D&D Miniatures11/08/2007

Desert of Desolation
Commander's Notebook

We've assembled a team of four talented warband builders, and each gets the chance to challenge his compatriots to build their best warband around a particular miniature or theme.

Bear in mind that what you're reading is not a primer on how to win tournaments. It's an intellectual puzzle in which the contributors may not always be given the best material to work with. The challenge is to make the most of the starting conditions.

This week's topic was chosen by Steve Winter.

The Challenge

This installment of Commander's Notebook is a Desert of Desolation test. Our four warriors each selected a different faction and built a 200-point warband around it. The sweet part -- at least 100 points must be from the just-released Desert of Desolation expansion. Read on and be illuminated.

Lawful Evil

Michael Derry

Human Blackguard (46 pts)
Astral Stalker x3 (135 pts)
Bat Familiar (6 pts)
Dire Rat (4 pts)
Warrior Skeleton x3 (9 pts)
Dragondown Grotto
Total = 200 points, 9 activations

LE has been the king of ranged warbands in a few of the past eras of DDM history. The Gauth and the Beholder both provided competitive options for LE warbands in eras following their respective releases. Ever since Beholder warbands lost their competitive opportunities, LE has had no era allowing competitive options with ranged attacks. One key element of LE ranged warbands in the past was that their offensive potential was not severely limited once creatures in their warband got based by enemy creatures (which is the normal counter to most creatures with ranged attacks).

Era: A term used to describe a particular competitive environment in the history of DDM. Usually each set defines an era, but championship seasons can overshadow that, focusing the era on a narrower competitive environment. Understanding past eras provides perspective on the current competitive environment and allows one to better judge the viability of warband concepts.

With the arrival of the Astral Stalker, LE once again has options for a competitive ranged warband, even in an era which seemingly restricts ranged warbands. The Astral Stalker remains competitive against the CE dragon warbands for multiple reasons, such as DR, high AC, and high melee threat level. Once engaged by CE dragon warbands, the Astral Stalkers can still win, even if only modest damage was done with the ranged attacks.

With both ranged and melee capabilities, warbands built on dual-role creatures have the challenge of facing mono-focused warbands. Usually, pure ranged warbands have significant advantages against hybrid ranged warbands. The Hide special ability of the Astral Stalker prevents it from being targeted and severely reduces the competitiveness of most traditional ranged warbands. Remember that ranged Sneak attack is limited to attacks within 6 (War Drums rules, p. 42.)

What role does fodder play in the era of Capricious Copper Dragons, Large Shadow Dragons, Large Black Dragons, and other threats? In general, their role in activations remains the same, but their ability to assist in melee is limited. They must spread out to avoid area affects. Although this cuts down their offensive power, it also makes them difficult for the enemy to engage. This turns to your advantage if your opponent spends the time engaging them.

Dragondown Grotto (DDG) is the premier ranged warband map. The limited number of walls make it a difficult map for Large Shadow Dragons. Commander Rating 6 helps you get your map choice, so this version of an Astral Stalker warband should be competitive in the broader environment, not just in the context of Commander Notebooks.

The real question will be how much this creature affects the competitiveness of the CE dragon warbands. In the past, Limited Qualifiers and Championships significantly impacted prior eras. Evolution of the competitive constructed environment often did not get fully realized during those eras affected by Limited. I suspect that constructed will get more attention this time than it has in past eras affected by Limited, so the Astral Stalker might end up shaping the competitive environment after all.

Chaotic Evil

Guy Fullerton

Werewolf Lord (53 pts)
Fire Archon x2 (74 pts)
Cliffwalk Archer (36 pts)
Orc Wardrummer (18 pts)
Changeling Rogue (8 pts)
Timber Wolf x2 (10 pts)
Blue Dragon Lair
Total = 200 points, 8 activations

I originally wanted to build a Yuan-Ti theme warband, but Yuan-Ti have some difficult challenges to overcome in the Commander's Notebook format. Despite their high attack bonuses and reasonable damage output, multiple, large, speed 6 creatures are difficult to maneuver, and their ranged firepower isn't quite right for this format. Those shortcomings pointed me at a Chaotic Evil warband that is appropriately strong when you know you are facing at least 100 points of Desert of Desolation enemies.

