Lesson 1: Lists
The Initial Approach
When you start to create your army for the game, you might get overwhelmed by your options. Destructive Power is obviously what the game is about, but it is less obvious once you start analyzing it a little. You could more fittingly say its about Different Ways to Murder Very Different Things. You'll find yourself pondering "What about these beasts and this unit", or "This combo is bound to work, but do I have the best warcaster for these choices?". As you begin to poke around, ask the people you play against: You'll find lots of finely articulated theories. You need the right amount of beasts/jacks vs units vs solos; with the right caster, but there are very few objective answers. You'll need a critical eye to form your own theory. There are as many theories as opponents! Lets go through some of the common variants. First off, you can approach the framework of your list in different ways.
Choose a 'caster you feel like playing. Plain and simple. Or to be true, not quite so simple. Then find out how the powers of this warcaster is used to greatest effect. That means, if you have a caster with defenders ward, you'd want to have an efficient target for that spell. You can learn more about this in the resources lesson, but if you tool your army around what your 'caster can provide, you can't go far wrong.
The other way around is to find a certain synergy between a select number of units or heavies and then expanding from there. Then you analyse which caster will go with them. This could be synergy between Circles constructs, between types of units, soul gathering in skorne, corpse gathering in Cryx or some other synergy-constellation. It might also be the analysis of what models you have, and what 'caster you want to buy for that army to click. A subcategory under the "bottom up" is a themed list. Most players get tempted to create themed lists at some point, such as representing an army of the various types of something in a faction, such a ranged Skorne army of the Venator warriors or Exemplars from the Protectorate. Doing this always presents a limitation on your choices, but synergies can be found. Grand Exemplar Kreoss rewards it, for example, as he is an Exemplar himself. You can sometimes even use "Theme Forces" to gain special bonuses because of these limitation (or you could just create your own themed list without theme force bonuses, simply because it looks good / feels right. While not always succesful, this approach often nets you a certain amount of nerd-acknowledgement).
You can always find succesful lists on the web. Many players get criticized for using lists that others post online. Especially lists that have won big tournaments tend to be discussed online. For some reason some see this as uncreative or easy. Just because skilled players have used them successfully does not mean that they are easy to use. While they may lack originality, they can still serve newer players as a guide. Looking up different lists can give you some ideas about what models go well together. Some may frown on internet lists, but to give a concrete suggestion of what models have specific synergy, netlists can provide an excellent source of inspiration. Just be aware that it was usually not the list that won. It was the player.
No matter what your approach is, you might want to consider what will be on the opposite side of the table. The opposite side of the table might just as well field a gargantuan or a devastator or something else that requires a humongous damage output of your most hard hitting models to kill - or it may be a horde of infantry that require numerous attacks to clear. Or it may be a dodgy solo that might really hard to hit, or even to target it due to the fact that it is camouflaged, ethereal, hidden in a cloud of ash, has bodyguards or whatever. So this is about the relevant qualities a model may have that enables it to be destructive: amount of attacks, attack accuracy, damage amount and threat range. You want it all, but the balance is the tricky part. As you figure out what you are going to play the game with, you should keep in mind to check your capacity to hit nimble models, cracking armor, unveil hidden models and dealing with large quantities of mediocre models. This is called the DASH principle.
- [D]efense. You want something that can hit high defense models without relying on luck. High MAT, RAT, or access to accuracy buffs.
- [A]rmor. You want something that can crack open large and heavy models. High P+S, armor piercing or weapon master attacks are useful.
- [S]tealth. Applies to all sorts of inaccessible models, such as spotting stealth models and hitting incorporeal models. Countered by magical weapons and eyeless sight, for example.
- [H]ordes of cheap infantry (or [H]uge quantities of infantry). Countered by large blasts or other infantry eaters, such as thresher attacks.
