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

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Part 1: The Basics


Whether you’ve been following along with our series online or living it out over the past few weeks, you’ve no doubt been waiting with baited breath for our next installment. By now 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.

Before we dig in, if you missed any of the prior articles in the series, you can find them here:

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 games sized between 1,500 and 2,000 points.

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.

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.


Attending a Tournament

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

[EDITOR’S NOTE: haha, look at this little fucker. he rules]

What you’ll Need

Generally, you’ll need a painted army (most events require a three-color and based standard of painting), 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. You’ll also probably want to bring your army’s datacards as well. This 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.
To meet this standard, the models in your army must have at least three colors of paint on them and be fully-based

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 your total CP, free relic, and warlord choices are.
Note: Not all tournaments require you to declare warlord traits, powers, or relics prior to the game. Be sure to read your tournament’s rules for this so you know what does/does not have to be declared in advance.

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.

There are a number of different formats currently in use for 40k tournaments, depending mostly on the preferences of the organizer. At the most basic level this can be straight “book missions,” usually meaning Eternal War missions chosen from the rulebook or the Chapter Approved supplements, with a simple win/draw/loss scoring system. This is relatively uncommon except at Games Workshop’s own events, since it’s generally widely agreed that the book missions not well-balanced for tournament play.

It’s more likely that your event will have a format similar to the Independent Tournament Circuit (ITC) or European Team Championship (ETC) formats, which are very common. If you don’t know what the ITC or ETC formats are or why they are relevant to Warhammer, read on.


ITC stands for the Independent Tournament Circuit, maintained by Frontline Gaming. The circuit encompasses a bunch of different things, including a set of tournament missions which have been designed specifically to be balanced and predictable, as well as the annual ITC tournament rankings. A ton of events, particularly in North America but increasingly in the UK and other regions, are run using the ITC Champion’s missions. You can find the ITC missions here.

From the outside, the ITC format can be intimidating, especially if you’re used to GW missions where you have very simple objectives to score. Once you familiarize yourself with it however, it’s fairly simple. In each mission you’ll have two sets of objectives to achieve, primary and secondary. The primary set is worth 30pts and the secondary set is worth 12pts, meaning that in any game the maximum score a player can achieve is 42. Truly, Warhammer is the meaning of life.

The Primary Missions are pretty straightforward. There are 5 points available per battle round. Each player scores a point at the end of their player turn if they hold any objective, and a point if they kill any of their opponent’s units. Scoring those points is usually pretty easy, especially early on. 2 more points available to a player at the end of the battle round if they hold more objectives than the opponent (1), or if they killed more units during the prior battle round (1). Finally, there’s a bonus point available at the end of every battle round unique to the mission (for example, you might have to hold 3 objectives using characters or hold an objective in your opponent’s deployment zone).

What astute readers will notice here is that the player going first is at an informational disadvantage, because they don’t know precisely what their opponent is going to do, whereas the player going second has perfect information – they know exactly how many objectives they need to hold, and exactly how many units they need to kill, to score the extra 2 points. This does a lot to mitigate the “first turn advantage” which can be common in 40k.

Secondary Missions are a bit more complicated. There are 15 for a player to choose from, of which they can pick 3, each worth up to 4 points. These allow you to tailor your objectives to both your army’s strengths and the opponent’s army and weaknesses. Good secondary mission selection is a critical aspect of succeeding in the ITC format. Luckily, our own One_Wings wrote a very good article on exactly that subject that you can refer to on what the secondary missions are and how to select them.


ETC stands for European Team Championships, a name which has become ever more outdated as wider parts of the world including Canada, the USA, and Australia have joined in. ETC is a team event where 8 players from each nation compete as a group, with their overall scores deciding who wins each individual round. It’s a very competitive event, with some of the best players in the world regularly attending and representing their countries.

You may be wondering at this point what this has to do with you, the reader, who is less concerned with international travel with your team of hotshot 40k pros and thinking more about going to your first big event (unless you’re an ETC player and reading this, in which case, “Hi!”) The reason we bring it up here is because “ETC style” is an easy name for the type of play seen at events such as the London Grand Tournament and Battlefield Birmingham.

Unlike ITC, ETC missions aren’t made up whole cloth. Instead, they tend to be combinations of existing Eternal War and Maelstrom missions, modified a little to work together. For example, your mission might combine the Big Guns Never Tire and Cleanse and Capture missions, allowing you to score points for achieving both types of objective. Some events will use the exact mission set of the ETC itself (which you can see here), while others will use their own spin on the format.

