Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Eric's post-Gencon thoughts

All right, so this is the second half of my Gencon report where I kind of ponder where the game is at. Like past thinkpieces, it's going to be contentious in places. You may not agree with me, and that's fine. Hell, I may not even agree with me in a few months 😅.

SSD hype
Everyone was loving the SSD teased at Gencon. We had a number of people coming by the tables interested in the game and considering getting in with the SSD. Good job, FFG. Just remember that a number of people play Rebels, too...

Aww yiss look at that evil lawn dart!

Competitive Imperial fleet building
Let's begin with the weightiest element of this article: how repetitive Imperial fleets are right now. Notice something similar about all the fleets I faced? Every fleet I faced was one ISD (I believe all were Avenger), one Demolisher Gladiator, and two Gozantis. I've been noticing it locally and online as well - lots of Imperial fleets are selecting from ISD(s), Demolisher Gladiator, and Gozanti(s) and then calling it a day. Add squads (or don't) to taste. Not all, of course, but many. Why?

There's a not-uncommon perception online that when it comes to Imperial ships, ISDs and Demolisher Gladiators are "the good stuff," Gozantis are somewhat overpriced (we're getting there!) but necessary, and everything else is some varying shade of not good. This is a simplification but it's instructive (for example, the Quasar is still fairly contentious in its classification here). I personally don't strongly subscribe to this outlook, although I will say I have a hard time imagining most Imperial fleets without an ISD and/or Demolisher, so there's obviously something to it. Let's pick at it a bit...

From my perspective, the problem is multi-faceted. Let's start with the fabled Imperial tax. The "Imperial tax," effectively, is supposed to be an extra points cost on Imperial ships for undiscernable reasons. I'm not a true believer when it comes to the Imperial tax, but I will concede that Imperial small ships seem to have odd points costs compared to their Rebel counterparts. The most immediate comparison is the Gozanti to the GR-75. The GR-75 is for the most part more maneuverable and cheaper. The Gozanti gains better inside turns at speed 3 at the cost of poor last-joint yaw and gains a blue die in its front and side arcs, with those arcs being a bit easier to use for double-arcing. That overall seems a bit better than a GR-75, but is it 27% better (18 versus 23 points)? Spoilers: no, no it's not. There's also the matter of generally better titles and officers for the GR-75, but that's getting a bit more complicated but worth noting. Consider the Raider and Arquitens compared to their Rebel competition and the trend seems to keep repeating itself, with a points premium (as a percentage, especially) paid on being slightly better (or at least different).

That said, the "tax" appears to only really affect those three ships. Otherwise, Imperial ships seem to be points-fair compared to their Rebel equivalents (and those three can still be used well, I personally love Raiders when I've got a fleet that maximizes their advantages). The Interdictor is an oddity that probably qualifies for "this thing is way too expensive," but it's recently been pulled back into relevance by a competitive but expensive upgrade suite and it doesn't have a Rebel counterpart to compare it to regardless. The problem, of course, being that when your three cheapest ships are more expensive than Rebel cheap ships, fitting support ships into a fleet is going to be tricky and making an outright MSU fleet gets much harder because those points add up.

That brings us to Imperial fleet philosophy or near as I can figure it out for myself, anyways. Imperial ships on the whole seem to usually come with a built-in problem that needs "fixing" for the ship to be considered viable in a competitive event. The easiest example is the Arquitens: it has serious issues with its weird nav chart and its damage is inconsistent for its points cost. If you're not bringing a commander that can address at least one of those problems (examples: Jerry for nav, Vader for dice control), you should generally leave your Arquitens in the box. The only Imperial ships I would say don't want/need some degree of "fixing" and are already good all on their own are ISDs, Demolisher Gladiators, and Gozantis (sound familiar?), and Gozantis by way of the fact that they're the only way for Imperials to do what Gozantis do, even if their cost relative to GR-75s is still iffy. The Quasar is a possible exception to the other listed ships - it has its problems (living, the answer is living) but it doesn't need a commander to fix that so much as it needs a fleet going heavy enough on squads to make including a super-dedicated carrier a good idea.

This isn't to say there are no Rebel ships that want a "fixer" (LMC80s, for example), and every ship needs a reason to be included in a fleet, but the need for "fixers" seems to be much stronger on the Imperial side. On a side note, I find this design choice to be very odd - the Empire churns out hordes of mass-produced ships crewed by men and women put through a systematic academy education. The Rebels use whatever repurposed and/or stolen starships they can get their hands on and crew them with whoever is available that isn't a liability. It would make sense for it to be the other way around, really: some freighter that's not terribly good unless you've got the right commander that really makes it work like a "real" warship seems very appropriate for Rebels but it's an odd feel for Imperials.

