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You Want To Play Tournaments, But Your Army Is Awful. Now What?

This article addresses a fundamental question for many tabletop wargamers:

You want to play competitively, but your army is in a bad spot. What happens now?

I want to take a step back from Chaos specific content today, and talk more broadly about something very real that happens in this hobby.

Don’t get discouraged by the title. This is not a negative article! It’s quite the opposite on the whole. I will completely real with you about what it’s like playing a “trash tier” army competitively all year. We’re going to address some of the myths about playing a bad army, identify the issues with playing a bad army, and then discuss the mindset you need to still succeed. I’m also going to keep the advice practical and avoid tailoring the advice to any specific factions as much as possible. Regardless of how strong or weak your army is currently, you’ll end up at the bottom of the power curve eventually.

This article is all about addressing a fundamental question and reality for many tabletop wargamers:

Your army is awful, but you still want to play competitive 40K. What happens now?

Myths About Playing a Bad Army

“It’s Pointless Playing a Bad Army”

Let’s start with an easy strawman that I can immediately knock down. Acting like playing a bad army makes games a foregone conclusion or waste of time is just not true. Warhammer is a fantastic hobby for many, many reasons that go besides balance. The points can keep going up on a Lord of Change in perpetuity, and I’ll still always enjoy putting a big talking chicken on the table.

An army that has a ~30% winrate is simply winning every third game instead of every other game. That means games are far from a foregone conclusion. You also have to keep in mind that every faction has lots of inexperienced or non-competitive players included in its winrate, and that’s especially true for “bad” factions that most serious players have abandoned. A faction which has a 30% winrate may have a 10% winrate among its bottom half of players but a healthy 50% winrate among its top half of players, and maybe even a 60% winrate among its top 10% of players.

I could write a whole article about why winrates are meaningless for evaluating faction strength, but I don’t want to get sidetracked this early in the article. I’ll just sum it up like this:

Unless your goal is just to be an average player, then you shouldn’t be concerned with what average players are doing with your faction.

“You’ll Learn More Playing a Bad Army”

This is something people really want to be true, but it isn’t always right. Don’t just stick with a bad army because you think it’ll help you learn.

When an army is “better”, it’s often because it has more tools for more situations. Learning how to use these tools will help you grow as a player. 8th Edition codices generally just have way fewer and less interesting options than stronger 9th Edition codices in terms of mechanics. Guard simply don’t have as big a toolbox of movement tools as T’au, so there are less opportunities for a player to grow.

There is also an effect where if you play a stronger codex, you’ll generally get better results and then practice against better players. You’re also less likely to get discouraged if you play a good codex, and less likely to get in a feedback loop where you give up on the codex after a loss. If a Chaos Space Marines (which are a very positioning/angles/fight phase tricks focused army at a high level) player loses his/her/their first few games, they’re likely to think “This codex sucks, I’m not playing it anymore”. If a T’au player loses his/her/their first few games, they’re likely to think “I just need to keep practicing”.

If you want an army that will help you learn the game at a high level, pick an army active in many phases with a lot of different tools. Knights are relatively bad, but they’re also a codex with very few tools and tricks. Someone will grow as a player much faster if they play Harlequins than Custodes, regardless of the strength of both codices. Stories of Custodes players making deep runs at tournaments over the last few weeks and not knowing basic things like Heroic Interventions exist or their Dreadnoughts have -1 Damage are out there.

Fortunately most Chaos armies are really interesting and have tons of mechanics and multiple phases to practice, and are generally great armies to teach players how to succeed in this game.

“A Good Player With a Bad Codex Will Always Beat a Bad Player With a New Codex”

Let’s establish a basic fact before starting this section: Most 40K players are just terrible at the game. And that’s not a bad thing! Most players are bad at most games. If you look at any video game with published stats or rankings, there are orders of magnitude more Bronze players than Diamond players, or whatever ranking the game uses. For some reason tabletop players take this much more personally than players of other games.

Tying this back to “A Good Player With A Bad Codex Will Always Beat a Bad Player With a New Codex”, that’s true-ish, but not really for the reason people think it is. This statement being true relies more on most opponents being very bad than a sign of your own skill.

What is the Actual Issue with Playing a Bad Army?

Let’s simplify things and do a thought experiment to understand the core issue. Let’s assume you win a game of 40K if the following condition is true:

Your Army + Your Skill + Your Luck > Their Army + Their Skill + Their Luck.

Everyone is going to have their own opinion on how to weight these variables. I’m going to throw out my own weighting system to continue this discussion, but feel free to throw your own opinion out there in the comments or online. I’m going to weight them as follows for the purpose of this discussion:

Player Strength: 40% Army Strength + 55% Player Skill + 5% Luck

We can say an army can range from 0/40 to 40/40 points in strength, and a player can range from 0/55 to 55/55 points in strength. Let’s say you’re playing a bottom tier (say a 5/40 army), and your opponent is playing a fresh new codex (something like a 40/40 army).

