In their early April studio preview, Games Workshop announced that Deathwatch and Harlequins wouldn’t be getting the full Psychic Awakening treatment, but would instead be seeing updated rules in upcoming issues of White Dwarf. Shortly afterward, they announced that we wouldn’t have to wait long for the first of these rules: The Deathwatch update, published in this week’s White Dwarf, updates the faction with rules and stratagems that bring it up to date with the rest of Imperial Space Marines.
In today’s Hot Take, we’re going to talk about this update, what it means for Deathwatch, and some thoughts on the White Dwarf update format.
Let’s start with the army rules.
Angels of Death
Deathwatch now have the Angels of Death special rule, which includes Bolter Discipline, Combat Doctrines, And They Shall Know No Fear, and Shock Assault. These are nothing new, but they’re something Space Marines have enjoyed for a while now, to great effect.
Combat Doctrines is the only rule Deathwatch didn’t previously have thanks to an FAQ, and as printed, it’s currently the “pre-FAQ” version, which allows the controlling player to choose when to move to the next doctrine, theoretically allowing a Deathwatch player to stay in Devastator or Tactical Doctrine for the entire game. This is almost certainly an error that will be fixed via FAQ as soon as GW is able; without an adjustment Deathwatch don’t “work” in armies with other Space Marine chapters – you have two different Combat Doctrine rules at work!
As a general rule, Combat Doctrines doesn’t do nearly as much for Deathwatch as it does for other chapters; Deathwatch heavy shooting is mediocre at best, and the army relies more on its rapid fire weapons so Tactical Doctrine is likely to be the army’s preferred mode. While the new rules have a clause that specifically states that Combat Doctrines does stack with Special Issue Ammunition, the rules for Special Issue Ammunition themselves cap the maximum AP bonus you can receive from using the ammo: AP-2 for Kraken Bolts and AP-3 for Vengeance rounds. This is great news for auto bolt rifles, boltguns, and storm bolters, all of which can fully benefit, but less good on some ammo types with weapons that already pack substantial AP like stalkers. This will effectively allow Deathwatch Veterans wielding storm bolters to fire 4 shots at AP-2 at 15″ or AP-3 at 9″, depending on the bolts. Paradoxically for the better guns, the real upside is on Hellfire Rounds, where there is no AP cap so Intercessors toting regular bolt rifles can get lots of AP-2 shots that wound on a 2+ against anything that isn’t a VEHICLE or TITANIC unit.
Deathwatch Chaplains have access to litanies now! They’re exactly the same as the litanies that standard Space Marine chapters know, and the same ones are good here. Like other standard chapters, Deathwatch Chaplains can take jump packs, allowing them to move around and apply their litany auras as needed. The advantage that Deathwatch have over other chapters is that they can apply something like Recitation of Focus to a friendly unit, then that unit can teleport across the table using the Beacon Angelis relic or a Teleport Homer, enjoying the benefit of the litany for the rest of the battle round despite being far away from the Chaplain.
Of course, the big combo here is making the turn 1 charge happen, and that’s completely possible. In order to do this, you put a Deathwatch character with the Beacon Angelis relic into a drop pod with a squad of the most brutal small marine murderers you can build — think thunder hammer + storm bolter veterans. At the start of the battle round, your Chaplain, nestled safely far in your backline, chants the Canticle of Hate, giving all units within 6″ a +2 to their Charge distances. Then at the end of your Movement phase, your drop pod full of yabbos arrives, they spill out onto the battlefield just over 9″ away from enemy units, and your character activates the Beacon Angelis to pull the Chaplain to the units’ position. They open fire with their guns, then in the subsequent Charge phase, get to enjoy the +2 bonus, giving them a very make-able 7″ charge attempt (ideally with a CP re-roll in your back pocket. Either have the Chaplain charge with them or hold him back where the drop pod can protect him from being shot. This is a nasty trick and strong enough that I suspect it’ll cause a lot of grousing and consternation from Deathwatch players who were hoping to never paint a single drop pod (uggggghhhh I hate that model so much).
Wings: So outside the above trick (which regular nemesis Michael Costello was very keen to tell me about) getting Litanies is pretty good in general – Deathwatch are generally encouraged towards taking larger units that benefit more from these, and they also already have access to a suite of stratagems for +1 to wound in various places, so these are particularly good here, though with the trade-off that a lot of things will be coming in from Deep Strike so they’re harder to set up. They’re probably also quite interesting with various vehicles – in the more innocent time before the Marine codex Deathwatch looked at least somewhat exciting with the Repulsor Executioner, and being able to have a Leviathan Dreadnought blasting away with +2 to wound against the nearest target is at least mildly interesting.
