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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

BA Stormravens: Why and How

The Stormraven, introduced in the Blood Angels codex and later included in Grey Knights as well, is one of the more unique additions to the armor; it is different enough from most of the other units in the book (and available at large, or at least it was until the Caestus was made) to function very differently, which tends to give people problems when trying to use it. It is both specialized and expensive, meaning that it can't easily be slotted into armies as a one-off or mixed in with other strategies easily; to use it, it requires a fairly dedicated force and special consideration must be given to all aspects of the army.

In this post I'm going to try and talk specifically about the Blood Angels version (which, despite appearances, is VERY different from the Grey Knights one) and what uses it can be put to and how it functions in an army as well as trying to cover some of the common mistakes when it is misused.

The Basics
With good armor (AV12 all around) as well as defenses (PotMS, anti-Melta) combined with excellent speed (Fast Skimmer), carrying capacity (12 models plus a Dread) and armament (four throwaway missiles, two other guns, Hurricane Bolter option) the Stormraven is, in some ways, extremely versatile and an excellent buy. On the other hand, coming in at 200+pts, it is far from cheap and it isn't significantly more protected than most other vehicles in the BA armory (and less so than many.) Obviously, its speed, transport capacity and the Assault Vehicle rule make it something of a shoe-in as carrier for a rock unit, but it has competition here from the Land Raider.

Where the Raider is protected by AV14, the 'Raven relies mainly on speed (leaving itself exposed for less time) and the Flat Out cover save to get its cargo to where it needs to go. A Stormraven is much harder to slow or stop than a Land Raider is, as it can simply jump over most obstacles, so blocking tactics will only have limited effectiveness against it. Thus, despite being superficially similar, the two will tend to play very differently- Raiders start on-table and attempt to roll through any resistance the enemy puts up to drop a dangerous cargo into their midst and then retire to help score an objective elsewhere if they survive. Stormravens more often start in reserve (especially when going second) and carry more cargo (thanks to the Dread), thus forcing a larger portion of the army to be dedicated to them and, being unable to weather extended fire the way a Raider can, will usually be committed to an all-or-nothing plan relatively quickly.

Some players try to combined these approaches and run one of each in their list; this is a very poor option, however, because it violates the fundamental rule of target priority. Two Raiders or 'Ravens present the enemy with difficult choices; they are unlikely to be able to deal with both of them before they can close. However, in splitting them and having one of each type, it makes the opponent's choices much, much easier- the 'Raven gets all the weaker guns in the army to down it early and the Melta/S10 goes after the Raider once it gets closer. The divided approach allows the enemy to use all their guns to maximum efficiency and spreads your "threat window" out over several turns, lessening its effectiveness.

Gear Up
So decking out a Stormraven actually leaves us with rather a lot of choices; some are obvious, some are less so. The basic frame comes with a TL Heavy Bolter and a TL Assault Cannon, both of which can be swapped. The TLHB obviously has to go; free for a Multimelta is probably our prime choice, since it gives us an excellent tank-hunting gun that we will often be firing at short range thanks to PotMS and our overall strategy. The Typhoon Missiles are not bad, but they're a bit expensive and generally don't feel like they're doing as much as they could be. The TLAC is a fine gun on its own- certainly one could keep it as a second close-in AT gun with some secondary infantry-hunting purpose, but as a rule I like taking the TL Lascannon instead- it's slightly better against AV11 and has the range to reach out and touch something distant if you need to, complementing the range on the Bloodstrike Missiles. The TL Plasma Cannon is generally going to be an inferior choice, as hunting heavy infantry isn't really a priority for the Stormraven- that's what our cargo is for.

We can also bolt Hurricane Bolters onto both sides for 30pts, which is a solid buy (they're defensive, so we can fire all four guns when moving 12"), but points are often very, very tight in a Stormraven list, so I generally end up leaving them behind. That's as much personal preference as anything, though, so it's worth experimenting with them a bit- they certainly can cause some major damage to Long Fangs and the like.

Extra Armor is basically automatic every time; while it's pretty poor on cheaper transports, with a rock list you CANNOT afford to have another "oops a dice roll screwed me" option around, so we fork the points out to avoid it. Remember, the current PotMS doesn't let you move, only shoot a gun, so you can't rely on that.

The Beacon is generally unnecessary- you don't want to be using Skies of Blood very often (I've never actually done so) and that's really the only thing it helps with much.

