Warning: The update to the space marine codex will likely make drop pods a poor army choice. I would not recommend using drop pods in 5th edition, assuming the rumors are true.
I will not be updating this tactica.
Tactica: Drop Pods-
This tactica is quite long, you may find it easier to read it in sections.
Who can drop pod?
All Space Marine Infantry can drop pod. In theory you could start with nothing on the table. The only exception to this rule are assault squads, who may not select a drop pod. In addition, dreadnoughts may select drop pods.
Who should drop pod?
A few units can be summed up as unsuited for drop pods. These include Devastators and Scouts. These units do not have access to special weapons and unless the unit is made up of terminators, a squad may not fire heavy weapons on the turn it arrives. This means a player won't be able to fire heavy weapons until at least turn 3, possibly even later. Scouts can already infiltrate, so you're wasting points by putting them into a drop pod. Only having a 4+ armor save leaves the scouts vulnerable to many more weapons than space marines. When podding, a player tends to land face to face with the enemy. This really is no time for training.
On that note, do not mix infiltrators and drop pods. The infiltrators can easily be routed out in the first turn, while the pods arrive piece-meal. Infiltrate with as much as you can, or drop pod with as much as you can, but don't do both unless you've got something really sneaky planned.
Veterans can be tricky to drop pod, more on them later.
The best drop podders are tactical marines. With a drop pod, the marine bolter is suddenly a formidable weapon. With 4th edition rapid fire rules, the bolter can really lay down a hail of shots when you're close to the enemy.
Terminators are great for drop pods, especially as command squads for Librarians in a drop pod army.
Dreadnoughts are another fine unit to drop pod, when kitted correctly.
How many drop pods should I use?
Typically if your planning on using drop pods, use at least 4. More is better, depending on point limit.
What upgrades should I give my drop pod?
Drop pods do not have access to standard vehicle upgrades. This is no loss as none of the upgrades have much effect on a drop pod. Deathwind launchers are a bit of a point sink, as the drop pod is effective because its cheap reliable transport. The recent FAQ further discourages the use of Deathwing Launchers. You must give half the value to your opponent in free victory points, from the moment the pod lands, as it counts as being immobilized. This adds up very quickly for drop pods without deathwind launchers. You're looking at 150 free victory points for your opponent if you field 10 drop pods, without the opponent doing anything at all. With a deathwind launcher its 250 free victory points for 10 drop pods. That's too many. More over, the poor ballistic skill and short range means they will likely not earn their points back.
Where to deploy arriving drop pods?
The first rule of thump is to keep your drop pods at least 12 inches from the board edge. So long as you do not fall off the board, there is no possible way for the pod to be destroyed before it delivers its deadly cargo. This includes landing on your own units, as they're treated as impassible terrain. In this way, you never risk losing units to deep strike.
Drop pods provide huge advantages when placing. First your invulnerable to landing on the enemy, so place your pod very close to the desired target you wish to kill. Often placing a pod one inch away from the enemy unit you want to shoot is a good idea. This ensures that even if you scatter away your maximum distance, you should be able to fire with half your marine squad, with 2 inch deployment. This is one way to make dreadnought heavy flamers useful.
How to deploy arriving drop pods?
Drop pods allow you to dissect your opponent's formation. Try to find a weak spot. When placing keep your forces together, I can't stress this enough. Keeping your forces together will force your opponent to fight a large section of your army all at once, instead of individual squads.
Typically, you should get roughly half your army on turn 2 (or at least half of your army should be in the fight by now.) When placing, place so that you can only fight a small section of your opponent's army. And thus, your opponent can only fight you with a small section of their army.
This can be done several ways. First, simply deploying all your forces on one flank of the enemy will leave many enemy squads out of range, or their LOS blocked in some manner, possibly by their own vehicles or terrain features.
Next, terrain; there is no penalty for drop podding into cover, or behind it, so use this to your advantage. Terrain is definitely your friend when using drop pods. For example, the enemy might find his force divided between a large forest, or building. Drop podding inside such a piece of terrain will allow you to face only a small part of the opponent's army, and you will get a cover save.
Finally, your most reliable source to hinder the enemy's attack against you is the drop pod itself. Always remember the drop pod is a shield as much as anything. Exploit this to its maximum effect. You can prevent some tanks, such as a predator with three lascannons, from firing at full effect by landing a pod in front of it, or a dev squad from firing heavy weapons effectively.
Also, remember that pods can be grouped together to form larger walls on the field, assuming you've got a bit of luck with the scatter dice. Utilizing this tactic will take your disadvantage, that your army arrives in only small sections - and turn it into an advantage, as you pick your enemy apart by engaging only small sections of his/her army at any one time.
Hoards can be a problem. However, if you can land so as to outnumber the hoard army in a small section of the board, they will surely fall before your marines. Super fast hoards makes attacking a small section of the force more difficult, because they can respond faster. However, their speed will often leave them more spread out, allowing you to find a weakness.
