Deckbuilding is one of the most unique and interesting pieces of this game, which is why I wrote a whole article three weeks ago digging deep into it. But beyond just the way objective sets change how you evaluate cards, the objectives themselves fill a familiar yet unique role. While it’s remarkably similar to Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer 40k Conquest, with a deck dedicated to randomizing your victory point cards, I find myself comparing Star Wars’s objectives to A Game of Thrones’s plots more often. Yes, they’re your victory point cards and you need to score three to win, but you get to choose what you bring to the table, and they can represent some of the most powerful effects in the game. Anyone who’s played Star Wars even a little understands how tremendous an impact these cards can have on the game, whether they’re altering how units can act or changing (or breaking!) some of the fundamental rules of the game. They can be so significant that some decks are even built around having a specific objective in play, such that when that objective doesn’t show up, they’re struggling to keep up against their opponent. As objectives literally are the… er… objective… of the game, I wanted to discuss them in depth, and analyze how objective design has changed since the core set. So if you’re interested in the politics of Turn Zero, stick around!
Objectives come in all shapes and sizes, with some that simply provide generic value and others that demand a deck be built around them. This isn’t something new to games: Magic the Gathering has, within the past couple years, expanded the size of their expansions to allow for the inclusion of specialized, “build-around-me” cards that clearly say what the other contents of the deck should be. These are cards like Wookiee Life Debt, which revolve around a certain trait, or Rogue Squadron X-Wing, which encourages a certain mechanic, or The Master’s Domain, which locks you into a certain affiliation. I’d consider even something like Boushh a build-around-me card, as it encourages you to run lots of “units that capture from play,” or Desperation which encourages you to enhance all your units. The difference between build-around-me cards in Magic or Thrones and build-around-me objectives in Star Wars, however, is the fact that objectives can start the game in play, meaning you never have to wait for your key piece to arrive before you can get going. This can actually pretty effectively change how your deck plays out: you know from turn one whether your build-around-me piece is going to be involved in the game, so if you don’t see it in your opening flop you can play differently to account for the missing engine piece. But otherwise it starts in play, so you don’t have to wait until you draw it or figure out when to play it in your play sequencing. You can actually afford to design an entire deck around a particular effect since that effect is most likely going to be available to you right away. Imagine if an objective had Boussh’s text, and you could get a dial tick on every capture-from-play you resolved over a game? You could start the deck’s engine as early as turn one.
While build-around-me objectives are incredibly fun and interesting, they have a hidden downside that can dramatically warp competitive results. If a deck has been built around a particular objective, let’s say Imperial Entanglements, they’re often running weak units or events with the intent of making those units or events stronger by gaining synergy with the objective. When that objective starts on the table, every Decimator and every other cheap unit in the deck gets significantly stronger. However, when the objective isn’t on the table, the Decimators are no better than Kuati Security Team, which is generally regarded to be the poster child of a unit that isn’t strong enough to be worth playing. When your deck can either be incredibly powerful or just kinda okay depending on whether or not it gets its Build-Around-Me objective, even the best player can lose games before they’ve even begun. Imagine trying to play a Rebel Character deck against mono-Sith when you didn’t get your Wookiee Life Debt to protect all your units. It means that a deck whose win percentage jumps 20% or more when it has its crucial objective out can win an entire tournament just off of lucky objective draws, and can just as easily lose a tournament by never seeing its most important objective.
Another important thing about build-around-me objectives is that they don’t have to be built around. Certain objectives may push you in a particular direction, whether it’s encouraging a trait (Wookiee Life Debt, Family Connections), including certain kinds of Characters in your deck (Heroes and Legends, The Survivors), or asking you to change how you play the game (Calling in Favors, Along the Gamor Run). But just because these are all objectives that you can build around, doesn’t mean you have to. I’ve run Wookiee Life Debt in plenty of decks with no other Wookiees, and I’ve seen people splash Heroes and Legends into decks with no intention of triggering it. I’ve even run Along the Gamor Run in Sleuth decks, after having people tell me it’s unplayable outside of Jedi because Smugglers have too many one-Force icon cards. Just because you’re not maximizing a given objective’s power doesn’t make it so bad as not to want in your deck, especially because you’re likely including the objective in addition to the five good Command cards that it comes with. On the flip side, almost any objective can be built around, even if it’s not obviously a “build-around-me” objective. Perhaps Along the Gamor Run is a perfect example: I always just thought it was a useful way to steal the Force when both players had no ready units or to make stealing the Force more difficult for your opponent on their first turn. But a lot of players consider it an objective that needs to be paired with lots of Force icons to be worth running, so will care a great deal about the number of Force icons in the sets that they pair it with.
