Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Rise and Rise of DenialHammer.

The rise and rise of DenialHammer.

A thought occurred to me whilst listening to some pew pew podcasts (I know, shameful, but everyone has to have a sick vice in their lives… right?). A series of casts that normally disagree on almost everything agreed on one fundamental truth of the 40k game: Assault (apparently what those crazy people call close combat) is currently dead. There are apparently some exceptions – some armies can go so far out on the rock side of the game that they burst through the denial paper (yes, as we all know, GW games are Rock/Paper/Scissors in nature. Not a bad design mechanic per se – it is good that most things in a game should have a hard counter).

What was the thought I had, I hear you absolutely no one ask?

Shift the paradigms of the game, reshape the elements to comply with the reality of the different game, and it appears the same is true of WFB.

Now, some housekeeping to get out of the way first of all:
  • I am referring here purely to the 8th edition Army Books.
  • Nothing in this article is meant to indicate that this norm cannot be subverted – it is simply a look at how a majority of players I have seen use these armies.
  • On the most part, this is also a product of the UK meta, its various comp systems and, for all we know, the infuriatingly unreliable weather on these lovely green isles of ours. The traffic on the M25 probably plays a part too.
  • As in every brain dump of this sort, we are talking generalisations here. Everyone thinks they are unique, some people are, but we are mostly talking about the nameless masses here.

So, what do I mean by DenialHammer? (and has it risen?)

Ummm, not the Denial we are talking about...

Being the astute, charming and ruggedly handsome reader that I have every confidence you are, the primary meaning here is clear. DenialHammer places a disproportionate amount of energy in denying (shocking I know) your opponent what they want (in this case, Victory Points). Obviously, this has always been the case to a degree. Victory points has been the deciding factor between glorious attractiveness-inducing victory and the model-hurling, crushing humiliation of defeat (I’ve said it before, seriously guys, stop taking this game so seriously) for as long as I have played the game (in the mid-90s – yeah yeah I’m old, I know).
Allowing your opponent easy access to Victory Points is therefore a self-evident BAD THING. That’s fine.

What we are talking about (or at least, I am) is the taking of this to a whole other level. And there is good reason for it.

The single most devastating phase of the game is Close Combat. It is here where a swing of a single point of resolution, the slightest swing in favour of Lady Luck (she really is a shameless hussy), the hidden magic item or the precise positioning of a unit champion can gain you hundreds (if not thousands) of Victory Points in one fell swoop.

This leads to two approaches – those who want to engineer this, and those who don’t. Those that do have to back themselves to take out whatever their opponent can throw at them, and come out victorious, to be the last man standing on the corpse-strewn battlefield. As mentioned above, this is epically risky. I did this for a while. My Vampire Counts army was built around engineering the one combat that would win you the game. I backed it to win in combat against anything on the Warhammer battlefields of the time. Lady luck (that b**ch) and the odd little mistake, however, meant that is things did not go according to plan it was not a case of winning by a smaller margin, but of being flung from Mount Olympus into the pits of Hades, without passing Go, collecting any money, and without time to stop for a beverage.

Those too sensible to try and do this give themselves far more leeway to play with. This is good and proper. Taken to extremes it is dull as dishwater. This is not even an incitement of the players going in this direction. This direction appears to be set from none other than our mighty GW overlords (insert appropriate GW is evil, PP is the saviours of war gaming internet rage here if you must).

In my view, the shift in power of the new books has gone so far towards the denial end of the spectrum that to counter it things need to be hyper aggressive to reliably work. And the most effective hyper aggressive armies/units in the game are also; it turns out, denial focused.

Let’s take a whirlwind journey through the new books:

Orcs & Goblins – these boyz, for all of the Waaagh-laden, cockney soaked fluff in the book and in their proud heritage act on the table along the lines of a green Dwarf army with magic. An artillery park hidden behind massively hard to kill blocks, characters protected from sniping. Cheap chaff to stop stuff that could actually take those units on, whilst bombarding opponents with destructive magic. The reason? Most of the army doesn’t fight all that well, killing things at range does not give them satisfaction of killing you back, and they are cheap enough to get maximum benefit from 8th edition’s steadfast rules.

