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40K: 7 Steps to Build a Great Army List

6 Minute Read
May 24 2018


Here’s what you NEED to know when building an army that is perfect for your goals!

Army building is one of the necessary skills that a good 40K player needs. Building an army to fit your needs is vital both to winning at 40K and having a good time. It’s a skill that some people struggle with, and some don’t even bother with, merely copying the latest hot net-list. It’s ultimately a skill that sets the good players apart from the great players. However even in casual circles, it’s necessary not just for winning, but to ensure you’re building lists that fit the games you are playing. Over nearly 20 years of building thousands of lists both for super competitive events, and casual narrative events I’ve found a few things are key to build any list. Let’s take a look at them.

1. Have A Goal

The very first, and most important, step to building a list is having a goal. This goal will shape everything else you do. Your goal could be simple, “I want to build the best possible list” or “I want to be a casual list.” It can also be more complex “I want to make Whirlwinds work in a competitive list” or “I want to show off the new Escher models in a casual list.” Whatever it is, having a clear goal will help you at every point going forward as long as you keep it in mind. Losing sight of your goal can lead to things like building a competitive list for your casual night, which no one likes. Don’t be that guy.

2. Figure Out Your Core

This should not be it. 

Any army is going to have a core that’s built around, something that makes that army what it is. Sometimes this can be decided by your goal. If your goal is to show off specific models or make Whirlwinds good, that’s going to be the core of your list. In the Escher list, I build last week my core was a battalion of 2 AM Company Commanders and 3 Infantry Squads. For you, your core could be Mortarion. Whatever it is its something that absolutely HAS to be in the army. This is also going to be the stage you pick what factions you’ll be using if you haven’t already.

3. The Wishlist

Just make sure its a list and not a tally. 

For the next step is coming up with a wish list. If the Core is what I have to have in the army, the wish list is everything I want to have in it. If I’m building a causal army this can be a list of units I think are fun to play with or models I think are cool. If I’m prepping for a tournament, this is going to be a list of powerful units I’d like to use.  You can also call this brainstorming and be on the right track.


4. Build Out the Basic List

It looks like this is going to be a Son’s of Horus List.

At this point, I find it useful to point out my list and write it down, or type it up, or put it in an army builder. Whatever medium you use to lay it out. It’s OK to be over points right now, this is a basic list and doesn’t have to be legal yet. Just get it laid out. Now we are going to test it in two ways.

5. The Purpose Test

Can we all agree Rick is an Eldar player? 

The first thing you should ask yourself when looking at the list you’ve got planned out is what the purpose of each unit/model. This test is one of the essential steps in building a good army. Every unit and model should have a purpose and reason for being in your army. And you should be able to tell someone what that reason is. Now for casual lists, this can be a simple reason, “I like the model.” That’s fine, you’ve put thought into it and its got a reason for being in your army that matches your goal.


I just finished painting him, also works. 

However, for competitive lists, we need more than that. Everything needs to have a role and purpose. Why do you have 5 Fire Dragons in your army? “They are for killing vehicles.” It can even be simple like, “I needed a 2nd HQ to unlock a battalion, and this was what I could afford.” While one simple reason is good, units that have more than one reason for being in your list are to be prized. “I took this Company Commander because the unlock a battalion, but also because it allows me to issues orders to all my Infantry Squads increasing their deadliness and it gives me a character who can take the Relic of Cadia Lost.” That’s three great reasons for taking one model. When figuring out what to cut, I know this model isn’t getting cut, it’s important.

Lastly knowing the purpose of every unit will not simply help you in building lists but in playing. Knowing the unit’s role and purpose in the list will let you use it to maximum effect. It will make you a better player.

6. The Efficiency Test

What more efficient than Robots? 

The Second Test you need to run every unit through is the efficiency test. This is just how good the unit is at fulfilling its role and how points efficient it is at doing it. You also need to ask if there is a better unit available to you for that role. For instance, if I’ve picked a ten man Space Marine Tactical Squad and its role is to hide in the backfield and claim an objective I will quickly find that while the unit is maybe good at this, it’s not efficient at all. I’m much better off considering Scouts or even an AM Infantry Squad for the role.

They certainly seem very efficient at getting people riled up over nothing

Maybe the best example of this is in the search for extra Command Points. While there are lots of options open to a player to add a battalion to their list, none are more efficient than the AM Battalion of two Company Commanders and 3 Infantry Squads. For 180 points you get five extra cps, and 32 bodies. For the role, they fill nothing beats them.


7. Revise, Revise Revise

Just think how many revisions this thing must have gone through

Having written your basic list its now time to revise it to be legal. Using the two tests I’ve talked about you should be able to prioritize units to cut and units to keep. Now with your list done, you can start playing. However, I am of the mindset that no list is ever really done. You should constantly be reevaluating and revising your lists.  Keep in mind the twin principles of purpose and efficiency and look at the list after every game. Revise it as needed. Soon you’ll have a list that perfectly matches your needs.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be this guy

Lots of people have their own ways of building lists. I’ve tried to present some of the keys to how I personally do it. If you have your own way of building a list, that’s also great. While this kind of system tends to focus more on competitive lists I think to keep these steps in mind can also help with causal and fun lists. Just remember what your goal is and build towards that. And don’t forget to have fun along the way.

Let us know your list building tips down in the comments! 

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