Friday, August 28, 2020

Beginner's Guide to Competitive Listbuilding Principles

For a lot of players, part of the fun in X-Wing is building your own list. Unfortunately, building a strong list is hard, and it's easy to fall into various traps and build a weak list.

If you are a net-lister, you also need good list-building skills. You will have to decide which list you choose and whether to tweak it.

This article will go over some fundamental list-building principles I've come across. It covers what you should think about when you approach building a competitive list and discusses some common list-building traps to avoid.


Play strong lists

The first advice I have for list-builders is to copy and play the strongest lists. 😛

Wait, this isn't what it looks like, let me explain!

One of the most important skills for list-builders is the skill to figure out whether a list has potential after playing it only once or twice. You don't have time to playtest a list for dozens of games to figure out how strong it is. The worst thing that can happen is you spend a month playtesting a list only to realize it's not very good the week of the big tournament. Once you have this skill, you'll be able to quickly discard the weak lists, giving you more time to playtest and tweak a list with actual potential.

You need to know what it feels like when you fly a strong list. The best way to learn is to feel that power first-hand. You'll then be better equipped to build your own lists. That's why my first recommendation is to fly the strongest lists and see what it feels like.

https://i.chzbgr.com/full/5593337600/h27E6C1F6/the-power-i-can-feel-the-power

You have my permission to strike this pose after your first time playing the strongest meta list

Against weaker lists, it should feel like you've got reasonable winning chances when you make a bad decision or have weaker dice. You should only be losing when you both have bad dice and make worse decisions. The game should feel absolutely crushing when you have good dice or make better decisions, where your opponent is completely helpless and they're losing no matter what they do.

Against strong lists, you should be able to come up with a reasonable plan for winning the game before it starts. This plan shouldn't rely on favorable dice or achieving a very specific and unlikely board state. When you have bad dice, it should feel like you can pull the game back to even if you make one great outplay. When you get outplayed, you should still be in a state where lucky dice can bail you out and bring the game back to even.

If you really need this guide, you're probably not great at evaluating list strength (if you're good at that, you probably don't need this guide 😊). You might misjudge how strong or weak your opponent's list is, and you may end up with a false sense of security if you play against a very weak list. In this case, the safest thing can be to remove that element by playing against other strong meta lists which have done well in tournaments.

An astute reader may have noticed that you'll need to be able to judge who had better dice. It's really easy to fool yourself on this, so spend some time on the X-Wing Probability Calculator to develop a better sense for much damage you can expect out of common situations. Remember, it's quite uncommon to get exactly even dice, and it's possible for dice luck to even out over the course of a turn or game (although often it does not). 


Do not focus too much on "synergy"

One of the common list-building traps is "Control-F" list-building. Coined by Swim, a Legends of Runeterra streamer, this is where you blindly go all-in on a synergy or mechanic. For example, General Grievous gets a bonus for not being in his target's firing arc. Outmaneuver gives the ship a bonus for not being in the target's firing arc. It's tempting to put them together because these cards have the same words. Another example is spamming the same ship in efficiency lists.

https://zone.msn.com/images/v9/en-us/game/dimi/380x285_dimi.png

X-Wing is not a matching game

Control-F list-building isn't always a bad thing. In some cases, it will make sense! For example, it's often a good idea to run many copies of the same generic pilot. There are lists where Outmaneuver on General Grievous may make sense. The problem is this is not a reliable way to build strong lists. It may or may not work, and it can distract list-builders from more effective options.


Start from power, not from countering a list

Another list-building trap I often see is when people build a list with the idea of countering a list. This usually doesn't work out. In a tournament, you're not likely to see a particular list more than once or twice, and you may never see the list you tried so hard to counter. Even when they get their matchup, these "counter" lists often still lose!

The problem is this mindset often gets list-builders focused on the wrong thing. The best counter to a list is a stronger list. That's why "counter" lists often lose to the list they tried to counter: they were built around some gimmick that may be slightly stronger against that list, but overall they are simply weaker lists.

https://i.imgflip.com/4d30uu.jpg

The moment you realize you should have played a bigger dynamite

Instead of building a list to counter a list, you should build a strong list that has reasonable or good matchups against the field.

That doesn't mean you should never think about other lists when list-building! You may want to pay special attention to strong ships that are also good against the meta, or at least not weak into the meta. For example:

  • Ships tend to be especially weak against ships with one higher initiative, or against arc-dodgers with the same initiative but a bigger bid.
  • More evasive ships (e.g., 3-agility ships, ships with lots of defensive mods) are relatively weaker against more attacks, big attacks, and reliable attacks and are relatively stronger against fewer attacks, smaller attacks, and less-modded attacks.
Once you have a strong list, you can also consider adding some tech choices to improve your matchups against certain lists. But start from building a strong list, not from building a list to counter another list.


Focus on matchups and board states

The most important things to think about when list-building are matchups and board states. As Swim says, the only thing a card can do is take a game that was lost and turn it into a game that was won, or turn a game that was won into a game that was lost.

X-Wing is a game with dice luck, and MOV sometimes matters for making the cut. "Win more" does have some value in X-Wing. Still, when list-building, your primary focus is to turn losing matchups and board states into winning ones while minimizing the amount of your winning matchups and board states that turn into losing ones.

As a quick aside, this skill will also improve your strategic and tactical decision-making while playing the game. You have many reasons to develop this skill!

Here are some common situations to consider when list-building:

  • You're facing arc-dodgers that move after you.
  • You're facing the strongest jousting list in the meta.
  • Your opponent has you flanked.
  • You've flanked your opponent, and they can choose which part of your list to turn on.
  • Your opponent flies to deny you one of your tricks.
  • You've lost one or two of your ships.
  • You're down to your last ship or last two cheap ships.

When you consider filling out your squad with extra ships, choosing between different pilots, or adding pilots, you should be thinking about how this changes your winning chances in these situations, and any other common situations you may be facing given the expected meta.

For example, if your list is really strong against jousting lists but weak against arc-dodgers that move after you, you may want to consider spending some points to shore up that matchup. This can be a good idea even if it weakens your matchup against jousting lists a bit. Of course, you should be careful not to tunnel-vision and weaken your good matchups too much for what you gain against weaker matchups.

One of the results of this situation-based analysis is you usually don't want to mix tanky ships and glass-cannon ships in the same list. Your opponent will have an easy time killing your glass-cannon ships first and your tanky ships won't deal enough damage to punish this. Unless you have some way of protecting your glass-cannon ships (e.g., they are very difficult to catch), you should include ships of similar durability-to-damage ratios.


Let's return to that Grievous with Outmaneuver example. Suppose you've got a list with Grievous and a Vulture swarm. If your opponent ignores Grievous and turns on the swarm, Grievous gets double mods while they slowly chew through your Vultures, and you probably win. If your opponent goes after Grievous first, the Vultures may not be able to deal enough damage to punish that hard enough and you'll probably have a good chance to lose.

What happens if you add Outmaneuver to Grievous? Well, your winning situation is even more winning! Now, what happens if they turn on Grievous first? Outmaneuver does nothing, you just handed your opponent more points, and your Vulture swarm has fewer points to spend for offense to punish this. And unfortunately, you don't have a great way to force your opponent to ignore Grievous. Outmaneuver is only a "win more" card in this list and is probably a bad idea unless it's extremely under-priced.

