9th Age: Dread Elves Review

The Dread Elves in 9th Age

Welcome to version 1.0 of the 9th Age. If you are also a first time reader on my blog, then also welcome to my blog of the Bleak Legion!

This review of the 9th Age Dread Elves will cover some broad aspects as well as go into the details of the units, points costs and effectivness:

  1. Overall themes
  2. Unit analysis
  3. The grudgy part, where I rant about the things I don’t like (also called the „fun part“)

The first part will not consist a lot of stats and instead focus on broader terms. As a new player, this section should give you a good overview.

Themes of the Dread Elves

In a good tabletop, and 9th Age is certainly one of them, each army has some distinctive themes that identify the army and make it „click“ with the players. These themes are often tied to the background story of the army, but not always necessarily so. More important is the rule representation of the „feeling“ of the army. In this section I’ll take a look at the dominant themes of the Dread Elves. The things that put the dread into the elf part. The identity, strenghts and weaknesses of the army.

If you want to start playing 9th Age and want to see, whether the Dread Elves might be the right army for you, continue reading here.

The Common Elf

The first thing when talking about the Dread Elves are of course their brothers and sisters from the Highborn Elves and Sylvan Elves. The three elven forces share a common root, but branch out differently. Independent of any specialisations, they all share their basic trooper: The Common Elf.

The common elf is fast, very fast. In game terms it means, that your elven troops can almost always move faster, strike before the enemy and strike with more precision. There are some armies who can match the elves in one aspect of this, but nobody can claim superiority or even equality in all of these matters.

After being fast, elves are also skilled with close combat and ranged weapons alike and well disciplined. Other armies surpass the Elves here, but it isn’t that common and once again, it is rare to see an enemy being better in both areas.

The common elf is rare. In game terms it means, one elf model is expensive and your elven force will most surely consist of less models than your opponent. Elves do not really have options to fields some throw-away units consisting of dozens of models. Combined with the subpar toughness of the elven warriors, suffering casualties always hurts elves.

To sum it up:

  • Very fast
  • Skillful and disciplined
  • Low in numbers
  • Fragile

Just like that, we can already determine which kind of playstyles and armies tend to work well with elves and which don’t:

  • Like to play fast, precise, elite warriors that wipe out enemies, before they even can strike back? YES!
  • Want to advance on an enemy and laugh at his puny shooting? NO
  • Do you like reliable troops, which don’t break from the enemy? Play elves!
  • Burying the enemy in an avalanche of bodies until he succumbs? Stay away!

Cult Rivalry – Nabh vs. Yema

A defining aspect of the Dread Elf army is the rivalry between the two cults. And with rivalry I mean blood feud. The army is basically split up in three parts: The Nabh followers (Blades of Nabh, Executioners), the Yema followers (Medusa, Dark Acolytes, Dancers of Yema) and the agnostics (all else). The Cult of Nabh is associated with blood and murder, while the Yema one is associated with lust.

While even the demons of Wrath, Change, Lust, and Disease can somehow overcome their differences, they Dread Elves do not. A Yema General will never suffer a Nabh follower in his army.

So on your „do I want to play Dread Elves“-list:

  • Want to field specialised and themed cult armies? Dread Elves!
  • Want to work around the cult system and figure out the perfect list? Dread Elves!
  • Maximum freedom in list building? No Dread Elves for you, Sir!

The Holy Roman Empire of Dread Elf Nations

The Dread Elves got themselves some nice ancient greek and roman monsters and decided, it would also be cool to name their troops after some good old roman troops. After all those Italians conquered nearly the whole known world (something that seems to appeal to Dread Elves very much, at least the conquering part). This means you can use:

  • Legionnaires as your default core troopers.
  • Auxiliaries to, you guessed it, support your legionnaires
  • A Medusa
  • The Hydra to just regenerate all those wounds
  • A Kraken to be used, when you really want to start a sentence with the word „release“
  • Oracles to predict the future and maybe cast some spells on opponents
  • Manticores and Pegasi to let your mighty heroes fly through the air and deliver precision strikes
  • Use Harpies to wreck your opponents plans whenever you want to
  • Send Acolytes into battle instead of temple service, no idea why, but they do it well

Back to „the list“:

  • Learned Latin in school? Only one army to bring back the horrible memories.
  • Your opponent is fielding Herakles, Perseus and Odysseus? Medusa, Pegasus, Hydra and Harpy better stay on your shelf.

Fast & Aggressive

As we already established, you will usually not outnumber your opponent. For your Dread Elf Army, this means you cannot just walk up straight to the opponent and smash him in the face. Instead you need to use your agile troops to outmaneuver the opponent or deflect his big, fat combat block just at the right moment.

The Dread Elves somehow really embrace this play style. When they hit, they hit harder than almost anybody. Pair their Lightning Reflexes with their Killer Instincts and high initiative and see how many fights will only take one round. All the while your Hydra deflected most of the shots and your Dark Raiders killed off any flank guard your opponent might have deployed. Then repeat, until your opponent has nothing left.

In game terms, the fast, small and expendable troops (often called chaff) of the Dread Elves is slightly more expensive than that of your opponents, but often wields significantly more combat strength. So as long as chaff is fighting chaff you are most often faster and stronger. In addition to that, the Dread Elves can also boost their speed by joining the Cult of Yema, allowing them to field characters on horses with free reform and have cavalry with the highest possible movement unimpeded by terrain.

Also fitting into this theme is the general tendency (with some exceptions) to prefer small units over large units. A lot of units get a discount on the first 10-15 models making small units cheaper in comparison. Other units like the Blades of Nabh have so many attacks in the front rank, that the back ranks rarely matter in a fight.

Should I play Dread Elves?

  • You like dancing around your opponent, then crashing him by a combined or rear charge? Go on!
  • You absolutely want to crush the main combat block of the opponent? I’d say no.

The Repeater Crossbow

Dread Elves don’t like longbows like their elven brethren. Instead they invented these nice little repeaters, that fill the air with a lot of bolts. With only minor exceptions all ranged combat of the Dread Elves is done with these little fast shooting armour piercing contraptions.

