8 Apr 2013

The Heldrake - Six Months On

Howdy all, I'm Learn2Eel and today I want to talk about the dreaded Heldrake, fiend of the skies. One of the most feared and discussed units in the game right now, today's article focuses on just how amazing the difference between looking at a unit from the perspective of averages and actually using it can be, with a comparison between my initial review of the mechanical dragon and my present thoughts. There's no doubt that the Heldrake has sent ripples throughout the 6th Edition meta-game owing to the mere potential of its appearance, with the trend of foot-based Infantry or Bike armies becoming so prevalent and yet countered so strongly by the winged terror. I hope you enjoy this throw-back article!

A quick note for those anticipating my Tau Tactica; progress is swift, but the HQ section is easily the longest section of the Tactica. I still need a bit more time to complete it to satisfaction. Thankfully, once it is done, the rest of the codex will be a far easier proposition. Thank you!

Having been introduced in the latest rulebook for Warhammer 40000, flyers have made quite the impact with their unmatched alpha strike potential and durability - with most enemies unable to effectively damage flyers without focusing fire with all of their available forces, and such units being able to deal massive damage on the turn they arrive from reserves, many flyers are amongst the strongest units in the game right now. It is interesting to note just how much our evaluations of units such as Night Scythes and Stormravens has changed with the introduction of flyer rules, given that many lightly armoured fast skimmers in their vein were previously derided in 5th Edition unless used in specific configurations owing to their fragility. Given that any non-skyfire unit now has to snap-fire at such units, giving them a dramatic boost to their survivability, as well as their incredibly high mobility, Night Scythes and Stormravens - amongst other 5th Edition "fast skimmers" or low-assault aircraft - are enjoying a renaissance in terms of sheer effectiveness and use. Every competitive 6th Edition army list has to be prepared for the potential appearance of flyers, either by taking some of their own or taking multiple units or fortifications designed for anti-air duties. But given that all of those fliers - with the partial exception of Night Scythes and Doom Scythes (in my opinion they weren't fully designed with the current flyer rules in mind) - were created with the 5th Edition rule-set in mind, the war-gaming community was assuredly eager to see what the first true 6th Edition flyer would be like, and to a greater extent, how much of a preview the first 6th Edition codex would be for the rest of the edition. Suffice it to say, Chaos Space Marines were met with a mixed response upon their release; though they are a finely balanced book for the most part, there is little doubting the sheer value of certain units - good or bad - compared to most others internally, as well as the fact that it was not a return to the much lauded 3.5 codex. Fulfilling the promise of the first 6th Edition flyer was the Heldrake, often criticised for its garish model and strange design; at first glance, many derided the Heldrake as over-costed or featuring subpar abilities, mostly owing to its default weapon choice. It is strange to think that a unit that is feared above all in this edition presently was so negatively received upon its inception, but it is fair to say that few - if any - could have anticipated the sheer game-breaking nature of the beast.

My first full-on codex review was for the new Chaos Space Marines - a Tactica which can be viewed in full either in our Tactica Portal or on +Bell of Lost Souls - and my initial thoughts on the Heldrake were more positive than a lot of other reviews at the time. Now, I am not going to say "I told you so" as I feel that, at the time, the criticism (that is still valid today, and I accept that) that I over-rate many of the units is justified. I will steadfastly say that no-one could have ever predicted the magnitude of the Heldrake's release. With this in mind, let us take a look back into the past, six months ago when the first 6th Edition codex was released, and see just how (in)accurate my predictions were.

Heldrake - Ah, the hellchick....er, heldrake, we meet at last! The Heldrake is a devastating unit - if used correctly and against the right opposition. As our only in-codex flyer, the Heldrake fills a rather unique role - as nasty as its offensive capabilities are, it is also a very reliable 'tank', meaning that it can quite easily soak up most of the damage that would target it. Hard to Hit, AV 12/12/10, 5+ invulnerable save, 5+ It Will Not Die, etc. It never has to Evade like other fliers and will not easily die to massed glancing hits. It is in the running for the most durable flyer in the game award and should be used accordingly - be aggressive with it, as your opponent will either be forced to ignore it or dedicate ridiculous amounts of firepower into its attempted destruction. Either way, it will typically make its points back the turn it comes on. I must strongly recommend the Baleflamer above the Hades Autocannon - whilst a S8 AP4 4-shot weapon sounds great, especially when hunting other flyers, the Heldrake has a mediocre BS and the weapon is not twin-linked. You also already have a Vector Strike resolved at S7 AP3, doing D3+1 automatic hits on any unit - including other fliers. The Baleflamer, on the other hand, is an even nastier flamestorm cannon mounted on a flyer that can be placed 12" away from the big bird and turned around for maximum devastation.

