The Man With the Iron Hands – Understanding the Current 40k Meta with the FAQ (the Second One)

Shortly after this article went live, GW released a second updated version of the Iron Hands FAQ with much more significant changes. We have updated the article to reflect those changes and our thoughts on them.

Since Codex Supplement: Iron Hands released a month ago, we’ve seen a seismic shift in the 40k tournament meta. While we speculated a few weeks ago that Iron Hands would become a new gatekeeper army in 40k, it wasn’t yet clear to us how dominant Iron Hands would be and now with two weeks of GT results in the books, that picture is now snapping into focus. And it’s pretty gross.

The Tournament Results

For this analysis we have only utilized tournaments which have included at minimum 5 rounds, regardless of the number of participants, and included the new Iron Hands rules. For some numbers, only those events which utilized the ITC scoring system were included. The following RTT, GT, and MAJOR level events have been reviewed:

  1. Galaxy GT (ITC, 20-person RTT) – Cleveland, Ohio – September 28th – 29th
  2. Void Hammer GT (28-person GT) – Scotland, UK – October 5th– 6th
  3. Middle of Nowhere GT (ITC, 46-person GT) – Brandon, Manitoba, CA – October 5th-6th
  4. Harbor Heresy (ITC, 28-person GT) – Aberdeen, Washington, US – October 12th – 13th
  5. Clash of the Tetons (ITC, 19-person RTT) – Cheyenne, Wyoming, US – October 12th –> 13th
  6. Crucible 8 Champions GT (ITC, 67-person MAJOR) – Kissimmee, Florida, US – October 12th – 13th
  7. Battle for Salvation GT X (ITC, 98-person MAJOR) – West Nyack, New York, US- October 12th-13th
  8. Michigan GT (118-person MAJOR) – Lansing, Michigan, US – October 12th-13th
  9. Midtcon (48-person MAJOR) – Viborg, DK – October 12th-13th
  10. Into the Hellstorm 4 (ITC, 60-person MAJOR) – UK – October 12th-13th
  11. The Renegades 40k Open: Seeds of Destruction (34-person GT) – Wales, UK – October 12th-13th

We may as well begin with the top-line numbers:

  • Total Iron Hands players: 45
  • First Place Finish: 6 of 11 (55%)
  • Players Who Placed Top-5: 19 of 45 (42%)
  • Record: 167-62-5 (71%)
  • Mirror Match Exclusion: 151-46-3 (76%)

ITC

  • Iron Hands Players: 30
  • First Place Finish: 4 of 7 (57%)
  • Players Who Finished Top-5: 12 of 30 (40%)
  • Record: 116-44-4 (71%)
  • Mirror Match Exclusion: 102-30-2 (76%)
  • Mean Placement: 75th percentile (.247), Standard Deviation: (.199)
  • Median Placement: 76th percentile (.235)
  • Lowest Placement: 35th percentile (.65)
  • Average Points For: 28.2, Standard Deviation: 4
  • Average Points Against: 19.8, Standard Deviation: 3.7

Non-ITC

  • Iron Hands Players: 15
  • First Place Finish: 2 of 4 (50%)
  • Players Who Finished Top-5: 7 of 15 (47%)
  • Record: 51-18-1 (71%)
  • Mirror Match Exclusion: 49-16-1 (74%)

Beyond winning 6 of the 11 qualifying events outright, Iron Hands players accounted for 42% of top 5 finishes. What’s more remarkable about this, is that in swiss systems Iron Hands players are more likely to knock each other out of contention. The win rate for Iron Hands is astronomical at 71% overall in 234 qualifying games. If we control for the Iron Hands vs Iron Hands mirror matches, that win rate shoots up to 76% in 200 games. That is certainly impressive, but it’s hard to say how that measures up without taking an account of how other factions fare. If we stroll on over to 40kstats.com we can see in their Faction Breakdown that in mono-faction rankings (IH are mono-faction), the next winning-est faction since the Spring FAQ is Genestealer Cults at 53.04% with an overall average of 47.81% among factions with a minimum of 200 games. That’s an astounding ~18% and higher than the previous highest percentage mono-faction and 23% higher than the average. But that’s not totally fair, we all know 40k is played with multiple detachments and multiple factions. How does it compare to standard armies? Well when we look at faction win rates, we see the highest win percentage comes from Drukhari at 54.83% with an overall average of 50.76%, so even accounting for mixed armies, we see a win rate that is ~16% and 20% higher. These win rates are unprecedented in 8th edition. Even the terrible Ynnari did not reach such peaks, coming in around a 61% win rate at their greatest heights.

