X-Wing: Convergent Evolution in Listbuilding

ChahDresh looks at how lists developed separately can come out looking mighty similar.

There’s a concept in biology called convergent evolution. The basic premise is that good ideas in one instance are good ideas elsewhere, too. Two systems trying to overcome similar problems can independently develop similar solutions.

In nature there are many examples, from leaf shape to camouflage. My favorite is the ostrich and the emu. These animals have no meaningful common ancestors. Nevertheless, conditions were right in both the African savannah and the Australian outback for a large, flightless bird to get huge (and ornery). Convergent evolution: these animals evolved independently but to similar configurations, because similar conditions drove analogous changes.

You see this sort of thing in other arenas, too. Humor, for example. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, told a story in one of his books about coming up with a joke about “Placebo Domingo” to goof on the famous tenor. Before he could write the comic, he saw another strip make a “Placebo Domingo” joke. He had to abandon his, lest he look like a plagiarist—even though both artists had come up with the joke completely independently.

Enter X-Wing

We see the same thing happen in X-Wing, too. Note that I’m not talking about conscious imitation. The internet community allows discoveries and practices to transmit from place to place quickly; when a particular list wins a major tournament, you’d better believe you’ll see its imitators popping up everywhere. That’s memetic transmission, and a different (though important) idea to what I’m talking about.

When the TIE Advanced Prototype was announced, I got excited about a particular list concept. The Inquisitor, at PS8, loves taking target locks. Imperials had just gotten Omega Leader, a PS8 ace who loves target locks. Colonel Vessery was the only viable Defender pilot at the time, and with VI he could get to PS8 and love him some target locks.

The elegance, the symmetry, appealed strongly to me. I determined to make a list of it (“Crazy 8s” or something similarly unimaginative). Imagine my surprise—or lack thereof—when I went to propose the idea to the X-Wing community and saw other people proposing the same general concept. This wasn’t memetic transmission; this was the same thought occurring to different people independently.

Local metagames are different. In small communities, it only takes a few people trying similar things to drive a collective shift. In a particular area, for example, triple Jumpmasters might not catch on because the locals prefer Palp Aces more than anything; this causes people to turn to Ketsu-Bossk or bombs as a counter. It is in this next step that we see convergence. People in different places may have different preferences; how their opponents counter this tends to follow similar patterns.

We can also see it at the individual level.

As you may recall, I’d been toying with the idea of how to splash some ion into my lists as a counter to Nym, Norra, and the like. (“Splash” is a term from Magic to mean “include a few cards outside your main colors”, like how touney players always used to splash some white to get Disenchant. People still do that, right? They don’t? Sheesh, now half the audience is going “Huh?” and the other half is going “You’re old!” Moving on.)

TIE Defenders with TIE/D seemed like a swell option to accomplish this. The first list I played around with used two Glaive Squadron Pilots with Predator and TIE/D, along with a TIE Shuttle packing Mara Jade. The idea was to get close with Mara to threaten the enemy and draw fire, while the Defenders land ion shots to set up K-turns the next round; Predator provided attack efficiency.

This was a list I’d been aching to fly ever since TIE/D was announced, but that I never seemed to get around to flying. It worked… decently. The TIE Shuttle exists in that awkward space between “defenseless if the enemy shoots it”, “non-essential to victory”, and “spotting your opponent a 20-point handicap”. Landing the stress was inconsistent at best; it required very aggressive flying which got the Bomber killed, and the Bomber has to live through the end of the round to proc Mara. It wasn’t a bad list, but I felt I could do better.

What’s a more immediate way to deliver stress? We could go with Flechette Cannons on the Defenders, sure—maybe one Flechette and one Ion? An option, but one I wasn’t crazy about. The Empire doesn’t have anything analogous to R3-A2 where they can say, “Nah, just take a stress”… the enemy has to cooperate to make Rebel Captive and Mara Jade work. The closest thing the Empire has is Tactician.

Tactician…

How could we deliver that guy? Well, Tactician came with the Phantom, and the Phantom has strong abilities for controlling range… but with the Pilot Skill race in full swing once more (to be discussed in a future column) the Phantom isn’t looking too comfortable right now. But there’s another option: the same TIE Shuttle I was using to deliver Mara Jade. Well, not the same, exactly.

  • Major Rhymer: Snap Shot, TIE Shuttle, Tactician

I can’t claim credit for inventing this one. I’d seen this guy around a few times, and actually played against him once. I wasn’t impressed at first. (Part of it was because I was running Nien and was able to discard the stress Rhymer gave me.) I’m still not, to an extent. Stress Rhymer is 30 points, does very little damage, and is hardly more resilient than the 20 point Scimitar I was using as Mara’s caddy.

However, action-denying stress at range 2 is pretty sweet, so long as the rest of the list can capitalize on it. I’d already planned to run a Defender with ion, which is a lot of firepower outright. How do we make it even more firepower despite Rhymer sucking up more of our points? Be Colonel Vessery, that’s how. And the Colonel needs a third ship who loves target locks. The Inquisitor is a perfect fit in both style and budget.

I assure you that was my thought process in developing this list. It was only after that I discovered something interesting:

I already made this list

This list, in many ways, is analogous to my “Three Generations” Rebel list. Both lists are three-ship lists using mid-PS pilots with a preference for jousting. Both lists rely on Snap Shot as a way to deliver stress before the foe takes his actions, getting action superiority. Both lists have interesting, multi-faceted synergies. Both lists have multiple options for closing games.

They’re not perfectly comparable—Rhymer is far less damaging and maneuverable than Nien; Norra is both my primary damager and my closer while the Imps split those functions between Vessery and Inqi; and so on. Yet they’re far more similar to each other than they are to any other archetypes out there. And that last point is despite the fact that I in no way set out to replicate Three Generations.

Convergent evolution. What are the most prominent archetypes out there right now?

  • Two-ship lists with bombs
  • Two-ship lists with Kylo-RAC
  • Alpha strike lists with ordnance (several varieties)
  • Fair Ship Rebel/Triple OP

Snap-stress is a good counter to ordnance alphas and Kylo-RAC. Both lists can deal with bombs (Norra can tank them, Vessery can deny them with Ion, and both have the firepower to chew up bombers quickly). Both lists have to outfly Fair Ship Rebel, but they have the control elements and number of independent ships necessary to tease apart FSR’s formation without jousting it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying these lists are the Next Big Thing. Being well-rounded means they have no particular strengths. They rely heavily on precise positioning, which is a problem because (lest we forget) I’m kind of bad at this game.

That’s not the point, really. The point is that the meta has presented a set of particular challenges. I, at least subconsciously, had come to a set of conclusions on how to fight those challenges—and those conclusions caused my list-building to converge without my intent.

~I weird myself out sometimes.

  • Bakvrad

    I have been to my first tournament recently and saw pretty much this list ^^ except she was using omega leader instead of a stress dealer.

    Funny btw, I also happened to play a list that was similar to another guys list who wanted to try something else. He did better overall, due to being more experienced.

    And: splashing is still a thing in a lot of games I play- not magic