanent, should anyone be concerned), I'm finding it's less of a hassle to build fleets for them compared to my usual Imperials. I've found this comes down to two basic differences between the factions:

#1 Imperial cheap ships require "fixers" and are more expensive
To use a fancy college word here, Rebel fleet-building when it comes to ships has more "granularity" because their cheap ships (CR90s, Hammerheads, GR-75s) are cheaper and so your options for spending, say, 130 points of your fleet on ships are more varied than Imperial options due to the fact that the building blocks you have to fill that gap are smaller.

Beyond that, there is the fact that for the most part, CR90As and Hammerhead Corvettes can be included competitively in most Rebel fleets regardless of commander (Garm probably doesn't want them, really, but otherwise it comes down to the rest of the fleet). As a general rule, the same can't be said for Raider-Is and Arquitens. Raider-Is really want activation parity or activation advantage over an opponent and prefer to have a commander buff (usually Ozzel, Jerry, or Screed) and Arquitens very strongly want someone who can fix their weird nav chart (like Jerry) or unreliable damage output (like Vader) or both (the very interesting Tarquitens fleet). Raider-IIs with Heavy Ions and Disposable Capacitors can be included basically wherever, but most fleets won't want more than one and it's 65 points (unless you're brave enough to go without Veteran Gunners or are using Screed/Vader, in which case it's 60). In short: Imperial cheap(ish) small ships exist and can be valuable additions to a fleet, but they're pickier about the fleets they want to be a part of than Rebel cheap ships and more expensive, sometimes significantly so.

If Armada Santa could bring me what my heart desires, a small Imperial ship of the line designed to fling a small number of red dice out the front that doesn't require a "fixer" commander would be my Sithmas wish. Something along the same lines as a Hammerhead Scout (or perhaps something like an overweight Assault Gozanti? Hopefully you get what I mean). A CR90A painted black is too derivative, but something that's inexpensive and can help soften up/finish off ships at long range would be welcome.

#2 Rebel squadron building is easier and arguably better
There are an awful lot of squadron compositions you can run up against with a given fleet, especially with Admiral Sloane in the mix since wave 6 (more on her next). It can be difficult to really settle on the right composition of fighter, bomber, and support squadrons that has the best overall matchup against most other compositions (including zero squadrons). Because most Imperial squadrons are specialists, getting the mixture right with them is particularly troublesome because if your opponent went fighter-heavy, your bombers are going to be in for a very rough time of it and if your opponent went low/no squads, then your fighters are pretty bad at going after enemy ships. That's just how it is and it's one of the reasons you see Maarek Stele (and usually his hetero life mate, Jendon) everywhere in more substantial Imperial squadron fleets: because he's good at just about everything and sidesteps this issue for the most part, making him a good starting place for any Imperial squadrons fleet that wants its squadrons to do more than just deal with enemy squadrons.

Because Rebel squadrons are much more flexible, a given Rebel squadron build will tend to maintain effectiveness against a wider range of enemy squadron compositions due to how well their squadrons can transition over to doing a secondary job if necessary. X-Wings and A-Wings can work as mediocre bombers when they need to, B-Wings don't mind dogfighting if they get stuck, etc. It still requires a lot of tinkering to get that "just right" squadron composition, of course, and you will still have some bad matchups, but overall the squadron component of Rebel fleet building is a lot more forgiving and thus allows for more consistency.

The Imperial focus on single tasks can still be helpful when building for fighter squadrons only by allowing you to bring the most bang for your anti-squadron buck, mind you. It's mostly for moderate- to heavy-squadron play where I find Imperials have a harder time with fleet building as the end product frequently feels like a less flexible less powerful Rebel variant.

Speaking of that, another difference in terms of straight power level comes down to a lot of the Rebel squadron force multipliers (the ever-present Yavaris title, Gallant Haven, Adar Talon, Toryn Farr, Fighter Coordination Team, etc.) is ship-based. This has the benefit of allowing Rebel squad-heavy fleets to load up on squadrons and then give them extra potency by spending points not limited by the 134 point squadron cap. Imperial squad-heavy fleets for the most part have their force multipliers wrapped up in their squadron points (Jendon, Howlrunner) with the main competitive ship-based buff being Flight Controllers and the Squall Quasar title. Unfortunately for the Empire, a lot of its other ship-based squadron buffs (Corrupter, Admiral Chiraneau, Vector) have been pretty pointless or at the very least very niche and have aged a lot worse than their Rebel equivalents (Chiraneau being a great example - he was okay-ish before Intel came along, but with Intel he's become for the most part binder fodder). For some reason, FFG wants to keep giving the faction with the fastest squadrons even more pointless speed buffs they don't need 😢.

