Category Archives: Cynwise’s Battlefield Manual

Using Healers Have To Die to Protect Friendly Healers

(This post is a continuation of Healers Have To Die and the PvP Addon Arms Race, my defense of the controversial PvP addon Healers Have To Die (HHTD). You may want to revisit my arguments in that post before reading.)

Despite my best efforts to get healers to take the initiative, I don’t see many yells for assistance in the battlegrounds. And leveling two healers through PvP right now, I understand why – when I’m getting focus fired, I have about 1 second to switch over and start spamming heals onto myself before I’m dead. The last thing I want to do is to bang the Help Me! macro, which is kinda out of the way, when I really want to cast Nature’s Swiftness or Power Word: Shield to buy myself time.

It’s okay. I should probably macro yells for help into my panic button; I’m still amazed at how effective SaySapped is at telling other players what’s going on. But I keep forgetting to do this because I have a much better personal solution: Healers Have to Die.

Healers Have to Die is the single best addon I have used to protect friendly healers in a battleground, bar none. I am not kidding here. It may be a valuable tool for DPS in PvP to help identify enemy healers, but where I’m discovering it really shines is by identifying friendly healers, marking them, and – most important of all – notifying you when they are under attack.

I wished for another addon called Healers Have To Live. I got it in Healers Have To Die.

HOW HHTD PROTECTS HEALERS

Take a look at the screen at the top of this post. This is my level 70 warrior twink, Ashwalker, fighting at Iceblood Graveyard in Alterac Valley. The camera is zoomed way out so I can see everything around me, but I can’t see details like what kind of clothes people are wearing or even really casting without UI assistance.

You’ll hopefully notice the large blue cross in the screen. This is a friendly healer that HHTD has detected. HHTD looks for specific spells that are usually only cast by healing specs, so it doesn’t get fooled by a Feral Druid casting Rejuvenation – it picks up the real healers.

When a healer shows up in a scrum, I know it now. Enemy healers, friendly healers – they’re all visually represented in a way which makes me know who to protect at all costs – no guesswork.

But that’s just the first part of HHTD’s defense.

When HHTD detects that a friendly healer is getting attacked, it lets you know in BIG HUGE LETTERS across your screen. It tells you which healer is getting attacked, and by whom.

Oh yeah, it spits out warnings in your chat window, too, in case you aren’t looking at the top of your screen.

And it does all this by default.

If there is one addon I absolutely want my BG team to be running, it’s HHTD. Not only for finding opposing healers – I want it for that – but also because it increases everyone’s situational awareness to come to the defense of friendly healers.

How would you not want that?

POP QUIZ: WHERE’S WALDO?

Let’s try a little test. Click on the picture above to view it at a bigger size, look at it for 2 seconds – be honest here – and then close it and come back to reading. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

All done? Good. Pop quiz time, then. Without looking, which healer was being attacked, the top one or the bottom one?

I’ll wager that a good number of you actually will get this right, and pick the healer near the bottom of the screen. But it’s not easy; Beamz’s nameplate is obscured, while Ranting’s is not.

Now, let’s be really honest here – how many of you would have known that Beamz was getting attacked at all, had it not been for the HHTD warning?

I know I wouldn’t have. Unless I saw a mob right on his face, I’d assume that he was fine and dandy, surrounded by people who could take care of him.

To be honest, if I didn’t have HHTD, I wouldn’t have known he was even there, let alone that he needed help. There are 12 friendly players and 3 friendly pets on the screen. HHTD makes my own healers stand out.

HOW TO MAKE HHTD WORK FOR DPS

One of the biggest challenges in getting people to use HHTD to its full potential is that DPS generally don’t run with friendly nameplates on, therefore they’ll never see that a healer is in trouble.

I use Tidy Plates, combined with Threat Plates for PvE, to help manage my friendly nameplates.

Tidy Plates allows you to automate the display of your nameplates based on your combat state, so you don’t have to walk around Stormwind or Orgrimmar with huge crowds of glowing nameplates blocking your view. By selecting the “Show during Combat, Hide when Combat ends” option, friendly plates smoothy come up in combat, and disappear when I leave. It’s really slick.

The second part of my setup is HHTD itself:

Here is the HHTD basic configuration tab. The configuration is relatively straightforward, but you’ll want to make sure that:

  • Protect friendly healers is On. Seriously, why would you have this off?
  • Set friendly healer’s role is On. If you’re the BG leader and you spot a healer who didn’t mark themselves as such, this sets it for you.
  • Announcer and Name Plate Hooker are both On.

These are the default settings. I can’t emphasize that enough, you don’t have to do anything but install HHTD to get it to start working to protect healers.

Healers are your friends. It doesn’t matter if they have a funny name, or are from a different server – all healers are your friends. Don’t abandon them to the rogues.

Get HHTD so your friends can live.

CLARIFICATIONS AND FINAL WORDS

I see a lot of assumptions made in the forums when HHTD comes up, usually made by people who haven’t really looked into the addon, let alone tried it to see how it works. But even when you try it out, you might have some misconceptions about how it works.

  • HHTD only modifies name plates; it doesn’t set raid markers or share information with other players. HHTD’s crosses are only visible to those people running the addon. It’s not like AVR, which shared information with other clients to modify the game world. It’s not setting BG-wide markings on your healers. It is hooking into nameplates and modifying them if someone casts a specific type of spell, NOT communicating that info across clients.
  • HHTD doesn’t target other players or cast any spells. Whenever I see an argument saying that HHTD does this, I wonder what addon they tried out, because that addon sounds much better than the one I’m using.
  • HHTD is pretty tough to fool. This is one I’m guilty of believing wasn’t true – thinking that I could get a cross over my head as a Feral Druid casting some healing spells. It’s wrong. The lua code looks for spells that only healing-spec healers use, or a certain amount of healing from the base spells. It’s actually easier to fool people than it is the addon, just because if you have a big mana pool and are standing in the back casting sparkly healing spells, folks probably aren’t going to check to make sure that it’s Resto, not Elemental.
  • HHTD detects friendly healers. Now you know just how good of a job it does.

