When only the finest graduates of Underwater Basket-Weaving School are good enough to do the job, you need… Guardian Defenders. Click below to read the CA2018-updated article, or check out the Tactics Corner for more reviews and strategies.
Guardian Defenders– previously just “Guardians” in some editions- are the basic troop of a Craftworlds army, the rank and file. Consisting of all members of the craftworld that are not currently following a Path of War, they are the civilian militia that is called to battle in the most dire of circumstances. Despite this, they can still be quite dangerous, for many of them have walked warrior Paths in their long lives and the exceptional reflexes and skill of the Eldar physique make every one of them as deadly as any space marine.
On the game table, Guardian Defenders set the baseline for other Eldar units, making a good measuring point against which we can compare them. They start with a standard Eldar statline- strength and toughness 3 make them a bit fragile compared to many armies in the game and rather lackluster in close combat, especially combined with only one attack and 5+ armor. The removal of Initiative also does them no favors, as unlike previously enemies that charge them will get to swing first- close combat is not a good place for Guardians. Weapon and ballistic skill 3+ mean that they can lay down pretty surprising firepower and their attacks will at least land on their target most of the time, albeit without effect in many cases. Movement 7″ means that they are quicker than almost any other race, especially when combined with their special rules. Lastly, Leadership 7 on all members of the squad means that they won’t suffer too horribly from morale, although neither are they particularly resistant to it. At eight points per body, Guardian Defenders are decently priced- and you can take anywhere between ten and twenty of them in a squad.
Special Rules and Wargear
Guardians don’t come with a huge array of special rules or options, but all of the ones they do bring are pretty important to their functionality. They of course have Ancient Doom, which allows them to reroll in melee against Slaaneshi units but penalizes morale if they are close; always a bit of a two-edged sword, Ancient Doom can be surprisingly useful- although Slaanesh will generally tear you to pieces if they get to swing, Daemonettes (and most other Slaaneshi models) have middling toughness values, so the Guardians’ weak strength is less of a hindrance. Charging the last few remainders can be a very viable topic, either to tie them up or to finish them off, and Ancient Doom helps a lot with the latter.
Battle Focus is also common to nearly all Craftworlds units and allows the unit to shoot normally even after advancing- but not with heavy weapons. We’ll get more to the restriction in a second, but since most Eldar guns are very short-ranged compared to those of other races, Battle Focus helps a lot in getting you where you need to be to use your weapons effectively. Unless you’re planning on charging, you probably want to advance pretty much every turn, as there’s no other downside to it.
Speaking of weapons, let’s talk about the Guardian Defender’s basic gun: the Shuriken Catapult. Common all across the codex as a backup weapon on vehicles and on bikes, the Catapult (not to be confused with its bigger brother the Avenger Shuriken Catapult) is a very odd little weapon. With a range of only 12″ it can’t be used except at point-blank range; with strength 4 and no AP it is fairly on par with most other basic weapons, but any result of ‘6’ to wound is resolved at AP-3 instead- great for tearing up heavy infantry, monsters, and vehicles. Assault 2 on the profile means that they can pour out a huge number of shots, killing off horde units by virtue of weight of fire and MEQs and the like by virtue of their “rending” effect on the guns. Although they won’t typically kill bigger targets by themselves, they can do a surprising amount of work and can put far more damage on vehicles/monsters than most basic infantry will with their weapons- especially if you get lucky on your 6s.
Guardian Defenders also have the option of selecting weapon platforms- up to one for every ten members of the squad. The platforms function like normal members of the squad (with toughness 5, two wounds, and a 3+ save), except that they can’t shoot unless a Guardian within 2″ gives up their normal shooting to fire the platform’s weapon. They are cheaper than a Guardian (5pts) and can select any of the normal Craftworld heavy weapons, defaulting to a Shuriken Cannon.
So what, exactly are Guardian Defenders good for? At first glance, they are either pretty underwhelming or amazingly fantastic, depending on how much you value range on your guns- because to be frank, Guardians don’t really have any. They do have the 1-2 platforms that can shoot out to a distance, but given the point cost of the unit that’s not an exciting amount of firepower by itself, so you really don’t want to rely on just hanging back and throwing out a couple of shots to make the unit worthwhile. No, if you’re going to get mileage out of your Guardians, you’re going to need to get in close with them.
