On Why I’m Not Level 90

Cynwise in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms

I like Mists of Pandaria. This expansion has been the combination of Warcraft’s Oriental Adventures and Lone Wolf and Cub that I’d hoped it would be, and I’m quite happy to be playing it. It’s rich, immersive, gorgeous, with genuinely fun things to find and do. On top of it all, the class of my main character has been dramatically improved from Cataclysm.

Yet after three months I have no level 90 characters and my main is XP-locked at level 85. I’m not enjoying Pandaria in the traditional sense of leveling through zones and then doing endgame content. I feel no rush to get my characters to level 90 yet.

“Slow down,” the Pandaren NPCs tell me all the time. “There is no hurry.”

It’s good advice.

Cynwise - MSV Pool


The dark truth about Warcraft PvP is that it is a game of gear as well as skill. Nearly all of the systems for PvP gear are designed to keep you playing simply to stay at the same relative level – you first start with crafted gear to grind out Honor Points to purchase moderately decent gear, which then allows you to compete for Conquest Points for better gear. If you’re on a good RBG or Arena team, you get more Conquest Points and get better gear then your opponents over the course of a season. Eventually opponents catch up, but there’s always a gear gap that favors characters which get an early lead. The gap is even worse if you start late.

The PvP changes in 5.2 are cleverly designed to help reduce this gear gap and make it easier for late starters to catch up. The system still favors those who push early and hard for great ratings, but the imbalance is definitely reduced later on. The incentives remain to get an early start, but the obstacles presented by a late start are reduced. That’s good for overall competitiveness over the course of a season – but nothing is really different about the gear treadmill.

Hamlet (from Elitist Jerks, not Shakespeare) made an offhand comment about how PvE isn’t really a gear treadmill because you get to consume content while doing it. You see new things while leveling up to endgame, doing dailies, running dungeons, raiding each tier, overcoming challenges at a difficulty they’re tuned at. I think his point highlights the problem with PvP gearing by providing contrast. I’ve argued before that PvP has very high replay value due to the changing nature of your opposition, while PvE loses replay value quickly due to the challenge becoming easier. The flip side of this is that PvE provides new, fresh content as a reward for playing, while PvP does not. You get to see new stuff and learn new fights while gearing up for PvE! You get to run Strand of the Ancients and Isle of Conquest again and again while gearing up for PvP.

Gearing up for endgame PvE is more like running through the countryside than a treadmill. You get a new countryside every expansion, which is pretty neat. Gearing up for endgame PvP is running through your neighborhood where you might not know the weather but you sure know the route.

This is the fundamental problem I have with endgame PvP, and why I locked my XP at 85 on my main to avoid it. Not only don’t I have time in my schedule to do Arenas with friends anymore, I don’t want to have to keep working to stay on top. I want to run Battlegrounds because I enjoy them, not because I feel obligated to.

I don’t know whether to characterize this as a flaw with the PvP system or just a personal incompatibility. One of the lessons I took away from Cataclysm was that you need to make decisions on an individual basis, and that those decisions might or might not be reflected in general population trends.

I can say, however, that I enjoy playing PvP more than I enjoy constantly gearing up, and that my dislike of the PvP gear treadmill outweighs my desire to see all of Mists of Pandaria.

This feels like a problem to me, but the plural of anecdote is not data.

Cynwise - Level 85 PvE Twink Stats - self buffed


One of the quirks of World of Warcraft which my poor pen-and-paper RPG and LARP brain has trouble getting around is the idea of combat rating decay. Starting at level 10, the ratings which impact how effective your character is go down as you advance in level. This ratings decay encourages players to get increasingly better gear to make up for the loss of power. The numbers get bigger, but you’re not necessarily getting any more powerful for that level. I get the math behind it, I get the psychology behind it, but I don’t get why I should think it’s a good thing.

The FUDGE system greatly shaped my game design principles with the idea that all characters can (and should) be described in relative terms. The terms themselves don’t have to be fuzzy, but they should always be described in terms relative to their environment. Heroic raiders and gladiators are Superbly powerful, possibly Legendary. This kind of fuzzy system is actually quite compatible with more absolute systems like d20, where a +1 weapon is always a +1 weapon no matter what.

But Warcraft turns that on its head. You progress up in power through an expansion – first through levels, then through gear – until you reach a pinnacle. Once at that pinnacle you can do great, awesome things – until the next expansion comes along. Once you start leveling, the numbers get bigger but the ratings decay until you’re less powerful than when you started.

