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Analysis: Astra Militarum in 8th Ed, HQ Units

Let's analyse the HQ options available to Astra Militarum . Like all my reviews, this will be from a competitive play perspective, ...

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Army List: Mechdar Tournament Tailoring


I'm taking my Mechdar to a 1750 pts tournament this weekend and I'm still yet to finalise my list. Contrary to popular belief, there is actually a little more to building a good Mechdar army than "spam Wave Serpentz and profit". While multiple Serpents will obviously form the core of a competitive Mechdar list, the supporting elements and force multipliers you choose can make a big difference to the overall strength of the army. But even more important is how you tailor your generic list to the unique requirements and idiosyncrasies of a specific tournament format.

Generic Mechdar List

There is no shortage of Wave Serpent spamming Eldar lists available online to copy and paste, but how many Eldar players—especially new ones—really understand why a good Eldar list is so effective in the current state of the game? I will take this opportunity to share my thoughts on how a Mechdar list should be built, and the reasons behind my choices.

The Serpent's Coil

Let's start with the fundamental element of Mechdar armies for the last three Editions: the mighty Wave Serpent. I configure mine like this:
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Scatter Lasers are essentially the mandatory weapon choice, both for maximum firepower and the power of the Laser Lock special rule. I will always pay the extra 10 pts for a Shuriken Cannon to maximise the output of my Serpents. 'Conventional internet wisdom' may consider this a waste, because that same conventional wisdom would suggest that Serpents should always be at stand-off range from the enemy. When I see Eldar players keeping their Serpents at stand-off range that screams 'bandwagon-er' to me. If you played Mechdar prior to the latest Codex you would know when and where to get up close into maximum firepower range with your Serpents, and make good use of those extra three S6 shots.

Holofields are the only vehicle upgrade I indulge in; I considered them too expensive in 6th Ed to change a 5++ into a 4++ Jink, but in 7th Ed they are very much worthwhile for changing a 4++ into a 3++ Jink. Again, I disagree with conventional internet wisdom that would suggest that a Ghostwalk Matrix is another worthy addition to a Serpent, so you can get terrain cover saves and avoid the Jink penalty. And again, this screams 'bandwagon-er' to me, since if you'd played Mechdar prior to 6th Ed—back when we had to work for our cover saves—you would have the skills to get cover saves on your Serpents without Jinking or driving into terrain. So instead of spending 10 pts on a worthless upgrade I spend it to get extra firepower—and that's a good trade-off in my book.

Of course, in a Battle-Forged army list you need an infantry unit to unlock each Serpent. The cheapest way of doing this is to buy a 5-man Dire Avenger squad, and this approach has the added benefit of conferring Objective Secured to the Serpent. So our final configuration looks like this:
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
The total cost of this manoeuvre element is 210 pts. You ideally want five of these in a Mechdar list—four is the bare minimum, and you start getting diminishing returns at six or more. That will set you back 1050 pts.

Best Supporting Act

Serpents are great because multiple direct-fire S6/S7 shots carves through infantry and light armour alike, and Laser Lock enables them to shoot down flyers reasonably well too. But Serpents are not a universal panacea to all threats, they are helpless against AV14 and rather inefficient against AV13, 2+ saves and multi-wound T4 models. Serpents are also extremely vulnerable to assault. When you consider that a lot of the counters to Serpents have these characteristics (e.g. Broadsides, Centurions, Annihilation Barges, Firestorm Redoubts) it becomes obvious that your Serpents are going to need some solid support to cover these weaknesses.

Conventional internet wisdom says that you just dump 480 pts into a pair of Wraithknights. This is not a terrible approach, but it is hardly the optimal one. Sure, Wraithknights can kill hard targets with their S10 shooting and punches, but their limited shots/attacks means that an absence of hard targets (i.e. a MSU list) renders them pretty inefficient. There are also quite a few things that can burn down a Wraithknight fairly quickly, especially since they are so common in tournaments and many players will build their lists with that purpose in mind.

So what would I do instead? Well it just so happens that 480 pts can buy you three Crimson Hunters. If you first reaction to that is "AV10 is so weak!" then you need to learn how to exploit the Vector Dancer rule to its full potential. Being able to turn before and after moving gives these flyers an amazing level of positional flexibility. Use this flexibility to keep them out of range or LOS—or at least obscured for cover saves—from any Skyfire/Interceptor weapons your opponent may have. You should also be using the firepower of your Serpents to kill as many of these anti-air threats as possible before your flyers arrive. Reserve manipulation can be used to time the arrival of your flyers, and Fortifications like the Skyshield and Void Shield Generator can also be used to mitigate the low AV of Crimson Hunters.

