Know Thy Enemy: An Opponent’s Guide to the Chaos Space Marine Codex

The new Chaos Space Marines codex is here, sporting the largest selection of detachments yet and a whole host of changes to Datasheets. As always, I (Wings) have assimilated all of this information directly into my brain, but we have so many devoted Chaos Lords on staff that there’s no need for me to deploy this in the main review, so what am I to do?

If you can’t join them, beat them. Pretty sure that’s how the saying goes. In this supplement to our main review, I’ll take a look at the new book from the other side of the table – what’s changed from the Index, what datasheets are you likely to see a lot of, and what detachments do you need to be very worried about when you’re paired against them.

Thanks to Games Workshop for providing us with a review copy of this Codex.

The Basics

Night Lords Chaos Space Marines – Credit: RichyP

Chaos Space Marines are an army that is normally centered around relatively elite Infantry units with support from a subset of the marine Vehicle datasheets, some unique Daemonic vehicles of their own and a few more expendable infantry options under the banner of the DAMNED units. Compared to regular Marines, this gives them access to somewhat broader categories of units that they can use, but they have fewer options within each, in particular having nowhere near as many different datasheets for actual Marine bodies. The tradeoff for that is that they have Character options that provide some fairly esoteric upgrades, and that every unit in their army gets some offensive flexibility from the powerful Dark Pacts army rule, allowing them to gain either Sustained Hits or Lethal Hits at the risk of taking Mortal Wounds if they fail a Leadership test.

The ability to go hard when they need to extends out into their Detachment rules – lots of the Stratagems and Detachment Abilities on offer give the Heretic Astartes ways of making big power plays, whether by Advancing and Charging at a crucial moment, or unleashing concentrated violence upon a priority target. Some of this also appears on Datasheets, providing once-per-game abilities that can throw incredible sucker punches.

This means that there are two key things you need to be keeping an eye on when playing against them:

  • Maintain a realistic assessment of their damage potential. Access to Sustained Hits significantly increases the damage ceiling of mid-high tier weapons like Predator Autocannons, while Lethal Hits can let anything chip a few wounds off your tougher units. Plenty of their Stratagems also soup up their output in a pinch. Letting any of their units operate at peak efficiency bears more risk than normal.
  • Watch out for the big plays. There’s a very good chance that any given Chaos Space Marine army will have some sort of Advance/Charge option on deck at any given point, and thanks to a few datasheet tweaks in the book and the new Detachments they can gain access to most of the classic 10th Edition “gotcha” tricks like 3” Deep Strikes, jumping back into Reserves, and making reactive moves.

You also need to kill them. The flip side of everything in their army being a potential damage dealer is that pretty much everything crunchier than a basic Cultist is worth killing. Many armies will outnumber the forces of Chaos, so they’re relying on getting value from each of their units before they die – especially because they’ll be taking some chip damage from their own Dark Pacts. Compared to armies with deep wells of bodies like Orks and Tyranids, every bit of damage you can deal matters, and unless you’re similarly elite, that means you should often err on the side of choices that reliably kill some targets rather than taking riskier swings at fancier toys.

Taken all together, your big goal against Chaos Space Marines is to force them to use their units badly. There’s some element of that in beating any army, but Chaos Space Marines are particularly vulnerable to getting out-resourced if they don’t get to make effective use of their toys. Don’t feed premium targets to big combo plays, watch out for the new tricks they have up their sleeves, and when it’s time to hit them, hit hard enough that they don’t get to hit back.

What’s Changed?

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Chaos Space Marines haven’t been less than okay at any point so far this edition, and were extremely good for a stretch, so plenty of players have a good number of reps against the faction, and if that includes you then you’re probably wondering if that experience is still relevant.

Some of it certainly is. While all the new detachments shake things up a lot, the faction still generally gets lots of value out of staging melee Infantry in Rhinos and souping up mid-tier shooting threats into serious killers. Chosen, Legionaries, Predators, Forgefiends – all still good, and still going to show up all over the place. The “Index” detachment, now Word Bearers themed as Pactbound Zealots still has some appeal as well, so probably won’t vanish entirely, but it has serious competition.

With that in mind, before we look at the key points for facing each detachment, let’s run down a summary of how each will feel different to the classic, and also go through unit changes from the Index.

