Friday, July 25, 2014

The End of a Hamera

My recent game with Harkevich presented me with several insights on how Cephalyx play (which I plan on elaborating on at a different time,) and it put the final nail in the coffin for me with Harkevich. One needs to be able to recognize when a relationship isn't working out, and my long term fling with Harkevich has to come to an end, if nothing else for my sanity.

I'm sorry big guy. It's not me, it's you. We can still be friends, right?

The ring smelled of ham and beard 

Before I get more into what's making me step away from Harkevich, let me clarify/caveat: like many 'casters, Harkevich does bring something interesting to the table. If you can build to maximize that "something," you can put a good list together, albeit one that may be limited in purpose.

Harkevich is one of ways, if not the best way, to run a heavy warjack spam in Khador. He increases their mobility via Pathfinder and Escort, which are huge factors in allowing them to actually get where they need to be (either to attack or play for scenario.) 

His feat pushes Khador heavies to the point where they can survive most of the things your opponent would use to flatten them, and they'll often survive in good condition (give or take column variance, but more on this in a minute.) Combine that with Mechaniks (for Repair) or clamjacks (for crazy ARM values) and you can have one helluva resolute list.

Broadsides does present one with the option of blanketing the table with templates. With models like Conquest and Demolishers, it can be possible to saturate the table with moderate POW AOEs.

All of those things combine to give Harkevich a very unique approach in Khador, and it's a skew list that your opponent may not be expecting. If you can build a solid list with him (Quad Clam is still probably one of the best ARM skews you can drop) and drop it against the right lists, he can do well, and his lists can be very fun to play.

That said, after playing him many, many times and ending roughly half of those games very frustrated, I believe there are some things to realize about Harkevich:

 - You kind of need a "damage recovery" gimmick if you're going to try and carry a game with your battlegroup. More specifically: you need a way to ensure that you don't lose crucial systems at a bad time and can't recover.

Hordes is the most obvious example of this - warlock healing allows their warbeasts to keep fighting to the bitter end, and it's why they can rely so much on their battlegroup.

Convergence can do this as well, just kind of the long way around - they can heal cortex (induction node I suppose) prior to a warjack's activation and, with some Induction juggling, get it back up and running at full capacity. Assuming all repairs succeed, of course. And Sytherion jumps right past all that with auto-repair, but he's just a big floaty cheater-robot.

Protectorate doesn't do this so much, though it does have the tools to via Reclaimers and Mechaniks. What they can do, however, is limit the amount of damage they're going to take at any one time via Enliven/other shenanigans, which thusly allows their battlegroup to stay in working condition, longer.

Khador has none of these things, nor any rough analog. If your warjack gets charged and takes 12 damage to columns 4 and 5, whoops, sorry about your luck! Guess he's not doing anything significant next turn. Even high ARM values may not necessarily save you from bad column luck, so you may have a set of warjacks that are mostly fine, but missing brains.

I'm not saying that Khador should have a solution to this problem (pretty much every other Warmachine faction is in the same boat,) but it is a significant challenge when trying to run a battlegroup centered army, and there isn't much you can do about it except pray really hard that the damage doesn't go to the wrong columns.

 - He's not good outside of that skew. Trying to build anything resembling a "general" list with Harkevich is tricky, character intensive, and is in most cases less effective than if you had built a similar list under a more flexible 'caster. Go big or go home.

 - Khador lacks fundamental tools to support the playstyle Harkevich is going for. Ideally, Harkevich feels like he wants to be running a decently battlegroup heavy list, if not a predominately battlegroup heavy list (since he does so little for his force outside of the battlegroup.)

However, if you look at the factions that can handle that playstyle on the Warmachine side - Protectorate and Convergence - they have crucial tools that allow them to play the game that way. Obviously there is some form of warjack support, but less apparent (though more crucial IMO) is access to warjacks that are capable of doing significant work. Protectorate has the Vanquisher for an excellent anti-infantry heavy and the Reckoner for an excellent anti-heavy heavy, while Convergence warjacks are the definition of flexible (Ground Pounder, ammo type AOEs, electric lines, speed buffs, etc.)

