So, the Zion's Finest slack channel has had a fair amount of discouragement and gloom about the prominence of Spectre Cell victories at recent regionals. It's raising the question: should something be done? I wanted to post some longer-form thoughts on it:
1) It seems likely that Spectre Cell is an "S-Tier" list. That is, its fundamental capacities are pitched higher than at least several "A-Tier" lists.
1a) Is this true?
1a.i On the one hand, Spectre Cell has very strong statlines. People have advanced the theory that this is to make up for the lack of keyword synergy (the best synergies are Force User, which doesn't have a huge powerhouse CC suite, and Smuggler, which has a balanced offensive/defensive/utility suite, though one smuggler figure is Hera). There is only one hunter (the definitive trait keyword of the previous meta), and no spies or troopers.
1a.ii Spectre Cell has access to loads of pierce attacks, which allow it to overpierce Zillo (one of the cornerstones of Imperial defenses) and often more or less ignore defending black-die results.
1aiii. The Spectre-Cell off-action attack allows multiple figures to activate at once, mitigating the lack of an eQuay or eRanger style multi-hit, and beginning to approach the value of a Vader Parting-Blow combo, although the SC figures can't approach his top-result of 10p3 without significant command card help.
1aiv. New command card tricks. The SC upgrade also allows strong work out of the Strength in Numbers card, and the Jedi melee attacks are sufficient to warrant using pummel as an offensive technique, especially when the figures have good health pools or defensive tricks (OtL access) to survive a counterstrike. Ezra's Brash resonates well with Heart of Freedom, Force Rush, and Fleet Footed to allow for significant movement before a pummel.
On the other hand, Spectre Cell has consistent, known weaknesses:
1b.i. It has trouble with range: a doubt/tough luck re-roll can often make a Zeb, Hera, or Sabine shot miss, and the CC deck clutters up pretty quickly.
1b.ii. The Spectres gain significant values from staying close together, which makes them susceptible to anti-box tactics such as Drokatta shots, Vader combos, or Grenadier. This also hampers their ability to pressure multiple objectives unless they're willing to forego key tools like Hera's buff, Kanan's re-roll, or setting Ezra's die.
1b.iii. The Spectre draw speed is steady and doesn't have a lot of tools for speeding up: spending Hera actions on Planning or Black Market Prices hurts the efficiency of the list's box approach. SC also has no easy means of attacking your own cards, unlike Thrawn, strain effects, or spies. You're likely to remain in control of your own bag of tricks against a SC list.
1b.iv. SC has trouble with activation economy: we now have a mini-Queen list that Vader can readily equal or out-activate. Spectre Cell can't readily rely on having last activation, making it easy for Han Solo or Darth Vader to capitalize on an End of Round attack. The best soft-pass figure in the list is Hera, who still wants to see a lot of the board develop before she takes her position; Chopper, Ezra, Kanan, Sabine, and Zeb all have reasons for wanting to go late in the first round, and they obviously can't all do it. Compare to Vader at 7-acts or Han/Rangers, who get significantly better value out of last activation, and have an easy time securing it for multiple rounds against SC.
1b.v. The SC tap is in-round, in-activation. Strength in Numbers dramatically raises the scale of this threat, but by and large, Han and Vader's EoR attacks, IG's Blaze of Glory, or a solid eRanger CtV (I recently got hit hard by a Wildfire CtV with impressive results) offer stronger timing pressure through the first two rounds, and if SC gets sufficiently bloodied on their approach, their spike is massively blunted. In addition, the in-round SC tap can be blunted by tools such as Set for Stun, positioning, or clearing the potential next-act SC-attacker. It's a strong tool, but also a known quantity. Stunning Zeb or Kanan is particularly powerful, as they cannot be cleared by Motivation (having equal figure cost).
1b.vi. SC damage has a high low-end, but a low high-end. There are several tools that help them spike a bit, but they can't spike as high as Onar or Vader. Han with focus can consistently match their damage output, and represents a 10-point "bank" against SC. Their build renders some spiking tools redundant: Element of Surprise does a lot more for Han Solo than it does for Ezra, because Ezra's damage is built around his pierce. Han may get to 9 or 10 easily on a focused Element shot; Ezra is probably still at 7.
