Competitive Warhammer 40K Does Not Exist

Competitive Warhammer 40K is a myth. It doesn’t exist. Never has. Who wins or loses a game of Warhammer 40K is not primarily determined by any intrinsic quality of the players, such as “skill” or “talent”. As a result, you cannot truly “compete” with another player using Warhammer 40K.

Instead, Warhammer 40K is a very metagame-biased game. The outcome of any given match is disproportionately determined by the the army-lists, the codices and other Metagame-aspects. This makes 40K the popular hobby it is. But it trumps any personal quality or characteristic that you, as a player, could actually bring to a “competition” with another player.

#1 – Chess and Shuuro and the Nature of ‘Metagame’

You’re likely asking yourself now what the hell I am up to with this.

Let me thus digress a bit to Chess and Shuuro (Alessio Cavatore’s pre-Loka Chess-variant). Seeing Alessio making his Kickstarter-splash with Loka, I dusted off Shuuro and played a bit.

But first things first: Chess!

Chess is an iconic competitive game. Why? Because Chess has no Metagame (aside, arguably, from knowing your opponents’ playstyles, stratagems or, poker-style, “tells”). For 99% of all chess games – save those with the most evenly matched players – the following will be true.

In Chess, the better, more skilled player will win against a less skilled player.

That is the heart and the soul of any competition. It’s the reason a chess tournament makes sense (from a competitive, and not a commercial perspective). You match your skills in the game against your opponents. The better player wins. If you rank high, you’ll know you’re good!

It also makes competitive Chess an intimidating thing to get into. If someone has 20-years of experience on you, that’ll count for a lot (though exceptionally talented Chess-prodigies exist).


Alessio Cavatore’s Shuuro – It’s great fun! (but not as competitive as Chess)

Cavatore’s Shuuro adds an interesting twist to Chess that takes a lot of teeth out of Chess, making it a more casual, family-friendly game. It does this with one addition in particular: list-building.

In Shuuro, your “army” is not predetermined (1 Queen, 2 Bishops, etc..) but can be purchased from a set number of points. Thus, you could build an “elite” army with a few Queens and Bishops, a “horde” army with massed ranks of rooks, a “jumpy” army of Knights, etc.. .

The very fact that you can build lists, and that some lists might be better than other lists, both absolute or in a particular match-up (think rock-paper-scissors), means that “player skill” is no longer the king of the game. Unlike Chess, Shuuro has a metagame. The very existence of a metagame introduces an interesting possibility that does not exist in Chess.

In Shuuro, a less skilled player can beat a more skilled player by using a better list.

#2 – Player Skill vs. Metagame: Rock-Paper-Scissors

As a consequence, who wins or looses is no longer as dependent on player skill. There is, thanks to “list-building”, a second metagame dimension that is relevant for the outcome of a match.

This doesn’t mean that skill is entirely irrelevant. It clearly isn’t. Just that it’s no longer the sole thing determining who wins the game. Have a look at my lewt diagram below.
Competitive Warhammer 40K does not exist
In a match between player 1 (who has better skills) and player 2 (how is one-up in the metagame), the question of who wins will depend largely on how much either skill or metagame matters in a given game. Let’s look at the most extreme examples first.

  1. For Chess: Player 1 will walk away victorious. As said, there’s no metagame to speak of in Chess, so Player 2 is screwed.
  2. For Rock-Paper-Scissors: Player 2 will win. In Rock-Paper-Scissor, the better “list” (i.e. Rock, Paper or Scissor) in a match-up will win, always. “Skill” cannot change the outcome.

This is not a question of “balance”! Rock-Paper-Scissor is balanced. Arguably more so than Chess. The very logic of the game is that one list always auto-trumps the other. “Skill” is irrelevant.

Rock-Paper-Scissors is the “perfect metagame”. It is decided before the game actually begins.

Which is why a serious, “competitive” Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament would be a pointless affair, especially if you cannot “change” your choice of Rock, Paper or Scissors between rounds (as you cannot change your list in a 40K tournament). The winner of tournament where most players field paper is almost certainly a guy (or girl) that brings scissors.

In other words, it’s the “list” that matters. The player behind the “list” is irrelevant to the outcome.

#3 – So What About Warhammer 40K?

Chicago Grand Tournament 40K – Picture by Will Merydith

Of course, not ever game hits the extremes like Chess or Rock-Paper-Scissors. Most games will fall somewhere in the middle, with both factors counting for something. A Chess-Master will likely still triumph over a newb in Shuuro, even with a less impressive list.

Nevertheless, your list, your choice of Codex and the luck of hitting a tournament one step ahead of the metagame mean a lot in Warhammer 40K. Far more than in Shuuro or even other miniatures wargames on the market. Which is why list-building is such a famous past-time for people on forums, blogs and elsewhere. Which is why “famous” or “effective” lists get copied ad-infinitum.

For a “hobby-game” the dominance of the metagame over the player skill is a good thing too. It is the very reason, why playing Warhammer 40K against someone with 20-years more experience than yourself isn’t anywhere near as steep a hill to climb as it is in Chess. If you’re up-to-date on the latest lists, the rules and avoid blatant mistakes, your chances of winning are pretty even.

Once again, being one-up on the metagame is – all other things being equal – more important than painstakingly accrued skill and knowledge to win a game (or tournament) of Warhammer 40K.

#4 – Is Knowing the Metagame a Skill?

The term metagame is a mathematic descriptor for set interaction governing subset interaction. The term passed from military use into political parlance to describe events outside conventional bounds that, in fact, play an important role in a game’s outcome. For example, a military operation might be a game with its political ramifications being the metagame.

Splitting “skill” and “metagame” apart as I’ve done above obviously raises the question of “is knowing the Metagame itself a skill?“.

No, it’s not. At least not for Warhammer 40K.


Because (a) it is constantly evolving and driven forward (both to allow new players an easy entry and to sell more plastic) and (b) because you as a player have no influence over it.

Being “good at the metagame” of Warhammer 40K takes no skill. It only takes staying abreast with Games Workshop’s latest. If you take a break for 6 months and come back to “competitive” 40K with you 6th-month-old game, you’ll find that things have moved on. Everything you did before those 6th months will mean squat and you will start at the same point any new player starts, once she/he has gotten to the point of knowing the rules and how to avoid obvious mistakes.

