Nick Nanavati Reviews Codex: Death Guard and Talks Tactics

Our ongoing coverage of the new Death Guard Codex continues! Today we’re joined by a special guest – Art of War’s Nick Nanvati, a former ITC champion and top-ranked 40k player. Nick’s offering his thoughts on the new Codex and how to play it. 

Hello Goonhammer readers, it’s the one and only Nick “Brown Magic” Nanavati here to talk to you about the new Death Guard codex and how it will shake up the meta over the coming months. Codex: Death Guard represents the first of many new transformations that Chaos as a super faction, and the 40k meta as a whole, will undergo as Games Workshop updates army rules throughout 9th edition. The new Codex should make narrative and competitive players alike happy with the way the army plays and its competitive strength. In this article I’m going to break down some of the faction’s key rules and how they work, share my thoughts on what’s good and how I think things will shape up as players have time to digest the new rules and test them out.

I’m going to focus on the aspects of the book that have competitive merit, and talk about the combos and codex as a whole rather than break down each relic and Stratagem in a vacuum. You’ll get the best idea of how a codex works when you consider it as a set of synergistic systems where the sum total of its power is greater than the sum of its individual parts. With that said, let’s dive in.


Secondary Objectives

Let’s start with the secondaries – winning in 40k requires you score more points than your opponent, not to kill the enemy. So when it comes to determining the armies we’ll build we need to understand what they need to be capable of doing.

Death Guard got two incredibly powerful Secondary Objectives: Spread the Sickness and Despoiled Ground. Both of these are board control secondaries, which the Death Guard naturally excel at given their trademark durability.

Spread the Sickness essentially gives you 3 points for each objective you contaminate. To contaminate an objective you just need to have an infantry unit from your army perform an action on the objective during your movement phase which has no enemy models on it, and then either roll a 4+ or suffer d3 mortal wounds. Most missions in 9th edition have multiple objectives in your territory, so getting a decent score of  about 9 points should be very easy here. This secondary is also in the same category as Deploy Scramblers, which is a nice fall back secondary for a variety of armies, but it’s not a secondary that Death Guard are well-suited to accomplishing, and that makes Spread the Sickness a nice alternative.

Despoiled Ground is an End Game secondary that scores you 4-6 points for each particular goal you fulfill at the end of the game (standing in different table quarters, enemy deployment zone, and near objectives). This one should lead to a massive score if you can confidently plan to be alive at the end of the game. This is a Battlefield Supremacy secondary, which means it’s a good alternative to Engage on All Fronts. This is especially powerful since Death Guard are slow but steady. They may not be able to confidently score well on engage on turn 1 or 2 but at the end of the game they can be anywhere!

Given that Death Guard are naturally very durable and that their codex secondaries are centered around board control and staying alive until the end of the game it stands to reason that you will also like to build in solid units for While We Stand, We Fight or have a good plan to reliably Grind them Down as well. With this in mind we now have a good foundation for which to build an army, and a good context with which to evaluate the worth of our units.


Credit: Macathu

Plague Companies

Death Guard have seven plague companies, similar to Orders for Sisters of Battle or Forge Worlds for Adeptus Mechanicus. Each Plague Company offers a unique stratagem, relic, and Warlord Trait which you can unlock by taking a detachment where every unit belongs to the same plague company. Aside from the fact that many Aura abilities only affect units in the same Plague Company as the bearer, one thing to note when evaluating plague companies is the Stratagem Flash Outbreak. Flash Outbreak is a 2 CP stratagem that essentially lets you take the Contagion associated with your Plague Company’s Warlord trait and apply it to any unit in your army with a matching plague company. (Editor’s Note: It will also net you the Nurgle’s Gift contagion on a unit that doesn’t normally have the Contagions of Nurgle rule, such as Forge World units).

The Inexorable

The Inexorable is probably the least likely to be used of the “good” Plague Companies, but I do want to touch on it. Their Stratagem, Ferric Miasma, is a defensive Stratagem which subtracts 2″ from incoming charge rolls. Nothing too special here, but when it’s nice, it’s really nice.

The reason I rate this Plague Company is their contagion, Ferric Blight. Units affected by the Contagion give incoming attacks from friendly Inexorable models an additional -1 AP which works on both shooting and close combat. Keep in mind as with all of these contagions you can place it onto a unit of your choice for 2 CP and then even expand the range of the aura by 6” (to a maximum of 12”) with the Gift of Plagues Psychic power.

