After the overwhelming response to the WarpHammer article about how to beat Space Marines, we decided to expand that into a series about how to win every single matchup in the game. This series will have three articles: Beating the Imperium factions, beating Xenos factions, and beating Chaos factions.
Up first (but definitely last in every heretic’s heart), is the Imperium focus.
The overarching principle behind this series is that every faction can beat every other faction, and player skill can always trump a bad matchup. At any given tournament table, the gaps between player skill usually are usually larger than the gaps in faction balance. This is amplified at casual FLGS levels, where the vast majority of 40K is played. This isn’t to say specific lists can’t have horribly skewed matchups–if you want to run a funny Daemons gunline with a bunch of Skull Cannons and Exalted Flamers, save the gas money you’d spend driving to practice against a Cadian gunline–but on the whole, we’re much better served by improving our own gameplay than arguing about game balance.
And just because this article is aimed at competitive gameplay doesn’t mean we can’t have some fluffy fun–every matchup will accompanied by a quote that fits how the matchup goes for Daemons. Let’s dive right in, starting with the Custodes.
Chaos exists in a state of permanent victory over you… My lord Tzeentch won your war a long, long time ago.
–Ghargatuloth, Daemon Prince
Custodes are an excellent matchup for Daemons. While Custodes are very strong overall, Daemons are able to take advantage of their weaknesses and neuter their strengths in return.
One of the keys to winning with melee lists against Custodes is playing around their Tanglefoot Grenade stratagem. Tanglefoot enables any Infantry unit (including Characters like Trajann) to reduce your non-Fly unit’s movement or charge roll by d6″ inches if you are within 12″ at the start of the phase. This has some huge implications. A Custodes unit can get in base-to-base contact with a unit of Nurglings in their combat phase, and then in your turn they can Tanglefoot your Nurgling squad. On a 4+, you cannot Fall Back at all (your Move will be 1″, and thus be unable to finish your Fall Back outside of 1″. Custodes can also Heroically Intervene with any unit for 1 CP, and if they Tanglefoot your unit so that you are unable to move more than 3″ away from them, they will be able to continue fighting you in your turn.
It also makes deepstriking melee units like Bloodletters much less relevant. If they have Trajann near a Dreadnought or Jetbike squad, it’s better to deepstrike outside of 12″ of Trajann even if that means being 10″ or 11″ away from your intended target. Bloodletters still have a great chance of making a 10″ or 11″ charge, and you don’t want to create the opportunity for your opponent to roll hot on Tanglefoot and force you into needing a 14″ or 15″ charge roll.
Another tactic to watch out for is their infamous Swooping Dive, which allows a unit of Jetbikes (including a Jetbike Captain) to charge at the end of your charge phase. Your charging units cannot fight against a unit that Swooping Dive’d, unlike units that Heroically Intervened. One trick to avoid that is use a throwaway unit like Furies to charge their Jetbikes so they’re not eligible to declare a charge. The Furies will die immediately, but that’s better than giving them a free Fight phase into a target of their choice. Another technique is placing your valuable charging units in a location where they cannot physically fit their Jetbikes into Engagement Range with your charging unit. An example is charging your Bloodthirster into their Dreadnought and then charging some Flesh Hounds after the Bloodthirster and trailing them in a ring around the Bloodthirster’s base.
Custodes also have no ability to fall back and shoot or charge, except for niche Character builds. With the change to morale in 9th Edition, charging units like 10 Daemonettes into 3 Allarus Terminators is a great idea. They’ll only kill 5 or 6 Daemonettes, and it’s extremely unlike that 3 or 4 models will all run with how morale works. As long as a single Daemonette survives the turn, those Terminators will not be able to shoot or fight any other unit in their next turn.
Oh, and about Mortal Wounds: Mortal Wounds absolutely shred Custodes. Daemons lists can typically do 10-20 Mortal Wounds in the Psychic phase, and units like Flamers or Beasts of Nurgle can chip in 3-10 Mortal Wounds in the Shooting or Fight phases. I’ve saved this paragraph for last because it’s so obvious, but units like Lords of Change with the Lord of Flux Exalted trait are brutal in this matchup. A single well-timed Infernal Gateway can end the game on turn 2 or 3, although this rarely happens versus experienced opponents.
What will come to pass is no longer war. It will be endless sacrifice in Their names.
