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Friday, September 3, 2010

Balanced lists: The truth

Well this is the balanced list article in full. It's been posted in two parts over on HOP but posting here for archiving and full article reference (who knows what HOP's archiving is going to be like!) and hopefully generate some discussion.

It’s an elephant. It’s huge. And it’s in the room. Balanced armies, a word tossed around by pretty much everyone on the internet in relation to Fantasy and 40k and something that is rarely understood. From a gaming stand-point, balanced lists are the epitome of list building. They are balanced (shocking...) and can deal with anything and everything with reliable success. They have few weaknesses and don’t simply roll over against other lists of any type. From a less gaming and more hobby stand-point, balanced lists are the anathema to WAAC lists where fluff and gaming are brought together. Here’s where the real problem is though. What competitive gamers call balanced, others are going to call WAAC/cheese/OP/etc. and what hobby gamers call balanced are often un-optimised or poor lists. Both of these groups are right and wrong at the same time because of their different paradigms. So this article is looking to bring some similarity to the definitions of the term to both parties by showing what a balanced list is and how it differs from a rock list and why they are commonly mixed up. The article also looks at some of the internet myths of a balanced list and tosses them in a black hole. It concludes by proposing ‘new’ terminology in an effort to bring the extremes of both groups onto a similar footing (less e-rage FTW).

Firstly, what is a balanced list? A balanced list is focused on its name-sake, balance. There is no rock-paper-scissors with balanced lists and although some balanced lists prefer certain match-ups, there are no “auto-win” or “auto-lose” games; just easier or harder games. What this then means is a balanced list must be capable of competing in all departments of the game. That’s movement, magic, shooting and assault. This does not mean the army needs to be able to do massive damage or rock face in each phase. It does mean the army needs to be able to minimise their opponent’s ability in those phases. For example, being mobile is essential to 5th edition 40k but being able to stop your opponent’s mobility either through blocking, shooting or assaulting is just as important. What use is you claiming an objective if your opponent can tank shock you off it? Also, being good at magic isn’t a necessity for a good 8th Fantasy list but being able to reliably counter your opponent’s magic is essential or be prepared to be royally screwed over.

One of the most important parts of a balanced list is its lack of inherent weaknesses. As said above, some balanced lists are going to prefer specific match-ups over others but the key point to a balanced list is it can deal with any other type of list to some degree reliably. Whether it’s fast, slow, shooty or assautly, explodey or implodey with mass MC, mech, infantry or any combination of unit types, a balanced list will be able to deal with it in some way. We’ll use an Immo Spam list as an example. In a normal Immo Spam (no IG for arguments sake) you’ve got a lot of anti-tank and anti-infantry through massed flamers and meltaguns. Let’s change the list just slightly and bring in Exorcists and Rhinos (so less Immolators but more S8 AP1). It’s still a list that wrecks the face of MC and mech styled lists but has huge troubles against hordes (hell even 30+ Marines if the Exorcists are disabled). Whilst this list might seem good on paper because it beats the common list of the day (metagaming/tailoring), it is inherently unbalanced because it cannot deal with a horde style list. Horde style lists may not be competitive but that doesn’t mean you can’t ignore them in your list building exercise. To reiterate: a balanced list can deal with any list reliably.

Furthermore, balanced lists do not focus on a lynch-pin (see this post on super units). Lynch-pins are the hall-mark of a ‘rock-styled’ list and once the rock is papered, the list generally falls apart. Balanced lists are not rock lists. They may have rock elements (i.e. TH/SS Terminators) but have support built around the rocks which if not dealt with, are still very dangerous. Compare a double Raider list to a Nob Biker list. The Double Raider list has support in terms of Dreads/Preds/Tacs/Speeders whilst the Nob Bikers are pretty much on their own. This leaves them subject to blocking, anti-super unit units/powers, etc as well as their inherent weaknesses against mech. There is a huge difference between having rocks in an army and running a rock list and that is highlighted by being able to suffer the loss of your rocks and still win games. In terms of game-play, a rock list has specific weaknesses and against armies which can exploit those weaknesses, will lose big. As explained above, a balanced list has no such glaring weaknesses and assuming equal generalship, always has a decent chance at winning the game. This brings us to a key point for any balanced list; every unit is expendable if it helps you win the game.

