Intro to Competitive List Building

I stole this off Google.

Hey guys, and welcome back to Every Point Counts. The purpose of this post is to give newer players interested in upping their 40k game some things to think about when building their lists. More experienced players may have already thought through all of these things, but they never hurt to think about anyway. I hope you guys find this helpful.

List Building

Warhammer 40k has the capacity to be a great competitive game where the choices you make drastically affect your odds of winning, even though dice make things at least a little bit random.

Those choices start long before you actually put models on the table. For some of us they begin before we even buy models. What models you choose to bring to games is one of the biggest choices any of us can make to win games overall. Sure, writing a good list won’t win you tournaments on its own, but bringing a bad list can make winning any games at all next to impossible in a competitive setting.

This article should apply to whatever army you play, and yes, it is possible to play competitively with any army you like. Meta choices are meta because they make things easier, but it’s possible to win games with any army as long as you write a list that does what you need it to do and play well. Obviously some armies make it harder to do that than others, but discussing the relative strength of different armies isn’t the purpose of this post. If it was I’d have to re-write it every few months and I’d rather spend my time teaching you guys new things.

Write TAC Lists

Take All Comers (or TAC) lists are a far better place to start your competitive play than trying to read the meta and build a list specifically to counter it. An All Comers list will let you play against whoever you get placed against with reasonable odds of winning as long as you play better than the other guy. Some lists are really one dimensional, and can be extremely difficult to deal with without bringing another one-dimensional list that counters them, but at that point you’re playing Rock Paper Scissors and not actually learning anything or improving. They’ll win you games, but you won’t have earned it. Don’t be that guy.

A list is a TAC list if you’d be comfortable bringing it to a game without knowing what army your opponent is playing. Every list has good and bad match-ups, so there’s no getting away from that, but if you write a list that has tons of Haywire Blasters to kill Knights but no way to kill infantry you’re going to have a bad time.

TAC lists don’t have to be able to do everything, but they have to be able to fulfil their purpose regardless of what your opponents bring. You can do this by having multiple different specialized units for handling different threats, or you can do it with versatile units that aren’t as good at any particular thing, but that can contribute meaningfully against anything. I’ll write more about this further down.

Write Lists with a Goal in Mind

Every list should be written with a win condition in mind. It can range between anything from ‘Table the enemy’ to ‘Take over the table and score all the points regardless of if I can kill anything.’ Choosing where you want to fall on that spectrum will be up to your playstyle and the specific missions you’re playing in. In my opinion, the best competitive formats make any point on the spectrum viable. In ITC missions you kind of need to kill at least 1 unit per turn, but the majority of your points can be scored just by having models in particular places at specific times without having to rely your opponent bringing things you can kill to score your points.

Knowing how your list scores points to win games will help you through every phase of the game. It will make your Secondary choices pre-game easier. It’ll determine how you deploy since you’re likely to deploy further forward if you need to spread out across the table, and it will help you determine target priority as you go through the game making sure you kill the things you need to kill to score your points or deny your opponent theirs.

Having multiple options for how to score your points is important as well. Having flyers to score Behind Enemy Lines is a solid strategy, but some armies can actually fill their entire deployment zone making Behind Enemy Lines impossible to score early in the game, and if flyers are your only way of getting across the table your enemy wil destroy those first so you’ll never be able to score those four points. If you aren’t sure you can score the secondary, don’t choose it. You can take recon instead, or choose a killing secondary that you think you’ll be able to accomplish.

Every unit in your army should contribute to your win condition. Look through your list and if something seems out of place, drop it. Bringing units as a tax for CP is fine, but bringing something super killy in a board control list is just going to make it an obvious target for something to kill, and a huge unit of chaff in a killy list is just giving your opponent something efficient to shoot at with all their low-strength fire unless it actually does a job for you.

Play To Your Strengths

Play to your army’s strengths, not to cover up their weaknesses.

I play Grey Knights, and yes, they’re terrible. They do have some decent assault, and their buffs are at least kind of okay, so I bring the most expensive unit possible that can benefit from all of the buffs available to my army so that I can get the most possible out of my strategems and psychic powers. That is the army’s strength, so I lean in as far as I can. Grey Knights have terrible high strength shooting, and some people bring Land Raiders or Dreadnoughts to try to fill in the gap. That’s – in my opinion – a mistake.