This lends itself to a more shooty type of Death Guard army focusing on taking a large unit of 10 Blightlord Terminators and 3 Plagueburst crawlers. The Blightlords can use the 1 CP Stratagem Virulent Rounds to turn their weapons into plague weapons which will then combine well with the Arch Contaminator Warlord Trait to give them re-rolls on their wound rolls. 40 Bolter shots which can easily hit on 2s re-rolling 1s from a variety of character buffs, re-roll all wounds, and AP-1 coupled with 3d6 AP-3 Damage 2/3 Plagueburst crawler shots from out of line of sight can really push Death Guard into a formidable shooting force.

The Ferrymen

What goes better with a formidable shooting force than an incredibly hard-to-charge army? Nothing! And that’s exactly what the Ferrymen give you.

Their Stratagem, On Droning Wings, expands the range of one of your aura abilities by 6” (to a maximum of 12″). This is great on a variety of auras, especially the normally 3” aura of turning off all enemy aura abilities conferred by the Living Plague Warlord Trait, but where it truly shines is on the Foul Blight Spawn with the Rotten Stench Vats relic. Let me break down this disgusting combo: Revolting stench vats gives the bearer with a 6” aura that prevents units from using Fight first abilities or counting as having charged that turn, regardless of whether they charged. To reiterate, this means enemy units that finish their charge move with 6” of the Foul Blightspawn do not count as charging for the purposes of fighting first, meaning you the Death Guard player get to swing first when an enemy charges you. Additionally, it will strip away all benefits of charging such as White Scars’ extra damage, Blood Angels’ +1 to wound, Repentias’ re-roll to hits, and Shock Assault! Couple this with On Droning Wings and you can have a 12” Aura of basically being unchargeable.

But wait, there’s more! The Ferrymen’s Warlord contagion, The Droning, is also quite powerful. While enemy units start their Movement phase within contagion range of a model (or unit thanks to Flash Outbreak) with this contagion they halve their movement! Fly a bloat drone up to the enemy army and slow the them in their tracks while bombarding them with Inexorable bolter fire and Plagueburst crawlers.

Mortarion’s Anvil

This is the last of the Plague Companies which stand out to me as a real winner. They too share an amazing stratagem and amazing Warlord trait combo. Their Stratagem is Relaptic Assault, used in the enemy charge phase after the enemy has declared a charge move. It allows you to take any Mortarion’s Anvil units within 3” of that unit and heroically intervene into it.

Given the nature of the Death Guard army we are creating (stand there, do not die, collect secondary points) your opponent may try and disrupt your Primary Objective scoring and ability to spread the sickness by contesting your objectives during their turn. Well, what if you could heroically intervene into them for 1 CP, kill them all, and then continue scoring your points parade?

Yep, I like that.

Their Warlord trait is also incredible.  It is a contagion which turns off enemy units ability to Overwatch or set to defend. But more importantly, it also turns off all re-rolls to hit and wound from affected units. A 1-9” radius of turning off all rerolls. Let’s just talk about this for a second.

  • Captain auras
  • Chaplain auras
  • Lieutenant auras
  • Lightning claws
  • Repentia
  • Zephyrim
  • Harlequin Troupe Masters
  • Guide
  • Doom
  • Belisarius Cawl

Yeah, I think you get it. This is amazing.


Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones


Now that we have discovered the foundation of which we are going to build an army (the secondaries and Plague Companies) we can really start to focus on our units.


What kind of Death Guard review would even attempt to be complete without giving this guy his own section!?

Mortation is the talk of the town with a variety of people on the internet preaching about how absolutely broken he is, while others are trying to come up with rational plans to handle him. I’m going to first break down what exactly it is that makes this guy tick, and then also share my thoughts on how the game will adapt to deal him.

His stats received several tweaks (Toughness 8!), however his special rules have been fundamentally transformed. First, like all Death Guard he has lost Death to the False Emperor. This may not seem like much, but when you think about the old Mortarion being a blender a large part of that was honestly Death to the False Emperor triggering an unholy amount of times since it could be stacked with Prescience to trigger on 5s off of his 21 attacks.

Nowadays, Mortarion does not kill 5 Intercessors or 3 Blade Guard on average with his Scything profile (assuming that your opponent activates Transhuman Physiology, which they will). Does not sound right? Consider:

21 Attacks

21 hits (assuming 100% hit rate since he can hit on twos rerolling 1’s)

Assuming the Space Marine player uses transhuman physiology Mortarion will wound on 4’s rerolling 1’s (not all wound rolls from Arch contaminator because he is not core). This is a 58% wound rate.

