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Wednesday 5 July 2017

TIE Swarm - Death by a thousand cuts

The TIE Swarm is one of the first archetypes of this game, one that is instantly recognizable as Star Wars, a list that looks incredibly cool on the table and which is fun to play. I think it would be a great loss for this game not to have TIE swarms lying around. Alex Davy once said that the swarm is like "the shark of X-wing", you always have to be ready for it, but this is no longer the case. It has been steadily losing power since its inception, with the exception of the Crackshot FAQ.

I am turning the phrase "death by a thousand cuts" on its head, since I am speaking of the swarm's death. It has been trending downwards steadily for 8 waves with few intermissions, but I am ready to call it: At the present moment, the swarm is not only dead, but unfixable - without new mechanics or heavy-handed title fixes, it will never be a top tier list again. Top players might still be able to make it work, either by outplaying their opponents or getting favourable matchups during their tournament run, but they would still be running at a disadvantage most of the time.

This would be my first opinion piece. I am not a high-caliber swarm player, but I have been playing TIE swarms on and off since I first started playing the game, back in wave 2. I designed the Sigma swarm and flew it with good success in a wave 5 meta filled with Phantoms, Dash, Han and Decimators. I flew the Zeta Leader crackswarm during wave 8 and in the last tournament I've tried a bit of something new to see what it can do.


To talk about the swarm now, let's see briefly what made it great when it first appeared and what were its weaknesses

The key ship in this is the TIE Fighter, which in the beginning was the most efficient ship in the game point-wise, so it made sense to cram as much of them in a single list as possible. An 8-TIE swarm made sense, but that was not actually the first variant to be popular, because action economy was very rare and valuable. Rebels had Garven and Dutch, the Empire had Howlrunner. While 2 out of 4 Rebel ships would have double actions, the 7-Tie swarm would have almost 2 actions for 6 of them. On 2 dice, TL+focus is 1.87 expected hits, while 1 reroll + focus is 1.82, a difference of just 3%. Compare that to the Howlrunner gain, which is 21% more expected hits, so you can see what I mean by almost 2 actions.

So what did the list do? It demolished everything that was standing right in front of it. You had to fly the list in formation to a) benefit from Howlrunner and b) overlap as many arcs as possible, but the single TIE Fighter is extremely nimble, so the block as a whole moved fast and turned quickly where it fit.

There were a few problems with the list from the beginning, but some could be compensated by flying it well:
  • Most TIE Fighters were PS1, so you were guaranteed to lose a few before they fire over the course of the game.
  • You were always telegraphing via deployment which formation you were using (2x3, 3x2), which in turn telegraphed which lanes you would fit into and which you wouldn't. This is because you couldn't afford to lose formation too early, that would put you in danger of not having the Howlrunner reroll or friendly bumping.
  • Flying in formation was difficult and you had to keep as many open lanes as possible, so that it wouldn't be obvious which one you would eventually engage on. Did I mention that the pinwheel formation was discovered in wave 4? Wave 1&2 formations were two and a half bases wide.
  • It had difficulty killing high-agility opponents, which meant the mirror matchup was effectively a pillow fight. Fortunately, at the time nothing was powerful enough and had 3 agility at the same time. 
Then wave 4 hit like a truck and instead of the swarm there was the Phantom mini-swarm, but it's not the place to talk about that. Wave 5 brought about highly maneuverable turret ships (yay). Wave 7 brought Crackshot, but it was only with the arrival of the new core set that the crackswarm was discovered. An FAQ on Crackshot explained how it functions and it suddenly was after all other modifications. Effectively, it meant 6 extra damage in the first round for a swarm, so it could erase the biggest threat on the table (hopefully). The swarm was decent against the biggest threat of wave 8, triple jumpmasters. This suddenly changed when Dengaroo took the meta by force. With Rey, Dengar, Fenn Rau, TIE/sfs, the swarm never found a way to recover.

