Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Riders in Black: Part 1

So, the faithful readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of spell-casters (I spent a whole month talking about Radagast, Saruman, Gandalf, Ringwraiths, and other random spell-casters). They can be really expensive, but can also help you deal (unconventionally) with the monsters and bruisers of the enemy. This months' focus is going to be on a very particular type of spell-caster: the Ringwraith. Why?...

...because I'm working on my third all-hero army, and have chosen the Riders in Black, the famed and iconic Nazgul. One of the models you might recognize from some of my Moria posts, but the others are all new acquisitions. I want to talk about what challenges and advantages an all-Nazgul force has on the field as well as what Nazgul I believe are valuable for an all-hero Nazgul army.

1) "Why in the world would you pick Ringwraiths? Are they viable as an army?"

Unlike Zorro's Cave Troll brood that he's building for his Angmar horde, an all-Nazgul army is a force that requires tact, subtlety, and patience. Understanding what the mission objective is and how many units you need to kill to break the enemy is key to winning the game. You also can't waste a single Will point or you cripple your long-term capabilities. So...why would you want to take such a complicated army?
First, you rarely need to worry about that army-crunching hero that comes out to face you. The faithful readers also know that I have a famed army of Dwarves at my command and really like playing with the Fellowship (and the White Council). All three of these armies sport powerful Fight 6 heroes with 2-3 Attacks at Strength 4 and 3 (or more) Might points. Yeah, those heroes are really tough to beat in combat and often are hard to kill with archery too. Playing with a host of spell-casters who can cast Transfix easily can allow you to concentrate firepower one a single hero (or two heroes in one turn if they have 1-2 Will points) and completely nix their ability to kill units. If that hero is a 90 point hero (like Gimli) or a 105 point hero (like Boromir), you can knock out a hero that sits at/near your point cost in a single turn! Since both these heroes have a sum total of 3 Will points, you can have 5 Ringwraiths (assuming that each Will point resists a spell) cast Transfix in one round and BOOM - no wounding for them. In each subsequent round, you will find it easier to destroy these heroes if you can move before they do.
Second, each unit in this army has Defense 8 and causes Terror. Even though no unit has more than 1 Wound and all are defeated if they run out of Will points, charging your heroes with warriors will be difficult (especially with your Harbinger of Evil special rule) and when they are charged, they will be hard to wound. Wounding these heroes is also far from easy for most archers in the game (except those tree-men who throw huge rocks...), so advance without fear of missiles for a few rounds at least.
Finally, the special rules for the named Ringwraiths can make your army adaptable to face a variety of armies. Lots of Might (or Will) points in the enemy army? The Dwimmerlaik can help you. Want to wound a transfixed Defense 9 Durin on a single dice? Khamul's your shade of black. Worried about being trapped and battered to death? Try killing the Undying. I don't want to get into too many details here, but we'll talk about this more later when we get to which Ringwraiths are valuable in an all-hero army.
2) "Okay, these guys are great...but they've got weaknesses, right?"