If they’re really bad, and you’re pretty good (let’s say 45/55 in skill), you can win! You have a Player Strength of 5/40 Army + 45/55 Skill + 5/5 Luck for a 55/100 score. Your opponent has a Player Strength of 40/40 Army + 5/55 Skill + 5/5 Luck for a 50/100 score. 55 is higher than 50. Go beat that meta-chasing scrub, you wargaming genius.

But let’s adjust those variables a bit, and find the reason why almost no one who is trying to win takes bad armies. Let’s say you are a really good 50/55 Skill player, and running a bad 10/40 army. Your Player Strength is capped at 50 + 10 + 5 for a 65/100 score. If you’re facing an S Tier 40/40 army, you can still be a favorite versus a bad player. But once the opponent’s player skill passes 20/55, you’re guaranteed to be an underdog if they’re running a 40/40 army. If you win a few games and are playing other high level players, there is less likely to be a large enough skill gap to overcome the disparity in codices.

That is why it’s simultaneously true that for 90% of players it’s fine to stick with one army and learn to play it well, but players trying to win large events end up playing a small handful of armies or lists.

Figure Out Why You’re Playing This Game Competitively

I think this is the most important step, and something that many people in this hobby really never do.

Take a step back and figure out think for a second: What do you want to get out of this hobby experience? Let’s run down a list of common answers, and figure out which ones will be impacted by playing a bad army.

I just want to get in a weekend of games against people that can play at a reasonable pace.

This is a very real thing (especially among parents), and is entirely unaffected by the quality of your codex. Go out there and have a good time.

I am mainly a hobbyist, and want to share my army with other people and see their armies.

This is entirely unaffected by the quality of your codex. Go out there and have a good time.

I want a challenge.

This is entirely unaffected by the quality of your codex. Go out there and have a good time.

I want to play interesting games where my good decisions are rewarded and my bad decisions are punished.

This is partially affected by the quality of your codex. Control what you can control.

I want to win.

This is obviously affected by the quality of your codex. I can’t really relate to this at all in the way that most gamers can. I just find “solving” games very interesting, and keep my ego separate from the results as much as possible.

(Artwork Credit: Warhammer Community)

If you want to win, but don’t want to switch away from a bad codex, then I recommend setting reasonable goals that you can hit if you play well. You’re not going to win one of the GW Opens tomorrow with Chaos, but there is no reason that you can’t be the top Chaos player and get a fancy ribbon that will feel satisfying and fill the void for just a second until oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god I have precious little time left on this planet and I’m wasting it playing with toy soldiers marketed by a billion dollar corporation oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god the void is coming and

Compete for best in faction instead of best overall. You can’t bring a bunch of minor league players and expect to win the World Series, but you can win a minor league championship. I’m also realizing that American sports analogies aren’t smart for a website with international readership, so I promise that will be the last one.

How Do You Win While Playing a Bottom Tier Army?

There are two steps to winning with a bottom tier army: Focus on learning the details of the strong armies you expect to face, and leaning on your faction’s strengths.

Know the Intricacies of How the Strong Armies Work

Here is the biggest hack to beating an army: Really understanding the details of all of it’s interactions and buffs, and finding ways to “break” those.

For example, let’s use T’au as an example. It’s true that their non-Line of Sight shooting is busted. But you don’t have to just accept you’ll get destroyed by indirect and set up without consideration. There are two interactions that power T’au indirect to absurd levels: Montka giving them extra AP and reroll 1’s against the closest target, and Exemplar of the Montka giving full wound rerolls to an enemy within 12″ during Mont’ka.

A Crisis unit moves 10″, can auto-advance 6″ and shoot like normal, and then needs to be within 12″ for Exemplar of Montka. That’s a total of just 28″. So while you can’t really deploy out of range of their indirect, by being just 4″ behind your deployment line you can take away their full Wound rerolls. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s something.

Actually sit down with the strongest codices and read through the exact wording on all the rules you’re going to face. Don’t just listen to people describing what an army can do, identify range or phase restrictions that will give you counterplay. This is especially true online where you’ll see people saying “Army XYZ is so busted, they can do A and B and C and D and E”. But then if you actually read that army’s rules, you’ll realize they actually can’t do B and C and D at the same time because those rules come from different sub-factions. And doing thing E requires a tech choice that most XYZ players won’t bring because it’s useless in most matchups. So now you mainly just need to bring tech to counter thing A, which is a lot more manageable.

You might hear “Harlequins are so busted, even if you tag them their Voidweavers just fall back and shoot”. That’s true, but the mechanism through which they do that is a stratagem, so if you can tag multiple squads then they can only use the stratagem on one squad. Again, it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s something you can work with to make a gameplan.

