‘Balls To The Wall’ – How To Improve Your Play by Dave Symcox

5 Oct


It’s what you learn after you know it that counts

Harry S Truman

 There are some obvious ways that you can improve your playing ability in 40k: read the rulebook (thoroughly), practise, practise, practise, know your army, etc etc. All of us know this, yet I wonder whether we really know what this means… I didn’t.

In November of last year, inspired by the 11th Company Podcast I decided to get back into the hobby. It is a cliché, but I am a huge fan of the Gaunts Ghosts series by Dan Abnett and spearheaded by that thought chose Imperial Guard as my army of choice. Imagine my delight when I found out that they were also crowned as the unofficial ‘best’ army in the game. I read the rules (thoroughly of course), scoured the internet for tips and examined my codex so often that its crumpled state could have been mistaken for ‘that’ magazine which I hid under my bed at age 13. I had been a very competitive gamer back in the day; so surely, armed with this knowledge, I was on an auto win: wrong! Using Imperial Guard, or any powerful codex for that matter is not an auto win, nor is knowing your codex, or the rules or what any internet site may tell you. It is merely the start, the precursor to the real work ahead and it is what you learn after that point which counts.

Many, including myself bandy about the term practise as advice to get better, but what does that really imply? For me, it is a means to an end; a process to attain the comfortable state of play where all scenarios are familiar and there are only very rare circumstances in which I am confused what to do next.  To achieve this we could increase the amount of times we play per week, but how realistic is that? We all live busy lives; have families, work – some of us even have a profanity to the dark side and play fantasy too. Instead, I would recommend that you find the best player/s in your area and make a point of playing them. I would wager that just one game against the best standard gamer in your area is the equivalent of ten in terms of experience and what you can learn.

When I first came to Nottingham and met some of what are the 40KUK Podcast team now: Nathan ‘The Fat Angry Geek’, Gary ‘The Voice’ Percival and Josh ‘The Master Debater’ Roberts (UK no1 ranked player), I literally didn’t win a game against any of them for 3 months. Strangely, they were the most enjoyable and fascinating games I have ever had. That may sound like a strange statement, but it was quite a thing to behold what Gary’s Blood Angel descent list could do to my Imperial Guard, or experience Nathan’s Genestealer Spam only giving me a turn of panic before hitting my lines, let alone Josh’s fully tooled up Ork Battlewagon army beating me in 2 turns. The tactics and dearth in skill set between them and I was huge and the consequences of each mistake I made were such a shock that I learnt at an ultra speed not to make them again. A learning curve, difficult to accept at times, but vital in improving my play.

Another common piece of advice that you may have heard is to read all of the codexes in the game to gain a better understanding of the rules and ultimately cunning tactics your opponents will employ. I would agree and have indeed read all of the codexes myself, yet reading is one thing: firsthand experience is another. When reading a codex there are certain nasty or effective little tricks which will stand out to you – most probably based on your playing style, but unless you are the Rain Man, I doubt whether you will be able to remember every single detail word for word. Even now, almost a year since I first picked up the Imperial Guard codex there are little gems that pop up which somehow I had managed to miss before. What hope have I got of knowing other peoples’ codex’s too if after a year of studying I still don’t fully know my own? I would advise this: by all means read the codexes, they are fun to go through and extremely useful, but try this radical approach: forget about the nasty tricks contained in them, free yourself from the worry of knowing exactly what they can do. Instead, steal your mind to a pledge: vow that you are willing to accept facing your opponent’s army in practise for the first time without having the complete knowledge of what they can do. Believe me, you will learn more about your opponent’s tactics and codex that way than any amount of reading could hope to achieve.

I remember playing Josh Robert’s Daemon army, roaring my chimera armed with my Company Command squad with 4 melta guns towards his 2 remaining Fiends, jumping out and unloading a barrage of hot death onto the unit. There was an unusual feeling of security, safe in the knowledge that my melta guns were strength 8 and I could instantly kill the Fiends, thus negating their 2 wounds. It came as one hell of a surprise when Josh let me know that all daemons are immune to instant death and the following turn the Fiends pounced onto my Company Command Squad, ripping them apart in one turn. I did remember vaguely reading that rule, but it hadn’t seemed important at the time. It did then! And it is something I will never forget and more importantly will never make the same mistake again.

