Metawatch Analysis: In Defence of Arcane Tome

Don’t mess about, hey?  The AOS dev team have put out a really meaty Metawatch article with a whole bunch of insights into their current vision for the game.  I’ll be running through what was covered, why I like it, and begging for my crutch to be left alone chipping in my own two cents as regards the direction of travel for this game.

Ready?  Let’s go.

What was announced

I’d recommend reading the article in full – including the embedded video – to get a grasp of the detail.  There were some hilariously bad takes on social media from people who blatantly hadn’t read the thing at all, but still felt compelled to mouth off.  Please don’t do that.

The key thing is that GW have been tracking detailed tournament data from TTTO and BCP, and they are using this to inform their design decisions for the game.  This had been hinted at previously through sources such as the notorious “not enough data” own goal, but what’s new (and important) is that GW took this opportunity to announce a set of clear and ambitious targets for the balancing of Age of Sigmar:

  • Each faction should have a win rate between 45% and 55%
  • The majority (60%) of warscrolls for each faction should see competitive play
  • Universal options (enhancements, endless spells, Incarnates and so on) should each hit no more than 10% of all competitive lists

Honestly, these are really ambitious – the only reason I believe that win rate band is an achievable target in such a complex ecosystem is because they’ve pretty much already achieved it.  There are plenty of games that are more balanced that AOS but none of them have the overwhelming spread of factions and units that this game does, so hats off to the design studio for what they’ve done in bringing us to this point.  Because it ain’t easy. 

I’d even argue that these goals are too ambitious in one or two cases – but we’ll come back to that later.

Metas are there to be broken

One thing that really stood out to me was the comment celebrating the fact that new books are (mostly) landing straight in the target range. For me, it’s a great joy of this edition that we don’t need to be terrified of every new book completely upending the game and destroying everything else out there – and you don’t need to look very far to find a high profile game system that has lurched from one overpowered launch to the next. I love that Age of Sigmar is explicitly not going for a “pump and dump” model of launching overpowered factions then smashing them with the nerf bat after their moment of dominance, and long may that last.

Now, there’s an obvious imperative to make these Community articles accessible to the Facebook types, so the headline targets are clear to the point of simplistic.  But what’s really encouraging are the signs that the dev team are well aware of the nuance that sits behind them, and that they are taking them into account. 

Firstly, the article makes clear that these targets are listed in descending order, which will be important when they end up with competing interests. 

For example, if a crap army (or two) is being propped up by a specific universal enhancement, and GW chooses not to nerf that enhancement, they haven’t failed to meet their goals – they’ve prioritised one more important goal over another less important goal, where the two were in direct conflict.  Serial moaners will still moan, because that’s what they do, but meanwhile in the real world the devs will be making those tough calls to keep the game moving forward in line with their stated ambitions. 

Secondly, the signs are there that beneath the surface, those subtleties in interpreting the data are being considered.  The big comparison here is Sons of Behemat and Seraphon: very similar win rates (Sons slightly higher in fact), but the former rarely makes the podium while the latter – in the hands of any competent player – is a tournament-crushing juggernaut. 

Credit: Warhammer Community

Giants are pretty much plodding along at 3-2 and there’s not a lot to be done about it.  Walking onto objectives and dying (or not) leaves very little room for player skill, or a dynamic game of Warhammer – it’s a pickle that will need a lot of attention in their next book.  But while we wait for that book to land, Sons don’t need nerfing anything like as much as Lizards do, regardless of what their raw win % is telling us – and the encouraging thing is that the devs do acknowledge that.

Finally, the article states the internal balance targets vary faction by faction.  You’ll occasionally see utterly pointless representation tables being shared around, and they always show Warchanters and Gore Gruntas right up there as the most over-represented units in the game. 

Well, no shit – you’re talking about a popular army that has a tiny handful of warscrolls, so of course they’re going to use the models they do have.  The only thing that this kind of data demonstrates is that GW has consistently failed to support Ironjawz with a second wave of models, so again it’s good to know that this target comes with an extra layer of nuance built in.

Long story short, I think the best thing we can do as a community is to get behind these targets, and resist the temptation to shitcan GW when something moves outside the lines.  We need to recognise that it’s an imperfect world, a rapidly moving ecosystem and that there are competing and sometimes subtle priorities – what’s key is that these targets are clear, ambitious and prioritised in the right order.  It really is a huge positive step.