Rock lists are also similar to gimmick lists which rely upon a combo or ability to control the battlefield rather than fire suppression, mobility, etc. Gimmicks are defined by their general inability to be used against all lists. Chaos’ Lash of Submission for example is a terrible power against Mechanised armies or armies with psychic defenses. The Daemon Prince which wields the power doesn’t really have a good back-up power without becoming hugely expensive and is therefore far less effective against these type of lists. A balanced list doesn’t have such point-sinks or units which are only useful against a certain army style (I.e. duality). In the case of such units, they are generally very good at what they do and have some duality (I.e. Tau Broadsides) but the army can still operate without them (duplicity). A prime example of a 'gimmick' unit which can fit into a balanced army is the Imperial Guard Psyker Battle Squad. With the combination of a Ld lowering psychic power other abilities such as shooting, neural blaster, divine pronouncement, etc. become more effective but against Fearless/mech'd armies this power has far less of an impact. However, the PBS also has the power Soulstorm which is a potent large blast attack. This makes the PBS squad capable of 'gimmicks' in forcing off/killing units based on lowering their Ld but they still have a very solid role against most armies with the ability to chuck out a high strength, large blast template. Compared to Lash Princes the PBS is a very solid choice for an army as it has utility against some armies but is still usable against all armies. This is the hallmark of a balanced list.

And finally, a balanced list has in-built redundancy. Whilst this might come across as bland and boring in some lists (I.e. LasPlas & Immo spam), without multiple multi-purpose, anti-tank, anti-infantry, defensive and utility units, your army is easy to pick apart by your opponent. If for example you only have a couple of cavalry (Fantasy) or mech units (40k), your opponent can neutralise your mobility by focusing on those units early. This does not mean you have to run exact duplicates but when ensuring army unity, it is sometimes unavoidable (I.e. ASM in Blood Angel Jumper lists). This does NOT mean the army is cheesy/OP/WAAC/etc. but rather ensures a degree of reliability by having multiple units fulfilling the same role. This is called balanced. Again, it can be bland and boring at times but ensuring your army is capable of surviving contact with your opponent is part of a balanced army.

This I think is part of the biggest divergence between a gamer and hobbyists perspective of what balanced is. A hobbyist looks at a balanced list as having a spread of unit selections and not being top-notch competitive whilst a gamer considers redundancy an integral part of being balanced. I obviously lean towards to latter understanding and consider the “balance of unit selections” to be a 'rainbow' or 'battleforce' army. However, there are still some misconceptions about the competitive understanding of balanced lists in how they play on the table-top which I will consider below. Remember, we’ve covered above the distinct differences between rock/gimmick lists and balanced lists.

Now that we’ve got an understanding of what a balanced list is and specifically what it is not, let’s de-bunk a few of the myths about a balanced list. The biggest one for me is they are “point and click” armies. This is a load of bollocks. Look through the blog archives of 3++, YTTH, Mind War FTW, 3+ save, Blackjack & Hookers, etc. How many tactical concepts are discussed/analysed over these ‘point and click’ armies? A metaphorical ton. Whilst using a Mech IG or SM list might have similar premises in board control and be easier to play than a 24” Eldar mech list or Foot BA list, they are by no means simple. If an army appears point and click and plays that way on the table the army is either a gimmick/rock army (I.e. Shrike termies, Lash Chaos, etc.) or is being run by a poor general. Look at Stelek’s ambush article. Point and click that thanks. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings of balanced lists or 'net'-lists. Sure, you can go to the above blogs and grab a good list based on the blogs' reputation and know it does well in theory. This does not mean you will do well, even if you are a top-notch general. Practice and understanding the concepts behind the army are very important and cannot all be explained on paper. Whilst you can have a complete theoretical understanding of an army, nothing helps as much as practice. This is where the whole 'point and click' issue comes in as well. Individuals seem to operate under the pre-conception that using net-lists is simply taking an army someone else has made and it wins games automatically. Wrong. Whilst the list might be good, skill and understanding is still required to make the list work and by no means is it as simple as 'point and click.' As an aside, there is nothing wrong with using someone else's list from the internet. The internet is to share knowledge after-all and as long as you don't try and claim you made it yourself...well, good on you for recognising a good list when you see it. I'm sure most people don't cook from scratch either, you use recipes others have made?

