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Friday, July 22, 2011

Competitive List Building Theory Part 3: Survivability

The next pattern that I see in the majority, again not all, competitive lists is a theme of survivability. It’s not just how “killy” a list is but how long it can stay on the table that seems to be on the minds of competitive list builders.

Let’s examine some of the ways in which “survivability” gets conveyed onto a competitive list. It might not quite be in the way you think it is.

What is Survivability?

It’s a little more than just how much it takes to kill a unit. I define survivability as the amount of punishment an entire army can take and still remain in effective, fighting AND objective claiming condition. Often, I might look at this as the number of rounds a list can hang in there. Can they withstand 5 turns of the enemy? How about 6? 7? When assessing overall survivability in a list, you need to consider the following key points:

You’ll Be Killing Them Too

You don’t just look at something like “the number of bolter shots I can take before I die” as a good measure. Really, measuring survivability is a lot less scientific than that. You need to factor in a “feel” for a lot of variables because, honestly, it’s a non-deterministic system. (In other words, you’ll never have a 100% answer just because of probability.) One of the big factors to keep in mind is that the list itself will also be dishing out damage as well as receiving it. If the list is dishing out damage, it is thereby also reducing the amount of incoming damage in subsequent turns, thusly increasing survivability.

Quantity or Redundancy

Part of the definition of survivability is your ability to stay in fighting and objective claiming condition over the long haul of a game. If you have two easy to kill troop choices and bum rush forward, causing them to die in a hail of bullets, your survivability is low because you can no longer claim objectives. If you have 1 melta gun and no other Strength 9+ weapons in your army and run into a quad-Land Raider list, your survivability is low.

One of the ways to thereby increase your survivability is to increase the quantity of the units, weapons, or tools needed to survive. It’s easiest to see this concept in lists like Dark Eldar Venom Spam, where the sheer quantity of Poison and Lance shots increases survivability because losing one or two has little effect on the fighting condition of the army.

Many times, this goes hand-in-hand with Part 2 of this discussion which was taking very efficient units. Many times, these efficient units get taken again and again both because they are efficient and because it increases survivability.

Quality or Hardiness

Seemingly opposite, quantity versus quality, is the quality of the units in a list in terms of their overall survivability. Quality and quantity really are not opposites because these two concepts together define the overall survivability of the list. It’s some kind of weird math function which is the sum overall quantity of your units and their overall quality.

The easiest way to observe quality in terms of hardiness is the Thunder Shield Terminator. Here’s a guy who is very hardy with a 2+/3++. By having a decent “quantity” of that kind of “quality”, you increase the overall “survivability” of a list. Since units like those are hard to kill, the army stays in fighting shape, longer.

This isn’t the only type of quality to consider. Another type comes in the form of force multipliers. For example, Saga of the Majesty lets your reroll failed morale checks. Therefore, having Saga of the Majesty in your list increases your survivability because it will keep your units in fighting condition rather than fleeing.

Another example is the Deathwing Terminator. These terminators are fearless. Thereby, they have more overall survivability than a standard Vanilla Terminator even if they both come equipped with Thunder Shields.


Transport vehicles significantly increase the survivability of a list. Vehicle themselves are not all that great at surviving. In fact, many times vehicles are actually less survivable than infantry. However, when you combine a transport with a unit, you get a multiplying effect on the survivability of that unit. Why?

The answer is actually pretty easy. To kill the unit as a whole, you have to first employ special, heavy weapons to kill the transport. That means it takes rounds and dice rolling, especially against the vehicle damage chart to take out the transport. Once you finally make it through the vehicle, you now have to employ a wholly different set of weapons and tactics, namely killing infantry, to take out the passengers.


Let’s examine some commonly considered competitive style lists and talk about where the survivability is in those lists.

Let’s look at the Leaf Blower style IG list. Widely considered competitive, do you see the survivability in it? Transports are check. Quantity is check with vehicle and Chimera spam. Quality might be slightly lacking, (not really with 12 armor everywhere), but the ability of their efficient units to deal damage more than makes up for that. You can see that having that many melta, templates, lascannons, etc. increases their survivability by how they can shut down the enemy?

