Since I'm started testing my Imperium list, posting it around online and also tossing up my Battle Reports, I've gotten a lot of people who seem to be disappointed that I wasn't carrying the banner for Chaos anymore. This seems strange to me because I wasn't the most successful Chaos player out there but perhaps I was one of the most vocal. Perhaps I also played off-beat armies as my Cultists builds never followed what people assumed were good (because I disagreed with those builds) and I did what I could to get more lime-light on the Plagueburst Crawler list and how dumb it was.
In any case, I'm not abandoning Chaos entirely. One of the reasons I went with Imperium is because I like armies with a lot of models which isn't something Chaos can do while being competitive at this point in time. I also didn't want to buy what would amount to an entirely new army, most of my currently owned models are invalidated by the FAQ. I'm not bitter about these changes, it was just a bit of a financial issue to hit the ground running with Chaos right away. Finally I'm someone who really like to prove the 40K Internet Hivemind wrong, for better or worse when it comes to my competitive performance. Day 1 of the FAQ I saw people saying how over Blood Angels were and how gunlines are now unstoppable, well I wanted to disprove that.
With that out of the way I have been thinking about what works in Chaos inside of the new meta that's still to be explored. To that effect I'm going to lay out how I see the meta changing, the nerfs that Chaos took in the FAQ, both direct and indirect, and finally present some builds that might get people thinking about what Chaos can do. So let's start!
This Is Not The Meta You're Looking For
One major thing that people need to grasp for this discussion is that in terms of unexplored territory we are as close to the launch of 8th Edition as we have been since that actually took place. Some units are known to be good which gives people a leg up in building armies but not one successful tournament list made it through the FAQ untouched. Not a single one. In light of this many players are trying to squeeze old lists into the new meta that Games Workshop has created, you'll see a lot of armies with three Flyrants, three units of Dark Reapers, etc. if you poke around any of the online haunts. It's easy to cling to the familiar, but it's not always optimal.
Let's start with where I think the meta will go. For purposes of this one way discussion I'd like to lay out my exact opinion of the Warhammer 40K Meta and how it's formed. The first step is whatever the Internet thinks is good will see a major pickup in play. When there are no tournament results to base "opinions" on people will just shout that anything is the next top tier army and those who shout the loudest get the most attention. We can see this at work right now all over the place when it comes to gunlines, popular opinion says they're the top of the hill right now.
The next step in forming the meta are going to be the first few major events and what does well at them. Having published lists with weight behind them allows players to start picking up those armies or at least say they're good in order to make it seem like they have an educated opinion on the game. Sometimes this is without really understanding why the list did well, which I have a perfect example of. At the Las Vegas Open several months back a Blood Angels Primaris army did very well, made Top 8 in fact. People took this as Primaris are good but in reality that player just had an absurdly easy road to the Top 8, playing against no Eldar/Ynaari and no real gunlines. How do I know this? The pilot of that army plays in my area and it's widely discussed.
The final step is when the meta actually settles. This happens when certain armies have done well at numerous large events and have also trickled down into individual groups so that people actually learn the list, why it's good or not good, and opinion starts giving away to tested fact. Prior to the Spring FAQ that's where we were, there were multiple armies that had been through the fire and proven themselves. Now we're back to square one.
As of typing this right now the Internet group-think is shouting that gunlines are king, Deep Strike is dying, and everything is up for grabs. This is an extremely simplistic view of the game right now based on almost nothing but the change to how Reserves work. It's true that not being able to drop models, unmolested, into an opponent's lines on Turn 1 is a boon to gunlines. This lets them shoot at the non-Reserves at least once, maybe twice, before they have to defend themselves. Similarly it feels like a hammer blow to armies that relied on these strategies such as Demons and Blood Angels because their army might get shot up before they can try to even the odds. Spend some time on DakkaDakka or Reddit and you'll see a lot of armies built with all that in mind.
So where do I think the meta is actually headed? Well to answer that question I do have to say that I only exist within the ITC, Progressive Scoring sphere of influence. I do not play Core Rulebook Missions as they're not suitable for competitive games or events. This colors my perception a bit but with the ITC being so popular in North America I think I'm on pretty common ground with many other players.
In actuality I expect very little to change. Gunline armies are going to rise up and start cutting screens/chaff to keep up with a perceived arms race against other gunlines. Competent assault armies will retain, or add, elements to strip screens away within 1-2 Turns and then continue charging the gunlines and wreaking havoc. Once that happens enough times we'll go back to more balanced lists, offensively, which is where we were prior to the FAQ.
The fact of the matter is gunlines don't work in this Edition and are going to get worse if Games Workshop can throw together competent, progressive scoring missions and remove the multi-mission issue we have right now. By definition gunlines stand around and shoot, they don't take ground and they can't hold ground when they try. The shooting armies that do work are much more mid-ranged focused, this is stuff like Dark Eldar, Tyranids, and correctly built Tau. If you're looking to combat gunlines all you need is cheap shooting that can mathematically kill three units of Scouts or four units of Imperial Guard infantry. Bake that into your list, make sure it can survive a turn of shooting, and you're golden.
Chaos Rising, or Falling?