Now, let's consider a list with Grievous, Ensnare Sun Fac, and Ensnare Chertek. If your opponents turn on Grievous, Ensnare Sun Fac and Ensnare Chertek get free rein to tear your opponent's list apart. You're probably winning those games. Your biggest chances of losing are probably when your opponent turns on Sun Fac first and kills him quickly. Outmaneuver can turn those losing situations into winning ones or perhaps even change your opponent's decision of who to attack first, so the upgrade may be a good idea for this list. Of course, you should still consider if there's a better way to spend the points (examples include a bid or Gravitic Deflection on the Nantex, and these will depend on the point cost of the upgrades and the meta).


Remember, even if your list doesn't really need a bid and you have spare points, you don't have to spend them. Since games often end on time, unspent points can be helpful and sometimes the bid will deny your opponent some value. In the Feb 2019 Toronto System Open, I lost my first game by 2 MOV. I'd upgraded a Bandit Squadron Z-95 to a Tala Squadron Pilot with Selfless for 5 points. The Tala died and I didn't use Selfless that game, and the higher initiative didn't matter much either. Adding Selfless with my spare points turned a won game into a lost game. It was still probably the right call over the long run, but you should remember it's not free to spend "spare" points.


Look for value

The best thing you can bring to a tournament is a 240-point list, and the worst thing to do is to bring a 160-point list. As long as the cards aren't perfectly balanced, a keen sense of value is important when list-building.

Don't do this to yourself

There are several common traps you can run into. First, some players try to "chase" value with a weak ship by loading it with upgrades. Unless the upgrade is extremely strong on that ship, usually transforming it into a different ship in some way (examples include Special Forces Gunner for Quickdraw or Advanced Sensors for Guri), adding more upgrades isn't going to fix the ship. If you buy a lemon used car for too much money, adding fancy speakers at fair market value isn't going to get your money back. The solution is to avoid the lemon and buy a good car at a great price.

Second, one of the most common list-building traps is to load too many upgrades on ships. Upgrades are often balanced around a ship that uses them the best, and many are mediocre for their point cost on any ship. Loading your fleet of good cars bought at a great price with speakers at fair market value may not be as good as spending that money on an extra car. You should be especially careful when adding upgrades on cheap ships. The value of most upgrades is multiplicative, which means they are stronger when the ship itself is stronger, but the cost of most upgrades do not scale with the quality of the ship they're equipped on.

Another list-building trap is to run a ship without a staple upgrade. Some ships, like the aforementioned Quickdraw and Guri, depend on having a specific upgrade to be worth their points.

Finally, a trap that often shows up when value isn't considered strongly enough is a list without enough offense. My rule of thumb is to bring at least three ships with 3-dice attacks, or a similar equivalent. 2-dice attacks count for half, and a 4-dice attack counts for 1.5 ships. These ships should also be durable enough to survive one average round of combat. When your list doesn't have enough offense, it often gets hard to play because you can't remove problematic enemy ships (examples include a ship with control elements, or firing arcs to give your arc-dodgers space to breathe) fast enough. This is not a hard rule, especially if your ships are extremely good at arc-dodging, but you should have a very good reason to bring fewer ships.

Unfortunately, outside of playing a bunch, scouring tournament results, or doing lots of math, I'm not sure how to really develop this sense for value. Situational thinking can be one way to approach this. Often, bringing too many inefficient ships or upgrades will ruin some of your matchups for little gain in other situations. Let me know if you have any other ideas!


Conclusions

When list-building, you should be looking to add value pieces to your list, which have a low point cost for the impact they have on the board. As you add ships and upgrades, you should be thinking about your chance of winning in different matchups and board states. You want to add ships and upgrades which flip losing situations into winning ones without flipping too many winning situations into losing ones.

As you list-build, there are many traps to watch out for. Don't tunnel vision on synergies. Build a strong list first, and don't list-build to counter another list. Be very careful to add ships and upgrades that bring more value than they cost, and try to bring enough offense in your list.

Finally, if you haven't done this before, go check out some recent tournament results, pick one of the top-placing lists, and play that a few times. Get a sense for what it feels like to play a strong list. Once you do that, it will guide you in your future list-building. Good luck and have fun!

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

My E-Wing Recommendations

There seems to be renewed interest in the E-Wing with the latest points drop, and there's been a lot of advice thrown around on how to run them. I thought I'd share my experiences and suggestions flying E-Wings.

I've been running generic E-Wings on and off since shortly before the mid-2019 points update. At first, my list was Crack Shot Wedge, 2x Knave Squadron Escorts with R3 Astromech, and Sheathipede Zeb. After the Knaves dropped by 2 points each, I could fit Leia crew by dropping Crack Shot and downgrading to AP-5. With the latest points update, I think 3x Rogue Squadron E-Wings might be the way to go, along with a cheap filler fourth ship. I still need to test it out, but I think it has the potential to be an A-Tier competitive squad.

What is the E-Wing?

Let's first examine the E-Wing chassis to see what its role is.

https://sb-cdn.fantasyflightgames.com/card_images/Card_Pilot_53.png

The E-Wing chassis is a 3-attack ship that's more durable than X-Wings and B-Wings. Against 3-dice attacks with a single mod, an E-Wing is expected to survive an extra attack compared to the X-Wing and an extra 0.7 attacks compared to the B-Wing without spending mods on defense. The extra durability comes in the form of 3 agility. That means it's more vulnerable to big attacks, it's stronger against weak attacks, it gets large value from focus tokens on defense, and it's more exposed to variance.

The ship chassis ability, Experimental Scanners, is a good offensive ability which gives the ship a chance to have double-mods on your first attack. Having that second mod on a 3-dice attack increases your expected damage from 1.5 to 2 against a 2-agility ship without mods, and from 1.2 to 1.7 against a 3-agility ship without mods. For comparison, double mods is more than half as good as adding a fourth die. A 4-dice single-modded attack averages 2.3 damage against a 2-agility ship and 1.9 damage against a 3-agility ship. It's closer to the damage output of Crack Shot or Juke, which deals 2.1 and 1.9 damage against 2-agility and 3-agility ships without mods, respectively, although Crack Shot is stronger against ships with focus.


There are two downsides to Experimental Scanners. First, you will occasionally miss out on a free target lock when you are too close to a target. This is especially likely to happen if you use an E-Wing to block. Second, it can be partially nullified by your opponent being flying cautiously with the targeted ship. While it is sometimes possible to re-select your target in later turns before engagement, you will still be forced to choose between a priority target which you may have a hard time getting in arc and a more available but less-critical target. Even with these drawbacks, the Experimental Scanners ability is strong.

The E-Wing has good tools for strategic positioning. It has both boost and barrel roll actions. It also has every basic maneuver with only the 1-speed turns being red, and a K-Turn and two S-Loop options for turning around. Further, the boost and barrel roll options can link into a target lock in preparation for the engagement. These options mean the E-Wing has the tools to get where it needs to go before the engagement occurs.

However, the E-Wing does not have great tools for tactical positioning. The ship can't double-reposition. Once engaged, the linked actions lose most of their value. The ship often already has a lock thanks to Experimental Scanners, it's often at Range 1 after repositioning, and it can't link into a defensive action. The base chassis also has low initiative. The high-initiative pilot, Corran Horn, doesn't have a great ability as an ace (namely, something with action efficiency or additional repositioning). The ship probably needs Afterburners to function as an arc-dodging ace, and that's not ideal because pilots cap out at initiative 5 and the ship lacks useful linked actions after repositioning. E-Wings will get some arc-dodging opportunities against lower-initiative ships since they have both barrel roll and boost, but you shouldn't count on them arc-dodging everything as a win condition.

