Life in Group 5 – A Resto Shaman Blog
A resto shaman perspective on raiding


June 22, 2011

Designing Encounters for the 23rd Kill

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Written by: Vixsin

It is the flip side to progression, the logical stepping stone to the next instance, and the means by which your raid team prepares for the challenges that lie ahead. It is equal parts entertaining and taxing, alternating between being a light bit of fun and something that you try to avoid, and it’s been known to be the trigger for more cases of “burnout” than drag racing. I’m talking, of course, about … farm content. And whether you consider it the ultimate time sink or simply downtime, it’s something that is part-and-parcel of the raiding way of life.

As much as it embarrasses me to admit, it didn’t really sink in until very recently—as a top-end progression raider I spend more of my time farming instances than I actually do working on fights that I’ve yet to kill. A quick glance at my Armory page and you’ll see some of the following statistics (to just point out a few):

  • 50 HM Anub’Arak kills (all pre-Cata)
  • 45 HM Sindargosa kills (all pre-Cata)
  • 25 HM LK kills (24 pre-Cata)
  • 16 HM Nefarian kills (and still counting)
  • 15 HM Cho’gall kills (and still counting)

Clearly, I’ve spent a good deal of my time in instances, clearing content that had previously constituted progression. Boss mechanics, which caused me to frown in frustration and mash my keys, soon became effects that I could dodge and avoid with barely an effort. Coordination fights which seemed chaotic and messy soon settled into a calm choreographed sequence. And memories of those bosses that I had to work my ass off to kill (I’m looking at you, Alone in the Darkness) are mixed in with memories of the farm content that lay between them.

So in thinking about that transition, from progression to farm encounter, I found myself wondering—how do you [as a designer] design an encounter that’s just as fun on the twenty-third kill as it was on the first? Can you? Or more importantly, should you?


The question of “could you”

So let’s look at the easy question first—could a designer fashion a fight where the “wow” factor (which sometimes becomes the “groan” factor, so labeled by players who look forward to facerolling farm bosses) endured no matter how many times you killed that boss? I think so. In fact, I think if you look back at previous tiers and previous expansions, the fights that maintained that “wow” factor through players’ memories tend to be those that didn’t cut you any slack, no matter how geared you were. In that list for me: Lady Vashj, Illidan, Mimiron HM, Faction Champs HM, Gunship (kidding), the big bad Lich King, and most recently in this tier, Ascendant Council and Al’Akir. To me, these fights are all similar in that they’re ones I can look back on and recall wiping on, even when the boss was on farm.

Interestingly enough, this encounter list seems to have common thematic elements:

  1. Personal accountability: Bob needs to interrupt or we lose
  2. RNG: Bob needs to respond to something that could be A, B, or C
  3. Insta-death mechanics (to some extent): Bob will be squashed like bug if he stands right there
  4. Snowball mechanics (where each mistake compounds the impact): Bob’s mistake makes it harder for Joe to do his job, so Joe’s performance depends on Bob
  5. Small team tasks: Bob and Joe need to collaborate to make something happen

Interestingly enough, while most of the “wow factor” fights incorporated DPS and HPS thresholds, I don’t believe those qualities are what endured in making the fight consistently difficult. Going back into SSC as a Level 80, to get my nerd points (because I never completed the Vial of Eternity Quest), we still wiped for an hour before we finally killed Vashj. This was on a fight that was 10 levels lower and with 25 players in raid, a fight that is nigh impossible to zerg because its mechanics dictate that performance matters. You have to deal with the Cores and the Striders and there’s no way around it.

But I think what’s additionally interesting to note about enduring encounter design is that when any of the above factors are isolated and let to stand on their own, the fight simply doesn’t present the same level of difficultly nor does it command the same level of respect/disdain from raiders. Gorefiend was legendary for being the source of endless frustration for guilds—WHO THE F- LET CONSTRUCTS INTO THE F-RAID?!—but it was a one-trick pony in that regard. Its gimmick proved frustrating and despite the fact that it was an incredibly unique encounter, it left you every week hoping and praying that one of your “experienced” players would get marked for death, instead of the guy who had never even looked at the mini Gorefiend flash game.


