Welcome, Chaos fans, to a very exciting weekend indeed. Not only is there a new and improved Chaos Space Marine Codex, containing all of the new toys from Shadowspear and a few more tweaks besides, the second part of the Vigilus story, Vigilus Ablaze, turns out to be entirely dedicated to further expanding the Chaos arsenal with a whole host of new stratagems, specialist detachments and relics, representing by far the biggest infusion of new choices into an existing codex that we’ve seen thus far in this edition.
In order to help digest the sheer volume of cool stuff that’s been unleashed, I’ve joined forces with Goonhammer’s resident Chaos Lord and fellow reviewer TheChirurgeon in order to ensure that the snap takes we bring you this weekend burn with the smouldering heat of vengeance denied for 10,000 years. Read on to see what we think which new toys look the most powerful, what strategies we think are worth considering, and how Chaos Space Marine (CSM) armies might look going forward.
Obviously this review is going to need to follow a slightly different format than usual, as we’re not dealing with a whole new book, rather a set of add-ons to an existing book. Today in part 1, we’ll quickly cover what CSM’s current strengths and weaknesses are to set a bit of context, then review the new or updated units from the books.
Tomorrow in part 2, we’ll have a look at the new faction abilities and specialist detachments, before going through some army list ideas to help you get started in this brave new (extremely chaotic) world.
The State of Chaos Space Marines
We’re not going to spend too long on this, as many things have changed, but it’s useful to understand what CSM currently do well and what they’re lacking to provide context for evaluating the new units. Here’s a quick recap:
|Extremely powerful unit buffing abilities||Marines units are very overcosted|
|Strong characters||Lots of units aren't good at their job|
|Strong board control via fearless Chaos Cultists||Outclassed by soup options for a lot of jobs.|
While Chaos Soup does OK at the moment, the CSM codex isn’t really playing a major role in those lists, which tend to favor Daemons, Death Guard, and Thousand Sons.
The most abstractly powerful things in the old book are probably the unit buffs and the characters who deliver them. Using abilities like the “Prescience” psychic power (+1 to hit for a turn) or, especially, the “Veterans of the Long War” stratagem (+1 to wound for a phase) to make a unit’s attacks more deadly, then Chaos-god specific stratagems (Fury of Khorne and Endless Cacophony) to either shoot or fight twice to double dip on these benefits should, on paper, allow you to throw some absurd punches with even modestly powerful units.
Unfortunately, most of the units are just kind of terrible at their baseline, and pretty much all of them turned out to be eclipsed by the humble Chaos Cultist. These mere mortals (used to, as we’ll see later) come in units of 40 that could be made fearless via Abaddon the Despoiler, and while individually terrible, threw out so many shots or melee attacks that they were much better targets for all of those buffs than any of the actual Chaos Marine units, even theoretically specialist ones like Raptors or Havocs.
Compounding this, plenty of the army’s strengths were done better by Chaos armies available in “soup” lists, with Thousand Sons in particular generally making better use of some of the buffs on non-cultist units, Death Guard bringing better tough units and vehicles, and both Chaos Daemons and Thousand Sons bringing better characters, while each army also offered cheap alternative troop choices to cultists, such as Tzaangors, Poxwalkers, and lesser daemons.
The result is that while you did see CSM detachments in competitive play, they overwhelmingly consisted of Abaddon and a Sorcerer leading large blobs of cultists (though Obliterators and Khorne Berserkers would occasionally sneak in), with the other chaos books doing the offensive heavy lifting, and plenty of armies eschewing Codex: Chaos Space Marines entirely.
So to review: The old Codex kinda sucked. Which means that the big question for this review is: Have the new books done enough to improve the army?
Spoiler: We think so.
Between Shadowspear and Vigilus 2 (plus some stealth changes in the main book) there’s almost a whole codex’s worth of that are either brand new or sufficiently changed to need a look. As ever, we’ll do a very quick summary for each one, then freeform into wider thoughts within the slot, expanding out ideas for some of the better stuff.
- Abaddon: Bigger and better than ever, and Black Legion is now an even more attractive prospect, which might make up for the nerf to cultists.
- Master of Possession: Has some cool tricks, but suffers from being an over-specialised buff character in a book with lots of general-purpose buffs. Being able to move and summon might be his best trick.
- Lord Discordant: Absurdly deadly melee monster that excels against some top targets in the meta. Better used as a frontline fighter than a backfield buffer.