The firepower that three Crimson Hunters brings to a Mechdar list is phenomenal. Twelve S8 AP2 shots—half with the Lance special rule—can carve through the hard targets that Serpents struggle against. And if you are playing against MSU without hard targets, the quantity of shots output by Hunters is still efficient against light armour. Best of all, Hunters are awesome at killing Imperial Knights. Using Vector Dancer you can position your flyers to fire upon all AV facings of a Knight, allowing most of your firepower to bypass the Ion Shield—even better when it's an Adamantine Lance with a rerollable Ion Shield save!

But how do Hunters help to cover the assault vulnerability of Serpents? There is no denying that Wraithknights are a good counter-assault/assault-deterrent unit for protecting Serpents, but a proper deathstar can and will still eat Wraithknights for breakfast. Crimson Hunters obviously cannot assault, but you can use their assault immunity, large bases and positional flexibility to block the charge lanes between enemies and your Serpents. Effective blocking is an extremely valuable skill to develop, and when employed well it can amplify the power of an army list beyond its apparent power 'on-paper'.

Lastly, Wraithknights offer zero anti-air while Hunters are arguably the best anti-air flyer in the game. Necron Air can still hurt Mechdar, and Hunters cover this vulnerability very nicely.

With 480 pts spent on three Crimson Hunters the total expenditure comes up to 1530 pts.

Command and Conquer

For a Battle-Forged army list we still need to fill that mandatory HQ slot. There are three different ways you can go with this choice:

  • Jetbike/Mantle Farseer
  • Jetbike/Mantle Autarch
  • Bare-bones Autarch
The combination of a Jetbike and the Mantle of the Laughing God is well-known and very effective. It allows your Warlord to either run and hide, immune to most firepower and able to Hit-and-Run from assault, to conserve a VP; alternatively it allows your Warlord to position well and attack effectively. In a Maelstrom mission it gives you an extra super-fast, super-resilient Scoring Unit, albeit without Objective Secured.

On a Farseer it allows you to zoom around and buff (Shrouding/Invisibility) or attack (Shriek) with minimal fear of reprisal. On an Autarch it allows you to bounce around your opponent's backfield popping vehicles or beating up small shooter squads. I'm a big fan of having my mandatory HQ unit contribute meaningfully to the army, rather than just being a tax for taking the Detachment, so I nearly always use a Jetbike/Mantle character.

Alternatively, you can run an Autarch naked, or with a Fusion Gun, and hide him in a Serpent. This approach is fine if you just want to minimise your mandatory HQ tax, but Serpents can and do get popped and I don't really like giving up my Warlord VP so easily. So paying an extra 55 pts to convert a liability into an extra contributing unit is worthwhile in my book.

So I'm going to run a Jetbike/Mantle character, but I still have to choose between a Farseer or Autarch. Both have their merits, but I think the Autarch is more useful in my style of Mechdar build. When you run three flyers the reserve manipulation utility of the Autarch is extremely valuable. He is handy in assault—against suitable targets—and can be used to clean-up Podding Marines or other over-extended threats to my Serpents. The Autarch's performance is also consistent and predictable, since he has no reliance on random psychic powers or casting rolls. And since I have no deathstar, or Wraithknights, I don't really need Invisibility.

I will run my Autarch in this configuration:
Autarch with Laser Lance, Fusion Gun, Jetbike and Mantle of the Laughing God [145]
I can cut the Fusion Gun to save 10 pts if necessary, but by default I'll leave the Autarch with the capability to pop tanks in the shooting phase. The Autarch brings my generic Mechdar army list up to 1675 pts:
Autarch with Laser Lance, Fusion Gun, Jetbike and Mantle of the Laughing God [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Crimson Hunter [160]
Crimson Hunter [160]
Crimson Hunter [160]

Icing the Cake

I still have 75 pts left to spend to bring the total up to 1750 pts—or 175 pts if I was playing 1850 pts, the typical tournament points limit. What can I add to this army list to meaningfully improve it?

Firstly, I can upgrade some of those Dire Avenger squads to Fire Dragon squads for 45 pts per unit. The Wave Serpents unlocked by Dragon squads lack Objective Secured, but a cargo of five Fusion Guns is a potent addition to a Serpent. In my 1750 pts army I could upgrade one unit, or two units if I trimmed the Autarch down to the bare-bones.