Another misunderstanding is that balanced lists (with the competitive understanding) aren’t fluffy. Once again, I call this complete bollocks. Although taking three similarly armed Dreadnoughts or having a pure-Veteran army, etc. may not combine perfectly with the fluff in the codex, the fluff can fit whatever army you want to create. Thanks GW for letting us make our own fluff within the boundaries of your IP. There are also instances where balanced lists fit the fluff mould perfectly. Vanilla Bikers and BA Jumpers are two prime examples which are both very fluffy and very balanced. Un-fluffy also does not mean a balanced list from the hobby perspective. Look at mixed legion Chaos which is generally un-fluffy but can be a terrible list. Remember, rules were written for the game, not the hobby and both aspects (gaming and hobby) can be applied to 40k and Fantasy. They are not mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, spamming the good stuff =/= a competitively balanced list. Taking six squads of Plague Marines for example isn’t going to lead to a balanced list even though they are a decent good Troop choice with some of the best anti-tank in meltaguns. You need to have an army concept in mind and as mentioned above, be able to deal with every single phase of the game whilst operating with a cohesive list. A list needs to have good anti-infantry and anti-tank whilst also being mobile (or limited their opponent’s mobility) and having appropriate levels of shooting and either being good in combat or being able to delay/block/ignore good combat units. Add in being competent in the magic phase for Fantasy lists and simply spamming units without thought isn’t going to lead to a balanced list. Spamming may be unpleasant in terms of diversity but also doesn't signify competitiveness.

A reiteration - balanced lists =/= auto win. We covered the point and click myth and I briefly mentioned this in the introduction but it needs to be said again. Whilst balanced lists promote (and are capable of) dealing with any list which is put down against them, this doesn’t mean they automatically win against non-balanced lists or un-optimised lists. Balanced lists are the pinnacle of army list creation in Fantasy and 40k but non-balanced lists are certainly capable of beating balanced lists when better tactics are used (or the dice gods cast their favor upon them). This is an important part of being a general, no matter what type of list you take, play what's on the table. It may be crap but you must ensure you understand what your opponent is using, how it operates and how you can defeat it. Without this understanding, a balanced list isn't going to help you (again, not point and click).

And finally, 40k and Fantasy are balanced systems in their new editions. I see a lot of people complaining neither is balanced and some armies are always going to over-powered compared to others (I.e. Skaven, IG, SW, etc.) and therefore asking what the point of a balanced list is. Although some older books sometimes have difficulties in adapting to the new rules, the new rule-set and army books released by GW have created a huge “logjam” in terms of the top army in either system and there are a lot of armies which can create top-notch competitive armies. This is capable thanks to GW producing externally & internally balanced army books and some of the older books transferring well to the new editions. It is important for the gaming system to be balanced as it currently is for balanced armies to be capable. If the rule-set has certain imbalances some books will be able to take advantage of this and exploit it. This does not exist currently in 40k or Fantasy as much as people would like to believe.

To summarise. 40k & Fantasy are currently balanced systems due to their new rule-sets and latest army book releases. This promotes and allows the use of a balanced list which is a "take all comers" list rather than cheesy/OP/WAAC/etc. A balanced list is competitive and doesn’t rely on gimmicks or rocks and is capable of defeating any army put down on the table-top. At the same time it’s not a point and click army and does require extensive thought to use but is capable of competing in all phases of their respective games either offensively or defensively. This is done through utilising an army-wide concept and ensuring multiple units can fulfil multiple important roles. Whilst hobby players may be more inclined to call balanced lists armies which have a spread of unit choices, this is balanced only in terms of unit choices rather than army efficiency. Although this leans towards the competitive understanding of gaming I propose we make a concentrated effort to encourage the labeling of balanced lists as competitive lists with the properties explained above. I believe this is more effective for the community based on the definition of balance and how a competitively balanced list embraces this definition compared to a list with a balance of unit choices.

