There was a time, not terribly long ago when I would have vehemently protested the return of Primarchs to 40K.
“The game system can't adequately represent them,” I would have railed, “The balance of the setting will be upset by their return,” I would have bleated, “No model can encapsulate their ethos,” I would have remonstrated (struggling for synonyms all the way).
And I would have been wrong. On all fronts.
Most of all, I would have been...mildly incredulous, to say the least, regarding the return of the Daemon Primarchs: entities that are second only to the powers of Chaos themselves in the daemonic pantheons; that were semi-divine during their material incarnations, but which, after their ascendence (or damnation, if you prefer), are arguably too mythic in scope to ever adequately portray.
Then Magnus the Red. Magnus the Red, arguably the most problematic of all the Daemon Primarchs to represent as a physical model and in terms of table top rules (given that he is, by nature, an inconstant creature: a shifting entity of contradictions and paradoxes, that, in the fiction that includes him, is almost impossible to look upon or be in the presence of without insanity ensuing).
Magnus the Red. Arguably not the first example of this phenomena, but the first within 40K, marking the beginning of events that would traumatically alter the setting and its status, that would instigate the greatest shake up for the 41st Millennium in all of its history.
To truly appreciate when and where this phenomena began, we need to go back, way back, into a world that -technically- no longer exists; a world in its death throes, owing, in part, to the re-emergence of a certain Lord of Death...
Refered to now only as “The World That Was.”
Nagash. Arguably the first experiment by Games Workshop to represent an entity from the Old World's past that had become..mythic and divine over successive iterations of the game; an entity that many would proclaim was impossible to represent within the old “Fantasy Battle” gaming systems.
And they would have been right, in certain respects: the resurrection of Nagash shocked and surprised us all, not least of which because, during the apocalyptic events of the End Times, fielding Nagash in the game was more of a narrative exercise than a gaming one: he was insane, as befits an (un)living god, the very incarnation of necromancy itself: he could take on and desolate small armies single-handed (appropriate, given certain details of his now all but forgotten past).
This was perhaps the first time in many, many years Games Workshop dropped a bombshell into one of their gaming worlds and systems; one that deliberately upset the balance of the Old World as a narrative setting and also the game itself.
But, most notably, the first time they utilised present day technology, design techniques etc to create a miniature that truly represents the dark glory, the majesty, of a wicked god; a miniature of such dynamism and presence, it draws the eye on any shelf or battlefield. Not merely a miniature to represent Nagash, but a small diorama, every element designed to evoke the ethos of Nagash as he occurs in the background and fiction: rising from his base on a cyclone of spirits, the Nine Books of Nagash swirling around him, his crown -a key artefact in the character's background- a focal point, framing his skeletal features.
He's a work of mythic art, a stunning example of how an immense miniature can be dynamic, evocative and narrative-fuelled.
The first of many experiments, that would see the likes of Archaon, Alarielle, the Lord of Change, the Great Unclean One and numerous others receive similar treatment in the newly-coined Age of Sigmar setting.
But what about 40K?
In many respects, the various semi-divinities, Greater Daemons and monstrosities of the AoS setting provided excellent basis for experimentation when it came to developing the Primarchs.
Amongst the most significant and beloved characters in any of Games Workshop's mythologies, the very notion of Primarchs occurring in the game setting is...somewhat terrifying, for both fans and developers.
The onus to get it right was -and remains- so strong, to the point whereby Games Workshop could potentially bury themselves if they failed.
Then Magnus the Red.
Magnus the Red, the most...problematic Primarch to portray, in any medium, revealed by what may have been an accident (or a very clever bit of surreptitious marketing).
Suddenly, the fanbase is ablaze. Primarchs are returning to 40K, and in a BIG, BAD way; one of the most neglected legions in the game's entire history was to be the first to have its Lord back on the battlefield.
Magnus the Red.
The miniature...blew our minds. It continues to do so; a high watermark for the craft, for the industry: like Nagash before him, not just a plastic representation of the character, but his very essence encapsulated. Everything, everything about this miniature shrieks with raw character, from his gloriously elaborate wings, his minutely detailed armour, to the defiance and arrogance of his posture, his raw size and presence...
He is insanely beautiful, and, in a single release, undid my entire preconceptions concerning Primarchs in 40K.
Whilst his rules back towards the latter days of 7th edition weren't anything to write home about (a by-product of the system itself more than anything), since the advent of 8th, Magnus has become a beast truly worthy of his stature: the most puissant psyker in the game, bar none, able to run rings around the likes of Eldrad Ulthran and Tigurius, a MONSTER on almost all fronts. With the imminence of the Thousand Son's own codex in the coming months, I see that status being emphasised to mythic degrees.
