Deployment, Terrain, and Reading the Game from Turn 1

You're at a tournament, lists already set and ready to go. You've got water, snacks, widgets and tokens and templates galore, and you're ready to introduce civilized folks to the arms of the devourer wurm.

The pairings go up, you find your table, introduce yourself to your opponent, and after choosing lists, you roll off for who goes first and who picks side.

This can be the most important decision you make in the entirety of that game.

With the shift over to mark III, Privateer Press has issued new rules for terrain in the new Steamroller packets. Here are a couple of key points lifted right from the Steamroller 2016 rules. If your TO or EO isn't following these, I'd suggest talking to them as mark III is meant to be played with much more terrain in much more annoying places than mark II was. (Emphasis mine)

- Terrain pieces should present a meaningful choice for the player that wins the starting roll.

- An average table should have six to eight pieces of terrain placed closely enough to eliminate large open areas without unduly restricting movement.

- Do not place terrain within 6" of any table edge.

And then a couple of paraphrased things:

- Restricted terrain can now be placed in zones.

- Huge bases should be able to interact with most of the table, and all of the important parts of it.

I am notorious for building tables that are extremely terrain dense. This hails back nearly two years to my late Trollblood and early Cygnar days. Even when the terrain doesn't benefit your specific army, it always makes a more interesting game, and I am a staunch proponent of games being interesting.

This article will be focusing on tables built with the above rules in mind, where there is plentiful terrain placed in the middle of the table, and where one side has an advantageous piece of terrain or two. It is still appropriate for other games, but it will not be nearly so impactful.

I will divide it into two broad parts, covering the different approaches I use when I go first vs. when I go second. I'm going to assume you win the dice roll and get to make this choice because making this choice is the catalyst for the rest of the material.

Should I go first or second?

This is a huge question and is largely based off of list composition and the scenario.

To give some examples, if I am playing Wurmwood and the scenario is the pit, I *always* want to go second. It allows me to choose the table edge I want, allows me to score on my second turn and protect that advantage with my feat, and it also allows me to deploy my models opposite the ones I want them "fighting".

To contrast this, if I am playing an aggressive list with big threat ranges, I will almost always choose to go first so that I can dictate where my opponents models go on their first turn. A good example here is a Tannith list with a bunch of Scarsfell Griffons. The list can run 14 inches turn one and sit at the 21 inch line with a 10.5 inch threat for the following turn, meaning your opponent has to choose whether he wants to advance his models up past his/her 16.5 inches line (a 6.5 inch advance for models on their normal deployment line) and get charged by primaled Griffons or not advance into your threat and give you a huge scenario advantage.

Again, this choice will be highly dependent on your list, your opponents list, the terrain, and the scenario. I usually ask myself these questions before the game starts when I win the roll off.

1) Is there one table edge that is flat-out superior to the other? (Multiple walls or hills against a shooting list, lots of rough terrain on one side of the field etc)

2) Am I playing a scenario that is incredibly live? (meaning that it's very easy to win/lose on - this will usually mean a killbox is in effect and there are multiple scoring options)

3) Am I depending on my feat/other models' threat ranges to control my opponent's movement?

4) Does my list prefer to win on scenario, assassination, or attrition (which devolves into scenario).

All of these questions combine into my final decision, and each of them is a topic that can have a lot more discussion put into them.

If you go first:

You've chosen to go first! You're going to deploy first, get the side your opponent wants you to have, and be able to get your models/spells out where you want them quickly.

There are many things to consider when you're deploying your models.

1) What are my models really good counters to in his list?

Example being Keltarri vs. unboostable shooting units.

2) What terrain is going to get in my way?

Putting non- pathfinder heavies right behind a big forest, piece of rough terrain, or wall can be a serious mistake that can cost you the game.

3) What terrain is going to benefit me?

Are there any hills, trenches, or walls to hide my caster behind/on/in? Are there any big pieces of ugly on my opponents side that he's going to definitely skirt around?

4) How can I dictate where my opponents models go on his deployment and turn 1?

Your opponent is going to have models specifically designed to prey on specific parts of your list. Good lists have things that are tooled to murder infantry, take down heavies, or disable things so that controlling their threat-ranges is easy.

For example, Nihilators are designed to destroy single-box infantry units with vicious ease. With that in mind, if you've only got one unit (like most lists do lately), put it down on the table so that the Nihilators are going to have to work to get to you. Put a forest between your deployed unit and where they'd want to deploy their Nihilators to counter you. Make sure that you have walls or patches of rough terrain where you place your unit so that the pathfinder-less Nihilators have less threat than you do.