Going a little further, in qualifying ITC events, the average placing of an Iron Hands player saw them beat 75% of the other players with a median performance at 76%. The lowest-placing of any Iron Hands player in an ITC event still saw them beat 35% of the field. Let me rephrase that; no Iron Hands player ever finished in the bottom third of the rankings. That should stun you. Either the Iron Hands players are collectively some of the best players in the ITC or the army is so forgiving that just about any person can pick them up and outperform everyone else. If we dig a bit, our friends at 40kstats.com show that Drukhari lead the VP scoring category at 24.47 and hold the largest positive spread at ~2. However, the Tau actually lead in Points Against (>200 games) with 21.88. By comparison the Iron Hands average 28.2 points for and only gave up 19.8. That’s an incredible points advantage with a differential ~4 times greater than the next best at 8.4 points. Essentially what this says is that when Iron Hands win, they win big. And when Iron Hands lose, they lose very narrowly. It’s hard to impress just how far outside the norm these numbers are – they are truly unseen in 8th edition. Not Castellans, not Ynnari, not anything.

If we look at ITC Points scored within the games themselves, we can immediately see two points. First, that Space Marines are now a dominant force. Second, even among Space Marines Iron Hands stand out as a clearly superior option. Ultramarines surprisingly scored the fewest points per game, though that may be an outlier due to the low total number of lists. Ultramarines barely made the cut with 5 total lists in our sample. At 29 points per game on average, Iron Hands far outperformed the field.

Source: BCP, player total scores for the Michigan GT, Middle of Nowhere GT, Battle of the Tetons, Crucible, Harbor Heresy, and Into the Hellstorm. Total lists: 358

I think what’s even more concerning is that, while the sample is small, these numbers are relatively similar across non-ITC formats. Which really serves to put a dagger into the Internet argument of “you just need to outplay them” as they clearly excel in any format consistently. The reality is that simply playing Iron Hands gives you an outsized advantage whether you’re new or experienced. Experience just makes the advantage that much more stark.

 

The Lists

We examined all the data we could find for the results for every Grand Tournament that’s occurred since the latest FAQ that nerfed the Whirlwind Scorpius. A total of 11 events were captured; the Armageddon Series: Crucible 8 Champions GT, Battle For Salvation GT X, Fantasia 36, Harbor Heresy, Into the Hellstorm, Iron Monkey, Michigan GT, Middle of Nowhere GT, Midtcon, Seeds of Destruction, and WDW Masters. Of those events we looked at lists that only contained units from Codex: Space Marines and were either in the Top 10 or had no more than one loss. A total of 43 lists met this criteria.

Of the lists more than half were pure Iron Hands. The remaining half were a mixture of Iron Hands Successors, Raven Guard and Successors, Ultramarines, White Scars, and then 4 combinations of Space Marine factions. The chart below shows the distribution.

 

FactionNumber
Grand Total43
Iron Hands23
Iron Hands Successor (Master Artisans, Stealthy)3
Iron Hands Successor (Scions of the Forge, Stealthy)1
Raven Guard3
Raven Guard Successor (Long-Range Marskman, Stealthy)1
Raven Guard Successor (Master Artisans, Long-Range Marksmen)1
Ultramarines3
White Scars4
Iron Hands Successor (Master Artisans, Stealthy) + White Scars2
Iron Hands + Raven Guard1
Iron Hands + Raven Guard Successor (Long-Range Marksmen, Hungry for Battle)1

 

Space Marines are powerful because of the sheer quantity of options that can stack. Any model can benefit from a +1 to hit, auras to re-roll 1s for wounds and hits, and armour penetration. We know that modifiers are always more powerful than single value re-rolls, and because of the sequential die roll system used in 40K the benefit of stacked effects is significant. Assuming standard Space Marine Ballistic Skill and a target with a modifiable armour save those benefits conservatively translate to effectively doubling the offensive firepower of a unit. Don’t believe us? Do the math. A BS3+ model with a 2+ to wound against a 6+ save target has a 46% chance of dealing damage. Apply the bonuses and the probability jumps to 95%. As the save or wound roll improves the benefit only increase.

