What Is Each Warhammer 40k Faction's Playstyle?
There are a lot of different ways to choose a Warhammer 40k faction: you could pick one based on looks, or pick one based on lore, or you might choose one based on how expensive (or inexpensive) it is to get started. But there are a lot of players who choose their Warhammer 40k faction based on playstyle.
Obviously, if you're going to be playing the game, you're probably wanting to win, and that means you want a playstyle that is effective. But you also want a playstyle that matches your personality. Is there really a right or wrong answer to "Do you want to be a sniper or a tank?" No. Both can win--they just win in different ways.
(Choosing a Warhammer 40k faction based on the current meta is, for all intents and purposes, a fruitless endeavor. New rules, errata, and codices are released every month, so when you're investing in an army--that is going to cost hundreds of dollars and is going to take you months, if not years, to paint, then you want to be choosing based on something other than what is currently winning tournaments. Any army can be nerfed at any point and odds are good that if there's a faction that seems to be winning everything right now, it's going to get a hit in the rules to balance things out.)
What Are the Warhammer 40k Imperium Factions' Playstyles?
The Space Marines are the first and most beloved faction in Warhammer 40k. (Don't believe us? Look at this research we did looking at Google Trends.) There are many appeals to starting a Space Marine army--they're easy to get into because there is almost always a new starter box with a good force for a decent price, there are a ton of unit options, there is an immense amount of lore, and lastly, you can play the Space Marines in virtually any playstyle that you want. Want something fast? White Scars. Want something tough and durable? Imperial Fists. Want something with a little bit of everything? Ultramarines.
And, of course, if you want ANYTHING, just make your own homebrew chapter. Space Marines are really versatile.
However, there are some Space Marine chapters that have their own codices, and that's where things really start to get interest.
If the Eldar are Elves in Space, and the Orks are Orcs in space, then the Space Wolves are Vikings in space. (Of course, that's a vast oversimplification. They're also the werewolves in space.) Once known as the Emperor's executioners, the Space Wolves are a particularly ritualistic and brotherly chapter, covered in wolf iconography.
In playstyle, Space Wolves love to get in close and mix it up, tearing the opponent to shreds with wolves (and cyberwolves) as well as the feared Wulfen. But don't discount them on distance. The most veteran units become the Long Fangs, the Devastators of the Space Wolves. With some help from psyker Rune Priests and an overabundance of flavor rules, the Space Wolves are fun and formidable.
If any Space Marine wants to get into close combat faster than the Space Wolves, it's the Blood Angels. They're ruthless, there's rumors that they drink blood, and if they're overcome with madness known as the Black Rage they become almost uncontrollable and are put into the Death Company, where they are highly deadly and extremely unpleasant until they die.
But the Blood Angels also get points for style. They're almost as fun to decorate and model as the Space Wolves, though instead of wolf pelts and tails, they're bedecked with cups of blood, blood-drop amulets, and their most iconic unit (aside from the Death Company) is the Sanguinary Guard: gold armored marines wearing death masks and sporting angel wings.
The Space Marine chapter with the bad reputation, the Dark Angels are constantly being questioned as to whether they were loyal or traitor (answer: they had an internal civil war, their Primarch, Lion El'Jonson, was defeated, and the loyalists orbitally bombarded the traitors until their entire homeworld was destroyed.
In look, they have a kind of medieval knight look with cloaks and hoods over their armor. They love their guns and unleash fury from distance, but they like to get in quick with the Ravenwing bikers, and then finish you off with Deathwing Terminators.
Not one of the original Space Marine Legions, the Grey Knights work for the Inquisition and are primarily concerned with destroying the threat of Chaos. Even more superhuman than the superhuman Space Marines, they are filled to the gills with psychic abilities--but are also good with close combat weapons. The units are expensive, so you'll have a lot fewer models on the field compared to your opponent, but they hit with a strong punch.
The Grey Knights are also famous (infamous) for having the one vehicle that is perhaps the most mocked out of all Imperium units: the Nemesis Dreadknight (the dreadnought with a Baby Bjorn carrier on the front.) Still, don't count out the Grey Knights just because one of their units looks silly. They're extremely tough, and their psyker abilities will mess you up.
While the Grey Knights are tasked with taking out Chaos, the Deathwatch are the same but for Xenos. Kind of a best of the best group, a Top Gun for Space Marines, veterans from every chapter of the Space Marines will join the Deathwatch to combine their individual traits to make a formidable foe. They keep one shoulder pauldron to indicate where they came from, but the rest of them is black with one silver arm.
Essentially an elite kill team, they use specialized weapons that aren't available to their fellow Space Marines, including a loadout of a variety of new ammunitions. Another army that is few in number but strong in individual units, they are very customizable with a lot of stratagems to make them a terrifying special-ops force.
