When the battleground brackets were split in two – from x0-x9 to x0-x4 and x5-x9 – several other changes were made which were to have a dramatic impact that wasn’t apparent at the time.
- Characters who had reached the maximum level of their account type (trial accounts to 20, vanilla accounts to 60, BC accounts to 70, Wrath accounts to 80) were now placed in the XP-off brackets, aka the twink brackets.
- Brackets were standardized so the highest level of an account type (60, 70, 80) were no longer the highest level within the bracket for some battlegrounds.
These changes were made, in part, to remove expansion twinks from the leveling XP brackets. A known problem with level 60 AV would be “Molten Core guilds” – guilds of characters on accounts which never upgraded to Burning Crusade, who raided the old instances for the best gear possible, and who would show up and DESTROY the opposition in the 51-60 Alterac Valley bracket.
(Oh god. Those guys were so good, you have no idea unless you saw them in action. It was hopeless fighting them with a pug. Even my twinked Death Knight got steamrolled.)
Placing expansion twinks in the XP-off bracket (which, logically, is where they belonged in the first place) would have probably not caused much of an uproar without the reorganization of the brackets. PvPing at the top of the bracket almost always guarantees that characters will be as powerful as they can possibly become. The only exception to this was the 10-19 bracket, where level 10s gain a huge benefit to their stats due to favorable combat statistic scaling. Everywhere else, the 9-level gap was just too much.
Expansion twinks found themselves flipped from the top of most of the brackets to the bottom, suddenly faced with level 64 or 74 or 84 opponents. Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds were still open to them, but battlegrounds suddenly presented a very new challenge. No longer was it level 70s beating up on each other, everyone equal – now players had to figure out if it was better to stay where they were and enjoy beneficial scaling, or level 4 levels and get additional gear, talents, abilities, and health.
Surprisingly, most twinks stayed put. You lose a huge amount of effectiveness by leveling from one expansion pack to another, and the gear generally doesn’t catch up until you reach the endgame of the next expansion. The gear available at 64 and 74 isn’t that much better than the best epics of vanilla and BC. In a lot of cases, it’s still not beating the best epics. So there’s a compelling argument to stay an expansion twink, and the x4 twinks never really unbalanced the brackets. They adapted to their new situation.
Then Blizzard lifted the time restrictions on trial accounts, and the F2P deluge began.
In Patch 4.2, Blizzard revised trial accounts to become Starter Edition accounts, allowing people to play up to level 20 for free. No longer restricted to 10 days, players could now take their time and gather the best gear possible, work on professions within the strict SE account limits (no primary profession over 100), and participate in PvP.
Due to the changes introduced above, trial account twinks were placed into the nascent 20-24 bracket, a quiet bracket that was populated by Cataclysm toons who liked the feel of lowbie PvP but who lacked many of the grandfathered BiS gear that dominated the 19s and 29s. The 24s weren’t wildly popular, but it wasn’t completely desolate.
That all changed with the F2P movement picked up steam. The population swelled with level 20 twinks, games became more regular, and a new culture came into the bracket, sweeping out the old.
But unlike the other, higher level expansion twink brackets, the 20-24 bracket has several key differences.
- Combat ratings are more potent at low levels. Small differences in gear and enchants are magnified because each point matters more.
- There is no expansion-induced power inflation at level 21. It’s not at the end of an expansion. While stats get less effective as you level through the 20s, there is no sharp decline like you see at level 10, 60, 70, or 80, so a level 24 character retains more effectiveness from level 20 than a level 74, or god forbid a level 84. Levels 83-84 are just brutal.
- Starter edition accounts are substantially limited when compared to paid accounts. There are few enchants available for them to use. They can’t use the Auction House or mail, so BoE gear is practically impossible to get. Professions are limited. Guild heirlooms, like the head and shoulder slot items, are unobtainable. (Regular heirlooms are available, they just take time to get.) Faction changes are impossible, and quest rewards are distributed unequally between factions, preventing characters from getting the best gear. All of these restrictions add up to a sizable disadvantage in PvP.
- Not every person in the XP-off battleground is a twink. These are Starter Editions, after all, and many of them are actually people trying the game for the first time. Shocking, I know! But unlike other XP-off battlegrounds, the players here didn’t select to be in the elite bracket – they just wanted to PvP. So there’s a wide variety of gear and player experience.
So here you have a sizable population of players joining a fledgling bracket at a disadvantage. They create their own community, they have their own sense of shared triumph over difficult odds – and having worked a bit myself on a trial edition twink, it’s hard work – but it’s fragile. F2P accounts want to play against other F2P accounts. They want to have that work be rewarded with a fair PvP experience.
