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NicoLab: The Activation Wars – Sequencing in Age of Sigmar

Hey everyone, today I have the first in a new series of articles with Nico on rules issues in Warhammer Age of Sigmar. To kick off the series, we are delving into the rules for sequencing and activation in Age of Sigmar – a hot topic currently with the recent prevalence of rules disrupting the usual order in the combat phase. Feel free to drop a comment at the end of the article with your thoughts, reasoning and ideas for future articles in this series.

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Age of Sigmar

Sequencing in Age of Sigmar

The sequencing of abilities in Warhammer Age of Sigmar has always been important, especially in the hero and combat phases.  The order in which particular abilities are activated by you and your opponent can be crucial to the outcome of the combats involved.  Piling in cleverly, casting spells in the wrong sequence or inadvertently dragging a monster into combat can make a big difference. 

With recent battletomes, especially since Maggotkin of Nurgle and Daughters of Khaine, we are seeing more abilities which modify, or operate outside of, the usual turn sequence. Therefore, a careful examination of these abilities and the sequencing rules is timely.

Reading this article will help you understand the nuances of deemed phases (typically movement, charging, shooting or combat in the hero phase); the sequencing of abilities within phases (Start, During and End); and explore examples of combos and counters that rely on these nuances that you can use in your games. The first part of this article covers deemed phases, while the second part covers the start, body and end of phases (sometimes likened to subphases); the third part discusses the ongoing “Activation Wars”.


Part 1: Deemed Phases

A game of Warhammer Age of Sigmar is split into Battlerounds, Turns and Phases. Several abilities allow for units to do an action or use an ability in a different phase than normal – typically fighting (piling in and making attacks), shooting, moving or charging in the hero phase “as if” it were the combat, shooting, movement or charge phase respectively.

The “Deemed Phases Rule” or “DPR” provides that a unit doing an action in the hero phase cannot benefit from another ability that is described as applying only in the combat, shooting, movement or charge phase respectively. In other words you read “as if” it were the X phase in the narrowest manner possible.

The DPR began as an FAQ (since amended) to stop a particular Sylvaneth combo involving teleporting to 9” away and then moving afterwards using Free Spirits (granting a move as if it was the movement phase) in a combo with Forest Spirits (Teleport to 9” away and all models within 3” of a Wyldwood) to allow Kurnoths to get 9” away and still be able to move in the actual movement phase for an easy charge:

The current incarnation of the DPR is:

The DPR lightswitch effect

While the desire to tone down certain combos is understandable, the DPR created some situations which were arguably immersion-breaking (from a narrative perspective).

  • Darkling Covens units have a Darkshields rule allowing them to “re-roll failed saves of 1 or 2 for this unit in the combat phase…”. However, if those units were attacked in the hero phase (by say a Blades of Khorne unit using Blood Tithe) then the Darkling Covens lost the benefit of their shields.
  • Plaguebearers losing their protection to shooting if that shooting occurs in the hero phase (such as with the Kunnin Rukk formation in Bonesplittas).
  • the Verminlord Deceiver losing the -2 to hit from being shrouded in darkness.

Now the Verminlord at least has been fixed with a warscroll change in Battletome Skaventide making the -2 to hit ability apply in all phases.

Abilities that apply at all times are, therefore, fundamentally more valuable and easier to apply than those which are tied to a particular phase. For instance, all the abilities of the Kunnin Rukk (extra attacks, exploding attacks +1 to hit etc.) are not tied to particular phases, which makes it even more powerful. Conversely the rarely seen Blood Stalkers (aka Snakes with Bows) do not cause mortal wounds if shooting in the hero phase because that is ability is solely limited to shooting in the shooting phase.

It is likely that over time we will see a shift away from some of this phase-dependent wording.

We can draw some general conclusions from the above:

  • abilities only work in the specified phase.
  • the phases and sequencing rules are interpreted strictly.

Part 2: Sequencing within a Phase

Over time, Warhammer Age of Sigmar has introduced new abilities that are activated during either the Start or the End of a phase (or indeed a Battleround/Turn). This sub-division of phases has also been the subject of FAQs and commentary published on Warhammer Community.

