Tag Archives: Essays

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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ilvl 365 Vicious Gear and the Phantom Tier

I’m sorry; I’ve not been able to let go of the changes to how PvP gear is handled between seasons I talked about in my last post. I think that the issue around compensating players for the miscommunication between seasons threatens to obscure a more pernicious problem – the way in which gear changes between Seasons – which will have effects well beyond the mistakes that were made between Seasons 9 and 10.

Surely, there must be a reason for all this.

THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER

Let’s address the compensation package Blizzard has put together for players affected by their screwups first. Blizzard is going to offer 4k Honor Points to players who acquired gear during the interseason week as an apology for wasting their time; had Blizzard told players that the Vicious gear they were getting would be obsoleted in a week, players could have made an informed decision about gear purchases. Blizzard forgot to say anything, so players spent a lot of time grinding gear only to have it be replaced without warning.

No matter how much s9 Vicious gear was gained during that time, no matter how many Honor Points were ground out on Alterac Valley weekend, affected players will get 4k Honor as a consolation prize. There’s no accounting for the actual investment of time players made, so the relative justice or injustice of this payoff will vary between individuals.

This is a relatively simple fix that, most importantly, can be rolled out quickly, on a large scale once affected characters have been identified. There’s no need to perform a case by case analysis of each character – just identify all characters who made a purchase of S9 Vicious gear during a set period of time, and email them 4k Honor.

The problem is when this refund doesn’t make a customer whole. By not addressing individual effort, Blizzard shortchanges many of the affected players. If you’d ground 12k Honor Points for naught and got 4k back, you might be glad for the little bit back, but you’re still out a lot of Honor.

There are a few things Blizzard could do instead. They could refund all Honor Points spent during that week, and give people another week to make their purchases. This doesn’t replace enchants and gems and the like, but  at least it brings the gear pieces up to parity. The advantage to this solution is that it targets only those people who could have been affected by the miscommunication, and not people who waited a week.

The other option is to upgrade the S9 Vicious gear to match S10 item levels, either in bulk or only for affected individuals. A bulk update is simpler to achieve, but if you’re trying to apologize to players who actually lost time, upgrading only affected players would be the fair thing to do. This could be much harder to implement than one might expect, despite the simple logic behind it all.

I don’t think Blizzard will pursue either option.

THE VICIOUS CHANGE OF SEASONS

I really feel that the new Vicious and Bloodthirsty sets introduced in Season 10 represent a step backwards for Blizzard. They represent a change of philosophy which will make PvP less fun and more confusing should it happen again in Season 11.

Take a look at the way the Season transitions were handled.

The original system that was introduced by Blizzard in Season 9 was:

  • Each season would have three tiers of gear available for purchase: fair (crafted), good (Honor), great (Conquest).
  • When the season ends, a new tier is introduced at the Conquest level, and all the other tiers slide down. Conquest becomes Honor, Honor becomes crafted.
  • Players in the previous season’s Conquest gear are now in Honor gear, and will get upgrades from Rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s Honor gear are now in crafted gear, and will get upgrades from regular battlegrounds or Rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s crafted gear are now a tier behind, and will get upgrades everywhere.

This system is easy to understand, plan for, and keeps the overall amount of PvP gear available to a manageable level. It mirrors the PvE gear setup, providing a consistent, universal gear philosophy that corresponds to the points system introduced in Cataclysm.

The system introduced with Season 10, however:

  • Each season still has three tiers of gear available.
  • When the season ends, the old tiers are removed. Three new sets are introduced, two bearing the names of the previous season’s Conquest and Honor gear.
  • The new sets are effectively a half-tier ahead of the previous season’s version bearing the same name. The current season’s Honor gear is a half-tier ahead of the previous season’s Conquest gear, and the current crafted gear is now a half-tier ahead of the previous Honor gear.
  • Players in the previous season’s Conquest gear are now a half-tier behind the current Honor gear, and will need upgrades from both regular PvP and rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s Honor gear are now a half-tier behind the current crafted gear, and should get upgrades from the AH, regular PvP, and rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s crafted gear should hit the AH ASAP.

I don’t understand how this change benefits players. You take an elegant system which showed no problems and substantially modify it with negative consequences.

  • More gear sets: instead of going from 3 to 4 PvP sets in the game, we’ve jumped up to 7. Each season will compound this issue.
  • More gear confusion: not only are there Glorious Conquest recolored sets for 2200+ ratings (which confused a lot of players), but now there is gear with identical names but different stats.
  • More gear grinding: instead of letting players continue playing in their chosen realm, we’re sending Arena players back to regular battlegrounds to grind out a new set each season.
  • More time spent acquiring gear: not only will rated PvP players have to spend more time getting gear, but casual PvPers – BG enthusiasts, PvEers who like a little PvP on the side, etc. – will lose the benefits of any Conquest pieces they managed to get last season.
  • Different gear systems for PvP and PvE: instead of having a unified system that new players can pick up in one realm and transfer over to another, now we have two different systems.

Consider that last point for a moment: what if the Valor and Justice point systems required raiders to go out and grind heroic dungeons for gear each tier, just to stay competitive?

(Oh, wait, that was actually proposed for 4.2. But it was dropped, and for good reason – raiders wanted to raid to get Valor Points, not run heroics they outgeared.)

Is this trying to get players to spend more time in battlegrounds? I wondered about this one briefly – perhaps because I’m playing Alliance with instant BG queue times I don’t see population problems across servers. But why regular battlegrounds? All of Blizzard’s focus has been on getting players into Rated Battlegrounds, not regular ones.

What problem could adding a half tier to PvP gear between seasons possibly hope to solve?

THE PHANTOM TIER

It’s easy to lose sight of things when you’re angry. I think a lot of people are still really pissed about the miscommunication of the Vicious gear ilevel change and compensation package, which jeopardizes losing sight of the substantial changes made to how gear upgrades from season to season. The personal injustice of now has more urgency than a longer gear grind later.

But I too am angry, and I think I got lost in my own anger at Blizzard bringing the Honor grind back into PvP. The problems that have been introduced are real, and will have a wide-ranging unpleasant effect on people, and there’s no explanation from Blizzard why these changes were made. Getting pissed about what this change meant to a lot of casual players blinded me to a very simple observation.

Season 10 Conquest Gear is an extra half-tier higher than expected.

This isn’t about the low gear. It’s not about Vicious gear. It’s about Ruthless gear.

It’s easy to get lost in the urgent now, in looking at the problems with Vicious gear that will make players spend a lot of effort to get back up to their previous baseline. But that’s not the point of this change. Not at all.

The gear model that I presented above is actually a currency model.

  • Great: Valor, Conquest
  • Good: Justice, Honor
  • Fair: Gold, Materials

The currency model is then mapped to an activity model, corresponding to the rewards you get:

  • Great: Raids, Zulroics, Rated PvP
  • Good: Heroics, Dungeons, Tol Barad, BGs
  • Fair: Playing the AH, gathering, dailies

Now we can go ahead and equate the gear gained from these activities with the currencies that they provide, right?

Except… the model is missing something.

In PvP, going from activity to currency to gear works flawlessly, because there’s no other way to get gear in PvP. You have to PvP to get the currency to get good PvP gear, period.

In PvE, the activity itself randomly rewards you with gear. Currency buys you good gear, great gear even – but not the best gear.

No, the best gear in the game comes from raiding heroic modes. There’s an entire tier of gear that’s not in the currency-based model. A phantom tier, one of superb gear.

  • Superb: Heroic Raids
  • Great: Raids, Rated PvP
  • Good: non-raid PvE, unrated PvP
  • Fair: Crafted, quest

The simple currency based model which worked so well in PvP – where points are the only way to get gear – doesn’t translate when you take Heroic Raids into account. Look at the various item levels of rewards from specific activities.

Source Item Level
 Heroic Firelands  391
 S10 Conquest Gear  384
 Firelands  378
 T12 Valor Gear  378
 Heroic T11  372-379
 S10 Honor Gear  371
 S9 Conquest Gear  365
 T12 Justice Gear  359
 T11 Raids  359
 PvE BoE/Crafted  359-379
 Zulroics  353
 S9 Honor Gear  352

The best gear available at any given time is always heroic raid gear – that’s a given. But look at the point differences between gear types.

  • PvP gear is always 13 ilevels apart within any given season.
  • Heroic raid gear is always 13 ilevels higher than the regular raid gear.
  • T12 Justice gear is 19 ilevels lower than T12 Valor gear because it matches the T11 raiding gear ilvl (per the currency model).
  • S9 Conquest gear is 19 ilevels lower than S10 Conquest gear. If S9 Conquest gear adhered to the currency model (like Justice gear) and converted to S10 Honor gear, PvP would be imbalanced because of the huge gap between Honor and Conquest.
  • PvP gear has a higher ilevel than equivalent vendor-purchased PvE gear, likely due to Resilience in the item budget.
  •  Conquest gear is always 7 ilevels below Heroic raid gear.

The reason that Season 10 PvP gear was bumped up 6 ilevels has nothing to do with PvP at all. PvP item levels were bumped to keep pace with PvE gear, most notably Heroic Firelands gear. Honor gear was kept within 13 ilevels of Conquest gear to keep PvP balanced.

Consider what would have happened if the S10 Vicious gear had not received a 6 ilevel boost: S10 Conquest gear (Ruthless) would be 13 item levels higher than S10 Honor gear (Vicious), putting it at 378 – equal to T12 Valor gear. That’s not bad in and of itself, but then Heroic Firelands gear would be 13 ilevels higher than the Conquest gear – which is a full tier better.

If the best PvE gear available is a full tier ahead of the best PvP gear, PvPers will go after that gear. Each sphere of the game will do this – if the other side grants better gear, then it becomes Best in Slot and people feel they have to go after it. In PvP’s case, such items can unbalance rated PvP play – Shadowmourne in S8, anyone? – which can cause a ripple effect through the lower brackets.

So the reason that we have two different sets of Vicious gear, the reason that we have a lot of PvPers grinding out another Honor set, the reason why the PvP gearing system is out of whack right now, is not because Blizzard is trying to screw over casual PvP players.

No, it‘s entirely because Firelands drops 378 loot, 6 ilevels higher than the T11 Heroic raids. Firelands could have dropped 372/385 loot, but it doesn’t. I can speculate on why this was done – more epic feel, give people who have been raiding Heroic T11 immediate upgrades – but in order to maintain parity between PvE and PvP, PvP gear was bumped up too. That decision had a negative cascading effect for PvPers gearing at the start of the season, as well as inadvertently causing a major snafu with the transition from S9 to S10, but it will keep PvPers from having to get Heroic raid gear in order to be competitive.

I no longer know if this is going to happen every season. I seem to recall that PvE gear levels used to go up in pretty even tiers of 13 in Wrath, but there must have been a 6-point jump somewhere to get to 245. (There was 200, 213, 226, then … 232 in Ulduar, 245 with ToC?) So it might happen, it might not happen.

I feel better knowing that there is a explanation for it all.

I may not like its effects, but at least there’s a reason for the change.

DON’T POINT FINGERS

This isn’t about PvE screwing over PvP.

I mean, yes, in this specific instance a design decision in PvE had wide-ranging implications for PvP players. And it’s a decision I don’t personally understand – because I don’t raid – but because I don’t understand the nuances of it, I’ll take it at face value for now.

This is the price we pay for having an interconnected game. Balance issues in PvP affect PvE abilities. Class issues in PvE can cause problems in PvP. Gear needs to be balanced between the two, which is – obviously – more complex than it seems.

Changes in PvP affect PvE, and changes in PvE affect PvP. This happens all the time. There’s no agenda here, just the butterfly effect. One example of this happening doesn’t prove anything. Instead, let it serve as a reminder: little changes matter.

Adding 6 item levels to Firelands gear caused Conquest-clad PvP players to get new Honor gear at the beginning of the season, but that grind also was also a byproduct of ensuring an even tier between Conquest and Honor gear, and prevent PvPers from seeking out Heroic raid gear for PvP.

Is this still a problem? You bet. If T13 comes out with another half-tier boost, we’re going to go through this all over again.

But at least we can have a discussion about if that boost was worth the trouble it causes in PvP.

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The Changing Face of PvP Gear and the Rocky Road to Season 10

The transition from Season 9 to Season 10 has not been smooth.

  • Conquest Point caps were adjusted to encourage players to participate in Rated Battlegrounds. The resulting system is more complicated than what it replaced, and also splits the uniform PvP/PvE reward model introduced in Cataclysm.
  • At the end of Season 9, Conquest Points were converted into Honor Points (as expected.) Unfortunately, the Honor Point cap was not raised during the interseason week (as intended), causing all points over the 4000 cap to be converted to gold, preventing people from using their earned Conquest Points to complete their Vicious sets.
  • In an unannounced change, Season 9 Vicious sets (ilevel 365) purchased by Honor Points in the interseason week were not the same as the Season 10 Vicious sets (ilevel 371) purchased by Honor Points during Season 10. This means that players who spent the week between seasons grinding out Honor Points to start Season 10 in full Vicious gear found themselves with inferior gear than what they could have purchased once S10 started.

The first one is a policy change, and is irritating because of the devious way in which the change was introduced, but at least it was communicated and isn’t going to be a long-term frustration. Either you’re okay with it, or you’re not, but it’s the way things are now. Rated Battlegrounds are here to stay and Blizzard wants you to play them.

The second change was a deployment bug. Someone fucked up and included code in the 4.2 release that shouldn’t have been in there until a week later. In hindsight it really wasn’t that big of a deal, because the gear you could get with the lost Honor Points wasn’t going to be all that great in a week’s time anyways. But it was frustrating if you had Conquest Points and wanted to do something with a nice big pile of them.

Which leads us to the third change, which actually is a really big fucking deal, and there are two parts of it.

  • There is a major change in the way PvP gear is going to be upgraded between seasons, with significant implications for all PvP players.
  • And Blizzard forgot to tell anyone about it.

Let’s be honest. Blizzard fucked up in not telling anyone about this change, and they know it. They’ve had the good graces to come right out and say it, to their credit. How something like this gets missed is a lesson in corporate communications – someone might have noticed it, but it wasn’t the right person. Sure, I have found forum threads talking about it on the PTR (which does me no good in hindsight), but the right person didn’t stand up and say, hey, we need to mention this.

A lot of people spent time and effort in that week between the seasons grinding Honor Points so they’d be ready for Season 10. It’s a chance to get all caught up – everyone starts off equal at the beginning of the season. Only, because someone at Blizzard forgot to mention a critical point in the patch notes, that effort was wasted.

Don’t forget, that’s real time spent. Don’t try to say that it’s only a week. That’s bullshit. That’s real time people could have spent doing other things. That’s customer time just outright wasted.

Will the communication gaffe blow over? Eventually, maybe, I don’t know. Blizzard has indicated that they will try to make it right, because this is an actual customer service issue, but how can they really compensate them for it? Customers didn’t get the rewards they were expecting for the work they put in because of a corporate mistake. They made choices with their time that were wrong, and time is money.

But that’s not even the biggest problem here.

