The key question here is, are you a Lord or a Count? I am generally a Lord: as the spellcasting section has already indicated, I find the extra casting power of a level 3 wizard (and the extra Wound and Attack) open up more decisive plays than another middling wizard would provide me.
I don’t generally mount my Vampire Lords on anything. Fond as I am of my Zombie Dragon model, the thing is a flying deathtrap which turns my Lord into a Large Target and makes him a lot easier to single out with magic missiles, cannonballs and other long-distance nastiness. On the right table this can still work out but there’s never any guarantee you’ll get appropriate cover. The Winged Nightmare is cheaper and doesn’t eat a Hero slot but has exactly the same tactical drawbacks: it does make a good mount for a secondary Count in larger battles, where you can afford to have four hundred odd points of Lord slot flying around taking risks because the important one is still safe in a unit.
The remaining question is what kind of unit. Blood Dragons belong in a cavalry unit and that’s just the way it is – with access to the coveted 1+ save through their regular equipment options you’d be a muppet not to. Everyone else I think belongs in a Skeleton unit: they might not get to use their combat stats until the closing turns but they’re still contributing their casting prowess. This might be down to my preferred use of Black Knights as strong flankers rather than spearheads for the entire army: if I were more inclined to throw my Knights up the middle of the battlefield I might see more use in the conventional Nightmare.
Strigoi, of course, don’t get the option, but often end up running around on their own as a small and flexible flying model that’s much easier to hide as it closes the distance. Beyond that, treat them as any other Vampire and deliver them with a nice Skeleton unit.
Vampire Thralls are a funny sort of Hero in that they’re very dangerous but mostly rather fragile, and some Bloodlines get more use out of them than others. Necrarchs of course get a backup spellcaster for their trouble; Von Carsteins get a guided missile of an infantry hero; Blood Dragons get an auxiliary meat-grinder who can go through infantry while your General is locked into that challenge they have to issue. I don’t actually rate Lahmian or Strigoi Thralls very highly: the Strigoi one can ratchet up three wounds, which isn’t bad, but isn’t tough enough to go running around on its own in the same way as a 1+ save character can. The Lahmian is just… meh. There’s very little they do that makes them worth taking instead of a Wraith or Wight, and I’ve already expressed my mistrust in them as Asp Bow snipers (they just don’t have the raw BS to make it work, in my opinion).
The Master Necromancer is a popular second Lord for large games and I can see why: they’re a cheap, reliable pure caster and a better candidate for the Zombie Dragon mount than the actual General would be. I treat mine as disposable; not to be thrown away harum-scarum or willy-nilly but not to be mourned if he gets blown up either. I also have nothing but harsh words for the kind of people who take him and three of his little mates and leave the Vampires out of their Vampire Counts army: it puts a lot of Power Dice and Dispel Scrolls on the table but it’s just boring in my book (and since you’re reading my book).
Necromancers are not mandatory. Your table will not catch fire if you don’t include one, neither will Tuomas Pirinen come around and flex at you until you forfeit the game in sheer emasculation. Learn well the tale of young McWhirter, who took a Blood Dragon Count and nothing else around the Australian tournament circuit and did pretty well. BUT: there is a reason the average Vampire Counts army includes at least one. If you want to make magic a defining part of your strategy rather than a weakness to be eliminated, you’ll need Necromancers just to extend your spell selection and generate dice for your big caster to play with. They also carry the essential support items (Book of Arkhan in particular) that keep your army operational.
WIGHTS AND WRAITHS
The Wight Lord is an underrated hero: not as killy as a Vampire Thrall but graced with a built-in magic weapon and a very good Leadership of 9. This makes them excellent anchors for your battleline units: if your General dies a Wight will help prevent further embarrassing crumble incidents, and if your unit must hold position and not pursue a defeated enemy, a Wight will give you good odds of staying in place. They also make the best Battle Standard Bearers as they have a magic weapon built in and there’s less opportunity cost involved in giving them a Big Expensive Flag to wave around. In the absence of a Big Expensive Flag there’s always the challenge-eating build: Sword of the Kings and either Cursed Sword of Mousillon or Gem of Blood. I wouldn’t bother with more than one unless I was doing some sort of wacky theme thing but I often find it hard to leave the one I do have at home.
Wraiths are more niche. The Terror is one of those rules that either pays off in spades or does nothing: I have found it more and more useful as I switch to using my Wraith aggressively rather than hiding her in a unit and using her to deliver the Cursed Book to the battlefield. Another thing to bear in mind: the Wraith can carry Enchanted Items and therefore makes a good delivery system for the Rod of Flaming Death if your Necromancers are otherwise engaged. Another other thing to bear in mind: the Obsidian Amulet makes Wraiths rather resilient against all the nonsense that gets flung their way. It’ll only work once as your opponent is likely to switch their efforts to something they can actually land a spell on, but that once might be all it takes to keep them alive.
THE FIGHTING FOOT: SKELETONS, ZOMBIES AND GRAVE GUARD
Most of the time these are the models that actually win my games, and the rest of the army is there to sweep away the opponents’ support and force them to engage my big slow combat blocks one on one. Occasionally I go up against an army like Khorne Chaos or Savage Orcs and am forced to keep my distance or feed in units one by one while I desperately break what I can.
Regarding the core units, let’s settle something right now: you buy Skeletons into the list, you raise Zombies during the game. Mostly.
Skeletons have equipment options. The light armour is expensive but does make them quite tanky – a 4+ save in melee will keep them alive against the best efforts of other line infantry. The spear is another point of division. I rather like them but that’s partly because I like to cast Death Dealer on them so they get to attack no matter what and partly because I play Sylvanians and the “no spear” option isn’t available there.