Inversely, if you win a Warhammer 40K tournament, it doesn’t say anything about you or your “skills”. All it says is that you brought the right list at the right time. Nothing more.

#5 – Do You Hate Warhammer 40K Tournaments?

Warhammer 40K Metagame


Warhammer 40K Tournaments are great fun.

They are a good opportunity to have some fun, meet new friends, play a few games. Obviously, tournaments also work well as a method to make people buy more toys.

Nevertheless, you’ll be having a lot more fun, if you realize that Warhammer 40K is not a competitive game, never was a competitive game and never will be a competitive game.

Competitive Warhammer 40K is an oxymoron. Competitive Warhammer 40K does not exist.

From a competitive (and not a commercial or social) logic, a Warhammer 40K tournament is really only slightly more sensible than a Rock-Paper-Scissor tournament. Approaching is as if you’re starting at the Olympics (or at a Chess tournament) will only make you look like a fool.




I am Zweischneid. Wargame Addict. Hopeless painter and founder of Pins of War. I hope you enjoyed this article. Don't forget to share your favourite miniature pictures and wargaming videos at
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  • orlando the technicoloured

    I see your point, it’s well put together
    (and personally Tournament Play for any game is generally not fun as folk take things far too seriously)
    BUT there is clearly a level of skill involved as otherwise there would be no real ‘tournament scene leaders’, winning (assuming you had the right list) would be pretty much random, and it’s clearly not as there are ‘star’ players who often win/place in big tournaments

    • Zweischneid

      Are there?

      The very fact that there seem to be more “star-lists” than “star-players” is part of what had me set on this course of thought.

      • Fat_Bloke

        This comment really does not surprise me to be honest, it is indicative of the ignorance that lies behind the above post.

        The first thing to say is that for one who is using the language and mannerisms of pseudo academic debate you have based an awful lot, read all, of the above argument on a premise (skill) that you completely fail to define. Without such a definition all reference you make to “skill” must be discounted until such time as a definition is provided. I suspect that the use of such a loaded word is no accident either.

        Secondly, chess is a very bad example to use as a comparison point to show that 40k is driven by the metagame. The fact that you think that there is no metagame in competitive chess only just shows you have never been involved in competitive chess, again your own ignorance. There is, in fact, a school of thought that says chess is one of the first games within the context of which the term metagame was used.

        On this specific comment, take a look at a rankings site and you will see that the top 40k tourney players are really very consistent. Rankings are determined by consistent performance across a series of games, the results for which only stand for a limited time. There are, of course, a large number of “meta list” but they are to be found in the middle or lower tables of a tournament unless wielded by a genuinely good (ie consistently high ranking) player.

        I think it is also worth pointing out that the fact that you think that keeping up with the metagame should not be considered a “skill” (that deliberately loaded word again) simply shows how grossly over simplistic your analysis is. I would like to hear your explanation as to how doing things in a fixed, controlled and already understood framework would be harder than having to do all the same things but in a changeable, uncontrolled and mysterious landscape.

        Finally, I should say that this article is not standing alone, there are a series of sources, not naming any names, that consistently take a hostile attitude to the idea of 40k as a competitive game. I am really not sure where this comes from, I will readily admit that there are a couple of high profile, competitive (though not necessarily successful) players that can be very aggressive towards those of a non competitive mindset. However, the group that I find to be the most derogatory, offensive and undeservedly definitively dismissive of the other sides views are the non competitive crowd. This article is a perfect example of the kind of small minded, deliberately ignorant dross that you, if you consider yourself a competitive player, have to put up with.

        Be in no doubt, the people who write these articles, for whatever reason, don’t like you as a person and they need a way to rationalise what would otherwise be considered unacceptable behaviour. That is why they so often come garbed in the cloak of the pseudo intellectual, presenting an ostensibly reasonable argument; do not heed the caress of the velvet glove, for the iron fist lurks within.

        • Zweischneid


          I made no claim to academic rigour. This is a blog. It’s a sounding-board for ideas, concepts and thoughts that .- yes – might need further refinement.

          If you want to bring this to an academic level (I don’t), you might want to start yourself and add some robust statistical analysis to things such as “rankings are consistent”, etc.. .

          Yes, emotional bias is always a problem in discussing an emotive subject. I’d argue I’m less guilty of that than any post or comment starting (and continuing throughout) with personal attacks or insults. If you would have a genuine interest in refuting my points, you’d be addressing them, rather than trying to smear me.

          I am not sure how there is anything aggressive in my article, except for people who consider any opinion not aligned with their own as “aggressive” (which is the exact opposite of “academic”, an ideal you seem to want to strive for).

          • Fat_Bloke

            Zwei, as far as I can see I did refute a lot of what you said, mainly by pointing out that the basis on which you had founded many of your arguments were flawed, non starters.

            I did not level any personal insults, how could I? Never having met or spoken to you I have only what you have written to go on. The only things I accused you of were ignorance (embarrassing though it may be for you, pointing out ignorance is not insulting) and that the tone of your piece was of a similar passive aggressive, snide and condescending tone adopted by many others who espouse this viewpoint.

            I should add that my comment on your misleading style of writing seems to be borne out by your above reply wherein you completely fail to acknowledge any of the issues I raised and then proceed, presumably deliberately, to misquote me. This is not such a great idea when people have my original text to reference half a screen above your comment, but serves nicely to emphasise my point so thank you for that.

            On the emotional side, you are the one publishing to an audience, if you wish to have any credibility at all you have to at least pretend to hold yourself to a higher standard. I would have thought that for most of my comment the accusation that could be levelled at me would be that I was being very cold rather than overly emotive. I must confess the last couple of paragraphs are a little over floridly worded but I guess that is what happens when you are the son of an English teacher.

            The point you make in the edit just confuses me to be honest, the fact that my criticism does not follow the train of your article is irrelevant at best. I know that the comment you made referred to a passing observation, it is often in such unguarded moments that we can reveal something like an underlying ignorance of the subject matter under discussion.

            I await your further post hoc rationalisation with great interest.


          • Zweischneid


            Well, just saying my points are flawed or that I am ignorant doesn’t make it so.