BRINGING BACK THE PVP GEAR GRIND

And there is no longer a requirement to “grind” unrated BGs for Honor each season, so the real time investment isn’t changing as much as some players are perceiving it to be.

- Zahrym, “4.2 Conquest change

The Bloodthirsty and Vicious Gladiator’s gear of Season 9 (i352 and i365, respectively) are not as good as the Bloodthirsty and Vicious Gladiator’s gear of Season 10 (i358 and i371). You can make a good argument that the set and gem bonuses of the S9 Bloodthirsty Gladiator’s gear are equal to or outweigh the stats of the S10 crafted Bloodthirsty gear, but the S9 Vicious gear is a clear loser to S10. Not by a lot, mind you – but it’s better gear.

The gear progression path laid out for Cataclysm, both for PvP and PvE, was both simple and elegant.

  • Raiding and rated PvP gets you the the current tier of gear (Conquest/Valor Points).
  • Heroics and unrated PvP gets you the last tier of gear (Honor/Justice Points).
  • Crafted gear gets you two tiers back.

Yes, the absolute best PvE gear can only be gotten by raiding, but this currency system made sense. It’s easy to understand the flow between different tiers, it’s easy to plan out your gearing needs when a new raid tier is introduced, or a new season starts. Your current gear drops down a level, and you work your way back up to the next one.

Zahrym touches on this in his post on the 4.2 Conquest Points changes, quoted above. There were many great things with the new PvP system, but one of them was the promise that once you’d geared up for rated PvP, you didn’t have to go back to unrated BGs to do it again. This was good for both Arena players and regular Battleground players, as seasons past would see a swarm of well-geared Arena players either destroy casual battlegrounds, or resort to afk/botting to grind the Honor Points required for their PvP kits. The new system allowed people to assume that, by having a full Conquest set in one season, it would become a full Honor set in the next, eliminating the need to visit unrated Battlegrounds to gear up. Rated PvP players could keep playing what they wanted to play.

And don’t forget – the Honor Point grind for a full set is long. If you’re getting about 150 Honor Points per battleground – a pretty good average, by the way – that’s 179 BGs. At 15 minutes a BG, that’s 44.75 hours of play. So not having to grind out Honor Pieces each season is actually a really attractive perk, and Zahrym is right in calling that out.

But that’s no longer the case.

The change that was introduced in 4.2 is that each season will introduce three completely new sets of PvP gear. These sets will be calibrated for that season, not for the season preceding it. They will (confusingly) share the names of the previous season’s sets, but that’s it. No more cascading tiers, no more smooth transitions from season to season.

Every season, you start the gear grind over again. Rated PvP for top gear, with a weekly cap. Unrated PvP for the rest of your gear until your eyes bleed, or you seriously consider botting.

You can argue that the slight increase in stats between the i365 and i371 isn’t worth the time to upgrade. It’s not a huge difference. It’s only six points, after all!

Well.

What if I rephrased those six points as half the difference between Vicious and Relentless sets? What if the sets were called “Season 9.5″ instead of “Season 10 Honor Gear”?

If you’re in full S9 Conquest gear now, you can upgrade to S10 slowly with Conquest Points, and S9.5 quickly with Honor Points.

The difference between tiers is 13 item levels. The difference between seasons is 6 ilevels. If you’re in S9 Conquest, you’re now 19 ilevels behind S10 Conquest, not 13.

You still think you can’t use some upgrades?

Whether this was done to encourage players to spend more time PvPing in general, or to increase attendance in regular BGs (something I hadn’t thought was a problem, to be honest), or to just make it take longer to get geared up – this has the effect of laying naked the gear grind that’s such a central part of Warcraft’s endgame, of taking the last shreds of a system that rewarded past effort and throwing it to the winds.

This isn’t a slight change. Changing gear distribution so that PvP players are faced with investing time they were not planning to spend is not something you forget about. This change not only destroys the symmetry of the PvP/PvE point system, it brings back the gear grind that we had hoped was gone the way of the dodo.

And that is the real problem with this change.

STOP THE RIDE, I WANT TO GET OFF

I took a break from Warcraft this past week, expecting to come back refreshed and ready to tackle S10 and Firelands. I rather enjoyed reading books at night and going to sleep early, but I still missed WoW. I was going to get into some PvE, see what these dungeons and raids were really like, but still keep my hand in with PvP through Arenas. After all, I have a full S9 Conquest set, I have some time free to work on my T11/T12 now, right?

I may have been refreshed when I logged back in, but my enthusiasm for PvP got washed away pretty quickly once I saw the changes to PvP gear in S10.

These changes are bad ones. They complicate the PvP gear system, which is exactly the wrong direction it needs to go in. They reintroduce a gear grind that is unmatched by anything in PvE.

And, most damningly of all, the PvP developers forgot to put them in the release notes.

If you want to give the appearance of not caring about your customers, about the fans of your game, I think this is just how I’d go about doing it. I think if I wanted to give the impression that I didn’t give a damn about PvP, this is the way I’d do it.

You seriously forgot?

(W)e’ve maintained an open dialog with our developers over the past 24 hours regarding the way in which the PvP season transition went down since patch 4.2 (this includes relaying a lot of the feedback we’ve seen on the forums to them).

- Zahrym, “i365 Vicious vs. i371 Vicious”

I trust that y’all will make up their own minds about this change, and will either decide that it’s a big deal, or not a big deal, and just get to work getting your Vicious (S10!) and Ruthless gear, or go find something else fun to do. I know you will!

But you know what? I liked getting enough sleep, and cleaning out my home directory, and shopping for crap on the internet, and playing stupid cute addictive games on my iPhone, and having nice, relaxing non-WoW evenings with my spouse. WoW is fun, but it’s not that much fun.

I’ll be honest. I’ve never been more disappointed in this game company than I am right now, and the only thing keeping me from canceling my account is that my son wants to see how the Gilneas starting area ends. There have been enough mismanaged changes to PvP in the past few months that, frankly, I’m sick of dealing with it.

I’m tired of the sticks and carrots to get me to do the things that I don’t find fun.

I’m tired of the gear grind. I’m tired of feeling like a rat in a lab being told to do this thing and that thing and oh my god where is my cheese now? Dailies and heroics and rated battlegrounds and cheeeeese!

I’m tired of the bullshit.

I would rather go fly a turtle to Mars than PvP in Warcraft right now.

Blizzard, you can take that feedback how you will.

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The Persistent Problem of PvP Rating Exploits

Velidra sent me the link to the above video of a Destruction Warlock tearing apart battlegrounds with his bare hands. The guy takes on 3 Rogues at once and walks away the sole survivor. If I walk away from an encounter with a single Rogue, I usually count myself lucky. Three of them at once? Game over, man. Game over.

But not for Adouken.

I enjoy PvP videos. They usually make me feel bad about my own UI (how do they do that with so few addons?) but they make me feel great about the potential of my class, and I try to learn from them as best I can.

Videos naturally show a skewed version of a player’s skill, but that’s doesn’t mean that players who show off their skills in them are somehow faking it. They might not be that good all the time, but damn if they weren’t that good at some point, when the cameras were rolling. Odds are pretty high that they are that good, and that they operate at a high level of play all the time.

I don’t play anywhere near as well as you see Adouken play in that video – far from it. Watch that first segment and realize that he’s casting Nether Ward inbetween the time a spell is cast at him and the time it reaches him. You notice how it looks like he reflects Death Coils back at their caster? He’s casting his own Death Coil while his opponent’s spell is in the air. That’s awesome.

There is an objective difference in skill between Adouken’s player and me. While it may not be easy, surely, we can measure it somehow, right?

That’s where PvP ratings are supposed to come in and help us know the great from the good, the poor from the mediocre. They way they work is simple, at least in concept.

  • There are two numbers used in the rating system: Matchmaking Rating (also called MMR) and your PvP Rating. You have different values for each bracket.
  • Your Matchmaking Rating changes with every win and loss, and is used by the system to try to find a level of skill where you’ll win about 50% of the time. You can think of the MMR as measuring your aptitude, your potential rating.
  • Your PvP Rating is based upon your performance over time, changes slowly, and is what PvP achievements, gear rewards, and titles are based upon. PvP Rating, in theory, measures your performance over time.

The goal of the PvP rating system is to match you up with people of equal ability, not to allow you to win all the time.

That’s kinda weird, isn’t it? From a sport perspective, it would be really strange to have a system that wasn’t based on win/loss records (performance). But you also have different leagues and ways of stratifying talent that don’t exist in computer games – local, regional, and national competitions, playoffs, major, minor, and little leagues. So instead, the goal is to put a number on you and say, this is an arbitrary level you’re performing at.

All other things being equal, you should win about 50% of your matches against teams and people of similar PvP rank.

But that’s not how it works.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE MISSING MMRS

So a funny thing happened in the 4.2 Patch notes.

  • The individual Matchmaking Rating column has been removed from the Arena scoreboard.
  • The individual Matchmaking Rating column has been removed from the Rated Battleground scoreboard and replaced with a team Matchmaking Rating.

This is kind of curious, isn’t it? What’s going on here?

I’ve said several times that Blizzard is trying to encourage people to get into Rated Battlegrounds in patch 4.2, and that many of the changes are with this in mind. You might think that a change like this is just to make it so that people who join rBGs don’t see how outmatched they are and throwing the match immediately.

While this makes a limited amount of sense, it’s not what’s going on. Yes, this is to try to make Rated Battlegrounds more fair, and therefore more attractive. But hiding the personal MMR is aimed at stopping a series of exploits people are using to get titles in both Arena and Rated Battlegrounds, exploits which are running rampant right now. The most common exploit involves using alts to boost the main characters’s MMR, then winning enough games at the various high levels to get the desired titles.

If you’ve been comfortably playing in a lower Arena bracket, you may have noticed that the last 2 weeks have been rather… more painful than before.

You’re not imagining things.

THE PROBLEM WITH MMR, OR WHY THAT TEAM JUST STOMPED US

[Player]: How about a joke before you go?
[GM]: Your Arena rating.
[Player]: /facepalm

Consider the following facts about how MMR works.

  • Your team MMR (different from your rating, mind you) is equal to the average individual MMR of all the players on the team.
  • In the event of a win, individual MMR should go up, thereby raising the team MMR. Losses reduce MMR, but not as much as wins do.
  • Players on new teams start out with 1500 MMR.

Let’s look at how this works out.

You start the season out with your two friends and start playing 3v3 on your mains. You win some, you lose some, but your individual MMR rises and falls together. If your MMR hits 1800, your teammates are also at 1800. Your MMR, and eventually your PvP rating, accurately reflect your team’s performance to date. Everything is rosy.

Now let’s say one of you has an alt you want to bring in. Maybe it’s because it’s a better comp, maybe it’s just time for a change. Now you’ve got two people at 1800 MMR and one person at 1500 MMR, so your team has a MMR of 1700. You’re facing teams which are a little worse than you were doing before, but maybe the alt is undergeared, so it balances out.

What’s interesting is that it might balance out to fair matches in the 1700-1800 bracket, your individual MMRs are now going to be out of sync. The alt will always have a lower MMR than the other two main characters, and can never catch up.

Now let’s take a step back and change the conditions a little bit. You have a 3v3 team, starts fresh at 1500 and goes to 1800. Two of you drop your mains and swap to alts. Your team’s MMR is now 1600. You’re facing easier teams than you did at the 1800 bracket, so you win, even though the alts might be a little undergeared. They gain +200 MMR, you gain +200 MMR, you’re now at 2000 MMR, they’re at 1700 MMR – and your team is back at 1800 MMR.

With me so far? You’re still playing at 1800 MMR teams, but your personal MMR is 2000, your team’s alts are at 1700.

Now, you swap to to one of your alts, and one of your teammates swaps to their mains. 1500 alt, 1700 alt, and 1800 main are now on a 1666 team. You play until your teammate’s main is at 2000. (You’d be at 1700, the second alt would be at 1900.)

You see where this is going, right?

By cycling through alts, teams are able to artificially boost the individual MMR of their main characters.

Now let’s take this a step further. The team cycles through once or twice, everyone’s mains are sitting around 2000 MMR. The alts are all around 1800, which is really where people’s skills are at.

So the team hops on their alts and loses every single match. Their MMR tanks. They go from an 1800 MMR team to a 500 MMR team in a night. Those characters have terrible MMR now, which is exactly what they want.

Because now, you have a crop of alts at 500 MMR to swap into a team with a 2000 MMR main. The team’s matchmaking rating is 1000, so they’re going to be facing significantly easier opponents. But they’re capable of playing at 1800 MMR, so they dominate. The main’s MMR shoots up to 3000+ while the alts are climbing back up to 1800.

And then once everyone’s mains have an MMR of 4000+, they all rejoin the team and play enough matches to bring their team rating – and therefore their PvP rating, which gives the Gladiator titles – up to the desired level. Yes, their MMR will fall from the heights it reached, but the PvP Rating will rise to meet it somewhere in the middle.

When that team comes and stomps your 1000-rated group you and your friends put together to screw around on with perfect CC chains, huge burst damage and flawless target switching… they should never have been playing you in the first place.

BUT WAIT, RATED BATTLEGROUNDS ARE EVEN WORSE

You know why MMR boosting is an even bigger problem in Rated Battlegrounds? It’s not because they’re BGs, and it’s not because I am trying to pick a fight with rBGs this week.

No, it’s because:

  1. There are 10 people on your team, and
  2. Rewards are based on your individual MMR, not your team MMR.

Nice, huh?

Swapping alts (or even players who don’t care) in and out of BGs can be done like in Arenas, but it’s a little easier to boost MMR due to the number of low rated alts you can bring to the team. If you have 2 players at 1800 and 8 players at 1000, your team will be at 1160 MMR and (hopefully) get matched accordingly.

The coordination required to alt swap and lose MMRs is harder to do with 10 people than with 3. There’s a lot more time involved with Rated Battlegrounds, and the effort put forth by a low-rated character is often the same (or more) than a high-rated one, but the high rated one will get rewarded disproportionately to their efforts. While there is some alt-swapping going on, it’s not as easy as some other methods of boosting your MMR.

No, the best thing to do is to work with a strong group until you’re all up to a decent level – say 1800-2000 – and then PuG like crazy. Get into the worst groups you can find who still have a chance of winning, and play with them. This has the same effect as the alt-swapping MMR boost – when you win, you win big, when you lose, you don’t lose that much – with none of the headaches of having to swap alts yourself. You can go from PuG to PuG, increasing your MMR with each win. You may not win as consistently as you do with your set group, but you will get a great rating, which in turn gives you access to the PvP titles. You don’t even have to win any matches at your new MMR to get the titles, because nothing is based on your team’s MMR or rating – just your individual rating.

Remember back when you thought people’s rating really measured their skill?

/AFK FTW

At some point above, you probably wondered how people can preserve their ratings while losing.

Well, if you leave a match before it finishes, it doesn’t count. This is how win-trading works – people queue in off-hours, trying to get specific teams to match up against, and leave the match if it’s not them. When people leave the match as soon as things start going a little wrong? They’re leaving to preserve their MMR, which gets modified at the end of the match.

