Shock, frustration, disbelief, regret... at one point in time, many of us in the X-Wing community would likely have experienced those feelings having just walked out of a game where you were roundly trounced by Triple Jumpmaster 5000s, a.k.a. The Wolfpack, U-Boats or (if your humour is a tad more juvenile) Loo-Boats.
Love them or hate them, the Wolfpack has established itself in the global X-Wing metagame and often vies with Palpatine Imperial Aces (i.e. Palp Aces) for the dubious accolade of most disliked match-up. It has a deadly munitions-powered alpha strike, large fire arcs, a fantastic movement dial, access to very powerful 1 point Scum crew (e.g. Zuckuss, 4-LOM) and the ability to tank enough damage in key moments, especially when equipped with an Overclocked Astromech, to ensure it kills most things before it gets killed.
Therefore, it probably comes as no surprise that some sort of list containing Jumpmaster 5000's (be it double or triple of them) got into the 2016 UK Nationals Final... what is perhaps more surprising is the fact that an old school list containing 2 ships from Wave 4 and 5, one of which had 0 Agility, made it into the Final too... and even more unbelievably, there was no Emperor Palpatine in sight.
"Heresy", I hear you shout!
"Hogwash", I hear you gasp!
This is my reflection on what was a truly unforgettable weekend of X-Wing, with countless memorable moments, good-spirited camaraderie and epic dice rolls that culminated in a decisive final. I faced 4 Wolfpacks over the weekend, including the one in the final and with a game plan, a little skill and a dash of luck, I was fortunate enough to beat 3 of them, perhaps giving hope to all us Imperial players that there is life without Palpatine!
Now firstly, I will hold my hands up and admit to being a dirty Palp Aces player. I admit it. I apologise for it. I am a bad man and deserve to be fed bantha poodoo, skewered and barbequed over the burning ashes of my opponents ships etc. etc.
I have had reasonable success with it over the past 6 months, winning a store championship, placing within the Top 8 and Top 16 at various regionals, and narrowly missing out on the Top 8 cut at the 450 player Yavin Open. I have seldom flown anything else for the past 6 months leading up to the UK Nationals. I had even pre-submitted my list to Nationals 2 weeks beforehand and packed it in my case.
Then, inexplicably, at the eleventh hour, just before walking up to the counter to register my attendance at Nationals, I changed my mind. I expected to see quite a few Palp Aces on the top tables and the sheer amount of anti-Soontir Fel lists floating around the practice tables the day before made me change my mind. I decided to fly something that I had loved back in the days before the TIE Phantom 'nerf', something that would annoy my fellow Palp Aces players, handle the potential influx of TIE Defenders, and most importantly be something that I would have fun playing. Call it whimsical or downright dumb, I chose to fly my beloved VT-49 Decimator and a TIE Phantom.
Veteran Instincts (1)
Fire-Control System (2)
Agent Kallus (2)
Advanced Cloaking Device (4)
Captain Oicunn (42)
Rebel Captive (3)
Engine Upgrade (4)
Old school, I know, with the newest component being Agent Kallus from the Gozanti Cruiser in Wave 7.5. It's also not the current vogue list of Whisper and a Palpatine-carrying Oicunn that Sascha Glitsch used to great effect when he won the Naboo Open.
My thinking however, was that Gunner was invaluable against tokened up aces, forcing them to strip their tokens and risk a second round shot. Furthermore, swapping Gunner out for Palpatine to take Sascha Glitsch's list would mean that I would lose my 2 point initiative bid, something that I had found invaluable when facing other enemy Whispers and Soontir Fels. I tried to mitigate the loss of Palpatine with Agent Kallus, allowing me a little dice modification against scary high Pilot Skill (PS) ships, e.g. Veteran Instinct (VI) Darth Vader. All these points would prove themselves over the course of the weekend in my match-ups.
Firstly, I faced 3 Palp Aces, 2 in the Swiss and 1 in the Cut:
Vessery, Maarek Steele (TIE Defender), Palp Shuttle (99pts) - flown by the wonderful Dex Toher, who taught me 2 things: that wooden templates look awesome and that Irish green dice tend to roll blanks... sorry mate ;)
Whisper, Inquisitor, Palp Shuttle (99pts) - flown by my fellow member, the one, the only, James Dowdall, of the 186th Squadron Podcast fame.
