To Tier or not to Tier, that is the Question.

Do tiers really exist in 40K, or are they player created?

It is a commonly held truism in this game that there are tiers in 40K. The tier system is meant to stratify armies based on what is perceived to be more or less powerful.

The question I am posing here is: do tiers really exist or do we have a case of life imitating the hype?

I am sure most of you reading this are familiar with the idea of a self fulfilling prophecy. The notion that if enough people believe something to be true, that it becomes so. Preconceived notions lead to expectations that are fulfilled, sometimes subconsciously by the participants.

Is that what we have in 40K? The reason I propose this idea is that as a regular tournament player, I very commonly see people coming with “net lists.” A net list, for those unfamiliar with the term, is when a player takes a list that is commonly believed to be optimized and copies it.

Often, when another player sees this army across the table from them, they will jump to several conclusions about what is to come: that the army they are facing is very powerful, and that the player commanding it is out to win, probably has a high level of skill as well. This will often intimidate the other player which may affect their play.

In short, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my experience, “net-lists” are good, but not in any way unbeatable. Smart, creative play can often overcome these lists. Building lists to counter the current meta can often, easily overcome these lists. However, when the majority of people are bringing the armies and lists that are “the best” we see predictable results as the environment people are playing in is the exact environment that the net lists are designed to flourish in.

Tournament results often turn conventional results on their head. We often time see “weak” lists or armies coming out ahead of where they should, according to commonly held internet wisdom. Good players win with any armies. Keith, a member of Team Zero Comp, had winning records at some of the most competitive events in the country with old Crons, commonly believed to be the worst armies in the game. Janthkin often wins events with Nids, what is believed to be the weakest book in the game now, by many.

So what do you all think? Are tiers largely a figment of our collective imaginations? Or are there certain limitations that just can’t be overcome by smart play?


About Reecius

The fearless leader of the intrepid group of gamers gone retailers at Frontline Gaming!

22 Responses to “To Tier or not to Tier, that is the Question.”

  1. Son Of Dorn January 2, 2012 9:57 pm #

    Scenarios, luck, and matchups can shift the balance. It’s key to remember that you’re not looking for the most powerful list, you’re looking for the luckiest one you can bring.
    That being said, you can’t claim Tau are in a level tier with other armies…

    • Reecius January 3, 2012 1:50 pm #

      We had a player go to round 4 undefeated at the Bay Area Open last year, and only lost because he drew Blackmoor’s 5 KP Grey Knights in a KP mission…and he BARELY lost.

      I think a 9 Braodside Tau list can do work.

      However, I agree with you that most Tau players will be easy pickings for most “Top Tier” armies.

      • Son Of Dorn January 3, 2012 4:39 pm #

        It can work, yes. But I think where tiers exist isn’t in the power of an army, but in the flexibility of it’s units and where they exist in the force org.
        40k is first and foremost to it’s creators, a product, THEN a game. To deny that they don’t instigate creep between the books is silly. Some are better and some worse, but I think we’ll see the playing field level in new and exciting ways for 6th ed. With some rules merging and other’s changing, certain ‘OP’ rules and wargear (like mindshackle scarabs, various new psychic abilities, etc.) won’t be nearly as large of a threat.

        • Reecius January 3, 2012 9:04 pm #

          We’ll see. I agree that the game is a product first though, which is one of the reasons why this game has survived as long as it has. I welcome the change though, as it keeps the game fresh.

          As for what 6h holds? Who knows. I hope they don’t Fantasy us though, that game took a big hit with 8th ed.

          I think they will play it conservatively and make small changes.

          • TheDave January 4, 2012 5:40 am

            Actually I keep hearing like ALL over the place that Fantasy 8th Edition is the most balanced and fun edition yet. I’m finding that to be true as in our gaming club it has regenerated itself and now we’ve got a couple of people playing 8th ed almost every week.

            Anyways, on to the matter at hand.

            I completely disagree that Tau are not on the same level as other armies. They were just in the top 4 at Feast of Blades. This brings me back to the Ork situation. I believe they get a bad name from bad players. If you look at Stelek’s accomplishments with the army (YTTH) or their recent butt-kickery at Feast of Blades, you can see that a good general with the right list can go far with any army. We had a guy at our LGS bring a Tau list designed to fight the meta (vehicles) and in the first two turns of every game he played, he had wrecked, exploded, immobilized, or blown the weapons off of just about every vehicle I had and I brought a mech Blood Angels list with 7 vehicles in it.

            Sure, the codex is under-powered and needs severe updating, and yes it tends to not do well in tournaments, but I believe this lends directly to Reece’s theory that it’s all in our heads. I believe it is the reason you never see Tyranids winning major tournaments or having a strong number of people playing the army. Because a couple of loud people on the internet say they’re not competitive and back it up with a few games they’ve lost, you’ve got the blind leading the blind. “People” are sheep.