The Repeater Crossbow has a medium range, you’ll be outranged by longbows or artillery, but the range is enough to reliable shoot the enemy from turn 1 on (maybe you need to move a little). It only brings low strength to the table, but has some armour piercing to offset this disadvantage. The main feature however is to multishot. This means you should have a lot of dice with you. As the multishot also delivers a -1 ToHit modifier, there are some pecularities you need to work around when shooting at the opponent. Skirmishers and cover really make your crossbow wielding elves angry. Having an opponent in the open and in short range draws a smile on any self-respecting Dread Elf.

The main units to use the repeaters are the Repeater Auxiliaries, the Dark Raiders and the Raven Cloaks. Characters can also equip one and the crew of the Hunting Chariot brought theirs with them.

The Dread Elves, like a elves, do not field any heavy war machines or really dangerous and powerful shooting. So look elsewhere for an army winning the game in the shooting phase alone. Shooting will almost always be there to thin out combat blocks before a charge, force a critical panic test or clear out chaff.

What about the other Elven Armies?

The Highborn Elves represent the ancient, noble warrior. Standing there in shiny armour, battling the forces of darkness Lord of the Rings style. They bring their dragons and phoenixes with them.

The Sylvan Elves represent the forest devils. The hidden hunters who will break a bone for every twig you break while walking through their forest. They team up with the treefolk and dryads.

tl;dr

  • Elves – means elite, fast, small numbers, fragile
  • Brutal in close combat, but need precision strikes
  • Roman Empire mythology and names
  • Cult Rivalry restricts army composition
  • Repeater Crossbow – many low strength shots

Unit Analysis

Core Units

In every game you need to have at least 25% of your army to be made of core troops. These are most often units with less special rules and the most basic implementation of an army. Don’t expect your core troops to single-handedly win the game for you.

Dread Legionnaires

The Legionnaires field the basic common elf setup:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 4 4 3 3 1 5 1 8

If the Dread Elves have something that qualifies as a „mass troop“ these guys are it. They are the cheapest unit in our book and perform their duty admirably. There are two options for them: As weapon they can use the hand weapon plus shield combination to get parry or for a small investment they get spears, making them much more efficient in combat. As parry only helps if the opponent has WS 5 or more, I always give them spears.

The second option is to get heavy armour. These looks like a good option, but is also expensive. The community on the 9th Age forums seems to be divided on whether to get this upgrade or not, but I like to keep them cheap and rather invest in more models.

When I use Legionnaires, they are usually my characters bunker for my close combat chars. Any losses from war machines are more likely to be shrugged off than with other troops and they still provide the ranks to break enemies steadfast, if your heroes got off enough kills. In my games the Legionnaires never failed to deliver their role. Be it to get that Dread Prince into combat, win fights versus skirmishers by ranks alone or just suffer huge losses while other parts of the army did their job.

Repeater Auxiliaries

The Repeater Auxiliaries field the basic common elf setup:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 4 4 3 3 1 5 1 8

The Repeater Auxiliaries are in a peculiar position due to the Repeater Crossbow. They either hit on 3+ or 4+ (the latter being true for no modifier except long range) and can switch to multiple shots for a really efficient shooting phase or cannot and are therefore severly overcosted. This also means, that any modifier of their ToHit by magic (e.g. Enchanted Blades or Shadow Miasma) has huge implications.

Versus some armies, especially ones with a lot of skirmishers, they are never worth it. Versus others (preferably T3 with medium armour) they can really put on the hurt. The Repeaters are one exception to the rule of getting a discount on the initial models, instead the first ten are more expensive than the following models. This is a pity, since they do not work in too large units, as only the first two ranks can shoot.

Repeaters can be upgraded with a shield. Then they fight as well as a Dread Legionnaire in close combat. Keep this in mind, if the enemy e.g. has ambushers or a lot of chaff. With shields your repeaters can withstand shooting from chaff and clear them out in a close combat quite easily, as they usually strike first and therefore diminish the amount of attacks they receive.

I look at the Auxiliaries with mixed feelings. In some games they really suck and don’t kill anything. In some games the enemy has the right targets and they just let loose a huge amount of bolts and diminish the opponent. You absolutely do not want to shoot on very cheap by tough troops like Orcs or Wildhorns. On the other hand, shooting at human or elven heavy cavalry with 2+ armour can be quite successful, as every unsaved wound is a lot of points. A role they have been doing quite well is babysitting my Oracles and receiving a standard bearer. This way they can stay back, provide cover and claim secondary objectives. If your opponent is likely to field good targets for them, a large block with the possibility to buff ranged combat might be hilarious.

Corsairs

The Corsairs field the basic common elf setup:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 4 4 3 3 1 5 1 8

Undergoing a lot of changes the Corsairs now received a major price drop for the first ten models and a steep price up for any additional ones. The most notable thing on them is their really tough armour of 4+. Due to their similarity in stats and comparable combat effectivness the Corsairs often compete with the Dread Legionnaires as the largest block in the Dread Elves army.

As far as options go, the Corsairs are the swiss army knive of the Dread Elves. In good old marine fashion they can fill multiple roles: Cheap small unit, small range attacker, multi-purpose main combat block and bunker, and so on. For one point each the Corsairs can get paired weapons (bringing them close to Spear Legionnaires in close combat, even surpassing them when less than 15 models), Repeater Handbow (the „does not combo“ version of the throwing weapon) and even vanguard if a Fleet Commander is in the army.

For me, the Corsairs have lost their attractiveness. For a large block they are always more expensive than the Legionnaires. This means, they cannot suffer casualties as good as the spears. The added Handbows are really nice, if you can move before an enemy and then have them charge you. However if that situations does not arise, you are usually better off with a straight charge. In small units they still can be very efficient. Ten with paired weapons cost only 90 points and deliver 15 close combat attacks that will hit on 2+ very often. Additionally their armour protects them from normal shooting very well and helps winning combats versus other chaff. I used this setup with great success versus the Saurian Ancients.

