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 have a 9th edition Codex 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.

You can find some additional rules in War Zone Charadon Act I: The Book of Rust, but these are for playing an Army of Renown based around Typhus’ force, and are in no way necessary.


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. This is the faction that has an Army of Renown, if you really want extra rules.
  • 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. Because these options are currently free, you’ll want to be liberal with how you dole them out to your plague marines.

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

Although Poxwalkers have gone in and out of style (and up and down in points costs), today they’re OK troops and backfield objective holders in a Death Guard army. The real jam now though is marines – Plague marines got a HUGE boost in the most recent Balance Dataslate and points update (even if you aren’t a competitive player, we recommend using the competitive play updates to balance the game), making all their weapon options free. This opens things way up for Death Guard players and makes plague marines very fieldable, either in 5-man or 10-man squads.

Terminators of all varieties also have the Objective Secured rule now, which combined with the Armour of Contempt update to make them even tougher means that they can be very nasty objective holders for the Death Guard.

A strong Death Guard army these days may have 1-2 squads of poxwalkers but will also go heavy on units of plague marines and typically have 1-2 units of terminators – either blightlords, or more likely, Deathshrouds to act as a “bully” unit that can hold objectives and weather incoming fire out in the open. You can start a strong Death Guard army by picking up a box or two of Plague marines and a box of Deathshroud or Blightlord Terminators, plus a character to act as your HQ choice.

Poxwalkers. Credit: Rockfish
Poxwalkers. Credit: Rockfish

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/$150

With their 9th edition release came 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/$75. 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 a solid 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.

What to Buy if You Don’t Want a Starter Set but want to field 500 points

Generally speaking, you’re going to want the following for your first army:

  • One HQ – This model will also serve as your Warlord. It’ll most likely either be a Malignant Plaguecaster or a Lord of Virulence. You cannot currently buy a Lord of Contagion by himself.
  • One Troops choice – You need to start with a unit of Plague Marines here, so buy a box of those, but once you have those you can add a unit of Poxwalkers.
  • Something Else – My go-to here is a unit of 5 blightlord terminators, but a box of Deathshroud will also work (though you only get 3 of those).

If you want to expand past that, you can add more plague marines, a second HQ, and start thinking about daemon engines and what kind of play style you want to support.

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, but against some armies he’ll still get shot off the table before he has a chance to do much – railguns just be like that, we’re afraid.

One thing to know before going in however is this model can be incredibly powerful, and in a narrative non-competitive environment possibly unfairly powerful, particularly against some armies and opponents. 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 have no idea how to deal with him.

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, or some Rhinos to shuttle your slow Death Guard around.

Daemon-engine parking lot

Some players opt for more Daemon Engine-heavy builds that enjoy a little bit more speed and ranged firepower, zipping around the board. The Fleshmower bloat-drone is a potent weapon in your arsenal, and Myphitic Blight-Haulers make great, cheap threats that can zip around and melta things off the table effectively. Although competitive rules for shooting out of line of sight have made Plagueburst Crawlers less good for their mortar fire, they can still be nasty threats on the table just rumbling forward and soaking up enemy fire while blasting things with Entropy Cannons. Best to steer clear of Defilers, though – they just aren’t particularly good.

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. If you do find yourself getting into the Terminus Est Army of Renown from War Zone Charadon Act I: The Book of Rust, those rules directly benefit Poxwalker hordes.


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 Patrol Detachment – About 930 Points
Plague Company: The Harbingers

HQ: Typhus (Psychic Powers: Miasma of Pestilence, Putrescent Vitality)

Troops: 7x Plague Marines (Champion power fist, meltagun, cleaver, flail, mace, icon)
Troops: 20x Poxwalkers
Troops: 10x Poxwalkers

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

Fast Attack: Foetid Bloat-Drone with Fleshmower

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 a Tallyman, a Bloat-Drone, and Blightlord Terminators into the mix, and pretty much all of those will work for you long-term. Expanding from here, you’ll want more plague marines and potentially some Rhinos to move them, and you’ll want to look at more daemon engines as well. This list also gives you some room to expand, with another character or potentially swapping out the Bloat-Drone for a different auxiliary threat (or just add a few more plague marines and do two 5-model squads).

On the whole your game plan here will be for the 10-model unit of Poxwalkers to hold rear objectives while the Terminators hold the middle and your other units strike out to hold the other objectives on the table. At 1000 points it’ll be really difficult to focus down your units with the available firepower an opponent has, helping you stick around long enough to punish an opponent and keep them off your objectives.


Heavy on the Heavy Marines

Death Guard Patrol Detachment
Plague Company: The Inexorable

HQ: Lord of Virulence, Warlord: Arch-Contaminator, Viscous Death

Troops: 7x Plague Marines: Champion w/Power Fist, Bubotic Axe, Flail of Corruption, Cleaver, Mace + Axe, 2x Knives, Meltagun)
Troops: 7x Plague Marines: Champion w/Power Fist, Bubotic Axe, Flail of Corruption, Cleaver, Mace + Axe, 2x Knives, Meltagun)
Troops: 7x Plague Marines: Champion w/Power Fist, Bubotic Axe, Flail of Corruption, Cleaver, Mace + Axe, 2x Knives, Meltagun)

Elite: 3x Deathshroud Terminators, Champion: 2x Plaguespurt Gauntlent, Virulent Fever
Elite: Biologus Putrifier

Fast Attack: Fleshmower Bloat-Drone

Dedicated Transport: Chaos Rhino

This is just a melee blender, and I’ve tried to keep it pretty straightforward in terms of what you’d buy – It’s basically just one box for each unit, using almost everything that comes in each box. The Lord of Virulence works with the Deathshroud, while the Troops can hold a backfield objective or range out. I’ve split three units of 7 here, but the better mix is to probably make one unit of 9 and another of 5 in order to put a 9-model unit + the Putrifier in a Rhino. The Fleshmower adds fast support, and can play cagey with terrain, then plow right into an enemy from cover.


Wrapping 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!