BoLS logo Tabletop, RPGs & Pop Culture

40K CSMs: Are Cult Troops Worth It Anymore?

16 Minute Read
Mar 18 2017

Kazzigum wrestles with a new conundrum seeping forth from the Eye of Terror.

With the launch of the Traitor Legions supplement three-odd months ago, Chaos Spaces Marines (CSMs) have received a much needed shot in the arm, both in terms of power level on the table as well in the ability to construct an army that really oozes with the feel of the original Fallen Angels.  Perhaps the most significant thing that Traitor Legions does for CSMs is that the book truly elevates the common Chaos space marine (CSM) to be a worthy threat to their loyal brothers.  The new rules in the book do this primarily by granting the Veterans of the Long War (VotLW) rule for free to all CSM units in the given Traitor Legion detachment, as long as the particular Legion’s requirements are met (for example all units that can, in a Emperor’s Children detachment, must take the Mark of Slaanesh).  Even more importantly, the freely given VotLW rule provides an array of additional special rules that are indicative of the background and preferred fighting methods of each of the original nine Traitor Legions.  In essence, every unit in the army that contains actual CSMs gets much better for no extra cost, and no where is this more telling then for the lowly CSM troop choice unit.  Of course, this isn’t enough to make CSMs on par with loyalist marines who all have the irritating And They Shall Know No Fear rule, but it honestly goes a long way towards closing the gap.  And as a long time Traitor myself, it’s honestly all I could have hoped for.

The Good ‘Ole Days are here again…and they’re better than ever.

One interesting side effect of this mass upgrading of CSM units is that for the four aligned Legions (Death Guard, Emperor’s Children, Thousand Sons and World Eaters), who each have their own particular Cult specialist unit (Plague Marines, Noise Marines, Rubrics and Khorne Berzerkers), this creates a sort of redundancy.  This is because the special rules granted by these particular Traitor Legion’s upgrade package essentially turns them into the Cult unit in question, and for cheaper.  So given these new circumstances, a CSM player has to ask himself — are the Cult units even worth it any more?  Well, the short answer is no.  And yes.  Well, for some of them.  Ummm … it’s complicated I guess.  This is the question I’ve personally been wrestling with for the last couple months.

Cult units have always been contentious, particularly in their current incarnation from the 6th edition codex.  It’s not that they were not seen as unique or good, just that three of the four have been generally regarded as over-costed (Plague Marines always seems to win this one, no matter the edition).  For the most part, this doesn’t matter any more, as the Legion special rules allow you to turn your basic CSMs into these cult units for much cheaper.  Or do they?  For three of the four, they kinda do.  And given that this is the case, is there even a real reason to bring the actual Cult units anymore?  I think that there is, for most of them.  But let’s take a closer look.

Well, I think this just speaks for itself.

Plague Marines

Of all the four Cult units, I think Plague Marines are now nigh indisputably obsolete.  How’s that for irony for you?  After so many editions of always being the best of the Cult units for their cost, Plague Marines are now clearly over-costed vs plain Death Guard CSMs.  Why?  Well, with the rules granted by the Death Guard CSM unit’s free VotLW, said unit gains all the same rules and stat-line numbers as a Plague Marine unit, but for 8 points cheaper a model.  And while the Plague Marine unit also gains the free VotLW upgrade as well, it gains no real benefit from it (as the unit already has all the special rules granted other than the VotLW rule itself, which washes out because the Death Guard CSM unit also gains it).  If we’re generous, and assume minimum sized units, the Death Guard CSM unit does have to pay for its champion, whereas the Plague Marine champion is clearly excluded from the unit’s base cost in the CSM codex entry.  But even taking the champion into consideration, the Death Guard CSM unit still comes in at 6 points cheaper a model.  For this very significant difference in cost, the only things the Plague Marines really have going for them over the standard Death Guard CSM unit are blight grenades, a plague knife and the ability to have more special weapons (cough, cough meltas, cough) in a small squad.

Cough, cough.


