Thursday, August 21, 2014

Know Your Foe: Exulon Thexus

This post marks the beginning of what will probably become a series of posts that detail what to expect from certain 'casters/'locks or factions in Warmachine/Hordes. Since most of the existing threats out there have been very well documented and discussed (on various forums, including the PP forums) I will probably be focusing on new 'casters as they come along. New 'casters have a much higher chance of being a "gotcha," especially in the early stages when everyone is still trying to figure them out (both the player and their opponent.)

For this first breakdown, I'll be going over the most recent addition to the line up of Mercenary warcasters: Exulon Thexus.
Hands down the best "atrophied-body brain overlord" around

Who Is He?:
Exulon Thexus is a Mercenary warcaster. Like most of his cohorts, Thexus is limited based on the usual Mercenary list building restrictions - a list must be constructed using either any eligible Mercenary Contract, or using his theme list.

Unlike his cohorts Thexus has a very restrictive set of list options available to him. Due to his "Selective" rule (something that will come up again) Thexus can only be included in Mercenary contracts that specifically list Cephalyx models as a hiring option, which at present is only the Puppet Masters contract (i.e. the Cephalyx specific contract.)

In that way, Thexus is very similar to Shae: he can only be taken in one contract and that contract heavily restricts the options available to him (at least relative to how flexible Mercenary 'casters usually are in their choices.) However, also like Shae the one contract available to him has been specifically crafted to give him a solid list, so don't view that contract limitation as much of a hindrance. In both of their cases, it feels like more of a balancing factor.

What Does He Do?:
As you may have guessed based on his model, Thexus is much more of a "lead from behind" kind of 'caster. His defensive stats are poor, but Sacrificial Pawn [Monstrosity] goes a long way to keep him from being easily assassinated. Thexus is also able to channel spells through the Monstrosities in his battlegroup, though it does damage them when he does it. Thexus also doesn't necessarily have any "spammable" spells, so this is most likely an ability he'll use to get off a crucial Telekinesis (TK) or Hex Blast.

Regarding his spell list, Thexus has at least three spells that are very significant. Two of these have already been mentioned - TK and Hex Blast - and they're sprinkled around enough that you probably have some experience with them already (if you don't, you probably will soon.) TK is one of the most powerful spells in the game, despite it's subtle effect, and Thexus has enough focus and channeling ability to make sure it gets where he needs it to. Hex Blast gives his army some built in upkeep removal, so beware of leaning too heavily on defensive upkeeps (unless you can prevent the model(s) from being targeted by Hex Blast.)

The last "big" spell Thexus has on his card is another whopper: Deceleration. Epic Haley and Father Lucant regularly demonstrate how powerful this spell is at warping the attrition game, and Thexus can leverage to similar effect (though with less immediate potency due to limited list options.)

The bonuses from Deceleration do a ton to help out his forces: it makes Drudges legitimately survivable against many ranged attacks, it cuts down on the ranged softening that will happen to his Monstrosities, and it bumps his stat line up to the point where he's not as likely to be killed by ranged attacks (especially when combined with his Sac Pawn.)

There is one more "big" spell on Thexus' card, but it's somewhat of a coin flip as to whether it will matter in a particular game. Rampager is a spell that can do terrible things to a Hordes battlegroup. At the very least it can disrupt formations; at most it can allow him to pick up a warbeast for free. It doesn't work against character warbeasts, nor will it work against warbeasts that can't be moved (either due to model rules, or shenanigans like Armlocks/Locker animus,) and it does zilch against Warmachine armies. If you're a Hordes player, be aware that Thexus does have that spell and plenty of ways to get it to your beasts between running Monstrosities, channeling, and TK.

Finally, Thexus' feat. It's very straightforward: all non-warcaster/warlock models in his control area are immediately pushed 2" in any direction, resolved as the Thexus player chooses. As you may expect, this can be a very powerful feat. Anything you have that relies on proximity or specific positioning is likely to be undone, it makes it that much easier for him to get the first strike and/or deny reprisal, and it can screw with your scenario plans if you weren't careful (or able to get far enough into a zone.) Thexus also boasts a very large control area, so when it comes time for him to feat he'll likely be catching a large portion of your army (if not all of it.)

What Does His List Look Like?:
Despite having such a restricted contract, there are some variations on what you can expect with a Thexus list. Based on my reading and limited experience, they tend to fall broadly into two camps: "maximum dudes" or "with ghosts".

