Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Vampire Count Conundrum

UPDATE: This is an old article which relates to the Vampire Counts book which has since been replaced.
Love them or hate them, they have impeccable fashion sense. And man-sized weapons...

The release of 8th edition did remarkable things in terms of levelling the playing field for all of the existing army books. By the end of 7th edition, there was a fairly clear hierarchy in terms of the strengths of the army books – all armies were most definitely not equal. The extent to which this was rectified in a single fell swoop by the release of new core rules and a few FAQs was remarkable – I would never have said that such a thing was possible.

However, for all that the massive power gaps between some of the books were largely closed, not all armies have emerged entirely happily. I think the single biggest victim of 8th edition was the Tomb Kings book, however that was soon re-released, and the end product seems to be a happily mid-strength army list that does little to upset the overall balance of power. Maybe the well-documented phenomenon of “army creep” is finally behind us (dare we hope)?

Now that Tomb Kings are no longer on the bottom of the pile, I think the biggest losers in the current state of the game are their comrades in undeath, the Vampire Counts. This must come as something of a surprise, given they were in perhaps the top 4 or 5 armies toward the end of 7th edition. To be relegated to the bottom of the pile so suddenly seems rather dramatic.

It can be done
Now this is not to say that you can’t win games with Vampire Counts in 8th edition. It is commonly known that there is a very effective army build available, which centres around a large horde of Grave Guard with great weapons, the Banner of the Barrows (to give them +1 to hit), and potentially the Helm of Commandment (which lets the wearing Vampire lend his WS to the unit). With all of these things stacked together, you end up with a unit that hits and wounds most targets on a 2+. Vanhel’s Danse Macabre makes this even more frightening, meaning they need no longer Always Strike Last with their great weapons, and reroll failed hits. Of course, this is probably unnecessary – how many things are going to outfight you when you are WS 7, Toughness 4 and swing back on 2+/2+?

Of course, some people will always take things too far (if that wasn’t already too far). Adding the BSB with the Drakenhof Banner to give the whole unit Regeneration sounds good in theory, but it’s a sure way to get your list rejected as being over the top. This is somewhat ironic, as many players now include the Banner of Eternal Flame somewhere in their list, so can potentially cancel the effects of the Drakenhof Banner entirely when they need to. I’m not even sure players buy the banner with the intention of including it in the same “death star” unit; it could just as easily be used to reinforce a large Ghoul unit. However, when marking the list, it’s the potential for abuse that the assessors are looking for, so the combination will ring alarm bells.

The big Grave Guard block is backed up by a powerful magic-wielding character section, most likely making use of Forbidden Lore to include a Lore of Magic in addition to Necromancy. Master of the Black Arts is also up there to ensure a solid (if not overwhelming) phase, provided the player thinks he can get away with it. The characters will be intending to generally stay out of combat, as it’s hard to get adequate armour protection for multiple characters unless they’re mounted.

The rest of the army is normally based around solid blocks of Ghouls. There may be a unit of Skeletons or Zombies in there to provide an extra banner for Blood and Glory, but otherwise the only other inclusions will be some Vampire Bats for diverting and attacking war machines, and maybe some Cairn Wraiths or a Varghulf for troubleshooting.

And if we don’t want to cut cookies?
I guess first I should concede that some players are actually happy with the “cookie cutter” approach – using the same list over and over, and might not even mind if it’s more or less the same list as other people are playing with. For those people, I can say, you’re in luck. The Vampire Counts do indeed have a competitive build, so you can rank up your Grave Guard and get on with honing your ability to use the list to perfection.

However, sooner or later most players will want to use something different. Either you will tire of using the same army build over and over, or it will bother you that you’re using much the same list as anyone else trying to be competitive with the army. At the Victorian Masters late last year (so within a few months of 8th edition being released), 3 of the 10 players were using Vampire Counts. And their lists already looked much the same. One of them took first place, so they were obviously competitive. However, in the months after that, all 3 of them stopped using their armies regularly (or really at all). They wanted something different.

It is not unusual for an army to have something players consider to be an optimal build. However, it’s rarely so clearly defined, and there is normally not nearly so steep a drop-off when considering alternative builds. The closest we see at the moment are Wood Elves (who also need a new army book); however they still have more competitive approaches than the poor Vampire Counts do.

Where did it go wrong?
The Vampire Counts book was very competitive before the release of 8th edition. It seems strange that the release of the new edition, which levelled the playing field so impressively, would result in one of the top armies falling so dramatically in the power stakes. Why is it that the list is no longer very effective?

We’re not afraid anymore!
The first problem is the change to the Fear rule. This was previously the greatest weapon of the Vampire Counts – enemy units failing charges and fleeing from undead charges due to failed tests, and being reduced to Insane Courage rolls when beaten and outnumbered by a Fear-causing enemy. These rules combined to make life very hard for armies that were not Immune to Psychology, or caused Fear themselves.

Fear has been toned down dramatically in 8th edition. Now all it will do is reduce enemies to WS 1 when they fail tests (and even that doesn’t happen half so often, now that BSBs give rerolls for psychology tests). Whilst this might be handy, it’s a massive reduction compared to what it used to do.

