How to Get Better – The Sequel!

The intro…

Back last year while my blog was still pretty fresh faced I wrote a post called ‘How to Get Better’. In it I noted the irony that while claiming to be a distinctly average player I was offering guidance on how to improve. What I was offering though was more general principles rather than in depth specific direction or insight.

So, what’s changed? Well, not a lot. I’m still a very average player. I’m just more experienced at blog writing now I guess. But I still want to try and be a better player than I am.

A few weeks ago my good friend Dan ‘Eggs’ and I were chatting and he mentioned something that I had written in one of my blogs and had an idea for a blog.

The actual Dan ‘Eggs’ or as he’s known in Cardiff Firestorm – Worse Dan

Dan and I have been playing for roughly the same amount of time (around 3 years) but Dan is very much a better player than I am. He recently won the Firestorm Cardiff Store champs, went undefeated at Cardiff’s post-lockdown reopening event and finished 24th (of 188) in the Paris System Open 2019 (just barely missing cut). It would be easy for me to think ‘we’ve been playing the amount of time, why can’t I do as well as that?’ but being realistic, if he’s put more concerted time and effort into being good at the game (which I know that he has), it’s not a comparison that’s fair to make.

Anyway, getting back to the point, what I’d alluded to in the conclusion of this post (although it’s probably clear from most of my batreps that it’s not a strength of mine!) was this:

I struggle with turn 0.

More specifically, I can struggle with quick analysis and decisions on what action to take.

You see, I learn best by example. I watch someone do something, try to understand why, do it myself, practice to get better at it. That’s what happens at work and in various other areas of life.

So a game like chess for example (probably not a great example since it’s a very nuanced game but it’s all I can think of right now) sets up exactly the same each time – 2 sets of pieces in the same place on opposite sides of the board. There are set openings you can learn (lots of them for sure, but there’s a finite number, whatever it is) and you can develop from there. That’s fine. In this case you’d learn some openings that suit your preferences (of play style) and you go from there.

X-Wing is different. Yes, both players have the same general parameters (200 point lists, 3 obstacles) but what you can do within that still has an enormous scope. Even if you always played the same list (let’s say TIE swarm for example), there are many MANY different ways you can deploy (ships and obstacles). And then you factor in your opponent.

What is in their list? What do they want to do? What’s advantageous for them? What do they NOT want to do? What’s their play style? Will they be aggressive or cautious?

So.many.variables.

Much of this isn’t very compatible with me. I learn well by repetition (once I understand/have been shown) but can it really be classed as repetition if it’s not the same process every time?

I guess where I struggle most is with the questions above, particularly in analysing and assessing them in the 2-3 minutes that you have at the start of a game while you decide how to deploy obstacles and ships and what your approach should be while simultaneously greeting and chatting with your opponent. If I mess up at this point (turn 0, not the chatting!) then the chances of recovering are quite slim and probably depend on my opponent screwing up or dice variance swinging heavily in my favour (both of which are very possible but outside of my control).

I’ve speculated before that these things appear to come naturally to some people (in this post if you’re interested) and while I do believe that’s true to a certain extent, that’s not to say that I can’t do anything about it.

Going back to my old post, one of the things I highlighted was experience. The more you play, the better you get. This is true but I’m going to add a caveat. If you just pick up and play, you will slowly get better as you start to be able to gauge template distances and ranges and what actions will benefit you most.

But what if you pro-actively practice? What if someone more experienced and knowledgeable than you actually instructed and discussed these things with you?

Let’s be honest here, how many of us were actually taught how to play? Did someone directly guide us through several games, turn by turn, advising on decisions? Because I know I wasn’t.

Sure, someone taught me what the phases of the game are, what the card text means, how I can know how many dice to use in any given situation and many other things like that. And while I was inexperienced I would play some games and maybe my opponent might say ‘you should probably take a focus there’ or something to that effect.

I was taught how to play but I wasn’t taught HOW to play. Know what I mean?

