Warmachine: What’s really wrong with themes (and how to fix them)

If you spend as unhealthy an amount of time on the Warmachine internet as I do, you will be familiar with a common complaint – that “thememachine” or the prevalence of theme lists in Warmachine, is horrible and is killing the game and that things were better back in the good old days of Mk.II. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but it has got me thinking.

First off, I actually don’t think themes are that bad. There are a lot of advantages to splitting up these factions into groups and restricting model choices. First, it makes it a lot easier to balance, in that a model only has to be balanced in its relevant themes and we don’t need to worry about some combination of that model, a certain warcaster, and two or three mercenary options breaking the game. Second, restrictions can actually encourage list diversity. If anyone could take any in-faction model any time, we would risk ending up with lists all looking like the same sort of soup of the strongest models in the faction, or starting with the same few faction autoincludes.

I also don’t think spam is inherently bad. It actually looks pretty cool to see a well-painted army with some uniformity to it across the table. Phalanxes of well-painted Iron Fang Pikemen with a coherent colour scheme can look much more attractive on the tabletop than some mixture of Iron Fangs, Winter Guard, and Man-O-War all mashed together and clashing aesthetically. However, while the argument that themes discourage list diversity is way overblown, I think there may be a nugget of truth in there.

Two ways to build lists…

It feels like there are two ways to build lists in Warmachine. The first way is to pick a variety of models that mutually support each other, even if such support isn’t as direct and straightforward as “This dude gives these other dudes +1 to hit.”

I think one great example of this is Armored Corps. While there are some models that directly buff each other such as the Kovnik and the various unit attachments, and there are some builds that just take one model and go ham with it like Butcher1 and three units of bombardiers, there are actually a lot of ways that elements in an Armored Corps army can support each other. Suppression tankers can lay down covering fire and deal with light infantry that would otherwise bog down (or in the case of weapon master dudes, tear through) your relatively low model count, heavy infantry army. Shocktroopers can screen heavy hitting Demolition Corps, and Bombardiers can provide a long range element for either sniping out key support pieces. And that is to say nothing of the speed of the Drakhun or the Chariots. While you are restricted to Man-O-War models, you can take a lot of different variations that each bring something to the table and add up to more than the sum of their parts.

This is actually similar to how squads in real life combat operate. A squad of soldiers in WWII might have a combination of soldiers with different loadouts and different specializations – riflemen, a light machine gun crew, a couple guys with submachine guns, some grenadiers, etc. All these soldiers would support each other in ways that make the sum of the parts greater than the whole – the guys with the machine gun would provide suppressing fire, allowing the riflemen to get into a better position. A couple guys with submachine guns may help cover the grenadiers as they approach an enemy position to lob grenades into their foxholes. And all the while, the designated marksman would pick off any high value targets that expose themselves.

oc_p03.jpg

Of course, the other way is to find one model that is perhaps a little bit too strong for its points, take a caster that synergizes with it, and just go ham with it. The quintessential list here is Cryx Slayer spam, though there are some other popular lists that come to mind as well. Once you figure out that Slayers in the Black Industries theme force are pretty good and pretty cheap, and Asphyxious3 makes Slayers better, the logical conclusion is to take Asphyxious3 and as many Slayers as you can cram into your list to really leverage that synergy. From there, you just hope that the combination of a good model with a caster who can serve as a force multiplier can just brute force anything in front of it, including your opponent’s nice combined arms list with plenty of mutually supportive elements.

The real life equivalent would be like if the British army decided that since Sten guns are cheap and effective, they’ll just produce and issue nothing but Sten submachine guns to their army. That’s one strategy I suppose, but in real life, it’s not a very good one and prone to have catastrophic results when these poor Tommies run up against a problem that spray and pray with a submachine gun can’t solve. While I’m not one to say that our game of magic robots punching dragons needs to be a realistic simulations of real-life combat, in the world of wargaming, “everyone gets a Sten” isn’t as tactically challenging and intellectually stimulating as spending your lunch break at work weighting the pros and cons of adding a designated marksman to pick off high value targets to your squad versus incorporating another light machine gun crew for more effective covering fire.

Back to themes

One catch here is theme forces. While some themes like Armored Corps have a nice diversity of units and can incorporate mutually supporting elements rather than just running as many Slayers as possible, some are a little more restricted in either the models you can take or the models that count towards free cards in the theme. Between this and our predilection to find a synergy and go ham on it (see: Asphyxious + Slayers = win), players are strongly encouraged to take as many points of models that count towards free cards as possible because free stuff is really good. For example, you could take a bunch of Kayazy Assassins in Jaws of the Wolf or Sword Knights in Heavy Metal, but in doing so, you are forgoing free cards, which makes it difficult to justify unless you have a really compelling reason to.

