Children’s Week 2013 and the School of Hard Knocks

Cynxi - Halfhill - Rainstorm

 

Children’s Week 2013 has begun, and with it is everyone’s favorite holiday PvP achievement – The School of Hard Knocks. And by favorite I mean “slightly above a root canal,” since for the past 4 years there’s been more anguish over this one achievement than … well… okay, there was a lot of anguish over the Battlegrounds in the Legendary quests too.

But I guarantee you that SoHK is hated more.

Anyhow, what the past 4 years has shown me is that you can do this achievement. No matter how much you dread it because you don’t PvP – you can do it.

In 2010 I wrote and recorded my Guide to the School of Hard Knocks. It’s aged a bit, but is still accurate and I hope you find it helpful. It has maps and video walkthroughs for each step of the achievement (hah, early Cyn videos! oh god my UI, I am so sorry).

The key is still practice and perseverance – you can do this!

Good luck out there!

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On Rejoining the Leveling Brackets

Cynwise unlocks her experience gains in Stormwind Keep.

Cynwise unlocks her experience gains in Stormwind Keep.

I’ve had some time for the 5.2 battleground scaling changes to sink in, and it’s pretty clear that for a twink, the best place to be is at the top of a bracket. If you’re going to be level 89 when you zone in, you might as well have level 89 gear and abilities, right?

For low skew brackets this is really unfortunate. Before it was pretty clear that staying low was the right choice for both PvP and PvE – secondary stat scaling worked in your favor in all environments. Now twinks have to choose between awesomeness in PvP and PvE – for one you go high, the other goes low. You can’t be great at both anymore – it’s one or the other.

(The only exception is Arenas. Arenas are unaffected by the new scaling. So if you’re an Arena junkie, staying low is the way to go.)

I’m not an arena junkie. I locked XP because I like to unwind with battlegrounds but don’t like grinding out sets of gear. I’ve enjoyed being a Big Gun in PvE – bringing 200k DPS to ICC, regularly putting out 100k+ DPS at level 85, of beating the pants off of level 90 DPS in Dragon Soul – but the real reason I locked was to PvP.

So after a week or two of reflection, I unlocked Cynwise and started queueing up for the leveling brackets with my healer partner and guildmate Rezznul. If I was going to have to level to 89 to be BiS anyways, why not just do it in the BGs? Each level brings a little improvement, but when you’re in average ilvl 439 gear at level 85 it’s not like you’re hurting for that extra gear. It’s just icing on top.

Consider that for a minute – one effect of scaling has been to return xp-off twinks back into the leveling brackets. Superbly geared level 70, 80, 85 toons are leaving the xp-off brackets in droves and hitting up the greener pastures of leveling brackets. I outgear everyone. It’s ridiculous.

Oh. And I have a pocket healer.

I’m not going to gloss over it – I absolutely love it. We absolutely love it. Why shouldn’t we? It’s ridiculous. And now we can do it without the guilt of weakening ourselves by leveling.

When my only regret is leaving behind being a star on Retro Raid Night? That’s not really much of a regret.

I do find it interesting that the unlocked 85 bracket is such a more pleasant experience than the locked 85 bracket right now. Most of the Alliance xp-off twinks quit and leveled out after 5.2. The xp-off bracket shifted from a slight Alliance advantage to a dominant Horde one, as teams of Horde healers with competent DPS just ravaged the remaining blue teams with 1-2 twinks. The majority of the Alliance players now seem to be expansion twinks, those returning players who haven’t bought Mists of Pandaria and show up in terrible Cataclysm gear. Those players are on the Horde, too, but not as many.

It’s a great time to be a level 85 Horde twink. Seriously. I see some great play and coordinated efforts to protect healers. Alliance healers have vanished and twinks are few and far between. The matches have gone from relatively equal contests to hoping that you don’t get steamrolled. I have still won the occasional locked game as Alliance – but it’s a frustrating experience, without the teamwork and competence which made even the losses fulfilling experiences.

This is a strange time to be PvPing. I’m locking and unlocking with abandon. It’s not that I’ve given up on the locked brackets, it’s that I’m leveling at the same time.

I don’t think bringing twinks back into the leveling brackets was a deliberate effect. I honestly don’t think twinks commonly enter in to any design decisions in PvP, with the exception of getting them out of low-level PvP with their separate brackets in 3.2. Removing characters with exceptionally great gear steered by veteran PvPers from the leveling brackets was generally seen as a good thing. Having us return, giving us incentives to play in the leveling brackets … well, it remains to be seen if it’s a good thing.

I know I’m having fun. I don’t know if my opponents are – but I sure am.

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Cynderblock’s Guide to the 5.2 Twink Brackets

Cynderblock Rides a Sea Turtle

pssst… is she gone?

This is Sgt. Cynthia Block – you might remember me by my Charlie Company call sign, Cynderblock. You might not, that’s okay too. I don’t need the limelight like Ms. Cynwise does over there. She sure loves her spreadsheets, don’t she? A little too much, if you know what I mean. I don’t know about you, but I tuned out right when she started yammering about taking the delta of the whoosimawhatsit and comparing it to the sine of the somethingorother.

