Decision: Which Sigmar leader best supports a defensive deck?
TL;DR:Steelheart's unparalleled card access puts him head and shoulders above the other two. Stormsire's versatility and better inspire condition allow him to narrowly edge out Farstrider for second.
Factor: MovementThis may seem to be an odd place to start, but with these models all having identical front and back defenses and wounds, it stands out as the only variance on the bottom stat row. Farstrider shines here, with 4 move to begin the game. Movement is key to winning defensive games against aggro, so the ability to outpace Orcs and keep up with most of the inspired Fiends is definitely high value. Additionally, Farstrider's repeatable ranged attacks couple well with a high movement score, giving him an impressive 8 hex charge range late game.
Factor: Melee AttacksWhile uninspired, Farstrider's Shock Handaxe is the worst of the lot, losing out on damage to Steelheart's Sigmarite Broadsword and in the range department to Stormsire's Incantor's Staff. Steelheart's 3 damage is solid, allowing him to 1 shot many units unaided and destroy all but the toughest enemies with a single upgrade or ploy. Stormsire's additional range allows him to use a single push ploy to create space between himself and an enemy melee fighter, then repeatedly attack without much danger of being counterattacked. Given that attack actions are at a premium in defensive decks, Steelheart's high damage is probably more valuable than the extra range of Incantor's Staff.
None of the models upgrade their single target melee attack upon inspiration, skewing instead toward the development of specialist attacks. Here, only Steelheart gets another short-range attack, becoming the dominant model of the three in melee. Mighty Swing and Sigmarite Broadsword are both strictly better than Shock Handaxe and compare well with Incantor's Staff.
Factor: Ranged AttacksSorry Steelheart, you'll have to sit this one out. Arguments can be made that Mighty Swing makes up for the lack of a ranged attack, but those arguments largely fall unheard at a distance greater than 1 hex.
Both Farstrider and Stormsire start uninspired with 1 damage ranged attacks. Boltstorm Pistol is kind of unimpressive on the surface , but does critical on roughly 18% more of its attacks than Fulmination. Fulmination, on the other hand, is more accurate, scoring at least 1 hit on 5% more attacks than Boltstorm. Fulmination also inspires Stormsire on a success, improving itself in the process. On the downside, in the rare event that Stormsire rolls double criticals on Fulmination, he'll deal 1 damage to himself.
One other minor detail that should be noted, Fulmination can't benefit from support, while Farstrider's attacks can. With a 3 model army, this isn't terribly game-swinging, but it might be worth considering. Similarly, the support-based and support-mimicking accuracy boosts on ploys and upgrades won't help out Fulmination, but can make Farstrider's attacks almost auto-successes.
Once inspired, Fulmination increases its damage to 2, resulting in a significant rise in average damage output when compared to Boltstorm. (On average, Fulmination will result in 1.5 damage per use unblocked, while Boltstorm will only result in 0.7). Farstrider does manage to grab a new attack, Star Falcon, with 4 range. It hits with the same accuracy as Boltstorm, but will do an extra damage on roughly half of its attacks. Ignoring range, however, Fulmination still does more damage on average. 4 range is a huge improvement over 3 - allowing Farstrider to attack 2 movement models without fear of retribution via charge - but Farstrider's inspire condition will all but guarantee that you will need the extra range (more on that later).
Factor: InspiringHey, it's later! Let's talk about inspiring your leader. These models' inspire results are relatively simple, and easy to compare, as they all gain a single improvement to their offensive ability an an extra defense (block) die. Therefore, when comparing the inspire conditions, we can view them essentially as variable "costs" that all result in relatively comparable "benefits."
Steelheart's inspire condition is quite likely to be met through normal play, as he should flip over about half the time after the first time he's attacked. This sets up an interesting dynamic for Steelheart, since defensive decks are ideally about avoiding attacks in the first place. The more successful your deck is at avoiding conflict with the enemy, the less likely it is that Steelheart will inspire. However, most defensive players won't shed any tears in the 3rd end phase for an uninspired Steelheart who was never the subject of an enemy attack.
