Dienstag, 8. Januar 2013

Khador 2013 - Part 01 "Vladimir Tzepesci"

Katrina Relief variant shown.
In this first article for Khador 2013, I want to start looking at the faction's warcasters, and I'll begin with one that I have only recently bought for myself - and who does not get a lot of mention on the forums. Mostly because the consensus is "he makes anything good". That is not as true as it is made to sound. And even if it were - could you really replace any list's caster with Vladimir Tzepesci, the Dark Prince, and end up with a better result?

In this first article, I want to explore where that consensus stems from, whether the anticipated answer to above question - No - is correct, and why / where that is the case. I also want to show different yet viable ways of playing him, and what things to watch out for.

The over-generalisation that "he makes anything good" stems to 92% from a spell (currently) unique to him, so here's the necessary details:
Signs & Portents:While in this model's control area, friendly Faction models gain an additional die on attack and damage rolls. Discard the lowest die for each roll. Signs & Portents lasts for one turn.
   There are not that many spells with focus cost of 4+, and they all have large impacts on the game. Signs & Portents ("S&P" from hereon) definitely does that. The effects of "add a die, and drop the lowest" equals to about +2 to all rolls (well, for 2d6, it's more of +1.7, but let's be positive here). Which is, quite frankly, often as good (and/or more reliable) as boosting. A +2 to all rolls on a friendlies within his control area (CTRL form hereon). All of Khador's MAT 6 becomes a virtual MAT 8, RAT 5 turns RAT 7... and aiming Widowmakers turn RAT 11. And an Underboss ganging up with his Kayazy has a felt MAT of 12, and hits at a virtual P&S 14.
   While that is awesome in itself, the ones that benefit the most from the spells are those models without abilities to increase accuracy or damage (say: Assault Kommandos, Winter Guard Rifle Corps, Widowmakers) or that lose too much doing so (say: Iron Fang Pikemen, Warjacks).
   The main question is: do you want to take something great over the top, or do you want to take something good great? Personally, I'm a fan of the latter, avoiding (too much) overkill, but a list should have the options for both - just because you never know what you might run into.

But that's still 8% to go. And I address the next 5% to his other spell costing 4 focus, which makes the Dark Prince the single caster with two spells of that category (which has, with full intent, been made so that he cannot cast them both the same turn):
Blood of Kings:Vladimir gain +3SPD, STR, MAT, DEF and ARM for one round.
   Doesn't sound awesome or worth 4 focus? Can happen - it takes some time to let it sink in, especially the meaning of an effective SPD 9 (which means 12" charge range) combined with his Parry ability, or that he hits at P&S 16 and P&S 13 then. Or that he'll be both DEF 18 and up to ARM 22.
   Through applied usage of this spell, Vladimir makes himself frustratingly good. Due to the cost, you'll, however, have to choose whether you want to make your army very good or himself. And even though he gets frustratingly good, do not, at no time, assume he'll just survive everything. The only thing that changes is the amount of preparation needed to kill him, and depending on how your attrition went - there may be valuable pieces missing already, upping Vlad's chances when he starts keeping it real.

