I’m skipping ahead and doing this one rather than doing special HQs due to the screwup with that article and with a lot of arguing about the value of CSM’s troops in the new codex.
Let’s get this straight: CSM may not have the best troops out there, but they’re hardly bad. They have a number of unique options and are cheaper than any other MEQ in the game. Above and beyond that they have access to GEQ-type cheap troop squads for being objective-clingers without needing to give up their ally slot. Combined, these two give chaos plenty of different troop squads they can field, even ignoring the Cult troops (which we’ll talk about in the successor article to this one.)
What’s so good about CSM and Cultists, you ask? Aren’t they just worse than GH/DA Tacticals/Guardsmen/etc? Well, yes and no. You see, if you just set your CSM up as doofy Bolter guys who want to be do-everything units, yes, they are worse than the comparative Imperial options. Imperials get some really excellent prices on utility abilities (like Combat Squads, ATSKNF, etc) and Chaos just can’t match up to that standard. If you try to build your CSM units as super-generalists, you will always be worse than Imperials. Get that through your head.
On the other hand, as units dedicated to particular roles they function a lot better. The larger squad sizes, ability to get random buffs (via Boons), cheap base cost, customizeability of statline, etc, all go a long ways towards being able to set them to a particular task and exceed similar squads in that role. Chaos can’t lean on its troops as jacks-of-all-trades the way SW, GK, or BA can, but it can make them a perfectly functional foundation to other elements of its army.
Before we dive into CSM too deeply, though, let’s talk a little about Cultists. Cultists are essentially Guardsmen, but are one point cheaper and come with BP/CCW base as well as 6+ armor. They lack the options for heavy/special weapons (having only the Stubber and Flamer) and have to pay if they want to get a Lasgun. They also suffer from having essentially no abilities as well as the 10pt champion tax.
So they’re not gonna be a mainstay do-all troop like Infantry Squads are, that much is clear. What they have instead is better close combat ability- and more so if you Mark them- as well as cheapness and the access to HQs that provide Fearless. This essentially gives them two roles: one, sitting on a back objective and cowering, relying on weight of bodies and Going to Ground to ward off enemy fire; or two, pushing forward in a mob a la Orks/Tyranids in order to deliver a character into the enemy’s lines. The first plan is probably stronger, since it doesn’t involve walking into guns, but in cases where the other side outshoots you (like an actual Guard/Tau army) pushing a ton of mans forward and demanding they all be dealt with is something nice to have- remember, while they may not be great in a fight, numbers count for a lot (as long as you have Stubborn/Fearless in the unit.)
Like a lot of units, the strongest setup for Cultists is usually the simplest- no Marks, no extra guns, just a pile of bodies to sit somewhere. Since more often than not they are just hitting the dirt every turn, paying to give them extra weapons is often not really needed, although Flamers can be somewhat useful for free overwatch shots. Since you pay the champion tax on every squad, buying extra bodies (rather than going MSU) is generally the right choice; 15-20 works pretty well in most cases, depending on point levels. Less than 13 is not recommended, as you simply won’t have enough bodies to hold anything; more than 21 gets pretty awkward to move around fairly quickly.
It’s important not to underestimate the value of having both GEQ and MEQ troops available innately to the codex; yes, other books can do this by allying in whichever they are missing, but since this cuts out the option for taking something else to instead fill a non-troop gap. For example, CSM can bring Necrons along for S7 spam and transport flyers as well as having cheap backfield sitter units in large numbers. No other book can do this- Marines, Guard, etc, all have to essentially “give up” their ally in order to gain access to the complementary troop type- they certainly may get other stuff out of it, but the opportunity cost is still there. Chaos can dodge this cost by having them available innately, which is very handy.
Chaos Space Marines
These guys are the big one. As the core troop choice of the codex, CSM are where the book starts out at and usually finishes in terms of mainstay units that are gonna go out and Get Things Done. In that respect that are entirely useable, coming in fairly cheap and and with a very standard statline. They get one special/heavy per five (also standard) and can get squad sizes well above their Imperial counterparts, which is very relevant when trying to push models across the field into the enemy’s zone in order to steal an objective or get to punchin’; it also means that squad buffs (from a Sorc or Lord) can go a lot further.
They key to making CSM work is to avoid splurging too much on extras. Unlike Imperial books, you have a lot of options- it’s easy to get your dudes on par with Grey Knights for cost without even trying very hard and spending 300+ on a single squad is not a good plan. Efficiency is your virtue here- figure out what the unit wants to be doing and do it as best you can. Slaanesh and Khorne can both be very useful Marks, as Khorne complements one of your core strengths very well and Slaanesh lets you win fights against other Marines more consistently while taking fewer casualties. Both of them also have good Icons to go with them, adding charge reliability and further survivability respectively; however, not every squad even needs to take a Mark; shooting CSM especially or those with transports may just want to forgo it and keep themselves nice and cheap.
Nurgle is a reasonable choice, but realistically it only stops the lower end of anti-infantry fire; Autocannons, Missiles, etc, just don’t care about your toughness bump. (It doesn’t help that the Icon is complete garbage, either.) Tzeentch’s Mark just doesn’t really add anything to units without a natural invuln, so it can’t really be considered outside of gimmick “stand on the Skyshield” lists.
So, basically, you have to decide whether you want your unit to be shooty (Bolters) or choppy (BP+CCW) and then if you’re going Slaanesh (can work for either, but usually only for 10+ model units), Khorne (choppy only), or unmarked (again, works for either.) Buying the extra CCW is probably only something you do maybe for your special/heavy weapon bearers so that they don’t lose out if you’re doing that- remember that the Champ comes with the trifecta automatically, so there’s no need to pay extra for his.
Veterans of the Long War is worth considering in cases of melee-focused squads, since its benefits against a loyalist are fairly significant. However, this has to be weighed against the likelihood of actually making it to melee and the chances you’ll see Marines across the table from you. This will largely be a meta consideration- how common are MEQs in your area? Does your army otherwise struggle with them? What type are they? (Against vanilla SM you may not need the bonus, whereas against SW or GK it can be a deal-breaker.) The Leadership boost is also a nice bonus, though if you have an IC with them (as will often happen) it may not be needed at all.
Last but not least let’s talk about Fearless. Specifically, about the high cost you pay for Fearless on CSM (25pts and giving up other banner options) and the fact that, honestly speaking, you may not really need it. Fearless is a great ability and all, but if you are, say, a unit of Fauxzerkers (BP/CCW, MoK, Icon) you really should not be losing combat to most things- if you are, you have gotten into a fight with something you really shouldn’t have and something pretty unusual at that. If you really need it Hatred will help you by giving you better reliability, but really you should just live with what you have and call it good. Yes, it’d be awesome to be immune to Sweeping Advance, but you picked Chaos so you don’t get that, so get over it.
To Be Continued
I focused on the basic troops this time; we’ll go over Cult troops in the next article, but sadly for them, most of the Cult troops aren’t nearly as good as the choices we have here. Three of them are at least some degree of useable, but it essentially boils down to a matter of cost- CSM and Cultists are cheaper and thus leave more points available for the other slots in the codex, many of which contain some very strong options for hard-hitting units. Conserving points in the TR slot lets you take more of the fancy toys elsewhere, and for many books- CSM amongst them- this is just how you live.