The definition of an ace*

In the past few months, we have seen several blog posts going back to the same old question: What is an ace*?

I started writing this piece back in 2019, last touched it in August 2020, and felt it might now be time to finish and post it. First, I want to compile some answers, then give my own understanding, point out some consequences, and finally break down aces* a bit further.

If you go far back, you will find the RamblingsOfAWargamer blog from October 2019:
An ace* is usually high initiative, has double reposition, or can repo + get dice mods. He already mentions the important observation that an i2 Striker is an insane ace* against i1 Vultures. Important in this piece is also the mentioned role of the flanker. It feels like he got extremely close but then stopped right before the conclusion.

Then we have the Midwest Scrub who asked in a survey what the community considers to be an ace exactly one year later.
The conclusion is that the community largely agrees on specific pilots, that high initiative and (double) reposition are crucial parts, and that there is an obvious connection between cost and hitpoint. Again, it feels like they stopped right before the final conclusion.

I think these posts and many users tend to overemphasize the initiative and repositioning – the immediate causes to call them an ace* – without touching the underlying reason why these ships have to rely on high initiative and repositioning.

Just few days ago, we saw StayOnTheLeader pick up the topic:
He has larger things in mind than the mere definition of an ace*, but it looks like that will play into it. From what I saw he is fully on track and I highly recommend that you follow the pieces.

My very short answer is that we’ve had the definition under our nose since August 22nd 2016. User Firespray-32/Blue Five, whoever you are, wrote it up back in first edition. And very importantly, he called it “An Alternative Look At Arc Dodgers and Jousters”.
Put a pin in the use of arc-dodger because I will come back to this at the very end. Here is the thread: https://community.fantasyflightgames.com/topic/228306-an-alternative-look-at-arc-dodgers-and-jousters/
And here is what I think, or rather what Firespray-32 already explained over four years ago:

First, we should identify the difference between a jouster and an arc-dodger. The striking difference is how they prioritize firing shots and receiving shots. If you think about it, there are four combinations for a ship in combat:

 Your ship…receives shotdoesn’t receive shot
fires shotfires shot and receives shotfires shot, doesn’t receive shot
doesn’t fire shotdoesn’t fire shot, receives shotdoesn’t fire or receive shot

Of course, every ship prefers the green where it can fire at its chosen target while not getting shot by anyone else. And just as obvious is the case where a ship gets shot without firing – no ship wants to be in that situation, ignoring some special builds or pilots like Selfless and Biggs. But the other two combinations of firing and receiving shots are where we can find a meaningful distinction.
A jouster prefers to fire a shot, even if he gets shot at in return. Think of a generic X-Wing or TIE-swarm. They rather shoot and trade some of their hull, as long as they can remove valuable tokens and then later some shield or hull from their target.
And now think of Soontir, the epitome of an arc-dodger. He simply can’t afford to trade one of his three hulls for one or even several of an X-Wing. The arc-dodger much rather turns away and survives to get a better shot later on.
This gives us the basic difference between a jouster and an arc-dodger, and hence a possible definition:

An arc-dodger is a ship type or pilot that prioritizes evading shots over firing shots.

Or in other words: arc-dodgers benefit more from good positioning and suffer more from bad positioning. X-Wing is a game of positioning, after all.

That also makes the why clearer, why these pilots tend to be expensive, high-initiative, fragile, hard-hitting, and extremely agile. From a player perspective, they have to offer reliable arc-dodging and often passive modification to compensate for their fragility. In addition, they also need good damage output. When they constantly opt out of shoots – fired and received – then the few shots they take have to hit hard. The high initiative makes arc-dodging much easier, as does double-repositioning. From a design perspective, all these benefits – damage, repo, high initiative – have to be compensated by high cost and usually fragility, or at least with a high-risk component in the form of 3 agility dice.

As result, arc-dodgers are generally too expensive to simply joust.

This should also show us that the usual answers of high initiative, repo, etc are often found in arc-dodgers, but they do not define it. The choice between trading or completely avoiding shots does. The typical indicators go well with that necessity, but they are not necessary by themselves.

We can see that in two examples, high initiative and reposition.
High initiative is not strictly necessary. If anything, it would be highER initiative. But even that is only a means to get to an ends, the superior positioning. If you could reliably get the better position, take shots without getting shot yourself, then you could also forgo the higher initiative. And the exact same thing applies to reposition, whether system phase pre-maneuver or after your maneuver. It is all about your positioning, and the (double) reposition after your maneuver, especially combined with high initiative after all maneuvers, makes that so, so much easier.

But it is not necessary.

The final point is also in there already: whether you are the arc-dodger or jouster depends strongly on your matchup and the rest of your list. That is my personal motivation for this piece, to improve my own ability to quickly assess whether my list, my pilots, are put into the arc-dodger or jouster role. If that reminds you of the control vs beatdown article, then you are exactly right. And that, to my amazement, was also pointed out back in 2016:

I hope the definition of the arc-dodger is now settled. As it should have been for the past 4,5 years.

Sub-Categories of Arc-Dodgers

With the definition of the arc-dodger out of the way I want to tackle one more thing. There are some categorical differences between different arc-dodgers that I think are worth looking at. They all prefer to lose their own shot to dodge incoming fire, but there are degrees. The rest of the article will be an attempt to categorize them a bit further to give myself a shortcut when looking at an opponent’s list or when list building myself.

