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Saturday 14 March 2015

A different type of swarm

This is a rather long report on the longest running list I've ever had. 50+ games, 6 games lost, 2 of which were outliers (2 Ties one-shotted each turn). These include games at the FLGS, tournaments, Vassal play and Vassal tournaments, playing up to wave 5. I am probably done playing it, just got eliminated from the Vassal tournament (UK Team Covenant Open, top 4), so I think it's time to share :).
This is also an example (for myself included) of how to think about a tournament squad and prepare for every matchup. I intend to add this to a suite of articles that I will include in a small blog separate of TC.

How it all started


Back in October 2014 I was trying to come up with a new list for tournament use. As an Imperial player, I had started out with the Tie swarm, then Krassis mini-swarm, more recently doing an Echo mini-swarm. This final list performed rather well and it could stand up against Whisper mini-swarm or Fat Han. Echo could manage beating those, but the meta was about to get more high-PS turret ships, so it was about to become too much of an uphill battle.

The ships I like most are Tie Fighters, Phantoms and Defenders, in that order. At first I thought about winning the PS battle with a PS11 Echo, courtesy of Decoying Vader. Sadly, Vader in his current state has very little offense so the list couldn't make it (With Autothrusters and Tie Advanced x1 there's a lot more to discuss..). Then I came up with an idea: what if you relied on the offense of the phantom, without even attempting to win a PS-bid to use with Advanced Cloaking Device, just rely on those 2 dice with extra modifiers to keep an X-wing with 1less HP for as long as possible?

The idea for this variant was rather simple: Force the enemy to go after Howlrunner, while Sigma keeps a focus and evade token, improvise afterwards. If the opponent goes after the Sigma, he's not likely to kill it one round, and it becomes a 5 TIE Fighter squad with an initial damage boost. It did work, but for the most part it meant that Howlrunner was very vulnerable defensively, didn't do any damage, and Night Beast's ability was only good in the late-game, when not flying in a formation. I also didn't like hanging on 100 points, potentially not being able to block with the Academy Pilots.

So what was the next step? Drop Night beast, enter Black Squadron! Since Black squadron is higher PS then the Sigma, suddenly squad leader can work from the Black to the Sigma, instead of Howlrunner.

So why is this list good? And why is this better than the last?
  • There's a heavy hitter, the Sigma, with a reroll from Howlrunner
  • Sigma has two actions, which will be focus + evade, focus can be spent for attack after higher-PS ships fire
  • Three good blockers, with rerolls on attack
  • An action-less ship, which can also block sideways, you can skip an attack with the Black Squadron if it helps your position, it's not much of an attack anyway. 
Interesting choices:
  • You can give a barrel roll or a cloak if you bump with the Sigma by mistake
  • After the Sigma is gone you can boost your Academies with key Barrel rolls at PS4
  • You can choose not to cloak some of time, especially when playing against high-PS ships


 How it plays


I play this list in a pin-wheel formation modified to work with 6 ships. You can turn or bank and ships will not bump each other. The setup for this formation is quite complicated, but worth it, I will describe it a bit later. The formation should be 2x3 with the wider part towards the opponent. It functions relatively well in vertical mode as well, because TIE Fighters are quite fast and don't have that 1 forward. Howlrunner is in the middle, but Sigma is further to the front than the Black, so the formation can move in the beginning as a "vertical" 2x3. Having the Sigma in the corner also allows the Sigma to break formation very easily.

In general this is highly positional play, where the first two-three moves are key to getting a good shot at oncoming ships. In most cases, I prefer having an opening salvo at range 3 with all my ships, then a "hug" at range 1 with the academies and Howlrunner, with the sigma further behind. Against many lists, getting these good engagements with average dice will get me a big advantage.

The Sigma will mostly stay in formation if there isn't a strong incentive to stay behind. If there is, standing just a bit back might still give the Sigma benefits from Howlrunner and the Black squadron, while giving her an extra defence dice. Another option is to maintain a "semi-formation", where the Sigma shadows the TIE Fighters, even being in range 1 of Howlrunner (pink), or just within range 2 of the Black squadron (red).

