What To FAQ – Part 1: The Problems

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Corrode beat me to the punch. A thousand curses upon his name etc. I have taken revenge by asking his permission to steal his photo for my title image. Truly my depravity knows no bounds.

September’s big FAQ should, at least in theory, be imminent, on the assumption that GW have learnt from the howls of rage that accompanied the delay on the last one. In many ways it couldn’t come at a better time – much like the state of play just before the Spring FAQ came out, a seriously problematic army is stomping (literally, we’ll get to that) through the metagame raining terror upon all who oppose it, or at least all who don’t come loaded to beat it. Again like the spring FAQ expectations are thus running extremely high – pretty much everyone agrees that “The List” is a problem and even agrees on some of the elements that make it so, and everyone is excitedly looking forward to seeing their version of the perfect fix implemented. Unfortunately, I profoundly disagree with a lot of the fixes being suggested, and also feel like in many cases the weighting being given to different elements of the problem is at least somewhat off. At the same time, I think analysing “The List” does reveal some holistic flaws with the game as currently designed, which can inform some other places to look for where similar issues might be arising or lying in wait for the right units to emerge, and potentially close them off before they do.

For what it’s worth, I’m primarily expecting the interim FAQ to be at best moderate tweaks, and am not going to dive deep into some of my wilder ideas for how to improve the game – that’s probably something I’ll do nearer Chapter Approved where it’s more likely that big changes, the kind that would need significant point re-balances across a faction (looking at you Alaitoc), are going to appear. I’m going to focus on tweaks I think they could plausibly make, and hopefully try and explain why I think they’re needed and why some of the other options in each case aren’t as good.

Glaring Problems

The List

Confusingly, “The List” is actually two and a bit lists. The core two we’re talking about are the two flavours of what I was calling the metagame singularity at least a month before it came true (just saying). Both use Imperial Guard, Knights and Blood Angels, and the choices are basically:

Option 1 (NOVA winner):

House Raven Castellan

Catachan Guard Brigade

Blood Angels battalion with two Slamcaps and Scouts

Option 2

House Raven Castellan

2x House Raven Gallants

Guard Battalion

Blood Angels Supreme Command with two Slamcaps and Mephiston

Option 2 is a bit more fluid (in formats allowing duplicate detachments you can have a blood angels battalion instead, and some cut the BA for a third Gallant), but that’s a version that I think is pretty terrifying and I’m pretty sure was bouncing around the BAO.

Variations on this theme took up 6 of the top 16 slots, and half of the top 8. Around the wider field, I’ve heard about 1/5 of all players were playing it. From my days playing MTG, those are definitely the sort of numbers where a game developer really needs to start worrying. This is especially true given that NOVA was the dam really breaking on this list – it’s been building in momentum since the Knight book came out, but we’re now at the point where pretty much everyone is aware of it, and the best players are well into the process of optimising towards unique twists on it (Nova winner Andrew Gonyo, for example, had the unusual choice of two big units of crusaders in his Guard Battalion to add some more resilient melee punch).

Why is it Good?

This list combines three things together that complement each other extremely well, and combine to build a list with very few weaknesses.

Guard provide the “glue” that holds the list together, giving you access to premier levels of base CP and regeneration, and either a small number of surprisingly mobile bodies (in the battalion version) to grab objectives, or a huge number of alarmingly punchy bodies (the brigade).

Blood Angels Slam Captains probably need no introduction at this point – they were already popular prior to the knight codex as precision murder missiles that were quite hard to fully screen against, and are now even better as they’re one of the best tools for killing knights. Both scouts and Mephiston can also bring plenty to the table. The captains are very hungry for CP, but that’s where the guard start to pull their weight.

Finally, of course, we get to the Castellan itself. Provided ready access to CP, I strongly believe the default House Raven Castellan loadout (Ion bulwark, Cawl’s Wrath) to be by quite some margin the best unit in the game. Just on base states alone a Castellan is very good, but the ability to purchase the various extras using some of your abundant CP, and the exceptional strategems it gets access to as House Raven turns it into a nigh indestructible shooting monstrosity so powerful that it warps the entire game around it.

Aren’t you exaggerating?

I’m really not. Let’s run some numbers.

Let’s imagine that you like Leman Russes. No, you really like Leman Russes, and have decided to roll with (surprisingly just legal at 2K points) list of 3 Tank Commanders and 9 basic Russes. Let’s make them Cadian because I can’t be bothered to work out Catachan maths and it won’t be wildly better. Because your foolish meta chasing opponent brought a brigade, you get the first turn, so that fucking Castellan is going down. 84 Battle Cannon shots (with reroll 1s to hit no less) will see to that!

