So! You like Tyranids. You wanna play them. Maybe you enjoy the big monsters or the hordes of little gribblies. But the internet keeps telling you that they’re bad and the only way to win is to spam Trygons, Tervigons, Genestealers, Hive Guard, or Carnifexes (pick one or more.) I won’t say you can’t make a strong list with those things, but you don’t HAVE to use them. If your first and foremost goal is not being The Number One King of the Warhams, you can do all kinds of crazy stuff with your Tyranids. And, being that it’s what Tasty brought me onto the blog for, I’ll go ahead and tell you how I think it can best be accomplished. Tyranids work a little differently than other armies, so if you’re familiar with them, there will be some changes compared to playing Marines or other forces.
If you are new to Tyranids and struggling to build a unique army list, this article is for you. If you’re a veteran working to adapt to the new codex, this article is likewise pointed in your direction. It will not, however, go into a bunch of deep discussions of how to optimize lists and what takes priority over what- this article is about building functional lists first and foremost, not bringing a list for top-tier play.
Step 1: What kind of list are you building?
The first thing you need to decide is how you want to play the army. Are you aggressive, always pushing forward towards the enemy? Or are you defensive, preferring to stand back and let them come to you? This is the most important step to making a list work, because if you don’t know where you’re going with the list, you’re certainly never going to get there. You also want to consider some other options at this point: do you want to hold units in reserve, or would you rather lay everything on the table? Reserve lists tend towards aggression, but it isn’t automatic. Finally, you’ll need to decide if you’re trying to build with lots of monstrous creatures, lots of tiny little guys, or a balance of the two.
Aggressive lists will tend to use units like Genesteaers, Gargoyles, Hormagaunts, Trygons, etc; they are fairly short-ranged, but can hit very hard once they get there. Melee is more common than shooting, but you’ll almost always have options for both of them. An aggressive list wants to dictate the terms of the game to the opponent, not vice versa; this is nice because you don’t have to do as much reacting to what they’re up to, but it can be hard because you MUST be willing to take risks and know what it is you’re risking. Aggressive and safe are not terms that go hand-in-hand, and sometimes some poor rolls will just take a bunch of your army out of the game. On the other hand, a small number of poor rolls can also do the same to your opponent- aggressive lists can be very dependent on the dice. The most important thing for an aggressive Tyranid player is to be able to pose “questions” to the opponent, i.e. “Can you kill this unit this turn? Do you have enough heavy weapons to get rid of my monstrous creatures? Are you prepared to deal with my entire army arriving from reserve and shooting you?” Your job is to place these threats in front of the opponent and see if he is good enough to deal with them.
Units that work well aggressively: Tyranid Prime, Hive Tyrant, Swarmlord, Parasite of Mortrex, Zoanthropes, Hive Guard, Hormagaunts, Termagants (supported by Tervigons or armed with Devourers), Tyranid Warriors (especially with Boneswords), Genestealers, Shrikes, Harpies, Gargoyles, Raveners, Trygons, Carnifexes.
“Defensive” lists are different, and even the name is a bit misleading- it’s not like you don’t plan on hurting them, you’re just going to do it somewhat differently. A defensive list wants to set itself up in place and pretty much wait for the enemy; because of this, they tend to almost always have a strong shooting component, because you obviously can’t do melee at range. However, being Tyranids, you’ll still be pretty awesome in a fight- in fact, this is part of your strategy. You want to present your opponent with a series of losing options that you allow them to choose from: they can stay at range (and get shot to pieces while never scoring the objectives) or they can close in (and get torn to pieces after getting weakened by your shooting). Where an aggressive list’s job is to pose questions, a defensive list is all about answers and solutions. Whatever your opponent brings to the table, you have something that can take care of it. The difficulty in such a list is, of course, making sure you have all the right tools to handle the job (i.e. your opponent’s list) and making sure you use them in the right way. Because of this, a defensive list tends to be more complicated to play, and more prone to being hurt when you make a mistake- but, on the flip side, they also reward good choices more thoroughly.
Units that work well defensively: Tyranid Prime, Hive Tyrant, Tervigon, Ymgarl Genestealers, Deathleaper, Hive Guard, Termagants, Tyranid Warriors, Raveners, Harpy, Tyrannofex, Carnifex, Biovore
Reserve army or not is the third part of figuring out your army. Unlike the others, it’s largely just a binary question: do you want to play an army that is designed to start the game entirely off the table, yes or no? An army that does needs to have every unit be capable of doing so and coming in without losing effectiveness; an army that doesn’t may have some ability to start off-table, but isn’t primarily concerned with doing so. This is important mainly because taking a partial reserve army is basically just shooting yourself in the foot, with half your army no present for turns 1-2, your opponent has plenty of time to shoot whatever units you dostart on the board without any real fear of retribution. You can include 1-2 reserve units in a “normal” army (in fact, it’s often a good way to solve problems your army otherwise struggles with), but it is very important to consider the percentage of your army that is doing so.