The question of “should you”

Now this is the more interesting of the two questions to me, because the great deal of faith I place in Blizzard’s design team means the “could you” question really becomes one of “how” and not “if”. But whether or not you should design an encounter that makes raiders stand up and take notice week after week—that seems the far more meaty topic. Suffice to say, I understand that there are multiple sides to this issue, multiple shades of grey between the two extremes—one side advocating that encounters maintain progression-level difficulty every week and the other side advocating loot-and-scoot farm instances that have you in and out in the least amount of time possible.

Looking at the benefits of enduring, challenging content, I see several:

  • Engaging content makes for better raiders. Each tier that’s released trains us to deal with new mechanics. At one point, players considered dispelling hard; now we laugh, point, and call them noobs for being consumed by such a mundane task. That’s because, as a raiding community, we’ve grown and gotten better at solving the puzzles that Blizzard throws at us. And so, handing us a Rubik’s Cube one week (a tough progression encounter) and a dead fish the next week (a farm boss with known gimmicks) is doing a disservice to raiders, by breaking some continuity of “training”. I think this is one of the things that made Ulduar so fun/engaging/interesting for guilds that got into the whole “achievement” part of it—those achievements changed the way you did encounters, challenged your team to do something other than zerg a boss down for the umpteenth time, and ultimately made farm content a less farm and a little more interesting.
  • Challenging content shrinks the differential between “progression” and “farm” raids. If there’s one thing that I’ll be critical about when it comes to ICC, it’s that by the end of the expansion we were clearing an entire 12/12 HM in less than two hours, three if we were having a rough night. Contrast this to the beginning of Cata, where progression guilds were pushing over 30 hours a week raiding and performing support activities (valor/rep farming, leveling primary alts, crafting/leveling professions, dailies, etc.) and clearly you’re talking about a significant difference in the magnitude of time commitment. I’d actually go so far as to posture that one of the reasons we saw the collapse of so many top end guilds in Tier 11 (that I can recall: Dues Vox, Cuties Only, Forlorn Legacy, Fusion, Spike Flail, Might, Tasty Beverage) is because of this large differential between the effort needed at the end of ICC and the effort needed to advance in BoT/BWD/TotFW. Granted, raid difficulty wasn’t the reason cited by many of these guilds during their collapse, but there’s no doubt that tensions have been high in this tier, as noted by players of all rankings. Compound this with the disparity that existed in the encounters themselves—compare the personal responsibility requisite to HM Putricide to the personal responsibility needed for HM Tron Council—and I think it’s clear that the expansion ushered in a huge mindset change. However, by narrowing this difference, by increasing the time that it takes to farm content and maybe dropping the time it takes to progress, I’d argue that you can limit the stress/system shock that’s associated with the transition into a new tier.
  • Difficult content rewards effort and reinforces a feeling of “earning” loot. If the snide look that so many players make when they mention “Welfare epics” is any indication, a good portion of the WoW community actually does appreciate feeling like they’ve earned their keep. We work our way through Honor Points, Justice Points, Valor Points, Reputation, Conquest Points, and revisit instances week after week, all working towards a goal which we know can only be achieved through continued effort. So, the boss that makes this task easy on raiders (ohai, Tol Barad loot machines) are ones that generally garner the least amount of effort. Conversely, some of the toughest encounters in game at present (HM Ascendant Council and HM Al’Akir, imo) reinforce that feeling of having earned your way, even when the loot is no longer relevant.


But should you … really?

Like I said above, I do acknowledge that there is a downside to an instance or a tier filled entirely with encounters that are built to be challenging on multiple levels:

  • Demanding encounters don’t mesh with a difficulty incline. I think we as a community oftentimes forget the large range of skill levels, not to mention approaches to raiding, that exist these days in 10 and 25-man raiding. And in between the most casual Pugger and the most dedicated member of Paragon lie many shades of grey. So it makes sense that the first bosses in an instance shouldn’t be the hardest and most complex—a raid team shouldn’t be cock-blocked on fight #1. But, by designing encounters like the ones mentioned in this and the preceding section, Blizzard would be creating a barrier to entrants into the raiding world, asking them to exercise the same level of execution and precision as required by encounters far more complex and demanding, and thus excluding them from further progression.
  • Demanding encounters restrict players who have limited time in game. Although I’m typically of the opinion that it’s completely fair that someone who only has 8 hours a week to spend on content experience less of the raiding game than I do, (yes, really—your time is yours to manage) I understand that putting time-consuming content into game means that less players will venture into it. If I recall correctly, this is one of the reasons that Blizzard cited that raids in Cataclysm would be smaller and more digestable, so that the mountain you needed to climb to the “end boss” need not be as steep.
  • Some players prefer content that lets them disconnect. While I’m a person who’s not happy unless I’m locked in competition, I readily concede that not all WoW players share my disposition for stressful environments. And make no mistake, the qualities of challenging bosses that I listed in the previous section, come with a heaping amount of anxiety if your raid team is struggling with them during “farm content”. So while I appreciate being held to the same level of rigor from kill to kill, the stress that comes with it isn’t something that I think most players would be willing or eager to sign up for.
  • Greater stress leads to faster burnout. Although I was quick to point out that reducing the time disparity between “farm” raiding and “progression” raiding is important in maintaining conscious (and subconscious) expectations about how much time raiding takes, I readily concede that players benefit from having schedules that fluctuate. There is definite value to be had in raid weeks that are slightly shorter, in which more is accomplished, in which raids are called early because there’s nothing left to kill. As superficial as it sounds, there’s a happiness to be gained from the relatively minor accomplishment of clearing the week’s raiding content, an ego boost that would otherwise be deprived to players by “farm” content that always acts like “progression” content.


A recipe for future design

In the end, I’m quite sure that the philosophy behind encounter design is a moving target, influenced by the experiences of players and developers alike, adapting to lessons from all the previous tiers. And, if anything, ToGC demonstrated that Blizzard isn’t adverse to the idea of breaking the mold of “typical” instance design in favor of trying something new. So while I strongly believe that minimum clear times should be something that designers strive for, to eliminate the sometimes roller-coaster feel of raiding, and that you should never be able to carry the player who can’t be bothered to put forth a minimum effort, that’s not to say that things haven’t evolved since the days of (original) Patchwerk. I think it’s clear that the demands on player multi-tasking and responsiveness have increased significantly since then (due, in part, to the proliferation of boss-mods, but that’s a topic for another day). And some of the personal responsibility factors that we saw crop up in BC and in Wrath made great comebacks in Tier 11 normal and hard modes.

But ultimately, after this entire post of musings I’m struck by two thoughts. First, that players shouldn’t be reliant on Blizzard for challenging content. Despite the fact that the preceding sections focused heavily on how encounters can be designed to be seen and experienced a certain way, it would be negligent to omit any mention of the group that has the single greatest impact on encounter enjoyment—us. Like children in a room of toys complaining that “there’s nothing to do!” I oftentimes think that we players look to Blizzard to script the challenges that we should be creating for ourselves. When I was young, I didn’t need anyone to tell me to climb the tree in my yard, and I certainly didn’t get anything other than some scrapes for my efforts, but darn it if I didn’t climb that tree anyways, just to prove I could.

And I think that same mentality applies to the challenges in WoW. I remember the first time my little guild used a Blueberry tank in Sarth 3D—we didn’t get any nerd points for it, and the loot was the same—but it was one hell of a thing to see through. Point being: nerd points and rewards shouldn’t be a pre-requisite to our play time and we shouldn’t expect designers to all the time be dangling shiny keys in front of us to keep us occupied and interested; we need to make some challenges for ourselves.

The second thought is one that I don’t have an answer to, but one I think it’s important to ask given everything I talked about thus far.  Should Blizzard design encounters to be great on the 23rd kill or should they only worry about your first time through? I don’t know the answer to that one, but I certainly wonder just how it would change the raiding game if they did.


  1. Firestyle

    I completely agree. This tier has been challenging to farm. While only 9/13 here, and hoping to hit 10 this week with nef – we’ve had some rough farm nights for sure – and frankly, some fights we never put on farm and just never did more than once (T4W).

    I love a good hard fight as much as the next guy, but to some extent to have heroic magmaw and heroic trons in the middle of the pack heroic difficutly is quite odd. Sure, we can one shot them both now, but learning them AFTER chimaeron, atramedes, and maloriak heroics feels wrong.

    Likewise, I think it’s standard for guilds to learn heroic elemental council as 12/13 or 13/13 rather than pre-nef, pre-alakir, and pre-cho’gall where it intuitively would have been.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this tier, but I really don’t want to every do 10 man hardmode council of wind again. Al’akir, probably – but never council. That says something right there.

