Excellent Exaltations: A Deep Dive Into Optimizing Your Exalted Greater Daemons

(Model Credit: DVCSTL on Instagram)

One of the most powerful abilities Daemons have in 9th Edition 40K is the ability to give their greater daemons (Bloodthirster, Keepers of Secrets, Great Unclean Ones, and Lords of Change) Exalted rewards. In the Engine War supplement, each of the four variants of greater daemons gained access to a table of 6 “Exalted rewards”, with each greater daemon in your list (sadly no fun for the daemons summoned from the warp during the game) being given the choice to either pick one reward from their respective exalted table or roll randomly for two rewards. Understanding the value of different Exalted rewards, and choosing correctly between rolling randomly for your rewards or picking a guaranteed reward, are important parts of being a successful Daemons player.

Before I get into the gameplay/competitive decisions about whether to roll or pick, I want to make one thing clear: Rolling for your exalted upgrades is fun as hell. If you only play garagehammer, and your argument is that you are always going to roll instead of picking because you really enjoy rolling to see what happens, then I can understand that and hope you have a great time. The rest of the article will be focused on what’s best from a competitive perspective. Let’s jump right into it.

Before diving into the details of the Exalted tables, I want to lay the groundwork with a bit of basic math and general concepts. If there is 1 ability you *really* want on a table of 6 options, rolling will give you that result 33% of the time. If there are two traits you really like, then rolling will give you at least one of them 60% of the time. If there are three traits you really like, then rolling will give you at least one of them 80% of the time. We can quickly see that if there is an Exalted table with multiple traits you would be satisfied with picking, rolling becomes an excellent choice because you are very likely to end up with one of your top options anyway, and in addition will receive the benefit of a second trait. On the other hand, if you want your Bloodthirster to be the primary deepstrike threat in your list, you *need* to pick the reward for +2” to your charge range, otherwise you have no shot of reliably making charges out of reserves, which makes your Bloodthirster near useless for its specified roll. Or put more simply, if you *need* a specific reward, picking your trait will give you that trait 100% of the time. The math behind that is obvious, but I pointed that out for a reason: You need to sit down and think about what role you want each of your Greater Daemons in your list before deciding which Exalted rewards you want to give them. 

People like ratings, and I want to give the people what they want, so I’ll give each Exalted trait a rating below. I’ll kick off the discussion of specific Greater Daemons with the Bloodthirster, for no reason other than the fact that I started writing this article on the date 8/8/2020, a day worthy of Khorne’s favor. 

Exalted Bloodthirsters

  1. Hellfire-wrought Armour: The Bloodthirster has a 2+ Save (7/10)
  2. Blood-blessed: The Bloodthirster cannot take more than 8 Wounds in the same phase (8/10 on Wrath of Khorne and Unfettered Fury variants, 2/10 on the Insensate Rage variant)
  3. Arch-murderer: Add 1 to the Damage of all of the Bloodthirster’s weapons (Note: This also applies to the ranged weapons of the Unfettered Fury and Wrath of Khorne variants) (6/10)
  4. Slaughterborn: Add 1 to the Strength and Attacks characteristic if the Bloodthirster charged, was charged, or heroically intervened (5/10)
  5. Rage Unchained: Double the number of wounds remaining on the Bloodthirster when looking up values on its damage table (3/10, 6/10 on the Insensate Rage variant)
  6. Unrivalled Battle-lust: Add 2” to charge rolls for the Bloodthirster, and the Bloodthirster can heroically intervene 6” (10/10…. Or 8/8, because this is a blessing truly worthy of Khorne)

It’s rare that an upgrade can entirely change how a unit (or in this case units, since each variant of the Bloodthirster has its own datasheet) is used, but Unrivalled Battle-Lust does just that for Bloodthirsters. Reducing the charge roll needed out of deepstrike from 9” to 7” is incredibly impactful, due to how quickly the probability of success changes as you approach the middle of the 2d6 outcomes bell curve. Assuming your Bloodthirsters are in a pure Khorne detachment to benefit from the Khorne locus, a Bloodthirster without this upgrade has only a 52% chance of making a charge out of deepstrike. A Bloodthirster with Unrivalled Battle-Lust has an **83%** chance of a successful charge out of deepstrike, which makes putting the Bloodthirster into reserves a legitimate strategy rather than a coin flip. 

