The Wave Serpent- perhaps the most consistently-strong part of any codex, after the Hive Tyrant. Edition after edition, it keeps on keepin’ on. Click to read the CA2018 version of the article, or check out the Tactics Corner for more reviews and strategies.
The Wave Serpent was not originally part of the Craftworlds arsenal- in early editions of the game, it was completely absent, and made its first appearances through a Forge World model, as well as the Epic Armageddon standalone game. Since then, however, it has become a mainstay, providing fragile Eldar troops with the protection they need to get in close and do their bloody work.
A Wave Serpent comes with an excellent set of stats for a vehicle; though few of them are exceptional in any particular regard, most are above-average and come at a very affordable price point. Movement 16″ is perhaps the biggest standout (especially in combination with the Fly keyword), allowing the Serpent to scoot across the field faster than almost every other unit in the game. Toughness seven and 3+ armor provide it with a good baseline for defense, especially in combination with thirteen wounds- the last little pip of which means it takes that much longer for the Serpent to degrade when damaged. Ballistic skill 3+ means that its shots are fairly accurate overall, making the possibility of equipping it with some of the heavier weapons far from a waste. Like most vehicles, of course, it has a garbage statline in melee combat (WS6+, A3), but if you’re sending it into melee it’s not because you are hoping to score kills. Coming in at 139pts for the basic loadout, the Wave Serpent is more expensive than the transports of most other factions, but serves an excellent role as a secondary guntank in addition to being an extremely survivable way to carry up to twelve models.
Wargear and Special Rules
This is where the Serpent really shines. It comes with a plethora of excellent options, both offensive and defensive, and you can kit a Wave Serpent for many different roles depending on your needs. The most fundamental rule to the vehicle is its Serpent Shield- so long as the Shield is active, you subtract one from the damage dealt by any shooting attack that hits the Serpent (to a minimum of one, of course.) Against guns like Lascannons this can be a nice little touch, stemming the bleeding from big hits. Its biggest value comes against weapons such as Autocannons, though- reducing those Dmg2 guns to a single pip is a massive increase in survivability and can make it all but impossible to bring the Serpent down, especially when it is handing out penalties to hit, soaking some damage with its armor, etc.
The Shield isn’t just a purely defensive option, however- once per game you can discharge it (giving up the defensive benefits) and do d3 mortal wounds to the nearest visible enemy within 24″ on a 2+; in essence, a free Smite. Although not exceptionally damaging, anyone who’s been hit by a chain of Smites knows that those mortal wounds stack up fast, especially when used in combination with other attacks. As the Shield can be discharged any time during the shooting phase, it is a powerful tool for chipping away at big targets (e.g. Magnus) or doing the last bit of damage to a wounded unit in order to finish the job.
Beyond that, Serpents come armed with a twin Shuriken Cannon (24″, S6, six shots, 6s to wound are AP-3) in the turret and a twin Shuriken Catapult (12″, S4, four shots, same “rending” effect) underslung; being both assault weapons, this means that the vehicle is free to scoot merrily about the field and even advance while still getting to fire its weaponry, though of course in the latter case it suffers the usual -1 to hit (as it does not possess the Battle Focus rule like Craftworld infantry.) These weapons can also be upgraded to give it a bit more firepower- the underslung guns can be upgraded to a single Shuriken Cannon for added range, and the turret weapon can be exchanged for a twin version of any of the usual Eldar heavy weapons. Do note that all of them are heavy weapons, however, and thus will limit the Serpent’s mobility somewhat, so there is a tradeoff involved.
Scatter Lasers actually drop your cost by a bit (-6pts), gaining 12″ of range (out to 36″) and two extra shots, but losing the “rending” effect of the Shuriken as well as the aforementioned mobility. Starcannons are good for hunting heavy infantry and light vehicles with 36″, S6, AP-3, and d3 damage; you get four shots rather than six, but the ability to scythe through armor and deal multiple wounds to heavier targets is often worth the extra 11pts. Bright Lances (+23pts for the pair) are basically Lascannons, with 36″ S8 AP-4 and d6 damage- if you’re looking for some extra tank-hunting firepower, they are the go-to. Finally, the Aeldari Missile Launcher is an all-rounder weapon, though at +23pts over the basic loadout it is quite expensive; however, with two fire modes it will never lack for targets, and the excellent profiles on both mean it is always dangerous. One mode fires exactly like a Krak Missile (S8 AP-2 d6 damage), while the other is an upgraded Frag (S4 AP-1 2d6 total shots).