You want this analysis to play into your warcasters strengths. Your warcaster or warlock is the king of your warmachine chessboard, but curiously, also your queen - your most impactful piece. It largely depends on the spells, abilities and feat of the warlock or warcaster and your support models. Look at the warcasters thunder: the spell list, offensive capacity, skills and feat. Particularly, try to get an idea of what your warcaster might give your army. A support warcaster will require a lineup of units and beasts that really benefit from the casters spells, while a powerful lone wolf assassin warcaster will demand units and beasts that can hold their own. To begin with, an offensive, staple unit that plays moderately into your warcaster(s) spells and powers will go a very long way. All factions are capable of buffing their 'beasts/'jacks and units to some extent. You of course want to do this, but as you consider the units you want to field, try to manage the quantity of your support versus the quantity of your combat troops. While it might be tempting to field a single really good unit and a lot of support buffs for it, remember that while your buffed unit or 'jack will slay everything in righteous fury, you pay good points for support. The Menoth Crusader is an exceptionally generic warjack with very few tricks (and it is prized that way). It might be a fun concept to make it wondrously brutal, adding the Choir of Menoth, a Vassal of Menoth, a Vassal Mechanik too. The price of support approaches the price of your warjack itself! If you have other jacks that might receive and appreciate the support when your primary jack is destroyed it might work. If not, you have to consider the cost of the support as integrated in the price of the receiving unit or 'jack itself. If your army efficiency increase after adding support, you found the right balance. Adding support after this point might eat away at your fighting core, thus, decreasing your efficiency. This phenomenon is called Support Bloat. You don't want support bloat!
The "Questions and Answers" approach to list-building
Prussian field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke is quoted "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." You make a battle plan, and initiate it. The consequences are presented to the enemy, who is forced to adjust his approach and deploy counter tactics. Think of the game as dynamic tactical application of your resources through an analogy of questions and answers. It elegantly simplifies the concept: You ask the question, the opponent needs to find an answer for it. His answer (if it is a good one) provides a question for you. If you can keep asking questions, you'll keep the initiative, thus forcing the opponent to react rather than act. The range of target types in Warmahordes is quite large. As your opponent places the Deathjack on the table, he asks you a question. "This is a slow, spell slinging monster that can destroy everything it can touch, so what are you going to do ?" Every faction has an answer for that question, but not every warlock and warcaster, and is as well very dependent on the battle group. Some answers are better than other answers. A light warjack cygnar Hunter with a few buffs might work as an answer to the Death Jack. The answer then, is countering it by out-ranging it with an armor piercing gun. You now have the initiative, and you can ask questions of your own. If you can double up and make the "answering" cygnar Hunter "ask a question" too, you've optimized your list a little.
The classic understanding of the tactical triangle is somewhat along these lines.
- Infantry melee with high damage outputs counter armor.
- Infantry gunlines make short work of infantry melee units
- Armor crush infantry gunlines.
Of course the plethora of synergies you'll find in warmachine plays into this. There are few easily available rock-paper-scissors combinations, and with inherent abilities and buffs the categories shift further. Model qualities such as better reach and an good (or buffed) Speed score adds flexibility, as do movement tricks such as Counter Charge, Vengeance, Rush and Mobility, which may change how dangerous a model really is. A model with bad attacks but an outstanding threat range can still threaten other models with bad defenses, such as certain support solos. So you want a decent spread of categories, or ways to switch your attacks from category to category. Thresher turns a single hard hitting attacker into an infantry mulching machine, and the model can support both anti infantry and anti armor roles in your army composition. Combined Attacks works the other way, turning a great many attacks into fewer and more efficient attacks. All potential attack modifications theoretically allow a greater field of flexibility that modify your attacks, such as Carnage, Calamity, Chiller.
So you never know what you might face. Everything we talked about so far has revolved around the situations where your opponent agrees with this basic theory. Your opponent does not know what he will face, so he is forced to create a list that will be able to face a great range of enemies, and following this logic, you will always face relatively balanced lists. This is however not the case, and it attracts a new predator. As you realize that the lists you face are balanced, you might be tempted to create unbalanced lists - or skewed lists. Where lists are often capable of managing a wide range of enemies, the skew list preys on these by exaggerating a single aspect of warfare and ignoring the rest. If a normal army always covers the rock, paper and scissors units, the skewed lists solely focus on one aspect and thereby skewing, say "rock" units. This would mean that while the enemy "paper" units would have a field day against this list, the "scissors" and "rock" units have little to do. There are many kinds of skews, but "worthy mentions" should include the armor skew - ridiculous quantities of hit points behind armor - or infantry spam, huge amounts of infantry that jam other lists by stuffing them with hordes. This is a to challenge many balanced lists, but if you happen to have just enough options against the particular type of skew, it flips that table very quickly, making that type of list very "hit or miss".