            If you wanna make that case, you’ll need to argue it, which you didn’t. As far as I can see, you argued that..

            - I didn’t define basic terms with academic rigour, which I fully acknowledged.
            - that I am ignorant (no specifics given, just your opinion it seems)
            - that I am passive aggressive (no specifics given, just your opinion it seems)
            - that I am emotionally biased (no specifics given, just your assumption)
            - that the standards I set for my blog-writings are inferiour to other 40K blogs (again, no support give, just your opinion).

            My comment above was not an unguarded moment. But there is a difference between one observation that (among others) starts a train of thought (e.g. the “star-lists” referred to in the comment) and where that train of thoughts might lead (e.g. my blog post).

            Do you deny that “hit-lists”, “net-lists” or “star-lists” are a common phenomenon in 40K, filling countless blogs, forums, etc..?

            Hell, I can see why people disagree with the conclusions I arrive at in my blog post. But to disagree, as you did, with this rather common observation on 40K in this day and age referred to in the comment above seems fairly absurd to me.

  • wanchango

    You’re article is an interesting look at meta game vs. skill but it reeks of ignorance. There is a lot of skill in reading a meta game and just knowing what is best to play will not win you games. You are ignoring other games, such as magic the gathering, that have a hugely thriving pro tour yet it is a large mix of skill and meta game knowledge. As someone posted, if skill truly was not an issue then the outcome would be far more random.

    To say that skill doesn’t win games in 40k makes you sound bitter.

    I do agree that fun should be a focus but if you can’t be competitive and still maintain fun then you should probably stick to puzzles or somethin.

    • Zweischneid

      To be fair, I consider “competitive” MtG as silly, if not more so, than “competitive” 40K. Unlike Games Workshop, WoTC have been frank and open about “unbalancing” MtG on purpose to keep the meta lively, changing and interesting, with a mathematical factor of up to 15% each way.

      The “pro tour” they have is surely fun, but it’s a sales-tour disguised as competition, not truly a match of relevant player skills. How competitive would … say .. car-racing be if cars were randomly 15% faster or slower (30% spread) than the norm. You’d run into the same problem with the “winner” winning thanks to the car, not his skill as driver.

      And I never said there was no skill. Only that the emphasis on “hobby” and “collecting” for games such as Warhammer 40K (or MtG) is by definition at odds with the idea of competitive.

      Finally, I think the 40K tourney outcomes are (!) very random. Given the size of the active tourney-player base, there are surprisingly many names out there.

      There certainly is no equivalent of, say, Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, who can top the (in Golf or Tennis much larger, much more competitive) circus for long periods by some clear “skill”-advantage.

      Any “edge” a player has to win one 40K tournament is often forfeit in the next tournament (see Leafblower), because that “edge” is largely (not exclusively, but largely) in the list, not in the skill.

      • wanchango

        See what you are failing to grasp is the perfect imbalance isn’t random. A person who is skilled at reading a meta game will recognize the trends and will be able to make a clear choice based on that information. I don’t believe that competitive 40k has become that meta game dependent at this point. I will agree that there is a subtle meta game, but that is not what drives victories in tournaments.

        Player skill is far and away what will win you games in 40k, it happens every time you see a tournament report where an army wins and you aren’t quite sure why they won, because they aren’t one of the top 3 armies on the internet. As someone posted, 40k skill involves a mix of meta game knowledge, army building, and tactics. Only a person that excels at all three( or arguably the latter two) will be walking away winners at tournaments.

        In your own racing analogy you say that you could have a difference of up to 30% in speed between cars. What you fail to point out is that if you are going to be a true analogy then the racers would be able to chose their cars in advance. The racers that did their homework on the cars would be able to tell the faster from the slower cars. Now once they make their choices they hit the track. I don’t know how much you know about racing but a skilled drive can make a lot of ground on a rookie, even with a slower car. Once the race starts the more skilled racers will start to show and will rise to the top. Now the most likely winner of that race is probably going to be the driver who, chose the best car, and had the most driving skill with that car, and who had a little luck go their way(the dice playing out averages)

        To assume that choosing an army is what wins tournaments shows an astounding lack of knowledge of any competitive environment. In the vast majority of examples, the most skilled players(in all aspects of the games they are playing)will rise to the top of competition.

        • Zweischneid

          Well, the racing-car analogy was done from the cuff. It might not be the best analogy.

          Yet to run with it, I doubt any amount of driver skill can make up a 30% difference. An average Formula 1 race lasts 90 minutes or thereabout. 30% (+/- 15%) would mean ~13 minutes or so each way.

          There differences in Formula 1 between the “best” and the “last” aren’t even a fraction of that.

          Yes, choosing the “best” car beforehand, in that analogy, would be how you win (and to make the analogy fit with 40K, all (!) cars would come from the same team of car/game-designers).

          But what kind of competition would that be? That is my point. If the race was decided by who picked the best car at the start, it be no race at all.

          Yes, there might be some rudimentary skills involved at picking the right car (or list) for the race (tourney), but the heavy lifting is still done by a factor ultimately outside the actual person involved.

          If the same car would’ve won the race with a different driver, the “skills” of the driver ultimately become irrelevant to the “competition”.

          • wanchango

            What do you think creates that fraction of a second? Those are the best in the world competing of course its a tight race. You step into a car and race with them and then tell me skill doesn’t matter. It skill wasn’t relevant i would be racing cars for millions.

            I don’t know if this is a “shock jock” article or if this is your honest thoughts but i think you are way off base. Maybe is just an agree to disagree thing but you are blatantly calling competitive gamers hacks. You are saying that anyone can do what they do with no skill.

            Frankly i’d like to see a follow up article where you auto pilot the internet’s best army to a big tournament win and then dismiss the win saying, “it takes no skill to do”

          • Zweischneid

            I think there’s a misunderstanding there. I did not say Formula 1 racing doesn’t take skill. Quite the opposite.

            Of course Formula 1 divers have mad skillz,

            But the reason they do is, not least, because the Formula 1 spends millions of dollars on regulation and technical standards to make sure that the cars are as closely comparable as possible. There’s constant news on different tech-pieces, materials, etc.. that get reviewed, banned, etc.. . , precisely to avoid discrepancies in technology (the “meta”) growing larger than the driver’s skill could compensate for.

          • wanchango

            What pro is going to use a random-numbers-generator to build a list? Use some common sense. Like I said, meta game knowledge, list building and tactics are all key factors to consistent success in this game. Who do you think is going to win if you have a “newb” and a veteran of the game playing against one another with the exact same list? Logic tells you that the advantage is squarely in favor of the more skilled player. Furthermore a skilled player is going to know what to prepare for(metagame), how best to prepare for it(list building), and how to execute and modify tactics on the fly(tactics or playing skills) and that’s not even going farther into tactics like threat assessment, damage control, board control, and being able to adapt to whatever mission parameters might be in play at any given event.

            “I didn’t say there’s an auto-win, nor did I say that skill is 0% to the equation. I only said its probably < 50%"
            It seems that is exactly what you are saying. A couple of quotes from your article: "In other words, it’s the “list” that matters. The player behind the “list” is irrelevant to the outcome." "Inversely, if you win a Warhammer 40K tournament, it doesn’t say anything about you or your “skills”. All it says is that you brought the right list at the right time. Nothing more."

            These quotes are saying that it takes no skill to win tournaments. You just have to bring the right list and if you do you will win.

            The main issue I am having here is that this ideal you are presenting is extremely insulting to to people who play, anything that involves a meta game, competitively. You are attempting to undermine the accomplishments of people who have innovated and put countless hours into honing skills and practicing matches.(not just 40k but other games) This whole article reads like you have recently taken a bad lose or had a "bad run of luck" and you want to rant and tear down what you are failing to achieve. It's just ridiculous for me to read this and believe that you can really dismiss how much player skill factors into gaming. I mean seriously, who are you to determine this, " Being “good at the metagame” of Warhammer 40K takes no skill." Can you tell me what the best army is right now? Can you go on record and 100% tell me what the next GT winning army will be? No you can't because while you might be able to read the articles online about what is broken and what army list is unstoppable(there isn't a single best) without the skill of a good player good luck getting to the top of a two day tournament.

            I understand a lot of people have complaints about competitive gaming, myself included, but to use your soap box to undermine people who put in the work to play and win on a competitive level at large tournaments is asinine. After giving your article a couple more read through, I truly think it is a shameful jab at people who put in the practice to accomplish something notable like a big win.

            If this article was meant to be a troll then I guess you got me. I just can't comprehend the ignorance of the subject matter and the overall arrogance that goes in to writing and publishing something like this.

          • Zweischneid

            No. I have not suffered a bad loss or a bad run of luck. Frankly, this is the very baton that “competitive gamers” use virtually ever single time to avoid facing arguments about competitive Warhammer 40K. If you don’t like it, you must be a sore looser. Fixed, no need to argue any more.

            That is intellectually extremely lazy. And it’s besides the point.

            And yes, I realize that the argument that “skill” is fairly negligible and irrelevant to 40K is a hard one to swallow for people living in the tournament bubble. But I didn’t make that point to “troll” you or “offend” you.

            I made the point, because I believe there is some serious substance to it, even if it happens to possibly offend people. It’s not my idea to keep silent on things I believe matter only because they could possible force people to take a hard look at what they were/are doing.

            And no, being “good” at the Metagame in Warhammer 40K takes no worthwhile skill. All it takes is being up-to-date with the game and the product releases. It takes about as much and about the same skill as being a “good” (or competitive?) Apple-fan-boy or being a good “Celebrity gossip” girl.

            All it takes is knowing what’s “hot” at the moment. Done.

          • FartHoofer

            Have reading and studying been dropped as skills that people can use?

          • Connor

            Zweischneid is dead on the money. I have gone to enough tournaments where the top finishers are little kids running whatever is currently the top internet list to know that metagame is everything. You can choose to handicap yourself and try to out skill other players, but when the entire system opperates on a luck based mechanic any “skills” that you may have or “tactics” you may use essentially count for nothing as you can either have a great or terrible round of luck that throws it all off. Since this is the case the most important factor of the game becomes the one thing you can control, which is the metagame in the form of list building. The statistics of every unit are fixed and the prices remain the same, so you build around what units have a good fixed value. You can’t count on a imperial guard squad staying in place until they are needed, or an outflanking unit arriving on the correct side, so you just opt for a giant artillery battery and bombard the crap out of everything since that is the option that is the most consistent in the meta, and low and behold you get the leafblower list. Or you get a Descent of Angels list, or a Fatecrusher build, or any of the other tournament winning metagame phase armies that anyone can pick up and start winning tournaments with. I have seen people that are totally new to 40K go into the GW store or go online and buy a very specific tournament list because they found everything they needed to know about the list, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their playstyles. As soon as they are done assembling and painting they were out winning tournaments and casual games with only a few games experience under their belts.
            As for the way that you go on with yourself about how Zweischneid’s article is out to “undermine people who put in the work to play and win on a competetive level at large tournaments” think about any time these people have actually played. 90% of the time it is run right at each other, shoot, fight, and one side breaks first. Maybe they switch things up with one side running foreward and getting shot at from a static position. The fact is though that with the insanely small army sizes created by a limited points cost and the extremely small number of available units in each army with their also limited equipment options, there is only so much that can be done in terms of skill. Units are created with a dedicated purpose and cannot adapt to face different threats when presented. Thus, it is for the most part exactly like a game of rock/paper/scissors. My tactical squad with a heavy bolter and flamer kill dozens of chaos cultists, whereas they are in turn killed by chaos terminators that my tactical squad isn’t equiped to damage. The terminators are killed by my vindicator, who is then destroyed by a chaos preditor with lascannons, that is destroyed by a unit of landspeeders with dual multimeltas, etcetera. It is a giant game of counter a unit and be countered in return. The most “skill” that you can really have in this game is during the deployment phase. If you deploy first, then you need to figure out how to deploy your units so that the opponent can’t just deploy to counter them. If you deploy second, you just deploy to counter your opponents deployment. On turn one, you start throwing units at each other with a more or less fixed plan, hoping to counter their units before they counter yours. This is where skill ends and pre-game meta and blind luck kick in.
            Lets face it, 90% of the people that play in large tournaments, especially ‘ard Boyz tournaments, will agree that the game is 95% meta, 4% luck, 0.5% coffee, and 0.5% skill. You carry on with yourself but prove nothing and cannot support your own points with evidence. You sound like a particularly mediocre GW fanboy or promoter. Begone troll, and be forever banished to the /tg/ from whence you came.

