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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!