Tricks, Tactics, or Strategy?

Today I want to talk about three related concepts. I believe that these particular lenses can be very useful to tackle events, choose lists, look at the strengths and weaknesses of your own and an opponent’s list; to understand and to exploit or mitigate the identified weaknesses; and for playing to your own strengths and evading the opponent’s. In short: to get better at X-Wing.

In principle, every list should have its strategy. However, sometimes all we have ready are tactics or even tricks. What does each of this mean, how can we tell them apart, and what parts could you think about to up your game? The lockdown can be a unique chance to develop some strategies for your favorite lists. Let me start by going through the three concepts. I’ll quickly sketch them top-down and then explain them again bottom-up in more detail and in the context of X-Wing as I try to give examples.

Strategy

Strategy has a lot of different definitions and I don’t want to go through the history of strategy here. Instead, I can say which definition I follow as I found it to be very useful and widely recognized. Arthur Lykke defined strategy as a “plan to achieve your ends with certain means and methods against the will of an opponent”.

The Ends-Ways-Means triangle of Strategy

There are four key components in this definition. The first three are the ends-ways-means triangle. You need a goal (ends), you need something to use (means), and you need a way of how to use these somethings (methods/ways). These three are bound together by an overarching plan. Many definitions stop there, but the fourth component is essential: against an opponent! You don’t devise a strategy to tackle homework. That’s simply an approach, a process with a most efficient solution for a given goal. But strategy takes an opponent with their active countermeasures into consideration. There is a moment when a strategy turns into a simple process, and Edward Luttwak calls this linear strategy. Precisely when the opponent does not have to be considered anymore and their actions become inconsequential. I briefly touched on this a year ago and you can read that here. To summarize: strategy is a plan determining ends, ways, and means against the action of an opponent.

Recommended reading: The Logic of War and Peace by E. Luttwak; the classics, just ask if you’re interested.

Strategy on different levels

A first detour. We have to make a first important distinction. There is strategy, and there is the strategic level. They are often used as synonyms, and I will continue to say strategy when talking about the X-Wing equivalent of the strategic level. Modern militaries distinguish three main levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. We should not confuse “strategic level” and “strategy”. Strategy happens on all three main levels – strategic, operational, tactical – while the different levels mainly describe the scope. Luttwak talks about more levels, he even includes a Technical level, which seems quite useful for X-Wing. But I want to simplify a bit, so I will limit this post to “strategy on the strategic level” and “strategy on the tactical level” and call them strategy and tactics, respectively. With that short overview of strategy and the different levels, what about tactics?

Tactics

A cannon shot would not get far on our battlefields

Traditionally, tactics are everything concerning a battlefield, and later in history the battlefield within a cannon shot. That is obviously outdated by now, but the point is that you have a certain number of troops on a certain terrain within given conditions, and you have to live with those boundaries while achieving your goal. I would even go as far and claim that usually, tactics work towards firepower – whether maneuver, mass, tempo, or deception, they all try to get superior firepower to defeat an opponent. Another traditional saying is that strategy is a science, while tactics are an art. The German expression “Leben in der Lage” fits it pretty well – to live with the given circumstances. The point here is that tactics require adaptation, quick thinking, flexibility, and creativity. There is a reason why books on tactics are not as timeless as those on strategy. To quote Luttwak once more:

One may still read ancient texts on tactics for advice of enduring value, but it would be idle to pretend that they contain much more than the obvious. […] Hence tactics are the proper subject of up-to-date professionals alone […].

E. Luttwak, The Logic of War and Peace, page 109.

Tactics are a bit harder to define and grasp, and the context has an even larger impact on the meaning. If you google for definitions, then you’ll find many very similar to the definition of strategy. We might go with “the skill to use your means effectively in combat to achieve a goal”, but that is of course just a rephrasing of ways (the skill to use), means, and ends. Tactics cover a large conceptual area and can be as abstract as massed firepower or mobility, but also as practical and direct as fire and movement. For now, we can leave all the intricacies aside and focus on what is relevant for us. For our purpose here, the above definition should work just fine: to use your means effectively to achieve your goal.

Recommended reading: maybe On Tactics by B. A. Friedman; but Luttwak is right, and way better for us are X-Wing blogs: Space Owl, Starfighter Mafia. There are some possible sources under Fundamentals and Link Collection.

Tricks

Finally, tricks. Let me make another detour into two completely different topics to borrow ideas for the concept: First IT security and zero-day exploits, and second from Starcraft. Zero-day exploits describe a previously unknown vulnerability without a patch in a software. It is called zero-day because the developer of this software learns about the vulnerability on day zero, as there are zero days since a patch for the vulnerability was made available, and an attack on this unpatched vulnerability can accordingly have a huge impact. The key take-away for us is that the defender learns about it only when affected by the attack. The surprise-aspect vastly improves the value of any tactic. It is this surprise, this zero-day characteristic, that turns a tactic into a trick. More importantly, a trick can work where the same tactic without the surprise would not. If you played Starcraft, you will be familiar with the concept of “cheese”. Liquipedia says it “refers to a strategy that is highly unconventional and designed to take one’s opponent by surprise. In general, cheese is hard to beat if not scouted but easy to defeat if it is scouted.” You have the element of surprise in there, and that scouting it (i.e., knowing what is going to happen) is usually enough to render it toothless.

Tricks in X-Wing

This happens in X-Wing, too. So now I will switch to the bottom-up as mentioned. We might also call a trick a gimmick, and I want to start with my favorite: Fifth Brother and Homing Missile. Can I call that combo HomieBro?

