Battletome: Soulblight Gravelords - A quick review

Back in 2019 I wrote about what was, due to global pandemics largely being outside of my control, the last major Age of Sigmar event I was able to go to. The armylist summary is HERE but in short I took a Legions of Nagash army which happened to do pretty well. Fast forward to this week and the Legions battletome replacement: Soulblight Gravelords has hit the shelves so I decided that I wanted to take a look at it to see how (or even if) my list could be adapted for the new book. It's been pretty divisive over in internet-land so ill try to take a balanced approach.

The Lore (spoilers)

Undead Lore in a nutshell.

Firstly, we have the obligatory lore section of the book; now fully uptodate as of the release of Broken Realms: Teclis which saw Arkhan the Black thrown off the edge of Hysh, Nagash's body broken and his essence sent screaming back to Shysh to reform and spend the next millenia plotting his revenge (personally I think it will have something to do with building a great pyramid given his track record). As the main focus of the book is on Vampires and their underlings, we get some nice insight into where they came from, what they can do and what their motivations are in the realms. Interestingly Age of Sigmar vampires range from bloodthirsty murder machines all the way to benevolent nobility ready to protect their living subjects (for the price of a small blood sacrifice every now and again).

We also get some additional insight into Nagash and his motivations in bringing vampires back into the realms, including an overview of the soul wars and a quick dive into the realm of death; he needed good generals and being that Vampires are both super strong and super smart, Nagash decided to bring back Neferata, Mannfred and Ushoran to serve him once more (the whole Ushoran plan didn't work out too good given that he ran off to sire the flesh eater courts).

The Vampire pecking-order with Nagash at the top, Legions of Night and Blood (I guess being headed by mortarchs helps), and Vyrkos, Avengorii and Kastelai under those.

Following this we go into summaries of each of the Vampire bloodlines, the Legions of Blood and Night whom (almost) all other vampires can trace their roots back to and the new hotness thanks to the now-discontinued Cursed City that is the Vyrkos Dynasty:
Shyishan legend tell that the first of the Vyrkos, Belladamma Volga, was not sired by any vampire but instead created upon bargaining with the undead godbeast Hrunspuul, the Hound of the Cairns. In return for his gifts, the spiteful Hrunspuul cursed all of Belladamma’s line to reflect the qualities of one of the many totemic animal-spirits venerated in their strange tribal culture, of which the wolf was most sacred.
To be honest I find this passage probably the most interesting part of the new lore; It shows that there are other beings in the realms outside of the main pantheon who have the ability to grant powers and abilities though interestingly, as Hrunspuul is an undead godbeast; either a god-beast brought back by Nagash or already undead to begin with, the Vyrkos vampires are still subject to Nagash's will.

I'm assuming this is Hrunspuul itself.

Finally we have a short timeline of events which mostly covers existing stuff that has already been looked at in other books.

Unit Background

For those familiar with the unit summaries from the previous books, alot of this will seem familiar. Some of the entries have been updated from a more Vampire-centric point of view but there are some fun stories in there including my favourite featuring Mannfred and Neferata trying to one-up eachother in the (now empty) throneroom of Nagash's fortress. Of course with new models such as Lauka Vai and the Vyrkos vampire bloodline there are some new entries with the biggest focus being on the wolf-boys which once again have some of the more interesting lore in the book.

We do learn about the origins of Lauka Vai and the Vangorian Lords; the former being twisted into her new bat-centaur form by a chaos sorcerer and the latter having been too close to the Shyish Nadir when the necroquake struck. The difference in background between these two closely linked units is almost a little jarring for me but the miniatures are very cool so I can forgive a little mismatch in the background.

Another nice little tidbit is the confirmation that other races can actually contract the soulblight curse with mention of at least one aelf vampire existing somewhere in the realms.

The Rules

Now into the real meat of the book and probably what's going to be the most important thing for most players; the actual rules! There are five different keywords that you can choose from for your army each granting different battle traits, command traits and artifacts.

In terms of battle traits shared by all of the factions, Gravesites make a welcome return and through The Unquiet Dead rule units can be placed in reserve to appear near your gravesites during the game. Also making a comeback are the Locus of Shyish and Deathless Minions rules allowing a double cast of a spell from the lores of Vampires and Deathmages on a 9+ along with the 6+ wound or mortal wound negation that undead have enjoyed for a while now. It is worth noting that Gravesites have lost their healing ability which as we shall see is a trend that permeates through the book. It seems like someone at Games Workshop doesn't want multiple healing opportunities during the turn so they have really hit the ability of the army to bring their units back up to full strength.

