ABSTRACT PRINCIPLES of 40k - List building
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Fun is, of course, an extremely subjective thing, and so is having fun in 40k. That subjectivity, however, doesn't mean that there aren't common points that many people consider fun. As discussed in the last chapter, one of the things that binds together every 40k player is the idiosyncrasies of 40k - it's peculiar imbalances, rules, and rule interactions. After all, a person could play basically any miniatures game with 40k miniatures, but people choose play 40k with them (and sometimes use third party miniatures to play 40k, rather than the other way around).
Put another way, 40k is fun because of the depth of the game - all those little things, and the ways they interact with each other, and the way they're different. It is complex, which gives us space to explore things and use our intellect, and, in combination with all the little changes that happen over time to the game itself (new codices, etc.), keeps the game fresh. Even if you play the game a hundred times in a row against someone, there's still different terrain, unit combinations, die rolls, special rules, etc. that will make the next game as different from the previous game as from the first.
A 40k player isn't required to make use of this depth to the absolute maximum every game, of course, but this common factor does mean that any player by their actions should not take away their opponent's ability to take advantage of as much of this depth as they want. Making the game more shallow for someone else is against the point of playing 40k in the first place. If you want a game that is as shallow as Yahtzee or Chess, then go play Yahtzee or Chess. Don't hamper your opponent's ability to get more depth out of the game.
40k gives us the freedom to combine different things in meaningful and interesting ways, but it also gives us the freedom to destroy our opponent's ability to do the same. One of the most important things in 40k, then, is to not prevent your opponent from getting to do things in the way that they want to.
The place where this starts is where a game of 40k itself starts - in the creation of army lists. It is possible to fix with good game play a list that was made badly, but an army list should ideally support, rather than hinder the game experience for both players. Before understanding what makes a good list, I will start with some things that are commonly referred to as bad lists, but aren't.
The biggest problem when talking about list tailoring is a lack of common definition for the term "list tailoring" itself, so allow me to provide one.You are making your list tailored whenever you give ANY thought WHATSOEVER to what the list is going to actually be played against.
If you are going to a tournament and you know that there will be a lot of MSU spam and you do ANYTHING with that piece of information (like, say, throw in some missile launchers or autocannons), you are list tailoring. If you know that there are a bunch of marine armies at your local store, and you use this information to have any impact on your list, you are list tailoring. If you know that you're going to play a game against a foot guard commander next game and that information has any impact on your list, you are list tailoring. We're talking about the whole spectrum here, from looking at your opponent's list and then making one to beat him to the knowledge that a certain army got a new codex recently, so you'll probably face off more against them.
Any list that isn't made inside of a pure hypothetical world, but rather uses any amount of information about real players and real armies you're actually likely to face off against is at least a partially tailored list.
If, then, basically all lists are tailored lists, then it's really a matter of HOW tailored do you make your list. It's just negotiating the proverbial price now. If your stance is that some list tailoring is okay, and some list tailoring isn't, you're probably being a huge hypocrite.
But what's more important here is the effect of list tailoring. The effects, of course, are based on what the person does with this information, whether making a list that is stronger than an opponent's (because you can provide hard counters to the units you know he's bringing), or a list that is weaker (your opponent is a new player and you want to cut them some slack), or you can use list tailoring to try and as exactly as possible match the strength of your opponent's list. In any case, most list tailoring is really just a matter of adjusting list strength relative to your opponent.
But that makes list tailoring not a bad thing, per se. List tailoring doesn't allow you to do something that you couldn't have done before, it just makes it easier to do what you were wanting to do more accurately. It's what you choose to do with the extra information (and power) that is good or bad.
Spam lists are lists that bring lots of duplicates of a few kinds of units, rather than a more one-of-each approach to list building. There are many people who disapprove of spam lists, mostly because spam lists tend to be very strong lists. That is because most spam lists will pick the strongest unit in the codex and then bring as many copies of that unit as they can, and then they will move on to the next strongest unit and do likewise until the list is complete.
Once again, though, list strength in and of itself is neither a good or bad thing. Why is it necessarily bad if a person brings a strong list? This is often used as part of the complaint against 40k tournaments having lots of lists that look the same and spam the same few units, but once again that's the players choosing to have list strengths be roughly equal to each other (and if everyone is bringing lots of the same units, that task is easier), not anything wrong with 40k itself.
