There’s always a lot to be said about the first tier of an expansion. It’s a time where so many things are in transition, as players adjust to class changes, new game dynamics and new systems. It’s a time of volatility, where guild rosters are being shuffled, new alliances are formed, and players work to find their place in end-game content. And for healers, the first tier of an expansion is arguably the most challenging as you’re often tasked to do so much with so little resources. For me, Tier 14 was all of these things and more—a time of instability, a time of adjustment, and a time of discovery. (Yes, for all my years in this game, I still get giddy over new content). And, I was surprised to discover that not all my initial impressions and fears about Pandaria were as accurate as I thought they’d be.
It’s been a long time since my Realm First! achievement, but I still remember the feeling of being positively overwhelmed with my “to-do” list in that first week of raiding—Golden Lotus dailies, Klaxxi dailies, Heroic dungeon farming, Valor capping, farming in general, etc. And the list kept growing in the subsequent weeks, expanding to Shado Pan dailies, leveling alts to 90 so I could have more farm plots, completing LFR weekly, capping valor, capping conquest points, and more. So, it wasn’t surprising to me that many of the complaints about Pandaria, especially those voiced in the first month of release, cited the sheer number of things to do, including dailies, as an issue for players.
At the time I agreed with many of the complaints (despite writing an article that attempted to argue the counter-perspective. Sneaky, right?). But now, looking back, I can’t help but think how short-sighted those complaints were.
As I sit here at the end of T14 progression, instead of feeling slightly adrift and looking forward to the next content release, I’m struck by how much I have left to do in game. And to me, that’s an amazing thing. We’re almost 4 MONTHS into this expansion, and not only did I just finish raiding progression (more on that in a moment), but I still have a long list of to-do’s. I have reps that I can round out at my leisure (August Celestials, Anglers, The Black Prince), a new lore-based quest line to continue (5.1’s Landfall—which I’m really enjoying), mounts to farm/collect (I just picked up Cloud Serpent riding), more farmland to expand (on my 4th character to 90—I can’t get enough of the Tillers), challenge modes to try out (I haven’t done any to date), cooking quests to complete, Brawls to fight, and a host of heroic dungeon and scenario achievements to try my hand at. I actually thought to myself the other day—I hope 5.2 doesn’t launch until April, so I have a chance to get some of these things done before we have to start progression again. Let me restate that …
I. A hardcore progression raider. Without being coerced or threatened into doing so. Hoped that raid content was delayed. So that I could do more “causal stuff” in game. (Except pet battles, ‘cause f- that).
To me, that’s a huge change in how I relate to this game. In previous expansions, it was all about when the next raid content would be released; the time in between progression and patch launch was time where you showed up for raid and then logged off or onto alts for the remainder of the week. Raid guilds were a flurry of activity for the first month or so, and then a ghost town on nights other than Tuesday after that. (Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly, but you get my drift). Downtime was regarded by many as the downside of progression raiding, the undesirable effect of playing at a hardcore level. And yet now, several months of downtime is something I’m hoping for. And it’s not because I’m trying to rack up obscure achievements or talk myself into going back and grinding old reps to exalted because I’m out of ideas—it’s because I have more than enough options strictly in current content. True, those options aren’t all true “end-game progression” but the fact is that they’re there, they’re not afterthoughts tossed in at the last minute, and they are (with some exceptions) quite engaging. In that regard, I think Blizzard could, in all fairness, turn to all of its subscribers and, with a knowing smile, say “we told you so”.
Raid Release and Content
When it comes to my primary joy in game—raiding—my expectations of Pandaria were kind of a mixed bag. From what I had experienced on the Beta, I knew encounters would be challenging and I knew that the variation in mechanics would keep them from feeling too repetitive (even in the near-trashless instance, Terrace of the Endless Spring. Seriously, how awesome is it that this didn’t feel like another ToGC?) But, there were two big unknowns about raid content in Pandaria: first, how would the staged release feel to hardcore guilds, and second, would the hard modes really set the bar high for the rest of the expansion or would they feel like Naxx 3.0?
