General strategy and list building for the forces of the Galactic Empire. This article is intended as an entry point to critical thinking about list building for Imperials and is not hard and fast rules. You are encouraged to build and play your own lists in your own way.
The armies of the Empire are numerous and varied, they can play in many different ways towards many different ends - but they are all built out of the same blocks and on the same principles.
- quality over quantity
- consistency and predictability
- durability and staying power
- independent and autonomous
Quality: Imperial units cost more than their counterparts, which means that you get less of them and also that each unit has to be responsible for doing more work over the course of each game. In general Imperial units benefit from longer ranges, better armor, and more consistency for their premium price.
Consistency: Imperial units don't necessarily do more damage than their counterparts, in fact their maximum potential is often less, however their numbers are consistent and reliable. A DLT-19 for example is almost always going to result in 2 hits while a Z-6 will statistically average 2 hits but in reality it swings wildly from 0 to 6. Imperials also have longer range and more access to aim tokens, generally allowing them easier mitigation of their below average rolls when they happen.
Durability: Imperial units with a couple notable exceptions have much higher damage resistance than their counterparts through the widespread availability of red defense dice, armor, and sometimes higher total hit points.
Autonomy: Although Imperial units appreciate ancillary support like everyone else, they do not count on it to perform their role efficiently. Snowtroopers with suppression can still move into range and attack while Fleet Troopers with suppression will be stuck out of range; Stormtroopers are able to move and shoot at only slightly reduced efficiency while Rebel Troopers who move and shoot without dodging drop significantly in efficiency.
Each unit in the Empire is purpose built and focused on its primary role. Stormtroopers for example excel in holding enemies at long range, Snowtroopers at close quarter troop extermination, Veers at maximizing action efficiency, and Vader is an unstoppable murder machine - in the same way each Imperial unit is purpose built, so is each Imperial list.
Imperial lists are built around an anchor - a single significant element that carries the rest of list and is fundamental in the list's play-style. The anchor is often a single expensive piece such as Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, an AT-ST, but could be several homogenous units that perform the same role and work in concert - such as triple speederbikes. The main requirement is that it consists of a significant portion of your list, is fundamental to your playstyle and goal, and generally the rest of the list either supports or delivers your anchor.
Where to Begin
When you begin building an Imperial list it is best to start with your anchor - it is after all the element that the rest of your force will conform around and support. Generally this will be your commander or vehicles, but in the future this could also be elite troopers or other specialized forces. It is wise to keep this piece as lean and as focused as possible. It may be tempting to add lots of upgrades to this piece to make it versatile and to shore up any weaknesses it may have, but in doing so you are investing more points into something your opponent will already be focused on - instead it would be a wiser use of resources to shore up any weaknesses your anchor has with additional units rather than over upgrading it - as a general guideline this piece should never cost more than 1/3 of your list or 250 points.
Once you have chosen you anchor it is important to know its purpose and its limitations. Vader for example deals tons of damage and has immense control and threat but only in a small and slow bubble. The AT-ST deals a decent amount of damage spread across multiple targets and can project that threat quite far, but lacks the ability to claim most objectives. Once you have identified your anchors purpose, strengths, and weaknesses its time to add upgrades. Focus on adding only upgrades that help keep your anchor alive or help it perform its primary function and skip the rest.
How to Expand
Now that you have your anchor chosen it is time to build the rest of your list - there are two paths you can take from here and knowing which one to take requires you to know your personal playstyle and preferences.
In a skew list you double down on the function of your anchor - the general tactic and theory here is that an enemy list will have limited answers to each problem they are presented with, and a skew list will present a very limited number of problems but in a quantity that will overwhelm the toolsets of most lists it encounters.
For example if you are playing with Darth Vader your opponent likely has a toolset that can handle one model that deals extreme damage at close range, a skew from there would be adding six units of Snowtroopers with flamethrowers - although the opponent's toolset could deal with one unit it is unlikely to be able to deal with the now overwhelming number and at a certain point the opponent runs out of tools that can handle the problem you present, at which point you overwhelm them and win. As a second example, most opponents lists will have the tools required to handle an AT-ST, however when you run two AT-STs you are now skewing. At some point most lists will run out of tools to overcome the AT-STs armor at which point the AT-STs are free to run the table unchecked.
