Let’s Talk about Combined Army Lists.
There has been a fair amount of chatter in the online Infinity community recently about the strength of Combined Army lists using the Avatar TAG. This follows on from one Lachlan Summers (ITS name Hachiman Taro), a very accomplished player, using such a list to take first place at a large, 5-round tournament in Australia, NovaCore. An article about the strengths of the roster he selected, with balance suggestions, generated a spirited debate. He subsequently spoke on the Loss of Lieutenant podcast about his experiences at the event and reflections on his lists. This elicited a follow up article and the debate continues. So, for new or less competitive players, we aim to explain what’s up with the Avatar and its characteristic role in Combined Army lists, and why they are considered strong. Then we’ll break down why that might be and raise some questions about overall balance in Infinity.
This article isn’t purely about the Avatar and the interacting Combined Army units. There are some wider issues in the Infinity competitive scene. While the game is widely agreed to be mostly dependent on player skill (with a hefty dose of luck swinging critical moments in individual games), there are definitely factions which have more tools to win games than others do. Generally speaking all the vanilla Factions have some top-class tools. The spread is wider with Sectorial armies, where a clearer tier list emerges, which is again the subject of lively debate. Much more of an issue than inter-Faction balance is internal balance. Every Faction in the game has, to competitive players, a selection of profiles that are considered auto-takes, and within unit roles, like ‘disposable warband’ or ‘elite gunfighter’ there is a clear selection of best-in-class profiles, and a variety that aren’t seen often because another unit can do their job better. There still isn’t one competitive list for each Faction or even Sectorial. In some cases there may even be more than 15 top-notch profiles in a Faction, so the player still has to make some choices. But certain units will be seen again and again on tournament tables. No Ariadna player is going to take Dog Warriors over Bearpodes. No Nomads or Corregidor player is going to leave Jazz on the shelf. To go back to the initial example, playing the Avatar is not an automatic ticket to winning a game, let alone a series of them. There are many other expensive models in Combined Army which perform well, and you can build a well-rounded, capable Combined Army list without any one center-piece model. But to pretend that TAGs like the Overdron or Xeodron are as competitive as the Avatar would be dishonest. Without breaking the game, Factions’ internal balance in Infinity is well on its way to being solved.
This article is not aimed at an attack on anyone playing Combined Army or other meta lists. First of all, in a competitive environment, every player should use the profiles available to them – we absolutely reject the idea that it’s up to players to tone down their lists to balance the game. That’s something which is up to the game designers. One thing we all agree on is that player skill is the dominant factor in winning games of competitive Infinity. A mediocre player might do a bit better by copying a very well-designed tournament list, but they won’t suddenly be able to compete with top players. The meta lists we’ll discuss below came about partly because excellent players put the reps in playing games to develop their content and strategies for using them.
We should also warn against drawing too many conclusions from a limited number of games, especially at one event, or within one national/regional meta. Infinity is not that widely played a game. There are so many factors which influence what profiles people take to games, beyond pure competitive judgment. Aesthetics, background or style, simply picking different factions to those their playgroup already owns. Even beyond those factors, which remind us this is a hobby as well as a game, profiles and lists can vary in effectiveness based on the table. Many have argued that ‘Euro’ style tables common in Spain, which are much more open that those used in the USA, are part of what informs CB’s point costing of ranged-firepower units vs Warbands. Every tournament player knows the difference between encountering a dominant sniper or missile launcher on a completely open table, against one where a shotgun or rifle user can work its way within 16” before firing. You also have to consider the mission set – props to the LoL podcast for mentioning how Exclusion Zones may have impacted some of the meta lists we’ll discuss – which will alter which profiles are best suited to that particular tournament. Finally, there just aren’t enough games played in Infinity events to draw definite conclusions about what list was somehow the ‘most powerful’. At any big event, the winning player will say, as the winner of Novacore graciously did, that at least some of their games were close, and another player could have won if a few dice rolls here or there had gone differently. Match-ups over five rounds can be kind or unkind to a list, as can table selection, as can the Initiative roll at the start of the game, or the draws of Classified Objectives. To be the best on the day is just that, it doesn’t make a list or player the best in perpetuity.
