Getting Started: Death Guard

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.

Who are the Death Guard?

In the embrace of great Nurgle, I am no longer afraid, for with His pestilential favour I have become that which I once feared: Death.

The Death Guard are the doomed 14th Legion of the Adeptus Astartes, a particularly resilient group of trench fighters who were turned to the ruinous powers after undergoing gruesome torture while stranded within the immaterium. Drawn into eternal servitude to Nurgle, the chaos god of death and decay, these space marines underwent a terrible transformation which left their bodies swollen with disease, forever rotting but almost nigh-impossible to kill. Continuing to wage the Long War against their now-hated loyalist foes, their Primarch Mortarion plots invasions from their plague planet within the warp while Nurgle’s champion Typhus roams the galaxy spreading disease and enacting his own devious schemes.

While this is an extraordinarily brief description of the faction, the Death Guard have received a great deal of attention in fiction both in the Horus Heresy series as well as the “current” 40k timeline, including as the primary antagonists within 8th Edition with such books as Dark Imperium and Plague War. If you’re interested in learning more about the legion and their “heroes,” we highly recommend you check them out.

As an army the Death Guard play exactly as you might expect: A ponderous force that inexorably advances under withering fire while spreading contagion and gunning down resistance as they go–somewhat slow, extremely durable, and potent at close range. While they lose some of the long-range options of their heretical brothers, the army hosts a glut of potent mid-range and close combat weaponry along with a compliment of faction-specific daemon engines such as the Foetid Bloat-drone, Mephitic Blighthauler and Plagueburst Crawler (which is a custom creation of the daemon-primarch Mortarion himself!). The use of plague weapons can make even simple knives dangerous and larger weapons such as Plaguereapers can cleave elite infantry and even tanks in two. Death Guard often use special auras that both bolster their army and cripple their enemies–this can become a little tricky to keep track of, but once you get acclimated it is a powerful force multiplier. Their model sets are some of the most unique that Games Workshop produces and offers an incredible freedom when it comes to customization and kit-bashing, which is trickier to do with modern kits.

Credit: Gerald Miller

Army Strengths

  • Extremely durable units with high Toughness and saves, almost universal damage reduction
  • Powerful unit synergies using auras
  • Solid weight of firepower and potent melee
  • Immune to movement reduction, making them slow but steady
  • Relatively easy to paint

Army Weaknesses

  • Elite army means fewer models on the table
  • Weakness to Mortal Wound mechanics
  • Somewhat slow units
  • Army special rules can be difficult to keep track of

 

The Book

The Death Guard just received their 9th Edition book so if you pick up Codex: Death Guard and make sure you’re up-to-date on any published FAQs then you should be set! If you’re unfamiliar, check out our review for an in-depth look at the army and its gross abilities and if you’re still looking for more, you can check out our follow-up article on how to play the army here, though note that not all of the lists in that article are good for beginners. Note that, with the release of the 9th edition Codex: Death Guard, the Death Guard rules in Psychic Awakening: War of the Spider have been invalidated and as such you’ll no longer need that book to play the army.

 

Planning Your Army

Designing your Death Guard army can be a little tricky as everything looks great but as an elite army your construction point-budget is only going to get you so far. Death Guard as a faction were fairly uncomplicated through most of 8th edition but following the introduction of Plague Companies in Psychic Awakening (and carried over to the new Codex), have become a bit more complicated. Plague Companies are subfactions within the Death Guard that provide unique special rules, relics, and traits. The 9th edition codex has baked that into the main book and has given players a little bit more clarity when it comes to army design, as each of the companies offer some specialization and unique Contagion Warlord Trait (contagions are powerful aura-like abilities that affect nearby enemy units with debuffs and increase in range as the game goes on).

