The resurgence of the Tau Empire a couple of years ago was one of the final nails in the coffin for Space Marine dominance in competitive 40k. But now we have a new Marine book, and the Tau book continues to wane with age—are Tau still enough of a threat to keep the Emperor's Finest down? Or have the Space Fish Communists been definitively knocked off their podium? Here are five reasons why I believe the latter.
#1 Monodimensional FirepowerTau excel at bringing lots of cost efficient, high rate-of-fire S7 shooting to the battlefield... but that's really about it. If S7 alone was enough to win games, then Tau would be sweet—and that was very much the case when Codex Tau Empire was last released in an era characterised by Marines on foot, light/medium armour, and Flyers. But 40k has moved on since then, and simply spamming S7 is just not good enough anymore. Gargantuans, Super-Heavies, Fortifications, heavy armour, and Invisible deathstars all roam the battlefields of the 41st millennium—a plethora of hard targets that straight S7 spam just doesn't stop. And while weight-of-dice will eventually bring down 2+ saves, T4+ FNP, and reanimating Necrons, it is hardly an efficient way of doing so.
Of course, Tau can bring other types of firepower to mitigate these weaknesses—Ion Riptides, Fusion Crisis Suits, and Skyray Gunships with S8+ low-AP weapons being the exemplars—these alternative types of firepower are noticeably less efficient than S7 spam. Balancing your spend between S7 and S8+ low-AP is challenging, and most Tau lists I see get the balance very wrong—but to be fair, I'm not sure if the right balance can even be achieved at under 2000 pts.
This factor alone is what fundamentally makes Tau a less competitive army. But I promised you five reasons, so here are another four...
#2 Tau Gimmicks Ain't What They Used To BeTau were the first army to bring widespread Ignores Cover and Interceptor to modern 40k, and wow, did those two rules make a big impact! But are these two gimmicky rules still so powerful today?
The cover save had become a sacred institution of 5th Ed—nearly always available, reliable at 4++, applicable to infantry and vehicles alike—so much so that low-AP weapons were frowned upon and weight-of-dice was seen as the universally superior approach. The dawn of 6th Ed changed that, making low-AP weapons viable once more, but the cover save was still a reliable last line of defence against such firepower. And then came Tau, with their Buff Commanders conferring Ignores Cover (and rerolls To Hit) to Riptides firing S8 AP2 pie plates. Entire squads of Marines were being nuked with absolutely no recourse available to Imperial players. And to make things worse, Pod armies were neutered by widespread Interceptor—often combined with those dastardly Ignores Cover AP2 pie plates—a devastating combo never encountered before. And so the Tau finished nailing shut the coffin on Marines that the Helldrakes had prepared.
Fast forward to 7th Ed, and Riptides and their AP2 pie plates are no longer getting buffed by Tau Commanders. Instead, those buffs are being conferred to either Broadsides with AP4 weapons (because no one ever uses Railguns) or Crisis Suits that might have AP1/2 weapons, but probably have more efficient AP4 missiles; either way, Marines are a whole lot scared of Tau these days.
Of course, Tau are not solely reliant on the Buff Commanders to get Ignores Cover, with Marker Drones being the primary alternative mechanism (Pathfinders have been proven to be much too squishy). These Marker Drones are often found as part of Crisis Suit or sometimes Broadside squads, since they are squishier and more expensive when taken independently. In this configuration, the Suits typically take a Target Lock so they can fire independently of the attached Drones—meaning that fewer Suits now have Interceptor.
The net result of these environmental and edition changes is that Tau are now a lot less shooty then they used to be—which is really bad news for a monodimensional shooty army! Eldar and Mechanicus outclass Tau in the firepower department, and even Astra Militarum have better Ignores Cover shooting than Tau. While Tau still enjoy the most Interceptor in the game, that alone is not enough to make them a competitive Faction.
#3 Midfield VulnerabilityControl of the midfield was a fundamentally important concept back in 5th Ed—and again now in 7th Ed (especially in Maelstrom missions)—but 6th Ed was an interlude when 'sit back and shoot' was a viable approach to winning games. Tau were very comfortable in that environment, and were also reasonably free to operate their Riptides in midfield—the big guys could handle themselves with their handful of S10 AP2 attacks. But with changes to Smash in 7th Ed, and the proliferation of even bigger guys—Wraithknights, Imperial Knights, Dimachaerons, etc—midfield is no longer a safe place for any Tau to operate.
