Friday, January 16, 2015

Coin Well Spent: The Value of Tactical Arcanist Corps

Warmachine: Vengeance was released in March, 2014 and it brought some amazing new options to the game. Some have already become staples: Butcher3 and Issyria have shot to the top of charts for their respective factions (with Goreshade3 getting an honorable mention for being very good, if not often played), the Earthbreaker redefined what it means to play Mercs, Retribution got a slew of fantastic models to help make their lists even scarier, Khador got some excellent new options with the IFK, Outriders, and the (yet to manifest in reality) Grolar, and new character Journeyman warcasters opened up interesting options in a lot of factions.

The release that may have the greatest long term impact, however, is one that doesn't come up in a lot of discussions about powerful models. It's also interesting because this release is one that multiple factions can make use of, and all of those factions can gain a lot from including it.

If you've been paying attention to my battle reports over the past several months, this probably won't be very surprising: I think the secret best Vengeance release is the Tactical Arcanist Corps (TAC).

Something no one told me:
The unit leader comes with a helmeted head
option that looks pretty great.
Join me after the break where I go over my experiences with the TAC, what they bring to the armies they can be included with, and why I think they're an extremely compelling choice for many lists. Fair warning: my experience with TAC is wholly based in Khador, and probably colored by that, but the broad principles apply to any faction that can take them.

Stats and Abilities Overview
If you've ever seen a Rhulic model in play, you know what to expect from the TAC: low SPD and DEF, decent durability (by virtue of being ARM 16 w/5 boxes each), and fair hitting power (P+S 13 is a very respectable value for an infantry model).

Where the TAC distinguish themselves is with the special abilities they bring to the table. Unlike the other Rhulic units, which are all fairly straightforward shooting or melee, the TAC bring a very compelling combination of support and offensive tricks.

First: the TAC are all about Fire (the damage type and Continuous Effect). They are themselves immune to Fire, their weapons have Flame Burst (so they set nearby enemies on Fire when they kill something), they can wreathe themselves in flame (don't ever do this), and their offensive spell is an AoE with Critical Continuous Fire to everything under the template.

This love of all things flaming has two benefits: 1) the TAC are immune to the majority of battlegroup shots that Legion and Protectorate are capable of throwing at them which allows them to be particularly pesky in those match ups, and 2) they end up with above average infantry clearing ability thanks to their ability to spread Fire around a bit. Their melee attacks can potentially kill a few models if they're bunched up, and their AoEs can go from mediocre blast damage (POW 7) to near certain death (POW 12 if the fire doesn't go out) on most infantry.

Second: the TAC are decently equipped to go on the offensive. If anything wanders in range of their stubby little legs (which is likely to happen mid-to-late game when they need to transition into an offensive role) they can charge in with P+S 13 melee attacks at a fair (but not great) MAT 6, with Flame Burst and a Battle Wizard attack if they kill their target. TAC are actually more competent at range, boasting a Magic Ability [7] for their Flame Blast AoEs, and RNG 10 gives them an overall decent walking threat range if they're looking to throw around some fireballs.

Last, but certainly not least, are the defensive benefits that the TAC bring to a list. As previously mentioned, these little guys are Immune: Fire, which means that they can stand in front of a lot of Legion and Protectorate battlegroup guns with impunity. This can be helpful against Legion in particular because Eyeless Sight ignores their other, much more valuable defensive trick:

Clouds. A wall of precious, precious clouds.

Each member of the TAC squad is able to place down a cloud (a la Gorman, or Trenchers if you remember those poor guys). Just one cloud can be valuable for blocking LoS to your 'caster (one of the many, many reasons why Gorman is always useful) but it can be difficult to be able to use one cloud template to hide behind. A wall of two or three cloud templates gives you a lot more flexibility, and it also allows you to cover more possible angles of approach.

Unlike some other cloud walls, the slow speed of the TAC (especially relative to other parts of your army in many cases) relegates their cloud wall to being used primarily to protect critical army elements that don't need to be at the vanguard. TAC probably won't be able to shuffle up the table quickly enough to cover your army's advance (compared to Trenchers, who start off in the perfect spot for that job), but can do a fine job of protecting important solos, support models, your warcaster, and even potentially objectives in some Steamroller scenarios (if you're worried about them getting shot up that is).