21 hits x 58% = 12.36 wounds

Ap-2 on a 3+ save is a 5+ save = 33.33% pass rate or 66.67% fail rate

12.36 wounds x 66.67% = 8.15 failed damage

Sergeant lives with 1-2 wounds

You could try the Eviscerating blow profile but it will end roughly the same for you mathematically.

This means Mortarion can and will get tied up unlike before. He is NOT the absolute blender he used to be. This is imperative since it functionally means that while Mortarion is super tough compared to before, he can be stalled and ignored.

That’s not all Mortarion does though. He has not 1, 2, 3 but 4 Warlord traits. Three of them are set, giving him a 3” aura that prevents affected enemy units from benefitting from their army’s auras, a 5+ roll to ingore incoming wounds (a 5+ Feel No Pain/5+++), and Arch Contaminator. The fourth is your choice of any of the Plague Company Contagion Warlord traits. Generally speaking, you will want to give him the Warlord trait from Mortarion’s Anvil to turn off rerolls to make him as tough as absolutely possible. Having four Warlord traits is awesome, and really what makes Mortarion the monster he is, however there are some drawbacks to this as well.

Mortarion does not have the <plague company keyword> and while that’s awesome on the surface since he buffs all Death Guard with Arch contaminator and Primarch of the Death Guard, it means that you cannot combine any of his rules with Flash Outbreak or the expanding aura powers of the Ferrymen.

Mortarion is a model with durability and board presence unlike anything we have really seen in 9th edition. However, he is not unkillable by any stretch – turning off re-rolls, auras, reducing damage, FNP 5++ and 18 wounds is no joke. Until he meets Adepta Sororitas Multi Melta Retributors or Grey Knights, that is. Unlike other superbly powerful control pieces he cannot use the fall back plan of “hide behind a wall.” He’s simply too big to be obscured between his enormous wingspan and 18 wounds. That means when you do run him into a counter (9 damage multi melta shots with reroll wounds and miracle dice, or Grey Knights the faction) there is no back up. You’re down 490 points and that’s the end of it.

While he is virtually unkillable to the likes of many factions which does make him seem broken to many, he may struggle to bring home a lengthy tournament as hard counters may rear their ugly head. I think his existence and initial popularity alone will be enough to get a variety of opponents to drastically change their lists and load outs, although he may actually not make it into the final versions of well refined Death Guard lists due to the binary nature of his durability. Your opponent’s will come up with a plan for him, either ignore him or kill him. Assuming they figure out how to do either successfully, he is then neutralized. I think the highest caliber players will eventually favor a more consistent use of 500 points. That said, he is a force to be taken seriously, and you do need to have a plan for him.

Lord of Contagion / Virulence / Malignant Plague Caster

These will be your go to choice for HQ’s in death guard. The Lord of Contagion give you more play with your contagion abilities while also being your melee beat stick. The Lord of virulence is basically your go to character to support a shooting Death Guard detachment, and the Malignant Plague Caster is your go to sorcerer type model. None of this is particularly earth shattering but there are nice combos you can use by combining one of Mortarion’s Warlord traits Living Plague with the Fugaris helm relic and the Ferrymen Stratagem On Droning Wings to get a 12” aura in which enemy units cannot benefit from their auras. Note, this combo cannot be done if you have Mortarion in your army.


Poxwalkers by Craig “MasterSlowPoke” Sniffen


I think these little zombies are really undervalued. Their cheap, fearless screens which your Death guard do not otherwise have. I think most Death Guard lists will want to run between 40 and 60 of them to help out with missions, screen more valuable units and provide Ob sec. They can also use their really cool new stratagem The Dead Walk Again to revive dead poxwalkers in the command phase to help steal or reclaim objectives before its time to score them.

Plague Marines

I’m not going to lie or sugar coat this: Plague Marines are not what they used to be. The nerf to plague flails, loss of Death to the False Emperor, and hard nerf to their blight grenade tricks has really left these humble servants or Nurgle wanting when compared to their predecessors. That said, they are not without purpose. They are the most durable ObSec you have access to, and they are legitimately durable. If the army we are creating struggle with people contesting and stealing your objectives, adding in tough obsec will certainly help with that.

Noxious Blightbringer

I think this character is really underrated. Flat +1 move to all nearby Core units really does add up on a slow army, and with inexorable advance which prevents you from suffering movement modifiers you know you are actually going to go places. He also has a tremendously powerful relic in the form of Daemon’s Toll. This relic allows you to once per game select an enemy unit within 6” and prevent it from falling back on a 2+. In a world of desperate breakout, people are counting on being able to shoot you. Taking that away from them is monumental.

