This time around we'll be breaking up the usual order of things to talk about the generic HQ characters, since it's good to see the basics first before getting into the more unusual versions, and to talk about the Armory and how it affects your choices. I think the HQ slot is one of the most surprising things GW has come up with for quite a long time because it actually does not contain anything I can actually call “bad”; every single selection is, if not always great, at least useable. I do believe that is actually a first for Games Workshop.
The HQ slot as a whole for CSM is basically a trend-setter for the rest of your list; the units you pick here will determine, in a lot of ways, what other options you have open to you. None of the characters actually restrict your choices, of course, but the fact that some of them unlock specific troops, have particular warlord traits, or have certain suites of equipment/abilities mean that, in most cases, you will be strongly inclined towards certain HQs depending on what sort of list you are looking to build.
Of course, above and beyond that you have the pageful of options that the Armory brings to characters- even minor characters like sarges- and I think it's best we jump into that first before talking about the actual HQ choices, since many of the options there are very relevant.
The return of the Armory doesn't really change things all that much compared to 5E-style unit options, realistically speaking. Yes, your squad leaders will generally have a larger list of options, but as before the great majority of them are pretty much garbage; you'll default to one of a couple setups pretty much every time, unless you are some sort of rabid fluffbunny who absolutely adores overspending on minor characters. In fact, most characters don't even have access to large sections of the Armory- sarges generally only get the melee/ranged (or Terminator) sections and Chaos Rewards, with half of the latter being off-limits to them. In short, while it looks like a big alteration, the actual results of the Armory are basically just that units don't get individualized prices on gear (which is bad) and that certain characters (most notably the Terminator Champion) are stuck overpaying for many types of upgrades if they decide they want them.
There are several important entries within the Armory itself, however. The Chaos Artefacts section is particularly interesting, since it has a bunch of unique gear not available to other codices, but a short read-over reveals that many of them are basically traps. The Dimensional Key lets you Deep Strike accurately… once you've killed a model with that character. Since reserves start dropping in T2 and you're not particularly likely to get a lot of T2 charges unless your opponents are extremely generous, it's essentially worthless. The Scrolls of Magnus are a cute way to get access to spells you don't otherwise have, but a couple of bad rolls can quite easily kill you. (They also require being a Sorcerer of Tzeentch, which means taking at least one subpar spell.) The Murder Sword is a Power Sword that costs more points. No, seriously, that is all it will ever do; all your hopes of having a S8 AP1 Instant Death weapon are in vain. If it had the Daemon Weapon rule it might actually be useful, but as it stands it's garbage. Speaking of, the Black Mace is an acceptable, if not great, weapon, essentially functioning as a Power Maul++; it's ability to “shockwave” additional models gives it a bit more utility against one of the common victims of the Maul, lightly-armored hordes. Finally, the Axe of Blind Fury is probably the only Daemon Weapon you will actually see on the tabletop, but it is a real doozy of a weapon. +2Str and AP2 swinging at initiative make it a pretty devastating weapon against most foes and the pile of extra attacks it usually gives only make it more dangerous. Giving -1 to WS/BS is a largely meaningless price to pay- the real limiter is that only Khornate units can take it, so there will be many times you just don't have the option.
That is not true for my favorite of the Artefacts, however; the Burning Brand of Skalathrax is available to everyone. The Brand is an absolutely beauty of an upgrade and is one of those rare weapons that lets your HQ model be functional in shooting. As a S4 template it starts out a little unimpressive, but AP3 and the Torrent rule instantly push it over the top and the presence of Soul Blaze for some occasional extra damage is a nice little bonus. Able to wipe out Marines very consistently and regardless of cover at significant distances (almost 20″ thanks to the length of the flamer template), it adds to the core strengths of the army significantly and does so for a pretty reasonable price. Giving up a weapon for it generally leaves you with one fewer attack than a comparable HQ, but since you're doing d3 free hits if asssaulted (or throwing the template down before assaulting), this really isn't a big deal. The Brand is available to pretty much every HQ regardless of type, Mark, mode of transportation, etc; you simply pay your 30pts and bolt it onto whoever you want. While you may occasionally avoid it on units that are already pushing the ceiling of what you want to pay for a single model, more often than not it is an upgrade you will want to make room for regardless of the rest of your list.