            I don’t believe that any army just can’t win against any other army, save Chaos Daemons vs Grey Knights, and even that used to have a fix because Grey Knights would allow Chaos Daemon infantry to come back on the board after getting wiped out, along with other benefits (now there are none and GK have TONS of options that just shut Daemons down specifically).

            There was an article (or maybe a comment) about this very subject on 3++ recently:

            Think of a major tournament “net list” that has supposedly won event after event after event. What do we have?

            “Razor-Wolves” (Razorback spam Space Wolves)
            “DoA” (Descent of Angels Blood Angels)
            “Mech IG” (Like the title says, but as close to “Leafblower” as you can get without the Daemonhunters)
            “Kan Wall” (Killa Kan and Deff Dread spam Orks)
            “Dual Lash Oblit Spam with Plagues” (Lash Whip Princes, Obliterator spam, Plague Marines)
            Shooty Nids (9x Hive Guard, 2x Tyrannofexes with Rupture Cannons, Devourer Gaunts)
            “Death Wing” (Terminator spam Dark Angels)
            “Draigo Wing” (Paladin/Terminator spam Grey Knights)
            “Logan Wing” (Terminator spam Space Wolves)
            “Destroyer Wing” (Destroyer spam Necrons)
            “Fatecrusher” (Fateweaver with Bloodcrusher spam)
            “Purifier Spam” (Purifier spam + Psyflemen spam Grey Knights)

            I’m sure I’m forgetting some but the point is, as much as people “fear” these supposed “top-tier” lists, it was pointed out that NONE of these so-called tournament-winning lists have actually won a GT or RTT (which equates to hundreds of tournaments). If they have it was quickly shut down thereafter as the community recognized how gimmicky a list was (Dual Lash, etc). Sure, people buy these armies, expect great results because of commonly accepted internet wisdom, and yet the lists you hear coming out on top at major events are so completely different and unique, you wonder how it was possible.

            Reece is 100% correct. Fear is a powerful tool, but I’ll add that it is amplified by ignorance. It can control your every action on the tabletop because you know that unit A will kill unit B and that your opponent’s list is “better” than yours or is “capable” of more. It’s not true. Lascannons miss. Blasts scatter. Dice roll equally as low as they do high (they’re supposed to). Terrain can destroy an army. The mission can destroy an army. Deployment can destroy an army. Play 20 games against the list you fear the most and by the end of it you’ll know it inside and out, and you’ll probably have a great record against it (unless your opponent is a really smart player as well).

            Now, I certainly can’t remember all of the lists that have won every major tournament ever, but I’ll list a few that come to mind as having won recently:

            “Battlewagon Orks” (2-3 Battlewagons, 2-3 Trukks, Nobz, Burnas, Deffcoptas, Bikes, Grots)

            “Mech Blood Angels” (3-4 Razorbacks, Land Raider with Termies and Termie Sang Priest, Predators)

            Nick Rose’s Templars (4 Typhoon speeders, 7 TH/SS Termies with Tank Hunters, 5 shooty Termies with 2 Cyclone Missile Launchers and Tank Hunters, normal Land Raider, Land Raider Crusader, 3×5 Initiate units, Marshal, Emp Champ)

            What’s the point of all this? Pick a list or army you like, get some practice with it, play it well at a tournament, and you’ll do fine. If all those amazing generals picked Tau as their favorite army and dominated tournaments with them, the entire meta would be flooded with Tau because the mindless drones that believe all the hype would codex-jump to Tau, and continue to lose.

            On the flip side, yes I agree there are codexes that are just plain “better” than others due to codex creep. It happens and it’s true. However, a good player can win with any army no matter what it’s put against.

            To quote something that someone said on one of these articles,

            “Great generals win with great lists. Great armies are played by everyone.”

          • TheDave January 4, 2012 7:31 am

            Big Red’s Tau beating Nick Rose’s Feast of Blades-winning Black Templars list here:

  2. Hulksmash January 2, 2012 10:49 pm #

    Tiers don’t exist. 40k is the most balanced it’s ever been. Most people just don’t want to examine what they are doing wrong when they lose to the “uber-powerful” books.

    The short version of my two cents 🙂

    • Reecius January 3, 2012 1:51 pm #

      I tend to agree with you! However, I do feel that some armies have a lot more power than others. Or, I should say, a lot more powerful options.

      Skill still trumps list though, IMO.

    • TheDave January 4, 2012 5:44 am #

      Completely and 100% agreed.

