Thursday, April 17, 2014

3.63. Algor Mortis

"Tauren Druid",
Artwork by Thiago Almeida

Applying Yourself

"Hanzo, I'm really starting to feel worn out with the tanking thing."

I listened quietly as Omaric spilled.

"It's not really holding my interest as much as it used to."

"I see," keeping as much emotion out of it as possible, "so, you'd like me to start looking for a replacement for that role?"

"I mean, if you can...it's not a HUGE deal at the moment."

"You won't keel over dead tomorrow if I don't have a replacement by Friday?"

"Heh, no. I think I'll live past Friday."

"Well, that's a relief!" I gently joked, hoping to keep the conversation light. My strategy with humor has always been to weave it carefully through the tapestry of politics. It's my go-to tactic in winning over anonymous players in the heat of an argument, and has surprisingly good results, even if we truly don't see eye-to-eye on a particular topic of interest. The human mind is funny that way.

"But maybe just sort of look out for someone who may want to come in and fill that spot? That way I can start moving into more of a kitty DPS position."

"Alright, let me sift through our applications. We should have you doing kitty DPS in no time."

I wasn't looking forward to what came next.

---

Delete.

Delete.

Delete.

I clicked through my email. App after app appeared on the screen, and I scanned the answers to my standard recruitment questions. What is your character name? How old are you? What role do you play? How did you hear about us? Tell us a story about your raiding experience. Why choose DoD over any other guilds? One by one, I read the applications that flooded in on a weekly basis, each one more useless than the next.

Some applications ignored the very first rule on the list: Do not apply if you're under 21.

Ah, wonderful....here's an 18 year old.

Delete.

Oh, nice, this guy's 16.

Delete.

Next up were continuous applicants who demonstrated a complete and utter lack of attention to detail. I needed raiders that could truly comprehend my expectations -- many of our raid strategies came from complex guides that required exacting attention. So, I wove a trick into my application process to cull the herd: You don't need a forum account to apply -- the application is filled out and emailed to me. Yet, there before my eyes was the very thing I hoped to prevent: people unable to read carefully. It made for an easy email filter.

"Hey I can't figure out how to create an account to apply."

Delete.

"Can you give me a hand creating a forum account? I'd like to fill out an application."

Delete.

One by one, the apps hit my virtual trash bin, until none remained. Snake eyes, again. Everybody wanted to get their foot in the Descendants of Draenor door, but nobody was willing to put the time or effort in. I sat there with an empty inbox an overflowing trash bin, and felt nothing but disgust.

"Capturellamaphobopolis",
Hanzo's contribution to The CTF Expansion Project

Setting the Standard

I leaned back in my chair and stared at the pinhole sized dots scattered across the ceiling. Perhaps I was being too hasty, perhaps a good handful of these applicants weren't nearly as bad as I made them out to be. A conversation popped into my head from a year earlier, the weekend before I left on a trip to Dallas, Texas on business...the same trip in which I drafted an officer's termination letter.

"I think you should think carefully about being overly critical of players that can't write particularly well."

"Jul, he writes like a kid. I mean, how is that supposed to demonstrate any sort of leadership?"

My wife shrugged, "Well, some people can't. You can go to school and learn the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation...but good writing is inherent. Does he have other skills that would qualify him for the position, though?"

"I dunno. I feel like he comes across as an amateur. As he's not leading by example. I need him to!"

"Have you considered the possibility that maybe he can't? Maybe he is prioritizing things in real life more than the game. You said yourself that a game/life balance is something that's important to you. Maybe it's important to him as well."

"Ok, so that should stand in the way of fundamental sentence structure? Maybe he could give me just a little more effort?"

"Shawn...some people don't care as much about WoW as you do."

---

Memories began to swirl, fading in and out across a cloudy spectrum of images. I was transported back in time to a conversation I had with a friend, years before Blizzard would ever announce their intention of creating an MMO. It was 1998, and I was sitting at a desk in a room purposefully darkened by the IT staff. Our collective introversion confined us to the server room; I was a webmaster. On that day, however, I was distracted by a side-project I had assembled: The CTF Expansion Project. It was a collection of Capture-The-Flag maps for the popular Threewave CTF mod for Quake, built by my friend Zoid. I'd known Zoid since even before Quake, playing 2D Fighting games at his apartment in Vancouver...Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Samurai Shodown II. I'd met hardcore game addicts on Vancouver Island before, but Zoid was different. When he picked me up at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, I immediately recognized the music playing over his car stereo: the soundtrack to Darkstalkers.

I thought I was the only person in the world that listened to video game music. There are others like me.

To celebrate the success of Zoid's popular Threewave mod, I did my part by coordinating a handful of expert map makers to come together and assemble an expansion pack of capture-the-flag goodness. The CTF Expansion Project enjoyed moderate success, eventually finding its way into a larger production known as All-Star CTF. I felt it was a great collaborative effort, but the true test would come from Zoid's own critique of my map selections. When I pinged Zoid, famous for his short, to-the-point responses, I asked him what he thought of the pack. I remember his response well:

"It was OK. You need to set your standards higher!"

I'm certain Zoid meant it as encouragement, but it felt like a crushing defeat.

A Slight Reduction in Body Temperature

My focus on the office ceiling resumed. Were my standards too high? Or not high enough? I debated relaxing the rules, and giving a few more of these applicants a chance, players whose applications weren't spit polished to a military grade. Right on cue, my gut chimed in.

Do you want to create more drama for yourself? Did you like the way things ran during Vanilla and The Burning Crusade? Perhaps you'd like to go back to neglecting your job and family to spend every waking moment in game, dealing with their shit.

I shook my head and alt-tabbed back to work. I wasn't going to sacrifice our guild's integrity and current standing to let the dregs in. I'd fought to get rid of the stigma that we were a stepping stone guild, and it was apparent from the flood of applicant emails that DoD was no longer perceived as such. We would be their last guild. To that end, I owed it to the members to retain that which I held in high regard: the expectation that you come to this guild prepared to do whatever it took to keep us successful. I'd rather have the team suffer with 24 or 23 players in the roster, than force several people in "just to be warm bodies".

Dead bodies are warm for a short time too...but aren't very good at contributing.

I sat for a moment, lost in thought, contemplating the loss of Dalans and proclamation by Omaric revealing his increasing apathy towards tanking, and began to consider the possibility of solving the problem myself.

Oh, nice. So that whole bit about not forcing players into a role they didn't enjoy, that was all just a line you were feeding them? And yourself? Gonna go ahead and return to tanking, then? Tanking with a Shadowmourne? Bet that'll go over real well with the guild.

I needed a new tank. Someone to emerge with the expertise of a hardcore player, yet could assimilate into a guild insistent on mutual respect and treating others with a quiet dignity. Someone who was already fully geared, and who kept their armor polished, with their point-of-view squarely focused on raid progression through raw efficiency. And someone with a solid grasp on the game's mechanics, to mentor others, to take charge of duties, and to be someone I could count on week after week.

