At Goonhammer we’ve devoted a lot of words to talking about how to compete and take your game to the next level. In “Getting Started,” we look at how to get started with an army – the basics you need to know, how to start collecting models that will leave you with a serviceable army, and what the best deals are..
Right after I hit “PUBLISH” on Start Competing: Chaos Space Marines, I got an email in the goonhammer inbox from a new Chaos Space Marines player asking me how they should build on a Shadowspear set (more on that in a bit) to build a decent army. They didn’t want something for tournaments, but they wanted something that wouldn’t lose every game, and wanted to know what to get next. Emails like this are some of my favorites, because there’s a legit creative challenge to building a list that has to use certain units. They’re also great because they give us ideas for articles – if we get a certain type of request often enough, we’ll just turn it into an article so we don’t have to keep answering the same questions.
In this article, I’m going to be talking about how to get started with Chaos Space Marines – what you need, the basic starting points, and how you can build on those to get something that’s effective and fluffy no matter what your budget or desired level of play.
First, let’s borrow a section from Start Competing: Chaos Space Marines and talk about the army, and its strengths and weaknesses.
Who Are the Chaos Space Marines?
Chaos Space Marines are former servants of the Imperium who have turned to Chaos. They can be either members of the original 20 first founding legions or renegades, recently turned through violent rebellion. Some of them openly worship the Chaos powers and have dedicated their mortal lives to pleasing a particular god, while others don’t care for The Great Game and instead are just here to destroy the Imperium and hurt people. Often, chaos legions will ride into battle alongside daemons, or with the support of the great towering war machines who have also turned traitor – Chaos Knights. Either way, the goal is simple: Despoil the galaxy and claim it, either for the Ruinous Powers or your own purposes.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it – if you’re playing Chaos Space Marines, you’re playing The Bad Guys. Not like the morally ambiguous, could-be-seen-as-the-heroes-depending-on-your-point-of-view bad guys but the Capital V, mustache-twirling villains of the setting. But the upside is that you have some extremely rad models, some cool powers, and look – as the saying goes: “Evil will always win because good is lame.”
The Chaos Space Marines army has several strengths that will impact how you build your army.
- Psychic Powers. Chaos Space Marines have some of the game’s best psychic powers. As a result, Chaos psykers like Sorcerers – with their ability to throw out non-faction-gated buff powers like Warptime and Prescience – are some of the game’s best units. Daemon Princes and Masters of Possession are also good.
- Melee Combat. Chaos Space Marines are generally pretty good when it comes to melee combat. Berserkers are one of the game’s best melee units, and Possessed can be absolutely insane with the buffs you can give them. Lords Discordant are absolutely blenders, and Chaos Space Marine daemon vehicles and Helbrutes are also pretty good in this area. It’s very easy to build a Chaos Space Marine army that can wreak absolute havoc once it reaches the enemy.
- Great HQ/Character Options. Chaos Space Marines have access to some great character options in the form of Daemon Princes, Lords Discordant, Chaos Lords, and Sorcerers, to name a few. There’s a ton of versatility at the top of any Chaos Space Marines list, with options for both heavy hitters and cheap HQ slot fillers.
- Cheap Troops. Chaos Cultists are 4 points per model, allowing you to fill out a Troops slot for 40 points. That’s helpful, because Chaos Space Marines are a particularly CP-thirsty faction now.
- Specialist Detachments. Chaos Space Marines have access to a whole supplement’s worth of Specialist Detachments, and several of them are good enough to be worth playing in a competitive army.
- Cross-Faction Synergies. Because of the DAEMON and <MARK OF CHAOS> keywords, Chaos Space Marines have a lot of interactions with Chaos Daemons, with auras and abilities that can benefit units in both armies. Likewise, they share HERETIC ASTARTES with Thousand Sons and Death Guard. This can lead to some powerful combinations in soup armies, and tends to make up the backbone of strong competitive Chaos lists.
