Building an Eldar Army List 2: Basics, Tactics and Counters

Going by pageviews, my "How to Build an Eldar Army List" post is one of the most popular I've written. So, I've decided to re-visit that with a broader/more tactically focused approach.

Tactics! Everyone's favorite use of chalk

My hope is that this will be useful to newer gamers, and interesting/insightful enough for more Veteran gamers as well.

Let's talk list building -
I'll break this in to four major sections: Basics, Play Style, and Counters.

This is a very long blog, and the first 3/4 of it are basics. For my advice on countering tough opponents, skip to the bottom.

Eldar are very fast, very light, and hit hard. Make sure you play them as if they are fragile, but dangerous. Sometimes that means rushing units forward to do boatloads of damage, even knowing they'll die, other times it means lying in wait and forcing the enemy to come to you.
Battle Focus makes all Eldar infantry (except Wraith units) Jet Pack infantry(ish). Allowing them to jump out of cover, shoot like crazy, then run back behind cover to deny most counter-fire. It's a blast to play, but you need to be careful with it.
Use cover, use transports, and remember that lone Eldar units fold quickly on their own. Use overlapping fire and keep multiple units close enough to support each other and you'll find they're terrifyingly effective.

In list building in general, you'll start with a points limit. And when it comes to calculating how best to spend points, keep in mind the question "How am I going to get these points back?"
You could kit your Warlord to bursting with as much Wargear as possible, only to have him get on the table and be sniped by a Scout Squad before he even blinks, thereby wasting all those points. Keep your squads lean, using only the most functional upgrades to the role you want them to fill. Then, at the end of the game, ask yourself "Did that squad/upgrade make up its points cost?"

Normally that means killing guys with equal or greater pts. cost, but for things like Shimmershields or Farseers, it could mean either kills that another unit wouldn't have made without their support, or points/models that weren't lost because they saved them or took fire for them (i.e. Guardians soaking fire for a Farseer, or a Jetseer soaking fire from the rest of your army)
If something consistently doesn't make up its points cost, it's time to consider alternatives, no matter how much you like it. 

Armies benefit both from specialization - a lot of the same thing does that thing better - and diversity. Having units that can counter all possible threats or goals is good.
In many cases, if you have a specific goal you need filled, or type of enemy countered, take a specialist for that goal/target. But, rather than mixing too many different things, if you have units that perform very well, always consider taking two units of them. I find this is especially important for things like Warp Spiders and Wave Serpents. I don't like spam (taking as much as possible of one unit) because it can be boring and makes you vulnerable to hard counters. But, it's also good to take more than one of a unit you really like - a knowledgeable opponent will blow up one Wave Serpent before you can use it, but with at least two, there's a better chance you'll get some use out of at least one.

Any army has to be able to do some basic things: Not die (number one), Score (key to winning), and be able to take on/get to any opponent.
To meet these goals, you want a lot of Troops/Scoring units. These units are the cheapest ones in every Codex, give you a lot of bodies on the field (helping with the "don't die" category), and often have some pretty sweet options to boot.
For Eldar, scoring units are Guardian Defenders, Storm Guardians, Dire Avengers, Guardian Jetbikes, Rangers/Pathfinders, and (with a Spiritseer) Wraithguard/Wraithblades. I've arranged them loosely by points cost.


So, let's run some scenarios:

If you want the maximum Troops for minimum cost, 6 units of three Guardian Jetbikes will roll in at just over 300 pts. That's for six scoring units that are super fast and able to get at any point on the board. That's the cheapest way to keep your eye on goal #2: Score!
The downside to this is that those squads are small and fragile. They won't be able to do much aside from score. And, if one squad is sitting on an objective, it will be very easy for your opponent to get them off it. But, at the same time, they're small enough to get the best out of Line of Sight (LoS) blocking cover, and small enough to be less of a priority target for your opponent. They can also move so quickly that they're easily able to hide all game and then rush objectives on the last turn.

If you want maximum bodies on the table, maxing out on Guardian Defenders isn't a bad choice. They're the cheapest per-model Troops available to Eldar, and in large numbers are very hard to deal with - especially with Bladestorm and Battle Focus letting them zip all over the table and wound anything with a Toughness value.
Also, if you have a lot of squads, these guys have the added bonus of Heavy Weapons, giving them an answer even to heavy armor.

