“There are two armies ruining the game: Eldar and Tau.”
I hear some form of this a lot. Any mention of overpowered factions, units that need nerfing, ‘What’s wrong with the state of 40K’ etc. brings up our Blue Goatfish Friends. And given the Eldar are indeed pretty unquestionably overpowered, you’d think there might be a grain of truth to this idea.
But is there?
The short answer: Not really.
The long answer involves math.
When I wrote my analysis of the results of the 2016 Las Vegas Open, I included the following passage:
Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Tau? I hear the Tau called out a lot for being OP, for ruining the game, for being one of the codexes that must be feared and dreaded and nerfed. That’s just not born out in the data. They’re a solid army, on par with Cult Mechanicus/War Convocation, Dark Angels or Chaos Renegades, but they’re not at the big kids table – that’s held by Space Marines, Eldar, Necrons, and Daemons.
But that was just one (admittedly large) tournament, and the real effects of the new Tau units might not have been able to be seen yet. So I’m revisiting the question, with the results from two more recent tournaments in different parts of the country: The Broadside Bash and the Midwest Conquest GT.
Shall we take a look?
First, lets consider the distribution of armies at the two events:
I’ve eliminated a couple single-army factions, like the Militarum Tempestus (sorry Reece) or Eldar Corsairs. The Tau are a popular army, but not nearly as popular as either the Eldar or the Space Marines, and on part with a number of other factions. If they were game-breakingly good, there’d be a considerable amount of selective pressure toward playing them (hence the popularity of Eldar in the tournament scene). There’s…well…there’s not.
Alright, but what about how well they actually do? For this, I looked at the battle points for the two tournaments, normalized so that for each the winner got 5500 points so they can be analyzed together on equal footing.
The median score is a super-even 3000 points. As we can see, there are some under-performing armies (Tyranids, my beloved Sisters of Battle, etc.) and some strong performers (Space Marines, Chaos Daemons, Chaos Space Marines, Eldar, Necrons and Imperial Knights). The Chaos Space Marines performance is driven by some very strong showings at the Broadside Bash – and ignoring the drama around the illegality of the winning list, it’s also not really a “CSM” list as much as it is an unholy mish-mash of CSM, KDK and Daemons.
Notably absent on this list? Tau. They’re a solid, midrange performer, as they were in the LVO – it’s hard to end up at the bottom tables with them, but it’s also hard to end up at the top. Looking at this another way, I used a regression model to predict the increase over the average score you could expect based on army choice for a number of armies, expressed as a multiplier (i.e. an army with a score of 1.50 should earn 1.50 times the points as compared to all other armies).
Lets take a look at some of those:
- Eldar: 1.22
- Necrons: 1.35
- Space Marines: 1.02
- Chaos Daemons: 1.17
- Tau: 1.12
- Astra Militarum: 0.68
Some of those armies are very strong – the Eldar and Necrons especially. The Space Marines are hampered by a lot of lower-performing entries, presumably people playing less-than-optimum Space Marine armies. But again, the Tau are far from the kind of multiplier the Eldar or Necrons see. They’re not in trouble (unlike the poor guard…), but they’re not setting the tournament world on fire either.
Which brings us back to the core question: What is it about the Tau? Why does every Tau release cause the salt to floweth over?
I have two theories, which I’ll present here:
Theory 1: Hating Tau Says More About The You Than the Tau
Statistically, most of us are average players. That’s how averages work. And then a bulk of us (and I would include myself in this category) are below average players. The Tau’s wheelhouse is being a middling-good army. That means lots of us are playing at or below the level where the Tau can be expected to do well, and relatively few of us reach the rarified air where we’re good enough that they’re no longer a threat.
Theory 2: The Tau Are Somehow Unfun
There are mechanics in the Tau codex I’d define as “unfun” – things where really only one side of the battle is enjoying things, rolling dice, etc. The flexibility of the Tau in countering certain mechanics in the game (anything cover related, anything with a vulnerable rear armor value, etc.) can trigger a feeling of helplessness. And that’s not fun.
Like my cover-dependent Eldar, who just get smacked around for a few turns playing Tau…
Beyond that, because of the synergy in the Tau army and their weakness in melee, Tau success is very front-loaded. There’s lots of killing while the full army is up, marker lights are abundant, and units can support each other. So for the first few turns, the Tau roll dice, and their opponent removes units.
Then, if their opponent survives that, the tables start to turn. When the Tau crumble, in my experience, they start crumbling fast. Which means that un-funness switches. Tau are being removed in droves, and then the final tally ends up being much closer than it felt like earlier in the game. And while in a game sense this might be balanced, two or three turns of unfun on both sides doesn’t average out to a fun game.
In reality? I suspect it’s a combination of the two.
But calling the Tau overpowered, or ruining the game? There’s really no empirical support for that.
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