- Durability. Many of your hard-hitting melee units such as Berserkers are also pretty fragile. In most games your biggest challenge will be figuring out how you’re going to deliver your melee units into the enemy lines in one piece, and that can mean either teleporting or transports.
- Shooting. Chaos Space Marine shooting is generally not very good; most CSM guns top out at 24″ or 36″ range and most of the army’s core units rely on AP 0 boltguns, which are not good. While Chaos Space Marines certainly have some better shooting options, such as Hellforged Deredeo Dreadnoughts, Hellforged Leviathans, and Obliterators, these are few and far between.
- AP and Damage. Because of when the codex was published (and re-published) and the weapon options Chaos Space Marines have, you’ll notice they have a pretty rough lack of 2+ damage or high AP shooting, and this is something that extends to their Troop melee options as well. The result is that competitive Chaos Space Marine armies tend to be built around the few units that either have access to multi-damage weapons with some AP or can, through sheer volume of attacks, making up for these shortcomings.
- Subfaction Traits. Faith & Fury is a huge help to Chaos Space Marines armies, which needed a boost to its subfactions. But even with new stratagems, some issues remain: The CSM subfaction traits don’t apply to Cultists or non-Helbrute vehicles, and many of them are just underwhelming to begin with (the Word Bearers’ ability is particularly heinous). As a result only a couple of theses even matter.
- Mobility. Chaos Space Marines have a couple of pretty mobile units and some units that can deep strike, but almost all of their transport options are pretty bad.
- CP Thirsty. A lot of the best Chaos Space Marine strategies rely on copious use of stratagems, particularly those from Faith and Fury. This means that Chaos Space Marine armies can end up blowing through a ton of CP pretty quickly, and so you’ll need to generate lots of CP – that means Battalion detachments with lots of Troops choices.
- Get the Codex
- Pick a Legion/plan your army
- Buy some starting units
- Expand on that
If you’re playing Chaos Space Marines, chances are you’re probably going to need at least two books if you want to really play. We’ve talked about the rules a bit in our general Getting Started article on the rules, but I’ll go into a bit more depth here.
The Current codex is CODEX HERETIC ASTARTES: CHAOS SPACE MARINES version 2.0. It was re-released in April 2019 along with the Vigilus Ablaze campaign supplement. You can tell you have the correct book if it has the white skull “II” icon on the cover or if, looking inside, you can see that it has unit entries for the Lord Discordant and Dark Apostle. Every unit entry that has a plastic model is in this book, and you absolutely need this Codex if you’re going to play.
Death Guard and Thousand Sons
OK, here’s where things get a bit complicated. Death Guard and Thousand Sons are both legions of the Chaos Space Marines. But they are also separate factions, and have their own full Codexes. If you want to play with either of those, they’re very cool and have their own great models, but they aren’t part of the “Chaos Space Marines’ umbrella. They make great allies, but they’re different beasts, and we’ll cover them in detail in their own articles.
Once you have the Codex, you can build most of the armies you’ll want to field, but to really get the most out of them or dive into the different Chaos Legions, you’ll need to grab a few other books.
Psychic Awakening: Faith and Fury
Faith and Fury adds a ton of new rules, giving a bunch of the Traitor legions their own set of warlord traits, Stratagems, relics, and uh, name generators. If you’re playing World Eaters, Night Lords, Alpha Legion, Emperor’s Children, Iron Warriors, or Word Bearers, you really want this book, which will unlock their full potential and also give you a bunch of modeling opportunities.
Released right before the updated Chaos Space Marines Codex, Vigilus Ablaze is really only important if you A. Play Black Legion, or B. Play a Renegade Chapter, or C. Want to use the Specialist Detachments, which are important for competitive play. So if you fall into one of those three categories, pick this one up too.