–Crull, World Eaters Warlord
AdMech are the worst matchup in the game for board control focused Daemons lists. Unless you’re able to whittle down their damage output as the game goes on, you will lose your grip on the board.
There is no such thing as durability vs AdMech.
They have high volume shooting, they have high quality shooting, they have non-Line Of Sight shooting. They have easily accessible bonuses to hit, bonuses to wound, re-rolls, and even potentially mortal wounds. They advance and shoot, they generate additional hits, they shoot into combat.
Their Serberys Raiders are arguably the single best unit in the game. They move pre-game, they snipe, provide extremely cheap Wounds… and most importantly, their stratagem to move after being declared as charge targets is incredibly frustrating to ground-bound melee armies like Slaanesh.
There is no golden bullet vs Serberys Raiders, but there are some counter-plays. They are <Cavalry>, which means they can’t move through Breachable terrain. Look for chances to use terrain and your other units to block off their avenues of escape before charging. For example, AdMech players will often pre-game move some Raiders to block alleys between ruins in the middle of the board to block your Keepers of Secrets. Advance a unit of Furies behind the Raiders, and those slippery buggers won’t be able to move to avoid your army’s charges. Units like Nurglings that forward deploy can also prevent them using their pre-game move (which has to end 9″ away from your units) to get into position.
Watch out for their Flyers, which have a stratagem to turn off your auras such as the Contorted Epitome’s no-Fall Back aura. Their Flyer has to end it’s move within 6″ of the unit they want to turn off and has a huge base, so a few spread-out models and terrain can be used to prevent them finishing their move within 6″ of your Contorted Epitome or other important aura sources.
And speaking of the Contorted Epitome, preventing Fall Back to avoid being shot can be crucial versus AdMech. Their units like Balistarii and Kastelans can shoot into combat, yes, but they can’t shoot into other combats. Use your Fiends, Epitome, wrapping, and smart Fight phase movement to ensure that your valuable targets end the Fight phase in Engagement Range of other units that will be trapped in combat (such as a Dunecrawler that got touched by some Fiends). If they’re Stygies, they will have a Canticle to Fall Back and Shoot, so be careful about relying on tagging units if facing Stygies.
Daemons actually have a decent matchup into Breacher spam, but a well-rounded AdMech list will have most of the tools mentioned above. Come into the matchup prepared for their tricks, and find ways to stay in combat or aggressively reach their lines.
We cannot be destroyed! We are of the Warp!
–Septicus, the Great Unclean One
Grey Knights versus Daemons is a fascinating matchup. Both factions are so absolutely busted against each other that in a roundabout way, it roughly balances out.
Grey Knights slaughter Daemons. There is no way around that. They’ll do 20-30 Mortal Wounds to you each turn, and full Wound re-rolls in melee mean that every single unit in the army is a significant threat to even your Greater Daemons.
In exchange, Daemons have the single best stratagem in the entire game:
Daemonic Incursion (2 CP)
Use this Stratagem when one of your DAEMON units (other than a named character) is destroyed by a GREY KNIGHTS unit. The destroyed unit is returned to your army at full strength, and is set up on the battlefield at the end of your next Movement phase, anywhere on the battlefield that is more than 9″ from any enemy models. This does not cost you any reinforcement points in a matched play game. (Emphasis mine)
You can have a Lord of Change with the Impossible Robe/Incorporeal Form/Aura of Mutability soak up an entire army’s worth of shooting, then just come right back the next turn at full strength. A block of 30 Bloodletters can charge, wipe out massive swathes of their army, then get killed and come back next turn to do it all over again (though keep in mind you only get the Banner Of Blood charge the first time you charge). You can bring back 200-300 points worth of models for 2 CP, and you can do this every single phase of the game until you run out of CP.
Daemons also have While We Stand We Fight guaranteed against Grey Knights. You can just pop Daemonic Incursion whenever one of your While We Stand We Fight targets dies. This also ensures that any killing Secondaries aren’t an option for Grey Knights. You just have to play conservatively on turn 5, since you won’t be able to return units destroyed that turn before the end of the game.
