When You Pick Rules, You Pick Winners

I’ve come out against tinkering with the Warhammer 40,000 ruleset before on this blog, primarily in the name of portability, a topic near and dear to my heart as I look at moving across the country again. The short version of that is that you should be able to go to a new store and play “40K”, not “Local Flavor of 40K”, wherein the army you bought, painted, and have played with, all under the auspices of GW, is somehow unplayable.

That is not what this article is about. Instead, it’s about acknowledging a simple concept that never the less seems to elude some people revisiting the perennial favorite of messing with the rules to “balance” the game: When you pick and choose rules, you’re picking and choosing winners.

Modifying the rules for what units are legal, how a unit is composed, or army composition is done is, at it’s core, an attempt to manipulate the meta.

This isn’t necessarily a judgement on that decision – after all, wanting to “rebalance” the game implies that you think the current meta is somehow biased or wrong, but it is never the less something you should recognize. And yes, a fully successful version of this will end up at “balance”. But a fully successful version of this not only has to balance the game, but it has to keep up with both Games Workshop releasing new products, and people adapting their strategies. And with shifting prevalences of which armies are being played, and at which tournaments.

Good luck with that.

What’s far more likely is that what you’re actually doing is just shifting the meta towards, or away, from particular armies, which isn’t any more fair, and absolutely is arbitrary. “Who should win this tournament?” is not actually a question a TO can fairly answer, and something like “Not Eldar” just means you shouldn’t have taken entry fees from someone playing Eldar. Beyond that, there’s always unexpected or ancillary consequences of these decisions. Lets consider a couple:

  • No Allies. Sure, you kill “Super Friends” lists, and some of the worst abuses of a Eldar/Dark Eldar list, but you also kill a Dark Eldar/Eldar list, which is probably the best shot the dark kin had at carrying the day. And by banning allies, you’ve also given the Sisters of Battle players an uphill, “Hope you brought three Exorcists” climb, and now favored the armies that can make unpleasant deathstars without allies – Eldar, Space Marines, etc.
  • CAD Only. You’ve just disinvited Knights, Harlequins and Skitarii from the party entirely, and really, at the very least two of those three aren’t what anyone is complaining about. Beyond that, you’re not going to shut down nasty, anti-fun Eldar lists. And there’s some other damned hard lists out there built off a CAD.
  • Highlander. I devoted an entire post to this as well, but the short version is that, while a different way to play, there’s no credible way to call it a balanced way to play. It nerfs armies that depend on a few good units into the ground, while boosting up others that have strong, reliable offerings codex wide. So what you’ve accomplished is to make life worse for the Dark Eldar and Sisters of Battle players relying on Venoms and Exorcists respectively. Thumbs up.
  • Altering the Ranged D table. This one is a little controversial, but I’m going to suggest that the recent success of Imperium-based Deathstar armies and a lot of the backlash against Eldar Wraith units are…a bit correlated. As discussed in the previous review of them, Eldar Wraith units are no more dangerous to single wound infantry models than they were before, but vastly more dangerous to multi-wound, high value models with good saves. Deathstars are made out of…multi-wound, high value models with good saves. But beyond just taking Eldar down a peg and boosting up an army that didn’t really need it, it also disadvantages cheap, infantry-based armies that might have been able to weather the Ranged D storm.

These are but a few of the suggestions I’ve seen. There are others, but I’ve yet to see one proposed that after a few minutes of thought doesn’t involve asking if they really intended to nerf X Army as well…

Again, the purpose of this post is not to tell you not to engage in meta-manipulation. It’s possible the game needs it, or your local group supports it. The purpose of this post is to make sure you’re doing it with open eyes, and be honest about what you’re doing: you’re picking winners. You can say that the power differential between codexes means GW has also picked winners, and to be fair, you’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to follow in their footsteps, and it’s especially not a good idea to do so without extensive care and playtesting.

And I wouldn’t expect those people you haven’t picked to be terribly happy with your choices.

Enjoy what you read? Enjoyed that it was ad free? Both of those things are courtesy of our generous Patreon supporters. If you’d like more quantitatively driven thoughts on 40K and miniatures wargaming, and a hand in deciding what we cover, please consider joining them.

5 Comments


  1. Alright,
    So play as written by GW, where does that leave players who want to be competitive and have had the crappy luck of playing Orks for CSM or any other codex which has not been updated recently or where the power level is not sufficient to keep up with some of the other forces out there?
    Is there a suggestion on how to correct this?

    The veiled implication here, about picking winners is that it’s a player’s choice what army to play and if they chose to play a weaker losing army they chose to looses which is their fault. In to some respects that is true but there is a whole side to the hobby which is about painting, fluff and fun is being ignored. Maybe these don’t have any place in a competitive scene but if so, it’s a sad thing.
    Having a meta where some armies are vastly and clearly better than all others doesn’t sound like a fun time. It will inherently diminish attendance as folks playing other armies will have less incentive to attend and in the long term probably hurts the game.

    Furthermore, GW has stated multiple times, that they are a model company, not a rules company. This certainly opens up the door for industrious tournament organizers to try and fix or balance some game rules which may be problematic. The jaded part of me looks at some GW rules changes and see them as blatant efforts to sell more of a specific model by bumping up it’s power level. It’s nice if you are lucky enough to play that army and own that model but if you don’t it’s a bit of a slap in the face.

    As an unreasonable strawman: say the latest GW eldar codex had all the same models and rules it has now but all points per model costs were doubled. Or if new SM codex had exactly same rules and point costs but all marines were toughness 6, does it make sense to let that stand?