Secondly, I could add some Heavy Support tanks. Falcons are better than conventional internet wisdom would suggest; Falcons bring S8 AP2 firepower that starts the game on the table, unlike Hunters that must start in reserve. Plus you can deploy an Avenger squad inside a Falcon and effectively give an extra tank Objective Secured!

Night Spinners are another tank worth considering for their indirect fire. The devastating firepower of Serpents is powerless against units that can hide completely out of LOS—often on an Objective! Having one or two indirect firers adds a lot of flexibility to a Mechdar army. Plus the torrent flamer mode of fire is great for cleaning off Podding Marines or other Deep Striking threats that get too close to your mech.

A Fortification can be a useful addition to a Mechdar army, even if it's just something to deploy hidden behind when going second. The two that I really like are the Skyshield and the Void Shield Generator since these complement my Crimson Hunters. Flying onto the platform or into the shield zone greatly enhances the resilience of Hunters, especially against Interceptor fire, and allows you to forego Jinking for maximum output. The VSG is probably the better option since it really helps to protect dismounted Avengers camping Objectives from nasty infantry killers like Wyverns and Helldrakes.

Filling empty Troops slots with minimised Jetbike squads can really help you in Objective missions, at the cost of a liability in KP missions.

And then there are some more exotic options if I was to splash another Faction into the army. An Inquisitor with Servo Skulls to keep White Scars in their deployment zone? An Assassin to add some specialised utility?

But which of these options should I apply to my Mechdar list for this upcoming 1750 pts tournament? To answer that question properly we have to stop building a generic army list and start tailoring to specific tournament conditions.

Metagaming: The Missions

This tournament is using missions seven, eight and nine out of the FTN Mission Pack. Here is a quick analysis of these three missions:

Round One

This is basically a modified Maelstrom mission with both players striving for the same Objective, which changes each turn. The key issues with this mission are:

  • No Random Game Length
  • 'Penalty shoot-out' style scoring—if you miss a scoring opportunity then there is no way to catch up unless you can actively deny your opponent from scoring
  • First Blood/Warlord/Linebreaker only matter if you draw the penalty shoot-out
  • No tactical advantage to moving last—go first if you can!
Looking at these Objectives I know that I will probably struggle to score in turn five, unless I can beat-up a soft target with my Autarch. A better option would be to seek to actively deny opposition scoring that turn by 'running away bravely' to keep out of assault. I'm confident that I have the mobility and firepower to score every other turn.

Warlord is not really a liability in this mission so a bare-bones Autarch could be a viable option—but then a Jetbike/Mantle Autarch is my only real option to score in turn five. The indirect fire of a Night Spinner would be useful to ensure I can score on turn six, in case my opponent tries to hid out of LOS on the final turn.

Round Two

This is an unusual mission; it uses turn-by-turn scoring like a Maelstrom mission but the only Objective is to claim table quarters other than your own. It also fudges the scoring rules by making them more like 6th Ed than 7th Ed. I really dislike rules-fudging in custom tournament missions—no, amateur TOs, you're not improving the game, leave the damn rules alone!

The key issues with this mission are:
  • Infantry have to dismount to score—disadvantageous for Mechdar
  • Transports lose Objective Secured—disadvantageous for Mechdar
  • Scoring is purely quantity-based—advantageous for any mobile MSU army
  • First Blood/Warlord/Linebreaker only matter if you draw the table quarter tally
  • No tactical advantage to moving last—go first if you can!
I really think that the irrelevance of the Secondary VPs and the lack of any tactical advantage in going second are extremely poor mission design. If I hadn't been personally invited to this tournament by a TO that I respect then I would not be playing this nonsense.

While a first look at this mission might leave you thinking that it favours offensive armies—since you can't score your 'home' table quarter—the equally valid defensive army tactic is to hold your home quarter so securely that you never concede 2 VP for losing it to the enemy.

This mission both helps and harms a Mechdar build. The capability to move all your units all around the table each turn to maximise your scoring is a big advantage. Losing Objective Secured from Avenger Serpents is unfortunate, as is needing to dismount to score. But since scoring is tallied each player turn, there is no way that your opponent can counter your rapid redeployment; if he has three units in a quarter then you zoom in exactly four units and claim your VP, thank you very much.

