Greetings all and welcome to yet another pre-release early impressions article for a soon-to-be-unleashed Tau Battlesuit; this time, the Tau have unleashed an infiltration specialist upon the galaxy and have caused quite the ruckus in doing so. If you want a quick summary of how I feel about the Ghostkeel before jumping into the article, I'll merely say that I'm a big fan of the Ghostkeel for a number of reasons. For the Greater Good!
Be aware that this article contains rule spoilers for the upcoming Tau Codex; if you don't want to know about what of the new units are capable of until you have the codex in-hand, feel free to skip this early impressions review.
I also must stress that before reading this review you should realize that the opinions expressed in this article are based on leaked images that do not fully represent the Ghostkeel's profile - we do not know what the Fire Team special rule provides to a unit. This is intended to be my early impressions of the Ghostkeel prior to its release in the new codex and should not be viewed as a full, final review of the model.
As with the prior Stormsurge and Ta'unar articles, the style of this review will follow a similar content structure where I focus on each individual aspect of the model in as much depth as possible so that players can be fully enlightened as to what the Ghostkeel is truly capable of.
At first glance the Ghostkeel seems to be one of the more fragile monstrous creatures in the game and lines up with a standard Daemon Prince equipped with Warp-Forged Armor in a lot of ways. Toughness 5 with 4 Wounds and a 3+ armor save make it easier to kill than a Tyranid Carnifex overall based on the pure stats, especially as the Ghostkeel lacks an invulnerable save and - if the option remains - must pay a large amount of points currently for added Feel No Pain or any kind of invulnerable save provided by a Shield Generator. Of course, much like many other specialist units the special rules (I'm so sorry) are what make the Ghostkeel a nightmare to deal with for most armies even despite the deceiving stat-line. The Ghostkeel natively has the Stealth special rule and, per its Ghostkeel Electrowarfare Suite, doubles the cover save bonuses of both the Stealth and Shrouded rules respectively when a ranged attack originates from more than 12" away when targeted at a Ghostkeel unit. This seems decent at first as it gives it a 5+ cover save in the open and a 2+ cover save when touching or inside Ruins, but this is where the Ghostkeel's two Stealth Drones come into play and really shine in a way perhaps no other Drone has before; each Stealth Drone provides Stealth to themselves and confers the Shrouded special rule onto the Ghostkeel with no limitations. As both Stealth and Shrouded confer from one model to an entire unit and both rules have their cover bonuses doubled by the Ghostkeel Electrowarfare Suite, this provides a Ghostkeel unit with a jaw-dropping 2+ cover save in the open so long as the Stealth Drones survive and the attacks directed at it are from more than 12" away. The only other units in the game capable of matching such a feat are those that combine the Jink and Shrouded special rules, but even these sacrifice their full fighting effectiveness at range when using the Jink rule - a Ghostkeel unit suffers no such penalty. This means that if you make full use of a Ghostkeel's Jet Pack movement in the Assault Phase as well as the 18" or greater range on most of its weapon options, it will be virtually impossible to deal with for armies that lack significant amounts of high Strength shooting or a multitude of Ignores Cover shooting attacks.
As I have worked out in my forum posts on +Bell of Lost Souls, a single Ghostkeel - not including the extra Wounds provided by its Drones - that is more than 12" away from enemies will on average succumb to 72 Bolter hits (i.e. not even accounting for rolling to-hit initially), 30 Krak Missile hits, 30 Plasma Gun hits, 144 Lasgun hits, When you consider that the two Stealth Drones themselves will often have the same cover save of 2+ - they do not get a 2+ in the open unfortunately as they themselves lack the Ghostkeel Electrowarfare Suite - and provide the Ghostkeel with two extra Toughness 5 Wounds, the Ghostkeel earmarks itself as one of the most durable units in the entire game relative to its points cost given how little it costs. Catching it in melee is no easy feat given that it is a Jetpack Monstrous Creature that has medium range on all of its guns while any shooting that lacks Ignores Cover will effectively bounce harmlessly off of its armoured plating. The fact that the Drones themselves have 4+ armor saves in addition to the Ghostkeel's 3+ armor save makes this one of the most resilient units in the game against Graviton weaponry which is most definitely not something to take lightly given how numerous they are in the competitive scene, while even most Destroyer weapons will struggle to put a dent in the Ghostkeel; any single shots that manage to roll a Deathblow result can simply be allocated to a Stealth Drone instead of a Ghostkeel if the user is smart with their unit positioning. I wouldn't be surprised if users of this unit place each Stealth Drone on either side of the Ghostkeel strategically to act as ablative wounds while keeping one out of harm's way to get the Shrouded bonus, while their uses for tanking hits that would pose a serious threat to the Ghostkeel itself are many and obvious.