Background: how Infinity mechanics brought us here
Quantity Has a Quality All of its Own
I’ve heard that attributed to Stalin – not sure if it’s apocryphal. Anyway, Infinity has always had a background balance issue in that Orders, being the real resource behind doing anything in the game, have been a primary concern in list-building. What we mean is that prior to N4 and the 15 Order-generating models cap, the meta was to have ~20 Orders, before Impetuous was taken into account. Some of the most competitive factions were the ones with the right cheap profiles to go even above that, with some strong players dominating their scenes with ~25 model lists. It was a meme to point out that some completely legal silly ideas, like a Caledonian Highlander force of nothing but Galwegians led by Wallace (about 45 models) were basically unbeatable in Annihilation, although this was obviously never a real issue in competitive events. Basically more Orders are better, up to a certain tipping point where you can no longer afford the tools to deal with individual ARO threats or accomplish Objectives. The issue is that with CB’s point structure, that tipping point is above the number of models they envision playing the game with (and arguably, over the number of models it is convenient or aesthetically pleasing to use on the table).
The N4 cap of 15 put a stop to a lot of silliness. But it immediately enforced a new meta rule, that competitive lists have 15 Order-generating models. In fact, most factions that can include sources of extra Orders (bonus Lt Orders, NCO or Strategos, Tactical Awareness & Counterintelligence) will do so. Having those options available on profiles that are otherwise viable is one of the things that elevate factions into the top tier. Having the maximum number of models doesn’t just extend your reach via Orders, it lets you dominate the table by taking positions and forcing your opponent to spend Orders to fight, not just move through areas to achieve Objectives or attack your key models. On one recent occasion the Infinity Global League (IGL – the biggest online Tabletop Simulator-hosted tournament) was won by a 10-model Steel Phalanx list, but this is an exception. We’d welcome a comment by the excellent player who achieved that, but we know that when playing Corregidor or Tohaa he does in fact run 15 models; also worth pointing out that those 10 models do muster 12 or 13 Orders thanks to Strategos.
Balancing Expensive and Inexpensive Models
Looking at the Order-activation system in Infinity, in the Active turn, the hypothetical best list structure in a vacuum would be 2 superb fighting pieces (one in each Combat Group) and 13 Order providers who are as cheap as possible, so that the points spent on the fighters can be higher and they can be stronger. This would concentrate all your Active turn striking power into two points. Obviously that’s not the case in real life. As well as being constrained by the profiles available, you need several kinds of threat to deal with different situations. Most obviously, models to dominate long range firefights, and models to attack the enemy at close quarters. If you had only a single model for each role, you’d be vulnerable to having them caught out of position by deployment, or by the enemy targeting them in their own Active turn.
In the Reactive turn then, having a host of unarmed cheerleaders supporting your 2 leading players would be very undesirable. What you’d really want is a load of cheerleaders that were difficult or unproductive for your enemy to attack, and could protect your valuable Active turn models. Does any of this hypothetical sound familiar to you? This mechanic of maximum Orders, concentrated striking power and disposable, defensive speed bump supporting models is the basis of the meta Combined Army list, and is relevant to a lot of other meta builds in vanilla factions in general. It’s slightly different in Sectorial Armies, which are incentivised to gain Fireteam bonuses by creating teams of 2-5 models with some tactical function. We see the same grouping of cheap & expensive models there. Some of the best Fireteams in the game are one very expensive and powerful gunfighter and 4 cheap models. But there are competing demands to put models with complementary capabilities into the team, so it’s a bit different.