I was never taught the maths behind deciding what ship to shoot at. I was never taught what strategy to use to approach a swarm or how it would be different to approaching aces.

Of course many of us, as we play and gain experience, become self taught in these things. The old cliché being ‘you learn more from a loss than from a win’ (which is true, clichés don’t become what they are by being wrong!) But really, is this the best way? Is it effective? Mostly we will do something in a way we know that works until it doesn’t and then change. But what if we’ve been doing it that way so long that it’s then hard to change that behaviour?

For example, I know that something I tend to do is not fully consider the impact of obstacles. I mean, how can I teach that to myself if I don’t fully understand how each obstacle type and it’s placement impacts any given archetype? How do I consider how obstacles affect me versus how they’ll affect my opponent?

Well the answer is sort of obvious. You ask someone.

Now, I have to admit, the very best way that I can conceive of learning how to play X-Wing well is to basically play a game with someone. Not against someone, WITH someone.

You line up against an opponent. Someone who is better at the game than you are stands on your side of the table and discusses each individual decision point with you outside of earshot of your opponent (so that your decisions are still secret and the game is more natural) from obstacle placement to ships manoeuvres to target priority. All of it.

Has anyone ever done this? Because I know I haven’t. Maybe it’s just my learning style but I feel that this is the way that I’d learn best.

BUT

The amount of time this would take, just for a single game, would be huge. I’d guess at perhaps 2 1/2 hours for where you’d expect to get to in a standard 75 minute game. This, under normal circumstances, makes it an unworkable option.

When you consider doing this over several games against (and with) different list archetypes and opponents with different play styles, you’re looking at a huge amount of someone’s time who, let’s face it, would almost certainly rather be playing their own game against someone.

And there’s the key thing. Time.

I’ve heard it said that you can tell what value someone puts on something by what they spend on it in terms of time and money. If something is important enough to you, you’ll find the money and make the time.

By my own admission, I don’t commit a huge amount of time to X-Wing directly. I list build here and there, I listen to podcasts while driving, I write this blog. All this is X-Wing related but in terms of actual pushing ships around the board (or across a screen currently) playing time, I will do a game a week. That isn’t a lot. I decided to run a poll in several X-Wing Facebook groups to try and gauge how often people play and, collating the results it seems that the majority of people play once a week but coming in close behind is people who play 2-3 times a week.

I actually had a direct answer in a comment from official world champion Mr Oliver Pocknell (which is good because I was going to directly ask him):

A little dependent but I’d say I’d fit into the 4+ category. In the run up to a big event I’ll try to hit at least 1 game per day. Vassal/TTS is a big deal for that as I would never be able to get that level of practise in person.

Oliver Pocknell

A game per day. Per. Day.

I also noticed several names that I regularly see/hear of towards the top of TTT event listings had voted 4+ (including Phil GC, Julian Hood and Kester Smith). So it certainly seems that those who commit a lot of time to X-Wing are very good at it.

Kind of obvious when you think about it.

Getting back to my original point (the conversation with Dan) – with the time available to me, how can I best improve an aspect of the game that I struggle with?

The answer is direct, specific, targeted/focused teaching.

After all, what good is playing more games going to do if you’re just making the same mistakes over and over and nobody tells you any different?

There are some great resources out there by various people which can help you to learn and improve various aspects of X-Wing. In particular I want to highlight:

Anyway, Dan and I arranged an evening to do just that. Specific, focused practice.

Dan would generate a few lists of different common archetypes and we would play out around 3-4 turns (or to the first meaningful engagement) and then reset so we could discuss how I did and what I could do differently in future that would be better and work out openings and approach.

I debated what list to use myself for this as I had conflicting thoughts.

Option 1 – a known commodity (to everyone)
My first thought was to take a decent list in the current meta. Nothing too broken but something that I’ve got some experience of and is fairly straightforward to use. Two lists that came to mind were 5X (5 T-65 X-Wings) and Sloane Swarm (Admiral Sloane on a Decimator with a bunch of TIE Fighters).

