Wednesday, October 4, 2017

How to Win at X-Wing

Before I played X-Wing, my hobby was Lindy Hop or swing dancing, a style of dance to swing jazz and big band music from the 30's and 40's. I enjoy improving at all of my hobbies, and Lindy Hop was no different. A couple years into the hobby, I attended a workshop in Toronto taught by a couple of well-known dancers from the US. At the end of the workshop, they hosted a quick feedback session. We'd go up in pairs, dance for a minute or two, and they'd give us some personalized feedback.

30 seconds into my feedback session, the teachers stopped us. "Relax!" they said with a smile. It hit me that I'd been so focused on proving my competence that my face was red, my breathing was short, and I'd been swearing and muttering under my breath the whole time! I laughed, gave myself a shake, and started dancing again with a smile on my face. And hey, my dancing improved dramatically in that minute!

Years later in X-Wing, I fell into the same trap again. The Prototype Toronto League hosted their first PTL Open tournament earlier this year. It had a more casual three-list hangar-bay style format. I went into the tournament hoping to prove myself. I'd gone 4-2 and missed the cut in all of my previous big tournaments, and I really wanted to change that.

I ended up going on stream for the final round of Swiss. My opponent and I were both 4-1, and needed to win to make the cut. The combination of being on stream and trying to make the cut got to me. I had a hard time focusing on the game, made a bad move and missed a block, and got tabled. I went home bummed out that I once again missed the cut.

I reviewed my experience afterwards and realized I had the wrong mindset. I was so focused on winning that I forgot to have fun. Now, having a mindset focused on winning isn't inherently wrong and entering a tournament with the goal of winning is entirely valid. The mindset was wrong for me in a pragmatic sense. Instead of helping me, this mindset actually reduced my performance and hurt my chance to win. I've also noticed I'm not as friendly and positive when I'm focused on outcomes.

This observation is generally supported by the literature on motivation and performance. Studies have found that having fun improves your performance [1][2]. We've also known since the 1980's that a focus on rewards can reduce your performance [3]. In "The Happiness Equation" (fantastic book, highly recommended), Neil Pasricha argues a commonly-held relationship between success and happiness is backwards. Many people (my old self included) believe that hard work leads to great success, and great success leads to happiness. But haven't we all heard of rich and famous people who were not happy? Instead, Pasricha finds evidence that happiness is something we can control through concrete and simple actions, and that happiness improves our creativity, motivation, and performance. The relationship is backwards: being happy leads to hard work, which leads to great success.

After this realization, I took some steps to improve my mindset in future tournaments:

1. I really wanted the rectangular FFG evade tokens in the store kit. Rather than put pressure on myself to place well at tournaments, I bought a set online. I figured either I'll win a set, in which case I can just resell the extras, or I won't, in which case I'll still have the tokens I wanted. I ended up in 4th place in the next store kit tournament I attended (Milton). Only the top 3 players got evade tokens. Since I already had the tokens, I wasn't fixated on losing out on them. Instead, I had great games with fantastic people. I look back on that tournament as a success. I flew pretty well and had a lot of fun!

2. The Hamilton Store Championships at Black Knight Games was one of the last ones of the 2017 season. It drew 26 players, including some of the stronger players in the region. I ran a list which my buddy and I brainstormed: Palpatine in an Upsilon Shuttle, PS 11 Quickdraw, and Omega Leader. I was hoping to place in the top 2 so I could give my friend an Agent Kallus token, but I resolved to play for fun first. This would be a test run for an unintentionally-themed list which my buddy and I came up with. I kept having fun, played well, and ended up winning the tournament!

3. At Canadian Nationals, my goal was to have fun and to break even with three wins. After that, a fourth win would be great (matching my previous performance at large events, woohoo!), and if I made the cut, awesome! With a 3-1 record, I got paired up against Travis Johnson from the Carolina Krayts podcast. He was playing Triple U-Boats. It's a tough matchup against a strong opponent, and I had a moment where I got intimidated. I quickly decided to just give it my best try. If I lost, that's to be expected. I'd already gotten three wins, and I can still get a fourth in the last game. If I won, awesome! I'd prove that it is a winnable matchup. I played well enough and the dice cooperated, and I won the game decisively. I ended up making the cut for the first time after winning the last game of Swiss.

