The Curious Case of Flyers

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.

This year’s ITC champion

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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6 Comments


  1. As someone who began playing Stormravens as an ad hoc substitute for Drop Pods and Lucius Pods (too costly), without realizing the true potential of them (never thought that Dante or Guilliman could buff them), I was certainly bummed out by this rules change. Especially because it’s allowed many other builds (Guard Artillery, Genestealer Cult, Brim Spam with Magnus) to really establish a foothold on the meta. Stormravens are and were a good counter to Magnus and Brims, when they could score. Now that they can’t, they are a very inefficient 300+ points. No Invul save, 14 Wounds. The biggest strength to Stormravens wasn’t their their offensive output. It was their low drop potential. All they needed to do to fix Stormravens was to change how Turn 1 happened. Now, with the +1 to go first, Stormravens aren’t as OP as we once thought. That alone fixed the problem (while simultaneously creating more problems[Guard going at a slight statistical disadvantage is broken IMO]). Preventing Stormravens (Flyers, especially Flyers with Hover that give up inherent defensive to assault) from holding an objective was too far.

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  2. Furhermore, a fix I proposed early on was enforce a 0-3 rule for BFR Flyer. That’s it. Boom, fixed!

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  3. Synchronicitous: I just mentioned the single Genestealer game on my friend Andrew’s blog ( http://miniatureethos.com/ ). Honestly I think the easiest thing to have done would have been a “boring army” tax; you could bake this right into the rules and it’d help prevent any issues from Model X is Over Powered, regardless of what model X is. Just make every duplicate unit after the 2nd (4th for troops) cost an extra ten points cumulatively. One Stormraven: 110points. So you want to bring a couple? No problem 110 points each. However third one will cost you 120. Fourth is 130. By the time you get to 5 you’re paying an extra 50 points for privilege of having a mono list.

    Then, if the model/unit still breaking tournaments GW will need to look at the point cost…

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    1. That game will go down in history as my canonical example of “No seriously, play to the mission.”

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  4. I feel like slightly different missions might have been the more subtle answer. Not all armies are going to perform all missions equally, and if you don’t want to see airforces loitering around battlefields while Guilliman does exactly what he’s done in the novel and go one-man-army on the enemy while supported by artillery/air-assets, simply weight the missions in favour of the kind of armies you want to see.

    I think there’s an underlying issue in that when we think of 40k as a competitive sport we think of it as a deck-building game as well as a board-game, where half the battle (or more in some unfortunate cases) is decided before deployment. I think a more prescriptive format would emphasize play skill by de-emphasizing list-building. Lots of people object to this, saying: “But what if I want to play army XYZ?” To which I say, the problem is the emphasis on an open, deck-builder format to the exclusion of other formats rather than the open format itself.

    A restricted format whereby players bring models for a particular list or lists would solve the perennial problem of the ‘one best list’ by taking that out of the equation.

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  5. It is pretty wild they blanket nerfed fliers like that because on flier carries crazy dakka. I’ve known Apache Heliocopter pilots, and believe me, they really do carry that much Dakka.

    Given how quickly the “Who goes First” mechanic changed, this meta-shifting nerf to Stormravens has long reaching consequences.

    IRL if a squad of Apache Helicopters decide they want to defend a geographical point, and the enemy does not have a hard counter, those Apaches will take and maintain that point. Given the incredible long range of their weapons — their guns have always been accurate, and switching Sights from Reg Def to HD in the 2000s finally took advantage of that, an Apache can maintain a point from more than a mile away. In summary, they just needed a cost boost. As a Crimson Fists player unwilling to shoe horn my models into Ultramarines, I’m really at a loss on how to respond to other armies’s super units, such as Super Chicken, Mortarion and Magnus.

    Straight up, the Stormraven is the best unit in the Marine Codex not named Guilliman, and lacking those two the Codex is weak. I’m happy for Tyrannids and IG getting Codex love, but GW put out a fairly weak Codex first before hitting their stride.

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