20 pinkments:

Iggy said...

Nice article, I like.

Regarding the point-and-click aspect, I don't quite remember who it was that said this (it was one of the usual crowd) but when you have a good, competitive, balanced army against a crap army, the good army is going to _look_ point-and-click simply because of the huge difference in list efficiency.

GreyICE said...

" Whilst this list might seem good on paper because it beats the common list of the day (metagaming/tailoring), it is inherently unbalanced because it cannot deal with a horde style list. Horde style lists may not be competitive but that doesn’t mean you can’t ignore them in your list building exercise."

Again, why not? Why can't I ignore them? Horde armies tend to be piloted by baby seals. Baby seals give up tons of percentage points on their own. Why do we need some element specifically to club them?

Marshal Wilhelm said...

GreyICE, your own sentence provides the reason :D
*tend* to be. You are assuming the probability is the reality.
Though this seems to be an anomaly, some chap took Foot Eldar for a tournament win [sorry about forgetting who].

Either his list was amazing, people were arrogant when playing him [and got stung] or people were caught flat footed and didn't know what to do.

It would be terrible to be exposed by any list [but in this case, Horde] just because you wrote it off as improbable.

Whatever is off use against Horde becomes of use once you get passengers out of transports [unless I am mistaking what combats Horde] and so will have some worth against all lists, and not be Horde-centric.

If you think about it, MMEq is actually the most specialised weapon out there, being single shot and short ranged, but because it is so vicious against Mech and not useless against hiT things and MEq, it is still worth taking.

All that Mech is hiding something, and that is what those tlFlamers get used on *crackle, crackle*

VT2 said...

I see nothing boring with builds.

Armies are boring when all marines have the same static poses, the same grasp on their multi-meltas, and all sternguard are the metal boxes.

While we're here to play a game, and the models are just tokens, the list itself isn't what you'll be looking at, now is it?
Nicely converted, dynamically posed tactical squads, with all members looking like they're doing something, makes a lot to unbore your army.

Not all razorbacks have to have plasmaguns mounted under the lascannon, and you can actually do a classic pintle of them.

This article is very, very nice, because it speaks the truth.

GreyICE said...

@Marshal Wilhelm - No, your response proves that paranoia is alive and well. I mean what's going to happen? I face a horde army round 1 or 2 of a tournament? They're not cheap to collect (so many Baby Seals will gravitate towards something like 2 land raider + sillyness builds or something that doesn't cost a bomb), they're not commonly run by good players, and they're not very common in most tournaments.

So all I have to do is just not get very unlucky, and I don't hit them early on. Later rounds? I'll let their match wins handle that problem.

Let me quote Sun Tzu
For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

You attempt to be strong everywhere.

fester said...

GreyICE - what happens when you find a semi-horde list.
40+ 3+ saves, or 80+ boys (with toys).
3 Tervigons pooping out gaunts?

You need to count on some anti-horde or you will get rolled when you face them.

My Ork lists love playing Mech Marines tailored for a MEQ metagame, as a plas/melta is as useful as a boltpistol vs an ork.

I only run about 80 boys in my Kan Wall and went undefeated (D, D, minor W, W, W) at a reasonably his rep tournamnet in Australia.
I Major won against a BA player with 4+ predators (baal etc) and 3-4 razorbacks. I beat a solid SW list. My draws were purely due to mobility and people cock-blocking with Rhinos (and my own stupidity focusing on the wrong objectives).

Whenever I come up against an army that cant deal with numbers I feel happy, as it makes my job easier.

Am I a seal, maybe. Are they seals. Sometimes.
Is there times when a good list is beaten by a poor list due to any number of reasons? Sure.

"So all I have to do is just not get very unlucky, and I don't hit them early on"
"You attempt to be strong everywhere."

Those 2 statements dont relate in any way.

Icareane said...

