State of the Meta - July 2017

Recently, the FFG board featured a pretty lengthy discussion about the current state of the meta.  I found it a very productive post (thanks nickv2002), because it featured questions to structure the discussion.  While the responses tread in various directions, I thought it may be valuable to answer these questions in a post, as I’m not typically a big forum user (I like to let my thoughts develop over a long period of time, and then I usually forget to post).  Here are the questions:

1. How do you feel about the current meta after the most recent release of the Droid-themed reinforcement wave?

2. Is there enough list diversity?

3. Are certain strategies too dominant and/or not fun to play with/against?

4. What changes would you like to see?

I’ll do my best to answer these in turn, though I suspect points made in one question will inform another.  Moreover, I just want to make clear that I don't see my thoughts as the only valid understanding of the meta – they are my opinions and I don't see them as anything more than that.  Different metas exist all over the world and what I state in this piece is really just a microcosm of the whole.  If anything, merely treat this as a form of entertainment (that’s why I check out meta discussions).  Let’s begin!


1. How do you feel about the current meta?

In February 2017, I wrote a short meta review based on a set of winning lists from Regionals.  While it feels like I just wrote it, at that time Hunter lists weren't quite at their peak of popularity, but the writing was on the wall.  In that article, I was pretty positive on the meta, in that I thought list choice was diverse and the meta provided a good play experience.  I still feel that way today.  Despite the problems that exist with Imperial Assault (problems that exist in nearly any asymmetric competitive game), on the whole there are a lot of viable units across all three factions – meaning variety for me when building/playing a list and variety in the lists I’m matched against.

However, I recognize that this is not the prevailing view, or at least that's what I gleaned from the forum discussion.  There appears to be a lot of concern about the affect of Scum Hunters on the meta, primarily that the faction/archetype is too powerful.  Because I disagree with this, I feel like I’m charged with defending this thesis: Scum Hunter lists are not overpowered to a degree that the players aren't enjoying the game (I put together a list that generically represents Scum Hunters, but there are variations).

I want to start with the criteria I use for a good meta.  Unlike many players, I tend to reject the traditional notion of balance – at least in its most simplistic application.  I tend to take a broader approach, looking at what players believe can win and what lists players are actually choosing.  Because as long as players believe all factions can beat the others, we'll have a fun and diverse meta.

Thus, I want to address the more traditional issue of balance, and hopefully pare back concerns about whether a unit or faction is too strong.  For instance, I occasionally am witness to discussions about unit efficiency, where a player will claim that unit X or Command card Y is too good and the other factions can’t compete – and to bring this back around to my thesis, most recently this has been the primary way to describe Scum Hunters and their accompanying Command cards. 

In my mind, I’ve broken this down into two comparison metrics.  First is the assertion that a given Scum unit is better than any like-costed Rebel/Imperial Unit.  For instance, Elite Weequays at 7 points are better than Elite Jet Troopers or Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Looking at the statistics of these figures, I may be inclined to agree.  Taking into account surges, health, and dice pool, there’s no doubt that Elite Weequays are a very good deployment group.  Moreover, I would agree that in certain circumstance, they are also the superior deployment group over their Rebel and Imperial contemporaries. 

However, this is typically where my agreement with this assertion ends, as it misses that sometimes the correct analysis isn’t that a unit is better or worse, but rather that the unit is different.  And really, that is the case in the example I gave above.  Sure we can compare stats of the figures as mentioned, but these fail to inform us of the value of the abilities that make these figures unique.  Is Alter Mind better than Raider?  Fly By?  These aren’t questions that have objective answers, because the answer depends on the circumstances of a particular situation.  Offense is a specialty of Weequay Pirates and I regularly hear that other figures can’t compete with them on that front.  Well, they aren't supposed to compete on that front.  Offense isn't their particular advantage.  If you’re using the 7-point Rebel or Imperial deployment groups to match the offense of Weequay Pirates, I regret to inform you that you're making a mistake.  Function matters for every figure in Imperial Assault (same goes for Command cards).  Offense is the simplest metric when it comes to value in this game, but it’s not the only metric and players need to utilize their figures accordingly.  Thus, I’m very resistant to any grand statement regarding the superiority of a figure in a generalized manner relying on offense as the only measure of its value.

The second assertion that I often hear is the superiority of a certain faction over the others – as with the first, it’s the superiority of Scum Hunters.  I’ll admit that I’m in a bit of an academic corner when it comes to denying this argument, as there’s a decent amount of evidence that Scum Hunter lists tend to win tournaments over the other factions.  I won’t deny that fact.  I won’t deny that it’s a strong list.  However, I’ve also seen other factions succeed against Scum Hunters.  I’ve personally beaten it many times with Imperials.  I have a multitude of explanations why we see it win so many tournaments (player preference, small set of test cases, cheap to purchase).  All that combined leads me to believe that the supremacy of the faction is likely overstated, despite its winning record.

