What is to be done? State of the game, September 2018

With the September FAQ due to arrive shortly, fierce debate is once again raging over how to “fix” the balance of the game. In a way this is encouraging, because it reflects the changed circumstances of 8th edition and the “new GW” – players have a realistic expectation that issues might be addressed without having to wait multiple years for a new edition reset, or the uncertain cycle of codex releases which used to be spread over a period anywhere from 3-12 years. Unfortunately a great deal of the discussion is unproductive, because players are debating at cross-purposes about different, related problems.

The key themes at present are:

  • Mono-faction armies are perceived to be disadvantaged compared to mixed or “soup” armies
  • Command-point (CP) farming is too powerful, particularly for the common Blood Angels/Imperial Knights/Imperial Guard list which was very strongly represented in the recent NOVA GT
  • Imperial Knights are too strong, and too prevalent in the meta
  • To a lesser extent, the Aeldari factions are very strong
  • At the other end, Necrons are junk, Space Marines of all kinds are poor, and Tyranids seem to have completely disappeared after the April FAQ
  • Tau are boring and unfun to play against, even if the book is reasonably strong

I’m not going to try to address all of these in depth, because that would take far more time than I have available to write. I’m mostly going to give the faction-specific stuff a miss except where it’s relevant to the more general themes.

Also, to open with a caveat. I do agree that mono-faction armies should be more capable on their own than they currently are, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that mono-faction should be the best way to play, or even that it should be top-table competitive. Equally, I don’t think Games Workshop themselves envisage the game being primarily about single-codex armies fighting each other, particularly for the factions which represent the broadest churches – i.e. Imperium and Chaos. Allies are part of the game now, and I’m not going to entertain the idea that they shouldn’t be because it’s neither a realistic path forward nor “the best way to play.”

Command point farming

The command point system is probably the most broadly-discussed aspect of the game right now. I think most people at this stage are in favour of them existing, except for the hard core of people who see them as a “CCG” mechanic which has no place in a miniatures game. To those people, I say – get over it, they’re not going away. Stratagems add a cool element to the game which would be worse for not existing.

Central to the discussion of the system are the two major components – firstly, how points are generated, and secondly, the “farming” aspect, where various abilities give players the opportunity to reclaim points, either from their own spend or their opponent’s. A lot of the proposed solutions I’ve seen are extreme – units in a detachment should only be able to use the points generated by their detachment, or points should only be available to spend within-faction, or 40k should switch to the Kill Team style where points are generated each round. Farming should be eliminated altogether, or replaced with abilities which generate a set number of additional points like Guilliman does at the moment, or CP shouldn’t be able to regenerate above your starting limit, whatever that means when so many pre-game stratagems exist. These are often tied in with the complaints about soup, since a number of common Imperium builds use a detachment of cheap Guardsmen who generate 5 CP (or 12 if taken in a brigade) and bring two of the best CP-farming tools in the game in the form of Grand Strategist and Kurov’s Aquila.

To me, these kinds of whole-system reworks are taking things much too far, and are often based more on a longing for single-faction armies without CP batteries attached than any intelligent commentary on command points. My solutions are much simpler, and target specific abilities rather than overhauling the whole thing:

  • Change all “own stratagem” CP abilities – Labyrinthine Cunning, Adept of the Codex, Grand Strategist etc. – to only work on that faction’s stratagems
  • Make all abilities which trigger on the opponent’s stratagem use a 6+, except for Thousand Sons since they don’t have an “own stratagem” equivalent that I can recall
  • Increase the points generated by the “specialist” detachments, that is Vanguard, Spearhead, Outrider, but NOT Air Wing, Supreme Command or Super-heavy

This fixes a number of problems. Firstly, it’s no longer optimal to take your Company Commander Grand Strategist Warlord with your Imperial soup army – the Guard-specific stratagems are not the key part of that build. This also means that Kurov’s Aquila may be less common, as it now costs a command point to take, and only regenerates on a 6+. Importantly, it doesn’t especially harm them for the purposes of pure or mostly Imperial Guard armies – Kurov’s is weaker, but it needs to be, and Guard have very little problem starting the game with high numbers of CPs anyway. It also means the related Aeldari phenomenon, the Black Heart Archon with Labyrinthine Cunning, is not necessarily always the best choice in a mixed army.

