17 February 2014

Tournament Talk: TIE Swarm, Again

Tournament Talk is a new thing I'm trying on here where we talk about game meta and what's prevalent on the X-Wing Miniatures Tournament scene. 

So I did some browsing around and reading over the weekend and decided after getting some good-natured ribbing about playing the wrong side in the upcoming Store Championship I'm going to be playing in, I'd talk a little about the Imperials today. 

As near as I can tell, the Swarm is still the king. 

Sure, sure. There are other Imperial builds, but from what I read, the deeper you go in tournament results, the less you see the Trelix or Kath Scarlet and 4 or 5 TIEs build, the double or triple Firesprays, a bunch of Shuttles, or the small side elite ship builds. 

So why is that? 

There's so many variables present in trying to figure stuff like this out, I don't think anybody can make a real conclusion, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's the result of Falcon lists still being pretty popular. Swarms are sort of the natural counter against low-count, big ship builds. This seems to be starting to change- I saw a lot of good, competitive Rebel lists that were low PS, four ship builds rather than 3 ship builds with named pilots and high PS (something I'm likely going to talk about in tomorrow's article, by the way), and as that pendulum swings away from the Falcon, I think you'll see more Imperial players branching away from the Swarm. 

Of course, they're also pretty damn effective against low-count, small ship builds too. Simply put, Swarms just bathe the enemy in blaster fire, inflicting the death by 1,000 papercuts deal, y'know? It doesn't hurt that your basic TIE fighter is actually pretty hard to hit straight up, and also pretty maneuverable. 

I talked about Swarms before, has anything really changed much? 

First, I see more references to the larger 7-ish ship count Swarms than I do the 5 or 6 ship builds with more named guys. Again, I'm not saying I'm some big chronicler of the tournament circuit, just telling you what I see. Most of them look pretty close to what the guy who won the Star Wars Weekend thing back in May was running- 

Talking about this list for a moment, there's not a lot of tricky stuff going on here- Howlrunner has her buffing ability and the Stealth Device makes a difficult ship to hit even harder to hit. Backstabber has his own outside firing arc shenanigans, then the rest of the squadron? Nada. 

So why does this list work so well? 

The math involved for one- sure, it's a bunch of plain Jane TIE Fighters, but until we get some Modification or pilot skill that lets somebody attack more than one target per Combat Phase, stuff like a 7 ship Swarm is always going to be at least somewhat viable because it's hard to dole out enough shots to kill it before it kills you, assuming of course you aren't flying 7 ships too. Yeah, TIEs only have 2 Attack dice, but when you get to roll those two Attack dice up to 7 times in a single combat round, something is bound to drop eventually. 

I think it's also important to remember that a ship in X-Wing with damage is basically the same ship undamaged when it comes to it's stats for Attack and Defend. Sure, Crits change that, but I'm just talking about regular damage here- the point I'm trying to make is a TIE with a single hull point still Attacks with 2 red dice and Defends with 3 greens. There's no drop off until you stick it with a crit (and there may not be then either- depends on the card) or kill it completely.

Partial damage also has no effect on scoring in a tournament- you could have every single ship of yours on it's last legs and your opponent still won't get a dime for his trouble- only stuff that's dead counts. As such, an opposing player has to either try to focus fire on specific ships in the Swarm to score points, or he spreads his fire to the most opportune target at the moment, but the Swarm player being the guy with (probably) the more maneuverable ships determines that target a lot of the time. Sure, it's totally possible to one-shot a TIE Fighter with an X-Wing, but let me ask you this- how often would you say that happens? I've always been forthcoming with not being the Genghis Kahn of X-Wing tactics, but with those three Defense dice stock, I doubt I'm the only person who rarely one-shots a totally healthy TIE with an unnamed X-Wing. Has it happened? Sure. Does it happen enough that I'm comfortable banking on the notion? Like to the point where I'm in my planning phase saying to myself, "Ok- so I'll Straight 2 and wipe that TIE Fighter out, then maybe next round, I'll Bank 1 to the left and come up behind this other guy..." Ehhh, no. Frankly I'm not. 

Ok, so if TIE Swarms are so great, why is it Rebels are getting played more in tournaments post Wave 3 release? 

I think partly it's variety- the want or need to try something different, to be the guy that isn't using the flavor of the month or the net list du jour or whatever. I think a bigger part though is the fact that flying 7 ships in any kind of coherent fashion is pretty effin' difficult. 

Again, look at that list that Bergstrom beat Kinney with- there's nothing fancy pants about that list. There's no unbeatable combo, there's no amazing synergy, it's a list you've seen on tables since the game came out. There's no surprises there other than what the guy driving it can pull, but that's my point- that dude can drive it really, really well apparently. 

Can a Swarm be run effectively with other components? 

To be honest, I didn't see a lot of people discussing this, so I'm well into conjecture territory, so take the following for what it's worth- 

For the points, you could roll 5 Scimitar TIE Bombers each with a four point missile loadout. Would that work in a tournament setting? It'd likely depend on who you ran into. Against a Han Shoots First list, it probably could, depending on which Missiles you picked and who was actually driving the Falcon. I think it might work decently well against some of these B-Wing heavy lists for basically the same reason- it's a 1 Agility ship and if you take Cluster Missiles, you're probably going to hurt it fairly bad. 

Of course, after that, you're back to having a ship with 2 Attack dice and less moves and Defense than a TIE Fighter. Maybe you've crippled your enemy in the first couple of rounds, and if you're good at flying Bombers, you can maybe even finish them off with just those 2 Attack dice. 