Dark Raiders

The Dark Raiders field the basic common elf setup, riding on elven horses. These horses are faster than normal horses:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Elf 5 4 4 3 3 1 5 1 8
Horse 9 3 3 3 1 4 1 3

Once upon a time in a land far away, these guys were the best fast cavalry in the game. In 9th Age they have to battle hard with the other elven fast cavalry for that title. Still they remain a prime chaff clearer, war machine hunter and re-director.

For three points each you can get them shields (raising armour to 4+) and repeater crossbows (making them a real nuisance). These options are quite expensive and some players try to save points here. But this also reduces their possible roles, so it has to be a careful decision.

For the Raiders the Crossbow game is easy. As the can fire on the march, you will usually try to get around your opponent and within short range. That will allow multiple shots hitting on 5+, a good proposition and the one thing the Dark Raiders are still unrivalled among core troops.

Although the discussion among the community has become more and more sceptic towards the Dark Raiders, they remain a mainstay in my armies. I recognize, they are not as good as they once were and their cost is getting more and more expensive, but I always have at least one troop as counter-chaff or more often a redirector for the opponent’s main combat block. Every now and then I also field a large unit of eight to ten Raiders. These are surprisingly effective at shooting, creating enough hits to demand a reaction from the opponent. A nice option would be a Yema cult army and add a character on a free reform elven horse to give them close combat power, I have however not tried that, yet.

Blades of Nabh

The Blades of Nabh field the basic common elf setup:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 4 4 3 3 1 5 1 8

They are aligned with Nabh and so switched their Killer Instincts for Hatred. Something that is great for them, as they also have poison. The Blades are an extreme unit. On the offensive they have frenzy, paired weapons, hatred, poison and lightning reflexes. On the defensive they have nothing whatsover, plus have to deal with their frenzy.

The Blades are the second ranked unit to reverse the MSU promotion by putting a tax on the first ten models. Again this hurts especially, as these units perform very well as small units. As their cost is very high the Blades carry a large bull’s eye around. Expect the enemy to aim their ranged weaponry on these scary women first. Even the lowest pack of Mongrel Raiders might be able to score their points by just shooting one or two times at the Blades. If the Blades of Nabh however reach combat with at least their first rank intact, the enemy often is in a world of hurt. Seven wide with champion already means 22 attacks. With poison, with hatred, with reflexes… you get the picture. The Blades love to fight against unarmoured targets, whether they have low or high toughness.

The Blades of Nabh currently do not get a lot of love in the community. Their high cost and shooting heavy meta games seem to push them on the bench in many tournaments. As I don’t play those, I often field them if the enemy army doesn’t seem to have too many good counters (I certainly won’t play them versus Dwarves or Empire) and then they truly rock. I absolutely love rolling more than 20 dice for just seven models and re-roll, and re-roll until those sixes pile up.

Special Units

Dancers of Yema

Being elite infantry, the Dancers of Yema have better Weapon Skill than the common elf:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 5 4 3 3 1 5 1 8

The Dancers are followers of Yema and so always have +1 M and Strider. They are lightly armoured and carry a shield. In Close Combat however they mainly rely on their 4+ ward save to stay alive. This makes them the infantry unit that is hardest to kill in close combat.

With their Gladiator Weapons they have free choice between all normal weapon options. Unfortunately most weapon options are quite bad for them. Hand weapon will grant parry, but this works only if the opponent has WS 6 or more and completely takes away any capability to effectivly kill something. Spears are only really viable for large blocks and also only grant S3 attacks. Paired Weapons produce some more attacks, but again suffer from their low strength. This leaves the choice between great weapons, halberds and flails. The math usually boils down to: Great weapons for a prolonged fight, flails to snipe a character or close the combat before the enemy can strike back.

Dancers can also skirmish for two points per model, but only if less than 15 models. This and the cost structure (there is a huge discount of 50 points on the first ten models) really favours small units of Dancers. Unfortunately this is in direct contradiction to their other combat capabilities. Being very weak in terms of killing things (at least for elite elven infantry) they cannot really leverage their small unit size, as they will lose combats by static combat resolution, when not killing enough.

In my games the Dancers could not convince me of their value. The rules are all nice on their own, but they do not form a good package. The ward save, low strength and low amount of attacks would make them a good anvil. But their cost structure and Yema rules directly contradict it. These are all made for a fast hard hitting, glass cannon style of unit. As the individual rules all look very nice, their reception is still quite good, I did however not see a battle report where they have been used to great success, neither as skirmishers nor as ranked unit. A good idea might be to skirmish and get a killy hero, for example an Assassin, in them to deliver the blows.

Executioners

The Executioners are one of the strongest elves and feature an impressive stat line:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 5 4 4 3 1 5 1 8

The Executioners belong to the Cult of Nabh. So they switched their Killer Instincts for Hatred. As they carry Executioner’s Blades, that count as great weapons, this is a good swap.

Their blade makes them the ultimate characters hunters. It grants a stupidly worded multiple wounds rule against infantry, war beasts, cavalry. Right, these models usually have only one wound, except when being characters. Additionally the weapon also grants the Lethal Strike rule, which is very situational but might negate some armour and the occasional regeneration save.

Executioners are expensive, very expensive. But they are also very deadly, especially for characters. This makes them hated by Dread Elf opponents and Dread Elf players alike. The former ones fear for their characteres, the later ones see their 400 points unit shot down by normal bow fire and the occasional catapult. For this reason the Executioners are often played in large units, even when the price structure would favour a small unit. As they do not have a lot of attacks and don’t get +1 ToHit due to fighting with a great weapon, the Executioners should be targeted on the right targets. Do not let them get into a fight with a tarpit, but with those nice heavy armoured knights or some characters. And protect them from shooting in any way you can.

Executioners have been showing up at the full size of 30 models in a lot of army list throughout the whole lifetime of 9th Age. With S6 attacks and high weapon skill they often annihilate units in short fashion and some crazy ward saves aside, not much can stand in their way. For this the Ring of Shadows and the Divine Altar have been used heavily to make sure they reach combat in strength. I have not used them in this way and had only little to medium success with smaller units. Either the enemy did diminish my unit early and I couldn’t charge their main block anymore or the Executioners just didn’t get into the right fight.

