Competitive Innovations Editorial: Down with the Stratoraptor

    Credit: Robert "TheChirurgeon" Jones

    It’s been a massive few weeks for Competitive 40K, with supermajors firing on both sides of the Atlantic and two powerful new books entering the ring and making a splash. We’ve got plenty more massive showcases to come as well – we’re only a month or so out from the next pair of supermajors in the Coventry GT and Austin GW Open, and October-November tend to be dense periods in the competitive calendar anyway, with Majors all over the shop (including the one we’re putting on in just a few weeks). We’re entering this period with a healthy diversity of viable armies to boot – AdMech and Drukhari still rule the roost, but pretty much every army that’s received a 9th Edition codex in 2021 has been putting in good performances, people have found ways to make a solid half of the Marine Chapters do real work and wild out-there builds are winning occasional majors. Finally, we’re about to get our first new book for a while in the form of Black Templars, with the promise of two more to spice things up before the end of the year.

    Amidst all of this, however, there’s a lot of glumness among tournament players. Part of that is that is fatigue – the top armies have been dominant for an extended period, which is always going to be a bit demoralising. However, people are finding more and more ways to craft armies that can take a swing at the top builds, including with the latest books, and that would normally pep things up long enough to see the scene through to the next major update. Unfortunately, I think there’s one unit casting a particularly long shadow over the metagame. Seriously, it’s massive. I am talking, of course, about the Archaeopter Stratoraptor, and today I’m going to make the argument that it needs to be stopped.

     

    The Stratoraptor on the Table

    The AdMech codex is full of strong units, which on some level makes it a little harder for the Stratoraptor to stand out from the pack. Its nose-mounted twin cognis lascannon is extremely scary, and it has a good mixture of other shooting to either chip the last few wounds off a primary target or sweep up hordes, and it’s durable and maneuvreable on baseline, with a juicy T7 and the ability to make a second turn during its flying move to stay on the table (also meaning it essentially cannot be hidden from). All good stuff, but if it stopped there the unit would be great but not a problem (certainly not graded on the AdMech curve anyway).

    What sends it over the top are two things: The chaff launcher upgrade, and the Mars Dogma. The chaff launcher is an incredibly good 20pt upgrade, reducing incoming damage from all sources (even melee) by 1. With T7 as well, and the ability to boost its save on a key turn via Bulwark Doctrina, that narrows the tools that can take out the Stratoraptor down to only the very finest anti-tank weaponry, fundamentally shifting the nature of its defences. Mars further helps with that by providing a turn of Shroudpsalm, but its big value is what it does for the offences. Mars gives all its units a hit re-roll per turn at baseline, but because SKITARII units from that Forge World gain Canticles, a Mars Stratoraptor gets to alpha strike with Benediction of the Omnissiah active. Shooting one of these with two hit re-rolls, a wound re-roll and a damage re-roll makes them play like a completely different unit, and indeed it as Mars that Stratoraptors are overwhelmingly seeing their success. Finally, several stratagems in the book provide even further uplifts to the power of the planes – Benevolence of the Omnissiah lets them tank mortals, Machine Spirit Resurgent means anything less than fully killing one doesn’t reduce its killing power, and if one flies into the opponent’s face and they do kill it, an auto-explosion from Machine Spirit’s Revenge is a final kick in the teeth.

    The combination of having reliable alpha strike damage that can’t be dodged and defences that need specific tools to crack makes lists with multiple Stratoraptors a nightmare to deal with. They can fly over and neutralise whatever the opponent has that’s best at killing them, and once that has happened (especially combined with how efficient the rest of the AdMech roster is) the game is essentially a foregone conclusion – a list that’s been savaged by Stratoraptors is unlikely to have a realistic chance of establishing and maintaining enough of a foothold to pull back.

    This is not hypothetical either – we’ve just had back-to-back supermajors over the last couple of weekends, both of which were won by lists with three Stratoraptors, which you can see below:

    Malik Amin Rubio - 1st Place LGT 2021 - Click to Expand

    ++ Patrol Detachment 0CP (Imperium – Adeptus Mechanicus) [33 PL, 700pts, 8CP] ++

    + Configuration +

    Forge World Choice: Forge World: Lucius

    Gametype: Matched

    + Stratagems +

    Stratagem: Archeotech Specialist [-1CP]: Archeotech Specialist

    Stratagem: Host of the Intermediary [-1CP]: Host of the Intermediary

    Stratagem: Host of the Intermediary [-1CP]: Host of the Intermediary

    Stratagem: Mechanicus Locum [-1CP]: Mechanicus Locum

    + HQ +

    Skitarii Marshal [3 PL, 45pts]: Mechanicus Locum, Relic (Lucius): The Solar Flare, Warlord Trait (Codex 5): Firepoint Telemetry Cache

