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40k: Army List Building 101

8 Minute Read
Apr 28 2011

Mercer here and today I am going to talk about list building, it’s something we all have to do, so you should be clued up on it. List building isn’t just a case of throwing a few choices together from your codex and calling it a day. Copying from White Dwarf isn’t a particular good idea either! Remember, GW wants to sell models so they want you to show as many in a game as possible, but anyway…


When starting a list you always have a foundation – this is what the list revolves around. A theme or a special character to benefit from that character’s abilities are good things to build around. Examples: building a theme around Space Marine Vulcan He’Stan, or Eldar Saim Hann – Vulcan gives certain weapons twin-linked, and Saim Hann is about jetbikes etc.

This is also where you decide how you’re going to run your army: mechanised or foot slogging. Mech armies ride on transports, or some mobile transport such as bikes, etc. These armies tend to be smaller because points used on transport, but are more durable as you need to wreck the armour to get at the juicy units inside.

Or you can go foot slogging. This particularly works well for horde armies like Orks and Tyranids. With low model points you can get a huge amount of models on the table. Having foot sloggers can have disadvantages, though – you cannot get into the fight, or into range, quick enough. Though, one simple tactic with foot sloggers is having a front “wall” made up of expendable or tough units. Tyranids could use Ripper Swarms, and Orks can use Gretchin to get a 4+ cover save to units. Another popular Ork list is a “Kan Wall.” This tactic uses units of Ork Killa Kans in front, and the Orks deployed behind. Often a with a Big Mek in the army with a kustom force field. The Kanz get a 4+ cover save from the force field and anything from the Kanz gets a 4+ cover save, as well.

Now with your theme decided how you’re running your army we move onto the next section.


With your foundation in place you can start to fill your list with troops. These are the core of your force and should use roughly 2/3rds of your army list. These guys hold objectives, and with two out of three missions of objectives you’re probably going to play this type of list most of the time. You’ll be wanting a few of them, and depending on what army you’re running some may have more troops than others.

When selecting troops you need to get the wargear right. These guys don’t tend to have any specialist weapons with funky rules – or if they have access to special or heavy weaponry it is limited. With your theme and list running in your mind you should carefully pick what weapons you want. If you’re running a foot slogging list you probably want assault weapons so you can move and shoot.

Here HQ and special characters have more bearing. As troops are more numerable they can bring more weapons to the table than the specialist units due to there larger numbers. If you’re using Vulkan you will want to pack your Space Marine Tactical squads with multi meltas and flamers to benefit from Vulcans twin-linked rule. It would be kind of dumb not to include as many of these as possible when using Vulcan because you’re paying that many points due to Vulcans army wide abilities, right?


Next section is what I call padding. You now have your HQ and troop units, but these are the most important and the units that are needed to play a game of Warhammer 40,000. Once these are chosen you fill the army with specialist units – such as elites – and give some heavy fire power with heavy support, or perhaps some lighting quick units for fast attack?


In the more up to date codexes HQ and special characters will have a bearing on which units you take. For example: a Space Marine Captain on a bike allows you to take Space Marine Bikes as troop choices. So you’ll be wanting to pack these into troop choices as well as fast attack.

When picking your choices figure out what exactly your army needs. Do you need more heavy fire power? If so check heavy support. Do your existing units need support? Or do you just fancy the look of a certain unit?

Once all the above is done you now have a army list. But that’s not it. When building a army there are other things to consider.

Taking Advantage

Sometimes HQs, or special characters can give army special rules or change the force chart. So use this to your advantage. This is what you’re paying the points for on some choices, after all. Ork Warboss allows Nobz and Meganobz to be taken as troop choices if you can make them troops. You now have another troop choice and hard hitting elite choice in one unit. It also allows you to take more eiltes in this case, which is great if you have more choices you want to put in.

I once saw an army list on a 40k site I frequently visit. It was a Vulkan list, which as mentioned above, that made certain weapons twin-linked – such as meltas, flamers and thunder hammers. The list I looked at only included 2 meltas – what is the point in taking Vulcan and not use him to full benefit and take advantage? If you’re not going to take advantage of the special rule then get a normal captain with the same wargear as Vulcan. It will cost less points and you will get more in your army. Makes sense to me.

So always make the most out of your army list whether it’s an army wide special rule or force chart changing, or else you’re not using the HQ choice to the best advantage. Makes sense to fill a Vulcan army with meltas, flamers, and thunder hammers… right?


