The Dark Fortress

Deathwing Squads
How to set them up for maximum potency

5th Edition

Note: This tactica is now old and needs an update. Many facts will not be correct for current game. However the general gist is pitched right.

If anything is likely to cause debate it's the best method of building a Deathwing squad. Despite the lack of options it can actually be quite complex. But like many things 40K, success is built around alloting tasks and equipping units appropriately.

With any Unforgiven terminator unit we must use the special rules for Deathwing squads from Codex Dark Angels. This might seem an odd thing to say but because we are so used to our Codex it's often the case we can become blasé about our own uniqueness.

So What makes them Deathwing?

The Deathwing have a series of special characteristics that we really must take advantage of or else we might as well be fielding Codex Space Marine Terminator units at a cheaper cost. So let's remind ourselves that Deathwing Terminator squads:

  • Are Fearless
  • Can mix assault and ballistic weapons within a squad
  • Can deploy by Deathwing Assault
  • Can take an Apothecary upgrade (if Belial is present)
  • Can take a Standard Bearer upgrade (if Belial is present)
  • Can only have 5 models
  • Can only take one heavy/assault weapon upgrade.
  • Can be taken as a Troops choice (if Belial is present).

A basic philosophy to remember

For most 1500 point games Deathwing squads should be equipped to enable them to have an effect in every phase of the game turn. The units are expensive, it makes little sense to me that they should ever be unemployed or underemployed at any stage of a game.

That being said, most people do see them as being a primarily assault-orientated unit and certainly Deathwing squads can mix in the excellent dual lightning claws and thunder hammer and storm shield, giving them a much keener close combat edge. It's true that when facing terminator squads (of any Imperial Chapter or Chaos Legion) it's their close combat weapons that are generally feared the most quite rightly and there are a lot of 'hammernator' units around to prove it. But let's also remember that every basic Terminator comes with a good Str4 AP5 weapon that can fire twice and move.

Whenever I see terminator squads used they are invariably loaded into a Crusader with a Chaplain and let loose. There isn't much finesse required in that tactic. They become a blunt instrument to bludgeon anything in their path and they are very good at it.

But I'm a great believer in multi-tasking Deathwing squads as this is what in my opinion how Deathwing squads were designed to be. So for instance I would only equip a Deathwing squad purely as an assault unit in games 2000 points and over where a certain amount of specialisation can be tolerated, plus reliable means of getting it into action fast, a Land Raider Crusader, can be afforded. Even then, the squad has a heavy weapon too.

Wound allocation

You must constantly balance beating the enemy with your unit(s) own survival. You need to think about how these small DW squads are divided into model sets for wound allocation mechanics, as well as maximising you own effectiveness. We will look at this in a bit more detail as we go through. There are no hard and fast rules for which models you load any wrap over wounds onto as it depends on what stage of the game you are in. Of course any squads wound allocation can be enhanced by attaching an IC (or two). These guys not only have more wounds but in the case of the Librarian (Force Barrier) and Interrogator-Chaplain (Rosarius) enhanced save options too.

I realised that I have skipped this issue a bit. The intention is to cover it in more detail in a separate article.

OK let's get down to some builds.

Deathwing squads

As I see it there are really just three different types of setup, with variations in weaponry to colour the gaps between these basic three.

The standard utility Deathwing squad

Get it into your head that a Deathwing squad costs 250 points:

Standard utility squad
Sergeant w/ power weapon and storm bolter
1 x assault cannon and power fist
1 x twin lightning claws
1 x storm bolter and chainfist
1 x storm bolter and power fist.

This gives great rounded application with good medium range firepower, and a useful 7 initiative attacks using the power sword and claws on the charge. With the new wound allocation rules from 5th Edition a squad like this has five individual model types to spread any wounds across. This gives a good chance of wounds running out before they get to the assault cannon model, or if not, then trying to minimise the wounds that that model is allocated.

Many people replace the Sergeant's standard weapons with a pair of claws. In my view that is a mistake as stated above there is nothing wrong with a power swords initiative attack.

Another option for the sarge is replacing his power weapon with a chainfist. Again given that you can put a chainfist on any other termy model, this seems a bit of a waste of a perfectly good power weapon.

This type of build must be regarded as 'standard' for squads either when within a Deathwing army or as a standalone single squad serving within a argely power-armoured Unforgiven army.

