This weekend was the Imperial Assault North American Championships at Gen Con, a Premiere Tournament Tier event that featured a solid set of prizes and a first-round bye in next year's Worlds Tournament. Needless to say, this event attracted some of the best Imperial Assault players in North America, possibly the world.
If you're a frequent reader of the Imperial Assault forums (or this blog, frankly), you would probably assume that the winning list was some variation of the popular Mercenary Hunter list that has been much discussed in the community as overpowered and in need of balance. To be fair, you would be partially right in that a Mercenary list won the tournament - but the archetype couldn't be more unique. Of course I speak of Patrick Christians' Ugnaught Swarm.
The Droid Uprising had already arrived - We just didn't know it
The lowly Ugnaught has never been a very popular figure in the Imperial Assault meta. Released in the Besbin Gambit box set, the Ugnaught came out at a time when the Mercenary faction wasn't particularly strong and thus was a bit aimless in its delivery. Arguably, this changed with the release of Jabba's Realm and the significant boon it delivered to the Mercenary faction, but given the excitement surrounding Jabba, Weequay Pirates, and Gamorrean Guards, it's understandable that Ugnaughts didn't immediately come to mind for most players.
Yet, perhaps they should have. After all, the Ugnaught package (two Elite Ugnaughts and four Regular Ugnaughts) is essentially a prepackaged archetype, in that each Ugnaught can create a Junk Droid via Spot Weld and activate it via Scrap Battalion. In the simplest sense, this means one Ugnaught can create the Junk Droid and have it activate after he does. Then, when the next Ugnaught activates, the Junk Droid gets to activate again. If the Junk Droid dies in between Ugnaught activations, no harm no foul as the next Ugnaught will simply create a new Junk Droid.
Now, I recall when I first played against Ugnaughts, it wasn't entirely obvious what threat the Junk Droid presented. It doesn't move particularly fast, it's easily removed, and it only rolls a single die on attack. While all of these assessments are correct, it obviously misses some key strengths.
First, the Junk Droid represents risk free offense (assuming your opponent isn't using Jabba, which would grant him or her a point for every Junk Droid kill). Every Ugnaught activation, the Junk Droid moves toward your opponent and/or attacks the opponent. This serves as a constant source of pressure as the Ugnaught user can constantly move the Junk Droid aggressively without fear of loss.
Compare this to other offensive maneuvers in Imperial Assault. Assuming skilled positioning, most attacks require some risk on the part of the attacker in order to acquire line of sight on a target. In many cases, this may prevent threatening some units altogether, as the risk of loss is too great when attempting to complete an attack. Junk Droids have no such limitation.
The second benefit provided by the Junk Droid is that while its offensive peak is low, its damage is extremely consistent. This is the result of the the Junk Droid's inherent +1 damage and its green die. The green die only has a single side with one result, meaning that five sides will get the Junk droid either 3 damage; or 2 damage and Pierce 2 (Pierce 1 with regular Ugnaughts).
The black die does a decent amount of reduction against this, but doesn't block the entire output with any dependability. The white die is even worse, as even in the event of a dodge the attacking Junk Droid has lost so little. To reiterate, the value of this seemingly minor attack vastly outweighs the opportunity cost of a lackluster attack or losing the Junk Droid altogether.
Rounding out the List
Despite the virtues of the Ugnaught Swarm and its infinite Junk Droid army, they have a few disadvantages. First, if the Ugnaughts come under threat and some (or any) are removed, the strength of the Ugnaught package is significantly diminished. And second, a player with proper setup can steadily eliminate Junk Droids while capturing objectives, ignoring the immobile Ugnaught swarm entirely.
Therefore, the remainder of the list must offset these weaknesses. Prior to Jabba's Realm and the recent Droid wave, very few Mercenary units filled these gaps. The Bantha was too dependent on drawing the proper Command cards and achieving a valuable Trample. HK Assassin Droids, though powerful, were too flimsy to adequately ward off a direct assault on the Ugnaughts. And, in general, few figures had the mobility or firepower to successfully defend map objectives.
The current landscape of the Mercenary faction looks quite different, which is best exemplified by the figures rounding out the winning Ugnaught list: IG-88 with Focused on the Kill and Onar Koma. Both provide a significant amount of offense coupled with decent survivability. Onar's Speed leaves something to be desired when it comes to contesting objectives, but IG-88 can threaten nearly every location on the map with 2 free movement points and Speed 5. And most importantly, Onar and IG-88 serve as figures that are difficult to ignore, creating space for the Junk Droid to do its junky thing.
The list provides the opponent with a really unpleasant set of decisions - attacking Onar, IG-88, or the Junk Droid.
The Junk Droid is obviously the least appealing of the three. Removing it yields no points, and even worse, no real strategic benefit on the map other than a brief respite from Junk Droid attacks. However, for all the reasons I've already detailed above, an opponent can't necessarily afford to let the Junk Droid go wild.
Onar is the next easiest target to remove due to his minimal defense (no defense die). Yet, with a sizable health pool and a low point value, at best Onar's removal will only slightly alter the game state in favor of an opponent. Moreover, all the while IG-88 is still moving around, attacking twice, and the Junk Droid is inching ever closer to the opponent's figures.
IG-88 is the ideal target, but as many players know, removing this droid is a more difficult task in practice than in theory. With an inherent +1 block and 15 health, he's not easy to remove, and that's assuming you're able to put shots on him at all. With 5 Speed, he can often be positioned quite conservatively while still threatening attacks on an opponent's figures. Moreover, figures of the opponent that are positioned aggressively to access IG-88 are more likely to be in range of Junk Droid attacks. It's often a lose-lose situation.
Practice Makes Perfect
Despite it's strengths, the list isn't unbeatable (I know because I've won a game against a variation of the list in the past). For one, despite IG-88's high Speed, the list still lacks map control, particularly on larger maps like Nal Hutta Swamps. As you'd expect, the further the Junk Droid needs to travel to attack, the easier it will be to manage its onslaught and the more space you'll get by removing each one. With a list that is sufficiently survivable, it's possible to hold objectives, remove Junk Droids, and merely accept damage from IG-88 and still win on points.
On top of that, the list also faces some hard counters from very specific units. Against figures like IG-88, the Rancor, and Darth Vader (with Driven by Hatred), the Junk Droid can often do no damage at all against the heightened defense of these figures. In such case, it's much easier to focus on objective and removing IG-88. Special note: Jyn Odan is amazing at removing Junk Droids in the early game while holding objectives with Hair Trigger.
With these points in mind, it's important to note that this list isn't an automatic win if brought - positioning is paramount and a deft sense of timing is required. If the Ugnaughts are ever left undefended, a figure like Jedi Luke may pull two or three of them off the map in a single round, in which case the game is pretty much over. The list is strong, but there's no free lunch in Imperial Assault.
Patrick is a local player and he and I play Imperial Assault together quite often. Thus, it was no surprise to me that he won, or that he won with this particular list. He's a great player that not only puts together creative lists (on what feels like a weekly basis), but also puts in the practice with those lists to play them perfectly - and I'm sure that helped him find success. Congratulations to him and I hope everyone has fun trying out his winning list.
Note: I spoke with Patrick about his list prior to writing this article to get a sense of some of his thoughts. While this article synthesizes some of his views with my own, don't assume that any assessments I made regarding the list represent his views in their entirety.
Furthermore, the link to the list in the beginning of the article is missing a single card, "Terminal Protocol," because it is missing from the list builder.