With all these advantages, it's tough to play with the Riders in Black. Yes, they are a feared company in the books and I'm sure they will be feared when I learn to field them as well, but they're very specialized and hard to use. Let's explore some of the reasons why this might be...
First (as mentioned above), you've got no more than 1 Wound on each of your units. That means all it takes is a lucky arrow, a mighty stroke, or calamity for your mount and you're a goner, pal. While your Defense 8 and Fate points (if you have any) can do wonders to prevent this from happening, there's no robustness in your Wounds category to absorb accidents. Heroes like Legolas (or Vrasku is you're playing against an Evil army) can prove very, VERY dangerous to the health and well-being of your army. Other heroes who cast Nature's Wrath that automatically trap your units by placing them on the ground are also to be feared - perhaps even more so.
Second, you have lots of spells to choose from, but (generally) a limited number of Will points. This isn't a problem for a disciplined general who knows what he needs to do to win the game, but can confuse a new general. Though we won't go into spell tactica here, I'm planning on devoting the next post in this series to this very issue and looking at the utility of all five spells available to your non-Witch King wraiths.
Finally, you need to mount most of your units if you want more than 1 Attack. If I asked you, "Who would win in the following To The Death match: a 110 point Ringwraith (all upgrades) or Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Frodo with no upgrades?" You'd be tempted to say, "The Ringwraith...who was chasing who in the Shire, right?" But consider: the Ringwraith wounds the hobbits on 4s and needs to deal at least 6 wounds to the hobbits (1 wound to both Merry and Pippin and 2 wounds to both Frodo and Sam). Between the four hobbits, they have 7 Fate points, they can always roll a dice to resist spells (if any are used), and together they have 3 Might points and 4 Attacks on the Ringwraith's 2 Might and 1 Attack. Tough chances there...
The Ringwraith must not only be lucky in winning fights and wounding, but must also do this within the 14 Will point constraint that he has...I don't think he can win in this scenario. If he's mounted and has no Fate points (relying on the hobbits not getting any 6/5+ rolls during the game), he could be mounted OR take the Witch King with the Crown of Morgul and 1M/11W/0F - both of these would increase the chance of winning, but bottom line is you need to mount the guy if he's not the Witch King (or Khamul, as we'll see later).
3) "Okay, you've convinced me, there are some high points and low points, but are all Ringwraiths created equal?"

In an all-hero-Ringwraith army, not all Ringwraiths are worth taking. Though each of them has a benefit for the army as a whole, I recommend 5 of them (the others are better tailored to supporting a conventional army and will be reviewed afterwards):

(All of the following pictures are courtesy of Games Workshop)

