This article was inspired by a couple of comments exchanged with someone on a Bell of Lost Souls review of the Woldwrath. I thought that the review was pretty solid (although without much play experience) and I generally like the Warmachine/Hordes writers for BoLS. In the comments I mentioned my experiences with the Woldwrath for some additional feedback and I had an interesting exchange there discussing Circle's playstyle. In fact, I've had similar thoughts from reading Lamoron's articles on his experiences with Circle over on his blog. I've always been interested in Circle and they're my first faction since Mk. II (although it might have been Cygnar if they had released the Firefly model sooner for that eNemo theme list). I'm not going to suppose that I'm an expert on the faction or that others are incompetent, but the purpose of this article is to try to explain the playstyle of the Circle Orboros and why many find the faction to be so challenging outside of just a handful of warlocks. I believe the best way to describe this playstyle is something called "Counter-Punch".
"Denial" might be an interesting way of describing Circle's playstyle, but I don't think that's it either. While there are a lot of warlocks in Circle which control the battlefield (Mohsar, pBaldur) there really isn't anyone else who plays a game solely focused on denial. I guess Kromac counts, but Bestial is expensive and situational, we don't have any warlocks with Purification (yet), and while we can throw Stealth out there occasionally or otherwise prevent some shooting, there's not much for us to flat-out deny for our opponents. It's not the same as playing a Haley, Fiona, or Zerkhova, but it is somewhat similar. So what is it that Circle does best?
I think the best way to approach the analysis of playstyle is to focus on two particular things: spells and animi. By looking at the spells available to warlocks and the animi that they and their beasts can access, we can get a good idea of what the faction does best. Sure, there are lots of other special abilities that the faction enjoys, but looking at these two categories of abilities help us derive a general picture of how to play the faction. For Circle, this means that most of our spells/animi fall into a couple of categories:
- Movement/positioning: Lightning Strike, Bounding, Dog Pile, Telekinesis, Spirit Door, etc.
- Defensive buffs: Occultation/Shadow Pack, Restoration, Stone Skin, Roots of the Earth, etc.
- Damage boosters: Lightning Tendrils, Wild Aggression, Curse of Shadows, Forced Evolution, Primal, etc.
But even those spells have a lot of subtext to them. What all of these spells/animi tell us is that this is a faction focused on getting models to key positions, delivering large amounts of damage, and then mitigating the amount of damage they'll suffer in return. Now, how you go about doing this will depend on the warlock, of course. With eKaya, she'll keep her key beasts protected long enough to strike hard and fast with her beasts and then teleport them away. Mohsar can use Pillars of Salt to block off areas of the board and protect key models. Epic Baldur will put his models into position, take what his opponent brings, and then strike back. All of these different playstyles essentially do the same thing: preventing your opponent from dealing significant amounts of damage and then hitting them back harder.
One unit that has all of the tools for this playstyle is the Druids of Orboros. Druids have a reasonably impressive statline (DEF 14 ARM 13) but also have access to some spells which play into our counter-punch strategy. Summon Vortex in combination with Camouflage allows Druids to absorb a surprising number of attacks - even in melee (provided they originate inside their cloud), and Counter Magic from the leader also protects your units (not just Druids) from enemy spells. This allows the unit to take less damage than they might otherwise from their raw statline. On the following turn, Medicate can be used to heal up warbeasts to bring them back to full effectiveness or they can use Force Bolt to move around key enemy models so that your counter-punch will be delivered where you need it.
All of Circle's movement shenanigans and all of our offensive boosts all make sense in the context of delivering a counter-punch to the opponent to remove key models from their force. Even Lightning Strike or Spirit Door allow us to counter-punch the opponent where it hurts and then prevent reprisal - again preventing the opponent from delivering attacks where they will be most effective. Even the purpose of Shifting Stones makes sense now. Their within 8" teleport often is not enough to increase the threat range of our beasts, but if the opponent is already in our face, then being able to place a key model into a position to deliver the pain makes way more sense in the context of the faction. Even with Morvahna who generally doesn't need warbeasts will reflect this same playstyle by using Regrowth and Harvest to reduce the sting of losing models and simply replacing those that get killed so that you can, again, deliver a counter-punch to the enemy.
I encourage you to examine the faction again through this lens and I think you'll find that suddenly things that might not have seemed so great before now have new meaning and recent releases like Grayle, eBaldur, and Ghetorix all exemplify this exact playstyle that I speak of, they just do it in different ways.
If you want to be a good Circle player you actually have to play with a defensive mind, using your spells and abilities to keep your opponent at bay and force them to make poor decisions that you can capitalize on. Playing Circle is highly manipulative and inherently unforgiving, but if you can force your opponent to choose between killing off models that you want them to kill or do nothing, then you're well on your way to being a good Circle general. The best part is that this is exactly how Circle is supposed to play and aligns beautifully with their fluff! If you like being the aggressor, then Circle isn't for you. If you like sitting back patiently waiting for your opponent to make the wrong decision and capitalizing on his/her mistake, then you will probably find Circle to be quite fun.