For what it's worth, I don't think wanting a fixer is inherently bad for a ship; if anything, it can add a little more variety to a faction as a fleet's construction options will vary depending on commanders (toggling "on" or "off" some options based on what a given commander is capable of fixing). The combination of the Imperial tax on smaller Imperial ships and the requirement for a fixer for the two combat ships that are hit by the Imperial tax (the Arquitens and to a lesser extent, the Raider) means that the Empire has a strong disincentive to run Arquitens or Raiders unless they're fixed by the commander, as they're already probably a bit too expensive as is and they need the help. The good news is most Imperial commanders are rather cheap and so effectively the Imperial tax mostly gets subsidized by the cheaper commander. This entire setup, however, runs into problems when there are competitively-costed ships that don't require fixing but still enjoy the buffs they receive from fixers.

On that note, let's talk about Demolisher. Specifically, Demolisher is still really good. It inherently has a threat range beyond long range (if just slightly) even after the nerf. It can deliver a lot of damage for its cost and is pretty customizable - you can go for a fairly cheap bare-bones Demolisher (just the title, Ordnance Experts, and External Racks) or you can load it up with Engine Techs, a crit-dependent ordnance upgrade and a fancy officer. Demolisher is also its own self-contained package - it does just fine intrinsically and has no immediate problems that must be overcome, but it certainly doesn't mind help from more conventional fixers (better nav with Jerry, better speed control with Ozzel, superior dice control with Vader, etc.), making it behave more like a Rebel ship that likes a buff than an Imperial ship that needs a fix. Because the Arquitens is stuck in Imperial-tax and fixer-required hell, Demolisher is, for all intents and purposes, the cheapest long-ranged works-in-every-fleet combat ship available to the Empire (compared to the works-in-every-fleet CR90A and works-in-most-fleets Hammerhead Scouts Rebels are spoiled with). Gladiators without the Demolisher title can still find use but they require more careful building around and can't just be dropped into a fleet wherever. Demolisher can be. And is. Frequently. That's why Demolisher is seen so regularly in Imperial fleets and I can't fault Imperial players for including it, even if it's been a regular Imperial inclusion since wave one. It just gets boring, but it's the natural result of various Imperial fleet design philosophy chickens all coming home to roost. Also, I just wrote "philosophy chickens" and I'm so proud of me.

Pictured: philosophy chicken
I already discussed the Gozantis earlier, but to quickly reprise: Gozantis are the only flotilla Imperials get access to and they're the cheapest ship the Empire can field. Even if they're not that great compared to GR-75s, they're the only way the Empire gets what flotillas provide so most of us just groan and pay the 5 extra points over GR-75s and try to make up the lost points elsewhere while replaying in our minds all those times the Gozanti blue dice were kind of useful to make us feel better.

And let's wrap it up with the ISD. The ISD is the whole package, a beefy battleship with 4 variants, reasonable speed and maneuverability, and a lot of customization options. I hopefully don't need to elaborate too much on why this ship is a mainstay, but in a world of Imperial medium ships requiring fixers or specialized fleets, no small ships that do anything like it, and the ability to take Strategic Adviser (we're getting there!), the ISD shouldn't require too much of an argument for why I see it as a ship that's one of the very few "core" Imperial ships you see in a lot of fleets and for the fact that it doesn't require a fixer - it does great on its own, but will happily accept any buffs your commander wants to provide.

So basically we wind up with these three ships (ISD, Demolisher Gladiator, Gozantis) being included constantly in Imperial fleets with other ships being seen less frequently, hopefully for reasons that seem clear by this point. The easiest answer being that ships that don't need fixing and aren't overpriced are always flipped "on" as a competitive option and because the assumptions made in design for ships that need "fixing" (slightly overpriced ships being subsidized by cheaper commanders that fix them) can be sidestepped more competitively by simply using properly-priced ships that don't require fixing while still utilizing those cheap good commanders. That doesn't mean a competitive fleet will completely avoid ships outside the three I identified, but I generally expect most fleets (Rebel and Imperial) to include at least one flotilla and the vast majority of Imperial fleets will have an ISD and/or Demolisher. Even Justin Rasmussen, who did very well at Gencon using two Arquitens, had a Gozanti, ISD, and Demolisher in his fleet.