1st choice: the Witch King of Angmar with the Crown of Morgul and at least 2M/12W/0F (120+ points)
The Witch King of Angmar with the Crown of Morgul is the only Ringwraith to be guaranteed 3 Attacks (if he's not immobilized or commanded). This not only increases his chances of beating your "average joe" from Rohan or Gondor, but gives him a competitive edge against heroes who are 1) Fight 4 or lower or 2) were Fight 5 or higher and were transfixed as he charged. Since the Witch King starts with a large Will store, you an afford to do some magic casting, but your focus should be less on magic than combat. Assume that there will be 6-8 rounds of close combat and budget the rest of your Will accordingly.
2nd choice: the Undying (120 points)
The Undying is my second choice for three reasons: first, he has 20 Will points that can be used as Fate points. Even if you can only spare 10 Will points for Fate points (because you're casting spells and fighting), it is really, REALLY hard to kill him. While the Witch King is an offensive powerhouse with his Crown of Morgul, the Undying is your anchor. The second reason is that you can gain Will points back if a friendly or enemy spell-caster successfully casts a spell within 6" of you - a perfect way to ensure that you can continue to cast your own spells or resist damage. Finally (to say nothing of his spell-casting potential), the recent FAQs on the GW website indicate that the Will points used by the Undying as Fate points don't count towards the points of your opponent in the "Lords of Battle" game...which means you can resist lots of damage and your opponent gets (at best) 1 point for killing you. Yeah, I like this guy...
3rd choice: Khamul the Easterling (120 points)
Khamul the Easterling is my third choice for two reasons: first, you need attacks in your army and Khamul can guarantee himself 2 Attacks if he has a Will point to spare. This makes him less of a spell-caster, but a reliable offensive tool (especially against Fight 4 or less warriors). The second reason is that Khamul can regain Will points by dealing wounds - a perfect way to stay in the game longer (and get 2 Attacks in future combats). You will probably notice that the number of attacks and ability to regain Will plays a critical role in using a Ringwraith force (especially if your opponent has conventional army with 32-40 units in it), so Khamul is your clutch unit who does both moderately well (unlike the Witch King who does the Attack-element well and the Undying who does the Will-element well).
4th choice: Ringwraith on horse with at least 1M/9W/0F (80+ points each)
The traditional, unnamed "rider in black" gives you the following critical advantage: they're cheap enough that you can flesh out your army. Having 3-4 unnamed Ringwraiths not only allows you to protect your strong, expensive wraiths from being overwhelmed, but also means that you can spread out the Will cost to transfix key heroes/monsters and charge more units within a group. I require a mount for these guys for two reasons: first, mounting spell-casters ensures that wherever your enemy places his tactical heroes, you can get to them. You'll need to be careful of archers, but you should be able to transfix any hero who attempts to evade your rank-and-file in order to focus on your stronger units. The second reason is a bit more practical: you need more than 1 Attack to be effective - a horse gets you that (if you're tactful) for a reasonable cost (see discussion above).
Keep in mind, though, that you should be planning on 4-5 rounds of close-combat action for these guys, so if you plan on using these guys to cast spells, load up on the Will points! Also, the proposed 80 point Ringwraith is taking his chances without Fate points. This is primarily because Fate points aren't guaranteed to work and the ability to be wounded isn't high if you can keep heroes from smashing your face in. Hence, an extra Will point or two might be more useful for your Ringwraith if you intend to (say) charge archers instead of hordes of enemy men-at-arms.
5th choice: the Dwimmerlaik (120 points)
The Dwimmerlaik makes it potentially harder for your opponents to use their Might, Will, and Fate points and can use a two-handed weapon (for extra smashing power). This makes the Dwimmerlaik a great tactical piece against both conventional armies and all-Nazgul armies. Add to this calculation that he has 16 Will points to fight with or cast spells and can make heroes with 1 Will unable to resist spells for the game and you've got a great asset. The Dwimmerlaik could be removed for the Tainted for the following reasons: first, in order for him to add to the kill count of the army, you need to 1) mount him (which disables the use of his two-handed weapon) or 2) depend on your two-handed weapon with a single Attack. The second reason is that the Dwimmerlaik has no Might, and I see him getting trapped and pummeled by elite units and being unable to improve his dice roll. Both heroes are great circumstantially, so I cose the Dwimmerlaik because of his ability to devastate captain units.
Perhaps you're thinking, "Why not the _______? Isn't his ______ special rule useful for your army?" Depending on which hero you choose, this might be a valid point, but I'll go through the remaining five Nazgul and explain why I avoided putting them on my list.

1st runner up: the Tainted (120 points)
The tainted is an oddity in the game and by-and-large doesn't look much different than a 100 point unnamed Ringwraith. What he gains for the additional 20 points, however, is found in his two special rules: first, no friendly or enemy unit can benefit from a Stand Fast! if they are within 6" of the Tainted. Since your army is a hero army, you don't cast Stand Fasts, so this only affects your opponent's army and all of his Courage tests will be resolved with the -1 penalty from the Harbinger of Evil special rule. Nifty? Not done yet. The second special rule states that before combat, you roll a dice for each unit (friend or foe) in base contact with the Tainted: on the roll of a 6, the unit takes a wound. As a long-time Goblin Shaman user, I can tell you that rolling that 6 can be really, really fickle, so I can't place him in the recommended slots.
2nd runner up: the Knight of Umbar (120 points)
Make no mistake, the Knight of Umbar is a great hero. Not only does he not lose Will points when he wins a fight (really like that), but he can also borrow the Fight, Attack, and/or Strength value of his opponent (via the "Combat Mimicry" special rule). This is great for ensuring that you have an even chance of winning against an enemy hero, but is less effective if you're fighting a conventional army. Consider that the wording of his "Combat Mimicry" is as follows:
"the Knight of Umbar may elect to use the Fight, Strength, or Attack values of his opponent instead of his own."

