Start Competing at Warhammer 40,000: An Intro to Tournaments, Part 1

Part 1: The Basics

The main part of Start Competing is to get out there and, well, Start Competing. By this point you’ve got your army painted and on the table, you’re regularly getting in some games, thinking about strategy and how to improve, and you think you’re doing pretty well. Now you’re ready to tackle the next step and take your game on the road, taking on challengers in a tournament environment. In this article, we’re going to cover nearly everything you need to know to start competing at tournaments, how to position yourself for success, and how to have fun competing. If you’re a little earlier in your journey than that, then check out the Getting Started or Getting Better series on our Start Competing page.

In this article we’ll run through the basics of how you prepare for a tournament — what you need to know, how to think about building your list, what to bring. Then in our next article, we’ll dig deeper into the metagame and how to play (and play well) at events.

Let’s start by addressing some questions you might have.

There are Tournaments for Warhammer?

Why yes there are and they are cool as hell. Tournaments for Warhammer 40,000 typically run 1 to 3 days and will see players taking on 3 or more consecutive opponents; in 9th edition the games are typically going to be played at the Strike Force (2,000pts) size but there are also Incursion events out there (1,000pts).

Why Play in Tournaments?

The short answer is because tournaments are awesome. The long answer is because you enjoy competing, playing against superior opponents and proving that you are the best. Let me repeat that—tournaments are about proving that you are the best. There are lots of other benefits, but by and large, that’s why tournaments exist, and this idea has certain consequences. We’ll come back to that notion more in Part 2, though it’s worth saying right up front that of course for the majority of people out there you actually are not “the best” and so the challenge is more personal, whether that’s seeing if you can beat people outside of your store meta, or achieving a positive record (more wins than losses), or finishing as far up the table as possible even if you don’t win the thing outright.

But What About ~Tournament People~?

What about them? Contrary to what you may believe, tournament players are by and large really nice people. They’re a proud, simple folk with a simple dream: To prove that they are the very best at miniature warfare, and also maybe show off a really cool looking army on a large stage. Any stigma you may perceive about them isn’t so much about tournament players as it is about assholes, and those show up just as often in “casual” games, if not more; a very common trait of “that fuckin’ guys” around the world is that they love to go way too hard in store games against new people but are too afraid to actually take on experienced opponents in a tournament setting.

Attending a Tournament

If you want to play in a tournament, you’re going to need to know a few things.

What you’ll Need

Generally, you’ll need a painted army (most events require a three-color and based standard of painting, though particularly in the US you may find there are local “Rogue Trader Tournaments” or “RTTs”, one-day events run mainly for practice and without painting requirements), dice, measuring tape, army lists, and your rules. Generally speaking, you should bring the actual rulebooks and not just whatever prints out on your Battlescribe output, plus printouts of any relevant FAQs you’re going to be referencing regularly. If you don’t want to be carrying a bunch of paper around, having them available on a tablet or something can also suffice – the important thing is that your opponent and, potentially, a judge needs to be able to read any rule you’re referencing. If you’re less confident in your ability to remember everything your army can do you’ll also probably want to bring your army’s datacards as well, if you own them. It isn’t required, but it’s certainly nice to have, and having physical cards can be a good way to remind yourself of what your options are and what units are being affected by what powers and abilities.

Most tournaments will require you to submit your army list to a judge before the event starts, and will require you share your list with your opponent before each game. So plan to bring multiple copies of your list (1 per game, plus 2 extras) and make sure the copies are easy to read and well-laid out, in such a way that it’s easy to see what units you’re bringing, and any other choices such as relics or Warlord traits used, which is particularly important in 9th edition which requires those things to be on your list. If your event is using BCP, it may just be sufficient to have it in the app – but a printed copy can be polite since not everyone is going to want to try and process your list on their phone screen.

Finally, you’ll want an easy way to move your army around. Many players bring a display board for this purpose, but if you aren’t going for best painted, a simple tray, or cardboard box lid can get the job done. Players often refer to this as a “movement tray”, which confusingly is different to moving trays used during the game to sort large units (which we’ll talk about later on in Part 2)

Quality of Life Stuff

Also, here are some things that can dramatically improve your quality of life while you’re at a tournament. Remember that you are going to be standing for long periods of time, in a space that may have limited access to water, power outlets, and wifi.

  • A resealable/refillable water bottle
  • A backpack
  • Backup phone charger/battery
  • Comfortable shoes and good socks
  • Extra deodorant or antiperspirant (especially if the place has dubious AC. Don’t add to the funk!)

