Magic items are competing with Bloodline powers for your attention and for your points. I’m of the opinion that most of the magic items available are unspectacular, or so niche that they are outclassed by something that’s always good, but a few of them are brilliant and absolutely worth taking in their own right. In particular, the non-Vampire heroes should look into these, as there’s no opportunity cost involved in giving up something more characterful and potentially useful from the powers lists. Moving on!
COMMON MAGIC ITEMS
Sword of Striking: surprisingly good on a Vampire Count, who’ll end up hitting most things on twos with this one in hand.
Sword of Battle, Sword of Might: filler, but the Sword of Might has some niche uses for Blood Dragons.
Biting Blade: take this one if you have ten points lying around and can’t bring the Enchanted Shield.
Enchanted Shield: the route to a 1+ save for Vampire Thralls or Wight Lords on horseback.
Talisman of Protection: a 6+ Ward save is better than no Ward save at all. I occasionally take this on Vampire Thralls if I have 15 points left over after the rest of their kit, but when it comes to my General I like to be a little bit better protected than this, and with Necromancers I simply don’t bother.
Staff of Sorcery: this used to be a must-take for me until I switched to a more aggressive “do things, don’t prevent things” core stance in play. It’s still not bad but it’s awkwardly priced and there’s more you could be doing with those points than taking this thing.
Dispel Scroll: I am resolutely opposed to the photocopy special, which is reserved for boring, soulless players who look at the elegant dance of Warhammer’s magic system and decide to kneecap anyone who asks them to tango. If you’re that opposed to magic then bugger off and play a historical game instead and let me have my fun. Bring one Scroll by all means, because sometimes you just have to stop that Comet of Cassandora that’s going to throw your whole game off if you don’t do something about it, but don’t be the sort of gobshite who sucks the fun out of the game or creates a power dice arms race by loading up all your Necromancers with them.
Power Stone: I prefer these to Scrolls. Every so often the dice will betray me and my Necromancers will end up with a Curse of Years they can’t cast or I’ll urgently need to force through a three-dice Invocation from a level 2 caster and this is the answer every time.
War Banner: In most armies this is a must take, but for the Vampire Counts the only units who can wave it around are Black Knights and Grave Guard who both have excellent 50 point options available, or a Battle Standard Bearer who needs the points for a big flag or Bloodline powers. I won’t say it’s bad because it isn’t, it’s bread and butter for a reason, I just think there’s always something more interesting you can take in this army.
All of these come with the same caveat: no matter how good it is, ask yourself if your army needs those points spent on support, and whether your Vampire needs to be any killier. Sometimes the answer will be “no” and “yes actually”, but I find the super-duper fighting Vampires are generally Blood Dragons or Strigoi who get their kicks from Bloodline powers instead. Most of these are OK but come with too steep an opportunity cost to be worth bothering with.
Frostblade: One for the 3000 point games. A secondary Count, especially a Blood Dragon, can grab one of these and go monster hunting. Otherwise it’s an excellent weapon which sadly costs much too much.
Blood Drinker: The concept is great, but only a Lord has enough chance of surviving once wounded for it to really pay off. This one needed more time to cook and would come to shine in later editions.
Black Axe of Krell: An expensive gimmick but really good for whittling down monsters or Lords over time. You might lose a character doing it but it’s worth it if you get a Giant or Treeman out of play.
Sword of Unholy Power: Now we’re talking: put this on a model who can kill things efficiently all day long (a Blood Dragon would be a good shout) and start racking up the Power dice. A Thrall with this and the Enchanted Shield can be really helpful in the midgame to generate extra dice for support spells.
Tomb Blade: I used to really really like this on a Von Carstein Thrall. I tried to defend it for years — it’s worth it if it keeps a rank on a unit, I said, it lets you use Power dice for something other than reacting to taking casualties, I said. Forget it. Just cast spells to get your bodies back for goodness’ sake, the drip-feed from this weapon isn’t worth it.
Asp Bow: essentially a Lahmian Bloodline power that happens to be a weapon, discussed elsewhere.
Sword of the Kings: I find Wight Lords are generally carrying a Big Flag and so don’t have the space for one of these. There’s a classic build involving this, the Gem of Blood and ideally the Banner of the Barrows on a unit which is essentially the gambler’s choice for a challenge (you’re counting on rolling a few fives and/or rebounding a hit from the Gem), or the Cursed Shield of Mousillon to keep the Wight tanky (which I think works better on a Blood Dragon Vampire who can get the same effect twice). It’s actually OK but I wonder what people are doing with their Hero slots that gives them the freedom to muck about with this.