Twinking finds the sweet spots in these leveling curves and pushes the numbers to their limits.

I find it hard to convince myself that leveling Cynwise is a good idea. At first, I thought I would just finish up Battlemaster and then unlock – but now I’m not so sure. She is far more relatively potent than she could be at level 90, and the level 90 content that is available to her provides some solid challenges moving about the world. If I pull a level 90 rare, I really have to work to bring it down. It’s a lot of fun!

I bring this up because I think it’s intimately linked to my dislike of endgame PvP gearing. Taking a Superb Warlock and making her Fair – or even Mediocre or Poor, only to bring her back up to Superb over the course of two years – doesn’t feel right to me.

There’s no reason I can’t wait until the final patch of the expansion, level her to 90 then, and get the absolute best gear with one single grind.

I suspect that thoughts like these are why I’m not really a MMO’s target audience.

Cynwise - Vale of Eternal Blossoms - Contemplating Whisperpool


Hamlet – the Shakespearean one, now – wrestles with the charge laid upon him by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder. Hamlet chooses how to do it, causing tremendous collateral damage, but he was prodded on by that unyielding spirit. We are left wondering if the Prince of Denmark really had any choice in the matter or not, yet every step he took was his own.

Did he have to kill Claudius? Would death have freed him, or plunged him into unending guilt-wracked torment? He doesn’t know, and neither do we.

The question of free choice in games is not quite so weighty, but neither is it any better defined. For an expansion dominated by talk of those things players feel they have to do, I think it’s reasonable to step back and look at ourselves and our choices. To look back at myself, to look at why I made the choices I’ve made.

I locked my XP and postponed chasing after the treasures of Pandaria for other goals, like Battlemaster. I turned down the big brass ring that the game offered for a smaller one, one that mattered more to me. Most of my time spent in game is chasing after those old brass rings, the ones nobody wants but I find kinda shiny still. And then there’s the PvP, which I enjoy on many levels.

It’s been interesting watching the rest of my friends settle into their level 90 lives, questing through areas which I can’t, running dungeons and scenarios and dailies, killing 12 more Mogu, getting more fatty goatsteaks, raiding those shiny pretty raids I can see the outside of. I see glimpses of it but not the whole thing. Those glimpses intrigue but don’t compel.

There are days I feel like a fel-using Bartleby the Scrivener, telling Warcraft that I prefer not to level, thank you very kindly. Why should I trade this game of riotous battlegrounds and exploration of unseen content for one of dailies? Of finishing up achievements which I never had time for in the past for a world of repetition and toil?

And yet, before I think myself above anyone, I remind myself that I am still a rat in a Skinner Box, pushing the buttons for the rewards I want. I’ve chosen which buttons I push — but is that really a victory if I am still pushing the buttons?

Perhaps I am not as much like Bartleby as I would like to believe I am.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual

19 responses to “On Why I’m Not Level 90

  1. Arh Cyn, once again you are in my head.

    I find more and more people who have discovered a ‘happy place’ in WoW, often after burning out on trying to ‘do it all’ and being driven by bigger, faster, stronger, more! I think it’s testament to Mists that we are able to find a place to enjoy the game without feeling that pull and obligation. I have a friend who also isn’t at level 90 and is completely addicted to pet battles, that’s all he’s doing. I’ve got to 90 and spent my time doing the things I want to do, OCD on completing all the cooking bars and gaining rep for fun mounts, not for gear. I’m raiding once a week in older content and it suits me fine.

    Well done to anyone stepping off the treadmill and finding their ‘happy place’ in WoW. And yes, the fatty goatsteaks can keep.

  2. “Play the game you want.” I’ve heard it many times. Most of the time, I do. Notice, I said “most of the time.” Some times I don’t. For instance, I’ve enjoyed the Pet Battling system. I’ve spent loads of time on it, thoroughly enjoying it. I get giddy w/ every flawless battlestone I find.
    However, I’ve also “wanted” to tank the regular MoP dungeons. Yet, I haven’t done it. Even when I get on with the intention of doing one, I get sidetracked. I decide to Pet Battle. Or, I decide that an alt needs to level a bit, work on professions. I start talking to someone via Battletags (which means I don’t que, due to my inability to run an instance and pay attention to anything out of it.)
    Am I “choosing” what I do?
    You bet!
    But I can’t pretend that there aren’t extenuating factors helping to drive my choices. Those factors may be time, fear of failure, desire for community, etc.
    There isn’t any choice that I make, that doesn’t have something pressing in upon it, “helping” me to make that decision.


