Horus Heresy Tactica: Legion Dreadnoughts

Welcome to Horus Heresy Tactica, our series that provides a deep dive in a specific mechanic, interaction or aspect of play in Warhammer: the Horus Heresy.

So the first FAQs of the new edition have come and gone and it’s clear that they were intended more to fix errors than to provide a balance pass. That’s not a bad idea, given how early days it is in the edition (we don’t even have rules for all the armies out yet) but it does leave a large dreadnought-shaped elephant in the room.

Imperial Fists converted Carab Culln Leviathan Dreadnought
Imperial Fists converted Carab Culln Leviathan Dreadnought. Credit: Jack Hunter

Yes, dreadnoughts: you love them or you hate them, and which it is tends to depend on if you brought them to the table or not. Dreadnoughts (particularly Contemptors and Leviathans) have quickly come to be a dominant force, especially when run in skew lists such as with the Fury of the Ancients Rite of War. Many events are limiting them in some ways, and numerous fixes have been suggested. Well, we’re not interested in “fixes” here, we’re interested in the game as it exists. So today we’re going to try to answer two questions:

  1. What’s the best way to run a dreadnought?
  2. How do I stop the person asking question number 1?

Before we jump in, it’s worth saying that you should not run a dreadnought skew list. You will win unless your opponent does the same. It is tedious and unfun and negative play experience taken to the extreme. So we’re focusing on the situation of “you’re bringing some dreadnoughts” not “you’re bringing all the dreadnoughts”. A reasonable rule of thumb if you want to keep friends and get games with the same person more than once is roughly one dreadnought per 1000 points of your list. And just don’t run Fury of the Ancients unless your opponent knows it’s coming and is also running it (we fully endorse running Fury mirror lists, epic robot smackdowns rule and it’s cool as hell).

In addition, we’re not going to be looking here at the Deredeo or the Castaferrum dreadnoughts. Why? Because those aren’t the ones tearing up tables generally. Both can be great additions, but they’re not quite so overwhelming. We’re also not checking out the Custodes dreadnoughts, because while they look like terrors they’re still in early days right now and we need to see how they impact things.

What’s the best way to run a dreadnought?

The most second most frequently asked question we get about Horus Heresy at Goonhammer Towers is “How should I arm my dreadnought?”. Let’s tackle the Contemptor first them move onto the Leviathan.

Alpha Legion Contemptor Dreadnought. Credit: Lupe

There are broadly three “builds” you can go for with a Contemptor Dreadnought:

  • The Rifleman, which is two ranged weapons and using the dreadnought as a shooting platform and more or less ignoring melee entirely (yes you can kick things to death and you’ll do ok against Tactical squads but it’s not the focus). There are a few decent builds here:
    • Lascannons are great anti-armour and anti-heavy infantry weapons and you get a very tough platform to put them on
    • Autocannons are a midweight weapon and though they struggle a little against heavier armoured targets and won’t cause Instant Death on marines, they have good power for the points
    • Kheres Assault Cannons are a mid to short range mass fire weapon, and while they’re a little lacklustre against marines they really come into their own against other armies
    • Conversion Beam Cannons are “as long a range as you can” and by far the most niche pick here. However as other armies than marines become more common they’ll have more impact, and if you can get to that longest range category you’ll absolutely rip things to shreds. Don’t overlook Blind either, which can have a big impact.
  • The Gladiator, which is one ranged weapon and one melee weapon. This is a good mixed build if you’re not sure what to do with the dreadnought, and want to keep your options open. The melee weapon should always be a Gravis Power Fist, and you can either run it with the stock combi-bolter if you want to save on points or put in a meltagun (for heavy infantry and armoured targets) or a graviton gun (for anti-dreadnought shooting). The ranged weapon choices that jump out are:
    • Gravis Melta Cannon which is a devastatingly good weapon (being basically two multi-meltas strapped together) and will soften up heavy targets or just pop a nearby vehicle if you’re lucky
    • Gravis Lascannon which is a good all-rounder and means if you get stuck out of position you can still do something – it’s a safety blanket
    • Kheres Assault Cannon works nicely as side-arm as it lets you soften up infantry groups if those are your targets
    • Conversion Beam Cannon seems an odd pick on something that’s going to want to run up and hit stuff, but you’re basically picking this for Blind – it’s not a guarantee to go off by any measure, but it only needs a hit and blinding a unit makes them exceptionally vulnerable to a charge from the dreadnought
  • The Berserker, which is a Gravis Power Fist and a Gravis Chainfist for a strong melee build. They guys want to get stuck in as fast as possible and go to town on the enemy – they’re great dreadnought hunters especially. If you want to go down that route, then graviton guns are your friend as they’ll take wounds off a dreadnought better than almost anything else. Otherwise look at meltaguns because they’re a great all-rounder. You can keep it cheap with combi-bolters but it’s almost always worth bringing the heavier stuff.