So, basically...I needed a miracle.

The ping of an arriving email rung through my earbuds and I glanced back down to the inbox. My eyes darted from left to right, reading the application...and grew wide in excitement. I flipped open the guild forums, pulled up the private messages, and quickly drafted up a response to Omaric:

"May have found a tank replacement for you. Stand by for further instruction."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

3.62. Diplomacy for Dummies

The 25-Man defeats Profession Putricide,
earning "The Plagueworks (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel

The Politics of Raiding

The third wing of ICC was now open for service, and although the 25-Man progression team plowed through the The Blood Prince Council without batting an eye, we came to a dead stop at Blood Queen Lan'athel. Attempt after attempt went into the vampiric blood elf, her wings spread wide as she feasted on each player of the raid, injecting them with their own insatiable blood lust. A discussion on what needed to change was dominating the guild forums, but theories varied. Notably, Jungard had been in talks with Blain about the possibility of pushing out the first bite in order for the raid to gain precious seconds near the end. Additionally, Blain offered to assist Jungard (and in turn, Omaric and Bretthew) in handling bite assignments -- a degree of micromanagement Blain was famous for. On the surface, Omaric and Bretthew seemed to welcome the help; behind the scenes, I remained suspicious of their sincerity. The 25-Man was their show now, and to have the old raid leader resume old habits...even unofficially...must have rubbed them the wrong way. Omaric, in particular, was the one I was concerned about. Known for his habitual back-seat raid leading during Cheeseus' reign, Blain's reach must have felt a bit overextended. But, Blood Queen remained undefeated, and I'm certain this was part of the reason Omaric took Blain's help, rather than reject it.

Shadowfrost Shards continued to be sent to my bags, but little else; I kept mum while the majority of upgrades went to the Elite, and what table scraps remained began to show up on the character sheets of the Raiders. The lack of shinies contributed to my funk; the loss of one of my longest running guild members and officers, Dalans, hung heavy. It wasn't long before I expanded to fill the vacuum left in his absence. Without his ever present strong-arm tactics ensuring guildies played by the rules and kept their whining to a minimum, the need to perform those duties on my own took root. I grew less tolerant of mistakes, expected more from people, and was less inclined to meet the needs of the Raider over the Elite. Complaints that they weren't seeing as frequent of loot upgrades as expected were met with little sympathy from me. My inner voice took command, repeating to them the tenets of the guild's philosophy:

The "Raider" rank enjoys more flexibility than the "Elite"; that's why they get 1st round bidding rights. That's their perk. Your perk is that you get to come and go as you please. You don't get to have the cake and eat it, too. If you want more loot, give me greater commitment, just as the Elite have. End of story.

The Raiders weren't the only ones on the receiving end. I grew increasingly distasteful of Omaric and Bretthew's "loosey goosey" leadership style, one rife with chatting and jokes, making light of mistakes that were our downfall in an earlier expansion. Where once I approved of their fun-loving, playful atmosphere, I now sat and stared it down with stilted eyes. After calling them out several times on their lack of focus, they dug their heels in and expressed their dissatisfaction with my handling of their promotion, pointing out that I had yet to officially acknowledge them as DoD's new 25-Man raid leaders. Those who walked the hallowed halls before them, Cheeseus and Blain, had been paraded down the red carpet like kings returned from a holy war, now ready to lead our people to victory. Yet no forum post existed in Omaric or Bretthew's name. I told them it was an oversight. In reality, it went much deeper. They hadn't yet won me over. Yes, they were doing the job, achievements were being knocked out, progress was being made -- but they hadn't persuaded me of their leadership.

I wasn't yet in a position to make that fact known. While I certainly had control over the roster, options in the leadership department were still minimal at best. And a charge like that would be far too damning to players driven by their emotions. Between the former back seat raid leader and the paladin who concocted a story to hide the truth behind a temper tantrum, this situation clearly required finesse. I agreed with them on the finer points of their argument. You're absolutely right. I haven't acknowledged your efforts. It needs to be done. And I wrote the post marking them as the officially sanctioned raid leaders of DoD, supplying a bulleted list of all of the accomplishments they cleaned off our plate. The negotiation had silently begun. The next time we'd speak, it would be me with a list of demands.

That was the plan, at least.

The Blood Council fails to deliver 25k damage to any
player, earning DoD "The Orb Whisperer (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel

Hell Freezes Over

One evening, as we cleared our way toward Festergut and Rotface, Hellspectral had become noticeably louder in Vent. An hour earlier, I began to pick up on hints that something wasn't right. Normally quiet during the boss fight, Hellspectral was feeding off of Ben in Vent. The shadow priest's insane numbers went hand-in-hand with deafening screams that pissed off anyone wearing a half decent set of headphones. And in staying true to his PvP roots, this behavior was generally followed by any number of trash-talking insults toward guildies who managed to meet or exceed his "contributions" -- that playful way that PvPers expressed admiration in the same way the common man would express disgust. On this particular evening, Hellspectral took it upon himself to do just that, not only matching Ben's entry in Recount, but his volume in Ventrilo as well. Without Dalans' itchy trigger finger to mute him, Ben and Hells competed uninhibited in damage and in decibels.

Things went south when Saurfang fell over dead.

In those next moments of transitioning through Saurfang's doorway, down the hallways guarded by icy traps, Hellspectral continued on his tirade as if drunk from a night on the town. This behavior came to a head when we arrived at the entryway forking to Putricide and his two pet abominations, Stinky and Precious, guarding their respective masters.

"I've had enough of this! Imma take a nap," Hellspectral announced. An awkward silence fell over vent, as everyone knew exactly what my stance was regarding leaving a raid early: zero tolerance, followed by instant, permanent removal from the guild. They waited to see if the death knight would hearth and log out -- he did neither. Instead, his virtual self stood motionless, staring at one of the walls of the citadel's chambers. Reality set in. He wasn't behaving as if he were drunk...

..he was drunk.

"Are you fucking serious?" I, at last, broke the silence.

"Is he gone?"

"I think he's passed out."

Rage and fury began to paint my screen red, as I alt-tabbed to the desktop, dragged Hellspectral into a separate Vent channel, proceeding to scream at the top of my lungs in an attempt to "wake him up". There was no response. I was stunned. Never in the history of my guild had any of the core raid team ever passed out drunk in the middle of a run. Moments later, Blain joined the channel.

"I can't fucking believe he's doing this. What is going through his mind? I'm one step away from kicking him. This is totally unacceptable behavior."

And then, Blain did something that completely caught me off guard.

"I've got this. Let me handle it. Head on back to the raid channel. I'll take care of it."

