The Tragedy of Darth Vader

Darth Vader Holding a Purple Flower Bouquet

A little known fact is that Darth Vader, the primary antagonist in the

original Star Wars trilogy (and a primary protagonist in the prequel trilogy)

has been referred to by no other than George Lucas as the center-point of the

first six films - as “the tragedy of Darth Vader”.

In Star Wars Legion, Fantasy Flight Games most successful foray into

a tabletop miniatures game, Vader was the first commander created for the

Galactic Empire faction, and one of the most iconic looking units in the game:

A very well-painted Darth Vader miniature

Unfortunately, the terrifying looking Dark Lord just doesn’t deliver in the game

and this blog will go more into why Darth Vader (as of time of this writing,

October 2020) falls short of a competitive piece.

alt="Darth Vader, waiting to activate, against Rex and Phase IIs"/>
Darth Vader, waiting to activate, against Rex and Phase IIs

Is this a now familiar sight to Vader players? Hiding behind a terrain piece,

wounded to brink of defeat, terrified of units that cost a third as much of the

Sith? If it isn’t, then please invite me to your next game night once COVID

is over.

Let’s take a look at Commander Vader’s unit card, stats, and command cards

(note that all images and content are copyright Fantasy Flight

Games/Disney/etc and are for reference purposes only):

Commander Darth Vader in Star Wars Legion

At 8 wounds, 3 force upgrade slots, Master of the Force, Relentless, and

a dizzying 6-red attack with Impact: 3 and Pierce: 3, and infinite

courage; Darth Vader has some of the strongest individual stats in the game.

Plus, Vader has access to six command cards, one of two units in the game

(Luke Skywalker is the other) that can do so.

However, there are two elements that keep Lord Vader on the asthmatic

old-dude side of most competitive games: army synergy and

individual impact in typical games. Let’s start with the latter.

Individual Impact

Vader is one of those units commonly referred to as “high ceiling, low floor”,

which means the potential ability for Darth Vader to infleunce the game is

extremely high - a few 6 dice pierce 3 attacks can (hypothetically) table an

opponent:

On the flip side, Vader is somewhat unique in that his ability to do

next to nothing is also high. This has a two-pronged effect on the game -

when selecting an army, Darth Vader is the hardest individual core-box

commander to play (see comparisons), and thematically he

plays quite different from what you’d probably expect.

alt="Meanwhile, Rebel Tauntaun Riders play more like this."/>
Meanwhile, Rebel Tauntaun Riders play more like this.

First, what does 6 red, without any surge tokens or surge to crit, look like? In

melee, Vader averages (6/8 * 6) 4.5 hits, and with Pierce: 3 is almost

always guaranteed to land those hits as wounds:

alt="Vader is landing usually between 2 and 3 guaranteed wounds"/>
Vader is landing usually between 2 and 3 guaranteed wounds

And that looks extremely good, until you realize that it’s only in melee, and

you have one of two of the only Speed: 1 units in the game (the other being

Emperor Palpatine). So your standard threat range looks like this:

alt="A bit shy of 8 inches"/>
A bit shy of 8 inches

You can read Mike Barry’s excellent analysis

for some more details, as well as how to slightly extend Vader’s range and

threat with Force Push, but this blog is primarily about Vader in comparison

to other commanders, so I won’t expand further. Needless to say, it’s certainly

possible to get Vader up the field and into melee where he wants to be - but

it’s not easy, not intuitive, and doesn’t feel like a Dark Lord of the

Sith.

A few final points: you are paying (via point costs and the restrictions of list

building in Empire generally) a premium for keywords and abilities that aren’t

always that useful:

  • Pierce 3 is often overkill; it’s not rare as Darth Vader to intentionally

    pierce less dice in order to stay protected in melee. The only real time you

    might want the full value is against an Impervious hero such as Sabine or

    a tougher vehicle such as an AAT or Saber.

  • Relentless only is a benefit over Charge if you take Saber Throw; and

    3 red dice, even with pierce 3, often can translate to “deals 1 suppression”

    when dealing with heavy cover.

  • Vader is always taking Force Push and almost always Force Choke, so

    you might as well pretend there only is 1 free upgrade slot and that Vader

    costs an extra 15 points base.

alt="What it typically feels like playing Darth Vader by Turn 5 and 6"/>
What it typically feels like playing Darth Vader by Turn 5 and 6

Command Cards

Let’s jump into his command cards next, as a big component of why you would

bring a Commander or Operative over several smaller hitters is (ostensibly) the

value of their command cards - a big component of the game of Legion.

