Thursday, April 2, 2015

Centaur Tactica Post: Army List Building, Part 1

Hey Reader!

This is Glenstorm with a bit of a different post to lead off Easterling month, and that is a two-part series on list building for Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle players.  Over the past few months I've helped a few friends prepare lists for tournaments, and from what I've learned from helping them and building lists myself I thought I'd take a moment just to step back and think about list building.

Before jumping into how to build an army list, I'd like to give a shout out to a guy that I follow on YouTube who plays Warhammer Fantasy (which I also play).  OnceBitten is a longtime Warhammer player, and his thoughts have been very influential in guiding my thoughts on list building, both for Warhammer Fantasy and LOTR SBG.  You can find his tactica post on list building here, and this post will mimic some of his thoughts (as he has a lot of good points), though with a very LOTR focus (which means some things will change from his commentary).

Like his analysis of Fantasy players, I think that there are seven types of list-building philosophies out there for LOTR, and most people will use multiple philosophies when they build an army list - you rarely see a pure philosophy for any player.  As fair warning to you all, this is a long post, :)

1.  Current Models
The first models I ever owned - they still form my Rohan core to this day
This philosophy asks the question, "What is the most competitive list I can build with the models that I have?"  This is a common (and good) philosophy for newer players who have a small collection of models, and I still use this theory when building armies five years after picking up the hobby.

This style of philosophy doesn't often win tournaments (as the models people own either tend to become the new meta, as is the case with Isengard in our gaming group, or they weren't purchased to be the best model from the army list), but this shouldn't deter you from running these armies.  Sure, maybe you don't win a GT every year with your army, but that doesn't mean it will never win.  Why do I say this?  Because the meta changes.  Just two years ago, the meta in our gaming group was phalanxes of Easterlings and Uruk-Hai: they clobbered everything, and if you brought more than a few points worth of cavalry you were throwing away the game (I know because I brought virtually all of the cav models in my armies during those years, :P ).  Then the phalanx became harder to run as heavy archery and throwing weapon armies became the meta (elves and Harad rose to the top), and virtually every army had a volley line.

Within the past year, though, we've seen horses become a lot more competitive, and a good number of armies are not fielding volley lines because they are focusing on mobility (with drummers, uruk marauders, Easterling kataphracts with drums, etc. being integral to army building).  So over time the meta changes, and this means units that may not win tournaments now may become more competitive later.

Because we can't predict this trend, my recommendation is that if you use a Current Models approach to army building, ask yourself one question: "What armies do I enjoy reading about/watching when I read/watch The Lord of the Rings."  If you're going to play with a force, you'll want to enjoy the look and feel of the army.  And besides, sometimes we don't build an army for the sake of winning: some people will work from this mindset because of economic/comfort reasons as opposed to competitive reasons, and that's a perfectly understandable reason to build an army.  Five years ago I bought uruk scouts (D5) over and against uruk warriors (D6) purely for how they looked, and I've never been disappointed by their performance, so I run them in my Isengard armies (even though the meta would say they are not as effective as the heavies, and they haven't won a tournament for me yet - we'll see what THRO 2015 holds).

2.  Themed Armies
The Halloween Army - THRO 2014
Some people will build a list around a particular theme.  What I don't mean by this is the "I'm going to build a Harad army" or "I'm going to build a Gondor army" mindset; that's just called "building an army," :)  I'm speaking instead of someone who builds an army around a central theme (more on that in the next paragraph) and chooses to stick with the theme even if it means that the list is softer than it would otherwise be if they ran something else from the army book (oh, and for those who don't know what I mean when I say "softer" and "harder" in regards to lists, check out my post on this blog for more on that).  An example is helpful.

For the THRO 2014 Tournament I ran the "Halloween Army," which was a themed army designed to use the scary stuff from the Angmar army book.  This meant I needed some undead stuff (spectres), some dead "whoozy" stuff (like wights and a ringwraith), some big scary stuff (like cave trolls) and some spam mooks for running down people (because that's essential to the horror genre - I used orcs).  The result was a themed army that didn't use Buhrdur (because he would have replaced an integral part of the theme, which was the nazgul) or wargs for fast attack (because they didn't fit the Halloween feel of the army), even though they would have helped to protect me from bruisers in close combat and give me more mobility (which would have helped against the Rohan and Isengard lists that I faced in the tournament).  I didn't take these models because this was a themed army, and the theme was more important than the competitiveness of the army list.

