Hammer of Math: Chaos Space Marine Detachment Effectiveness

The tenth edition publication of Codex: Chaos Space Marines hit shelves this past weekend – you can find our review here if you missed it – and with the book we have eight new ways to play the Heretic Astartes, changing things up from their methods in the Index Detachment. Of course, that particular Detachment rule is still around – now we have Pactbound Zealots in the mix.

With all of these new rules, we’ve been working through some of the odds on our end. Specifically, how do these new Detachments stand up in terms of their ability to let you just crush enemies into a fine paste in the Shooting or Fight phases? Now that we have several candidates – Renegade Raiders, Veterans of the Long War, and Soulforged Warpack being the big ones – it’s time to compare them.

Of course, before we look into these rules, we need to look at the army’s faction rule, Dark Pacts.

Dark Pacts

If your Army Faction is Heretic Astartes, each time a unit with this ability is selected to shoot or fight, it can make a Dark Pact. If it does, it must first take a Leadership test before any effects of the Dark Pact are resolved; if that test is failed, that unit suffers D3 mortal wounds. Then, select one of the following abilities for that unit’s weapons to gain until the end of the phase:


This changed a bit from the Index, in that now you take your Pact test before you get any bonuses, and it’s entirely possible to lose a model or  blow up before you get to the shooting/fighting. Additionally, some effects – such as the Mark of Chaos bonuses in Pactbound Zealots – only trigger if you pass your test. Most Chaos Space Marines have a Leadership Characteristic of 6+, so our odds of passing that test are a little better than 72%. If we have an Icon to re-roll the test, those odds jump to 92%. But this means that any time we compare probabilities, we need to think about the odds we’ll fail the test and not get some bonus.

The Detachments

There are four detachments we want to look at when we compare damage output for Chaos Space Marine Detachments:

  • Pactbound Zealots. Still the gold standard, the ability to get critical hits on a 5+ is a big deal, and we can further buff that with a Helbrute. Or we can use the Profane Zeal Stratagem with the Mark of Chaos Undivided to re-roll hit rolls of 1 and re-roll all wound rolls. Most of the time we’ll be looking at that and generating extra Sustained Hits with the marks of Nurgle and Slaanesh.
  • Veterans of the Long War. Any non-DAMNED Unit can get full re-rolls to hit against the army’s Focus of Hatred, allowing units to “fish” for critical hits, and can use the Black Crusade and Let the Galaxy Burn Stratagems for an extra pop.
  • Renegade Raiders. The Detachment rule gives units in this detachment +1 to their AP when attacking an enemy unit on an objective, and the Ruinous Raid Stratagem gives a unit charging out of a Transport full re-rolls to hit and wound.
  • Soulforged Warpack. Daemon Vehicles in this Detachment can opt to attempt their pacts at -1 Ld in order to get +1 to wound with ranged weapons and +2 attacks with melee weapons for a phase. They can further improve this with the Tempting Addendum Enhancement, which gives them re-rolls to wound when they pact if they take an extra mortal wound when failing. On the Stratagem side, they can get +1 to their AP with Desperate Pledge.

So we’re looking at those four detachments, it’s time to start looking at units and targets. Here are the four units I’m considering from Chaos Space Marines:

  • Legionaries. A unit of ten legionaries with chainswords. Nothing fancy, but we’re assuming our target is on an objective, so they’ll re-roll wound rolls.
  • Forgefiend. Triple Ectoplasma Cannons, able to overcharge.
  • Maulerfiend. With Lasher Tendrils.
  • Obliterators. Three different firing modes, but we’ll focus on the most relevant when we look at them.

In terms of Targets, I need small, medium and large targets, so we’ll look at Space Marine Intercessors (2W, T4, 3+ save), Terminators (3W, T5, 2+/5++ save), and War Dogs/Helverins (T10, 12W, 3+/5++ save). Note that for this, I’ll be assuming that the Pact is successful and units haven’t died, which also means you’re seeing the best-case scenario for Pactbound Zealots, but it’s worth noting that 28% of the time they won’t get that bonus.

Generating Sustained Hits: 5+ Crits vs. Re-rolling hits

Before we dive into this, let’s talk about the probability of getting extra hits with a SUSTAINED HITS dark pact. Generally speaking, if we have six attacks which hit on a 3+, then when we Pact, we’ll usually miss twice and generate one extra hit via SUSTAINED HITS. If we’re getting critical hits on 5s, we’ll generate one extra, for a total of 6 hits on average.

If we’re instead firing at our Focus of Hatred, we’ll generate one sustained hit and miss twice on average (5 hits), but then re-roll the two misses, generating on average an extra hit, plus the chance that one of those is a 6, generating an extra Sustained Hit, +1.7 hits. This gives us an average of 6.7 hits, which is better than the results if we’re on a 5+, albeit marginally.

Assault Intercessors w/ Hand Flamer and Thunder Hammer. Credit: Rockfish
Assault Intercessors w/ Hand Flamer and Thunder Hammer. Credit: Rockfish

Test 1: vs. Ten Intercessors

It’s time to shoot ourselves out of wolf jail/intercessor hell. Here the Legionaries kill between 7.5 and 8.5 Intercessors in one salvo with Chainswords. Here Veterans of the Long War and Renegade Raiders provide the best results, but understand that every line includes full re-rolls to wound owing to the target being on an objective.