Arch-Murderer, Slaughterborn, and Rage Unchained all fall into the same category of improving the Bloodthirster’s offensive output by varying amounts. They’re certainly nice to have, and getting 2 damage sweep attacks for the Insensate Rage variant is very strong against a Primaris heavy meta (and even more important now that GW revealed all Marines, Chaos Space Marines, and Cult Marines will be going up to 2 Wounds), but these rewards should be outcomes you’re happy to get when you’ve rolled, rather than ones you would specifically pick. 

Now let’s talk about the reward that immediately threw the internet into an uproar when it was previewed, Blood-Blessed (often referred to as the “Ghaz rule” since the new Ghazghkull Thraka model released in Saga of the Beast was the first unit to have a rule that limited the number of wounds it could take in any given phase). On paper, it sounds fantastic–who doesn’t like a Bloodthirster that is literally invincible to being alpha-struck by an opposing gunline? 

The main issue with Blood-Blessed is that the Insensate Rage Bloodthirster has an incredibly punishing bracket table, making keeping an Insensate Rage Bloodthirster around on middle or bottom bracket a “So what?” situation. People that don’t play Daemons assume Bloodthirsters are always incredible combat monsters, but that just doesn’t hold up when you take a deeper look at their damage table. A Bloodthirster of Insensate Rage at top bracket delivers 7 attacks hitting on 2’ (with 6’s exploding because of their Deathbringer rule) for an average of 7 hits. A Bloodthirster of Insensate Rage on middle bracket delivers 5 attacks hitting on 3’s, for an average of 4 hits. A Bloodthirster of Insensate Rage on bottom bracket delivers 3 attacks hitting on 4’s, for an average of 2 hits. 2 Hits! For a 250 point melee unit! Their Movement characteristic also drops hard to 8” and then 6”, which makes it much easier for a savvy opponent to screen off locations where you can fit your massive base. It’s not as bad for the other variants since their Weapon Skill doesn’t degrade, so the only times you should consider picking Blood-Blessed are when you’re running a Wrath of Khorne or Unfettered Fury Bloodthirster. The damage output just isn’t there to justify all the points spent (and opportunity cost of picking Blood-blessed, or making a Khorne Daemon your Warlord and taking the relic to heal wounds on a 5+ after killing models) to have a limping and potentially healing Insensate Rage Bloodthirster hanging around the board. It’s much better when it’s a reward you get through rolling, and thus pair it with a damage boost, charge bonus, or ideally Rage Unchained to keep your Bloodthirster fighting at top bracket for as long as possible. 

Verdict: Roll for overall value, pick Unrivalled Battle-lust if you have the CP to deep-strike your Bloodthirster and re-roll the charge or have access to the Khorne locus

Exalted Great Unclean Ones

  1. Bloated with Corruption: The Great Unclean One goes from T7 to T8 (7/10)
  2. Revoltingly Resilient: The Great Unclean One has a 4+++ Feel No Pain (9/10)
  3. Avalanche of Rotten Flesh: Add 1” to charge rolls, and you inflict d3 MW on a 2+ when you successfully charge (either a 3/10 or 7/10 depending on your strategy, details in the discussion below)
  4. Living Plagues: All successful Hit rolls made with melee weapons generate two hits if the Great Unclean One’s Strength is at least twice the target’s Toughness. (7/10)
  5. Gift of Bountiful Vomit: In each Shooting Phase, select one visible enemy unit within 12” and roll a die for each model within 12”, up to a total of seven dice. Each 3+ does a Mortal Wound to the target unit. (6/10)
  6. Hideous Visage: Subtract one from the Leadership of enemy units within 12”, or two from the Leadership of enemy units within 6” (0/10, I would give it a negative score if I could. Ah wait, it’s my article, I can make up the rules! I give this a -7 out of 7)