Whisper, Vader, Palp Shuttle (99pts) - flown by David Peet who finished an impressive 1st in the Swiss after going 6-0.
It is a testament to the skill of my opponents that the games were tense with many memorable moments, as on paper, it looked like a bad match-up for them. Having the 1pt initiative bid meant I could shoot first with Whisper and recloak, with Agent Kallus somewhat negating the impact of their highest PS ship. Gunner worked its magic, stripping tokens and punching through crucial damage when it needed to.
Indeed, Gunner came into its own right in the quarter-final match against Kevin Bellamy's "Dellabots":
IG-88B & IG88-C (99pts) - both with Crack Shot, Glitterstim, Fire Control Systems, Autothrusters, IG-2000, Tractor Beams and a Mangler Cannon and Heavy Laser Cannon respectively.
I knew Kevin was deadly with those IG's, having watched out of the corner of my eye as he stomped all over a Whisper + Palp Oicunn list in the top 16 match on the table next to me. Having Gunner instead of Palpatine saved my bacon in our match, as it meant that I stood a chance of punching through Autothruster + Evade token IG's to slowly chip away at his health.
Whisper became the blocker in our game, as I alternated between decloaking and not decloaking to block his IG hard turns, arc-dodging with Oicunn's engine upgrade or ramming and chipping away with Gunner. Kevin finally managed to pin Whisper down and annihilate her but by then I had one of his IG's down to 2 hull and another without any shields, while my Oicunn was untouched. Not insurmountable odds for Kevin but his green dice let him down at critical moments and Rebel Captive and Gunner worked its magic. Again, it is a testament to the tremendous sportsmanship of my opponent that even after such an incredibly close match he gave me a beautiful personally crafted damage deck holder as something to remember him by.
Of course, it is worth noting that taking a 0 Agility Decimator in the current meta rife with Wolfpacks is like parking a Porsche 911 in East London with the door open and the keys in the ignition... it'll be gone before you know it. I had gambled that a lot of the people who had taken Wolfpacks in the Store Championship and Regionals season had gotten tired of flying them and would move on to 'Dengaroo' (i.e. Dengar and Manaroo) or anti-Palp Aces lists... boy was I wrong!
Hunting the Wolfpack
Shock, horror, groan. Yet another Wolfpack matchup. Rinse and repeat 4 times. Ok, now that the initial trepidation is over, let's start to think about how we can turn this bad match-up into possibly a narrowly winnable one. Before every match, I always consider what my opponent would struggle with and I play to those weaknesses. So, what are the 3 things that Wolfpacks hate? Isolation, Action Denial and Close Range Combat.
Like in real life, if you can isolate and separate a U-boat from his Wolfpack, you can hunt it and possibly kill it before it kills you. Translating that into X-wing, the initial asteroid setup is vital to try and level the playing field.
I am a big fan of placing the big rock in the middle. My personal play style gravitates towards nimble 2-3 ship elite builds (either arc-dodging small ship aces or big ships with engine upgrade) so having the big rock in the middle means I can often limit the number of ships firing at me, especially if they choose to follow me around the magic roundabout.
The magic roundabout is what I call a central big rock surrounded by a roughly circular outer rim of rocks that create various exit channels for ships to fly out of once they have entered it. For the non-British readers in the audience, this mimics the infamous Magic Roundabout in Swindon that acts as a converging intersection point for 5 major roads. The magic roundabout is most beneficial to ships with a high Pilot Skill (PS), as it can often deny your opponent the ability to boost to follow you around the roundabout once you're in it.
Putting this into context of all the Wolfpack games at Nationals, I always aimed to create a magic roundabout in the middle that had just enough room to entice the U- boats to come in after me but not so tightly placed that it completely discouraged my opponent from sending in their U-boats into the central area. The second point is important, as Oicunn also needs a little space to operate as well so that he has the opportunity to boost and reposition out of the U-boat fire arc if needed.
If I could get the Wolfpack to commit to me through the roundabout, I stood a chance of dodging fire arcs and possibly splitting his forces up between the various exit lanes when they tried to reposition. If the U-boats came through the roundabout, there's also a chance that I could isolate 1 U-boat by itself against Whisper on the flanks, getting a few rounds of decent shooting in before running away from the Wolfpack and repositioning.
