21 Oct 2013

"Broken"and its Chronic Misuse

Howdy all, Learn2Eel here with some thoughts on the term 'broken' and its application in Warhammer 40000. I've been simmering on these thoughts for several months, particularly in light of the many meta shifts since the introduction of 6th Edition. I hope you enjoy this article!

When playing or viewing a game of 40K, I often hear the term "broken" in reference to a particular unit or piece of wargear. This always incites a mixed reaction of both curiosity and surprise from me for two main reasons. The first is "why do you believe this is broken?". And invariably, the second boils down to "do you understand the implications of your statement?". These are two key questions that I often don't voice to avoid any arguments or unnecessary confrontation; games of 40K, after all, are designed with fun in mind fist and foremost. However, recently I have seen a trend of the community labelling units "broken" or "unusable" with gradually increasing frequency, so much so that I am not even sure a middle ground exists between these two extremes anymore for such hobbyists. As much as I don't want to be confrontational in any form, I believe it is time for me to sit up and provide the solemn keystrokes of pure, unbiased opinion*. If you are still interested, then by all means, read on, starting with the definition of 'broken'.

*No such thing exists. Anyone that tells you otherwise is themselves providing a biased opinion.

The Definition of Broken

As we know, 'broken' refers to something that is no longer functioning correctly, or is incapable of functioning at all. It is usually an adjective to describe something that is not working properly. So how does this term apply to something - whether it be a rule, a piece of wargear, or a unit - in the game system of Warhammer 40000? Context is everything, and in the context of Warhammer 40000, 'broken' would thus refer not to something that is "over-powered" or "under-powered", but something that majorly breaks the rules of the game, or does not function at all within the rules of the game. Contrary to popular belief, a Night Scythe is not "broken" because it is under-costed in its role for a Necron army, and neither are Howling Banshees "broken" because they are over-costed in their role for an Eldar army.

Instead, what makes these units "broken", if at all, is that - in the Night Scythe's case - it completely ignores some of the usual restrictions and conventions governing flyer transports, such as being able to offload a unit while zooming despite no other flyer being able to reliably do so, or not inflicting damage on its' embarked unit when it is destroyed despite all other flyer transports doing the opposite. In the case of Howling Banshees, what makes them "broken" is that they do not function in the game in any meaningful capacity based more on their rules and less on their cost; they cannot reach combat through means of an assault transport or innate durability, or even guaranteed support abilities, unlike almost any other dedicated assault unit. This is an important distinction between determining what is truly "broken" and what might be "under-powered" or "over-powered".

The idea is that regardless of their points cost, balancing these unique traits for certain units is impossible simply because they cannot perform a function, or they perform a function that breaks the conventions of the game. For Necrons, as an example, a unit that functions within the game but is truly "over-powered" is the Annihilation Barge; it is a simple unit that is far too strong for its cost, but it doesn't really "break" the game in the fact that it would require a complete revamp to properly balance. Instead, all it needs is a points increase up to an acceptable level; job done! For a Night Scythe on the other hand, how you can appropriately price a flying transport that suffers none of the setbacks of other flying transports? How do you effectively balance such a unit and price it appropriately without either removing these abilities or making it too expensive for common use?

Remembering that Games Workshop are a business above all and need to sell kits; when you make unique rules for units that differ from most others, it creates a very fine strain on codex authors to balance them appropriately within a codex, particularly in consideration of units in other codices. Realistically, how much should a Night Scythe cost? Close to two hundred points? But how can you do that when it is one of the staple dedicated transports for the entire Necron force? But then, how can it have these game-breaking abilities without being much more expensive than its counterparts for other armies? This really emphasises the difference between a unit that just needs a tuning of points or stats, and one that really needs an overhaul to fit into the game without 'breaking' it.

Disproving the Misconception

So now that we have a solid definition for "broken" recorded, let's apply it to the commonly perceived "broken" units in 6th Edition and see which units are really breaking the game. The results may just surprise you. Keeping in mind that the unit has to actively provide a major break of the rules, or not function within the context of the rule-set to qualify as a "broken" unit. To give some leeway in the ratings, I have three;
1) "Not broken" - This unit might be over or under powered, but it hardly breaks the rules of the game.
2) "Partially Broken" - This is a unit that really flouts the boundaries of being broken, but doesn't break the rules enough to be considered fully broken or non-functional in the context of 40K.
3) "Broken" - This is a unit that provides clear and consistent breaks with the rules, or does not function either in its role or any established role in the game.

