As I mentioned in my last Battle Report I'll be a bit quiet this week as work continues on my Imperium list, not so much the list itself but the actual models! My timeline for getting three colors on everything for my GT is getting tighter but I think I'll make it, I just need more Skaven heads...
As per usual I was browsing the WarhammerCompetitive Reddit this week and got a lot of backlash for posting a relatively throw-away comment that Riptides were both mandatory for Tau and in need of a nerf. Numerous people came back at with an argument that boiled down to "Tau didn't do well at the London GT so you're an idiot!" I was somewhat shocked that people could be so bad at the game to not recognize an obviously problematic model but then I thought about the comments a bit more and it all made sense.
Humans really, really like to copy things that work well. While I wasn't quite around back in the caveman era I'm sure things like fire spread pretty quickly through copying your neighbor and that practice continues today even in gaming. For many years I played competitive TCGs like Magic: The Gathering, the card game genre is rife with people who can't wait to copy the newest and best decks after a big event. Much like most other games players rarely take the time to understand why the thing they're copying is good, they just latch onto it and get decent results. Even if you don't play an inherently powerful deck to its full potential, understand small changes it may need as the meta evolves, and so on, you can still do well.
This is much the same for miniature wargames and you see the same practices at play all the time. The problem with wargames, particularly Warhammer 40K, is that there are so many different metas that fragment an already very small competitive player-base. There are far more great card players than there are wargamers which means there are less eyes and minds working on the next big thing in Warhammer. There's less money at stake in wargames and if you don't think that's a big motivator then you don't know how the world really works.
The point I'm working towards is that Warhammer 40K events very rarely show off armies that can become the next big thing. This years Las Vegas Open, maybe the premier event in all of Warhammer 40K, showed off one very powerful Ynaari build. That's it. Look at the Top 8, there's nothing else there that has done well since or is agreed upon to be that powerful. One list is even actively bad! You can also take a look at the London GT, no real revelations there. Imperium and Ynaari continue to do well with all kinds of different builds and some other stuff snuck in much like every Top 8 of every major event.
While you can argue that looking at Top 8's confirms that certain armies are doing well you can gain that information without looking at big events. I would say that when a player constantly follows what made Top 8/16/4/etc. that they're overloading on information. Rarely do articles focus on the background players of why a list did well. What Missions were in play, what did it face on its road to wherever it finished, how was the tournament ranking matches? All of these things are hugely impactful, for example a list might be made to win very narrowly against a lot of different armies which would see it do well in events with straight Wins/Losses. Taking that same list to a different tournament that uses Margin of Victory could lead to issues.
I've been looking at lists ever since LVO '18 and that is the only event that I got any revelations from, and only because of the Ynaari lists using Shining Spears. Everything else was known, Shining Spears were the only soup ingredient I hadn't seen before. Since then I've gotten much more serious about reading Codexes, watching games (online and locally) and talking to other players which has prevented any further surprises from well performing armies. Of course not everyone has the time/ability to do that so you might again point to peeking at lists as a viable alternative. I would still rail against it though because without a background of why and how a player did well their list is of limited use to a competitive player.
As much as I'm not for copying lists without underlying knowledge, I'm much more against saying an army isn't good, or a model isn't good, because it didn't perform well. I'd like to go over two examples that fit this mold: Riptides and Tesseract Vaults.
Neither of these units have really been tearing up the Top 8 scene although Tau has steadily been improving since their Codex. If you based your knowledge of the game on nothing but results you'd think they aren't powerful, that's where doing actual research and playing games makes for a better and more informed player.
Both units are easily taken as a two or three of in an army and not only make it easy to play a skew but have very little offensive/defensive drawbacks of their own. Riptides start the game with a 2+/5++, a good amount of Wounds, access to healing, and the ability to improve to a 3++. On top of being hard to wound they are good to the last drop, also via Stratagem, so hurting them is useless unless multiple Riptides can br brought down a profile and do not heal back up to their top profile. That's a lot to ask of your army and if you go second it gets even worse as their 3++ will be in full effect.
Riptides are also a good example of Games Workshop not doing their math before releasing a Codex. The Riptides cheaper gun is much more powerful, having decent math into T7+ while mincing Infantry. You can see this at play with armies like Dark Eldar where Disintegrators are far and away better than Dark Lances but are also cheaper. To top it off Riptides can shunt wounds to Drones, making an alpha-strike that much harder, and can Fall Back from Combat at no penalty at all with a simple Target Lock clamped on.
So what's the counter-play this model affords an opponent? Well you can go first and shoot it but you have to clear out the Drones first, if there are any. These may be hidden or have Cover so they can be hard to remove themselves without wasting valuable high AP/Damage shots. Without Drones the Riptide will typically have a 5++ or 4+ which is far from squishy. Tying them up in Combat is useless and by the time most armies can get there the 3++ will be in effect which leaves very few armies that can meaningfully damage it. All the while the model is putting out strong offense event without something like Markerlights or an ATS.
I can save a lot of words and say the same thing about Vaults. While their main guns are good at shooting any type of target they also put out Mortal Wounds where the only thing your opponent can do is watch you roll dice. They pack a boatload of wounds, FLY Keyword, and an always on 4++ along with the same good to the last drop Stratagem Tau have. Being allowed to play three Vaults makes for an even harder skew, rendering anything that's not meant to kill tanks entirely useless.
It may never come to pass that three Riptides or three Vaults win a major event. That's not the point. These models, and others that I have not mentioned, are too good at what they do and present major roadblocks for an opponent trying to counter them. The competitive portion of the game has many tiers within it, is it good for the game if a budding tournament player runs into three of these models and gets run over without any recourse? I don't think so, it echoes back to earlier Editions where some armies said you lose, deal with it.
Having models which detract from player skill in terms of being able to handle them is bad for the game and bad for the community. Counter-play is what makes Warhammer, and most games, so fun as you get that rush when you pull off a good move. What feels good about just hurling dice into something and hoping for the best?
Fortunately most of the offenders can be easily fixed, although I hope Games Workshop doesn't opt for simply tacking on points. Vaults should be more expensive but Riptides have numerous options to tone them down. Maybe they shouldn't have FLY Keyword, maybe Savior Protocols shouln't work on anything with 10 or more Wounds. Nova Reactor could be limited to not allowing the same benefits in consecutive turns, there's so many inventive ways to change them and other units to make them playable but not as egregious.
To sum up, looking at lists for Warhammer 40K that do well in events is only a small glimpse at the bigger picture. So many things go into making even a Top 8 run at a major event that just mindlessly copying what you see will never yield the best results. Lists have their place, they can be a great starting point for an army that you learn about and grow as you play. But wargames are not card games, they're more complex and have more variance which means more is asked of the player. Just look at the Finals for LVO '18, a copied list resulted in one player not using a Stratagem correctly and losing the game. Would that have happened if he was actually an Eldar player or had more experience with the list than just ripping it off Best Coast Pairings? Probably not.
So temper your list peeking with game knowledge and table time. Have something to back up your arguments for why something is good or bad without running and pointing to the most recent tournament. Otherwise you might end up looking pretty silly.