Since this is singular, you can't borrow the combined Attack values of multiple opponents (so if two Khazad Guards charge you, you will not be able to contest their 2 Attacks with 2 Attacks of your own). Also, the FAQs mentioned above indicate that if the hero you are fighting is transfixed, you can elect to use their transfixed values (Fight 1, Strength X, 1 Attack) instead of their normal profile. If you're planning on having heroes transfixed (easier targets), the Knight of Umbar isn't for you. In the end, while the Knight of Umbar isn't that great supporting an all-Nazgul army, he is an excellent candidate for a conventional army for tackling the hardest of heroes and monsters (or if you're taking your all-hero Nazgul army against another all-hero army). Remember that his ability to cast spells in impaired by their casting values being raised, so he's not a great spell-caster.

3nd runner up: the Shadow Lord (120 points)
The Shadow Lord is great for one reason: you pay 15 more points than you would for a fully-decked unnamed Ringwraith (if you factor in the Courage 5 instead of Courage 6 rating) and you protect units within 6" of the Shadow Lord from archery in the same way as Cast Blinding Light (your enemy hits you on 6s). Though this is very effective in a conventional army - especially those with low defense values - it's not that necessary for this army as everyone has Defense 8. Yes, an arrow or two may wound your units, but it will be more cost-effective to have a few Fate points on each unit than spend 120 points on a single hero who will need to be near your units to aid them. Great hero, but not as valuable for an all-Nazgul force.
4th runner up: the Dark Marshal (120 points)
The Dark Marshal is treated as a banner by warriors but not heroes. It goes without saying that this is 1) very good for a conventional army and 2) very not helpful for an all-Nazgul force. So why isn't he last? Fight 6. The only other Ringwraith hero who can guarantee a Fight 6 score is Khamul (the Knight of Umbar can if he's aligned against a Fight 6 foe, for the record), but this comes at the cost of gaining 2 Attacks (and costs a Will point). The Dark Marshal has Fight 6 and 12 Will points, which means he can deal some solid damage if mounted on his armored horse. His special rule's in-applicability to heroes sours the value of this in an all-hero army and generally speaking I don't recommend taking him (unless you're running a conventional army, in which case you're hard pressed to find a better Ringwraith for your force).
5th runner up: the Betrayer (120 points)
The Betrayer costs 10 points more than a fully-decked unnamed Ringwraith and gives you the same profile with the following advantages: first, he has the advanced "poisoned blades" rule, which allows him to reroll any failed rolls to wound in close combat (just like Dalamyr or a Hasharin). Though this is useful, he only has 1 Attack (unless mounted), so how effective is this? His second advantage is that he enhances the "Poisoned Blades" and "Poisoned Arrows" rules for the units within 6" of him. This is really good in a Serpent Horde army from Harad that can have 50% of its army have poisoned arrows and the rest of the army have poisoned blades, but is not beneficial at all for Ringwraiths. The downside to the Betrayer is that like the Knight of Umbar, his ability to cast spells is impaired (with most being 1 grade harder to cast than a normal Ringwraith) and for me, the "poison" rule doesn't make up for this. Unless you have poison in your army, take an unnamed Ringwraith instead.
In the next post, we're going to talk about strategies for the unit types within the following army list (my working 600 point list):

The Black Court of Morgul: 600 points

The Witch King of Angmar with Crown of Morgul and 3M/15W/2F - 150 points
The Undying - 120 points
3 Ringwraiths with horses and 2M/12W/2F - 330 points

Looking forward to this month's work (I'm concurrently working on some Uruk-Hai, which I may showcase in an article or two as we gear up for the Spring TMAT tournament). Happy hobbying!


  1. Nice rundown. Very thorough. I personally would not rate the Knight of Umbar so low, perhaps, but you make a valid point. And you're building a Ringwraith _army_, so the pluses and minuses play out differently then if you're fielding grunts to support them.
    All in all: Very interesting. The Ulari are my personal favorite spellcasters without a doubt.

    1. Thanks Tavros. Make no mistake, I think each Ringwraith has a useful purpose (unlike some heroes that GW has made). I'm writing up a post that talks about how you can use Ringwraiths to support conventional armies - and so all your favorites will see some time in the sun on that post.