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Friday, July 8, 2011

Competitive List Building Theory Part 1(Overwhelming Element)

For a lot of semi-competitive gamers out there, I think there is a bit of a struggle to understand what makes one list competitive and another, not so much. Why do some people look at one list and say, “that looks competitive” versus another going “hmm, needs improvement”? What are the hidden elements of “competitiveness” that fit together?

I have recognized several patterns that exist in competitive lists. I thought it would be fun to share a few of those patterns and to get a conversation going about other patterns. Just for a little definition, a pattern is something that exists in the majority of competitive lists across all codices, not necessarily every list for the pedants out there who just can’t help themselves.

An Overwhelming Element

Almost every competitive list I see contains some kind of element in it that is intended to be “overwhelming”. Funnily enough, most competitive gamers don’t even fully recognize or even concede those points. I had a conversation once with a guy who was convinced his competitive list was super flexible and not as spammy as others when I had to remind him that although he might be using a variety, it was still an overwhelming amount of 12 front armor vehicles (speaking of an IG army of course) which is still a spammy concept.

Something in every competitive list I see represents an overwhelming concept. Before I get into my personal theories about why this is so, here’s a bit of banter to try and convince you of the point.

Overwhelming Shooting – Look no further than current GK builds with psycannons, dreads, and razor backs. How about Guard lists? Even Space Wolf lists with Long Fangs and a nice helping of Razorbacks. These lists intend to overwhelm the opponent with a good first or second turn round of shooty, alpha strike goodness. How many of armies can you think of that use this type of overwhelming theme? Black Templars? Loganwing? Even Orks?

Overwhelming Resiliency – These are those lists whose intent is to “survive” the entire game and win on objectives. This is the idea of packing in close to 50 Grey Hunters in a list and challenging your opponent to outlast you. This is the concept of stuffing 120 Orks on the board, spamming vehicles, or playing Deathwing.

Overwhelming Speed and Assault – Battlewagon Spam Orks? Cavalry Demons? A pack of Thunder Wolves and Thunder Lord? When I say the term “overwhelming”, this probably the first thing that comes to people’s minds. How about Storm Raven heavy lists?

Overwhelming Mech – Packing just a ton of vehicles on the board. The list overwhelms the opponent’s ability to kill all the Mech. This usually works best with things like IG and 12 Armor Spam, but it also works for Razor Spam and the like. It works like a champion for Eldar.

There are more, but here’s the point to keep it short and sweet. Almost every competitive list I see contains one or more underlying elements which attempt to “overwhelm” the opponent in some way. Examine some competitive lists and look at what I mean. Overwhelm with Bikes. Overwhelm with Genestealers. Overwhelm with a big alpha strike. On and on.

Why does this pattern seem to be so critical for a competitive list? I have a few arm-chair general theories on this.

The Simple Game Plan

I believe that most competitive players recognize that in order to be competitive, you need a simple game plan. The concept then is to formulate a game plan that you think will work against any army. I believe this for a couple reasons. The first is that we, as humans, aren’t as smart as we think we are. There is lots of psychological research out there which proves that the average dude thinks he is way smarter than he actually is and that everyone else is way dumber than they actually are. Cool, huh? It’s almost like arrogance is built into our species. We need a simple game plan because we’re actually just too darn simple to follow a complex one without making mistakes. That’s the key. Mistakes. Rather, avoiding them. The second reason is that a simple game plan allows us to ball up the complexity of 40K into something our “not really as smart as we think we are” brains can actually cope with. This is another natural phenomenon where human brains like to do the same thing “over and over” because we are so good with patterns and repetition. It’s also why it’s easy to step away from a game of 40K and critique why a player did something, when in reality, that player is putting a lot less thought into it than the outside observer. A lot of times, they are reacting off of habit, a habit formed by their game plan. To complex of a game plan and your brain has no snap to judgment calls. This means, more mistakes. This is also why practice is so darn important if you want to better your game.

An overwhelming element in a list generally translates to a simple game plan. What’s the game plan? Simple! Exercise this overwhelming element and beat the opponent about the head with it!

What’s my game plan? Simple! Spam 12 Chimera across the board, killing whatever, and controlling objectives at the end. Sound about right? Overwhelm with Mech and 12 Armor.

The Good Match-Up

Most lists which utilize an overwhelming element also come pre-packaged with a few very good match-ups that their over-whelming element will do really good against. An easy example would be Dark Eldar Venom Spam which attempts to overwhelm with speed and poison shots and has insanely good match-ups versus Demons, for example. An alpha striking guard list matches up insanely well against an elite, hammer force that attempts to overwhelm with assaults.

This ability to incorporate some “easy button” wins into a competitive list really helps out because at a tournament, if you happen to run into that guy, you’ve got an almost guaranteed win.

It’s another conversation entirely to talk about the merits of overwhelming in a certain way to create good match-ups. Because, as we all know, it also creates some bad match-ups too! That’s for another time.

The Scenarios

Most highly competitive list builders also build their lists to win the mission objectives. Thus, they try to create overwhelming elements in a list which perform well. This should be common sense! Here are two examples to get off the ground.

If I am playing a battle points tournament, I want to overwhelm in terms of lethality, be It alpha striking, fast assaults, whatever kills the crap out of my opponent. Here, we see the realm of heavy assault armies like BW Spam Orks or ridiculous alpha/shooty armies like Razorback Spam Space Wolves.

If I am playing a NoVA style tournament, I want to overwhelm with resiliency. Whatever will keep my troops on the board at fighting strength the longest is win, especially if I can stay near board center and not give up many kill points! Here we see the realm of overwhelmingly resilient lists like Rhino Rushing Space Wolves, Chimera Spam, Ork Vehicle Spam, Horde style lists, etc.


Go and examine a truck load of competitive lists. How will you know which ones to look at? Look at what known competitive players bring to tournaments. Look at the lists that win tournaments.

See if you see like I do that almost every list contains one or more elements in it which feel like they are intended to “overwhelm” in some way. It may feel spammy, or intended to deliver a really hard punch through some aspect of it. See if you can spot the underlying overwhelming element because it isn’t always obvious.

And on the flipside, look at non-competitive average joe lists. How many pack in a workable “overwhelming” element. How about the codices we know aren’t very competitive right now like Necrons, Tau, and Tyranids. Do these armies struggle to find an “overwhelming” element that works?

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