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“To Theme or Not To Theme”

19 July 2011 | Nathan Pullen

“To Theme or Not To Theme”

For that is the question.

A recurring query running around the Privateer community at large at the moment is “Should I make a theme list?” This question is, unfortunately, neither quick nor easy to answer. Before I wax lyrical espousing the benefits and disadvantages of these lists, it is important to examine why they are here in the first place.

Why are theme lists around? This is something which a lot of players don’t seem to ask. There is (or at least was) a perception out there that the theme lists were a way to power play a given faction and caster. That surely a Tier 4 Kara Sloane list should be more powerful than a non-tiered list just because the Tier 4 list has 4 Tiers! This is untrue and I’m fairly sure it is a reason why many see these options in such an egregious light. The theme list options really do speak for themselves – they are designed to provide some bending of the rules in order to provide a cohesive fluff-theme for a given caster. This is not necessarily the fluff theme most often associated with the rules (just look at Amon Ad-Raza). I am probably on my own when I think the book that best shows this idea is the Retribution book. The “buffs” in each theme are remarkably minor, and are designed almost entirely to enhance the thematic flavour of the casters.

Competition vs. Casual One thing I will never challenge is the well founded assertion that there is a highly competitive element to tabletop gaming. When it boils down to it, you desire to beat your opponent. What I would like to distinguish between is the game played outside a tournament environment compared to that played within (or in the lead up to) a tournament environment. Why am I doing this in a discussion about theme lists? Because to theme or not to theme is inseparable from the competition vs. casual argument. The majority of theme lists can be broken into those that are built solely for ‘fluff’ purposes, and those that have larger competitive ramifications.

Casual As I mentioned earlier, I think Retribution boast some of the most “fluffy” theme lists out there. They were the first faction to receive theme lists and they highly exemplify the intended thematic (rather than competitive) nature of this concept. Personally, I like Adeptis Rahn’s “Charge of the Battle Mages.”

The heavy fluff component of this theme by simply looking at the restrictions – the only unit he can take is battle mages, and the solos are similarly restricted. Immediately one can see that this is probably not going to be the most competitive of lists. Hefty on the movement shenanigans, but unlikely to take down someone like Severius. Trust me when I say that a Kromac list can shut down a heavy battle mage list real fast.

Rahn’s battle mages theme does have some elements of a “competitive” theme force, and there is a point reduction in tier 2 for having two heavy myrmidons – a free arcanist. Meeting Tier 3 (with 3 Magisters) allows a furthering of movement shenanigans with a free pre-game move for all your Battle Mage units and solos. Don’t get me wrong – this is a good thing, and it certainly can be highly competitive, but due to the very limited fluff nature of this theme, it is merely playing to a thematic strength of the list (movement.) Tier 4 gets interesting, and also serves to highlight why this is a fluff force. If you meet Tier 4, all of Rahns upkeep spells enter play for free and are upkeep on turn 1 for free. This is a massive saving of focus. Offset by needing 4 (yep 4) units of battle mages.

So the Charge of the Battle mages, in order to reach a nice Tier 4 benefit, is not actually able to be constructed at 35 points. At 50 points, you are left with something along the lines of 3 war jacks (heavy), with 30ish battle mages. In the context of Rahns fluff it’s a great image, and it wouldn’t be possible without playing to his theme and lifting restrictions on your battle mages. But it’s not inherently competitive.

It is certainly possible to get a theme force that provides a great fluff-concept army without providing awesome competitive buffs, too. eHaley shows this to great effect, allowing (and requiring) a large number of trencher infantry and solos for little more than a functional 2 trench templates. This is a nice bonus, sure, but it’s unlikely to drastically change the nature of a game.

Competitive On the flip side of Rahn is a theme list I consider to embody most of what makes a competitive theme competitive. The Darius Wrecking Crew army maintains a very fluffy nature – it allows the unit that works well with ‘jacks (Sword Knights) as well as the plethora of non-character ‘jacks and support units. That also provides plenty of flexibility as well as playing to the strengths of Darius.

Tier 1 allows pathfinder, however tier 2 (which is achieved fairly easily with two units of sword knights) gives a 2pt UA. Tier 3, which is achieved by running only heavy ‘jacks, gives a further point reduction on all heavy ‘jacks. That takes an Ironclad with MAT7 and knockdown to a mere 6 points. Factor in caster ‘jack points and your 35pt army just became a 45pt army. A 50pt army can easily become a 61 or 62pt army under this theme. Bundle in the Thunderhead and you now have multiple heavy ‘jacks, a great utility unit and plenty of ‘jack support deploying 12” and being able to move over anything on the first turn. This is a surprisingly aggressive army that moves faster than one would expect. It is also one of the only armies that can conceivably hold its own point value against a pThagrosh list. Consider that every war jack, with a small spot of luck, needs to be killed nearly twice and you’re on to a winner.

Mercs and Minions Just a quick note – it is important to be aware that if you choose a theme list as a Merc or Minion player, you will lose your contract bonus. The rules as they stand at the moment stipulate that it is an either/or situation. So if you wish to play the Hammerfall Irregulars (Gorten), your War jacks and gun line move off your standard deployment zone of 10”. It is a personal choice as to if this offsets the loss of the extra 4” deployment zone.

Which to choose? Well, this depends on what you want to play. Competition play encourages you to win at almost any cost and to min/max army lists. Accordingly, a point’s boost in the form of free UAs or extra movement at the start of game can be of massive assistance. Due to the flexible nature of tournament play, it is also fairly important that the units you are playing are not overly restrictive – restriction being something endemic to the theme lists.

If, on the other hand, you are more like me it is a simpler choice. I browse the faction books and No Quarter magazines looking for casters that I like. Then I look at their Theme Force and have a good crack at making it. For no other reason than I think it is fun to give it a good shot. I like my Shock and Awe army headed by Durgen Madhammer. I love eStryker at the head of the Light Brigades’ charge and I fully intend to make an Eye of the Storm army with multiple Firefly war jacks – simply because it looks like fun.

Sometimes fluff and benefit merge nicely, such as Ashlynn and her Vive le Resistance. This theme list provides otherwise impossible access to cool units and mixes it with points reductions and movement bonuses, which is great and can make for a highly effective list.

Admittedly, the synergistic combination of awesome fluff and competitive bonus is fairly few and far between. Some would argue it doesn’t exist at all. If you’re of this mind, never lose sight that you can always do things the old fashioned way and just build a Warmachine army.

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