What is It Good For?
So far we've only been talking about the Stormraven in one context- that of an assault platform that delivers a powerful rock unit. And, in most cases, that's all it really can do- certainly, a Stormraven in the late game can ferry troops around, act as a gunboat, etc, but rarely do they survive that long. For the same reasons using them primarily as gunboats (a la IG Vendettas, treating the transport capacity as a secondary benefit) is not optimal because of cost and fragility- AV12 will hold off some firepower, but it is unlikely to be able to keep them active for very long. (This is one reason the GK version is different- Fortitude means they are more likely to keep shooting if not destroyed.) Given the presence of plenty of other good shooting units in the HS slot for Blood Angels, taking Stormravens exclusively for this purpose is usually fairly wasteful and I can't really recommend it.

So we're going to need to run two of them (to ensure that at least one arrives on target) and we're going to need to use them to deliver a rock. What kind of army will want these? To put it simply- a pure rock army, not any kind of hybrid. An army using Stormravens is going to be fully dedicated to that task and all parts of it will go towards maximizing your ability to get the SR's payloads to their destination and to keep the enemy from stopping you. Unlike... certain BoLS authors and other folks, I do not feel they can be mixed into non-mechanized armies effectively- it's simply too much of an investment for the rock, and a non-dedicated army sees too little benefit from just running the 'Raven by itself.

Now for the final caveat for this list: we're running two Stormravens, both loaded down, and that is a LOT of points. In order to do this and have any kind of army that can support it and shut down the enemy even partially, score objectives, etc, we are going to have to be playing a pretty big game, namely 2000pts. In 1850 we might be able to squeeze something out, but will be distinctly lacking in many ways; below that it turns into a rockiest-rock army that has no plan other than "zoom airplanes, hope the enemy doesn't roll sixes." We're still doing that to a significant degree, but we want to at least have some guns to keep the worst of the opposing firepower quiet and some units that can take objectives while the other army is desperately trying to keep from getting smashed by our twin rocks.

Carry Me, Carrie
So now we have the question- what do we put inside? Blood Angels actually has a number of different choices in this regard, unlike many other rock armies, so we should carefully consider the pluses and minuses of each of them and how they all fit together.

Assault Terminators are the obvious choice; they're good in SM and they're good in BA. The Stormraven compensates for their low speed and has no prohibition against them embarking (although they will count as two models each, as normal.) Unlike in SM Lightning Claws become a very viable option here, as striking at S5 I5 will cut down quite a lot of units effectively, assuming you have a Priest around. (Protip: you should.) A 3/2 or 2/3 mix is probably best here, giving you the ability to beat "hard" targets but retaining the speed, additional attacks, etc, from the LC guys, against a vast majority of targets they will be better than the Hammers (though Hammers have better survivability, of course.)

Sanguine Guard are another, similar option- they cost the same as Terminators and come with a better-than-Power Weapon, but are also gifted with speed and some basic shooting (including Melta if we want it.) However, their damage output is merely acceptable and, lacking an invulnerable save, they are unable to really compare to most other top-line melee units, so we sadly will have to set them aside.

Honor Guard are another possibility, either with or without Jump Packs. They have a built-in Priest and the requisite two attacks base and multitude of wargear options, but they aren't really a dedicated combat unit, which makes investing heavily in the 'Raven to deliver them something of a waste. Assault Marines similarly fall into this "not good enough to spend 200pts delivering" category.

Vanguard Veterans are an excellent unit in DoA list and they come with the same statline as the Honor Guard as well as many melee options, but once more we are forced to admit that they simply don't hit hard enough for their cost. (A Vanguard with PW is 35pts, remember, and compares poorly to an Assault Terminator at five points more.) We also are making little use of their Heroic Intervention ability here, which is probably the main reason to take them.

Death Company are our final option, and perhaps a surprising one for many people. Certainly, Rage is a major limiting factor for them, but being in a transport can mitigate that in many ways and the 'Raven allows them to be virtually guaranteed to get the initial charge, which they tend to be reliant on. Like many of the other units, they are free to take most melee upgrades (giving us the ability to hurt any type of target we please), but come naturally with FNP and FC, which frees us from having to invest in a Priest to cover them. On the other hand, they virtually require a Chaplain or Reclusiarch to lead them, as without one they are merely "good" in their combat ability, rather than overwhelming.

