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Monday, December 19, 2011

Beating the Army: Grey Knights

Stop saying Grey Knights are overpowered. All of you! Right now! Stop it, stop it, stop it! Arrrrgghhhh!! I don't care if you play Grey Knights or if you play against them. I don't care if you're a tournament player or a casual player. Just stop it, right this instant. Grey Knights are not unbeatable. They are not meaningfully better against the field as a whole than any of the other well-written 5E codices. They have certain advantages and necessitate a different playstyle in many ways, but they are not some sort of magical win button that you can just press and never lose a game again. They're just an army, like any other.

This article will probably be even longer than my previous Beating the Army, god forbid. I intend to go over the weaknesses in GK units and overall strategy and explain, in general and in detail, how to beat them. I also intend to post a follow-up discussing strategies for different armies to fight them, since some armies will naturally struggle more than others at the task. However, being that I still don't want to make this infinity words long, I will only be talking about MEQ-focused GK armies and will be excluding Coteaz lists; they have issues of their own, which I will discuss in another article. Someday.

GK's Strengths

Grey Knights are the ultimate generalist army- they have shooting and melee, mech and foot, cheap and expensive all hybridized together. Point-for-point they have some of the most efficient models in the game, as their basic guys are only somewhat more expensive than standard Space Marines and come with significantly upgraded gear. Everything they have can fire on the move to some degree or another and they have most of the usual MEQ perks, although they notably lack Drop Pods.

On top of this they have psykers galore, with every non-Inquisitorial unit getting at least one, and usually two or more psychic powers. Vehicles get immunity to suppression with Fortitude and infantry get Hammerhand for +1S and another trick, depending on the unit. They natively have Terminators as troops and can unlock other options with HQs. Psybolt Ammunition lets their weapons be a notch above those that everyone else carries- which for some units is a very, very big deal, especially Dreadnoughts and Razorbacks.

All in all, Grey Knights are an army that generally relies on strong mid-range shooting, supported by good torrent fire from Dreadnoughts, to apply pressure to the enemy. Force Weapons provide countercharge and can scare off most things; in a pinch, you can even go for the charge yourself, but most GK armies rely on shooting because in 5E, shooting is a stronger strategy.

GK Weaknesses

That all sounds fantastic, doesn't it? You know what isn't fantastic, though? Paying for it all. Oh, to be sure, Grey Knights get really good deals on most of it, but a good deal on something you don't need isn't that good of a deal at all. They are forced to play generalists, no matter what else they want to do; a pure shooting army like IG, Tau, or DE can bring more guns than GK can. A pure melee army can bring stronger close combat threats. GK always have to walk the middle road, paying the extra points for their flexibility even if they don't want to.

This is key to understanding why GK are not unbeatable: their stuff is not cheap. Yes, they get good prices on much of it. No one is arguing that. But regardless of how good the prices are, you still must pay them, and those points add up. Ten Tacticals will generally set you back just over two hundred points with their "standard" upgrades and ride; ten Strike Squad guys will be more like three hundred. Unsurprisingly, the GKSS will be better than the Tacticals at most things, but if all you want is bodies to sit somewhere... well, paying 50% more isn't that great. This also comes up when it's casualty removal time. For all the wonderful stuff they are gifted with, one thing GK don't generally get is a survivability increase. GKSS are still just T4/3+ guys at the end of the day, and they die just the same but cost 25% more than other basic Marines. GK lists will almost always struggle to maintain a sufficient number of bodies to not be just shot right off the table, because when the enemy is alpha striking you, it doesn't matter what kind of fancy-ass swords and boomsticks you have, you're rolling saves and pulling dudes and when there's a third or half as many dudes for you to pull, that can be very painful.

This occurs to a lesser degree with their tanks, since the cost difference is less and Fortitude makes them resilient to many of the anti-tank strategies out there, but like BA, the extra cost they pay on their hulls does tend to add up over the course of a list. And, naturally, their HQs, etc, tend to follow this same mold: expensive but effective. GK have only a very few options that come in for less than 150pts in ANY slot, which is not to even bring up the possibilities of upgrades, etc.

