On the whole, we who follow the Ruinous Powers have enjoyed an excellent few years. In many ways the story of Chaos-loving 40k fans and the story of Chaos in the 41st millennium can be seen to mirror each other, surely a case of the warp twisting reality and reflecting it back at us! For many years we were isolated in the wilderness, forgotten by the Imperium that had birthed us, reduced to sticking spikes on to loyalist marines by way of generating new recruits and brooding on our bitterness. The glory days of the Heresy (that would be Realm of Chaos and Codex 3.5 then!) lay far behind us and, despite the occasional Black Crusade to enliven things (2012 was a good year) we were undoubtedly surviving rather than thriving. Then, after an eternity in exile, our luck finally changed. The Cadian Gate fell, the little green army men tasked with defending it receiving at long last the kicking they so richly deserved, the Cicatrix Maledictum split the galaxy in two and we were back in action! Since 2016 we’ve seen the appearance of the Thousand Son, Death Guard, Chaos Space Marines, Chaos Knights, Gellerpox Mutants, a growing army of traitor guard thanks to Blackstone Fortress and choirs of daemons for all four of the gods. Assuming that western civilisation doesn’t collapse in the meantime (hardly a safe bet these days) it seems sensible to assume that the World Eaters and Emperor’s Children will come bellowing and screaming out of the warp sooner or later, probably within the next couple of years. It’s a good time to be bad! Even if the worst happens and the dubious leadership of our political masters leaves the planet as a wasteland us Chaos fans will at least find a comforting familiarity to life as mutant tech-barbarians whilst the oldhammer fans amongst us will survive the fallout in style, comfortably ensconced behind a wall of lead.
Despite the fact that Games Workshop haven’t dropped so much as a single hint to this effect (and it’s worth noting that traditionally they don’t) few fans feel any real doubt that the Khornate and Slaaneshi legions are on their way. After all, the idea that GW might abandon the Chaos project unfinished seems desperately unlikely. What about the Thousand Sons though? Surely they are a finished entity, done and dusted for the foreseeable future? Allow me to argue otherwise.
When the Thousand Sons were released at the tail end of 2016 for many Chaos fans it was a revelation. Writing about it now it’s easy to sound hyperbolic, after all these are still just toy soldiers we’re talking about right? Nonetheless for fans of the legions this changed everything. Suddenly Chaos went from just two fractions (Chaos Space Marines and Chaos Daemons) to potentially dozens – something GW hasn’t failed to capitalise on since. I think we’d all hoped to see a plastic kit for Rubrics someday but Scarab Occult Terminators had always floated close to being a pipedream for me, and seeing things like tzaangors or a living primarch fell well out with even my most enthusiastic daydreams.
In days of yore the range of models available to any given chaos legion were all drawn from a single codex (Codex: Chaos Space Marines to be precise). There were a few upgrade packs and/or metal bits for cult troops (these being the plague marines, rubrics and noise marines), plus the distinctly elderly looking berserkers and a small group of special characters, but in the main the way to distinguish one legion from another came down to the colours in which they were painted. With the release of the Chaos Space Marines and Death Guard codexes we’ve seen a widening of the gap between Nurgle affiliated Chaos Space Marines like the Purge and the true Death Guard legion of old. There are commonalities but each is a distinct entity – allowing one, if you so wished, to create two very different collections of models. The same however really isn’t true of the Thousand Sons.
For one thing I think it’s worth noting that whilst there are many similarities between the Death Guard and the Purge, or the Emperor’s Children and the Flawless Host, the Thousand Sons and any given Tzeentchian warband are worlds apart. If anything of the Thousand Sons deserve more uniqueness not less. Despite this the Thousand Sons find themselves leaving much more heavily on Chaos Space Marine units than the Death Guard. The former share 15 units with the chaos space marines, with 8 units unique to them, whilst the proportions for the latter are 13 each (by my count – and my figures may be wrong, I’m no plaguebearer).
