Part 1 -- Preparation
Ah, the championships! Last year I didn't even qualify. This year I had a much better showing at the local qualifier, and I was excited to show off the miniatures generalship I had been practicing since last year. With visions of being the next Napoleon of the Dungeon, I started my battle plan for victory.
The commander must decide how he will fight the battle before it begins.
-- Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
There are, in my experience, four qualities that make up a D&D Miniatures Champion. They are:
Tactical Skill: This skill is a combination of how well you maneuver your creatures on the battle map and how well you know the rules. It is both the most and least important skill in becoming a champ; most because you are unlikely to make it very far in the championships without it; least because at the level of competition that is the championships, all players can be expected to be experts in this skill. With no significant differences between players, this skill plays little role in determining winners.
Design Skill: This is how well you design your warbands. Again, the differences in this skill level are minor at the championship level, but can have a major impact when combined with Strategic Skill.
Strategic Skill: This covers all aspects of preparation for a tournament. It includes practice sessions, physical and mental state, and awareness of the current metagame. (For newcomers to the competitive collectible-game scene, "the metagame" refers to the environment surrounding the competitive scene. It includes the formats you are going to play, how long you expect games to last, who you are likely to play, what strategies they prefer, what warbands you are likely to face -- and how those things affect your pre-competition decisions and game strategy.)
Luck: After listening to an officer's impressive qualifications for promotion, Napoleon Bonaparte once quipped, "But is he lucky?" Winning in the championships does require some good luck, or at least a minimal amount of bad luck. This applies to more than just dice rolling. Who you get matched against and what warbands you face are equally important. It is impossible to control luck, but you can learn to exploit the good variety and minimize the bad variety. A calculated risk can spell the difference between victory and defeat.
Of the above qualities, I felt my strategic skill was the weakest. With the release of Angelfire a few scant weeks before the championships and even less time to study the map, I had to do some intensive study of the situation on a short timeline.
All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavor to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I called 'guess what was at the other side of the hill'.
One of the great things about DDM is that there is no perfect warband. Part of the strength of a warband is how it is played, and this makes customizing a warband to fit your own style of play just as important as warband synergy and how it will fair in the metagame.
For myself, I focused on three possible warbands to take. One was based on the Stone Giant, another used the Archmage, and the third used Chraals.
I knew, however, that my metagame awareness was lacking, so I picked the brain of a friend, Jesse Dean. Jesse made the top eight at last year's championship and had his finger on the pulse of the metagame. I must thank him for all the help he rendered.
Some discussion determined that the most likely bands to appear at the championships were:
The first thing that stands out about these bands is that they all had high potential for energy damage, so good saves and an ability to deal with energy damage were going to be important. There are two ways to deal with energy damage. The most obvious is resistance. Damage from energy attacks is usually limited when compared to melee attacks, either because of limited uses or low damage numbers. This means that high hit points is another solution.
The second thing that became obvious was that, unlike last year's winner, all of these metagame bands had some really bad match-ups against other metagame bands. This meant that a player would have an advantage if he concocted a warband with a low likelihood of running into a bad match up at the championships. I wanted to be that player.
The first warband I discarded was the Stone Giant. Because it relied heavily on one figure with minimal resistances, one bad save could doom my warband.
Casting off the Archmage was harder. I was convinced that, when played properly, the Archmage is a serious threat in the game. The problem was that properly playing it meant playing it almost perfectly. Archmage bands have little wiggle room for mistakes, and even the top players make mistakes sometimes. Using a warband that doesn't allow for mistakes is very risky.
This left the Chraal. I knew Chraal-based bands had weaknesses, especially against the Archmage and Justice Archons, but I felt their durability and versatility gave them the best overall chance. Jesse and I also agreed that, because of the care needed to play the Archmage, it would be the least represented of the above. With a strong commander, it would be difficult to destroy opposing Chraals via commander assassination in the four to six rounds that most championship skirmishes would last. I finally decided upon the following makeup for my championship warband:
Chraal (x2): The Chraal's speed, HP, resistances, and breath weapon, all wrapped up with a cost effective price tag, is hard to ignore. Its high HP and speed help compensate for its vulnerability to fire.
Efreeti: Jesse kept mentioning that most Chraal warbands he'd seen were triple Chraal bands, but a warband in which all the meat has all the same weaknesses didn't seem very versatile, especially when I was shooting for no bad match-ups. Besides, who wants to run exactly the same warband as everyone else? I wanted another heavy hitter that could do what the Chraal couldn't, i.e. resist fire attacks, hit high AC creatures, deal non-cold damage at a distance, bypass choke points, and survive the death of my commander.
Orog Warlord: Having a durable commander is a must for Chraal-based bands. I briefly toyed with the idea of the Rakshasa, but in the end decided it was too weak. This left me with the Orog Warlord and the Human Blackguard. The Human Blackguard left me some points to introduce a "tech" piece or two, but the Orog gave me a solid fourth beater if I needed one, and his Resist Cold 5 could make a big difference against Triple Chraal bands. I settled on the Orog.
Mountain Orc: Going with the Orog also gave me the opportunity to include some of CE's cost effective Orcs. The Mountain Orc's speed, saves, and damage made it a strong assault point grabber and supplemental beater.
Orc Warrior: After picking the Mountain Orc, choosing the offensively effective Orc Warrior to go with him was a no-brainer.
Warrior Skeleton (x2): While not offensively impressive, the Warrior Skeleton's immunities make it an excellent blocker that doesn't die when my Chraal's breathe across it. It's also great for countering Beholders.
Goblin Skirmisher (x2): While I considered going with all Warrior Skeletons for my fodder, one thing I've noticed in D&D Miniatures is that most games actually consist of two skirmishes; the Beater War where the big boys go toe to toe, and the Fodder War where the little ones duke it out. Victory in the Beater War means victory in the game, but the results of the Fodder War make a big difference when the big boys are deadlocked. The ability of the Goblin Skirmisher to attack effectively while holding a position makes it the best 3-point piece in the game when it comes to Fodder Wars.
Blue: Blue is also very effective when it comes to Fodder Wars. Add in his ability to occasionally affect the Beater Wars with a lucky psionic charm, and he is well worth 5 points.
Because of the predicted presence of Chraals and Justice Archons at the championship, I considered including either the Kobold Sorcerer or Dark Moon Monk to give my beaters magic weapon. I realized, however, that my best chance for victory against these bands would be to take out the commanders, not the beaters. With that in mind, spending points to bring in these otherwise limited creatures wasn't worth it.
Having decided upon my warband, my next step was to practice playing until I knew all of its options by instinct. Unfortunately, early August also happens to be my dad's birthday, my wife's birthday, and our anniversary. Combined with the fact that the only other serious DDM players in the area live an hour and a half away, this was going to be impossible in the short time I had. I managed to squeeze in just three practice games with Jesse, and some printing problems meant we had to use tiles instead of the championship map. Even three matches proved invaluable in honing my tactics.
Next week, I discuss the first day of the championships and why I love this game so much.
About the Author
Bill W. Baldwin lives on the Space Coast of Florida with his gaming family of a wife, two daughters, and assorted pets. He started playing D&D in 1974 and was a wargamer and miniatures gamer even before that. Bill has been published in Dragon Magazine and does freelance work for Wizards of the Coast.
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