Wednesday, May 19, 2021

REVIEW: Soulblight Gravelords

The Soulblight Gravelords are finally here. With their arrival the vampires are now having their time in the moonlight. Containing much of what used to make up Legions of Nagash, plus a few new additions, the Gravelords are ready to make their mark on the mortal realms.

First off, a big thank you to Games Workshop for sending me this review copy of the Battletome to check out. I'm a huge fan of the Death alliance in AoS, if it hasn't been obvious already, and so I was definitely excited to see what this book had in store. Admittedly, vampires have never been my favorite of the various Death sub-factions, but I really like what they've done with them here. Plus, I love all of the other stuff in there with them like the skeletons and zombies. As with all Battletome reviews I need to start with the cover art, and wow, this is an amazing cover. I love everything about it. The style, the colors, the composition. It encapsulates everything that's great about this army and boils it down to one image. Out of all four of the Death books out right now I think this is probably my favorite cover. I just wish that a new Zombie Dragone had come out that looks more like that one on this cover, because that is one cool looking dragon.

The lore sections opens up with a general overview of the Soulblight Gravelords which predominantly focuses on the vampires themselves over the rest of the army. This makes sense since the vampires really are the heart of the army. They form almost all of the personality of the Gravelords, with the rest of the units more or less just being tools that they utilize. It covers a lot of basic characteristics of the vampires, which are not to dissimilar from what you may already know about vampires from common folklore. They're all incredibly strong and frightening. Most are deeply charismatic as well, and some hold immense necromantic power. It also briefly touches upon their origin in the world-that-was with Neferata being the first of the vampires. Vampires populate all of the realms, which would give them all slightly different characteristics. It also mentions how not all of them are evil, and some truly are noble, but they're the exception to the rule. Some vampires venerate Nagash, some tolerate him, but they all serve him.

Next we get a brief overview of Nasgah, which you'll be familiar with from any of the past Death books. The big piece of new information here is the re-creation of the vampires within the mortal realms. When Nagash first arrived in the realms vampires didn't exist. He pulled the souls of Mannfred, Neferata, and Ushoran from the underworlds and reformed them as whole beings. Ushoran eventually went mad and went on to found the Flesh-eater Courts, but both Mannfred and Neferata started new lineages of vampires, meaning every vampire in the mortal realms can trace their bloodlines back to one of those two. 

This is followed by a recap of the Necroquake and the Soul Wars that followed. During these times the Soulblight Gravelords prospered and greatly expanded their realms. Both Neferata and Mannfred saw Olynder and Katakros as rivals which drove them to even greater heights of conquest. We also get the wrap up of the Soul Wars from the Broken Realms: Teclis book, which SPOILERS if you haven't read that yet, ends with Nagash getting banished back to the underworlds and Arkhan getting destroyed... for the moment at least. Though their master may have fallen, the majority of the Gravelords saw no reason to give up the momentum they had going and kept pushing onwards. There are two pages describing Shyish, with a few new bits of information on the domains of the Gravelords, such as Castinia, which resembles the Sylvania of old, something done by Nagash to mock his Mortarch. Neferata has her capital city of Nulahmia, which is briefly mentioned to have Ushabti statues guarding its entrances. Though they aren't named explicitly as such, that's definitely what they are, though it doesn't mention if they're animated or not. It's nice to see that they're not erasing her Nehekharen heritage, especially with a city named Nulahmia.

The main new addition to the background lore comes in the form of the different bloodlines or lineages. The two largest ones are the Legion of Night and Blood, belonging to Mannfred and Neferata respectively. Though technically every other bloodline actually belongs to one of these two, enough time has passed that many have broken off into their completely own thing. The three most powerful of the remaining bloodlines are the Vykros, Kastelai, and the Avengorii. The Legion of Night is one of the largest of the group, headed up by Mannfred. He is the brilliant tactician, using misdirection and traps to win his battles. It mentions how the Legion of Night used to be Nagash's terror weapon, but that has since been replaced by Olynder and the Nighthaunt. Mannfred has managed to stay on top though. For instance, when Arkhan slaughtered his Black Disciples to form Mortisans for his Bonereaper legions, Mannfred rescued those he could so he'd have powerful Necromancers under his command. 