As awesome as the Heldrake sounds, and as inexpensive for what it does as it appears, I would never recommend running more than two. Heldrakes are still vehicles, as hard as they are to destroy due to being flyers and having an invulnerable save, they can still be obliterated quite easily by a lucky shot. Other fliers will probably win in an 'aerial duel', depending on what they are - I wouldn't worry too much about a Dakkajet, but a Stormraven or Vendetta is sure to blow your feathers *cough* wings off. As good as its cost is, it will still eat into your lists' points total quite quickly. Against entirely mechanized armies, they aren't all that useful. However, the Heldrake is lucky that footslogging or mixed foot/vehicle lists are the most common now. And in this sense, it is seen by some (perhaps justifiably) as the most dangerous anti-infantry unit in the entire game for the points. Don't bother with TEQs unless it is a big squad and you inflict a lot of wounds on them to force a number of saves in which they should fail one on average (i.e. if you cause 6 wounds). Flamestorm Cannons are already nasty enough as they are, especially on Baal Predators - no-one wants a S6 AP3 flamer burning their Space Marines alive with impunity. Less people want said Flamestorm Cannon mounted on a 36" moving flier with the Torrent rule - allowing it to be placed 12" away and turned around to maximize casualties.

One other thing to remember is the Heldrake's Daemonforge - once per game, in one of your shooting or assault phases, you can re-roll all failed armour-penetration or to-wound rolls. This adds a layer of tactical depth to the Heldrake - when to use your Daemonforge is not always obvious. If you really want to take out an opposing flyer and have the Hades Autocannon equipped, hope you don't miss and proceed to (probably) penetrate it twice and at least force it to Evade. A nice big MEQ squad you really want to get rid of? Burn it and make sure those 1s become anything but. Another funny application is if you find a line of Dark Eldar Raiders/Venoms - flame as many as you can, and observe as you make half of them fall out of the air. The Daemonforge is a nice ability, but I have rarely found a situation where I really needed it so far - I am quite confident in its abilities as it is, but it is always something to remember. And for the sake of your opponent, don't declare it immediately after you have a bad roll - you should declare it at the start of the phase. If you don't, you'll get a similar reaction as if you had suddenly decided your Power of the Machine Spirit was being used to target a separate tank with your twin-linked assault cannon to the one you just blew up with a pintle-mounted multi-melta.