If their army has a really strong defensive buff, understand the timing of when it is used. If it’s in their Command Phase, then that means you’ll have full knowledge in your turn of which unit has that buff and can play around that.

Understanding the details of what other armies are running also helps you build counters into your list. For example, one of the things that stands out to me with Harlequins is the importance of the Shadowseer’s aura (or auras, depending on powers and relics). My reaction to that is to think about whether my armies have any tech to mess with other auras. It just so happens that Chaos has a few abilities like that scattered throughout various subfactions (shout out to Night Lords for having the most surprisingly deep toolbox in the game). So rather than thinking “Well, 12 inch range guns out of deepstrike are useless against Harlequins”, I’m thinking about ways to work in anti-aura tech to keep my short and medium range firepower effective. Tying back to the main theme… does this mean I have a perfect solution to Harlequins? Of course not–no one does. But it’s something, and if you get enough somethings in your toolbox of plays and tech choices then you can start winning those uphill battles.

Lean Into Your Faction’s Strengths

This is something I’ve written for, but something that bears repeating as the game coalesces around a few top factions with clearly defined strengths.

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. You’ll just lose. Try to bring some tech that other factions can’t match and fight the game on your terms. Don’t be afraid to get weird and try new combos. You’re already playing a bad list, it can only get better.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up If You Lose, This Game is an Unbalanced Mess

This is the part that most content creators won’t say out loud because they’re invested in you continuing to try to win, but at Warphammer I promise to always be completely honest with you. While there is almost always something you could have done better during a game, the power gaps between certain armies right now is simply enormous.

If Warhammer tournaments were any other competitive game, the competitive scene would simply shut down immediately until an emergency patch was released. The idea of anyone playing an online game where the worst factions were at 20-30% winrates and the top factions were at 70-80% winrates is absurd. The player base would immediately evaporate.

Write the best list you can, practice all the plays you need, understand the intricacies of all the factions you’re likely to face. But sometimes you’re running Khorne Daemons, they’re running T’au, and they went first on a terrain light board. Hopefully they have the tact to not gleefully yell “Khorne cares not from where the blood flows!” as they blow you off the board, acting like comedic geniuses for coming up with that original pearl of wisdom.

And just because the game was lopsided on the scoreboard doesn’t mean you didn’t do anything well, or you have no positive takeaways. This game can be frustrating at times. Just don’t let the frustration build too much or turn into negativity towards other people in the hobby.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re a Chaos fan wondering when it’ll finally be your turn atop the competitive standings, or an Aeldari player who has thrived competitively in 9th Edition, I hope you enjoyed this article. Every army gets a chance to shine eventually. If you can still enjoy competing and make the most of your army’s time on the bottom, you’ll be well rewarded once your faction is back on top.

Note: If you’re interested in supporting the growth of Warphammer and quality 40K content, feel free to check out Patreon.com/Warphammer and join the team. Excited to get your Chaos army on the tabletop? Me too! I’d love to work with you on making your fun or weird Chaos idea into a competitive list with an eye on the future. Additional benefits and coaching are available.

Interested in learning more about playing Chaos? Check out the Warphammer Discord here: https://discord.gg/SgBcXW5s6R

Published: March 29th, 2022

Last Updated: March 29th, 2022

14 replies on “You Want To Play Tournaments, But Your Army Is Awful. Now What?”

Absolutely awesome article.

One thing to consider though:
Sometimes playing an old Codex just isn’t fun. And not because it’s a foregone conclusion who wins but rather that some old rules are just dumb. By far my biggest gripe with the CSM Codex isn’t that we only have one wound. It’s that half my army arbitrarily doesn’t get a Legion trait.

Liked by 1 person

Thank you Archon Vrex! And yes, I definitely understand what you’re saying. These last few codices (Custodes, Tau, Aeldari, Nids) are full of interesting options and different ways to play. Can’t wait until we get some more variety.

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I think you’re missing 1 key aspect on playing bad armies. What I called the dark horse effect. It was much more pronounced when I played competitive Magic:The Gathering because there are effectively infinite possible decks whereas there are only 24 armies in 40k so it’s much easier to be prepared for everything in 40k then there is in MtG. Basically there is a very real benefit to playing an army where your opponent doesn’t know exactly what it does. And fewer players prepare against things like Imperial Guard and Deamons than against things like Druhkari and Ad Mech. Basically there are many more possible “Gotcha!” moments available to you than people playing the best lists.

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This phenomenon gets overstated, but I agree that this is a real thing. Heck, great example; even before the dataslate that buffed Necrons, you’d occasionally see them show up in the top 4 at big events, but almost always running something a little (or a lot) strange.