  2. Have you been reading my Council Rants? ^.^

    I think that there is a very fine line between an encounter that is innovative, challenging and yet still fun and one that is difficult for the sheer purpose of being difficult. I find that while I may struggle with challenges from the first category, in the end I look back on them and say “it was fun”. However, there have been a few encounters over WoW’s existence that I feel fall into that later category – and in my opinion those encounters failed.

    Let’s take your example of Gorefiend. We actually had players request to sit out of that encounter because they struggled so much with the ghosts. Even after months of farming the fight – people still said “can you please swap me out for this” because they were terrified of being picked for ghosts and causing the raid to fail. To me, this is a significant indicator of an encounter failing to meet the “fun” check.

    Another example, I feel isn’t even a boss. Let’s look at the C’thun trash. What was the point of that? It could take more than an hour to clear, was difficult enough to have been considered a “boss” and without fail once the Twin Emps were down we’d start getting tells from people who “had something else” they needed to deal with. The only trash that even came close to this level of “WTF” was pre-nerf Mimiron trash.

    Let’s look at my current struggle: Heroic Council. I don’t think I’ve been as stressed, frustrated, or upset about an encounter since…well, I honestly can’t remember. I was literally in tears as our raid came to a close on Monday night – after four nights of working this encounter (and having the door bug out on us both Sunday and Monday and requiring us to stop our raid to soft reset the zone – after a 2% wipe no less!). I get that encounters should be a challenge. I want them to be a challenge, even.

    But spending an entire phase of the fight praying person x doesn’t get an orb or person y is never a lightning rod target and knowing that if it happens you might as well just call a wipe now is not fun. Hell person x could be a phenomenal player, one of the best on your roster, but they just struggle with this mechanic and there is almost nothing you can do to help them do this one thing better. And there is little that the raid can do outside of hoping your priests have lifegrips ready and everyone waits with bated breath while, as if in a slow motion cut scene, everyone watches to see if player will make it to their fire patch before exploding the raid.

    Any encounter that brutally punishes your raid for one mistake by one person, with almost no chance at recovery from that error, is not innovative, fun or challenging to me. It doesn’t even require “teamwork” when one person (albeit ever shifting) is the lynchpin of your success or failure. To me phase 2 of that encounter is difficult for the purpose of being difficult and is not fun. I mean, when you have guilds who have this fight on “farm” and it still takes them an average of 10 pulls before they can achieve a kill, there is a problem in the underlying mechanics of the encounter – at least in my opinion.

    There have been a lot of challenges this tier. And, aside from the overuse of needing interrupts, many of them have been fun. Hell, even Heroic Al’Akir, which I swore for a time was the worst encounter ever inveted has even grown a soft spot in my heart and I find myself enjoying the time I spend on the fight. Where once I swore at the perfect storm, now I appreciate the puzzle it presents me. I found Cho’gall, Nef and Sinestra fun and intriguing fights – and they rarely, if ever, inspired the rage I feel working on Council.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say in this long winded – turned into a rant (sorry bout that!) – reply is that I think sometimes Blizzard does cross that line between “challenging and fun” and “frustrating” from time to time. I think it’s the exception and not the rule, but those exceptions are the things that can break a player or a guild who is already close to a brink.

  3. Bear

    Another benefit of challenging mechanics is that you can go back to a raid 2 expansions ago and wipe for an hour before getting it. I always thought it a shame that old raids aren’t seen as relevant but a fight like Patchwerk simply can’t be in current gear.

  4. Beruthiel, I had to read your section about Ascendant Council aloud in vent. After 140 wipes on that encounter, we even had to swap raid lead, because the original three people became nervous wrecks. It’s just that true.

    Back to the original topic, I don’t think the encounters were designed to age. Some of them are brutal at first, even frustrating, but become a breeze later, like Atramedes. Others, like Omnotron have mechanics that just punish you just for having good dps, which reminds me of Freya. “Be careful on the detonating lashers!” – bam, wipe. Even worse are encounters that force you to have a certain number of tanks or healers, where in reality fewer would suffice. I’m pretty sure one could heal a single tank through Magmaw (infact we did try this before the nerf), but Mangle more or less dictates a second full tank to hanlde the constructs.