Next came another shock: none other than one of the Imperium's most celebrated heroes, arguably second only to the Emperor himself in status, Roboute Guilliman.
His resurrection one of the key factors in the ultimate destruction of Cadia and the eruption of the Cicatrix Maledictum across the known galaxy, Guilliman's return marked perhaps the greatest shift in the Imperium of Man since The Sundering, which saw him mortally wounded in combat with his traitorous brother, Fulgrim.
Roboute Guilliman marks something highly significant for the 41st Millennium; the first time one of the lionised figures of its mythic past has returned to walk it again. Far from being the motivating factor for the Imperium's resurrection, Guiliman returns in a period of strife and dissolution, actively appalled by what has become of his Father's empire, of mankind; of the Adeptus Astartes. In terms of background, Guiliman represents the utter dystopian hideousness of the 41st Millennium; eyes that can see what it has become; the mirror opposite of what his Father intended, what he fought and almost died for.
That degree of ambiguity has made for a tragically broken figure; one who fights because he knows he has no choice, but has little genuine love for the regime he has been reborn to.
The miniature is generally regarded as the weakest of the three Primarchs currently available, which, given that the other two are Daemon Primarchs, is understandable: the “loyalist” Primarchs necessarily lack the stature, elaboration and horror of their counterparts; the inhumanity that makes them so appealing. By contrast, Guilliman was always going to be a rather large and overly ornamented Space Marine, and that's exactly what he is.
Surprisingly, the miniatures designers went out of their way to mark Guilliman out as the new regent of the Imperium by tying him closer aesthetically and in terms of symbolism to depictions of the Emperor that already exist: his armour is highly redolent of the Emperor's original suit, and he wields the iconic flaming sword that his Father bore during the Horus Heresy. Even his stance and stature is redolent of certain depictions of the Emperor that exist, marking that this is no longer “The Age of the Emperor,” but a new and uncertain state, in which both new and old forces are attempting to find their place, define their purpose.
Despite being generally regarded as lesser than his two fallen brothers, Guilliman is a sterling example of miniatures design: like his counterparts, more a small diorama than a miniature; not only striding over the corpse of a broken traitor marine, but also the ruins of what appear to be an Imperial structure of some sort (symbolically tying him to the status of the Imperium he emerges into). Exquisitely detailed, but also far more minimalist than his daemonic equivalents, he's a fitting aesthetic contrast, and one that marks the primary division between the Adeptus Astartes and the Heretic Astartes on the tabletop.
Rules wise, he also emphasises the extreme differences in organisation and operation between loyalists and traitors: Guilliman is arguably less powerful in terms of his personal combat abilities, but has more in the way of buffing powers and tactical benefits. A significant boost to any Imperial army, his presence alone can tide the turn of battle, whereas the two traitor Primarchs that currently exist are engines of destruction; designed to cause mass devestation to opposing armies through subtly different means (Magnus with his psychic shennanigans and Mortarion with his close-combat and ambient abilities).
More recently, we have seen not only a wholesale redesign and expansion of the Death Guard, but the emergence of Mortarion himself from his suppurating throne on the Plague Planet.
Marking a certain dynamic shift for the Traitor Legions, like the Thousand Sons, the Death Guard are now united as a semi-coherent force behind their Primarch, posing a far greater threat to the material universe than they ever did as disparate warbands.
As for the Primarch himself, Games Workshop have, once again, demonstrated an exquisite eye for comparative detail: Mortarion (“Morty,” to his friends) is the symbolic antithesis of Magnus the Red: whereas Magnus is barely changed from his original form (barring the development of wings, horns and an exaggerated stature that are the hallmarks of daemonhood), Mortarion is barely recognisable as what he once was: whereas Magnus is defiant and arrogant, still posturing, despite his enslavement to the Changer of Ways, Mortarion is weighted and heavy with chains, censors, Nurglings and redundant detail. Even the manner in which he bears Silence, his iconic scythe, speaks of despair and resignation: the weapon seeming to weigh him down with its burden and demands.
Depending on which face you choose (Magnus has a variety, depending on his aspect), The Crimson King's expression is one of supreme arrogance: he still believes himself to be the master and not the slave, or at least, rails against his proscribed fate, whereas Mortarion...
...Mortarion stares from behind his rebreather mask, from beneath his funereal cowl, in despairing horror: he is weariness and resignation, bitterness and regret, whereas Magnus is arrogance that burns brighter than stars.
This degree of redundant detail; the mythic and narrative elements that inform every aspect of these miniatures, is what makes them so appropriately iconic, such a joy to behold, to handle, to model and paint.
They stand as amongst the most brilliant and beautiful miniatures Games Workshop have ever produced, and one can only speculate on what future additions to the range will boast.
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