Imperial Armour – Index: Forces of Chaos
Finally if you want to bring anything from the Forge World library of Chaos models, such as the Kytan Ravager, Blood Slaughterer of Khorne, or the Hellforged dreadnoughts, you need this book. It’s the least essential of the three, but important for some army builds.
Starting Your Army
The best way to do this is to plan what you want to do with the army – pick a legion, figure out how you’d like to build a 2,000-point list, and start buying those units. But I know that it doesn’t really work that way. So let’s talk about the different ways you could tackle this.
Start Collecting: Chaos Space Marines / The Shadowspear Units
The newer Start Collecting: Chaos Space Marines box has all of the same units that appeared in Shadowspear, namely:
- Master of Possession
- 2 Greater Possessed
- 10 Chaos Space Marines (5 w/bolt pistol + ccw, 4 w/bolter, 1 autocannon)
- 2 Obliterators
It’s a very solid box set, and a good place to start. It gives you three models you can use in a “Possessed Bomb” Chaos army (one that uses large squads of Possessed with multiple buffs on them to tear apart enemy units in melee) – the Master of Possession and Greater Possessed – and it also gives you models you could use if you wanted to go for a daemon engine-heavy strategy (Venomcrawler) or do more shooting (Obliterators). The only real dud here are the Chaos Space Marines, but you can make them work easily enough: Losing 15 points to taking a 5-man Chaos Marine squad as a troop choice over a 10-man cultist squad isn’t the end of the world.
Thanks to a ridiculous glut of supply, ebay, and a run of Made-to-Order, you may have the old 6th/7th edition starter box minis. The good news is, you have the game’s only plastic cultist models. The bad news is, the set of models you have is pretty bad overall. Dark Vengeance comes with:
- 20 Chaos Cultists
- 1 Helbrute (Power Fist + Multi-melta)
- 1 Chaos Lord (Power Sword + Plasma Pistol)
- 5 Chaos Chosen with various weapons
- 1 Chaos Champion*
- 1 Aspiring Champion* (7th edition only)
Dark Vengeance is an odd set. Even when it was released, the units in it weren’t that good. But it’s also literally the only place to get any of the listed models, and the only place you can get Chaos Cultist champions or Chaos Cultists with heavy weapons, which can make the cultist options very expensive to get on ebay (a box of 5 cultists with a mix of ranged and close combat weapons was released later). The Cultists are the big upside here; Chaos Space Marine armies need troops, and taking squads of 10 cultists at 40 points each to fill out a Battalion is a very good strategy. The Champion with power maul is also a solid mini, and requires very little conversion work to be a believable Dark Apostle. The Aspiring Champion also makes a fine Chaos Lord model, and works particularly well if you throw a Raptor jump pack on him to make a smash lord. He’s also more easily converted than the others, owing to flat arm joins. the Helbrute isn’t good but it’s not terrible and you can easily use the Chosen as Aspiring Champions in squads.
Chaos Space Marines Battleforce
Released around the same time s the new codex, the Vengeance Warband Battleforce box comes with:
- Chaos Lord in Terminator Armour
- 10 Chaos Space Marines
- 5 Chaos Terminators
- 5 Chaos Havocs
- Chaos Rhino
Most of the parts of this are serviceable, but again your big downside is getting Chaos Space Marines instead of Cultists as your troops. The Chaos Lord can put in work as an aura support for the Terminators, and the putting a Havoc squad with 2 lascannon/2 missile launchers in the Rhino and taking advantage of their ability to move and shoot without penalty is a solid strategy, if not a particularly competitive one.
I Haven’t Bought Anything Yet!
If you haven’t bought anything yet, that’s great – you’ve come to the right place! Where you should start will depend on what legion you want to play and how competitive you want to go. For most players, the Start Collecting box (with the Shadowspear models) is a pretty good deal, and a great starting point regardless of which legion you’re playing. If you’re interested in being competitive right now and aren’t so concerned with money, then I’d start looking at ebay and 30 Chaos Cultists to fill out a Battalion detachment (3 units of 10). If money is an object, then there are a few things you can use as proxies – Necromunda Cawdor models work well here, as do traitor guardsmen from Blackstone Fortress.
