Start Competing at Warhammer 40,000: An Intro to Tournaments, Part 2

Part 2: Playing in a Tournament

Welcome back to the second part of our “Intro to Tournaments” series. Last time we covered the basics of preparing for a tournament – understanding tournament formats, preparing materials, and building lists. This time, we’ll go into more detail about how tournament play differs from regular play,  tips and tricks for improving your play when you’re at an event, and understanding the metagame so you can improve your chances of having a good experience. 

So whether you’re a newbie contemplating their first event or a veteran looking for a few extra pointers, settle in and enjoy. And if you have tips of your own that you’ve picked up or there are things you think we missed, feel free to comment or reach out–we’re bound to miss some things.

NEVER go front to back

Playing in Tournaments

OK, you’ve got your list with printed copies, your rules, your painted army, and your master plan that incorporates all the metagame data you could find. Let’s talk about actually playing in tournaments.

Stick to the Plan

The big jump you need to make to start succeeding in tournament scenarios (as long as you’ve got an OK list) is to ensure that you’re making a plan and playing towards it. We talked about having a plan last time in the sense of “strategy”, how you built your list and what its intended goals and style of play is. At the game level we’re talking “tactics,” what you actually do with your units in the specific game you’re playing. Once you know what the mission is and what you’re playing against, try and think through how you want the game to play out in an ideal world, and pick secondaries and plan your attack on the primary accordingly – and it’s worth mentioning here that an easy shortcut is to make sure you have at least a rough idea of your secondaries before you ever hit the table, so that you can go in confidently knowing your list can achieve them. It’s no good showing up and picking Retrieve Octarius Data when you’ve brought a pure Knights list which can’t actually do the action, or Grind Them Down when your whole plan is to throw waves of chaff into an elite enemy’s face. Once you’ve got that in your head, make sure that actions you’re taking with your units are aimed at making your beautiful dream a reality. This helps to ensure you get good value out of your units, which ultimately makes it more likely that you win! A very common thing to hear after someone has just lost a game is “I don’t know why I did that – I meant to kill X first, but I got hung up on Y and forgot all about it.” Don’t be that guy.

For your first few events at least, don’t get too hung up on this plan needing to be perfect; just making sure you’re working towards a coherent overall strategy, even a mediocre one, will still give you a boost over someone who isn’t.

Tighten Up Your Play

Tournaments don’t have to be overly stuffy and formal, but they do require that you tighten up your play, doing more precise measurement and making sure you are doing things in the right order. Make sure you are measuring front-to-front on model bases when you move units (or back-to-back, but never go front-to-back), completing all of your actions in a phase before moving to the next one, bringing in your reinforcements after moving other units, and declaring all your targets before you start shooting with a unit.

Most people will be forgiving of minor things, or willing to let you go back and do minor things you missed, but not everyone will and they’re not the person in the wrong if they say “actually your Psychic phase finished ten minutes ago, no you can’t cast that Smite you forgot.”

A rule of thumb quite a few people go by when determining whether to do corrections is asking whether dice have been rolled that would have affected the decision – if there was only one possible/real choice, or nothing relevant has been rolled since you missed the event, they’ll let you go back and make the play, but if you’ve now got new information that might plausibly have changed your strategy, they won’t.

It’s better to not be reliant on this – you are supposed to play your army correctly, and your opponent is, ultimately, trying to beat you. Even the most generous opponent might consider that by turn 5 you should really be remembering to cast Doom in your Psychic phase, and not halfway into the Charge phase.

Finally, if you do suddenly find yourself needing a takeback, you must ask your opponent before doing so. Ultimately, if you’ve made a play mistake it’s up to them whether they let you correct it, and assuming you can just go ahead and do it is a great way to sour a game, or find yourself as the latest Internet Main Character if it’s caught on stream.

The Clock and You: Managing Your Time and Your Opponent’s

Tournament rounds have a time limit. That means you’ll usually only have around 2.5 to 3 hours to finish a full game, starting from deployment. Slow play, while potentially an effective “strategy” for some armies or plans, is frowned upon and furthermore a really shitty thing to do (you are effectively trying to win by taking away your opponents’ ability to play the game or have an equal number of turns rather than by countering their strategy or destroying their units). So you’ll need to pick up the pace a bit when you play; try the following to help keep things moving:

  • Plan during your opponent’s turn
    While you’re getting shelled off the table, start planning for your next turn. Think about what each unit is going to do, and the objectives you still need to score. Build your plan when it won’t cost you any time to do so. While your opponent tees up their shooting or is rolling hits, think about what models will get removed so you don’t have to agonize once saves are failed. You should never find yourself starting your turn and thinking “so what do I need to do here?” – by the time your opponent is working out his scoring you should already know your next moves.
  • Manage your dice
    Keep your dice sorted in a way that will help you quickly grab certain numbers or types. Use different colors to denote different things. While your opponent is shooting you and racking up hits and wounds, anticipate how many dice you’ll need so you can immediately roll your saves – if they’ve got 10 hits wounding on 4s, then you’re probably going to need to make around 5 saves. One strategy is to work with a handful of about 12 dice and add or remove dice as you need. Also, use dice that are easy to read, so you can quickly pick out and remove failures. If you’re using dice with symbols to replace a number, make sure they all consistently replace the same number – usually that’s a 6, sometimes it’s a 1, but either way make sure that they can’t be mixed up. Games Workshop novelty dice commit several cardinal sins here. 
  • Manage your models
    Have distinct ways of marking squads and units to avoid confusion. If you’re a horde army with 200 infantry, bring movement trays. Keep your army tray organized (e.g. “Poxwalkers go in the upper left, Plaguebearers in the lower right”) so that you can deploy quickly, or add Reinforcement units later in the game. Your transport getting blown up should not spark a ten-minute hunt for the exact 5 Space Marines who need to get out of it.
  • Manage your accessories
    Keep putting your tape measure and dice back in the same spots or in the same place on your person. Keep your cards and rules in the same spot where you can access them. Avoid having to hunt for your tape measure every time you move.
  • Get logistics arguments out of the way early
    Settle how you’ll determine which dice are cocked (will you use the dice balance method?). Will one or both of you be counting up or down for wounds on multi-wound models? What shortcuts are appropriate? What are the terrain boundaries? For charges, measure first and agree your target number and then roll the dice, so that you’re both clear what result is a success or failure – there’s nothing like a tense, game-changing charge being derailed because you and your opponent disagree on what number you needed. Figure this stuff out and settle it early so there are no debates later on.

Solve Memory Issues by Setting Reminders and Using Markers

There’s a lot going on in an average turn of Warhammer 40,000. You’ve got to manage multiple units, buffs, abilities, and actions over multiple phases, and make sure you aren’t doing things out of order. Develop a system for quickly tracking these things so you don’t forget or lose them. Use tokens to mark units who took special actions. Place power/spell cards next to units affected by them. Use a turn checklist to make sure you’ve run through all of your important abilities that are tied to phases. Set a reminder icon or model related to your reinforcement unit where you’ll see it so you remember to bring them in. It’s a hectic environment, you’re going to be playing fast, and there will be pressure to win. It will help to have methods for making sure you don’t forget important things.

Consider printing off condensed datasheets for everything you’re using for easy reference. This will help you remember abilities and save you time flipping through your codex or scrolling through Battlescribe on a phone. On that note, if you’re building your roster in Battlescribe, we’ve got a handy tool that can help you make printable datasheets. We also recommend printing a reference for all of the things you need to remember to activate or using during an average turn. If you need help, we’ve got a reminder sheet template you can print out and use here.

Practice with the Clock

You’re likely to find that many opponents like or expect to use a chess clock to ensure a fair allocation of time during the game – e.g. if you have a 3 hour round, then the clock is used to make sure both players get 90 minutes to play with, and one person doesn’t eat up 2/3rds of the time. Chess clocks aren’t hard to use, but they can be stressful if you’ve not done it before, and practicing playing with one in a casual setting is a great way to make sure you’re prepared ahead of time.

Ask Questions Before and During the Game

Review your opponents’ lists in earnest before the game and ask questions. They don’t have to tell you how they’ll beat you, but questions like “It’s been a while since I’ve played against this rule. Can you run me through it works again, please?” or “Are there any special rules interactions I need to know about with this army?” can help you understand what you’re up against and establish whether your opponent is going to be a dick. 40k is not a game of hidden information and most people are happy to tell you what their army does – if they’re cagey or secretive, then be prepared for a “gotcha” moment later on. Equally, they’re not required to volunteer information to help you out, so if something is concerning you then make sure you ask the question. Get the rundown on their warlord traits and relics, establish which unit is which, and make sure you know what you are looking at for each unit. Tournaments may be the first time you play against certain armies, and you’re more likely to lose when you don’t know how to strategize against an opponent.

Nick Nanavati had a great post about this on his blog a few years ago, and it’s still relevant. And remember, you’re playing against a person! Ask them questions (but don’t be rude – there’s a point where asking questions turns into pestering or sounds like you don’t trust them to play fairly), and get clarification on anything you’re unsure about. And, as we said earlier, sort out any logistics agreements before the game.