Think about some possible arc-dodgers in the game: Soontir, Lulo, Kylo, Vader, Han Solo, Fenn.
I will characterize them individually before I try to identify some common themes and crucial differences. Before I start, I want to make a quick dive into microbiology and borrow a concept from there. Bear with me for a moment.

There are bacteria that need an environment without oxygen, so called anaerobe conditions. Accordingly, these bacteria are called “obligate anaerobes”.
The opposite are those who need an environment with oxygen and are called obligate aerobes. So far so good: Two types, some want a thing, some want to avoid a thing.
But then there are bacteria that can survive with oxygen but prefer not having any around giving them the name of “facultative anaerobes”. They can get away without a thing, but they clearly prefer one over the other.

How does that relate to X-Wing and arc-dodgers?

I argue that there are obligate arc-dodgers and facultative arc-dodgers. Like the following classifications of different arc-dodgers, this is also a sliding scale and not a binary yes/no state. An obligate arc-dodgers has to do ace-y things.

Soontir, as mentioned, is the avatar of arc-dodgers. His defense relies not at all on endurance as he has only 3 hull and not a single shield. Instead, he relies on damage evasion and, if that fails, on damage mitigation with his green tokens. The evasion uses his dial and the double reposition, which he can use in free order. His ability allows him to get a focus token even if he had to use both actions on repositioning. And if he doesn’t spend both actions on boost and roll then he can token up with double focus or focus and evade. In short: he is able to tank a shot due to his ability to token stack. But he can’t do that against too many shots and, accordingly, relies a lot on his ability to dodge arcs. It is due to his defense that Soontir is quite unforgiving. A block, a misjudged maneuver, the wrong direction, and Soontir gives up points or is gone entirely. He is a true arc-dodger.

L’ulo Lampar is not quite as much of an arc-dodger as Soontir. Lulo brings similar endurance and raw mitigation, but clearly lacks in evasion abilities and token stacking. His double repositioning comes in a fixed sequence; he can’t add tokens as easily as Soontir; and he has less board knowledge with his lower initiative. Lulo is a bit special because his rear arc provides him with more options for his maneuvers, and as such improves his overall evasion capability. But there are other, similar pilots that lack this specific detail and still fit the overall category. I would call those pocket arc-dodgers. Pocket arc-dodgers often have i4-i5 for a simple reason: their lower initiative and weaker statline makes them cheap enough that they can afford the joust more often. These pilots are generally around or below 50 points.

Kylo is similar to Soontir with respect to his stats and reliance on his maneuverability. But there are two absolute key differences: Kylo has two force tokens, and he has twice as many hitpoints! The consequence is that Kylo is more beefy and thus more forgiving. He can survive more shots per turn due to the extra force tokens, and he can survive more shots that made it through due to his hull and shield. That makes Kylo a durable arc-dodger: more stacks and endurance. More forgiving, but at a price. Durable arc-dodgers are almost obligate arc-dodgers, but they are a bit more forgiving already.

Vader personifies another subtype of arc-dodgers. He hits extremely hard and has an amazing combination of endurance and mitigation that makes his defense very good. He does not fit as nicely into the true ace or durable ace category because he lacks in evasion. His dial is not as good, stress hurts him much more and hence closes his dial more than for Soontir or Kylo, and he has no native access to double repositioning. Even with the stapled Afterburners upgrade, he still is locked into a fixed sequence for his boost and roll. That makes Vader a heavy arc-dodger: less maneuverability for more damage output and absorption. But careful: that damage absorption has a clear limit. A heavy arc-dodger is still more an obligate arc-dodger than a facultative one, but he can be very forgiving for one or some few turns in a row. The release of overdrive-thrusters arguably puts Poe into this category. He can hit like a truck, but at the cost of repositioning. Vader with his myriad of actions and passive mods does not have the same problem. Maybe better examples are Delta7 and sometimes even CLT Jedi like Obi and Anakin.

Han Solo. Yes, Han is an arc-dodger of sorts. Other examples are Boba, Rey, or Dash. They are all large ships and have the accompanying endurance to make them even more forgiving than all previous ones. But they burn down fast and can’t straight-up joust actual jousters. Instead, they generally prefer to boost out of arcs, even if that means losing their own shots. Another feature is that they usually have 180° firing arcs, whether fixed like Boba or as turrets like the YTs. That makes them large base arc-dodgers, and yes, I start to run out of goofy names.

That gives us 5 different sub-categories of arc-dodgers. Maybe we could make more, maybe some like heavy and durable, have too much of an overlap to make the distinction worthwhile. What do you think? And where would you place your favorite three arc-dodgers?

Until next time!

*Epilogue

You might have noted that I started with ace* and then switched to arc-dodger. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I believe ace is much less clear as choice of word.
  2. And I believe ace has different connotations, additional meanings, that are ultimately harmful for all of us as a community.

The arc-dodger is descriptive: you know immediately what it does, and you can easily remember the concepts behind the definition. The arc-dodger wants to dodge arcs. The ace wants to… do well? Ace stuff? Who knows.

In addition, “ace” implies superior play. Historically, ace pilots were simply better pilots because they shot down a certain number of enemies. There was no difference in equipment, just skill (and luck). In X-Wing, almost the exact opposite is true. Playing a double reposition i6 is one of the easiest things as soon as you have your basics down.

So consider this my plea that we all stop saying “ace” and start using arc-dodger again. As BlueFive did back in that great forum post in August 2016.

Appendix

Because the forum will shut down very soon, I want to put the screenshot of Blue Five’s post in its entirety here. Note that he apparently changed the username, as the edit is still by “Blue Five”:

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