The bonuses to defense that Iron Hands receive are also significant. Two of those offensive bonuses (re-rolling 1s to hit and the -1 AP) are universally applied to every unit with a heavy weapon, and clever players will (and do) form their armies around such bonuses. When stacked those bonuses conservatively provide a 40% increase in effective firepower in a game that heavily favors shooting. A 6+ FNP effectively increases the number of wounds by every model by 20%. The Ironstone, which is easily one of the most powerful Relics in the game, is the equivalent of having an extra wound every time the unit gets shot. The same bonuses that amplify effective wounds also amplify the benefit of healing. The 6 wounds the Iron Father can heal, for example, is effectively 7.2 when applied to a model with a 6+ FNP. For vehicles the result is even more egregious when you consider that the damage tables are also mitigated. It’s no wonder Iron Hands are such an appealing list; before you even pick your first unit every model already has a significant improvement in offense AND defense. For the same price that every other Marine player pays, the Iron Hands player is getting units that are 40% more lethal, 20% harder to kill, and 100% more effective in Overwatch. 

Within the lists were a wide range of units, ranging from Thunderfire Cannons all the way down to an Astraeus. We can use this chart to see which units were most popular.

 

UnitType# Units# ListsPercent of Lists
Grand Total67843100%
Thunderfire CannonHS472967%
Scout SquadT902865%
Intercessor SquadT472456%
FeirrosHQ232353%
Eliminator SquadHS442047%
Repulsor ExecutionerHS401842%
LieutenantHQ161535%
ChaplainHQ191535%
LibrarianHQ151433%
Invictor Tactical WarsuitE331433%
Infiltrator SquadT231330%
CaptainHQ151126%
Assault CenturionsE171126%
Primaris LieutenantHQ9921%
Primaris LibrarianHQ9921%
Librarian in Phobos ArmourHQ9921%
Captain on BikeHQ10921%
TechmarineHQ9716%
Relic Leviathan DreadnoughtHS7716%
WhirlwindHS9614%
Suppressor SquadFA9614%
Mortis DreadnoughtE9614%
Tactical SquadT11512%
Centurion DevastatorsHS5512%
Venerable DreadnoughtE549%
Stormhawk InterceptorFL1249%
Redemptor DreadnoughtE749%
Primaris CaptainHQ449%
Inceptor SquadFA449%
DreadnoughtE849%
Aggressor SquadE449%
Stormtalon GunshipFL837%
StalkerHS437%
Reiver SquadE337%
Land SpeederFA637%
Kor'sarro KhanHQ337%
Chapter MasterHQ337%
Vanguard VeteransE425%
Techmarine on BikeHQ325%
Stormraven GunshipFL425%
ServitorsE225%
Sergeant ChronusHQ225%
RepulsorDT425%
Relic Deredeo DreadnoughtHS225%
Primaris ChaplainHQ225%
Marneus CalgarHQ225%
Lieutenant in Phobos ArmourHQ225%
Khan on BikeHQ225%
HunterHS525%
Drop PodDT425%
Devastator SquadHS225%
Company VeteransE325%
Chief Librarian TiguriusHQ225%
Chaplain CassiusHQ225%
Captain in Phobos ArmourHQ225%
Bike SquadFA425%
Assault SquadFA225%
Kayvaan ShrikeHQ225%
Victrix Honour GuardHQ112%
Roboute GuillimanLW112%
Relic Contemptor DreadnoughtE212%
RazorbackDT112%
Primaris ApothecaryE112%
Librarian in Terminator ArmourHQ112%
Land Raider CrusaderHS112%
Ironclad DreadnoughtE112%
Incursor SquadT112%
ImpulsorDT312%
Contemptor Mortis DreadnoughtHS212%
Company AncientE112%
Chapter Master in Phobos ArmourHQ112%
Chapter Master in Gravis ArmourHQ112%
Chaplain Venerable DreadnoughtHQ112%
Captain in Gravis ArmourHQ112%
Attack Bike SquadFA212%
AstraeusLW112%
Assault TerminatorsE112%
ApothecaryE112%

 

The most popular unit in the Space Marine book is the Thunderfire Cannon, with 67% of all lists containing at least one and a significant portion featuring multiple units. Troops make up the second and third most popular unit choice, with every list containing either a Scout Squad (65%) or Intercessor Squad (56%).

Headquarters
Iron Father Feirros is unquestionably the most popular HQ, featured in over 53% of all Space Marine lists. This is no surprise given the extensive number of bonuses he offers. Where other armies would have to pay a premium for a 5++ aura, +1 hit bonus, extensive repair capability, and considerable martial prowess Iron Hands get him for a mere 110 points. After that we see a wide distribution of supporting characters, with non-Primaris options generally preferred against their oversize counterparts.

