How To Beat Archaon In AOS 3.0, with Stuart McCowan

Yeah, I said it! That motherfucker is going DOWN….and we’ve got just the lad to lead us on the path to Valhalla. Our boy Stuart McCowan commented on a Twitter thread that caught my attention, and Stuart certainly has the credentials to chime in on this subject. As a veteran of TTS, he’s faced off against the big fella as much as anyone, so when he speaks I listen.

Over to you mate.


Stuart “Irongutsman” McCowan is a competitive Age of Sigmar player best known for his attempts to diversify list writing from the Ogor Mawtribes battletome. He has podiumed on Tabletop Simulator with lists starring Ironguts as well as Yhetees, proving the Ogor Mawtribes battletome brings more than just Stonehorns to the competitive scene*. A recent Twitter thread revealed Stuart’s doubts about the status of Tzeentch Archaon as an invincible juggernaut, and today he joins us to give his take on the position of Tzeentch Archaon in the new edition.


Credit: Jon Cann, @C4nny

Some context

It was a fine mid-Spring day on the 17th of April 2021. The world showed signs of normality, and yet a peculiar tilt towards desperation and madness. 70 brave souls distanced from combat by way of isolation ventured onto Tabletop Simulator to play in the perennial Hammertime event, this one being the 8th entry. Rumblings from the east spoke of a certain fat lad on a chariot**. Prophets from the west foresaw a large chicken waving his hands to summon his brother-in-arms Gary. All saw the Grand Marshall of the Apocalypse with his Tzeentch kin in tow.

Hammertime 8 is infamous for its showing of Tzeentch Archaon, an Archaon list that specialises in certainty and control as opposed to the raw damage of the Khorne variant. Tzeentch Archaon took out the tournament and had four entries in the top 10. Even more notably, aside from one loss against Daughters of Khaine, the only losses any of the Tzeentch Archaon players had were against other Tzeentch Archaon lists. I placed fifth with Tzeentch Archaon as well, although opting to replace Kairos Fateweaver with Glutos Orscallion. Aside from one very close game against Fangs of Sotek, the only game that I lost or even came close to losing was against another Tzeentch Archaon. The power of this list in Age of Sigmar 2 at its height was monstrous and Hammertime 8 showed this in rather absurd fashion.

Allegiance: Tzeentch
– Change Coven: Hosts Arcanum

Leaders
Archaon the Everchosen (800)
 Lore of Fate: Infusion Arcanum

Chaos Sorceror Lord (110)
 General
 Command Trait: Spell Hunters
 Artefact: The Fanged Circlet
 Lore of Fate: Shield of Fate
The Blue Scribes (120)
 Lore of Change: Arcane Transformation
Kairos Fateweaver (400)
 Lore of Change: Bolt of Tzeentch
Archaon the Everchosen (800)
 Lore of Fate: Infusion Arcanum

Battleline
3 x Screamers of Tzeentch (100)
3 x Screamers of Tzeentch (100)
10 x Kairic Acolytes (125)
10 x Kairic Acolytes (125)

Endless Spells
Darkfire Daemonrift (80)
Geminids of Uhl-Gysh (60)
Umbral Spellportal (70)

Total: 2000 / 2000
Allies: 0 / 400
Wounds: 82
Drops: 8

Steven Follows’ Winning Hammertime 8 Tzeentch Archaon List

What is peculiar about Tzeentch Archaon is that its meteoric rise occured well after the release of the Disciples of Tzeentch battletome at the beginning of 2020. The list was largely absent from competition throughout most of 2020, really coming into its own towards the end of that year and reaching its height in popularity in early 2021. The stimulus for Archaon’s entry into the metagame may have been the dominance of Seraphon, which boasted a 65% winrate throughout Age of Sigmar 2 with one of the largest playerbases.

Seraphon specialised in castle-based, long-range scalpel damage reinforced by a free unconditional teleport and free bodies from its Starborne allegiance abilities. Yet, Seraphon frequently dropped some strange games to strong early-game combat armies like Ironjawz and Ogor Mawtribes, who could sprint across the map and penetrate the castle fast enough before they lost too many units. Archaon’s incredible durability, particularly towards the magic of Lord Kroak, coupled with his significant threat range (in Hosts Arcanum) or immunity to the Fangs of Sotek retreat (in Hosts Duplicitous) meant he could penetrate the castle quickly like these Destruction powerhouses. He could achieve more consistent results than his Destruction counterparts, however, due to the certainty of Tzeentch Destiny Dice and late game summoning. Tzeentch Archaon was thus in many ways a fusion of Destruction mobility and combat prowess with the magic dominance and Allegiance Ability strength of Grand Alliance Chaos.