This set promotes an interesting "ranged superiority" dynamic. There are compelling new archers available for several factions, as well as a CG commander (the Eternal Blade) that increases the likelihood of playing on an archer-focused map. My warband is built to handle those problems gracefully while also handling traditional melee opposition.

The Cliffwalk Archer and the Changeling Rogue are both included in this warband via the Werewolf Lord's Warband Building. They provide ranged superiority against most enemy warbands. The Cliffwalk Archer's Shot on the Run ability is much like Hide in that it allows him to shoot while staying safe from counter-attack. Shot on the Run also allows him to move aggressively and still shoot; he's fast enough to handle scouting enemies that try to hide in nooks and crannies of their victory areas. In conjunction, the Changeling Rogue starts the battle Invisible, so he is safe from most of the enemy archers that I'd expect to face. The Changeling Rogue can sit safely in a victory area while the Cliffwalk Archer snipes off any enemies that try to maintain parity in victory area points. In most cases, this warband should be able to dictate where the melee takes place.

Two Fire Archons provide flexible offense. They hit hard with conventional attacks and offer key leverage -- two swift Firebursts each. Against many foes, a Fire Archon threatens to deal 50 damage in a single activation or 30 damage if it moves before attacking. (If you're keeping score, the damage expectation can get as high as 115 points once you factor in the Death Burst and can go even higher if you affect multiple enemies with the Firebursts.) Despite a modest AC, Fire Archons are pretty resilient. They have a bunch of elemental immunities, including immunity to Flanking, Sneak Attack, and Poison, which helps neutralize the advantages of enemy Astral Stalkers, Capricious Copper Dragons, and Large Shadow Dragons.

Even though it is a large, non-flying creature that lacks Melee Reach, the Werewolf Lord is still a good fit for this warband, because fast medium-size creatures supply the rest of the offense. The Werewolf Lord should try to engage and swing after the rest of the hitters have activated, so it can maximize its potential Cleave opportunities. Swinging for 25 damage adds up quickly. With Blind-Fight and DR, the Werewolf Lord also stands up acceptably to various dragons. Just be careful with the Werewolf Lord's positioning. Avoid fighting adjacent to an allied Fire Archon that might Fireburst or Death Burst.

An Orc Wardrummer is included primarily to bolster saves (especially morale saves), which helps ensure the Fire Archons will get their Death Bursts. The Wardrummer is a pretty soft and important target, so move it up with the rest of your warband. This will allow a swift response to assassination attempts or even a timely switch to Countersong Drumbeat.

The Timber Wolves are included primarily as harassers and flankers. Don't underestimate the threat provided by their Stunning Attacks. Thanks to the Werewolf Lord's Beastmaster ability, the Timber Wolves even have reasonable chances of passing their morale saves. If the Changeling Rogue is compromised, either Timber Wolf can act as a victory area grabber.

For a map, I chose the Blue Dragon Lair. It's open enough for the Werewolf Lord and the Fire Archons to maneuver, and it offers interesting lines of sight for the Cliffwalk Archer. Even though the Blue Dragon Lair is an attractive map for enemy dragon warbands, my warband is probably strong enough to take that risk. Even so, I'm not sold on the Blue Dragon Lair as the ideal choice. If you have a better map idea for this warband, I'd love to hear about it on the forums.

Chaotic Good

Jason Lioi

Eternal Blade (54 pts)
Capricious Copper Dragon (58 pts)
Shadowdancer x2 (56 pts)
Graycloak Ranger (with Wolf minion -- 15 pts)
Wild Elf Warsinger (9 pts)
Elf Warrior x2 (8 pts)
Dungeon of Blood
200 pts, 9 activations

Looking over the Chaotic Good pieces in Desert of Desolation, two that leap out as very strong contenders for inclusion in top-tier bands are the Eternal Blade, a very efficient commander with a nice package of abilities, and the Capricious Copper Dragon, which continues the recent trend of aggressively priced dragons. I decided to pair these two with some proven units from previous sets to create a new spin on an old theme.

The Eternal Blade helps the Capricious Copper by granting an unsurpassed +8 on map initiative, hopefully securing a map that allows the Copper to occupy a victory area on the first turn. This triggers the Hoardkeeper ability, which grants 10 bonus victory points for every enemy unit killed. The Eternal Blade's command effect also benefits the Copper, giving it effectively save +13 (or +17 on morale.)