While your Plague Company does not fundamentally change how your Death Guard army plays – and there isn’t really a ton of fluff or heraldry to consider around them – your decision will grant you access to an optional (but powerful) Warlord Trait/Contagion, Relic, and Stratagem. Let’s give a general review to how your choice can impact how your army plays:

  • Harbingers: Allows Poxwalkers to be stronger in combat, their Contagion causes mortal wounds, and they can permanently infect an objective with Contagion
  • The Inexorable: Are more difficult to charge, their Contagion boosts AP against nearby enemies, and their relic can regenerate wounds on Inexorable vehicles
  • Mortarion’s Anvil: Units can heroically intervene, their Contagion blocks defenses on a charge and rerolls, and their relic gives the model full rerolls in combat
  • The Wretched: Psykers can be more powerful, their Contagion automatically wounds targets on good hits, and their relic boosts Plaguecaster’s damage potential
  • The Poxmongers: Vehicles can shoot better in close combat, their Contagion reduces enemy morale, and their relic improves one daemon engine’s invulnerable save
  • The Ferrymen: Aura ability range can be increased, their Contagion reduces enemy movement speed, and their relic is an enhanced melee weapon
  • Mortarion’s Chosen Sons: Flamer-type weapons can be improved, their Contagion strips away cover bonuses, and their relic is an enhanced plague sprayer

As you can see, each of these offer something you might want and can greatly enhance your army’s effectiveness, so deciding which Plague Company (or companies if you want to split across detachments) might take some time. The Contagion mechanic is at the heart of the Death Guard, so deciding which one your warlord is going to spread can alter both your roster composition as well as your general game plan. Of these, The Inexorable, Mortarion’s Anvil, and the Ferrymen are regarded as the best of the bunch, but there’s nothing that locks you into sticking with one so feel free to play around and build armies with different Plague Company choices until you settle on a play style that works for you.

Regardless of which company you choose, at its core you’ll likely want to start by filling out the army’s iconic Troop unit, the Plague Marine, which hosts a large list of options for both ranged and melee attacks. These models are tough and can dole out significant damage if left to their own devices. This is going to be your rotting-meat-and-potatoes for your lists, as they’re both the only CORE Troops choice and also the best. Thanks to an incredibly versatile kit here’s a good deal of customization you can achieve in your units and you’ll likely be left with a bunch of extra bitz you can hold onto for conversions or use in your next units. While you do get a lot in a Plague Marines box, you don’t get everything to fill out a unit completely–many weapons only come one to a box, so if you want two of something in a squad you’ll need to buy two squads or buy/trade for the spare bit. You’ll likely want to either specialize in ranged or melee weapons, but depending on your plans its perfectly fine to let your units have a mix.

Something to note is that there are fundamentally two types of units in Codex: Death Guard to be aware of: BUBONIC ASTARTES units, which includes plague marines, terminators, and most of the army’s characters, and DAEMON ENGINES, which are possessed vehicles like the Plagueburst Crawler and Foetid Bloat-Drones. Most of the CORE units for the army are in the BUBONIC ASTARTES group, and most of the army’s buffs and secondary objective rules tend to revolve around them. As you’re starting out, you’ll likely want to focus on having a good mix of both to play with.

Credit: PierreTheMime

The ignoble Poxwalker, whose popularity waxed and waned during 8th Edition, is back! The new book has given them a nice points break and made them more generally durable, which means they’re going to be great to babysit objectives or swamp potential threats with piles of disposable corpses. You don’t need a ton of Poxwalkers – in fact you can only have as many units of them as you have of BUBONIC ASTARTES CORE INFANTRY units thanks to the Diseased Minions rule, which means that for every unit of Poxwalkers you bring you’ll need a unit of either Plague Marines, Blightlord Terminators, or Deathshroud Terminators. So having 30 of them in your collection (one squad of 20, one squad of 10) is a good starting point.

Poxwalkers. Credit: Rockfish
Poxwalkers. Credit: Rockfish

There’s also the potential to combine your Death Guard with an allied force and often times in the competitive world you’ll see Chaos Daemons or other Heretic Astartes or Chaos Daemons factions added in as separate detachments. That said, the Death Guard are currently in a very strong position as a dedicated force so don’t feel the need to dilute your army unless you have specific plans.

Warhammer 9th edition has made a strong case for gaming at any size, and the Combat Patrol and Incursion level games allow new players to get in games at standard levels with some mission support. You and your opponent can agree to any amount of points to play, but ideally shoot for 500 points, 1,000 points, and finally 2,000 points as milestones for having a “complete” army.

