Codex Review: Death Guard

Hello Art of War fam, it’s the one and only Nick “Brown Magic” Nanavati here to talk to you about the new Death Guard codex and how it’s going to shake up the meta. Death Guard represents the first of many new transformations Chaos as a super faction, and the 40k meta as a whole, will undergo as we receive more and more new codices from Games Workshop. The flavor and style of this new codex leave little to be desired from a playstyle perspective as well as a competitive one. I’m here to break down just how everything will work and share my hypothesis about how the dust will settle as people have time to digest the Death Guard codex rules.

As with all of our codex reviews, this will focus on the aspects with competitive merit. I will also speak to combos and treat the codex as a whole instead of breaking down each stratagem or relic in a vacuum. We are firm believers that codices function at their best when they are looked at as a well-tuned synergistic book, where the sum total of its power is more than the sum of its individual parts. Alrighty, now that we got the caveats out of the way, let’s get right into it!

Secondaries

Why start with secondaries, you may ask? Because the win condition in 40k is to score more points than your opponent, not kill the enemy. We should then use the mission as the guiding principle for determining what the army we are creating needs to be capable of doing. 

Death Guard got two incredibly powerful secondaries: Spread the Sickness and Despoiled Ground. These are board control secondaries, which the Death Guard naturally excel at, given their trademark durability. 

Warhammer 40k Death Guard Plague Marines For Sale in Broadford, Clare from  synesthesia
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Spread the Sickness essentially gives you 3 points for each objective you contaminate. To contaminate an objective, you only need to have an infantry unit from your army perform an action on the objective during your movement phase, which has no enemy models on it, and then either roll a 4+ or suffer d3 mortal wounds. Most missions in 9th edition have multiple objectives in your territory, so getting a decent score of about 9 points should be very easy here. This secondary is also in the same category as Deploy Scramblers, which is a nice fallback secondary for a variety of armies. However, Death Guard are not particularly suited to accomplishing it, so this is a solid alternative.

Despoiled Ground is an end game secondary that scores you 4-6 points for each particular goal you fulfill at the end of the game (standing in different table quarters, enemy deployment zone, and near objectives). This one should lead to a massive score if you can confidently plan to be alive at the end of the game. This is a Battlefield Supremacy secondary, which means it’s an excellent alternative to Engage on All Fronts. This is especially powerful since Death Guard are slow but steady. They may not be able to score well on engage on turn 1 or 2 confidently, but at the end of the game, they can be anywhere!

War of the Spider: Death Guard Tactics Part Two - Nights At The Game Table
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Given that Death Guard are naturally very durable and that their codex secondaries are centered around board control and staying alive until the end of the game, it stands to reason that you will also like to build in solid units for While We Stand We Fight or have a good plan to reliably Grind them Down as well. With this in mind, we now have a good foundation for building an army and a good context to evaluate our units’ worth.

 Plague Companies

Death Guard have a variety of plague companies, much the same way that Sisters have different Orders. Each Plague Company offers a unique stratagem, relic, and warlord trait, which you can unlock by taking a detachment where every unit belongs to the same plague company. Aside from the obvious, one thing to note when evaluating plague companies is the stratagem Flash Outbreak. Flash Outbreak is a 2cp stratagem that essentially lets you take the contagion associated with your Plague Company’s Warlord trait and apply it to any unit in your army with a matching plague company. 

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The Inexorable

The Inexorable is probably the least likely to be used of the “good” Plague Companies, but I do want to touch on it. Their stratagem is a defensive one, which subtracts 2 from charge rolls. Nothing too special here, but when it’s nice, it’s really nice. 

Their contagion is the real reason I rate this Plague Company. It’s an aura of an additional -1ap which works on both shooting and close combat. Essentially, any enemy units within range of the model with this Warlord trait suffer an additional AP modifier when attacked by Death Guard models. Keep in mind, as with all contagions, you can place it onto a unit of your choice for 2cp, then expand the range of the aura by 6” (to a maximum of 12”) with the Gift of Plague psychic power. 

This lends itself to a more shooty type of Death Guard army focusing on taking a large unit of 10 Blightlord Terminators and 3 Plague Burst Crawlers. The Blightlords can use the 1cp strat Virulent Rounds to turn their weapons into plague weapons, combining well with the Arch Contaminator Warlord trait to provide reroll wounds. 40 Bolter shots that can easily hit on 2’s reroll 1’s from various character buffs, reroll all wounds, and AP-1 coupled with 3d6 AP-3 Damage 2/3 plague burst crawler shots from out of line of sight can push Death Guard into a formidable shooting force.