Implacable

alt="Implacable: I just treat this card as Ambush with a gambling mechanic"/>
Implacable: I just treat this card as Ambush with a gambling mechanic

I think Implacable is supposed to represent Darth Vader making his way

through the Tantive IV, or perhaps even this

iconic scene from Rogue One. It

is a fairly standard 1-pip, giving Vader a coin-flip’s chance at going first

against an adversary (well, except for Count Dooku or

Emperor Palpatine or Director Krennic).

Then, once you’ve completed your activation and have an otherwise full bag of

order tokens (likely between 8 and 9, unless you’ve already lost several

activations and are on your way to losing the game), you can suffer a wound

to have a 1/9th, 1/8th, 1/7th, 1/6th (etc) chance of drawing Darth Vader and

getting the opportunity to go again.

In practice, I think this was supposed to incentivize holding Vader until later

in the round (to increase the chance of pulling his token quickly and going

twice in a row), but it’s not typically what you want with a 1-pip, and

suffering a wound on your most important piece to do this adds further insult to

injury.

Vader’s Might

alt="Vader’s Might: Probably Vader’s single best offensive command card"/>
Vader’s Might: Probably Vader’s single best offensive command card

Vader's Might is an outright terrifying card for your opponent:

  • It can extend Vader’s range by 6 inches (“range 1”) to land an attack

  • It can hurl units away from an objective, or friendly units towards one.

  • It can act as a “disengage” for Vader, freeing up the rest of his actions.

If you are taking Darth Vader, this is a must-take card (and unfortunately that

also means you need to buy the Darth Vader Operative Expansion in order to

play it competitively). I don’t have anything negative to say about this card,

and if Vader had additional cards similar to this one I wouldn’t have written

this article.

New Ways to Motivate Them

alt="New Ways to Motivate Them: Powerful, but very situational"/>
New Ways to Motivate Them: Powerful, but very situational

One of the nicest parts about New Ways to Motivate Them is that it doesn’t

require an order on the commander, which is fairly rare for most expensive named

units, and it doesn’t have a maximum effect, meaning you could double up with

HQ Uplink or other upgrades or effects that issue additional orders.

This card is best played as a way to efficiently interact with an objective

(interact, move, move or move, interact, move or move, move, interact) or as a

way for a multiwound unit like Imperial Royal Guards, Dewback Riders,

or even Bossk to increase their threat range.

The downside? None of those units are particularly cheap, and you end up relying

on multiple units (and Vader) being positioned well, and that your opponent does

not have an obvious counters (or a cache of standby tokens).

It’s worth nearly always taking this card, but getting a peak benefit from it is

(in my opinion) more difficult than the benefit gained by comparable units.

Fear and Dead Men

alt="Fear and Dead Men: Good at first sight, but ultimately sort of meh"/>
Fear and Dead Men: Good at first sight, but ultimately sort of meh

The first time I read Fear and Dead Men, I was extremely excited: finally a

way for Darth Vader to get his own cache of dodge tokens, and even a more

powerful Deflect as a result - neat! So what’s the problem(s)?

  • You need to be within range 2 of units for this to do anything; unlike Luke’s

    2 pips (both of them), this doesn’t offer your help engaging - it’s a card

    that is only going to do (much) of anything if you’ve made it into close

    range already.

  • Some of the scariest units in the game easily operate at range 3 or 4,

    completely bypassing any sort of security you’d get by playing this card.

  • For a 2 pip, it’s quite rare to get zero control over the rest of your

    army (more on that later in army synergy).

  • Effects that only come into play when you take wounds are a mixed bag; an

    opponent is going to be elated if they land a wound or two on Vader and

    suffer 2 wounds on say, Tauntaun Riders or B1 Battle Droids.

Fear and Dead Men is a situational card that is likely better suited as Push

in some lists (or other 2-pips when you manage to fit in another named unit

like Iden Versio or Bossk).

Master of Evil

alt="Master of Evil: Another excellent command card. More like this!"/>
Master of Evil: Another excellent command card. More like this!

Master of Evil does three excellent things (at least compared to other cards):

  1. It gives you an order-phase dodge token. With a limited access to surge

    tokens or reliable dodge tokens, this is your “oh shit” card - bumping up

    Vader’s survivability significantly against a first strike.

  2. It has a more difficult to land but powerful* effect on delivering 3

    suppression tokens to every enemy unit at range 1-2.

  3. It remembers you have other units in your army other than Darth Vader. This

    shouldn’t be too surprising, but even operatives like Sabine Wren have

    more consistent access to command cards that issue orders than Darth Vader.