How the Detachments Compare

We have a mighty seven new ones to look at, and they line up as follows:

  • Veterans of the Long War concentrate violence on one target better, but do worse when they’re trying to broadly chip through stuff, and need concentration to take down big targets as they have limited wound re-roll access. They don’t have as much aggressive speed due to not having Advance/Charge, but have a better ability to take a counterpunch than most of the other detachments via a trio of (conditional) Fights First, Armour of Contempt and a reactive move in their Stratagem suite.
  • Deceptors can throw a lot of curveballs between an Infiltrate themed detachment rule and messing with charges out of deep strike for both sides, but don’t have as many tools to pump up their damage output.
  • Renegade Raiders are faster and deadlier in melee, especially out of a transport, but have fewer options to amp up non-Infantry shooting into targets with very high toughness or invulnerable saves. They also have great synergies with imported options like Rubricae and Plague Marines, and access to 1CP Armour of Contempt. This is the one to watch for any sort of all-rounder build.
  • Dread Talons have some great tricks with Jump Pack units (including a better 3” Deep Strike) and Battle Shock, but have weak support for non-Infantry units.
  • The Fellhammer Siege Host is ultra-tough, and can punish foes that engage them, but has fewer tools to augment offence.The exception to that is one particularly nasty herohammer surprise you need to watch out for if you have valuable vehicles.
  • Chaos Cults unlock a whole bunch of movement and pressure tricks for Cultists of all stripes, at the cost of essentially no boosts for anything else.
  • The Soulforged Warpack has some preposterously over-the-top boosts for vehicles at the cost of extra risk from Dark Pacts and weak support for Infantry.

For my money, the three new ones you need to worry most about are the Veterans of the Long War, Renegade Raiders and Soulforged Warpack. The first two can broadly support a wide range of units and have access to 1CP Armour of Contempt, meaning you can’t really go wrong with them, and they still have things they excel at, so there’s not really a need to lean hard into one of the other themes to get a big payoff. The exception to that is the Soulforged Warpack, which pushes its favoured units (Daemon Engines) to heights that you simply cannot get from the two generalist choices, so if you want to just send forward a howling, clanking horde, this is what you want. Pactbound remains a realistic choice as well, and it’s fair to say that I’m far more bullish on Veterans over Pactbound compared to the rest of the team (we all pretty much agree that Raiders is the best all-rounder).

Unit Changes

Vashtorr the Arkifane – Credit: RichyP

There are lots of changes to units in this book, which are covered in full in the main review. Here, I’m just going to hit the key points of what you need to worry about more, and what’s maybe a bit less scary now.

Things to Worry About More

  • Abaddon can join Chosen now, so can natively get in on Advance/Charge action. 10 + Abaddon in a Land Raider is probably good in some lists.
  • Vashtorr the Arkifane is a real unit for the first time since release. His “big” hammer swings are now good into most targets (hitting at S14 D3) and he has a unique and fairly potent defensive ability – all shooting that targets him within 18” is now Hazardous.
  • Warp Talons can now jump back into reserves at the end of either player’s Fight Phase if they were eligible during that phase and are no longer engaged. This means they can be a very deadly cycling threat with Rapid Ingress, and that you should be very cautious before making a risky charge into them – if they wipe you, the consequences can be worse than just losing a unit. On the flip side, it can be much more valuable to save a defensive stratagem for whatever they’re hitting, as it keeps them on the board.
  • One Defiler can use Counter-Offensive for free per Fight Phase, so be very careful if you’re charging one!
  • Cypher is spectacularly more dangerous in melee, as he now effectively just swings with his ranged profiles in melee as well! He also now increases the cost of stratagems for nearby enemy units, which can be brutal at a crunch point, so if you see him be cautious about positioning.
  • Accursed Cultists come at you faster – they have Scouts 6” and a reactive move after getting shot (but at a cost of being squishier and having to give up Scouts if a Character joins them, unless an Enhancement is used).
  • Fellgor Beastmen can now come in from Strategic Reserves on turn 1, so if your opponent has exactly one unit of them, that’s probably why.
  • Helbrutes get extra attacks for taking any two melee weapons.
  • Chaos Bikers hit a bit harder in melee, and you should be especially wary of them in Renegade Raiders.
  • Chaos Spawn tank enemy OC in a 3” aura, so if you don’t have a way of removing them they can seriously mess with objective plans (though they are themselves OC0, so probably too gimmicky to be worth it).

Things to Worry About Less

Cult Demagogue & Blessed Blades. Credit: Rockfish
Cult Demagogue & Blessed Blades. Credit: Rockfish

  • Lots of abilities do not work on Damned units (which are Cultists of all flavours, Beastmen and Traitor Guard). This takes away some key synergies such as benefitting from Abaddon’s 4+ Invulnerable Save. However, some abilities do still work on them, so if you see a big unit of Accursed in the enemy’s army, check what tricks they can or cannot do in the detachment.
  • Abaddon is a bit less scary in Pactbound Zealots, as he no longer has all marks.
  • Possessed got a bit weaker, only getting to do Devastating Wounds once per game, which means they’re likely only a serious consideration for detachments that can boost their AP.
  • The Master of Possession lost the 6+ Feel No Pain, so is a less good swap-in for a Lord on a Chosen unit.
  • Obliterators now come in a fixed unit of two, so stacking buffs on them is less good (though units of two have seen plenty of play, so still be quite worried about them). Their melta profile is also only 18” range now, so much less scary to C’tan out of deep strike.
  • Pactbound uber-buffs now only trigger if they pass the Leadership test, which weakens their reliability quite a bit.

