A Gravedigger’s Handbook, #5: Scalpel Review
by Alex Botts ·
This articles series is meant to provide tips and tricks for intermediate Guild Ball Morticians players who have a grasp on the basics of their faction but want to take their play to a higher level.
I’d like to quickly thank Jamie Perkins for discussing Scalpel with me at Adepticon. He definitely helped me grasp her quicker and a lot of his tips have ended up in this article in one form or another.
Scalpel, the new Morticians captain, has big shoes to fill. Obulus, often considered the best captain in the game, is at the center of the vast majority of Morticians strategies to date, as well as the majority of complaints from players facing Morticians. Fortunately for us, I’m fairly certain Scalpel is of comparable competitive strength to Obulus, and is as reasonable a pick for your captain in a tournament lineup as the Ferryman.
At Adepticon this past weekend I was lucky enough to get a bunch of games in with Scalpel in both competitive and casual settings, and while I’m far from mastering her any time soon, I feel I can give you a good impression of her general strengths, weaknesses, and baseline strategies. In order to do this, I won’t be consistently directly comparing her to Obulus, or going over her card stat-by-stat and play-by-play. Rather, I’ll cover different components of playing a captain, and in doing so will cover what I think she does well. Ideally, by the end of this article, you’ll have some helpful tips in starting to think about Scalpel, what you want to do with her, and how you’d construct a team around our exciting new captain!
General Playstyle: A Bokor’s Handbook
In my mind Scalpel is a dramatic shift in playstyle from our Season 1 captain, and one of the largest playstyle shifts between Season 1 and Season 2 captains. Where Obulus plays a game of implied threat and hard denial, Scalpel plays an active, predatory style, exploiting small gaps in the opponent’s lineup, positioning, or allocation to take out a weak player, score an unexpected goal, or befuddle a team’s plans.
On the way to doing this, Scalpel benefits from an incredibly flexible playbook full of multiple-feature results, where the sweet spot (3 and 4 successes) is easily reached through both high TAC and Anatomical Precision. The momentous 1-damage and push/dodge result, along with the momentous 2-damage and Guild Ball result, mean that whenever Scalpel is trying to do one thing, whether it’s move through dodges, reallocate enemy influence, or chop somebody up, she’s also doing something else as a bonus. She doesn’t do any of these things quite as well as other players (she’s no Shark or Fillet), but she does all of these things at the same time, which is key. Effective Scalpel play will be characterized by taking advantage of her multi-faceted playbook, and a good Scalpel activation should have you well on your way to multiple goals, rather than accomplishing any one thing immediately.
That said, a fully-loaded Scalpel can and will make take-outs happen. TAC and AP give her extremely consistent damage, meaning that 3+/1 and 4+/1 players are easy pickings, and it is reasonable to build a team with Scalpel being your main/only take-out threat. But Scalpel’s damage-dealing does require smart target selection; against targets with high DEF and no armor, the math of her attacks gets somewhat worse, and an overextended Scalpel who doesn’t take out her target is bad news. Her natural speed, and the extra threat Voodoo Strings can bring in a pinch, mean that Scalpel should be free in most games to pick who she wants to go after. When she can’t, that should be a sign for you to allocate less influence to Scalpel and turn her more into a support/control player, which she is also equipped to be with two solid buffs and a great ball-control game. If you can’t find something for Scalpel to do, either you’re not looking hard enough or you’re about to lose. She’s got enough tools for enough situations that she should have a large, but subtle, impact on multiple things every turn.
Weaknesses: Hexes and Those Who Cast Them
To balance what I would call Scalpel’s “hyper-competence” at the game of Guild Ball, our new captain does come with a few vulnerabilities.
First of all, she’s fairly vulnerable to being taken out, much more so than Obulus. 4+/1 are fine defenses, but she has really no other defensive mechanism versus dedicated attacks, making her one of the easiest captains to take out in the game currently. Slippery doesn’t help at all against anyone really trying to take her out, rather it just defends her against unlikely knockdowns and tackles while running around. Scalpel is fast and good at positioning herself, but one slip-up and she’ll be in the dirt faster than you’d expect.
Second, while Scalpel does consistently generate plenty of Momentum while attacking (almost all of her good playbook choices are momentous), she simply can’t compete with the power of Rigor Mortis, and has no real comparable mechanic for controlling the momentum game. So, a Morticians team led by Scalpel will have a much tougher time playing the Momentum-game to win. This necessitates both Momentum-conscious listbuilding and a willingness to make contingency plans for losing initiative rolls. Ideally you should already be thinking about those things, but with a vulnerable key player in Scalpel, end-of-turn board state becomes an even more important consideration for a Morts player.