Aesthetically speaking, some people don't like spam lists (which is their opinion), and some don't think it fits with the background of 40k (which is wrong, as there are plenty of examples of armies that look more or less uniform). On the other side, some players like having the clean, simple, and regimented feel that comes from running spam lists, and like how they look on the table top (especially with horde armies). In any case, though, this is an aesthetic choice.
With spam lists, list tailoring, or any other way to more accurately make stronger or weaker lists, it's not the ability to make things exactly how you want them that's the problem (in fact, it's just a refinement of the freedom that makes 40k worth playing in the first place), but how players choose to use that power that is important.
As mentioned, a bad list is one wherein your opponent doesn't get to play the game in the way they want to play it. That is to say that your opponent's number of meaningful choices have been reduced (remembering that choices are only meaningful if they have an impact on the outcome of the game).
The most common way in which player choices are negated is when stuff is killed on the table top. Yes, it's a wargame and the point is to kill your opponent's army, but herein lies the problem. Let's say that I choose to include a unit in my army that is only useful in close combat. Let's also say that my opponent kills off the unit before it can get into its first assault. That unit in this game did nothing. The choice to bring it in the first place meaningless. Not to say that it did nothing - my opponent may have had to waste bullets on it, for example - but those things it did could have been done by ANY unit I would have chosen, so the choice to make a close combat unit is still invalidated.
As such, the desire of a player to "Kill my opponent's army before he makes it into close combat" is just as wrong as the idea that someone should be able to "Get into close combat and stay there without my opponent ever getting to fire a shot." If you have built an army like this that exists to negate, in whole or part, portions of your opponent's army, then you are building a bad list.
This is the only place where list strength can get you in trouble. If your list is so strong relative to your opponent that you can nearly guarantee that your opponent won't really get to participate in the game, then you're building a list that's too strong. If you're constantly shutting down your opponent's ability to do stuff, it means you're going to have to make changes to the kinds of lists you field. Will it mean that you're less likely to win games? Probably, but if the only point was to win as many games as possible, then you shouldn't play 40k at all, but instead just play several hundred rounds of rock-paper-scissors with your opponent instead. Even if what you want to do is win at 40k, you have to want to win WITH DEPTH, or else what you want is just to win, not to win at 40k. It would be better of you played some other game, and your opponent's found someone else to play 40k with, so they could actually play 40k.
There are many ways to write a bad 40k list, but by far the most common way is by creating gunlines. Gunlines are armies that rely mostly on long-range shooting to do damage, and make very little use of the movement phase, whether it's having a static army with just a few small, fast, objective grabbers, or whether the whole army moves, but not very far (mech gunlines jostling vehicles around small distances to get better lanes of fire), or the limiting factor is time (the whole army moves, but not until the end of the game).
It's plain to see why gunlines are bad. As much as possible, they try to make it so that assault never, ever happens. They also try as much as possible to keep opponents' short-range shooting from doing anything either. They will likely also have other things like weapons with interceptor to cancel out the usefulness of deepstrikers, or ignores-cover weapons to cut those rules out of the game as well.
What gunlines do is two things. Firstly, they prevent their opponent's decisions from having meaning (choosing deepstrikers, close combat units, etc.), and secondly they make the game much, much more shallow (cutting out the rules for close combat, cutting out the rules for the movement phase, etc.). What a gunline does is to just sit there, using as few rules as possible and just rolling dice to see how much of their opponent's stuff is left standing. This is the opposite of 40k. If a person wanted to just sit there and roll dice, they should feel free to start playing Yahtzee, rather than taking a deep game and ruining it by making it so shallow.
The worst part is that gunlines breed more gunlines. This is because gunlines exist to shut down anything but long-range shooting, which means if an opponent wants to be able to DO anything in a game, the only parts of their army that will be able to do said anything will be long-range shooters themselves. Thus if a person wants to do more, they will add more of the part that does anything, which means adding in more long-range shooting. This might not be true were it not for the fatal pairing of gunlines and list strength. Both for systemic reasons (those who hit hardest fastest gain a big advantage that snowballs over the course of the game), and for particular reasons (40k's "you go, I go", the rules for wound allocation and terrain, etc.), gunlines also happen to be the strongest form of army. This means that even if you try to counter gunlines with speed, say, you are still going to be playing a weaker list against a stronger list, and a gunline player can easily use this advantage to force you back into the mould.
