Star Wars 2016 World Championships Preview

We’ve reached November again, which means it’s time for the best players in the world to converge at FFG’s headquarters in Roseville, Minnesota for the chance to compete for the ultimate prize: the World Champion trophy, and the chance to design a card for the game. Before we go deep into the nitty-gritty of the tournament, reporting round-by-round highlights and how we’re doing and what we’re up against, it’s worth sitting back and considering what the expectations are for this metagame, and what we learned from all our playtesting (special thanks to my local team and Team NYC for doing a lot of this investigation for me).

If you want a recap of what we learned from playtesting, and what Team Battleground Games’s expectations are for Worlds, read on. I’ll start with the elephant in the room, which was supposedly nerfed by the latest FAQ (spoiler alert: it wasn’t)… Scum and Villainy!


It’s a Wretched Hive…

It’s no secret that Scum and Villainy is a strong faction. A mono-Scum deck won US Nationals at Origins in June, and despite the North American National Championships going to the ways of the Sith, Josh Johnson’s “Force Hunters” deck would not have been possible without a few key Scum pods. That’s not even considering the fact that the pod that’s generally agreed upon to be the most powerful pod in the game—The Spice Trade—is on the green team. For a long time, mono-Scum was the laughing stock of the dark side. Those days are far gone.

The joke, of course, is that shortly after Scum won US Nationals and pushed Josh Johnson to back-to-back victories, two Force packs were released that contained some absolutely incredible Scum pods. First we got Dengar, who was a unit capable of fighting with three black guns, two bombs, two tactics, and/or some combination of those, all adapting to the immediate need. And as if a powerful, flexible Main wasn’t enough, his pod comes with Captured!, one of the best removal cards in the game, and an event to make Captured! cheaper. Then, in the next pack, Scum got a pod with okay units and fair tricks operating under a truly busted objective… one which is capable of resolving Captured! twice without any additional cost.

A lot of variations on mono-Scum exist, but most of them revolve around the core of Prince Xizor and Dengar. The crazy resource potential from two Masterful Manipulations are no longer supplimented by the Spice Trade, but the deck’s overall resource situation is still excellent. The deck is loaded with a versatile set of powerful mains, from the all-stars like Xizor and Dengar all the way down to more situational units like Snoova and Ephant Mon. The deck also has excellent chuds which can speed up the end of the game, most crucially: Black Sun Headhunter.

It’s access to Scum’s shockingly effective chuds that have made them such a popular and successful faction recently. While Sith continue to durdle around with Dark Side Apprentices and Imperial Functionaries, Scum get hyper-efficient, hyper-specialized units that they can flood the board with to do the job usually relegated to a Main. Black Sun Headhunter and Energy Spider do an absurd amount of damage given their cost, even if they have glaring downsides. And with proper edge tricks, any Galactic Scum or Dr. Evazan can stop a Yoda in his tracks.

That’s where Scum’s other strength lies: in their ability to win edge battles. With the Prince’s Scheme, Quick Hunt and Preparation and Planning there are a lot of options for the deck during the edge battle. They can threaten to steal the edge with Prince’s Scheme or Twist of Fate, or they can just unload a ton of effective edge cards that appear randomly throughout their objective sets (see Relentless Assault, Identity Crisis, and Coerced). Alternatively, they can use Preparation and Planning or Hallucination to generate exceptionally powerful game effects at no cost without any warning. Captured for 1? Don’t mind if I do!

While it’s doing all this, the deck also has Heartless Tactics, the Hunters, Fortified Holding Cells, and Corrupt Officials which make it surprisingly more difficult for the light side player to actually win. Colonel Yularen is lauded for his ability to heal your objectives while he puts you closer to winning, but the problem with Yularen is he only works after the fact. You might draw him when your objectives are undamaged, and your opponent can play around him by going all in on a single big attack. When your damage prevention works proactively, it doesn’t matter when or how your opponent attacks. They need to destroy your objectives to win, and Heartless Tactics and Fortified Holding Cells just make that combat math painful.