The Warband / Flash Pulse Bot Problem
In competitive play, cheap Impetuous Warbands are one of the most ubiquitous features of really good lists. Another such common sight is 7pt Flash Pulse remotes. Basically, if your faction can get a model on the table for <8 pts, you can throw a few of whatever it is into your list, and it will be a defensible competitive choice. Line Infantry, typically 9-14 pts, are completely sidelined, being taken only when needed for Lt options/decoys, or in Sectorials to round out a Fireteam. Warbands can trade up, and are dangerous to attack close-up, thanks to Direct Template Weapons and the threat of dodging into melee to bog down offensives. This internal balance issue – that any Faction with access to the super cheap stuff will take it – is only moderated by the 15-model cap, it’s not completely solved. In the Imperial Service Sectorial, pre-N4 it was quite usual to take the maximum AVA of 8 Kuang Shi models. Those Dogged, chain rifle-toting political prisoners were, and still are, 5pts per regular Order, perhaps the most efficient option available en masse to any faction in the game. Now, with the 15-model cap, most lists take 4. But it’s still seen as the solved, best option for the Sectorial to take that many. Just having access to Orders that cheap is a strength of the Sectorial, plus their strengths in defending the Deployment Zone and trading up.
This isn’t a game-breaking problem, flash pulse bots and template warbands are a fact of life in competitive Infinity, and we don’t think anyone particularly minds playing against them. In some ways the presence of models that are both cheap, and relatively resilient/troublesome in the Reactive turn if deployed in exactly the right way, is a good counterbalance to the Active turn striking power of elite models fuelled by efficient Orders. But within factions, it makes a lot of unit types obsolete. Would a points drop on conventional line infantry models bring them back into relevance?
The Strengths of TAGs
TAGs are very popular in some regional metas in Infinity at the moment. Some old salts can remember when they were very unpopular, for most of N2 & N3. Partly this was caused by missions. The Infinity Tournament System (ITS) missions had more scenarios that scored wholly with lots of button pushing by dedicated specialists. The ability to build in an unlimited number of Orders also helped. N4 slashed the points cost of TAGs dramatically. The Avatar was 150pts in N2, 137 in N3 and is 118 now. At the end of N3 all TAGs gained a powerful suite of new rules: +1 Damage on BS attacks, their Pilots became specialists, they all gained Tactical Awareness. TAGs offer a lot compared to many expensive Heavy Infantry. TAGs were also the biggest beneficiary of the changes to Critical Hits (they used to cause an automatic loss of a Wound/Structure point without a damage roll).
Now there is no easy way round a TAG’s high ARM and BTS scores. This is more noticeable with the bigger, ‘heavy’ TAGs, typically those Silhouette 7-8, with 8+ARM. If it can stay in cover, which again is easier in N4 than in previous editions, an ARM8 TAG will shrug off HMG shots on 5+, or 80% of the time. This means it takes around 15 successful hits from an HMG to chew through its 3STR. But bring AP weapons, you cry! An APHMG will mean it only passes ARM rolls on 9+, meaning you can expect to bring it down in just 7-8 successful hits. That’s still a lot to ask, it could take a few Orders worth of direct combat, and with every Order you’re risking a lucky ARO, which is usually Damage 16 Explosive, from that TAG’s Multi HMG. An undamaged TAG in cover is so well protected against conventional shooting weapons, and so risky to attack, that it’s rarely a good play to confront it head on. This puts TAGs in a completely different ball park to other models in Infinity. The general rule is that if you put your Reactive models, even very elite ones, where the opponent can draw a bead on them, they will more than likely get obliterated, assuming this is in the early game where the opposing list still has its full capabilities available. Putting models ‘out to ARO’ is trading them for time and space.
Not so with TAGs. A TAG can dare the enemy to do its worst with long-range shooting, so long as it knows it’s not facing E/M, K1 ammunition or some of the most dangerous AP gunfighters, e.g. a Karhu Feuerbach – or another heavy TAG! This isn’t to say TAGs are invulnerable, they can still roll poorly and go down, but they can generally be put out to ARO, if they have the ability to Guts Roll back into Total Cover, and not worry too much about getting wiped out in one Order. They also know that their ARO, if it hits, will likely kill any 1W/1STR model, so attacking them is a real risk for the Active player. This dynamic makes them powerful pieces for Reactive board control, as well as some of the most dangerous Active turn sweepers in the game.
The much greater threats to a TAG are close combat, which can neutralize it, or with the right CC weapons kill it quite handily, and hacking. But both of those require a lot of Orders to make happen. A good player fielding a TAG will try to eliminate hacking or melee threats, and try to control the table space around the TAG to stop short range attacks getting through. It’s up to the aspiring TAG-killing player to try and pierce that defense, by using models with Stealth and/or Marker states, or perhaps by firing Pitchers. Forcing the opponent to use such methods, which are not just Order-intensive, but require specific models, require close terrain to approach the target, and which overall require a lot of thought and skill, compared to just blasting away with a firepower piece, is in itself an advantage.
