Wraithsight - Rock Paper Scissors

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Yriel of Iyanden

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Wrote this article (and the next one) on a plane during a business trip. I hope it's coherent!- Yriel

A few months back I was playing in the staff challenge at my local hobby store. The staff challenge is extremely competitive- 5 very experienced gamers, using their own custom armies, matching you wit for wit in a no-holds-barred contest for straight annihilation.
My first opponent was a Chaos player, who I countered by running the big man himself, Yriel, leading a squad of my finest harlequins. It was a tough match to be sure- but Yriel and the harlies did more than their share of the work, shredding through unit after unit of Noise Marines and eventually securing the victory.
The next game was against a very different, specialized Deathwing army. To counter all the 2+ saves I opted for a full blitz package, a fortuneseer running with an Speartarch and Shining Spears coupled with my Harlies again. The rest of the list had its share of low AP starcannons and the like. This game ended extremely quickly- with me taking "paper" to a rock fight, the Deathwing hardly stodd a chance.
Third game brought me a little bit closer to my usual style, as my opponent would not confirm whether he was using orks or Witch Hunters. I opted for an open-field mech army- mounted units, 2 falcons, fortuned standard jetbikes and a harlequin countercharge. Again it was a short match- my opponent ended up taking Witch Hunters, who had zero good answers for my skimmer-based attack, and even my faithful harlequins didn't get in a lot of kills compared to the even-scoring of the rest of my roster.
This is all great until I made it to battle 4, which we will examine a bit more closely. To date- no one who has entered the staff challenge has made it past this particular opponent, who played Necrons.
I decided to go with an army designed to counter the dreaded Monolith, and chip away at thick units of necron warriors. I opted for extra singing spears, a wraith-wall, a Fire Prism, and even vibrocannons. This was enough anti-armor to handle just about any armor he'd throw at me.
The problem is- I took a rock to a paper fight.

My opponent ran a Necron list that I'm not used to seeing at 1500pts. 9 Wraiths. Only 20 warriors. Veil Lord, Nightbringer, and 9 pariahs.
And ZERO monoliths.
So take my core strategy and throw it out the window. Vibrocannons are now wasted points. I was dreaming of a doomseer and a harlie/dire wagon, but the only mounted unit I had was a starcannon wave serpent with a starcannon guardian team on board. My jetbikes and expensive warlock were suddenly no good. I couldn't tote my Harlequins around without their Falcon.
And so my first entry into the staff challenge ended horribly, despite my early, lopsided victories.
I should really have listened to my own rhetoric.
One of the reasons why Eldar are so hated is because we're one of the best at the rock-paper-scissors game. Our rocks are fortuned pathfinders, reapers, wraithguard, and wraithlords. Our paper are jetbikes, warp spiders, and vibrocannons. Our scissors are harlequins, shining spears, infiltrating scorpions and fleeting banshees. Our rocks can be configured harder than many other army's rocks. Our scissors are sharper and our paper is faster. People claim that Eldar armies are overpowered because we're generally regarded as a specialist army, and many, many powergamers design one-off, one-trick ponies based on a rock-paper-scissors model. But does it always work?
Experienced tournament players will tell you it's a gamble, but that with choosing certain armies you may not always have a choice. Take armored company for example. People tend to get upset with AC because on paper and in many battle situations, AC can be very tough on balanced armies. But for AC to have a bad run in with lots and lots of intercept hawks and wraithcannon, for example, they may not be having that great of a day. Speed Freeks can open field blitz just about anybody, except that guy who set up lots o
and lots of bolter traps and loaded out with Heavy Bolters. A "lifeless" Iyanden army (2 fortuned wraith walls and 3 wraithlords) is a ridiculously tough nut to crack except when your opponent is toting 32 daemonettes, or boatloads of genestealers.