Not even slightly. The Castellan rotates its Ion shields and takes about 18 damage, on average. On its turn the Castellan pops the Quaestor Mechanicus strategem to act as if it’s unharmed and the raven strategem to turbocharge its guns, and blows away two of your tank commanders, with a decent chance of significantly hurting a third via its missile and shoulder guns. If it didn’t also heal, you don’t low roll at all and somehow between the slamcaps and either a guard brigade or full-tilting gallants nothing else in your army died or got locked in combat, if your entire army shoots it again on turn 2 you can edge over the line of killing it. You can now briefly celebrate shortly before your Russes are enveloped and punched to death by a large number of burly men and women riled up by the good word of the Emperor.

Obviously there are better weapons for hunting the Castellan, but I hope that serves as an illustrative example – you can literally put down an army where every single model has an efficiently costed gun theoretically suited to shooting it, take the first turn and still only barely put it down on turn 2. You could of course decide to ignore it and shoot other things, but the problem with the Castellan compared to other highly resilient units is that ignoring it isn’t really an option unless you’re playing a full blown infantry spam horde – its so spectacularly lethal against any high value target that if left to its own devices it will pick your army apart. I feel the need to continue to remind you that all these examples assume you go first against it – if you go second, I hope you have a plan for killing the toughest model in the game after you lose your two best vehicles.

The Knight Castellan basically cannot be profitably engaged in a gunfight unless you’re planning on cheating somehow, or bring your own. This is a problem.

Anything else about the list we need to know about?

Slam captains are extremely potent, and arguably a little bit unfun to play against. Plenty of people also just plain don’t like the fact that “Blood Angels Captains out of Nowhere” are available to all Imperium players, both because they outshine “native” melee options and because playing against the same thing over and over can be dull.  However, leaving them aside the bigger complaint everyone has about this list is the CP farming that guard provide.

Just in case people aren’t aware, CP farming refers to abilities that give you a chance of getting CP back when either a point is spent or a strategem is used. Guard get the best access to this of any army in the game – they have access to a warlord trait that allows them to regain points spent in their own army on a 5+, and a relic that gives them a CP each time an opponent uses a strategem on a 5+. No other army gets a set of abilities this good and Guard are a very cheap way of getting starting CP. Finally, just to put a spicy cherry on top, some lists also add in a Blood Angel relic that gives you a CP on a 5+ from your own strategems, which hilariously allows you to occasionally gain CP when spending one point. Taken together, and with the high starting CP all variants of the list can achieve, the army can easily have 20+ CP to play with over the course of the game, which keeps the Castellan and Slamcaps juiced up to maximum.

While CP farming is the bigger of the two concerns here, both of these issues touch on things people have been more generally concerned about for a while, and deserve their own section, so we’ll park how to deal with the Castellan and explore those as their own issues.

CP Farming

In pretty much every faction it’s available, taking the CP farming option is almost always the right call. Strategems in 8th edition are real good. More strategems, it holds, are therefore better. Most farming abilities, especially those that proc on both players, are usually good for at least 3-5 CP over the course of a game, and given the spectacular amount The List can hurl around, even more against that. Hilariously, plenty of these traits come in the form of relics, which can be purchased for…1CP. Hmm. Maths.

Warlord traits hurt a bit more to use these on because most armies only get one, and there’s often some very cool stuff in there that can swing a game if used right. The brutal truth is, however, that the right strategem in the right place can also swing a game, and whereas warlord traits are often localised to your warlord, extra CP can be spent anywhere you like, are much more flexible, and don’t go away if your warlord has a thunder hammer related accident.

Entirely separate to that, Cp regen also creates a bunch of tracking issue and slows the game down as people stop to roll for them. Especially with the guard lists, it can be really hard to keep on top of the amount they have as it yo-yos up and down, creating the potential for arguments and feelbads as well. It can also feel really bad if you have one of these traits and roll badly for it.

