Episode 74.6: What (This) Competitive Player Wants from Missions

Once again I've fallen into the Battle Report black hole, it seems to be cyclical. I have been playing but I'm still down a fair few models for the list I want to run and showing off empty bases (at best) or other models which are visually confusing (at worst) isn't very appealing. I'm also trying to get back into painting as I'll be traveling to Las Vegas for a GT next month which does have a minimum painting requirement. Fortunately pretty much all my "Guardsmen" are done and that's the bulk of the army.

Moving on, I've been doing a lot of tournament preparation lately as the season is really kicking up locally. While testing I've been noticing just how much I'm starting to dislike the ITC Missions as that's what nearly everyone in my state plays with. Originally I was quite a big fan of the ITC Packet but I feel like the more you play with it the more the cracks show. With that in mind I thought I'd run down some thoughts on them as well as the other Missions offerings as well as what I think would be better.

What The ITC Does and Does Not Do Well

I think before diving in that it's worth noting the ITC is an organization that rose out of necessity. 40K has never been known for good Missions, during the time I played you only scored at the end of the game which gave rise to extreme gunline armies and games being decided on Turn 2-3. This was also during a time when Codex creep was a huge issue and the game was almost unplayable from a balance perspective. The ITC tried to curb some of this, as well as GW's then infamous lack of community interaction, by publishing rulings, FAQs, restrictions, and so on. I can't speak to their level of success as I got out of 40K when the ITC was ascending in the scene but I get the impression they were community favorites among the competitive player-base.

When 8th Edition dropped the Missions in the Core Rulebook were sadly as bad as ever, featuring horrible imbalances and boring objectives. The initial draft of the ITC Packet corrected some of these issues so people could play in a more level setting while waiting on a better alternative. Then came the Champion's Missions which have become probably the most played Missions in 40K with the ITC's popularity in the US (a huge market) and a growing influence in other countries. When compared to even the Chapter Approved Missions, the Champion's Packet is pretty clearly the best of what was available.

Champion's Missions are based around "Progressive Scoring" which means both players accumulate points as the game is played. Each Mission has a Primary Objective, which is always to hold points on the battlefield that players setup within certain boundaries as well as kill units, a Bonus Objective, which is usually to hold even more specific points, and Secondary Objectives which are tailored based on your opponent's army composition. At first glance this works pretty well, everything is pretty easy to track and both players know what the goals of the game are. It also offers somewhat of a rebuttal to gunlines as in most missions they cannot go and take ground which puts them at a deficit on the score.

The objective of the Missions seem to be rewarding armies that are interactive and play in all phases. Gunline armies, even if they win, won't score as many points as an army that goes out and takes ground. This means even shooting armies that win tend to have lower scores and thus won't place as highly, especially in events with 5-6 rounds. I see this as a very good idea because shooting armies are already heavily rewarded by the base rules of the game and can be subjectively boring to play against/with. Having configurable Secondary Objectives also puts some emphasis on player skill and knowing what you can/can't achieve.

What has become problematic, in my eyes, within the ITC Missions is that there's still way too much emphasis on killing enemy units. Nearly every Secondary is "Kill/Damage a unit of a specific type" with only two Secondaries being focused on positional play. Worst still one of the positional Secondaries is practically impossible to score four times while playing seriously (Behind Enemy Lines) as it comes at a huge opportunity cost while also forcing very specific compositions. So the game often boils down to a murder-fest where you get a lesser reward for actually taking and holding ground.

Another, perhaps unintended, consequence of the ITC Missions are that they massively inform the meta. Alpha/Beta Strike lists are MORE powerful with these Missions because you get rewarded for killing but also remove your opponent's ability to damage you back, then limiting their opportunity to score things like "Kill More" and their own Secondaries. In many of the Core Rulebook Missions you don't get that as positioning at the end of the game is what matters which emphasis resilience and rewards ObSec abilities.

Overall the Champion's Missions reward too much of what the game already wants you to do. This focuses the game into having the most efficient options to remove enemy units, pushing other units by the wayside. For example Orks have continued to do well in Rulebook Events while they're awful within the ITC, this is because right now they can't shoot/fight as well as other armies but they can hold Objectives better than almost anyone.