To be fair, there are other considerations besides just straight stat-lines and special rules.  Each Traitor Legion in the book also has its own detachment, and the Cult units in particular also each have a formation that features and improves each particular Cult unit.  Unfortunately for Plague Marines, the Command Benefits of the Death Guard Vectorium detachment (Disgustingly Resilient and Cloud of Flies) improve both Plague Marines and all other Death Guard CSM units equally.  And while the Plague Colony formation that features Plague Marines does improve them (granting the Fear rule and reducing the stats of enemies within 7″), it’s just not by enough in my opinion.  Fear is negligible as a power in general (at best) and the debuffing power requires the enemy to be very close in order to work, and the truly good portion of the rule (reducing enemy Toughness) requires you to field a full seven squads of Plague Marines (pricey indeed)!  Sadly, these new detachments don’t do nearly enough to close the gap between Plague Marines and the standard Death Guard CSMs.

In the end, Plague Marines finally lose the battle between the Cult units.  Despite their unique gear, and the ability to load a small squad up with a couple meltas, Plague Marines just don’t compare to regular Death Guard CSM troops — they’re just too expensive in comparison.

Eh?  What was that?

Noise Marines

Noise Marines are interesting, as while on the face of it, they too appear to be over-costed (though not by nearly as much as Plague Marines), I’d argue that they are still a value vs the standard Emperor’s Children CSM troop unit.  True Emperor’s Children players will undoubtedly believe so regardless, as only Noise Marines have access to the iconic sonic weaponry.  In the case of the Emperor’s Children, the free VotLW grants several rules, including a limited Feel No Pain, an ability to strike one last blow after dying and the Fearless rule.  While the first two of these rules improves a Noise Marines unit and a Emperor’s Children CSM unit equally, Fearless is the only special rule that Noise Marines had over regular CSMs to begin with.  Ultimately, the new Emperor’s Children special rules makes Noise Marines and regular Emperor’s Children CSMs virtually identical, and for 2 points cheaper.  Of course, only Noise Marines retain the ability to field sonic weapons, so is that worth 2 points more a model?  Perhaps, but sonic weapons are nortoriously expensive.  On the other hand, if you choose to arm your Noise Marines with an additional close combat weapon, you’re only paying an additional 1 point per model vs the standard Emperor’s Children CSM who pays 2.  Viewed through this lens, the Noise Marines are only 1 point more expensive per model than the standard Emperor’s Children CSM.  The gap is pretty close.

WHOOO!  We’re partying up in here!

Once you look at the new detachments, I feel the gap closes even further.  While the Emperor’s Children Rapture Battalion detachment provides no advantage to either unit with it’s Combat Drugs Command Benefit (as this buffs both equally), it’s the Kakophoni formation that really provides tangible improvements to its featured Noise Marines.  To begin with, the formation provides the Split Fire rule.  This can be huge, as it not only potentially allows Noise Marine units to blast away with blastmasters at longer ranged targets while still allowing the rest of the unit to still target closer ranged and softer targets, but it also allows such units to split its fire at medium ranged targets with sonic weapons while still retaining the ability to assault closer threats.  The second rule provided by the formation is potentially even better, as it grants all sonic weapons the Shred rule as well as increasing said weapons by +1 Strength if the formation contains the full six units (which is far more doable than the Plague Marine requirement of the Plague Colony formation).  These rules go a long way toward making sonic weapons more worth their exorbitant cost, and they even improve Lucius the Eternal (if you bring him as part of the formation), as he is also armed with a doom siren.


All in all, it’s a tough call.  The improvements to the standard Emperor’s Children CSM troop unit makes them very similar to Noise Marines, and for noticeably cheaper.  But ultimately, they’re still not Noise Marines.  The sonic weapons make all the difference.  Still, I can see many Emperor’s Children players perhaps splitting the difference, taking a mix of both.  But for my money, Noise Marines in a Kakophoni are the way to go.  After all, though we all have this image in our minds that all Noise Marines are armed with sonic weaponry, it just isn’t so.  A nice mixture of assault and tactical oriented Noise Marines salted with liberal amounts of sonic weapons throughout, all in a Kakophoni, sounds both deadly and fluffy.  That’s how I’ll be doing it when I revisit my Emperor’s Children.