I wrote my original defense of HHTD still struggling with the Healers Have to Live concept. At the time, I thought its absence was a weakness in the addon, but it really was a deficiency in my understanding of it. In the subsequent months, I’ve come to explore and appreciate how much better I can be as a PvPer by understanding where my own healers are, no matter how crazy things are getting.

Healers Have to Die is an excellent PvP addon, and I fully recommend it. Not only will it help you find enemy healers, it will help you defend your own teammates better.

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Warlock (and other) Class Feedback

Blizzard has opened up threads on their forums asking for player feedback on how specific classes are playing.

We’re looking for feedback on your class as we work on changes and adjustments for a future game update. While we may be making some specific class changes in 4.3, what we’re looking for in this thread is overall feeling on the class as a whole for more long term changes in the future.

Here’s the Warlock Feedback thread. Each class has their own sticky thread right now.

Here’s my response. If you agree with it, I’d appreciate if you’d hit the Like button. If you just like the instant cast flying demon form idea for warlocks – and who doesn’t? – be sure to mention it in your own response.

I think it’s important that if you have an opinion on a class, any class, you take a few minutes to put down your thoughts. It’s rare that a company openly solicits feedback like this, and while it’s being presented in a format which makes me think it’s effectively going to be treated like a survey, it’s a survey which is going to be read.

If you’re playing a few hours a night, it’s worth taking 5 minutes to let Blizzard know how you feel about the class you’re playing.

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Valor and Vengeance: Rethinking Resilience

I like looking at how other games do things. This is true for board games, computer games, RPGs; it’s great to see other ideas that people come up with. So, while I don’t play Rift, I was interested to see this dev PvP-focused post on the Rift community blog that Rilgon tweeted a few nights ago.

I don’t play Rift, so I apologize if I get the nuances of this wrong, but they’re making a few interesting changes.

  • PvP damage reduction (Valor) is being standardized across gear sets and tiers.
  • Gear sets will be differentiated by their main stats instead.
  • Attack and Spell Power on select PvP items will be divided into Vengeance – a PvP only stat – and regular offensive power, making these items far less appealing for PvE (but desirable in PvP).

Hey, those are some pretty cool ideas!

STANDARD DAMAGE REDUCTION

There are several big challenges regarding damage reduction when progressing through endgame PvP during an expansion.

  • Resilience levels become unevenly distributed through the PvP playerbase as characters reach different gear levels at different times.
  • Resilience levels increase with each new tier of gear. This increase somewhat offsets the increase in main statistics and overall firepower, but unevenly.
  • PvE gear usually starts off weaker or more difficult to get than PvP gear, but eventually becomes more powerful. (Don’t mention Legendaries, please.)
  • As more raid tiers are released, PC abilities are tweaked for those encounters (and the gear they drop), in turn unbalancing PvP play. (Same thing in reverse for new PvP seasons, let’s be fair.)

There’s something really appealing about moving from this messy, dynamic situation where people could have from 0-45% damage reduction to a simpler model, where a full set grants you a specific amount of Resilience, no more. Perhaps you can choose to enchant or gem a little higher, but in general, players having more Resilience wouldn’t lead to the increasing returns on damage reduction we saw early in Cataclysm (and continue to see.)

Let’s imagine a game in which all PvP gear gives you a certain % damage reduction bonus, regardless of level. (This can be accomplished through Resilience scaling, or some other means.) For survival, the only important point you’d have is to have a complete set of PvP gear. It wouldn’t matter if it was crafted, last seasons, heck, level 70 gear  on an 85 – if you have it, you get the flat 30% reduction, and your survival goes up. (Probably not way up, because you wouldn’t have the health pools of the later gear. But up.)

Offensive power, health pools, and some resources (like Mana) differentiate gear sets. Once you have a basic PvP set, you might not be as effective as people with better PvP gear, but at least you have the standard Resilience level.

The downside of this kind of model is that it causes PvP to speed up as gear improves over time. So at the beginning of the expansion, let’s say you have 6,000 Spellpower, midway through, you have 8,000, and at the end, you have 11,000. (This is a hugely simplified model.) Spells are hitting for 83% more damage – and if there is constant damage reduction, then PvP damage increases at the same rate. The only ways around this is to make abilities scale non-linearly with Spellpower/AP etc., to increase health pools at the same rate, or to accept that PvP will get faster during a given level cap. It’s not actually a bad thing to mix and match responses here – health pools will get bigger, so that slows down the increase a bit, but yeah, the first season will feel a little slow, while the last season feels a little bursty.

So I think it’s kind of a mixed draw at the endgame, to be honest. I think standard damage reduction on PvP gear would make PvP more accessible, but not necessarily easier to balance over time.

Where I think this idea absolutely shines is for leveling. Having a standard set of PvP gear available every 10 levels or so that lets you add damage reduction to offset the burstiness of low level PvP would be fantastic. It wouldn’t need to be treated like Resilience is now – it could be a neutral stat on a lot of items, just something that says “this gear is approved for battleground use.”

The key here, though, is making Resilience a neutral stat on items, because right now it isn’t – it’s a key component of the item budget, which means that if an item is marked for PvP use in WoW, it gets less potent in PvE (and PvP). You make tradeoffs, and when stats scale as well as they do at low levels, those tradeoffs are important.