Summary

We can summarise the effects of these rules and FAQs as follows:

  1. The Start, During and End parts of a phase are important distinctions in the rules.
  2. The concept of a Start of a phase is meaningless if normal During part of the phase abilities can be used beforehand (see the Morathi example below).
  3. Many abilities (7 or more from both players) can be used in a given Start of a phase – the rules and FAQs specify exactly what order these abilities are to be resolved in.
  4. The active player (the player whose turn it is) does all of its simultaneous abilities in an order of its choice, then the non-active does all of its simultaneous abilities in an order of its choice.
  5. Hero/combat phase abilities (technically “During part abilities”) cannot be used before start of the hero/combat phase abilities
  6. Hero/combat phase abilities cannot be used in the Start of the hero/combat phase at all.
  7. By symmetry (the Start and End are symmetrical about the middle of the phase) hero phase abilities cannot he used after any End of the hero phase abilities and cannot be used in the End of the hero phase at all. For example, if Savage Boarboy Maniaks pile in at the End of their combat phase (for the second time) – anyone who as a result becomes within 3” would not be able to fight as it’s already the End of the combat phase and it’s too late for normal activations that are only allowed in the During part of the combat phase.
  8. During part of the hero/combat etc. phase abilities can only be used in the During part of a phase (not in the Start or End). Although see further below.
  9. Given the above, the Start, During and End parts of each phase can be likened to discrete subphases. Certainly a subphase model makes it easier to explain these rules.
  10. Given the importance of the start and the end of phases, it seems appropriate to generalise the FAQ above to abilities only work in the specified subphase (Start, During or End of a phase)
  11. The phases and sequencing rules have been interpreted strictly even where this leads to odd results.

I’m now going to try and illustrate the effect of these principles with some practical examples.

Mostly Grots II

Nasty Skulkers were one of the first units to take advantage of the start of the combat phase with their appropriately named signature ability:

Here’s an example of Nasty Skulkers in action.

Nurgle

A Nurgle Start of the hero phase can be a complicated procedure – here’s my script for a Nurgle Beasts of Chaos List:

Start of Hero Phase
Gain CP
Trees Mortal Wound on a 4+ within 3”

3 Contagion Nurgle in my territory
3 Contagion Nurgle in their territory
1 Contagion No enemy models in that territory
D3 from Tree with no enemy within 3”
Grandfather’s Blessing – nudge wheel

The Glottkin heal D3 Wounds

Centigors Drunken Revelry +1 to Hit and be Hit

Take Damned buff

There are 7 (pure coincidence) abilities that I can choose the order of in my start of the hero phase:

Q: If several abilities are triggered at the same time (at the start of a hero phase, for example), how do you determine the order in which they are used?

A: If several abilities can be used at the same time, the player whose turn is taking place uses their abilities first, one after the other, in any order they desire; then the player whose turn is not taking place uses their abilities, one after another, in any order they desire. The same principle applies to any other things – such as command traits or artefacts of power – that can be used simultaneously.

The practical significance of this is that I have to decide whether to get the Centigors drunk (a double edged sword as the enemy get +1 to hit them) or take the Damned buff before I can see whether I cast both Blades of Putrefaction and Fleshy Abundance to buff them. I have to make these commitments without the knowledge of what the casting and unbinding rolls will be.

It’s worth emphasising that the FAQ provides that the active player must do all of their abilities first – rather than being able to choose (unlike in Warhammer 40,000). So against Blood Tithe, the Nurgle army above would do all seven abilities above (but not cast any spells like Mystic Shield which occur during the hero phase) before the Khorne player is able to use its start of either player’s hero phase pile in and attack using Apoplectic Frenzy for 4 Blood Tithe.

Take your Daughter to the Slaughter

Daughters of Khaine is the book that turned the “start of the hero phase” versus “during the hero phase” into a critical distinction.

Morathi’s “go Hulk” Ability (whether deliberate – Monstrous Transformation – or because she took Damage and has to roll – The Truth Revealed) is a start of the hero phase ability.

So is the Khailebron Mistress of Illusion teleport.

As these abilities must be used in the start of the phase, Morathi can neither cast 3 spells with her buff to casting and double range (as spells are cast during the main body of the hero phase) nor use her command ability to make two units shoot or attack; before going Hulk.

The sequencing rules make the use of Morathi a delicate trade off between defence and melee offence on the one hand versus magical power (and the command ability) on the other hand.

In my view it’s still the best warscroll that Games Workshop have written to date – perfectly fitting the narrative and fascinating in Matched Play.

There is also an interesting question of whether to go Hulk and then teleport or to teleport and then go Hulk. As both abilities are simultaneous – Morathi gets to choose.


