I got back into the hobby a few years ago when a friend of mine who is a professional distiller traded a case of craft vodka for a bunch of second hand eldar and gave them to me as a birthday gift. I was delighted. Although I had not played in over ten years, I immediately found myself listening to lore podcasts, reading Black Library novels, and painting models with the enthusiasm of a jubilant pony who has just discovered that he is actually a unicorn. I was having a blast.
Over the next few months, I built what I thought was a pretty impressive eldar army. I had a wide enough variety of models that I could field a variety of builds at 2000 points, all of which looked like the sort of eldar warhost that might appear in a Black Library novel. I imagined my space elves were more than ready pop out of the webway, blast the forces of Chaos into the warp, and be back to the craftworld in time for aperitifs and poetry readings.
Then I played my first game since 3rd edition. It was against Thousand Sons and Tzeentch, and I got my ass so thoroughly kicked that by the middle of turn two my few remaining space elves were weeping salty salty tears as they gazed across the field at well over a hundred enemy infantry with 4++ saves and some big daemons to boot. I realized that there was nothing in my collection with the fire output to deal with that volume of durable light infantry, nor did I have counter chargers or robust screen units that could prevent my elves from being butchered in close combat. So I bought a bunch of new models and went back to work.
The next time I played this guy, I thought I was ready. I was not. He brought Magnus the Red, who teleported into my backfield on turn one, and even after I opened up on him with literally everything in my army for two turns, that big red bastard was still alive and wading through my delicately painted aesthetes like Sauron in the opening scene of the Lord of the Rings. It was after this game that I fell into the trap that so many of us fall into: I decided that the problem was that my opponent was playing Warhammer the wrong way. I was building army lists that were fun and interesting and consistent with the fluff, while he was just trying to game the rules to win games before they even started.
I posted about this experience online and it produced a firestorm of responses ranging from declarations that not only was I right, but that my opponent was clearly some sort of win-at-all-costs subhuman troglodyte who should be forced to eat printed copies of his net-lists until he chokes and dies, to accusations that I was a pathetic whiner who needed to stop complaining about an opponent using the models available to him to build the best list he could. I was stunned. I had no idea that people had such strong feelings about this sort of thing. This was when I realized that there are two distinct ways to play Warhammer 40K.
GW realizes this too, which is why in 9th edition they have separate rules for “Narrative Play,” and “Matched Play.” Nevertheless, most games are still likely to use the “matched play” rules because they are designed to be balanced, which is what most casual gamers want. This can lead to problems when a couple of gamers who don’t know each other well show up to the game store for some 2k matched play, but they are actually there to play very different kinds of 40k. (For more about the precise differences between casual play and competitive play and why it matters, click here.) It can be pretty disheartening to show up to a game and realize that none of the choices you will make in the next few hours will matter; you are going to lose, and your opponent doesn’t even need to do anything else clever to beat you. (This is especially frustrating if you have a busy adult life and games are difficult to schedule.)
After the third time I played Thousand-sons guy, I asked him to run a more “casual” list the next time. He said he would. The problem is that “casual list,” means something different to everyone, and in our next game, although he didn’t bring Magnus and he did introduce some new units and limit the number of Tzaangors on the table, he still ran an army that I think probably could easily have finished in the top 2 in a tournament at our local store. He wasn’t trying to be a dick; it’s just, when he builds a list, he can’t not think about it as a solution to a puzzle- the puzzle being, ‘how to win.’ He is also just a very good player.
It took me longer than I would care to admit to realize that there was no “problem” with how my friend was playing the game; it’s just that neither I nor my collection was ready for his level of competitive play, and he didn’t share my ineffable totally intuitive notion of what constitutes a “casual” list. Telling someone that you want to run “casual” lists is like telling someone in the early stages of a romantic relationship that you want to “keep things casual.” It’s a phrase that can mean almost anything and is likely to result in misunderstanding.
I think the goal in setting up “casual play” is to get both players to the table with lists that have reasonably equal odds of beating one another. That is, once the game begins, it should be the choices the players make, (and of course to some degree the dice,) that determine outcome of the game. Win or lose, this kind of game is fun- which is generally what casual players are after. In some cases, when you and certain other players are just ‘on the same wave-length,’ agreeing to run “casual lists” is enough to ensure this kind of game. When this isn’t the case, I have found two different strategies to be helpful:
Strategy one: Cooperative List Building This is time consuming, but it can be fun and helpful to good gameplay if you and your opponent discuss your lists as you are building them. Maybe your opponent says, “I want to run an all melee daemon list, so please don’t bring an army that will shoot me off the table turn one.” Great. Now you can pull out all those melee wraith units and finally give your avatar some action. It’s also a great way to build a story around the battle to make the game more entertaining.
Strategy Two: If you and your opponent don’t have the time or inclination for cooperative list-building, another good solution- recommended to me by a friend on the West Coast- is to each agree to run a 2000 point brigade and no other detachments. This essentially forces each of you to build a balanced force that samples lots of different units, which is often what distinguishes lists for casual play anyway.
And Another Thing: Regardless of whether you tend to prefer casual or competitive Warhammer, there is a lot to be said for learning the other kind of play if you can. It’s easy to defensively declare and/or tell yourself that you ‘just aren’t interested’ in that other kind of play- that’s what I did, and I even believed it. But I bet if you had even one good experience playing the kind of 40k that you are less familiar with, you would find it much easier to be interested. I have found that since I have embraced competitive as well as casual play, I get a lot more out of the hobby as I am prepared to play and enjoy a lot more types of games. There are still a handful of people in my local meta, both casual players and competitive players, that I sort of avoid playing with just because they aren’t very personable or friendly, but this has nothing to do with the type of 40k that we are playing. It’s just an interpersonal thing.
Anyway, since our first three fateful encounters, Thousand Sons guy has been a chronic army hopper. He has run Scions, Orks, Adeptus Mechanicus, and Dark Eldar, all with tremendous success. I have a blast now when we play, and it has nothing to do with him playing the game differently; he doesn’t. It’s just that I, as a player, have finally figured out how to be either a pony or a unicorn, depending which is most appropriate to the opponent I am facing. (The pony/unicorn thing is a call back to paragraph one- probably too long ago, sorry.)
Anyway, the whole purpose of this site is to help other eldar players get more out of the hobby by reducing the super steep learning curve to competitive play with Craftworlds, and not make some of the mistakes I did by being more open minded about other kinds of play. Unfortunately, thousand-sons guy has since sold his chaos collection to fund some of those other armies I mentioned. I say “unfortunately,” because now that I have the hang of Craftworld Eldar in the newest edition, I would love another chance to out-build and outplay the list that gave me so much grief early on, (and now that I have the skill level and the tools to do so.) Also, it would be super satisfying to blast that big red brute back into the warp where he belongs and finally get all my space elves back to Iybraesil in time for aperitifs and poetry readings after all.