In this article, similar to the last one, I want to try and explain why she is perceived as weak, what her actual playstyle strengths are, the interactions with specific army choices, different lists (and list ideas), and why I chose her for the Plunge, and what my expectations are.
Why is Zerkova perceived as weak? The answer already foreshadows itself when you look at the caster line-up that came before her, because you can't leave the impact of that out of the equation. Mk I Prime had Sorscha, Vlad, the Butcher - all of which are largely defined by their physical capabilities, the things they can do to the enemies army themselves. Then came Irusk, the second Iron Flesh casters and pinnacle of troop buffing. Then came the power-level madness that was Apotheosis with Sorscha Xp, Vladimir Xp, the Old Witch and Karchev, followed by Superiority and Butcher Xp, and finally Legends with Irusk Xp and Zerkova (her MK I incarnation).
Right up to her entry, all Khadoran casters either were focused on their own performance (Sorscha, Butcher/Xp, Vladimir, Karchev) or on supporting their Army (Sorscha Xp, Vladimir/Xp, Irusk/Xp, Old Witch), most of which is still true today. Zerkova, back then and today, did neither of both, really. She wouldn't (and won't) compare to any of the others.
She's probably the closest Khador currently has to a spellslinger caster. Her statline is that of a support caster, but she has a number of offensive spells, one of her upkeeps triggers on enemies close to her, as well as her feat being a denial feat - all those things do force her forward to right behind the front lines which is not where you'd want a support caster. However, she doesn't even buff her army. Or her warjacks. Or herself.
Her spell list has nothing that immediately strikes the reader (especially not when he's never encountered Zerkova before) as her "key" spell. She has nothing like Signs & Portents, Battle Lust, Broadsides, Full Throttle, things of that kind. What she does have is "Banishing Ward" (spell ward upkeep), "Force Blast" (push), "Icy Grip" (warrior model DEF-debuff), "Influence" (mind control), "Razor Wind" (middle class single target damage), "Watcher" ('Jack bodyguards), "Twister" (offensive cloud, wimpy damage AoE).
People then flip the card over, dazzled, and read the feat, which is strong:
Howling Wind: Enemy models beginning their activations in Zerkova's control area lose their initial ranged attacks and cannot run, charge, make special attacks, give or receive orders, or make special actions. Howling Wind lasts for one round.A strong denial feat, very strong in fact. It does have a few shortcomings, though - models with Focus/Fury being able to "buy back" their initial shots, Warcasters/'locks being free to cast as they please - but most models are reduced to "Walk and Attack", which is something you can plan for. It is some very soft denial, though, unlike the Old Witch's feat or, say, Baldur's, not to mention those of the S-class casters.
At this point, people tend to think that Zerkova is a push-over once you've weathered the feat turn (and the rest of the army). That is, too, because Zerkova does synergise with herself - but the important bits are on different cards. The key to her, in my mind, are the arcane artifacts, which can - each once per turn and only one per spell - give a spell +3" RNG, let it cost 1 less focus, or give Zerkova 360° vision while letting her ignore both LoS and Stealth.
I can only guess that Zerkova's perceived weakness comes from the fact that she is not a troublemaker for your opponent, but a kind of troubleshooter or solutions provider for you. I do find, however, that she's mostly a P.i.t.A. until you she drops, just as she is depicted in the backstory.
With that having been said, what are her playstyle strengths?
For one, her spells are tools, and might not be necessary all the time, so she should have the focus to keep her Warjacks running and doing stuff. If she hasn't - well that's great, because then you're getting a lot of mileage out of her! So she can more easily take warjacks than your average Khador caster. I'd go with two minimum.
With the Ghost Stone ignoring LoS, she can also try and solo assassinate a caster from somewhere safe from reprisal, sacrificing her army along the way. This, though, works better on other "more forward" casters, and even more so if you can drop in some damage beforehand.
