A guide to The Horus Heresy: Legions


I’ve been really enjoying this game since its Android beta. My ranking normally hovers around the 3000 mark and while I have a couple of 12-win event runs under my belt, I don’t claim to be an expert player – particularly in terms of deck optimisation. This guide is therefore aimed at people who are perhaps new to the game or turn-based collectible card games in general.

Basic theory
• While the aim of the game is to get your opponent down to zero life, the main way of doing so is to create a situation whereby you have more (and) better troops on the board, preferably with some means of avoiding the damage normally taken when attacking the enemy warlord.

• This is often achieved by gaining card advantage, through making favourable trades and using cards that allow you to draw more cards (including marks of chaos and mechadendrites). Because of the popularity of Sons of Horus decks (and now Iron Hands) with Warlords that can deal 2-3 damage for 2 energy, World Eater decks that have Warlords that attack either twice per turn (Khârn) or for 3 damage (Angron), and mass removal tactics that deal 3 or 1-4 damage, this means that troops with three or less health are likely to trade poorly.

• An important part of obtaining card advantage is to avoid telegraphing your intentions to your opponent. For example, it’s rarely a good idea to offensively buff a troop that has just been summoned and can't attack. Chances are that your opponent will respond by killing the troop before the buff had any chance to allow the troop to kill something or do damage.

• Because of this, the most powerful cards tend to be ones that have big effects on the turn they're played. Conversely, mechanics like poison, which resolve at the end of your opponent's turn (if you're doing the poisoning) aren't as strong as you might think.

• One of the most powerful situations, often referred to as win conditions, is when you have one or more fortified minions and either troops that add more cards to your hand or deal damage to all your opponent's troops. For this reason, think twice before playing a card like Jubac Starsight when you have no other troops in play. The best time to play such cards or incredibly strong cards with high attack ratings is often shortly after your opponent has used lots of removal as there’s less chance that they will be able to deal with them.

• Another important concept is that of tempo/initiative (I’m not referring to the in-game initiative mechanic here – I will use tempo exclusively to avoid confusion). Think of this as who is responding to whom. Often the turning point in a game comes when you have more threats on the board than your opponent can deal with. Achieving this is aided by card advantage (you can more easily put a lot of cards down or counter your opponent’s plays if you have lots of cards in hand), but it hinges on the exact nature of the cards and the extent of your opponent’s card removal abilities.  Another key factor is the cards you get/replace in your starting hand. In general, it’s best to replace those that are high cost (say 5+) or have a health stat of three when you’re playing against Abbadon or Gabriel.

• There are some cards or combinations of cards that are best countered with jamming effects. The Deathshroud with their backlash effect that puts them back into play if their controller has no other troops or massively buffed troops are good examples. Consider having one or more jamming cards in your deck because of this.

• Mass removal tactics (Endurance, Defense Satellites, No Survivors, Merciless, The Conqueror, Corrupted Battleship and The Fall of Gardinaal) can swing entire games on their own. In the early game, think twice before putting down loads of units on the turn(s) before your opponent has 5 (or 6 in the case of Death Guard) energy. Remember that in some cases, these are your best means of killing stealthed units or card-generating ones protected by front-line troops. In the case of Endurance, make sure you get the most out of its healing effect, by attacking with troops where appropriate before playing it. Pay attention to how many mass removal tactics your opponent has already played – if there’s a good chance that they’ve used all of them – then filling your board with troops makes sense.

• Expect a decent opponent to have a fair amount of single card removal tactics or troop abilities. Ideally, unless you’re playing as Khârn or Angron, you’ll want to force them to use these up in the early to mid-game on weaker targets, making it harder for them to counter your more expensive heavy-hitters. It’s therefore important to have a lot of reasonably priced cards that your opponent will want to remove from the board as soon as possible (Alpha-Theta II is a good example, as is Jubac Starsight).

• Warlords under normal circumstances can attack every turn – but should they? Attacking the enemy warlord when both have the same attack value should only be done if you think that you have a better chance of quickly burning down their health than they can yours (or to get them to the point where you can finish them off with a troop or tactic).

• Be alert for common misplays. These are typically caused when failing to consider the order in which you should play cards or playing cards while forgetting about a pre-existing condition that limits their effectiveness (playing a card like Zagrat squad when you already have a troop in place, etc.)

