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I'm still working on my WoC army, but I am DEFINITELY making a VC army next. My first question (and this is a big one) - who do you choose to fill your 25% mandatory core? Is there a mantra all "pro" VC players use? Is a mix of the three types recommendable?
I'm thinking skeletons are the way to go. My rationale:
zombie stats are total trash and they're destined to get run over in 2 turns by just about anything, you just won't be able to bring them back fast enough.
Ghouls: too expensive for the upgrade ws3 t4 is definitely a step up, but you lose armor and parry saves and 3 ranks of spear attacks for 2x the cost of a skeleton
Skeletons: cheap enough to build in bulk, durable enough to not get totally decimated in 1 or 2 turns, potent enough to squeeze in 2 or 3 wounds a round (with spears). Plus they can take magic banners.
As expensive as they are, Ghouls are where it's at. My VC buddy has tried just about every trick in the book to make them work, and even with things like Wall-o-Wraith (which is 5 Wraiths in the front rank), they just don't last. They get thumped by real combat troops. The T4 holds up better than the 5+ armor save, the WS3 is a big deal against things like Ogres, and the extra attacks and Poison means you can actually do a little bit of damage.
Zombies are great for speedbumps, Dire Wolves are good redirectors/diverters, and the rest should be spent on Ghouls.
Zombies are actually quite effective now, so i wouldn't be too quick to trash talk them. Yes, they are Initiative 1 with always strike last. But you're undead, you should be used to striking last, so whats the big deal? they're weapon skill 1, which means you need 5s to hit pretty much everything save bretonnian peasants. But they're not designed to kill things anyway. And the only way they're going down in one or two combats is if you only put 20 of them in a unit and don't ever cast invocation. throw 40 or these guys in with "full" command and you're only looking at 130 points. you can flood the table with zombies and not care. And since they're S/T 3 now (instead of S/T 2 like they were before the book got re-vamped) they are well worth the points, at the very least as a tar pit. with one cast of invocation per turn, you can watch a unit of 40 zombies hold up 5-6 chaos knights for most of the game. I'm not chaos, so i dont know exactly how many points those knights would be, but i'm willing to bet that it would be more than 130. aka, you win. while they're in place, position yourself for a charge with a suitable unit, or just prepare to redirect. i wouldnt charge anything into that unit because you'll lose everything when they carve through 15 zombies, but it prevents them from ruining your other units. Zombies are also cheap banners for blood and glory/objectives, and there's nothing better for watchtower. get a unit of 50 zombies into that tower and just cast invocation over and over. They'll never kill enough of them, = auto win. As per skeletons, they're not bad. I never take spears unless i know i'll be facing undead. The extra attacks at low WS and S3 just don't seem worth vs most of my opponents, i'd rather have the parry save, and keep 1 in 6 skeletons from falling apart. as for magic banners, there really aren't that many worth taking in my mind. Screaming banner is, of course, great. flaming banner maybe, otherwise i don't see any that are truly worth it. so that's not even a factor in my mind. if you're that worried about a magic banner, bring a BSB or grave guard. Ghouls, i hardly use anymore. Used them all the time when they were the same price as skeletons, who didnt. But now that they're double i just don't see it as viable. they're still the best undead core model for model, hands down. But what you have to weigh consider is this: Are 20 ghouls better than 40 skeletons? Not to me. I use them mainly for fluff now and then, but i like the horde aspect of the undead, so i'll gladly field twice as many models for the same number of points.
The sad part is, 20 Ghouls aren't better than 40 Skeletons, but one unit of 40 Ghouls are certainly better than 2 units of 40 Skeletons. That second unit of Skeletons is little more than a speedbump (at which point you're better off spending 'em on Zombies), because you just can't afford to make it tough in combat. Ghouls are respectable by default, and they only get better with support (especially Van Hel's. Ghouls LOOOOOVE Van Hel's).
I'm also under the impression that vc never want to spend more than the minimum 25% on core, so you wouldn't be able to do two decent sized blocks of ghouls. Also I assume you don't want to oversaturate your core for risk of spreading out your army and inadvertently pushing flankers out of range of invocation and other buffs which is why I thought skeletons were a good compromise between the two.
However it sounds like one would be better off specializing with a block of ghouls and a block of zombies.
Honestly it really depends on which army you are facing. There are some armies, bretonia comes to mind, that can't take on a unit of 40-50 zombies. I think that saying that they are a speed bump is a bit of an understatement. With enough invocations they can hold up some units for entire games. I like to play with a a level 1 vamp lord and two level 2 necros and if you add in a mortis engine with a blasphemous tome, you get one invo with +3 and two at +4. You are likely to get at least one off each turn bringing back anywhere from 3 to 14 zombies per cast. Not to mention the engine can give them a 6+ regen save.
Also Skeleton are not bad either as they can be offensive with the right magic support. Such as vanhel's and/or hellish vigour and use of the cursed book to debuff their opponents. I like to take a unit of 49 in horde formation with spears to give them a solid 40 attacks. With full command and a screaming banner this is only 300 points. Then I put a hero vamp with them using just the armor of destiny and a great weapon with aura of dark majesty and fear incarnate. In a couple 1250 pt games they were probably my best performing unit. Even without the magic to support them properly.
I have yet to use ghouls in this edition, but it is hard to justify paying 10 points a model, when GG are only 12 points with great weapons and can be ressurected just as easily.
Justifying the relative cost of Ghouls as compared to Grave Guard is irrelevant. GG don't fill minimum Core, Ghouls do - you can't take the points you spent on Ghouls and spend them on Grave Guard instead, so any and all comparisons are moot. If you crash into a unit that is meant to fight, Zombies and Skeletons get obliterated (I can show some math-hammer I did awhile back that covers this in grisly detail - they really do get spanked). Ghouls, on the other hand, can give some hurt out and take less of it (the extra attack and point of T are very underrated).
Good topic btw
I wouldn't say its a moot point, in a 2000 point army would you take 50 ghouls because they are minorly offensive? probably not. would you take 50 skeletons and 70 zombies? seems like a better choice. Then you would take some grave guard because they can hit hard. You still have to fit ALL your units into your point allowance, it doesnt matter if they are core or special. And you wouldnt take all expensive units that hit hard because then you would not have enough bulk.
And I'm pretty confident that 100 zombies would last longer than 30 ghouls in a fight.
That they would, but while inflicting less casualties and being toxic to any unit that would dare try and fish them out of that jam. The whole point is that Ghouls don't have to fight alone - you can put Vampires in them without fear of them getting crumbled to smithereens, you can bail them out with a flank charge from something like a unit of Vargheists, all that fun stuff. Big, hard-punching units is how games of Warhammer are won these days. Hammer + anvil play only works if your anvil is actually capable of holding something up, and (in the case of the Undead) if your hammer is actually able to swing combat resolution your way. Otherwise, it's suicide.
And you're right, I wouldn't take 50 Ghouls at 2K. I'd take 39 Ghouls + Ghast, 2 units of 20 Zombies that will be grown up with IoN, and a unit of Dire Wolves. Stick a Hero-level Vamp with a Dispel Scroll, Glittering Scales, and Red Fury in the Ghouls, and call it a day.
As for the point regarding the Skeletons... the reason why you never take Spears is because you're then forced to use them, as described in the Special Close Combat Weapons section. The trade-off is actually negative for a unit that's as bad at fighting as Skeletons are - the Ward save is worth a lot more than a couple of WS2 S3 attacks.