The New Maelstrom Rules and You, Part 1

The New Maelstrom Rules and You, Part 1

Keen readers of White Dwarf will have noticed some 40k rules content slipped in with this month’s battle report, in the form of a brand new approach to utilising the Maelstrom of War card deck. These new rules acknowledge the shortcomings of the Maelstrom format and give players much more control over the types of objectives they can generate in a game, allowing them to tailor their decks to their army and playstyle. The report didn’t do a very good job of showing it off, since it was narratively-focused and didn’t really talk about how the cards impacted the game, but it certainly piqued our interest here at Goonhammer as being a potentially huge improvement on the way that Maelstrom cards are generated and scored.

In this Part 1 of our 2-part series, we’ll run through the new rules, how they work, the new stratagems, and what they mean for the future of Maelstrom as a format. In part 2, we’ll cover the individual cards, including the faction-specific cards that come packaged in those sweet datacard boxes and on the last page of your army’s codex, how to build a good Maelstrom deck, and how to play better in Maelstrom games.


The Old Format – What is Maelstrom?

Maelstrom of War, or, “that thing with the cards.” Maelstrom missions, which use randomly-generated tactical objectives, first debuted in 7th edition to mixed reviews and have stuck around since, going through adjustments and iterations along the way. Despite several improvements to the objectives and mission set in 8th edition – including the introduction of the excellent Refined Strategy rule for the missions in Chapter Approved 2018 – many players have continued to ignore them. They are, with some justice, perceived as too random; there’s nothing quite as fun as losing because your opponent draws Priority Orders Received – Defend Objective 2 when his warlord is sat on objective 2, completely insulated from any assault, to sour you on the idea. Equally frustrating are the games where you draw “kill a psyker” moments after killing your opponent’s last psyker; indeed, the house rule to let you discard “impossible” objectives like this is so common that many people don’t even realise it’s not an official part of the format.

Where Maelstrom rules have seen some use is as secondary mission objectives, specifically in the “ETC style” format. With some suitable modification, they’ve served admirably to add a reactive element to the otherwise fixed Eternal War missions. Those modifications have tended to be light, though – a few changes around the edges to make the missions compatible, but mostly running things by the book.


What Changed

Building Your Own Maelstrom Deck

Under the old Maelstrom rules, your deck was pretty much the deck. You had 36 cards, or 36 objectives numbered 11-66 if you were a crazy person rolling on the table in the rulebook, and you generated them randomly in different ways depending on the mission being played – from the simple “draw 3” of Cleanse & Capture right through to the craziness of Tactical Cascade. The Refined Strategy rule from the Chapter Approved 2018 missions added a much-needed deck-building element, allowing you to drop up to 6 cards from the deck before a game, but that was about it.

The Schemes of War rules in the June 2019 White Dwarf are something else altogether. Rather than just using or modifying the standard Maelstrom deck, you construct a custom deck of objectives by picking 18 cards from those available to your army – i.e. the 36 base ones, plus the 6 faction ones (12 if you’re Black Legion). You can’t include any cards with duplicate names, which rules out stacking the deck with the same objective and also, presumably, taking multiples of the “Secure Objective X” objectives. Notably you do this before deployment and objective placement – strictly you do it when choosing your army, although how this will work in practice in a tournament setting is a matter for individual TOs.

Objective Hands

Unlike traditional Maelstrom missions, where all of the objectives a player held were active, the Schemes of War rules give each player a hand of 5 objectives that make up their Objective Hand. Your hand is kept hidden from other players. At the start of your turn, you choose three of the objectives in your hand to be your “in-play” objectives. Two of these have to be placed face up, i.e. visible to both players, but one can be face-down (and therefore hidden). You can only score the objectives that are in-play. Once you place your in-play objectives, you draw cards until you have a hand of five again.

Drawing your Initial Hand

Players start the game by shuffling their objective decks and drawing 5 cards for their objective hands, and straight away there’s something interesting here – if you don’t like your hand, you can essentially take a “mulligan” — you can put them at the bottom of the deck and draw 4 replacements. Immediately there’s a decision to make, and far greater control of the cards available to you: Before any dice have been rolled, you can cycle through 9 of the objectives in your deck to get something you’re comfortable with. This should banish, or at least significantly reduce, the phenomenon of watching your opponent draw a flush of “Defend This Objective Here In My Deployment Zone, Fucko” cards while you stare helplessly at a hand of unscoreable garbage.


