Friday, July 22, 2011

Why use one codex over another? (Part 3)

When you think of what's strong and what's weak in terms of 40K codex power levels it's pretty easy to determine where certain armies lie. However, when you drop away from those top tier armies like Dark Eldar, Blood Angels and Imperial Guard it becomes slightly more difficult to tell which army is the best. Tau? Spayz Muhreeenz? Chaos Daemons? Eldar? Each force has its ultimately unmatchable extreme that is unavailable to the others. So what are these extremes, and are they worth using an army in order to access?

Codex: Eldar contains one of those armies that falls somewhere short of 'top tier,' but it does have its unique strengths:

Autarch '+1 to reserves'
Avatar 'fearless bubble'



Heavy Support
Fire Prism
War Walkers

It's really tough to single out unique Eldar units because, as we all know, every Eldar unit has some unique quality to it. It's hard to say that Fire Dragons aren't a big strength of the codex. It's not that they're bad... it's just that they aren't resilient enough to survive by themselves; they need to ride in a Wave Serpent, which is horribly overcost for what it does. There are lots of units in the codex like this, and all of them are obviously the high-priced Aspect Warrior units. Anyhow, I just wanted to get that all out of the way so nobody is thinking "But Howling Banshees are too fabulous to pass up!" Well they're fabulous alright, but they aren't really that great unless they work in combination with a Farseer, or ride in a Wave Serpent, or both. The whole army is fragile, and it seems to me that the only way they can be effective enough is if their units don't rely on each other for combos.

In my opinion, Eldar armies should consist mainly of units that work unilaterally. Because of this, I come off as being a rather harsh critic of the codex... but I make no apologies. This is about why we should use Eldar, and so I will move on to my reasons.

Eldrad is amazingly efficient. If you use him and another Farseer there's a potential for repetitively using one or two psychic powers over and over. Spamming Mind War, Eldritch Storm, Guide and Doom is obviously a good thing. They can quickly eliminate specific models, disrupt armor and enhance your other units. Aside from just the psychic powers available, you have the Runes of Warding; they're pretty amazing as psychic defense goes. They make your opponent's average psychic test roll a 10.5 (fail!) with a huge potential for causing Perils of the Warp.

The Avatar is nifty, but not amazing... but with all his little neat bonuses as well as his relatively low points cost, he definitely falls into the 'highly autonomous' category. His 'fearless bubble' is great if you're using large units of Guardians (either type) to shield your army, and if you decide to run the 'Eldravatar' combo, that's a really hard defensive line to take down. Yriel has one thing going for him and that's his uber-template close combat anti-MEQ attack. And finally, if you wish to use a tactically flexible army that heavily utilizes reserves, the Autarch can give you that +1 to your rolls.

When it comes to Elites there aren't many options outside of Aspect Warriors save that old standby: Wraithguard. They're amazing at not dying. They're great at being used as a troop unit as well - there's nothing like T6 scoring dudes that can re-roll their cover saves.

The only other truly viable troop selection for the army are the Guardians (of either variety). They can be used as an agile assault force or in ten-man units with a heavy weapon. Aside from all the other armies that can take a cheap ten-man unit with a single heavy weapon, Eldar have one of the units that can do it cheap. A hundred and ten points for a 10-wound Bright Lance sounds good to me... especially when I can use six of them and they're scoring.

Fire Prisms are the Baal Predator of the Eldar. Cheap cost, highly versatile, fast-moving, and an even higher power setting if you spam... sounds like a great unit.

So the big problem here is that once you have all the high quality units I've mentioned, what else do you include in the rest of your 2000 point army? There aren't a lot of choices, but most of them are mediocre at best because they don't seem to compare to those of their 'dark' counterparts. If you wanted to have some good anti-troop capability from your Fast Attack choices, you might choose a Vyper Jetbike. How does it measure up? You can pay 60 points for two Shuriken Cannons with BS3. What do you get from the Dark Eldar as a transport option? The amazing Venom, which has 12 shots at BS4 for 65 points, PLUS has a 5+ invulnerable save, PLUS it can move 12" and fire both guns, PLUS it can carry up to five models, etc, etc, etc.