At this point there’s something I would like to address: how we as a gaming community perceive the strength of armies. In practice, we often assess the relative strength of an army by discussion, not gameplay. Many of us hold in our minds concrete tier lists, but we should ask ourselves: have we actually played enough games to put, say, Bonesplitterz and Flesh Eater Courts in the same C-tier? My preferred method is to start off with a gut feel, and then refine that through practical experience; otherwise, what we are left with is a totally confused tier list perception divorced from the reality of the game. And it breaks.

Competitively speaking I am probably best known from my 5-1 deep run at the Grandhammer tournament with Yhetees, an ostensibly whacky list with multiple small units of Yhetees and two big monsters. I felt the list was strong, and then developed it through playtesting for months leading into the tournament. I got down to the business of playing the game and developing my strategy, not the business of conversation. So get out there and experiment!

Credit: Engra, @PrimalAmnesia82

The current game state

So now here we are in Age of Sigmar 3 where the game has become more complicated, inflicting a larger working memory load that will inevitably favour experienced players. Tzeentch Archaon has been hailed as one of the great winners of the new edition with the advent of a few new mechanics in save stacking and the substantial increase in summoning ability due to the new Chronomatic Cogs. Yet it has also suffered due to its opponents’ access to save stacking, as well as some significant limitations on list building suffered by Tzeentch, due to the rework of how Slaves to Darkness units can be played in other Chaos armies.

Its biggest loss however, is Darkfire Daemonrift. In my games in Age of Sigmar 2, I would power this through with my two highest Destiny Dice and often inflicted upwards of 20 mortal wounds each time it moved. I had many a game where my opponent conceded top of 2 because Daemonrift had killed most of their army.

Clearly there is a mix of gains and losses for Tzeentch Archaon, and yet it only took 20 minutes after an event win for people to suggest nerfs or heavy comp to Archaon. Perhaps it is a characteristic of the Netflix generation I find myself in, but I have never understood the motivation to request nerfs for something before I have attempted to construct a counter-strategy. I’m not saying that it wasn’t powerful in the previous edition or isn’t oppressive even now, but only that we should try to develop counters for an army before deciding on its ultimate strength.

Before we give that a go, let’s give the Devil his due and lay out a typical Age of Sigmar 3 Tzeentch Archaon List. I’ve abandoned Kairos for a small-hero summoning engine because as long as Chronomatic Cogs are in play, the summoning is oppressively strong. Many of these lists can get 20 spells in a turn if everything goes right, meaning you can regularly get 10 free Pink Horrors a turn:

​​Allegiance: Tzeentch

– Change Coven: Hosts Arcanum

– Grand Strategy: Prized Sorcery

Leaders

The Blue Scribes (135)*

Lore of Change: Tzeentch’s Firestorm

Lore of Change: Fold Reality

Changecaster, Herald of Tzeentch (135)**

Artefact: Aspect of Tzeentch

Lore of Change: Arcane Transformation

Lore of Change: Bolt of Tzeentch

Curseling, Eye of Tzeentch (185)**

General

Command Trait: Spell Hunters

Lore of Fate: Treacherous Bond

Lore of Fate: Arcane Suggestion

Archaon the Everchosen (830)*

Lore of Fate: Infusion Arcanum

Lore of Fate: Shield of Fate

Chaos Sorcerer Lord (115)*

Artefact: The Fanged Circlet

Mark of Chaos: Tzeentch

Lore of Fate: Arcane Suggestion

Lore of Fate: Shield of Fate

Chaos Sorcerer Lord (115)**

Mark of Chaos: Tzeentch

Lore of Fate: Glimpse the Future

Universal Spell Lore: Ghost-mist

Battleline

10 x Pink Horrors of Tzeentch (215)*

10 x Kairic Acolytes (125)*

3 x Screamers of Tzeentch (100)**

Endless Spells & Invocations

Chronomantic Cogs (45)

Core Battalions

*Warlord

**Warlord

Additional Enhancements

Artefact

Spell

Total: 2000 / 2000

Reinforced Units: 0 / 4

Allies: 0 / 400

Wounds: 74

Drops: 9

Credit: Jay Sternemann @risen_on_main

Tackling Archaon

Counters stem from identifying weaknesses in a list, so let’s start off by identifying pressure points in the above list, and then focusing in on counters. The first major weakness of the list is that it is nine drops. You might drop the Warlord battalions and go a Command Entourage and Battle Regiment to be 4 drops, but this means you miss out on Aspect of Tzeentch, one of the strongest artefacts in Tzeentch. It lets you recycle destiny dice on a 5+ each time you use one, which is fantastic in any army, but particularly one that relies on Shield of Fate for survivability. For this reason high drops are almost inevitable in Tzeentch Archaon, and it is a weakness that can be exploited in list-writing.

