Reflections On The AOS Balance Update

Opinions are like arseholes, and I’m here today to share mine with you. OK let me rephrase that…

The reaction to the latest balance patch for AOS has been – in a word – divisive. There’s an extensive discussion over on TGA, which I would encourage anyone with the time on their hands to have a read through:

There are some really good points on both sides in here, although I think it’s fair to say that the vibe I’ve picked up both from private chats and on Twitter is that overall, the community is a bit underwhelmed by this one.

That’s fair, but I would argue that it’s good enough to be worth a fair go – and if you beg me, I’d even be willing to share the reasons why. I think anyone who’s followed the blog is well aware that if I don’t like something, I’ll happily tell you so, but I’m broadly in favour of this one – albeit with a few caveats.

What’s in the box?

You can grab the update right here:

In a nutshell, this introduces a whole new balancing mechanic for the game. Rather than tweaking points and changing warscrolls, they’ve gone for a handicap system:

  • Overperforming units have a bounty on their head, so taking them down earns you extra VPs
  • Underperforming factions gain additional bonus VPs for taking down those units

Worth noting (and easy to miss in a skim read) is that units on the prey list do not themselves get any VP bonus for taking down other prey units – there are no bonuses for punching sideways or down, strictly for punching up.

There’s a bit of play here in terms of softening units up with a prey unit (Longstrikes spring to mind), then finishing them up with something else to claim the VP, and I’d definitely encourage you to try that before banging something off with Old Faithful then whinging that the changes made no difference.

Credit: Games Workshop

Fair Criticism #1: The list is wrong

Why aren’t Blades of Khorne on the list? They are objectively languishing with an awful win percentage, and subjectively even their most stalwart players are voting with their feet and putting Khorne on the shelf. The final nail in the coffin came as their Allegiance Abilities were tied to Blades of Khorne units only – there’s a limit to how bad an army can possibly be with access to Battleline Marauders. I happen to think that’s fair enough, but if you’re doing that you need to throw them something else back – and this was a perfect opportunity to do so.

It’s great that a couple of my own favourite armies (Gloomspite and Bonesplitterz) made the cut, and I don’t think there’s anything that made the Hunters list that clearly doesn’t belong there, but Khorne should have been on there too. They just should.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s utterly fucking preposterous that Sentinels are not prey. In what world do they need to be further incentivized to just bang something off the board? They are the pointiest and clickiest pointers and clickers who ever pointed and clicked. They absolutely need a rewritten warscroll – the current one is pure Mary Sue garbage – but failing that, it beggars belief that GW is dangling a carrot to bring them back into the meta. Fuck Sentinels.

So yes, I do agree with comments that the list has gaping flaws. At the same time though, most things that are included have a highly compelling case – a couple of truly baffling omissions can leave a sour taste, but that’s not enough to ruin the whole concept. I’d still give the content of the list about an 8 out of 10 overall, with some pretty clear room for improvement more than offset by a long string of common sense victories.

Fair Criticism #2: Poor Gargants

Credit: Games Workshop

And now contradicting myself straight away, I’m not sure that Gargants really needed to be on here – and certainly not for double-dip points. More importantly, I think this contradicts the stated goals of the project, which was to avoid:

“…restricting the use of an army that you may have spent a lot of time collecting and painting”

Sons of Behemat only have a couple of units, and it’s hard to see this handicap placed on them as anything but a specific effort to restrict and discourage their competitive use. It turns out that standing around on objectives and either dying (or not) doesn’t make for a particularly dynamic game – who knew? – and with their results and meta popularity in freefall, this feels very much like a clear message to just leave the big fellas at home, thank you very much. The design of this army was a swing and a miss, Sons of Behemat are back to being nothing more than victims, and they desperately need a complete rethink at this point.

Anecdotally, loads of my mates were at Vic GT last weekend, and the only one who thought it would impact their games significantly was a Giants player who believes they would have had 2 narrow wins reversed. Battering an army down from 3-2 to 1-4 is not clipping the wings of the high fliers, it’s telling you to leave them at home.

Now before anyone accuses me of being a Destro homer here, I don’t even play Sons (although I do have an army on sprue), whereas I play against them regularly both locally and at events. So they are very much an opposition army to me and not “My Dudes”. I just don’t see how you can argue in good faith that they have not been intentionally driven out of the game here, which is pretty shitty treatment for some really expensive models, and contradictory to the stated goals of the update.