Is It Broken or just Over-Powered?

Vendetta - One of the most complained about units in the game also happens to be one that is definitely not broken. The Vendetta is very tough for a flyer, but it still follows the same rules as others, save for the risky ability to deep strike embarked units out of it during a zoom movement. Unlike a Night Scythe, this ability does have high risk attached to it, acting as an internal balance. It has strong firepower and is overall a fantastic flyer, but to balance it all it needs is a big points increase to at least 200 points. My tip; not broken. 

Tervigon - Another highlight of the edition change, the Tervigon is one that actually does deserve some very fair criticism. In 40K, the concept of "reinforcements" is done through Reserves; these units typically come in after the first turn to assist the starting force on the ground. However, the Tervigon flouts these rules and provides additional models to a Tyranid army without having to pay for the models themselves. The random nature of the "spawning" means a Tyranid player can potentially benefit from up seventy-five extra Termagants in a five-turn game, or as few as three. This is a mechanic that simply doesn't fit with the 'Reserves' for other armies, nor can it be considered really fair as it can severely punish the Tyranid player or unfairly admonish the opponent due to its incredible variance. Ultimately, how do you put a price on this ability without making the Tervigon too expensive? It isn't like Tyranids don't use normal Reserves as well. My tip; broken. 

Inquisitor Coteaz - Arguably the most cost effective character in the game, Coteaz gives your army a wide range of abilities; psychic powers, a 2+ armour save wound tank, a good deal of punch from his daemon hammer, and a decent little shooting attack. He provided one of the earliest known forms of Interceptor, and he can give a re-roll to Seize the Initiative for either player. Does that make him broken? No, Coteaz' abilities are all fair and fit well within the game, making him a versatile choice. All he needs, like a Vendetta, is a hefty points increase, not an overhaul. My tip; not broken. 

Heldrake - Possibly the most singly feared unit released in a 6th Edition codex so far, the Heldrake was alone responsible for a slew of meta shifts, signalling the end of almost all viable foot-slogging heavy or medium Infantry-based builds. What makes it so strong is, like the Vendetta, great armour for a flyer and a cover-ignoring AP3 template. Now, the Heldrake is broken in a way, but it has nothing to do with its Baleflamer. A S6 AP3 template is just death to Marines, much like a S5 AP4 template is death to 4+ armoured xenos. What's the difference? Price them appropriately and there is no issue. Torrent isn't broken either; it's existed for a long time and gives a fast flyer some extra leeway to maximise the damage its sole weapon can cause.

Where issues start to arise very quickly is in the way it hits enemies; it can "fire" in any direction unlike any vehicle of its type, which effectively eliminates the tactics behind positioning with flyers. There's simply no need to worry about where you put it. The Vector Strike being on a flyer is certainly unusual, but not really broken. Being a Daemon does cause issues, however. Now, this isn't the case for a vehicle like a Soul Grinder, but for a flyer where Evading is a serious tactical concern and balance to force players to choose between guaranteed shooting at high risk, or snap shooting at lower risk, having a 5+ invulnerable save just eliminates yet another facet of playing a flyer. The Heldrake breaks two defining rules of flyers, but it isn't broken for the most commonly decried facet of it; its baleflamer. These abilities should be changed - in the case of the Daemon rule - or removed entirely - in regards to firing in any direction. My tip; broken. 

Screamerstar - Now, this might be cheating a bit as it is more than one unit involved, but it is certainly the most commonly criticised combination in the Chaos Daemons codex. This is a unit that will have a 2+ re-rollable invulnerable save most of the time, though the Daemons player pays through the nose for it. Is a 2+ re-rollable invulnerable save actually broken, or just too strong for its cost? I vote the former, as the Screamerstar already eats up well over five hundred points when run at a decent number, and despite its insane cost, it is still completely and utterly ridiculous. It is a unit that is almost impossible to defeat conventionally; straight firepower doesn't work, melee doesn't work, psychic powers mostly don't work. How do you defeat it? You can't just raise the points cost of this unit anymore as it wouldn't matter; a 2+ re-rollable invulnerable save unit-wide is broken no matter how many points it costs, particularly on a unit that will naturally be damaging as well. My tip; broken. 