Mature completes the Ashen Verdict reputation grind,
Icecrown Citadel

Mischief Managed

Blain? Mediating? Never in the history of the guild had Blain ever shown any interest in dealing with people issues. His leadership style had forever been "My Way or the Highway", a style I adopted in some form or another. If it had been any other day, or any other guildy...if a cord was about to be cut, Blain would've been the first to offer to hold the scissors. Why was he doing this thing that was so unconventional of him?

I didn't know how to respond, so in my stupor, I simply spoke back into the mic the first thing that came to mind...

"Thank you...for doing that."

I returned to the raid channel joining a conversation already in progress. Players were joking about placing bets about how fast Hellspectral would be unguilded. 

"Ok, everyone...settle down. The issue is being handled. Let's continue." The raid smartened up, and quickly resumed the process of pulling trash...albeit a bit quieter and more focused than before. Blain soon joined us in the channel as well. We made it through the rest of the raid that evening, sans Hellspectral, and at some point during that night, Blain typed a whisper over to me,

"You'll be hearing from him at some point in the near future."

I thanked him again for the intervention, but was still no less shocked that he performed it.

---

Right on schedule, Hellspectral contacted me a few days later, after sobering up and mustering the courage to face whatever wrath I had planned for him. He apologized profusely for his behavior, stating that he had let it get out of control, taking full responsibility -- he never once blamed anyone but himself. I admired his honesty and courage in finally stepping up; I was willing to work with players who accepted their shortcomings and made moves to solve them...since I had no shortage of similar faults. If I put the effort into improving, so could they, I thought it was a fair expectation to levy on my roster...

...but I couldn't help but wonder if I was going soft. Should I have given him the permanent boot? How many chances should a player get to prove themselves before the dreaded double-standard sets in?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

3.61. The Field Where He Grew Them

Kerulak, dressed in full Ten Storms, stands alongside
Dalans, dressed in full Stormrage Raiment,
Orgrimmar

OMG! Bare Durid is Storng!

In the beginning, I didn't know if Dalans was going to last.

"He's at it again," Graulm whispered to me. The warlock, my Number Two, struggled to guide me through the after effects of a recently completed guild assimilation. Incorporating The Final Cut into our ranks was the final shove that pushed us through the door into 40-Man raiding, but it came at a cost. A veritable melting pot of personalities were now among our ranks, and not all of them had yet adopted "the way of the guild leader". When I gazed out across the virtual world that populated Deathwing-US, my conclusion was that most players couldn't give a fuck. This was a game; it was populated by gamers, and most of them cared little (if anything at all) about one another. Casual attitudes were swallowed whole, and predatory trolling was met with more aggressive trolling. Natural selection appeared conservative by comparison, watching how the hardcore fed off of the casual. In this rawest form of survival, kill-or-be-killed translated literally into both the fields of PvP and PvE, extending further on to the Battle.net forums where whining and taunting was commonplace. In my quest to create an environment unlike any other guild on the server, I steered my roster away from the forums as a means to avoid the disrespect and waste.

But, my newest players hadn't yet become privy to DoD's way of life, and after my second-in-command discreetly pointed out his behavior several times post-merge, it was clear I would have to address Dalans directly.

Dalans liked the forums. A lot. He swarmed them. With the razor sharp tongue of a seasoned gamer, he sliced into the forums like a Sushi Chef. As I reviewed his posts, there was a common theme. Amid the vitriolic personal attacks, Dalans remained surprisingly loyal to this brand new guild he called home. He espoused support for this new family, degrading all attackers who dared challenge our guild's credibility. I appreciated his fierce dedication, but it had to be controlled. Whatever name we had made for ourselves as a respectful, mature guild would quickly fly out the door if Dalans were left alone too long. My gut told me that there was great value buried deep in his character, and blanket threats to "change your attitude" would only fuel the rage further. In those early days of leadership, I made many judgement calls that felt right. I had consumed no leadership training materials, and it would be over a year before I'd meet Ater face-to-face, having our daily lunch rituals, schooling me on the fine art of directing human traffic.

So, my gut told me to appeal to the gamer in Dalans. Show him that we shared a mutual love of disliking idiot players, that we both had high expectations of one another, and that we were ultimately two faces of the same war -- the war on incompetence. After upgrading our guild's forums, I found a funny Currier and Ives painting a WoW player had painted over with cartoon dialogue balloons. In the painting, the characters spoke in the broken, horribly misspelled language of WoW players, commenting on the state of the druid class and its power. I sent it over to him, suggesting he use it for his forum signature. He laughed, promptly editing it down in size and affixing it to his profile. Building those gaming-related bonds helped ease into administrating Dalans, in an attempt to curtail his forum rants. He agreed to my demands. There was a bit of resistance, but I expected some; I would've been disappointed had he not put up any fight at all. It was that thick bear skin, after all, that was what appealed to me from a guild leader perspective. My roster needed a thick skin, especially considering what we were up against.

As we slowly etched away at raid content, after our late start midway through Vanilla, Dalans was always the first to report our boss progress on the Deathwing-US forums. This topic, maintained by players in the guild Inertia on the Alliance side, was rife with insult and mockery. Always ready to point the finger and laugh at how far behind we were, rarely acknowledging that we now sat among an elite few on the server that was making any progress in raids, Dalans kept his word to me. He promised to restrain himself, though it must have had been difficult. The trolls rarely let up. But Dalans stayed true to his word, continuing to post our boss kill progress even before I had our own forums announce said accomplishments. His undivided attention to our guild was impressive...

...or was that oppressive?

Dalans transforms into ROBO BEAR by
wearing Void Reaver's destroyed head,
Tempest Keep: The Eye

Is U Liek a Nise Hot Cup o Mangel?

When I first considered Dalans for a promotion to officer, I thought I had gone mad. I wasn't alone. Floating the idea around the officer pool was met with handfuls of really? I expected that most felt he wasn't nearly mature enough for the responsibility. I disagreed. Tact notwithstanding, I knew he was a gamer at heart, a person who would forever hunger for greatness, maintaining high expectations of both himself and his peers. It was a philosophy I shared, so a promotion was the logical decision to make. The officer pool in DoD ultimately needed to be an extension of my own ideals. Even though I sometimes felt like raiding with Dalans was like carrying around a live grenade in my backpack, he diligently served as druid officer, and matched our expectations to keep his players in a straightened military file. The druids we brought to raids complained little, kept their gear min/maxxed, and none complained of their role as healer during Vanilla. And they had no reason to: it was public knowledge within Descendants of Draenor that Dalans himself hated healing. But, like the guild leader, he led by example; instead of complaining, he embraced Restoration, consistently topping the meters among druid healer pool.