In tournament situations- building a rock-paper-scissors army is a risk under the assumption that you will face certain types of opponents, and be subjected to certain missions. Most rock-paper-scissors armies taken to a tourney, for example, are based on a somewhat informed assumption that it will likely face an MEQ Definition: Marine Equivalentarmy in 2 out of every 3 games it plays, but there's never a guarantee. I myself have played in a tournament once where 14 out of the 18 players were playing MEQ Definition: Marine Equivalentarmies, yet I faced Imperial Guard, orks, and Lost and the Damned that day. My balanced army did fairly well that day, allowing me to finish 2nd by 1 mere tournament point.
That said- specialization for an Eldar army should not be considered a bad thing, nor
should it always be classified as powergaming. Again- specialization is one of the things
we excel at, and telling Eldar players that they shouldn't specialize is like telling Tau to
set their strategies around assaulting everything. Individual unit balance is the strength of
Space marines, while Eldar units are generally specialized to their combat role. So in this
A more accurate way of examining the rock-paper-scissors argument is to examine
Armies as a whole.

Balanced Eldar armies

With our understanding that balance isn't generally the forte' of Eldar units, what do we mean by a balanced Eldar army? Generally we're referring to the "role makeup" of an army. There are a few major functions of any army list, that break down into offensive, defensive, mission, and special functions. Let's look at some examples:

Offensive

Tactical Dakka- Dire Avengers and Warp Spiders tend to fill this role for me. Good volume shooting designed to kill infantry level units and the lightest of armor.
Anti-armor- In an offensive set, think Dragon wagons, mounted wraithguard, or wave serpents. Eldar anti-armor from an offensive standpoint should incorporate speed, so Swooping Hawks can have this role as well.
Blitzer- Blitzers are units designed to root out those stubborn opponents that would rather sit and shoot at you. Shining Spears are a prime example, as are mounted assault units.
Mobile firetrap- Vypers, mounted Dire Avengers/guardians, and other cheap, high volume shooting, mobile firetraps are the advanced form of the Space marine bolter trap. They're even better with Doom!

Defensive

Firebase- Rangers and Dark Reapers are prime examples of a defensive firebase, as are large/warlock included guardian units with heavy weapons. Firebases also focus on anti-infantry, and lend themselves well to defending fortified positions.
Countercharge- Infiltrating Scorpions and harlequins are some of our best examples, but don't forget the wraithlord in this role too. Counters are designed to take advantage of poor timing in enemy assaults, and countercharge units are designed to hit hard as well as have the numbers or armor to eventually finish the fight.
Screen- Less used in 4th edition, screens are moving Eldar units designed to absorb the initial fire/charge. Many people use guardians for screens, but even things like fortuned jetbikes make good screens.
Reliability unit- Reliability units are based on a strategy for victory points-denial. Eldar Falcons and Fire Prisms are common reliability units, as are harlequins and fortuned wraithguard. Unlike screens, reliability units are expected to survive for most if not all of the battle.

Mission

Cheap Scoring unit- Three jetbikes, a lone viper, or a stock avenger unit in a falcon- cheap scoring units are designed for not attracting attention, while moving off for that last turn table quarter.
Suicide squad- Common in Rogue Trader Tournaments, it's always good to have a squad identified for "Suicide Squad", a mission which renders a unit of your choice fearless and "vowed" in a Black Templar, sort of sense. The cool part is that you actually want your suicide squad to die, so don't pick a reliability unit! Optimum choices are Storm Guardians, Banshees, and small scorpion units.

Escort- reliability units are excellent for escort missions. Just be sure to keep your escort alive. If you're playing the opposite end of the scenario- then Mind War is not a bad thought here.
So now that we know a bit about a few different combat roles, I want to point out that a balanced Eldar army incorporates a number of these options, but at the expense of duplicate units for cushion. When I define a balanced list for myself, I make sure to include my tactical dakka, at least 2-3 anti-armor solutions, at least 4 scoring units, and at least one measure of countercharge. This is balanced, but also very risky against rock-paper scissor armies. For instance, if I'm facing an opponent who has specialized almost entirely on assault, and I end up losing my countercharge early, I may be in deep, deep trouble. If my wraithguard die too early and I lose my only pulse laser, then I'm in trouble against a specialized opponent sporting lots of armor past 13. Balanced armies are challenging to win with in that a rock-paper-scissors army can render their main counter ineffective, leaving you without good options to deal with them. Balanced armies, also by nature of only having 1-3 units for any given combat role, are tough to pull off massacres with, whereas a rock army running into a lot of scissor armies will be better able to rack in the big wins.

