Thursday, August 6, 2015

First Thoughts: Zaal, the Ancestral Advocate

Greetings Gentlereaders,

The dust hasn't nearly settled, but I'm here to give you the latest about the newly announced (and not fully released) Skorne warlock, Zaal, the Ancestral Advocate.  As always, there has been a river of tears shed on the various Skorne forums that he may be taking up a place as our worst warlock.  From what I hear Dominar Rasheth received a similar reception and now he's one of our strongest warlocks.  It's been less than a week since his rules have been spoiled at Gencon.  Since the rest of the crew will be giving you a rundown of their experiences, here's my Gencon 2015 story.  Let's cut through the dross and see what gold we can mine from the game's first construct warlock and the first caster who is neither living in any way nor undead.

Fair Warning: This is a review of a warlock.  It's going to be long.

Zaal, being the blasphemous mortithurge he is, was obsessed with how the extoller caste he controlled channeled the souls of the fallen into sacral stones to preserve the most valiant of warriors from the Void.  During a campaign against the Iosians (Retribution), Zaal was mortally wounded, but used the last of his strength to put his own spirit into a sacral stone.  His followers recovered it and housed it in a new form worthy of their leader's majesty.

In game terms, that means you have a warlock who is essentially an ancestral guardian.  Except for the part where he isn't considered an AG in game terms, very strange.  He does have the same stats as an ancestral guardian including low speed, very low defense, very high armor, and high hit boxes.  His statline is about the same as in his prime incarnation with good Mat and Rat, but now he only has a reach weapon rather than a reach staff and magic eye gun.  He retains his FURY 7, making him tied for our second highest FURY stat behind Rasheth (yes, that keeps coming up).  He brings a decent amount of beast points, but there isn't anything  on the front of his card that tells you much except that he will be hit if the enemy tries to hit him.

This beautiful design by Javier G. Urena.  Top notch.
Enter the back of his card, where things get interesting.  He's got four abilities that work in surprising synergy if you're willing to think outside the box: Steady, Righteous Vengeance, Direct Spirits and Reclaim.  The first two and the second two work well together, so I'll discuss them in two groups.

Steady and Righteous Vengeance are both movement abilities.   Steady (also on Rasheth and AGs), simply means that Zaal can't be knocked down.  His low defense may mitigate the benefit of this somewhat, but for now, let's just say he can't be knocked down.  Righteous Vengeance (See Hakaar) triggers when a Friendly Faction Warrior model (FFWM) is killed within 5" of him, then in the next maintenance phase he can make a full advance and a normal melee attack.  Things to remember if you're looking to get as many tricks out of eZaal as possible: the Maintenance phase comes before the Control phase and you can attack anything with your righteous vengeance attack.

Now we get to the two abilities that make eZaal really interesting to plan around: Direct Spirits and Reclaim.  Direct Spirits is exactly what he had in his prime form; it prevents enemy models from taking the souls of his FFWMs that die in his control area and allows him to decide which of the models eligible to collect the soul gets it.  It's a really strong ability that allows you to turn your troops into fuel for your Extollers and Ancestral Guardians.  Well, now that he's in an AG body, Zaal has the ability Reclaim, which essentially takes the soul collection abilities of the Extollers and AGs and extends it to his control area.  This means that he can either give the soul of a FFWM destroyed in his control area to an eligible AG or Extoller or take it for himself.  During the next Control phase, he converts all the souls on him into fury points, generally taking him abo
ve his FURY stat.  During each maintenance phase, fury in excess of their FURY is removed from warlocks, so it looks like he better have something to spend those fury points on.

Before we move on to the spell list I need to touch on his weapon's ability: Silencer.  Simply put, if you hit something with it and don't kill it, it can't cast spells next turn.  If you do kill it, it still can't cast spells next turn, but that's not the point.  I can see it having very limited application unless you really, really want to make him into an assassin.  And if you think a speed four model that isn't a warbeast is a good way to kill the enemy caster in melee, you may need to rethink your plan.