You can do this with other situations/model types as well, but the Nihilator one is a good example. Even if the opponent has spells to make the Nihilators not care about the forest/rough terrain, make them spend the resources there rather than giving them free reign to do what they want. Make the terrain work for you.

If you go second:

You're going second! You get to counter-deploy to your opponent, choosing the best models in your list to take on his models. You also get to choose the terrain/side of the table that you want and score first!

When deploying second, there are also some questions I ask myself.

1) Which of my models really prey on his, and where are they going to be placed.

This can generate tremendous board control just by placing models on the table. I've played a few games recently against Irusk with my Wurmwood list, and in every game that I've gone second, my Brigands get deployed opposite his Uhlans and then they choose the Uhlans as prey.

All of a sudden, his Uhlans need to be extremely careful. They can't charge up the field with impunity because my Brigands out-threat them by two inches (which is really easy to measure now) and if they run to engage, I can always just put Curse of Shadows on them and watch my Brigands back up and murder the entire unit in one activation (Dice -3 = 4 damage per Brigand, or roughly 1 dead Uhlan for every 1.5 Brigands).

This has resulted in my opponent flanking his Uhlans hard down the side so they don't get shot to death, but this also means that they don't add any relevant threats to the board until the game is pretty much decided, usually late turn 3 or 4. The last game I played against them, they were only able to get 1 charge off, killing an almost dead Warpwolf Stalker, before being gunned down by the Brigands the following turn.

2) How can I exploit the terrain?

This is a continuation of your pre-game thoughts, and since you've gotten to go second, you should have chosen the side with terrain that benefits you most.

Look for central forests/obstructions that will force your opponent to split his army up. Make sure to take away as much defensive tech as possible, and also do your best to find a way to make the terrain protect your army. I'll cover this more as I get into example boards.

3) What is my opponents game plan?

This is a complex question, and one that takes some practice to get down quickly. There are generally three game plans - scenario, assassination, and attrition.

If your opponent is going for scenario, oftentimes his list will skew extremely hard to one side of the table or the other (for a split zone/flag scenario) and he will run his army up extremely aggressively on that side of the table to put pressure on that zone immediately.

You can counter this in a number of ways. If your warlock/caster has a good control feat (anything that reduces speed, makes their activations worse, or prevents LOS/charging - good examples include Haley 2, Rask, Wurmwood, Irusk 2, Baldur 1) then deploying them opposite your opponents list with a similar skew can be extremely potent.

You can also counter deploy to rush their zone. Remember as the second player you get to score first, which means that if you clear their zone and contest your own on turn 2, you'll get points and they won't, and their force will be so committed to the other side of the table that they won't be able to contest fast enough to do anything about it, while you can afford to keep some models central and contest turn after turn.

If your opponent is going for assassination, they're going to broadcast it by first playing a list with an extremely strong assassination caster (Caine 2, Butcher 3, etc.) and secondly by deploying pretty centrally with little regard for the scenario. These lists will form a triangle with the important assassination threats inside, protected, for the first couple of turns so that they can launch their missile at your warlock/warcaster from the center of the board.

Countering this is difficult. If it's a killbox scenario, that makes it even more so, and it becomes incredibly important which side of the board you chose. Against Caine, having a forest to hide behind can mean the difference between winning and losing for example. Butcher can't pull you over walls with Impending Doom. All of these things need to be taken into account before the game starts.

The good news here is that it's oftentimes possible to win on scenario while delaying getting your warcaster/lock killed, and eventually your opponent will have to turn their game ending abilities on your other models to avoid losing themselves.

If your opponent is going to play for attrition, they're going to deploy in a line and keep their line for most of the first few turns so that their models can all get the maximum threat range possible.

Unless you attrition significantly better than their list, you're going to want to avoid getting into a slog-fest if at all possible. There are some interesting things you can do with unit placement to avoid losing much of your unit on the charge and then being able to retaliate with greater force, taking out more of your opponents models than they killed of your own.

As I said, most attrition based lists will have their army in a line to maximize the number of models that will get to charge/shoot. If you're playing against a ranged attrition list, run at them! Don't bother trying to get attacks in until after the majority of their models haven't been able to shoot for a turn, and shooting based models that have to make melee attacks are, generally, going to be in sad shape.

If you're playing against a melee attrition list, you can place your units in a diamond shape with the point facing at the unit. With good spacing, you can make it so that the enemy unit only gets to 3-4 models with their charge, while you retaliate with the remaining 6-7 troopers in your unit, killing off substantially more than they did.

