The recent points adjustment was thoughtful and appropriate, but Atomic Mass Games can improve things even further by using all the tools at their disposal.
I’m going to start by saying something that is extremely important if admittedly non-profound: game balance is extraordinarily difficult. When I sat down to think about what I would compare it to, my mind naturally drifted to…dinosaurs. No, I’m not going to write an article about how a meteorite impact made large birds unplayable (it totally did though, the ostrich lists you see now are a pale comparison to the way things used to be), I’m actually referring to now 30-year-old film classic: Jurassic Park. Although I watched this movie a lot as a kid, it wasn’t until I read Crichton’s original novel as an adult that I began to appreciate the actual definition of “chaos theory” but it all made so much sense when it finally clicked into place.
If you line up two RC cars of the same brand side by side on a sidewalk, set at exactly the same angle as each other, they’re still going to end up separate from each other after a couple seconds if two people hold straight forward on the accelerator at exactly the same time. This is because slight variations in the texture of the ground, quality of construction of the car, and the ability of each person to keep the angle straight on the remote layer on top of each other: the more variables there are in a series, the less predictable your endpoint is. Why am I going on about this? I’m a docto
r not a game designer (though I did some playtesting for Armada and X-Wing), but it doesn’t take professional experience to see how difficult their job is in this department. This is why we should always be grateful that Legion is playable at all, and that we have designers who are clearly interested in maintaining competitive balance despite our collective hand-wringing when control of the game shifted to new people.
These truths are especially important to remember as we get to the “point” that I eventually hope to make. In the last year we have seen adjustments to points, a new rulebook, and a single balance-oriented card erratum (the recent change to Force Choke) which together have led to important improvements in faction balance and negative player experiences, but the thing we have not seen since 2021 is more “buff” oriented errata or upgrades. As a matter of fact, the combination of the rulebook change along with new releases has caused both the efficiency and (more importantly) the “fun factor” of many older units to dwindle. The end result, as I see it, is that while inter-faction balance will improve there will still be an armful of miniatures that will not feel good for competitive play, and thus will not hit the table very much. Thus, I hope the developers will consider embracing strategies that have worked for both their predecessors in Fantasy Flight (Legion) and even their own colleagues at Atomic Mass (MCP).
Breaking News: Crazed Man in a Bird Suit Seen Carrying Herald of Galactus Around Town
Before I arrived to my current gaming habits of mostly Legion with a bit of Marvel: Crisis Protocol and now Shatterpoint on the side, I played HeroClix, then the Legend of the Five Rings CCG, then I went through internal medicine residency training and forgot what games or levity was for a while, then I finally emerged from that and got into X-Wing and Armada. Below are some quick hits of the most memorable way these games were adjusted during my time with them:
|Heroclix||In the beginning fliers could carry fliers, so the classic move was that Vulture (who was very cheap) would carry Firelord (a cosmic being who can definitely fly on his own, who had an insanely good ranged attack but couldn’t move-shoot) around and roast everyone. It was dumb. Eventually, all lists basically used this tactic so WizKids made it so fliers could no longer carry other fliers.|
|Legend of the Five Rings (L5R CCG)||In a brand new edition, Lion Clan (which I played naturally) had a Stronghold (the central card of any deck) that basically let you draw a card after discarding a card, which was super powerful because you could totally abuse it with this location. They changed the stronghold so that you could only get the effect when a personality performed the effect that discarded, which made it less game breaking…but I still won a Kotei with it after the nerf so nyeh!|
|Star Wars: X-Wing (First Edition)||The TIE defender was basically the only ship that could dial in a maneuver that allowed it to flip 180 degrees and still take an action afterwards but it still sucked after release. An upgrade later came out that rocketed it from obscurity to dominance because now that 180 flip came with a free evade (dodge) token with no extra effort even if you smacked into a rock or another ship. This was then adjusted down so that you had to be able to take an action for the token, and you couldn’t if you didn’t have a clear maneuver.|
|Star Wars: Armada||Lists with fewer, heftier ships were getting bossed around by lists that massively out-activated them (we’re talking 9 versus 3 sometimes). So, an upgrade was released that allowed one large ship in your list to take a pass action. It was admittedly hilarious that nearly every list (Rebel or Empire!) had Plo Koon in a trenchcoat “advising” your ship to be patient but the devs eventually realized there’s a better way: They introduced an entirely new pass mechanic and in doing so were able to retire (ban) this upgrade.|
A Match Made….IN HELL!
