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"Pink isn't a color. It's a lifestyle." - Chumbalaya
"...generalship should be informing list building." - Sir Biscuit
"I buy models with my excess money" - Valkyrie whilst a waitress leans over him

Monday, December 20, 2010

Guest Article: Identifying Bad Units in Warhammer 40,000

Welcome all! An article from me (Zjoekov), for all you 40k lovers out there. First things first however, let’s introduce myself: I’m a 20 year old student who’s more interested in Warhammer 40,000 than his studies (that’s bad really). I’ve been playing Warhammer 40k for a good 3 years now but my dedication and enthusiasm makes up for any lacking experience…well that’s the idea anyway! Currently I own CSM, Eldar (hybrid and Mech) and pure Grey Knights armies. Yes indeed, two armies with 1 or 2 possible builds and one with no working build at all, for semi-competitive play at least.

Anyway, to the article. A while ago I started thinking about what makes certain units and lists effective and others not so or less. A lot of people give answer to this by referring to the metagame and according to some, when your list is good at dealing with the local/current metagame, it’s a good list. Sounds about right? Well it’s wrong. I can take good lists and perform well no matter what area I’m going to. Kirby already posted a good and comprehensive article on this here and spoke at length about balanced lists here.

So what am I going to write about when Kirby has essentially covered the metagame and balanced armies already? Well it’s in the word essentially; I feel he has not explained the theory behind balanced lists enough and I’m going to give my thoughts on why good/bad lists have to exist and why they can be made without knowing what your opponent is taking.

What makes some units better than others? Because they make better (or worse) use of rules over-arching the game compared to others. This is not a game without boundaries as we play this game within a prescribed set of rules. What works well and what doesn’t gets largely decided by the rules. We therefore have to understand the rules and understand them well.

Let me give an example of a bad unit. Thousand Sons. Why are they bad? Because they are over-costed. Now that’s not very helpful of course so let’s look at what makes them over-costed. It becomes clear when you look at what they have for special abilities (which is often where you pay your points).

  • 4++; if you read the rulebook carefully it becomes quite clear infantry units are able to get a 4+ cover save without too much trouble which makes the 4++ much less impressive. This is highlighted by the fact Thousand Sons don’t want to be in combat where their 4++ is very advantageous compared to cover.
  • AP3 bolters; Same deal here; their effect gets largely countered by the fact cover saves are easy to acquire. In other words, units get cover whilst you pay to ignore their armor save.

Now this is rather extreme and therefore easy to understand example (most of the Internet for once agrees Thousand Sons are a bad unit). However, it’s important to understand that each and every unit in 40k gets affected by the rules in one way or another; just like the above unit.

One of the most illogical reasons ‘bad unit defenders’ come up with is this one: “But X can do this and this! So it’s a very useful unit!” Those people tend to ignore that each unit has an opportunity cost (and actual cost) which is where you take one thing to forego another. Furthermore, every unit has a points cost which helps determine how good a unit is. It’s impossible to deny this: a Wave Serpent which costs 400 points is terrible and much worse than what they are currently. No matter how useful a certain unit may be, driving the points cost up for said unit will make it bad. Why? Because you take other units instead.

But certain units are useful and useful is useful, right? Warhammer 40,000 simply isn’t a rock/paper/scissors kind of game. You can achieve the goal you want (winning the mission) in different ways. A Predator Annihilator can fulfil a certain job for example but its job can be in some other, more efficient, ways. Therefore: no single unit in itself has qualities which makes the unit irreplaceable.

Sure, some units are near must-includes for good lists (especially with older books) because they are the best option for a certain slot but overall holds true. Some jobs are needed in every army like anti-tank. Just because Swooping Hawks have haywire grenades doesn’t make them a good unit to fulfil this role (unlike in 4th edition where glancing was more powerful). Kirby note: it’s important to point out some units are also the best in the book for their job and if you want that job included in your army, sometimes you are ‘forced’ to pick that unit. For example, if you want a rock unit in an SM army without bikes, there’s TH/SS Terminators and…nothing else. If this unit was 500 points for 5 models though it wouldn’t be an option but because it is an excellent buy and fantastic unit doesn’t make it an auto-inclusion in every list as there are opportunity costs for this unit in losing Dreads and Sternguard options.

When have you ever watched two movies and decided to rate them? To ensure an ‘average’ score is maintained, you’d have to rate one 10/10 and the other 0/10. It doesn’t matter if you liked both to some degree or if they were both really good. That’s the whole point of rating things: to measure their performance in relation to other things and whilst in actually these movies may have been a 9 and 8.5 respectively, to maintain an average score (and therefore a normal distribution of scores), one is going to clearly end up higher than the other in such a small rating sample size. The same can be said of 40k. A bad unit can have uses but compared to others isn’t as well rated. Another defense of bad units is within the army it fits well (I.e. Fire Warriors in an army with TL-MP Suits and Broadsides) but changing the army around so the bad unit isn’t required is more likely to get you a better list.

There was some miscommunciation here and I'm sure many of you would realise the fallacy the basis of the argument on having to rate things a 0 and 10 to get an average score of 5 is, etc. Basically what this pargraph was trying to say is when comparing two units one may be clearly better than the other but in the concept of all of 40k they both suck. Therefore looking at units in a vacuum is not a good way to understand units just like the concept of earning your points back isn't a proper indication of a unit's effectiveness. Hope that clears things up.

It’s just very hard to see exactly how good a unit or build is relative to each other because each unit and army is different and when units are identical with different point costs, it’s very easy to see which units are better (I.e. Cassius is a no-brain choice over a normal Chaplain if you don’t want to use a Jump Pack, Bike or Terminator Armor). It’s hard to compare unit to unit which is further compounded by unit’s affecting each other (synergy) which act as force multipliers. It is overall about the total list and never about individual units. Individual units suck when they cannot function in a good list and a good list doesn’t rely on individual units. Note: the fact that some units or builds don’t fit a player’s playstyle, doesn’t change anything of the above. So when somebody might not be able to get the most out of a unit, it’s not the units fault but the players. Therefore, it doesn’t influence how good certain units are overall, as long as it’s possible to use them effectively in a good list.

Why is it so hard to prove that certain units weaken your list and certain units are better than others? The biggest reason is because this game is played with dice and skill is the biggest influential factor in determining the outcome of a battle (not the other way around). When I claim a certain build is weaker than some others and even when I’m able to give logical reasons for it backed up by numbers, it’s difficult to test. I can’t guarantee a certain list will always perform better than another list or even over an extensive series of games due to player skill and dice. This is why merely personal experience is not useful for proving a certain build works as it depends too much on how good your opponent was, terrain setup, dice rolls, missions, etc. However, just because it is relatively hard to prove one list is better than another doesn’t make the theory false.

If a large, standardised and organised tournament scene emerged across the globe, in which players from across the globe compete with each other, this theory would be a lot more applicable. After some time patterns would be likely to emerge which are decently reliable as random factors are generally reduced to player skill and dice. Over enough games and tournaments this should even out and give some indication of what is better and what is worse in terms of unit selection and armies overall. This would obviously not be 100% accurate but reliable enough to draw somewhat credible conclusions from it.

Until then? Accepting the fact arguing with some people tends to be frustrating, simply because they don’t see certain things as being as logical as you. Mathhammer can sometimes help out but it’s not a perfect tool for the job.

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