Why Competitive 40K Is So Easy To Talk About

So awhile ago, on an episode of Splintermind I somehow snuck onto, we got to talking about why, when the internet talks about 40K, they almost always talk about Matched Play Competitive 40K, rather than the myriad of other genres of the game that exist. There are of course exceptions to this, but the podcast world, online forums, etc. are definitely dominated by competitive talk.

In order to save those of you who do not play Clearly The Best Factions from having to dig through Splintermind back episodes, I’m going to talk a little bit about why I think that’s the case here.

But you really should go listen to Splintermind. Even when I’m not on it.

To start with, lets talk about a reason why not.

Matched Play is Not The Default 40K

It is one way to play. GW has made it clear, even when talking in competitive formats, that they are not necessarily designing things for, or balancing against, the competitive scene. I’ve suggested in the past that I think this is a good thing, but the answer for why competitive 40K is talked about a lot is not “because it should be talked about more than everything else.”

Common Ground

Instead, I’d suggest the reason is that competitive 40K is the lowest common denominator of 40K.

A lot of people use that phrase, or things like it, with the intent to be insulting. Those people didn’t like math in school. I’m not. Instead, what that means is that competitive 40K has clear, unambiguous common ground, in a way narrative gaming doesn’t. In order to illustrate this, I’m going to talk about narrative gaming for a bit.

When I say narrative gaming, I’ve just said something rather ambiguous. Do I mean:

  • Matched play rules, 2000 points, but with a brief conversation about why our armies are fighting?
  • Matched play rules but with a somewhat skewed mission?
  • Narrative rules but not really anything else?
  • Two armies with a loose theme to them and a story behind the fight?
  • Two armies that are expressly taken with restrictions to fit the narrative (aka “Adan-pattern Narrative Gaming)?
  • Wildly unbalanced scenarios with a cool story behind them?
  • Does every character’s sword have to be named?

The list here goes on. What you mean by “narrative” can mean wildly different things to different people. I have my preference, and other people have theirs, even among the group of people who are of the opinion that competitive gaming isn’t their scene.

In contrast, competitive gaming has one definition. Matched play, a fixed points level, and everyone has the clear intent to beat their opponent.

Competitive 40K does what it says on the tin.

That’s one of the things that makes it easy to talk about. You don’t have to define your terms, or negotiate what you mean by narrative. “Who won, and what list did they take?” is the fixed core of the discussion. Talking about unit statistics is easier – performance is far easier to quantify than whether or not Sisters of Battle Mortifiers fit your theme, or how to shoe-horn Primaris marines into your Space Wolf force that follows the old ways.

“Smash captains are good, smash captains work especially well with X, Y and Z stratagems.”

And there’s a mutually agreed outcome. No one is playing competitive 40K without the intent to win, and winning bigger > winning smaller. In contrast, for myself, in narrative gaming, my preference goes:

  1. Win in a cool way
  2. Lose in a cool way
  3. Win in a boring way
  4. Lose in a boring way

Wherein “Tabled my opponent on the top of Turn 2” is boring.

Competitive 40K is Easy

The clickbait was coming from inside the post!

By this I don’t mean that winning a game of competitive 40K is easy. The struggle is real, and if you want a good look at that struggle, go listen to The Best General. Spoiler: Adam stopped the show when he couldn’t keep his promise to new listeners.

What I mean is that the interest is the game and the outcome of a single game is easy to talk about. You don’t really have to do terrain builds – the ITC packs and fixed terrain assignments dictate what you’re thinking about. The rules packets are there too. Now someone has done all that work for you – the people behind the ITC, Adeptacon, etc. work incredibly hard to pull those events off, and I admire them for it. But a weekend of the LVO provides hundreds of games to talk about, and you can focus on the games. Narrative events, where they occur, are smaller, you have to talk about the game itself more (because again, the focus isn’t necessarily who wins), the time and effort you put into the terrain becomes a bigger deal, etc. Again, you just lose the common ground of “What are we actually talking about.” And in a lot of ways (indeed any way outside video) it’s…sort of hard to talk about in the first place, because “Oh man, that board looked so good, and So-and-So’s ghost themed army had really subtle conversion work…” makes for bad radio and text.


So at the end of the day, what makes competitive 40K so amenable to discussing? Common objectives, a common ruleset, and an easily agreed upon way to evaluate things. It’s just…built for online discussion, and I think that’s why it dominates.

This is also, incidentally, they I think that “Friendly Tournaments” are so hard to manage. Because “Competitive, but a little bit Not” loses all the common ground of truly competitive 40K.


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  1. It might just be me, and I’ve not seen any real statistics that I can have any confidence in, but is it not just that 70-95% of all games of 40k that are played are Matched Play based?
    It’s only my experience, but multiple clubs and groups of friends that I’ve played with play about 98% matched play ‘because it’s simple’. It takes a lot less thought to bring ‘a 1500 point Death Guard list’ to an evening and take on anyone else who’s brought a 1500 point list, than it does researching the history for what specific units were there to recreate that battle in a book. While there are the (very) few narrative events, they are very limited in number of players and highly dependent upon the organiser.

    The only point that I differ in opinion with you is around the order of interest in Matched Play outcomes; the amount of discussion surrounding and following a game, in our circles, is always greater with a close game, and whilst the ‘tabled turn 2’ games occur and generate the player the most points during a tournament, no-one really wants to hear about those games, and there’s only ever one out of the two players peddling the story.

    Whilst I always play to win (I don’t have the ability to throw a game despite intent), I generally enjoy a game in which I’ve lost and can have a discussion with my opponent about what worked and what the turning points of the game were, rather than one where I’ve beaten someone and they are less forthcoming.

    Just food for thought. Thanks as I (almost) always love reading your articles.

    Richard Acock


    1. Thanks for the comment Richard.

      I think the majority of games played are likely Matched Play in some form (indeed, a lot of people playing narrative games are using Matched Play rules for a number of valid reasons).

      But I think despite this, the competitive scene (in the event-driven, ITC-style sense of the word) is vastly overrepresented on podcasts and other social media.

      I think that priority list, similarly, is specifically for *competitive* play, not the matched play garage gamer, if that makes sense?


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