Regarding the Beacon combo, I think there’s probably an argument for pulling it off on turn 2 with Terrax drills instead, because charging them in at +2″ is pretty funny, and saves you from painting drop pods.
Deathwatch Intercessor sergeants can now take Thunder Hammers and hand flamers. The hand flamers are whatever, but the thunder hammers can really add a lot of punching power to a squad of Intercessors. Too bad they can’t be Veteran Intercessors.
Deathwatch get access to 14 new stratagems (13 if you don’t count Adaptive Strategy; more on that in a moment). All of these are reprints from Codex: Space Marines, and some of them add a lot of value to the Deathwatch game plan.
- Transhuman Physiology is a great addition for Deathwatch Veterans, who will take all of the help they can get to make themselves harder to kill. Even with storm shields, their T4, 1-wound frames could have used some extra durability and negating the strength impact of heavier weapons against them is a big help. It’s also good on a full Intercessor squad.
- Target Sighted is an expensive add to an army that’s already CP-thirsty, but gives you more value on your stalker bolt rifles and combines nicely with the Purgatus Doctrine allowing you to re-roll wound rolls of 1 against HQ units to quickly turn your Stalker Intercessors into character-murdering machines.
- Steady Advance allows a unit of Deathwatch Infantry to count as having remained stationary for the purposes of the Bolter Discipline rule. This is a great ability to have in your back pocket, and adds a lot of value to storm bolter veterans and intercessors, who can really benefit from the extra mobility without giving up the extra shots.
- Rapid Fire helps Bolt Rifle Intercessors keep up with their storm bolter counterparts though because of the limitations on Special Issue Ammunition, isn’t quite as helpful. Its best value is going to be on Hellfire shells where you can pop off 4 shots at AP-2 in Tactical Doctrine.
- Auto bolt rifles gain a big boost from the Tactical Doctrine and the Boltstorm Stratagem, while costly, allows you to really pour out firepower without losing any shots. A quad of 10 auto bolt rifle intercessors will do more hits with Boltstorm than 10 Veterans with storm bolters, but 2 CP is a lot to spend for what is basically a net gain of about 3 shots. Though it’ll more than pay for itself if you’re shooting anything that gives you negative modifiers to hit.
- Hero of the Chapter allows you to give a second Warlord trait to a character in your army. It’d be cool if the Deathwatch had better Warlord Traits, but there’s enough value out of being able to have both Castellan of the Black Vault (+1 damage to a non-relic weapon) and something like The Watch Eternal (which pairs very well with a Chaplain) or Bane of Monstrosities. Just being able to have Lord of Hidden Knowledge and a more active one is pretty neat.
- Veteran Fury gives Terminators +1 to hit for a single phase, which is helpful both for mulching things with their Storm Bolters and smashing them with power fists. It gives them a significant utility boost and makes them worth considering as more than just a one-of in a larger veteran squad.
One the downside, Duty Eternal and Adaptive Strategy have both seen reprints here in their original, un-errata’d forms. Neither is likely to survive an FAQ. For Duty Eternal, that means moving to a less useful reduce-damage-by-1 variant (though hear me out: Leave it as-is because no one takes Deathwatch Dreadnoughts anyways), and for Adaptive Strategy that means potentially losing the stratagem altogether.
Here’s the thing; There’s a very strong case to be made for letting Deathwatch keep the ability to roll back the army-wide Doctrines, or sit in the current doctrine all game. It’s a cool special perk for the faction known for being all about special tactics and specialized combat, and one that doesn’t really make them overpowered. Here’s the problem: As soon as you do this, you create an incentive for Iron Hands/Imperial Fists armies to include a Deathwatch detachment in order to roll back to Devastator Doctrine every turn (though note that you’ll lose your chapter doctrine if you do this, so there is a bit of a trade-off). So while I think this would be a great addition to the Deathwatch army, unless they’re going to errata it to only work with monofaction Deathwatch armies, chances are almost certain it’s not going to stick around.
The big shame here is that the Deathwatch update is as notable for what isn’t in it as much as what is. If you were hoping for any of the following, you’ll have to hope for another update later, or a fix in the FAQ:
- Updates to Deathwatch psychic powers. Deathwatch Librarians still cast Null Zone on an 8+.
- A custom Chapter Doctrine for Deathwatch.
- A custom Litany for Deathwatch.