Opening moves 


The setup is complicated, as pictured below. I use one edge of the board, I put the first Tie 3.5 bases away from the side. Academy #2 is 0.25 bases behind and 0.25 to his left. The third Academy is one full base behind and two bases to the left. This is a rather wide pinwheel in the middle, I keep almost half a base between AP#1 and the Sigma. The Black follows the same rule (but mirrored) as AP#3. Howlrunner is also offset from the Sigma with the 0.25 base. This may sound hard to achieve, but in reality I make sure the second Academy is in the middle between AP#1 and the edge, and I just align the Sigma to AP#2 and Howlrunner to the edge.

The movements for the first round are then 4 forward for the core (marked with yellow), and 3 forward or 2 forward for the sides, depending on whether I choose to barrel roll backwards or forwards (marked with red and teal, respectively). Barrelling forward is better because it avoids the corner asteroid every time. Alternatively, a 3 forward with the core also works, coupled with a 2 forward with the side ships, barrel-rolling them backwards to get into position. This makes a nice 2x3 formation, which is usually perfect for turning in towards the middle.

What if your opponent sets up opposite of this, and I want to avoid a frontal engagement? What if I want to feign going forward then turning left? Luckily it's quite possible. 

 Not only can it be done, but between going 4 forward then turning 3 or turning 3 from the beginning there's a small gap, big enough for the largest asteroid. As I'll discuss in asteroid placement, you want a normal swarm setup, so setting up the biggest asteroid near your starting position helps a lot. 

So after making a 3-turn left with everyone except the bottom Academy, which did a 1-turn, the formation doesn't look as good. Is this still a formation? Yes, almost. Banking is considerably closer now, and AP#1 might collide with #2 on the table if they aren't maneuvered carefully (haven't done this sequence on a physical table yet), but it works! Black can also catch up by having him do a larger bank (3-bank, while others 2-bank). This can be seen in the image above on the right side.

The left side of the above duo is a sequence of maneuvers perfect for a K-turn. If the opponents baits a frontal engagement, going full forward, then you have one round of him shooting at the rear of your formation, then you can turn to engage him while he's in the corner. The cost is exactly this, spending a turn to reorient the formation so the Academies are behind the other ships, then K-turning. Works great against dual Decimators! Academies to a 2-forward, Sigma and Howlrunner do a 5-forward (well, Sigma does a 2 + 2 = 5 move :) ) Black does a 4 forward and catches up to the Academies, but won't get past them. Having the Black squadron lagging behind is the sacrifice needed for this added versatility. Additionally, against dual Decimators, he is a perfect blocker, he won't get a shot and his action is passed to the sigma. 

Asteroid placement


Asteroid placement works similar to placement for normal swarms. I try to keep asteroids away from the middle, or at least leave as few as possible in the middle to make room for navigating 6 ships through. I put asteroids in my corners (the big one near the setup point is an example), or I put asteroids at range 3 from the opposing side and range 2 from the board edges, which makes for difficult turn 2 maneuvering for my opponent. After asteroid setup I'm not fixated on a corner, I pick the corner which gives me some alternative "lanes".



