Markerlights- always an integral part of the Tau army, and always the first target of the enemy’s guns. (Or at least they ought to be.) Though their exact effects have varied from edition to edition, their general abilities (spend to increase BS or to reduce cover) have been more or less the same. 8th Edition brings a change to this, but while many regard it as being for the worse, it’s really just one more iteration of the way things have always been.
Now, it’s true- Markerlights can no longer increase any given one of your army’s units to a pinpoint-precision cover-ignoring mega-shooter, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them as useful. In fact, I would say that Markerlights are more useful than ever now; their effects are arguably less potent, but so are most effects in the game- and what they do accomplish is pretty big. More than that, they are now cheap and rather plentiful; 40pts for a basic squad of Pathfinders is a steal when you consider their ability to “scout” before the game starts and presence of Pulse Carbines (useful in a pinch.) Marker Drones, too, are quite handy as long as you can keep a Drone Controller somewhere nearby and there are some options hiding the FW units that have some potential as well.
But the way we look at Markerlights in the new edition needs to change, because the game has changed. Even just how you shoot your Markerlights ought to be different now, because what you can expect to get from them has changed a lot. Each of the different steps on the table gives a distinctly different bonus, and depending on the situation your units may want some, all, or none of them- so when writing a list and when starting your shooting phase, it’s crucial that you understand what they each do.
The first step on the table is simple and easy to get- reroll 1s to hit with any further units that shoot at the target. It’s not a big boost, but it can be a very useful one just the same, especially for our BS3+ or 2+ units in the codex (yes, there are a handful of them and they’re almost all good or great.) It’s useful to almost everything we have and it’s pretty simple to pick up in most cases- and most notably it applies to other Markerlights. That means if you’ve got a target you desperately need to make dead this turn, the best way to do is to start a “Markerlight chain” by opening up by a small number of Markerlights on the target, then fire some larger units into them to build up the rest of what you need. Since in many cases there are no other relevant bonuses between this level and five hits, you’ll often want to split your Markerlights up to different units you plant to shoot over the turn.
The second hit doesn’t net you a lot- you can fire Seeker and Destroyer Missiles at full BS on the target. Most of the time, this won’t really do anything for you because you won’t have them or won’t want to use them, but when it does matter it will be big- an automatic mortal wound (or three) is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you stack up a bunch of them on a heavy target like a Knight. The critical point here is that these are one-use weapons, so you’re going to need to make sure they do their job- and for that, the first and fifth level of Markerlights are very clutch. There’s some built-in synergy right there for you.
The third level is one that is easily underestimated, but is actually pretty big- you can move and shoot (with a heavy weapon) or advance and shoot (with an assault weapon) at no penalty. Getting Broadsides, Hammerheads, Riptides, Ghostkeels, etc, mobile without need for a support system is pretty handy, especially since some don’t have access to it or want to take other things instead, and sometimes the extra distance from an advance can be very critical as well; this can help guarantee you that distance. A lot of times on turns 3-5 Tau will have to start pushing forward in order to be in place for the end of the game, and the mobility three Markerlights enables can be very useful in that respect if you’ve been hammering the enemy sufficiently on previous turns of the game.
Four Markerlights gets us the fabled Ignore Cover benefit, though it’s significantly less powerful than in previous editions. Still, with cover being applicable against virtually all weapons nowadays it can be very useful for flushing out some Marines from inside a ruin or the likes, so don’t be surprised when you find yourself getting a lot of mileage out of this. Note also that this is extra-effective against units which gain an improved cover save above the normal for being in cover (such as Lias Issodon.)
Five Markerlights gives a simple and powerful +1 to hit against the target, cumulative with all other modifiers.This is the holy grail, that takes our units from being fairly on-par with other factions firepower output to being well above the mark. If you have a target that absolutely must die this turn, five Markerlight hits is where it’s at. The lower your starting Ballistic Skill, the more of a benefit this will be- Drones and Strike Teams benefit a lot more from it than Hammerheads do.
So what does all of this mean? Well, let’s break it down.
First, unlike in previous editions, Markerlights are ongoing. You don’t lose efficiency when you shoot successive units at a Markerlighted target; instead, you actually gain it. This really drives home one of the key factors in Tau, or in any shooting army: target priority. When you’re doing all your damage with shooting, target priority is key. Have a plan for where your guns are going to go and how many you’ll need for each target, and know how you thus need to allocate Markerlights to complement this
Second, Markerlights are mostly about negating penalties to our efficiency. One and five Markerlight hits do increase our raw efficiency, to be sure, but three and four are both about negating effects that would otherwise be detrimental to our damage output. Since you’re typically unlikely to reach the five-hit tier, a lot of what you’re doing is just shutting down the enemy’s abilities- but like last edition, the ability to apply this effect to any gun we get is pretty big.
Third, one Markerlight is usually enough. Gone are the days of needing a typical four hits (+2BS, Ignore Cover) in order to get what you wanted out of something- especially with high-AP weapons like Fusion or Rail that simply don’t care about the enemy getting a minor cover bonus. If you aren’t taking a penalty to BS, one Markerlight hit is just as good as any other result but the final one, so you’re often better served by spreading your shots around to multiple units that you intend to shoot at.
And fourth, to reiterate that, spread your Markerlights out unless you’re desperate to kill one thing. Every unit has split fire now- use it. Start Markerlight chains by having that understrength unit of four Pathfinders shoot two at one target and one each at two other targets.Distribute those tokens around where they’re needed, and if you’re going to fire a big unit of Markerlights at something, make damn sure you’ve got one hit on them already to ensure that you’re not gonna roll too many misses.
Markerlights are what the Tau army gets instead of aura bonuses; other factions have lots of “reroll 1s within six inches of me” type characters; we instead get a way to apply this bonus to any target we want as well as stack up better abilities if we invest in them. It might not seem like a lot, but bonuses in 8th edition are smaller in general- rerolls and USRs are hard to come by, so even a supposedly-modest boost like +1BS and reroll 1s against a target turns a lot of our units into pretty brutal killers.