On Tuesday we published a take on a potential Mark 4 remix. There was a fair bit of discussion, as expected from such obvious clickbait (I am not apologising -Ed.), one of which was a long conversation about power creep. I originally had this article on my docket for the end of the summer, but in light of that it made sense to write it now. There’s going to be a lot of discussion of power levels in this article, and it should be noted that, unless otherwise stated, this refers to the power level of those things at the time of release.
AN: This started off intending to be a look at power creep using Grymkin as a frame of reference, but it got a bit out of hand, and instead became a whole thing about development practice and CID. I do want to say, though, that game balance right now is probably the best it’s ever been, and that the design team deserve massive credit for reaching that state. Good job, folks!
Editor, good luck editing this shitstorm.
(*cracks knuckles, starts Elite Four battle music playlist* -Ed.)
I shall not waver - Ed
Dreamer little Dream of Me
Grymkin came out in summer 2017, with a slightly staggered release. Pretty quickly, we saw that the faction jumped the power level a fair bit. The heavies had obnoxious statlines and animi that solved big problems, the support Battle Engine had rules it had no right to. The two combat lights were probably undercosted, the Shield Guards were too durable for their cost, the support solos had the most annoying combination of rules to deal with (Stealth and Incorporeal), and it was joined by a warlock who could do everything. It was a brick like the meta hadn’t seen since the nerf of Mad Dogs, and it made them the strongest faction in the game. The meta tried to adapt.
I played The Dreamer for a long time. I saw all sorts of tech, all sorts of contenders. Skarre1 lists, Rasheth lists, Weapon Master spam with Kreoss2 and Scavvy1 , Gaspy2 lists. They all bounced. And if they didn’t bounce, they didn’t solve for the long list of things Grymkin needed solutions for – a way to kill Gremlin Swarm s, something to stop the Sacrifice Arcana, something to get around the Labyrinth Arcana, a way to strip Enfeeble, an answer to Artifice of Deviation getting in your way, and many more things. The Dreamer had so many tricks, and even the other Defiers had something to make the brick more obnoxious. Power lists, some of which we’ll talk about, rose and fell, but The Dreamer kept on Dreaming. From a release in 2017 Grymkin were still top dogs at WTC 2018, although the gap had closed. The meta couldn’t adapt well enough, and thus began what I’m going to call the CID power creep era.
CID stands for Community Integrated Development. It was PP’s way of outsourcing Warmachine balance after the twin failures of early Mk3 in the form of Una the Skyhunter and High Reclaimer , by using the community as an open beta test of most new releases, to see if we could get things under control again. It turns out that we extremely couldn’t.
CIDs happened in the following order:
Storm of the North
Christmas 2017 ( Champions of the Order of the Wall , Orion , Farrow Valkyries )
15th Anniversary ( Scrutator Potentate Severius , Kovnik Apprentice Kratikoff , Warwitch Initiate Deneghra , Journeyman Lieutenant Allister Caine )
Retribution of Scyrah
Cornucopia ( Clockatrice , Doom Reaver Swordsmen , Initiates of the Wall )
Soldiers of Fortune
Bump in the Night
That’s a hefty list! I’m going to pull out a few to talk about, but in general the results of these CIDs was (with a few exceptions – looking at you, Blindwater Congregation) a theme force that was objectively the best in the faction and continues to be so. The themes often had Theme Benefits with a far higher power level than those in other themes (compare Immovable Object or the Tharn Heart Token benefit to, say, Dark Host clouds). Models that had more rules than they could shake a stick at. Each CID had a poster ‘caster and they often ended up with a way to solve every problem, from upkeep removal to Pathfinder to control abilities to clouds or a solution to them. The ‘casters were in general less warping, but most are at least vying for a spot at the top of the rung of their respective faction.
The ones I’ll do in detail that represent the biggest steps are obviously Grymkin, Primal Terrors, Devourer’s Host, The Exalted / Supreme Guardian, Infernals/Oblivion, and the Cornucopia. I’ll also look at Soldiers of Fortune, because I think it’s the best CID that they managed.
In order, then. We’ve already talked a bit about the release of Grymkin, so let’s briefly skate over the early CIDs before we hit the first of our big stepping stones – Primal Terrors.
CID – The Early Years
So, to start with, there’s some bangers here in this early era. The Battle Engine CID was just necessary, and I have no real complaints about that one. I like Battle Engines. It is interesting to note, though, that they all got buffed. That’s an indication of a development style that feeds into the overlying problem here – the entire CID process focused on buffing stuff up to match the top rung of the ladder, instead of trying to find a medium. This is fine in theory, but the problem is that if you miss even slightly, like with the Siege Animantarax being the clear ‘winner’ of this CID, you just add more rungs to the top, and the hole you’re digging for yourself gets a little deeper. I love mixing metaphors.
