Offensive or Defensive list building?

I started thinking about this the other day and was wondering if anyone else out there ever thought of it like this.

When we sit down to build an army list, we usually have a point limit in mind. We spend a certain amount of points on buying the stock, non-upgraded units. Inevitably we either have some left over or we make room as we go along and add "upgrades" to those units.

The simple question is this, do you tend to buy Offensive or Defensive upgrades?

Let me explain the difference...

I'm talking about the upgrades you buy for a unit, NOT how you play it on the tabletop.
You can buy lots of Defensive upgrades for a unit and use them for assault or the other way around, buy Offensive upgrades and stay back, that's not what I mean. I'm talking about classifying the upgrades you buy and then looking at where you've spent your points for your force.

For example, I buy a Dreadnought for it's base cost.
I add extra armour (Defensive)
I add Venerable status (Defensive in my case)
I add a lascannon (Offensive)

Now this doesn't determine how I must play my Dreadnought on the tabletop, but I've basically spent more points on "upgrades" trying to keep him alive than I've spent trying to kill my opponent.

If I look at my Deathwing as a whole, it breaks down like this:
1500 point list
Point cost of stock units: 1310
Point cost of all Defensive upgrades: 100
Point cost of all Offensive upgrades: 75

That's 100 points I spent helping me stay alive. Would those 100 points be better spent on something that can do additional damage to my opponent?

Now some upgrades are clear, like smoke launchers being Defensive, others may be both Offensive and Defensive at the same time. And some, like weapon changes may only change your capacity and not necessarily improve anything. Although I would say that most weapon upgrades are Offensive since they are generally accepted as "better" weapons you are buying for your unit.

For those who ever played Magic, it's the difference between playing White and Red. White's focus was more on self preservation where Red's was more on outright attacking.

And so I wonder, if you spend more points trying to stay alive (defensive upgrades) as oppossed to trying to kill your opponent (offensive upgrades), who will do better in the long run, the guy who tried to stay alive or the guy who set out to kill the other one outright?

Ron, From the WarpIf you've got any questions about something in this post, shoot me a comment and I'll be glad to answer. Make sure to share your hobby tips and thoughts in the comments below!


  1. I tend to be outnumbered alot, and usually outplayed since I'm new to 5th edition, so I usually go for offensive. Given that 5th is all about holding objectives, I tend to use half of my troops choice for scouts, so I can reinvest the points into something to protect them. Namely, lots of firepower.

  2. I have a wildly different model of list building Ron! I paint first and then have to fit my models into the list. This basically rules out defensive options because they are not as visible on the model as offensive weapons. I can't easily remove all those bolters from my guard sergeants, but I can choose to not give my dreadnought venerable status.

  3. Imperial Fists are their name, defense am their game.

  4. I tend to go with numbers is the best defensive upgrade. At 100 points (at least in the regular SM codex) you're only 5 pts short of a whole new dreadnought. I tend ot think adding yet another target and potentially damaging unit is better than the upgrades...

  5. I buy offensively and play offensively and it hasn't failed me yet!

    Good or bad list, the winner will always be the better player though.

  6. I find my points beyond transports going into almost all offensive choices for my Imperial Guard.

    However, my Space Wolves are very defensive oriented, upgrade-wise.

    Thanks for giving another view to peek at ourselves from. I will be paying some attention to my own trends in this matter from now on.

  7. Offensive for my Imperial Fists, best take to the fight to the enemy and get into hand to hand combat.

    Orks definately offensive lol.

    Imperial Gurd, offensive as I need to get into melta range and also my demolishers too.

    Eldar, defensive. Can blast from a-far and I don't want to get up close and personal with them.

    Iron Warriors offensive too.

    Looks like all my armies are offensive, apart from Eldar, which no wonder feels a different army to play with.

  8. Good points, Ron.

    Value for money is always a key consideration. If you can get a huge benefit for not much cost then, offensive or defensive, you'll want to take it. Things like Tau disruption pods are an obvious example.

    For some armies, more bodies is the best defense, meaning that upgrades of either kind are less important. I cannot make my guardsmen good at close combat, nor can I protect them from your power swords or flamers, but I can put so many of them on the table you'll never kill them all.

    Generally speaking, however, defensive upgrades are less efficient than offensive ones in 40k. Both have the same purpose - reduce either the number or the success rate of the enemy's dice rolls. Defensive upgrades are lost as the game progresses, however, (ie. as the units with them die) meaning that their nerf to the opponent is also lost. Defensive upgrades are good to begin with, but if they fail once they are gone for good. Offensive upgrades actively degrade the opponent's dice rolls by removing models or units, so they have multiple opportunities to be effective, failure is not lethal to the host unit and their successes last the entire game (once the enemy model is gone, he's not coming back, St Celestine excepted).

    That means, generally speaking, I favour offensive upgrades as being better value for money.

    This is only generally speaking, of course, and you need to examine each upgrade carefully in the context of your army and what it does on the table. Eldar, for example, will often favour defensive and mobility upgrades as their army is built that way. With my Tau I generally take only offensive upgrades, but disruption pods are so cheap I cannot ignore them and my broadsides are such targets that shield drones are usually worth the cost.

  9. With guard I tend to favor the old adage "the best defense is a good offense" i.e. shoot the other guy at range before he has a chance to hit me. I'll occasionally put carapace armor on plasma vets to better survive the inevitable overheats, in a way this is just an enhancement to the offensive upgrade.

  10. While I conceed that offensive 'upgrades' are more effective at changing the metagame, a key component is perceived threat and the ability to absorb fire.

    Extra Armour can appear a useless upgrade. But on a hellhound which is flaming and tank shocking, its essential as you will be hit by glancing hits at close range.

    In the same way, a commissar is an expensive upgrade, but its also an essential upgrade when combined with combined infantry units - allowing you to deploy a rerollable LD9 force that would otherwise fold in closecombat.

    Eldar are the king of upgrades, with many of their 'options' being essential to keep a small fragile force alive. After facing a Saim Hann seer council last night - the impact of fortune cannot be underestimated.

    My approach? Keep the points as low as possible and buy as many bodies for your buck as possible. Also, remember that more dakka is better. I can buy 3 GrenadeLaunchers's for the price of one Plasmagun ... over the course of a game - these kind of impacts really take effect.


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