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Masterclass: Darren Watson on Archaon

Hello, so today I have a Masterclass tactics and strategy article with top UK player, Darren Watson, on his Plaguetouched Archaon lists which have had great success at the South Coast GT (3rd) and the London GT (1st).  In this article, we cover Darren’s aims for the list, the list design process, and his lessons learned from the tournaments.  Darren also gives some concluding thoughts on list building generally. 

From my perspective, Darren’s article is a great example of list analysis that can be applied regardless of the list you want to run or the current meta.  Darren set himself an aim, considered the win conditions (i.e. scenarios), his preferred playstyle, took into account the armies he expected to face at the tournament and then also reflected on his games in order to improve his list.  All of these are fundamental principles of great Warhammer.

Before I hand over to Darren, you can find him on Twitter as @PositiveVictim and his musings on all things Seraphon over at LustriaOnline.

For more great tactics and strategy advice, check out my Masterclass series of podcast episodes with top US and UK gamers and my show on list-writing considerations.


Last year I came 4th at the South Coast GT with a list built around Kroak.  At the time you didn’t see many Seraphon armies and the types of army lists on the tournament scene (“the meta”) were pretty unattractive to me (Kunnin Rukk with Thundertusks, Skyfire spam, Tzeentch in general etc).  I’m not a fan of net-listing (using a list available online that has had success previously) and like to make things work that people don’t use a great deal.

My objective this year was to improve on 4th.  I’ve played Kroak to death since the South Coast GT 2017 and it’s fair to say, although he has some very strong match-ups, he also has some incredibly bad ones that are very abundant in the current meta (Kharadron Overlords “KO”, Nagash, Fyreslayers).  He’ll consistently win 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 6 games, but you’d have to be very lucky to avoid these tough match-ups. [ED: or use the list in a team tournament such as Blood Tithe where you can engineer the favourable match-ups – coverage here For more Kroak tips, check out Darren’s talk on the Honest Wargamer]

So I wanted a new army to run with, to give me a break from using the same army and to keep my understanding of the game fresh.  Enter Archaon.

Why I chose an Archaon list

I’d seen very few Archaons running around on the UK scene (Nico’s (@Niconarwhal) lovely one in his interesting Fatesworn list being one of them) and hadn’t seen any real tournament successes with him (this was before the Games Workshop GT Heat 2 where two Archaon lists finished in the top five! Nico and Moarhammer, grats gents) so thought here was a suitable challenge.  Plus, I could try and get as many things in his sword as possible, I do love to give myself mini missions during games [ED: Archaon’s Slayer of Kings rule is that “If Archaon directs all of his attacks with the Slayer of Kings at the same HERO or MONSTER, and two or more of the wound rolls are 6 or more, the daemon bound in the blade is roused and the target is slain instantly”]. It both keeps my excitement high and you can get in your opponent’s head by telling them what you are going to try and do, if it works out, then even better. I knew there were lists built around Archaon before using his awesome command ability but thought this could be improved by adding him to a Nurgle army [ED: Archaon’s command ability allows all other CHAOS unit in your army that have command abilities on their warscroll to use them immediately in the order of your choice]. The synergies are ridiculous..

I’d also like to give a shout out to my fellow Bruce’s Chris and Ric Myhill. They have a gaming room at their house we often play in and there miniature collection is huge, importantly it included an Archaon. They have always maintained he’s strong in the right army (they, like me, pretty much ignore the general consensus and play around with everything) plus they and I, love the model (who doesn’t).

I’d ran the concept past them and Chris was up for a practice game to check the theory on paper transfers in to real battle advantages, that and Chris is always up for a game.

He threw down a quickly written Slyvaneth list with tough nuts to crack like, Alarielle, Treelord Ancient etc for me to run at.  The game went as expected but was never about winning or losing, rather to check the theory and look for any potential weaknesses.

After affirmation from Chris the concept was sound – “take it, you have to take it to Heat 2, it’s strong” – I set about buying and painting the army as quickly as I could.

The development of the list

In this section I’ll set out how the list developed over the Games Workshop GT Heat 2, the South Coast GT and then finally London GT.

