Armour of Change: The Complete Guide to Mastering the Psychic Phase

Avert your bloodshot eyes, World Eaters players.

Turn back now, you crazed and bloodthirsty Khorne Daemon players.

Grab your favorite book and make yourself right at home, Thousand Sons players.

When it comes to magic, bird is the word

We’re trying something different in today’s article. Today, we’re going to do a deep dive into taking your gameplay in the psychic phase to the next level. While references will be based on Chaos factions, players of all factions can learn a lot from the principles here.

This guide will remain evergreen until 40K has a major change to how the psychic phase works. This may come in a future edition, and I’m at peace with that. Until then, all of the principles here will be big boosts to your own psychic gameplay regardless of army composition or details of the current meta.

This article is also a bit dense at times. You have been warned. I feel the need to apologize for some reason, even though I am sorry for absolutely nothing. I’ve done a lot of poker studying over the last few years. This has really improved the way I think about decision making in games in general. My loss of sanity is your gain! You’ll get to read this guide, improve your gameplay, and go on with your day. I’m going to be stuck wondering in the shower later whether I made the right choices in my psychic phase last game. I let the water run down my body, my head in my hands. Was it the right choice to cast Twist Of Fate before Temporal Surge? Why do I keep using hair shampoo on my beard even though I know it dries it out?

We’ve done too much talking and not enough casting. With all of that introduction out of the way, let’s dive into a masterclass on the coolest and most skill-intensive phase in 40K.

Introduction to the Psychic Phase

The psychic phase seems pretty straightforward. You roll your dice, they roll their deny dice, and hopefully your dice are bigger than their dice. In reality, it’s by far the most complicated phase in the game. Most players are making big mistakes that have absolutely nothing to do with the dice without even realizing it.

Here is the biggest principle to keep in mind: You and your opponent are gaining information about the outcome of each psychic test and what resources each player has left as the phase goes on.

This seems straightforward, but it has a lot of implications when planning our your psychic phase. Everyone is capable of rolling low or rolling high on any given cast. You can’t control the dice, but you can control the impact that high or low rolls will have on your game.

Your Psychic Phase Starts In Your Movement Phase

If you ever roll a psychic test and then measure to see whether they have any denies in range, I guarantee you are losing many games in the psychic phase without realizing it.

That’s not because that specific casting decision is going to lose you a game (although it might!), but because if you do that, your approach is leading to a lot of sub-optimal decisions every game. The psychic phase is entirely a battle of information and expectations, so you want to arm yourself with as much as information as possible before it starts.

Any time you move a Psyker into deny range, you are opening up another opportunity for the dice to screw you over. It really hurts when you roll an 11 and then they roll a 12 to deny your key spell! That happens to even great Thousand Sons players at times.

What doesn’t happen to great Thousand Sons players is rolling an 11 to cast, and their opponent rolling a 12 to deny the power from 23″ away when they had the Movement to get 24.1″ away and take the dice out of their opponent’s hands entirely.

A World Eater delivering his 4+ Deny stratagem by hand

In your Movement phase, ask your opponent about the locations of any Deny The Witch or 4+ Deny stratagem sources and be intentional about staying in-range or out-of-range of those denies. Look for opportunities to trail some models in units receiving buffs backwards so you can cast out of deny range. Even if the unit you want to buff in some way is moving forward, you can still trail models back. If you have to move the front unit first, position them in a way so that they’re still in range of the spell behind them even if your buffing unit rolls a 1 on their advance so you’re not randomly screwed over by a low advance roll. There is nothing worse than wasting a CP on a low advance roll you could have avoided with better positioning.

Let’s create a hypothetical, simple situation so you can understand what I mean. Let’s say you have one Tzaangor Shaman exposed in the midfield to do Psychic Interrogation, another Psyker 6″ away behind a wall to Temporal Surge the Tzaangor Shaman back to safety, and then a bunch of various Blessings or Maledictions on other Psykers throughout your army. Your opponent has 2 Deny The Witch rolls. What order do you cast in?

Trick question. First thing you do is in your Movement Phase, try to position the Psyker with Temporal Surge out of deny range. Then your Psychic Phase is trivial. You make the Psychic Action undeniable for 8 Cabal Points, Temporal Surge unfailable for 7 Cabal Points, and you’re good to go.

But let’s say they have denies to some powers but not others. Things get more complicated. Here’s a general rule of thumb: Powers that your opponent can interact with should be rolled in order from least-important to most-important. Powers that your opponent cannot interact with should be rolled from most-important to least-important.

Why Does The Order I Cast Powers Matter?

As the Psyker army, you’re almost always going to have more casts than the opponent has Deny The Witch rolls. Your job is to leave them with no clear right answers on when to use their Deny The Witch attempts.