Basically, strategems are really cool, and people should have lots of them but the farming traits are not an especially fun way to get access to them, especially as the army that can already generate the most base CP (guard) also has the best farming traits, and (to segue neatly into our next topic) don’t have to use them on their own terrible strategems. Uncle Kurov’s down-home organic CP power knights and slamcaps across the galaxy as the forces of the Imperium seek the ultimate…

“Soup”

Soup refers to mixing and matching different codices to build an army unified by one of the “broad” keywords like “Imperium” and “Aeldari”. While allies have been a thing in previous editions (or at least I’m reliably informed – last time I really played at all before 8th was 4th), 8th has armies made up of disparate detachments within the same “superfaction” as part of its design from the word go. This has never sat well with plenty of people, but barring some minor tweaks in the previous FAQ (to prevent you literally building supreme command detachments of all of the best Imperium special characters) it’s been left largely alone. As far as I’m concerned, this is because it’s a fundamental part of the design of 8th, but the advent of a list that represents, as Discord regular Artum neatly put it “Cream of Imperium” soup tearing up the metagame has plenty of people wondering, not unreasonably, if the naysayers were right all along. Prior to “The List”, Custodes Shield captains were the primary target of complaints, but they never quite dominated the way the new list does – the advent of the Dominus as a phenomenal shooting platform was the third ingredient needed to push things over the edge.

Soup is most notorious as an Imperium thing, but Aeldari and Chaos can both make good use of it. Chaos is effectively Imperium light, and access to renegade knights has given the practice a bit of a boost. Aeldari tend less towards fully mixed armies, generally either pulling in a small number of Craftworlders for Rangers, Jinx and Doom in Drukari or Harlequin lists, or small Black Heart detachments for strategem access into a craftworld list (a favourite of yours truly). There’s also the enduring boogyman of the Ynnari, enduring through some truly spectacular nerfs, whose current successful lists usually combine a Ynnari craftworld detachment and a bunch of Black Heart or Prophets of Flesh backing it up.

The thing that really sets people off about soup is that, where it’s available, it does tend to be better to use it than not, and the factions that can’t access it at all do seem to be at something of a disadvantage (really only Tau hold their own currently, though I’m expecting Orks to change that). For many people, they’ve always wanted to pick an army and build to it, and 8th just doesn’t reward that in competitive play, and the norms of competitive play do tend to trickle down to pick-up games at stores etc. It can also cause balance problems – armies are designed to have strengths and weaknesses, and a well built soup list can often heavily mitigate the weaknesses of its components. The extremely cheap basic guard battalion that can slot into any Imperium army to add CP and farming also ain’t great.

The wide consensus seems to be that something needs to be done about soup, with plenty advocating levels of change that would severely impact on it. I’ll come back to how far I think they should go in a bit, but now that we’ve covered our “big three” concerns lets dash through some minor ones.

Alaitoc is Still Bullshit

I should know, I play it. Back at the Spring FAQ, I was still playing Biel Tan, prior to evolving into my full tryhard final form (ask me about speed painting 15 models in two weeks for this weekend’s event), and I was really hoping they’d get rid of Alaitoc and rebalance the rest of the faction around it not being there any more. Unfortunately, they instead dropped a (perfectly reasonable, considering) nerf bat on some key units, and appear to have decided to balance around every eldar army having it rather than fixing the problem at its root. To an extent I can sympathise – the downside of printing physical rule books is that deciding to effectively invalidate a significant rule for all printed copies is a big decision, but I expect they’re going to have to fix it eventually, and would rather they’d done it earlier.

Given where we are now though, I don’t think they can do anything about it as part of this FAQ –  while Mech Eldar is one of the better predators of “The List” that isn’t the mirror simply( because they can push down the invuln on the Castellan to actually have a change of alpha striking it), Asuryani lists made a really terrible showing at NOVA, and the Ynnari list that made it into the top 8 wasn’t even using Alaitoc wave serpents in another detachment as has previously been the default. For anchoring the core of the army, Drukari just seem to be the better choice.

The only potentially problematic Asuryani-based list is the 6-flyer monstrosity that some American players have been using. Crimson Hunters and Hemlocks are real good (the latter making a decent claim to being the best unit in the codex), and I don’t think it would take much of a metagame shift for that to become the new hated list especially if nerfed but still powerful knights remain popular. I could see a strong argument for Hemlocks picking up a Tau commander-like one per detachment limit, tapped in as an air wing of three being the most unfair way to use them.

In general, however, at this point, especially considering their poor NOVA showing (no Asuryani mains in the top 16) I think this is a problem for chapter approved, where I strongly hope that a wide faction rebalance lets my beautiful green and white elf friends reclaim their true heritage.

Some Factions Really Suck

Grey Knights and Necrons suck real bad. Other flavours of space marines are varying degrees of mediocre to OK. Tyranids are doing pretty poorly at the moment.

The causes here are slightly different. Grey Knights and Necrons are just overcosted – Grey knights are an elite army written before they’d worked out how this edition’s balance worked and who are also reliant on deep strike, which took a big nerf bullet in the last FAQ, and the Necron codex appears to have been written by someone who started screaming every time someone said the words “living metal” or “reanimation protocols”. Vanilla Space marines are held back by the horrible warping effect that Robute Guilliman has on their codex – units get so much better in his aura that everything has to be faintly overcosted without him. Other marines are then held back by them pricing basic marine bodies consistently across the board.