But this is where the 24s come in.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP (OF THE BRACKET)
How big of an advantage does a level 24 twink have in this bracket?
It’s one thing to run some simulations, to build out some test profiles on Wowhead and make educated guesses, but it’s another thing to see how it plays in the field. If you were to look at my level 19 Warrior twink, you might think she’s a real badass in the field. She’s not. No matter how good I make her, she’s still going to suffer in any DPS role because she can’t maintain time on target in the bracket.
Experience in the field matters more than numbers, so I rolled a hunter, leveled her up to 24 and twinked her out, and queued up to see how it played out.
I felt bad for what I was doing to the other team. I actually felt remorse for dominating the battlefield, which … I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m not built that way.
Solo assault the Blacksmith with three defenders? No sweat. Kite one, pet on the healer, run away, use line of sight with the building to block fire, disengage down the hill, shoot through the hill… done. Base is mine, let’s find another one to cap.
Solo grab the flag, kill my way through midfield, destroy their offense playing cat and mouse in our base, get the winning cap? Exciting stuff. You start to feel like a big damn hero, gun firing rapidly as you strafe away from the pack of attackers, cutting them down one at a time.
I was a hawk among doves. I could get pulled down by a mob, or by the ever-present threat of a twink rogue ambush, but I would be sure to take a few of them with me, every single time.
Exciting? Yes. But – and I’m not joking here – it’s so easy to be good at level 24. I’ve never played a hunter before in PvP and I’m suddenly this titan of the battleground, FC and super-DPS all in one. I know they’re good at low levels, but not this good.
Properly played, level 24 twinks have a serious advantage to level 20s in the bracket. It’s not like the 70s, where 74s are common enough sights but rarely OP. (The OP distinction goes to level 70 mages.) It’s not like the 80s, where 84s are limited to a few select classes who benefit from insane stat inflation on Cata gear, above and beyond what is possible with level 80 Wrathful. No, there is a substantial, significant advantage being at the top of this bracket.
This could very quickly devolve into battles being decided by which side can field more 24 twinks, not about the contributions of the level 20 masses. After playing just a few games at 24, I can see that this is a very real concern.
The game is coded a certain way: level 24 twinks will hold every advantage in this bracket, should they choose to pursue them. The law of the game is silent in this time of war; there is nothing to prevent paid 24 accounts from stomping out the F2P PvP community.
One of the first interactions with the F2P viewpoint came on my first game after faction changing from Alliance to Horde. I went Worgen to get the Top Hat, but I rolled Alliance first because they have better Agility quest rewards, and I wanted to make sure I had them. I didn’t want to stay Alliance though – the queue times are too long (more Ally F2P than Horde) and I had friends on the Horde side of that server.
I shrugged my shapely elven shoulders. “I wanted the top hat,” I said nonchalantly, fingering my rifle, crafted many years ago in Ironforge.
The tauren leaned in close as the timer counted out the final seconds. “I don’t heal Ally,” he hissed. “And no one else here will, either.”
Okay, I muttered to myself, loading my rifle.
Looks like we’re doing this the hard way.
The F2P community is openly hostile to level 24 twinks. The general opinion of 24s is that they are bad players looking to beat up on the weak, avoiding a fair fight to test their skills and learn from other players. There are shame lists on twinkinfo’s F2P forums, lists of 24s who are to be ridiculed on sight and avoided. There’s praise heaped on paid accounts who adhere to the F2P rules, letting fair matches continue but allowing the F2P community to group up and circumvent some of Blizzard’s tighter restrictions.
Social pressure is the strongest weapon the 20s have, and they are using it in spades. If you’re 24, you’re bad. That’s a constant message that I hear in forum posts and in-game. 24s don’t want fair fights, they’re bad players who couldn’t manage to win any other way, who get their rocks off by beating up the weak. I hear that too.
I don’t blame them one bit for using this tactic. There’s a very real danger here of them losing the bracket they helped create. The more attention F2P PvP gets, the more people will look at it and go… hey, those F2P accounts are pretty weak, they look like … prey. And if enough 24s show up, not just bad players but good ones, experienced twinks, in sufficient numbers, then their games will die. They’ll either have to upgrade their accounts and roll 24s, or find something else to do.
