To shield or not to shield

Dark Elf - Shield┬áI recently theorycrafted the difference in performance and cost of Dark Elf Warriors with shields, compared to Dark Elf Warriors without shields. And as I was having a ball with it, I went way over the top in the depth of this theorycraft. The original topic can be found at Druchii.net, but I will spare you the long post… for now ­čÖé
Instead I’ll focus a bit more on specific setups and builds which one may find in my army list.

Why question such a seemingly unimportant choice?

I recall deploying a 30-man Warrior unit with full command, an armor piercing banner and shields in my first 8th edition games. The unit performed above expectations, surprising myself and a few fellow gamers. Yet, as I continued to venture into other lists the unit lost its shields quite rapidly.

On Druchii.net, my goto resource for army discussion, I found some people were vehemently opposing the use of shields. And yet, I remember the shields being promoted before I started playing in 8th edition a year ago. What happened?

Using their search engine, I discovered I had to go back 2 to 3 years to find a topic debating the use of shields. And their conclusions were directly opposed to the latest fashion: they would promote the use of shields.

I set out to discover the intricate details, subtleties and value of playing with or without shields because I wanted to know how to model my future spearmen! But also, I felt this discussion really is about what role the spearmen unit can play in an army.

Performance of both configurations

To avoid iterating the over-sized topic and theorycraft, let be show 2 graphics (of the dozens I produced). The first one shows how many hits it takes for the unit to loose a model or rank.


I show only S4 hits, as it’s the most interesting one. At S3, shields are slightly superior, but they loose out at S5 (obviously). We see that, in spite of the shields, numbers outweigh the shields. It’s simply harder to produce more kills against light armor than to crush the shields. The difference isn’t that big though, so it might be considered an acceptable loss if your unit is large enough.


The second graph relates to how many kills one can expect when recieving X number of hits. Again I show the graph for strength 4. We see that, in spite of being such a small armor save, it still pushes back the death toll per round of combat.

In conclusion it’s simple: without shields, your unit will retain steadfast longer while keeping more bodies to poke the enemy to death. With shields, you take fewer losses and, depending on the opponent, that might help you win combat. If you wish to use the spearmen unit as a combat unit, and break the enemy, you could consider taking up the shields. If you wish to use it as an anvil, or not rely on breaking the enemy, then go without shields.
In many situations, however, the difference may be too subtle to make the difference.
Based on these results I’ve tried to devise what kind of builds or army lists would favor one setup or the other.

The cheap combat unit

  • 30 to 35 Warriors
  • Shields
  • Full Command
  • Banner of Murder (Armor piercing)

Our Repeater Crossbows have taught me the value of armor piercing. Against anything but a 1+ armor save, or no armor save, this little banner has a significant impact on the performance of a simple spear unit. The unit comes at only 250 points for 30 models or 285 for 35. While it isn’t particularly hard to take down, it will come at a cost in effort. All in all, it’s a good all-round unit that can help fill up the core points.

But there is a weakness. It’s not particularly strong and it can lose combat easily. To make it actually perform in combat, it will need to be tooled up further with a combat character.

So this kind of unit seems tailored for either small point games, where its cheap cost far outweighs the downside of its mediocre performance, or it will require a combat character in larger games. Furthermore, it steals your banner of murder which is almost a bigger penalty than the point cost. This means it probably won’t be paired up with black guards unless you plan on giving the black guards the banner of hag graef… which is rarely considered an optimal choice.

The anvil

  • 35 to 50 Warriors
  • No shields
  • Banner, Musician
  • Optionally the Standard of Discipline or Gleaming Pennant

This bugger is built to last a while. 35 Models are a minimum, but I’d recommend to take 40. Some people report a preference for 50. It may prove a time consuming matter to take out the unit and it relies solely on steadfast to survive. It won’t work without a BSB nearby though, so it has to be paired with a cauldron of blood, a stationary BSB or a Peg Master BSB that isn’t out on his own. It could be given the standard of discipline, which relaxes the strain on your general’s inspiring presence. If you are certain that the general and BSB will stick around, then you can fit it with a banner of murder to make the enemy lose some models as he grinds down the unit. What’s interesting is that the unit can come as cheap as 246 points for a tremendous steadfast potential.

It’s a good host for the Sorceress, or even an Assassin if you put in the flaming banner. You may need to advance the unit and utilize it as a reserve combat block if you make it so large though.

Another interesting point is that this unit, at 40 big with a standard of discipline fits nicely with a Corsair horde at 601 points. It doesn’t get more optimal than this, except that these choices put you without RXB fire.

The spearmen horde

  • 40-50 Warriors
  • Shields
  • Full Command
  • Banner of Murder

It’s an experimental idea. We pay about 350 points for a Corsair horde that can produce 50 attacks. This unit would cost 320 points for 40 with shields and armor piercing, delivering 40 attacks.. but only 30 on the charge. It’s slightly less resilient against shooting, but offers more bodies.

Unfortunately, it costs a lot of points for a mediocre unit. It offers little that another unit can’t beat. It is built to win combat, but there’s little to ensure victory. 30 attacks at S3 aren’t going to cut it on the charge and in subsequent turns of combat, the fourth rank joins but hatred is lost.

What makes it worthy of consideration is the fact that it’s core and offers 40 wounds. We have but few units in the army that can offer such resilience. Against a cavalry unit, silly enough to be as wide as the horde formation, it can deal a few kills (about 5 against T3 2+ AS). This isn’t bad but more often than not, it may prove insufficient.

Final remarks

What pushed away the shields is probably the metagame. As toughness, armor and strength go up, the value of the warrior goes down until it is reduced to an anvil role. The unit hasn’t become less effective against other regular infantry and regular cavalry, but it simply fails to be cost effective as an offensive combat unit. This change in metagame could explain the change in flavour on my beloved Druchii.net, but it’s an important factor to keep in mind. If you don’t plan on facing a lot of monsters, monstrous cavalry or high strength opponents, then the shields may be something to keep around. In all other situations, the models without shields do the same job cheaper.

One thought on “To shield or not to shield

  1. Excellent and amusing read :). It makes me feel like trying out a spearmen horde. Im getting tired of my corsairs… And changing them in for cheaper spears means more rxbmen!

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