How does this apply to Combined Army?
The Avatar Itself
It costs 118pts, so it had better be good! In the classic Order-reliant economy of Infinity list-building though, the Avatar’s points cost isn’t as bad as it might seem. Thanks to Strategos, Lt+1 Order and Tactical Awareness, it’s really a 4-Order-providing model. Its Strategos Level 2 also lets you move a model between combat groups for free, which is quite nice, you can preserve your 5 Command Tokens (yes, it also gives you an extra Command Token) for coordination. You can also hold 2 models in reserve at deployment, or pay a Command Token to hold a 3rd model back, if taking the first turn. That last ability works very well with the core synergy of the Avatar list concept. You basically have a swarm of very cheap models with quite limited roles. Even when deploying first, you lay them all down and your opponent isn’t much the wiser. They have to deploy most of their force before you actually decide where your 2-3 valuable pieces will go. Even better when deploying second – most of the striking power of your force is going down after the entire enemy force is deployed. Finally, the Avatar’s WIP17 makes you more likely to win the Initiative roll to determine deployment and turn Order, which in some missions and match-ups is halfway to winning the game outright.
The Avatar is a huge step above even other TAGs in its ability to withstand direct fire, thanks to Mimetism-6. You need a model with not only high-damage AP or similar weapons, but also a Multispectral Visor, to have any real hope of bringing it down. And those just aren’t too easy to find. Many of the gunfighters which do have the kit to win Face to Face rolls against the Avatar, are also 1W models which won’t withstand a Multi HMG round to the face. Let’s look at the Intruder HMG, the archetypal squishy elite gunfighter, and my own favorite son from N2 and N3, smoke-shooting while revealing from Camouflage (for Surprise Shot) to put the Avatar on a full -12 modifier shooting back:
The Intruder just won’t do any real damage. He could hammer away for a full turn and perhaps just barely expect to put the Avatar down (and might be unable to finish it off, leaving an opportunity for the CA player to tolerate one turn in Loss of Lieutenant and reliably repair it).
That encapsulates the problem the Avatar presents to Active Turn long ranged firepower – it can’t be reliably taken apart from range, unless you have a very high level firepower piece, and even then it isn’t a quick job, unless you can get the Avatar out of even Partial Cover, or hammer away at it in a position where it can’t Guts Roll into Total Cover. So basically, it’s safe from fire unless the controlling player gets overconfident or makes a simple positioning mistake. As an example, here are two much better-suited pieces to attacking the Avatar:
First, a Marut, the fearsome MSV2 TAG available to Aleph and their OSS Sectorial (I haven’t included smoke-shooting here, as it’s only an option in vanilla Aleph)
Here the Marut is likely enough to do meaningful damage, but it will hardly ever kill an Avatar that can Guts Roll into safety. How about a non-MSV model that’s still suitable? Let’s try the Nomads’ Szalamandra TAG, using its Burst 5 HRMC outside of 32”, to put the Avatar at a relative disadvantage.
Here, despite the Avatar’s significantly worse ARO (hitting on 9s) and the Burst, the lack of MSV is crippling. It’s not a good idea even with the favourable range bands. So that’s the lesson – an Avatar is safe for the CA to put out to ARO, presenting a formidable board control obstacle, as long as it can Guts Roll back into Total Cover, and against non-MSV firepower, or delicate 1W MSV models, it’s hardly even worth trying to shoot it down unless it’s already damaged.
Against Hacking, the Avatar does have BTS9, and it can Reset on 17s. It’s Immune to Possession, so Total Control, which is the best program for a Hacker to use in the Reactive against most TAGs, doesn’t apply. Oblivion is the main threat, since Isolated will circumvent G:Mnemonica to apply Loss of Lieutenant to the Combined Army force. But it’s quite hard to keep the Avatar Isolated unless you can keep it in your Hacking Area – it Resets from Isolated on 8s, so 40% chance on a Normal roll. So Active-turn hacking is not a great way to deal with the Avatar because of its unreliability and the number of Orders needed. Same with Guided Missile Attacks thanks to ECM Guided (-6). However, both of these are better methods than direct shooting.