Tomb Kings – a simple army. In the land of 8th edition they have the most devastating magic phase in the game backed up with decent artillery. Constructs and cheap bodies can go into units that get to you in the mid/late game. This is not their fault really, the army’s inability to march severely hampers their aggressive potential. Some comp packs this side of the Atlantic, sometimes giving them buckets of free points, does allow the army to play in different ways, though quite normally players opt for more of the same.

Vampire Counts – sure, they have the most destructive infantry-class combat character in the game. However, as I mentioned before (and fitting with the fluff I guess), they are asking for some bad luck to ruin your day – Vampires find all sorts of incredible ways to die (just ask Chris Legg at the ETC, where his died to 2 plague monks). The natural inclination then, once you have been burnt once too many times, if the obvious choice of the book, the definition of a denial unit - Crypt Horrors. Add in a Terrorgheist or two (almost always screaming from outside of combat, where they can’t be hit back), some stupidly cheap core that can’t do anything (as opposed to the overcosted ghouls who sort of can) and the Vampire Lord guarding his harem of lesser wizards and you have the epitome of a denial list.

The Empire – the birthplace of the 1+ armour save spam. How we all love it so. Now, there are many ways to play this, but the most common, in my experience is to: take as many cannons as you are allowed (and the steam tank, because it has cannon), add in destructive magic (either light magic council with Altar support, or throw in some heavens in there). Guard all this with 1+ armour monstrous cav and 1+ armour save knights (either as denial blocks or chaff). Sometimes, if you are feeling nuts, you take big units of infantry that should never die. Very very few things can rush at this and get there in any shape to take on 1+ armour save combat units.

Daemons of Chaos – these bad boys, in their most popular incarnation, excel at one thing. Surviving. The look like a combat army, but most of it is not that good in combat. Instead, they make their opponents even worse in combat and grind them out. Nurgle’s power is incredible, and as a result there are extremely few things in the game that could hope to get through a sizable Nurgle unit in anything less than a fortnight.

High Elves – there are lot of ways to go with these robe-wearing harp players. You can (and people do) try to get them to work aggressively. And it can work to a point. They suffer from being either low strength or high strength with no rerolls. The easiest way to run them (have a look at the ETC lists if you don’t believe me) is a bucket-full of shooting (core, 4 bolt throwers, more to taste). Add in some counter punch to taste. A more balanced offering from GW this one, and a reason they are so fun to play with.

Lizardmen – the arch priest of denial Warhammer in their previous book (where if you fought a combat you did not want to in a game you felt like you let yourself down), the servants of the Old Ones may have got slightly worse at it, but it is still the obvious way to play the book. The alternative is expensive combat infantry that is in real trouble against stuff that can fight, and/or monsters that are similarly vulnerable, and not all that good against cavalry. You will see these used, and used well, but on initial reading the book is almost crying out for you to take Skink spam.

On the other end of the scale, we have the two champions of aggressive play:

Ogre Kingdoms – these hit the scene like the lumbering juggernaut they are, and single-handedly turned the existing meta on its head. The amount of damage a relatively cheap unit could do to infantry brought the end of a lot of armies relying on the combat infantry horde. The key here was that their strike units (Mournfang) had multiple wounds and heavy armour – they could wade into s3 things with little fear of reprisal. Ogres have other weaknesses that can be exploited (mediocre leadership, low initiative and needing to get into combat to rack up points), and they have, over time, been reined in to sensible levels. Interestingly, the net result of the mailed fist of the Ogres was even more denial. If you could chaff them up/refuse to fight them whilst buying time for magic to do its thing, the game was yours.

