My Path to Worlds 2017 – Han + Rey Control

Are upgrades worth playing in Star Wars: Destiny? I found myself asking this seemingly preposterous question as I was driving home after a late night Destiny Worlds testing session with Steven.

If I’ve learned anything over the years as a card game player, it’s that you must constantly discover and test your own assumptions. Assumptions are very deceptive, as they are often made without conscious realization. As assumptions are created, deck building and play narrows. Since you are seeing the game through your own lens, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that can entrench you in your own thinking.

Undoubtedly, dice are an important part of Star Wars: Destiny. Assuming upgrades are worth playing is only logical. If you play a game with a starter, you quickly realize the difference between Rey and Rey with Rey’s Staff. The upgrade advantage is obvious.

But the question lingered…

It was still a few months before the 2017 World Championship, so I decided I would take the time to test my own assumption that upgrades were important and necessary in Star Wars: Destiny.

I thought back to early games that I was able to win with Darth Vader even when I did not draw upgrades. I thought of these games as flukes and attributed them to luck. That is a great place to start testing assumptions.

I decided to start by attempting to replicate those early ‘fluke’ games. I built a deck with Darth Vader and swung the pendulum as far to the other side of convention as possible. No upgrades. Zero.

Guess what happened next?

I won games. A lot of them. After a week of testing, I was starting to become obsessed with the idea. What other assumptions had I unknowingly made?Was everything I thought about Star Wars: Destiny wrong? Everything had to be reconsidered, and I started laying down a new groundwork for evaluating cards.

In this post, I consider a new method for valuing upgrades in Star Wars: Destiny, show how it evolved the Han + Rey deck I played at Worlds 2017, reflect on what I would have changed about my deck with perfect information, and consider if this valuation method is relevant as Destiny expands.

So, why was my upgrade-less Darth Vader deck winning?

Luminous Beings Are We

Winning without upgrades went against a lot of my preconceived notions about Destiny. To understand why I was winning without them, I had to better understand two critical concepts about Destiny. These concepts are the resource and damage curve. I would like to walk through a ‘typical’ game of Destiny to showcase these concepts. Note that the goal is not to accurately represent the stats of a particular deck or character, like the average damage a Han + Rey deck will do in a game, but to illustrate foundational concepts.

So, let’s say our game is going to last five turns. The resource curve is how many resources we are able to spend each turn. Every turn, we gain our standard two resources. If we are able to spend both resources each turn, our resource curve is below.

This curve assumes we won’t gain additional resources in the game. If our characters are Han and Rey, how might we expect this curve to change? Since Han has two resource sides and Rey has a resource side and a +1 resource side, it is likely that our deck will generate additional resources. The pair could generate as many as four additional resources a turn, but for this exercise we will say they generate an additional 1, 2, 0, 1, and 1 resources throughout the game. Below you can see the resource curve with and without the added resources.

At some point in the game Han or Rey will probably be defeated. Losing a character means their dice are forever removed from the game. This will affect our resource curve, but how might we project when we could lose a character?

Similar to the resource curve, the damage curve represents how much damage a deck does each turn of a game. If we are playing against a Darth Vader + Tusken Raider deck, for example, we might expect Darth Vader to average 2 damage per die and the Tusken Raider to average 1.5 damage per die. If those averages hold, the damage curve of that deck would look like the below.

Before we get too far though, we must first consider our own damage curve. If we defeat one of our opponent’s characters, this will surely alter their damage curve. To understand when we might defeat a character, let’s consider our own averages. Han has a 2 ranged damage and 3 ranged damage (costing 1) and Rey has a 1 melee damage and a +2 melee damage. For our exercise, let’s say we expect Han to average 2 damage per die and Rey to average 0.5 damage per die. Our damage curve using these averages is shown below.

While the damage curve of the decks are close, we must make one further consideration. The health of the characters. With these curves, the Vader + Raider deck could do enough damage to defeat Han or Rey by the second turn. Meanwhile, the Han + Rey deck could defeat the Tusken on the second turn or Darth Vader on the third turn.