Two of the special characters, Sanguinor and Mephiston, can also be passenger options- they can't join squads, but since each of them is nearly as deadly as many of the above squads by their lonesome, they are worth considering. Mephiston is clearly the superior of the two- he brings utility in the form of a Psychic Hood and is more dangerous in combat against most targets, especially other characters. He is excellent against anything that doesn't bring a S5+ armor-ignoring weapon and can tear down most squads before they can do a wound to him. Sanguinor, on the other hand, brings a small suite of army buffs (improved Sarge, +1A aura) and is an absolute beast against an opponent's HQ, but less deadly than Mephy against "big" targets like walkers and MCs. He is, however, toting a 2+/3++ and thus can go toe-to-toe with almost anything in the game and have a strong chance of coming out on top.

We also want to bring a Dreadnought along in our tail- if we don't take advantage of this unique feature of the Stormraven, a Land Raider is probably a better pick. Fortunately, BA gets several Dreadnoughts to choose from; the basic Dread is rather unimpressive and takes a HS slot, which would fill our only remaining spot there. Its weapon options are fine, but AV12, and two attacks leaves it as a bit too much of a generalist to really be something we want to drag along. The other two, on the other hand, are specialized combat machines and both come with their own perks. The Furioso is not only three attacks (with its extra CCW) but also has AV13 on the front (meaning most Fists need 6s to penetrate us and we're completely immune to Krak Grenades.) The Death Company Dreadnought, which requires taking some of its brethren, doesn't get the bonus AV but is immune to Shaken/Stunned, has +1A, and is Fleet(!), making it a competitive choice against the Furioso. Both Dreads come with Melta/SB, which should generally be kept, although upgrading to a Heavy Flamer is not a terrible idea if you have spare points. A Magna-Grapple can make getting charges and wrecking transports a more sure thing, so it's hardly a bad investment, either. Blood Talons can allow you to chew infantry units to pieces in short order, but cripple your ability to hurt tanks and inflict ID; in general, you should avoid them, as 3-5 S10 attacks will kill most things pretty effectively anyways.

So, with all that in consideration in a dual-Stormraven list, a fairly obvious setup pops out at us. Running one each of Assault Terminators, Death Company, Furioso Dreadnought and Death Company Dreadnought not only gives us some diversity of threats (as each of them will be variously better against different targets) and ensure best use of our FoC slots; the Death Company free us from having to make a difficult choice in our Elites slot (which wants Terminators, Priest, and maybe two Furiosos) by opening up a second Dread slot that works more or less as well as the other and is a tad faster, if not as tough. Moreover, the DC themselves are amazing versus hordes (which the Terminators are somewhat middling against) and don't take up any valuable space in our FoC.

We might consider running a single 10-strong unit of Assault Terminators and simply Combat Squadding them to go into our transports, but this has issues. For one, we now have to use a regular Dreadnought, as we really don't want to skip out on having a Priest around. For two, we can't use reserves when doing this- no Combat Squads in reserves, remember, so our Stormravens will be very vulnerable when going second. Third, the lack of diversity in killing power can come back to haunt you against some armies, as mentioned above- if you're fighting a Green Tide or Tervigon Spam list, you may find your ability to kill the enemy overwhelmed by their sheer number of models.

Some of the other options presented above can also work, but variously suffer from their own issues and all of them leave us with no good choice for our second Dread hanger. For this reason, I consider the Terminator/Death Company pairing to be the superior one in most all cases. I'll be working under the assumption of that build for the remainder of the article, but if you substitute something else in place it's not hard to make the build work reasonably.

Technical Support Units
So we have a skeleton of the "main" portion of the army that using Stormravens require (although, as said, there can be some other things we can do.) Now we want to add the support elements of our force, hopefully in sufficient number and type as to mesh well with what we're already doing.

One of our main needs is to try and shut down enemy guns before they can kill our Stormravens- especially if we go first this can be a critical difference, but even going second we can aim to suppress them for that T2 rush where we are close enough to be shot but still probably not in range to charge the enemy. Using up HS slots on the 'Ravens will hurt us here some, as several of BA's good shooting units reside there; however, being that the codex is quite well-written (thanks, Mr. Ward!) we actually have quite a suite of choices there.

We'd also like to get some scoring units in- no sense of just playing the draw/wipeout game, after all. They will almost certainly need to be mechanized, as our Stormravens will draw away most of the anti-tank fire from the enemy's army and we want to take advantage of that. While we don't have quite as broad a suite in this regard, what we do have is hardly lacking, so we can be assured of cost-efficient options.

Finally, having something to back up our Stormravens as aggressive platforms would not be a terrible idea- if it looks like the push from our rock units will have the enemy teetering on the edge, we would like to have something else we can throw at them to finish things off in a convenient manner. This is probably the lowest of the three priorities, but by keeping an eye out we may be able to cover our bases here without making other sacrifices.