In a lot of cases where rules like this change, they simply necessitate a change in approach by the player. However, Fear is a slightly difficult case because units that cause Fear (ie the entire Vampire Counts army) have been costed according to the old rules. A Skeleton Warrior costs 8 points, which is a massive amount for a WS 2, Strength 3, Toughness 3 soldier. The same model costs half as much in the new Tomb Kings book, which might give a more accurate representation of what it’s worth under 8th edition.

These are no warriors
Troops like Skeletons and Zombies fight so poorly that you could be forgiven for thinking that they were trying to break their opponents through use of Ghandi’s approach of passive resistance. In actual fact, they are attacking; it’s just that opponents barely notice. Miserable WS, low Strength with no weapon option to boost it… These are troops that are meant to be outfought by everything they encounter.

In the past, Vampire Counts players relied on their characters to get the job done in combat. A block of Skeletons was simply a means of protecting the Vampire until he got into combat, and then to provide him with some ranks and a standard whilst he set about destroying the enemy. You could win combats with this approach for 2 reasons. Firstly, you can make some combat Vampires who are undeniably potent; and secondly, because the paltry number of models that fought in an average combat were not going to do the same damage as the Vampire himself. In a normal combat between 2 blocks of infantry, you would generally see only 5 models per side fighting. Even when beating down something as flimsy as Skeletons, 5 models are unlikely to do more damage than the Vampire will in return (and this is assuming the Vampire didn’t kill the entire front rank before they could strike at all)…

In 8th edition, combats involve far more models striking in each round. Units fight in an extra rank, which in turn tends to encourage players to fight with wider formations to make good use of the rule. Unless your enemy is in a small unit, you are unlikely to reduce the number of attacks coming back at you, even if your Vampire is striking first. This poses a couple of problems. The first is that decent troops will do far more damage to your entourage of Skeletons than your Vampire can do in return – in other words, a combat you might have won in the past is now likely to be badly lost. Even more worryingly, the number of models that can reach the Vampire has increased significantly. The Vampire himself is now in very real danger of being dragged down by his opponents.

In short, it is no longer enough to field a poor unit and expect a powerful character to get them through. Against decent opposition your character will be fighting a losing battle, and may not even be the last model in your unit to fall…
It hurts to be us. Skeletons do not get the love at the moment :-(
As bad as Skeletons are, Zombies are even worse. With WS1 and Strength and Toughness 2, they are some of the worst fighters in the game of Warhammer. But then, they have always been bad – they are not meant to win combats by themselves. Zombies are a “tar pit” that is intended to hold targets up whilst something more serious gets into position to deal with them (or mops up the rest of the army and gets away). Whilst they can still serve this purpose, the potentially huge increase in attacks being made against them means your tar pit is not half to sticky as it was in the past. You will probably lose 2-3 times as many models from attacks, which will translate to that many again as your unit crumbles from being walloped in combat. So if you want to hold your target up for more than a round of combat, you will need a lot more Zombies to get the job done.

Death by a thousand cuts
Under 7th edition, it was a popular (and very annoying) approach for Vampire Counts players to make repeated attempts at low-level spells with as little as a single die. This “magic spam” tactic could make it extremely difficult for an opponent to block spells such as Invocation of Nehek. With Vampiric Powers such as Summon Ghouls and Lord of the Dead, the spell would be cast on a 3+. Granted, I saw many players get a little carried away with this ability and squander their dice on petty attempts when they should have done something more reliable instead. However, a player who rolled pretty well or had too many power dice could simply overwhelm whatever magic defence they were presented with.

It is actually easier to cast spells in 8th edition than it was previously. Now that you add the wizard’s level to the casting roll, it is even possible for a level 4 wizard to cast Vanhel’s Danse Macabre on a 3+, let alone something as cheap as Invocation of Nehek. This all sounds very promising for spamming your opponent with tons of cheap spells, however the problem comes from the Broken Concentration rule – if a wizard fails to equal a spell’s casting value, he may not cast again that turn. In the past, if you failed then all you had wasted was the dice you rolled. Now it’s more serious than that. This rule, combined with the Not Enough Power! rule which requires the casting roll to be a minimum of 3, makes any cheap spamming of magic extremely risky.

This change may not seem a major one, however when you consider the extremely low casting values of most of the Necromantic spells, it is a source of frustration to know that you need to expend valuable power dice and roll far beyond those casting values in order to avoid crippling your own magic phase.

Breaking the mould
So, then. If you want to use Vampire Counts, you want to actually compete in your games, and you don’t want to use the Grave Guard death star that is so feared and despised by opponents and comp judges alike, what do you do?

I think the first thing is to acknowledge what you are trying to do. You are making a list that you know is less than optimal, in the interest of being different. This may mean intentionally selecting something poor, or less than ideal for the task you have in mind, to avoid doing what everyone else has done.