See, I’m a twink, and I know what I know and like what I like. Mostly I like a good pint of Rumsey Rum Dark Label, but after they changed it up here in 5.2 I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to find something new to drink. I don’t know how I feel about this, because while I’m partial to most things Redridge I sure did like that Rumsey Rum.

What Miss Fancy Pants Warlock conveniently forgot to tell you and me was the info you probably really wanted to know – what about my twink bracket??? Ever notice how officers get all lost in the theory but never come right down and say this is how you get it done?

Well, that’s why this here Sergeant is here to help you out. Here’s the lowdown on the twink brackets with this new scalin’ business.

10-14: Tens are fucked six ways to Sunday. It was bad enough that no one ever queued in the bracket without using that damn XP-on exploit, but now tens are done. Without secondary stats going through the roof they’ve got nothing. Time to go solo Deadmines.

15-19: Ah, Nineteens, my old stomping grounds. Y’all are fine. Most of you are wearing grandfathered gear anyways.

20-24: Oh boy, the 20/24 War. If you’re 20 F2P, you better get those heirlooms quicklike and then you’ll be okay – you’ll practically be on equal footing with them 24s. Otherwise 24s have all the advantages here.

25-29: Twenty-Nines are fine. Everyone leveled to 29 anyways. Games are Sunday nights.

30-34: Is this even a thing? No. Go level to 39, what are you doing here? These levels suck.

35-39: Thirty-Nines are fine. Games are Wed/Fri 8pm Eastern. Rock on, 39s.

40-44: The Forty-Fours sound like a bad musical act out of Westfall. This bracket isn’t a thing.

45-49: The Forty-Niners are fine.

50-54: This ain’t no twink bracket! This is where people go to play AV for 4 levels before dropping out when the Death Nuggets show up. GTFO and level up.

55-59: Cynwulf leveled out of this bracket, and so should you. If you’re in it, I assume you’re at 59 to try to keep up with the DKs. Or you are a damned DK, in which case I’m not jealous of Death Grip. At all. /grumbles

60-64: Logically I’d say you should just level up to 64, but who am I kidding? Sixties are hardcore vanilla raiders, there is no way in hell that they’d level up and miss out on Molten Core. Stay 60, stay proud of your vanilla heritage, screw the haters, wear your awesome gear with pride.

65-69: Now I know those Northshire girls like to make jokes about the Redshire Sixty-Niners, but you know what? They’re just jealous of our good looks and fine bridge-making skills. 69 or bust. (No laughing, Private.)

70-74: Resilience will drop a bit for the 70s, but not enough to end the healer’s reign of terror. I’d expect most 70s to stay at 70 for Arena, Funwell, and BC pride. If they wanna level up to 74 for the archy Axe, sure, go ahead. But that’s really the only gear that’s worth it, Wrath stuff is junk.

75-79: I cannot even begin to describe how fucked you are if you’re level 75. Seventy-Niners are even more godlike now with their Cata gear. If any folks are going to keep using the XP-on exploits, I expect them to migrate here. This is the most imbalanced bracket in the game.

80-84: Hey, remember when the Eighties only had to worry about the occasional 84 Frost DK? Hah, good times. Good times. Sorry, Eighties, you’re probably screwed. Stay 80 if you have Mists blues and want to wreck face in ICC/heroics, otherwise take a look at moving up a bit. Each class is going to be a bit different due to gear availability – the more Mists gear you can get, the better.

85-89: The secondary stat problems are the absolute worst in this bracket. Mists PvE gear is now hands down better than Cata PvP gear and you’re going to want a full set of blues. The scaling cliff is so bad in this bracket you might really want to just stay 85 for a bit. Since all the best gear is available by 87 I’d check that out for your class as well.

90: Who the fuck plays at 90? Seriously.

Someones’s coming. I gotta go, but don’t be a stranger.

And don’t believe everything that warlock tells you!

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Analysis of the Post-Hotfix 5.2 Battleground Scaling Changes

Cynwise, Twin Peaks FC

The hotfix applied on March 12th addressed the most obvious bugs present in the battleground scaling changes of patch 5.2.  More testing will be required, of course, but I think we can say that we’re looking at the final, intended version of the scaling.

Battlegrounds for characters under level 90 in 5.2 have been changed so that a character’s effective level is scaled up to the top of the bracket. A level 10 character becomes 14, a 37 becomes 39, a 69 stays 69. For characters who are not at the maximum level of a bracket, this has the following direct effects:

  • Health pools are increased and normalized.
  • Primary attributes are increased slightly.
  • Heirloom items scale to the new effective level.
  • Normal gear does not scale.

The goal of this change was to normalize Hit between characters at opposite ends of the bracket and help balance low-level PvP. This change takes steps in the right direction for both goals, but there are a lot of issues that undermine that forward progress.

Let’s take a look.