Let’s jump into some particular goals you might have, and how I’d recommend building in the next section.
Expanding Your Army
So you’ve got your base (or not), and are looking for ways to expand. Here’s what I’d personally recommend looking at for taking your next steps:
…Just Want to Build a Competitive Army for Events
I can’t stress enough that this is going to cause you short-term wallet shock and long-term disappointment as which units and strategies are “good” changes, but then you probably already knew that. The two builds you want to look at right now are Possessed Bomb lists and triple Lord of Skulls, and you’ll more than likely want to look at a detachment of Chaos Daemons or even bringing in Chaos Knights. You’ll also want to look at a Supreme Command of Thousand Sons psykers, which usually includes at least Ahriman and two other models, either Winged Daemon Princes or Sorcerers in Terminator Armour.
A Possessed Bomb list will mean picking up 20 possessed (4 boxes), or converting them from other models, plus daemon supports, either Nurgle (nurglings, Poxbringer) or Slaanesh (Contorted Epitome, Herald). Going triple Lord of Skulls will mean buying three lords of skulls and a Lord Discordant or three.
You can read more about competitive play and lists in our article Start Competing: Chaos Space Marines.
…Want to Go More Casual
If you want to build a more casual or fluff-driven army that doesn’t suck, we’re here for you too! In my experience, most casual players prefer mono-legion armies, so that’s where I’m gonna focus here.
If you’re going Black Legion, start with Abaddon the Despoiler and a copy of Vigilus Ablaze He’s a great unit, and a solid addition to build around. He works well either supporting a massive blob of Chaos Cultists (3 squads of 30), or teleporting in with 10 Terminators or a squad of 3 Obliterators. He can also work with Berserkers, but you’ll have issues transporting them across the table. You can avoid Haarken at this point; he’s got a neat model but unless you really want to use him neither he nor Raptors are worth your time. The Battleforce is a fine starting point for a Black Legion army if you can get it but Shadowspear also works well here. You’ll want to support Abaddon or a Chaos Lord a Black Legion army with the Council of Traitors Stratagem, and that means you’ll want to add a Chaos Sorcerer and a Dark Apostle as well.
There are a ton of ways you can build a Black Legion army that is both fluffy and reasonably decent, so from here just kind of feel out what works and how you want to play. You can add Lords Discordant and Daemon Engines, go infantry-heavy, add a bunch of Possessed, or try something new.
One of the big benefits of the Emperor’s Children is the ability to take Noise Marines as troops. The good news is that Emperor’s Children Noise Marines are pretty good right now! The bad news is that there aren’t modern plastic models for Noise Marines. You’re going to want at least 10 and as many as 30 if you’re going heavy on them, and that means either doing custom conversions or buying a bunch of plastic Chaos Space Marines and adding the (ugh) Finecast Noise Marine upgrade kid weapons to them. Emperor’s Children are some of the shoot-ier Chaos Space Marines. and one of their key abilities is the ability to shoot twice with the Endless Cacophony stratagem. This makes them a good fit for Noise Marines, Bikes, Terminators, and Obliterators, all of which can throw out scary numbers of shots, boost their chances of wounding with Veterans of the Long War, and then shoot again!
Similar to Emperor’s Children, the World Eaters have an advantage in that they can take Khorne Berserkers as troops. That’s pretty neat – Berserkers are one of the game’s best melee units, and the World Eaters specialize in melee combat. World Eater armies are going to look at taking full advantage of that +1 attack bonus from their Legion Trait and the ability to push forward onto the battlefield before the game starts. The downside is that the only official plastic Khorne Berserkers are from a kit that’s old enough to drink now. The good news is that the kit’s helmets and axes work perfectly well with the current plastic Chaos Space Marines, giving you the opportunity to convert Berserkers relatively easily. Surround them with Khorne Daemons or some Lords Discordant and Daemon Engines like the Maulerfiend or even the Lord of Skulls. Round out your force with a Dark Apostle or two to buff your units without resorting to cowardly psychic powers.
