It’s been over eight months since Dragon Soul opened its doors in the Caverns of Time, seven months since a Korean guild burst onto the world stage with the first kill of HM Madness of Deathwing, and six months since the power of those final 8 bosses started to decline. For some raiders it may feel like we’ve spent an eternity in the discordant environment of Tier 13, while others have only recently earned their place as Saviors of Azeroth. But regardless of the path that you’ve taken through the final raiding content of the expansion, there have been some valuable lessons learned along the way.
Today I wanted to talk about some of my own take-aways from Dragon Soul, focusing on some of the things that affected me as a progression raider, specifically: LFR abuse and bans, legendaries, healing compositions, and class stacking. But more importantly, I want to discuss how these issues in Dragon Soul laid some of the groundwork for the changes we’ll see in Mists of Pandaria (which is set to be released oh so soon!)
LFR Abuse and Bans
A black mark on LFR’s implementation, the loot abuse that occurred at the start of Tier 13 and which garnered bans in a number of the top guilds will, I think, be the most memorable thing for hard mode raiders this tier. Whereas EU, TW, and KR guilds typically dominate the top world ranks, Tier 13 saw a number of these guilds endure week-long bans that underscored just how much of an impact one lockout can have on overall progression. The world’s most-recognized raiding guild, Paragon, finished World #5; US-based powerhouse Vodka saw themselves slip to World #11, while Blood Legion clawed its way to World #4; and Taiwan super-guild STARS managed to pull off what many others couldn’t and come back from a World #29 Blackhorn kill to finish World #2.
To me, what was more disappointing than seeing a number of the top guilds succumb to the pressure of “winning at any cost” were two things: a) the shock of the community at the fact that there had been exploits, and more importantly, b) that the exploits seemingly caught Blizzard by surprise. Maybe it’s my cynical nature or the fact that my athletic experience made me intimately familiar with the “win at any cost” mentality, but after 7 years of watching top guilds find any and every crack in boss encounters—using world buffs, kiting Freya’s flowers, evade-bugging adds, saronite bombing platforms, chaining Holy Wrath stuns, stacking rip-spamming druids, etc.—not expecting players to utilize a loot system that they can control to its fullest, seems painfully myopic.
Even now, long after the bans, Raid Finder is still rife with players gaming the system, rolling on gear that they don’t need/want so that they can trade it to friends or guildies, or simply give it to someone they deem “worthy”. And, although Vigil didn’t elect to farm LFR the acceptable way, there were plenty of guilds who ran LFR multiple times in those first weeks, funneling gear to a few players. (Actually, I designed such a plan for Pie Chart, which made it possible for them to do multiple runs with no more than 3 loot-eligible players per run and no more than 1 gear type—plate, mail, leather, cloth—in the group. Yeah, Excel is a wonderful thing). So, with LFR, what was envisioned and implemented as a low-commitment way to provide entry-level loot, did not wind up being the boon to casual raiders and undergeared players that it was intended to be.
But, the good news is that all this is slated to change come Mists of Pandaria. While LFR will remain functionally how it is now, as a response to the player-influenced loot of Tier 13 LFR, the loot system in MoP’s Raid Finder is being shifted from a Need/Greed/Pas s system to individual loot rolls. As explained in a recent Blue Post, loot rolls will be done on an individual basis, which means that your roll will never be compared against those in your raid, but rather a scale system where a roll of 5 or lower will net you a piece of loot from the boss’s loot table. Further, items won in LFR will not be tradeable between eligible raid members (unlike drops in NM and HM raids). And, with your character only being eligible for loot once a week for each LFR boss, this means that players will not be able to go in and game the system for their friends and guildmates by reducing the pool of players rolling on loot. And although I’m sure it’s not going to make my luck improve when it comes to drops, this switch will remove the possibility of abuse and put some of the RNG back into gearing.
Impact of Legendaries
Anyone talking about Tier 13 would be remiss to not mention the incredible and ridiconkulous impact that legendaries had on progression raid teams in Dragon Soul, and I’m certainly no exception. Instead of the situation you had with Val’anyr in Tier 8, where 1 – 2 players on your raid team had the benefit of the legendary as your guild went into Tier 9; or as with Shadowmourne when the first legendary was assembled during the final LK push; or as with Wairglaives, which were an entirely random drop; in Tier 13, entire ranged dps rosters were outfitted with oranges prior to the launch of 4.3. Made possible by alt raid schedules and rigorously-designed timetables as well as a guaranteed drop rate, the prevalence of Dragonwraths mitigated a number of the dps checks that were put in place for DS encounters.