THE QUESTION OF HIT AND SECONDARY STATS

WoW uses a system where you gain combat values as you level, but their relative effectiveness declines. You need more of a given stat to remain at the same power. I covered this in my previous post On the Broken Battleground Scaling of 5.2 as well as in an earlier post, The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP, so I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the concepts covered there. The point which is relevant to analyzing the 5.2 scaling change is that if you stay in the same gear as you level, it will do less for you. For primary stats (Strength, Agility, Intellect – or Attack Power and Spell Power), they increase linearly but decline relative to the character’s environment. For secondary stats (Haste, Hit, Crit, Dodge, PvP Resilience, etc.) they decay directly as more rating is required to achieve 1% of a given stat.

So the first problem that is introduced is that characters at the bottom of the bracket have their secondary stats reduced upon entering the battleground. A item with +8 Hit gives 4% Spell Hit at level 20, but only 3.2% Spell Hit at level 24. When a level 20 character zones into Warsong Gulch, they will need to stack more Hit, Haste, Crit, etc. to be as effective as they were before. For secondary stats like Haste, Crit, Mastery Dodge, PvP Power and Resilience, this results in the character performing worse inside the battleground compared to outside of it. Casts are slower, regen is slower, Crit is lower.

Hit isn’t quite so cut and dry. Lower levels will need more Hit to achieve the same rating as before, but the amount of Hit required to cap is also lowered (from 10% to 5% for melee hit and 20% to 4% for spell hit) because everyone is now the same level. You will need more Hit at the lowest level to hit the at-level PvP Hit cap, but once you hit it it’s good against everyone in the bracket.

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Do Low Levels Need More to Hit High Levels?

The chart above is from a Hit Analysis spreadsheet to compare the hit ratings necessary at the tops and bottoms of each individual bracket. The values in red are those places where the lower end of the bracket needs more hit (a positive number) to hit cap against the top of the bracket under the new scaling system; green values are where they need less hit. (Less Hit is the goal, which is why it’s green.)

As you can see, there’s a uniformly positive impact on casters, and nearly all brackets have a positive impact for melee. That’s the good news. It looks weird and nonintuitive because your Hit definitely goes down, but it’s easier to cap your Hit against a level 79 now at 75 than it was before.

The problem is, do you want to cap your Hit against the top of the bracket? The scaling means that you’re slower, less keen, less able to defend yourself against attacks. If most of your opponents are also at the bottom of a bracket, you’re less effective against them than you were before. Take a look at the same chart, only this time comparing low levels hitting low levels:

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Do Low Levels Need more to Hit Low Levels?

Uniformly melee and casters are worse off trying to hit people of the same level if they’re in the bottom of a bracket. Why would the majority of people be in the bottom of a bracket?

I never thought you’d ask.

Cyn - Warblade and Vicious Pyrium Set - SW - procs

BRACKET SKEW AND GEAR AVAILABILITY

In the previous post I described brackets as either skewing high or low. Each bracket has a different combination of stat weighting, gear availability, and possible expansion overlap which gives one end or another unique strengths. High skew brackets are characterized by:

  • Better gear is available at the top end of the bracket than the bottom.
  • Rating decay is relatively flat across the bracket.

High skew brackets tend to avoid expansion breaks and are characteristic of most of the middle levels.

I’d consider the following high skew brackets: 15-19, 20-24, 25-29, 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, 55-59, 65-69, 75-79.

The 20-24 bracket is a little bit of an odd duck amongst the high-skew brackets because of the preponderance of Starter Edition players. The population skews low, but the bracket itself favors high.

Low skew brackets are different. They usually are:

  • The best gear is available at the bottom of the bracket.
  • Rating decay hits sharply across the bracket. This can happen either at the beginning (after an expansion break) or across the entire bracket (due to expansion level compression).

Low skew brackets are usually situated near expansion breaks due to the stat scaling and gear combinations afforded by endgame development. (A good reference to understanding how this works is Ghostcrawler’s blog post The Great Item Squish (Or Not) Of Pandaria, where he illustrates how each expansion introduces item inflation at the endgame.)

The following brackets skew low: 10-14, 60-64, 70-74, 85-89.

The 80-84 bracket used to skew low, but the introduction of Mists gear is starting to make it skew high despite the dramatic combat rating dropoff at 83. There are still classes which excel at 80, depending on gear availability, but there are sweet spots for gear at 81, 82 and even 84 which twinks pursue.

All clear on bracket skew? Okay, good, because the second issue the new scaling model introduces is that it skews all brackets high, eliminating any benefits of being low level. It’s not just that it turns the low skew brackets high – it’s that it skews all of them higher.

Compare a low skew bracket like 70-74 against a high skew bracket like 75-79. At level 70 you have access to Sunwell gear and Brutal PvP gear. At 71 you can have the same gear, but your secondary stats are 25% lower, and it goes downhill to 74. With one or two exceptions, the gear at 74 just isn’t any better than what you had at 70. With the new system, everyone PvPs at level 74 in level 70 gear, which means you can level and gain some abilities (and maybe those one or two pieces of gear) without any drawbacks. It’s not great – everyone is worse off than before – but it’s not terrible, either.