Astra Militarum (Imperial Guard)
The Imperial Guard are made up of literally trillions of soldiers: millions of Guardsmen from millions of worlds. Though the lore gives a whole host of different looks to choose from for your Imperial Guard, only three (and a half) regiments are available for purchase from Games Workshop: Cadians (the kind of generic everything regiment), the Catachan (jungle fighters), the Steel Legion (mechanized infantry with a lot of tanks), and the Death Korps of Krieg, who are a fan favorite but are currently only available from Forge World.
But no matter which Imperial Guard army you choose to play, the playstyles tend to be similar: blast your enemy to pieces with every heavy weapon, tank and artillery piece you have before they can cross the board and get in close combat. An army may have a hundred Guardsmen, but they're weak without the strength of large numbers--their Lasguns are commonly referred to as flashlights for their lack of power.
But if you want armor, you can't go wrong with a Leman Russ, and if you REALLY want armor then you must get a super-heavy Baneblade.
And if you do end up in close combat, that's what the Ogryns are for--Space Ogres.
A weird group that is part of the Imperium, but kind of their own thing entirely. They are based on Mars and are the technology arm of the Imperium, designing and building all the new gadgets, armor, and vehicles that the Imperium uses (including being the driving force behind the introduction of Primaris Marines).
The are cyborgs (strict full-AI robots are forbidden by the Imperium) who are attached in all kinds of disgusting ways to their machine legs/arms/torsos. But the weird thing about the Adeptus Mechanicus, when it comes to their place in the lore, is that they don't worship the God Emperor--they worship the Omnissiah, the god of machines that makes them operate (what they refer to as "machine spirit" might be easily referred to as artificial intelligence, but that's been banned, so who knows.)
Definitely a shooty playstyle, they're not great up close, but they have plenty of heavy weapons which will blast downrange as the enemy advances.
Perhaps the most superhuman of all superhumans (with the exception of Primarchs) these are the gold Space Marines who are tasked with guarding the Emperor on his Golden Throne. They are bigger, stronger, and faster than any other Marine, and they are by far the most elite of all Imperium armies.
With a very high point cost per model, you won't be fielding many troops on the board (which can make them a somewhat enticing army to new players who aren't ready to paint a full 2000 points of Astra Militarum). They hit hard, like to get up close, and have a nice complement of jet bikes to get them into battle faster.
Essentially Space Nuns, the Adepta Sororitas are part of the Ecclesiarchy and worship the God Emperor above all else. They are particularly interested in rooting out heretics.
Also known as the Sisters of Battle, they wear power armor like the Space Marines (though their lack of the Black Carapace--a body modification of the Space Marines--doesn't make them as "at one" with their armor). Still, the Sisters have an impressive loadout of weapons, all of which are covered with religious iconography and symbols.
I mean, one of their tanks is literally a pipe organ that fires rockets from its pipes. Another has a bulletproof stained-glass window as a shield. The recent (2019) relaunch of the line after decades of metal miniatures, and the subsequent maintenance of the product line, has given them plenty of units to choose from.
A good all-around army, Sisters of Battle are forgiving in playstyle because they can be tough at shooting as well as melee.
Yes, they're big metal walking vehicles, but don't make the mistake of thinking they're like gundam. These hulking walkers--an army of them will usually consist of maybe four models total--are covered in knightly heraldry from times long past.
They're incredibly tough and their weapons do an incredible amount of damage, but you've got to be careful because losing a single one is losing a major part of your army. They've got great big guns for blasting from afar, and giant monster chainswords to hack you up in close combat. And they're a painter's dream centerpiece.
In the Warhammer 40k universe there is the Warp, which is an amalgamation of all the emotions that every living creature feels. These emotions give birth to the four Chaos Gods: Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle and Slaanesh. The powers of Chaos caused half of the Space Marine legions to turn traitor, and they exist as primary enemies to the Imperium.
Chaos Space Marines
While there are some Chaos Space Marines that have their own Codices (we'll talk about them in a minute) the general group of traitor Space Marine legions are referred to as Chaos Space Marines.
After the failed Horus Heresy (the massive civil war where the traitor marines tried to kill the loyalist--and the Emperor) the traitors retreated to the Eye of Terror, a massive hole in the Warp where terrible things happened to them for a very long time. When they came out, they were changed beings, fully devoted to chaos, some mutated, some half-machine, and some with devastating psyker powers.
In playstyle, the Chaos Space Marines, as a group, are just as varied as the loyalist Space Marines: you can make them be anything you want. Most everything that the Space Marines have, the Chaos Marines have an equivalent, only covered in spikes, boils, chains, and blood. Terminators, Rhinos, heavy weapons teams, Dreadnoughts--it's all there. But they also have additional war machines made by the Dark Mechanicum (think Chaos Adeptus Mechanicus) that give them daemon engines, winged beasts, and spider-like crawlers. Oh, and they can fight alongside daemons themselves.