Warriors of Chaos – Ogres 2.0 J . I mentioned earlier that in the land of DenialHammer to be successfully aggressive in a denial world you have to go hyper aggressive. And these boys can do that. Fast and hard hitting units in ever slot. Interestingly though, their power comes from their ability to combine their smashing with Denial. They have few weaknesses to exploit initially. Their army often is made up of a series of hand grenades – it takes a lot of effort to bring down one chariot, and the reward is only slightly north of 100pts. Their character selections, the new breed of Chuck Norrises on the scene, are excellent precisely because they are extremely hard to kill (be it 3++ rerolling 1s, needing 6s to hit Daemon Princes or the access of Heroes to 3W T5 and a 1+ armour without using magic items). Their other strike options – notably the Scull Crushers (multiple attack Monstrous Cavalry like the Mournfang, but with better stats and a 1+ armour save (of course)) are also highly useful in expendable sizes – 3 crushers take a lot of effort for most armies to deal with (if you do get a big searing doom off on them you are unlikely to kill the unit) and don’t give up many points when they do die. There is a reason you don’t see warriors much.

So, in summary: 3 armies that normally deploy defensively whilst shelling their opponents with artillery and magic, a shambling horde whose trick is the ability to heal its units and conserve points, a “combat army” that can beat the other combat units by the singular ability of taking few casualties, an avoidance shooting army that would ideally rarely, if ever, fight combat and a nicely balanced army. Of the 2 aggressive armies that have been given to us, one is now really struggling to be effective, and the other relies on its denial quality to be very good.

Rather sombre reading (I assume, I have not read it – guess it rather depends on your definition of sombre). How can this be reversed?

I guess there are a couple of things that occur to me – no idea if they are actually good ideas or not:

More balanced Army Books – High Elves are a great book. Sure, they can do the BS shooting gunline thing, but their combat stuff is also good. I have used and faced armies of every shape and nature with this new book, and few of them scream out as obviously superior. The issue arises when a small number of options in a book are clearly better than others.

Scenarios – a staple of the UK scene is the lack of scenarios (some events do have them, but talking, as ever, in generalities). A well designed scenario pack should be able to take armies out of their comfort zone (in addition of the obvious benefit of not forcing you to play a series of Battlelines). Armies that can deploy the exact same way in every game is not a good thing. I would have to leave it to far wiser heads than I to design scenarios that would work, but it can be doable. A simple “capture the flag” type thing would at least force confrontation in the middle of the board. Sure, a “true test” of ability vs ability is probably best don’t on a Battleline, but it gets dull, and leads to a certain degree of Seventhitis (the horrible condition when you basically know what is going to happen in a game before you play it).

Comp – some love it, some hate it, I don’t care one way or another. But I do respect comp packs that try to make something happen. Someone could set out to reduce the amount of DenialHammer that occurs. How they do this, well, that’s the question! But am sure someone could do something. There are divergent opinions whether comp or no comp leads to more of this style. On the one hand, comp tends to encourage bunkering up safely. On the other, uncomped magic makes it that much more potent, and encourages magic sniping.

Fun - armies designed for fun do not tend to suffer from this. Now, if only we could figure out how to force people to have fun...

I’m sure there are plenty others – I’m open to suggestions!

On (yet another side note), it is important to note that the most successful players often flip these preconceptions on their head. To get the big wins you have to be able to push – as we covered earlier, combat is where the big points are. Being able to push in the age of denial is a skill – a combination of rolling of the dice of fate and grasping of the testicles and just going for it.

Break the mould – only thus are heroes made (am pretty sure the money and ladies follow shortly)

Until next time,



  1. Good article that hits the malaise of warhammer squarely in the face with a great big 'we see you'. Sadly there is so little incentive to move away from this style of play.

    Some people point to the 20-0 system as the issue, if many of your points are safe you can guarantee you won't get 0-20 results thus ensure mid table mediocrity and safety against putting yourself out the running through a bad matchup.

    Conversely the w/l/d system cops a load of flak for enouraging negative play, get to that 300 (or whatever the target number is) pts clear and then sit off and conserve points for the win, don't bother to engage as you're only risking everything for nothing.