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The Ferrymen

What goes better with a formidable shooting force than an incredibly hard to charge army? Nothing! And that’s exactly what the Ferrymen give you.

Their stratagem On Droning Wings expands the range of one of your aura abilities by 6”. This is great on various auras, especially the normally 3” aura of turning off all enemy aura abilities. But where it truly shines is on the Foul Blight Spawn with the Rotten Stench Vats relic. Let me break down this disgusting combo. Revolting stench vats is a relic that provides the bearer with a 6” aura of turning off all benefits incurred by charging. This means enemy units that finish their charge move with 6” of the Foul Blightspawn do not count as charging for the purposes of fighting first, meaning the Death Guard player gets to swing first when an enemy charges you. Additionally, it will strip away all benefits of charging, such as White Scars extra damage, Blood Angels +1 to wound, Repentia’s reroll to hits, and Shock Assault! Couple this with on Droning withing, and you have a 12” aura of basically being unchargeable!

But wait, there’s more! Their Warlord contagion is also quite powerful. While enemy units start their movement phase within contagion range of a model (or unit thanks to Flash Outbreak) with this contagion, they halve their movement! Fly a Bloat Drone up to the enemy army and slow them down while bombarding them with Inexorable bolter fire and Plagueburst crawlers!

Warhammer 40K: Deathshroud Terminators | Warhammer 40k, Candle holders,  Warhammer
credit to Games Workshop

Mortarion’s Anvil 

This is the last of the Plague Companies which stand out to me as a real winner. They, too, share the fantastic stratagem and amazing Warlord trait combo. Their stratagem is used in the enemy charge phase after the enemy has declared a charge move. It allows you to take any Death Guard units within 3” of that unit and heroically intervene into it. 

Given the nature of the Death Guard army we are creating (stand there, do not die, collect secondary points), your opponent may try and disrupt your primary score and ability to spread the sickness by contesting your objectives during their turn. Well, what if you could heroically intervene into them for 1cp, kill them all, and then continue scoring your points parade? 

Yep, I like that.

Sassy Nurgling : SympatheticMonsters
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Their Warlord trait is also incredible. It is a contagion that turns off enemy units’ ability to overwatch or set to defend. Oh, also, it turns off all rerolls to hit and wound. 12” auras of turning off all rerolls. Let’s talk about this for just a second. 

-Captain auras

-Chaplain auras

-Lieutenant auras

-Lightning claws

-Repentia

-Zephyrim

-Harlequin Troupe Masters

-Guide 

-Doom

-Belisarius Cawl

Yeah, I think you get it. This is amazing.

Units

Now that we have discovered the foundation on which we will build an army (the secondaries and Plague Companies), we can really start to focus on our units.

New Death Guard coming soon : Warhammer40k
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Mortarion

What kind of Death Guard review would even attempt to be complete without giving this guy his own section!? 

Mortarion is the talk of the town, with a variety of people on the internet preaching about how absolutely broken he is while others are trying to come up with rational plans to handle him. I’m going to first break down what makes this guy tick and then also share my thoughts on how the game will adapt to deal with him.

His stats received several tweaks (Toughness 8!). However, his special rules have been fundamentally transformed. First, like all Death Guard, he has lost Death to the False Emperor. This may not seem like much, but when you think about the old Mortarion being a blender, a large part of that was honestly Death to the False Emperor triggering an unholy amount of times since it could stack with prescience to trigger on 5’s off of his 21 attacks. 

Mortarion, Daemon Primarch of Nurgle | WARHAMMER ART
credit to Games Workshop

Nowadays, Mortarion does not kill 5 Intercessors or 3 Blade Guard on average with his scything profile on the assumption of Transhuman Physiology. Does not sound right? Watch this.

21 Attacks

21 hits (assuming 100% hit rate since he can hit on twos rerolling 1’s)  

Assuming the Space Marine player uses transhuman physiology Mortarion will wound on 4’s rerolling 1’s (not all wound rolls from Arch contaminator because he is not core). This is a 58% wound rate.

21 hits x 58% = 12.36 wounds

Ap-2 on a 3+ save is a 5+ save = 33.33% pass rate or 66.67% fail rate

12.36 wounds x 66.67% = 8.15 failed damage

Sergeant lives with 1-2 wounds

You could try the eviscerating blow profile, but it will end roughly the same for you mathematically.

This means Mortarion can and will get tied up, unlike before. He is NOT the absolute blender he used to be. This is imperative since it functionally means that while Mortarion is super tough compared to before, he can be stalled and ignored. 