Tower Guard

The Tower Guard counts among the most elite among the Dread Elves. Even highe LD, I and WS account for that:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 5 4 3 3 1 6 1 9

With the Tower Guard comes the Elite Infantry unbothered with the Cults. The Guard is equipped with Halberds and Heavy Armour. But much more important is their special rules package. Specifically because the rules actually work together really well.

Killer Instinct remains and allows the to take the Banner of Blood, making their To Wound rolls much better. Lightning Reflexes we all now of. Immune to Psychology means, they won’t run, they won’t fear anything. Bodyguard means that you can go head on with other large blocks and won’t run, because of one bad round of dice. It also means, they can work as a small unit with a hero to assassinate something or hold an enemy for a few rounds. Armour Piercing (1) ensures, that you are able to kill off medium armoured targets and have a decent chance, even versus 1+ armour opponents, as the Tower Guard lacks high strength attacks.

(Im am not going to talk about Dread Guardians upgrade)

The community mainly regards the Tower Guard as the best elite infantry option and I agree a 100%. In my games they stood against an Ancient Dragon thanks to their bodyguard as well as completely annihilated large enemy blocks by just killing and killing and killing lots of stuff. They love being buffed by the Divine Altar and work well in large blocks. They are also custom made to benefit from the Banner of Blood. With their huge initiative they also strike before other elves and sometimes even before enemy heroes. If you want to have a large elite infantry block, look no further. Get a decent augment spell on them and see them competing with anything in the game.

Dread Knights

Even more elite than the Tower Guard. The Knights have the best stat line of all elven units:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Elf 5 5 4 4 3 1 6 1 9
Raptor 7 3 4 4 1 2 2 5

The Dread Knights form the heavy cavalry of the Dread Elves. Compared to other Elven Cavalry they are quite slow, as they exchanged horses for those sturdy raptors. On the plus side, the Raptors are a serious factor in close combat and provide T4 to the combined profile. Sadly, Raptors are also stupid, which means every turn you’ll have this heart pounding moment, where it is decided whether your cavalry with actually do something. Luckily you can alleviate this, by getting a Beast Master.

With T4 and 2+ armour these are easily the best unit to weather some shooting, as long as it doesn’t ignore armour. With their still decent movement, they can still rush flanks and create a good threat range.

Thanks to their mounts, the Dread Knights suffer less from protracted fights than other cavalry. You can expect them to grind down other units, as long as they aren’t too strong or have strong attacks themselves. As each model dishes out three attacks, the Dread Knights are one of the best targets for augment spells, they especially like Moraec’s Fury I heard them saying more than one time.

I absolutely love the Dread Knights, more so than the most other players I am aware of, who mainly critisize the movement and stupidity of the Raptors. I shrug that off, put my BSB in there who can get to 1+ armour save with just a hardened shield and save a lot of points. Or directly build a main combat block out of them, with Path of Nature to back them up. Always keep in mind, that the Dread Knights do not need to break the enemy on the charge. Each model still gives you three S4 attacks. One augment spell like Fury or Beast Within will demolish the opponent for good.

Raptor Chariot

The first of two chariots of the Dread Elves, is the Dread Knight transformed into a chariot:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Chariot 5 5 4
Crew (2) 5 4 4 6 1 9
Raptor (2) 7 3 4 2 2 5

The Raptor Chariot being drawn by the namegiving Raptors, suffers from the same drawbacks the Dread Knights do: Stupidity and comparably low movement. On the plus side the chariot has supreme fighting capabilities, even after the first round: Six attacks with S4 is nothing you can ignore just like that. The chariot is also very sturdy. T5 and 3+ armour means your opponent will usually not try to shoot at it, since all other things are easier to damage.

Just like the Dancers of Yema, the Raptor Chariot is however a package of things that really do not go well together. To understand this, look at the basic tasks of a chariot: Protect flanks, clear chaff by impact hits, support combats by impact hits.

Now, the M7 is a huge difference, as the chariot cannot march. It will lose three inches in every turn compared to Dread Elf infantry. This also means, its threat range is severly limited. The stupidity also means, that a failed test might spell doom for the chariot. If it cannot get off the charge, it is easy prey to other units. When they attack, they will send it fleeing by combat resolution alone. Additionally the chariot cannot even flee from undesirable situations. For all these drawbacks we get good stats, that will help to support a combat: Only no one will ever attack the chariot, as it’s just that more sturdy than the elves the enemy is more likely to attack. Because of the low movement the chance to actually reach the combat is also greatly diminished.

In the end the Dread Elves have a chariot for a hefty price, that is really bad at chariot duties and slightly better at irrelevant stuff.

My verdict: Don’t ever field this. This is the worst unit in the book and possibly the worst chariot in the whole game. Looking at Wasteland Chariot or Lion Chariot will probably sent you crying. I don’t see a single reason, why anybody should take this. If you want chariots, look in the rare section.

Harpies

Harpies are no Elves, so they are the first unit, to have completely different stats:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 3 3 3 1 5 2 6

Harpies have completely whimsical stats, but the best thing: It doesn’t matter. Harpies are the ultimate redirector and part-time war machine hunter. They got very cheap in the end, insignificant and ultra-fast with Fly(10).

Harpies are more or less the ultra specialised Dark Raiders: Faster, cheaper, more throw away, smaller. They are the textbook chaff. Get there and redirect the 700 points block of the enemy, then die horribly. If they did that, they usually got their points back, by preventing a crucial charge or protecting an open flank.

Medusa

The Medusa is a single model of monstrous infantry, that walks around with these stats:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
6 5 4 4 4 3 5 5 8

As a follower of Yema, the Medusa also has +1 M and Strider, making it a fast lone model. Designed to get into the right fight and snipe a character, help out in a fight or redirect the enemy.