 

Collecting Your Army

While you can always purchase the standard boxes, Nurgle’s favored sons saw a large and expansive rollout as the premier enemy faction of 8th edition, which means there are still a good number of options when it comes to getting your hands on Death Guard models.

Combat Patrol: Death Guard – £85/$140

With their 9th edition release comes a new starter set! This collection includes Typhus, a Biologus Putrifier, 7 Plague Marines, and 30 Poxwalkers, which is an incredible value with a savings of £47.50/$85. Something knowledgeable players will notice is that fielding this entire box at once isn’t technically legal, thanks to the Diseased Minions army rule (see above), but that should not deter you from considering it as it’s an incredible value and a great way to start building out a force. If you want to play it straight out of the box you’ll need to have 10 Poxwalkers sitting by the wayside cheerleading, but there are worse problems to have.

Warhammer 40,000: Dark Imperium – Varies

If you can get ahold of the 8th edition starter set (or at least the Death Guard half), this will provide an incredibly good value for you as it includes a number of models that are not currently available elsewhere. This includes a Lord of Contagion, a Noxious Blightbringer, a Malignant Plaguecaster, a Foetid Bloat Drone, 7 Plague Marines, and 20 Poxwalkers. As this set has not been in production for a while it may be difficult to get ahold of, but it is possible local gaming stores and other game vendors (including some book stores) may have them collecting dust. Even at an inflated eBay auction price this might be worth it, but you’ll need to weigh the asking price against what you need to fill out your army.

Warhammer 40,000: Know No Fear – Varies

Similar to Dark Imperium, this was a mid-sized starter set that still exists in the world, but it no longer produced. This includes a Lord of Contagion, a Foetid Bloat Drone, 5 Plague Marines, and 10 Poxwalkers. Another possible source for models.

Warhammer 40,000: First Strike – Varies

A small starter set that still exists in the world, but it no longer produced. This includes 3 Plague Marines, and 6 unique Poxwalkers. Another possible source for models.

Easy-to-Build Plague Marines – Varies

A small box of 3 unique Plague Marines including a model with powerfist and plasmagun, a model with a blight launcher, and one with a boltgun. These are quite handy as they offer some variety to your models.

 

Painting Your Army

There are quite a few Death Guard players bouncing around the Goonhammer offices, and Death Guard are an army that are very beginner-friendly, allowing you to be very sloppy with your technique and still achieve great results. We’ve written up a bunch of ways to paint them here:

 

What’s Next

We really can’t stress enough that regardless of which avenue you intend to follow the Death Guard are going to perform admirably. As with most armies you’re going to want to have a few HQ options and a solid core of Troops and then you can dive into a plan for specialized Elite, Fast Attack, and/or Heavy Support selections. With that in mind, there are certainly combinations of units and companies that are going to be stronger in a competitive environment.

Before we discuss army composition a bit more in-depth, we should touch something that could potentially take up a quarter of your 2,000-point army: Mortarion. The daemon-primarch is a great model and an absolutely incredible heavy-hitter that can endure a staggering amount of firepower, so you’ll likely want to consider them for your list. One thing to know before going in is this model is incredibly powerful, and in a narrative non-competitive environment possibly unfairly powerful. If you’re creating an army to be played over drinks and snacks with friends, know that tossing this monster onto the table could create frustration if you’re battling new players or people who want to field story-driven units without just automatically losing. If you’re planning on playing competitively, absolutely consider picking up Mortarion because he is, frankly, just bonkers good.

Credit: Zuul the Cat

Below are a few examples of where you might take your army, which will hopefully give you a good idea of how you want to plan your purchases.

Midrange balance

Death Guard are most comfortable at mid-to-close range, with their ranged sweet-spot being 17.9*-24″. A balanced Death Guard list are likely going to contain a fair number of Plague Marines, a mix of the Foetid Virion (all of which are great at boosting CORE units), a terminator unit or two (they are incredible hearty and great for dropping onto objectives and backlines), and some daemon-engines to either quickly engage or bombard the enemy from afar.

*With Overwhelming Generosity you can bump “flamer” weapons to 18″ range. This is particularly useful on a Lord of Virulence or Foul Blightspawn and is great for catching people by surprise.