With regards to the staged release, it was something that I objected to right off the bat. Having raids delayed one week after launch was, in my opinion, an unnecessary constraint on a raiding community that had been chomping at the bit for new content for the past 9 months and it was too much of a insertion of limits into players’ definition of playstyle. And while, yes, there was some breathing room in those first few days after I hit 90, all the raid delay did was swap week 1 goals with week 2 goals, with no overall net impact to the stress of launch. So, instead of rushing to level and gear my main in week 1 and my alt in week 2, my alt resto druid, as well as Vixsin, were leveled and entry-level raid geared by that first Sunday. In retrospect, I think the points and objections that I raised then, about the week reprieve from raiding, are still ones that I’d support today.
That being said, I do think that the staggered release of raid content was a great choice by Blizzard, and I’m happy that they stuck to their guns on that point. Although the implementation of raid content bore a striking resemblance to the gating that we saw in Icecrown Citadel and Tier 10, the end result was much different. While it made little sense for that singular instance, with three Tier 14 instances, the segmented progression allowed guilds to ease into the raiding game without having to juggle all three instances at once (at least for the first month). The unfortunate thing is that while I think this style of implementation did protract content and provided some logical structure to progression through the instances, I don’t see it being as successful if it is re-utilized at a later point in the expansion because of the hurdles in momentum that it creates.
Moving on to my second major concern about Pandaria raid content—where would hard modes set the bar? Interestingly enough, I’d say my answer to this question shifted over the course of T14. HM Mogu’shan, through bursting with interesting encounters that did indeed remind me of Ulduar, was also an inauspicious start to hard mode content. The first worrisome discovery was the low number of healers necessary for each encounter—the standard was 5; the lowest, on Spirit Kings, was 3. It was reminiscent of the fights we saw in Firelands, where teams who carried 6-7 healers on their roster were forced to bench 50% of their healing team, or transition them to dps, as a response to the low healing constraints of the encounters.
The second discouragement was that, despite encounter design that I really enjoyed (Spirit Kings’ high mobility requirements, Stone Guard’s tank coordination, and Elegon’s phasing), almost every HM encounter hinged on maximum cooldown usage, with moderate healing filling in time between heavy burst. This meant that my healing became not about a series of good choices for the duration of the encounter, but rather about a small handful of choices regarding when to drop Healing Tide or pop Ascendance. By the end of MV, I was genuinely concerned about the HM’s that lay just around the corner.
However, all of my worries were put to rest the moment that my teammates and I, like many other progression guilds, met The Stonewall, otherwise known as Imperial Vizier Zor’lock. A fight that was nuanced, and equally about raid coordination and personal decision-making, I will count this as one of my favorite encounters of my raiding career (post to-the-left-to-the-left! hotix, of course). HM Garalon was also a favorite of mine this tier, with both its strict enrage timer, and its ability to take what is, for all intents and purposes, a tank-and-spank fight, and give it a little twist. Unfortunately, I don’t think the fights in between Vizier and Empress offered the same level challenge, both in terms of healing and dps constraints. Amber Shaper was a pleasant reintroduction of Gorefiend mechanics, although I don’t think any guild out there gets truly excited for insta-wipe vehicle-based encounters.
But end bosses are typically what raid content difficulty is based upon and I think HM Empress and Sha of Fear set the bar in just the right place for an expansion’s first tier. In some regards, the design elements we saw in HM Will, which was a snooze-fest to heal, carried over to HM Sha. But whereas Will maintained the same plodding pace for the entire encounter, HM Sha stepped things up a bit in Phase 2 and subtly introduced increasing amounts of panic into your stay in the Elemental Plane of disorienting-monochromatic-design. I love encounters which require specialized jobs and random teams, and I think HM Sha did a good job at this without making it seem “gimmicky”.
HM Empress was different in most regards, but will also go down as a good final boss encounter in my book. First, although it wasn’t an overly-long encounter it did manage to fit in 3 somewhat different feeling phases. Second, raid damage was the kind that seems insanely high to begin with, but progressively became more manageable the better we got at the encounter. (Hooray for fights that reward execution!) Third, it required some coordination that couldn’t be managed entirely through boss mods. Arguably, not as much as Sinestra, but the theme was still there. Lastly, at 100ish attempts for those pushing the absolute bleeding edge, it seemed the right amount of time and energy for a satisfying end boss kill in a tier that had 3 of them. (Remember: HM Rag took 500+ attempts for Paragon, but was in a tier with only 6 lead-up bosses and one end boss).