Units that work well in a reserve army (assume Mycetic Spores where possible): Hive Tyrant (with Wings), Tervigon (as as Troop, outflanking thanks to Hive Commander), Ymgarl Genestealers, Lictors, Deathleaper, Zoanthropes, Tyranid Warriors, Termagants (with Devourers), Genestealers, Gargoyles, Harpy, Raveners, Tyrannofex, Trygon.
Step 2: Pick the units you want to use.
This is the part that, all too often, gets ignored. Once you’ve figured what kind of list you want, you’ll need to rank some inclusions in it; now, not every type of list can always fit every model into it, but if you have two or three favorites, it’s usually possible to work them into things. There are only a select few units that are genuinely terrible, and even they can be brought into a list if you absolutely must- it’s just a matter of realizing what you are sacrificing and how.
One important thing to remember is that it may not always be possible to fit everything you want into every list, especially if units with unique roles like Lictors, the Parasite of Mortrex, etc. Some units just aren’t useful to some lists, and some even actively clash with the purpose of a list. For each model you add, it is important to ask yourself “How does this add directly to my overall plan?” If you intend to sit cozy on objectives with a horde of Termagants, wanting to add a Trygon makes no sense because he will be the only unit actively attacking the enemy. Similarly, puttng Biovores into a purely offensive list that wants to Run towards the enemy every turn will be problematic, because they will soon be out of Synapse and be be unable to shoot effectively, not to mention accidentally dropping blasts on your own units.
I listed many of the common units for various styles of armies above, but these are far from the only possibilities for each role. When in doubt, put a list together and try it out (via Vassal, proxying, borrowing models, etc) and see how things work for you and if some units feel out of place.
Step 3: Make sure you have your bases covered.
Every Tyranid army needs certain things to be functional; there is basically no way around it. Of course, there can be many ways of going about the goal of achieving these necessities, but in the end, they are still requirements for building a list. Ignore them, and you may win some games, but you’ll find that others (and maybe a lot of others) are just unwinnable for you. Making a well-balanced list will give you a fighting chance against every army out there, even the so-called “ueber lists” that the internet touts as unbeatable.
The first thing to think about is, unsurprisingly, Synapse. There is no hard-and-fast rule for how much Synapse you need, as it will depend a lot on the particulars of your list. However, having at least 3-4 Synapse units in any given list is a good idea, and more becomes necessary as your list scales up. It’s also important to think about where your Synapse creatures are likely to be- are they advancing forward? If so, any shooting units in the back may have problems. Are they standing around to score objectives? If so, you may find your assault elements chasing the wrong targets. You also will want to think about survivability- a Tyranid Prime attached to a squad or a Hive Tyrant with some Guards is very hard to kill, but a Trygon Prime or Tervigon on its own is much less so. If you find yourself having to make Instinctive Behaviour tests while a lot of your army is still on the table, you are probably not running enough Synapse or are running too fragile of Synapse. It’s also worth noting that some creatures, especially Genestealers, but also Trygons and some other melee beasts, can function reasonably well without any Synapse near them; if you have a lot of such units, your Synapse requirements may be lower than normal.
In general, I would field a no less than two Synapse units at 1000pts or lower; at 1500, you should have a bare minimum of three, with at least one of them being “tough.” At 1750 or 1850 you will probably need four of them, and at 2000 I would run either four with at least two “tough” or five-plus.
The second thing to check is anti-tank. This will vary somewhat from group to group and depending on how popular transports are in your area, but all Tyranid lists need to think about it to some degree. Tyranids hate tanks because things inside tanks can’t be eaten until you get them out- and that almost always means delaying your meal. They also hate them because many of our common units are, at best, inefficient and at worst utterly worthless when fighting a tank. Because of this, and because of the prevalence of vehicles in the game these days, Tyranid players should be sure to equip their army with effective anti-vehicle weapons so they don’t get stuck staring down six Rhinos with nothing but S3 critters.
A 1000pt list should be able to hurt at least one to two vehicles each turn; that means, at a bare minimum, at least two units that can damage AV11 with better than a 50% chance. Two Hive Guard/Zoanthropes is enough to count here, or three Lictors, or a Carnifex/Hive Tyrant with twin Devourers. Harpies and Tyrannofexes also work just fine, and Deathspitter/Venom Cannon Warriors count as roughly half a squad. Genestealers, Trygons, and other purely melee units do not count towards these purposes- you want your tank killers around so that the melee units have something to charge in the assault phase. By 1500pts, you will want the ability to suppress at least one more (for 2-3 total) such vehicles each turn, and another each at 1750 and 2000 (for 4-5 total targets at 2000). At the higher totals if you don’t ever see completely mechanized armies you can skimp a bit, but at lower totals this isn’t really an option, as even just someone bringing a small contingent of vehicles will be enough to overwhelm you. In addition to the above, any list of 1500pts or great should have some way of dealing with a Land Raider or other vehicle that is AV14- either Zoanthropes, Tyrannofexes, or a fast monstrous creature like the Harpy, Hive Tyrant, or Trygon. (You will notice a lot of these fill double duty, which is fine- you just need to make sure you have some way of dealing with such units, not an additional unit in your army to do so. Being completely unable to hurt something is very bad for your chances of winning.)
