Warhammer 40k General Army Building Strategy

Imperial Eagle

In Warhammer 40k, there are certain concepts that nearly every competitive list needs to implement in order to compete.  Now, I originally wrote this back in 5th edition in preparation for an ‘Ard Boyz tournament in a discussion about Warhammer 40k general army building strategy.  However, while the power lists may have changed, the core concepts behind them have not changed.  [Any comments about the changes between editions will be in brackets such as this.]

The four concepts are redundancy, focus, threaten and efficiency (someone go ahead and come up with a clever acronym – I’m not good with them). While few (very, very, few) lists can get away without keeping them in mind, these lists are few and far between, and since 3rd, marines have not had that luxury[And they still do not]. With that being said, something I appreciate about 40k is you can avoid the cookie cutter lists and remain competitive. However, you still need to ensure that you are able to properly handle the threats provided. You can go with a combined shooting/assault aspect, and it can sometimes work.

These four concepts are highly reliant on something nearly all 40k players “know”, but may not consciously realize. 90% of the damage of a squad comes from 10% of its members, usually some kind of squad leader, and 1 or 2 special/heavy weapons guys. You’ve applied this for years likely, by removing the upgraded models last. Basically, most of the squad (for a tactical, 7 men) exist simply to die such that the rest of the squad can do maximum damage. Let me say that again so it sinks in properly – most of the guys in the squad are there to simply die. Again, there are a few exceptions to this – notably Terminators and vehicle squadrons. But now, into the four concepts.

Redundancy is the concept of having multiple solutions to each problem that exists in the 40k tournament environment. It sounds intimidating at first, but most problems can be boiled down to a core few. This is the most important concept for a competitive list. Ignoring everything else, you MUST be able to answer everything the opponent can throw at you in multiple ways (3+ is really preferred), especially at 2500. There’s really no excuse with that many points available to you. A short list of these are monstrous creatures / characters (look at being able to handle the Bloodthirster/Nurgle Daemon Prince and you pretty much cover all of them, but you want to be able to handle 8 MC for Nidzilla), 3+ AV 14 (monoliths or land raiders)[You won’t see monoliths any more], 12+ AV 12 (chimeras are the common one here)[This is much less common now], ridiculous deathstars (seer bike council, nobz bikers, incubi, etc), fast threats (kind of catchall for the likes of hammerheads and their ilk, along with some mech infantry) and massed infantry (180+ models, although these lists are rather weak these days)[Were then and still are].  [Critically, what this list is missing is fliers, which for the most part replace massed AV 11-12.]

Focus is the concept of having a goal for each unit, and tuning its weapon options, model count and gear choices to that goal, and that goal only. Think of it this way. Every turn your weapon upgrades aren’t firing on their preferred targets is a round these shots are wasted. A squad can only shoot at 1 target a turn, and if it’s trying to get stuck in, it isn’t going to spend much time shooting! There are five roles that really appear in the game of 40k – ranged AT, ranged AH, assault, tarpit and utility. If you can’t describe what the unit is going to do for you, it probably needs to go.

One exception to this rule is at lower point levels, especially 750 and below. Sometimes, it can be difficult to focus units and still fulfill redundancy – if that’s the case, you can let focus slide for the sake of redundancy.

There are very few units in each list that are able to get away with trying to fill multiple roles. No, not that unit. Not that unit either. Pretty much the only unit able to do this for Space Marines is the Land Speeder[Not really anymore], and sometimes the Dreadnought[Just no.], but not very often. The Land Speeder gets away with this for a couple of reasons. First, mobility – it has high speed, a small profile and is a skimmer, all meaning that it is easily able to get to whatever position it needs to in order to get the maximum effect out of whatever weapons it does fire in the turn. Its cost is dirt cheap (70 for MM/HF) and is relatively resilient for its point cost, especially with the buffs to vehicles in 5th ed. This really is the Land Speeder’s golden age. The Dreadnought can, to a much lesser extent, perform a similar function. Even short of a weapon, he still provides a solid, resilient melee option, and since his weapon options are cheap, he can provide a dual threat. However, his dual threat is more tarpit/ranged rather than melee/ranged, and speed plays a HUGE factor here – he’s a lot less fluid than a Land Speeder is, and thus not nearly as effective in this dual role. [Neither Land Speeders nor Dreadnoughts have continued to hold their worth.]