    As long as tournaments remain competitive (and they will become pretty unpopular if they don't have something of that ilk about them) then people will take denial lists in the hope of placing better. Personally I've been trying to move away from the worst offendors of denial lists, those which are actively (and I'll use a phrase I first heard in Malifaux) negative play experiences, that being lists which set out to prevent you from doing anything in the game, the clear example being the lizardmen skink cloud and dwarf gunlines. I don't want you to fight combat, I don't want you casting magic and I don't mind if you die to my shooting whilst having very little control over anything that your army can do as I surround you and gun you to death. (or in the dwarfs case sit here and shell you to death).

    Removing negative play experiences is something most comp packs shy away from,they all talk of 'army balance'. I say forget that, I don't mind a bit of imbalance, Warhammer has some inherent bad matchups suck it up. If you're good enough you'll play a bad army and still beat less good players with a better army. Comp packs should focus on getting rid of those horrible experiences such as:
    Empire - 1+ AS, cannons & Light council. Sits there blows you off the board for no significant risk.
    Nurgle wall - Rumbles forward can't really kill much but doesn't die (at least it's not that maneuverable so gives something to play for)
    WoC chariot spam - here's a load of <150pts models that hit like a truck and then grind better than many combat units, force them to have something to aim at and it becomes a two way game.
    TK & dwarf gunlines - the tk one is magical with light council the dwarf one antimagical with negativity poring out of it's entire being.
    Skaven slave wall - At least most people have worked out how to play them by now, but it's still a mind numbing experience to play multiple across a tournament weekend as it's the same over and over and over. Zzzzz.

    1. Well said.
      I also agree re outlook of lists trying to bring - been working hard to build a combined arms Lizard list including combat, the main issue is having to set aside the uber competitive side of my brain at times...

  2. A lot of it stems from the 10-10 draw, if it was based on VP reaped then armies both intent on smashing face might help.

    A draw where both sides lose 2300 points would be far more rewarding than the both sides lose 150 points.

    Get your bloodthirst on, make Khorne proud.

    Of course that favours some armies? Nothing will be perfect, being the one reliable truth.

  3. Raf, I'm really not sure Pitch battle really is the "“true test” of ability vs ability". Its one thing I always get annoyed about when people write off Dawn Assault as a bad Scenario.

    I personally think the best show of ability is being able to deal with a random, potentially crap situation and make the best of it. Any idiot can read a few battle reports and see how the winner deploys their army for Pitch Battle and copy it. (Note, I'm not saying that wins the game for them, but its a start...). It takes alot bit more "ability" to come up with a game winning plan on the fly, when your army gets split down the middle by a few of bad rolls.

    As for the rest, I agree re. scenarios. Making people have to come out and play through (preferably widely scattered) objective based scenarios is the easiest way to discourage negative play. Sadly the top end of the UK scene (which also generally includes those who run the big tournaments) seems ensconsed in the so called "glory" of corner-hammer. Not sure how you can stop this though without a major shake up of the norm, and in my experience, Warhammer players do not like that one bit (as we saw at the dawn of 8th). The night is Dark and full of Terrors...

    I defo look forward to seeing how Blood and Glory goes with scenarios etc. Could be the kick start to more exciting things!

  4. Without a doubt scenarios add balance to list design and the way people play the game. Players should be rewarded for responding to different situations which are put in front of them, sure sometimes you can get bitten by luck but this can happen throughout the course of a normal game. Perhaps in the UK you guys should *shock horror* run a tournament which runs the 6 rulebook scenarios (advise giving 800VPs for Blood and Glory/Watchtower though as 20-0 is a bit much), you guys might be surprised with the results.

    Nick Legrand

  5. Nick & James,

    I guess the issue with scenarios is that not all armies are treated equally, so it's just seen as introducing another factor which can mean you get a rock/paper/scissor pairing. The classic 50 unbreakable models in a building scenario, or TK getting all their units deployed on the far side from the mages, basically it's the chance that you end up with more 'non-games'.