Factions and Applicability
As of this writing, TAC are available for use in two Warmachine factions - Cygnar and Khador - and three Mercenary Contracts - Four Star Syndicate, Highborn Covenant, and the Searforge Commission. The TAC have a lot to offer all three of the factions they can be taken with, though how valuable they are to each faction (or contract) varies.

Cygnar is a faction that can appreciate a good cloud wall - they like the idea so much they have their own unit that can do it! Trenchers, however, have their own (well documented and lamented) issues, so if you're primarily looking for something to protect your backline models, the cheaper, overall more durable TAC are probably the better investment.

Cygnar is also one of, if not the, most Mercenary friendly factions out there. Many of their spells are "Friendly" not "Friendly Faction" so you don't need to worry about the TAC missing out on possible benefits a lot of the time. The TAC also have a somewhat odd anti-synergy-synergy in that they have zero need or want of Murdoch, so your Ranking Officer can still go on your Nyss or Boomhowlers without potentially leaving your TAC feeling shorted (sorry).

Cygnar warcasters don't have particularly awful stats on average, but a number of them are on the squishier side of things. Many of them also want to spend all or most of their Focus, making camping something they don't want to do if they can help it.

Because of all those factors, I initially expected TAC to be very popular in Cygnar, but that isn't how things played out over 2014. Thinking about it, there are several very good reasons for this:

1) Cygnar warcasters can afford to play fairly far back from the action. They have access to very good Arc Nodes if they want to throw out offensive spells (which actually relatively rare), the Squire gives every one of them 2" more wiggle room with any Control Area range effects, and most of what they do is either direct buffing (which only requires they have range to their models) or Control Area buffs/debuffs.

2) Cygnar already has a fantastic and not-altogether cheap defensive resource in their generic Journeyman Warcaster. Moreover, since the entire faction is pretty much designed around the idea of having Arcane Shield in the list you often don't want to leave home without him. Spending another 4 points on a (for most of the game) defensive unit when you've already spent 3 points on defensive support is a little hard to swallow.

3) Many Cygnar 'casters have solid defensive tech to begin with. Deflection, Deceleration, Fox Hole, Teleport, Gate Crasher, Refuge, Blur, Arcane Shield (from themselves or the Journeyman) Cavalry rules, and many others allow many of their 'casters to maintain an element of safety while still doing what they need to do.

4) Stormwall is a very good colossal that makes it's way into a lot of Cygnar lists. Colossals are one of the best models in the game to hide behind thanks to their various immunities and durability. Stormwall is a particularly good colossal because it brings a strong ranged presence and denial aspects that let it play "in the pocket" more safely than a lot of others. When you're already bringing a 19 point obstruction with guns to hide behind (and a 3 point solo to make it ARM 22), it's much less desirable or necessary to spend another 4 points on 'caster protection.

Cygnar 'casters don't really gain a lot from putting TAC into their lists; the way the faction normally plays is usually sufficient to keep them and other support models pretty safe during the game. However, the most notable exception is Nemo1. He is the squishiest of all the Cygnar 'casters, with a low set of defensive stats, poor defensive tech, a low health total, and a strong desire to spend most or all of his Focus every turn. Nemo1 is also one of the few Cygnar 'casters that has a feat requiring that enemy models be in his Control Area, which naturally pulls him a bit forward (he can expand his Control Area using Focus, but that's inefficient enough to rarely be a good option).

For those reasons, Nemo1 appreciates having a safe place to hide more than most Cygnar 'casters. He also doesn't have a ton of synergy with a Stormwall (it's never a bad choice, just not necessarily a great one), which makes the TAC potentially more valuable. Finally, Nemo1 accumulates Power Tokens (up to 3) for each model that casts a spell in his Control Area, which means that the TAC can give Nemo1 3 extra Focus each following turn while also giving him a decent place to hide.

Other than Nemo1, however, TAC seem to be a "take it or leave it" unit in Cygnar.  You may find value for them, depending on your list build and approach to the game, but for the most part Cygnar seems to be able to operate well enough without them.