Stage one: The “wind up” Archaon list

At the Games Workshop GT Heat 2 I ran my “wind up” Archaon list:

  • Archaon -General
  • Great Unclean One -Bell, Bile Blade, Tome of a Thousand Poxes, Glorious Afflictions
  • Chaos Sorcerer Lord, Steed, Cloying Quagmire
  • Allied Khorne Lord on Jugger
  • Allied Slaanesh Lord on Daemonic Mount
  • Allied Bloodstoker
  • 30 Plaguebearers
  • 10 Nurgle Marauders x 2

The aim of the list is to “buff” Archaon up with supporting spells, abilities and synergies and then rely on him to win the game.  At the tournament, I went 4-1 with three majors, one minor and a major loss.  It was a decent first run out for the Exalted Grand Marshal of the Apocalypse.  I’d learnt I don’t have the patience to use him like this though, so after some reflecting on how the games went, I wanted something that revolved a little more around the army than just the big guy and could take on lists that rely on alpha striking (wiping out most of your army on the first turn).

At Heat 2 at Nottingham the lists seemed to be heavily geared towards high resilience.  Be it large horde armies or characters that are difficult to shift.  I was expecting to see a great many undead armies featuring Nagash or Nurgle armies with Plaguebearer blobs at the SCGT.  The only army my initial ‘Wind up’ Archaon list was stopped by at the heat was Gary Percival’s Kharadron Overlords Barak Zilfin list, so I not only wanted an army that could go toe to toe with the horde resilient armies but also a single drop to take on this nonsense… (KO trigger me, ha!) [ED: if you want to hear more about Gary’s Ziflin Kharadron Overlords list, check out his Masterclass interview here].

I found with the list I took to Heat 2 it was very easy to over extend and find myself out of position (Archaon can go up to 38” in a turn.) it’s a lot of fun buffing Archaon to the hilt, but on balance not very good for scenario play.  A new build would give me more targets to spread the buffs around and help encourage me to keep my army together against my own nature (I like to play aggressively, if Archaon can go 38” I will of course take that option…).

Stage Two: The Plaguetouched Archaon for SCGT

I felt to compete I needed a one drop list (a list you can deploy all in one go thanks to a battalion, thus ensuring choice of turn order in the first battle round). One of the best ways to get a Nurgle list into a single drop army and keep Archaon is to use the Plaguetouched formation from the Everchosen book. As it happens though, it’s ridiculous value at only 100pts and makes your units -1 to hit in melee. There are other benefits to use if you take your units in multiples of 7’s but I didn’t make use of them.

I could fit an entire army into this formation, so despite its popularity (I try to be different, if it wasn’t for KO I wouldn’t need to resort to this, sorry Tom Mawdsley), I went down this path.

At the SCGT I ran:

  • Archaon-General, Plague Squall
  • The Glottkin, Blades of Putrifecation
  • Lord of Blights, Carrion Dirge
  • Harbinger of Decay-Witherstave
  • Festus-Gift of Corruption
  • 40 Marauders with Axes, Shields, Damned Icon
  • 10 Marauders with Axes, Shields, Damned Icon
  • 10 Marauders with Axes, Shields, Damned Icon

The Abilities Explained

Can you spot the combos?

  • Archaon allows you to use the command ability of everyone in your army that has one.  So the Glottkin gives every Nurgle unit within 14” an extra attack on each of their melee attacks (lovely on both big guys, but.. even better on 40 Marauders, 81 attacks!).
  • The Lord of Blights makes one of your units -1 to hit from enemy shooting which improves to -2 if the unit is over 20 models and -1 to hit in melee (this bonus stacks with the Plaguetouched battalion’s -1 to hit). The majority of the time you’re popping this on the 40 Marauders, so they’re -2/-2. Gross.
  • The Harbinger of Decay makes any unit within (not wholly within) 7” get a special save of a 5 plus.