When The Burning Crusade launched, the druid class (as many others) finally came into their own, broadening in capacity to fill multiple roles. It was then that Dalans cut over to tank, a role he passionately looked forward to performing. By this point, his hot-headed handling of haters had been focused inward for so long, he commonly wielded his officer powers swiftly and with little remorse. Some argued it was abusive; for me, it wasn't always clear. Some complainers deserved instant silence for their annoying rants, others...I felt could have been shown a bit more compassion. Dalans didn't have time for compassion. Like the gamer attitude that brought him to my attention, it was the gamer attitude that kept him from seeing the other side of the situation. Was a player like Ekasra responding poorly to criticism because of a palpable lack of skill? Or was it a failing computer? Self-esteem issues? Problems on the home front? These things didn't matter to Dalans, so it was up to me to arbitrate, and bring both parties to the table.

Much of early Burning Crusade was spent in diplomatic negotiations with Dalans. He refused to budge on his hypercritical stance regarding players that failed. I agreed with him: excuses had no place in our raid team, but still I felt his tolerance of the inadequate could be increased, made to be more loose and fluid. The mathematics behind game mechanics are black and white, but people are a constantly shifting cloud of grays. Over time, the banhammer came down with less frequency, Dalans reserving his tyranny for only those who annoyed him in truly exceptional ways -- the height of which was reached during the final months of The Burning Crusade, as a mage named Wyse continued to press his buttons relentlessly. 

It was also during these last months of the first expansion that, for the first time, Dalans began revealing more of his personal life to me, the result of which most likely came from my promoting him to fill Ater's shoes. Dalans confided in me which helped take my mind off the loss of Ater, and in doing so, built up a much stronger relationship than we'd shared to that point. Extensive conversations revealed insight into the person behind the bear; we shared an interest in music like Front Line Assembly, and that he would most likely pursue IT professionally, just as I had years earlier. This reveal, however small, meant a lot to me. I knew how well guarded Dalans carried himself. For example, many players in the roster had revealed their real-life pic by this point, yet Dalans kept it well-guarded, in much the same way as our rogue raid leader did, preferring to keep a "church and state"-like separation of gaming and real life. 

I was amused, therefore, to discover both Dalans and Blain coincidentally shared the same first name in real life.

By the end of The Burning Crusade, I'd emerged from my depression bearing a tablature of re-written rules that the guild would adopt for Wrath of the Lich King, never once stopping to realize that Dalans was now my Number Two. He had taken on the role of that which had criticized him so many moons earlier, the role responsible for jeopardizing his very existence in DoD. The student had become the teacher.

---

As we transitioned into WotLK, Dalans continued with his formidable tanking. He and I stood side by side in many of those early fights: Malygos, Sartharion, the myriad of bosses intertwined inside Naxxramas. When I looked to shift from Class Officers to Role Officers, I felt strongly about the need for a second Number Two, someone to be the yin to Dalans' yang. For someone who lobbied heavily during Vanilla upon the platform of "too many cooks in the kitchen", Dalans surprised me yet again by not only supporting the idea, but being instrumental in the decision of choosing Neps. It was Dalans who put my fears to rest when contemplating the risk of elevating a PvPer to power.

He and Neps built a core team of leadership unmatched in DoD's history. Neps, like Dalans, had a critical eye for play, but his demeanor was more relaxed and subtle; the perfect balance that I needed to offset the druid's short temper. I was never terribly proud to hear that Dalans had "gone off" on one of my players, but I continued to smooth things over as needed, because secretly, I wished that I had the balls of steel to deliver such swift and brutal punishment to players unwilling to make the small sacrifices we asked of them. I wished for his ferocity at hammering into content until it was complete, whatever the cost. To Dalans', there was no such concept as game/life balance. It was all game, and you did it until it was done. When others blew it, Dalans brought home the gold.

Dalans shows off his Plagued Proto-Drake,
Dalaran

No Thanks LOL!

As we began the ascent of Icecrown Citadel, the core of the leadership team felt intact and unbreakable. Jungard led melee, Eacavissi headed the ranged DPS, and Gunsmokeco drove the healers. Omaric and Bretthew led the 25-Man progression team by the hand each and every week, while my original raid leader Blain quietly fed me observations on what they were doing right or wrong. Above them sat Neps and Dalans, polar opposites in demeanor but identical in expectation. Our pace was superb: Festergut and Rotface had already met their fate. Professor Putricide was our only obstacle from reaching the halfway point through this new instance. I was focused on the finely tuned raid machine, oblivious to the warning signs creeping up around me.

Role-specific needs of the raid team were changing with the needs of the encounters. Omaric and Bretthew were tanking every week, and since I had taken on more DPS-related duties, the only tank that remained was Dalans. For the Professor, control of the Abomination would usually go to Omaric, with Bretthew handling the slime-based excitement on the floor. More and more, Dalans was asked to flip into a role of DPS, which he obliged as openly as he had with healing years earlier. The struggles of the druid to fill multiple roles were now nearly forgotten, its flexibility being one of the primary attractions that drew Dalans to the class in the first place. But by shapeshifting from bear to cat, Dalans gave up his command as well as his bulk -- a blow that most certainly caused him to question his relevance in the team. I could see his side of things. I felt the exact opposite with tanking, performing my duties out of blind obligation to the guild, the lull to return to DPS loud in my mind and difficult to ignore. But perhaps other factors were coming into play.

Perhaps we shared more than an interest in industrial music and technology-based work. Deep down, I think Dalans was a sentimental fool like myself, though he would be loathe to admit it. Quietly, he pined for the days of Vanilla, when the 40-Man raid rewrote the definition of the word epic. Accomplishments did not come easy -- bosses required weeks and weeks of work, ear-piercing screams and cheers filling Vent as these bosses crashed dead to the floor. The raid game had changed so significantly, that perhaps Dalans felt more and more distanced from the game that it once was. After all, this landscape was entirely alien to a person who cut his teeth on games so difficult that those who failed in their pathetic attempts were in huge abundance...and ripe to receive his wrath. That wrath was now a distant whisper, eeked out of him by both a compassionate guild leader that relentlessly compelled the bear to treat all players with respect and dignity, regardless of their skill. Or perhaps it was wrung out of him by the game itself, now opening its doors wide to both elitist min/maxxers and failboats alike. Sure, I missed the days when bosses like Ragnaros and Nefarian crashed down under our boot, but the administrative logistics behind such epic encounters were painfully abhorrent -- there had to be a better way. This was it. Wrath had finally attained that fine balance which could serve both the casual and the hardcore, and in the process, easing administration to the point that we could all enjoy a healthy game/life balance.

...but, what if you're uninterested in game/life balance? 

What if that thing that drives you back to the game each and every night is that very same thing that makes you who you are? I don't understand why people climb mountains, jump out of airplanes or drive Indy cars around a track 500 times -- but these people do these things because it is in their blood. The passion to scale a mountain, hurtle toward the Earth or drive at speeds that put your life in jeopardy is a fire that exists in those people -- it is all the meaning they need to do it. It exists. The same is true of a gamer, who shuns the social norms of going out for drinks with friends, or hanging out at a club, in lieu of fixating on an internet dragon, coordinating button presses with the intent on a kill. That passion is no less strong, especially among gamers seeking competition and the thrill of accomplishment. At last, the mountain is scaled, the parachutist touches down and the Formula One race car crosses the finish line. Whether from the audience or inside the mind's eye, the cheers can be deafening.