  3. gameldar

    Ok you’ve definitely convinced me to try twinking at 85! Now just to choose which of my toons (that I haven’t levelled) up to do so with. Nice to see wowhead has just posted a guide to level 85 twinking gear too!

    The part of PvP I really enjoy is the random BGs – I might enjoy rated BGs but I’ve played a total of 3 since they’ve been released. They just don’t seem to be something that are readily available. I enjoy playing BGs but at max level I’m behind the gear curve because I don’t do arenas (I would, but doing them regularly is not happening, and I don’t really enjoy them that much) or RBGs so my only source of Conquest Points is the minuscule amounts you get for wins in random BGs. Not to mention the weapon problem…

    So I can really see the attraction of playing a twink. I’ve always been a bit so-so about the gear versus no-gear thing for PvP partly because I often feel I need a little bit of gear to make up for my lack of skill! But I’m leaning away from that now.

    I’m pretty sure I’ll keep playing at max level – the reality is my rogue is closest to battlemaster (just hit halfway to WSG Veteran and is ahead in pretty much all the counter based achievements), but I can see the value in taking the external rewards and just relying on the intrinsic rewards of the game.

    Oh yeah – and I’ve been having a blast playing my lock as I level in the 80-84 bracket. Still haven’t got my head around Burning Embers yet – they seem to flow in some times and not others (but I’m guessing that is because they are tied to crit) – but love the times I manage to get off Chaos Bolts… still need to work on keeping myself alive better though.

  4. What a really interesting perspective from someone playing for the love of playing. I didn’t realise Cyn was locked at 85 completing Battlemaster _ I just “assumed” that she was at 90 doing BGs etc. And it’s something that has skittered on the edge of my mind, but I’ve never quite grasped it until I read your post. I was not pleased with how you grind to get some item from a rep faction only to have it devalued at the next patch – all that hard work for what? And so, I decided not to do dailies just for reputation so I could buy things – I didn’t want all that time and effort wasted for something that would be replaced so soon. I’ve got better things to do with my time. And you have embraced it with keeping Cyn at the best she was and waiting .. till something catches your fancy at endgame. Cool post πŸ™‚

  5. Rathje

    I took a break from WoW due to needing the monthly subscription fee for other bills. Several months later, having played World of Tanks and a couple trial runs of Eve Online, I don’t think I’ll be coming back any time soon. Mainly because of the issues you raise here. WoW really is like a Skinner’s box.

    Once I have the funds available, it’ll probably go to an Eve Online subscription honestly. In the meantime, I’ve been having fun messing around with free-to-play options like League of Legends, World of Tanks, and even the free-to-play questlines in the Star Wars MMO.

    I started WoW late in the game during the Firelands phase of Cataclysm. So I basically had one straight advancement up raidworthiness. In fact, I never really did get fully raid geared simply due to being married with kids and a job. When Pandaria came out, I did the free trial of the first MoP zone. But that’s about it.

    I just realized that this game is completely and utterly geared toward end-content raiders. That’s where all the balance is happening. That’s what the game designers are taking care of.

    They just aren’t really taking care of those of us below that level who are just along for the ride. So for the moment, I’m done with it.

  6. I’ve chosen to step off of the gearing-up grind train as well, at least for the time being. I’ve got a couple of 90s, but neither of them has a single VP item, and neither has pugged a single heroic and they wouldn’t even qualify for LFR. Meanwhile, I’ve XP locked a couple of 85s and taken them shopping for high iLevel blues. Don’t have any long-term plans for them yet, but I did enjoy destroying Northrend heroics this weekend (my engineer needed rep to buy the chopper schematics).

    One of the reasons I’ve been enjoying pet battles is that there is no gearing up. Once a pet reaches 25, it’s instantly as good as it can be. Presumably at some point Blizzard will add doodads to give new milestones to work towards (epic battlestones or somesuch), but hopefully they’ll be able to do it in a way that doesn’t undo the time you’ve already invested.

  7. Roger

    I have been taking this expansion at a snail’s pace, in comparison to others I know online. I’m in no rush to hit 90 and have to grind dailies, a task I have always abhorred.

    I’ve been playing mostly with my son, which has always been more fun. He is like me, and enjoys actually taking in the stories. He reads all of the quest text, and will even try to do things ingame in such a way that his character is invested in the world and the NPCs lives.

    As an example, he loves to just wander around. He found a high peak in one zone where there were falconers. He had to camouflage past a bunch of 90s to get there, but he managed to, only dying once.

