Tuesday, February 8, 2011

40k: Non-linear List Writing

So this is going to be a theory-hammer article, so once your eyes glaze over, feel free to move on.  In Magic the Gathering, deck design has evolved considerably over the last 10-12 years, from very straight forward strategies to completely non-linear strategies.

What your 40k list shouldn't be.
Without getting too deep into Magic decks, in 1998 the epitome of defensive/control decks was a deck with 26 counterspells, 4 removal spells, 1 creature as your only path to victory, and the rest land.  The plan was to literally counter every threat your opponent casts, and if you can't to use your board sweeper spells to clear the plate.  Eventually your positional advantage will be so great that your single creature can ride to victory.  Today, the premier control/defensive decks might only run 8 counterspells, and a dozen or so creatures.  They utilize a variety of situational and tricky cards with complex interactions to create overwhelming positional advantage.

Combo decks, or decks that utilize a particular combination of cards to produce either infinite resources or simply do 20 damage in one shot.  In the late 90's the premier combo deck was Pros-Bloom.  This deck utilized a 4 or 5 card combination to produce about 200 mana, which was used to cast a direct damage spell sufficient to kill the opponent in one shot.  It was powerful, but fragile.  All the parts of the combo were necessary for success.  If your opponent disrupted the combination at any point along the process, it would fail and automatically lose.

Modern combo decks are much, much different.  Generally, rather than utilizing a single 5-6 card combination, they use multiple 3-4 card combinations.  And usually, the combinations use a crossover of the cards, so that no matter which cards you draw, there is a path to starting a game winning combination.  This is significantly more difficult to defend against.  You can't just shut down one aspect of the combination and bring down the house of cards, because none of the individual pieces of the deck are integral to the success of the combination.

That is the key concept that translates over to 40k.
Good 40k lists shouldn't have a single path to victory.  It's fairly well understood that rock lists are bad, and balanced/all comers lists are good, so we aren't breaking new ground there by advising people not to play double storm raven rock lists.

More important is the concept of a single point of failure in balanced lists.  Oftentimes, you will see so called "balanced" lists that can only win in the shooting phase.  I agree whole-heartedly that 40k is primarily a shooting game with close combat a distinctly disadvantaged strategy.  While I've often repeated this as a personal rule, firepower alone will rarely win games.  There will be times when you can't shoot the last guy off an objective.  There will be times when you can't kill all the FNP Incubi before they reach your gunline.  

If your strategy falls apart because your opponent figured out a way to reach your backlines with close combat units, that's a single point of failure, and it isn't possible to label your list as "balanced."  The so called "balanced" firepower only lists do a good job of redundancy and MSU so that no individual unit is the single point of failure, but since they rapidly fold in close combat, the entire phase is the single point of failure.  That is not balanced list building.  Even the shootiest codices, IG and Tau, get around this.  IG use sacrificial units and/or Stubborn infantry blobs to account for the close combat phase.  Tau use Kroot bubble wrap to buy several turns of protection from close combat.  This is how they avoid the close combat single point of failure.  

If those armies can conceive of a plan for close combat, why do we continually see Space Marine lists (which have less overall firepower than the shooty codices) bringing no close combat units better than 5 man combat squads?  So the Marine lists bring less firepower than IG, and have even less of a plan for the assault phase than the IG?  And that is called balanced?  No, that is not balanced at all.  That is how you go 2-3 in a tournament and wonder how your "balanced" list let you down.

Remember the article on Who Is the Beatdown?  There will be match ups where you have to be aggressive, and match ups where you have to sit back and shoot.  Having a non-linear, multi-dimensional paths to victory greatly facilitates your chances of being able to shift roles successfully when the time to do so arises.  That is balanced.


  1. Some good points here. If your opponent is more shooty than you then it's time to get up close and personal.

    If you try to out shoot a more shooty army then unless you're really lucky you will get out shot. Unless you're confident that what you are bringing is the shootiest list possible in the game of 40k then you should have a close combat alternative available to you. And you should try it out a few times.

    The downside is that your opponent has an incredibly shooty army. Getting in his face is going to be incredibly difficult.

    Building a balanced army is a really difficult thing to do.

  2. Yeah I don't want it to seem like I'm advocating a 50/50 shooty/fighty split. I still think the game is primarily a shooting game, but you need SOME kind of CC element even if it's only a speed bump/tarpit.

  3. Very well said and I couldn't agree more.

    No matter what your army is you just can't build a list for one phase of the game and expect to come out on top in every game. You may more often than not but you're leaving yourself open to failure, as you said, and those failures could arise in the most crucial matches. In fact, they are more likely to occur then as you're facing better players who can see the holes in your list/strategy and can exploit them.

  4. What I meant above, as reading it seems a bit unclear, is neglecting a phase of the game. You can build a list with the intent of winning the game because of shooting or assaulting but not if you neglect the other aspect completely. Which really is just restating what you already said, Nike.

  5. Good and brief article that gets to the point and stops before it begins to psychobabble.

    The best army-lists are those with inbuilt contingency plans to deal "surprise" elements without compromising redundancy / MSU.