Episode 74.2: List Iteration, Creation and How to Obtain More Valuable Data

I'm taking a break from games until later this week as I wait for models to come in and some conversion work to finish up. Shout out to the FLG Store and their absurd 5 Day handling time on orders, because who wants things in a reasonable amount of time?

While working on my models I've also been working on my list. Frequent readers of my Battle Reports will note that my lists tend to change over time, my previous Chaos army went through many iterations before I settled into something that I liked. As I've transitioned into an Imperium army I thought it might be a good idea to speak about my thoughts on list iteration, creation, and a the misconceptions of that process. I'm a fairly active poster on the Warhammer Competitive sub-Reddit which is where I really started to notice that many players don't do themselves any favors when it comes to trying to improve their army. With that in mind I'd like to break down how I approach list creation, iteration, and the steps beyond in the hopes that it might help someone out there and/or improve my own process.

This is going to be a long article with no TL;DR. I don't think this is a topic that can be abridged and when I've read posts where people try to do so the article ends up a muddled, useless mess. So excuse my long-winded explanation, hopefully it's of some use.



Genesis

 Lists for any wargame begin in many different ways. Some people will copy an army they see online that looks like fun to them or that did well at a prestigious event, others start with an idea and expand from there, while yet others will mix the two styles and put their own spin on something that is known to have teeth. For the competitive community it's been my experience that the most common path chosen is to copy a powerful idea, or what I call a shell, and then sculpt it into something that's more personal to that player. We saw this in action at the highest level at the 2018 Las Vegas Open where the top two players had very similar armies but each had made some decisions they felt added that little bit of extra spice.

I'll say off the bat that there's no wrong way to make an army but I'm going to be approaching this topic, as I do most topics, from a competitive point of view. With that said I think the most effective beginning to an army is to start with something that is a known effective shell while also matching that to your playstyle.

So what is a shell? A shell is the bullet point idea of the army, it's usually very simple and very obvious. I'm going to use my Imperium army as the real-world example for this article but most any player can probably conjure up their own version. My shell was simply "Blood Angel Melee Units and Command Points". That's it. You can boil down many powerful lists this way e.g. Dark Reapers and Buffs, Venoms and Blasters, Epidemius and Nurgle Vehicles, the list goes on and on. The purpose of the shell is to give you a clear objective when actually composing an army, it allows you to focus on something and bend the list towards meeting that goal.

To start the list you usually want to fill the shell first. For me I had two very plain goals to meet, I needed Blood Angel Melee Units and I needed Command Points. This doesn't paint me into a corner right away, instead it gives me some creative freedom while focusing my attention. There are many ways to obtain Command Points within an Imperium army, there are also many fine choices for Blood Angels that love to get into combat. I'm stressing this point because I think right off the bat players tend to focus on the specific units in an army rather than what they want the army to do. Looking at my shell I just want a hard hitting melee army that I can enable via Stratagems, that's all. Getting past that point cuts off paths for you and that serves no useful purpose.

Alright so we have our shell and we have an idea of what we want our army to do. This is where you start looking at units to fill the shell. In my case I looked over the Blood Angels Codex first, after all I'm trying to enable Blood Angels units so they're the primary focus. After I had a good grasp on what each unit could do I looked at lists online, what are some of the popular units within armies that use Blood Angels? What was the goal of the lists they were in, how did a unit further those goals? Note that I'm not looking at extremely specific entries at this point, I'm only dabbling in units.

Poking around online showed that Death Company were the most popular unit with Captains, Librarians, Chaplains, and Sanguine Guard as other common sightings. Within these entries was a huge variety of armament and unit size/numbers taken. I'll keep hammering it home, this is why you don't get into the nitty-gritty of what people are using, it doesn't matter yet and it's going to confuse things. I've seen people say "I have to take x amount of this unit or this model has to have y wargear" but when I ask why they have no answer.

At this point it was easy for me to see why the units I mentioned were popular because I'd read through the Codex and understood the possibilities. I'll spare you from reading all the mental rundown of that but let's focus on Death Company. This is a very flexible melee unit in that it can change its delivery system and armament as needed, allowing it to fill roles in many different types of armies. It's also not an unnecessarily multi-role unit, there's no real shooting options and all the special rules are either focused on melee or survival, which mesh nicely. Most people would say "Well no duh they're good" but that requires you to mentally shortcut the information I just presented which means it can be lost sight of. It's important to know why something is good, not just that it is.