Finally, speed penalties really ruins Scalpel’s day. Though she has identical threat ranges to Obulus, Obulus’s threats are half movement and half Shadowlike/2” melee, meaning 4” of his threat range are unchangeable/irreducible. Obulus also has 8” of Puppet Master to still change the game if he can’t move much. Scalpel only has 1” melee, and can only use Voodoo Strings once per game, so she is much more susceptible to being locked down by things like Foul Odour, fire, etc. When she gets to a target, she starts becoming mobile again through dodges, but depending on the team (looking at you, Fish) she may occasionally get locked down and be unable to do anything.
Key Plays & Tips: That Voodoo You Do So Well
Here are some general tips for using Scalpel’s different abilities and traits effectively. I’d like to stress again that I’m very early in my time playing Scalpel, but nonetheless I think these are useful and safe tips for someone looking at Scalpel’s card and being unsure about what she’s meant to do.
- Use Tormented Agony to stop key character plays. Not all Influence is allocated equal. If you see an enemy with just enough influence to do their key play (Lob Barrel, True Replication, Puppet Master, Rough Seas, etc.), Scalpel should dash in there and make them unable to pull that off. A mirror match against Obulus is a great opportunity for this, as many Morticians players will allocate 4 or 5 to Obulus on most turns to threaten Puppet Master but give them options with other players. Scalpel can take the threat of Puppet Master away completely, and those 2 INF on Dirge are just not as scary. Plus Scalpel’s Anatomical Precision makes her excellent at smacking Obulus.
- Have a target number for Tormented Agony, and stick to it. Don’t go overboard with rearranging Influence if you don’t have to. While hitting one target a bunch and stripping all of their Influence might seem nice at the time (and can be great in certain super-star cases, like Shark, Fillet, or Blackheart), your opponent might surprise you with what they are able to do with another player you’ve now fully stacked. The real value in Tormented Agony (other than the fact that, the whole time you use it, you’re also generating Momentum and dealing damage) is in making multiple inefficient activations for the opponent, and making them restructure their plan mid-turn. Focus on these effects, not on nullifying a single target. Incidentally, I think TA makes Scalpel exert some of the highest clock-pressure in a competitive setting in Guild Ball, as the opponent may have to reconsider their whole strategy once or twice a turn!
- Use Voodoo Strings to circumvent defense mechanics & extend threat. Once per game, Scalpel can ignore Unpredictable Movement, nullify the effects of goalies like Tenderizer or Compound, cancel out the effects of Don’t Touch the Hair, disengage a key ally, and/or just grab and hit somebody who started 13” away from her. I would say that Voodoo Strings is likely to have less of an impact on the game than Rigor Mortis most of the time, but that by no means makes it a bad Legendary. Combined with Scalpel’s excellent low tackle and 3/6” kick, VS at the very least makes her a grade-A ball retriever. And the ability to move a goalie away from the goal is a big deal to me, as their goal-defense abilities make our mediocre kick stats pretty dire for scoring goals. An example of a cool use of Voodoo Strings came over the weekend, when I was playing against Fisherman, and first turn they received the ball and were customarily passing it around. My opponent placed Sakana a little bit too close to Scalpel with the ball (11”, in fact, as I had kicked off with Scalpel), so Scalpel jogged in, pulled him, Tackled him, Momentous push/dodged away, passed to Mist, spent Momentum to have Mist dodge away, then popped her own Heroic Play on herself and jogged to cover. That play, which only required 3 INF (which was good, cause that’s what I gave her), prevented a goal from Shark in two activations that I probably had no other way to stop.
- Do NOT use Voodoo Strings to bunch enemies up. Voodoo Strings can technically affect every enemy within the 17.1”-diameter circle around Scalpel, but its maximum usage is usually a trap. As covered above, Scalpel does not like being ganged up on, and any concentrated effort to take her out will do it if they can get to her. I can see the temptation to group enemies up for, say, Ghast to get a monstrous Unmasking off, but those enemies would all be closer to Scalpel as well, and so I’d expect that use to be corner-case at best. Getting a single good pull out of VS will be fairly common while you’re starting out with her; as you (and I) get better with Scalpel, I expect 2-3 actual pushes being used on a good VS turn, to hopefully work toward a couple different goals at once. Like her playbook, Scalpel’s Legendary Play can be used to accomplish multiple things, and will be best used when your play is flexible enough to take more than one benefit at a time.
