One of the reasons I enjoy having a twink like Cynderblock is that, because she is not leveling, I really get a chance to understand the abilities she has, how they interact, and what their limits are. I love XP-locked twinks because I have time to figure out the intricacies of a class and I’m able to get the best gear without it changing on me. Playing with XP off lets you learn nuances to your character, like how to pull trash versus how to pull a boss, or how to quest in areas well below your level versus those well above your level. You determine the right gear and abilities to use in different situations, and then you modify your interface – on screen, macros, keybinds, mousebinds – to reflect that knowledge.
By keeping your level (and eventually, your gear) static, you are able to deeply understand the abilities your character possesses, and play them to their full potential.
Endgame characters are similar to twinks in that you spend a lot of time learning how a class operates at the endgame, but there are some differences:
- The gear available to you will constantly change. As time goes on, better and better gear will be released, and no matter where you are on the raiding/PvP tree, your gear will improve over the course of an expansion. This usually represents an increase in power, not playstyle, but it does require some adjustment.
- Your class abilities will change. Nerfs and buffs happen, often. Spells and glyphs get redesigned, or removed. These changes often affect endgame play more than lower levels, because they’re designed to affect endgame balance.
- There is more theorycrafting available for endgame characters than leveling characters, so there is less need to figure it all out on your own. You can learn to play a spec effectively by following a guide.
These differences between endgame toons and twinks are pretty small, and the first two come in intervals that leave plenty of time to learn how things work before they change again. You have time to get your UI and macros set up the way you want them, configure Power Auras and NeedToKnow to display the right information, to understand how different talents and abilities interact and work.
But if you stop playing for a while, your class can change underneath you, sometimes dramatically. I played my Death Knight only occasionally in the later days of Wrath, and I found the constant changes to be difficult to cope with. The transition to Cataclysm actually helped me a bit, because I was able to jettison my thought that I should understand the class and instead approach it fresh; but I still struggle with him. Guides have helped, but there is still a sense of discomfort whenever I leave the Frost 2H playstyle – because that’s how I learned to DK, as a level 59 PvP twink.
You also have to play relatively often to stay current on an endgame character’s gear – what is good gear for one raid tier or PvP season will be insufficient later on. Generally, once you’ve geared up for specific PvE content, you stay geared for that content, but new content will need new gear. PvP is an arms race, so if you skip a season, you will be facing better geared opponents, and suffer accordingly.
The last point I made above, that the ready availability of guidance on how to play a spec at the endgame makes you less likely to really master it, is one I wrestle with. You can excel in doing something without understanding all of it. I’ve seen this in many different aspects of my own life, in sports, in technology, in science, and even in video games – performance and understanding are related, but not dependent, variables. But I also think if you pick a spec up at the endgame, you’re less likely to fully master it than if you leveled with it. That’s not to say you can’t excel at it, just that you’re not going to understand it as well as someone who leveled with it. There’s a knowledge base gained through learning how to do something yourself, of what works and what doesn’t work, that you can’t completely replicate with a guide or manual.
And yet… knowing how to level in a given spec doesn’t mean you’ll know how to play the spec at endgame. It doesn’t mean you’ll know how to squeeze out the last bit of DPS, tank a raid boss, or heal a heroic dungeon. Leveling is not as rigorous an activity as most endgame pursuits. Specs play differently at endgame than earlier. Knowing how to tank Ragefire Chasm like a pro doesn’t mean you’re ready to tank Cho’gall.
But it might help you be a better play of the class, overall.
WHY EXPERIENCE IN BATTLEGROUNDS IS BAD
I have a working theory about why I like playing my warlock so much.
Cynwise was one of a field of 10 characters I rolled when I first started playing. She was the one I got to 20 first, which still took a long time. She’s the one I explored with, she’s the one I learned not just the warlock class, but the game with. After a while, I deleted all those characters except ‘wise and my banker and got on with the business of leveling.
In retrospect, I was not very good at leveling. I was not a very good player, to be honest, but that was fine – I was learning how the game worked. I had sworn off PvP, because that shit is just scary, and I didn’t run dungeons, so I just quested and tried to make sense of WTF I was supposed to do. It was fun.
At level 51, and to this day I don’t know why I did it, but I queued up for a battleground. It was Alterac Valley, and it was exhilarating. We won. And I was hooked.
