Thursday, September 1, 2011

Game Theory: Screens

It's a basic principle to hide expensive models/units behind cheap ones to protect them, but in Warmachine the tactic takes a little more effort. Gearjock has made an excellent video explaining the basics of screening with parts of your own unit (screening begins around six minutes into the video), so if you're unfamiliar with the basic concept of screening in Warmachine, you should watch that first.

With the concept of screening defined, I'll move on to talk about why this concept often fails. As you can see in the video, Gearjock uses a part of his unit to screen the remaining models, and keeping them safe that way. This sounds great, until you realize that the screen is part of the unit, which means that what an opponent does to the screen, is applied to the unit as well.

Assuming an enemy simply charges, the setup is great, but when you include debuffs, morale, counter screens, and a host of other options in the game, the idea becomes hazardous. As an example we could take the Khador Winterguard Deathstar, with Iron Flesh, Bob & Weave, and Courage of the Forefathers.

A veritable army of Defense 17, Fearless, and Tough models, with devastating short range firepower (and they're not to shabby in melee either), but without a screen, a prepared player can rip them apart. This game has plenty of ways to negate upkeep spells, and many casters have access to a defense debuff, which means that your precious immortal unit becomes very mortal again, and without a screen they're entering a world of hurt.

With a screen unit you not only make it harder for an enemy to even remove the Iron Flesh, or apply the debuffs, but you also ensure that even if he succeeds in bringing the WG down to manageable levels of defense, they still have protection. So what do we need from a good screen?
  • Positioning. A screen is worthless if it's not in position. Every good screen needs to be faster than the "client" unit, or otherwise able to get in position.
  • Deterrent. A screen needs something to prevent enemy units from simply engaging it without fear. This is usually just a high offensive capacity, but in rare cases other abilities can work as a deterrent.
  • Defenses. A screen needs a way to avoid being free kills. This ability can be almost anything that either denies an enemy kills, or punishes him for getting them.
  • Screening: A screen needs to be able to actually screen. Reach models are the kings of screening, but models with knockdown abilities, freezing abilities, or simply high enough damage to scare anything away, will do fine.
Since I'm using Khador as an example, I'll bring up their usual screen unit, which is of course Doomreavers. Doomreavers posses just about every quality we need in a screen.
  • Positioning: Advance Deployment and good speed.
  • Deterrent: Massive offensive potential.
  • Defenses: Fearless & Spell Ward.
  • Screening: Reach and massive damage.
Here we have a unit that can deploy in a screening position, and outrun most of the army anyway. They're hard to shift with Fearless and Spell Ward, though their defensive stats could be better. What really makes these guys shine as a screen is their massive offensive capacity, as they function as a main offensive unit if left alone. This forces an opponent to deal with them, which is what you as a player really want. A free strike from a Doomreaver will dent even heavy warjacks, and reach allows them to layer-screen a massive part of your army with very few models.

In a Cryx army, our ideal screening unit is Satyxis Raiders with Captain, and while other units can and will do fine, these girls are brilliant.
  • Positioning: Advance Deployment, Pathfinder, and excellent speed
  • Deterrent: Good offensive potential, Feedback.
  • Defenses: Force barrier, Immunity to blast damage, Immunity to knockdown, high defense.
  • Screening: Reach and critical knockdown.
The Satyxis Raiders need a captain though, because it solves their leadership issues, keeps their speed ahead of otherwise fast Cryx units, and the captain can function as a sweeper (moving in to kill 1-2 models trying to lock down you Raiders, and then moving away with Sprint).

Screens are not meant to be thrown away, and should be units that will make it easier for the client unit to shine, while hampering an opponents efforts at the same time. This is very important, because few things that can perform screen duties, are cheap. You can put all kinds of units in front of something and call it a screen, but I often see people giving me free kills instead, or simply placing something in front of their units I can safely ignore. I hope this clears up a few things, and feel free to comment or question the article, as your questions help me clear things up for future readers.

Update:  05.09.2011.
I came in fifth in the Danish Masters, and the player who booted me of fourth, was the guy that inspired this article in the first place. When we talked a couple of months ago, he was on a six game loosing spree, and before that he went 0-4 in a local tournament. This weekend he lost a game on some poor dice, but still took fourth in the Danish Masters.

Some of it was practice, but it's hard to deny, that he had a four game winning streak, and a fourth place in the masters, after making just one little change to his army (Doomreaver screen).

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