top of page
  • Writer's pictureAlex Payne

Competitive 40K isn't real: how is Warhammer really played?


Space marines vs chaos space marines warhammer 40k

RIght, look, I know that's a sensationalist title, but hear me out.


Of course competitive 40k exists. I get that. The UKTC and WTC circuits are an established facet of modern Warhammer, with thousands of regular players and a shiny new world championships finale to cap off the competitive season.


What I would like to argue in this humble article, however, is that overwhelmingly, 40k is not competitive. Not even close. And that the continual focus on one aspect of this ludicrously diverse hobby in online discussion in particular is as unhelpful as it is frankly misleading about the actual way this silly little game of ours gets played.


Intrigued/irritated already?


Good, I guess. Let me explain.

"What I would like to argue in this humble article, however, is that - in the huge majority of cases - 40k is not competitive. Not even close."

Behold the mountain: the landscape of 40k


Allow me paint a picture of the landsacpe of 40k, as percieved through the dark mirror of - shudder - online discourse. If you've been anywhere near the Warhammer Competitive Subreddit this might be a familiar image.


You stand, a simple Imperial Guard player, upon the slopes of a soaring mountain.* Around you, other players scrabble upon the scree, clawing and biting in their quest to conquer that most soaring of peaks.


At its top, far off and shrouded in cloud, stand the titans. Aeldari and Chaos Marines. They duel, though perhaps the elves still hold the upper hand. Every list is a facsimile of forge world resin and triple night spinners. With a manic grin, the Yncarne dances amidst it all, in a cacophony of swirling magicks and ridiculously overtuned abilities. There are no alternatives, only pure, malignant power.


A chill breeze swirls around you, pulling at your novelty gaming t-shirt. "You cannot reach them," it whispers. "They are broken."


All around you, the rest of the field go back and forth, some scrambling forward, some sliding back down, bloodied and bruised by the cruelty of the mountain. New approaches are sought, new weapons grasped in a torrent of expensive plastic and rushed paint jobs.


"Optimise," whispers the wind. "You cannot win with what you have. More. More."


You look at the chimera tanks in your hands and let them fall, skittering down into a dark ravine in the mountainside.


In the valley at the mountain's feet lie the broken bones of Drukhari and Ad Mech players. One lone climber reaches up, covered in dark lances. But he is too far below. There is no hope. "Nobody plays them," The wind whispers. "They're just not competitive."


You reach forward, slapping paint garishly on three manticores, and begin your agonising ascent...


This IS 40k in 2024. All know it. There is no alternative.


Warhammer in the real world


Except, of course, that's nonsense.


In almost all cases, and unless you actively seek it out, you won't actually encounter the kind of competitive 40k the internet appears fixated on. It is frankly, a myth: A fugazi, a whatsit, fairy dust. The actual pool of competitvely-minded players is not the majority; far from it. They are less an ocean and more a puddle. An incredibly vocal puddle. But a puddle nonetheless.


Instead, despite the internet's fascination with on it, most people in the hobby are not as invested in every aspect of "THE META" as YouTube and discord might lead you to believe. Most hobbyists do not even play the game, let alone keep up with the ever-evolving soap opera that is the competitive scene. In reality, almost all Warhammer is played in garages or spare rooms, in casual gaming clubs and amongst old friends. It is a highlight of the social calendar, played sparingly due to the ever-present demands of modern life, but cherished all the more for it.

"Most hobbyists do not even play the game, let alone keep up with the ever-evolving soap opera that is the competitive scene."

For most players, Warhammer is enjoyed with old friends and new, building rivalries with a limited pool of models - basically, what they actually have to hand, and not what is considered "meta" at any time or another. The tournament scene might interest them - as it does me - but it is generally a distant country.


The tournament reality


Now of course, if you do go to tournaments regularly, and you do swim in that shark tank, then yes, you might see real, proper, bleeding-edge meta nonsense. You too can build a pristine (ish) meta list and either panic paint it (or get someone to do that for you) and you can spend every weekend in exotic locales like Sheffield playing at the absolute highest level in a very, very serious manner.


Believe me when I say, I really can see the appeal of that. Hell, in a weird way, Warhammer is one of the few things where anyone can actually can compete on the same standing as the best in the world as a relatively casual player. I will never play against a premier league football team, nor compete with the absolute best in video gaming; but I might play a top-ranked 40k player at a local tournament just by the random nature of the pairings system and still relatively tiny pool of competitive players out there.


But even in that setting, there is a good chance you still won't face the kind of broken lunacy that the internet is convinced are so prevalent in the game. Lose a single game at a tournament and you're much, much more likely to be facing a fellow friendly gamer who's just out for the weekend to play toys and drink beer with his Imperial Fists than you are to face down a semi-pro metagamer with 120 Wracks.*

"You're much, much more likely to be facing a fellow friendly gamer who's just out for the weekend to play toys and drink beer with his Imperial Fists than you are to face down a semi-pro metagamer with 120 Wracks."

Obviously, building a list with some synergy and a plan in mind is a fantastic way to derive more satisfaction from the actual game of 40k. And obviously you will also encounter players in pick-up games and even casual settings who will certainly take a great deal of pleasure in trying - at least - to ape super-meta playstyles.