Specialized Eldar Armies

What is interesting about a specialized Eldar army is that unlike a balanced army, specialized armies commonly include repeat units, or the saturation of one force org category. Generally, specialized Eldar armies focus in on winning only a few aspects of the game, but doing so in a manner that renders a opponent ineffective. For example- an assault-specialized Eldar army will showcase a particular unit, like harlequins, and often sacrifice things like tactical dakka or ranged anti-armor as a result. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however. Imagine this list:

HQ

Farseer 113pts
Doom, Jetike, Singing Spear, Runes of Warding

Elites

6 Harlequins 162pts
6 Harlequin's Kiss, Shadowseer
6 Harlequins 162pts
6 Harlequin's Kiss, Shadowseer
6 Harlequins 162pts
6 Harlequin's Kiss, Shadowseer

Troops

3 jetbikes 76pts
Shuricannon
3 jetbikes 76pts
shuricannon
Fast Attack
3 Shining Spears 147

Exarch, Withdraw

Heavy Support

Falcon 195pts
Shuricannon/Shuricannon/ Spirit Stone, holofield, vectored engines
Falcon 195pts
Shuricannon/Shuricannon/ Spirit Stone, holofield, vectored engines
Falcon 195pts

Shuricannon/Shuricannon/ Spirit Stone, holofield, vectored engines
This list comes in just under 1500pts, and is based on a few core specializations- blitzing, reliability, VP denial, and cheap scoring. A very, very competitive list, though admittedly it gives up decent long ranged AT and is sporting almost zero tactical dakka. Note the repeat of several units on this list, which is designed to be so brutual in assault that whatever the opponent has left will be no match for this fearsome onslaught.
Specialized Eldar armies need to be just that- specialized. There's very little room for error in specialized armies, and you're committed to your tactic by the very nature of writing your list. The list above is as tough as they come, but far from unbeatable.

Deciding to play rock-paper-scissors

If and when you do decide to play a rock-paper-scissors army, it is this author's hope that you do so in fun, or in arenas where this type of configuration is expected. Playing fully beefed out lists like the one above can be tremendous fun with a regular opponent and friend. As he/she knows that this is the intent, they may even decide to follow your lead and take their own "performance-enhanced" army, hoping that it is you who brought the scissors to the rock fight, and not the other way around.
Rock-paper-scissors armies are also acceptable at many tournaments. Though be aware that many tournament organizers try to avoid rewarding these types of lists by using a wider variety of missions and scoring army composition. You might ask, "Why is my specialized army frowned upon?" The answer lies in the premise that not all codex lists are capable of achieving the same level of power, and this has been debated about as long as warhammer 40K has existed. While it is not my purpose to prove or disprove this belief (I tend to belive the statement is true in "maxxed out" lists across codexes), I will note that this is a commonly held belief by many tournament organizers and veteran gamers, so you should know what you're getting into when you bring that 30 harlequin list to a tourney.

This author also feels it a bit distasteful to bring such an army to a friendly game with a stranger without advance, proper warning. Especially if you are the veteran gamer and your opponent is new to the game. While it is true that much can be learned in the early losses of your career, sometimes such overpowered gaming is ignorant of the idea of mutual fun, so while you may be having fun skewering your opponent with row after row of Shining Spear, he was simply trying to figure out the best use for a whirlwind, and wanted to field that new chaplain model he just finished painting. So again, if you value the ability to pick up a friendly game and earnestly want people to enjoy their games with you- use your personal discretion when selecting these types of lists.