The Legion of Blood, in contrast, is much more concerned with the gathering of information. Neferata is known as the Queen of Mysteries, and as such she has extensive networks of spies to do her bidding. When they take to war it's usually with large regiments of skeletal warriors, as they're not as unsightly as the zombies. The Vykros, legend states, did not descend from one of the two vampires, but instead from a massive lupine godbeast. As such, the vampires of this dynasty all reflect the bestial aspect of the wolf. They are a largely nomadic dynasty, with the dark forests of the realms home to many of them, but some have made more permanent homes, such as the city of Ulfenkarn. This city actually gets a whole two pages to itself, much of which may be familiar from Cursed City lore. It is mentioned however that Radukar has been defeated by the heroes of the city and driven out. A small pocket of the living have started to flourish within the city, though other Vykros vampires still hold sway there, as well as the transformed Radukar the Beast, who now prowls the streets slaying all he finds. 

The Kastelai dynasty are most closely related to the Blood Dragons of old. Their leader is Prince Vhordrai, who once tried to overthrow Nagash but failed. As punishment he was magically exiled to the Crimson Keep, which can appear anywhere across the realms. From this keep the Blood Knights of the Kastelai ride forth, but they can only stay out for 24 hours before they must return. Though they resemble Blood Dragons there is no mention of Aborash, so it seems he's not part of the mortal realms, at least for now. It's also mentioned how Vhordrai may try his luck at overthrowing Nagash yet again now that the Great Necromancer is laid low. Lastly, the Avengorii dynasty reside within Ghur. They embody the monstrous aspect of the Soulblight curse and make great use of monsters and Varghiests. They're led by Lauka Vai, who sees attacking defenseless mortals as beneath her, and instead focuses the dynasty's efforts on hunting the beasts of Ghur. Though they aren't direct comparisons, both the lore and the rules that I'll cover later, does invite some comparisons to the bloodlines of old with these five. The Legion of Night are the von Carsteins, the Legion of Blood are the Lahmians, the Vykros are the Necrach, the Kastelai are the Blood Dragons, and the Avengorii are the Strigoi. Like I said, they're not direct translations, but it's fairly obvious that they were kept in mind when creating the new dynasties.

The timeline section is actually a little short, and as such mostly covers major events that a lot of Death players will be familiar with already. One new addition I did like was a Harvest to Far. Here the Bonereapers of the Ivory Host and the Avengorii come to blows over a territory dispute. The Bonereapers are nearly defeated when Vokmortian arrives and brokers a peace between the two. This section ends with the events of Broken Realms: Teclis and states that it now seems inevitable that Mannfred and Neferata will come to blows with their master indisposed.

The unit sections gives a bit more background on each individual unit and character in the army. The Vengorian Lords are vampires who were too close to what became the Shyish Nadir at the moment of the Necroquake and became saturated with death magic. It transformed them into horrible monsters, which they despise. Now they seek to destroy any reflective surface so they don't have to see their own reflections. One of the weirder ideas for me is with the Fell Bats who store all of the blood they drink, and then fly back to the vampires' fortresses and disgorge it for them to drink. Kritza, the Rat Prince was once a noble of Ulfenkarn. While still alive he tried to deceive Radukar and was nearly killed for his efforts. Forced to hide amongst corpses he lived off of rats, and thanks to the blood kiss from Radukar, became a vampire with an affinity for rats. He lived in the sewers until Radukar was finally overthrown. Now he has emerged to claim rulership of Ulfenkarn in Radukar's place. There is also a cool story in here near Nagash's section that further plays up the deepening rivalry between Mannfred and Neferata.

The gallery section shows off all of the painted models, as well as some awesome looking scenic shots. I particularly like the one of the Black Knights charging the forces of Nurgle in the swamps of Ghyran. The hobby tutorial section here has some really good color tips. In fact, I think it may be the best one so far. I liked their method for black cloth so much that I went out and bought two of the colors I would need. The zombie skin recommendations are also really cool looking. I think I will be sticking pretty close to their Fell Bat guide as well.