Wailing Helm: A Von Carstein or Blood Dragon Thrall with a 1+ save who causes Terror is a good piece and this is how you get one. Personally I’d rather take a Wraith and sacrifice a little killing power for Ethereal, but that’s me.
Armour of Bone: If you want a wizard who can wear armour, pick a Blood Dragon and enjoy armour that doesn’t fall apart the first time you need it. The combo player in me likes the idea of this plus the Enchanted Shield plus a barded Nightmare on a Necrarch, but Necrarchs get so much more mileage out of their Bloodline powers. The one thing I’ll say in its favour is that it bounces the first cannonball of the game off automatically, but it’s a lot of points to spend on a gimmick that only works once.
Flayed Hauberk: solid gold on a Von Carstein Thrall, as discussed in the Bloodlines section, and not bad on a Blood Dragon if you want to keep them on foot and leave both hands free for a great weapon. Not bad on a Blood Dragon Lord either, in the same situation. Definitely the best in the section.
Cursed Shield of Mousillon: in most cases, another gimmick, but rises and shines in the hands of the Blood Dragons, who can take this and Blade Master to create a very tanky challenge-eater.
All of these will be considered in the context of how well they keep a Vampire General alive, since a Vampire General needs to be kept alive and these things are the best and in many cases only way to do that.
Carstein Ring: see Bloodlines, as it’s not relevant to everyone.
Obsidian Amulet: Magic Resistance is supremely helpful on most of our units, who tend to eat a lot of magic missiles from opponents who have ‘em, and the Ward Save is certainly good enough for fighting characters… with magic weapons. I’m just extremely paranoid about leaving my characters defenseless against high strength mundane attacks, like all those Chaos Champions and Saurus Warriors and Vampire Thralls run around wielding. A great pick for a Blood Dragon though, who has the armour required to tank those other hits.
Crown of the Damned: Let me tell you about the Crown of the Damned. Once upon a time, I had my Vampire Lord miscast a spell and catapult himself out of his unit, leaving him standing around as the closest target to an entire Skaven army’s worth of overpowered magic missiles and wonder weapons. Somehow, by sheer good luck and an undernourished Warp Lightning Cannon roll, he survived. The next turn he failed his stupidity test for wearing the Crown of the Damned and had to eat the same firepower all over again rather than rejoin his unit in safety. This isn’t to count any of the times his bodyguard had to shuffle forward instead of advance to a position of relevance because he was going bwbwbwbwbwb with his bottom lip or any of the times he couldn’t cast a battle winning Invocation because he was too busy ragetweeting about Firefly being cancelled. Stupidity, on the most powerful piece in your army, the thing that holds everything else together and absolutely needs to be on form every turn, is not to be borne, and it’s a bit too pricey to take on anyone else. Take a marker pen and cross this cursed item out of your book.
Wristbands of Black Gold: I am a coward and consequently hide my Vampire Generals in units where they have a nice safe Look Out Sir to keep them safe from missile fire. If I was brave enough to send a Vampire out alone they would absolutely get this thing. Another good pick for the Blood Dragon and maybe for the Necrarch who is avoiding combat altogether. Note that unlike the otherwise identical Golden Eye of Tzeentch, this one doesn’t explicitly protect the model’s mount as well. If it protected the model’s mount I would take back all the awful things I’ve ever said about Zombie Dragons and begin fielding mine immediately.
Ring of the Night: the bread and butter Talisman, reasonably priced and with no significant drawbacks or loopholes.
The Gem of Blood: Cute, but one use only. If you can afford this you can afford the Talisman of Protection and a Biting Blade. Can be comical on heroes though: it’ll either blow them up or tip a challenge in their favour. One of those items I like but don’t take as I need other kit more.
Power Familiar: Expensive, but solid, and will shift the casting economy of almost any 2000 point build squarely into favourable. Most players like to scrimp and take the Black Periapt instead, borrowing from today to pay for tomorrow. This can work but honestly, why do that to yourself? If you have 50 points and a Necromancer free, do the smart thing and guarantee yourself what you need. As a bonus, six Dispel dice is a healthy number against opponents not blessed by Tzeentch or stuffing warp tokens into their fuzzy little cheeks, and helps reduce the need for Boring Scrolls.
Staff of Damnation: A nice luxury item for those turns when everything’s going off and every unit needs help. Perhaps a tad too easy to Dispel, not relevant in the early turns, not a total must take, but you could do a lot worse than an army-wide Hellish Vigour on call.