This leaves us at the last point I want to talk about …
At the start of the expansion, when you’re undergeared and still getting used to the practical limitations of your new abilities, healing is always a challenge, and MoP entry-level raid content was no exception. Although heroics provided their standard frustrations–mostly due to Cata-mindset tanks not understanding the concept of LIMITED mana—I was really put to the test upon entering raid content with stats that were significantly diminished from those I have today.
But, as I progressed through normal modes and then through the hard modes in MV, I started to notice a common theme that made those first handful of bosses a much different experience than the bosses we encountered in early Cataclysm.
Triage, was nowhere to be found.
It had been replaced, as I mentioned above, with burst mechanics that clearly did not allow for players to be less than full health when incoming damage hit. Whereas my memories of Blackwing Descent and Bastion of Twilight involve me telling people over and over again to not worry about topping players off, there’s no possible way I could have responsibly given that advice in Tier 14. The sounds of “top me/us off” were present almost every raid night.
If anything, this is my biggest gripe about Tier 14 content. Beyond the variable number of healers and the huge shifts in the imbalanced class of the hour (Disc Priests, I’m looking at you here; Monks, you get off the hook temporarily), I miss the concept that smart healing choices won you the game. And I know the intention was that, by removing Intellect from the regen formula and capping healer’s mana pools, we’d be put back into that triage state once again. But try as I did to find those moments of HP juggling, they simply weren’t there.
The one way that I can think of to support this assertion, that our days of triage are truly gone, is to point to healers’ overhealing amounts on progression kills. In Cataclysm, especially in the first tier, you were likely to see healers’ overhealing around 10-20% on a first kill. Healers simply couldn’t afford to spam, in fact we went through a ton of work to break ourselves from that mindset. For Resto Shaman specifically, Earthliving overhealing was a perfect gauge of the level of spam that was present. In those days, Earthliving was recording 15-30% overhealing, indicating that players were slow in getting topped, thus allowing our passive hot to be more effective. But, compare that T11 norm to the Earthliving overhealing percentage for Phase 2 of my HM Sha kill, 55.5%., and you start to get the picture of just how different today’s healing environment is. Even on HM Empress, which has some of the most intense healing requirements in Tier 14, my Earthliving was sitting at 45% overhealing.
If anything, this is what I’m worried most about when looking to Tier 15 and beyond. To have triage absent from an entry tier of an expansion, a tier which should have had all the right conditions for triage to exist (undergeared players, new class mechanics, low stat levels), inspires some concern. Regardless of your opinion of triage, its existence in the early content of Cataclysm meant that healers experienced at least some progression of healing style over the course of the expac—from more mana conservative heals to more expensive ones. And while each healer had a slightly different trajectory between those two points, there’s no denying that we all used more Healing Wave / Nourish / Heal / Holy Light in Bastion of Twilight than we ever did in Dragon Soul. It begs the question, when my goal in a T14 encounter is to have 100% Healing Rain uptime, and that goal is reasonably accomplishable, where do I go from there?
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Despite the ups and downs of these last several months, there’s really only one word that could sum up my impressions of Tier 14—“Impressive”. There are so many things that were done right, from the incredible number of bosses and the variation of encounter types, to the downright gorgeous environments and solid final boss fights, (and even a “healer” fight that was actually fun!) True, I do have some concerns about what lies ahead, but what kind of opinionated, self-important blogger would I be if I didn’t?
Ultimately, I do hope that, in many ways, T14 is an indication of things to come. I hope that we’ll continue to see encounters that test our personal decision-making, that push us to do more than hit our cooldowns, that bring back triage healing, (that prevent my guilds from collapsing), that reward improvement and creative play, that offer a little something extra like Elite modes, that take us out of our comfort zones, and that pull us deeper into the world of Pandaria.
(I’d also like to see some more of these ideas make it into raiding. #6 and #8 made it into T14; can I put in my vote for #3 in T15?! C’MON, PLEEEEEEEEEASE?! Show some healer love!)