Conceptually this style plays much closer to “standard” GW missions than ITC, so many players find it simpler to grasp. However, many missions require a certain amount of cleaning up around the edges to work well together – most commonly because the Eternal War and Maelstrom missions can use different numbers of objective markers. If you’re attending an event like this, it’s important to read the rules pack thoroughly, or you face being caught out because your unit was standing on an objective which doesn’t matter. You can find a more comprehensive rundown of the mission style here.


We’ve been talking about the NoVA Warhammer 40,000 Grand Tournament a lot recently, so it only makes sense to discuss the format here. The NoVA Open is part of the ITC tournament circuit, but use a different set of missions and scoring criteria. They use the same Secondary missions as the ITC (with a total of 12 possible points), but have different primary missions. NoVA Primary Missions are worth a maximum of 18 points.

At the start of each game, NoVA players select whether they want their primary objective to be Progressive (score points at the start of each turn, starting in battle round 2, for objectives held), or Endgame (score points for objectives held at the end of the game). NoVA players can also score up to 4 points for the total points value of all enemy units they destroyed. You can find more information on NoVA missions here.

Other Formats

Whatever the format of the event you’ll be participating, you’ll want to read over the rules thoroughly to make sure you understand when and how you can score points. You should build your army with the format in mind.


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 or marks of chaos, 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.

Also, be sure to read over the tournament guidelines prior about what has to be in your printed lists – some tournaments require you to pick things like relics, powers, and warlord traits when you make your list, while others will let you make those decisions before each game. Don’t pigeonhole yourself with specific choices unless you have to.

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
    CP give you options during games, and the more you can get access to the better. Most events allow you to use up to three detachments, and the more CP-generating ones you can fill out the better. If you’re unsure whether a Fast Attack or Heavy Support unit is the best thing to spend your last points on, and picking the latter will let you fill out a Spearhead, pick the Heavy Support.

    In addition, unless you really know what you’re doing, most armies should be starting with one of the “Big” detachments (i.e. a Battalion or Brigade) – even if there are no other stratagems you need access to, you want a decent pool of CP to spend on re-rolls to avoid disasters like a poorly timed vehicle explosion.
  2. Take Minimum Size Units of Basic Stuff (Unless There’s a Good Reason)
    Unless you have a specific reason not to, or points to use up, stick to buying basic units in the smallest size available (often referred to as “Minimum Size Units” or MSUs).

    There are a few reasons for this:

    It helps maximize CP – you can fill out detachment slots cheapest at the smallest unit size.
    You get more freebies. Squad Sergeants are a great example of this – they’re usually better than the average model, and you get exactly one for free whether there are five models in the squad or ten – so two squads of five gets you more sergeants.
    It reduces vulnerabilities to leadership and high-rate of fire weapons.

    There are of course, reasons why you might ignore this, which can include:
    You’re going to target the units with buff powers or stratagems – in which case more models usually makes the buffs better.
    Your units get a benefit for large size, like Orks or Chaos Daemons.
    They’re non-troops and key part of your army and you want more models than you could get in three MSUs.

    In general, have a look at some tournament lists for your faction – if a certain type of model is turning up in large blocks, there’s probably a reason for it, but if everyone is running them at minimum size, that’s likely the efficient choice.

  3. 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 another Lasgun would be better.
    – 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. 

  4. 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. Astra Militarum and Tau do this very well.
    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 Drukari Talos and Imperial Knights play the quality variant of this game well.
    3. Counterattack: You want to control space and harass your opponent until they’re in the ideal position then hit them with overwhelming force. Craftworlds and Genestealer Cults can play this role nicely.

      Does 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.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 (which is why Wraithlords still aren’t good no matter how much Wings tries to make them happen).Thinking like this is important, because generally in 8th edition for your army to do something well you need to make a decent investment into doing that in order to hit critical mass and make your investment worthwhile. A lone Dreadnought with four Lascannons sounds neat, but in practice is unlikely to kill much before being dealt with. Three of them together have a much better chance of making a meaningful dent in your opponent’s heavy armour before being shot to bits. The end result is that three dreadnoughts are worth *more* than three times as much as a single one, because they are much more likely to have an actual impact on the game.

  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. 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).


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.


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