A lot of the units in the Eldar book fall prey to the game's current level of inequality, and as much as I would like to chalk this up to changes in edition (from 4th to 5th), the book is very obviously a victim of 'codex creep.' This is the gradual increase of power levels in newer armies since 5th Edtion has been released. However, I do maintain that Codex: Eldar remains a valid 'rogue' army that can do extremely well in the right metagame situation. Many times you'll hear of an Eldar army sweeping a big tournament, and it's my contention that whenever there is a new mission that requires a versatile army, the Eldar are the super-secret tech that no one will expect to win.

So if your local meta requires any of the following, you may want to consider using Eldar:

Large number of psychic powers - stopped easily by Runes of Warding
Giant units of Orc Boys - stopped cold by giant units of Storm Guardians w/Enhance
Mech Marines - easily slowed by massed Bright Lance fire

So can we effectively counter those army archetypes with other things out there? Sure. Almost everything the Eldar can do, the Dark Eldar can do better. They're better at maneuverability, firepower, and in most cases, defense. The only thing that the Dark Eldar lack is psychic defense. So as a result, I posit that Eldar are nearing the point of being completely defunct.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why use one codex over another? (Part 2)

After looking at what gives C:CSM its 'oomph' let's look at another codex. The Dark Angels have held a weak position on the 40K power ladder for most of 5th Edition, and have just recently received a much-needed push in attempt to keep them on par with other armies. They're an MEQ (Marine equivalent) force like Codex: Chaos Space Marines, but they are vastly different in nature... but the question is why would you use them over another MEQ force?

First let's look at what makes C:DA unique.


Special Characters (which also open up force organization chart options)
Chaplain w/3 wounds
Psychic Powers


Fearless Terminators w/full customizable load of weaponry
Company Veterans that function like a cross between Vanguard and Sternguard


Scoring Fearless Terminators (see Elites) - conditional w/special character
Scoring Fearless Bikers (see Fast Attack) - conditional w/special character
Scoring Landspeeders - conditional w/special character

Fast Attack:

Ravenwing Attack Squadrons
Larger units of Landspeeders

Codex: Dark Angels doesn't appear to have a lot going for it. Their Tactical Squads are, on the whole, more expensive than C:SM or C:CSM scoring units. Their special characters aren't the greatest either. Most everything they have can be purchased from another Codex at a lower price. However, what the book does allow for are shifts in the Force Org Chart. If you take specific characters then you get some nifty scoring units that no other Codex can take. There's nothing like a squad of fearless terminators that are scoring, have Feel No Pain and are equipped with Storm Shields. Their only flaw is a lack of mobility - they need a Land Raider in order to pull a sweet charge on an ideal target, and Land Raiders aren't cheap.

Their other FOC-shifting option allows a whole host of scoring Meltagun and Multi-melta wielding Bikes as well as scoring Landspeeders (don't quote me on this because I'm honestly not 100% certain that's true, but since the Codex overrides the main rulebook, I don't see why it wouldn't be true unless there's an FAQ I missed). An all-bike army that's unbreakable and able to Turbo-boost onto objectives is quite amazing if used the right way. Their only flaw is that they are Bikers, and so they must be used sparingly. Bikes are horribly overcost for what they are capable of, and Codex: Dark Angels is no exception.

So what this comes down to is that C:DA has some nifty (but costly) scoring unit tricks under its belt. What other armies have Fearless scoring units?

Chaos Daemons
Chaos Space Marines (Summoned Lesser Daemons, Legion-specific CSM units)
Grey Knights (Crowe Purifiers, anything the Grandmaster can make scoring)
Eldar (conditional)
Tyranids (conditonal)
Orks (conditional)
Dark Eldar (conditional)
Marines (conditional)
Black Templars (conditional)
Space Wolves (conditional)
Blood Angels (conditional)

Surely among all these armies there is a more efficient way of having Fearless, objective-grabbing units roaming the battlefield. Whether it's Synapse rules making a horde of Termagants stay put, Eldar Guardians holding fast within the Avatar's 'bubble,' or a horde of Blood Claws roaming free under the tutelage of a Wolf Priest, there are tons of options.

