Despite that Fantasy Flight Games has gone silent, we are steadily marching toward Heart of the Empire and a new meta. In contrast to previous expansions, not only will players need to learn to play with and against new figures, but will also need to cope with specters from the past - I speak of none other than Darth Vader.
Released in the Core Set, Darth Vader arrived with an impressive set of skills and an equally impressive cost. At 18 points, the dark lord uses nearly a full half of one's available deployment points. In exchange, he gets 16 health, two black defense dice, and three attack dice. While Vader has many impressive features, he hasn't seen much play in the competitive scene. Low speed combined with a melee weapon makes utilizing his devastating attack difficult. Moreover, while Force Choke is a strong ability, it is difficult to justify using it over his three-dice attack. And finally, despite having two defense dice, it's entirely possible for him to be removed quickly with a few inopportune rolls (a player told me an anecdote about a Vader that was killed in a single round during a tournament after some bad luck). Therefore, in order to bring Vader back into skirmish, FFG is releasing a new attachment - Driven by Hatred.
As was the case with IG-88's Focused on the Kill, FFG seems to be approaching the revitalization of Vader with a mix of a point reduction, attack improvements, and new abilities. To begin, Vader's cost is being reduced by 5, bringing him in line with his contemporaries (Jedi Luke, if you will), and probably to the maximum cost that players would be willing to pay for a single figure. On top of that, his offense is being buffed via a free +1 damage to all attacks and the ability to re-roll one attack die every attack. This is exceptionally useful when rolling red dice for those rare occasions when the single-damage side shows up (if you've used Elite Gammorean Guards, you're probably familiar with how strong a re-rolled red die is). And last, at the end of each round, Vader gets to move two spaces and then may either use Force Choke or perform an attack with one less attack die (meaning he'll likely perform an attack with two red dice). All in all, a nice set of changes that many players would agree were needed.
Yet, so far I have seen very little discussion on how to build around our new, spry Sith lord. Rebels and Scum have now had months to practice with figures costing 10 points or more - utilizing strong figures in the 2, 3, 4, and 5-point range (C-3P0, Gideon, Hera, Greedo, Vinto). As an Imperial player, I can tell you that Empire will need to take a different approach. In contrast to the Rebels and Scum, which sport great figures at a low cost, many of the Empire's valuable figures cost 6 points or more, making it difficult to keep your activation count high and maintain good offense.
Therefore, I'd like to suggest a few list archetypes, with the goal of getting us all thinking about how Darth Vader will work after Driven by Hatred is available. Let's begin!
One approach is to pair Darth Vader with Troopers, arguably the Empire's strongest archetype. To this end, I believe that Jet Troopers are the best option. Vader will be eating up 13 points right off the bat in your list, so going for the more aggressively-costed troopers will be necessary (not to mention, Jets are a great unit in their own right). At 27 points, you can sport 44 health points across five, three-dice figures. Not bad.
I also believe that Captain Terro is a necessary addition to this list due to the synergy he shares with Darth Vader - primarily via his Flamethrower ability and the Weakened Condition. Vader has two black dice on defense, therefore removing enemy figures ability to surge for damage and Pierce significantly reduces the damage he'll take if he rolls reasonably well. Moreover, Terro is valuable in that he provides another significant threat for your opponent to deal with. No doubt your opponent would like to remove Vader quickly, but he or she will need to carefully consider how many Flamethrowers can be endured if the choice is between him and Terro.
Finally, I rounded out the list with a couple of Officers. The obvious value is that they increase your activation count and can hold terminals. However, don't underestimate their ability to move Vader and Terro to threatening positions, especially given that a couple extra movement points at the end of a round may result in Vader getting an extra attack via his new Driven by Hatred attachment. Most players are aware enough to count spaces based on a figure's speed, but I'm sure there will be many situations where they are surprised via an Officer's Order ability being used on Darth Vader. I put the last two points into Unshakable and Zillo, mostly to increase defense and to have a way to shed a Stun from my 13-point investment if it came to that.
PS - I also recommend trying this list with the following modification: drop Terro, and Officer, and a 1 point upgrade; add BT-1 and 0-0-0. Same activation count, Weaken synergy, thematic, thumbs up.
While troopers are great, I think there is an equally strong archetype within the Empire's Droid faction thanks to BT-1 and and a fleshed-out set of Command cards. To this end, with Vader we pack BT-1, 0-0-0, and a pair of Elite Probe Droids as our main form of offense. While not as tanky as the Trooper list, the droid list makes up for its smaller health pool with greater offense and more activations, making it more likely that Vader will activate last. Anyone that has been the victim of Jedi Luke at the end of round can attest that activating a strong character back-to-back (end of round and then again at the beginning of the round) can have devastating consequences.
As with the previous list, our main concern is maximizing Vader's impact on the game. In this list, BT-1 and 0-0-0 replace Captain Terro's functionality as a way to apply the Weakened condition and serve as a set of unavoidable threats. BT-1 does this via his high offense, and 0-0-0 via an annoying set of abilities that significantly increase his offense as time turns go by (Invasive Procedure followed by a three-dice attack is vicious). That said, it should be no secret that this play style will have a high skill cap, given that your timing will have to be impeccable when it comes to the engagement. Losing one of these two without providing Vader an opening to attack will make Vader an easy target in the following rounds.
The other aspect of this list that I enjoy is that it is a very value-oriented list. All the Droids in the list feature Recover as one of their surge abilities. If you happen to get lucky on a few rolls, a few damaged Droids may make their way back to full health. Moreover, because a few Droid Command cards have the potential to be brought back to your hand, you can get extra value from Zillo (and the card itself). Going back to the point I made about this list's skill cap, the mileage you get from these aspects will vary with player skill.
To round this list out, I included Scavenged Weaponry and Trusted Ally. As with Unshakeable, Trusted Ally is a nice way to remove any unwanted conditions from Vader while providing some moderate benefits to your other units as well. Playing on the value theme, Scavenged Weaponry gives you a slight increase in offense that keeps on giving even after the initial unit with it has been removed.
Finally, I wanted to touch on one last, thematic archetype - and that's Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Now, I believe the Emperor deserves his own article, but let's just examine how he helps Vader and the rest of this list. First, Palpatine has the Emperor ability that allows another figure within four spaces to interrupt and perform an attack. Vader is one of the most valuable figures to receive this benefit because his attack is so devastating with two red dice, a natural re-roll, Pierce 3, and inherent +1 damage. Moreover, the Emperor can use Tempt to pass a damage token to any figure at the cost of that figure receiving 1 damage. Stormtroopers are already quite fragile, so moving them from 5 to 4 health with this ability isn't a major loss when the return is a bump in their damage. And, in addition to all of that, bringing the Emperor opens up the world of Imperial Force User Command cards, which for all intensive purposes have been dead in the IA meta. These include Force Lightning, Lure of the Dark Side, and Deadly Precision - all cards that are not only disruptive to an opponent, but also thematically interesting (I am totally going to use Lord of the Sith to utilize a string of Force Lightning and Lure of the Dark Side).
Rounding out this list is again, mostly point-efficient units like 0-0-0 and Imperial Officers. We're hoping for some value from 0-0-0's Weaken and the movement from the Officers. I also included Rule by Fear in this list, as you'll likely want some of those Force User Command cards to increase the effectiveness of Vader and the Emperor. This list is probably the weakest of the three, but it will make up for it in fun.
As you can tell, I'm certainly excited for Driven by Hatred and the return of Darth Vader. I don't have a good sense yet if he'll be a top tier figure going forward, or just serviceable. I still find the biggest challenge to be building around his 13-point cost. I would love to hear about any other combinations people are considering.