The one true tournament build is dead. Long live the one true tournament build. Rinse. Repeat.
The ink had barely dried on the new 8th Edition indexes when the competitive scene found ways to break them. Part of me wishes I was surprised, but I wasn’t particularly – this is the eight edition of Warhammer 40K they have broken, and they have become exceedingly efficient at it.
What’s interesting to me is how they broke it – and the community response that followed. This, in turn, comes down to the interesting, and often unclear, role that flyers play in 40K.
The Response Itself
When I started working on this post, the response to the Stormraven Spam lists was still fresh, and I had feelings about it. I still do, but as time has marched on, those feelings feel somewhat less keen. So I’ll touch on them briefly, but what I want to actually focus on is the nature of flyers in 40K, and why this problem came up at all.
The Nerf: The nerf to flyers I get. I don’t necessarily agree with it – to my mind they haven’t resolved the fundamental problem of Guilliman-based clusters of units that feel unnatural and overly gamey, and in the process, I think they did nerf units that didn’t need it – Valkyries and Vendettas aren’t exactly running roughshod over the competition at the moment. And I’m a little disappointed given the way 8th edition is structured that they had the direct means to just alter points as a way forward…and chose not to.
Chapter Approved: This one I really didn’t like. The initial FAQ-nerf to flyers I get, but following right on the heels of that was a community post previewing Chapter Approved, which touched on the flyer nerf with “Some people are telling us we didn’t go far enough…” followed by a “preview” of Matched Play updates that not only make flyers subject to instant death, but also render them unable to hold objectives.
Are these “some people” the same rules wizards who didn’t spot this painfully obvious list build in the first place?
Beyond that, I have a bigger problem with this cheeky preview – it’s Schrodinger’s Nerf. It both is and isn’t an official rule. It’s clearly coming, and it’s clearly going to be in print. But the context for it is lacking, and there’s no official way to decide if your local tournament should adopt it. It exists in this weird liminal space, and in the process, Games Workshop contaminated the data they would have gotten on whether or not their current nerf had brought the game back towards what they wanted. It’s just…the opposite of the reasoned, clear, and unambiguous approach that 8th edition and the Chapter Approved concept set the stage for. The rules equivalent of serving Kraft Mac and Cheese on the fine china.
But some of the reasoning used in these decisions points to a larger problem: flyers don’t have a clear role in the game.
The Worrisome Sentence
What worries me most about the changes to flyers is this sentence, the so-called “Boots on the Ground” rule:
When determining if a player has any units on the battlefield, do not include any units with the Flyer Battlefield Role – these units cannot operate within a combat airspace indefinitely and they cannot hold territory without ground support.
The question is not whether or not this change was good for the game, or if it was the right change – I can muster coherent arguments on both sides of most of those questions. What bothers me, as the change has had the chance to set in, is the logic of the change for two reasons:
#1: The “Spirit of 8th Edition”
Carl from The Independent Characters has called 8th Edition the “Yes, and…” rule set, rather than 7th Edition’s “No, but…” philosophy. And this design is, in many ways, remarkably liberating. When in doubt, the answer is probably “Yes” to can you do something. Units, from Conscripts to Fighter Jets, are more similar than they are different.
An argument to realism is always a perilous thing in a game about genetically engineered super-soldiers fighting literal demons, but I think in this edition it’s especially perilous. A tank with a fixed gun is assumed to be able to pivot freely and instantly in all conditions – and this is but one of a number of simplifying abstractions. And this has largely been, I think, a worthwhile effort. It gets rid of weird things like a Monstrous Creature being vastly superior to a Walker, even if they should otherwise be largely comparable. But this change…is a “No, but…” change. Flying Monstrous Creatures are now, once more, outright better than a comparable conventional Flyer.
#2: The Appeal to Realism Itself
Beyond just running counter to everything Games Workshop has said about the design philosophy behind 8th Edition, the reasoning is also just…inconsistent. I agree with them – flyers cannot operate indefinitely, nor can they hold ground.
The issue is nothing can operate indefinitely without support, save perhaps the Orks and Tyranids. Infantry will eventually run out of food. Keeping a tank running during a prolonged battle is a logistical nightmare. Absent a widening breach in the Warp, daemons will eventually lose their footing in the material plane and fade away. Deathstrike and Manticore artillery platforms run out of ammunition during the game.