The balanced/specialized gaming cycle

One question people ask regarding customization and balance is- which represents the more advanced gamer? Which is a better route- building that perfect "take on all comers" type list and mastering it, or knowing your opponents so well and owning so many models that you can customize or specialize in beating anybody?
Well, if you ask me, I see it in cycles, often corresponding to the life cycle of your average 40k gamer. Think about the beginning of the very first army you ever built. Maybe you got into the hobby (or lifestyle, as many of us refer to it) thinking you're gonna spend about $200, and get all the advice you can about building that army and being done with it (*laughs*). At first- you wanted that single army list to be able to handle as many different opponents as possible, or at the very least give everyone you play an enjoyable, challenging match. Or maybe you just wanted to beat your older brother. Whatever the original reason- you wanted an army that could do a few different things- so the odds are you started off with a fairly balanced list.
After a few months of gaming, though, you start to develop your tactical "palette" with your army. Maybe those Dark Reapers have done you so well, you'd rather take a second unit than take that wraithlord. Or maybe you're tired of being outmaneuvered, or having your guardians walk to their doom every battle, so you're wanting to go mech- buying Wave Serpents and Falcons and Prisms, oh my!
All of us veteran Eldar players can laugh at ourselves when we ever thought we'd hit an "endpoint" to our spending...

So the gamer leaves his "Age of Discovery" in favor of his "Age of Power." Why take shurikens when you can take fusion guns? Why opt for jetbikes when Shining Spears score twice as many victory points? The Age of Power is about trimming the fat so-to-speak, and gamers at this level are constantly pushing for the leanest, meanest list around, which often means these lists are customized and specialized.
So after gaining some much needed confidence and beating the snot out of enough players, the gamer feel he's ready for the tournament arena, and why not? He's seen the other Eldar armies there, and some of them were "wise" to specialize as he has, but others just seemed "odd". People have been bandying this term about- "fluffy", which doesn't seem to make any sense until the gamer has gone to the tournament with his proverbial "scissors" army, and faced a rock. And to add insult to injury, his army scored no points for army comp, while he lost because many of the more experienced gamers used to play an army exactly like his, and knew the most effective counters to it.

And this is where the life cycle of the gamer can ether swing full circle, or he can take the oath of the exarch to forever specialize, and develop himself further- a divergence in the Path of the gamer. He has entered the Age of Maturity. It is at this point that some gamers will begin to understand the importance of using a balanced army, the importance of playing a fun game and challenging yourself to play and understand a more "rounded" game. Sometimes this means taking up another army, and often at this stage we pick armies we are attracted to from and advanced understanding, such as fluff or core strategy. Meanwhile, however, we are reinventing our experience with our Eldar army- experimenting with units and/or configurations we might not have tried before, all the while blending them with units and configurations we have proven to be successful with. It's a wonderful time for a gamer at this point, for they're starting to understand the game at deeper levels, which is allowing them to enjoy the game at those levels as well.
So it is my opinion that when asked the question, "Which takes more skill, playing a balanced army or knowing how to customize an army", I feel that at the most experienced level of gaming- they are equal. It is simply a matter of where and how you wish to distribute your tactical "efforts". The balanced list is easy in that you become comfortable with your usual lineup of units, the challenge lies in your on-field tactical decision making, needing the ability to adjust and switch strategies between games, or sometimes during a game. The customizer doesn't face as many challenges once he's on the field- if he's at all worth his salt, his customized army will be excellent at whatever his core strategy was. The challenge for him lies in developing that list in the first place, and hoping he doesn't run into the scissors to his paper.
But even beyond that- the most experienced gamer will know how to do both, and furthermore when each is appropriate.
As for me- I tell myself every day that I still have plenty to learn, and the staff challenge has been an important learning experience for me. For instance- I've learned that it doesn't have to be exactly one or the other, either the same balanced list throughout, or a completely different list each battle. Instead I'm gonna treat it like a mini "campaign" starring my favorite Iyanden army. This means I'm going to start with one list, and perform minor tweaks in between games until I'm 100% satisfied. For those of you who haven't read my latest battle report- my first game out of the gate was very successful, but I still intend on making tweaks to that core list.

Because it doesn't matter to me how I'm learning, just that I never stop learning. Rock, paper, or scissors? I may never craft my answer- the diamond scalpel, but it doesn't stop me from trying! Thanks for reading!
-Yriel




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