Tyranids are…weird. Their Codex is actually really good, and they were vying with poxwalkers for most hated list prior to the last FAQ. I think their current performance is an anomaly caused by the fact that they’re uniquely terrible at going after armies with Castellans – Double shooting hive guard are their best anti-tank, but even maxed out that’s only the equivalent of 24 battle cannon shots, and what did we learn about battle cannon shots and Castellans kids? Exocrines are S7 so get dunked on, Tyrannofexes are not terrible but pricy, and Flyrants suffer badly from being S6. The closest thing they have to a good bet is navigating a bunch of pinchy carnifexes into melee backed up by Old One Eye, but those lack the mobility of your Flyrant. All of these are still great units, but the problem is they’re also all fantastic targets for the Castellan, as is the Swarmlord, who was in many of the successful Nid lists at the BAO. I’m pretty confident that the Castellan alone is the culprit here.

Subfaction Strategem Cheesing

This is kinda a sub-set of soup but it’s often not on the radar of people worried about that, and is a significant problem in my opinion. In short, really cheesy army construction allowing access to extremely powerful strategems that are meant to be the “reward” for maining a subfaction (i.e. “Salamanders”, “Black Heart) via rules lawyering is bullshit and need to go away. I’m looking at you Black Heart Auxiliary detachment of 5 Kabalite warriors.

Forge World Stuff

Artemia hellhounds need a nerf. Buying a £55 hunk of resin shouldn’t get you a 20pt discount for equivalent performance. T’au Tiger Sharks are also apparently bullshit, but I’ve never faced one. I think most other FW things are OK at the moment – I’ve heard the odd mutterings about the FW knights, but I’m unconvinced any exist that Castellan more efficiently than a Castellan or Gallant more efficiently than a Gallant.

Assessing Our Problems

The Big Ones

A lot of discussion about the topics above has gone one of three ways. Option one is doom and gloom – with these massive problems, how can 8th be fixed, wrap it up and roll on 9th etc. Option two tends to follow a similar initial track to option 1, but proposing nuclear level solutions to the problems of CP farming or Soup, usually rolled into one. Finally, we have option 3, intricately designed solutions that are probably mathematically great but would be no fun to play and inaccessible complexity wise to a large proportion of the playerbase. Some degree of interplay sometimes occurs between options 2 and 3, with some quite clever but I believe impractical sandboxing of CP being suggested to stop guard battalions being a must take.

I basically don’t agree with the diagnosis or fixes proposed under any of these categories which is why you’re reading a 3K+ word blog post rather than me just ranting on the discord. I think that I and those making the arguments above do agree that the following three things are the biggest problems in the game currently:

  • The Knight Castellan (specifically as buffed by the Imperial knight’s codex)
  • CP Farms
  • Soup

Where we differ is how we weight them, and how “fundamental” the problem is in each area.

For my money, the problem with the current metagame is overwhelmingly the existence of the Knight Castellan in its current form. There are no two ways about it – it is just too good. The key factors feeding this are the House Raven strategem and the ability to stack Exalted Court and Rotate Ion to take it to a 3++. The latter is the bigger of the two issues – after all, the Castellan has to be alive on its turn to use the Raven strategem, and it’s stacking up to a 3++ that makes that a near certainty except against the limited number of armies that can mess with the invuln enough to have a go at alpha striking it (Mech Eldar tapping Black Heart probably being the best bet, Warptime + Death Hex Magnus and a Renegade Dominus probably the other best one) or get a melee threat into it turn one (but given it can come with 60+ guard bodies to screen that really shouldn’t happen).

When dealing with the quantity and quality of fire likely to be thrown at a Castellan each point of invuln makes a gigantic difference – going to a 4++ rather than 3++ multiplies the damage it takes by 1.5 assuming every point thrown at it has some sort of AP (which is reasonable, I think). In our Battle Cannon example, if the Castellan only has a 4++ it only barely survives the fusillade, and popping, for example, Overlapping Fields of Fire would push it over the edge to where it actually dies (it doesn’t at 3++, I re-ran the maths and checked).

A 3++ on that model is just too much – your opponent is often left with the hideous choice of throwing everything at it and hoping they get lucky, or ignoring it and hoping it gets unlucky. As it exists now, there are just too many armies that have no real way of beating it rather than hoping for a huge luck spike, even with the first turn, and that’s just not a good place for the game to be. Tyranids, as discussed before, are the key victims of this, and Necrons would be given all their best units have flat three wounds, but they’re too terrible to even get in the door right now, so it doesn’t really matter.

