Star Wars: The Card Game is different from other card games in a few very significant ways, and one of them is how it treats the value of a unit on the board. In basically every other game I know, quantity is generally better than quality, but that’s not quite true in this one.
Whether outnumbering your opponent makes it difficult for them to prevent damage to their life total (Magic), or whether it gives you flexibility in how to attack and defend challenges (Thrones), or whether it lets you commit to many planets at once (Conquest), it’s generally best to have lots of small units as opposed to one big unit. After all, you can usually allow those small units to work together to reach the same power level as one large one, meaning that having a swarm of weenies gives you more options than having just one. So why is it that Star Wars, unlike all these other popular card games, rewards you for having the biggest unit on the table?
Surely being able to break up your board into three different attacks to try to wear out your opponent’s defenses seems like it would be stronger than going all-in on one objective with a big unit like
Luke Skywalker. Yet we see again and again that the most effective strategies in this game revolve around getting a big main character out and riding them to victory. I’ve played
Attack Pattern Deltato death and am only now finally giving up on it… because swarm decks just have a lot of inherent weaknesses compared to decks featuring strong Mains.
Trading BlowsThe core reason behind why big units are better than little units lies in the mechanics of how a battle resolves. In other games, units (or characters) are committed to a conflict separately from the actual resolution of the battle, but once the conflict resolves it’s generally resolved simultaneously. In Magic, two creatures that get in a fight will damage each other at the same time and allow for mutual destruction, and in Thrones, the contest of strength is also simultaneous. Warhammer 40k: Conquest is the only other game that has a Strike Economy, and while combat rewards you for having big units, the command mechanics in that game really punish you for committing a lot of resources into just one planet. So it ends up that only Star Wars maximizes the “trading blows” combat mechanics to make size matter.
When I discuss Strike Economy, what I’m referring to is the management of a resource that’s fairly unique to this game: the resource of getting your strikes to resolve. It’s a bit odd to think of “dealing damage” as a resource, but in a world with sequential strikes and, more importantly, tactics icons, you can see why being able to actually resolve a strike can be pretty difficult. Therefore you need to think of your strikes similar to how you think of other resources in the game: how can I get more resources than my opponent? How can I get more cards? How can I get more strikes?
Tactical MasteryConsider this: you draw a powerful unit, let’s say it’s
Luke Skywalker. This unit costs most, if not all, of your resources for the turn. You put that unit onto the table and you attack to try to advance towards your win condition. Your opponent defends with their lowly
Advisor to the Emperor. You thought you were safe, but they resolved a clutch
Twist of Fateand followed it up with
Arden Lyn, so it turns out you didn’t win the edge battle after all. Your opponent strikes with their Advisor, puts a focus token on Luke, and… good job: you just spent your whole turn and did nothing. If you had gotten a little luckier and flopped
May the Force Be With You, maybe you could recoup some value, but it’s pretty clear that your opponent beat you in the strike economy: they struck with their unit and you didn’t. Their unit did something, and yours didn’t. If that unit had been
Emperor Palpatine, it wouldn’t have just been Luke, either… it would have been nearly every unit you controlled!
With the existence of tactics icons, it can be almost trivial to manage who gets to strike and who doesn’t. All you need to do is point at a unit and say, “that unit does nothing for this turn.” If big units are important, then the value of tactics icons goes way up, as one little combat icon is negating most of the resources that a player spent for their turn. Even little units can be shut down by tactics icons, and while it’s less big of a deal to lose a 2-drop, it still means that you’re losing strike advantage.
I gave you a hypothetical turn just now in which Luke was bested by a lowly Advisor, but now let’s take the analogy further: the Sith player follows up with
Ysanne Isardand some support. Then, without a Lightsaber to support Luke, the light side player deploys a
Qu Rahn. The light side has no tactics icons to prevent Isard from striking, so they’re forced to do nothing with either Luke or Rahn this turn; Ysanne will get to focus one of them regardless of who wins the edge. If Luke gets tactics’ed out again, and then killed by a lucky
Give in to Your Angeror
Force Lightning… then the light side player put all these cards and resources into Luke and the Sith player’s tactics icons meant he did nothing the entire game until they found a way to destroy him.
“But a lot of tactics icons’ value is lost if you lose the edge battle,” you say. “What if they out-edge you and strike first?” Well as it happens, tactics icons still have tremendous utility… there’s a reason they’re widely considered to be the most powerful combat icons in the game. No one ever said that you had to be preventing a strike this turn, and despite what it feels like to go up against Jedi or Sith, most units in the game aren’t elite. If you can lock down a unit with two focus tokens (or an elite one with three), you’re still gaining strike advantage in the same way that pitching your entire hand every turn gains you card advantage (or spending all your resources every turn gains you resource advantage). Your units will be able to strike twice over the course of two turns, and theirs will only get to strike once. If you can end the game before a unit gets a chance to refresh, or you can permanently destroy that unit, then it’s like that unit was destroyed a turn or two earlier, when the first strike was prevented.
