The price Dark Elves paid for ASF

A little idea popped in my mind, and I bothered to work out the results to muse myself. I recall that 7th was sometimes marked as having good internal balance for many units in the Dark Elf army. “Everything was good – barring a few exceptions”. So I wondered if they wouldn’t try to preserve that internal balance by updating the cost of the units in a linear way.

The ground work: calculations

Yup. It's a calculator.

Well it’s a calculator. Eh. It .. calculates.. stuff.

The 7th edition book had different costs for command groups, and offered ASF to troops in the form of the Banner of Hag Graef. Let’s assume for a moment that they used exactly this banner, and the difference in command group to calculate the cost of our new infantry. Then we get this.

  • Old Book: 120 points – 10 Warriors, Shields, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef
  • New Book: 120 points – 10 Darkspears or Bleakswords, Shields, Full Command
  • Old Book: 210 points – 15 RXBs, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef
  • New Book: 210 points – 15 Darkshards, Full Command
  • Old Book: 360 points – 30 Corsairs, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef
  • New Book: 360 points – 30 Corsairs, Full Command
  • Old Book: 415 points – 35 Witch Elves, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef
  • New Book: 415 points – 35 Witch Elves, Full Command
    Alternatively, it could have been balanced around 30 models and the result would have been rounded down to 11 PPM. 30 models would be a common setup.. though their fragility often promoted a bigger unit.
  • Old Book: 450 points – 35 Executioners, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef
  • New Book: 450 points – 35 Executioners, Full Command
    Alternatively, it could have been balanced around 30 models and the result would have been rounded down to 12 PPM. 30 models would be a common setup with the banner of hag graef. Without that banner, a unit of 40 would have been common. Perhaps they took the average.
  • Old Book: 330 points – 20 Black Guard, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef -> the common unit size.
  • New Book: 330 points – 20 Black Guard, Full Command
    Ahh, here they used the Black Guard’s maximum size in 7th edition. It’s a pity, but I’ll explain why below.

For amusement, I worked out the hypothetical case for harpies.

  • Assuming Harpies would get a full command at 15 points in the old book
  • Assuming Harpies would get a full command at 30 points in the new book

Then we get:

  • Old Book: 105 points – 5 Harpies, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef
  • New Book: 105 points – 5 Harpies, Full Command

Except they forgot to give the Harpies ASF… whoops. Misprint?

Of course, these numbers are not as magical as it may seem. It’s a simple math formula that reveals the unit size required to balance the cost of the Hag Graef. It didn’t feel like a coincidence that they yielded typical unit sizes.

The Warriors became Darkspears and Bleakswords

Contrary to the other units, Warriors seem to have been rebalanced around their minimum size, rather than a common size. This seemed a little silly. So I considered another theory: the 7th edition warriors were too cheap. Many an Empire player may have grumbled over it, and even the High Elves may have. Some Dark Elves grudgingly admitted it. Even I did.. but reluctantly.

I feel that our traditional warriors simply brought too little power in combat to make it an issue but they were too cheap by comparison at 6 points per model. If we would assume that, before changing anything else, they increased the model by 1 point, then at 7 points per model and 8 points per model with a shield, we get:

  • Old Book: 210 points – 20 Warriors at 7 PPM, Shields, Full Command, Banner of Hag Graef -> a normal and common size unit.
  • New Book: 210 points – 20 Darkspears or Bleakswords, Shields, Full Command

And this makes a lot more sense. I suppose it wouldn’t be far fetched to conclude that, indeed, in 7th edition our warriors were too cheap. A mistake now rectified! Balance improved.

The Black Guards vs Executioners

Executioners vs Black Guards

Executioners vs Black Guards

The balance of our elite troops has always been an odd one, partly because they always were rather extreme in their specialization. The Executioners suffered from their ASL, making them a gimped unit by default. The Black Guards were capped at 20 models, and with no protection but a 5+ armor save, were too easily neutralized in larger games.

In the new book, they juggled the unit’s rules and balance again. The Black Guards got rid of their unit cap. The Executioners got rid of their Always Strike Last. Unfortunately, they didn’t increase the points similarly.

The Black Guards

The Black Guards remain somewhat indifferent to the ASF upgrade. They always had rerolls and high initiative. Additionally, the upgrade cost is balanced around 20 models instead of the usual 30. This brings them at 15 points per model, a steep price for a unit that’s supposedly an anvil and have some resilience.

My preferred setup for small games increased by 20% in cost: too expensive to field in a small game.

As we step up to larger games, a 30 large unit with a banner of armor piercing comes in at 525 points. This is a steep price for 2.4K games. It should be bearable in 3K, but unfortunately it remains brittle. Their only defense is T3 and 5+ armor save. In return, their attacks are still “only S4” which puts pressure on the list to get weapons against armor and high toughness. With the changes to the Cauldron, a ward protection has become difficult to get.