If you don't have freedom of manoeuvre in midfield then you are going to lose Maelstrom missions, and probably a fair few multi-Objective Eternal missions too. No matter how shooty you are, all it takes is one enemy model hiding out of range and line-of-sight to beat you on VP.
#4 Can't MSU, Can't Deathstar, Can't TitanhammerMSU is one of the best, if not the best, way to build army lists—but Tau are bad at MSU. Of course, if you're not going to build MSU, you can just build a deathstar or bring titans—but Tau can't do either. Oh dear...
One thing that MSU is not good at is maximising buffs; two squads of five are better than one squad of ten, except if you can confer Ignores Cover, Twin-Linked, +BS, etc to just one squad. Tau are incentivised to build big shooty squads to get the most mileage out of their Buff Commanders and limited supply of Marker Lights. Plus the Firebase Cadre Formation forces you to run six Broadsides in two squads of three, rather than the more efficient three squads of two configuration. For these reasons, you will rarely see Tau built [well] in MSU style. The closest they can get is multiple Farsight Enclaves Combined Arms Detachments with lots of solo Crisis Suits—but then you are paying a HQ tax for each Detachment and have to include one full-sized Crisis squad in each.
The only option Tau have for building a deathstar is the 'Farsight Bomb', comprising Shadowsun (for Stealth and Shrouded) and seven Crisis Bodyguards (one with buff gear, six with guns), possibly also with lots of Marker Drones too. Farsight himself is a tax that unlocks the deathstar but offers very little value to it. With a healthy supply of Target Locks, this shooty deathstar can nuke three or four different targets per turn, making it a respectable threat. However, it is expensive, has no access to Fearless or psychic buffs, and folds in melee. Back in 6th Ed, it could be augmented by Battle Brother allied Eldar for great effect, but those days are long gone. Compared to the various 'real' deathstars in modern 40k, the Farsight Bomb is not too scary.
Tau have only one codex Super-Heavy option: the Tiger Shark from Escalation. Sorry, paying 520 pts for an AV12 HP6 Flyer with similar firepower to two Hammerheads is not competitive. Looking to Imperial Armour for better options, Tau really only have the Tiger Shark AX-1-0 with its twin-linked Heavy Railgun (D AP1 Primary Weapon 1); however, paying more than double the cost of a Wraithknight for half the firepower is not competitive either.
Allying in an Imperial Knight or two is really the only viable way for Tau to get good Super-Heavies. In fact, a Knight or two can add a lot of value to a Tau army—but at what point do we start talking about Knights with Tau, instead of Tau with Knights? A somewhat rhetorical question, but the point stands that the Tau Faction cannot play titanhammer.
#5 No DOnce an oddity that 'broke the game', D weapons are becoming just another tool to be considered when building balanced competitive army lists. D weapons are one of the most efficient ways to put down Gargantuans and Super-Heavies, and are also great for making Necrons stay down and killing T5 multi-wound squads like Thunderwolves and Wraiths. The only access Tau have to D weapons within their Faction is the Tiger Shark AX-1-0 mentioned above, and it is a woefully inefficient means of getting a single D shot into your army.
ConclusionCodex Tau Empire has not aged well, considering its massive impact on arrival and rapid decline in only two years. New edition rules changes to Smash, Independent Characters joining Monsters, and the Allies Matrix all really hurt Tau and knocked them off their podium. Their woes have been compounded by the proliferation of big guys who mostly shake off S7 spam, and the new emphasis on mobile, progressive VP scoring as embodied by Maelstrom of War.
If we see a new Tau book later this year, then here are some changes I think would really help bring Tau back into competitive viability:
- Less emphasis on Missiles for Crisis Suits and Broadsides—making Plasma Assault 2 and Railguns S10 (and possibly Ordnance) would encourage efficient firepower diversity
- A more elegant Marker Light mechanic—at a minimum, all Tau units should enjoy a benefit against an 'illuminated' target to make MSU viable
- Better access to D weapons—if Tau are meant to be the shootiest army, then they should at the very least have non-Super access to D weapons; I think Hammerheads with Heavy Railguns would be an ideal candidate