Playing the Least Army

This started off as a serious attempt at army construction. I was just trying to make something that I could take to events, and had no idea where it was headed. I need everyone to remember that.

After going 0-6 and securing the coveted 45th out of 45 ranking at the Goonhammer Open, and with nothing to do on the ride home but try not to crash my car, I made the only good Warhammer decision of the weekend: unpack my experience, in a futile attempt to “learn” and “improve”. The first piece of useful information I could divine was that if you’re going to take Hellblasters – something that I’m more convinced than ever you should never, ever, do – they should be Assblastos instead of Heavyblastos. But I also noticed that my Terminators and Bladeguard had tended to be the only things surviving past turn 3, and I started thinking about bulking them out into an entire army. I already have a bunch of Deathwing anyway, and if I could set them up in a detachment to give them all Objective Secured, I stood a better chance of maxing out Stubborn Defiance, along with having extra deep-strikers to do R.O.D. activities.

Something else that I remembered was my fourth game. I got paired up against a very meta-tuned Adeptus Mechanicus army. Seeing a list like that in the “three early losses” Win Path was, to put it mildly, a bit shocking. Not to throw shade toward my opponent, as he was a nice guy and also completely dumpstered me, but there’s a lesson there we could all stand to learn. There’s often a richer vein of success to be mined in the Warhammer quarries from having subject matter expertise with a suboptimal list, than there is switching relatively late to something more powerful but less familiar.

What I gleaned from watching his turns is that AdMech command phases are interminable, and trying to remember which units interact with which rules is extremely difficult for a player, and essentially impossible for a casual observer, unless you have a stack of printed tokens. This is the best way to crater with any codex, but possibly the only way to crater with a good one: the cool crime of forgetting what the rules do.

The good news is that you don’t have to always know exactly what the hell is going on: a stacked AdMech list played with 80% rules mastery is still going to do pretty freakin’ well. Contrast that to Guard where, if you want to win anything, you’re going to have to play at 100%. Optimize your list, your deployment, issuing Orders, and every phase of every turn, all game. You can’t get away with forgetting anything, or your dice going cold, or picking the wrong secondaries. The instant you make one mistake, or just have a run of bad luck, you’re done. Again, I don’t want to take anything away from the parade of good AdMech or Drukhari players out there – a bad general will easily fail no matter how good the codex or army is, and neither of those books are particularly forgiving – but the numbers tell the story: given an average player, not every army can compete in the current meta. Dark Angels can, but it’s a little more work to get there.

Normally the way you’d approach this would be to figure out a list – I won’t comment on whether you want to create one from whole cloth, copy one model-for-model from Competitive Innovations, or somewhere in between, that’s up to you, it’s all valid, I don’t care – and then start getting the reps in. Take your finely-tuned high-complexity list and play it in a bunch of games, building your familiarity until it becomes muscle memory, advancing as a player until you can wring every last bit out of your models. Once you can get a game down in less than three hours, without checking the codex even one time, and without forgetting any of your abilities, auras, stratagems, and any fun little gimmicks, you’re probably on track to utilize everything that it has to offer. That’s what you call a skill ceiling. 

I don’t want to do that. It seems like a lot of work. 

Something else I’ve belatedly realized is that, for whatever reason, I can’t keep track of all of this crap. I don’t know why, but my brain is just not wired to be able to index and recall all of the context and knowledge that good play requires. The elaborate mind palaces and hovering 3D mathematical formulas flying around the room aren’t for me. The thing I lie about most during games is saying yes when someone asks me if I remember something that I absolutely do not remember. Practicing will help, to a point, but what if I just started with something that was easier to master in the first place?

This – taking a serious look at how and why I lose at Warhammer – is how I ended up with Belial And Forty Terminators.

Dark Angels. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Dark Angels Deathwing Vanguard (11CP, 1985 points)

HQ Belial (warlord) 140

EL Deathwing Apothecary (chief, selfless, etc) 135

EL Deathwing squad (5, cyclone) 210

EL Deathwing squad (5, cyclone) 210

EL Terminators (10, 2 cyclones) 430

EL Terminators (10, 2 cyclones) 430

EL Terminators (10, 2 cyclones) 430

The non-Deathwing Terminator Squads combat squad, resulting 8 5-model squads with a missile launcher and (in most of them) a single power sword, and two characters to worry about. Ten units, so at least your turns will be quick and decisive, one way or the other. I didn’t even bother picking a relic.