Option 2 – a known commodity (to me)
My second thought was to take something I know well. The obvious one being Dash. While this wouldn’t necessarily be a strong list in the current meta it’s not total jank (JARGON ALERT!!) and my experience with the ships would be valuable.

I asked Dan his opinion and he thought it would be best if I used a list that I’m looking to use in the future as it will benefit me more.

It’s a good point. That clearly means I’m using Dash.

Dash Rendar (85)
Expert Handling (4)
Bistan (10)
Perceptive Copilot (8)

Ship total: 107 Half Points: 54 Threshold: 5

Ten Numb (48)
Marksmanship (1)
Fire-Control System (2)
Autoblasters (3)
Stabilized S-Foils (2)

Ship total: 56 Half Points: 28 Threshold: 4

Jake Farrell (36)
Ship total: 36 Half Points: 18 Threshold: 2

Total: 199

View in Yet Another Squad Builder 2.0: https://raithos.github.io/?f=Rebel%20Alliance&d=v8ZsZ200Z39X120WW77W54WWWY74X125W113W232WWWW313Y50XWW&sn=Dash%20Ten%20Jake&obs=

Generally speaking I want to try and pincer with Dash and Ten. I want to give my opponent a choice of those 2 targets while also engaging with both at the same time (maybe even at the same target). Against lower initiative lists it’s entirely possible that I can delete something before it shoots between 4 dice double modded shots from Dash (if I’ve positioned Jake correctly to hand off a focus) and 3/4 dice modded double taps with Ten. Against higher initiative lists I can try and threaten with the bit hits but getting arc dodged is a real possibility, it’s a case of catching one and hammering it when I get the chance.

We got together over Discord, loaded up TTS and began.

The…(truncated) batreps…? (JARGON ALERT!!)

Scenario 1 – Imperial Aces

Darth Vader (67)
Fire-Control System (2)
Afterburners (6)

Ship total: 75 Half Points: 38 Threshold: 3

Soontir Fel (54)
Crack Shot (2)
Targeting Computer (3)

Ship total: 59 Half Points: 30 Threshold: 2

“Duchess” (44)
Predator (2)
Fifth Brother (12)
Afterburners (6)

Ship total: 64 Half Points: 32 Threshold: 2

Total: 198

View in Yet Another Squad Builder 2.0: https://raithos.github.io/?f=Galactic%20Empire&d=v8ZsZ200Z173XW113WW105Y179X116W249WY211X127W82WW105&sn=Unnamed%20Squadron&obs=

A fairly standard Imp Aces list, high initiative, repositioning, modded attacks. This is also an archetype I’ve had issues with in the past. It has occurred to me while writing that these ships are difficult to fly well and so it’s reasonable to assume that people who fly them are pretty good at the game which is something to bear in mind.

Target Priority:
It’s tricky. Out of the 3 ships Vader is probably the easiest to catch as well as being the highest value (just about). Dan’s not likely to serve any of them up and so I’ll just have to take what I can get.

Turn 0:
Obstacles – get the gas clouds away so that Dan can’t hide ships behind them.
Deployment – with Dan giving me first player I will put all my ships down before his. I want Jake to stick with Dash and I want to start shooting in the middle of the board so that I’ve got places to escape (i.e. don’t get trapped in a corner).

Summary:
For the sake of time (yours to read and mine to write!) I won’t batrep (JARGON ALERT!!) any of these games in huge detail.

I turned my whole list left to bring Dan’s ships in to the middle. Soontir and Duchess came forwards hard while Vader sat back. Soontir then backed off when Dash headed his way, Vader ambled to the middle and Duchess made her way around the back of my list. Soontir kept his distance and by the time we rolled any dice it was only Duchess that had a shot and took 2 shields from Ten (who was pointing the wrong way.

In the next turn Vader managed to escape Dash’s arc by a very small margin. Vader and Duchess put 4 more hits onto Ten with Ten missing Vader in return. Soontir took a pot shot at Dash and took 3 shields from him. Typical.