Now add in distinct limits on their abilities: their shooting is, bar Dreadnoughts, limited to 24" range and, despite having NFW, many of their models only come with that one base attack. The former means that enemy shooting armies can simply stand off from GK and generally get 1-2 turns of free shooting on them- and melee armies are ecstatic to find that GK needs to start a lot closer to them (and thus must endure fewer turns of punishment) than they are used to. WS4 and a single attack on their basic dudes mean that while they are able to beat most other basic troops, they are still not going to triumph over combat specialists unless they are severely weakened, especially those striking at I5 or earlier.

Lastly, while they have a good number of units to pick from, at the end of the day, most of them look... rather similar. Marine statline, 3+ or 2+ save, Force Weapon, Psycannons. That describes pretty much the entire TR, EL, FA, and HS slots except for vehicles. They don't get Melta, their Flamers are expensive as all get out, and they don't get any other special weapons pretty much at all. Want some Plasma to handle other MEQ armies? Too bad, you're relying on torrent. (Pray they don't have FNP.) Want some heavy weapons for a backfield unit? Nope, you get Psycannons just like everyone else. Want AP1 for busting tanks? Sorry, all we have left is these Psycannons. The Psycannon is a great gun, don't get me wrong, but it and the Storm Bolter are close to the only guns they get. (Well, them and the S6/8 shots from their vehicles.) Lots and lots and lots and lots of torrent fire; not a whole lot else. Most of the time that works out just fine, but everyone knows there are times when you HAVE to kill a particular model, and GK will sometimes have trouble with that.

Finally, Grey Knights, unlike most other armies, need to get out of their rides to be effective. This goes right back to the point about cost: when you are spending 40pts for everyone in a unit to have a Storm Bolter, you had damn well better be using it and not just sitting inside a transport twiddling your thumbs. For that reason GK armies will usually move forward and disembark in order to shoot more weapons at the enemy, using their vehicles to try and shield themselves from enemy charges and shooting. This can be good because it gives them twinned threats (the transport and its contents), but there is a reason that other armies do not disembark often; it exposes your troops to a much greater degree. With GK being comparatively fragile (because of their cost and resultant lack of bodies), this means an enemy with strong anti-infantry can cause a lot of casualties to you, which you have little choice but to endure.

What to Expect
So let's look at a generic Grey Knights army.
1750 Grey Knights
1 Grandmaster (MC Sword, Rad, Psychotroke)
5 Purifiers (2 Psycannon, 3 Halberds, Psyback)
5 Purifiers (2 Psycannon, 3 Halberds, Psyback)
5 GK Terminators (Psycannon, 2 Hammer, 2 Halberds)
10 GKSS (2 Psycannon, Psybolt, MC Hammer, Rhino)
5 GKSS (Psycannon, MC Hammer, Psyback)
5 GKSS (Psycannon, MC Hammer, Psyback)
1 Psyfleman
1 Psyfleman
(Standard caveat: this is not the "best" list, this is just a list for purposes of illustration.)

So we have a pretty good countercharge unit in the GM+GKT, and some utility from the GM. Psybacks and Psyflemen provide longer-range shooting and the effective ten Psycannons (eight plus one Relentless one) support that. Every unit is at least reasonably good at both melee and shooting and the tanks are all non-ignorable as long as they're alive.

What doesn't this list have? A lot of long-range guns, as mentioned earlier. Eight S8 shots and twelve S6 shots is okay, but hardly amazing for a 1750 army, and none of them will do a lot of damage to Marines (five kills per turn in total.) Its scoring presence is also reasonably fragile- twenty MEQs and five TEQs, plus whatever you roll up for Grand Strategy. That isn't awful, but neither is it impressive when those units are mostly forced to disembark of their own free will.

Lastly, it is fairly vulnerable to torrent shots, which can snuff out the Psycannons without a lot of work; the Purifiers especially are vulnerable to losing firepower from even middling enemy shooting, though of course the vehicles are pretty resistant.