At the end of all that, I'm happy to call SC an S-Tier list ... but let's be clear that it's strength lies in being strong at everything, without becoming VERY STRONG at things without work: two in-activation Vader attacks cap around 10p3 each (12p3 with Deathblow on one); add Parting Blow, Force Surge, Dark Energy, and a Force Choke to that activation, and you can conceivably deal something like 22p6 damage, 5 unmitigated damage, and 2 strain. Spectre Cell can't do that, even with SiN and a SC tap.
2) Is the list "too powerful?"
We've got to define the term "too" to answer this question. The list is clearly "powerful."
I'd offer that "too" powerful would mean that it can't be defeated by other meta lists, played at a similarly competitive level. It may be "more" powerful than other meta lists. It may even relegate them to A-tier rather than S-tier. But I'm not sure that makes it "too" powerful.
2a. Spectre is winning a lot of Regional events -- something like 13 of them so far. Some of these are more complicated stories when you interrogate them (e.g., it's not surprising that a SC list won a tourney with 6/8 players running SC, or the Omaha final was decided 44-39 by a Sabine high-roll vs a Han blank white die).
2b. Spectre Cell players are experiencing both wins and losses at Regional events. This isn't just people who casually pick the list up: people who have played it since Store Champs are losing games, and they're losing games to everything from Scum VP manipulation to Han Rangers to Scum Hunters to 6- and 7-act Vader builds. It isn't uncommon for SC players to have a 3-1 or 2-2 record going into the cut. Luck can play a factor: a Sabine or Ezra dodge is huge ... but so is a Han dodge, or a Hondo dodge. In larger regionals with broader metas, such as Kansas and Utah, Spectre Cell hasn't been represented in the finals, despite being run by players who have previously won tournaments in at least one of those events. Essentially, you can beat Spectre Cell if you have a plan to beat Spectre Cell ... which seems true of every meta list.
2c. Spectre Cell has a complicated relationship with objectives and points. The can control an area of a map by bunching at it, and punish anything but a really powerful effort to dislodge them. But they're weaker against high-activation counts on maps like Rogue AI or Mos Eisley Concealed Treasures. Lothal will have an impact on their range, forcing them to either split or advance across a map, allowing for more on-approach risk. A scum VP list can race them to 40 or to time. A defensive box can work towards selective exchanges. A Vader/Thrawn/spy list can hunt for a few key cards and hold back Vader for a decisive moment (and SC has trouble playing around Dying Lunge). SC doesn't currently have an "auto-win" map; they're strong on all, but not broken anywhere like Ugnaughts on Raining Freight.
Are they "too powerful?" In chess, computers win about 5% more often with the white pieces than the black pieces. It's an advantage, but not an insuperable one, and players work a variety of strategies to equalize that advantage. Spectre Cell feels the same way: you know what it is and what it's strengths are coming in, so it's a part of what we're playing against.
3) Should the list be nerfed?
3a: What has its impact been? The only unit that it really seems to have left behind is the eJet troopers. I think I've seen lists beating SC with every other serious unit from last year's meta (including eQuays, though you have to be even more careful with them now). Losing one unit's efficiency as we advance a whole box and add a new point to the previous triangle of prospective matchups (possibly two, depending on how uniquely we think Scum VP plays vs Scum hunters) seems like an appropriate development of the game. We still see Han, eRangers, Drok, RCP, R2, smugglers, and the occasional Chewie and Jyn (and MHD in Utah). We still see IG, Jabba, Greedo, Onar, eQuays, and eJawas, though plenty of people are happily adding Hondo as well. We still see Vader, Palp, eRiots, rOfficers, and the occasional AT-DP, with plenty of use for the new units when Empire is run.