The Artefacts Explained

Those three abilities make the list very resilient but it gets even more so with the items.  Here I should give a shout out to Dan Ford of Murderhost fame.  After seeing I’d been running Archaon in a Nurgle army he reached out over Twitter for my thoughts on how I’d preformed, as he was doing the very same thing!  I convinced him of the virtues of the Blight Lord and in return I couldn’t argue with his logic for the items. [ED: testing list ideas with other top tier gamers is a sure fire way of getting that last 5-10% of performance out of a list]

  • The Witherstave on the Harbinger means all enemy units within 12” of the bearer have to reroll successful hits of a 6.  While this may not sound much on it’s own, when you consider the debuffs to hitting available, it’s incredible strong.
  • Now for my favourite synergy.. The Carrion Dirge means all enemy units within 12” are at -2 to their bravery characteristic.  This is excellent combined with Archaon’s ability to adjust the battleshock roll of an enemy unit by 2 within 10” (for a total of an extra 4-5 bodies running without and with sinister terrain being involved), but also lovely with the Glottkin’s Horrific Opponent ability.  If a unit is within 7” of The Glottkin at the beginning of the combat phase, roll 2 dice, if the total exceeds the unit’s bravery characteristic that unit is at -1 to hit in the following combat phase.  You can get -3 to hit, enemy re-rolling successful 6s on your front line Marauders quite consistently.  I played Pano’s Khorne game 1, was in combat from turn 2 onwards with pretty much his entire army and only lost 60 Kill points over the 5 turns [ED: Pano, the best Khorne player in the UK rankings]. The debuffs are real… I had made a classic error in deployment though and rolled a 1 for my 40 Marauders’ Mystical Terrain test, which Pano happily capitalised on for the win. Silly Darren, It hasn’t happened since!

The Spells Explained

Not tanky enough?  Just add some spells.  The Glottkin can give the Marauders 2 wounds each. But that isn’t all he does because  Blades of Putrefaction on the Marauders is insanely good. Mortal wounding on a 6 to hit with 81 attacks, eek.

The Marauders have a natural way of getting +1 to hit (roll a dice before they attack, +1 to hit on a 4+, +1 to hit and wound on a 6. And add another +1 to this roll if they are over 20 models).  So on those 40 Marauders with 81 attacks you could be mortal wounding on a 5 to hit, or even a 4+ if you are lucky enough to have a damned terrain buff on them.  I managed this in game 4 against Stormcast, 15 Marauders managed 19 mortal wounds on a Stardrake and the rest of the Marauders finished of 2 Fulminators in the turn they were charged!

Plague Squall is essential in an army that has very little in the way of reach (i.e. ability to inflict damage at distance).  6+ to cast, roll 7 dice, any 6s convert to d3 mortal wounds on any unit Archaon can see (note you can’t put multiple d3 hits on the same target).  When you combine this with the Nurgle dial itself and Archaon’s mount’s head (when you kill something using this attack, you can pick a unit within 7” and do a further d3 mortal wounds to them) you can whittle down mid-range heroes nicely over a couple of turns.  It’s also useful to take out those pesky bolt throwers thinking they are cool in the back field, as the spell itself doesn’t have a range.

Festus can reduce an enemy unit’s armour save by 1 for the rest of the game.  If you don’t get Blades off, the sheer weight of attacks the Marauders can get can then still be a threat to those heavily armoured units.  If this isn’t in range you can further debuff an enemy unit with Gift of Corruption, either -1 to hit, wound or armour save.  -4 to hit (when added to the other debuffs) really triggers people..

Now take into account the Cycle of Corruption

You can manipulate the Nurgle dial using the Foul Regenesis spell.  I would typically try and put the dial to 5 if it wasn’t on it already.  For the rest of the battle round, you are making enemy units reroll successful rolls of 6 to wound but better still, in your next hero phase you are doing a d3 mortal wounds to d3 units as the dial moves round to number 6.  This is done at the start of the hero phase, so you can then just reset the dial to 5 and rinse/repeat.  If this goes off, combined with Plague Squall and the Archaon’s Nurgle head, you can really threaten a lot of your opponents supporting characters right from the word go.

There are a few exceptions to using the above… If your opponent has set up closely to you in total conquest I would (and did) turn the dial to number 2.  Plus 2“ to your movement its lovely, especially as you can run and charge near the Nurgle trees.  Marauders get plus 1 to run and charge rolls and Archaon is move 12” anyway.  The big guy can potentially go 32” in a single turn and the Marauders themselves not far behind can get up to 28”! If you are up against it (facing off against a Gaunt Summoner for example) run at your opponent screaming and hope for the best!