The last 3% of the "Vlad makes everything good" over-generalisation stems from his feat:
Forced March: Warjacks in Vladimir's battlegroup beginning their activations in his control area double their base SPD and can run or charge without spending focus. Forced March lasts for one turn.
   His feat makes his warjacks good! When I started playing the Dark Prince recently, I figured that I only knew about the x2-SPD part and the free running. But it also allows for free charges, and that is so great - it feels a little like playing the crazy parts of Hordes, since a Kodiak with 3 focus all of a sudden does half a dozen attacks. The extra attack (and distance, and smashing power) provided by the free charge, combined with the doubled SPD (resulting in 11" charge ranges) makes for a strong selling point. It's only for a single turn, but in conjunction with S&P (mostly taking away the necessity for boosts, and therefore, further focus), Vlad can run multiple warjacks, and provide them the performance needed on the turn he jams them into the enemy - and he'll most likely get the alpha-strike.
   And while we're in this spot - what jacks does he like most, and how many? Sure, there are people that abide by the Warhost Tier 1 Berserker spam, but I don't think that's the best way to go (unless you want a really skewed list). Personally, I prefer jacks that benefit from all that Vlad can provide, so you also have to keep boundless charge in mind. That means jacks that don't charge for free - so, everyone but the Berserker. They should also have upper-class P&S so there will be less need to boost damage and you can just go and buy attacks, and multiple weapons while we're at it. That's where the Berserker falls short, since it relies on S&P due to MAT 5, and is only P&S 16. The Destroyer is also not the best choice, since it's pretty expensive, except for certain builds, see below.
   The best candidates for Vlad's feat are, IMO:
1) The Spriggan - Reach, P&S 18, Powerful Charge, Bulldoze, ARM 21. Oh yeah.
2) The Juggernaut - P&S 19, P&S 15, cheap.
3) Beast 09 - Juggernaut with Reach, runs for free.

   We'll take a little jump in our order of elements to be explored, and answer the question whether he can replace everybody and improve it - last. ;) And no, I'm not sorry. Since we've already gone into the key elements that make him up, we'll continue by looking into different viable ways to play him - or especially which ways he plays better than other Khador caster. And the things he doesn't really jive with. I'll have to mainly cover those styles I've observed or thought about/played myself.

Prominent Playstyles:

   Spamming Berserkers (Warhost, Tier 1)

You just take Vladimir, Drago, and as many Berserkers you can - and you can get a lot since they're only 5 five points due to the Tier 1 benefit. And then you roll with all of that. That's a lot of reasonably tough machines, and it banks on S&P upping their performance enough to actually hit, and the feat for getting the Alpha-strike. However... in a normal, "open" gaming environment or even a tournament, your opponent will find ways to screw you over, unless he's been completely trapped in the "How am I going to deal with all that!??!" thinking.
As I already explained, I'm no real fan of this.

   The Gunline
"Gun" is a more general usage here - any ranged weapon. Baseline is that you max out on Mortars, taking the two Winter Guard ones, the Behemoth, Destroyers to your liking. However, merely relying on templates will give you trouble sooner or later, whether it's a bad round of shooting, the choir singing "Passage" on the Protectorate 'Jack wall advancing on you, a speedy jam unit being raced at you, or models with force barrier. Therefore it is a very smart decision to include direct fire units with large ranges, which makes Widowmakers and Winter Guard Rifle Corps top inclusions. You will need something like Kayazy, though, to deal with scenarios.
The Gunline is a viable strategy since it's main propellant, S&P, is a spell and can therefore be applied over several turns where a gunline under the Butcher banks mostly on a key turn.

   The Mixed Bag
Such a list bases on taking something of each, and, in my opinion, is the best way to go. The main difference from the gunline probably is that your jacks are more oriented to melee, as is a part of your infantry force. Shooting will most likely come from infantry. The feat is used to catapult the one or two 'Jacks forward at a beneficial point in time. Otherwise, the models do their regular thing - aided by S&P. When things get dicey, Vlad starts casting BoK.

    War Host
While we're at list building, I should probably mention his theme force - the rest beyond the Berserker Spam. At Tier 4, you'll have (to have) two Iron Fang Pikeman Units, two Greylord Ternions, three Koldun Lords, and just Berserkers and/or Dragon. The 'Jacks will have Advanced Deployment, the greylords will have Stealth during round 1, and the Pikemen will have +2 SPD during your first turn. As for other choices, you can take anything Greylord, any unit of Iron Fangs, the War Dog (big +), and battle mechanics (also a +).
   Generally speaking, it's a pathetic tier. Come on, three Koldun Lords, for nothing but Stealth on Greylords? As will be pointed out further below, the Greylord Ternion does make sense with Vlad. But the Stealth thing is redundant, if the rest of the army is so far upfield that there won't be anything prioritizing the Greylords. Aside from that, if all that talk about the power of jamming is to be believed, here's a Tier that can do it. Going first, (assuming 7"/10" deployment) with a first turn feat, you can have the Berzerkers at the (7"+6"+8"x2=)29" Mark, and the Pikemen at the (7"+8"x2=)23" Mark. The opponent's deployment zone starts at the 38" mark, so you'll be in his grill or almost into his AD zone. Whether that is a good thing, I don't know. Depending on the match-up, going second and then completely ramming into him might make sense, but Vladimir offers no staying power.
   All in all, the choices offered by the Tier are good and plausible for Vlad, it just lacks any kind of shooting (unless we get Iron Fang Crossbowmen or the like). After the release of the Black Dragon UA, it's at least sensible to have two units of those. The upcoming Greylord Outriders will also give it a boost. I (myself) would stick to all advise given in this article (d'oh) and probably go to Tier 2, maybe three if I'm high enough in points and deep enough into Greylords.