I’m realizing now that the balance changes I tended to see got more and more complex as time went on. Heroclix initially wasn’t ever going to change points values or stats, they only used the rulebook itself…this changed after a while but when I was playing the game at first it was pretty much it. L5R pretty much only ever nerfed, and not very often…after all, it was a CCG so why worry about buffs when you’re just going to be cycling new cards in anyway right? (Blech). I was pleasantly surprised when FFG began using expansions to buff old ships, although naturally it was in such a way that you literally had to spend money to get those upgrades. They refined their strategies further however, right up to the advent of X-Wing 2nd edition where FFG took it a step further by not including point values or upgrade slots on cards, in order to allow them to modify these items as they saw fit. This allowed them a lot of control over balance and they didn’t need to change text on cards much at all.
The Age-Old Buff vs Nerf Debate…
…is not something I am interested in pontificating publicly over, so I’m going to state what I understand a relatively commonly accepted philosophy here and proceed forward as something that I agree with and also that AMG developers have stated in more general terms is something they’ve favored as well:
- Promoting fun should always be first priority as an overhead rule
- Buffs always feel better to players than nerfs even when the end result of game balance is exactly the same. This YouTube video sums up some of the evidence behind that.
- Nerfs are necessary sometimes when power levels are so high they reduce or remove player agency (hi, Dark Troopers calling) or completely break the game in some other way.
- Buffs (and sometimes nerfs too!) that provide players with increased opportunities for excitement and creativity are the cream of the crop.
I wanted to get that out of the way without it seeming like I’m lecturing on it, which I’m not qualified to do. However, these principles have been extremely relevant to the Star Wars: Legion experience.
I dabble occasionally but I’m basically a Republic player and I started playing with the Clone Wars release. This means I was not around for any of the fun with everybody having infinite range snipers and I barely got to see the insanity of the original rules with Tauntauns running amok in your ranks, but I’ve still seen my fair share of balance changes that affected the faction I love so dearly. These are my own feelings obviously, but I know that they are all shared by many.
|The Nerf||How it felt?|
|Rex, P2, and ARCs get points increases, turn 0 tokens go away, clone standby sharing goes away||Good, I played plenty of Rexstar and even though I liked winning I sometimes felt like I wasn’t growing as a player, plus we all know how NPE the turn 1 attack was was for non-GAR players so all this felt appropriate.|
|Clone token sharing changed to single per attack||Neutral, while it reassured me that we’d get future clone releases without pulling hair out over internal balance, the lack of coinciding points decreases for phase 1’s told me the doldrums were on the way (and they were for most of the 2022 season).|
|Take That Clankers changed to clone-only, aim action only. Echo and Fives up in points. ARC generic loses critical.||Awful, yes the alpha strike was too good…WHEN it was four clones. Tactical strike arguably was better then, and good god look at that Blizzard beam attack. Anyway, could have limited it to two and be done with it. It’s effectively a dead card now in most lists. REX BASICALLY CAN’T USE IT HIMSELF! Making Fives and Echo go up was also punishment layered on punishment, non-Jedi lists were already dead!|
|Exemplar/Yoda Standby Sharing Goes Away||Good, because I was honestly getting annoyed at how often I saw it being used as a crutch. The Saber especially made me sad when it was used like a turret all the time, it’s supposed to be a zippy scootin’ around tank!|
Not even that good standbys for me were, guilt by association this is!