For the points, you could roll 5 Alpha TIE Interceptors, three of which could also be sporting Stealth Devices, or if everyone going at PS 1 doesn't float your boat, what about 4 Alphas with Turd Ferguson sporting Push The Limit? That might be fun to play with. I've mentioned this somewhere else before, but with Pilot Skill being what it is, but fielding ships all at the same Pilot Skill does have a certain appeal to it since you can pick whatever order you want to move and fire with your ships. I'm not going to go so far as to say I feel like I've won games because of that, but there are times it certainly doesn't hurt to be able to contextually select who is doing what rather than letting the PS values do it for you. Yeah, this would apply to the Bombers above too, but I just now thought of mentioning it, so that's why I didn't say it up there. 

A TIE Advanced Swarm- ok, ok. I know- everyone hates the Advanced. I'm still going to talk about it for just a second though, all right? A TIE Advanced Swarm is tough because of the way the points spread- no matter what, you're not getting more than 4 Advanced as the Tempest is 21 points, which is a rough number because it leaves you with soooo many unused points trying to get to 100 that way. You can move them up to Storms, but then that kinda seems like a bit of a waste. 

What I think is perhaps the happy middle here is sticking with the Tempests, but throwing some missiles on them. If you're paying attention, you know that any of the four point Missiles on these Tempests make them 25, and of course four of them gets you to 100 rather neatly. Is it better to have four Advanced with Missiles or 5 Bombers with Missiles? Well, it depends on if your target survives. I think four Advanced are a lot more likely to dogfight a couple of ships down than 5 Bombers, but again- I'm completely talking out of my firmly in theoryland ass here. Or, you could be perhaps the first ever person to roll out four Tempests each with a Shield Upgrade. It might be tough to kill much on the other side, but 3 Agilty, 3 Hull, and 3 Shields is going to be hard to take down and remember- you only need to kill a couple of X-Wings on the other side of that table to get a Match Win if you don't lose any of your own ships in the process. 

I think a big appeal of the TIE Swarm is it's just so Star Wars. A bunch of nameless, faceless dudes screaming at you in TIE Fighters? It doesn't get much better than that. Well, unless you're the guy facing it. I groan inside every time I sit across the table from somebody with a TIE Swarm and worn-out dials because I know it's going to be a tough fight. It's like playing golf against somebody who packs a 2-Iron; you know if he can hit it well enough to carry it, he can hit anything else in his bag too. 

As for advice on facing the Swarm, lots of people will tell you what not to do (namely, don't "joust" with them), or to go after the obvious force multiplier (usually Howlrunner), but few will actually tell you what to do. I've complained on here before about this kind of advice- anybody can tell you what not to do, it's much harder to tell you what you should be doing instead. 

The main thing a Swarm opponent needs to keep in mind is that the Swarm is powerful when it can attack as a whole, therefore you have to try and find ways to fragment it. All of this can be easier said than done, and against a really strong opponent, it may be really, really difficult, but I think it's the best advice that can be given concerning Swarms- do your best to break them up. 

You pretty well know regardless of PS how a Swarm is going to deploy- bunched up. Sure there may be a rover in the form of Mauler Mithel or Dark Curse or Backstabber, but most of that Swarm is going to try and stay right on top of one another and probably Howlrunner. You can only affect Obstacle placement so much, but try and get a nice pile in the middle of the table to give yourself some cover, but also to make him actually maneuver the Swarm. If you let him fly in straight lines, K-Turn, and fly straight again, you're likely not going to last long, so make him maneuver. Make him turn and bank. Maybe he can do it without colliding, but maybe he can't either. Most Swarm formations resemble a brick, and collectively kind of handle like one. You can exploit that if you can maneuver your own stuff pretty well.

You can also try to use the cover to force him to make decisions. A TIE Fighter shooting through an Obstacle is likely to do absolutely nothing to the target on the other side. Make him choose whether to get an open shot on you, but breaking formation or staying in the brick and giving you an extra green die. I don't know if any of y'all are hockey fans, but in the USA v Russia match, the US Goalie, Jonathan Quick showed Datsyuk a very tantalizing 5-hole in the shootout. Datsyuk had gone high and scored on Quickie in the previous attempt, so Quick shows him this huge 5-hole, Datsyuk bites, and Quick snaps his legs shut because he was expecting it. You can do stuff like that too- leave a ship sticking out behind a rock that a couple of his TIEs could flank, but the rest of the Swarm cannot. He might just break them off and go chasing after you. At that point, even if you lose the ship, his guys are still going to have to fly back to the rest of the Swarm to get back into formation or he'll play the rest of the game with a much less effective Swarm. 

Lastly, mix up the spacing on your ships in both the X and Y axis. The Swarm is forced to move as one for the most part, but you're not. You don't have to go screaming at him full-tilt with Straight 3s and 4s, ships all deployed as far forward as possible in a line. If you're using small ships, you have enough room to deploy a pair of them one in front of the other in your zone. Or maybe don't set up with them pointing perfectly straight forward. Try deploying on the outer edges of your deployment zone and angling your ships at a 45 towards the middle of the board and flying them that way. 

Is any of that a sure-fire way to beat a Swarm? Nah, none of it is, but like in Jedi when Lando said they needed to get closer to the Star Destroyers and Ackbar got all googly-eyed (well, more googly-eyed) at the idea, sometimes you gotta choose between the rock and the hard place.  

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