    One boss you mentioned stood out though. Alone in the Darkness. I’ve never done +0 during the original content in 25mans, but even on 10mans the encounter was pure bullshit. Yogg-saron was one of the most rewarding and fun encounters to kill on normal, but with each warden less, the encounter got worse. It’s just no fun to have someone feared into a crusher tentacle again, or having a tentacle of the brain room healer.

    There are two things I expect from farm raids. First, don’t take too much of the time I could be progressing. We do 15 hours a week, and got to 11/13 on 10mans with it. We can clear 7/13 in less than 2 hours, Nefarian and Conclave usually go down within 4-5 pulls, but Al’akir and Cho’Gall can go down on second pull or take entire evenings. Which leaves the question, kill them or do progression? And if you haven’t killed Al’Akir for 3 weeks, is he still on farm?

    Secondly, don’t get worse when gear gets better. Nefarian normal mode got harder and harder, because there was barely enough time to heal people back to full between electrocutes. Yes you could do a damage stop, but where’s the sense in that? Maloriak. By the time the third add wave spawns he sits at 35%, and dps need to full stop. Boring. Having better gear should make the encounter easier. But it should also be possible to compete for speedkills by taking the bare minimum on healers and tanks.

    • Firestyle

      Wow, I really like your last paragraph. I have a real issue with mana tide totem in regards to what you’ve stated on your nef experience. In our first few reg nef kills, sub 20% was a breeze, since MTT would just be off cooldown then. Now, as we power through electrocutes, sub 20% is a disaster since we’re scraping by on mana.

      It’s hard to make the understand why they should stop killing the boss.

    • I agree, that last paragraph is exactly the mindset I think guilds should have for farm content. It’s something that my present healing lead challenges his team to do, and quite frankly, I love it.

  5. I am a big believer in players treating the content like their own game. It can be tons of fun. Everything from 2-healing H Atramedes 25 (awesome & congrats, btw!) to dps’ing Argolath as a Holy Paladin (cracked 6k with no cooldowns used, tyvm). It is great to bust out of the mold Blizzard hands you and have some fun.

    One night we had a single priest using only Holy Nova heal an overgeared Archavon pull. A little stressful on her, but it kept the rest of the raid on their toes to avoid dying to dumb mechanics on a loot pinata.
    Joe Ego´s last post ..The worst thing to happen to Holy Ever

  6. Ryxstix

    Hey Vixin.

    I agree with nearly everything you say but I have one small beef with one of your comments this week.

    “Each tier that’s released trains us to deal with new mechanics. At one point, players considered dispelling hard; now we laugh, point, and call them noobs for being consumed by such a mundane task.”

    Have you ever solo dispelled wrack on Sinathria?

    Its not fuckin easy.

    I was stuck with this…so called mundane task…and basically every single thing that could possible go wrong was blamed on wrack dispells. Granted, most of the time they were but it did not exactly make dispells seem like a laughable mechanic.

    It also was very difficult in that because I am the only person dealing with the mechanic it is hard to tell where the mistake is beacuse people are supposed to be helping heal wrack, but if someone doesn’t get correct heals then whos to blame, me for not dispelling early and trying to recover, or everyone for not healing wrack?

    I think this then transitions to later where you talk about:

    “So while I appreciate being held to the same level of rigor from kill to kill, the stress that comes with it isn’t something that I think most players would be willing or eager to sign up for.”

    Ryxstix – 85 Resto Shaman 13/13 4/7 Malfurion Horde.

    I do not entirely disagree with this statement but I do think that there should not be such a thing as putting stress on a small group of people or a single person. I think that you underemphazise the degree to which this can be the cause of many of the other results: guilds breaking, burnout, not downing fights, should you etc…

    Each week I joke in healer chat about not wanting to dispell on Sinestra, only they aren’t jokes I am being serious because the fight stresses me to hell.

    I think that if you want to take a position in making bosses less stressful then you need to consider that while making an encounter more difficult is easy to do by putting responsibility on one person it is made infinately more stressful for that person. If I make one dispell mistake on Sinestra the whole fight goes to hell and its unlikely that we can recover from the 2,4, or 8 people that die as a result of it.