Of course, Imperials that want to go heavy squadron can always just say "screw it, let's go hard on what the Empire squadrons do well and use Sloane and mostly fighters," but Sloane has for the most part struggled since the flotilla nerf to get to the top tables and Rebel heavy squadron fleets are now packing Ten Numb hiding behind 2-3 Escorts to put the fear of God into those Sloane aces; Sloane doesn't really have a great answer to "what if Ten Numb hiding inside an Escort fortress?". Speaking of Sloane...

A hater!
6) I'm not sure Admiral Sloane has been a positive addition to Armada
Please, please, put away the pitchforks and torches and hear me out first: I'm not disputing that Sloane is a good commander. My problem with Sloane is specifically her effect on the meta: every fleet that's planning to do anything with squadrons needs an answer to "what happens if I hit Sloane with tons of fighters, usually aces?" The standard "Green Knight" Sloane aces pack is:
  • Saber Squadron
  • Mauler Mithel
  • Ciena Ree
  • Howlrunner
  • Valen Rudor
  • Maarek Stele
  • Jendon
  • Dengar
For a solid 134 points on the nose. Exactly the squadrons I ran at Adepticon with my Sloane fleet, for that matter. You'll see variants, of course (You can drop Dengar and Valen for Soontir and Zertik, for example, if you're okay dropping Intel for a bit more oomph at anti-squad). These beastly squads are quite likely pushed by a Quasar with Flight Controllers and perhaps some other shenanigans with the other supporting ships as well, but generally the formula is ISD or Interdictor + Quasar + Gozanti (with a second Gozanti being possible, depending on how frugal you've been on your other ships).

Anyways, every squadron-based fleet you make needs a plan to deal with this. It's not invincible, but it packs an awful lot of anti-squadron power. Rebels for the most part have settled on the Ten Numb solution I've already mentioned, and it shreds those scatter aces like crazy, especially with all the combo elements lined up just right (Toryn, Yavaris, Fighter Coordination Teams, Jan to pass out brace tokens to Ten's Escort squadron friends, Rieekan to keep a crucial puzzle piece alive for the round, optional Adar for the Ten triple-tap and positioning help). The aforementioned Rebel solution is a heavy-squads only approach, though, requiring a lot of setup and squad force multiplier upgrades.

Imperials don't really have a strong solution outside of:
  1. Sloane better than the other Sloane
  2. Some very clever usage of Ruthless Strategists, preferably on more than one ship and preferably with 2-dice flak (because otherwise Ciena is still going to ruin your day)
  3. Knock out the Quasar and/or combat ship ASAP
You'll note that option #1 isn't terribly helpful to people not wanting to play Sloane, option #2 is possible but a very tricky build to get working, and option #3 is probably best achieved by a fleet with no squadrons of its own acting as a points sink; the Sloane squadrons on the whole will make an absolute mess of other squadrons but they're mediocre against ships, so you might as well present your most resilient assets while going for a carrier kill or an outright tabling. It's particularly rough as a non-Sloane Imperial going squad-heavy because for the most part you're trying to deliver Maarek and other dedicated bombers that aren't amazing against squads (TIE Bombers, Firesprays, Decimators) and Sloane's fighter-heavy build is going to overload your fighter squadron element pretty quickly before chewing through your bombers. It's a rough matchup, especially if you go in without Ruthless Strategists.