The 20-24 bracket, as it exists today, is very much the result of Blizzard removing the 10-day limit off trial accounts. I think both sides realize and admit that. Starter edition toons are the reason it’s so popular now, and there’s real truth behind the statement that if it weren’t for F2P, few people would be interested in this bracket. The bracket was developing in a different way before the F2P accounts swarmed it, and while you could argue that they’re now the interlopers, F2P is here to stay in 20-24.
This particular fact is brought up usually to support Starter Editions getting their own, separate bracket, away from the 24s, because the disparity between the two sides is so very great. The 20s are waging a social campaign of shaming 24s, because the game itself is stacked against them.
THE MORALITY OF WAR
The 20-24 War is a battle of two opposing viewpoints of PvP combat.
- PvP should be a fair contest. The true test of a player’s skill is in a fair fight; by making the playing field as even as possible, player skill and ability becomes paramount.
- PvP should be unfair; victory goes to those who pursue every advantage over their opponents. If you put in the effort to increase your character’s abilities (through gear, professions, etc.), you should perform better than those who do not. Player skill is important, but that includes their skill in creating their character.
These two viewpoints are in opposition, but are not mutually exclusive. Warcraft PvP is inherently unfair; players enter battlegrounds at all levels with different gear, different enchants. This is how the game is coded, how it is designed, and the players have to adapt to it. But there’s still a desire for fairness, especially at the endgame, of having gear be roughly equal, classes be roughly equal, of performance being roughly equal, of player skill being the determining factor.
Twinks and full-time endgame PvPers both chase the best gear and enchants possible, not just for fairness, but so that they can perform as well as they can versus their opponents. If they come up against a lesser-geared opponent, they’ll beat them and move on. If they come up against someone with better gear, they do their best, but realize that they have to gear up and do better next time.
The ethics of gear are complicated. Is it fair to enter a battleground knowing that you’ve geared enough to make combat trivially easy in your favor? Is that your sin, or is it your opponent’s fault for not going to the same lengths you did? If someone queues up for PvP in broken gray gear, and you’re in enchanted heirlooms, are you morally obligated to hold your fire? Or do you kill them and move on? It’s not fair, to be sure – I don’t think anyone disputes that.
But is it wrong?
What if someone chooses to enter combat at a disadvantage? Do their opponents need to abstain from combat with them, or deliberately cripple themselves?
This is not just semantics for the 20-24 bracket. The core problem is one of perspective, and while the unfairness of 24 vs. 20 combat isn’t in dispute, the morality of it is.
Does the F2P movement have a right to exist? Are the 24s in it wrong for even being there?
That’s what this comes down to.
GRATIS VERSUS LIBRE: FREE AS IN BEER, NOT FREE AS IN SPEECH
The 20-24 bracket is unique in all the PvP brackets because of the presence of Starter Edition accounts. Unlike the other expansion twink brackets (70-74, 80-84), the choice between 20 and 24 is not one where there are advantages to both the low and high ends of the bracket that should be considered. Level 70 and 80 characters receive significantly better return on combat statistics, including Resilience, Haste, and Crit. But 74 and 84 have access to better gear, talents, and abilities. There are real choices here. A level 70 or 80 character has chosen one over the other.
And, most importantly, everyone in those brackets are paying customers.
I’ve been treating the level 20 community as equivalent to other expansion twinks up to this point, but that’s ignoring the very real difference between 20s and 24s: the 20s are there because they don’t – for a variety of reasons – want to pay World of Warcraft’s monthly subscription fee. Because of this, the 20-24 bracket is one of the only places where money provides a real advantage to gameplay in WoW. Fifteen dollars a month buys you the ability to pwn the bracket.
It gets you a lot more than that, of course, but it also gets you this advantage.
This debate is really about establishing a norm around the value of money and subscription services. Warcraft has been a subscription-based game for the entirety of its existence, which strongly implies that Starter Edition accounts are guests within the game; to be welcomed, but not to be considered the norm. If that’s the case, then the 20-24 bracket should be treated like any other PvP bracket – get yourself up to the top, gear up, and go to town. Players who choose to come into the battleground with trial accounts are just like any other undergeared, underleveled toon who enters a PvP bracket; a weakness to be exploited on the other team.
But, through sheer numbers, the F2P community makes up the majority of this specific bracket, so the social norm is different. The normal value of a subscription is inverted by the majority. Instead of “it’s your $15 a month, play what you want to play,” it’s now “this game is free, you’re playing $15/month to dominate it.” The normal ability level is the F2P level, not the paid level.
You can’t ignore the money on this one. You just can’t.
