The last major instance of the expansion and one that has been explored by a large number of raiders, Icecrown Citadel (ICC) has been surrounded by criticism and drama since its release. It was an expanded testing ground for a number of new Blizzard raiding mechanics, including limited attempts, heroic toggles and regimented gating, all of which seem to have developed enduring magnet for raiders’ ire. And while some have since flip-flopped their opinions about the overall challenge to be had running through the Lich King’s residence, many like Muqq stick to their guns that ICC was equal parts good and bad.
No better demonstration of the perceived shortcomings of ICC was had than when, upon the “release” of ICC hard modes, fansites erupted as Paragon went 8/12 on Day 1 and was 9/12 at week’s end. Condemnation was everywhere and the cries of “too easy” resonated through forum posts and boards. Comparisons were drawn, and with their well-worn rose-colored glasses atop lofty noses, raiders everywhere proclaimed Ulduar to be the pinnacle of Wrath raiding. Now, with some time and experience under our belts, I’m left asking—was it really?
Naturally, since I have nothing to occupy my time these days other than the slew of LK attempts I’m now doing in two different guilds, I got to thinking about the comparative difficulty of the golden titan child of Wrath and its much-berated frosty sibling. I myself admit to viewing Ulduar with a special sort of fondness, if for no other reason than the joy that came from being one of the first 10-man teams in the world to clear it through. Although the actual floorplan of Ulduar was relatively small in scale (excluding the outer courtyard) the depths of the instance seemed much greater than ICC, with its scalable-difficulty encounters and litany of challenging achievements.
By way of comparison, let’s take a look at some of the notable stats on the two instances:
|Meta Requirements (25man)||13||13*|
|Total Achievements (25man)||70||25|
|Days Until First End Boss Kill (after becoming available)||1 day||4 days|
|Days Until First HM End Boss Kill (after becoming available)||3 lights: 7 days
2 lights: 26 days
1 light: 33 days
Algalon: 55 days
Alone: 88 days
|*Algalon was hard-mode only||* 17 counting wing-clears|
By looking at the above we can see that although Icecrown had a slightly reduced number of bosses, because of Blizzard’s stance about Icecrown’s hard modes needed to be more clear than Ulduar’s to raid teams, it also experienced a reduced number of potential “hard mode” encounters. This reduction in raiding variability is only underscored by the sheer magnitude of difference between the two in terms of available achievements—Ulduar has almost four times as many achievements as its counterpart.
So, although Ulduar endured its fair share of criticism upon release ( sample / sample), for the fact that Vodka managed to plow through all 13 bosses on Day One, I think the genius of its design wasn’t in its multi-prong difficulty fights (of which there were 4), but rather the number of distractions and goals it offered to raiders along the way. Not only did it offer a sort of interactive tuning, through “choose your adventure” style encounters, the conscious or unconscious feeling of enormity it conveyed through a laundry list of achievements, gave raiders something to work towards even when they had been farming the instance for months.
In regards to the learning time spent on hard mode encounters, while there are many fights which provided to be easy to learn in both ICC and Ulduar, the hardest encounter in Ulduar (Alone in the Darkness) was the only fight in Ulduar where the first kill took longer to achieve than the first kill on hardest fight in ICC (arguably LK hardmode). When comparing the time period that elapsed from the time the encounter was made available—for Alone in the Darkness, “available” would mean the release of Ulduar, whereas for LK hard mode it would be the point at which the guild in question cleared 11/12 hard modes—it can be seen that only with Alone did you see raid teams needing a significant gear and experience advantage before a kill could be had.
To provide a little bit more of a comparison to another “ass-kicking” boss of the expansion … The first Sarth 3D Twilight Zone achievement was logged by the first US guild on November 30th, a whopping 17 days after WotLK was released. Given that it took a very hardcore player about 3-4 days to make the 70 to 80 transition, this would mean that the first guilds who killed Sarth 3D in 10-man were probably still in a majority of Sunwell gear, with maybe a couple level 80 supplements from heroics and Naxx. But to this day, when asked about the most difficult boss or instance of the expansion, nostalgic raiders will point to the Obsidian Sanctum and its walls of fiery death. (Interestingly enough, my statistics page of my character seems to agree with this sentiment, because despite an incredible amount of attempts on LK, it refuses to display anything other than Sartharion as my “Deadliest WotLK Boss”.)
(Hooray! I get to use Graphs again!) To get a true feel for Ulduar’s and ICC’s levels of difficulty, I also took a look at the performance of the top 100 US guilds and how quickly (or slowly) they were able to work their way through the instances. Pulling information from Guildox.com for each of the hard mode achievements, I was able to compile a cumulative timeline for “top-level” progression through the instances. These charts are shown below.