You don’t have to interact with every enemy in every aspect of the game. Grey Knight shooting is bad, and if you spend points trying to participate in the shooting phase you’re not going to get very much out of it, while those same points could be spent on more powerful options for psychic or close combat.

T’au is never going to be able to compete in the fight phase with actual close combat armies. Don’t pay for close combat T’au options, justtry to avoid the aspects of the game that you’re bad at and invest more in the parts that you’re good at.

Some armies can participate meaningfully in multiple phases of the game, and if you’re playing one of them that’s fine. Playing Drukhari with a Kabal gunline and Coven assault options is fun and effective. If you’re playing an army with one obvious strength though just play to that.

Ruin Your Opponent’s Output Efficiency

Ruining your opponent’s output efficiency is one of the things people don’t think about enough. You can do all the math in the world to make a list with a ton of output, but if everything your enemy has gets to do everything they want to do as well it’ll often just come down to who gets to go first, which isn’t fun at all.

It is absolutely worth sacrificing a little firepower to make it harder for your opponent to beat you with one turn of solid shooting.

There are a lot of ways to ruin your opponents output efficiency, from bringing units with negative modifiers to hit rolls against them, to just not giving your opponent any options for targets that you actually mind losing.

Most armies bring troops, and most troops have a lot of Strength 3 – 4 shooting.

Armies like Drukhari can put all their Toughness 3 units inside Toughness 5 transports, which reduces the efficiency of those S4 shots by 50% before even factoring in the negative modifiers to hit.

Chaos players are having great success currently by bringing great characters that they hide behind Plaguebearer screens since Plaguebearers are so tough with their -1 to hit, invuln, and FNP that nothing shooting them is really being used effectively but they don’t give any other targets for shooting unless their opponents bring snipers.

Some armies can’t make themselves as resilient, but they can make sure their threat saturation is high enough that whatever they do lose isn’t going to cripple them. Imperial Guard can bring so many bodies that they know they’re going to lose dudes, but that’s what those dudes are there for, and as long as they’re blocking assault units from tying up tanks they’re doing their job. Screens work the same way against deepstriking or redeploying armies. You don’t have to worry about each unit killing it’s own value. Some things only exist to keep other things alive and that’s okay. If the enemy can’t kill or tie up the units you’re relying on for your win condition their output efficiency is bad, which makes it more likely that you’ll win (as long as you’re not feeding them a ton of points in the process… if you give away kill more every turn with guardsmen without a plan for how to maintain a lead you’re in a bad place).

Basically, if you have a unit that you really like and rely on you have to make sure that you have a way to keep it safe. Screens, deepstrikes, resiliency, any of them can work, but if you let your opponent kill your important things you’re gonna have a bad time.

With Grey Knights I rely entirely on my paladins, and I keep them safe by usually deepstriking one unit, and hiding the other. In games where I can’t hide things go badly, but GK have no other way to protect their units (other than the Paladins protecting Characters that also kick ass just by being in the way to deny shooting). Sometimes you won’t be able to write your list in such a way to make some things borderline unkillable, and if you’re playing one of those armies your best bet is probably to make sure that you’re in a good position to play the table. Bring a lot of infantry or flying units that can move through terrain and hide in ruins so that you can outplay monsters and vehicles in the movement phase to keep yourself alive. It’s unfortunate that you have to rely on terrain when you have no control over table setups, but if you have no other options you gotta work with what you got.

Manipulating how your opponent’s output affects you is one of the best ways to control the flow of the game. If you don’t do it you’re gonna die, but if you do it well you can play in a bad match-up and still win just by stalling until you have an opening.

Knight players bring guard to farm CP and hide all of them so that the only targets for the enemy to shoot at are T8 with invuln saves. Craftworlds bring a lot of flyers that stack negative modifiers to hit and are impossible to charge without the Fly keyword and can block movement (not as reliably as before, but it still works). These armies are frustrating for a lot of people to play against, and the reason why is because they make a lot of your army not do what you brought it to do. It makes it hard to win when they have 2000 points of efficient shooting when you only have a 1000 points of guns built to handle the opponent’s list, and 1000 points of deadweight.

