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Life as a Defensive Player

Hey guys! Erik here, today I’m bringing to you all there is to know about life as a defensive player, but strap yourself in this is going to be a long one!

In my 40k career so far, I have meddled with all the various ways to play 40k, ranging from super-aggressive and explosive to about as cagey and defensive as you can be. No matter what I try, I have always made my way back to the defensive style. Why is this? What is it that makes a defensive player?


Finding your play style isn’t just a matter of what you think sounds cool or more interesting. Generally, the players who live and die by their playstyle often play as if it were a reflection of their personality. It’s how they handle pressure and awkward situations, their level of patience, their drive to be in command. Some of the traits that constitute a defensive player are their willingness to see through a six-turn game and play on the back foot for the better part of it. Being able to do this requires a lot of patience, and holding your mental game steady and not suddenly freaking out and panicking about taking a heap of damage turn after turn. To do this at a high level takes a lot of experience, knowledge, and understanding of how exactly a game of 40k works. In my mind, you will always find yourself achieving more consistent results; however, the road to consistent success is far more punishing. When you lock yourself into playing your games very defensively, you are never in a situation where you have done enough damage to your opponent, where a couple of minor mistakes are watered down because the enemy doesn’t have the strength to capitalize on your mistakes. If you were to make one slight mistake per turn in a defensive army, this could mean you have taken so much more damage than your list intends to take over the course of a game.

Lets talk about the functionality of a defensive army (this is flexible across ITC and ETC formats). A defensive list, like all armies start with the army list, however your unit choices are often not the strongest and most explosive units your codex has to offer, when you’re building a defensive list your choices are far more orientated around the synergy of your units on the table. Because of this it is crucial that you already have an idea in your head on how this army is going to play and move around on the table. This also means you need to be thinking about and considering what other factions and lists are running a muck in your meta before your game even begins. There’s a few general principals I stick to when designing a defensive list, which I use as my guideline for success.


1. Board Control:

This is, by far, the most critical aspect of your defensive army. Controlling the table not only enables you to pressure objectives, but it also impacts your opponent’s ability to project damage where he/she wants. You must dictate what your opponent is shooting at as much as possible. Doing this leads to a chain reaction: an opponent killing a lot of models/units intended to be annoying/appear to be obvious threats. Usually, these units take an over-commitment to remove. By the time you have removed critical threats or closed the gap, your opponent becomes unable to deal with the meat of your army. You have asserted board dominance late game and have secured the objectives or removed the teeth from your opponent’s army.

2. Pitfall Units:

This is probably the most challenging part of writing the list. These units do not need to be an ultra-resilient, but you want to decide just how much to shoot at these units as difficult as possible. A couple of examples of these units are small sister squads with 4+ invos/ 6+ Feel no pain and a unit of Tyranid warriors with -1 to hit and either Catalyst or the Leviathan trait for the feel no pain. Having these units becomes an issue for your opponents. The problem is not that if they don’t die, they cause problems, but if your opponent makes the wrong decision on how much is needed to commit to the unit to kill it, they are forced to keep sinking firepower into them. You also have to remember it is unlikely they can sink all the firepower they want into you from turn 1. So, if they start shooting at those units on turn 2, and it takes them two turns of shooting to put them down, all of a sudden they’re left with 2-3 turns to deal with the major elements of your lists, which are typically horde type units, resilient objective campers, and characters with the ability to do explosive damage.


3. The Tendrils:

Typically, but not always, the better defensive lists are more horde style lists. However, you can achieve the same end with an army that abuses its speed advantage. Before I explain how to use this advantage, let’s cover what the tendrils are and mean. For this, I will use my Tyranid army as an example. The list generally includes 180-200 gaunt models. A lot of people would probably expect the units to run at you in big clumps, and it would just seem incredibly easy to kill; this is not the case. The units of gaunts deploy in long lines throughout my deployment zone being “tendrils.” This formation gives the overlapping buffs they require to function: synapse for fearless, Malanthrope or Venomthrope -1 to hit aura, and typically the 6+ feel no pain from Hivefleet Leviathan. Not only does deploying and moving like this allow me to retain all my buffs, but it also allows me to dictate some of my opponent’s shooting. A perfect example of this is versing a Tank Commander with a punisher cannon. Usually, a tank that can deliver 40 shots per turn is going to be devastating to a horde. So, on face value, this seems like a horrible match-up for gaunts, but let’s break that down a little bit. There are two key things to note here. A Punisher has a range of 24,” and it must shoot both of its volleys at the same target. Because you are pushing single-file lines towards your opponent to threaten charges, you can remove the models in range of the tank commander after its first volley of shots. Sometimes this could be as few as four or five models or as many as 10. So, a punisher has 20 shots. With minus one to hit, it is usually hitting on 4’s rerolling ones, let’s say they score 14 hits, which would probably equate to around 10 wounds. Now, with 6+ armor and 6+ Feel No Pain, you will most likely lose Seven gaunts, but now you have pulled the tank commander out of range, and they have lost 20 shots this turn from that single interaction alone. That may not seem so substantial at first, but imagine doing that every turn of the game. They would lose, on average, 80 shots from this expensive unit they added purely dedicated to combatting hordes. As you progress into the later stages of the game, your opponent losing all these extra shots will make a difference in the remaining model count. This development can single-handedly be the difference between winning and losing, let alone if you can do this same technique to multiple units in their army.