Other themes include a "Monster Mash" army (say, Gwaihir + Tons of Eagles that sacrifice unit numbers for the theme of Big-Nasties-Tearing-Up-Everything), White Council/Riders in Black armies, Dunlending-filled Isengard armies (because Spam Troops + cheap S4 2Hers + 12" Stand Fast is fun), etc.  These are not necessarily the strongest armies, but some people don't want to build the strongest army possible: for some people it's the theme that matters, and those people will use the theme to guide the building of the list.  And at the end of the day, people who bring themed lists can always fall back on, "Eh, I wasn't trying to build the toughest list possible" if and when they lose.  Tiberius loves building themed armies (especially of the all-hero variety - he doesn't always build themed armies, but he does every now and then), so if you're looking for some themed army ideas, check out this blog and look for his posts.

3.  Underdog Armies
The definition of an Underdog list: Shirelings
Related to Point #2, there are some people who run Underdog lists.  An underdog list, as OnceBitten describes it, followed the idea of, "This is a list that I think I can win with, but not everyone could," and if I had to choose only one philosophy for my army list paradigm, it would be this one.  I run D5 uruk scouts over and against the D6 heavy armor guys.  I run Shire ('nuff said).  I run Rivendell with a banner (because when your units are expensive, of course you have 25 points lying around to sport a banner).  I like running Underdog lists because I find them to be more fun.

What this doesn't mean, though, is that you're running impossible lists.  To reiterate the paradigm, it's the idea that "This is a list that I think I can win with, but not everyone could" - which is to say, you're not building a list that is designed to cede the game to your opponent.  You play the list and have a viable strategy for winning, and sure, sometimes it doesn't (or in my case, a good amount of the time it doesn't), but we take joy in having a hard fight to get to the final goal.

OnceBitten makes a really good point that I want to reiterate here: it's especially helpful to run an Underdog list if you're teaching the rules of the game to a new player.  While it is helpful for players to play against hard lists that are built to be competitive according to the current meta (as it helps them to grow), when a person is first learning the rules it does them no favors to just slaughter them on the field.  This is one of the reasons I run Underdog lists (and why I think I'm so comfortable with them, because I run them a lot): I play Underdog lists to teach people how the game works, and then as they gain experience I can play more competitive lists against them.

This is not generally recommended for tournaments (especially if you're trying to win), but if you're used to running them...well, you might be like me and run them anyway because it's the kind of lists you're comfortable playing with, :P

4.  Linchpin (aka, Focus and Overwhelm)
F4 S4 D7 Frontline with spear support, a volley line, and a 5+ Save against
all wounds...yeah, just try and break this line, I dare you...
This one is worth parking on for a bit, as they are very common.  The high concept of this philosophy is that the player places a lot of points into a given unit or group of units that will basically single-handedly win the game for him/her.  A few of the more common examples include:

-Mumakil with Haradrim with the Karna upgrade: 3+ Shooting with poison protected in a Howdah, and they always pass Courage tests (so they'll never run from combat if the army is broken)
-Dwarf "Hero Block" using a power hero + Dwarf Shieldbearer + D7 support warriors to cover the flanks
-Angmar cave troll "monster mash" armies that sport a ton of monsters using Brutal Strike attacks coupled with Burduhr

...The list goes on - in fact, almost every army can form a linchpin of some sort (still trying to figure out how Shire does it without teaming in another force...), but the strategy behind this army build is very simple: get the linchpin to do its thing, leave everything to the linchpin, and win the game.  Now while I don't really enjoy this style of army building myself, I'll note here that there's nothing wrong with it: it's perfectly fine to do this (and I used to - story coming up in a bit).  What it means, though (as fair warning) is that if the Linchpin of the army doesn't work (call it bad rolls, not reaching the target, etc.), the game will likely go very poorly, but that's the trade-off for this army build approach.

A common derivative of this in LOTR SBG (OnceBitten considers this a different strategy entirely, though I'd contend they are basically the same strategy in LOTR) is the Focus and Overwhelm strategy, where an army overloads a particular phase of the game (heavy magic in a ringwraith-heavy army, archery in an elf or Grey Company "Gun Line" army, uruk-hai getting quickly into melee to avoid as many Shoot Phases as possible, etc.) and use that phase to overwhelm the enemy and win the game.  I think the most important thing to remember for both the Linchpin and the Focus and Overwhelm is that since you're rolling dice, you always have the chance of having an off-game, so just be careful if you use this strategy to build your list.  A story is helpful here.

For THRO 2013 I took a Grey Company army, and I really love that army (and am planning on taking it to another tournament in the future - probably GT or THRO 2016, depending on when I want to run my dwarf army).  It was a linchpin army that relied on two things: archery killing 2-4 units/round, and getting Aragorn into melee combat.  And I discovered that if I had a game where I couldn't get a lot of archery in (because I started in a dwarf hold that didn't allow for volleying out, for example) or Aragorn just wasn't killing a lot of guys, I'd lose the game (and sure enough I think I went 1-2 at that tournament).

