BoLS logo Today's Tabletop & RPG News

40K Tactics: Astra Militarum – Commissars

11 Minute Read
Aug 21 2014
Warhammer 40K

Advance for the Emperor – Or ELSE!  Today we look at Astra Militarum Commissars.

Greetings comrades and welcome to the latest in my Tactica Astra Militarum Tactica series! Today we will be analyzing the various applications of a Lord Commissar as well as how they still prove useful even despite the aggressive pricing and competition from the Ministorum Priest. As one of the few true Independent Characters that eats up a HQ slot, Lord Commissars can be useful in almost any army list and fit in wherever you need that crucial immunity to falling back. I hope you find these ramblings useful in your defence of the Imperium! This can be considered a review for both Lord Commissars and standard Commissars given the similarity between the two.

Lord Commissar


It is always difficult to intimate just how crucial a units’ Leadership value is when the most common army type (Space Marines) completely ignores most of the penalties for failed tests based on that particular statistic. Well unfortunately for me the Lord Commissar is built around that particular aspect of infantry play, and fortunately for you the “fancy hats” are very good at what they do despite arguably being invalidated by the Ministorum Priest. While many armies have a wealth of options to ignore or manipulate Leadership to the point that it doesn’t really affect them – and Imperial Guard are no such exception – this is still crucial for forces that rely heavily upon masses of mostly static infantry to win the day. That objective capturing is the name of the game and has been for two editions running only increases the need for models like a Lord Commissar that prevent key scoring units from fleeing the field. However, the importance of firepower and Guardsmen being the most dependable and flexible source of that makes Astra Militarum uniquely dependent on good Leaderhsip management. After all, what is the value of a squad consisting of up to fifty models if it can be made to flee the game table from a single failed morale check forced by losing thirteen models in one shooting phase? Enter the Lord Commissar, the only HQ choice (that fills a slot) that is both an Independent Character and not a Unique model and can thus be used by any army list with respect for theme and fit into any unit where required.

This cheap individual model has an identical base price to a Chaos Lord from Codex: Chaos Space Marines and the reasoning behind this won’t be immediately clear. The Lord Commissar has a weaker profile with most stats being one or two points lower, though certainly the big deal-breakers are the Strength and Toughness disparity. While the grim executioner has a 5+ invulnerable save as standard, a Chaos Lord has a 3+ armour save as opposed to a paltry 5+ armour save. The simple truth is that while a Chaos Lord is built primarily to be a source of heavy damage, a Lord Commissar can’t really be the melee powerhouse the codex artefacts might lead you to build him as – as with all other Astra Militarum characters (Nork Deddog aside), this is a model that buffs your forces first and foremost.

The Lord Commissar does this by providing Leadership 10 and Stubborn to any single unit he or she joins, ensuring that even a combat lost by dozens of wounds will have no effect on how likely the unit is to break away involuntarily. While this can be exploited through either bad luck or forcing multiple tests, the Lord Commissar provides a unit with one of the best special rules a fragile infantry unit could possibly have when combined with the Orders provided by a Senior officer such as a Company Commander. While that Chaos Lord does provide Fearless to an attached unit and prevents them from fleeing full stop, it also ensures that unit can’t benefit from the cover save bonuses provided by voluntarily going to ground. One of the best traits of an Astra Militarum list built around infantry is that they can go to ground with a combined squad and benefit from cover saves when fired upon, then immediately ignore the effects of being Pinned through the use of the “Get Back in the Fight” Order to subsequently act as normal. Where Fearless prevents this but has the benefit of the parent unit never running away, the Lord Commissar provides a superior alternative with all the benefits and none of the downsides.


Both Lord Commissars and regular Commissars possess the Summary Execution special rule, an ability that uses the fear of death to keep Imperial Guardsmen from ever retreating in the face of the Imperium’s most terrifying foes. When a unit joined by a Commissar fails any Fear, Morale or Pinning test – as unlikely as it is with Leadership 10 and Stubborn – a single model not including the Commissar him or herself is removed from play as a casualty of progress. The selection of which model dies is based on a D6 roll; a 3+ will see the Commissar’s owning player choose which model to remove, but a 1 or 2 on the D6 will instead allow the opponent to select the model that literally bites the bullet. This is bad news for any unit featuring Heavy Weapons Teams or special weapons as there is a 1 in 3 chance that the opponent will get to freely kill off one of those valuable models, but most of the time it will be a regular and near worthless Guardsmen. I recommend never attaching a Lord Commissar to a Command Squad of any kind as not only should that kind of unit never require the Leadership buffs of a Commissar given their value behind the front-lines, but the chance of killing the Commander is just far too grim to take a risk on.