Moving into the rules section we start off with the allegiance abilities. Every Gravelords army must pick from one of the five bloodlines I already mentioned, which I will go into more detail in here shortly. Also, any Gravelords army can contain Nagash, and he is then given the Soulblight Gravelords keyword, just like with the Bonereapers. Deathless Minions returns, granting a 6+ ignore wound roll to any unit wholly within 12" of any hero. Gravesites also make a return, allowing you to place two in your territory, and two outside of your territory after you've picked sides, but before deployment. Any unit with the Summonable keyword can be kept in the grave instead of being set up normally. These are then brought on from the gravesites at the end of your movement phase, wholly with 12" of the site and 9" away from any enemy unit. Locus of Shyish, which used to be in the spell section, has now been moved to the allegiance abilities. Any time you cast a spell from the Lore of the Deathmages or Lore of the Vampires and it's an unmodified roll of nine or more, you get to resolve the effects of that spell twice. Reanimated Horrors takes the rules that previously applied to some units' banners, and moves them under one special rule. Now enemy units within 6" of any Deathrattle or Deadwalkers units subtract one from their bravery, and if their within range of two or more of those units, then they subtract two.

Endless Legions has had a few tweaks. Now, at the end of your battleshock test you count the number of enemy units that were destroyed that turn and roll a dice, and add that number to it. If it's a 5+ you can pick one zombie or skeleton unit of your own that's been destroyed and bring up to half of that unit's number back on from a gravesite, but it counts as a brand new unit. This is a much more restrained version of the rule, which still lets you recycle your own units, but tempers its strength a lot. Lastly, Deathly Invocation, which was previously on the heroes' warscrolls, has now been moved to the allegiance abilities. There's a table which lists each hero keyword, and how many units they're allowed to heal. Deathrattle units can pick up to two, while Mortarchs can pick up to four. You do this in your hero phase, and you can only pick Summonable units. Each unit you pick heals either D3 wounds, or brings back D3 wounds worth of models. A big change though is that each unit can only be healed once, regardless of how many heroes you have near them, including Nagash.

After this it breaks down the remaining special rules between each bloodline, with each bloodline getting two special rules, plus all of the command traits and artifacts. Legion of Blood makes D3 more models flee from an enemy unit that fails a battleshock test near a vampire. All of their Deathrattle units also ignore negative modifiers to their hit and wound rolls if they're within range of a vampire unit. This definitely encourages you to have a mostly skeleton and vampire themed army for them. There are six command traits and six artifacts to pick from. From the command traits I like Walking Death, which has you do mortal wounds with your weapon instead of normal wounds on a wound roll of a 6. Orb of Enchantment seems pretty good from the artifacts, letting you pick an enemy hero within 3" once per battle, and on a 3+ they cannot be picked to fight in that phase. Black Knights can also be taken as battleline in this dynasty.

Legion of Night retains some of its previous rules with The Bait. You add 1 to the save rolls for your Deathrattle and Deadwalker units on the first turn. Ageless Cunning allows you to set up half of your units in ambush. These can then come on at the end of one of your movement phases within 6" of any board edge and 9" away from the enemy. Above Suspicion is probably the best command trait, which allows your general to come on from ambush anywhere on the table instead of near a board edge, though Unholy Impetus is also really good. This lets you add 1 to the melee attacks of any friendly units within range of your general if they killed any models in combat. This does mean you'll want your general to attack early on in the combat phase. From the artifacts, Shard of Night looks pretty good with all of the shooting foxes flying around lately. It allows you to ignore the rend characteristic of shooting attacks that target you. Vargheists can also be taken as battleline in this dynasty.

The Vykros Dynasty is my favorite as it really favors how I think I want to play this army. You get to add 1 to wound rolls for Deathrattle and Deadwalker units within range of your vampires, and also re-roll your casting rolls for any of your vampire units. My favorite command trait is definitely Spoor Trackers. This lets you move any Deadwalker units within range of your general up to 3" in your hero phase. Any extra movement for them is a good bonus. The Ulfenkarnian Phylactery is a great artifact, extending your Deathless Minions range from 12" to 18". This dynasty favors zombies and spells, as well as Dire Wolves, which tick all of the boxes I'm looking for. Another great command trait is Kin of the Wolf, which lets you summon on a unit of 5 Dire Wolves once per battle.