So is that a problem, really? I guess it depends on your perspective. I personally find it kind of boring, especially compared to Rebel fleets where I see a lot more diversity in what ships hit the table competitively. That's not to say there aren't Rebel ships that are seen more often competitively (I'd say GR-75s, Admonition MC30s, and Jaina's CR90s if I had to name 3), but their chokehold on the internal Rebel meta isn't nearly as strong. I'd like to see more varied Imperial fleet builds placing well, but how exactly we get there I'm not sure. With the SSD coming out next year, we may very well just be in for a continuation of Imperial builds focused on big ships.

Time to complain about Strategic Adviser
These remaining points won't be nearly so long, so don't fret!
I have some impolite sentiments about the politeness officer
I don't feel like Strategic Adviser is good for the game. I've seen an awful lot of it in tournaments since wave 7 dropped (in the link above to the top 4 fleets at Gencon, it's in 3 of the 4 fleets) and it's a logical inclusion for fleets with a large ship and 4+ ships total. When one is expecting to go up against other fleets with 5-6 activations on average, it's a cheap and relatively safe bet. Worst case, it cancels out the other guy's Strategic Adviser and best case it provides a clutch extra activation for fleets that are relying on it (like the hybrid large+MSU fleet, LMSU, which usually can get up to 6-7 activations with a large ship).

I have three basic problems with Strategic Adviser being everywhere:
1) It effectively only hurts "true" MSU. True MSU is running nothing but small ships and generally the activation game is very important to it. When every other fleet is effectively up one more activation than normal, it's a wash for those fleets but a net detriment to MSU. MSU hasn't been a dominant archetype since wave 2 (and that's debatable), so it doesn't feel like it's justified.

2) It further disincentivizes medium ships. If your large ship for 110-140(ish) points can be two activations, you're getting effectively the same number of activations as you would for 2 cheap- to moderately-costed small combat ships in a bigger meaner package (there are some trade-offs of course, like deployments and table coverage). A medium ship will usually find itself in the 80-110 point price range and just can't compete on activations, much less raw muscle, compared to a large ship and at less activations. Medium ships don't need less reasons to take them.

3) The other activation shenanigans officers were sufficient already. Bail and Pryce are currently used (Pryce especially in 2- and sometimes 3-ship fleets), but much less often than Strategic Adviser. Both of them do just fine at modifying the activation portion of the game that pre-wave-7 would bedevil fleets that were susceptible to activation (Pryce) or bidding (Bail) nonsense.

There are definitely fleets that can punish the Strategic Officer proliferation (particularly 2-ship big bid Pryce fleets that don't care about being outactivated), but they for the most part don't seem to be sufficient to stem the tide. You will see non-SA officers on large ships when necessary (Tua, Brunson, Pryce/Bail in the right builds, Lando on the occasional Rebel flagship) but I'd say easily half the large ships I've seen in competitive events are running Strategic Adviser.

Finally, let's talk squadrons
So after Worlds, I mentioned that I felt like Armada seemed to be heading towards max-squads fleets and no-squads fleets due to how futile it is to use squads against maxed-out Sloane or Sloane-buster Rieekan aces fleets. That to some extent seemed to have been true at Gencon, with lots of no-squads fleets in attendance (round 4 had 3 no-squads fleets on the top 2 tables, for example). That said, medium squads as a build seems to be making something of a comeback due to the increasing number of no-squads fleets. Thrawn seems to be most of the Imperial medium squad fleets, but the basic idea is the same: either a conventional MFC group or more of a "suicide" MFC group built around Intel+bombers+maybe a bit of Escort. 

"Suicide" MFC is an interesting build, but to hear it explained to me the idea against other squads is effectively just shove the bombers into ships as much as possible with Intel before the Intel gets sniped out or bombers get destroyed, but use them to try to table the heavy-squad fleet similarly to how a squadless fleet would do it. I'm not sure it's a great plan against other heavy squad fleets, but it's interesting. It certainly has a lot more muscle against squadless fleets than a more conventional MFC would, anyways.

Final thoughts
That's... it, pretty much. There are a few more things I could discuss and may come back to at a later date but I want them to percolate a while longer. On the whole I feel like the game is doing well, there are just some trends at the higher level of play that I'm a bit concerned about.

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