There’s a balance challenge here, between bringing better PvP scaling into the leveling game (which could be accomplished simply by introducing Resilience gear at low levels), making PvP more accessible to new players (especially at endgame), making it less grindy and possibly easier to balance – with the potential for really disrupting endgame PvP by making combat increasingly faster, of making people feel like they’re actually getting weaker over time.

I don’t know if I’m for or against standardized damage reduction in WoW, to be honest. It’s not as cut and dry as it seems.

PLAYER-ONLY DAMAGE

Vengeance is another really interesting idea. What if a component of damage could be made to be only affect players? You then have a way to make PvE and PvP gear functionally different and remove the desirability of PvP gear in PvE. That’s a good thing. If you have two equivalent pieces of gear, and the one you get through PvP does half the damage in PvE as the other, then it’s not going to be an appealing piece of gear for anything but PvP.

The challenge I see here with WoW is that while there’s a real problem of bringing PvP gear into PvE (tanks, I’m looking at you!), there’s an equally bad problem of PvE gear disrupting PvP, especially in the latter stages of an expansion. PvPers bring heroic raid gear because it’s the best gear they can get. Taking some of the damage out and making it player-only doesn’t help with this – since that damage is all PvP damage.

This leads to an interesting thought exercise – how could you make PvP gear in WoW work so that it was not appealing to PvE, but more appealing to PvP than the best PvP gear you could get? You make it better than the PvE gear, but assign half its damage to a player-damage only stat. You’d have to flip the current model, where PvP Conquest gear lags behind PvE Heroic raid gear by half a tier, and instead move the PvP gear up – while degrading it’s PvE utility considerably. That would be a pretty substantial change.

The effects of this change on other parts of the game would be felt pretty quickly. Let’s say PvP gear jumps up a tier. Relatively speaking, within PvP it’s balanced, but now you’re closer to that bursty end-of-expac state where damage is high and mitigation is low.

What about players who supplement their gear with PvP gear in certain places? I’m not talking about the tank in full Conquest gear, I’m talking about the healer who picks up a set of bracers and a nice weapon and uses them in both PvP and PvE. Those pieces become useless in PvE, which makes gearing up for raids a bit harder. Not a lot, just a little.

Instead of applying to gear, this might make more sense to apply player-only damage to abilities. This would change the dynamic of abilities to allow them to be buffed/nerfed separately in PvE and PvP. And while it usually would mean that PvP damage would always seem to be higher than PvE damage, the assumed standard damage reduction would help bring it back in line. If an ability does X damage in PvE, and X+10% in PvP, if there’s a standard reduction of 30% the PvP damage remains lower than PvE. But that involves a pretty radical restructuring of abilities.

I think Rift’s Vengeance is an interesting idea, especially coupled with the standard damage reduction of PvP gear. But you have to really structure everything around it. It solves one problem brilliantly – PvP gear going into PvE. It would make a great solution to PvP weapons, allowing them to be immediately available but not desirable for PvE. This would allow the gating mechanism – which serves to drive PvPers into PvE – to be phased out. But it doesn’t seem to really address some of the big issues, like having an ability be overpowering in PvP, but the nerf seriously impacting a PvE function.

Vengeance is another way of expressing having the same ability do the different things in PvP and PvE, only it applies universally to all the character’s activities. That’s pretty neat. It’s also a way to make PvP gear unappealing to PvE players, which could solve the clunky gating on weapons. Perhaps weapons, trinkets and bracers would be the best place for a Vengeance-like mechanism in WoW, since those are the items most commonly sought after by PvEers.

The issues with PvP/PvE balance in Warcraft are complicated. As a core game mechanic, I think this is pretty cool – but it’s not a core mechanic of WoW, yet, and while it solves one problem neatly, it exacerbates others.

Still, I find it really interesting to consider the possibilities.

CYN IS A RIFT NOOB

It probably bears saying that I don’t play Rift, and as such, I have no idea how this is going to affect Rift PvP. My commentary (both enthusiastic and skeptical) is solely directed towards Warcraft, and shouldn’t be taken as a commentary about Valor and Vengeance in Rift PvP. I leave that to the Rift PvP bloggers!

My gut tells me that if you make these kinds of decisions early on, and make them the core of your PvP game, then they’ll work just fine. So I hope Rift PvPers will let me know how it all works out!

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The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP

In Zarhym’s recent foray into the PvP forums, the sentiment that low level PvP is broken in Cataclysm was voiced over, and over, and over again. The floating skull responded diplomatically:

We talked to Ghostcrawler about this yesterday. He’s well aware of this, but more importantly, he’s not very happy about it either. The class design team’s first priority is obviously balance around the end game, but absolute neglect of low-level balance isn’t okay. This is something that isn’t going to improve much in patch 4.3, but we hope to have more sound solutions coming.

I really sympathize with Zarhym here. This is not an easy topic to cover; I think the issues around low level PvP are actually more difficult to resolve than the balance problems of the endgame, because there are contradictory elements that simply cannot be reconciled – elements which do not exist at the end game.

These elements have a name. They are called new players.

And they are the reason not only why low level PvP is imbalanced, but why it should stay imbalanced.

THE PROBLEM OF LOW LEVEL PVP

It’s not enough to wring our hands and say, “low level PvP is broken.” While it may be true (and I believe it is), we have to look at the specific ways in which problems manifest in the battlegrounds.

  • Classes are imbalanced. Some classes have very good burst, others do not. Some have very good defenses, others do not. Some have counters, others do not.
  • Damage is very high relative to health. Characters die quickly in 1:1 situations.
  • Statistics vary wildly between characters within a bracket. Whether it is due to gear, professions, or enchants, players in the very early brackets show up in a wide variety of gear that can make one character ten times more powerful than another.
  • Stat scaling at low levels heightens small differences in gear. Due to rating decay, a few points in any stat will have a more dramatic impact at low levels than at higher ones.