Flesh Hound Bomb - My reasons for including both this and the Screamerstar is that Chaos Daemons are naturally built around synergy above all else, but I digress. When Daemons first came out, the Flesh Hound Bomb was what was dominating the press - the Screamerstar was a relative unknown at this point. Consisting of a large unit of Flesh Hounds and one or more Heralds of Khorne on Juggernaughts with assorted gifts and loci, you had a unit of sixteen or more models with a 3+ invulnerable save, massed Strength 5 attacks on the charge, and ridiculous speed due to Beasts and Scout. Effectively, they can rip apart almost anything in combat, they are guaranteed a first or second turn charge - the first turn charge if the Daemon player goes second - and are ridiculously hard to kill due to a mass of cheap two wound Toughness 4 models with a 3+ invulnerable save.

Even in the current meta, few armies outside of the top lists can deal with this combination very well, particularly when more than one Flesh Hound Bomb is used - though other units do lack the 3+ invulnerable save. So is it broken? In short, it is a unit that is certainly strong, much faster than it should be and very cheap, but that is mostly what makes it so good. It is cheap, and has the best elements combined into one package for a viable assault unit. You can 'fix' the unit - if it even needs it, as I don't really think they are over-powered - by bumping up their price a bit. My tip; not broken. 

Riptide - One battlesuit to rule them all, one battlesuit to find them, and in the grim-darkness, shoot them! You can't hide from Riptides, with their artillery-length ranges and crazy good weapons. They are impossibly hard to kill and have only one real natural weakness, and that is melee combat. When looking at the unit, you have something that is certainly very strong, but in my opinion, not broken at all. Why you might ask? What makes the Riptide broken is not its Ion Accelerator by itself, or its durability by itself, or even its great speed. It pays the points for those and comes out as a great value monstrous creature. What turns the Riptide into a bowling death machine is how it combines with Markerlights, the true stars of the Tau codex. A Strength 8 AP2 large blast is certainly nasty, but with scatter and cover saves, it isn't as scary for the most part as a S6 AP3 torrent template. However, add in an almost guaranteed direct hit and no cover saves whatsoever, and you have yourself one of the nastiest infantry killers in the game.

Is this the Riptide's fault? No, as a range of units in the Tau codex share a similar fate; a Skyray is certainly a strong choice by itself, but it guarantees the Tau player First Blood - no questions asked - through the use of Markerlights. Crisis Teams are very cost effective and fill any gap in the Tau army, but their massed shots do come at the expense of mediocre Ballistic Skill. Throw in Markerlights and suddenly a 150-ish point unit annihilates any AV12 or lower vehicle that doesn't have 4 hull points and a 5+ invulnerable save - the Defiler, ironically - and slaughters non 2+ armoured infantry with alarming efficiency. No cover allowed! Then you have the crazy potential offered by a Crisis Commander with some of the Support Systems to consider. This isn't to say the Riptide isn't necessarily over-powered though; I personally think that it isn't, but many would disagree. But that is besides the point, honestly. My tip; not broken. 

Wave Serpent - The most common words used to describe Wave Serpents are mostly unsavoury, but one of them is our old friend; "broken". You will be hard pressed to find a ground vehicle as strong as the Wave Serpent; fast, deadly, durable and it even transports models! Is it just an under-costed all-rounder or a unit that really breaks the rules? This is a tough one as I feel it is very much a bit of both. First up, it is incredibly fast, but this isn't in breaking with the established rules of the game; it is just like any other fast skimmer. It also happens to be incredibly durable, with three hull points, armour twelve for the most part, and Jink saves from being a skimmer. It can also pay to improve its Jink save. Where it really starts to get crazy is in its guns; while two of them are just fine, one is just.....unreasonable. The Serpent Shield; debated to even count as a weapon for Weapon Destroyed damage results, it can either be fired or used for defence. The former mode manifests as D6+1 Strength 7 AP- Ignores Cover and Pinning shots. Now, this is a strong weapon, and one that provides a nasty counter to the lightly armoured vehicles of other armies - heck, it is a fast skimmer that annihilates opposing fast skimmers. This isn't too bad by itself, but when it isn't fired, it ignores penetrating hits on a 2+, treating them as glancing hits instead.

