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Building Eldar Army Lists - A background approach to army composition

Submitted By: Irisado Date: August 7, 2010, 04:21:31 PM Views: 8528
Summary: This article aims to give Eldar players greater insight into how to build Eldar armies in accordance with the background of their chosen Eldar craftworld.

Building Eldar Army Lists - A background approach to army composition


Allow me to take you on a journey, back through space and time, to a period so long ago that some of you who end up reading this article may not yet have been born.  The year is 1990, White Dwarf 127 has just been released, and written within its pages, are the first rules for Eldar Aspect Warriors, Seers, and the Avatar, together with the most comprehensive background account of the history of the Eldar that GW has ever published for Warhammer 40,000.

It was this issue of White Dwarf which inspired me to play the Eldar, and it has been my army of choice through every edition of the game.  As a younger player, I remember reading the fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Eldar, how there were different craftworlds, whose disparate ways of fighting would be established more clearly over the course of the second and third edition Eldar codices, how the mysterious and mercurial Harlequins would, on rare occasions, materialise, as if from nowhere, to help out a beleaguered Eldar force, and how the Avatar was summoned by the ultimate sacrifice of one individual for the defence of a craftworld.  In other words, I am talking about background, something which I have always had a passion for, but a subject which has been closer to my heart when building Eldar armies the more experienced a player I have become.

Over the course of recent editions (notably fifth edition), it has become clear to me that background is becoming progressively more marginalised in favour of the 'winner takes all approach'.  This approach is something that I do not like, since it often encourages players to put together armies designed to win at all costs, without any reference to the background of the force that is being fielded.  While individuals are free to take this approach, and, in reality, are probably forced into going down this path if they want to be successful at the highest level of tournament play, it is an approach that a lot of new players seem to fall into, due to the fact that they do not have access to a lot of the older books and articles which contain some of the best background material for Eldar armies.

This article, therefore, intends to explain how background can play a role in building army lists by examining how a themed list can be created for each of the main craftworlds, as well as covering other issues which are linked to incorporating background into army composition, such as 'count as' and special character creation.

I emphasise that this article is not designed to tell players what to do.  It is up to individuals to decide how they wish to play the game, so if you wish to play using the 'winner takes all' approach, then this is fair enough.  My argument centres on the notion that a lot of players are gaming in this manner because they do not have the necessary background information to make an informed choice about whether they wish to take account of background when constructing their army lists.

It is also important to highlight that fielding a list which respects Eldar background does not mean that the list has to be bad.  In fact, I believe that you can build some very effective lists which still reflect the background of the craftworld which they are meant to represent.

The next section will discuss some general points about Eldar background, before moving on to tackle the types of armies which can be fielded by the main craftworlds, while still respecting the background.

General background considerations for constructing Eldar army lists:

Eldar background is extensive, but also varied, depending on the craftworld that is being fielded.  There are, however, some general points that can be extrapolated relating to army composition.

Special characters:

The current Eldar codex contains a number of special characters: Eldrad, Yriel and the Phoenix Lords.  It is Eldrad and Yriel who are by far the most problematic of these characters, since they are a Farseer of Ulthwé, and a Prince of Iyanden respectively; yet, they have a tendency to appear in all manner of craftworld lists, particularly in the case of Eldrad, with alarming regularity.

From a background perspective, Eldrad can only be fielded in Ulthwé armies.  This is not to say that he never fought alongside other craftworlds, but such instances would involve two or more craftworlds participating in the same battle (one of which would be Ulthwé).  A lot of players also seem to include Eldrad in their armies because they think he is the ticket to success.  This, however, is not necessarily the case.  A regular Farseer with two powers can fulfil the role of Seer in the majority of Eldar lists, it just requires careful positioning of the Farseer relative to other Eldar units within the list.  Taking a regular Farseer also allows creativity to flow, since you can create your own narrative for your Farseer, making up your own name for him or her, and if you are a starting an Eldar army for the first time, you have even more freedom, since your Farseer is likely to start off only being able to afford one power in small games; hence it is possible to create a story whereby an inexperienced Farseer becomes steadily more adept at using psychic powers, which would subsequently explain why (s)he gains an additional power once you start playing larger battles.

Yriel is more complicated than Eldrad, since he has had two lives in terms of the background.  He was originally a Pirate Prince (an outcast of Iyanden to all intents and purposes), becoming an Autarch of Iyanden in the more recent background.  Either incarnation of Yriel is, therefore, acceptable from the point of view of the background discourse.  Once again though, he would not be found leading other craftworld armies.

