G’day Goonhammer readers! It was on the 24th and 25th of July that the US Kings of War Masters Tournament was held. As one might expect from the name, the Kings of War US Masters is the foremost Kings of War tournament in the United States. Only the top players from around the country are invited, making it the ultimate competitive event. This year the US Masters was held in Seattle, Washington, and although Urr and Cytoplasm could not make it from Australia to cover the action directly, we can do the next best thing: criticize from afar.
So read on for a laid back breakdown of the top three winning lists for the US Masters of 2022. We know players only by reputation (ie. how many times they get mentioned on the Countercharge podcast), so we will mainly be discussing the lists rather than the presumably excellent players themselves.
What is the US Masters?
As mentioned already, the US Masters is an invitation-only tournament. Eight of the top qualifying players from each of eight regions are summoned to bring their armies and roll some dice. The tournament was six games of 2300 pts with scenarios chosen on the day from the pool of Dominate, Control, Pillage, Push, Plunder, Invade, Loot, and Raze.
This year the US Masters in Seattle was using Northern Kings scoring. Without going into the details, there are two prevailing methods of tallying scores from game-to-game: Blackjack (from Australia!) and Northern Kings (from the UK). The primary difference between the two is that Blackjack scoring accounts for the difference in casualties between the two armies, whereas Northern Kings accounts for only the total number killed. The result is that with Northern Kings scoring, players need not worry about preserving their own units, because so long as killing is happening their score will increase.
We knew going in that this US Masters was going to be a bloody one.
Popular armies at US Masters
Leading up to the Masters there were a few interesting observations in army selection. Most notably, factions that received a lot of important buffs from the Clash of Kings 2022 update were highly represented; eight Nightstalkers, seven Ogres, and six each of Twilight Kin, Forces of Nature and Dwarfs. -/28 had an excellent article covering army selection at the US Masters, and how ultimately the game is in a very good state. Take a look at the lists here.
It’s not too much of a surprise the Nightstalkers have made it to the top of the most played faction at the US Masters. After receiving some considerable buffs, the faction has great ability to play the mission (high unit strength units such as Scarecrows), ranged damage potential and board control with magic (Mind-screeches), and powerful defensive capabilities (Stealthy and optional Aura (Spellward)). One can basically build a list to do anything, and do it well. And then they get Soulflayers on top of that.
The latest update saw Ogre Warrior regiments become unlocking (ie. they can now be used to build an army). This saw the development of lists containing 6+ regiments of Ogre Warriors, and then using all those unlocks to populate the army with their efficient and dangerous heros, namely Warlocks, Nomagarock and Berserker Bullies. Suddenly this is an army that can put out a lot of Lightning Bolt, but also has so many units to chew through. Probably best of all for Ogre players is that every unit can score objectives or hold loot tokens.
The rise of the Gladestalkers brought every Elf faction back to the field, but none more so than the Twilight Kin, who can combine these multipurpose Gladestalkers with the aforementioned advantages of the Nightstalkers (you want stalkers with your stalkers?). La’theal brings in Aura (Stealthy), so even the Elven units are protected. Getting the most out of this army still requires finesse, as Twilight Kin can’t take much damage in return.
Forces of Nature
A somewhat surprising level of representation, the Forces of Nature are typically the army nearly everyone has at least half the models for. What might be attractive to the more competitive compared to previous years is the powerful, fast units the army now possesses. Regeneration on Air Elementals in the formation, improved Greater Air Elementals, and vastly improved Scorchwings make the Forces of Nature much faster than they used to be.
Not typically the first thought when thinking of competitive armies, the Dwarfs are a durable but slow force. What changed in the latest updates was how durable the infantry became (the actual Dwarfs). Between Golloch’s Fury’s Aura (Iron Resolve), the Stone Priest’s Radiance of Life and ‘The Royal Guard’ formation, hordes of Dwarven warriors can be very hard to shift. As a counter-meta pick, the high defense of the Dwarfs hampers the output of Gladestalker-heavy lists (until the Twilight Kin ones get into combat). Unfortunately the army still needs to cross the board to win in most scenarios, so there remains that problem…
The US Master of 2022
Taking the top spot for battle, and thus becoming the US Master of 2022, was Adam Ballard with Nightstalkers. Adam Ballard made this achievement winning every game, and winning them quite decisively if the Northern Kings scoring is anything to go by.
4 x Scarecrows (Horde) 2 x Reapers (Troop); one with Sir Jesse’s Boots of Striding 2 x Mind-screeches 2 x Horror Riftweavers 3 x Soulflayers (Regiment) 1 x Dread-fiend with Trickster’s Wand 3 x Butcher Fleshrippers Total Unit Strength: 28 Total Units: 17
This combined arms list doesn’t lean into any particular unit too heavily. The trash is there to hold up the enemy and contest objectives, the Reapers bring a second/third wave of killing power, Soulflayers keep the enemy advance in check and the Mind-screeches force the enemy to get going. Attempting some return fire against these Nightstalkers is relatively futile, with ubiquitous Stealthy and two bubbles of Spellward from the Riftweavers. Then there’s all the Nimble units running around making it very difficult to catch this army unawares.
The Unit Strength of this army is profound, achieved by the fact that every unit has at least 1 Unit Strength (as if this were an Ogre army!), and bolstered further by the hordes of gibbering meat sacks that are the Scarecrows. This means that unless the army is completely destroyed, it can always contend objectives and loot right to the end.