- Think about Wake the Dead as denial, not a heal. Every good use I’ve gotten out of Wake the Dead thus far has not resulted in the Reanimate actually being triggered. In my opinion, WtD gets its money back most often when it causes the opponent to decide not to try to take out the target. You won’t be using it every turn, but when you do use it, you should use it on players who might get taken out, but aren’t a sure thing. Reanimate makes dicey math look absolutely terrible. If your opponent knows for sure they can take you out, 3 HP probably won’t change anything, but with Scalpel’s focus on positioning, you should be trying to make a take-out for the enemy require an overextension and a bit of luck. WtD preys on those odds.
- Control the ball & score late. Morticians don’t have a goalie, or anybody who particularly acts like a goalie. I will cover this more in a future article about how Morticians want to play ball, but our guild is extremely susceptible to what I call “slingshot goals,” that is a goal being immediately scored against us after we score. This issue, which I felt when playing Obulus, is even more the case with Scalpel, who likes to play far into the enemy’s half of the pitch, preying on low-health targets and leading the enemy on a merry chase. I often found that my side of the pitch was effectively open, and a fast striker from the other team could break away and score without much trouble if given the opportunity. Fortunately, Scalpel hangs on to the ball excellently, and can pass it around better than Obulus to generate momentum or keep her team mobile. Score later in turns, when the opponent has less activations to make a goal happen.
- Only pay for Second Wind normally if you can’t attack. This is just plain math, but the difference between using the Heroic Play and spending 2 INF for Second Wind is, with two Momentous attack results, using the Heroic is a net gain of 1 Momentum plus whatever your attacks did. The flexibility of the alternate cost is nice, but 99 times out of 100 Scalpel will do much more work using Unnatural Stamina.
- Trust in Scalpel’s ability. This is kind of a silly recommendation, but seriously, she plays better than her card suggests. Every game I played with her, even games where it was clear I had no idea what I was doing, I was surprised by how much work Scalpel got done. She’d jump in, dice up a hurt enemy, grab the ball, pass it away, and run somewhere safe. She’d grab Brisket, knock her down, dodge away, and score. She’d stop Commanding Aura and Blind from happening, She’d strip all the influence off of a target that just got Bag of Coffers. She’d 1-round a full-health Gutter, and walk off with 4 or 5 Momentum in the bank. She’s tons of fun to play and has a lot of cool options!
Team Selection: She’s Got Friends on the Other Side
Of course, all this goodness isn’t worth anything if Scalpel doesn’t have a solid team behind her. Scalpel wants players that can play off her ability to isolate targets, open up lanes of movement, prevent big plays from the opponent, and keep allies situationally alive versus overextended opponents. She also would love to be able to control the ball, since its natural bonus to mobility helps her and her friends get where they need to be or stay out of trouble. She doesn’t necessarily need a second hard damage threat, but since our hardest hitters (Rage, Cosset) tend to be fairly squishy, her buffs and positioning nonsense can benefit those players by keeping them alive. Here’s a quick list of some of Scalpel’s options for players, and what I think about how they work with her.
Silence: Is it possible that we got a captain who synergizes with Silence even more!? One of the clearest plays with Scalpel is to have Silence Shutout a squishy target, have Scalpel pump as much influence from other enemies onto the shut out player through Tormented Agony, and then take your sweet time murdering the hapless influence mule. More generally, Tucked and Shutout let you exert some control over which stacks of influence get spent when, which gives Scalpel a little more room to activate later in the turn and still take advantage of Tormented Agony. Also, fire is always good, especially if your objective is to outpace and outmaneuver the opposition.
Graves: I’ll admit Jamie Perkins has convinced me that Graves has a fair amount of use in more situations than I gave him credit for. What a difference a con weekend makes! That said, I think Graves’s favorite captain is Scalpel, not Obulus. Scalpel appreciates Graves’s early Tackle and 3/6 kick, and her two buffs both really help Graves stay alive, especially with his 2” reach meaning he doesn’t have to worry about parting blows as often. Scalpel also crucially prefers to activate in the beginning or middle of a turn, opening up a late-turn activation spot that would otherwise beey occupied by Obulus. The later Graves can activate in a turn, the better, as Bleed gets more and more likely to make it through to the Maintenance Phase. I still have a big problem with Graves’s difficulty generating Momentum, however, and I think using him requires having consistent plans for other players to make up his shortcoming.