In a high-skew bracket like 75-79 the situation is much worse. Level 75 characters only have access to Wrath questing gear (about ilvl 154-160) – which is still about as good as the Sunwell/Brutal PvP epics you had in the previous bracket. Level 79 characters have access to Cataclysm greens (about ilvl 277-289). The gear disparity is magnified in this bracket: the low end (normally 75) is now 79 in level 75 gear, while the high end is unchanged!

Because high skew brackets have better gear at higher levels, lower level characters are further behind relatively under the new system. They’re locked out of the better gear (because of their level) and the gear they do have functions worse (because they’ve lost their scaling.) Low skew brackets are affected as well, but not to the extent that a high skew bracket is.

In this case, I think scaling has made brackets a little more unfriendly to the bottom. How unfriendly it has become depends very much on how skewed the bracket was before the change.

Generally, it’s now always optimal to level to the top of the bracket if possible.

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 9.00.32 PM

A BIAS TOWARDS HEIRLOOMS

In my post The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP, I didn’t think that level disparity was the real source of inequality in low level PvP. Ability distribution, player experience, and wild variance in gear levels still seem to me to be a bigger issue than levels and hit. Heirloom gear is where the scaling change directly meets my own concerns about gear disparity, since I think enchanted heirlooms are practically essential PvP gear for leveling at this point.

Heirlooms have created a new strata of player in the battleground ecosystem, leveling twinks.  Sometimes called heirloom twinks, these players rightly gear as best they can for PvP with stamina-heavy heirlooms that give them solidly good gear in nearly every slot as they go. Leveling twinks are different from XP-off twinks because they are in the same bracket with players in quest whites and greens, yet have dramatically better gear than their opposition. XP-off twinks are shunted off into their own battlegrounds and (generally) play against similarly well-geared opponents. As XP-off twinks aren’t leveling, they will often go to great lengths to secure the best in slot gear – lengths that you might not even pursue on an endgame character – because they know it will be good for the life of that toon. Leveling twinks might lock XP and run some dungeons to fill in non-heirloom slots, but generally they have blue-quality gear and good enchants.

The third issue is that heirlooms have increased value and power under the new scaling system. Because they scale to the top of a bracket with a character, they don’t suffer any stat decay. They’re as good at 36 as they are at 39, at 55 as they are at 59. Heirloom items have the stats they are supposed to have at the top of a bracket even if the character is at the bottom. Normal gear doesn’t do this – if a belt gives you +8 Intellect at 40, it will give you +8 Intellect at 44. A heirloom that gives you +8 Intellect at 40 will give you +11 Intellect at 44.

This seems like a small issue, but I don’t really think it is. New players are already at a disadvantage if they try out PvP on their first character. People like me bring heirlooms and enchants and gems and consumables which are really really difficult to acquire until you have high-level assistance and knowledge of the game. Heirlooms contribute to the imbalance of low level PvP, and now they’re more imbalanced. Not a lot – quick testing showed me each piece was like 5-10% better in terms of raw stats – but better.

This change makes sense in the confines of scaling, but not in terms of achieving PvP balance.

Cynwii - Loch Modan Bush Disguise

AN AMUSING SIDE EFFECT

One thing I noticed while testing the new system amused me more than it should. If you level out of a bracket – ding 40 in the 35-39, for instance – instead of being one level above your opponents, you’re now five. All of the Hit balancing goes out the window because everyone needs 11-25% Hit to get you now. Your heirloom gear scales up, too, so while you’re not quite as good as you can be (unless you carried gear with you to equip later) you’re not that badly off. The slight advantage people used to get for dinging in a battleground has been replaced by a very large one, and honestly it’s kinda funny.

I opened a ticket because I saw a level 69 Druid running around my level 60-64 Eye of the Storm this week. This is how that happened. (Addon nameplates are reporting the incorrect level. The stock UI should display correctly.)

Cynxi - Pandaren Rogue - Melee at Rest -SW

INCREASED HEALTH AND THE GOOD PART OF THESE CHANGES

There are some things about this change which I don’t like. It skews brackets high, it rewards heirloom gear in low levels, it makes Hit a PITA to manage, it destroys secondary stats like PvP Resilience and PvP Power. It makes my characters feel different (read that as worse) inside a battleground than outside them, and that’s awkward. Don’t like it.

But there are some good things, too, things that any analysis needs to acknowledge.

Combat seems slower now. Burst is lessened in many higher brackets because secondary stats like Haste, Mastery, and Crit have been slaughtered at the same time health pools have been increased. This effect is very pronounced at the higher levels where health pools have shot up 100k or more. Here’s how my warlock looks:

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Cynwise 85 Lock

(This is from my post-hotfix 5.2 Battleground Scaling Data spreadsheet if you are following along with the math.)

Without trying to stack any Resilience, her effective health is up 110k – almost 40%! If damage goes down and effective health goes up, fights are slower and more strategic, you don’t get 1-shot by an Eviscerate crit or Chaos Bolt, and – perhaps most importantly – healers are more potent. (Your opinion of this depends on if you’re playing a healer or facing a healer premade.)

These scaling changes make battlegrounds more healer-friendly. That’s not a bad thing, and not something I expected.

