Building an effective army list
Initially posted on 24 Oct 2017. We’ve had 2 Chapter Approved releases since then and a whole slew of codexes so am updating this article to keep up with the changes. I don’t think the main list archetypes have changed much so will mainly be updating the examples and including Knights (both Imperial and Chaos) to the mix.
What do you want your army to do?
We all want our lists to win games. Sometimes the idea for an army comes from wanting to bring and build around a few cool units and sometimes, it's about the lore that you create for your own force. Sometimes, it's simply about bringing the best units available in a Codex (or Codexes in the case of Soup armies). The question is, how do you go about that?
First, let's look at the core of what your army is meant to do. Is it meant to win by tabling the opponent (a lot more difficult with CA2018’s missions)? By scoring objectives in the first few turns and denying your opponent his/hers? Or maybe you want to win by attrition and grinding your opponent down?
To do that, you will need to understand the missions you will be using the list for as they will largely determine the lists you build. Are they ITC Champion's Missions or from the main rulebook or Chapter Approved (CA2018’s missions are great btw)? Are they Eternal War or Maelstrom missions? Your answer to the questions above can result in a different optimal list though there might be some similarities across the variety of missions/lists.
For example, in a standard rulebook No Mercy mission, you win by killing more units than the opponent. It follows then, that you will want a few large units that have both staying power and relatively large amounts of firepower. MSU (many small units) type lists will get destroyed in these missions. For the ITC Combined Arms version of No Mercy, victory points for the Eternal War segment are scored via a destroyed unit's Power value instead of simply destroying more units. That changes the whole dynamic as now you are looking across units' capabilities vs their power level rather than just their capability. None of these mission types require fast-moving or manoeuvrable units that naturally shine in objective-capturing missions like Scouring or Retrieval.
ITC's Champion's Missions are a different beast altogether as they allow you to pick your own “secondary” objectives which you can then tailor to your army rather than make a more versatile army tailored to the other types of missions.
Regardless of mission parameter, here are the common archetypes of armies you will find across the factions. Some factions populate certain archetypes better than others and elements of each archetype can also overlap.
Previously Militarum Tempestus Scion deepstrike spam; T'au Commander spam, and Guiliman + Stormravens. These lists focus on crippling the opposing army or their key units by either going first or remaining safely off the table until the opportunity presents itself (usually on turn 1). We’ve seen a lot less of these types of lists since the first Chapter Approved (2017) came out and since Deep strike has been relegated to the second turn (in the current 2018 beta ruleset). Mostly a combination of other lists now with a potential first turn hit in the form of kraken/swarmlord/stealers or T1 Dark Matter Crystal Warptimed Tzaangor bomb, or Ork Da Jump bomb, or a Quickened Ynnari Shining Spear unit.
Vehicle or infantry or Monster heavy lists. Invalidates certain portions of enemy's firepower and attempts to overload an opponent's ability to deal with threats. Examples are an all infantry Death Guard army or an Astra Militarum Tank Company. With the addition of Thousand Sons, Cultist spam got a lot better as well due to the addition of Tzaangors in the list while Poxwalkers got hit with being unable to bring a unit size above their starting number without reinforcement points. Orks are able to do it particularly well with Lootas and 120 Boyz while Knights take the other extreme end of the spectrum with lists including a combination of Questoris and Dominus chassis and a sprinkling of Armigers.
MSU (Multiple small units)
These lists take multiple minimum sized units to make prioritising targets difficult for the opponent if they all perform similar functions. Small units can also waste enemy firepower from overkill as 20 bolter shots will tend to do more damage focused on 10 Fire Warriors than on 2 gun drones. Even though all units have gained the ability to split fire this edition, allocating the right amount of guns becomes tricky even with average calculations as the dice may not always roll the way you want them to and leaving a single drone alive can be detrimental to your mission if it still holds an objective at the end of the game.
MSU lists are also less affected by roll offs to see who starts first rather than automatic first turns in the base rule book's missions as they tend to have 20+ deployment drops. These drops are also unaffected by CA2018’s Eternal War and Maelstrom missions as players deploy their whole army at one go rather than take turns deploying units. A lot of factions can do this well including Drukhari (venoms with 5 man units of Kabalite warriors), Sisters of Battle with their new beta codex, and Crimson Fist Marines now as they benefit from having small unit sizes (Aggressors and Centurions come to mind).
Can be fit into the Spoiler archetype but I felt that this might deserve a category of its own due to its uniqueness. Character lists typically bring 6 or more characters that benefit from not being able to be targeted unless they are the closest target (this was changed with the changes to characters with less than 10 wounds no longer being able to “block” for other characters). Imperium lists used to do this by bringing 2+ Culexus assassins as they force the target's BS and WS to become 6+ when targeting them, making them a lot tougher than their T4 W5 profile suggests. Their supporting cast are usually other hard hitting or survivable characters such as Saint Celestine (who performs a different role as of CA2018), Roboute Guilliman and other Imperial Assassins. Character focused lists post FAQs need some form of front line support to prevent the characters from being picked off.
An old term from the 6th and 7th edition of the game, these are lists that bring a single dangerous and resilient unit and focuses buffs and psychic powers on them. Used to be Thunderwolf Cavalry with Invisibility psychic power (in 7th ed). The closest approximation this edition thus far might be 10 Blightlord Terminators with the Death Guard Cloud of Flies stratagem (up till the FAQ that prevented CoF being used on the turn they deepstrike), and augmented by Chaos psychic powers such as Prescience and Warp Time. Am currently unable to think of any specific 8th edition list that still uses this principle due to the speed at which units tend to die this edition.
