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With the unveiling of four Commander decks themed around Warhammer 40,000 I decided to write this primer for players of Magic who don’t necessarily have any previous exposure to the setting. Do I envy you! It’s a wild ride, and this is just a surface summary; if you’re interested you can take a much deeper dive into the ocean of content around Warhammer 40,000.
For this article I will talk about the setting and the four factions represented in the Commander decks.
In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. The Imperium, humanity’s galaxy-spanning empire, is beset on all sides as well as from within. Alien species pounce on any weakness, and the Ruinous Powers are ceaseless in their war against the Imperium. Each day brings humanity closer to the brink. Technological progress has all but ceased, social progress is unthinkable, and billions live out their lives in crowded hive cities, on planets polluted to choking dust balls, grinding out the machines of industry and war that hold off the inevitable end for one more hour, one more day.
Welcome to Warhammer 40,000.
Warhammer 40,000 is produced by UK-based Games Workshop (GW), who produce both the tabletop wargame with its range of miniatures, and in a series of novels published by the GW imprint, Black Library. The first edition of the game was published in 1987 and it has undergone many iterations since.
With the upcoming release of four Commander decks themed around Warhammer 40,000 I have written this primer to introduce Magic players to the factions and characters they may not be aware of.
The Imperium of Man, as it is known, is a vast bureaucracy and ecclesiarchy that binds the ashes of humanity together. Vast armies and armaments are commanded to be created and transported to distant battle zones, entire planets may be given over to the production of food, all on the orders of the Imperium. Each planet is ruled by a governor, who ensures that the Imperium receives its due in resources, people, whatever is requested. As long as they comply without question, their positions are guaranteed. Imperial Inquisitors roam freely, searching for any sign of heresy, disloyalty or corruption by chaos or xenos factions.
The lives of ordinary people tend to be nasty, brutish, and short. Most hold to the Imperial Truth and the Lecticio Divinitatus, that holy book which speaks of the Emperor’s divinity. All of the Imperium stands within the light of his truth. The Emperor is worshipped as a god by the people, and as the Omnissiah, the Machine God, by the Mechanicum.
The Mechanicum are human, but hold that the machine is stronger than the flesh. They willingly augment and replace their own bodies with mechanical (never robotic) parts. The Mechanicum operate the machines that keep the Imperium afloat, even if they don’t fully understand them, and maintenance cycles have been reduced to ritual conducted by those who don’t quite understand them, just know that they work.
The Emperor is no myth. Once he was a man of incredible psychic power, who fought to unite humanity across the galaxy. This culminated in a conflict known as the Horus Heresy, which took place 10,000 years before the present of Warhammer 40,000. The Ruinous Powers corrupted half the Astartes, who then turned on the Emperor. He ended up wounded to the point of death and was entombed on the golden throne, which keeps him alive and in great pain. His psychic scream of agony pierces the Warp and serves as a beacon to guide ships travelling within the Imperium. Without the Astronomican, as this shrieking beacon is known, interplanetary travel would fail.
Ships travelling faster than light in Warhammer 40,000 don’t enter hyperspace; they tunnel through Hell. The Warp is the realm of the gods and daemons of Chaos, who seek only to corrupt and destroy. Without the Astronomican to guide them, ships would become lost and devoured by daemons. Thus does the Emperor serve humanity.
The Astartes were human once, but are now something else. Taken as children, they undergo a series of surgeries and augmentations, and implants until they emerge as seven-foot tall warriors, incapable of feeling fear, and utterly devoted to the Imperium (mostly).
The Astartes, also known as the Space Marines, are divided into a series of chapters, each with their own traditions and battlefield preferences. A chapter will typically consist of up to 1,000 Astartes. In the tabletop game, many players will take a single chapter as their army. Some of the better-known chapters include the Ultramarines, Dark Angels, Imperial Fists, and Blood Angels. Each chapter has its own iconography and colour scheme.
There are ever so few Astartes to take on humanity’s many enemies, and so the Imperium cannot rely on them alone, and fields vast armies of men and machines. Most people in the Imperium will live and die without ever seeing an Astartes.
The gods of chaos and their endless ranks of daemons dwell in the Warp. Through ritual and sacrifice on the part of chaos cultists, these daemons can exist in the universe for a time, but will eventually be banished back to the Warp to await their next summoning.
The four main chaos gods are Khorne, the god of bloodshed in battle, who sits atop a throne of skulls and cares not from where the blood flows, and Tzeentch, master of knowledge, sorcery and secrets. Nurgle is the god of disease and decay, while Slannesh is the god of excess in all things. These beings cannot manifest in our universe (phew), however they can still reach into and corrupt the minds of men without ever leaving the Warp, and so began the Horus Heresy.
The Astartes of old were fielded as 18 vast legions 100,000 or more strong. These legions were each led by a Primarch, the superhuman genetic father of each marine in the legion. Fully half of these Primarchs turned to chaos along with their legions, and while they were eventually defeated, it was at great cost.
The remnants of the defeated legions fled to the Eye of Terror, a place in the galaxy where the Warp and reality overlap. Here, safe from the ravages of time, they have waited for their moment.
Abaddon the Despoiler was once First Captain of the Sons of Horus legion. After their defeat and the death of Horus, Abaddon retreated with the other traitors into the Eye of Terror. But he was just getting started. He banded together his remnant brothers and Astartes from other chapters. They painted their armour black to become a new force, the Black Legion, and are united in their purpose to destroy the Imperium.
Abaddon has led 13 Black Crusades into the Imperium over 10,000 years. These laid the groundwork for the Cicatrix Maledictum, a series of rends in reality which allow the Warp to spill through. This phenomena has dimmed the light of the Astronomican, split the Imperium in two, and generally led to a bad time for everyone who isn’t chaos. The Imperium still clings on to existence though. A lost Primarch even returned!
The Necrons were an ancient race who dealt with their looming troubles in a way I can relate to; they took a really long nap. Now, millions of years later, they are waking up to a changed galaxy. The Necrons are not allies to the Imperium, but they hate chaos more, so that’s something. To the Imperium they are a xenos threat to be exterminated, because in case you hadn’t noticed yet, the Imperium is not nice.
The Necrons are an implacable foe with their warriors able to regenerate from massive wounds. On the battlefield they are often accompanied by a Monolith, a sort of floating pyramid with guns that can regenerate and even teleport Necron warriors around, making them a difficult foe to fight off. Their technology may be ancient, but it’s far in advance of what the Imperium can offer, making dealing with the Necrons a major problem should one of their Tomb World suddenly awaken.
The Great Devourer, as they are also known, are an extra-galactic species who just want to eat everything living and then move on. Once attracted to this galaxy their journey took thousands of years but as the various Hive Fleets arrive they become more difficult to deal with. If the Tyranids gain control over a world they will strip it down to rock; all biological material will be digested and repurposed. Every part of a Tyranid army is part of the same hive, from the massive ships in orbit, to the tiniest ripper swarm nibbling at your toes.
The Tyranids are not a mindless species though. The hive mind controls them, and a Hive Tyrant can direct its forces with the skill of a great general marshalling his troops. Orders are relayed via synapse creatures like the Tyranid warriors. Should these all be killed, the lesser Tyranids will revert to a simpler behaviour. This generally still involves trying to eat you, just with less style.
The Tyranids represent an existential threat to the whole galaxy and even chaos can be roused to fight against a hive swarm. Daemons can’t have fun with a planet reduced to rock, after all.
The subject of the four Commander decks do not represent every faction in Warhammer 40,000 so there’s plenty more to explore. Dozens of Black Library books can give you a deeper introduction to the setting. Here are five recommendations to get you started:
Indomitus by Gav Thorpe: Imperial forces reeling from the effects of the Cicatrix Maledictum find themselves in the middle of a sinister Necron plot.
Storm of Iron by Graham McNeill: Imperial defenders come under attack from the Iron Warriors, a traitor legion of old, but what brings the Iron Warriors to this seemingly backwater planet?
The Night Lords trilogy by Aaron Dembski-Bowden: takes a look at the Night Lords traitor legion, scrabbling for survival in the wake of their defeat.
The Great Devourer: an anthology of short stories featuring the ravenous Tyranids
Xenos by Dan Abnett: the start of a series following an Imperial Inquisitor and the difficult choices he makes to protect the Imperium from its many threats.
If reading 150 or so books isn’t your thing, then maybe spend an original dual land’s worth of money on a tabletop army.