Going even farther down the rabbit hole, even generic objectives that seem like simple filler can be “built around.” When I first saw The Imperial Bureaucracy and A Hero’s Beginning, I just thought they were generic card advantage objectives with a unique twist. Then I saw how A Hero’s Beginning and Owen Lars enabled insane opening turns, and I decided to build a deck that wanted to get as much blast damage on the table on the first turn as possible, with A Hero’s Beginning as backup edge cards for the first turn. As such, I found myself building around having seven resources on my first turn with A Hero’s Beginning available. But what about when I don’t get Owen Lars? Turns out if I have The Master’s Domain as one of my starting objectives, I can get just as insane opening turns as if I had Owen. And if I have both… everything is open to me! So while The Master’s Domain and A Hero’s Beginning are hardly the kinds of cards that you’d consider “build-around-me”s, I used their banked turn-one potential to dictate the contents of my deck.
So we’ve seen how objectives can operate as aides and tools in deckbuilding… but what about during actual games?
When this game is broken down to its fundamental core, you have all the same pieces you find in other games: some cards generate resources which you use to play creatures (“units”) that attack items controlled by the opponent and deal enough damage to destroy three “objective” cards to win. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but it’s easy to compare the basics to games like Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer 40k Conquest, or even Magic: the Gathering when you recognize that objectives function identically to Story Cards, Planets, and a Life Total respectively. One of the things that makes this game unique, however, is that the objectives that are being attacked are also your resources: you start with three (plus affiliation card), and while you can deploy more throughout the game, the core of what is available to you comes from your objectives. Now you can’t generally be resource screwed by losing them, as they replace themselves, but objectives fill a unique role of having additional uses beyond simply “exhaust to generate a resource.” This makes some objectives better than others, as each might provide resources or effects unique that have more value in one matchup than another. Most objectives are basic resources, true, but they all have more utility than, say, a Magic: the Gathering land (or Cthulhu domain). Take the single most common objective text:
Five-two objectives (or, five-health objectives that generate two resources) are the most common of all objectives, because they’re scattered among all the affiliations and are generally used to represent a “vanilla” objective. They also happened to be pretty useful from a purely economic standpoint, as the ability to use next turn’s resource this turn is often very valuable when you draw a hand that happens to be on the “more expensive but more powerful” end. However, a lot of other objectives give you alternative means to produce or manipulate resources, especially in the Core Set. Take The Defense of Yavin 4 and Kuat Reinforcements, which let you turn cards into resources, or In You Must Go and The Emperor’s Web, which reduce the cost of certain card types. If you consider “resources” to include other game pieces that are useful to your ultimate victory, you could notice that instead of improving your economy, you might have objectives that give you more cards (Counsel of the Sith, Asteroid Sanctuary), or ones that provide a resource that your specific deck might need (The Tatooine Crash), or even objectives that take resources away from your opponent (Cruel Interrogations). Even Fall of the Jedi is all about resource management, as it helps you convert the cards in your hand that you maybe don’t want right this second into cards that might be more effective for this turn. A few give you resources that don’t even get depleted in a traditional matter: Jedi Training and The Ghosts of the Dark Side both contribute a free icon to the Force, without needing a Force Card or a ready unit to do so.
For those objectives that aren’t all about resource management, you’ll find that the value lost in getting the cards you need into hand (or into play) is made up for by having a suitably minor on-board effect. Fleeing the Empire gives you a shield every turn. The Secret of Yavin 4 protects your other objectives. The Endor Gambit refreshes your Vehicles that maybe don’t have elite. Questionable Contacts reflects damage back onto your opponent, if you can afford to weaken the objective (and have damage to reflect). Some of the most powerful on-board effects granted by Core Set objectives comes from the Smugglers and Scum affiliations, which more or less makes sense when you consider that those affiliations are the ones more likely to rely on weaker units that can be enhanced by events, fate cards, objective text, and enhancements. But you’ll also notice that all the objectives I’ve mentioned in this section are from the Core Set (yes, Edge of Darkness is really just an expansion of the Core Set). That’s because objectives as they were originally designed and objectives as they’re designed now are fundamentally different entities.
Look through the Core Set and set aside all the objectives that have something to do with managing resources, in the most broad sense of the term: you’ll find that often even ones that generate powerful effects, like The Shadow of Nar Shaddaa, Black Squadron Assault, Trust Me, or Defense Protocol, still interact with your resources in some way by requiring that you pay some kind of resource to generate the effect (actual resources, damage on your objectives, or cards in hand respectively). The objectives like Wookiee Life Debt and Fleeing the Empire that just provide a passive benefit to you are actually quite few in number, and a few of them are even restricted by damage-locks (Raise the Stakes comes to mind).