Skull Staff: Decent insurance against Miscasts, but I find it’s often better to take my lumps and only in rare cases do I regret it. The “show hidden” factor is beneficial for newer players in a strict closed list environment, but I find in this day and age that most of us are seasoned enough to guess where the Fanatics, Assassins, Van Horstman’s Speculum and so on are hiding with reasonable accuracy, and the majority of my games are played with open lists because we’re trying to ensure a good fun match-up rather than play Gotchahammer. A good item that’s sadly past its prime.
Warrior Familiar: Resoundingly meh. It’s a good enough hit, amounting to a free attack for a Vampire Count or Lord, but it’s thirty points for the privilege. Another of those items where it just doesn’t do as much as other things that cost about the same.
Book of Arkhan: No item is mandatory, unless there’s a rule that the table catches fire if you don’t bring it or something, but this is pretty close. Vanhel’s Danse Macabre is such a game-changing spell and this guarantees you’ll get it, albeit a version of it that can be dispelled on a single die and will probably run out the first time you use it. The Book will very seldom actually get through but it will give your opponent something to fret about: they know you have it, you know you have it, and they’ll have to allocate dice to dealing with it.
Black Periapt: If you’re too cheap for a Power Familiar or you’re very confident that you won’t be adjusting your spellcasting plans on the fly, this is a good substitute. I often have to get by with one of these, especially if I’m running a Vampire Count as my General, and it does the job. Note that it can, per word of Pirinen, store dice from your opponent’s pool too, as long as they’re left over at the end of the Magic phase.
Spell Familiar: The question is not “is this good” but “what are you not taking so you can get this?” and it generally ends up far down the queue because most of what’s above it in this list is more important. Rockets up to must-have for a Necrarch Lord though, because cornering a whole Lore of Magic is just tasty. I also like it on my General if my General’s taking the Lore of Death, as they’re likely to be the only caster in the army using that Lore and it’s good to have as many spells to choose from as possible.
Rod of Flaming Death: I used to look down on this item and dismiss it, now I seldom let my second Necromancer out of the crypt without it. The ability to single out and inflict panic tests on nuisances like Skaven weapon teams, Empire detachments and any Skirmishers at all is absolutely precious and can save you a lot of trouble in the early stages of the game. You probably won’t get to use it more than once as most people will save Dispel dice for it, but let ‘em: it’s still helping.
Cursed Book: Along with the Book of Arkhan, this one was a regular feature in tournament armies of the day. I like it on a Wraith, whose presence turns into a subtle distorter of play between this and the Terror, and who can substitute as a credible bodyguard for my Necromancer too. It’s not bad on a Battle Standard Bearer either, if you have nowhere else to put it and don’t fancy the Flayed Hauberk or a Big Flag. While it’s quite expensive it has never failed to pay off when I’ve brought it.
Cloak of Mists and Shadows: Really, really good on a Master Necromancer. Otherwise, not really worth bothering with. Giving up your fighting stats is too high a price to pay for a Vampire character and an ordinary Necromancer needs those points for something more direct.
Talon of Death: Never used it, largely because I dislike characters on monstrous mounts and everyone else’s base is too small for it to pay off. One day I’ll give this a fair crack of the whip because it seems pretty potent: I just don’t have the right delivery system for it in my army.
Casket of Ages: Also never used it, because it’s another Hand of Dust style gimmick: I have to get it into contact with a worthy target, it has to not be dispelled, the target has to fail its Ward save and then a Toughness test… it could be useful for eliminating Giants and Shaggoths and other big lads without good Ward Saves but it’s too fiddly to deliver.
Hell Banner: Expensive, but brilliant, and a near must against Ogres and Chaos, who both have big fear-causing nasties that need trumping with a good dose of terror. In general play it can backfire slightly as opponents run away from your expensive fighting unit that you presumably spent points on making good, which can feel like a waste.
Banner of Doom: I really like this on Grave Guard. They’re slow, and they’re powerful enough that people shoot at them, and they can’t get back up. Especially vital for shrugging off handgun shots and Warp Lightning.
Banner of the Barrows: Utterly brilliant. Black Knights have mediocre Weapon Skill and one Attack, but excellent Strength on the charge. They want to hit and this helps them do it. It’s very very good at defended obstacles too: at the very least, “always hits on threes” vs “hits on sixes” should cancel out and put your Knights back into their normal frame of operation.
Screaming Banner: An underrated gem, which will often keep an enemy unit at bay or have them quailing and failing to defend themselves. Not quite as good as the two above but not quite as expensive either.
Banner of the Dead Legion: If a Skeleton unit could take this I’d be all over it. Sadly, all the units that can take magic banners have three better choices, and I don’t generally end up with so many Wights that this becomes more suitable than the War Banner. This would find its niche in seventh edition, but here it’s sadly filler. I hate to leave a section on a damp squib, but there it is.