Be prepared to wipe out almost entire squads (leaving one or two survivors on average if you hit an entire 10-man squad) and thus make your points back almost immediately - and that is on each turn it is on the table. The threat of a Heldrake is also quite obvious for any opponent - they might have fast-moving assault units, but be forced to think very carefully as it will mean the Heldrake can come on, flame them, and then on the next turn move further up and burn another squad. This is why I must stress the obvious - do not ever take more than two, as they are still nearly 200 point vehicles and will probably be the focus of most of your opponents shooting. The laughable thing is, the Heldrakes can withstand absurd amounts of punishment and are thus unlikely to be destroyed - if your opponent does shoot at them and does little, you can then grin as the rest of your army gets to move up unhindered and your Heldrakes keep the corpses rolling. Just be aware that this will more than likely be taken out by other fliers such as Vendettas and Storm Ravens and think about how you use the Heldrake carefully. The unit causes unparalleled devastation against foot-slogging non-TEQ army lists (which are in abundance nowadays), and is also scarily durable. Use it well and it could very well turn around entire games for you. An excellent choice overall.
The flight of awesome.
It is actually somewhat unsettling to read through my older works and compare them to my more recent articles; my older ones were shorter and much more to the point for the most part, with less creativity and far more bluntness. As far as the review itself goes, it is obvious to note that whilst it has proven to be quite accurate overall - meaning I need not go into too much detail about just how good they are - my appraisal of the Heldrake's viability in an aerial duel and just how cheap they were for the points is quite mistaken. As many players can relate, Heldrakes - particularly against the newer Tau and Dark Angels flyers - will quite often win aerial duels, even against other AV 12 flyers, owing to the massed numbers of Vector Strikes and how they Ignore Cover, as well as the newly introduced trick of shooting out of the Heldrake's backside - more on that later. It is also important to note just how ridiculously cheap Heldrake's seem when compared to almost any other flyer, barring the Night Scythe and Vendetta - its abilities, particularly in light of the fact that the current meta is indeed dominated by foot-slogging Infantry-based armies, are ludicrous, to say the least. The sheer brutality of the Heldrake and its defensive capabilities mean that standard anti-air defences - the Aegis Defence Line and Quad Gun, typically - are insufficient, especially when two or more are in play. For many armies, even the new Dark Angels, an Aegis Defence Line is the only in-codex method of anti-air that is viable and effective, and even that route is incapable of destroying a Heldrake barring incredibly lucky rolls in one or two game turns. In light of this, many players are increasingly taking allied Imperial Guard, Space Marines or Necrons to combat the threat of fliers in general, but Heldrakes most of all, given that those armies presently have very efficient fliers capable of destroying Heldrakes with some measure of reliability. I derided the Heldrake for likely losing an aerial duel with a Vendetta or Stormraven, but time and experience has proven that this is not always the case; such fliers are often undone by Vector Strikes, and given the Heldrake's defences and the incredible invulnerable save that means it is never forced to Evade, such fliers are not the hard counter many thought they would be.

Though the Heldrake was considered to be incredibly strong within a month of its release, the true measure of its potential was as yet unrealized - a FAQ was requested by many Chaos Space Marine players, notably on how to classify its ranged weapon. Many expected some kind of nerf, owing to the recent dominance of the mechanical dragon. What we received was not one, but two relevant FAQs, and......well, see for yourself (a note, I am using the most recent FAQs for reference);

Chaos Space Marines FAQ 1.1 January (Link)

Q: How do I determine the Arc of Sight for a Heldrake's ranged weapon? (p52)A: Treat the Heldrake's ranged weapon as a Turret Mounted Weapon, measuring all ranges from the edge of the Heldrake's base nearest to the target unit.
And we got this helpful FAQ from the main rulebook on the same day;

40K Rulebook 1.3 February (Link)

Page 43 – Special Rules, Vector Strike.
Change the second paragraph to read “When Swooping, this
model may savage its prey. At the end of the Movement Phase,
nominate one unengaged enemy unit the model has moved
over that turn. This unit may even be an enemy Flyer. That unit
takes D3+1 hits, resolved at the model’s unmodified Strength
and AP3, using Random Allocation. Against vehicles, these hits
are resolved against the target’s side armour. No cover saves are
allowed against these hits.”

To the uninitiated or those unfamiliar with how the Heldrake worked when it was first released, the reason why these two FAQs proved to be so ground-breaking may not be immediately obvious. Over time, as the Heldrake became more and more popular and players realized that its arc of fire was limited, the best defence against Heldrakes was to rush towards their controlling player's deployment zone or otherwise restrict where they could move; its limited 45 degree angle, even with Torrent, meant that one could sufficiently deny its firepower by getting underneath it or otherwise behind it. The minimum eighteen inch movement of a Heldrake could be exploited to make it fly harmlessly over units - aside from the Vector Strike - and thus be able to ignore its Baleflamer for a turn or more. Mobile forces and quick redeployment thus became the name of the game against Heldrakes, proving to be the most effective counter for any army that lacked Vendettas or massed Night Scythes. As well, the Heldrake's Vector Strikes, whilst strong, didn't ignore cover saves, meaning units situated in cover, or even fliers with the potential to Evade, had a good defence against its Meteoric Descent. With those two FAQs, however, those defences literally flew out the window to be gobbled up by the hungry, hungry Heldrake. The Rulebook FAQ on Vector Strikes ignoring cover saves wasn't just in relation to the Heldrake, but it certainly affected it the most given it has to this day the strongest Vector Strike in the game; Evading or sitting in cover was no longer a defence against Heldrakes, meaning other fliers were forced to simply hope for the best and pray they didn't lose their meagre hull points to the winged beast. Pathfinders and the like, costly models that rely on their cover saves and whom already felt the heat of the Baleflamer, were punished even more by a model that seemingly broke with any and all convention given the lack of real defences for most armies to deal with it with any kind of certainty. But the truly mind-boggling boost to the Heldrake's potential came from the Chaos Space Marine FAQ, making it clear that previously the only real way to counter the Baleflamer - abusing its limited fire arc and running beneath it - was now null and void; the Heldrake, literally, could flame enemies out of its backside. The ridiculous nature of this change - even though one could argue it makes sense from a fluff perspective, owing to the actual living nature of the mechanical dragon - was clearly designed to remove the only real flaw the Heldrake had. Not only was this ground-breaking, meaning that any actual strategy to using a Heldrake was now unnecessary - just point and shoot, essentially - owing to its range and unlimited arc of fire, but it also served to make the Hades Autocannon a far more attractive proposition; Vector Striking a flyer, going behind it and thus negating any chance of it shooting at the Heldrake for at least a turn, and proceeding to fire four Strength eight AP four shots into its rear armour is brutal, and has little defence or countermeasures. Though the Baleflamer has proven to be the most popular option still for obvious reasons, the use of a Heldrake as a dedicated anti-air or anti-vehicle unit was now a prominent strategy as well.