These four interrelated problems cause lowbie PvP to appear “borked” and “broken.” I don’t like using those terms because I think that even in its current form, lowbie PvP is actually a lot of fun, both on the geared and ungeared side. But these problems combine to create strata of twinks within low level battlegrounds that can create seriously lopsided matches.

The real problem of low level PvP is that Blizzard removed one kind of twink from lowbie battlegrounds, only to have the void be filled by by another, more pernicious kind of twink:

Regular, experienced players.

LEARNING TO PLAY THE GAME

Think back to when you first started playing WoW, or your first MMO. Not just the early levels, either – the very first day.

I remember my first login, fumbling around on my MacBook’s trackpad, trying to right and left click with a single button, struggling to simply move and target. Concepts like combat stat decay and burst damage were far from my mind; I was trying to figure out how to perform the most basic functions of character control. And I struggled with it! It took me a week to get up to level 12; I didn’t even know basic MMO conventions. I didn’t get my first green piece until my second character – it was a Disciple’s Vest of the Whale, and I had no idea that green items existed before then.

I bring this up because the starting experience for a new player has a radically different set of challenges than that for an experienced player, and the game must take those into account. It must teach them basic mechanics of the game while also making them feel like they are accomplishing things. In order to retain customers, the game must reward new players and make them feel powerful and heroic – to pull them in and get them so they want to see more, to challenge them just enough so that they hit level 10 and go, WOW, this is awesome, let me keep on playing!

What Blizzard does not want to have happen is for someone to get frustrated at level 5 and walk away from the game, leaving a virtual corpse in the road outside Goldshire.

This is why characters start off with one ability and grow slowly – so players don’t get overwhelmed. This is why early abilities were substantially reworked in Cataclysm – so that each class would have just enough abilities to keep things interesting without overloading someone. It’s not just to make classes easier to learn – it’s acknowledging that new players are learning a lot of other things, too, and that low levels don’t need class complexity to make things worse.

Compare and contrast this with an experienced player, one who has learned the fundamentals of an MMO through the endgame. Zones which forgive the mistakes of someone just learning how to steer their character become trivially easy to a character who has a gaming pad and mouse set up, customizes their UI on the fly, writes attack macros as soon as they log in, knows how to pull multiple mobs, etc.. This isn’t about “catering to casuals,” however you want to take that term – this is about a real difference in skill between someone who is just picking up the game and someone who has played it for some time.

I used to think that the lower levels were easy for me because I outgeared them on my alts. I’d go roll an alt with enchants and heirlooms and stuff would die very quickly. It was only later that I realized I could do the exact same thing in starter gear and quest rewards, because I was a better player than the first time I leveled a character. Of course I should find the content easy! It’s made to be challenging to someone else, to teach them the skills which I already possess!

Think of how big this skill gap is that these early zones have to cover – be accessible enough to a completely new character, but not completely bore a veteran rolling yet another alt.

This is a fundamental truth of the lower levels which cannot be ignored when talking about low level PvP imbalance: the early game has to hook new players on the game and teach them the skills to play it. It has to be accessible to new players – not just to teach them the new skills, but to hook them on the game so they don’t go do something else! World of Warcraft has to be engaging enough through the first 20 levels that someone picking it up for the first time says, hey, this is pretty cool, it’s worth paying money to keep going.

From a business standpoint, this is a far more important priority than keeping experienced players challenged for 30 levels or so. They’ll get their challenge through other means.

Keep this in mind as you think about low level PvP, and as we dive into the math of stat scaling.

WHY THINGS ARE ALL DOWNHILL FROM LEVEL 10: THE PROBLEM OF STAT SCALING AND RATING DECAY

Most of the low level zones follow a fairly consistent character development arc. You start with trivial tasks at the very early levels, overcoming a minor obstacle by level 5 or 6, gaining experience, and overcoming a moderately difficult challenge by 10-12. By then you’re ready to move on to another zone, where the difficulty increases substantially over the next 5 levels or so, but so does the importance of the story – and the rewards. By the time you hit level 20 in that next zone, your character is authentically heroic – low level, but they’ve saved the day in a major way.

This arc is reinforced by a substantial shift in game mechanics that takes place at level 10.

I love going over at Shadowpanther.net’s formula page when trying to explain why a character at lower levels is sometimes better than one at higher levels due to stat scaling. Having each level laid out in a chart provides a better visual aid to see how ratings decay for a lot of people than mathematical formulas.

If you haven’t read these kinds of charts before, the first seven columns go over how much of each combat stat you need for 1% of the value; so if the Crit column in the level 19 row says 2.94, that means you need 2.94 Crit to equal 1%. (3 Crit rating is therefore 1.02% at 19.) The rest of the table relates to a very specific Rogue (and Hunter) stat called AEP, which isn’t relevant to our discussion here.

The Shadowpanther chart helps illustrate how stat scaling works. The more you level, the more value of a particular stat you need to get 1% of it. You need more stuff on your gear as you level in order to maintain a certain level of power. You can think of it as gear getting weaker as you level, if you like, or of driving you to acquire better gear to stay in good form.

Where stat scaling gets interesting is in the really low levels. Look at levels 1-10. There is no change in stat scaling in those first 10 levels – 1 point of Crit will get you 1.85% increased critical strike chance. There’s no gear decay at all until you reach level 11 – when suddenly, stats start to drop off pretty quickly.

Let’s go back to the initial character development arc again, but this time, looking at stat scaling.