Here the Forgefiend gives us our best results, averaging a little over 9 kills per salvo in Veterans of the Long War, and that’s before going to Hazardous Mode, so if you activate that your odds of wiping out the whole unit increase substantially as you add about 2 more expected kills. Comparatively it’ll kill closer to 10 in Pactbound Zealots and 8.7 in Renegade Raiders. The Soulforged Warpack does nothing for them here – the Forgefiend already wounds our Intercessor targets on a 2+.

Imperial Fist Terminator Squad. Credit: Jack Hunter

Test 2: vs. Five Terminators

If we up the ante a bit, we can look at a heavier target – five Terminators, with 5 toughness clad in 2+/4++ save armor. This changes the dynamics quite a bit, as bonuses to AP won’t help Renegade Raiders if they’re already putting the Terminators on their invulnerable saves, and bonuses to Wound won’t help if you’re already wounding on a 2+.

Here Veterans of the Long War once again wins before we apply any Stratagem bonuses, giving us an expected 4.2 kills with the Forgefiend on Terminators. Renegade Raiders and Soulforged Warpack do nothing for us here, as the bonuses to wound and AP hardly matter for the Forgefiend. On the other hand, they do matter for Legionaries, where the bonus to AP from Renegade Raiders means they’ll put the Terminators on their 4+ invulnerable save. In this comparison, Renegade Raiders give us our best results, and ten Legionaries will average about 3 kills into Terminators with no other buffs, while they’ll average around 2.5 in Pactbound Zealots and 2.1 in Veterans of the Long War. Obliterators really eat it here if they use Ruinous Salvo – not having enough damage to kill a single terminator per wound really hurts – and they’ll average 1.5 kills in Veterans or Pactbound Zealots, while seeing no benefit from Renegade Raiders unless the AP is being used to get through cover.

The Maulerfiend getting +2 attacks here in melee matters, as those net out to almost one more dead model per attack sequence from its fists, jumping from 2.1 expected kills to 2.8, and one more from the Tendrils. That said, this benefit basically evens out with the benefit from attacking your Focus of Hate in Veterans of the Long War, and that’s because the attack counts basically average out – with 6 attacks re-rolling hits, you’re going to average 6.7 hits per attack sequence in Veterans of the Long War, and that’s identical to the results you get rolling 8 attacks with no re-rolls in the Soulforged Warpack.

Imperial Knight Armiger Warglaive
Imperial Knight Armiger Warglaive
Credit: Pendulin

Test 3: vs. One Armiger

Finally let’s look at a tougher vehicle profile when it comes to these different effects.

If we put our Obliterators in Melta Range (within 9″) and unload with their Focused Malice profile, then in Veterans of the Long War they’ll average just under one dead Armiger per volley, and come pretty close in Pactbound Zealots. Renegade Raiders doesn’t benefit here but it’s worth noting that if we go after a vehicle with a 3+ save and no invulnerable save, suddenly getting Fleshmetal guns to AP-4 makes a big difference – they’re on par with Pactbound Raiders at that point and only a tiny bit worse than Veterans of the Long War, but you’ve also removed the chances of a lucky save so the variance is way lower.

When it comes to our Legionaries hacking away, Renegade Raiders gives us the edge here – ten Legionaries are likely to score 6.8 wounds in melee against an Armiger on an objective, as they’re now able to drop him to a 5+ save, while comparatively Veterans of the Long War only averages out to 4.5 damage and Pactbound Zealots comes out to about 4.

This is where the Soulforged Warpack shines, as suddenly wounding on 3+ instead of 4+ with a Forgefiend’s Ectoplasma Cannons means it’ll push out an average of 6.7 damage per volley… though this is on par with the output in Veterans of the Long War, where you’ll score an average of 1.7 more hits to make up for the worse wound odds. Both of these are better than the results for Pactbound Zealots.

For the Maulerfiend, pretty much every result is liable to net you 12+ damage with just his fists, though for raw output the Soulforged Warpack is the clear winner, delivering an average of 16.7 wounds per Fight thanks to wounding on a 2+. Here Renegade Raiders gets you your second best results, with an average of 15.6 damage thanks to better odds of bypassing armor, and Veterans comes in third at 14.8 damage. Pactbound Zealots tend to come in right around 12 damage on the dot.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately Veterans of the Long War ends up being the clear winner here in terms of mathematical advantage across every use-case. There’s just too much value to be gained re-rolling hit rolls, both in terms of boosting your original accuracy and generating additional hits with Sustained Hits – and that’s before you account for the ability to fish for results, something I’d strongly consider with any unit hitting on a 2+. That said, there are some nuances here – A Forgefiend will likely do more damage to invulnerable save targets with full re-rolls to wound from Profane Zeal in Pactbound Zealots, and having +2 attacks in the Soulforged Warpack means your results ceiling is higher than it is in say, Veterans of the Long War. And there are caveats to all of these – Pactbound Zealots requires you pass the Leadership Test, Veterans requires you be attacking your Focus of Hatred, and Renegade Raiders requires you be attacking a unit on an objective to get their benefits.

Games Workshop has done a solid job here of giving us four different effects with similar levels of power output and drawbacks that require thought to work around. Pactbound Zealots requires the least in that regard, but it can also be weaker in some situations and is a bit less reliable. What this hammered home for me is just how valuable full re-rolls to hit can be, particularly when coupled with effects that let you snag exploding results.

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