- New relics.
- Special Issue Wargear.
- Revised Mission Tactics rules – unlike other Chapter Tactics, Mission Tactics only apply to INFANTRY, BIKERS, and DREADNOUGHTS.
- New unit options – neither the new Phobos units nor the Impulsor are being added to Deathwatch
- The Veteran Intercessors Stratagem. Come on, guys.
If you’re a Deathwatch player receiving this update, it’s hard to not feel disappointed by it, especially after some of the updates we’ve seen for other factions. There’s a feeling that this update is pretty lazy, especially after everything else we’ve seen from Psychic Awakening which has been, on the whole, fairly uneven. And if you’re feeling that way — I get it. As a fellow Deathwatch player, I am not real happy about this update. I wanted a few more stratagems, some new relics, and adjustments to the Deathwatch psychic powers. I wanted something to give me a reason to play the wonderful Corvus Blackstar model that I painted. This ain’t it, chief.
OK, that said, let’s take a step back and focus on what Deathwatch did get, and how it improves things:
- Combat Doctrines make Bikes, Storm Bolters and Auto Bolt Rifles that much better. Even if you can’t stack the bonuses from Kraken or Vengeance rounds with Doctrine bonuses on Bolt Rifles or Stalker Bolt Rifles – where the weapon’s AP will already put you at the max bonus, getting the extra -1 AP for Storm Bolters and Auto Bolt Rifles puts them over the top as weapon choices and allows you to put out some truly insane volumes of AP-2 and AP-3 firepower.
- Litanies allow for some cool tricks. We covered it earlier, but that Beacon Angelis trick with Canticle of Hate is pretty nasty. There’s good reason to include a Deathwatch Chaplain in your army now, and some cool tricks you can pull off when you can teleport either the chaplain or a unit around the table pretty readily.
- Doctrines do help Corvus Blackstars a little bit… Getting an extra AP-1 bonus on the Blackstar for a turn with the twin Assault Cannon and missile launcher can really help it clear the way for whatever it’s carrying.
- …but have you looked at the Xiphon? On the other hand, the oft-forgotten Xiphon Interceptor can be pretty nasty in a Deathwatch army when paired with a character holding the Tome of Ectoclades to give it Mission Tactics on an ongoing basis. Here’s an area where I might try a Jump Pack Chaplain with Recitation of Focus and the Tome of Ectoclades. With some careful placement and Advance rolls, you can ensure that your Chaplain stays within 6″ of the Xiphon, allowing him to impart the +1 to hit bonus to the Xiphon with Recitation and then share the mission tactics of your choice each turn, allowing you to make the most out of the Xiphon’s twin lascannons and missile battery. They’ll be especially deadly on turn 1, where having the missile launcher firing three AP-3 shots is pretty nasty, and you can further up their output with the relevant Doctrine stratagem to give them +1 to wound.
- Melee is a very real option now. Having the benefits of Assault Doctrine and Shock Assault give Deathwatch units a much better punch in melee combat that allows them to charge in and finish off targets that previously would have held them up for multiple turns.
- Have some soup, why not? One benefit to not having a Chapter doctrine is that souping Deathwatch with other marine armies becomes pretty trivial. While you probably won’t want to mix them with Grey Knights and lose Tides, they can make a fine compliment to marine armies, where they can add a nasty punch of withering mid-range firepower and a versatile smash captain. They’re also even stronger than they were when paired with other IMPERIUM detachments, since losing Combat Doctrines isn’t nearly as big a deal and you still get the benefit of new stratagems like Transhuman Physiology to keep your units on the table.
Wings: From my point of view, auto bolt rifle Intercessors look like the big winner here. A full squad of ten coming out of deep strike on turns 2/3 is just good – between doctrines, SIA and the various +wound stratagems they’re a legitimate threat to anything, they’ve got sufficient range to be really hard to dodge, and can get some great buffs if you bring a Watch Master to their position. Around 800pts buys you a Watch Master, Smash Captain (which are perfectly credible with access to +1D via Hero of the Chapter) and three full squads of ABR Intercessors, who you can chuck in deep strike if the matchup calls for it, or castle up with a 5++ via the Dominus Aegis if you think your opponent is going to come to you. I can believe that some sort of Marine build (maybe one running a lot of mid-field interference via Impulsors) could exist that wanted something like this, as full deathwatch ABR squads are now one of the nastier things out there, but you would have to answer the question of why you aren’t just bringing Raven Guard assault centurions, which I admit I don’t have a great answer for. I guess you could chuck an Aggressor in some of the squads to free them up to advance around, but that increases the cost and doesn’t feel like it’s enough to make it great.