What is its overall plan? Get to 24" as fast as it can and shoot, shoot, shoot. Against armies weaker than it in melee, it will often continue advancing steadily, trying to force an engagement; against armies better in melee, it does the opposite, trying to hug that 24" line with a shooting retreat. A home objective usually must be protected by a Psyfleman, because the list's other guns really don't have the range to reach out from there- some variants use Henchmen and/or a LasPlas to mitigate this, but it often just ends up replacing one weakness with another. Midfield and enemy objectives are much easier to pressure, since the list needs to close in during turns 2-4 in order to shoot, usually leaving it in place for rushes or Tank Shocks in the final turns.

How to Fight Them

The most obvious method is the easiest: hit them first and hit them harder. If you are deploying first, try to set up some good fire lanes to force them through and use your ability to alpha strike to cause what damage you can. Take Immobilize results if you can get them, otherwise aim to destroy things and then wipe out their contents- the Purifiers are prime targets here, since they're basically just extra-expensive, extra-everything GKSS. Remember those Pinning checks when you dump them out of their rides! Don't expect to do any real damage to the Psyflemen unless you can mitigate their cover and have S9+ shooting, as they are very, very tough. GK will often deploy defensively when going second, on the assumption that you will be doing these things, but their ability to do so is limited by their range- they have to start within 38.99 (12" move, 2.99" disembark, 24" range) of you, so look to deny them good hiding spots if possible. If going second, you'll have to instead try and maximize range to them as they still need to make that rush towards you- a split deployment can make things tricky for them, but isn't always wise depending on how much that will divide your fire. If you have the terrain and fire lanes for it, though, take it. Seizing the initiative against GK is a godsend, as you will get the "free" turn of shooting to punish their lack of range and potentially strand units on the far side of the board.

What if you aren't a shooting army, though? Melee armies will have an easier or more difficult time depending on their particular style, but in all cases GK have particular tools that can theoretically trump almost anything you can do. You job will be twofold: disable these specialist tools (generally Purifiers, grenade-supported Terminators/Paladins/Death Cult, or something similar) and then use your own specialists to overwhelm their generalist units. Some armies can't do this; they just don't have good shooting tools to destroy particular parts of the enemy army. For these poor souls (especially Daemons and Tyranids), sadly, there is very little hope to offer. Play to your strengths, try and get good charges and deny them the same, and remember to play to the mission at all times.

Another important factor: remember your psychic defense! If this seems obvious, then perhaps you are not among the large percentage of 40K players who still seem to think that Librarians, Rune Priests, Farseers, etc, are optional inclusions in large games these days- they are not. The utility of being able to stop enemy powers has grown with nearly every codex that is released and most every new book has some options for doing so. If you aren't taking these models because they are cheap, efficient, multipurpose toolboxes that bring a multitude of options to nearly any force, then their absurd functionality against Grey Knights should be enough to convince you. Being able to stop Fortitude, Hammerhand, Sanctuary, the Shrouding, and Cleansing Flame can all be incredibly relevant; canceling Fortitude especially re-opens an entire strategy (suppression) for you, even unreliable as it may be at times.

Finally, don't be afraid to trade models with GK. You're cheaper than they are, no matter who you may be- if your Tacticals can jump out and Bolter the last of a squad of Purifiers to death, you have cut down significantly on their ability to apply firepower to you; GK just can't afford to lose models the way other armies can. They have fewer bullet-catchers in most squads and even those "expendable" members tend to be relevant in other ways, such as helping torrent down infantry or stave off melee. For the same reasons, don't be afraid to get into close combat with them- certainly, their Nemesis Force Weapons can put some hurt on things, but they're still just WS4 I4 A1 guys, for the most part. If there are five of them left in a squad, you should expect to take... one casualty, maybe two if he passes Hammerhand. And, striking simultaneously with them, your Tacticals will kill two back (and maybe even get some with Bolt Pistols!) Grey Knights are bad at wars of attrition involving infantry; if you're forcing them to take meaningful casualties, you are probably winning.