Bring Versatile Units to Maintain Your Output Efficiency

Having each unit in your army be able to meaningfully participate in each game is really important longterm for your competitive list. With the prevalence of invulnurable saves and things it’s often better to bring guns with higher volume of mid-strength shots than it is to bring high strength high AP firepower to deal with big threats, and with enough dice those same guns that you trust to knock down knights can knock down plaguebearer units or guardsmen from across the table in a pinch if you come into a match-up without any large vehicles or monsters.

Indirect fire (shooting that ignores the need for line of sight) is also a HUGE benefit in competitive play. A lot of people rely on hiding their Imperial Guard CP Batteries outside of Line of Sight and hoping you can’t kill their big guns, but a couple mortars will ensure you still get to pick up a kill every turn even if you don’t have the tools to knock down the knights (or anything else) right away.

Force Your Opponent to Answer Hard Questions

Sometimes you don’t give your opponent any choices, like a chaos player hiding behind Plaguebearers. This is still asking a hard question. How are you going to handle this? Realistically most armies just have to take the time to chew through the Plaguebearers without getting tied up and forced to stay in combat forever so the Plaguebearers can’t be shot, but the result of that is often just getting smited over and over again and taking a ton of mortal wounds from psykers hiding behind the screen.

Other armies have no options but to give their opponents meaningful targets, and if you’re one of them you need to make sure that you have more than one, preferably of similar or greater threat but lower value. Note, this isn’t suggesting a distraction. Good players can ignore Knights if they don’t need to kill them for the mission. Your lonely dakkafex isn’t going to trick anyone into making bad decisions and throwing the game. This is suggesting putting your opponent on two different doomsday clocks.

A Drukhari player might bring 6 Talos supported by several Kabal Ravagers and Razorwings. If his opponent doesn’t shoot the Talos they’ll eventually get into combat and if 6 make it into the enemy lines the game tends to end soon after, but if they invest all their output trying to put down the Talos they’re allowing the Kabal to just shoot at them with no repercussions. It’s a lose/lose situation, which makes it a win/win situation for the Drukhari player.

Necron players can do the same with Canoptek Wraiths. They’re dangerous enough that a unit of 6 can threaten just about anything, while being resilient enough with their 3++ saves to take significantly more firepower than your opponent will want to commit to kill them. If they don’t kill all of them though they can use reanimation protocols to get back up. Two units of 6 is even better. I’m a huge advocate for Canoptek Wraiths.

Imperium players can bring a Terryn Gallant with Landstrider to Full Tilt and charge turn 1 with the potential to fight twice. It’s so threatening that you often can’t just ignore it, but it’s also a big T8 monster with an invuln and 24 wounds that cost just North of 350 points that can easily kill double that on its own in 1 turn if not screened out properly. If you can force your opponent to spend all of turn 1 killing a 350 point model you’re in a great position to win the game.

If you rely too much on one unit that you can’t protect it’s an obvious choice for your opponent to target and gives them too good a return on the investment of firepower it takes to bring it down. If you know you’re going to have to lose something you need to ensure that whatever is left is enough to win the game. You need the tools to punish your opponent regardless of what choices they make, that way you’re always in a favourable position.

Redundancy is a Good Thing

If you rely heavily on something in your list you should likely bring more than one. Some units are too expensive to bring 2, but things like the 3++ Castellan Knight are being FAQ’d out, so you can’t often rely on one unit surviving long enough to throw the game in your favor. Maybe you get a bad matchup. Maybe dice go crazy and you lose something in turn 1 that should have survived until turn 3. You’ll find yourself in bad situations, and you’ll make mistakes. Everyone does. Build yourself a list that still performs after you make that mistake. If losing a unit will cripple you you’re setting yourself up for failure.

When I played Drukhari I started off with Venom Spam and loved that it was impossible for my enemy to take out one unit that threatened them. Every unit threatened them no matter what they played. Everything was so versatile and I had 3 or more of everything in my list so no single loss would drastically effect the rest of my game.