What's Missing?

While I've written about this before, quite some time ago, 40K has always missed what I think the point of a Mission should be. Playing with Objectives is a way to exert pressure on your opponent, it forces people to jockey for space and make tough decisions. I always go back to Warmachine when I think of great Missions, it's the elegance of design that I admire. For those who don't know Missions in Warmachine are one of three ways to win the game with the others being killing a specific model and timing your opponent out.

Most armies would build to do one of these things as focal point (except time outs, that didn't really work). In most Missions if you got to 5 Points the game automatically ended and that player won. This created a sort of rock, paper, scissors within every game. For example let's say my army is very attrition based, I want to kill as much stuff as I can and then win the game from there. My opponent is a heavily Objective focused army, they can move my models, they're fast, etc. Well I'm not going to have enough time to shoot everything off of the Objectives before I lose so I have to contest various spaces on the board. This likely means taking a hit before I can deliver one because if I try to just toe in or be cheeky I could get removed in turn.

That's the kind of pressure I want to see in 40K. You want to sit back and shoot? Fine. I hope you can kill my army before I rack up a huge score because you get nothing for removing my models. The point of every wargame is already to destroy the other person's army but when that's all there is to do the game gets boring. Right now you get almost no benefit from building an army that pushes hard on Objectives. Compare this to even Age of Sigmar where you can win games by taking ground and holding it. I'd say that's probably the norm in most games as Infinity also uses a similar system as does Legion and a good portion of the smaller market share games.

Would This Even Work in 40K?

When I discuss this topic with people they always express some hesitancy towards it. Part of this is likely that many players have ONLY involved themselves with 40K so if it hasn't been done in that game it's probably bad. Some also say that 40K isn't built for that kind of movement but I would argue that's looking at things through the prism of the existing game and meta.

40K has a lot of great units that can move efficiently and pay points to do so, you might not know about them because no one uses them right now. Stuff like Bikes, durable Deep Strikers, and Transports would likely see a lot more play if getting to the center of the table was a bigger point of emphasis.

While any massive change like this would have to be tested I think various progressive scoring templates have a place within Warhammer. I'm partial to "First player to x wins" but you can also do something along the lines of Objectives become worth more the longer they're held by one player (not as the game goes on, the rewards passive play) or Objectives being more valuable the more you hold. This is kind of similar to a lot of video games where holding more points pumps your score up faster as a reward for it being hard to control so much territory.

Running these kinds of Missions seems more viable in 40K than most other games because every army has so much access to every playstyle. I can't think of a Faction that can't get around when it wants to, or can't stay back and shoot, or can't take a punch. In Warmachine players had to run multiple lists for events because one list couldn't accomplish all of that which led to huge skews and a very swingy game. With a more even spread of what you can do I think there'd be more room for tactical play. "Do I try and shut down his Scenario game first, or do I worry about his offense? What space on the board can I let him have without losing while I execute my game plan?" These are things you ask yourself then the game isn't just about blowing stuff up.

What Is Likely to Happen?

While there's a lot of could be's and maybe's out there I prefer to focus on what's likely to happen. I have seen no indication that the ITC Missions will change, they've only made small tweaks to wording since their inception and with such a big slice of the pie I doubt improvements are on their radar.

The most likely fix is for Games Workshop to keep showing that they care about the competitive community and change Dawn of War Missions to be something along the lines of what I've discussed. Maelstrom of War can remain for those looking for a casual experience, the card deck does a good job of keeping things interesting for casual play but injecting more RNG into the game detracts from player skill. Simply have Dawn of War be progressive scoring on even footing (No First Blood crap) and keep them extremely simple. This would act as a unifying move for the competitive meta and would give players an easy gateway into competitive play, they don't have to go search out this random organization that they'd have no way of knowing about except word of mouth.

This is actually the only thing I'm looking forward to in the next Chapter Approved. Right now the game needs very few points adjustments, it needs meta adjustments. Games Workshop has shown they can write great Missions in Age of Sigmar, it's not a huge ask to move that to their flagship game. I had my hopes up for the first Chapter Approved but I think they might have still been testing the 8th Edition waters, we now see the FAQs making BIG changes, so why not Missions next?

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