Tactics icons may be the prime source of strike advantage, but there are plenty of cards that can manipulate focus tokens to generate strike advantage in your favor:
Seeds of Decay,
Rash Action, and
Jedi Mind Trickall prevent enemy strikes, while cards like
Tallon Roll, and
Size Matters Notgenerate additional strikes for your units. Some units are inherently strong due to their built-in
advantage, and then there’s the posterchild of
strike two-for-ones(aka you’re up “two” strikes for the cost of one card). So with all these methods to manipulate strikes, why doesn’t the most tactics-rich deck eventually win through sheer strike advantage? There’s a couple reasons, but here’s the biggest one: shields.
While some affiliations are rich with tactics icons and attempt to fight their way to the top by gaining every incremental advantage that they can, others just want to win and don’t want to let their opponent dictate the terms of their engagements. What I find the most interesting about the way shields actually play out is that the presence of a shield on a unit is usually enough of a deterrent to prevent that unit from getting targeted by a tactics icon ever. While the rule is that a shield can only prevent the first focus token placed on that unit, the fact that there are almost no units in the game with two tactics icons means that it usually plays out that shielded units are simply immune to tactics. Even when a unit like
Grand Admiral Thrawnor
Prince Xizorstrikes, their two tactics icons usually end up being pointed at unshielded units just so that their full value can be achieved, or so that the tactics-icons’ controller can attempt to neutralize as many strikes as possible… even if they don’t affect the single important one. So while not everyone wants to control the game the way the Jedi or Scum do, other affiliations like Rebels and Navy have shields at their disposal to make sure their opponent’s tactics icons (or tricks like Seeds of Decay) don’t give them such a strike disadvantage that they find themselves without the ability to compete.
Set To KillI’ve spoken a lot about focus tokens, but they’re hardly the only piece in the struggle for strike advantage. After all, we’ve seen a significant decrease in the value of
certain units, despite the fact that those units haven’t changed at all. That’s because you can’t always have tactics icons available, and even when you do, the ever-increasing number of units on the board will eventually mean you can’t out-tactics them all forever. The most reliable way to prevent a unit from striking is to kill it… and the easiest way to do that is through unit damage.
Much in the same way that a high-attack unit in Warhammer: Conquest can threaten an entire planet with its high attack, unit damage in Star Wars can be incredibly dangerous. But it can also be incredibly worthless. When a unit has only one unit damage icon, I generally consider it to be equivalent to having no icons at all. When a unit has two or three guns, I consider that unit to be a very high-value target. Why is it that unit damage can be so important when it appears in bulk, but so worthless when it’s sprinkled around? The answer is, of course, strike economy.
In the same way that using a tactics icon to prevent a strike can get you huge advantage, that same advantage can be gained by killing a unit before they strike. However, because you can only strike with one unit at a time, you’re going to need to do a lot of damage very quickly if you want to out-race your opponent’s best fighter. You can’t rely on lots of individual strikes to take down a single target, and if that’s your only option you’re going to lose at least one of your own strikes in the process. When you need to strike hard and fast, you’d rather have three guns on one unit than five guns on five units. This has gotten even more important in recent months thanks to the release of
The Survivors, which negates the first point of damage dealt to unique Jedi Characters, and makes it almost impossible to kill them outright before they get to resolve their strike.
You’ll also notice that this is why light side Characters are considered so much riskier than Vehicles. The number of times I’ve started off with some resources and support followed by
Lieutenant Judder Pageor
Yoda), only to have them immediately
angeredoff the board before they even get a chance to attack, let alone strike, makes me hesitate to play basically any character whose health is less than its cost. Vehicles, on the other hand, are still susceptible to things like guns and
Heat of Battle, but they’re immune to a lot of the Sith direct damage. Thanks to cards like Stormtroopers, Noghri, Vader + Choke, and Give In, the difference between two health and three health is huge. If you can survive the first hit from a Stormtrooper or Royal Guard and still get your strike off, you haven’t lost your strike advantage for the turn, even if you die later to a follow-up strike.
That’s why you may have noticed that once an edge battle resolves, the player that won sometimes strikes with some small, one-health weenie unit before they strike with their Main. It’s not because that weenie has a stronger strike than their Main, but because of the fact that since the Main can’t be outright killed in the first strike and the weenie can, they want to maximize their strike economy to make sure nobody dies before they strike. If a unit were to die before it got a chance to strike, it would have done nothing for you on the table, and you’d have wasted that card and those resources putting it out there.
You’ll also notice that this is why cards like
Force Lightningcan only hit exhausted units, or why
Capturedcan only be played on the dark side’s turn: unconditional removal is already very strong in this game, so being able to fire it off before your opponent got a chance to resolve their strikes would make it too powerful. This way they still at least get one strike before you pay three to destroy them. On the other hand, this is why
Rule by Fearis so good: it doesn’t outright destroy the unit, but it prevents their first strike and forces the light side to pay twice as many resources for a unit that’s presumably already fairly-costed.