Close combat perhaps, or the right MSV model could do better with AP shotgun rounds, because the Avatar’s Multi HMG would be at a disadvantage? Well, let’s talk about Sepsitor. This program means that most non-Remote, non-Ariadna models in the game simply can’t risk attacking the Avatar within its large template range, or 10.5”. Damage 17 BTS saves to switch sides is terrifying to a lot of the models which could otherwise seriously threaten a TAG. If you want to get it in melee, you either risk a heart attack-inducing Dodge roll, or you use Stealth, smoke or Marker states to enter melee from outside LoF. And that’s precisely the kind of maneuver the Taighas are so good at defending against.
Using cheap warbands as a skirmish screen to deter close-quarters attacks is classic Infinity play. A good player using an Avatar list will ensure that if you approach his central piece, you’re passing right by a Taigha or two. Sixth Sense and Dodging on 16s means that you can’t usually sneak up on the Avatar without having to break through these little guys first. That can be prohibitively time-consuming. They have the choice to either trade chain colt shots into your attack piece, or more likely try to Dodge. 1 dice on 16 isn’t terribly reliable, but if they beat your rolls they can generally move their 4” into some supremely annoying position – most frequently, into close combat. Of course, if you’re engaging Taighas, you might be breaking Stealth within the Avatar’s Zone of Control, so it can try to Dodge, moving either a bit further away, or adjusting to get you into LoF (and ready to use Sepsitor) just as you run out of enough Orders to press your attack home. Even more than most warbands, Taighas are a terrific sacrificial defense at close quarters. It’s very different to take them out efficiently unless you can outplay your opponent to somehow target them with high Burst from outside of template range.
Their Berserk ability also gives Combined Army options in the Active turn. If a model ends its turn without a clear 14” or so of LoF between itself and a Taigha, it can get Berserked – the Taigha Dodges around LoF-blocking terrain to make a couple of inches’ movement without provoking an ARO, then Berserk-moves 12” into combat. Now a Taigha’s attack is survivable with a little luck, but not many pieces love taking DA hits, or even the AP+Shock hits on the cheaper version.
Notably, the winning player at NovaCore described one strength of his list as complementing Taighas with Pretas. The older, ‘O.G.’ animalistic Combined Warband unit doesn’t have the Sixth Sense Dodging ability of Taighas, but its Climbing Plus ability opened up more options to attack Prone units on rooftops, such as Moran Masai, that could hamper the Combined Army plans.
The other completely mandatory part of the meta Avatar lists are the cheap Order-providing profiles which make it possible to hit 15 models while still fielding the Avatar and some complementary offensive pieces. We discussed how this class of models in general are very common in Infinity. And Combined Army will usually field the same flash pulse bots that other Factions take. They can also access AVA2 Ikadrons, which are 9pts, and also Repeaters armed with Flash Pulses. But they’re Silhouette 2, so easier to hide, although lacking Mimetism, and they have Light Flamethrower (+1B), making them an all-round area denial piece as well as a cheap Order.
Additionally Combined Army can take AVA2 Imetrons – essentially defenseless models which do nothing but provide a Regular Order . . . for 4pts. You wouldn’t be able to take more than a few of these without compromising board control, but when spending so many points on the Avatar, they’re basically an auto-include. These are another beneficiary of rules changes between editions. You have to Combat Jump them during deployment, which used to mean they had a chance to redirect in a random direction, which might be in plain view of the opponent, so you lost them on Turn 1, or off the table, which just meant you lost them. Now, failing that Combat Jump roll just means you deploy them in base contact with the table edge in your own Deployment Zone, which is generally as safe as possible. The Order-generating mechanics basically mean that unless the opponent can take them out very efficiently in Round 1, or at the top of Round 2, they’re spending more Orders destroying them than they’re denying to the Combined Army. Arguably, any faction in the game that could take 2 Imetrons would do so.
