With the Coronavirus pandemic leading to many states and countries enacting quarantine or shelter-in-place laws that have stretched over multiple months now, we’ve (understandably) seen competitive play for 40k grind to a halt, in part because of FLG’s (correct) decision to stop ITC scoring and because well, people just can’t convene to play in person.
And while we’ve written about the impact of these measures on local game stores, we haven’t touched yet on one particular casualty of the pandemic: the April 2020 FAQ. Normally positioned for release following the AdeptiCon event in Chicago, a month has now passed and without any tournaments to provide new data or information for, it seems plausible we won’t see a new FAQ. But what should it have included? In this week’s round table, we’re sitting down to talk about our thoughts on the competitive environment post-Marine FAQ (or as we like to call it, Iron Hands FAQ III), and what we’d have liked to have seen in an April FAQ.
In general, Big FAQs have done three key things:
- Implemented emergency balance fixes. An example of this was last year’s point increase to the Castellan and the accompanying changes to stratagems.
- Added major rule changes aimed at addressing either wider balance issues or mechanical problems, sometimes as “Beta” rules. An example of this was the introduction of the AIRCRAFT keyword.
- Rolled out a batch of fixes to individual book FAQs covering issues missed in the initial pass, or that have arisen thanks to later changes.
We’re delighted to be joined this week by 2019 ITC champion Richard Siegler, who can currently be seen playing regular games for the Art of War Twitch Stream against his roommate, former ITC champion Nick Nanavati. The rest of the panel for the round table is as follows:
- James “One_Wing” Grover
- Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones
- Liam “Corrode” Royle
Each of us is going to go through their general feeling about where the metagame sits right now, and then any predictions, hopes or expectations in the three FAQ categories.
Wings: Obviously first up we have to address the elephant in the room for this – we saw a relatively major set of balance changes, specifically targeted at Marines, rolled out in late February and thanks to the Coronavirus Pandemic we haven’t seen that much data since then, despite many TOs being very agile in adopting the changes. What information we do have paints an encouraging picture, however – list diversity seems to have gone up substantially, and the total dominance Marines once saw is pretty clearly gone. The major nerf to Imperial Fists has allowed Aeldari of various flavours to make a serious push up the rankings, newcomers Grey Knights are making a big splash, Chaos players are really hitting their stride with the goodies Faith and Fury handed out, and Guard and Tau are starting to explore their fancy new toys.
The underperformers seem to be Imperial Knights, Necrons, Deathwatch, Harlequins and arguably some of the weaker Codex Marine flavours. You could also make a pitch that GSC could do with a look – they are still putting a few decent results up, but almost exclusively with the Ridgerunner build popularised by AoW’s Alex Macdougall. Necrons, Deathwatch, Harlequins and Knights obviously all have their PA upgrades coming, but GSC are in a rough spot – Greater Good was extremely underwhelming for them compared to the other two factions contained, and it’s pretty clear at this point that the Aberrant nerf was heavy handed.
Ultimately though, no army seems unreasonably dominant, and even among these weaker factions there’s either at least a few recent good performances or their book is about to arrive.
Rob: Writing Start Competing: Chaos Space Marines really gave me an appreciation for how diverse the meta is for a faction that was eating a lot of shit through most of 2019, primarily forced to run a single Forge World-heavy build reliant on hordes of Plaguebearers. There are a lot of options out there now, and that’s great.
Overall the spot fix for marines was extremely necessary, and takes a lot of wind out of the sails of an April FAQ. I mean. Look at this:
There’s a clear need for change there, and I think that after 3 rounds of changes, we’ve finally gotten to a point where Iron Hands – and Space Marines generally – are still good, but not the clearly dominant force they were.
That said, there are still some clear have-nots out there, even among the Psychic Awakening-havers: Genestealer Cults haven’t been the same since Aberrants were nerfed, and Necrons are still terrible. I’m less inclined to remark on Harlequins, Knights, and Deathwatch here, if only because I think that they can potentially still be potent parts of a larger Imperial/Aeldari soup force, and have yet to see the release of rules updates for Psychic Awakening.