- Master of Executions: A cheap way to fill an HQ slot, but doesn’t really fill a role that the army needs. Meh.
- Dark Apostle: A very interesting change that definitely has some strong defensive applications, offensive options might prove hard to use thanks to timing.
Overall, the most relevant options here are Abaddon, the Lord Discordant, and the Dark Apostle.
Abaddon is…well he’s old Abaddon but even more. Utterly terrifying in combat with improved Strength and Wounds, plus extra damage on his sword, and a big force multiplier for any Black Legion units nearby thanks to full re-rolls to hit for nearby units, which is much more relevant post-Beta Bolters and thanks to the new Havocs and Terminators. He’s still useful for making Cultists fearless, but the nerf to Cultists takes away some effectiveness there. The new Council of Traitors Black Legion Stratagem allows you to take extra warlord traits on a sorcerer and dark apostle, mitigating the downside of basically being forced to make him your warlord for the CP and getting his bad warlord trait. While Abaddon’s older usage as a Cultist buff is a bit worse, he’s now a much better frontline fighter, and there are now other units you’ll be actively excited to use alongside him.
Despite a couple of major downsides (having 12W, daemon engines mostly being awful), the Lord Discordant still manages to be a total monster. More importantly, a monster that can, with a bit of help from some friends, tear apart Imperial Knights, thanks to a combination of being good against vehicles, the Technovirus Injector, and his own aura giving him the ability to trigger additional attacks on 5s and 6s against IMPERIUM units. As a DAEMON ENGINE himself, he also has access to the Daemonforge stratagem to reroll hits and wounds. An ideal setup for this unit is putting him out in front of your force and buffing him with the Diabolic Strength psychic power, which gives him +2 Strength and +1 Attack (upping those stats to 6 and 5, respectively). At that point, he’ll easily chew through two thirds of the wounds needed to kill an average knight in one round of combat. For additional oomph, you could give a Black Legion Lord Discordant the Sightless Helm relic, which boosts his AP by 1 at a cost of 1 BS (which doesn’t matter, especially if you give him a Baleflamer), and he gets over the line of chewing through 24W on an average set of rolls!
While he does need buffs to hit his maximum potential, there are plentiful such buffs available, and he’s at least fine at base rate. His defensive stats (T6, a 2+ save, a 5+ invulnerable save) give him a good chance at surviving a turn of fire, and his ability to heal will help him stick around. While he has several options, for our money the Techno-virus injector far and the baleflamer (if you can afford it) are the way to go.
The biggest problem with the Lord Discordant isn’t that he can be shot (though that isn’t great), it’s that his aura will probably trick a lot of players into trying too hard to make him buff other Daemon Engines. This isn’t great, because most of the daemon engines geared toward shooting are terrible, and having him hang back to buff them means wasting his combat potential. The melee engines are a bit more viable, but you’ll often be better off taking another Lord Discordant instead of say, a Forgefiend. The stuff that does pair well with him tends to be stuff you’d already consider taking or that benefits from other unit buffs, and many are also expensive Forgeworld kits, such as The Blood Slaughterer, the Decimator, and the Kytan Ravager.
The Dark Apostle is probably the most drastically-changed unit in the army and is now one of the most versatile units in the game. TheChirurgeon and I still can’t quite agree on how good he is, which is probably normal for something this new. The Dark Apostle further extends Chaos’ ability to apply major offensive buffs to a unit and while some of his prayers mimic existing powers, they also can’t be Denied or stopped with anti-Psyker abilities. They also don’t cost CP to use and can stack with existing buffs.
The big downside is that prayers go live at the start of each Battle Round, rather than your turn, meaning that if you’re going second, you have to apply the buff to a unit already on the table and your opponent may kill it before it ever has a chance to act. Note that this is only a drawback for offensive powers, though — the defensive ones are much better off as a result, as you’ll be able to give a unit -1 to be hit or a 5+ invulnerable save before they’re shot at. Prayers only need the <LEGION> keyword, so they work on most Forgeworld units, allowing you to do some truly diabolical things, like give Kytan Ravagers -1 to be hit.
Overall this is clearly a good unit – there are enough possible uses that at least one of them is going to stick, it just remains to be seen if it’s fantastic (Note from TheChirurgeon: You’re so wrong. This guy whips). The unit’s biggest downside is a lack of flexibility – only choosing one prayer with no way to change it can be an issue. We recommend taking his little helpers to give him +1 to his prayer rolls if you can fit the 10 points – it’s well worth what you’d otherwise spend in CP if you fail a prayer roll or two.