Gravediggers and Storm of the North were both well received – the themes they produced did indeed become the best in faction, although I’m unconvinced that in the case of Northkin the gap was particularly large. They also buffed Madrak1, who was instantly top 4 in Trollbloods, and added Trencher Long Gunners, who were objectively better than regular Long Gunners. Maddy1 saw the resurrection of a bugbear that we thought dead with Mark 2 – models that could keep making Tough checks. It’s fine, we said. It’s Trolls. It’s their schtick, as long as it doesn’t become widespread it’s not an issue.
Christmas 2017 was a mixed bag, but the standouts were Farrow Valkyries and Gravediggers and Champions , models that blew the competition out of the water in their respective factions. Blindwater Congregation was a bit of a bust – I’m a Minions player and I don’t really remember it. It was, again, a round of buffs, but because of those extra rungs on the ladder from earlier, it didn’t find itself really achieving a great deal.
Slaughter Fleet Raiders was a weird one. Cryx were doing ok already, because Skarre1 was still Skarre1 and Gaspy3 Slayer spam had risen. It took people a while to get going with Slaughter Fleet Raiders and its poster caster Skarre3, but when they did it became apparent that this was a jump up from the other Cryx themes, and it included a meta bugbear that had been killed at the start of Mark 3 and restricted to only certain cases, with access to a large bubble of Steady models with Tough. They were Trolls, though, so that was ok? The problem with Slaughter Fleet Raiders was that it needed all new models, and they were expensive. Really, really expensive. That meant it took time to take off – if they were cheap, I think we could have been talking about this theme as the first of our big leaps instead.
The first of what I generally think of as the ‘Grymkin Solution CIDs’. It bumped the power of some existing models, brought new ones that were very tough and hit very hard. The new ‘caster turned all the numbers up to 11, and an old caster, Kallus1, got more tools to do his thing. The theme naturally solved for issues like upkeeps and Pathfinder. Again, this was easily the best thing in Legion, and this time there was no doubt or arguing it. Fast infantry that hits hard, a model that strips Incorporeal and upkeeps to deal with Gremlin Swarms and Enfeeble. Natural Pathfinder on a lot of stuff, Grievous Wounds everywhere. Grymkin are finally done, right?
Well, not really. I played this matchup a lot. I played it 13 times the year I won at Gencon. I only lost it twice, and one of those was due to a mistake I made and nothing else. Chosen of Everblight became a dominant force and Primal Terrors smashed through things left right and centre, but Grymkin could still compete. They were probably on a level, though. The meta had almost caught up to the big power leap, but there were still a few steps to go.
Dread it, run from it...
Itsy Bitsy In Betweeney Dev Cycle of Warmachiney
Then, we come to the intermediate round, and there’s some good stuff here.
never really took off but its ‘caster, Kommandant Sorscha Kratikov, did win the WTC Solo Masters that year. She didn’t stand out quite the way
did. The solos were very good though – 5 points for their offensive capabilities and bulky defensive stats was a big thing for combat solos, who were previously limited to 4 points for victim stats and one good
attack. Not, y’know, 10 boxes at high ARM and 2 good guns each.
Crucible Guard was a whole faction release. Cygnar players, the gunline gods of old, looked at these new models with disgust. They could apply debuffs at range with their guns, had sprays out of the wazoo at high RAT with boosts. The Railless Interceptor could hose vast amounts of boys, the Vulcan could chunk enemy heavies and Colossals like nobody’s business. This was the faction Cygnar wished it was.
15th Anniversary was a small one – just 4 Junior Warcasters. They were, uh, pretty great, for the most part. Kovnik Apprentice Kratikov had Boundless Charge for Khador heavies, Journeyman Lieutenant Allister Caine had Fire for Effect for Major Markus Siege Brisbane, Denny0 gave Cryx a potential extra debuff in every list (not entirely true, because of her theme restrictions at the time -Ed). And Sevvy0, well he had as much focus as some real ‘casters. And Road to War. And a good nuke. Oh yeah, and Eye of Menoth. At release we called him the best solo in the game and he was, easily. When people played Menoth he was better than their ‘caster some of the time. He was an obvious aberration that should never have been allowed through CID. But he was.