In general Imperial skew lists are easier to run because once they hit the threshold of overwhelming the opponent they encounter little resistance, however skew list are so hyper focused in their function that they tend to have large weaknesses themselves and sometimes get asked a question that they cannot answer - because of this, although skew lists are simpler to play and can do well in competition, they often are not considered top tier competitive because they rely on the luck of not encountering their weakness and are easy to overcome for opponents who happen to have an answer to the skews question.
Balanced lists are the opposite of skew lists. In a balanced list you look at what your anchor does and then build around it in a way that supports it, but also covers its weaknesses and shortcomings. Generally balanced lists require more skill to use, but have a broad toolset that can answer many if not all question it is presented with. Balanced lists can still be overwhelmed by skew lists, but in general have a much more consistent and predictable win record when piloted with skill - and therefore tend to be considered more competitive.
To use our previous examples If you had chosen Vader as your anchor instead of skewing into 6 units of stormtroopers a balanced list would likely include a unit of bikes and several units of stormtroopers - the Stormtroopers add consistent damage at range to help cover Vader's small threat bubble and the bikes add speed and mobility to the list allowing you to reach your opponents support in the back that Vader couldn't reach. When taking an AT-ST instead of skewing into a second AT-ST a balanced list would take a mix of troops to enable the list to better take and hold various objectives.
A balanced list will often include some ancillary support for their anchor as well. Every unit will have faults and weaknesses - an AT-ST for example wants to move, aim, shoot, and often recover all in the same activation, General Veers enables and supports the AT-ST through abilities and command cards to become more efficient. Vader and Palpatine have limited range and speed but deal large amounts of damage once they arrive - the royal guards help deliver them by granting them guardian as well as engaging potential threats in melee. The key is to not over do the support otherwise you are over committed and wandering back into skew list territory.
Crafting a balanced list also takes considerable skill, forethought, and knowledge of the meta to know what questions you are likely to be asked and what answers them. However once you find the right balance for your playstyle and the meta, playing a balanced list is often the most enjoyable and rewarding.
Defining a Strategy
Once you have chosen your anchor piece and decided on whether you are building into a skewed or a balanced list, the next step is to envision how all of these elements come together in the ideal situation.
Is this list designed to table the opponent? Does it turtle and play at range? Is it focused on the scenario? What mission parameters does it want to see? What does it not want to see? Does it want to be Red player or Blue player?
If you are playing a skew list you should figure out what the question is you are asking; “can you overcome 22 hit points of armor?”, “can you overcome an overwhelming amount of suppression on your units?”, “can you stop and survive against a swarm of short range high-damage units?”, etc. In addition you should figure out what your weaknesses are and what questions you have trouble answering, and if you can adapt your playstyle to help mitigate your own weaknesses without changing the list.
If you are playing a balanced list in addition to the above questions you should also know what role each unit plays, what questions it answers, and if there are any unconventional uses for it that increase your toolset.
Once you have all of this in your head you are ready to put the list on the table and confirm that it plays on the table the way it plays in your head.
Common Imperial Archetypes and Strategies
The gunline is long-range list that is focused on damage output and can consist of a mix of troops, characters, and vehicles; the troops are equipped with specialized long-range weapons, but the character or vehicle will often be used as a flanking unit. A common example might be Veers with an AT-ST and stormtroopers with DLTs, but the AT-ST could easily be Vader or Bikes. This archetype wants to engage the enemy at a range that the enemy can't retaliate from, for example if you can begin shooting the enemy at range 4 while the enemy can only return fire at range 2 or 3 then you get an early attrition advantage that you can press to victory. Another advantage of this style is that you can begin to suppress the enemy long before they can make it to the objective, meaning that you can often control the tempo of battle and when the scenario comes into play.
The mechanized cavalry tends to be a vehicle centric list but the defining factor is that it focuses on endurance more than damage output. Unlike the gunline this list generally wants to put its key units in the enemies face so that its supporting units can do their job safely. The troops in this list are primarily focused on securing the objective and taking out enemy units that are equipped to handle your vehicles. The vehicles job is to break your enemies lines and cause havoc once they are unchecked staying between the enemy and your support. Generally this list will run multiple units with armor such as AT-STs although you could also run it with bikes, light vehicles, or even heavy infantry if you apply them tactfully. The benefit of a vehicle heavy mechanized cavalry is that it takes advantage of its immunity to suppression and its high damage resistance to shrug off most of the opponents attacks. When playing the bike version of this list it is important to engage the enemy at angles where the bikes cant be focus fired upon so that their dodge tokens have the chance to keep them alive.
