Hey everyone, Alex Macdougall here again with a look into the units of the game that aren’t that great and how that informs how we play and design lists. To start, we will put some things in perspective. I am not about to defend poor rules writing from either a mechanical or overall standpoint. Neither will I be defending units that are simply bad. No game system should have unplayable, awful units. However, we also don’t want every unit and interaction to be perfectly balanced. We’ll get to that point in a bit, stay with me. This discussion compares the units just below the meta and why they need to exist.
There is no valid reason to have units in the game that are so bad they just get laughed off. From a rules perspective, this does nothing for the game in any way. There isn’t anything to learn from them, so why do they exist? These are units like the Ridge Runner before Chapter Approved. When a unit can drop from 84 to 59 points and still be debated whether it’s good enough to see the table, that shows just how horrendous it was in the first place. There isn’t any room for discussion or debate. Everyone looks at the cost of the model and what it does, and they universally agree that this should not be used outside of a narrative game. Likewise, the best units in the game are also relatively uninteresting and generate minimal discussion. It’s the units that are just ok, good enough, or situational that we want to investigate, something I believe is good for the game and design space.
The units that exist at that meta cusp are fascinating and keep us looking and re-looking at how we think about playing the game. Sometimes it can take the slightest tweak to rules interactions or missions to bring these mediocre units into discussion again. Everyone probably has a unit in their codex of choice that intrigues them or is a personal favorite that doesn’t seem to cut it on the tabletop, something that seems to have some intrinsic value lying just below the surface. That discovery is one of the most enjoyable things in the world of 40k. The exploration of units and builds is a fun process and an excellent gauge of improvement. As we work our way through the limitless combinations of forces, we have become more in tune with how the inclusion and exclusion of units work. Units that appear excellent on paper but have flaws that were unaccounted for until testing are put away. We know that the power of that unit exists, but perhaps we can’t tap into it. It can live on the shelf until the meta changes or a new stratagem gets applied to them. The best units don’t have this thought process and discovery that comes with them. They are the best. There is no argument, and players take them in every list.
An excellent example of a mediocre unit needing to exist is the Exocrine. For a very long time, the answer to the question “should I take Exocrines?” was, “No, It’s superior to take a GSC detachment and fit in Tank Commanders instead.” Even with the tax of having the Genestealer Cult detachment in between, the Tank Commanders were still superior. Exocrines are exactly as resilient as a tank commander with the same save, wounds and toughness profiles. A Plasma Executioner equipped tank commander with plasma side sponsons also has very similar output. They both have similar accuracy with BS3 and re-roll ones to hit from their respective traits. So, what’s the difference?
The Tank Commander can do all of this while on the move. When the tank commander moves, it loses almost nothing. When the Exocrine moves, it goes from hitting eight shots to two on average! So, the unit is as tough as a mainstay unit of the game. The damage output can be just as good, but when will we ever get the chance to stay stationary and put it to use. Maybe we can engineer situations where it can stay still, but why try instead of just allying in a Tank Commander? We do have access to a stratagem that states explicitly that it will count as stationary in Blood of Baal Psychic Awakening. Its weakness has been removed, and it can compete. However, I was comparing it to a less popular variant of Tank Commander. Even with this new stratagem, can it compete with the more popular Battle Cannon equipped Commander? Is it worth the ally to take the superior commander? Is it better to keep the new Exocrine? The Exocrine is still not as good, but it takes less effort to put it into a list. You will have to pay a troop tax somewhere along the way.
These close variances in units that aren’t dominant are what makes the game the most interesting in my eyes. How do you build the most efficient list that can check all the boxes of competitive play, even if you don’t have access to the most powerful codexes? This puzzle keeps me coming back to the list building phase again and again and continuously has me re-evaluating units.
As I noted above, we see that we don’t want “perfect balance.” This is unattainable anyway but would lead to a very dull game state. Everything being that equal wouldn’t lead to any discovery. Everything can be used, and nothing seems to have a leg up on anything else. The process of discovery and the ability to add a stratagem or rule to a mediocre unit breathes new life into how an army can be constructed, and these effects ripple out over the entire meta. If something like the Exocrine comes into the meta, that may affect an entire codex through a chain reaction.
As a hypothetical, we will follow a chain starting at the Exocrine. Three Exocrine become popular with all the support. It becomes more than Marine lists can handle, and Intercessors dip in popularity. In turn, the need for lots of damage 2 weapons in other armies drops. I’m not saying this is what’s going to happen, but we see how one stratagem and a spell can suddenly shake up everything. This can only happen, though, if we still have units in the game that are close to but not in the meta. Great units are boring. If they are too oppressive, it doesn’t matter what changes around it.
While we certainly don’t want horrible units in the game, and I’m sure we all have our favorite examples, we do need to continue to root for the underdogs, the interesting fringe that’s fighting for its place on the table and off the shelf. This phenomenon is also great for collectors and completionists, the players that have the whole range, the hobbyist that owns multiples that are all painted a little differently. As these mediocre units gain rules and shuffle around the meta, it only helps out the collector and punishes the meta chaser. So, keep on hobbying and buying these pretty, mediocre models. Enjoy the hobby, and bide your time until it pays off. Here’s looking at you, Grey Knights!
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