Skeletons are your new best friend.

New to the party is the Reanimated Horrors rule; A callback from Undead back when we were playing Warhammer: Fantasy, this gives a Bravery penalty for enemy units within 6" of friendly Deadwalkers (all Zombies and Direwolves) and Deathrattle (all skeleton-based infantry and cavalry).

We also have Endless Legions; This is essentially a reworked version of the previous Endless Legion command ability which had the ability to bring back a full strength destroyed unit. Nowadays; at the end of your battleshock phase you can roll a dice, adding the number of destroyed enemy units to the result and on a 5+ you can bring back a summonable destroyed Deadwalkers or Deathrattle units at half strength within 12" of a gravesite.

Finally we have Deathly Invocation; Those familiar with the Legions of Nagash book will recognise this from several of the previous warscrolls. The wording is largely the same; with the ability to pick a number of units near your characters and heal D3 wounds worth of models but now each unit is only able to be affected once per turn. With 3rd Edition round the corner I am wondering if there may be a change to how damage is calculated (i.e. not spilling over as per Warhammer 40k). If this were the case then the effect of the reduction in healing across the board would be lessened as the casualties become more manageable.

Onto the factions themselves;

Legion of Blood

More models flee when failing a battleshock test within 3" of Vampires, and ignore negative modifiers to hit and wound for your deathrattle units when in range of your vampires

Neferata's Legion is back with a focus on failed battleshock tests and making sure that your skeletons don't get worse in combat (as opposed to other factions with their focus on making them better). Of the command traits available, both Aristocracy of Blood and Sanguine Blur seem quite good allowing for rerolled charge rolls within 12" and an additional 3" pile-in move when within 12" of the general respectively. Alternatively you could push for more failed battleshock tests with Soul-Crushing Contempt for a further -1 to bravery within 3" of the general combining with Reanimated Horrors and the Legion battle trait.

Legion of Night

+1 save for deathrattle and deadwalkers in the first turn and set-up up to half the units in your army in reserve to come on within 6" of any board edge and 9" from enemy units at the end of your movement phase.

Mannfred's Legion is also back looking to make your deathrattle and deadwalkers survive the first turn either by boosting their save or keeping them off the battlefield ready to use in later turns. Given how poor skeletons are in combat (and how important actually sticking around for their baked in reanimation ability), I would be looking to use the Unbending Will command trait to ignore battleshock tests for units wholly within 12" of the general. I do also think that there might be an argument to be made for a cheap character with Morbheg’s Claw; In return for giving up your move, charge, shoot and fight until your next hero phase all Legion of Night Wizards within 12" get +2 to cast potentially pushing the bonuses further with friendly corpse carts and other magic buffing units.

Vyrkos Dynasty

+1 to wound for deathrattle and deadwalkers within 9" of your vampire heroes. You can also reroll casting rolls for your Vampire wizards.

The first of the new sub-factions, and probably one of the best with versatile battle traits (being simple and effective) and solid command abilities. I particularly like either Driven by Deathstench for re-roll of charges within 9" of the general or Spoor Trackers for a free 3" move on your deadwalkers (yes, direwolves are deadwalkers also) also within 9" of the general as long as they don't run.

Kastelai Dynasty

Set up your bloodknights in reserve to come on within 6" of any board edge and 9" from enemy units at the end of your movement phase. Also gain stacking boosted abilities for your vampire units when they destroy enemy units.

Fans of the old blood dragons essentially get them back. If bloodknigts are your thing then you probably want to go Kastelai. The stacking buffs from Might of the Crimson Keep have the potential to be quite powerful depending on what king of meta develops after the move to 3rd edition. The abilities are stacking; specifically being +1 to wound, +1 to your wounds characteristic or +2 to run and charge roles depending on what type of unit you killed (hero, monster or infantry with a wounds characteristic of 3 or more or 2 or less) but you can only gain one of each buff during the game.

Avengorii Dynasty

Lauka Vai, Mother of Nightmares. With a shiny new model and good rules to match I am pretty sure that you would want to use her whenever Avengorii is played.

Your Terrorghiests and Zombie dragons will have the ability to gain cursed mutations and gain -1 to to be wounded in combat along with your Vampire monsters. Also in the combat phase you can pick one Terrorghiest, Zombie dragon or Vampire monster to fight with their top level statline despite how many wounds it has suffered.

