For any given Steamroller event, I probably spend as much time building lists and figuring out caster pairings as I do actually playing games. Of course I don't spend that much time planning lists every time I play in a Steamroller, sometimes I use a two-list combo that I've had some success with in the past. but I put in that time at some point, planning ahead for a competitive event.
Recently, I got an email from a reader (I know, shocking! someone other than my wife actually reads my stuff after all) asking about list composition for a competitive event. Do I take two generic, all comers lists? one for scenario and one for assassination? one for alpha strike and one for grind? I thought it was an interesting question that deserved its own article.
As a side note, this article is going to focus on Skorne. I'm still so new to Retribution that I'm barely figuring out casters right now and am nowhere near being able to give advise on playing them in events. Even though I'll be focused on Skorne, the ideas presented should apply to any given faction. the examples will just have to shift to whatever your chosen faction may be.
Oh, and as a warning, this is going to be a long one.
There are a ton of methods to choose your two lists. In the events I've played, I've probably used most of them at least once. Starting out I definitely used two generic lists using the two casters I felt comfortable with (pMorghoul and pMakeda, still two of my favorites). they weren't really built to take all comers, but they kind of had to since they were the only ones I felt good playing. I've tried a speed list paired with a slow list, a beast list paired with an infantry list, a generic list and a targeted list. There are pros and cons to all of these.
Let's break it down a bit. The topic is somewhat wide, and there are many perfectly acceptable ways to go about it. I am simply going to go through my own thought process when building a list. There are three methods to choose lists that I use more or less regularly: caster pairings, armor vs defense, and gap filling.
Hordes vs Warmachine
Yes, I realize that I just gave you a roadmap of my article and immediately followed it by using a heading that wasn't in the list. I just have to get this part out of the way. this is something that annoys me every time I see it come up. Even high level players mention it from time to time, which is odd to me. Maybe it works for them, but it makes no sense to me.
Often I hear people talking on blogs or podcasts or in person about having their anti-warmachine list and their anti-hordes list. Now I understand that there are some big differences between the two systems, and that leads to some broad generalizations. In general, the average Warmachine army has a lot of infantry compared ot the generally beast-heavy Hordes lists. there are also models and abilities that only affect one system or the other. I see how this leads to building lists to tackle one or the other.
In general, I think this is a bad idea. While there is merit to choosing your list that has pEiryss against a warmachine opponent, I don't think you should build a list as a "anti-warmachine" list. What happens if you get yourself locked in to playing that list in the last round of an event and go against a Hordes army? Or worse, what if you get locked into the mindset of Hordes/Warmachine and take the list without really considering what you're facing?
Are you really going to take the same list against Zaal (1 heavy beast, 2 lights, and a bunch of infantry) as you would take against a pMorghoul beast list? a list designed to fight cryx infantry swarms would not be the same as a list that can handle Mortenebra's theme force with all jacks. fighting kayazy assassins is much different than fighting dawnguard Sentinals. I could go on. don't fall into the trap of seeing one or two abilities like disruption and stick them all together into a list targeted at one system.
OK, with that out of the way, let's look at some of the methods I do like using. One of the main ways I choose lists is by caster. Often, this is kind of a first step where I weed out some pairings that I don't like, rather than choosing a pairing based solely on the way the two casters overlap.
I tend to like taking two casters that are very different from each other. For example, I generally won't play any combination of pMorghoul, Xerxis and Naaresh together in one event. In my mind they all do similar things. they all have smaller control areas, they all like gross overkill on a smaller selection of targets, and they tend to have similar list construction. they are all "hammer" type lists, they walk up the board and smash things on one big turn of massive damage. If I have one list that does that, why do I need 2?
Similarly, I don't want to take two casters that rely a lot on spells. there are too many heavy counters to magic, so I don't want two lists that use a lot of spells and upkeeps. I would never want to pair eHexeris with Zaal. either one is going to have a bad day against a purification caster or enemies that shut down spells. Again, the way I play them these two use similar lists. I make it worse, of course, by bringing eHexeris in tier. I don't want 2 lists full of AGs, and Hakaar can only go in one list.
Actually, that brings up another point. along with pairing the casters, I consider what characters each caster wants. I won't usually run eMorghoul and Makeda together, since they both really want Karn. there are several casters who really really want Marketh, and I don't usually take them together.
Based on caster pairings, the combo I have enjoyed a lot lately is eMakeda and Zaal. they take very different lists, they play very differently, and they like different characters. This isn't based as much on what I'll be facing, as either caster does well against a variety of opponents. This puts more pressure on my opponent's choice as they have to be prepared to fight either a dense infantry list or a fast beast-centric list.
