Theme Theory

Hey, I’m Rean. One of the local players down here in Florida. I play primarily Retribution of Scyrah. Loved their aesthetic after playing Legion at first. I do a lot of theorycrafting and posting on the Retribution facebook page, so if you ever want to chat let me know. More than happy to talk theory with you and work on lists. I spend a lot of time working, but I do still manage to get in 5+ games a week. Most of my content will be Retribution focused, but I wanted to start off giving my opinion on arguably the elephant in the room at first.

So, themes are a rather contentious point in the community at this point. There are many who seem to think that themes are the only way to win at this point and if you aren’t playing in themes you are either A. going to lose or B. Going to have such an uphill battle that it is not worth it. I disagree with that premise entirely. So, to mark my first actual post on this site I’m going to talk a bit about them. I’ll be breaking this up into a few small sections. First, themes as a concept. Second, the benefits of a theme. Third, the consequences of a theme. I’ll save the specific Retribution theme talk for another day. Feel free to disagree with me as I welcome debate as long as it is done civilly.

The Theme Concept
     Ahh… themes. Some people love them while others hate them. I think themes are really cool! The concept of a theme is that by taking certain models, in certain amounts, you can get a variety of benefits at the expense of tactical flexibility. There are a variety of themes for each faction, but some factions are still waiting for their 2nd and 3rd. The purpose of a theme is to give a central unifying identity to a list. Whether it is making you go beast/jack heavy or infantry. Themes give a definite identity to a faction list, and it is a great way to introduce a player to a faction.

The Benefits
     The big one. The thing that causes people the most amount of tilt. There are a variety of benefits to taking a theme list. On its face the biggest benefit you get from making a theme list and playing it is that you are getting tangible bonuses for the models you play. One of the most common benefits of a theme list is that for every X number of points you take of (certain model or model type) you get free points in the form of solos or attachments to units. This is probably the biggest point of contention which I’ll get into later. Other benefits include bonuses to deployment area, bonuses to starting roll, denying an opponent a benefit, and the list goes on. These are all tangible benefits that you can see as soon as you make a list or see it deployed across from you.

The intangible benefit. One of the other benefits of a theme is the intangible one. Themes always bring an intangible benefit by doing so. One of the biggest is that lists basically build themselves. Themes are really quite static when you see them. Oftentimes you can literally plug and play different casters into a theme list and get similar results. So, for new players, or even vets who may have a limited selection of models, this allows for ease in making a list. Instead of having your entire faction available; you are limited to a smaller selection. You are then narrowed even further by gaining the aforementioned tangible benefits above by limiting your list to certain model types within that subset. This really makes list building really easy! And, if you ever want to play a new caster you can go buy that shiny new Haley3 and pop it into your list (with a couple edits maybe due to point totals) and boom. Good to go.

Another benefit is the psychology. If you say you are in a theme you have immediately put your list into the opponent’s head. Some themes have definitive spook factors (Pun completely intended). Ghost fleet, the Cryx theme, is the biggest boogeyman out there right now (Circle players go back to laughing amongst yourselves). Themes can put you in your opponent’s head before a single model even moves. Never underestimate how much that can affect a game. For those of you who played in Mk2 and prior it is the same situation where someone would tell you they are playing Haley2. Many people would just kind of take themselves out of the game mentally just at the mention of the caster.

The Downsides
     To preface this I’ll tell you a bit about my mentality of playing this game. I am of the firm belief that if we are playing warmachine, and I did not literally drop the worst possible list into you (See. only pow 10 gunshots into a khador armor list), I have a very good chance of beating you, or having an enjoyable back and forth game. To define what playing warmachine is is a bit trickier. My goal when I play Warmachine is that you and I will go back and forth with trading pieces and making sure I did not lose on list selection. People always want a “hard counter” to a list or unit. But the game is moving away from this. Instead of constantly trying to answer questions you need to respond with questions of your own. Themes definitely ask questions of a player “Can you handle X jacks? Can you handle Y infantry?” And if your answer is Yes, congratulations you’ve likely beaten the theme. The thing about the questions that a theme asks is that they are very specific and very limited.

So, talking a bit about the downsides of a theme list. We’ve once again got tangible and intangible ones. Tangible ones are those like not being able to take really good characters or units because they are disallowed. Some of the best units and synergies that exist can only exist outside of a theme list. Furthermore, even basic units can really be missed because you chose a theme. A great example is the lack of Dawnguard sentinels available to any theme list for retribution currently. You never really realize how much you miss a unit until you are staring down the barrel of a bunch of heavies. But I digress, if you remember way above I spoke of tactical flexibility? Themes don’t give you that. You have a set strategy and plan with a theme list that you must exercise and oftentimes themes are bad, really bad, at what they are not good at. On the otherhand, when you play non-theme you have the benefit of making lists that may not super excel at one specific plan, but they are not going to be absolutely abysmal at another. Avoiding those extremes is a good thing.

I firmly believe that the best counter to a theme list is a balanced non-theme list. Even more so if you choose to play in ADR. Theme lists are extremely difficult to swap points around in ADR because you have many variable to account for such as free solos and UAs, necessary points to get the free stuff, limited to what can be swapped in, etc. On the other hand, a non-theme list can freely swap things in an out to really hammer home against what they are about to fight. Oh no, I’m fighting a bunch of jacks. Well, glad I have those sentinels in my sideboard. Pop out this unit of riflemen and…. okay let’s do this.


     Ultimately, themes are here to stay. And while I’m sure the debate will continue to rage about themes being too strong, and no doubt some are toeing that line, I hope you can walk away from this article with a little bit of something to consider. Try playing out of theme a little more. If people are playing themes against you, you already know what you will be fighting ahead of time. Leaving at least one of your lists free from themes can do a lot for your pairings. Anyways, think I took enough of your time so thanks for reading! Feel free to tell me what you think whether agree or disagree and we can go from there.

Free your mind, Neo.

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