So let’s talk delivery. Guardians are extremely short-ranged, but Eldar have ways to mitigate that- such as the ubiquitous Wave Serpent, which is once again back to being good (though not fantastic) this edition and is one of the most survivable transports in the game right now, especially given its modest cost and fairly decent firepower. 10 Guardians, a Platform (yes, they can embark on transports- they’re infantry), and a character fit neatly into a Wave Serpent’s rear compartment; better yet, they provide what the Serpent lacks, a close-in defense against enemies that try to get near, while the Serpent shields the Guardians from early firepower and can help by tying up melee units to prevent them from charging your fragile little elfs.
But that’s not your only option- the Webway Portal stratagem is a near-perfect fit for Guardians, plopping them down right in front of the enemy and within range of their guns. If you bring a full squad, those 40+ shots can be absolutely devastating to the enemy, especially when paired with any kind of squad buffs to enhance them. Do be careful with this tactic, however; many armies have reactive strategies that allow them to shoot you as you land, which can cause quite a bit of damage, and placing yourself so close to the enemy puts your Guardians in very real danger of being shot and/or assaulted to death on the enemy’s turn- they are not a durable unit.
It’s also possible to run your Guardians on foot (run, get it? get it???) but this is often not an effective way to do things. They can certainly be useful for bubblewrapping other parts of your army when that is necessary, but even with benefit of Battle Focus don’t expect them to be crossing the field in short order; you’re probably going to give up at least one and possibly two turns of shooting, which can be pretty fatal in a fast environment like 8E. Footdar might be the way to go these days, but that doesn’t mean all your units need to be hoofin’ it across the table.
We mentioned a bit ago that Guardians are not durable, which we probably should elaborate on. Being only as tough as a Guardsman is not an exciting place to be in terms of survivability, but many people overestimate how much damage they’ll do to Guardsman-equivalent (GEQ) models with shooting. A full squad of Space Marines with Bolters in doubletap range will certainly hurt, but since they’re killing ~7 models, it’s not the end of the world- especially if you have ways to mitigate that damage. Lightning Reflexes (-1 to hit for the phase) is, of course, the golden standard for Craftworld units these days, and especially if your opponents are already suffering other penalties to hit (from Conceal, Alaitoc, etc) it can make it pretty nighmarish to get rid of them without dedicating the whole army to it. But Guardians also have access to a unique stratagem, Celestial Shield, which is activated when the enemy shoots at them and gives them a 4++ for the duration of that shooting phase. Again, this offers pretty good protection, but is scariest when combined with other things- if you slapped Protect onto them, for example, you’re suddenly looking at a 3++ save, which is pretty discouraging to most opponents. It won’t save you from a charge from some Berzerkers (or even just a tie-up charge from a Rhino or the like), but it’s well worth remembering.
Also on the subject of survivability, let’s talk some more about those heavy weapon platforms the Guardians can get. They are interesting inclusions because they bring a very different statline to the unit- two wounds and a 3+ save is surprisingly hard to get rid of, and it’s entirely possible to use them as “shields” for your Guardians to soak up wounds. This is most effective when you’re getting a bonus to your save (from being in cover, or from Protect) to get that 2+, but even without it can still shrug quite a bit of damage- that’s potentially twelve Bolter wounds that don’t kill off your elfs (assuming you took two Platforms), which is a big difference in casualty numbers and morale checks. And yes, they do count for morale for whatever reason. Should your opponent put some big guns into the unit to try and get rid of them… well, so long as you don’t have any wounds sitting on the platforms, just allocate that Lascannon hit to a Guardian instead, and let them waste their time. Again, combining this with other strategies above (such as Celestial Shield) will be particularly obnoxious.
The Platforms can be more than just big wound counters, of course- since they give the unit access to a variety of heavy weapons, they can really increase the firepower. However, I’m always leery of including most of the guns not just because of the expense of putting a big weapon on a disposable Platform (the Eldar Missile Launcher Platform clocks in at 30pts for a solo model), but also because they can limit your mobility. Guardians need to be advancing in order to get in range of their weapons a lot of the time, and although Battle Focus allows you to advance and shoot with most weapons, Heavy weapons are specifically excepted. Since the Shuriken Cannon is the only one of the options that isn’t Heavy (and coincidentally is also the cheapest option), it is almost always my go-to choice despite having a somewhat lackluster statline. However, if you’re not expecting them to be moving across the board often, or if you’re using them more defensively, other weapons can certainly have value. The Eldar Missile Launcher is a nice dual-role gun that threatens almost everything and lets you access the Starhawk Missile stratagem for doing mortal wounds to flying targets; Starcannons, now that they have come down in price to a reasonable number, are pretty scary for most heavy infantry; Bright Lances are still a go-to anti-tank choice and can really reach out and cause some pain. Still, in most cases I’d recommend sticking with the good ol’ Shuriken Cannon; it wants to shoot mostly the same targets as the rest of the squad and at 15pts for the whole package, you can’t feel too bad about it overall.