Specific Interactions:

As I explained, the Dark Prince can run several 'Jacks. Some, however, do stand out, even more than already mentioned:
+ A Spriggan, under the feat and Boundless Charge, has a threat range of (4"x2"+3"+2"+2") 15"(with Reach), Pathfinder, and can be fully loaded with focus. The same goes for Beast 09, but the Spriggan has Bulldoze which makes him a harder to stop 'Jack missile. It's anti-stealth flares also benefit any gunline builds.
+ Drago is awesome since he doesn't require focus, does not need to blow up, has a MAT 6 to hit anything with, is cheap, and most of all: His affinity stacks with S&P, which means he rolls 4d6 per roll and drops the lowest two.
+ The Kodiak runs for free, which is nice, but his strongest suit is static Pathfinder, which comes in incredibly handy in most games since he can traverse - and therefore threaten - areas where others would be stuck. Vlad's feat then allows him to charge for free which means that, given S&P, if you're banking on a double-handed throw from his chain-attack, he won't need focus most of the time.
+ Torch has Relentless Charge, which isn't as good as the Kodiak's Pathfinder, but he brings his other load-out to speak for him. Under S&P, that little flamer can actually get quite dangerous - not to mention the spike and the saw. There may also be times when Vlad appreciates a few cloud effects to cover him.
- the Demolisher loses out as he can't make charge attacks with his gun, and at that point, the Devastators output is the same, however with the option for Rain of Death
- the Decimator keeps demanding focus to make the Gun do what makes it unique, and that is likely wanted elsewhere.

I already mentioned a number of synergistic units above, so I won't go over that again here. Let it be said: The more shooting Vlad has, the more he can stay safely back. That may not, be a wise choice in Steamroller 2013, depending on how the beta pans out. Here are some other choices that stand out:
+ Doom Reavers, for simple sake that Vladimir offers them two buffs without targetting them (and they're not even feats). S&P is obvious, the other (classic) move is the Doom Reaver Limousine - the Doomies all gather completely within 3" of Vlad, and are escorted up the field under protection of Windwall and their own Spell Ward, before they are launched into the enemy. I'd advise to take the UA, because there are ways to bypass or work around wind wall, so you'd want the most protection. It is a plausible tactic, just make sure to only employ it when the enemy is deprived of options to turn it against you. Of course, you can always play them as usual... ;-)
+ Greylord Ternion, because S&P is one of the rare things that works on their sprays. Those are already great, but S&P can really turn them into blenders. Their Ice Cages further help the rest of the force hit; though that may be redundant with S&P up, you will appreciate it on those turns where you have to cast sth else. They can also provide cloud cover for Vlad - in a Blizzard cloud under BoK, he'll have DEF 20 against ranged/magic attacks. Now try and hit that!
+ Great Bears of Gallowswood, as they: appreciate Windwall like Doomies, and because Boundless Charge works on them. It may be a last ditch tactic, but warrior models with 13" threat and two P&S 12 Weaponmaster attacks don't sound to bad.
- Man o' War suffer too much from their low speed, which this version of Vlad can't enhance. Between regular SPD values, BoK, and the feat, the other elements of the army will outpace them too quickly. If you absolutely, positively HAVE/LOVE to take them, I advise for Bombardiers, since they at least can reach out to touch stuff.

