Why Do Deathstars Work?

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, ‘Deathstar’ style units are popular in 40k.  There have been countless versions, from the old Ork Nob squad to the psychic ‘Screamerstar’.  Regardless of the faction, the idea is the same.  Take a powerful unit and give it a crazy number of upgrades and psychic buffs in order to make it nearly unstoppable.  Let’s delve into the reasons why these units work.

A guest article by William Ford.

General Reasons:

If more of your points are concentrated into a single unit, then buffing that unit is going to buff a higher percent of your total army.  Casting prescience on a 10 man squad of guardsmen isn’t going to be incredibly beneficial, but casting it on a 40 man blob squad* is going to have much more of an impact.  This may be obvious, but casting a psychic blessing is never dependent on the size of a unit.  If you want to use a force multipliers on a larger percent of your army, then you can either take more of the multiplier or increase the size and cost of the unit being multiplied.  This isn’t to say you should buy useless upgrades for your units, but adding more models and taking important upgrades is key.

Game Specific Reasons:

Most force multipliers come in the form of items/relics or psychic powers, and the vast majority of these only target a single unit.  There are some instances, such as the ‘Cursed Earth’ power, that affect all units within a certain range, but there aren’t usually enough of these to begin stacking effects.  Because of these mechanics, the game does have a slight predisposition to stacking multiple buffs on the same unit.


Much of the internet chatter related to list building focuses on the competitive nature of the game and specifically centers around tournaments.  In a situation where time is limited, a smaller force is always going to have an advantage simply because there is less you have to do each turn.  When you make more decisions per turn (especially in a limited time frame) you are more likely to make a mistake.  In general it is much easier to maneuver a smaller force than a giant horde of bodies**.

Math Specific Reasons:

One of the reasons that buff abilities are called ‘force multipliers’ is because when you stack certain abilities the results are multiplicative rather than additive.  This means that putting multiple buffs on a single unit is often (always*** from a pure numbers standpoint) better than spreading them out to different units.  For instance, if you have two identical units and you have one ability that re-rolls hits and one ability that re-rolls wounds, then it is better to use both abilities on the same unit rather than giving one ability on each unit.


Deathstars play a significant role in many local metas.  They may have lost some popularity with the rise of Imperial Knights, but they still represent a significant challenge for many forces.  Through various game mechanics and mathematical properties Deathstars represent a straightforward (some might call it easy) way to become competitive.  Unless these game mechanics change, or we see a significant increase in the number of strength D weapons, there will always be some form of a Deathstar list that is popular in the meta.

*Blob squads are not Deathstars

**Citation needed

***Proof of claim  

So what is your take on the current state of the Deathstar?  Do you prefer to play with them or do they not have a place in Warhammer 40k?


About Jason

Raw Dogger, aka, Phat J Sleaze (formerly of the Booty Boyzzz) is a highly opinionated, questionably skilled 40k enthusiast. When not working at Frontline Gaming, he can be found down on Jabroni Avenue.

35 Responses to “Why Do Deathstars Work?”

  1. Andrew September 29, 2016 5:36 am #

    If anyone is interested in the full proof of why it is better to stack buffs instead of spreading them, it can be found here.


    • Reecius September 29, 2016 8:34 am #

      Yeah, it is fairly simple logic. Deathstars break the math of a points system as all of the basis for how good a unit is, is not based on impacting a massive portion of your army.

  2. Adam (TheDiceAbide.com) September 29, 2016 6:12 am #

    A lot of it also comes down to the scenario, they tend to do better in ITC missions or Eternal War where there are fewer objectives on the board than in Maelsteom, which has 6 objectives to dance between.

    • Reecius September 29, 2016 8:35 am #

      Lol, I love the bouncing back and forth between various points of view between ITC favoring MSU vs. Deathstars. Make up your mind, people!

      In truth, we built missions to be a spread between all of the various army builds, trying to not to unfairly punish or favor any specific type. They tend to lean more in favor of MSU but that is more because of the book missions’ structure.

      • Hiveminded September 29, 2016 9:25 am #

        Compared to the standard rulebook maelstrom missions, ITC missions have many fewer objectives in play. This puts more emphasis on killing (and not being killed), and makes deathstars a more attractive list building option.

        • Reecius September 29, 2016 10:14 am #

          Fair in comparison to Maelstrom but no GTs or Major events use Maelstrom missions as they are widely regarded as terribly imbalanced.

          • marandamir September 29, 2016 10:34 am

            hear hear reecius. Maelstrom missions are neat in theory but are WAY too random. If your opponent draws easy objective cards and you draw hard ones, yer in trouble.