Secondly, it buffs mono-faction armies, and even weird builds of mono-faction armies like Ravenwing or Deathwing which primarily want to be using the specialist detachments to make their particular formations. The rule of three already does a lot of preventative work against spamming the “optimal” choice in those slots, and it means that instead of looking at a cheap detachment of Guard as a requirement to make up the command point deficit they would otherwise suffer, or just having to suck it up in the case of Necrons or Orks, mono-faction armies can shuffle their choices without having to go out of codex. Battalions and Brigades should be the core components of most armies still, but you no longer have the situation where e.g. a Ravenwing army has to contend with 4 CP, unless it makes the obvious optimal choice to staple on a detachment of Guardsmen who bring their own Warlord-farmer to boot.

Mono-factions are too weak compared to mixed armies

The above is part of the way to fixing this problem. However, there’s still more to do.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think “pure” armies are necessarily likely, or even supposed to, be optimal. Ironically, this is particularly the case where there is more souping available – for a codex like Tau or Necrons where the designers know for sure that there’s only limited options to build around, it’s much easier to design in solutions, whereas with the vast array of units available to “Imperium” it takes some delicacy not to make whole swathes of units redundant, or to add 2 + 2 and get 5 because of an unseen synergy with something in another book.

Also, to briefly address the perception that souping disadvantages the single-book xenos races, I would answer with Tau, which seem to be doing fine if not quite hitting the top tables in the very recent past. Like most things, this will tie into the third point, around Imperial Knights and their current prevalence. The issue for xenos right now is that Orks are severely outdated, Tyranids haven’t quite recovered from the significant nerfing they took after the April FAQ, and Necrons are just plain bad (despite still having the best designed set of traits in the game, in my opinion). Tau are their own problem, with a book which is weirdly limiting despite its reasonable strength, and which is deeply unfun to actually experience a game with.

Space Marines of all stripes lie at the heart of most of these complaints. It’s easy to understand why. The majority of players are Space Marine players, or at least they have a Space Marine army. They’re a core part of the game, giving it both a lot of its visual identity and also being the banner bearers for the franchise out in the world. And, right now, they suck. In the strongest builds, Marines show up only in weird, truncated forms – as Scouts, as Blood Angels slam captains, as special characters. Very early on, with the only codex in the game and an undercosted Primarch buffing everything he could see, Marines seemed like a strong faction, but their weaknesses have been rapidly exposed, through the combination of new releases trumping them and some reactionary and, at this point, clearly unjustified points increases to supposed troublemakers (Razorbacks, Stormravens, and Guilliman himself spring to mind). In that time we’ve had multiple Marine-based releases – Grey Knights (tied with Necrons for “worst book in the game”), Dark Angels, Blood Angels, Deathwatch, and now Space Wolves, not to mention their Chaos brethren in Chaos Space Marines, Thousand Sons and Death Guard. Each book has gotten progressively better, with the specialist factions offering more than the vanilla book can hope to, but they still mostly suffer from the same problem – Space Marines on the table are very fragile, offer not that much offensively, and very often don’t actually appear even in their own armies. Compounding this is the release of Primaris Marines, which are very cool, but simply not that good, which means that lots of players have exciting new armies full of great models which spend their games getting repeatedly run off the table by possibly less cool but very definitely much better Eldar or cheaper, less heroic, but vastly more efficient Guardsmen.

Again, the problems are complex and interrelated. Guilliman himself is part of the issue. Ultramarines with Guilliman are not that bad. It’s still not a strong build, but it easily could be, and I’d be curious to see how it played out with the pre-Chapter Approved points costs for units other than Guilliman himself. The problem he represents is that, much like the Alaitoc trait for Eldar (of which more another time), the book is balanced around having him. If you don’t do that, then Guilliman builds are too good; unfortunately the converse of that is that if you do balance around him, any builds which don’t include him are definably weaker. This problem is compounded because of the standardisation of points costs for units which are shared between books – so Space Marine-based books which don’t even include Guilliman as an option, and can’t take full advantage of him even if they take him in a separate detachment, are still costed as if they have him available.

Second, and more simply, Space Marine units cost too much, and in particular they cost too much in comparison to what else is out there. At 13pts a Tactical Marine is in no way more useful than three 4pt Guardsmen (who even offer a point to spare!), particularly when you account for the requirements to fill out detachments for CP, and the indefinable add-ons like regimental or Chapter traits, Orders, etc.

Thirdly, there’s the weird anomaly that Space Marine-derived codexes don’t apply Chapter/Legion traits to everything, whereas all other factions do, and a lot of them even include separate components to their traits to optimise them for infantry and vehicles. This has problems of its own (Alaitoc delenda est), but it messes with Space Marine internal balance even worse than external balance, since a huge number of their available unit choices don’t benefit from the traits available.

