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Those Were Only Their Scouts

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"See, the first wave, that was just the hounds! Categories 1 to 4, it was nothing! Their sole purpose was to aim for the populated areas and take out the vermin: us! The second wave, that is the exterminators, and they will finish the job!"
Dr. Newton Geiszler, Pacific Rim

Heroes and villains are at war. The villain unleashes his greatest Weapon of Mass Destruction, perhaps in an Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever. In the case of fantasy setting, it may be a huge monster. The first reaction of the heroes is to attack all at once; they get easily defeated and the weapon is still undamaged. It's Time for Plan B. Send an Attack Pattern Alpha, ignore the losses and go on, take advantage of good luck, use That One Attack that may only be used once... and finally, after a difficult and painful battle, the heroes destroy the terrible weapon. They are battle-weary, they are injured and with Clothing Damage, but victorious.

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...hey, wait, what's that thing coming in the horizon? Another of those weapons? No, it's worse: it's a dozen of such weapons. Oh, Crap!. It was so difficult to destroy a single one, can the heroes repeat the same thing again... and against a dozen of those things, at the same time? No, they can't. It's clearly the moment to retreat and escape, or to completely change the way to fight the war.

This trope helps to prevent the Badass Decay caused by The Worf Effect. Even if it was difficult, the heroes did defeat the big weapon. And when the dozen weapons show up, it's very clear that the hero has no chance and must flee, so clear that the watcher will not think ill about him for doing that (as he would if the hero escaped when the first lone weapon showed up).

This is the inverse of the Conservation of Ninjutsu. It also averts No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup, as the villains do the exact thing any military force would do: produce the weapon in industrial numbers, not head to the battle with a single one.

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Often used on the first installment of a work to allow a victory against a foe, and then hammer the heroes (and the audience) with a warning that the Evil Overlord will not be overthrown today. This puts the last fight in perspective, as what was a relatively easy fight takes on nightmarish proportions if you consider that those troops were not even intended to be fighters in the first place, yet they gave the heroes some difficulty.

May be justified in Real Life as scouts typically don't carry heavy weapons and favor lightly-armored fast vehicles over heavy and slow ones. Not to mention that quantity has a quality of its own.

Used in basically every Sorting Algorithm of Evil work (Sailor Moon, Ronin Warriors, etc). If said at the end of a work, a very common Sequel Hook.

See also Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond.

