Friday, August 10, 2007

OPINION: Optimizing army lists

I've been posting a lot about army lists lately. I've just settled upon a 1500 point Chaos Renegade list that can also be used as a Chaos Renegade Militia army. Now I am poring over the new Blood Angels codex. They will be my main army in the current tournament season. I want to try something different with my Blood Angels army. The best way to illustrate why this army will be different is to discuss the traditional way that armies are built; for optimization. In fact the principle of optimization can be shown with just one unit; the las/plas squad.

The las/plas squad
This squad is a staple of Marine armies. I have used them in my Chaos Undivided list and have encountered many of them in competitive games. The set-up is always the same, consisting of six Marines; four have boltguns, one has a lascannon and another has a plasma gun. Why is this squad so prevalent?

Why six marines?
It is because the majority of competitive players try to optimize their units so that they fulfill their role as efficiently as possible. The las/plas squad is designed for shooting. It is six men strong because shooting squads benefit from having fewer numbers. A disproportionate amount of damage in 40k comes from a small number of models. In shooting squads this damage is largely generated by heavy and special weapons. By picking smaller squads a player can have more of them and therefore cram in more of those crucial special and heavy weapons. Of course, five men is the smallest possible unit size, but that sixth man actually helps to preserve victory points. Even numbered units are always preferable to odd numbered units because it takes an extra casualty to drop the unit below half strength and claim half victory points. It also helps to retain their scoring status and to protect the special and heavy weapons. Six is the optimal number of marines in a shooting squad.

Why lascannon and plasma gun?
The lascannon is the primary gun here. It has obvious strengths; long range, high strength and low armour penetration. It may be expensive but it can crack the toughest armoured vehicles and take on tooled up daemon-princes, carnifexes and hive tyrants and terminators. It can also instantly kill most multiple wound characters and punch through power armour effortlessly. Most army lists also discount lascannon in troops choices because GW believe that troops choices fufill multiple battlefield roles. If you have to move then you can't use the heavy weapon, and the squad could be used in a close combat capacity. However, because the las/plas squad is being optimized for shooting the cheaper weapon price is a real bonus for canny players.

The plasma gun is chosen for synergy. None of the other special weapons match the lascannon as well. The plasma gun has high strength, low armour penetration and a decent range. It can threaten pretty much all of the same targets as the lascannon can. In addition, it is especially good against marines. Approximately 60% of all armies are MEQ's (Marine EQuivalents) so it makes sense to pick weapons that can attack them well.

When you look at all of this together, the six marine las/plas squad makes for a formidable shooting unit.

The las/plas squad does have some weaknesses, though. Because it is so optimized for one task, it cannot do any others very well. It is vulnerable in combat. Although the raw stats for marines are good, they will be defeated by any half-decent close combat squad. They are also somewhat fragile. Again, marine stats are good, but just four casualties make the unit non-scoring and bags their opponent half of their victory points. Just two more kills wipes out the squad. This makes them somewhat suspect when it comes to claiming objectives with them. Objectives are problematic for movement reasons, too. The las/plas squad only moves 6" per turn and loses lots of firepower if it does so. If the objective is even a moderate distance away the las/plas squad will have to make tough choices about whether to move or fire.

There is a wider weakness, too. If a player employs the optimization method of army design across their whole army, they will have a range of units each built for their specific role. But what happens if a savvy opponent targets all units which fulfill that one role? The optimizing player could then simply not be able to compete in some parts of the game. Optimizing means that there will always be an element of having all your eggs in one basket, as you mono-task each unit in your army. What happens when a marine player is playing a take and hold scenario and he loses his two assault units in the first turn. Will his four las/plas squads be able to storm into the assault and dislodge the enemy from the objective? Unlikely. It's not what they are designed for.

I wouldn't do that, you might say. I would just do what each unit is good at and try to damage the enemy army so that it can't contest the objective. But what happens when the enemy army is simply better at doing what you are trying to do? A static gunline marine list might be powerful but it would probably lose against a static imperial guard list. This is sometimes called the rock/paper/scissors dilemma of army building in 40k. If all players optimize their lists in the ways outlined above, it is relatively easy to compare the two lists before the game and predict the winner. A Tyranid genestealer horde will have the advantage against a close combat marine army but will really struggle against a mechanized Eldar list. Barring freaky dice rolls or excellent/terrible players, the outcome will be a formality. This is not a good thing.

Phew! This has grown into a massive post, much longer than I first envisioned. I'll post part two tomorrow when I outline the alternative to list optimization, using my Blood Angels.

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