The changes in lower levels are not quite as dramatic, but they’re still present. Here’s my heirloom-clad Mistweaver monk:

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Cynwii 39 Monk

I mention the heirlooms because they fight against stat decay while providing level 44 stats in the second example, but in general you see that there’s a solid improvement in health with only a moderate decrease in secondary stats. (Secondary stats from 35-60 decay at much slower rate than those from 85-90.)

It’s a small boost to survivability, but it certainly does change the feel of some brackets.

PASSING JUDGEMENT

Now that we’re past the buggy part of the implementation – and make no mistake, it was buggy – it’s tough to get past it and move on to adjusting to how the new scaling system works. Now that I’ve had a chance to sit back, do some math, and more importantly think about it – many, if not most of my objections below are qualitative and personal.

  • Hit scaling is non-intuitive if you play at the bottom of a low-skew bracket. Hitting 4% Hit at 85 was pretty easy, but hitting 20% wasn’t ever a goal of mine. If you miss some of the 89s in there, you miss them and move on.
  • DPS specs feel less bursty, and I was enjoying playing a bursty class. The survivability tradeoff doesn’t feel all that great. (Counterpoint: my healer partner absolutely adores the loss of burst and feels like a god.)
  • The hit to secondary stats devalues PvP Resilience and PvP Power. Once you hit level 70, Resilience becomes a Thing You Should Have, but now it’s hard to argue for it in the face of increased health pools.
  • I feel clunky. Casts are slower and hit much softer than they did before. I step out of a BG and it’s like I’ve got a supersized-ICC buff on me! I zone in and things slow down. I notice this more at 85 than at 40 or 60.
  • I don’t like how some of the brackets have skewed even higher than before.
  • Having to choose between awesomeness in PvE (by staying at the end of an expansion) and PvP (by leveling to the top of a bracket) isn’t any fun. I like having my cake and eating it too!

It’s not bad. It’s not great, either, and I understand why people are upset and confused by it. But it’s not as bad as my initial reactions, and it’s not going to break PvP and cause the Battlegrounds to be unplayable.

From an IT perspective, it looks like it was a reasonably simple development change with a lot of downstream impacts. While I’m pleasantly surprised that it does achieve the goal of making it easier for the low end of brackets to hit the high end of the brackets, the tradeoffs in secondary stat reduction, elevated heirloom importance, and skewing bracket imbalance doesn’t seem like a positive change overall.

That said, the increased health pools and reduced burst have made my pocket healer very happy. And keeping my healer happy is important too.

Jury is still out. Let’s see how this change works for a bit.

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New Battleground Scaling To Be Hotfixed

It’s great having Blizzard developers like Ghostcrawler on Twitter.  They’ll cut right to the chase.

As Ghostcrawler said, there should be a hotfix soon (maybe in tomorrow’s batch) to address some, if not all, of the scaling issues.

Nobody panic or level up, just hang tight and let’s see what it looks like after the hotfix.

(Also, yeah, that one goes in the Good Job folder. :D)

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On the Broken Battleground Scaling of 5.2

The 5.2 BG Scaling dramatically reduces secondary stats. Natural 85 on the left, scaled 85 on the right.

Effects of Battleground Scaling after 5.2 Normal is on the left, scaled is on the right.

The 5.2 patch notes contained the following intriguing note for battlegrounds:

Players in low-level Battlegrounds will have their effective level raised to the maximum level allowed in that Battleground bracket. Players’ base stats and spells are scaled accordingly, and are treated as the same level when determining hits, misses, and critical effect chance.

There wasn’t any more explanation about this change, but the general idea is to smooth out battleground brackets so that players at the bottom levels of a bracket can compete with those at the top. That’s a noble goal, I suppose, though the last time I wrote about the problems of fixing low level PvP I hadn’t really thought that level imbalance was the source of imbalance in leveling PvP. Player experience, gear decay, and class imbalance were far more pressing matters. But if we’re fixing levels, okay, we’re fixing levels.

The optimist in me interpreted the above patch note as follows:

  • Miss chance will be equalized across the bracket at a uniform 4%.
  • Because the hit/miss chance is now equal across levels, the chance of melee critical strikes on the Attack Table will also be uniform.
  • Base health will be scaled up to the top of the bracket.
  • Spell effects will be scaled up to the top of the bracket.

This presented the changes in the best light – it allowed characters to gear as best they could for the battlegrounds while minimizing the effects of disparate levels. A level 15 player wouldn’t need to stack 20% Hit to always hit level 19 opponents anymore, which seems to be the real purpose of this. Either gear would scale up to the new level using the amazing Challenge Mode technology released in Mists, or all stats from the gear would remain the same so the character wouldn’t experience any loss of potency. The change was to normalize hit and health.

What was actually implemented this week was much simpler, and far more disastrous:

  • Character levels are raised to the top of the bracket. Base stats and health increase accordingly.

This causes all kinds of problems, most notably placing lower level characters in a bracket at a serious disadvantage from those at the top level. Instead of solving the problem, it makes it far worse.

The issue is gear and scaling.