Part 3: The Activation Wars

The most recent Warhammer Age of Sigmar battletomes, in particular Flesh-Eater Courts and now Slaanesh, have only further highlighted the significance of the timing of fighting in the combat phase. I go through some more examples now to try to work through the principles.

Strike Quickly in Hysh

Strike Quickly is a command ability allowing a unit to fight in the start of the combat phase.

You cannot use it multiple times on the same unit in the same combat phase (as you can’t trade the right to fight later for fighting now once and still have the right to fight later ready to trade again). However, you can use it on multiple different units.

The sequencing is clear – the start of the combat phase begins – it is up to the active player to do all of its start of the combat phase abilities before the non-active player can do any of its abilities (including Strike Quickly).

This is fine if the active player wants to attempt to (a) Strike Quickly and then (b) activate a regular unit as normal in the body of the combat phase. The non-active player can also spend a command point to use Strike Quickly before (b) happens and potentially neuter the unit that was planning to do (b).

The tricky part is if the active player doesn’t want to use Strike Quickly – if it has fewer command points for example or needs a command point for something else later. The threat that the non-active player may use Strike Quickly can force the hand of the active player (as if it chooses not to use Strike Quickly, then the non-active player can use it and neuter the hammer unit of the active player). We’ve encountered this exact situation in recent games in Hysh.

If the active player asks the non-active player whether it is planning to use Strike Quickly it is trying to gain extra information that the sequencing rules would normally deny the active player. The non-active player should simply not respond – it is entitled to decide after the active player. However, the non-active player should not bluff or lie in this situation either. It’s an interesting mini-game.

A busy start of the Combat Phase with Fanatics

Both Loonsmasha Fanatics from Gloomspite Gitz and Morrsarr Guard from Idoneth Deepkin have abilities relevant to the start of the combat phase. The result will often depend on whose turn it is.

If it’s the Gloomspite Gitz turn, then the Loonsmasha Fanatics charge the Eels. Then in the start of the combat phase, they use their Whirling Death ability to hit the Eels before they can use the Eel Zap ability to kill them with mortal wounds. The start of the combat phase ends and in the body of the combat phase, the Gloomspite Gitz player can activate another unit as normal (20 Squig Herd), then the Sylvaneth player activates a unit etc..

If it’s the Sylvaneels’ turn, then the Eels can Zap the Loonsmasha Fanatics for about 9 Mortal Wounds.

It’s worth recalling that High Tide has recently become a Start part of the combat phase ability (Errata, March 2019), so Fanatics no longer always fight before Eels. This is a large buff for Idoneth.

Fanatics vs Sequitors

Another interesting example is Fanatics vs Sequitors. While Sequitors have a permanent reroll 1s to save Shield (which ignores the DPR above), their ability to choose between reroll all saves and reroll all failed hit rolls is a start of the combat phase ability:

If the Fanatics charge in their turn, then following the FAQ, they clearly attack the Sequitors before the Stormcast player is able to make this choice – so the Sequitors cannot pick reroll saves before getting crushed by -2 rend.

If the Sequitors charge in their turn, then they can make the choice before the Fanatics attack them (both in the start of the Combat Phase). However, the challenging subtlety is that read strictly while the Sequitors’ Aetheric Channeling choice is made in the start of the combat phase, the effect of that choice only applies “in that combat phase” (i.e. in the Start part of the combat phase).

We’ve already seen that the phases and subphases are interpreted strictly and so arguably the Fanatics will still be able to smash the Sequitors before the reroll saves kicks in (as all the start of the combat phase abilities must take place before any combat phase abilities take place). Please see below regarding the Triggered Exception for another possible explanation.

Another example is the poor unfortunate Darkling Covens who arguably don’t get to use their reroll 1s and 2s shields against Fanatics or a unit attacking with Strike First in Hysh in the start of the combat phase or a Gristlegore Savage Strike Abhorrent Ghoul King on Terrorgheist (“Flappy”).

Fanatics vs Blood Warriors or Death Frenzy Stormvermin – the Triggered Exception

You might have thought from the above that Fanatics that kill Blood Warriors in the start of the combat phase likely do not trigger No Respite, but would clearly trigger Death Frenzy on Stormvermin (which is consistent with the idea that different words lead to a different result):

No Respite If a model from this unit is slain in the combat phase, before that model is removed from play, that model can make a pile-in move and then attack with all of the melee weapons it is armed with.”

