Riding the Storm - A Pirate’s Life Tactica
Face in the wind, we ride on the storm
We’ll stay our course, whatever will come
Wandering souls in the sea of the damned
Death or glory - ooh we are riding the storm!
Theme force of Captain Phinneus Shae, the unsurprisingly named Pirate’s Life, was probably the most welcomed surprise of Forces of Warmachine: Mercenaries. While there were a lot doubts and naysaying about Shae and pirates in general among the community before, few people would have asked for more than we got. This development did away with the biggest complaint - reliance on expensive rogues gallery of Privateer solos - in a true Gordian fashion, and added a galleon full of extras on top, blatantly rewarding you for taking stuff you would never dream of leaving home without. A Pirate’s Life is one of those very few truly great theme lists where everything just goes together, nothing is an inconvenience and, perhaps most importantly, a warcaster that needed just a little bit of help gets exactly enough of it to get back among the other stars of the show.
Getting started with pirates can be a daunting experience to many, including - or maybe especially to - landlubbing mercenary players. You can’t use your old favorites, you likely have to buy most of the army from scratch again, some of it only usable with Shae (but take it from me - that’s the part you’re least likely to ever be disappointed with. Guaranteed!) and the rest feeling at least a bit questionable in non-pirate forces, justifiably or not. However, past the initial hurdle lies an army with dynamic, fast paced playstyle, backed by one of the most capable warcasters in the game and riding on a theme that might just be the best recognizable of them all. It doesn’t get any more, well, piratical than the Pirate’s Life.
Since we’ll discuss army building choices later, let’s now focus on gameplay of a typical Pirate’s Life army. I’d like to group the traits exhibited by such a force into Flexibility, Concentration and Resilience. Now, they’re not truly universal, in that with effort it’s possible to avoid having one or more manifest in your army, but it actually does require willfully going against the grain while the reverse is purely natural - you’re more than halfway there just by going by bonuses and requirements of the theme force. Let us examine in greater detail what I mean by all of those fancy words.
Flexibility - and again this is about play-time, not list building - denotes the ability to switch your plans on the fly, depending on the situation at hand. A large part of Shae’s power, especially when it comes to infantry, rests on the fact that most of their bonuses and special rules are not written on the cards but instead supplied by solos and Aiyana&Holt. Rockbottom in particular serves a role much the same as the Factions’ own warcaster attachments, only with an option to blow his wad in a single crucial turn giving you a second, non-focus resource to manage. Not only you can rather seamlessly switch your support to a backup unit if the primary is taken out (but solos are intact), it makes it difficult for your opponent to plan for your next turn making them either overestimate the threat or get blindsided. Even after they have had some experience against the Pirate’s Life (because the first few games just aren’t fair) they have to constantly pay attention to your full synergy chain potential or get sucker punched into next Payday.
Furthermore, while people tend to think of Shae’s army as a melee force, it actually possesses a nice amount of firepower, albeit oriented to fewer, more powerful attacks than volume of weaker ones. Not only there’s the intimidating Commodore Cannon and the occasional Mariner, but Sea Dog Riflemen CRAs feel like real half-unit CRAs when backed by some pieces of eight, while Master Holt and Shae himself can pick off other key models with the handcannons. It is true that these ranged capabilities are means to an end rather than a full-on ranged game but they’re enough to make an even less ranged-capable enemy make an unenviable choice between standing and getting pounded or coming right into your trap.
Concentration means ability to exert the greatest amount of force on a required area, and/or a particular moment. Not only can the Commodore Cannon reach out and touch someone across the Kill Box, your Sea Dogs and First Mate Hawk are just really capable of going places, usually with a Reach jack or several waiting in the wings if you need to get someone behind walls or other, knocked down, models. Coup de Main in particular is just a phenomenally efficient support spell and it’s completely free if you have three jacks that want to charge (and you should). And when someone is getting dogpiled by your jacks (an important type of concentration by itself - you should always use the cheap mercenary heavies to outnumber more expensive Faction jacks) your infantry just buffs itself and reaps the speed benefits just the same. Three Sea Dog Crewmembers under Payday got to the enemy caster under Kiss of Lyliss while Hawk is hanging around nearby if not stabbing them herself? That is a perfect example of Concentration right there.
Resilience is slightly more obvious than the other two. Everyone knows about the 4+ no-KD Tough already, and it’s one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal that you should always take advantage of. When it comes to jacks, it’s even simpler. Coup de Main and the theme force itself rewards you for taking lots of jacks - so you should have lots of jacks! No matter if they take out one, the rest will just keep going at it, Meg should always be around to fix a system in a pinch and when you think about it, who needs a Cortex anyway, eh? Finally, make sure to use your speed and numbers to exploit defensive mismatches. Things that would eat your jacks may struggle with a load of Tough infantry, things that would shred infantry will grind to halt when they have to go through a Nomad or two and if you’re all out of options, throw some of Pressgangers or even a solo into the breach and pray.
However, nothing is as easy as it sounds and your ship can run aground if you meet some of the really bad matchups. Tough removal will seriously ruin your day while mass continuous effects will wreck havoc with your manpower - alas, Walk it Off expires before they are resolved. Large number of AoEs will simply wither down your infantry no matter the Tough rolls, while accurate, powerful long range shots can take out your key solos, especially Bosun who sticks out like a sore thumb, making the rest of the force much less intimidating. Finally, movement denial effects - worst of all upkeep spells like Crippling Grasp or Fear of God - can seriously neuter your close combat potential. Getting your main Sea Dog Crew resigned to CRA duty for the rest of the game is highly undesirable, so make sure to bring some backup.