    When he reached the summit and realized they were falconers, he camouflaged back down to the town below, to the stable master, got his own falcon out of his stable, and returned to the summit so that he could hang out with the NPCs and their falcons, with his flying around with the others.

    That’s what makes this expansion fun for me. He started playing with me during Burning Crusade, however didn’t play Wrath, nor Cata… and I noticed.

    As for PvP as of late, I have mainly only done it on my Horde monk, and I have found that, much like with DKs originally, monks have changed PvP in a manner that I’m not particularly fond of.

    Anyway, great post. Enjoyed it.

  8. I’m leveling my 3rd toon to 90 at the moment (currently at 88), and am having more fun now than I did 3 months ago. The first 90 was a mage, and the reasoning was “well mages always seem to be good at pvp no matter what Blizzard does.” The lesson here was play what is fun to you, not what the community decides is good at a job. Needless to say I don’t care for the mage playstyle. I also spent a week raiding on that toon before I realized I hated progression raiding. The next toon was a warrior, who was my main in Cata, and who I really want to be good at but sadly am just not. I know, I know warriors are OP right now. WoW’s targeting system + the global cooldown makes it really hard for me to both track a moving target and hit the buttons i need to, so I’m bad at melee.

    Now I’m on my 3rd toon, which is ironically the first toon i ever made. It’s an undead warlock. And I’m enjoying Demonology now for the first time ever. I’ve given up on hardcore pvp or endgame raiding. So i’m just going to meander my way to 90, run some dungeons, maybe run the raid finder each week, and maybe just go annoy ppl in BGs with fear, ha. I’ve found that WoW and a lot of other sports/hobbies have something in common. Once you take the pressure off of “being successful” it really gets to be a lot more fun.

  9. Tazor

    The real problem with wow PVP is it should be it’s own game. Currently it’s shoehorned into to wow and only complicates the real game that is wow PVE. As it is, the current dev team, in my opinion, are doing a terrible job balancing the classes. PVP just makes it worse. PVP needs it’s own game, separate from PVE.

  10. Random BGs in their current state fail to work as a game. The Battlegrounds are objective-based contests, and too many players lack a cursory understanding of the mechanics or the goals, and don’t contribute meaningfully towards reaching them.

    The result is a situation in which the outcome of the match is out of your hands. At the margins, if you’re diligent and contribute, you’ll push your team over the hump sometimes, and if you’re bad or AFK, you’ll drag your team down sometimes, but the level of play across most random groups is so poor that the game outcome is more or less arbitrary.

    If you gem and enchant and gear and play diligently, your efforts will still often be subverted by teammates who can’t be bothered to do any of those things, so if you have no PvP endgame beyond random play, the entire enterprise is self-defeating.

    BGs at lower than cap level are even worse. There are more bots, and lots of players leveling through. If you’re “twinking” these BGs, you are essentially playing to gib leveling players.

    That said, there’s a lot of strategy to rated BGs, and the large number of players and classes in a 10 man group smooths over some of the balance issues. At competent levels of play, the game dynamics of Battlegrounds are interesting, and the matches can be very exciting. RBGs also benefit from cross-server matchmaking, and I think they’re the best thing about WoW right now.

    While the gearing process does put a strong incentive in place to play every week, the rewards for rated play feel powerful, and if rated PvP is part of your WoW experience, you feel dangerous rather than endangered when you’re out in the world on a PvP server.

  11. Forsquilis

    This is a concept that I try to keep in mind too. I’m one of the few people who enjoys the Pandaria dailies. It’s partly because I’m an altoholic who enjoys the process of leveling more than end-game stuff (and watching my faction reps creep up is more leveling) and partly because I’m an ex-eBayer who loves speculating in the auction house with all the shiny stuff I looted. My husband and his friends tell me I should spend my time running random heroics to upgrade my gear and my playing skill, and I suppose I should, but…I want to do stuff that I WANT to do. I’ve had a few moments lately where I’ve realized I am only doing something because I feel like I *should* do it, but I’m not enjoying it at all, and I log out and walk away from the game for a bit. For me, the brass ring is just a plain old “Do I feel more relaxed and happy at the end of my three hours playing WoW, than I did at the start?” If the answer is yes, then I have won.

  12. Here’s a question for Cyn – I noticed you’re wearing a lot of higher-ilvl Pandaria PVE gear. How much advantage is there to that vs lvl 85 Cataclsym pvp gear? I guess it’s a question of total ilvl (stam, int, etc) vs resilience and pvp power.

    And does locking at 85 only allow you to play with other lvl 85s who have locked? That seems like it would be a pretty small pool of players to draw from. How are your queue times?