But yes, despite not having enough data to say conclusively, I think the meta is in a pretty solid place now. Or would have been, until the next Psychic Awakening book somehow made Knights, Adeptus Mechanicus, and Chaos Daemons all back-breakingly overpowered.
Liam: It’s great to look at the data from the brief post-FAQ window; looking at the five events on 40kStats from March 14th/15th (a mix of ETC and ITC style scoring) shows all of Chaos Marines, Thousand Sons, Sisters, Tau, Grey Knights, Blood Angels, Tyranids, GSC, Orks, Eldar, Imperial Knights, Astra Militarum (in soup) and Adeptus Mechanicus hitting top 4s, with a single stray Iron Hands/Blood Angels soup list in there too. That is a lot of faction diversity compared to even one month beforehand, when multiple events have 2 or even 3 Iron Hands in the top 4.
Faction diversity at the top proves two things – 1, that a number of factions are able to compete with each other and place well, and 2, that no single faction is so powerful that top players feel compelled to play it as the best way to ensure wins. 14 different codexes being represented in top 4s in a single weekend is a great place to be in, and hopefully it’s a sign that once play resumes we’re in a good spot.
Richard: The meta has returned to that pre-Space Marine supplement period of last summer where many different factions could compete for the big events. And while not every faction is there just yet (sorry Custodes and Harlequins), there are still several psychic awakening books to come and most of those books have added useful and powerful tools. Even Grey Knights exited the doldrums of 40k to be one of the most powerful armies in the game. It’s just a shame that after months of marine-dominated events, Space Marines were justifiably nerfed from obscene to very good, but the global pandemic has prevented us from watching the meta unfold at tournaments.
At Art of War (shameless plug, I know) we have been using our time sheltered together to offer competitive content to the community and we’ve been testing all sorts of new builds from Mark’s Emperor’s Children and friends list, Nick’s Asurmen-led Dire Avenger build with spears and spinners, to my Farsight Enclaves lists. No single build has managed to run the gauntlet and stay undefeated, which is a sign that there are not too many glaring things that Games Workshop would need to address immediately.
Wings: I apparently completely forgot Custodes, but as Richard says they’ve got a book coming too, and were I a player of the Golden Boys the treatment that Grey Knights got would make me moderately optimistic.
Wings: I think there’s basically three things I think have any chance of being put out as “urgent” fixes that are conscious balance changes rather than fixing a mess of overlapping FAQs:
- Revert the Aberrant nerf.
- Dunk on Master of Machines (Techmarine +1 to hit aura) and/or Father of the Future (Apothecary FNP aura).
- Nuke Daedalosus from orbit and never think about him ever again.
The Aberrant nerf wasn’t needed by the time it arrived, and was so spectacularly heavy handed that they’re now straight up gone. GSC are being boxed into a very restricted set of playstyles without them, and don’t have any other upcoming salvation to look forward to (other than the warm embrace of the Four-Armed Emperor, obviously), so throwing them a bone on this would be good and (in my opinion) totally safe.
Master of Machines has been too good since it was printed, and while Marines are currently down in numbers I expect that to be at least partially an overcorrection and for them to bubble up a bit more again. Master of Machines is just too much for the price you pay, and should be reduced in power, probably either to one vehicle a turn or a once-per-game version of the aura. Father of the Future is less of a proven beast, but was the subject of heavy chatter in the leadup to Adepticon before the event was pulled, with Iron Hands Intercessor spam expected to dominate the board-control heavy missions, many players planning to bring hordes of 60+ Intercessors recently sloshed in Nuln Oil to the table. Here I think the fix is nice and easy – just take out the specific interaction with Iron Hands. No one should have to deal with 120 power-armoured wounds with a 5+++, and they’re like half-robot anyway, why does medicine work better on them than anyone else?
Finally, Daedalosus has the same problem as MoM, which is that a +1 to hit aura on a 50pt model should not even slightly exist, and is an absurdly unsafe thing to have kicking around just before you unleash a slew of new units onto a faction. No one wants to have the summer dominated by a different breed of half-robot dude, so get out ahead of it. Sorry Cyle.