These guys are even better in Black Legion armies where they can get an extra Warlord Trait via the Council of Traitors stratagem, and there we’d recommend the CP regen trait (Trusted War-Leader) most of the time.
The Master of Possession feels like he doesn’t quite get there for most competitive play. His biggest problem is one that we’ll see again and again as we go through new units an detachments – most of his abilities are based around making bad units mediocre, instead of making good units great. While most of his buffs are generally better than “general purpose” buffs for the units they affect, but the constraints they put on army construction just won’t be worth it most of the time.
The most important powers from the Malefic Discipline is probably Incursion. As we saw recently at LVO, summoning can provide a lot of power and flexibility in the right army, and being able to summon after moving and with 4D6 adds a lot of reliability to the process. The other potentially useful abilities are Cursed Earth and Infernal Power, which boost <LEGION> Daemon invuln saves and give re-rolls ot hit and to wound. These could theoretically be useful for buffing Lord Discordants and FW Daemon Engines, but with only a 6” range, the Master of Possession likely won’t be able to keep up with his targets.
One interesting competitive use for him is to take advantage of a rules loophole – The Chaos Familiar stratagem from Codex: Chaos Space Marines allows a Chaos Psyker to replace one of his powers with a power from the DARK HERETICUS discipline, allowing you to have your Master of Possession pull double-duty. Some options here include warptime to keep up with faster units, or Prescience to boost to hit rolls. Or you could give him the Mark of Tzeentch and try doubling up on Weaver of Fates and Cursed Earth to improve some Daemon Engine’s invulnerable save to 3+.
The Master of Executions seems like a miss. It’s a cool concept (and is, at least, now the second cheapest HQ choice if you’re filling out a detachment), but doesn’t fit into what this army is likely planning to do in any meaningful way, and could probably have afforded to be at least 10pts cheaper (at which point he is more attractive as a slot-filling line guardian) or quite a bit better at his current price. As-is, he lacks a reliable way to get into combat on his own and doesn’t boost the units around him.
- Chaos Space Marines: Still a bit too expensive (a cut to 12ppm wouldn’t have gone amiss) but Red Corsairs at least now gives you a reason to take some, and being able to take Heavy Weapons on min squads makes them less bad as backline objective holders. Also, they look better compared to…
- Cultists: Slammed with a couple of nerfs (one moderate, one fairly heavy), still have a role as a cheap troops choice and still at least good in some horde configurations
You will definitely see a lot more Chaos Space Marines on the table with the new books out, but this is more because of surrounding changes than because of the Marines themselves. Both Black Legion and (especially) Red Corsairs now have compelling reasons they might want to include them in an army. The Red Corsairs faction trait means that a battalion with three CSM units in it gives a mighty 8CP, and they have a very aggressively priced named character to fill one of the HQ slots in Huron Blackheart. Given how good Chaos Stratagems are, expect to see the Spiky Seventeen (original detachment name, do not steal) show up in lots of Chaos lists.
For Black Legion armies, full re-rolls from Abaddon makes 5-marine squads sitting in the back in cover with a Lascannon or something at least an OK addition to an army with other gunline elements (something that’s encouraged by the changes to Havocs and the new Devastation Battery detachment). Meanwhile, having a few mobile squads of CSM around (maybe 2 squads in a Rhino each with 2 plasma guns) combos extremely well with their “super-obsec” stratagem (more on this later) and their ability to advance and fire rapid fire weapons for some clutch plays in tight, objective based games.
Should they probably have gone to 12PPM? Yes. Are they still more useful that they were? Also yes. Are the new models incredibly cool? Hell yes.
It is a good thing that so many of the new things in these books are good, because Cultists took an absolute beating this time around. A lot of people have focused on the fact that they no longer get legion traits (though still have the keyword for stratagems etc.), but the reduction to maximum unit size of 30 rather than 40 could be an even bigger issue. As we flagged earlier, stacking buffs on full cultist squads is a big part of current CSM tactics, and the smaller maximum size both makes this less useful and makes it easier to chew through a full squad in a turn, preventing “Tide of Traitors” being used to bring the whole unit back onto the board.
TheChirurgeon’s Note: It’s worth noting here that Thousand Sons and Death Guard Cultists can still be taken in groups of 40 until errata is issued, meaning that they’re now the preferred unit. And because Tide of Traitors doesn’t specify a faction or legion, any soup army with access to Heretic Astartes stratagems will be able to use it on these cultists.