TAC - Take All Comers
The most often seen archetype and the name speaks for itself. The list tries to cover all the bases and has tools (also called Toolbox list for a reason) for every kind of threat. These lists tend to have a few anti-tank/monster weapons, a few anti infantry weapons, long and short ranged threats and both speedy and slow units. More reactive than proactive.
New addition: Resilient lists
With the way primary objectives are scored in ITC Champions missions, a new type of list has seen success in the circuit. These lists tend to bring units that are difficult to kill in 1 turn of fire (like Plagueburst Crawlers or large blobs of infantry anchored by a character that gives them fearless) and get ahead in the first few turns via the ITC Champ Missions’ primary objectives (Killing more than the opponent). These lists do tend to be slightly more restricted in their options as they cannot take small units that are easy to kill (like 10 man cultist squads) and so either tend to have a lack of CP, shooting firepower, or board presence (from having a small number of very tough units unless those are fearless blobs). They then attrition the opponent out by having taken enough of an early lead via killing more units a few turns in a row while keeping the secondaries and objective-holding primary on an equal footing.
While making your own lists and taking a look at what successful lists there are out there, you might come across a term called “meta” more often than not. Meta can mean a number of things but is most often used to describe the most effective strategies within a game (the best heroes to take in a MOBA for example). For example, multiple Malefic Lords were previously in almost every successful Chaos army in the ITC circuit in 2017 and you would have been hard pressed not to find units of Conscripts and a Commissar Imperial armies before the Commissar fearless nerf. Another term for these units could be overpowered but that’s not necessarily true in the current context. It will depend on what you might come up against most often and the tools you have available to deal with those obstacles. Going deeper, a metagame (game within a game) has somewhat evolved in 40k. With the release of the Imperial Knight and Ork codexes, the game seems to have moved into a rock/paper/scissors type of meta. Bring insufficient quantities of S4 or S5 multi-shot weapons and you’ll get overrun by the Ork horde. Bring too many vehicles and monsters and they’ll get wiped off the board by the Castellan that might have gotten the first turn.
In a local tournament scene with mostly tank companies or multiple titanic units (Imperial Knights, Wraightknights, etc), your most effective tool available would be deep striking Meltaguns, long-ranged Lascannons, Harlequin Haywire cannons, or just a Castellan. At the other end of the spectrum, if your local scene consists of armies of conscripts, horrors, poxwalkers, cultists, or ork boyz, your most effective tools to deal with them might be mortar teams, space marine scout bikes, taurox prime spam (while it last… =P) or the new Sisters of Battle storm bolter spam . The specifics might differ from battle to battle but communities usually have a general META and tailoring to that meta, though risky at times, can yield dividends when you meet the right lists.
I tend to look at the following characteristics when looking at lists (both mine and of those whom I play against) and units and mentally classify them into roles. For example, Dark Reapers are 100% firepower units with a fairly low resiliency so if I see them across the table, I know they need to be taken out as soon as possible (of course depending on my own units and whether the opponent starts them in a wave Serpent). If a unit has a lot of resiliency like Cultists, Conscripts, Orks, or Plague Bearers that are tough to kill or do not need to take morale checks/lose very few models for failed checks (like Valhallan Conscripts with a character with "Pietrov's Mk 45" nearby), then it might be better to ignore that unit in favour of shooting say the heavy weapon teams or Manticore tanks parked behind them.
- Resiliency (how much of a pounding your list can take and keep firing back or scoring)
- Firepower (damage output. Anti-vehicle vs anti-infantry)
- Bubblewrap (how many models that need to be killed to get to the core of the list)
- Utility (Infiltration, Deep strike, transport, misc)
- CP usage (a lot more important with each codex that has been released)
How you go about using these characteristics is up to you as there is no fixed ratio or solution and can depend on your local meta. Different types of lists will want varying proportions of the above and it comes down to what you're comfortable with, the models you have available, as well as the purpose of the list (once again, what you want your army to do).
They are merely useful pointers to keep in mind while making your list. There is a useful tool however, that I find myself using from time to time. A checklist when building lists or analysing opponents' armies.
How am I going to score my own objectives
How am I going to deny the opponent's objectives
How do I deal with tanks/infantry/characters
Do I have any utility units
Which units have good or interesting interactions with other units in my army
How many Command Points do I need
Be realistic with yourself when filling out the checklist. Yes you might be able to foot slog Grey Hunters across the board to take enemy objectives but how long are you going to take to get there? Are they more effective than Skyclaws or Wolf Scouts? You do not need to ensure every tick in that list is checked but you need to know what you are going to do when you come across something that your list may be lacking in.
Understanding lists and units are just one-third (but a crucial third) of the battle. Only when you understand list-building and what each unit is meant to do, can you prioritise your movement and target priority during the game (the 2nd third) and hope your dice rolls (the last and uncontrollable third) come out decent.
I hope you've enjoyed reading the article and are able to put the ideas in here to good use. Do hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any feedback, questions about your list or feel that I might have missed something out. Would like to hear your opinions about the topics and if there're any topics or review that you'd like covered in the next few articles. Till next time!
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