Why Themes aren’t Ruining Warmachine 14

Firstly, I really wanted to call this article “A Midsummer Night’s Theme”, but it felt a step too far, even my terrible puns have limits. In this blog we usually talk about janky Troll dojo, but this week we’re going to take a look at one of the big issues that people are talking about in the game, at the moment:

“Are themes ruining the game?

The main concerns people have are that Themes:

  • Promote spam.
  • Remove list diversity as all lists are built the same.
  • Make list building less interesting, less choices.
  • Are the only way to play if you want to be competitive

Let’s take a look at some of these, shall we:

Theme Lists Promote Spam.

The truth is, that the only time a model gets spammed is when it is clearly too good at what it does for the points cost. You see, when you spam a particular model or unit you sacrifice toolkit options and you sacrifice flexibility. As Warmachine and Hordes players we value flexibility incredibly highly. We value a toolkit of tricks and interactions that can help us solve problems. Whenever you spam something you limit these options.

A good example would be spamming Marauders. The benefits are clear to see. They are cheap, hit really hard, have a strong combo smite ability, have lots of boxes for the points paid and thrive in a game where huge bases are in vogue.   These are all great things that might make you consider spamming ten marauders in a theme.

But it gets more interesting when you look at what a Marauder can’t do. Firstly and most importantly it doesn’t have a gun. That’s fine you think, plenty of jacks don’t have a gun. It’s fine on it’s own, but when you spam something without a gun, you immediately cross a line. A clever opponent will abuse the fact you don’t have guns. Key solos will be safe all game, you will only attack the things they want you to attack and you can often lack an assassination presence. This means you aren’t keeping your opponent’s caster honest. Some casters in this game can feel downright unfair when they know you can’t kill them. A good example is Mk2 Harbinger, I play Trolls and it wasn’t uncommon to be facing her down without enough of a ranged assassination threat to keep her honest. The truth is that she was nearly unbeatable when she could martyr down to 1 health with no fear of reprisal. The attrition advantage was disgusting. This is an extreme advantage, but it holds true for many casters to a less extent. A squishy caster that can regularly spend down to one or zero each turn can be way more effective.

As a troll player I often see newer players taking two or three maulers. There is a general consensus that he is a good beast, I think he’s overrated, but that’s for another time. When people then spam them they miss out of several key tolls. They don’t have a beast with native pathfinder, sure they could give it rush if they also have an Axer, but if it has rush, it can’t have Rage. The Earthborn, which, at the start of MK3, most Troll players thought underwhelming has become more and more popular. It offers a defensive piece that can take an alpha and often survive, it can go in with Rage and it’s native pathfinder hitting much harder than a mauler with Rush. It also plays really interestingly with terrain which is in the ascendancy. All of this means that’s a good player will almost always utilize a mix of Earthborns and Maulers better than just spamming Maulers.

Attributes like Pathfinder, reach, boostable guns, all come with a price and you often end up in a situation where the jacks you want to spam are the cheap ones that lack these attributes, that means that a good opponent can often play around the spam if they can identify the weakness and exploit it. When the list has no clear weaknesses or the strengths outweigh them then these lists often become popular and eventually get looked at by Privateer Press.   Good examples of which are Mad Dogs spam with Karchev, EE with Calandra and Bradigus. All three spammed and were strong enough to cover their exploitable weaknesses. PP stepped in and fixed them all relatively quickly. Chances are if you’re struggling against a spam and it’s not dominating the national and international level that it has weaknesses that you can exploit.

Theme lists Remove List Diversity

This particular claim makes me laugh, quite a bit. I am definitely of the opinion that lists are way more diverse than they have ever been. I feel list diversity comes down to two aspects, casters and the actual models in the lists.