What you have to keep track of here is extremely minimal and, more importantly, almost unerringly consistent across every unit. There’s two auras in the whole thing (the Apothecary is just too good not to take – as much as I’m trying to keep this simple, I’m not completely insane). Every single incoming attack runs into a 3W, 2+/5++/transhuman defensive statline. Outgoing damage? They hit on 3s shooting and (bar the swords) 4s punching. It’s storm bolters, cyclones, fists, and swords. That’s it. Four weapons, the whole army. Six, technically, because the cyclone can fire two types of missile, which is why I decided to standardize on them, and because Belial has to get fancy with his sword. Which units have Objective Secured? All of them except the characters. Who can deep strike? Everybody. What’s CORE? You already know this, but it’s the entire thing. 

The list of usable stratagems could fit on an index card. Of the ones in the codex, this army can use maybe half of them. The 18 in the Dark Angels supplement? Eight, and that isn’t remotely the same as them being worth it (ah sick, bonus AP against CHAOS on 6s, get after it). Even good old Weapons from the Dark Ages is out, because there are zero plasma guns. I’m not sure why this starts with 11CP, because you can’t actually use them for much of anything.

Secondaries basically choose themselves: ROD is easy enough to max with this many Deep Strikers, Stubborn Defiance remains Free Real Estate (drop a couple of combat-squadded Cyclones on it), and if you wanted Oaths of Moment, you literally cannot fail Morale, and should really be in the middle of the board anyway. It’s tough to max that one out, but we’re not aiming for 100-point wins here. Credibly scoring 60 a game is still about twice what I’m used to.

What’s the ceiling on this list? Low, but I posit that it’s actually not all that low, and – this is the important part – it’s incredibly easy to reach that ceiling. Would it be better if it had more Storm Shields, or a couple of Deathwing Command squads as bodyguards and cheap Activity-doers? Glaringly obviously, yes, but I’m not trying to keep track of that. I’m not saying this is good, but for something with the lowest possible amount of rules, it’s not bad either. Played well, I think it could sneak through an RTT at 1-2, or maybe go 2-4 in a GT. I know that’s not saying a lot for most of our readers, but for me that would constitute a historically successful showing. We’re grading on a curve here.

Gregbot Emerging from his Tomb to Shame Mankind.
Image credit: Pendulin. Model Credit: Klobasnek.

I’ll probably never run this exact list. Not because it’s deranged, though it clearly is, I just don’t want to buy five more boxes of Terminators to make it work. The Least Army, in its most distilled form, is a thought experiment and not a real suggestion, but there’s something here that I think is worth looking at more closely. For all the talk about needing a bunch of books to compete, or how complex this game is, what if you just didn’t do that? I don’t see anything wrong with deciding on a level of involvement and playing it to the best of whatever abilities you possess. If you don’t want to cart around 5 books and keep a handle on overlapping all your army rules, don’t. A good way to avoid the decision paralysis of picking secondaries is just to pick the same ones every game. It’s not a great plan if you’re trying to score 95 a game, granted, but that probably wasn’t happening anyway.

Realistically, I probably would replace some of what’s in this list with Bladeguard or Command Squads, and splash in some Storm Shields while I’m at it, but I wouldn’t deviate too far from the core premise. There is a massive amount of Warhammer per game of Warhammer these days, and the sheer density of this game can be overwhelming. Sure, on paper you’ll get a more powerful army out of the deal if you go that way, but if it becomes unwieldy to the point of unplayable, what’s the point. Instead of worrying about maximizing your use of 34 stratagems, pick 6 that seem the most useful and only roll with those. Forget about some of the other gimmicks in the book and focus on one chosen Bit. That’s probably enough to get you competing, if not over the line to a win, most of the time. More importantly, keeping things comprehensible lessens the odds of brain-farting during a game and winding up in the shadow realm.

As much as theory-hammer for new players is based around Army Character Questions like “do you want to punch more, or shoot more?”, “how excited are you about tanks?”, and “is driving really fast cool, or scary?”, maybe “how much of this crud do you realistically expect you can deal with?” should be on the list. It’s not a glamorous question, but it’s an honest one.

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