2. Action Denial
The Wolfpack lives and dies by its Focus tokens. There are a few good counters out there (e.g. Palob Godalhi's HWK-290 stealing focus tokens, Tactician, R3-A2 Astromech) but I had 2 limited options available to me in my list: stress from Rebel Captive and getting them to bump into Oicunn to lose their actions.
When trying to bump with Oicunn straight on I always try to be slightly off-centre to the U-boat's left or at an angle on the left side of the U-boat to deny him his white 2 Segnors-Loop move. The last thing I want is a U-boat pointing at me from behind with torpedoes primed!
3. Close Range Combat
This is perhaps the most risky of the tactics when facing a Wolfpack with a Decimator, as it's often a weapon of last resort and almost always guarantees the eventual loss of your Decimator. When you commit to getting in close within Range 1, it's either because you desperately need to focus fire something down or you need to draw enough attention away from Whisper to allow her to do her job and snipe a U-boat from the flanks. If Oicunn can cause enough havoc at close range and trade himself for 1.75 to 2 U-boats, Whisper has a chance of mopping up.
Putting it to Practice and What Could Have Been
Undeniably, a key moment in the Final was when poor old Whisper got one-shotted due to some horrible dice and pulling a Direct Hit. It was well and truly game over after that. My scant consolation was that by then, I had managed to execute some parts of my game plan:
- The Wolfpack had come into the magic roundabout and had split their targets
- I had not taken a single torpedo on Oicunn, having been able to get into close range and line up some range 1 Predator + Gunner shots (sadly followed by Oicunn's inability to hit a barn door whilst taking a tonne of natural damage in return!)
- Whisper had managed to isolate a single U-boat away from the Wolfpack
If the game had continued and Whisper had lived, I would have continued to bump the U-boat in front of Oicunn, having trapped it between a rock and myself, desperately trying to tie them both down for as long as possible to buy Whisper precious time to tackle the isolated U-boat.
Having said all that, I have no regrets on what was a tremendous weekend of X-wing with so many epic moments. One thing that always amazes me is the good spirit and camaraderie that permeates the X-Wing competitive scene and I am blessed to have made many more acquaintances and friends. I can only thank God for making it this far and the entire experience has galvanised me to want to do better in the future.
On top of those I have already mentioned by name, here's a massive shout out to my remaining opponents in the order that I played them:
Jack Mooney who flew Fat Han + Jake Farrell like a boss and truly made it a blast from the past (Wave 5 anyone?) If anyone could give my fellow 186er Oli Pocknell a run for his money flying Fat Han and Jake, it would be Jack Mooney.
Bob Dee who was the first Wolfpack I faced at Nationals over the weekend. Skilled player having placed within the Top 8 at various Regionals who probably should have had me if it weren't for 2 rounds of consecutive Oicunn bumps.
James Plumb who stomped all over Oicunn with his TIE Crack Blacks... before feeling the wrath of Whisper's revenge. Fantastically close game that went to time and had 3 points in it.
Harrison Sharp with his masterful command of his Toolbox TIE swarm. Our games all turn into epic duels of the fates and the number of times our competitive matches have gone down to the last few dice rolls astounds me. Top player.
George Dellapina who had me on the rocks for the entirety of our Top 16 cut game until the last turn when I somehow managed to pull of the one move in the entire galaxy that would save my 1 hull decimator from extinction and pop his second last U-boat. Phenomenal competitor, brilliant father (his son Simeon also made the Top 32 cut!) and sporting the best painted bunch of ships I have ever seen.
Luke Fogg who brought perhaps the most interesting and unique Wolfpack list I have ever come across. I will let him spoil his own secret recipe but let's just say that his list did not have a single Overclocked Astromech and he still made it to the top 4 of the UK Nationals. Brilliant list design executed by a skilled player. I highly recommend you check out his video log as well for more details.
Last but not least, Duncan Callander, the new 2016 UK National Champion! You definitely earned your place as the champion, swatting aside all competition throughout the course of the weekend with your Ion Torpedo Wolfpack! I can only wish you all the very best for Worlds and I'll see you there!