Given our understanding, let’s say we decide to attack the Tusken Raider first to ensure we can defeat a character. Our opponent, fearing shields or a Second Chance being played on Han, decides to attack Rey first. If our predictions about these curves is correct, on the second turn they defeat Rey, we defeat the Tusken, and we get a damage or two on Darth Vader.

Given that we expect to lose Rey on the second turn, this affects both our resource and damage curve. Below I show both our resource and damage curve if Rey gets removed on the second turn.

With an understanding of the resource and damage curve, we can now truly evaluate upgrades in Destiny! Let’s consider how our curves might change if we spend our first two resources on an upgrade. What happens if we play a Holdout Blaster on Rey on the first turn? If the blaster adds 1, 2, 0, 1, and 2 damage throughout the game, our damage curve now looks like this.

It is worth noting that we would also get to put a shield on Han because of his ability. Not only does the Holdout Blaster increase our damage output, but it may even buy us an extra turn with Han given our opponent’s average damage curve!

Now, let’s compare the Holdout Blaster to another common upgrade, Jetpack. What would our curve look like if we had instead opted to play a Jetpack on Han on the first turn? Not only would this make Han a more attractive target, it would also potentially spike our damage curve even higher. Let’s say that the Jetpack adds 2, 3, 0, 2 and 3 damage throughout the game. Below are the damage curves with no upgrades, Holdout Blaster, and a Jetpack.

As you can see, both upgrades increase the damage curve quite a bit. Comparing the Holdout Blaster and Jetpack is important, both in deciding which to include in your deck and which to play given the current board state. However, it is at this point that I believe most players are taking a leap of faith.

While we are comparing upgrades to each other, most players are failing to compare them to the rest of the cards in their deck. Have you ever compared an upgrade and a control card? Say, a Holdout Blaster or Jetpack to Negotiate? Both cards occupy the same slot in your deck, so why wouldn’t we compare them? The trouble is, how do we compare them? They fill two seemingly different roles in our deck.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s see if we can. What happens if instead of playing Holdout Blaster on the first turn, we had removed a Rey die and spent a resource to play Negotiate to remove both of our opponents Darth Vader dice? We are down a resource and a Rey die, which averages 0.5 damage. We also cancel an expected 4 damage from Darth Vader. The change to their damage curve is shown below.

This doesn’t really help us compare the Holdout Blaster to Negotiate. One is adding damage, the other is preventing it. However, I believe we are closer to being able to compare them than you may realize. What is the true value of preventing damage?

In reality, preventing 4 damage from Darth Vader gives us an extra turn with Han or Rey on the board. Not only does this directly give us an additional turn with whoever they decide to target first, but that extra turn spent targeting their first target also gets us an extra turn with our other character later in the game. Even if all we considered was the addition of one turn with Han Solo, what is that worth in terms of our own damage?

Using our math from earlier, we expect Han’s average damage to be 2 per die. If that holds true, we are getting 4 damage from Han per turn. Below, I show our damage curve losing Han on the second and third turns, respectively.

This graph is useful for demonstrating the value of having Han for an extra turn, but does it really let us compare a card like Negotiate and Holdout Blaster? For that, we need one last graph.

So, is playing a Holdout Blaster on Rey or Negotiating two of Darth Vader’s dice better?

In this particular example, playing negotiate is a better play. Remember though, this exercise was not to determine the exact math behind these cards or even which of these particular cards is better. In our own example, it could easily have been the case that we held a Negotiate and a resource, yet Darth Vader never rolled damage on either of the first two turns. It could also be the case that Holdout Blaster never rolled damage.

Even though we may not know which of these cards is better with mathematic certainty, we have a methodology for valuing cards of different types on the same scale. Therefore, we can accurately and fairly compare the different types of cards. It was this understanding that started a complete shift in my thinking about Destiny. In the months leading to Worlds 2017, my methodology for valuing cards evolved my Han + Rey deck from an “aggro” deck into a “control” deck.