Tournament Formats

The tournament you’re attending will have a way of scoring players as they complete their games. How games are being scored can have a major impact on the viability of some factions and strategies. In 9th edition almost all tournaments have now settled on using the missions from the Chapter Approved Grand Tournament mission pack, which hopefully you’ve already picked up and gotten some practice with. One of the great strengths of 9th is that most events have now coalesced around using these missions as printed, instead of custom formats like the 8th edition ITC or ETC styles. This makes it much easier to know what you’re going to be playing – it’s almost definitely the GT missions! It’s worth reading the tournament pack anyway, however, just in case there’s something different at your event. Most commonly that may be a ban on using faction-specific secondaries found in codexes, but the tournament organiser (TO) may also have published a list of FAQs if there are gaps in what GW has answered themselves, or defined the terrain being used in a particular way. There may also be different scoring or pairing methods in place – the most common of these are:

  • Battle pointsm where your relative position is decided by how many points you scored in your games
  • Win-path scoring, where you play people who have the same ‘win path’ as you, e.g. if you win 3 in a row and then lose one, your opponents will have too, and you won’t play the guy who lost one then won 3
  • The 20-0 system, used often in Europe, where close games score you fewer points than blowout wins, to encourage players to play aggressively and counter their opponent’s scoring as well as focusing on their own – for example winning 80-75 might score you 11 points and your opponent 9, while winning 80-20 would score you 20pts and your opponent 0


Hmmm… yes. This is all garbage

Creating your Army List

OK, that covers the general stuff. Let’s dig into lists. First thing to cover:

Be Precise

Make sure your army list includes all of the wargear, relics, and units you are required to select/bring when building a list. Don’t leave out important details such as chosen subfactions, and specify what armaments you’re using for your models. Don’t go over the allowed points limit. Going 3 points over may be fine in a casual game, but it won’t fly at a tournament. There’s a variety of list tools out there which can help you to do this, but you should make sure you double check everything to be safe, and it can also help to get another opinion from someone you trust – and to get out there and practice, which is not only good for learning how your army works, but can also reveal holes in the list you wrote like forgetting to write down a relic you meant to bring.

Level Up Your List

When you play at a tournament, your ultimate goal is to score points as efficiently as possible in order to win games and outscore your peers. Not all army lists are equal when it comes to succeeding at this, and before you move from playing casual games to a tournament you’ll want to make a pass over yours to make sure it’s up to scratch

We aren’t here to tell you that you have to switch over to whatever nonsense is currently taking all the trophies on the East Coast – extremely skewed top level lists get a lot of the headlines, but you can have a perfectly good time and even make a pretty decent run with what most people would think of as a tuned-up version of a “normal” list. Our own Wings took a Brigade filled out with Biel Tan Aspect Warriors to his first competitive event and still picked up some wins, so you definitely don’t have to sell your soul to the dark tournament gods before you can even turn up (though winning a major competition is probably still going to cost you some portion of your soul).

Five Tips for Leveling Up Your Lists for Tournaments

  1. Maximize Your CP
    In 9th edition detachments cost you CP to bring, and you only start with 12 unless you have a bonus of some kind, like Guilliman’s Primarch of the XIIIth Legion rule. Make sure you aren’t throwing them away needlessly – a Spearhead can be cute for slamming out a ton of Heavy Support choices, but it’s worth double checking if you’re actually maximising it in your list, or if a cheaper detachment would suit your needs better
  2. Check Out the Competition
    If you’ve been involved in any kind of tabletop gaming, you’ve probably heard at least one person whine about “netlisting” or “netdecking.” You should ignore that person. Warhammer has thousands of datasheets and every faction has dozens of combinations of units, relics, Warlord traits, etc. to get to grips with. It’s a hell of a lot to get your head around, especially if you’re new, and unless you’re some kind of savant it’s unlikely that you are gonna be the person to stare at the whole confusing mess and divine the way to get the best use out of it. Instead you should absolutely look at what other people are doing – maintains an archive of recent “top 4” tournament lists from large (GT-sized or bigger) events, and our own Competitive Innovations series is a weekly look at what’s working right now. Simply copy-pasting the latest hot list from the LVO and throwing it on the table isn’t going to turn you into the next Richard Siegler, but it can at least steer you in the right direction of what’s good and what isn’t, though you’ll want to take some time to understand how the list actually works and what its plan is – which is where Wings’ excellent write-ups can come in handy.
  3. Have a Plan
    Speaking of, this is an important tip – have a plan! Which upgrades and units are worth taking is going to be heavily impacted by what your army’s game plan is. We’re going to return to the fairly mammoth topic of how to make a plan in a future article, but one of the first things you want to be doing is making sure none of your units are working entirely at cross purposes and can work together in a “macro-level” strategy. Groups of armies conforming to a similar overall strategy are often referred to as “archetypes”, and there’s a good chance that your army might already be leaning towards one of these three common ones:

    1. Gunline: Your army wants to keep your opponent’s units at arms length and blow them off the board as they try and move within range of multiple firing arcs. The Adeptus Mechanicus are the gunline par excellence so far in 9th edition.
    2. Pressure: You want to rapidly push a huge number of models OR some high-quality beatsticks into your opponent’s face and overwhelm them while controlling the board. Orks and Chaos Daemons do horde well, while White Scars or Space Wolves Space Marines can offer a more high-quality version.
    3. Counterattack: You want to control space and harass your opponent until they’re in the ideal position then hit them with overwhelming force. The highly mobile Drukhari can play this role very wellDoes one of these sound like you? Great! Now take a look at your units and work out if any of them don’t really fit with that in mind. If you’re a Gunline army, a lone Pressure-style unit might not be the best fit, because if you send it up the board it’s going to be all by itself and probably easily butchered. While there’s an argument for having an emergency melee unit to counterattack with in a Gunline army. before spending too many points on it remember that it’s only going to get used in emergencies, and is hopefully only “holding things off” rather than doing the heavy lifting of winning the game for you. Something that can “flex” into this role on demand (like a Knight Crusader) is a better fit than a dedicated unit. Counterattack armies tend to have a bit more of a diverse mix of stuff, but they live and die on being able to strike hammer blows at crucial moment, so units that are noticeably slower or shorter ranged than the rest of the army might end up as wasted points. It’s also worth thinking about redundancy; if your whole plan hinges on a particular unit, is your army going to fail is that unit dies on turn 1? If so, can you bring a back-up – or is your plan any good in the first place?
  4. Don’t Buy Upgrades that Don’t Help The Plan
    When building a list, it’s easy to look at some upgrade options (like special weapons) and want to take them “just in case.” When building a list for tournaments, you should err on the side of not doing this unless you have a specific reason to buy an upgrade, or you have points left at the end and you genuinely have nothing better to spend them on. An example of this is the option in a Guard Infantry Squad to buy the sergeant a plasma pistol. This is almost certainly a waste; It’s not that plasma pistols aren’t better than the base armament, it’s that the plasma pistol upgrade doesn’t give you anything that helps the unit do what you want it to be doing. In tournament lists, Guard squads are at their best doing one of three things:- Speeding around the board via “Move Move Move!”, which stops the Pistol getting fired.
    – Repelling enemies from your lines using “First Rank Fire, Second Rank Fire!”, where the Pistol changes nothing
    – Huddling on an objective in your backfield out of sight, in which case you would get more value out of a Mortar for the same points. While yes, very occasionally that Plasma Pistol will get overcharged and waste a whole Primaris Marine, at tournaments you need to be making choices for the average game, and over time you’ll find the points don’t pay off. In general, you want to pay for upgrades on units where doing so either leans in to what they’re already trying to do, lets them play a whole new role, or you can cluster many upgrades on a small number of units in order to maximize the impact of auras and buffs. 
  5. Don’t Take Bad Units
    We all have our favorite units, and with GW’s active focus on keeping the game balanced, fewer units are actively bad, but they still exist – just flick through the Tyranids codex sometime. There are plenty more units that are OK, but pale in comparison to other choices in the same Codexes/armies. When building tournament lists, you basically just shouldn’t take the former, and should at least try and cut down on the amount of the latter you’re bringing, leaning towards doubling up on some of the better units instead. In addition, resist the temptation to “throw good money after bad”: there are often tempting ways that you can assemble a wacky Rube Goldberg-esque array of buffs and auras to make a bad unit passable (if you really squint), but these are almost always worse than just using similar tricks to make good units better. Doing so also makes for more robust strategies, the kind that don’t hinge on the survival of a number of fragile units. Obviously sometimes taking the bad units out for a spin in a gimmick list is the entire point, but if you’re doing that you need to be honest with yourself about your expectations, and don’t end up trapped in a cycle of telling yourself it definitely would have worked if only the dice hadn’t somehow been unfairly skewed against you for five straight games (oh and the five straight games at the GT before that).

Maybe it does, but an Imperial Fists Vindicator is unlikely to be the first unit in your army if you want to succeed on a tournament table

There’s Still More to Cover

Hopefully you now feel at least better-equipped to take on your first tournament, or more confident about taking on your second or third. We’ve tried to cover the broad strokes here, but there’s almost certainly something we missed — feel free to reach out and let us know what your tips and tricks are, or leave a note in the comments. In our next installment, we’ll cover tournament play, including building game plans, managing time, and the principles of good play.