I’d argue that, if we’re going to talk about realistic conditions, that the presence of flyers implies a base of operations somewhere away from the battle, and you could tell as credible a tale of a continuous stream of flyer support as you can a single, heroic Chimera crew holding the battlefield. Or, at the very least, denying that objective to an opponent.
Beyond the question of whether or not they can operate indefinitely, they also shouldn’t have to. The victory conditions for scenarios in 40K are not “Who would win in infinite time?”. It’s who would win in a variable, but limited, number of game turns.
Who among us hasn’t lost to an opponent who would have been tabled if we just had a few more turns? My most memorable loss in that respect was to a single Genestealer, about to be hunted down by about 1300 points of Eldar. But the reality was, as doomed as that clawed monstrosity was, he was on an objective, and I was not.
So What Are Flyers Anyway?
I feel like some of the problem is that the role flyers play in the game was never really defined well by Games Workshop. They appeared in sort of an ad hoc trickle, first with the exotic Forge World flyers (a Thunderbolt remains on my model bucket list), then as “sort of fast skimmers but also not” in 5th edition, and then properly their own beasts in 6th.
But it’s never been clear if they’ve been what I call “First Class Citizens” – a term I’m stealing from programming language development. What I mean by that, in this context, is whether or not flyers have the same sort of expectations as other, more common units. Or more simply, is a flyer heavy army winning a game considered “normal” in the same way that an infantry or tank heavy force winning a game is?
Many games make this explicit. In Flames of War, air support is potentially unreliable, and very clearly an accessory option. Similarly, Dropzone Commander‘s “Fast Movers” appear on the battlefield, act, and then leave combat airspace all in the span of a single turn – clearly representing units far removed from the rest of the conflict, and – while potentially deadly – are expressly not the core of a force, in contrast to the transport aircraft that make up arguably the central conceit of DZC.
With 40K, it’s never been…quite clear. In 6th and 7th, their secondary status was implicit – it wasn’t called out in the way it is in a game like DZC, but one could figure it out. Between not being able to deploy on the table and not being able to hold objectives, it was pretty clear that a flyer heavy army, while potentially irksome to an opponent that hadn’t bothered with AA weapons, was going to struggle.
But 8th Edition opened all kinds of doors. The detachment system is marvelously flexible, more flexible than I was expecting it to be, and essentially made any sort of army construction possible.
And the guiding principle of 8th? If it was possible, it was viable.
Want a carpet of hundreds and hundreds of conscripts? Lets do it. Some Imperial/Chaos soup? Bueno. Every Tau officer in a sector and basically nothing else? Fair enough. A Primarch and as many Razorbacks are you can buy? You bet. A Primarch and as many Stormravens as you can buy? Wait just a minute.
But I Hate Flyers, So What?
I don’t really get the hate people have for flyers, and I’m sure I could write a whole article in their defense (indeed, the first draft of this piece had a substantial component of that in it), but I accept that it exists.
You can even agree that flyers needed a nerf – you actually won’t find me arguing that the Stormraven didn’t need some serious re-evaluation.
But I’d assert that the reasoning should concern you, because it’s an attempt to attach an “argument to realism” onto what is, essentially, “There’s a couple builds that are doing too well.”
I’d assert that it creates an unfortunate space in the game for new and returning players, where “Yeah, you can do that and it’ll work” now turns to “Yeah, you can do that and it’ll work, except if you take a bunch of flyers.” That’s how clean, elegant rule sets start down the path that end in overburdened monstrosity. And a potential trap for new players – you can do all of these things except this one and expect the rules to support you.
And finally, I’d assert that they had a tool to fix this far more subtly, one they used in the same FAQ – points costs. The Stormraven was too good. I’d argue the Crimson Hunter and Razorwing are both up there are well. So make them more expensive. Don’t cripple some guy playing an Elysian or Harakoni Warhawks army, or someone who thinks their Speedfreaks would probably like some Dakkajets. And if you’re going to punish monobuild spam, punish that, not whatever today’s flavor of it is.
Because there will always be today’s flavor.
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