So, what does this kind of thinking look like when applied to a deck? Let’s take a look at the evolution of my Han + Rey deck to see just that!

Only What You Take With You

I started playing Han + Rey when Destiny first released. I wrote two tournament reports in the first few months of the game after winning my first and second monthly tournaments at Covenant Tulsa. My Han + Rey deck as of late January is below.

Characters
Elite Han Solo
Elite Rey

Battlefield: Starship Graveyard

Upgrades
2 x Datapad
2 x Jetpack
2 x Holdout Blaster
2 x Jedi Robes
2 x Lightsaber
2 x DL-44 Heavy Blaster Pistol
2 x One With The Force
2 x Second Chance

Supports
1 x Infamous
1 x Awakening

Events
2 x Defensive Stance
2 x Dodge
2 x Willpower
2 x Riposte
2 x Deflect
1 x Mind Trick
1 x Scavenge
1 x Hyperspace Jump

This version of the deck had 16 upgrades and 2 supports. That’s nearly two thirds of my entire deck! I used a list similar to the one above against Steven that we have on video. We play with our hands face up in the video below, so you can get a sense for my thinking about the deck and the game at the time.

Early on, I was attempting to build my dice pool through upgrades. Pretty standard, really. In most games  I opened with a Holdout Blaster (or similar) on Rey. Then I proceeded to stare at the rest of my hand. Guess how many of the cards in my deck could be played on any given turn after I spent 2 resources on an upgrade? Spoiler, it was only three!

In one game, I opened with a Holdout Blaster on Rey that I replaced with Jedi Robes (still my favorite opening). I activated Han, attempting to get a 2-disrupt. Instead, I rolled two 3 damage sides. This was another epiphany for me. It hit me like a brick just how bad Han’s dice were when you didn’t have resources.

I soon started experimenting with a new style of playing the deck. Whereas before I might add a second upgrade to Rey on the second turn, now I’d overwrite whatever I attached to her on the first turn with an Ambush upgrade. This gave me the benefits of the Ambush upgrade, like extra actions and shields, but it let me activate Han with my first action and either immediately resolve his damage or disrupt my opponent’s resources.

After a month or so of playing like this, I started coming to terms with how few dice you need on the table to win a game. I started valuing 0 and 1 cost cards a lot more favorably, as they offered me incredible flexibility when I didn’t need to use my spare resources on Han’s dice. Overwriting instead of playing an additional Ambush upgrade on Rey significantly increased my damage curve and stopped Han’s dice from being controlled.

Soon enough, a lot of the common cards in a Han + Rey deck, like Jetpack and Lightsaber, were replaced with cheaper, always-playable cards like Unpredictable and Heroism. After months of testing, the deck evolved into the list below.

Characters (2)
Elite Han Solo
Elite Rey (Skywalker)

Battlefield: Starship Graveyard

Upgrades (11)
2 x Holdout Blaster
2 x Jedi Robes
2 x DL-44 Heavy Blaster Pistol
1 x Rey’s Staff
1 x One With The Force
2 x Second Chance
1 x Hunker Down

Events (19)
2 x Unpredictable
2 x Deflect
2 x Electroshock
2 x Mind Trick
2 x Negotiate
1 x Disarm
1 x Heroism
1 x Defensive Stance
2 x Riposte
2 x Willpower
1 x Hyperspace Jump
1 x Scavenge

When I’m watching games of Destiny, it feels like the players have an unspoken agreement. They spend most of their resources playing upgrades, and since they can’t afford the rest of the card in their hand, they usually discard most of them to re-roll dice. Once most decks spend their two resources on an upgrade, the rest of their cards are just dead weight.

It’s not that I believe upgrades have zero value, but that most decks just have too many of them. By reaching a more appropriate balance between upgrades and the rest of the deck, my Han + Rey deck became significantly more adaptable and consistent. I knew going into Worlds 2017 that my theory about the game was either very wrong or very right. Proof was in the pudding, as they say.