There are a couple main things to note before I get into my analysis. First, is that both charts cover a time period of around 4 months, with major nerfs/buffs being shown in red and months denoted by grey vertical lines. Secondarily, it’s important to note that Ulduar progression did not incorporate any sort of buff beyond the gradual gearing of the raid team. (I think someone could make the argument that ICC was actually significantly harder than Ulduar, for this very reason.) Lastly, I didn’t chart every achievement or semi-hard mode in Ulduar, because frankly there was enough to look at using the limited segment I chose. So if you think Iron Dwarf Medium Rare was an essential progression accomplishment, you’re kinda out of luck.
So, in looking at the above charts, what strikes me first is that despite all the fuss about Paragon’s exceptionally fast hard mode clear in ICC, the progression of the top 100 US guilds through the starting encounters is actually fairly similar between Ulduar and ICC. And, had I taken the time to collect data on all the intermediary hard modes and achievements for Ulduar, there would have likely been a greater concentration of lines in that first month and a half period. Thus, the ramp-up for hard modes in both instances was pretty well in line.
Secondly, what I notice in the ICC graph is the exponential increase of hard mode kills at various points in time; namely, after the 5% and 10% buffs, and after Week 2 in ICC. This latter effect, where you see the kills for Marrowgar, Gunship and Rotface skyrocket, could be attributable to a couple factors that the graph won’t illustrate—possibly that those guilds had to take an extra couple weeks to kill LK or that after two weeks there was sufficient information circulating about the level of difficulty of certain encounters, that some guilds attempting to clear the hard modes in a linear fashion, simply skipped ahead to kill those encounters and rack up some easy progression points (this is what we did in Aftermath, after attempting Saurfang for just over a week). These jumps, however, tell us something about what guilds were struggling with on those encounters at those points in time. Whereas Valithria, Feastergut, Deathbringer and to some extent LDW, saw huge upswings in kills after the 5% buff, it’s worth noting that Professor and Sindragosa did not. Similarly, if you look at LK, you’ll notice the almost zero effect that recent buffs have had on his kill numbers, indicating that sufficient dps and/or hps is not the problem that top guilds were/are having on these encounters.
What pops out at me most of all, however, is not that Ulduar hard mode progression trailed slightly behind ICC’s (it took top guilds 2 ½ months to clear through Knock x3 and Firefighter, versus 2 months to clear through Sindragosa and Putricide), but rather the progression “hole” that Algalon filled for most guilds, between 1 Light kills (which occurred within relatively the same time period as Firefighter and Knock x 3) and Alone in the Darkness. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that I found the 1-hour-per-week attempt system very uplifting, frustration-levels aside, Algalon did provide motivation for guilds to maintain a certain level of efforts and motivation for players to maintain a certain level of attendance (at least on nights where you were attempting him, heh.)
If anything, this filler boss is what’s missing in ICC and what could have been accomplished with the introduction of multi-difficulty modes on end-wing encounters like Sindragosa and Putricide. Imagine that you had the option of using Jaina’s or Garrosh’s assistance on these encounters, and by talking or not talking to them, you could toggle the difficulty settings up one more level. Or alternately, to take a page from Ulduar, once you beat the wing bosses on hard mode, you had another pre-Lich fight where you meet up with Fording and the forces you’ve been helping (those guys limiting your attempts), in preparation for your final battle with LK. I’m sure these are fairly weak ideas from both a design and lore perspective, but I’m sure you get the picture.
So where does this discussion leave us? Currently, FH is sitting at 11/12 in Heroic 25, and to date, we’ve logged maybe 160 attempts on Heroic 25 LK. It’s been grueling, and it’s tested our mettle as a guild and as a raiding team. And as much as players complained about the limited attempt mechanism at the start of ICC, it hasn’t really come into play for us. In an unlimited-attempt environment, I’m not sure if we’d be more progressed than we are, because frankly speaking, we spend 18 of our 20 hours a week on LK attempts (yeah, we’ve gotten really good at clearing through the other hard modes, lol), and we rarely exhaust the 45 attempt limit in place.
As we continue our efforts to find that straw that will break Arthas’ back, I can’t help but think back to all those accusations tossed about back in February, about how “ez mode” things have become and how a “casual” raiding approach is taking over. And I wonder to myself—could we have possibly known how wrong we were? Did it just take some perspective to see that there was a greater challenge that lay ahead?
With nary a rose-colored lens in sight I have to say, LK is proving to be the most faceted and challenging boss of this xpac. All I can think is that Blizzard might have used their famous sound clip in the wrong expansion, because from my perspective it would be more appropriate coming from the end boss we all underestimated. Yes Arthas, we were not prepared.
A special, heartfelt thanks to Guildox.com, who without knowing it, made this analysis possible with their rigorous data collection and easily-pasted tabular data formats. (Nested java/flash/whatevers can gtfo, /grumble) I know who I’m sticking to come next expansion!