Having seen these numbers, I wondered: what if the black guard point increase was balanced at 30 models? Then they would come in at 14 points per model. It would have made a difference for smaller games, and certainly for 2K-2.4K games. I’m willing to bet it would have spawned far more debates on the choice between Executioners and Black Guards.

But that doesn’t mean that all discussion is off: not because the Black Guards are good, but because the Executioners are showing a weakness that Dark Elves haven’t experienced in a long time. Contrary to the Executioners, the Black Guards come with immunity to psychology, stubborn and eternal hatred. This will be interesting to bring up, when comparing them to Executioners.

The executioners

The executioners now come at 12 points per model. They have good weapon skill, S6 attacks at initiative order and killing blow. Apart from their 5+ armor save as only defense, what’s not to like?

Always Strike First has completely redefined the unit. It used to be a “gimped unit by default”  but now they offer far easier to apply mechanics. Small units have become viable. Large units become desirable and their popularity is on the rise.

Ahh. But then battle reports come rolling in, and they speak of mixed results. Ben Curry reports of a whole unit being munched by nurgle plague bearers, how they failed in so many ways. At, reports speak of units rendered useless by the time they reach battle. And sure, the dice get a few blames here and there… It’s clear people didn’t see it coming. I may have underestimated the unreliability factor myself.

The instability revealed

George of the Jungle

They are heroes, like George of the Jungle, if they can stop hitting their head against the tree.

Let’s list the subtle mechanical changes to our unit.

  • They lost their rerolls on the hit. They lost Always Strike Last, thanks to Always Strike First but at the cost of hatred. Without rerolls, they are more sensitive to fear tests and negative hit modifiers (nurgle).
  • They still only have one attack. That one attack has become less reliable, and once their numbers start dropping their performance degrades quickly.
  • The Cauldron of Blood no longer makes them stubborn. They are more likely to break, even more so because they are more likely to fluff their attack.
  • They are fielded more often without a Battle Standard Bearer, partly because we have fewer pegasus riders, partly because the BSB setup from 7th edition is no longer required. The Dark Elf players are used to units that are immune to psychology (Frenzy Corsairs, Witch Elves, Black Guards, Cold Ones) so they may have underestimated this importance.

The horde of executioners delivers a stunning 30 attacks, with a high weapon skill and strength 6. It’s all good on paper. But after a couple have died, and a single fear test failed, their attack power goes down considerably. Then they become vulnerable to the retalliation which is deadly against their T3 and 5+ armor save.

They are a superb unit, no doubt, but there’s a weakness to keep in mind. They are sensitive to hit modifiers and the loss of attacks through casualties. They are still prefered over the black guards, because of high point cost for the black guards, but they introduce a weakness that Dark Elf generals may have forgotten about for a long time.

The Harpies

The Harpies are.. entertaining. Clearly from the numbers above, they have paid for the upgrade to Always Strike First, but forgot to actually give the unit the Always Strike First. Or anything for that matter. Like a role to play in the army. Or do they still have one?

How did I get the picture? Well where do I start... I wanted to post some artwork of a harpy, but then most of it needed quite some censorship. And then I figured it made more sense censoring a bird.

Sorry lady, you’re not worth the money.

In 7th edition they have been used and abused beyond reason. Harpies were used to screen shooting (operation human shield!), redirectors or throw away unit. As valid as such logic may have been in fluff, the unit did need to be redefined. Unfortunately, they lost most of their definition.
With the point increase to 15 points per model, there are others to take its place. Heck, a unit of Shades costs barely more but brings more to the table. Dark Riders barely cost more and offer more combat power, better redirection, a vanguard move and they are core.

To make the matters worse, the Harpies can now cause panic to other units. Since when did Dark Elves care about seeing Harpies die, or flee? Oh well.

There is one thing to be said about the unit, however. It flies. And while our lords and heroes are fighting monsters, while our troops are hacking their way through the enemy, a cheap flyer may prove the best choice to chase fleeing units or force difficult decisions in charge reactions. Who would want to see a large bunker manage to flee from Executioners, only to be annihilated to the last man by a couple of harpies?

I’m unsure if many people will accept the price-tag for such a delicate unit. But perhaps, its benefits need to be explored in more depth. And I believe we have a few masters of this trade in the game already: High Elves and their Pigeons. Their pigeon never struck me as powerful, but I don’t recall that stopping High Elves from taking it, and for good reason.

Final remarks

I believe the internal balance has improved for our core choices… if we neglect the shields for the dark riders.
For the special choices, it’s a tougher call. The addition of new units like the bloodwrack shrine and the kharybdis may yet juggle the balance of the units around. And we should add the addition of the other lores of magic in the equation.

The popularity of Executioners can’t be denied, but the Dark Elves have clearly shown that there’s still a learning curve ahead of them. Our army changed. The change from hatred to ASF introduces new strengths and new weaknesses. The one dimensional buffing logic from 7th edition still “works” but with new weaknesses. And I can’t help but think that more refined methods haven’t just been made available.. but may become required over time. Let’s hope they are powerful enough to beat the nonsense mechanics we’ve come to rely on.

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