People ask me, "should I copy list X or make my own?" The debate on army lists comes and goes every now and then. Recently I saw a somewhat heated variant and decided to write a few words on the matter. The thing about army lists is that they're a learning process and despite your skills improving you will often find yourself back in the same cycle. Note that all of this is based on my experience and is solely my opinion. Of course.
My first advice when it comes to creating a list is... Copy someone else! That's right. Don't re-invent the wheel. Go online. Find your favourite list from discount games' tournament overview, watch your favourite youtube channel or read your favourite blog to name but a few examples. See what others are doing. Try and understand what makes it work. If possible, read a report or watch it in action in a video.
My very first Cygnar models were Gun Mages, Black 13th, Haley2, Thorn, Stormwall, Squire and Junior. This was back in Mk. 2 and I had read tons about Cygnar before I even bought anything. I knew Haley2 would be problematic to learn but I enjoyed the challenge. Indeed the learning curve was steep but watching others play her and copying their lists taught me a lot. More importantly, it taught me what I needed to learn a lot quicker than I would've been able to teach myself. Time is -always- an issue with this game. We all have priorities and other things to do and the fact of the matter is that every single game counts. If you're not getting valuable lessons from your games your progress will be a lot slower. By maximising your "learning output" you'll become better, quicker. To do this, copy whatever you know works. Furthermore, if you do this you eliminate an important aspect of army list creation: Second guessing yourself. You know that in all likelihood the list is not at fault and thus it's all about finding the mistakes you made, analyze them and learn what you need to do differently.
After copying various Haley2 variants and learning how to play secondary casters (Stryker1 and Caine2 were my side-kicks when I learned Warmachine & Hordes) I naturally moved on to create my own lists. I'll get back to this in a second, but fast forward a couple of months and I had found a really strong Haley2 list. Probably the best list I've ever written. I struggled to find a partner to pair her with as neither Caine2 nor Stryker1, my old and trusted side-kicks, could cope with the factions Haley2 struggled against. I set out to try Haley3 but struggled so much to make her work. I then started talking to people who had great results with her, copied their approaches and suddenly Haley3 was winning me games as well. Eventually I started going my own way and at the very end of Mk. 2 I had a Haley3 list I was highly comfortable with. It's worth noting though that once Mk. 3 hit both of these casters were changed quite drastically in terms of playstyle. I did find my way with Haley2 without too much trouble yet Haley3 kept eluding me again. What did I do? I carbon copied a successful list which I haven't changed a single thing in many, many months. In the beginning I felt clumsy playing the list and indeed, if I had written this list myself I would've second-guessed the list, not my abilities necessarily. However I knew the list was amazing so I stuck with it and eventually I learned how to pilot it quite well.
Copying others is not something to be ashamed of in my opinion. Indeed, some lists write themselves and many players might reach the same list following roughly the same logic. However copying someone else in itself is rarely enough. Sooner or later you have to use your own brain. Shocking, I know. Don't be afraid to do this at any point in time! I would advice you though to keep the changes small in the beginning so as to not take away from the concept behind the army. As time goes by you'll better learn what you need to change. When you get this feeling it's time to take a step back and re-evaluate everything about the list. Is the concept itself not working? What parts work and what parts don't? You will see the changes you want to make increasing in extent the more you play and learn. This is only natural. Personally, I love this aspect of the game. It's a never-ending process. Just like every single turn I have ever played is full of small things I could've done better, army lists can always be questioned. A big plus is that this is an activity which requires nothing but time available (and preferably an army list creation tool like War Room or Conflict Chamber).
A time will come when you ask yourself something along the lines of "What if we just do this wacky thing? Could it work?". Hold on to those moments. They are rare, but incredibly valuable. In my experience, the truly amazing lists come from these moments of clarity. I'm not talking about your regular wacky mcwack ideas which we all have on a daily basis, but more the "aha" moment when you think to yourself that "Wow! This might really work. I -have- to try this!". For those of you who've followed this blog since my first successful events you're probably tired of reading about this, but the Haley2 list I took to the Battle at Lund last year was an example of this. It was the first amazing list I made and to this day the best one, I think. It has helped define me as a player and is a source of great pride and confidence. Anyway, in relation to army lists the point I want to make here is that one day when I was playing a solo circus (a.k.a. "Haley's Heroes") variant based on Way of the Swan's famous list, I found myself asking: "What if we just skip all the non-shooting models and take as much quality shooting as we can? Seriously, this could be legit!". Turned out it was. The list was deceptive in nature but once you got the hang of it... Fast forward to Mk. 3 and I found myself doing the same again. After quickly realizing Haley2 could no longer play the batshit shooty game she did in Mk. 2 I thought she needed a bigger volume of models at first. I found her lacking in the anti-arm department and considered dropping Lances to include an Ironclad of all things. This humble jack has become an MVP inclusion for both Haley2 and Haley3. At the time I wasn't sure how it would play but with a couple of more tweaks it turned out to be a solid choice. With a few more tweaks I eventually found a Haley2 list which I was really happy with.
Army list development should happen iteratively. Start with something you know works. Another player's list perhaps, a former variant you've played yourself or something you dojo out with friends. Don't be afraid to carbon copy at this point in time, there truly is no shame in it. You will likely find yourself eventually wanting to make small changes, i.e. using your own brain to improve the list. Do it! Stick with the original for a while so you know you've learned it, but don't necessarily do it forever. Sooner or later you'll hopefully find yourself wanting to try out crazy concepts, the "what if experiments". Don't be afraid to do this! Often it doesn't work out and you might feel dumb, but when you strike gold... Oh boy. In my experience this iteration of carbon copy -> minor improvements -> experimentation repeats itself for new casters and concepts. Sometimes of course you've simply found the optimal variant and there's no more to be done. Indeed I won the European Invitationals with a list I copied 100% three months prior and never changed a thing. It wasn't for a lack of trying though but for the life of me I couldn't improve on the list. It simply was impeccable. I am indeed talking about the now infamous Swedish Haley3 list with double Grenadiers. Paired with this however was a Haley2 list of my own creation which went through all of these iterative stages.
I'd like to close this little piece on army list philosophy with a couple of thoughts on what I personally prefer in army lists. I am a hyper-aggressive player. I will jump on any opportunity presented and continuously look for angles. I truly believe this is the best way to play this game. My motto is "when in doubt, push!" and it reflects my approach to the game rather well. This has helped me find some pretty crazy plays in vital games, but perhaps more importantly it means I often learn very early on how far I can push my lists. When I lose practice games it's often because I'm asking for too much from the list I'm playing. I think it's better to go overboard and dial it down, if you take a cautious approach you might never learn just how crazy plays your list is capable of making. To this end I'm a big fan of maximising the amount of offensive work your list can do at the list creation stage. I have hardly ever fielded Sentinels for example and my initial thoughts behind taking Arlan are typically more about getting more focus than having repair available. True, no rule without exception, certain support models truly are required, but I've found that this mindset helps me find really powerful combinations. My Stryker3 experiment shows this train of thought quite well, if you look through the various reports you'll see that I'm always trying to maximise the amount of work he can theoretically get done.
People ask me, "should I copy list X or make my own?" My answer is quite simply: It depends. You'll likely find yourself repeating the iterations of copying, adjusting, experimenting. Sometimes you stop at copying. Sometimes you take it way further and find something unique which works really well. Don't be afraid to draw on the wisdom of others to help you improve as a player. At the end of the day it's the person fielding the list which matters.