Rob: Look, I’m a Chaos player and I’m biased, but here’s the trend that I was partly concerned by:
While granted, that isn’t a lot of first-place finishes, it does point to a faction on a sharp rise, and one that could potentially see more players taking on in a world where the Coronavirus doesn’t end tournament play for everyone. I’m admittedly more worried about it because Grey Knights are a weird faction; they can absolutely dumpster some of the best Chaos builds, without very careful play (and a mistake or two) and that leads to a weird situation where, if Grey Knights become a dominant faction, Chaos is suddenly much less viable because your chances of going 5+ rounds without playing Grey Knights drops precipitously. Wings, tell me I’m overreacting here, please.
Wings: So on one level you definitely are – if you go back to my deep dive on the NEO, both Possessed bomb players who ended up 4-1 beat up a Grey Knight player along the way, so it isn’t a completely insurmountable matchup with the right hands on the wheel. Having said that, Grey Knights are pretty skill testing and those results do already look slightly alarming, so as people get better at playing them I can definitely imagine that picture changing and it becoming a problem. Ultimately, however, this is more speculative than a clear Iron Hands-level problem – and I think there’s very little chance of them making big changes to such a recent book on that basis alone. Don’t forget that Daemons and (surprisingly) CSM have additional boosts coming in the near future too.
Rob: Ah right. I forgot about War of the Spider. I cannot currently imagine a world where Fabius Bile Marines are making a splash, but I could see Death Guard becoming a bigger part of Chaos Marine armies with the right push – they already show up in some Possessed-heavy lists.
Liam: Grey Knights being at all relevant is one of the biggest zero to hero transitions in 8th end and I’m basically here for it, but it does emphasise how weird faction-specific rules can be – it’s one thing for a particular playstyle to be a good match against another faction, it’s quite different to have a rule that straight up says “fuck you my stuff is twice as good against yours than anyone else.” As Wings says, it seems like it’s not an insurmountable climb for Chaos players to make, but potentially the Chaos Marine factions are fine but GK are helping to suppress Chaos Daemons (who weren’t in a great place anyway)? Who can say without more data.
I definitely agree with most of what Wings has to say about balance fixes. The overnight disappearance of GSC was just sad – though it’s encouraging to see them reappearing in a couple of configurations in the most recent events we have data for – and as much as I like my 45pt Techmarine handing out +1 to hit to every vehicle he can squidge up near to, it’s probably not an effect that should continue to exist unchanged, nor should Iron Hands just get to have even tougher Intercessors than everyone else for free.
It’s interesting that GW remembered this principle with Ultramarines, where instead of getting extra stuff from the Masters of the Chapter rule their bonus was being able to get e.g. the Chapter Champion or Chapter Ancient for points instead of CP, and then for Iron Hands they just continued the stacking of free stuff by giving them an even better version of the FNP effect for no extra cost. Just straight up delete that line like you deleted Adaptive Strategy. Speaking of, I would like AS to come back as a “one unit only” stratagem – meet things halfway between “your entire army gets to sit in its best doctrine for an extra turn” and “just cross it out of your book.”
I guess in terms of obvious fixes, they need to clarify how the Ultramarines “restart Doctrines from the beginning” strat works, and there’s the need to clear up Duty Eternal and such from the Deathwatch and Space Wolves releases.
Oh, and possibly controversial – reverse the giant points hike on the Castellan. One hasn’t hit a table since this time last year, and they probably went too far with it. Drop it 80pts again and see how things go.
Other than that, the game honestly feels like it was going to get into a nice groove again, more like Summer 2019 than Winter 2019-20. Maybe Engine War would have blown all our socks off as Knights 2: Murder Party occurred.
Richard: As mentioned, Marines still have a few absurd rules that are just far superior to what other factions have received (Iron Hands interaction with Father of the Future, Master of Machines, how cheap hurricane bolter centurions are compared to other melee units like Bullgryn, etc.) One of my biggest issues with the game is that Games Workshop has done a lot of balancing these past few years by lowering the points on many units. And while a lot of units needed it to fit into the meta, there is a point where reducing points further simply will not work. Because it makes it significantly harder to make the granular, careful changes needed to balance a game as complex as 40k. Additionally, some units fundamentally have no purpose in the game because they do not have useful special or unique rules. Many of the units in the game that we never see are just poorly written and it will take a rewrite of those datasheets to help them or the addition of unique stratagems (see Crisis suits going from completely overpriced and ineffective to being one of the best units in a Farsight Enclaves list).
