Friday, 3 March 2017

Going First with Genestealer Cult - The Ultimate Alpha Strike?

Does a Genestealer Cult Army have the ultimate alpha strike? That’s the question I want to explore in this post. However, first “spoiler alert” I think it does! So the rest of the post is really about why! The thing that makes GSC so effective at hitting hard in turn one is the ability to roll on the Cult Ambush table. I’ve talked about the mechanics of Cult Ambush in a previous post, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say, it’s the ability to deploy using Cult Ambush at the infiltration stage, setting up close range shooting attacks and first turn charges, that makes GSC such a potent Alpha Strike weapon. Maximising the potential of that Alpha Strike is an important element of playing GSC well, although perhaps not the most important element. I suspect the ability to play well when going second is more important. I’ll deal with that in a later post.

As I’ve mentioned before, I run an Insurrection detachment, with a Brood Cycle and 2 SubT’s. This article is written with that army in mind. If you run something different it’s a lot less relevant. For reference my current 1850pts list is

Cult Insurrection Detachment

Brood Cycle


5 Acolyte Hybrids
5 Acolyte Hybrids
5 Acolyte Hybrids

5 Metamorphs

10 Nepphytes
10 Neophytes

20 Genestealers

Lords of the Cult

Patriarch, Level 2, Familiar
Magus, Level 2, Crouchling.

Subterranean Uprising


5 Acolyte Hybrids, 5 Hand Flamers
5 Acolyte Hybrids, 2 Demo Charges

10 Metamorphs, 5 Claws, 2 Whips, Cult  Icon
10 Metamorphs, 5 Claws, 2 Whips, Cult  Icon
10 Metamorphs, 5 Claws, 2 Whips, Cult  Icon

Subterranean Uprising

5 Acolyte Hybrids, 5 Hand Flamers
5 Acolyte Hybrids, 2 Demo Charges

10 Metamorphs, 5 Claws, 2 Whips, Cult  Icon
10 Metamorphs, 5 Claws, 2 Whips, Cult  Icon
10 Metamorphs, 5 Claws, 2 Whips, Cult  Icon

Typically, the Primus goes with one of the 5 Man SubT Acolyte units, the Patriarch goes in the Genestealers, and the Iconward and the Magus each go in one of the Acolyte units from the Brood Cycle.

So, with that out of the way, there are 2 key questions – when to Alpha Strike and how to Alpha Strike.

The simplest to explain, but the more difficult decision, is when to Alpha Strike. IMHO, if you’re going first, unless there is a very good reason not to, you should set up to crush your opponent first turn. I know there’s a one in six chance of being seized on, and it’s very difficult to recover from being seized after setting up an Alpha Strike, but I think it’s worth the risk. A well-executed GSC Alpha Strike is a thing of beauty, and will often win a game turn one. However, there are good reason not to. 

First, it may not be possible. The FAQ ruled (correctly IMHO) that Servo Skulls block Cult Ambush. If your opponent has 3 skulls, then best to go second and set up for the Beta Strike. Next, your opponent might have something in his army that increases his ability to seize. The most common is Coteaz, but a Tau Mirror Codex, a Calaidus Assassin and the right roll on the Strategic warlord trait table all increase the chances of a seize. If you’re facing one of those (or worse, two), you might want to think hard before going first and setting up an Alpha Strike. If you have the choice, it might be better to go second and crush him turn 2!

But if there are no skulls, and no Coteaz, and you decide to strike, how best to do it? There are 2 things to consider – list building, and table top tactics.

First, list building. In short, take as many units in a Subterranean Uprising as possible. The key to a successful Alpha Strike is rolling well on the Cult Ambush table. Being able to roll 2 dice and choose the result, doubles your chance of getting what you want. Next is unit load out. I’ve written elsewhere about how I think it’s best to load out Metamorphs and Acolytes. Metamorphs are best with Claws and a couple of Lash Whips (although you can make an argument for Leaders with Bonesword and Lash Whip). Acolytes are (maybe) best with demo charges and hand flamers. I’ll get into why in a moment.

Next set up, and this is where it gets more tricky. IMHO there are three things to think about – the order in which you roll for units, how to you place those units and what to do with the rest of your army.

