As the year draws to a close, let's review the current health and trends in competitive 40k, and look ahead to 2017.
The fundamentals of competitive 40k did not change in 2016—they have not, in fact, changed for many years now. The holy trinity of mobility, firepower and resilience—in that priority order—remains the cornerstone of competitive list-building. Remembering and playing the mission—aiming to score VP over simply slugging the enemy—remains the cornerstone of competitive play. The diversity of Factions and Formations continues to make it nearly impossible to build a list without weaknesses, but this prevents meta-convergence onto a single list, and intelligent play can still prevail over bad match-ups. In summary, competitive 40k is fundamentally sound.
The drafting, public beta-testing, and subsequent publishing of The Rules version 1.2 tightened up a lot of rules ambiguities and loopholes, especially those around multi-Faction/Formation combos and Easter-Egg hunting for corner-cases in the ruleset. This rules update also improved the general resilience of vehicles, which was a positive change considering how much that vehicles have lost in the last couple of edition changes.
Perhaps more significantly, the approach GW took to The Rules version 1.2, plus their social media and community engagement renaissance in 2016, raised two important flags that the competitive 40k community should take note of:
- Player feedback is now influencing the ruleset (to some extent)
- GW is not blind to player exploitation of the ruleset
Noting the ongoing value of mobility, firepower and resilience, it should not surprise that Craftworld Eldar remain the most powerful Faction. This is not to say that Eldar are clean-sweeping tournaments around the world—to the contrary, while Eldar seem to be consistently posting Top 8 results, they are typically not taking first place in large tournaments. There are a couple of reasons for this phenomena: firstly, whilst an average player can reach the final rounds of a tournament based on the strength of their army list, taking the podium requires exceptionally skilful play on top of a solid army list; and secondly, given the well-recognised primacy of Eldar in the metagame, every other successful competitive army list is tailored (to some extent) to beat the ubiquitous Warp Spider / Windrider / Wraithknight build. Putting these two factors together, it seems that most exceptionally skilled players are choosing to build counter-Eldar lists rather than taking the easier option and risking a last-round loss to a counter-Eldar list.
So while Craftworld Eldar remain the objectively most powerful Faction at this time, they are very much ‘victims of their own success’ and thus share the top tier with Space Marines (of various flavours). Space Marines are in a great place at the moment, with several competitively-viable build styles that are a far cry from their vanilla mediocrity of some past editions. Whether Marines are built around mechanised infantry (Battle Company), bikes (White Scars or Ravenwing), Pods or Thunderwolves, they exemplify that fundamental holy trinity of mobility, firepower and resilience. Sadly for diversity’s sake, all Marine lists share one common feature: massed Grav weapons. Grav has long been a versatile and too-efficient alternative to Plasma and Melta, and with the changes to Void Shields in The Rules version 1.2, there is no longer a hard countermeasure to Grav, and no longer any reason for a Marine player to use anything else.
But why is Grav so significant? Simply, it kills Wraithknights very efficiently, and remains efficient against nearly every other competitive list. More importantly, it is an infantry weapon, and may therefore be taken en masse and spread around in a MSU list. This is critical as the other efficient ways to kill Wraithknights—Psychic Shriek and D weapons—cannot be spammed and are nearly always closely-coupled to high-value units, and don’t really work in a MSU context.
Well below the two top tier Factions, most of the metagame is an amorphous blob of middle tier lists. Tau still blow away lists without deathstars, Necrons and KDK overrun lists without strong early-game shooting, Nids and some Daemon builds trump lists that can’t shoot down flying monsters (or simply counter-position effectively on the ground), and ‘Anything+Knights’ can hold its own against most of the middle tier. The defining feature of the middle tier is match-up variance; a middle tier list will experience plenty of comfortable victories and crushing defeats, but really tight games seem to be quite rare. Given the ‘bad feels’ typically associated with one-sided games, and that the majority of Factions fall into this middle tier, there seems to be a lot of community discontent stemming from this aspect of the metagame—but more on that later.
Orks. Dark Eldar. Harlequins. Ad Mech. Skitarii. Chaos Space Marines. If you’re running any of these as a mono-Faction list in a competitive environment then you obviously attend tournaments for the social experience. And there is nothing wrong with that! But please stop crying about the game being broken; it’s not, it’s you.
There is also nothing wrong with the fact that a tangible bottom tier exists within the metagame; everything can’t be good! Also, competitive players often seem to forget that not everyone plays competitively, and GW do make models just to look brilliant, and do write Factions just to be cool, and not everything is destined to feature on tournament top tables. And that is ok, because a diverse community is probably the main reason why 40k has been going strong for nearly 30 years. And if you’re one of those cry-babies that is forever ranting that your lore-accurate tabletop representation of a specific Chaos warband from some obscure Black Library novel has never won a game against Eldar, and that GW are therefore terribad at rules writing, then you seriously need to wake up from your magical Christmas fantasy land!
I’m not going to gaze into a crystal ball and speculate about future Factions or an 8th Ed ruleset overhaul, but I will explore one significant emerging trend in the 40k ruleset: early-game assault.