Compared to the sheer balance warping nightmare that is the Castellan, I’m firmly convinced that the other two issues are much less significant, and indeed the places where they are significant include some things that specifically interact with the Castellan badly.

My evidence for this is that the game is more polarised around a single list than it has been for a while – but things were largely fine as recently as the LGT, and the major change since then has been the release of the knights book. Hell even more recently at the BAO (post knight release) the metagame looked healthier simply because so many people were still in denial about just how good “The List” is. There were literally articles written after the LGT about how healthy a sign for the game the diversity of lists in the top 16 was. 4 months later, and we’ve got “The List” and armies teched to beat it. Soup and CP farms were available at LGT time. The Knight Codex wasn’t. J’accuse, Knight Codex. J’accuse.

That doesn’t mean the other two issues aren’t issues, but the BA/Knight/Guard Trifecta magnifies their significance by being by far the most efficient way of abusing the weaknesses the problems cause. Previous incarnations of Imperial Soup did use Blood Angels and Guard, but there’s no third piece that slots in quite as well as a Castellan to:

  • Reliably eradicate units at range, even through hit modifiers.
  • Make use of the enormous pile of CP they generate.

Blood Angel captains thirst for CP almost as much as they thirst for blood, but they tend to do their job then die over the first few turns. The Castellan will happily drink from Uncle Kurov’s illicit still (he makes moonshine as well as organic produce) for the length of a game.

That moves onto whether CP farming is fundamentally broken. Prior to the Castellan, Guard lists often literally had more CP than they knew what to do with. The farming ability was probably still broken then, but without such good things to spend it on it didn’t matter. If we look at other factions, however, we don’t see any where the farms are generating such a surfeit of CP that they aren’t running out. Tau probably come closest with Brigades + engram chips, but they also frequently blow through 6-10 CP on turn one and start risking running out on T2. The Black Heart version is probably slightly over the line in terms of power, but even then only really because of the ordering quirk that means you often get to roll 5 or 6 dice when you use Vect to cancel a strategem.

Overall, I’m not hugely convinced CP farms are very fun – as I said before, it irks me that they’re often the “right” choice for warlord trait when there’s so much fun in there, but I would say the priority here is just to bring the Guard ones in line with everyone else’s – I don’t think their very existence is breaking the game. More on that in solutions.

Finally, we have Soup. I’m just going to say it – I fundamentally like 8th’s ability to make mix and match armies, both from the point of view of building out collections and the options it opens. That obviously biases me against making too many changes here, but I do think that position can be defended – one of the risks with 8th’s highly simplified rules is that it’s harder to make armies feel distinct without crippling them on some axis, and allowing them to be taken as part of a greater whole lets you design units that feel more “extreme” in some way without making a faction that’s either unplayable or too good.

Unlike with CP I do think there’s a fundamental issue lurking here. Currently, several factors about the way things are designed heavily reward you for being “light” into several factions rather than all-in on one. Each faction generally has its own “pre-game” strategems, and the first dip into these is almost always worth the price of admission – especially when they’re giving you CP regen relics for 1CP. Having three codices gets you three dips into the relic bag. Once your in the game this reward for being spread wide and thin continues – many units are designed to operate at their best with specific strategems – the hated house raven strategem and the ones that power slamcaps are great examples, because only one of that unit can benefit each turn. This means that paradoxically soup armies tend to have most of their units firing on all cylinders, while “pure” armies will have some units that are waiting for it to be their turn to use the strategems. I think this is the problem we really need to address in soup, and I think it’s definitely doable – the Drukari “Alliance of Agony” strategem is a great example of pre-game powers done right because it rewards you with big benefits for building an army in a certain, flavourful way.

Other Issues

Mostly the things I’ve left in minor issues are either pretty obvious problems with obvious solutions, or more intractable ones that are probably better addressed in Chapter Approved. I’m a big fan of incremental improvement in design though, so I do thing we should be at least making a pass at throwing some buffs at the bad armies that aren’t ‘Nids (because after I’m done with the Castellan I’m hoping they’ll emerge of their own accord).

Why is this nearly 5k words what is wrong with me?

Now we have my take on what the problems are, join me tomorrow as we go through my suggested fixes because wow has this taken longer to write than I expected.

2 Responses

  1. TheChirurgeon says:

    Solidly in agreement with this. Already angry about your proposed fixes that haven’t been posted yet, though

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