It was at 2:30am ET on last Wednesday morning that Tier 15 came to a close for the members of Promethean’s raid team. On the heels of an absolutely heart-wrenching 1% wipe the night before, and after an exhausting 6-hour full HM clear, Ra-Den finally kneeled down in defeat to the glorious sounds of nerd screams. It was 11 weeks since I had first set foot in Throne of Thunder, an instance that has the grand scale of Black Temple (without all that pesky trash) and which claimed to draw on Ulduar’s encounters for inspiration. I admit, after a quick introduction, and a fast and furious round of testing, I entered T15 with more than a little trepidation. And while some of my worst fears were (unfortunately) realized, in the end, I found something to keep me going through the continued ups and downs of the PVE raiding game.
So let’s start with the best stuff first …
The Parts I Loved
When it comes to the characteristics of Tier 15 that I really liked, there are a number of small things that instantly come to mind, from the number of bosses (remember: Firelands had only *7* bosses; ToT has 12/13), to the raid weekly (never before have I looked forward to giant floating exclamation points), to Gary the Homicidal Gastropod (who makes every class wish they had Life Grip with which to torment their teammates). But, overall, three things really stand out in my mind as things that ToT did well:
- Raiding on an epic scale – I’m a sucker for raid instances that make me feel like an outsider in someone else’s domain, and Throne of Thunder instantly drew me in with its gorgeous mogu-meets-titan design and overscaled architecture. In contrast to the confines of Mogu’shan Vaults and the rapid-fire succession of Terrace of Endless Spring, Throne of Thunder was a long winding journey through the home of our newest mortal enemy. When I finally made the climb up to Lei Shen’s platform, (Yes, I want to use the teleporter. Yes, I’m sure. Will you just &^%#*@! port me already, for the love of Thrall?!), I was overtaken by the idea that the throne room was straight out of the instance that a large majority of players cite as the pinnacle of PVE content. Sure, we never approach the levels of sheer size that were the courtyards of BT and Ulduar, but Throne of Thunder was an impressive place to spend these last couple months.
- Variability in encounters – Along with the unique scenery that provided the backdrop for each boss encounter, possibly the biggest praise that I have for Throne of Thunder is that the encounter design really mixed things up every step of the way. And although I wasn’t a fan of some of the hard mode encounter “twists” (pink dinos? REALLY?), in most cases they felt like the logical progression up in difficulty from normal mode. The encounter design team did themselves proud with fights that mixed up personal and raid responsibility, with interesting and challenging mechanics. (Bonus points should be awarded for Ji-Kun forcing raiding guides to actually endorse backpeddling).
- End Boss Quality – While T14’s Big Baddie, Sha of Fear, was a bit tedious as a 21-minute 2-phase encounter, I think HM Lei Shen hit all the right notes, managing to be epic-feeling and challenging without making you spend over a quarter hour per attempt. Like HM Rag and HM LK before it, progression was a series of gates—once you work through the timing on phase 1, then you focus on making it out of the transition alive, then you focus on the timing in phase 2, then the next transition, and so on and so forth. And although I thought Lei Shen might have overstepped the line a little on positioning demands (there were times I know our RL felt a bit like a choreographer), I appreciated the emphasis the encounter placed on spatial awareness and communication. Raw output/Patchwerk fights are fine for boss #4 or 5, but when it comes to the end encounter, I want something that demands finesse. Lei Shen, in my book, delivered.
The Parts That Didn’t Thrill Me
Of course, with the good comes the bad. And as much as I try not to be a backseat designer, minor quibbles aside, there were a couple of things that I found quite disappointing about the tier (from a raiding perspective; healing issues are another topic for another day):
- Resto Shaman balance – You knew this point was coming the minute you saw the title of this post, but I’m going to mention it anyways … #1 on the list of things that tarnished my affections for the tier was healer balance, especially when it came to Resto Shaman. Small disparities I can understand, even ones to the tune of 5-8%, but when a class gets a +20% buff to their AOE healing, that’s a huge sign that … and do read this in a strong US Southern accent … someone done fucked up. No matter how you frame it, no matter the concessions I make about hindsight being 20-20, given the characteristics of the encounters and the PTR logs, it should have been easy to identify that Resto Shaman, and our niche toolkit, would be ill-equipped. If we had not had the single most powerful throughput cooldown in game (at that point), you can bet that those shaman who weren’t benched and were actually brought in for progression by cutting edge guilds, would have been nowhere to be found.