"One of the most important parts of a balanced list is its lack of inherent weaknesses."

I read your article with a lot of interest, but I really don't agree, what you are describing are not balanced lists, but competitive lists, ie lists that give you a competitive chance against any other list.

For me a balanced list is not necessarily competitive,
it just means that it has no stronger or weaker points.
I think it is easier to agree on what would be an unbalanced list: a green tide, a land raider spam, or a list with only AT and no AP.

I think balance and competitiveness are two different concepts that can overlap, as a list can be balanced and competitive like Stelek's Nova list (a mix of tanks and infantry with AT and AP), or unbalanced and competitive like a Logan wing, an immolator spam, or Stelek's maximum overdrive.

For me an immolator spam is not balanced at all, as it relies on overwhelming the opponent with light tanks and melta mech infantry.

GreyICE said...

@Fester - in general, when I'm playing something like a tailored guard list, the orks aren't a huge issue. Yes, I'm direly short of flamers, many templates (I'm experimenting with the 6-3 ignores cover LB), but if your solution to me is 80 boys... meh. I can probably deal, that's no proper 'orde. At the end of the day, I can handle 40 MEQ on the field, I can handle 80 boyz.

If your solution to me, on the other hand, was 6x30 man boyz squads (this weighs in at 1350-1400ish points), two KFF, and Lootas in the backdrop, ow. It would be a long, sorry game, even if I did pull out a victory somehow. Real kicker is I just have 1 squad that can take a charge, and they're NOT designed for laying the hurt on boyz (they are exactly as good versus boyz as they are versus Space Marines, which is a bad place to be versus the tide). Someone like Space Wolves can totally deal because Grey Hunters can laugh at the charge.

My thoughts on this? Meh. I split my army in two parts, and let him play target priority, and if he screws that up, he's dead. Just make him come at me, and make him make mistakes.

Lord Zorgatron said...

Icareane: Sorry, but you're using balanced where you mean varied. Balance is about taking the right units to perform all possible tasks vital to winning the game as efficiently as possible without leaving any behind; Variety is about taking units for the sake of being different. The former is key to success at games of WH40K; the latter is only useful for arbitrary personal satisfaction.

Kirby said...

@Icareane; which is again a difference of paradigm and definition which this article is attempting to address. Otherwise what Zorgatron said.

Icareane said...

Okay lets put it that way:
how would you call a list with balanced and mobile but not competitive amounts of AT and AP?

Kirby said...

Un-optimised/sub-par/etc though depends on the list style.

Un-optimised is like leafblower, it can be made good.
Sub-par is like CSM/Orks, they can be balanced internally but not externally yet can still win games, etc.

SandWyrm said...


I'd call that an unbalanced list. Balanced lists have AT and AP.

Here's an article I wrote on the subject:

You seem to be conflating balance with list efficiency or some other metric. A list that is auto-fail against another type is unbalanced.

My Mech IG is balanced because there's nothing I can face that I don't have the tools to compete against. Nothing. I've won games against 7 Land Raiders where I hardly killed anything, and others where I lost every tank to lascannon spam. But in both cases I still had the tools I needed to win.

My SangGuard list, on the other hand, is not balanced because while it's competitive against around 80% of the field, it auto-loses against MSU armies with meltas and/or plasma weapons. Which means any half-competent Mech IG, Mech Wolves, or Mech Sisters list.

It's not a rock list, because there is no single unit I can't live without. It's not points inefficient, because it's optimized as best as I can make it. But neither of those 2 virtues make it a balanced all-comers force.

Anonymous said...

Nice article, but it doesn't deliver on its orignial premisce i.e. this is obviously taking the competitive PoV's definition of balanced and forcing it on the "hobbyists".

I think a better way to go about this would be to propose completely new terminology altogether:
-Optimised: what competitive players refer to as balanced lists.
-Fluffy: what "hobbyists" refer to as balanced lists.

If one was to insist on marrying hobby and competition in the "balanced" tag, I think the only really reasonable way to do this would be to suggest a list that would be overall competitive without resorting to spam. Yes, it wouldn't be as good as an "optimised" list, but it would be far ahead of a "fluffy" list, too.