The reality is that most armies simply do not natively have weaponry that both Ignores Cover and is adept at dealing with what amounts to a six-wound Toughness 5 3+ armored Monstrous Creature, and dealing with a Ghostkeel will become necessary over the course of the game given its impressive firepower and surprising ability to crush vehicles and weaker units in a melee. However, even when such weapons are present in an army list and are directed at a Ghostkeel unit by necessity, the Ghostkeel has one final defense that earmarks it as truly one of the most irritating units in the game to deal with conventionally. This defense takes the form of the Holophoton Countermeasures present on the Battlesuits themselves which has perhaps one of the best situational defensive bonuses seen in a codex so far; once the Ghostkeel is chosen as the target of a shooting attack - meaning that at that point your opponent cannot change targets and shoot at something else with the unit in question - but before any rolls to-hit are made, you can declare you are using the Ghostkeel's Holophoton Countermeasures. Once activated, all shooting attacks made by the unit regardless of whether they are all targeting the Ghostkeel (those poor Super Heavy Vehicles and Gargantuan Creatures) are treated as Snap Shots for that phase, granting them pseudo Invisibility on top of their already insane cover stacking bonuses. The reason that this is so amazing is that a lot of armies tend to only have a one or two units capable of packing on high Strength Ignores Cover ranged attacks with a certain Imperial Guard Baneblade variant coming to mind; you can prolong the destruction of your Ghostkeel unit at a moment's notice and surprise your opponents into effectively wasting their shooting at the Ghostkeel for a turn, meaning that a likely very expensive unit sees their ranged damage output almost completely neutered for a turn. The fact that you can activate it after the unit is chosen as the target of attack is fantastic as it gives you the flexibility and surprise factor to engage it whenever it is needed, and being able to neuter a Super Heavy or Gargantuan Creature's shooting for a turn is both hilarious and very powerful (how many other units in the game can do that?).
This also makes the Ghostkeel absolutely hilarious in a Tau mirror match-up; one of the easy solutions to dealing with units similar to a Ghostkeel with the Tau codex is to light it up with a handful of Markerlights and then unload a friendly Skyray's entire payload of Seeker Missiles onto the target in what amounts to a super alpha-strike that ignores many of the usual conventions of ranged attacks such as line of sight and cover. In this scenario, you can allow your opponent to consume several Markerlight tokens to fire a Skyray's entire Seeker Missile payload at the Ghostkeel and then turn the situation on its head by forcing the Seeker Missiles to be fired using Snap Shots, effectively killing any chance of them actually harming a Ghostkeel at all. Such uses are what makes the Ghostkeel so darned strong in terms of defensive capabilities; Tau have the firepower to bring almost any unit to its knees but are often very fragile themselves. In this scenario, you can use the Ghostkeel to soak up whatever shooting comes its way by using the Holophotonic Countermeasures as necessary and then fire it and any other needed Tau units at the source of the opponents' Ignores Cover ranged attacks to eliminate one of the few viable threats to the Ghostkeels in a game and thus allowing them to run amok in a match. The same can be said against a Centurion Death-star led by Varro Tigurius and other characters to taste; they must expend warp charge points on both Prescience and Perfect Timing to have any significant chance of bypassing the Holophotonic Countermeasures, will struggle to get past the 4+ and 3+ saves of the Stealth Drones and Ghostkeel respectively and then perhaps have to deal with any optional defensive wargear added to a Ghostkeel itself such as Stimulant Injectors or a Shield Generator. Seeing as warp charge points aren't necessarily found in great numbers with your average Centurion Deathstar list and they will almost always have to expend several points just to get the much needed Gate of Infinity and either Forewarning or Invisibility, it is very likely the unit will struggle to get the other powers off - especially if the Tau player is smart and saves their own dice for the inevitable Perfect Timing power that is key to stopping a Ghostkeel unit. In fact, considering all competitive Centurion Deathstars are built around Invisibility, this effectively makes a Ghostkeel unit all but impervious to the firepower of what is otherwise a truly terrifying unit - while smart players will obviously acquire different targets to pursue, this is nonetheless a remarkable indication of how impressive a Ghostkeel is in terms of raw defense.