Avengorii is the last new sub-faction showcased by the new Lauka Vai, Mother of Nightmares (whose buffs to your monster units you will probably want anyway). I do quite like the idea of this dynasty; with the ability to take Zombie dragons and Terrorghiests as battleline and buff them through the battle traits, it allows a player to make small, elite armies similar to those open to Flesh Eater Courts. I do find the command traits mediocre however as there are few unit buffs which is were I believe Soulblight Gravelords actually shine.

Spell Lores

The spell lores from Legions of Nagash largely make it back intact with some improvements. The lore of the Vampires is still focused on damage dealing so for me, the lore of the Deathmages remains more interesting with several debuffs for opposing units. Interestingly now, all wizards get access to a new spell Invigorating Aura which can be cast by any number of wizards in the same hero phase;

On an 8+ to cast (with +1 to your roll for each of your heroes on the battlefield), you can pick 1 summonable unit wholly within 18" of the caster and heal 3 wounds worth of models to the unit. As per Deathly Invocation, each unit can only get the benefit from this spell once per turn. A flat 3 wounds of models is pretty good here and with Deathly Invocation it seems like on average you will be able to heal 3+D3 wounds on your summonable units per turn.


Going forward from here is where there seems to be a division in the opinions of the playerbase; On the one hand, Soulblight Gravelords is supposed to be a replacement of the Legions of Nagash book with a bigger focus on the Vampire elements but on the other, there are players whose armies do consist of a mixed death force and do feel short changed by the majority of their units being chopped up into the various other factions. There has already been volumes written about the individual units that are present in the book (we all know for example that the basic Skeletons and Zombies are improved from their previous incarnations) but I feel that there is something to be said about the book's design choices.

Taking a look at the unit changes between Legions of Nagash and Soulblight Gravelords;

+ Lauka Vai, Mother of Nightmares
+ Vengorian Lord
+ Belladamma Volga, First of the Vyrkos
+ Lady Annika, The thirsting Blade
+ Kritza, The Rat Prince
+ Radukar the Beast
+ Radukar the Wolf and Radukar's Court
+ The Sepulchral Guard
+ Prince Duvalle and the Crimson Court

- Arkhan the Black
- Morghast Harbingers
- Morghast Archai
- Bat Swarms
- Cairn Wraith
- Tomb Banshee
- Hexwraiths
- Black Coach
- Spirit Hosts
- Soulwars (Chainwrasp Hordes, Grimghast Reapers, etc.)

Looking at the above unit lists, it seems that we have lost alot of variety in terms of army building from the move to Soulblight Gravelords in return for a number of named characters and combined units from both Shadespire and the Cursed City which ultimately are unlikely to be taken as most of them don't really fill any tactical niche or have synergy with the rest of the book. All of the ghost units have disappeared (though I do think that there was an argument to be made for the Black Coach to stay as it's one of the classic vampire units) as well as Bat Swarms and anything related to Arkhan the Black and the Morghast.

Come on Games Workshop. Give me Vyrkos Bloodborn as separate units! They Did!

I do feel that there has been somewhat of a missed opportunity here surrounding the contents of Radukar's Court which could have opened up a number of interesting playstyles especially considering the reduced number of actual units that can be taken. Looking at the court's components individually; As a player I would love to be able take units of Vyrkos Bloodborn as bloodknight replacements in a Vyrkos list, or individual Vargskyr to act as fast moving tie-up units to make up for the loss of Bat Swarms. Following this we have characters such as Gorslav and Halgrim which both would make excellent choices to boost Zombies and Skeletons respectively if they were allowed to be taken individually. This isn't something unfixable however, as points costs are updated fairly regularly ingame so it would only take a minor errata to open up these tactical opportunities especially now that both Radukar the Wolf and Radukar's Court are available to purchase outside of Cursed City from Games Workshop directly.

Edit: Cheers Games Workshop for invalidating chunks of my review! As of the time of writing, Age of Sigmar 3rd Edition has now been released as well as a whole host of FAQs and errata for all factions in the game. With this, we now have separate points costs and unit sizes for all of the Cursed City units which opens up the scope for list-building quite a fair way.

I think the big winner here is Gorslav the Grave Keeper. He is very cheap, allowing an easier time to fill out those sub-commander slots in the new battallions and his command ability is a guaranteed unit of 30 Zombies (as if you are taking him, a block of 60 Zombies is probably a must). Secondly there are Vyrkos Bloodborn; You can reinforce them once for a 6-man unit and they can be taken in any dynasty (but won't get the dynasty bonuses of using them outside of Vyrkos due to their keywords). These guys are somewhat of a glass-cannon but they are very fast and have reasonable attacks for their relatively low cost. Given the push away from large units and onto smaller MSU style of play that the rules encourage; 18 attacks from a unit of 6 each with D3 damage could be quite good for a small footprint. Finally, the last unit that I think will definitely see some play is the Vargskyr; relatively cheap and very fast with it's movement of 8 and 3D6 charge, this makes a good contender as a replacement for fellbats to absorb opposing command abilities in the shooting phase.