If there’s anything I came away with as a result of this tier, it is a distinct loathing for orange-colored items, and their propensity for disrupting balance. Thankfully, it seems that developers were in agreement regarding the implementation of Dragonwrath and, back in September 2011, prior to the release of Dragon Soul, agreed that the parallelization model wasn’t something that we’d see making a resurgence. In contrast to Dragonwrath, the rogue legendaries that went into place in DS almost felt like an afterthought to the PVE experience. When Vigil’s fourth and final rogue finished his Aspects daggers in June, it felt more like a consolation prize and less like a legendary accomplishment.
As to what the future holds, in Ghostcrawler’s Cataclysm Post Mortem, he gave some hints about what shape the coming legendaries might take:
Legendaries are supposed to be rare and exciting, not a bar you fill up like some reputation grind, and certainly not something you feel entitled to get because it’s “your turn.” Dragonwrath in particular was usable by a large variety of class specs, which coupled with the guarantee to completion, just made them too ubiquitous. In the future, legendaries will be more legendary, perhaps so much so that not every raiding guild will have one. In that model, there might be those who almost, but not quite, complete one, but there will also be those who finish one and feel truly honored. (Source)
The unfortunate thing is that this picture doesn’t hold up so much in light of the information that has been discovered thus far about Legendaries in Mists. Although it’s not yet been confirmed by any Blizzard source, data mining has revealed Legendary enchants which conceivably can be applied to any weapon in game. Although the path for achieving the legendary and the associated timeline are purely speculation at this point, the format represents a definite departure from class-restricted legendaries of the past. However, I see the same problem with the Legendary Questline as I do with Dragonwrath farming—it encourages guilds who want a legendary edge to continue operating multiple alt raids to ensure more chances at the drop. On the flip side, a return to a random, low-percentage drop rate will put both 10-man and 25-man raids back on the same footing, and if tuned appropriately, could mean that legendary items return to being a rarity and not an everyday event.
But, until we see final confirmation from Blizzard how the Legendary Questline will be put into place, (info that might be forthcoming in the weeks ahead) I’m going to consider this Tier 13 problem unresolved.
Normalized Number of Healers
With specific regard to 25s, one of the oft-spoken complaints about Tier 12 and Firelands, which seemed to evaporate rather quickly upon the launch of Dragon Soul, was that a number of the hard modes required a very small, very specialized, healing team. In Firelands, you had HM Baleroc: 3-4 healers, HM Domo: 3-4 again, and in HM Rag, where 4 was an absolute maximum until the HP nerfs. This was in stark contrast with T11, where the least amount of healers was likely for Sinestra (we used 4). So, it was delightful when DS hard modes threw these raid comps out the window, and required teams to run with ~6 healers for most encounters, with Ultraxion HM requiring 4-5.
So that was a good thing, right? Well, kinda …I think the lesson from Tier 13 is that in order to set healer “requirements” for a fight, you need to introduce raid damage that stresses the limits of healers’ mana. If you look at the fights in Firelands, you simply didn’t see the same amount of consistent raid damage that you had in Dragon Soul, and so you could get away with less healers. HM Rag sealed the deal with the failed phase 4 mechanic Breadth of Frost, thus enabling 25-man raids to drop down to 3 healers because of the lowered healing requirements. As a result, DS needed to up the ante, and it did so, with incoming damage that almost doubled what we saw in Firelands. But along with the increase in damage, we saw Blizzard introduce even more buffers, including extending personal tank CDs (eg: Vampiric Blood and Frenzied Regen) to the entire raid.
Making the transition into Mists, we see this delicate problem being addressed in two ways (and I say delicate, because stressing healers’ mana pools when they’re adjusting to new regen mechanics and constraints could easily wind up with one class way behind the pack). First, we’re seeing the migration of raid cooldowns away from tanks. Prot paladins will no longer have Divine Sacrifice with which to mitigate raid damage, leaving raids with only Rallying Cry, Anti-Magic Zone (which is hypothetically limited in its absorb), and Meditation (which is, as of the last build, limited to a redirection of 5 incoming attacks).