I don’t think there are too many glaring things that need to be fixed immediately outside of interactions like Craftworld’s Protect power with the Skilled Rider exarch ability on Shining Spears, or the defensive buffs you can stack on Rubric Marines to get an effective 2+ invulnerable save against one damage weapons.
Also, can we wait for Engine War before we nuke Daedalosus from orbit? Pretty please?
Rob: It’s only going to get worse.
Wings: There actually is one big one I’d like to see here – a proper, blanket statement on whether pre-game choices need to be on your army list or not, or can be chosen at the table. With the addition of things like Tank Aces and a massive proliferation of unit upgrade stratagems, the fact that different events make wildly diverging calls on these based on subtly different choices of language in the preamble text is just bad for the tournament scene. It leads to players having to email ahead and pre-check rulings every event, and sometimes leads to allegations of cheating if some players in an event weren’t aware of a ruling and were playing it differently, despite no actual malice being involved.
I would prefer the call to be that these are flexible game to game, but I just want a clear and consistent ruling to put the issue to bed, and would happily accept either way. I had been hoping, running up to the LVO, that the ITC might put out an official stance on it, but that hasn’t materialised so GW need to step up and sort it – it’s their game, I expect they have an opinion on it and a clear steer from above is needed.
Rob: Failing to properly specify what has to be done prior to arriving at the game table is one of 8th edition’s big missteps. As someone who made the jump to competitive play during 8th edition it was jarring to show up to an event and realize that half the stuff I had written on my list was stuff that I could change game-to-game. I’d argue that GW should handle this, instead of leaving it up to the ITC or other tournament bodies.
Liam: God, this. It’s extremely frustrating to not know between one event and another exactly what needs to be cast in stone and unchangeable and what you can freely flip between. It’s not like they can make it immutable – if a TO really thinks psychic powers ought to be fixed choices then your options are “live with it” or “don’t go” – but at least a proper clarification of whether some people’s reading of “note down your list what relics you’ve picked” to mean “and this applies to tournament list submissions and you can’t change them” is intended. Personally I think GW never writes anything on that assumption, but I’m prepared to be wrong.
Wings: The only other thing I can vaguely think of that could do with a top-down set of clarifications (similar to what was done for redeploy abilities last year) is a review of stratagem timings. One of the things that fairly frequently causes some wonky combos to pop up from a new book is players arguing that a stratagem used in response to a certain event happening out-of-phase, or “at the end of your turn” can be used multiple times, which the wording tends to be a bit ambiguous on. I have my opinion on how this should work (I lean towards you only being able to do them once) but again – this keeps coming up, and I just want to know at this point. I feel similar about the age-old argument as to whether you can activate Seer Council after you roll – I feel like one of the specific FAQs in the Nid PA suggests you can’t but most events rule that you can, and we should not be in a position of having to try and cite precedent from other FAQs to make rulings stick.
Rob: Hm. I’m with you on that. 40k probably needs more general timing rules, since it’s not just an issue with stratagems, but also abilities or effects that happen “before,” “at the start of,” and “at the end of” phases.
Generally I’d have liked to have seen a few quality-of-life changes that are also stealth balance changes:
- Make unmodified 6s on To Hit rolls automatically hit across the board.
- Clarify the wording around modifying save rolls to make it clear that getting +1 to saves/rolls count the same, so that 2+ invulnerable saves are no longer possible.
- Seconding your point above – end of phase/start of phase abilities need to be more clear on how they can be used and when so that players don’t argue for say, multiple uses of the Apoplectic Frenzy Stratagem on the same unit.
- Normalize the wording on abilities/stratagems that let you redeploy units, and clarify whether this allows you to put units into Reserves. In my opinion, they should not — once you’re on the table, you’re on the table.
We’re now getting back to the point where stacking bonuses and auras can lead to some incredibly silly outcomes, such as making it so units have a -4 to be hit or giving multiple units a 3+ invulnerable save. These are bonkers and at best, should be incredibly rare.