I Don’t Like You Either hasn’t seen much tournament play yet due to how recently it was released, but it seems very likely to show up here thanks the controlling power of Dr Evazan and the objective’s ability to combo with strong events like Captured. Having mediocre units is its nomial weakness, but Scum now has a host of excellent units to help make I Don’t Like You Either a powerhouse. How does the light side player combat the incredible versatility of a Scum deck?

There are three general strategies: to be so fast that the scum player is always on the defensive and never has time to set up a decent board, to wipe the board with My Ally is the Force and A New Hope, or by having protection against events either through defensive enhancements like Sabine’s Armor and the DL-44 Blaster Pistol or via straight up event cancel like Counter-stroke or Trust Me. All of the pods just mentioned have major weaknesses, so that was the primary avenue to explore. Can any of these actually beat Scum reliably?


Your Inevitable Destruction

To a certain extent, the answer was yes. But unfortunately, beating Scum isn’t enough anymore. One thing about being the weakest dark side affiliation out of the core set is that by the time Scum reached its peak, Sith and Navy were well-established powerhouses. Scum might be good, but it’s only marginally better than Sith and Navy (if it’s better at all), and a Scum deck plays very differently from a Sith destruction deck or a Navy Fortress deck. I said that Scum had become the top faction in part because it supplemented Josh’s powerful “Force Hunters” Sith deck. And I haven’t even mentioned the reigning World Champion’s Black Sun Sith.

Those decks are still as powerful as they ever were. Some might say that since both of these Sith Destruction decks prominently feature Scum cards, they’ve only gotten better.

Yoda is ubiquitous on the light side these days, and a lot of Yoda’s strength comes from the fact that his objective can so strongly manipulate the Force struggle—by using May the Force Be With You, a single unit can attack, contribute to the Force struggle, and defend in the space of a single turn cycle. In addition, Yoda helps manipulate engagements and control the Force by virtue of the fact that he comes with a copy of Seeds of Decay. Both of these strategies are nullified by a dark side Echoes of the Force, which can either commit an attacking light side unit (preventing the use of May the Force Be With You) or uncommit a defending dark side unit, preventing the use of Seeds of Decay. The power and flexibility granted by having  dark side Echoes of the Force cannot be understated, and that’s why Force Hunters is likely to be a popular and effective deck.

But Echoes of the Force (and by extension, Abandoned Hideout) isn’t the only reason that Force Hunters is so strong. The deck comes with access to both Power of the Dark Side and Hunter for Hire, which means if your opponent ever wants to commit to the Force, their units are facing inevitable destruction. These objectives can provide access to truly free removal for the Dark Side: with enough accumulation of damage, the dark side doesn’t even need to bother spending cards or resources to remove your units, because their objectives are doing it for them.

This, in addition to the plentiful removal already available to Sith (Force Lightning, Deadly Sight, Force Choke, Ambitions Vader), is why Force Hunters is so strong. They’re designed to take away some of the strongest aspects of Yoda’s objective set and to destroy light side units at almost no cost. This leads to games against Force Hunters resulting in the light side trying to never stay committed to the Force to protect their units from those objectives, but being forced into it by virtue of the four Echoes and two Abandoned Hideouts in the deck. Even if they somehow were to avoid ever competing for the Force… the light side’s time window suddenly becomes really short with the dark side capable of winning the game within 5-6 turns.

But building a Sith deck and splashing in Bane Malar is hardly the only way one can leverage powerful Sith cards. If the plan is to kill everything, almost nothing enacts that plan better than All Out Brawl, with both Zekka Thyne’s printed board wipe and Armed to the Teeth’s ability to turn any unit into a deadly force to be reckoned with. Combined with the edge manipulations of Guri (as well as four Heat of Battles and Hallucination), it quickly becomes apparent that the “kill everything” strategy holds up to harsh scrutiny.

The deck won Worlds in 2015, and there’s no reason it couldn’t repeat the feat when none of its pieces have changed, and it’s even gained value by adding Bane Malar… another source of incidental damage and another unit with lots of black guns!


