Monday, July 9, 2012

40k Theory: Finding the Edge

This is a rather basic list building theory article, but I think with the launch of 6th Edition it’s a good time for it since everyone is back to square one with list building ideas.

The beginning of every good project is an Excel spreadsheet
My initial thought rests on the following premise: in a tournament setting the only safe assumption you can make is that your opponents will be better players than you.  By operating on this assumption, you avoid making plans that will only payoff if your opponent makes a mistake.  Assuming the opposite, that your opponent is going to make a mistake, is a great way to lose the game.

So if we are starting from the premise that our opponents are at least as skilled as we are, we have to look for places to gain advantage wherever possible.  If we were using identical lists, this would be a very difficult challenge.  However, we have the luxury of stacking the deck so to speak: we can bring whatever list we want.

Warhammer 40,000, despite the occasional potential alpha strike first turn blow out, is an attrition game when played by skilled, experienced players.  Killing a unit here, losing a unit there, trying to gain incremental advantage until by the end game you have an insurmountable lead. 

But that’s a 50/50 split, at best.  You need to build into your list a way to get advantage that will compensate for your potential play mistakes or a few turns of sub-average rolls.  Where do you start?

Like most wargames, 40k is a game of threats and responses.  Your units are both threats and responses to your opponent’s threats.  This is important to remember.  To gain an edge, you have to answer your opponent’s threats, while having your threats go unanswered.  There are a few common methods of doing achieving this in list building…

1.  Points efficiency.  If your units are identical to your opponent’s, but yours are 5% cheaper across the board you have a decided edge.  Since our units are not identical (despite the cries of Xenos players!) we have to make sure the units we do select are as points efficient as possible.  Always compare the potential damage output from a unit vs. the points it costs against units of a similar role within your book.  Yes, Black Templars get cheaper Land Speeder Typhoons than Ultramarines, but that doesn’t mean that Typhoons are an inefficient unit for Ultramarines.  We cannot control external balance except by playing a different codex, so you should keep your comparisons internal.

2.  Multi-purpose units.  Auto-cannons and missiles are good at killing vehicles and infantry.  Lascannons are only really good at killing vehicles.  Heavy bolters are only really good at killing infantry.  Therefore, your best bet is brining significantly more auto-cannons and missiles than either lascannons or heavy bolters.  Multi-purpose units allow you to answer a greater range of your opponent’s threats.  It prevents your list from having a single point of failure.  If all your anti-infantry is a set of Devastators with 4x Heavy Bolters, all your opponent need do is kill them, and his infantry go unanswered.  The important lesson is spread your answers and threats out over multiple units, and bring units that can threaten multiple types.  When 6th launched lots of people proclaimed lascannons as “back.”  I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

3.  Difficult to answer threats.  Like the others, this is self-explanatory.  If your opponent has no answers to your threats, you will probably end up winning.  Let’s look at Nob Bikerz again.  By the end of 5th they were hardly a threat, because they stopped being difficult to answer.  When every army had 20+ missiles per turn, these lost their mojo.  Now with 6th, that particular answer is not an answer at all, and the Nob Bikerz are now a difficult to answer threat.  Land Raiders are also difficult to answer for people without melta.  There is a fine line between brining difficult to answer threats and bringing an imbalanced list.  If you sacrifice too much of your list in bringing rocks/deathstars etc then you run the risk of not having enough multi-purpose units. 

4.  Isolate a short-coming in answers.  Spamming vehicles, or running hordes of infantry isn’t in and of itself a great strategy.  They are the brute force way of isolating a shortage of answers, and not the sort of thing us creative types want to do.  Take a look at BA Jumpers.  People realized that jumpers with priests took advantage of a lack of efficient answers.  Nobody was bringing plasmaguns in large numbers, and nobody was bringing Vindicators.  So nobody had enough guns to shoot the FNP 3+ armor jumpers off the board with ease.  They took advantage of a ‘hole in the metagame.’  Nobody is bringing Plasma weapons?  Bring an army that can only be stopped by lot’s of plasma.  This seems obvious, like saying, “if nobody plays scissors, play paper.”  But it really isn’t because 40k is infinitely more complex than RPS.  Most people gear their lists to beat Marines, Rhinos, hordes of cheap infantry, and Land Raiders.  Attack them in a way that differs from all of those things (like BA Jumpers) and you can gain huge advantage.  Fliers and allies allow these types of out of the box threats to see a lot more play, and I think Timmah does a good job of breaking down the concept for 6th in his post here.

Again, this stuff sounds like pretty basic stuff, but we are all in uncharted territory and a back to basics approach is a productive way to go.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Questions?


  1. Should there be a link to Timmah's post near the end? Moused around and couldn't find it.

  2. I never managed to win games with my DoA BA. Maybe my opponents had all the answers or maybe I just plainly sucked at playing them :P

    What you are saying here along with Timmahs post is actually pretty close to my initial thoughts on what a good 6th ed list should look like. Thus the Necron/Ork list I showed you, lots of fast scoring units in flyers and a Nob Biker deathstar.

    1. My fear is that as new codices come out, answers to deathstars and fliers will be everywhere and gimmick builds like that will have been a big waste of your money and time.

    2. Well, answers to the Fortitude psychic powers, and GK all having power weapons are already good indicators that they're looking to smooth much of this out. :)

    3. Yeah basically if you already have the models for a gimmick build, knock yourself out. But I would feel bad sending someone out to buy 11 fliers only to have an FAQ saying all missile launchers have flakk missiles come out. Buy a balanced army and you won't ever be let too far down.

    4. I know what you mean, been a few times that just a simple FAQ invalidated a whole army build. Well I got most of the models so I am not making a huge investment or anything. We'll see how it goes. Thanks!

  3. Good post. I haven't played 40k for years (my Orks and Eldar are still stuck in the early days of 4th edition) so this is a good primer to get me thinking about getting up to speed with 6th.

  4. BAs Jumpers is an army I am anxious to watch. I really enjoy playing mine, as BAs were the first army I really collected to play (way back when they first got their 25-page 'supplement' book). All-jumpers is NOT a competitive army, but that doesn't make it a horrible army, like Green Tide or... anything CSMs. I contend that the shift to include more AP2 weapons will not affect its wildcard-esque appeal, now that FNP is only ignored by instant death.