Did You Know?  Some portions of the Nine-Fold Path are lined with golden bricks, like the Yellow Brick Road.

Thousand Sons Rubrics

In all honestly, Thousand Sons Rubrics fall outside of this discussion, as the special rules provided by the free VotLW rule for the Thousand Sons Legion do not create a CSM unit that in any way approximates the Cult unit.  In the case of the Thousand Sons, the free VotLW provides ongoing Hatred of Space Wolves (but granting Hatred to them in return) and the Blessing of Tzeentch rule that grants a +1 bonus to a unit’s invulnerable save when a blessing psychic power is manifested on it.  Both of these rules are also granted to the Cult Rubrics unit, and in the case of the Blessing of Tzeentch rule, are far more potent on the them rather than the regular Thousand Sons CSMs unit (a 6+ invulnerable save is increased to a 5+ vs a 4+ invulnerable save increased to a 3+).  The special rules provide none of the trademarks that make Thousand Sons Rubrics what they are — an aspiring sorcerer, inferno bolts, slow and purposeful, Fearless, etc.  It really is a case of comparing apples to oranges, but I’ve included the Thousand Sons here for completeness, as they are one of the four iconic Cult CSM units.

All dusted off and ready to rumble.

Having said all that, I find that Thousand Sons Rubrics are superior to the regular Thousand Sons CSM unit despite the significant point difference (Rubrics being 8 points more expensive per model before the cost of the sorcerer is factored in; though to be fair, if you price the unit out, the aspiring sorcerer in the Rubric unit gets his force stave for free).  Ultimately, the upgraded Thousand Sons CSM unit gets very little besides a free VotLW and is ultimately the terrible CSM unit of old that we’ve all despised for so long from this version of the CSM codex (it doesn’t even gain free Fearless like the other three Legions with Cults do!).  Of course, this still begs the question of whether or not Thousand Sons Rubrics themselves are worth it.  I say yes, but such a discussion and the reasons really falls outside the scope of this article.  For those interested in my thoughts on the matter, I recommend you read my Schemes & Machinations II article.

Bring on the Red Rain!

Khorne Berzerkers

Lastly we have the World Eaters and their infamous Khorne Berzerkers.  Oddly enough for such a straight-forward and single-minded unit, I find the question of whether Khorne Berzerkers are worth it over their ‘lesser’ World Eaters CSM brethren to be the most perplexing.  Are Khorne Berzerkers still worth it?  I say yes, but you might not agree.  Let’s take a deeper look.

The regular World Eaters CSM unit, though their free VotLW upgrade, gains Adamatium Will, Fearless and Furious Charge.  With the exception of the Adamantium Will, Khorne Berzerkers already have these rules — though they now also gain Adamantium Will.  Essentially, the upgraded World Eater CSMs have all the same rules of the Khorne Berzerkers and the same stat-line — almost.  The Khorne Berzerkers retain an advantage with their superior WS 5, but aside from this and the option to upgrade their weapons to chain axes and take up to two plasma pistols in a squad as small as five members, they are largely identical to the new World Eater CSMs (which are 4 points cheaper a model).  Four points a model is a significant cost disparity, but the superior WS 5 should not be under estimated.  Across the spectrum of 40k armies, WS 4 is quite common.  Most space marines (including the Chaos variety), orks, necrons, most eldar, etc. have WS 4 — it’s basically the elite standard.  Having WS 5, especially for assault troops such as Khorne Berzerkers, is a big deal.  It means they are most often striking opponents on a 3, which with the great number of attacks they can bring to bear, can really pile up.  Hitting most enemies on a 3 while they in turn strike you at a 4, really makes Berzerkers feel like they are the elite of the elite assault troops.  It just feels right.  Still, four points a model is a lot, and were these their only advantages, I’d say this is one fight the Berkerkers cannot win.  Fortunately, there’s more.

