With a new release cycle quickly approaching, I am reminded of the empy feeling of the past few months regarding how the meta has been 'figured out', lists are boring, etc. etc. And to a large extent, this is true - given enough time, player communities will figure out the optimal way to play within an assymetrically balanced system. In a well designed game, these won't be anywhere near 100% win lists and playstyles, but they will be better than their alternatives a (statistically) significant portion of the time. And that is what is referred to as a 'dead' meta game.
The point of this article is to demonstrate that although the metashifts in Warmahordes are ridiculously slow in comparison to most assymetrical PvP games (like RTS, MOBAs, TCGs/CCGs, etc.) there have actually been some sizable shifts over the last decade. The current meta of boxes + ARM spam will likely be around for another few years before a new release or new edition resets the cycle and pushes us once against towards a variant on solo machine (which we have some evidence of in Khador/Cygnar already with certain popular Sorscha1 and Haley2 lists).
Personally, I think more aggressive buff errata between expansion releases would promote metagame activity suitably without requiring the release of new models, but such opinions have been thrown around for years with no show of PP doing anything ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
As I remember things:
The biggest meta factors about Mk1:
- Jacks were really bad on average. Most warjacks had -1MAT and RAT compared to their current versions, and were scrapped when they lost 3 systems (the blank parts of the grid counted as the 'hull' system). Each faction had a small handful of jacks that got played. Armor was thus much less of a problem and most infantry could scrap jacks thanks to the charge mechanic. Non-character jacks were more or less out of the competitive game after Escalation, with the exception of arc nodes and ranged assassinations.
- Cavalry had more damage boxes and cost relatively less than now, so they were the 'tanks' of Warmachine.
- As Mk1 went on, more and more ridiculously overpowered solos were released, pushing the game towards 'solomachine'.
- Assassination was the most common victory condition by far. Scenario play developed really slowly - in fact the early Steamrollers were considered so bad that Hacksaw (a prolific PG at the time) ended up making his own format called "Jackhammer" that got popular before being absorbed into Steamroller.
- For a quick summary of Hordes, which had far fewer releases than Warmachine in its early stages and therefore didn't have much of a meta influence:
- Trolls were pretty bad (Defining list: Madrak1 brick),
- Skorne was pretty bad (Defining list: Hexeris1 infantry, Canoneers, Ancestral Guardians),
- Circle was good (Defining list: Tharn Bloodtrackers, Wolf Riders and Woldwardens)
- Legion was amazing (Defining list: Seraph Spam).
Defining ListsThe most powerful tournament list in Mk1 Prime was Sorscha1 assassition with Destroyers, with a secondary win condition of scenario. It was very difficult to stop the assassination since her feat initially did not require LoS, and difficult to stop the scenario win because 12" AD Doom Reavers + Widowmakers would get in your face insanely fast.
Following that with the release of Escalation, the counter to Sorscha was released in the format of Goreshade1, who had Mage Blight to stop her feating, Mk1 Cloak of Shadows made him nigh invulnerable, and he had a super-potent assassination in the form of Soul Gate (the jack used to be able to attack after teleporting).
Apotheosis brought us epic casters (restricted to 750pt games or more, equivalent to 50pt games today) and character jacks. These were actually used somewhat regularly since they were ridiculously strong (Deathjack especially). I seem to recall all the casters in the book having a lot of pull on the meta and really pushed up the power level in the game.
Of particular interest were Old Witch and Vlad2, which came to completely dominate Khador lists until the end of Mk1 and the game in general. Both had crazy good assassination game in combination with Khador's bonkers solos and units like Widowmakers and Manhunters. The fastest kill in Hardcore Mk1 was Vlad2 + Eyriss1 + 4 Widowmakers killing a caster in under 2? minutes. Vlad's feat was not only +3 to all stats but also extra attack per weapon and boosted attack and damage rolls with ALL attacks (including range).
The Old Witch's feat was extremely strong in a troop spam meta, and could be centered on Scrapjack rather than herself, which means she would usually pin you down in your deployment turn 1 and laugh.