    Tech-Priest Manipulus [6 PL, 105pts]: Logi, Magnarail lance, Relic: Raiment of the Technomartyr, Warlord, Warlord Trait (Lucius): Luminescent Blessings

    + Troops +

    Skitarii Rangers [8 PL, 180pts]: Enhanced Data-Tether, Omnispex
    . Ranger Alpha: Galvanic Rifle, Host of the Intermediary, Warlord Trait (Codex 1): Multitasking Cortex
    . 18x Skitarii Ranger: 18x Galvanic Rifle
    . Skitarii Ranger (Plasma caliver): Plasma Caliver

    Skitarii Rangers [8 PL, 180pts]: Enhanced Data-Tether, Omnispex
    . Ranger Alpha: Galvanic Rifle
    . 18x Skitarii Ranger: 18x Galvanic Rifle
    . Skitarii Ranger (Plasma caliver): Plasma Caliver

    Skitarii Rangers [8 PL, 190pts]: Enhanced Data-Tether, Omnispex
    . Ranger Alpha: Galvanic Rifle, Host of the Intermediary, Warlord Trait (Codex 3): Programmed Retreat
    . 17x Skitarii Ranger: 17x Galvanic Rifle
    . 2x Skitarii Ranger (Plasma caliver): 2x Plasma Caliver

    ++ Patrol Detachment -2CP (Imperium – Adeptus Mechanicus) [39 PL, 775pts, -2CP] ++

    + Configuration +

    Detachment Command Cost [-2CP]

    Forge World Choice: Forge World: Mars

    + HQ +

    Tech-Priest Manipulus [5 PL, 95pts]: Artisans, Magnarail lance

    + Troops +

    Skitarii Rangers [8 PL, 170pts]: Enhanced Data-Tether, Omnispex
    . Ranger Alpha: Galvanic Rifle
    . 19x Skitarii Ranger: 19x Galvanic Rifle

    + Fast Attack +

    Ironstrider Ballistarii [4 PL, 75pts] . Ironstrider Ballistarius: Twin Cognis Lascannon

    Ironstrider Ballistarii [4 PL, 75pts] . Ironstrider Ballistarius: Twin Cognis Lascannon

    + Flyer +

    Archaeopter Stratoraptor [9 PL, 180pts]: Chaff Launcher

    Archaeopter Stratoraptor [9 PL, 180pts]: Chaff Launcher

    ++ Patrol Detachment -2CP (Imperium – Adeptus Mechanicus) [27 PL, 525pts, -2CP] ++

    + Configuration +

    Detachment Command Cost [-2CP]

    Forge World Choice: Forge World: Mars

    + HQ +

    Skitarii Marshal [3 PL, 45pts]

    + Troops +

    Skitarii Rangers [6 PL, 125pts]: Omnispex
    . Ranger Alpha: Galvanic Rifle
    . 14x Skitarii Ranger: 14x Galvanic Rifle

    + Elites +

    X-101 [2 PL, 25pts]

    + Flyer +

    Archaeopter Fusilave [7 PL, 150pts]: Chaff Launcher

    Archaeopter Stratoraptor [9 PL, 180pts]: Chaff Launcher

    ++ Total: [99 PL, 2,000pts, 4CP] ++

     

    Richard Siegler - 1st Place GW Open New Orleans - Click to Expand

    ++ Patrol Detachment 0CP (Imperium – Adeptus Mechanicus) [55 PL, 1,057pts] ++

    + Configuration +

    Army of Renown – Skitarii Veteran Cohort

    Detachment Command Cost

    Forge World Choice: Forge World: Mars

    + HQ +

    Skitarii Marshal [3 PL, 45pts]: Relic (Skitarii Veteran Cohort): Cantic Thrallnet, Warlord, Warlord Trait (Skitarii Veteran Cohort): Calculate Without Diversion

    Tech-Priest Manipulus [6 PL, 105pts]: Logi, Magnarail lance, Relic: Raiment of the Technomartyr

    + Troops +

    Skitarii Rangers [8 PL, 195pts]: Omnispex
    . Ranger Alpha: Galvanic Rifle, Host of the Intermediary, Warlord Trait (Codex 3): Programmed Retreat
    . 18x Skitarii Ranger: 18x Galvanic Rifle

    + Elites +

    Sicarian Ruststalkers [8 PL, 136pts] . Ruststalker Princeps (Blades)
    . 7x Sicarian Ruststalker (Blades): 7x Transonic Blades