We may be old, but we can still bring it.


To really make a final decision of whether the Berzerkers are worth it now, we still need to look at the new World Eaters Butcherhorde detachment and the Maelstrom of Gore formation.  The Butcherhorde detachment grants the Blood Mad Command Benefit, which lets all non-vehicle units in the army move 2d6″ after deployment and allows non-vehicle units (excluding walkers) to re-roll any failed charge rolls they make in the battle.  Both of these advantages are huge for assault-oriented armies such as the World Eaters, but both the newly upgraded World Eaters CSMs and the Khorne Berzerkers benefit from them, so no determining factor there.  The Maelstrom of Gore formation is a different matter, however, as it exclusively features Khorne Berzerkers.  The formation grants two special rules.  Firstly, Blood-crazed, which grants the Berzerkers Fleet and also add +3″ to their charge distances.  This is a huge advantage, as Fleet is far superior to a straight re-roll of charge distances, and the extra distance makes the Berzerkers’ threat range so much more dangerous (not to mention they’re now very unlikely to fail those oh so tiresome, yet far too common, 7-8″ charges).  The second rule is called Red Rain and basically allows the World Eaters player to allow the Berzerkers that are already stuck in to fight an extra free round of combat once per game.  While somewhat situational, it is so, so fluffy and under the right game conditions, if performed at the right moment, could be truly devastating.  All in all, these special rules make all the difference … and did I mention that Kharn the Betrayer can benefit from them as well?  I can almost hear Khorne salivating…

Still sexy.  I’m never giving mine up.  He does need a bigger base though.

In the end, I feel that the WS 5 and the benefits of Maelstrom of Gore put Khorne Berzerkers over the top.  In my opinion, as long as you take the Berzerkers in a Maelstrom of Blood formation, they are still worth taking.  Even still, I’ll grant it is a close call.  Four points a model just really is a big deal.

Blood for the Blood God!

Chaos Warbands have returned, and somehow, GW has managed to cobble together units that were bad, and now they’re just Bad.

Wait, What About Objective Secured?

The astute among you may have noted that I’ve left out the fact that all these newly upgraded Legion CSM units will likely also have the Objective Secured rule because they will also likely be fielded in either a CAD, Allied detachment or Chaos Warband formation, and that I’ve not factored this into my comparisons.  Well, this is true, and it is certainly a factor to be counted in the upgraded CSMs favor.  While I will not completely discount the rule, I’ve personally not found it all that important for an infantry unit such as CSMs or the Cult units, or in any CSM armies I’ve played personally.  Of course, one can argue that the fact that the Chaos Warband also provides Objective Secured to all its units provides even more advantage, but once you do that, it really begins to murky the comparisons overall.  Especially in light of the fact that all the Cult units also gain Objective Secured in a CAD or Allied detachment.

For all these reasons and more, I’d decided to leave this issue aside in my comparisons.  Take from that what you will.

Not half bad in its own way.  I guess…

The Crimson Path of Kharn the Betrayer

Right, so having debated all that back and forth, I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide an example.  With that, I present to you my new World Eaters list.  My own Khorne Berzerkers hold a special place in my heart, as they’re the first army I ever ‘finished’ painting and they’ve rampaged across table-top battlefields of the 41st millennia for longer than most of you reading this have likely been alive (since 2nd edition).  Of course, to field this version of the army, I’ll need to convert and paint a Khorne warpsmith and five more Berzerkers, but that’s not so bad.  I rather enjoy it, and I’ve already completed the warpsmith.

No automatic alt text available.


Behold … the Devil in Brass!  He’s bad-brass.  What?  No, no.  Ignore that Martian overseer, er trooper, in the background.