One way to deal with this is to lower the threshold for free cards to 15 points, and cap the number of free cards at three or so. That would allow people to take models that don’t count for free points – things like warjacks, journeyman warcasters, and mercenaries – and build a more combined arms list, while still maxing out on free points and not being punished by the free points economy when compared to straight spam lists. Of course, if we simply drop the points threshold for a free card without instituting a cap, then we end up in the same situation as before, except instead of maxing out on a certain model type to get three free cards, people will max out on the same model type to get five free cards.

We can already see this in at least one of the themes. I find Sons of the Tempest in Cygnar to be particularly interesting to build lists for, in part because you get the free card after every 15 points of Arcane Tempest models instead of 20 or 25. While there isn’t a hard cap, people generally don’t try to maximize free cards by taking 75 points of gunmages because all those POW 10s probably wouldn’t have the raw hitting power to take down a heavily armoured force. So, when building a list in that theme, people tend to limit themselves to about three free cards, using up 45 points and spending the other 30 points on things like warjacks, mercenaries, junior warcasters, etc., to bring some heavy hitting power to the list and make it a little more combined arms oriented than taking just the bare minimum number of warjacks and filling the rest with in-theme infantry.

Because of a combination of a lower points threshold not pressuring players to maximize free cards, as well as some of Cygnar’s great journeyman warcasters, you can actually make some interesting combined arms lists in Sons of the Tempest and still get a decent amount of free cards. Kraye, for example, could be played fairly jack-heavy in this theme, using the jacks for heavy hitting and the various gunmages to support, clear chaff, and push enemy models around as well as apply Kraye’s feat.

Further, in addition to encouraging more combined arms play, this could help bring models back to the table that don’t fit well into theme forces because they don’t count towards free cards. Assault Kommandos, I’m looking in your direction.

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Did somebody say my name?

Conclusion

Themes aren’t going anywhere, and longing for some good old days of Mk.II which may or may not have actually happened isn’t useful. While there are a lot of benefits to themes such as making armies look coherent, making the game easier to balance, reducing the instance of seeing the same overpowered model in every list in a faction, and basically being a shopping list for a new player, one weakness is that they don’t lend themselves to combined arms play – which is already discouraged by some of the powerful combos and synergies in the game.

By reducing the free card threshold and capping the number of free cards, Warmachine could take a small step away from trying to stack buffs onto a dozen of the most cost-effective model and towards combined arms lists with mutually supporting elements. That could increase the tactical depth of the game without greatly increasing complexity, and I, for one, would much rather have a game decided by who best brings his mutually supporting elements to bear on a battlefield given the challenges of terrain and the movements of the enemy than one of hard counters, gear checks, and putting all one’s eggs into one basket and then winning or losing at list selection.

Hot Take: Khador theme drop

After frantically checking War Room for updates every five minutes for the past week or so, the new content that we have been waiting for has finally arrived.  New themes for every model in every faction of the game, and old themes tweaked with the addition of mercenaries.  It’s Christmas come early for Warmachine players.

In Khador, we had both of our new themes spoiled already, and I already did a hot take on the Man-O-War theme, so I’m not going into too much detail on that one.  Suffice it to say that it lets you run a brick of MoW Shocktroopers, and we won’t find out its true potential until we get our new toys sometime in 2018.

Anyways, let’s take a look here, starting with our new Greylord theme…

Wolves of Winter

wolves.pngLet’s get this out of the way first:  Unfortunately, you can’t start the game with upkeeps on your Doom Reavers.  It is a bit of a shame, and does put a damper on the dream of what a Doomie Spam list can do with an upkeep-heavy caster like Strakhov2, but there might still be some game in this theme.  Unfortanately, I’m kind of an axe to face guy, so I don’t have the experience with the Greylord side of Khador to comment with too much expertise on this, but that hasn’t stopped me before.  Let’s see if we can have some fun list-building with this…

List:  Vlad3 is good, right?
Theme:  Wolves of Winter

Vladimir Tzepesci, Great Prince of Umbrey (Vlad3)
– Drago
– Juggy

Fenris
Greylord Forge Seer (free)
Greylord Forge Seer (free)
Koldun Lord (free)