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Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Macross:
    • In Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the human military thinks they will defeat the Zentraedi because they don't realize just how massive the alien armada is. And even then, the only reason they were surviving against the scouts was because the scouts were probing humanity's defenses to learn more about them, rather than just stomping them out of existence. The Macross Beam that humanity is so proud of on the eponymous ship? Half the Zentraedi warships have one. They just weren't using them. Further, the mighty fleet consisting of over 5 million warships they barely manage to defeat was the 114th fleet: there are many others of comparable size out there, and could show up any time. One of the final lines of the film adaptation Macross: Do You Remember Love? is a grim statement by Exsedol that, even though our heroes barely managed to defeat Boddole Zer's and Lap Lamiz's fleets, there are thousands of other Zentraedi/Meltrandi fleets that are just as powerful still waiting. However, later series don't make as big a deal about it; while it's implied that encounters and wars with roving Zentraedi fleets are very common occurrences as humanity expand throughout the galaxy, Zentraedi disunity has been allowing humanity to take them on one by one, with exposure to human culture resulting in entire Zentraedi fleets willingly assimilating into human societynote .
    • Double Subverted in Macross II: the initial Marduk force is immediately identified as a scouting force, but when the Marduk later attack in force the hundreds of thousands of the first wave are mistaken for the whole force. Both are Justified: the initial Marduk squadron is initially mistaken for Zentraedi until they get a good look at them, and by Zentraedi standards less than a hundred ships is a scouting party, and by the time the Marduk attack in force they've been identified as not Zentraedi, and by non-Zentraedi standards hundreds of thousands of ships are an enormous number.
    • In Macross 7, the 7th Colonization Fleet has a fair amount of trouble with the enemy Varauta fleet's attacks, but they eventually decide to get serious and start blasting the Varauta with Macross Beams. Then it's revealed that the Varauta soldiers are just mind-controlled pawns of the Protodeviln, just one of whom could annihilate the entire Colonization Fleet without much effort... or at least, they could if Basara would stop getting in their faces and singing at them.
    • In the later series, humanity itself has assumed the trope. The alien antagonists don't challenge the entire UN Spacey: just isolated migrant fleets or individual clusters of star systems at most:
      • In The Movie version of Macross Frontier, when the Vajra face the reinforcements to the Macross Frontier fleet, they flee the battlefield to avoid annihilation by massed Wave-Motion Gun fire. To add insult to injury, these are actually the upper tier of scouts: the reinforcements come from the Strategic Military Service Private Military Contractor company, that by New United Nations law has to use reduced-capability fighters and a cap on their ships' firepower, indicating that a real military fleet from the New United Nations Spacy has more numerous ships and fighters of even higher capabilities.
      • In Macross Delta, a plot point is that reinforcements from the NUN Spacy could crush the Kingdom of Wind with ease, but as they're a single planet facing an entire cluster and there's multiple larger threats around Earth Central just doesn't see fit to send in an actual fleet, only sending in a small force from the Galaxy Patrol when the Windermereans temporarily overrun the Brisingr Cluster and before Xaos (the PMC company that supported the Cluster worlds and has a full Macross ship) received additional funding. For the same reason, the Windermereans have to complete their plan to brainwash the entire galaxy before Earth Central catches wind of it and sends in a full fleet, as they know perfectly they couldn't have conquered the Cluster without the brainwashing Var Syndrome bioweapon let alone the actual NUN Spacy.
  • Dragon Ball:
    • At the start of Dragon Ball Z, Raditz arrives on Earth, effortlessly outclasses Goku and Piccolo, and then reveals that there are two more Saiyans, both stronger than him. After it takes the combined efforts of Piccolo and Goku, some help from Gohan, and even a Heroic Sacrifice from Goku to kill him, he uses his last moments to radio them, predicting that they will arrive in a year.
      • Later, after arriving on Namek, they realize that the Saiyan trio were only a small fraction of an entire army, many of whom are several times stronger than Vegeta was when they first fought.
    • In the sixth DBZ movie, Dragon Ball Z: The Return of Cooler, Goku and Vegeta just barely managed to overpower and defeat one Metal Cooler, but are then promptly attacked by a thousand more of them. And as mentioned, Conservation of Ninjutsu is not in effect, and they are handily curb-stomped.
  • Digimon Frontier: The team finally faces off with the dark angel Big Bad Cherubimon. He throws off their best attacks easily, and after giving each member of the team the opportunity to throw The Worf Barrage at him so he can laugh it off, he smashes everyone with a single attack. Kouichi, The Atoner, gets his Digimon forms back, redesigned and stronger, and manages to defeat Cherubimon... only for the voice of Cherubimon to taunt him. That was just a much-weaker projection the real Cherubimon whipped up in order to try and talk Kouichi back to The Dark Side. The real thing will be waiting for them when they reach his lair.
  • The first enemy robot in FLCL was only part of the hand of a robot. They meet the full version in the next episode.
  • In the second volume of Barom One, our heroes finally manage to defeat Doruge only to learn that he's an advance scout of the Doruge race and he's already called in reinforcements.
  • The first Menos Grande seen in Bleach is the first really challenging fight that Ichigo faces. He couldn't even beat it on his own at the time and he and Ishida worked together just to make it retreat. Much later, Ichigo is disturbed when he learns that Gillian class Menos like the one he fought are mere foot soldiers in Hueco Mundo.
    • After Hitsugaya's group wins against the first group of Arrancars, although Grimmjow is winning against Ichigo until he's forced to withdraw, Hitsugaya points out that the ones they killed are most likely not the elites. In another scene, Aizen confirms this by saying those were the weakest of the Arrancar.
    • Played with when Ichigo tries to take down Ulquiorra and is saved by Grimmjow: Ichigo thinks that he must be the top Espada, and if he can kill him then there's nothing to worry about. Ulquiorra while holding Ichigo's blade in one hand reveals that he is only number 4. Although it later turns out that he hid his full strength from Aizen, meaning he's probably the strongest after all.
  • In Yu Yu Hakusho, Yusuke is horrified when Koenma tells him that Younger Toguro, who at the time was the toughest opponent he had ever fought, was "only" an upper B-class demon, with B-class being the third highest ranking.
  • In Fairy Tail, Gajeel and Levy are attacked by Yomazu and Kawazu and have a very difficult time fighting them. Gajeel has a major Oh, Crap! moment when Yomazu reveals they are merely the advance scouts of Grimoire Heart. Gajeel orders Levy to run and warn the others of Grimoire Heart's arrival.
  • One Piece has an indirect example, as it doesn't involve any fighting or the main characters being involved. After Luffy's defeat of Crocodile, his bounty more than tripled to being 100,000,000 berries; however, that increase was soon followed by a scene in which Shanks, one of the Four Emperors, the most powerful pirates in the One Piece world, sends a message to another one of said Emperors, Whitebeard. The messenger is revealed to have a bounty just below Luffy's, but it's noted that he was only recently accepted into Shanks's crew, and no one in Whitebeard's crew knows or really cares who he is. The scene serves to show that, despite his boost in infamy, Luffy still has a long way to go before he really matters to the truly powerful pirates in the setting.
  • Beyblade: The Blade Breakers are taking on the All-Starz in America. Tyson and Ray easily take down two gimmicky bladers. Then Max's mom reveals that those two bladers were some of their weakest, and the purpose of the battle was to gather data.
  • In Haruhi-chan, after Asakura is defeated, she suggests this of herself, saying that there are three other members of the Radical Four like her, but all of them are stronger than she is.
  • In the first episode of Ronin Warriors, the heroes work together and managed to beat the enemy only to learn it was a foot soldier in the evil overlord's army.
  • Early in Toriko, Toriko has to get past a pack of Troll Kongs—giant, four-armed, monster apes. The first one Toriko encounters is just a scout, and while it's no match for our hero, it barfs on Toriko, leaving our hero smelling like the much weaker, far less dangerous Troll Kong. Which means Toriko can't intimidate the rest of the pack.
  • In The Seven Deadly Sins, Red Demons and Grey Demons, which had previously been depicted as among the most powerful enemies shown so far, are seen as mere expendable grunts by the rest of demonkind.
  • In Attack on Titan, for the past 100 years, humanity has been besieged by the eponymous titans, almost mindless human-eating giants that can drive humanity to extinction if the Walls are breached. The greatest threats among those titans are the Armored Titan and the Colossus Titan, who broke down Wall Maria, killing many people in the initial invasion and forcing the government to sacrifice a fourth of those who remained to prevent humanity from starving. However, it's said that even the Armored and Colossus Titans are mere "flunkies" in the grand scheme of things. It turns out that the nation of Marley, a superpower that uses Titans to fight its wars, is behind the attacks. Even after the protagonists take back Wall Maria and kill all the Titans on the Island of Paradis, they'll still have to deal with Marley.