Protectorate CID really went beyond the release of Sevvy0. The Judicator got a massive buff, and was the best Colossal in the game – it even copped a rare nerf in the end. Exemplar Interdiction got a banger of a theme benefit, making all their warjacks Blessed. Including guns. A new Shield Guard, only 5 points and with the same rules as an Exemplar Seneschal. Buffs across the board for Exemplars. It didn’t quite become the de-facto best theme purely because of The Harbinger of Menoth and the already excellent Faithful Masses, but it was close. They actually buffed Harby, too, for some reason. She didn’t need it, but they did it anyway. This was definitely a release on the level of Grymkin, that didn’t overshoot them in power level, but because of Protectorate’s cripplingly bad matchup into them at the time, The Dreamer still stayed in her lofty position.
The Retribution of Scyrah I forgot about, to be honest. It was pretty insipid. Goreshade4 is one of those casters symptomatic of a trend of giving every CID caster a solution to every problem, but the issue is it doesn’t quite come together on the table. The one exception to this was the Dawnguard Trident , which was strong enough to prop up an entire faction for a year and a half, although the fact that The Retribution of Scyrah have slid again is indicative of the problem we’re discussing.
Devourer’s Hostest with the Mostest
Okay, this is where things start to go off the rails. Every Tharn had a boosting mechanic, the problem was that it needed to be fuelled. Now the theme did that. Someone decided that LotF needed 2” melee range and a RNG10 gun at RAT7 with a placement rule. One Pagani became a unit of measurement, meaning 2” + 30mm, the distance from every other model to stop your ‘caster getting Feasted. This guy probably caused more salt at the FLGS than anything since Mark 2 Haley2 . The ‘caster, Iona , was like Anamag on steroids. Her feat made her stuff tougher, hit harder, hit more accurately. Her spells made it threat farther and protected it from guns.
The Storm Raptor got an excellent set of buffs, becoming instantly (and still, by a large margin) the best Gargantuan. Also it had easy access to Tough without Knockdown, and took the Primal Terrors theory one step beyond into an actually good Grymkin game. Finally, the spectre of The Dreamer no longer hangs over our head. Rejoice, for Grymkin are gone forever! This theme was like someone was grabbing the top of the ladder and then just yeeted themselves as far up as they could go.
Can we go one step beyond?
Stone boi no move, but stone bois can groove.
I’m gonna roll the Supreme Guardian in here, too. On the face of it, Exalted CID was less exciting than Devourer’s Host. Its centerpiece salt generator, the Supreme Guardian, was ridonkulously strong but it didn’t cause games to end for no reason in the same way as old Feastie Boy. The boys were less exciting too, being slow and badly statted, but extremely cheap for what they could do, and having a really, really good theme benefit. One that also gave Tough without Knockdown. Huh, I thought that was going with Mark2. Weird. Anyhoo, while it was less exciting than Devourer's Host, The Exalted, most prominently with Zaal2, just worked.
It won games, kept winning games, didn’t stop winning games. Hasn’t stopped winning games. My buddy Jake won a con with it just before the ‘Rona started. It blew the entire faction out of the water in terms of power level. It blew every other small-based infantry theme out of the water, with Vengeance across the board and a stellar recursion engine. Its Solos could murder Colossals, and the Battle Engines could do the same while also sweeping huge amounts of infantry off the table. It was less of a leap than Devourer’s Host, but it was still another rung up.
There are a few things rolled into here, but three of them are really interesting: The Clockatrice, Initiates of the Wall, and Doom Reavers.
The Doom Reaver buffs weren’t a big leap overall, but they pushed something really close into something good. The revamped Wolves of Winter is very strong, but for me it’s one of their best efforts – it never really dominated, and simply moved up a theme that was in the middle of the ladder to be around the top. Able to compete with the top, but not creeping.
Initiates of the Wall however, definitely made a bit of a leap. Shield Guards that couldn’t be moved, with really high ARM, and DEF13 for no reason. The output doesn’t matter, because for some unknown reason they’re also free in theme. A 7 point unit, that’s probably undercosted at 7. For free. They fixed The Harby's Krueger2 problem, and gave her a durable core to her list that she could keep going with Martyrdom forever. The Harbinger of Menoth has never been far from good, and with Initiates of the Wall she leapt right to the top of the pile. Her only bad matchup, truly bad, that is, was Grymkin. And they’re gone now, right? Iona the Unseen banished that spectre.
Woops. So, what happens if you look at Grymkin and decide that their other theme, the oft-maligned Bump in the Night , needs a Warbeast. You’d be right – the Grymkin living heavies are pretty insipid without access to the Death Knell for +2 armour. And while Bump in the Night has it, it doesn’t start with a corpse, and is an expensive tax to protect only a few models in your list. So, you say, let’s design a Warbeast that doesn’t need it.