Beyond the Artefacts the Rewards section has most of our important choices. The four Steeds are only available to units marked by the requisite Chaos God, but almost all of them are extremely worthwhile. The Juggernaut not only pushes you out of range of being murdered by a single Power Fist hit but also gives you a bonus attack and wound along with making you into Cavalry for the extra movement/charge distance. It compares favorably with the Thunderwolf, trading +1Str for +1W (and being a little bit cheaper) and is something that many Khorne characters will want to take over the generic Bike option. The Steed of Slaanesh gives pretty weak stat bonuses (+1A and nothing else) and a decent speed bump by switching to Cavalry and Running +3″, but its real reason for existing is the fact that it grants Outflank and Acute Senses to the rider, letting him and his unit come in from a board edge. The bargain-basement price (20pts) certainly doesn't hurt either. The Disc of Tzeentch is priced a bit high at 30pts and it only gives +1A, but Jetbike is one of the best unit types to have, since it lets you Turbo-Boost some pretty absurd distances. Palanquin of Nurgle is the big loser here since it neither improves your speed nor gives you particularly impressive stat boosts- two wounds is nice, but with the Juggernaut giving one, you have to wonder whether losing out on one Toughness and the Cavalry type is really worth getting that one extra.
The Spell Familiar is a nice little boon for Sorcerers, letting them very consistently get their powers off even in the face of penalties like Shadow in the Warp or Reinforced Aegis. (I still wouldn't try it against Runes of Warding unless you're desperate, however.) Gift of Mutation is another interesting option, since it never can be anything bad for you (Spawnhood/Apotheosis are prohibited) and the majority of the results on the table do something helpful. Since most of them are either survivability or melee damage upgrades, I think that combat-focused characters have good reason to consider purchasing it if there are points to spare. As an interesting aside, the Daemon Prince is allowed to buy a Gift despite not actually having the Champion of Chaos rule, which makes it the only way he can get a result from the Boon table. It's also interesting that, aside from the Steed, there are no Slaanesh-specific options in the Armory- Tzeentch, Khorne, and Nurgle all have at least one piece of gear unique to them (even if Nurgle just gets shoddy little grenades), but Slaanesh, for some reason, does not.
The rest of the table is pretty much just the standard character options listed out in long form- melee weapons, Combi-weapons and Plasma Pistols, Jump Pack, Bike, Meltabombs, etc; things that you've seen on every Marine HQ since the beginning of time, be they loyalist or traitor. Some of them are priced more favorably than in the past- particularly the Jump Pack at 15pts and Bike at 20pts- but there's nothing else really new here.
First up on the list is the Chaos Lord, both because he is first in the unit listing and also because he will probably be the most common HQ in lists. This comes out of basically two major reasons: one, he can unlock several of the Cult troops (specifically the ones that are relevant) and second- and much more simply- he is Fearless. With Fearless mostly either being restricted to various daemonic units and/or being quite expensive as an upgrade, its presence (and ability to transfer) on the Chaos Lord is a very big deal, especially since none of the other HQs get this particular boon. CSM as a whole are one of the few codices that both wants to be in close combat (as opposed to IG, Tau, or Necrons) and can actually suffer from the results of a bad round of melee (unlike Tyranids, Orks, and loyalist Marines); for this reason, the ability to insure that even one bad set of rolls won't doom a whole unit is a nice option to have. Units like Cultists also appreciate it because it allows them to use their numbers to win battles of attrition, rather than simply being cut down en masse.
However, it is not as a support character that the Lord really shines- indeed, his statline gives him a very reasonable chance against most things in melee combat and his price tag is second to none, coming in at a nigh-ridiculous 65pts. He has access to the entire Chaos Armory, giving him a plethora of options for different builds, especially given the relevance of the four different Marks in terms of choosing a Lord. The Marks are so relevant, in fact, that I think it's worth breaking up the discussion of the Lord into five sections to cover the different “types” of Lord and how you'll want to be looking to use them.