    Comic Books 
  • In one issue of Superman, Superman has been training for weeks and had to team up with the son of one his enemies to fight Imperiex. After a hard battle, Superman wins the battle and thinks Imperiex is through and goes home. Sometime later we find out that "Imperiex" was just a probe and that Imperiex Prime was a gigantic version of the thing Superman fought.
  • The Celestials once decreed that a planet's population was to be destroyed. Thor disagreed, and exhausted himself beating on the Celestial who towered over the world with a downturned thumb and stoic expression. Through it all, the Celestial made no attempt to fight back, and Thor's attacks were laughably ineffective. Already frustrated at his failure to kill his opponent, he then realized that this one was merely the judge and jury of the Celestials-not the executioner. Cue the arrival of the executioner-ten times bigger, stronger, and angry.
  • Ultron Unlimited After destroying a whole country, Ultron fights against all of the Avengers (except those he had captured). After a long fight, they manage to destroy Ultron-7. Then, suddenly, Ultron-8 shows up. Iron Man is not sure if they can repeat all the fight again... which disappointed Ultron-23. 23? How many of them are there? That's a very good question, says Ultron-647.
  • Ultimate Galactus Trilogy: We have seen how deadly the Heather Douglas clone can be. What about an army of them?
  • Paperinik New Adventures plays with it due Genre Savvyness on both sides:
    • When he first encounters the Evronians, Paperinik knows from the start he's just dealing with scouts and commandos sent to soften up Earth, and isn't surprised in the slightest when he finds proof of both that and that the Evronians are too busy due a number of rebellions in their empire and Xadhoom being out for them to just attack in force, just what the Evronian invasion force can bring to bear the one time they decide to get serious, or that the Evronian main force is centered around a Planet Spaceship. The only time he's surprised is when a second planet spaceship shows up... And the crew, under the mistaken impression he's an ally, reveals there's multiple Evronian Empires, all centered around a planet spaceship, and that every time the population of one grows too much they turn a planet into a spaceship and divide their population by half to prevent overpopulation and a civil war.
    • When the Evronians first encounter Paperinik they initially assume he's just one of many exceptional individuals that, if they joined forces, could beat back the invasion, as they have past experiences of this, and send in a termination squad to kill him and verify if there's others. They eventually realize there's no other Paperinik, but still keep a prudent course of action and feign peaceful intentions with the US government to try and soften Earth's defenses and trying to kill Paperinik with relatively small forces for various reasons, including that humanity's warlike nature and large number of nuclear weapons would cause disproportionate losses compared to the gains, they realize that killing Paperinik with a horde of warriors would turn him into a martyr for Earth's resistance and, if word got out in their empire, he could become a symbol for the rebellions (and he does when four rebel leaders discover his existence and how he's fighting against the common enemy) and, as revealed in the Paperinik New Era stories, Super Goof.

    Fanfic 
  • The Bridge: A group of Cloud Gremlins take control of a storm cloud and attempt to invade the weather factory of Cloudsdale. Since the storm cloud is protected by dark magic, it takes a bit of teamwork from Rainbow Dash and Rodan to destroy it. Before they can celebrate, a cloud about 5 times bigger than the first carrying the main Cloud Gremlin force arrives, and the first group even mentions they were just the scouts.
  • Event Horizon: Storm of Magic: Applies to the Company's colonies in relation to the lands they're located in. At one point, Fred boasts to the Small Council that their little colony has a higher GDP and industrial output than the rest of the Seven Kingdoms combined.
  • Purple Days: The horrifying truth of the First War for Dawn.

    Film 
  • The attack of the Army of Anubis in The Mummy Returns. The Medji think they've defeated the armynote , only to the realize that the REAL army is swarming over the dunes like a monstrous black shadow.
  • Invoked in the Hellboy (2004) movie:
    Rasputin: Salt, gathered from the tears of a thousand angels, restraining the essence of Sammael, the Hellhound. The Seed of Destruction. This I can promise, Sammael, for every one of you that falls, two shall arise.
  • In The Avengers (2012), New York is invaded by several aliens, and a flying creature that seems immune to missiles, laser beams, repulsor beams, it's all useless. Nobody can stop that thing... except a lone guy who is always angry. The creature is destroyed, but Loki simply summons more like them from the portal. And even those are still a fraction of the army on the other side of the portal.
  • In Thor: The Dark World, Asgard is attacked by the Dark Elves. Heimdall manages to get into the invading Elf fighter, and disable it. When a dozen fighters appear, he leaves.
  • A downplayed example in Independence Day: Resurgence. In the first film, humanity barely survives the alien onslaught and manages to destroy the alien fleet at great cost. Come the sequel 20 years later, a new, much larger, alien armada is on the way to put down the upstart humans, possibly implying that the first one was just a small flotilla by the alien standards.
  • Throughout the Star Wars sequel trilogy, the First Order is a reorganized remnant of the fallen Galactic Empire that threatened the Galaxy and overthrew the New Republic, and it looks like they won and are done, right? The Rise of Skywalker reveals that the threat the Resistance had been fighting all this time was a shadow of the real threat, the thought-to-be-dead Palpatine's Final Order, which has far more forces. The First Order's Supreme Leader Snoke was none other than a creation of Palpatine, whose purpose was to destroy the New Republic and groom Kylo Ren to be Palpatine's successor. Once that's all done, the First and Final Orders would merge under one banner to secure the creation of a new Empire.
  • In Zulu the British cheer when they have driven back the Zulus the first time. Boer scout Brandorff informs them that the Zulus deliberately sent men to get killed to find out the British soldiers range.