Later, I started bringing Talos with a few venoms and a Kabal gunline, but with less venoms they were too easy to kill all of, and with only 3 Talos if they were the real threat to a particular list they’d be killed early. Dropping the Venoms and bringing 6 Talos instead of 3 ended up being a better choice even though it gave me less options because it made it next to impossible to actually remove any of those options from me in a single turn.

Initially playing Grey Knights I played a double battalion with a unit of 10 Paladins and a GMNDK (and the rest of my characters, obviously). The GMNDK is one of the Grey Knights’ best units, and having more CP to keep the Paladins going all game long was great, but if I ever screwed up even a little bit I’d lose those 10 Paladins and if I wasn’t in range to get my characters into combat immediately my whole gameplan would fall apart. I ended up deciding to drop the GMNDK and 3 strike teams, losing a ton of board control and one of the best units in the Grey Knight codex just to bring a second 10-man paladin unit. The whole deal with Paladins is that they get buffed up to unreasonable proportions with strategems and psychic powers, and it’s not possible to get both of them buffed up at once, but it’s worth bringing the second anyway just for redundancy so that you still have a Paladin unit if you make a mistake or get a bad table and lose one unit. The list may have a little less potential, but it is MUCH more reliable.

Minimize Variance

Variance is usually not your friend. Try not to have your game ever rely on a single die roll. The more dice you throw the more likely you are to roll averages, which means you can actually rely on things to turn out the way you expect (at least sometimes). Guns with 1d6 shots are not your friend. Weapons with 1d6 damage are alright in small doses because they give you something to spend a CP reroll on in the shooting phase, but it’s significantly easier to work with flat damage 2 or 3 than 1d3 or 1d6, even if they average a little bit less damage because you know what you’re going to get.

Bring Statistically Superior Options

This post isn’t about explaining dice math, but just know that some units are better than others. I can’t possibly list all of the competitive options in every book, and if I did it’d be likely to change shortly anyway, but just about every army in the game has a community online that you can get feedback from on particular units.

If you write a list with all of these things in mind but fill it out with tactical marines you’ll still be better off than people who just spam units that they know are individually good, but don’t have a plan for. Your pure tactical marine Space Marine list won’t do you any good against other people who’ve thought their lists through though.

Find Synergies and Stack Them

Remember that when buffing up particular units in your army that each buff is worth more than the last.

If I’m fighting a knight with a 500 point unit of Paladins with Halberds and I fight again for 3 CP it’s a 100% increase in my initial output (assuming none of my paladins die because the knight stomped on Draigo instead or something). If I have Hammerhand on them they go from wounding on 5s to 4s, which is a 50% increase, but because they’re fighting twice it’s actually a 100% increase relative to my initial output. Adding an Ancient in nearby is a 35~% increase in attacks, but that 35% increase to the 300% output of my Paladins with Hammerhand fighting twice is actually adding 105% of the output of the unbuffed unit, so the 100 point ancient is adding 525 points of output to that one unit that turn, and that’s before even factoring in Draigo’s rerolls or anything else. If you bring a unit, know exactly what you have to do to get the absolute most possible out of it. It’s almost always worth bringing the units required to buff the units in your army, but maybe don’t go too crazy on things that you’re not relying on or that you expect to die quickly.

Bringing a Tzaangor Shaman and popping a couple Strategems is probably enough for your Tzaangor bomb to do its job and get in your opponent’s face to shred screens. You don’t need to bring a Mutalith Vortex beast to give them +1 strength to kill Knights if you already have other tools to handle those threats.


I hope this helps you guys. Congratulations if you actually made it all the way through. When I started writing this I didn’t intend for it to turn out as long as it did, but hey, what are you gonna do?

Feel free to comment with any questions. If I remember anything important that I missed I’ll update this guide to list-building later. If I didn’t include any examples for your army, sorry. I tend to stick to the things I know better and hope that it makes sense to people who don’t play those armies as well.

This is the first in a series I’m planning to write on competitive play. If there’s anything specific you want my take on let me know in comments and I’ll make sure to include it in future posts.

Until next time, this has been Freddie Lovebeard. Go win some games.

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