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Let The Galaxy Burn: Tips for Winning Every Xenos Matchup

Continuing our series on how to win every matchup in the game, this week we will focus on the Xenos races. Despite the well-deserved reputation that Xenos armies don’t get enough attention from GW, there are some very strong Xenos builds out there that you need to be prepared to face.

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 like last time, 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 hottest faction in 40K right now: Harlequins.

Quick plug before the article begins… we created a Discord for Chaos players to chat! Come say hi! https://discord.gg/bbyj8ejUEJ

Harlequins

Knowledge is power, and with the key to the Black Library I shall claim it all.”

–Ahzek Ahriman

Harlequins are lucky that Space Marines have hogged the attention as 9th Edition’s bogeyman, because if it weren’t for Marines than Harlequins would have a reputation as the game’s most oppressive faction. Harlequins are a tough matchup for everyone, but fortunately Daemons have a much better matchup against them than most armies.

There’s no other way to say it: Harlequins against Vehicle-heavy armies are simply brutal. Their Haywire bikes can drown Vehicles in pools of Mortal Wounds from absurd threat ranges, which makes hiding large Vehicles nearly impossible. It’s not like you needed a reason to not run Soul Grinders competitively… but as the only Vehicle in the Daemons codex, the Harlequins matchup completely disincentives their use.

On the flip side, Daemons kill Harlequins very, very well. Harlequins, as is to be expected of an army of expensive single wound models, really suffer from Mortal Wounds. Look for opportunities to “snipe” key Harlequin Characters using creative LOS blocking angles to block your Lord of Change’s view to screening units. A key Infernal Gateway can also be potentially game-winning against them. Harlequins players love screening their Characters by keeping them within 3″ of jet-bikes or transports in front of their army, and dropping d3 or d6 Mortal Wounds on multiple units works very well.

While our Greater Daemons have been stealing the show in 9th Edition, it’s our Troops that really provide the killing power against Harlequins. Large volumes of medium strength attacks with long threat ranges remain the best way to kill Troupes, and few units do this better than Daemonettes. It cannot be overstated just how brutally Daemonettes butcher Harlequins. A block of 20 Daemonettes near a Herald kill around ~14 Troupes every time they fight, while Aura of Acquiescence and The Masque (-1 Attack and -1 to Hit in melee, respectively) greatly dull the Troupe’s damage in return. Harlequins really benefit from their psychic power Twilight Pathways (a less spikey version of Warptime) which pushes their threat ranges to truly absurd distances. Going first against Harlequins, it’s a great idea to move forward a source of Deny The Witch (usually a tanky Lord of Change) for them to play around.

Much like fighting Repentia, one of the best stratagems against Harlequins is the universal Counter-Offensive to interrupt multi-charges. Keeping 2 CP in your back pocket to deter them from getting too frisky in the later turns is a smart play. Do keep in mind that they can leave combat after fighting. You’ll have to be aware of the order units will fight and interrupt (or be Slaanesh) to guarantee fighting with a key unit in some situations. Falling back against Fusion Pistol wielding units can also be rough because they shoot you before you move. Fortunately, as an old codex Daemons have no way to Fall Back and Charge besides the Feculent Gnarlmaw, so you’re probably never going to be falling back with a Greater Daemon in this matchup anyway.

Tau

Long shall be your suffering. Joyous be your pain.

-Asteroth, Daemon Prince of Slaanesh

I guarantee some comedian-in-training is going to comment “The secret to beating Tau in 9th Edition: Play any army besides Tau” on some social media site where this article is shared. I guarantee it.

Tau are the worst army early in 9th Edition, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some powerful tools and tricks to watch out for. And that doesn’t also mean that somewhere, there isn’t a strong Tau player beating and frustrating players of “stronger” factions in local leagues. So let’s talk about how to beat Tau.

Despite their reputation as the game’s premier shooting faction, Tau shooting can really be underwhelming–especially when faced with any hit modifiers. They can have excellent horde clearing non-Line Of Sight shooting depending on how heavily they have invested in Airbursting Frag Launchers, but it is rather short ranged at 18″. Focus on screening out their Crisis bomb’s drop zones, because all that S4 shooting with potential bonuses to hit and wound rolls can legitimately hurt our Greater Daemons with only 5++ invuln saves

Infernal Gateway (or the Thousand Sons’s variant Astral Blast) can be brutal against Tau, because they often have lots of small Drone units near other valuable units that will suffer greatly if d3 (or d6) Mortal Wounds explode from the nearest model.