    Literature 
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's The Stars Are Cold Toys, the mightiest battle fleet of the entire known space is attacked by an unknown aggressor, who deals them heavy damage before being taken down. It turns out, however, that said "aggressor" was a mere scout of the super-advanced Geometer civilization.
  • In Super Minion, the weapon thinks itself to be an apex predator after it discovers human.exe and begins easily overcoming (or faking failure against) every test the humans throw at it. This overconfidence vanishes remarkably quickly after its escape shows it a triggered tiger it stood no chance against, human soldiers killing that tiger without much difficulty, and a fight between a superhero and a supervillain, all in the span of under 24 hours.
  • At the end of the first part of The Armageddon Inheritance, the second book in David Weber's "Empire from the Ashes" series, there is an Apocalyptic space-battle on the fringes of Earth's solar system between human beings and a race of alien Omnicidal Maniacs. Hundreds of thousands of humans die, and Terran civilization is nearly wiped out, but eventually the good guys win. And its only then, in the last pages of the book, that it is discovered that the invasion fleet humanity nearly lost to was only a scouting force, and the real invasion fleet (with a thousand times the number of battleships than the fleet that just attacked Earth) is still coming.
  • In Aesop's Fables, a lion is hit by an arrow, and runs away from the man who shot him. A fox, seeing this, makes fun of him, and the Lion retorts, "Yes, I'm retreating. If he's sending a messenger like this, just think how tough the man himself must be!"
  • Robert Sheckley's story A Wind is Rising has it with weather. A human station with two people is based on a planet where the wind never drops below 70 mph. They barely weather a storm of nearly 200 mph, which leaves them with a severely battered station and a broken vehicle at their hands. Then a local alien (who gives them weather forecasts) says "Sorry for my last forecast not being accurate enough to warn you about this moderate gale. Why is it my last forecast? Well, the summer is over, and now me and my people must leave to hide from the powerful winter storms."
  • In Diamond Sword, Wooden Sword, an army of mages has a hard time defending the world of Mel'in from an army of small Eldritch Abominations called the Goat-legs. In the sequels, the main army of the critters arrives, and the magical orders are neither unified nor in control now and thus cannot oppose them.
  • In the backstory to the William Barton military science-fiction novel When Heaven Fell, a Master Race scoutship with only a few hundred Kkhruhhuft troops accidentally stumbled upon 22nd century Earth and decided to try conquering the planet by itself. After millions died, it was only driven away after being rammed by a relativistic starship. The governments of Earth spent the next fifty years gearing up for interstellar war, and all that bought them was eight billion humans dying under the guns and hydraulics of a full invasion fleet before the survivors surrendered and were absorbed into the Master Race's empire.
  • In the Formic Wars novels, the Formics invade with an enormous and powerful starship, which also turns out to be The Mothership to several landers and hundreds of fighters. The invasion is barely stopped with millions dead. Then a girl analyzes astronomical data collected by satellites and realizes it was only a scout ship sent in advance of the real mothership, which is in the process of being cannibalized to build an armada for the real invasion. Of course, since it's a prequel to Ender's Game, the outcome is already known.
  • A variation in Mikhail Akhmanov's Arrivals from the Dark. The first novel, aptly titled Invasion has a massive Bino Faata starship arriving to the Solar System in order to establish an outpost on Earth, using humans as slave labor and, possibly, re-engineering them into a new hybrid Human Subspecies. At the time, humanity is still pre-FTL. When the massive ship finally reveals itself to the human nations, it's surrounded by a fleet of a dozen human warships, whose crews are confident of victory, since they are utilizing a standard "asteroid destruction" tactic (they've never fought an actual space battle before). When the aliens get tired of talking, they launch a fraction of their on-board combat modules that quickly wipe out the fleet facing them, while the starship's Deflector Shields easily shrug off a nuclear barrage with a combined strength of 140 gigaton. The ship is eventually stopped with the help of a different alien, leaving it to be studied by human scientists. Fast-forward 37 years to the second novel Retaliation, when a newly-created task force of FTL-capable ships is sent to the location of 3 Faata colonies in the Orion Arm (they're from the Pegasus Arm). When a scout frigate is sent to gather intel, they find a shipyard with three such Faata starships in the process of being completed. The only advantage humans have at this point is surprise, since the aliens still don't know their invasion failed. But three such ships would easily overwhelm even the new human ships that use reverse-engineered tech with sheer numbers and the willingness to use them. Eventually subverted in that humanity quickly gets its ass in gear and starts cranking out new and better ships in the Asteroid Belt, just in time for four long wars with the Faata. After a century of fighting, humanity emerges as a galactic superpower, while the Faata fade into obscurity.
  • Two examples from Star Wars Legends:
    • Done on both sides in The Truce at Bakura: the Ssi-ruuk invasion force attacking Bakura is a scouting force of five cruisers and multiple picket ships (plus some ships carrying the ground troops), sent in to consacrate an Imperial fringe world to use as base for when they'll invade the Empire taking advantage of Palpatine's recent death and suffered moderate losses as they overpowered the Imperial garrison and its outdated ships, while the Rebel force sent to help Bakura's garrison is a single small Quasar-Fire bulk cruiser-carrier with its fighters, a corvette and five gunships, that is still outgunned by what the Empire has left. The Ssi-Ruuk, the Rebels and the Imperial garrison realize this, though they don't quite understand what keeps the other side from sending in more ships (the Rebels sent in everything they could spare while they reorganized after their costly victory at Endor, while the Ssi-Ruuk believe that their souls would be Barred from the Afterlife if they die too far from a consecrated planet]] and won't risk too many of their people before consecrating Bakura). Sourcebook sources expand on the aftermath: after the Ssi-Ruuk are driven away, the Rebel Alliance sends their own scouts to their homeworld to either negotiate a truce or prepare a proper counterattack... Only to find that the Empire's own scouts, led by Grand Admiral Thrawn in person, had already wrecked everything and made very clear where the Ssi-Ruuk's place on the pecking order was, so when they were attacked by the remnants of the fleet that had been routed at Bakura they just blast their way out and leave.
    • Vector Prime, first volume of the New Jedi Order, involves an attack on the Galaxy Far Far Away by an alien force called the Praetorite Vong, who wreak havoc on some remote systems in the Outer Rim before the heroes get wise to their tricks and soundly defeat them. Subsequent books reveal that the Praetorite are simply one minor (but ambitious) faction of the Yuuzhan Vong who started the invasion earlier and with shoddy preparations in order to grab some glory ahead of everyone else (and their leader was a high-ranking bureaucrat playing general). The actual Vong warrior caste, debuting in the next book, are much more dangerous.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Outer Limits (1963): In "The Invisible Enemy", astronauts battle a powerful Sand-Beast. At the end, the two survivors manage to kill it, but then several more Sand-Beasts emerge. The survivors promptly pack up and leave.
  • Star Trek
    • This is the Starfleet fear during later seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation: what if instead of one cube, the Borg send millions?
    • Used in one episode of Star Trek: Voyager: the ship managed to defeat a Borg scout without much damage, so Janeway suggests they start an offensive against the Borg. Seven of Nine reminds her that the outcome would be different had they encountered a cube.
    • They try to take on a cube anyway with a method that should keep them invisible to the Borg, and a meticulously worked-out plan that will let them steal the Applied Phlebotinum they need and get away in just a few minutes. ...and the Borg Queen reveals to Seven of Nine not only does she know exactly where they are, she could Curb Stomp them any time she wished and will only keep holding back if Seven of Nine rejoins her.
  • In the miniseries V (1983), the Visitors refer to the fleet of fifty enormous spaceships now parked over Earth's major cities as just a small expeditionary fleet. Several human characters express shock that this is what they consider a "small" fleet.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000
    • The absolutely massive Tyranid fleets that have ravaged several sections of the Imperium are said to only be the scouting fleets of the main force. The same applies to the Necrons, whose true war machines are still in storage on their hibernating Tomb Worlds.
    • Same for the Orks. Not only are there a lot more of them living on their own worlds and only rarely going to knock some humies around, they are actually a degenerate form with a degenerate technology, the original being the Krorks, a species which gave the Eldar Empire at its peak a lot of trouble. The War of the Beast had them merely approaching this level again, and the Imperium as a whole was nearly destroyed by it.
    • The Imperium are this to the Tau. The Tau drastically underestimate the true might of the Imperium, thinking that the Imperium's losses against them in battle are ones that would take the Imperium decades to recover from. In truth, the forces the Imperium sends against the Tau are relatively insignificant - the Tau survive in large part because the Imperium has other bigger proverbial fish to fry.
  • Played quite straight in a scenario outline in the 4th edition Champions supplement Mystic Masters. The Big Bad is a dimensional conqueror with the ability to split his awareness between thousands of different bodies of varying power levels, and one of his opening gambits is to test the PCs' defenses with a single one of his weakest ones — any damage he manages to inflict is a welcome bonus, but mostly the intent is to find out what this new set of prospective enemies may be capable of. (The scenario explicitly hangs a lampshade on the possibility of the players potentially going "huh, was that all?" after this encounter.)
  • The Combined Army that appears in Infinity is explicitly a scouting mission and the EI's actual forces are yet to arrive. Given that the Combined Army that has been seen nearly brought the Human Sphere to its knees, this prospect deeply worries the human command structures...although not enough to make them stop running black ops against each other.
  • Battletech:
    • During the Clan Invasion, the Clans that invaded the Inner Sphere and basically curb-stomped their way through a fifth of it were only four of seventeen total Clans, and on top of it three of the invaders had heavily bid down their total forces to be selected for an Invasion Corridor. This trope was subverted in that the Inner Sphere's resistance eventually led to fully half of the Clans taking part, and the decisive battle of Tukayyid led to all but three of those Clans being defeated with heavy losses. The result of Tukayyid mean a fifteen year truce, during which the Inner Sphere, knowing this trope was in full effect through their intelligence agencies, was able to unite into a second Star League. The second Star League invaded the Clan Homeworlds, fully destroyed one of the invader Clans (the other Clans stood aside as none of them liked Clan Smoke Jaguar anyway), and finally defeated the remaining eight Clans in the Great Refusal, essentially killing any chance of the Clans ever seriously threatening the Inner Sphere again.
    • A common joke amongst the fandom is that if you spot four Atlases wearing Lyran colours, you've run into a Steiner Scout Lance. While not exactly true in-story, The Lyran Commonwealth was the largest and richest Successor State for much of the Inner Sphere's history, and tended to win engagements through We Have Reserves and overwhelming force.

