Wednesday, January 12, 2011

WHFB 8th Edition Primer: List Building 101

Since lately I've been brainstorming lists for armies I don't actually play, I've been forced to think about what makes a list good or bad in Fantasy.  There is an often cited maxim that out of the phase, movement, magic, shooting, and combat, you have to be able to dominate two and have at least decent ability in the third.

While this was a truism in 7th Edition, I don't think this is true in 8th.  8th Edition has several changes that make battle-force and/or balanced lists pretty mediocre.  A list with some magic, some shooting, some fighty, and a mix of fast and slow units won't win against a good list.  What will happen is that your opponent will decide which of your pieces is a threat to his more streamlined gameplan, destroy that aspect, and then win the game without much difficulty.

In 8th Edition, doing one thing really well is better than doing a lot of things OK.  Step one of list building, decide how you're going to win, add the units to execute that format, and then tailor the rest of the list to support that goal.

If it's a fair fight, you already lost.

So there are several ways to win: shooting, magic, and combat.  Maneuver doesn't win games by itself in 8th.  It can help put one of the other strategies over the top, but by itself it won't carry the day.  Obviously, not every army can win in each way.  Chaos Warriors can't win in the shooting phase, sorry.  Dwarves can't win in the magic phase.  Wood Elves can't dominate the Combat phase.  Let's break it down.

Armies that can win in the shooting phase.  

To dominate the shooting phase you have to be able to kill every type of unit with your shooting units and war machines.  You also have to be able to also dish out offensive magic from time to time, or have great magic defense.  You need to have fairly tough close combat units to kill the things your shooting will inevitably fail to deal with.

1.  Dwaves:  Access to lots of great war machines, and core units that are exceptional shooters.  They are naturally difficult to kill with magic, and they have hard combat units for a counter charge if the enemy makes it through the fire power and reaches combat.  They are good at accentuating their strength of shooting and minimizing their weaknesses.

2.  Orcs and Goblins.  Can take more war machines than anyone.  And theirs are not that bad at all.  Plus they can support their shooting phase with tremendous anti-magic only rivaled by Dwarves, and they possess combat units capable of defeating enemy units that survive the war machine onslaught.

3.  Empire.  Empire has war machines that are less numerous than Orc, and less reliable than Dwarves.  But their support units are more flexible than either.  Pistoliers are better than anything Orcs or Dwarves have, and Halberder blocks are pretty nasty.  Plus Empire can actually have an effective offensive magic phase every now and again.

4.  Skaven.  Skaven have lots of war machines.  Of these armies they are the least reliable, but are insanely powerful and they have a lot of them.  Skaven armies also have good offensive magic phases, adequate magic defense, and indifference to casualties you inflict for the most part in the magic phase.  They also have extremely tough combat units for counter charging.  Alternatively, they can run unbreakable blocks which will attrition down any unit that makes it through your shooting.

Armies that can win in the magic phase:

To dominate the magic phase you need a couple of things.  First you need a way to mitigate miscasts, because anyone relying on magic to win will inevitably suffer them.  Second, you need to be able to force through your powerful spells: if you don't unleash your powerful spells on the first or second turn chances are it will be too late to keep combat armies away from you.  Third, you generally need a bunker unit that is tough enough to absorb shooting and fight off the inevitable assault of your enemies.

1.  High Elves.  The Elves have the ability to produce lot's of extra power and dispell dice.  They have the ability to ignore miscasts with relative ease.  They have access to power offensive and defensive magic.  Their bunker unit, Phoenix Guard, aren't very afraid of warmachine or shooting, especially if they have Flesh to Stone.  Their core choices have strong shooting and decent combat ability, meaning they can fight off fast cavalry and kill whatever the Archmage doesn't kill in the magic phase.

2.  Lizardmen.  The Lizzies bunker unit is slightly worse than the Phoenix Guard, but still incredibly capable.  The Slann is not at all afraid of miscasts, and can generate tons of extra power dice.  They are weak at shooting and against shooting, but they have excellent skirmishers that can harass war machines and Salamanders can put a hurt on enemy units that get close.  Temple Guard bunkers can only really be killed through attrition and enemy magic, but a nearby Engine of the Gods ensures that attrition battles will be slanted towards the Lizards and hopefully the Slann can hold his own against magic defensively.

3.  Vampire Counts.  The VC have the ability to take a beyond excellent magic bunker, and can take Forbidden Lore, meaning that they have serious potential in the magic phase.  What you pick with Forbidden Lore will determine how you want to win, and the options are many.  Despite the strong bunker unit of Grave Guard and the awesome offensive magic, they can't shoot and they can't really fight in hand to hand against a dedicated combat army without spending tons of points on buffs that may or may not be useful.  Also, their core units are terrible and don't often contribute to the victory plan other than being meat shields for the Vampires.  

4.  Daemons of Chaos.  Daemons have access to devastating offensive magic... and that's just from a Core unit.  Heralds of Tzeentch can take any lore, usually Life is the most ideal.  They can sit safely in a Horror magic bunker largely immune to enemy magic and shooting (and importantly their own miscasts) thanks to a 4+ ward and immune to psychology.  They will cast Life buffs on the Bloodletters and Heralds of Khorne (the nastiest hero level fighters in the game) and smash you.