BATTLEGROUND BRACKETS, GEAR AND SCALING

As you level in Warcraft your gear gets less effective. Oh, the numbers stay the same – a +5 Intellect hat doesn’t start going down – but what that +5 does for you gets less and less. You need more and more stats on your gear as you level to remain at the same ability level. This combat rating decay is a fundamental part of encouraging players to level without causing actual ability imbalance. As you level up your character gets weaker and needs more and more numbers on their gear to keep up.

Gear is restricted by level to prevent characters from progressing too far and gaining too much power. Within the five level spread representing any given battleground bracket you’re going to see more quantitatively powerful gear at the higher levels. At certain levels you’ll see radical jumps in power due to expansion inflation – 58 for BC, 68 for Wrath, 77 for Cataclysm, 80-82 for Mists. This means that the gear available to players at the top of these brackets is substantially better than the gear available to the bottom.

These two factors combine to create an interesting see-saw between powerful gear and stat scaling. Generally the epics available from the end of an expansion will outweigh anything else in that bracket no matter what level a character is, so it’s best to stay at the bottom of those brackets to take advantage of improved stat scaling. If you’re in the 70-74 bracket – which contains Sunwell epics and Brutal Gladiator gear – you’re almost always better staying level 70 because you’ll have the best gear and the best combat ratings.

When you go up to the next bracket (75-79), though, things flip. The Cata gear available at level 79 is so much better (ilvl 277+) than the Wrath gear available at 75 (ilvl 155-179, tops) that the bottom part of the bracket gets destroyed. Heck, anyone gets destroyed if they aren’t in full Cata greens – they’re better than the best level 80 raid epics you could get in Wrath!

This cycle of low / high starts around 55-59 and lasts for 20 levels, up to 79. It gets muddied as the levels between expansions contract at level 80, where a level 80 in Wrathful gear used to be quite good against most classes at level 84 (with a few exceptions). Mists gear contaminated this bracket, though, adding superpowered ilvl 409+ gear. Now it’s a toss up between staying low and reaping the benefits of combat scaling or leveling up for better gear. Stats decline faster over 5 levels than they do over 10, and every level hurts.

The 85-89 bracket was dominated by mixing and matching Cata PvP gear and Mists blue gear, with most classes staying at 85 but a few advancing on to gain exceptionally good abilities. There’s some gear improvement at 87, but most every BiS item in the bracket can be equipped at 85. There’s nothing at 89 which beats what an 87 can wear, and not much of it beats what a 85 can equip.

In each one of these brackets the power skews low or high. If overpowered gear is available at the top of the bracket, then level becomes a major issue. If favorable stats and great gear is available at the bottom of the bracket, level isn’t an issue and the bracket is generally easier to level through.

Scaling changes on PvP gear. Normal is to the left, scaled is on the right.

Scaling changes on PvP gear. Normal is to the left, scaled is on the right.

HOW LEVEL EQUALIZATION FAILS

The change in 5.2 brings everyone’s effective level in a bracket up to the maximum while leaving gear intact, causing two different and distinct problems. These problems will be better or worse depending on the way the bracket skews.

First, lower level characters are locked out of the gear they need to compete on an even field. Raising effective levels does little to nothing to address the gear disparity between expacs. A level 75 character will still be clad in Wrath blues and greens (and possibly BC purples), facing off against level 79s in Cata greens. (Keep in mind that’s a 150 item level disparity.) In the high skew brackets (55-59, 65-69, 75-79 and now 80-84) this is a serious problem.

Second, lower level characters suffer increasingly dramatic penalties to their secondary stats in brackets where gear is mostly equalized. In the low-skew brackets (10-14, 20-24, 60-64, 70-74, 85-89), combat scaling favors the lower level characters and allows them to compete with the increased health, damage and abilities of the top of the bracket. Gear is relatively balanced across these brackets, so you avoid the first problem.

Equalizing only the level and not the gear means that the low level toons are now walking in with gear 5 levels below their opponents. If those 5 levels span an expansion gear break, they’re in trouble. If those 5 levels encompass a sharp decline in combat ratings, they’re really in trouble.

Let’s look at Hit as an example.

I thought the original idea behind this change was to make a smooth 4% Hit Cap for PvP, basically negating any advantage the top of a bracket holds over the bottom. Everyone needs just a little Hit and it’s all even.

Hit scales (down) with level. The higher level you are, the more Hit rating you need to get +1% Hit. But your gear doesn’t scale. You’re now level 84 wearing level 80 gear, itemized for level 80. That 4% Hit you had before you zoned into the BG? It’s now 1%. You’re going to need about 14% Hit on your gear to get to 4%. I don’t even want to think about how much Hit dual-wielding classes are going to need to be competitive.

If the goal was to equalize Miss/Hit across a bracket, this change absolutely failed to achieve its goal. It fails twofold:

  1. It doesn’t make it any easier to hit players of a higher level.
  2. It makes it harder to hit players of the same (low) level.

If this wasn’t the specific goal of the change, I fail to see how this helps equalize the top and bottom of a bracket.

