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Thursday, 7 May 2015

Tutorial: MSU Army List Design

The MSU (Multiple Small Unit) approach to army list design was commonly understood and widely employed many years ago in the latter half of 5th Ed. It fell out of favour in 6th Ed, but strangely has not resurged in 7th Ed—even though it naturally synergises with Maelstrom missions and counters 'titanhammer' very nicely. With Codex Eldar Craftworlds sparking a new wave of D weapon proliferation, I expect MSU to quickly regain its rightful place as king of army list paradigms—if enough players understand how, and why, to do it.

What is MSU?

MSU stands for 'multiple small units'. When referencing individual unit configuration, it typically means 'minimise individual unit size/options so you can afford multiple copies of that unit'. When referencing overall army list design, it typically means 'include as many units as possible, with no single lynchpin unit'.

MSU list design is all about efficiency and redundancy. Only take units you really need. Take multiple copies of each unit so you can fight on through your losses. Don't spend points you don't need to spend.

Done properly, MSU lists allow skilled players to overwhelm their opponents' capacity to effectively target-prioritise. They enable you to quickly establish and maintain board control so you can dictate the flow of the game. And they allow you to laugh at your opponents' titans and deathstars with their 300+ pts uber-death-guns-of-death as they annihilate 50 pts transports.

This is the MSU way.

Why Does MSU Work?

I could write a lot about the fundamental flaws in 40k game mechanics that the MSU approach exploits, and delve into the Discrete Uniform Probability Distribution that the D6 system represents—but I'll keep this as concise as possible. There are two features/flaws in the 40k ruleset that make the MSU approach so effective:

  • You cannot kill what you cannot target
  • There are no prizes for overkill
The former point references the rules that force units to fire all their weapons at one target (Supers/Gargantuans excepted), and only charge the same target they fired at. Any one unit, no matter how powerful, can typically only kill a single enemy unit each turn.

If one player fields an army comprising twenty units, and his opponent fields an army comprising only five units, then it will take the latter player at least four turns to wipe out his opponent, even with perfect dice; in contrast, the former player could table his opponent on turn one if he was likewise favoured with perfect dice.

The latter point references the rules that confine damage to the targeted unit; if a powerful shooting attack inflicts 20 unsaved wounds on a 10-wound squad then it will be wiped out, but the excess 10 unsaved wounds are wasted. This limitation is amplified for D weapons, because the wounds inflicted by such attacks are confined to individual models.

Very briefly addressing the D6 system, consider that a roll of 1 typically means a failure, and a roll of 6 typically means a success; there are only six possible outcomes when you roll a D6, and two of those six outcomes represent 'extreme' outcomes. Why does this matter? Consider a hypothetical duel between a Guardsman and a Riptide:

  • My lowly Guardsman hits my opponent's mighty Riptide with his humble Lasgun; if I roll a 6 To Wound and my opponent rolls a 1 To Save, then that Riptide takes a wound, despite the huge power mismatch between the two models.
  • Conversely, the Riptide shoots his devastating Ion Cannon back at the Guardsman; if he rolls a 1 To Wound, my Guardsman is safe—alternatively, if my Guardsman goes to ground and I roll a 6 To Save, then he is again safe despite the odds.
The point is that if you roll enough dice to attack the enemy, and force your opponent to roll a lot of dice in response, then you create lots of opportunities to get 'lucky'—or make your opponent get 'unlucky'.

How Does MSU Work?

MSU army lists maximise the advantage of two critical and interrelated characteristics:

  • Threat Distribution
  • Damage Compartmentalisation
Taking advantage of these characteristics will allow you to win any game of 40k, no matter the mission, no matter the opposition. Beginning and intermediate players often fall into the trap of thinking that army lists are the primary deciding factor in game results; elite players understand that army lists are very important, but only insofar as they give you tactical options that enable you to outplay your opponent.

Threat Distribution

Put simply: spread your firepower around. You do this for two reasons:

  • You can split or concentrate your firepower as appropriate to the tactical circumstances
  • You cannot lose all your firepower from a single enemy action
Another advantage of Threat Distribution is that it makes tactical decision-making a lot harder for your opponent. If your army comprised a deathstar and a handful of supporting units, then your opponent knows that he just has to kill or neutralise that deathstar to cripple your entire army; conversely, if your army comprised twenty units of similar power, then effective target prioritisation is orders of magnitude more difficult.