Compare them to some of the objectives we’ve seen recently: The Reawakening, Against All Odds, All Out Brawl, Heroes and Legends, The Tarkin Doctrine… hell, May the Force Be With You. The three Core Set objectives with the most raw power that didn’t give you additional resources (Black Squadron Assault, Wookiee Life Debt, and Across the Anoat Sector) pale in comparison to these monstrosities. So what’s going on?
A friend of mine pointed this out to me at Worlds, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In the Core Set, objectives were treated, essentially, as resource cards with upside. You might get a minor effect like a shield from Leia’s objective, or +1 to the Force Struggle from Ghosts of the Dark Side, or some objective protection in The Secret of Yavin 4… but otherwise everything revolved around getting you additional resources (or cards) or giving you ways to convert those resources into new ones. They were treated more like Magic: the Gathering’s Land cards than anything else. Their job, in the simplest version of the game, was to sit on the board, provide you with resources, and give you a means by which to track who was closest to winning the game.
Now, objectives are designed as if they were Magic: the Gathering’s Enchantment cards… but they all cost zero and can start in play. These are board-affecting passive or activated effects, which can completely alter how the game plays out, and in many cases are far more powerful than the units or enhancements that might come out of your deck. What started out as a minor bonus (a shield here, a Force Icon there) has become, for example, one to three (or to five!) Force Icons and a card in hand. Or the ability to completely refresh and restore a Main each turn to use them twice in a conflict phase. Or the ability to attack with a unit, and allow them to contribute to the Force struggle, and allow them to defend. If these effects were on enhancements, they’d cost 2-3 resources and might not even pay you back as resource enhancements. While it’s conditional, compare Against All Odds to its core set counterpart, Orbital Bombardment. One starts in play for free, and the other costs as much as Mara Jade (and isn’t a unit).
Objectives have moved far beyond just being resources: now you can use your objectives to control the game on their own. Try winning a Force struggle as Rebels or Smugglers when your opponent has Plan of the Prophetess on the table, or playing units when your opponent has Imperial Blockade backed up by the Tarkin Doctrine.
Now it’s worth noting that these new, game-state-warping objectives aren’t completely unconditional. Many have “while undamaged” riders, and even for those that don’t, there’s always the tried-and-true tactic of just attacking and destroying objectives. In many ways, this makes the value of blast damage go way up on both sides, as being able to quickly and effectively remove troublesome objectives is a bigger deal now than it’s ever been. Cards like Superlaser Blast and Shadows of the Empire have risen in popularity lately, since they just say “get that thing outta here.” But regardless of whether you’re on the light or dark side of the Force, this is a time where blast damage has been more important than ever, and passive or defensive control strategies have to build decks with the top tier of available objectives or just accept that against an opponent with a good “opening objective flop,” or a very strong turn zero, is going to make your life really difficult. As a player who really enjoys attacking, I’m okay with this, but not everyone will be.
Even if you are packing a ton of blast damage, however, that hardly means you’re going to be able to get your opponent’s oppressive objectives off the table immediately. So when the initial objectives are flipped over and the game begins, it’s very common for one player to start the game with anything from a slight advantage to a major dominating position. And looking forward, it looks like this initial imbalance is only going to get more extreme.
In a world where objectives are a mixture of victory points and resources, Missions become exceptional. Your opponent’s objectives might be useful to them, but since they’re promptly replaced, their replacement will just provide them a different kind of (but equally useful) resource… so you’re forcing them to move laterally rather than knocking them down a peg. However, when you have the ability to put out a Mission, which gives your opponent nothing but which gives you a huge benefit for destroying it, you can give yourself a victory point that’s really worth going after.
In the world we live in, however, where so much of a deck’s power comes from its objectives, playing a mission can be pretty risky. Would you really rather attack this Dark Genocide, or go after the Heroes and Legends, Survivors, or May the Force Be With You that your opponent’s been sitting on all game? Don’t get me wrong, I love missions and have been having a ton of fun with them lately, but there’s definitely matchups where I’d rather not even have the missions in my deck because almost every single one of their objectives is a “kill on sight” objective. Against those decks, taking away the incredible benefit of their objectives is at least as much of a benefit as destroying a mission… in which case what am I doing spending cards and resources on these things?