The Kastelai Dynasty is all about Blood Knights and the Crimson Keep. Their first rules lets you set your Blood Knight units up in reserve. You can then bring these on from any table edge at the end of any of your movement phases. Their Blood Knight units also get powered up each time they destroy an enemy unit. If they destroy a hero or monster they get +1 damage to their melee weapons, if the unit has a wounds characteristic of 3 or more and is not a hero or monster they get an extra wound, and any other unit gives them +2 to their run and charge rolls. My favorite trait is Rousing Commander. This is a once per battle ability that gives all friendly Blood Knights within range of the general the +1 damage and wound buff for that combat phase. Sword of the Red Seneschals is an artifact that lets you pick on of the bearer's melee weapons. If you kill any models in the combat phase with that weapon, then all of your units wholly within 12" of the bearer get +1 to their wound rolls for the phase. Blood Knight can also be taken as battleline in this dynasty.

Lastly we have the Avengorii Dynasty. They actually have three special rules, the first of which lets one of your Zombie Dragons or Terrorgheists pick a Cursed Mutation upgrade. These include a once per battle ability that lets you pick a model with 3 or less wounds and eat it to heal 1 wound, a once per battle ability to run and still charge in the same turn, and an ability that forces enemy wizards to re-roll successful casting rolls within range of the monster. You can pick one additional Cursed Mutation for each battalion you have in your army. Monstrous Might has the enemy subtract 1 from wound rolls when targeting Zombie Dragons, Terrorgheists or Vampire Monsters, unless they also are a monster, and Unstoppable Nightmares lets you pick one Zombie Dragon, Terrorgheist, or Vampire Monster in your combat phase and lets them attack with their unwounded profile for that phase. They only have three command traits and three artifacts to pick from, presumably since they also have the Cursed Mutations. Torment Driven Throes is a command trait that lets you roll a dice for each enemy unit within 3" and on a 5+ they suffer a mortal wound and cannot attack until after that hero has fought. The Furious Crown is probably my pick from the artifacts, which is a once per battle ability that lets you roll a number of dice equal to your charge roll, and on a 5+ you do a mortal wound to the unit you're charging. Zombie Dragons and Terrorgheists can also be taken as battleline in this dynasty.

There are two spell lores to pick from, one for Nagash and Vampires, and one for Nagash, Mortarchs, and Deathmages to pick from. There's also a new spell that every wizard in the army know, Invigorating Aura. This spell isn't restricted to only being cast once per turn, but you can't double up on it on the same unit. It goes off on an 8+ and you pick a summonable unit wholly within 18" of the caster to heal 3 wounds or bring back 3 wounds worth of models. So, you can do this plus Deathly Invocation in the same turn, on the same unit, since they're different abilities. Just like before, the Lore of the Vampires is much more aggressive, while the Lore of the Deathmages is all about debuffs. I think we'll see Amethystine Pinions taken a lot from the vampires, which gives the caster an extra 6" of movement on a 5+. I've always preferred the Lore of the Deathmages since I'm a big fan of debuffs. Overwhelming Dread has you pick an enemy unit and subtract 1 from hit rolls on a 5+. Fading Vigour goes off on a 6+ and subtracts 1 from the attacks characteristic of the enemy unit. The best thing is when you cast it on a 9+ and get to double up on these effects.

The narrative battleplan is called The Bell Tolls for Thee and looks like a lot of fun. It represents a Gravelords army just trying to completely overwhelm the enemy within a graveyard. They actually played this battleplan in this month's White Dwarf and I really enjoyed it. I hope they do that more often going forward when a new army comes out. Instead of playing a Matched Play battleplan in White Dwarf, play the narrative one from the new battletome. This is followed by the Path to Glory section before we move onto the warscrolls.

There are five warscroll battalions to pick from for this army. The first one is the mega battalion, which buffs the Deathly Invocation rule. The others are the Red Banqueters, which is all vampires and Blood Knights and lets you heal D3 wounds to each unit in the battalion in your hero phase. The Fellwing Flock is Vargheists and Fell Bats and gives them +1 to hit when they charge. My favorite is the Deathstench Drove, which is 1-2 Corpse Carts, 2 units of Dire Wolves, and 2 units of Zombies, and gives the units 1 extra attack if they're within range of the Corpse Carts. Lastly we have good ol' Deathmarch, the battalion that's been with us since the Grand Alliance Death book. The unit requirements have changed slightly, but are pretty much the same, and now has you pick 3 units within range of your Wight King at the start of the movement phase and add 3" to their movement. Honestly, I'm just really happy to see this one continue. It's a tradition at this point.