Troops
The most popular troop option is the cheapest; disposable Scout Squads. Intercessors make up the second most popular option given their combination of toughness and offensive firepower. Infiltrators also see a presence in 30% of the lists thanks to their ability to deny deep strike within a 12″ bubble. One player decided to get handy with some plasticard and make his or her own set of Incursors. Overall the Space Marine lists seemed to heavily favor using at least some infiltrating options, and Scouts in particular make great screens and roadblocks.

Elites
Fully one third of the lists featured the Invictor Tactical Warsuit, suggesting that there truly is a part of the population that believes that looks aren’t everything. The rules for the Invictor are quite good, offering a relatively tough and fast threat that can be deployed in the front. 26% of the lists brought Assault Centurions, with most of those lists bringing multiple units. Other notable inclusions are several Dreadnoughts (Mortis, Venerable, Redemptor, and Box). In spite of the significant boost in the new codex only four lists brought Aggressors. Assault Centurions and the Invictor are both strong choices, with the Centurions being particularly effective in lists that can overcome their slow speed with flanking attacks.

Fast Attack
Fast Attack wasn’t terribly popular among the more successful lists. The most popular option was Suppressor Squads but only six lists fielded them. This could be a question of availability, or it could simply be that there are too many good options to field. Four lists each brought along one Inceptor Squad, and Land Speeders and Bike Squads also some some prevalence in a few lists. Or the issue may be that most fast attack options are outclassed by Flyers (see below).

Heavy Support
It should be no surprise that Heavy Support was by far the most prevalent unit choice, with the top three options being Thunderfire Cannons, Eliminator Squads, and the Repulsor Executioner. In spite of the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the Relic Leviathan Dreadnought (always bearing twin storm laser arrays) only appeared in 16% of the lists. Whirlwinds and Centurion Devastators were also present in more than 10% of the lists.

Flyer
Several lists brought flyer spam. The four lists that brought Stormhawk Interceptors each brought three of them, and the 2-3 lists that used Stormtalon Gunships and Stormraven Gunships each used several of them. Don’t be surprised if this becomes more popular. Both the Stormhawk Interceptor and the Stormtalon gunship lack Power of the Machine Spirit natively, so the Iron Hands Chapter Doctrine gives them a massive boost in fire efficiency. They’re also both armed with heavy bolters and assault cannons, two of the guns that benefit the most from the Devastator Doctrine AP boost. They’re also fast enough that keeping them near a Captain will be difficult normally.

TheChirurgeon’s Note: They’re basically what would happen if you designed the ideal unit for the bonuses Iron Hands get.

Lords of War
Compared to the other options the Space Marine Lord of War options aren’t terribly great. One list brought Roboute Guilliman while another decided to get some lifting in and fielded the seven pound resin monstrosity that is the Astraeus.

 

The Problem

Looking at the thirty Iron Hands and Iron Hands Successor lists that made the top 8 or only lost one game at our sample of 5-round events reveals four basic list archetypes. Note that some lists may combine elements from two archetypes, but generally speaking I think these sum up how you might expect the lists to look:

  • Repulsor Hands
    These are the lists we expected to see back when we had our first Goonhammer Round Table discussion. They make use of Feirros and 2 to 3 Repulsor Executioners, and typically include an Ironstone.
  • Walker Hands
    These lists make heavier use of Dreadnoughts, particularly Mortis Dreadnoughts, Venerable Dreadnoughts, and Redemptors.
  • Flying Hands
    These lists rely on flyers, using multiple Stormraven Gunships, Stormtalons, or Stormhawk Interceptors. They don’t all include Feirros, and some (but not all) include a bike Captain.
  • Foot Hands
    These are the lists that rely on foot-slogging units and a large mix of Infantry. If these lists include an Executioner, it’s usually only a single one. These lists are more likley to use Suppressors and Infiltrators. 

The broad variety of lists here – and Kevin’s unit analysis – serves to underline the core problem with devising a fix for Iron Hands: Namely, that there doesn’t appear to be a single (or even a pair) “smoking gun” to refer to as a unit or strategy worth removing or nerfing. We could claim the Ironstone is the issue, but it doesn’t show up in many successful lists. Likewise, Feirros also doesn’t show up in many lists, particularly those running Iron Hands Successors. Librarians are common, but left out of enough lists that we might rule out the Technomancy Discipline as the key issue. Repulsor Executioners are the most common non-Troop unit, but they also don’t show up in many lists and they show up as singletons as well as in groups of two or three.

The unit that comes closest is the Thunderfire Cannon, which shows up in nearly two thirds of top-10 space marine lists, and is likely just too strong. It was already one of the stronger units marines had and now it’s even more powerful thanks to Suppression Fire. I think there are several things that need to be adjusted, and the Thunderfire Cannon is one of them.