Heldrake does as Heldrake pleases.
Even today, with the release of the Tau codex, the rippling effect of a flyer that completely annihilates any kind of non +2 armoured Infantry, shreds monstrous creatures, tears apart light vehicles and is a more than adequate anti-flyer unit all in one when equipped with the Baleflamer, all for less than two hundred points, continues to be felt everywhere. A popular meme has arisen owing to the amazing versatility and almost impenetrable nature of the Heldrake, especially given its damage potential against almost any army, making light of the fact that such an over-powered unit was made even more powerful by FAQ updates in an edition that otherwise focuses on balanced forces. The Chaos Space Marine codex is considered on par with most other codices, but the improbable level of destruction even a single Heldrake leaves means that almost any competitive army list from the codex features two or more of the winged daemon engines. As yet, the only truly strong counters to "Heldrake spam" is to take a multitude of fliers in one's own army, but so far, only Imperial Guard and Necrons are able to do so without seriously compromising the rest of their army list. For any other codex, trying to take so much anti-air weaponry to combat Heldrakes and their ilk usually chokes the rest of the army list, restricting it to mostly ineffective or otherwise synergistic-dependent units. Dark Angels and Chaos Daemons have little to face a pair or trio of Heldrakes with any kind of effectiveness, and the simple fact that three of them takes up marginally more than a third of one's army list at 1500 points is indicative of just how broken (over-powered) they are. Again, whilst the rest of the codex is decent and mostly comparable to Dark Angels, Chaos Daemons and Tau - the last is based on what I have seen so far - the Heldrake stands out like a sore thumb, and it is obvious to any just how damaging this is to any codex author's reputation. To many, the Heldrake is the most over-powered unit in the game. To others, the mere sight of one is a terrifying omen of the fate of their next battle. It does sadden me that such a unit can be so mind-numbingly powerful and so ridiculously cheap, as it cannibalises most army lists from the codex; though competitive forces can definitely be made from the book without their use, their inclusion is so beneficial to ones' efforts that many would argue the validity of an army list that doesn't feature them. Though I personally love the model - and am one of the few that do - I can honestly say that my usual strategy of including a pair of them in my army lists has often led to a self-imposed guilt on the unfair damage they deal, and how easily they change the course of the game. As much as I would hate not to use them because I really do enjoy them visually, there comes a time when one doesn't want to anger their opponents with the inclusion of a unit so decried by any that can't field them themselves.

What do you think of the Heldrake? Do you think it as powerful as many - including myself - believe? Do you feel the real reason they dominate is more to do with players being unwilling to adapt strong anti-air units to combat them? Have your say in the comments below - we appreciate any and all feedback and criticism. On a personal note, I do really enjoy them; however, with dozens - perhaps hundreds - of games featuring their use as first-hand evidence, I find that opponents often wish nothing more than to hurl Heldrake models into a garbage bin and be rid of their cruel embrace.