How in the world did something like this make it past testing? Ignoring all penetrating hits on a 2+ without providing significant detriments to its firepower - a scatter laser plus a shuriken cannon can still tear most enemies apart - completely breaks with the theme with most units - from Go to Ground to Evade - that you need to give up firepower to really survive the tough stuff. Paying for a bonus to cover saves is fine, but having a save that denies penetrating hits - effectively invalidating any kind of usual anti-tank play from armies such as Space Marines or Dark Eldar - is just ludicrous. And it can freely fire a very strong gun to power down its shield? This wouldn't be so bad if the Wave Serpent wasn't also a dedicated transport, and a damned fine one at that. You can't make it too expensive as it is the only army-wide dedicated transport, but how do you not increase its price with that ridiculous Serpent Shield? Hell, how do you even balance something like that? Get rid of it? Change it completely? Whatever the case, a simple points increase can't fix this problem. It is really sad too, as otherwise the Wave Serpent would just be a great battle tank cross transport that isn't broken at all. My tip; broken.

See? Not broken.
White Scars Bikers - The new kids off the block and the pick of competitive enthusiasts everywhere from the recent Space Marine codex, White Scars Bikers are a force that stands head and shoulders above any other known build for Space Marines, at least in the current meta. The reasons for this are pretty simple; the Bikes are cheap when put next to Tactical Marines, they gain ridiculous benefits from the White Scars Chapter Tactics and a particular HQ of theirs, and they fit perfectly into the mobile gunline theme of 6th Edition.

The Bikes themselves, regardless of Chapter Tactics, aren't broken at all; they are just a strong Troops choice that, while certainly cost-effective, pays through the nose for its models and can be countered quite easily by cover-ignoring AP3 blasts. Where they start to get ridiculous is when, just by picking the White Scars Chapter Tactics, they ignore dangerous terrain, they get a bonus of one to their Jink saves, they gain Hit and Run and they get a stronger Hammer of Wrath. All of that comes at the whopping price of zero. This in itself is a bit of an unfair mechanic, but it does fit with the other Chapter Tactics giving "free" major buffs to other units as well. When you add Khan though, the entire army gets Scout and effectively doubles its first turn mobility. Does this make them broken? White Scars Bikers are strong and under-costed for what they do, but they are hardly broken. Like a Riptide or Inquisitor Coteaz, they get a lot of different abilities and uses that makes them so valuable and hard to price appropriately, but they don't need to lose abilities or get an overhaul to be "balanced". All they need, if they even need it at all, is a bit of a price increase. My tip; not broken.

Examples of Truly Broken Choices

As you can see, the top units in the game aren't there necessarily because they are "broken", but usually because they are under-costed or fit very well into specific combos. They don't qualify as "broken" as many would otherwise say. Is this article a pedantic criticism of the misuse of a specific word in the context of Warhammer 40000? Yes. But nonetheless, I think the truly broken units in the game do deserve some mention - maybe we should give the "over-powered" units a bit of leeway for a change and consider what units are actually breaking the game.

Burning Chariot of Tzeentch - Another cheap fast skimmer, but one that is quite fragile and not really a transport as such. It is pretty darn cheap, and it seems especially so when you look at its 'weaponry'; a S5 AP3 template, or a D3 shot S9 AP2 tank-destroyer. Seems like a functional unit, right? Sure, that is until you read that it can only snap fire its weapons when it moves. You see, its 'weapons' are manifested by the charioteer itself, not the chariot, and both weapons have the 'heavy' type. This means that to even fire the template, or have any real chance of hitting with the 'lascannon', the Burning Chariot has to sit perfectly still. Given that it is a fast skimmer with terrible armour, designed obviously to be the Daemon equivalent to a Land Speeder, how can it even possibly be used in any real sense if it can't move and fire? What is the point to it? You could make it a 40 point vehicle and I doubt you would find anyone willing to take it still. This is most definitely a unit that simply does not function whatsoever.