How about a Rhino Rushing Space Wolf list? Quantity in bodies and melta guns. Quality usually provided by a Saga of the Majesty. Transports.

Here’s a counter example. If we followed the first two articles in this series, first being Overwhelming the opponent, second being taking Unbalanced/Efficient units, I could come up with a list like the following:


Coteaz – 100


10 x Death Cult Assassins – 150

10 x Death Cult Assassins - 150

10 x Death Cult Assassins - 150

10 x Death Cult Assassins - 150

10 x Death Cult Assassins - 150

10 x Death Cult Assassins - 150


1 x Psybolt Dread – 135

1 x Psybolt Dread - 135

1 x Psybolt Dread - 135

Total: 1405

This list should be competitive right? It’s taking what are arguably the most efficient, unbalanced units in the Grey Knight dex and is going to attempt Overhwlem with its incredible assault ability. Right?

The problem here is that this list has no survivability. Although gruesome in a fist fight, how long do you think those transport-less Death Cultists are going to stay in fighting condition when the enemy starts shooting at them? With nothing to hide behind or to protect them from the enemy, how long will those Dreads last? Sure, this list can kill the crap out you! However, it can’t survive multiple rounds.

Why Does Survivability Matter?

Why do competitive list builders seem to have a pattern of incorporating survivability into their lists? The answer is actually pretty simple! A game of 40K lasts at least 5 rounds. If your list runs out of gas by Turn 4, you’re going to lose more games than you win.

There’s a little deeper thought there though. I believe that most competitive players also understand that the longer you are in it, the more likely you are to win it. Ever heard of the rope-a-dope? Seen Rocky IV (not, the Mr. T one, the Russian one)? The truth is, the longer you stay in fighting and objective claiming condition, the more likely you are to turn things around if they start to go bad. Ever had a horrid round and thought the game was over right there? You hung in there though and ended up scratching out a win! Well, competitive players know this too. It might not be in the fore-front of their consciousness when building a list, but the core concept is in there somewhere.

So, go out and examine a few known competitive lists. Can you see the survivability in the list? Mr. Ben Mohlie always seems to impress with his Space Marines like he has done twice now at WargamesCon. The thing about Ben that always make me smile is that his lists look almost “battleforce” in nature, i.e. like a seemingly random amalgamation. Not to mention, it’s a Vanilla Marine list, not Blood Angels, Grey Knights, or Guard. Can you spot all three of the concepts discussed so far? Don’t forget about that Librarian because he’s a critical part of this topic!



Space Marine Libby in Power Armor + Null Zone + Gate of Infinity


5 x Thunder Shields

Rifleman Dread (2 x TLAC)


10 x Tactical Marines + Melta + Missile + PFist


10 x Tactical Marines + Missile + Flamer + Pfist


10 x Tactical Marines + Missle + Flamer + PFist

Razorback w/ HB


Land Speeder + Typhoon

Land Speeder + Typhoon

2 x Attack Bikes + Multi Melta


1 x Land Raider + Multi-Melta

Thunderfire Cannon

1 comment:

  1. I actually don't see all 3 elements.

    I see the 'unbalanced' as you define it as Vulcan, who is a decent IC in his own right, creates other units who become much more efficient than their points cost.

    I see resiliency in actually fielding 3 x 10 Tac squads and dispersing what can be dangerous to a persons army over several units, thus making target priority a real challenge.

    But, I don't really see overwhelming in any particular phase. When I look at my own Eldar army, one of the bigger threats is, strangely enough, the Rifleman Dread and Thunderfire. Not saying the rest is useless, but not quite as scarily overwhelming. To me, the army appears very 'swiss armyknife', meaning, it has a tool to deal with any army type (horde, mech, elite, MSU etc...)

    To me, when I see lists like this, two things come to mind:

    1. My opponent is a bit new to the game.
    2. Or, my opponent really knows how to play his army.

    This is the most important thing I need to determine, hopefully before the first dice is rolled.


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