If we start with casters I think it’s clear to see that caster diversity is at all time high. Let’s look at the faction that everyone complained about as the worst at caster diversity in MK2, Cygnar! You all remember MK2, Cygnar, right? We played for years and you saw Haley2 in every pairing. She was paired with Caine2, Siege or Haley3 almost all the time right? I see players on the national level. There is certainly still a lot of Haley2, but you also see people playing Haley3 without her or even ignoring both Haleys entirely. Themes have allowed casters like Maddox, Striker1, Striker2, Nemo3, Caine3, Sloan and hopefully after the current CID cycle Siege2 and Kraye will join that list. That’s excellent for not just the game, but also Cygnar players who will have more choice and diversity as they go.

Some of this is due to MK3 reworks, but it’s fair to say some of this is due to extra options provided by themes, see Striker1 or Nemo3 and some of it is because Haley can no longer take her ulta specialised list. She used to pick all her favourite merc solos and then a unit her and someone else’s character jack and it all worked, because it had huge synergy and an amazing toolkit, but now Haley sits there and thinks is all of that better than 4 free solos? Nope, so because everyone else plays in theme, she has to as well. She no longer goes first 60% of the time, because she had Anastasia in her list. She no longer has Ragman and so the list is a little worse against Armour, which was a weakness before. Suddenly you see that themes have reined her in just a little, even if the list is stronger than the previous list. When everyone gets a bit better with themes, the ones that only get a little bit better are less strong comparatively.

The second part is list diversity within a theme. Again I’m not sure that’s true. There are a few lists that offer very few options, but these are often the very flavourful Theme lists like Ghost Fleet. These are lists that have to be narrow, because they change the way the game is played. Even with these severe limitations we’ve seen Ghost Fleet regularly with Denny1, Terminus and the Witch Coven and Denny2. In the lists I’ve seen some people taking the Wraith Engine and others not. I’ve even seen quite a bit of variation in the jack packages for the particular lists and even variations were some people run with max units and some with min units. That is all in one of the most limited theme lists and it’s still got three different casters, multiple different jack packages and different ways of running the units.

When you look at other themes the diversity becomes much larger. Another example would be Legion of Steel for Khador. I’ve seen it with a variety of jacks including Colossals, Demolishers, Kodiaks and Marauders. Strakhov2 is taking his character jack, Torch. Some people are spamming Black Dragons for the high armour. Some are taking Iron Fang Pikemen, for the pathfinder, because this list doesn’t have great options for pathfinder, no Saxon available to this list, remember and so Relentless Charge is suddenly a big deal. Not just that, but it’s also a weakness, if you make them play on a table edge with lots of terrain they will be running at half speed. I went to a local tournament recently that was won by a WTC player playing Zerkova1 with two min units of Uhlans. So many options and so much diversity from one theme that had no releases specifically for it and yet list diversity is very much alive.

Looking at Jacks in particular, it’s hugely interesting to see what’s happened with bonded jacks. Not too long ago, you would see Ruin in every single Khador list. Now he’s a benefit of playing with Butcher. You have started seeing Lancers in Cygnar, because Thorn isn’t there saying. Why wouldn’t you take me? Character beasts can be really good, because they only go with one caster and that’s fantastic for list variety.

Imagine the things you can do when you have 5-6 themes and specific releases for those themes. It’s super exciting for the variety of the game.

Theme Lists remove the Creativity of List Building

Some of this is covered in the previous fallacy, but list building is more interesting that it has ever been. PP sometimes misses the mark, but when they get it right, a theme provides strengths and weaknesses and it’s your challenge to try and cover those weaknesses with creativity. If we can go back to Trolls, the Power of Dhunia theme is excellent. Trolls beasts are great, but the theme does lack unit options other than Runeshapers who are bit to expensive to run as a tarpit. The theme has helped Troll players move away from Fire Eaters which were in many lists pre theme and experiment with light beasts like Storm and Swamp Trolls as well as the Earthborn as a tough to remove pivot. These kind of limitations make you improvise and change your play style to help cover issues that could exist and this is the exciting part.

Another example would be the popular Heavy Metal list for Cygnar. In this case getting the points to work just right meant that Cygnar players were suddenly looking at Hammersmiths and the Ironclad. Suddenly these two rarely seen jacks were having their strengths and weaknesses considered by Cygnar players, because they both happened to be 12 points.