It’s not all bad news, though – Cultists did gain in a couple of places. The first is the Dark Apostle’s 5++ aura prayer, Illusory Supplication, which is extremely good with large cultists blobs, heavily boosting their survivability. Black Legion cultists also get the “Merciless Fighters” stratagem, which can give them +1 Attack if their unit has more models than there are enemy models within 3” (which will almost always be true when using these guys). Stacking that with Abaddon’s Aura, Veterans of the Long War, and fighting twice with Fury of Khorne still adds up to a lot of hurt. Big fearless squads also still work well for capturing objective.
And as always, being able to fill a troop tax slot for 50 points for 10 bodies is still a useful tool to have, even if you’ll now sometimes prefer a 5-man Chaos Marine squad instead.
- Terminators: Received a surprisingly massive buff to go with the new kit, now a very compelling choice.
- Greater Possessed: Much like the Master of Executions, don’t fill a role that fits super well, but at least have an aura buff to give them fringe uses.
We’ll get Greater Possessed out of the way first. There are usually going to be better ways to spend your points, but if you’re going in on Lords Discordant and other Daemon Engines, then Greater Possessed can have some use, particularly where their +1S auras can get nearby Daemon engines over that S8 threshold.
Terminators are one of the most pleasant surprises out of this release. GW have struggled all edition to find a good role for terminators, because “durable generalists” is a tough sell for a unit in a metagame all about highly optimised specialists. The new Chaos Terminator datasheet, combined with the support Chaos gives it and the Beta Bolter rules, just might be enough to make Chaos Space Marine Terminators worth fielding.
What pushes them over the top this time, in our opinion, is the ability to take a Chainaxe as their melee weapon. The Chainaxe is the perfect weapon for a tough generalist unit – it’s cheap (previously the cheapest melee options they could take were power swords or mauls at 4pts, the chainaxe is only 1pt), and sets their melee statline to a profile (S5, AP-1) where they’ll still pound through chaff, and gradually make headway on tougher things. Combined with a small cut to their base cost, you now get a basic Chainaxe/Combi-bolter Terminator for 29pts, so a full unit of 10 at 290. That’s certainly not cheap, but it’s low enough that you can still fit plenty of other big hitters into your army, and gives you a tough, flexible unit that can adapt to a variety of situations and targets via the use of stratagems and psychic buffs, which are in ready supply for Chaos Marines.
The most obvious way to field Terminators is with the Mark of Slaanesh. This lets them use the Endless Cacaphony stratagem to shoot a second time, which combines with Veterans of the Long War and the Beta Bolter Rules to absolutely butcher hordes, while making them a viable target for the Delightful Agonies psychic power for additional durability. If you’re running them as part of one big “Death Star,” you can also use the new Black Legion stratagem to give them all four god keywords at once, allowing you to shoot twice, fight twice, and return a dead model to the table. They’re also a great target for the Dark Apostle’s -1 to be hit ability.
While the cheap basic loadout is one of the big attractions, the extra options are still worth looking at, specifically the (really quite cheap) Combi-Plasma option. Stacking a bunch of these can be devastating on a Slaanesh Squad coming in out of deep strike, especially if you can land Prescience on them to allow them to overcharge with impunity. Sticking a powerful melee weapon (maybe a chainfist) on the sergeant also seems good to give a little bit of a leg-up against vehicles.
If you’d asked us what units we were expecting to be actively excited by in the new books I don’t think either of us would have picked Terminators, but this datasheet really looks GW have decided to have a real, proper try at making them useful on the battlefield, and it really looks like they might have pulled it off. The only downside, as we discovered this weekend, is that the new box only contains one Chainaxe, so Forge World conversion kits are going to be in high demand to properly set up squads. (TheChirurgeon’s note: They’re already sold out in the U.S. Curses!)
- Havocs: Speaking of “seriously trying to make a much maligned unit slot work”, these things look extremely good now.
- Obliterators: Chunkier, deadlier and pricier – the first squad is probably better because of how well they take buffs, but spamming them is less good.
- Venomcrawler: Cool, but too much of a generalist and ends up costing too much for any role it tries to fill.
Havocs have received an absolutely gigantic buff in this release, adding a point of toughness to go up to T5 (which is very good on power-armoured bodies), and ignoring move and shoot penalties (which makes deploying them out of Transports much more reasonable). They also got access to the all-new Reaper Chaincannon which, while pricey, is a best-in-breed horde clearance tool.
