Before I go any further I wanted to quickly explain why I'm having this debate. Basically my mechanised Tau list is a lot more fun to play but lacks the punch of my gunline thanks to the loss of the Ethereal. With Blog Wars requiring a special character I was planning on fielding Darkstrider. However, the suggestion that came up was to swap the XV8 Commander for Shadowsun. This would fulfil the SC requirement and allow me to take the Ethereal instead. It should also free up some points to allow me to take more fire warriors and further address the loss of firepower compared to my previous list. Anyway, onto the debate.
For the purposes of this discussion I'm assuming that the Commander will have my standard loadout of fusion, plasma, VRT, target lock and iridium armour. This comes in at a nice round 150pts which I think is a total steal for what he's capable of. He's usually accompanied by a pair of crisis bodyguard with twin-linked fusion blaster and a plasma rifle. This squad deep strikes in and hits heavily armoured targets like terminators or even small squads of marines. It's also great for both MCs and vehicles alike. Let's assume for this discussion that Shadowsun will take the same bodyguard.
When I originally reviewed the special characters I stated that Shadowsun is probably the best of the HQ specials. I'm still pretty sure that's true but I think I've only used her once. Here's a quick rundown of what you get for your points:
- Reduced statline compared to my Commander (-1S, -1T, -1W) but increased initiative (4).
- Two fusion blasters with split fire for one of them (other must fire at unit's target)
- Advanced targeting system (to hit rolls of 5 are Precision Shots)
- 3+/5++ save
- Stealth & Shrouded which are conferred to her unit
- Stealth suits get Sworn Protector (no use to me)
- Drones for added protection and buffing
Pretty decent package but let's start to take a look at how she compares to my usual Commander.
Shadowsun has to take the 3D6" thrust move trait. This increases her unit's survivability but obviously means there's no chance of getting the other results which can be handy at times. Is it that big of a loss though? Being able to deep strike without scattering is great, skyfire for a turn can be crucial and so can preventing Look Out Sir rolls, however, there's the chance of getting the get back up after going to ground thing or else getting skyfire against an army with no flyers. The remaining trait that gives re-rolls of 1s to hit is mitigated by Shadowsun's command-link drone which can have the same effect on a single unit every turn.
Of course all of this is based on the random nature of the warlord trait table. There's a good chance I'd get a useless trait and wish I'd got the 3D6" thrust. The re-roll bubble trait is nice but since they're usually deep striking it tends to only affect the Commander's unit anyway. The biggest loss to me is the chance to get Skyfire which can be truly game changing when you've got all that melta and plasma firing at a flyer. Again though it's down to luck and overall I'd have to say Shadowsun reliably getting a useful trait wins out.
There's quite a difference between W4 T5 with a 2+ save and W3 T3 with a 3+/5++ save. Clearly the Commander wins in this category then? Well not necessarily. My version of the Commander doesn't have an invulnerable save which means low AP weaponry is stripping wounds assuming I'm not in cover. If Shadowsun is in cover she's getting a 2++ save too. Her lower toughness is rarely going to be an issue since her unit and her drones are T4 so most of the time she'll be effectively T4 too. The extra wounds come in the form of drones which can effectively give her 6 wounds if used well. The problem is that T3 is unavoidable for S6+ instant death. There's a lot of S6/7 around at the minute with so many wave serpents and the like. My usual Commander doesn't really care but Shadowsun would need to be a lot more careful. Obviously Look Out Sir comes in here and the bodyguard automatically pass their rolls.
Both the Commander and Shadowsun will do their best to avoid combat thanks to their JSJ routine and with 3D6" on top of 12" range (rapid fire for the plasmas) the unit should be safe from combat from even jump infantry. Incidentally, that 3D6" thrust also makes it easier to get the unit into cover for a 2++ save. Anyway, should the unit find itself in combat my usual Commander has S5 attacks and also has Hit & Run. This makes them very difficult to tie up with a 50:50 chance of leaving the combat (which I sometimes fail several times in a row). There's the potential to give one of the bodyguards a set of VRTs but then you're relying on them surviving the combat to give Shadowsun an escape route. Ultimately I think the T5 and 2+ save makes the regular Commander the winner here but it's a close run thing.
As I've mentioned the Commander benefits from S5 attacks in combat but since we'll be wanting to avoid that if possible I don't think it's a factor. Otherwise their armament is similar with two fusions vs. a plasma and fusion. Shadowsun's split fire only allows one melta shot at that second tank whereas the Target Lock of the Commander allows the plasma to fire too. Mind you S6 isn't usually that brilliant and you're essentially relying on the melta shot most of the time. Against vehicles then Shadowsun is probably better as she can potentially take out two heavily armour tanks by herself.
Against infantry or MCs there isn't much in it. The commander obviously gets more shots but assuming you take the drone then Shadowsun can be hitting nearly every time. In this case that extra S8 shot comes in handy for MCs. Not a lot of difference then and actually Shadowsun probably wins out slightly.
Outside of the random warlord traits and the Hit and Run I've already discussed, the Commander doesn't really add anything to the unit and can be thought of as a tank most of the time. Shadowsun on the other hand can take a command-link drone that can reliably help out a unit within 12". Drop her near some Fire Warriors and aid their shooting or simply make her crisis team more accurate. If they can pick up a couple of marker hits then there's a good chance they'll be hitting with every shot.
The drones add some great ablative wounds too. The shield drones get a 3++ save which makes them great for thinning out S8+ shots that upset the suits. The command-link drone can be used as an ablative wound too of course. This makes an 8 wound unit into a 10 wound unit. Not a huge difference but worth thinking about.
Infiltrate is an interesting one. If you're going first then it allows Shadowsun and her unit to get into rapid-fire range of an enemy target straight away without the danger of Deep Strike (even more risky with the drones) and without the problem of not arriving until turn 4 sometimes. Of course it does make her a primary target from the get-go but potentially worth the risk. Outflank is obviously an option too but easily countered and if she's going into reserve I'd usually be deep striking.
Most of this stuff isn't available to the commander so this category has to go to Shadowsun.
Overall I'd say Shadowsun wins out in this debate. At time she'll die a lot easier than a commander but often she'll make the unit very tricky to kill indeed. Being able to Infiltrate means more units on the table at the start of the game which is no bad thing in my opinion. The command link drone potentially allows me to ditch the twin-linkage on the suits and instead take a VRT and Target Lock. Ultimately she's more interesting than the commander in terms of both the model and her rules. I can see her being a lot of fun to use so I better get her built and painted.
The other thing to consider is what I can now do with the rest of the army. My biggest concern with the mechanised list was the reduction in S5 firepower compared to my gunline. With Shadowsun as both my Commander and Special Character, I'm now free to take an Ethereal. The issue is how the Ethereal works in a mechanised list. Obviously, you want all of the "Fish of Fury" shenanigans to take place near to each other so they can all benefit from Storm of Fire.
With a bit of tweaking of the list I can get three units of 11 fire warriors which is only 3 short of how many I had in my gunline. Throw in the drones from the tanks (which also get Storm of Fire) and I'm probably getting more shots than I was before. That's assuming of course that I get all 3 units within 12" of the Ethereal.
It's a shame to drop Darkstrider but I think it's the right call. It's been fun using him for the test games and he's great against MCs and marines alike but a lot of the time you just wish his -1T effect worked for all of the units firing at a target.