Wings: Good shout on the redeploy one – while the ruling as it stands (Emperor’s Children can redeploy to reserve, everyone else can’t) is technically accurate to the wording, I’m not convinced that it was intentional and I definitely feel like this is the kind of ability that needs to work consistently for the sanity of the playerbase. It could even provide a mild stealth buff to Ultramarines. And just them. Definitely not Elves. Nooo sir. Why are you looking at me like that?
Liam: In general, I just wish there was more systematic thinking going on. Make DEEP STRIKE a keyword and use it wherever it’s appropriate. Make that different to TACTICAL REDEPLOY or whatever else. If you’re going to give two things the same rule, make sure you’re using the same wording, and if a unit has something that’s similar but different, then make it explicit that it’s meant to be different.
There’s no more tiresome argument in Warhammer than debating if a rule works differently in this case because if you apply a close reading of the wording it’s subtly different than that case and surely that’s intentional, and having to guess at whether they meant to leave off a particular exception or just forgot about it. I appreciate this is asking a team that has mostly traditionally written in casual language oriented in colourful description to transition to technical writing, but I think you can meet halfway between the two things to keep the “GW style” while also not having to guess at whether you can, in fact, run your Berzerkers the entire length of the board because their stratagem doesn’t say you can only use it once, or whatever else.
Wings: I think to be fair a lot of this does come from legacy issues (especially around the Forge World Indexes which are, mercifully, finally being refreshed soon), and some of the current problems come from them recently adopting standardised language and people trying to infer deep meanings from how that differs from the hodge-podge of different wordings used before when the answer is mostly just “we’re better at this now”. I think we’re getting there, but there’s still work to do.
Richard: Games Workshop need to sharpen their use of keywords. We have seen over the last few months with Self-Sacrifice and now the Thousand Sons psychic awakening book technically being able to be used on Alpha Legion Rubrics because the only requirement (if they have a Thousand Sons detachment unlocking them) is RUBRIC. Moreover, there are several stratagems and abilities that work to increase invulnerable saves only for a psychic power or other rule to then increase the saving throw by 1 (shining spear exarchs with the 3+ invulnerable and protect; Rubric Marines with Weaver of Fates, the new stratagem for +1 invulnerable save, and all is dust against 1 dmg weapons for an effective 2+ save on a 15-20 man unit that could double shoot with Veterans of the Long War while also being at -1 to hit).
Rob: I choose to believe that Rubric Marines is not an error and actually a clever acknowledgment of the fluff — all rubric marines are Thousand Sons, regardless of the legion they currently operate in. This is the reality I want to live in, and not the one where it just didn’t occur to them that this wouldn’t work, or the one where THOUSAND SONS got left out of every entry for wordcount purposes or to save page space.
Richard: While I am a fan of durability over offense because it results in more drawn out games where strategies and tactics can play out, I think the game is allowing too many defensive or offensive buffs to be placed on single units. I would rather durability come from better terrain rules, than making certain units nigh unkillable with 3+ or effective 2+ invulnerable saves. To give one of the most extreme examples, we can put a 10-man Paladin unit on the board and put -1 to wound, +1 to invulnerable save, ignore line of sight and cover with Astral Aim, +1 strength and damage to psi weapons, extra -1 ap to psi and nemesis weapons, +1 strength and additional -1 ap to storm bolters or psi weapons, -1 damage against shooting with a stratagem and so on. I don’t want obvious choices in the game that are only good or become over the top if you stack every buff in the book on them. It doesn’t lead to interesting games in my opinion. This is more of a critique of the game itself rather than what we would see in an FAQ, but I would like invulnerable saving throws to be capped at a 3+ for starters.
For Grey Knights specifically, I think they should make Astral Aim more difficult to cast on units with a size of 6+ models. I don’t think Grey Knights are overpowered, but stacking all of the offensive buffs on a unit of 10 Paladins and then shooting them from out of line of sight pushes a lot of things out of the meta and feels pretty bad for lists that simply cannot deal with that.
Lastly, I think they need to do something about fortifications. By and large they are terrible in addition to taking up a detachment slot. Most of them need serious rules rewrites to be useful and at minimum have a slot in the battalion.
Most of my real complaints with the edition (poor internal balance of several codexes, lack of terrain rules, and stacking of a lot of buffs on a single unit) all need to be addressed in an updated rule set rather than a balance update.