These things do not mess around, and are now a legitimate choice for chaos lords wanting to bring in some heavy hitters. They also benefit, along with Obliterators, from the new Devastation Battery detachment, which we’ll dig into tomorrow.
The most likely way you’ll want to field these guys are either with 4 Reaper Chaincannons or 4 Lascannons/Missile launchers. With the former, you’ll be pressing forward to offer close-range fire support. With the latter, you’ll be hanging back and blowing high-value targets apart from a distance, with a little mobility thrown in to keep targets in view. For either configuration, Veterans of the Long War and Endless Cacophony help them punch above their points cost, and you’ll want to set them up with re-rolls, either from a character, chapter trait, or stratagem.
In a meta full of Orks and GSC, the Chaincannon has the potential to be an absolute superstar, allowing a squad of Havocs to regularly mow down 50+ boyz in a single turn. The only downside is that each Havocs box comes with only a single Chainchannon, and Heresy Rotor Cannons are already sold out on the Forgeworld site.
The Havocs’ partners in devastation are the new and improved Obliterators. As a first note on these, we’re reviewing them on the assumption that the point cost in the codex is a misprint, and the Shadowspear cost (115 points) is correct, as almost everyone seems to be assuming. So assuming that, Obliterators have gone up substantially in cost (about a 75% increase) while their firepower has only increased by 50%, and their defences less than that (and, in fact, effectively not at all against currently popular S6 D2 choices).
On paper, that makes them sound like they should be weaker, but the nature of the chaos army means that probably isn’t strictly true. While their baseline shooting ability has only gone up by 50%, that increased baseline means that you’re getting more out of every buff you stack on them (and you’re going to want to stack those buffs), and a full squad of these can now throw out a truly preposterous amount of damage on the turn they come in from deep strike. The ability to deep strike and throw out a huge beating also mitigates the fact that they’re proportionately easier to kill for their costs – they’ll get the first hit against your opponent’s priority targets, and experts agree that leaving nothing threatening alive is the best form of defence.
Our feeling here is that the first unit of Obliterators is probably even better than it used to be simply because of how spectacular a punch they throw each time they shoot, but spamming multiple units is now probably too pricey – people used to take the maximum of three squads of these, but that would now be more than half of a 2,000-point army, and it’s more critical to be able to maximise each unit as it comes in.
The Venomcrawler is one of the coolest new models to come out of this release cycle, but unfortunately its rules are all over the place. Priced like a Power Scourge Helbrute, it’s got a couple more attacks, an invulnerable save, an assault weapon and better survivability, but at the cost of a degrading profile that starts with worse WS/BS, plus less versatility and and an inability to benefit from legion traits. While this little scuttling guy may find a home in a daemon engine-heavy build, as-is he’s outclassed by Contemptors, Decimators, and Leviathans, who all do shooting better. His +1 to summoning that only works for Masters of Possessions isn’t anything to write home about and there are better ways to help summon your daemons.
Evil StargateNoctilith Crown: Definitely exists. Is even quite cool, but not worth a detachment slot.
- Skull Altar: What the…no, just no.
Fortifications pretty much never land competitively, and the Noctilith Crown, despite it’s incredibly metal look, is no exception. It does hand out some neat buffs, but the biggest one (the 5++) can be mimicked by a Dark Apostle without eating a whole detachment at similar cost, and for the others the immobility is just too high a price. Obviously a cool thing for narrative missions though.
The Skull Altar is even more clearly something that’s strictly for narrative play, its weird combination of abilities will in no way ever justify the cost of including it in a competitive list.
The Chaos arsenal has also been slightly expanded, most relevantly to allow Chaos Lords to take Thunder Hammers. This obviously lets you build a Chaos Smash Captain of your very own, with Veterans of the Long War substituting for the Red Thirst, and Fury of Khorne in the place of Honour the Chapter. This is definitely a nice option to have in the toolkit, and is supported by the new Host Raptorial specialist detachment that we’ll look at tomorrow.
Units – Wrap Up
As you can hopefully see, even before digging into the plethora of other tricks that we’re going to look at tomorrow, there’s a huge amount to like in these books. Abaddon, Lords Discordant, Dark Apostles, Terminators, Havocs and Obliterators all look like they’re going to be top tier choices, filling out the previously lacklustre CSM roster with some very tasty toys.
We hope you’ve enjoyed your exciting Chaos update so far, and join us in part 2 as we see how the new array of traits, detachments and tricks takes these already great units to the next level!