You will take Master of Evil in every list with Vader.

*In earlier stages of the game, receiving 3 suppression could be game ending,

panicking units off the board and objectives at best and almost guaranteeing

that units close to the Dark Lord lose actions.

In the current meta almost every faction prioritizes units and strategies that

make suppression bombs less useful do to a combination of Droid Trooper,

courage-2 core units, easy access to Strict Orders, and more.

Darkness Descends

alt="Darkness Descends: Another bait and switch (good but actually not)"/>
Darkness Descends: Another bait and switch (good but actually not)

Darkness Descends was one of the most hyped up cards prior to the official

operative Vader release - it was going to give the slowest commander in the game

access to a rapid deployment via a combination of Infiltrate and Scout: 1,

removing woes about Darth Vader doing little in early turns of the game and

getting him in the action quickly. But did it?

I’d argue no:

  1. This is what is now considered a Divulge card, or a powerful effect that is

    only granted if you reveal the card during deployment, giving your opponent

    an advantage (they know what you are doing), with a supposed benefit

    balancing out this loss. Read ahead, but I don’t think the effects you gain

    by revealing this card (and effectively losing a command card for the rest

    of the game) is worth it.

  2. For Divulge cards produced so far (Padme’s Diplomatic Cover and Bane’s

    I Make The Rules Now), this is the only card that the ability or effect

    you are granted by not divulging it isn’t interesting. I can almost hear it

    now in Director Krennic’s voice: “Two surge tokens? A man of your talent?".

  3. This card has a strange anti-synergy with Darth Vader; in the commander

    configuration (the one we’re mostly looking at) you surrender an excellent

    army boosting card like Coordinated Fire, and the activation control

    granted by Assault.

  4. The ability granted is much more situational and board dependent than you’d

    think at first glance. By requiring Vader be deployed last it becomes pretty

    trivial with a combination of Infiltrate and scout 2-3 units (which are

    extremely common now) can box out deployments. When I read this card these

    days I mostly read “Give Vader Scout: 3” - which, while nice, is not up to

    the power level of most other commanders which are natively fast enough not

    to care as much as Vader does.

  5. Finally, Vader lists already had a difficult time building up a decent

    activation count (9 is common, 10 is possible) and impactful command cards

    and this card guarantees your opponent can lose priority with

    Standing Orders, or win priority with a 2-pip for an alpha strike with no

    order control on the rest of your army as you gamble with activation tokens

    the rest of the round.

Army Synergy

Ultimately, a lot of the qualms of Darth Vader are still relatively minor: he is

still, despite all of the negatives able to make powerful plays that can swing

the entire game (assuming you play all 6 turns). However, a roughly

~210 point investment in a single unit means you are relying on fitting quality

independent activations in less than 600 points - something extremely tough

for Empire to pull off.

Here are some typical lists:

Vader and IRG

alt="Pairs up Darth Vader with Imperial Royal Guards"/>
Pairs up Darth Vader with Imperial Royal Guards

This fairly standard 10-activation list is a fairly standard gunline that swaps

out a sniper strike team for Imperial Royal Guards, which gives Vader a nice

survivability bump as well as a fun target for New Ways to Motivate Them

(charging IRG with 3 move actions and tenacity is extremely fun).

You can swap between upgrades and core units, or even experiment with including

something like Imperial Special Forces to support an infiltrating Vader. The

main problem with this list is that it doesn’t do anything - it’s a “jack of all

trade lists” that is still going to suffer against high mobility armies,

competent heavy armor like the AAT or Saber Tank, and is gunned down by more

focused Veers/Shores or Rex/Clones.

Vader and Veers

alt="Pairs up Darth Vader with General Veers"/>
Pairs up Darth Vader with General Veers

Another 10-activation list, this time relying a bit more on having an effective

gunline by using a combination of HQ Uplink and Imperial Discipline for

order control, aim tokens, surge tokens, and suppression removal on the Shores.

I’ve seen and played variants of this list that go for more Stormtroopers and

swap General Veers for a generic Imperial Officer, saving some points. Lists

relying on electrobinoculars for gunline effectiveness with Darth Vader have

a tough time because Vader doesn’t really share orders - meaning that you’ll be

hunting for Veers or the Officer to do reliable damage.