I think the best way to play this mission against most opposition would be to dismount all my Avengers and hide them in my home quarter, then zoom around with my tanks to score VP. This should force my opponent to commit several units to claiming my home quarter and give me more freedom to score around the table; alternatively they just turtle-up and I farm the neutral quarters for VP.

This mission influences list design by reducing the importance of Objective Secured, making Dragons more appealing, and also increases the appeal of taking a VSG to protect dismounted Avengers in my deployment zone. It also makes a Jetbike/Mantle HQ more valuable as it gives me an extra mobile scoring unit. Indirect fire would also be valuable in this mission if my opponent has a similar idea to me and camps dismounted infantry in their deployment zone.

Round Three

This is basically an Eternal mission that combines two home Objectives, three midfield Objectives and KP differential. And it uses First Blood/Warlord/Linebreaker normally. The tactical dilemma of shoot first vs. move last is also relevant in this mission. Finally a sensible scenario! 

This mission is not really going to influence list design.

Overall Mission Influence

Mechdar should generally do well in these missions. A Jetbike/Mantle Autarch is looking like a good option since I could to be very aggressive with him in two of three missions without adverse consequences. While one mission devalues Objective Secured, it remains a valuable special rule in the other two rounds so I can't just minimise Avengers to get more Dragons.

Analysing the missions really makes me want to find room for a Night Spinner. I think that hiding infantry will be a popular tactic in two of three missions, and I need a way to counter such shenanigans. The Autarch zooming into backfield to beat-up soft infantry will complement the indirect fire of a Spinner.

I also want to fit in a VSG to protect the infantry I will most likely have to hide dismounted in the table quarters mission. Plus the VSG itself would be an extra scoring unit to occupy the home quarter. Since I'm running three Crimson Hunters the protection of the VSG will be useful in all missions.

But before I make any list changes, there is more metagaming to consider.

Metagaming: The Terrain

From past experience playing in tournaments at this venue, I know that tables tend to be pretty sparse, but most tables do have some big LOS blocking pieces. This makes me want a Spinner even more, to kill hiders. It also makes me want to bring a Fortification even more, since I can combine it with the LOS blocking terrain to make big hiding zones of my own.

Metagaming: The Opposition

I really have no idea what I'll be facing at this tournament, so I can't do any list tailoring to counter expected big threats. This tournament is supposed to be a competitive event, but tournaments in my area are typically pretty soft, so I don't know if I will be facing Adamantine Lances, Daemon/Nid Flying Circuses, White Scars, Pod Assault, or even other Mechdar. Maybe someone will bring a silly psychic deathstar and hope not to face a Culexus.

Supers/Gargantuans are restricted to 33% of total points (i.e. 583 pts) with no ranged D weapons, but that does not prevent Stormswords or Lynxes from unleashing some big bad Ignores Cover firepower on my Serpents. Imperial Armour is also fairly popular in my area so I could be facing some nasty Sicarans too.

So I'm not going to bother fiddling my list to bring Servo Skulls, Assassins or anything else to specifically counter expected threats. I will instead rely on effective fire and manoeuvre tactics and the inherent strength of Mechdar, the protection of the VSG against Ignores Cover shooting, and the firepower of three Crimson Hunters to deal with Supers/Gargantuans or mass flyers.

Putting It All Together

My generic 1750 pts Mechdar list only had 75 pts spare, and I really want to fit in a Night Spinner and a Void Shield Generator. The only way I can do so is to drop a Serpent, leaving me at the bare minimum four I need for raw firepower but with a lot more utility relevant to the tournament missions.

Dropping a Serpent saves me 210 pts, adding a Night Spinners costs me 140 pts and a VSG costs another 100 pts. This cuts 30 pts out of the 75 pts of fat left in my list, leaving me with the exact 45 pts needed to upgrade one Avenger squad to Dragons. The final list looks like this:
Autarch with Laser Lance, Fusion Gun, Jetbike and Mantle of the Laughing God [145]
Fire Dragon Squad [110]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Dire Avenger Squad [65]
Wave Serpent with Scatter Lasers, Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [145]
Crimson Hunter [160]
Crimson Hunter [160]
Crimson Hunter [160]
Night Spinner with Shuriken Cannon and Holofields [140]
Void Shield Generator with three Projected Void Shields [100]
We'll see how this goes on the weekend. Between now and then I still need to finish my Jetbike Autarch conversion, so back to the painting table!

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