Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Fleet building 201: Swarm/MSU

The last of the 3 archetype build articles, MSU, took a while to write initially due to turbulence from wave 7. Armada 1.5 introducing pass tokens has been a similar experience with the newest update, but MSU is alive and well. Arguably in much better shape than it once was.

As always, a quick warning that I'll be making a lot of generalizations in order to communicate points - once you've gotten a lot of experience with a particular archetype, you'll be able to identify circumstances in which some of the generalizations can be bent or broken with the right tactics or fleet-building.

This is the start of an MSU fleet leaning hard on Intensify Firepower, right here.
First, let's talk about the terminology: the "pure" form of this archetype is MSU, which is an initialization of a common minis wargame army-building methodology which means "Mulitple Small Units." "True" MSU will run nothing but small ships, but there are variant hybrids that can add a medium- or large-based ship to the mix as well, which can still be covered under the more generic "Swarm" label (although it can get confusing given Swarm is also a squadron keyword). That said, I'll be using MSU to refer to this archetype throughout the article, even if some of the variants can include units(ships) that aren't "small."

MSU is looking to take its activations advantage as well as its typical maneuverability and speed advantages to control the tempo of the game to its benefit, allowing it to be in the right place at the right time for both attacking enemy ships as well as evading the worst enemy attacks. When played perfectly, an MSU fleet will run rings around an enemy fleet, getting in consistent attacks and never allowing enemy ships to get in quality attacks of their own in response. When played poorly, MSU's fragile ships vanish remarkably quickly and its activation advantage goes with them, making the bad situation even worse. In my opinion, it is the archetype that is the most punishing of mistakes and because of that it can take some time and a certain amount of masochism to master.