• Keep fine-tuning your decks. Consider after each game whether you drew the right ratio of low- and high-cost cards. Also consider the metagame – the decks and cards you frequently encounter.

• Never attempt to play event games on a poor connection or when you might be distracted or tired.

• While spending 10 event tickets at once is time-efficient, do your research beforehand and perhaps don’t bother until you have a good amount of experience with the event decks.

Faction overviews

One of the great things about Legions is that Legion has its own play-style, which closely matches its established background.

The Death Guard grind their enemies down, delighting in attritional warfare and the use of poison effects. One thing to bear in mind is that the slow play style associated with this legion means that games often take a long time (10-13 minutes is not unknown, especially against similar decks).

Nathaniel Garro: I haven’t played much with him, but I understand that as his ability can be used multiple times a turn, he can be formidable in the end-game.

Calas Typhon: I have little experience of Typhon other than as an opponent. In general it’s better to get to a point where you can burn his health down in a couple of turns rather than chipping away at it.

Durak Rask: The most aggressive of the four Death Guard warlords and my go-to warlord (even though I have Mortarion). Durak’s two abilities give him an impressive amount of removal and means that he counters powerful structures with ease. His “deal 4 damage to a damaged target” ability synergises well with cards that can reliably deal small amounts of damage (think Nisr’s Scouts and First Wave)

Mortarion: Good for countering a Khârn/Angron heavy meta. His Whispers of Chaos effect is very unlikely to go off and in many cases his stun ability is actually more handy in the late game. Be careful of falling into a trap of spending so much energy in the early game stunning things that you can’t keep up with an opponent trying to fill his board with multiple threats.

The World Eaters specialise in aggressive assaults aimed at burning down the enemy warlord's health quickly. They are relatively simple to play with. Core mechanics include Berserk (must attack each turn) and Rage (activates on taking damage). The sheer amount of damage that Khârn and Angron can personally dish out means that frontline troops (particularly ones with high attack and health ratings) are handy against them. World Eater decks have a great deal of access to mass removal tactics and effects. 

Ehrlen: While his ability seems strong, Ehrlen is massively overshadowed by Khârn and Angron.

Shabran Darr: An interesting and versatile warlord. While his ability is reasonably powerful, it also doesn’t synergise well with Gorechild  and Gorefather.
Khârn: One of the most interesting things about Khârn is the fact that in addition to him having Bloodlust, every time he attacks he randomly deals one point of damage to a unit on the board. Canny opponents will engineer situations where if Khârn attacks there’s a good chance that he will damage or potentially finish off one of his own units. A fair number of Khârn players seem to attack every turn without considering whether or not it is in their interest to do so. Khârn gets more benefit out of Gorefather and Gorechild than Angron because of his ability to attack twice. Both Khârn and Angron are vulnerable to warlords with stun abilities such as Mortarion and Calleb Decima. Such decks often play a waiting game, in which they start to accumulate troops on the board once their energy pool grows to the point where they can deploy them while still using their stun ability every turn.

Angron: Extremely powerful – Angron decks dominated before the recent nerf and are still regularly found around the 3000 rank mark. Like Khârn, his playstyle is all about burning down his opponent’s health, but Angron’s higher starting health gives him a bigger buffer to play with.

The Emperor's Children pride themselves on perfection in all things and in-game this manifests as the Perfection mechanic – many of their cards give powerful bonuses if their cost leaves the player with no remaining energy to spend. This means that towards the end game, as their energy pool grows and the number of cards in their hand drops, it becomes harder for a Emperor’s Children player to trigger perfection. One card looms large here: Pride of the Emperor (Costs 7 energy, deals 7 damage, if perfection is triggered, goes back to your hand, but costs one less and deals one less damage). Even in its nerfed state, it means that there’s a good chance that you’ll lose against an Emperor’s Children player if you’re both on low health, almost regardless of the troops on the board.

Saul Tarvitz: Despite being cheap and having only 30 health, Saul is extremely powerful as his ability gives you a lot of pace in the early game and makes it significantly easier to activate perfection abilities.

Fabius Bile: I have little experience playing with or against Fabius. I think the cost of his ability coupled with the need to play it on troops makes it hard for people to get the best use out of it.