Galactic Failings

Force Hunters was always largely a Sith deck, while Bane Malar gave it tools that just dramatically increased its effectiveness. But for those whose hearts are given over to the dark side of the Force, what possibilites exist for mono-Sith? What we discovered was that there were a couple problems that surfaced when a player sleeved up ten Sith pods. The value gained by going true mono-Sith was not zero, but it never really seemed to hold up in comparison to the value gained by even a small Scum or Navy splash.

The reason to go mono-Sith largely came down to two pods: Scouring the Empire and Dark Lord of the Sith. Scouring gives you lots of resources, good edge, and a potent board wipe, which looks especially appealing in a world where everybody seems to love Spark of Rebellion. Dark Lord of the Sith, on the other hand, only cares if you’re mono-Sith because of the objective, but the objective can randomly hose decks that don’t have a fantastic opening turn. Both of these are very appealing considerations, but Sith has always had certain weaknesses which is why it reached out to other factions to begin with.

The Sith rely very heavily on their mains to do the heavy lifting, meaning their chuds are either underwhelming (Dark Side Apprentice) or super vulnerable (Advisor to the Emperor). This hasn’t changed much, with the best Sith chud showing up as probably either Sith Warrior or Imperial Royal Guard, both of which are units that will never do more than 2 damage and can’t stop someone like an early Luke or Yoda on their own. Compare them to Scum chuds like Lannik Lackey, which can be a Dark Side Apprentice if your board is already established or which can transition into 2 Force icons and a black tactics if it needs to slow down the game.

Scum has been splashed into Sith for years to give Sith access to good chuds and even a couple years into the game’s growth, that hasn’t changed. Sith can still struggle when they’re relying on their cheap units, and that’s why we never found a consistently powerful dark side deck that wasn’t at least part Scum or Navy.

What’s the appeal of Navy? If Scum helps smooth out the cost curve by giving Sith more volume of powerful, cheap units, Navy helps speed up the end of the game in Sith’s favor. Usually, when you see a Sith deck splashing Navy, you see it because they feel confident about their early game with units like Stygeon Prison Guard and Sith Warrior and want to make sure that a slow start on the light side gets punished by ending the game quickly, whether that comes in the form of Colonel Yularen or the Chimaera.


The Promise of Loyalty

This leads us to the next archetype that’s become popular very quickly: The Promise of Loyalty. Featuring Endor Palpatine and Colonel Yularen, this is a deck less focused on controlling the board and more focused on controlling the game. Neither pod has great defensive (or really offensive) units, but when you’re turning your opponent’s damage back against them, and more importantly when you’re turning destroying their objectives into taking their units, it can see why this deck is appealing.

The moment Endor Palpatine and his mission were spoiled, people pointed out the obvious combination with Superlaser Blast. As it turns out, it’s pretty good! One of the best parts of the deck is the objective flops, which frequently place your opponent in a situation where they must attack and damage objectives on your first turn. With the Enforced Loyalty and Emperor’s Promise objectives together you can put damage on enemy objectives regardless of where the opponent attacks, and if you can draw Bones of the Fallen Master you can do even more damage without really trying.

When the deck is working, the light side player will be so busy dealing with all of your punishing objectives that it will leave you plenty of time to set up either Palpatine or his mission and Superlaser Blast (sometimes even all three together!). At that point you leave your opponent with the awful choice of either playing his best units and letting you steal them or just not playing his best units and losing. Due to the way the unique character rules work, if you have stolen a copy of a Luke or Yoda, then the light side player cannot play any more copies of them until they are removed from the board.

That said, the easiest way for this deck to fail is if it does not get the defensive cards it needs right away, and that can be a real problem. An early Inquisitor or Mara Jade goes a long way towards holding off enemy attacks, and Stygeon Prison Guard and Lieutenant Mithel can try to help, but there are precious few units that are good early game defenders and there will be games in which you just don’t draw them.

The multiple sources of extra card draw such as the Mouse Droids and The Inquisitor can help you cycle through your deck quickly, which shores up some of that weakness, but a lot of it comes down to how well the light side opponent plays. The deck feels favored against most Jedi decks, given the popularity of units like Yoda and Qu Rahn, but against an aggressive Rebel or Smuggler opponent, or against a Jedi player attempting to pack as much burst damage as possible, it can be difficult to stop a swift opponent.