You didn’t think people were /afking because they were scared of you, right? :-)

WIN TRADING

Another reason why people /afk out of an Arena (or Rated Battlegrounds, though I think this is less common) match is because they’re trying to trade wins with another team.

This often happens late at night, when there aren’t a lot of teams playing in the different brackets, and it’s been a problem since Arenas started, but obviously if you can find a team who will throw the match for you, it’s a great way to get your PvP Rating to match your possibly inflated MMR.

I don’t have a lot to say about win trading. Don’t think it doesn’t happen, because it does.

WHY BLIZZARD IS HIDING INDIVIDUAL MMRS

Given that there are two different types of MMR inflation going on in both types of Rated PvP, you can start to see why Blizzard is trying to hide that value. It’s not going to prevent the problem from happening, especially not in Rated Battlegrounds, but it can reduce the precision with which people are doing it now. There will be more guesswork when exploiting, both in boosting and tanking individual MMRs.

There’s a concept in security circles called “Security through Obscurity,” which is a way of describing any security system that relies upon something being hidden for it to be secure. It’s usually treated as a bad thing, because once something is found that relies on it, it’s completely insecure. In cryptography, if your sophisticated code algorithm uses a single seed to generate codes, once the seed is known your code is useless. In piracy, if you bury your gold but don’t put a lock on it, anyone who finds the gold can take it.

In other words, security through obscurity is generally not very secure.

There’s a temptation to say that hiding the MMRs is just that – not making the system any less susceptible to exploitation, just hiding the problem. People can still do the things they’re doing now. You are going to face teams who are boosting themselves, who have great gear and skilled players but are playing with an MMR well below their real skill, and you won’t be able to tell anymore.

But, removing the data points does make it more difficult on the exploiters. Not a lot – not like a complete revamp of the MMR system would – but a bit. It’s a relatively simple change in terms of development time which will have some impact. That’s why it’s happening now.

I don’t really like this change, but I see that Blizzard has to do something.

Will teams still be able to boost their MMR into the stratosphere? You bet. As far as I can see, as long as the three conditions I laid out about the MMR system hold true, boosting is possible. You can’t have flexible teams and not have this kind of potential abuse. Will it be harder for other players to find out who is boosting? Yes, it will.

It’s not great. But it’s a start.

IT’S ALL RELATIVE

Man is the measure of all things.

-Protagoras

The interesting thing about the PvP Rating system, at least the Platonic ideal of the PvP rating system, is that it provides a way to compare people with very different character types. No matter what you play, or what your team is like, it should provide a relative measure against other players. The values are arbitrary and entirely dependent upon the actions of other players, as well as your own.

I think about other rating systems that assign a numeric value to your ability – college aptitude tests like the SAT/ACT, IQ tests, even professional placement exams – and they all measure ability based upon fixed criteria. Here is a test, there are right and wrong answers, how did you do? (Please note, I am an old fart, and I still think of the SAT as having all multiple-choice questions, none of this fancy writing stuff.)

Both types of test assign numeric values, which of course makes them more scientific.

But more than that, both purport to measure aptitude, but one is easy to game for your advantage, while the other is not. Why is that?

Take a look at the exploits again. Each one of them involves using other people. The system isn’t the problem, the people are. The system relies upon measuring you and your teammates, and your performance against other teams, which provides two places where it can be exploited.

Your opponents can really only modify your rating through throwing a match and win-trading, which is one kind of problem. You and your teammates can modify it through careful manipulation, boosting some characters, tanking the ratings of others, and preserving gains through /afking.

If these ratings were static and based upon some kind of objective performance, this kind of exploitation would not be possible. You can’t cheat an aptitude test by trying to throw off the bell curve and flooding the test pool with people who are going to score 0. You can’t get a 1600 on the SATs by being better than everyone else in your testing pool – you have to get every question right.

There are objective measurements of player skill, even in an environment soaked in relativity like PvP. Go back to the video at the top of the page. The player’s reaction time is faster than many others. They choose the right spells and abilities to succeed. They position themselves well, they use their abilities in the correct order. There is a measurable difference between that kind of play and my own, and that means we could construct a static test to measure it.

But static tests are hard. They have to be randomized, administered sparingly, maintained and updated. I don’t know how it would capture performance in the field fairly. I have only the vaguest ideas how a static PvP test would work. Perhaps like kata in martial arts, where mastery of a ritualized set of moves – perhaps a scripted PvP encounter for each class – is required to move to the next level?

That doesn’t feel much like PvP to me. PvP requires other players, living, breathing, thinking teammates and opponents.

And yet, as soon as we bring other people into our measure, we open the door for manipulating that rating.

SKILL > RATING

PvP Rating is not equal to skill. As much as we would like to have a system that really represents skill, the PvP Rating system is not it.

The more I look at how the PvP Rating system is being manipulated, the less I respect it. There are a lot of highly skilled players with high ratings, where ability and performance are in sync. But there are plenty of other teams that are taking shortcuts, who are going for the quickest way to their desired goal. They’ll stomp through the lower brackets while boosting a friend’s toon. The only incentives that aren’t about gaining the coveted rating are designed to get people into Rated Battlegrounds – everything else is about getting your numbers up.

Players who deliberately game the rating system sadly affect other players. A 2500 player playing in the 1250 range artificially depresses the ratings of people who would naturally be in the lower brackets. The upper brackets, in turn, get filled with people who have artificially inflated their ratings, giving the people who actually perform at that level easy opponents, inflating their ratings in turn.

The more players who game the system, the more imbalanced the brackets get.

And none of this is a reason to not play Arenas or Rated Battlegrounds.

  • Arenas remains the best place to learn how to win fights in PvP, period. (The only other activity that even comes close is dueling, which is really 1:1 Arena.) Yes, it’s a death match. Yes, there are strict limits about what you can and can’t use. Yes, you’re going to have unbalanced matches. Try to win them anyway. Learn from your losses.
  • Rated Battlegrounds delivered on their promise – they let you play BGs with the team composition you want against really good opponents. You have to win the individual fights, you have to execute a strategy, you have to do it against an organized opponent. Yes, you’re going to have unbalanced matches. So what? Get stronger.

As long as PvP Ratings are a relative measure, players will work together to game the system and artificially inflate their ratings. The exploits I’ve discussed are just some of the ways that players are trying to get around the system.

Is this cheating? Yep, you better believe it. Creative use of game mechanics, my foot.

But while it unbalances PvP, it’s not a reason to abandon Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds.

Skill is not equal to rating. Skill can’t be gamed, it can only be acquired through work and talent.

Screw your PvP Rating. Focus on improving your skill instead.

If you do that, all the exploits in the world won’t matter one bit.

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Disguising Sticks as Carrots: the 6/16 Conquest Point Cap Update

The 4.2 Patch notes have been updated last night (6/16) with a dramatic shift from punishment to reward regarding the Conquest Point cap changes of 4.2.

The entire set of patch notes are below, with my comments following. Updated information is in red.

  • The minimum cap on Conquest Points earned per week from Arenas is now 1500 1350 at 1500 or less Battleground Arena rating. The maximum cap remains is now 3000 2700 at 3000 or more Battleground Arena rating. The cap continues to scale non-linearly between those two points. For comparison, during season 9 the cap ranged between 1343 and 3000.
  • The game now separately tracks different Conquest Point caps for Battlegrounds and Arenas. The cap for Arena rating will always be 2/3 of the cap for Rated Battleground rating at any given Arena rating. Battleground ratings receive a bonus of 22.2% to the cap they generate, meaning the cap from Battleground rating now ranges between 1650 and 3300. Players may earn a total number of Conquest Points per week equal to the higher of these two caps, but once players have reached the cap for either Arenas or Battlegrounds, they can no longer earn Conquest Points from that source. Conquest Points from Battleground holidays only count toward the total Conquest Point cap.
    • Example: During the first week of Season 10 everyone starts with a rating below 1500. Therefore, the cap from Rated Battlegrounds will be 1500 1650 and the cap from Arena rating will be 1000 1350. In the first week, the character wins enough Arena matches to reach the 1000 1350 point cap. After that point, Arena wins will no longer grant Conquest points for the week. However, the character can still earn up to 500 300 additional points, but can only earn those points from either Rated Battlegrounds, or from the Conquest Point bonus for holiday and/or daily random Battlegrounds. The following week the cap will be recalculated based on the character’s ratings, and it is possible Arena rating could now generate the higher cap. The second week, the character’s cap from Arena rating is 1600 1800, and the cap from Rated Battlegrounds is 1500 1650. The character has a total cap of 1600 1800 Conquest points for the week. Up to 1500 1650 points can be earned from Rated Battlegrounds, but the last 100 150 must come from a different source.

The situation remains essentially the same, with sticks replaced by carrots. The ratio is slightly different, the math is more complicated, but the design goals are identical to last week’s version.

Players are being encouraged to go to Rated Battlegrounds, and it has nothing to do with slowing down the rate of acquisition of gear.

Take a look at the changes.

  • The gap between Arena and RBG caps has been reduced from 33.3% to 22.2% across the board.
    • The gap for the lowest-rated players is now 300 Conquest Points, down from 500.
    • The gap for the highest-rated players is now 600 Conquest Points, down from 1000 points.
  • The Arena cap for high rated players has been increased 700 points.
  • Instead of phrasing the change as a penalty to the Arena cap, the change is now phrased as a bonus to the Rated Battleground Cap.

High-ranked Arena players now continue with a majority of their play in Arena matches, but will need to do some Rated Battlegrounds, Zulroics, or raids to get their remaining 600 Conquest Points.

Since there haven’t been any changes to the Arena Conquest Point per hour rate on the PTR, low-ranked Arena players are now able to gain gear at the exact same rate that they got it in 4.1. Unless the prices for Ruthless Gladiator’s Gear go up, there is no change to the absolute rate of acquisition.

If this was PvE, then this would all be a moot point. Gear increases are relative to a static encounter difficulty, so you can make the argument that you can choose to do, or not do, Rated Battlegrounds, based on the desires of your raid group.

But this is PvP. The encounter difficulty of PvP is entirely relative to other players. Players who play Rated Battlegrounds, even who play them poorly, will gear up faster than players who do not. 

Rated Battlegrounds are not giving out more Conquest Points relative to their current version. Rated Battlegrounds are not being made a more attractive investment of one’s time – but they are being made into a requirement to stay competitive.

The only substantial change in this update is psychological. The stick has been replaced with a carrot, but there’s still a stick there. Cutaia pointed out this morning that this kind of change worked well before with Rested XP – changing the model from “Tired = XP Penalty” to “Rested = XP Bonus” made it vastly more attractive to players. That the time spent leveling didn’t change wasn’t important – giving players a bonus instead of a penalty changed their behavior. Rested XP is a bonus!

But it’s also the speed at which you were expected to level with originally. Whoops.

Ignore the hands, people!

The challenges of moving players away from Arenas into Rated Battlegrounds are substantial. It’s hard getting 10 people together when you’re used to only getting 2-5. It’s hard when rBGs don’t have enough players to offer newbies a fighting chance. It’s hard when the coding has been broken, when the maps aren’t tuned well, when you need a very specific comp to be successful. It’s hard.

I appreciate that Blizzard is at least looking at the way in which this change is presented. I really do. It didn’t go down well when it was announced, Blizzard is obviously trying their best to fix the the queue problems in Rated Battlegrounds, and they have to do something.

But no matter how these changes to the Conquest Point changes get spun, their purpose remains the same:

Get players into Rated Battlegrounds at any cost.

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The PvP Pause

One of the reasons I enjoy having a twink like Cynderblock is that, because she is not leveling, I really get a chance to understand the abilities she has, how they interact, and what their limits are. I love XP-locked twinks because I have time to figure out the intricacies of a class and I’m able to get the best gear without it changing on me. Playing with XP off lets you learn nuances to your character, like how to pull trash versus how to pull a boss, or how to quest in areas well below your level versus those well above your level. You determine the right gear and abilities to use in different situations, and then you modify your interface – on screen, macros, keybinds, mousebinds –  to reflect that knowledge.

By keeping your level (and eventually, your gear) static, you are able to deeply understand the abilities your character possesses, and play them to their full potential.

Endgame characters are similar to twinks in that you spend a lot of time learning how a class operates at the endgame, but there are some differences:

  • The gear available to you will constantly change. As time goes on, better and better gear will be released, and no matter where you are on the raiding/PvP tree, your gear will improve over the course of an expansion. This usually represents an increase in power, not playstyle, but it does require some adjustment.
  • Your class abilities will change. Nerfs and buffs happen, often. Spells and glyphs get redesigned, or removed. These changes often affect endgame play more than lower levels, because they’re designed to affect endgame balance.
  • There is more theorycrafting available for endgame characters than leveling characters, so there is less need to figure it all out on your own. You can learn to play a spec effectively by following a guide.

These differences between endgame toons and twinks are pretty small, and the first two come in intervals that leave plenty of time to learn how things work before they change again. You have time to get your UI and macros set up the way you want them, configure Power Auras and NeedToKnow to display the right information, to understand how different talents and abilities interact and work.

But if you stop playing for a while, your class can change underneath you, sometimes dramatically. I played my Death Knight only occasionally in the later days of Wrath, and I found the constant changes to be difficult to cope with. The transition to Cataclysm actually helped me a bit, because I was able to jettison my thought that I should understand the class and instead approach it fresh; but I still struggle with him. Guides have helped, but there is still a sense of discomfort whenever I leave the Frost 2H playstyle – because that’s how I learned to DK, as a level 59 PvP twink.

You also have to play relatively often to stay current on an endgame character’s gear – what is good gear for one raid tier or PvP season will be insufficient later on. Generally, once you’ve geared up for specific PvE content, you stay geared for that content, but new content will need new gear. PvP is an arms race, so if you skip a season, you will be facing better geared opponents, and suffer accordingly.

The last point I made above, that the ready availability of guidance on how to play a spec at the endgame makes you less likely to really master it, is one I wrestle with. You can excel in doing something without understanding all of it. I’ve seen this in many different aspects of my own life, in sports, in technology, in science, and even in video games – performance and understanding are related, but not dependent, variables. But I also think if you pick a spec up at the endgame,  you’re less likely to fully master it than if you leveled with it. That’s not to say you can’t excel at it, just that you’re not going to understand it as well as someone who leveled with it. There’s a knowledge base gained through learning how to do something yourself, of what works and what doesn’t work, that you can’t completely replicate with a guide or manual.

And yet… knowing how to level in a given spec doesn’t mean you’ll know how to play the spec at endgame. It doesn’t mean you’ll know how to squeeze out the last bit of DPS, tank a raid boss, or heal a heroic dungeon. Leveling is not as rigorous an activity as most endgame pursuits. Specs play differently at endgame than earlier. Knowing how to tank Ragefire Chasm like a pro doesn’t mean you’re ready to tank Cho’gall.

But it might help you be a better play of the class, overall.

WHY EXPERIENCE IN BATTLEGROUNDS IS BAD

I have a working theory about why I like playing my warlock so much.