To achieve this, the Medusa can take a mandatory halberd with her (as if somebody would ever give her another weapon). She has distracting, swiftstride, fear and a petrifying stare to help her out in close combat.

The stare is so circumstantial, just forget it. Also forget getting into any combat. As you see, the Medusa has zero defense against range and only three wounds. As it costs 77 points, shooting on the Medusa is even more efficient than shooting on Blades of Nabh. But the Blades at least can have more models and try to get the crucial first rank into combat. Well, the Medusa cannot do that. As she doesn’t have Lightning Reflexes she will probably do 2-3 wounds before dying inevitably. It’s like a glass cannon, without the cannon part.

Some people on the forums claim to like the lonely Medusa. I guess they didn’t play with her, yet and were just happy with the minimum size reduction from 2+ to 1, as most players only own one model. From my point of view, the Medusa is very close to the Raptor Chariot in uselessness. Seriously, if you have any kind of shooting, there is no unit in the whole game across 16 army books to more easily get points than the Medusa. Additionally she isn’t that deadly in combat to offset this. Neither is she insignificant, so killing her might also panic other troops nearby. Just pretend she isn’t there and you’ll be happier.

 Divine Altar

The Divine Altar is so special, it is one of a kind. It also causes nerd rage across the whole game so has seen more changes than Michael Jackson’s face. The stats:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Wagon 8 5 5 5
Nabh (3) 5 4 3 5 1 8
Yema (2) 4 4 3 5 1 8
Medusa 5 4 4 5 5 8

The Wagon itself is impressive on its own as it brings 5+ armour and 4+ ward save on a durable chassis, with D6+1 impact hits and a good movement. Also it is the Dread Elves buff wagon: Hand out a nice 5+ ward save (not versus magic), +1 attack or +1 leadership.

The Altar comes in two variations: One good and one bad Cult of Yema and Cult of Nabh! The Nabh Disciples are basically Blades of Nabh, having paired weapons, poison, hatred and so on. Additionally it also has Magic Resistance (1) to help it even more against spells.

The Yema version has only two disciples, who carry lances. But the third place is reserved for the Medusa (*yay*). Laughing at the third Nabh disciple the Medusa has five attackes with S5, one of them benefitting from the petrifying stare. This means seven additional S5 attacks on the charge. Take that puny enemy! If this is not enough to convince you from the Yema superiority, how about +1 M and Strider on a chariot. That’s right, strider on a chariot!

Okay, so basically the Altar is in almost each and every list and it is easy to see why. First it grants a 5+ ward save to your main combat block. This also means you can cheat on your characters defensive setup and just focus on being more deadly. Additionally the Yema altar is also one hell of a chariot. M9 and strider makes it fast and reliable. Together with the 4+ ward save, the enemy might think twice before shooting at it. Even after charging: Which enemy can stand too long versus a chariot that has a Medusa standing on it with that kind of defense: While the Medusa dishes out you need to overcome T5, 5+, 4++. My advice: Take it, except for lists with a lot of Executioners and Blades of Nabh. In that case, swap the Executioners for Tower Guard and take it, then.

Rare

Raven Cloaks

Every Dread Elf army should have a backstabbing element. These guys drive it home:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 5 5 3 3 1 5 1 8

The Cloaks are the Dread Elves elite scouts. The come with a Repeater Crossbows and have options for Light Armour, Great Weapons, Paired Weapons and Poison in Close Combat.

For efficiency reasons, they get great weapons most of the time to be able to fend off a small monster or a chariot with ease. Otherwise they roam around and put their little crossbow bolts into the bodies of the enemy. BS 5 makes all the difference here. It means, they can march into close range and then still hit on 4+ with multiple shots.

Basically these guys with great weapons (and maybe poison (and maybe maybe light armour)) are what the skirmishing Dancers of Yema would like to be: They wander around pester the enemy and then strike with precision. If the opponent does not have something to take them out easily, they will get their points by shooting alone. More often than not, Assassins hide within the Raven Cloaks.

I like the Raven Cloaks, especially with an Assassin within them. Geared with great weapons, they can take out a chariot if they are not charged or even threaten a monster. They can aid in a crucial fight and otherwise just hit incredibly well with their crossbows. Most likely the enemy will have to either blast them away with magic or direct units worth much more to deal with them. They don’t always work that good, but often enough to secure them a spot in many of my lists.

Hunting Chariot

The second chariot of the Dread Elves. This is the more mobile horse drawn version:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Chariot 5 4 4
Crew (2) 4 4 3 5 1 8
Horse (2) 9 3 3 4 1 3

The crew has light lances and repeater crossbows and the chariot has an armour save of 4+ and D6+1 impact hits. Additionally one must choose between a Giant Bow and a Harpoon Launcher.

The Hunting Chariot is a high impact chariot with a great threat range due to its mobility. With M9 anything within 18 inches must fear the possibility of a successful charge. Additionally the chariot is also the chassis for a strong ranged attack. The harpoon has S7 and Multiple Wounds D3. It is therefore the most dangerous weapon against really tough great monsters or monstrous infantry and cavalry. The giant bow is only S5 but ignores armour and can penetrate ranks. No one ever takes it, as the harpoon is just so much better.

From where I stand the Hunting Chariot is the reason, why no one needs to look at the Raptor Chariot. The Hunting Chariot has everything I expect from a chariot: It has good movement and effective impact hits. It is reliable and sufficient durable. T4, 4+ is still more hardy than the elven infantry so you can send it into a combat and expect to affect the combat score in a positive way. Additionally it is the best weapon in the arsenal to deal with T6 monsters. No surprise for me, that the rules team began nerfing it down in the last iterations and moved it to rare to prevent spamming. The cost is now at 125 points with harpoon, an easy 25% increase in the last iterations. It still remains incredibly viable, especially against armies known to field multiple wound models. If you are unsure whether to take one: Take it! Its variety of uses will almost always make certain, that you find a good role.

Dark Acolytes

The special Yema cavalry, is somehow rare but fields a core statline:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Elf 5 4 4 4 3 1 5 2 8
Horse 9 3 3 3 1 4 1 3

The Acolytes have a very nice setup of a 4++ ward save, light troops and poison. Together with their speed they can get where they should be and then deliver the pain via poison.