So...what happens if that is the thing that is removed?

The 25-Man Progression team poses for a
victory shot at the defeat of Professor Putricide,
Icecrown Citadel
Those cheers had all but subsided. The thrill of victory, of the great accomplishment, had finally been snuffed out. Dalans finally came to terms with the fact that the game he once knew and loved no longer existed. What existed in its place he no longer shared the same passion for, because it wasn't what made him who he was. Even as I pounded the table throughout the years that there absolutely could be a way for World of Warcraft to strike a balance for both the casual and the hardcore, it was never a vision Dalans had for the game. To me, Blizzard had done it. They had achieved greatness, at long last.

To Dalans, greatness had faded from WoW long ago.

I wasn't surprised to hear what reasons he felt he needed to give me. Real life was taking over, he was in the process of securing a half-decent job, dominating his off-hours. I understood the predicament and felt no obligation to press it -- he didn't owe me anything. I thanked him for his dedication to the guild and his ferocity to defend our name to the bitter end. Professor Putricide was the final boss that Dalans was present for in the 25-Man progression team, and when he parted ways with the guild and game, a swarm of support filled the Leavers Lounge, acknowledging the many feats and contributions he delivered to my guild.

We tried many times over the years, but Dalans never again returned to World of Warcraft. Instead, he observed from afar, helping administer the guild via the forums. Now positioned behind an IT desk, Dalans delivers that same unbridled fury and rage toward idiot computer users that once shone brightly toward idiot players. We talk daily over IM, and as you can probably guess, he continues to demonstrate a fierce loyalty toward DoD by being the first person to review and edit every blog post that I write, still delivering on that high expectation of perfection and accuracy he promised me when I reached for that promote button years ago.