Rangers/Pathfinders can Infiltrate, letting you put them on Objectives 1st turn (and with Mysterious Objectives potentially getting a bonus - or blowing up). They're also Snipers, and even a small unit can really mess with opponents by Precision Shot-ing their special weapons and Characters, or Pinning their larger units. Nobody likes being Pinned.

At the end of the day, I like Guardians because I can take lots of them, and it's fluffy for an Ulthwe army. The most forgiving for new players are going to be Jetbikes and Dire Avengers (they're solid all-rounders, and won't fall apart if you make a few small mistakes). The most chaotic/unreliable but potentially hilarious will be the Rangers.
The Wraith units are tough as nails, with Wraithblades with axes/shields rolling in at the most expensive potential Troops of all, but boasting T6, 3+ and 4++ and Fearless. If you want an immovable object from a usually squishy army, these bruisers will do the trick. But! Be careful, because taking even one squad significantly increases the chances you will be outnumbered on the table, and if you're outnumbered by a decent margin, these guys can be quickly overwhelmed.

The take-home message is that any player will benefit from a solid core of their chosen favorite (I take 2+ large Guardian squads) backed up by smaller units of the other types (any army can benefit a great deal from even one minimum sized Jetbike and/or Ranger unit).


1.) Two full squads of ten Dire Avengers (maybe with the Exarch/Shimmershield for the 5++), probably in Serpents, with a minimum squad of Rangers and 3 - 6 Jetbikes for backup.

2.) Or, 5x Wraithguard (templates) + 5x Wraithguard (both in Serpents, with a Spiritseer either in one unit or nearby), with two minimum cost 20-man Guardian blobs to put more bodies on the table.

Combinations allow for more flexibility, and having a number of Troops units gives you the staying power you'll need to contest or hold Objectives up to those last few turns.

Take on any opponent
Here's what you need to have for a balanced army, to go with scoring units-

1.) You want to make sure you have enough S6 - S7 guns to take on armies packed with light vehicles (re: Rhinos, or any Eldar or Dark Eldar player). Wave Serpents and Warp Spiders are stellar at this. Warp Spiders especially excel at hitting the rear-armor on vehicles that aren't the same AV on all sides.

2.) You also want a good chunk of heavier anti-armor guns to take on tougher Monstrous Creatures (MCs) or Land Raiders/Monoliths. I'm especially fond of Crimson Hunters, Wraithknights, Fire Prisms, or Wraithguard here. One heavy-hitter is crucial, two or more is ideal.
Swooping Hawks are also worth noting here, because their Haywire Grenades have an equal chance to glance any tank to death, from a Rhino to a Baneblade. 

3.) Many armies in the current meta will sit back and shoot the heck out of you from afar (especially Tau and other Eldar). To deal with that, you need a good mix of fast units plus Infiltrators/Deep Strike units. Wave Serpents will get Troops and Elites across the field, Scorpions and Rangers can Infiltrate or Outflank to get up the field early (with or without a Wave Serpent), and Warp Spiders and Swooping Hawks are great at Deep Striking.

4.) Target saturation. This is key. If you take small expensive units, only take a few rather than a whole army of them. Small expensive units are, by definition, less expendable than anything else you can take, and a loss of even one high-point model hurts a lot. You want a combination of tough units, big/cheap units, and armor that can keep an enemy army shooting at them for a number of turns. Too few bodies and an enemy can focus-fire from multiple sources onto each of your units, making it more likely they'll die without doing what you meant them to.

5.) Anti-air. This can be your anti-armor as well, but make sure there's some Guide and/or Skyfire available to you in a pinch. Too many armies are fielding AV 12-13 Flyers these days to not have something to handle them. Farseers with Guide and/or Prescience, Scatter Lasers on your Wave Serpents (a twin-linked Serpent Shield is nasty against Flyers), or, my personal favorite, the Crimson Hunter Exarch will go a long way towards protecting you against these.

6.) Leadership. Low Leadership values will cause key units to run at bad times - from assaults they should win in a few rounds, off of objectives after some nasty shooting, etc. Make sure to have a little bit of high Leadership and/or Fearless scattered in the army to stay put when you need it to. Wraith units, HQs, and the Avatar are great for this. In general, Eldar have pretty high Leadership (majority being around 9), but still, keep an eye on this.