Khador warjacks are almost the definition of inflexible and inefficient, though newer releases such as the Demolisher and the Grolar are showing that PP is willing to toss more interesting and useful designs our way (and the clamjack errata was a godsend for their utility.) All of that would be manageable, except...

 - ...Harkevich doesn't do anything to close the gap. As mentioned previously, Escort and Pathfinder are excellent, excellent bonuses. But those and his feat are the only bonuses Harkevich brings to the table. And that just isn't enough when you're starting off with Khador warjacks as the backbone of your army. 

A fantastic contrasting example (and probably the source of my frustration via jealousy) is the Covergence 'caster Syntherion. Convergence vectors are, at base, flexible and decently capable (especially for their cost,) so they're off to a good start. 

What makes Syntherion's list significantly more capable and flexible than Harkevich's is that Syntherion himself also adds a lot to what the list can do. His spell list gives his force: accuracy and damage in melee, damage at range (anti-infantry,) a very potent denial debuff, and a second lease on life (which combines fantastically with his Field Marshal and the availability of in faction repair models.) Syntherion has one of the most tepid feats in Convergence (probably one of the weaker feats in the game overall,) but his spell list is more than good enough to make up for it (and that's where you want the "money" abilities anyways.)

Harkevich, in contrast, doesn't do anything to fix any of the issues that his warjacks have. He doesn't help their ranged output in a meaningful way - you can get more low accuracy/AOE shots, and you can re-roll those on one model, but those AOEs are exactly what they say on the card. He doesn't help his battlegroup in melee, so their base stats need to be good enough to stand up to whatever they run into; a dubious proposition to begin with, let alone when you start to run into buffed enemy models (offensively or defensively.)

Harkevich is legitimately good (possibly great) at getting his warjacks to the fight. But his inability to help them do anything once they get there - along with the faction's inability to do so in any way - means that in many cases you're running to stand still. His best battlegroup proposition is to toss out more clamjacks than his opponent can deal with, which means you get to spend most of the game waddling around, not making attacks (though again, the errata has been a big boost in the viability of that list.)

"So what?", you ask, even though you didn't. "Plenty of 'casters have narrow applications, but they still see table time. Sometimes you want a specialized list, and then they come in handy."

That is absolutely true, and Harkevich certainly does do something unique in Khador. You could probably run similar lists with other 'casters, but most of them probably won't quite have the same mobility and board presence that a Harkevich list would.

What I've come to realize is that I've been avoiding two crucial truths:

1) Harkevich's niche is pretty narrow. For the reasons stated previously, Harkevich just can't manage a list that feels capable of covering a decent spread of possible match ups. Moreover, an inherent lack of flexibility makes it difficult for him to come up with a plan B if a list manages to deal with his schtick. Thus, the number of times that a Harkevich list feels like the "right" choice is low.

2) I want to play Harkevich a lot (i.e. frequently, against many types of lists,) but he's just not that kind of 'caster. There are plenty of 'casters out there that can manage pretty consistent 50/50 match ups, with maybe it going a little in either direction depending on various factors. Hell, they may even have very favorable match ups (eg. 70/30, 80/20)! With Harkevich, it feels like his best match ups are something like 60/40, and his bad match ups can plummet all the way down to 20/80 or even 10/90 (you're basically praying for some convoluted assassination to bail you out.)

What I think the takeaway from all that is: I've been playing Harkevich too much, too often. I'm trying to shoehorn him into a role that he doesn't fit (Syntherion, maybe Feora2, most Hordes 'casters,) and while I get some "hits" when the match ups line up, the "misses" are maddening due to feeling like I never had a chance.

Looking To The Future:
Like all love affairs, I'm sure I'll look back on my time with Harkevich and remember only the good, trivialize the bad. In the same way Trevor Christensen (of Chain Attack fame) keeps getting his heart pulled 'round-and-'round by Skorne, I'm sure I'll always be side-eyeing Harkevich, waiting for the time we can again frolic in the land of ham and beard.