Not all matchups are easy with list, on the contrary, some are quite difficult. What helps greatly is the fact that the list allows many different choices at each point between choosing maneuvers for 6 ships, choosing actions with  squad leader and playing the phantom. Mid and late-game I can also break formation and start blocking like crazy. The efficiency of the TIE Fighter also helps a lot, a game is never lost until I've lost every single TIE, and I've had many games with below average dice and a disadvantageous position that I was able to turn around with only two Ties and a Sigma or only Ties, etc.
  • Against 4-ship rebel builds, ships will most likely meet in the middle, where I usually go for the range 3 then range 1 plan. If the range 3 is substantially disadvantageous from a statistical point of view, it can be skipped, but then I won't be able to block him with the Academies the following turn. 2 of my genuine losses are against this type, specifically Biggs + R2-F2 with Kyle. Coupled with lower than average rolls on the Sigma in the first turn, I don't stand much of a chance to take down Biggs. A feign or two should make him break formation, but I wasn't able to do that with that opponent. 2 losses in a row, oh well.
  • Swarms won't give the list much trouble, since it has superior firepower, enough to turn the tides decisively in the first engagement. I just get into range 1 and let the dice work some magic. If there are no high-PS ships the Sigma can be used to attack from a different direction after the first engagement, but always keeping in mind to stay close to the Black squadron.
  • Imperial mini-swarms are a bit of a problem in a timed match environment, this is how I got a modified win with this list once and one of the reasons I'm dropping the list. I've discovered it's better to focus on the high-profile ship and take it down quickly, since taking out TIE Fighters is easy in the beginning but gets substantially harder as the list loses ships in return.
  • Wave 5 two-ship builds, Fat Han, all except Phantom Decimator: I'm clumping these all up because the objective with these is the same. Maneuvering so I can get good shots on the big ship, ignoring the escort. In the case of Dual Decimator, I go for the weaker one, the one he'll put forward.This matchup requires a lot of anticipation, some feigning direction on my part, but I can usually pull it off. The Dual Decimator with Oicunn Mara Jade is a big problem, though, and one of my losses. The trick is to do a range 3 engagement first, which the opponent will avoid at all costs. At range 1 with 5 ships shooting into Oicunn, there's a big chance he'll survive the round and trigger Mara Jade, which creates huge problems. This is why I researched the possibility of going 3 hard right/left, then K-turning, specifically to catch large ships in the corner.
  • Phantom lists, specifically ones with 1 Phantom, are doable. I use the Sigma with all its tokens, hope it survives sufficient rounds to make several attacks on the opposing Phantom. Even cloaked, there's a chance of damage with 4 dice. Using the Academies as blockers, it can be done. I never lost to a 1 Phantom list.
  • 2 Phantom lists: Echo + Whisper + 2APs. This is the list from hell, one for which I have not prepared enough and which killed me in the UK Vassal tournament. Blocking can still be done, as long as both Phantoms are not on opposite sides. It's very hard to prepare against this list because the matchup relies heavily on guessing what the Phantoms are doing, training by myself on Vassal doesn't help. I'm also a bit torn on the asteroid placement, as it's easier to block in an open field but it also leaves a lot of options for the Phantom player. 


  • The lack of a high-PS pilot hurts sometimes, and overall PS is very low, leading to a possibility of losing many Ties in the first exchange, without them firing back. But then again, that's valid for all swarms.
  • PS 3 is quite low, and in the current meta a lot of ships are higher than that (Talas come to mind). This is has its advantages though, mainly the fact the the opposing player might focus too hard on the Sigma thinking he can kill it in one round, which almost never happens. 
  • The Black squadron will often completely whiff rolls, even with Howlrunner.  
  • Making a wrong move in the beginning with the entire formation may prove disastrous, much like any other swarm. 



This was certainly a fun list to play, but at this moment I don't think it has a place in the current meta mainly because of timed matches and MoV. Timed matches limit my ability to make comebacks with TIE Fighters and get the large ships that run away with very little HP. That may change in the future, but for now this limits the build to Vassal play. Even there, MoV is lowest with this list, since I'll always lose a TIE Fighter or two in a game, even if I outplay my opponent by far. I would be reluctant to take this to a tournament with no top cut.

On the flip side I think this proves you can play a phantom + 5 Ties very differently from the Whisper +5 archetype. This is why I call it a swarm, not a mini-swarm, because the Sigma acts as part of the swarm for a long time and doesn't rely on outmaneuvering to stay on the board. This also helped me learn a lot about positioning, even if I was already familiar with swarm play. It's also the first list I participated with in an online tournament, where I had time to prepare for each match, for which I could know what are the odds for each engagement, how the opposing list plays, how to properly counter it.

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