The articles and comments that got me going MOST in this direction have lately been on Bell of Lost Souls, but that's not a knock on BOLS ... just a knock on some of the comments / direction of the comments there.
Here's my $.02
Warhammer 40,000 is not a well-balanced Tabletop Wargame. This is VERY true from an "Internal" Balance perspective. It is somewhat less true from an "External" Balance perspective.
- Sidebar: Internal, to my way of saying it here, refers to balance between the attractiveness competitively of the different units within a codex. As long as there are Pyrovores, there won't be that much Internal balance. There are NO codices out there that do not have subpar units in them which few people ever take.
- Sidebar Part 2: External, to my way of saying it here, refers to balance between the attractiveness competitively of the different codices/factions within the game. With some glaring exceptions, the game is actually pretty well balanced right now from a Faction perspective, in terms of each Faction having builds that can be put together (especially with the use of other factions through allies) that *can* compete to win a national-level GT like NOVA, AdeptiCon, or the Las Vegas Open.
What bothers me is not the argument that the game is not Balanced. What bothers me is the large number of people who are arguing that the game is not COMPETITIVE, with Balance being their basis.
There has, for years, existed the popular cause argument that you can only do well at Warhammer 40,000 if you chase the meta; if you build the netlist; if you play what's currently the most "broken" or "powerful" army or faction or build(s). This has, for years, been broadly false.
Just recently, at the Las Vegas Open, Sean Nayden and Nick Rose took first and second, playing each other in the final round, with a Tyranid army loaded with Lictors and even spore mines ... and a Scout spamming army. There should be nothing surprising about this. Why? Because Sean Nayden and Nick Rose did well. These guys have been doing well at tournaments they attend for at least the past 6 years, through numerous editions and codices and "reigning" netlists. Each has been responsible for Net Lists even being a thing in the first place. For example, Leafblower Imperial Guard armies did not win very many GTs. Nick Rose, however, won Ard Boyz and BOLS blog posted his Leafblower success to enormous popularity, and a lot of people copied it (or were running something similar to begin with). Sean Nayden popularized Beast Pack Eldar (very quietly, mind you) and is now popularizing Lictors with Tyranids. Sean almost never posts much of anything anywhere, so people don't even realize he's the one popularizing it. To the point one commenter at BOLS argued that Sean was just copying a guy who won the 11th Company GT a few months ago with Lictors. Commenter didn't realize that guy was also Sean.
If you look at the players who routinely place at the top of nearly every GT, the same names do well everywhere they go. You will almost never see anyone in the "top tier," if you want to call it that, doing poorly. You will also almost never see that tier only winning with the current supposed netlist.
Since at least 4th Edition (when I started playing tournaments locally with regularity), I've never seen a time when the "meta" or the game's inherent imbalances prevented top tier players from doing well at tournaments with a wide variety of lists, inclusive of ones considered to be not good.
At the same time, since at least 4th Edition, I've never seen a time when the "meta" or the game's inherent imbalances didn't dominate the middle and lower tier of players. This brings up perhaps the issue at hand.
No matter how unpopular it might be to say, most people are NOT top tier brilliant tacticians capable of manipulating and understanding the rules and nuances of the game enough to win with the movement phase, mission, above-table "games," and the like. MOST people are not capable of applying tactical decision-making too far beyond target priority and basic mission understanding within the confines of a pressured tournament game. As a result, the greater a game's imbalances, the greater these imbalances take over as the level of play reduces.
Let's use a visual aid here:
The laundry list of players who've done well and/or won GTs with lists considered "not good" in times when everyone complained about how you had to shell out for the current netlist to win ... is extremely long. You will, however, also find a very long list of players who show up to a GT with the current netlist, lose a few games to those types, and crush their skill peers or inferiors throughout the mid-tables. Again - balance matters more as player skill reduces. That is a flaw in the game, for sure. It is not the same as the game being non-competitive. In fact, the better you apply your intellect and really, truly compete within the framework of the game rules, the better you'll do and the less balance will matter.