    Sicarian Ruststalkers [8 PL, 136pts] . Ruststalker Princeps (Blades)
    . 7x Sicarian Ruststalker (Blades): 7x Transonic Blades

    + Fast Attack +

    Serberys Raiders [4 PL, 80pts]: Serberys Raider Alpha
    . 4x Serberys Raider: 4x Cavalry Sabre, 4x Clawed Limbs, 4x Galvanic Carbine

    + Flyer +

    Archaeopter Stratoraptor [9 PL, 180pts]: Chaff Launcher

    Archaeopter Stratoraptor [9 PL, 180pts]: Chaff Launcher

    ++ Patrol Detachment -2CP (Imperium – Adeptus Mechanicus) [47 PL, 5CP, 941pts] ++

    + Configuration +

    Army of Renown – Skitarii Veteran Cohort

    Forge World Choice: Forge World: Mars

    + Stratagems +

    Stratagem: Archeotech Specialist [-2CP]: 2x Archeotech Specialist

    Stratagem: Artefactotum [-1CP]: Artefactotum

    Stratagem: Host of the Intermediary [-1CP]: Host of the Intermediary

    Stratagem: Mechanicus Locum [-1CP]: Mechanicus Locum

    + HQ +

    Skitarii Marshal [3 PL, 45pts]: Mechanicus Locum, Relic: Exemplar’s Eternity, Warlord Trait (Codex 6): Eyes of the Omnissiah

    + Troops +

    Skitarii Vanguards [2 PL, 50pts] . 4x Skitarii Vanguard: 4x Radium Carbine
    . Vanguard Alpha: Radium Carbine

    Skitarii Vanguards [2 PL, 50pts] . 4x Skitarii Vanguard: 4x Radium Carbine
    . Vanguard Alpha: Radium Carbine

    + Elites +

    Sicarian Infiltrators [8 PL, 136pts] . Infiltrator Princeps (Stub/Sword)
    . 7x Sicarian Infiltrator (Stub/Sword): 7x Power Sword, 7x Stubcarbine

    Sicarian Ruststalkers [8 PL, 170pts] . Ruststalker Princeps (Blades): Artefactotum, Relic: Temporcopia
    . 9x Sicarian Ruststalker (Blades): 9x Transonic Blades

    + Fast Attack +

    Pteraxii Sterylizors [4 PL, 95pts]: Pteraxii Sterylizor Alpha
    . 4x Pteraxii Sterylizor: 4x Phosphor torch, 4x Pteraxii Talons

    Serberys Raiders [4 PL, 85pts]: Enhanced Data-Tether, Serberys Raider Alpha
    . 4x Serberys Raider: 4x Cavalry Sabre, 4x Clawed Limbs, 4x Galvanic Carbine

    + Flyer +

    Archaeopter Fusilave [7 PL, 130pts]: Command Uplink

    Archaeopter Stratoraptor [9 PL, 180pts]: Chaff Launcher

    ++ Total: [102 PL, 5CP, 1,998pts] ++

     

    The tools surrounding the planes are quite different in each case (which we’ll get to in a second) but the brutal Mars plane alpha strike forms a key part of both armies’ strategies. This was reflected in some blowout games on their way to the top – Malik’s opponent in the LGT grand final notoriously conceded after turn one (having lost four dreadnoughts), and while Brad Chester put up a better fight at New Orleans, he still got shot off the table on turn four and ended up with a narrow loss. Both of these games were on Sweep and Clear, which is one of the better missions for pushing back against the Stratoraptor thanks to the objective lock-in, and took place on very different terrain setups with different design principles underlying them. It is fair to point out that both the victors were unarguably among the best players present at their respective events, which always helps with the whole winning thing, but that cuts both ways – both identifed Stratoraptor lists as their best option for victory, despite the divergence in terrain, scoring incentives and expected metagame. That neatly takes me on to why I think the Stratoraptor in particualr is a problem – there just isn’t that much you can do about it.

     

    Dealing with the Stratoraptor

    Imperial Fists Redemptor Dreadnought
    Imperial Fists Redemptor Dreadnought. Credit: Jack Hunter

    When I talked about the extremely skewed LGT metagame in Competitive Innovations I got a lot of feedback from people reasonably confident that this was was solely down to the LGT’s terrain, but that seems to only be partially true. On a positive note, with the unique GW terrain setup, it looks like shooty AdMech tools other than the planes are disincentivised and melee board control (especially Ruststalkers) heavily rewarded, and most of the extremely silly alpha strike lists that other factions fielded in London don’t seem to have worked out – and that’s good.