I remember playing Nathan ‘The Fat Angry Geeks’ Dark Eldar list. By this point, I thought I’d become quite the expert in using my psyche battle squad. I had read that Dark Eldar were a bad matchup for guard and in fact that my psychers weaken resolve power (which has the potential to make units run off the board) was the answer to anyone using Hellions. So what more did I need to know? So confident, I even decided to leave the Hellions first turn and take out the rest of Nathan’s army…MISTAKE! By that point Nathan had jumped the Hermoculas into the squad with the Baron giving them 2 pain tokens and in the 2nd turn they assaulted and killed a third unit making them fearless. Now my psychers were useless and for the rest of the game the Hellions became janitors, cleaning up the rest of my army and I became a school kid revising a little late that night, realising if unchecked, Hellions are the best thing in the Dark Eldar dex. The weird thing is that I had read about pain tokens and had even heard Mike Marlow (UK’s no 5 ranked player) tell me in episode 10 that three pain tokens meant fearless, yet it took that experience for me to really understand the capabilities of my opponents dex and look out for it time and time again in the future.

The same advice applies to the rules of the game. One fairly thorough read through the rulebook, especially by anyone that has played the game in past will mean that you are able to have a battle. To improve though, a mastery of the rules, especially the subtle variants which can mean the difference between a win and a loss are needed. To gain that mastery you must fully understand the reason for the rule and how you can use it to your advantage.

A good example would be one that our own show has popularised: preferred enemy. Units with this ability have the option to re-roll hits in close combat. A character such as Mephiston, which we are a big fan of on the show can then cast his psychic power (unleash rage) which gives him this ability. His 6 attacks can then be re-rolled, thus ensuring that he deals the damage each and every time that he is capable of and making it less likely to roll badly. This is a powerful special rule that blood angel players and other armies have in their arsenal, but when looked into more thoroughly is even better than it first appears. James Ramsey (a member of the England ETC Team) realised that the key word in the description of the preferred enemy special rule was ‘hits’, i.e. Mephiston and others have the option to re-roll any hits whether they are successful or not. In certain circumstances; say Mephiston had sprung out from behind a Landraider and assaulted a Long Fang squad containing 5 models, he may not wish to do that much damage. If he was to wipe the squad he would be left vulnerable to return fire, but by re-rolling successful hits he may only kill 2 and thus lock the Long Fangs in combat, choosing to wipe them out in the following combat phase and thus Mephiston would be free to move off and cause carnage to his next victim. It is that understanding and subtle use of a special rule, in fact any rule that can catch your opponent out, or when deployed at the right time win a game.

So, you have read your codex, understood the intricacies of the rules, found the Josh Roberts of your area and made a pact with yourself to learn other codexes by taking beatings. But what should be your first step in a game to breed familiarity and improve? I would recommend picking between 1 – 3 tactics which suit your army and in all likelihood you will use against multiple opponents and armies on a regular basis. These tactics will act as your metaphorical pink comfort blanky for you to nuzzle into when times are hard, or to get you into the groove at the start of a game. For instance with my own imperial guard army I found regular tactics most useful in deployment. Nine times out of ten, I’ll start my Manticore right in the corner, tucked up behind a squadron of hydras; the aim being to ensure it always gets a cover save. There is an element of control to this, no matter what my opponent brings that cover save is ensured. Next I will begin to bubble wrap my 40 guardsmen around the Manticore and Hydras, ensuring each guardsman is just under an inch from the other to guarantee that enemy units are unable to assault through them, or worse multi-assault the infantry and the tanks altogether. These are two very simple, but extremely effective tactics. For me, it meant I had a familiar pattern no matter who I was playing and an ability to get into the groove of play quickly. The tactics are my go to move; the jab that sets up the overhand right which is the atom that will spark the evolution of my future improvement.

I believe, with practise that any army build in 40K can be competitive and even have the potential to win a tournament. I’m not saying that any army build can beat a fully optimised list, but it can certainly give them trouble. This has been proven countless times by Gaz Jones (UK no6 ranked player), who delights in taking a different xenos army to a tournament that no one was expecting. Only recently he took his Eldar army that many would not consider optimised to the Ribble Rumble which contained 10 Wraithguard and finishd 6th with it. Gaz has managed to become successful in this way because through practise, he has come to know his army thoroughly; learnt how he can use each unit, what they can do and more importantly what they can’t. This may seem minor, but in actual fact can become a game winner – and that practise breeds the all important familiarity. What Gaz has mastered is the ability to find his own nooks and crannies of each unit that are not at first obvious, which in turn make his armies a force to be reckoned with and the rest of us scurrying for our pink comfort blanky.