Let's talk a little bit about some of the other types of lists you see (that stay inside the "mostly GK guys" category, as opposed to Paladin lists, which we already discussed, and Henchmen lists, which will come later.

PURIFIER LISTS: After paying the Crowe tax, GK can get Purifiers as troops. That's good, right? Because Purifiers are good, right? Not exactly. You see, all of those problems that I talked about above, like lack of bodies and being expensive generalists that all fill the same role? Purifier lists take all of those problems and crank them to eleven. If you thought regular GK lists lacked bodies (like the above one, with 35 duders), Purifers are crippled on that front, since they're paying almost 33% more for each squad. While such a list can be a nightmare for horde armies (because even a couple guys reaching CC can wreck a unit), their ability to soak casualties is akin to that of a piece of damp lasagna, i.e. very low. Every '2' they roll over the course of the game means losing 26pts or more, and no matter how much shooting they bring that is still very painful.

DREADKNIGHT: T6 and 5++ is cute, but he's still going to be either hellishly expensive or slow (pick one.) If he's expensive, just gun his silly ass down when he jumps in front of you on T1. If he's slow, just ignore him until everything else is dead. Every one of these is one fewer Psyflemen.

ASSASSINS: Really, the Callidius and Vindicare are the only ones that matter, and I'm being generous. Calli will pop out and do some damage to something; there's really no avoiding it, so just make sure she has to do it in a place where you can kill her next turn. Remember that she is placed according to the Deep Strike rules (but with no scatter), so if she appears in Difficult Terrain, she needs to make a Dangerous Terrain test. Vindi provides some AP1 and can snipe out important models from a squad (PFist, heavy weapons, etc) but remember he can't snipe you if you're inside a transport and he dies just like the others. Both of them have Stealth and a 4++ with two wounds, so torrenting them down is a very viable option in most cases, and S8 guns work okay as well in a pinch. Vindi is only 36" range, so he needs to be placed reasonably close to your lines, making it possible to deny him cover, avoid his firing position, etc.

VENERABLE PSYFLEMEN: When you see a list running more than three Psyflemen, and it's not 2.5K points, you're usually looking at a list that is overkill. The premium paid on the Venerable guys is a lot, and while they are much tougher, they don't really kill things any better, so the army will basically just be hoping that getting rid of all your transports cripples you. And, since it has to give up 2-6 Psycannons to get those extra S8 shots, it probably won't be able to clean your infantry out. Look to cut away his non-Psyflemen units and work under the assumption that he's going to disembark most of your guys pretty quickly.

TECHMARINES: Run most commonly for fancy grenades, which pretty much fall under the Win-More Fallacy. Occasionally they'll be used for Conversion Beamers or Orbital Strike Relays, which are cute but generally unimpressive.

LIBRARIAN: This is one of the more scary additions to a GK force, since he can be a huge multiplier for all sorts of units, but he does suffer from the same problem as many other GK HQs do: transportation. He can't get inside SM vehicles, so he's either hoofing it (which is lol), in a Chimera with some Henchmen (which means you should gun for it, since it doesn't have Fortitude) or in a Stormraven (which means it's a Rock list and we've talked about those plenty already.) In any incarnation, you would be wise to respect his psychic abilities, as Quicksilver, Shrouding, Sanctuary, and Might of Titans can all swing battles on their own.

Conclusion of Part 1

Grey Knights are not a "win button" or "power army." Like any other codex, they have weaknesses, weaknesses that a good general can expose and play on. While they have been bandwagoned extensively recently (for a variety of reasons), they aren't taking tournament placings out of proportion with their presence on the field. In six months or a year it will be something else that we'll be complaining about, just as it was with IG and SW before this.

In my follow-up to this article I'll talk in some more detail what different armies will want to do about fighting GK, including both tactics that don't require changing your list (well, assuming you ran one of the "good" lists to start) and those that involve some tweaks. (I won't, however, be talking about full-on list tailoring, as I don't think that's generally a very productive strategy.)

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