Vader and Dewbacks

alt="Vader becomes King Theoden in this Riders of Rohan Remake List"/>
Vader becomes King Theoden in this Riders of Rohan Remake List

A more fringe list, but still effective, is concentrating most of your offensive

capability on New Ways to Motivate Them and three hungry, hungry hippos. It is

going to be less effective against certain lists and strategies, but sort of

rides on the tactic of an overwhelming amount of fast, hardy melee units that

most players are not used to dealing with.

Other Lists and Synergy Notes

There are certainly other lists Vader is capable of playing with, including some

popularity with Bossk, Iden Versio, and more.

Ultimately the problem still comes down to the fact that Darth Vader is hyper

focused on getting into melee for safety (just not around Dooku, Palpatine, or

basically any Jedi with access to force push), and the efficiency of the list

around him is severely impacted - he can’t issue all-so-important aim or surge

tokens to his army, or even order tokens when playing more of his cards.

It’s hard to built a list around him, in a way that it probably would not be

if it was possible to take Darth Vader in another faction that have built-in

independence (Clones), easy access to orders (Droids), or a variety of hard

hitting support characters (Rebels).

Comparisons to other core-box Commanders

This wouldn’t be a Vader-hate article without focusing on alternatives for new

players - these are the commanders that players, especially newer ones, are

looking at when considering playing Empire with Vader.

Luke Skywalker

alt="Luke Skywalker: Darth Vader’s son packs a punch and then some"/>
Luke Skywalker: Darth Vader’s son packs a punch and then some

Luke is the gold standard for a core-box commander: he is independent, has

high mobility thanks to Jump, has a supporting set of command cards that issue

dodge tokens to himself and allies, and even cards that help with suppression -

and that is only his core (non-Operative) cards - his operative cards kick

it up even farther with unique mechanics not available anywhere else.

In comparison to Vader:

  • Command cards that are less situational, including those that make Luke nearly

    immune to damage, attack twice back to back, or even completely disable the

    ability of heroes like Palpatine or Dooku to attack at all, and even

    take control of an enemy unit.

  • Easier access to navigate (and hide with) terrain, easier access to dodge

    tokens, and even the ability to use suppression as cover help make up the gap

    between 6 and 8 wounds.

  • Noticeably cheaper (~40-50 points in commander form) in a faction with more

    independent units like Tauntaun Riders and a supporting cast like Leia and

    Sabine.

Luke was a top-tier pick day 1 and with the notable exception of it being a bit

more difficult to navigate with any Jedi right now thanks to a proliferation

of standby-Clones and heavy-hitting range-4 armor, continues to be excellent and

feels like Luke Skywalker.

General Grievous

alt="General Grievous: A Cyborg that decided to retain the ability to run"/>
General Grievous: A Cyborg that decided to retain the ability to run

The only non-Jedi core-box commander, General Grievous manages to have a lot

going for him: he has a devestating 8-dice attack, Relentless with access to

an auto-include blaster pistol that increases his already impressive threat

range and provides Critical: 1, speed-2 with Scale, and most importantly a

super synnergyistic two command slots.

In comparison to Vader:

  • Grievous does not have the strongest command cards, and his low courage means

    that he can’t afford to tank ranged attacks else risk panic or losing actions;

    however his 1-pip, Trained in Your Jedi Arts can sometimes win a game!

  • The Droid faction has plenty of access to cheap, effective units that don’t

    rely on a specific commander to play reasonable. That means that Grievous,

    like probably any CIS commander, can rely more on the army list than Vader

    can.

  • His command card upgrades might as well read “Aggressive Tactics,

    Strict Orders”, which in turn means “give out 4 surge tokens and remove a

    suppression token without rolling”. If Vader could give out 24 surge tokens

    in the course of a game we’d feel different about him!

Grievous has a lot of internal competition, like Count Dooku, but is

a strong pick that, aside from a low courage, is fairly straightforward to play.

Obi-Wan Kenobi

alt="Obi-Wan Kenobi: Somehow still a better Luke Skywalker. Who knew?"/>
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Somehow still a better Luke Skywalker. Who knew?

Obi-Wan is likely the most well-rounded Jedi, with strong defensive and

offensive capabilities that are almost guaranteed to get better over time with

future access to medics. Go ahead and re-read Luke Skywalker, and then

apply the following.

In comparison to Vader:

  • Obi-Wan has three excellent command cards offering extreme amount of army

    synergy with Knowledge and Defense and General Kenobi, and one of the

    best 1-pips in the game: Hello There. Imagine if Obi-Wan needed to injure

    himself and throw his taken back in the order pool to get this effect?