Superiority brought us cavalry, which more or less replaced non-character warjacks entirely since they were both resilient and hit hard - and they were fast. This included the 'Flying Pegasus' Drakhun which catapulted the Vlad2 assassination game into the stratosphere, since it would get thrown then charge an effective 127,693" to kill you before you moved anything. I started playing around this time - it was neat as a noob to try to play warjacks in this environment.
The end of Mk1 brought the Legends book, which was basically full of ridiculously overpowered stuff for everyone, so much so that it's not even worth discussing the meta at the time. The game was really broken and started to feel a lot like 1-turn instakill Legacy Magic: the Gathering decks. Fortunately, Mk2 came out pretty soon after.
Mark 2Mk2 released 2010, with Field and Play Test Cycles about half a year before that. The Field Test meta was heavy on Gun Mages (Cygnar), Winterguard deathstar (Khador), Stalker spam (Cryx) and good old jack spam (PoM). The Deathstar was slightly nerfed (the Rocketeers had boosted damage rolls) and Stalkers were bumped up to 4pts in final release. People also really liked Skarre2 during the Field Test, mostly because most games were at smaller points levels.
The Hordes Play Test was a bit too all over the place and disorganized to really say anything was popular for long.
Once actual release hit, Khador high DEF spam and Cryx infantry spam became predominant meta leaders on the Warmachine side, on the Hordes side you had Troll infantry spam and Skorne's Holy Trinity (Molik/Gladiator/Bronzeback). Things changed a bit with the Faction books, where Circle got the Warpwolf Stalker and all their lists suddenly became concentrated around Stalker/Gorax/Teleport combos, whereas Legion got Ravagores which basically replaced Seraphs in the Mk1 beast-heavy playstyle.
Wrath was a mostly uneventful book all things considered. Most of the releases were on the weak side and not super exciting, with the exception of Retribution which got a new jack chassis and Ossyan.
Domination was a better book than Wrath but not by a significant marging, although quite a few things in the book (ie. Grissel2) would become very relevant with later releases. Circle got Ghetorix and Gallows Groves, Skorne started developping a ranged game and got Hexeris2 to deal with high DEF (he was more or less the only answer at the time). Legion got Vayl2 and Nagas of course. Gators started to become a bit more legit with Maelok and the Witch Doctor presenting an exceptionally tanky list (like a Dead Meat Mountain).
Colossals changed the meta quite a bit in presenting MOAR BOXES and anti-infantry options (primarily Stormwall template and 2d3 shots) to compete with MOAR BANEZ, although this did take a while to kick in.
Gargantuans was a big meta shaker, and not really for the Gargantuans themselves which were mostly bad with the exception of the Mammoth. Trolls got Warders which radically boosted their tankability to above the meta average at the time, Circle got Morvahna2 and the Warpborn Alpha (which made Skinwalkers about as good as Gatormans) to get into the grindy attrition game, and Skorne got Incindiarii to help deal with high DEF and a stellar support solo in the Willbreaker. Legion only really got the Warspear Chieftain to make Warspears a really solid unit, but otherwise just stuck to their game plan of multiple OP heavies + support. Minions of course got Rask, which boosted Gators to an almost fully competitive level.
Vengeance had some good to great releases for all factions, but didn't push the meta too much away from what started in Colossals. Cygnar got Tempest Blazers which brought back Gun Mages in a new form but otherwise mostly stuck to their gameplans. Khador got Butcher3, the IF Kovnik and Greylord Outriders which all got a lot of play and brought Khador back into the meta following their impotence at the loss of Iron Flesh infantry. Cryx got some good tanky cav in Bane Riders and Goreshade3 which FINALLY shook their core unit choices up a tiny bit (mostly because Cryx players started to get bored I think). Retribution again got more good releases that they use in full capacity.
Exigence was similar to Vengeance in that it had some good solid releases for all factions - arguably the best expansion PP has released so far. Even Pigs got something decent! I don't think it's led to any real meta shifts yet, but I think a lot of the releases in there certainly lay the seed for a change in faction playstyles.
Faction specific notes:
- In Mk1, pHaley with Trenchers was also "unbeatable", due to smoke wall denying guns and TB stopping charges AS SOON AS YOU ENTERED THE CONTROL AREA. Trenchers were really good in Mk1 because they didn't stand in the cloud they generated so you couldn't just charge/shoot them and their victim stats.