However, what I believe on this issue is actually immaterial to whether the meta is healthy or not.  The truth of the matter is that Scum Hunters can in fact be overpowered relative to the other factions, but the meta can still be healthy as long as players don’t feel foreclosed from using the other factions.  The worst-case scenario for this game’s meta would look like this: no players use Rebels or Imperials; all players use Scum Hunters; the only meaningful choice players make is on the margin of their list (e.g., do I take Black Market or Devious Scheme).  Not to be reductive of any problems Imperial Assault may have, but we are far from this reality.  I don’t know many players that feel boxed into a particular archetype or faction – and I include myself in that list.  As an example, the FFG Store Championship’s top four consisted of Scum Hunters, Imperial Spies, IG-88/HKs, and an Ugnaught Swarm with Bantha Rider (the lists I put together are illustrative, not the actual lists).  While most players acknowledge Scum Hunters as a strong list, it’s hardly limiting the creativity of the community as a whole and it certainly isn’t unbeatable by the other factions.  As such, I’m hesitant to accept the general assertion that Scum Hunters is somehow too good and that the meta is suffering as a result.

Could the meta be better?  Sure.  Do I wish more players would explore the other factions at tournaments?  Of course I do.  However, I still get a lot of joy from this game and theorycrafting around the “weaker” factions.  I think most players do.  And any pessimistic statement regarding the perceived overpowered nature of Scum Hunters is overblown in my opinion.


2. Is there enough list diversity?

I’ll be a lot more brief on this question, as I believe what I’ve written informs this a bit.  In truth, the answer is both yes and no, in that I don’t think I’ll ever believe there is “enough” diversity.  For me, list diversity is the primary way Imperial Assault peddles entertainment.  I love creating new lists, assessing existing lists, and strategizing against the lists of my opponents.  Therefore, there isn’t really a saturation point for diversity.  I prefer to see something unique across the table every game.  To this end, I believe Imperial Assault has a nice pool of list archetypes that all play quite differently (see top four from FFG Store Championships mentioned above).

Take me!

Take me!

However, that doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  While at a high level list diversity is good, problems exist within point enclaves and roles due to a lack of meaningful choices.  For instance, what diversity exists for Imperials in the 2-3 point range?  Not much beyond the Officer.  What diversity is there for a Rebel player looking for support figures?  The value of C-3P0 and Gideon is so good that those points/roles are essentially filled the moment you pick Rebels.  How many options does an Imperial player have if they’d like to run a single, powerful threat on the board (this is prior to the Vader attachment, Driven by Hatred)?  There are a few, but the selection is quite limited based on the type of list you’re playing (Kayn Somos for Troopers, Agent Blaise for Spies, General Sorin for Vehicles).  In contrast, Scum and Rebels have a wealth of fun, playable unique figures from 5 to 12 points that easily slot into all types of lists.  If anything, the diversity problem with Imperial Assault revolves around some figures that feel inevitable to all lists as opposed to an overarching problem at a high level. 


3. Are certain strategies too dominant and/or not fun to play with/against?

I’m not particularly concerned with particular “strategies” that aren’t fun to play against and/or are too dominant, but I do think that there are certain situations that make for play experiences that just aren’t fun – mainly in that they remove player agency from the game.  Take for example a situation where Onar removes a full health Jedi Luke Skywalker from the board in a single attack by utilizing a string of Command cards (Primary Target, Tools for the Job, Assassinate).  If this happens, the game is basically over for the Rebel player – and not due to any particular skill on the Scum player's part, but rather a result of good fortune. 

The same can be said about Jedi Luke Skywalker’s interaction with Son of Skywalker and Take Initiative.  If the stars align, Jedi Luke can activate at the end of a round, attack twice, reactivate immediately, attack two more times, then with Take Initiative, activate again and attack twice more.  All happening in a way that restricts any response by the opponent.  Again, this doesn’t say much about either player’s skill, but rather about one player’s fortune to draw a particular card (like Son of Skywalker/ Take Initiative) or the other player’s misfortune in not drawing a particular card (like Negation). 

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m railing against variance in Imperial Assault, because there’s always the chance that one player will roll or draw better than the other.  However, I think these situations where the swing in power is so large that the game pretty much ends is frustrating for a lot of players because it takes away any education that could be gleaned from the game.  Imperial Assault is about strategy and losing is about learning what to do and not to do the next game.  When a player draws an extremely beneficial set of cards that ends the game, there just isn’t that much to learn and that can be frustrating.


4. What changes (Errata/bans) would you like to see?

I find that this question can be answered in a two ways.  If the question is, “what errata or bans would you like to see?,” the answer is none.  I don’t like eratta and bans.  I think they would make a complicated game even less elegant.  And, I’m not convinced that hampering a few powerful units won’t just result in some other units rising to the top of the pack creating the same complaints.  If the question is, “how would you like to see the game shaped by future releases?,” I can and already have gotten behind a number of changes FFG is making to the game – primarily in the form of Focused on the Kill and Driven by Hatred.  I find that these changes show that the designers are mindful of where the game is at and where they’d like it to be, which fills me with a lot of confidence about the future of Imperial Assault.