Those differences serve to really define the Death Guard as more than just Nurgly Chaos Marines, allowing them a radically different aesthetic and range of units available to them. Of course we cannot know the future but it is to be hoped that the Emperor’s Children and World Eaters, assuming they do appear, will follow a similar format. Where once some models would be painted green for Nurgle and others pink for Slaanesh, now the potential interest and depth in the Chaos range at last begins to be tapped.
However by sharing so much common ground with the Chaos Space Marines the Thousand Sons feel to me to be a lot less unique than their Death Guard cousins. Despite having their own troops, even their own terminators (albeit only the one type compared to the Death Guard’s two) by falling back on the same vehicles and other kits as the Chaos Space Marines that uniqueness is diluted. A heldrake for example shares a lot of aesthetic ties with the wider Chaos Space Marines range that makes it fit in perfectly alongside them but no amount of a blue and yellow paint will make it look like anything more than an outsider amongst the Thousand Sons. I must confess to cursing when the heldrake was removed from the Death Guard range but time has proved the wisdom of that decision (for me at least). Heldrakes based on zombie dragons swooping above maulerfeinds kitbashed from maggoths, whilst warpsmiths surrounded by semi-organic mechadendrites bursting from there cancerous armour and bloated plague bikers roaring alongside – it’s a wonderful and entirely attainable image for an army and yet a very different entity to the Legion commanded by Mortarion.
Crucially despite these differences a Nurgly chaos space marine remains similar aesthetically to a member of the Death Guard. Both start out as fairly standard looking space marines upon which are layered the unpleasant attentions of Nurgle. The same however cannot be said of the Thousand Sons and their peers amongst the Tzeentchian chaos space marines. Magnus’ legion already looked unique at the time of the Horus Heresy. With their ornate armour and tall crests they deviated far further from the marine aesthetic blueprint than even the most radical of their cousins. Since then they’ve been essentially trapped in amber – spared the mutation which blights their fellow traitors by Ahriman’s rubric which turned them to dust within their armour. A later-day space marine breaking his vows to the Imperium and swearing his soul to Tzeentch would be unlikely to choose to cosplay ancient Tizcan ceremonial dress as he hurries to make his escape into the Great Eye. Likewise mutation will be rife, Tzeentch being rather keen on gifting his followers with a constantly changing array of mad appendages, something the modern Tzeentchian needs to learn to cope with without the dubious benefits of Ahriman turning him into a mindless automaton.
Perhaps the most striking example of the aesthetic divergence between the Thousand Sons and the Chaos Space Marines is the helbrute. These fleshy giants are to the traitor legions what dreadnoughts are to the loyalists, huge and powerful walkers piloted by mortally wounded space marines. Rather than see a great hero of the Imperium die he is placed within one of these engines to battle on – yet whilst for a loyalist space marine there are few higher honours, for the traitors incarceration within a helbrute is a terrible punishment and curse, and the result is a lifetime of torture.
Featuring as much bulging mutated flesh as it does metal the helbrute fits in well with chaos marines of all stripes, with the exception of the Thousand Sons. Here its meaty, bloated form seems out of place – although it would fit in well with other Tzeentchian marines. The developers acknowledge this contradiction and attempt to explain it away with a little success.
In the early days following the Heresy the Thousand Sons were wracked by mutation as Tzeentch showered his gifts upon them. Rather than see the whole legion degenerate into idiot spawn Ahriman cast his infamous rubric and the majority of the Legion were saved from mutation – instead ending up as perambulatory suits of armour, containing nothing more than weak psychic ghosts and the dust of their former occupants. By the time this happened however many of the legion’s dreadnoughts had already mutated out of control turning into the first helbrutes. Recognising their utility in battle some sorcerers decided to try making more of them. Finding themselves mysteriously short on applicants from within their own legion the Thousand Sons set up the internship program from hell, inviting wannabe sorcerers to join them to enjoy a full training program. Rather than the 41st millennium Hogwarts they had been promised the unlucky aspirants find themselves bundled kicking and screaming into a helbrute’s central coffin. Why such an elaborate scheme is considered necessary when any injured space marine would do, and how word has failed to spread amongst the cut-throat warriors of the chaos legions that unexpectedly generous offers by the Thousand Sons might not be entirely trustworthy, is glossed over.