Cynwise was one of a field of 10 characters I rolled when I first started playing. She was the one I got to 20 first, which still took a long time. She’s the one I explored with, she’s the one I learned not just the warlock class, but the game with. After a while, I deleted all those characters except ‘wise and my banker and got on with the business of leveling.

In retrospect, I was not very good at leveling. I was not a very good player, to be honest, but that was fine – I was learning how the game worked. I had sworn off PvP, because that shit is just scary, and I didn’t run dungeons, so I just quested and tried to make sense of WTF I was supposed to do. It was fun.

At level 51, and to this day I don’t know why I did it, but I queued up for a battleground. It was Alterac Valley, and it was exhilarating. We won. And I was hooked.

I eventually figured out that I would do better if I leveled up to 58 or 59, which I did relatively quickly, and then I set about playing battlegrounds full-time. This was before battlegrounds awarded experience, and only AV awarded a pittance for the deaths of NPCs, so it was pretty safe to stay in a bracket and PvP as much as you wanted.

All that background leads up to my theory. It has several parts.

  1. While PvP doesn’t teach you everything about your class, it can provide a crucible to learn how to use your abilities under pressure.
  2. PvP Battlegrounds provide short, manageable periods of time to try out different strategies and tactics, with immediate feedback about how they work. Did you win, or did you lose?
  3. When Battlegrounds awarded no XP, they served as the one place you could refine your play with a character without them changing.
  4. Therefore, XP-less Battlegrounds provided the ideal place to master a class.

I look at some of my high-level alts, compare them to Cynwise, and I wonder if I will ever come close to understanding them like I do the Warlock class. I don’t know about you, but I struggle when I know I’m not as good as I could be at something, and when there are better alternatives for me.

And I really wonder, how much of that is because it took me 6 months to get to level 80, with fully 3 of those months spent playing in the battlegrounds?

I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I know that when I get on my Druid, and I suck at PvP or PvE, it hurts to be incompetent. I hate it. I get overrun and wonder how I was supposed to escape. When a tank dies on my watch, I wonder why I’m even trying.

This is a natural response to poor performance, and I get over it, but I am really left wondering – will flailing my way to 85 make me happy? Or wouldn’t I rather go play someone who makes me feel good about myself and my abilities, even if it’s just my ability to play a video game?

I want, very much to take every alt and just PvP on them until I get it. I want to get how the class works before I move on any further.

Losing the ability to play in battlegrounds to our heart’s content at a given level has its downsides. It’s probably not enough to offset the massive benefits that XP-on BGs has brought – greatly increased popularity of BGs in general, making for more fair fights in most brackets – but it also has removed the PvP pause where we master our character before moving on to the next set of abilities and challenges.

WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?

There are no more twinks in here anymore. We’re all just ex-twinks.

- Cynwulf

The other downside of XP in battlegrounds is that you don’t have a chance to form a community in them anymore. You’d see the same faces over and over again in battlegrounds before this change happened, on both sides, and you got to know people. Not in depth, but certainly you’d know if someone was competent or not.

My Death Knight, Cynwulf, was essentially a level 59 DK twink at a time when DKs were so massively overpowered even bothering to call him a twink sounds silly. He hung around in various bars in the cities of Azeroth, drinking his Scourge-induced woes away, and PvPing. I hated Warsong Gulch on my warlock, but on Cynwulf, it was a total love affair. Howling Blast packed a huge punch (and was available at 59). The confines of the map, coupled with having the only epic mounts at that level, meant it was possible to blow off steam and just destroy a battleground.

I particularly enjoyed Alterac Valley on Cynwulf, because it was my chance to tank Galv and Drek. And people knew me as a good tank. Players in that bracket would see me speaking up and know that I was going to tank Drek, and do a good job of it. Warbringers up? Give me a few seconds, let me get D&D/HB out, then go wild. There were healers I’d know would have my back. There was a Paladin who dinged 60 one match and we all had a very fond farewell party for him in the Field of Strife.

But, eventually, XP came, and the decision had to be made between staying and going, between leveling up and continuing to PvP, or hoping for an XP-off queue to pop.

They never popped, so I leveled Cynwulf up. And the familiar battlegrounds were thriving, but thriving with strangers. The community was gone. They might realize who I was from the big numbers I was putting up, but live or die, I was probably not going to see very many of these people ever again.

My hero of the Stormpike was no more. My dear, drunk Death Knight brother was going to have to move on.

I dinged 60 with Cynwulf in Hellfire Peninsula. I knew there was no going back to the 51-60 bracket that I knew so well with him.

It was time to move on.

WHEN IT IS TIME TO MOVE ON

I enjoyed playing Cynderblock so much that I rolled another warrior, Ashwalker, with the intent to level her. Ashwalker has taken up most of my alt time these days. I’m having a blast with her, questing, tanking, PvPing, seeing all the things I want to see in Cataclysm from the ground up.

At level 20, it was strange playing Ash over ‘block, because she had… half the health of my twink? Even decently geared with full heirlooms, there was a huge gulf between the twink and the leveling toon, but the playstyle was very similar, and therefore very comfortable. I tried Arms for a while, but eventually settled back into Protection, first to help tank some instances, then because it was fun in its own right.

By the time I hit the 40s, though, I was starting to get nervous. How does this new stuff work? Where do I put things on my bars? What am I missing? What do you mean, I don’t need to stance dance to Charge? When should I use Whirlwind? Should I look at Arms again? What about Fury? What about PvP?

So I locked my XP at level 49 until I could get my mind caught up to my character.

I talked a little bit about this in the 5×2 Project, but I found this pause really helped me out. It gave me time to fiddle with macros and keybinds and screen layout. It let me figure out what abilities I really needed to hit more often, and which ones didn’t make sense to use anymore. It even gave me time to set up my dual spec correctly!

What it didn’t do was give me a chance to try things out in PvP. I did queue, but never saw a single queue pop. Not one. If I wanted to try something out, I had to try it out in a dungeon. Not that dungeons weren’t valuable, because they were!

But it taught me how to tank well at 49. Not PvP well, but tank well. That’s important, too.

I found myself tempted, while XP was locked, to go do crazy twink things. I very seriously considered getting the Argent Champion and Ambassador titles at level 49. (I have the Argent Crusade tabard as a result.) I considered trying to get her twink-level gear and solo instances at level.

The temptation was strong. I’ll admit it.

But I did the right thingt; I spent only a few days at 49 before finally admitting that I’d gotten the main benefit from the exercise and turning XP back on again. I no longer felt overwhelmed by my abilities or bars. I was back in control. I was comfortable with the talent tree I’d chosen, of my macros, and of how to play. I didn’t need to grind dungeons for titles.

No, after some reflection it was very clear that I don’t need to spend months in the battlegrounds anymore to learn how to play a character. When I did that on Cynwise and Cynwulf, it was because I was not just learning the class – I was learning the game. I was learning how to win the battlegrounds, how they worked.

I needed the six months of time to get my first character up to 80, because there was so much to learn. This included how to play a class, but it also included how to play. I don’t need to learn those lessons again – but I do need to learn how to play a warrior. While that includes leveling, it also includes the endgame, and I know I have a lot to learn there, too. I need questing. I need dungeon experience. I need balance.

Ashwalker just dinged 58, and has entered Outlands. I don’t know what I’m going to do next with her – maybe quest for some rewards, level her professions, run some dungeons, PvP up to 60 – but I still feel like I have a handle on playing a Prot Warrior.

Maybe my theory that XP-off battlegrounds are the best places to learn your class isn’t that good after all.

THE VALUE OF PVP PAUSES

I absolutely think that PvP is a great part of the leveling process. Leveling is, by its very nature, a learning process, and including PvP as part of it is really vital to understanding all of a class.

But it has to be balanced.

I have to be careful to not read too much into my own experiences. Yes, I spent nine months in ICC as a Demonology warlock, and while I understood it well enough to teach it to others, I never felt like I’d mastered it like I had Affliction and Destruction – the specs I had leveled as, the specs I PvPed with.

Yet, I raided well as Demonology. It wasn’t a mark against me that I couldn’t PvP with the spec – I didn’t need to PvP with it. I was there to raid.

It’s odd that we can play a spec, and play it well, and yet not feel like we’ve mastered it. I can look at my Warlock at 85, with her overwhelming number of buttons, and feel totally comfortable – yet my level 70 Druid makes me go AMG WHAT DOES THIS BUTTON DO.

It’s not just a question of complexity – it’s how we handle the complexity. We don’t start off with endgame characters for a simple reason – they’re too complicated to play well if you don’t spend some time leveling them.

It makes sense, though, when we look at why the leveling process exists. It exists to teach you how to play the class. Abilities are given gradually, to allow players time to absorb their use.

The PvP pause from XP-free battlegrounds was nice, and when no other options existed to lock XP, they were the best option to slow down your leveling. Now that you can lock your XP at will, the PvP pause isn’t the same, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. You can lock XP, figure things out in PvE, and then return to PvP when you’re ready to move on. It’s the reverse of how things used to work – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Balanced leveling is the best leveling.

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Filed under Cynwise's Battlefield Manual, Green Tinted Goggles

The Currency Conversions of Warcraft Patch 4.1

World of Warcraft patch 4.1 brings with it an interesting change: conversions between PvP and PvE currencies. From the latest PTR notes:

  • Honor is now purchasable from the Justice Commodities Vendor at 250 Honor per 375 Justice.
  • Justice is now purchasable from the Honor Commodities Vendor at 250 Justice per 375 Honor.
  • Conquest is now purchasable from the Valor vendor at 250 Conquest per 250 Valor.

You could summarize this as the lower tier has a bidirectional exchange rate of 3:2 between PvP and PvE, and the higher tier has a 1:1 exchange rate from PvE to PvP, with no corresponding exchange between PvP to PvE.

These proposed changes are quite interesting. These four currencies are some of the primary rewards for endgame player, and as the different currencies have become increasingly unified over the course of the game, changes in one area of the game can increasingly impact others. There are both good and bad things about having a more simplified currency system, one that allows people to switch between different spheres of the game without necessarily participating in them. The rewards continue to have meaning and power once they’ve served their primary purpose.

What’s even more interesting is what activities the currencies don’t reward, where the walls of separation are maintained, where there are holes in the logical, perfect system.

Let’s take a look.

DUDE, WHERE ARE MY MARKS OF HONOR?

Do you remember battleground Marks of Honor? Marks of Honor were tokens that were awarded for completing a battleground, with different types awarded by different battlegrounds. You needed these Marks to get leveling PvP gear, accessories, mounts, and endgame gear (from Wintergrasp, for instance.)

There were other types of PvP currencies, too: Honor Points (gotten from HKs and accomplishing battleground objectives) and Arena Points (from playing Arenas.) Marks, Honor Points, and Arena Points all existed in a chaotic soup which made gearing up an interesting exercise. Depending on what you wanted, you might need to run EotS a bunch of times, or the original three (WSG, AB, AV) over and over to get the prizes you wanted. Mount collectors will probably remember this as a bad thing.

Oh yes, and there was a direct conversion between Marks to Honor Points (remember Concerted Efforts / For Great Honor?), and a conversion between Honor and Gold, so just showing up to a battleground could be profitable – but only if you had a balanced set of Marks for your level. If you just played WSG or AV (*cough cough*), you were stuck with a lot of unusable Marks.

Marks served a good purpose – they kept people going back to different battlegrounds. Without Marks, entire factions would have deserted battlegrounds in certain brackets – Horde would have ditched Alterac Valley in favor of Warsong Gulch and Arathi Basin, Alliance would have ditched WSG/AB in favor of Alterac Valley – which would have led to hugely long queue times. Horde players would queue for AV in the Ruin battlegroup in the 51-60 bracket solely to get AV Marks – they had no chance of winning a 10v40 battle.

Marks kept the system running for a while. They weren’t great – they were pretty bad, in hindsight – but they provided incentive for people to show up for the fights, which was all they were supposed to do.

All Marks of Honor (except Wintergrasp) went away in 3.3.3, a change which coincided with the Random Battleground Finder. Blizzard introduced a tool which allowed people to queue for random battlegrounds, instead of specific ones. To avoid creating a conflict of interest with players, they removed the rewards which previously encouraged queuing for separate BGs and replaced them with the Daily Random Battleground quests we’re used to today.

It’s easy to forget how big of a change this was for PvP. We went from 10 kinds of currency to 4. Wintergrasp Marks still existed, as did Stone Keeper’s Shards for PvP Heirlooms, but suddenly it was either Honor Points or Arena Points, and that daily could get you great rewards if you didn’t do Arena.

In unifying the PvP currency, however, the differences in the average Honor Points between each battleground became a larger driver of player behavior. Alterac Valley had the highest Honor per Minute rates of any battleground, especially on it’s holiday weekends, so players flocked there to grind honor. Warsong Gulch had the lowest HPM, so it became the refuge of the randoms and the die-hard. Nothing sucked more than getting stuck in a hour-long WSG and losing. (There was no timer to end the match in the old days.) Players sought out the highest rewards, instead of spending their time grinding out each individual battleground for Marks, which meant the random feature was used a lot, and Alterac Valley, Strand of the Ancients, and Isle of Conquest got to see a lot of activity.

Marks were an artificial way to encourage players to play battlegrounds they didn’t like. It’s funny to put it that way now, but it’s really true. The balancing requirements of the Concerted Efforts repeatable quest (which converted 1 of each available Mark into Honor) kept people going back once all the mounts and gear were there, but it was a clunky system, designed to balance things out. Pushing people into a tool that randomly distributes their placement was a better idea, because all you had to do was reward people for using the random tool, and the unified currency works.

Except, of course, when those people have other ways to get the rewards they want.

THE PROBLEM OF LINKED CURRENCIES

The PvE Emblem currencies in Wrath were almost as confusing to new players as the PvP currencies. With a series of Emblems you could buy progressively more powerful gear. It works much like the Cataclysm setup, only the different tiers had different Emblems, which made it somewhat dizzying when you wanted to buy Heirlooms.

Points are better. Let me leave it at that.

There were two ways in which the PvE Emblems were linked to PvP.

  1. You could purchase PvP gear with Emblems directly
  2. You could convert Stone Keeper’s Shards/Wintergrasp Marks to Honor, which purchased PvP gear

The first method was in place to allow players who primarily raided or ran dungeons to do something with their Emblems once they had stopped being useful for PvE. You could assemble a good PvP set, not quite Arena quality, but certainly Battleground quality, with your PvE rewards. It allowed players to keep getting some rewards out of the Emblems, even if it wasn’t in the sphere that they originated from.

The second method was to let people who didn’t want Heirlooms to do something with those Stone Keeper’s Shards.

In theory, this was great.

The danger of a unified currency, however, is that it links seemingly unrelated activities, and that if one area is unbalanced, it will unbalance the other.

When Northrend Heroics became trivial to run, they became a better place to gear up for PvP than PvP itself. If a Heroic took 10 minutes, and a Battleground took 15-20, people start looking at those Heroic rewards really hard. I remember Ihra’s post when it came out, and my reaction was first of disbelief – then I looked at what I had, and what I could do, and he was absolutely right. I could burn through a Heroic in 10 minutes.

