Competitive play in 40k

As alluded to elsewhere on this site, I’ve played 40k since not long after the first edition came out. At the time of writing, that is about 22 years. A lot has changed in that time.

One thing that has grown hugely, especially since 3rd ed, is competitive/tournament play, and a corresponding move in internet discussion to focusing on the ‘best list’. A brief glance at ‘tactics’ forums around the web will show that nearly all that is considered is the choice of units, and there is a new generation of gamers who don’t even understand why someone would use a ‘non-competitive list’.

So here are some thoughts, from my personal perspective. For examples, I’ll refer to my Red Corsairs army, with which I’ve been a winner and runner up in two club level tournaments. It also happens to be my most recent army – more on that later.


Lets start with the easiest reason. Armies need models. Models cost money. People go through phases in their lives: I’m currently in the ‘wife, baby and mortgage’ phase. When baby needs clothes (and a whole lot more) it is hard to justify buying more toy soldiers.

The reason I have armies now is because of the previous phases of my life when I didn’t have dependents and I was paid well enough to buy models. So I have lots, but I can’t go get more different ones if my army needs to change.


I also don’t have much time for painting models any more. I had much more time, but not a lot money, when I was a student. And both time and money when I was single and employed. So again, I have nicely made and painted models from when I had more time in the past, but if I want a new unit (made out of the spare bits I still have boxes of) I have to plan months ahead so I can get them painted.

The Process of Collecting an Army

There are different ways of collecting an army for 40k. I’ve heard that some people can plan a list, buy the whole lot of models and put together the whole army in one go, but I suspect that my experience is more typical. I began my Red Corsairs in 1999/2000 with the original 3rd ed Codex. At that time I bought boxes one or two at a time, but fairly quickly built towards being able to field a 1500 point army (that is the standard in the UK).

When the next version of the Chaos Codex came out, in 2002, I was feeling richer so I bought the boxed army deal (which was a usual feature of Codex releases at that time). That was the last time I bought any new models for the army! I built the models more gradually since I was adding to an existing army, and to this day I have a box full of bits which I occasionally raid and build a few more Marines.

It helps that the theme of my army is that it is made up of deserters from loyal Chapters, so I can cobble together my Marines from old Imperial and Chaos bits which I’ve acquired over time.

Theme and ‘Fluff’

For a lot of older players, and hopefully some newer ones, the back story or at least general theme of an army is an important part of the experience of the game. The story influences the choice of units and the look of the models. So my army is not ‘Chaos Space Marines’; it is ‘Red Corsairs’. For list building that means in particular that I only use ‘undivided’ troops, no marked ones.

An oft suggested power for Chaos to use is the ‘Lash of Submission’ – but it is only available to characters with the ‘Mark of Slaanesh’. So I can’t take Lash in my army, because it doesn’t fit the background. And even if I came up with a background reason for using marked troops, I would have to convert or repaint my Daemon Prince model to give him the Mark of Slaanesh, because it wouldn’t be right unless he looked like a Slaanesh worshipper, i.e. with an obvious symbol, or in pink/purple.

So, as some ‘competitive’ players would say, I’m restricting my own selection for reasons outside of the rules of the game. But, as my example shows, doing the opposite would mean breaking some pretty strong ‘rules’ in the established background story or in the convention of WYSIWYG models, and doing that would spoil my enjoyment of the game.


For my last topic I have to step away from the Chaos army because while some of my units are not optimal, none of them are especially bad either. Sometimes the models are just so cool looking that you are inspired to buy and paint them even though they don’t work that well in the game. This is the main explanation for why I persisted in using Sisters Repentia in my Sisters of Battle army. They’re widely acknowledged as one of the worst units available in the game, but they just look cool. (I think I also carried on using them for a while to see whether the internet opinions were right, or whether one day they would do something other than get gunned down.)

Should I play competitively at all?

Some might say given these restrictions on list building, I just shouldn’t try playing in tournaments. But there are different kinds of tournaments, and I’m pretty sure there are like minded people around who want to have some friendly competition but still keep it fun for everyone. (Because that’s what the guys running my local club tournament said!)a

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