I'm not going to spend a ton of time on the warscrolls, since you can find them for free already and a lot of people have already covered them. Instead I'm just going to pick out some of my favorites as well as some changes that stood out to me. Speaking of which, almost everything has been tweaked here. Mannfred has a pretty cool ability called Mortarch of Night, which lets him peace out at the start of the combat phase if he's in combat and redeploy anywhere on the battlefield 9" away from enemy units. Prince Vhordrai is still a beat stick, as is expected. Lauka Vai and the Vengorian Lord are almost identical, except she has an extra wound, and a few different abilities. If you're taking an Avengorii army you'll probably want to take Lauka Vai as her command ability buffs monsters in combat. I like the Nightmare's Miasma ability that both her and the Vengorian share. It worsens enemy unit's rend characteristic by 1 when they're within 3" of them. They both share a 3+ save too, so this makes them fairly survivable in combat.

All of the Vykros characters seem like a lot of fun and pretty good too. Belladamma Volga has a ton of great abilities, including several that buff Dire Wolves. Radukar the Beast lives up to his name and also has a command ability that lets him bring on a unit of 10 Dire Wolves once per game. Kritza and Annika are interesting minor characters. They both have identical profiles, and aren't wizards. Annika ignores all wounds on a 4+ and if she has any wounds remaining at the end of a phase she heals back up to full. This makes her pretty dang survivable, even just with a 4+ save and 6 wounds. Kritza on the other hand makes enemy units attacking him -1 to hit in melee, and when he's slain you roll a dice and on a 4+ you set up a new Kritza anywhere on the battlefield more than 9" away from the enemy. I think Annika is technically better, but I really like the idea behind Kritza, as well as his awesome model. I only wish the rat swarms from Cursed City could be taken with him. He's a little less in points too. Neither of them buff anything though, so they're a little bit of an odd unit as a hero, since they're also not particularly killy. I think Annika could be good to take for battleplans that have heroes holding objectives, since she'll be hard to shift. Either way, they just seem fun to take.

The Blood Knights Riders of Ruin ability lets them move across units within 3" and deal mortal wounds to them, essentially letting them rampage through a battleline. I believe this doesn't count as a retreat, since it says normal move, so they should be able to charge again after doing this. Zombies are awesome now. They lost all of their command models since the new kit doesn't have any, but they have some pretty good abilities. They can pile in 6" meaning your enemy will have to be even more careful positioning around them if they want to avoid getting the zombies stuck in. They also do a mortal wound on a hit roll of a 6, making them similar to Spirit Hosts in their attack profile. At the end of the combat phase you also roll a dice for each enemy model they killed and on a 2+ you add a zombie to your unit. One of the Corpse Carts also buffs their save from a "-" to a 6+. Keeping in line with the line troops, Deathrattle units have gotten a few buffs as well. Grave Guard now do an extra mortal wound on a wound roll of a 6 instead of doubling the damage and their great weapons are 2 damage. Regular skeletons now just have one attack profile, regardless of whether they have swords or spears. They hit more accurately, but have lost all of their buffs to attacks. Instead when you pick them to fight you roll a dice for each model you've lost from that unit already in that phase, and on a 4+ you return them to the unit. This encourages you to use them as tar pits and attack later in the phase, while you more deadly unit attack first. Dire Wolves are still awesome as well with 2 attacks, hitting on 3s and 3s on the charge and with a 10" move.

Oops, looks like a spent more time on the warscrolls than I planned. I really like this book if you can't tell. I think it takes all the best parts of the Legions of Nagash book, streamlines them, and adds in a bunch of cool vampire stuff on top of it. The lore section is great and I really like how it's setting up a conflict between Mannfred and Neferata now that Nagash is sidelined. I would love to see more jockeying between all of the Mortarchs during this time in general. The Vykros stuff is the standout for me in terms of lore, which makes sense, they seem to be the most fleshed out of the new vampires due to Ulfenkarn. The army itself has a ton of different builds you can do. Besides just the five bloodlines, you can also do a Deathrattle focused army, a zombie focused army, a mixed army, a Blood Knight heavy army, or even more combos. There's a ton of flexibility in list design here and I'm excited to see what people do. I think I'm going to lean towards the zombie side of things myself.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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