Yesterday, while wandering BoLS, I encountered an editorial, The Real Ugly Side of 40k. The author’s fundamental assertion: that the competitive landscape is beset by ugly and unpainted armies, and at least a hefty portion of the fault for this lies at the feet of GW’s recent breakneck release schedule.
The problem? I think they’re wrong.
We don’t disagree that in tournament play, especially tournament play where there’s no emphasis on “soft scores”, there are some ugly armies. We’ve all seen them. The “Primer White is one of my three colors” army. The “I picked all these up on Ebay” army, and it’s cousin “My army is actually three people in my club’s combined collection, because who the hell has 200 cultists?”. And, like the author, I think this is a bit of a problem.
Warhammer 40K is a visual hobby, and it’s nice when the plastic army men look good. I think this is especially important because, strictly speaking, 40K isn’t a good game. There are tighter rulesets out there, with better competitive potential, and companies that emphasize competitive play in their rules development. Many of them are also cheaper. Which means if you’ve chosen 40K over those games you have in some ways implicitly endorsed GW’s “It’s not a game, it’s a hobby”
Why then are there ugly armies at tournaments? TastyTaste’s (hereafter called the author) reasoning is that the problem is that GW’s release schedule means that you don’t have years to paint up your army before something changes, the meta shifts, etc. Instead, to be competitive, you always have to chase after the next thing, running from release to release, and really, how can we expect anyone in those circumstances to paint their troops? Also, presumably, they have the fiscal sense of this guy:
The issue with this argument is I don’t think its born out in the data about tournaments. Looking back on the various analyses I’ve done, a few armies consistently have very strong representation: Eldar, Space Marines, Chaos Daemons and Tau typically, with other armies occasionally rising to the fore (Space Wolves as the components of a Thunderwolf-based Deathstar for example).
None of these is exactly a revolutionary army. We’re rapidly approaching the two-year anniversary of the Craftworld Eldar codex, and Scatterbikes, Seerstars and Wraithknights were obvious builds from Day 0. It’s been a full year since Doom of Mymeara came out and unlocked yet more madness. The Space Marines codex is a year-and-a-half old, and while Gladius threw open the doors for MSU Space Marines as a concept, there’s been plenty of time to adjust to that and the other builds that emerged from that book. Modern version of the Tau? Not much younger than that. That Riptides are good is not new information.
Chaos Daemons have, in fairness, undergone some much more fundamental transitions recently, but because we’re talking about painted models it’s important to note that many of the building blocks remained the same – flying Daemon Princes, tons of Tzeentch Daemons, Fateweaver, etc. were all units with an established place. And yes, sometimes the tournament scene throws things for a loop where people might have to paint a ton of models – the brief and terrifying reign of “You have how many Warp Spiders!?” comes to mind – but those are the work of clever players, not new GW releases.
If anything, I’d argue that the tournament scene isn’t particularly responsive to GW releases – it’s been suggested that one of the reasons we still haven’t seen the Genestealer Cults reach what people thought their potential is that an infantry-heavy cult army is expensive and hard to paint. And we’ve seen the strength of renegade lists building for some time (I first mention them here, exactly a year ago, as an army to watch) but I think the capital outlay of artillery platforms and staring down the barrel of painting huge amounts of models had slowed the adoption of renegade armies.
So why do we see so many unpainted armies?
Simply put – I think it’s a matter of incentives. One of the core constructs of the ITC, which is at this point something of the “tournament default”, at least in the United States, is an emphasis on hard scores. There are plusses to that decision – it’s a clear signal of what the event is about, it’s the hardest to “game”, it’s objective, and it reduces the burden of administering a 400-person tournament to give zero fucks about painting scores. But that also removes any incentive to paint – you could spend that time practicing for tournaments and traveling to them, or playing Titanfall 2, or socializing. And really, all of those things are probably more fun than painting your fifth Space Marine tactical squad.
My evidence for this? That Warzone Atlanta was remarkable for a major tournament in that I felt conspicuous for not having done a display board, and where every game I played but one was against a fully painted and well done army. And there? WZA expressly holds the “soft score” titles like Best Painted and Best Overall as having an equal footing, which means at least 50% of the titles you can contend for rely on having a painted army (I’d hazard a guess that it’s actually 75% of them, as I imagine getting Best Sport with an army you’ve put no time into is an uphill battle). Similarly, at a local tournament in my area, the largely unpainted armies were entirely from folks who were just there for ITC points.
So, like many things in 40K that we don’t like, the answer to “How did we get here?” is We did this.
Which means we can fix it, if we want to.
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