Tactical Toolbox: Going Second

In the new edition of Warhammer 40,000, even a humble lasgun can wound a Titan, and the game is faster and deadlier than ever. If you end up with the second turn, it’s key to have a plan to succeed, and Warhammer 40,000 expert Mike Brandt is on hand to help:

The new Warhammer 40,000 is more lethal than ever before. Gone are the days of units of characters sharing all their special abilities wondering around with re-rollable 2+ saves that you can only hit on a 6. Today is the day of the alpha strike and the application of maximum force early in the game. While this carries many positives, it does make going first seem more powerful than before. Getting the chance to apply that damage in the first turn can often make the opposing player feel knocked out of a game from the very beginning. Some players are building their armies attempting to go first as a result, and others are struggling with how to survive if they don’t.

There’s more than one way to skin a Termagant, but we’ll focus on some of the universal basics, especially in army list building and in the deployment stages of the game.

Framing the Challenge

There are three big challenges when going second:

  1. Terrain and Deployment: Since terrain isn’t a tactic, we won’t discuss it in depth, but make sure your gaming group uses large amounts of “line of sight blocking” terrain elements, since the game is far more offensive. Terrain aside, poor deployment is often the herald of an impending loss due to going second.
  2. Enemy Firepower: Straightforward enough – the amount an enemy shoots or charges you before you get to respond. This might be a firebase of Devastators or a mob of Nob Bikers Waaagh!ing right into your lines. Either way, this covers direct damage thrown at you in the first battle round.
  3. Tactical Reserves: Tactical Reserves is where going second often hurts you most. It’s difficult to recover if your opponent is able to set up a detachment of plasma gun-wielding Chaos Raptors in precisely the right (or wrong) location to deal maximum damage to your deployed forces. The resulting “drop strike” before you get your turn can be devastating.

The two most important ways to solve these challenges and win when going second revolve around the tools you put in your army list, and the manner in which you deploy. If you can neutralise your opponent’s ability to hurt you on their first turn, you neutralise their advantage. From there on, you have equal opportunity to return damage added to the unequal advantage of getting the last turn for objectives and other mission criteria.

The Right List

Playing the game begins with your army list. Most factions include a few units which are vital for going second. Their shared characteristic is the ability to set up outside your deployment zone, or “advance deploy.” Examples include Space Marine Scouts, Ratlings, Alpha Legion infantry, Kroot Carnivores, Genestealer Cult Sentinels, and more.


These units prevent your opponent from dropping Tactical Reserves in your most vulnerable places. They hinder first turn tactics such as “Da Jump”, where an Ork psyker teleports a massive mob into your face on turn one. These units are thus great at generally shutting down the hardest hitting enemy “alpha strikes.”

The image below imagines a Chaos Space Marine army trying to use Tactical Reserves to quickly hem in and destroy a Space Marine firebase. Imagine the Chaos player with Warp Talons and plasma gun Raptors and the Space Marine player with Devastators and Predators. By adding two Scout Squads, which can deploy up to 9″ from the enemy deployment zone, the Space Marine player creates a massive cushion protecting them from the alpha strike. This forces the Chaos player to waste precious turns trying to clear the Scouts while being punished by the Space Marine firebase. The Space Marine player used a minimal investment to effectively turn off one of the most painful parts of going second – getting devastated by point-blank Tactical Reserves on Turn 1.


Besides selecting units with advanced deployment, you also want to build your list with awareness of a cardinal rule of the game – if they want to kill it, they will kill it. Build your army with redundancy, and accept that you will probably lose at least some units you need alive. On the war-torn battlefields of the 41st Millennium, all casualties are acceptable. Build your list with this in mind – take two of those Predators instead of one, an extra Rhino for when you lose one, etc.

Deploying Correctly

How you deploy will make or break your ability to endure the first turn. One thing you’ll need to deal with is how easily your opponent can draw line of sight to your key units. Sometimes you may need to sacrifice theoretical firepower for guaranteed safety.

A classic example of this is deploying a squad of heavy weapon models behind a hill or other terrain piece. Doing so means they will have to move to fire in your first turn. But even though this -1 to hit penalty hurts, it hurts far less than losing the squad to your opponent’s opening salvo.

Too many players risk it all by hoping units survive just to get slightly better odds in their turn. Remember: hope is not a strategy! If you can guarantee your opponent cannot shoot your units, you’re on the right path. Don’t have enough line of sight blocking terrain? Sacrifice that Rhino to keep your Devastators in business.

Besides deploying units out of line of sight, or putting other blocking units in the way, you also want to deploy your most vital units last. Since going second most often happens due to having more units than your opponent, you know he’ll place his big hitters down before you do. Place your expendable units first, and get your opponent to “show his hand”. This gives you the chance to counter-deploy your most important units in the safest or best spots possible.

Playing the Long Game

When going second, it is perfectly alright to play the long game and shoot to win on mission. Since Warhammer 40,000 is more lethal than ever before, you’ll need to do more than just leverage deployment tricks and build your army correctly. You also need to accept the losses you’ll take on turn one, stay in the game, and focus on fighting your way out of it turn by turn.

I’ve seen a number of players lose a couple units they really liked early on and just mentally give up, too distraught over their losses to stay focused on the advantages still present in the game. Enjoy the experience of what happens in warfare in the 41st Millennium, build your list to account for going second, and always keep the mission in mind – and you’ll find it’s much easier to win going second than you might think.

Thanks, Mike! Let us know your best strategies for the second turn on the Warhammer 40,000 Facebook page.

Mike is the head organiser of the NOVA Open Tabletop Wargaming Convention. The NOVA Open began nearly a decade ago when Mike parlayed his regular Warhammer 40,000 gaming experience into hosting a couple of charity tournaments, and today he finds himself running one of the largest Warhammer events in the world and acting as a playtester for the current edition of Warhammer 40,000. Although he considers running the NOVA Open to be as much his hobby as anything these days, Mike is an accomplished tournament player, with numerous American grand tournament wins and top placings on his record. Although outwitting an opponent both on and “above” the table is a blast, he considers the social opportunity to meet new folks and make lasting friendships to be the main (and most important) reason for travelling to Warhammer events the world over.

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