The Boat Boys Are Back… Back Again

Barak Zilfin was a terror in Age of Sigmar 2 and it is set to be so in Age of Sigmar 3 despite us all frankly being a bit tired of it. It was always a bad matchup with Archaon since you couldn’t reliably kill an Arkanaut Ironclad with Archie, and your auto-unbinds couldn’t stop the Warp Lightning Vortex from Spell in a Bottle. As in many other bad matchups, however, Darkfire Daemonrift from Archaon in the late game was often enough to push through the boat men, since endless spells hit every unit inside a transport when they move. Now that Darkfire Daemonrift is gone and Warp Lightning Vortex managed to avoid a nerf I think low-drop Barak Zilfin is a perfect counter to Tzeentch Archaon.

So what do we bring when tailoring our list to Archaon, yet also performing against other major threats in the meta? Aetheric Navigators are another low-key counter to Archaon hidden on a rather harmless looking 5-wound hero. Their ability allows you to pick a flying enemy unit within 36 inches and halve their movement until your next hero phase. Ridiculous! What’s more is that there’s nothing preventing it from stacking: three navigators have the potential to make Archaon move 1.75 inches, and there’s nothing the Tzeentch player can do to stop you. Pretty crazy! 

Finally, as mentioned earlier the Arkanaut Ironclad still remains a huge headache for Archaon in AoS 3. With immense access to healing through Endrinriggers as well as its own warscroll, and another way to Unleash Hell with the Last Word Great Endrinwork, you have the means to counter the big lad. Barak Zilfin were a great check to Archaon in Age of Sigmar 2, and that remains the case.

The Curious Case of the Bastiladon

Thunder Lizards are certainly on the rise in Age of Sigmar 3, with the Amulet of Destiny-bearing, 14-wound Scar Veteran on Carnosaur being one of the most underpriced units in the game at 215 points. But for tackling Tzeentch Archaon their greatest threat still lies in the Bastiladon with Solar Engine. While the Bastiladon has lost his ability to be unrendable on a rules technicality, it’s still a 12-wound monster with a 1+ save that reduces damage by one. I want you to take a guess at how much damage a fully buffed Archaon does to a Bastiladon with Mystic Shield or All out Defense on.

On average, it’s 5 damage. Yikes.

If Archaon bounces off a key target it’s often extremely difficult for the Tzeentch player to recover. Why is that? Because Tzeentch’s opponent can take out Archaon’s support pieces on their own turn, while retreating away from Archaon. This leaves Archie needing to complete the same task again with no buffs when it rolls back around to his turn. The Archaon list has to keep killing or it loses, and the Bastiladon lists stop that dead. You can put your Bastiladon right up front and not have to worry about Archaon doing any real damage to him: just make sure to stay out of the 18 inch mortal wound bomb from all the small wizards until you’ve blasted off the Changecaster.

2+ Unrendable Save is Pretty Good

Ishlaen Guard might win the title for the most controversial Battleline in Age of Sigmar. I have seen so many extreme opinions regarding the 155 point Battleline unit: it possesses a natural 4+ unrendable save, which unlike other Ethereal abilities, can be improved through save buffs like the Akhelian Leviadon, Mystic Shield, or All out Defense. Now crucially, the unit circumvents the +1 to save limit to a certain extent because on the turn you charge, you increase your save characteristic to 3+, meaning with All Out Defense you can effectively be on a 2+ unrendable save.

The controversy surrounding the unit is to do with whether having a defensive unit that does no damage is sufficient to win a game of Age of Sigmar. In the previous edition, I would have said that Ishlaen Guard were a bit of a trap because of the amount of mortal wounds in the metagame: it might come to pass that through the new Stormcast Eternals and Kruleboyz battletome releases that mortal wounds return to complete dominance over the meta game, but for now, Ishlaen Guard are a great stopper for Archaon. Taking out just three of them will require a full volley from Archaon’s entire arsenal, and this means he’s only killing 155 points a turn. That’s not sufficient for an 830 point unit that has an army built around him.