          • Zweischneid

            Nice to see some examples put to it (thought about that, but it probably would’ve bloated the post even more). Thanks for sharing.

          • Enlargingcloud

            I think 95% meta is way overblown.

            The fact is 40k is a game about choosing units from a massive selection and playing with them. That’s one of the main driving forces of the game: the diversity of rules and interesting units that people can employ does make it possible to choose units that work much better than another person’s units.

            However it also takes understanding of 100 pages of main rules to determine what fights are good to engage, how one can manipulate units/movement, what units should target what, and how one can win. You seem to honor chess for the idea that some lucky kid with a photographic memory can step in and memorize a couple hundred plays, yet in warhammer the diversity means that tactics adapt with the key elements of variation: luck and army composition.

            And yes, there are some broken lists that get used by noobs because they are posted on the internet, lists that may or may not have required a lot of thought to produce. However, that is an example of a bad/new player using the knowledge of greater players to beat other bad/new players. At a higher level people are capable of building lists that allow them to tactically adapt and defeat such lists.

      • Azrell

        So how do you explain tournaments in the US and UK that have repeat winners across many different formats? Did they all just get luck with the meta?

        • Zweischneid

          Dunno. Poking around RankingsHQ, there doesn’t seem to be much consistency.

          The guy who won Adepticon, out of nearly 250 player, only placed 31st out of 60 a month later at Salvation. The guy who won the Comikaze GT was a “never-been-on-a-major-tournament-before” freshman, beating many a long-time-tourney-veteran for no apparent reason. Etc..

          Seems fairly arbitrary. I haven’t, however, made a quantitative analysis of this and compared them with .. say .. the Ranking HQ tables for Chess to see how much fluctuations/consistency there is, and how much they differ.

          I’d be interested in seeing someone try though.

  • DimmyK

    An interesting argument. However, isn’t list build part of the skill? Although I partially agree with you, in some ways I don’t. For example, you require just as much skill, it’s just that there are different skills within the skill of 40k. Such as knowing how to put together a decent list, dice averages, meta game and actual tactics – these are all components of being “skilful” at 40k. Which is why it’s a lot more complicated as different people are better at different parts of this system.

  • Darthdiggler

    I am a Adepticon Gladiator and Adepticon Team Tournament champion. I have finished in the top 10 twice at Ard Boyz finals and won two full armies by winning Ard Boyz semis. I agree with this article. Most of my work is done in the planning stages and come tourney time it’s about making the correct choices to implement your plan and then rolling dice.

    I think the Internet tournament celebrities are people who have the time and means to travel to lots of tourneys. At those tourneys the players are broken up into subgroups. Those who are there to win and those who are their to have fun. You can do both, but the former trumps the latter. In that respect a 150 person tourney will only have about 30-40 serious lists and players. If you have the means to travel around and play in lots of these and you want to win with your list more than show off a Black Library army, then you will most likely finish in the top 25% each time.

    IMO winning players are more dedicated to finding winning lists and tweaking them to meet the change in rules between different tourneys. In that respect I will say list building is a skill. It take dedication to learn the type of list that works for you and then dedication to make sure you take those units – and only those units – that can enhance your play style and give you the best chance to win. This is not a hard skill to master, but it takes some dedication and possibly corrupting ones sense of fluff to accomplish.

    Overall nice article. Thanks for writing it.

  • Scott Wainwright Jr.

    kinda. But I win a lot of times due to opponent mistakes. So that is
    actually strategy. But on the other hand, making a list is no different
    than a real-life general sending in certain units to deal with an
    unknown threat. That real-life general doesn’t
    know exactly what the enemy will be equipped with. So you could also
    say that real-life war is also metagaming if you’re not the actual foot
    soldier on the ground. The dice just represent how your individual
    troops react, which is out of the general’s hands .

  • Scott Wainwright Jr.

    And being that 40 is supposedly a “war simulation” (term used loosely), what you bring to the battle determines your chances of success. Since when did both sides of a battle in real ife have the exact same number and quality of resources and units? Never, that’s when. So it’s not really an apples to apples comparison. Great article though.

    • Zweischneid

      Well, 40K is a war-simulation-game(!).

      It thus differs from the thing it “simulates” in two important ways:

      1. Unlike “real war” (which nobody ever claimed was balanced), there is the underlying assumption in 40K (tournaments) that both sides do (or should) start on an equal footing, with the outcome being primarily determined by skill.

      2. The “units you bring to the battle” in “real war” are a function of real technology (and its limits), real resources, real logistics, etc.. . In the game, they are arbitrary. The limitations are arbitrary. If GW decides to nerf Land Raiders down to AV 11 or make IG Flak-Armour 2++, than that is what it is.

      But your point, in a way, is right. 40K works very well to “simulate” fictional sci-fi battles.

      The problem is it doesn’t work so well as a “skill competition”.

  • Crickate

    I think that Warhammer 40k, while being terrible at a competitive game, represents the real world of war and battle in a way that the most determining factor in war is usually not army size or technological power, it’s the non-human, unchangeable things, like weather, mechanical problems, or luck. Like real war and battle, in Warhammer you’ve got to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

  • enlargingcloud

    Hey so used to play 40k competitively and was considered one of the best players in my area. I want to be as respectful as possible, as I enjoyed the article, but I disagree with you greatly and I hope my post brings some things to light.

    First and foremost, my concession: there are games of 40k that can be completely ruined by luck. This means that in tournaments the winners sometimes can get there through luck because there isn’t a large enough sample size for the best players to rise above them, or they could be pitted against worse players or people with bad list-making skills.

    However, many 40k army lists that are used by the best players have units that not only have consistent outcomes in their damage/impact, but also have a large variety of tactical options.

    Most good 40k players are able to use these units with their consistent outcomes to beat a player that is much worse than them, and back in 5th Edition when I was still playing, I often beat inexperienced players in about four turns. My army list made this possible, and the strategies I employed allowed me to do this to many different types of armies, even those which had been picked off the internet.