            On the other hand to me deathstars can exist because of MSUs. The more points that are spent on objective holding units the less there is for massive deathstars. I’ve always found the thought that a single obsec model holding objectives against 30 non object models was just a poor rules implementation in the game. the ITC has the ability to remedy rules snafu’s like this and I’m hoping they aren’t afraid to fix that mistake. #nomsu #downwithdeathstars

          • AngryPanda September 29, 2016 2:01 pm

            They do in germany (which admittedly is probably as good an arguement as Neverland) and deathstars are way less dominating here.
            And the ITC is seen as the Marine/Deathstar meta from the outside. It’s kind of a running gag.
            Even though I realy don’t think any system should be blamed for the mess the game itself makes. It could just have safeguards against this, even something as simple as just allowing one IC per unit or such would pretty much cut the whole thing down. Call the rule “Honor Guard” or something. Each important dude gets his own.

          • Reecius September 29, 2016 6:05 pm

            Which cracks me up because the hardcore American and English players accuse the ITC of being too favorable to MSU! haha, so much of it is based on perspective.

            I think NO IC’s per unit would be better, but it would require a lot of changes to the game.

          • Hiveminded September 29, 2016 5:49 pm

            Randon cards aside, having more objectives on the table would be a big help. Missions with just 3 objectives means a deathstar can ignore half the board. Board coverage is something most deathstars struggle with.

            “You wanna run your 1200 point unit into the corner of the board and waste a turn claiming objective #6? Be my guest.”

          • Adam (RUMBL / TheDiceAbide.com) September 30, 2016 7:56 am

            @marandamir – I would contend that they’re actually not that random once you break them down:

            50% of the cards are holding objectives
            ~16% of the cards are about board control
            ~16% of the cards are to kill units
            ~16% of the cards are to kill specific units

            If you’re list building with Maelstrom in mind, you’ll make a list that is more about maneuverability and board control (MSU), than one about killing units or avoiding being killed (Deathstars). Adepticon actually had a pretty cool idea where players were allowed to build their deck of 21 cards, letting you take 15 cards out of the deck that you don’t think you could do well.

      • Adam (RUMBL / TheDiceAbide.com) September 29, 2016 4:05 pm #

        I don’t think I’ve ever accused ITC of favoring MSU. 🙂

        Having fewer objectives on the board does however make it far easier for a Deathstar to cover all, or most of them. Despite the fact that you may not like BRB Maelstrom missions, many people who have played them, have reported Deathstars not performing as well. Really, the big reason why Deathstars don’t do well in Maelstrom is the Maelstrom deck.

        ITC Maelstrom missions disproportionally reward killing enemy units, which Deathstars do well, and have far less emphasis on scoring objectives. Consider that regular Maelstrom has 6 objectives on the board and a full half of the cards you draw will be to claim a specific one of them. You need to have the ability to move around the table, or have enough units to cover several of them. The remaining half of the objectives require either having board control (1/6 of the deck), or killing units (1/3 of the deck)… If you want to break it down further, those killing unit cards are a mix between shooting, combat, or plain killing, and killing very specific unit types…

        I know you may think that your format leans MSU, but if that was the case, we’d be having articles about how to stop MSU, instead of articles about how to kill Deathstars, or all the complaining that Deathstars are OP.

        If you want to stop seeing Deathstars dominate, you’re going to have to change the scenarios… It would take massive, sweeping BRB changes to cull them, so instead, let people play with them, but fix the scenarios to discourage them.

        • Reecius September 29, 2016 6:07 pm #

          Hey, everyone has an opinion as the statement goes! But yes, we get that all the time: that the ITC favors MSU. If you look at tournament results in our format, it does tend to lean towards MSU builds winning more often than Deathstars, but I am fine with that, personally. Deathstars still do well in our format, too.

          • Thomas September 29, 2016 10:03 pm

            At least everyone agrees that the format favours either MSU or Deathstar. You need to rework it so it favours Legion sized squads of Chaos Space Marines.

          • Adam (RUMBL / TheDiceAbide.com) September 30, 2016 7:42 am

            Yeah, I don’t think I said that as clearly as possible. When I say it leans towards Deathstars, I mean that when compared to Maelstrom out of the book. 🙂

          • AngryPanda October 1, 2016 5:38 am

            I blame the ITC format for my flu. And possibily your personaly. Maybe AOS. There’s a lot of blame and snot to go arround.

      • Painjunky October 1, 2016 12:21 am #

        That doesn’t make any sense.

        Obviously fewer objs (as in ITC) favours deathstars.