Finally, a Wave Serpent can select items from the vehicle armory, which has several powerful options on it. At 10pts a pop for most of them, they are not exceptionally expensive, but neither are they so cheap that taking them is a foregone conclusion- most Serpents will take one, or at most two choices from the list. Vectored Engines is one of the more common ones- it gives enemies shooting at the Serpent a -1 to hit if it advanced on your turn; since the basic loadout is all assault weapons and Serpents are often used to push a valuable unit forward into the enemy’s face, this makes for a great way to further boost it to nigh-immunity to shooting (especially combined with the Alaitoc bonus.) Spirit Stones are another popular defensive upgrade, giving the vehicle a 6+ “feel no pain”-type effect. This doesn’t stack with some of the other things you can get (e.g. Fortune or Ulthwe bonus), but can can add yet another layer of frustration to killing the tank. Star Engines let you roll 2d6″ for advance distances, making you even speedier than you already are- I don’t find this to be much needed most of the time, but if you’re playing on a large board and/or need to get in extremely close to the enemy, it’s an option. Finally, the Crystal Targeting Matrix lets you ignore the move-and-fire penalty for heavy weapons so long as you shoot the closest target; at only 5pts it’s cheaper than the other options, so if you’re planning on going with one of the upgraded weapon loadouts you might want to consider it.
A Wave Serpent’s use is pretty simple- it protects some infantry models from the enemy, and possibly gets them across the field. It may also serve as secondary fire support, but first and foremost a Serpent’s job is to protect another unit- its firepower isn’t trivial, but it’s certainly not enough to justify its use in the absence of any other functionality. Lots of people have tried to build armies of spammed Wave Serpents- and yes, you can still do it post-FAQ, but you still shouldn’t if you want to win games. They just don’t have the guns to follow through and deliver a knockout punch to the enemy.
So the question when taking a Wave Serpent is what do you need to transport with it, and why? Broadly speaking, there are two major categories of units- the kind that you want to keep alive for their own sake (often Objective Secured units that can win you the game by holding objectives or fragile firepower units that you need to protect from the enemy alpha strike), and the kind that need the Serpent’s speed to put them in the enemy’s face where they can do work (which can be either shooting or melee.) Many units feature a bit of both, but generally it’s possible to distinguish between the two roles.
Serpents that are for transporting the short-range units will usually stick with a fairly basic loadout on guns-possibly upgrading the underslung weapon to a Shuriken Cannon for the touch of additional reach, but otherwise keeping the armament very base-level, since the starting weapons are the ones which are Assault and thus can be used when moving or advancing to best effect. Vectored Engines and Spirit Stones are also quite common for this setup, although neither are strictly required; indeed, a naked Serpent is not an uncommon sight. Howling Banshees, Wraithguard/blades, Fire Dragons, and various characters are all common occupants for this type of transport.
Alternatively, a more conservative approach with a Serpent (for transporting Dark Reapers, Guardians, etc) is also possible- in this case, Spirit Stones is still valid as a choice, but Crystal Targeting Matrix and one of the weapon upgrades is probably your go-to. Depending on the needs of the army almost any of the choices can be taken, but I personally lean towards Starcannons and Bright Lances, as they give you a lot of bang for your buck. Upgrading the chin cannon is all but a must, since the base 12″ on the Catapults is just far too short to ever be useful.
No matter which version you decide to run, there’s a number of things you should be aware of. First off, remember that the Serpent Shield only works against shooting attacks- it won’t help you against melee attacks, anything that inflicts mortal wounds, etc, which means that Serpents can be surprisingly vulnerable to getting assaulted despite having the Fly keyword. Especially beware melee units with multi-damage weapons, as they can put a Serpent down much easier than almost anything else on the field. Secondly, be careful of those d6 damage shooting weapons- although you are generally pretty well-protected against shooting, some lucky shots with Meltaguns or Lascannons can still end your life really easily, since you’re getting essentially no save against them and they have the potential to strip off a third or more of your wounds in a single shot, even with the Shield active. Third, remember that a Wave Serpent is not a battle tank- although it can mount some fairly reasonable guns and the Shield itself can be “fired” off once per game, its damage output is well below that of any other race’s main battle vehicles despite costing a similar amount- it is first and foremost a transport vehicle, with its firepower being only secondary.
In fact, we ought to talk about the offensive use of the Serpent Shield a little bit, since we’ve already talked about its defensive uses; the Shield’s effect functions basically like a Smite, but there are a number of important features that can set it apart. Since it works on a 2+, it is quite reliable (though not absolutely so), and the range of 24″ gives just a tad more reach than Smite itself does- especially combined with the extreme mobility the Serpent possesses anyways. The Shield can be fired completely independently of virtually all other considerations- you can fire it even if you advanced, if you are locked in combat, etc. Just as importantly, it is not done as part of the Serpent’s shooting attack(s) for the turn- you can shoot with the Serpent, fire with a couple of other units, and then come back and use the Shield to finish something else if you want. Or you can pop the Shield, fire with various other things, and then come back around to the vehicle to fire. These timing tricks allow you to fire it off when it is most useful to you, clearing out screens before layering the mortal wounds onto a tougher target or eliminating a unit that is blocking you off from something (like a character, or a unit locked in combat) so that you can get at what is behind them.