Assess and Understand the Situation, or, Know “Who’s the Beatdown?”

An old Magic: the Gathering term, this refers to the roles players assign to themselves during a game. In every game, one player will be the aggressor, and the other the defender (or active and reactive, if you prefer). How the armies are actually built doesn’t always matter when it comes to determining this – who gets first turn, what the deployment map is, and the personal inclinations of the players can be factors too. Sean Morgan did a fantastic discussion of this on his ‘In the Finest Hour’ podcast. You can check it out here

Understanding this relationship is important because misassignment of roles will often cause a player to lose the game. You may have a brutal squad of Vanguard Veterans aimed at charging the opponent, but if they’re going first and your Vanguard Veterans are standing on the line in the open they may well just blast them off the table. Your aggressive melee army can’t afford to lose its best fighters that early, and so needs to hang back and play defensively. Similarly, your main strategy may be shooting, but that Tau army is castling up  and picking you off with longer-range guns (bear with us here and assume Tau aren’t utterly awful). You need to push forward aggressively and capture objectives while they’re locked in place. To succeed, you need to understand that sometimes you’ll be the aggressor and other times you’ll be the defender, and understand what your army’s plan for each situation is.

Generally, whoever’s got the most long-range shooting is going to be the defender, and whoever’s got the most melee or close-range shooting is going to be the aggressor. That said, a good example of the opposite could be an Imperial Knights army, where they bring a lot of high-quality shooting, but are also fast and strong in combat – they can afford to play flexibly, and forgetting that that “shooty” Knight is also quite good at stamping on things is an easy way to misunderstand the role you’re going to play.

We can’t all be Drukhari. But at least we can plan on losing to them gracefully.

The Metagame

Ok, it’s time to talk about the metagame. This can be pretty daunting to new players, so if you don’t feel like you can wrap your head around this right now, feel free to pass it up and come back later. Though note that when you want to go from just attending tournaments to winning them, sooner or later you’ll need to start understanding and incorporating the metagame into your plans.

What is a Metagame?

In broadest terms, a Metagame is the game that takes place around another game.

What does that mean?

Well, think of it like this: while a tournament is made up of many games, each with their own opponents and objectives, these all take place within another, larger game that isn’t defined by strict rules. In that game, players are trying to “win” by building the army list that will give them the best chance to beat their likely opponents. For example, you may determine or observe that 50% of tournament lists are some variant of Space Marines. When you build your list, you plan for being able to kill a lot of Marine-equivalent infantry – so guns with high Strength and AP values that can overcome the Marines’ Toughness and high armour saves. That’s metagaming.

Isn’t that list tailoring? Is metagaming bad?

First off, tournaments aren’t the same as one-off casual games. While, depending on the circumstances, it can be bad to build a list exactly what your opponent will be bringing (especially if they’re limited in terms of what they own), in tournaments you are going to be playing multiple people with varied armies. It’s virtually impossible to make a list that is exactly set up to counter multiple strategies.

Second, no. You should be planning your army with an eye toward what other people are bringing, because they will do the same. If you don’t at least consider what you might come up against, you run the risk of finding yourself in an unwinnable game, and that’s not a great way to spend 2-3 hours.

Some Terms to Know

The meta – This refers to a snapshot of a particular metagame at a specific point in time. Most often this refers to “the current meta,” or what strategies, armies, and units are currently winning games and showing up regularly events. A game can also have multiple metas based on formats, rules, or geography. You could refer to “the local meta,” for example — the common or dominant strategies among players in your local area. Or you could refer to “the UK meta,” “the 1,000-point meta,” and so on. Here at Goonhammer we write regular meta reviews which are focused on the standard 2,000pt tournament size – those are a great place to start to understand the current state of play.

Warping the meta – When a unit or strategy is so good that every single player has to either play that unit or have a plan to beat that unit in order to be competitive. The most recent example of this is the Drukhari codex, which posted such high win rates and was adopted so broadly by top players that you basically had to have a strategy to deal with them if you wanted any chance of winning, and for many people that strategy was “play Drukhari.”

Top-Tier – Gamers love to rank things, and that includes metagame strategies. Top-tier strategies/armies are those whose baseline power levels mean that they have the highest chances to win in optimized play. It doesn’t mean that they always win, or that worse armies/strategies can’t, but that the deck is stacked in their favor.

Healthy meta – A healthy meta is one that has multiple top-tier strategies, usually three or more, and where those strategies aren’t so dominant that no other lower-tier options are viable. For us, it’s good news if one of our tier list articles has a handful of tier 1 armies and a high number of tier 2s – which suggests that lots of armies are capable of taking down an event.