Phoenix Lords pose a different problem, in that they are not fielded very often in fifth edition, but, if they are to be chosen, then the background discourse argues that they would be fielded in armies which include at least one squad of a given Phoenix Lord's Aspect, or as part of a craftworld army with which the Phoenix Lord in question has a strong bond.  Karandras, for example, established close ties with the Alaitoc Craftworld in the wake of the Medusa campaign, and the Craftworld also has a large number of Striking Scorpion units in its forces.  The other background issue for all of the Phoenix Lords concerns the units that they join.  In terms of the background, they are likely to be found leading a squad of their own Aspect, so this needs to be considered when using them on the field of battle if you want to stay true to the background.

The 'count as' issue:

It has been argued by some players that the 'count as' rule allows Yriel and Eldrad to be used in other armies.  While this is an option, for it to be valid for the background army list approach, a player would need to create a name, history, and narrative for this character for such a concept to be valid.  Also, players need to be careful about how they use the 'count as' rule if employing it to represent special characters from previous editions of the Eldar codex.  Using Eldrad, for example, to 'count as' Iyanna Arienal does not work, since Iyanna is a Spiritseer, not a Farseer, thus the difference in ability between the two would not be adequately reflected.  My view is that customising your own regular Farseer or Autarch, and creating your own narrative for them, is better than using 'count as', but 'count as' can work, providing players use it with care.


Harlequins are another problematic area to cover in terms of general background.  This is because the background representing them in the current Eldar codex is incomplete, thus leading to Harlequins being fielded in ways which conflict with their background.  The most important point to consider when thinking about whether to field Harlequins in your Eldar army is that they are rare.  They are not part of an Eldar craftworld, and, for the most part, have no special links to the craftworlds (see later discussion on specific craftworlds for exceptions), thus they turn up to fight in battles when they feel it is necessary for them to do so, not because an Autarch or Farseer has summoned them in some way.  There are also certain opposing forces which they are far more likely to fight against than others, with Chaos being at top of the list by some distance.  Necrons and Tyranids are also said to be the other two armies which could attract the attention of the Harlequins, particularly if the battle is of significance to the Eldar (which could be determined via the narrative), although the evidence for this is somewhat limited.

The other problem with Harlequins is the issue of transportation.  In the background, they either make use of scavenged vehicles, mostly from the Imperium, or use their own transports, so the notion of their using craftworld Eldar transports to carry them around is not appropriate in terms of their background.  Thankfully, such an event is less common now that the power gaming paradise that was the Falcon and Harlequin combination is no longer as strong as it used to be, but it is still a problem I see from time to time when reading army lists.

Harlequins function as an allied force within the Eldar army.  They are not part of a craftworld force, therefore, they do not share equipment with a craftworld army, and vice-versa.  This, combined with their scarcity on the battlefield, means that for the majority of craftworlds, Harlequins will only be an option when fighting certain armies (Chaos in the main), or if the battle has some sort of special resonance for the Eldar army in question (which would normally be determined by a narrative).

None of this means that Harlequins can never be fielded, but they are more suitable for narrative campaigns and scenarios, as well as tailored lists, than they are for regular lists in my view, due to the issues that I have outlined above.

Other Eldar units rarely pose background problems from the point of view of army composition, however, some are more likely to feature in certain forces than others, depending on the craftworld in question, which is the subject I will address in the following section.

Craftworld specific background for building army lists:

In this section I will deal with building armies for the five main Craftworlds.


Alaitoc armies have undergone some changes from their original background, due to the losses that the Craftworld’s forces suffered during the Medusa campaign.  As a result, some units which used to be quite a common feature in Alaitoc armies, such as Guardians, are now less numerous than they used to be, and the Craftworld has developed much stronger bonds with the Harlequins than it had in the past.  Striking Scorpions are also much more frequently seen in the forces of the Craftworld, thanks to Karandras having forged closer ties with Alaitoc.

Alaitoc armies have always included a substantial number of Rangers and Pathfinders though, and this has not changed, so even though it is not wise to field too many of these units in fifth edition, due to the threat from squads which can outflank and deep strike, it is these units which will form the core of a themed Alaitoc army.

An Alaitoc list made in accordance with the background is, therefore, likely to consist of a core of Rangers and Pathfinders, supported by Striking Scorpions and/or Harlequins, while Karandras himself may also be present for very large battles (Apocalypse games being the obvious candidate, but normal games of a sizeable points value, for example, 2000 points, would also be able to accommodate him).  He could also appear in narrative campaigns or specialist scenarios, so if you wanted to field him in a small themed battle, you could do so.