An Unassailable Fortress

The archetype which sprang from the Navy sets in the Imperial Entanglements deluxe expansion has only gotten better since then. The addition of Endor Entrapment and Entrenched Defense both really empowered the plan of creating a complete defensive lockdown that the light side player can’t get through, and while some of its late game punch got removed by the restriction of Deploy the Fleet and Enforced Loyalty, that doesn’t mean that the deck is any less effective.

The deck features units like the Golan Defense Platforms and the Gladiator-class Star Destroyers, which are incredible defenders, and they’re supplemented by all-around all-stars such as the DP20 Corellian Gunship and the Chimaera, which are excellent on either defense or offense. These potent Star Destroyers continue to dominate the board until their Grand Moff comes down to make sure the light side isn’t trying any funny business with attachments or abusive unit abilities. Grand Moff Tarkin’s set has been one of the best in the game across the board, and that’s no less true now (even when Rule By Fear no longer repels most Mains).

If damage does get through the defensive blockade, cards in the Enforced Loyalty and Repair and Refurbish pods can remove that damage and throw it back at the light side player to start speeding up the end of the game and to make the light side’s job that much more difficult. Getting fifteen points of objective damage down through one of the most solid lineups of defensive units can be tough, but getting nineteen points of damage through is worse, and above twenty is just a slog. This deck masters the long game.

Perhaps one of the more underrated strengths of the deck is that it contains a strong resource base. Tarkin may be particularly resource-hungry, but Thunderflare has two resources, Chimaera has one of the better resources available to Navy, Entrenched Defense has an incredible non-limited resource, and the Gladiators and Yularen provide plenty of control rooms. By the time the game gets to turns 3 and 4, the Navy deck should have more than enough resources, meaning they’re free to play (or not play) the cards in their hand as precisely as they see fit.

The deck’s main weakness is how defensively oriented it is. Outside of a few ways to interact with the opponent like Tarkin and the Interdictor, the light side can generally have the time they want to set up a board and begin attacking, without fear that their units will start disappearing off the board against their will, and that can make a deck that leans heavier on the Force struggle might be more effective. But for what it lacks in “point-and-click” board control, it makes up for in its ability to end the game on its own terms. Yularen and Imperial Fist throw early damage back on light side objectives, and then their giant late-game star destroyers like Chimaera or Thunderflare can knock out the last couple light side objectives needed to win.

So the deck is good, probably very good. But is it going to appear at the tournament? Because the deck is so slow and grindy, there’s a good chance players might find it too much of a slog to play over a long tournament, and it certainly doesn’t lack the assertive punch of Scum. But the trustworthy standby continues to remain very popular in Europe and so it wouldn’t surprise me to see a European contingent attending Worlds to be building the Fortress, and for those who really enjoy ominous defenses, it’s easily of equivalent power to the other most powerful dark side lists.

Fighting Ten Thousand Swords

The power level of Sith and Scum were expected, and while they can do things in different ways (from a lethal Sith list to capture-heavy Scum control), they all more or less operate on the same principle: prevent light side strikes and remove light side units from the board. Adding the very real power level of the Navy Fortress deck to the mix, as well as the potential for a breakout hyper aggressive Scum build maximizing Moruth Doole, Boba Fett, and Feeding the Pit, means that the light side has a lot of different strategies that they have to be ready for.

If a light side deck is too slow, they lose to Navy Fortress and Scum Aggro.

If they’re too fast, they don’t have the survivability to keep a board presence and start losing card advantage and edge battles.

If they don’t have event cancel, they’re hyper-vulnerable to cards like Vicious Counterattack, Force Lightning, and Captured.

If they don’t have enough resources, they can be choked out by the Tarkin Doctrine and There Is No Conflict.

If they rely too heavily on Mains, they crumble against Dark Lord of the Sith… and if they don’t have enough mains, Tarkin will ruin them with his Moment of Triumph.

Where could a safe middle ground possibly be for the light side?