Armies that can win in close combat.

Close combat based armies need enough defensive magic to hold their own, and enough offensive magic to threaten, but it doesn't have to be dominant.  They need multiple beater units that are nastier than anything they are likely to face.  For support, they need fast cavalry or scouts to harass shooters/warmachines, otherwise you assault units will get torn down.  Importantly, they need to have a plan to deal with big blocks and to win attrition based combat battles or to defeat enemies that will try to tarpit them.  There is always a bigger bully than you, so it's important to have a plan for how to defeat an assault army that has better assault units than you.

1.   High Elves.  The good elves can take the best elite units in the games on FoC breaking multiples.  Sword Masters and Lion Chariots are among the best fighty units in the game.  High Strength, lots of ASF, reroll to hit attacks with high weapon skill and good leadership.  Their one weakness is that they need magic buffs to survive against heavy shooting lists.  But when properly constructed, even if they lose 1/3 of their strength before they get to the enemy, the remaining 2/3rd should be enough.  Their one weakness is their inability to break out of being tarpitted by giant units of unbreakable guys, like Skaven can bring.  

2.  Dark Elves.  Dark Elves best beater units (Blackguard, Cold One Chariots) are not as nasty as the High Elves equivalent, and they can't break the FoC like HE can, but they have the advantage of more attacks per model, which means that they do better against blocks in attrition fights than High Elves.  Throw into the mix War Hydra and their close combat potential is very high.  Dark Elves also need magic, but in this case it is debuffs rather than buffs to win assaults.  Shadow and Death Lores allow them to increase the kills per model potential of their high attack units, which is always a good thing, plus those Lores possess dangerous "must dispell" killers that will suck away dispell dice from the seemingly innocuous toughness and strength debuffs that will come later in the phase.

3.  Warriors of Chaos.  Warriors have the best infantry in the game.  They are either killer (Khorne with Halberds) or tougher (Tzeentch with shields) than anything else they will face.  Plus they have the bonus of big blocks of dirt cheap Marauders with great weapon.  Marauder GW hordes absolutely slaughter enemy elite units, which the tough and killy warriors will rip through attrition strategies like a hot knife through butter.  Their magic is not nearly what it was in 7th edition, but this works because their assault units come with the added bonus of not needing buffs or debuffs to win the game.  A Tzeentch sorcerer lord with Pandemonium and an Infernal Puppet somewhere on the list is usually enough for magic defense, and any offense they do is an added bonus.

4.  Skaven.  Skaven can mix insanely hard to kill blocks that win by attrition, mixed with insanely hard to kill beater units like Hell Pits and Doom Wheels.  Many armies might be able to handle one of those strategies, but few can handle both at the same time.  Ask yourself, how many units are tooled up to kill 75 stubborn Skaven Slaves AND two Hell Pits.  None.  The potential to create mismatches allows their assaults to be very successful.  The assault forces are backed up by very good skirmishers, and good magic.  The ingredients for the recipe of an assault list is all there.

Assault army caveat:  There are some armies, like Brettonia, that HAVE to win in the assault phase.  But I wouldn't put them in with the armies that CAN win in the assault phase.  It's unlikely that an optimized army from this guide would lose to even the best Brettonian army consistently.  Look at what I said it takes for an assault army to win.  Brettonians don't have the tools.  Ogres don't have the tools.  Tomb Kings don't have the tools to win assaults or in the shooting phase.  Beastmen in an assault army, the only army they can play, are hopelessly flawed due to crap magic and crap fast cavalry.

Comments, criticisms, questions?


  1. best blog I've found in a while!

  2. wow... word verification on last comment was 'table'

    odd as shit...

  3. Don't forget the movement phase. Though it matters far less in 8th edition, it still matters.

    I'm not sure I agree with the idea that Fantasy armies need to do one thing really really well. I hope it's not true. Does that mean we will see the end of all-comers lists?

  4. I didn't forget the movement phase. The reason I left it out is because you can't say, "I'm going to dominate the movement phase, and win the game." The movement phase can help with your other strategy, but it can't BE your strategy.

    Alas, I think balanced lists in Fantasy are not very competitive now, if they ever were. Either your army is built to win in close combat (taking into account thats what most enemy armies will be built for too) or it's built to win in the other phases with CC elements to mop up.

  5. As an Ogre Kingdoms player for the last year of 7th Edition, the Movement Phase was where 90 percent of my strategy took place. Though perhaps the word tactics is better suited, since strategy can include your army build.

    The sad fact is Warhammer 8th is won by lists, not tactics. I still love the game, but it's not as satisfying as it once was.

  6. The movement phase set up how you were going to execute your plan, but your plan was close combat. See what I'm getting at? Your Ogre army isn't going to win by shooting or magic, so it needs a close combat based game plan.

  7. Yeah I'm catching your groove ;)

    Thanks for clarifying.

  8. Great write up and spot on analysi, although I would have added Dwarfs to the armies that can win in close combat. T4 bodies with Heavy Armour and GW + high l/ship makes them very difficult to break and with step up they now dish out a lot of punishment