The Siege Warfare specialists of the Chaos Space Marine legions, Iron Warriors are going to rely more on shooting, and will make a great fit for more Obliterators, Havocs, and Daemon Engines like Defilers, Maulerfiends, and Venomcrawlers. Add a few Lords Discordant and some daemon engines, then support them with Obliterators and Havocs, and protect them with Chaos Cultists who can hold objectives and act as fuel for the Cannon Fodder Stratagem.
Night Lords specialize in sowing fear and discord among their enemies’ ranks and dropping in from the skies. They were made for the Host Raptorial detachment, and can make great use of a jump pack chaos lord and sorcerer as well as Warp Talons to drop in and occupy the enemy, tearing them to shreds. They’re also a wonderful fit for Heldrakes, who can use their high movement values to sweep across the table turn 1 and use the Vox Scream Stratagem to turn off enemy auras. They’re also a good it for Possessed, who can use In Midnight Clad to become harder to hit.
Word Bearers are known for cavorting with Daemons, and are great fits for running lots of Possessed. Build out a Daemonkin Ritualists detachment taking Possessed, Greater Possessed, a Master of Possession, and a Dark Apostle (the Start Collecting/Shadowspear box works great for this), then think about supplementing it with a detachment of daemons – both Nurgle and Slaanesh are a great fit for Possessed.
Known for their stealth tactics and use of Cultist forces seeded and outfitted ahead of their arrival, Alpha Legion work well with most units thanks to the incredible utility of giving opponents -1 to hit them outside of 12″. Whether you want to run Possessed or Daemon Engines with Lords Discordant or just lots of marines, they all work well with Alpha Legion. If you don’t want to run Possessed, consider Alpha Legion Rubric Marines supported by a Thousand Sons Supreme Command detachment, large squads of bikes with the mark of Slaanesh, or even Alpha Legion Noise Marines.
The Red Corsairs are the foremost renegade chapter, led by Huron Blackheart, a merciless warlord. Huron’s pretty solid in the game, acting as an efficiently-costed combo Psyker/Chaos Lord, but his model is ancient and bad. It’s worth converting your own. Even if you don’t, there are some cool things you can do with Red Corsairs, who can use their ability to Advance and Charge to get into combat quickly. Lord Discordants are great as Red Corsairs, and their legion trait encourages you to fill your detachments with small squads of Chaos Space Marines, which give you tons of bonus CP: +1 if you have one squad of marines and +3 if you have 3 or more.
There are a ton of other options for renegade chapters, with the two most notable being The Flawless Host, popular for their ability to take Lords Discordant who can throw out scary numbers of extra attacks, and the other being The Purge, whose re-roll ability works very well on Forge World Dreadnoughts like the Hellforged Deredeo and Hellforged Leviathan.
A Sample List Using the Start Collecting Box
A few weeks ago, a reader sent us a question asking for advice building a Word Bearers list using the Start Collecting Box as a base. Based on that, here’s a sample list you might consider that’s both fluffy – playing into the Word Bearers’ legacy as a legion who see Possession as a blessing – and can pack a real punch on the tabletop, with multiple Venomcrawlers to scurry across the table and do some damage.
Specialist Detachment: Soulforged Pack
If you want to keep building on this, consider more Lords Discordant, or if you don’t mind building “Chaos Soup,” consider adding Daemons of Slaanesh and a detachment of Thousand Sons. You have a lot of options for how to build on this.
Despoil the Galaxy
You should now have everything you need to start building a Chaos Space Marines army and playing with the faction but if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always happy to answer questions and help new players out.