- Legendary drop rates – Let me premise this by saying that I, for one, have really enjoyed the legendary questline thus far—the effort has been substantial but the rewards for sticking with it have been commensurate with the time investment. But when T15 introduced not one, but two back-to-back drop-based legendary collection quests, I knew I was gonna have a bad time. Sure enough, despite earning Exalted with Shado Pan Assault at the start of May (meaning: I was in for almost every boss kill since Week 1), and being on the Legendary quest since the first day of 5.2, I obtained my legendary meta two weeks after the rest of my guild. So, while some people were able to pick up their cloaks when 5.3 launched, it will be another several weeks (maybe a month, if really bad luck strikes), before I collect mine. That kind of variability stinks, especially when the legendary questline has been predominantly governed by player effort.
- Release timing – While I think it’s commendable that Blizzard has been meeting their self-imposed goal of delivering content more frequently, I know that a number of us in the raiding community were surprised at how quickly Throne of Thunder was pushed from PTR testing to Live. At approximately 6 months post-MoP launch and 5 months from HoF/ToES release, patch 5.2 was at our door, leaving a number of raiders to wonder what the rush was all about. Furthermore, 5 boss/day PTR schedules and the quick succession of NM/HM and 10/25 man testing meant that a number of issues that were identified during those tests went live a couple weeks later. Mistweavers’ Revival dispelling players on HM Jin’rokh and Primordious, Durumu’s maze effects being almost indistinguishable, bugged Bone Worms on Ji Kun trash keeping everyone in combat, players being teleported beneath the world in Dark Animus, Expertise bracers being coined by a Disc Priest … (/sigh) … they were all there on PTR, and then on live. So, while I realize that no game is without issues, I do think that Throne lacked some of the polish that I’ve come to expect from Blizzard. I do hope, in that regard, that ToT was reinforcement of the design policy that Blizzard had held for so long—it’s ready when it’s ready.
Something Lost, Something Found
Unfortunately for the competitive raiding world, despite its laudable qualities and similarities to oft-recalled tiers, Tier 15 wound up claiming even more of our PVE brethren. And as we saw more 25-man teams, some big names among them, crumble under the increased weight/tension of maintaining cutting edge progression, and I saw my friends list grow a little bit more dim, I started worrying about my own raiding shelf life. I wondered, is that eventual burnout in the future for me too? Is it closer than I know or do I still have a while before I finally call it quits?
To be fair, I’ve been raiding a long time now. I’m going on 7 years of raid weeks, Tuesday resets, faction reps, instance farming, of having people I don’t know bark orders at me about where to stand, and of being excited about the color purple. Granted, it’s less time than someone who began their progression career in Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, or AQ20, but it’s a long time nonetheless. And after such a disheartening start to the expansion with one of the most combative guilds that I’ve ever been a part of, followed by the untimely end of my first and only experience playing Alliance, I wondered if the universe was telling me that it was time to hang up my spurs. And in a last ditch effort to keep myself from giving up before yet another trial period, yet another round of ingratiating myself with a whole new set of people and a new healing team, and yet another set of transfers for my alt army, I decided that I wouldn’t spend T15 with my homepage set to WoWProgress.
And while I admit that I didn’t go entirely cold turkey, it was an amazing thing to spend a tier free of worrying about the impact of a couple hours, a day, a week. I realized that somewhere in between the top rankings that I had been striving for, for so many years and at such great cost, and the casual PuGs that I started out in, and which inspired such frothy Vixsin-rage, I could find something called … fun. Even after all these years, after all the stress and all the drama, raiding can still be fun. Burnout may be an eventuality, it may be coming for me next week or it may be another three years down the line, but, as I discovered, that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy myself in the meantime.