That’s what they did – the Clockatrice. They were right, it didn’t need the Death Knell . It didn’t need it because it was flat broken, with a protection mechanic that made it very hard to kill, an unshakable control effect that put paid to any chance of Primal Terrors or Devourer’s Host being able to have a winning game into Grymkin. This is fine, though, right, because it’s just designed to help the bad theme be better.
However, now we move onto Whoops part 2, Menagerie Boogaloo. So, when you give this beast access to the buffs of Dark Menagerie, it turns out it’s pretty good. I once played a list with 7. It didn’t have much else, but that didn’t matter. It had 7 Clockatrices, and it won a lot of games. This was such a gross leap that at one point myself and another Grymkin player talked about the Skin and Moans, only months previously probably the premier Warbeast in Hordes, and our conclusion was ‘why would you pay 2 points more for a worse model’?
Looks like Grymkin are back.
When you absolutely, positively have to hit and damage fix every heavy on the board, accept no substitutes.
Soldiers of Fortune
PP caught a lot of flak for the 2 Mercenary CIDs. I understand it – after the spiralling power creep of the previous offerings, they were both pretty tame. Here’s the thing, though – Soldiers of Fortune was the best CID they did. It was perfect. It gave Steelheads their own theme, which was good but not broken. It had interesting theme benefits, didn’t require the purchase of a swathe of expensive new models. They released some, sure, and they were all decent when played, but it didn’t break the bank or the tables. It brought something from a low rung on the ladder to near the bottom of the power creep pit, without tipping the scales. Garryth2 is a good caster, too, and also falls into the category of good CID – he’s strong but not a monster, and has fun rules that make him enjoyable to play. This is what CID should have aimed for, and it’s a shame that PP hasn’t delivered on that super consistently. I loved this CID, and I’m sad that there weren’t more like it. Talion Charter, too, followed the same vein, although it maybe didn’t go far enough.
So, we’ve got the Clockatrice. People still aren’t playing Bump in the Night though. What do we do?
Do we change Dark Menagerie to be living Warbeast only?
Nah. Let’s buff Bump in the Night to fuck instead.
Grymkin CID did this weird thing where instead of buffing the bad models in the theme ( Hollowmen, Dread Rots, Piggybacks (fine, it tried to buff Piggybacks , but it didn’t work)), it just took the good ones and made them monsters. A free option that gives +2” of movement to your entire army, and also has an infinitely recurring little dipshit to pacman enemy infantry. And he has Countercharge. And a MAT debuff, that was weirdly keyed off ‘models in melee with’ so his 0.5” melee range didn’t matter and it didn’t require formation and if they killed him he’d just be back anyway. A hard hitting, fast unit that is now unshootable. Who thought that this would be reasonable? Was nothing learned from how hard previous CID releases dominated?
Well, they made people play Bump in the Night.
Not this kind. Or the other kind either, you lewd lewders.
I’m gonna take a brief interlude to talk about what I mean when I say ‘dominated’, because I don’t mean that it won all the events. I’m more talking about lists that fill up the X-2 bracket at events, because this is where you’ll find the decent players who aren’t competing, and to get there they’ll have beaten players who don’t really keep up with the meta and have just turned up with their usual army only to get smashed by the new thing.
I think that the concentration of a new thing in the top half but not the top 10 or so is far more indicative of its relative strength than looking at event wins. Don’t get me wrong, strong lists win events, but in the top 10 you’ll also find the really good players who’ve worked out how to have a game in their faction then practiced that a ton until they can beat it regularly.
They’ll have beaten the people in X-2, who haven’t seen their tech or practiced as much, and have gotten there off the basis of a little practice and just steamrolling people with the strength of their models.
To Infernity and Beyond
I have some salt about the Infernals CID.
Paul made his first meme for the site! I couldn’t be prouder; he’s got our amateurish design down pat.
3 weeks is not long enough to test a faction, especially not when Week 1 has rules so obviously broken that even a child could see that no useful data would be gained.
Or us, apparently. It took exactly 35 minutes to break Week1 Hearts beyond redemption.
The faction that came out is, in my view, the strongest in the game. It’s the strongest by a decent margin, and I’m of the opinion that an Infernals player who commits no mistakes will never lose. The faction is so forgiving, the numbers are so big, the toolbox is so deep. None of the lists above have had this, they’ve all been susceptible to teched drops that can win just because of the strength of the matchup. Maybe Vlad2 is that for Infernals. I know Mark is worried, but there’s tech they can bring and the other list is so generally good that they can tech pretty hard. None of the new stuff, the themes that in the fluff can fight Infernals, really stick. They’ll win games when people make mistakes, which people do, but the good Infernals players will learn to beat it.