The million dollar question (seriously PP: if you make Harkevich generally competitively viable I'll fork over $1 million for the ability to live the dream) is then, what would it take to make me feel better about playing Harkevich?

After years of playing him off and on (or at least, what feels like years) I can honestly answer with:

I don't know. Or rather: I have a hard time coming up with answers that don't break in another list build.

My friend and I discussed the topic for awhile during/after the game, and the combination of issues that Harkevich runs into makes it very difficult to come up with a single answer to the problem.

Part of the issue is a lack of warjacks capable of carrying the weight of the game. That's slowly changing - the Demolisher and the Grolar are both excellent additions to Khador and good warjacks for Harkevich - but the key is "slowly." You're always going to be dealing with the base Khador warjack stats (MAT 6, RAT 4) at best in most cases, so there's also a big limit on how effective some things are going to be (i.e. direct shots and Thresher attacks are probably not going to change the landscape.)

Part of the issue is a lack of warjack support. In Khador you have Mechaniks and a Koldun Lord. One is helpful if your warjacks get damaged (though much less so if a cortex goes flying off) and the other his helpful if you need an extra focus somewhere. Both are nice to have, but neither offer any real support in terms of helping warjacks do work. Harkevich would benefit tremendously from something that bumps up his warjacks efficiency, efficacy, or general output.

However, that is also where we start down the rabbit hole: if it's good with Harkevich, isn't it going to be that much better with, say, Vlad1? I believe that PP's devs could come up with solutions that can help out someone like Harkevich without snapping balance elsewhere, but I'm also not sure it's at all on their radar.

Which is what leads me to feel that poor 'ol Harkevich may be warming the bench for quite awhile. Harkevich's best shot at competitive efficacy was with his design, and unfortunately he ended up with a fairly conservative (if fun) set of rules. Everything that might help him from here on out has to come from future releases, which most practically means that he's hoping more warjack-centric releases pop up here and there (including new warjack options, though that terrifies me as a Khador player.)

I do have some faith in long term potential, however. Zerkova was a 'caster I pretty much despised at the start of Mk. 2 for reasons very similar to Harkevich (lack of efficacy, narrowness of purpose.) While I wouldn't call her a powerhouse now by any means, she has benefited tremendously from some of the Khador and Merc releases since then, and I can legitimately see where you'd want to play her. Maybe in another year or so I'll feel the same way about Harkevich.

Fond Memories (didn't I just say I'd do this?):
For all my bitching and moaning, I do want to reiterate that Harkevich can absolutely win games. If you draw a match up that can't handle his skew well, they can even be pretty excellent games. Moreover, he can be a lot of fun to play, because who doesn't want to run a list with 5 heavies in it? What follows are two of the lists I enjoyed most when running him. They are also lists I'd consider to be his most effective/relatively competitive (relative to his niche, anyways.)

#1 - After all this time and iterating, I still think the Quad Clam version of Harkevich's theme list is quite legit. It trades out flexibility for raw ARM skew, but I think it ends up better for it; all of the times I've tried to build Harkevich to actually fight his enemies I've been disappointed. I think the narrowness of that build is one of it's strengths; you're not tempted to do anything other than buck and bully your opponent around.

It can be a difficult list to play because it doesn't win in a way similar to other lists, but it can also be a ton of fun because you're straight up running warjack shenanigans all game. Here it is again for reference:

Harkevich Theme T4 - Quad Clam:
Kommander Harkevich, the Iron Wolf (*5pts)
   * Black Ivan (9pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
Winter Guard Field Gun Crew (Leader and 2 Grunts) (2pts)
Winter Guard Field Gun Crew (Leader and 2 Grunts) (2pts)
Winter Guard Infantry (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
   * Winter Guard Infantry Officer & Standard (2pts)
Kovnik Jozef Grigorovich (2pts)

#2 - The other list I still like a lot is what I ended up calling "Mixed Armor", which is a pretty weak name for it but that's why no one asks me to name anything. It's a pretty simple swap: same as the Quad Clam list but trade out two Demolishers for two of the shiny new Grolars. The Grolars add some extra speed (resulting in parts of the battlegroup being surprisingly fast) and the option for volume of (inaccurate) gunfire. Most importantly, the Piston Hammers provide an automatic knockdown effect, making them excellent beaters and capable of setting up attack run combos. This version is generally more offensively capable, and should also be pretty impressive looking when the Grolar model actually comes out.