Elements to consider when building an MSU fleet:
  • Activations.
    • This is one of the core elements of getting MSU to work consistently. You want to have activation parity and preferably activation advantage over every other non-MSU fleet. Nowadays, that usually means at least 6 activations.
      • There are a lot of reasons for wanting so many ships, which produce so many activations, but the most immediately obvious reason is every ship you get to activate past your opponent activating his final ship in the Ship Phase is a ship that is activating with perfect knowledge of where your opponent's ships will be at the beginning of the next Ship Phase. This allows you to avoid strong attacks and set up your own attacks with information advantage and is essential to keeping your small ships alive when you've got your activation order and speed control down pat.
    • Some Armada players think "MSU" basically just means "lots of activations" and that's certainly a part of it, but not the entirety of it.
      • Ships taken just to pad activations that don't meaningfully contribute (prime example being flotillas without a decent job to do) aren't really a great use of your points, on a related note. Activations are good and essential to running MSU but they're not the only thing.
  • Bid size.
    • With enough activations and successfully bidding for first, you can pull off the dreaded last+first maneuver, which can get your meanest hammer units in and out without too much risk to themselves but plenty of risk to juicy targets that get in their way. That said, it's important to consider how much of a bid you're comfortable with and how much you want to win initiative. You run into some real problems with huge bids in that generally to get the number of activations you want, you're already running your ships pretty lean on upgrades. Cutting even leaner for a bid can start to hit the bone if you're not careful.
      • All that said, I recommend making at least a small bid of 2+ points so you have the option to go first against fleets not making a bid. The option to have the first and last activations from the get-go is too good to not at least make a small investment towards.
    • Overall, the more you're relying on short-ranged ships and/or an expensive hammer ship (the classic example is a kitted-out Demolisher), the more you probably want to go first.
  • Commander and fleet composition.
    • Different commanders want to use different kinds of ships for the most part. This will frequently determine what kind of ships are attractive options for your MSU fleet just like it will for other fleets. What's important in respect to MSU is it will largely determine what your "building block" ships will be - the cheapest combat ship you can bring and use in some quantity for both combat support and activation padding.
      • For a Rebel example, your two cheapest combat ships are CR90s and Hammerheads. If you're using Mon Mothma then you're going to want CR90s because her ability buffs evade tokens, which CR90s have duplicates of (increasing the chances of at least one being available in a given attack) and Hammerheads don't. 
      • If you're building an Imperial MSU fleet, your two cheapest combat ships are Raiders and Arquitens (Gladiators are close in base cost to Arquitens but frequently want more upgrades, so I'm sticking with Raiders vs. Arquitens). If you're using Screed then you're going to want ships that can equip crit upgrades and/or throw a decent number of black dice, which means Raiders.
      • This doesn't mean all commanders only want one of cheap ship option, but generally you'll lean a little harder one way or the other and sometimes they lean hard enough that it means using only one type of cheap combat ship exclusively.
    • Once you've determined where you're getting the bulk of your activations from, you'll usually want to consider a flotilla or two for support if they're available. Generally, I'd recommend one flotilla total and only going to two if you've got a good reason. The flotilla offers a cheap activation, some additional flak, and a source of Comms Net or Slicer Tools. Comms Net can help your Command 2+ heavy-hitter ship(s) out and Slicer Tools helps you a bit in the squadron matchup, so it's your call, really.
      • Speaking of heavy-hitter ships, you'll want at least one. Typically in "true" MSU, this would be a Gladiator or MC30, depending on your faction. You can include more than one, but be careful of running out of points or getting too low on activations.
        • There are other support ships that fit somewhere between the "building block cheap combat ship" role and the "heavy hitter" role, like Nebulon-Bs (typically Salvation as a cost-effective sniper or a Pelta as a fleet command force multiplier). Typically I consider these something of a compromise between those two roles, and they're costed around that range as well.
      • Once everything is said and done, you'll typically wind up with a fleet containing 1-2 heavy-hitter ships, 0-2 flotillas, and 2-5 building block cheap combat ships.
    • The final thing to consider with what ships you bring is when they'll want to go in your activation order. Obviously, your activation order will vary considerably depending on circumstances, but generally you'll want to activate your stronger and/or shorter-ranged ships early (when they have attacks lined up) or late (when they're hoping to get into position to make those attacks) in a round. Your longer-ranged and/or weaker ships generally will be content with going whenever. 
      • Too many weak/longer-ranged ships will generally give you a lot of flexibility in your activation order but you won't really get a lot of benefit from getting the later uncontested activations or as much benefit from getting first player.
      • Too many stronger/short-ranged ships will generally give you more powerful individual activations, but your ships will be fighting with one another for activation order and it can cause logjams that decrease the overall effectiveness of your fleet.
        • There is something of an exception here for shorter-ranged ships like Raiders or Torpedo Hammerheads that excel at "catching" enemy ships. They are short-ranged, but they're happy to wait around and provide your "in-between" activations. That said, they're still not quite as "middle activation"-strong as longer-ranged cheaper ships like Arquitens, Raider-IIs, CR90As, and Hammerhead Scouts.
  • Flagship
    • You'll need to put some thought into where your commander is going to be parked given none of your ships are particularly durable. 
      • The easy choice is usually on a heavy-hitter ship given they're frequently more durable than your cheap combat ships, but if you've only got the one heavy hitter, it can put you in tough situations where you need to decide between using your sole heavy-hitter to "trade up" by making a destructive suicide run on a juicy target or keeping your commander alive but using your heavy-hitter a bit less effectively.
      • Alternatively, one of your more skittish long-ranged ships like a CR90A or Command Arquitens can often work fine for a flagship, as it generally doesn't want to get too close to enemy models anyways.
        • It's very important to keep in mind how fragile these ships can be as flagships if pinned down, however, and they should be maneuvered with the utmost care.
      • In some circumstances, I've seen commanders on dirt cheap (not uncommonly no upgrades at all) ships, like Torpedo Hammerheads, CR90Bs, or Raider-Is. Used conventionally, this would be suicide. These cheap flagships are used more like lifeboats in the pre-flotilla-nerfs days: mostly keeping the commander alive and padding activations from way in the back with the option to come rolling in to throw a few dice later on if things are safe.
        • I'm not really keen on this kind of flagship strategy, myself. It's a lot of points spent on a wasted activation and I like all my combat ships contributing when possible.
    • Regardless of your choice of flagship, you're not going to have something that's extremely durable, so you'll want some extra defenses. Generally that means a good defensive officer to bodyguard your commander. If your flagship has a defensive retrofit slot, it can be worth considering an additional upgrade there too, but it can make your flagship prohibitively expensive.
Basic usage considerations
  • Deployment
    •  When it comes to obstacles, you've got some things to consider. You can space obstacles in such a way that your small maneuverable ships can dodge around them and jump over them without trouble but larger enemy ships will suffer if they try to go through them. This can allow you to make certain parts of the table unappealing to Big Heavy but not so much to you. Be careful of where you place your obstacles against Heavy Squads, though, as most small ships have single-die flak and those obstacles are great hiding places for enemy squadrons.
    • When it comes to regular fleet deployment, you'll usually outdeploy fleets built on the Big Heavy base archetype but not necessarily those based on the Heavy Squads base archetype. Typically this means you'll be able to weigh down a flank against Big Heavy but you'll need to be careful to not present easy targets to Heavy Squads by deploying too far away from your other ships.
      • Generally I would recommend starting most of your ships at speed 2 unless you've got a flanking maneuver in mind and you're safely deploying after your opponent has deployed any combat ships that would "catch" you if you were to sail in too fast to hot death. The more time you have to maneuver, the more your superior maneuverability and speed options pay off. Starting your speed too high can leave you unable to avoid sailing to certain doom and/or incapable of getting several ships working together against the same target.
  • Order of activations
    • You'll usually outactivate opposing fleets, and this can be a potent advantage when used thoughtfully. That said, it's very important to keep an eye on what has and has not activated of your opponent's fleet and where you expect enemy ships to go. This is an important element of every game of Armada, but it's even moreso for MSU fleets - most of your light ships will live and die by their positioning because they don't have the stats to tank serious attacks. Activating ships in the wrong order or ending their maneuver in the wrong position can quickly spell doom for your lighter ships.
      • In short, you can activate against the reality of enemy ships who have already gone - you know where they will be at the start of next turn. You need to activate against the possibility of enemy ships who have not yet activated. Be careful.
      • With Armada 1.5 introducing pass tokens to the game, this is a resource your opponent should be receiving most games to temporarily help deal with being outactivated on crucial rounds. Keep track of how many pass tokens your opponent has remaining and remember they can't use pass tokens two activations in a row. If the activation disparity is wide enough, you may still be able to out-activate your opponent but don't count on it.
        • When your opponent suspects a big round is about to happen, they will usually start burning through all their pass tokens to inconvenience you. You may be able to blast right through regardless, but if it will make a big difference, see if it's possible to delay your attack run by one round. So long as you have strong options available towards the end of the round, your opponent will still feel the pressure to spend pass tokens to prevent shenanigans and you can resume serious hostilities next round. Realizing an opponent will likely do this further reinforces the importance of navigate commands for controlling your tempo.
    • In general, as I alluded to earlier, you'll tend to want your heavy hitters going early and late in the round with your remaining ships slotting somewhere in the middle, although this can change based on circumstances.
      • You're not guaranteed the dreaded last+first activation, but if you've got it as an option don't forget to use it (or the threat of it at the very least) thoughtfully.
    • Navigate should be your default command if you have nothing better to do and grabbing a nav token on the first round is strongly recommended as well. This assists you in your positioning, which is always important for a fleet of small ships, but also allows you to more meaningfully use your "pad" activations when it's not yet safe to approach the enemy fleet: ships that can speed up or slow down by 2 (dial+token) and gain an extra click of yaw have a lot of options for where they'll end their maneuver and can often stop short of scary enemy arcs/attack ranges or jump out of/around those arcs to apply pressure on the flanks. You ideally should never be sailing your ships to certain doom because you prioritized an unnecessary command instead of navigating.
      • In short, most of your smaller ships (especially corvettes) don't have the option of tanking serious attacks (not for long, anyways). Their most potent defensive stat is their nav chart. Do your best to avoid trouble.
  • Ganging up on things
    •  Many of your individual ships won't be as potent as heavier battle ships and will likely need help to go after more robust prey. You should always be looking to team up your ships against tougher enemies to overheat defense tokens. Longer-ranged attackers are very helpful for this just because they're easier to use, but with clever use of shorter-ranged ships you can get the same effect (by staggering them so you can attack the target with ship A and run away and then the target activates later and moves into the waiting arms of ship B, for example). You'll find that sturdier enemies will be nearly immortal if you aren't ganging up on them, so get to it!
      • On a related note, this is another reason to focus on the navigate command when no other commands are competing for your ships' attention - you can speed up or slow down your ships in your hunting packs to coordinate them against the same targets in the same round.