Daemon players relying on the Contorted Epitome have to be cognizant of units in opponent’s armies that have the ability to leave combat without Falling Back. Tau have the ability to do that with their Stealth Suits if they are also running Ghostkeels, which can make Stealth Suits an effective screen against combat trapping armies. Tau’s near universal <Fly> keywords also present issues for Slaanesh Daemon armies relying on Fiends.

Focus on abusing their lack of durable ObSec units and lack of ability to Fall Back and shoot. Use Fight phase movement to circle around and touch as many units as you can. Riptides can shoot into combat as they are <Monsters>, but they would almost always rather be shooting larger units than the Bloodletters or Nurglings touching them. And Broadsides and Crisis Suits and Commanders have no way to shoot anymore once they’re touched.

Tau Sept Overwatch can be brutal, but most Tau players are running Farsight Enclaves these days–don’t let the Tau’s previously deserved reputation for overwhelming Overwatch deter you from key charges. Ultramarines and Salamanders have far more terrifying Overwatch than Tau these days, and a Keeper with the Blessing Of The Dark Prince (-1 to Wound with ranged weapons) reward can charge with relative impunity.

Orks

Brothers! Welcome to the feast! Tell me, which among you will be the first course?

–Lucius, The Eternal

“Skullz For Da Skull Throne”

Who doesn’t love fighting Orks?

People interested in winning 9th Edition games, statistically speaking.

As one of the strongest armies in the game in the hands of a good player, you need to have a gameplan for the Ork matchup. The most common winning list so far is a horde of Goff Boyz buffed by Ghaz for a truly ridiculous volume of mobile S4 or S5 attacks, but Orks have a surprisingly deep roster of shenanigans to discuss.

The biggest issue when facing Orks is their stratagem Unstoppable Green Tide, which returns a unit at full strength within 6″ of a board edge if it is at less than half strength in the Movement phase. This creates a weird dynamic, where you want to be very cognizant of how many Boyz are in a unit when deciding to target them. If there is a Boyz squad with only a few models hanging around, you have to finish them off. Don’t be afraid to ask how many models are left in a unit, or how many Boyz are in each unit on the field. It is a massive feelsbad when an Orks player has a few leftover Boyz behind a wall and Unstoppable Green Tides them back to full strength. This is not an accusation of foul play, simply an acknowledgement that models between units and behind buildings can get messy.

To avoid a Green Tide getting too much board control, screen up the 6″ alley on the side of the board just like you do with deepstriking threats from Strategic Reserves. Screening is also vitally important because of their Da Jump psychic power to relocate an Infantry unit anywhere on the board (with the usual 9″ restriction”). Speaking of Psykers, Ork Psykers can get +3 to cast but suffer Perils on modified rolls of 12+ instead of unmodified. Anything that worsens the effect of their Perils, such as the stratagem Daemonic Possession to force them to suffer 2d3 MW, can brutalize their 4W casters. Orks somehow have the best “Fire And Fade” type stratagem in the entire game, with their Shokkjump Dragsta able to come down anywhere on the board 9″ away the enemy after shooting.

All Ork Flyers can auto-explode at the end of their Movement phase, which is most worrying when performed with a Burna-Bommer for a 6″ bubble of flat 3 MW. This was something many people talked about as a gamechanger when it was first revealed, but in practice it hasn’t had the effect that many worried. This is likely a result of how easy it is to screen out a massive Flyer base from landing near anything important. My main piece of advice when facing a Burna-Bommer would be to ignore it if you can’t shoot it down entirely, as they’re likely planning to explode it so chip damage won’t matter.

Most Daemon lists will struggle to do damage to Ghazgull Thraka in the shooting phase, so one-shotting him is unlikely. Rather than force your limited targetted Smites into him, I would almost rather use those to target support Characters like the invuln aura Mek or Lootas and simply tarpit Ghaz. Unlike the Nightbringer with a sweep attack, Ghaz will seriously struggle to fight his way through 10 Daemonettes and is easier to tarpit than kill. Ork Characters can also fight on death–which is a serious issue, when your gameplan for finishing Ghaz off in the Fight phase was to charge him with a Keeper of Secrets or Bloodthirster.

Necrons

The revelation of spirit when encountering the power of Chaos is as freeing for the machine as it is for the mortal mind. It is our duty to create this blessed state of union.

–Gaiak, Dark Magos

(Artwork Credit: Fares Maese)

Many people initially wrote the new Necrons codex off as weak, which I never understood. The only thing that was clear initially to me was that it was a complicated codex that would take a while to fully understand. As players have had several months to playtest and build their lists, it is becoming increasingly clear that Necrons are one of the strongest armies in the game.