We finished at this point although we did talk about our plans for the next turn which would have looked like this:

TEN NUMB! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?

Dash gets a double modded shot onto Vader and an obstructed shot onto Soontir. Ten is straight up dead while Jake isn’t looking to be in a good place either.

Verdict:
Bad, bad , bad. Ok, well maybe not totally wrong but some key mistakes. The obstacles went ok. I mostly got the gas cloud cover away that Soontir wants to hide behind (although he did end up behind one by the time Dash would have fired at him!) while managing to scare him off with Dash’s big gun.

Ship placement was ok although since all my ships went down before Dan’s there’s not much that I could do differently. My main mistake was allowing Duchess free reign. I focused on hunting Vader but allowing Duchess to come right down the flank and hit Ten was a bad choice. Dan’s suggestion was that I could have just headed straight at her with Ten to try and scare her off/herd her into the middle for Dash to shoot at. Variance was a factor but I should never have put Ten in a position to be hit while not shooting back.

For his part, Dan had used turn 0 to disallow clear lanes for Ten to just cruise up the board and used the classic Aces strategy of see which ship(s) I target and flank with one of the others.

What did I learn?
– When I take time to think, my obstacle placement isn’t terrible.
– Don’t let aces flank you easily.
– Ten struggles against higher initiative.

Scenario 2 – Droid Swarm

Techno Union Bomber (25)
Plasma Torpedoes (8)
DRK-1 Probe Droids (5)
Landing Struts (1)

Ship total: 39 Half Points: 20 Threshold: 3

Techno Union Bomber (25)
Plasma Torpedoes (8)
Landing Struts (1)

Ship total: 34 Half Points: 17 Threshold: 3

Trade Federation Drone (20)
Grappling Struts (1)

Ship total: 21 Half Points: 11 Threshold: 2

Trade Federation Drone (20)
Grappling Struts (1)

Ship total: 21 Half Points: 11 Threshold: 2

Trade Federation Drone (20)
Grappling Struts (1)

Ship total: 21 Half Points: 11 Threshold: 2

Trade Federation Drone (20)
Grappling Struts (1)

Ship total: 21 Half Points: 11 Threshold: 2

Trade Federation Drone (20)
Grappling Struts (1)

Ship total: 21 Half Points: 11 Threshold: 2

Trade Federation Drone (20)
Grappling Struts (1)

Ship total: 21 Half Points: 11 Threshold: 2

Total: 199

View in Yet Another Squad Builder 2.0: https://raithos.github.io/?f=Separatist%20Alliance&d=v8ZsZ200Z324X234WW221WW237Y324X234WWWW237Y279XW208WY279XW208WY279XW208WY279XW208WY279XW208WY279XW208W&sn=Unnamed%20Squadron&obs=

Ok, well I was mentally prepared for a swarm but perhaps not a droid one. I don’t know why it’s a surprise, Dan is a very experienced (and good!) CIS player and the droid swarm is still one of the strongest in the current meta even if it’s not seen all that often. I have always struggled to approach swarms as finding that sweet spot where you can shoot some of them but not all of them can shoot you back is hard to get.

Target Priority:
If this list was just vultures then there isn’t a priority, just hit whatever’s there but with 2 Hyena bombers with ordnance in the list I need to remove them before they cause too much damage.

Turn 0:
Obstacles – no gas clouds this time and all of Dan’s ships can land on all the selected obstacles. I want as many as possible over on my side of the board, as far as possible from Dan, preferably the biggest ones.
Deployment – this time all of Dan’s ships go first so I have lots of information. He places them facing sideways so he isn’t committing to a direction immediately. I place Ten in the opposite corner to try and ‘flank’ (as well as possible with a slower ship!) and will turn and skirt with Dash and Jake to draw Dan across the obstacles.

Summary:
Dan turns his droids in to come at me while the one on it’s own goes 5 straight to land on the rock and next turn launches a probe droid. Nice trick! The following turn ALL of Dan’s ships take a lock on Dash.