In terms of scoring, you check at the end of every player turn, and must score objectives if you can (including your hidden one) and then discard them, i.e. place them face-up in a separate discard pile which effectively takes them out of the game.

Discarding Objectives

There’s some other rules here around discarding objectives, and there’s a specific carve-out for how to deal with unachievable objectives which functions more or less how people have house-ruled it in the past.

Added to this are 3 new stratagems, called Re-Prioritise (2CP), Tactical Foresight (1CP), and Determined Push (1CP). Respectively, these allow you to discard up 2 objectives to draw up to 2 more, to look at the next 3 cards in your deck and decided to place them at the top or bottom of your deck, and to retrieve 3 discarded objectives and shuffle them back into your deck.


What this means for you

So what does all this mean in terms of how the game actually works?

Well, we should start by saying we are big fans of the new Maelstrom rules. They give players vastly more control and fundamentally reduce a lot of the problems with the Maelstrom format. Each player is bringing 18 objectives to the table that they’ve chosen themselves, so every objective should be achievable, and it gives players additional control to choose cards that fit their playstyles. It makes Maelstrom objectives feel more like ITC secondaries than random victory point awards.

Beyond deck construction, cycling through cards is way faster too. Players have multiple options to cycle cards, both through redrawing their initial hand and using the new Stratagems to preview and rearrange the top cards of the deck. This further prevents players from getting stuck holding cards they can’t score, and ensures that players will have scorable objectives each round.

The new rules also codify “unachievable objectives,” which finally puts into writing a sensible system for dealing with the annoying possibility of needing to kill something that isn’t on the table.

The in-play aspect for objectives also adds a new strategic element to the format, since you can choose what you’re attempting to score and also decide which objective you want to keep hidden from the opponent (most–but not all–Maelstrom missions had player hands face-up at all times). Canny use of this can potentially give you an edge on an unwary opponent, but the requirement to place the card “in-play” should limit shell games or relevant cards magically appearing out of hands at just the right moment.

In summary, the new rules limit the randomness of the format and gives players meaningful decisions to make, without just giving up the core concept. It’s a really positive and considered change.


But what about the Maelstrom of War missions?

So maybe let’s walk that “positive and considered” thing back just a little bit.

All of the above is written in a vacuum, considering the system in and of itself. The major problem with the new rules is that that seems to be how the rules designers have approached things, too. There are no actual missions appended to these rules. They simply specify that you can use them “when playing a Maelstrom of War mission,” which implies they’re meant to be dropped in to whatever mission you might choose to play from the 18 standard ones from the rulebook and the two Chapter Approved books (TheChirurgeon’s Note: Or the 6 Cities of Death Matched Play missions).

A cursory glance at some of those missions will suggest immediate problems: Most of the variation in the Maelstrom of War missions is in how objectives are generated and refilled. So how exactly do these rules work with a mission like Tactical Cascade, which instructs players to generate two objectives for each objective scored in the prior round? What about the multitude of missions which expect you to have more or less than 3 active objectives at a time? What about the Sealed Orders mission, in which each player starts with 6 hidden objectives? It’s possible (and we’d venture to say likely) that these rules will appear in Chapter Approved 2019 with some missions to accompany them, but right now we’re working with what we’ve already got.

Individual codexes throw up their own issues with the new rules. Both Genestealer Cults and Dark Angels have stratagems that let you keep all your Tactical Objectives secret. This presumably means that they can keep their in-play objectives secret in the new format, but the codex rules were obviously not written with this system in mind, so we can only assume (and make recommendations, which you can find below).

And if we’re getting into the edgiest of edge cases, it’s also not wholly clear whether a Black Legion player can choose to draw from both the Chaos and Black Legion faction decks – they presumably can since the only restriction is that they not be named the same, but it seems slightly weird that you can now do this when you couldn’t previously have mixed and matched the two sets.

What about tournaments? 

Let’s say you wanted to run a tournament using these rules, whether it was an ETC-style thing where Maelstrom objectives formed a secondary component, or using Maelstrom as the primary or sole scoring method. As written, it seems like the objective deck is meant to be built as you build your army – i.e. it should form part of your list. That loses a lot of the flexibility the format offers you in a tournament setting, though. Similarly, you don’t want players turning up to the table with a potential 42 objectives and then sorting through them pre-game – anyone who’s seen Refined Strategy in action at a tournament will know the perils of analysis paralysis, and that’s just losing 6 cards, not 24.