An opponent’s decision on whether to use one of their denies relies on two factors: How important the psychic test is, and how likely it is their deny will work. They always know the former in an open information game, but they can’t know the latter until you’ve gotten to that cast. Let’s call these two factors L for Likelihood and I for Importance, and simplify them by scaling them from 0-10. A 0 on Likelihood would be if they roll a 12+ on the cast (so you literally can’t succeed on a Deny The Witch test), and a 10 on Likelihood would be almost any Deny The Witch roll succeeding. A 0 on Importance would be a power that was cast that won’t impact the game at all, and a 10 on Important would be a psychic test that the denying player thinks is crucial. They want to save their denies for situations where I + L are highest. L is randomly generated every time the caster rolls their dice, with an average score of 5. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I trust you get the overall idea.

If you cast a 10/10 Importance power first, the opponent’s decision is easy. If you roll average, they get to make the clear choice to deny. Your score is 5 L + 10 I for 15 Deny Points, which is the maximum possible expected value for Deny Points a power can have. There is no value to be gained by waiting. Deny dice will be thrown.

Now say you roll your 1/10 Importance power first. And let’s say you succeed on the lowest possible roll and it’s a low Warp Charge power, so the Likelihood is a 10/10. The dice really screwed you over and handed your opponent an easy deny, sigh. The Deny Weight is 1 + 10 for an 11. That’s below the average Deny Weight of ~15 for the 10/10 power, which is 10 Importance + ~5 Likelihood. So even though your dice screwed you over, the opponent either has to pass up the opportunity for an easy deny they were given or make a sub-optimal choice. Either way, you win that interaction. You’re using the uncertainty that you both have about future dice rolls to your advantage.

There is one exception I’ve found that just makes people with denies just lose their minds: psychic damage. People hate removing their models in the psychic phase. I get it! The shooting phase is where the damage generally happens in a sci-fi game. The psychic phase doesn’t even exist in a lot of matchups. People are innately grumpy about picking up their models during a phase that’s usually a brief interlude before the real damage starts. The population of 40K players overall will consistently overrate denying damage spells when deciding whether to use a deny or not. If you want to bait out denies, start rolling damage spells early. Many opponents are likely to be unable to resist spending a deny on some random Smite you didn’t even care about. Good opponents will usually know better, but even then there is always a chance they draw a line at you killing that particular Incursor and blow their psychic deny randomly.

The opposite logic applies to spells you are casting that your opponent can’t deny. You won’t CP reroll (or boost with Cabal Points) a less important power if you know you have a key power coming up. Get the most important powers done early so you know whether you will have any resources left over to help the less important powers.

“That’s all well and good Mike, and you’re really handsome and smart and just a great person overall, but how do I know what my most important powers are?”

That’s a really, really, really great question. Maybe you’re going to invest 3CP buffing your Scarab shooting later that turn to take down a Knight. Because they have the CP to give themselves a 4++ invuln against shooting and you have lots of AP2 and AP3 shooting, Twist Of Fate to remove their invuln save is huge that turn. Other times it will be completely irrelevant, usually due to Armour Of Contempt. You have to use your judgement.

As a general rule of thumb, the importance of powers goes from Movement Powers > Psychic Actions > Defensive Buffs > Offensive Buffs > Damage Spells. I kind of just randomly made this up and can already think of many situations where this is completely untrue, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb to start with.

Maximizing Your Psychic Damage

Let’s get to the fun part. Buffs and debuffs are cool. Shooting mind bullets is even cooler.

We will start with one of my favorite plays: Smite Sniping. There are lot of damage spells in the game, Smite being by far the most common, that require you to do damage to the closest visible enemy. This seems easy to stop with screens.

The trick is to intentionally block your own line of sight to closer targets so you can Smite units behind them. Use Obscuring terrain or line of sight blockers to your advantage and try to position yourself so you can’t see the Guardsmen in front, but you can see the Company Commander behind them that’s off to the side. This is especially easy on terrain with mostly solid walls with a few windows. If you’re against a solid section with a window a few inches over, your line of sight out of the window will be basically sideways to snipe units behind the screen on the other side of the wall.

This becomes genuinely broken when combined with powers that “explode” from the closest enemy unit, like Vortex Of Doom. Throwing a mortal wound bomb into their lines from an unexpected angle always makes their eyes open wide.

Another big thing to keep in mind is to not get on auto-pilot when pre-measuring distances for psychic damage. Think of your damage powers as lots of short range guns, and line up multiple overlapping damage ranges so you have options. I’ll sometimes see people pre-measure and line up multiple units 17.9″ away from a unit to drown it in mortal wounds… and then get defeated when the opponent takes a single mortal wound and pulls the closest model, meaning no other psykers are in smite range. If there is a chance the opponent will try to front pull models out of range of other psykers, make sure to start with the furthest back psyker first.

If your army has psychic teleports (looking at you, Grey Knights and Thousand Sons), look for opportunities to kill their screens in the psychic or movement phase and then teleport into the gaps in their lines. The same applies to powers that let you make Normal Moves in the Psychic Phase. Your brain feels absolutely enormous whenever you get to pull one of these plays off. Don’t fall for it. You’re going to roll consecutive perils on your next teleport cast. Pride comes before the fall.

