Mastering the Psychic Phase

The psychic phase in 7E can be a confusing mess even at the best of times, but it pays to understand how it works and how best to make use of it (or to stop the enemy from doing so.)

One of the really big overturns of 7th Edition was the wholesale alteration of how psychic powers functioned. While many of the powers themselves stayed the same, how warp charge is generated (and used) was fundamentally altered, as was the process for casting a power. Even today many players still struggle to come to terms with how things work, either because they are still reliant on paths of thought from previous editions or because they simply don’t grasp the repercussions of the new system. So let’s see what we can do to clear things up for folks.

(A point of order before we get started: I’m assuming that you have at least read and understood the rulebook’s section on the psychic phase and the mechanics thereof, as this article won’t be covering any of that. Instead, it will be focused on the strategies and consequences of those rules, rather than explaining the rules themselves. If you find yourself struggling with the core mechanics themselves, there are several good guides out there that you can Google to get a grasp on the basics.)


The Basics

There are a lot of subtle implications to the new psychic system, but we can get a couple major takeaways as our starting points. First of all, casting powers is generally harder than it was before and Perils of the Warp are more common than they were before. Second, casting large numbers of powers is not a reliable thing. Third, denying a key spell is now much easier. Fourth, psykers generally have more powers available to them.

The first point can be illustrated pretty handily with the following table:

[table id=289 /]

With the odds for a Leadership 10 psyker casting a power being about 92% previously, these are some noticeable downward shifts in numbers- in other words, you just can’t really count on getting a power unless you throw a LOT of dice at it or have access to some kind of reroll. That’s the bad part. However, on the upside you have a lot more flexibility in how and what you cast- if you really need that one spell to go off and you don’t care about the consequences, then throw the bucket at it and you’re all but guaranteed to get it.

The second point is an outfall of all of this- since warp charge is a resource pooled between all your psykers, rather than being specific to each one, and since we need to be putting at least three dice into a power to reliably get it off, it is no longer realistic to expect our psykers to use most or all of their powers each turn. Instead, we will be cherry-picking the most effective spells from our available list each phase, attempting to make use of the best of them and leave the others by the sidelines. Whereas last edition you might easily blow through six or ten spells in turn, in 7E this is all but impossible even for a psyker-heavy army; more likely you’ll see somewhere between two and five spells cast before your dice are expended.

The third point one is very important in terms of keeping a lot of deathstars in check- whereas before you could do nothing against an enemy Blessing, now you at least have a long shot on it, and if you have a lot of dice generated yourself (8+) your odds of shutting down that one key enemy spell can rise dramatically. This can be very useful because it forces the enemy general to dedicate more dice to putting into his One Big Spell (Invisibility, Gate of Infinity, etc) and consequently up the chances of Perils causing damage to the unit. Needing 6s to shut down a spell definitely makes it a long shot, but every once in a while you’ll get lucky and shut down a really important power, which can be backbreaking for armies that rely heavily on such things.

Lastly, and somewhat counterbalancing some of the disadvantages above, psykers simply have a lot more options these days. Psychic Focus is the big culprit here (although the general change to Mastery Levels and what they mean has also played a role), essentially giving many/most psykers an extra free power every game. This isn’t a bad thing; with power generation being so random, it’s nice to have a little bit of consistency in the form of a bonus power that helps ensure a minimum level of functionality for your units. And with warp charge, rather than available powers, being the big limiting factor in most cases having one more spell isn’t really changing the world for most psykers- rather, it’s just a nice bonus.

The psychic phase can be a lot to take in; with so many steps and so many choices (what to cast, what to target, how many dice to use, how to deny, etc, etc) it can get pretty overwhelming. However, it does get easier with practice, so as with many things I think the best way to get used to it is simply to practice using psykers- both singly and in groups- to get a better feeling for what they can do and how they can fail; a lot of the above consequences will make more sense once you’ve spent some time using the models in games.

That’s not to say there isn’t any advice to be had, however; while none of this should be taken as absolute and ironclad, there are a lot of rules-of-thumb that can help point you in the right direction. Don’t take any of these guidelines as unbreakable- they are, after all, guidelines– but following them will generally lead you to a better outcome and a better understanding of how things work, at which point you’ll have the tools necessary to know when you can safely ignore them.


Rolling For Powers

As already mentioned, Psychic Focus is a big gain for psykers of all stripes, but the lower Mastery Level a psyker is the more use they’ll typically get out of it; a ML1 psyker doubles their total number of powers thanks to Psychic Focus (since, naturally, they can only roll on one table no matter what they do), whereas a ML4 psyker has less impetus to be taking exclusively from a single chart- though that isn’t to say they won’t sometimes do so.