The kicker here is that once a model has been executed the unit is then treated as having passed the test instead of failing, meaning that a Lord Commissar provides the equivalent of Fearless with the key note that his or her unit can still voluntarily go to ground or flee from combat per the “Our Weapons are Useless” rule. While I tend not to recommend the latter for a platoon-sized single squad due to how much of a risk losing a massive unit is to Sweeping Advance and also because of the low Initiative values of most Guardsmen models, the former can be crucial to keeping a gun-line running without suffering too many casualties. Being able to go to ground with a huge squad of infantry sporting numerous special and heavy weapons behind a defence line or wall of Bullgryns for improved cover saves and then act as normal via a successful Order from a friendly Company Commander is an amazing ability that so many other armies would fall at the heels for.

This is of course not the only trait a Lord Commissar provides over a standard Commissar and manages to give a valid reason for his or her inclusion over Ministorum Priests, even without considering that the former fills a mandatory HQ slot in a Combined Arms or Allied detachment. Exclusive to the Lord Commissar is the Aura of Discipline special rule, a bubble effect that allows all friendly Astra Militarum units within 6″ of the valiant hero(ine) to use their Leadership for all Fear, Morale and Pinning tests. While a Lord Commissar will often be hiding in the middle of a unit to be safe from deep striking units in particular, the threat of barrage weapons is always prevalent and sees that some will actually place the Lord Commissar near a board edge surrounded by multiple squads both to protect from deep striking units and force opponents to risk their barrage scattering off the table. Joining the Lord Commissar to a fifty-strong combined Infantry Squad manning an Aegis Defence Line with a Heavy Weapons Squad on either side hiding behind the giant unit is a good use of the Aura of Discipline and ensures none of the three units will be fleeing the field without great effort expended by the opponent. This can also be exploited using a transport vehicle such as a mere Chimera to a mighty Stormlord so that you can provide that crucial Leadership 10 to multiple units while keeping the Lord Commissar protected from incoming fire and the threat of barrage snipes – at least for a turn anyway!

While many will still prefer Ministorum Priests for their “blob” squads considering the much lower cost compared to a Lord Commissar and allowing both HQ slots to be filled by Company Command Squads in a single detachment, the trick that exploits Go to Ground and “Get Back in the Fight” is almost too good to pass on and also gives standard Commissars a bit of a place. If you need a single cheap Independent Character to fill your HQ slot, the Lord Commissar is a great option as he or she is much tougher than either the Commissar or Ministorum Priest and not that much more expensive either. The beauty of the Astra Militarum codex is that the buff characters, while crucial, are entirely inexpensive and have their own unique benefits and traits to diversify and allow each to be useful in any given army list.

The profile of a Lord Commissar is the most survivable of these as a character with a stock standard invulnerable save, three wounds and the capability to hide in any unit of the infantry sub-type from Bullgryns to an entire combined Infantry Squad. They also have exclusive access to certain Heirlooms of Conquest – much like the Company Command Squad – and undoubtedly have the more “cool” choices among these. The Emperor’s Benediction is the best use of points you could ever find on a Lord Commissar while the Death Mask of Ollanius provides the Lord Commissar with a significant survivability boost. As for the regular Commissar, the identical points cost to a Ministorum Priest, inferior defensive wargear and lack of War Hymms does make him or her an inferior model in terms of overall value as a support character, though the Go to Ground trick is still a very useful trait of the Commissar that a Ministorum Priest is incapable of mimicking.