Mortarion vs Guilliman : Warhammer40k
credit to Games Workshop

That’s not all Mortarion does, though. He has not one, two, three, but four Warlord traits. Three of them are set, giving him a 3” aura of turning off enemy auras, 5+++ feel no pain, and Arch Contaminator for an aura of reroll wounds on plague weapons for core units. The fourth is your choice of any of the Plague Company Contagion Warlord traits. Generally speaking, you will want to give him the Warlord trait from Mortarion’s Anvil to turn off rerolls to make him as tough as absolutely possible. Having four Warlord traits is awesome and really what makes Mortarion the monster he is. However, there are some drawbacks to this as well. 

Mortarion does not have the <plague company> keyword. While that’s awesome on the surface since he buffs all Death Guard with Arch contaminator and Primarch of the Death Guard, it means that you cannot combine any of his rules with Flash Outbreak or the expanding aura powers of the Ferrymen. 

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Mortarion is a model with durability and board presence unlike anything we have seen in 9th edition. However, he is not unkillable by any stretch. Turning off rerolls, auras, reducing damage, FNP 5++, and 18 wounds is no joke. Until he meets Adepta Sororitas Multi Melta Retributors or Grey Knights. Unlike other superbly powerful control pieces, he cannot use the fallback plan of hiding behind a wall. He’s simply too big to be obscured between his enormous wingspan and 18 wounds. That means when you do run him into a counter (9 damage multi melta shots with reroll wounds and miracle dice, or Grey Knights the faction), there is no backup. You’re down 490 points, and that’s the end of it.

While he is virtually unkillable to the likes of many factions, which does make him seem broken to many, he may struggle to bring home a lengthy tournament as hard counters may rear their ugly head. I think his existence and initial popularity alone will be enough to get various opponents to drastically change their lists and load-outs, although he may not make it into the final versions of well-refined Death Guard lists due to the binary nature of his durability. Your opponent’ will come up with a plan for him, either ignore him or kill him. Assuming they figure out how to do either successfully, he is then neutralized. I think the highest caliber players will eventually favor a more consistent use of 500 points. That said, he is a force to be taken seriously, and you do need to have a plan for him.

The 7 Heralds: Lords of Contagion | Warhammer 40K Amino
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Lord of Contagion / Virulence / Malignant Plague Caster

These will be your go-to choice for HQ’s in death guard. The Lord of Contagion gives you more play with your contagion abilities while also being your melee beat stick. The Lord of Virulence is your go-to character to support a shooting Death Guard detachment, and the Malignant Plague Caster is your go-to sorcerer type model. None of this is particularly earth shattering, but there are nice combos you can use by combining one of Mortarion’s Warlord traits Living Plague. The Fugaris Helm relic and the Ferrymen strat on Droning Wings to get a 12” aura in which enemy units cannot benefit from their auras. Note, this combo cannot be done if you have Mortarion in your army.

Pox Walkers

I think these little zombies are undervalued. They are cheap, fearless screens that your Death Guard do not otherwise have. Most Death Guard lists will want to run between 40 and 60 to help out with missions, screen more valuable units and provide obsec. They can also use their cool new stratagem, The Dead Walk Again, to revive dead pox walkers in the command phase to help steal or reclaim objectives before it’s time to score them. 

Warhammer 40K: Death Guard - Pox Walkers (Easy to Build) - The Dragon's Lair
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Plague Marines

Not going to lie or sugar coat this. They are not what they used to be. The nerf to plague flails, loss of Death to the False Emperor, and hard nerf to their blight grenade tricks have left these humble servants of Nurgle wanting when compared to their predecessors. That said, they are not without purpose. They are the most durable obsec you have access to, and they are legitimately tough as nails. If the army we are creating struggles with people contesting and stealing your objectives, adding in tough obsec will certainly help.

Noxious Blightbringer

I think this character is underrated. Flat +1 move to all nearby core units really adds up on a slow army. With Inexorable Advance, which prevents you from suffering movement modifiers, you know you will go places. He also has a tremendously powerful relic in the form of Daemon’s Toll. This relic allows you to once per game select an enemy unit within 6” and prevent it from falling back on a 2+. In a world of Desperate Breakout, people are counting on being able to shoot you. Taking that away from them is monumental.

Noxious Blightbringer - 1d4chan
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Foul Blightspawn

I already covered this little dude in my synopsis of The Ferrymen, but he is so incredible he deserves a section here as well. I will also note that it is not hard to “insert death guard detachment” into a larger chaos soup force, with a large 12” movement aura, a 12” no auras aura, a 12” Foul Blightspawn aura, and a no fall back Blight Bringer. That is quite the game-changer for a variety of Chaos soup lists.