I've also seen a hollowing out of the medium fighter coverage group competitively, I believe in large part due to Sloane. The problem here is prior to Sloane, large fighter coverage groups were usually spending more points on bombers and support squadrons and medium fighter coverage groups were investing their smaller investment into fighter-bombers or fighters with a small bomber presence. The MFC could usually blow through small fighter coverage groups and go on to bomb ships or against LFC could give them a serious dogfight - the MFC would usually lose that dogfight (as it should, it was spending less total points on squadrons), but it would do well enough to buy some time for its fleet to do its thing and blunt the bomber spearhead in the process. That assumption is completely upended in metas with Sloane - a Sloane fleet will blow through the MFC pretty quickly because its squadron points are nearly 100% spent on fighters and a Rebel LFC group that's prepared to fight its way through a Sloane counterpart will similarly mulch most MFCs without too much trouble. With some exceptions, the only MFCs I'm seeing that place well competitively now are Rebel fleets based around Strategic and VCXs. After the Relay nerf they're still out there, but they're much less common than they once were.

The resulting shake-out seems to be that I'm seeing mostly Sloane for Imperial heavy squadron fleets (a few Jerry holdouts, though, that seem to also favor aces) and mostly Rieekan or sometimes Dodonna Yavaris combo-wombo Ten Numb Rebel heavy squadron fleets (because older-style Rebel heavy squadron fleets get destroyed by Sloane). I'm not seeing a lot of moderate squadron fleets anymore and I'm seeing some fleets that used to run light squads migrating all the way to no squads because the type of squad-heavy fleets we're seeing at the top just blow through squadron opposition of anything less than a big investment too quickly. This all seems to stem to Sloane and reactions to her and it feels like I'm seeing less squadron variety than I did in earlier waves. Hence, my assertion that I don't feel like Sloane has necessarily been good for the game as a whole.

6b) Every tournament fleet needs an anti-Rieekan aceholes plan
As a ramification of the Sloane situation, you're going to see a lot of Rieekan aceholes squad-heavy fleets at the top tables. We had 3 Rieekan aceholes fleets in the semi-finals at Worlds and there was one that made it to semi-finals and then ended up winning Euros. It's a powerful archetype, it largely stops Sloane cold, and it can do tremendous amounts of bomber damage and can't be stopped the turn-of by taking out a crucial combo piece. It's been around basically since wave 5 and despite various nerfs, it's still not going anywhere. We seem to have seen a recession in its use when wave 7 came out because everyone wanted to play with big ships, but in competitive play, Rieekan aceholes is still very competitive and can make a mess of the Sloane matchup and usually the Vader double ISD matchup as well. It's an all-around strong fleet that has few bad matchups, in short. If you're going to a competitive event, you need an anti-Rieekan aceholes plan if you intend to do well.

On a related note that's not really worth it's own point, Vader double ISDs can be played pretty profitably (my buddy Nick got 3rd on day 1A of Worlds with his), but for the most part I see it like I see Sloane: it's a tier 1.5 fleet archetype that seems to mostly exist to narrow the field away from particular builds (Vader double ISD largely ruins MSU fleets, with some exceptions) but is rarely strong enough to win an event.

Had a slight communication malfunction, but, uh, everything's perfectly X-Wing 2.0 now. We're fine.
7) Radio silence from FFG has not been helpful/let's talk about the Hyperspace Report
So let's get this out of the way... we were promised a big presentation on all of FFG's Star Wars games and we got an X-Wing 2.0 announcement and that's it. X-Wing 2.0 is intriguing and interesting to reflect on in light of what could be in Armada's future (I like the adjustable points costs and upgrade bars - a system like that could help adjust up/down ships and upgrades in Armada very easily), but the fact is the Hyperspace Report was a huge disappointment. We got wave 7 early this year and that was great, but we know nothing of Armada's future. In light of the constant barrage of X-Wing and Legion articles FFG is putting out it's frustrating to not get any attention for our beloved game.

8) I'm getting there with Thrawn and the Mandalorian Gauntlet Squadrons/closing out wave 7

In general, I don't like to write articles if I don't have something nice to say. The Mandalorian Gauntlets have been a disappointment in most games I've seen them used in. Thrawn shows some promise, but nobody has really cracked the code just yet with him at 400 points (the most promising results so far seem to be as a squadron dial provider commander, but you've got the ever-present threat of Sloane to worry about, as discussed earlier). He's a blast in larger games, though.

Don't worry, though, the proper articles will be finished. At least one of them should be next up for me, barring some major announcement from FFG. Sorry for the delays overall, I've been recovering from minor burnout after Worlds (which was very fun!) and very busy with my son, who just started crawling.

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