Our Recommendations

We’ve been thinking about how to put these new rules into play, how to get the most out of them, and how to reconcile some of the problems we outlined above. None of these are official or binding, but until we do get an official FAQ for these (and let’s just say we aren’t holding our breaths on that one), here’s how we’ll likely do things in casual games we play and tournaments and campaigns we run.

Maelstrom of War Missions

As a general rule for friendly games, our first suggestion is to forget about trying to jam this square peg into the round hole of the missions that are out there, and use it more or less as written to form a complete mission by itself. Effectively, use the set-up rules from Cleanse & Capture (i.e. the “basic”) Maelstrom mission, and then apply the rest of the Schemes of War rules for the tactical objectives part. This should still provide for varied, fun games, since you’ll build your deck differently for different opponents, and of course Maelstrom lends itself to emergent gameplay.

If you really do want to play with the Maelstrom missions, then here are the six that you should be able to play more or less as written, albeit ignoring any rules around generating or discarding objectives. We’ve even given you a table to roll for them on:


D6 Mission Location Notes
1 Cleanse and Capture Basic Rulebook, page 230
2 Cloak and Shadows Basic Rulebook, page 234 All in-play objectives are played face-down
3 Targets of Opportunity Chapter Approved 2017, page 75 Each player discards all of their in-play objectives at the beginning of each of their turns
4 Race to Victory Chapter Approved 2017, page 77
5 Recon Chapter Approved 2017, page 79
6 Decapitation Strike Chapter Approved 2018, page 55

We’ve chosen these because they count on having 3 objectives in hand at all times and can be adapted with minimal work. If there’s another Maelstrom mission you want to play, then you’ll need to plan ahead for exactly how it’s going to work. One way to do this might be to adapt the number of cards in the deck and hand for the number of “in-play” objectives you expect there to be – for example, if the mission calls for players to have 4 objectives which would effectively be in-play, then consider making the deck 24 cards instead, with 6 cards in-hand at any one time and 4 in-play.

For tournaments, there’s a few things to think about. If you’re intending to use these rules, you will at minimum need to:

  1. Set out rules for how decks are constructed
  2. Set out how missions will work, whether that’s by using “basic” Cleanse and Capture mission mission above or by adapting existing ones
  3. Rule on the use of faction-specific cards, and on faction stratagems which affect the card deck

You will also need to consider how exactly you’re using them, because your answers may change depending on whether you’re using pure Maelstrom, ETC style, or some other weird hybrid ruleset.

If I were writing a rulespack using these, I would recommend the following:

  • Using the standard “Cleanse and Capture” mission
  • Disallow the use of faction-specific cards (this is pretty standard)
  • Ban the Priority Orders Received card (it’s wildly swingy and doesn’t work with some other objectives)
  • For faction stratagems that allow for secret objectives, rule that these allow players to place all in-play cards face down rather than face up

This leaves players with 29 objectives to pick from given that they can’t double up on “Secure Objective X” cards. That should be few enough to allow for some variation, and to allow players to prune their decks as needed before each game. Or you could consider forcing players to take a “base” deck of six Secure Objective X cards, leaving them 23 choices to fill the remaining 12 slots. Either way should allow the deck to function something like ITC secondaries, with players adapting their deck to their opponent and the game at hand.

Urban Conquest

TheChirurgeon: If you’re like me, then you’re one of the twelve people who care about Urban Conquest. That’s a shame, because Urban Conquest has its own set of Matched Play missions that are awesome, and they use a different, Cities-of-Death-specific Maelstrom deck. Unfortunately, GW are dummies and didn’t print any cards for this. In our play group, we printed our own, because we are insane. Anyways, my recommendation if you’re playing Cities of Death is to just swap out the basic Maelstrom deck for the Cities of Death one when building your deck for those missions.


Next Time: Strategy

We’ve now officially devoted more words to talking about the new Maelstrom rules than GW used writing them. Our main takeaways are:

  1. There’s new Maelstrom rules, and they’re actually really good
  2. Unfortunately, they don’t really take existing missions into account, so you may need to do some work on your own to fix those gaps

Tune in next week for our thoughts on the strategic end of all this, when we’ll cover how to build a Maelstrom Deck, and questions like “What cards are good?” “What cards are trash?” “How do you take these things and make a good deck out of them?,” and “Why are Eldar faction cards so much better than everyone else’s?” Plus we’ll also talk about good Maelstrom play, both in casual and tournament games.

Check out part 2 now!