Death Frenzy….Until your next hero phase, when a model from that unit is slain, before it is removed from play, it can make a pile-in move and then attack with all of the melee weapons it is armed with.”

Death Frenzy is entirely independent of phase, so it works if spells or shooting kill the models or even in the start of a battleround after the initiative roll (for example, by predatory Endless Spells).

However, in a major ruling on 21 March 2019 in an article entitled “Who fights First?” (the “Triggered Exception”), Games Workshop indicated that things that happen in the start of the combat phase still count as happening in the main body of the combat phase!

This ruling erodes the previously firm borders of the different sub-phases of a phase – but only in relation to triggered abilities (or reactions perhaps); and only in one direction. The slaying of Blood Warriors in the start of the combat phase – counts as slaying of Blood Warriors in the main body of the combat phase – hence it triggers No Respite.

It’s worth emphasising that the Triggered Exception is a narrow one – this doesn’t turn the start/during distinction into a free-for-all. Nevertheless – this ruling may be confusing for casual or newer players – especially given the Deemed Phases Rule and the otherwise strict borders of the parts of each phase.

Turning back to our Sequitor friends facing the Fanatics in the Stormcast turn, arguably the decision to use Sequitor Aetheric Channelling in the start of the combat phase is itself the “trigger” for the During part ability reroll failed save rolls, so the Triggered Exception allows the rerolls to work even in the start of the combat phase vs the Fanatic attacks.

Gristlegore and the Triggered Exception

The Triggered Exception greatly buffs Gristlegore. Feeding Frenzy is a During part Command Ability that is triggered by having fought for the first time in the During part of the combat phase. Prior to the Triggered Exception, it seemed that Savage Strike – a Start part ability – allowing a Gristlegore Flappy to fight in the Start part of the combat phase, would not count as fighting in the During part – such that the Flappy could not combo Savage Strike, then Feeding Frenzy – for a double activation in the Start part of the combat phase.

Feeding Frenzy is a during the combat phase ability “in the combat phase”. On the previous assumption that the subphases are discrete (with firm borders), this Savage Strike Flappy would not satisfy the requirement for Feeding Frenzy of having already fought “in the combat phase”.

Unfortunately, the Triggered Exception reverses this and specifically allows this combo to work. The Flappy’s Start part Savage Strike does count as happening during the combat phase for trigger purposes – and so the Flappy can use Feeding Frenzy in the start of the combat phase!

It follows from this that if a Flappy uses Savage Strike then it cannot use Call to War – as to be eligible for Call to War you must not have fought during the combat phase. As we’ve seen, Savage Strike does count as happening during the combat phase for triggering purposes.

The Khorne FAQ: Gristlegore gets even better

As can be seen from the underlined wording above, Savage Strike is a mandatory rule (there is no “can” or “may” unlike in optional rules). It is common for AoS rules to include trade-offs – so gaining a great benefit of always fight in the Start part could be accompanied by a small weakness. This led many players to conclude that whether or not the Flappy was actually able to fight (i.e. pile-in and attack) in the Start part of the combat phase, it had already traded its right to fight normally in the During part for the right to Savage Strike.

This left armies with a soft-counter to Gristlegore – by charging another FEC unit, then leaving a trail of models over to the Savage Strike Flappy, some of whom hover 3.1” away from the Flappy. The Flappy has to use Savage Strike in the Start part of the Combat Phase. The thinking was that this meant that the other player could then pile in 3” and attack the Flappy in the During part, without fear of retribution (unless it died – triggering Call to War).

The Khorne FAQ provided this:

“Q: Some abilities say that a unit fights at the start of the combat phase. What happens if that unit is not within 3″ of the enemy, but later in the phase an enemy unit piles in to within 3″ of it?

A: A unit that can fight at the start of the combat phase but does not do so is allowed to fight normally during the combat phase should an enemy unit move to within 3″ of it.”

This reduces the ability of a normal army to soft counter Gristlegore by clever positioning. The fact that the Maw has a 3” reach makes things even harder.

Countering Gristlegore and the Activation Wars Meta

It is possible to zap off the Flappy, kill it using other start of the combat phase abilities or just accept huge losses or tank them – 30 Hearthguard Berserkers to the face?