Mixing it up with MSU
Adding Big Heavy or Heavy Squadron elements to MSU helps cover your bases, similarly to how it works with the other two major archetypes. The downside, of course, being it can dilute your focus as well, so be careful with how hard you buy into other skews. Specifically, the component of MSU that you need to be careful of preserving is number of activations. Activation superiority is a major component of getting your large number of small combat ships to work, and going below 6 activations will see them suffering for it overall.

As a reminder, categories from the the earlier article:

Weak would mean no more than 1/6 of your available points. It's featuring that element in a support role at best, usually to cover weaknesses. This leaves enough room to add a dash of the other archetype if you like or to really strongly focus on the base archetype.

Moderate would mean no more than 1/3 of your available points. The element in question is at this point the junior partner in the fleet and starts to more strongly add elements of its archetype to the fleet as an active contributor moreso than a defensive or support element. A Moderate investment still leaves open the possibility of a Light investment in the remaining third archetype, but you run the risk of diluting your core archetype if you're not careful.

Strong would mean up to 1/2 of your available points. The element in question becomes a co-partner, usually to the complete exclusion of the third archetype.

Big Heavy
To repeat myself from the Heavy Squadrons article, you won't be adding heavier ships here, you'll be dropping small ships to free up the points for medium or heavy ships. You can keep your activations high by dropping combat small ships for flotillas, but be careful of "hollowing out" your combat activations by trying to hit a high number of activations with a lot of puff that doesn't do much.