What about faction rules? The Chapter Doctrine might be a key factor, but we’ve also seen successful “soup” lists that mix Iron Hands or Iron Hands Successors with White Scars, keeping them from getting the Chapter Doctrine. Likewise, the Chapter Tactic has been eschewed in several successful lists in favor of custom successor chapter rules, so we might rule that out. What we’re left with ultimately is more questions than answers. It’s clear that Iron Hands are too strong in the current meta, but it’s not particularly clear why they are too strong. After all, there are at least four different ways you can build an Iron Hands list that can lead you to a 5-0 or 4-1 finish. Simply trying to raise the cost of one unit, nerf the Ironstone, raising the cost of Feirros, or nerfing the Chapter Doctrine won’t remove Iron Hands; it’ll just reduce the number of dominant builds for them.

I suspect that the problem is less the Chapter Doctrine or Chapter Tactics and more the Devastator Doctrine itself — getting a +1 bonus to AP on your army’s longest-range, highest-strength weapons from the start of the game is incredibly powerful, and too easy to play around, particularly if you can stack it with another bonus like the Iron Hands’ Chapter Doctrine, or the army’s most powerful ranged vehicles, the Repulsor Executioner and the Thunderfire Cannon. Having an entire army of AP-2 and AP-3 shooting is brutal against many armies.

 

The FAQ

Today Games Workshop released the first FAQ for the Iron Hands and Raven Guard books. Then they released a second FAQ that actually made real changes to Iron Hands, and tuned down a number of things.

Here’s what changed for Raven Guard:

  1. The Master of Ambush Warlord Trait was changed so that the Warlord must have the Infantry keyword in order to be redeployed along with the selected Raven Guard Infantry unit.
  2. As the Stratagem isn’t used in a phase, See, But Remain Unseen can be used multiple times.
  3. The Strangehold Stratagem and the Callidus Assassin’s Reign of Confusion ability stack, so your opponent could potentially have to spend two additional CP if they roll a 5+ for Strangehold and 4+ for Reign of Confusion.
  4. The Marksman’s Honour Warlord Trait and the Korvidari Bolt Relic stack, as the weapon that is shooting the ammunition is not considered a Relic.

Here’s what’s changed for Iron Hands:

  1. March of the Ancients can only be used once per battle.
  2. The Ironstone and Duty Eternal Stratagem work in the way that we expected, meaning that the Ironstone reduces damage after Duty Eternal halves it.
  3. Feirros’ Signum Array Ability changes the Ballistic Skill characteristic of a damaged vehicle to 2+.
  4. A Dreadnought that receives the Character keyword from March of the Ancients can have a Warlord trait.
  5. The Rites of Tempering ability on Feirros only gives a 5+ invulnerable save to INFANTRY models within 6″.
  6. The Ironstone only affects a single vehicle, chosen at the start of each battle round.
  7. The Souls of Iron and Optimal Repulsion Doctrines Stratagems are now 2 CP.
  8. The Machine Empathy Stratagem only lets a model re-use their ability, now no longer letting you repair the same unit twice.
  9. The Reforge psychic power can’t heal a unit that already regained wounds this turn.

These are some much bigger changes than the original FAQ put out today had, and they go a long way to curbing the really onerous parts of Iron Hands’ specific nastiness around protecting Executioners and repairing them immediately. However, given that we saw multiple lists omitting both Feirros and the Ironstone, saw Successors lists do well, and saw several Executioner-free lists perform well, it’s less clear to us that these treat the underlying problems, and rather just reduce the power of a specific type of build (one that will likely still be viable and very strong, if not still dominant). It’s unclear at this point how much heavy lifting the relic and Feirros were doing over say, the combination of the Chapter Tactic, Devastator Doctrine, Chapter Doctrine, and having strong units in the first place. It’s certainly a welcome change, but given how well Adeptus Astartes armies performed (including Imperial Fists), we’re not sure this makes the meta less oppressive.

Beer4TheBeerGod’s Note: We don’t necessarily have a perfect idea of how many lists utilized the Ironstone, as it may have been added to Successors via the relevant Stratagem. That said I agree that these changes, while significant, are more about addressing a significant edge case than rectifying what appears to be a systemic imbalance. 