There are two conflicting interests when rolling on the various disciplines; on the one hand, there are often powers that can completely change how you play your game, opening up options that will utterly dominate the battlefield if you can use them. Powers like Invisibility can alter the way the enemy has to regard your units, whereas maledictions like Doom or Misfortune can make enemy models vulnerable to attacks that might otherwise patter harmlessly off them. However, the flip side of this is that getting such powers is extremely unreliable- you don’t want to roll three times on a chart and get nothing you wanted, condemning your psyker to doing essentially nothing for the duration of the battle.

What this means is that you need to carefully consider what it is each psychic discipline has to offer you. The disciplines are inevitably unequal in this respect; powerful charts like Telepathy, Divination, and Maelific Daemonology will inevitably get more play than their companions, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the others entirely; they can often have some unique gems to offer certain lists. However, there is one factor that is easily the most important one in determining whether a chart is worth rolling on and whether you should risk it: the Primaris power.

The Primaris power in a discipline is the only thing you are guaranteed to be able to get, either by swapping out for it or by gaining Psychic Focus. As such, it is the very first thing you should think about when rolling for powers; if a discipline’s Primaris power does nothing for you, then you should maybe look to another discipline unless there is an absolutely gamebreaking power or three in the rest of the table.

Psykers of ML2 will generally want to roll all their powers on a single table unless they have access to two tables with very strong Primaris abilities that will be useful during the game; psykers of ML3 or higher will often do better to start rolling on one table and keep at it until they get a “bad” power, swap it for the Primaris, and then move over to another table (which, depending on how your rolls go, may result on you rolling on two or even three tables.) Of course, as mentioned, sometimes a table may have one or more powers that are strong enough that it can be worth soaking an otherwise-lackluster power in order to try to get the good one, but this can be risky- you should only be doing this is said power is truly game-changing.


Casting Tips and Tricks

Casting powers is where the really tricky decision-making comes into things. When selecting powers, you can pretty easily just default into rolling on one or two good tables and do okay by that, but if you’re consistently misallocating dice during your psychic phases, your psykers will drastically underperform for you. Understanding the chances of casting spells (as shown in the table earlier) is absolutely critical to things, as is knowing which spells are really important for your army and which are merely side benefits. The art of good use of psykers is essentially one of resource allocation, of distributing your limited pool of warp charge out to maximize the powers you can manifest while also maximizing your chances of getting off important powers. Is adding 15% to your likelihood of getting Prescience worth dropping your chance of succeeding Shrouding by 20%? Is tossing out a one-die Terrify better than putting it into Perfect Timing to ensure that goes off? Decisions like this are what drive the psychic phase.

The general rule of thumb, however, is that you won’t use less than two dice on any power you want to have a reasonable chance of success. Since psykers only add one warp charge per mastery level (and the power known that comes with it), this means you will be “dumping” some of your powers in favor of others. The random d6 roll of basic warp charge generated each turn can help mitigate this, but it is not only unreliable but also a very finite resource- it may allow a solo psyker to get off most or all of their spells, but if you’re running two, or three, or more than that you are going to find yourself out of dice rather quickly. A “good” power that you want to have active most of the time  is probably worth four dice, and a power that is going to be critical to your army should have at least five dice and probably closer to six or seven put into it. These totals are for WC1 spells; WC2 and WC3 spells will need even more than that.

However, there is another way to get good psychic consistency without needing to dump inordinate numbers of dice into things (and risk the Perils that come with them.) As with many other aspects of the game, a reroll on your psychic tests can be absolutely clutch- not many psykers have access to them (mainly just CSM, Eldar, and Tigurius) but those that do should be considered a tier above every other psyker in the game, since they will succeed more often on spells while dedicating fewer dice to them.

One other strategy we should mention here, that of attempting to bait the enemy into wasting their Deny the Witch dice. Denying is always a danger for the active psyker, doubly if you are having to target an enemy unit with your spell; as such, it benefits you to try and trick your opponent into using their own limited pool of dice to shut down a spell that is non-critical to your plans. Discussing the theory of tricks and mind games could be an article all its own, but here we will say only that the ideal spell is one that has a large perception of threat (often by virtue of being very swingy, i.e. sometimes doing nothing but occasionally having a huge effect.)