Dash orbits the middle some more while Ten turns in. I manage to land Dash in pretty much the perfect spot for this shot:

#proudmoment

While I get 3 hits onto the Hyena the Vulture isn’t quite so accommodating and just takes the one. The next turn is total carnage as Dan brings the ships in quickly to register as many hits as possible on Dash.

Crucially, 2 of the droids fall before shooting (including a Hyena who had yet to use any Plasma Torp charges) and while Dash takes a beating, he isn’t dead, surviving with 3 health.

We call it there but again verbally play out the next turn. It’s not unreasonable for Dash to finish off 2 already damaged vultures and Ten to take out another in the next turn, cutting Dan’s list in half and leaving 2 full health ships at higher initiative to take on the remaining droids. Still a tough game to finish out but with my B-Wing and A-Wing behind the droids as they finish off Dash the high initiative and heavy hits possibly gives me an edge.

Verdict:
Actually not horrible. I managed to hit the perfect first engagement of having 2 ships in range for Dash but could have done better with position for Ten to have fired that turn too and maybe finished the red Hyena. My use of Jake wasn’t fantastic but I pulled it back in the last played turn and the positioning for following turns was actually pretty positive. Quite possibly one of the best games I’ve had against a swarm and definitely against a droid swarm. Shame it’s just a practice!

What did I learn?
– Range control is VERY important against swarms
– dragging droids through rocks is still worth it as it limits their dial
– get ahead in the damage race, swarms fade quickly as numbers reduce. focus damage, not spread.

Scenario 3 – Big Hitter

Rey (68)
Rose Tico (9)
Korr Sella (6)
Finn (10)
Contraband Cybernetics (2)
Rey’s Millennium Falcon (2)

Ship total: 97 Half Points: 49 Threshold: 6

Cova Nell (38)
Heroic (1)
Leia Organa (Resistance) (17)
R4 Astromech (2)

Ship total: 58 Half Points: 29 Threshold: 4

Jarek Yeager (33)
Intimidation (3)
R5 Astromech (4)
Coaxium Hyperfuel (2)
Kaz’s Fireball (2)

Ship total: 44 Half Points: 22 Threshold: 3

Total: 199

View in Yet Another Squad Builder 2.0: https://raithos.github.io/?f=Resistance&d=v8ZsZ200Z244XWW173W245W174W92WW193Y351X172WWWWW244W5WY377X122WW6W310WWW315&sn=Unnamed%20Squadron&obs=

This list is somewhat a mirror of my own. One big ship worth a lot of points that will do a lot of damage, a support ship and a distraction. Interesting.

Target Priority:
Rey, Rey, Rey. She is going to do a LOT of damage and so she needs to go first.

Turn 0:
Obstacles – it’s all debris in this game which Dash loves but so does Rey. She’s happy to pick up stress and then lose it all in one go. The transport isn’t so manoeuvrable so I’m thinking to pack together as tight as possible. Jake is nimble enough to move around them and Ten doesn’t mid too much either as he can potentially spend the stress as a focus.
Deployment – Dash is moving last and so I’m just going for an even spread across my side of the board as the crossed initiatives means we take turns placing. With ships down I’m looking to cross Ten and Dash over and hopefully engage Rey around the middle of the board.

Summary:
Dash and Jake turn left while Ten turns right to cross over. Rey and Cova also turn away from the joust. Jarek is starting to flank which, after the aces game is somewhat on my mind. With the SLAM he can move so fast that I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it anyway but a 2 dice attack from Jarek is definitely less scary than a 3 dice one from Duchess backed up with Force. Also if I turn away from Rey she will straight up murder something. I’ll accept the flank if it means I can put more hurt onto her.

After some jockeying for position we engage at long range. The exchange goes in my favour as I trade 1 shield on Dash for shields and a hull on Rey.

Dan calls my moves excellently on the next turn, boosting Rey out of Ten’s blockbuster double tap and right into making Dash bump. No shots onto Rey. A shield comes off Cova from range but that’s it.