Since the FAQ, GSC generals must roll for each Cult Ambushing unit individually i.e. pick a unit, roll, deploy, pick the next unit, roll, deploy etc. So, when you roll your first 6, you have no idea what support that unit will have – i.e. you have no idea how many more 6s you’ll roll. If you roll a 6 on a 5 man unit of Acolytes, place it to assault, and then roll no more 6s, that unit is kinda hanging out there! Five acolytes are good, but they’re not that good. So when setting up an Alpha Strike, you need to decide which units to roll for first.

Largely it depends on whether you’re opponent deploys bubble wrap or not. Here “bubble wrapping” means when your opponent deploys cheap units to block charges to more important units. Everybody knows that GSC can assault out of reserve. The most obvious way to defend against that, is to hide important units in a corner and surround them with cheap throw away units. So, even if the Metamorphs do roll a 6, all they do is kill a throw away unit, leaving the more important units to murder the Metamorphs in your opponents turn. I’ve seen Stormsurges surrounded by Kroot, Centurions surrounded by Scouts and Demon Princes surrounded by Brimstone Horrors. 

It’s far easier where there’s no bubble wrap.

Where there’s no bubble wrap I usually roll for my “heavy hitters first”. Depending on my opponent, this could mean the Acolytes with Hand Flamers and Demo charges, or the Metamorphs. However, typically, I roll for the Metamorphs first, expecting 2 sixes, but hoping for 3. If I roll a 6, I set them up to charge. With the other I have a decision to make – do I set them up in support of the charging units, or do I set them up and Return to the Shadows in turn one, coming on again turn 2, rolling 2 more dice on CA? I tend to set up the charging units, and return all other units to the shadows, largely because Genestealers are better in this support roll.  Next, If I’ve rolled a few 6s, and have 2 or more charging units, I’ll infiltrate the Genestealer to support the charging units. I think they’re better than Metamorphs in this roll, largely because they’re more survivable (stealth and shrouding, plus T4).  They won’t get a first turn charge, but will almost certainly get a second turn charge (with fleet). Now, one could argue I should roll for the ‘stealers on the CA table just in case I get that 6. However, there is also the risk I roll a 1 or a 2. In an army that’s full of random stuff, I think playing the odds is the better option.

After placing  the stealers, I’ll roll for the 5 man units that have support characters (Magus, Primus and Iconward), so I can place them where their bubbles have the most impact. Then I’ll roll for the other 5 man acolyte units and, if I roll well on the CA table, I’ll think about whether I can use them, particularly the Acolytes with Hand Flamers and Demo Charges, if I didn’t roll for them first.  Otherwise I use these units to cover objectives, or place them to win potential maelstrom points. Finally I infiltrate the Neophytes. 

So my typical order of operations is

  1. Roll on CA for Sub T Metamorphs x6. Place the 6s for a charge, (if I think I can get through any bubble wrap) and “hide” everything else ready to Return to the Shadows on Turn 1.
  2. Assuming I roll at least 2 sixes, Infiltrate the Genestealers to support the charging units.
  3. Roll the supporting 5 man Acolyte Units (Primus, Iconward and Magus), place them where their bubbles have the greatest impact.
  4. Roll the other 5 man acolyte units, placing any 6’s in supporting rolls, and any non 6s to cover objectives or potential malestrom cards
  5. Infiltrate the Neophytes (although if there is bubble wrap I might roll on CA for them, to see if they get a 5, in which case they could also be deployed as bubble wrap clearance).

Of course, it all becomes much harder if my opponent has bubble wrapped his more important units.

The key to dealing with bubble wrap is to clear it away, before bringing in your “heavy hitters”. You can do this in a number of ways, but the key is timing. If you can clear it away turn 1, and bring in your heavy hitters using Cult Ambush on turn 2, that’s good. But, if you can clear the bubble wrap turn 1, and make the charge, that’s better!  IMHO the best way to clear bubble wrap is with 5 man Acolytes squads from a SubT using hand flamers and demo charges. In the past I had thought Hand Flamers and demo charges were a waste of time. When coming in using Cult Ambush, unless you rolled a 6, you were (mostly) out of range, and even if you rolled a 6, charging was better. However, with the FAQ confirming that you can move in turn 1 after using Cult Ambush, they’ve become a lot more useful. Now you can deploy out of range, move into range, and throw the demo charge or fire the flamer. To do that all you need on the CA table is a 3+, making them far more reliable bubble wrap removers than hoping to roll a 6 and charging the bubble wrap. You can make an argument that Neophyte squads from the Brood Cycle with Seismic Cannons do it more effectively, but they only roll one dice on the CA table, so it’s less predictable.