The Death Guard are a legion of the Chaos Space Marines who are particularly devoted to the Chaos God Nurgle. They are virulent and corrupted, delighting in spreading disease and contagion with their disgusting weapons, armor, and warmachines.
Led by Mortarion (a model which is an absolute joy to paint) they have special abilities like Disgustingly Resilient, which gives them extra savings because it's just so hard to kill something already covered in wounds.
The entire army is very popular because the models are such a delight, and the sculpts are all relatively new. They're good at medium range, but excel in close quarters where they can spread their filth.
In a deal made with the Chaos god Tzeentch, these Space Marines were spared death nd suffering by... making them essentially undead and suffering. The Thousand Sons are little more than magically animated lifeless armor.
Tzeentch makes the biggest use of magic of all the Chaos Gods, and a Thousand Sons army is always ripe with Sorcerers.
In gameplay they have limited unit options, but the sculpts are crazy delicious, the magic is potent, and they almost always are fielded alongside masses of daemons called Tzaangors, eager to get into close combat.
Everything that is Imperium is also corrupted by Chaos, and so are Knights. These warmachines are really much the same in gameplay as their loyalist cousins, but they are covered in a lot more spikes, have pustules on their carapace, and bear disgusting trophies all over their bodies.
It's possible in Warhammer 40k to take an entirely daemon army if you'd like, and there are plenty of models and rules to do it. The flavor and playstyle of your Chaos Daemon army depends a great deal on the Chaos God who is running it.
Khorne is the Blood God, who is made of anger, wrath and violence. He shuns magic--he hates it--and his forces are made up of crazed bloodthirsty daemons such as, well, the Bloodthirster. The core units are Bloodletters, their core cavalry Bloodcrushers. If you're a beginner looking for a straightforward army, Khorne Daemons is for you: run at the enemy (no psychic phase or shooting) and tear them to pieces.
Slaanesh is the God of Excess, which is often portrayed in the model line as very sexualized daemons (though, weirdly and disturbingly so, such as the voluptuous Daemonettes who sometime are clothes but who also have crab claws). Like Khorne, they like to get into close combat, but they do have some special powers and psychic abilities that can be very useful.
Tzeentch is the God of Change and Fate, and he is all about magic. All of his daemons are playfully mutated, sprouting extra limbs or extra eyes. Tzeentch can see the future, and has powers that help him with that, but he literally has dozens of spells that can be used on the enemy while they're trying to deal with his Horrors and Screamers.
Nurgle, God of Plague, delights--he very much seems to be having a wonderful time--in the spread of disease and corruption. His little minions, the Nurglings, always have a smile on their face while they work their mischief, and the Great Unclean One is a giant blob of grinning pus. They are extremely tough--they are Disgustingly Resilient like their Death Guard counterparts--and just an absolute delight to paint.
The Orks of Warhammer 40k are not the orcs of Tolkien. The only similarities are that they're strong, tough, and violent. But Orks (as opposed to orcs) are also one of the... silliest races in Warhammer 40k--and we mean that in a good way. Orks talk in Cockney accent, drive outrageous machines, shoot bizarre guns, and have crazy rituals. Orks actually make their technology work simply by believing that it works. In fact, if you get enough Orks together in one place, they form a WAAAGH! which is a collective belief that they can do anything. It's very hard to stop a WAAAGH!
In playstyle, Orks are both shooty and choppy. They're one of the widest ranges of models (even if some of them are pretty outdated) and so they're versatile. They have a big Strength and Toughness stat, but they also carry around really big missile launchers and flamethrowers. For as silly as some of them seem to be, they can really hit hard.
The Aeldari (also known as the Eldar) are a fractured race of what's left of a once great and ancient civilization. Long before humans ever thought of going to the stars, the Aeldari were thriving. But the bad news is that they got a little carried away. They started indulging in vice after vice, pleasure after pleasure, to the point where their desires for excess (can you see where this is going?) influenced the Warp so much that a new Chaos God, Slaanesh, was spawned.
It didn't go well for the Aeldari. They are now split into four distinct groups: the Craftworlds, the Drukhari, the Harlequins, and the Ynarri.
Craftworlds are giant biomechanical spaceships which the Aeldari used to flee their doomed homeworlds. The Craftworlds are run on something called the Infinity Circuit, which is a place where the Aledari souls go when they die. Their souls live on in Spirit Stones--these Spirit Stones pilot many of the Craftworlds war machines.