As such, the E-Wing functions most naturally as a premium jouster. It has the maneuverability to reach the ideal position for the engagement. Once the shooting starts, the E-Wing has above-average damage output and durability.

Pilots

The generics come with initiative 2 and initiative 4. The initiative 2 Knave Squadron Escort would probably C-Tier around 53 points and the initiative 4 Rogue Squadron Escort would probably be C-Tier around 56 points. Subtract 5%, 10%, and 15% for B-Tier, A-Tier, and S-Tier respectively.

The currently-released named E-Wing pilots, Gavin Darklighter and Corran Horn, are mostly premium jousters like the generics since their abilities don't affect their roles too much.

Gavin Darklighter's ability is pretty interesting. Because the ability isn't that powerful and because it works on his own attacks, you don't need to use Gavin exclusively with swarms. I estimate the value of the ability at roughly 6 points over a Rogue Squadron Escort even in 3- or 4-ship lists.

Corran Horn is not nearly as strong as his former 1.0 iteration. His double-tap ability is much more situational since it requires a bullseye and he can't run away as easily. In the old days of 1.0, Corran Horn was happy to run away with a focus, an evade, and a shield regen. Today, he no longer has triple mods on defense or the potential to double-reposition. Corran's double-tap ability is only useful when the bullseye shot at the end of the round is more valuable than the shot he'll have next round. I estimate the combination of the initiative bump and the ability is probably worth roughly 8 points on top of the Rogue Squadron Escort, and his role is a (more) premium jouster instead of the points fortress arc-dodging ace he was in 1.0.

Why R3 Astromech?

R3 Astromech is usually a bad card. Most ships want to focus instead of taking a lock, and there's no guarantee they'd have two enemy ships in range to lock or that they survive long enough to use both locks.

The E-Wing chassis solves all of those problems. Experimental Scanners means the E-Wing is guaranteed to get two locks on before the engagement and the E-Wing is durable enough to have a reasonable chance of using both locks before dying.

R3 Astromech grants the ship an extra mod for one attack. As discussed earlier, double mods is slightly worse than Crack Shot against unmodded defenses and significantly worse against modded defenses, but it's easier to benefit from the second target lock than Crack Shot. This is especially true since you gain the benefits again if you can disengage for a turn. Crack Shot is probably worth 3 points, and I estimate R3 Astromech is probably worth around 4 points on the E-Wing.

At first glance, it seems like the R3 Astromech benefit is slightly worse since it's delayed: you only benefit from it over two turns. However, it's actually an up-front benefit in that it almost always guarantees you'll have double mods against an available target on the opening engage. In some cases, the extra damage from the second lock could kill or score half points on that target in the first round, allowing you to comfortably turn on the first locked target next round.

Beyond its mathematical value, R3 Astromech makes flying E-Wings much easier and flying against E-Wings much more difficult. I tested R4 Astromech for a couple games and was struck by how hard it was to choose which ship to lock. I had to think really hard and ended up making some really bad decisions. R3 Astromech can provide a significant mental advantage over the course of a tournament.

The opposite is true for your opponents. With only one lock, you have to announce your target priority. Your opponent can respond by keeping their locked ship safe. With two locks, you can lock a ship on both flanks (e.g., Soontir and Vader against Imperial Aces), or lock both a filler ship and a premium ship against joust + ace lists (e.g., Kylo and a generic TIE against Kylo Generics). It's much harder to keep two ships out of the fight and it means you have a stronger threat of turning your guns on either flank.

Why not R4 Astromech?

Even if you decide not to run R3 Astromech, I would not recommend running R4 Astromech. R4 Astromech is tempting because it turns the 1-speed hard turns white as well as giving the ship blue 2-speed hard turns. An under-stated benefit of R4 Astromech is the blue 2-speed banks. Sometimes, you'll want to turn and move faster than a 1-speed maneuver the turn after being stressed, and R4 Astromech lets the E-Wing to do that.

That said, R4 Astromech is a luxury that usually does not fit on the E-Wing. As premium jousters, E-Wings usually want upgrades that improve their damage output or durability. Blue hard turns can improve damage output and durability if the ship has a good linked action. For example, the TIE Advanced v1 benefits from its blue turns more than the TIE/fo Fighter from its blue turns (except Scorch) because of its linked reposition to focus actions. R4 Astromech really helps Poe Dameron because he wants to be stressed every turn for additional mods and the option to double-reposition. Unfortunately, the E-Wing does not get added value from being stressed since it doesn't have a good linked action, so R4 Astromech doesn't do too much for the E-Wing.

R4 Astromech can also be useful for ships that don't have blue banks or turns to one side. For example, Dengar would love to have R4 Astromech. It's probably also useful for BTL-B Y-Wings. However, not only does the E-Wing already have blue 1 banks, it also has both a K-Turn and two S-Loops to adjust its facing on the turn-around turn so it can most likely use its blue straight options the following turn.

That leaves the 1-hard turns. It's a great maneuver to have, but it's unnecessary. Plenty of jousting ships work fine without the 1-hard turn. With some planning, it's rare that doing a 1-speed hard turn instead of a 2-speed hard turn will make a significant difference in your games.

Overall, I think people tend to overrate the value of having a good dial on jousting ships without linked actions. Most jousting ships can do their jobs as long as they have a high-speed turn-around maneuver (Tallon Rolls don't count), a 1-straight, and a set of banks and turns. Outside of some combo which gives the E-Wing extra power for stress, the R4 Astromech is probably worth only 1 point on the E-Wing.

Other upgrades

As a premium jouster, the E-Wing doesn't need a ton of upgrades to do its job. Outside of R3 Astromech, I'd recommend using spare points to bring better and more ships rather than adding extra upgrades on an E-Wing.

Until Crack Shot goes up to 3 or more points, it's a strong consideration for any small ship with a Talent slot. The E-Wing is no different.

Elusive is OK on the E-Wing, but it competes with Crack Shot and with other ship upgrades. Half of a Shield Upgrade is worth about 3 points on the Rogue Squadron Escort. You can come out ahead if you use it at least twice, but you may have a better place to spend the points. If you bring it, don't choose bad maneuvers to chase its effect.

I've seen people include Fire-Control Systems on their E-Wings. I don't recommend it for a couple reasons (with one exception, see below). First, the benefit itself is marginal without a bonus attack or some reason to keep the lock, such as ordnance or the TIE Advanced x1 ship ability. It only increases your chance of keeping your lock by about 40 percentage points. It's also reasonably common to kill the target in one round with multiple double-modded attacks. Corran has a double-tap ability, but it's not likely to be used frequently enough for FCS to be worth the 2 points. Second, the E-Wing has the option to disengage to re-acquire locks, making it less of a priority to hold on to a lock. 

I'm skeptical about Proton Torpedoes on the E-Wing. It gives you a scary alpha strike, but it's very expensive. You may be better off bringing more and better ships. Advanced Proton Torpedoes is both very situational but also relatively cheap. I think having Advanced Proton Torpedoes is the only case where Fire-Control System could make sense. R3 Astromech is probably an auto-include if you bring torpedoes.

Some other upgrades which IMO aren't great:
  • Predator: The benefit is normally lower than Crack Shot, and Predator is uniquely bad on E-Wings because they're likely to have rerolls already.
  • Daredevil: The E-Wing is mainly a jouster and not an arc-dodger, so it doesn't get too much value from this.
  • Outmaneuver: This is best on super arc-dodgers like Guri, or on very tanky ships like TIE Defenders. The E-Wing is already more of a glass cannon so it's hard to get value from this.

Wingmates

This is the most points-dependent section of this article, so I'm not going to give any specific suggestions. Ideally, you want to run strong ships, and that's going to change with every points adjustment. However, I do have some observations on what types of wingmates the E-Wing likes.

Thanks to its double mods on offense, the E-Wing leans towards being a glass cannon ship with a relatively high damage output for its durability. It's even more of a glass cannon if it takes R3 Astromech. Glass-cannon ships work best with other glass-cannon ships and work poorly with tanky ships that have a relatively low damage output.

The E-Wing has a couple quirks in how it flies. First, it's a ship that wants the option to disengage to reacquire locks. This means it wants wingmates who can also disengage. It's no good if the E-Wings fly off to reacquire locks only for their wingmates to get isolated and destroyed.

Second, the E-Wing likes extra actions but only after the engagement happens. Coordinating a damaged E-Wing gives it focus and evade on defense. Coordinate also gives you opportunities to pick up another set of target locks or reposition with a mod. However, unless you only have one E-Wing in the line of fire, the E-Wing doesn't make good use of coordinate in the first turn of the engagement because it will already have a focus and lock. If you coordinate an evade token on one E-Wing, your opponent will just shoot the other one. That means if you bring a coordinate ship, you want a non-E-Wing ship to get value out of that first turn's coordinate (I used Wedge as my primary coordinate target).

Finally, the E-Wing isn't the ideal blocker. It has an above-average attack that's sacrificed if it blocks and it has poor linked actions after a reposition. Pairing them with cheaper blocking ships can shore up this weakness, or you'll want another way to deal with arc-dodgers like a high-initiative ship.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Ship Effectiveness Model v1.8 and the July 2020 Points Meta

With the release of the July 2020 points, I've released version 1.8 of the Ship Effectiveness Model. As always, you should make a copy of this sheet if you want to change the view (e.g. sorting by %Diff).

Let's take a look at the factions and see how things shook out! For this article, I'm going to focus on the competitive setting, so I'm going to focus on ships the model thinks is more than 5% under-costed.


Here's a description for the headers in the table below:
  • Calc Pts: The ship's point value calculated by the model. The benchmark is the median ship, which you can roughly think of as a 23-point Academy Pilot TIE/ln Fighter.
  • Diff: The difference in points between the ship's actual point cost and the calculated point value. Positive is good, negative is bad.
  • %Diff: The difference in percent between the ship's actual point cost and the calculated point value. Positive is good, negative is bad.

Rebel Alliance


Norra is interesting. She's consistently highly-rated in my model, but hasn't seen a lot of play. My model likely overrates medium and large ships with front arcs that only have 1 K-Turn option. Norra's other problem is that she's a very tanky ship in a faction that mostly has glass-cannon ships.

The other unpopular perennials are various Attack Shuttles with Dorsal Turret, which have the opposite problem of being too much of glass cannons. Dorsal Turret can be a pseudo-defensive upgrade in that it lets them arc-dodge while still having shots more easily, but investing more points into these fragile ships is scary.

I've been a strong fan of the generic E-Wings since last year before their first buffs, and they just got yet another buff. They are best used as premium jousters with just the R3 Astromech upgrade (and maybe Crack Shot, and maaaaaybe but probably not Proton Torpedoes). R3 Astromech is really strong not only gives them a potential extra modded shot, it also makes your decisions much easier and makes it harder for your opponent to guess your maneuvers. If you want results out of your generic E-Wings, stop trying to get cute with them and just shove them in your opponent's face.

One thing to note for Rebels is they have very few good Hyperspace options. Leia, Kannan, and Luke are the heavy hitters, and Dorsal Y-Wings make reasonable fillers, but that's all. The generic T-65 X-Wings are their next best options at around +3%.

I'm sure everyone will have questions about the YT-2400. They're mostly still not great, with Leebo topping out at +0%. Dash with Kanan lands at -3.8%. However, this is one ship that benefits from being hyperstacked. I'm skeptical, but there may be a YT-2400 list that works.

Galactic Empire


Empire has a lot of swarm options backed up by Sloane. The best swarm option is still probably a combination of Academy Pilots and Alpha Squadron Pilots, and it has seen moderate success. Empire also got a strong generic option in Hyperspace with the TIE Interceptors and Baron of the Empire. Outside of the generics, Vader (with Hate) and Soontir still look like great options.

The TIE/ag Aggressor with Dorsal Turret might be an interesting option now with the Dorsal Turret buff. Compared to the I2 V-19 Torrent, you're basically paying 3 points for a Dorsal Turret, which seems reasonable.

One notable option not on here are the Decimators. RAC with Darth Vader is rated at +4%, and I think it might be stronger with some other upgrades.

Scum and Villainy


Scum is spoiled for choice. Not only is this list longer than the other factions, it cuts off at +6.6%. I couldn't fit all of the Scum ships above 5% on my screen! Other ships above 5% include the Binayre Pirate, Guri w/ Adv Sensors Shield Upgrade and Title (Outmaneuver seems to be the crucial upgrade for her), Sarco Plank, Old Teroch, Tel Truvura w/ Hull Upgrade, Spice Runner with Title, Captain Nym w/ Ion Cannon, Palob Godalhi w/ Title, and the Skull Squadron Pilot w/ Fearless.

The buffs to the Quadjumper and the Lancer-Class Pursuit Craft probably make Scum the best Tractor Beam faction. Unkar Plutt is especially strong in the 2.0 rules because you decide where you tractor your own ships, including Unkar. He was strong before and got another big buff. Similarly, the Lancer-Class Pursuit Craft was already pretty strong (with the caveat again that my model may overrate large ships with only one K-Turn option), and only got stronger with their buff.

M3-A Interceptors also show up prominently. Autoblaster Cannon is annoying to model so I don't have them, but I suspect it's probably comparable to the Ion Cannon numbers.

Another big beneficiary of the buffs are the Scum YT-1300's. They're now cheap enough that they are a very reasonable option, and both Lando and Han look good. Just don't try to make them carry your list. Keep an eye out for a good Scum support crew in the future; the Scum YT-1300 is probably one of the best support crew carriers, but Scum doesn't have any good ones right now.

A real surprise is Dace Bonearm! I give him no credit for his ability; the model just seems to like a generic I4 Moldy Crow at 49 points.

Notably, Boba Fett falls off the list. With Maul and Slave 1, he's at +3.5%. He should be even stronger with a Proton Bomb and Hull/Shield Upgrade, but that's not currently in my model. Most of the Boba lists will suffer from the nerfs, but Boba Fenn should still be viable.

Resistance


The usual Resistance suspects are up here: Finn, Nien Nunb, Rey, Talli, Zizi, and generic T-70 X-Wings. Zizi doesn't suffer too much from the slight nerf. On the other hand, Rey and Chewbacca were already pretty strong and only got a buff.

Notably, some of the StarFortresses are showing up on the bottom of the list. I don't have a great handle on these ships, especially how they interact with bombs. I suspect Perceptive VTG Vennie is stronger than the base version.

First Order


First Order got some very interesting buffs. The generic TIE/ba looks very strong! You should always strain for the lock unless you need to keep a hurt one alive. The 1-point buff to Special Forces Gunner and Lieutenant LeHuse also makes him an interesting option.