Honor Guard / Raiding Party:
This style of list concentrates on a character and their abilities and focuses on maximizing that characters impact. The rest of the list could be troops or vehicles, but the character is the central focus and everything else enables or delivers them. This list is hard to broadly define because it is going to change a great deal depending on what character you are focused on - Darth Vader for example will want ranged units to accompany him to help mitigate his short range; Palpatine will want to be surrounded by Royal Guard to help keep him alive with his limited health; and Boba Fett will often want a large diversion far away from him so he can make the most effect out of his mobility and tricks.
This is also a less defined list but it is a term you will hear so I wanted to cover it. Good Stuff tends to be less coherent than other lists, but instead consists of multiple units that are good on their own and need little support. The benefit is that this list tends to have a very broad tool set and can answer most questions it is asked, however it tends to lack the strength of a central focus that the other lists have.
How to Test and Refine
Once you have picked the elements of your list and crafted them together it is time to test your creation. The best way to do this is to play casual games with friends, if you are preparing for tournament competition then ask them to play lists that you think your list will do poorly against or problems that you think are likely to come up in the meta.
There are some things to keep in mind however - You should complete a hand full of games before making any changes to your list no matter the results, this will give you a better idea as to whether the things you think aren't working really aren't working or if the last game was just a fluke. When you do make changes make small changes and then play several more games to retest - This will help give you an idea of how much of the list is working and how far from peak efficiency you are, often it doesn't take much and generally when making big changes you end up over correcting too far in the opposite direction.
Lastly, and this takes a lot of skill, patience, and self-reflection; often when you built a list on paper that you feel really good about that list will be good because it inherently fits your play style because it came from you. The biggest changes with the most beneficial impact are often not changes to the list much at all but how you play it on the table. To test changes in this way, try being more conservative or more aggressive with specific pieces, change what parts of the opponents list are priority to remove, or test different game paces and how you approach the scenario objectives.
List Metrics to Consider
Although you can build your list however you'd like there are some general guidelines to keep in mind about lists in general - both so that you know what you might face, but also to know that if your list falls too far outside of this you know there may be issues.
Activations: Most competitive lists contain between 7 and 10 activations - you can have significantly more or less than that, however keep in mind that too few activations means you generally can't put out enough attacks to handle your opponents units, and too many activations means that you are running small units who will have a hard time overcoming the constants in the game such as dodge and cover.
Initiative Bid: Depending on your list and play style you will under bid the amount of points you take. If your list and play style dictate that you prefer red player, then by all means get as close to the full 800 points as you can. However if you want blue player you will have to gamble on how many points you can pass up. Generally around 5-9 points is considered a normal bid for a list that wants blue player, at this level you are missing out on one or two upgrades that a player who wants red player will not have skipped over. around 10-15 points is considered a moderate bid, at this point you will edge out lists that aren't dying to be blue player but you also are giving up several upgrades that you may or may not have needed. 15-20 points is a pretty aggressive bid, at this level you could add a special weapon or extra trooper which could have significant impact on the course of the game. Bidding more than 20 points will almost always guarantee you blue player, but it is a significant sacrifice and should be considered quite a bit before committing to.
Impact and Armor: Armor is a significant hurdle to overcome if you did not prepare for it. When building a competitive list you want to ensure that you have enough impact to handle any armor that you might encounter. A good guideline but not a hard and fast rule is that you want to be able to put out 6 points of Impact at range per turn or 12 points of Impact up close. Generally this means 6 units with DLT-19s, or 2 units with HH-12s, or 2 full units with Impact Grenades.
Troops and objectives: The list building rules only obligate you to bring your commander and 3 corps units so you could in theory fill the rest of the list with vehicles - however you should keep in mind that the majority of scenarios can only be interacted with by troops. for this reason I recommend taking at least 4 full units in addition to your commander or 6 minimum units. This ensures that your opponent can't just wipe your troopers off the board and then keep you from contesting the scenario. It does not matter if those troops are corps or elite or whatever you'd like as long as they can interact with the objective.
Make it your Own:
Now that you have completed the Imperial Academy you have the toolset to go forth and be a powerful commander - just keep in mind that these are guidelines and archetypes, you can and should build lists the way that makes sense to you. Often the best list you can play is the one you came up with yourself because it already meshes well with how you tend to think and play.