With a solid denial feat, she can also play the scenario game - to the extent her soft denial allows. In 2012, she preferred the Dual Scenarios (Incursion, Process of Elimination and Outflank/Outfight/Outlast). As to her scenario abilities in 2013 - we'll have yet to see, but I predict similar results. An aggressive play with her, using her feat to deny your opponent jamming your forces might pay off, and depending on how it does (my recent forays into ultra-aggressive Zerkova tended to get her killed), it might signal a return to "older" ways of playing her.
With that in mind, let's again swap the order of questions, and answer what ways there are to play her. In all honesty, that boils down to one question: To Sylys or not to Sylys? Because taking him disables you to take either of her Tier lists. Yet the benefits he provides for her are outstanding, but more on that below.
If you do choose to take him, you have access to all of Khador's self-sufficient infantry options and all the character jacks - mainly Behemoth and Beast 09. The main benefit is that you can load up on characters here, and thusly tailor the build to you list needs, f.e. if you build Zerkova especially to be your anti-Cryx/anti-magic heavy list, you can bring her, Harlan Versh, Orin Midwinter and the like.
Wolves of Winter (Tier List)
This is the original Tier list from the Forces of Warmachine: Khador book, and frankly: I never played it. I might do so, once I get a second unit of Doomies. It's, however... quite exquisite. You get to spam Greylords, get a free Doom Reaver UA, get to advance deploy Koldun Lords & their jacks, and +2 SPD on her battlegroup jacks on her first turn. Not that thrilling, especially without a main unit for her to hide behind or as cloud targets for the Greylord (Doom Reavers are not a main unit in that regard).
Were I to play this Tier... I'd probably only take it to Tier 2 for the free UA. FA:U on Ternions is quite pointless, generally, but the extra Koldun Lords might pay off. But testing it will have to wait for the arrival of the Greylord Outriders.
This was one of the first Mk II builds for Zerkova (pre-dating the release of Sylys Wyshnalyrr) and mainly rotated around around playing Zerkova forward where she belongs while keeping safe - mostly through crowding her real estate with bodyguards: Wardog (Countercharge), MoW Drakhun (Countercharge), Ogrun Bokur (Shield Guard), Warjacks like Beast 09 (Watcher+Crit freeze). The offensive was carried by self-sufficient infantry like IFP or Kayazy. It was not really successful, though - at least, I wasn't. ;-) However, this list quickly went out of poplarity post-Sylys. With the added range on spells, keeping Zerkova safe was no longer the top priority or necessity, and a lot of points could go into other models. Assuming that playing her aggressive is beneficial in SR 2013, this kind of build is probably best at keeping her alive, even though her real estate can end up really crowded.
Hunting Wolves (Tier List)
If there ever was a godsend for the Koldun Kommander, this list was it. You basically took things you'd be taking anyway (Greylords, Kayazy, Widowmakers), and even though you sacrificed access to a number of infantry based hard-hitters, well, you still had Khador's best Warjacks, mainly the Spriggan. You also got the unique case of being able to field Vanguard mercenary warjacks in Zerkova's own battlegroup, granting you access to more shield guard models. And you had access to a key mercenary: Gorman di Wulfe.
If you went ahead, took a Greylord Ternion, Gorman, a unit of Kayazy Assassins and three or more Warjacks, you got: Access to Vanguards, FA +1 on all Greylord/Kayazy units and unit attachments(!), a free 3" cloud effect per Ternion for round 1, +2" to your deployment zone, and -1 to the points cost of warjacks (making the Vanguards 4 pts each!). This tier list only got better with the subsequent release of the Eliminators and will continue to do so with the Greylord Outriders.
There are debates on how best to play this - take only Vanguards and max out on Kayazy with 2x Assassins w/UA and 3x Eliminators? While that'd provide an interesting skew list, I prefer taking Khador 'Jacks and Ternions. Based on my experiences in 2012, this has slightly bigger issues in keeping her safe, since you miss out on the Bokur, War Dog, and Drakhun, and Clouds... aren't as reliable as formerly (which means: When matched up against Legion or similar, you need to take the other list).
