Codex: Tau Empire is apparently in the offing, coming sometime towards the end of this year or the beginning of the next. Obviously it's not exactly right around the corner, but given the codex update cycle Games Workshop operates on, it's relatively soon. So, with that in mind, I wanted to lay out some of what I'm hoping to see. In particular, there is one unit in each of the force organization slots that simply needs a thorough re-thinking, and on which I'm going to focus.
HQ - The Ethereal
As every Tau Empire player knows, the Ethereal is a complete waste. 50 points gets you a statline that would be moderately impressive for a non-special character Imperial Guard HQ, no armour, no ranged weaponry, no psychic powers, and a pair of non-power weapon close combat weapons. Compared to the other main option, the 1+ battlesuit-wearing Shas'el, there's no contest whatsoever; the Shas'el gets an almost entirely better statline across the board, plus a jetpack, the Acute Sense special rule, and a 3+ save. Oh, and he also gets the ability to carry a gun!
So, what does the Ethereal have that the Shas'el doesn't? Special rules. Ethereals have two of them that really matter; Inspiring Presence, which allows Tau (not Kroot, Vespid or Drones) with line of sight to them to re-roll a Morale check. Not a leadership test, mind, just a morale check. And they can't do it if the Ethereal is in a transport. And having an open line of sight to him usually means that he's out in the open to begin with, making him an exceedingly squishy target, particularly in light of special rule number two, Price of Failure. This rule states that, when the Ethereal dies, every Tau unit, not just those with line of sight, have to take a leadership test and get Preferred Enemy. Preferred Enemy is largely useless, since Tau are so bad in close combat that small benefits simply can't make up the difference, but the morale check is brutal. Elite Tau Empire units have the same leadership values as basic Space Marines; they make Orks look well-disciplined! The loss of a single model, who remember wears no armour and has a very weak statline, can theoretically send whole units running for the board edge, and given the number of jetpack-equipped units in a Tau cadre they'll run very fast, indeed.
So, it's obvious why nobody takes the Ethereal. The question is, how do you make him viable? And the answer basically depends on what the role of the Ethereal is. It'd be easy enough just to stick him in a battlesuit, or even a stealth suit, and treat him like every other character in every other codex. But the Ethereals are unique amongst the leaders of the forty-first millenia in their effect on their troops, and that should be represented on the tabletop, as well. An Ethereal shouldn't just be a Shas'el with some CC potential and a couple special rules, it should be a unique and characterful thing in and of itself.
The most obvious fix, of course, is to give the Ethereal armour. The only other things running around without armour in this codex are the Kroot, and you have to field them in minimum squads of 10. And they have guns! Sorry, I just can't get over that. Anyway, if the Ethereal is meant to be that important, it should be reasonably well protected. A 4+ save, or even a 5+ invulnerable, are the minimum this unit should have. After that, if you actually want to play up the CC element (and the only weapons you can currently give Ethereals are two regular CC weapons or one weapon that gives +2 strength), then for the love of all that's holy, give them power weapons. They're just not going to accomplish anything, otherwise. And another point of initiative wouldn't hurt, either, since as it stands the most storied and deadly close combat warriors in the Tau Empire will hit second after just about every other unit out there.
The special rules are the other place where this unit really needs fixing, and again, it comes down to what this unit is supposed to do. If they're only going to be armed for CC, that means they're expected to get up close and personal to contribute. However, as it stands now the cost-benefit ratio is hugely out of sync; Ethereals provide little real combat power, at the risk of army-wide devastation should they be killed, which they almost certainly will be if they're rushing out into the front like that. Inspiring Presence and Price of Failure aren't bad ideas in an of themselves, but they are poorly executed. Inspiring Presence should affect all Tau models on the board, including Drones but excluding Kroot and Vespid, and rather than just allowing re-rolled morale checks, it should allow a re-roll for all LD-based tests. Tau leadership is weak pretty much across the board, relative to cost and comparisons with other armies' equivalent units, and this would provide a very real way to address that. For that same reason, Price of Failure shouldn't break units when the Ethereal dies, because then you're demanding a LD test just when the army is least capable of making one. Instead, what about something like forcing units that fail the test to go to ground for a turn, a sort of moment of shock, after which they get back up. A single turn forced to go to ground may not sound like much, but that could be debilitating given that it's a full turn in which you do no shooting or maneuvering. After that, give them a useful Universal Special Rule, like Counter-Attack or Fearless or Furious Charge, something that really will make a difference and show just how damned mad they are at the death of their Ethereal. Or just don't provide a 'benefit' afterwards, and tone down the effect of Price of Failure. Either way, the Ethereal's special rules are way out of whack, and if Games Workshop plans to sell any more of them, they'd best get around to fixing up the gulf between the model's costs and its actual value.
So, those are my suggestions for fixing the Ethereal; armour, power weapons, a better I and more balanced special rules. It also wouldn't hurt if the Honor Guard counted as a Troops, and therefore scoring, unit, because who needs more expensive Fire Warriors who can't score? I'm not exactly lacking St 5 AP 5 guns as-is, guys, and one better BS isn't that impressive in a codex that contains Pathfinders.
Next up, the Elites!