While this is an older post rescued from the old blog, we've tidied it up a little and popped it here. This walkthrough draws upon the knowledge and experience of long-time member, 'The Big Lad’. What follows are his thoughts on something that has become an increasingly important factor in games of Warhammer 40,000 – the alpha strike. 'The Big Lad' is regularly on hand at Norwich Last Stand club nights to talk strategy, discuss all things Warhammer 40,000, and play games which are as insightful as they are decisive.
The Alpha Strike in Warhammer 40,000: What to Look Out For and How to Survive
'Weirdly I’m much more familiar with what happens in America than I am with what happens in England. This is mainly because I like to follow the results of the larger competitions such as Adepticon, Nova, or The Bay Area Open and see what course the competitive metagame is taking. If you look at the top armies from these events you can see that they broadly split into two types: One is an army that can very rapidly and very effectively contest or capture objectives across the table whilst the second type looks to take out pretty much all of their opponent’s hard-hitting units in the first turn. This article primarily focuses on this latter archetype and what sort of approach players can take in regards to both list building and gameplay when confronted with the prospect of facing such an army.
In my opinion this all started in sixth edition with the Tau and their 'buff commander'. The ‘O’Vesa Star’ created an army that could literally wipe an opposing force out, or at least take out the competitive pieces, in the first round of shooting. I can remember watching a game on 3++ dot net between an O’Vesa Star and what was then the new Space Marine codex with all the new toys such as masses of bikes, Grav-Guns galore, and Chapter Masters with all the toys. The White Scars player, thinking they had the first turn, scouted forward so that all of the Grav-Guns would be in range on the first turn. The Tau player seized the initiative and the game was over by turn two as they shot the Marines off of the board. Had the Tau player not seized, the Marine player probably would have done the exact same thing to the Tau player. That’s the sort of thing the meta has become now, the ability in really competitive games to reliably do that level of damage right at the outset.
A really good example of this sort of army, and one that has been around for a while, is the combination of Skitarii with the Flesh Tearers Strike Force. With the Skitarii arriving by Drop Pod the army can reliably apply vast amounts of shooting anywhere on the board right at the start of the game to devastating effect. In a similar vein, and also now very popular in the U.S.A., are Centurions in Drop Pods. You can get two or three units of Centurions with Grav-Cannons in Drop Pods who will arrive on the first turn, and just like the Skitarii, make a real mess of anything that’s on the table. Drop Pod based armies are the most popular for this style for several reasons: Automatic arrival of several units on the first turn, the risk of Deep Striking is mitigated by the Internal Guidance rule and the ability to null deploy - something that is very important if the opposing army is also looking to alpha strike. They are not the only type, however, as in the new meta what is proving pretty good is Imperial Knights. They can alpha strike the old-fashioned way: by volume of fire from across the board. If you look at the new Knights, some of the most popular variations are those that can take three ranged weapons. Gatling cannon, battle cannon and the rockets on top. If you take three Knights kitted out like that, and because they can independently target each weapon, you can hit nine different targets in one round of shooting. Even if you don’t devastate those units you can do enough damage to make them less effective, be it from stunned and shaken results, forcing them to go to ground, or just by thinning out their numbers. That is what these armies are doing. They’re putting enough firepower on the table that if they go first they can really put such a dent in the opposing army that from then on the game is always in their favour. The image below shows examples of the two different styles of alpha strike armies. The Imperial Guard are very much of the old fashioned approach in that they will deploy a serious amount of firepower on the board at the start of the game. The Skitarii, however, will deploy next to nothing at the start of the game and look to arrive from reserve to apply their alpha strike.
To go back to what I was saying about the other type of army that is prevalent, the armies that are all about taking objectives, I shall try to explain why they are successful in the face of those armies that look for victory through an alpha strike. Probably the most successful army around right now apart from Drop Pod armies is my army of choice - Daemons. The reason for this success is that Daemons can put multiple units on the table which are both very fast and very durable. The sort of units I’m talking about are 8 or 9 man Screamer units, Plague Drones, and the like. Arguably the two best Daemon players in the world at the moment are Nick Nanavati and Alan Bajramovic (A.K.A. Pyjama Pants). Both of them use a tactic which uses a Daemon Prince, be it someone like Belakor or Kairos, to roll for Shrouding (psychic power from Telepathy). That Daemon Prince/character then goes out into the centre of a number of units such as Screamers and gives them the benefit of that psychic power. When those Screamers are shot at they can then use Shrouding along with their ability to Jink in order to benefit from a 2+ re-rollable cover save. Even though this has been reduced to a 2+/4+ cover save by many tournament organisers these units are still incredibly durable and will shrug off vast amounts of shooting unless the enemy can ignore those cover saves. The only army that can reliably combine the ability to bypass cover saves with the firepower to subsequently capitalise on it is Tau. Against most opponents, however, these units are incredibly survivable and they’re also very fast, something which is important for capitalising after the alpha strike. Something which I shall get to shortly. An alternative to these sort of units is to take very well armoured but very fast vehicles such as Maulerfiends. Whilst AV12 is nothing to shout about by itself, when combined with an invulnerable save, deployed in cover, and played alongside such buffs as the Grimoire or Invisibility, those vehicles become a whole lot more survivable and can fulfil a similar role to the Screamers - absorbing fire and then taking the fight forward.