So, how did Worlds 2017 go with only 8 cards adding dice in my deck?

Wars Not Make One Great

It only took me a handful of rounds in Swiss to realize my foresight about the Worlds 2017 meta wasn’t quite right. Even with a few meta miscalls, my approach to the deck seemed to be reinforced each round. Every time I played Mind Trick out of Han + Rey my opponents would either be amused or confused. I finished in the top 4 of the 2017 World Championship and you can watch my top 4 games below!

SPOILERS: If you watch the games, you’ll witness me drawing no upgrades. The penalty for only including 8 dice upgrades is that sometimes you don’t draw them. In testing, I could usually still win the game without upgrades. Nick wasn’t able to do much damage throughout the early turns of either game because of how much control I played. However, he was able to aggressively build his dice pool. This meant when I was drawing cards like Mind Trick, his dice pool was smallest. By the time I was drawing all upgrades, he had a large dice pool and I had little to no control.

Difficult To See The Future Is

So, what did I get wrong about the meta? The first thing I got wrong was Jango. Back in March, I expected there to be a significant Jango presence at Worlds. In testing, Jango + 2x Trooper was supremely consistent and I still believe it to be one of the best decks in the meta. An early Jetpack on Jango can be nearly unbeatable.

The second thing I got wrong was Vader + Raider. I expected there to be some of this at the event, simply because it was the most viable way to play Darth Vader. I felt very comfortable with this match up because of my heavy control. I could often stop Vader from doing much damage at all through the first two turns, putting me way ahead on the damage curve. Negotiate can be absolutely brutal.

The third big thing I got wrong, and probably biggest thing, was Captain Phasma. I didn’t have her on my radar at all. There were a ton of Phasma + Bala + Trooper decks floating around and their style of play is almost the exact opposite of mine. That deck’s ability to buy time with Guardian and build its board is impressive.

If I were playing again at Worlds today, I’d definitely make some changes. The first would be to drop a Disarm for a Dodge. Disarm was in the deck for Jango, who as I mentioned was almost non-existent at the event. Dodge is a silver bullet against Jango, but it also would have given me another big control card against Phasma once her board is built. I’d consider going up to two Dodge if I had known how much Phasma I’d see at the event.

The second change would be to drop a Scavenge for another copy of Rey’s Staff. Steven specifically turned me on to Rey’s Staff late in our testing process. After using it extensively at Worlds, that card was an MVP every time it hit the board. Scavenge lets me stack a few Ambush upgrades for some insane turns and can get me upgrades when I don’t have any, but I’d rather just more consistently see Rey’s Staff.

The final change would be dropping Defensive Stance in favor of Hunker Down. I went down to a single Hunker Down after testing extensively against Vader + Raider. Hunker Down is still a good card even in those bad matches, but against Phasma and Jango it is absurd.

Are Upgrades Playable?

Yes, they are. However, I believe most players are currently overvaluing upgrades. This stems from an assumption that upgrades are more important than the rest of the cards in a deck. This assumption is left unquestioned due to players lacking a meaningful way to compare upgrades to the other cards in their deck. This keeps important cards off the table and results in inefficient decks that helps create a stale meta.

It is this imbalance that has given rise to the current meta of Star Wars: Destiny. The three cornerstone decks of the meta are Poe/Maz, Palpatine, and Unkar. It seems difficult to prepare for all three of these decks, because they win for very different reasons. However, the benefit of relying less on upgrades and having more options in your hand each round against these decks is significant. I was able to win the Covenant Tulsa Store Championship (33 players) using a Darth Vader + Royal Guard deck with only 8 upgrades! I’ll be writing about that deck soon.

I’ve been calling this way of approaching Destiny the Jedi Path, symbolic of the Jedi belief in having no attachments. If you’re interested in taking your first steps down the path, start by paying attention to the resource and damage curves of your deck. Try a deck with no upgrades and see if you can win games. Then, as you add upgrades evaluate them not just against each other, but against the rest of the cards in your deck. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results!

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