So, having said all that, I present to you my newest World Eaters list:

The Crimson Path — 1,850

World Eaters Butcherhorde Detachment (World Eaters detachment) – 1,850

Lord of the Legion [Command choice] – 120

Kainen the Raveger, Chaos Lord x 1, Gift of Mutation, Mark of Khorne, VotLW, Axe of Blind Fury

Maelstrom of Gore [formation] – 931

Kharn the Betrayer
Khorne Berzerkers x 5, plasma pistol x 1, chain axe x 1, VotLW, Chaos rhino with havok launcher, champion has powerfist & combi-bolter

Khorne Berzerkers x 5, plasma pistol x 1, chain axe x 1, VotLW, Chaos rhino with additional combi-bolter & destroyer blades, champion has plasma pistol

Khorne Berzerkers x 5, plasma pistols x 2, VotLW

Khorne Berzerkers x 5, chain axe x 1, VotLW, champion has power axe & combi-bolter

Khorne Berzerkers x 5, chain axe x 2, VotLW, champion has chain axe & combi-bolter

Fist of the Gods [formation] – 735
The Devil in Brass, Warpsmith x 1, Aura of Dark Glory, Mark of Khorne, VotLW, the Berserker Glaive
Wrath, Chaos land raider, dirge caster

Ruin, Chaos land raider, dirge caster

Hate, Chaos predator, twin-linked lascannon

Spawn [formation] – 64

Chaos Spawn x 1, Mark of Khorne

Chaos Spawn x 1, Mark of Khorne


And to push it to 2,000 pts, I will:

  • Remove the dirge caster from the second land raider.
  • Add a Chaos Rhino (40; dozer blade (5)) to the third Khorne Berzerkers unit.
  • Add another Chaos Predator (Rage; autocannon & two side sponsons with lascannons) to the Fist of the Gods formation.

I say we charge.  Blood for the Blood God!


Okay, before I begin, let’s just get it out of the way — this is not a competitive list, and I’ve not used this version of the army yet (but I look forward to it).  So, with that out of the way, what’s the plan?  Well, get into assault as soon as possible obviously, but how to do that?  It’s odd, but perhaps the World Eaters biggest advantage can easily be turned against them.  The free 2d6″ move before the game even starts really allows this army to put on the pressure, as coupled with the Blood-crazed special rule from the Maelstrom of Gore formation, it allows the Berzerkers to potentially assault up to 33″ in the first turn.  This means that, depending upon the deployment method of the battle, there might be no where the opponent can set up that I cannot assault Turn 1.  Of course, I better go first that turn, or I could easily find my Berzerker units left out in the open and cut to pieces by enemy fire.  I’m not gonna lie, I have the feeling I’ll need to practice with this several games (at least) before I can really intelligently speak to how this rule should best be utilized on the battlefield.  But, what the hell, that sort of thing has never stopped me before.

Let’s just hack ’em to pieces.

So, overall, the plan is to advance boldly upon the enemy and hack them to pieces.  If I go first, all the Berzerkers and both Kharn and Kainen go on foot to try to charge into the enemy from the get go.  The spawn too, though since they’re faster, I’ll deploy them slightly behind the Berzerkers.  The warpsmith I’ll mount in a centrally positioned land raider, so that all tanks from his formation benefit from Unholy Blessings rule.  If I’m going second, we’ll likely mount up on the rhinos and land raiders, and cluster up to attack one of the enemy’s flanks (hopefully retarding incoming fire before we can take our own turn).  In general, I hope to use the rhinos and land raiders to screen the Berzerkers whenever possible, but everything except the predator will advance at as quick a speed as possible.

A key part of my strategy is to advance the land raiders as boldly and bullishly as possible.  Oh, I’m aware that in this era of grav and D weapons, there are all too many things that can destroy them, but these things are not always present in the enemy army.  Quite often, opponents depend upon massed Str 6 and 7 weaponry, and against these, the land raiders are invincible.  Besides, fortune favors the bold, and no army should embrace this spirit more than the World Eaters.  The tanks mostly just need to get Kharn and the Berzerkers to where they want to go, and then Khorne can sort out the rest.


So what do you think?  Have I convinced you one way or the other?  Let me know in the comments.

Read more from Kazzigum on Slaved to Ruin

  • 40K: Is Necromunda's Past the Future