An unmarked Lord is useful for a number of different reasons, most importantly for his cheapness (since you aren't paying extra for some of the specialty gear) and ability to join any kind of squad. Marks only prohibit you from joining a squad with a different Mark than you have- if you (or they) have no Mark, you're free to join them as you please. Thus, if you are running several different squads with different Marks on them, you may find yourself inclined towards an unmarked Lord in order to maintain flexibility. The sacrifice in power is not insignificant, however- most of the Marks give a very significant upgrade one way or another and thus while more flexible, an unmarked Lord is going to be a lot more limited in terms of his wargear and effectiveness. In all likelihood you will be wanting to keep him cheap, so either basic Terminator Armor (possibly with a Burning Brand) or a Bike (so that Power Fists can't instakill him and for the extra mobility) with some sort of melee weapon are likely your best bets. Since you are forced to make challenges and he comes with I5, I absolutely would make sure to have at least some kind of melee weapon on your Lord, otherwise you're really wasting him. Even if you just want him to babysit a squad or fire a Quad Gun (BS5, after all) it's still worth those 15pts to make sure he can win a fight if he gets into one.
The Khornate Lord is probably going to be one of the more common, if hardly the only, versions seen for a number of reasons. For one he unlocks Berzerkers are troops, and as one of the cheaper Cult troops as well as being fairly functional on the battlefield I think they're definitely a contender for being taken in many cases. Khorne also seems to be gifted with most of the good “unique” options in the book, as the Axe of Blind Fury and Juggernaut of Khorne are both superior in many ways to their comparison gear. Combined with the relative popularity of Khorne in many circles it means that you will probably see a lot of Lords on mounts running towards you screaming at the top of their lungs; this melee-focused Lord is pretty scary with the Axe, Juggernaut, Sigil of Corruption (for a 4++) and possible Gift or VotLW as extras, and he comes in cheap enough to still include a lot of other things supporting him in the list. If not riding a Juggernaut the Khorne Lord looks a lot less favorable, as named characters or other gods probably outclass him in most ways at that point; it's the combination of speed, hitting power, and cheapness that make the “Juggerlord” such a threat.
A Slaaneshi Lord, more than any of the others, exists to unlock a troop choice and otherwise play support roles without being particularly impressive himself. Certainly he's no slouch, since I6 means striking before even most other characters and good WS/A values let him inflict some damage, but at the end of the day nothing he does is so impressive you really are excited about it… at least, nothing he does on his own. His ability to ride a Steed and bring a big block of models in from an alternate board edge should not be underestimated- often it will mean that they can open up with Bolters for some immediate damage and go for a charge in the following turn, with very little time for the enemy to eliminate that many MEQ models. He also lets you take Noise Marines as troops, which can be pretty fantastic killers of light infantry and no slouch against heavier targets. Like the Khorne Lord, a Slaaneshi Lord is usually going to come riding his appropriate Steed, but since the Steed of Slaanesh doesn't give that all-important T5, there is a lot more reason to look to putting him on a Bike instead. Weapon options are almost always going to want something that lets you use your high initiative (so likely a Power Sword or Lightning Claw), though also having an AP2 weapon around is definitely worth considering- Sword/Axe for the budget-minded or Fist/Claw for those willing to spend a little more. A Burning Brand is, of course, never a bad option and since Slaaneshi Lords tend to be a bit cheaper than the others its inclusion is often more workable.
Nurgle Lords have a big advantage over the others that their bonus is incredibly relevant- T5 stops Fists from ending them instantly and T6 (via a Bike) for immunity to most all Instant Death is easily within their reach. The fact that many miscellaneous units through the codex prefer the Mark of Nurgle (especially Spawn, who work well as an escort for a Bike-mounted Lord) only gives him some additional usefulness. Lacking access to the Blinding Axe he will mostly use the same weapon setups as the Slaaneshi Lord and for pretty much the same reasons; Blight Grenades are something of a no-brainer inclusion if you have a few spare points, since they will occasionally give you Stealth or deny the enemy attacks (only one model in the unit needs to have them in order to benefit from them.) Since Nurgle Lords are probably the second-most aggressive and the most reliant on tanking hits from the enemy, purchasing a Sigil of Corruption is pretty imperative for them- you don't get an upgrade for 2+ armor and Power Armor just isn't enough to wade through most kinds of attacks.