A great trick versus Grey Knights can be using a Bloodthirster with the Bloodblessed Exalted reward. One of the strengths of Grey Knights is their out-of-phase actions, being able to both shoot, move, teleport in the Psychic Phase. Their strongest tactic is shooting with a block of Terminators or Paladins using Edict Imperator in the Psychic phase to clear out a screening unit, and then pour Smites into the squishy unit that you thought was screened or using Gate Of Infinity to move a unit into that area which is no longer screened. Bloodblessed prevents you from dying in the Psychic Phase entirely, regardless of whether you were Smited or got shot by Edict Imperator.
There is nothing–absolutely nothing–in the codex that is as valuable as being able to use Daemonic Incursion, so be very conservative with spending CP on anything else. Using Daemonic Possession to snipe units with 2d3 MW when they Perils is great, but on the whole you should never be Warp Surging or CP Re-rolling anything in this matchup.
The weakness of Daemonic Incursion is that it can only be used once per phase, so try to avoid losing multiple key units in a single phase. Don’t forget that you can intentionally use your nearly non-existent armour save instead of invuln save if you want to make sure a unit dies so you can Daemonic Incursion it. For example, if they have moved into position to kill 2 Lords of Change in their Fight phase, you can use your 6+ Save instead of 4++ invuln save if they shoot one to try and lose one that phase. Or if you have a Great Unclean One with one wound left in your turn, you can charge it into anything to try and die to bring it back at full health next turn. Very gamey, not recommended if you’re in a narrative Crusade league, but very effective.
Grey Knights are like Lords of Change, in that can give Mortal Wounds but they can’t take them. They do have a Litany which provides a 5+++ Feel-No-Pain versus Mortal Wounds, but not all Grey Knight builds choose that and it still fails 1/3rd of the time. Flamers are excellent sources of anti-Grey Knight damage, as are our Greater Daemons.
Grey Knights vs Daemons played by two talented players is 40K at it’s best: A thinking man or woman’s game, full of close quarters action and carefully planned phases, and an iconic fluffy matchup that leads to lots of fun moments.
“I murdered thousands for the Emperor and he gave me nothing except his damning silence. Now his lapdogs yap for every life I take.”
–Svane Vulfbad, leader of the Khornate Blood Wolves
Beating Guard is very similar to beating AdMech, with the added bonus that almost all of their most dangerous guns are Blast weapons and thus way more vulnerable to being tagged. They also don’t have a unit that screens as well as Serberys Raiders.
The very nature of how they operate–waves of spread out bodies–ties in perfectly with the Daemons’ game plan of locking units in combat to avoid being shot. Large blocks of Fiends can run amok through their army, and Horrors are excellent both for their high volume of fire and ability to spread durable bodies throughout the board.
Their Scions units, which have received a big boost in popularity in 9th Edition, present a tougher challenge. The main thing to keep in mind is that Scions will hit incredibly hard per-point, but are extremely dependent on being able to drop down within 12″ of their chosen targets to gain bonuses through rapid firing or increased melta damage. Screen, screen, screen. They can “deepstrike” turn one by dropping out of their Valkyries, so be meticulous in your screening starting from deployment. Iotan Gorgonnes can deepstrike 5″ away, so be careful not to leave holes in your lines near your squishy units and hide your Fiends from creative LOS angles. And while Guard generally don’t produce Mortal Wounds, Lambdan Lions have a stratagem to do Mortal Wounds on 6’s to Wound. Be very careful leaving units like Incorporeal Form/Impossible Robe Lords of Change exposed if they are running Lambdan Lions, even though you usually want units like that soaking up firepower in this matchup. This can be stacked with Vengeance for Cadia to give them Wound rerolls, which can quickly tear through your Lord of Change.
Now it’s time to stop beating around the bush, and talk about the Relic Of Lost Cadia.
An optimized Cadian list, going first, just wins against Daemons. There’s really not much more to say. That doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee if there is a huge discrepancy in player skill or competitiveness in lists… but it’s genuinely an embarassingly lopsided matchup. I don’t believe in complaining about game balance, it is what it is… but I will give my personal opinion that someone at GW should have reigned the Guard codex writer in when he proposed such absurd anti-Chaos buffs. Their entire army (which is what a 12″ bubble means for any decent player that pre-measures) getting to reroll hits and wounds against you is rough. I have lost 3 Plagueburst Crawlers in one turn against a Cadian gunline; our Greater Daemons don’t really stand a chance. At least Heretic Astartes get Death To The False Emperor as a fluff rule in exchange. Daemons get all the downside of being Chaos versus Guard without any corresponding buffs.