If you consider the 15 model limit, the total AVA of these highly tuned cheap models is just about enough to cover all needs. 2 R-Drones, 2 Ikadrons, 2 Imetrons, around 4 Warbands – that leaves 5 models, perfect space for an Avatar, an Engineer, and 3 other models to taste.
The Other Guys
This is where the flexibility of the list comes in. As resilient and scary as the Avatar is, it can’t be used to attack every target. It’s more dangerous over 16” thanks to its weapon ranges, and the Combined Army player absolutely needs to ensure it’s pulled back into safe territory, protected by distance and a Taigha cloud, at the end of each Active turn. Fortunately the Combined Army has an array of good models to assist it, all of them cream-off-the-top competitive profiles of the type we mentioned in the introduction. Nourkias was the co-star in the lists used to win the NovaCore tournament – a very, very scary hacker and melee combatant who excels at scalpelling out threats to the Avatar. The worst you can say of him is he’s expensive and relatively squishy, but he can go into a Marker state, and/or use Protheion to obtain extra Wounds, to mitigate that. Another common sight are Speculo Killers and/or Greif Operators. Impersonation is a strong skill in itself, these units work very well to efficiently attack the Avatar’s key threats to give it the run of the board. Impersonators make good use of the Avatar’s Strategos as one of your reserve deployments, picking exactly where to strike. Another common inclusion would be hacking and/or Guided Missile Launcher elements. Typically Bit and Kiss, or the relatively new Dartoks, who can use Pitchers to get those infowar plays down into the enemy backfield. Again this is good synergy with the Avatar – stand up and he shoots you, hide and you have no way to stop Pitchers being placed to cover your key models, followed by missiles.
The whole picture
Offensively, the meta Avatar lists give one very capable firepower solution and typically 2-3 other solutions to dig out opposing models that aren’t exposed to fire. Defensively it relies on that one very difficult to attack Avatar, the Taighas and sometimes a bit of hacking. Make no mistake, the Avatar can be taken out in the right circumstances, and when it does go down, the list often folds. So the controlling player has an incentive to deploy and use his Avatar quite conservatively, defending it from close attacks at all times with Taighas and ensuring it can’t be caught without the opportunity to take Total Cover. Indeed one of the only catastrophic situations this list can’t mitigate is having to play on a table where there’s no terrain in the DZ which can fully hide the Avatar. Then, if they do go second and the opponent has the right firepower piece, they can be on the back foot.
Counterplay to the Avatar List
This is a very flexible decision, the conditions change vastly based on the mission, and can change again during the game based on what units on either side remain alive. I’d advocate thinking clearly at the outset and at the start of each Round/Turn, or whenever the situation dramatically changes, about the following strategies:
Cut the Head from the Snake: take the Avatar down
Decide if taking out the avatar is feasible, because if not, you have to play around it, which costs a lot of Orders, and it will keep killing your models. The first pre-decision here is do you actually have tools in your list with a good chance of achieving this? D-Charges or other high impact close combat tools. E/M weapons, the Avatar hates an E/M Mine. MSV2 AP shooters, if they can achieve the right position. If you don’t have any tools which have at least a partial way to get round the Avatar’s inherent defenses, use one of the other strategies. If you end up smashing ineffectively against the Avatar’s Mimetism, ARM and BTS you are playing into your opponent’s hands.
The first check should be if you can effectively engage the Avatar at range, ie do you have a suitably tooled up firepower piece and can you get it into position to shoot and where the Avatar can’t Guts Roll into Total Cover. If you can take an effective shot but the Avatar will probably Guts Roll to safety, you can take it, if it doesn’t require many set-up Orders or expose you to counter-attack. The Combined player has much tougher choices to make once the Avatar has lost STR points. But it probably won’t win you the game in itself. Look for those angles where you can hammer the target repeatedly, like long fire lanes running horizontally across the table. This is the most Order-efficient way to defeat the beast, if you have access to the right gunfighter, if the table allows it, or if the Combined player makes a mistake in deployment. Always be aware of the risk that the Multi HMG ARO does hit home, in which case you may not get a second chance!