Personally I love the helbrute model but, despite this explanation, I find myself sceptical and I just don’t think it fits in all that well amongst the Thousand Sons. I’d rather convert a loyalist dreadnought to represent a member of the old Legion turned to dust inside his sarcophagus. However what I’d really love to see someday is something akin to the Blood Angel’s Librarian Dreadnaught, a psyker dreadnought by which a sorcerer might continue to work his schemes in a mechanical afterlife. After all, whilst the other Chaos forces must make do with helbrutes, a legion devoted to hunting out secret knowledge should be more than capable of getting a dreadnought up and running satisfactorily, allowing a powerful psyker to stamp his way across the galaxy in style.
I’m sure the presence of gaps within the Thousand Sons range, particularly as opposed to the Death Guard, won’t come as news to Games Workshop. In an effort to flesh things out they delved into their other ranges in search of kits which might find a suitable home amongst the sons of Magnus. Alongside a range of daemons (mirroring the approach taken with the other chaos forces and harking back to my early days as a collector when daemons and mortals fought side by side) they also borrowed two tzaangor units to swell the ranks of the beastmen. The tzaangor shaman is an excellent model and fits in perfectly here, whilst the Tzaangor Enlightened may risk looking like fantasy escapees when armed with bows but fit in much better when given chainswords and pistols.
Lastly we have the hulking Mutalith Vortex Beast. It’s a bit of an odd model, a giant beast with a mass of tentacles for a face and a huge magical star mounted on its back. The kit can also be used to build a Slaughterbrute, a model I’ll confess I find impossible to like. The Mutalith Vortex Beast is better but still flawed. Perhaps if I saw it in the flesh it would help me make up my mind but I can’t recall ever encountering one and so I remain on the fence regarding it’s questionable aesthetic charms. Even at my most charitable however it’s hard to see it as anything other than an ugly old model shoehorned into an army it wasn’t originally intended for. Giving its unappealing appearance and meaty price tag, it’s easy to assume it didn’t sell as well as they hoped and that shoving it into the Thousand Sons range is a desperate attempt to boost its sales. In my opinion the Thousand Sons deserve better.
Indeed I’d go further than that. Chaos deserves better; the legions should be explored in full, with the Death Guard and Chaos Space Marines ranges as the model for the depth and quality to which they are treated. The fans deserve better; whether they love Chaos or simply want to see a fully realised adversary against which to pit themselves (and indeed see their own faction given the same care and attention). Games Workshop deserve better; to hold their heads high and say “This is what we do, and we do it well, and even if something seems a bit niche or strange we have the talent to pull it off”.
And yes, I’m aware that these things take time, the resources are finite, that not every faction can be given their full attention all the time. Rome was not built in a day. GW however are fond of advertising “aspirational armies” at me all day so I shall respond by describing aspirational product!
Part of the reason for the Thousand Sons being on my mind is that my birthday is coming up soon (aye, happy birthday me!). Last year my partner gave me Magnus the Red and so far I’ve only got as far as assembling him before my trepidation for tackling large miniatures, combined with my determination to clear my desk of half-finished projects, caused me to stall. I did promise myself that I’d tackle him as soon as the Chaos Knight is done, and yes – I’m aware that I owe you all a progress report on that too! In the meantime I’ve made a pretence of progress by thinking about the Thousand Sons a lot instead.