Other Aspects are also likely to be found in Alaitoc armies at the expense of Guardians, which will only be fielded when absolutely necessary, with Dire Avengers, being the most common Aspect across most Eldar craftworlds, likely to be seen in significant numbers.  Warp Spiders and Swooping Hawks are also likely to be seen in Alaitoc forces, due to the fact that they fit in well with the guerrilla tactics employed by the Alaitoc Craftworld.

Alaitoc armies are quite stealthy, preferring to strike using guerrilla tactics, rather than employing a full scale mechanised attack, so you may want to consider an all infantry force with only walkers (War Walkers or Wraithlords) as ‘vehicular support’.  That said, Alaitoc do use vehicles, so it just depends on what type of force you wish to create as to whether you want to include them.  A scouting force which has been sent forward to spy on an opposition landing site, for example, would probably consist of infantry, while an attack force, would be more likely to include vehicles.  There are, therefore, plenty of options, it all depends on how creative you want to be.


Biel-Tan armies are characterised by their high number of Aspect Warriors.  The majority of Biel-Tan forces, however, still include Guardians in one way or another, be it in the form of pilots for War Walkers or Jetbikes, or regular Defender Guardians on foot.  The key distinction between Biel-Tan and other craftworlds is, however, that the ratio of Aspect Warriors to Guardians is skewed in favour of the former.

To field a Biel-Tan force which is consistent with the background, it would, therefore, be necessary to include a significant number of different types of Aspect Warrior squads, and to ensure that there are more units of Aspect Warriors than Guardian squads.  The definition of a Guardian squad is a little problematic here, since some Biel-Tan players include War Walkers, Support Weapons, Vypers and Jetbikes in this definition, since they are operated by Guardians.  Other Biel-Tan players, however, only consider Guardians on foot to be counted for this purpose.  The choice is ultimately up to the individual player in this case, since there is no background evidence to favour one of these two schools of thought over the other.

Autarchs and the Avatar are also strongly linked to Biel-Tan, since the former ties in neatly with the focus on Aspect Warriors and Exarchs in the Biel-Tan background, while the latter has links to the Court of the Young King.  This is not to say that Biel-Tan does not have Farseers at its disposal though, it just means that the presence of an Autarch or the Avatar is perhaps a little more likely in a Biel-Tan army than it would be in other craftworld forces, albeit not necessarily at the expense of the Farseer.

Biel-Tan is perhaps the easiest Eldar army to create with the current codex.  Aside from not having any special characters at its disposal, and lacking strong links with Harlequins, virtually any other combination of units could be fielded without any background issues arising, providing the core of the army comprises Aspect Warriors.


Iyanden is the Craftworld most strongly associated with Wraithguard, Wraithlords and Spiritseers.  It is, therefore, unusual to come across an Iyanden army which does not include any of these choices, with Wraithguard, in particular being the most common of these three options.

From the point of view of fielding an Iyanden force which adheres to the background, fielding a squad of ten Wraithguard led by a Spiritseer is almost a given, although players could choose to field smaller units of Wraithguard mounted in Wave Serpents instead.  In very small games of between 500-750 points, fielding Wraithguard would be too expensive, but a narrative could be written to explain that an Iyanden force of this size is just a scouting party, or perhaps an escort for a Farseer, thus Wraithguard would not be present in such a small operation.  A number of Wraithlords, usually two or three would also be sound choices for an Iyanden army.

By contrast to other craftworlds, Iyanden is noted for having relatively few Guardians due to the losses it suffered courtesy of the Tyranids during the infamous invasion which almost saw the Craftworld’s total destruction, so while Guardian units (this can be interpreted as Guardian units of all types or just Storm and Defender Guardians) can most certainly be fielded, it would be appropriate for their number to be reasonably restricted, given that Iyanden rely on the dead to provide the bulk of their forces.  A similar restriction could also be placed on Aspect Warrior squads.

Other units which could be quite common in Iyanden armies are the Avatar and vehicles, since these can also compensate for the lack of living units available to the Craftworld's armies.

Iyanden is famous for the implacable advance of their Wraithwalls, but this does not mean that the entire force has to be fielded on foot.  A mechanised wing is, therefore, perfectly viable for Iyanden from the background perspective.  A fully mechanised Iyanden army would, however, be rather unusual, since it would make Wraithguard on foot and Wraithlords impractical choices, and without them the list starts to move too far away from Iyanden background in my view, so this is perhaps only to be recommended for smaller battles or highly specialised scenarios.