Ultimately I decided that I wanted Captains with Thunder Hammers and Storm Shields as well as Death Company with Jump Packs to fill my shell. Note some vagueness here, I don't yet know what kind of Captains I want, I only know their armament and I don't know anything about the Death Company besides their method of delivery. Jump Pack Death Company and Captains work with my shell, I want to use Stratagems. Jump Packs and Characters both get a lot of options from Blood Angel Stratagems so that's what I favored. At this point I didn't consider further entries as they would be buffs for other units and I don't know if I need those yet.

Using much the same method I decided that the best way to get Command Points, the other part of my shell, was to go with Imperial Guard. I know that I can fill a Battalion/Brigade with Guard very easily and with a lot of different options. Comparing that to Blood Angels, or other Imperium armies, I'd have to dedicate much more of my list to the same endeavor and couldn't find other Troops that made a good fit for 6+ entries. Once again I'm doing some short-cutting here but I hope the point and methodology comes through.

So where did I end up? I know I want to start with a few specific units of Blood Angels and I know I want to make Battalions/Brigades out of Imperial Guard. Now what?



Coming Out of Your Shell

So we have our shell, our central idea, and we've chosen some units to make that dream a reality. Now comes some actual decision making or as I like to think of it, following one of the many paths that you've created for yourself. What quantity do you want of the units you've chosen, how does that quantity meet your objectives for the army? What wargear yet furthers those goals? It's a lot to go over.

What I generally remind myself of is that you can always go back. I see a lot of armies where I ask myself, why wasn't this unit trimmed or this weapon downgraded/upgraded? The more fleshed out a list becomes the more that someone generally seems to get attached to the nitty gritty of it.

Going back to my army as an example I started with a very generic template of 10 Infantry Squads with Mortars and a Supreme Command Detachment of Captains with a 10 man Death Company unit. Since I knew what I wanted the Captain to wield that was a very easy decision and I chose to try out three Jump Packs, two Bikes. I plug this into BattleScribe and see what I'm working with in terms of points. At this point I have my shell, which is not fully-realized because I don't know what I want on the Death Company or the Guardsmen, if anything.

At this point I return to my mission statement: Blood Angels with a lot of Command Points. I have some Blood Angels so I need to focus on crafting what I have into Command Points. By running a Supreme Command Detachment I'm gimping myself in that respect in order to get a lot of fighty Characters, I have to make up for that. To that end I started working on a Battalion and Brigade.

From here it's easy to see how I filled in the list, I followed the Detachments I'd chosen and worked within that. Since I already have the Troops for both Detachments I left those alone for the moment but I also need other things. Again I went to the well of "what's popular" and gravitated towards Sentinels, Mortar Heavy Weapon Teams, and Company Commanders/Primaris Psykers for the HQs. I'm now filling in the list and rapidly moving towards something I can start testing with. I now have a much closer to 2000 Point list and I'm only missing Elites from having something I could put on the table.

This is when I had to make a further choice and decide on a Regiment for my Guardsmen. Looking over my list which so far was comprised of very mobile, very hard-hitting Characters and blobs of anti-Infantry units I wanted to reinforce my melee prowess and get some additional help against Vehicles/Monsters. To that end I chose Catachans for the S4 and opted for the Priest + Straken combo. Picking Catachans also gave me access to Harker, a no-brainer as I needed Elites anyways, and I rounded it off with an Astropath as what appeared to be a synergistic choice.

I've now arrived at a list I can test and I've made several decisions along the way. I chose a Regiment and then picked a more melee heavy army based on that Regiment. I could have just as easily included some tanks or kept the Guardsmen as more of a counter-attack portion of the army but those weren't the paths I chose. In testing it's important to keep in mind where your list began so if something isn't working you know how to go back. That's why I literally imagine making an army like a maze, I take this fork in the road but if it doesn't lead to where I want to end up I have to be able to remember my way back.

I also never sacrificed my core idea, the list I ended up with indeed used Blood Angels with a lot of Command Points. By not being overly specific I left myself room to grow the list and even re-tool it as needed. While the core idea of the list is powerful there are so many ways to arrive at that destination that it's not my job to find the most efficient means of doing that.