Weak Big Heavy
At this level of investment, you're usually "squishing together" two corvettes or a heavier small ship and flotilla for a medium ship like an Assault Frigate or Victory-class Star Destroyer, usually on the cheaper side in terms of upgrades. The advantage here is your medium combat ship is usually a safer flagship for your commander and it can apply some muscle and solidity in areas the rest of your fleet won't feel comfortable sticking around. That said, a medium combat ship can get left behind in situations where the rest of your fleet outruns it if you're not careful, so try to use it in concert with the rest of your fleet so neither element can get separated from the others and destroyed easily.

Moderate Big Heavy
With a moderate investment, you're usually sacrificing the points of two serious combat light ships (often a corvette and a heavy-hitter) for one large ship, usually lightly to moderately upgraded. It has many of the same advantages of the weak investment but the further benefit of more oomph from a beefier ship.

It should be noted that an MSU-style fleet with a large ship in it is sometimes referred to as LMSU, meaning Large+Multiple Small Units. Yes, I realize it's a bit weird when you think about it, but it keeps the terminology short and simple 😉.

Strong Big Heavy
At this level of investment, you're definitely going to be sacrificing activation count and will struggle to stay at 6 activations. This is either a heavily upgraded large ship or two medium ships and you'll need to do your best to come up with 4-5 more activations in the other half of your fleet to keep your smaller combat ships happy with the activation count. In general, I can't really recommend going this hard into Big Heavy with MSU unless you've got a really good plan for it and a lot of synergy with your commander.

One thing to be careful of with an MSU fleet containing a large ship is it can be easy to fall into a trap where the fleet becomes a support apparatus of mostly just padding activations for the large ship to do its thing. You'll see this kind of approach in fleets with a large ship and 2 flotillas (that otherwise aren't doing much) to get up to 4 activations right there, usually with 3ish more cheap light ships. There's nothing wrong with trying to get the most bang for your buck out of your biggest meanest ship by prioritizing its activation (late or early, depending, usually), but when your fleet becomes too focused on one large ship and your other ships aren't doing much themselves, you are going to succeed or fail based almost entirely on that one ship. If and when you make mistakes with it or it is destroyed or controlled in some way, you're going to have a hard time winning the game. These types of fleets still fall under the umbrella of "LMSU" but because they're not usually covering a lot of the table or getting a lot of use out of their support ships that aren't the big star, I personally don't really consider them to have the same depth as a "true" MSU fleet and they're more gimmicky.

Heavy Squadrons
Similar to Big Heavy, we'll be tearing down regular MSU ships and turning their points into squadrons and converting ships into carriers. Flotillas will be a hot commodity and I expect any MSU/squadrons fleet hybrid will likely be running a pair of flotillas in most cases to both keep activations high but also to get some cost-effective cheap carriers in there.

Weak Heavy Squadrons
At this point, you're usually just including a small fighter coverage group to shore up your squadron defenses. This has the downside of usually costing you an activation or weakening your combat activations with two flotillas, but it comes with the upsides of giving you some squadron defenses beyond the usual no-squads tricks and it improves your deployment count, which can result in some very good placement on your heavy hitters at the end of fleet deployment.

Moderate Heavy Squadrons
Once you get to this point, it's tough to include more than one hard hitter, and you may be tempted to go with just cheaper combat ships and flotillas to make room for squadrons. Here you're usually running a medium fighter coverage group. Rogues work well at this level and above if you don't want to invest a lot in carriers and carrier upgrades, but they won't be as effective overall (but they're cheaper on the whole).

Once you're going after ships, you'll find that squadrons and your lighter MSU ships both tend to plink for small to moderate amounts of damage, which can synergize to overheat defense tokens quickly and limit the benefit an individual token can provide once spent.

Strong Heavy Squadrons
To nobody's surprise, this is usually the large fighter coverage group level, although it can be difficult to fit all the everything in that you'd like here, especially if you're going for maxed-out full 134 points of squadrons and the resources to command them. Rogues at this level can help relax your carrier demands, as otherwise you'll usually want to spring for a cheaper more dedicated carrier by this point like a Quasar or a Pelta.

Maintaining your activation count at this point can be pretty difficult and it's nearly impossible to keep a heavy hitter on board and stay at 6+ activations. It's not uncommon here to see a fleet of 4 cheap combat ships/corvettes (perhaps replacing one with a cheap carrier) and 2 flotillas, generally pretty sparsely upgraded. You gain the benefit of being able to bring an awful lot of light to moderate attacks to bear on enemy ships but you need to be very careful to avoid getting tabled. Early mistakes can lead to ships being destroyed and if you start bleeding activations early it can snowball into bigger problems. In short, you can actually get a lot of focused damage output out of this hybrid but it punishes mistakes even more harshly than traditional pure MSU does, so be careful.

Final thoughts
That brings our Fleet Builder 201 articles to a close, finally. I'm very keen on MSU and while it can be difficult to play, it's a lot of fun once you've put in the time to start unlocking how to play it well.

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