But where many objectives operate as incredibly powerful enhancements in addition to resources and victory points, some of the “turn zero” power of objectives actually comes from their immediate effect on the board state, before either player can begin putting cards into play. You might have an objective that starts out strong but be blank after the first turn, making a mission a perfectly valid play even as the initial imbalance of the objective continues to be extreme. I am, of course, referring to objectives that allow you to search your Command Deck for cards and put them into play before the game has begun. So far, the ones we have are strong but not terribly unbalancing: Impersonating a Deity gets an ewok, but non-Wicket ewoks aren’t unreasonably powerful. Journey Through the Swamp had to receive errata because it was slightly too efficient, but even starting with a Knobby White Spider can be beaten, given the tempo that it costs to use. Superior Numbers has thus-far had the most success, allowing you to start with a two-cost 181st TIE Interceptor in play for easy piloting, but that’s still just a unit with one damage icon (of each type). The only objective that gives you a unit when it enters play with virtually no limits requires that unit to come from the discard pile, and so can’t actually do anything on turn zero (Reinforcements!).
That all changes at the end of February, when this monster releases:
If your opponent is playing a multi-affiliation deck, or just keeps an opening hand of resources and decent units, you can start the game with a free Main. Obviously the dream is to start with Home One against an empty board, though the average-case scenario is likely to be pretty balanced (and very occasionally your opponent will get the better deal). But just the fact that a bad draw for your opponent means they can practically lose before the game even begins… that takes the “well, I can’t beat double Survivors” feeling that many Sith players feel and cranks it up to eleven. What do you do when your opponent starts with a unit that costs 2 more resources and has far better icons than the one you got from their objective? I know many people will be afraid of the potential to start off against a more dangerous enemy character, but I’m going to trigger this every time I see it just in case it banks me a free win, and with a little strategic understanding of the likely Mains in an opponent’s deck (based on their objectives) you can still make it work in your favor.
But as much as I’m looking forward to punishing my opponents with Solidarity of Spirit, and winning lots more games as mono-Rebels, it only proves to exacerbate the problem that I’ve started noticing in recent designs and which I’ve been discussing here: when objectives operate as enhancements (or even units!) instead of the resources they were originally designed to be, games can (and often have been) decided before the first turn begins. Most players I’ve talked to casually have mentioned a significantly higher win percentage as Jedi when they have May the Force Be With You on turn zero… and a noticeably lower one when they don’t. I’ve seen players go to the ends of the earth to get Heroes and Legends off the table, even when I never had any duplicates to abuse with it. I’ve heard players comment that they practically can’t lose when they have double Counsel of the Sith, or double Survivors, or double Tarkin Doctrine. It’s not fun when a game is decided before it even starts because of one or both player’s objective draw, and the less objectives operate as resources, the more of a risk that becomes. Obviously you can’t literally win with just your objectives… but without the ability of The Tarkin Doctrine and Imperial Blockade to disrupt the light side’s early game, the Tulsa/NYC teams’ mono-Navy Worlds deck would never have been able to out-race Jedi to a 3rd AND 8th place finish. Now I consider it to be one of the best dark side decks in the game (certainly better than the one my team brought to Worlds). That deck works because of its objectives. When it doesn’t see The Tarkin Doctrine, things are a lot more difficult, and against certain opponents even a turn-zero Imperial Blockade without Tarkin backup is enough to shut down their first few turns. Almost as a side-effect of “build around me” objectives, there are objectives that are massively important for a deck to function, but since there’s no player control over the objectives available in a game, inter-game variance becomes far more significant beyond just matchups.
One of the primary things that attracted me to this game is the unique “draw to reserve” mechanic that it features, which simultaneously increases the randomness within the game (and thus replayability) and increases the importance of player skill (rewarding those of us who go deep on the game). Most mechanics treat those as mutually exclusive ends on a spectrum, but this mechanic, which lets me see lots of cards over the course of a game but in different permutations, allows the better players to gain significant card advantage over their opponents while also making each turn so different and interesting that I can enjoy playing this game over and over again in quick succession. When important pieces of your deck aren’t featured in your Command deck, it takes away both player agency and the variance of seeing cards in unique combinations across different games. And when those objectives also start in play, it can make games start with one player significantly in the lead, with a difficult way for their opponent to catch up. I LOVE the way Prince Xizor’s entire pod interacts with objectives, through Masterful Manipulation (which makes it easier to see the objectives you want) and Shadows of the Empire (to take away the objectives you can’t deal with), and I hope to see more similar designs in the future.
In the meantime, pay extra attention to what objectives you’re including in your deck, and if they’re not all incredible, make sure you have a backup in mind for when you start the game at a strong disadvantage.
Join me next week when I (finally) get my Solo’s Command review published… just in time for the next pack to release!