**Most armies also need dedicated anti-MC units, to take on the big bugs or Deamons. Here, lucky Eldar, just about everything you've got fills that role. Bladestorm makes nearly any massed fire from an Eldar army something no MC wants to go anywhere near.
If you're building a non-Eldar or Allies list though, keep that in mind. Daemons and Tyranids can rain horrible monsters onto your army, and many armies find them hard to deal with. A nice meaty squad of Guardians or Dire Avengers does wonders.

Play Style
If you're playing Eldar, you probably like very fast units, with good guns, and great Psychic Powers. Or maybe you just like Elves and fancy them in space suits, either way.
A 40k army is a personal choice, try a lot of tactics, try a lot of units, make your own way and build armies however you please. I personally don't use any of the "standard" list types that many players swear by - which results in a lot more fumbling and trial and error, but it leads to an army that is more mine.

Here though, just for reference, is a quick summary of the types of armies most often fielded by competitive Eldar players:

1.) Jetbike (or Saim-Hann).
These armies rely heavily on lots and lots of Jetbikes and Skimmers, mostly Guardian Jetbikes and Wave Serpents, but also Fire Prisms, Vypers, Farseers/Warlocks on Bikes, and Shining Spears.
These armies are fast. REALLY fast. They have a higher than average toughness and can get nearly anywhere on the table.
They are also one of the more elite/expensive types of Eldar armies, fielding fewer bodies than would be possible if they weren't so heavy on expensive units. But, they are very competitive, very nasty, and exceptionally hard to deal with (especially for players who like their nice tidy gun-lines and don't expect an enemy in their face right away).

2.) Wraith (or Iyanden)
These armies are mostly led by Spiritseers (one or more) and full of Wraith units - mostly Wraithguard and Wraithblades as troops, often in units of 5 in Wave Serpents, and Wraithlords/Knights. These armies are positively tiny, outnumbered by nearly everything else they could possibly face, but they hit so hard and are so tough that they can simply walk through many enemies.
They are most vulnerable to other Eldar with Bladestorm, or Dark Eldar with their poisoned weapons, or Mob armies such as Orks or Tyranids that just drown them in bodies.

3.) Footslogger (often Alaitoc or Ulthwe)
This is any army that relies heavily on Infantry, some classic lists include a Scorpions list (lots of units of Striking Scorpions in or out of transports, and CC focused Wraithlords), Ranger/Pathfinder lists (lists heavy on Rangers/Pathfinders, for a lot of Snipers and Infiltrators), or just Blob lists that use tons of Guardians.
This is most similar to what I end up using, but is also the broadest and least-specialized category. It is only distinct because the other army types mostly exclude multiple large Infantry units. These are coming back now with the new Codex though, because tanks have been weakened and basic Infantry buffed so much.

4.) Mechdar
Just like it sounds: a whole lotta tanks. This will be Wave Serpents up the wazoo, Vypers, Fire Prisms, and the minimum infantry units needed to score. This build was very popular back in 5th, before Hull Points put some hurt on it. But it's still a very potent list and can be utterly lethal.
Watch out for heavy anti-tank armies, and Wraithknights make a mess of these lists. 

At the end of the day, play what you want. Try things, get crazy, play to win (because friendly competition is part of the fun!) but don't be afraid to lose, or to try something that doesn't match what the many lists posted online say.

What are you having the most trouble beating?
A lot of the time an army is pretty good, but then you come across something that single-handedly walks all over you. When that happens, it can be helpful to find a counter to that unit or type of unit and include it in an edited Army List.

General design tips are well and good, but it's vague, I'd like to give some actual solid advice here from my experience. So I'll cover some of the nastier enemies that are filling the meta these days.

When it comes to counters, there are Hard and Soft counters. Soft counters are just a little bit better against something, Hard counters are so good at beating something that they completely shut it down more often than not. Soft counters you can handle fighting, and want a lot of in your army (example: Shuriken weapons vs. Infantry) hard counters, you want to avoid over-specializing so you don't get hit with one. An example would be a Mechdar list against an Eldar/Iyanden army with four Wraithknights. Those tanks are dead, nothin' you can do about it.
*I mean, there's always something you can do about it. But the Mechdar's chances in that case are not good.

