How To Build A Pairing

If you’ve read our handy Guide To Steamroller, you’ll have seen reference to the pairing system used in competitive and tournament play. This is designed to make sure that you’re never faced with an unwinnable struggle – no matter what opponents you face, you can tailor your pairing to cover whatever you’re likely to face. But how do you tackle the already-daunting process of building a list when you’ve got two or more to think about? Read on, and we’ll take you through the process until you’re making pairings like a pro!

Step 1: Choose Your Main List

Most – but not all – pairings tend to be built around one list that you’re going to play the majority of the time. This will typically be one built around a Warcaster, Warlock, or Master with the flexibility and/or raw power to overcome most of the foes that can stand in their way. In the pairing below, taken from our captain Jake’s win at CaptainCon 2020, the main list is Zaal2 in The Exalted – with the tools to overcome a wide variety of matchups, this list is very flexible, and while not perfect into every possible opposition, will be able to manage into a wide variety of opponents.


But what metric do we measure this by? Typically, a list’s strength is determined by how many of the following things it can do well at and into:

  • Models that are skilled in staying alive, whether through high DEF/ARM or other means
  • Models that have high offensive output, either with great accuracy or crushing power
  • Foes that assail you from range before you can strike back
  • Enemies that rush at you to turn the game into a melee scrum
  • Armies that use a great deal of magic, whether to support their models, bedevil yours, or blast you apart
  • Models that attack in great swarms, whether starting as such or coming back in endless waves to wear down your opposition
  • Forces dedicated to striking down your Warcaster, Warlock, or Master, for a shocking end to the game when you least expect it
  • Armies that make use of powerful control effects to take control of the scenario, scoring point after point to attain victory
  • Models that drag down your clock with denial, forcing you to fight through layers of shutdown effects until you simply run out of time
  • Being able to navigate terrain to as great an extent as possible, to avoid being waylaid by foes more adept at making use of the board

Each of these effects has a range of counters available in the game – no singular tactic is invincible, and every Faction has the tools to deal with them. The depth of the game comes in the combination of these features in order to overcome the foe, and in the relative difficulty of fitting these tools into your lists.

Returning to our example of Zaal2, we see that this list, with its powerful Supreme Guardians and legions of Immortals, is good at several of these things, and good at dealing with them too. The core of the strategy is in using Zaal2’s powerful Feat to render his forces all but invincible for a turn, allowing them to take commanding positions on scenario, while the Supreme Guardians recycle the fallen into fresh stone bodies to continue the fight. With high accuracy and respectable damage output, the list can overcome most enemies, and also has the option for Zaal2 to put the souls of his fallen warriors into a blistering torrent of spells intended to Assassinate if all else fails.

Step 2: Choosing an Off List

The off list, as it is generally known, is a catch-all term covering the lists players build to mitigate against the weaknesses of the main list. Jake’s off list in this case is Xerxis2. While Zaal2 may be a formidable opponent, he is by no means capable of defeating any foe with confidence – for example, a melee army that rushes him on scenario is capable of stalling his deathless advance before it can turn the game into a war of attrition, attaining victory before the endless Immortals can drag them down.

As such, our offlist is designed to be as fast as any of these foes, with Xerxis2’s powerful Field Marshal speeding up his Warbeasts considerably, while an array of powerful Spray attacks lets the list clear infantry with gusto. While not as resilient as the main list, our off list will accomplish its goal of overcoming enemies that Zaal2 typically struggles with.

Step 3: Choosing the correct list

Now we have a pairing we can be proud of, and hopefully pilot to victory! Be wary of mistaking a good pairing for a guaranteed win, though – remember that your opponents will be doing the exact same things, and that the list selection process can undo the most careful plans. To ensure that your hard work pays off, it is important to understand the factors that go into selecting which list to play.

  • Firstly, is your preferred list capable of playing the scenario that the game is using? Can it score the relevant elements, or deny the enemy the ability to do so?
  • Will the terrain be problematic? Can your forces navigate through whatever is on the table, particularly if there are a great deal of huge bases or models without Pathfinder?
  • Is your opponent aware of what I intend to counter their lists with, and will they try to one-up you with a different selection to the one you expect?

For example, while Zaal2’s scenario presence is formidable, he can occasionally struggle with a board that makes it hard for his Supreme Guardians to navigate, especially in comparison to Xerxis’2 much more manoeuvrable forces. Similarly, though Xerxis2’s army has great personal mobility, it may struggle with a scenario that requires his models to spread widely due to his smaller Control Area, so even in a tougher match-up for Zaal2, it may be worth playing him instead nonetheless. Judging these situations will come with practice – instant mastery has never been a feature of Warmachine and Hordes, so get some games in and learn how it’s done!

Now that you’ve built your pairing, why not try it out in a tournament? If you’re not sure how to do so or the thought worries you, read our handy Guide To Your First Event!