|Long live the Asur!|
High Elves were my first army in WHFB and I've played them for 12 or so years now. I will tell you right now that this is the best book they've had in the last 3 books. As for the review itself, it will be written with Overall Design, Internal Balance and External Balance in mind. Check out this earlier post if you don't know the meaning of these terms.
The game design for High Elves is a tricky one. You have an army filled with T3 5+ dudes but you somehow need them to be "elite". This poses a problem because the only realistic way of getting this done in a points-based system is by having them be expensive. You can't have cheap High Elves, it just doesn't make sense. Their entire fluff is that they're dwindling, everyone else is getting stronger and the only way they can compete is with superior units.
Now, let me come out and say that I thought army-wide ASF via Speed of Asuryan was the best thing to happen to High Elves in 7th Edition. Please keep in mind that I'm talking about the 7th Edition High Elves book being played in 7th Edition and not 8th. The reason why this is so is because you can outright justify an expensive army of elite units. The rule was simple, elegant and rightfully justified the cost of the army to be high. A lot of people looked at SoA in 8th and blindly hated it because it turned High Elf units into blenders. Well guess what? That's not what it was originally intended to be.
The 7th Ed. book was designed in 7th Ed. where SoA was meant to be a damage buffer. It was something that stopped incoming damage so the limited amount of High Elf models can cheat death and stay alive in close combat. High Elves can't have the resilience of Dwarfs, or the numbers of Skaven, this is just not their way. The elite units of Asur needed something else to mitigate damage and that was through striking first, killing the enemy before they can strike, and thus reduce that unit's damage. The coming of 8th's Steadfast, stepping up, and the fact that a Skaven Slave can take down a White Lion meant that the book desperately needed a rewrite. Well, that and the fact that High Elves sell pretty well.
Enter the new book. What has changed exactly? Mat Ward kept ASF on all the units and gave them all Martial Prowess (fight/shoot in one extra rank). ASF now cancels with the ASL of Great Weapons so units like White Lions and Sword Masters are no longer the blenders that they were the previous book. Because of these changes, Ward continues the ideology that the High Elves should be few in number, elite, and are a naturally defensive army. You can see this through Shield of Saphery (High Magic's lore attribute) especially since each successful spell from High Magic increases your ward save by +1. If you don't have one, you gain 6+ ward. With a heavier reliance on High Magic to obtain defensive bonuses, players will need to take full advantage of their magic to negate that damage. Works for me.
I give Overall Design a 4.5/5. The main philosophies of the High Elves have all been translated smoothly onto the table: Small in number, superior in skill, reliant on magic, and naturally defensive. I even read the fluff and checked it for Draigo nonsense. NP, all clear.
In the previous book, High Elves had 3 Core choices: Archers, Spearmen and Lothern Sea Guard. Now in the new book, High Elves get Ellyrion Reavers and Silver Helms as well. This suddenly opens tons of player options and so far, no list I've seen looks the same. There is no obvious choice to make in Core and this is something every player loves. Books should be made where the options are viable and every choice a difficult one. There should be no auto-includes.
As we advance through the book and check out some of the old units, you will see plenty of old favorites. Many of the units haven't changed at all, and for the units that got worse, their points cost was decreased. For the units that either got better or haven't changed in usefulness, their points didn't move. Finally, for the units that suffered previously, their points were lowered while their stats were improved. All of these were done with only minor adjustment in points, no large leaps or uncalled for moves. Teclis has been brought down in power but saw his points decreased slightly, and Book of Hoeth now has new functionality for a more affordable price. Even units like the Sword Master gained the ability to Deflect Shots with his sword because you know, it's fluffy. For the first time in a long time, I haven't seen game balance this good in terms of unit layout and pricing.
When we look at the new units, we have to evaluate how they fit in comparison to other choices in the book. There is quite a bit of uproar on many gaming forums right now because no one can agree upon a single list. Every new unit in the book seems to be balanced out nicely in points vs. their abilities. The Anointed is a more expensive Prince with good unit buffing stats, but he's not as good in melee and lacks the Ld.10 a Prince can offer. The Loremaster is a Lv.2 who knows all 8 signatures with the stats of a Noble, but he can't ride a barded steed or cast as well as Lv.4. There is literally no obvious choice and that's something very rare when it comes to an army book. Even the mighty Frostheart Phoenix who can give units -S and ASL have to compete with the havoc it's fiery brother can cause, especially when an Anointed can take him as a mount and erupt come back on a 5+ instead of 6!
Internally, this is the best book I've seen in 8th Ed. by far. Not only will people have a different list, but they'll have a different list layout as well. Different core, different special choices, and even different rare. The only thing stopping me from giving this a perfect score is the fact that some magic items are "off": 4.5/5.
Overall, I'd say this book is good and will probably fall into the middle-high tier with 8th Ed. books in mind. There's a ton of options to make viable and competitive builds, but there are some definite hits and misses. For one, the Banner of the World Dragon has the community in an uproar. While not overpowered in the sense that it's just too good in all match-ups, it's a poorly designed item. The BotWD can be taken on almost every Special choice because of its price, and it gives the entire unit a 2+ ward vs. magical spells, attacks and weapons. Against someone like Daemons of Chaos who all have magical attacks, this one item basically shuts down their entire army. Sure, spells like Dwellers Below still gets around it, but the fact that it's utterly imbalanced vs. some armies and useless vs. others makes it the one hit and miss in the book.
High Elves, in short, will go back to their roots with this new book in terms of external balance. I can personally see 4 main archetypes rise up from the ashes sort of speak and these are it: Monster mash with a Prince on Star Dragon, multiple Phoenixes and maybe even a Noble on Griffon. Magic heavy lists running an Archmage or Alarielle, with special infantry blocks and Phoenixes as support. Cavalry-centric lists with Silver Helms, Ellyrion Reavers, Dragon Princes led by a Prince on barded steed. Lastly, we might see shooty heavy lists with Archers, RBTs, Sea Guard, Lothern Sky Cutters, and some other units. Sure, we might see some cheese builds arise such as Alarielle in a unit of White Lions with the Banner of the World Dragon spamming High Magic, but realistically, you'll probably just get kicked in the throat.
Other than that, I'd say the book's designed well to compete vs. the rest of the 8th Ed. books. That's basically what I'm looking at these days as the golden age of balance. You can't really compare the book to something like Dark Elves where you triple their magic items at a quarter of the cost. That's just a byproduct of an era of gaming no one wants to remember. 3.5/5 from me - with the Banner of the World Dragon docking a whole point. What were you thinking Mat?
The best book of 8th Ed. so far in terms of the solidity of design, great internal balance and decent external balance. Questionably Mat Ward's best work ever.. which makes me question the outcome of the last Daemons book even more. Have it at folks!