Tuesday, January 3, 2012

40k Theory: Being Unique Isn't Everything (Or Anything)

When people crack a new codex, or try to build a list from an old codex, the first thing they should look for is where the efficient anti-tank and anti-infantry units are located, and start from that core.  Disagree if you wish, but that is the best and most basic starting point for every good 5th Edition list.  On some level, this is common sense and something you probably do subconsciously.

But a new groupthink has emerged in the 40k blogosphere/forumsphere.  I will refer to it as the 'Cult of Uniqueness."  A new player writes an email to an influential blogger asking him how to build a 'proper ______ army.'  The groupthink response is, "identify what you can do with that codex that no one else can do, or what you can do more cheaply than anyone else, and build around that."  In essence, "find what makes your codex unique and focus on doing that."

Psyflemen are the dream: cheap, efficient, and unique

My contention is that this is highly misleading, and just as often wrong as it is right.  First some hypothetical examples, and then some real examples.

Imagine a hypothetical MEQ codex (let's say Iron Warriors Legion) where you can take a decidedly suboptimal unit, like a Assault Cannon/DCCW equipped Dreadnought for something insanely cheap like 85 points.  We can all agree that 85 points for a Dreadnought is too cheap, regardless of weapons.  Someone following the CoU would say, "nobody else can bring Dreadnoughts that cheaply, so you should bring 3 of those for your Elites."  This is almost certainly incorrect.  We don't know what other elite choices are available at what cost, but as this unit provides neither efficient anti-tank nor efficient anti-infantry, there is no utility provided.    Just because you can do something cheaply or uniquely is irrelevant if that something provides no utility to your army.

Not especially useful even at 85 points

A good real world example would be Codex Dark Angels.  People who subscribe to the Cult of Uniqueness will tell you that the only good builds are Deathwing and (to a lesser extent) Ravenwing.  Why?  Because they do things that no other codex can do.  If you press them further, they will explain that Dark Angels other options are not efficient compared to more recent codices.  While the second point is true to an extent, the first point isn't a reason to do anything.

Yes, Dark Angels are the only ones who can bring TH/SS Cyclone Missile Launcher Terminators as troops.  This is very unique.  But is it useful?  Not necessarily.  Deathwing armies lack cheap melta units, and have don't even have very great long range anti-tank either.  Space Wolves find your 10-12 missile shots and 6-9 melta shots per turn in a 2k list to be quaint.  Essentially, the Dark Angels have a very unique thing their codex can do, but that unique thing isn't actually that competitive.  I would go so far as to argue that a top notch player would have an easier time winning a GT with a Dark Angels tactical squad based list than Double Wing, all things being equal.  Deathwing is a fun and unique list, but it isn't great at anti-tank or anti-infantry and thus isn't great.

It isn't good enough to be unique or cheap: you have to be useful (defined by me as being good at anti-armor or anti-infantry) in order to be competitive.

There are times when uniqueness/cheapness merges with utility, and these are the truly outstanding 40k units.  Long Fangs.  Tervigons.  Black Templar tank hunting shooty terminators.  Psyflemen Dreadnoughts.  SM Dakka Predators.  Ork Lootaz.  Sanguinary Priests.  This list goes on, I'm sure you can think of many, many more.  The point is, these units are not only unique and (relatively) cheap, they are also very good at what they do.  You don't have to be unique to be competitive, you just have to be useful.  Useful is a must, cheap is a plus, unique is a bonus.

One last word.  Cheap isn't even especially great.  Many people complain that Unit 1 from Codex A costs more than the same exact unit from Codex B.  People in the Cult of Uniqueness will say that players of Codex A should shun that unit, since someone else "does it better."  You are playing 40k, not keeping up with the Joneses.  If Unit 1 is the only thing, or the best thing, in Codex A at killing tanks you need to bring Unit 1, even if Codex B can take the same unit 10 points more cheaply.  When building a list for Codex A, you shouldn't spend any time worrying about the contents of Codex B.


P.S. Happy new year everybody, I look forward to a fun year of hobbying and blogging about it.


  1. A good devil's advocate argument, I think, but I would still tend to side with the other side; uniqueness, of course, is not EVERYTHING, but it can be a key indicator of what you'll want to focus on. Not necessarily in list-building, but in _evaluating_ the codex, because those are going to be the odd pieces of the puzzle that you are going to have the most trouble fitting together.

    >Many people complain that Unit 1 from Codex A costs more than the same exact unit from Codex B. People in the Cult of Uniqueness will say that players of Codex A should shun that unit, since someone else "does it better."

    This is totally wrong, definitely. It doesn't matter what price someone else pays for something, it only matters whether the price you pay for it is good or not. (What other codices pay may give you some guidelines for assessing that, but that's beside the point.)

  2. As the level of writing and development becomes better, the unique stuff and the good stuff will become closer to the same thing. I think we would agree that if GW was doing their job properly, the stuff that, say, Blood Angels do different than normal marines was also thing same things you'd want in a competitive BA army.

    Unfortunately, we aren't 100% of the way there yet, so for now its better to be good than unique.

  3. I think this is key among the skills I lack-deciding if something is effective and why...

  4. Happy new year Mr. Νικηφόρος.

    Well, I'll have to agree again with the article. When picking units for my lists I only care about their functionality in that list, nothing more, nothing less.

    For example, for my orks I always fill the Elite slots with lootas. Sure, they have some other very good options that are unique I guess (burna boyz, kommandos with Skarsnikt) but that is irrelevant.

    Lootas fill a gap in the list that no other unit can, ie long range anti tank firepower. They might look overcoasted compared to something like a long fang unit but that's irrelevant too. Since they are the only unit in the army that can effectively play their certain role, they are an auto-include.

  5. Hmmm... That's an interesting article and you've got my wheels turning in a new direction. Have to reevaluate some of my list building ideas...

  6. @Loquacious What you could do is use my metric system to get the scores of a given unit and then divide the scores by the points cost to get an efficiency score for a given task.

  7. I think there's something to be said for looking at something unique and trying to figure out why it's unique rather than dismissing it because it sucks according to received wisdom.

  8. On a different interpretation of "Cult of Uniqueness," what do you think of people who bring lists that are "counter-meta" or bring a totally new concept to a codex? For example, a list that my gaming group is rather fond of is a Foot Blood Angels list with 70 Marines, 3 Priests and TONS of heavy weapons. Is this list-designing concept viable?

  9. @Nurglitch What did I say that made you think I was dismissing units without analysis because of some groupthink? My entire point was that we should go with what is proven effective and not some other aesthetic quality. If the unique stuff is ALSO good, go with it. If it isn't it isn't.

    @Rarkthor I can't say. If that list has enough anti-tank to stop full mech lists and enough anti-infantry to stop horde lists then it might just work. Playtest it against good lists and let us know.

  10. @Nikephoros: Um, sorry, where did I mention "groupthink" or "dismissing units without analysis"?

    What has proven effective is the received wisdom. But sometimes what has been proven effective hasn't actually been "proven", and the received wisdom based on that evidence is misleading.

  11. Luckily mathhammer exists to crudely, but sufficiently, tell us what is really bad, really good, and might be somewhere between.

  12. And for those things that aren't governed by the dice? Plenty of units "look good on paper" but turn out to be nigh-worthless in the game because of properties that defy statistical analysis. How do you determine whether a unit has been applied correctly? I mean, yes, unique isn't everything, that's obvious. What's less obvious is whether something unique is also good. How do you solve that problem?