Tzeentchian Lords are a bit of an odd duck because they aren't Sorcerers, basically; however, of all the Tzeentch units they are undoubtedly the most effective on the field and their inability to unlock Thousand Sons as troops is utterly irrelevant considering how weak those are as a choice. Tzeentch Lords are all about one thing, and that thing is a 3++ save, something none of the other Chaos characters (not even named ones) can get. Apart from that they don't have a lot going for them, but with a mount they can potentially get into a fight somewhere and cause some real havoc, especially if they are also wearing Terminator Armor- I think most people realize by now that 2+/3++ is a pretty good set of numbers to have. (As an aside, I would be interested in hearing community opinions on whether the Disc of Tzeentch adds +1 to its rider's Toughness or not- the Armored Steed rule somewhat implies that it should, but most such upgrades will note in their entry that they add the bonus, whereas the Disc does not. Assuming it does it is a strong option, as without it the Lord is pretty much forced to ride a Bike so that a single Fist won't end him when he goes into combat.)
In summation, Lords are virtually always combat-focused characters to one degree or another, but the respective roles of the four Marks (whether leading a unit, rushing the enemy, acting as a delaying tactic or whatever) shift their focus greatly. Lords are a very strong choice for almost any Chaos army, but unlike the other choices what they do is pretty simple and numbers-based. A Sorcerer or Warpsmith can change a battle by overturning the enemy's assumptions, but a Lord will never do anything but punch guys and hold his unit in place. If you're fine with that- or if you're looking to build a Cult army- there's nothing wrong with them, but it's important to realize what they can (and can't) do.
In contrast to the Lord, the Sorcerer has a relatively weak statline, as most psykers tend to; his strengths lie elsewhere. Their being forced to challenge is much more problematic because they are only I4, meaning that enemy will often swing simultaneously or before them, leaving them a lot more vulnerable. On the other hand, they start out even cheaper than the Lord (if only by 5pts) and their upgrade options are mostly cheaper as well- Terminator Armor is a mere 20pts, since they already come with a Force Weapon. They can buy Mastery Levels for 25pts each, and at that price there is almost never any reason not to go to the full Level 3, as it increases both the powers you know and the powers you can use. They can access pretty much all of the Armory just like Lords can and, in many cases, will want the same options for the same reasons, barring Marks. However, they are saved the trouble of buying a melee weapon, meaning that in many cases they will need a Steed/Bike and little else, since most of the list simply doesn't do much for them.
The most important decision for a Sorcerer, however, is which Mark, if any, to purchase. You are required to take at least one power from your god's discipline if you are Marked, so staying without will often be preferable for many Sorcerers. The Discipline of Tzeentch is rather weak overall, consisting mostly of mediocre/short-ranged shooting attacks. Nurgle is a bit better, offering some debuffs and semi-useful shooting; if you can luck into multiple copies of Gift of Contagion on different Sorcerers you can really be in business. Slaanesh is by far the strongest of the three yet again, though in different ways; Lash of Submission is replaced by Ecstatic Seizures as your happytime power, and both Hysterical Frenzy and Symphony of Pain are potentially quite useful. Note that Frenzy may not always be beneficial to Slaaneshi units, as they are likely already higher initiative than their foes; likewise, Symphony assumes you already have sonic weapons in the army, but that essentially necessitates a second HQ for the Slaaneshi Lord to bring them along.
In most cases, then, you will want to go unmarked and rely on the BRB disciplines for your powers. Pyrokinesis is obviously right out the door, as it's absolutely terrible. Biomancy, while usually the domain of Tyranids, is pretty reasonable for many other people- you can make at least some use of all the powers, including many tricks that 'Nids can't really do. Endurance is excellent for allowing units to move and shoot or shoot and charge, not to mention that small benefit of ignoring 1/3 of all wounds. Enfeeble is, of course, fantastic and can spell the doom of anything from Terminators to Guardsmen to MCs. Iron Arm and Warp Speed both give you a leg up in a challenge and make winning a more likely proposition, though they don't otherwise do much for your army. Lastly, Haemorrange and Life Leech are both somewhat underwhelming but not completely worthless, so you can at least take consolation in being able to use them.