From 1-10, characters get increasingly more powerful as they level. They gain primary statistics at each level that apply linearly; if you gain 5 of your primary statistic, you get the full benefit of that 5 points. This happens with or without good gear, mind you – because combat statistics are flat, the more you gain, the better your character becomes.

This increase has a deliberate, positive psychological effect on players. People feel like they’re getting more powerful as they level – because they are. This is much like a traditional RPG, where a level 5 character is substantially more powerful than a level 1 – it’s an entirely different ballgame.  Challenges have to be adjusted for the fact that you’re now a badass. That can be pretty cool.

Magical gear and enchants function in a linear fashion with this model. Just like in AD&D, a +1 Sword in the hands of a level 1 character functions exactly the same as in a level 10 character. It increases the chance to hit and damage the same amount. The damage might be a lower percentage of the higher level character’s overall damage, but that’s a function of them doing more damage overall. The gear remains unchanged.

Let’s translate this idea into WoW: let’s say a piece of gear gives you +3 Haste, which (for example’s sake) gives you +1% Haste at level 1, and at level 80, and at level 85. The more you level, the better gear you gain, the better your stats get. You could wear your level 70 gear and be just as effective at level 85 as you were at 70 – more so, since your base statistics have improved! Perhaps your linear stats (like Stamina and Mana) are lacking, but your gear is as effective as it was when you raided in Burning Crusade! It would make for a very different kind of game, since once you reached a certain level of power on your gear, it would be sufficient to handle most challenges in the game – but that would eliminate the idea of a gear tier, where it gets progressively more powerful.

For the first 10 levels your character gains in power, drawing you in, making you feel like yeah, I’m getting good at this!

Starting at level 11, linear scaling goes completely out the window, and rating decay sets in.

Starting at level 11, characters get decreasingly more powerful as they level due to stat scaling. At some point, they actually get weaker as a result of rating decay, as each point of a statistic they get by leveling counts for less than it used to. Gear becomes required to start making up the difference.

Look at the charts again. See how all the stats (other than Resilience) start going down in potency at level 11? That’s rating decay in action. Each point of a rating contributes less actual impact the more you level.

During the normal questing arc, this change is ideally hidden by moving to a new, more challenging zone. Things feel tougher in the second zone because they are tougher – but it’s not just because the opponents are tougher. You’re getting progressively weaker as you level, at least until you start getting gear to help make up the difference – and even then, you never really go back to the great scaling you enjoyed at level 10.

The story arc carries you towards a heroic achievement at level 20 at the same time game mechanics make you less potent. In a way, it makes a lot of sense to increase the overall difficulty of the game at this point for new players – but instead of making the mobs substantially more difficult, WoW makes PCs weaker and more dependent upon gear. This bait-and-switch works because it prepares players for the rest of the game, where they will be acquiring increasingly powerful gear to overcome more powerful challenges. The challenges are harder, but characters don’t get any more efficient from their improvements. The damage numbers are just bigger. The mana pools are bigger  – but so are the spell costs. You’re not actually any faster or more accurate. You’re not more skilled, you just have bigger numbers.

This ties in directly to the first symptom most people point to when talking about low level PvP’s problems: gear.

THE PROBLEM OF GEAR AND ENCHANTS

Heirloom gear and enchants represent two sides of the same problem – adding stats where new players lack them. They are both fundamentally unbalancing because the early leveling game is balanced for new players who lack those stats, not for experienced players with them. By walking into one of the 1-20 zones with anything other than quest rewards, you’re overgearing the content.

Generally speaking, that means the content is geared for:

  • Mostly whites through level 10-12
  • Whites and greens through level 15
  • Greens and maybe 1-2 blues by level 20

Keep in mind that many slots will not be filled either, even by white gear, so you’ll be missing a head, neck, 2 rings, 2 trinkets, and maybe a ranged slot.

The obvious problem is that there are players who have gear with stats in slots where other players don’t. It doesn’t take long to figure out that someone in blues versus someone in whites is imbalanced.  And that is absolutely true: better gear increases the amount of damage, healing, and health available to low level characters.

But the unseen problem is that, even with rating decay, gear scales better at lower levels. That scaling curve makes small differences much more prominent at levels 11-20 than at 40-60. It’s not just that gear grants more spellpower, attack power, or stamina – it’s that it grants more Haste, more Dodge, more Crit than it will at later levels. Heirloom gear is better gear at level 10 and 19 than at 35. 

But wait; enchants are even worse.

I’ve maintained that enchants outperform heirlooms in terms of raw power, but they’re even more potent at lower levels because of stat scaling. Keep in mind that many of these enchants were to be used at level 60 for raiding, and are not scaled for the leveling game. So an enchant like +15 Agility is pretty good at level 55, but it’s amazing at level 10. With the right combination of enchants, you can approach 100% Crit, Dodge, even Haste (Iron Counterweights FTW)!

But only for levels 1-10. After that point, stat decay kicks in, but vanilla enchants remain overpowered for the early brackets (up to 20-24, at least.)

Consider that you can have two rogues in the 10-14 bracket, and one could have 10x as much Agility as the other. Ten times as much.

And that Agility is giving more Dodge and Crit than at any other point in the game.

Let that sink in for a bit.

You have experienced players with access to gear through heirlooms, professions, and the AH. They can get great enchants which are at the peak of their potency in the early brackets. They have access to consumables (scrolls, rum, buff food) that new players don’t.

And they are playing the same game with players who are over the moon about a blue cloak with +4 of their primary stat on it.

I don’t see any potential problems with this in PvP. Nope.

THE PROBLEM OF CLASS BALANCE

You know, the gear problem is actually probably the easiest problem to solve with respect to low level PvP. Modifying the BG matching algorithm to filter based on an aggregate gear score – be it item level, total attack power/spell power, things like that – would be hard to implement, easy to work around, but conceptually it could work.

Class balance is a much harder problem to deal with at low levels.

Cataclysm brought with it a complete reworking of how abilities were learned by classes. A few gained some abilities early on, but many abilities were moved to later. Most AoE abilities were moved up to at least level 20. And Talent Specialization at level 10 granted some new abilities, but at the cost of a more flexible playstyle. I once wrote in Wrath that I needed to think of myself as a Mage, not a Frost Mage. Now I have to think like a Frost Mage – only lacking a lot of the tools of one.

The abilities at lower levels always present people with a challenge. Things are so basic and elementary at low levels. You have some of your core abilities, but not all of them. You don’t have many things that work together. Very few classes have counters, and those that do are OP.

The decision to move abilities around was entirely driven by making a class easier to learn for new players and for players new to the class. The first 5 levels are very basic, with abilities coming at a relatively steady, bearable clip. (The only class where I feel like you get too much at once is Druid because of Cat form at level 8.) The first 20 levels see a lot of abilities get introduced to a character – but not all abilities are equal, or are granted at the same time. And that’s not a bad thing, for leveling! Druids having Cat form at level 8 is honestly good for their leveling!

But how do you propose to balance this?

Look at the level 10-14 bracket and what different classes gain. Warriors gain Taunt at 12 and Heroic Strike at 14. Warlocks gain Bane of Agony at 12 and Fear at 14. Hunters gain Wing Clip at 12 and Hunter’s Mark & Disengage at 14.

  • Warriors get basically one attack which replaces an attack they already have (Strike).
  • Warlocks get an instant cast DoT (dramatically improving their damage output) and the best PvP CC in the game.
  • Hunters get two different escape methods: a snare and a leap. Both of those can’t be countered at this level by melee classes. They also get an attack buff.

There are two points here.

First, each class changes between the bottom and top of the low level brackets. In most cases, these are important abilities that get picked up in the early levels.

Second, each class changes differently. Warriors are actually becoming excellent lowbie tanks, while Hunters are picking up skills to make them great in PvP.

Third, many abilities have counters later on – but not yet. Warlocks might have a reliable escape from melee – but it comes at level 80. Warriors get gap closers – but at level 35. Counters add a lot of complexity to a class that, frankly, a new player isn’t ready for, and many experienced players who are new to the class aren’t ready for, either.

This isn’t a case of simple DPS balancing, of tweaking damage output to bring classes in line with each other. Each change made for PvP has to be considered in the context of a specific bracket, not “low level PvP.” What will it do at 10-14, 15-19, 20-24? More importantly, what will it do to the leveling experience? Will it give players too many buttons to push too soon?

Here’s the thing – when you take away gear as a factor, like in the xp-off bracket, you still see differences between class performance in both PvP and PvE. This is true at level 10, it’s true at level 70, and it’s true all the way up to level 85. Level 85 is where it’s the most balanced, not only because that’s where the majority of the players play, but because that’s where class toolkits are complete.

If you ask me who you should play in low level PvP, my standard response is to play what you enjoy playing, because then you’ll have fun. But secretly, I keep a list.

(I know, you’re shocked, shocked I say.)

You want to be OP under level 25? Play a Hunter, a Sub Rogue, Arcane Mage (Frost is also good at 19), Disc Priest, or Resto Shammy.

Consider what is really being asked for when people want class balance throughout the leveling experience: please balance 30 specs across 15 brackets in addition to the endgame. That’s 450 different class/spec/level combinations to balance against each other at 15 different points.

Oh, with no real standard of gear.

And make sure it’s balanced for PvP and PvE, too. Don’t screw up the leveling curve and cause players to get overwhelmed.

And don’t forget that you have to keep the endgame balanced, too.

See where this is going?

I’m not saying that classes shouldn’t be roughly balanced – they should, and this is where homogenization comes in handy. And this is a real problem in low level PvP – some classes are just not very good at certain points, even with the best gear you can get on them. I don’t PvP on my level 19 Warrior twink anymore, it’s too damn hard to be successful.

But blanket calls to fix class balance at low levels have to consider the context of that balance, and why it’s not as simple to implement as it is to ask for.

LOW LEVEL UTOPIA, OR THE PROBLEM OF EXPERIENCED PLAYERS

When you combine aggressively scaled statistics, rewards for experienced players that allow them to easily and consistently overgear early content, and a redesigned leveling program which spreads class abilities further along the leveling curve, and then toss that mixture into the early part of a game designed for new players, you get a highly combustible mixture.

Sending it in to Warsong Gulch at level 10 makes it explosive.

The complaints about low level PvP are valid enough – burst damage is too high. Some classes lack any real PvP defenses. Other classes and races may have abilities which are perfectly suited to PvP.

But… these problems have always been there, in the lower brackets, in the higher brackets, pretty much everywhere in Warcraft.

It’s interesting that these complaints are so rampant now, in Cataclysm, when there were periods in Warcraft’s history when low level PvP was far more hostile to new players.

Before the split brackets, before xp-locked brackets, before heirlooms, there were twinks. Twinks ruled low level PvP with an iron fist. They weren’t kind or gracious about it – they were as good as they could be, they played to win against the other twinks, and if you got in their way as a new player you were going to get steamrolled.

It was not balanced. It was not fair. It was not a good experience for new players, to be sure. And twinks were reviled for it, but they had unapologetic fun on their own terms.

With 3.2, battleground XP, and the creation of the xp-off battleground bracket, twinks were moved away from new players and given their own playground. Battlegrounds became a place not to perfect your craft and your self, but rather part of the leveling experience.

And that, right there, is where the current problems started. Not with heirlooms, but with adding experience to battlegrounds.

The promise of twink-free BGs was a heady one. I remember the excitement of those first months when people flooded into BGs to level through PvP. And it’s remained great – being able to mix up PvP with dungeons and questing keeps leveling fresh and exciting. It lets you avoid Outland or Northrend entirely, if you’re burned out on those expansions.

But with experience came the expectation that leveling through PvP should be fair(er).That by removing the twinks, the leveling brackets were now safe places to go with undergeared characters or new players. They weren’t, of course, but as long as the gear difference between characters wasn’t too extreme, the brackets weren’t too out of whack. And that was actually what happened, since those BGs were for leveling, people didn’t stop to get great gear and PvP – they came in the gear they had.

And then came heirlooms.

Heirlooms allowed players to outgear their opponents right from the beginning in PvP, and as more heirlooms have been added, the problem has gotten worse. While enchants are actually more imbalancing than heirlooms, most players aren’t willing to blow 500g on a glove enchant for an alt. (Heirlooms are vastly more popular than Hand Me Downs, so they get the blame for this one.)

Heirlooms gave early PvP levelers the edge they needed to be really good in PvP, to the point where they could dominate (and level faster.) Others noticed this, and got BoA gear too, and Heirlooms are now a really good idea if you want to level through PvP from 10-60. A new twink class was born: experienced players.

Instead of the PvP utopia that removing the twinks and granting XP was supposed to create, the exact same conditions prevailed.

The only difference was that now there was an expectation that new players could participate in low level PvP, that you could go in without putting a lot of work into your gear and still be successful.

The expectation might be there, even if the reality doesn’t match it.

Oh! And that the people who formerly decried twinks had become them. Let’s not forget that.

But PvP in Warcraft hasn’t changed. It has been, and always will be, very dependent upon gear. If you have better gear, you will do better. It’s also very class dependent; certain classes will do better at certain points than others.

Can low level PvP be improved? Absolutely. There are class tweaks that can be made to help both with leveling and PvP – Destro Warlocks getting Soul Fire at level 20 was a good example of this.

But even if you can fix some of the class balance issues, you will still have to contend with the very brutal fact that there will always be a great disparity between new and experienced players. As long as you have PvP as a viable leveling option, there will be wildly different gear levels between players.

Balancing low level PvP makes the endgame balancing act look easy.

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A Brief History of Alterac Valley

Foury @ Spinebreaker’s “A Brief History of Alterac Valley” is a gem of a post on the official forums.

Over the years, you have made a significant number of changes to Alterac Valley. Some changes appear to have been made in isolation. For example, maybe you felt that there were too many NPC’s before patch 1.8, so you conjured up a mighty avalance and buried the treacherous Syndicate stronghold. Other changes, such as the introduction of reinforcements, were in response to problems caused by other additions like the Mark of Honor system.

Unfortunately, each individual change has brought about such a drastic reshaping of this battleground that its purpose is now virtually unrecognizable when compared to what the initial vision seems to have been. Even the isolated changes became catalysts for a chain reaction that has, in the opinion of a significant number of players, gutted Alterac Valley and made it totally un-fun to play in.

We have been engaged in thoughtful discussion for some time now, but I have decided to provide some additional background for players who might not know exactly what they were missing when AV was truly a legendary experience.

He then goes through a detailed history of Alterac Valley, one that lives up to its promise of giving the reader a thorough understanding of how the somewhat fragmented battleground that exists today came to be. It is a long read, but it is exceptionally good, and I suggest you read all of it. Even the poem.

Starting with post #8, Foury then goes into a detailed proposal for how to change Alterac Valley to restore it to its former glory. Remove it from the random battleground rotation, lower the honor per minute, make significant restorations to the environment, make quality of life changes – make it cohesive and relevant PvPvE again. There’s a lot of attention to the little details of AV, things that have always bugged me (the location of the trinket teleport, the lack of owls in Van’s chamber) that shows that this is the work of a careful though.

Seriously. This is a good post; go read it. You can agree with it, or disagree with it, but you will learn something about Alterac Valley.

 

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Fence Jumping in WSG and Terrain Exploits

There’s a spot near the middle of the Horde fence in WSG where, if you approach it just right, you can jump onto the fence and then on to the other side. It’s over the tunnel entrance, to the left of the little juke in the fenceline, by one of the torches.

No matter the faction, pretty much every twink FC knows about this jump. Pretty much every twink knows about this jump after playing level 19 for any period of time – you see people going over the fence all the time, you better figure out how to do it quick or you’re going to be SoL. I expect that this is not as commonly known in Rated Battlegrounds, but skilled FCs know how to do it.

Seriously, this fence jump is the worst-kept secret terrain exploit in PvP. I’m a terrible jumper, and even I can do this jump.

It’s a little odd, then, that Blizzard GMs have finally come out and started saying that this jump is illegal and will get you a warning and a ban:

“Hello Dakoduh! My name is Game Master Rodoux. I’m going to need you to refrain from hopping up there on the fence in Warsong Gulch.” This was followed by a temporary ban when the request was not honoured.

In addition to the GM whispers, twinks are reporting that people are getting disconnected mid-jump. I haven’t had it happen to me yet (and I have jumped the fence in the past week, I FC at level 70 after all) but I’m sure it’s probably a matter of time.

I don’t think this situation is like the terrain exploit charges in the Walls of Wintergrasp. It’s pretty clear that there’s a glitch in the Horde fence, and that you have to hit it just right to get over. There’s no corresponding glitch in the Alliance fence, there’s nothing really ambiguous about this – this is a terrain exploit.