I've been suspicious of Supernatural Kylo Ren's rating in the model, so I've tested him out a couple times. Against both a Sear Swarm and a double Decimator list, I was ahead on points going into the last round, made a bad maneuver choice, and lost. Given the strength of these opposing lists, I think the rating is probably right. However, Supernatural Kylo Ren is probably the ship that suffers the most from the time limit, and he has some really skewed matchups.

Galactic Republic


Galactic Republic really suffered from their nerfs. Most of their high-initiative ace options have fallen behind. Still, they have some good low initiative options. The Y-Wings have finally caught up with the other hyper-efficient generic options. And while the aces have fallen off, the lower-initiative Jedi are still strong.

Separatist Alliance


Is that a +20%!? Yes, the Nantex buffs appear to be absolutely massive. I guess FFG wanted to sell more of them! If the model is anything close to accurate, these might need an emergency nerf in a few months.

The Vulture nerfs will hurt, but I think Separatists are going to be alright. The Hyena is still extremely strong, and with the OP Nantex and the new ships entering the Hyperspace format, they've got plenty of good options.

Notably, Sun Fac is sneaking in at +4.8% with his newest buffs. Sun Fac has some of the most polarized matchups in the game (absolutely awful against medium/large ships, god against small ships), so he's a great option for players who prefer to play matchup lotto over a strategic and tactical game of maneuvering.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Beginner's Guide to Not Jousting

I've said in the past that flying arc-dodgers is not harder than flying jousters at the tournament level, but there's an initial learning curve on how to avoid jousting.

Here's a basic idea you can try to avoid jousting: Don't put your ships in the same place.


In this case, "same place" means "area covered by the same firing arc(s)". In other words, flank with your ships.

This is not a flank:



This is a flank:


The important thing is where your ships are during the engagement, not where they are deployed. You can start your ace ships anywhere as long as they are spread out before the engagement. Similarly, don't get baited by spreading your ships during deployment but have all your ships end up in the same place by the time the shooting starts.

Of course, things get more difficult if enemy ships have multiple arcs, but this general concept still applies.

There are several reasons to spread out your ships. First, it's easier to arc-dodge and avoid shots with one ship than it is with three ships. When your ships are in the same place, their escape routes may end up getting blocked off by your own ships.

Second, it's hard to arc-dodge and get shots at the same time. Even when all your aces successfully arc-dodge, you may not have gained anything. Flanking means the ships that don't arc-dodge get free shots.

Third, it forces your opponent to make decisions and thus gives them more chances to make mistakes. If all your ships are in one place, your opponent's choices are obvious (turn towards all of your ships). When they have to decide which of three ships to turn toward, they might make the wrong choice and give you a significant advantage.

There's an added benefit of flanking for all ships, even ships that aren't aces. When ships are flying head-on at each other, they usually have to K-Turn to keep their guns on target. Flanking ships can keep guns on target without turning around. This means flanking is especially beneficial for ships that are often stressed and can't K-Turn (e.g. Soontir Fel, Braylen Stramm) or ships that don't have a K-Turn (e.g. the Upsilon Shuttle).

As such, flanking is also important if your list has both a jousting block and a flanker or arc-dodger, or if you only have ships with average or below-average maneuverability but you'd lose a straight joust.

Counterplay

For the other side of the matchup, there are a few ways to play against a flanking list. First, you can try to jump on one ship before the others can capitalize. In the best case scenario, you can kill or cripple one ship for free. If you play it especially well, you may have time to regroup before your opponent can punish even if you don't catch or cripple the target.

Second, you can try to herd your opponent's ships together. You can threaten to jump on a ship and force it to turn into its allies. Once your opponents ships are in the same place, you'll have an easier time catching them.

Sometimes, you can split your firing arcs. This threatens your opponent with at least some damage and may make them play more cautiously with spending tokens on offense. Don't do this if the enemy ships have strong defenses that require focus fire to overcome. This can also leave your ships uncoordinated and in a position to be picked off by the aces.

Finally, you can make sure you catch at least one ship in your arcs, even if you have to give up the flank to the other enemy ships. As long as your ships are shooting, you may still win the damage race. If possible, leave yourself with an option to threaten the flankers with your maneuver the next turn.

There's currently one more strategy against flankers that's potentially problematic for the game: "mobile fortressing". This strategy involves only flying your ships along the board edges, either waiting for your opponent to approach or for a favorable final salvo. It removes one of the flank approaches using the board edge while threatening the other approaches with hard turns and K-Turns. It's often the best strategy if you have a less-maneuverable list. Unfortunately, this strategy could be degenerate since it's pretty easy to execute and has limited options for counterplay. I believe the rules should heavily discourage mobile fortressing for this reason, and judges at various events may already be using their discretion to penalize mobile fortressing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

What a close joust vs. aces game looks like: implications for time limits and strategy

When there's an aces vs. jousters matchup, what does an even game look like? This would be a game where both players have roughly equal chances to win until the end.

For this exercise, we can imagine some hypothetical 2-3 ace list (maybe Boba Fenn or Republic Aces) against a hypothetical jousting list (maybe 5 X-Wings).

Suppose after a few rounds, both lists have lost about 80 points of ships. One of the aces and two X-Wings died. Does this even trade of points create an even game state?

Actually, this even trade of points means the jousting list is losing unless the aces are in a bad position.

We know from escalation leagues and epic games that lower point budgets favor aces while higher point budgets favor jousters. With lower point budgets, jousters don't have enough firing arcs to get reliable shots on aces. With higher points budgets, aces die well before they get value for their cost.

Unless the aces are in a bad position, we now have a 120 point vs. 120 point game after this even trade of points. We know this favors aces. The jousters aren't likely to cripple any aces before the aces get another kill or two. At that point, the jousters won't have enough arcs to keep the aces from getting uncontested shots. The jousters may never shoot again and they're going to lose the game.




If an even trade of ships doesn't produce a fair game, then the jousters have to kill more points than they lose to keep the game fair. Even when the jousters are ahead on points, a couple bad turns is all it takes for the jousting list to lose one too many ships and any reasonable path to victory. The jousting list has to continue getting shots, dealing damage, and removing ships. The aces have to look for openings where they can kill enough ships to get reliable uncontested shots the rest of the game.

So, what does this mean?

First, time limits favor jousting lists (or less-maneuverable lists in general), especially since they tend to have a favorable final salvo. The scenarios where the aces get ahead and run to time feel bad, but aces are heavily favored when they get ahead on points anyway. On the other hand, the game could end in an even state where the jousting list is ahead on points. Jousting lists can even win in a position where the aces are in a commanding position as there aren't enough ships left on the board to pin them down.

Second, in terms of game strategy, ace lists probably want to play the opening quickly. If they don't get a large advantage out of the opening, they want the extra time to outmaneuver their opponents and recover from their points deficit. Jousting lists may want to delay the engagement so ace lists get fewer opportunities to exploit their maneuverability later in the game.

Finally, aces are probably more forgiving to fly than jousting lists. An ace list that gets behind can still exploit its maneuverability to look for uncontested shots and a way back into the game. A jousting list that gets behind may not even be able to shoot the rest of the game. At some point, they may even lose while exchanging fire and they usually don't have the maneuverability to get the uncontested shots they would need to recover.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Quick Hyperspace Takes on the Jan 2020 Points

Along with the massive changes to Hyperspace legality, the Jan 2020 points adjustment makes huge changes to the Hyperspace meta. In this article, I review the best Hyperspace-legal pilots in each faction and discuss my overall thoughts on each faction as a whole. For those more interested in Extended, I'll also list what I think are the best non-Hyperspace-legal pilots for each faction.