    That said I'm all in favour of the right kind of scenarios. Watchtower played with a blood forest (the AGOM tourney guys are responsible for this one, it's awesome and surprisingly tactical). B&G where the objective is worth enough points to actually play for it (when you see it in the UK it's commonly 500 pts, so seldom worth modifying your army). The whole secret mission thing that they used at throne of skulls for a while sounded great, though I never played at one.

    The other thing I think needs looked at is the 20-0 scoring system that people love so much, typically 150pts bands up to 1500+ being a 20-0.

    What if you had to win by 500pts to get an 11-9, surely that would help separate the real winners from the losers? Sure you killed a bit of chaff and then hid but you never really touched their army, 10-10. Or alternatively have a dual requirement scoring system, yep winning by 150vps gets you an 11, but only if you've scored more than 800vps in the game, if you've scored less than that it counts as a draw because it wasn't an actual game, you just dicked about for 2 hours. You could even make it a combined thing, did you and your opponent between you score more than 1000 vps, no = 10-10, yes now refer to the table for vp difference.

    But as James said people cling to the familiar and comfortable ways they've been playing for years and resist anything new. I read feedback of an event which I attended earlier this year which was w/l/d results and there was a player who smashed 4 opponents, but drew with 2 that was complaining that he should really have been the winner cos he scored more vps than everyone else. But the person that won beat all 6 of his opponents.

    How someone can not win all their games can and think they did better than someone that won all their games confuses me greatly. Oh right because you got some easier matchups and tabled them but when you faced a challenge you couldn't eek out the win that makes you a better player...

    1. Lets be honest though Dave, its not like all armies are treated equally in a Pitched Battle either. Its an inherent issue of the Army Books.

      I guess its a question of what are we trying to achieve here? If we want to create more engaging and less negative Warhammer, is it really a problem if the scenarios change who the "rock" is and who are the "Scissors" while achieving that?

    2. Oh agree, change itself isn't bad, just ointing out that all it does is shift the goalpoasts when you apply scenarios, it doesn't actually do much by way of identifying the better player.

      As for less negative warhammer, I'm not sure the GW scenarios are great for that. Diagonal deploy and lengthways both frequently push people into non games.

  6. Good article Raff and totally agree denial is no fun for anyone invloved! Certiainly one of the worst offenders of this style of play is the UBER death start armies (Gutstars, Savage Stars etc etc). One possible solution that would go some way to heling with the situation would be to take away the UK comp "staple" of: "Look Out Sir!" for dwellers, final transmutation etc and possibly Pit of Shades and purple sun! Would need some tweaks but would in my opinion sort out deathstars!!


  7. I don't see denial style as a real problem. No one is going to bring a complete denial army in a tournament, where you need to score a couple of 20-0 to win (seriously, who's aiming for not scoring low?). On the other side, it's only natural that, when designing an army list, I try to maximize choices that will not only earn me points during a game, but also not give up some easily. With balances armies (woc, ok) you have to take risks to get points. The problem were armies like old lizardmen, where the overwhelming power of two slanns let them earn points without risking anything, just sitting in the back. Luckily, this is ending, both for the nerfing of new books, both for the rise of armies that just run into your face (woc, ogres, doc) giving little time for avoidance.

  8. Well Frank, sounds like you are very lucky to not have experienced the boring side of it.
    It being the "right' way to design a list is never in doubt.
    WoC try to rush people (though points denial is still the major concern). Pretty much every single other army plays defensively at the top end of tournament games in the UK. Its just dull dull dull. Nothing worse than Empire.

    Is it "wrong"? No. People are allowed to run Dwarfs after all...

    Oh, and on Lizards, in my personal experience they are now far more avoidance than they ever were. But we shall see.


  9. But are those people winning tournaments with denial armies? Empire doesn't rely only on shooting and magic, without the weight in cc of demigriffs and inner circle it won't be the top army it is (it value being exactly that, having the tools to make points BOTH at distance and at close range).