Revolting Resilience is an excellent boost in the survivability of a Great Unclean One. Revolting Resilience turns your Great Unclean One into an absolute wrecking ball against melee centric armies when paired with the warlord trait Acidic Ichor (note that making your Great Unclean One, or any Nurgle Daemon, your warlord is necessary to unlock access to the Endless Gift relic discussed later in this section) because your Great Unclean One bounces back mortal wounds against half the wounds they inflict, while having a 50% chance to ignore those wounds entirely yourself. Giving your Great Unclean One a 4+++ Feel No Pain effectively doubles their wounds (up from the 50% increase in wounds that the default 5+++ Feel No Pain confers). Bloated With Corruption is very matchup dependent, which makes it a worse overall pick for increasing survivability than Revoltingly Resilient. If the majority of the opponent’s anti-large firepower is S7 or S8 or S4 then it can be a significant reduction in wound rate, but if the majority of the opponent’s firepower is either S9 (such as Lascannons) or S6 with rerolls or bonuses to wound rolls (like Riptides or Kastelan Robots), then going from T7 to T8 makes little practical difference on the game. The fact that Revolting Resilience provides a consistent durability boost–regardless of how the opponent inflicts their damage–makes it an overall much stronger overall pick. This became even more important in 9th edition, as Great Unclean Ones are the only Greater Daemons with 18 wounds instead of 16, meaning they don’t benefit from Obscuring terrain and are much easier to target on most boards.  

If you’re willing to commit a CP, Avalanche of Rotten Flesh is intriguing because it opens up the possibility of deepstriking the GUO and attempting a charge. A 9” deepstrike charge with a 1” to the charge and a CP to re-roll is successful 66% of the time, so you’ll succeed 2 out of every 3 games. You shouldn’t pick this reward with the intention of making your Great Unclean One into a deepstrike threat, but it’s a potential play to keep into your mental toolbox for the times you roll randomly for his exalted rewards and get Avalanche of Rotten Flesh. If you’re considering putting your Great Unclean One into reserves, then you need to consider whether you’re running a list that has multiple necessary charges in the same charge phase because the charge odds only start becoming decent if you can commit to re-rolling a failed roll. For example, if you have a Bloodletter bomb in your list which isn’t in a pure Khorne detachment, the value of Avalanche of Rotten Flesh goes way down because you *need* to assume you’ll keep your CP re-roll that phase available for the Bloodletters. And unless you can commit to keeping your CP re-roll available for the Great Unclean One, the likelihood of a successful charge isn’t high enough to bother deepstriking. It’s a subtle issue to worry about, but planning ahead to avoid having multiple units needing a specific stratagem at the same time is part of building a competitive, synergistic list. 

If the Great Unclean One is part of a threat saturation list where you have many Greater Daemons/Daemon Primarchs/Lord Discordants quickly running up the board together, which makes targeting the Great Unclean One a low priority, rolling is a perfectly fine choice. Living Plagues isn’t good enough to pick, but if you have access to the Nurgle psychic power Shrivelling Pox (debuffs a targeted unit with -1 Toughness) then it is a very solid reward because it ensures you get exploding hits with all weapons options versus T4, and exploding hits with any +1 Strength weapons options versus T5 (very important given the prevalence of Marine’s Gravis units and Custodes these days). If you’re running a list where the Great Unclean One will be one of the main targets for big guns–for example a pure Nurgle Daemon list where the Great Unclean One is your only Exalted Daemon–then you need to go with Revolting Resilience to improve your survivability. 

VERDICT: Roll randomly if you’re running a threat saturation list, pick Revolting Resilience all other times. 