I eventually figured out that I would do better if I leveled up to 58 or 59, which I did relatively quickly, and then I set about playing battlegrounds full-time. This was before battlegrounds awarded experience, and only AV awarded a pittance for the deaths of NPCs, so it was pretty safe to stay in a bracket and PvP as much as you wanted.
All that background leads up to my theory. It has several parts.
- While PvP doesn’t teach you everything about your class, it can provide a crucible to learn how to use your abilities under pressure.
- PvP Battlegrounds provide short, manageable periods of time to try out different strategies and tactics, with immediate feedback about how they work. Did you win, or did you lose?
- When Battlegrounds awarded no XP, they served as the one place you could refine your play with a character without them changing.
- Therefore, XP-less Battlegrounds provided the ideal place to master a class.
I look at some of my high-level alts, compare them to Cynwise, and I wonder if I will ever come close to understanding them like I do the Warlock class. I don’t know about you, but I struggle when I know I’m not as good as I could be at something, and when there are better alternatives for me.
And I really wonder, how much of that is because it took me 6 months to get to level 80, with fully 3 of those months spent playing in the battlegrounds?
I don’t know.
Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I know that when I get on my Druid, and I suck at PvP or PvE, it hurts to be incompetent. I hate it. I get overrun and wonder how I was supposed to escape. When a tank dies on my watch, I wonder why I’m even trying.
This is a natural response to poor performance, and I get over it, but I am really left wondering – will flailing my way to 85 make me happy? Or wouldn’t I rather go play someone who makes me feel good about myself and my abilities, even if it’s just my ability to play a video game?
I want, very much to take every alt and just PvP on them until I get it. I want to get how the class works before I move on any further.
Losing the ability to play in battlegrounds to our heart’s content at a given level has its downsides. It’s probably not enough to offset the massive benefits that XP-on BGs has brought – greatly increased popularity of BGs in general, making for more fair fights in most brackets – but it also has removed the PvP pause where we master our character before moving on to the next set of abilities and challenges.
WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?
There are no more twinks in here anymore. We’re all just ex-twinks.
The other downside of XP in battlegrounds is that you don’t have a chance to form a community in them anymore. You’d see the same faces over and over again in battlegrounds before this change happened, on both sides, and you got to know people. Not in depth, but certainly you’d know if someone was competent or not.
My Death Knight, Cynwulf, was essentially a level 59 DK twink at a time when DKs were so massively overpowered even bothering to call him a twink sounds silly. He hung around in various bars in the cities of Azeroth, drinking his Scourge-induced woes away, and PvPing. I hated Warsong Gulch on my warlock, but on Cynwulf, it was a total love affair. Howling Blast packed a huge punch (and was available at 59). The confines of the map, coupled with having the only epic mounts at that level, meant it was possible to blow off steam and just destroy a battleground.
I particularly enjoyed Alterac Valley on Cynwulf, because it was my chance to tank Galv and Drek. And people knew me as a good tank. Players in that bracket would see me speaking up and know that I was going to tank Drek, and do a good job of it. Warbringers up? Give me a few seconds, let me get D&D/HB out, then go wild. There were healers I’d know would have my back. There was a Paladin who dinged 60 one match and we all had a very fond farewell party for him in the Field of Strife.
But, eventually, XP came, and the decision had to be made between staying and going, between leveling up and continuing to PvP, or hoping for an XP-off queue to pop.
They never popped, so I leveled Cynwulf up. And the familiar battlegrounds were thriving, but thriving with strangers. The community was gone. They might realize who I was from the big numbers I was putting up, but live or die, I was probably not going to see very many of these people ever again.
My hero of the Stormpike was no more. My dear, drunk Death Knight brother was going to have to move on.
I dinged 60 with Cynwulf in Hellfire Peninsula. I knew there was no going back to the 51-60 bracket that I knew so well with him.
It was time to move on.
WHEN IT IS TIME TO MOVE ON
I enjoyed playing Cynderblock so much that I rolled another warrior, Ashwalker, with the intent to level her. Ashwalker has taken up most of my alt time these days. I’m having a blast with her, questing, tanking, PvPing, seeing all the things I want to see in Cataclysm from the ground up.