The Art of StuffHammer feat. Lil Pinkie

An archetype that Archaon has always struggled to overcome is StuffHammer. By StuffHammer I mean an army that Archaon looks at and thinks, “I don’t get paid enough for this @#^%”. Much like someone in middle management, Archaon can be overwhelmed by the volume of work in front of him moreso than the individual value of each piece. One particularly strong army in Age of Sigmar 3 able to employ this archetype is Soulblight Gravelords. Although we initially thought the army had high points costs upon release, with the global rise in points in the new edition it has actually ended up being on the lower end of the points-intensive spectrum.

Zombies are a very cheap 20 bodies, surpassing the lowly Gnoblar in terms of points effectiveness per wound. For Archaon this means the Soulblight Vampires are able to amass an army of stuff very cheaply. 10 units of 20 zombies, for example, might well take Archaon more than the whole game to get through. Add in Gorslav and you have a guaranteed way to revive your Zombies and tie Archaon right up. Top if off with the fact that once one Zombie unit dies to Archaon’s swing you can tie him up by piling in the other unit from outside of 6”, and you have a textbook StuffHammer tarpit build.

But okay, aside from janky Zombie-spam builds that require people buying entire armies of footslogging not-so-dead men, what other StuffHammer is really out on the top tables Stuart? Well I present Exhibit B: the Pink Horror. Archaon’s absolute nemesis lies within his own faction: 50 Wounds for 215 points with either a guaranteed -1 to hit in Tzeentch, or a 6++ ward (or 5++ with Ruinous Aura) in Legion of the First Prince makes Horrors by the far the most points-efficient wound-spam tarpit in the game.

Archaon hates these guys more than anything. He will not kill a unit of 10 Pink Horrors in combat, and his army relies on getting spells off for him to survive and deal damage as well. Against the Pink Horrors in Tzeentch, Archaon will not appreciate feeding his opponent Pink Horrors by casting too many spells. In Legion of the First Prince, the opponent’s magic defense from Kairos means his offensive buffs are made significantly less reliable. This all equates to Pink Horrors being Archaon’s greatest challenge. While he is in combat with them, he is outscored on the objective and unable to achieve many victory points from battle tactics.

Credit: Timoth, @timfisher22

Going forward

It may be apparent that I’m doubtful about the strength of Tzeentch Archaon in Age of Sigmar 3. We will see where the meta lies in a few months after the new edition settles, and we will find out whether (like in 40k) factions with Third Edition books will tower over the Second Edition armies. But Tzeentch Archaon is not without its counters and is not without its limitations, so don’t refuse to play against it. Bring your best-maintained arsenal and strive for victory. For even the Grand Marshall of the Apocalypse can meet its maker… in this case perhaps multicolored squid monsters.


*Stonehorns though

**Are you saying Grom the Paunch is coming back? I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re saying.


So there you have it! Pink Horrors are really cheap and efficient wounds: that’s the kind of insight you only get right here on Plastic Craic. It’s a key point though – Horrors might be the cheapest and the efficientest, but pretty much every faction has access to some kind of trashy time-waster unit.

Stuart has identified two broad paths to success: shoot off the support pieces and then circle back to the big fella when he’s running off his naked warscroll, or contain him with layer upon layer of crap. And a side-order of movement debuffs is a welcome addition to either or both.

If I can have Archaon waste a turn massacring 20 Gnoblars, that’s a big win for me: I’ve consumed one fifth of his output for the entire game, which at face value is 160-odd points for 120 and already a good trade. In real terms, it’s far more than that, because Archie will have a serious investment in buffs behind him, so you’re well ahead on the deal. Rather than smashing him off the table, you have to look at amortizing away his value, and it’s something that every army can have a crack at.

Big thanks to Stuart for all the thought and effort that has gone into that. 5-1 in a competitive spam with MSU Yhetees is an achievement for the ages, so give him a follow on Twitter, and I’ll plug Stuart’s exceptional Ogor Mawtribes show on THWG one last time:

After watching this show, I went out an ordered a Firebelly, and that’s not a sentence I ever expected to type.


As a final note, I first published this article with password protection; whenever I do that, I get DMs asking why the site is locked and whether it’s gone behind a pay wall.

Rest assured that I’m not moving to a subscription model – the site will remain free (although the tip jar is always open), and if there’s password protection on an article, that just means I’m giving my guests the chance to review the final article before it goes live.

Thanks also for all the great Archaons on display, and credit for the cover image to Jay @jammiedenny91. I received a few Archies late in the day, right before I published, so apologies that I couldn’t use all of the sexy painted minis that were offered.

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