Here’s the thing, though: we’ll never see this power level come through in terms of results. Infernals are forgiving, sure, because they can just summon a heavy, but they also have a LOT of complicated backline interactions. These take time to learn, and they eat your clock. The uptick of new players that follows every release won’t steamroll their way to X-2 as they did with Devourer’s Host, The Exalted, and Primal Terrors, because they’ll be too busy clocking in the X-4 bracket. Infernals are so far off the scale that it’s silly, but I think that the barrier to entry in terms of player skill might be too high. I once gave someone the advice that you can beat Infernals most of the time by just being conservative, not losing, and waiting for them to clock. It worked for him, against a pretty good Infernals player. Maybe this means that Infernals are fine, and I’m being hyperbolic. Maybe it means that they didn’t creep as hard as some others. I disagree. And, once again, I will accept no criticism don’t @me.
When we look at the most recent CIDs, things are broadly on the same level. Hermit pushed Infernals even harder, but things have broadly started to plateau. PP is finally hitting the same point on the ladder for multiple CIDs in a row, and Archons, though they have some pretty glaring disparities and disproportionately benefit certain themes, are at least available to every faction. Some of the decisions are baffling, like making Strange Bedfellows a Mercenary theme, and handing out random theme benefit bonuses to already strong lists (like the starting roll reroll for Bump in the Night, or adding Satyxis to Slaughter Fleet Raiders). But, broadly, the game is in an acceptable position, for now. However, there are consequences to this sort of approach.
Next podcast outro? y/y
A Grym Conclusion, Part 1
Despite the efforts made in Oblivion, a few factions lag behind – Crucible Guard are an obvious example, as are Trollbloods. Indeed, I talked to a competitive player at Captaincon who espoused the opinion that the only faction incapable of winning a masters was Trollbloods. I think he might be right, and that’s sad for them. Don’t worry, though there’s a new CID coming, so you’ll be right at the top soon enough! Before Trollbloods is Legion of Everblight, and assuming this trend continues we can expect these two to be right at the top of the pile come the end of the year. Personally, I think/hope that we’ll see them settle in just below Infernals – if the dev team can bring every faction up to sit on the rung below Infernals that’d be great, and then a few tweaks to them and balance may actually be good instead of just tolerable.
Remember when this was technically a Grymkin article? When we last saw them, Grymkin were still crying for being top of the pile. That was at WTC 2019, some 9 months ago. Sure they’ve had no releases, but 9 months isn’t that long, right. Someone who invested in Grymkin back then would still have a strong, competitive army that they’d spent all that money on. Right guys? Right now, I’d say Grymkin sit around the top of the bottom third of factions, as a result of that ladder just getting higher and higher instead of releases hitting that same top of the ladder point consistently. Flames in the Darkness is hard, Strange Bedfellows is hard, Infernals is VERY hard. Let that sink in. 9 months, from top to near the bottom 9 months, for the best faction to get crept out of existence. Yikes.
Conclusion Part 2 – an Infernal Truth
When I originally sent this article to my editor, he described it as a ‘salty rant’. And, like, fair. I considered just sending it out as that, but something interesting occurred to me that I’d like to share with you.
When CID was a thing, I saw posts for plenty of people saying they were quitting. They cited the too-quick development cycle, and feeling the need to look up that week’s CID before playing every game. I thought them weak. Fools. Cowards. Y’all, they were right. Look at that list. The program ran for a little under 3 years, and in that time there were 23 CIDs, including 3 new factions. That’s a whole lot. Too many, really. An unhealthy amount. You might ask where I was going with that. It was nowhere, I just thought it was neat. I do have a sort of conclusion, though.
A few suggestions for fixing this:
Buff everything. This continues the cycle, but might work if someone good at their job does it and aims for a rung below Infernals.
Nerf Everything. This is worse than the above, simply because people hate having things they own nerfed. It’ll create a lot of mistrust (even more than there already is).
The Clean Slate. The GW method, tried and true. A new edition. They’re hard to write, but luckily one insane nerd wrote one recently – he had some good and bad ideas, but maybe there’s a starting point there.
A new edition certainly should focus on cleaning up messy rules and unintended interactions. As a side effect, it could come with a balance pass. Not one that looks at model rules, but one that just adjusts points. Casters that are too good lose WJP, models that are too good get pricier. You get a clean slate, a new starting point from which to develop this excellent game. And you don’t fuck it up this time.