Armor vs Defense
I think that a lot of Skorne strategies revolve around this type of list pairing. One of the big weaknesses in Skorne is that we have relatively few ways to deal with high defense infantry. Going into a tournament, you need to be sure to have some answers for Khador iron fleshed infantry, or Satyxis raiders, or other high defense models. On the other hand, Collosals make you want to have models that can handle very high armor and lots of boxes.
You could just make two balanced lists that can handle both sides to a decent degree. the pairing above of eMakeda and Zaal is a good example of this. eMakeda can handle some high defense on feat turn, and Karn + Bronzeback with speed buffs can kill most armor. Zaal has last stand and his feat, which can generally take care of very high defense or very high armor.
That's fine if you want to run two combined-arms or balanced lists. But this is Skorne, and we're known for opting for a little bit of overkill. We have several casters who go for hitting really really hard, but that tend to struggle with high defense. With collosals seeing more table time, these super armor crackers like Xerxis and pMorghoul all beast lists will definitely be attractive. If you're going to run one of these guys, you better have some kind of answer when you play against winter guard death star + kayazi assassins + iron flesh.
The pairing I like playing with if I go this route is pMorghoul and eHexeris. The way I play Morghoul, he doesn't do well against high defense. it's usually Bronzeback, Tiberion, Gladiator, a few lights, solos and paingivers. nothing in that list wants to go against iron flesh. eHexeris on the other hand can do very well against high defense stuff with black spot, ashes to ashes and a tier list that I love running against infantry lists.
For this pairing, you can swap out pMorghoul for any one of our many anti-heavy options, but most of the time you'll reach for eHexeris for the defense-clearing. eMakeda can do well against high defense for one turn, but that's not enough against some lists. last weekend I paired pMakeda and eHexeris with this pairing strategy in mind. pMakeda took mostly heavies and a small compliment of infantry and was played against a circle list with 4 heavies. eHexeris went with a tier 4 list (see my previous article on why I like his tier) and did very well against a pDenegra list and a Khador list with Nyss hunters.
I don't really have a good name for this method, but it seems to be one of the more common ways to pair casters. You build one list as your "all-comers" list, and play it a bit to figure out what matchups you really don't like with that list. then you build a second list to fill the gaps in the first list for matches when you come up against your bad matchup.
The biggest concern with this method is that it may be risky in a Divide and Conquer format. If you're not familiar with the term, it means that you have to play every list at least once, or in some events it means you have to play each list twice. This format often locks you in to playing a particular list in the final round of the event. You can still use this type of method for those events, but you want to be sure that your "gap filler" list can handle a good number of situation all on its own in case you are forced to use it.
I tend to use this method of list building when I have a particular list or caster I've been toying around with and really want to play. I might be in a mood to play Xerxis. Xerxis is really good at not dying, and smashes through an army very well. What he doesn't do is move fast, and his tiny control area makes some scenarios difficult. so if my main list is going to be a Xerxis list I've been wanting to try out, I want to make a second list that has some speed and scenario presence. maybe eMakeda.
The other time this comes up for Skorne is when you know it's likely you're going to be facing a good cryx player, or there are multiple cryx players attending the event. Generally Skorne has a lot of trouble with Cryx for numerous reasons that I could spend a whole article talking about. In general though, Skorne likes using big titans to do a lot of damage to a few targets. Cryx likes throwing away large numbers of cheap models that can bring down a titan without much effort. So goign into a tournament you need to have an answer for Cryx. this might be rolled up in one of your lists, but many Skorne players will actually bring a second list just to fight Cryx.
An example would be fielding pHexeris. He is not amazing in a lot of matchups, and most of what he does other Skorne casters can do better. What he does better than anyone else in the book is kill Cryx, and even more specifically, he kills eLich. pHexeris has a feat turn that is often underwhelming. against an army of banes, however, his feat can kill a large portion of the cryx army (turns out Banes are really good at killing Banes). So, in a tournament that doesn't require me to play both lists, I might make a pHexeris list with a bunch of anti-cryx tools like a shaman, cannoneer and soulward to kill important pieces. if I play Cryx I'll use him. if not, I'll play my main list all day. This is harder to do as more events seem to be opting for Divide and Conquer, but it is still a viable way to deal with particular armies you may be struggling with.
Obviously, there are plenty of other ways to choose lists, and I didn't go very far into any particular strategy here. It really comes down to play style. It is an interesting excercise to go through and think about why you pair your lists the way you do. Mayb you've just been randomly picking two casters and going with it without really considering the pairing. Next time you play in a tournament, take some time to figure out why you pick the lists you do. If you use a method that is very different from the ones I listed, tell me about it.