#returntoisstvan: By Bolt or by Blade

We’re doing the victory lap here. Ellis Daniel has completed the #returntoisstvan challenge with a beautiful Sons of Horus force. What’s doubly inspiring is that he’s a local lad – he lives in Cardiff! I’ll have the pleasure of seeing this army in person! Take it away!

Well this is it, the end of phase 1 of the Return to Isstvan challenge. A movement that has been a global phenomenon.

This is my third Legion since I got into House Heresy in December 2016, when I bought Betrayal at Calth. I got back into Warhammer after 20 years when a friend, who was still a painter, showed me a few accounts in 2016 on Instagram. I was intrigued. I was a man in his 30s who wanted to indulge himself. Was this a mid-life crisis? (at least you didn’t buy an Audi – Myles)

Social media gave me access to the very latest in Warhammer and I started seeing words like “Forgeworld” and “Horus Heresy”. I looked further and came across the Forgeworld website and I was really confused at first. What was the 31st millenium? The models weren’t painted how they used to be in second edition. They were gritty and grimy. I couldn’t see any edge highlights. Was this a bad paint job? Oh no, it was something more. Something so much more. And I loved it. I quickly got deeper into the hobby, more engaged with the online community and attended the 2017 Heresy weekender.

I played about 50 games in the first two years using Imperial Fists and then Blood Angels through events and the local community of South Wales. I had just started a Mechanicum force when Covid struck.

During the UK lockdown, the Isstvan challenge came onto my radar via friends in the community and I was easily drawn in. I got involved in discussions about the potential forces and thanks to members of various groups and local communities, the challenge gained momentum.

I had a solid loyalist Blood Angels force and an Imperial Fists force before but I had never played as a traitor. By now I had read a substantial number of the Black Library books and knew the Heresy fairly well. Although I’d never pulled the trigger on starting a traitor legion I’d long had aspirations of doing an Army of Dark Compliance made up of Word Bearers (Argel Tal, what a guy) and cultists. Cultists were something I definitely wanted in my Isstvan army but as much as I love the story of the Word Bearers it was hard for me to identify a style of play for them from the novels. I was used to playing Blood Angels who were very distinctive shock assault. Plus I’d be waiting until Isstvan V to use Word Bearers and cultists!

I eventually settled on Sons of Horus as for me it was taking me full circle back to those iconic 2nd edition artworks of Sanguinius dead on the Vengeful Spirit. Or Mike McVey’s legendary diorama.  I was totally committed to the Blood Angels so for me the opposite side of the coin in the narrative would be Sons of Horus. Sanguinus could easily have been chosen Warmaster instead of Horus and we’d be playing a very different narrative. So I wanted to see things from the other side of the story we know.

I came up with a plan. Start with 1500 points of Sons of Horus infantry, then add elites and fast tanks to make up 2500 for frontline games. After that, I could use a further 500 points for cultists allies at Isstvan V in the future.

Boom! That was it. I had a strategy to approach the Challenge and then take the army further to scratch the cultist and hobby butterfly itch down the road.

In terms of build the list itself I have drawn on a few themes. Firstly, everything in the 2500 list had to either be fast or on foot. That means infantry wouldn’t be mounted and vehicles had to be fast. No Spartans, no Leviathans, I wanted to avoid the ‘go to’ meta staples.

The second theme was to follow Horus’ approach at Isstvan III of blooding as many of his men as possible to prepare them for the wars ahead. I chose to select lots of different unit types instead of repeating units across the army.

Finally, I applied the third theme of ‘By Bolter or Blade’ to choose the units. Assault marines, seekers, tactical marines, and reavers. The bolter and chainsword that Horus so favoured would feature heavily in the army. For the first 1500 points I went with five units:

  • Praetor
  • 15 assault marines
  • 20 tactical marines
  • 10 Reavers
  • 10 Seekers

Very early on in the challenge, I saw Myles’ Sons of Horus tutorial. Boy was it good. I loved the aesthetic, I loved how it reminded me of those gritty first Heresy models I saw. I took Myles’ tutorial and played about with it so that it fitted what I was comfortable with attaining at my skill level. Looking at the pictures of my army you will see that my army is not a Li’l Legend standard of paint job!

I took out a few steps I didn’t feel I could make work due to my abilities and switched some paints for Vallejo alternatives. I ended up with a method I could achieve and repeat against a shed load of infantry.

After I had base coated the army I felt I was missing an opportunity to take my army and skills further. I paused to think and I decided to go back to Myles’ tutorial and see what I could bring back in. I decided to add texture and chipping to the armour which made such a difference. It actually didn’t take too much more effort and I’m glad I pushed myself. I chose my battles carefully and spent more time on models where it matters whilst also avoiding doing the bare minimum on troops. I never thought I’d paint so many faces, something I usually avoid!

The 1500 centurion list took about 5 months but it wasn’t until the closing weeks I knuckled down to get things finished. It’s not the first time I’ve focused on a large project like this but it was a new experience to do it along side others in the community. Towards the end when the first couple of completed armies started to get posted I felt a push to reach the goal. I’m also dying to get back to finishing my stompy robots!

I write this hours after declaring the phase 1 challenge completed and it feels very cathartic. I feel I’ve broken the back of a 3000 point playable Sons of Horus army, but I’d like my hobby to be a little less pressured in 2021. 2021 will be my first year where I’m not building a whole new Heresy army from scratch! Instead, I’ll be using the time to tinker with new Rites of War and mix up games now I have two or three factions to play with.

The Isstvan challenge isn’t over, however, and there’s plenty of appetite to see through campaign games. I can’t wait to get back to Firestorm in Cardiff to see what these Sons of Horus can do. The community that came together for the Isstvan challenge has been an exemplar of what Heresy can be. I hope this grows and grows and I’m sticking around for it.

This challenge and my hobby in general are kept going by the community. There were so many individuals that helped me along with the challenge. I can’t name them all and don’t want to forget anyone but take it as a given that if we’ve spoken about hobby if we’ve played games, if you’ve commented on my progress or produce content that I’ve consumed, you are my hobby heroes. Thank you!

The full masterclass series has been gathered here.

And thank you Daniel! This is what the community can achieve when we work together to drive onward to an end result. The armies are trickling in now and I’ll be hosting them all here! If you have participated in the challenge and would like to be featured please get in touch. If you’d like to see Ellis’ wonderous Blood Angels and Mechanicum armies you can find him here on Instagram.

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