Harkevich Theme T4 - Mixed Armor:
Kommander Harkevich, the Iron Wolf (*5pts)
   * Black Ivan (9pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Demolisher (8pts)
   * Grolar (8pts)
   * Grolar (8pts)
Winter Guard Field Gun Crew (Leader and 2 Grunts) (2pts)
Winter Guard Field Gun Crew (Leader and 2 Grunts) (2pts)
Winter Guard Infantry (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
   * Winter Guard Infantry Officer & Standard (2pts)
Kovnik Jozef Grigorovich (2pts)

Both lists also have a little wiggle room - the WGI can be cold swapped for WGRC, or you can mess around with unit sizes to get points to upgrade the Field Guns to Mortars (the change I'm most in favor of.) Between the two lists, I'm most likely to return to the Mixed Armor list. I like the increased offense and speed the Grolars bring to the table and it has just enough model variance that it's feasible to own at some point (buying 3 more Demolishers is kind of alluring, but I don't think I'd ever be able to pull the trigger on it.)

After many, many games with Harkevich against a variety of lists (though there were/are still plenty of match ups I haven't tried him in,) I feel like these lists are about as good as it gets for him. Conquest is always something that dances in and out of my lists with him, but I almost always end up moving away from it - Conquest is a fantastic anti-colossal model, and a fine endgame piece, but it's actually kind of crappy as part of an ARM skew line of warjacks. It consolidates a lot of points into one model, which in turn makes it easier for your opponent to consolidate force on it. Conquest also makes it harder to spread out (since you're trading in at least 2 warjacks to get him, if not 3 to get the points.) Finally, for as much as I love the big lug, it's probably because I have fantastic luck with his Critical; at base it has mediocre synergy with Harkevich.

I'm sure the next release cycle will have an entry or two that will whet my appetite. We know for sure at least one new non-character warjack is coming, and it's possible a new character warjack could give Harkevich something potent to throw his weight behind. And there's always the possibility of something coming out of left field, though with the lower number of releases (relative to older books, that is) releases tend to be a little more broad. Maybe we'll see some cool warjack buffing tech that will help Harkevich out, maybe not.

Until that release cycle starts, all we can do is speculate and work with what we have. Unfortunately for Harkevich, I feel like I've hit the end of the road with him for now. I'm starting to answer my problems with things I've already tried and dismissed, or tried and changed for some random reason, and it feels like I'm going in circles. Part of that could be indecision (which is probably the case with the Mixed Armor list,) but the other culprit is probably that I can't make a list I'm satisfied with because Harkevich isn't capable of reaching that level yet. He's good in his niche, and I need to leave him there.

For that reason, I need to retire Harkevich from my line up and play someone who brings a broader, more consistent game to the table. I have a ton of 'casters I haven't touched since devoting time to trying to figure out Harkevich - I was really getting into Irusk2 before Harkevich came out, and I haven't even played him since the IFK came out - and after so many games I feel like I've figured Harkevich out about as much as I'm going to for the foreseeable future. Hopefully some time away will give me some fresh perspective on how to approach list building with him, and even more hopefully the next release cycle will start and throw the big guy a bone. Lord knows he could use it.

The upside is, all this time spent playing Harkevich has left me with a ton of 'casters and builds I want to try out next. Irusk2 is likely, since I really want to try him again with IFKs, but there's also the strong possibility of a stint with Butcher3 as a palette cleanser. Whatever I decide, I'll be back to report on how it goes. Until then, thanks again for reading!

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