The majority of my PvP gear in the latter part of Wrath came not from battlegrounds, but from unused Emblems of Frost I got in ICC. It was easier than grinding it out or getting into Arenas!

But here’s the thing. You’re thinking, Cyn, that was all well and good, but that was at the end of an expansion, everything was out of whack, purpz were handed out by vendors in Dalaran like candy. That won’t happen again for a good long while! And it was just PvP gear, it didn’t affect Arena balance, it didn’t affect PvE balance! This is Cataclysm! Stuff is hard!

There’s nothing to worry about!

Oh, crap.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT OF TOL BARAD

For a week, Tol Barad was given an insane boost in rewards -1800 Honor Points per successful attack – which caused a domino effect of win-trading that crippled the spirit of the zone. This allowed people who participated to gear up their Bloodthirsty PvP gear quickly, and with little effort, given that 1800 Honor Points is normally 12-15 battlegrounds of work. After this week, it was fixed so that it awarded less honor on offense (360 per win, plus a daily quest for 200), balancing the rewards somewhat in favor of the attackers, but still rewarding a failed defense. The rewards are now 180 Honor Points for a win, 180 for a loss, and the daily quest for 200.

The Tol Barad example is a shocking one which helps illustrate the challenge of an unified currency – if you are to have an easy, cheap source of one kind of reward, and that reward can be converted into another kind of reward, you may devalue the activities leading up to that reward. One activity can be the butterfly which spawns a hurricane in another part of the game.

In Tol Barad’s case, the explosive increase in honor devalued all other PvP activities. There was no reason to run battlegrounds during that week, unless you were really bored. Tol Barad was better than the random BG finder, which was better than selecting specific BGs, which in turn was better than doing PvP quests.

Now, consider what would have happened if the currency conversion of 4.1 was in place when this happened –  players would get 1200 Justice Points for winning Tol Barad. That’s an offset piece or so.

Thankfully, this inflated reward situation is not the case anymore, though winning Tol Barad remains the highest Honor Per Minute activity you can do in the game (380 Honor Points for about 20 minutes of work). That’s still pretty good. And if you’re grinding Justice Points, it might be a pretty good strategy, too – 253 Justice Points for 20 minutes? That’s 12.7 JP/M, which seems pretty good to my eye. At previous, post-win trading values (560 Honor Points) it was 18.6 JP/M, which would be insanely good. But 12.7 is pretty darn good.

Compare this to the time it takes to run a heroic. Easy Heroics run what, 20-30 minutes with a good group? 210-280 Justice Points per dungeon run? 350 for the first one? That’s 11 JP/M, about two-thirds your TB earnings. So winning your first Tol Barad of the day is a slightly better way to get Justice Points than a good Heroic run.

What about if you are having a bad Heroic run, though? Say you’re pugging as a DPS, so those 350 Justice points take 45 minutes to get – and an additional 45 minutes in queue. That drops your JP/M down to 3.8. Even a loss at Tol Barad, with no quest reward, still gives you 3 JP/M!

What about daily battleground quests? I’ve had some really good nights in the BGs of late, where we get 400 Honor Points or so in the first hour. (It tapers off due to the inital pop of the daily quest.) That’s 4.4 JP/M for an hour of BGs where you win. Still better for DPS without guild support!

Now, 4.1 has some hope for better rewards – the new troll-themed Heroics are supposed to award double the Justice Points that the current instances do, as well as drop better loot. That would bring them well ahead of Tol Barad’s awards for winning on offense, which should keep players doing PvE for PvE rewards and PvP for PvP rewards. (That’s 373 Honor Points per Troll Heroic, to keep ourselves honest – a very good return, but only if you can do them quickly.)

But … Honor is going to be increased in battlegrounds across the board, too, which means all these calculations will probably be moot. Open combat areas like Tol Barad could see considerable increases. AV might reclaim its place as the king of honor farming. Those Troll instances might be hugely hard to complete. There’s a lot up in the air that we won’t know until 4.1 hits.

I expect that we will see some interesting things come out of this. If you are not in a position to get ready access to quick runs of a Heroic, Tol Barad may be an easier way to gear up on Justice gear than running dungeons. The key here is that you don’t have to succeed at Tol Barad to get rewarded for it, unlike a dungeon which you actually have to complete.

So I hope you know how to win Tol Barad, because its going to be a good place for both Honor and Justice Points.

WHY CONQUEST POINTS DON’T CONVERT

There’s a glaring omission in the conversion schema – Conquest to Valor. You can take Valor points and turn them into PvP epics, but not vice versa. I strongly, strongly support this omission.

Unlike Justice and Honor, which you can grind as long as you can sit in front of a keyboard (and even if you’re not there, thanks, afkers), there’s a weekly cap to both Valor and Conquest Points. You can store as many as you want, but once you’ve reached that cap for the week, you’re done. Can’t get any more, don’t even try until next Tuesday.

Because these caps are weekly caps, the key is time and relative difficulty. Players reach these two caps in very different ways, and that difference is why there should be no Conquest to Valor conversion.

  • Valor Points are capped at 1250 per week. To reach cap takes all raid bosses and a few heroic bosses, depending on if you run 10- or 25-man raids.
  • Conquest Points are capped at 1340 or more per week, depending on your PvP rating. The higher your rating, the higher your cap. Hitting the cap takes 5 Arena matches.

Now, consider those two caps in terms of time and effort to reach.

  • Valor Cap: complete ALL raids with 9 or 24 other people, then run a few heroics with 4 other people, against a set level of difficulty. Several nights of work.
  • Conquest Cap: Win 5 rated PvP matches against a variable level of difficulty that adjusts to your skill level. Get a friend and play 2v2s for 2-3 hours.

It’s easy to cap Conquest points, and hard to cap Valor points. I know experienced raiders who didn’t even realize there was a weekly cap until recently!

If there was a 1:1 transfer of Conquest points to Valor points, raiders would rightly look at the situation and say: I will raid, but I must do Rated PvP to make sure I hit my Valor Point cap for the week, every week, every raiding alt. It doesn’t require a raid team, it doesn’t require an entire night – compared to raiding, it’s trivial to get a few wins at any rating, no matter how bad.

(I mean, come on. I’m no Arena wizard and I manage to cap each week. The system is designed to match you up against people with equal gear and skill; once you find equilibrium with your rating, you’ll win about half the time.)

This would be a bad situation, for both PvP and PvE.

Why is the current conversion (Valor to Conquest) okay?

  • PvP gear is better for PvP than PvE gear. Resilience is scaling well this season – too well, some would argue – and combined with the lack of overpowered legendaries like Shadowmourne, makes raiding gear unattractive for PvP. (Keep in mind that the PvP weapons were held back to allow raiding to catch up.)
  • PvP gear can be used in PvE, but PvE gear lacks critical PvP stats. You can raid in PvP gear – it’s not optimal, but the gear has all the right stats. Swap out your Spell Pen cloak, reforge for Hit, and you still have a lot of your primary stat budget. PvE gear, however, cannot be turned into PvP gear, and if you don’t have any Resilience, you will die very fast in PvP.
  • Time is money. The Conquest Cap requires far less time to reach than the Valor Cap, so PvPers will not look at raiding as an quicker option for them to get top-tier PvP gear.
  • High PvP Ratings raise the cap. The better you perform in rated PvP, the higher your cap is raised. This encourages players to try for better ratings, as the gear will come faster.
  • PvPers need more many more points to gear up. Excepting BH, there is only one way to get the good PvP gear – points. This is in stark contrast to PvE, where much of your gear will come from boss drops, and a smaller percentage will come from crafted epics. The absolute best raid gear doesn’t cost points at all – it’s all boss tokens and heroic drops. You can put this another way: Raiders run out of things to buy faster than Gladiators because raiding generates gear.

This is really an argument based upon ease of acquisition, not about balancing between PvP and PvE equipment. The best PvP weapons (requiring 2200 rating) were held back weeks because raiding hadn’t progressed to the point where people would flood Arenas to get gear for PvE. Now, this can happen a lot anyways – people will always go and get the regular PvP weapons, because they’re just plain good gear, and relatively easy to get.  But if you’re raiding and spending your Valor Points on PvP weapons instead of on Tier gear?

You’re doing it wrong.

WHEN POINTS BECOME USELESS

This happens every patch, every season – there comes a point where you buy everything you need. Your gear gets to the point where Justice and Honor points just don’t matter anymore, because there are no upgrades available to you with them. Surprisingly, this happens with Valor and Conquest points, too – at some point you are like, okay, that’s it, nothing else left in the store, why should I bother?

Getting your character to this point always feels strange. I am there with Honor Points on Cynwise – which was a long grind, but that’s a different post – and there’s always a sudden emptiness of purpose, a void where before you knew what you had to do. For nights you log in and say “tonight, I grind Honor! I will not stop until my fingers bleed!”

And then you wake up and go, huh, I really don’t need any more Honor. Now what do I do?

Providing currency conversions helps players overcome this problem. It extends the useful life of the reward for an activity which we (hopefully) enjoyed, so that we can feel that it’s still worth doing, if perhaps with less urgency than before.

If you look at the chart at the head of this post, I tried to break down what you can buy with each kind of currency. There are some anomalies (you can still buy old Wrath-era level 80 PvP gear in Dalaran for Justice Points, if I’m not mistaken) but by and large things have become much simpler than in previous patches and expansions. What do you do, right now, if you don’t need points to gear your character anymore?

  • Buy heirlooms, but that’s for other characters we’re not playing now
  • Buy old sets for RP, but that’s not everyone’s thing
  • Buy accessories, mounts, and consumables, but eventually you have them all
  • Buy trade goods that aren’t worth very much

None of these are really an incentive to keep doing what you’re doing. Patch 4.1 is going to bring something new, something that’s been missing since Wrath:

  • Buy decent gear for the other part of the game you’ve been neglecting

which is, all problems aside, a pretty nice change.

Keeping rewards relevant is important. That’s why I like this change.

THE LURKING BUTTERFLIES OF 4.1

I hesitate to do any serious analysis of HPM and JPM at this point until 4.1 is live. Not only will the new troll dungeons will have different rewards (and difficulty levels), Honor is getting buffed across the board. These are both good changes – the Honor grind was especially long this time if you never held Tol Barad – but they are both potentially disruptive. It might be that at low gear levels, battlegrounds and Tol Barad give better return on Justice points than the corresponding heroics, due to the length of time it takes to get through a dungeon. And perhaps at higher gear levels, the troll instances become the fastest way to complete a set of PvE gear – and of getting the mid-level PvP gear, especially if you’re losing a lot.

See? The mind starts to boggle when you think about this too much. There are a lot of possibilities when currency conversion becomes a reality and all of these activities get linked.

The upside of this change is that players will be able to do more stuff with the points they’ve accumulated. Right now I’m siting on a pile of Justice Points with nothing to do with them.

The downside is that there are hurricane-spawning butterflies lurking everywhere, ready to disrupt the balance of one side or the other. The old, confusing systems were not friendly, but they provided barriers between activities so that imbalances in one area didn’t affect the other.

We’ll have to see how it all shakes out.

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Disposable Heroes: How To Make Reusable Level 10 PvP Toons

It has never been easier to have a blast with low level PvP in Warcraft than it is right now. Gone are the days where getting a character ready for WSG meant hours of grinding, farming, and doing impossible things just to compete with the level 19 twinks.

Not only is it easier to prepare a character for the fast paced, high burst world of level 10 Warsong Gulch, you can do so without committing to a character. You can literally try out characters and reuse all their gear if you decide you don’t like them. Not enjoying the Rogue’s playstyle? Delete them. Finding the Warlock isn’t your thing? Delete. Discover you should have been playing Priest all this time? Level them up, transfer their starter gear from a Mage. Worried about learning PvP at level 85? Give it a try at level 10, instead, and work on understanding how it all works – in a totally OP character.

Not every character has to be a digital representation of ourselves, a testament to our accomplishments in game. Sometimes we want a disposable hero, someone who can pwn faces for a while and then be deleted without regret when they aren’t any fun anymore.

Two significant changes happened to make this possible.

  • The battleground brackets were split in two, separating the level 10-14 players from the level 15-19s. This means the gear disparity is lower between the top and bottom of the bracket, while combat ratings actually favor the low end of the level range (you get more bang for your buck at level 10 than 14.)
  • More heirloom items have become available, making it easier to outfit a character with almost every slot with a blue-quality item at level 10 – when no corresponding blue items actually exist.

The same heirloom gear sets you are getting to level your alts can be repurposed into gear for low level PvP. Combine those heirlooms with Hand-Me-Downs – white, non-binding items usable by level 1s and given the best enchants you can get – and you can build a character who provides a great escape from the drudgery of the endgame.

Let’s look at how you do this.

A little Resilience goes a long way at level 10. (And yes, that's 307 AP, 50% Crit.)

RECIPE FOR A DISPOSABLE HERO

You’ll need:

  • Appropriate heirlooms for your class. That means: chest, shoulders, weapon(s), trinkets (PvP + haste, Int for casters), cloak, helm. If you can’t get heirlooms, hand-me-downs can be subbed in.
  • Enchanted level 1 white gear for the following slots: wrists, gloves, boots.
  • There aren’t really any good pant enchants, so pick up a pair of crafted green pants at level 10.
  • Useful rings are cheap and available at level 10 for casters and level 12 for everyone else. Optional.
  • You can wear a white belt and necklace if you want to. Optional.
  • 4 Traveler’s Backpacks. They’re the size of Netherweave bags, but they don’t bind on pickup.
  • A stack or three of Rumsey Rum Black Label, for +15 stamina. Drink up!

The pants and rings are the only pieces you can’t reuse from this setup, but considering their low cost, they’re easy enough to throw away.

You can learn professions if you want, especially if you think you might level this character eventually. Engineering can also give you helms if your guild isn’t level 20 yet. But they’re not needed. And if you have a surplus of cloth, you can level your First Aid to 225 and use Heavy Runecloth bandages. But again, that’s optional.

You’ll notice that this gear list really corresponds to how you’d outfit any alt of a given class, if you’re starting off and want to breeze through the first 25 levels or so. And what’s surprising is how little gear is really required!

Let’s break down the gear into class/role type.

Cloth-wearing casters (Mages, Priests, Warlocks) should go for:

Nearly every other caster class can make use of these items, so you’ve pretty much covered every Intellect-based spec here. (Holy pallys are an exception for the staves.) Wand users can pick up a quest reward for additional stats (but don’t use the wand, you don’t need it.)

Agility classes (Rogue, Druid, Shaman, Hunter) should try:

You can, of course, get the corresponding mail heirlooms for Shaman and Hunter, but they’re really not necessary. The additional armor is fine, but is hardly necessary. If you have them, great, use them! If you don’t, shoot for the leather pieces first. They’re more globally useful.