    Unfortunately, the Stratoraptor doesn’t care in the slightest, and in some ways actively benefits from the GW terrain setup compared to the LGT – the backfields of the tables are wide open, and because the Obscuring blocks are so big the planes can “switch off” a large chunk by landing with their base partially on the perspex (at which point their massive wings generally meant that anything inside was fair game too). The upshot is that you can’t hide from them – and with non-plane alpha shooting discouraged by the terrain, there were also fewer lists in the mix that could properly punish them for a lost roll-off. It’s worth highlighting that in London people could and did adapt their lists for the terrain maps to improve their chances of hiding, but when what you’re trying to hide from is Stratoraptors, Solar Flare and drop pods full of Devastators, any weakness in the terrain is massively amplified and easily exploited.

    The game between Siegler and Mark Perry’s Freebooterz also provided an instructive clue as to why the latter might have underperformed in Stratoraptor-infested London – Freebooterz may roll up many other armies (as we saw yesterday, they won two more GTs), but their tools match up horribly against Stratoraptors with Chaff Launchers and they just can’t stay on the table. Neither of the GT winning Freebooterz lists this week played against any AdMech, and while Colin McDade did take down an AdMech list in one of his two undefeated runs over the last few weeks, no Stratoraptors were present.

    With lists packing three Stratoraptors winning on both sides of the Atlantic on wildly different terrain setups, and the extreme impact they seem to have on the success of other armies and on the list design required to beat them when they’re out in force (as they were in London), I’m reasonably confident that it is is the number one meta-warping/problem unit in the game right now – or at least it is in Europe and will shortly be in the US now the cat’s out of the bag, as incredibly it looks like Siegler’s list was the only one at the GW event running any of them.

    Perverse though it sounds, in some ways that’s arguably a good thing, because it creates a very, very clear target for an emergency nerf.

     

    Why Act Now?

    Despite AdMech and Drukhari continuing to be over-pushed, there are plenty of other armies doing well, and it does look like GW-style terrain setups can heavily mitigate alpha strike builds…except ones with Mars Stratoraptors. Worse than that, from personal experience I can assure you that the way you lose to Stratoraptor lists is bluntly not fun – you cannot hide, with the re-rolls they stack up the only real variance is whether you spike 6+ saves, and because of the damage reduction they can generally neutralise your best tools for removing them in a single turn, quickly turning the game into a relatively forgone conclusion. It wasn’t fun when it was Aeldari planes doing this in 8th and it isn’t fun now – honestly, has any list that wants to take three of the same plane ever actually been good for the game? The Archaeopter Fusilave isn’t exactly innocent either (the 9E change to its bombs to be better against Vehicles and Monsters has proven massively impactful), and if we can make a change that stops players just swapping to three of those in every list instead, all the better.

    Reduce the impact of the Stratoraptor somehow, and the metagame looks much healthier, especially with terrain that mitigates the worst excesses, and for all of the complaints online, I think adding one more decent piece of Obscuring to each side of the table on the LGT maps probably gets over that bar. There are some extremely clear top dogs, but especially with the addition of Thousand Sons and Grey Knights to the mix there are some big new curveballs to adapt to and plenty of fun things you can be doing – I’ve spun up the Competitive Innovations Archetype page recently, and everything on there can easily hit a top four, and most have a real shot at winning a GT. Do AdMech, Drukhari, Orks and the best Marine builds have some busted stuff? Absolutely, but at least there’s a diversity of hyper-powered builds and ways you can build out other armies to contend with them.

    Compared to all the other nasties, the Stratoraptor is uniquely difficult to adapt to – the only real thing you can do about it is build a list designed to take two or three of them off the table turn one and hope you win the roll-off. As we saw in London, that creates a bit of a first turn arms race that fills up the metagame with armies that do not promote enjoyable 40K, and mean far too many games are turning on that initial dice roll. Outside of extremely unusual armies, if you go second against Stratoraptors you are getting tabled, probably sooner rather than later, so you won’t get access to the boosted final turn scoring that is meant to provide a balancing tool for player 2. Shorter, more brutal games have fewer interesting choices and get boring fast, and I don’t think anyone wants to watch another supermajor final called on turn 1. The Stratoraptor isn’t just too good – it’s too good in a way that creates non-games and leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and nothing else in the game right now can do so against such a broad range of opponents and with such impunity.

