Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Playing for Assassination

Warmahordes games typically have two win conditions - either win by scenario (5 control points in SR 2013), or win by having the only warcaster/warlock model on the table (assassination). There are usually three playstyles with which one can achieve these goals:

  1. Attrition - this playstyle focuses on making efficient trades, sacrificing as little as possible, and generally killing your opponent's stuff while keeping yours alive. The idea is to improve your relative position on the table so that your forces become relatively stronger and your opponent's become relatively weaker, thus allowing you to assassinate or win on scenario a few turns into the game without the possibility of strong resistance or retalition.
    Examples of attrition tactics include recycling dead bodies (Necrosurgeons, Shamblers), hit and run (Vayl, Stalkers), having really resilient stuff that can take a counterpunch without collapsing (Gatorman Posse, IF Kayazy), having enough hitting power to reliably one-rounding heavy targets, and so on.
  2. Board Control/Scenario - this playstyle focuses on obstructing your opponent's ability to manoeuvre so that you can control important areas of the board (usually the areas that give CPs).
    Tactics for this playstyle include power attacks (ie. throws), speed debuffs (Crippling Grasp), jamming, movement denial feats (eDenny/ eKrueger/Gorten), generating terrain and generally being an asshole.
  3. Assassination - this playstyle focuses on somehow killing the enemy caster as quickly as is safely possible.
    Tactics for this playstyle involve removing/ignoring defenses like buff spells and focus (Arcane Assassin, Eyriss), placement and movement shenanigans (Shifting Stones, Apparition), contrated high power attacks (mobile heavies/casters) and having massive balls of steel.
Obligatory old-school gaming reference

The Purest Form of the Game

Many believe that Warmachine is at its heart an assassination-oriented game, and the assassination playstyle is the purest form of Page 5:
  • Mk1 tournament games were won on assassination more often than not, and lists were designed around that.
  • The Hardcore format traditionally encouraged an assassination playstyle by having dice down being equal to 'both players lose'.
  • The game bears many similarities to chess, which operates on a similar principle. 
  • See previous comment about steel balls.

Despite the "purity" of the assassination style, it has fallen out of favor as a preferred winning strategy. I argue this is due to the risk/reward of the assassination playstyle relative to attrition/scenario play.

Risk vs Reward

I think the main reason assassination has fallen out of favour as a competitive playstyle is that it provides the same or lesser rewards than an attrition playstyle, while also being significantly riskier.
If you win a game by assassination, you get 1 VP on your scorecard along with any CP you scored in that game (probably not many).
If you win a game by scenario, you get 1 VP on your scorecard, and 5 CPs that will serve to elevate your overall ranking.
If you win a game as a result of attrition, you get 1 VP, probably a couple of CP, and a good deal of KPs.
In terms of reward therefore, you are likely to get quantifiably more out of a scenario win than you are out of an assassination win, at least in a tournament setting.

In terms of risk, an assassination playstyle necessitates more risk than the alternatives, or at the very least, more focused risk - less redundancy leads to higher potential for each singular die roll to influence the outcome.
First, you will usually have to involve your caster in the assassination, either by use of a feat, a buff, a debuff, a placement effect and so on. Often, this means that your caster has to have the opposing caster in his control area, which in turn means that you caster is probably in threat range of most of his army next turn.
Secondly, you are probably banking the outcome of the game on a smaller number of dice rolls than a scenario win strategy. Most assassinations rely on making a few attacks - the fewer dice are rolled, the more likely you are to get screwed. A ~58% chance of success (dice at expected value) also means a ~42% chance of failure.

Because of all these factors, failure means you will in turn be assassinated next turn more often than not and at much lower risk on your opponent's part.

So why else has assassination fallen out of favour?

First, I think Hordes becoming a fully-fledged competitive sister game to Warmachine (not really the case early Mk1) has made assassination lists less viable, as the transfer mechanic takes emphasis away from winning the game with two-three high POW attacks on the right target. Playing against Hordes pushes you to play for attrition as killing warbeasts simultaneously decreases your opposing warlock's survivability by taking away potential transfer targets - not to mention the loss of resource generation, animi and damage output. Abilities that bypass transfers are quite rare (Grievous Wounds?), the casters who can do it reliably are often crapped on (Garryth, eMorg, Thyra) and Cryx players are too busy spamming OP infantry to take Stalkers. There are alternatives, like manipulating fury on beasts to block transfers or moving them outside the opposing warlock's control area - these are good tactics but poor strategies.
Hordes might come second in almost everything PP does, but I think it has had a significant impact on how tournament games are played.