The book itself includes five warscroll battallions; The first being the obligatory 'all of the battallions battalion' which boosts Deathly Invocation to Nagash-levels of potency. Secondly we have the Red Banqueters made up of Vampire lords, 1 Bloodseeker Palanquin or 1 Coven Throne and Bloodknight units allowing a small heal on each unit in the battellion in the hero phase. The Fellwing Flock, made up of Verghiests and Fellbats receive +1 to hit on the charge, and the greatly named Deathstench Drove made up of Corpse Carts, Dire Wolves, and Zombies, allows 1 extra attack if they're within range of the Corpse Carts. Finally we once again have Deathmarch for all you skeleton fans out there; again it's made up of a Wight King, Black Knights, Grave Guard and Skeletons and gives a 3" movement boost to up to 3 different units from the battallion when in range of the Wight King.

Aside from this there have been improvements across the remaining units in the book; Mannfred received a fairly big boost possibly making him one of the best characters in the book with a new redeploy out of combat rule, and the ability to boost both the attacks, and hit and wound rolls of nearby troops. Lauka Vai seems like an auto-include for an Avengorii army and is a straight upgrade from the Avengorii lord with her mortal wounds on the charge and impressive Queen Amongst Monsters command ability picking 1 enemy unit on the battlefield to be +1 to hit from all of your monsters that target it in combat.

You will probably find that one or two Necromancers are pretty much mandatory for any infantry based Soulblight army.

The big winners of the book in my opinion are the new Zombies and Skeletons. Zombies receive the ability to activate within 6" of an enemy unit and receive the mortal wounds attack previously enjoyed by spirit hosts with the added bonus of adding new Zombies to the unit on a 2+ for each model slain during that phase. Skeletons now benefit from the Skeletal Legion rule: when you pick this unit to fight, roll a dice for each model in this unit that was slain in that phase. On a 4+, you can return that model to
this unit. It is worth noting that both Skeletons and Zombies hugely benefit from a Necromancer's Vanhel’s Danse Macabre allowing a unit to be picked to fight for a second time; Zombies will get to do more wounds to increase their numbers and Skeletons will get to proc Skeletal Legion a second time during the turn.

Dire Wolves OP?

Something that I do want to try out however revolves around the new Belladamma Volga, Radukar the Beast, Dire Wolves and the Vyrkos dynasty ability of +1 to wound for deathrattle and deadwalkers within 9" of your vampire heroes;

Belladamma Volga has very good synergy with Dire wolves. Her spell spawns in more wolves if it kills anyone and her command ability gives some good extra range to the wolves' already pretty impressive 10" move. Add to this the ability for her to push wounds suffered onto nearby Dire Wolf units in a similar way to Necromancers and she actually becomes more survivable then her statline would suggest.

Beast-boy here further pushes the wolf synergy. He is 'almost' fast enough to keep up with them but his command abilities would essentially give all wolves around him +1 attack (and if there aren't any then he can spawn in a free unit once per game).

The wolves themselves might not be all that great on paper given their statline but given an extra attack from Radukar, +1 to hit and wound on the charge and a further +1 to wound for being deadwalkers within 9" of your vampire heroes (either Radukar or Belladamma) then you suddenly have a unit with 3 attacks a piece hitting on a 3+ and wounding on a 2+ being able to activate within 6". Combining all of this into an army might be a little difficult but I could see something like a large block of 30 wolves plus the two characters being quite useful ingame.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately I think that the book is a success in some areas but is also lacking in others. There are a number of builds that will work fairly successfully probably based around the excellent new Zombies and Skeletons but it feels to me that too much in terms of variety was removed in return for the boosts to whatever was left behind. That being said however, it is true that we haven't yet seen any of the changes to come with AoS 3rd edition so as I mentioned before, if Games Workshop has done some tweaking with 'splash damage' being less effective on one wound infantry (which kind of makes sense anyway given how it works in 40k) then I do think that the amount of healing we have, although lessened, could go a long way to keeping our units on the field and really push home that faceless horde aspect that they seem to be going for.

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