Playstyle with the Craftworlds is a little hard to wrap your head around. Every unit is very specialized and getting the hang of which unit to use for what and when is a skill that takes some time to figure out (but can be a lot of fun).
What the Craftworlds are in dire need of is a model refresh: a huge number of the Craftworlds units are sculpts that are at least two decades old. Some are still in metal only.
The most depraved of all the Aeldari, the Drukhari (once called the Dark Eldar) thrive on taking slaves which they use for pleasure--which to them is generally torture. They are raiders and slavers, attacking worlds not to conquer the known galaxy but to enjoy themselves in their own perverse way.
In gameplay, they are fast attackers, with flyers and jetbikes that shoot you up with shuriken cannons while they approach and then let loose their terrifying close combat troops. They are a bit of a glass cannon--Drukhari are not tough--but they're generally too fast to give you time to hit back.
What might seem like Space Clowns, the Harlequins have actually been around since First Edition, and are some of the most terrifying close-combat, assassin-like fighters in the game. More than just entertainers and acrobats, these were the historians of the Aeldari who carried on ancient traditions and stories through performance.
They are an elite force--the models and units are expensive in points--but they're powerful. Yes, they're not tough (no Aeldari are tough) but their acrobatics and special powers make them virtually impossible to attack.
One of the hardest units to paint due to their unique and elaborate Harlequin outfits that require a lot of freehand, a properly painted force can look amazing on the battlefield--and terrify your opponent.
The Ynarri are relative newcomers to the lore and not much is known about them, and they're not often played. They are a cult of Aeldari who is trying to bring back Ynnead, the god of death, in an attempt to free the Aeldari from Slaanesh's power. As such, they work with ALL the Aeldari factions--Craftworlds, Drukhari, and Harlequins.
They're still so new that not all the kinks have been worked out regarding them, but they do have some beautiful models and they pop up in winning tournament lists fairly often. The gameplay is varied, using the strengths of all the Aeldari, combined with a bunch of new special powers and rules.
If the Aeldari are Space Elves, the Necrons are Space Egyptians. They are the oldest Xenos race (well, the oldest we know of) and they once were flesh-and-blood beings who lived in a massive and powerful civilization. Unfortunately, due to some trickery, the Necrons were granted immortality--but they didn't realize their immortal souls would be encased in metal bodies. They dug down and buried themselves in crypts, waiting for a future time when they could reemerge as powerful beings.
That time has come. Their civilization was so massive that these crypts are all over the galaxy and they're all waking up and wanting to conquer everything.
In playstyle, Necrons are the undead: and if you kill them in one part of the battle, they might just rise from the dead a few minutes later through Reanimation Protocols. They are a very shooty army, but with a few vicious hand-to-hand units (like the Flayed Ones who want to wear your flesh as a way of regaining their mortal bodies).
Oh, and they've imprisoned some gods that are forced to help them in battle. The Necrons are bad news.
If there are any good guys in the Warhammer 40k universe (there really aren't) the T'au are the closest thing. Rather than eradicating the races that they conquer, they invite them to join the T'au Empire. They have a belief in the Greater Good and want everyone to be part of the Greater Good (but if you refuse to be part of that Greater Good they'll put a bullet in your head.)
They're an army that looks almost out of place in the Blanchitsu world of Warhammer 40k. These are the suits that look like Gundams, not the Imperial or Traitor Knights. And they are, perhaps, the most shooty of any shooty army in the Warhammer 40k range. They're terrible at hand-to-hand.
They do look fantastic, though, and if gundam is your thing then the T'au are for you.
The Xenos race with no agenda, the Tyranids merely eat and eat, consuming biomass to add it to their own biomass. They'll fight if there's something worth eating, and if the fight looks like they'll lose more biomass than they'd gain, they'll retreat and regroup.
Of all the Xenos, it is rumored that the Tyranids are the biggest threat in the galaxy--that they may not even be from this galaxy but are just on a scouting mission from somewhere else where they are planning a major invasion of the Milky Way.
Insectoid in appearance, they take a lot of inspiration from the Buggers in the book Starship Troopers (which, admittedly, is also kind of where Space Marines come from). They have no technology to speak of, though they do have some biological processes that act like guns.
If you're looking for a horde army--painting a LOT of little bug creatures (and a handful of big awesome bug creatures)--then Tyranids might be up your alley.
Sometimes the Tyranids infect a population long before they ever arrive with a unit called Genestealers. These infected populations of humans grow more and more corrupted by the Genestealer genetic material, and they start to look a little bit... off. Some have large foreheads. Some have an extra arm. And they all worship the Genestealers, hence the name: Genestealer Cults.
One of the best looking armies, the Cults come from the dregs of society, carrying mining tools and primitive weapons into battle. They ride in mining vehicles and on dirt bikes, using shotguns and pickaxes.