There are some additions you can add on too. The Havoc Launcher is not a great pick, sadly, because for 10 points it’s expensive, and because the Dreadnought can’t split-fire it’s limited in targets. If you’re running a Rifleman you’re better served with a Helical Targeting Array to ensure you can deal with any flyers that turn up – otherwise, just leave these off.

Blood Angels Leviathan Dreadnought. Credit: Corrode

Leviathans then, and this is where things get spicy. Against there are the three builds:

  • The Rifleman is, for the Leviathan, all about giving you a lot of firepower on a very tough platform. But this is where we change things up, because while the firepower available to the Contemptor can be very long range, the Leviathan has a lot of medium range runs, which means you’re probably going to be moving up to get good shots, rather than hanging back. Storm Cannons are your pick here – sure it’s a 24″ threat range, so you’re going to be moving up, but it’s a tasty upgrade to the autocannon. Two of them puts out an eye-watering 12 shots and will do some serious damage to almost anything. The other options fall a bit short in pairs – bother a shorter range and the melta in particular you need to be really close for, while the grav is… disappointing in general.
  • The Gladiator is probably your default build for the Leviathan for a couple of reasons. First the Leviathan is so deadly in combat that you probably want to give it the option, but also the Melta Lance is very very good and you want to be close to use it. It’s a combination made in heaven/hell (delete as appropriate). Yes the Leviathan is slower than the Contemptor, but the deployment maps in Heresy mean you’re probably not missing out on more than one round of shooting and you’re almost certain to hit combat at least once. The Claw is your pick here for sure, because though it’s not as effective against vehicles it’s still Strength 10 and AP 1, and Brutal (3) is just… insane. Absolutely bonkers.
  • The Beserker is a risk but potentially a rewarding one. Put one claw one drill on the thing and go to town, murdering whatever it hits with abandon. However, if you do run one of these either be prepared to spend a lot of the game with it trundling around, or figure out a way to get it up close – a drop pod is not to be sniffer at, despite its hefty price tag.

You can also do a couple of additions or tweaks to the other armaments. You can switch out the Heavy Flamers for Volkite Calivers, which is fine but probably not worth the points in most cases. It’s most convincing on the Rifleman.

Death Guard Contemptor Dreadnought – Credit: Serotonin

However you should, basically, always take the Phosphex dispenser. You can fire it time and again leaving little pools of difficult terrain across the battlefield, and it’s very dangerous. It’s an enormous deterrent against charges (your charge is now through difficult terrain, have fun) and useful on basically every build. Take one.

How do I stop these terrible things, help me please

Now we really come onto the exciting and difficult question: what the hell do you do about these things? That’s not an easy question to answer, but it really boils down to three main approaches. However before we get to the ones that work let’s talk about the ones that just don’t.

Support Squad w/ Assault/Rotor Cannons. Credit: Rockfish
Support Squad w/ Assault/Rotor Cannons. Credit: Rockfish

  1. Volume of Fire. Though it has a 2+ save that still means every shot levelled at it, even if it doesn’t have the ap to punch through, has a chance to scrape a wound off… right? The real issue is you also need high strength shooting to actually wound the damn thing, and high volume poor ap shooting is mostly overpriced compared to other options. Let’s consider Volkite shooting at a Contemptor as an example.
    A full Heavy Support Squad of 10 marines armed with Volkite Culverins, with a Techmarine with a boarding shield (for heavy) and cognis signum (for a +1 to hit for the unit), is a total of 300 points. It throws out 50 shots within 45″, so you can keep them high and relatively safe from retaliation. Of those 50 on average you’ll hit with 41 and a third, wound with just under 14, and they’ll fail, on average, two of those saves. That means your 300 points will need three rounds of shooting to kill one. It’s just not going to pan out for you because that dreadnought is already doing its job many times over by then.
    Other options are even worse. Bolters can scrape maybe a wound off a Contemptor when used in genuine volume, but can’t hurt leviathans at all. Missile launchers? Yeah that’s not going to work. Overall, you need some way to crack that ap2.
  2. Power Fist Terminators. Another tempting option, but another trap. Yes, your guys have a good chance to hit and punch through armour if they live, but a) the chances of them living are poor and b) you’re scraping one wound off max with each one that goes through and they have a 1 in 3 chance of saving it. Power Fists just struggle to keep up, and Chain Fists are just not really that much better in this scenario (though armourbane does help a little). The issue is really the exchange – every hit from a dreadnought melee weapon is instant death and usually Brutal (3), so that’s a lot of chances to fail a save and just be dead. Most dreadnoughts into most terminators are going to end with at least a couple of terminators dead before they can strike.