All of these are worthy of their own article, and perhaps will get one in the future.

Each of these game plans requires a different type of deployment to counter it, and the nature of this pre-game exchange is one of the reasons that going second can be a big advantage.

Example tables and my pre-game thoughts:

Consider the above board. As a Circle player here are a couple of things that immediately spring to mind:

I've got Sentry Stones in my list almost guaranteed, and that plus my objective and the other two forests are going to allow me to cut off LOS from much of his list into the zone. 

Even if I don't, the forest in the middle of the table extending so far into his half of the table is going to force him to divide his army in half, leaving his warcaster/lock in a tricky position - does he stay central and relatively exposed? or does he skew hard to one side and leave one side really unsupported?

For myself, other than the puddle in the middle, I have a lot of leeway to influence both halves of the table without moving my warcaster too far one way or the other. The slant of the forest also protects him from my opponents list and the rough terrain plus the forest will probably funnel his models through the gap where I can kill them off one at a time. 

My opponent in this game had a very hard time handling his forces, jockying his warcaster back and forth and failing to really influence the board until it was too late for him to do anything about it. I was able to commit hard on the left and kill off his models there while still maintaining enough of a presence on the right thanks to the forests that I didn't lose on scenario. 


How about this table? (I apologize for the vassal pics, but I haven't documented enough games yet to have a good selection of boards to choose from)

The clear winner here (outside of maybe a Wurmwood list, but that's extremely specific) is the bottom half of the table. 

You have nice space available to place your models. You'll have line of sight to everything that matters and you'll also be able to predict where your opponents models will go. 

Unless they've got some really specific tech (Scarsfells Griffons, Sentry Stones, and a reposition shooting pathfinder unit), the top of the table is going to force them to funnel all of their models through the forest gap in a mish mash of order of activation nightmares. 

The red arrows represent the path that 90% of your opponents models are going to take, and the pink measurement lines show you just how compact they're going to be. 

If they go base to base, 7 large base models will fit through that. something like 10 medium based, or 12 small based. It's going to make their unit(s) very vulnerable to sprays (yay Mannikins!) or AOES (Brennos, Wurmwood, Tannith, Woldwrath) and also bottleneck their screens right in front of their important pieces, leading to tremendous order of activation issues. 

It is true that you have an annoying water feature in your way, but almost every Circle list (remember this is a Circle blog after all) has at least one unit with pathfinder (you should have two at least, Sentry Stone Mannikins have pathfinder) and your opponent is going to have a harder time getting his models to that side of the table as well since there's a smaller gap there than on the other side. 

One more:

Please note that the 3" AOE is a premeasured AOE, not Dense Fog.

Ignore the fact that my opponent has already deployed. 

The bottom edge of the table is the one I chose after choosing to go second (I do this a lot with Wurmwood). The middle forest is going to protect a lot of my army while still giving me a ton of access to his right zone. See how far he's had to skew his Bloodrunners in deployment just to have them have good LOS? I also have two hills, and the left zone is going to be very hard for him to get into meaningfully since there's a big pond and the forest there, bottlenecking his models unless he goes way off to the side. 

This is going to split his forces up (it did) and allow me to kill off all of his heavies at my leisure while keeping a solid handle on the left zone (it did). Only poor play on my part (not contesting the left zone well enough) allowed my opponent to seize an early scenario lead and make this game come down to a nail biting finish. 

After the dust had cleared, my opponent had his Cannoneer, Willbreaker, Soulward, 3 Bloodrunners, and a Void Spirit left to my swelled unit of Shamblers, Megalith, Stalker, Gorax, and partial unit of Brigands. His split forces allowed me to kill off everything that came to the left zone extremely easily, pushing his lines back farther every turn while still contesting with my models. 

In conclusion:

The choice of first or second, and then abusing/mitigating the terrain on the table is often the most crucial aspect of playing a game of Warmachine or Hordes. If you start off with a plan that is incompatible with the terrain and scenario on the table, your opponent is going to steamroll you unless they've also deployed with a plan that is incompatible with the terrain and scenario. 

Many games look completely one sided and yet the person that gets tabled wins because they've successfully used the terrain and their models to hold off an opponent long enough to get 5 control points or to get the assassination run they've been hoping for. 

Look at your table before you play, and use the terrain that's there to your advantage. Try and read your opponents plan as they deploy, and counter-deploy. Set up favorable trades using the terrain, scenario, and threats your list has and use the terrain and scenario to blunt the threat your opponents have. You'll start winning a lot more Warmachine, guaranteed.