A "maximum dudes" list will try to leverage the press of Drudges to overwhelm you over the course of the game, with all that backed up by Monstrosities. Expect 3 or 4 full units of Drudges, almost certainly with two full units of Mind Bender & Slaves. You're also likely to be looking at three Monstrosities as well, though depending on what they're going for there may only be two (this is probably a net good thing for you as the opponent.)

A "with ghosts" lists is something I've only run into, due to it being what my friend has been running recently. This variation of list tones down the number of Drudge units to get more of the Cryx solos in the list, most often with an emphasis on the Incorporeal solos. Pistol Wraiths and Machine Wraiths can provide Thexus with excellent extra control and scenario presence, while also being very tricky to remove thanks to Deceleration and Incorporeal.

With the publication of the digital Cephalyx book, Thexus now has a theme force to work with, though with it being so new most players haven't had experience with it or against it. Thexus' theme list seems to push you towards either spamming Overlord units, or spamming Drudge units, with some of those becoming Ambush units (due to the theme's benefits.) The general make up will probably be comparable to a current "maximum dudes" approach, with the Ambush shenanigans thrown in. Or as many Overlord units as your opponent is willing to buy, which admittedly could be interesting.

Some example lists:

Maximum Dudes:
Exulon Thexus (*5pts)
   * Subduer/Wrecker (7pts)
   * Wrecker (7pts)
   * Warden (6 pts)
Cephalyx Mind Bender and Drudges (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
Cephalyx Mind Bender and Drudges (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
Cephalyx Mind Slaver and Drudges (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
Cephalyx Mind Slaver and Drudges (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
Cephalyx Dominator (2pts)
   * Tactical Arcanist Corps (4pts)
Cephalyx Agitator (2pts)
Cephalyx Agitator (2pts)

With Ghosts:
Exulon Thexus (*5pts)
   * Wrecker (7pts)
   * Wrecker (7pts)
   * Warden (6 pts)
Cephalyx Mind Bender and Drudges (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
Cephalyx Mind Slaver and Drudges (Leader and 9 Grunts) (6pts)
Cephalyx Overlords (4pts)
Cephalyx Dominator (2pts)
   * Tactical Arcanist Corps (4pts)
Machine Wraith (1pts)
Machine Wraith (1pts)
Pistol Wraith (3pts)
Pistol Wraith (3pts)
Cephalyx Agitator (2pts)
Cephalyx Agitator (2pts)
Cephalyx Agitator (2pts)

Two final things to bear in mind:

1) Wreckers are fantastic combat heavies. Even considering all of their downsides, they're very capable of doing a number on other heavies/colossals, and it gets much better with an Agitator bubble nearby. They're also cheap enough to trade reasonably and effectively. Expect to see at least one, almost always two, and don't be surprised to line up against three of the things. Especially when facing Thexus, since his endgame options are very poor otherwise.

2) The TAC are one of, if not easily "the", best units that the Dominator can bring along. Expect to see them in Thexus' list, and have a plan for them (more on that later.)

How Do I Fight Against Him?:
Some good news: any general "anti-Cryx" strategies you've cultivated or built into your lists will probably work well against Thexus. He largely operates on a similar principle: he himself can be very difficult to kill early (hiding behind TAC smoke, under Decel, with Monstrosities nearby to Sac Pawn,) his army is often a flood of models that are tougher to get through than you expect (and the list can have janky recursion going on,) and they can hit surprisingly hard (Agitators, Adrenal Flood) and from odd angles (TK, feat, Adrenal Flood, Beat Back.)

However, don't get too excited: while this list operates in a way that is similar to Cryx, it doesn't share quite the same suite of weaknesses. POW 10 shooting can be dreadfully effective against traditional Cryx lists, but those attacks are going to mostly bounce off the sea of Drudges (and the ones you do kill may Tough.)

Also, where Cryx often eschews heavy warjacks in favor of lights or a single character heavy (traditionally, at least; the meta is ever shifting) the Cephalyx will almost always be bringing 2-3 heavies. The Monstrosities don't have the highest ARM, but they have an absolute mass of damage boxes (the highest number possible for a warjack grid) and they have the upside of being healed in the same manner as warbeasts, so they're easier to keep up and running. Combine that with their decent threat ranges (mainly the Wrecker, though TK helps all of them) and Decel to cut down on shooting damage and the Cephalyx provide a viable heavy threat in addition to their "dudeswarm", which is usually something Cryx can't do.

