Sunday, 29 May 2011

Of Dark Eldar, Target Priority and ‘Discount 20’…

I read a useful line somewhere on the blogosphere relating to the learning and use of Dark Eldar:

“Discount your first 20 games. Count to twenty and don’t even worry about winning until then”

This is paraphrased of course as I have no idea where it came from – perhaps the Thor or DashofPepper tactica’s (both of which are worth a read…and no, I don’t want to get into the ‘DashGate’ drama on the net…no drama here at Sons’…we just play)
I am struggling with this training method. Normally, I would play 5 -6 games with a new army and make a couple of little tweaks, then play a few more and make a few tweaks.

With the DE training principal, there are to be no tweaks. I will play the same force over and over again until I can face off against the most competitive forces I am likely to face with confidence.

Confidence in knowing what pressure to apply where and when. Confidence in knowing that in ‘Situation x’ I should react with ‘Response Y’.
This should result in a decent knowledge base from which to operate. But the question is, ‘Do I need this? Is it new information I am gathering or merely a new interpretation on information I already possess?’

Should I know it already? Are practice games unnecessary?
In all honesty should we not know how to run an army and how to build it well before we even hit the tabletop – ensuring that we have a solid mixture of anti tank, anti infantry, some ability to redeploy through mobility and therefore apply pressure at weak points or centres of gravity in the opposing force, or indeed to claim objectives. We all know the statistical likelihood of unit A vs Unit B, in cover, out of cover, FNP, AP etc.. we can do the math on the fly in game, and all of us do this in our tactical assessments of the game every turn, whether you really think about it or not. In some cases, it is as simple as saying “hmmph, don’t think that assault cannon will damage the grotesque unit (visually noting the pain token and cover), may as well gun down the venom over there” …in others we do the math and calculate probable outcomes. Probable being the key word.
So the question is do we need the practice games? Theoretically, a strongly built force will translate to the tabletop with few glitches. The experience of the player with other armies and historical experiences against different races will provide the knowledge relating to target priority and how to play the missions and deployment types…each force of course has different units, but the game plays the same way regardless and each army has access to similar units – similar in purpose if not in the way the army or unit achieves that purpose.

Deployment resultantly does not have to be the minefield many find it to be with a new army (and generally) – by deploying units according to their purpose and protection. This is a simple point and one that I am sure we all do anyway. It might be like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. Or whatever the phrase is.. but I thought I’d say it anyway..perhaps more for my own benefit than for you dear readers….I’ll say no more on deployment for now as I’d like to look at that in the future in a separate article.

Target priority is a learned skill too. We understand what needs to be removed first based on several criteria – firstly, what does the mission require. For me, this comes first but may interact with the next criteria, namely what poses the biggest threat to me achieving that goal. The third for me is psychological and functional, where is the centre of gravity.
Priority one then is whatever will stop me from achieving the mission. If it is objective based (as most will be) then our objective should be the removal of his troops and the protection of ours.

Both can be fulfilled in a number of ways. If faced with hideous firepower then the protection of our troops will most likely come first. This may result in target priority number one being the most lethal (to our own troops and their mobility) elements of the opposing force. With Imperial Guard this could be bloody anything, but is most likely the Hydras and Vendetta’s. Yes, I am assuming they will be on the table, they are too good not to be. There is in fact an excellent piece in the DashofPepper guide to Dark Eldar on target priority which I believe (at this time) to be spot on…

High strength, high rate of fire weaponry is the first to go. Everything shoots at it until it is dead.

This role is of course filled by many different units in many codexs.. IG Hydra’s, SW Long Fangs, Ork Lootas (despite pants BS)BA AutoLas Preds, Vanilla and even more lethally – GK Rifledreads are all examples of units that fulfil this role.

Priority two links to this directly and arguable is the same thing. However, I feel there is a distinction. Where priority one can be achieved by removing the enemy’s ability to score, for example, in objective missions, it can also be achieved through the removal of the oppositions threats to my troops. Priority two is a more general threat. Not more vague, but certainly less focussed on the mission. Any enemy unit that is utterly lethal and requires killing due to the sheer damage output it possess or the inability of my army to deal with it later in the game, after I have suffered losses myself, needs to be removed. An example of this could be a BA assault rock with Unleash Rage Librarian and FNP Priest, Assault Terminators and Land Raider.. this will not hurt me from range, this will not claim objectives..but could contest mine (fulfilling an argument for priority 1)…it’s most important role is to severely mess me up and draw firepower. This threat can be dealt with early in the game with Dark Eldar due to a decent number of long range Lance weapons. On the otherhand, said weapons can be removed relatively easily due to paper-plane syndrome afflicting Dark Eldar vehicles and the ‘Ravager Conflict’ – 9 Lance weapons are most commonly (and by most commonly I mean almost always) contained in just 3 skimmers. There is a conflict in my mind whenever I fill my Heavy Support slots with Ravgers and think ‘yup. Anti-tank is solid now’ because of course it is not. Those 3 paper planes are blown away by a stiff breeze and we are left without long range anti tank units. Of course we build more into our army..Hellions en masse and with Furious Charge can do it, as can Wyches with Haywire Grenades. More obvious choices are Trueborns with Blasters in Venoms, Warriors with Blaster and Blast Pistol in Venoms, Reaver Jetbikes with Heat Lances for decent AP1 Melta and Scourges for relentless heavy weapons.