5.  Min/Max Armies
Take a Rohan Outrider over a Rohan Warrior with bow every day of the week...
A Min/Max army is an army built to minimize the number of points they have to devote to a certain element of the army, and maximize the number of undercosted models in their army.  This is easier to do with an LOME army than it is to do with a Warbands army, but some people will do this as they build lists (Tiberius will do this every now and then).  I'll use dwarves as an example:

-The King's Champion: For 125 pts you get a ton of Defense (anywhere from D7-D9), S5 on the King's Champion, a high FV, lots of attacks, two banners (which is 50 pts worth of upgrades right there), and a good number of Fate Points.  A Min/Max army list for dwarves would likely include him over and against Dain Ironfoot, for example.

-Dwarf Heroes Generally: While all dwarf heroes are a great use of points, a Min/Max list would use a Dwarf King over and against a Dwarf Captain, Gimli over and against almost anyone (just a really good use of points right there), etc. to maximize the stats you get for the points you spend.

-Warriors over Rangers: Now this could get me in trouble.  I want to point out that for 7 pts you actually get really good warrior selections from dwarf rangers - for the same cost as a Rohan Warrior with shield you get the same defense value, a higher FV, a higher Courage rating, treat all rocky and woodland terrain as open terrain for the purposes of movement, and all you sacrifice is 1" of movement and the shielding special rule.  So I'm not saying that dwarf rangers are a bad use of points - they just don't maximize your use of points.  For example, almost every upgrade for dwarf rangers is +3 pts/model in cost.  Ouch.  For a S2 24" bow (that all humans get for +1 pt/model) or a S3 6" throwing weapon (which elves and corsairs get for +1 pt/model)?  Not worth it.  Perhaps it's worth it for a cheap 2Her, but at the same time you can get a S3 2H for orcs or Dunlendings for 6pts/warrior instead of 8, and you get the same firepower (albeit slightly weaker Defense and a slighly lower FV).

Dwarves can get a lot of momentum out of 9pt/warrior dwarf warriors, Khazad Guards (such a good purchase for the points, especially if you use the 2H option when attacking *hint hint*) - lots of cool options, and they only got better with the new Hobbit releases.

And this is not specific to dwarves - Easterlings and Rohan do a great job of Min/Max on heroes (not so much on warriors for Easterlings), Wood Elves do a great job of Min/Max on warriors (wood elves over Galadhrim, for example), etc.  Isengard actually does not do well with Min/Max (as most of your heroes are about the same cost, so there are few ways to reduce the cost of your hero selections, most of your warrior selections are 9-10 pts, etc.), and Rivendell is in the same boat (most heroes being either 80 pts or close to double that, and most warriors are right around 10 pts).  So all of that to say, some people will look at their army book, find out what units are a good use of points, and maximize the number of units they purchase from that shorter list of models to get the most for the points they spend.

6.  Reactionary Lists
I see your heavy infantry line, and I'll raise you one Grey Company "Gun Line"
Reactionary lists refer to lists that are designed to respond to the current tournament/local meta for army lists.  I was actually talking with Tiberius about this recently, and he mentioned to me that since Isengard has more or less become the meta (F4 S4 D6 with a melee focus) this is the reason that Isengard doesn't win tournaments: everyone builds their lists to prepare for an Isengard army.  I think he has a point - I'll be testing out an Isengard army for THRO 2015 just to try an asymmetric and unique Isengard list (little hint: no D6 or D7 in the entire force, and exceptional Courage for the whole army just in case of terror), so we'll see how that goes.  But I think there's something to this: because it is highly likely that a team will face an Isengard team (and even more so that they will face a D6 Heavies + Pikes + Drummer + Vrasku + D7 Bunker Captain army, which is the current standard fare for Isengard), so people plan ahead on how to play against Isengard.

And this is an accurate assessment, I think, of what people think about when they build lists.  It's not uncommon to hear people talking about the need for S4 (to get past the D6 everyone brings), thoughts on either going to the extreme of D7 to keep people alive (against the S4 of the meta) or the spam approach of guys who are only D5 (and just chalking up their armies to wound on 5s against the S4 but hoping to mitigate that through mass numbers), and seeing a lot of people paying points for F4 if they don't start with it (it's very rare you see an Easterling force that does not use Black Dragons for their front ranks, Haradrim that are not fielding Serpent Guard as their infantry, etc.).

People are also starting to lean away from archery (it used to be that every army had a volley team or a heavy crossbow contingent for the archery game; nowadays volley lines are rare) because so many armies are focusing on high mobility and getting into combat on Turn 3 instead of Turn 4 (which may not sound like a huge change, but trust me: it's makes a huge difference for a Grey Company, Shire, or Elf army that places lots of points on shooting).  So it's been interesting to watch.