While Ghaz was the original recipient of the rule that capped the maximum number of Wounds taken per phase, Necrons have perhaps made the best use of it with their powerful C’tan. The Nightbringer in particular represents a potential challenge for Daemons. The worrying part for Daemons players is that he ignores invuln saves and any rules preventing damage from being taken (so Bloodthirsters can’t use their Blood-blessed rule, and feel-no-pains like Disgustingly Resilient or Delightful Agonies cannot be used). He also has a rule that means he can never take more than 3 Wounds per phase, and can heal 1 Wound every turn. He can also throw out a handful of Mortal Wounds during his movement phase. Long story short, the Nightbringer is a pain to deal with.

I was already an advocate of several of the Daemons shooting options, but I think the rise of the Nightbringer makes them even more important. Flamers are an excellent choice for the mid-range firepower needed to hurt the Nightbringer when he comes close. More broadly, if you were on the fence about the Living Whip vs Shining Hand on the Keeper of Secrets or the Wrath/Fury Bloodthirsters vs Rage Bloodthirsters, the Nightbringer and Ghaz are legitimate arguments for working some ranged damage into your list so you can get some damage in during an additional phase.

But more importantly, Daemons have one completely perfect hard counter: The Forbidden Gem. The Forbidden Gem is a relic that once per game prevents an opposing Character from acting for a phase. The Nightbringer has Leadership 10, and you need to surpass his Leadership on 3d6. That means the Forbidden Gem will prevent him for fighting for a phase 50% of the time, and 62.5% of the time if you’ve casted Phantasmagoria to reduce his Leadership by one. Considering you’re almost always killing him immediately in that Fight phase and then the Psychic/Shooting/Fight phases of your next turn, the threat of the Forbidden Gem is absolutely brutal for the Necrons player.

The next big piece of unlocking the Necrons puzzle is defeating their Warrior blobs. These 20 strong squads can reanimate if they’re not fully destroyed, and put out withering firepower within 12″. The key factor to remember is that Necrons do not get to reanimate after receiving Psychic damage, so whittling Warrior squads down with a few Smites and other damage spells will put you in a great position to finish them off for good. Options for Daemons units that can finish off wounded Warriors squads include Flamers with Flames of Mutation and Bloodletter bombs. Watch out for Necrons players using the Veil of Darkness to pull units out of combat traps (such as the Contorted Epitome’s aura) so they can pour fire into your previously trapping unit.

Do keep in mind that while previously Psychic Actions were free points against Necrons, the newest FAQ changed the rules so that the Silent King can deny our Psychic Actions in addition to Psychic Powers. The interaction between Quicksilver Swiftness and the Silent King’s Obedience Generator rule still hasn’t been cleared up, so I strongly encourage you to check with your TO ahead of time about how they will rule that during games.

Craftworlds

Every moment of anger, hate, deceit, pain, suffering, pleasure, and desire is mirrored in the power of Chaos. When its legions march, they march to return upon us a ruin that is of our own making.

–Arenal, Aeldari Farseer

(Artwork Credit: Slaanesh-Goddess)

More than another other faction, Craftworlds is an army in flux right now. They have some genuinely great pieces, especially with an array of points drops after the latest FAQ, but it just hasn’t quite come together yet. This presents a challenge in terms of understanding what you will be facing, and thus how to beat it. This section will be the shortest in the article, and focus on a high level about the main Craftworlds shenanigans.

Aeldari Flyers were once the bane of competitive 40K, but changes to how detachments work and the core rules in 9th Edition have reduced Craftworlds players’ ability (and desire) to spam them. This has quietly been one of the biggest forces in the rise of Daemons, because Flyers absolutely crush Daemons. With Slaanesh based lists having absolutely no way to interact with them, they can move block and shoot with impunity. While I’m using Craftworlds as a reason to discuss this, this really applies to any faction with access to Aircraft. Mediocre units like Stormtalon Gunships absolutely shine in the Daemons matchup.

Outside of Flyers, Daemons counter Craftworlds quite well. The general principle of Craftworlds is that they can stack buffs and debuffs on single units to insane levels, but they’re at a disadvantage basically everywhere else on the board. Craftworlds hate mobile sources of Psychic Denies, because stopping a key Doom cast to prevent Wound re-rolls can be the difference between your Lord of Change lasting all game or dying in a turn or two. Their Shining Spears also rely on casting Quicken to pick their targets anywhere on the board, as they’re at their most effective when they’re hitting other glass cannon units first. A Lord of Change pushing up the board with 2 denies at +2 can affect their entire gameplan.

Craftworlds have the only non-Line of Sight Psychic damage in the game, as their spell Executioner delivers d3 (with an additional d3 if any models were killed) Mortal Wounds to the nearest unit within 18″ regardless of Line of Sight. Daemons aren’t as affected by this as most armies, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind, especially late in the game when you’re just trying to keep a While We Stand We Fight target alive. They also have strong D2 non-Line of Sight shooting from their Nightspinners, and their lack of AP doesn’t matter against our Daemons.

