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The core components of the Drone Net are pretty simple- you have to take four squads of Drones, of any size and composition. However, if you want to take more than the minimum you’re free to do so- unlike most formations the Drone Net is actually infinitely expansible, as it can add any number of squads which can be of anything from minimum to maximum size. As with any Drone unit, you are paying a slight premium compared to buying them as part of a unit of battlesuits and they will not be scoring units unless an Independent Character joins up with them.
The squads start as Gun Drones, but you can switch any or all of the members over to Marker or Shield Drones for no additional cost. All-Marker squads will typically be the configuration (even though they can’t take much advantage of some of the special rules) but having some Gun Drones isn’t an awful option. Shield Drones, despite their fluff, serve virtually no purpose in the units and should be avoided at all costs.
Wargear and Special Rules
As with most formations, this is where the real meat is and the Drone Net is no different. The big advantage is in the Collective Targeting Data rule- so long as at least two units from the formation are on the table, all Drones in your army (whether part of the formation or part of another unit) gain +1 to their Ballistic Skill. This is pretty significant for Gun Drones, since it brings them up to a 75% hit rate thanks to twin-linked, but the Marker Drones are the real winner, since that makes them vastly more effective as Markerlight platforms.
Additionally, all of the Drones in the formation gain a whole slew of special rules- Interceptor is maybe the most relevant of them, but Jink, Split Fire, Outflank, and Precision Shots are all also included in the party. Unlike the +1BS these only apply to the formation itself, but as they are pretty excellent rules taken as a whole it’s hard to be too unhappy about that.
With the ITC changes, the Drone Net is amongst the strongest formations Tau have available because it brings something to the arsenal that no other unit can. Tau are a very nearly pure shooting army in most cases, and while against some other factions this sort of thing can be mitigated by using reserve strategies, Tau have widespread access to Interceptor to prevent this from happening. However, this often runs into a problem- their Markerlights are useless during Interceptor attacks, which gives up one of the strongest features of the Tau army and makes them much less able to inflict damage. Enter the Drone Net.
The Drone Net finally gives the army a solution to this dilemma, as it can field large numbers of Markerlights with Interceptor, allowing the army’s firepower to be applied at full effectiveness even during the enemy turn. This allows a Tau army to virtually guarantee shutting down anything arriving within 36″ of them, most especially threats like Meltagun-toting Drop Pod units that can be a threat to vehicles and buildings as well as the ever-obnoxious Grav weapons. This is especially critical for units like Riptides that have high value/high risk shots the army relies on- players might risk a BS3 blast weapon with Gets Hot, but few of them are willing to try and land in the face of a BS6 weapon that also ignores cover saves.
However, Interceptor is far from the only relevant special ability on the Drone Net; also highly useful is the ability to Jink, something that makes them a bit of an oddity. Now, it might not seem so at first- after all, don’t skimmers, bikes, FMCs, and plenty of other things already have the ability to Jink? They do, of course, but these units all share one unique quality- they cannot go to ground like Drones can. Yes, Drone squadrons are the only unit in the game that can both Jink and Go to Ground, which means they can gain a 3+ cover save anywhere on the field if you’re willing to forgo movement and overwatch in addition to your shooting. As they will often be pre-emptively using their Markerlights during the enemy movement phase, this hardly feels like a disadvantage at all and it makes the Network as a whole far more durable than one might expect it to be.
Drones also have another feature that improve their survivability compared to most other sources of Markerlights, namely their ability to make Thrust moves during the assault phase to stay out of the enemy’s view. Although there are other ways to bring Markerlights that can do this (such as a Commander with Drone Controller or a Stealth Team Leader), the Drone Network is unusual because of its small unit size and distributed presence, allowing it to make itself less of a target. Intelligent opponents will usually eliminate a list’s Markerlight sources first, since they are such a powerful force multiplier, so any strategy that the Tau can use to preserve their effectiveness longer is a huge boon to the army and so-called “jump-shoot-jump” tactics go a long ways towards this; generally speaking, if the enemy can’t see you they can’t shoot or assault you. It’s not a perfect protection, but especially working in concert with multiple other strategies it can do a pretty good job of protecting them.
The +1 Ballistic Skill bonus is critical to maintaining the effectiveness of a Drone Network, and that requires keeping two squads from it alive. Even with all of the above tricks this can sometimes be difficult- and that’s where the final component comes in. Canny generals will sometimes leave part or all of a Drone Network in reserve as insurance against the enemy getting lucky and wiping other parts of it out; this isn’t universally the right choice, but the option to Outflank with them means that these “backup” squads can often find a good hiding place apart from the rest of your army, which can sometimes be a layer of protection all its own when the whole of the enemy force is barreling down on you.
The Drone Network is a powerful addition to the Tau armory and is likely to feature in quite a few of their more successful lists in the future, I think. While it does essentially nothing on its own most of the time, the ability to put Markerlight hits on multiple units in multiple phases is an incredibly effective tool that functions like no other around.
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