It goes without saying that a Ghostkeel won't survive sustained pressure when its cover save bonuses are denied - making protecting at least one Stealth Drone the key imperative - given that with its two Drones it effectively amounts to six Space Marine Bikers as far as raw defensive stats are concerned, but considering it has the mobility and range to stay out of combat and sources of high Strength Ignores Cover are limited this generally won't be a huge problem. In fact as far as combat is concerned a Ghostkeel can currently purchase a Vectored Retro Thruster for a measly few points to gain the Hit and Run special rule while being able to use the Stealth Drones' respectable Initiative 4 to have roughly a 67% (rounded up) chance of escaping any combat just in case anyone actually manages to catch it! Overall, given that a Ghostkeel can safely operate at distances of 18" to 25" away based on its weapon ranges and Jetpack moves while ignoring all terrain when it zips around the board due to having both a Jetpack and the Move Through Cover special rule, it stands as perhaps the best example yet of the Tau way of war in terms of its implementation into the codex. It strikes without warning and does so with unparalleled precision and power, but can retreat as quickly as a shadow at dawn and becomes almost an imperceptible threat to an advancing force as it continues its steady stream of harassment. For its points cost given that each Ghostkeel has two Stealth Drones included in its base price and unit selection, the Ghostkeel is arguably the toughest monstrous creature in the game at this kind of points level; it makes most other units in the game seem laughable by comparison with how insanely resistant it is to the majority of shooting attacks in the game while also conveniently possessing the mobility to avoid most of the close-range encounters that it is vulnerable to. As an aside, the Ghostkeel itself also has a Blacksun Filter which currently makes it immune to the Blind special rule....hooray for additional defenses that would otherwise leave a Ghostkeel vulnerable to a rarely seen special rule!
As you would expect given that Tau units tend to sacrifice either defense or offense to focus on one above all, the Ghostkeel balances out its insane durability with firepower that is certainly still impressive but generally much more tame in comparison to the equivalent in other standard Battlesuits. A Ghostkeel can be equipped with one of two primary weapon selections, and one of three secondary weapon options which - much like the Riptide - means that it's inbuilt Multi-Tracker is rendered useless given that it is already a Monstrous Creature (though it is entirely possible that Multi-Trackers may do something else for this unit type). On that note, the Ghostkeel incorporates a Blacksun Filter much like all other Battlesuits which probably indicates the Multi-Tracker is a "fluff" inclusion that is purely a nod to the background, however in this case - again, barring any changes - this provides a Ghostkeel with Night Vision to allow for unhindered ranged presence whenever Night Fighting is in play. Back to the matter at hand though, the first point of contention here for players will undoubtedly be the choice of primary weapon - the Fusion Collider that fires a single Strength 8 AP1 Small Blast with an 18" range and possesses the Melta special rule, or the Cyclic Ion Raker that shoots either six Strength 7 AP4 shots or a single Strength 8 AP4 Large Blast with Gets Hot while both firing modes have a larger 24" range.