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My comment didn’t seem to go through so I’ll write my 2 cents again haha

Great read. I agree with a lot of your points, especially on the game’s ecosystem as a whole. It’s just not the game a lot of people want it to be. It could get there eventually, but as of now we are drip-fed new releases that constantly invalidate all that came before. Does this mean you cannot have fun playing? No, absolutely not. But I do think people will enjoy the game more if they come in to it with the right expectations.

For example, I play Necrons and I generally use TTS. 9th edition in-person play was largely shut down in my area due to COVID and I’ve grown quite fond of playing online. I understand Necrons aren’t the best army (they aren’t as bad as people say) but you can still totally have a great time playing them. You just have to except the fact that if you get 2 or 3 wins at an event, your next matchup is going to be significantly more difficult, to the point that it may even be borderline unwinnable. But there is always room for squeezing out points and eeking out wins, especially with something like the ObSec dynasty. My last 4 or 5 games have been down to the wire, and have been against great players and factions. I’d rather a hard fought win vs Tau as my Necrons than something like 10 wins as Custodes vs the majority of the factions. But that’s me and my mentality playing the game. If that’s not the way you play, all the power to you.

In short, this is not a hyper-competitive game balanced by a team of people that constantly keeps an eye on things. The proof is in the pudding, look at the recent releases. You can play it competitively, but unless you are regularly on top of the new releases, you will fall behind at some point. Find the thing you like, have fun with it, and go from there.

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What a great attitude! Thanks for commenting mate, and really cool you’re getting it done with Necrons. I think they’re by far the most underrated faction in the game honestly. If it weren’t for a few completely broken factions taking attention away from everyone else, Necrons jumping way up in power would have been talked about a lot more. Hope they keep battling hard for you!

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I really liked this article’s premise, stance and message.

In the end, there’s one piece of feedback I’d like to give that I think was overlooked and ironically it’s from the earlier part of the piece.

You say “An army that has a ~30% winrate is simply winning every third game instead of every other game. That means games are far from a foregone conclusion.” Yes, these factions won games, but there’s a reason fighting games have long since done away with overall win percentages. Instead, these intended-to-be-competitive games look at matchups in a matrix.

30% armies as you call them probably have a 50% win rate amongst other B-D tier armies, but a 1-5% win rate against the current S-rank, top contenders. These matchups can often be, to use your words, foregone conclusions. This can be so discouraging as to have long term implications for that player, and the hobby for us all.

The rest of the article is great, I just think that it might suggest that custodes with a 70% win rate vs sisters with 30% will win 2/3 times. In reality, it’s 0/3. Looking at Adepticon, sisters won no games against custodes. Once the sisters players bracketed down and top armies bracketed up, they were able to begin to play something more in the realm of fair.

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Thanks for the kind words Julian!

That’s a very fair point. I haven’t seen a full faction vs faction matrix of winrates but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if some factions were very lopsided

My counter point would be that sometimes “bad” factions have better matchups into the busted factions than some good factions. Like Emperor’s Children and old-codex Tau were actually decent into Drukhari after their codex came out and they were running Wyches in Raiders as their main army. Certainly did much better into them than Marines, who were better than EC or Tau at the time.

Definitely an interesting point to think about, and I’d love to do an article diving into faction vs faction winrates if that data was out there!

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A fundamental flaw in your thesis is that by claiming bad armies win a third of their games and that faction win rate isn’t important ignores the fact that a third of your games can be into another low win rate faction.

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Very nice article. I’m still pretty new to the game and I have found that your optimistic and informative style on your blog makes this my favorite 40K place on the web.

I play Chaos soup because I played Chaos soup in The Space Marine Epic game as a boy in the early 90’ies. I love the lore and the models an I’m really not in this for ego or for wins.

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Thanks for the kind words Agger, really glad you’re enjoying it! Great to have a veteran of the long war here.

No better army for people that love cool models and crazy lore.

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Great article, I play in the circuit in the UK. I’m never going to win a tournament and I don’t follow the meta armies. I play predominantly blood angels and have recently blown the dust of my GSC and both those armies are not designed like the top tier armies of their factions. My win rate is 2/3 or 3/2 each event and what I really like about this is I generally play people about the same level of play I am with one significantly under and one significantly over.

Yiur article is well thought out and leans into a side of the ITC and RTC that people don’t really discuss. With 400+ players at an event some of us know we are not going to win, we are going to play for the love of the hobby and the great people we meet at the event

Liked by 2 people

Totally. I started enjoying myself far more at tournaments when I let go of the idea that I need to try for the podium and just focused on playing a bunch of a game I love with new people and trying to go positive or at least give good account.

I don’t have the time or the energy to get world-class at this. I’m at peace with that; almost nobody who plays this game really does. The only way I can see myself winning a major would involve part of the building collapsing suddenly on Day 2 and incapacitating all the top tables at once.

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