The thousand cuts

They're not really a thousand, but they're a lot and they add up.
  1. Power creep: The simplest to explain yet one that is slightly subtle. Power creep is now a factor. Although FFG did a good job overall, it's now been 11 waves and the differences now are evident.  Power creep in base statlines, but also in upgradeability.
  2. Automatic Damage: This type of mechanics has been around in the game since wave 2, but the options now are much more broad (Wampa, bombs with Sabine, Vader, etc.)
  3. High-accuracy Damage: Damage has never been as accurate as it is now. You can fly Rey and shoot 6 dice with TL and focus, or you could have Fenn with 5 dice TL+focus. Action economy has gone through the roof, gone are the days when 2 actions were an incredible feat. Now you can have two actions quite easily while bumping (K4 + expertise). In the past, the swarm had relied on bumping to get the job done on some higher PS enemies. Try to bump Dengar and shoot at it from range 1, see where that takes you! 
  4. No new tricks: While most other lists benefit from new upgrades all the time, the swarm remains stagnant. There is very little space for upgrades, since you can't afford to spend points on all the ships. Having crackshot on your swarm costs more than one TIE Fighter, and that's just 1pt itself, not to mention that the EPT is the only upgrade the TIEs have, and only on a small selection of pilots!
  5. Rigid deployment: Swarms have to deploy where multiple lanes are available, most of the time in one of the corners. If the opponent knows where to put the obstacles, it's probably down to one good corner. Even if the swarm doesn't have the lowest PS there's very few good spots to deploy so it's quite predictable.
  6. Rigid movements: It's not that TIE Fighters are less maneuverable now than they were before, it's that everything else is just as maneuverable or more, and other lists don't have to maintain formation!
  7. Low/Inexistent action economy: While everybody is swimming in actions, the swarm is stuck on focus and Howlrunner. 
  8. Reliance on range 1 mechanics: The entire swarm revolves around Howlrunner, for as long as she's still alive.
  9. Gradual loss of firepower: The swarm is losing teeth every round. It will lose a TIE Fighter per turn for the first few, with Howlrunner going down among the first. With the crackswarm, the initial engagement is big on firepower, but has a sharp fall afterwards. If the swarm could not do enough damage on the first volley it will just die. Ironically, the swarm used to be the list with the least variance. Now, running with only 2 actions, it's not guaranteed to have a brilliant alpha strike, so it's higher variance than many other things currently being run. You can't spend crackshot if your opponent has an extra evade result.
  10. Plethora of free actions: The swarm used to strive in bumpfests. Between several TIE Fighters getting unmodified shot vs. an X-wing, or vs. tokenless Soontir, it's clear that the swarm had the upper hand. But suddenly you can face Glitterstim, or Lone Wolf, or Rey (crew and pilot), Finn, even Countermeasures! There's plenty of ships that can eat a swarm up if they ever collide head-on!
  11. Dengar and Quickdraw: The two/four shots per turn with the capability of taking out 2 TIEs. Need I say anything more?
  12. Reinforce: The existence of reinforce in 100pt games brings down 2-dice ships another notch. I've played in Epic with crackshot before, being forced to crackshot a reinforce evade to get that single hit in is one of the more depressing things you can do in X-wing.

What FFG already tried to fix this

Chaser, Youngster, Scourge and Wampa. In order from most awful to actually great, these are the only things FFG has ever did for the lowly fighter (I don't believe crackshot was intentional).

Chaser is an attempt to fix the action economy, but it falls into the same pit as Night Beast. Any focus after the first is superfluous, and focus+evade is exactly what Nigh Beast can do as well. Definitely not enough as long as the TIE Fighter doesn't have a Target Lock. Between 3 Fighters with one having an evade, everybody would shoot the other Fighters.

Youngster was on the right path, give a bonus to many Fighters at once. It fails when you consider that Action: header cards are bad for action economy! It's silly to think that Expose would be a good idea when you don't actually have another action for a focus. Swarms with Rage also never picked up.

Scourge is a decent TIE Fighter, the extra dice is good, but it still has the other shortcomings of a TIE in a swarm.

Wampa is amazing, because it bypasses every possible defense at any point in the game, even if it's the last TIE on the board.

What FFG could do to fix it

I don't like doing houserules or rule modification proposals, upgrade cards etc., so I won't do that there. I would instead explore a bit the design space of what could be done.

I don't think FFG can slap a title and call it ok. There's too many problems and having 8 title fixes on the table at once (presuming a 0pt title) is silly. Moreover, fixing the TIE Fighter with the title is both admitting the existence of the power creep and making it worse.

So what could be the solution? I was thinking of squadron-level upgrades. It can manually enforce the types of ships (build lists only with TIEs), it can activate until the end of the game, there's plenty of points for a squadron-level upgrade (4-10 pts). It could fix action economy, and by unlimited range, replace the needs for formation as well. Or it could help the swarm deal more damage, or protect against one-hit kills. It doesn't have to fix everything (and it shouldn't), but bringing the swarm where not every matchup is an uphill challenge should be the goal.

Instead of a conclusion

I would like to be wrong, I really would. Please tell me how I'm wrong :). Maybe I should be stubborn and play the swarm exclusively for a while? To give you a hint of what I've been trying to fly to make up for the downsides of the swarm in the current meta, here's this version:

It adds Kylo to the swarm, which seems to fix a lot of shortcomings, helps by blinding or damaging cockpits all over the place. It's a bit tricky to trigger kylo after turn 1, but there's a version with vader in its place that could do the trick. Wampa doesn't have synergy with Kylo but pushes damage through. Intelligence agent helps a lot against higher PS ships. It doesn't seem enough though.

1 comment :

  1. I really like this, I miss my swarm flying so I might give a version of this a try myself.