Rob: Oh I’m definitely here for my weird, out-there ideas that would never have happened:
- Give Dreadclaw drop pods and the Kharybdis the Drop Pod Assault rule, allowing them to deep strike on turn 1. And also the Tyranid drop pods. The ones made of meat. Also, give a version of this rule to the Monolith. Give Necrons something, jeez.
- No but for reals, undo the Aberrant nerf.
- Just for my boy Jack, clarify whether cover saves apply to Void Shields on the Astraeus.
Wings: I choose to believe Pariah will fix every problem Necrons have. Definitely.
Anyway, I definitely have a few things on my shitlist:
- Sort out whether the blasted Yncarne can heroically intervene after redeploying or not. Everyone playing Eldar seems to have an uncle who works at WHW who definitely ruled that they could do it, and the big ITC events generally allow it, but it’s completely ridiculous that a top tier unit is consistently allowed to ignore RAW just because everyone sort of awkwardly assumes it should.
- While you’re doing that – does bringing Yvraine or Drahzar break a Black Heart detachment for Vect?
- Devout Push. Is it really supposed to do that? Really? After all the other things that let you get into melee without charging got purged?
- On a similar vein of having another go at an FAQ ruling, sort out Tempestus Regiments properly this time, and let people actually use the Tempestus Drop Force with the new ones.
There’s probably more but I think those are the ones where differing rulings (or just being flat out bizarre in the case of Push) will cause an active bad experience for tournament players who have to adjust what they can use event to event based on how TOs rule it. Honestly while it mildly irks me that several of these got introduced by FAQs, this is a much shorter must-fix list than I’ve had in my head for previous rounds of this, so we’re getting there. Getting there.
Liam: Some of these questions have lingered on forever and never been answered. The one thing they have in common is that they come about from “fixing” things without really understanding the issue. In particular, the Tempestus Regiments thing got me involved in one of the most infuriating conversations I’ve ever had about 40k and I’d really quite like GW to just read their own rules again; the FAQ was so clearly written on the hoof by someone who didn’t understand the problem and “fixed” it in the laziest way possible.
Or, tl;dr, re-read what I said above about thinking about things systematically instead of firing answers off the cuff without cracking the books and getting to grips with the issue.
Richard: I would like to see a few updates to T’au.
- Ethereal’s leadership aura is changed from specifically only working for morale tests, to T’au Empire units can always use his leadership for anything.
- Savior protocols changed from a 2+ before saving throws to a 4+ after saving throws are made. (Hold on, let me finish T’au players).
- The Jetpack keyword allows for a unit to move after shooting (except if they arrived from reserves that turn) so both on overwatch and in the shooting phase.
I want the army to be a bit less durable and based around spending points on shield drones to serve as a quarter of your list to allow T’au players to more easily use movement and terrain to reduce damage. It just results in much more interesting game play and further increases the skill cap with T’au. And you might be wondering, why only buff the battlesuits, what about vehicles which we hardly ever see? Well they fundamentally need a rewrite and some sort of defensive mechanic if shooting is going to remain as powerful as it is. They don’t have enough offense to offset their lack of any defensive mechanics.
Since this is wishlisting, I’m just going to add the stretch goal of electronic rules that can be updated directly rather than through a thousand FAQ/Errata documents. Make it a subscription based model, but still offer the full printed books for those who enjoy those (I would do both!).
Rob: I was going to make a crack about the Tau Appreciator Logging On, but I’m living in a very fragile glass house given that I just spent the whole article talking about Chaos.
So there you have it. Assuming that GW haven’t flexed on us by releasing the FAQ minutes before this goes up, that’s where we think things stand and what we’d have liked to see. We’re still holding out hope that any big batch of minor fixes they had in the pipe will roll out, and if and when they do we will, of course, have one of our legendary hot takes.
In the meantime, if you’re still fiending for top-level Warhammer 40k play, then Richard and the team over at Art of War 40k have you covered – they’re streaming games on their Twitch stream multiple times per week (twitch.tv/aow40k) so hop on over and check those out. Thanks again to Richard for joining us on this!
Finally, if you have any comments, questions or changes you thing we’ve missed, give us a shout at email@example.com.