The long and short here is: stop conflating balance with competition. Also, stop conflating game mechanics with competition. I have a very close friend who by his own report is VERY, VERY competitive. That said, he really does not like the way the game of 40k is played from a "combat feel" and rules perspective, so he's not able to enjoy himself playing competitively within 40k. His resultant decision? He doesn't play 40k really anymore! Totally reasonable, self-respecting, grown-up response. What does he not do? Rip on people for "not playing the game how it's supposed to be played" as if his own idea of how a game should be played is somehow more valuable than other peoples'. AKA, he's not a douche.
On that note, let's talk about the subject line of this article. Aside from conflating "balance" or "mechanics I don't like" with "competitiveness," the common complaint people make REGARDING balance is that in order to win you have to spam certain units in certain slots for each Codex.
Yes, internal codex balance is lacking in 40k. That said, results from tournaments show a greater level of parity across a greater number of factions and faction combos than has been the case in years. Those who are addicted to angrily raging about the balance of the game thus are left with only the leg to stand on of "well, yeah but you have to spam key units!"
First of all, so what? Again, as above, if you can play with the Faction you own and do well, when maybe you couldn't in 5th edition, why not enjoy that a little bit and work on your game skill instead of complaining about some other thing you can find wrong? Regardless, let's draw some comparisons here.
"I want to field an army that reflects my impression of an Ultramarines combat deployment, and my idea is - regardless of whether there are other fluff and story examples which contradict this idea, and regardless of whether I could simply model on top of my unit choices however I like - that this is explicitly 1 assault squad, 2 tactical squads, a small terminator squad, a whirlwind, a vindicator, and a land raider! I'm upset that the game won't let me do well with this!"
Hmm, alright. That is unfortunate! Is it all that unusual for competitive situations? Let's take a look at professional football. If you go back 30 years, the rules and competitive setting of the NFL made power running games FAR MORE POWERFUL than they are today. In today's NFL, power running attacks will only take you so far in most cases (though some teams manage to get more mileage out of them than others by leveraging other creative components of their roster or redefining things by countering the prevalent meta ... sounds Seanick Naydenroseish to me, but I digress). The "dominant" meta in the game today is an elite quarterback-driven passing attack combined with constantly increasing emphasis on elite cornerback play. Does anyone really believe the Seahawks would have made back to back super bowls without elite cornerbacks to shut down passing attacks and incredibly clutch improvisational play from their Quarterback (even despite Lynch)?
What if there was a coach in the NFL who really yearned for the old days and he wanted to win by having a game managing quarterback, like a Trent Dilfer or something, a super power running back, like a John Riggins, and a run stuffing defense. What if that guy then complained about how the rules of the game aren't fair and don't allow his way of playing to work how it "should." Think most people would be agreeing with him and saying "shucks, you know what, that guy right there, he sure is gettin' screwed by the game's rules and the fact it ain't balanced anymore for running backs! Anyone who calls the modern NFL competitive and balanced is just a WAAC idiot chasing the meta!"
We could extrapolate this for days, of course, and there are a million examples. How come the rules of Football don't allow you to field a team comprised entirely of big ole linemen? I think it'd be SO COOL if there was a team where the ENTIRE OFFENSE was over 300 pounds each! That would just look so baller on the field! I wish Football weren't so imbalanced.
Truth of the matter is, the biggest problem is 40k lets you take just about whatever you want. Because of this, you get the age old problem of the entitled individual. This is the person that believes because he is FREE to do as he wishes, whatever he CHOOSES to do should be rewarded and lauded as fantastic. I'll empathize with ANYONE that their preference isn't as good as they wish it was. I'll empathize with NO ONE that complains about their free choices not panning out and blames it on those who gave them the choice in the first place.
Is 40k as balanced as it could be? Nope. Are all the units in the game given the rules they deserve to allow a perfectly diverse field of play? Nope. Does this make the game noncompetitive and render those who play it competitively into WAAC douches? ALSO NOPE.
Let people play how they want and live with the consequences of the playing choices you make.
What's doubly cool, because I have to plug of course, is most tournaments will reward you for WHATEVER choice you make. At NOVA, you can play in Highlander quickening events and enjoy truly diverse army lists. Or, you can play in the GT and find your way to brackets that embrace a more casual atmosphere. Or, you can play in the Narrative where we've built Codex Supplements for you that greatly enhance the # and variety of powerful units, explicitly targeting the poor Pyrovores of the game. Make the game what you want it to be for you, play the game the way you enjoy, but - really - stop attacking people who don't do it just the same way as you.