In return, the Copper's Multiple Threats ability boosts the mediocre attack bonuses of the Eternal Blade. When fighting an enemy subject to both Eternal Training and Multiple Threats, the Blade attacks are excellent: +15/+10 (25 magic).

To make these synergies work while triggering Hoardkeeper, however, the band must be able to force battle in the place of its choosing. There are generally two ways to accomplish this -- get ahead on points or have a ranged threat. This band includes possibilities for both.

Shadowdancers excel as alpha-strike units, often Shadow Jumping to eliminate an enemy piece and gain a point advantage before jumping back to join the rest of the band. Paired with a Wild Elf Warsinger, they become even more deadly when they jump into charging positions. What's more, when fighting an enemy based by the Capricious Copper, they get their Sneak Attack damage even when not in a flanking position.

The band's primary ranged threat is the Copper's line 12 breath weapon, but the Graycloak Ranger and the two Elf Warriors provide additional limited ranged support. Multiple 5-damage ranged attacks can collectively pick off enemy victory area grabbers or nickel-and-dime enemy hitters as they approach. Additionally, the extra activation provided by the Graycloak's Wolf minion is exceptionally useful considering the extremely high commander rating of the Eternal Blade.

Arguably the best Shadowdancer map, Dragon Shrine, is eliminated from contention because it's likely to reduce the threat of the Copper's acid breath. Other maps with good central victory areas for the Copper, such as Drow Outpost and Hailstorm Tower, lack the open charge lanes and lines of sight needed by the Shadowdancers and Warsinger. The best choice is Dungeon of Blood, which has all the required attributes.

Lawful Good

Bill W. Baldwin

Animated Statue (10 pts)
Bruenor Battlehammer (53 pts)
Champion of Dol Dorn x2 (84 pts)
Dwarf Maulfighter (40 pts)
Hill Dwarf Warrior x2 (8 pts)
Tordek, Dwarf Fighter (5 pts)
Dragon Shrine
Total = 200 points, 8 activations

As soon as I saw Bruenor Battlehammer, I realized dwarf-themed warbands were now viable. Bruenor is the commander dwarf-lovers have been waiting for, as he counters the one thing that holds dwarves back -- their lack of maneuverability.

This band is simple and straightforward to play but still has a few tricks up its sleeve. It hits well, hits hard, moves fairly well, has excellent morale, is hard to hurt, and is very hard to kill (total of 435 hp!).

There are two strong map choices for this warband. The Dragon Shrine offers some needed energy protection, and the dwarves' relatively slow speed and high morale are great advantages on a map that has the exit squares close to the middle. It also has the advantage of many statue squares to place the Animated Statue in. Frostfell Rift is another excellent choice. It gives a distinct advantage to medium-sized creatures when fighting large ones thanks to the many slippery squares, and this warband is all medium. The Champions of Dol Dorn give additional opportunities for knocking opponents into one of the Rift's many pits. I chose Dragon Shrine because Frostfell Rift is more difficult against ranged warbands and has no statues for the Animated Statue to use.

The basic tactic for this warband is simple. Move up and engage the enemy in mass. Bruenor Battlehammer is a very durable beater whose Keen Critical helps make up for relatively low damage. He is very durable, so it shouldn't be too hard to keep him alive long enough for your three other beaters to make their morale checks. The Champions of Dol Dorn can be both devastating and tricky with their Feat of Strength, and Provoke can keep Bruenor in the fight and safe at the same time. While not quite as versatile, I have seen the Dwarf Maulfighter's Stunning Cleave put to very effective use in several limited tournaments already. The Animated Statue is a useful victory point grabber (as long as you are on a map with statues) who requires more effort than most to pry out of the victory area. While it's not a dwarf, a statue certainly fits with the theme. Finally, Tordek and the Hill Dwarves make for some sturdy fodder.

It's time for some Dwarf lovin'.

About the Authors

Jason Lioi is the 2005 D&D Miniatures champion. Bill Baldwin is a regular contributor to the website via his Art of Warbands articles. Guy Fullerton is well known as "the rules guy" on the miniatures forums, and Michael Derry is a Wizards delegate, tournament organizer, and 2006 D&D Miniatures champion.

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