When I first picked up the Guard codex, I chose a lascannon for one of my 10 man infantry units, meaning they came in at 70 points total. There is a debate which rages across the internet as to whether an infantry squad is best equipped with an autocannon which is 10 points cheaper, or a lascannon; the argument centred around the guardsman’s terrible BS of 3. Regardless of the argument, I have chosen to take my 4th infantry unit completely bare without a heavy weapon of any kind. This is not because it is the better option, it may indeed be the worst; in many instances these days there are times where I could really do with that extra lascannon. My decision is based on how I would like to use the unit effectively and more importantly what the unit cannot do. By having no gun, I know what they are there for: claiming; to reserve or hide in a vendetta then pounce onto an objective. I am not in a quandary whether to start them on the board for a bit of shooting, or reserve them for the late game win. In other words I am dead certain of their role in knowing what they can’t do.

Yet, there was another reason for my decision which perhaps has staggered into Gaz Jones thinking; it is centred around the consequences of losing the unit against players better than me. At one point, I did indeed take a heavy weapon platform and was even able to get over my greed (in wanting to fire) and reserve the unit. But when the game gets tight, enemy units get closer and lots of terrain, my reserved unit does not always have the luxury of being able to come on exactly where they want to. On many occasions, the unit was vital for my plans, yet I found myself forced to bring the unit on through difficult terrain which had the potential to wipe the whole unit out before it even got onto the table. The heavy weapon platform base is just under 3 inches, meaning I have to roll a 3 or more on 2d6. After witnessing what effect a bad roll can have when playing in a tournament, or against better players than myself I realised I just couldn’t afford to take the chance that the whole unit could be wiped out. Hence, through practise I have taken a decision about a unit, that is perhaps not optimised, but one that enables me to understand at all times what they are able to give me. This is knowing your army, way past meta-lists, or knowing the codex word for word, or even cunning tactics. It is a subtle, yet vitally important understanding of why you have chosen that unit, why it is used in that manner and what capabilities it has and hasn’t got.


5 Responses to “‘Balls To The Wall’ – How To Improve Your Play by Dave Symcox”

  1. Glenn October 5, 2011 at 03:50 #

    Can’t agree more. I have been playing this game since 1988. And in the evolution of 40k, a constant is always there. If you want to win you have to play the best. This simple thing teaches a variety of lessons. Tactics, rules, nasty combos to expect, how to take a loss, and what your list can do. Before the old GTs in the US, my friend John and I would play game after game to be sure we had the basics down. Thus improving our chances of doing well.

    • Franco October 5, 2011 at 10:26 #

      A good way to learn other peoples codices, more than simple reading through them, is to actually make up armies with them. I don’t know about other folks, but I enjoy making up armies, and when you do it with an opposition codex you will often find nasty little combos that you would have otherwise have missed, and have a better idea of what to do about them.

      The other thing is if, like me, you don’t actually get much opportunity to play, and not against a huge variety of armies, then it’s worth catching video battle reports online. Look for the armies you know you’re vulnerable against, and (ideally) in a match-up against your codex, and pay attention about what to look out for in that game.

      • 40KUK October 6, 2011 at 12:35 #

        Good point Mr Marrufo!

    • 40KUK October 6, 2011 at 12:34 #

      You know what the weird thing is: even though we practise a lot when I go to a different part of the country to play I am really surprised by a weird/ effective tactic that I wasn’t expecting and I imagine it is more like that due to the geography in the US when you converge on one big tournament????

  2. Digital Unicorn October 5, 2011 at 16:06 #

    Also, I know its probably a moot point for most visiting the site at the moment but, Podcast and forums have really helped me get up to speed. I don’t get to play very often, but the wealth of experience available to me across the Pod’o’sphere and several boards has made it feel like iv been playing a game a day for years. In fact, I often times find myself more aware of high level tactics and shenanigans than some lower level basics of the rules.

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