Counter – A counter is a unit or strategy that is effectively designed or capable of beating another strategy or unit. Counters can either be soft or hard. Soft counters provide an edge against that strategy or unit, tilting the scales in your favour. Hard counters provide such a heavy advantage that if you have them in sufficient volume you’re extremely likely to win. A soft counter might be a unit with a high number of shots taken to provide an edge against horde armies where quantity rather than quality counts; a hard counter might be Infiltrators against Genestealer Cults, where their Omni-scramblers aura simply shuts down the Cults’ ability to take advantage of one of their key tricks.

Understanding and Applying Metagame Strategies

Now that you know what the metagame is, how do you use this knowledge to compete?

Plan for the Meta

We talked a lot in our last article about how to build an army list, and the importance of building around a plan. One thing to think about while you create your plan is the meta of the event you are going to participate in. What armies and strategies are you likely to face? Which ones are the most prominent? Which require you to build around stopping them, and which can you afford to ignore? It’s worth remembering the difference between a local and national meta here; it doesn’t matter if you have an amazing plan for beating Space Marines if the best player in your area who wins every event runs Orks, for example.

Where to Learn About the Metagame

The meta will be different for different areas, events, and event types, but if you want to learn more about the meta, the best place to start is by looking at the results of recent events with similar rules and points values. What do the winning lists look like? How do they win? What do they struggle with?

There are a few different places you can find this info. One of our favorites is the Best in Faction podcast, who do a weekly roundup that gets posted to Reddit and Facebook. Another solid place for research is the Best Coast Pairings app, which is used to track lists and results for many tournaments. BloodofKittens maintains a list of all armies which have placed in the top 3 in ITC-scoring events, although this list is by its nature quite out of date in an edition where there have been regular, large changes in the rules – armies which were successful in August 2017 aren’t likely to be relevant in June 2021. Another good source is to look at online groups that specialize in competitive discussion. You can try the Competitive40k group on Facebook and the r/WarhammerCompetitive subreddit. Our favourites, though, are the 40k Stats listings which track top 4s from all GT+ events around the world, and our own Competitive Innovations column where Wings not only shows off the top lists from recent events but also takes a look at how and why they work.

Incorporating the Metagame Into Your Plan

As you study the meta, what you’ll generally find at any given point is that there is a small number of very successful lists (exactly how many and how successful they are depends on whether the meta is healthy or not) that recur at tournaments and make up a significant portion of the field. Generally speaking, there are three ways you can approach building a list for the meta:

  • Copy What Works (ROCK)
    The top lists are usually the top lists for one reason: They’re powerful and efficient. The easiest way to ensure that you’re bringing a strong tournament list is to copy what they’re doing. This doesn’t have to mean using the exact same list, but your strategies will look very similar. Or just copy a successful list. Doing this is often referred to as “netlisting” by salty players who think taking a strong list you didn’t originally create is somehow a mark of shame. It’s not. Never feel bad about going with a proven strategy at a tournament.
  • Counter What Works (PAPER)
    If you don’t want to join them, exploit their weaknesses. Build a list designed and tailored to specifically beat the top lists or strategies (or top two or three, if they are similar enough), at the risk of being weaker against other strategies. If your target opponents make up more than half the field, you’ve got good chances of winning your matchups against them and progressing. Try not to leave yourself completely dead against other list archetypes, though; you don’t want to turn up with your horde-massacring list and then roll into a wall of Dark Angels Terminators who simply do not care about all your low-Strength zero-AP shots.
  • Novelty/Oddball Strategies – Countering the Counters (SCISSORS)
    Build your own strategy. Try something off-piste. Maybe you’ve got a plan that won’t work so great against the top list, but will crush the lists that are trying to beat it (all that high-quality low-volume anti-Space Marine firepower looks a lot worse when it’s being aimed at hordes). You may have an uphill battle against the most popular top lists, but you’ll prey on the lists designed to beat them, and if too many people are playing to beat the top lists, that’ll work out in your favor.

If nothing else, at least consider what you’re likely to see when you build your list. As we pointed out last time, you don’t have to build a list that explicitly uses whatever top-tier units are showing up right now. You can take a souped-up version of your regular list and do just fine at most events – but if a cursory glance at the metagame suggests it’s unusually terrible against the most popular army out there, you might need to think again.

Being a Good Player

So far we’ve covered things that you need to know in order to play well, but now let’s talk about how you can be a good player.

The Goal

When you’re at a tournament, your goal is to prove you’re the best. And you do that by scoring the most points, and doing so against good competition. Winning games and winning the event are just byproducts of being the best.