Telepathy, then, ends up being the go-to discipline for most Sorcerers, as it contains a wide variety of effects that they like to see. Their high Mastery Levels allow them full access to the entirety of the discipline, which is a very good thing because two of the spells require WC2 and are both quite powerful. Most people are probably familiar with the Invisibility gimmick by this point from Eldar (or occasionally Tyranids), but CSM can one-up it in several ways by not only consistently casting it (thanks to the Familiar) but also starting far, far closer to the enemy (thanks to their warlord trait.) Hallucination can likewise be a great way to essentially eliminate a unit from the fight for at least one turn and sometimes kill them completely; many of the other Telepathy powers also shut down or destroy enemy units regardless of their stats. Mental Fortitude can be a way to make units selectively Fearless, a useful trick and one that lets them fill in for a Lord in many ways, and Terrify can help wipe out or push back units that might otherwise be difficult to deal with. Dominate, while unreliable, can often take even a nearby unit out of the game for a turn and Puppet Master can cause some major damage if the enemy is not careful about placing their units. Lastly, when all else fails Psychic Shriek is a great (if random) way to murder nonvehicle models while giving them little recourse to survive. In short, Telepathy has exactly zero “misses” for a Chaos Sorcerer, making it a prime choice for picking disciplines.
Sorcerers more than Lords need a good reason to justify their inclusion in a list, and that justification is usually the powers you are aiming for. The fact that they select powers randomly makes using them a bit of a risk, but when they work they can be pretty devastating and allow you to do some truly unfair things. Unlike their loyalist counterparts they have no particular means for shutting down enemy psykers, so one must be careful about that vulnerability, but given their offensive strength and ability to manipulate the battlefield, they are amongst the prime choices for a Chaos list.
Going from the default choice of every Chaos army to a rather niche, if not actually bad choice, the Daemon Prince can't hold claim to being the biggest flip-flop of the book, but certainly it's the one people complain about the most. It is, in most ways, unwarranted- while they did suffer a price increase from their previous incarnation, this is mostly because they were so absurdly cheap last time around; GW went a bit too far in correcting this, but it's not as though they are without any advantages to speak of. For one, a Prince has a fairly absurd statline, including WS9, I8, and A5 as well as character status (but not Champion of Chaos, it should be noted) and veteran of the Long War. His biggest problems are realistically his price tag (which can get a bit high with gear and everything) and T5, which is good but not really enough to stop him from being ground down by many guns; the lack of Eternal Warrior is also a bit puzzling and occasionally problematic.
However, ignoring those factors the Prince can be quite scary when suited up. They are required to purchase an upgrade to a particular god, most of which are unfortunately a bit weak and for some reason give totally different benefits than the usual Mark of their patron. Khorne gives Furious Charge, which is sorta cute, but given the Prince is S6 already he hardly needs help wounding things. Nurgle gives Shrouded and Slow and Purposeful- Shrouded is, of course, excellent, but SnP means he can't chase down the enemy in combat, which can be rather inconvenient. Slaanesh gives Rending (what?) and +3″ to Run distances (double what?) and thus might as well not even be on the list. Tzeentch, easily the best of them, lets you reroll all 1s on saves- it's not quite as good as, say, a 4++ would have been, but it's at least something and it can make the 3+ armor you can purchase into almost-Terminator armor. They also can take Wings, which you always should, since a large, flying nasty is essentially the entire reason to bring a Daemon Prince. They have access to psyker powers, but since that means stacking 25-75 extra points on top of an already-expensive model I can't really see it being at all worthwhile- you could go for some Biomancy tricks, but it's just not worth it. Lastly, Princes can buy Artefacts, which is one place they can shine- The Blinding Axe (which they were FAQed into having access to) and Black Mace both allow them to throw huge numbers of attacks down and the Prince's natural AP2 lets you bypass the disadvantage of the latter. Note, however, that you only have one weapon (a basic CCW) to replace, so you cannot effectively purchase multiple Artefacts.