      • Reecius January 4, 2012 3:04 pm #

        You make some really good points, TheDave. So many times I see “bad” armies winning events and “good” armies coming in droves but not winning.

        It really is the player, not the list that matters.

        That is interesting about 8th ed Fantasy, I have heard both, but mostly that people hate it now. I have not played 8th ed yet for a number of reasons, but a lot of folks around our neck of the woods have negative things to say. I am open minded though, and am willing to give it a shot.

        As for Daemons, they can and do beat Grey Knights (although it is very tough to do). Goatboy’s Grey Knights were beaten by Daemons at the Feast of Blades! That goes to show you that it isn’t an auto-loss situation.

        Also, we had a Tau player kicking butt at the BAO last year.

        It really does come down to skill and luck.

  3. Brian January 3, 2012 1:30 am #

    Generalship is the most important quality all other things being equal. If two players are equal the edge goes to the player with the better list in the match up. That will frequently be the more powerful of the two lists. An edge can still be slight though, want to bet on who will win a 55-45 match up? Then you must have money to burn.

    Net listing is a strong strategy for a weak or average player. The more angles a general sees the more mileage they can get from older books. Developing a list that rocks the meta game is one of the biggest edges you can get. I don’t think great generals play net lists so they will never really have any day in the sun they may deserve.

    Ha new article for my blog.

    • Reecius January 3, 2012 1:52 pm #

      Haha, glad you got some material out of this! I agree and just wrote an article for BoLS about this exact topic which will be published tomorrow, actually. I think the best players play their own lists, and as you said, newer players or less skilled players will gravitate to what they believe works.

  4. Rathstar January 3, 2012 5:36 am #


    I agree that player skill is a very important factor, and that the diference in power of the various perceived tiers is normally over exaggerated, but I think their is a few tiers in the current meta.

    Tournament events are also swayed by match-up luck, and the fact that not everybody comes to win the event with a completely optimised list. Factors such as not having the money to buy the perceived optimised list, wanting to use your favourite or best painted model, not allowed to use unpainted models etc. will mean that the majority if armies at events will not be net lists.

    5th edition is favoured towards armies with good mech and good anti-mech (mainly meltagun and AP1 access). Therefore for me the top tier at the moment (only my opinion) are IG & GK very closely followed by BA, SW & DE.

    However the only armies I would say would automatically struggle a lot against an optimised top tier army would be Tau & Daemons plus maybe Sisters, and all armies would have a chance against an unoptimised or fluffy top tier army.

    Also I would say lower tier armies do well regularly because too many people cater for the top armies and can’t deal with the other armies, ie. by taking an unbalanced list because so many of of the top tier net lists are MSU MEQ, and then can’t deal with foot IG, Tyranids, Daemons etc.


    • Reecius January 3, 2012 1:56 pm #

      All excellent points. The average tournament attendee comes to have fun and brings what they have painted, optimized or not.

      Those who are coming to win with their best lists, will often rise or fall based on luck in the dice and in match-ups. The game is largely about luck, whether people want to believe that or not. All things equal, the dice become the largest determining factor in who wins or loses.

      As you said, “weak” armies though, in good hands, can turn the careful plans of meta-gamed lists on their heads. The Feast of Blades was Daemons vs. BT in the finals! I love seeing that kind of data as it indicates that the game is not as stratified as people like to think it is.

      • TheDave January 4, 2012 5:56 am #

        It was about to be Tau vs Daemons at the finals, but Nick beat the Tau with his Templars and made it to table 1, and then beat the Daemons. Pretty epic top 3 IMO. 😛

        • Reecius January 5, 2012 6:24 pm #

          That is epic! I love seeing that kind of thing happen. The internet should have exploded in disbelief! haha

  5. J Mac January 3, 2012 7:11 am #

    Unfortunately, tiers exist. The GK codex is living proof. The tiers naturally separate with new rule releases, whether it be a new edition of 40k or a new codex. Writers from GW try their damnedest to balance the game, however it is the play testers that fail them when they don’t recognized combinations of units/wargear that become too good for their price, or overpowered. With these last couple codex releases, I have seen a good balance in the game that I haven’t seen in a while. That balance has come from an army being extremely good at one thing while still having an achilles heel. (Ex. Necron excel at being resilient but force them into combat and their resilience is gone. Dark Eldar can spam high strength shots or be great at combat while being fast, but they are extremely fragile.) So I’ll reiterate, tiers naturally form from new releases of rules. Other factors play into win or loss with your army of choice.

