The Tragedy of Darth Vader
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:
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.
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
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):
At 8 wounds, 3 force upgrade slots,
Master of the Force,
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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
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 3is 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
Impervioushero such as Sabine or
a tougher vehicle such as an AAT or Saber.
Relentlessonly is a benefit over
Chargeif you take Saber Throw; and
3 red dice, even with pierce 3, often can translate to “deals 1 suppression”
when dealing with heavy cover.
you might as well pretend there only is 1 free upgrade slot and that Vader
costs an extra 15 points base.
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 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
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
New Ways to Motivate Them
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
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
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
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
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
in some lists (or other 2-pips when you manage to fit in another named unit
Master of Evil
Master of Evil does three excellent things (at least compared to other cards):
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.
It has a more difficult to land but powerful* effect on delivering 3
suppression tokens to every enemy unit at range 1-2.
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
courage-2 core units, easy access to Strict Orders, and more.
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
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:
This is what is now considered a
Divulgecard, 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.
Divulgecards 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?".
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.
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
Infiltrateand 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.
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.
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
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
Another 10-activation list, this time relying a bit more on having an effective
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
A more fringe list, but still effective, is concentrating most of your offensive
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
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 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
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.
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
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 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
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.
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 Stringsoffers 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
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
Makashi Masterygives 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
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
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
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.