Unit Support

This is where a lot of people go wrong when building lists. I partly blame White Dwarf magazine for this as they have utter crap army lists. When building an army you always want support for a unit. If you throw a Space Marine Captain into combat on his own what is going to happen? Most likely he is going to get battered. He needs some support, and what is better than Assault Terminators that can help the Captain in combat?

See… if you take say one unit of Imperial Guard Veterans with three meltas, or a Chaos Space Marine Vindicator tank, what happens when they get destroyed or popped? You cannot do anything. You’ve just lost your anti vehicle/horde unit and got nothing else to back it up.

This leads me onto…


A lot of people miss this when list building. Now before we start let’s not get this confused with “spam armies”. That’s another subject I have touched on before, and probably will again. Redundancy is about using multiple units for the same task.

When using the same examples above once they’re gone, they’re gone. But… when you have several units setup for the same job it doesn’t matter about their loss as you have another unit to replace it.

When building lists you only take one of unit. Firstly, if you’re lacking support your unit has nothing to backup its shooting in case you miss, and you really want to kill that monstrous creature or wreck that vehicle. Now if you miss first time around or don’t do the job, not a worry, you’ve got another 🙂 Or, as mentioned, they get killed or destroyed and that unit is lost.

When taking units in singles it makes it easier for your opponent to target priority. Let’s say an army list has one unit of Space Marine Assault Squad and one Space Marine Vindicator. Firstly, your opponent will weigh up which is more of a threat: the Vindicator with its massive blast or the Assault Squad when they beat face in assault. Now the Vindicator can be in range by turn 1, depending on setup sometimes, as a Assault Squad. But, if you’re running an all mech army, what exactly is a Assault Squad going to do? If they wreck a tank they’ve done one job, but next turn they will get shot to pieces. This is where tactics come in… blow up a transport with a Vindicator, and then assault the survivors with the Assault Squad. So in this case the Vindicator is a target priority, destroy it and the Assault Squad cannot do a lot. So once it’s gone tank popping is over.


But you take two of these units the heat is on. Now two Assault Squads are coming and can take the fire power being shot at them. It’s not hard to torrent an Assault Squad in the open and kill them all, but make that 20 Space Marines moving at possibly 18” a turn and it’s a bit of a problem. Throw in two Vindicators and now that’s two tanks to kill, and fire power is split into destroying them both.

That is how unit redundancy and support work. They work together. You get extra fire power and if your unit is toasted it doesn’t matter, you have more!

Theory into Practice

So now you have an army list, which is setup according to a theme or an HQ, and you’ve got multiple units which support each other and provide unit redundancy. Great, but what you going to do when you get on the table top? This is where you need to plan.

What you did do is plan out exactly what you’re going to do with the army when you put it on the table top. Make sure supporting units are together. Get a plan of action in your head and what your units can accomplish and their roles. Is that unit anti-tank? Is that close combat? Is that unit a shooting unit? Decide where to put those units on the board, but use a little bit of brains. If your close combat unit is in a transport what do you think your opponent is going to do? They will shoot it and that nuts assault unit is foot slogging… not good. So make sure that transport is screened. Make sure it’s either blocked from LOS or will get a cover save.

The more you play your army the more you will understand overall tactics – and how units work in game, which is what I am next going to talk about.


You’ve picked that shiny new cool super unit and tried it on the table top, but it sucks and isn’t that good.

What you should do is visit various 40k forums. These are a wealth of knowledge that can offer opinions on what units suck and new tactics you can try. Be sure to check these out to save wasting money and time, but also find tactics that can breath life into units you thought you didn’t have use for.

This is a important part of list building: picking the right units. Some people go for the background, others the new shiny attractive stuff, but this is not always good. This can lead the army list overall to fail. Chink in the armour anyone?

So when building an army list always scower the internet for opinions on units and tactics – it can save you a lot of hassle, and help you win more games with more reliable units and some good tactics.


By the end of this you should have a pretty good army list. You should have a solid over all list that takes advantage of army wide special rules, or forces chart changing from an HQ or special character.
You now have plenty of troops to win those objective base games.

With you all clued up on unit support and redundancy you won’t be taking units in singles, and only one unit having one job. You’ll survive on the table top longer with units in multiples… and not letting those units go into the fight alone. Remember: no support, and single role single units, can be easily picked off and won’t last long. Don’t do it! This is the main problem I find with list building.

Now you’ve got a list to play with a few times to see how it works, and figure out which tactics you can use with the units you’ve picked.

Check the forums for tactics and opinions on units, you may have just made up an army list with various poor models. You want to win games, right? So find out what’s hot and what’s not, and what works and what doesn’t… and pick the right units first time around! This can save you a lot of time and money 😉

Hope that helps and please feel free to leave any comments 🙂

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