 

Conclusions

James “Boon” Kelling

Pre-FAQ Commentary:

We’ve had some fierce internal discussion on this topic – where to begin? For me, the numbers don’t lie and this type of performance so shortly after release is not mirrored by any other release. What’s stunning is that the floor is so high – people will, rightfully, argue that Ynnari took some forethought and skill to play well, Castellan not as much, BUT those lists performed very well AND very poorly. Here, Iron Hands are performing very well and somewhat less well. Rob discusses how variable the lists are and that’s problematic – the meta simply will struggle to adjust to a universally dominant faction who has so many options at their disposal. What’s worse is that Iron Hands themselves have a lot of room to adjust to an adapting meta that counters the changes that other players might make. What this means in practicality is that while the top-line numbers may come down a little bit, it’s unlikely that more time and data is going to drive a significant shift.

At release I stated that their rules were a clear problem. It’s three or four weeks in and I’m convinced that it’s a competition-killing problem. Unchanged, Iron Hands will drive down attendance at small and large events equally. Some armies simply cannot counter the plethora of options and rules that overlap. Others can, but then sacrifice viability against other options. If you’re showing up to a tournament between now and any realistically effective fix, you are either ignoring Iron Hands and hoping to not face them or building a list with a counter in mind knowing that it’s increasingly one-dimensional. Why does someone want to buy a plane ticket, pay for a hotel, paint up their army, and lug it across the country/world only to lose first round in a game they had a clear disadvantage in from the moment the pairings came out? As it stands, it seems like the best counter to Iron Hands Space Marines is OTHER Space Marines which is a circular problem where more and more Marines show up creating a one-dimensional competitive scene.

That may be what troubles me most about Iron Hands, beyond their obvious tilting of the meta, is that it’s not actually clear to me that there isn’t a more fundamental problem with ALL of the supplements. I’m going to echo Rob a bit here, but Iron Hands are currently the prominent problem. But what about White Scars? Will Imperial Fists and Salamanders also be problematic? They are all built on the same underlying platform. As an Aeldari player it seems that Games Workshop has a big, new Ynnari problem on their hands – except this time it’s 6-fold in scale. GW released a Space Marine codex which was great but not unbalanced, small adjustments perhaps needed here and there. Then they layered in the supplements which brought on a whole new set of rules and units which built on an already fantastic base. This is functionally no different than how Ynnari worked with Drukhari and Craftworlds, and I’m still scarred by GW’s attempt to ‘balance’ Ynnari by hurting Craftworlds and then never reversing that change.

So how to address this? Costing is bothersome – not all units gain the same bonuses equally across the different sub-factions, Ynnari and Craftworlds are the historic example here, so where do you draw the points line? One potential option, although complex, is to cost certain units higher when selected under certain supplements. Sub-factions like Iron Hands naturally gain more benefit from things like Repulsor’s and Thunderfire Cannons due to the nature of their doctrine and rulesets – these units would be overcosted if increased for some sub-factions, but not so in the Iron Hands supplement. It would make sense to ‘tax’ these options in a book that most benefits them or alternatively to simply limit options that book has access to. That’s not likely, so what’s a more realistic method? In addition, or alternative, to what Kevin and Rob suggest, GW could conceivably limit the stacking of aura bonuses that forces the castling playstyle that so many armies currently fall into. This would limit the combined impact and force players to make choices on what effect they want during a game turn.

This all begs the question though, what if GW doesn’t appropriately address this problem or if they don’t go far enough? What if Iron Hands remains the unprecedented, game-shifting monster at every tournament? Here we must remember that GW is not the end-all be-all of how to play 40k. It is important to remember that the ITC arose entirely out of GW’s negligence in maintaining a competitive view and hold on its product. They are a company that provides a platform (the game) and rules for how to play on it. At the end of the day, Tournament Organizers own their own product (the tournament) and they need to make the decision on what is best for their tournament and their participants. If a single army has shifted the meta to such an extreme that it’s never been seen in 8th (and perhaps never before seen), then TOs need to consider what extreme options may be necessary and available to them in order to maintain the viability of their product, and then act accordingly. That should include considering whether removing the Iron Hands, or even the supplements, from their events is warranted.

 

Kevin “Beer4theBeerGod” Genson

Pre-FAQ Commentary:

I’m conflicted. On the one hand, it’s nice to have the iconic Space Marine army finally be competitive. For years Space Marines were either a complete joke or relied on a limited number of configurations like Guilliman that screwed over anyone who didn’t want to play Ultramarines. Now we see an array of options that open up a wide variety of options and approaches. We haven’t even seen what Salamanders or Imperial Fists can do but I wouldn’t be surprised if they add even more to the meta. Probably not to the level of Iron Hands, but flexibility enables exploitation. I suspect that part of the reason for the immense explosion of Space Marine armies in the meta is because so many people have one in their collection. It’s a lot easier to dust off the Astartes hiding in the back of the display cabinet than it is to paint 2000 points of a new faction. What might have taken months to occur with other factions took less than two weeks.

