Welcome to Top Warhammer 40K Lists, where we take a look at three lists for a given faction and break down what makes them tick and how they fared. Every entry will be pulled from a recent GT, and we’ll be going over everything from who played the army to how likely the army in question is likely to continue to perform as the game evolves.
Today, we’re looking at the Tau. Tau are one of the shootiest armies in the game (if not the shootiest), which makes their playstyle a little one dimensional. However, there are some variations to how players build their lists and approach the codex, so it’s definitely not a one trick pony.
Before we get the ball rolling, we need to talk about how Markerlights work. Markerlights are one of two army special rules that Tau have (along with For The Greater Good), but what’s interesting is that Markerlights are an ability from a weapon that interact with all Tau units, rather than an ability found on Tau units themselves, and they’re a lot more complicated than most other army abilities.
Some Tau models have a Markerlight as a weapon on their profile. If they score a hit when shooting a Markerlight, the unit that was hit simply receives a Markerlight counter. All Tau units get various bonuses when shooting at a unit with Markerlight counters, and the bonuses depend on how many counters the target unit has.
The magic number is 5, as that makes all Tau units that shoot the unit with 5 counters get +1 to hit, re-rolling 1’s to hit, ignoring cover on the enemy and ignoring the Heavy and Advance penalty on their own weapons. Tau have access to a 1CP stratagem to add D3 Markerlight Counters to a unit when they gain a Counter, so they can also force a target up to 5 rather reliably. With all that said, let’s look at the lists!
First up, we have Devin Swan, who took 11th at Adepticon. 11th doesn’t sound too amazing at first, but Adepticon is one of the biggest events for 40k, and this year had over 200 players. So, 11th is a highly prestigious placing, and he was the highest ranking Tau player. Let’s check out his list!
Like usual, we’ll go by detachment. His first detachment is some dirt cheap Markerlight support. Sacea get to re-roll one missed hit for each unit that shoots, so his Markerlights get to re-roll to hit. Plus, Sacea have an interesting stratagem unique to them where they can call in an orbital Markerlight and put a Markerlight Counter on any unit within a few inches of a chosen point. Since Markerlights aren’t Sept locked, this is a great way to access Markerlights for his Tau Sept units.
Next, we have his Vanguard detachment. He has a Commander with a Drone Controller and Burst Cannon. We’ll come back to the Drone Controller in a bit. For the most part, this Commander is here to turn on “Command And Control Node”, which is a 1CP Stratagem that allows a BATTLESUIT unit to re-roll to wound in exchange for the Commander being unable to shoot.
He also has 3 Firesight Marksmen and 2 Riptides. Foresight’s are cheap characters that can accurately apply Markerlights, which in tandem with the Sacea Sept Trait, means that he should easily get targets up to 5 counters with ease. He also took 2 Riptides with Heavy Burst Cannons.
Riptides are disgustingly powerful, since their Nova Reactor ability can enhance their offense, defense, or mobility based on the situation. The HBC spits out 12 S6 -1 Damage 2 shots, which become AP -2 thanks to the Advanced Targeting System, and their Velocity Trackers give them an extra +1 to hit against things that FLY. This helps counter the intrinsic -1 that Flyers have while also boosting accuracy at a couple other random targets. Finally, they also have some Smart Missile Systems. SMS provide some Strength 5 AP-1 shots that don’t need line of sight, which makes them great at hitting units that are hiding far away.
Finally, we have his Spearhead. He took an Ethereal with the Puretide Engram Nanochip for some CP regeneration, and a 6+ feel no pain bubble to boot. He also took 3 Broadsides. Each Broadside fires 8 Strength 7 AP-2 Damage D3 shots, and 8 SMS shots too. It’s simply a heavy hitting platform that’s efficient all the time.
Backing all of his fire support are 20 Shield Drones and 27 Sniper Drones. These Drones can intercept hits for the Suit units on a 2+ thanks to Savior Protocols. What’s really scary about this is the fact that the Drones intercept wounds, not damage. In other words, if I shoot a Lascannon at at a Riptide, most of the time I’m just gonna pick up a drone no matter what, and the Shield Drone even has a 5+ Feel No Pain to completely shrug off my Lascannon!