The choice between these two weapons seems fairly obvious to me for the most part; what ultimately destroys most vehicles in the game is hull point removal which means a gun that combines high Strength and rate-of-fire is the best bet for anti-vehicular warfare, making the Cyclic Ion Raker the clear winner against anything that isn't AV13 or greater. Additionally, against most units the AP4 Large Blast of the Cyclic Ion Raker will be more preferable to the AP1 Small Blast of the Fusion Collider given that most units will often have cover saves or - in the case of Xenos - be disallowed their armor save regardless, while the much greater coverage of a Large Blast obviously has great advantages over a Small Blast. The question becomes one of efficiency and what targets you would preferably use a Ghostkeel against; it is no secret that Tau are currently lacking for anti-heavy-vehicle firepower (i.e. Land Raiders, Imperial Knights and so on) outside of using suicidal Crisis Teams armed with dual Fusion Blasters that often destroy their target and die shortly thereafter, or fail in the attempt and are slaughtered regardless. If you find your army to be lacking in that department then a Ghostkeel is not a terrible choice given both how durable it is and how much a short-ranged unit gets out of the Jetpack assault moves, but even so having to close within 9" to get the full effect of the Melta rule will put the Ghostkeel in alarming proximity to most units - especially if you roll badly for the Jetpack move. If you do wish to use the Ghostkeel for this purpose then it isn't a terrible alternative to the under-rated suicidal dual-fusion Crisis Teams as its intense durability balances out the greater volume of shots put out by the Crisis Team, and another important factor to note is that a Ghostkeel that is also armed with a twin-linked Fusion Blaster averages almost as many hits as three of the Crisis Suits mentioned above when Markerlights are not available.
Seeing as sources of Markerlights are often the first targets opponents will direct their attention at this is not an unimportant point to raise, especially as the fact that one of the Ghostkeel's weapons are twin-linked and the other is a Blast which means it won't require the use of Markerlights so often. Still, I generally prefer the Cyclic Ion Raker for the reasons stated above; unless you absolutely need something to crack open the most heavily armored vehicles, the greatly increased volume of fire at Strength 7 is far and away superior to the single Strength 8 shot regardless of AP values where the vast majority of vehicular enemies are concerned, while the Cyclic Ion Raker is better against all other unit types short of bunched up Terminators or alternative elite units that are easy prey for an AP1 Blast weapon. While the Cyclic Ion Raker does lack Twin-Linked as well and thus has to contend with the Ghostkeel's mediocre Ballistic Skill 3, the same is ultimately true of the Fusion Collider that has the inherent weaknesses of being a Blast weapon and the general inaccuracy of small blast templates. For average damage output against almost anything the Cyclic Ion Raker pulls ahead, but perhaps the most important factor here is the respective weapon range of each weapon and what effect that has on a Ghostkeel's potential chances of survival in any given turn. Fusion-armed Ghostkeels want to be within 9" of their target to get the full effect of their Melta weapons, whereas those equipped with the alternative ion weapon can safely operate at 24" ranges and not be so utterly reliant on both a lack of speed on the opponents' part and a good roll for their own Jetpack assault moves.
Seeing as the Ghostkeel is at its most vulnerable when within 12" of enemy units this is definitely what makes the Cyclic Ion Raker the easy recommendation for me as the choice of primary weapon system, though the Fusion Collider most definitely has its uses. As an example, it will terrorize Deep Striking Terminators almost as well as a Riptide armed with an Ion Accelerator if both units have the Early Warning Override upgrade, while the uses a small blast can potentially have when buffed by Markerlights to hit multiple models - including two or more vehicles in a single squadron - means it isn't necessarily a bad choice, just one that is generally inferior to its alternative. The fact that swapping between the two is a free exchange makes this even more favorable to the Cyclic Ion Raker despite it being the clearly superior weapon option before any costs are taken into account. I also must point out that for those saying the Ghostkeel has terrible firepower, one equipped with a Cyclic Ion Raker is actually superior to a moderately more expensive Riptide for dealing with vehicles; it has double the shots compared to an Ion Accelerator and has the advantage of Strength over the Heavy Burst Cannon, while the secondary weapon systems are very similar - the only time a Riptide pulls ahead is if it has either Tank Hunters or an Earth Caste Pilot Array to guarantee Nova Charges for a Heavy Burst Cannon, the latter of which makes the price disparity between the two units far more apparent.