You have a lot of choices for weapons at this level, and while there are some pros and cons for each class and spec, you are really after the enchants, not the weapons themselves. If you can dual wield, do so and get +30 Agility (and +60 Attack Power) from the enchants. If you can’t, the Grand Staff of Jordan is an excellent choice even if you gain no benefit from spellpower. It has Hit, high Stamina and Resilience to help with survivability in PvP, the white DPS is equivalent to other 2H heirloom weapons, and it’s better than a 1H weapon with the +15 Agility enchant! If you can use spells, it’s an additional bonus for when you have to pull off a clutch heal or nuke. It’s more flexible than the Repurposed Lava Dredger; which can only be used by Druids and Shaman out of these classes, and lacks the versatility of the GSJ.

Yes. I’m telling you that the Grand Staff of Jordan is a hunter weapon.

Strength-based classes (Warriors, Paladins) should go for:

Holy pallys are odd ducks. You can do all sorts of crazy things with their weapons, like taking a Repurposed Lava Dredger (which has Haste) and adding an Iron Counterweight (which has an insane +20 Haste) and grab the Haste glove enchants (+10 Haste) to make really fast Holy Light casts. Or you could rock the Reforged Truesilver Champion with either a caster enchant or Crusader. But overall, you’ll find that the Devout Aurastone Hammer with any of the caster enchants (+22 Intellect, +29/+30 Spellpower) will see a lot of use if you play healers. Priests, Druids, Shamans, and Paladins can all use this mace, and while Shammys and Pallys will find it more useful at low levels (it can be paired with a level 1 enchanted shield), Priests and Druids will get by, even with their limited offhand selections at low levels.

Level 10 Mage with 1500 HKs, an Alliance Battle Standard and Knight's Colors? Sure!

THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

You can approach disposable heroes in two ways:

  • I’m going to keep them level 10 as long as I can, if they level, meh
  • I’ll level as I go, and reroll when I hit 15

Either way works.

The first way is pretty easy to accomplish – XP is only gained in WSG when your team captures a flag. So don’t be there when this happens. Make a macro with a single line:

/afk

and keep tabs on your FC at all times. AFK out before the flag caps, wait 15 minutes (go do dailies or something), and return to let off some more steam later.

This method lets you stay with someone for a long, long time. I got over 1000 HKs on my level 10 mage without really trying, just by AFKing out.

But – to be quite honest – afking out can be kinda boring.

I mean, you never get to win, to really dominate the battleground, to make it so that the other team just hates you. They hate you for about 3 minutes and then you’re gone. And that’s not that fun.

So the other option is just to level up normally through BG experience, and when you hit 15 (or 19, or 25, or whatever), just delete the character and reroll.

You heard me. Delete the toon and start over again at level 10. I wager you can get to level 10 in 45 minutes or less, just by killing everything in sight with your uber gear. Very little of it is soulbound – not even the bags! – so just delete and start over. Try a different race, a different class. Or do the exact same one if you were having fun.

These are disposable heroes, after all!

No commitment, casual PvP where you get to pwn face and blow off steam. If you don’t know how to PvP, this is a great way to start.

Plus – you’ll learn to love Warsong Gulch. No, really!

Give it a try.

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The Lost Puppy and the Girl Everyone Hates: Choosing the Right Demon for your Warlock in 4.0.6

Demons are one of the defining features of the Warlock class. They are not your warlock’s friends.  They are not her companions. They are tools, instruments of your character’s will, to be used and discarded when no longer needed.

And most of all, they are not to be trusted.

But as a player, you will come to trust in your warlock’s demons. Knowing which demon to use, and how to use them effectively, is the mark of a good warlock. Each demon brings with it a different set of abilities, bonuses, and damage that interact with both your spec and your own personal playstyle. Knowing which demon is right for the task at hand is often challenging, but is essential to success in both PvP and PvE.

KNOW YOUR TOOLBOX

You have 5 demons and 2 demon guardians you’ll use at various points in your career as a warlock.

  • Imp: An obnoxious little guy, the Imp’s primary attack is ranged (Firebolt). Abilities include a defensive dispel (Singe Magic), a passive Stamina buff (Blood Pact), and an escape mechanism (Flee). The first demon warlocks learn, Imps are primarily favored by Destruction warlocks in PvE encounters.
  • Voidwalker: Sometimes called a Blueberry or VW, the Voidwalker is the warlock’s tank, dealing damage through melee attacks with high threat (Torment). As a tank, the Voidwalker has a viable taunt (Suffering), a high health pool, and decent armor. He also can surround the warlock in a shield (Sacrifice) and can increase stealth detection while healing outside of combat (Consume Shadows), making him an ideal defensive demon. Great for leveling warlocks.
  • Succubus: Beguiling, seductive, sure to get the wrong kind of attention in Goldshire, the Succubus combines high melee DPS (Lash of Pain) with two great control abilities – a channeled fear you can use when your warlock is incapacitated or busy (Seduction), and a knockback (Whiplash) for interrupting, repositioning, and knocking people off cliffs. She can attack out of nowhere (Lesser Invisibility), and has, arguably, the most irritating pet noises in the game. Great for PvP and general DPS.
  • Felhunter: The demon puppy, the Felhunter is the ultimate anti-caster demon, combining good melee DPS (Shadow Bite) with an offensive Dispel (Devour Magic) and combined Silence/spell lockout (Spell Lock). These abilities are on long cooldowns, but can be combined with other crowd control to really shut down enemy spellcasters. Felpups also bring a passive Mana buff (Fel Intelligence) to the raid, and have traditionally been favored by Affliction warlocks due to talents (now removed) in that tree which buffed his damage. (n.b. Shadow Bite scales for all DoTs, not just affliction.)
  • Felguard: The Felguard, a giant, axe-wielding demon, is only available to Demonology warlocks. If the Voidwalker is the warlock’s Protection Warrior, the Felguard is the Arms warrior, with a devastating cleave attack (Legion Strike), ranged stun (Axe Toss), charge (Pursuit), and nasty whirlwind attack (Felstorm). This adds up into a brutal demon capable of DPSing, tanking, and providing crowd control, and is the signature demon of the Demonologist.

Every single one of these demons provides damage mitigation to the warlock via Soul Link, which should be up at all times.

The demon guardians are a bit different from your demon minions – they are both on a 10 minute CD, no longer displace your normal minion, and are situationally useful. They don’t have individual names, but they are both 1) really big and 2) really cool.

  • Doomguard: The Doomguard has a single ranged attack (Doom Bolt), which it will cast on whichever target you’ve Baned (Doom, Agony, Havoc). Lasts for 45 seconds, theoretically the guardian you’d want to use in a single target situation. Unfortunately, his damage is low right now, but in 4.1 this should be corrected.
  • Infernal: The Infernal is summoned from a fel meteor that crashes into your enemies, stunning them for 2 seconds and then unleashing a large monster made of flaming rock who deals AoE damage to everyone around it. Like the Doomguard, the Infernal will be drawn towards Baned targets, though mostly he runs around and spreads chaos. Awesome for PvP, especially battlegrounds, and currently best for single-target DPS in PvE, too.

Want the short version?

  • Imp: Shoots fireballs, gives stamina buff, defensive dispel on 6-second CD. Destro PvE, some PvP utility.
  • Voidwalker: Blueberry tank, taunt, shield on 30-second CD, anti-stealth. Leveling, soloing, anti-melee and flag defense in PvP.
  • Succubus: Additional CC, knockback on 25-second CD. Generically great for PvP, situationally good for PvE.
  • Felhunter: Anti-caster, offensive dispel on 15-second CD, spell lockout on 24-second CD, damage scales with number of DoTs. Traditionally an Affliction PvE pet, great for PvP when facing casters.
  • Felguard: Demonology only, hits like a truck, ranged stun on 30-second CD, whirlwind attack. Useful in both PvE and PvP.
  • Doomguard: 10-minute CD, shoots shadowbolts, use on single targets after 4.1 buffs his damage.
  • Infernal: 10-minute CD, immolation aura, 2-second stun on deployment, use all the time until 4.1, AoE/PvP thereafter.

That’s it. Five demon minions – four, if you’re not Demonology – and two guardians. That’s what you have to work with.

Now let’s look at when to use them.

THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE RIGHT JOB

What’s better, a screwdriver, a hammer, or a wrench?

Well, it all depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re having a discussion about the relative merits of tools, you have to put the discussion in the context of a task, or the discussion is meaningless. In the words of engineers everywhere, you gotta pick the right tool for the job. And demons are your tools.

In many ways, PvE endgame raiding is the easiest context to analyze. As a damage dealer, warlocks are trying to output as much damage as possible. Damage trumps survivability and utility in nearly all cases. In 25-man raids, you can be sure that there’s both a Mage (for the Mana buff) and a Warrior or Priest (for the Stamina buff). In 10-mans, your composition might not include one of these classes, but 10-man raiding often needs to compromise on buffs, or supplement them with Runescrolls if they’re deemed essential buffs.

So, for endgame raiding, pet selection comes down to which one offers the highest DPS for your spec, period, full stop. And that comes down to a per-spec simulation, which is highly dependent upon both the talents and glyphs chosen.

Right now, that means:

These are from the latest (4.0.6) threads on Elitist Jerks (Aff, Demo, Destro). In all cases, you should use macros to force-cast your demon’s basic attack.

In 5-man Cataclysm dungeons, the same philosophy should hold true, but there is an argument to be made for increased need of crowd control, which the Succubus still provides. So there’s no real conflict between DPS and utility in these situations for Affliction and Demonology, and Destruction still gets more benefit out of the Imp to warrant staying with the little guy.

What about PvE, but not at the endgame? This is where the situation becomes less clear. How do you play? What do you play? Are you leveling cautiously, rarely taking any damage or pulling aggro? Voidwalker or Felguard are the demons for you. Do you drain tank and pull recklessly? Voidwalker, Felhunter, and Succubus are all viable demons. Are you playing Destro and nuking everything down before it matters? Keep the Imp out, switch to the VW if you need the shield.

There isn’t really a “right” answer for leveling. Unlike dungeons or heroics, DPS is not the only measure of success in a fight. Survivability, sustainability, utility – all factor into demon selection when leveling.

PvP uses different measures for choosing demons. DPS is, at best, a secondary consideration to the utility each demon brings. Good PvPers will often leave their pets on Passive, attacking specific targets only when necessary, saving their special abilities for when they’re needed, not risking the loss of a demon in return for extra damage.

In general:

  • Voidwalker is for node defense (to sniff out stealthers) and anti-melee. Sacrifice’s shield takes the bite out of a stunlock. VWs can also taunt hunter pets away from healers.
  • Succubus is for crowd control, seduce nuking, DPS, and interrupts. (Also: Lumber Mill.) The ability to CC while your warlock is doing something else – either casting or incapacitated – is key to understanding the succy’s utility.
  • Felhunter is for shutting down enemy casters. You probably can’t kill a Holy Pally as Affliction without smart use of Spell Lock.
  • Imp is for Destruction, with defensive dispels thrown in. Improved Imp procs don’t happen like they do in PvE, but they can provide nice burst. Singe Magic should be used every CD, either on yourself or your healer(s).
  • Felguard is for Demonology, with a combination of cleaves, burst DPS, and stuns, he can be a potent adversary in both Arenas and Battlegrounds.

In PvP, you absolutely need to switch demons to suit your current situation. I cannot stress this point highly enough. You must switch demons to counter your opponents. Every warlock has Soul Burn to allow instant summons in combat; use it. Do not be predictable. Facing a caster? Open with the Succubus, seduce them while DoTting them up, then switch to the Felhunter and lock them down. Getting savaged by a rogue or DK? Switch to the VW, pop a shield, then run away.

You want to know what I don’t want to face as a caster? Surprise Spell Locks!

#showtooltip Summon Felhunter
/use Soulburn
/castsequence reset=1 Summon Felhunter, Spell Lock, Soul Link, Demon Soul

This kind of macro works for all the demons – bring them out instantly, trigger their special ability, then Soul Link them for your own sake. Seduction? Sacrifice? Axe Toss? Singe Magic? All of them are available, almost instantly, on a 30-second CD.

In PvP, the job changes constantly. Sometimes, you’re trying to take out a healer. Sometimes, you’re trying to pull a rogue off of your healer. Sometimes, you’re able to nuke from a distance. Know your tools so you can select the right demon for the job.

Adaptability is key.

SEDUCE-NUKING AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF DEMON DESIGN

I was running some regular battlegrounds with my guildmates last weekend, helping to gear them up with Bloodthirsty gear, when we ran into a Forsaken Destro warlock with a succubus.

“God damn, I hate that succubus!”
“I know, that seduction shit comes out of nowhere!”
“They are the worst demons, period!”

“Except for yours, Cyn. We like yours. Really.”

I cackled at that exchange. Not just because they were lying to me – they totally were, they hate Helola when I duel them – but because it captures the frustration of facing someone who is using a Succubus to seduce-nuke you to death.

Seduce-nuking is a tried and true strategy for Destruction warlocks that was first popularized by the legendary Drakedog in Vanilla WoW. The basic idea is to hold your target immobile with Seduction while lining up a burst combo that they can’t avoid, then repeating until the Fear DR kicks in, at which point you run away until the DR wears off. It goes something like this.

  • Warlock casts CoEl, Succubus comes out of Invisibility and starts channeling Seduction.
  • Warlock casts a long cast nuke, like Chaos Bolt or Soul Fire, while target is immobilized.
  • Nuke leaves Warlock en route to Seduced target. Warlock casts Immolate during travel time.
  • Immediately after Immolate finishes, Warlock casts Shadowfury on the target.
  • Chaos Bolt, Immolate, and Shadowfury all hit at the same time. Target is no longer Seduced, but is stunned.
  • Warlock casts Conflag and Incinerates during Shadowfury stun.
  • During the third Backdraft-enhanced Incinerate, Succubus starts Seducing again, timed to hit after the Incinerate.
  • DoTs get applied while waiting for CDs (Chaos Bolt, Conflagrate, etc.) to reset. Target is Feared as necessary.

There are plenty of different variations on this strategy, and while Destro does seduce-nuking very well, Demo and Affliction can do it too. It’s a devastatingly effective tactic when you learn how to do it.

(Practical challenge for the warlock readers out there: practice getting three spells – Chaos Bolt, Immolate, and Shadowfury – to land at the same time. It will improve your burst immensely. Once you have this down, add in CC.)

Seduce-nuking is not an obvious tactic. You don’t sit there and think, hey, a CC spell that breaks on any damage, I can use that to nuke people to death! It goes against the cardinal rule: Never follow Fear with a nuke, wtf is wrong with you? But once you get it, you see how useful having a separate CC is. It allows you to CC while you are casting other spells.

The key to understanding and using Demon abilities is that, even when they duplicate your own abilities, they are separate from your warlock. They are available when you are not. Sacrifice is a great anti-stunlock spell because you can trigger it while incapacitated, not just because it’s a shield that absorbs damage. Having a shield you can’t use doesn’t help you one bit. Seduction and Whiplash are effective defense mechanisms because they will save you from a lockdown.