Mercenaries are a difficult faction to get a handle on sometimes. Players approach the faction in wildly different ways, with seriously different intentions. The faction is split between several different contracts, some of which are extremely exclusive. Because of that, I wasn't sure how much use the TAC would see in Mercenary armies.

I think Mercenaries end up being the mid-point on the Venn diagram between Cygnar and Khador in terms of TAC desirability.

On one hand: Mercenary warcasters play very similarly to Khador warcasters. They don't have access to Arc Nodes (give or take a couple of Magnuses and a Fiona spell) and they usually end up wanting to play more mid-field. The faction offers some solid defensive options, but nothing as potent as the smoke wall TAC bring to the table.

On the other hand: Mercenaries have two of the best colossals in the game and some fantastic 'casters and solo support to make use of them. As with Stormwall in Cygnar, the Galleon and Earthbreaker give their 'casters a fantastic spot to hide so any 'casters that are likely to bring one of those probably won't be wanting for more protection. At least one 'caster (Shae) can't access the TAC at all, and Thexus has to slap their Ranking Officer on the TAC to be able to bring them (though that isn't necessarily a bad thing,) and he has strong protection from ranged attacks built in.

The net effect is that, while Mercenaries can get good use out of the TAC, they often already have a great place to hide (behind a colossal that is laying waste to the table). For the 'casters that aren't going to want a colossal and still want to play forward (Damiano is the one that immediately comes to mind) TAC seem like a good option for giving you a safe place to hide.

It's also worth noting that the TAC have a bit of a different dynamic in Mercenaries than they do in other armies because they are naturally Friendly Faction. While you probably aren't likely to throw a buff on a 3 model unit, the option is there for anything and everything if you want it, and the TAC will be eligible for all feat benefits (that would affect warrior models, of course).

Similar to Cygnar, the TAC aren't quite as prominent in Mercenaries as I would have originally thought they'd be. I do think you're likely to see TAC in Mercenaries lists more often than in Cygnar lists (even when not needed for support, the TAC are a fine 4 point Magic Attack unit), and because there are a few 'casters in the faction that would still love a safe place to hide but don't necessarily want a Galleon (everyone wants an Earthbreaker; especially the non-Rhulic 'casters)!

This will be the most substantial section, as it's the faction I have the most experience with or against relative to the TAC.

Of the factions that can use them, I expected Khador to be the one that used TAC the least. Khador 'casters tend to be a bit heartier than average due to their desire to play mid-field and a number of them have defensive measures they can put in place to help protect themselves. The slow speed of the TAC was also a concern. Most Khador 'casters want to play farther forward than their counterparts in other factions, so it seemed like the TAC would have trouble keeping up.

After playing TAC in several lists during the latter half of 2014, I've come around to them quite a bit. So much so that I'd actually argue that TAC are worth considering alongside many Khador 'casters.

While it is true that many Khador 'casters have solid defensive stat lines, none of them have innate stats so profound that they can safely operate without some defensive measure in place (Focus camp, defensive spell up, etc). Camping is usually difficult - almost all Khador 'casters need to be spending their Focus to keep their army working - and Khador 'casters seem to specialize more in damage avoidance (i.e. buffing DEF, Wind Wall, Stealth) than increasing outright durability (via some kind of ARM buff, even if conditional).

Combine that with the need for many Khador 'casters to play mid-field and you often end up in situations where your 'caster is somewhat exposed. You can block LoS with models and put defensive measures up, but there are common answers to those options (Blessed, Purification, high accuracy, True Sight, Slams, Knockdown, straight up model murder.) Colossals exacerbated this issue by giving several factions access to multiple long range, high damage, boostable guns, which is a string of words most Khador 'casters do not appreciate seeing.

Conquest is an answer with some 'casters, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how much you like seeing colossals) Conquest is not nearly as easy an include for most Khador lists as are his more flexible, capable brethren. It makes a fine place to hide when it does show up (and can afford to stand in a good spot to hide behind while still being relevant), but the number of 'casters that really works with is limited.