That’s what I mean by surviving the alpha strike, it’s about having units that can draw in the enemy’s shooting for a turn and then get going. Maulerfiends are one of these units. They can seem so scary because of their threat potential that people ignore other parts of the army to try and get rid of them early in the game. If my opponent is shooting at my Maulerfiend, they are not shooting at the rest of my army, so just by including such a unit I have increased the survivability of the rest of my army. If units such as this survive they will then go across the table very quickly and cause the opponent problems. It’s all about making them survivable so they can get in and do the damage; it’s all about giving me options in the second turn. There’s no point surviving the alpha strike if in the next turn you cannot do anything. Your army needs to have the tools within it to ‘do stuff’, be it fighting back or contesting objectives. When I’m playing Daemons, once I’ve survived the first turn I get the chance to do things such as cast Invisibility, or Shrouding, I can run my Soulgrinders and Maulerfiends forward, I can hustle into cover around objectives. All of this just adds to my continued survivability and chance of winning the game whilst putting the pressure back on my opponent.
Since Maelstrom or some form of modified Maelstrom is what most competitions use, the ability to capture objectives either in your turn or the opponents turn is incredibly important. Now that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to deploy everything straight away but what you need to be able to do is manipulate your opponent’s army to be where you want it to be when the opportunity to get objectives comes up. When I play in an objective based game I look to dictate the game to my opponent. In a recent game against Necrons I allowed my opponent to deploy first, knowing that if I stayed far enough away from the predominant 24” range of their weapons I could manipulate the board and draw them towards certain units or areas. I only put out units that either looked like easy targets but did in fact have great cover saves, or units that were genuinely tough. These units were still poised to contest objectives or threaten the opponent’s ability to contest objectives. This caused my opponent to split his army between these durable targets resulting in little real damage. The alternative for them would have been to risk over-committing in order to be sure of destroying my survivable units, not a great choice either way. When my reserves came on, all of which could either move great distance or attack at long range, it allowed me to attack him after he had been lured forwards. By being so survivable I am attempting to force my opponent to advance towards the objectives rather than simply wiping me out. If the opponent does advance towards the objectives it serves to increase the likelihood of my reserves having an immediate impact when they become available.
Generally I will have my Soulgrinders on the board because they are the most survivable units in my army before any ‘buffs‘ are applied. This is thanks to their decent armour, large number of hull points, and invulnerable save. Likewise Belakor, deploy him in a ruin and he’s got a 2+ cover save on top of his decent toughness and multiple wounds. If the alpha strike falls on these units, which it should do because of the threat they pose, they’ve got multiple layers of survivability. If my opponent does not kill these units, they will certainly go on and do something in return on my next turn.
Crucially, the softer half of my army has also survived and has the ability to do something when they come on from reserve. Weaker units or support units that might be at risk against a particular army will go in reserve so that all that is on the table is the tough stuff. By the time these units arrive I will either have damaged the opposing army or pushed some threatening units up the table so they are less at risk.
Whilst Drop Pod lists have the advantage of being able to null deploy, and thereby avoid an alpha strike in anything but a mirror match, other armies probably cannot adopt this strategy. What they can do, however, is have one unit that is all about survivability and will attract the alpha strike. A Space Marine bike list for instance, or something like a ‘Centurion Star’, will tend to have a very powerful character right at the front of the most important unit who can pass wounds off to other models or soak them itself. A really good example is Iron Hands Space Marines: One chapter master with the Shield Eternal and another from Clan Raukan with the Gorgon’s Chain gives you two four wound Eternal Warriors with 2+ armour save, 3+ invulnerable save and possibly Feel No Pain from an Apothecary in the unit as well. Space Marines, Tau, Grey Knights, Eldar, have all been able to field units like that which are really survivable because of a tooled-up character. Each new army that comes along either has their own variation on this or a way of dealing with such units. Generally I think that something that can hit hard and hit first has a massive advantage in the game because even things like the Decurion Detachment have an element that if you remove the rest of the army will suffer. In that instance if you kill the Canoptek Spyder then the survivability of the Wraiths immediately drops. This is also true of Daemon Heralds with the Grimoire, Sanguinary Priests, and the like.
Games Workshop has started to design armies that are either really survivable such as Decurion Necrons, or are incredibly devastating on the first turn of shooting such as the Skitarii. Depending upon the format you’re playing in this can really dictate the way you have to approach your game.
The most important factor in surviving an aggressive, tournament-style alpha strike is in fact not just survival. It is being able to survive and then capitalise, or at the very least keep the game moving and prevent it becoming a rout. To be able to achieve this you need to have thought carefully about your army selection. Does your army have multiple units that can attract an alpha strike and potentially withstand it? Does your army contain super-tough characters that can be placed within units to make them more survivable? Most importantly does your army contain the tools which will enable it to have an impact on the game after the alpha strike has occurred?
At the start of the game think very carefully about what you deploy and where it deploys. This is more than simply getting everything into cover for the first turn. Think about where the objectives are, think about where you want to invite the alpha strike to fall if it is arriving from off of the board, and think about where you want enemy units to be when your units arrive from reserve so that they can have an immediate impact.
Finally, during the game, think about momentum. If you bunker down in cover to minimise casualties every turn what effect is this having on the game as a whole? By being pinned down like this are you allowing your opponent free rein of the objectives? This is the crux of my earlier point that simply surviving is not enough, you have to be able to put pressure on your opponent by damaging their army in return, or be able to put pressure on the state of the game by threatening the objectives'.
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