Day of the Smugglers?

Before we can get to “how the heck does the light side deal with all these different dark side strategies,” let’s talk about the exciting new light side cards that have come out recently. While Rebels got some interesting support in the recent Galactic Ambitions box, a lot of attention has been focused on the Smuggler pods in Ancient Rivals and A Wretched Hive. Han, Chewie, and Zeb have all made a huge splash, both because they’re sets that are very capable of killing enemy units on-demand, they both have additional ways to gain blast from otherwise blast-light Smuggler units (whether through killing defenders or through equipping Bo-Rifle).

Both pods appear very strong, either with two Mains in the case of Han & Chewie or with a single Main capable of doing lots of damage and a recurring Weapon that can go on any Smuggler and turn them into a Main. Han & Chewie conspicuously lack a resource, which makes it much harder to fit them into a deck, and one of the two Mains is so defensive as to be largely irrelevant unless you’re playing the long game. The other is a very potent brawler but is very vulnerable to tactics and removal. Back in the early days of the game, Smugglers were considered to be ubiquitously the most powerful affiliation, but they’ve fallen pretty out of favor. What can Zeb and Han do to bring them back?

Han & Chewie seemed like the first critical piece to mono-Smugglers coming back as a competitive powerhouse, but their lack of a resource has proven to be tremendously problematic. Han is an incredible unit, making his core set version seem almost irrelevant, but Chewie is a bit more expensive than what he needs to be, and Don’t Get Cocky is usually a liability. The DL-44 is a solid way to help keep your units on the board, but it often doesn’t get the chance to get played and the unit wielding it usually ends up getting gunned down the normal way anyways. All of these weaknesses add up to making Han & Chewie actually surprisingly fair given how powerful Han and the objective (and the Heat) are.

Zeb looked to be more promising for the Smuggler cause, given he has a solid resource, an enhancement to make your Mains more dangerous (and your support chuds into Mains), and a fate card that really enables the Bo-Rifle combat tricks the set needs to shine. Unfortunately, despite Zeb being another targeted strike unit, he isn’t elite, and his objective is pretty irrelevant. Perhaps more importantly, Zeb doesn’t have much support for his “enhance everybody” strategy within his own faction, meaning he encourages you to play him alongside Luke Skywalker for even more targeted strike. Once you pair these two together, you’re looking at building a Falcon Jedi list, which is a known quantity that’s quite strong. But then at least half your units can’t wield the Bo-Rifle, which is the biggest draw to Zeb’s set in particular. You can see where this gets difficult.

At the end of the day, Smugglers are still good… as a splash into a Jedi deck. Along the Gamor Run is always at its best in a Jedi deck, and while the Millennium Falcon might be one of the best pods in the game it’s still more effective dropping in Obi-Wan and Luke than dropping in Han and Zeb. There aren’t really any incentives to stick with mono-Smugglers, and given how efficient and varied the dark side pods are, even the very powerful new Smuggler sets have enough weaknesses to make them not something that can alter the light side metagame.


Breaking Through

With no new pods standing out to improve the light side’s potential, it falls then on various light side lists’ ability to find a deck capable of beating the variety of effective dark side lists. A deck needed to be fast to deal with Navy, but not so vulnerable that they lose to an aggressive Scum list or Sith removal. They need to control the board to prevent the dark side from simply overwhelming them with units while also providing enough blast to actually end the game in a reasonable time-frame… that’s a lot to ask for.

The answer that surfaced was that the light side needs to be able to do a lot of damage very fast, which pushes them towards a combo play-style. If the game goes on too long, the dark side will win simply due to attrition of powerful cards (the dark side has access to more powerful cards than the light side). But if the light side can’t detect itself in some capacity it will simply fold to a removal-heavy Sith or Scum list. Yoda helps defend and control the board, as do units like Speeder Bike and Obi-Wan Kenobi, but a lot of the importance falls to having enough units with two blast and ways to allow them to strike multiple times.

