The internet is all aflutter with the now confirmed suggestion that the classic “Firstborn”, non-Primaris, power-squatting Marines of the classic 40K Space Marine range are getting some significant updates that will make them considerably more viable in the Primaris-era. Most notably, though not exclusively, this involves giving them a second wound, boosting them up to Primaris-grade survivability.
I actually think this is a bad idea.
But it’s only a bad idea in the long term.
And because this is my blog, I’m going to talk about why.
What Are We Even Talking About?
What was either like a week ago, two hours ago or several months ago, because COVID-19 means time has no meaning, a rumor based on a leaked stat sheet for some Terminators suggested that they were getting a boost to survivability, notably by going up to three wounds. This idea is something I touched on nearly four years ago, that a simple 2+ save isn’t actually enough to make a unit “survivable” in the modern era of 40K. And that was before 8th edition ramped up the lethality of the game. There, I suggested that Terminators needed either T5, 2W, or if you wanted to go whole hog, both. Three wounds is, obviously, even better.
What spiraled off from that though is that it wasn’t just Terminators that were getting boosted – all the classic “Firstborn” marines were getting boosted. There’s some across the board boosts to weapons that will also apply to other armies (thankfully avoiding the assault cannon and storm shield debacle of distant memory), but they’re also getting a boost to 2W, with similar forces (including Chaos types) getting similarly boosted.
In the short term, this is awesome. In the long term, I’m not so sure.
Short Term Benefits
The short term benefits of this are obvious. There are probably hundreds of millions of points of Firstborn marines out there in circulation that are now vastly more viable. Personally, this is hugely beneficial – because the transition to Primaris marines didn’t really “grab” me – and because I am much more fond of Horus Heresy as a game system – I’ve got a lot of Space Marines, but not really any viable armies prior to this change. Whereas now…my Heresy-era Imperial Fists might not be an optimal competitive army, but for a Crusade, they’re probably fine. And the entirely mothballed Space Wolves I have are actively probably pretty decent. 3 Wound Wolf Guard Terminators is definitely a thing.
That’s a significant source of excitement for people, and I absolutely get it. In the near term, it means armies on tables, and models being built. The whole “You can use this in both 30K and 40K!” argument that spurred a lot of the growth of the first of those two games during the Calth/Prospero boxed sets era is now at least tenuous, rather than laughable.
All of this is good.
Now onto my issues with this.
FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt
Games Workshop has never been known for their clearly communicated product roadmaps.
For all of 8th Edition, things seemed pretty clear. The classic pre-Primaris line was an end-of-life product. It might not be a fast end of life, because one of the strongest selling product lines of all time can afford the very best of palliative care, but the writing was on the wall. Bocelli’s Con te partirò had started playing over the vox sets. If you were starting a new army, I think very few people would have advised you to go heavy into the non-Primaris line unless you were chasing some particular competitive edge case build (more on that later). Legends was introduced as the plastic version of the Undying Lands.
And for those of us with Marine armies, it was time to start thinking about transitions.
“But GW said they’d still support and develop the Firstborn!”
Yes, yes they did. “Support and develop” is a low bar. Technically, they never stopped “Supporting and Developing” the Sisters of Battle, or the Blood Angels, or the Dark Eldar.
Now? Who knows.
My feeling is they’re still an EOL product – when was the last time we saw a non-Primaris release for the Space Marines, despite being given a literal avalanche of products that has made every single xenos player I know a veritable endless salt mine? New box art doesn’t count. But now there’s this weirdly coy “will they, won’t they” aspect to things. Firstborn have all the cool new modern toys. The Primaris weren’t an opportunity to redesign a line and bring it up to modern standard, they were just…sort of a thing we’re trying out.
Talking to some people who are thinking about starting out, this is genuinely something of a problem. Should you get Firstborn marines now? Is this real, or is this a “going away present”? For people who paint slow, or on a budget, are you going to get shafted a few years from now when your new, viable Firstborn army is discontinued somewhat more abruptly?
It’s just a very weird signal to send to the community, full of breathless hype. I get it – it keeps older kits from rotting on the shelves, it lets them kick the can down the road a bit on what to do about Grey Knights, etc., but I think it adds a level of opacity to GW’s intentions for the Space Marine line that’s going to lead to hurt feelings down the road.
Balance and Complexity
My other issue with this is the Space Marine line is now huge. I called this out at the start of 8th Edition, under the aptly titled section “The Space Marines Are Out of Control”. It’s a bloated codex, as Games Workshop tried to fold in the Horus Heresy plastic line and the Primaris line, and ended up, at the time, with 14 generic HQ choices, and 24 elite choices. It’s only gotten worse. In the Warhammer app, I count 76 data sheets for the Space Marines – and that’s not counting the new incoming releases. In contrast, the Drukhari have 28. The Craftworlds have 44. The Sisters of Battle have 27. You should be getting the picture here.
