Abuse Puppy here to talk about how GW solved the problems with T’au Commanders– because there was a problem, but the solution they chose was not really the right one in my opinion. And just to be clear, I do not work for Frontline Gaming but am a contributing author to this blog.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the Tau codex, unsurprisingly. A lot changed with the new book, and of course people are eager to explore and examine it, but one constant thread has been the changes to how Commanders are handled- limited to no more than one per detachment in matched play games, this has a lot of Tau players up in arms as a result. Now, I will preface this whole thing by saying that I am not going to try and make a case for- or against- this change being necessary in the first place; this is not that article, nor am I going to try and argue about just how strong the Commander could’ve/would’ve been. Whether a unit is powerful enough to warp the meta (the way that, say, Warp Spiders or splitting Horrors did) is an entirely different discussion than whether a unit is more powerful than it should be. Would Tau Commanders really have been a meta-defining feature if they had been allowed unrestricted? One would guess not, but it’s not something we will ever know at this point, since it’s not going to happen- but I think it can be generally agreed that the Commander was too efficient for its point cost overall (though no doubt there will be some people who insist otherwise.)
No, what I want to talk about is the way that Games Workshop decided to solve the problem- and, indeed, the problem they chose to solve. I don’t think it was the right way to go about things, and while it may not cripple the game (or the Tau codex) it sets a bad precedent and shows that their understanding of how the game works and what incentives different changes give players will change how the results pan out. There are plenty of things that they could’ve done that would fix the problem in varying degrees, and while I don’t think this was the worst possible choice, it also definitely was not the best.
Before we get into analyzing all of that, though, let’s stop and ask ourselves: what is the problem that Games Workshop was trying to solve with this change? Because the answer to that is going to inform everything else we talk about here, and I don’t think it’s as obvious as most people believe. If you ask a random person, you’ll probably get a pretty simple response along the lines of “the Tau Commander was too good so people were bringing a bunch of them.” But let’s stop and think about that for a second- if Commanders were so good, why weren’t Tau placing in the top ranks at tournaments? There certainly were a handful of GT-level wins by various Tau players, but they never made it to the top 8 of any events like LVO, NOVA, or Adepticon, nor did we see consistent high placing from them at any of the smaller events. If Commanders were really as good as that statement implied, we would have seen a lot more of Tau at tournaments and played by good players- competitive players will, after all, play armies that are capable of winning.
So we can’t just say that the Commander was “too good,” because it (and the army supporting it) did not measure up to the meta as a whole. So let’s make a more precise pronouncement instead: the Commander was undercosted compared to the rest of the options in the Tau army. If we look at things from this perspective instead, things make more sense- the Commander might have been the best thing available to the Tau, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was better than everything that other armies had access to.
As a consequence, what you tended to see in Tau armies during their Index phase was a large number (4-8, typically) of Commanders armed with some mix of Fusion Blasters or Cyclical Ion Blasters and supported by other units to screen for them and prevent them from being shot, most notably Gun Drones- and often very little else. Although not all Tau lists fit this mold, nor even all of the most successful ones, even most of the higher-ranking Tau players gravitated towards this general build in varying degrees and it was a rare thing to see a Tau list with any fewer than three Commanders. Naturally, neither the Tau players themselves (who probably would have preferred to play with a more diverse army) nor their opponents (who probably got tired of shooting at frisbees while the real firepower stayed untouched in the background) particularly enjoyed this state of affairs very much, so it was pretty inevitable that Games Workshop was going to do something to upend it once the codex finally came out.
And Games Workshop did fix it, after a fashion. With Commanders limited to no more than one per detachment, it was literally impossible to field the old Commander Horde armies that people disliked so fervently. The absolute limit ensured that no one could game the system in any way and try and squeeze more in than would otherwise be possible in a list- at 2000pts, three was what you could get and there was no amount of wiggle room or points-eking that could change that. You got three Commanders or fewer, end of story.
A lot of Tau players were, unsurprisingly, rather unhappy about this change- and at the broadest level, I can understand that. But I think their rationales for why it’s a problem are often pretty bad, and foremost among those bad rationales is “it’s not fair that we are the only army in the game that has this limitation! you can bring fifteen Space Marine Captains if you want and the rules don’t stop you, it’s just punishing Tau players for no reason!”
So let’s be clear here: you certainly can bring almost any other HQ in the game in large, even absurd, numbers. But you don’t see anyone doing that, do you? That’s because the Tau Commander was different from those other models in a variety of relevant ways and thus needed to be treated differently. If you had seen people bringing 8+ Captains to tournaments, you can damn well bet that GW would be instituting a rule or change that limits that, but that wasn’t an issue the game was happening, so it wasn’t something that Games Workshop needed to deal with.
