Thursday, February 25, 2016

Chemical Imbalance: Admiral Ackbar

Good day fleet commanders, and welcome to Rites of Battle. Corvus here with another riveting observation and opinion piece. With the Star Wars Store Championship season in full swing (Havoc and I haven't had a weekend off this year between 40k, Armada, and X-Wing) it's lead to a lot of time spent playing, and unfortunately that's left little time to pause and reflect. But today, reflect I shall, and on the hottest topic of the Armada circuit: Admiral Ackbar.

The Massing at Sullust and Wave II have brought us the revered Mon Calamari commander and unfortunately, what he seems to be telling all of us with regard to other Rebel fleet commanders is: "They're a trap!" Certainly, his ability gels well with the Rebel fleet mentality (and who doesn't love playing with interstellar pirate ships?), but does it mesh too well? As one player remarked, out of the last 8 matches against Rebels he's had in the last month, 8 of them were against Ackbar. That's crazy! That's approaching 'summer of Tau-Dar' levels in terms of lack of fleet diversity. What's happened to Garm Bel Iblis and Mon Mothma, our two former Rebel superstars? Crushed and brushed aside under the weight of two extra red dice on every attack. For those out of the loop, Ackbar is the most expensive Rebel commander, at just under 10% of our fleet's total possible cost, tied with the Imperial's Grand Moff Tarkin, and only slightly more than lord Vader himself. But for that cost, your ships can lock themselves into their side firing arcs and pick up two extra red dice. Considering that's half of what the MC80 has for its red armament on those arcs, you're looking at a bare minimum 50% increase in firepower.

Admittedly, this firepower is supposed to come at a cost: namely firing from their front (and/or rear) arc. But let's set the record straight: this is a cost on exactly zero Rebel ships. How so? You see, none of the rebel fleet has a front facing weapon value of more than three dice. The MC80 and Assault Frigate Mk. II? Two red and a blue. The Nebulon B? Three red. You get the picture. See, as long as we can attack from both sides, or the same twice with Gunnery team, we will always gain dice via Ackbar. The only ship this is tricky on is the MC80, as it can't bring a gunnery team (a well thought out balance mechanism no doubt). What's more, with 80% of the current Rebel fleet, if you're at long range to your target, even shooting with only one side already nets you dice. In fact, there's no other commander style or list construction that has Ackbar's level of fleet impact, save for Mon Mothma, and even her lists, unless they include the Nebulon B Yavaris and its 'double bombing run' squadron trick, are likely to be outperformed by Ackbar.

Ackbar is appealing to players at every point of the skill curve. If you're new and just learning to fly, you're still likely to grab wide shots from your side arcs into the opposing fleet. And even if he completely jukes you, you can still opt to fire from your front or rear arc. For skilled commanders, when you know you can outfly the other player, or simply grind him out against the broadside of your fleet, he offers a massive power spike to every ship in your fleet. To look at all 5 commanders on each side, no other commander so directly impacts the firepower or overall performance of any list so directly as Ackbar. The closest runner up in my opinion is Admiral Screed, who lets you discard a die to change any other die to a face with a crit, but only once per activation. This is quite powerful on ships with black dice, as it can mean turning two blanks into a hit and a crit, but it only generates advantage when you miss, and only with black dice. Likewise, it means you're flying danger close, and your valuable evade tokens on your Raiders and/or Gladiators likely won't be useable.

What's to be done? First things first: Squadrons. Why squadrons? Ackbar, by the very nature of his perk, encourages list construction such that you maximize the number of ships you're fielding. Which Rebel ships have worthwhile anti-squadron armament and are most powerful in an Ackbar list? The MC80 and the Assault Frigate Mk. II. The MC80 never ever wants to use that anti-squadron armament unless the squadrons are on the opposite side of it relative to the enemy fleet. This is highly unlikely, and without access to a Gunnery Team, you can't risk giving up your immense 6+ red dice to try to plink a rare point off enemy squadrons. What then of the Assault Frigate? In my opinion and experience, it's the strongest Rebel ship, bar none, and bringing a large number of squadrons is about your only option to trying to bait out one of their two Gunnery Team shots, and even that only really works if you've got two ships baring down on it as well.

This goes a long way to exposing another weakness of the Ackbar list: what's a Rebel to do for his flagship? After some playtesting, there's a fork in the road here, and either tips your hand to a different weaknesses. The first, is to opt for an MC80. It's durable, but without engine techs, it's slow. And I mean slow especially compared to the potential maneuverability or an Assault Frigate or MC30c. This can lead to low overall damage output relative to your investment, and similarly expose you to outmaneuvering and fleet division. The other flagship solution is the Assault Frigate Mk. II, which to me stands out as more synonymous and analogous with the rest of the Rebel fleet options. That said, the Frigate is not nearly as durable as the MC80, trading out a redirect and contain for an evade, and losing two hull points, though to the advantage of ending up approximately 20-30% cheaper. Ultimately, the choice belongs to the constructor, but be mindful of the choice they made. If they opted into the MC80, try to overwhelm it with targets, and tear it apart, shutting down their bonus dice. If they brought the MK. II, similar theory, mob it at close enough range to invalidate its evade token, and burn through its remaining limited defensive options.
All of this is ultimately about asking a larger question: does Ackbar need an errata nerf? Or are Rebel players like me (yes, I'm running Ackbar) too easily tempted by what he offers? If we assume he's genuinely too strong and has quashed competition and choice in the Rebel half of the meta, what's the appropriate solution? Do you reduce him to granting a single red die? Do you lock him to a single side arc? Either way, I hope FFG are watching this Championship season very closely, and make appropriate adjustments.

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