That said, I also think there’s a good deal of entertainment value in thinking about what changes we’d like to see.  If nothing else, paying attention to the changes players call for is illustrative of problems with the game, even if a particular change is infeasible or ill suited to deal with that problem.  Thus, I’ll include some of my changes below, even if I don’t actually believe they should be implemented.

Take Initiative:  Like many others, I’m no fan of this Command card.  It’s strength is in the fact that it alters the normal flow of play, so as to disrupt the planning that players have done around the anticipated turn order.  Now, I don’t have a particular problem with this type of mechanic – in fact, I really enjoy using cards like Squad Swarm and Change of Plans to alter the expectations of players.  Thus, the issue isn’t the mechanic, but the cost.  Because Take Initiate holds so much potential when it comes to altering the board state (activating a powerful figure first to remove an opponent’s powerful figure), there isn’t really any justification to not include it in your Command deck at 0 points.  Because that incentive is so strong, nearly every deck runs it, which means that every game I play I need to consider whether my opponent has Take Initiative in his or her hand.  I really enjoy the positioning and strategy aspects of Imperial Assault, but this is often hampered as nearly every round I’m forced to say to myself “this is a great setup if he doesn’t have Take Initiative or it’s a terrible setup if he does have it.”  I have to guess.  I don’t know.  And that’s not very fun.  On the extreme end, I would just remove it from the game.  They could release new cards that fill that gap and Han Solo’s card already does so at an acceptable price.  A more moderate fix would be to simply require that the card be played at the beginning of a round that you have initiative (thus, you have initiative, you play Take Initiative declaring you will take it from your opponent next round, and now your opponent at least has notice of the turn order).

Temporary Alliance: I am genuinely surprised that so many people add this to the cards they think are a problem.  I personally don’t have any attachment to it staying or going, but I’m not convinced it’s a big issue.  If anything, I like the variety it offers (some of my favorite games have been against Jedi Luke/Bantha lists).  I see players’ issue with the card, as Gideon/C-3P0 are quite strong when combined with Weequays.  However, I think it would do more harm than good to change or remove it.

Gideon: Speak of the devil.  I think I have an unpopular opinion on Gideon, as I’ve never seen this advocated, but I would be completely fine with him being removed from the game.  This would solve the Focus stacking issue that players don’t seem to like (I’m not a fan of this on Rebel or Scum).  Moreover, I think this would free up the 3-point support slot.  I’d love to see more of R2-D2 and Chopper on the board, but currently it’s hard to justify when Gideon provides so much value at his 3-point cost.  If Gideon was gone, I imagine many people’s problems with Temporary Alliance would also be mitigated.

Command Card Stacking:  I would love if there was a restriction on the number of Command cards a player could use during an activation – perhaps one Command card per player, per activation.  Then you avoid the situation that I described above where a 16-health Brawler is removed in a single attack.  Moreover, it adds a layer of depth to when and how cards are used, as then players would have to consider which Command card provides the most value in certain situation.

Unique Figure Lists: This isn’t a problem, per se, but I really enjoy seeing lists with unique figures.  I’d love to see every faction have an incentive to run more unique figures. 

Jedi Luke/ IG-88 (Blaze of Glory) Command Cards: I wish the card required that it be played after one of your activations that isn’t IG-88 or Luke Skywalker.  The current wording allows for too big of a swing that your opponent can’t necessarily plan around (kind of like Take Initiative – either they don’t have Son of Skywalker and I’m in a good position or they do have it and I’m dead).  I like these cards, I just think they could be tamed down a bit by simply giving the opposing player slightly more information about the board state.

Drawing Command Cards:  While I’m not entirely certain this would be good or bad, I think it would be interesting to see how the game would change if you could only draw Command cards when holding a terminal – meaning no cards at the beginning of the game and no passive draw at the end of the round.  This would obviously be a huge nerf to Command cards in general and huge buff to the figures that enable you to draw more cards (R2-D2, Jabba, Black Market).  I enjoy playing around objectives and I think this would ramp up that aspect of the game, but entirely understand that it would probably change the game too much.


Conclusion

Overall, I think Imperial Assault is in a good place when it comes to the meta.  Most of my problems come from the aspects of the game that restrict choice in one way or another, whether it’s due to cards being too valuable or having too few options for a particular role.  Despite this, I still have a great time building lists, employing strategies, and soaking in all the Star Wars lore I can.  As usual, I’d love to hear what everyone thinks on the issue.  Whether you agree with me or not, I think we all have a lot to look forward to with Heart of the Empire and the new skirmish map.  Thanks for reading!

- Dietz