I went ahead and pulled some data off of my Warlock last night and compiled it into a spreadsheet.

5.2 Battleground Scaling Changes

I lose 61% of Cynwise’s secondary stats – Hit, Crit, Haste, PvP Power – in exchange for ~35% increase in effective health. She goes from being agile and hard hitting to clunky and slow, just like everyone else in the battleground. Keep in mind that her gear is exceptionally good (item level 414-438) and she has an overabundance of Hit. She’s got more Hit than Cassius Clay.

This really changes the feel of each battleground, and not for the better.

At this point the only sane gearing strategy while leveling is to go for as much of your primary SP/AP attribute as possible and ignore secondary stats. Any nuances to gearing don’t matter

HEIRLOOMS AND BUGS

Up till now I’ve just been talking about how the scaling change affects low level characters in a bracket based on the design. There are two wrinkles to add to all of this – heirlooms and bugs.

Heirlooms scale according to your effective level. This means that a level 20 toon with heirlooms now has the stats of a level 24 with heirlooms, which is the only place where scaling seems to be working right!

The drawback is that this now means that heirlooms are more essential to leveling battlegrounds than ever before. Players in non-heirloom gear will be at a significant disadvantage to those who have them, and the more heirlooms the better.

The biggest gap in leveling battlegrounds is caused by experienced players with enchanted heirlooms. They are the new twinks of PvP. This change, as implemented, strengthens their superiority and makes it even harder for new players to compete. Without normal gear scaling the problems of low level PvP will now get worse, not better.

The second problem is that the scaling is really buggy right now. Players are reporting on the forums that no secondary stats from heirlooms are getting applied (at all). I was in my PvE set last night and missing every few casts (which absolutely should not happen). Players have reported that you are better off taking off all your gear and fighting naked rather than using the scaled gear. There are a lot of problems here and it doesn’t seem to be working as intended.

It’s my hope that the implementation can be straightened out or rolled back, as these changes have all negatively impacted PvP play in sub-90 battlegrounds. They don’t accomplish the putative goals and exacerbate existing problems in low level PvP.

—-

Update 2013-03-08: Ghostcrawler confirmed this is bugged and a hotfix is coming soon. Nobody panic, nobody level, someone tell my Arena Partner that he’s not going to remain godmode healer forever and then pass him some smelling salts.

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On Class Distribution in Patch 5.2

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 12.21.24 AM

I publish any graph with a great deal of trepidation; there are caveats and collection methodology and a lot of footnotes which go into serious data analysis which seem to always get lost in a single graph presented without context. But the context is often vital to avoid misinterpretation.

Patch 5.2 is coming soon, and I’ve returned to the data collection I started while writing The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm to see how things look for Warlocks. One important thing I learned last year was that most Warcraft population sites are focused on current, not historical, data. This requires ‘snapshotting’ data at critical points to allow for trend analysis. This is the third snapshot I’ve taken so far. Furthermore, each site has quirks and variations which make it impossible to reconcile them exactly. We can use them to talk about general trends – as long as we do so skeptically.

Instead of continuing to update the file used in Decline and Fall, I’ve created a new spreadsheet for this discussion. You can follow along in the Google Doc if you like.

I’m calling this snapshot the 5.2 patch data even though we’re not officially in 5.2 yet. There won’t be any massive shifts in population in the next week or three.

CLASS POPULARITY AT ENDGAME

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 12.22.04 AM

I’ve assembled the data from 5 time periods in a summary format to see very general trends with class movement in Mists of Pandaria, with Wrath (patch 3.3.5) and Cataclysm (4.3.3) data thrown in for comparison. This has some advantages for general population trending but is also problematic in other ways, which I’ll discuss later.

This chart, and the accompanying graph at the top of this post, are the relative population component of endgame characters for a given time period. This means that the first 3 columns represent level 85s, while the last two are level 90 characters only.

When I first made this type of chart last year it compared apples to apples – namely, end of expansion population figures. Players had had time to level alts and have multiple toons at endgame, so the data represented mains and alts alike. The Mists snapshots are critically different in that they are at the beginning and middle of an expansion, when leveling time is limited and content is fresh and demanding.

Understanding this difference in data type is critical to avoid making hasty judgements based on these numbers. There’s a pretty big disconnect between the first two and last two columns because of this end-of-expac effect.

  • Wrath and Cataclysm numbers are end of expansion numbers and represent mains and alts alike.
  • Mists Pre-release represents level 85 characters before Monks or Pandaren were introduced, in patch 5.0.4. This is the final snapshot of Cataclysm, and could be considered roughly equivalent to the previous two.
  • Mists Patch 5.1.0a gives us our first level 90 data. This specific data isn’t 85-90 data – it’s level 90 data. This snapshot shows us who leveled to 90 during the first few weeks, and is probably the best data point we’ll have for divining which classes players considered to be their mains, even if they switch later on.
  • Mists Patch 5.2 is another level 90 data point, this time with additional alts and slower levelers joining the endgame. Having 3-5 level 90 characters is not uncommon in this snapshot, so now we’re seeing who else people play.