Daemon-engine parking lot

While this is no longer exclusively the domain of The Poxmongers, daemon-engines remain incredibly strong and have become more reliable in both shooting and melee so they can act more independently. If you’re interested in smashing spiny metal daemons into your opponents lines, you really can’t go wrong here. Easy To Build Myphitic Blighthaulers are a fantastic value, but absolutely do plan on picking up Plagueburst Crawlers which can fill either mid-to-long range fire support or close-range threat. If you’re planning on having lots of these models in combat, either The Inexorable or The Poxmongers are likely the company you’re going to want to be, as the Leechspore Casket can keep your monsters running smoothly and Bilious Blood-rush can mean an engine in close combat during the Shooting phase can do terrible damage. Against T4, Blighthaulers hitting 3s and wounding on 2s with everything is pretty nice.

Poxwalker Horde

Though a little trickier to pull off in the new edition thanks to the limitation that you need to take a CORE unit for every Poxwalker unit you field, you can still manage to swarm your opponent with rotting bodies. These diseased humans can be fielded in large numbers thanks to being as cheap as can be, and you can use them to clog up movement lanes and drag elite-hunting units into a prolonged fight with disposable Objective Secured models. Obviously if you’re going this route you’ll want to consider Typhus, who is not only a powerful sorcerer and beatstick on his own but also significantly buffs Poxwalkers.

 

Sample Lists

Here are a couple 1000pt lists created around some of the builds discussed above to give you an idea of what can be accomplished on what budget:

Typhus and F(r)iends

Death Guard (997pts, 5CP)
Battalion detachment, The Wretched

HQ: Typhus (Psychic Powers: Miasma of Pestilence, Putrescent Vitality)
HQ: Malignant Plaguecaster (Warlord Trait: Eater Plague, Psychic Powers: Gift of Contagion, Gift of Plagues, Miasma of Pestilence, Relic: The Daemon’s Favour), Sevenfold Blessings (-1CP)

Troops: 7x Plague Marines (Blight Launcher, Plasmagun, Powerfist and Plasmagun)
Troops: 20x Poxwalkers
Troops: 20x Poxwalkers

Elite: 5x Blightlord Terminators (Blight Launcher, Flail of Corruption, Plague Sprayer)
Elite: Biologus Putrifier
Elite: Tallyman

Credit: TheChirurgeon

This list makes good use of the Combat Patrol: Death Guard boxset and expands into a solid core that can be a serious mid-range threat. For your shopping list, this adds another box of Poxwalkers, a Tallyman, a Malignant Plaguecaster, and Blightlord Terminators into the mix. As a The Wretched detachment, this leans into psychic powers with a mighty four casts per turn and a Plaguecaster that knows a bonus power (doubling up of Miasma of Pestilence for the occasion that Typhus is either out of range or out of action). The zombie hordes move in, the Tallyman boosts the Plague Marine shooting to 2+ (rerolling 1s near Typhus for all your plasma-overcharging needs), and the Blightlords drop into the enemy’s backline to cause chaos. Should the enemy get near, the Putrifier can assist with both grenade boosts and the new guaranteed version of Blades of Putrefaction. With Typhus’ support, the Poxwalkers can be brought to a mighty S5 and T5 and can reroll hits. In addition to the general damage that can inflict, an application of Mutant Strain can make those 40 attacks particularly dangerous. Sure, some of your models may burst apart, but the number of mortal wounds you’ll likely cause means you’ll have more joining the throng soon enough.

 

Heavy on the Heavy Marines

Death Guard (995 pts, 5CP)
Battalion detachment, The Inexorable

HQ: Lord of Virulence (12), Warlord: Arch-Contaminator
HQ: Malignant Plaguecaster (95), Powers: Miasma of Pestilence, Gift of Plagues, Plague-Chosen (-1 CP): Ferric Blight

Troops: 8x Plague Marines: 6x with Boltgun, 1x with Blight Launcher, 1x Flail of Corruption, Sigil of Corruption, Champion with Power Fist and Plague sword (208)
Troops: 7x Plague Marines: 4x with Boltgun, Champion with Boltgun, 1x with Blight Launcher, Sigil of Corruption, 1x Flail of Corruption (177)
Troops: Poxwalkers x10 (50)