At level 20, it was strange playing Ash over ‘block, because she had… half the health of my twink? Even decently geared with full heirlooms, there was a huge gulf between the twink and the leveling toon, but the playstyle was very similar, and therefore very comfortable. I tried Arms for a while, but eventually settled back into Protection, first to help tank some instances, then because it was fun in its own right.
By the time I hit the 40s, though, I was starting to get nervous. How does this new stuff work? Where do I put things on my bars? What am I missing? What do you mean, I don’t need to stance dance to Charge? When should I use Whirlwind? Should I look at Arms again? What about Fury? What about PvP?
So I locked my XP at level 49 until I could get my mind caught up to my character.
I talked a little bit about this in the 5×2 Project, but I found this pause really helped me out. It gave me time to fiddle with macros and keybinds and screen layout. It let me figure out what abilities I really needed to hit more often, and which ones didn’t make sense to use anymore. It even gave me time to set up my dual spec correctly!
What it didn’t do was give me a chance to try things out in PvP. I did queue, but never saw a single queue pop. Not one. If I wanted to try something out, I had to try it out in a dungeon. Not that dungeons weren’t valuable, because they were!
But it taught me how to tank well at 49. Not PvP well, but tank well. That’s important, too.
I found myself tempted, while XP was locked, to go do crazy twink things. I very seriously considered getting the Argent Champion and Ambassador titles at level 49. (I have the Argent Crusade tabard as a result.) I considered trying to get her twink-level gear and solo instances at level.
The temptation was strong. I’ll admit it.
But I did the right thingt; I spent only a few days at 49 before finally admitting that I’d gotten the main benefit from the exercise and turning XP back on again. I no longer felt overwhelmed by my abilities or bars. I was back in control. I was comfortable with the talent tree I’d chosen, of my macros, and of how to play. I didn’t need to grind dungeons for titles.
No, after some reflection it was very clear that I don’t need to spend months in the battlegrounds anymore to learn how to play a character. When I did that on Cynwise and Cynwulf, it was because I was not just learning the class – I was learning the game. I was learning how to win the battlegrounds, how they worked.
I needed the six months of time to get my first character up to 80, because there was so much to learn. This included how to play a class, but it also included how to play. I don’t need to learn those lessons again – but I do need to learn how to play a warrior. While that includes leveling, it also includes the endgame, and I know I have a lot to learn there, too. I need questing. I need dungeon experience. I need balance.
Ashwalker just dinged 58, and has entered Outlands. I don’t know what I’m going to do next with her – maybe quest for some rewards, level her professions, run some dungeons, PvP up to 60 – but I still feel like I have a handle on playing a Prot Warrior.
Maybe my theory that XP-off battlegrounds are the best places to learn your class isn’t that good after all.
THE VALUE OF PVP PAUSES
I absolutely think that PvP is a great part of the leveling process. Leveling is, by its very nature, a learning process, and including PvP as part of it is really vital to understanding all of a class.
But it has to be balanced.
I have to be careful to not read too much into my own experiences. Yes, I spent nine months in ICC as a Demonology warlock, and while I understood it well enough to teach it to others, I never felt like I’d mastered it like I had Affliction and Destruction – the specs I had leveled as, the specs I PvPed with.
Yet, I raided well as Demonology. It wasn’t a mark against me that I couldn’t PvP with the spec – I didn’t need to PvP with it. I was there to raid.
It’s odd that we can play a spec, and play it well, and yet not feel like we’ve mastered it. I can look at my Warlock at 85, with her overwhelming number of buttons, and feel totally comfortable – yet my level 70 Druid makes me go AMG WHAT DOES THIS BUTTON DO.
It’s not just a question of complexity – it’s how we handle the complexity. We don’t start off with endgame characters for a simple reason – they’re too complicated to play well if you don’t spend some time leveling them.
It makes sense, though, when we look at why the leveling process exists. It exists to teach you how to play the class. Abilities are given gradually, to allow players time to absorb their use.
The PvP pause from XP-free battlegrounds was nice, and when no other options existed to lock XP, they were the best option to slow down your leveling. Now that you can lock your XP at will, the PvP pause isn’t the same, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. You can lock XP, figure things out in PvE, and then return to PvP when you’re ready to move on. It’s the reverse of how things used to work – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Balanced leveling is the best leveling.