  1. The heldrake is a very nice unit but it isn't nearly as game breaking as many would claim. Before the FAQ I was finding it hard to kill much of anything except some hormagaunts.
    Now you want to go into insane you should use the book of true names from the daemon codex on it to give a 3++.

    1. A unit that can kill alone 20 marines and an average of 2 rhinos in a single game is not broken?
      And can survive an average the firepower of 2 vendettas?
      Most of the armies do not have more than 50 marine bodies and more than 70 models in total.

      There are 4 codexes that can survive 3 heldrakes played properly in a decent army.

    2. To be honest blight1, I think that may have been more bad luck with your rolls if that was the case. A Heldrake that is able to flame an entire Tactical Squad - which, given its amazing ability to position the template almost any way it wants, is likely - will average about eight-nine unsaved wounds, effectively making its points back in one go. That doesn't even count the D3+1 Strength seven AP three automatic hits the Vector Strike does that also Ignore Cover, which - against Tyranids, for example - can be used to inflict one or two wounds at least on one of their monstrous creatures. I often see the Vector Strike wreck vehicles or at least strip one or two hull points off of them, making them easy prey for the rest of my army.

      To be fair though, horde armies do fear the Heldrake least of all, particularly Tervigon-heavy Tyranids.

    3. I also agree about the Grimoire tactic. Enemies hate Heldrakes enough lol!

  2. How in god's name do you write so much man? lol

    1. I love writing haha and there's not much else for me to do aside from the hobby I guess.

  3. Nice post. First time reader of your blog and was impressed.

    Personally I think the helldrake should go back to its pre-faq state or simply be sent back to the warp. While I actually like the model and the concept the 3 helldrake list has too greater negative effect on the meta. It is far from unbeatable but it does invalidate a wide range of otherwise competitive MEQ lists which I think really limits the variety of competitive gaming. I particularly feel for one of my friends who has beautifully paint ravenwing list that would be fine in a world without drakes but because they exist is just dragon chow. There's something wrong about him feeling he needs to run 5 raiders at 2k to be competitive with his DA given the codex is barely 3 months old because running foot or bike heavy just leaves him open for a drake beat down.

    1. Just so you know this is coming from someone who runs horde daemons and shooty Orks or Fuegan led DE/Eldar/Corsairs on an icarus lascannon and do not generally worry about drakes.

    2. I agree. I think pre-FAQ they were still very good, but they had enough in-built weaknesses that they weren't over-powered by any stretch. Before, they were restricted to a turn or two of shooting before being forced off the board - especially against a player good with their deployment and movement - and though relatively cheap for what they did, they were still expensive enough that running more than a pair wasn't wise.

      And vector striking vehicles/flyers wasn't as great because they could Evade/Jink and so on out of the way. Now though, all those easy tricks to defend against them have simply disappeared with the FAQ, and unfortunately, I can't see GW changing it back. I agree though that if went back to pre-FAQ (minus the ignores cover on Vector Strikes) then it wouldn't be so broken, though obviously it would still be a top unit in the codex.

      Often, I get asked to help people write army lists in my local store, and a topic that is always raised is "I want anti-flyer to deal with Heldrakes". For many codices, and it pains me to do it every time, I'm forced to say "go for allies or don't plan for Heldrakes - plan for AV11 and lower flyers instead". They are just too darn durable for most armies to deal with, particularly if there is a pair or trio of them. Massed Skyfire shooting at them works, but given most armies often only have a quad gun as their dedicated air defence, they simply can't handle the Heldrakes aside from - as you say - putting their Troops in places they can't get to.

    3. Oh, and thanks for the comments and feedback :)

    4. No probelm. I share your view that you either go with heavy anti-air (not possible without allies for many lists) to deal with drakes or build a list that can opt to ignore them (as the mass raider list does). The odd quad gun will not worry the mighty drake unless you have Fuegan or someone similar manning it. The problem lies in the fact that you average balanced MEQ list is not one is list that can simply ignore multiple hell drakes leading to a need to go anti-air heavy or break out the raiders.

  4. It gets worse.
    I'm playing a campaign at my local club at the moment and am up against a dual heldrake list with my bike marine list. The scenario I'm due to play gives my opponent recyclable units, so even if i do manage to kill the drakes, they can come back on from reserves in the next turn!