Alternately, it may mean taking an entirely different approach with the army. This may be an approach that is less reliable or less effective, but it means you can use your ideal choices for the tasks you have in mind. For instance, the cookie cutter list contains no cavalry. By choosing cavalry, you are already branching away from the norm, and as such you can choose whatever cavalry you want, for whatever purpose you have in mind, knowing that you’re already breaking the mould. If you’re game, put your Vampire Lord on an Abyssal Terror or Zombie Dragon. He may die, but if he doesn’t he will cause a lot of trouble. This sort of mentality may seem suicidal, however it’s the sort of thing you need to consider when you’re trying to squeeze potential from a section of the army that has largely been rejected by others.
Pete's Zombie Dragon is totally rocking his army case. And his shelf. But not the battlefield...
When you really look at them, most of the Lord, Hero, Special and Rare selections in the Vampire Counts army have some merit. They may not all suit all army builds, and you obviously won’t be able to afford to use them all at once anyway. However, if you’re intent on being different, the options are there. Which leads me to the final section in the army list…

The Core issue
The heart of the Vampire Counts army, its Skeletons and Zombies, are terrible. Ghouls are far better, however their lack of command options means Swift Reforms are impossible for them, and they cannot contribute to the army’s Breaking Point for Blood and Glory. Dire Wolves are no longer Fast Cavalry, which is a cruel blow, and they do not count toward the 25% minimum Core allowance anyway. Bat Swarms are nothing more than a slightly more mobile tar pit, Corpse Carts are now a drain on your power dice instead of a bonus, and neither of these choices count toward your minimum Core either.

25% of your army must be spent on the choices above. If a Vampire player were to despair over anything, it would be this. Ghouls are the automatic choice – the standouts in a sea of mediocrity and worse. But does this mean you fill your Core with Ghouls and move on? If you want to be different, this is a great place to start. Unfortunately, you will need a pretty cunning plan to get much mileage from most of the units in the Core section.
It is possible to field a non-standard Vampire Counts army without being too brave with your Core selections, however if you want to make your intentions clear to all who see the list, there would be few stronger statements than a Core section bereft of Ghouls.

Composition score problems
One of the problems Vampire Counts players face is that adventurous army selection will not necessarily be met with high comp scores at tournaments. The truth of the matter is that armies loaded with Skeletons, Zombies, Dire Wolves and the like will probably be extremely weak. If an army such as that is not backed up with competent magic, it will be truly terrible. Unfortunately, it’s quite likely that many tournament organisers and army list assessors may not realise how bad things have become.

We're really cuddly, once you get to know us
This is the first time I can remember the Vampire Counts army being such a weak list. If you exclude the monstrous capabilities of that one horde of Grave Guard, I suspect the army is at its lowest ebb since it was first introduced in 5th edition. As such, the army has a reputation for being something of a hard case. In particular, the army book was still strong right up to the introduction of 8th edition. It may take people a while to adjust to the new world order.

The fact that there is still a highly competitive army build available to Vampire Counts players is not likely to help these matters. If all we hear about is horrendously broken Grave Guard blocks tearing through opponents, the perception will remain that the army is still a thing to be feared. The imbalance that this optimal build brings is a real problem.

Those responsible for assessing the army list need to recognise how bad a lot of the Vampire Counts units are right now, and how impotent the army is as a whole without the right selections. Things that have in the past been considered automatic comp hits need to be considered in the context of the entire army, or the Vampire Player is likely to be hard done by. Even a horde of Grave Guard with great weapons is not actually a heinous thing in its own right. It’s only when the unit is excessively backed up with magical enhancements that it really needs to be feared.

If Vampire Counts players are adventurous with their army selection and breaking away from the optimal build, this needs to be rewarded with a comp score that accurately reflects the army’s abilities and weaknesses. The army as a whole can’t afford to bear the stigma of what it may have been in the past, or what it would have been had it been selected differently.

The problem is not going away
Unfortunately, none of the rumours I have heard suggest that Vampire Counts are close in line to get a new army book. In some ways this is not surprising, given that there are plenty of army books that have not been re-released for a lot longer, but it means the problems we see now are not going to go away. It would be a shame to see the army disappear from the gaming community, but unless people are prepared to be adventurous with their army selection, knowing full well that what they’re fielding is less than ideal, it won’t be long before we’re seeing tournaments with no Vampire Counts players at all.

Reading more: Vampire Counts 101
An accurate review of the current state of the Vampire Counts army by Peter Spiller (an extremely experienced VC player) can be found over on Land O Misfit Toys. If you want a thorough analysis of the army, unit-by-unit, reading this is a must.


  1. Great post, I can't but agree with you. I've been playing vampire counts since they were called undead back in 3rd edition, and I've never seen a time the army was so depressed as it is now. The 'one build to rule them all' list is getting very stale now, and dammit, I miss my skeletons! However, with rumours abounding of a new monstrous infantry unit imminent and a new monster awash on the internets, perhaps a change is on the way. I have heard on Carpe Noctem, one rumour of a new book in August. I fear though, this is delirium brought on by frustration.

  2. I'm not even a Vampire Counts player, but I'd love to see a new book as soon as possible. As for the big monster, well if it's not too intertwined with Storm of Magic (which may well be kept separate from normal gaming), then bring it on. Every little bit helps...