Fair Criticism #3: Idoneth

There’s a school of thought that IDK are set to be a top tier army, and I can definitely see that happening. Thralls are utterly brutal, and they have a great spot in the meta as an anti-shooting army with strong shooting of its own. Classic GW Aelves getting the best of everything? Yeah, maybe.

Where this becomes an issue is that by definition, nothing in their new book is on the prey list. New book comes out, power creep ratchets up a notch, new book craps on older books. You don’t have to wrack your brains very hard to find an exception to this rule, but it’s certainly the trend over time – and what we risk doing here is exacerbating that. Whether it happens to be IDK or not, at some point it will feel pretty crap getting dunked on by some freshly minted S-Tier filth, with insult added to injury as they gain bonus VPs for smashing your newly-inferior units.

Honestly, I can’t promise this won’t happen, and it’s what I see as the biggest drawback to the whole process. All I can really say here is that weighing this up against the benefits – which I will come to – my own judgment is that the positive outweighs the (potential) negative. Let’s have a nuanced conversation about what’s working and what isn’t once we’ve seen it in action, but this is certainly a pitfall to look out for.

Credit: Tom Lees

There are also a few canards I’ve seen floating about that I’d like to have a crack at tackling:

Unfair Criticism #1: It can’t / won’t be maintained properly

I mean…let’s lock up everyone who might commit a crime? Yes the studio have given themselves an extra job to do now, but I’ll criticize the list when I see flaws in it (see: my whinge about Sentinels above), and not before. It seems pretty rough to smash GW for failing to maintain it properly when they haven’t even had a fair chance yet.

Unfair Criticism #2: It won’t impact the game

Well if you’re expecting this minor balance patch to turn every 0-5 army into a 5-0 army overnight, I’m afraid that’s an unreasonable expectation on your part. We already have edition changes, the General’s Handbook, new Battletomes, White Dwarf articles and campaign books, all of varying scale and impact. These interim updates are towards the lower end of the impact scale by design – it’s not the goal or even desirable for GW to completely upend the game with these things. We need a system in flux, not turmoil, and these are aimed at giving the meta a nudge rather than blunt force trauma.

It might tip the scales in a few games, and it might encourage a few people to redesign their lists. Salamanders for example will now be a liability in a lot of games, and I for one have seen enough of those ugly little fuckers to last me a lifetime.

Credit: Games Workshop

Bringing it all together

It’s certainly true that a lot of things on the prey list are Warhammer Prevention Devices, and utterly bleak to play against. It’s also true that we need help to deal with those things, not candy when we (somehow, miraculously) do. There are plenty of things that could be addressed in that area – make me king for the day and I’ll rip anti-charge fuckery, Unleash Hell and save stacking entirely out of the game – but expecting all of that to happen in an interim balance update is just setting yourself up for disappointment.

On its own terms, this patch looks like it meets all the criteria to be successful:

  • The contents of the list are mostly fair enough
  • The VP swings won’t matter, unless they do
  • It adds some nuance in play patterns
  • It is light touch by design, and nudges the meta rather than giving it a crude shove

Perhaps most importantly, it shows creativity on the part of the dev team, and they’ve given themselves a lever they are willing to pull. I fully understand why GW doesn’t want to lurch all over the place and jack units up and down from week to week – that way lies havoc, and we as a community would (rightly) be very quick to run out of patience with that.

I wouldn’t hate seeing a little bit more boldness next time – maybe a few classic points / rules tweaks as well as an updated prey list – but I applaud GW for being brave enough to try something new, and if they are going to be gun shy about updating rules and points too dramatically in these updates, at least they’ve given themselves a creative and elegant alternative.

As I said above, watch this space the next time an S Tier army hits the meta with nothing on the prey list -and you might not have a long wait for that – but as of right now, I do think the game is in a marginally better place than it was this time one week ago, and there’s enough good in here to focus on the positives.

Have a good weekend everyone, and let me know how you get on with this update. There’s loads to say about it and I’m open to any feedback, so hit me up here or on Twitter with your thoughts!

One thought on “Reflections On The AOS Balance Update

  1. I do feel a bit sad for my Sons and I agree on Sentinels. Even if it was just 1 extra point across the board, I’d feel better.
    As it is, when Alarielle kills off another of my Kraken Eaters, she will score what? 7 points with a battle tactic for the one kill?
    I don’t want to complain, but clearly I am.

    Liked by 1 person

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