Ghast: When I first saw Scalpel’s card, I thought it’d be incredible to Reanimate Ghast, but other than possibly giving him a chance to make another counterattack I now think that combo is not actually that awesome. When Ghast is going to be taken out, the enemy team usually commits 2-3 players to him anyway, and so I don’t think 3 HP makes all that much of a difference in most cases for the big guy. That said, Ghast is still an excellent addition to your roster. All his usually strengths are there, he’s excellent at generating momentum, and knockdown remains incredibly strong in every case. 4+/1 targets are 3+/0 against Scalpel when they are knocked down. Juicy.
Bonesaw: Every time I read Bonesaw’s card I think he’s incredible, and then every time I put him on the table he doesn’t feel like he does much. I’m happy to admit this might be a weakness of my own play, but I just can’t figure out what to do with the man. Scalpel definitely gives him more of a role—his use as a ball controller, secondary scoring threat, and midfield disruption synergize well with Scalpel, but I just can’t shake the feeling that his spot could be taken up by someone better. Mist is still our premier pure scorer, so Bonesaw needs to bring more to the table, but currently I feel his position in the team is better taken by a control or damage threat.
Casket: Casket is interesting because he is a lot slower than Scalpel feels like she wants her team to be, but on the other hand she is very good at isolating and rendering helpless a single target, which feeds right into Casket’s whole game-plan. Whether Scalpel is a better captain for Casket than Obulus remains to be seen, as Obulus also isolates a single target very well with Puppet Master, and is better personally at knocking people down (plus Confidence is nice insurance for Casket to do his thing). I would consider Casket a good tournament-8 addition, but maybe not a starter, for Scalpel, but I haven’t played with them together enough.
Rage & Cosset: I’m putting these two together because, if you need a damage threat, you’re probably choosing between these two, and I want to compare and contrast them. Rage benefits Scalpel in that he generates consistent Momentum and great damage for low cost, and Scalpel has a lot of pushes (plus Voodoo Strings of course) to bring people into Rage’s threat. On the other hand, Rage cannot benefit from either of Scalpel’s buffs, whereas Cosset, who has less consistent Momentum generation, benefits from Scalpel’s buffs, and Second Wind in particular is extremely nice on Cosset, both because of her safety needs and her speed. Here’s another wrinkle in this consideration: The recently-spoiled Vet Graves looks very interesting to me, but obviously requires Vileswarm be included, whatever that mascot does. Cosset loses a lot without Dirge, so if Vileswarm ends up being awesome, Cosset might lose some position. Right now, before the release of VetGraves and Vileswarm, I give the slight edge to Cosset with Scalpel, but I would never consider Rage a bad inclusion (and I suppose you could do both!)
Mist: Scalpel keeps Mist safe and mobile. I like Mist a lot and he’ll probably never leave my tournament lineup unless we somehow manage to get a better striker one day. Mist is as good here as in any other list and I think Morticians are at their best when they threaten both goals and take-outs.
Closing Thoughts: Pre-Mortem
Scalpel is very strong, that much is clear from my playtesting thus far. She is not easy to learn, and it will take a while to really unlock her power. In addition, with the final release of all the captains, the Hunters, the Vet players, and the mascots for Season 2 of Guild Ball, I expect the general metagame, and way players play, to shift dramatically. With all that in mind, I can’t accurately predict Scalpel’s (or Obulus’s) viability over the next year, but alone, in isolation in how the game currently stands, Scalpel has a solid place in my lineup and I will be playing her as much as I can over the next few months. Again barring new releases, my lineup for Season 2 tournaments includes both Scalpel and Obulus, as I feel they can create a sufficiently large change of playstyle with the same roster of 6 players. I’ll close this by simply imploring Morticians players to not be dissuaded by Scalpel’s perceived weakness compared to Obulus, and to get a bunch of games in before pronouncing her competitively dead. There’s a lot we all probably have to learn about our faction, which remains one of the most complex in the game, and probably will for the game’s lifetime. Scalpel gives us a fresh and exciting game.
Alex Botts is a tabletop gaming enthusiast who mostly plays Guild Ball (Morticians) and Warmachine/Hordes (Protectorate). He likes miniatures, strategy games, and long campaigns on the beach. He's also Head Editor for Chicago Megagames and would love to talk to you about any of the above!
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