Everytime a new theme comes out you will have the opportunity to consider it with all your existing casters and conversely, every time a new model or caster comes out you can consider how it works in all the themes it’s available in. The options in any one list are less, but too often pre Theme we would fall back on the same options that we felt were obviously the best and not try things out. Why look at Exemplar Errants if Idrian Skirmishers exist? Well Errants can be taken in the Errant theme and once you get them on the table you realise they play differently and offer interesting differences.

Themes need to be taken if you want to be competitive.

To a degree, that’s true. It can certainly feel annoying to play points down against a force, just because it’s in theme. In many ways it’s a shame that Privateer Press made so many spells Friendly Faction during the transition to MK3. It would be an interesting choice if you could losing access to Mercs and Minions was another factor to consider when choosing whether to play in theme or not.

The truth is that PP stated they want about 50% of lists to be in theme. Themes are way too powerful for that to be the case. Themes will dominate the game, unless you give us a compelling reason not to play in themes. Honestly I’m fine with that, some of you won’t be, but unless PP changes direction. That’s the way we’re heading.   If all of the above points don’t interest you then Warmachine might not be the game for you anymore and that’s fine. People’s gaming needs change over time. There are a lot of good things about themes though and if you give them a chance and embrace the creativity of list building you might just find them to be a great step forward.

14 thoughts on “Why Themes aren’t Ruining Warmachine

  1. Reply GankieMuniz Jun 19,2017 12:07 pm

    That last paragraph said it perfectly. I am not a fan of themes. You made some good points that I agree with and some that I do not but I do see where you are coming from. I think I need to ask myself if this is the warmachine I want to play or not? I do fine locally without themes but if I want to play competitively it seems I have to embrace themes and I don’t know if that is something I want to do. Thanks for the well thought out article!

  2. Reply Thomas O'Neale Jun 19,2017 3:45 pm

    The 50% dream could be achieved, I believe, if the warcasters/locks weren’t so faction restricted. The faction restriction on spells and feats mean we arent apt to select merc or minion units. Trollblood are major offenders here, with good spells being friendly faction. Imagine playing Cygnar and Stryker is suddenly able to shield a merc unit from enemy attacks, or Trollbloods where Horgle is able to give his shield spell to croak raiders. Currently, the popular merc/minion units taken are ones who are partisan, who can take a command attachment to become partisan, who can provide support to the bulk of the army, or who are very good operating on their own. Mercs/minions are a good way to lure us away from themes, but they have to be a choice that doesn’t handicap a caster/lock.

  3. Reply trevor Jun 19,2017 4:09 pm

    Rocky mountain rumble was last weekend. 50% theme forces overall and the final 4 had 50% theme forces.

  4. Reply Ewan Davies Jun 20,2017 1:38 pm

    I personally agree that playing out of theme tends to leave you a significant amount of points down and don’t feel that the theme restrictions do enough to counter this. A handful of free solo’s tends to be over 10 points giving a likely 10% + points advantage often for taking some of the best units in the game. I am more a fan of theme effects such as advance moves or girded jacks as this is more of a tactical effect for your opponent to consider rather than a sledgehammer of free points to fight through.

  5. Reply Joseph Jakul Jun 20,2017 6:26 pm

    I think the non-theme experimentation is beginning. The theme honeymoon might wear off when people start exploring non-theme once again to see kind of theme weaknesses it can fix. If not soon, then, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of theme releases we get in this year’s next cycle. When Shick said he expected a 50/50 split, a part of his reasoning was that as the big themes release, people will be able to stack things in an advantageous way outside of themes as a result.

  6. Reply Michael Jun 25,2017 1:16 am

    My position is less of a community response than a design analysis http://brisbois.blogspot.ca/2017/05/drawn-armies-commentary-and-analysis-of.html. I’d be interested in your perspective on my ideas.

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