Craftworlds can be bullied quite easily on Primary due to the inability of their Troops to efficiently clear out units like Nurglings or Bloodletters in combat, but that may be changing. We shall see how heavily Craftworlds players decide to invest in their cheaper ObSec options in the coming months. Receiving the green light from the FAQ to disembark Dark Reapers, shoot, and return them to safety in a transport means we will start seeing more of their strong shooting again.

Forces of the Hive Mind

There is no room for weakness in this galaxy. No room for imperfection.”

–Fulgrim

We’re going to combine the Tyranid and Genestealer Cult sections due to how often they are played together, but they both deserves serious consideration as very underrated factions in 9th Edition.

Tyranids have an absolutely brutal stratagem that forces you to take Perils every time you fail a Psychic test within 12″ of a Synapse unit, which can be combined with a Kronos stratagem to take a Psychic power’s test on 1d6. Your fragile Psykers like Changecasters (or a CSM Sorceror if you’re souping) want absolutely nothing to do with that, so try to pre-measure and start your Psychic phase from outside of 12″. This also makes Psychic Actions completely useless against Kronos as you will statistically almost never get them through their deny.

Tyranids can put more mobile bodies on the board than any faction in the game, so if you’re facing pure Tyranids you have to have a plan to cut through to the objectives. They can double move a unit even if they haven’t invested in a Swarmlord, so you’re likely to find yourself boxed into your deployment zone going second. Don’t panic if that happens–your units like Daemonettes will be able to start cutting through them quickly. Against armies that will impede your movement, it is absolutely crucial that you use the Fight phase for additional movement. Don’t forget to charge all sorts of useless combat units like a Changeling, Plague Drones, Horrors, etc into their move-blocking units alongside your units like Daemonettes that will kill the moveblocking unit. Being able to push your entire army an extra 6″ vaguely forward out of your deployment zone is crucial.

Tyranids also have unexpectedly excellent non-Line of Sight shooting, so be cautious of starting units like Flamers on the board. Speaking of weirdly excellent shooting, Genestealer Cult Ridgerunners shooting 9d3 Lascannon-equivalent shots is something even your Great Unclean One wants nothing to do with. Ridgerunner lists benefit greatly from the Jackal Alphus giving them +1 to Hit, so find ways to kill him if you can. Ridgerunners can move pre-game to get better Line of Sight angles, but have to end 9″ away. Some cleverly deployed Nurglings can limit their shooting options.

Now that Genestealer Cults received the benefit to range on their Flamers, they can now shoot with all of their deepstriking Acolytes instead of being limited through stratagems to one unit a turn. While the fact they are S3 Flamers instead of S4 makes them nearly useless against T7 Greater Daemons, they are still very efficient at burning through your screens. They can shoot in the Movement phase, so a 10 strong Daemonette unit that was screening your Characters can be easily deleted and your Characters charged by the next deepstriking unit. You need to have two layer of screening if you’re relying on fragile units. They also have strong sniping (with bonus Perils) against Psykers that can operate out of deepstrike, so don’t leave support Characters in the open if their buffs can operate from out of Line Of Sight.

Final Thoughts

Xenos are an extremely varied collection of armies, and as such require experience to beat consistently. While some of these armies are lower in the power curve than others, every army has tricks up its sleeve that will beat you if you come into the matchup unprepared. Focus on executing your gameplan while keeping your opponent from doing some key things his or her faction needs to win, and you’ll find success in these matchups. As always, good luck, stay safe, and may the Dark Gods bless your rolls.

Note: Drukhari were not included in this analysis due to the fact they are receiving a new codex soon that will shake everything up. They’re a fun faction, and if GW shows them the same love that they showed the first 9th Edition Xenos codex (Necrons), they could quickly become a force to be reckoned with.

Published: January 11th, 2021. Last updated: January 12th, 2021.

4 replies on “Let The Galaxy Burn: Tips for Winning Every Xenos Matchup”

It’s a great article! Thank you! I would love to see a souping guide from you! I’m fearly new to the game and I’m currently runnig a Nurgle bataillon and I was wondering if a spearhead of Thousand son with some mutalith vortex beast and exalted sorcerer could do the job to help me output and break some custodes castle.

Liked by 1 person

Hey MrHavok, don’t worry–I really like the Drukhari and wouldn’t forget them!

As mentioned in the note at the bottom, with their new codex coming soon, I figured I would hold off until we get more information. If they become a force on the tabletop, I may do a separate article on beating their new codex.

Thanks for reading!

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