Tallyman / Blightlords

The Tallyman is another character that has a good place in certain Death Guard builds. Giving the Toll Keeper relic to him to trigger exploding 6’s in shooting, +1 to hit, and cp regen what is not to love!? This is really the final piece to the Inexorable shooting Death Guard detachment. 

TallyMan | Warhammer fantasy, Warhammer 40k artwork, Warhammer 40k art
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Foetid Bloat Drones

Bloat Drones, specifically with the Flesh Mower, provide an outstanding mobile element to the Death Guard. They are one of the only units you can take with Fly, and that is badly needed. They also hit very hard in combat, with 12 attacks S7 Ap-2 and 2 damage flat. Not only that, they benefit very well from the -1 toughness contagion that all Death Guard emit. For 135 points, these guys are fast, mean, and deliverable. They have a 1cp stratagem that allows them to heroically intervene 6 inches. 

Remember all that stuff I’ve been saying about how your opponents will try and beat you by contesting your objectives? Well, it is a lot less appealing with 6” intervening flesh mower drones nearby. These will also alleviate your reliance on taking Mortarion’s Anvil for the Intervention strat, which frees up more opportunity if you are running Mortarion or trying to build around both the Inexorable and The Ferrymen.

Warhammer 40k: Death Guard Foetid Bloat-drone - Armada Games
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Plague Burst Crawlers

Plague burst crawlers probably benefited the most from the +1 to hit Daemon Engines universally received. They provide quite a reliable amount of quality indirect fire, which is something Chaos has literally never had before. This is honestly just as big a game-changer as anything else for the Chaos super faction because now we can kill units of real substance hiding behind walls without having to charge them. This fundamentally affords Chaos a brand new play style where they can sit and pressure the enemy at range while simultaneously making the army functionally unchargeable. Not only that, with some reasonable effort in list construction, these can make for incredible While we Stand units. No one, and I mean no one, kills a Plague Burst Crawler in the backfield behind a wall (Okay, maybe Grey Knights).

Putting It All Together

Earlier this week, I took my first crack with the new Death Guard army against Richard Siegler’s Blood Angels and had tremendous success. You can catch the game on our youtube channel. I believe the list I used is a great starting place for new and veteran Death Guard players alike!

Amazon.com: GAMES WORKSHOP 99120102075" Death Guard Plagueburst Crawler  Miniature: Toys & Games
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Death Guard supreme command

Mortarion- WL, gloaming bloat, putrescence vitality, miasma of pestilence, gifts of plague 490

Death Guard vanguard- the Ferrymen

Lord of Contagion- plague reaper, extra wl trait- the droning 120

20 pox walkers 100

10 pox walkers 50

10 pox walkers 50

3 death shroud termies 150

3 deathshroud termies 150

3 deathshroud termies 150

Foul blight spawn- revolting stench vats 75

Noxious blight bringer- daemons toll 60

Bloat drone- flesh mower 135

Bloat drone- flesh mower 135

Plague burst crawler 165

Plague burst crawler 165

Death Guard have a plethora of play styles as a mono faction and a lot of new, interesting, and highly effective tools to the Chaos player from a souping perspective. Over time I think people will start to explore some of the more potent combos, such as Foul Blight Spawn with Slaanesh daemons, or PBC and Foulblight spawn providing shooting support to Chaos Space Marine melee armies. 

The Death Guard | WARHAMMER ART
credit to Games Workshop

Overall, I think Death Guard have left the short term meta incredibly uncertain. They naturally counter most of the things Space Marines try and do (turning off auras and rerolls, and reducing the spam of damage 2 weapons they try and bring). This will inevitably unseat the top dog as they now have a tricky and challenging matchup. However, due to their inherent weaknesses to Sisters and Grey Knights, I think Death Guard do not replace Space Marines as top dog either. The meta’s power structure has been shaken, and we are now watching a race to see who will climb to the top as the dust settles.

If you enjoyed this high-level, in-depth article, check out our Art of War Podcasts where we speak with world-class Chaos expert TJ Lanigan on his thoughts about Death Guard. Also, please take a look at The War Room, where we are playing tons of competitive Death Guard matches and teaching tons of classes this month to see exactly how the meta will settle. Do not miss your chance to learn from the best and get ahead of the meta!

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  1. Hello,
    In the tallyman/blightlord part, you only speak about Tallyman.
    Does it means blightlord are not in the top unit? Or just you forgot them?