Of course, it may be that you don’t get to use the Shield’s offense every game- this is a fairly common situation, as giving up the protection offered by it is no trivial matter and opponents will often focus all their guns on a Serpent in order to down it in a single turn, rather than leaving it wounded; don’t cry too hard here, because as we already have said protecting your vulnerable units is what Serpents really exist for and fulfilling that role in the face of enemy firepower is really the most you can ask of them. But if you have a Serpent sitting at a low number of wounds (six or less is commonly my metric), you may want to consider whether firing off its Shield before it gets killed is worthwhile. It may not be, if your opponent has a bunch of 2dmg or d3dmg weapons that they can aim at it, but if you’re staring down a bunch of Lascannons (or you really have something you need to get rid of), go ahead and take that extra pip of damage it can do.
There are two Craftworlds stratagems that apply particularly to the Wave Serpent that I feel are worth talking about here. One of them, Cloudstrike, is generic to all Craftworlds vehicles (except the walkers), and allows you to place a vehicle in reserve for 1CP, provided you don’t use the Webway Portal stratagem. While this is sometimes a bit of a middling option, with Wave Serpents it can be fairly useful if you are sitting on a long board and looking at a lot of guns. Wave Serpents are tough but not invulnerable, and being able to set them down on the enemy’s side of the field on turn 2 can be fairly useful if they don’t have any great ways of dealing with something that close-in; you won’t be able to disembark the passengers that turn, of course, but you should be well set up to get out the following one and cause some real havoc. Sometimes you need your troops hitting the ground earlier than that, of course, but it’s worth thinking about.
The other stratagem I want to mention is specific to Wave Serpents: Overcharged Shield. For a simple 1CP, one of your Serpents that has already fired its Shield on a previous turn can use it a second time; being able to access mortal wounds on demand is always a great thing, and this one is no different. But remember that you must have already used the Shield on a previous turn, which can sometimes be tricky. But if you’re able to pop off double Shields on two, three, or even four Serpents then your opponent is probably having a very bad day at that point, because those mortal wounds will stack up quite quickly.
Wave Serpents can be a very frustrating unit to deal with, and especially in the wake of the FAQ a lot of players are experimenting with them in large numbers to try and see if they can abuse the fact that they are one of the few units not limited by the 0-3 restriction. Allow me to reassure you, however: despite these attempts, I strongly doubt that you are going to be running into hordes of Wave Serpents at tournaments very often in the future. People have already tried this strategy earlier on in the edition and found it lackluster (I had seen as many as ten at once, in fact), because the Wave Serpent itself is just not the jack-of-all-trades that people tend to assume it is.
Serpents are tough- I hope I have already emphasized this enough in the article, but it’s important to remember when dealing with them that the Serpent itself is not really what is important. They can be obnoxious by scooting about the field, charging things to hold them up, and peppering you with firepower, but realize that ultimately they are a secondary concern for most armies- their firepower generally isn’t a huge threat to your units (unless heavily kitted, at which point they jump drastically in cost and will degrade when moving or damaged) and as a single model they will struggle to take or even contest objectives. Preventing the Eldar player from delivering whatever is being transported inside is a much more relevant concern- which may, in some cases, mean killing the Serpent (annoying as that may be), but can also be accomplished by positioning your forces well. Units disembarking from a Serpent will have to contend with any ground units you have in the area, and virtually none of them will have the ability to leap over your models, so stationing a wall of bodies between your tanks or other vulnerable targets will go a long ways towards making their life difficult.
And, of course, many of the factors we mentioned earlier in the article will be relevant here as well- remember that strong melee units are a Serpent’s biggest nightmare, especially those with Power Fists or other high-strength attacks, as most of their protections don’t function against assaulting units (though they can of course run away from them, as long as they’re willing to accept some sections of the field being off-limits to them.)
Wave Serpents have been a consistently-strong option from the codex for quite a few years now, though thankfully they are no longer as balls-to-the-wall ridiculous as they were back in 6th edition. However, it remains arguably the best transport in the game if what you want is to quickly deliver a unit in safety and functions as a second-line guntank, which makes it a very versatile platform in most games. Don’t be surprised to see one or two of them mixed into a lot of modern Eldar lists to protect a key unit, and if you play Eldar yourself I would strongly recommend investing in a couple of them, as they can bring a ton of utility to an army.
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