For wound allocation and model removal, I would be looking at removing the Sergeant first (after any close combat of course), followed by the storm bolter/power fist model second. Removal order thereon in will depend on whether you see this squad in close combat again. If you do then keep the twin lightning claws model, if you don't then remove it to leave the power fist and chainfist models. Ideally what you want to be left with is the two upgrade models: the chainfist and the assault cannon, with the assault cannon model being the last to be removed in most cases. As said if more or protracted close combat is likely, then the last models left should be the twin claws and assault cannon, unless facing Monstrous creatures or assaulting armour whereby eave the chainfist and assault cannon models until last.

Just a quick note on the chainfist upgrade model. Again this looks like a good option to put onto the assault cannon as it's nice to have this 2D6 pen option kicking around for as long as possible.

This isn't the way I do this myself (because all my modles are now made and I'm not swapping around arms again), here's one way to ensure you leave the best armed model on the table until last:

Optimised standard utility squad
Sergeant w/ power weapon and storm bolter
1 x assault cannon and chainfist
1 x twin lightning claws
2 x storm bolter and power fist.

For wound allocation purposes this gives you four sets of models. Enough of a range to keep wounds spread around I reckon. If any of your precious Deathwing can be considered ablative wounds then the Sergeant and the two standard Terminators give you three straight off.

OK that's covered off the bread and butter option, now a few more specialised squads.

Belial's 'Command' squad

This squad is the one to which Belial is attached. Of course it's not a true 'Command' squad because the DW can't get them in our current Codex — but the terminology makes the squads tactical role familiar.

It matters little whether you footslog or teleport this squad (transported squads are considered further on) as the basic premise for them is always to maximise Belial's higher initiative when in close combat and to take advantage of his useful upgrade abilities. For that reason consider the Apothecary as mandatory and the best points you can spend in a Deathwing 'Command' squad.

Belial w/ twin lightning claws
Belial's 'Command' squad
Sergeant w/ thunder hammer and storm shield
1 x assault cannon and power fist
1 x storm bolter and power fist (Apothecary)
1 x storm bolter and chainfist
1 x twin lightning claws
280 points

With this squad I have replaced the Sergeants power sword and storm bolter with a thunder hammer and storm shield. Why? Well it's a useful combo for tackling high toughness or multi-wound models. The thunder hammer stuns the model, Belial mops up with his twin claws (his ideal weapons load out) in the next round of cc, if both survive that is.

With Belial attached this unit has a useful 9 Initiative claw attacks on the charge all rerollable on failed wounds, plus the combined 12 fist/hammer and chainfist follow ups. At the same time retains good shooty ability too. Fairly balanced in other words.

The Apothecary upgrade has been put on a storm bolter/power fist model purely for ease of modeling him. But, consideration should be given to use the assault cannon model for this instead giving your best weapon in the squad the chance to save himself even when reduced to a squad of, well, just him. When thus optimised we get this:

Optimised Belial's 'Command' squad
Sarge w/ thunder hammer and storm shield
1 x assault cannon and power fist (Apothecary)
1 x storm bolter and chainfist
1 x storm bolter and power fist
1 x twin lightning claws
280 points

Another option would be to put the chainfist on the Apothecary / assault cannon model too.

The Crusader-based Deathwing 'assault' squad

I said at the outset that this can be deadly given ideal circumstances. Personally I keep clear of taking them in 1500 games but I have seen players with two of these squads and two Crusaders, Dreadnought backup and Belial, chew through Guard, Tau and Space Marines alike. If tactics are right it can be done.

Crusader-based 'assault' squad
Sarge w/ twin lightning claws
2 x twin lightning claws
1 x thunder hammer and storm shield (Standard Bearer)
1 x assault cannon and power fist (or heavy flamer)
245 or 270 points

This unit is best used with an Interrogator-Chaplain yet even without him, on the charge with the DW Company standard you will get 15 initiative attacks that thanks to the lightning claws rules are all re-rollable on fails to wound and ignore armour saves; plus the 8 striking last fist and hammer attacks. With the Chaplain's Litanies things get even better with all being re-rollable to hit too not to mention the character wading in with his additional attacks. All this comes after the target unit has been assault-cannoned or heavy-flamered and hammered by the Crusader. Three models with twin claws ensures a good force-multiplier on the bonus attacks these confer being paired special weapons. As with anything Deathwing always work to your strengths.