How the Detachments Get You

Pactbound Zealots

Pactbound Zealots remain good all-rounders – expect a mix of melee and shooting threats.

  • Slaanesh Units can Advance/Charge, so watch out for big lunges out of a Rhino.
  • Nurgle units can become unshootable outside 18”, so if you’re lining up on one, make sure you have fallback targets.
  • Undivided units have access to full wound re-rolls, so if you have very high toughness units, focus on clearing these out first.
  • Nurgle gunlines with Abaddon and a Helbrute for double Pacts can throw out astonishing amounts of damage.
  • Their new Eye of the Gods Stratagem can turn a Chaos Lord or Master of Executions into a killing machine, so avoid feeding them a unit.

Veterans of the Long War

This is another all-rounder, but probably skews a bit more towards infantry and volume firepower tools.

  • Their Detachment ability is essentially Oaths of Moment, so it’s especially important to hide your key targets during the early game.
  • They can pass this on to a unit near one of their Characters if they kill their first target, so be wary about assuming that throwing two power units forward at once will allow one of them to come through relatively unscathed.
  • If they have 2CP on deck, they can turn on Fight First when the unit they’ve Oathed is in combat with them, so be very cautious about throwing yourself into that fight.
  • They have a 6” reactive move for non-Damned Infantry or Mounted if you end a move within 9” of them, so watch out for Chosen scuttling behind a wall or into a Transport..
  • They have a stratagem that boosts Torrent weapons that’s pretty appealing with Plague Marines, so if you see a squad of 10 in a list that’s probably why.
  • They have Armour of Contempt, so think carefully before targeting stuff with a 2+ save with AP-1 shooting.


Realistically, if your opponent is using this they’re going to have lots of Cultists and Legionaries to lean into the Detachment ability.

  • Unlike the other Detachments, most of their tricks do work on Damned units, so be more wary of them than in most other detachments.
  • They’re going to Infiltrate a whole bunch of stuff, so if you have Infiltrators of your own and get to pick Defender, do it and use your first drop to protect as much no-man’s land space as possible.
  • There’s a good chance they’ll use this infiltration to try and trap you in your deployment zone with lots of Cultists in order to build up a big Primary lead. To mitigate this, make sure that stuff you don’t want to be tagged by a disruptive charge (e.g. non-melee vehicles) is bubbled behind stuff that Cultists can’t safely engage with.
  • They can force a Deadly Demise to go off if they have a Character within 18”, so if you have anything that explodes for worse than d3, keep a gap around it unless you have a specific reason not to.
  • They have a 6” reactive move that’s exactly the same as Veterans…except that it does work on Damned units, so watch out for that.
  • They can turn any one unit into Space Marine Infiltrators (no reserves within 12”) at the start of your Reinforcements step, which with a big Cultist unit can be devastating. They have to do this at the start of the step, so make sure that you clearly declare you’re moving to it,  and ask if they want to use this stratagem before giving any indication of what your plans are. You may also want to be more aggressive about saving your CP for Rapid Ingress.
  • Because of this and the Infiltration, think carefully about whether you should be putting as much stuff in Reserves as you normally would. You’re at much higher risk of them getting zoned out from anywhere useful, and stuff that can go in Deep Strike is often speedy and has FLY, so can break out of Cultist prison early on.
  • They have a herohammer combo that can let a Jump Pack Chaos Lord borrow a foot Lord’s once-per-game turbo-boost. If you see one with Soul Link, that’s probably the plan.
  • They are going to be a headache in team events, because their all-in points denial plan is pretty good in many matchups, but I think mostly caps at 4-1 in singles because it’s weak in some missions (especially Purge the Foe) and matchups

Renegade Raiders

Expect horrific stuff out of transports, bikers for early pressure and maybe a few high-S shooting units – Vindicators seem particularly good at showing up one of the few weaknesses this Detachment has.