The Acolytes can also join the Yema cult, making them ridiculously fast and ignorant of terrain. Get where you want to and then attack the crap out of your opponents backfield, chaff or other lonely stuff. Targets without a lot of armour, might also find themselves in a pickle due to the poisonous nature of their attacks and the difficulty of getting wounds through their ward save.

Additionally there are a lot of options for the Acolytes. First their Champion also makes them into a wizard conclave, giving them a set of two very potent spells. As agnostics, they have the Bolt of Darkness and Curse of Mortality. As Yema followers they possess Wicked Lash and Crippling Agony.

Basically one should always consider the role of the Acolytes in the battle to come, when writing the list. Adding a champion might change their role from fast rusher unit to dance around and shoot magic attacks. In that case, the unit should not be too large, otherwise too much points are bound. On the other hand a larger unit can also be used with a character. If the general is Yema the character can use free reform to ride with them unimpeded, adding a whole lot of combat prowess. I like fielding them, but they don’t always work out as good as I think. Mostly when I trust too much in the ward save. Remember, that it is only a 4+, you cannot risk getting a lot of hits from anything.

Dread Reaper

This thing we share with the Highborn Elves:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Reaper 7 2
Crew (2) 5 4 4 3 3 1 5 1 8

A bolt thrower with 48“ range, that can multishot with S4, AP(1) bolts all while benefitting from the BS4 of the elven crew is something many armies would like to have. They are also the only war machine available to the elves and fit their style. Not a huge impact, but reliable. Does not annihilate unit with one hit, but will always do its share.

Besides the Hunting Chariot this is the best weapon of the Dread Elves against highly armoured single models and monstrous cavalry or infantry. With the repeating shot ability it is also almost never without a good target. For laughs, the best target is indeed special elven infantry: High cost, low toughness and just enough armour to be ignore by the multishot. Otherwise high point models like Wasteland Warriors or Dwarves are also fair game. Of course the best scenario is always to single shot that ridden monster of the opponent and see it going down.

The Dread Reaper is a mainstay in so many armies, that I deliberately play without it sometimes. You can opt to do that, if you play a specifically agressive army and wonder, if you will ever get a free shot with your Reapers. Also if you expect ambushing units, it might be beneficial to forego the easy targets. Otherwise a Reaper will always complement an armay and a whole battery of three might thin down your opponent very effectively, before you engage in combat. If you want to stay back and shoot, three are definitely mandatory.

Kraken

Last but not least come the Dread Elf monsters:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
6 4 1 7 5 5 2 4 6

The Kraken also has innate defense 4+ and hard target as well as distracting for defense. In the offense it has strider(water), poison and multiple wounds (D3).

What we see from the stats and skills, it becomes clear, that the Kraken is really powerful, but is lacking in defense, number of attacks and severly in leadership. This makes the Kraken really bad outside the generals bubble, at restricts it to fighting in the centre, where more shooting is prevalent getting it killed more often.

With its stats the Kraken is really bound to be a Monster Killer. However it fails to deliver, as the defense is quite low for a main combat monster. Additionally it does not have stubborn and the weakest leadership out of all monsters in the game. The last aspect can be remedied by buying the Alpha Predator upgrade. AP costs 45 points to get the Kraken to leadership 8, which is okay, but still not great.

The Kraken was basically never played by anyone, tempting the rules team to upgrade it with distracting and hard target. The community is still sceptical and reports do not tend to show great Kraken victories. I never played it for obvious reasons and probably won’t, not just because of the Krakens weaknesses, but because the Dread Elves have a second monster in the exact same price range.

Hydra

And here is the monster, people actually like to play with:

M WS BS S T W I A LD
6 4 1 5 5 5 2 7 6

The Hydra brings the famous regeneration 4+ to add to its innate defense of 4+. Together with the large amount of attacks and the possibility to get a breath weapon, the Hydra is very popular in Dread Elf lists.

The Hydra also struggles with the low leadership, but because of its resilience it is better suited to stay in the centre. Also it can attract a lot of shooting and shake it off, leaving the more vulnerable elves unscathed. The Hydra can be combined with a Beast Master to give her hatred and further boost the effectiveness of the monster. With comparably low strength but many attacks the Hydra is more suited to battle huge amount of weak infantry than going against heavy cavalry, monsters or strong characters.

The Hydra is a definitive „sometimes“ in my lists. Most of the time the flame breath is very valuable and the combat is „so-so“. Somehow it seems to be very difficult to get her to a fight with the right opponent. As a Hydra with flame breath already costs 210 points you should think carefully, whether this is a worthy investment in your army list.

Characters

Dread Prince & Captain

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Prince 5 7 7 4 3 3 8 4 10
Captain 5 6 6 4 3 2 7 3 9

The fighter heroes really drive home the Elf stats. Incredibly skillful, very high initiative and the (second) best leadership in the game. However both still only have T3 and S4.

As the elves are severely lacking in strength you would usually want to equip them with a strength enhancing weapon. With an Ogre Sword or a Headsmen’s Axe the strength is then high enough to really deal a lot of damage, since they’ll be hitting almost anything on a 2+ and benefit from Killer Instinct to further upgrade the chance of wounding.

Looking at the equipment options, the fighters have options for most weapons and armour. Ranged weapons include the Repeater Crossbow and Handbow. No possibility to leverage that higher strength here. Also the Dread Elves do not have a magical ranged weapon available. This fits the Dread Elf theme of being the most close combat oriented of the elven armies.

On mounts the Dread Prince can choose from a wide variety: Elven Horse, Raptor, Raptor Chariot, Pegasus, Manticore, Dragon. The Captain cannot take the Dragon, but everything else.