In the beginning, I didn't know if he would last. In the end, I'm thankful that Dalans lasted as long as he did.


~~~

QQ bounced off him, blow by blow.
His fierceness was, at last, the sign
To put to rest all of the whine
While staffing bitches, to and fro.

*Apologies to John McCrae

Thursday, March 27, 2014

3.60. Dead Men Do No Deeps

"WOW : Blood Elf Death Knight"
Artwork by Timo Paananen

Tools 2.0

Oh, nice. I see the new guy is beating you again. How long's he been in the guild? What...three minutes?

As much as I proselytized Blain's motto to the guild, my own consciousness remained impervious to it. My damage suffered, and the first inclination was to always blame a desperate lack of gear as the possible root cause. The 25-Man progression raid continued to loot upgrades in ICC week after week, yet I remained quietly in the back, watching them pass me by, a kid pressed up against the glass of the candy store. With no DKP in my pockets, hunger pains persisted. Descendants of Draenor's longest running master looter eventually took notice, shooting over a whisper one night as we transitioned back to trash:

"Why aren't you looting?" Neps asked.

"Can't," I fired back a reply, "Still no DKP."

"It's been weeks."

"No choice. Still in the hole after getting Bheer's trinket."

"Yeah, but that wasn't your fault."

I sighed. Neps was right, but that changed nothing about what the rules were. That spend had to come from somewhere, and it wasn't OK make allowances for myself while the remainder of the raid did as I said, and not as I did. So I kept a stiff upper lip while players like Hellspectral closed the gap. There are other ways of improving your DPS. There's always another way. It was time to hammer some new nails in. And not with bare hands.

---

The first tool I turned to was Rawr. Developed by a handful of impassioned raiders looking to back their min/maxxing with raw numbers, Rawr allowed me to load up a profile that mirrored Mature's specifics: race, professions, and current gear loadout. Once a replica of my death knight was set up in Rawr, the application mathed out the most appropriate upgrades, enchants and gems. Rawr gave the entire fifty-thousand foot view of a character, even going so far as to recommend possible talent changes for DPS variances that existed between specs. Looking at the multicolored bar graphs sometimes revealed glaring deficiencies in approach; in some cases, it meant the difference between competence and ignorance. I spent my afternoon lunch hours playing with gear options, tweaking talents points, and watching Rawr redistribute the bar graphs appropriately. I adjusted those configuration options, experimenting with various builds until I saw the greatest combination of changes providing the most impact.

Another up-and-coming tool for the Death Knight class began to rise to prominence at this time. DKSimulator, written by a fellow going by the name Kahorie, claimed to run a theoretical DK through the motions after being given a starting set of statistics to work with. Specifying attributes like like hit and expertise while being tempered by varying levels of strength and critical strike showed me an alternate "perfect world" of where my damage should be.

The raiding environment was rarely a perfect world.

In most cases, I'd take data pouring out of the simulation with all the seriousness of a spilled salt shaker. A million and one factors separated simulation from reality. How much movement does the encounter force upon the player? Are there piles of adds to have to deal with...and are those adds even a priority for the DK? What degree of survivability goes into the encounter? Are you forced to face the front of the boss in order to stay alive, thereby increasing how much the boss dodges and parries? How many DPS cooldowns are sacrificed in order to stay alive? It's hard to rank on World of Logs when you're face down in the dirt. Many raid encounters had their handful of gimmicks and environmental considerations, all of which could skew what a player was capable of producing, vs. the actual damage that filled up a Recount meter.

That's why I loved Deathbringer Saurfang.

His father may have named him Dranosh, but he was all training dummy to me. When I stood toe-to-toe with DoD's melee, I could focus entirely on my rotation, never once worrying about movement, survivability, adds, or any other distraction a typical boss threw at us. Nearly every encounter had factors that skewed reports, making them difficult to compare with simulations like what Kahorie gave us. But not Saurfang. For all intents and purposes, the numbers DKSimulator dictated should have been attainable. And I was hitting them.

So why did World of Logs continue to report such discrepancies when comparing with other death knights? Awash with frustration, I turned to PvP in search of answers.

Rawr,
an application used to assist players in "mathing"
out their talents, upgrades, and spell rotations.

The Sucking

It'd been quite some time since I last set foot in an arena. Sixfold had been my partner at the start of Season 5; I bounced back and forth between Arterea the priest and Aethist the shaman during Season 6 and 7 as the raid team tackled Ulduar and the Tournament of Champions. Now at the start of Season 8, partners were far and few between. I reached out to Neps one evening, asking him of his own team's status. He was unavailable, but repeated his original suggestion: ping the new warrior Sentra. He had a 3v3 team with an open spot; his partner in crime was a holy paladin named Nerffmeh. Unease set in.

My love/hate relationship with PvP continued to bother me. Every time I set foot in an arena, I felt like I was heading out on a date with an ex-girlfriend. You and I have nothing in common. So why are we doing this? I sucked at PvP, it was a completely different language. I'm not trying to mince words here: the level of suck I brought to PvP wasn't your typical  "Oh, it's not that bad, you're just getting your feet wet!" type of suck. We're talking a full on "Uninstall and kill yourself" degree of suckage. Teammates were driven to the brink of rage, and opponents reveled in my ineptness, an unheralded incompetence oozing from each fingertip. My gut knew exactly what my Achilles heel was the entire time.

You don't PvP enough. No practice = you loseCall a spade a spade. Someone will end up carrying you, so make the best of it. Play the game. Get to know these players a bit more. You could use the perspective. They may even teach you a thing or two. It's going to pay off later when you need to make them see your side of things inside a raid.

In the days of the Burning Crusade, PvPers I shoved into Serpenshrine Cavern, like Ouleg, were the most alien in the roster. Most dismissed the crowd as a bucket of d-bags that weren't worth the time or energy. It's easy to judge people you know nothing about, people outside of your own comfortable social setting. There you are, trying to make a guild a better place for players...and then you've got these guys. Aloof. Untouchable. They wore a perceived elitism proudly, that they were "too good" to stick around until the end of the raid. And every wipe-and-run-back was colored with insults and profanities that made you feel like you were personally wasting their precious time.

As if nobody else's time was precious.

Judging and dismissing them was the easy way out. I had proof they weren't all a bucket of douche. Annihilation, Neps and Haribo were three of the strongest, most reliable officers ever to set foot in DoD -- all three avid PvPers. No, I decided to put the effort in, so joining this 3v3 team was the logical next step. If Sentra was going to see raid rotations, I was going to have to develop a greater vocabulary of techniques -- not unlike how I convinced Ben to start texting me on raids he'd be late to. Contrary to popular belief, there are other important people in the world who rely on you, so it's important to follow through on your word. Ben got it. Could I make it happen with more PvPers?

---

Sentra confirmed he and Nerffmeh were searching for a partner for 3v3, "Yeah. Got a team goin' already."

"Great", I answered, "shoot me an invite and let's get this thing going."

A few moments passed, then the bong of an invite request rang out of my speakers. I accepted the request, then promptly popped open the Arena Team interface to read our team's name:

N GGERS

I stared at the screen, and had no words. This was going to be a long Arena season.

An example damage report of a death knight on
World of Logs

Devil in the Details

Back at the office, my failing damage continued to distract me. Chunks of coding time were broken up by pulling up World of Logs, drilling down into our last report, highlighting my detailed spell breakdown, then comparing with a top ranked death knight I bookmarked. The differences continued to be night and day. I fired open another browser tab, typing the URL to the WoW Armory, cross referencing this death knight to my own. Now, the differences were trivial: we were both heavily draped in gear from Ulduar and the Tournament of Champions. Yet his damage gouged massive gaping holes in the report...a far cry from what piddly scratches I made to the surface.

"Sup?" popped open the IM window from the system tray of the desktop. Long since retired from his role as my raid leader, now completely absent from World of Warcraft, Cheeseus was still actively a part of my day to day chatter. More than anything, he was a numbers guy. If the puzzle involved math, he'd solve it.

"Pissed that I can't figure out what's wrong with this damage report."

"I'm completely checked out of WoW, but you can try your luck and see what I can pull out of my ass."

"Long story short: Scourge Strike now hits as physical and shadow. Reports will break those casts out into two separate lines. So, assuming that one isn't a complete idiot...a Single Scourge strike that hits once should have two entries. With me so far?"

"Si."

"Perfect example is this report right here from a Deathbringer Saurfang kill. You will note in the report 14 Scourge Strikes. 14 entries that are physical, 14 that are shadow. Confirm that you see these and that I'm not high."