Having a smoke wall to hide behind is about as close as you can get to a definitive answer against a wide swathe of threats. Being able to camp or buff yourself up to be harder to kill is great, but what's even better than that is to not be a valid target at all. There are still plenty of things to be concerned with (Eyeless Sight and Mage Sight being two of the most common), but a cloud wall still works well against enough of the field to still be a potent defensive measure. Especially since it protects against three significant vectors: ranged attacks, magic attacks, and charges.

The biggest issue with the TAC, however, is their low SPD. Or so I thought. After playing a number of games with TAC, I have realized there are two additional factors to consider when evaluating their speed:

1) Valachev. He is in hot demand thanks to what he does for Nyss, but if you can spare him he's a very easy way to almost double the unit's movement on any turn it'll be dropping clouds or making attacks. There are plenty of side benefits as well - Faction status, the ability to drop clouds then hide behind them, 17" possible threat on their AoEs - but the ability to speed them up while still letting them do their job is a tremendous help for any 'caster that may be leaving them behind. Related to that...

2) In a surprising number of situations, the TAC are just fast enough to do their job. Assuming a first turn run by the TAC (which is almost mandatory with their little legs) they'll be either 15" or 18" in on the table, depending on if you went first or second. That means that on turn 2, they'll be 19"/22" in on the table, able to place clouds within 1" of themselves, so the cloud wall will be 20"/23" up the table starting on turn 2.

That's all assuming perfectly straight running of course - no models or terrain in the way - but I think it illustrates the point that TAC are, by themselves, very capable of getting into position to drop a cloud wall where you'd most want it for a majority of Khador's 'casters starting on turn 2. What many Khador 'casters really want is a way to safely play mid-field without having to throttle their output (by either camping Focus or moving defensive buffs onto themselves). Having a cloud wall around 20" in on the table is a great way to do that.

Of all the Khador 'casters only three of them stand out as being potentially very aggressive in their movement and positioning - Vlad3, Butcher3, and Karchev - and those three all have a fair chance at hanging out in more aggressive board positions while surviving (kind of; Karchev isn't terribly hard to kill most of the time). Even with that consideration, I've noticed over the years that Khador 'casters tend to play most often in a specific "band" of the table, with the more aggressive 'casters pushing further into that band and the squishier support ones hanging further back.

A big part of that is the effect Steamroller scenarios have on game play. While some scenarios and situations are going to require your forces to go deep into enemy territory, for the most part the fighting usually takes place near the center of the table (within 12" or so on either side, depending). This is the prime real estate that many Khador 'casters want to be able to live in, either to support their army, debuff the enemy army, or leverage their own personal threat. TAC facilitate that by giving the 'caster a place to stand (or retreat to) that is safe against many threats, which in turn allows the Khador 'caster to more boldly apply their own brand of pressure.

The takeaway from all this is that I haven't seen much use of TAC in Khador, but I feel like it's an option worth exploring in a lot of cases. Many Khador 'casters benefit tremendously from the smoke wall that the TAC bring to the table and unlike a number of other defensive options the TAC can often do some work while also providing protection (two clouds is often enough, leaving the third free to roam around and try to incinerate things). Valachev can be a big help if he's available (in terms of points and character restrictions) but he's not wholly necessary; the TAC are usually fast enough to get in place on their own and they don't need to be benefiting from Faction status most of the time to contribute.


If you haven't given TAC a shot due to reservations about their speed or the benefits they provide, I highly encourage reconsidering that stance and giving them a go. I've found them to be a very valuable defensive asset (especially with where a lot of Khador 'casters want to stand), they're a fairly easy include at only 4 points, and they're one of the few "support" units out there than can easily transition to an offensive role when the time comes (and are usually in a decent position to do so).

Plus, for what it's worth, they're pretty sweet models. Especially with the helmeted sergeant.

1 comment:

  1. I found much the same when I played them with Thexus. Speed 4 is amazingly not as much of a detriment as it seems on them, keeping them in the midfield for your caster to bunker up behind, if needed. They also, as you mentioned, make fantastic opportunists, switching rolls to whatever you need fantastically easily.