So! In no particular order:

These guys are still one of the most dangerous units in the game. Thunder Hammer/Stormshield terminators especially have a 3++ at worst, ouch.
The counter to them should come as no surprise: you can beat terminators if you shoot the crap out of them. In general they still only have one wound, and with enough wounds loaded on them there will be 1s and even a 2+ will fail. AP 2 weapons are still not wasted here, because an AP 2 shot still doubles the odds of a dead Terminator - so especially volleys from Shuriken-wielding infantry are excellent.
A Farseer with Guide/Doom/Misfortune will make sure you get the most out of those volleys, and give a better chance that your precious squad won't be splattered by the one Terminator who survives shooting.
Massed shooting backed up by a Seer Council beats these guys up, as do Telepathy powers (pinning them often, although watch for Psyker defense) and fast units that can hit them at max range and dance away (Jetbikes, Spiders, Wave Serpents). Wraithguard with D-scythes make a royal mess of these units, and if they do assault your Wraithguard after being shot, you get some automatic free hits. Score!
Avoid assaulting them if at all possible, as the best you can reliably expect is to tarpit. Wraithblades can potentially handle TH/SS Terminators in combat unless outnumbered, avoid them with Wraithknights and the Avatar unless you're winning by a lot - those Terminators are more than capable of beating down even those bruisers without taking a casualty. And even if they do lose some models, in my experience the Terminators still tend to win in the end.

How to counter Tau. Tau as opponents are nasty, their crazy firepower and cover-ignoring shenanigans are a real pain.
That said, their stat line is garbage. Even the weakest Eldar units are a challenge for them in combat, and units like Striking Scorpions make them cry (watch out for Battle Suits with their fancy fist weapon). Their Leadership is very low too, so pinning weapons and Leadership-based psychic powers (against which they have zero defense) are excellent.
Use fast transports, Infiltrate, Deep Strike and Outflank to get in close - but watch out for (and make sure to ask about during deployment) Intercept. Many Tau units can shoot first at anything arriving from Reserves with Intercept, you don't want to Deep Strike a large unit to have it one-shot by a Nova Charge large blast from a Riptide.
Focus down Markerlights and Fire Warriors. In that order. Getting rid of Markerlights preserves your cover saves and forces Tau to rely on their crappy base Ballistic Skill. Reducing that volume of fire and ability to score is a major victory. Also tackle Broadsides and Riptides, but don't waste all of your fire on them as they're much harder to shift. Despite their huge amounts of fire, Tau armies are surprisingly light on long-ranged anti-armor - and with their crap Ballistic Skill, if you take on Markerlights first they can be vulnerable to armor rushes. Not really vulnerable, but a little vulnerable.
Speaking of Broadsides and Riptides, that 2+ save and long-range is scary. To really beat Riptides, get close. Warp Spiders and Serpents full of Shuriken or Fire Dragon units really ruin their day, especially if you can manage to get Guide and/or Doom in there. A Wraithknight or Wraithblade assault can, with reasonable reliability, can also beat them up. Or at the very least keep them from shooting for a few rounds. A Distort weapon (any Wraith gun) can also potentially 1-shot a Riptide, but it's not something to rely on.

Here Eldar have some Hard Counters. Jetbikes/Bikes are becoming very popular because of the Jink rule (and, of course, White Scars chapter tactics). Bike/Jetbike units are really fast, benefit from higher toughness (and often a higher armor save) and the automatic Cover save granted by Jink.
If you're facing a lot of bikes, consider taking Dark Reapers. They are now Relentless (can move and shoot Heavy Weapons) and have a S5, AP3, gun that ignores Jink saves entirely. A volley from these guys can easily stop a bike charge in its tracks.
Keep them in cover and put some defensive units nearby to guard them, but then have a field day wiping enemy units off the board, ignoring both their armor and cover.
*Reapers don't ignore Stealth and Shrouded, so a model/unit with both will still get a 4+ against them, but hey, a 4+ is easy to fail. And a bike with Shrouding and Stealth that had a 2+ because it moved will still be dropped to 4+.