Zombies are easier to raise: a big Invocation is guaranteed to get you a new unit, a middling one almost so. They also give away fewer Victory Points when they die and a raised unit is there to die, eventually. I do occasionally pay points for a unit of ten Zombies to act as walking wound counters for my Necromancers, shuffling along in the back of the battleline and getting a spare Invocation if there’s one going begging. That’s it though: all the rest are definitely spares.
Grave Guard are good but tricky to use well in an army that often has plenty of slow moving melee infantry in its Core. If I’m going to bring them I often leave a unit of Skeletons at home to make space for them and fill my Core with faster stuff instead. Give them heavy armour and shields and they’ll grind down most line infantry over time. I don’t rate the halberd option as they don’t have the Attacks necessary for it to pay off or the Initiative to strike before they get struck down.
THE CHAFF: WOLVES, BATS AND GHOULS
Dire Wolves move like Fast Cavalry and that is the only way they should be compared to that inestimable unit type. They can’t shoot, they can’t flee, and they only have a single attack because there’s nobody on their backs to do the busy work. The Dire Wolf is essentially a line of disposable wounds that you put at an awkward angle, forcing your opponent to shoot it, go around it, or engage it and be drawn into a position of advantage to yourself. Do not expect the Dire Wolf to kill anything, and be cautious about committing the Dire Wolf to combat against anything but war machine crew. Even flank charging with them is often a bad idea as they’ll die more easily than pretty much anything but Zombies, which allows your opponent to rack up easy combat resolution and outweigh the benefits of the flank in the first place.
Fell Bats are best used in small, suicidal units. Send them in to plant as many attacks as they can on an enemy wizard or artillery piece, and hope they do the job before they inevitably perish to the attacks back. I don’t think they make great march blockers as they still have quite a large footprint (multiple 40mm bases with a mandatory distance between them) and don’t fit into many of the most awkward places.
Ghouls are brilliant as long as you accept that they’re going to run away at some point. Their stats make them an excellent skirmish screen and they can do a surprising amount of damage in combat with two Poisoned Attacks apiece. I’ve seen them rip through ranked units of Men-At-Arms, Skavenslaves and other disposables in a round, and they’re also very good at seeing off enemy Swarms. Finally, don’t overlook their potential as wizard-slayers; three of them can pile onto an enemy caster and that’s a lot of attacks for the enemy to worry about.
THE SWARMS: BATS AND SPIRITS
Bat Swarms do what everyone thinks Fell Bats do. A single Bat Swarm base has the speed to get into position and the smallish base size for that position to be as small and awkward as possible. Being flyers, they count as skirmishers, which makes them a right nuisance to handle with conventional shooting. Shame most armies can only get the one.
Spirit Hosts, meanwhile, are an underrated front line brick: a wall of wounds that won’t go away unless a spell or a magic weapon is applied to its face, and which can have individual bases topped back up with Invocation of Nehek just to keep it in the fray longer. I have taken one base per 500 points in my army in every game since I made ‘em and I have never looked back. They have other advantages too: they are that bit faster than the infantry and can also move straight through terrain, allowing them to reposition with surprising haste in the early game and pull off some nice refused flank moves if there happens to be something blocking my lanes of advance. They also block line of sight through them, so if you don’t have any magic missiles feel free to advance your infantry behind them and take a breather from being shot at all the time. 0-1 for good reason. Take them.
THE LINE BREAKERS: BLACK KNIGHTS, BLACK COACHES, AND BANSHEES
Most tournament armies of yesteryear seemed to have one big unit of Black Knights (a delivery system for multiple nasty Vampires) or three small ones (one waving the War Banner around) to combine charges. I take a couple of bricks of eight to ride around on the flanks and roll up whatever my opponent has out there. These are excellent: there’s a reason I owned four units of them for a while. A built-in 2+ save (take the barding, always) plus native Strength and Toughness 4 means they can grind their way through the kind of protracted fight most cavalry would balk at going near, while their Strength 6 charge is very strong and will have even Dwarfs looking a bit concerned about the future. Their only drawback is their mediocre Weapon Skill and single Attack: they are much more prone to rubber lance syndrome than other comparatively priced cavalry and should be the first target for any Hellish Vigour you have the capacity to cast, especially when they charge.
I love the concept of the Black Coach, I love the Terror it causes, I love the Ward save and the solid Strength and Toughness – but it doesn’t work as a combat piece. It’s the lack of scythes that does it: with a single d6 roll for its impact hits it’s just too prone to low rolls and bouncing off on that crucial charge turn. For a comparative cost I can bring a line of Black Knights who will at least get to make twelve attacks between them and their horses, and won’t need Ghouls hanging around to babysit them. I persevere with it as the odd Rare choice in either sub or supra 2000 point games. In the small battles its Terror has more impact and it can break a line just by moving to the right spot. In the big ones it’s a distraction piece that gets sent down a flank or up the centre and gives my opponent something to worry about.
Banshess nearly went in with the chaff but I’m putting them here because they crack open a handful of units we otherwise really struggle to deal with, like heavily armoured knights and big lumbering monsters. It’s the magic words “no armour save” that do it, along with the disregard for Toughness and the unique targeting restrictions (Banshees are allowed to scream into a combat they’re not fighting in, and to target any unit within 8″, so they can shriek at a carelessly placed character or war engine or strip ranks off units before the combat phase begins). Monsters not being used as hero mounts and chariots often have below-average Leadership and melt if a Banshee wails at them – and at this point I remind you that its attack is not a Leadership test, so rules like Cold Blooded do not apply. You may be realising that this unit is a rules lawyer’s paradise and I freely admit the Banshee brings out that streak in me: she’s very, very good if you follow the rules closely and let her achieve her full potential, and a bit crap if you don’t.