When 8th edition dropped I decided to start a new Primaris-only Space Marine force. I called them the Regal Skulls, painted them purple, and intentionally made a custom Chapter so that I would have the flexibility to build a list that was competitive. Originally that meant using Deathwatch, as the synergies between the Intercessors and Special Issue Ammunition made them one of the most effective options for Primaris marines. With the new codex and supplements it’s blatantly clear that any list that doesn’t use those rules is dramatically inferior (especially Dark Angels, who Games Workshop seems to actively hate). I’ve spent the last month trying to figure out what rules I want to use, and the fact that Iron Hands are so powerful makes me want to avoid them for casual play. On the other hand for competitive play the choice of Iron Hands is so obvious that I suspect the distribution of armies will be even more unbalanced in a few weeks.

Personally I’m really not a fan of banning entire armies or factions. Not only does that royally screw over anyone who’s taken the time to build and paint that particular army, but it also establishes a community-wide prejudice that leaks into casual play. Someone who has never even considered competitive play may suddenly have a negative experience when their opponents call them out for using a “banned” list. If something is so bad that it’s making the game not fun, then it falls on the community to pressure Games Workshop to change it. That said, given how blatantly unfair the Iron Hands supplement is I suspect that the competitive community will have to do something drastic. We go over the math above, but just by existing an Iron Hands unit with a heavy weapon (and they’ll all have heavy weapons) is 40% more lethal and 20% harder to kill than a regular Space Marine unit. This is a pretty egregious oversight on GW’s part, especially given how strong and flexible the core Space Marine codex is.

If given the choice, I would certainly make a few alterations. For Iron Hands I would increase the cost of the Iron Father significantly to reflect the significant number of bonuses he provides, something along the level of 50 points or more. I would also errata the Ironstone so that it directly modifies the Damage characteristic of the attacking weapon so that the effect applies before any damage division, and also consider either reducing the range so that it requires the bearer to be physically touching a model or limit the effect to one target. For Space Marines in general I would suggest one major change; modify the Chapter-specific Doctrinal ability so that it replaces the primary Doctrinal effect instead of stacks with it. For example during the Devastator doctrine Iron Hands would not get a -1 AP to their heavy weapons; they would only get the re-roll 1s to hit and the ability to move and fire without penalty. This would allow the Chapters to still be effective and also provide some additional separation between the different forces. I suspect that Thunderfire Cannons should also be closely examined; any unit which is featured in nearly 70% of competitive lists is probably under-costed.

Post-FAQ Commentary:

The changes that Games Workshop made are good ones. The lack of an invulnerable save (outside of bullshit Forgeworld units) for Astartes vehicles appears to be a core balancing aspect and changing the Iron Father’s 5++ aura to only affect infantry helps restore that balance. Limiting the Ironstone to a single model keeps it as a powerful Relic, but prevents it from being a practically mandatory choice that every list would include. Increasing the CP cost of Souls of Iron and Optimal Repulsion doctrines are also helpful changes for their particular cases. Most notably the elimination of stacking on the healing powers means that Iron Hands Vehicles are significantly easier to focus fire and that the Astartes player may actually use the lower brackets on the vehicle damage chart once in awhile. All together these changes curb some of the most excessive issues with the Iron Hands supplement and make other Chapter choices more appealing.

That said, I don’t think it’s going to do much.

What the FAQ doesn’t do is address that every unit with a heavy weapon in an Iron Hand’s force is both significantly more lethal and harder to kill than a force from a different Chapter (particularly the non-Codex chapters like Space Wolves, Blood Angels, etc). It doesn’t address the improvement in mobility that all Iron Hands models get as a result of not having a penalty to movement with heavy weapons. Games Workshop could eliminate Feirros and the Ironstone from the game and Iron Hands would still be extremely powerful because their core bonus is army-wide. Every model which takes a heavy weapon (which can easily be every unit in an army) gets an equal improvement against every type of target. No other Chapter gets such a universally applicable bonus. Ultramarines are equally mobile, but no more offensive outside of niche cases like Aggressors. White Scars are even more lethal than Iron Hands (damage bonuses are extremely powerful), but only in melee and only after two turns. Raven Guard are more lethal but only against characters (and most of the character-targeting weapons are heavy while their Doctrinal bonus requires the Tactical doctrine to be active). Salamanders got absolutely screwed with improved lethality for an extremely niche set of weapons. Imperial Fists could potentially be devastating, but like the other Chapters their ability is limited as it only works against Vehicles. Iron Hands are the only Chapter which get a universally applicable ability which is not significantly constrained by the type of target or weapon.