- I remember the Darius jack spam list was really popular, primarily because his feat allowed you to repair wrecks back to full-health. Plus his little bomb dudes were even better and his gun was also pretty baller.
- Aside from that you had the usual power casters, the ever present Junior, and cavalry.
- During the Mk2 Field Test, Cygnar players quickly went hard for Stryker2/Caine2/Haley2, which persists to this day. Gun Mages and Rangers were both super prevalent from the Field Test onwards and slowly phase out as Stormwall and merc supports takes over in the heavier ARM meta.
- Cygnar is now a top faction due to very powerful casters, Stormwalls and a huge range of quality mercs.
- PoM was really different in Mk1, namely that it loved to spam infantry (more than other factions, although everyone loved infantry spam). The early meta featured melee infantry aplenty combined with Rhupert (granted Boundless Charge at the time) and spell assassination.
- Soul collection was also cool since you could kill your own guys for souls.
- The one biggest change I recall was that the Testament of Menoth was considered a top caster after he was released, because he was so good at assassination (especially with Vengers).
- Harbinger was also really strong because of 20" Martyrdom, working well with Vengers and other invincible Protectorate models.
- The omnipresent models were Vilmon and Idrians. Vilmon could run + Impervious Wall and used to deal way more damage, whereas Idrians could shoot most of your army of the board turn 1 and then had countercharge on the ENTIRE UNIT. Balance.
- Overall, PoM has remained a strong faction throughout its entire existence, although has never really been considered the single best faction in the game.
- Khador has been a meta defining faction for most of the existence of the game, from Sorscha1 to Vlad2 to Iron Flesh infantry. Ironically, this has only ceased to be the case with the Colossals ARM meta, where you think Khador ARM would do real well. It doesn't because although Khador has above average base stats, they have poor ARM buffing abilities and their medium infantry is not points efficient or synergistic compared to most other factions.
- The principle Cryx game plan in Mk1 was sneaky assassination, often by spells through dirt cheap bone chickens or warjack. Mk1's top casters were Denny1+2 and the Coven.
- EDIT: The one list that was also quite popular in terms of dudespam was 30 Bane Knights, especially with pSkarre, since Bane Knights were riduculously overpowered AND undercosted.
- This is vastly different to the grindy attrition playstyle of Cryx in Mk2, and Cryx players bitched like hell during the Field Test until they realized that Banes and Satyxis as OP as shit and spam that with their casters.
- Lich2 soon became considered best caster in the game and is nerfed repeatedly until he's only one of the "top 5" rather than clearly the best. McThralls also become more prevalent over time since infantry becomes easier to kill and Cryx doesn't really care about quality stats, just getting attacks.
- Just recently after 4ish years of infantry spam, Cryx players are moving towards using slighty different lists with casters like Goreshade3 and Body and Soul (a whole new host of bullshit).
- Barely a faction in Mk1. Pretty much how people treated Minions until Rask came out.
- In Mk2, they remain pretty insignificant until Colossals come out. Then they start stomping on people's nuts. But it's really all about the Colossals at the moment and for the forseeable future.
- Mk1: Non existence.
- Mk2: LUCANT HAS PURIFICATION. Also he grinds well and suits the current meta. The Axis theme is also gaining a lot of traction as CoC players acquire enough models to pull it off with its crazy level of recursion/attrition. Perhaps such lists, combined with Cryx' domination of the meta and love of souls, will bring the Testament of Menoth and his Omegus back in some capacity?
- Came out at the very end of Mk1, barely enough to get tournament play.
- Early in Mk2, the gameplan revolved almost entirely around Mage Hunter Strike Force and Mage Hunter Assassin assassinations via things like Ravyn's Snipe-Feat-Go or Rahn being Rahn. As such they were quite weak against Hordes and weak against attrition.
- The release of Ossyan and the second jack chassis gave Ret more of an attrition backbone.
- With the release of Imperatus, Hyperion, Houseguard Thane and Eyriss3, Retribution have gotten a lot more competent in scenario play and Hordes assassination. IMO one of the most balanced and well-rounded factions in the game despite being elves.