Lucius: A bit of an odd-ball. Absolutely fantastic against cards such as First Wave and his ability allows for good control when it comes to getting off Perfection (though without Saul’s tempo benefits). If he can make it to the late game with a decent amount of health, his ability to turn a pool of 10 energy into an attack of 7 is horrendous, especially with a Pride of the Emperor in hand to back it up the following turn. Fights against Primarchs with their high health can be tough, nail-biting affairs.

Fulgrim: While he may not have Saul Tarvitz’s utility, Fulgrim’s combination of high health, card advantage and a Whispers of Chaos card that’s easy to play in the late game (and allows him to steal health while doing significant damage) makes him a formidable opponent. Starting with 40 life means that if someone playing him gets Pride of the Emperor easy, it can be very difficult to build up your board to the point where you can kill him before he kills you.

The Sons of Horus tend to focus on speartip strikes that decapitate their foes command structures. While the Sons of Horus have no unique mechanics, they do have a large number of direct damage and card drawing effects, together with lots of drop-pod infantry.  Seduction of Chaos, a 10 cost tactic that gives them permanent control of an enemy troop can turn seemingly inevitable defeat into victory and is one of the few counters to a Death Guard opponent once they’ve put the Deathshroud in play.

Ezekyle Abaddon: Abaddon’s ability to deal three damage to any troop for 2 energy, makes him an incredibly strong foundation for a control deck. If you’re fighting him and your warlord has some means of stunning him (Mortarion or Calleb Decima), you may find that waiting until you have enough energy to stun him every turn and put troops down is the best approach provided you have enough mass removal and control/survivability of your own. It’s worth noting that the value of many cards that are staples in an Abaddon control deck are low value and the sheer amount of card draw involved can mean that it’s possible for this deck to run out of cards.

Garviel Loken: A slightly more versatile (but I’d argue less powerful) version of Abbadon.

Horus Lupercal: Can deck himself in late games – his ability would be much more powerful (and easier to manage) if he wasn’t drawing from the Sons of Horus card pool which has loads of card draw by default. His Whispers of Chaos ability is strong and its stun effect allows him to dominate some match-ups like in the late game against Fulgrim.

Loyalist legions
The Iron Hands are famed for their methodical approach to war, their love of metal over flesh and their hatred of weakness. Their signature mechanic is Relentless (do something at the start of the turn) and typical effects include buffing other troops or dealing damage. The former combined with several troops that can deal damage at the cost of energy, means that when facing the Iron Hands  your deck’s removal capabilities will get pushed to the limit – requiring careful prioritisation and sometimes opting for clumsy or suboptimal removal techniques/trades early on in the hope of having enough left over for their big guns.

When playing them a powerful option is to go vehicle/flank heavy – using cards like Captured Forge and Head of the Gorgon, to good effect.

Shadrak Meduson: I have little experience with him – mainly as Gabriel seems the stronger choice. While his ability seems powerful, it requires a troop to be in play and the amount of control and mass removal that flies around in a typical game can mean there’s lots of turns where you might not have one.

Gabriel Santar: His ability is similar to Abaddon’s so he is a good choice for control decks. It’s worth noting that his ability’s effectiveness tails off in the late game (particularly against opponents who have a fair chunk of expensive vehicles in their decks).

Ferrus Manus: Not as powerful as Gabriel in my opinion. His +1/+2 ability does allow him to get more out of critical cards and can allow him to keep troops alive long enough for their relentless abilities to snowball. It’s worth noting that his Reckoning ability (the loyalist equivalent of Whispers of Chaos) gives him +1 attack per turn (cumulative) and berserk and its cost drops as friendly Iron Hands troops die. Against powerful troops with frontline, this can be a liability.

The Salamanders (the XVIIIth Legion) are master-craftsmen. Hailing from the volcanic and high gravity world of Nocturne, their skin is pitch-black and their eyes are like red coals. They favour flame and melta weapons. In-game, many of their troops and warlords have the survivor X mechanic (upon taking lethal damage, heal back to X health – ignored by the destroy troop mechanic/poison) and their signature mechanic is sacrifice (trigger an effect on dying when attacking). The latter combined with Hope (a tactic that gives your troops sacrifice: draw a card) and Resilience (a tactic that gives your troops sacrifice: return to your hand), makes it possible to keep triggering other sacrifice effects (they stack) without giving your opponent huge card advantage.