It’s possible that I care more than most about the meta encouraging list diversity, but in any case as I considered the above it was clear to me that some nerfs can still feel good, if they lead to more choices in list building. The nerfs that feel the absolute worst are the ones that take something away completely without anything to replace it. And therein lies the key. Luckily for us Republic players, that feels bad TTC nerf (though it did kill non-Jedi lists, which still mostly haven’t recovered) was paired with an extremely important change to a certain mopey Jedi
“Blinded By The Sky”
Luckily for me and the rest of the Clone world, the RRG update that killed Rex also gave new life to Anakin, who front flipped into orbit just like he does in my favorite YouTube video ever. I think he went down by 5 points? Doesn’t matter, what mattered was a change in a single command card. That was literally it. Permanent: Defend 1 meant that this and his other commands not only changed the game state but any command that gave him a face up order did the same. Maul players would still run Duel of the Fate if it just said “Maul gets a dodge” after all, and when he can share it with his friends it was doubly beneficial. Prior to this change Anakin had been kind of a dumpster of a unit (sorry hipsters) but a little tweaking of text turned it around. This along with the release of scale-enabled Wookiees gave GAR lists a new horizon to explore, and kept the loyalists relatively fulfilled even as the competitive edge of the faction dwindled greatly.
Even more players will obviously be familiar with the fact that Anakin 2.0 (Darth Vader) also got major buffs in the form of unit AND command card adjustments, a change which importantly gave players a greater sense of freedom to play the most popular character in the franchise without fear of getting automatically stomped by their peers. It’s key to remember that feeling like you’re on an even playing field is a part of the fun in playing a game. I’m certainly not suggesting that buffs make the game fun because everyone is pipetting upgrades back and forth until they can find the perfect formula for the perfect form of a list (hi Kyle). Rather, I’m saying that anyone who’s enough of a fan to know that points adjustments/errata are “a thing” at all is going to be discerning enough to know when a theme/fun list is so bad that they’re just going to get eaten alive. The ISP for instance was too yuck for me to really feel like it would be fun to roll out before, but now? I’m preparing my minis to embrace their destiny as “Swamp Force,” not because it’s going to wreck face, but because the points adjustments have even made such a thing possible. That’s balance that serves fun, which again is the goal here.
I said at the top that Atomic Mass hasn’t yet used all the tools in its arsenal to bring life back to struggling units in Legion. I’m aware that those Vader and Anakin buffs happened early in AMG’s ownership of the game, but the conventional wisdom is that 2021’s points/errata adjustment was largely carried over from FFG and thus didn’t represent the design philosophy of the current development team. Obviously, there have been plenty of changes to the game lately. Since 2021 we’ve had two points adjustments and a total overhaul of the rules, but the things we haven’t seen during this “true-AMG” era are “errata for buffs” and “new upgrades that benefit old units.” Luckily for us however, the company has already demonstrated a willingness to engage in these strategies with their flagship product line.
“Who?” “Star-Lord, Man…Legendary Outlaw?”
I’ve mentioned before that Marvel: Crisis Protocol is pretty darn fun even when you’re getting stomped, but people have their limits: the Guardians of the Galaxy characters were largely pretty bad, highlighted especially by Peter Quill “Star-Lord,” who was released in March of 2020, just 5 months after the core set. Between then and late 2021 the game had changed a lot, and most of the Guardians (who were released together as one wave) paled in comparison to teams that were released later on. Other iconic characters such as Hulk, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and Green Goblin were seeing little play because the game had simply left them behind. Meanwhile, teams like Wakanda and Black Order were ruling the meta with an iron fist. So, in early 2022, Atomic Mass released a “Card Pack.” Not only did this contain some generic cards that players annoyingly previously had to poach from mini packs they didn’t really want, but it contained new, schmancy looking unit cards for a variety of characters, some were buffs some were nerfs but pretty much everything made sense.
As an example, here is the original “leadership” ability for Guardians of the Galaxy as led by Peter Quill:
For those that don’t play the game, your “Team Tactics” are sort of similar to your command hand, and the Guardians were the only team that required discarding them in order to have the intended effect. Many of those team tactics cards themselves have effects that are much more ground-shaking than this ability when played the normal way, so it made you wonder…”why would use this any more than once in a while?” Well, you wouldn’t, and most people didn’t. But then, the 2022 Card Pack arrived and…
The cost is gone, you give one token to three characters (which makes more sense then three tokens to one), and it starts before combat every time now when before you wouldn’t get a chance to use the ability before getting smacked if you were “second player.” Star-Lord along with Gamora, Rocket, and Groot also got other more subtle changes to their kit. All these changes together turned the Guardians from a meme team to a dream team, and most importantly made them more fun to play. This pack also updated the legality system of team tactics and provided a single place to get all the tactics released to that date, What’s more, if you already had the base card and didn’t want to buy the pack it was and remains completely legal to use print and play to update your cards. It was a resounding success and if I had to guess they’re planning on a 2024 card pack as we speak. Fingers crossed they won’t nerf anyone in my beloved Brotherhood of Mutants!