4. I kept winning at the Canadian Nationals and ended up on stream for my semifinals and finals game. I'd learned my lesson from being on stream at the PTL Open. Rather than try to prove to the world that I'm competent, I decided to just have fun and play a good clean game. I wish I could blame my bad decisions in the semifinals game on being nervous, but nope, I actually wasn't nervous at all. It was just bad decision-making and inexperience in the matchup! :) In any case, my mindset let me focus on what I had to do, and I managed to barely recover the semifinals game and capitalized on a key mistake in the finals game.

I think my experience speaks for itself. When I'm motivated by intrinsic factors rather than extrinsic rewards, I perform better, both in X-Wing and in other areas in my life.

I'm not going to tell you what to do. One of the things Pasricha suggested is to not take advice, but rather listen to other perspectives and take the things which work and make sense for you (the irony of telling people not to take advice in a "self-help" book was not lost on me). If you're focused on winning games, you can try this out and see how it works for you. You might find that you're not only performing better, but you're also a more positive person to be around. Even if you don't win Canadian Nationals, you'll probably enjoy yourself more. Isn't that what wining at X-Wing really means?


I want to talk about the meta and net-listing. It's true that the strongest lists in the game often limit what can be played at the highest levels. If your favorite ship is hard-countered by the most popular lists in the meta, it may be more difficult to enjoy yourself. Turrets and bombs may also limit the value of maneuvers.

That said, while strong lists can win games against weaker lists on autopilot, they are still a good match against each other. Three of my four playoff games went down to the last die roll. A better move by either player would have tipped the game decisively in their favor. Despite playing a turreted ship and playing against turreted ships, I had lots of fun and I think my opponents did as well.

It's easy to despair when your favorite list leaves the meta, but there's probably at least one list out there which you'd enjoy playing that does well against the meta. It may end up being one of the meta lists, and finding this list may take time and effort. I think the rewards for finding a strong list which you enjoy playing are worth it. Besides, learning new things is also fun and has mental health benefits; you can always treat this as an opportunity to explore new ships.

(I actually had the opposite problem before Canadian Nationals; I had two lists I enjoyed playing which probably had OK matchups against the field. I went with Kanan Biggs. The other one was Palp Quickdraw Vader.)

I totally understand if you enjoy the list-building process and aren't fond of net-listing. That said, maybe you can consider a different perspective. Even when you copy a list from someone else, you're still making important and difficult decisions in the list-building stage. First, you can sometimes make tweaks to the list. Second, even after you copied a list, there were dozens of lists which you didn't copy. That requires decision-making and isn't trivial. Even if you're against net-listing, you can always give it a try with a list you think you might enjoy. If you have fun, great, and if you don't, you can always go back to building your lists yourself.

If your favorite ship isn't in the meta or you really enjoy the experience of getting ships in arc, you can try out alternate formats. The Prototype Toronto League has an Original Trilogy format which favors the older and more recognizable ships (I'm told Palpatine is no longer banned). I'd love it if more people tried out the Anti-Meta-Wing or Firing Arcs Only formats I've come up with (see below). You can probably come up with other formats where your favorite ships are viable.

After all, what's your alternative? You can make salty posts online, complain loudly to everyone in earshot, have lame games against stronger lists, and probably play less X-Wing. Those aren't necessarily bad things, and if you like them, more power to you. I just suggest taking a step back and seeing if those things really make you happy.



  1. Ban the top 30 pilots from Choose a date range that produces reasonable results and gets rid of the more influential ships.

Firing Arcs Only:

  1. Ships cannot attack outside of their printed firing arcs.
  2. Attacks affected by this get a free "Gunner" bonus: "After you perform an attack with a weapon which could target ships outside of your firing arc under the standard rules, if the attack did not hit, you may perform an attack with the same weapon against the same target again. Perform this attack even if you do not meet the non-range requirements, and you do not need to discard cards or tokens to perform this attack. For the purposes of abilities, treat the defender as being outside your firing arc for this attack. You cannot perform another attack this round."
  3. A ships may only use one ability or action which changes its own position in a round (includes boost, barrel roll, decloak, Adaptive Ailerons, Expert Handling, etc.). Any further abilities which trigger are ignored.
  4. Ships with a mobile or rear-facing firing arc cannot take Engine Upgrade
  5. Bomblet Generator, Guidance Chips, and Biggs Darklighter are banned.
Note only the first rule is really necessary for the format. The rest are an attempt to make more things viable and to head off some of the potentially stronger things in this format.


  1. Interesting take on things and the game. I will try this in all my gaming, only problem is facing an opponent who is out for blood. Makes it hard to have fun. I have some casual game buddies who are like this with any game they play.

  2. Lovely article! Great to read I’m not the only Lindy Hoppin’ X-Wing player!