  3. Hiveminde September 29, 2016 9:21 am #

    Compared to the rulebook maelstrom missions, ITC missions have many fewer objectives in play. This puts more emphasis on killing (and not giving up kills), and makes deathstars more attractive as a list building option.

  4. Hiveminded September 29, 2016 9:24 am #

    Compared to the standard rulebook maelstrom missions, ITC missions have many fewer objectives in play. This puts more emphasis on killing (and not being killed), and makes deathstars a more attractive list building option.

    • Hiveminded September 29, 2016 9:26 am #

      Oops, sorry about the double post.

      • Threllen September 29, 2016 12:31 pm #


        • Hiveminded September 29, 2016 5:43 pm #

          Yeah, triple post….sorry.

          That’s what I get for posting from my phone.

          • Reecius September 29, 2016 6:04 pm

            It happens, no worries!

  5. Nightman September 29, 2016 10:44 am #

    Errata: Battle Brothers are now allies of convenience.

    That would make things more interesting, there are many ways to skin an elf.

    • WestRider September 29, 2016 11:19 am #

      I prefer: ICs may only Join Units with the same Unit Type as themselves. The only exceptions are that Bikes and Jetbikes are considered one type for this purpose, as are Beasts and Cavalry.

      That cuts away at several of the single-Faction DeathStars as well as basically eliminating the SuperFriends ones, while still letting us do fluffy things like having an Inquisitor Join the IG Units he’s conscripted.

      • Threllen September 29, 2016 12:35 pm #

        That’s way too arbitrary of a requirement. I don’t think it would really solve too many issues and it would create more.

        What about the steeds for Chaos Lords? Now a lord on a slaanesh steed couldn’t join bikers. Or a lord on the tzeentch disk couldn’t join too many units.

        Possessed who rolled beasts – would they have to drop ICs?

        What about Necron Wraiths and destroyer lords?

        Those are just the few I thought of off the top of my head but there are many times you may want to combine unit types even with the *same codex* and an arbitrary restriction like yours would prevent that.

        • AngryPanda September 29, 2016 2:07 pm #

          One IC per unit. Maybe downgrade some character options to unit upgrades like veteran sergeants that are way less powerful but you can still have more them then. Like say if they absolutely want you to have 5 Librarians make them unit upgrades like Apothecaries. So they can sell you five but they aren’t going to form Voltron.
          But stuff like that would have to be done by GW, can’t be the job of any tournament to fix this. And for that they’d need to even be aware of the problem. Or how rules work. Which I’m not willing to put money on.

        • WestRider September 29, 2016 2:24 pm #

          It’s not arbitrary, it’s going back to a restriction that was in place a couple of editions ago. It also clears up a number of issues that arise when multiple Unit Types are combined in a single Unit.

          Chaos Lords on Steeds would have to Join Spawn or KDK Hounds. CSM Discs go with Bikers.

          I can see going two different ways for CS Possessed. Give them a specific exemption, or make them dangerous to hang out with for ICs who don’t have Prophet of the Voices.

          Wraiths and Destroyer Lords are one of the things the Rule is intended to exclude. The WraithStar is one of many DeathStars it would eliminate, along with things like Psykers of any kind in TWC Units or having the one dude with a Jump Pack in there to re-roll Charges.

  6. MidnightSun September 29, 2016 12:01 pm #

    So… why do they work?

  7. TinBane September 29, 2016 7:55 pm #

    Another reason is because of how damage mitigation works in 40k. It and buffs usually apply to every wound, etc. In real life, the fact that plane and missile mitigators can be swamped spelled the end of battleships, the deathstars of the sea. If you could overload defenses, some games do this by applying debuffs when shot at, you’d see a drop in deathstar efficacy.

    • WestRider September 30, 2016 5:30 am #

      I think Epic 3rd Ed had something like that. Every Attack would place markers on Units, and when there were enough of them, the Unit was suppressed and couldn’t do anything. Or like the way Blast Markers took down Shields in BFG.

  8. Iago September 30, 2016 11:53 pm #

    Deathstars are more effective in ITC than other surroundings. Playing 6 objectives of maelstrom plus eternal war missions helps a lot to mitigate a deathstars effectiveness. Plus you know, unnerfed D.

    • Heldericht October 1, 2016 9:25 am #

      I’ll keep objectives as they are if that means not bringing back unnerfed D, thank you very much.

  9. Painjunky October 1, 2016 12:13 am #

    Fewer objs obviously favours deathstars while more objs obviously favours MSU.

    The fact that there are so many articles written about deathstars and not MSU is an argument for more obj markers in ITC. Personally I find 6 is the ideal number.

Leave a Reply