  • They’re probably the best Detachment, so if your opponent is using them, be extra afraid.
  • Unless you’re leaning on an invulnerable save, everything in their army gets better if you’re on an objective, so only put stuff on there when it actually impacts scoring.
  • Their shooting and objective reach is great thanks to all their guns being Assault.
  • They have a Scouts 6” enhancement, so if you see it (Mark of the Hound) assess what it’s likely going with. This is also one of the ways that an Accursed Cultist unit can have a Character in and still go Scouting.
  • They can move at the end of the Fight Phase if a unit was Eligible to Fight and is now unengaged, so sacrificial bait is less effective at drawing them out.
  • They’re the one place a Lord Discordant might plausibly be OK, as he has great synergy with their Detachment ability and Stratagem suite. Watch out for their enormous threat range if you see one across the table.
  • Warpflamer Rubricae are monstrously dangerous if you’re on an objective.
  • Stuff coming out of a Transport in this detachment is incredibly dangerous, getting cheap access to full Hit and Wound re-rolls.
  • They have Armour of Contempt, so think carefully before targeting stuff with a 2+ save with AP-1 shooting.

Dread Talons

Credit: TheChirurgeon

Raptors and Warp Talons for days.

  • If you Fall Back, leave them unengaged, and end within 6” they can immediately charge you. They can only charge the unit whose Fall Back triggered this, so if you have multiple units engaged, fall back with the more precious one first.
  • They throw around masses of Battle-shock tests, so make sure to double or triple up units on objectives that you really need to hold.
  • A Jump Pack Lord with Warp Fuelled Thrusters can pull their unit back into Reserves at the end of your turn, and because they have native Deep Strike, they can use this to Deep Strike on turn 1 if they go second.
  • Their Jump Pack units can do a 3” drop and put a Battle-shock on a nearby unit, so be very careful to place your models on objectives so that 3” physically prevents them from dropping onto them – just having more OC might not cut it.

Fellhammer Siege-Host

Terminators and Vindicators, probably.

  • They’re just really, really tough when being shot, between their Detachment Ability and Feel No Pain Stratagem.. Overcommit your big guns, and remember that this stuff does not work in melee, so if you have good combat stuff, that can be your out. But…
  • They can throw Mortals back at you when you swing in combat, and turn their guns into Pistols, so make sure you hit them hard enough for it to be worth it.
  • They can give you -2” to charge, so watch out if you’re leaning on Deep Strike melee. They have to activate this on one of their units at the start of the Charge Phase, so make sure to declare this, and give them a window to do it before you tip your hand.
  • If you’re running Vehicles, watch out for an Iron Artifice Chaos Lord, because they have Anti-Vehicle 4+, so in combination with a Thunder Hammer and once-per-game super mode, they’ll rip most of a Land Raider apart.

Chaos Cult

If they’re running this, they kind of have to be planning some big shenanigans with Accursed Cultists, as they’re the draw to this.

  • Their stuff is surprisingly fast, if they’re willing to gamble on lots of Mortals they can get +2” in both the movement and Charge Phases.
  • They can combo this with a Scouts enhancement for one of their Characters, giving them the most reliable threat of an Accursed Commune crossing the board straight away out of the Detachments.
  • Amulet of Tainted Vigor lets them reanimate models, which can give extra reach.
  • They can switch on full hit and wound re-rolls if they can pass a Leadership check with Chosen for Glory, so watch out.
  • Damned units can absorb shooting meant for non-Damned stuff with Mortal Thralls, so if they have a few power pieces they can be a pain to clear. It’s worth noting that this converts the damage that’s blocked into Mortal Wounds, so you can chew through it fast by applying high-powered weaponry.

Soulforged Warpack

Prepare to get annihilated by lots of Daemon engines and maybe one big non-Daemon vehicle, which they will immediately Daemonify (technical term) with a Stratagem.

  • Their Daemon Engines are absurdly deadly, shooting at +1 to Wound and getting extra attacks in melee.
  • The Tempting Addendum Enhancement pushes this even further, so if there’s any way to punk the guy holding it, do so.
  • If you have any access to Leadership debuffs they’re really good here, as they can rack up the Mortals from all the pacts they’ll make.
  • They can regain wounds by eating stuff in melee with Glut of Souls, so be careful about feeding chaff to something you’re trying to kill.
  • They can move or Charge through a wall with Unstoppable Rampage. Yes, even a Lord of Skulls.
  • They can reactively force Desperate Escape tests on something that falls back from their Daemon Vehicles.
  • They can reactive move, but have to move directly towards the closest enemy (and can’t engage them).

Wrap Up

That brings us to a close, and the important thing to round out with is that you are definitely going to see builds from this book on the top tables, as the best detachments are very strong indeed. Hopefully you now feel equipped for the first time you run into them!

If you’ve enjoyed this – let us know. This is a new thing we’re trying out, and if people enjoy it, we’ll do it more!