As for the secondary weapon systems, I've already spoiled one; you can pay a decent sum of points to take a twin-linked fusion blaster, half the points to instead take a twin-linked burst cannon, or leave it with the stock twin-linked flamer. Generally speaking the fusion blaster is a good choice here for providing an extra high Strength AP1 shot at 18" to a Ghostkeel and has good synergy with both of the primary weapon systems given that each is innately an anti-tank weapon, though much like the Fusion Collider you have to weigh up the disadvantages bringing it into Melta range can bring. The Burst Cannon is best suited to a pairing with the Cyclic Ion Raker to give it a wealth of medium to high Strength shots - ten in total, to be exact - with the four twin-linked Strength 5 AP5 shots contributing nicely to any attempts to destroy a light vehicle or whittle down an infantry unit or monstrous creature. The Flamer seems like the weakest weapon in practice but has its uses for Overwatch, toasting cover-camping light infantry - should you be using the Ghostkeel aggressively at close ranges - and generally diversifying the Ghostkeels' preferred targets. However, at the same range it becomes usable the alternate fusion weapons are at their strongest, and given that Tau generally have more trouble dealing with heavy vehicles than masses of infantry, I find this to be the weakest option overall but it is acceptable given that it comes at no additional cost to the model. Ultimately I would make the choice between the Burst Cannon or the Fusion Blaster here with no real favor towards either, though I like the sound of a Cyclic Ion Raker paired up with a twin-linked Burst Cannon even if only for watching the light vehicles shudder which would in turn allow the (current) Broadsides from the Firebase Support Cadre to focus their efforts on the tougher threats to the army. Overall, a single Ghostkeel provides respectable firepower for its cost which, combined with its inherent mobility and option to Deep Strike, makes it a solid unit to recommend for an army based purely on what it brings in the Shooting Phase - it shares a similar points cost to two dual Missile Pod armed Crisis Suits and, with the Cyclic Ion Raker and twin-linked Burst Cannon combination, has an almost indistinguishable effective damage output while being ridiculously more durable.
I also must stress that a Ghostkeel is not merely useless in close combat, a conclusion that many have automatically leaped to based purely on the fact that it is a Tau unit. The amusing thing to note about a Ghostkeel is that it is as just as good in close combat in terms of raw damage output as a much pricier Riptide in the current rules, possessing three Strength 6 AP2 attacks with poor Weapon Skill 2 and Initiative 2 values. The reason I bring this up is that this kind of damage output is actually analogous to a Necron Tomb Spyder, a unit that while certainly not considered a star of melee is still inherently dangerous due to having high Strength AP2 melee attacks by nature of being a Monstrous Creature. Having four Strength 6 AP2 attacks on the charge that hit Weapon Skill 4 and lower opponents on 4s in close combat plus a single Strength 6 AP- Hammer of Wrath attack on top of the potential to use a single Strength 10 AP2 Smash attack makes the Ghostkeel by far the best close combat unit Tau currently have access to with respect to its points cost, especially as its two "free" Drones add their own pair of Strength 3 AP- attacks on the charge. While not necessarily game-changing this does nonetheless let Ghostkeels pummel vehicles and weaker non-vehicle units into submission via combat while using its solid Toughness 5 and 3+ armor save to tank most wounds that go its way. A unit of three Ghostkeels is a legitimate threat to even certain elite melee units on the charge and their total points cost can often average out to around what said elite unit and their oft expensive dedicated transport costs in total combined points values. It is something to remember with a unit that operates not too far away from enemy units regardless of its weapon options and can also be yet another tactic to try and hide from ranged weapons that can legitimately harm it, all the while bullying units that often aren't well equipped to deal with it.
With a base points cost of 130 points which includes a single Ghostkeel and two Stealth Drones, the Ghostkeel has lots of fantastic traits that contribute to it being supremely valuable; it has firepower that is respectable by Tau standards given its points cost, it has durability to match units that are almost three times its cost in most scenarios, it has great mobility thanks to being a Jetpack-equipped Monstrous Creature and its uses to a Tau army that is almost strictly based on static gun-line builds are incredibly numerous for objective-based missions. The really interesting aspect of the Ghostkeel that I haven't touched on yet is that much like the Stormsurge it can be fielded in squads ala Tyranid Carnifexes or Necron Tomb Spyders, a first for the Tau codex; given how cheap each Ghostkeel is and what they all bring to the table, this can make for a seriously potent unit - just how potent will probably be judged by what the Fire Team special rule and any associated formations provides for the unit. Depending on how the Holophoton Countermeasures are interpreted it could also lead to a single unit becoming virtually impossible to stop with shooting attacks in much the same way that catching them in combat can be extraordinarily difficult, but the fact that the unit lacks Fearless - again, unless the codex changes this - makes spending so many points on a unit of monstrous creatures potentially wasteful if you aren't careful.