Note: One sneaky little synergy is making the Great Unclean One your Warlord with the Revolting Resilience trait, a Bileblade in his loadout (which gives +1 to casting rolls in exchange for taking 1 Mortal Wound), and the Endless Gift relic (heal 1 Wound at the end of any phase in which the Great Unclean One took a wound).The Endless Gift relic means that any phase in which the Great Unclean One only took 1 Wound, he is guaranteed to take no Wounds. Revolving Resilience means that 75% of the time, if you use the Bileblade for both casts and take 2 Mortal Wounds, you’ll pass at least one feel no pain roll and take at most 1 Wound, which equals 0 Wounds taken at the end of that phase. Basically, you can always be casting at +1 to your psychic powers, making your Great Unclean One a mini Lord of Change. Just as planned! Speaking of Lords of Change…

Exalted Lords of Change

  1. Mastery of Magic The Lord of Change knows, and can cast, one additional spell each Psychic Phase (8/10)
  2. Spell-Thief: When the Lord of Change denies a psychic power, the caster loses that power and cannot attempt it again during the battle (9/10 in matchups where it’s good, 0/10 in matchups where its not)
  3. Lord of Flux: When a psychic power inflicts Mortal Wounds on an opposing unit, that unit suffers one additional Mortal Wound (8/10)
  4. Nexus of Fate: At the start of each turn, roll a die. On a 1 or a 6, you gain one command point (8/10)
  5. Aura of Mutability: The Lord of Change gains a 6+++ Feel No Pain. For each 6 successfully rolled on the Feel No Pain, the Lord of Change heals 1 Wound after the attacking unit finishes its attacks. (10/10) 
  6. Architect of Deception: Subtract 1 from Hit rolls made by Ranged attacks against your Lord of Change (7/10)

I’m going to skip straight to the point for this one: This is the best table in the game. Rolling on it, and getting two of these options, is incredible. But being able to stack Aura of Mutability with the Impossible Robe relic and Incorporeal Form trait is so gamebreakingly good, that it actually makes this a tough choice. 

Spell-Thief is going to be incredible in matchups where the opponent has some Psychic Powers they depend on, like Twilight Pathways or Gate Of Infinity or Jinx. Do note that Chaos Space Marines, Thousand Sons, and Death Guard have stratagems to give their Psykers a new power during the game, so Spell-Thief isn’t as impactful in those matchups as it appears. Despite being a really interesting mechanic, Spell-Thief is actually the worst Exalted reward in the the entire table because there are many matchups where you will get nearly no value out of this (it would be rather unfortunate to have picked Spell-Thief and then play Tau, Marines without a Librarian, and Custodes in a 3 game RTT). Spell-Thief is still a great reward, and saying it is the worst reward for a Lord of Change simply highlights how strong this table is overall. 

Mastery of Magic is boring but very effective. Lord of Flux can make your Lord of Change into a terrifying Mortal Wound bomb, and can be game-winning if you get off a successful Infernal Gateway. Nexus of Fate has an important role as the only in-game source of CP generation for Daemons. Architect of Fate is a great reward because Tzeentch Daemons don’t have any other ways to give -1 to Hit, unlike Thousand Sons. The only reason I didn’t rate Architect of Fate higher is that on many 9th edition tables, there is enough Dense Cover that it’s already possible to get -1 to Hit from most of your opponent’s ranged attacks. All four of these rewards are top notch, and would arguably be worthy of picking instead of rolling in any other Greater Daemon’s exalted rewards table. 

And now we get to Aura of Mutability, the strongest Exalted reward in the entire codex. In effect it’s a 5+++ Feel No Pain, since you heal an additional Wound every time you make a 6+++ Feel No Pain roll. Which can be stacked on a model that can have a 3++ invuln save with a relic and -1 to incoming damage with a warlord trait, which can be -1 to Hit from Dense Cover, and Toughness 8 from Boon of Change. A unit of Eradicators does an average of *0.9* Wounds to a Lord of Change with this set-up.