So what can the Dark Angels do that nobody else can do better? It seems there are two things.
1) Ravenwing Bikers have the Scout Universal Special Rule, allowing them to move 12" before the game begins. This is especially beneficial for a couple reasons - first this allows them to cover a huge area by the end of the first turn, often allowing them to charge an opposing army. Practically speaking this is not super because a smart opponent will plan around it, but in reality what it does is force the opposing army to deploy defensively (given that they are deploying 2nd and attempting to implement a counter-strategy). Second it allows for ...
2) The accurate deployment of teleporting Deathwing Terminators via the 'Deathwing Assault' special rule. This is the other shining star of C:DA because it takes an otherwise mediocre force of low-mobility juggernaut units and dumps them in your opponent's lap.

The greatest strength of this kind of army lies in its ability to take down a vehicle-based force quickly. Each Ravenwing unit can break apart into three units (four if you bought the Landspeeder), and each can shoot and subsequently charge a vehicle. It was an amazing army to use when Codex: Imperial Guard was first released a couple years ago.

Summarizing the article so far:

Chaos Space Marines do a lot of different things well.
Dark Angels are good for scouting and attacking weak points in an enemy line.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

'Ard Boys army selection

The real topic here revolves around the question of "Is 40K a tournament-worthy game?" I think it kind of is... at least more so than it used to be. What makes it worthy of tournament play is the level of diversity amongst competitive armies contrasted with the inverse (lack of diversity). It also depends on the willingness of the game's player base to be competitive and breaking out of its hobby gaming niche.

Don't hate the player, hate the game!

40K is notorious for producing players that just aren't... good at playing the game. It's understandable, though, because it's a hobby first and a game second. People just want to put together their plastic 'dudesmen' and roll some dice to see what happens. Really? REALLY? That's all it can be for some people and while I can respect that in some capacity, come ON! That's how I played Monopoly when I was six. Have the guts to be an analyst and critical thinker! You may learn something. But I digress. There's just a natural tendency for hobbyists to gravitate towards this game, so we can't expect a fantabulous tournament scene to pop up overnight.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander?

Uniformity is bad. Marx would hate me for saying that there should be class divisions. Oh well. In competitive gaming there is inequality, or at least the perception of inequality, between players and between the various factions those players utilize. This inequality is the basis of competition. If a game becomes too balanced it ends up hitting a big fat plateau of dullness. There needs to be an occasional shake-up of the rules as well as the regular release of new armies so that the dullness is alleviated. Change is exciting. Just so we're clear, I'm talking about sci-fi/fantasy gaming and not politics.

Diversity isn't just a wooden ship anymore.

Did I say that uniformity is bad? Did I say that diversity is good? Actually they're both good, to a degree... and bad, to a degree. Probably the most desirable state at which the various factions within a game system should exist is one of almost relative parity.

Say for instance that there is a power scale that is used to rate factions. The scale is from zero to ten (ten being the highest power level). Every faction within a game should hover around a power rating of five. A healthy game will have faction power levels that are able to diversify around that standard level of five. Some will be sixes, some will be fours, and occasionally there will be a seven or a three. But the closer they keep to the standard of five, the greater the overall game balance will be.

Meta-gamer, Mega-gamer

Whenever a faction receives a revamp, its power level will be re-evaluated. This re-evaluation in respect to all other factions will determine its place on the power scale. The re-evaluation process in 40K is what keeps it from being a truly competitive game. Since 40K is a game involving a massive amount of dice rolling, decision points and long-term strategy, there is a huge number of variables to consider when re-evaluating the power level of an army. Since there is such a large element of hobbyists that play the game, and since those hobbyists think that because they make up the majority of the game's players, the hobbyists feel that they are ultimately more knowledgeable about the game's workings than the non-hobbyists that spend more time actually playing and analyzing tactics and strategy. There is also an issue with the amount of time and coordination required with setting up a game of 40K. The average 2000 point game is going to take at least an hour, if not more, before the players have a general idea of who will win and why.

