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

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Part 2: Playing in a Tournament

Welcome back to the second part of our “Start Competing” 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. 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. Once you’ve got that in your head, make sure that actions you’re taking with your units are aimed at making that 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 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.

The Clock and You: Managing Your Time and Your Opponents’

Tournament rounds have a time limit. That means you’ll usually only have two to three 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.

  • 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. 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 a 6, sometimes 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 movement tray organized (e.g. “poxwalkers go in the upper left, plague bearers in the lower right”). 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.

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 relic, 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 last year, and it’s still relevant. And remember, you’re playing against a person! Ask them during the questions (but don’t be rude), 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.

Wings’ Note: We were actually ‘scooped’ on this — 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 Khorne Berserkers aimed at charging the opponent, but they’re going first and their Genestealers can run across the board and wipe your Berserkers out without losing a single model on T1 if you position your Berserkers for an early charge. 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. 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 Dark Eldar. 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 70% of tournament lists include one or more Imperial Knights. When you build your list, you plan for this by making sure you have multiple ways to destroy Knights, and those methods are distributed among several smaller units that won’t die quickly to shooting from Knights. 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 with planning, 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 ITC meta,” “the 1,500-point meta,” and so on.

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 Knight Castellan, which is why they were increased by 100 points in April.

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.

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. An example of a common soft counter in the current metagame is the Punisher-armed tank commander that’s added to a lot of Imperium lists to shore up the Ork/Genestealer Cult matchup.

Hard counters are much rarer in 40k, but a good recent example was pre-nerf Storm Bolter/Storm Shield Deathwatch against Talos spam – by largely bypassing a key part of the Talos defensive statline, they could blow the army off the board more reliably than almost anything else.

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?

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 2019. Another good source is to look at online groups that specialize in competitive discussion. In particular, we’re partial to the Competitive40k group on Facebook and the r/WarhammerCompetitive subreddit.


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 (depending 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 cost of doing anything else. 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 strategies, though.
  • Novelty/Oddball Strategies – Countering the Counters (SCISSORS)
    Build your own strategy. Try something off the way. 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 anti-knight 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.

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

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.

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.

Naramyth’s Thoughts: My rule of thumb is Let things happen that wouldn’t have affected decisions already made. 2 phases is probably too many. But hell I’ve even let my teammate on round 3 change his secondary objective to Kingslayer against my knight instead of butchers bill because we both didn’t catch it [that Butcher’s Bill doesn’t stack any more]. I lost that game by a point, but I’d rather lose like that than win on some dumb gotcha or super suboptimal decision.

Ultimately, the 40k competitive scene is super small and regional. You’ll bump into the same people time and time again and reputations follow people around. And event coverage via pods/videos/and social toxic media is very real and is exploding. Things you could get away with years ago do not fly now.

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 significant 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 draw an extra card or change a wound counter or tactically manoeuvre their water bottle. The reason is because cheating has become a habit for them. I guarantee you that anyone cheating on camera cheats so often that they did it without thinking when the time came. 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). I’m not going to tell you to be happy about your losses — lord knows, I’ve gotten salty about losing before and I know it can be hard to keep it together, 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’s a shitty thing to do. 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.

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 real easy for people to be forgiving and polite when they’re blowing someone out, but a lot of that falls by the wayside when games are close. Don’t let the game state change how you play.

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


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