Other than that? Deathwatch do have some somewhat interesting relics bouncing around that do weird things to vehicles, but unless they’re allowed to keep hold of old doctrines (which they won’t be, for all the reasons Rob has already explained) there’s no real draw to doing stuff with them rather than Iron Hands or Fists, especially as they don’t even have access to Servitors to unlock the weird and wonderful contents of the elites slot on the cheap.
Overall…like obviously if you play Deathwatch this is a boost, no two ways about it, but doesn’t feel like even close to what they needed to get the army onto the top tables by themselves. The lack of inclusion of stuff seen for every other chapter like a custom litany is also a real blow, and Deathwatch need something to make them stand out – this doesn’t get them out of “worse marines” level.
As to what that something could be – the best idea I’ve come up with that they could just do would be to just say the following – “You know what? Deathwatch get to keep Doctrines when they soup with non-Marines”. It fits the fluff of being specialist Auxiliaries, and it would give them a genuinely unique angle in the wider context of IMPERIUM compared to other Space Marines, and I don’t see anything here that makes me think it would be overpowered. If GW are feeling bold, that would be something to try.
Kevin: I promised Rob that I wouldn’t drop a curse-laden rant over what can only be considered an incredibly lazy and uninspired update. If this is truly what Games Workshop thought Deathwatch players needed then it should have been provided as a free errata months ago. Telling players that every faction was going to receive a Psychic Awakening update and then dropping this into a White Dwarf article is terrible form. Games Workshop has made a lot of fantastic progress patching relations with the community from years ago; shit like this is a step back.
There was a lot that Games Workshop could have done in this space. A Phobos-oriented Kill Team could have been a fantastic expansion to the range, providing another Troop choice with interesting options and combinations of Reivers, Infiltrators, Eliminators, and Incursors. Maybe they could have found a way to make Reivers viable. A Primaris Watch Master would have been a fun addition to the range and also provided an opportunity to expand the lore. At the very least they could have added some sorely needed content like every other faction got. Maybe expand the Stratagems so that Deathwatch have more ways to counter xenos psykers, or provide an option for Deathwatch to use a Chapter-specific Stratagems based on the origin of the Warlord, or literally anything beyond what they got. They didn’t even get generic Relics like master-crafted weapons.
Complaining aside, what this update does is provide Deathwatch with a desperately needed boost and at least makes them playable. Auto bolt rifles were already generally the best choice before this update and the addition of Doctrines makes them even better. They dovetail very well with Aggressors who can allow them to Advance and fire without penalty, or an Inceptor who allows them to fall back out of melee and shoot. A unit of 5 Intercessors, an Aggressor, and an assault bolter Inceptor will have a very nasty (but expensive) combination of offensive firepower and mobility that many other chapters lack. The complete lack of a unique Doctrine means there’s no penalty whatsoever for souping with other Chapters, so add some Salamander Devastators or a hilariously overpowered Space Wolf Smash Captain. Soup in some Scouts from another Chapter so you can finally afford to use all of those sweet Doctrine Stratagems that add +1 to wound.
Since Deathwatch are already a bottom tier army I have no problem talking about other fun combinations of horrible units. For example Hellblasters can finally overcharge without dying thanks to the Recitation of Focus; drop that on a full unit, apply the Beacon Angelis and a Captain to move them into position, use the appropriate Doctrine Stratagem to give them +1 to wound, and finish things up with the right mission tactic. 2+ to hit, 2+ to wound, re-roll both, and enough AP to murder anything. Boom, you’ve just dropped an expected 38 wounds on whatever you didn’t like.
When 8th edition rolled around I decided to paint my purple Space Marines and use the Deathwatch rules for them. I liked the combination of flexibility and it was fun fielding mixed Primaris units. While this update hasn’t provided the boost that a lot of players (including myself) were hoping for, the army is still fun to play and it’s always nice to have new toys. At this point I’ll take what I can get.
Look, there’s a lot to dislike here, but it’s also the case that Deathwatch are still stronger than they were thanks to this update. Call it lazy, call it uninspired, but don’t call it weak – if you’re a Deathwatch player, there are still lots of nasty tricks you can pull off, and short of making Deathwatch “regular marines, only better” or giving them new custom units, this update isn’t far off from what we should have hoped for, adding the same tools that most other marine chapters got, to various degrees.
I’m still pissed about that Null Zone WC cost, though.