Overall, the Jan 2020 points adjustment solidifies the bar for efficiency set by the generic Kihraxz in the previous adjustment. Previously-efficient ships and ships which received further buffs to meet that standard are strong options in this new meta. Generics that were previously reasonable but didn't receive further buffs have fallen behind.

Tier list (number of good options; NOT strength of strongest lists!; NOT ordered within tiers):
A-Tier: Scum
B-Tier: Resistance, First Order, Republic
C-Tier: Rebels, Separatists
D-Tier: Empire

Rebels

Strong pilots: 
  • Leia Organa (Modified YT-1300)
  • Luke Skywalker (T-65 X-Wing)
  • I2 and I3 T-65 X-Wings
  • I1 A-Wing
Rebels don't seem to have many great options in Hyperspace (or in Extended?). Leia's probably their best ship. Unfortunately, I'm not sold on their other options. Neither Y-Wings nor B-Wings kept up with the new efficiency standard. Stabilized S-Foils is great on Ten Numb and gives him double-modded shots without any other upgrades, but the order of the BR->lock linked action and the extra cost mean he doesn't quite keep up with the newly-discounted options. For the rest of the B-Wings, chasing the cannon double-tap seems to be too expensive to be worthwhile.

Even worse for Rebel players, the Resistance may pull off the efficient X-Wings and A-Wings lists even better. Still, Rebels have an efficient YT-1300 and can put more ships on the table compared to the Resistance.

Most missed non-Hyperspace options: I2 E-Wing, Leia Organa crew and efficient crew carriers, force crew (e.g. Kanan Jarrus, Luke Skywalker)

Empire

Strong pilots: 
  • "Duchess" (TIE Striker)
  • I1 TIE Strikers
  • Major Vermeil (TIE Reaper) with Seventh Sister crew
  • Maybe I2 TIE Advanced x1
The Empire has a plethora of the best ships in the game. Admiral Sloane backed by the newly-discounted generic TIE Interceptors looks hard to beat. I3 generic TIE Phantoms were really strong and got a discount. Previously-strong pilots like the Inquisitor, Grand Inquisitor, Darth Vader, Soontir Fel, Whisper, and Rear Admiral Chiraneau all stayed in place while other ships got buffed, but these should still be good options. Even generic TIE Aggressors and TIE Bombers may be strong now.

Comically, none of these made it into Hyperspace. Even the ones that did (e.g. Darth Vader, Rear Admiral Chiraneau) are missing vital upgrades that make them work (e.g. Afterburners, Hate, Darth Vader crew, Moff Jerjerrod, Proximity Mines).

I think the best attempt with Hyperspace Empire might be to spam TIE Strikers. Or, maybe try to make magic happen with the I2 TIE Advanced x1; it keeps getting discounts, and at some point it's got to be a good value despite its Lock requirement drawbacks! "Duchess" and Major Vermeil may be OK named options. Darth Vader still has Passive Sensors, but there are much fewer I6 arc-dodgers that the build counters.

Most missed non-Hyperspace options: Admiral Sloane, I3 TIE Phantom, I1 and I4 TIE Interceptors, Afterburners, Darth Vader crew, Moff Jerjerrod, etc.

Scum

Strong pilots:
  • Dengar (JumpMaster 5000)
  • Nom Lumb (JumpMaster 5000)
  • I1 generic Fang Fighter
  • Sunny Bounder, Laetin A'shera, I2 and I3 M3-A Interceptor
  • I2 and I3 Mining Guild TIEs
  • Boba Fett (Firespray)
  • Fenn Rau (Fang Fighter)
Oh, how the turns table. Scum keeps its proven options like Boba Fenn and Quad Fangs and builds on them in several ways. It's not a meme, I really think the buffs to Dengar finally make him an efficient option, which gives Scum two good I6 options in Hyperspace. Consider Expert Handling or Contraband Cybernetics, be very careful about taking stress, and play him a few times to get used to his asymmetric dial.

Despite leaving their best low-initiative options in Extended, Hyperspace Scum still has good swarm, filler, and workhorse options. Nom Lumb doesn't give up unanswered shots and a cannon (Autoblaster or Ion) limits most of the drawbacks of his ability. Most of their generics provide good value for their points, including the I1 Fang Fighter, generic M3-A Interceptors, and generic Mining Guild TIEs. Some of the named M3-A Interceptors including Sunny Bounder and Laetin A'shera can also be efficient options.

Most missed non-Hyperspace options: Asajj Ventress and I2 Shadowcasters, I3 Kimogila

Resistance

Strong pilots:
  • Tallissan Lintra (RZ-2 A-Wing)
  • Zizi Tlo (RZ-2 A-Wing)
  • I2 and I3 T-70 X-Wings
  • I2 Fireball
  • Poe Dameron (T-70 X-Wing)
  • maybe all other RZ-2 A-Wings
Resistance has extremely efficient X-Wing and A-Wing options, and not much beyond that. Tallissan is still extremely efficient and Zizi joins her as another great A-Wing pilot. I've never been sold on the other A-Wing pilots, but Resistance players like them so they may still be fine. On the other hand, it may be worth trying out the generic T-70 options now that they've received large discounts. Finally, Poe remains as an I6 option that can double-reposition.

The generic Fireballs look reasonably efficient. Compared to the hyper-efficient I2 Torrent, they cost an extra point and their K-Turn options aren't as strong. Still, their SLAM makes them unpredictable blockers and the option to attack after a SLAM is welcome. They're worse than the generic X-Wings, but they may be a reasonable filler. Kazuda looks too expensive to be efficient, even with R5 Astromech to make his ability more reliable. At this time, the other Fireball pilots have not yet been spoiled.

Most missed non-Hyperspace options: Rey (Scavenged YT-1300), Finn (Resistance Transport Pod), Chewbacca (Scavenged YT-1300)

First Order

Strong pilots:
  • All TIE/fo Fighter pilots except "Static", "Midnight", and maybe the I4 generic and Commander Malarus
  • All TIE/vn Silencer pilots except maybe "Blackout" ("Avenger" needs a 4+ ship list)
  • I2 TIE/sf Fighter (with or without Special Forces Gunner)
  • Major Vonreg (TIE/ba Interceptor)
First Order continues to have lots of efficient options. You can build a pretty reasonable list by just taking the above ships with their logical upgrades until you fill up 200 points. Unfortunately, most of the strong First Order options only have 2-dice attacks which are especially weak when facing 3-agility ships.  Beyond their low-initiative options, First Order are one of the few factions in Hyperspace with multiple high-initiative pilots that can double-reposition. Kylo is still very strong. Even though Major Vonreg doesn't seem very efficient, an I6 ship that can double-reposition with good offense can always win games. Finally, "Rush" starts off as an inefficient I2 but he becomes wildly efficient if his ability ever triggers.

Outside of "Rush" and Major Vonreg (and even with Vonreg), I'm not sold on the new First Order options. The TIE/ba Interceptor looks great at first glance, but its Fine-Tuned Thrusters ship ability seems hard to use. Losing red or green dice to double-reposition can be more punishing than taking stress or losing a force, while not having the boost -> barrel roll option limits their ability to arc-dodge. Their pilots don't seem too strong at their current prices. The new TIE/sf options, Captain Phasma and Lieutenant LeHuse, have cute sharing abilities that both seem overpriced and impractical. Usually, 1 point per initiative (2 for I6) is fair for chassis with one reposition; Phasma pays 4 points and LeHuse 3 for their respective abilities (compare LeHuse to Synchronized Console, for example). Finally, the regen option Deuterium Power Cells may be good on Major Vonreg, but otherwise it's expensive and has a punishing timing.