    If GW was a responsive company who modified or erratad rules every so often I’d say, maybe it makes sense to wait for their reaction. Since they are not it is the tournament organizers job to pick up the slack.

    Reply

    1. “So play as written by GW, where does that leave players who want to be competitive and have had the crappy luck of playing Orks for CSM or any other codex which has not been updated recently or where the power level is not sufficient to keep up with some of the other forces out there?
      Is there a suggestion on how to correct this?” – I’m working on a post on this, it’s a little…simulation-y, so it’ll take longer. Basically, I think the somewhat relentless revision cycle GW was on is a good thing. Look at the turnover between Necrons, AdMech, Eldar and Space Marines being the new OP hotness. It solves the issues the Orks and the Dark Eldar have (among others) of being part of an aborted experiment, and CSM just being…woefully obsolete. Basically, *any* meta will reach a semi-optimum steady state. The key is to continually disrupt that state.

      “The veiled implication here, about picking winners is that it’s a player’s choice what army to play and if they chose to play a weaker losing army they chose to looses which is their fault. In to some respects that is true but there is a whole side to the hobby which is about painting, fluff and fun is being ignored. Maybe these don’t have any place in a competitive scene but if so, it’s a sad thing.” I don’t agree that this is a veiled implication in my post, but I do agree that it’s undesirable from a hobby aspect to have this be true. This post should not be read as “This is not a problem” but “This is not the solution you think it is.”

      “Having a meta where some armies are vastly and clearly better than all others doesn’t sound like a fun time. It will inherently diminish attendance as folks playing other armies will have less incentive to attend and in the long term probably hurts the game.” Agreed. You’ll note the examples I use are all ones where there are predictable side-effects on weaker armies. If one could come up with nerfs that *just* effected a powerful army, while I might not agree on an ideological level, it would likely not particularly raise my ire. But having your army nerfed because a TO was flailing around trying to dial down the Eldar isn’t much fun either. Or being told you’re just not welcome at this tournament (CAD Only and Harlis, Skittari etc.)

      “Furthermore, GW has stated multiple times, that they are a model company, not a rules company. This certainly opens up the door for industrious tournament organizers to try and fix or balance some game rules which may be problematic. The jaded part of me looks at some GW rules changes and see them as blatant efforts to sell more of a specific model by bumping up it’s power level. It’s nice if you are lucky enough to play that army and own that model but if you don’t it’s a bit of a slap in the face.” My personal opinion is that, given you’re working in the confines of “The GW Rule Set”, trying to slug it out versus GW clearly not caring about a full balanced game, and at times (I have a post on this) actively working against some of the common fixes, is a losing game.

      “The jaded part of me looks at some GW rules changes and see them as blatant efforts to sell more of a specific model by bumping up it’s power level. It’s nice if you are lucky enough to play that army and own that model but if you don’t it’s a bit of a slap in the face.” I’m not necessarily sure this is true, and I’m definitely not sure there’s rock solid evidence for it. It’s not as if Wraithknights, Eldar Jetbikes, or ObSec Drop Pods weren’t already good before their latest codex releases. And alongside that, they often release new models that are absolute stinkers, and it takes them multiple codexes to fix that.

      “As an unreasonable strawman: say the latest GW eldar codex had all the same models and rules it has now but all points per model costs were doubled. Or if new SM codex had exactly same rules and point costs but all marines were toughness 6, does it make sense to let that stand?” – It depends on what’s coming down the road. That’s one of the things I dislike – reactions lead to a lack of flexibility later. Is the Decurion absurd, or just what armies are going to be like next? Does Ranged D need a nerf, or is the next codex going to contain some strong counters to it? Is the Eldar codex the only one that had it’s price doubled, or is this where we are now?

      The answer for what I’d really like to see is for us all to stop pretending “Fun, fluffy, hobby” play and “National level tournament play” should show up at the same table. I like that events like the LVO have alternative venues – I’d play in their Horus Heresy stuff, I have done their friendly tournament, and I’m doing their narrative campaign next year. I’m looking forward to that. I think we should reserve “GT” style events for “These are broken armies, played by the people who broke them. Approach with caution.”

      I’d also like to see, especially at the local level, working with social contracts vs. trying to automate algorithms. To use my now well used example, if you make a “CAD Only” even aiming for friendly, mid-level power gaming, and I bring a Scatterbike Spam list filled with Hornet Squadrons, a Seerstar and a Wraithknight, that’s your fault. You laid out the rules and I followed them. If you out and out said this is supposed to be a friendly tournament, and I do the same thing, it’s perfectly legitimate for a TO to take you aside and ask you not to be “That Guy/Girl.”

      Reply

    2. I agree with you on most points, but what about the very common “1 LoW limit”? Without this, every winning army is 5 wraithknights…

      Reply

      1. Except that isn’t the winning army in some tournaments that don’t have that restriction. My issue with the “1 LoW” limit is that it messes with Knight armies (in that it makes them impossible to field), and not all LoW are created equally.

        Generally speaking, I also have trouble with trying to draw a line with what’s “Reasonable” for competitive play because, well, it’s competitive. If I was running a “For fun” event, and I’ve said this in a post before, I’d do list approvals, because comp systems just give a new optimization target.

        Reply

  2. Don’t forget, in my opinion one of the biggest sins is restricting Lords of War to certain points limits. Why allow 2 or more wraithknights and not a single LOW over 7oo points, it’s just ridiculous.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *