The 5.2 patch notes contained the following intriguing note for battlegrounds:
Players in low-level Battlegrounds will have their effective level raised to the maximum level allowed in that Battleground bracket. Players’ base stats and spells are scaled accordingly, and are treated as the same level when determining hits, misses, and critical effect chance.
There wasn’t any more explanation about this change, but the general idea is to smooth out battleground brackets so that players at the bottom levels of a bracket can compete with those at the top. That’s a noble goal, I suppose, though the last time I wrote about the problems of fixing low level PvP I hadn’t really thought that level imbalance was the source of imbalance in leveling PvP. Player experience, gear decay, and class imbalance were far more pressing matters. But if we’re fixing levels, okay, we’re fixing levels.
The optimist in me interpreted the above patch note as follows:
- Miss chance will be equalized across the bracket at a uniform 4%.
- Because the hit/miss chance is now equal across levels, the chance of melee critical strikes on the Attack Table will also be uniform.
- Base health will be scaled up to the top of the bracket.
- Spell effects will be scaled up to the top of the bracket.
This presented the changes in the best light – it allowed characters to gear as best they could for the battlegrounds while minimizing the effects of disparate levels. A level 15 player wouldn’t need to stack 20% Hit to always hit level 19 opponents anymore, which seems to be the real purpose of this. Either gear would scale up to the new level using the amazing Challenge Mode technology released in Mists, or all stats from the gear would remain the same so the character wouldn’t experience any loss of potency. The change was to normalize hit and health.
What was actually implemented this week was much simpler, and far more disastrous:
- Character levels are raised to the top of the bracket. Base stats and health increase accordingly.
This causes all kinds of problems, most notably placing lower level characters in a bracket at a serious disadvantage from those at the top level. Instead of solving the problem, it makes it far worse.
The issue is gear and scaling.
BATTLEGROUND BRACKETS, GEAR AND SCALING
As you level in Warcraft your gear gets less effective. Oh, the numbers stay the same – a +5 Intellect hat doesn’t start going down – but what that +5 does for you gets less and less. You need more and more stats on your gear as you level to remain at the same ability level. This combat rating decay is a fundamental part of encouraging players to level without causing actual ability imbalance. As you level up your character gets weaker and needs more and more numbers on their gear to keep up.
Gear is restricted by level to prevent characters from progressing too far and gaining too much power. Within the five level spread representing any given battleground bracket you’re going to see more quantitatively powerful gear at the higher levels. At certain levels you’ll see radical jumps in power due to expansion inflation – 58 for BC, 68 for Wrath, 77 for Cataclysm, 80-82 for Mists. This means that the gear available to players at the top of these brackets is substantially better than the gear available to the bottom.
These two factors combine to create an interesting see-saw between powerful gear and stat scaling. Generally the epics available from the end of an expansion will outweigh anything else in that bracket no matter what level a character is, so it’s best to stay at the bottom of those brackets to take advantage of improved stat scaling. If you’re in the 70-74 bracket – which contains Sunwell epics and Brutal Gladiator gear – you’re almost always better staying level 70 because you’ll have the best gear and the best combat ratings.
When you go up to the next bracket (75-79), though, things flip. The Cata gear available at level 79 is so much better (ilvl 277+) than the Wrath gear available at 75 (ilvl 155-179, tops) that the bottom part of the bracket gets destroyed. Heck, anyone gets destroyed if they aren’t in full Cata greens – they’re better than the best level 80 raid epics you could get in Wrath!
This cycle of low / high starts around 55-59 and lasts for 20 levels, up to 79. It gets muddied as the levels between expansions contract at level 80, where a level 80 in Wrathful gear used to be quite good against most classes at level 84 (with a few exceptions). Mists gear contaminated this bracket, though, adding superpowered ilvl 409+ gear. Now it’s a toss up between staying low and reaping the benefits of combat scaling or leveling up for better gear. Stats decline faster over 5 levels than they do over 10, and every level hurts.
The 85-89 bracket was dominated by mixing and matching Cata PvP gear and Mists blue gear, with most classes staying at 85 but a few advancing on to gain exceptionally good abilities. There’s some gear improvement at 87, but most every BiS item in the bracket can be equipped at 85. There’s nothing at 89 which beats what an 87 can wear, and not much of it beats what a 85 can equip.
In each one of these brackets the power skews low or high. If overpowered gear is available at the top of the bracket, then level becomes a major issue. If favorable stats and great gear is available at the bottom of the bracket, level isn’t an issue and the bracket is generally easier to level through.
HOW LEVEL EQUALIZATION FAILS
The change in 5.2 brings everyone’s effective level in a bracket up to the maximum while leaving gear intact, causing two different and distinct problems. These problems will be better or worse depending on the way the bracket skews.
First, lower level characters are locked out of the gear they need to compete on an even field. Raising effective levels does little to nothing to address the gear disparity between expacs. A level 75 character will still be clad in Wrath blues and greens (and possibly BC purples), facing off against level 79s in Cata greens. (Keep in mind that’s a 150 item level disparity.) In the high skew brackets (55-59, 65-69, 75-79 and now 80-84) this is a serious problem.
Second, lower level characters suffer increasingly dramatic penalties to their secondary stats in brackets where gear is mostly equalized. In the low-skew brackets (10-14, 20-24, 60-64, 70-74, 85-89), combat scaling favors the lower level characters and allows them to compete with the increased health, damage and abilities of the top of the bracket. Gear is relatively balanced across these brackets, so you avoid the first problem.
Equalizing only the level and not the gear means that the low level toons are now walking in with gear 5 levels below their opponents. If those 5 levels span an expansion gear break, they’re in trouble. If those 5 levels encompass a sharp decline in combat ratings, they’re really in trouble.
Let’s look at Hit as an example.
I thought the original idea behind this change was to make a smooth 4% Hit Cap for PvP, basically negating any advantage the top of a bracket holds over the bottom. Everyone needs just a little Hit and it’s all even.
Hit scales (down) with level. The higher level you are, the more Hit rating you need to get +1% Hit. But your gear doesn’t scale. You’re now level 84 wearing level 80 gear, itemized for level 80. That 4% Hit you had before you zoned into the BG? It’s now 1%. You’re going to need about 14% Hit on your gear to get to 4%. I don’t even want to think about how much Hit dual-wielding classes are going to need to be competitive.
If the goal was to equalize Miss/Hit across a bracket, this change absolutely failed to achieve its goal. It fails twofold:
- It doesn’t make it any easier to hit players of a higher level.
- It makes it harder to hit players of the same (low) level.
If this wasn’t the specific goal of the change, I fail to see how this helps equalize the top and bottom of a bracket.
I went ahead and pulled some data off of my Warlock last night and compiled it into a spreadsheet.
I lose 61% of Cynwise’s secondary stats – Hit, Crit, Haste, PvP Power – in exchange for ~35% increase in effective health. She goes from being agile and hard hitting to clunky and slow, just like everyone else in the battleground. Keep in mind that her gear is exceptionally good (item level 414-438) and she has an overabundance of Hit. She’s got more Hit than Cassius Clay.
This really changes the feel of each battleground, and not for the better.
At this point the only sane gearing strategy while leveling is to go for as much of your primary SP/AP attribute as possible and ignore secondary stats. Any nuances to gearing don’t matter
HEIRLOOMS AND BUGS
Up till now I’ve just been talking about how the scaling change affects low level characters in a bracket based on the design. There are two wrinkles to add to all of this – heirlooms and bugs.
Heirlooms scale according to your effective level. This means that a level 20 toon with heirlooms now has the stats of a level 24 with heirlooms, which is the only place where scaling seems to be working right!
The drawback is that this now means that heirlooms are more essential to leveling battlegrounds than ever before. Players in non-heirloom gear will be at a significant disadvantage to those who have them, and the more heirlooms the better.
The biggest gap in leveling battlegrounds is caused by experienced players with enchanted heirlooms. They are the new twinks of PvP. This change, as implemented, strengthens their superiority and makes it even harder for new players to compete. Without normal gear scaling the problems of low level PvP will now get worse, not better.
The second problem is that the scaling is really buggy right now. Players are reporting on the forums that no secondary stats from heirlooms are getting applied (at all). I was in my PvE set last night and missing every few casts (which absolutely should not happen). Players have reported that you are better off taking off all your gear and fighting naked rather than using the scaled gear. There are a lot of problems here and it doesn’t seem to be working as intended.
It’s my hope that the implementation can be straightened out or rolled back, as these changes have all negatively impacted PvP play in sub-90 battlegrounds. They don’t accomplish the putative goals and exacerbate existing problems in low level PvP.
Update 2013-03-08: Ghostcrawler confirmed this is bugged and a hotfix is coming soon. Nobody panic, nobody level, someone tell my Arena Partner that he’s not going to remain godmode healer forever and then pass him some smelling salts.