    That’s an important point too – as you might have guessed from the above, with the Stratoraptor taken down a notch or three I don’t think GW need to start making lots of changes to any other armies to see us through to the next Munitorum Field Manual update. I fully expect and endorse Drukhari, AdMech and the cream of some of the other top factions getting a wider set of nerfs whenever that rolls around, but the evidence is that people are managing to create lists that can go toe-to-toe with the top dogs and triumph, no other problem feels critical enough to need an out-of-band fix.

    With that out the way, let’s talk about what I’d like to see.

     

    Fixing the Problem

    For my money, I’d probably do the following as an emergency fix:

    • Limit all detachments to only have one Flyer slot in missions played with the GT pack. This puts a big CP tax on bringing three planes of any variety, stops the Mars/Lucius builds being able to run three Stratoraptors as Mars, adds an extra Skitarii Marshall tax to Mars Veteran Cohort, and stops the six plane nightmare lists entirely.
    • Change the chaff launcher to only work outside 12″. This doesn’t seem out of line mechanically, and would create more opportunities to use terrain for counterplay – you still can’t hide completely, but you likely can force the plane to come close enough for you to hit it back ahrd.

    This hits AdMech plane lists moderately hard, and gives Freebooterz a very mild knock as well, and given I’d be mildly concerned about the latter without Stratoraptors keeping them in check I’m not too worried about that. I don’t think this suddenly makes Stratoraptors completely unusable, but it means you’re only going to be facing down against more manageable numbers of planes at once, and lets you punish them hard if they take an aggressive swing at you and miss.

    Apply these changes, and I think the metagame gets that extra bit of breathing room it needs to tide us over. You don’t have to try and build lists that can kill six planes, you can build in some counter punches to take them out of the sky if they get too close, and players that want to bring the full three have to really pay for it.

    Alternative – Mars Change

    Adeptus Mechanicus - Tech-Priest Dominus
    Adeptus Mechanicus – Tech-Priest Dominus
    Credit: Pendulin

    The other option is, of course, to go after Mars. One of the reasons I’m not suggestion point changes for the Stratoraptor is that it’s such a different prospect with access to Canticles and an extra re-roll than anywhere else. A point change that makes it fair in Mars as is makes it worthless everywhere else, and that’s not something you want to do.

    So Mars then. There’s a tricky balance to strike here because giving Canticles to Skitarii units is their thing, but it’s also clearly what’s making the Stratoraptor so broken. The best idea I came up with was to change the Mars Dogma so that benefitting from Canticles requires Skitarii units to be within 6″ of a MARS TECH PRIEST. They can keep their super-powered Skitarii when Tech Priests are overseeing them, but planes that zoom miles into the opponent’s half of the table lose out. Maybe it even takes Ruststalkers and Infiltrators down a peg as well, and those are more units that no one is going to be too sorry to see caught in a balance crossfire.

    I think there’s a high enough risk that this has weird knock-ons that I’d rather just stick with the more targeted fixes above, but Stratoraptors certainly aren’t the only unit that becomes extra nasty as Mars, so if the other fixes don’t work or we’re still struggling under Martian oppression in a few months time, maybe it’s worth considering.

     

    Where That Leaves Us

    I’m always mindful when writing this sort of thing that you don’t want to make too many changes to 40K too often – nerfing stuff runs the risk of invaldating models and armies that people have laboured long and hard on, and that’s generally why I’ve been aiming to do one big article outlinining the issues when they arise (see the AdMech and Drukhari ones) then primarily aiming to cover the field as it lies till GW chooses to act (outside of things like Meta Reviews, where it’s always got to be part of the conversation). The evidence of this year is also that, although the metagame can never fully adapt to armies as powerful as Drukhari and Adeptus Mechanicus (i.e. bring them down to parity with other factions), players aren’t completely powerless either, and there’s enough they can do to at least keep the game interesting, and watching that process evolve is genuinely interesting.

    The reasons I’m taking a swing at the Stratoraptor outside the normal pattern are:

    1. It’s too good in a way that isn’t fun – it just erases you from the table while being impossible to avoid and disproportionately hard to kill.
    2. The lists players build to try and adapt to it are, themselves, hideously unfun to play against and not super interesting, so its metagame contagion spreads beyond just AdMech.
    3. Stratoraptor lists are where top AdMech players have ended up after many months of tinkering with the faction and adapting to shifts in the metagame – and the reason they’ve risen to the top of the pile is that they’re the hardest thing to consistently counter.

    Delete the Stratoraptor entirely and I think there’s a good chance AdMech are still the best faction in the game, but at least they’re building armies that you can tool against, and that gives us something to do until the next big balance pass. Clip its massive, massive wings GW.

    If you have comments, questions or suggestions hit us up at contact@goonhammer.com.

     

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