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Friday, July 29, 2011

Shooting Armies: Dealing with Aggressive Lists

Something of a topic around here lately: counter-assault units or more specifically: dealing with aggressive lists/units that break through your defensive lines. Something not really discussed but quite important. A lot of good 5th edition armies have a ton of shooting. There are obviously aggressive lists which do well (foot Space Wolves, Jumper variant Blood Angels, Tyranids [to an extent], Vanilla Bikers, etc.) but primarily mid- and backfield shooting lists seem to be the most common good armies. They have several options with which to deal with aggressive armies with assault units or armies with rocks or even just a couple aggressive/combat units. The first is of course to shoot them dead and they do this very well. Not everything is going to die this way of course, otherwise aggressive lists just wouldn't exist and do well (pro-tip: they do). Shooting lists then have a myriad of options which revolve around sending units/tanks forward as sacrifices to block, delay and tarpit the aggressive units whilst the rest of your army keeps shooting. This is no more apparent than with Tau who regularly use Kroot, Drones, Piranhas and Devilfish as mobile blockers and bubble-wrap to keep their Crisis Suits, Broadsides and Hammerheads firing.

This is an effective tactic and the more units/tanks you have, the longer you can do this whilst keeping your opponent away from your army - yay for MSU armies. There are two disadvantages to this tactic however. The first is you often sacrifice part of the board to do this. If you are still mobile you can of course maintain board control (or not lose it completely), particularly around objectives. On the flip side, some armies like Imperial Guard and Tau are less capable of doing this which can be a severe handicap. Secondly, you use this tactic to generate more shooting from your army. If your army is good at shooting this is obviously a good thing but sometimes the dice just say no. For many armies this can be overcome through sheer weight of fire and lots of redundancy (Space Wolves and Imperial Guard jump to mind) but some cannot (Tau say hello!).

This has been most evident recently with Grey Knights. They have a ton of anti-infantry shooting ability at the 24" range but don't really punch through low armor saves and/or FNP units too well. They will bring those units down through simple weight of dice but sometimes the dice just say no. You therefore need options where you can ignore those good/extra dice rolls your opponent has. There are two options here. Mass low AP shooting such as Command Squads with four plasma guns or a counter-assault unit which hits like a ton of bricks. Both are viable and work in different ways. The mass low AP shooting will often fit readily into a given list (such as Imperial Guard or Tau) though you still have the issues outlined above to a lesser extent. You also want to shoot these type of units in a way that doesn't allow your opponent cover and this often means wipe out said unit or die in return.

Let's focus on the counter-assault unit then. This unit aims to be used only when your opponent gets close to your lines. It can obviously be used aggressively itself but if the army doesn't have other units to move up the table with it, well it sticks out a bit doesn't it? If your army has no or few units which move into midfield, it's probably not a good idea to take a counter-assault unit. Against non-aggressive armies it'll basically be useless unless it has alternative deployment methods (hello outflank). So let's assume it fits into your list. Maybe it even adds to your shooting potential somehow (duality, 1+1, etc.). What a counter-assault unit allows a shooting army to do, is sacrifice less. This means your movement is less dependent upon your opponent (which is great) and allows you to utilise your movement in other ways (i.e. blocking units farther away). The counter-assault unit is basically point blank defense for your army.

What you want the counter-assault unit to be able to do is hit an enemy and get rid of it. You don't want to tarpit it close to your lines (what happens if it wins during your combat phase? you're screwed) and whilst this may expose your counter-assault unit to return fire/assaults, your primary goal is to keep your shooting units shooting. You don't want to commit the counter-assault unit too early, you'll give away a consolidation move or block your own fire lanes. You don't want to commit it too late, or your opponent will be engaging your shooting units. When timed correctly, the counter-assault unit will help clear the lines in front of your army and as said above, this frees up other units' movement and allows the shooting units to keep firing. How effective this ultimately is depends a lot upon timing and the unit itself. For example, a Grey Knight Terminator squad works great in this role as it adds to the shooting of the army, will be supported by the rest of the army in midfield and can counter-assault very well and multiple times. Units like Rough Riders or Howling Banshees, whilst effective on the charge, do not add to the army and are more likely to kill one unit and then die themselves to return fire as they are much weaker (and correspondingly cheaper).

When picking a counter-assault unit keep this in mind as well as how the army plays. A Grey Knight list is shooting oriented but much more in midfield. Same with Space Wolves and thus GKT and Thunderwolves which are good combat units in their own right and quite durable, are more appropriate choices. Such units are less appropriate for backfield armies like Imperial Guard or Tau and they would do better with one-hit wonders or look to get focused firepower in a unit which can bypass saves (and this is often what they do).


Shooting and aggressive armies are often at polar ends of the playstyle scale. One is happy to never close with the enemy and attempt to shoot them off the board whilst the other wants to get in your face as quickly as possible. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and neither style is 'better' than the other though obviously some armies do each better than others. As a shooting army you have a finite amount of time before the minimum movement of an aggressive army will have them assaulting you. You can increase this amount of time with firing on the move, eliminating the units closest to you (can you eliminate them all though? unlikely) or slowing down said units. This can be done in many ways such as blocking and sacrifices and allows you to shoot for longer.

Sooner or later though you need to be able to kill said units and sometimes all the shooting the world just cannot bring them all down (imagine 5x10x FNP Assault Marines). When this is the case the shooting army needs to be able to make a decisive blow against said units and can do this in two ways: concentrated low AP firepower or a counter-assault unit. Both have their merits and demerits but allow the shooting army to 'clear' their battleline so to speak. In every sense of the word, these units are security blankets and whilst not a necessity, should be highly considered for any list focused on shooting.

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