4. Speed:

As well as using tendrils to mitigate damage, you can use the speed of your army. Traditionally speedy factions include Eldar/ Dark Eldar/ Harlequins. You can’t tendril out your single model units, those being your flying vehicles, but what you can do is be very defensive with your deployments. A lot of armies can’t project high amounts of damage while moving, or if they do, their movement is quite minimal. Deploying on your back table edge in dawn of war deployment or deep within your zone in vanguard and hammer and anvil is almost always your optimal choice. This protects yourself from losing too many of your key units too quickly. Because of your high movement value, it enables you to get the first say in a firefight and still being able to avoid the firepower from some of your opponents’ units. This trait is crucial when playing a more fragile army like Dark Eldar against something like Space Marines. Dictating what units can shoot at what means you are controlling the tempo of the game. Breaking down what a defensive list looks like:


For simplicity I will use my Tyranids + GSC list from ETC 2019.

== Detachment 1: < Tyranids Leviathan> Battalion Detachment == + 5cp, 967pts (108 reinforcement points

HQ: Broodlord (115) Monstrous Rending Claws (0) [8PL, 115pts]

HQ: Old One Eye (200) Monstrous Crushing Claws (0), Monstrous Scything Talons (0), Thresher Scythe (0)

Troops: 27x Termagants (4) 27x Fleshborers (0) [9PL, 108pts]

Troops: 27x Termagants (4) 27x Fleshborers (0) [9PL, 108pts]

Troops: 27x Termagants (4) 27x Fleshborers (0) [9PL, 108pts]

Troops: 27x Termagants (4) 27x Fleshborers (0) [9PL, 108pts]

Elites: 4x Venomthrope (30) 4x toxic lashes (0) [9PL, 120pts]

Heavy Support: 2x Biovores (50) 2x sporemine launcher (0) [4PL,100pts]

== Detachment 2: < Tyranids, Leviathan > Battalion Detachment == +5 cp, 500pts

HQ: Neurothrope (90) claws and teeth (0) [4PL 90pts] Psychic Powers: Smite, Psychic Scream

HQ: Neurothrope (90) claws and teeth (0) [4PL 90pts] Psychic Powers: Smite, Onslaught

Troops: 27x Termagants (4) 27x Fleshborers (0) [9PL, 108pts]

Troops: 27x Termagants (4) 27x Fleshborers (0) [9PL, 108pts]

Troops: 26x Termagants (4) 26x Fleshborers (0) [9PL, 104pts]

== Detachment 3: < Genestealer Cults, Mixed Detachment> Vanguard Detachment == +1cp, 425 pts

Patriarch (125) Monstrous Rending Claws (0) 1x Familiar (12) [8PL, 137pts] – Bladed Cog [WARLORD: Single-minded Obsession]

Troops: 16 Acolyte Hybrid: 15 Acolyte Hybrids (105) w/15x Hand Flamer (15), Acolyte Leader (7) w/Hand Flamer (1), Cultist Knife (0), 16 Rending Claws (0) [11PL, 128pts] – Bladed Cog

Elite: Kelermorph (60) 3x Liberator Autostub (0), Cultist Knife (0) [3PL 60pts] – Four-armed Emperor

Elite: Locus (40) Hypermorph Tail (0), Locus Blades (0) [2PL 40pts] – Bladed Cog

Elite: Sanctus (55) Familiar Claws (0), Silencer Sniper Rifle (5) (3PL 60pts) – Four-armed Emperor


So, in this list, we have our carpet of termagants. We use these units to create our tendrils and project board control. Included are all the compulsory buffs and smash characters hiding throughout the gaunt carpet to dig me out of awkward situations or make use of some explosive damage. So, after I have fitted the list with the units I think are needed, I can now add my tech choices for flavor. As you can see in the list, I have added a GSC detachment to provide my army with the ability to disable an important enemy stratagem. Along with this strat, this detachment has given me another source of explosive damage through the handflamer bomb. It forces the opponent to mess around with their deployment and movement even more than they already were. This list has all the aspects of an excellent defensive list covered above and functions exactly how I imagined it while writing the list.

I hope you enjoyed this detailed breakdown of just what is involved with being a defensive player. You can read more about Genestealer Cults and Tyranids in my other articles to learn more about just why I include the units I do!

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