The Path to Victory
A quick look at the six rounds that Adam Ballard went through and we can see the path of devastation that was left in his wake. Most of the armies were low defense (Trident Realms, Twilight Kin, Herd and Nightstalkers), so the only limited armour piercing capabilities of this list would have been perfect (damaging nearly everything on 2’s).
But killing isn’t necessarily victory. Instead it’s the aforementioned high Unit Strength and Unit Count of this army compared to all it faced that put it at a scenario advantage straight away. The question for Ballard’s opponents at the start of each game was “Can you kill my trash before I kill you with my quality?”.
The final game of Nightstalkers versus Nightstalkers is perhaps the only thing that gives Nightstalker players’ their own nightmares. This is because their two army-wide special rules become absolutely useless. Who needs Stealthy when your opponent has no shooting beyond Lightning Bolt? Yet that isn’t so bad, as both players are equally ‘handicapped’. The nature Mindthirst, however, is the ultimate double-edged sword. For those not familiar, Mindthirst allows a unit to benefit from Inspiring if any enemy unit with Inspiring is within 12”. Nightstalkers themselves do not possess any Inspiring units (with one exception that wasn’t here), so that means every roll of the dice for Nerve tests is final. No re-rolls. Truly the stuff of nightmares.
Second Best Nightstalkers in the US
Coming in at second for battle points is another army of Nightstalkers directed by Jeff Radigan. Being second out of the 64 best players the US regions have to offer is no mean feat, and there’s plenty in this list to be scared about.
1 x Scarecrows (Regiment) 3 x Scarecrows (Horde) 1 x Planar Apparition 6 x Soulflayers 3 x Shadow-hulks Total Unit Strength: 27 Total Units: 14
This list goes in hard on Soulflayers, and making it all the way to second place in what is the hardest room in the country proves that it was a good choice. The Scarecrows and Shadowhulks provide strong anvils to hold up the opponent’s forces, with their fearlessness and the Planar Apparition’s Heal extending their unnatural lifespan yet further. This tarpit of nerve delays enemy units while the Soulflayers get into position for flanks and rear charges, which is exactly what the punchy part of the army (frankly, the whole army) is designed to do.
Unfortunately for Jeff, the list doesn’t have the ranged pressure that Adam’s list has, nor the Spellward to mitigate said pressure from any given opponent. This forces the army to always be on the back foot, moving forward even when it doesn’t want to. This isn’t necessarily bad, as there’s more points for close-combat units, but ranged pressure is useful for driving opponents to make bad decisions.
The feat demanding the most respect in this list is how tight it is. Purely composed of units; no items, no upgrades, just units that either want to hit or get hit in combat. This form of list is akin to a kind of poetry, nicely done.
Force(s of Nature) to be Reckoned With in Third
Rounding out the top three is Bryce Clark with Forces of Nature. Not only is it not Nightstalkers, making Bryce the best non-Nightstalker player in the US.
1 x Earth Elementals (Horde) 3 x Scorchwings (Regiment) 1 x Greater Air Elemental 1 x Pegasus 1 x Gladewalker Druid with Shroud of the Saint, Surge (8) and Ring of Harmony 1 x Tree Herder with Orb of Towering Presence 1 x Tree Herder upgraded to Wiltfather [Formation - Nature’s Wrath] 2 x Air Elementals (Horde); one with Hammer of Measured Force, one with Brew of Strength 1 x Greater Air Elemental Total Unit Strength: 20 Total Units: 12
In this list we have the latest from among the new hotness from the Forces of Nature. Scorchwing Regiments with their improved Melee, Nimble and now decent shooting have a chance to compete with the ubiquitous Soulflayers. The Air Elementals formation along with the extra Greater Air Elemental keep the speed in the list, and threaten flanks with Surge-capability, especially given the fact that the Greater Air Elemental is on the smaller monster base (50mm). The Pegasus seems to be a bit of chaff and scoring unit, while the Gladewalker Druid can Surge Elementals when needed and heal them when there’s no surging to do, or both (on two seperate elementals), thanks to his Ring of Harmony upgrade.
The Tree Herders and Earth Elementals provide a tough nut to crack, and can put out some serious hurt as well, especially in a flank. Trust us, there’s not a lot that survives a Wiltfather charge in the flanks. Both the Herders also have some extra utility, with one having Radiance of Life and the other Cloak of Death, giving that extra bit of healing and chip damage as the grind goes on.
Lessons from the Top
This discussion is completely in isolation from the amazing players that used the lists. We can talk about plenty of stuff, but ultimately it comes down to people using these armies well and consistently. All of the top three lists have almost all their units capable of scoring Victory Points, with Bryce’s Gladewalker Druid being the only non-scoring unit out of them all.
Thinking about the broader context of the Kings of War meta, the armies also possess strong counters to Gladestalker shooting. The Nightstalkers have it inbuilt with Stealthy, making it difficult for shooting except for Lightning Bolt. The Forces of Nature rely instead on durability, with plenty of Defense 6, or a mix of speed and healing. Either way, shooting alone will have trouble keeping these armies at bay.
Ultimately, the armies all need practice, not only to know what the army can and cannot do, but to also have the ability as a player to command it as well in the 6th round as one did in the 1st. Some of the top US Masters players commonly have 50-100 games played with their lists, so that complex sequences become second nature, and answers to problems are already experienced. Sometimes it’s the list, but sometimes it’s just the repetitions required to get the list good.