Starting with the now-infamous Skyhammer and followed by numerous other Formations, GW has in the last couple of years introduced a variety of ways for multiple Factions to run-then-change, assault-from-reserve or otherwise achieve first- or second-turn assaults. This is a big deal since 40k has for many years now maintained an unwritten design convention of ‘two turns of shooting before the melee starts’. According to my memory, the last time the metagame was so prone to early-game assaults were the then-infamous ‘Rhino Rush’ days of 3rd Ed. Back then, GW reacted to that trend with a series of rules changes to forcibly restore the delayed-melee paradigm.
- The bad old days of ‘Rhino Rush’ have been forgotten by GW, and they’re blindly breaking their own design convention
- GW have recognised the early-game shooting power of some Factions, and are over-correcting by increasing early-game assault power
Alternatively, GW may be trying to rebalance shooting versus assault. Assault has always been the higher-risk, higher-reward option in 40k compared to shooting, and the ruleset is designed around assault being less frequent than shooting, but more decisive when it does occur. However, since the release of 6th Ed Tau and Eldar, we have seen decisive, game-ending first- and second-turn shooting in the competitive metagame. GW tried to correct this imbalance with Invisibility, but the collateral effect was the rise of invisible deathstars that invalidated lists that couldn’t deliver Tau- or Eldar-like early-game shooting. Enabling early-game assault is possibly a better countermeasure to super-shooty lists, since it can really screw them over without collaterally being auto-win against most of the middle tier. If we see early-game assault enabling extended to more Factions in the next six months then we’ll know.
Unfortunately, making stuff die quicker—either to shooting or assault—will ultimately hurt the metagame. I’m not going to write a lot on this point—it is probably worth a dedicated post— but in short I do believe that 4th and 5th Ed were more ‘strategic’ rulesets simply because tablings were very rare. In a paradigm where games would typically run to max turns (instead of to max time) and both sides would typically have multiple scoring units left alive and mobile, competitive players were very cognisant of playing the mission, playing for VP, playing for Objectives/KPs, etc. instead of just slugging it out and seeing who would get tabled first. I already see too many tactical slugfests in competitive 40k, and I don’t think that further promoting that approach is healthy in the longer term.
I’ll keep it brief here too—this is not a rant post!
I’m pleased to report that the light at the end of the tunnel is coming into sight. I believe that the popularity of degenerate 40k-variants like ITC and Comp have peaked and are now waning. Comp systems cannot keep pace with the rate of change and diversification in the metagame, and GW’s new approach to community engagement, taking rules feedback and beta-testing rules changes has invalidated the foundational justification for ITC-like house-ruling. The zeitgeist of competitive 40k is maturing into one of ‘let me play with my toys’ and is less tolerant of tournament organisers interfering with list construction.
Furthermore, the latest version of the ITC house-rules are recognisable as a death knell to anyone who has watched the evolution of competitive 40k for 10+ years. ITC have now well and truly crossed the Rubicon with blatant instances of “GW have just explicitly FAQ’d this rule to work this way, but we’re going to FAQ it to work in the exact opposite way instead”. It’s official: if you are playing by the ITC FAQ then you are not playing Warhammer 40,000.
Remember INAT? If not, suffice to say it was a historical example of the contemporary ITC FAQ. What starts as an aide for tournament organisers eventually grows into a degenerate variant ruleset, playing INAT/ITC becomes recognisably different from playing 40k, and ultimately the worldwide corporately-supported official ruleset outlasts someone’s set of glorified house-rules. Given GW’s active attempts to tighten the ruleset, the only residual purpose for ITC will be as a framework for organising and marketing tournaments—and if GW start officially supporting tournament play with their own framework, then it’ll be game over for FLG. Oh well, I’m sure they’ve milked more than enough revenue from ITC already.
Mini-rant over—what I really want to write about here is that the brewing discontent amongst players of the broad-band middle tier is becoming a significant risk to the longer-term health of the competitive community. The match-up variance for most middle tier lists makes for a lot of one-sided games, and one-sided games can leave players feeling either helpless or unchallenged, neither of which is good for a competitive community. Ideally, players should feel like they won or lost based primarily on their personal performance, and they should recognise where they can further improve their skills and optimise their lists. Right now, that’s how Eldar and Marine players feel when they play against other Eldar and Marine players; everyone else typically knows if they’re going to win or lose during deployment, turn one or turn two. That’s not healthy. A different approach to VP might help things, but that will just be a surface fix to a deeper problem. The discontent that stems from this situation is what allows degenerate systems like Comp and ITC to gain popularity, and I hope that GW does something to improve middle tier play in the near future.
I believe that competitive 40k is in a good place at this time—better than it has been for a few years, but still down from its peak health in the mid 5th Ed days. The popularity of degenerate variant rulesets is starting to wane, and now is the time for GW to fix the underlying issues that allowed them to rise in the first place. The inter-Faction variance in the middle tier needs to be addressed. A standardised official framework for tournaments needs to be published and actively supported. And a long-term fix needs to address the shooting-assault balance and early-game brutality.
All of these requirements point towards a significant re-baselining of the ruleset in a forthcoming 8th Ed—and now seems to be an appropriate time for GW to take that step. Done well, it could really invigorate and grow the competitive 40k community in years to come.