There’s an additional complication in that Monks were introduced between 5.0.4 and 5.1.0a, shifting the average popularity from 10% to 9.091%. This ~1% drop can be adjusted for with indexing popularity values, but it’s not really worth it at this stage in the expansion. It’s not worth it for two reasons: because the 5.1.0a figures represent the actual popularity of main choices, so indexing isn’t appropriate yet, and because the effort to level a Monk to 90 is still substantially higher than leveling any other class from 85 to 90. Over time this will even out (and even skew towards the Monk class as their leveling bonuses come into play), but for now the imbalance should stand.

A quick look at the data shows that since Cataclysm:

  • Warlocks got a little more popular.
  • Warriors got a lot more popular.
  • Mages and Rogues were common alts at the end of Cataclysm, but not mains, or they main switched.
  • Paladins seem to be mains but not first-tier alts, as evidenced by the relative slide in standings since 5.1. Druids (and possibly Warriors) seem to have the same issue.
  • Hunters, Warlocks, and Monks seem to be gaining popularity as alts heading into 5.2.

The drop in Rogue popularity seems to be that we’re seeing the core of the class emerge – the die hard Rogue mains who will stick with it no matter what. The Legendary daggers offered to Rogues at the end of Cataclysm artificially inflated their numbers, but we could see other players level those Rogues to 90 by the end of the expac. I feel comfortable saying this because the 85 and lower data doesn’t show a drop at all.

MORE GRANULAR DATA

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 12.29.14 AM

The above data is from realmpop. I like realmpop a lot because it allows me to go through and drill down into the data, so that if I wanted to find out how many female goblin death knights are still stuck in the starter zone I could do it. The drawback is that the results are graphical and split by region, so I have to manually copy the values and add up populations between the US and EU. The sample size is large enough that I feel comfortable using relative values like popularity, but I wouldn’t want to use them for absolute values like server population.

If you unhide the columns on the second tab of the spreadsheet you can see the raw data from each snapshot.

The reason I think Rogues aren’t in any new state of crisis is because of the data above. When you look at the class across all levels, they’re pretty solid (and don’t show any decline.) But as soon as you get past level 85, the numbers fall off precipitously. People haven’t wanted to level them – yet. Perhaps they leveled one so their guild could get the legendary daggers in Dragon Soul. Perhaps they saw how they were performing in PvP and switched (more on that later.) But they’re there – just not at the endgame.

There’s a different set of problems there, of course. Why is there this drop off? Why do people not want to level Rogues to 90 but do want to level Paladins or Shamans or Warriors instead? There are problems here, but they’re not as simple as the problems affecting Warlocks in Cata.

I’ll leave that up to the Rogue bloggers to discuss, but I expect Blade Flurry has something to do with it. My own Rogue has been stuck at level 67 forever.

PVE AND PVE SPEC BREAKDOWNS

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 11.51.51 PM

One of the other data sites I’ve come to rely upon has been World of Wargraphs; like realmpop, it pulls data directly from Blizzard’s API (not through in-game addons, like Warcraft Realms), but it presents the data in very different and interesting ways. The PvE/PvP breakdowns, in particular, are very helpful in determining what specs are over- or under-represented in high end play.

The next four tabs on the spreadsheet are dedicated to snapshotting the heroic raiding and 2200+ PvP class and spec breakdown. Some of the lists are rather long, so I’ll provide direct links here:

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 11.54.41 PM

A few things to note.

  • Guardian Druids are not present in the data as a separate spec.
  • Arms Warriors are an amazing 11.4% of all 2200+ characters surveyed. I think we found our missing Rogues.
  • There are some specs which are struggling in both environments. Unholy DKs, Demonology Warlocks, Holy Priests, Marksmanship Hunters, even Fire Mages could use a look.
  • Hunters, in general, seem to be having problems at endgame. It could be a number of reasons –  perhaps it’s that they’re easy to get to 90, but hard to master in raids and PvP alike. Perhaps they’re too complicated to play well at 90. Or perhaps it’s that they are favored alts for dailies? I honestly don’t know.
  • A few specs are doing well in both environments. Holy Paladins, Shadow Priests.

Really, the biggest story from this data is how overwhelmingly popular Warriors have become for ranked level 90 PvP, and how scarce Rogues have become in that same activity. I think these trends are absolutely related.

ON WARLOCK POPULATION NUMBERS

Overall, the changes to the Warlock class in Mists seem to have had a positive effect on relative popularity. Players are rolling Warlocks and leveling them to endgame. This is a massive improvement!

Affliction and Destruction are reasonably represented in PvE and PvP. Demonology seems to be less common in high level play, but one of the current Arena world champions won playing Demo, so I don’t know what to really say to that yet. Perhaps it’s just that it’s really tricky to master? Don’t know.

Patch 5.2 presents something we haven’t seen in a while – Warlock-only quests. There’s a lot of interest around the green fire quests which will no doubt prompt people to try leveling one to 90 to give them a try. This kind of attention can be good if the class fundamentals are sound, which I think they are again. But it’s going to skew numbers in the future.

We need to collectively remember that when looking at the class later on.

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