In any attack, but especially at close quarters, you need to plan out your attack run carefully before committing. Many effective plays will involve getting close to the Avatar, so you’re spending more Orders on movement and you’re exposing your Active model to counter-attack in the opponent’s turn. It also means planning to avoid Sepsitor (a lot easier if you can just ignore it by not having a Cube) and Taighas. Count your Orders first! Avoid the temptation to think “I can just do it” if every smoke throw and Dodge goes off, or worse yet, you’re relying on Taighas failing their Dodge rolls. It will go wrong. The worst thing is to commit to an attack, and then have it fail when you’ve already blown the bulk of your Active Turn. I can’t stress enough how important it is to appreciate where your attack run will intersect with Taighas’ Zone of Control and what they can do with their 4” Dodges and chain colts to stop it. Similarly with the Repeater coverage of Ikadrons’ Zones of Control.
The other positioning play is to get behind the Avatar. Like all non-Sixth Sense models it is vulnerable in its rear arc outside of ZoC, although you still need weapons that won’t bounce off. Aerial Deployment or Stealth/Marker states are the main tools for this, but both can be stopped by the Combined player’s Taighas and other chaff. These barriers to close combat or rear-arc attacks are part of why the strategy of attacking the Avatar directly can be non-viable at the start of the game, but then be your best option later. Its protection comes from a conservative position in its Deployment Zone, and cheap models covering it. Those can’t be maintained all through a tight-fought game, the cheap models get sacrificed and the Avatar may have to come forward to do work itself.
Finally, Reactive hacking can hamper the Avatar. Active turn hacking tends to be low risk but low reward. Oblivion is not very effective, since the Avatar Resets on 17s, and can still access 2 attempts to Reset normally on 8s in its own Active Turn (or shoot something) and has a strong board control effect. Guided missiles have to contend with ECM-6, but hey, it’s zero risk and this is probably one of the better methods. Spotlight in itself can be useful as it ignores BTS and then makes Resetting marginally more difficult, although you’d have to impose further Face to Face rolls and/or stack it with a follow-up Oblivion to actually stop the Avatar Resetting quite reliably. I wouldn’t normally spend too much resources on Active turn hacking the Avatar, or ‘pinning’ it with Repeaters, since the Combined player can brush those aside quite easily in their own Active turn. But it can offer you options to efficiently attack the other active models (see below) and still affect the Avatar directly. EG if you’re placing a Pitcher so you can try to Trinity Nourkias, having it cover the Avatar as well is a nice move.
Scalpel the Scalpers: destroy the other Active models
I find that this is the strategy I most often adopt at the start of a game against an Avatar list. The other Active models which do the work (killing your models and accomplishing objectives) are often terrifyingly effective, but unlike the Avatar, they obey a prime rule of Infinity: everything dies in the Reactive turn. If you can get to Nourkias, or the Speculo, or whatever it is, you probably have a tool to kill them. It’s far harder to stop them killing your key models in your own Reactive turn! This is like any other game of Infinity, a matter of positioning. Try not to sacrifice any models doing it that you could feasibly use to threaten the Avatar later on – remember, one of the core roles of these models in the Combined list is to protect it by removing threats. Another is accomplishing missions, so this ties into our fourth strategy (see below). These models are usually more suited to accomplishing button-pushing Objectives than the Avatar and they’re almost certainly the vector for achieving Classified Objectives. By killing them you can lock Objective Points away from the Combined player, and critically, you can force them to bring the Avatar forward into the midfield, where it’s more vulnerable, if it’s their only strong model left.
Thin the Herd: get rid of the chaff models
A common refrain when I started Infinity was the advice to deal with strong models by “depleting their Order pool”. This is sort of paradoxical. If I spend 1 Order killing an Imetron, which really is just an Order marker, at the top of Round 1, that’s quite good, because I am robbing the opponent of 3 Orders across the game. The later I do it in the game, the more I have to ask if the Order spent could have been used to tip the balance more effectively than just by canceling out 1-2 of the opponent’s Orders. It ultimately depends on the wider table position and which player has already achieved the Objectives – they can afford to ‘run down the clock’ by reducing Orders.