Also, while we’re talking about survivability, let’s delve into morale a bit. Morale becomes more of an issue for units the larger they get, and with up to twenty-two members in the squad, it is potentially a really big issue for Guardians- all the more so because they aren’t particularly cheap per body. Leadership 7 is okay as far as that goes, but if people start dedicating firepower to your unit, they are going to start taking a lot of extra damage from the ensuing morale check, which is not great. Of course, if you’re really desperate the two command points for Insane Heroism are always an option, but that can be a pretty expensive way to preserve those last 4-6 members of the squad; sadly, there aren’t a lot of other options. The Alaitoc warlord trait (Puritanical Leader) will let you ignore morale checks within 6″ of your warlord, which is pretty nice- but a lot of time you aren’t going to have your warlord nearby because the Guardians will be somewhere distant on the field, so it’s not always applicable. By the same token, the Runes of Fate power Will of Asuryan lets you ignore morale within 12″ of the psyker, but your Farseer usually has better things to be casting, so you won’t often end up choosing Will over your other options. A casting of Embolden (from Runes of Battle) or a nearby Swooping Hawk squad can also mitigate things, but these are likewise somewhat niche cases. Long story short, morale is bad for Guardians- accept that you are going to be taking “bonus casualties” fairly often and get on with it.
We’ve talked a lot about the downsides of the unit, so let’s look at something a little more positive- their damage output. A squad of Guardians hits like an absolute truck, and although they won’t typically get a lot of shooting phases before the enemy wipes them out, the ones they do get can be pretty terrifying. A full squad with two Shuriken Cannons (the “standard” loadout) is taking out about eight Marines (i.e. wiping a full squad, once you add in morale) or fifteen Guardsmen. That performance against Guardsmen is easy to forget, but it’s quite important in an edition where screening units are everywhere- Guardians are great against infantry of all types, though they obviously lose a fair bit against anything T5. But even against the various T7/3+ things like Rhinos they put down around six wounds, which is no small amount. Add in the benefit of Doom and even heavy targets are in serious trouble- you’re looking at eleven dead MEQs or ten wounds to a vehicle/monster. If you happen to have some rerolls to hit around (in the form of an Autarch, Guide, etc) they don’t mind that, either, though it’s not quite as amazing for them. Still, a buffed Guardian squad is not to be underestimated; they can lay waste to almost anything in their vicinity and will catch a lot of opponents off guard.
There is also one other option that we didn’t talk about in the wargear and rules section that bears considering, and that is your choice of Craftworlds. Now, as I’ve talked about before, there’s really only one “real” choice here, and that is Alaitoc. Alaitoc protects your units from enemy shooting armies and combines quite well with the various stratagems and psychic powers that can inflict additional hit penalties; if you can get the opponent up to a -2 or -3, they may as well not even bother shooting at you. Many people will point out that Alaitoc doesn’t apply within 12″ of an enemy unit, and thus Guardians supposedly won’t see any benefit from it- but this line of thinking assumes that the opponent’s entire army is compressed into a single infinitesmally-small point where every unit somehow phases through each other to be located in exactly the same place. (Or, more realistically, that they are all grouped up into a single small area with overlapping fields of fire.) However, this is not typically how the game is played- armies have to spread out and hold multiple objectives, units take positions around the field to benefit from cover, and other factors force players to spread out across the board for a variety of reasons. Armies that “ball up” into a single spot (such as Ghillieman gunlines) tend to do fairly poorly because they lack the mobility and/or flexibility to get out and play to objectives. Thus, in the actual game, while a squad of Guardians arriving on the field may be within 12″ of some units in the enemy army, they hardly will be that close to all of them- and thus the Alaitoc bonus will still be very applicable, even on a short-ranged unit such as them.
