New to Underworlds: What are formats?

If you’ve talked to anyone online recently about Warhammer Underworlds, you’ve probably heard the term Rivals or Rivals+ thrown around. Maybe you wanted advice on which warbands to buy and someone told you that Rippa’s Snarlfangs have a really strong Rivals deck, or you might have seen a recent tournament, such as the Clash of Warlords event at Warhammer World, where Rivals+ was played, and you’re wondering what it all means.

To understand, the first thing you need to know is that competitive Warhammer Underworlds games can be played with several different sets of rules, known as formats.

In most card games the vast majority of players are playing “kitchen table” games. These are games where both players use preferences and house rules to dictate how their games are played, following the rulebook they have available. These players probably don’t get excited about every new release and certainly don’t buy them all. The rules they’re using might be a little out of date, the warbands old, and their deck lists thrown together, but they’ve found a way to play, with no specific format, they’re having fun with and they’re doing it quietly.

Another part of the player base wants to play competitively. They look up deck lists online and buy the cards they need, go to tournaments, and read strategy articles on the internet. The problem is, that when players used to kitchen table games meet tournament players it can cause problems. The players both have different ideas of what they’re trying to get out of the game, and it can end up making their games together worse for both of them. Formats mean that before you sit down to play you can make sure that both players have the same goals, and it makes the experience more fun for everyone.

At time of writing Warhammer Underworlds has 4 official formats as follows:

  • Relic
  • Championship
  • Rivals
  • Arena Mortis

Arena Mortis is very different from the others so I won’t be going over it here, but rule sets for all of these formats can be downloaded on the official Warhammer community site here.

Relic

Relic is the games all encompassing format, using every card that’s ever been released. The rules still update with each season, and there’s a list of cards that are banned or restricted for competitive play, but this would most closely resemble casual kitchen table games. The problem is the card pool is so broad that the power level of decks can vary massively. People who do own the whole Underworlds range can make use off all the most powerful cards from the games history, despite many of them not even being available to buy today. With such a huge barrier to entry in a competitive environment this wont do as a new players introduction to the game.

  • Pros
    • The huge card pool lets you use all the most powerful cards in the game.
    • There’s no “rotation” in Relic so decks and card are only removed by bans.
  • Cons
    • Getting into the format requires obtaining a lot of out of print products to be competitive, which is difficult and expensive.
    • Decks can vary in power greatly based on how many cards each player has bought.
    • Unless banned, powerful cards/decks are likely to stick around for years and could get boring to play against.
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Championship

Championship is (was? We’ll talk about Rivals+ in another article) Games Workshops version of a standard competitive environment. You’re allowed to play any cards from the current or previous “season” of releases, and any warbands and their warband specific cards. This “rotation” means that every new season an old season of cards is removed from the format – you can find the list of legal seasons on Games Workshop’s Underworlds FAQ’s pages.

While it can feel bad having cards you own become illegal, limiting the card pool in this way makes sure that old, out of print, and hard to acquire cards, don’t form the backbone of competitive play. It ensures the best players aren’t just the ones willing to spend the time and money to hunt down powerful cards, and Games Workshop don’t encourage a predatory third party market for rare cards. There’s still an advantage to owning all the cards, but they are all available through official retailers at a set price.

While better than Relic, buying all the cards is still a significant investment and unreasonable to expect from new players, but players willing to invest only have to buy a few products to start building competitive decks. To build the best decks in the format though players need to buy every warband for the universal cards that come with each of them. Games workshop also regularly balance the format with a banned and restricted cards list, limiting the ability to put all the most powerful cards in a deck. This makes sure the best decks in the format are distinct from one another.

  • Pros
    • The rotating card pool means the most powerful decks and warbands regularly change based on the rotation of key supporting cards.
    • Everything required to be competitive can be purchased directly for Games Workshop or an approved retailer.
    • Decks are powerful but the power level is maintained by the banned and restricted list to keep the play experience consistent.
  • Cons
    • Cards you own will eventually become illegal through rotation and this might invalidate your decks.
    • You need to buy every warband to keep up with the best decks in the format.

Rivals

So with Harrowdeep games workshop gave a name to the way every new player had been playing anyway, Rivals. In Rivals you have no access to universal cards at all, instead you just use the faction specific cards that come in each warbands box. You’ll still need a starter set for rule, dice, tokens, and boards, but the cost to play a given warband is significantly lowered. Each warbands having a set, unalterable, deck also means that the Games Workshop balance team can make sure that every Rivals game is a competitive one, effected only by the players skill rather than the relative power level of each of their decks.

  • Pros
    • You only need to buy the warbands you want to play.
    • Each warbands distinct strengths and weaknesses mean no 2 warbands play the same.
    • The low barrier to entry means players who spend more money have no advantage over players who spend less.
  • Cons
    • Not all warbands are made equal and some have much better decks than others.
    • Old warbands were released without full rivals decks so have to use one of the universal rivals decks that don’t always match the way they want to play.
    • The lack of deck building removes an opportunity to personalise your game play and express your skill.

So which format should you be playing? It depends on the needs and commitment of your play group. If you’re playing casually then I’d recommend Rivals. Having the lowest barrier to entry in cost and preparation means it’s the best format for introducing players to the game and you can try lots of warbands out without having to build decks for them all. If you want a competitive game though or are hosting a tournament then Championship will give players who want to the most opportunity to bring their skill to the table. Players who are on tight budgets will be at a slight disadvantages but the built in variance in dice and card games should mean they still have a chance to win games.

But what if there was a middle ground between the two that catered to everyone? Well Rivals+ might be the answer, so check back soon and we’ll explain what it is, and how it’s changing Underworlds competitions.

Did you enjoy this article? You could always tip the author with a coffee (or something stronger). If you want to pick up Harrowdeep while you wait for the Nethermaze release date then check out Element Games. They have great deals on warbands and a wide range of Warhammer and accessories. Finally, make sure you’re following us on Instagram to stay up to date and get involved in our community!

Images courtesy of Games Workshop.

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