"Confirmed on the report entries. Can't speak to any drug addictions, tho."

I pulled up DoD's report from the previous weekend, drilled-down into Deathbringer Saurfang, then copied and pasted the URL into the IM client.

"Now look at my Saurfang from Sunday and tell me what's wrong with this picture."

Less than 10 seconds went by before I had an answer.

"Nothing. And you're silly."

I stared back at the IM client.

"OK. What glaring thing have I missed?"

"How many hits do you have?"

"15"

"And how many crits?"

"25...oh for fuck sakes...the shadow portion can't crit."

"Ha ha."

Something still wasn't right.

"Hold hold hold, back this bus up a second. This other death knight had 14 hits, 26 crits in both the physical and shadow. That doesn't make any sense at..."

...all?

"Son. of. a. bitch."

I glanced up at the date of the report in which the purported death knight was pummeling Mature in damage. December 8th, 2009. Opening day of Icecrown. Patch day. Three days before Blizzard would make a blue post warning unholy death knights that Scourge Strike was too bursty in 3.3 and would need to be toned down. I'd been comparing Mature's damage to a bogus report all along, inflated for the one night this top ranked death knight's guild ran Icecrown. That one and only evening Scourge Strike wailed on anything and everything, propelling her to the top of the charts. Charts that World of Logs did little to curate.

I scurried for another, more recent report, in an attempt to find a top ranked death knight. The russian alphabet filled my screen with glyphs indecipherable. I zoomed in on the the telltale deep blood red color that painted death knights in reports. His magic number for the evening: 7239. Mature's? 7884. I slumped back in the chair, satisfied.

For the moment...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

3.59. Strychten

"Rotface"
Artwork by Nooblar

Taking a Hot Shot

The Olympic Volleyball team, players finely honed, muscles sculpted and senses heightened to near superhuman levels, has just made a startling announcement: they will be dropping out of the Olympics to pursue a spot in this year's San Bernardino International "Spike That Drink" Pee-Wee Tournament.

I'm going to guess that one of two thoughts just entered your mind:

"Wow, the rest of the kids in that tournament are about to get a serious beating."

...or was it closer to:

"Uh, why is an Olympic team competing at a Little League level?"

Well, which was it? I have to confess that, for me, it was both. To the relief of amateur and professional athletes the world over, my particular experience had nothing to do with the fictional account of Olympians choosing to put the smack down on a bunch of high school kids.

For me, it was something that hit closer to home, but was no less absurd.

---

"This doesn't make any sense," I spoke into the mic as we headed back to the instance, riding on the back of a ghostly wyvern.

"We must be missing some key mechanic," added Klocker.

"Possible we don't have the deeps," said Blain.

I found that hard to believe, "How is our DPS any different than Eh Team? Seriously?"

"Could just be the mix and match of their particular group..."

I stopped him, "OK, two years ago maybe that would've been an excuse. But it goes against every game design Blizzard's preached throughout Wrath this entire expansion. 'Bring the player, not the class', remember? It can't possibly be tuned that tightly to favor their makeup over ours. This is normal mode, for God's sake!"

Si Team's steamrolling had come to an abrupt halt in the Plagueworks: Rotface. Wipe after wipe after wipe, we came within mere percentages of closing the deal. The fundamentals of raiding weren't even a consideration at this point: every weapon had been enchanted, every food buff and flask consumed. DPS rotations were as tight as they could possibly be...yet we were continually coming up short. Again, with a 3% wipe. And another at 2%. A gut wrenching wipe at 1%. Then, back to 2%, and back to 3%. A cloud of asphyxiating frustration swept in; my breath tightened. I swore I felt my blood pressure rising as easily as one could feel the burn of a hot stove element searing flesh.

Suddenly, a flood of spam filled guild chat with players typing "ROTFACE DOWN!!!1!1". The torrent of exclamations that followed read of "FINALLY" and "JESUS" and "FUCK THAT BOSS".

I fired off a response, addressed to those Eh Team members that were on, "WTF"”, I typed, "How in the hell did you guys do this?"

The first response came from Bretthew, "Rotface sucks serious ass."

Bulwinkul added in his two cents, "Something is seriously wrong with that fight."

Wrong or not, Eh Team stuck the proverbial fork into the leather faced abomination. Why couldn't Si Team?

"Maybe the encounter is just...broken."

---

We dispersed that evening, battered. The fight invaded my dreams and distracted my thoughts the next day. I struggled to focus on my work, as images of the abomination darted across the synaptic darkness. A slime here, a pool of poison there...fuck. Unexplained mysteries were the worst. Not knowing the answer was a thousand nails dragged down a chalkboard. My IM window shot open. A person I rarely heard from over instant messenger would deliver the drug that relaxed my veins and got the blood flowing again: Jungard.

"This just in: Rotface 10-Man nerfed"

Called it. "Well, well, well..."

"Yup. He's down a chunk of health, people are reporting it on the forums. Here's a link."

"I knew something wasn't right. Have they made an official statement yet?"

"No blue posts that I can tell, looks to be a stealth nerf."

As with all changes to the game that weren't immediately followed by announcements from Blizzard, theories began to circulate. Players were quick to jump on the conspiracy bandwagon, never once stopping to consider that, sometimes, companies don't always get everything right all the time. Having spent most of my professional career in software development, I could relate. Communication between those doing the work and those keeping the public informed wasn't as easy as lighting a stove, but more akin to cracking rocks of flint together in the hopes of sending out some smoke signals. It was possible the community managers simply didn't have the information from the dev team. I did my best to keep a level head during situations like this, giving Blizzard the benefit of the doubt.

Still, Ghostcrawler had done more this expansion than any in the history of World of Warcraft to keep the public in-the-know. Was there, perhaps, even the tiniest of possibilities, that something larger was afoot? It bore questioning, at the least.

"GC hasn't said anything? Eh, he's probably still drafting it up."

"My guess is it has something to do with the Strict 10 guilds. Probably bent out of shape because they can't supplement upgrades from the 25."

The what now?

The "Strict 10" categories as they appeared
on GuildOx during Wrath of the Lich King

The Fall of Alexander

"Strict 10s?"

"Yeah, you've seen 'em on GuildOx, right? Maybe Blizz is trying to make them uber competitive or something, and the 10s end up overtuned as a result."

I pulled up GuildOx, filtered down to the Deathwing-US server and began scanning the categories. Sure enough, sandwiched between the 10-Man and 25-Man achievements sat a new category: 10M Strict, with its own subset of filters to measure progression and ranks. Out of the primordial soup that was this expansion emerged a new, self-proclaimed "competitive" raider. Still dripping from the evolutionary mass, these guilds burned with all the hardcore intensity of the oldest and wisest raiding guilds ever to set foot in WoW, bearing a solitary, subtle difference. These raiders purposefully remained within the tight confines of a small guild, never growing above a dozen or so players...and certainly never reaching the size that a 25-Man raiding guild demanded. Yet, unlike the 10-Man guilds which had been casually consuming raid content in Wrath thus far, these newly evolved players climbed up the food chain to demand recognition as competitive raiders. 10-Man raids in "heroic" mode most certainly came as close as they could to deliver such demands, but of everything we'd experienced thus far, even the most difficult 10-Man heroics didn't hold a candle to the challenge demanded of in the traditional 25-Man.

Most surprising of all was that this new class of raider took themselves seriously enough to warrant their own server-first/world-first rankings. What fumes had these players been breathing in?

It boggled the mind. To me, Strict 10 guilds competing for world dominance made about as much sense as a team of Olympians demanding a spot in a Little League tournament. Again, the Not-Knowing infected my mind as I wrestled with the concept. Just as frustrating as it was to be missing the key to solving Rotface's oppressive difficulty (in 10-Man normal mode, no less), I struggled to wrap my head around this new raiding paradigm. Why would anyone that considered themselves a competitive player purposefully handicap the playing field in which they did battle? And all at once, the situation reminded me of another community in World of Warcraft:

The twink.

Without question, the twink was a horse of a different color. They were an eclectic crew that played by their own bizarre rules, the hipsters of WoW, driven by an internal desire to reshape the game to suit their own needs. If PvP was a bucket that collected the majority of WoW's liberal anarchists, then the twinks most certainly made up the radical left-wing of this party. Bucking the trend (or core mechanic, based on your perspective) of striving to reach a character's max level facilitating the acquisition of end-game content and its appropriate rewards, twinks derived orgasmic satisfaction by doing the exact opposite. Twinks refrained from leveling past the top of the decuple, favoring numbers like 29, 39, 49, and so on. Once arriving at this magical yet seemingly arbitrary number, twinks then dove deep into any and all available gear for that chosen "cap".