Shadows Luke is the poster-child for this, given he can combo with the lightsaber within his own pod. A single Luke that strikes twice will usually take down whatever objective he’s attacking. But other two-blast units are necessary to support Luke’s strategy, whether that means T’ra Saa, Luke’s Landspeeder, or Ahsoka Tano. And to make those units capitalize on the turns when the dark side finds itself vulnerable, you need cheap events that let those units strike additional times: Luke’s Lightsaber, Force Rejuvenation, Double Strike, Size Matters Not. With powerful board control options from Yoda and Obi-Wan, any opening provided by the dark side can be capitalized on, which is why super blast-heavy units like Red Five and Moldy Crow become crucial options when pulled in for a cheap attack via Unfinished Business.

When a dark side deck starts out strong, or survives until they have a strong board state, it can be incredibly difficult to break through and actually damage objectives. So difficult that it was impossible to find a light side deck that was ever capable of completely controlling the board. The most effective strategy ended up being to build a deck that could put combo pieces together to capitalize on a sub-par dark side draw, or punish a slow start with Owen, Luke, and some means by which to strike multiple times with Luke. Sometimes those pieces don’t come together, and you’re forced to stall until you can find them, but if an opening ever appears you need to have some means by which to capitalize on it.

It was a sad day when the conclusion was reached… when both are operating at full strength, the dark side will always defeat the light side.


The Yoda Dilemma

May the Force Be With You is a strong pod. Some would say even the best pod. That said, it’s been the best pod for a long time, so no self-respecting dark side player is going to be fielding a deck that can’t deal with it in some way. Whether that means Echoes of the Force, Bane Malar, Captured, Jamming Protocol, Seeds of Decay, or even Containment Field, Yoda is a known quantity and everyone will have tech to beat him. That’s why we wanted to play something else.

The first suspect was Rebel Capital Ships, attempting to race to victory. However, if that deck ever lost the edge battle then it would lose the game as its turn got nullified and it quickly fell behind. It could deal a lot of blast, but unless everything had plenty of shields and didn’t go up against defenders with three guns, its lack of ability to control the board would mean it was very possible to simply run into a bad dark side start and immediately flop, or simply get a weak start yourself. If it ever fell behind, it couldn’t get back in the game.

The second suspect was mono-Smugglers, or Smuggler/Jedi targeted strike. This one could pump out a ton of damage, and keep the board clear, but it relied very heavily on specific units (Luke, Han, and Zeb) and had no ways to really protect them from Sith or Scum removal. For every turn it dominated the board, it would immediately crumble under the slightest pressure. It also was a bit more expensive than it could afford.

We even tried playing a different Yoda: The Master’s Domain. That Yoda is incredible, and with his Hut on the table he can really make taking the Force a nightmare for your opponent. In a game where the light side needs to make sure it has access to whatever it needs the turn it draws it, to capitalize on the dark side’s weak turns, having an objective that can generate three resources when you need them is going to be great. Unfortunately, Scum is exceptionally good at winning edge battles, and if Yoda ever loses the edge… the game goes downhill very fast.

What it came down to was… Yoda is good for a reason, and that reason comes down to two things: The pod comes with two Yodas, and all of Yoda’s icons are black. Having a plan for losing edge battles on the light side is critical, because you’re going to go up against a lot of Prince’s Schemes and you’re going to lose some of your edge battles. Also, one-unit pods are inherently problematic and Jedi have a lot of them already, so leaving out a pod with two very good units is really costing you some games.

Yoda is so good, not only because of his icons and his event but also because of his edge and his Seeds, that we were considering putting it into Solidarity of Spirit Rebel Capital Ship decks simply as a “sometimes you get Yoda” and “sometimes you get great edge.” The pod really can just operate in almost any deck, so I expect to see Yoda in most, if not all, of the Top 16 lists.

All-in-all, we expect to see a lot of Scum, some Navy, and a bunch of Sith/Scum Force Hunter lists. Some oddball brews might appear, but none of the “oddball” decks really stood up to focused testing so I’m not worried about them so much as I am the raw power of mono-Scum and Force Hunters. If the light side list is well-piloted I think it could do well, but I’m going to be relying on my opponents also not drawing great.

See you at Worlds!
~Dav Flamerock

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