The new Proud Tradition talent compares roughly with Contraband Cybernetics at 2 points and seems OK. It's probably best-used on the TIE/sf Fighter with Special Forces Gunner, and unfortunately the ones with talent slots don't seem that strong. The TIE/sf with Gunner has 3 attack to take advantage of the dice mod, does red maneuvers reasonably often, and has Lock and Evade as backup actions. For similar reasons, it may also be good on the TIE/ba Interceptor. For an additional 5 points, ships can take Pattern Analyzer (edit: only in Extended, oops!) to get double mods after fully executing a red maneuver until Proud Tradition gets flipped.

Most missed non-Hyperspace options: "Quickdraw" (TIE/sf Fighter)

Republic

Strong pilots:
  • All ARC-170 except "Odd Ball"; 
  • Barriss Offee with CLT
  • Ahsoka Tano with CLT
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi with CLT
  • Plo Koon with CLT
Can a faction thrive in Hyperspace with just the CLT Jedi and the ARC-170? All of these options are strong and the CLT Jedi can be fun to fly. Barriss Offee is probably cheap enough at just 41 points to overcome her limitations, and you can easily fly a 4-Jedi list with many points to spare. Alternatively, you can fly a list entirely of ARCs or mix and match them with the Jedi. The I3 generic ARCs are now nearly as efficient as their I2 counterparts, and I3 will have value in a format with lots of strong low-initiative ships. "Jag" and "Wolffe" are also reasonable options (sorry "Odd Ball").

Ric Olie is still around, but I think he's best with regen and that build took a 6.5% cost increase. Broadside is also around, but I'm not sold on him.

Most missed non-Hyperspace options: Delta 7-B, I2 V-19 Torrent and ARC-170

Separatists

Strong pilots:
  • Bombardment Drone with Cluster Mines and Delayed Fuses
  • DBS-404
  • I1 Generic Hyena-Class Droid Bombers
  • Count Dooku
  • I1 and I3 generic Vulture Droids (with Discord Missiles)
Separatists lost a lot of linchpin options with the Hyperspace limits and largely stood in place while everyone else stepped forward. Vulture Droids are still around, but they have to compete against newly-buffed options and they lost all but one of their swarm buffers. Count Dooku with Heightened Perception and Tractor Beam is the only remaining option. The Dooku Vulture Swarm is a very strong list that should still be competitive, but other good Hyperspace Separatist options are harder to find.

The Separatists do have some sleeper hits. Bombardment Droids with Proximity Mines did well near the end of the June 2019 points cycle. They got a discount, but Cluster Mines may deal less damage while being more expensive and there's a chance they can hose your own ships even with Delayed Fuses. DBS-404 is a meme pilot that may actually be a sleeper strong ship. The generic I1 Hyena-Class Bombers look very efficient. A mix of Vultures and Hyenas may be the stronger option than a swarm with only one or the other.

Most missed non-Hyperspace options: Ensnare, General Grevious (Belbullab-22 Starfighter), Wat Tambor (Belbullab-22 Starfighter)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

What can we learn from tournament results?

Tournaments are fun for everyone! We catch up with old friends, play some good games of X-Wing, and crown a winner. After they're done, we can look at the results to see what to complain about for the next few weeks/months! :)

That raises an interesting question: how much information do tournament results give us about card or list strength?

I think the answer might be: not much. We can be more confident when we have more data, but we should be careful drawing firm conclusions from tournaments.

We've had a history of drawing hasty conclusions from tournament results. When 2.0 first launched, Wedge had the worst performance of the popular Rebel ships across several months and many tournaments. People thought he was a bad ship. In the span of just a few tournaments, he shot up to be the best-performing Rebel ship. He continues to be one of the best the Rebel ships, even after his recent nerfs. Turns out, it was just hard to build a good Rebel list back then, and Wedge was really good.

When the January 2019 points came out, VTG-Ion Y-Wings were all the rage. It won the Hyperspace Qualifier during the Toronto System Open. We had post on post talking about the "Y-on" menace. But looking back on that meta, it never really performed at that level in future tournaments. Horton sometimes showed up in a Rebel Beef list, but VTG Ion Turret Y-Wings otherwise didn't do too well after that first tournament.

With the January 2019 points, it was widely known that the Decimator was awful. I chuckled when Marc brought out Deci Whisper for a game, and you can imagine my surprise when it completely dismantled me two games in a row. Turns out, Rear Admiral Chiraneau can be very strong with the right combination of upgrades (Moff Jerjerrod and Darth Vader crew are key), and it took a strong list-builder like Dalli to see that.

When CIS first launched, there was a question of which Belbullab to run with a Vulture swarm. My model really loved Captain Sear, but the early results and the community favored Wat Tambor. Many months of experience later, and it's not a question. The Sear Swarm is a noted top-tier list, and no one runs Wat Tambor anymore.

In the early days after the July 2019 points adjustment, Anakin Obi Ric won a big tournament. People were all up in arms about how broken Jedi with regen are. Now, it seems clear that list is just one good list in a field of good lists. Jedi with regen are strong, but so are many other ships.

I think tournament results can be used for examples of viable lists that can do well or win. A truly broken list could stand out in tournaments. Beyond that, it's hard to use tournament results to rank lists. We should be very careful drawing conclusions here because of data limitations. It's especially easy to overrate lists that make the top 2, and especially the winning list. The biggest problem is a small sample size of games compared to the large amount of variance (e.g. skill, matchups, dice, mind-games) in the game. Ideally, we'd also have some type of matchup-based Elo-like ratings by specific ship builds, not just final results aggregated across pilots and builds that can differ wildly in function and strength.

What do we want to know?

When we think about list strength, we have an experiment in mind. Take the same player, swap out their list, and assume they can play the lists equally well. How does their tournament performance change? We're interested in a causal effect, not merely the correlation between a list and winning.

We can imagine a list's strength as something abstract, but objective and real. The chance to win a game depends on factors including:
  • your list's average strength
  • opponent's list's average strength
  • matchup-specific list strength adjustment
  • your average skill
  • your list-specific skill adjustments (e.g. familiarity with list; range depends on skill floor/ceiling)
  • opponent's average skill
  • opponent's list-specific skill adjustments
  • net matchup-specific skill adjustments
  • time-dependent variation in your skill (e.g. rust, fatigue; may depend on list)
  • time-dependent variation in opponent's skill (e.g. rust, fatigue; may depend on list)
  • performance-dependent variation in your skill (e.g. tilt, nerves)
  • performance-dependent variation in opponent's skill (e.g. tilt, nerves)
  • random variation in player skill (e.g. brain farts)
  • random variation in dice luck
  • other random variation (e.g. 50/50 decisions, barely hitting/missing a rock)
The strength of your list affects your chance of winning any particular game, along with many other factors.

How can we figure out list strength?

Obviously, we can't just see how strong a list is, we have to figure it out somehow. We need something that corresponds with list strength that we can observe. We can imagine things that correspond well with list strength, and things that don't correspond well with list strength. Printing out all the lists, throwing them down the stairs, and ranking them by how far they went would be a bad way to figure out the strength of lists.