Doom Reaver Swordsmen
Doom Reaver Swordsmen
Greylord Outriders
Greylord Outriders

vlad3-pic-large.pngVlad3 isn’t usually considered a competitive caster, with the general consensus being that he’s not bad, he’s just the third-best Vlad.  Still, there may be something here, at least for a funsies list.  Since you can start with your upkeeps out, Hand of Fate is great on Greylord Outriders because of the sheer amount of extra dice you are chucking with those sprays.  Infernal machine can go on either of your warjacks.  Wind Wall can help protect a unit of Doomies on the advance from getting shot down on the way in, and between Apparition and Dash, your Doomies can threat 14 inches, which according to my math, is legit.  Murdering everything with sprayponies with Hand of Fate and sending in a bunch of Doomies to finish off whatever is left seems fun.  Vlad’s feat can affect the Outriders and Fenris, priming them to strike again after the initial alpha, or retreat off to some annoying position on the flank where they are going to be hard to deal with.  Competitive?  Not sure yet.  Fun?  Well, I’m going to be hitting the painting table…

Theme tweaks

In addition to the new themes, we’ve got a few tweaks to our existing themes.  In general, the big addition to our existing theme forces is the addition of mercenaries.  This is huge for Khador; there are a number of merc solos out there that for a few points, can patch some holes in our lists and fix some struggles we’ve been having lately with certain armies that have been challenging matchups for us (hello, Ghost Fleet and Gremlin Swarms).

There are a few things to note though. First, you can take mercs that have the Partisan (Khador) rule, which means that you can add a unit of Kayazys to your theme force of choice.  Second, Valachev is available as an attachment to a merc unit, so you can make them friendly Faction.

Most curiously, a couple of themes restrict the mercenaries you can take to non-character solos (Winter Guard Kommand) or units (Legion of Steel).  From what I can tell, Khador is the only faction that is faced with this restriction, which makes sense, because you know how all the other factions get when we get nice things.  I’m guessing there must have been some sort of completely broken combination in there, though I haven’t quite figured out what it would have been yet.

The Good

The thing that I am most excited about in this theme drop is the potential to take mercenary units in Winter Guard Kommand, particularly Lady Aiyana & Master Holt.  One of the major weaknesses with WGK which was really showing in a world of Ghost Fleet and Gremlin Swarms was a total lack of magic weapons aside from your caster and Andy, who ideally should be nowhere near combat anyways.  With Aiyana’s ability to make the weapons of a model/unit magical, incorporeal opponents like Gremlin Swarms and Blackbane’s Raiders can be easily countered.  Fortunately, we now have an answer to this…

 

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My Sorscha2 conversion — because Irusk2 wasn’t top-heavy enough of a model

List:  Suck it, Ghost Fleet
Theme:  Winter Guard Kommand

 

Forward Kommander Sorscha
– Spriggan
– Marauder

Kovnik Joe

Winter Guard Rifle Corps
– Rocketeers x3
Winter Guard Rifle Corps
– Rocketeers x3
Winter Guard Infantry
– WGI Officer & Standard (free)
– Rocketeers x3
Winter Guard Mortar Crew (free)

Aiyana & Holt
– Valachev

As you can tell, this list is designed to do one thing and one thing only:  Make Ghost Fleet players cry.  By hot-swapping shatterstorm between the two units of Rifle Corps, you can threaten to RFP from 22″ away (with Desperate Pace).  Since RFPed stuff doesn’t come back, you can shut down the Cryx recursion engine pretty quickly, and you won’t have to worry about Tough if they drop their Bane list.  Spriggan is there to threaten to drop a flare on Denny1 and take away her Stealth, and Aiyana & Holt can hand out magic weapons so you can take out the Wraith Engine and Blackbane’s Raiders.

The Meh

Jaws of the Wolf, the theme that I’ve been using most often, got a bit of a sidegrade.  In addition to the mercs now available in-theme, we are now able to take Yuri the Axe as a free model.  At six points, Yuri was kind of expensive for what he did, and a key linchpin of the Yuri/Manhunters/Kossites package.  Being able to take him for free is going to make that package a little more attractive.

Unfortunately, we lost the ability to deny Advance Deploy to our opponents, trading it instead for denying Ambush.  Right now, this feels like a downgrade because there is a lot more AD out there than Ambush.  While the stock on this may go up as more themes grant ambush to more units, units which may do a lot more damage than our ambushing units (sorry, Kossites)

The Disappointments

There was one big disappointment for me, and that is Assault Kommandos.  They got added to the Winter Guard theme, however they gain no benefits and offer no benefits to the theme, and feel like more of an afterthought than anything.  They just don’t fit in, either thematically, or from a list design perspective.

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Hope you like that shelf…

Honestly, I think they got put in the wrong theme.  Had they been placed in Jaws, you would be able to make some pretty interesting Strakhov1 lists, the sort that I was running before the rise of thememachine.  Right now, the only reason I can possibly think to use them would be if you’re playing Vlad1 and you’re really really worried about cloudwalls.  But even then…ugh…

What else is out there?