The assault cannon is in there because it is simply the best weapon in the Deathwing's armoury. A heavy flamer is also a very good option for a transported squad providing it can get close enough of their intended victim to use. It's also cheaper too. Firepower is not the issue here however – brute power is – but always take one of these weapons in this type of squad.

You will notice that I have upgraded the th/ss model to carry the Deathwing Standard. The reason for this is twofold: first – it's an easy conversion to change the hand holding the thunder hammer into one holding the banner pole. Second – the storm shield confers a useful 4+ invulnerable save in close combat. Hopefully this (admittedly slightly) improved invulnerable save will help to keep him going when in tight spot.

It should also be noted that there is no reason not to give this squad an Apothecary either if points allow. It's not a priority in this type of squad though remembering that the narthecium can't be used if the Apoth is locked in combat which is where you want this squad to be a majority of the time.

As for the all important wound allocation mechanics this assault squad has only 3 sets of models as in gaming terms the Sergeant with twin claws is the same as a normal DW termy with twin claws. Not the most efficient spread but the thunder hammer is a useful model to load the wounds onto if needs be.

The Librarian's Deathwing squad

You might be wondering why I haven't yet mentioned the DW Librarian. As he's best considered as another general purpose IC being even less cc-geared than Belial with claws, he's best paired with a utility squad. The Libby needs protecting – his psychic offensive capability is used in the shooting phase you don't want him continually lock in cc, more so you don't want to risk that psychic hood in an uneeded assault where he can be picked off.

The Librarian's squad
Sergeant w/ power weapon and storm bolter
1 x assault cannon and power fist
1 x twin lightning claws
1 x storm bolter and chainfist
1 x storm bolter and power fist
250 points

You can tinker with the placing of the chainfist – possibly the assault cannon model is prime contender. Another fun option is putting a heavy flamer in this squad, combined with the Librarian's Hellfire that's two template weapons to let loose.

The ranged fire support Deathwing squad

Actually there isn't such a thing, but it's an excuse to use a cyclone missile launcher (ideally your opponent will let you use the C:SMs better rules – ask nicely).

The ranged fire support squad
Sergeant w/ power weapon and storm bolter
1 x cyclone, storm bolter and power fist
1 x storm bolter (optional chainfist here)
2 x storm bolter and power fist
235 or 240 points

This gives great shooty application with good medium to long range firepower, but, unlike the utility squad apart from the sarge their are no totally close-combat loadouts. There are four model sets to spread the wounds onto for wound allocation puposes.

I have a problem with this squad to be honest. It just isn't as good as it was in 4th Edition. Theoretically deploying them on the table from the off for speculative long range armour killing seems the best option. But the proliferation of both cover saves and true line of sight means long range weapons have lost their edge. And using the Dark Angels cyclone rules it's even grimmer.

So the option is to deepstrike this unit with the intention of hitting enemy rear armour. Again a workable tactic but doesn't alter the fact you're relying on a one-shot cyclone to do the job when needed.

The addition of a lightning claw model would bring them up into the utility squad bracket but without the four shots of the assault cannon. A popular modelling route is to put the twin claws onto the cyclone guy.

A unit thus armed can be used to guard a home objective as well as having the range to shoot along your deployment zone to hit any enemy outflanking units. It's a nice idea, but really there's nothing that a dreadnought or two couldn't do more effectively. Use this cyclone squad only if other bases have already been covered.

Now with the two-shot C:SM cyclone it becomes more viable. The two blast templates are great used in conjunction with the storm bolters at mid range. The kraks generally need to fire at armour targets so get used at over 24" (so as not to waste storm bolter shots) and hence still suffer the consequences of poor line of sight and cover saves.


Squad set up is relatively easy once you've worked out what role you want the squad to perform. Overall utility squads should be your aim as they of fine tuning weapon load outs to maximise special rules and wound allocation plus any conferred abilities from attached Independent Characters.

I might have harped on a bit about balance etc but for me it has been crucial in order not to get left with the 'wrong type' of DW squad in the wrong place. The counter-argument to this being that a utility squad while covering most eventualities doesn't really excel at anything. That is too harsh a criticism and I don't buy it – multitasking is the very heart of our DW squads' existance.

Hope you enjoyed this brief examination. As with all these tacticas, they are totally fluid and will be revisited where required.


Wayland Games
Element Games affiliate advert
Contact us to advertise
Contact us to advertise