So because of the lack of critical analysis and the relatively low quantity of games played, there is much less experience that goes into the re-evaluation of power levels than in other competitive games (e.g. Magic: The Gathering). There are other factors that contribute to the lack of critical analysis of 40K faction power levels, and they usually fall into other categories like disposable income, transportation, available playing space, etc.

As a result, in most areas where 40K has a decent player base only about fifteen percent are competitive. This small pool of competitive minds usually turns out a short-sighted or narrow-minded analysis of power levels. Because of this general lack of critical/comparative analysis, what happens in these microcosms is that there is a general free-for-all of armies. The most competitive-minded players will usually end up at the top of the heap of hobbyists. In the long run, what happens is that the alpha dogs that rise to the top of each relatively small group of players have no good benchmark against which to compare their armies. Even the internet yields little critical comparative analysis for power levels because the alpha dogs don't like to think that their winning streak is due to anything but their own personal mastery of 40K and not just the mastery of their local scene.

Since there is really no comparative analysis of power levels, all that 40K players have to go on when making meta game choices (which army and which configuration they will use in a tournament) is their personal experience, the on-record performance of armies at major competitive events, and the obvious power levels of each codex. The term 'obvious' in this case refers to the grounded opinions that in 40K there is a highly apparent level of overwhelming force when compared to cost. If many units in a codex have a high number of units with overwhelming force for a relatively low cost, this is 'obviously' a high powered codex.

Back to business.

So it all comes down to the big question: What army do you use for the 'Ard Boys tournament? The best thing you can hope to do when choosing an army is to analyze the obviously powerful armies out there and look for trends amongst them. For instance, Dark Eldar, Imperial Guard, Space Wolves and Blood Angels could all be classified as 'obviously powerful.' Army builds that have a good track record are the IG 'leafblower,' Space Wolf 'razorspam,' Blood Angel 'mech marines,' and what I'll refer to as Dark Eldar 'MSU' or multiple small units.

The major trend amongst these forces is armor. Each of these armies uses at least a half dozen (and sometimes up to a dozen) vehicles ranging anywhere from AV10 to AV12. There are other patterns as well: Half of them use power armored troops while the other half have flak. Three out of four have good, if not great, close combat capability. Three out of four have massed long-range firepower. They all utilize upwards of a dozen units, with IG hitting the high teens. All of them take full advantage of the fact that their troop selections are strong in the category of shooting or close combat...or both.

So let's look at these obviously powerful armies in a predatory manner. We need to look for patterns among their weaknesses and consistent methods for exploiting those weaknesses. When I use the term 'exploit' I am referring to a specific method of thinking. This is the rock-paper-scissors method, meaning if they have paper, you need to bring the scissors...and so on and so forth. If the pattern is 'armor' then you need to bring anti-armor. If the pattern is 'psykers' then you need to bring anti-psykers.

The trends of weakness amongst these armies are:

Low squad sizes and/or weakly armored troops. The interesting thing about these forces is that they tend towards minimizing unit size while maximizing unit upgrades. For instance, Grey Hunters are fielded in units of five, often equipped with a Meltagun and Mark of the Wulfen. IG Veteran squads are ten men strong, but they carry the maximum number (3) of special weapons and have flak armor. Dark Eldar units are just as frail as IG Veterans. This is a weakness that is easily capitalized upon by massed small arms fire, a well-placed template weapon, or both.

Low AV vehicles. Occasionally one of these armies will deviate from the obvious and use a vehicle with a high armor value (Leman Russ, Land Raider), but for the most part you'll never see anything heartier than a Storm Raven or Venerable Dreadnought. Even those are relatively rare compared to the prevalence of the AV12 Chimera. So with the slight exception of IG, these armies are highly vulnerable to massed medium-strength long range fire. In the land of the open-topped vehicle, the twin-linked autocannon is king.