So, for the first category we have a number of good picks. Devastators and Predators in the HS slot are obviously going to be limited to just one, but both can bring four shots to the table for ~130pts, which is pretty solid. Baal Predators work into the aggressive theme and can bring some fairly effective suppression/anti-infantry shooting and precede our SR's into the enemy's lines, which has its advantages. Land Speeders, either of the Typhoon variety for standoff or MM/HF for aggressiveness, can also be useful and are very, very cheap; MM Attack Bikes fill a similar role, though not being vehicles is a point against them.

For scoring units the obvious- and, for the most part, only- selection is the ubiquitous Assault Marines in a Razorback. Not only are they reasonably-priced for a tough scoring unit, but they come with enough potential firepower to supplement or even fill our shooting quota- LasPlas, as always, are very solid choices and take excellent advantage of our Fast status, but still have the range to play standoff games as we please. Assault Cannons, on the other hand, play to a much more aggressive strategy, but are more multipurpose and virtually guaranteed to cause bad times for light vehicles. Heavy Flamers, although quite good in their own right, don't mesh well with our strategy- we want to get guns that will suppress enemy tanks, which they are largely incapable of.

The List
This is my version of the list as it plays out at 2000pts, which is the ideal value for it in my opinion. Going over, to 2.5K or higher, obviously does leave room for more toys, but as enemy firepower becomes denser, the chances of any of your strike forces reaching the other side of the board tends to slope off rather sharply.

Blood Angels 2000pts
1 Librarian (Shield, Unleash)
1 Sanguinary Priest
1 Furioso Dreadnought (Heavy Flamer)
5 Assault Terminators (2 TH/SS)
5 ASM (LasPlas Razor)
5 ASM (LasPlas Razor)
5 ASM (LasPlas Razor)
5 ASM (LasPlas Razor)
7 Death Company (PF, PW; add Lemartes)
1 Death Co Dread
1 Stormraven (TLMM, TLLas, Extra Armor)
1 Stormraven (TLMM, TLLas, Extra Armor)

A Libby HQ makes our 'Raven a bit tougher and our Termies a bit scarier in a fight; a Priest that hangs with him makes the whole unit even tougher and more dangerous and perfectly fills our twelve-slot capacity, which is nice. Death Company, along with their fancy special character, takes the other 'Raven; note that we strike at three different initiatives on the charge (7, 5, 1), which will maximize casualties and minimize wound allocation games the enemy can play. Lemartes is easily worth his points compared to a regular Chappy/Rec due to his stat bumps, MC weapon, rerolling failed wounds himself (which the normal versions don't get to, as they aren't members of a Death Company), FNP, and becoming an absolute monster when wounded. He also can't be picked out of the squad in CC, making him much more survivable and able to try and shrug off PW hits for them.

Four LasPlas backs provide our fire support, though one could easily be dropped for a pair of MM/HF speeders or similar. I would strong discourage anyone from trying to go below three scoring units- even this is rather iffy, but at least should be able to keep one of them alive until the end of the game.

Goals and Gaols
So overall the army we put together out of this is simple, if not necessarily easy. It wants to start as near to the enemy's likely deployment spot as possible if going first and reserving both 'Ravens when going second (unless you don't expect the enemy will be in range/able to see.)

Firepower should be directed at enemy tanks, for the most part, although Dreadnoughts are also a prime target for the Stormravens' guns, as they can give both rock units a pretty bad time. If necessary, your own Dreadnoughts should generally be able to trump enemy ones with the benefit of Furious Charge (naturally, for the DC Dread, or with a Priest nearby for the Furioso.)

Make sure you aim your 'Ravens at the right targets- no sense in sending the DC to try and fight a Trygon, as they'll get cut down much too quickly. By the same token, Your Terminators going against a horde of Boyz is a waste of their abilities, so always be looking to what each of them can handle best. Against other rock armies you should be able to trump them with a combined charge- your concentration of force is superior to very nearly everything in the game except perhaps a fully-decked Paladin squad, and your ability to arrow in on a target is unsurpassed.

The Conclusend
The Stormraven, although very good at what it does, is not a general-purpose platform nor a unit that can be easily slid into most armies. Making best use of its special abilities and qualities requires a particular set of units, and ones that will eat up a lot of resources. While such an army can hardly be called "balanced" by any definition of the word, it IS potentially quite devastating and with a small amount of luck can deliver a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut into the heart of the enemy.

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