Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Learning a new army - Tau


Hi all - here's one of my opinion pieces where I get to blab on about stuff, trying to impart some of my experience onto those who have played the game less or who haven't run a forensic analysis over each and every action they take in a game.

Today I'm going to talk about learning to play with a new army, and how to fit that army's strengths into your own playing style. In particular of course I'm going to focus on my own efforts with the Tau, and how I've gone about learning that new codex from a position of only having faced very specific builds from it previously.

So, first off - let's not mess with a classic - what are the three key things that 'most players know about the Tau'.

1. Crap in combat
2. Shooty as hell
3. Markerlights are filthy inventions that upset opponents

A while back now I decided that my next army project would be Tau, and had the following to say about my plans http://theburningeye.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/designing-new-army-obsidian-enclave.html.

Right at the start of the article, I repeated that most common of understandings in relation to the Tau, that they are a shooty army.

I then set out some key pointers to how I wanted that army to work.
  • Mobile
  • No crisis suits, including the commander
  • Not overdosing on markerlights
I then embarked on using the Tau in a Tale of Four Gamers style series at my local club, so increasing sizes of army playing each of the other participants at each points level, the idea being to end up with a good rounded force at the end of things.

My first lists very much espoused the three key pointers above. At 500pts we said a CAD only needed a single troops unit to gain the benefits, so I took Darkstrider, a unit of Fire warriors with pulse carbines in a devilfish and two stealth teams. Against the players remaining in the tale now, I had one win and two losses.

At 750pts I once again went with a CAD, this time taking Shadowsun and a single stealth team as anti tank, a riptide and two small fire warrior teams both in devilfish. Again I went 1 win and 2 losses. The riptide I think was my big mistake here, as at this points level it really suffered from no support and being a very big fire magnet. On the occasions when it didn't perform, I'd got too many eggs thrown into one basket and the army as a whole suffered.

At 1000pts Tau had a new codex, and new commander and crisis suit models that I actually liked (I know, they're not massively different but the things they've changed are the things I didn't like about the previous models). I jumped straight in with the new detachment, taking two small units of breachers in devilfish and a unit of fire warriors with pulse carbines (didn't have the pulse rifle models then) as my solitary static unit (three devilfish was just not affordable at this size of game). I then took a ghostkeel for durability, a pair of piranhas to hunt tanks, an ion cannon hammerhead (ap3 large blast) as all the other armies wore power armour, and a missile pod commander in a unit of marker drones. I still went 1 win and 2 losses, but this time I was starting to get the hang of the Tau, and in two of the three games I had considerably more points left on the table than my opponent at the end (three models in one game and a gunless heldrake in the other), and my two losses were more due to me not scoring my objective cards well enough.

Those games have all given me lots of useful information though on how the army works as a whole, and I think now I'm much better equipped to go into the 1250pt round confident of getting some more wins under my belt.

Now looking back at our '3 key things' what more can we add to that based on my experience.

First, I would refine that first point to say that Tau are 'mostly' crap in combat. I realise this is a bit 'Ford Prefect' but it's also pretty accurate. Tau do have some tools in close combat that are relatively capable. Despite being a monstrous creature the riptide isn't one of them. The Ghostkeel however is perfectly able to handle modest combats, provided of course you aren't up against a unit intended for that. In one of my test games for the 1000pt round, it quite happily waded through a squad of centurions on its own over a couple of game turns. A decent number of attacks and its monstrous creature status to provide AP2 means that provided you don't whiff your attack rolls it can hold its own. This is good because the ghostkeel needs to get up close. I know there's a lot of criticism of GW's rules design out there, but I think this unit is a great example of them getting it right - the riptide is designed to stay much further away from charges, but the ghostkeel needs to be 'fairly' close and is therefore more capable.

Secondly, Tau aren't natively that shooty. Yes, they have the best guns around but without support their mediocre ballistic skill lets them down and they don't have the numbers to make up for that. Many times in the tale I've been all excited about targeting something only to watch a stack of 1-3 results cause me problems. The formations do go some way to addressing this, as they can get a +1BS boost relatively easily, but it's important to ensure that the Tau work together to get the best out of those guns.