Cygnar got their trencher theme, so expect to see Haley3 making a comeback. If only we had some sort of Kommando unit that would be good at Assaulting trenchers… Cryx also got a couple new themes, so that could mix up their usual Ghost Fleet/Dark Host pairing and since they’re the one you have to tech for these days, it could pose new challenges.  Apart from that, I haven’t looked at what all the other factions have gotten and am probably not good enough at this game to understand what it means, but I’m sure the meta will settle out and find some broken-ass theme that is going to dominate for the next couple months.

Conclusions

These changes have been hyped for a while, and it was inevitable that we would find something that wouldn’t live up to the hype and be disappointed.  I will admit to being excited about Assault Kommandos finally having their place only to have them remain on my shelf until they get a theme force or UA or something.  That said, I don’t think it was a bad day for Khador.  Just from the ability to include mercs in our theme forces, we gained a lot and got a lot of difficult matchups fixed.  models like Aiyana & Holt can fill holes in many of our lists and make things that were a challenge for us to deal with previously trivially easy.

I see some salt out there on the Khador facebook group, and to my comrades, I have one thing to say.

This is Khador.  We of the north do not turn green with envy at the luxuries of others.  We are made of tougher stuff than that.  We redouble our efforts and fight harder; we don’t go around crying about things like a bunch of whiny Cygnar players.  There is still tech to be unlocked and future releases to come out, and I’m sure everything will be all right, so long as we have our axes to insert into the faces of those who oppose the motherland.

With this release, it feels like we’re finally in Warmachine Mk.III as intended.  We can use just about every model on the shelf in some way, and I’m sure we will find some fun, powerful lists in this release — as will our opponents!

Hot Take: Steam and Steel

So, one of the things on the Warmachine internet that sometimes irritates me is how the moment something drops, we immediately get a whole bunch of hot takes and theorymachine, which immediately fills the echo chamber and becomes commonly accepted wisdom without any rigorous testing or any effort to really unlock what’s there. Sometimes these “hot takes” turn out to be accurate, but sometimes… well, remember how people said that Caine3 or Ghost Fleet were unplayable trash when they came out, and then all of the sudden Tim Banky won everything?

That said, now that I’m on the Warmachine internet and happen to be a loyal Khador player, I am now required by the Empress to offer you my hot take on today’s Insider, which is all about our Man-O-War, even though what I really really want to see is an Assault Kommando theme.  And a Vlad3 all the horses theme.  And Harkevich2… okay, now I’m getting greedy.

However, I will preface this by saying that I am, in fact, an idiot who is not very good at this game.  At the SOO this year, I managed to eke out a 1-4 record in whichever tournament actually required painted models.  A few weeks ago at the CCBB, I was knocked out of contention in something like 11 minutes, and more importantly, I got crushed in the painting competition by Will from Moosemachine.  Again.  Not that I’m bitter or anything…

img_1375.jpgFor a long time, Man-O-War were the unit that Khador players really wanted to love. Big burly men and women of Khador in giant steam-powered suits of armour, wielding either giant axes, giant hammers or grenade launchers with freaking chainsaws for bayonets, we all had the dream of crushing our opponents with an unstoppable tide of steam and steel, even if the models themselves bore an unfortunate resemblance to GW’s Space Marines if you squint a little too hard.  Unfortunately, throughout Mk.II, they were generally too slow to get to where they needed to be and didn’t really do what they needed to do when they got there, so you didn’t really see them all that much on the competitive circuit. While Mk.III brought the Shocktroopers up to a decent baseline with the release of the Officer, they were quickly overtaken by the rise of themes (aside from the Loud Chris Vlad2 list).

Today, with the sneak preview of the Armored Korps theme and some new models, we can see that starting to change. Armored Korps lets you take all the Man-O-War, Battle Mechaniks, our trusty War Dog, and a merc solo or unit.  The benefits are free models, better Repair on mechaniks, and Advance Move on models that don’t exist yet.

Okay, at first glance, nothing in is either unexpected or is anything to really write home about.  Free points is standard for themes and probably what we all expected, better mechaniks are good, I guess, but it just feels like between electroleaps, blast damage, and sprays, there are enough ways to trivially kill mechaniks that I can’t see this being gamebreaking.  And the final benefit is something that we aren’t going to see until 2018 when they start releasing the new models.