There are two ways we can judge how good the method for figuring out the "true" list strength. First, we want it to be accurate. If the method gets things right on average, then we might say it's pretty good. If not, the method could give us something that looks like list strength at first glance, but really isn't (the method is biased). Second, we want it to be precise. If a method gets things right on average but it's all over the place most of the time, we'd need a lot of data before we can trust what it says.

Ideally, we would take every possible list and play lots of games against every other list with players of a broad range of skills. Failing that, we could randomly assign lists to players X weeks/months in advance of tournaments, let them do their stuff normally, and record their tournament performance. With a large number of tournaments, we could probably get a good picture of which lists are strong and which are weak.

Problems with our current methods

Instead, we often use tournament results. Many websites currently show information about final tournament results for (e.g. average percentile of the tournament ranks of lists that include...) ship chassis, pilots, and upgrade cards. Are tournament results (e.g. average percentile or win rates) a good way to figure out how strong a list is, or is it likely to be wrong or suboptimal? It's probably closer to the X-Wing playtest sweatshop method than the gravity-stairs method, but how good is it?

If we think about this carefully, we can imagine some differences between tournament win-rates and average percentile statistics and the stats produced by those idealized and infeasible methods. Unfortunately, these differences mean tournament results are limited in what they can tell us about how strong a list is.

The biggest problem is the small sample size of tournament games compared to how much variance there is in the game. This creates several problems.

First, there's a lot of variance in the game, and without enough data, it's hard to draw strong conclusions about any results. If you shuffle a deck of poker cards, one of the cards will be on top. Is that card more likely to show up on or near the top, or is this just random? Without a lot of shuffles, it can be hard to tell.

In X-Wing, someone has to win the tournament. In general, we seem to give the winning list a lot more attention than other well-performing lists. With so few tournaments, it's hard to say without outside theory whether a list won because it was much stronger than other lists, if the player was better, or if their opponents made more mistakes. Right now, I believe most competitive lists run around 210-220 points of Academy Pilot value. That's less than a 5% difference, and variation in skill and dice can easily swamp that.

It's even more difficult to draw conclusions from tournaments because there are differences in player skill. It may look like a list generally performs well, but that may be because it's usually played by a stronger player. In fact, if we don't have multiple people playing the same list in the data, it's impossible to separately identify the list's strength from the player's skill. We'd be trying to figure out two variables with one data statistic.

Second, we don't have enough data to sample the entire range of cards and lists. There are over 500 pilots in the game. A list usually has multiple pilots, but most tournaments have an order of magnitude fewer players than there are pilots in the game. This is compounded by transformational upgrades that dramatically change how a pilot functions. For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi might as well be flying a different ship if he has the Calibrated Laser Targeting upgrade versus the Delta 7-B upgrade. Most websites would give you the average strength of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the average strength of Delta 7-B, but Delta 7-B may have a very different effect on Obi-Wan Kenobi than on the generic Jedi Knight.

Similarly, a card's strength may be hard to observe since it exists in a list with other cards. In the early days of 2.0, Wedge was strong but his wingmates often couldn't keep up, so his performance looked weak. More concerning is the preliminary evidence on high-initiative pilots having dramatically different win-rates based on whether or not they are the first player. We can't ever have enough tournament game data to infer list strength because of how many different lists there are.

This can be fine if all the unused ships and lists are weak, but that's not necessarily the case. Part of a ship's play rate depends on its strength, but play rate also depends on "coolness factor," previous tournament performance, and whether it has misleading builds. There are simply too many ships and upgrades to explore, it's not surprising if some strong options are missed.

For example, I'm pretty sure the generic E-Wing is strong, but no E-Wings were played at Worlds 2019. The problem is a combination of the generic E-Wing's poor strength historically going back to 1.0, misleading builds and ideas of what it does (it's a jouster), and the fact that most E-Wing fans are Corran fans (Corran is the weakest of the E-Wings). I'm pretty sure FFG will buff the E-Wing again in January and we'll have E-Wing-Pocalypse for 6 months :). Similarly, ships like Rear Admiral Chiraneau and Latts Razzi may be strong in certain contexts and with the right upgrades, and it may take a keen listbuilder to realize this before they get played.

Besides the problems of small sample size, there's a question whether the commonly-reported statistics like win rate or average percentile are good measures of list strength. When we look at the list of things which affect your chance of winning, it's clear much of that is left out from these statistics. If what is left out is correlated with list strength, then our method of figuring out list strength would actually be telling us some unholy amalgamation of list strength and other stuff rather than what we're really interested in, which is the causal effect of switching lists (this is known as omitted variable bias).

There are several ways this problem can show up. First, we can imagine stronger players are more likely to play strong lists. If this isn't accounted for, a strong list's win rate will reflect both a higher list strength and player skill. As such, win rates and average percentiles are likely to overstate a strong list's strength and understate a weak list's strength.

Second, in a Swiss tournament, you play against other players with your same record. That means stronger lists are more likely to face other strong lists, while weaker lists are more likely to face other weak lists. A list that went 4-2 by winning the first four games against progressively stronger lists and losing the last two against strong lists can be very different from one that goes 4-2 by losing the first two games against average lists and winning the next four against weak lists. If this isn't accounted for, then win rates and average percentiles will understate the strength of strong lists and overstate the strength of weak lists.

These effects bias the win rate figure in opposite directions. It'd be nice to say they cancel out. Unfortunately, it can be hard to say which effect is stronger. It could be that one effect is very large and the other is weak. It's hard to know whether differences in win-rate

There's also a weird issue with simply using play rate statistics without adjusting for points. For example, pretend Captain Seevor and fully-loaded Rebel Han Solo were equally strong. Captain Seevor is much easier to throw into a list as a cheap filler, while Fat Han is more two-thirds the points budget and only goes into lists that feature him. Just looking at play rate would overstate the popularity of cheap filler ships and understate that of expensive or synergy-reliant ships.

What can we do?

With these limitations, it's hard to find differences in list strength from tournament data beyond the extreme outliers in either direction. So, what can we do about it?

First, we should remember the value of patience. We should pay less attention to lists that win a single tournament. For overpowered lists, we should be looking at lists that consistently do well across tournaments. For viable lists, it's still best to look at ships that perform consistently across tournaments, but we can also look at lists that performed well at single tournaments (e.g. 4-2 and above) for ideas.

Second, I'd like to see continued innovation in the tournament results reporting space. At the very least, I'd like to see builds with transformational upgrades reported separately. The statistics for Delta 7-B Obi should be separate from that of CLT Obi, just like X-Wing Luke would be very different from a hypothetical A-Wing Luke. Other examples include Supernatural Reflexes, Special Forces Gunner, and maybe even Afterburners. It may not be possible with limited data, but a matchup-based Elo rating may provide more accurate information than using raw win-rates.

Finally, I'd like to see more theory-based approaches to identifying list strength. The benefit of a theory-driven approach is while it has to be informed by the data, it doesn't rely 100% on data alone and thus can avoid some of the problems with data limitations. My Ship Effectiveness Model takes a crack at this, but it's not perfect. Some of it is based on fundamental math concepts, but a large chunk is a reflection of my judgement about ships where I off-loaded the effort it takes to apply a consistent standard across 600+ ship builds to the computer. It's a huge effort, but I'd love it if someone else also took a serious effort at modeling ship strength. If nothing else, it'd be interesting to see other people seriously understand how the model works so they can apply their own assumptions to it.

Anyway, if you read this far, thanks! :) I know this can be a dry topic, and hopefully I shared something you find interesting.