My 2 cents.

Kirby said...

Yes the article didn't really do that did it :P?

Only issue with your definition of balance is what seperates a balanced and optimised army from a balanced army in terms of labelling? A balanced army by your definition can be optimisied (I'm going to assume spam means multiple multiples of the same unit to the extent of 3+ at 1750+ points).

Also you can have an optimised list which isn't balanced because of the codex (Necrons). What would we call that? And quite a few fluffy armies aren't actually fluffy but just a hodgepodge of units, whilst some fluffy lists are actually very good (Vanilla Bikers, BA Jumpers, etc.). Etc. The premise is there but the problem is we come into way too many terms for labelling and people get confused.

In the end I went with what the competitive community considers balanced because the rules were designed for a game and balanced/optimised armies are built within that understanding. A balanced force based upon unit selection and not spamming is balanced upon the FoC or units rather than on the game. I'm obviously biased but this made more sense to me.

Again, in the end terminology for everything would be great but impossible. I'd rather people who think WAAC/spam lists are one-dimesional beatsticks read this and understand they are not but rather balanced lists and competitive players not go around labelling non-optimised/balanced armies as hobby armies, etc. Too black & white for me I guess...

And that just became a whole lot more confusing! lol

Anonymous said...

Well you illustrate perfectly why I think new vocab would be good. I think "balanced" means just too many things to too many people, and thus should be abandonned. And as good as 3++ is, I'm pretty sure it's not really the type of blog "hobbyists" read (imho); 3++ is firmly in the "competitive" camp after all. So I doubt many "hobbyists" will come around to accept a different definition of "balanced" through 3++ exposure.

Kirby said...

Yes and no with the competitive camp. I, like others, am really over the whole divide between the two. I love my painting and modelling and whilst I may not be as good as some of the great hobby blogs out there (like Gentlemen's Ones), my stuff isn't terrible. Add in authors like Koopa and Rupert who are, and there is a little click in relation to hobby 40k on 3++. Certainly 3++ is competitive focused but I'm in the camp of 40k and that incorporates hobby and gaming.

/minirant over

The problems with a new vocab is it's going to be difficult as hell to shift the paradigm. Is it possible? Certainly but without a well fleshed out concept it's going to be futile. Even then, because so many people believe in the camps (like YTTH versus BoLS), some people will be all for it and some are just going to ignore it. Yes this post doesn't solve it but it does explain balanced from the game side of things, etc.

Rather than developing a new vocab I'd rather see the community come together more. There's a difference between debating and discussing the merits of comp and completely shunning one side of the hobby, etc. Competitive gamers have a terrible repuation and are labelled all WAAC by many forum goers for example, yet they clearly aren't. Many competitive gamers think forum-goers are morons and don't know a thing about gaming and whilst VT2 has 'developed' the term forumitis, most of the writers here have come from forums.

Blablabla basically I think developing a new vocab when there are two clear groups who are quite often at odds with each other is developing the scaffolding without a foundation.

Anonymous said...

"Certainly 3++ is competitive focused"

Yeah that's what I meant by being in the competitive camp.

"I think developing a new vocab when there are two clear groups who are quite often at odds with each other is developing the scaffolding without a foundation. "

True. I guess it will be up to GW to build a unified community; fortunately, as 5th ed seems to get better and better as far as internal and external balancing, and as more and more people are starting to clue up on how to play effectively, it may just be a matter of time.

Kirby said...

Fair enough and true enough :P. GW isunlikely to ever build a proper community though without a staff change (i.e. bye bye Jervis). For the most part, all of the old guys are gone and the ones that have been around for a while (i.e. Phil Kelly) know what they are about.

Anonymous said...

Heh. If they just reassign Jervis to an area where he won't do damage, he can stay. There's a lot of opportunities for the "lighter side" of 40k to be developped, after all; just make sure the development of the core game is oversighted by someone who understands that the competitive scene is good for the hobby as a whole and for their sales too (how many more SM players would buy those VV squads if they were costed properly?).

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