Second, the changes to Steamroller over the years have also changed how players approach competitive play. Scenarios have become more important to the game, and not respecting the scenario conditions means you are likely to lose on scenario. As scenario play becomes more popular, assassination play has become less so (zero sum).

Third, the mass reduction in threat ranges between Mk1 and Mk2 has had a pretty big impact on how easy it is to keep your caster safe. There are still a few models that can go a million miles and hit really hard (ie. my buddy Molik Karn), but such models are far less prevalent than they used to be. The reduction of advanced deployment from 12" to 6" is also a big deal, as is the greater distance between each player upon deployment (first player deploys 7").

Finally, arc nodes. I think the increase in relative cost of arc nodes from Mk1 to Mk2 is a factor in the decrease of assassination play. Mk1 Warmachine lists usually had an arc node (unless you played Khador, which traded arc nodes for charging 22" on average). Lancers, Revengers, Guardians and especially chicken bonejacks were very common. Spell assassination was a common strategy amongst all the factions with arc nodes, and THE strategy for Cryx.
Fast forward to a few years of Mk2 and I haven't seen a Revenger in YEARS (except for the one I have on the lower level of my case next to Calaban). Same thing with Lancers and Guardians. Bonechickens are still pretty common, although you see one or two per list these days, compared to the 4-5 you saw in Mk1. Sometimes Haley and Nemo players take Thorn (because he is sweet), and Ret players regularly take a Phoenix with Rahn (since it is also one of their best combat jacks). But on the whole, spell assassination as a reliable tactic or list strategy is gone.

In the end, is the move away from assassination a good thing or bad thing? I don't think it is really either - it just 'is'. The alternative is we could go back to Mk1-style eVlad casters that make assassinations much more certain by throwing ridiculous buffs on a handful of models*, or Goreshade being able to exchange a Blackbane's Ghost Raider almost anywhere on the board for a Deathjack that gets to activate and insert his metal into your caster. Personally I prefer the way things are now than the way they used to be.

In summary, the way the game is at present, if you enjoy assassination and like that aggressive playstyle, you can still be competitive in building your lists around it. There is nothing wrong or right about playing for the assassination. However, it is riskier, and therefore a less reliable path to victory than attrition/scenario play in most balanced matchups.

Blindwater Assassination

One of the nice things about Gators is that (almost) all their casters have some legit assassination tactics, on top of being quality attrition warlocks (due to Gatorman Posse, shooting denial and Spiny Growth).

Barnabas - The "Drop 'n' Pop"

This is basically the oldest trick in the WM book, but weaker since Blindwater has far less guns than PoM and Barnabas's feat is a straight-up inferior version of pKreoss' feat. I wish it was 'non-amphibious enemy models have their base DEF reduced to 5 and must sacrifice movement or action next turn' instead. You don't get LoS advantage like you would with KD, but then there is a ton of anti-KD tech out there that it would bypass... I digress. Here is how it is done:

  1. Activate Barnabas
  2. Charge a living enemy trooper (charging gives you an extra 3" of range on the feat which you will probably need to catch the enemy caster).
  3. Feat to knock down enemy caster and everything in the way
  4. Kill your now-KD target with the Blood Cleaver, giving you a free Flesh Eater at the enemy caster
  5. Cast 2 more Flesh Eaters at the enemy caster
  6. Shoot KD enemy caster with Ironback Spitters and Croak Hunters

I admit I use this tactic more than I would like - sometimes because I come upon bad matchups and feel my odds of victory are better with this than playing out the game, and sometimes just because I like to cup my nuts of steel and gamble.