Now, let’s talk about why that’s not really an issue for competitive Daemons players. With gunlines in general suffering greatly in 9th Edition missions, the days of running into Cadian artillery parks in tournaments are behind us. Guard are incentivized to go Infantry-heavy with the new sub-factions that don’t have access to the Relic Of Lost Cadia. Guard in general have also fallen hard in popularity from their mid-8th Edition heyday, and are seen much more rarely than they used to be. Ironically, we should thank Space Marines for that–maybe the Anathema wasn’t such a bad guy after all! Just win your first round matchup and hope the one Cadian player at the tournament loses his or hers, so you don’t have to play them the rest of the way.
Sisters of Battle
I once walked the same ground as your idol. I breathed the same air as him. And I tell you this, without lie or artifice. He never wanted to become what you have made him!
Sisters Of Battle were a matchup that at first I was really scared of for Daemons. They’ve got some strong anti-Psyker tools (potentially getting army-wide d6+3 psychic denies, a 4+ psychic power denial strat, potentially some psychic test debuffs, potentially some buffs to damage against Psykers). Then I played against a really good Sisters player fresh off winning a nearby tourney, blew him out with my Daemons, and assumed it was a total fluke. We rematched at the next tourney we both attended, and Daemons won handily again. Then some of my practice buddies got Sisters armies ready, and Daemons again kept shutting down all of their tricks. At this point I’m convinced that a Chaos Undivided or Slaanesh Daemons army counters Sisters incredibly well, which is great news since they’re becoming increasingly popular.
The stratagem Aura of Acquiescence (a -1 Attack debuff to all nearby units) is an excellent counter to Repentia, who lose a huge portion of their damage output with every decreased attack. If you have a Slaanesh Daemon with the Bewitching Aura Warlord trait (which you should almost always be taking if you’re running lots of Slaanesh Daemons) to stack an additional -1 Attack debuff on nearby models, those fearsome Bloody Rose Repentia grind to a halt. Sisters have no forward deploying units, so you can deploy your Nurglings last to block off their threat ranges.
Their MSU approach also makes Epitome/Fiend combat wrapping much easier. They also have a very clear divide between units that are scary in melee and units that aren’t. There isn’t the issue that comes with facing Marines, where your Fiends touch some Incursors and die to all of their attacks if they roll hot.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but any big unit you leave visible in the middle of the board is just dead against Sisters. Everyone is worried about Eradicators and Melta Attack Bikes, but Retributors are far more deadly. If it’s a key target for the Sisters player, the first save that you fail is going to be a guaranteed 9 damage. It’s better for your Keeper to take two turns to reach their front line, just advancing to a midfield Obscuring piece turn one and charging turn two, than it is to attempt and fail a turn one charge and be caught in the open.
Be wary of declaring charges against any Characters with plasma weapons, as they can intentionally kill themselves with miracle dice in Overwatch and make your charge auto-fail. Sisters also have the nasty trick to shoot Inferno Pistols when they deepstrike to clear a landing zone for other units, but our universal invulns and access to cheap bodies make that a non-issue. Inferno Pistols tear through a few Intercessors screening a flank, but a handful of Nurglings will shut them down. They also have a stratagem to fall back and shoot, but Sisters use a lot of CP and can only use that once per phase, so tagging their shooting units (especially multiple) still works well against them.
Imperium armies run the gamut from hordes to elite, and from gunlines to brawlers, but they all have one thing in common: Chaos and Xenos players love to beat them. Don’t be intimidated if you end up facing one of these armies at a tournament. Stick to your gameplan, remember how to counter their specific tricks, and you’ll find yourself winning often. As always, good luck, stay safe, and may the Dark Gods bless your rolls.
Notes: Knights will be discussed collectively in the Chaos matchup guide. Check back next week for the Chaos guide, and the week after that for the Xenos guide. And feel free to comment below or message if there are specific Imperium units or sub-factions giving you trouble, and we can work out solutions to that problem unit. Thanks for reading and being a part of this quickly growing community!
And thank you to Imperium players Raymond Ortman, Ryan Snyder, Zach Joseph, Chris Gosselin, and Dan Paolini for discussing their perspectives on these matchups.