Destroy First

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That's probably the most common question in the history of 40k ever. Period. There are countless tacticas that handle fighting specific armies with your own specific army (for instance, consider all the articles that have been written about fighting necrons with tau), but they're are very few about the general game. In fact, I've only found one site with any tacticas that are applicable to the entire game and not written for the players of one specific force.
Very broadly speaking, it is almost always favourable to focus your efforts on the most threatening part of your opponent's army. What you want is to bring the weapons that will do the most harm to bear on most important target. The most important target however, is not always going to be the most expensive or vulnerable; also, it may at times be impossible to achieve optimum conditions.
To decide what to attack, ask yourself these three questions:

Are any of my enemy's units about to achieve the mission objective, or would failure to destroy an enemy unit cost me the objective?

If the answer is yes, shoot these units first! Achieving the mission objective is the most important part of the game!
For instance, if you were playing assassination (first player to wipe out the other player's HQ wins), the most important target will usually be your opponent's HQ. This could change if, say, you didn't have any weapons that could hurt the enemy HQ or if said weapons were needed to target a particularly dangerous enemy unit, but generally you would want to aim for the head. Likewise, an enemy scoring unit parked over a 'hold zone' is much more important than it would be if it were just standing around in the woods.

Are any of my opponent's units posing a direct threat to my units?

Although you obviously need to achieve the objective, it is also important to keep your units (particularly those that can score) well protected. The easiest way to do that is to make sure that any any enemy that threatens your forces is wiped out or pushed off the board.
This becomes more complex if more than one of your units is threatened. For instance, if you had a squadron of eight fire warriors with pulse rifles that are about to be assaulted by orks, and a devilfish with smart missiles that is about the be blown apart by ork rockets, what enemy unit should you focus your firepower on? The warriors are a scoring unit, which the fish is not; on the other hand, the fish has considerably more firepower and is more mobile.
The answer to the above situation depends largely on circumstances. If you were low on scoring units, such as in a mechanised tau cadre, preserving your infantry would be important, especially if they were already on an objective. If the warriors were not important to your strategy, the fish would be more important; after all, it's worth more points for the orks!

Do I have a good shot or opportunity that probably won't come up again?

If the answer to this question is yes and the answers to the other questions are no, take it! However, be careful. A smart player knows that he can distract you by making "mistakes" (such as leaving flank armour open to heavy guns). Don't get bogged down hitting things that aren't important just because they're available (this is where mobility is useful, as you won't be relying on your opponent to expose useful targets).

Practical Examples

1) Pretend you an Imperial Guard player fighting space marines. You have two Russ tanks with battle cannons and heavy bolters and a heavy weapons squadron with three missile launchers plus two lascannons. Your opponent has a unit of assault terminators that are about to hit your right flank, which is composed mostly of conscripts. He also had a devastator squad on objective, which is at the centre of the map.
Assuming that range and line of sight are not issues, what should you do ?
Answer: Shoot the devastators first. Although the terminators are threatening your units, you can probably just move a few squads to prevent him consolidating into more important targets. A couple of conscript platoons aren't nearly as important as the mission objective.
2) Your an ork player with lots of foot-slogging fighting sit-and-shoot tau. Your happy because your forty-something chopa boyz are about to dig into the tau lines. The tau have three main targets you can go after; the masses of warriors and their Ethereal, a hammerhead with an ion cannon or a team of broadside suits. What should you focus your assault on?
Answer: it would be best to attack the warriors. Neither the hammerhead nor the suits have a weapon which seriously threatens your large groups of infantry. Plus, your boyz will be invalid targets once they get locked into close combat, so it makes since that you want to engage as many enemy units as fast as possible!
That's all for now. Please comment.
 




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