The special options for both can make them a follower of one of the cults. If the character is also the general, this means you are commanding an army of said cult, transforming all core units to that cult, mandatory upgrades of all units able to do to join this cult and excluding units of the other cult. For Yema, this might be a good thing, as it unlocks the „Free Reform“ upgrade for characters on Elven Horses and a whole army with increased movement and strider might be a viable strategy. For Nabh it is definitely not worth it, as it can be easily calculated what is given up (Killer Instinct) and what is gained (Hatred). This is very close to a downgrade for the core units and still costs a lot of points on mandatory upgrades.

The other special options are Beast Master and Fleet Commander. The Beast Master can give hatred to monster or mounts and reduce the chance of stupidity and/or frenzy on these monsters. It is expensive, but also a fun option and gives clear incentives in list building, that can be very fun to put together. The Fleet Commander is only available to infantry and allows getting a 1+ armour save. It also makes fleeing from units with the Fleet Commander upgrade nearly impossible, so you’ll get everybody who runs. Corsairs can also vanguard.

Since Lord Level caster are somewhat fallen from grace, the Dread Prince is a mainstay in most lists. As Elven characters lack natural punch and toughness the 50 points magic allowance on Captains is often not enough to create a strong enough character. So this role falls onto the Dread Prince. I like fielding the Dread Prince quite cheap with Crimson Mail, Headsmen’s Axe and Divine icon on foot. Being supremely deadly for less than 250 points is very nice. Other build get more expensive very fast. A Dread Prince on Manticore usually costs around 400 points. The Captain is more often seen on a Pegasus, on a Raptor Chariot for increased durability or on foot with a defensive setup to protect the Battle Standard.

Exalted Oracle & Oracle

M WS BS S T W I A LD
Exalted 5 4 4 3 3 3 5 1 9
Oracle 5 4 4 3 3 2 5 1 8

The Oracles does magic and nothing else. This is a good thing, as we don’t have to pay for mediocre fighting stats or anything else. With Master of the Dark Arts, channeling for power dice becomes better, a valid strategy to use in games.

Mounts allowed for the Exalted Oracle are: Horse, Raptor, Pegasus, Manticore, Dragon. The Oracle may be on a Elven Horse, Raptor or Pegasus. This allows for some „lone wizard“ builds, especially with the Wandering Familiar item. This allows the Oracle to stay hidden and still create lines of sight.

The Oracles have access to all eight normal paths and the Path of Black Magic as well. If they join the Cult of Yema, they leave the options of Wilderness, Nature, Light and Heavens behind and get access to the Path of Lust. A nice option, but it comes at a hefty price of 30/20 points. Be aware, that this upgrade becomes mandatory in Cult of Yema armies, so you might have to pay extra for your casters and lose access to some magic paths.

After the magic change which reduced the casting bonus for lord level casters to +2, I don’t play Exalted Oracles that often anymore and most players seem to see it the same way. An Exalted Oracle usually costs around 300 points with gear and only channels as a single caster. For this amount of points one can get two Oracles, which means better channelling, the possibility to have different paths and carrying more arcane items. There are however good scenarios for an Exalted Oracle. Some paths just need you to have a lot of spells in them and in small games, an Exalted Oracle might be the only way to needing a double Captain setup, just to fill the roles of BSB and General.

Cult Priest

M WS BS S T W I A LD
5 6 6 4 3 2 7 3 8

The second option for a battle standard bearer is the Cult Priest. It is a more expensive Captain with some additional options for weapons, as the priest has access to the Cult’s special weapons (Executioner’s Blade and Gladiator Weapons) and a special rule. Nabh followers gain Devastating Charge, Yema followers gain Aura of Despair. To offset these advantages Cult Priests do not have options for Heavy Armour and the Beast Master or Fleet Commander upgrades. Nor can they carry ranged weapons and their Leadership is only 8.

The one thing that sets the Cult Priest apart is the possibility to ride a Divine Altar into battle.

I have yet to see another application than an altar riding cult priest. There are zero advantages of the Cult Priest over the Captain and the priest is more vulnerable on top of that, when not riding the Divine Altar. The Aura of Despair of the Yema priest also needs a way to provide fear in order to actually do something, so either a magic item or the Altar is necessary to get any benefit from that rule.

Assassin

M WS BS S T W I A LD
6 7 7 4 3 2 9 3 9

Moving on from the worst to one of the most popular choices on the heroes. The Assassin features an impressive stat line for a hero. He excels at every „elvish“ attribute having supreme movement (handy in Yema lists), skill, initiative and leadership. More often than not, more than your opponent’s lord will have.

Ranting

Before anyone might get the wrong idea: I absolutely love the 9th Age and the active community already effected very important changes in the process and gets heard a lot. So don’t take my ranting the wrong way.

To understand where this comes from, one should know two things:

  1. My job involves careful design and realisation of products. Many concepts apply to the game design process as well, so I am trained to „see“ those things.
  2. I have been a long time reader of Mark Rosewater’s column about the design of Magic: The Gathering. One of the best game designs in the world and on top of that a very balanced game. Some aspects of that process are (currently) missing in the 9th Age.

Lack of Goals and Design Imperatives

Magic: The Gathering (short: MtG) has the infamous colour pie. As the game has five colours of magic, they needed something to differentiate the capabilites of these colours. In that game it means, that some colours cannot do certain things at all, some colours instead have access to certain abilities at a discount as it fits their theme.

Of course the very same concept is also active for 9th Age. Some armies have easy access to war machines, others don’t. Some armies teem with elite close combat options, others barely get to WS 4.

For the Dread/Highborn/Sylvan Elves the iron rule is: All Elves have Lightning Reflexes and T3. We all know that! Well, we don’t. Nowhere has it been stated, that this is a design requirement, the community just assumed, because it „always has been like that“. We all know that „always has been like that“ is not a valid argument and maybe also the road to hell.

This is only the most obvious example. Other design goals were obviously the Dread Elves are the CC oriented elves, the Highborn the protective ones and the Sylvan Elves the ranged shooting ones. Again, this has nowhere been stated.

Setting those design goals for every army should have been done as the very first thing. It would have solidified balancing discussions, providing a clear goal for the army to aim for. If during balancing one would see, that Dread Elves are not getting into close combats anymore, the reason could be analysed and then solved.