On the flip side, having ways to kill different kinds of infantry is also very important. With tanks, the same kinds of weapons tend to be work reasonably well on all of them- sure, those S6 guns may be too weak to hurt some, and maybe S10 is a bit overkill on others, but in general, what works on tanks works on tanks- not so with infantry. You need vastly different tools to efficiently kill a Terminator and a Grot. Fortunately, as voracious space bugs from hell, we are pretty well equipped to deal with light infantry of all kinds- from Eldar to Dark Eldar to Tau to Guardsmen to Orks- with close combat and our general shooting available to all units. In fact, we tend to be downright awesome at it, so this is generally not a concern, although sometimes it’s nice to include a long-range option, as you don’t always have time to run across the field to kill some guys. However, the more important facet is killing well-armored troops, in particular those with 2+ or 3+ saves. We can, against the 3+ save models, just rely on weight of attacks (or shots) to bring them down- after all, we can generate rather a lot of wounds on most things. Against models with 2+ armor, however, we need twice as many shots (mathematically speaking) to do the same amount of damage, and at that point things are getting rather difficult. Having a way to bypass their save is extremely helpful and is usually something you should have in your list, as such units are rather common and the ability will almost never go to waste.
Biovores, Warriors, and anything with Cluster Spines or Devourers are excellent against light infantry units. Monstrous Creatures, Warriors (with Boneswords), Zoanthropes, the Doom, and Genestealers are all very good against heavy infantry. I would recommend having at least two Marine-killer units at 1500 and add another for each 250pts past that; having more than this isn’t really a bad thing, as you’re practically guaranteed to fight Marines no matter where you go.
Step 4: Bring it all together
Now comes the hard part: turning your assortment of parts into an actual list. There is no possible way for me to give you a set of rules that will help you do this, because if I could, I would essentially be writing an specialized A.I. for building Warhammer lists, and if I could do that then, no offense to Tasty, I could be off somewhere making WAAAY more money than I do now. I will instead give you several more guidelines in what you should be removing from your list at this point, because that is the eternal question for anyone who has ever written an army list. Adding models and points? Not hard. But removing them? Worse than pulling teeth. You will hem and haw and agonize over what to do and it will always be that way, although hopefully you will get better at it over time. But here are what I have found to be the golden rules of army-building in 40K:
-Bugs over biomorphs (or, to revert it to its Orky origins, “Boys over toys.”) If you’re thinking about spending 20pts on an upgrade, more often than not you’re better off spending those points to buy another member of the squad (or three.) This isn’t always true- upgraded guns, for example, are very useful for us, and some upgrades “unlock” a unit’s potential to do things, like Toxin Sacs on a Tervigon/Genestealer or Boneswords on a Warrior. But most of the time spending points on biomorphs is not the best way to improve your army. For more detailed analysis of which ones are/aren’t worth it (which lies beyond the scope of this article), I would refer you to my posts on 3++ about the subject.
-Keep things similar. You want to make it hard for the enemy to shoot you to death, and that means overwhelming his guns. How do you do this? Have a lot of the same kind of target. If he has four meltaguns and four heavy bolters, three monstrous creatures will be hard to kill and twenty Termagants will be hard to kill, but one monstrous creature and ten Gaunts is playing right into his plans. The more similar you can keep targets in your army, the better- but this DOESN’T mean you have to take all the same unit. Warriors and Hive Guard and Raveners are all “similar,” even though the units are completely different in what they do.
-Hammer down the odd nail. This all goes back to point #1 up at the very top: if all your units are doing one thing except for a single guy, that guy is going to have problems (and cause problems for you.) I see this all the time when people feel compelled to put a single Trygon/Tervigon/etc in their list “because (they) heard those were good,” but the reality is that making your list fight itself (and what it wants to do) will only weaken your army. You are better off using “bad” units that work well together than a mishmash of “good” units.
-It’s okay to start over. Sometimes a list just doesn’t work and you need to try again from the ground up; there’s nothing wrong with that.
So this article has been a long time in the writing, but I wanted to solidify it into something I was happy with and that people would find useful- and hopefully I’ve succeeded at that. Tyranids often have to play the red-headed stepchild of the 5th edition codices, but there’s plenty you can do with them, even now. With any luck some of the decisions GW has made will get turned around a bit and things will be looking up- especially if the rumors about Necrons and/or 6th edition are at all true.