    I did once lose to an inexperienced (1 year of playing) Grey Knight player who placed second in a Grand Tournament I attended, however, while he got lucky and had an army that is considered overpowered, I think if I had played better I could have won (with a little more average luck).

    Its true that games like that make it flawed as a competitive game, however the merit of playing competitively is to develop strategies and play lots of games, and see how good you can get. Its not about winning tournaments, but about being confident once your sample size of games grows to the point where people appreciate you and your skills as a player and list designer/tactician.

    Also if you read about 40k tactics online, it is true that there is a lot more written about list design than actual tactics, but this is mainly because writing tactic articles is far more difficult to describe when not talking in person. The tactics of 40k (which relate to at least 200 pages of rules) are incredibly vast, and oftentimes small tactics can turn a game without any dice rolls being involved. Movement is a key factor here.

    But that’s mostly it. Yes, 40k isn’t chess, and its also true that 40k in 6th Edition is getting more random (which is bad because there need to be enough stable outcomes for tactics to be evaluated effectively) yet it is still true that the tactics in 40k can define games with bad luck.

    Also if you do want to continue your study you should consider researching professional poker. But also consider researching Blackmoor and Tony Kopach. Both are very respected 40k players and the former is known for beating people with sub-par lists.

    • Zweischneid


      Thanks for the response.

      I don’t think luck has much to do with it. I acknowledge that games with random elements (e.g. Poker) can be played competitively, even if any single game may leave a top player with a horrible set of cards. At the end of the day though, they all draw cards from the same pool. There isn’t a better stack of cards for player A with 6 aces in it, and an inferiour one with only 2 aces for player B, as it is – figuratively – in Warhammer 40K.

      Can player B still win? Sure. But the odds are stacked against him and the basis for “competitive play” as such is no longer given.

      If anything, I would argue that 6th Edition is (ever so slightly) more competitive, precisely because it has more random elements, as well as allies, etc.., that help mitigate the large discrepancies resulting from differently powered lists (e.g. by introducing random elements into any given list such as Warlord Traits, random Psychic powers, etc..).

      These are the things that reduced the dependency of list building (which has an element of “experience” to it, no doubt), making it a (tiny little) bit more competitive.

      Still, the main caveat remains. You say player X has been known to beat people with sub-par lists. But how do you know his list was truly sub-par? Maybe his list was, in fact, superiour (and hence he won), but simply less publicized (e.g. not a “net-list”, which need not be the “best”. I never said that).

      The point of this article that (a) the lists do have an impact on the game and (b) there is no objective way to separate the influences due to skill and the influence due to “the list”, therefore the outcome of any given match may not be a result of “skill”. If that is true. competitive play is pointless, because you can never know that it was truly the best player that won (which doesnt negate the fact that there was “a best player” in the tournament somewhere).

      And people claiming to be using a “sub-par” list by their own definition would be exceptionally suspect to me. It smacks of stroking one’s own ego precisely by making show of one’s own alleged skill (as a consequence of winning with a sub-par list) in a situation where nobody can objectively measure the relative influence of a list vs. the relative influence of player skill..


      • enlargingcloud


        I’m not sure your poker analogy is correct because in 40k aren’t ever left with “2 aces” instead of “6 aces.”

        The idea that more randomness makes it more competitive by offsetting list advantages is incorrect. That randomness can (obviously) favor either player, therefore possibly aiding the person with the list advantage in the first place. However you saying this also makes me think you still aren’t quite informed about how 40k players build their lists.

        I’ll give you some basic list theory.

        In tournaments, ideally one wants to maximize the chances of winning.

        Many tournament lists are designed as “all-comers” lists. These lists in their most basic form have a diversity of units and multiples of threat types, so that they can defeat a wide range of armies.


        Balanced army with some infantry, some tanks, and some anti-tank weaponry and some crowd control firepower/ordinance (maybe).

        Then there are lists that use similar resilience with varied threats. These could be all mechanized/vehicle lists, or all tough 2+ or 3+ armor lists, or they could be lists with lots of weak infantry.

        Then there are lists that may or may not have varied resilience, but also have focused threats. These lists almost always spam a certain type of discounted shooting (str6/7) or just have lots of high strength anti-tank guns.

        —run down of these very simple list concepts with basic tactics behind them.

        The balanced list generally has the best chance of winning because you can play your diversity to your advantage I.E. if someone has lots of anti-tank guns, you can make it hard for them to hurt your tanks by hiding them, putting them on one side of the board etc. (controling your opponent, as you know their goal is to kill the tanks).

        While they may not be able to completely annihilate an army with tons of tanks or tons of infantry, they can still try and kill the greatest threats in the opponent’s list and beat them using a myriad of other tactical maneuvers.

        The resilience list can try and overwhelm a player who can’t counter them, but if they encounter a “balanced” list that also happens to have the guns to take one unit type down, they get screwed.

        The anti-tank/threat spam list will probably do well against some players, however if they face someone with a lot of infantry or threats they can’t kill easily, they may struggle.

        The last 2 lists are examples of lists that almost fit the “rock paper scissors” mold.

        Virtually all 40k players know that the list can definitely influence the outcome of a game, however since most armies have multiple ways to be played, the outcomes of games with the same lists can vary dramatically. The choice of when to vary tactics against certain opponents, and how to employ those tactics, is all part of player skill.

        I’ll give a personal example of my list (a decent chaos list back in 5th) and how I would vary macro level tactics (not micro level tactics which I’m not going to write about, but are existent if you know anything about 40k).

        I used 4 units of infantry in transports with icons/homing beacons. I had 2 units of obliterators and 1 unit of terminators (combi-plasma). I then had havocs with a homing beacon and a demon prince (flying monster).

        The infantry were capable of moving forward, kiting w plasma from inside the vehicles, and I could also make a wall with the 4 rhinos to block shooting from some units.

        The terminators almost always deepstruck on the beacons. This let me accurately place them in a large variety of positions. I could bait people into fights that they couldn’t win once the teleporters came down.

        The obliterators could either provide fire support from afar or deep strike to any of my infantry squads to put sudden pressure on enemy units.

        The havocs provided consistent firepower to make sure that my opponent always had to be aware of their placement.

        And the demon prince was an inexpensive silly man who flew around and hit stuff and hid behind rhino transports.