Lictor - Many may be wondering why I didn't go with the Biovore instead, but it really boils down to price with the Biovore; it has access to a Mycetic Spore which fixes one of its main issues anyway. With the Lictor, however, a complete redesign is required to make it a unit that fits within the rules, let alone is worthwhile enough to be taken. You see, Lictors are fragile multi-wound models that come in broods of one to three, but get their survivability through cover and precise arrival from reserves. The issue is, they simply do not fulfill a role in the army. They are intended as reserve manipulators, but their reserve bonus doesn't apply until the turn after they come on, meaning you are paying for an already unreliable ability - as you have to roll to see if the Lictors themselves come on - that probably won't even work once during the game as other reserves are likely to come on at the same time or earlier.

Added to this, their melee capabilities are.....mediocre, as all they can really do with any efficiency is hunt tanks with their high Strength rending attacks. That is assuming they even survive, as cheap little flamers simply annihilate them. They are designed as character killers in terms of profile more than actual vehicle hunters, but they can't issue challenges. When they arrive, you want them close to the enemy so that you can charge them and do something nasty, as well as potentially benefit from the reserve bonus. However, if they pop up near the enemy, they can't really do anything outside of a mediocre at best ranged attack. They will likely then promptly die, as they can't hide in an assault or run after shooting. What exactly are they supposed to do again? Like the Burning Chariot, you could drop Lictors down to 20 points per model, but they would still be a unit that doesn't function at all.

Guardians and Dire Avengers - Ok, this one is going to take some explaining. When you look at a codex, you look at all the different units and can get a good grasp of why their points costs are the way they are. For Space Marines, a Tactical Marine is more expensive than a Scout because of the better armour, the better starting wargear overall, the better stats and more options. Take it up a level, and you can see why a 2+ armoured Terminator with a 5+ invulnerable save and a power fist is naturally more expensive than a Tactical Marine by a fair margin, even if it is generally agreed that Terminators are over-costed, but that is really besides the point. Clearly, you pay more for more output of some kind; whether the unit is harder to kill, fights better or can score objectives - it all comes back to paying for better stuff, or at least, that is the key principle to the game. Lets introduce Eldar into the mix. Now, their two basic generalist Troops choices - Guardians and Dire Avengers - have guns that ignore armour saves on to wound rolls of a six. Add in the mass numbers you can put in these squads, plus all the psychic support they can get, and you get yourself a unit that laughs at any and all armour.

That's nice and all, but here's the rub; how is this in anyway fair on the Terminator, who pays a premium for his 2+ armour? What is he getting out of it exactly? Why wouldn't you - regardless of how one thinks each unit should be costed - just take the cheaper Tactical Marines instead, seeing as they die just the same anyway? That is exactly the question, and also the big reason that Bladestorm is a rule that, while fluffy and all, should never have been given to a basic Troops choice. How can you give a special rule to the guns of your basic Infantry so that they essentially invalidate enemy armour? Would this be an issue if they were Elites or in a different part of the army list? Probably not, and that is because you would thus be paying a premium for such an ability. But as a codex author, how do you determine the points cost of a Troops choice - a Troops choice, the basic scoring unit - that has guns that kill Terminators almost as easily as Tactical Marines? Now, before you jump on me, I don't think this rule is over-powered, and I do think Guardians and Dire Avengers are surprisingly appropriately costed. However, it doesn't change the fact that such a rule really shouldn't be given to the basic troops in an army. Why would I bother with elite units in this edition when the cheap infantry my opponent fields laugh at their Toughness or armour?

Mandrakes - This likely isn't a surprise to anyone who has glanced even momentarily at the Mandrakes' rules. Surprisingly - or perhaps not for some - fixing Mandrakes doesn't involve a cost drop. It involves letting them actually do anything in a game. The main draw of Mandrakes is their 18" ranged attack, which is in itself actually quite decent. However, they will almost never use it. You might think such a statement is entirely false, as Mandrakes have Infiltrate, Move Through Cover, Stealth, Night Vision, and so many other cool rules that don't serve a purpose in game for them. You will quickly realize the problem when you see that they require a pain token to use their ranged attack. The first thought you might have is "oh, just add a Haemonculus!". Hopeful, but unfortunately, no. The short range of their guns means that they need to get close early on to use them, but if they Infiltrate, they can't have a Haemonculus tag along for the ride, and thus they can't shoot at all. But what about dedicated transports? Nope; they can't take any of them. Oh dear.