I bring up seduce-nuking and the general dislike of the Succubus, in part, because of Tyler Caraway’s recent post on WoW Insider where he asks Do warlock pets need to be redesigned?, which is worth a read – even if I don’t agree with a lot of his assumptions about warlock demons. It’s worth a read because it presents a very common way warlock players look at their demons, and posits that because the Succubus doesn’t have a purpose, a role to fill, she should be removed.

The way in which demons function now, in 4.0.6., is at variance with the ways a lot of warlock players feel that demons should work, because it’s not elegant. It doesn’t fit into a neat, classical model, where each demon neatly fills a role:

  • Leveling: Voidwalker
  • Affliction: Felhunter
  • Demonology: Felguard
  • Destruction: Imp
  • PvP: Succubus
  • AoE CD: Infernal
  • Single-target CD: Doomguard

I mean, that’s a pretty simple model, right? It’s something that is easy to understand and communicate to players. It provides a single niche for each demon, and a role for every one of them. It also provides each tree with an iconic demon, which appeals to the flavor of the class, the feeling of them.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like this model. I do like it. I like to think of the Felhunter as the Affliction demon, the Felguard as the Demonology demon, the Imp as the Destruction one. Back in 3.1. I was Affliction, but I ran with the Doomguard/Succubus in PvE because that DPS was so much better than the Felhunter, and it felt… weird.

For PvP, at least, I cannot say there should be ever a single pet for that niche. I ran with the VW in Wintergrasp because Seduction was always getting broken (too much damage flying around). I ran with the Felpup for ages in normal battlegrounds just to have the pre-nerf Devour Magic constantly eating magic effects off of me. I ran with the Succy as Destro in 10- and 15-man BGs, and only brought out the Imp when I wanted to raid.

Grouping all of PvP into a single activity is sloppy thinking.

While the idea one demon for each role is a nice one, it fails to take into account the complexities of each PvP situation, of appropriateness. Use the right tool for the right job. If you’re Affliction and you need extra CC, run the Succubus. If you need a tank and a bubble shield, run the VW. If you’re Demo and you need to lock down a caster, run with the Felpup instead of the Felguard.

For PvE, however, perhaps it makes sense as a design direction. Each spec could have its own demon, which is then buffed by talents within that tree.

The problem with this philosophy is that the choice of demon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, regardless of the utility of each pet – you run with whatever gives you the highest DPS, no matter what, and the talents are in place to achieve that result, so that’s the one you use.

Regardless of talents, glyphs, or other modifiers, regardless of whether the baseline DPS is normalized across demons or not, if the DPS of demons varies, raiders will choose the one that offers the best DPS. PvP selection will remain based on utility (as long as DPS is relatively equal, remember, a lot of times demons are on Passive), but PvE will always, always, recommend one as the best DPS option for each spec. Why can I say that? Because that’s how optimization works. Its goal is simple: find the best option.

The problem that I see happening is that players become unhappy when the results of the DPS analysis don’t match their expectations of what the correct pet should be. Perhaps it’s the model up above, perhaps it’s a different one. But when the player’s expectations don’t match the actual modeled behavior, something fascinating happens – warlock players get emotional about their demons.

Consider a different way of talking about this whole discussion. We have 5 mutually exclusive stances we warlocks can choose from, each capable of inflicting a single damage over time effect on a single target. The damage of that DoT varies according to some interactions with your spec and glyphs, so they’re not equal in the end (though they’re roughly equal before modifications). Each stance also opens up several subordinate abilities, but they are generally not DPS-affecting. The stances are called: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon.

Let’s be honest. You don’t care which stance you adopt. You take the one that gives you the highest DPS as a default, and switch stances as necessary to make use of subordinate abilities. If all of the DoTs inflicted the same damage, you’ll take the one with the abilities you want, and switch as necessary.

If you remove all the skins, all the imagery, all the attachment and history to these demons, you’re left with this: DoTs that can move and grant extra abilities.

Blizzard deliberately doesn’t refer to pets and demons like this. From a game design standpoint, they are moving DoTs – but they know that appearance and identity of NPCs is important. Players are not playing a neutral mathematical game of cold logic, they are playing a game where they want to forget themselves for a while and kill internet dragons.

The conflict that we’re seeing now is not just about maximizing DPS, or balancing DPS and utility. No, this is something deeper.

This is about a dog, and a girl.

THE LOST PUPPY AND THE GIRL EVERYONE HATES

The Felhunter was the king of the PvP demons in Wrath of the Lich King. Devour Magic was both an offensive and defensive dispel, giving a Warlock incredible flexibility in combat. It was on a 6-second CD, so it wasn’t quite as good as a healer’s dispel, but it was an excellent ability. Your felpup would eat and eat and eat buffs off your target, and then you could turn around and eat that critical spell off yourself or your healer that prevented a devastating combo.

And he still had Spell Lock and great DPS on top of all this. Everyone hated the Felhunter in battlegrounds. He was a rage magnet and was sure to get killed, because people knew he was going to be huge amounts of trouble until he was dead.

God damn, I loved my felpup in Wrath.

The Succubus, on the other hand, was a bit weaker in Wrath. She lacked the knockback which makes her so much fun to run with now, and instead had a melee debuff – Soothing Kiss – which reduced melee attack speed by 10%, in addition to reducing threat. She was positioned as a DPS demon – good for leveling if you didn’t want the VW, good for running dungeons because she was low-threat and had additional CC to help on tricky pulls. She was fragile in PvP and died a lot. There were some talents you could take in the Demo tree which would make her Seduce effectively instant-cast, but really only Destro PvP warlocks used her, and even then, she was more useful in Arenas and small combat than larger battlegrounds.

Because you had to talent her to make her truly useful in PvP, using the Succubus was a deliberate choice you had to make while setting up your spec, so you saw a lot of Destro locks running with her – the Imp was useless in PvP – while Affliction warlocks swarmed to the Felhunter. That’s okay, people gravitate to what works well.

If one demon is clearly superior to the others for one spec in both PvP and PvE, it becomes identified with that spec. And that’s what happened – Demonology had the Felguard, Affliction had the Felpup.

Destruction, though… Destruction got to switch between the Imp and the Succy/Felhunter, with the Voidwalker tossed in once Sacrifice didn’t actually kill the demon. The Imp is strongly identified with Destro in most people’s minds, but that’s because it became the strongest PvE spec in 3.2, and Imps swarmed all over ToC and Ulduar.

And then came Cataclysm.

Cataclysm was not kind to the Felhunter. First, Devour Magic became solely an offensive dispel, and the defensive component was moved to the Imp. Good for the Imp! He could actually be brought into PvP and not run away in terror! But very bad for the Felpup.

Then, he lost the talents in the Affliction tree which made him desirable in the first place. Other trees gained DoTs, which meant he could fit in well as a general pet, but Affliction lost its special hold on him. And his glyph was changed from a DPS increase to a healing glyph.

As the last insult, the cooldown on the nerfed Devour Magic was more than doubled in the last patch. Holy fuck, way to neuter the poor guy!

So, in two patches, the Felhunter:

  1. Lost his defensive dispel
  2. Lost his Affliction talents
  3. Lost his glyph to increase damage
  4. Had his offensive dispel cut in half (due to increased CD)

(Oh yeah; the change to the Devour Magic CD halved the effectiveness of his glyph, too.)

During the same period of time, the Succubus got a makeover. She lost Soothing Kiss (which only die-hard PvPers actually used) and gained Whiplash, which is an awesome tool for PvP. No one expects the warlock to knock them off the lumber mill! Drop a circle near the edge, park the succy by the flag, and wait for the rogue to gank you. If you get knocked off, teleport back and do it to them instead. It is awesome.

And while she lost her specific talents in Demonology, she got a brand new glyph with a dramatic DPS increase, causing everyone to stand up and take a look at her again. This was a DPS demon, after all, with an extra CC to boot! Both her PvE and PvP viability took off.

But… she’s still not the best demon for Destruction warlocks to use, because the Imp got buffed, too. The people who likely worked with her during Wrath didn’t need her anymore, while warlocks who were quite comfortable with their Felhunters and Felguards suddenly were realizing that they could get better DPS if they switched to this … evil personification of sex.

And there lies the rub.

If we were talking about switching between Alpha and Epsilon, this wouldn’t be a problem. Epsilon this month, Gamma the next month, whatever, it’s all greek to me, just keep my DoTs rollin’.

But we’re talking about a beloved dog who’s fallen on hard times, whom people have genuine affection for, who symbolized a spec.

And we’re talking about that dog getting replaced by a hypersexualized stranger, a demon who is almost … embarrassing to watch. Yes, that’s the point, I know that. She is supposed to be over the top. She is supposed to be an evil personification of sex. That’s all well and good.

What I think people are reacting to is that the Succubus is the single most obnoxious combat pet in the entire World of Warcraft. Oh god, the noises! The grunting, the moaning, the constant ass-slapping and whip cracking! And it’s not just during raids, when our fellow players have to put up with it and it’s vaguely amusing for the first 30 minutes. No, it’s constant when you play a warlock. Hours of these antics. Days.

You know, even good porn gets boring after a few hours.

Don’t get me wrong; her character model is also irritating. It looks terrible set against the newer textures of the later expansions, which detracts mightily from even the idea that she’s supposed to be seductive. But then she opens her mouth, slaps her ass, the noises start again, and a low-polygon model is the least of my concerns.

I can pinpoint the moment I made peace with my Succubus – it’s when I found the “Turn Pet Sounds Off” setting.

This is the girl that everyone hates. Even those of us who love her hate her. She came in and kicked out both down-on-his-luck demon puppy and a big lug of a demon from their respective jobs. She’s loud, she’s brash, she’s obnoxious, she isn’t wearing much in the way of clothing, and she doesn’t care.

(Actually, when it’s put that way, she sounds like the perfect warlock minion.)

I honestly don’t know why the succubus is so hated. I really don’t. Yes, she’s obnoxious. Yes, she’s poorly drawn. I think it’s something deeper, a combination of both difficult mechanics to master  (seduce-nuking is not intuitive), awkward placement in the leveling process, and a sense that she’s not the right representation for a given spec.

Or, maybe she’s too aggressively sexual, and that just plain makes people uncomfortable.

I’d like to think that’s not it. I really do.

But ask yourself this; if Blizzard introduced a new demon – say a half-dragon, or one of those demon engineers from Outland, or, shit, I don’t know, a sparkly unicorn-Ragnaros hybrid with legs – and made it really good at both PvP and PvE, would we be having the same discussion?

Is this really about utility and DPS?

Or is it about a lost dog that people miss, and a girl that everyone hates?

The gender issues in this discussion are both really interesting and, to be honest, somewhat disturbing.

I’ll leave it at that.

CHOOSE YOUR DEMON WISELY

Do demons need to fill roles? That’s what this really comes down to, doesn’t it? Does it matter what role a specific demon fills? Why does it matter?

I started off Cataclysm firmly in a traditionalist camp; each spec should have a signature demon that has synergy with that tree’s abilities for endgame play, with the voidwalker being primarily useful for early leveling, and the succubus getting used for crowd control and PvP. It’s a nice, easy to learn model, one that makes sense to new players and could – perhaps – make this crazy class easier, and therefore more appealing, to play.

But now, I’m not so sure. I swap demons in and out of fights every night. I open with one, interrupt with another, finish with a third. I’m not tied to any one demon. Perhaps it’s the Soul Burn mechanic which has changed my playstyle, which in turn changed my perspective. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not doing a lot of PvE anymore, where your pets are more static. I don’t recall switching demons mid-fight in ICC, ever. But the mechanics were different, and it wasn’t practical. Now it is.

For PvP, choosing your demon is about utility and making your tools work for you. Yes, the Felhunter has been nerfed a lot, but the old dog has a lot of fight left in him, and he’s the demon I want when I need to take down a healer. If he works for you, use him. If the succy works for you, use her. Voidwalker? Use him, he’s actually decent in PvP now. Heck, even the Imp has utility!

If you don’t know which one is best for you, try them all. Look at each one of their special abilities and figure out how you can use it. Every ability has a use in PvP, you just have to find it.

(Yes, even Flee has a use.)

Experiment with macros to keybind these abilities. You can embed them in your normal spells, or create context-specific macros like the following:

/cast [pet: felhunter] Devour Magic; [pet: Succubus] Seduction; [pet: Voidwalker] Sacrifice; [pet:Imp,@player] Singe Magic; Curse of the Elements

Or for their alternate abilities,

/cast [pet: felhunter] Spell Lock; [pet: Succubus] Whiplash; [pet: Voidwalker] Consume Shadows; [pet: Imp] Flee; Curse of the Elements

… and see how they work. This isn’t rocket science. This is finding creative and clever ways to use abilities you might not know you had.

For PvE, I think a question remains – do you go with what gives the highest theoretical DPS, the most utility, or a compromise between the two positions? Should Blizzard redesign demons to make your choice a cosmetic one, one based upon the buffs and abilities the demons grant? Should they slot them into a defined role-based system, so that each spec runs with one demon and one demon only?

Or do they change things up periodically with each patch, making “which demon should I run with now?” a valid question? Is it interesting that the Succubus is top DPS demon for two specs? Is it different? Is it making players try things that they haven’t tried before?

Our class is constantly changing, for good and for ill.

I think it makes sense that our demons change with us.

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Filed under Cynwise's Battlefield Manual, Warlockery

Healers Have To Die and the PvP Addons Arms Race

I’ll come right out and say it: I like the addon Healers Have To Die. This addon looks through your combat log to see who’s casting healing spells around you; if it detects that a player has cast a healing spell, it puts a big red cross over their nameplate. Friend or foe, it doesn’t matter. There’s also a mouseover function that will sound a chime when the nameplates aren’t visible, though I confess I don’t play with the sound up loud enough to hear it.

In a chaotic place like Tol Barad, Isle of Conquest, or Alterac Valley, this kind of information is a godsend – my screen gets very cluttered, I have trouble seeing who is doing what, and I rely upon nameplates to convey information. HHTD marks those folks who cast healing spells – not healers, that’s an important distinction – and marks them so you can target them easily. In a courtyard scrum or pitched fight in a keep, HHTD makes finding the healers easy, and killing them easy, too.

Healers Have To Die is also one of the most hated addons in the game right now, with people on the forums regularly calling for it to be banned or broken by Blizzard, at the same time people are encouraging its use in Tol Barad. It is a hard time to be a dedicated battleground healer because of HHTD, with opponents focusing on you relentlessly. If you’re sitting behind a group of your teammates, healing away, you may find ranged fire focusing on you. Melee will cut through the crowd to get at you. Stuns, interrupts, CC – all are directed your way, and in some part because of the spread of HHTD. It doesn’t feel fair, and it certainly doesn’t make BGs very much fun.

So here we have a UI addon – just like Gearscore, or DBM, or Recount – which changes how World of Warcraft plays for people. It has limits, but it’s also an incredibly powerful tool when enough people run it.

It’s also a litmus test for how you feel about addons in general, though you may not know it yet.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

Addons take information that is already available to players and display it in a different, hopefully more useful, manner. Recount and Skada parse through your damage logs to give an accurate measurement of how your character performed. Deadly Boss Mods looks for boss emotes, buffs, and debuffs to track events in dungeons, raids, and battlegrounds. Gladius helps Arena players answer tricky questions like: is their trinket still up? (Always assume yes, until you see them blow it.)