Whenever the Bro hits with an attack, he can spend 2 force to add a crit result. Only on hits, and only every other turn at best. But now we add Homing Missiles. They give the target a choice: either the attacker rolls 4 red dice (and remember: lock + 2 force has an expected 3.7 hits, with 71% for 4 hits! And if you don’t even need the force for mods, you can add a 4th or 5th hit on top!). Or the attack is declared to hit, and the defender takes a damage. This is where you have to remember HomieBro’s ability. He doesn’t dish out a single hit, he deals hit+crit. I call this moment a trick, when you agree to take the homing missile damage from Fifth Brother, only to then learn that you also take a critical hit on top.

A local player made a fun list full of out-of-combat-damage triggers for his Captain Jostero, and it worked rather well. I would argue that it is largely due to the trick character. For me personally, Scum is a bag of tricks. Most games against Scum feel like I would win the rematch because I now know their tricks. To identify the difference between a trick and a tactic in the context of X-Wing, ask yourself: how comfortable would you be with the immediate rematch? How comfortable are you going into a game where your opponent has the tricks of your lists explained to them beforehand?
Shout out to TurnZero Podcast, where they discussed this in episode 12!
I try to make sure that my tactics are not tricks. For example, when playing the BigXXXDeal, I made sure to explain that Finn would have at least 2 evades when defending. And I ask before the game whether my opponents are familiar with HomieBro. Tricks are relatively easy to talk about as an explanation of a certain interaction is usually enough. The combination of Fifth Brother and Homing Missile was identified minutes after the new pilot was spoiled. That does not mean that the combination is bad as a tactic, but only that the extra value due to being a trick will vanish after day zero. Some tricks are less-known tactics and well worth repeating. Others are true zero-days and entirely useless when the opponent knows them already. My advice would be not to rely on tricks if you want to improve as a player. Fully exploit them if you want to do well in a given event or game.

Tactics in X-Wing

Tactics are the bread and butter of X-Wing. If you apply the definition from earlier, then it makes a lot of sense why tactics are so relevant to a given X-Wing game. Both players have their lists and obstacles. Very likely the matchup will be slightly in favor of one player, but they both have to play it out.
Tactics include mechanical basics and standard skills with individual ships like maneuvers, range control, blocking, using rocks as cover, disengaging (=running away…), understanding maneuver tricks, action choice, dice modification, and so on. There are quite a few maneuver tricks that you can learn, for formations and individual ships. More experienced players will likely see them as trivial and obvious, but we all must realize their existence at some point. And then there are all the triggers to remember, both your own and your opponent’s.
On a higher player level, it includes combined effort for several ships. For example, order of movement, formation flying, building kill boxes, concentrated fire, the timing between ships. And finally, tactics also include basic synergies within a ship or between ships. Tactics are basically all the standard things you ought to do right during a game. They are fun to talk about but can be complex enough to require some graphical support. A small example would be my short post on turning a swarm. That is clearly not a trick, and yet it is something very useful that you should learn and remember.

Strategy in X-Wing

Strategy on the strategic level means, by definition, to look at a larger scale. You can plan strategy well ahead. I would guess that the large majority does not bother with this at all. Netlist a proven squad, practice to get a feel for its strengths and for some matchups, and make sure to do well on your tactics. My guess is that this would cover most players – and that’s perfectly fine!
Sometimes, you want to get more out of a squad though. You start to recognize favorable obstacle positions or good openings. You realize that certain matchups need different approaches based on their openings, or that you would rather have one more debris with you. Sometimes, tactics are not enough, and you want a bit more. In my opinion, strategy in the context of X-Wing is a mixture of the following points:

  • Meta analysis
  • List choice
  • to understand your own list’s strengths and weaknesses in general, and in specific matchups
  • to assess your opponent’s list for their strengths and weaknesses, and deriving target priorities
  • to formulate a game plan with few branches, depending on your opponent’s choices
  • Turn 0, including obstacle selection, obstacle placement, ship placement, openings
  • Openings get a second mention:
    • against general list archetypes (swarms, arc-dodger lists, jousters, …)
    • against specific lists (currently: Droid swarm, BoFrost, ImperialAces, …)
    • the first 2-3 turns with some alternatives/ways to react to a small number of choices by your opponent
  • The first engagement: when, where, and how?
  • The first engagement + 1 turn: what next?

A note on the points: the engagement and the following turn can also be part of tactics. The difference is your lens, how and when you think about it. Do you not bother until at the table? You’re living with the circumstances like a good tactician. Do you try to nudge your opponent into choices with your obstacle placement and own setup according to the plan you made at home in preparation? Seems more like a strategist to me. The key point is not which classification is correct. The key point is that you think about the parts and how they connect. Breaking up all the different parts of strategy into bits helps me to remember them and helps me to apply them.

Conclusion

To summarize: we went through the more general definitions of Strategy, Tactics, and Tricks, and then looked at how they apply to X-Wing with specific examples. Tricks are not bad, but they could be crutches that might hinder your progress. Tactics are sufficient for most players. Strategies are a bit more try-hardy, but also a lot of fun to devise. And with life generally slowed a bit down, why not spend the usual FLGS-evening at the home table or on vassal/TTS and develop an opening? I will do exactly that later today.

This post won’t contain further details on the individual bullet points. My goal is to look at several of them in the future, but I will be very busy for possibly the next year. The blog definitely slows down, but I won’t freeze it yet. Maybe I have to figure out a good strategy on how to tackle writing…

What is that? Back to the start and re-read the definition? Oh, right! Until next time!

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