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"Pink isn't a color. It's a lifestyle." - Chumbalaya
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"I buy models with my excess money" - Valkyrie whilst a waitress leans over him

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Old Stuff Day: That Land Raider Was a DISTRACTION!

This was the article that effectively launched my Blogging career, after I submitted it to Danny Internets and was accepted as an author. I'm still proud of it, it might be the best thing I've written.

It's not uncommonly heard. I've blown up more than my fair share of expensive units, only to have my opponent tell me that they were a distraction/all part of the plan/suicide unit. I smile and play along, sure guy, your 250 point Land Raider was a distraction. Whatever. It's obviously ludicrous.

But then I got to thinking, what is a good distraction unit in 40k? What am I looking for when I talk about that nebulous support role? I needed a definition. The one I like best is also very simple:an obstacle to attention”
Aha! That's a good one! The important thing to realize about this is what we mean by “attention”. We aren't just talking about the opponents attention (though anything that can grab that is indeed a bonus). We're talking about the attention of units. At it's simplest level, this is putting a more durable unit in front of a less durable one to ensure survivability, in the way that Rhino's are often found behind heavier tanks. More subtle players recognize the value of those same Rhino's ability to function as a “moving wall” that can be used to block enemy line-of-sight. I'm sure most of us are aware that Land Speeders are excellent for zooming in front of enemy units and blocking assaults; this is the same idea. Anything that diverts an enemies function and mission is a “distraction” by our definition.
There is, however, another layer to this. That layer is one of cost. To understand this better, let's delve into economics for a moment. Economists like to use the term opportunity cost; and it's the opportunity cost of a distraction unit that determines if it is a good choice for the role. Opportunity cost is a very simple concept: the opportunity cost of something is what you give up to get it.
You are already very familiar with this concept as a 40k player, you take it into account every time you build an army list. (Or at least you should!) You are limited in the number of HQ, Elites, Troops, Fast Attack, and Heavy Support options in your army. An army which is especially pressured by this concept is the Imperial Guard in their heavy support section. Guard have a lot of good heavy support choices (the Leman Russ, Demolisher, Executioner, Hydra Flak Tank, Basilisk, Medusa, Colossus, and Manticore are all deadly) but they only have three heavy support options available to them. So, when a guard player chooses to take a Manticore, and 2 Hydra Squadrons the cost is really more than the points. The opportunity cost is the Leman Russ tanks and artillery that he can no longer select. If he had taken Leman Russ tanks instead of Hydra's, he the opportunity cost would be artillery and Hydras, as well as whatever Leman Russ variants he did not bring. What this opportunity cost means in practical terms is that you can't bring everything. Your powerful units are not only limited in number; each one you bring also limits their contemporaries in number. At an even broader level, opportunity cost is simply this: anything you spend points on means that you can't buy something else.
However, opportunity cost doesn't stop there, it is present on the tabletop, throughout the entire game. Whenever a unit does (or doesn't) do something there is a cost there. The easiest to see is the choice of running: either you can shoot, or you can run. The opportunity cost for each is the other. When you move a squad, the opportunity cost is firing a heavy weapon. Sick of me beating this concept into your head? Good. That means you've got it.
This is more important on the tabletop than most players realize, because the simple fact of the matter is this: every action has very large opportunity costs. 40K is played with a very limited set of resources, even more limited than it first appears. Each unit is not only restricted by point values, but it is restricted in action as well. There are only 5-7 turns in a standard game, which means that each of your units gets 5-7 moves, 5-7 shooting phases, and 10-14 assault phases. (Though that seeming number discrepancy is something to discuss at another time.) Each time a unit is not utilized in a phase is wasted resources. The timer is ticking, and the opportunity cost is high.
This brings us full circle back to the original point of this article: distraction units. Remember our definition? “An obstacle to attention.” Now, we can really see why these units are so useful: they drive up our opponents opportunity costs!
Take, for example, the common event of a Tau Piranha jumping in front of an assault unit (we'll call them Khorne Berserkers) to stop them from smashing into some fire warriors next turn. Usually, the Chaos player doesn't much mind, takes out the Piranha (or runs around it) and gets at the fire warriors next turn. Sure, he takes one extra round of shooting, but that's not so bad, after all, the fire warriors will probably only kill about 2.
Actually, the chaos player has lost a lot more than just a few men to shooting. His Berserkers didn't get to engage, and he lost a full turn of close combat and movement. In a six turn game, that means that those Berserkers just lost 17% of their damage and movement potential, in a trade for... potentially a cheap skimmer. Ouch. Bet our Tau player's happy. 
Of course, it's unrealistic to think in terms of these numbers all the time, but it does get the idea across. If we can delay our opponent's units from doing what they're good at, there's a massive return.
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So now, back to my original question: what makes a distraction unit good?
  1. The unit needs to be able to reliably perform its duties.
  2. The unit needs to be cheaper than whatever it's trying to stop. (IE opportunity cost!)
Number one is pretty self-explanatory. If it doesn't work reliably, it doesn't have a place in a list.
Number two benefits from a little explanation. We are not just talking about the points cost of a unit here, we are talking about its utility to the army. Imagine this:
You are a general, and you have a mixed force under your command. You are going against an enemy and are at a disadvantage. You know the enemy is easily distracted, so you send out a force far away from the battlefield, to distract the enemy and lure some of them away. How much of your army do you send?
The opportunity cost in this one is obvious: whatever portion of your army you send away will not be present to fight at the main battle. Therefore, you want to send an amount of your armythat will draw away a greater percentage of the enemy than the men you sent. If you send 5% of your forces, and the enemy sends 8%, that's a win and you have improved your circumstances. If they send equal or less than you have, then you have not benefited at all.
This is why Land Raiders make poor distraction units. A Land Raider is usually around 250 points, or 12.5% of a 2000 point army. That is a very significant chunk of your force right there. In fact, losing it severely damages your force, probably more than losing whatever it died to protect, say a tactical squad that is worth 170 or 8.5%. Losing 12.5% of your army to protect 8.5% is a crappy trade. On the other hand, losing a Multi-Melta/Heavy Flamer Land Speeder (3.5%) to protect that same 8.5% tactical squad is a great deal.
The same deal applies when using a vehicle to block line of sight, or stacking heavy vehicles in front of lighter ones. We are preventing the enemy units from completing their objectives, losing them valuable resources while maintaining efficiency in our own army.
Alright, enough fancy talk, let's look at a couple actual units and see why they may not be all they're cracked up to be.
To start, we have the supposed ultimate “distraction vehicle”, the Vindicator tank. Cheap(ish), offensively powerful, and begging to be shot on the side armor, the Vindicator is the first thing most people will shoot at when they see it across the table. It is often hawked for this very reason: the opponent will shoot at it instead of the rest of your army.
The first problem is that a smart opponent will still target the important bits of the army, Vindicator or no. The Vindicator cannot “force” itself on the opponent and force him to target it. It relies on an unreliable ruse and so it fails the first of our criteria, in that it can't reliably perform its duties.
The other problem is that the Vindicator tends to die fast, and really isn't cheap enough to trade for a few anti-tank rounds. In fact, they die so quickly to concentrated fire that most people recommend taking at least 2 (preferably 3) or none at all. In addition, it will only really protect other tanks that are not an offensive threat, which isn't a lot in a Space Marine list. (Remember, Rhino's are very offensively powerful because they ferry marines.) It fails criteria 2, because it probably isn't cheaper than whatever it's trying to stop, if it can stop it at all.