How to Equip Them

One of my most basic principles when it comes to an Astra Militarum army list is to avoid spending too many points on any individual unit given that the army is, perhaps more than any other, based upon quantity over quality. Leman Russ tanks are a perfect mix of firepower and durability at a low price because they are not as precise as Space Marine or Eldar battle tanks, while Guardsmen are just shy of being a third of what an individual Tactical Marine costs despite being surprisingly well equipped for a fodder unit. This principle should be applied to the codex’s characters that, Nork Deddog aside, are built primarily for a supporting role rather than making their name as combat power-houses. Despite being one of the only models with access to the awesome Blade of Conquest and having the background to match, I don’t suggest investing heavily in a Lord Commissar as they are very easily killed when singled out and can never compete with something like a Chaos Lord in terms of melee prowess. While not having to accept challenges is an advantage I am thankful for over the scions of the Chaos Gods, a Lord Commissar outfitted even with something as strong as a power fist isn’t going to do all that much damage in combat compared to the equivalent points spent on heavy weapons for shooting purposes.

Being perfectly honest, I would always take a Ministorum Priest to attach to a separate blob squad rather than take a power fist for a Lord Commissar if only because Astra Militarum infantry units absolutely need some kind of Fearless provider or Leadership buff. If there is one upgrade that I think any Lord Commissar should take however it is the Emperor’s Benediction, a pistol that is so cheap and so powerful that it is the definition of spare points well spent. While I don’t think the wargear is too well priced for a model that is both Toughness 3 and already has a 5+ invulnerable save stock, the Deathmask of Ollanius is nonetheless the best way to boost the survivability of a Lord Commissar and help protect them from those pesky and increasingly common barrage snipes. Carapace Armour is also a very cheap and surprisingly helpful upgrade to give the Lord Commissar a 4+ armour save that I recommend if you have spare points, much like the Emperor’s Benediction.

Still, I do prefer to keep my characters cheap so that I can take more of the good stuff elsewhere; more than any other army, I feel the Astra Militarum army can cut a few points here or there and take an amazing and cheap unit such as a Wyvern, Leman Russ Eradicator or deep striking Scion squad with two meltaguns with the points you save on pointless upgrades. If you do find in your experiences that your Lord Commissars are rather vulnerable and being slain by attacks not of the Strength 6 variety then I would say the Deathmask is a near mandatory upgrade because a 4+ invulnerable save with It Will Not Die should prolong a Lord Commissar’s life for at least an extra turn. As for the regular Commissar, consider taking a boltgun over the bolt pistol if only for the range and extra shot at the same range seeing as it is a free exchange – a Commissar in a melee is usually a dead Commissar unless there are bodies in the way anyway!

Best Uses

A Lord Commissar or standard Commissar is purpose-built for a combined Infantry Squad or Conscript unit consisting of thirty or more models; these units lack the ability to ignore Leadership problems on their own, an issue Commissars alone can fix. The idea is that the bigger a unit is, the more important preventing them from fleeing and freely giving up their victory points will be. This means that you should be attaching Commissars and Lord Commissars to those huge thirty plus model units, and to any unit that will actually be taking casualties either in a melee or from shooting. This rules out Command Squads that should almost always be hiding out of line of sight while I would argue Heavy Weapon Squads are better served with a Ministorum Priest as losing a Heavy Weapon team to execution is more painful than losing a single Guardsman, while suicide squads such as small Scion or Special Weapon Squads don’t really need that kind of support.

Much the same as Heavy Weapon Squads I prefer to use Ministorum Priests with Ogryns or Bullgryns because of how expensive each model lost to Summary Execution is, though it does bear mentioning that Stubborn on Leadership 10 means test failures will be incredibly rare. Try to keep your Commissars and Lord Commissars cheap so that you can take multiples for each of your blob or “bigger” squads or fit in more heavy firepower elsewhere. Proper placement of these models should be in the centre of the unit or otherwise surrounded by a wealth of models so that attempts at singling out the character from deep striking units are far less likely to succeed. Decline challenges where possible or deputize them to squad Sergeants; Toughness 3 Commissars and Lord Commissars are notoriously fragile and can endanger a squad to routing if killed.


Thank you all for reading this installment in the Tactica Astra Militarum series! I hope you find this useful in your efforts to maximise the incredible Leadership-based buffs of a Lord Commissar and understand just how pivotal they can be to an effective Guardsmen core. Thank you and have a nice day! My apologies again for the delay on this article, hopefully it will not happen again.

Author: Jack White
  • The 10 GW Kits that Need to go Plastic!

    Warhammer 40K