What this means is that a Thexus led Cephalyx list is surprisingly good against a traditional anti-infantry gunline. More Drudges are going to make it through that you want to (or are potentially planning for) and you also need to have a plan for dealing with the 72+ boxes of Monstrosity that are backing them up. Just shooting it all to death before it gets to you isn't really an option, especially once Thexus' feat scootches all your front line models 2" closer to death.

There are still things that work well, however. Sprays still have plenty of value since each attack is likely to hit multiple targets and the damage isn't going to be sub-10 like most blast damage (which often just bounces off this army.) Any POW 12 shooting you can leverage will still do a good job of cutting down Drudges, though getting that in volume can be tricky.

Magic attacks are particularly effective against the Cephalyx in general. For two reasons: 1) Deceleration only works against ranged attacks, so even lower POW magic attacks will still reliably hit and kill Drudges, and most importantly 2) Sacrificial Pawn only works against ranged attacks, so it gives you a crucial edge when trying to pick off the actual Cephalyx models in the list. Some factions can leverage this more than others, so the usefulness of that advice may vary.

Early on I compared Thexus to Shae in terms of limited list building options, but there's another way that the two 'casters are similar: both of their lists share a fundamental weakness.

Shae's list is doubtless built upon Pirate synergies, so if you can start to pick off the character solos, the efficacy of the whole engine starts to deteriorate.

Similarly, Thexus' list hinges upon the Cephalyx models in it. The Drudges are merely the bodies that make attacks and absorb damage. The Cephalyx are the models that are actually enabling the army to do work effectively, so if you can pick them off, it becomes a lot more manageable. This also applies to their units, as their leaders are Officer models and are thusly not replaced once destroyed.

In particular, you want to be trying to get the Mind Slavers and Agitators off the board as soon as you can. The Mind Slavers are a big part of what makes the Cephalyx engine run and their unit is their almost exclusively to fuel their spellcasting; if you can pick off the Mind Slaver your opponent is left with a mediocre unit and none of the buffs/attack spells they wanted.

Agitators are similarly critical and dangerous, but they're also a little easier to get at due to how forward they have to be - they project a Choir-esque buffing bubble for Drudges and Monstrosities, but it's based on being near the Agitator. As such, they're usually easier to kill after they've done their buffing job, but at the same time after they've done their job Thexus' army has probably taken a bite out of yours. Taking them out early helps to limit the accuracy and damage output of the workhorse models in the list.

As mentioned, taking these models out early can be tricky due to their defensive abilities. The Mind Slavers have Sacrifical Pawn to Drudges (and they'll be surrounded by them) and the Agitators have Sacrifical Pawn to Monstrosities (who can easily take the hits meant for the Agitators.) As such, you'll need to rely on methods other than direct shooting to try and take them out. Magic attacks circumvent Sacrifical Pawn completely, as do melee attacks. Blast damage can also do the trick if your opponent isn't careful with his placement (or if you get lucky with your templates) though Deceleration usually makes it difficult for even moderately powerful boosted blast damage to kill them regularly. Still, any effort you can expend to kill those models (that doesn't overextend or otherwise compromise you) is effort well spent.

Which brings me to the TAC. I'm not sure if Dominator + TAC is a default for all Cephalyx lists (they only have one 'caster at present, so who knows what the others may want?) but it's absolutely a fantastic inclusion for Thexus. The TAC in his list are very difficult to remove with ranged attacks (DEF 13/15 depending on if you can ignore Concealment, ARM 18 with 5 damage boxes and Tough.) In the Puppet Masters contract the Dominator and TAC gain Advanced Deployment, so they are able to get into prime smoke wall positioning early on.

The TAC will probably be the most surprising component of a Thexus list. It gives his army a very good LOS blocker on the approach, and each wave can queue up behind the smoke wall after the first one goes out. It can be very demoralizing to hack through all of the Drudges in front of you, only to realize that there are Monstrosities just around the corner, hiding behind smoke and waiting. Plus, if nothing else, it gives Thexus a very comfortable place to hide if he wants to move up the table a bit (say, to get optimal feat positioning.)

For that reason, it is extremely helpful to throw what you can at trying to pick off the TAC, as soon as you can. In the very early game, you may not have much else to shoot at anyways, so it can be worth it to put a few boostable shots into a TAC or two to try and thin down how many clouds they can produce. Due to their natural durability (and how much it's bolstered by Deceleration) your best bet is probably melee, though getting melee to the TAC early can be difficult (your faction either has the option or it doesn't) and once the lists start to clash you still need to keep pressure on the Cephalyx models, so your sneakier melee models may be otherwise occupied. Always keep in mind what attacks you could be getting to the TAC, and if you get the chance to try and kill one or two early for low resource cost, absolutely take it.