Facing Nagash, Morathi or another Archaon and it isn’t going well?  Try and turn the dial to plus 1 to wound (number 2).  Archaon’s sword will have 5 attacks thanks to Glottkin and if 2 or more roll a 6 to wound (5s with the plus 1) they are instantly SLAIN!  This is the most fun I’ve had in AOS so far, trying to get things inside Archaon’s sword.  To date these are the characters and monsters I’ve managed to capture..

  • In practice:Alarielle, Drycha, X 2 Treelord Ancients
    • Vampire Lord, Vampire Lord on Zombie Dragon
  • In competition:X 2 Nagashes!
    • Lord-Celestent, Relictor, Castelent  (Prime ran away in this game, livid)
    • Bastildon, Skink Priest, Astrolith
    • The Glottkin, Great Unclean One, Festus

Not a bad haul for 14 games.

Lessons learned from SCGT

I took a few lessons from my games at the SCGT.  When choosing sides, look out for Damned obviously but also Sinister.  An extra -1 bravery when The Glottkin is making his Horrific Opponent rolls can bring the enemy’s bravery down by -3 in conjunction with the Blight Kings Carrion Dirge.

Festus isn’t any good.. He’s too slow, you don’t often have the need for his -1 armour spell. I was using him to heal my supporting characters but he doesn’t do it quickly enough to make any real difference. I’ll be replacing him with either:

  • a Chaos Sorcerer Lord (makes Archaon more consistent in melee with his reroll 1s spell and swift enough to keep up with the front line, plus can look at the Marauders so they reroll 1s for armour saves (more tankiness); or
  • a second Harbinger of Decay, I’d then be able to spread my 5 up special save further (I won’t be stacking the save, really disliked that when Cauldrons of Blood did it before). Plus, if 1 died, I’d still have a second; or
  • add 10 Marauders to one of the 10’s and a Chaos Lord, his command would allow the Marauders to reroll 1s for their wounds in combat and I’d have a second unit to rely on if the 40 failed..  

Stage 3: The London GT list

After talking through my list tweaking options once again with Dan Ford (if you haven’t met Dan, go say hi at an event.  His enthusiasm for everything AoS related is boundless and infectious).  I settled on taking the Chaos Sorcerer Lord on Steed over Festus, taking the total points up to 2000 and moving the Lord of Blights’ item, the Carrion Dirge, over to him.

This tweak had a massive impact on the army’s dynamic and the final version is the one I am most pleased with.

His spell allows you to reroll 1s for hitting, wounding and saving. The problem with Archaon on his own and why people consider him poor value at 700 pts is how inconsistent he is. This spell sorts that right out. I now had 2 reliable swift damage dealers.

He can also look at a unit and allow them to reroll 1s to save, so if your spell doesn’t go off you can still get Archaon to a 2 up rerolling 1s.  Combined with the Nurgle dial (enemy reroll 6s to wound), being at -1 or -2 to hit in combat, Witherstave making enemies reroll 6s to hit and his Eye of Sheerian (roll a dice, enemies must reroll successful hits that share the same number) he becomes a nightmare opponent in combat that deals consistent damage.

Importantly I now had the speed to keep up with the advance of my large monsters and Marauder blob. Keeping that Carrion Dirge within 12” of the enemy that are often debuffed down to 6s to hit was immense.

The tweaks worked so well that I went and won the event. My first podium at a major event after coming close several times and I am absolutely buzzing!

Further lessons learnt at the London GT

The Glottkin is far far better than he’s given credit for.  He even made the Chaos Sorcerer Lord a combat threat worth considering.  If Archaon is chilling behind your lines, you can throw the Chaos Sorcerer Lord spell on him and his ranged attack becomes much better (esp with plus 1 to wound from the Nurgle dial and Damned Terrain).

I have always tried to make lists as consistent as possible and I was worried about the high cost of most of the spells going into the events (1st version had a GUO with plus 1 and 2 to cast).. But if you get the basic synergies down the spells become a bonus rather than essential to winning a game.  If Blades didn’t go off, those Marauders were still taking names, even the small units of 10.