Scoring Psychic Secondaries

Let’s talk about taking Psychic Secondaries into armies with a 4+ deny stratagem or something of that nature. It’s really not as big a deal as people make it seem. Are they really going to spend 5 Command Points in the Year Of Our Nephilim 2022 to reduce your score from 15 to ~7.5 on a single Secondary? Warp Ritual is even better. They can spend 5CP over the course of the game, and you still max Warp Ritual half the time even if you never make it undeniable. If they’re going to commit to denying the secondary then they generally have to commit all game. No one has 5 loose CP just laying around in the Nephilim era. The only thing that gives me real pause is when they have both 4+ Deny stratagems and and lots of Deny The Witch, like Sisters of Battle.

This won’t be my primary gameplan, but if its a very unfavorable matchup then I’m not afraid to roll some dice and see if we can make something happen.

Psychic Secondaries in general pair very well with Movement spells. You often have to put Characters in risky positions to score them. Being able to expose a Character and then move them back helps you farm points without much investment. The flip-side of that is you’re going to trivially lose a key resource if you fail the spell to move the Character back. That’s why I’m generally not a fan of this outside of Thousand Sons and Eldar, who can add some real reliability to the movement spell back. Chaos Space Marines don’t need to set up Warptime plays for their Psyker characters. You can make insanely durable bricks of Terminators or other units to keep your Character safe up front.

In general, you don’t want to go for plays that hinge on a spell going off unless you have some serious bonuses to cast or other buffs. I draw the line at requiring a 5+ on 2d6 rerolling to build a gameplan around. That’s over 97% reliable. You get an extremely sharp increase in likelihood of failure as you rely on higher casting values. Requiring on a WC6 power with a CP reroll fails almost 10% of the time. A WC7 power fails almost half the time initially and almost 20% of the time even with a reroll. Warptime is a WC7 power. That is just way, way, way too high a likelihood for a disastrous outcome. Stick to “psychic action and move” plays in factions that can guarantee your move back goes off. It’s even more important to guarantee the movement than the psychic action early in the game. You don’t want to guarantee 3 points early and then lose a Character that would have scored you 12 points over the rest of the game.

The SINGLE Most Important Tip for Psyker Players

Roll well. It really, really, really helps.

Note: Excited to get your Chaos army on the tabletop? Me too! I’d love to work with you on making your fun or weird Chaos idea into a competitive list. If you’re interested in supporting the growth of Warphammer and quality 40K writing, feel free to check out and join the team. Additional benefits and coaching are available.

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9 thoughts on “Armour of Change: The Complete Guide to Mastering the Psychic Phase”

  1. It is so weird. I Play Thousand Sons and have played them in about 3-4 GTs and 2 RTTs and I absolutely forgot that you can smite snipe.
    I red the article more for Entertainment and not for learning something because I thought I do know “everything” about psychic. And I did know that you can Smite snipe… But I didn’t try/do it in Games.
    Never forget that even a good player should sometimes repeat the basics.

  2. Keeping woth the poker theme, the psychic phase is also prone to bluffing. There are times when I may have say, Warptime and Delightful Agonies on a Sorcerer. Building up the importance of one or the other in order to draw out a crucial, lone, deny, when I actually value the other power is something I do subconsciously at this point.

    1. Well said Brine. Know exactly what you mean. You could do a whole article on wargaming lessons learned from poker–may do exactly that sometime now that I’m thinking of it!

  3. Technically right now the world eaters can pay attention I think. The army doesn’t say that it can’t take psychers. It just has to mark things khorne if able, and if not, gives them the keyword but not the mark. So for sure you can take the cultist squad, and it should be legal to take a MoP (who has to stay undivided before being made khorne without a mark).

    Also sadly chaos knights have to wade into deny ranges with aboms. And it is more CP efficient to take the veil over the +1 cast relic in terms of getting survivability and expenditure from evil rotate ion shields and trolling powers. On the bright side casting CH or tSM will probably bait out denials since they each have two parts, being either sort of two smites or +1 to wound plus 3 mortals max per combat phase. Doing two things is double the temptation. I do like dying to perils and then exploding though for extra mortals. It’s suprisingly lethal when it happens.

    1. That’s pretty funny about World Eaters taking Psykers. Let’s just say that if you do that, Khorne won’t let you ever roll above an 8 on a charge roll ever again haha!

  4. Do you think it is an okay Play to Block LoS with for example two beasts of Nurgle or Rhinos for your caster to Smite/Doombolt snipe a model or is this too much?

    1. Totally fine play Katzophant. People used to do that with Snipers in 8th when Look Out Sir worked similarly until GW changed the core rules to stop it.

      Just keep in mind that even a tiny sliver of visibility would stop it, like between a Beasts arms. So its very hard to do with anything besides big solid bricks like Land Raiders

  5. Pingback: 5 on Friday 07/10/22 – No Rerolls

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