Farstrider's inspire condition, at the risk of sounding biased, sucks the moon right out of the goddamn sky. Placing your model in enemy territory on turn 1 or 2 in a defensive deck is mostly likely going to result in you losing them. While running to enemy territory is often a good idea on turn 3, it won't result in a useful inspiration. Farstrider is uninspirable at base during turn 1, so you're stuck with 1 shield defense until at least turn 2. Additionally, only having 2 end phases during which you can meaningfully inspire him puts him last on the list for inspiration.
Stormsire's inspire condition is fairly easy to achieve, though not as automatic as Steelheart's. Essentially, you have 2 options to inspire Stormsire - depend on his innate attack action (which hits at the same rate as a 2 axe attack: 75%), or load your deck up with cards that have spell actions. So far, there isn't a way for Stormsire to gain an innate Focus symbol, so you'll have to roll dice if you want to shoot people. Focusing on the innate attack will provide you with fewer opportunities to inspire, but will save you from playing possibly sub-par cards. Adding a few cards with spell actions opens up the possibility to inspire Stormspire outside of an Activation.
Factor: Card Access - Objectives
To address the obvious right out of the gate, Steelheart has vastly superior access to defensive objectives than the other two leaders. Eternals, Consecrated Area, and Sigmar's Bulwark all effectively give you 2nd copies (in some cases, better versions) of key defensive deck objectives. There's simply no competing with Steelheart in this area, where he gains access to 5 glory worth of excellent warband-specific defensive objectives.
Farstrider really only grants you access to Brave But Cautious, another "2nd copy" of a great defensive objective. However, this is an end-phase objective, and it only nets you 1 glory.
Stormsire gains access to a solid defensive score-immediately objective in Harness the Storm. You'll be casing spells in order to inspire your models, so this should be an auto-score. Measured Strike is a fantastic "2nd copy" of Precise Use of Force, but the odds of a defensive deck fitting in both of those objectives are pretty low. Stormsire, like Farstrider, is stuck with a paltry 1 glory in exclusive access (though his is, at least, score-immediately).
Factor: Card Access - Upgrades
Once again, Steelheart shines in access to exclusive upgrades. Blessed by Sigmar should be a near auto-include, as a second copy of Great Fortitude. Steelheart can also use Heroic Might to get Cleave, possibly the best accuracy boost in the game right now (reducing a 1 shield model's defense success rate by 33% and a 2 shield model's by 43%). There are also a few other exclusive upgrades that may make it into the 9th or 10th upgrade slot for a defensive deck - Fatal Riposte and Heroic Stride.
Farstrider also gains access to a few solid exclusive upgrades. Lone Warrior increases Farstrider's chance to defend by 17% on the front and 14% on the back. Flashing Handaxe and Overcharged Boltstorm Pistol both provide Cleave. Of the two Flashing is definitely the more impressive upgrade, but Overcharged can be placed on any member of Farstrider's warband. Finally, Aetheric Step and Swift Stride may find niche spots in mobility-focused defensive decks.
Access to quality warband-exclusive upgrades is one area where Stormsire really lags behind the other two leaders. Only Tempest's Might stands out as a possible inclusion in defensive decks, turning an inspired fulmination into a highly accurate 3 damage ranged attack. Stormsire could pick up Cleave with Blessed Blade, but it's strictly worse than Flashing Handaxe. Similarly, Stormsire could grab an innate Channel symbol with Eye of the Storm, but he really has no reason to.
In an odd turn, Stormsire does gain access to a few universal upgrades that are forbidden to Steelheart and Farstrider based on their lack of wizard hats. Unfortunately most of these upgrades don't really help you achieve your goals as a defensive deck. One possible exception is Touch of Death, but it's inherent low accuracy cripples it as a solid contender for limited upgrade slots.
Factor: Card Access - Ploys
In no other part of the game are deckbuilding restrictions felt as acutely as when selecting Gambits. Defensive decks generally consider cards like Quick Thinker, Hidden Paths, and Great Concussion absolute auto-includes. Other pushes also take high priority. This leaves each warband very little flex room to include warband-specific Gambits - a ploy must be very good indeed to make its way into the Power Deck.
Once again, Steelheart leads the way in selection of excellent defensive ploys. Peal of Thunder should be the defensive player's first choice, but given room, Sigmarite Wall, Heroic Guard, and even Unstoppable Strike may warrant inclusion in a defensive Power Deck.