Tzeentch has always been a tricky god for GW to tackle. Khorne and Nurgle are relatively straightforward – if in doubt a roaring chainaxe or some exposed guts will go a long way. Slaanesh was harder, a heady mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll, which has both attracted and repulsed the company over the years. Tzeentch however the most problematic of all, combining magic with mutation – neither of them easy to achieve. Mutation may be a hallmark of Chaos but it’s a double-edged sword. Played right and the result is fantastic and creative models, played wrong and you end up with the Chaos Forsaken from old Warhammer, an ill-defined mess.
Meanwhile magical effects are a clear case of less being more, and even with the undoubted talent of the GW design team and the advances in modern model making its hard to render sheets of living lighting or warp-flame in plastic. The Tzeentchian daemons range captures this neatly; some are good (the Lord of Change, blue horrors and heralds), some are bad (the less said about the pink horrors the better) and some are just plain weird (even after many years of careful study I can’t honestly tell you if I like the flamers or not…). Given these challenges you can hardly blame them for concentrating on the ever popular Khorne and Nurgle.
Returning to the Thousand Sons, GW showed remarkable restraint in not throwing magical fireworks everywhere, whilst the Rubric of Ahriman saved them from the thorny mutation issue. However the Rubric also creates an issue in that it serves to limit the range of roles available to be explored with future models. Regardless of what you did before the Rubric, afterwards you were either turned to dust or psychically powerful enough to survive. If you fell into the latter camp then a career as a sorcerer was yours for the taking, with all the power that brought. If you were amongst the former then you didn’t get much say in the matter anymore. What’s more the traditional specialist ranks become essentially redundant, with no-one having much call for apothecaries, tech-marines and so-on when magic can fix anything. New specialist sorcerers would have a certain merit, perhaps based on the cabals and disciplines of ancient Prospero which take a prominent role in the Horus Heresy novels. However the further the sorcerers are explored the more top heavy the legion risks becoming, with loads of HQ’s and not a lot else.
More troops would be nice but it’s hard to picture rubrics doing anything fancy and although in theory I’m sure you could have rubric assault marines (if the controlling sorcerer gave the appropriate psychic nudge) it doesn’t really fit with my mental image of the army to see them hurtling through the skies. Plus the Thousand Sons, sadly, exist in a scale of their own – the models being a little bigger than the older Space Marines but still a bit short compared to the Chaos Marines and Death Guard that came after. As a result I suspect GW might not want to draw attention to the fact by returning to the rubrics any time soon. Rubric Havocs and phalanxes of close combat rubrics are nice to imagine but I suspect they might be a long time in coming…
More Tzaangors and mutant beasts are always nice (I’ve never met a Tzaangor I didn’t like) but the greater their presence in the army the more the power-armoured element is diminished and the less it feels like a Thousand Sons army.
One thing it would definitely be nice to see is some more vehicles and daemon engines. The Death Guard have the Plagueburst Crawler, the Foetid Bloat-drone and the Myphitic Blight-hauler to call their own, the poor old Thousand Sons have to borrow the Black Legion’s wheels when Abaddon isn’t using them. Surely some uniquely Tzeentchian vehicles aren’t beyond the wit of GW’s designers to conjure up? Or how about replacing the heldrake with something more uniquely Prosperine?
On the whole the Thousand Sons remain one of my favourite factions in 40k. Seeing them reborn in 2016 was one of the defining moments of my hobby career and I have no real complains about the range of models we received. However I do feel that it’s not just greed that leaves me wanting more. Right now the range feels as though it’s been bulked out with filler rather than being afforded the attention that was lavished on the Death Guard (wonderful though that was too). Hopefully the time will come when GW recognises that something is needed to elevate the range to the giddy heights enjoyed by their peers. Even if we have to wait until other legions are explored I’ll be happy enough, just so long as they don’t leave Magnus and his boys in the dust forever.
Do you agree or are you too busy standing around on Fenris widdling on a tree? Do you have a dream model you’d love to see added to the Thousand Sons some day? The comments box is all yours!
All images copyright Games Workshop and half-inched by Ahriman when he went in to renew his membership of the Black Library.