Beyond this Order spending calculus, another difficulty with just targeting the chaff is that the cheap models in the Combined list are effective precisely because they are inefficient to attack. Flash Pulse bots have an ARO that is relatively effective against most models at most ranges. Attacking an Ikadron within 8” means a flamethrower in the face. So whether this strategy is feasible depends enormously on terrain, and comes down once again to player skill in positioning. Against a good player, you won’t be able to quickly chew down the Combined Order pool. But by picking off anything exposed, with as much efficiency as possible, you are of course tipping the balance of board control and attack reach towards yourself. Never pass up an easy chance to get a Taigha or an Ikadron at long range! This strategy tends to be a secondary, concurrent objective while you work towards something more focussed. Part of the Combined strategy does tend to be sacrificing those cheap models to control positions and soak up your Active turn; it’s between you and the opponent who that ends up favoring.
Mission Primacy: stop the opponent achieving Objectives
The frustrating element of the Avatar list, for me, is largely in its resilience to attack. Yes it also has enormous, concentrated striking power, but frankly most well built Infinity lists do. It’s also fairly good at achieving a variety of Mission Objectives. If you are facing it in a ‘Zone Control’ mission, e.g. Quadrant Control, which depends on points in a given zone on the table, the Avatar itself is the mission critical piece. But in many missions that involve activating Objectives with a WIP roll, you can kill the other Active models, as described above, and/or you can complete the Objectives yourself and force the Combined player to take them from you. This is a dangerous strategy and never my first choice. It’s much harder to defend than attack in Infinity (which is why the Combined strategy, by restricting your options to attack their key piece, is so effective). If you accomplish Objectives and sit back, then you are giving your opponent all the opportunities for an alpha strike, at the culmination of which they can flip Objectives from you anyway.
Therefore I would say this strategy is for when you’ve at least done some damage to the Orders and Active models the Combined Army player has, but likely when you haven’t been able to kill the Avatar. If you’re going first, it comes into play at the top of Round 3, where this is more dangerous. Ask yourself “how can I make it impossible for the Combined Army player, with the Orders available to them, to seize the game-winning Objective Points?” Be precise, count up what Objectives they need and consider the plays open to them. Then you basically get those Objectives yourself and stand up all the AROs you can as obstacles. Not a good place to be in given the Avatar’s ability to bull through resistance. You need to have played well, preserving your own force and chipping away at the Combined Army, for it to be viable.
It’s slightly better if you have the second turn. Then you need to set this up in your 2nd Turn, the bottom of Round 2. It becomes “how can I either keep the Combined player back from the Objectives, or ensure that they expose themselves to having the Objectives retaken?”. For example, in Quadrant Control, if the Avatar has to come forward to score one of the nearer table quadrants, you may have something held back which can destroy it in that position. In Acquisition, it may be able to stand next to and control the central Objective, and you may not be able to kill it, but you could walk a marker up and also stand next to that Objective, so neither of you get the points, allowing a narrow win.
Is the Avatar, and the highly effective lists the Combined Army can build around it, a problem for Infinity balance? It’s not game breaking, but I can say from personal experience that facing the Avatar repeatedly (at one point I did so in 4 out of 5 of my most recent tournament games) becomes a slightly negative experience. For me, this is because the bulk of the game hinges around that one piece, and the tactics the Avatar-controlling player should use are very consistent. That makes a lot of games against this sort of list very similar or at least they have recognisable patterns. That’s not to say I didn’t largely enjoy them!
It’s worth remembering that the Avatar, and Combined Army lists in general, are by no means dominating top tables; the key determinant of winning competitive events remains player skill, and there is plenty of variety in Faction choice across events. However it is emblematic of the wider internal Faction balance issues. Everyone knows that within the Combined Army, the Avatar, Taighas, Imetrons/Ikadrons/R Drones, and a selection of other models like Nourkias or Speculo Killers, are top notch. That’s not to say that a tournament list will always include all of them in the same combination – but if my opponent didn’t deploy any of them, I’d be shocked. In my opinion there are minor, ‘nudge’ changes to the best profiles (across all Factions, not just Combined Army) that would benefit the competitive scene.
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