Maelok - The "ScoobyDoo Ghost Gator"

I think this is probably the most potent assassination in Blindwater because it is really unpredictable, and the only sure defense is distance (or Polarity Shield/Hellbound type stuff)- which is a problem when you are faced with an grindtastic Gator list threatening to win on scenario. It is a bit like a weaker but more focused version of eGaspy's feat:

  1. Activate Maelok
  2. Revive some Gators in your control area (if you managed to get a small heap of souls last turn, then you get more Gators! Yay!)
  3. Feat and finish Maelok's activation
  4. Charge enemy caster with incorporeal Gators, or whatever else in your army that can get there and do the job (heavies for example)
That's about it. Against a living warcaster, 2 Gators are likely to get the job done - rerolls are pretty cool. You just have to make sure you have LoS, beware magical weapons, and try to keep Maelok semi-safe in case the assassination fails - the less heavy stuff there is on the table at this point, the better it is.

Rask - The Best Gun In The Game™

Rask has really viable assassination options:
  • Boundless Charge for 2" of threat range/ free charges on beasts
  • Fury for +3 damage
  • Paralysis Bolt to bring high DEF casters to their knees
  • Arcane Interference Bolt to remove those pesky defensive upkeeps and focus adding to ARM
I have one-shot several hardy casters after hitting them with Rask's gun and charging them with a single Furied Gatorman (2x POW 16s at MAT 7s with rerolls = better than many heavies).
Snapjaw in particular becomes an absolute terror under Rask, with a 14" threat range against living models at P+S 20 (Fury + Boundless Charge + Bloodthirst + Elasticity). Turns out this is pretty good at killing Gargossals as well.
Anything that stops or hinders ranged attacks can hurt this assassination run of course (Stealth, Blur, DEF buffs, etc.)

And unlike his fluff blurb, he never actually applies the finishing blow himself. What a douche.

Calaban - The "Yeah Nah"

The "Yeah Nah" tactic of assassination is something that looks sweet and legit, but isn't. Here is how it should go:

  1. Activate Calaban
  2. Shoot a squishy enemy living model with LoS to the enemy caster with your voodoo meat gun
  3. Pop feat and finish activation
  4. Kill every infantry model in your opponent's list, and use the fury you generate via the feat to periodically throw boosted Bone Shakers into your opponent's caster through the meat node.
  5. Fail and die

Much like the phrase "yeah nah", it doesn't really mean anything, but sounds deep and meaningful. I think I have actually pulled this off once or twice, but repeated self-inflicted blows to the head to reduce the mental strain of playing Calaban seem to have affected my memory. It is also very matchup dependent, which makes it even less appealing. It's a decent feat, but more for defensive than offensive purposes IMO.
This makes me want to write another article about exactly why Calaban sucks - I know you love them! Watch this space.... maybe.

The Gator Rise Missile 

This trick can potentially be pulled off in any list that includes a Blackhide Wrastler. I have already written about this trick at length here so you can have a look at it there. The summary is basically that it is an effective and unpredictable way to deliver a heavy beast to the enemy caster and bypass the engagement lines, but I feel it is very risky (even risky for an assassination).

The Totem Hunter

This guy is a ninja and is capable of killing the squishier casters, especially if you can get Fury on him. However he will need the Prey bonus to do so for the MAT/damage buff, and the odds of you getting a Totem Hunter onto a moderately skilled opponent's caster early game are very slim. You would be better off preying an AD unit or key support piece and focusing your efforts on killing that, saving a potential Totem Hunter assassination for late game.

*Sidenote - History Lesson: Blood Legacy in Mk1 was not only +3 to all stats for a round, but also fully-boosted attack and damage rolls and an additional attack per melee weapon. And the Drakhun had d3 initial attacks. It's also why the fastest caster kill on hardcore record was eVlad feating on 4 Widowmakers who killed a focusless Skarre with 4 fully-boosted RAT 10 POW 10s.


  1. Just wondering if it was possible to get your generic 25 35 and 50 point lists for Rask and Barnabas to compare it to mine. I am trying to see other people's tactics because sometimes I just fall short. Sometimes I know its just a bad match up or I had horrid rolls, but I like doing just generic lists as opposed to tier lists, they just don't seem that good to me. If you wouldn't mind throwing up your thoughts that would be awesome, might even do a full post on them with your reasonings...? ;)

    1. Sure I could do that. There isn't all that much depth to the lists though as Gators have a really limited pool of models. I did a write up about match-ups a little while back that could help in that department until then.