Low leadership. Considering that 'squad leader' is an upgrade that isn't usually chosen for units in min-max'd armies, it's not uncommon to see entire forces relying on an average leadership value of 8. While 8 isn't bad, it's only effective 72% of the time, and that's assuming it doesn't get modified. LD7 is 58% effective and LD6 is 41%, so even a small modification is going to put LD8 units in a bind. Capitalizing on low leadership is done in subtle ways. The ideal way to deal with it is to cause a modified morale check (as was mentioned). Barring the existence of a modifier that would give a failed morale check a higher likelihood of happening in one try, the next best way to cause a failed check is to cause multiple checks. Given that the rules say you can only cause one morale check for 25% casualties, and one morale check for losing close combat (per losing unit), you have to find other ways to cause multiple checks. Tank Shock and pinning tests are great for this sort of thing, as well as are other random unit abilities.

Large unit count. The obvious pattern in these armies (especially since we're hitting 2500 points) is that with all the armor (transports and otherwise), extra independent characters and min-maxed small units, the unit counts skyrocket. This can be a huge drawback when it comes to missions that involve kill points; from the way many tournament missions are working these days, kill points can have an affect on every game. If you want to capitalize on an army's MSU (multiple small unit) factor, then you have a couple of options. First and best is the ability to use large assault units to charge multiple enemies at once. This allows you the ability to use the casualties caused against one unit to modify the leadership test of a second or third unit. Additionally, you can use grenades and other higher strength attacks against vehicles (no, don't go after those walkers just yet!) while you're simultaneously chewing on units of troops. The second best way to deal with large numbers of units is to use attacks that may affect multiple units, e.g. tank shock (and ramming), Jaws of the World Wolf, various template weapons, etc.

Ruh-Roh Raggy! What's it all mean?

Having looked at the weak spots of the obviously powerful armies out there, we come to the final list of requirements for mashing them up: low squad size, AV, LD and high unit count. But there's one more thing I need to bring up. When you're comparing the power levels of combat forces it's important to note that there is an algorithm that will usually determine the winner of the conflict with some degree of certainty. To make a long story short, you're going to total up the firepower of Forces A and B. Then you're going to alternate dropping each force's firepower by the attrition factor inherent to the opponent's level of firepower. It looks something like this:

Force A = 20 power
Force B = 20 power

the attrition rate = 10% of attacking power (subtract from defending power)

Force A attacks first, causing attrition of 2, leaving B with 18
Force B attacks second, causing attrition of 1.8, leaving A with 18.2
Force A attacks third, causing attrition of 1.82, leaving B with 16.18
Force B attacks fourth, causing attrition of 1.618, leaving A with 16.582

...and so on and so forth. In this scenario it's pretty easy to determine that Force A will come out on top for one obvious reason: it dealt damage first. This is a pitched battle, and it's something that any good student of strategy will want to avoid. If you're going to beat this field of competitors you're going to have to consistently cause more damage than you suffer. Yes, of course, that's a no-brainer, but so many players get wrapped up in one line of thinking or another to the point where they lose focus and end up chasing some kind of white whale.

The reason I bring this entire equation business up is that it's very possible in the current environment to run the gambit of rock-paper-scissors and come out on top because of the sheer number of fragile opposing units. You have the potential to take out a lot more of the opponent's units than they do of yours, simply because of the pattern of low-resilience units you'll be facing.

And the million dollar question...

What will win? What will beat the current range of armies? I'd like to say that there is a definite answer out there. There is a really high potential for Dark Eldar to win some major victories because their lists are all highly versatile, can take a beating and continue to function, and are able to pour out an amazing amount of firepower. I think they are the #1 pick because of their potential to completely outmaneuver opposing armies. They have the advantage of being able to completely reposition their forces; this allows them to divvy up an opposing army that is less maneuverable and more dependent on their units' teamwork.

I also want to say that regardless of anything I've written here, the 'Ard Boys events have a habit of throwing a massive wrench into conventional thinking. Last year's preliminary event saw probably the most horribly imbalanced mission in its final round. Annihilation with fast-moving units worth 3 kill points (any vehicle, drop-pod, jump troops, cavalry, etc). This completely wrecked 70% of the field and heavily influenced my decision to use Tyranids in lieu of the mechanized Blood Angels I'd originally planned on.

My guess is that this year we will see some similar shenanigans.