The Art of Heroclix by Sun Tzu Part 2
The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military treatise dating from the 5th century BC. Attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu the text is composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare. It is commonly thought of as a definitive work on military strategy and tactics. It has had an influence on Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics, legal strategy and beyond.
This series of articles is a very modest attempt at applying some of Master Sun’s teachings to Heroclix and specifically competitive gaming.
Breaking defensive positions.
Those who are first on the battlefield and await the opponents are at ease; those who are last on the battlefield and head into battle get worn out. Therefore good warriors cause others to come to them, and do not go to others.
In this part of the chapter he describes that is it always easier to defend rather than the attack, which is true in warfare and also in Heroclix. Now this doesn’t mean it is better to let your opponent attack you first or it is better to sit in your starting area waiting for your opponent to do something, rather that it is better to set yourself in a defensive position and let your opponent approach you rather than you approach them. Having them make the first move means that they will have action tokens on them and depending on the map may find it difficult to approach without leaving themselves open to attack themselves.
For example say you are using the Convention Exclusive Boxing Ring to create special terrain that you place your whole team into on your first turn. You use a character with plasticity to hinder your opponent entering the ring themselves so now you’ve set up a defensive position and await your opponent knowing that they will be at a disadvantage should they try and approach.
Being defensive also doesn’t just mean using terrain to protect your figures, it can also relate to the powers that your characters have. For example a very popular current figure, Jakeem Thunder, gets to pick two standard powers that he can use. If he chooses two defensive powers then it can become very difficult to get damage through.
As Sun Tzu pointed out previously you would like your opponent to approach your defensive position rather than the other way around. However assuming you have similar forces what incentive is there for your opponent to do so, as they also would prefer you to approach them. Well don’t think Sun Tzu didn’t think of this as he goes on to say:
What causes opponents to come of their own accord is the prospect of gain. What discourages opponents from coming is the prospect of harm.
This neatly describes the problem of a stalemate occurring, in order for your opponent to come of their own accord there needs to be the prospect of gain and what discourages opponents from coming is the prospect of harm. So you may think you have been smart forming a perfect defensive position but by doing so you are actively discouraging your opponent in coming towards you. If there is no prospect of gain and only a prospect of harm they will have no incentive to break their formation.
Now in an ideal situation your team would be capable of attacking and damaging opponents whilst still maintaining a perfect defensive position. However the days of Fantomex, Iron Pharaoh and Faust are gone so what are our options?
In Heroclix terms a “gain” may often be something that directly leads to scoring points, if there is no chance of this occurring then your opponent is unlikely to view it as a gain. You don’t want to put your whole force at risk because that would defeat the purpose of making your opponent come to you but you do need the gain to be sufficiently worthwhile for your opponent to have to make a decision.
By offering this decision you need to have a plan for both potential outcomes, namely your opponent leaves their position or your opponent doesn’t leave their position. Ideally you want to gain an advantage either way so you are in effect setting up a win win situation. So let’s take a look at how we might go about doing this. For the sake of this article I have identified 3 strategies to try and break stalemates – baiting, tie up and artillery.
As Sun Tzu describes your opponent is unlikely to come out of a defensive position unless it is in their best interests to do so. Being able to use an expendable piece to act as bait to entice your opponent out can be a useful strategy. You don’t necessarily need to build your team with this strategy in mind as any low point cost piece will do. The main thing to keep in mind with this is positioning – you need your opponent to be able to attack the bait but you also need them not to be able to return to their defensive position afterwards – so be careful of HSS and TK powers on your opponent’s team. You also need to make sure you position your other figures ready to take advantage should your opponent take the bait. The success of this strategy generally relies on the common philosophy of “Kill stuff and get up on points” which is often the most effective way of playing a game with a strict time limit but you are taking a short term loss and hoping to turn it into a long term gain.
In recent sets there are quite a few effective cheap tie up pieces, these are figures that are designed not as support or attackers but purely for either tying up your opponent or just simply annoying them. An ideal piece needs to be able to threaten your opponent with damage or some form of tie up effect, they also need to be hard to KO (or don’t give up points when KO’d) and have decent mobility. The main difference between this strategy and the bait strategy is that you aren’t necessarily giving up any points so your opponent may not get any material benefit from KO’ing them but even if the character can’t realistically cause any damage they block lines of fire and force breakaway rolls and can severely threaten the defensive position.
Bystander tokens are often ideal for this, a good example being Ant-Swarms from Hank Pym set, they threaten with their poison and the Wasp figure gives them mobility and being zero points bystanders you aren’t giving up points when they are KO’d. Modern bystander generators such as Gertrude and Old Lace, Penguin or Devil Dinosaur will work fine as well. Apart from bystanders the most popular figure for this role seems to be HaHa Joker, you can play him at 30/40/50 and he takes a lot of effort to get points from. As well as the harassment factor you often see these figures paired up with colossal retaliators so even if they can’t do a lot of damage the tie up plus potential retaliation is a huge threat.
This strategy basically involves being able to target your opponent and them not being able to target you. Most defensive positions revolve around using terrain to block lines of fire however there are plenty of characters who ignore certain types of terrain, so having access to one of these characters can mean that a position your opponent thought was safe is safe no longer. The main figure that you are probably thinking of in this regard is Nick Fury, coming in via an ID card means that you have access to a huge range and the ability to ignore elevation for a cheap 5pts. Cosmic Spider-man is another ID option who ignores blocking and elevation. These two characters on ID cards were played by the majority of teams in the 2017 Worlds tournament so it shows the huge benefit of improved targeting. Another strategy that Dale and myself employed in the recent UK national event was to utilise the Ant-man that changed friendly characters size to let them ignore outdoor blocking and elevation – pair that with a themed team and there is nowhere on the map that is safe. Ant-Man may have rotated but Mr. Mxyzptlk can do the same thing although less reliably as tricky to theme someone with no keywords.