The flip side of baiting is to bluff the enemy into not Denying your key spell by threat of another, later spell- essentially, by implying that this spell is the bait. The spell you are threatening will want pretty much all of the same qualities as a good bait spell, but the advantage is that its mere presence on your psychic power list is enough in this case- ideally, the enemy will avoid “wasting” their dice on your clutch spell and instead hold out for something else later on. Note that this strategy will only function against opponents who are experienced enough to understand the above; in other words, it’s not going to have much effect on amateurs.


Denying Tips and Tricks

Denying, though it uses a somewhat similar mechanic, should be regarded fundamentally differently than casting psychic powers. This is mainly because Deny dice will typically only succeed on 6s; though the enemy certainly has the option to use targeted spells on your units, doing so is often a very poor choice so long as you have any meaningful number of dice in your psychic pool because their value is doubled, tripled, or more in such a situation. Shutting down a two-success spell when you need 6s is a rough proposition; however, when you need 5s or 4s or even 3s, the odds quickly skyrocket, and thus the caster will need to dedicate more dice to the initial casting of the power (which also increases its risk and makes casting other powers harder.)

Denying, though it can be very difficult, has one major advantage over casting: you already know exactly what you need to get before the roll. If the enemy throws three dice and gets three successes, you probably will let that power slip by- better to save your dice for something else later. On the other hand, if they throw five and only get one, that power could be a very tempting target for a Denial attempt- and there’s nothing the enemy can (usually) do to change things once the dice have been rolled, so you have the advantage in knowledge when it comes to selectively applying your Denial dice.

As with casting powers, using Denial dice is a matter of weighting your chances of different options against each other as the phase progresses. Remember, you’re always free to inquire how many warp charge dice the enemy has remaining and what other powers they have to cast- don’t be afraid to do so. Be wary of cheap, unreliable, powerful spells like Psychic Shriek when judging what to Deny- the odds of a one-die Shriek doing damage are relatively low, but if it does manage to work, it can be absolutely devastating. However, be wary of the casting tricks from above- many opponents will lead with a couple of smaller spells designed to try and bait out an enemy’s Deny attempt to allow them to cast something critical with no opposition. There is no single “best” way to respond to such attempts; instead, use the relative threat and chance of success be your guide. If the enemy has cast a Shriek on you and is still holding eight dice back for his Invisibility while you only have four dice to use, you may well want to try and turn off the Shriek, since you know your odds of stopping Invis are pretty low regardless.

Generally-speaking, you will only be able to Deny a single power per turn unless you have an exceptionally-high dice pool (12+.) Committing your dice to a single attempt to stop something gives you better control over things, allowing you to select which one power you are most worried about. Throwing a small portion (1-3 dice) of your pool each at multiple spells is rarely a good plan unless the enemy is also trying to force through lots of small witchfire spells.


Though not every army has access to use of it (or, more properly, not every faction does) understanding the psychic phase is still important nonetheless. It can provide extremely powerful and flexible tools for a good general to take advantage of, even if they are sometimes a bit unreliable or dangerous. Many of the top tournament armies these days make extensive use of the psychic phase, and anyone who is looking to up their game should do likewise- even if it’s only to slap some rerolls on a unit or make something Fearless.


About abusepuppy

AbusePuppy is the one who has been ruining 40K for everyone this whole time. He is also searching for the six-fingered man and is one of the three people who know the secret recipe for coke (not the soda, the illegal drug.)

20 Responses to “Mastering the Psychic Phase”

  1. Reecius
    Reecius January 26, 2016 8:56 am

    Great article, AP, thanks for writing it. The Psychic Phase is a bit of a mess this edition, but, it’s a fun mini game. My only real gripe is not having a cap on the phase for balance and expediency.

    • Justin January 26, 2016 10:34 am

      Quick question for you Reecius, Since I really don’t do tournaments has the psychic phase really increased the game time by any sizeable amount of time? If so have you had to compensate for it with your tournaments?

      • Reecius
        Reecius January 26, 2016 11:47 am

        For psychic heavy armies, yes, big time. When someone is chucking around 30+ psychic dice, deciding what powers to use, summoning in new units, etc. it can really eat up time.

        • abusepuppy January 26, 2016 2:22 pm

          It can, although to be honest that is almost always time _not_ being spent other places. I think, typically speaking, the psychic phase has not really been a major contributor to the lengthening of the game- though there certainly are armies for which that isn’t true.

          • Reecius
            Reecius January 26, 2016 2:39 pm

            Yeah, typically it isn’t a huge time sink.