        This is an incredibly basic example of how one list can create tons of different approaches to playing. Yes the list helps me win, but a lot of people’s lists help them win too, and that’s just part of the game. People are aware when they can’t handle some new list, but that doesn’t happen often at the higher levels of 40k because people build lists to handle a variation of threats.

        So basically what I’m saying is that, in the 40k players’ definition of what competition involves, it involves not only having good foresight/list design, but also involves understanding how to vary tactics with a list against different threats.

        But I should end with a concession. Sometimes people can make rock paper scissors type lists (that should crumble against some enemy lists) and win tournaments with them. But people with these sorts of list seldom win multiple tournaments because once you get a larger sample size, their imbalances make them pay the price.

        I think that you don’t understand the game enough to tell the difference between player skill and army influence, however many people who play and watch games do. Also note that its a common thing among people to play with poorly designed lists (I.E. with flaws that players can analyze and abuse in game) to see if they can beat well-known power lists.

        All in all, I think its a decent article to generate discussion on 40k, yet if you had done more research and talked to more people, you probably wouldn’t be saying some of the things you are saying (such as how player skill is invisible when players do not have the same pieces).

        Anyways, all respect,


        • Zweischneid


          I did all the research you asked for and I am aware of your concepts.

          But you are not acknowledging the very thing I mention in my article over and over again which saps all competitive potential out of the game.. the Meta-Game (which is a huge factor in list-building you don’t acknowledge).

          Yes, randomness (like random cards in poker) can play a huge factor in who wins or doesn’t in any given game, and possibly any given tournament. But in the long term, it hits all players equally. There is no way to “game” it, thus superiour skill will show through (as it often does in Poker).

          List-building on the other hand moves along a continuum of evolving “states of the game”, especially in 40K. “Competitive 40K” isn’t about building an “all-comers list”, it’s about building an “all-comers-list” for the current state of the (meta-)game.

          I don’t really feel like typing out the whole article again, but look at the rock-scissors-paper part of the article. Simplified: To win a 40K tournament in an early 5th edition Vulkan-list Melta-heavy meta (Rock), you brought things like Razorspam (paper). Once everyone started picking up Razorspam-style MSU-lists (paper), people moved to Long Fangs and Psyfledreads (scissors), etc..

          That evolving state of meta-game puts to advantage on the person “most-up-to-date” with the meta-game, ideally the one “one-step-ahead”. It turns a skill-game into a “i-know-the-news” game (which in turn helps giving “newbies” an easy entry because they don’t need to memorize stratagems used, say, in the 1980s or 1990s as they do in Chess, because they are no longer relevant.

          By having a meta-game, you can win the “game” of 40K without the superiour skills in 40K itself, if you can get an edge in in the “meta-game” (and vice-versa). And since at least one of those is not based on skill, but on “up-to-dateness”, skill ceases to be quantifiable as a factor contributing to winning.

          • Enlargingcloud

            All I’m saying is that if you watch the games you can see what games are determined by lists and what games are determined by skill.

            Also the meta-game isn’t about creating lots of rock paper scissors lists, a lot of times the meta game is a large assortment of lists that are pretty good. A lot of tournament winners don’t use meta lists at all, they normally use lists that are more complicated/weird so that people don’t know how to fight them.

          • Zweischneid

            Sorry. but there are no games of 40K that are determined by only the list and only skill. Both factors always play a role, hence why using 40K as a “test of skill” or to assume that the “best players” will come out on top of tournament with sufficient regularity is a fallacy.

            That does not deny an impressive display of skill in any given battle that watchers may witness.

            And building a complicated list that “wins” you a game by befuddling the opponent is a good example of the influence of lists on the game, hence proving my point above.

            And no, “meta-game” isn’t about rock-paper-scissor lists, but rock-paper-scissor is a good analogy to explain what a meta game is. (e.g. lots of scissors make rocks good in the meta, lots of rocks make paper good in the meta, etc..). There’s a difference between “rock-paper-scissor” as an analogy for the meta, and rock-paper-scissor as a characteristic of lists within the meta.

          • Enlargingcloud

            You are completely correct that there are no games that are won purely by skill with the exception to mirror matches which occur incredibly rarely in tournaments.

            However that is indeed the nature of a complex game where one can drastically alter their capabilities as a player. This does make 40k less directly competitive as say chess, because there are imbalanced, yet this also is what makes 40k harder to analyze, as it is so vast.

            However you still don’t give credit to the fact that not all lists are easy to use, so someone who brings the right list might get annihilated in all their games because they lack the skill to use it.

            For example fateweaver is a list you mentioned. The deep strike mechanics are difficult to use, and yes the list was designed around blobbing units together, yet there are times when people did need to deep strike units near enemies. Kirby on 3++ had a lot of articles on how to space armies out so that deep striking as a tactic could be neutered.

            This tactic of his allowed me to win every game I faced against Daemons (including fateweaver lists) in 5th edition.

            But yes, I understand you are trying to say that you cannot objectively win a game of 40k purely through skill. That is perfectly correct. The only problem with your opinion is that it seems to forcefully enforce a wrongful idea: that good players who have a vast understanding of complex tactics cannot win the majority of games against bad players.

          • Zweischneid

            No. I think we’re still talking past each other.

            I don’t, and never did, doubt that a level of skill is involved in playing Warhammer 40K. Nor do I, or ever did, doubt that games can be won by skill as well. Which is why a lot of your arguments that try to prove to me that skill is indeed involved in playing 40K miss the point (IMO).

            I don’t dispute that.

            What I am saying is that – in addition to skill – the possibility exists – and can be witnessed in 40K – that skill is not (!) the decisive factor. And it happens often enough, even if it were still a minority of games, that the overall result of a tournament, much less several tournaments, cannot be decisively attributed to skill. There is always a measure of uncertainty, a measure of doubt on whether the final result, “the winner”, was down to skill or to structural factors.

            As long as this doubt remains, 40K as a an objective “competition of skill” is impossible and “competitive 40K” as a concept a fallacy.

  • PervertedJusticeMod

    Games have dual functions. 1) To create the joy of contest, puzzle solving, tactics etc. and 2) to create social connections that can be casual (meeting friends, comparing armies, researching fluff, etc.) or heirarchical (champion, winner, loser) or a combination of those two social dimensions.