One option is to baselock the Flappy on its left with chaff, and have a hammer unit with models chained to 3.1” away from the Flappy on its right (having charged another FEC unit and strung out to make your unit eligible). Savage Strike is still mandatory – so the chaff die, but the Flappy cannot get into 3” of the hammer unit to do a second pile-in (as baselocked). Then when it dies in the During part, it’s not eligible to fight on death with Call to War.

The cleanest solution is to do the same thing with the Doppelganger Cloak (only in your own turn). Move in your hammer monster (a Loonboss on Mangler for example). In the Start part, you don the Cloak, then the Flappy must use Savage Strike, so it must fight – i.e. pile-in and attack. As the Flappy cannot target the Mangler, all it can do is pile-in. Though watch out for anything else within 6” as it will not be baselocked. Best of all, because the Flappy has attacked – it’s not eligible to fight on death with Call to War.

In your turn, you can use your own Start part Abilities to kill a Flappy relatively safely before it can double activate and take your units off the board. Eels can Zap and then attack it in their turn during High Tide for example.

Other things to remember in the Activation Wars include:

  • Eligible to pile in from within 6” units (Slaanesh, Khorne, Sisters of Slaughter) allow you to safely stand 3.1” away and run down the clock on the Start part of the combat phase, then attack the Flappy.
  • Impact hits predate the Start part of the combat phase, so Bloodcrushers etc. can chip off the final wounds. If it does in the Charge phase, then it cannot use Fight on Death.
  • Death Frenzy (above) or Magmadroths #BleedMeta (do Mortal Wounds back as you take damage in the combat phase) can hurt the Flappy (mutually assured destruction).
  • Khorne have access to a fight in the Start part Artefact (the Halo of Blood in The Bloodlords Slaughterhost). Sensibly the fight twice Command Ability (Leave None Alive) is in a different Slaughterhost (Reapers of Vengeance), which mitigates this. However, Bloodthirsters in Tyrants of Blood or Bloodmasters and Bloodletter keyword units can trigger chain activations after the initial Start part Halo of Blood activation.
  • Fyreslayers appear to have some level of Start part Activation and fight twice.
  • The Betrayer’s Crown in Ulgu (anti-horde artefact).
  • The Rustfang and The Moonface Mommet – Nurgle and Gitz Artefacts that debuff armour.
  • The Flappy is resistant to chipping away damage as all the output is in the Maw and the Maw doesn’t degrade. Unbinding +D3 Attacks will help. Debuffs can help a little, but -1 to hit is of limited value as the Flappy will be rerolling failed hits (1, 2 or 3) fishing for natural 6s anyway.

Debuff Spells

Itchy Nuisance, Soul Cage and the Wildfire Taurus all force an enemy unit to fight in the end of the combat phase. If this directly contradicts a right to fight in the start of the combat phase, then the second ability to be applied will trump:

“Q: If a Wildfire Taurus’ Whirlwind of Destruction ability forces an Idoneth Deepkin unit to fight at the end of the next combat phase, but the High Tide battle trait is in effect, does the unit fight at the start or the end of the combat phase?

A: If two abilities that apply to a unit are contradictory and cannot both be applied, the one that was applied second takes precedence.”

So Savage Strike turns on at the start of the game, so will always be trumped. Conversely Strike Quickly or the Quicksilver Draught are used in the start of the combat phase, so necessarily after the hero phase (when spells were cast), so they would trump these Debuffs.

Locus of Diversion

Looking ahead to the Slaanesh Battletome – their fight in the End Part debuff (Locus of Diversion) has a different interaction with a fight in the Start Part rule (e.g. Savage Strike) – the Abilities cancel out – which is very interesting.

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve found this article illuminating. The correct application of the sequencing rules can help you build combos; and allow you to counter combos or particularly strong units in your opponent’s army or mechanics like Savage Strike or High Tide. Any comments and thoughts are most welcome.

Written by Nico. You can find me on Twitter at @Niconarwhal or on TGA as Nico at the NicoLab – my blog – I may have been known to lurk in a few WhatsApp chats as well.

Credit and thanks to Alex Kew for coining “The Activation Wars”.


2 thoughts on “NicoLab: The Activation Wars – Sequencing in Age of Sigmar

Add yours

    1. Abilities Cancel Out. In the Slaanesh turn, the Fanatics emerge at start of Charge Phase, assume that they make their charge. Are within 6” at end of Charge Phase. Keeper rolls a 3+, so they are affected by Locus. The Slaanesh Proviso would then apply. In the Combat Phase, Slaanesh would have first activation, Fanatics could then activate (as normal).

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