- In Mk1, Trolls were mostly based around the Madrak Sure Foot brick with Champions, and didn't do that great in assassination nor scenario play. As such, they were maligned in the competitive scene, at least until the release of unkillable Madrak2 and beast zerger Hoarluk2.
- Following the Mk2 Play Test, Trolls were strong out of the game with variations on troop spams under various casters (Madrak1+2 especially).
- After about a year of that, Trolls became considered crappy again in the "high DEF or Cryx" meta until Jason Flanzer showed up on the tournament scene with Runes of War and started winning a lot of high profile events.
- Runes of War then became the "only good Troll list" and the whinier Troll players bitched about that and the Mountain King for a while, while the more positive Troll players just paired it with Grim1 for the Cryx matchup and did quite well.
- Warders then came out and contributed to the Meat Mountain meta we are currently within, specifically lots of high ARM and high box infantry (or equivalent, as is the case with the recently popular Elemental Mastery list).
- Very assassination focused in Mk1, sort of like the Hordes version of Cryx. They had lots of movement tricks like Shifting Stones, but even more so - for example, Blackclad Wayfarers were also much more mobile and annoying than currently (Phase Jump was place ANYWHERE ON THE TABLE). Woldwardens were the most common beast by far (spamming spells, another thing Mk1 Circle did really well), Druids and Tharn Wolf Riders (who did not need to keep formation) were also very common. Also Sentry Stones were sickening - they did everything they do now except cheaper at bigger ranges with more resources.
- In Mk2, Circle was a bit poop early on while adjusting to all their favourite stuff getting super nerfed but then quickly got Stalkers, which changed every list into Stalker/Gorax delivery systems. And they did well for a long time with it.
- Just as this list became less effective with heavier ARM and more boxes appearing, Morvahna2 is released to give Circle a ridiculous grind/assassination game. PP then decides she isn't enough and decides to release the Bradigus theme force. Yay.
- They were considered uncompetitive in Mk1 but had a very different game plan to now. They were based around 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' type of punishment mechanics. The most common build was Hexeris1 due to Death March being RIDICULOUSLY overpowered (instant trigger + fully boosted attacks) and feeding souls to Ancestral Guardians who basically 2 shot anything in the game at the time given enough souls.
- At the end of Mk2 were considered possibly the best faction in the game thanks to Molik Karn, Morghoul2 and Makeda2.
- Radically changing from an infantry spam faction in Mk1 to a beast heavy army in Mk2, Skorne were considered quite strong early in Mk2 following player adjustment, thanks to the Holy Trinity of Molik, Gladiator, Bronzeback killing everything with Makeda2.
- Once people got used to the Molik bullet and Purification became a popular way to deal the Krea's animus, Skorne fell by the wayside a bit until it was recently revived with the use of medium infantry (thanks to the release of Incindiarii and their benefit to the Fist of Halaak list) and hopefully also by the range-resistant Scarab beasts
- Mk1: Top faction, thanks to two factors: first is that Flight gave immunity to free strikes so the beasts just shat on everything and could do whatever they wanted as long as you had even a basic grasp of estimating distances, and second is that AD used to be 12" rather than 6", causing ranged infantry Legion to have a very brutal ranged attrition game from Turn 1.
- Mk2: While the nerfs were strong and the rage stronger, Legion are still a top dog in Mk2 and have been the whole time. The gameplan has changed a little bit since Ravagores were released to replace Seraphs and their infantry nerfed quite a bit, so the focus is more or less exclusively on beast heavy lists. However the caster and army support for the beasts is so good that good players always seem to make it work, and they get enough interesting things here and there to flavour what is essentially the same list core for the last 5 years.
- Mk1: Didn't exist as a faction.
- Mk2: No real meta respect at all until Rask came out, although triple Posse was still a scary list (especially with Maelok). I'd say at this stage, post Rask and definitely post Sacral Vault, Minions (really, Gators) are a competitive faction. Pigs by themselves aren't there yet but with Carver and Arkadius tier, you can make a good 2nd or 3rd tournament Minions pairing that deals with certain matchups were Gators don't excel.