Here's the part that got most of the Skorne boards in a frothing rage, partially for lack of power, partly for a lack of originality, and partly because it's the internet.  His spell list is Annihilation, Mage Sight, Sunder Spirit, Transference and Vision.  Annihilation is a high cost, medium range, low power AoE nuke that generates souls for Zaal from any living enemy models he boxes, then removes them from play.  If he can catch a group packed together, he might refund the cost of the spell next turn, but that requires getting close.  Mage Sight essentially give Eyeless Sight to models in his battlegroup when they want to target anything in the 5" AoE.  Sunder Spirit is a zot that can take away the animus of any beast it damages, but again short range.  Transference is an upkeep that lets FFWMs in his control area spend focus on eZaal to boost melee attack or damage rolls.  Vision essentially puts up a 1-hit shield on a model that prevents all damage (but not continuous effects) from the next attack that hits it.  Sadly, you can't choose not to pop it, so it's a bit iffy.

All friendly faction constructs in eZaal's control area heal 6+d3 (including himself), get +5 armor and gain boosted melee attack rolls for a round.  This screams out for you to take immortals, AGs and anything else with construct you can get.  Interesting note: in relevant scenarios, your objective is considered a friendly faction model, and it has Construct advantage.  Since in 2015 objectives have 15 boxes, this means you can expect to heal your objective about 50% of its max if it's been damaged or send it to armor 23 for a round.  Between healing your objective and making a unit very high armor, eZaal's feat has serious scenario potential.

Initial List "The Meat Grinder"
  Scarab Pack
  Aridus Sentinel
  Titan Gladiator
Ancestral Guardian
Ancestral Guardian
Hakaar the Destroyer
Praetorian Swordsmen (Min)
Praetorian Swordsmen (Max)
Nihilators (Max)
Paingiver Bloodrunners
Paingiver Beasthandlers (Min)

Synergy and Dirty Tricks
The first thing you may notice is that there aren't any immortals in this list.  Well, we're trying to get everything out of his abilities, and while immortals on feat turn and under transference would be able to get double-boosted rolls for one soul each, they are expensive and don't give out souls themselves.  If you want them, you could do a straight swap for the nihilators.  I went with nihilators because I wanted to increase my living FFWM count, and thus the number of souls eZaal and the AGs can harvest to 40.  That's 2-3 waves of living models I can throw forward before Zaal and the AGs come in to clean up while coked out on souls.  With transference up, the nihilators should be able to get their berserker train going with boosted attack rolls against troop heavy armies.  Against warbeast/warjack heavy armies, the nihilators screen the swordsmen who can do one point per attack on a beast/jack and choose the column damaged.  Hell, even the beasthandlers can get to chopping up one-wound infantry if they can boost to hit.

Mage Sight brings us to the second part of the list.  While the swordsmen and nihilators are blunt instruments to chew through enemy troopers, the aridus and bloodrunners are scalpels to find those stealth and backfield support solos that need to die.  eZaal can point them out to the aridus who can be hiding behind a forest if need be.  The bloodrunners will get their own write up, but trust me, they can bury themselves in your lines if they want to.  The Scarabs aren't really there for much of anything except being a transfer target.  eZaal can transfer up to 40 points of damage to them, which is really good because he will be hit and want to transfer, so go for the cheapest wounds you can get in a warbeast.

The titan is a very blunt instrument, but can also be used to make eZaal move if you want him to.  Speed four is a big hindrance, but combined with steady and righteous vengeance, you can have Zaal move four inches in maintenance, walk up the titan behind him and have the titan throw him forward (enrage, charge, and force for the throw for another inch).  Normally, since he was knocked down on your turn eZaal, wouldn't get an activation, but because he's steady, he only needs to give up movement or action.  So you have him forfeit action to get another four inches of movement and start casting Sunder Spirit until the enemy caster is dead.

Right now, eZaal is a caster who's really up in the air.  We don't have but a handful of games in the whole Skorne community that have tested him in a competitive setting.  We've seen casters like pDoomshaper go from zero to hero with a tier list, and it could happen with eZaal.  In the end, I think he's a solid caster who has a lot of options, but for better or worse he's no Butcher3.  He won't redefine Skorne, nor will he only have one way to play.  He does what a lot of other Skorne casters do and does it well.  In the end, that's all I can ask of him.

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