Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Keep Your Ethereals Alive

Tau ethereals are fantastic, but they're a big target and easy to kill.

Last edition, it wasn't a problem at all - you just never took ethereals.  The re-rolls on leadership they gave your army simply wasn't that big of a deal, especially considering that a dead ethereal could see half your army panic and run off the table.

In 6th edition, Tau ethereals are probably the most cost-efficient unit in the entire game.  Yeah, their drawbacks are huge - losing an ethereal means an extra VP for your opponent, which can easily cost you the game.  But for 50 points, the 12" bubble of effects they provide for your army is brutally powerful.  6+ FnP for most of your army is incredible - it's a slight chance, yeah, but for the whole army? 50 points is a bargain.  Or you can be stubborn if you need to keep someone locked in combat - on the ethereal's Ld 10, no less.  Being able to run and snap-fire isn't anything special, but it's nice to have.  Mostly, you're taking an ethereal for that sweet, sweet bonus shot with rapid-firing fire warriors.

Unfortunately, all these abilities come in an very fragile package.  Two wounds, no saves, and T3 means that anything that hits your ethereal will kill him.

"I'll just hide him in the back," you might say.  "My twelve-man fire warrior unit will keep him safe."  A small unit of fire warriors isn't going to protect him from a competent opponent, however.

This isn't to say that hiding your ethereal in an infantry unit is necessarily a bad play - in some games, that's going to be your best bet.  But you won't always be able to rely on that tactic to keep such a high-value target alive.

There are three primary ways for an opponent to kill your ethereal:

1. Precision Fire
2. Overwhelming Firepower
3. Assault

Most anything your opponents will throw at you is going to break down into one of these categories, or a combination of the two, so let's go over ways of dealing with each of these possibilities.

1. Precision Fire is a problem because it can pick your ethereal out of the unit protecting him.  This can come from several sources: characters, snipers, focused witchfire psychics, and Tau battlesuits with an advanced targetting system.  

Against all of these, fortunately, you get a 2+ Look Out Sir! roll for being an independant character, so precision fire isn't a major concern unless your opponent is drowning in snipers; it takes 36 shots from a precision weapon to actually land a hit on your ethereal (1/6 chance of rolling a 6 to hit, 1/6 chance of failing your Look Out Sir!).  If someone can fire 72 sniper shots into a tau unit before you can kill the enemy snipers, or if you roll a lot of 1's, this could be a problem, but most armies won't be packing a massive arsenal of snipers.  
On the off-chance that this is a issue, your only real option is to hide your ethereal, either behind terrain that blocks LoS or behind one of your vehicles.  Keeping the ethereal inside a devilfish is also a sound strategy, provided you can keep the transport alive.

2. Overwhelming Firepower is what you really have to watch out for.  Most individual Tau units aren't particularly durable, and if an opponent with a decent shooting phase decided he wants the unit of fire warriors sheltering that ethereal dead, there's a good chance he'll be able to pull it off.  Cover will alleviate this problem to an extent, and going to ground is definitely a nice option, but be careful with this; if that unit hits the deck the ethereal won't be able to leave for a full strength unit in your turn.  And if they do manage to wipe out your unit, then your ethereal is easy prey for anything the opponent wants to throw at him.

Shield drones are the simplest way of sheltering your ethereal from enemy fire.  It's not foolproof, but that extra pair of wounds with a 4++ save increase his survivability enormously.  Better still, if your ethereal needs to move to another unit, the drones come with him.  24 points is a reasonable investment for keeping such a high-value character alive a little longer.  Hiding the ethereal behind cover or a vehicle works here, too - even if the rest of your unit is being butchered, the excess wounds won't lap over onto a target the enemy can't see.

Probably the best way of handling massed fire, though, is to join your ethereal to a riptide.  In order for this to work, your riptide will need to have shielded missile drones accompanying him, ideally two of them.  Characters aren't allowed to join single monstrous creatures, but they can fit into a unit of them - just like Necron players can toss their lords into tomb spider units, you can slide an ethereal in with a riptide and a pair of drones.  Seven wounds at T6 is a lot harder to burn through before reaching your etheral, especially with that 2+/5++ save.  And if you're really worried about heavy weapons fire, the riptide can boost his save to a 3++ (probably).  The only downside to this is that it limits the mobility of your riptide, because you need the ethereal in the center of your army, but giving your ethereal a monstrous creature as a bodyguard is probably worth it.

3. Assault is a concern for all Tau units, of course, but enemy units of bikes, cavalry, or beasts are especially capable of scooting past intervening units and charging into your ethereal's unit, especially if your opponent can shoot up intervening units to clear them a path.  You might abandon a unit of fire warriors or drones to their fate, hoping they die quickly so you can shoot up the unit that just charged into your lines, but abandoning an ethereal to his fate is a poor option.

Of course, your best plan will be to keep the ethereal out of combat altogether; that honor blade might make him S5, but he's still going to die to anything stronger than a couple of guardsmen in melee.  Prioritizing fast assault units will help, as will layering fire warrior and drone units in front of the ethereal's own squad - just be careful of presenting an attractive multi-charge target.  Supporting fire is enormously helpful here, though - with your army clustered around an ethereal, anything trying to assault his unit is going take heavy casualties from overwatch.

Your other option is to keep a counter-charge unit around to deal with whatever hits your lines.  This is tough to do with units inside the Tau codex, unfortunately.  Kroot, even with hounds, aren't capable of standing up to a dedicated assault unit most of the time.  Eldar offer howling banshees, striking scorpions, and harlequins, each of which does decent damage, but in addition to being very fragile, eldar units tend to be horribly over-costed; I'm hoping they'll be more useful allies when their new codex releases.  Space Marines are your other battle brother, giving you assault marines or assault terminators as strong counter-attack options.  Both of these are pricey, but hard-hitting and tough to kill.  Ork shoota boyz are a great cheap way to tarpit enemy attackers, with the added advantage of being incredibly cheap.

Special characters:

The two special character ethereals, Aun'va and Aun'shi, are also potential ways of keeping your opponents from murdering your ethereals.

Aun'va's signature system, the Paradox of Duality, gives him and his honor guard an additional saving throw equal to the AP of the enemy weapon shooting them.  This is nice on paper, and Aun'va's bonus rules are great - he's even more cost-efficient than the standard ethereal, and if you can keep him alive Aun'va is fantastic.  The problem is that it's just him and the honor guard - four wounds of T3 Tau before Aun'va is on his own.  Worse, Aun'va is not an independant character. He only gets a 4+ LoS roll, and when his honor guard die he cannot join another unit - he's stuck being a sweet, juicy target.  You can hide him behind terrain or a vehicle, of course, but these are risky options at best.

Aun'shi is essentially a sturdier version of the standard ethereal.  You're paying an additional 60 points to get him, but he has an extra wound and comes with a 4++ save from his shield generator, which more than compensates for not being able to buy drones.  He's also much more durable in combat due to his WS5 and being able to either rend or re-roll invulnerable saves in a challenge, but you probably shouldn't rely on these - while he might be able to survive for a round or two, he's not going to win that combat on his own.  Aun'shi's best looked at as a way to protect your investment - for those extra points, your ethereal is substantially harder to kill.

You've got a lot of tools at your disposable for keeping your ethereal alive - now you just have to decide which method fits your army (and is most likely to frustrate your opponents).

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