Finally, the vanilla Marine stratagems suck, and where these have been copied across to other books, they suck there too. They’re part of the very early design which saw stratagems as fun little quirks instead of being as good as they are now. Killshot always springs to mind for me as the worst offender here.

So, what are the easy fixes here?

  • Nerf Guilliman. The simplest fix here is to re-roll 1s to wound rather than re-rolling everything. At that point he’s a combat beast, but his buffs offer nothing an equivalent Chapter Master with an accompanying Lieutenant doesn’t. At that point, you can balance around having those abilities available, and Guilliman can be costed around the additional combat potential he offers, without also accounting for the exceptional buff he gives pure Marines. The extra, Imperium-wide benefit he offers can be accounted for on its own.
  • Rebalance points costs. I would envision Marines taking a variety of cuts, focused around basic infantry but also looking at their wider armoury, particularly the vehicles which look distinctly pedestrian. Conversely, the cheaper infantry should probably go up – the worst offenders are Guardsmen and Cultists, but also Nurgle and Khorne Daemon infantry, Fire Warriors, possibly Rangers, and as much as it hurts my heart to say it, Kabalite Warriors. Most of these adjustments would be of a single point in either direction, although I would make an argument for 11pt Tactical Marines, and differentiating them and Scouts based on what they offer in terms of movement vs. shooting potential offered.
  • Errata all Marine traits to apply to everything. At the same time, take the chance to delete Raven Guard, Alpha Legion, Alaitoc, and Stygies VIII, and replace them with an ability which is not so intensely obnoxious.
  • Change Killshot, Linebreaker, etc. to be “choose one PREDATOR, it and any PREDATORS within 6″ gain the following”  so that the stratagem isn’t easily neutered by killing a single, not very tough vehicle. Make them 2pts if that’s too good. The capitals are important – this way it hits Baal Predators as well, which makes them distinct from Razorbacks. There needs to be a broader reassessment than this (and e.g. it should be exclusive with Veterans of the Long War, no +2 to wound Predators!) but that would be a good opener.

Those changes alone would at least move Marines upwards, and make them more competitive on their own, particularly tying in with the changes to CP highlighted above – now your units are better, and it makes sense to take more of them, rather than taking Guard to make up the numbers, or flooding the board with Cultists to clog up the field rather than trying to win via actually killing stuff.

Imperial Knights are too good

The London Grand Tournament had a huge number of problems in May of this year, with terrain, with logistics, and otherwise. What was good to see, though, was the huge diversity of factions and builds represented in the upper ranks of the 40k tournament. There seemed to be a very healthy meta, with a lot of viable choices. Four months later, NOVA offers us three near-identical armies in the top 3 places, with a further 3 very similar Dark Eldar-based Aeldari builds, and some other stuff rounding out the top 10. The intervening change is the Imperial Knights codex.

Right now, Knights simply offer too much. The House Raven Castellan is a fixture of any competitive Imperium list, putting out game-changing shooting on a platform which is T8, W28, and universally has a 3++ invulnerable save. All this should be a costly investment of command points, but thanks to the swarm of Guardsmen surrounding them, and the CP they offer (and regenerate!), that isn’t really the case. I’ve already addressed the CP issue above, which will go a long way towards fixing this. In terms of the Knight book itself, I’d offer the following, very simple changes:

  • Limit Knights to a maximum 4++ invulnerable save
  • Increase the “standard” Castellan to 625pts, from 604, with a floor of 605pts, from its current cheapest build of 593
  • Increase the Knight Gallant to total 370pts (with the heavy stubber) instead of the current 354

Putting that all together, you end up with an Imperium build which taken as now has less ability to regenerate points, fewer units in it (incidental final change: make Artemia pattern Hellhounds cost what they’re meant to, i.e. 93pts, rather than arbitrarily having a 20pt discount over the codex version), and a less resilient Knightly firebase. Straight away that opens it up to be strong but not as strong as it currently is.

There’s lots more to discuss – whether Dark Eldar are too strong (they are), how to fix Necrons to not be abysmal, how to make Tau less awful to play against (change drones completely, FTGG affecting only 1 unit per charge instead of the entire army, or having to be once per phase instead of against every charge, recost Crisis suit weapons to reflect the BS4+ in the same way plasma guns are handled in the IG book), what to do about Craftworlds in a post-Alaitoc world – but we’re closing in on 3000 words here and I should actually do some work today, so I’ll leave it there. Hopefully the 3 people who read this will get something out of it in the brief window before Games Workshop release the actual FAQ and it turns out they’ve deleted Drukhari entirely and given Tyranids access to the Castellan, which is now cheaper to compensate for its added 2++ invulnerable save.