Ok so that doesn’t look promising. What can we do?

Imperial Fists Lascannon Support Squad
Imperial Fists Lascannon Support Squad. Credit: Jack Hunter

  1. Volume of Quality Fire. That means lascannons, autocannons or meltaguns in short. Anything that either has ap2 innately or have a decent chance to Rend is worth looking at, and autocannons are definitely the less good option here (but the cheapest). That 10 marine Heavy Support Squad but with lascannons might be 50 points more but they’re scraping an average of more than 4 wounds off a contemptor with a single volley. That makes their points back at a much faster rate and you have a genuine chance to stop the contemptor before it really gets up in your grill. They struggle a little more against leviathans, but even then two full volleys should do the job.
  2. Enduring the Fury. If you have a way to survive the hits and then strike back, that can work out. Terminators do badly with this but anything with Toughness 5 can enduring the Contemptor Gravis Fist a lot better, if not the Leviathan Siege Claw. Biomancy can be a handy way to get up there, and a librarian with a block of cataphractii with thunderhammers is a genuine threat to a Contemptor. Add in combi-meltas and you have a unit that will make a dreadnought stop in its tracks. Sure, it’s very expensive, but you can also use it to bully… pretty much anything else in the game. The other thing to be aware of is Weapon Skill – dreadnoughts are WS5 and you need some way to even the odds. So bring your fancy terminators or bring a praetor with a thunderhammer to really get your way.
  3. Fury Meets Fury. Meet it in combat with something equally scary. There’s a running joke in this edition that dreadnoughts are the only thing that beats dreadnoughts and while that’s not true, it’s not far off. Bringing your own dreadnoughts is the best response, but if you can’t then there are still options. Some legions have their own answers – anything that can hit at decent strength at ap2, especially at initiative has a good chance of wrecking face. Some legion bonuses with various buffs applied can shift the balance in your favour considerably – Blood Angels assault marines can do a shocking amount of damage to a Contemptor. Finally there are the big golden guns: custodes can absolutely mince dreadnoughts, not just with their own but with their line troops and their terminators because they’re all hitting at Initiative 5 before the dreadnought gets a chance to swing. Plus, against Contemptors, they’re not suffering instant death so you might live (just beware how fragile a 6+ invulnerable save can be in this situation and plan for it).
  4. Tarpit. Meet it in combat with a unit that has a lot of tough bodies or just a lot of bodies and is stubborn or even better fearless. Sure, the dreadnought will kill the unit… eventually. But every turn it’s mincing through a block of auxilia that cost you 100 points is a turn it’s not doing anything else of note.

Custodes Contemptor-Achillus Dreadnought
Custodes Contemptor-Achillus Dreadnought. Credit: Pendulin

In conclusion, taking on a dreadnought is tough. You need a lot of scary firepower, your own dreadnoughts, or some carefully considered melee threats. Never engage a dreadnought up close unless you’re sure you have the upper hand – they will absolutely wreck a lot of units, they can sweep them, and you will lose. However, getting them locked in endless combats is a viable tactic, so consider a large mob that can stand up to punishment to keep them occupied. There’s no doubt that dreadnoughts are overtuned in this edition – they’re too good for their cost. But they’re not immovable.

Who Needs Dreadnoughts Anyway

Imperial Fists Contemptor Dreadnought
Imperial Fists Contemptor Dreadnought. Credit: Jack Hunter

Dreadnoughts are an iconic part of the setting, and few people are happy to just say “hey let’s not play with them”, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. But communicating with your opponent ahead of time can stop a lot of pain – you need to know if they’re bringing a Fury of the Legion list, or just filling their heavy slots with leviathans. You need to know, prep, and sometimes say “hey, can you not?”.

At the recent Goonhammer Open event we made Contemptor Dreadnought Talons and Leviathan Dreadnought Talons 0-1 choices (you couldn’t take more than 1) and while that’s potentially still a lot of dreadnought, people understood the intent and limited themselves. In future a solution might be to take away the talon rule, and force people to take dreadnoughts singularly in their slots. Whatever you decide with your opponent make sure everyone is happy with it, and let’s have fun with dreadnoughts.