Speaking of new models, though, this is the real meat of the insider.  Bombardiers are going to get some CID love with a proposal to increase their range.  Further, they will be getting an officer which grants them some neat special rules, such as Clear Cut, Quick Work, and a Dual Shot minifeat.  This will hopefully make them as cool on the tabletop as “heavily armoured Russians wielding chainsaw-RPGs” sounds.  We’re getting a battle engine which kind of reminds me of the Gun Carriage and which, with Advance Move in theme, seems pretty legit.  Finally, we’re going to be getting Man-O-War Tankers, which it is safe to assume is a new name for the Heavy Man-O-War whose sculpts were spoiled at Lock and Loadtanker.jpg.

But when it comes to recent Man-O-War news, that’s not all!  In the most recent issue of No Quarter, the splash page showed off what is clearly Sorscha3 in a Man-O-War suit**, as well as a couple cool-looking MoW solos. With the hint in the insider that there is more to come, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that the Demolition Corps are at some point going to get some much-needed help in the form of a Unit Attachment or Solo — perhaps they might get backswing back or something to that effect?

Sorscha3So, how do I feel about this theme overall?  I think it seems pretty good, but I’m not sensing anything at the moment that is going to light the world on fire — at least, not until we start getting a good look at the new Man-O-War releases slated for 2018.  The big thing that this has going for it is that it enables one to create a bricky Khador army that can actually score circular zones, as SR2017 and some boogeymen in the meta (Cryxian armour debuffing, POW 20-something Skin and Moans that chew through anything they get into) seem to be taking the shine off some of our jackspams.  A couple units of Man-O-War and a couple jacks in the battlegroup can score in some scenarios a lot better than an all-jack army whose only scoring piece for some zones is the caster.

As for what casters to take it with, I think Vlad2 is an obvious candidate because between Hand of Fate and his feat, he can turn a unit of MoW up to 11.  Will Pagani offered up a Butcher1 list in the Insider which seems solid.  Strakhov2 will surely be hilarious when you tell your opponent that your shocktroopers are ARM 26 with no-knockdown tough on feat turn, though casting Last Stand on a unit with relatively expensive models seems to be an iffy proposition.  The Irusks are always good at running infantry, and with Irusk2, it could be fun to throw Fire For Effect onto a Bombardier and drop a fully-boosted arcing fire 6-man CRA onto someone (and of course, managing to triple-snake the attack roll because you have somehow angered the dice gods). Of course, Sorscha3 is undoubtedly going to be badass when she comes out.  And even Lord Kozlov, our much-maligned battlebox caster, may get a new lease on life with a mob of Shocktroopers.

So, how am I going to Man-O-War?

Lady Kozlov, Viscountess of Scarsgrad (28 WJP)

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It’s totally not weird that I put in the effort to make a gender-bent conversion of Kozlov, out of Nicia and a random Iron Fang cape, right?


— Spriggan (19)
— Juggernaut (12)

 

Greylord Forge Seer (Free)
Greylord Forge Seer (4)
Man-O-War Drakhun (9)
Man-O-War Drakhun (9)
Man-O-War Kovnik (Free)
Man-O-War Kovnik (Free)
Saxon Orrik (4)

Man-O-War Shocktroopers (16)
— Man-O-War Shocktrooper Officer (4)
Man-O-War Shocktroopers (16)
— Man-O-War Shocktrooper Officer (4)
Battle Mechaniks (3)
— Battle Mechanik Officer (3)

Kozlov gets a lot of hate online for being kind of boring and not being number one at anything in particular, but I chose her because she’s got two solid upkeep spells for Man-O-War, and her feat synergizes quite nicely with Shocktroopers.  +2 SPD brings them up to a whopping 13″ threat range with the Kovnik, and Unyielding is not too shabby on a no-knockdown ARM-skewy unit with 2″ reach.  Forge Seers can help fuel the jacks when Kozlov is spending all her focus on her upkeeps, as well as take care of any pesky Gremlin Swarms.  Saxon Orrik is an obvious choice for a mercenary solo because he grants pathfinder, and the last thing MoW want is to be slowed down even more by rough terrain.

As for the battlegroup, if journeyman league games have taught me anything, it is that casting Fury on a Juggernaut is fun.  And the Spriggan is there because I just finished painting it, and despite being kind of expensive in terms of point cost, it at least has some synergy with Kozlov’s feat for the same reasons as the Shocktroopers.

So, final verdict?  It’s really too early to tell, given that the theme force includes a lot of unreleased models, but let’s just say that I’m probably going to be taking out the airbrush next weekend…

IMG_1936.JPG

**Sorscha3 in a Man-O-War suit is the most awesome thing that has happened in Khador in a long time, and anyone who has a problem with it is an idiot.