Improving T’au Drones

In last week’s article I discussed what Games Workshop could do with the Saviour Protocols rule in the 9th edition T’au codex. I talked about how the rule became essential to competitive T’au armies back in 8th edition, arguing that this was bad for T’au players in particular and bad for the game more broadly.

Why is this the case? Codex books that contain only one competitive build — and the T’au codex in 8th certainly fit this description — become less and less interesting for the community as a whole as an edition goes on. Indeed, many players weren’t particularly keen on T’au Drone spam lists back in 8th, and, as I said last week, I can hardly blame them.

This issue got me thinking. What would a T’au codex with three or four competitive builds look like? Which units would have to change in order to make this the case? And how would these units have to change?

Granted, there’s a lot to go into there. And I’ve already talked about, say, the Ghostkeel or the Vespid in this context — two units that could be great options in 9th with a few minor tweaks to the stat-line. But I’m going to save in-depth unit analysis for future articles. Goodness knows that there are plenty of units in the T’au codex that warrant such treatment, so I’m unlikely to run out of steam on that front any time soon.

Instead, I want to return to T’au Drones. Last week, I discussed the Saviour Protocols rule specifically, but any proper discussion of that rule involves a discussion of how the Drone works more broadly. I’m going to dig a little deeper into this theme in this article. SP needs changing. This much is true. But how much should the Drone itself change?

Honestly, I think that T’au Drones are really cool. But, to be fair, I am biased. I’ve got roughly 40 of the little blighters and I want to use them.

Let’s ask a couple of basic questions that have been rattling around in my brain for a good while. First, should T’au Drones have Ballistic Skill 4? And second, should T’au Drones be fearless?

First, the issue of BS. At the moment, the T’au are underpowered in a variety of ways. Everyone knows that the faction is really struggling. And it is this point that informs my opinion on this issue: I think that Drones should have BS 4, and I actually don’t think it would make too much difference to the faction as a whole. Would it be an improvement? Of course. Would it be too much of an improvement? I really don’t think so.

Shield Drones are very strong. And when the T’au player starts to roll hot, Shield Drones really do the business. But we’ve seen a lot of Shield Drones over the past few years. I’d really like to see Gun and Marker Drones get some more play, and BS 4 would definitely be a way to make this happen.

Armed with two Pulse Carbines, Gun Drones would actually have a respectable amount of dakka if the model could shoot straight. A Pulse Carbine is an Assault 2 weapon with a Strength of 5. Granted, the AP is 0 and the Damage is 1, but when we’re talking about a high number of shots, these concerns look a little less troublesome.

Four Strength 5 shots at 18″ isn’t going to trouble anything with a respectable defensive profile, but it could certainly do a job in the right circumstances.

Let’s do a back-of-the-napkin comparison. At the moment, each Drone hits with 1.3 of those Pulse Carbine shots. If we take a small, four-man Drone unit, we could call that five hits on average. If we’re shooting at Primaris Marines, we’re going to Wound with 3.3 of those hits. This means that, at the moment, a squad of four Gun Drones shooting at Primaris Marines would be unlikely to kill a single Marine. And that’s for a cost of 80 points.

If we increase our BS to 4, our humble Drone squad now hits eight times. While this is slightly more respectable, it’s still nothing to write home about. With our eight hits we’re likely to Wound with 5.2 of them. And while we’re a little shy of the six Wounds required to mathematically kill a two-Wound Primaris Marine, we’re certainly most of the way there.

Four Drones almost slaying a Primaris Marine isn’t going to fundamentally break the balance of the T’au-Space Marines matchup. In fact, it won’t break the balance of any matchup. But it would be cool, and it would make the army slightly more powerful, which is one of many steps in the right direction.

As I mentioned earlier, whenever I think about how improving this model or that one or increasing the power of this weapon or that one, I always make the comparison to some of the best shooting armies in the game. How does this look compared to the Admech? How does this look compared to Space Marines?

For example, let’s take the humble Burst Cannon and a couple of its variants. I think that the Burst Cannon should go from Assault 4 to Assault 6; I think that the High-output Burst Cannon should go from Assault 8 to Assault 10; and I think that the Heavy Burst Cannon should go from Heavy 12 to Heavy 16.

Would three Stealth Suits each putting out six Burst Cannon shots be particularly oppressive? I don’t think so. Would ten shots on the Coldstar Commander’s High-output Burst Cannon make it worth taking? Honestly, it probably still wouldn’t.

I’m a bit more open to the opposing point of view on the Heavy Burst Cannon — only because a Strength 6, Damage 2 weapon is so useful against Marines — but you’ll have to make a compelling argument.

Either way, you get my point.

I think, then, that there is a pretty good case for increasing a Drone’s BS from 5 to 4, but what about making the unit fearless?

This one, I must admit, I’m not quite sold on. The lore argument is solid. T’au Drones are not living, sentient lifeforms; their behaviour on the battlefield must be programmed. This means that Drones could be programmed to be entirely fearless in the face of overwhelming enemy firepower or they could be programmed to retreat in order to increase chances of survival. Both of these options are feasible.

But what about the tabletop argument? This is the one that matters most. How would a fearless Drone unit play? Would it be too powerful? While I can see both of sides of this one, I would lean towards making this unit fearless.

Or, rather, I think that it should be an option. For example, T’au players could take a couple of normal Drones for so-and-so points, or T’au players could take a couple of fearless Drones for so-and-so points plus this amount or that amount. The exact points aren’t relevant to the example, of course.

This would add an interesting element to the unit. While most T’au players wouldn’t opt for fearless Drones if we were to continue taking them in units of two, most T’au players would consider taking a unit of eight Drones that were fearless.

Again, such a change wouldn’t completely break the faction. It would be cool buff — there’s no doubt about that — but a squad of two of Drones that are immune to the effects of moral isn’t going to completely change the meta of the game. Why would this be the case? With one exception, T’au Drones aren’t particularly tough. While Toughness 4 and a 4+ Save is reasonable, it’s not like most opponents can’t deal with them fairly comfortably.

Granted, Shield Drones are the exception to this rule, but I would say that, while powerful, a unit of fearless Shield Drones won’t break the game.

A unit of fearless, BS 4 Gun Drones would be an interesting mid-board threat for the T’au. It would be cool to see Drones used in a non-defensive fashion, threatening objectives and tagging scouting enemy units.

I’ve said it many times: we need new play styles from the next T’au codex, and more options from our Drone units could certainly help us along this path. The Saviour Protocols rule needs to change, and I certainly think that it will, and I reckon that along with that change we should see some interesting updates to our little helper friends.

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2 Responses to “Improving T’au Drones”

  1. Avatar
    John February 23, 2021 12:07 am #

    Tau infantry should be BS3+ with their standard weapons switched to Heavy.

    To me that would be perfect balance.

    4+ when moving, 3+ when standing still.

    • Avatar
      Luke February 23, 2021 7:39 pm #

      That’s actually a good idea. It might need some work though, as you’d lose the rapid fire ability (so the guns would either be Heavy 1 and don’t get two shots at half range, or Heavy 2 and you’d get every Tau hater saying it is way OP).

      I’d like to see something like this though.

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