3b: Nerfing is a pretty serious step, and tough to reverse. SC can already be beaten by a Merc list running only cards and deployments from Jabba's Realm and the Droid Wave, two boxes back. Empire lists are finding ways to replace 2xeJets with Thrawn, Death Troopers, and powerful new upgrades. Rebels can beat SC with Han/Rangers, a JR list with HOTE Han fix. Is SC slightly stronger than those lists? Sure, though they each have ways in which they're stronger than SC. But nerfing SC now to be at or below the previous meta seems unnecessary, especially if the game is going to advance: a nerf now may mean SC isn't equipped to deal with whatever comes next.
4) The "Can be beaten" vs "Too powerful" question
So, "Can be beaten" isn't a full argument that something isn't "too powerful." If it takes perfect performance and more than a usual share of luck to win, the case is probably made for "too powerful."
4a. People say you have to play perfectly AGAINST SC, but they don't talk as much about the need for perfect play AS Spectre Cell. The list is tanky, sure. But leaving Kanan or Zeb where they can be shot is a good way to lose a figure to focus fire before it can activate again. SC has to make an approach that adds enough pressure for round two without giving away damage because of the melee-distance attacks from Kanan/Ezra/Zeb or Grenade-distance-relevance for Sabine. Keeping four figures all safe is hard to the point of impossible. Splitting them up often allows opponents to capitalize on a weak point in the position. So I don't think it takes "perfect" performance to beat Spectre Cell ... I DO think it takes "EQUAL" performance, and possibly "BETTER" performance. But that's a lot of competitive gaming: the situation naturally benefits one side or the other, so you need to maximize your capacities, minimize theirs, and capitalize on errors. The space may be tighter against Spectre Cell, but I don't think the equation is fundamentally different.
4b. Does it take more than usual luck to beat it? SC has ways of mitigating bad luck: innate damage/block helps every roll ... though the early critique of the spoiled figures before the SC upgrade was that they weren't up to the power curve (without it), so perhaps they're on the front edge of the curve, rather than behind it. Ezra can get an offensive re-roll or a dangerous set die ... but that takes telegraphing and specific activation timing -- they can accelerate it once or twice per game with the right position and command cards, but that's similar to what other lists can already accomplish with Blaze, CtV, SoS, New Orders, or a Palp or Jabba ordered attack.
Figures can get a defensive re-roll by Kanan, but that requires staying in a bunched position that may not threaten enough of the board and is around one of your slowest moving, easiest to remove figures. And the high health pools are somewhat forgiving, but they are finite and we've spent two years in a meta full of tools for taking out large amounts of health quickly. Plus, each removed Spectre drops their capacities significantly, from activations to SC tap options to figures taking advantage of synergies. A dodge feels especially strong on SC, but many lists have means of removing dice or dodges, and there are some old tools (Deadly Precision, Lock-On, Ko-Tun's token effect) that have been under-utilized against dodges and may be worth their costs now.
5) The "Is it bad for the game?" Question
5a. The case has been made that SC is a forgiving, low-cost way for new players to enter. We've heard stories of skilled people who have played other competitive games picking up a buddy's SC list and getting a few wins in a tournament, despite being novices in IA nuance.
5b. Others report that people get bored playing against SC over and over and leave to go play other games. That said, I've heard that about hunter lists, Vader lists, and Han lists in the past year, so I'm not sure that should count against SC specifically.
5c. I think claims that SC is breaking the game need to be put in context: We've had a slow release schedule and rough communication and OP support. If those other factors were there, I don't think SC would be named as the problem child for IA as often; people wouldn't mind it having its moment on the top of the heap if we felt like more content that would help us redraw the lines of power and influence were coming up soon.
I think SC's issues are similar to issues in the past. They aren't as dominant or as bad for OP as 4x4 or Ugnaughts seem to have been; they seem to be a standard the way Hunters have been for several years, and I think the player community should appreciate that at least there's a new bar, even if it's a more challenging one. SC is having a day in the sun the way Unshakeable Vader did last year, even if it seems longer and brighter. Some of the SC anxiety feels like transferred concern about other issues with the game's development (release schedule). At the end of the day, I don't mind that it's in the game.
And I might bring it to Worlds if people keep asking me to be their practice partner on Vassal to test their lists against it ...