The Saviour Protocols rule has long been a key element of competitive T’au builds. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that SP was the key element of competitive T’au builds. Without this rule, the strong T’au lists that we saw throughout 8th edition simply would not function.
It’s no wonder, then, that Games Workshop chose to make Drones more expensive in 9th edition. And while the increase to this key unit isn’t the main reason that T’au are performing so poorly in 9th, it’s certainly part of the equation.
Before we go any further, let’s define the rule. When a T’au model is wounded within 3″ of a friendly Drone, the T’au player may, on the roll of a 2+ pass that wound off to the Drone. The Drone in question then immediately takes one Mortal Wound and the attack sequence ends. It goes without saying that this is a very powerful ability.
Indeed, many players found that playing against a T’au army with upwards of 40 Drones, most of which had a 4+ invulnerable save and a 5+ feel-no-pain, could be somewhat frustrating. And I can certainly see where they are coming from.
However, I think it’s fair to say that those days are behind us. Tactical Drones — Drones in their own unit — now cost an eye-watering 20 points per model and even Shield Drones attached to units cost 15 points. Our friendly helpers have been effectively priced out of the game. Queue sad beep-boop noises.
And it’s no surprise. I think that, one way or another, GW wanted T’au players to move away from Drone spam.
This prompts the question, then: what will the Saviour Protocols rule look like in the 9th edition codex?
Let’s look at this in another way for a moment. What does the SP rule actually do? What does it allow T’au players to achieve? Simply put, SP offers ablative wounds to most T’au units.
According to its datasheet, for example, a Riptide has 14 Wounds, but if we add six Shield Drones into the mix, our Riptide effectively now has 19 Wounds. Of course, I’m presuming here the T’au player rolls a 1 for one of the SP rolls. The Riptide is already a fearsome unit to crack, and increasing its Wound count makes it all the more troublesome.
Of course, we could say the same about Crisis Suits and Stealth Suits, Ghostkeels and Commanders, but SP was arguably most powerful when combined with the Riptide because the Riptide is so tough in the first place.
SP, then, offers we T’au players more resilient units. It’s a powerful defensive ability that allows our key units to remain on the board for longer.
And, put simply, I think that it should still perform this function in the 9th edition codex.
However, it shouldn’t be as powerful as it is right now. SP shouldn’t be the crux of the army. Like I said, if we were to remove SP from the 8th edition codex, we would have completely broken the army.
This isn’t how we want the codex to function. A good codex will offer players three or four strong builds, based around a variety of interesting units. Not only is this good for the game, but it’s also good for GW’s bottom line: more powerful units means more powerful units flying off the shelves.
Let’s get into the specifics. How could SP work in the new codex? I’ve heard one particular fix in a variety of places online: limit the SP rule only to the Drones attached to a unit. There’s no doubt in my mind that this would solve the problem of SP. Commanders, for example, would only gain two ablative Wounds from their Drones. Fire Warriors would gain only a couple of Wounds as well.
But Crisis Suits would gain many more. For each Crisis Suit in the unit, the T’au player may take two Drones. A three-man Crisis Suit unit could, therefore, take six additional Drones, granting six ablative Wounds to the unit.
Of course, these restrictions could change in the new codex if this is the direction that the design team take the rule.
This would be a simple fix to a troublesome rule, but while it certainly has its benefits, I would argue that it might become quite tricky to keep track of the different Drones that are attached to different units. While high-level players would certainly find a way to keep track of their Drones — Drones with the red sticker are attached to the Broadsides; Drones with the blue sticker are attached to the Crisis Suits; and so on — there would be a lot scope for regular players to mix things up.
Broadly speaking, I would imagine that the GW design team will want to avoid anything that could be confused in such a manner.
But let’s think a bit more creatively. What else could we do with this rule?
It would be interesting to have SP grant other defensive benefits than ablative Wounds. For example, taking a couple of Shield Drones in a Crisis Suit squad might allow the Crisis Suits to ignore AP -1 and AP -2 on incoming shooting. Or it could increase the unit’s armour save from a 3+ to a 2+. Or it could grant an invulnerable save to the unit.
There’s a lot of scope for some interesting rules design here. Not only could we have Drones grant defensive abilities, but we could have Drones granting different defensive abilities based on the unit in question. For example, Shield Drones attached to a Stealth Suit unit negate any re-rolls to hit to which the opposing unit has access, or Shield Drones attached to a Riptide could decrease incoming Damage by one. There could be a lot of potential here.
This change would immediately make Drones a much more interesting unit on the tabletop, and, more importantly, it would make the SP rule a lot less frustrating for opposing players. For example, a Riptide with a -1 Damage ability is certainly a strong model, but concentrated firepower from appropriate units will still deal a significant amount of damage.
And this is how the game should be. Players should have access to powerful units, but their opponents across the table should also have access to tactics and strategies to deal with them.
But let’s consider another possibility. GW could actually make the SP rule more potent, but significantly limit the number of Drones that players could take.
For example, GW could remove the Tactical Drones unit entirely from the new codex, obliging players to take Drones attached to units if they want to take any Drones at all. These Drones, then, could be much more powerful than they are now, but they would of course be more rare.
In such a scenario, we could certainly see each an individual Drone increase its Wound count. If a T’au army takes only, say, eight Shield Drones, it’s plausible that these Drones have three Wounds each instead of the one that we see now. And the SP rule on these models might even be improved, granting defensive abilities as well as ablative Wounds. There’s the tricky issue of balance to contend with here, but it’s certainly a possibility.
Indeed, when thinking about any potential new rules and abilities, it’s always useful to take a broad look at the current meta in order to assess how a new change would fit in with the overall game. With T’au, this is seldom cheerful prospect. The army is struggling so much at the moment that any upgrade at all seems appropriate.
Of course, we don’t want 9th edition T’au armies to look exactly like 8th edition T’au armies. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t want Drones to be the crux of the faction.
But these friendly helpers should be an important part of the T’au way of war. Both on the tabletop and in the lore, Drones are unique. Of course, a few factions that models and units that a similar in one form or another, but when it comes down to it, the Drone is a uniquely T’au model, and I would argue that the factions should be distinct. GW should lean into that which makes each faction different and interesting. This will lead to a better game overall.
I’ll finish with this. It’s tricky to predict what GW will do with SP and Drones because it’s tricky to predict what GW will do with the faction as whole. There’s a pretty good argument to say that the faction needs a rewrite from the ground up, which would of course involve rethinking how Drones work on the tabletop.
But whatever happens, I think that Drones should remain part of the faction, but not an integral part on which T’au players must lean in order to have a competitive list. We need a diversity of powerful units and abilities, and Drones should be one part of a broader puzzle.
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