In defence of Arcance Tome

Now having said all that, I’m nervous about the 10% target for universal options and especially any potential changes nerfs to Arcane Tome.  It’s been mentioned elsewhere that Arcane Tome specifically is being taken well above the targeted 10% – and I don’t think that’s a problem in any way.  For what it’s worth my current list doesn’t use Arcane Tome, but it does use Master of Magic, so I’ll let you decide whether I’m being biased here.

Firstly, the argument made in the WarCom article for making universal enhancements less popular is that each faction needs to have its own flavour, which is valid.  The counterpoint to that is that it’s perfectly thematic for my Bonesplitterz (for example) to have a really, really good wizard.  Funnily enough there’s fluff in the original Bonesplitterz Battleltome that deals specifically with a Wurggog Prophet completely dominating a Slann in spellcasting, and the combination of a book artefact (Mork’s Boney Bitz) and Master of Magic Trait allowed me to do exactly that at my last event.  In most cases these enhacements are not in tension with the lore – they are in harmony

As a sidenote, I’ve heard Khorne taking Arcane Tome being cited as a problem, but that’s not an Arcane Tome problem – it’s a Khorne problem.  The devil-worshipping edgelords have been casting spells for years with Khorne-marked Slaves to Darkness units and it makes no sense for Arcane Tome to carry the can. 

If Khorne having access to magic upsets you that much, let’s fix the problem at the source and stipulate in their next Battletome that no unit in a Blades of Khorne army can ever cast a spell.  I really don’t care, but let’s not punish every other army in the game because Khorne is Rhabdophobic.

Secondly, it’s a safety valve for bad books.  The options in the Kruleboyz book are fucking awful, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.  It’s the easiest thing in the world to say “just make the book artefacts better”, and of course I’d love to see it, but in practice we are still seeing a high degree of variation in the quality of book artefacts.  I do have an interest to declare since history shows it’s often my armies that tend to get the shitty end of the stick, but until we have a well-established pattern of some kind of parity in the power of book enhancements, high-quality universal enhancements have an important role.  Let’s nerf them after we achieve design utopia, not before.

Thirdly, it’s also a safety valve for overpowered rules.  There was a clear push to make Endless Spells better in the latest Handbook, and I’m all for it – and I say that as someone who does not even run Purple Sun.  One of the best counters to OP Endless Spells prowling around is the rerollable dispel – forget about spell casting, the main reason I take Master of Magic is to get rid of those things. 

What’s more the rerollable unbind gives armies that are not blessed with great spellcasting some kind of interactivity and agency in the hero phase, and it’s a net benefit to the game that they can have access to these tools to participate.

Fourthly there will always be something that’s best – remember when the game launched, and it was Amulet of Destiny that was everywhere?  That’s already been nerfed, and here we are playing whack-a-mole in a race to the bottom for the quality of universal options.  If something has to be the best, why not something like Arcane Tome or Master of Magic?  It’s not like they’re even particularly bad or oppressive to play against.  I play against them all the time.  They’re fine.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s pick up on that phrase “I play against them all the time”.  If you think these things are crushing list diversity, you could not be more wrong. 

Offering the carrot of excellent enhancements gives people a reason to take Warlord Battalions, which then typically means a couple of GH Battalions on the side, although you could take Warlord + Battle Regiment for an intermediate-drop option. 

Remove the strong incentives to take Warlord, and you make Battle Regiment King again.  This means way more lists of “Big Thing + 2 Support Heroes + 5 Efficient units”, i.e. the exact list structure that dominated the first year of 3rd Edition and sucked all the oxygen out of the room.  So be careful what you wish for, because in practice crapping on Arcane Tome will actually make lists much less diverse.

Credit: NC Dave

In a nutshell, good enhancements are good for the game, so don’t nerf universal enhancements any further.  Please and thank you. 

Bringing it home

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops – there was grateful incredulity from competitive Seraphon players at the idea that they were in any way approaching “fixed” – but I do believe that this article was a watershed moment for the game, and I hope my arguments in this article have laid out why. 

I’m super optimistic about where the game is heading, and as regular readers will know, I’d tell you so quickly and emphatically if that was not the case.  Bring on the next Battlescroll – can’t wait.

Next up for me is the Runeaxe Team Championships in sunny Queensland in November.  I’m pleased to be part of a pretty strong team:

So by tonight we need to stop fighting over who gets Krondspine lock in our lists and start scrambling to get in as much practice as possible.  Next up on the blog is an interview with Dalton Copeland celebrating his 5-0 event win with Bonesplitterz, and we’re working on a slightly different format for that one, so check it out next week.

Have a good weekend, nerds – see you on the other side.

2 thoughts on “Metawatch Analysis: In Defence of Arcane Tome

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