    • Fagerlund January 26, 2016 1:11 pm

      One would have thought that GW would have learned something from unlimited magic dice in Warhammer Fantasy 6:th edition and the cap introduced in later editions… but apparently not! 😛

      • abusepuppy January 26, 2016 2:24 pm

        Well, I think there’s a fundamental difference between psychic powers in 40K and spells in Fantasy- even the most ridiculous of 40K powers don’t hold a candle to Purple Sun, Dwellers, and other game-changers like that. Also, it’s worth pointing out that capping magic dice did nothing to save WFB.

        • Jural January 26, 2016 6:58 pm

          As I recall, wasn’t it much easier to cast and deny magic in WFB as well? a 4+ harvest, 6+ deny really starts to eat away at dice pools (As you so elegantly show above.)

          • abusepuppy January 27, 2016 1:10 pm

            WFB used a very different system for casting magic, though it looks superficially similar to the 7E 40K one. Spells had static values that you needed to meet-or-beat using the rolled pool of dice- so you were still allocating dice from each spell, but you would be casting different spells at different “levels” and the results of the dice (as well as the ability of the wizard) made a huge difference in how things played out.

            There were a lot of reasons that magic essentially broke 8E Fantasy that all played together.

          • Jural January 28, 2016 1:32 pm

            Yep! I actually think the current psychic phase in 40K is better than most incarnations of the WFB magic system. It really surprises me that this is so.

          • abusepuppy January 28, 2016 2:22 pm

            I like the fundamental idea of the WFB system (roll dice, get a total) because it gives more flexibility with the numbers you need to roll and how the dice play out; the fact that many spells have different “levels” you can cast them at was also very cool.

            However, most of the rest of it was a mess. Winds of Magic was far too random, channeling was all but worthless, and the spells themselves as well as the Miscast chart often turned the game into a farce.

  2. Andrew
    Andrew January 26, 2016 1:06 pm

    I wrote an article a while back about something very similar. It ended up being a mathematical optimization of the psychic phase. If your whole goal is to simply cast as many powers as possible, then how many dice should you allocate to each level 1, 2, and 3 power? I also talk about optimizing your dispel dice and how things change when you get buffs such as re-rolling failed tests, and harnessing the warp on a 3+

    You can check out the article here.

    • abusepuppy January 26, 2016 2:30 pm

      Definitely some interesting thoughts there. Care to expound on why you think eight dice is the breaking point for trying to cancel a power, and hence sixteen for two, etc? I’m not entirely sure I understood the logic and/or math behind that one.

      • Andrew
        Andrew January 26, 2016 4:03 pm

        Avoiding too much math, the chances of denying two successes with 8 dice is 39.53%, and the chances of denying two successes with 16 dice is 77.28%

        The chance to deny both powers + the chance to deny one power=

        So throwing all 16 dice at one power has you denying an expected 0.7728 powers where throwing 8 at each power gives you an expected average of 0.7906

        Using this strategy, there is a greater chance (36.57% vs 22.72%) that nothing will get denied, but the overall chance to deny something does increase.

        • abusepuppy January 26, 2016 6:37 pm

          Sure, I get that part, but why did you decide on eight dice for the break point, as opposed to seven or nine or any other number? Not to come across as rude, but it seems like a rather arbitrary value.

          • Andrew
            Andrew January 26, 2016 7:29 pm

            With 15 dice:

            Throwing all dice against one power is successful 74.04% of the time.

            Trying to dispel two powers (one with 8 dice and one with 7) will have an expected average of 0.7255, so going against one power is a better strategy.

            Splitting dice, below 16 dice, will result in an expected average lower than the chance to deny against one power. With 16 or more dice splitting, as evenly as possible, is always going to be the best strategy.

  3. Nightman January 26, 2016 3:17 pm

    Played vs a few opponents that used some home made laminated cards with all spells listed, one for each psyker. With a magic marker they quickly noted what spells they got and such, really efficient!

    • Andrew
      Andrew January 26, 2016 4:14 pm

      Clear plastic trading card covers also work really well. I did this for daemonic gifts when I regularly played daemons.

      • abusepuppy January 26, 2016 6:39 pm

        This is exactly what I do. I’ve got a bunch of trash commons from MtG and clear sleeves and I just mark in whatever powers I roll up each time with a wet erase marker. It’s great because it makes it easy to remember what powers I have for me, even if I lose some during the battle, and since I keep the cards close to the psyker it makes it clear to my opponents who has what as well.

        • Vercingatorix January 27, 2016 12:13 pm

          I have a notebook where I premake the psykic powers available. I like the notebook because it helps me remember the game and I can right down anything the enemy has as well or general notes on the list for battle reports.