There are so many synergies going on and things for your opponent to remember, it’s very easy for them to make a mistake (7” range on The Glottkins Horrific Opponent, 12“ ranges on the Witherstave and Carrion Dirge), quite often you can enter into favourable combats your opponent has instigated.

Chaos Sorcerer Lord is an auto include.

I need a cheat sheet and tokens. There is sooo.. much to remember.  I’ll be hitting up Matt Lyons from the ProPainted Podcast very soon for these. He’s the very well organised gamer I’d like to be and his products are pretty and incredibly useful.

Pressure is key. Being 1 drop you can quickly take up a large amount of the board and threaten your opponent’s support characters.  This list gives you the initiative, use it.  My favourite part of this list is the decisions it forces your opponent to make.  The more decisions you can make your opponent take, the more potential for mistakes.  Mistake mean opportunities 🙂

Some short comments on match-ups for the Archaon list

The Archaon list is strong vs any army with limited reach, Undead, Nurgle, Khorne (Non Archaon) etc.  You’re hitting them semi buffed/fully buffed and you can hit like a tonne of bricks.  But if Blades isn’t up, you’re likely not dying any time soon anyway.

The harder matchups are:

  • Daughters of Khaine, despite what I said about range just now! Both armies pretty much engage fully buffed and the DOK army largely hits on 3s normally and sheer weight of attacks mean the debuffs aren’t as effective as they are against others. I was tabled by Ben Johnson’s DOK at the SCGT, the mission, Duality of Death, saved me in this one.
  • Tzeentch with Skyfires that can pick off the support characters.
  • Hit and Miss against armies that include the Gaunt Summoner. If your buffs go up early doors their area of effect spell doesn’t hurt Marauders units with 80 wounds and a 5 up save, but you’ll be lucky to maintain that level of protection all game.

General principles of list writing

I’d like to finish with some general comments on writing and building lists for Age of Sigmar.  List building for me is my favourite part of the hobby. I love trying to understand the meta and then trying to break it. Here’s some tips on list building and getting ready for a big event.

Think Independently

Don’t believe everything you read or hear people say about a unit or character.  If you see value in something, play with it.  Play with it against the best players you know and then discuss what they thought.  These games shouldn’t be about winning or losing but testing if theory transfers to good plays and spotting weaknesses. If you are using an army that relies on alpha striking, play the first couple of turns and then go again.

Only seek quality informed feedback

Don’t just post lists up on forums asking if it’s any good. The people replying don’t know you, your playstyle or your local meta and could put you off discovering gold. If you get a chance listen to Chris Myhill’s interviews on the Heelenhammer Podcast about list building and getting ready for Tournaments, he is always thinking outside the box (who else do you know that plays with 40 Dwarf warriors and still consistently plays on the top tables?) and was the 1st believer in the humble Dark Elf Bolt Thrower.

Stay connected with others playing your faction

Join a Whattsapp group or start one about your chosen faction.  Shout out to my Seraphon brothers in our Whattsapp chat.  Thanks to you beauties I am still learning things about our beloved imagined lizards. The ideas that get pumped out daily are wicked and it’s a great place to bounce ideas off each other.  Also, your ideas can be challenged and situations you haven’t considered thought about. Plus you can celebrate you own and others successes. Remember point one though, if all your idea’s get poo poo’d, still play games and see for yourself.

Practice against a variety of list styles

In your practice games don’t just play against the net-lists..  I am blessed to be part of the ‘Bruces’ [ED: Darren’s local gaming group].  None of us pay much attention to the internet or are active much online (except me, got more involved on Twitter and Lustria Online a year ago, but I’m by-on-large a technotard).  When we play games, it’s with all sorts.  Every game becomes a learning experience. Age of Sigmar is essentially problem solving and practicing solving new problems on the spot will serve you much better than playing against something you already know (imho).. In a list building context, if you take something people aren’t familiar with, they most likely haven’t played against it.  If their on the spot problem solving hasn’t been fine tuned, you can capitalise on the mistakes that will follow.

Lastly a few thoughts on how to beat Nurgle Archaon…

Work it out yourself 😉

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading and thank you Dan for inviting me to write about the list and hobby I love.  Big kisses to all!

Hopefully you’ve found this article useful.  Feel free to get in touch and let me know what you thought of the article and if you would like to see more like these.

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