I suspect this is going to be a challenge way outside the bounds of balancing a single supplement. The core Space Marine codex was already powerful and generally considered well balanced, but the supplements only increase that power level with additional Relics, Stratagems, abilities, and psychic powers. In essence a Space Marine army is incomplete unless they include a supplement, which is one of the reasons why the non-Codex chapters (and nearly every other army in the game) are so weak in comparison. Armies like Iron Hands and Imperial Fists are leveraging two books worth of content where others are only using one. That isn’t going to change unless Games Workshop either applies a holistic approach to balance both the core book and supplement together, or attempts to bring every army list up to the power level of the codex armies. Neither one of these is likely to happen in the short term.

 

Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Pre-FAQ Commentary:

It’s difficult to argue with the data as James has laid it out; Iron Hands have clearly been dominant. There’s definitely a part of me that thinks that it’s too soon to make drastic changes to their rules or the rules for tournaments based on this — I think the 40k meta moves relatively slowly, and it might not be another week or two until players can really figure out Iron Hands and adjust. That said, I also just don’t see it happening. There are multiple Iron Hands lists that can get there, and the sheer discrepancy between the winning lists and everything else is too large.

The list diversity is what worries me the most, though–I am worried that, because Iron Hands are the strongest current iteration of Space Marines, they may be causing us to lose the forest for the trees. That is, nerfing Iron Hands into oblivion may just mean that another space marine army — White Scars, Ultramarines, Raven Guard, or the upcoming Imperial Fists/Salamanders — will take its place because the problem isn’t so much Iron Hands as it is Space Marines generally. As I mentioned earlier, the unit and abilities that worry me most are the Thunderfire Cannon and Suppressing Fire, the Devastator Doctrine, and the Iron Hands Chapter Doctrine, which by itself isn’t too powerful, but stacks in incredibly strong fashion with the Devastator Doctrine. Unlike the White Scars or Ultramarines doctrines, which require a player to make a decision about whether to remain in Devastator Doctrine or get additional bonuses by advancing, the Iron Hands bonus allows a player to build around their turn 1 advantages, and then sit in Devastator Doctrine all game.

Ultimately what should have happened is that the bonus for Devastator Doctrine and those Chapter Doctrines that are active in Devastator Doctrine should have provided a lesser, weaker bonus than those that require you to advance to Tactical or Assault Doctrine. After all, those can’t be active from turn 1, and so their rewards should naturally be greater. Instead, some of the strongest rewards a marine army can get are available from turn 1, and the bonuses that can be stacked on top of that bonus are just as strong as the bonuses that can become active later (though the flat damage bonus for White Scars is very powerful). I think any effective adjustment to Iron Hands has to do the following:

  1. Revise the Devastator Doctrine, making it less effective. This means reducing the AP benefit and making asymmetrical bonuses, which stinks, but it’s necessary.
  2. Increase the cost of the Thunderfire Cannon and increase the CP cost of the Suppressing Fire Stratagem.
  3. Increase the cost of Feirros by about 20 points.

I think doing those three things will solve most of the problems and bring Iron Hands back down to earth.

Post-FAQ Commentary:

Unfortunately, the FAQ we were hoping for solves some of the very Iron-Hands specific problems around Feirros and the Ironstone while not really addressing the broader army-wide abilities that make them very difficult to take down. Dreadnoughts with fewer than 10 wounds — Mortis and Venerable Dreadnoughts — only showed up in a few lists, and not in large enough numbers to realistically have to worry about an army of untargetable dreadnought characters. I don’t think this does anything to make the flyer lists less viable. I maintain that the issue goes deeper than Iron hands and as long as Devastator Doctrine is so incredibly powerful we’ll continue to see Space Marines crush other factions. Imperial Fists were also a high-scoring option in our analysis, and they’re only going to get stronger in a week when that supplement drops. So I look forward to writing our next Round Table, “The Man With The Imperial Fists: Understanding This Garbage Meta.”

 

Why Not Weigh In Yourself?

Got an opinion on Iron Hands, or opinions on our opinions? Shoot us a note in the comments section down below. Or hollar at us in a more private setting by emailing us at contact@goonhammer.com. We’d love to hear from you.

 

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