Blood, Oil, and Tiers: Warmahordes Theme Forces

Good day, pink nation! My name's Tzeentchling, and I'm the latest author Kirby's asked to contribute to the blog, joining Archnomad in discussing Warmachine and Hordes. Today I'd like to talk about tier lists in Warmachine/Hordes: what they are, what makes them good (or bad), and why or why not you should consider playing them.

First of all, what is a “tier” list? Well, in each Forces of Warmachine/Hordes faction book, there's listed a series of Theme Forces, one for each caster. Some No Quarter magazines (Privateer Press' official magazine) have also released additional official Theme Forces for specific casters. These are commonly called tier lists.
In a tier list, you are usually limited to a specific selection of warjacks/beasts, units, and solos. Your army, whatever point value you choose, can only consist of those models. Next, there are a series of requirements (the tiers) – four tiers in all. Each tier is cumulative, and requires you to satisfy all tier levels below it (so no simply taking, for example, the requirements and benefits of tiers 2 and 4 in a given list). By satisfying the requirements of a particular tier, you also get the benefits of that tier.
So what makes a tier list good, or worthwhile? Perhaps put another way, what makes a tier list competitive? 

Typically, the best tier lists are able to match up a warcaster/warlock's strengths with a particular theme, and not restrict access to the units, jacks/beasts, and solos that help that caster perform to their strengths well, while giving bonuses that enhance strengths or minimize weaknesses. Good bonuses include discounts on units/jacks that you plan on taking many of, free UAs or solos, a +1 to the starting roll in the game, expanding your deployment zone, and starting with your caster's upkeeps already in play. A bad tier list includes units, jacks/beasts, and solos that don't work well with the caster, restricts them from taking the parts of their army that they find vital to succeed on a consistent basis, and may have bonuses that are not as useful or go away quickly.
In addition, a good tier should allow you to build a list that can cover the basics of a competitive list: something to take on infantry, something to take on heavy armor, something to deal with stealth, ranged attacks or speed to pressure the enemy, something that can take and hold objectives, and something that has a magical attack to deal with incorporeal units. A bad tier may allow you to do only one or two of these.

An example of an excellent tier, one that would certainly be competitive, would be the Cryx caster Master Necrotech Mortenebra and her tier. Mortenebra is a jack caster primarily, and runs jacks very well. Her tier reinforces that theme, allowing most all of the Cryx jacks (including the best, the Deathjack), allows Warwitch Sirens (who give additional focus to jacks, and have sprays and magic attacks) and Necrotechs (who fix jacks), and gives a 1 point discount on all jacks taken (which she will take a lot of anyway).
In return, you cannot take units in the army at tiers 3 and 4 – only jacks and solos. Arguably, this is not a very strong handicap at all, and at lower tiers she has a decent selection of units to choose from should you choose to play it at lower levels. This is an example of a tier that very nearly overshadows normal lists, and many people believe that there's very little reason to play Mortenebra outside of her tier list.

An example of a mediocre tier might be Hierarch Severius, from the Protectorate of Menoth. His tier list allows most of the Menoth support that tends to be vital in their lists, including the powerful Covenant of Menoth, and allows access to the best jack in the Protectorate, the Avatar of Menoth. His tier 1 and 2 are also easy to reach, and tier 2 gives +1 on the starting roll for the game, which is quite good.
But tier 3 requires 2 units of medium-based Exemplar units, which he has no particular synergy with, while leaving out units that he does particularly well with, like Daughters of the Flame. Tier 4 requires 3 or more heavy jacks in his battlegroup, typically leaving little room for jacks like the Avatar (who is unique that it exists outside of a battlegroup) and an arc-node jack that he needs (usually a light Revenger). He does get a discount on jacks, but only the Templar and Crusader, both melee jacks, whereas Hierarch Severius tends to prefer ranged jacks to go along with his Awareness spell. In short, this tier list is decent, but in many cases there is little need to go beyond tier 2 unless you really want to.

An example of a poor tier list might be Captain Allister Caine's, from Cygnar (also known as eCaine). His tier is very limited – for units, only Gun Mages, Rangers, and the Black 13th (a character gun mage unit) and for solos only the Gun Mage Captain Adept. Very thematic, of course. Effective is another matter. He requires two units of Gun Mages, but only allows you to take one Gun Mage UA, which is the piece that truly turns the unit into something powerful. What's more, he requires two Lancer warjacks, which are Cygnar's arc-node jacks, but eCaine has no spells that he particularly needs to arc and wants to keep his focus for himself.

The tier list leaves out all heavy jacks and combat units, meaning the list will have a difficult time dealing with opposing well-armored jacks and possibly units, and doesn't include the Squire caster attachment nor Reinholt (a mercenary gobbo), both of which effectively give eCaine the ability to take an additional shot with his pistols. Since this is the way eCaine games typically end, with eCaine popping his feat and shooting until the opposing caster is dead, leaving out tools to do that make his game harder. What's more, the list is very one-dimensional – if an opponent is immune to ranged weapons for whatever reason, or can close quickly in combat, an eCaine tier list will have serious problems.
So should you play a tier list? If you're a beginner, I would suggest not. Many of them require you to take two of the same type of unit, which you will rarely do outside of a tier list. They also present unique challenges, and may not be as simple to learn to play as a list that has full access to a faction's choices. If you're a hard-core competitive tournament gamer, then really picking and choosing tiers that give the best benefits for the least costs is the way to go. Then again, if you're that kind of gamer, you don't need this primer!
Lastly, if you're playing casually, then by all means if you have the models you should go for it! Playing tiers can be a great break from always using certain models (e.g., Gorman, Eiryss, character jack, full support, etc) and can really refresh and potentially improve your play through their challenges. Having said that, I still personally shy away from tiers that require you to buy three or more of the same units/solos/jacks – most prevalent in the Retribution of Scyrah tier lists but still here and there in others – simply because outside of a tier list or large, multiple-games, you'll never use that many again.
About the author: I've been wargaming in one system or another for about 14 years now, starting off in Warhammer Fantasy and moving to 40K and Warmachine as my primary games, with a good amount of M:tG, D&D/Werewolf/L5R/7th Sea roleplaying, and competitive chess (USCF rating ~1950) thrown in along the way. Been lucky enough to play in both the Bay Area, where I'm from originally, and now in the Denver/CO area, both of which are blessed with some very strong wargamers. I've won a couple 40k RTTs here in Denver and am currently getting better at Warmachine, winning more than losing but still learning yet more! Also finishing up a Ph.D. much like the Pink One, so my time to dedicate to gaming this year has gone down significantly, but I still love to play and to help others learn.
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