Now, with this being the last game we sort managed to get about 6 turns in before realising that we hadn’t stopped yet and we did end up playing the game to total destruction (since we hadn’t started the clock)

A turn or two later and Rey had taken a beating but survived on just 1 hull. She then cruised into range 1 of unshielded Ten Numb and wiped him out (with 4 hits) before falling herself.

Jarek was now on just 2 hull too as I regrouped Jake and Dash to start trying to push some effective double modded shots out.

Dash took a Loose Stabiliser in a haymaker from Cova at range 1 (I should have rolled Dash away), reducing him to 2 health and causing some serious decisions.

Dash died 2 turns later having taken Cova down to 2 hull while Jarek pulled a Direct Hit when flipping a damage card to remove his disarm token, taking him to 1 health.

Jake pulled out some neat dodging moves to turn on Dan’s remaining ships, tanking a shot or two in the process.

As Jake closed for a kill shot on Cova, Dan rolled the dice (figuratively) by SLAMming with Jarek and flipping a card to remove the disarm and managed to find the Direct Hit again, finishing him off.

Jake took his unanswered shot at Cova and finished her off with a trio of hits.

Verdict:

What did I learn?
– Rey is crazy. Just crazy. Avoid it. (Or play it?!) Cova is also crazy.
– When a ship is going to out-punch you, don’t rush in.
– Against higher initiative ships Ten could be an effective blocker.
– I should try and get better at blocking
– Maybe I’m not as bad at this game as I sometimes feel.

The Conclusion…

I enjoyed this. A lot.

We hadn’t really noticed but we actually ended up playing for over 5 hours. And (for me at least!) the time flew.

I can’t say that I can regularly commit this sort of time to practicing in this way but the benefits I feel that I got from really properly thinking about how might be the best way to set up obstacles and deploy my ships against 3 different list archetypes was significant. Knowing that we were doing this put me into the mindset of preparation and I think that just taking a minute to stop and analyse at the start of a game will benefit my game.

Of course, this practice has it’s value but also, these scenarios are quite specific to my list, to my playstyle and to me. As I mentioned earlier it’s impossible to list all of the possible openings with/against all possible list combinations. But the principles will remain the same.

  • What does my list want to do?
  • What does my list NOT want to do?
  • What does my opponent’s list want to do? And what does it NOT want to do?

If I can learn to identify archetypes or key pieces in a list and then work out how it relates or compares to MY list then maybe I can begin to put the puzzle together in a way that makes sense to me.

On a slight (but relevant) tangent, I’m reminded of a principle I’ve heard mention on the Fly Better podcast a while back about ‘Beatdown vs Control’ based on this article (I think!?) which is over 20 years old. The key to it is to determine whether you have a deck (as it’s written about Magic: The Gathering) that wants to deal lots of damage quickly or one that more plays the long game by denying/mitigating that damage.

The key is the recognition of what your list’s role is and playing it accordingly. If, for example, your list is the control and you play like the beatdown, you’re likely to lose.

Know your role!

As I understand it (and I apologise if I’m wrong!), an X-Wing example would be swarm (beatdown) vs aces (control). If you joust the aces into the swarm, you’re going to lose (unless you’re Dale Cromwell!). You need to try and avoid being shot and pick off ships at the edge of the group in order to win.

Conversely, if you’re the swarm, your strength is in consistent focused fire from multiple ships. If you break formation your effectiveness reduces. It’s in your interest to go and hit something as hard as possible as fast as possible before you split up or lose too many ships.

I’m clearly far from an expert but I do recognise that the more time and thought you put into X-Wing (or anything actually), the more you understand and the better/more effective at it you can be.

Anyway, I’ve digressed slightly into an area I’m not really knowledgeable in so I’ll stop before embarrassing myself further! Suffice to say, I had a good fun time playing virtual plastic spaceships with a mate while at the same time I made a conscious effort to improve myself. That’s a win-win!

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