So with that in mind, what’s the order of operations? If my opponent has bubble wrapped, I roll for my bubble wrap clearance first - Hand Flamers when the bubble wrap is T3 with a minimal save (e.g. Kroot or Brimstone Horrors) or Demo Charges where the bubble wrap is more substantial (e.g. Scouts). I then need to decide whether I can clear the bubble wrap, and assault the more important units that turn (assuming a 6 on CA). This will depend on how confident I am of clearing the bubble wrap, and how long any charge might be, once the bubble wrap is cleared. The problem is, the charge might be 10”, depending on how well the bubble wrap is deployed.

Usually it’s only one layer. If my opponent is smart (and he has enough bubble wrap), he’ll leave 6” between the bubble wrap and the more important stuff. If a charging unit is 3” from the bubble wrap, and the bubble wrap’s on 1” bases, that’s a 10” charge to the contents of the bubble wrap. The charging unit can close the distance by 2” in the movement phase, but that’s still an 8” charge. Now, with fleet (on the Genestealers), and Psychic Stimulus (run and still charge), that might work, but otherwise, it’s a risky. If there are 2 layers of bubble wrap, then the distance could be as much as 15”, which even with fleet and Psychic Stimulus, is difficult. There is however an answer, with a little bit of luck.

If you have a couple of units of hand flamer acolytes, and you roll a 5 on the table (that’s a 5 on 5 dice if they’re in the SubT with an attached Primus), you can place the unit 6” away, fire the flamers at the bubble wrap immediately they deploy, (the flamer template is 8” long)   and, with luck, clear the bubble wrap, or at least make a hole in it, allowing you to place units that subsequently roll a 6, closer to the units “inside” the bubble wrap. For this reason I kit out 2 of the Acolyte Units in my SubT’s with hand flamers.

So, if you can clear the bubble wrap first turn, and make the charge, after you clear the bubble wrap, the sequence more or less follows the order where there is no bubble wrap i.e. Metamorphs first deploying those that roll 6s for the charge, and hiding the others, followed by the genstealers in support, then the 5 man units with support characters, and finally the objective grabbers/support units. If you don’t think you can make the charge, deploy the bubble wrap clearance units, clear the bubble wrap and deploy the rest of your army to return to the shadows, and come in on turn 2.

So, a bit of a wall of text I’m afraid, but I think I’ve covered everything. The next article will be on going second with GSC, a much harder prospect.



  1. Just found this blog and really like it. I wouldn't to put in my two scents.

    I run two cads of two level 2 magus and 2 10 man squads of neophytes.

    Combine that with the brood cycle and I have 60 neophytes with lasgusn. I usually am fortunate enough to get a 5 on one or two of them, so I shoot away some of the bubble wrap with them. This works great on brims who I wound on 2s.

    Then the real trick is that I have so many psykers I almost always roll the run and charge. So if I'm going first, I kill a few bubble wrap models with 5s. then I deploy my big units (and hope for 6s, can't deny that part).

    During the turn I can usually kill off the rest of the bubble wrap with mass lasguns and all the auto pistols. I cast run and charge on whatever units rolled a 6, usually or 1 or 2 but they're bigger units. They run, with fleet, then charge with fleet. With this method I actually haven't failed at a first turn assault despite 30 brimstone horrors and 30 tzangors.

    Obviously I'm talking more about list building but I found that reliably having access to run and charge has been incredibly useful.

    Also helps because I have some people that like to run coteaz in a unit of thunderfires, which is basically unbeatable to GSC. Except when you can deploy 12.1 inches away, cast the power, run, then charge and make assault. Coteaz did not expect that.

  2. Thank you. I've thought about running neophytes as bubble wrap clearance, and if the heavy weapons didn't need snap fire when they come in from reserve,than i would. But I feel that acolytes are more flexible, and running them in a SubT makes it more likely you get the roll you need. "Shrug" it's pretty even I guess.

    And, using Psychic Stimulus adjacent Coteaz is golden!!