Yet… it’s been in there since WSG launched six years ago, and it’s something that tactics and strategies have adapted around. It’s one of the quirks of the terrain, just like the rocky patches around the zerk huts or kiting melee around the tree stumps while firing at them. Your opponents will use it against you, so you better know how to do it in response. It’s been reported many times on the forums as a bug, but has never been fixed. So folks do the jump.

My working theory is that all changes to the battlegrounds right now are due to balancing issues in Rated Battlegrounds. The developers have already stated that their focus is on level 85 PvP, as that’s where most of the player base is at. The BG graveyard changes earlier this year were aimed entirely at disrupting healer-heavy comps in rBGs, by preventing healers from getting back to the FC quickly.

And if your FC is skilled at jumping the fence in rated play, they have an advantage in getting back to their healers quickly. Graveyard blocked? Go fence. Fence blocked? Go ramp. Healers, keep moving to the left until you meet the FC. This isn’t rocket science – there’s a slight imbalance in the map due to this exploit. Even though it’s been there since the beginning, it only matters now because of rated play. This shouldn’t really be a surprise that Blizzard is treating it as an exploit.

But it is, a little bit. The timing is odd. This is one of those quirks which showed you knew what you were doing in Warsong Gulch, that you’d played the map enough to know all the tricks. It’d been there for ages. And it never got fixed.

The warnings, bans, and DCs are likely precursors to an actual fix of the fence. (I so want to see Orc Peons out there repairing the fence when this gets fixed. For real.) The GMs know it’s a problem, they’re watching out for it now, word is getting out that it’s no longer okay for this jump.

The dead-letter law of terrain exploitation may not have been enforced for 6 years with this jump, but it is now.

Part of me does get frustrated with Blizzard when they suddenly start handing out bans for behavior that’s been accepted for years. That’s the part of me that says, fix your shit, Blizzard, it’s broke, don’t blame players for this. More importantly – don’t put players into a position of choosing between using a jumping exploit or not to win in PvP, because even if some don’t, others will.

The other part of me says, yeah, but just because everyone does it doesn’t mean it’s not still a terrain exploit. It sucks, because it’s part of the charm of WSG – but it’s hopping over a fence that is obviously supposed to block movement.

Here’s to hoping that Blizzard fixes it soon so the issue is put to rest.

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Getting Exalted with Northrend Factions through PvP

One of the interesting effects of having an unified Honor Point/Justice Point currency in Warcraft is that it becomes possible to get unrelated rewards to the activity you did to earn the points themselves. You can PvP for PvE rewards, and vice versa. Things that you never considered when the currencies were separate are now possible; you might just have to look for ways to make it happen.

Like, reaching Exalted with five different Northrend factions while leveling, without doing any of their quests. You may never even come in contact with them!

Currently, Honor and Justice points can be exchanged for a 3:2 ratio at the Honor Trade Good Vendors and Justice Trade Goods Vendors in Stormwind and Orgrimmar. You can trade 375 Honor Points  for 250 Justice Points at the Honor vendor, and vice versa at the Justice vendor. This allows you to fund either PvE or PvP purchases with your preferred activity.

Honor Points are rewarded starting at level 10, while Justice Points don’t show up as a reward until around level 70. Generally speaking, Honor Points are easier to get than Justice Points while leveling. (At level 70, you can get 100-200 Honor Points from a single battleground, while a Northrend Dungeon awards 12 Justice Points. And that’s only for the first 7 you do each week.)

Because the award rate of Justice Points while leveling is so low, it’s much faster to play Battlegrounds for Honor Points and convert them to Justice Points for use. If you’re leveling to 85 to join in the endgame fun quickly, you can build up a large store of Justice Points and be ready to get 3 epic pieces of Justice gear as soon as you ding through smart conversion – and this is a good thing.

Now, an unrelated fact: late in Wrath, you could purchase Commendation Badges for five of the neutral factions with rep rewards with Emblems of Triumph. These Commendation Badges were introduced to help gear up alts, and they were a godsend for getting shoulder and helm enchants.

These commendations are:

Each one of these grants 520 reputation for the appropriate faction, up from the original 250. Humans get 10% more, so 572 for Diplomacy. (Pilgrim’s Bounty has a buff which can give you an additional 10%. Yes, it stacks with Diplomacy.)

When these Commendations were available for Emblems of Triumph, they were only available by running Northrend dungeons. But since the Emblem system was removed and replaced with Justice Points, these are now cheap.

How cheap? Each Commendation is 16 Justice Points or – thanks to the conversion – 24 Honor Points.

That’s dirt cheap.

Neutral to Exalted for any faction is 42,000 reputation points:

  • Neutral to Friendly: 3,000
  • Friendly to Honored: 6,000
  • Honored to Revered: 12,000
  • Revered to Exalted: 21,000

Since each Commendation rewards 520, you’ll need 81 of ‘em, which will in turn cost you 1296 Justice Points.  Or, 1944 Honor Points.

That’s less than a PvP mount costs!

Keep in mind that this can be done at any level; level 19 achievement twinks have used this method to get toons who can’t even have a mount Exalted with the Knights of the Ebon Blade et al.. All it takes is Honor Points.

I know that this isn’t something that everyone will want to do. But it’s an interesting example of the things that can happen when you unify a currency system. It’s not unbalancing, and it can add a lot of flavor to your character. Heroic Death Knights can be exalted the Ebon Blade well before reaching level 85; same for Mages with the Kirin Tor.

And, most importantly, keep your eyes open for other items you might be able to get now through PvP.

Northrend Commendations can be purchased from Arcanist Miluria and Magistrix Vesara in Dalaran.

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