Tag Archives: Rants Disguised as Posts

Using Healers Have To Die to Protect Friendly Healers

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

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

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

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

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

HOW HHTD PROTECTS HEALERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it does all this by default.

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

How would you not want that?

POP QUIZ: WHERE’S WALDO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO MAKE HHTD WORK FOR DPS

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

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

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

The second part of my setup is HHTD itself:

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

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

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

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

Get HHTD so your friends can live.

CLARIFICATIONS AND FINAL WORDS

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

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

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

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

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Valor and Vengeance: Rethinking Resilience

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

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

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

Hey, those are some pretty cool ideas!

STANDARD DAMAGE REDUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAYER-ONLY DAMAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CYN IS A RIFT NOOB

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

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

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The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP

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

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

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

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

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

THE PROBLEM OF LOW LEVEL PVP

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

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

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

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

Regular, experienced players.

LEARNING TO PLAY THE GAME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PROBLEM OF GEAR AND ENCHANTS

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

Generally speaking, that means the content is geared for:

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

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

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

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

But wait; enchants are even worse.

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

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

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

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

Let that sink in for a bit.

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

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

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

THE PROBLEM OF CLASS BALANCE

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

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

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

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

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

But how do you propose to balance this?

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

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

There are two points here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, with no real standard of gear.

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

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

See where this is going?

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

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

LOW LEVEL UTOPIA, OR THE PROBLEM OF EXPERIENCED PLAYERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then came heirlooms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Brief History of Alterac Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Filed under Cynwise's Battlefield Manual