Most of the above need to get close to use them, most of which come in small unit sizes and therefore are killed very quickly after firing. The next turn quickly.

This removes our anti tank capabilities. If we have not already hit that Land Raider in the example, we will now be almost incapable of dealing with its threat.

So in reality, on the tabletop, sometimes an enemy threat gets ‘bumped’ up the target priority rankings due to the anticipated inability to combat the threat in either the midgame of end phases of the game.

A players inaction towards a threat to which he only has a few solution is not smart. Of course, starting the game with so few tools to handle said threat is not wise. In most cases, it is not that we design our army to contain so few tools, it is more that the practical application is not always there when faced with multiple, live targets.

Centres of Gravity

This killer unit that we, as Dark Eldar, are unable to deal with late in the game is often expensive. It is a work horse for sure, putting in the man hours every game and raping and pillaging left, right and centre. As a result, the unit (or units in the case of the BA Deathstar) builds its own legend in your mind. It has already nuzzled out several other units in your army list building process to get to the table, in doing so reducing the effectiveness of the rest of the force (until we get to higher points value games where these excesses can be balanced out). Looking at the BA assaulty Deathstar, we are likely to see a couple (or a third at the expense of the 4th troop) of AutoLas Preds, 3/4 LasPlas Razor squads and maybe another big hitter/distraction unit like Mephiston…everything else is wrapped up in the assault bubble…Librarian, Chaplain, Sanguinary Priest…we can see the expense and begin to see the psychological expectations that the inclusion of such a unit is built upon. The unit is expected to produce a huge damage output as well as increasing the survivability of the overall army due to its use as a fire magnet. The loss of this unit early in the game can often means that it achieves neither of these objectives. This truly hampers the remains of the opposing force.

It is what Clausewitz calls a ‘Centre of Gravity’. It is the key element to the opposing army working and working well. If this is removed, the enemy is radically reduced in their ability to function. On the otherhand, a COG is something in your own army/force that must be maintained/kept intact or it could be a critical objective to achieve…COG for Iraq IRL? Win hearts and minds…

What happens then when this unit is removed. Mentally, this plays on the mind of the opponent..he/she had such hopes for this unit, it was going to rip apart your centre and be untouchable, the rest of the army surviving by the virtue of the beast…now it is removed. The rest of the army is brought sharply into focus and we see all of its inadequacies laid bare before us. We realise that it cannot possibly survive the encounter intact and that with the key distraction/fire magnet removed…all the enemy force can focus on us now.

The contents of this lumbering beast? Left to foot slog after an altogether faster and infinitely more mobile force. Or left to try and hide from the 140 poison shots per turn or whatever it is being hurled against them..

Whilst this is just an example of the kind of unit that could be classified as a COG, there are far more.

Look to the Tyranids. We see Swarmlord or Old Adversary Tyrants as a COG for a horde of little beasties who rely on the synapse net and the ‘buff’s from the big dog. The removal of this unit drastically reduces the combat effectiveness of the horde. The same principal can be applied to Tervigon’s and indeed to Hive Guard. The Tervigon is an incredibly tough beast that more often than not (read: should almost always be) scoring. It also spawns the meat shield gaunts that soak up small arms fire, claim objectives, clog up movement/control the board etc. The removal of this unit is, and always should be, high in the target priority of the Dark Eldar player, for while poison can take this beast down, the lances will arguably do it more easily…and they may not be around later due to Hive Guard… these are too a COG for a Tyranid army as they provide incredibly reliable anti-tank (read: transport) – the removal of which can often leave the swarm with minimal (read: almost no) ability to remove vehicles, especially Dark Eldar, who are fast moving and agile – hard to assault and hard to hit in said combat.

Imperial Guard are perhaps the epitome of a force that does not have a COG. Every unit is so cheap that we are expected to see around 12 different threats (1750 game, 150ish points per unit) that must be dealt with. Each of these threats typically boast AV12 and is equally deadly in some fashion. Target Priority of course still exists here as discussed above, the Hydra Batteries must be silenced as highest priority, followed by the Vendetta’s…high rate of accurate, high strength fire… must be removed. Mission then dictates the rest, but ultimately there is not a single, discrete element that, when removed, critically hampers the army’s ability to function and achieve its goals.

Whilst this is true of the fully mechanised IG army, it is perhaps less true with hybrids, foot builds and those that rely on Special Characters to achieve their aim. Straken builds spring to mind here. Combat blobs are powerful with CA and FC and 30-40 of the men, but not so much when Straken himself has been removed.