Mobs (Tyranids/Guardsmen/Orks)
Armies that rely on walls of cheap units (Guard, Orks, Tyranids) can be tough to beat, just because they overwhelm you with a wall of bodies. What's worse, most of those mobs are scoring, so you do need to thin them out.
Reapers, again, are great for this - with a long range, high anti-infantry strength and very good chance to ignore armor saves. Telepathy powers are also especially good, forcing Pinning tests or "Ermmm?" results, shutting the mob down for a turn. Fast, hard-hitting units such as Jetbikes, Warp Spiders, and Wave Serpents can pour fire into mobs and retreat often more quickly than the enemy can charge.
Try not to assault mobs, but if you do, it's good to have a Wraithlord/Wraithknight do it. With T8, anything S4 or less can't hurt them - and, Wraithlords are Characters. So if you have an Ork Nob with a Power Klaw leading some Boyz, challenge him first, then get to clobbering the squad. Wraithblades, with their high toughness and low AP attacks are good too, but can be overwhelmed. Wraithguard with the Template gun really make a mess of mobs, killing both on their turn and if assaulted, then being tough enough to often win a drawn-out fight. Striking Scorpions can do well against large weak mobs, and an Exarch does wonders against most Sergeant or Nob-level Characters in a Challenge.
The biggest thing to remember with mobs though is that they have a LOT of wounds and attacks, and you want an army with a high enough volume of shots to deal with them if you happen to face them on the table. If you take all anti-armor guns, you could do great against Grey Knights, but get steamrolled by Orks.
And vice-versa, of course, you do want a mix of lots of shots and high strength shots.

Flyers are very common in current armies. Every army that has a Flyer they can field will often do so. Flyers can be a tough target, because unless you have Skyfire, they're only hit on 6's. 
I mentioned above that anti-air is a must, and that Guide (from a mounted Scatter Laser's Laser Lock or Farseer's Guide) will go a long way. A Guided unit of Warp Spiders will hit a Flyer at S7, and even if only a few of those shots hit, it's still a lot of damage. Wave Serpents with a Scatter Laser also put out enough S6/S7 shots to be a threat, even if most of them miss.
Remember that Flyers can't turn around. So if a vulnerable unit is in front of a Flyer, move towards it, then it will fly over before having the chance to shoot.
The best counter to Flyers (especially good vs. Stormravens and Heldrakes) is Intercept, which allows you to fire on an enemy unit arriving from Reserves during the Movement phase, before it has a chance to shoot. And, unfortunately, the only way Eldar can get Intercept is by taking an Aegis Defense line with an Icarus Lascannon or Quad Gun. This is a good option in general, as it provides guaranteed cover and anti-armor, as well as being good against Flyers.
The Nuclear Option (or "That Flyer has to die NOW") is an Aegis Defense Line with an Icarus Lascannon, manned by an Avatar with Fast Shot. It rolls in at a whopping 300 pts, but gets two shots with a Lascannon and Intercept, at BS 10 for a 2+ to hit with a 2+ re-roll, and AP2. That's a 3+ to penetrate even the toughest Flyers, you'll almost certainly hit, and then it will be a 5+ to destroy outright. A Flyer can always Jink, but this is the best possible anti-Flyer option in the game. The Avatar is also tougher to get rid of than most Quad Gun gunners.
The second best option (I think) is a Crimson Hunter. With a Pulse Laser and two Bright Lances, plus a re-roll to penetrate vs. Flyers, the Crimson Hunter is meant to dominate the skies. I personally like to take the Exarch for the BS 5, to hit on a 2+. The CH only has AV 10 on all four sides, so even massed Bolter fire will bring it down - you need to make sure it does what it's supposed to do when it arrives or it may not get another chance. That means steering clear of Intercept, and ideally arriving on the table after enemy Fliers (to get the drop on them), and doing as much damage on arrival as possible. For me, the Exarch upgrade is crucial for that (Guide helps too).

You made it! Huzzah!

In Conclusion-
Remember that a counter isn't a guarantee, every army is a combination of counters - the game is about making sure your anti-Tank Infantry take out a Tank or two before the other guy's anti-Infantry squads get to them (etc.)
Having a good combination of different types of Counters balanced with the goals an army needs on its own is the essence of list building.

I hope this mass of text has been helpful and/or entertaining, and if you have any comments please fire away. Also, if you'd like advice on how to tackle a particular enemy/unit type, let me know. I'll be happy to give my two cents.