If At First You Don't Succeed, Label It v0.1

So we have a list, we know how we arrived at that list, and we know what the list is supposed to do. Now comes the most time consuming part, putting it on the table. While I have written in some depth about how I arrive at an army that process is actually very short, I built my initial list in only a few hours. Some of this comes with a lot of game experience, you build up a knowledge base of what works, what doesn't, why, and so on. But the other part is I start with an idea and expand from there, it's much easier to create an army when you have more than a vague direction of what you'd like to do.

Were now at what most people call the iteration phase. This is where you seek to continually improve the list by playing with it, getting feedback, and in general opening yourself up to new ideas. Everyone has their own methodology for doing this, even if you don't know it, so I'll highlight and discuss those instead of just providing my way. Please note that there's very few wrong answers when it comes to iteration so do what you have access to and what you find useful.


Getting Feedback

This is a very popular way to improve a list these days, I think of it like crowd-sourcing. If you read my blog you're likely familiar with DakkaDakka, Reddit, Bolter and Chainsword, and many more sites where you can post a list and have people critique it. I find this to be extremely valuable all throughout the iterative process although there are diminishing returns.

When posting a list online you never want to post the list in a vacuum. 40K, somewhat regrettably, has numerous metas in the form of what Missions you play. It's very hard to give targeted advice to an army when the critic isn't sure where you're coming from in that respect. It's also very hard to give accurate criticism without understanding the posters mental process, how did you arrive at this list? Why did you pick this unit, what is that unit's role? Very few armies just stand on their own in terms of "this is what it is" and with Games Workshop making changes that continually lower the power level of the game that's only going to become more of an issue.

Another way to get feedback is to discuss your army with local players, I find this to be easier in that you can show and explain the army in more depth but you don't get as many eyes looking to help you out. Getting local feedback also has the advantage of knowing where someone is coming from, if you post online you can get advice that might be really bad. Of course good players can still give bad advice, it happens to everyone, but you get to hedge your bets a bit more.

My only real advice for opening a list to criticism is to know how you got there and take everything with a grain of salt. I assume most criticism of a list is bad and therefore shouldn't be listened to but that's my personal philosophy as a very experienced player. There's a fine line between standing up for what you've built and being arrogant. Even poor critique can be used to solidify your thought process by making you think "Why DON'T I want that unit someone recommended? Can I explain that to them or do I not actually have a reason?"


Table Time

While critique is optional, table time is not. You cannot improve a list you've made without playing it and I would say that even critique is useless until you understand how an army works in an actual game. I also strongly believe that playing an army leads to the most rapid improvement as I'll explain below.

Testing a list and playing a list are very different experiences that I don't think everyone fully considers. When you play a list your primary goal is to win, you combine your knowledge of the army, game, your opponent, etc. all together to make the best decisions in order to come out on top. When testing a list winning and losing are irrelevant, it's about how you arrived at the outcome. Did you smash your opponent's horde army but lose to his tank army? Did you smash his tank army but lose on Objectives? Was it hard to get up the table, was it hard to hold your Deployment Zone, was it hard to get into melee or shooing range?

Asking yourself questions is a great way to constantly poke at a list when playing it, even if they seem overly pedantic. Yes I killed that Rhino but did I overkill it? Maybe there's points to be recouped there depending on what I used. How much did that re-roll 1's to Hit Aura help me, would I have killed that Tactical Squad even without it? How many more offensive resources would that have taken?

Never count your opponent out of the equation either. I will always ask for feedback after a game on what they thought was threatening, what they could ignore, why, where the game swung, the list goes on. As is probably obvious testing yields the best results when you approach it like a science project. Knowing what happens when two chemicals mix is not as important as knowing why that outcome is achieved. Otherwise you're left thinking "I keep winning my test games, this list is unbeatable!" until someone beats you down and you don't know what happened.


My Continued Journey

A lot of my testing has been documented on this very blog, although not all of it. The behind the scenes stuff I haven't spoken much about though. My initial game I just wanted to play the first person I could find, I have some experience with melee armies in 8th Edition but not in the same way as the list I'd built. My first game was against a Dreadnought heavy list which I smashed to bits, the army didn't have nearly enough attacks to deal with my Guardsmen and each Captain was good for beating one to death at worst. Unfortunately this game taught me very little because it was such an extreme skew, my Blood Angels worked out as I expected and I got to feel the speed the list can have but I wanted more.