That is, to be frank, a terrible idea.
The reasons are two-fold.
First, that’s basically impossible to balance. 40K is hard enough to balance as it is, but trying to tune a codex with close to (if not now over) 80 different data sheets is absolutely begging for the kind of feel-bad confluence of rules combinations type situations that left a sour note at the end of 8th surrounding the Iron Hands, among others. That’s just so many moving parts that even a design team as good as GW’s is going to struggle. Which means you’re going to have weird little interactions, where one type of unit is manifestly better than another. This is made worse by a bunch of different units squatting on top of each other’s niche. Which unit is the “Durable unit with flamers and powerfists” now? Which one the snipers? Which one the basic bolter-wielding line infantry?
As a transitional codex for 8th, this was frustrating, but understandable. But by selectively buffing the Firstborn, it’s now worse, because previously you could at least look at some of the units and go “You’ve been superseded by a new Primaris unit, and are safe to ignore”. Tactical marines, I’m looking at you.
Second, or more accurately “Part 1b” is that a codex that bloated is almost certainly going to have newbie traps. A newbie trap is something that is supposed to work a certain way, seems that way at first glance, and then definitely doesn’t. Lines with overlapping, redundant units are especially vulnerable to this, because – as above – it’s extremely likely that one unit is going to be “the best” option. Which again, sets up those feel-bad moments where some player puts out their freshly painted assault intercessors (as a purely hypothetical example) and the person across the table goes “Why did you pick those? Vanguard Vets are so much better.”
This is especially true given the weird bifurcated Firstborn/Primaris product line. Quick, which tank should you buy to transport your bolter armed infantry squads? Which one for your assault-oriented elites?
Some poor grandparent somewhere is just going to be trying to buy a kid something nice, and is going to end up getting them a tank that inexplicably can’t carry half their army.
A Lost Opportunity for Legends
A truism of side rulesets for Warhammer 40K, especially those that depart from Matched Play, is that they need a reason to be in order to be adopted. Otherwise, they get shuffled off to the side and forgotten. See Power Level for a lot of people, or the 7th Edition Death from the Skies rules.
Crusade gave us that for Power Levels and Narrative Play – a cool system that fuels stories that uses those “ancillary” rules as a foundation. And it looks like it’s working amazingly well.
Classic Firstborn Marines could have been that for Legends. Right now, I think the argument for Legends is pretty difficult – it tends to be used for single models, and when it comes down to it, it’s easier to sigh and admit to yourself that you can just drop that Biker Chaplain for your list, or that it’s probably easier to paint up a new Autarch.
Moving the Firstborn to Legends, or at least starting that transition, could have helped. It could have given the concept a reason for being – getting your opponent to agree to Legends, or normalizing it in Narrative Play, lets you use all those old school units of yours.
At the same time, it would have helped address the complexity problem – Legends is expressly not being actively balanced, so the weird edge cases that are bound to crop up with the sprawling bulk of the combined Primaris/Firstborn line are addressable. If you’re worried about them (*cough* tournaments *cough*) then prohibit Legends. For casual play? Don’t.
GW designed an actually pretty elegant mechanism for how do you retire a line – and then took a pass in using it.
A Broad Need for Redesigns
I’m working on another, Eldar-focused version of this, but the short version is that some of the older armies just need to be flat-out reevaluated. One part of this change that is good is it suggests Games Workshop is willing to shed their reluctance to change the stats and characteristics of “legacy” units that have been a certain way for a long, long time. The problem though is that this indicates a need for a lot of redesigns – it’s both unclear if the armies that need them will get them (I certainly hope so) and if they will be given the time that takes, given the fast paced release schedule that’s characterized the recent years of 40K. Beyond that, within the Space Marine line, the redesign that did happen is now weirdly sort of two half-measures – the Firstborn don’t have all the the tools the Primaris have, and the Primaris line still has some fairly wide gaps in the range. It’s sort of a coherent whole, but only in the same way that half a burrito from Qdoba and half a burrito from Chipotle smashed together are technically a whole burrito. It’s true, but for some of it you’re going to be lamenting the absence of good queso sauce, and for the other half you’re wondering why, even with the good queso sauce it just doesn’t taste as good.
Yes, that was a tortured analogy. It’s 3 AM. I don’t care.
Also, I just did a Google Image Search for “Chipotle” and the first like, two dozen pictures are of burrito bowls. Every day we slide a little further from the Emperor’s light.