That leads me neatly onto my last point. Markerlights. Yes, they're filthy, and yes, there are some ways of getting them that make them truly obscene (you know which formation I'm talking about). The Tau army however I don't think functions properly without them. Their guns have extremely limited options to ignore cover, so markerlights become the natural way of achieving this. And more importantly, I don't think you need all that many markerlights to actually make Tau 'shooty as hell', because if you bring too many markerlights, you won't have enough guns that actually do the shooting. I brought a single unit of five marker drones to my 1000pt list and I honestly wouldn't have taken any more to make things better. What I would be tempted to do actually would be to sprinkle more shield generator drones into that markerlight unit to act as ablative wounds to stop them getting whittled down too much.

And this then is my key point, from playing all those games, I've really gained an understanding that more than anything, the Tau army needs to work together to be successful. They aren't space marines, who you can pretty much throw into a situation and expect them to weather it, and they're not guard, who have a huge range of shooting options and can generally work on the principle of everything counts in large amounts. Tau are an army of quality shooting that needs to be put to best use against the optimum targets, and they have a whole host of tools to achieve this.

Without those losses in the early rounds of the tale however, and without the experience and analysis I've got as a result, I'd still be thinking that the riptide could operate without support, or that the stealth teams could rely on good cover saves to keep them alive.

I think more than any other army, the Tau struggle to operate as individual units - they absolutely need to gang up on the opposition and force the issue through use of markerlights at the right time and in the right way, and when playing maelstrom missions they can't afford to go crazy and rush for a far off objective unsupported.

When everything works in a Tau list, you'll be using markerlights to ensure precision strikes on key units maximise the efficiency of your guns, whilst smaller units combine fire to ensure that the enemy isn't able to respond and pressure your own units with combat. The ghostkeel will pose enough of a threat that it can't be ignored, but is tough enough to occupy a lot of enemy shooting to take it down (my own 'keel managed to take out effectively a whole unit of centurions and a librarian in its last outing - considerably more points than I paid for it) whilst your crisis suits and other mobile units can effectively deal with more substantial threats to your army.

In an effort to crystallise this approach into a list that you can use to base your own ideas from (and to use myself in the next round of our tale) here's my own take on 1250pts of Tau - specifically a balanced Tau force that is recognisable from their background and fluff but is still effective on the tabletop.

Tau Hunter Contingent - made up of a Hunter Cadre and an Optimised Stealth Cadre.


  • Commander - Iridium armour, drone controller, fusion blaster, plasma rifle, neuroweb system jammer, puretide engram neurochip, shield generator
  • Crisis Team - 1 man - plasma rifle and fusion blaster
  • Crisis Team - 2 man - plasma rifle and fusion blaster
  • Drone Squadron - 4 markerlight drones
  • Piranha - fusion blaster and 2 seeker missiles
  • Piranha - fusion blaster and 2 seeker missiles
  • Hammerhead - Ion cannon, blacksun filter, twin linked smart missile system
  • Breacher Team - 6-man in devilfish with blacksun filter, twin linked smart missile system
  • Strike Team - 5 man with pulse rifles, tactical support turret (smart missile system)
  • Strike Team - 5 man with pulse rifles


  • Ghostkeel - cyclic ion raker and twin linked fusion blasters, early warning override
  • Stealth Team - 3 man - 1 fusion blaster and target lock
  • Stealth Team - 3 man - 1 fusion blaster and target lock

The Commander can start on the table with the drones to provide highly accurate markerlight fire in the early turns, tanking any wounds if necessary with his 2+/4++. Those markerlights can also be used to trigger the seeker missiles from the piranhas to act as a highly effective alpha strike against any nasties in the enemy ranks (thunderfire cannons, wyverns etc). The piranhas can then use their speed, combined with the hunter cadre's benefits to slingshot out of the line and deal with any remaining armoured threats. The crisis suits can either start on the table and work their way forward or drop in quite effectively, with the 1-man team easily linking up with the commander if needed to pick up his extra potential from the puretide chip.

The strike teams are small enough to stay at home and not provide a huge threat, whilst having plenty of range to add to whatever fire is needed in the mid-table. The breacher unit goes hunting infantry squads, which should have been reduced in size by the accurate ignores cover fire from their devilfish. The hammerhead provides some serious fire support, and depending on your meta, you may want to use the railgun rather than the ion cannon - I play a lot of marine armies so the potential AP3 pie plate is exceedingly useful.

The ghostkeel operates ahead of your main force with your stealth suits to provide further threat to armour, and provided they stay relatively close together their firepower should be really reliable, with ignores cover from their formation being the gravy that really lets them operate more independently of your main force than most tau units can manage.

Hope that's given you some food for thought, and some ideas as to how to apply critical thinking to your own army!

Till next time,
TBE