  • The Clone faction has plenty of access to strong, independent units that don’t

    rely on a specific commander to play reasonable. That means that Obi-Wan, like

    probably any GAR commander, can rely more on the army list than Vader can.

Ironically, Obi-Wan is mostly held back by the large amounts of synergy and

objective playing power offered by the vastly cheaper Clone Captain Rex,

and is an excellent first commander experience for players.

Emperor Palpatine

alt="Emperor Palpatine: I guess there is a reason he’s the master?"/>
Emperor Palpatine: I guess there is a reason he’s the master?

Palpatine isn’t a core-box commander, but he’s currently one of two Sith options

for Empire, and is a bonus comparison. This one is particularly interesting,

as Palpatine is also the other Speed: 1 commander.

In comparison to Vader:

  • Palpatine’s defensive capabilities thanks to a native Surge: Block, the

    Imperial Royal Guards with Entourage, and Give in to Your Anger as the

    ultimate interrupt help him stay comparable to Vader.

  • If you manage to stay healthy (or take advantage of medics),

    And Now… You Will Die can easily make up for doing less during the first

    several rounds of the game. It’s not uncommon for this card to win the game.

  • A command slot (“Aggressive Tactics”) combined with An Entire Legion and

    Pulling the Strings offers a decent amount of army synergy, helping make up

    for Palpatine’s otherwise minimal mobility.

Palpatine has won several major events despite being a trickier play than say

Luke Skywalker, but is definitely getting tougher to play with the

increase in high-volume long-range attacks. However, he’s still looking better

than Vader!

Count Dooku

alt="Count Dooku: Or, what if Vader was actually scary to other Jedi?"/>
Count Dooku: Or, what if Vader was actually scary to other Jedi?

Dooku isn’t a core-box commander, but comparisons are still made, so this one is

a bonus. Dooku is much more of a control piece than Vader, less reliant on

getting in melee - but once he does he has the potential to be just as scary.

In comparison to Vader:

  • Count Dooku has three excellent command cards patching up vulnerabilities in

    his kit: Fear, Surprise, Intimidation can deliver an 8-dice pierce 3

    range 2 attack, or even just be used in melee to split attack saber/lightning,

    Double the Fall can disable another threat at range-2, all but

    guaranteeing Dooku still goes first thank to strong Droid synergy, and

    You Disappoint Me helps Dooku close the gap and up his defenses.

  • A combination of Cunning and Makashi Mastery gives Dooku the edge against

    most other lightsaber wielders. If you manage an attack on already injured

    unit, Dooku can often land the kill, even if they have Immune: Pierce.

  • A command slot, just like with Grevious, can basically read

    “Aggressive Tactics”, which in turn can read “give out 4 surge tokens every

    turn”. This can even help Dooku with an activation-phase defensive bonus.

  • I find the speed 2 versus speed 1 comparison still quite important; Dooku’s

    ability to position in early turns can be significantly better, and the built

    in range 2 force lightning is much more threatening than saber throw.

Dooku is definitely a bit harder to play than some of the other commanders in

this list, but it’s hard not to look longingly over to the other side of the

table in the Vader versus Dooku matchup.

What’s coming next

We don’t even know the full potential or stats of upcoming heroes like

Anakin Skywalker or Darth Maul, but it’s almost guaranteed they are

going to be play better than our Dark Lord.

You need to play 6 turns

Even after all of these comparisons, it is still possible to play a halfway

decent Darth Vader, and to win in competitive events (though I’d argue the

ability to do so reliably, if that matters for you, is fairly low). However,

there this is a big caveat: you have to play six turns.

Look back and think about the last 3-4 timed games you’ve played (as are common

in FLGS with early closing hours or tournaments trying to fit in many games on

a tight schedule). Every game you didn’t make it to turn 6 (or even worse,

turn 5) is probably a game where Vader would have done next to nothing.

Thanks to Vader’s lack of speed and mobility, you’re mostly reliant on slowly

moving up the board as safely as you can until you position for a devastating

last couple turns. But if there are no last couple turns, he is capable of

effectively doing nothing - that is, taking someone like Iden Versio and

a few supporting cast members is blanket better, unconditionally.

So, tl;dr: Make sure you are making it to turn 6.

What about Operative Vader

alt="Operative Vader: You can now further harm yourself to play like other units"/>
Operative Vader: You can now further harm yourself to play like other units

For the most part, I think operative Vader is not worth playing currently; the

only real benefit you gain is the ability to Spur, or suppress yourself to

make a speed-2 move (i.e. what nearly every other unit gets for free), at the

high cost of less health, needing another commander, a weaker attack, and more.