Damage Compartmentalisation

The 40k ruleset inherently compartmentalises damage; when a unit is destroyed, no extra damage carries over to other units in the same army. MSU armies maximise this advantage by ensuring that the loss of any single unit is tolerable; if you field twenty units and lose one then you are still 95% effective.

MSU armies also typically upset the power balance of opposing armies that invest heavily into very powerful attacks—as stated earlier, there is no prize for overkilling your target. If you field a Super-Heavy or two then your opponents' D weapons will function at peak efficiency; if you field a dozen AV11 tanks instead, then those exact same D weapons are no better than ordinary Lascannons, at a far higher price.

Both quality and quantity factor into Damage Compartmentalisation. Compare two squads of ten Space Marines to four squads of ten Imperial Guardsmen:

  • It takes six Bolter hits to kill one Marine, while those same six Bolter hits would kill four Guardsmen
  • However, six Plasma Gun hits would kill five Marines or five Guardsman in exactly the same way
  • The Marine player can potentially lose half his army in one attack, while the Astra player can only lose a quarter
Deathstar and titanhammer builds obviously sit at the opposite end of the army list spectrum to MSU builds; how many times have you played or watched a game in which one player loses their deathstar/Super/Gargantuan early and loses one or two turns later? Sure, taking out that deathstar/Super/Gargantuan is no easy feat, but if you build your army well then it is still very achievable.

I believe that if you want to become an elite player, you must learn to accept that everything in your army is expendable. If your army has a single model or unit that you cannot afford to lose then guess what will happen? You will lose that model or unit, and with it the game. This is a matter of "when" not "if" because there are no invincible units in 40k. Remember the story about the Guardsman and the Riptide; shit happens, we all roll 1s, don't lose games because of it. Build your army to compartmentalise damage as effectively as possible.

Case Study

I am now going to present a very straightforward case study that illustrates all these points.

Two hypothetical players, named "A" and "B", are each given nine Eldar Dark Reapers to play with. Dark Reapers work well in this example because they are extremely efficient at killing themselves! Let's see what Player A and Player B can do with their respective Dark Reapers.

Game One

Both Player A and Player B choose to field their Dark Reapers as a single squad of nine models. They are battling on Planet Bowling Ball because their TO cheaped-out on terrain.

Player A wins the roll-off for first turn, and proceeds to shoot his Reapers at Player B's Reapers:

  • They fire 18 shots
  • They score 12 hits
  • These become 10 wounds
These wounds cannot be saved, and Player B loses his entire squad—and army—on turn one. Player A wins the game! Player A is obviously a tactical genius, and deserves to podium. In fact, he is so pro that he should be the TO next month, and change whatever rules he feels like to 'improve' the game because he obviously would be an awesome games designer. Banning Dark Reapers would be a great first step, because they are obviously so OP.

Meanwhile, Player B is obviously a total fucking scrub, and should just eBay all his armies.

Game Two

Player B refused to listen to the haters, and still owns his nine Dark Reapers. It is now another month and another tournament, and he gets a rematch against his arch-nemesis, Player A. However, since the last tournament, Player B has started reading Elite 40,000 and is now so pro: he has organised his Dark Reapers into three, three-model squads. REVOLUTIONARY! It's this cool new thing called MSU, all the cool kids are doing it.

Despite his newfound wisdom, Player B is still an unlucky bastard and loses the roll-off for first turn again. Player A is still fielding his tried-and-tested single squad of nine Dark Reapers, and he proceeds to shoot at one of Player B's Reaper squads:

  • He fires 18 shots
  • He scores 12 hits
  • These become 10 wounds
That poor little three-man squad gets plastered all over the face of Planet Bowling Ball. Player A looks around to see who is about to award him his prize for overkill, but is sadly disappointed when no one approaches. Oh well, back to the game. Player B's remaining two squads fire back at Player A's single Reaper squad:

  • They fire 12 shots
  • They score 8 hits
  • These become 7 wounds
Boomsauce, there go seven of Player A's nine models! That squad had better take a Morale check now—Player B never had that problem!—but they have Ld9, they're fine. Now they get to shoot back, at another one of Player B's remaining two squads:

  • They fire 4 shots
  • They score 3 hits
  • These become 3 wounds
Another one of Player B's squads is destroyed. But it's only the bottom of turn two, plenty of time to recover! Player B's remaining three-man squad fires at the last two models in Player A's squad:

  • They fire 6 shots
  • They score 4 hits
  • These become 3 wounds
Oh no, Player A just got his ass tabled by the scrubby Player B! Even with the benefit of first turn! Even with exactly the same models at his disposal! OMG REAPERZ SO OP! BANHAMMER TIME!!!1shift1

Building MSU Style

Obviously that case study was somewhat exaggerated to illustrate the point as quickly as possible (you got that, right?) but the point still stands: MSU armies have fundamental advantages over non-MSU armies, that a good player can use to overcome any opposition in any mission. I haven't even touched on all the extra advantages that MSU armies typically enjoy, such as board control and dynamic Objective scoring.

Back in 5th Ed, building MSU style was all about taking as many Dedicated Transports as possible, as that was the only practical way to overcome the 17-slot limit of the old-school Force Organisation Chart. This limitation is just a distant memory today, so you can build MSU style with or without mechanising your infantry.

Think outside the box; for example, the Flesh Tearers Strike Force Detachment has a low tax of 1 HQ and 1 Troops, and has 6 Fast Attack slots that can be filled by cheap Fast Razorbacks and 3 Heavy Support slots that can be filled by cheap Fast Predators. That's nine tanks with fifteen heavy weapons, and plenty of points left to spare for Flyers and more tanks in other Formations and Detachments.

I could write a lot about building MSU lists, but this post is already long enough, and the theory is better illustrated by the actual army lists I post. So I'll just leave you with three tips for building MSU army lists:

  • Less is more, more is better—don't spend points on making a single unit better than it needs to be. There are no prizes for overkill, and if the dice turn on you then can always finish off your target with another one of your many units.
  • Build redundancy into your list—if a unit is worth taking once, it's worth taking three times. You are going to lose one early in the game, and another in mid-game, so if you need a specific unit in late-game then you'd better have started off with at least three of those units.
  • Always remember that you don't need a 'hammer' unit to kill the enemy—we practise the Fine Art of Death by a Thousand Cuts.
I'm planning to post a few different army lists from different Factions over the next week or so, that should demonstrate how to put this approach into practice. Until then, practice building some MSU lists yourself, and you can become as pro as the legendary Player B.


  1. Nice article. Now all my opponents will know how to do this, and I will suffer greatly!

  2. LOL! Sorry mate :-(

    But I think the promotion of learning in the community is worth sharing a few secrets...

  3. Dead ork walkers everywhere!!!

  4. I'm gonna be "that guy" and say that I'll be interested in what you can do with the perrenial mid-carders, the Sisters of Battle!

  5. I'll see what I can do. The problem with AS is that they don't have a 7th Ed format codex IIRC, so you can't just spam empty Immolators. But I like a challenge ;-)

  6. Sister still have current models from 1997! Don't talk to me about a 7th ed codex :)
    Current thinking seems to be focussed around Immy-spam to maximise bang for buck. Aaaaaand go!

  7. Dean 'Sinny' Sinnbeck8 May 2015 at 21:46

    Love it mate. Its something we all know works but great to see your veiw on the inner workings of MSU. I'd love to see what you can do with MSU for Khorne Daemonkin :)

  8. Excellent article! Do you think Harlequins lend themselves to MSU list-building or do they inherently need larger numbers per squad to be efficient?

  9. Thanks Dean, that's my next article to write!

  10. Thanks Wraithbear. I think Harlies can work as MSU, focussing on firepower instead of assault. But they will need Eldar and/or Dark Eldar allies for anti-tank. I'll quickly put together something for you.

  11. Cool. Craftworld Eldar, preferably ;) Thanks!

  12. Great article!

    "Beginning and intermediate players often fall into the trap of thinking
    that army lists are the primary deciding factor in game results; elite
    players understand that army lists are very important, but only insofar
    as they give you tactical options that enable you to outplay your

    And the above is a particularly wise notion - I really wish more players could understand that. Just recently had a discussion with my club-mates about the importance of strong army lists, and tried to confer the same idea, but you did it in a much more brief and elegant fashion.

    And indeed, nothing beats MSU list in terms of number and variety of tactical options that give you opportunities to outplay your opponent.

  13. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it! Please feel free to reuse my words to convince your club-mates ;-)

  14. Thanks for the great article, I want to be like the cool player B!

  15. Good to hear, Player B is awesome ;-)