Games Workshop has, in doing this, entirely reset what the notion of an MEQ unit is – and in doing so, has changed not only the Firstborn, but the entire game. And that requires a serious reevaluation. For example, Howling Banshees are now not just sometimes garbage – they’re almost always garbage, because there’s just no way a unit designed for killing powered armor troops, but hitting at S3 and doing 1 wound with their weapons, can be expected to carry their own weight. The generic Sister of Battle is now markedly worse than her Astartes counterpart. Sure, that might fit the fluff, but is it reflected in the design of what should be a fairly modern codex? The stated solution to this is, of course, that Space Marines are going to get more expensive, which is a good first step, but is not itself necessarily a solution. While easy to reach for, points boosts aren’t a perfect tool.
All of this was going to have to happen anyway – the Age of the Primaris Marine is well and truly upon us – but this heightens it to “This has to happen now.” Especially as people start wondering why their older “classic” units haven’t been brought up to modern standards. And right now the word on the street is “When your codex comes out…”
That’s never that reassuring.
The Blind Fluffwriter
This was going to be a separate post, but I’m just going to bring it up here. One of the strengths of the 40K BC (Before Cawl) was that the timeline was largely established – this is the “deep setting” concept I’ve posted about previously. Units weren’t temporally anchored, and sort of just…snuck into the timeline as needed.
For example, if you were running a 2nd War for Armageddon-themed Imperial Guard army when the new plastic superheavy tank kits came out and things like the Doomhammer appeared, if you put one in your army you were…still running a 2nd War for Armageddon-themed Imperial Guard army. This also let their narrative writers get away with allusions to events, relying on the audience understanding what was happening, or in the particularly artful case of Alan Bligh, leaving tantalizing hints of a wider narrative that the player could fill in based on their common knowledge.
There’s a bit of a problem. The narrative and the product line are being written at the same time. But the temporality of that has gotten very weird – because the writers can only really write about what exists, but the product line is filled in with that same atemporal feel that model releases have always had (albeit strictly in the post-Primaris period). Which means that reading things like Vigilus campaign is now really weird – Calgar apparently packed off to battle while forgetting critical things like main battle tanks. And the Space Wolf Reavers vs. GSC battles now feel really weird, with the Phobos-armored offerings considerably more fleshed out.
But more than that, two-wound Firstborn have made the “Show, don’t tell” superiority of the Primaris marines disappear. The difference between a Firstborn and a Primaris Marine, sans equipment, has vanished. So the question becomes are Firstborn marines still…”EOL” in the narrative as well, fading into memory?
And if so, what does that mean?
A chapter losing their homeworld used to be devastating, essentially a death sentence. Is that still true? Or is the question of a Chapter dying out (*cough* Celestial Lions *cough*) more a function of whether or now Cawl’s Shake-n-Bake Marine Factory can be properly petitioned, and whether or not their delivery is successful? Are Chapters still “growing their own” Firstborn marines from harvested Firstborn geneseed? If not, does that imply an army with lots of Firstborn units, especially “junior” units like Space Wolf Blood Claws, Scouts, or Black Templar Neophytes inherently sort of “Early Indomitus-era” forces?
How does Ragnar Blackmane’s Great Company, which used to be a whole mess of Blood Claws and Grey Hunters in Drop Pods work now?
Is the whole split motorpool thing…actually a thing?
Basically, the model line is introducing really, really cool things, but trying to cohere the “How a Space Marine chapter works” elements to it have started to feel especially weird – and will continue to do so the longer the Firstborn are allowed to linger.
Rip the Bandaid Off
So what would I do?
I’d sunset the Firstborn. Explicitly.
The Primaris Marines are obviously the future of the Space Marine line. And that’s starting to be a stronger future as time has gone on – you have units with a lot of character now, some viable both mechanized and assault themes to them as well as the original “How about just a whole mess of bolters?” feeling. It’s time to own that, and plan for it moving forward.
I feel like there’s elegant ways to handle that transition – and boosting the combat viability of the Firstborn to keep them at pace with the Primaris line doesn’t feel like it.
There’s two upsides to this that I see, and I figured we might as well leave on a high note.
The first is, as Alex from Splintermind (reverse Bingo!) has put it – this is obviously a love letter from GW to longtime Space Marine players. I think it’s a bad move for the game, it’s probably at best a lateral move for model sales, but it lets longtime fans of the classic Marine look to field their collections and have them feel like they’re not playing an army past its prime.
And that is genuinely cool. GW has always been a company that can be persuaded by “Yeah, that seems neat…”, even if it is occasionally at the expense of the game. And I like that a lot.
The second is that, if you were ever going to release a plastic Heresy starter set to give a better onramp for that game, this may very well be the last chance for said set to have broad crossover potential.
…This, of course, having nothing to do with my desire to see more people playing Heresy.
…nothing at all.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out if Battlegroup Omulo, 2nd Sphere Defense Fleet, VIIth Legion Astartes is a Crusade-compatible force at the moment.
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