Now that I wasted many paragraphs detailing why I don't think the game is going to change from a macro perspective, what actually happened to Chaos? Well beyond the obvious things like The Rule of Three, Cultists and Poxwalkers being nerfed, and the blanket change to Reserves there's a few others things. A big one for Chaos is that you cannot Warptime units coming from Reserves, this shuts down strategies that may have come to the forefront like Drop Pods with Berserkers. These types of builds were kicked around before but now that the power level of the game has dropped with new restrictions I think there would have been strong viability there.
A very indirect nerf is that Chaos does not have access to the types of models I touched on above, that can remove screens efficiently from range. There are solutions but the goal is to get this done on the cheap and not as a main points of the list. Things like the Pink Horror Bomb were hit hard by the inability to come down on Turn 1 while units like Obliterators are simply overkill. This will lead to Chaos paying more for something other Factions can do on the cheap.
One more kick in the shins comes with the clarification of how FLY and Charging interact, along with being able to keep models out of melee by filling up multi-level terrain. Chaos has very poor models with FLY, both Raptors and Warp-Talons are overpriced and frankly unappealing. Chaos Lords with Jump Packs are not as good in a fight as their loyalist counter-parts (no Thunder Hammers, Storm Shields, and wonky Relics) which leaves some Demons and Heldrakes as the remainder. This means it's going to be easier to bubble out Charges from Chaos than other armies.
All this combines to limit the few units Chaos was leaning heavily on while outright removing Cultists which were the main cog in most of the powerful Chaos lists. Not being able to clog up the board leaves the Faction in a hole compared to Imperium as Imperial Guard was not touched. While you can still use Cultists they require a much higher tax than Guardsmen do both to deal with Morale as well as getting offense out of them. Comparatively Guard just picks up two Company Commanders, a Regiment, and away they go.
Oh Where Do We Go Now?
While it seems bleak for Chaos right now, I think there's some gold to be mined yet still. I'm going to detail very loose builds that I've been kicking around and focus on why I think they work but not dive into too much detail as these are templates, not fleshed out armies.
Nurgle Demon Vehicles
Anyone who's seen my Plagueburst Crawler games knows the effectiveness of Epidemius and Vehicles/Obliterators. With the still under-priced Crawlers being limited to a three of that list has lost power but remember most others have as well. What still works is the basic idea of the army, take resilient units and power them up with Epidemius to snowball the game.
Crawlers obviously still work in this but I love a unit of Blight-Haulers as well. They're an amazing Prescience, Warptime, and Miasma target which helps keep them around for the late game. Since they're a squad you can even get nine of them in a list, if you wanted to. Like Crawlers they benefit from everything Epidemius gives out and they shore up the weakness of Plagueburst Crawlers as they bring long-range, anti-tank shooting to the table. Defilers are another possible inclusion, while they aren't as strong defensively their offense and flexibility is under-appreciated. Sadly Obliterators have taken a backseat with the odd points increase to the Feculent Gnarlmaw pushing that model out of viability.
Other great additions to this type of build are Ahriman, Demon Princes, Nurglings, and Plaguebearers. You want to keep most of the offense focused on Nurgle Demons to get the Tally up but some peppering of other things here and there won't hurt. Vehicles also don't care about being a Death Guard Detachment, their only good Stratagem is the auto-explosion, so you can soup it up if you like.
Alpha Legion "Gunline-Bomb"
I've long railed against the Alpha Legion armies which relied on going first to win by swarming an opponent with Berzerkers and Cultists. That style list is just too swingy but a unit who makes great use of Alpha Legion is Noise Marines. While pricey when equipped with Sonic Blasters the ability to start them at mid-range is very strong and they don't mind hiding out a bit further away if you wind up going second. Even if they get killed they get to shoot which will help them take out screens no matter what and they love all the common buffs Chaos likes to bring. Even better you can shoot twice with them using the newly upgraded Battalion that Chaos can easily fill with minimum Cultist units.
This enables the beloved Bloodletter Bomb to ride again, have the Noise Marines gun down those pesky Charge blockers and then get into Combat with the Bloodletters. While they don't have FLY they do Charge quite far. Noise Marines also help clear space for them as they ignore Cover which should kill off the few models you need to climb up those ruins and into Combat.
Such a build would probably want as much as three Battalions with all the fun it can have through Command Points. It would also need anti-tank which can be obtained from a lot of places although Obliterators are probably taking a backseat in an already Command Point thirsty build. You could likely run this without Alpha Legion if needed but I think the -1 to Hit on the Noise Marines and the ability to put them where you want them is quite a big deal. They can even tie stuff up if you do get Turn 1!
With a lot of the too good models now being restricted and/or nerfed I think the the almost all Plaguebearer army finally has room to shine. Putting down around 120 Plaguebearers with Epidemius and the other Support Characters is nothing to sneeze at and is pretty resilient to a lot of the shooting out there. Speeding the Plaguebearers up with a Scrivener and their Instrument means you can get Charges going on Turn 2 while heavily controlling the board, take some Demon Princes along for the ride in case there's any big models that try to slow you down.
This is the type of list I think Obliterators would work well in as they can come down to get the Tally up to three as quickly as possible, speeding you up, and Deep Striking in the deployment zone is no issue with their 24" range. This build is pretty blatant with what it wants to do but by stuffing in some Characters and as many Plaguebearers as you can it will overwhelm a lot of fancier armies. If you're a true badass just run 180 Plaguebearers and let come what may.
So what are you looking at to keep the forces of Chaos among the top tables at your next event? I'd like to see what more committed players out there are thinking. I quite like the Noise Marines and Bloodletters, might be something to that...