All things considered Princes are no longer in contention for the top spot in most lists, but when backed up by other FMCs or flyers they can certainly be scary enough. A Prince of Tzeentch with Wings and PA comes in at 220pts and is basically running 2+/4++ on a flying model, so they can pretty easily present a very fast and relatively-resilient threat. Other versions of the Prince, while not the best, still remain useable. And, worst case scenario, all of those Daemon Princes you converted up from last edition are still gonna see use via the Boon table, so it's really not that big of a problem.
One of the new inclusions in the list and also one of the more unique, the Warpsmith is a strange sort of hybrid character with a ton of bizarre utility abilities clumped together. His statline is essentially that of all of the “second-tier” HQ characters that Marine players are probably familiar with, but with a few exceptions- he swaps WS5 for BS5 and comes with a 2+ save naturally, the only Chaos HQ who even has access to it. At 110pts they are noticeably more expensive than most of the other generic choices, bar the Prince, but also start out carrying a Power Axe and Mechatendrils. The Tendrils are extremely important to note for several reasons- for one, they make his statline deceptively low, as he is listed with A2 but gains +1 from having a Pistol and +2 from the Tendrils, meaning even in his basic incarnation he is getting six attacks on the charge. Moreover, they add +1 to his repair rolls (so he succeeds on a 4+ rather than the 5+ they are listed as) and give him a Meltagun and Flamer to shoot with every turn. The fact that he has a secret BS5 Meltagun is incredibly relevant, as he presents a pretty nasty surprise for many enemies who aren't expecting HQ characters to be carrying relevant guns.
On top of all of that he also can repair tanks in the same way as a Techmarine (as already noted) or can give up his shooting to make one enemy vehicle's guns Get Hot for a turn; the latter isn't terribly relevant, but it does add one more option to his suite of crazy tricks. Last but not least, he can strip one piece of cover down by a point, making its save worse; unfortunately this doesn't work on Fortifications, but even just making a large ruin a 5+ can really tip a game in a significant way. He has access to all of the Marks and all of the Artefacts, but not melee weapons for some reason- you're either giving him a legendary Daemon Weapon or nothing at all. He doesn't really need anything to do his job well, but Mark of Nurgle or Khorne can give him a little extra kick if you're looking for it.
While the Warpsmith is probably not something you'll want in a competitive list, as there tends to always be someone better than him for a given job, he is at least a very flexible character with some unique traits. He may not do any one thing better than another model does, but his plethora of abilities and options in both shooting and melee make him a guy you'll almost never be sorry to have around, as he can always contribute a little something.
Pretty much entirely just a CSM clone of the Chaplain, right down to the statline and gear and everything. The Apostle does benefit from a few small tricks of his own, however, and has some interesting differences. Aside from the Chaos Lord he is the only one of the Fearless ICs available, which is easy to miss since it is rolled into his Zealot ability. Moreover, his ability to reroll all misses (likewise part of that ability, thanks to Hatred) works on the first turn of any combat, not merely one in which he and his unit charged. He can also hand out his Leadership to anyone within 6″ of him (although usually this will just be his unit and thus is not a huge deal) and lets his unit reroll Chaos Boons once the game has started.
The Apostle is 100% a support character- his job is to sit in a unit, commonly a unit of Cultists, and make them work for you. With him around they won't run and take on a much scarier aspect in close combat, as their middling WS3 is no longer such a hindrance. While he may not be particularly killy thanks to being stuck with a Power Maul to start with (and, like the Warpsmith, lacking access to the melee sections of the armory) he can always pick up a Daemon Weapon if you really want to make him a murderer.
Like his brother, the Apostle is probably not something that will ever be taking top spots at a big tournament, but his reasonable price and suite of useful abilities mean he also isn't relegated to the bargain bin, either- he is a solid, if not overwhelming, performer. He's also one of the nice confluences of fluff and rules, since almost all of his abilities work best when he is surrounded by a mob of stupid little men running forward, so using him always feels right. For some laughs, it's worth noting that he can purchase Veterans of the Long War for free because it gives him absolutely no benefit of any kind.
Well, that was a bit long, but given the importance of CSM HQs it's not really surprising. Next time we'll take a look at the various named characters and how they stack up against their generic counterparts.