It’s worth noting that both survivor and sacrifice in large quantities make it quite difficult to read the state of game easily, so it’s possible to make misplays if you don’t pay attention. Also, games against Salamanders can take much longer than normal (especially when playing mirror matches or versus the Death Guard), partly due to the extra thinking time required. As of writing, the Salamander have only just been made available, so my experience with them is fairly low.

Artellus Numeon: I’m not sold on this chap, due to the ease at which it’s possible to give survivor to Salamander cards through tactics and other abilities and the fact that his ability (give survivor 1 to a friendly infantry or Astartes) can’t be used on vehicles or structures.

Cassian Vaughn, First Lord Commander: Much better than Artellus. His ability (2 energy: deal 1 damage to all enemies) sounds powerful.

Vulkan: His ability gives you one from a pool of tactics that give bonuses to your salamanders (including Hope), making him very powerful. In addition, his Reckoning ability (costs 1 if his Survivor ability has been triggered), gives him +1 attack rating and Survivor 6, goes back to your hand). This means that a good strategy when playing him is to attack when on 1-2 health (with survivor not used), and then cast the tactic). It also means that as an opponent there is no point attacking him when he’s on low health unless you can cause enough damage to kill him (taking his Survivor ability into account).

In addition to the legions, there are three neutral factions that can be included: Chaos, Imperial, and Mechanicum

Chaos cards heavily revolve around the marks of chaos mechanic and include daemon units which have maintenance costs, which work by reducing their controllers' energy pools. For example, if your pool would normally be 10 and you have a Maintenance 2 troop in play, your pool would be 8 energy at the start of your turn. Notable cards include Embers of Isstvan III (great for buffing your units), Ti’lath’s Changers (incredible damage output in a mid-range deck that leverages mark of chaos/mechadendrite card creation), Defense Satellites (accessible mass removal), Ti’Lath (generates a random tactic at the end of every turn and Pax Chaotica (puts three lesser daemons into play at the cost of all your troops on the board – still playable when you have none. Fantastic for last ditch defence or an unexpected kill as Daemonettes of Slaanesh have fast and can deal five damage).

Imperial Cards don’t have much in the way of unique mechanics, but they do have a good number of frontline units. While Imperial cards are quite generic, some of them are the most powerful in the game and deserve a home in most lists (Goldstone’s Hunters, Jubac Starsight, Duke Mortecher, Mortar Strike, Helios Mortar Carrier, and possibly Ornatov’s Barge – though the random nature of the latter, makes mostly good for drawing out a mass removal tactic or as a last ditch defence).

Colonel Ornatov: With an ability that confers frontline and an ability to generate a random Imperial troop card in hand when he has none in play, Ornatov is a surprisingly strong opponent especially when he can accumulate a good wall of frontline troops that protect some card drawing troops like Jubac Starsight.

The Mechanicum worship the Omnissah, aka the Machine God and prefer to replace their flesh with bionics when possible. They hold the bulk of technological lore and are responsible for the majority of highly advanced weaponry.  Many Mechanicum cards have special abilities that require energy. The most useful of these are often jam effects. Mechanicum cards’ only unique mechanic are mechadendrites – a range of buff cards that can be created using cards such as Alpha-Theta II and Xi-Ny 73. When created, a mechandendrite card will be one of the following: Utility Mechandrite (confers shield), Chaos Mechadendrite (confer a mark of chaos), Offensive mechadendrite (confers Bloodlust), Combat Mechadendrite (+3 to attack). The latter two used in combination with a fast and unstoppable unit such as Goldstone’s Hunters is a great way to quickly kill an already weakened opponent.

Kelbor-Hal: Good if you want more mechadendrites than the Omnissah. His energy on friendly troop mechanic is fairly difficult to employ/easy to forget.

Calleb Decima: Calleb is strong against many of the nastiest warlords simply because he can keep them stunlocked (while chipping away at their health). The way he can gain energy while casting mechanicum troops helps to address the tempo loss from using his ability.
(good against Khârn/Angron/Fulgrim/Horus).

I hope you've found this guide useful and please let me know if there's anything you'd like me to add.