Should a player who pays nothing still have a good experience in WoW? I think most of us, with an eye towards the health of the game as a whole, would say – yes, if it convinces them to purchase the game. That’s a reasonable standpoint both from a commercial and personal point of view – the purpose of Starter Editions is to make money for Blizzard.
A smaller subset of people would say, yes, they should have a good experience no matter if they buy it or not. Often this opinion is based on self-interest – it’s nice to participate in WoW on a limited basis without incurring any costs – but sometimes it’s based on the idea that WoW should cultivate a good reputation within the F2P game community, that it’s something you can pick up every so often without paying for it.
And other folks would say: it doesn’t matter if they have a good time or not. They’re not paying customers.
Does the F2P 20 bracket have a right to exist? Do players who pay nothing have the right to dictate the norms and values of a bracket over those who do?
Does paying money confer rights? Should not paying money be seen as somehow morally superior?
The problem with saying the money doesn’t matter is that you’re then left with a case of people choosing disadvantage over advantage, and 20-24 isn’t as simple as that. F2P players want to have a game where they’re playing a fairly matched game, but the game isn’t set up to be fair.
The social pressure exerted by the F2P community is to ridicule the 24s, to accuse them of bullying and of being bad players, is entirely to maintain this fragile sense of fairness within the bracket. There’s an absolute need to demonize the opposition here, to make people look askance at even thinking of rolling 24s, because if too many paying customers do it, they can’t have their fun.
I think if you look at the situation closely, you’ll start to see that this is really an appeal to emotion, to the inherent moral superiority of the F2P twink – they have to overcome serious challenges to reach their maximum potential.
But all twinks have to overcome limits like F2P twinks.
ON TWINKING AND BULLYING
Are level 24 twinks bullying other players?
It’s a fair question to ask. Would someone have rolled a level 24 twink if it wasn’t for the purpose of playing PvP in a known lopsided bracket? Maybe. Probably not, but maybe. I think before the Starter Edition deluge, the 24 bracket was a nice compromise between 19 and 29 with a gear reset.
But now… ?
It’s very interesting playing 24 – for a while. It’s a challenge taking on multiple opponents at once, of figuring out how to make the most of your abilities to win, to be the decisive player on the battlefield.
But it’s very much like playing in the old 10-19 bracket, where twinks and levelers mingled freely. You have a few 24s, a bunch of 20 twinks, and a bunch of 20s who are not twinks by any means. Three tiers of players there – this isn’t a twink bracket, it’s effectively a leveling bracket that awards no XP.
Three tiers of toons, and two of them are twinks. Not one, two.
While writing The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP, I realized that the old-school twinks left the lowbie brackets, but new ones moved in in the form of geared levelers. Just because it’s a leveling bracket doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a strata of twinks, of min-maxed toons, in it.
The 20-24 bracket is unique in that it’s a locked bracket which should be given over entirely to the twinks, but isn’t. It has new players, really new, trying out the game mixed throughout. The legitimate Starter Edition accounts – those of new players trying out WoW to see if they’re going to buy it – are competing against both paid 24 twinks and F2P 20 twinks. F2P twinks with really good gear – BiS dungeon gear, BoAs, fishing hats, the best enchants they can get – are going to outclass those new players, by quite a bit. You only have to see players running around with 500-600 health at level 20 to realize that this is not a pure twink bracket.
If, in defense of the F2P movement, you have to be very careful if you’re going to accuse the level 24 twinks of bullying because they outgear the opposition. Are they rolling just because there are weaker players in the bracket? Almost certainly.
But that’s true of the F2P twinks, too.
There isn’t really a level 24 twink culture anymore; it’s been subsumed into the F2P community, which is actively combating it for their own survival. I think the dynamic of the bracket is really interesting, and that my past few weeks of getting to know it have been enlightening.
My personal feeling is that the F2P PvP community that has sprung up deserves to survive. It represents people embracing serious constraints to create characters who are fun to play. It represents a nice option for veteran players who are just looking for a break from the game. If spinning it into its own bracket does that, great. If not, it will survive or perish on its own merits.
I think that’s an important point to make: a bracket, a community, needs to survive on its own merits. If it’s fun, it will draw people to it and resist attacks. If it’s not fun, people will drift away. It shouldn’t need developer assistance to do it.
But I also think that there’s a real conflict here between the F2P community and the normal PvP community, and that you have to stop and think about the arguments being presented that one takes precedence over the other. Things aren’t as simple as they seem. Don’t buy into the propaganda.
No matter which side of the war you end up on.