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Monday, 15 June 2015

Rant: Five Reasons Why Tau are No Longer Competitive

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 Firepower

Tau 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 Be

Tau 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 Vulnerability

Control 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 Titanhammer

MSU 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 D

Once 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.


Codex 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
On the upside, the current languishing of Tau means that Space Marines are likely to return to competitive 40k and dilute the current Xenos dominance, which will be a very welcome change. Diversity is good!


  1. I don't understand much of this: Tau have everything: flexible units, mobility, a range of weapons that is bordering on amazing. You've units to cover every eventuality.

    What I read - and sadly repeated throughout the web by bad players - is that your old tactic isn't working and yuo don't want to change it.

    You can take squads of 6 Firewarriors. 3 Crisis suits. You've an S10 AP1 railgun. In fact, AP1 on most vehicles. You've AP2 plasma, good armour, superb mobility. Range and short range weapons.

    You're just not adapting to your opponent. It's not the codex that is the problem here.

  2. If you think that 125 pts for a single shot S10 AP1 Railgun makes Tau in any way competitively viable, then I question your judgement.

    Tau units are completely inflexible. Sure, you have a lot of choice in weapon config, but that weapon config defines the one role they can perform—that is not flexibility.

    Squads of 6 Firewarriors do absolutely nothing. MSU is not about having units for the sake of units, they do actually have to serve a purpose! And Plasma on Crisis Suits is a prime example of inefficiency—they cost the same as Missiles and are worse in most cases.

    Please explain to me the "superb mobility" of Tau. Do you mean Crisis Suits and Riptides that are exceptionally vulnerable to assault if they move into midfield? Or all those Broadsides and Skyrays that don't move and fire? How does a Tau army take Maelstrom Objectives? Please say "empty Devilfish", that would prove the point very nicely.

  3. Here is my challenge to all the Tau apologists out there: instead of just protesting, post an 1850 pts Battle Forged list in the comments, and I'll tell you why it's bad.

  4. I agree with Charlie it is very hard for tau to stand against e.g super durable necrons or eldars with have far superior fire power (d weapons, ignore cover blasts, d templates, a lot of monofilament and multi shoot S7 and 6) and far superior mobility

  5. Rudyard Olmstead16 June 2015 at 07:12

    While I see many of your points here and agree that Tau has definitely lost a step, I don't think they are completely outclassed yet.

    One unit which I think bears mentioning in the Forgeworld XV109 Y’vahra Battlesuit:


    At less than the price of a Land Raider, this Riptide variant can jump in (or Swoop in, as required; has special rules to do this), drop multiple S6 AP2 Torrent templates and fire at a separate target with 3 X S8 AP3 Haywire shots, then "rinse and repeat." Used in pairs or even in threes (it takes a Fast Attack slot, so the only realy competition is Pathfinders), I believe the Y'vahra can mesh quite well with Tau gunelines or even mobile Crises Suit MSU armies to keep the army competitive.

    I wrote an article on the Y'vahra allied with Necrons on my site below:


  6. Awww come on Charlie. You gave me hope that at least one of my armies would be ok after the hammering the DE took.

  7. The only way to make 'Tau' truly capable of challenging top tier (Eldar, Necron, Knight, SM) armies is to ally Tau into another army that can provide the missing mobility and hard-target-cracking power. The best you can do with primary Tau is probably to run two or three Imperial Knights with Tau fire support.

    CAD: Farsight Enclaves
    Commander with Missiles, TL, DC, 2x Marker Drone
    Earth Caste Riptide with Burst, SMS, Skyfire, Interceptor
    Riptide with Ion, Fusion, FNP, Interceptor
    3x Crisis with Missiles, TL, 6x Marker Drone
    1x Crisis with Fusion
    1x Crisis with Fusion

    Skyray with SMS, Disruption Pod
    Oathsworn Det: Imperial Knights
    Knight Errant with Meltagun
    Knight Warden with Meltagun
    1849 pts

    This should hold its own against most builds, but is it really a 'Tau' army anymore?

  8. The problem is the Y'vahra only has Experimental Rules, so it's unlikely to be accepted in most competitive environments. Given how good it is (I agree) it is highly likely to get nerfed by FW prior to publication, so it really doesn't solve the underlying problem with Tau.

  9. To be fair to Tau, they are not the only army are outclassed by Eldar at the moment. But your point is very good: other armies may be able to achieve similar firepower to Eldar, but very few can match them in agility too, and that's what really wins games. DE and flying circus Nids and Daemons have similar mobility, but lack the offensive punch of Eldar.

  10. Well, with three knights taking up about 1000 of those points, one would suggest that it is not a Knights with Tau, not the other way around. Bit sad really

  11. Yeah that's the whole point ;-)

    Pretty much any Faction can be splashed in to fill the points left after taking Knights, and be a fairly competitive army. But that doesn't make the other Faction any better, it just reinforces that Knights are a great ally.