    To me, it is limiting to say that what one does when playing chess requires skill and picking a list in Warhammer doesn’t. There is a great deal of variation in Warhammer, but that has to be examined in light of the skills that you don’t have as strongly in a game like Chess: list selection, metagame strategies, new codices, new armies to buy, etc.

    Ultimately, Chess between equal opponents becomes a contest of resources outside the game, like Warhammer. The resources aren’t the pawns and queens on the board, but how many hours you can study in each week and your natural talent. Likewise, if a particular defense or attack is common in a community, you may study that line of play and those openings specifically.

    Chess is theoretically 100% skill, but there are many practical skills outside the game that affect a chess career. You play differently with weak and strong players. You play differently as a favorite, or as a longshot. Preparing for tournaments requires special mental and physical preparation.

    Fundamentally, there is competitive Warhammer if only one person at the tournament is trying their best to win. Although you may sort of dismiss skills like staying contemporary with GW codices, fine-tuning lists or picking a list based on your presumptions about the meta-game, to me, it is clear that those are skills that are sharpened by intelligence, preparation and experience. Now, socially, we don’t place the same stakes on the winner of a WH tourney that we do the Superbowl. Also, the WH community is motivated more by a desire for fun and friendship than finding the most skillful player. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people trying to win :)

    • Truth

      This would be a valid argument if the pieces involved were free, but they aren’t. A person’s ability to take a particular list that will move with the meta game is very dependant on their financial situation. Any game that rewards a player for spending more money on it is by definition not rewarding skill.

      • PervertedJusticeMod

        Games boil down to practical resource management. How much money does it take to raise a polo champion? We live in an economic world and every game takes a certain amount of economic dedication, whether it be to take a week off work to study for a chess tourney or to spend a week’s wages on a MTG deck or a WH army. To my mind, they are similar propositions for the practical gamer. At the end of each week, the chess player and the wargames player has both improved their knowledge of the game and forgone another economic opportunity (wages or money, they are equivalent). The difference is that we tend to see the expression of the chess players life as an expression of this intangible “skill”. Really, it’s the product of limited economic resources: natural talent, experience, intelligence, time to study, money for lessons and books, etc.
        In WH and MTG the link between a simple economic exchange (money for pieces) seems to be dirty and crass, but it is no different, in effect, than paying for chess lessons.
        The truth is, it is the love of the game and dedication to it that marks a great player from a mediocre player. If you add a love of winning and great personal discipline, you have a champion.

  • CreativeNameToStandOut

    Thanks for this article, it’s given me a positive perspective and I think I’m going to start playing again.

  • Bishop

    I’ve gamed at a particular games workshop for over a year. I play Necrons but i have no fliers i own no litchguard or deathmarks. i have no named characters in my collection. i only own 4 wraths that a friend bought me. their the old ones to. in the couse of this year and a half i saw people come threw that store that owned thousands of dallar. tens of thousands for some people spread across several armies. most rushing out and buying the newest book the moment it came out. i played many of the crazy meta lists and people would go online and look up the latest super list online and come in like they were gonna own the place. i lost 3 games. only three the entire time i was their. one was while using my friends space wolfs for fun so i didn’t have the advantage of knowing the army very well and missed crucial rules that could have won me the game in hindsight. one of the other games i lost was because we misread a rule on the eternity gate that i never use and wound up sucking in my own lord which is impossible but i never use it and misread the page. my thousand point list that i used for what we call Friday night fights is still unbeaten. i used the same list for the hole last year with maybe a 100pt difference form time to time. like 3 wraths and instead of 4 so i can upgrade my a destroyer or field more scarabs. that’s it. everyone new my list no one could beat it. ill tell you the list to its not hard most of the time it was one destroyer lord with 3 wraths, 4 destroyers, 6 scarabs, 1 annihilation barge, one ten man warrior squad in a ghost ark. a 5 man warrior squad and a 5 man immortal squad. i consider it a good list. its a balanced list. it has weaknesses and i could easily tailor a list to smash it. so what kept me on top for a whole year. skill. and i wouldn’t even call it skill as much as strategy. skill is something that requires the natural ability or the training of your subconscious and your reflexes to perform a feet. for example in playing chess taking 20 minutes to make a move that wins you the game isn’t skill its using your intellect to beat your opponent. were making that move in seconds means your trusting you gut because you cant possibly have gone over all the variables that quickly in your head and knowing your subconscious either naturally or threw practice can make winning move for you is skill. I simply outthink my opponent. yes their is a big important on building a list. some list will get destroyed buy other. if you take 10 terminators against 400 guardsmen for a thousand you will almost always loose. they will outshoot you and you will fail saves. and yes a 2 up rerollable obnoxious but the right list can beat it. the list however is one step of the game. their are three steps and you could be awesome at one but if you suck at the other two your going to loose no matter what you bring and vise versa. most of my games are one in step two. the set up. once the list are determined its time to set up the board. this is where i win most of my games. well placed terrain knowing your opponent and what he has capitalizing on the objectives and your strength knowing when to go first and what to do when you don’t. I win a lot of games before they begin and my opponent doesn’t even know it. a lot of time i give them to much credit and prepare for moves that never come. expecting the worst and then the shoot at the wrong thing or places his scouts an a bad spot when i though i was gonna have to suffer them living the whole game. and even when its not a guaranteed turn one. good target priority does wonders. why shoot something you don’t need to kill. why not finish off the immediate threat. let your opponent squash a unit if it means he ignores the one that’s going to squash him in you next shooting phase. and yes know the rules know your army know your opponents army. i can’t tell you how many times i got home looked up some rule that felt funny to me and was like that cheating son of a. don’t just use other people list either find what feels right to you. you will loose if you play someone else’s game so make it your own. i hate the necron air list. part of my core strategy is never put anything in reserves unless you have to or see a specific golden opportunity to capitalize on something. so the idea of fliers disgusts me on the simple premise that they have to start in reserves. an I’ve played a lot of games where my opponents never came in. at 1000 points that’s probably a fifth of your army you handicapped yourself with by never getting to use it and basing a strategy that required it. weak sauce people. so weather your skilled and instinctively know what to do or crafty and think things threw well I promise you its as much how you use it as it is what you take