    Video Games 
  • The intro to Left 4 Dead features this exchange:
    Louis: We made it! I can't believe we made it!
    Bill: Son, we just crossed the street. Let's not throw a party until we're out of the city.
  • Mass Effect
    • Mass Effect ends with an epic battle against the Reaper known as Sovereign, and his fleet of geth cruisers, which are only narrowly defeated by the combined efforts of the Citadel defense fleet and the Systems Alliance Fifth Fleet. However, Sovereign is only a vanguard, left behind by the Reapers to secure their return. There are more where he came from, and they're coming back one way or another...
    • At the end of Mass Effect 2, a fleet of THOUSANDS of Reapers is headed towards the galaxy, ready to invade. Just ONE nearly wiped out the Citadel Fleet in the previous game.
    • And in the trailer for Mass Effect 3, at least eight of them are attacking London. Who knows how many others are on the planet?
    • The third game also reveals that there is no possible way the combined forces of the galaxy (geth included) can hope to defeat the Reaper armada, despite reverse-engineering some of their tech. The entire galaxy falls in a few months with negligible Reaper losses. The only way to stop them is with the Crucible.
    • Sovereign's strength comes largely from his alliance with the Geth, and it's their fleet that does most of the damage. Then the second game reveals that they were actually a fairly minor Renegade Splinter Faction, and their full strength is much greater. It's subverted in the third game, where most of their real fleet is destroyed in a war offscreen; depending on player choice, the substantial force that remains will be either rendered helpless and annihilated before the final battle or join in against the Reapers.
  • Happens in Sonic Chronicles. The first Marauder that Sonic encounters is only a scout. Sonic expects an easy fight, only for the scout to turn out to be a difficult boss (well, difficult for a first level boss).
  • The first few battles against the Shivans in FreeSpace are completely one-sided, with the Shivan ships being Nigh-Invulnerable, extremely maneuverable, and heavy-hitting in damage. A few upgrades later, the player can fight these monstrosities evenly, and even manages, with a huge amount of effort, to capture what they think is a Shivan command ship. Then it turns out that those were outdated Shivan scouts, and the "command ship" was among the weakest deployed Shivan warships... the actual muscle of the Shivan armada soon arrives and pretty much steamrolls the Terran and Vasudan fleets, no matter what countermeasures they come up with.
    • Also invoked by the tagline of the second game: "The Shivans are back, and they're wondering what happened to their scouting party."
      • And occurs, after the player spends a minor campaign arc hunting down a juggernaut-class vessel which outguns everything, including the one-of-a-kind superdestroyer Colossus. Then it turns out there are more. A three-digit number more.
  • In Infinite Space, the Lugovalian fleet that invades the Small Magellanic Cloud is only the vanguard fleet. And it's still enough to easily conquer the entire galaxy. Then the fact that that the remains of the fleet plus some reinforcement still poses massive problem for the 2nd galaxy, while the main fleet 10 times larger is coming, forces the main character to stage an assassination of the Lugovalian Emperor to end the war.
  • The heroes manage to defeat the Balmarian fleet by the end of Shin Super Robot Wars. At the end of the Space Route, Char Aznable sends a message to Londo Bell, whom he expects to be in a festive mood, yet unjustified by what Char is convinced has been a horrific mistake for mankind. He reckons they got lucky with this victory, and points out that Balmar is sure to send a second, or third fleet to Earth, without any shortage of firepower. Just how far will Londo Bell's efforts last, he muses, ostentatiously checking himself and claiming sarcastically that sour grapes weren't the intent of the message. Since Char is worried about mankind too, in his fashion, he has chosen to accompany the aliens returning to their own worlds. Therefore, he is entrusting Londo Bell with all the alien technology he has been able to amass, telling them to put it to good use for humanity. According to Master Asia, he had to use the power of the Devil Gundam just on this fleet, and with the coming of the other fleets, he has to return to his home planet, Dug, to get aide from the Dug Interstellar Republic.
    • Super Robot Wars Alpha, which revised and retold the story of the Aerogaters attacking Earth's fleet ends with with a similar feeling. The Balmarians are in control of most of the alien forces fought, and those that aren't still pose a threat to Earth. In a twist though, when the Balmarians resume their attempts to conquer Earth they lack much of their additional manpower and they've been losing fleets offscreen, to say nothing of the meteor storms devastating their home planet. In a way, the "scouts" wound up posing the greatest threat to the Earth Sphere.
  • Demonbane has this early in the story. After using Demonbane's immense power to destroy one of Black Lodge's destroyer robots, the heroes are feeling pretty good about their chances against the organization. Then the organization's leader, Master Therion, shows up and takes on Demonbane without his own Humongous Mecha, and completely trashes it without even trying. This serves as a chilling reminder to everyone of exactly what they're up against and how tough a battle this will be.
  • The intro to the Alien Crossfire Expansion Pack to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri shows two Progenitor ships warping into orbit and proceeding to blast each other to bits, with only their Escape Pods making it to the planet. The survivors turn out to be equal to the long-established human colonies. The aliens have an additional victory type, requiring them to build a Subspace Ansible, after which a massive armada warps into orbit and starts to descend. Understandably, the game ends at that point.
  • The Old Gods in World of Warcraft who took the combined efforts of the Titan armies to defeat whom could each easily destroy the world if not for being weakened in some way are revealed to be the minions of the Void Gods who seek to corrupt the entire universe.
    • The Burning Legion, while dangerous, has been driven off multiple times by the forces of Azeroth, even killing most of its highest ranking commanders. The Legion expansion aptly demonstrates how little that matters. Not only has Azeroth only ever faced a tiny fraction of the Legion's forces, but none of those commanders were permanently killed. And now Azeroth is apparently the last world left to be conquered so the Burning Legion is focusing all of its forces on them.
