Way, way back in the day of 4th edition, a game could often be prematurely decided by who ended up going first. A brilliant set up designed to counter your opponent's every move crushed by the happenstance and the whim of a pair of hateful, miserable little plastic cubes. Going first in a game of Warhammer 40,000 meant a lot back then. You had the initiative. Your opening moves could set the tone for the rest of the game.
Back then, however, things were different. Unless a unit in your army specifically had the ability to be held in reserve, outflank, deep strike, or some other similar rule, it had to start on the table. Last edition, that was just about everything. Times have changed. With a new edition, new Codices with new choices and some changes to at least one Universal Special Rule, the dynamics of set up have been drastically altered for the better. With these additions and changes, the set-up phase becomes more complex, giving players significantly more options, more ability to plan and have just that much less dependence on solid dice rolls.
|This bit of genius was stolen from BoLS (Please don't tell them!)|
In the beginning, many players, especially casual players, neglected to hold units in reserves. The simple act of starting with nothing on the table can easily make a brilliant deployment meaningless for your opponent. But there is one deployment trick that I believe trumps them all, especially depending on the type of list you build. That trick is choosing to go second.
While not first thing that springs to mind when talking about brilliant deployment strategies, choosing second turn offers distinct advantages over taking first. It allows you to better react to your opponent. It allows you to better hold units in reserve, leaving fewer turns for them to get battered. The last point we'll discuss is that, with two out of three missions in 5th edition being objective based, taking second turn allows a lot of recklessness on what could be the last turn of the game, often claiming or contesting those important objectives.
After your opponent has chosen (or is made) to go first and after his undoubtedly brilliant set up is complete, you, going second, can simply say something along the lines of “Nah, I'll keep everything off the table.” This leaves your opponent free for a full two turns to make moves around the table. While this may seem disastrous, typically, it has the effect of leaving your opponent trying to cover all of his bases or claim objectives early. This is the best scenario, as now your opponent's forces are probably going to be spread more thinly than they were before turn 1. Take advantage of this! Cunning players may use their opponent's blunder to directly attack one flank while leaving the other too far away to help for most of the game. Cunning players will use this time to target enemy Heavy Support or other models that will be a pain in their side later in the game. Troops claiming objectives can be handled later by your heavy hitters, which are likely still around because your opponent hasn't had the chance to destroy them yet.
This leads us to our next point. Your opponent can't shoot at, assault or otherwise damage units that haven't arrived on the table. After years of playing 40k and most of that playing Imperial Guard, I've come to realize that many of the lists I play have about three tuns of solid fighting in them. This is my play style, and many of you are much the same, I'm sure. As such, I try to take full advantage of protecting my units and holding them off the table. With Imperial Guard, Dark Eldar and Grey Knights (likely Necrons as well, but I haven't yet read their codex), there are tricks you can pull to bring units on early or delay their arrival, carefully husbanding them until the time when they can be most effectively used (dependent, of course, on your reserve rolls).
Finally, we have what is probably the best reason for taking second turn: Last-second objective grabs. While it is true that the effectiveness of this tactic is heavily mitigated by games of Warhammer 40,000 having random turn lengths, it remains wholly valid as a method to secure victory or at the very least try to force a tie, with your opponent potentially unable to retaliate. Many a game has ended for me with either victory or defeat because of a last-turn grab or other more daring and significantly riskier move.
Obviously, there are downsides to choosing to go second. Warhammer 40,000 would not be a good game if a single strategy ensured victory one hundred percent of the time. Two of the biggest drawbacks of going second, especially coupled with holding units in reserve, is that your army can often “trickle” in, leaving that lone squad easy pickings for what your opponent has on the table. The second is making risky last-turn moves, only to have the game go on for another two turns.
And there you have it. I feel that choosing second turn has an extremely valid place in the tactical side of 40k, and I definitely feel that this can positively impact the choices a player takes when building a list, while adding another layer of depth and complexity to the game. Let's hope Games Workshop keeps this up and continues to make the game more about choices the player makes affecting the outcome of battle and less about rolling dice.