Saim-Hann is the Eldar Craftworld most strongly associated with speed.  This speed, however, does not necessarily take the form of a fully mechanised list in the sense that the entire army rides inside transports, rather it is much more connected to Jetbikes and Vypers, which are the core units around which Saim-Hann armies are built.

In order to field a Saim-Hann force, it is highly likely, from a background point of view, that Guardian Jetbikes will make up the core of your force, and that other options, including Vypers, and other skimmers, will be the units which are added around this core force.  As a result of this, fully mechanised lists are very common when playing Saim-Hann armies, although mixed lists are still perfectly viable within the background for this Craftworld.

Hit and run attacks are a characteristic of Saim-Hann armies, so mobile Aspects, such as Warp Spiders, Swooping Hawks and Shining Spears are also likely to be included in Saim-Hann forces, alongside Jetbikes, Vypers, and tanks.

All infantry forces, conversely, are very unlikely to fit the background of Saim-Hann, since they do not fit the concept of speed which underpins this Craftworld.


Ulthwé is the craftworld which is famous not only for being led by the most powerful Farseer in the game, but also for its Seer Councils.  While it is no longer possible to put together a ‘true’ Seer Council, it is still possible to field pseudo Seer Councils, and one of these is likely to be a part of most Ulthwé armies of more than 1500 points.

This is not to say, however, that Ulthwé is only renowned for its Seer Councils, rather it is also famous for fielding more Guardians than other Craftworlds, including its highly disciplined and well trained Black Guardians.  Fielding Black Guardians is, however, not that easy in fifth edition, since ‘count as’ Dire Avengers still end up being armed with Avenger Catapults, which makes this rule a little awkward in this case.  That said, it is still feasible for friendly games at least, so it is an option that Ulthwé players may wish to make use of.

Due to the number of Guardians which the Ulthwé Craftworld has at its disposal, units which are crewed by Guardians, such as War Walkers, Jetbikes, Vypers, and Support Weapon Platforms are also likely to be present in Ulthwé armies.

Guardians and Seers are, therefore, highly likely to be integral parts of Ulthwé armies, and given that these units can feature in just about any type of Eldar list, there are no problems with fielding any of the three main Eldar list types, and maintaining Ulthwé background in the process.

Ulthwé forces can also field a different style of army known as the Ulthwé Strike Force, which is different to the regular Ulthwé army, generally comprising a highly mobile element, supported by small infantry strike teams, but this will not be discussed here, as it is outside the scope of this article.

Other Craftworlds:

The background on less well known Eldar craftworlds is very limited, so you have a much freer hand in determining your unit selection with such craftworlds, although there are still some general themes which such craftworlds tend to be associated with, which are worth bearing in mind should you wish to field them.

There is also the option of creating your own craftworld and background, which can be a very rewarding experience, and allows you to create your own favoured themes and unit combinations in any way in which you see fit, providing it does not ride complete rough shod over general Eldar background principles.

The Myth of Craftworld Disparity:

It is important to note that, in spite of the differences between the main Eldar craftworlds, they all, for the most part, share a similar military structure.  Any distinctions between them are generally seen by the fact that some craftworlds naturally have a tendency to field more of a certain type of unit(s) than another craftworld, rather than not having access to a particular unit, or consisting of armies entirely composed of just a few units.

I emphasise this point, since the third edition Eldar Craftworld Codex sought to give the impression that there were actually more differences between the Eldar craftworlds than there actually are, and this was a false representation of Eldar background in my view, and one which caused quite a bit of confusion, particularly for those who had not played during previous editions.  While background army composition is, therefore, to be encouraged in my opinion, the third edition Craftworld Eldar Codex did not really do a good job of representing Eldar background; indeed, it actually stereotyped some of the craftworlds a bit too much in my opinion, distorting some Eldar background in the process.


In this article I have highlighted why I feel background army composition is important for Eldar armies, and why I believe it makes for a much more fulfilling experience to adopt this approach when building your army.  I have no doubt that not everybody will agree with this approach, but I hope that for those of you who appreciate Eldar background, or perhaps had never even considered it before when assembling an Eldar army,  it has provided you with some useful insight and inspiration.

Thank you for reading,
Irisado – May 2010.

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January 28, 2011, 11:55:17 AM
I liked it alot. Right now I'm thinking of making my own Craftworld as I love the speed of Saim-Hann, but just not sold on jetbikes and vypers. Your article gave me this idea :) Thanks alot, it was helpful indeed.
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August 9, 2010, 05:53:08 AM
Very interesting article, sums up very well the main craftworlds and their warstyle. It even made me interested in starting an Eldar force.

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