On that point, the fact that the Stealth Drones are included for free with the Ghostkeel and are a huge aspect of what makes the Ghostkeel so ridiculously durable is definitely a good thing in my eyes, though one has to be very careful with them as a single Ghostkeel and two Drones will have to start taking morale tests at Leadership 9 or lower once a single Drone dies. Regardless, the fact that all of the weapon options for the Ghostkeel are cheap or free makes it even more recommendable based purely on the fact that you can cheaply bring what type of firepower you need to the table no matter which you choose, while many of its upgrades via support systems are presently inexpensive as well. Ghostkeels with Velocity Trackers and the Early Warning Override combined with a Cyclic Ion Raker and twin-linked Burst Cannon makes for a fairly powerful anti-air unit, while even just a simple Vectored Thrust Array is a godsend to any Ghostkeel facing a fast, hard-hitting assault army. The Ghostkeel has numerous worthwhile options that are all priced fairly for the moment while generally being extremely points-efficient based on all of the great attributes it possesses, the best of all being that insanely survivable profile against the vast majority of ranged attacks in the game.
The Ghostkeel is unlike almost anything else in the Tau codex in the sense that it actively wants to move into the midfield and take the fight to the enemy while still employing the popular hit-and-run tactics of the Tau to stay out of harm's way, while also simultaneously being capable of soaking up an immense amount of ranged punishment. Its uses for securing objectives and preying on vulnerable units that lack adequate means to deal with a Monstrous Creature are enough to justify its inclusion in any Tau list given how the army historically struggles to attain victory in Maelstrom of War missions by playing with respect to victory points. It's close to being the most durable unit in the game for its points cost with its effective 6 Wounds at Toughness 5 with an almost permanent 2+ save that can't simply be ignored by using AP2 or AP1 weapons, backed by the speed and firepower to be a potent threat to any opponent that they can't really afford to ignore. Using the Drones as ablative wounds for any Strength 10 or Destroyer hits that are directed at the Ghostkeel in addition to its Holophoton Countermeasures gives it adequate defences to cover its weakness to Ignores Cover, while the fact that it isn't that big of a model means it can easily hide outside of line of sight via suitable terrain, making its usage of the Jump-Shoot-Jump tactic all the more valuable.
The Ghostkeel oozes value in an interesting way in the sense that it isn't so much a brutal damage dealer like most Tau units but instead perhaps the ultimate bullet sponge, being more durable overall than a Riptide with regards to shooting against all but small arms fire or weapons that Ignore Cover with AP3 but not AP2. It also actively wants to get close to opponents as it has in-built defenses against the most potent short-ranged weapons in the game - namely Graviton weapons - that usually terrify Riptides and other Tau units into sitting lazily towards the rear of a gaming board, making it a rare commodity for a Tau army in that it is a great scoring unit on its own merits. I really like the Stormsurge and feel that most of the community is heavily under-rating its competitive usage, but there's no denying the Ghostkeel is the more easily recommendable unit of the two for its cost and the simple fact that it is not an oft ban-inducing Gargantuan Creature. If the Stormsurge and Ghostkeel are anything to go by we should be looking at a very well balanced but still strong codex in much the same vein as all the other Necron and post-Necron codices, something that I most definitely appreciate.
Thank you for reading this analysis of the upcoming XV25 Ghostkeel battlesuit! I'm not as sold on the Ghostkeel model-wise as I am with the Stormsurge but I am definitely very impressed with the rule-set on offer given that we have never really seen a Monstrous Creature designed for ranged hit-and-run tactics quite like a Ghostkeel before. I am looking forward to reading your impressions of the Ghostkeel; I do not see it as a replacement of any of the current units but instead an addition that offers more tactical flexibility and potential uses than the other more standard Battlesuits.