Fantasy Fisticuffs #14: Be Elite, Be the Elite (Low-model armies in AoS)

Last week we talked about the first archetype of AoS list-building hordes, but what happens at the other end of the spectrum? 

As a bit of a companion to last week’s discussion of horde armies in competitive AoS, I thought this week we could talk about the performance of armies which could not be more different.  Elite armies have a powerful allure for many players. Each model really matters and as a general rule “elite” comes with an in-built expectation that each is a badass which should be contributing directly.

In Age of Sigmar, poster-children of “elite” armies range from the Ossiarch Bonereapers, to Ogors, and certainly the upcoming Sons of Behemet.  Our 40k brethren will no doubt call to might Imperial Knight or Custodes armies, and in other media a quintessential army might be Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, iconic for depicting what elite vs. horde combat must look like tactically.

One of these armies does “elite” well, the other, not so much.

Pros: Elite armies are often a new hobbyists first army for the very practical reason that they will tend to have a lower cost of entry.  This is valid, and a younger me fell for Fantasy Ogres precisely because I could afford them, and each single purchase felt like a meaningful addition to my budding army.

The more enduring reason to play an elite army is that it tends to focus, even laser focus, a player’s meaningful choices during a game.  There will tend to be fewer rules to learn/memorize, but that also means one will be forced by necessity to learn the absolute best ways to use each unit’s strengths.

Finally, already incredibly strong units can be pushed to insane heights with selective buffs.  While last week I discussed how pure efficiency of buffs is much greater in horde armies, here, for good or ill, interactions in rules can make specific units better than they were likely intended to be.  At one time the pincushion, unkillable Stardrake spoke to this (no longer), but functionally unkillable Fyreslayer Berzerkers is something competitive players have inevitably faced at some point.

Cons:  There is no other way to say this, but elite armies tend to be very unforgiving, and worse yet, some losses will not be your fault despite your best efforts.  Every single model really matters to your ability to control the table, and objectives, which means tactical mistakes affect you to a disproportionate degree. While some elite armies feel self-aware, offering special rules to help counter the low body-counts, others rely on the assumption that your models will simply do that much more work than your opponent’s.  As we well know, that assumption simply won’t be true all the time.

Much as we try to suggest otherwise, luck/math/dice are all at work, even at the top tables of the finest events.  Lower model counts will USUALLY mean fewer dice rolled across a game, which directly translates to being more at the mercy of swingy dice rolls.  Terrific, well-played games can always pivot on a few bad rolls, but those are more likely to happen here.

Elite Armies Done Right:  To truly succeed as an elite army you need to be able to hold-the-line, and choose your battles.  While good offense is certainly an option, the best performing elite armies instead focus on defense, and winning a protracted grind.

Despite less than incredible showings at recent events (a side-effect of a meta over-correcting to deal with precisely one army) the Ossiarch Bonereapers do actually embody good, elite design.  They feature a very efficient battleline choice in Mortek Guard, who are individually durable, who can have relatively easy access to buffs which make that durability significantly higher, and in some builds have access to support models which will bring back destroyed models.  As you might guess bringing models back to the table is significantly more precious to armies which need every single body they can muster.

It is a bit “Inside Baseball”, but I suspect after a brief decline in tournament popularity, we will actually see the OBR return with strong showings later in the year.

Other elite armies which do well (arguably better than OBR) include the Fyreslayers who can still be frustrating Kryptonite to less experienced competitors, and certainly (depending on build) Orruk Warclans who do actually represent the style of elite play more focused on removing threats before they can remove yours.

Elite Armies Done Wrong:  I am sure to get grief for this, but even as a fan personally, my chonky-bois the Ogors largely show the failings of elite armies.  I think there is something to be said of the fact that the most successful Ogor armies right now actually feature massive hordes of Gnobblars.  

Despite having a special rule to offset their low model count when contesting objectives, Ogors struggle across games that go to the full number of turns.  While presumably the intent of their “eating”, and terrain-pieces special rules are to provide enough healing vectors to keep them in a fight, the reality is that they aren’t up to snuff.  While hard hitting individually, the larger bases also make it easier for crafty opponents to force awkward battles, clumsy pile-ins, that then see units hitting at far less than their full potential, something they absolutely must be doing to stand a chance.

Why is the best way to play Ogors, is to take less Ogors?

Other armies that can really struggle at playing the elite game, ironically also include AoS’ name-brand, the Stormcast Eternals, as well as any Sylvaneth army which leans too fully into Kurnoth units.  In both cases units which are distinctly “ok”, lack both the offense and defense needed to make up for their low numbers, though to their credit both do have some mobility tricks which can counter some of the traditional downsides of this style of play.

I hope, as I read this back, that this article doesn’t sound like a condemnation of elite forces.  As I always say, finding your style of play is actually the single most important facet of reaching one’s competitive potential.  While needing a high level of execution to play correctly, one could also say there are that many fewer model positionings to mess up, and the focus required can likewise prevent misplays due to falling for distractions elsewhere on the table.

Now what happens when we take models and model-counts somewhat out of the equation altogether?  Next time, a look at spell-casting focused armies.

And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

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About Mark Gottlieb

Writer, Game Designer, and owner of Fortunate Sun Studios, I have always tried to lead a life in some way built around paying back to gaming, and the gaming community. This hobby, and everyone in it, saved my life on more than a few occasions, and now I get to put my heart into helping it thrive for everyone!

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