None of them do anything that you couldn’t, theoretically, do yourself. Recount would be extremely difficult to do in real time, mind you, but you could manually parse the logs afterwards if you really wanted to. DBM shouts out warnings that aren’t necessary if you’re paying attention to cues within the encounter. Are you in fire? Don’t stand in it. Boss yells about something or other? Get ready to move.

Addons which confer knowledge also confer power. You don’t need these addons to play well – you honestly don’t. But by increasing your awareness of what’s going on around you, of parsing information and giving you only the important things you need to know, addons can help you play better.

And that gets to the crux of the first complaint about HHTD: that it makes targeting healers too easy.

You know how I used to identify healers in a battleground before HHTD came out? Easy.

Look at the opposing team’s roster at the beginning of play. Check in periodically. See those folks leading the healing column, without a lot of damage done? They are the healers, memorize their names, they have to die. This is the most straightforward way to identify who the healers are in any situation – see who is healing!

What about when there isn’t a scoreboard?

Hey, those people standing in the back? Wearing cloth or leather, casting spells with green or yellow sparkly bits? The ones who aren’t shooting out black beams or fireballs or lightning bolts?

They’re probably healers. They probably have to die first before anyone else on the other side dies, so kill them.

What about when things get crowded and you can’t see what’s going on?

There are only four classes in Warcraft who can be healers, and their healing specs all have highly distinctive visual effects.

  • Druid hanging out in caster form? Not in cat or moonkin form? Uses travel form a lot? They’re a healer.
  • Priest not in shadowform? Healer.
  • Shaman not running after people to smash their faces in, and not casting big bolts of lighting? They’re a healer, too.
  • Paladin not running after people to smash their faces in? Maybe wearing a dress? Healer.

Members of these classes are highly visible, and any addon that lets you see classes can get you almost all the way to the functionality of HHTD. If they show cast bars (which they should), you can see the spells their casting and be absolutely certain they’re a healer or not.

These methods are all tried, true, and mostly independent of anything other that situational awareness.  The information is all out there, and is accessible in ways that any player can learn to detect.

But Healers Have To Die takes all of that information and boils it down to one thing: a big red cross over a healer’s nameplate.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY

Is using addons the mark of a bad player?

This is a serious question. You see this charge thrown around in various forms on the forums, on blog posts, on twitter, usually with more vitriol than I care to repeat. Sometimes it’s about using a specific addon, sometimes it’s about using addons entirely; but when people start making the charge that only baddies use a specific addon, I take notice, because underneath the ad hominen attack, the underlying argument is fascinating.

“Only baddies use Addon X” breaks down to the following logical form.

  1. This game has tasks with a set difficulty.
  2. Addon X reduces the difficulty of performing these tasks by some amount.
  3. Player A is able to complete the tasks without Addon X, thereby completing tasks at their normal level of difficulty.
  4. Player B is able to complete the tasks with Addon X, thereby completing tasks an an easier level of difficulty.
  5. Because Player A exhibited more skill in performing the task than Player B, Player A is more skilled than Player B.

The final statement is incorrect for two reasons, of course. First, Player B may be more skilled at performing this task at the normal level of difficulty than Player A, which would be masked by the different standards each player was asked to perform at. Second, attributing overall competence based upon performance of a single task gets tricky.

And then there’s the unavoidable fact that this is an ad hominen argument – the personal attack upon Player B (and by extension, all users of the addon) has no relevance upon whether players should or should not use it. It’s a logical fallacy, a red herring to distract you from considering what’s being said. It’s not about the skills of Player A or Player B, it’s about the only truth within the entire statement:

Addon X makes the task easier to complete.

That’s it. Ignore all the name calling, take away considerations of the community of users, and you have that simple truth. Addon X makes it easier to do the job.

So.

You have a tool that makes a task easier. You can either:

  1. Use the tool and complete the task with less effort, time, or error than without the tool, or,
  2. Forego using the tool, complete the task without it, and have the satisfaction of having done more with less.

Neither option is inherently right. There can be value in using a manual screwdriver over a powered one; perhaps you need very fine control, or you’re learning how to use a screwdriver in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that the powered screwdriver doesn’t have value, either – just ask someone putting together furniture with many, many screws to tighten!

In some cases, choosing to use addons feels like the choice between manual or automatic transmissions in a car. There’s more to keep track of with a stick shift, but you have a lot of control over the vehicle, you’re always aware of how the engine is performing, and the slight inconvenience of having to shift becomes automatic. At least, until you have to spend several hours in stop-and-go traffic, where having an automatic transmission is invaluable.

In other cases, choosing to use an addon can feel like it’s reading the Cliff’s Notes version of a book instead of the book itself; hindering learning by just giving you the knowledge you need to pass the test, without imparting deep understanding of the subject. I honestly think there’s something to be said for learning to play a class with fewer macros and addons than you use at the end game, just so that you understand the subtleties of your abilities better.

But I also think that once you know what you’re doing, automating actions, making your workflow more efficient, running a lot of addons – optimizing your UI is actually the mark of a good player, not a bad one.

Yes, you can argue that using addons is the mark of a bad player, because it reduces the difficulty of the tasks you’re asked to perform, therefore allowing players with lower overall skillsets to accomplish more than the default program would allow. Running without addons is a great way to learn the intricacies of your character.

You can also argue that not using addons is the mark of a bad player, because they are refusing to use tools which would reduce that difficulty, therefore choosing to play a harder game.

The counterargument to “only baddies use Addon X” is “only baddies don’t use Addon X,” which , in the case of some popular PvE addons, you see a lot of. A good threat meter and a boss tracker are practically requirements for endgame raiding.

Like I said: I find this argument fascinating when it comes up.

THE ADDON ARMS RACE

Due to the nature of the environments, there’s a big disconnect between PvE and PvP addons. PvE addons are reducing the difficulty of a static task with no dependencies on other humans; there may be random elements in the encounter, but by in large PvE is static. The utility of an addon is measured in relation to a static environment.

The effectiveness of PvP addons is always measured in relation to the opponent, and, by extension, the addons that they may be running, too. Magmaw doesn’t get to run DXE to tell him when to interrupt your healing spells, but Ipwnyou-Arthas can run as many mods as he likes to gain an advantage. Addons confer advantages in combat that stack with your natural skill; you can choose to not pursue those advantages, but other players will likely not, and you’ve made winning harder for yourself as a result.

I think the behavior of the top raiders and gladiators helps illustrate this point.

  • Take a look at a world first boss kill, or any hardcore raiding video. How many are running stock UI, no Omen, no raid frames, no CD tracker? I would wager you can’t find a single one that doesn’t use addons.
  • Watch tournament Arena games. How many are running modified UIs? None, because they’re not allowed. Stock UIs and macros are all you get, and it’s to keep the playing field level.

On the one hand, you have top players using addons to make progression raiding easier. I don’t think this is limited to world-first guilds, by the way – most raiding guilds I’ve encountered have requested UI screenshots to validate that you’re running certain addons. This is part of a hardcore raiding philosophy – you do whatever you can to make downing a boss easier. Addons make the game easier. It’s a simple truth, and it doesn’t have a thing to do with being a good or bad player. By presenting the right information to the player, addons can make anyone play better, both in PvE and PvP.

The lack of addons in tournament PvP play sheds light into the nature of addons. Addons are inherently unbalancing – they augment player’s skills, and in PvP, that means that when all else is equal, addons can tip the balance. Getting the right information at the right time and making the right decision off of it can lead to clutch plays – that’s why people use Gladius in Arenas to consolidate information about their enemy’s status. Tournaments ban them precisely because they are unbalancing, and at that level, the matches are truly supposed to be about skill versus skill.

But outside of tournaments, addons are prevalent and extremely useful.

Addons in PvP are an arms race. If you don’t have them, your opponent almost certainly will. Just like gear is likely to not be equal in any given battleground, there is no standard interface people are required to run in normal PvP, and I’m a big advocate of pursuing every single advantage possible.

The spread of Healers Have To Die has been part of that arms race, and an interesting one at that. In places like Tol Barad, the more people on a side who had the addon, the more efficiently they could eliminate opposing healers, which often led to victory. But, word certainly has gotten out, and now there’s a more equal distribution curve between factions, which negates the early adoption advantage – but it doesn’t nullify the effects upon healers, which is that they are dying more rapidly now than before.

I’m not arguing that you should download a crapload of addons from Curse and that running them will make you a better PvPer. Picking the right tool for the job is essential if it is to improve your play.

But not running with an game-changing addon like Healers Have To Die in today’s PvP environment is deliberately crippling your own play. It’s totally fine if you don’t do it – but you can probably find healers faster with it than without it. You’re probably going to be more effective in battlegrounds if you plug it in.

Choosing to bring a knife to a gun fight is always a viable option. You’re just better off bringing a gun with a scope.

Show me the healers in this screenshot. I dare you.

HEALERS HAVE TO LIVE

We’ll just start off with this: all healers are your friends.

I do not care if he is from a different server and has a silly name, he is your friend. Bad people are going to try to hurt your friend.

Save him and he will reward you by making you immortal.
Do not ever abandon your friend to the rogues.

- Dusk’s How To BG

The problem with Healers Have To Die is actually very simple: healers are dying more than they used to. Now that a critical mass of players have downloaded the addon, healers are finding themselves focus-fired in battlegrounds where they formerly were assured relative safety in the crowd. No more – now healers are finding themselves huge targets on the battleground, unable to do their jobs while getting cut down by ranged fire and charging melee.

My first battleground healer was a druid. I went into lowbie battlegrounds and had a blast running around, healing from caster form, hotting everything I could reach. People didn’t bother me, apparently not suspecting that the night elf running around behind the lines, waving her hands with green swirly marks might be, you know… healing?

But it all changed when I got Tree of Life form. Shifting into ToL meant I became an instant target, and BG healing became a lot less fun. A tree is a highly visible target, one that I reflexively sought out on my Warlock, and being on the receiving end of that focus was absolutely miserable. No one helped defend me. Two rogues climbing all over me? You better believe teammates would run past me.

I mean, did my flailing branches look like they’d be super effective at swatting the rogues away from me? Did my running around spamming glyphed Healing Touch on myself inspire confidence that I had this under control?

Being targeted as a healer sucks. Being targeted as a healer without peels or support of any kind sucks even more.

And there’s the one real problem with Healers Have To Die – it makes it easier to spot and kill a healer, without the corresponding balance in healer survival. There is no corresponding Healers Have To Live addon which alerts you to healers on your side, those folks who need protection, who you need to be watching out for at all times.

Except… wait. Healers Have To Die also picks up the healers on your team and marks them. Healers Have To Die has the functionality we’d want out of Healers Have To Live, only it is not having the effect you’d expect. It could be used to protect your own healers… but it isn’t. Why is this?

Some of this is due to interface limitations. Much of the time, DPS run with Enemy nameplates on, not Friendly nameplates on, just to reduce screen clutter. So the information that there are healers on your side may not even be communicated.

But I also think that the UI is only part of it; I think it’s just hard to realize that someone needs help in a battleground. There is so much shit going on when taking a base in Tol Barad, I barely know who is targeting me, let alone how to help the healers that I don’t know about running beside me.

There’s the real problem. Unlike in Arenas, where I’m watching the status of my healer(s) very closely, in a random pug BG, chances are I don’t know you’re a healer until you do something to let me know. If you talk about it in /bg, if you are on the scoreboard with a lot of healing, if I actively see what you’re doing – then heck yes, I can defend you as a DPS.

One of my favorite addons for PvP is a simple mod called SaySapped. When a rogue saps you, you say “Sapped” to alert your teammates. You can modify the files to yell it, or say something different – but it is extremely effective because it communicates your problem to people who can directly help. I know what the sapped visual looks like in other players, and I watch out for it when guarding flags and towers – but actively, automatically communicating that information to people who might not know, or might not spot it is hugely valuable. People dismount, spam AoE, and find the rogue when that addon fires off. It’s awesome.

SaySapped helps illustrate the problem of making Healers Have To Live a reality. HHTD is personal information, only available to the player running the addon. Spotting a healer is something that can be done without the addon, players are learning that the healers have to die first, and there’s nothing stopping people from running a macro that says:

/bg %t is a healer, they have to die first!

(Interestingly, HHTD does not do this yet, though it’s a logical extension of the mod.)

I don’t actually see that level of communication in most pug BGs, but it’s a good macro to have in your toolkit, because it transforms the personal information of HHTD into intelligence the rest of your team can use.

SaySapped conveys this intelligence automatically to the people around you who are best suited to help you. This is what’s lacking in HHTD/L – actually conveying the information the mod picks up and making it information everyone can use. (I think this is actually a good thing, since you want to be selective about which healers you’re targeting. Not everyone who casts a healing spell in a BG is a healer.)

If I were to offer any advice on how to make Healers Have To Live a reality, it’s that healers need to be more proactive in battlegrounds about letting people know they need protection. The way to counter HHTD is not more nameplate mods, but rather a good macro:

/y I’m a healer, and I’m under attack by %t! Please help!

Bind that macro to a key, and when you get into trouble, hit it. Put a healing pot on it as well, or a free action potion, or Barkskin, or other defensive CDs – but take the initiative to secure your own safety and get assistance from your teammates.

And if you’re not playing a healer? Simple.

/bg %t is a healer and needs help!

They have to know you’re a healer in order to know that you have to live.

BANNING ADDONS IS NOT THE ANSWER

I’ll come right out and say that I hope Blizzard doesn’t ban HHTD. It sets a bad precedence for addons that provide any kind of information in PvP. Gladius tells me if someone has their PvP trinket up or not. SaySapped tells my teammates that I’ve been sapped, reducing the effectiveness of Rogues. Vuhdo and Healbot help me heal my teammates faster than I can do with mouseover macros – Vuhdo even tells me what direction people are in!

The real complaint against HHTD is not the addon, but that there’s no corresponding defense against it in PvP. It doesn’t share information positioning information like AVR did, or even exchange information like SaySapped does. It makes finding healers easy. And people are using that to kill enemy healers while not protecting their friendly healers, and that’s the crux of people’s complaints. Banning HHTD doesn’t address this fundamental problem, which extends far beyond the scope of a single addon.

What we need here is more aggressive identification of healers on your own team, not less. If you’re a healer, speak up. If you’re not a healer, find the healers and call them out to your teammates. Calling out healers should become your second priority in battlegrounds, right behind calling out incomings.

If you feel nervous about putting yourself forward as a healer, don’t. Your team needs you. Your team needs you alive, they have to know you are there to protect you. It’s better to be vocal and win than to be dead and lose.

If you feel nervous about calling out healers in your battlegrounds, remember: healers are your friends. Do not abandon them to the rogues.

Watch out for each other out there.

***

Update September 16, 2011: I’ve written a followup post on using HHTD to protect friendly healers that continues the discussion in this post. You may find it useful.

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