  12. Not only XV109 Y’vahra have experimental rules it is also not very survivable. Since his weapons are short range he have to be close to enemy lines and because of his size he is not easy to be completely hidden. It is now easier to get high S weapons (and if GW will continue this trends it will still be easy in most new armies) so Y’vahra is close and there is a lot of high S weapons(and more and more weapons have ap2 on 6) and even more grav weapons with deadly salvo. His 4 wounds nowadays can be reduced very fast, faster than ever.
    I don't say it is bad unit because it is very good but it is not the answer to the Tau problems simply because large thought MC are not as strong as they use to be.

  13. I think that it is possible to play tau competitive, and it is possible to be challenging to top tier armies, it is possible believe me I play them a lot. It is just that when you play competitive you really feel that you are underpowered. Much more often you feel like you are almost powerless agains some types of armies simply because it is very hard for Tau to have so universal army to be ready to face any challanges that battle field may trow at you. Often when create list you are forced to intentionally resign form some possibilites and risk that you will not face them( at least not in large numbers) to be able to maintain healthy balance against rest of risks.

  14. Maybe it is just me but most Tau Armies that I see out there also have problems with fast moving assault armies since Tau have really hard time fighting in assault and often simply do not have enought fire power to take out all those small assault units, and even very small unit is often capable of anihilate many of tau units or at least hold them to deny them their firepower that is crucial weapons to defend against assault in case of tau.

  15. A very good point. Like I wrote in the main post, Riptides can no longer handle themselves operating in midfield.

  16. That is a very good point. Tau are quite capable of winning games, but rarely will they win tournaments because it is nearly impossible to build an all-comers list with Tau.

    If you play in a very small/predictable environment (e.g. local tournaments up to 30 players, with maybe 5-10 actual contenders) then it is possible to actually 'metagame' in the true sense of the word (instead of the usual misuse of the word in 40k) and tailor your army lists to what you assume you will encounter. For example, if you assume that you won't face AV14 or Gargantuans, then you can spam S7 and be fine.

    However, a Faction that cannot build a so-called all-comers list, that cannot win bigger and more diverse tournaments, is by definition "less competitive".

  17. That comes in to the inability for Tau to efficiently build MSU style. If Tau could MSU properly then they could afford to feed 'speedbump' units to enemy assaulters. But that is really not the case; min Fire Warriors are not great in this role because they really don't contribute meaningful firepower, don't bubblewrap well or project significant board control, and are too slow to react to mobile threats.

  18. This looks like a really good analysis of the state of the current meta WRT Tau. I've read a lot of codex reviews from when the 6th edition book came out, but this does a good job of spelling out where they're at now post-Craftworlds Eldar and Necrons.

    A few thoughts:

    * Marker drones can benefit from buffs. But in order to get those buffs they have to hold still, which negates the mobility advantage (such as it is) of XV8s and drones being jet pack infantry. And they're only marginally tougher than Pathfinders.

    * Pathfinders don't typically need buffs to hit with a decent number of markerlights, even if other Tau units can't effectively run MSU because it squanders their buffs.

    * Tau have a lot of infiltrators and a lot of ways to reliably bring in reinforcements at a specific place or on a specific board edge, between Kroot hounds, (pricey) recon drones, and homing beacons on stealth suits.

    So as a way of mitigating the codex's shortcomings in my local meta, I'm currently leaning towards bringing MSU Pathfinders (and huge blocks of other things), and using Infiltrate and Reserves to experiment with midfield control. Even though this sacrifices model effectiveness some, since the models that have the relevant special rules tend to be at the low end of the power tier.

  19. Given the trend of 7e codexes, I doubt that the Tau will be hurting for long.

    However, I dearly hope that the stupid "toolbox commander" is no longer a thing.

  20. I think that approach would work reasonably well, if you run multiple CADs to get lots of Pathfinder squads to clog midfield and enable MSU buffing. Positional Relay on a Riptide that Nova-charges its Thrust move on turn one to get within 6" of the enemy board edge is an old but good trick that you may be able to reinvigorate.

    It sounds like you have a pretty good idea of metagaming for someone new to 40k! You are spot on, in that the rise of Super-Heavies and Gargantuans is naturally balanced by the rise of D and Grav weapons. And mobile MSU has always been the natural counter to deathstars, but Tau aren't that good at that style. It can be done, but it is harder with Tau than most other armies. Multiple Enclaves CADs with lots of solo Crisis Suits + Drones is probably the only way.

    I'll post what I think Tau can do to survive in the current environment.

  21. I agree on both counts; I expect a new codex this year, and I hope that buffing (and synergy in general) is handled more elegantly than "here is a complex system for Markerlights, and a cookie-cutter HQ that just auto-buffs".