This is a case of list strength giving a player power, and then the player using that power irresponsibly to force their opponents into a shallow game. It's not a matter of the gunline player "setting up a puzzle and letting their opponent solve it". It's a matter of the gunline player debasing their opponent's decisions while looking for the easiest way to win the game. It's not to say that there might be some theoretical way to play a list that's both a gunline and a good list, but practically, I've never seen anything even remotely close. If you like gunlines, then unfortunately you like a way of playing 40k that makes games less like 40k. Perhaps another game would suit you better - one that doesn't suffer from being reduced to Yahtzee with miniatures.
What makes a good list, then? A good list is one in which you take advantage of as much depth of the game as you want to without also spoiling your opponent's ability to get as much depth out of the game as they want to.
There are several ways of making a good list. One way is to add in more diversity to your list. This could mean bringing more different kinds of units yourself (some tanks, some infantry, some bikes, etc.) if you want more depth, or at least having units that do damage in different kinds of ways. Having an army of all long-range shooting creates problems, but if you have a list that does some of its killing in close combat, some with short range shooting, and some with long-range, then you're unlikely to have too much of any one kind of damage being dealt to be able to completely shut down your opponent.
Another big way of handling this is to bias your army towards units that don't have the ability to prevent your opponent from doing stuff. For example, drop those move-shoot-move units (that can hide behind line-of-sight blocking terrain, use the movement phase, shoot them, then move again behind cover, leaving their opponents unable to use shooting back against them or even charge), or barrage units that can attack at distance without being targeted. Instead, you can add in more units that are assault oriented. Assault units don't prevent your opponent from getting to shoot guns, as it usually takes a few turns to get into close combat, and your opponent can always shoot you in between attacking one unit and then another. Using faster units that need to get in close (rather than fast units that use their speed to always stay just out of range of their opponents while still being able to shoot back, which is bad) can also help this.
There are also other little ways. One of which is using units that have more randomness, like bringing hit-and-kill-or-whiff-badly kinds of units. Another way is to just dial down the power of your lists, so that any mistakes you do make are writ smaller. Bring in units that increase your challenge level, or allow you to compete more to the best of your abilities without ruining things.
On top of this, too, there are non-list ways to help enforce depth, like playing missions that discourage just sitting around, and are more complex than just seeing who can kill the most stuff and then saunter onto objectives (unlike the 40k book missions). Bringing in more line-of-sight blocking terrain to disrupt gunlines, or playing in campaigns with comp restrictions. All of this is out of the scope of list building, though.
CONFLICTS OF DEPTH
All of this so far has been under the assumption that the main difference is in overall list strength and that both players are making lists that can take all comers. But there is a complexity that needs to be added - not only looking at things by strength, but also by type.
Say, for example, that a player only wants to take advantage of the depth of the game provided by the rules for infantry models, and doesn't want anything to do with vehicles. As such, they make an army list without vehicles, which is fine. But let's say that they then go on to not include any anti-tank weapons either. If you showed up with a mechanized army, and your opponent had nothing but small arms and flamethrowers, then the fact that you brought vehicles basically renders your opponent's army completely unable to do anything. A mech list may not shut down options against a player who brings a diversity of weapon types, but it is a bad list against this particular opponent.
Of course, the things above would help solve this problem (if you brought a hybrid list with some infantry and some vehicles, or if your opponent brought more diverse firepower). At the top, though, it was stated that a good list was one that allowed a player to play the depth that they want without screwing up their opponents. In this case, there is a conflict between the players, much like between a gunline and anything that isn't a gunline. Both players could even bring very weak lists and still have this kind of conflict. It's rare that this kind of conflict is this stark (outside of gunlines), but it's still present.
Like in any other conflict between parties that have a great degree of freedom, there just isn't a substitute for communication. If both players agree on a framework of a specific depth of the game, then many of the problems can be averted. If both players, for example, want to play a super shallow Yahtzee with miniatures, then the lack of depth imposed on one player by the other won't matter, because both players are comfortable with the level of depth. The same is true for other conflicts. 40k being a social game, it naturally will include the kinds of conflicts and means of resolution that come up between people in other activities.
This necessity can be pre-empted, though, by being conscious of the kind of game experience you are providing in the first place. If you don't bring a list that forces the game to be shallow, you're unlikely to create problems of making the game too shallow for your opponents. It's the purpose to writing good lists in the first place.