For example, you may be facing a hoard of Tyranids. The gaunts might move up to take some objectives, while their synapse struggles to keep up. Suppose you drop pod your whole force inbetween the nearest synapse and the gaunts. Half your armies combined firepower should be able to take down pretty much anything, even a hive tyrant. This cuts off the gaunts from synapse, and now they are separated from the rest of the 'nids force. They won't have much game effect beyond this point, unless they pass some lucky LD5 tests. Then it's a matter of simply mopping them up with some bolters as they fall back.
However, you should not pick such a small section of the opponent's army that you destroy everything in sight/range and are unable to fire at maximum effect. You want a few things left over, so your opponent wont opt to run away from you. You want him/her to have a little bit left so he/she attempts a rescue. You do not want him/her to start heading away from you, possibly with large guns now pointed at your foot sloggers.
Drop pods afford you first strike, meaning you will get to shoot first. This is a huge advantage; close range fire support is key to successfully using drop pods. You want to break your opponent in the opening hail of bolter fire. *Because of this, bolters are often more effective then bolt pistols and close combat weapons when drop podding. Secondly, if you opt to go second, you will have 5 game turns to attack your opponent, while they will only have 4 to put up a counter attack.
*this being the reason veterans are difficult to use, because they are never really suited for the task at hand. This is because you must give them a skill. If you use a bolt pistol, then furious charge is probably the best skill to give them. This really hurts your first strike abilities, and the opponent will likely assault this squad over others to prevent you from getting a charge off with furious charge. Tank hunters is wasted, as melta-guns really don't need the additional strength. Should a pod of veterans land outside of six inches away from an enemy tank the additional strength might be nice, but thats rarely required. Obviously infiltrate isn't useful when selecting a drop pod.
Pure drop pods
Pure drop pod armies can be fantastic. Several advantages are that your opponent will know nothing about your force until its up close and personal. Secondly, an all drop pod force will mean you get the largest number of troops arriving by reserves on turn two on average, as opposed to mixed lists.
Your anti tank should largely come from melta-guns. These same squads should also form your assault heavy squads. Drop pod melta squads should have no less then 8 marines, and always be given a power fisted veteran sergeant since this squad will almost certainly see close combat. You need 8 marines to have any descent chance of scoring with the unit, since simply killing the enemy isn't enough; you must also have units to win the mission with.
Plasma guns make great anti heavy infantry. Use them to take down isolated elite units.
Avoid flamer squads and let your bolters cut through masses of troops. Do not mix melta guns and plasma guns in a squad (assuming you take the Cleanse and Purify trait). The same problems for Devastators apply to the Tactical Squad heavy weapons; it's not advisable to take one. This is because you wont be able to shoot it until turn 3 or later, and the squad will likely see Close Combat, meaning you'll have even less turns to shoot it. Finally, at 12 inch range, a melta-gun can do almost anything a different heavy weapon could.
Generally, your plasma squads also want to be at least 8 man, with a powerfisted veteran sergeant. These two squads should make of the majority of your force. If you have the choice to favor a unit, favor melta guns, as they are more versatile than plasma guns.
Cleanse and Purify is by far the best trait for a drop podding army. This trait will allow you to double the number of special weapons in a tactical squad. Doing this will make melta gun squads extremely good tank hunters, and plasma squads great for cutting down tough targets, while your bolters maul weaker units.
Some players may find the following traits useful and or fun. Trust Your Battle Brothers is used to repel assaults while allowing good shooting abilities. Some players might find Heed the Wisdom of the Ancients useful. These traits however are only mentioned as ideas for new players. They are not the most competitive upgrades and should not be confused as such.
The major drawback Flesh over Steel simply won't work for drop pod armies, as it would make each drop pod a fast attack slot, limiting a player to only 3. Needless to say, Die Standing will not work for a drop podding army. Recommended drawbacks are Eye to Eye and Have Pride in Your Colors. The no allies trait will also work for a minor draw back.
A librarian makes a great leader for this army; Fear of the Darkness can be a back breaker to any army susceptible to moral. Combined with a terminator bodyguard this squad can form the spearhead of your drop pod assault with both very powerful shooting and assault abilities. Fury of the Ancients can also work well; it works against more opponents, but is never as good as Fear of the Darkness when it will have an effect on the opponent.
Dreadnoughts round out the force by adding much needed assault cannons, and sometimes-heavy flamers.
In very large games veterans can add assault power, but terminators and dreadnoughts will do the job better. Unfortunately, there are only 3 elite slots, making veterans even less attractive.
Avoid using Captains. Ideally the bulk of your force will be Leadership 9 anyways. Masters aren't that great either, since target priority tests wont be much of an issue and falling back out of CC is usually good for drop pods, since next turn you'll have more guys on the table looking to blast the enemy. Chaplains are fair, but really aren't being used to their best effect in this type of army, as most opponents will deny you the ability to charge with your Chaplain since they already know what a bummer it is to be charged by one.