Though my current experience with Vladimir, the Dark Prince, is limited, I spotted a few things:
- Sylys Wyshnalyrr is completely unnecessary. Vladimir only has one attack spell, invalidating the usage of Arcane Secrets, and no upkeeps, and therefore can't benefit from the free upkeep. Since he's not competing for the attachment slot, that paves the way for...
+ the Wardog. While the "No freestrikes" part is redundant, the bonus to DEF grants Vlad an effective 20 und BoK. And that is in addition to all the crazyness of this 1 point model.
+ Eiryss Xp sometimes is a crutch, and sometimes, especially when playing with more than one jack, she can get in the way - yet since Vlad provides boosts to his 'Jacks that are not based off of Focus (S&P and feat), she is more tolerable and can move around the board more freely (i.e. you have to worry about her EMPing your jacks a little less). This co-ops nicely with the...
+ Koldun Lord. The old man combines many benefits of the Greylord Ternion with being great jack support [well, "great" as far a Khador goes]. If you're playing Vladimir two or more 'Jacks (not counting Drago), the extra focus he provides can really go a long way to helping Vlad getting all necessary spells going.
- Madelyn Corbeau is on the losing side of things, at least when kept around Vlad as his Entourage - Sucker circumvents BoK and can lead to unnecessary life loss on Vlad. Also, since he prefers more models than a few key ones, Intrigue isn't as powerful as, say, with the Dark Champion. If you're playing Madelyn, it's likely better to keep her more upfront and close to models that really benefit from the movement (so: as usual)

So now that we've went through this, what are some things to watch out for with Vlad?
1) With two four focus spells and seven FOC, Vlad hates Lamentation. That's only two or three Casters so far, but it simply shuts him down/ forces him to move first, then cast. With no upkeeps, he also hates being unable to cast (or punished to cast) a little more than the other casters.
2) What's also an issue is Polarity Shield, or anything that keeps you from charging a model, because this can really cramp/block a feat-based alpha with your jacks.
   It'd likely pay off to bring Eiryss Xp or Harlan Versh just to punish somebody who can put this, or something like this, out.
3) He greatly dislikes denial feats, and those are a good reason to bring shooting units, because most of them can be sorta circumvented by shooting.

And now, to answer the final question: Can you replace any Warcaster of Khador with Vladimir, the Dark Prince, and get a better result?
First off: My playing experience with him is limited, and I haven't exactly tried it. However, there have been moments when I looked at lists I made (from Harkevich 'Jack-heavy to Irusk Xp Infantry swarming) and thought "Well, that might make for a good Vladimir list."
I do, however, within the limits of my practical experience and in light of the theory put into it, say: No. You can swap in Vladimir alright, and he will be able to play with the list, but you will not automatically get a better result. And that is because Vladimir's play style is one thing for certain: Offensive. he plays attrition by solely by taking enemy models off the board, not by making his own stick around. Besides windwall, he has no defensive capabilities - and Windwall is mediocre at best. S&P, Boundless Charge, the Feat, Razor Wind, BoK - he is gearing his army towards the offensive, which is good. But that makes him very different from either Irusk, Harkevich, or any Iron Flesh caster. He can't just clog something with troopers and buff them so the stick around, he's got to use his forces to unclog these things (or prevent cloggage(assuming that's even a word)). As a matter of fact (since he is a different caster), he will play their lists differently, and not necessarily better.
The point that has to be agreed on, though, is that you actually can replace any caster with Vlad and retain a fully functional list, since the number of models he doesn't like is very small. Other casters (even Vladimir's epic forms) would not necessarily be able to do that.

And with that, let me conclude on this... ehm... essay on Vladimir Tzepesci. The one thing I personally hope is that my other articles in this series will go to the same length/depth as this one, and, too, show that Khador's things can't be generalised.

I salute all that have read this far, you earned yourself a drink! Afterwards, go out and defeat the enemies of the Motherland!