    • Illidan makes this point to Kur'talos Ravencrest during the War of the Ancients when the latter calls him out on sacrificing his own men to gain the power to defeat the Legion invading Black Rook Hold. Illidan points out that this single invasion nearly destroyed Black Rook Hold, which would have left Suramar open to attack, and angrily says that all Kur'talos can do is criticize Illidan's methods. After getting a glimpse of the true size of the Legion, Illidan realizes how hopeless the fight is.
    Illidan: Our eyes... deceive us. The army that marches on Azeroth is but a whisper of the Legion's true strength. Beyond this army is another... and another... and another... Even if we defeat them here, it will mean nothing. We are doomed... unless we find another way to fight them. And I will find that way.
  • Homeworld: The powerful fleet that destroyed Kharak seems geared for being the final enemy, but prisoners quickly point out it's just a small and unimportant frontier force.
  • In the backstory to Sword of the Stars Earth was attacked by a Hiver fleet that nearly wiped out the human race but for the launching of Earth's entire nuclear arsenal. But later, as stated in the intro, it turned out that fleet was "only a small nesting fleet, we had yet to see the full power of the swarm." Fortunately, the Hiver Imperium was fighting a Succession Crisis at the time and Sol Force made an alliance with the Princess who ended up winning the crown jewels.
  • In Stellaris the Prethoryn Swarm is preceded by a vanguard that attempts to establish a foothold in the galaxy before the main force arrives.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles X: Remember that giant alien warfleet that was shown obliterating Earth as a side effect of its battle against another in the beginning of the game? A portion of which you're fighting on the new planet you're stranded on? Yeah, that wasn't a real army. It was a bunch of criminals. The heroes are rather disturbed to learn that the force that destroyed Earth and nearly drove humanity to extinction is nothing more than a "run-of-the-mill crime syndicate".
  • X-Universe: In the backstory, the incredibly advanced Ancient Ones fought a titanic war against beings known as the Outsiders, who are thought to come from another universe and who appeared in massive, solar system-sized constructs that began altering physics around them and eating up resources like nothing ever seen. The Ancient Ones managed to barely destroy one of these things, which took two million years, which prompted the rest to retreat. The Ancient Ones theorize that those massive things were Outsider scout ships or probes, possibly even non-combative in nature. They're not sure why the Outsiders backed off, and are concerned should they ever make another appearance.
  • Furi: YOU, the Stranger/Rider, are just one mass-produced scout of the invading aliens, and despite that such a combat monster that Earth's best can't stop you.
  • Devil May Cry: In the fourth game, after Nero defeats the demon Bael, Bael boasts that he is just the first of many and his brothers will avenge him. Nero looks up at a portal to Hell and sees an army of demons that look just like Bael approaching from the other side. Nero destroys the portal in time.
  • Destiny: One of the major enemy factions is the Cabal, a powerful army that is engaged on multiple fronts throughout the Sol system, who over the course of the game face many setbacks, assassinations, and defeats. Then you obtain information that those armies are "scout legions," and that they've called for reinforcements from the greater Cabal Empire. In Destiny 2, the Red Legion shows up at the start of the game, blitzes the Last City, defeats the Guardians, and captures the Traveler. The only reason the heroes have any chance is because Ghaul is obsessed with proving himself worthy to the Traveler, rather than just destroying everyone outright and being done with it.
  • In Chapter 12 of Fire Emblem Awakening, Chrom and his allies manage to fight off an invasion force from the empire of Valm, and are painfully aware that this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their enemy's strength, making them a far greater threat than the Kingdom of Plegia.
  • Endless Sky has two separate and very different takes on this:
    • When you first likely to encounter the Korath Raiders, they look like rare and powerful vessels as they are large ships only encountered raiding alone, spawning rarely and more powerful than any human ship, and capable of escaping larger human fleets with jump drives. Then you actually reach Korath space and it not only turns out they have tons of Raiders, they have also many even larger ships that lack jump drives (and, as such, can't reach human space).
    • The Pug invasion plays out with them being much weaker than their real capability, as you find out if you ask the Quarg about them (or, later on, provoke them into bringing out one of their ships meant for fighting more advanced civilizations) — but the 'rules' the invaders operate under has them deliberately hold back in war to be reasonably beatable by whoever they are fighting, so while you effectively only fought their 'scouts', once you beat them they acknowledge their defeat and withdraw rather than follow on with a full-on invasion. Or so, at least, is the apparent situation. There are hints they only invade to push humanity in a specific direction, with losing part of the plan.
  • AI War: Fleet Command: Inverted in direction, but played entirely straight otherwise, with the AI. Compared to whatever massive threat it's fighting off-galaxy, you're basically just an infestation in a backwater mine, and the local forces little more than a skeleton crew making sure no funny business happens. The reinforcements thrown at you when you start growing are all the AI can bother with, being extremely busy out there. You and others can grow out of control enough that the AI decides to send a bit of the big stuff, but even then the gigantic, hyperdestructive, fleet-chewing Extragalactic vessels are used sparingly, and immediately thrown back outside when they stop being justified.
  • Darkest Dungeon: Fitting for a Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror Story, the final boss is a redundant organ that happens to be in charge of the villainous forces surrounding your tiny hamlet, and you get a glimpse of its true, horrifying master before you commit suicide: the core of Earth itself.