Elite: 5x Blightlord Terminators (Combi-Bolter + Bubotic Axe or Balesword), 1x Blight Launcher
Elite: Noxious Blightbringer (60), Relic: Daemon’s Toll

Dedicated Transport: Chaos Rhino (80)

If you don’t want to run a bunch of shambling corpses and Typhus, this is an alternative starting point that will serve you well as you expand upward. The core of the army is two squads of Plague marines, the larger of which can be put into a Rhino with the Noxious Blightbringer. This is the list as it fits into 1,000 points, but I’d strongly recommend kitting out one of your Blightlord Terminators with a Blight launcher and consider giving a second a Flail of Corruption.

This army can be built by buying the following boxed sets:

  • Lord of Virulence ($35 USD)
  • Chosen of Mortarion – nets you the champion, plaguecaster, and noxious blightbringer ($60)
  • 2x Boxes of Plague Marines ($100)
  • 1x Poxwalkers ($35 USD)
  • 1x Blightlord Terminators ($50)
  • 1x Chaos Rhino ($44)

That brings your total cost on models to $324, but you can bring a significant portion of that down if you’re able to find the Death Guard half of the old Dark Vengeance set, which will net you the Plaguecaster, Blightbringer, Champion, a squad of Plague Marines, and the Poxwalkers, plus a Lord of Contagion you can sub out for the Lord of Virulence with the same points cost, plus a Bloat-Drone. If you can get that set of models for less than $200 you’re saving on MSRP, and if you can get it for less than $150 you’re getting a steal.

This army is more than capable of scoring the new Spread the Sickness and Despoiled Ground secondary objectives, and has both plenty of staying power on objectives and decent mobility thanks to the Rhino, the Blightbringer’s movement bonus, and the Blightlords’ ability to deep strike. You’ll likely want to put the Plaguecaster, the Blightbringer, and the squad of 8 marines with the power fist into the Rhino so they can get some forward movement action and you can use stacked buffs to handle anything that wants to get too close. The Lord of Virulence and the Blightlords hang out in Deep Strike and teleport in, issuing a devastating volley when they land, firing four shots apiece with their bolters in addition to the Lord’s twin Plaguespitter. You can buff this shooting with the Vermid Whispers Stratagem, giving them +1 to hit, and use Virulent Rounds to turn their bolters into plague weapons. This will then allow them to be affected by the Lord of Virulence’s Arch-Contaminator Warlord Trait, and so they will re-roll all wound rolls that turn. If you’re dealing with a really big target you can stack a third buff by getting the Malignant Plaguecaster close to whatever you want to shoot, and using either Flash Outbreak or Gift of Plagues to extend his Ferric Blight contagion to whatever you’re shooting at, giving your Blightlords an additional AP-1 against it. By stacking these effects, you’ll be able to make short work of a single target, no matter how tough. Note that for smaller/1,000-point games I prefer two medium-sized squads, but for building bigger or maximizing your loadouts, consider doing a squad of 5 and a squad of 10, or going 6 and 9 to let the Blightbringer ride with the 9-man squad in the Rhino.

As you expand this army, it’s worth looking at some more of the Death Guard characters, such as the Tallyman, Foul Blightspawn, Plague Surgeon, and Biologus Putrifier, who can all boost your plague marines. You’ll also likely want to flesh out those squads and go up to 20 Poxwalkers, but you won’t need to add a ton of infantry to the list from here. Next you’ll want to look at adding support from Daemon Engines – consider a Plagueburst Crawler or two, or some Bloat-drones, and think about either adding five more Blightlords or Mortarion himself. There are a lot of ways you can go with the Death Guard and still end up with a good army, so don’t stress out too much over specific builds.

 

Wrap-up

Much like rot, the Death Guard have only gotten better with time! We hope that the idea of spreading Grandfather Nurgle’s gifts fills your worm-ridden heart with joy. Go forth and share in His blessings! Have any questions or feedback? Drop us a note in the comments below or email us at contact@goonhammer.comOr if you’re a patron, head on over to our Discord and chat with us!