But perhaps using the first token to run a big unit of them up the field with Feel No Pain might work? Sadly, it won't, as they are Toughness 3 and will thus lose their Feel No Pain to the majority of firepower directed at them from army lists dominating the meta, and not to mention their squad limit of ten doesn't really give them enough wounds to soak up shots. Their only saving graces? A 5+ invulnerable save and Stealth, which as Chaos Daemon players will tell you, doesn't change the fact that they are still Toughness 3 bodies with weak saves. Ouch. So what hope is there for such a unit? Maybe a shock melee unit? They have three Strength 4 attacks each on the charge, sure, but that is hardly the stuff of legends, even if Fleet gives them a more reliable random assault. That a squad of Fire Warriors can eviscerate them with no Markerlight support alone really puts the seal on this unit. They will never kill anything except through insane luck, and they will never be worthwhile for the points even if they were 5 points models. If ever a unit needed a major overhaul, it was Mandrakes.

All these examples aside, I mostly just wanted to write this article to kind of give players some food for thought on what the term "broken" really means when applied to Warhammer 40000. I think there is a clear distinction between "over-powered" and "broken", as I feel my examples would have proven. Units aren't necessarily broken if they are strong, and the same goes for the weaker units. Why, Flayed Ones are a very weak unit, but they are hardly broken, as they can actually get into an assault unlike, for example, Howling Banshees, as is their purpose. In any case, I hope you enjoyed this article, and I am eager to see your feedback! If you have any thoughts for me, feel free to post a comment here or speak to me over on +Bell of Lost Souls. Happy hunting!


  1. Great article, the 40k forums can be frustrating place when people are so quick to throw the 'broken' remark around for something they don't like or can't think of a way to counter.

    I totally agree on your points about the Annihilation Barge & Bladestorm.
    Playing Necrons & playing against them, it's really difficult not to take the barge. For the points it amazing, 3 for 270pt. The other HS units don't even get a look in. Reliably Anti-Air, wreaks Av12 & lower, jink, Good against all types of infantry & MC's & fake Av13 is be tough to crack.
    The Tesla rule can be devastating, I've gotten 12 hits of 4 shots before & then you have the under gun.

    As for Bladestorm it is crazy that the writer gave basic troops fake rending

    1. Yep, it is one of my pet peeves as well. Every time a unit seems to be strong they throw "over-powered" or "broken" around willy nilly, and so often they confuse the two completely!

      Definitely in agreement here, I have a small Necron army myself that I'm looking to expand on at some point in the next six months or so, and taking three Annihilation Barges just flat out beats any other combination. Unless you have a specific plan in mind for a Canoptek Spyder/Scarab 'farm' list, there just is no reason not to take three of the Barges.

      I think it is pretty ridiculous, while I think they did a fine job of not making the Guardians and Dire Avengers too powerful or too weak, the fact that a basic unit pretty much laughs at the armour system makes me wonder why such a system exists in the first place. It's like GW doesn't want anyone to take Terminators!

      Thanks for the comment mate!

  2. Thanks for the article, it was good read. When I saw the first time that 2 + inv re-reollable save my jaw dropped... What were they thinking by creating such a rule. The same Serpent Shield...My friend plays Eldar and even he laughs out of this - D6+1 attacs that ignores cover with 60'' of range, indestructible, in 99% cases twin linked... I stopped to take my land speeders because they are falling just as they appear in the serpent crosshairs, and of course my Rhinos erupts in almost every salvo leftmy infrantry on the foot. And off course this thing does not take any slot.. ehhh GW

    1. I know right, I did notice that something along the lines of a 2+ re-rollable invulnerable save was possible when the book came out, but I ignored it because I never thought anyone would actually go all out and try it in a big unit of Screamers/Flamers/Horrors/etc. Turns out someone did and took advantage of how stupidly broken it is.

      Playing and watching Wave Serpents, the Serpent Shield really is the kicker with it. It is a great vehicle otherwise, but the Serpent Shield is just something you cannot price appropriately. It simply should not exist in its' current form.

      Thanks for the comment mate!