The Limits of Using Points Alone
Ok, so: Buffs feel good, nerfs necessary sometimes but at their best when they serve to open up play, and AMG injected new life into their flagship game by using positive, buffing errata.
I want to repeat in case it wasn’t crystal clear before, I think that AMG did excellent work with this adjustment. I do not expect for every nudge to catapult the game to complete Nirvana, and they don’t either because they’re too smart to assume such a thing is even possible. I do think that while faction balance will be much improved with these changes, the variety of lists that are both fun to play and mildly viable for tournament play is not as broad as it can be. I might be surprised, but aside from the possibility of Dark Troopers continuing to warp the meta because of their raw strength and full armor, I’m no longer worried about any individual list overrunning everything. Is the meta fully balanced? Hell no and it never will be! But I think each faction has an option that will absolutely have a good chance of winning a regional (even if the red save factions still have the clearest path to do so).
So yes, I didn’t write this to gripe about the strong stuff. I wrote this because I have hope that a multitude of units that honestly aren’t much fun to play right now could possibly be given a chance to shine (or shine again in some cases):
- Everyone with Scale, a keyword that unfortunately became both much weaker and MUCH less fun with the CRB. Wookiees of all varieties, Grievous, and BX all had previously incredible mobility that instantly became mundane. They don’t feel fun to play because they basically move like any other jabroni.
- Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is outshone by his apprentice as a defender of his fellow man. His three pip is close to blank with the current version of clone sharing, and his saber remains sub-par.
- Generic Rebel Mandos still feel like a straight up worse version of super commandos for the same cost
- Dat E-Web tho…still isn’t good or fun
- ARC strikes without Echo have done approximately 10 damage across all games played for the past two years.
- Droidekas aren’t far off, but they just won’t ever have enough offense without surge conversion
- The LAAT/le is either an expensive transport that’s at risk of exposing your favorite unit to die if it gets blown up too early, or it’s a gun platform that’s very inferior to every other similarly costed unit.
Then there’s a parade of units that suffer from a lack of (good) heavy weapon choices:
- Rebel troopers have one mediocre option and three bags of bones
- Snows, heh…oof
- Phase II’s are good but are kinda boring, could really use an Impact
- Pathfinders will continue to rarely see play until they can take something generic
The Good, The Bads, and the Non-Existent
There are plenty of units that fit a theme nicely but aren’t in the meta right now, either because of the meta itself (such has Han), or because they’re still just honestly too expensive but can be fixed with more points decreases (such as Din Djarin). I’m not worried about these, I’m worried about the rest of the above. Take a look at Lucas Ustick’s latest data article and scroll to the bottom, you might be shocked at how little some of these units see play. For every dozen Boba Fett players, you will find one person who plays Wookiees, a non-unique unit that exists in two factions. I don’t honestly think that any of these units would suddenly “feel good” if their points were dropped substantially. Sure they would see more play, but as filler and for raw dice efficiency, not as a unit that performs a unique function for a list. A 55 point Deka would show up everywhere, but it wouldn’t make it feel like the fearsome mobile turret that made two Jedi run for the hills twice in one trilogy, it would just be empty calories.
You Are A Bold One!
Given what we’ve seen in the history of this game and MCP, I am hopeful that the dev team will consider the value in choosing a few choice cards to update to preserve the sense of fun and agency in this game we all enjoy so much. If I’m lucky, I’m just predicting the future, and that there is a planned card pack for later this year that has some updated unit cards as well as some new generic upgrades that everyone can enjoy, seeing as these have completely disappeared from expansions. If we’re really really lucky, they will consider heavy weapon packs for each faction to round out the Corps options out there, especially for the Prequel and Shadow Collective factions that only have two choices anyway. Atomic Mass has shown they are willing to put the work in to back off certain over-tuned items and nudge other items back into the light with points, my only ask is that they consider taking one or two more steps that will eventually allow all of us to look at our collection of minis and truly not know which one you want to bring to the store for your game tonight.