Much like how shields exist to counter tactics icons, protect is lauded and beloved because of its ability to make sure you don’t lose strike advantage to a table full of guns. Shields also help with this, of course, but they’re usually more valuable than just preventing one damage. The advantage to Protect over something like a shield or even The Survivors is its flexibility, as even just one
Guardian of Peacecan often mean that your opponent has zero ways to kill any Character before it strikes, and you aren’t locked into using it until you absolutely have to. This way, you can attack and defend with units that normally would carry a high risk, and thanks to just the threat of using protect your opponent can’t profitably fight you. When they have no way to prevent your strikes, they’re inclined to prioritize fighting against your units with the fewest guns, allowing your most deadly units to not even use the available protection. Much in the same way that a single shield will deflect every tactics icon on the other side of the board (and not get used), protect can often do the same during engagements, allowing you to resolve your strikes without threat of
Edge CasesI’ve spoken a lot about the value of tactics icons and high-volume-unit-damage-units, but I’ve only casually mentioned one of the most important aspects of strike economy: the edge battle. Obviously the edge battle is important, as it enables all your white icons and allows you to strike first, but in gaining strike economy on your opponent it can often be crucial. After all, when tactics icons and powerful Mains abound, the only reliable way to make sure your most important unit gets to strike is to make that unit strike before anyone else, and the only way to do that is to win the edge battle. Striking first comes with the obvious advantage of not losing out on your most powerful unit’s strike, but it also gives you the opportunity, before your opponent, to prevent one of their strikes with your own tactics icons or batch of guns. This, more than anything else, is the single biggest reason that Mains are so strong in this game and a swarm of 2-drops aren’t.
When your first strike removes the best, or even second-best strike from your opponent, then not only have you gained strike advantage over your opponent, you’ve also improved your strike quality by denying value from your opponent. If you were to have four
Rogue Squadron X-Wings with no enhancements against
Arden Lyn, you might be able to sacrifice only one unit and deal a ton of damage, but you’ll never be able to prevent her strike and thus will always be losing strike economy. Even if you win an edge battle, your opponent will still get all their strikes resolved and you won’t. Despite the Reserve Value enabling a complete re-deployment of your lost units your swarm will eventually run out of strikes and be unable to win.
There are certainly plenty of cases where edge battle importance can be minimized. Cards like
VT-49 Decimatorcan simply ignore the edge battle, saying they always strike first regardless, and then there are virtual tactics icons that don’t require an actual strike to resolve. The most famous of these is of course Seeds of Decay, but cards like
Grand Admiral Thrawnalso count, as can
Jedi Mind Trickand the newly-released Administrative Detainment. Heat of Battle can be just as effective as Seeds of Decay when the target has only one health. Fate card effects like this in general can really improve the bluffing nature of edge battles when you can put a fate card down and ignore the actual edge result because you know your opponent’s best unit is going to be denied their strike. After all, when you just have one edge card placed, and you’re confidently passing, how can they be sure it’s not a Twist?
The value of having a high “strike quality” cannot be understated. You might consider a piloted
Rogue Squadron X-Wingto be equivalent to, or even better than, say,
Gorc(given two of his icons are white, the two X-Wing strikes can be split up, and you can heal the ship back to full health after your first strike). However, the fact that Gorc deals his damage all at once means he can potentially end a unit before it strikes, while the X-Wing needs to resolve both strikes to match or exceed the Sith unit’s power. Not only do you lose out on denying your opponent’s strike, you open your ship up to two opportunities your opponent now has to deny strikes with tactics icons or a well-placed three-gun strike.
If bringing a Main down to half health turned off half their combat icons then maybe it would make sense to use a swarm of small units, but since that’s not how the game works we’re in a position where resolving one key strike is more important than having redundant units and winning by numbers. Support units are good, but except for the ones that directly reinforce your Mains (
Guardian of Peaceand
Outer Rim Mystic) most of their value comes in mopping up damage when the Mains have finished all their battles, or in getting a little extra damage while a friendly Main takes the heat.
Many people have criticized this game for being very not-thematic, and I disagree for many reasons… one of which is this prominent feature of the game. A powerful and expensive unit will always be worth more than even three units with half its stats, because it’ll always get to focus or kill at least one of the three before it dies. When you see a hero take on and defeat a swarm of less-powerful chuds, that’s one of the most “Star Wars” things I can imagine in any game. This is a game that truly revolves around its heroes. And when heroes are this important, I’d rather have a two-Main pod like Kyle Katarn, Pilot Luke, or Pilot Boba Fett than a traditional Main-Support-Enhancement-Event-Fate pod any day.
Join me next week, when I take a good look at the brand-new Force Pack, The Forest Moon, which looks like it’s going to blow the roof off of the Endor Cycle!
Dav spends his free time making tabletop games, playing tabletop games, or writing tabletop games. He particularly loves Star Wars LCG, LotR LCG, Halo: Fleet Battles/Ground Command, X-Wing, and Call of Cthulhu RPG. Hit him up on Twitter if you want to get in touch!
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