    The crux of my argument is, I too can appreciate mechanics that are stressful and I want to be held to a higher tier as well, I think the design choices are unfair at points. I think that you didn’t do enough justice to the stress that some mechanics can cause and that this would be a point to argue more loudly and clearly for how to change boss design.

    We can also see this happening, to a lesser degree, in other fights. Razorgore in Blackwing layer required shaman and warriors to kite, which at first was very stressful and basically sat the raid on the shamans shoulders. We eventually got this to where I could solo kite but it didn’t make the learning any less stressful.

    Nefarion platform interrupts: Many shaman, like myself, were suckered into this job and if it went off it was real easy as to who to point the finger at, that didn’t make it any easier to deal with or any less of a pain in the ass each week. Again, once you got the rhythm down it was repeteable but that didn’t make it less stressful when getting ready for the fight.

    So, perhaps Sinestra is an isolated inncodent but the next time there is a solo-dispell role I am not letting the healing team assign me to it. It probably made me a better player but I look forward to Al’akir(Considered the hardest fight of the content patch) more than I look forward to Sinestra.

    Nice post overall but I am all for less stress on a single person or group of players.

    • I can understand your frustration with the Sinestra position of handling Wrack, and yes, as someone who has solo-dispelled it, I can empathize with the stress inherent in that task. (And I can see I touched a nerve). However, when talking about the mundane task of dispelling and the point at which it was considered challenging, I was referring to Vanilla content, when it could be one healer’s responsibility to dispel for the entire encounter and completely disregard healing. I do not see any parallel between that environment and Sinestra. Even dispel management in Kalecgos was a step up from the “see debuff – dispell debuff” whack-a-mole roles of Vanilla.

      However, I do think my perspective differs from yours in that, although I found the [Sinestra] position stressful because of the potential consequences of failure, I delighted in the idea that I was playing a pivotal role. My mind boggles at how different my NCAA days would have been if my mistakes hadn’t cost my teams points–if a shanked dig didn’t mean the end of a rally, if a badly placed serve hadn’t given the other team an advantage. The certainty of failure, the very real possibility that my mistake would irrevocably impact my team, is what I relished because it was always there pushing me to be better.

      I’d be willing to wager that the time when you’re going to put your all into walking a tightrope isn’t when there’s a net beneath you.

  7. Ryxstix

    Well put. Thank you for the very inspiring words.

    I am glad we have other resto shaman that take the game very seriously and want to promote shaman healing rather than seeing it as a class that is necessary for mechanics.

    As stated I believe that it probably DID make me better as a healer and probably some of my best playing was the attempts that I did absolutely wonderful dispels and we were able to 2 or 3 shot the dragon, mistress, trapped lady…whatever she is.

    The analogy to your volleyball days is actually rather comforting and though its not comparable to the Sinestra fight there is something to be said about the similarities in pressure.

    I read your blog a lot and try to model myself in my play and my candor after you and I hope this blog keeps going because I thoroughly enjoy it.

    Looking forward to your next posts and I hope we can keep a good dialogue going (on this blog) and keep promoting the power that is resto shaman!



  8. […] Life in Group 5 ponders the process of developing encounters with a fun factor that lasts. […]

  9. In my limited experience with raiding, I can see how ‘boring’ it would be to do the same thing week after week. I think the raiding achievements was a soft way to encourage unusual goals, and make raid nights a little more interesting if the raid decided to go on ‘achievement runs’.

    Blizzard has also attempted to give the raiders themselves a choice with a couple old raids. Like you mentioned in your post Sartharion gave the raid the choice, 0-3 drakes could be up at the fight, and the raid would have to deal with new mechanics, and obstacles in the encounter. Loot improved with increased difficulty, which has always been the incentive anyway.

    Proposed solution: Have a locked door prior to each boss, unlockable only by the raid leader if he/she has the achievement for that particular raid instance. Inside, two mini bosses (randomly spawned from a group of five) reside, acting as dip switches for the boss encounter. The raid then has the choice to make things interesting, or continue with the regular boss. This would make things more of a headache for the developers, in the long run it could help with keeping raiders entertained, and keep them coming back to test out new combinations.

    I would love to hear some feedback about this.
    Dr Zeuss
    Dr Zeuss´s last post ..D_Manchild: If God and Mike Ditka played a game of football, who would win? HA! Trick question. Mike Ditka IS God. #Dabears

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