If I had to guess, I think a lot of people use a Reactionary mindset to inform their primary philosophy for army building - not so much that they consciously ask the question, "What will I face at this tournament" so much as a latent, underlying thought while building their army list.  And there's nothing wrong with this: playing to the meta can help people win critical games in a tournament, as they are well-prepared for the threats they face.  The only danger is what happens when you face an army that is totally not built to match the current meta?  The downside of those who play to the meta is that if someone is a standard deviation or two from the mean, do you have what you need to counter the new threats?  This is an important question for you if you use this philosophy to build your army.  Good example of this?  The Waistcoat Brigade (my army for the GT 2014) was a predominately F3 S2 D3 army, and no one knew what to do with it.  Result: a Minor Loss and two Major Victories.

7.  Toolkit Army
Even a limited army list can have a lot of variety...
Finally we examine the Toolkit approach to army list building.  I'll note in passing that while I'd consider myself to generally be an Underdog player, I tend to build Underdog armies that use a healthy dose of Toolkit theory.  The Toolkit approach builds the army to have an answer for a variety of threats to the force, even if the "answer" is not ideal.

When I sit down to build a Toolkit army, I usually plan on having the following: a High Courage option (for Terror), a High Defense option (for archery), a High Strength option (for cracking D7+), and a High Mobility option (for chasing down archers/skirmishers).  Depending on the list I may look into a caster to provide Transfix/Immobilize/Paralyze for the army (for big heroes that I don't want to try to beat through straight combat res), and a siege weapon (for breaking up phalanxes before my melee guys close in for combat).  Building a Toolkit army doesn't require you to have all of these things in your force, but it will likely focus on having most of them if possible.

My Easterling force is one example (I'll use them here because I'm testing out Easterlings at present).  Easterlings have a limited warrior core, but even their limited core can do quite a bit: they can give banner support, heavy cav, pike support, F4 D6 frontline troops, and heavy armor archers.  They also have a good mix of heroes that cover a lot of bases.  For High Defense and High mobility you've got Khamul, who can hit and fade while being D8 (and D5-D7 for the mount, depending on which one you purchase), and archers know that if they don't target him with their shots he'll mow them down.  You also have access to a 50-pt Easterling Captain with shield, which is the cheapest Bunker Captain in the game (even cheaper than the Rohan guy who has the same stats for 55 pts).

For high-Strength you've got a good mix of S4 heroes who can become S6 with Bladewrath (on a 2+ cast from a dirt cheap 60-pt hero), though you can also throw the spell on a warrior as well to boost his strength if the match-up is better.  Dragon Knights do a good job of adding some additional damage output (F5 with 3 attacks is really nice), and once you throw in Khanish units into the mix you get access to 2Hers, chariots - tons of damage options.

On the utility side you've got access to Fury to both keep your guys in the field and allow them to charge terror due to automatically passing Courage tests (and a 6+ save on top of D6, which is not bad), and access to a number of utility spells with Khamul (not the best caster, but not bad).  So a Toolkit army would take 2-3 very different heroes (maybe a War Priest, Khamul, and a Dragon Knight for damage) and warriors to cover a variety of needs (some swordsmen for frontline defense, pikes to make the Drag Knight and warriors more effective, archers to cover the flanks and protect against other archers, maybe some 2Her Khand Warriors for killing power, and access to heavy knights for reliable flank charging and mobility).

Conclusion

Again, the purpose of this post is not to say that one way of building an army is "right" or "wrong."  Instead I think it's helpful for players - both veteran and new - to develop an overall strategy for how they build their lists.  This also means that if you find that your armies haven't been working the way you want them to, you can make adjustments by refocusing on your army building strategy, changing up units within the list to better fit your strategy, etc.

And ultimately, your advice from Centaur should always be this: build the list you want to build.  If you want to play a Hobbit army, go for it!  From one who's done it, it's a lot of fun!  If you want to play an all-hero army that will likely lose Domination games just because you don't have the model count to outnumber your opponent, run it!  If you want to build a heavily meta-ed army that is designed to womp rank-and-file armies, build it!  Run an army you enjoy running, and then if you're looking to win at tournaments, make it winnable.  If you're looking at just having a beautifully painted army, make it beautiful.  But build something you'll be proud of, because ultimately we are practicing craftsmanship, and that is a calling worth pursuing.

In our next post we will apply these philosophies to actual list building (that is to say the more practical post to offset this highly theoretical post), and I'm really looking forward to that discussion.  In the meantime, I'm hoping to get notes up for the Hold Ground battle that Tiberius and I got in wiht my Easterling force, and I'm hoping to get that up this weekend, so keep watching this space!  Until then, you'll know where to find me,

Watching the stars,

Glenstorm

"I watch the stars, for it is mine to watch." ~ Glenstorm, Prince Caspian

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