I'd also say that it's super fun to talk about competitive 40k and the meta, even in the most casual of circumstances. There's just so much intrigue and interest to be derived from discussing the latest meta happenings from the top-tier tournaments (Necron Monoliths, anyone?), and to spit ball your own meta-ish army ideas with your mates. Armchair Warhammer is 100% a thing and, just like the in-depth analysis of football that used to frame the vast majority of my social interaction it's a fantastic basis for all manner of conversation.


In all honesty, however, except for some vanishingly rare circumstances, you probably won't face the meta monsters that you read about online or chatted to your mates about either at tournaments or otherwise. That's for one very good reason: playing that game is simply too expensive as both a financial and time investment.


Take my Drukhari, for instance. I have amassed quite a lot of silly murder-elf-vampires in the last year, perhaps around 4,000pts. But my regular playing list is a quite a long way from being "meta". I don't have two Beastpacks, I don't have three sets of Mandrakes, and I only have two each of Scourges and Ravagers. My Custodes are even worse - I cannot bring myself to rip the arms off all of my guard and terminators to get them up to spec with the "correct" loadouts for 10th edition and I'm not dropping £200 on the "mandatory" forge world tanks that my army simply must have to compete. Besides, the sword and board and axes are just cooler.


Drukhari army, 10th edition warhammer 40k
My 10th edition Drukhari force. Not bad. But probably not meta.

Both of my regular lists, I'm sure, would be met with "could do better" scores in the fulcrum that is the Warhammer Competitive Reddit. That doesn't mean that I can't play competitively with what I have, however - and I do. My Drukhari have had a pretty reasonable time of it in 10th edition and I've enjoyed getting the Custodes out on occasion in both proper match-play and more casual team-up games. I've even had some (extremely moderate) success into some truly gross top-tier lists (Aeldari Night Spinners and Yncarne, I'm looking at you).


It is perfectly OK - and completely normal - to run slightly wonky lists in even competitive settings because they are a) what you've actually bought b) what you have painted and c) - and this one is crucial - they're the models and loadouts you think are coolest. I guarantee you that, in almost all cases, even at the sweatiest of tournaments, you will be facing this calibre of list in most instances before the broken nonsense that is all the rage online.

"It is perfectly ok - and competely normal - to run slightly wonky lists in even competitve settings because they are a) what you've bought b) what you have painted and c) - and this one is crucial - they're the models and loadouts you think are coolest."

FInally, I would just like to state that I am not saying that balance and a fair game are in some way dirty words; they're not. A good, balanced game is a better gaming experience for everyone and the emphasis on the competitve side the game means a more level playing field for players who are likely meeting each other for the first time. As I've said before, it's far easier for players to inject narrative and fun into their games than it is for them to balance the game on the fly.


And that's a long way from the landscape as you would imagine it from the online discourse that prevades 40k. Perhaps in the US, there really is a different culture. Perhaps 40k will lean more and more heavily towards being an "e-sport" with televised tournaments and the competitve scene having a genuine draw for gamers of all levels in the near future. But I somehow very much doubt that will ever become the true, grassroots norm for this game I love so much.


Learning to stop worrying, and play what you love


What's the point of all this?


Basically, four words.


Stop worrying about it.


I know, firsthand, how the constant flow of information about the most absurdly high-level, competitive 40k, can skew your own perception of the game. How it can make you think "I'll never beat that" or "my list is terrible, I need new units just to make it to the table." I know for certain how that mindset can lead to a state of disconnect with the hobby and game as a whole. And that's a crying shame, as in all instances this is meant to be fun.


And all I want this article to be is an appeal - a plea if you will - that despite what you might see online, Warhammer is not (always) competitive in the real world. Your army is valid. And if you get it out onto the table with like-minded people, even if their army is is more "powerful" than yours, you will likely still have a great time.


At the end of the day, all I can speak to is my own experience, and the experience I see around me. Competitive 40k is an absolutely incredible game, full of so much depth and silliness and beautiful, friendship-defining moments. But it is not worth worrying about. Sure, it may be real. But it isn't where 40k begins and ends. There's a whole world of gaming out there with sub-par lists and wonky tactics and it is so, so much fun.


All you have to do is to see past the mountain, and open yourself up to it.

"There's a whole world of gaming out there with sub-par lists and wonky tactics and it is so, so much fun. All you have to do is to see past the mountain, and open yourself up to it."

In conclusion: beyond the mountain


You watch others all around him stumble and fall, their will broken by the mountain, and sink to your knees.


"Keep going," says the wind. "Keep pushing. More. More."


You shake your head, wresting your eyes for a moment from the summit, still so far off. And there - you see it. A glimmer of something, green and inviting in the distance.


It is something... other. You realise there is more out there, more than than just the mountain.


You stand, ignoring the wind that pulls you still. You cradle to your chest the rough riders you so adore - your favourite models, your proudest paint job.


"Never again," you whisper.


You take your first step, and then another, not upwards, but away. From in the distance comes the clatter of dice and the sound of laughter.


You leave the mountain behind, and pass into the green valley beyond.


 

I'm sure the discourse around this one is going to be rational and carefully thought out. So I look forward to hearing from you all!


Until next time,


Alex


*Insert whatever nonsense is currently spooking people online here





27 views0 comments

Comments


About

Welcome to Death by D6 - your hub for all sorts of nonsense about the grimdark worlds of tabletop wargaming.

Latest articles

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page