Foul Blightspawn

I already covered this little dude in my synopsis of The Ferrymen, but he is so incredible he deserves a section here as well. I will also note that it is not hard to “insert Death Guard detachment” into a larger chaos soup force, with a large 1/2″ movement aura, a 12” no auras aura, a 12” foul blight spawn aura, and a no Fall Back blight bringer. That is quite the game-changer for a variety of Chaos soup lists.

Tallyman / Blightlords

The Tallyman is another character that I think has a good place in certain Death Guard builds. Giving the Toll Keeper relic to him to trigger exploding 6’s in shooting, +1 to hit, and CP regen –what’s not to love!? This is really the final piece to the Inexorable shooting Death Guard detachment. 

Foetid Bloat-Drones

Bloat-drones specifically with the Flesh mower provide a really good mobile element to the Death Guard. They are one of the only units you can take with Fly, and that is badly needed. They also hit very well in combat, with 12 attacks S7 Ap-2 and 2 damage flat. Not only that but they benefit very well from the -1 toughness contagion that all Death Guard emit. For 135 points these guys are fast mean, and deliverable. They have a 1cp stratagem that allows them to heroically intervene 6 inches.

Remember all that stuff I’ve been saying about how your opponent’s will try and beat you by contesting your objectives? Well, it is a lot less appealing with 6” intervening flesh mower drones nearby. These will also alleviate your reliance on taking Mortarions Anvil for the Intervention strat which frees up more opportunity if you are running Mortarion, or if you are trying to build around both the Inexorable and The Ferrrymen.

Plagueburst Crawlers

Plagueburst crawlers probably benefited the most from the +1 to WS/BS that Daemon Engines received in teh book. They actually provide quite a reliable amount of quality indirect fire which is something Chaos has literally never had before. This is honestly just as big a game changer as anything else for the Chaos super faction, because now we can kill units of real substance hiding behind walls without having to charge them. This fundamentally affords Chaos a brand new play style where they can sit and pressure the enemy at range while simultaneously making the army functionally un-chargeable. Not only that, but with some good effort in list construction these can make for incredible While we Stand units. No one, and I mean no one, kills a plagueburst crawler in the back field behind a wall (Okay, maybe Grey Knights).


Putting It All Together

Earlier this week I took my first crack with the new Death Guard army again Richard’s Siegler’s Blood Angels and had tremendous success.  You can catch the game on our YouTube channel. I think the list I used is a great starting place for new and veteran Death Guard players alike! (Editor’s Note: Nick took the Spread the Sickness, Data Intercept, and While We Stand, We Fight secondary objectives in that game).

Death guard supreme Command Deatchment

LoW: Mortarion – Warlord: Gloaming bloat, putrescence vitality, miasma of pestilence, gifts of plague 490

Death guard vanguard Deatchment
Plague Company: The Ferrymen

Gifts of Decay (-1 CP)
Plague-chosen (-1 CP)

HQ: Lord of contagion: plague reaper, Plague-chosen (-1 CP): The Droning 120

Troops: 20 pox walkers 100
Troops: 10 pox walkers 50
Troops: 10 pox walkers 50

EL: 3x Deathshroud Terminators 150
EL: 3x Deathshroud Terminators 150
EL: 3x Deathshroud Terminators 150
EL: Foul blightspawn, Relic: Revolting Stench Vats 75
EL: Noxious blight bringer, Relic: Daemon’s Toll 60

FA: Bloat drone w/flesh mower 135
FA: Bloat drone w/flesh mower 135

HS: Plague burst crawler 165
HS: Plague burst crawler 165

+++ 1,995 points, 10 CP +++

Death Guard have a plethora of play styles as a mono faction, and a lot of new, interesting, and highly effective tools to the Chaos player from a souping perspective. Over time I think people will start to explore some of the more potent combos such as Foul Blight Spawn with Slaanesh daemons, or PBC and Foulblight spawn providing shooting support to Chaos Space Marine melee armies.

Overall, I think Death Guard have left the short term meta incredibly uncertain. They very naturally counter most of the things Space Marines try and do (turning off auras and rerolls, and reducing the spam of damage 2 weapons they try and bring), this will inevitably unseat the top dog as they now have a tricky and difficult matchup. However, due to their inherent weaknesses to Sisters and Grey Knights I think Death Guard are not just simply replacing Space Marines as top dog either. The power structure of the meta has been shaken, and we are now watching a race to see who will climb to the top as the dust settles.

For more analysis like this, check out the Art of War 40k and the Art of War podcast, where we speak with World class Chaos expert TJ Lanigan on his thoughts about Death Guard, and the War Room where we are playing tons of competitive Death Guard matches and teaching tons of classes this month to see exactly how the meta will settle.