The other Craftworld bonuses, if one insists on using them, do have some applicability for Guardians. In particular, Iyanden is (bizarrely) excellent for Guardian Defenders, since the guarantee that you will never lose more than one model to morale is quite handy and all but completely obviates that issue. However, as an Alaitoc squad will take significantly fewer casualties in the first place (thus mitigating the need to even roll morale), it’s hard to argue that including an Iyanden detachment in your army is a great plan overall. Similarly, the Ulthwe bonus is decent and Discipline of the Black Guardians (+1 to hit for 1CP) is a great buff stratagem if you need to make the unit independent, but since there are many other ways to boost accuracy it can’t really be considered hugely effective overall.
One thing to be wary of with Guardians: although their average damage output is quite high, it is extremely unreliable. Since they do most of their work against MEQs and tougher targets by virtue of their “rending” rule, whether or not you happen to roll any given sixes against a particular target is going to have a huge impact on how much damage you end up dealing. Maybe you’ll throw down twenty dice to wound and only see one (or even zero!) rending hits- that can be pretty bad news for your little elfs, because it means you probably aren’t killing the target you needed to. Of course, any unit can roll poorly, but Guardians (and other units with Shuriken weaponry) are exceptionally susceptible to this phenomenon, so always be aware and have a plan ready in case the dice don’t fall the way you want.
How do you stop someone who dumps twenty or forty Guardians in your face via Webway and then pops stratagems when you try to hurt them? Well, you have a couple ways of going about it, and like a lot of strategies in the game they work best when used in concert with each other rather than trying to use any one alone to completely stop the opponent. Your first layer is blocking units- something most tournament players should be familiar with by now. Most armies have some form of “chaff” unit, a disposable screening force that can be placed around the field to prevent enemy reserves from arriving nearby; these function against Webway Guardians in the usual fashion, by preventing them from arriving where your opponent wants to put them down.
Your second layer is range mitigation. Guardian Defenders are very short-ranged, and by denying them the ability to get within 12″ of their target, you can keep them from being able to deal any significant damage to it. The aforementioned screening units will help a lot here; by placing your second line at least 3″ behind the screening force, you prevent the Guardians from shooting at it. Do be wary of the Craftworld player using Quicken (or similar spells, like Word of the Phoenix) to give them an extra move to push forward, however- in these cases you may not be able to put yourself out of range easily. Also, be aware that they will try to kill off your screening units and/or force them out of position; don’t expect screens to last forever.
Your third layer is anti-reserve strategies. Many, though not all, armies have access to some form of stratagem, wargear, or upgrade that allows them to punish units that arrive from reserve (often by taking a “free” shot at them with a nearby unit.) Since these abilities trigger immediately they will happen before the Craftworld player has a chance to use any psychic powers to buff the Guardians, and since it does not happen during the shooting phase Celestial Shield cannot be used to protect them- though Fleet of Foot still can, expensive as that option may be. By preemptively hitting the unit before they get to act, you can not only cause some damage yourself but also mitigate the damage they may deal and open them up to being eliminated later.
Your fourth layer is simply playing well. Good play can stop a lot of what Guardians want to do, i.e. pouncing on isolated units out of cover. If your squad is sitting in terrain alongside a buddy unit, they are going to be a lot harder to wipe out when the Guardians arrive and even if they are, their buddy unit can cripple or kill the Guardian squad on your own turn. Guardians are very vulnerable to return fire and charges (if you can get past the overwatch, that is), so don’t put yourself in a position where they can drop in and wipe out everything that can potentially hurt them- force the Craftworlds player to make difficult decisions.
Guardian Defenders are a very solid little unit and an excellent complement to Rangers, the other premiere troop choice in the codex. Although not a must-take sort of unit and a relatively steep investment at 190pts and 1CP for the basic plan, Guardians bring a very useful tool to an army that is overflowing with excellent tools while still being something unique. For the first time in quite a while (since… what, 3rd edition? 2nd?) Guardians are actually an effective part of an Eldar force that you bring along because you want to, not simply because they are mandatory- and that’s not a small accomplishment. If you haven’t tried them already, give the unit a whirl- you may be pleasantly surprised.
As always, remember that you can get Games Workshop and other products at great discounts from the Frontline Gaming Store every day, whether you’re looking to expand an existing army or start a new one.