From there I got a bit more picky about what I played against, aiming for take on all comers lists piloted by people I was familiar with that also wanted a competitive game. This led to some better testing as it became apparent over more table time that the Catachan Doctrine was doing me little to no good. I wanted to be up the board but not necessarily in melee punching people, it was more important to move around at will.

Some of this came to a head when I had to work very hard for a draw against a Chaos gunline, which is not a powerful build. While a lot of dice rolls did not go my way in the game it was obvious I couldn't move up fast enough to help out my Blood Angels while also actually doing anything. This lead to Tanks/Dreadnoughts having free aim against me until I could get something over to them that was punchy but when all that died I had few options left. I'd been hesitant to Advance because I needed the Guardsmen to kill Cultists and open up the better units for Charges but in the end they didn't have the necessary firepower and I had to use the Death Company.

This is what I consider a breakthrough game. Prior to this I'd gotten somewhat comfortable wins and made small changes here and there as I learned the list but this game made me rethink a lot of my choices. I retraced my paths from earlier and realized the Brigade wasn't working. I was being forced to take too much support and to use it I had to Advance all the Guardsmen early on in a game which meant I did nothing over Turns 1-2. My Death Company were also dying every game after they Charged and I had too many eggs in one basket to allow that.

Through subsequent games I instead tried Tallarns, which has proved to be very successful as my Guardsmen could suddenly keep up with my Blood Angels while still contributing. My Brigade degraded into two Battalions but the Supreme Command Detachment was elevated to a Battalion so as to continue my central goal for the list. This resulted in less Characters but more, small units of Death Company that made better use of Stratagems, another core idea of the list. I can see where the list began and I can see where every change happened, and why it happened. All throughout the process I'd post the list online and take less and less advice, which pissed some people off, but I knew they didn't understand where I was coming from or what the army was supposed to do like I did. Even still it challenged my view of the list and got me to work on a few alternate builds that can also be tested.


Summation of Iteration

If I was to give specific advice to someone iterating on a list it would be to challenge everything. Accept no absolutes and question as many interactions as you can. It's not enough to know if you can kill a specific kind of target, you have to know how much you overkill it by, what are the odds you don't kill it, how hard is it to deliver your solution, what can an opponent do to prevent that delivery, is that worth further mitigation or not? These are the things that make wargaming so wonderful and so strategic, it's also incredibly rewarding when you keep asking those questions and finally settle on some answers. Army lists are a puzzle, if you don't try a different piece you'll never get a good fit.

I would also say that while it's important to listen you should always assume you're correct. That doesn't mean you don't think about or even try out someone else's solution but having the confidence in the work you did prior to even finishing a list helps to keep an army focused. If you think you're wrong, prove it, and do the same when you think you're right.

Finally, don't be afraid to document things. I keep every revision of a list that I play, for as long as I can, and also try to note why I made changes between versions. This creates sort of a patch history for the gamers/IT folks out there, if you have a good memory this might not be necessary. I write everything down because my memory lies to me at times.



It's Done When It's Done

We've laid out a roadmap, we followed through, and we did everything in our power to fix the holes in the army as we found them. So are we done? Well in truth an army is never truly done. Eventually there comes a point where no more changes are needed and the list is as ready as you can make it for competitive play. But as we all know, change is inevitable.

While it's not possible to future-proof an army it is pretty easy to be vigilant. Keep an eye on tournaments big and small to see what people are running out there, do you think you can deal with it? Go back into the lab for a bit and do a thought experiment, have a friend proxy an army that you aren't sure what to do against. If you have to make a change well you now have the tools to do it quickly and efficiently. At this point buying/painting new models is usually the biggest obstacle to getting something on the board.

Usually when a list is more or less done you'll transition to thinking about how it plays versus other things, how to handle specific situations that you have the tools to handle, and generally just improving your play. But that big shakeup is always around the corner, whether it be a month of a year, and if you truly understand your army then it's easy to adapt.

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That's all I have this time, sorry for the super lengthy post. Understanding the nuts and bolts of an army list is very near and dear to my love for miniature wargames so I have a lot to say on the subject. Even with this I had to edit myself quite a bit which is obviously not my strength. Hopefully the ideas I presented made some sense and were of help to someone out there. I know they've served me well thus far.

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