Threats are kind of an additional role that I spoke of earlier, but they’re important enough to mention separately. Every battle plan is flawless until the enemy is involved – and the threats are what screw up battle plans. These are the units that force your opponent to play around them, adjust his plan, and basically make him play on the fly, rather than his preferred and practiced plan. The more a player is forced off of their normal tactics, the more openings for mistakes appear. You immediately seize control of the game, forcing your opponent to react to you. This works even better if you are able to predict their threats. If you can effectively nullify their threats, essentially having their neutralization as a part of your normal plan, you already have a huge advantage in the battle. Threats are really what buy you time to get your crucial elements into play how you want.

Efficiency is kind of a catch all a handful of other things. The primary way this is done is by spending the least amount of points to get the most effect. There are also some side considerations as well however that might not be as obvious. These include making sure that your points that you spend are well protected, especially if you rely on those points spent to perform a role. Also, you want to make sure that the models you spend points on are able to get where they need to go to be most effective. This last one is critical – if you’re spending points on solutions that aren’t getting used, you’re not only wasting points, but you’re assuming you have something covered that you really don’t. Another important part of this is there are no bonus points for overkill, something a lot of players haven’t quite realized yet.

To provide a more specific example, I’ll go into how Space Marines, one of the more popular armies, can be run.  First, your strategy will need focus. Typically this means shooty or assaulty, but marines can pull off a kind of “dual threat” list. There’s a reason why the slang is MEQ[Marine EQuivalent] – it’s because marines are the benchmark everyone else uses. Better than us in assault? That makes you an assault unit. Better in shooting? You’re a shooty unit. Why do you care? Basically, you need to be prepared to move into whatever role your opponent is vulnerable to. With a “dual threat” list, you are never going to out-shoot Tau, Eldar, Necrons, Imperial Guard and hell, even some Ork armies. You’re never going to out-assault CSM, CD, Orks, Tyranids or Dark Eldar. So what do you do? Play like a Space Marine.

What that means is you need to shoot their assault units, and assault their shooty elements. This sounds obvious, but a lot of people get this part wrong. You only need to soften up their assault units to the point that your assault units have an easy clean-up – that’s what your assault units are there for. Against a shooty list, you need to assault their elements that your shooting units will not have an easy time dealing with, if nothing else to stop them from shooting.

Even with that strategy in mind, you can really take it one of two ways – aggressive or defensive. If you go aggressive, you need a mobile firebase (think dp tacs, land speeders, vindicators – a mix of things that can get there now and some units that put out strong damage on the move)[Fliers replace Land Speeders here, and sometimes Devastator Centurions or Legion of the Damned apply] and an efficient assault wing (dp squads, ds terms, dp dreads can serve as this wing, but there are other ways to do it, just make sure it synergizes!)[Replace terms and dreads with Honor Guard and Command Squads]. This way relies more on the firebase to neutralize threats to the assault wing, while the assault wing sweeps in and does their thing. This often evolves into the popular flank crash, using the Space Marines few units and models to its advantage.

Defensively, your list would revolve around a gun line that still retains mobility if pressed (predators, shooty dreads, razortacs are popular choices here, as well as vinds) but that has a strong counterattack element (assaulty squads in transports, not DP, some dreads).

Hope you enjoyed this blast from the past that’s been updated to reflect current Warhammer 40k general army building strategy.  Think I missed something?  Are there other exceptions or units I missed?  Let me know in the comments below.

One thought on “Warhammer 40k General Army Building Strategy

  1. As a relatively new 40k Player (as far as mechanics go), I found this helpful for getting the general idea of a successful build. It’s also relieving to know that the same meta-concepts from other strategy games, whether Starcraft, TCG or other genres, still hold true. Now all I need is to familiarize myself with the mechanics and increase my unit knowledge (along with a lot of practice of course).

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