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.

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