The secret stars of this show are the Sniper Drones, however. Sniper Drones have a pathetic Ballistic Skill of 5+. However, they get +1 to hit if they shoot a target visible by a Firesight Marksman (he has 3), they can benefit from Markerlights, and finally they get another +1 thanks to the Drone Controller on the Commander. This means they can get up to hitting on 2+, re-rolling ones! They also make disgustingly good use of the Tau Sept Strategrm, which provides an army wide +1 to wound in response to wounding a target.
So, you use Command and Control Node on a Riptide that Nova Charged his HBC, put the hurt on, get +1 to wound with the rest of the army against the target the Riptide hurts, and you get Snipers with 48” range and +1 to wound! That means Mortals on 5’s and 6’s, talk about laying down the pain!
This is a highly optimized Tau list, and it shows. Coupled with a capable player, and you can get some really obscenely good results on the tabletop. Let’s take a look at our next list.
Moving right along, we have Matt Neely, who tied for 4th place in the Huscarl GT with a solid 4-1 finish. Let’s see what he played!
This is a rather interesting Tau list, as it’s looking to also leverage the synergies that Firewarriors have access too. He also took 3 Battalions, so he has a ton of CP to work with.
His first Battalion is pretty simple. He has a Fireblade for his Warlord along with a Coldstar Commander. The Coldstar flies out and puts some Fusion Blaster attacks into a priority target. The Cadre Fireblade makes Fire Warriors triple fire when they are in Rapid Fire range instead of double, and his Warlord Trait gives Tau units within 6” some bonus AP on wound rolls of 6+. This combos nicely with the Tau strat for +1 to Wound.
He also has 21 Shield Drones to protect his Riptides, which is fairly standard.
His next Battalion is basically identical to the first, except there’s no Shield Drones. There’s not really much to unpack there. His last Battalion brings the big guns, as he has 3 Riptides and Darkstrider. Darkstrider provides a unit of Fire Warriors with +1 to Wound, and let’s you move D6” in response to being charged. This makes his army rather difficult to charge. The Riptides take Target Locks over Advanced Targeting Systems to help compensate for the worse Markerlight generation, since Target Locks let you ignore the Heavy and Assault weapon penalties.
This list isn’t quite as optimized as the last, but it’s much cooler since it’s so heavily built around maximizing the value of Fire Warriors. And it clearly still has a lot of teeth, since it performed decently at a GT.
This brings us to our last list, piloted by Ben Ankenbauer at the Wet Coast GT. He took 12th place out of 91 players, with a solid record of 4-1. Let’s check out his list!
Although his list has a lot of similar elements to the other lists covered today, it also has some differences that make it unique. For starters, he has some Kroot instead of just taking Fire Warriors. Kroot get a free move at the beginning of the game. This free move makes them great screens and early game objective runners.
He’s also taken Shadowsun, which is a unique Commander available to Tau Sept. Normally, once per game, a Tau Commander can declare Kauyon or Montka. Kauyon locks you in place but let’s you re-roll all missed hits, and Montka let’s you advance and count as having not moved at all for shooting.
Either of these abilities is very potent, but you have to pick one. However, Shadowsun can declare a Kauyon once per game, after she’s made her once per game use or either Kauyon or Montka. Typically, she’s used to Montka the army to a strong board position while keeping up the damage, and next turn you Kauyon to lay down the pain.
Moving right through his first Battalion, he also took Counterfire Defense Systems on his Riptides. This lets the Riptides fire Overwatch at their full Ballistic Skill. Between this and the Kroot, he has a really high amount of defense against melee armies.
His second Battalion has some larger units of Fire Warriors in it, just to take advantage of Darkstrider’s +1 to Wound ability. Where this list gets really unique is the Ghostkeel and Stealthsuits. They can deploy almost anywhere on the table thanks to their Infiltrator ability, and they bring some decent anti-infantry thanks to their Burst Cannons. Finally, the Stealth Suits can roadblock the opponent and then get pulled to a better position if they survive with the Wall Of Mirrors Stratagem.
That wraps us up for today! Tau are one of the more straightforward armies to pilot, but there are still some major decisions to be made in list construction. Everything we looked at today was built from the same frame of Riptides, Fire Warriors, and Drones, but the finishing touches and execution were all very different.
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Also, a big thanks to Games workshop for the cover photo used in our article!