Comparatively, both Farstrider and Stormsire have relatively weak access to warband-exclusive ploys. Farstrider should almost certainly pick up Rangers, Advance for any defensive deck. Beyond that, Patient Defense and Warning Cry may be strong enough to fill the 10th slot. Finding himself at the bottom of the ladder again is Stormsire, with only Lightning Assault strongly recommending itself for inclusion - and then only in defensive hybrid decks. Similarly to Farstrider, Stormsire may find himself filling the 10th Gambit slot with Aetherwing Stance.
Factor: Card Access - Spells
Unfortunately, access to spells does little to improve one's lot in life at this point in the game. While Gambit Spells often have strong effects, they also have failure chances. Some of this can be mitigated through the use of upgrades and ploys to gain innate symbols, but as of this printing, only Gitz have access to an innate Focus symbol.
Stormsire is a level 2 wizard, so he rolls two dice on any gambit spell check. This gives him a solid chance to perform 1 symbol spells - 89% for Channel and 75% for Focus. His chance to successfully cast a spell that requires 2 Channel or Focus symbols drops rather dramatically to 44% and 25% respectively.
The problem is that for a spell to warrant inclusion it must have a desirable effect and a decent chance of being successfully cast. This eliminates most options. Infinite Riches and Sorcerous Insight are amazingly powerful, but their rate of failure makes them poor choices for defensive decks - which rely in reduction of randomness in order to achieve success. On the other end of the spectrum Abasoth's Unmasking and Sphere of Shyish are relatively certain to get cast, but they don't really do anything to further your game plan.
If one is insistent on including Gambit Spells in their deck (to boost Stormsire's ability to inspire, for example), Sphere of Ulgu and Abasoth's Withering are probably the best choices. Sphere of Ulgu gives a very similar benefit to Aetherwing Stance, though with a 25% failure rate. Withering only fails 10% of the time, but it doesn't really do much that you want done.
Stormsire's access to Gambit Spells will only serve to improve his worth as more are released, but at this time, they do little to boost his value.
Alternate Path - Gurzag
Can Gurzag compare to the Sigmar leaders as a defensive powerhouse? Probably not, but let's look at some things anyway. Gurzag is 20% tougher than his Sigmar counterparts, and has the same defense and move stats on his uninspired side as Steelheart and Stormsire. Being a 5 wound model also allows Gurzag to avoid dying to the "Benchmark" 4 damage attacks that define much of the meta. As a bonus, any hit that doesn't kill Gurzag does indeed make him stronger by inspiring him. Unfortunately for the ork, once they flip, the Sigmar leaders will defend successfully 25% more of the time than he will.
What Gurzag lacks in defense, he makes up for in offense. His uninspired Boss Choppas attack is on par with Steelheart, but once he inspires his accuracy increases almost as much as if he had gained an extra attack die.
In terms of card access, Gurzag actually has it better than Steelheart or Stormsire. 'Ard as Iron and Too Dumb to Die both fit nicely into a defensive deck. The ork boss also has a wide variety of exclusive upgrades to choose from: Unkillable gives you a Gurzag only version of Soultrap, Crush and Cleave grants Cleave, and 'Eadbutt serves as a more accurate version of Touch of Death. In terms of ploys, only Brutal but Kunnin' stands out, allowing you to counterattack an enemy that gets too close, push your fighter away, and still move later on.
Overall, Gurzag probably isn't as good of a choice for a leader of a defensive warband as any of the Sigmar leaders. However, excellent access to exclusive upgrades and objectives, as well as the ability to counterattack with devastating results mean that a dedicated ork player who would rather run than smash can certainly do so to good effect.
Steelheart was made for the defensive game, and as such, stands out as the clear winner for best defensive leader. He inspires easily, hits hard, and gains access to five times the warband exclusive glory as the other two leaders. Of the remaining two, Stormsire is a slightly better leader, due almost entirely to his easier inspire condition and the versatility of Fulmination.
Please Note: The above comparison does not factor in supporting fighters in the Champions, Cursebreakers, or Farstriders warbands. This would obviously affect a player's choice of which warband to play, but this article is too long as it is. We'll look at the supporting players another day.