Librarians with shooty powers are defiantly the best drop podding HQ. Fear of the Darkness and Fury of the Ancients are all nice powers to have. They are best used with terminators, but can also deploy with a command squad. Remember, you must pick a terminator command squad, or a normal command squad to deploy your HQ in as he may not join any other squad and still arrive by drop pod.
Command squads can be tricky like veterans, but they don't have to pick a skill, giving them an advantage. They also don't use an elites slot. Because this squad can include an HQ, bolt pistols and close combat weapons become more attractive. This hurts your overall first strike, but might help out later in the game. A squad like this would be aided by Furious Charge. Additional unit upgrades might be useful for this squad, such as a company champion. In larger games of 2000 points or more a standard bearer may also be useful. Upgrade the standard to a chapter banner, as the probability of the standard bearer being assaulted is high and this will likely tip the tides of assault to your favor. You want him to be assaulted, so put him upfront. This type of squad will see too much close combat to make an Apothecary useful. Limit this squad to one melta gun, so it leaves them with a bit of first strike capability, but doesn't limit the number of attacks the squad gets.
Another way to use a command squad is to simply make them a glorified tactical squad, Use melta guns instead of plasma, as your HQ will needs to charge from time to time. Melta guns can still shoot and charge, making them the proffered choice for squads with HQs in them.
Terminator Command Squads are defiantly the best, 2 assault cannons provide much needed heavy weapon fire, and hoard control. Remember your limited to a total of 4 terminators and 1 HQ.
Mixed drop pods
Cleanse and Purify is still a very important trait for these types of armies. However, you will often want to avoid needing to take a major drawback in this force. If you do end up taking one, Aspire to Glory will work best, but Eye to Eye can also work, depending on how the army is made.
This type of army uses the same core force as the one above for pure drop pods; melta-gun or plasma gun infantry squads drop podding form the backbone of the force.
However, instead of relying purely on pods, small fast units are also added. Sometimes a Chaplain led assault squad and several land speeders. Bikes could also be used, possibly led by a librarian. This force could also include Whirlwinds, as your opponent wont have an easy time destroying these, since you can hide them.
These fast units stay out of Line of Sight on turn one, then pop out as your drop pods arrive. When they do, your main assault unit should be in range. This allows you to shoot a huge volley at the opponent with the drop podders, and then assault him/her with a powerful squad. This can be a game breaker.
Remember to drop pod at least 4 squads, even in a mixed army. Because of this rule of thumb, mixed armies are better left to a minimum of 1500 points, otherwise the drop podding squads, or the small fast squads, wont have enough points to be fleshed out properly.
The advantage to having a mixed drop pod force is that your opponent will be less tempted to bunching his force up in one spot on the battle field. (Anti drop pod tactics generally include keeping a force in tight formation.) They might also allow you to pull off an assault the same turn your drop pods arrive, using a force already on the ground, like a Chaplain led assault squad.
Small deadly fast ground forces can confuse the enemy and encourage him/her to spread out, maybe even send units after this small detachment. He/She may or may not take this bait. A spread out army is easier to dissect than a bunched up one.
Countering Anti-drop pod tactics-
Analyze your opponents force. You'll have a good 15 minutes to really study what he/she's got before anything in your army is threatened. Staying in close formation or bunching-up an army is considered the best way of countering drop pods. If your opponent is bunching up his/her units, it should be obvious. Figure out what types of units this player is using. Fast units often tend to be fragile, where as slower units tend to be tough. For example, Eldar lists tend to be mobile, but fragile. Chaos lists are often slower, but much tougher.
Fast units will be fragile. Figure out which units can hurt you the most and destroy them as you land. Typically, fast things cannot survive much firepower, such as a Vyper or Dark Elder Raider. Go face to face with the opponent, but land a bit more spread out then normal, so that they cant simply get away in one turn. Your first strike will inflict far more damage on this type of army.
A slower army that is bunched up is easily countered by simply going for objectives. Land your pods in front of the objective and sit your marines behind it. Now its already at least turn 2. If you've gone second, your opponent only has 4 turns to get you off what ever you're holding. After you've secured a majority of objectives, say, table quarters for example, send drop pods to land in your opponents lines. This will force them to either kill your space marines and stop making forward progress, or ignore them and march on. Ignoring 8-10 space marines is usually a painful idea. Even if the opponent is tough they still need to stay 1 inch away from you, so if nothing else, you've forced them to walk around you.
This will of course be the most difficult to counter. You will be taking a 50-50 chance that your first strike will break the army, or that there army can't catch you and wont be able to destroy your squads holding objectives. You might just decide this based on what their army is famous for. For example, Space Marines are famed for toughness, so are probably slower. If its Elder, then they are probably faster.