So why do I believe that the Commander solution was a bad idea, when I admit that such a solution is necessary? Because it doesn’t solve the problem. Remember, the issue was, as we stated earlier in the article that the Commander was costed too low compared to other options in the army- hence why people took it over those options. And while the Tau codex certainly did improve many of the other options in the book, it didn’t change the price of the Commander any- and indeed, the XV85 Commander itself is now largely invalidated by the existence of the XV86 Coldstar Commander, which for a token increase in price is vastly more maneuverable.
Limiting the number of Commanders you can take doesn’t solve the issue with their being a superior choice- it simply makes it so that you have an artificial limit on how many times you can make that choice. As it stands, every Tau army is heavily incentivized to bring three detachments to the table so that they can field three Coldstars; it’s still greatly superior to virtually everything else in the codex and thus a near-mandatory option to max out on. The limitation doesn’t change how good the Commander is, only how many you can bring. Limiting their numbers is like stanching the flow of blood from an injury- it might mitigate the damage somewhat, but in itself it doesn’t actually do anything to solve the underlying problem.
What Games Workshop needed to do was to change the pricing on Commanders (including the XV8 and XV86 versions) as well as Crisis suits and other battlesuit options that compete with them (such as the XV88, XV95, etc.) By adjusting these units pricing, abilities, and synergies- as well as the prices of the weapons, which I think are also askew in a number of places- it should have been possible to find a better balance that left all of these options as plausible choices for an army without making any one of them blatantly superior (and thus a candidate for being spammed) than the others.
The distinction between Games Workshop’s solution here (ban people from doing the thing that we don’t want) and the alternative (change the incentives so that doing the thing they don’t want is less attractive) is absolutely fundamental. The Commander is still quite probably the best unit in the Tau codex, as it hasn’t really lost anything at all; comparing a Commander to something of similar cost (such as a Broadside or Ghostkeel) is so vastly in the Commander’s favor as to be laughable. For 130-180pts (depending on the exact loadout and variant) a Commander offers not only a superior statline in every regard compared to those other suits but also the character keyword (to avoid enemy shooting), a very relevant ability in the form of Master of War, and superior mobility in the form of the Coldstar option. A Commander kitted out to be the same as a Ghostkeel is not only more survivable (immunity to shooting > penalties to hit) but also more accurate while actually being cheaper. That’s absurd.
Now again, to reiterate: I’m not trying to argue that the Commander, if it hadn’t had the limit on it, would’ve “broken the game” or anything like that. But certainly it was undercosted compared to many of the other options- or perhaps they were overcosted; the distinction is essentially irrelevant for our purposes here. In either case, what GW needed to do was to adjust the relative price of the various units and options to make most or all of them viable, not to set an absolute pronouncement about how many you are allowed to take. The latter approach shows only that you don’t know how to balance the game properly- and we know GW can do better than that, because it has been over the last six months. While I don’t think anyone will claim that 8th Edition is perfect, it certainly is more playable than 7E was and I would argue that it is a better game than 6E and even 5E (other points that people tend to look back nostagically on.) They have made huge strides in keeping the game balanced and playable and while obviously more effort needs to be made, the point is that they are actually trying to put that effort in, something that was never the case before.
We haven’t really seen what the Tau codex can do yet; whether it will rise to be a competitive choice in the environment that we have following the presumed changes of the Spring FAQ release is yet to be seen. Perhaps it will sit down in the bottom tiers with pure GK or AdMech armies, or maybe it will struggle its way to the top with some unexpected star players. But regardless of how the book as a whole functions, I think it should be obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the faction that the design philosophy for Commanders is fundamentally flawed and is mistaken in a way that I hope GW does not repeat. What they did was bad for the faction and bad for the game as a whole- perhaps not in a way that will devastate it, but certainly in a way that will detract from people’s enjoyment of the game, in both tournaments and in casual play. I believe that they want this game to be good and fun and playable just as much as all of us do, and I hope that they will take this advice not as a rebuke but as a chance to understand things better, to gain a window into the players’ minds and view of the game. Will they even read this article? I can’t say, but I hope that they do, and I hope that they (and all of the players who read it as well) come away with a better understanding of why good game design matters. We all- every last one of us, from the clubbiest of baby seals to the WAACiest of tryhard tournament players want to have fun with this game, and the design of the game is critical to that.
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