Space Wolves. One simple rule. One rule to rule them all and in the darkness of Commoragh, bind them… Long Fangs First…LFF baby. LFF. Whilst the army does not require them to work due to excellent units like GH and Scouts, they are pivotal as they provide superb long range firepower across the force at excellent range. The removal of these relatively small units (read: Poison/Venoms) is not too hard, but the impact is massive as typically, these will be the only long range unit (barring Living Lightning Priests) in the army. There is a difference in list building practice with the Sons of Russ that one camp builds with Plasmabacks attached to the unit, ostensibly for transport, but also to lend long ranged firepower and close/medium range elite infantry killing power. In these cases, one lascannon or two most definitely falls well behind the LF units in target priority.

But, does knowing these things mean we can skip practice and still make the cut?
No, I don’t believe it does. There is more to playing an army than just knowing what its strengths and weaknesses are. More than just being able to know, against each faction in the game and in their typical builds, what targets to hit first and hard.

You need to become comfortable with generating cover for the whole army from shooting. We can see that this can be achieved through layering the units. Hellions in cover with venoms behind, with Ravagers behind that…but doing this on different tables, against armies that can move at different speeds and hit you from different angles…against drop armies, DoA armies – how do we layer then?

Reserves? I hate to reserve without manipulation as it removes reliability and control, however, are there in fact occasions when this is viable for Dark Eldar and for your force in particular (however it is built).

We need to know how much pressure can truly be applied to a wide, wide range of enemy units by each of our own. Can that 5 man Wych squad murder the GH remnants…can they handle 6/7 FNP BA assault troops? The Hekatrix with Agonsier can only do so much? How truly weakened is that unit?

Remember the lack of assault grenades on Incubi, the footprint of the large Hellion squad if you want to deepstrike them against Long Fangs… is that ever a good idea!?

How well does a 5++ hold up on your Venoms, work more on using your range advantage and the practice the judging of said range..

There are so many different things that must be taken into consideration when playing a new force, so many factors that cannot be seen in the rulebook or codex, on the Excel page with the mathammer…

Practice makes perfect and without doubt this is a required training regime for Dark Eldar players.

I began writing this article about 10 days ago. I began writing it to convince myself that the ‘Discount 20’ principal was not required. I had begun the series of practice games, but was doing ok with my results…I am an alright player so did need it? But the more I play with the Dark Kin, the better I am getting at judging situations..the basics as discussed here still apply and the reading continues across the interwebz to further my education, but practice is the key to learning a new army.

Of this, there is no doubt in my mind. 7 games in….13 to go…I will not get to the end of that series before Blog Wars, even as a teacher and in half term now, I have to finish the painting of the force primarily as it is all currently primed Thrall Flesh (a P3 colour that I am using as a flesh tone) and I want it to finish purple…with autumnal tones… but I will try and get 75% through it before the tournament and by the time a ‘real’ tournament crops up…July @ Brighton Warlords with 55 competitors at current count… the Dark Eldar will be ready to strip the souls from your unfortunate meat husks…


  1. Great article Ven.

    Working on a Deathwing version of this - (little less philosophy, bit more on tactics). But with that said so glad someone highlights some of these area's. Knowledge is power, and sometimes, before a table is set up, before units are deployed, knowing what and where your opposition is going to be essentially looking at doing and what you, basically, need to do, makes such a big difference.

  2. The other thing to bear in mind is that no matter how many times you read through a codex you're never going to remember all the rules for each unit. By playing say, 20 games you'll know the units inside out so when you're rushed in a tournament you'll just be able to roll away.

  3. That is certainly part of it Fang... helps speed play along as well...important I've found in my limited experience of tournaments so far..

  4. I actually think that things like blogs and articles from a personal perspective are under rated as well. Doing an article like this is almost like revision, or note taking, making a cohesive statement of your current thoughts.

    Currently working on a DW article/series and even during that I am thinking of things I don't do / should do but just connecting points and theories (plus thrown on top of the fact I do have a lot of games with them).

  5. Your right Bull, this is more revision for me...I'm thinking of doing the same this week for all the Blog Wars lists posted online..with target priority and stregnths/weaknesses in all missions...truth is though...alot of the clear-headed theoretical applications go out of the head when playing and you get caught up in it all... playing always beats notes...

  6. Yeah I have to say I have glanced at the lists and thought "what am I doing ..." - though I feel like homework shouldnt be allowed for this test!

    But like any game - back in wow arena, or CS, or RTCW, you had your tactics, and then reacted accordingly - especially to "RNG" (random number generation) - you cant predict what will go on. For example in arena, you'd have your setup (army list so to speak) they had theirs - you knew what you'd try to establish, and what they'd try to do, but sometimes it wouldn't work out exactly like that (you have a sloppy opener, they get some lucky crits, someone gets caught in a bad position) and you react to that to come back to win.

    There's definitely a psychology behind it as well - like you say get caught up in the game - nerves? aggression? passiveness? Lots of different factors of how you/people react. I've been at lans where I've seen people rage and throw a keyboard (he shall remain nameless) and someone cry (he was 14, and got booed pretty hard if I remember, and lost his team about 5 grand and new PC's I think).