    The great thing about this game we play (besides the people, the modeling, and the painting) is it isn’t roshambo. The game involves a great deal of luck as well as a lot of strategy. Sometimes it feels like a roshambo game as we have all felt that pit in your stomach when you arrive to your table only to see your armies kryptonite. (Ex. While playing DoA, going up against a DE Venomspam is most certainly an uphill battle.) Just because there are a few armies out there that trump other armies does not make it roshambo. Saying there is such a thing is just like saying that this effect exists in every form of competition. Earlier this year, in the NFL the KC Chiefs did the improbable and beat an undefeated team in week 14. Going into that match up, anyone who knows football would have wagered on GB, the undefeated. My point is that it takes so much more than a great army to win the game.

    Net-lists are popular for obvious reasons. It takes so much more than to know how to access the internet to win at a tournament though. I would like to ramble off subject for a bit, and propose the opposite. What if as you arrive to a GT, the Bay Area Open for example, you see the tables full of unconventional armies. Let’s be honest, nowadays unconventional could simply mean no tanks, transports or armor value of any kind. Now suppose at that same tournament you can decked out with that popular net-list everyone is rambling about that is maxed with anti-vehicle firepower. That would not be a pleasant situation to be in when you world comes crashing down at the sight of that. As we all know, that would never happen. The meta plays a certain way based on a certain expectancies. Just like you expect vehicles in just about every army out there. So technically these net-list are just comprised of maximum efficiency for what they expect to see, then spammed on the net with their terrific results. It is no different from looking up tactics or hobby tips.

    Tiers exist, naturally though. They are ever changing just as our rules. The creators try their best to balance the game, but those out there to win at all cost will find their opportunities to do so. However, bringing one codex over another does not hand you a auto-win. Tactics and luck will be sufficient to get you to the top tables. As for net-lists, do what you will. I say, bring what works and for what you expect. However, I also encourage you to get out there and try what interest you otherwise this hobby can get boring, even if you always win!

    • Reecius January 3, 2012 2:01 pm #

      Good points, J Mac. I think you point out a lot of important information.

      I agree that some books do have more power in them, but I don’t think the tier system is as game changing as a lot of folks would have you believe.

      I think the game is a lot more fluid (as you said) and malleable than the internet makes it sound. We don’t have as rigid of classifications as many would like to think we do. People tend to like to think of things in terms of black and white, this is the best, this is the worst, etc. In reality, life tends to have many, many shades of grey.

  6. Kasil January 3, 2012 12:09 pm #

    Tiers certainly do exist, but need to be considered in one of two ways: A) Codex Tier; or B) Army List Tier, where the codex tier is derived from the army list tier. As an Example, Grey Knights will have more top tier army lists then any other codex (IMO), so I would place them alone as a tier 1 codex. I would place IG and SW at tier 1.5, because on an army list tier they can perform at tier 1, but without the versatility that GK possess. Then there is something like dark angels, where the codex is at a higher tier because it is only able to produce one solid army list.

    All that said, tiers exist in a vacuum, tiers are theoryhammer, tiers assume everything else (player skill, terrain, dice, etc.) is equal. A real game will take into account the “everything else” and then any army list can beat any other army list. Blackmoor was able to pilot the now famous Draigowing to second place at Nova. Draigowing was not considered a top tier list until he made it a “net list.” A good player under potentially favorable scenarios and whatever other circumstances made Draigowing a top tier list, not solely the list itself.

    So, I would say that tiers are the sum of your collective play experience and depending on how much you troll the forums blogs; they will influence your tier list. My tier list will be different from yours because of this. Using the internet as a way to survey a lot of players, we could derive more of a master tier list that is a little closer to a theoryhammer tier list because the “everything else” would be more equal over everybody’s experience. For example, the internet’s collective complaining about GK should show that they are at or near tier 1 to everybody and should make it safe to assume they are tier 1 in theory and reality.

    • Reecius January 3, 2012 2:05 pm #

      Excellent post! Very well thought out and eloquently stated. I very much like your concept of army and list tiers, and how you stratify them. I agree, that every book can pull power out of it, but some have more powerful options than others.

      I think players develop their skill in stages, with the masters breaking out of net think, and walking their own path as they see the game differently than less skilled players do.

      The book, as I always like to say, is the toolbox. Luck and skill determine what you can do with those tools.

      • Rathstar January 5, 2012 5:26 am #

        I think you also have to think about the level of skill needed to get good results.

        Although I would say IG is on the same playing field as GK, and only marginally ahead of SW, BA & DE, a complaint often given to IG is that is requires less skill to use (particularly the top leaf blower style lists). A comparison is trying to consistantly win games with DE when you don’t get 1st turn.

        Even when the toolboxes are fairly even, some take a lot more skill to get the best out of them than others.



        • Reecius January 5, 2012 6:26 pm #

          That is an excellent point. But still, good players can overcome hurdles. Some books make it easier than others do, that’s for sure.

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