In conjunction with the first point, we’re also seeing hybrids take on more multi-functional qualities in the Beta, allowing them among other things, to actively contribute to raid healing. Druids are likely pointing frantically at Nature’s Vigil and Heart of the Wild, but let’s extend the examples beyond our beloved shapeshifters. For example, while Resto Shaman have been overjoyed to have Tranquility Totem at their disposal, its position as a Tier 75 talent means that Enhance and Elemental Shaman will be able to pick it up as well. (It’s worth noting that it won’t be nearly as powerful, since Resto Shamans’ Purification passive increases Water Totem healing by 50%). Likewise, while disc and holy priests will enjoy Halo, a Tier 90 talent, Shadow Priests will also have access to this raid-wide heal on a 40-second CD. Similarly, Zen Sphere, if selected by Brewmaster Monks, will provide significant benefits to a raid stacked in melee range.
As with all things PVE, it is a delicate balance. DS could get away with high HPS requirements because it was the end of the expansion and healers were flush with mana (some more than others). But, the starting tier of Mists will be a different thing entirely. As I mentioned previously, healers will be dealing with yet another standard-of-life adjustment in the form of reduced Intellect contributions and capped mana pools. As a result, I think we’re poised to see two conditions emerge. First, that healing requirements for each encounter will be tied to the type and quantity of raid CDs required. And second, I think we could see some slack being picked up by classes who have the ability to contribute to total healing without impacting their overall raid performance.
As the final point in this discussion we get to … class stacking. Neither a new nor a minor problem, Blizzard has had a constant, uphill battle when it comes to the class balancing required to support their “Bring the player, not the class” philosophy. From bringing in a plenthora of Warlocks for Soulstone abuse (remember: there didn’t used to be a limit on the number of resses you could use in a fight) to stacking your Sunwell raid with Resto Shaman, progression raiders have always been quick to take advantage of any imbalance in order to beat their raiding competition to a first kill. Dragon Soul was no exception, especially in light of Dragonwarth’s widespread acquisition.
From the DPS side of things, damage meters from Kin Raiders’ HM Spine kill and Blood Legion’s HM Madness kill go a long way to showing which classes were in high demand for the last two hard mode encounters:
And let’s not forget that from the healing side of things—Resto Shaman found themselves back in demand for those same two last encounters (which left a number of guilds struggling to find alts or retired raiders who were up to the task). Kin Raiders brought 3 Resto Shaman to their Heroic Spine of Deathwing kill; likewise Blood Legion defeated Heroic Madness of Deathwing with 3 Resto Shaman in their raid group. Even if it was a consolation for an expansion of playing the odd man out of healing compositions, it was nonetheless a fairly heavy swing towards favoring a single class.
Since I mentioned that this was not a new problem but rather one that has existed in some way, shape or form since raiding’s inception, you might ask—why bring it up in a post specifically about Dragon Soul versus Mists of Pandaria? Because I think the difference with DS was that you didn’t see extreme class stacking by only the first couple of guilds to best the encounter, but rather by a stream of guilds in the top 50+, all adjusting their rosters and/or bringing in alts, in order to make the healing and dps checks that had been put in place, even subsequent to the nerfs. Guilds that had been quick to debunk myths about the necessity of particular raid comps for Sinestra and HM Rag found themselves bowing to classes’ inherent limitations, ones which could not be overcome by simply “playing better”. (I’m looking at Spirit Link Totem here … the benefit it provided on HM Spine was huge).
Tthe reason I left this point until last is because, of all of the things being shifted around in Mists, this is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing game designers. But, there are flickers of hope for players in the next expansion, some of which I mentioned previously— the reduction of the number of raid buffs, further tuning and refinement of classes, reinforcement of the benefits that “hybrid” classes offer and redistribution of raid CDs.
Ultimately, I think this is a challenge that is entirely dependent on where you set the bar for performance and how you measure acceptable tolerances from that benchmark. Sure, Paragon might find their way to a world first with a dps team comprised exclusively of rogues and warriors, but at what point after that top guild do you draw the line for acceptable raid stacking? And what sort of constraints does that put on encounter designers when you have to think of ways to discourage rosters with the flexibility that comes from multiple alt raids? What steps do you take to make sure you don’t have a repeat of HM Spine? I don’t know the answers, but I’m looking forward to finding them out come September 25th.