This has several consequences. The first is that you aren’t “playing to win” but rather “playing to excel.” The difference is that “playing to excel” understands that being the best means beating good, honest competition. That means being magnanimous. You want to beat good opponents at the top of their games, not because they forgot their psychic phase. So yes, give your opponent some leeway. Don’t let them cheat, but give them reasonable takebacks and avoid playing petty “gotcha” games or angle shooting with phases and events. You only cheat yourself with these types of tactics and the 40k competitive scene is pretty small. If you’re going to be going to tournaments often, you’re going to bump into the same people over and over and your reputation will proceed you. Our interview with 2019 ITC Champion Richard Siegler touched on this very topic, and his comments on sportsmanship are well worth a read.

This may cost you some games. That’s fine. You lost honestly and system mastery is the lowest form of skill. What we care about is tactics and strategy, and you want to beat someone knowing that they had every opportunity and advantage at their disposal and still lost. That’s the good shit.

Trust, but Verify

Generally assume your opponents are acting in good faith, but verify all the same. If a measurement looks off, verify it. If you intentionally want to be some distance away from an opponent’s model, communicate this, then measure it and have the opponent verify. You don’t have to personally check everything they do, but checking some things is very reasonable. If you do catch your opponent in a misplay or off situation, assume or react as though it is an honest mistake unless it has happened multiple times or you have reason to believe it isn’t.

That said – don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself when you are in the right. If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve heard someone spend 3 hours on the wrong end of a bad game with a bad opponent, and then say “Well, I didn’t want to call a judge because I didn’t want to be that guy,” I could afford a 30k army. Well, half of one. 


Seriously, don’t cheat. It runs counter to the goal and it’s a shitty thing to do. Don’t cheat at tournaments and don’t cheat in casual or practice games. Every year we see someone get caught cheating on camera and people wonder how someone could forget they were being filmed when they decided to lie about a rule or change a wound counter or tactically manoeuvre their water bottle. The reason they do this is because cheating has become a habit for them, which they do near-unconsciously. I guarantee you that anyone cheating on camera cheats so often that they did it without thinking when the time came. If you start down this path you’ll eventually get caught and it’s not worth it anyway. Honest mistakes happen, but DO NOT CHEAT.

Be polite

We’re all here to have a good time (and prove we’re the best) and while this is a competition, there is nothing to gain from being rude (and plenty to lose). We’re not going to tell you to be happy about your losses; everyone’s gotten salty about losing a game before and it can be hard to keep it together if you’re on the wrong end of a blowout, particularly when some condescending asshole is telling you everything you did wrong, and anyway it’s just a game, they really just come to these things for fun (and they definitely would have said this if they lost, honest). Yeah I know it’s a game, thanks. Sometimes we get mad over the seemingly trivial the things we care about.

However bad you feel, stay polite. Don’t make anyone feel bad about beating you, and don’t denigrate or diminish their victories. Talking through a game and where big swings happened? Useful and interesting exercise. Telling someone they only won because you weren’t trying or it was all the dice? That sucks, and makes you sound like the biggest loser. If you really need to complain that you only lost because you rolled 4 2s at the crucial moment, tell your friends about it later, so they can roll their eyes at you on your own time.

Be magnanimous

By the same token, if you win, don’t strut. Be understanding toward your opponents who are salty. Don’t rub it in and give them a little leeway to rant, but don’t brook any verbal abuse and don’t let them make you feel bad about winning. And be magnanimous regardless of the situation – it’s easy to be forgiving and polite when they’re on a hot streak and everything is going right, but for plenty of people that falls by the wayside when games are close. Don’t let the game state change how you play.

Look I know we SAY* that you should blast Space Jam after every win while your opponent sobs openly into their minis, but you probably shouldn’t do it at a tournament


Be realistic

I understand that things can be emotional, but recognize going in that the stakes aren’t that high. If you find yourself getting worked up, step back, take a few deep breaths, and describe how you are feeling. Put some words to it. Then come back and resume. If you ever find yourself disappearing off to the pub to get steaming drunk and plot your revenge on the opponents and TOs who’ve screwed you over, stop what you’re doing to think about whether you have a healthy relationship with the game.

There’s Still More to Cover

Even after all that, we still have more to cover! In our next article, we’ll cover how you can practice for events to internalize good play, and how you can learn from each event you attend to improve for the next. We’ll also talk about other resources you can look to for improving, and what our favorites are.

In the meantime, if you’ve got tips and tricks you want to share, questions about an upcoming event, or just great stories you think we should hear, feel free to drop us a line on Facebook, Twitter, or email us at