Since we have come to this point, let's move on to observing specific model interactions:
The big factor regarding Warjacks is Watcher, which allows them to move, and opt to make a fully boosted attack against the aggressor. That gives some Warjack significant mileage.
(+) Beast 09 is a strong contender for the top position. The strong points are "Reach" (which is essential on SPD 4 heavies) and "Crit: Freeze", in addition to all the beasty goodness. The critical effect (or the threat of it) can stop any melee based single-model assassination cold (pun intended).
(+) Spriggan - for Reach, and the offensive potential.
(+) the Conquest for out-of-turn shooting - and possible out-of-turn throws, and all the catastrophes those can mean for your opponent. He doesn't get the movement, but he probably won't need to. His immovable huge base also makes for a safe spot for Zerkova to hide behind.
(+) the Demolisher. An underdog choice for a couple of reasons: a) his ARM 25 makes him good bait, and resilient to the freestrike when you withdraw him with Watcher. b) he can choose between a melee attack and a suitable ranged attack to make. c) He's got girded - which is something Zerkova might profit from.
Zerkova's support for Khador's units is general - it's composed of Banishing Ward and Icy Grip, but among those, there are some that benefit more.
(+) Assault Kommandos. Icy Grip's DEF reduction on warriors helps everybody (Pikemen like it, too), but this is exaggerated by the Kommandos that bring up to three attacks per model. This way, they can actually go ahead and deal with more numerable Infantry since Icy Grip affects the whole unit. They still lack, but that's not this article's point. I should go ahead and give them more tabletime this year.
(+) Doom Reaver. One of Khador's outstanding units by themselves, these guys love her feat, because shooting still is the one thing they hate. And she loves their sheer damage output and threat.
(+) Greylord Ternions I consider a staple with her. They bring army support, magic sprays, and def debuffs, so they kinda take the classic caster role in her army while she goes about doing her own thing. Just remember that, as long as you mind losing them, that you can put a blizzard cloud onto Zerkova without them dying to the Orgoth Seal. It may be worth it at times, though.
(+) Sylys Wyshnalyrr, the other elvish Godparent. In Zerkova, he probably found the one caster that benefits the most from his abilities: his extra spell range is great on a spell-slinger, and with the Lense of Tarvodh, that Razor Wind is going 15". (Or 12", ignoring the board.) He make sure that Watcher is always around. And he has a caster that loves the extra die&drop lowest from Arcane Secrets. This stacking with Reinholdt's "Lucky Charm" tends to result in a boosted 15" Razorwind where you roll 5d6 and drop the lowest two - and leave a serious dent in whatever you hit - preferably the enemy warcaster, who should be fearing for his live afterwards. With that amount of power, she can threaten them all.
(+) Koldun Lord. With Zerkova being a tad selfish with her focus at key times, I found the old man to often bring that bit of extra performance on such turns, or when running her jacks in general. Every point of focus she does not has to spend goes towards her personal safety through camping, after all.
So why did I choose her for the Paradox Plunge, meaning to play her in competitive events?
1) I like her, and I have played her enough so I got a certain hang of her abilities. I think I can play her reasonably well - so long as I don't screw up.
2) I like going with the underdog because winning then feels so much more rewarding - and any losses can be blamed on the caster, after all. That stirs a certain light-heartedness which I personally think is very important for me when going to tournaments - because if I don't have that, I'll turn into a bitter, grudgy boy after my first bad turn.
3) I own her, and she is painted (courtesy of my brother) - and that is a pretty big argument in my mind. Just need to get the rest of her battlegroup (including the Vanguard lights) coloured.
My expectations for this year are: I'm probably going to get trounced A LOT. But that's because I'm back to the bottom of the learning curve. At the end, I expect that the one thing I'll learn / improve on is model positioning. Another expectation is that I'll get a deeper understanding of what to play her with, and I hope that I also break free from any railroad thinking regarding her.
So, that is my article on Zerkova. Feel free to comment!
Next time on Khador 2013, I'll probably cover my other Plunge 'Caster - the Iron Wolf.