Our next unit is the Imperial Guard "blob" squad. For our purposes, we will assume a 40 man combined infantry platoon with a commissar, and five power weapons. It comes in at a cool 285 points. Ouch. Well, lets see if it's any good, at least.

First off, can it reliably perform it's duties of distraction? Well... yes. Yes it can. 40 men can spread to cover a lot of area, can prevent close deep strikes to the guards expensive tanks, can block a large portion of the line from assault (especially enemy fast first-strike assault units) and tends to tarpit any unit that actually stops to engage it. In addition, it is a scoring unit, so in objective games the opponent cannot afford to try and ignore it. It gets an A on our first criteria.
But what about cost? 285 is a lot of points, and we scoff at people using a 250 point Land Raider as a distraction, but... the comparison is not quite the same. The blob squad is a lot better at it's job of distraction, for one thing, and for another it provides a lot more protection while doing it. That squad can cover the majority of an army, and prevent an enemy from closing with important but vulnerable support units. In addition, it takes a lot of any kind of firepower to kill the blob squad, while the raider is vulnerable to any single high-strength attack. So, even though it is expensive, it also gets an A on being cheaper than what it's trying to stop. (In this case, fast assault and close anti-tank units that are trying to get at our really valuable stuff.)
This isn't to say that a Vindicator should never be included in a list, and the "blob" squad should always be, it's a matter of how the list is constructed and played; which dramatically affects how well the unit can act as a distraction. An infantry platoon, for example, is a terrible choice for an army that is built to be fast and go for the throat; it will be left behind and be unable to perform its function. (And now it starts failing criteria 1...) That being said, there are some distraction units that are so good for their cost (Land Speeder, anyone?) that not taking them is almost a criminal offense against your list.
So how can you tell which units are good for your list? Unfortunately, the only advice I can offer here is "experience". Try out different units, see what can reliably work, and always, always keep an eye on what you're giving up.
You've got the idea now, so put it into practice! The top players are all masters of distraction units, knowing what to sacrifice and when is perhaps the most important skill to master in 40k.

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