A good chunk of what follows is derived and adapted from Mike Walker’s excellent article on Necromancy in White Dwarf 282, supplemented with some of my own witterings on specific Bloodlines and the secondary choice of Lore.
The first thing to think about, before we dig into spells, is casting dice. More than any other army, Vampire Counts rely on having a plan for every die available.
Like Mr. Walker my first Hero slot is invariably occupied with a non-caster: a Wraith, or a Battle Standard Bearer of some variety. Coupled with my distaste for Necromancer generals, this means that in 2000 point games my spellcasting options are usually a Vampire Lord and one Necromancer, or a Vampire Count and two.
Having played Army of Sylvania a lot I am more amenable to a Vampire Lord in 2000 point games than the average player. (When you only have one wizard you generally want the best one you can get.) The opportunity cost of the second Hero slot involved is a bugbear for a lot of players who fret about not having enough Power dice available, but I find the Lord’s higher magic level means they can do more with less, as it were. Four dice give you the best odds of casting either a top-end Invocation of Nehek or Curse of Years, and of forcing through a crucial Hellish Vigour or Vanhel’s Danse when you really need it.
Thus, if I have a Lord in charge I’ll often have my Necromancer bring a Power Familiar. This gives me eight Power dice, thus two spells on four dice, every single turn, without robbing myself of Dispelling potential (and giving me a very robust six of those to play with too). Failing that, four dice for the Lord, three for the Necromancer and a Bound Spell to taste won’t go amiss.
The Count and two Necromancers option gives me more dice but (in most cases) less to do with them. Here, the Black Periapt is the more tempting option as I’m more likely to have spare dice. Here, I alternate my casting. First turn? Two Invocations on two dice, and one other spell (or third Invocation) on three. That gives me a spare die to carry through the first enemy phase and use on my second turn: that’s nine dice, thus three spells on three dice, the best my casters can accomplish.
- Invocation of Nehek: the first spell with three different casting values and three different effects, which I won’t bore you by repeating in detail. All my Necromancy casters want this spell and I will drop anything but Vanhel’s Danse Macabre to get it. What I actually do with it depends on the level of the casting wizard.
Level 1 or 2 wizards use the 3+ version on two dice to restore rank bonus to damaged units, and heal characters on the last turn so I can preserve Victory Points. Level 2 wizards cast the 7+ version on three dice for good odds of raising a new Zombie unit or restoring two ranks to a damaged unit. Level 3 wizards cast the 11+ version when I absolutely NEED a new Zombie unit, guaranteed, or when the Vampire in question has been lucky to survive an Incident and urgently needs their Wounds back.
- Hand of Dust. A terrible spell, only relevant when a caster is in combat with something you really urgently need dead. Even if it isn’t dispelled, the caster still has to land a single attack and hope the target fails whatever Ward save it has (and anything worth casting this to kill will probably have a Ward save).
The problem here is that Vampires are already S5 with plenty of attacks and will probably do more damage without this spell, while Necromancers are WS3 weeds who can’t hit anything worth hitting or strike first against anything that’s trying to kill them. This is the spell to swap for Invocation if you get the chance.
- Hellish Vigour. A good, cheap single-target buff which will help nurse a key unit through a crucial combat. Vampire Counts games are won by committing your units across the line and then helping one of them over the edge with Necromancy spells, and this is one spell that really helps. Especially golden on Black Knights and Grave Guard, who hit hard but only have single attacks and mediocre WS, so they want all the help they can get in landing.
- Gaze of Nagash. Bog standard completely out of the ordinary nothing special magic missile. Every Lore needs one and this one is fine: a level 2 can cast it easily and it does 2d6 hits, which is all you need to panic some skirmishers or shoo off a detachment or badly worry a lone character who isn’t armoured to the gills.
- Vanhel’s Danse Macabre. The game breaker. An extra 8″ move, out of sequence, is dynamite. Raise a new Zombie unit behind a combat, charge them in with a Danse. Turn your Black Knights around and back into position in good order with a Danse. Leave your General hopelessly out of position and need to get them back to the action fast? You can Danse. We can Danse. At the upper end of casting value for a reason. Sometimes, only sometimes, you’ll roll more than one, and it can be chain-cast on the same unit if necessary.
- Curse of Years. A level 2 wizard will struggle to get this one off, and I usually swap it out for Invocation unless doing so would leave me stuck with Hand of Dust. However, once it IS off, you’ll be leaving it in play for at least a turn. The best thing about this spell is that it eats enemy Power dice like nobody’s business: nobody wants to let the Curse tick down and so most opponents will forgo casting at least one of their own spells to make a Dispel attempt. Note that you can be cheeky and let the Curse resolve on one target, then end it and cast another spell, then recast the Curse wherever you want it to go.
THE LORE OF DEATH
I find that it’s essential to have two casters with Necromancy but (especially with the right Bound spells on my Necromancers, of which more later) a little variety can often yield more tactical options. The General makes a good candidate for this as the Lore of Death spells have fairly short ranges and are often most effective near or within combat, and the Vampire in charge of the army doesn’t actually have to use Necromancy in sixth edition. Strange interaction: I take it to imply they see actually raising troops as beneath them, and palm the grunt work off on their Necromancers, who simply bind the undead to their masters upon creation.
- Dark Hand of Death. Easy to cast, but also easy to flub with, as it only does a single die of hits. I will very seldom swap a spell for this as almost anything else I could do with the dice is more likely to pay off.
- Death Dealer. Another cheap cast and very useful in its niche. Best on those occasions on which you’re expecting to lose models and need to claw back a combat, especially if you have units of Ghouls or Wights in combat with things that strike before them. I like to use this one against things like pike blocks, or when I’m fighting over a defended obstacle.
- Steal Soul. The magic words “no armour save” attached to this one make it much better than its low damage output suggests. Absolutely brilliant for picking off unit champions who might otherwise interfere with your combat efforts by issuing challenges, and gaining extra wounds on a Vampire Count to boot. Also combines very well with the Asp Bow: land one of these and a shot from the bow and you can potentially knock off a Hero-tier wizard in one turn, no matter where they’re hiding.
- Wind of Death is exactly like Gaze of Nagash in every way and serves exactly the same purpose.
- Drain Life. In the same slot as Vanhel’s Danse and with a similar what-the-hell-just-happened potential. On a caster who likes to get stuck in, like a Blood Dragon or Strigoi Count, this spell can tip a whole game, inflicting just enough casualties on just enough units to turn an entire battleline’s worth of combats. It’s also brilliant on a Necrarch, who can extend its range to dramatic degrees. Once again, no armour saves. Somewhat challenging for a level 2 to cast, though.
- Doom and Darkness is a hard cast, best on a level 3 wizard, but if you can pull it off it can be game-making. If you’re up against enemies which are for whatever reason immune to the normal effects of fear but still take Break tests; a three point swing in your favour is usually enough to send those pesky Ogres running or beat the rage out of those Chaos Warriors. Also, your Rare units love this spell. With Doom and Darkness on their intended target Banshees move from a nuisance to a genuine threat, while the Black Coach has a very real chance of breaking a unit with terror or running it down after a Break test. And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Lahmians, who already radiate a Leadership malus, can now lean into one of their most subtle yet powerful effects here.