    Western Animation 
  • Transformers: Prime in Crossfire Airachnid now wanted by Megatron, controls an Insecticon to get her revenge. The Insecticon really got Meg's on the ropes, but after he defeated it, she realizes that it was only a scout, as she found an entire nest of Insecticons.
  • In the episode "Savage Time", the Justice League appears in World War II. The immortal villain Vandal Savage had sent to himself information from the future, that allowed to build an armored vehicle, tall as a building, indestructible and filled with weapons. Normal tanks have no chance against it. Even the Justice League has a hard time destroying it. When several more show up, the League retreats with the rest of the army.
  • Played with in an episode of Futurama, where the Omicronians are invading (to bring back their favorite 20th-century TV show). A massive fleet is gathered and is told to attack the alien mothership. Many are killed, but, eventually, the heroes manage to blow it up. Everyone celebrates, until an ever bigger ship appears and starts blasting everything else to dust. Not only was that first target not the mothership, it was the Hubble Space Telescope (inexplicably well-armed).
  • This occurs every season in Steven Universe. Homeworld sends some of their forces to Earth, and the Crystal Gems pull out all the stops to fight them and barely manage to handle the threats... only to discover that said forces weren't even there for them, but rather some unrelated task (checking on the Cluster, locating a missing soldier, collecting specimens for a People Zoo). The rulers of Homeworld aren't aware that they even exist until the final season, leaving you with the feeling that the Crystal Gems have only survived all of their recent encounters with Homeworld because they barely register as a blip on the galactic empire's radar. When Homeworld's rulers come themselves, the Crystal Gems only get out of it by proving that the murder they're trying to avenge never happened.
  • In the two-part Season Two finale of Ben 10: Alien Force, Azmuth and Paradox inform Ben and the others of the impending Highbreed invasion, with Ben recalling they barely destroyed one of their warships in the series premiere. Azmuth points that it wasn't a warship, but a scout ship; no force on the planet could defeat a Highbreed warship, and thousands were coming. Ben and the others are naturally put off.
  • The final season Star vs. the Forces of Evil focuses on Mina trying to rebuild the Solarian Soldier program so she can use it to invade Mewni and overthrow Eclipsa. In the first part of the finale, a Humongous Mecha armor and proceeds to tear through most of Star's allies until it's barely defeated by Eclipsa with the use of a forbidden death spell. Cue Marco arriving and informing them whoever they spent the entire episode fighting wasn't Mina — it was just some random mook. The real Mina had succeed in rebuilding the program and is due to arrive in a few minutes with an army of similar suited soldiers.
  • Season 3 of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power reveals that the Horde the Rebellion has been struggling to push back for all this time is nothing but a pale imitation formed by a defective clone soldier who landed on Etheria by pure accident. The actual Horde is an intergalactic empire whom the clone is trying to establish contact with is trying to call them. Said forces immediately conquer the planet in the fifth season.
  • Adventure Time: The Lich, the undead sorcerer and Big Bad who tormented the Land of Ooo for the first few seasons? He’s just one of numerous horrors birthed by GOLB, the Anthropomorphic Personification of chaos, and is indicated to be a fairly weak and minor one at that, akin to a scholar or priest. When GOLB finally manages to manifest in the real world himself in the Grand Finale, he immediately unleashes a legion of his monstrosities and followers, the majority of whom completely dwarf the Lich in size and power.
  • X-Men: In "Weapon X, Lies, and Videotape", Wolverine, Beast, Sabretooth, Maverick, and Silverfox investigate the Weapon X facility, but they trigger the security system and a superpowered robot called Talos is activated to deal with them. It takes a lot of effort to destroy it and everybody except Beast is knocked out. Just as Beast is catching his breath, the security system summons another Talos and it is implied there is whole room full of them. Beast is left with no choice but to escape with everyone and blow up the building to to prevent Talos from following them.

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