0.9 Wounds!

Even without Boon of Change and wounding on a 2+ if they’re Salamanders or Raven Guard, and with re-rolls if they’re a Master Artisans successor chapter, a unit of Eradicators does an average of 2.6 Wounds. The math is just absolutely bonkers. While other factions have to worry about all their big units becoming less viable because of deepstriking Eradicators, we get to laugh as we watch the best anti-large unit in the entire Space Marine codex completely bounce off of our greater daemon. A Lord of Change with Aura of Mutability is the ultimate board control piece, and can play an important role in every game you play. 

Verdict: Roll, hoping for one of the two rewards to be Aura of Mutability but being thrilled with every outcome. If you’re planning to stack the Impossible Robe and Incorporeal Form, then picking Aura of Mutability is the way to go.

Exalted Keeper of Secrets

  1. Realm Racer: Add 2” to the Movement characteristic, and 1” to Advance and Charge rolls (8/10) 
  2. Quicksilver Reflexes: This keeper has a 4++ invuln save (8/10) 
  3. Blessing of the Dark Prince: Subtract 1 from Wound rolls made by ranged weapons against the Keeper of Secrets (9/10) 
  4. Lightning Flayer: Unmodified Hit rolls of 6 made by melee weapons generate an additional hit (6/10)
  5. Fear-seeker: This model can make a move if an enemy unit fails a morale test, and the Keeper heals a wound every time a model flees from Morale test from a unit within 6” of the Keeper, it heals one wound (3/10, 6/10 if you have a list built towards Morale shenanigans)
  6. Battle Rapture: This model can perform a Heroic Intervention if there are any enemy units within 6″ of them instead of 3″, and when doing so can move up to 6″ instead of 3″. In addition, each time this Keeper of Secrets consolidates, it can move up to D3+3″ instead of 3″. (2/10) 

Quicksilver Reflexes and Blessings of the Dark Prince are both excellent survivability boosts, and along with Realm-Racer are the clear winners of the Keeper of Secrets rewards table. Keepers are already extremely good at killing whatever they end up in combat with, and anything that delivers them into combat more reliably solves their biggest issue. This is why Lightning Flayer isn’t nearly as strong a pick as it would first appear–a 20% increase to their average damage helps, but it doesn’t increase their damage enough to pass up ways to get them into combat in the first place. 

Realm-Racer is fantastic. Now that Keepers of Secrets were FAQ’d to have their movement at 14”, up from the misprint of 12” in Engine War, a Keeper of Secrets with Realm-Racer and access to the Slaanesh loci to advance and charge has an *average* threat range of 28.5”. If your opponent wants to stay out of the potential max threat range of your Keeper of Secrets, they have to be 36” away. The value of this cannot be overstated. It means that your Keeper of Secrets doesn’t even have to start on the line to be a reliable turn 1 charge threat, but you can even start it a few inches behind your deployment line if that’s needed to hide your Keeper of Secrets behind some Obscuring terrain. The same argument that +1 to charge makes deepstriking much more viable from the Great Unclean One’s section also applies here, with the difference that Keepers are already so quick that deepstriking them into position is much less necessary. 

Battle Rapture is a complete swing and a miss. If you could choose to consolidate/pile-in to any direction like the Custodes or Iron Hands traits then this would be interesting, but as it stands it just doesn’t provide nearly enough value on the tabletop against competent opponents. And Fear-Seeker would be more valuable in Chaos soup than in mono-faction Daemons. Chaos Space Marines have some really strong Leadership debuffs, and much more reliable long range shooting to trigger leadership tests. The biggest issue with Fear-Seeker is that it is nearly useless against Space Marines and Custodes. Their combination of high leadership, ways to mitigate Morale, and tendency to run MSU means that in the vast majority of games, you’ll go the entire game without any of their units failing a Leadership test unless you’ve specifically built a list to try to proc this, which is rarely worth the effort. 

Ultimately, the Keeper of Secrets’ rewards table has too much of a stratification between the top tier rewards (Quicksilver Reflexes, Blessings of the Dark Prince, and Realm Racer) and the complete duds (Battle Rapture, Fear-Seeker) to risk rolling. 

Verdict: Pick Blessings of the Dark Prince, Quicksilver Reflexes, or Realm-Racer

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