Also, and this almost goes without saying: the TAC slide up or down the scale of annoyance based on the faction you're playing. For example: Legion can ignore their clouds and keep shooting into whatever they're trying to protect, though the TAC themselves are immune to most of their shooting which is irritating. Protectorate has the opposite problem: the TAC are immune to most of the guns that can kill them semi-reliably (you're mostly stuck with Redeemer or Vessel of Judgement shots) and they have no way to ignore the clouds, so the TAC can be a big hindrance. This is one of those things that pays to put some thought into beforehand; being caught unaware by this at the table can upend your game quickly.

Finally, it's worth noting that, unless the Dominator brings something other than TAC which may be unlikely, Thexus' list doesn't have much in the way of ranged attacks. Or distance attacks at all. Any list that brings a lot of Drudge units is probably going to be exclusively relying on magical attacks - almost all of those being sprays or placed AOEs - to do anything outside of melee. Even lists that bring Pistol Wraiths are only going to have those few ranged attacks (though they are admittedly pretty scary ranged attacks.)

What this means is that you don't need to worry about long range...ranged threats from a Thexus list. The two worst things that are likely to come your way are channeled Hex Blasts or Mind Slavers advancing their Drudges and then channeling their sprays through them. Neither of those are to be ignored, but they're not something crazy long range like WGRC, ATGMP, Invictors, Venator Reivers, etc. All of it is pretty easy to spot and plan for if you know it's coming (and don't forget TK!)

It also means that any kind of magic attack denial hurts the ability of the Thexus army to attrition outside of committing to melee. Any of the abilities that prevent spells from targeting the model/unit - Spell Ward, Sacred Ward, Counter Magic, etc - make the sprays harder to leverage (they can still get the shot off by lining it up against something else, but that may be tricky to do) and it takes away TK shenanigans as well (for heavies.) Your opponent can still work some magic (har har) to get magical attacks on you even if you have those protections - Concussive Blast in particular doesn't target anything - but anything you do to make their life harder is worthwhile, especially if its something you'd be be bringing anyway (Errants, Druids, Doom Reavers, etc.)

Addendum: Continuous effects can also be effective against this force, particularly on the Cephalyx models themselves. Fire is dice - 1 for damage on all of them (heck it's only dice - 2 on Thexus) and none of their defensive abilities help against it. If you can manufacture getting Fire on key models it can be a great way to pick them off, and an effect like Corrosion gives you a second bite at the Tough apple if Drudges prove to be particularly tenacious.

How Likely Am I To Face Him?:
Pretty likely, relative to how often you face Mercenary players. Thexus has two factors going for him:

1) Shiny new hotness. He's a new Mercenary warcaster that is also bringing along some new models (either totally new, or new to Mercenary players,) and new "warjacks," so that's got to be very exciting. Especially since the Cephalyx release is supplementing the relatively light set of Mercenary model releases in Warmachine: Vengeance. Many players will be excited to play him just to try something new, and that's not even counting the people that bought into the contract just because they dig Cephalyx.

2) First world Mercenary problems. From what I can tell, Mercenaries have a small problem in their faction: they have too many great colossals! Alright so that's never really a problem. The biggest issue is that both of their colossals (Galleon, Earthbreaker) want Dougal MacNaile for optimal output and he can only be in one list. Plus there is the downside of running colossals in both of your lists.

The new Cephalyx contract and Thexus give Mercenary players a list that puts a different type question out there - massed infantry that are resistant to shooting backed up by decently beefy heavies - and it neither wants nor requires any of the character models that are often crucial to other Mercenary builds. That gives them a tremendous amount of flexibility when trying to put together list pairs, and I'm sure it's a relief after so many years of trying to juggle the common crucial Mercenary solos.

For that reason, if nothing else, I expect Thexus and his Cephalyx entourage to be a popular list in Mercenary list sets. Maybe less so in Iron Gauntlet due to concerns that may arise when trying to build for 75, but I can see him being a popular choice in any other format. Thexus' list is very capable, interesting, and challenging to play as and against, so I can see players adding it to their rotation and sticking with it for awhile.


I think that about covers what I think I know about Thexus. Hopefully this has been a decent primer to what you can expect when facing him (and the Cephalyx contract, though right now he's all of it.) If anyone has any additional tips or notes I'd love to hear them in the comments.

Once again, thanks very much for reading!

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