This could also start setting armies apart in a better way. I think that every army should have an „iconic“ unit. This unit should be slightly underpriced to ensure it sees play and is relevant in the game. Obviously the Warriors of the Dark Gods ABC did exactly that (and communicated this to the community) and the Wasteland Warriors have been pushed into a viable role from day one. The question for me is: Which thing are the Dread Elves supposed to be best at? At first I assumed (see above, no design to follow) that our Dark Raiders are that iconic unit, perfectly capturing the reaving, fast, agile way of the Dread Elves. But as the other Elves got comparable, sometimes even better fast cavalry, this is obviously not true. So where is it? The thing that Dread Elves are better at, than everybody else?

The Cult Rivalry

Why are Trolls in 9th Age a good design?

Among other things, like a common stat line, the essential regeneration and flavourful special rule, they follow a nice little concept: They balance the bonus and malus.

Trolls are basically too strong. They have extraordinary special rules (regeneration, fear, troll belch) and nice stats for comparably low points. They are balanced by the combination of LD 4 and stupidity and the fact, that regeneration can be negated by fire. This creates a little sub-game: Will the opponent be able to leverage that stupidity or LD to his advantage? Does the opponent have flaming attacks to remove the regeneration? If yes, the opponent might dispatch the trolls quite easily, if not, the troll player will have a nice advantage.

What does this have to do with the Dread Elves? Well the Cult rules should be the same: Have drawback and offset it with a suitable advantage. Without looking at all the details the following can easily be said:

The advantages are not even closely balancing the drawbacks

The Dread Elves are the only book, where whole units are forbidden if certain options are used. The Dread Elves have to pay huge amounts on mandatory upgrades if fielding a cult general. Often these points are just a tax with no benefit whatsoever. For the Nabh cult you even have to pay for a downgrade! Examples are easy to come by: When fielding a Yema General, all your Oracles become 30/20 points more expensive and cannot use four lores they could have used before. Also Beast Master and Fleet Commander are directly unavailable for you.

On the bonus side there is not much to find. Instead of using the troll template from above and giving significant upgrade the army barely benefits from the cult rules. The best units to receive the Hatred upgrade from Cult of Nabh already have it (Blades and Executioners). The core units overall get weaker by losing Killer Instincts. You lose access to Yema units and pay at least 30-40 points on hero upgrades on top of that.

The whole thing is just that more annoying, as the Cult Rivalry is a very nice design idea and could have been a huge success in making very different styles of Dread Elf lists possible. The Dread Elf community is already at a dangerous point, where they lost the faith the in Rules Team to fix the Cult rules and support the idea of dropping the whole thing to at least get rid of the ridiculous prohibitive restrictions on list building for absolutely zero benefit.

Clinging to „the era before 9th Age“

There are some units in the book which just don’t make sense from their setup or stats. Clearly the teams are stuck with old designs and cannot get away from them. In the end the Dread Elf book suffers from different restrictions:

  1. Some time in the past, the Dread Elf monsters  had handlers which provided the leadership for the whole model. Then they were removed and just like that the DE monsters became the monster with the lowest morale in the whole game. In an army, that pays to have high leadership and fragile troops (panic tests) this is a catastrophe. No other monster in the other army book runs away so easily. This is clearly a leftover that has never been corrected. But instead of updating the template and bring them on par with all other monsters in the game, the issue has been largely ignored. Additionally the DE are one of only two armies, where the main combat monster is not stubborn or unbreakable. Again for absolutely no reason at all (see the Trolls above, the DE monsters are also not discounted for having such low leadership).
  2. Both monsters cost nearly the same. As the rules team obviously didn’t want to change their stats too much, they compete for the very same spot. Both are combat oriented monsters with the exact same movement, initiative and leadership. Naturally one is always better than the other (Hydra > Kraken) and consequently one does never get played. The community petitioned more than once to make the Kraken either much stronger or weaker and move it into another price range to solve that issue.
  3. The problem of „same stats“ also afflicts the Legionnaires and the Corsairs. While the role of the Legionnaires is very fixed and also a perfect design, the Corsairs moved around the Legionnaires like a satellite. In some iterations the Corsairs were clearly better and the Legionnaires were benched. Then the Corsairs got weaker and they have been sitting on the bench since. The fact, that the Corsairs do not have any nautical theme at all and instead have stats that support a toothless anvil was adressed many times. As the stat line for the common elf is fixed, and the equality of the number of attacks from paired weapons and spears (with extra rank) this means, these units often have identical (not similar) game impact. One then just has to count the points to see what is superior. A design, that would fit the raiding nature of the Corsairs and move them away from the 4+ armour, paired weapons, throwing weapons template could have cleared that issue.

Insignificant Rules

The issue of cognitive load should be common to every one involved in creation of rules. 9th Age is already a very complex and complicated game. Complex is good, complicated is bad.

Aura of Despair: This is just a design disaster. The wording is awkward and complicated. It grants something, that does close to nothing on its own. Only if you have fear you can actually benefit from it. Additionally only one model in the whole book has it, and that model can only get fear via two options. The rules written in the book and the amount of things players have to remember is so clearly not worth the rule, that it better be redesigned or completely eliminated.

Petrifying Stare: Again a design disaster. The rule has over 50 words. To describe a special attack of one fifth of the attacks from one model. Additionally players have to remember it before rolling ToHit and then split up the dice and roll one lonely die for the attack. And then the attack is only nice, not really game breaking. You can actually see how bad it is, by looking at the clause „This cannot be done as a support attack.“ With the current rules, the model doing this attack can never do a support attack, as it always has to be in the front rank. So even the rule writers cannot tame that rule anymore.

Summary

Over the past few months, I had a blast playing the Dread Elves in 9th Age, you can read about almost all my matches here on my blog and I love the direction the game is heading. I never played the same list twice and there are a ton of options and viable builds out there. The investment of the community is extraordinary and I look forward to play a lot of games and get heard by the decision makers on the forums. With a little bit of luck even my rants will be heard 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

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