    • gameldar

      I asked Cyn this on twitter and thus was his response:

      ” I’m experimenting a lot with different gear combos; I’m usually in some hybrid combo of Mists/Cata gear.
      Recently I’ve tried full PvE and not really noticed a big decrease in survivability.”

      I’ve started twinking at 85 on my holy pally with a mix of BiS PvE, Ruthless/Vicious PvP gear (can’t buy cata pvp gear till 5.2 since I’m a pally and it seems I’ve managed to replace the Cata gear with MoP PvE gear). Haven’t really having survivability issues either – admittedly healing specs are pretty OP at 85. Like max level the games will vary however. I’ve been in some where I’ve been absolutely stomped (usually involving at least 1 mage), but the gear levels still vary a lot between players.

      The pool of players is anyone XP locked in the 85-89 level range. By far the majority of these are 85, but you occasionally see others – the reality is they have bigger health pools, but I think their stat scaling sucks so they don’t really do any more damage despite having access to more higher ilevel gear.

      Queue times are pretty varied (from < minute, to almost an hour) and I play in the offpeak times (maintenance is in my prime time because I'm the smallest player population base). On average though the queues are around 10 – 15 minutes.

  13. TheBeef

    the higher level <ilvl 415+ gear (even 450 @ lvl 85) has MOP scaling, not Cata Scaling, so the raw STA and INT increases more than make up for resil… at least imo…

  14. Liyly

    Very insightful remarks, and I’m happy that you’ve found a way to enjoy the game on your terms.

    I really like your statement of “the dark truth about Warcraft PvP is that it is a game of gear as well as skill,” and unfortunately it’s all too true. I don’t think it has to be that way, however, and with all the discussion going on sparked by the developer’s blog post and the proposed 5.2 gearing changes, I’d like to see that quote become untrue. There is a large divide, it seems, between people who feel that pvp should have the gear grind or not, and according to some of Ghostcrawler’s recent tweets it seems like it’s not going to go away any time soon.

    But I think the effect that different levels of gear and the way that they’re acquired have on pvp can be minimized much more, and it seems like now is an ideal time to be an ‘activist’, so to speak, with the developers looking openly and critically at the existing pvp structure. Nor do I think that you’re in the minority in how you feel pvp should be structured (more on skill and less on gear, I presume) as much as you imply here. I applaud your willingness to let things go how they will and be content with what enjoyment you find, but no harm comes from proactively sharing your ideas and campaigning for pvp in the structure you find best.

    Keep playing your warlock how you like, by all means, but maybe wander over to the forums and weigh in with your opinion on the matter, or speak out here or elsewhere on what you’d like to see. You’re insightful and surely have some helpful ideas or suggestions. I’m sure that adding your voice to the discussion would be highly-valued by all! (I mean, just look at the impact your Decline and Fall of Warlocks piece had! You can make a difference!)

  15. Pingback: Suggested Reading: On avoiding endgame, expectations, cities, the Emerald Dream, 5.2, and more. « Kor'kron 501st

  16. Glad to see you back, Cynwise! Daniel Friedman’s comments summed up my experience in MoP so far.

    I played XP-off battlegrounds for four years, and this is the first time I tried playing endgame PvP. As Daniel noted, playing random battlegrounds is among the worst of choices for all the options in WoW. But my experience as part of an organized, rated battleground team is one of the best WoW features I’ve ever had the fortune in which to participate.

    A former XP-off colleague warned me that after playing RBGs, my taste for XP-off battlegrounds would decline. I’m afraid he’s right, as the lack of collaboration in what are essentially PuG battlegrounds frustrates me much more easily after my RBG experiences. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, but I can’t deny how I feel.

  17. Gregory

    Since I have a level 85 shadow priest twink as well (I only miss the 450 chest from the rares at Dread Wastes and in the mean time I have a 433 one), I think they will nerf it since it is too cheesy. You can run around killing any 85-89 (even some 90) characters in the game while easily soloing all the rares even 90 or even 91.

    Needless to say this is not normal gameplay πŸ™‚

  18. I’ve got a few of my alts to 90, but I’m already tired of the dailies thing. The raids are fine, but I have been enjoying going back to my low-level alts and especially doing pet battles.

    I am curious if you have any interest in trying roleplaying, it’s another way to play the game in a different way that can be really rewarding. RP isn’t dependent on level or gear — unless it’s for that outfit you want, of course. I credit RP with maintaining my interest in the game when the game itself is a bit boring.