To explain this concept to the layman is like trying to explain why a professional race car driver diverting all of their time and energy into old beat-up Monte Carlos, Chevelles, Novas, and Power Gates from the 70's. People point and laugh at these relics of an ancient era as they cruise down main street, but hobbyists know the truth: they may not win any races, but are some of the most resilient automobiles when pitted against one another in a destruction derby. So when a professional race car driver chooses to funnel his interests into something a hobbyist does as a goof, one has to wonder: what's the motive? "It's just for fun", "I enjoy it!", and "It's a matter of preference" are all perfectly acceptable responses...none of which answer the question. Why? What benefit comes from changing the playing field?

The twink, much like the larger PvP culture it spawned from, cares little about public opinion. They answer to no one and feel no obligation to explain themselves. As a result of this obstinacy, we're forced to look at any data available and come to our own conclusions. Many different drivers could act as possible motives for this style of play. For one, it favors the extreme geek who loves to research and theory out various "greens" and their potential for max damage. It's also explored by a small fraction of the community, so perhaps it favors those who thrive in smaller groups of players, especially ones whose expertise will become apparent much more easily. After all, everyone needs to feel like they're good at something, right? But these are all still personal preferences and opinions, which can vary from player to player. We need harder data, something that doesn't change from player to player, when trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. The answer to that is quite simple, a fact that could quite possibly be the single driving factor for the existence of twinks in their entierety:

At levels below the current cap, World of Warcraft becomes a severely unbalanced game.

The game was never meant to be played permanently at levels below max. As a result, Blizzard simply has never put the time nor energy into balancing the game at those levels. Twinks know this fact well, whether they like to admit it or not. "Competition", therefore, is vastly skewed out of proportion at those less-than-max levels, and it is this drug that keeps them coming back to the dealer. They love that the balance is out-of-control at those levels, and don't care. It keeps them coming back to Warsong Gulch and Arathi Basin, fueling the junkies as their opponents explode in a mess of flesh and bone. Their enemies never had a chance.

...just like they themselves never had a chance, back when they attempted real competition at max level, and proceeded to have their asses handed back to them by players wielding true skill. Now, they leaned on the imbalance of lower levels to skew things in their favor. They couldn't compete on the field, so they changed the field.

The exact same thing that the 10-Man Strict guilds were doing.

"WoW Weekly 1: Rotface",
Artwork by Aleana

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

As I glanced at the Strict 10 categories on GuildOx, I thought of the twinks and how they shared a similar apathy towards both public opinion and the shape of the game itself. These so-called hardcore raiders seemed driven to compete against one another in their race to dominate PvE. But, the math fell apart at their size. Players that cut their teeth in guilds so large they could hold off an attack on their home city...were now settling for "keeping it small", uninterested in the raid machine of their former years. What was it that drove them to this bizarre frontier? Publicly, they said the same thing: "Preference. It's purely a matter of preference." The answer was a cop-out. I wanted to know why they preferred it small. Were these the rejects of larger, 25-Man hardcore raiding guilds who were unable to work with others, unable to get over their petty, personal issues? Was it because they told themselves they couldn't put forth a little effort into rearranging their lives around a larger guild's scheduling demands...when, in many cases, all it would take is a little planning on their part? Was it because they knew that the majority of guilds running 10-Man only raids were mostly comprised of players approaching content with a casual, laid-back attitude, so competing against these guilds would come off as impressive by comparison?

...or was it because they, like their twink cousins, knew the truth: 10-Man raids could never be balanced competitively against their larger 25-Man raids cousins.

Remember: this was primarily a hardcore crowd. They weren't stupid; the had done the math. Each and every way they laid it out on the table, a 10-Man raid's mechanics could never provide the difficulty of a 25-Man. Not unless Blizzard decided to bend the rules. If this Strict 10 crowd could evolve into something significant, perhaps Blizzard saw it as a boon, a way to make encounters appeal to an even broader range of player. For a split second, in that moment of space and time when the mystery of Rotface's difficulty remained unanswered, I had to question the possibility. Competitive 10-Man raiding? And the very first thought I had sent a chill down my spine colder than any Howling Blast a death knight could hope to deliver:

If it existed, why would anyone ever set foot in a 25-Man again?

---

Five days after the "stealth" nerf, one of Blizzard's community managers Crygil confirmed the hotfix, simultaneously confirming my suspicion and banishing all conspiracy theories out into the void. But the research into "Strict 10s" got me thinking...was it possible that Blizzard would take note of their efforts? It was a real possibility. After all, when the twinks yelled loudly enough, Blizzard added an option in-game to "toggle off" experience gains, which made the twinks' lives much easier, and validated their style of play.

What changes would Blizzard make to accommodate this unusual new type of raider?

At the end of the day, did it matter how people chose to play WoW? Not at all. What other players did to entertain themselves in game had no impact on my own enjoyment...

...that is, unless, their advocacy of this unorthodox experience helped shift Blizzard's design team into a new mode of thinking, perhaps even to favor it, poisoning our own experience in the process.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

3.58. Procrastinators Anonymous

DoD defeats all ten Faction Champions at once,
earning "Resilience Will Fix It (25 Player)",
Tournament of Champions

Sands Through the Hourglass

Blain wasted no time pushing Si Team toward achievement completion. He took hold of the 10-Man stagecoach with all the seriousness of his former 25-Man leading days that I remembered well. The last wintery month of 2009 saw our 10-Man's total obliteration of the first wing in ICC, a shower of achievements raining down in the process. Si Team's first official outing took place on the evening of Saturday, December 12th -- one day after the progression team's first exposure to Arthas' army. In that introductory run, we claimed victory over both "Boned (10 Player)" and "I've Gone and Made a Mess (10 Player)", but Blain wouldn't let up. The next two weeks were primarily spent alleviating the burden of "Full House (10 Player)", an annoyingly complicated kill in which the team artificially dragged the encounter out, spawning far more cultists than was necessary for a standard execution. Dispatching the cultists was easy...forcing an abundance of them to spawn while not being overwhelmed was a tad more vicious in difficulty. Still, Si Team had positioning and strategy polished by the 30th, knocking both it and "I'm on a Boat (10 Player)" out in the same evening.

Aside from the one signifying a full clear of the first wing, the 25-Man had not yet completed an ICC achievement.

Before you rush to condemn Omaric and Bretthew, however, allow me to add some context that may be absent from the story thus far. The dual 25-Man raid leaders had an entirely different mission to accomplish and were busy leading the flock to that end. As noted earlier, raiders who plowed through the Lower Spire were left with plenty of time on their hands, but this free time slowly trickled away as The Plagueworks' unlock date approached. Like a whiteboard from bizarro land, legacy boss names yet to be murdered still appeared in blood red. For Omaric and Bretthew, their immediate concern was to wipe the red away, and rewrite those names in black. Whatever held us up by this point -- gearing concerns, poor players over the holidays -- had to be put to rest.

---

Our tour of duty started on a cold evening in the middle of December, beginning with Faction Champions. Omaric and Bretthew led us through a granular, heavily micromanaged attack on the Alliance heroes. The goal was to have them all killed within 60 seconds of the first champion's death; the ten Alliance heroes would not make it easy for us. Not only were they randomly chosen from a pool of a possible fourteen, causing to us to adjust our strategy week-to-week, the fight unfolded as if we had dropped out of the sky and into an Arathi Basin blacksmith battle already in progress. Each enemy acted like a player would in PvP, they'd crowd-control, silence, fear, do everything they could to perplex the raid team. In order to pull this off, the raid team would have to demonstrate a bit of PvP savvy of their own -- street smarts that didn't often come naturally to players preferring PvE. Attempts to complete the achievement filled the majority of our evening, finally coming to a close at just three minutes shy of 10 o'clock. The Faction Champions lay at our feet on the floor of the coliseum, within the time dictated by the achievement. "Resilience Will Fix It (25 Player)" was off the whiteboard, the investment of time acting as a painful reminder that some of us needed to revisit Arenas.

The raid leaders weighed the differences in difficulty between what lay ahead in ToC against other outstanding red names. Their judgement was to shift gears once again. So, we returned to the snow-capped peaks cradling Ulduar. We hopped off our Ironbound Proto-Drakes to enter the ancient titan city, making our way deep behind enemy lines, through ancient twisting architecture, arriving at the sealed door marked by four elements. Omaric pressed his virtual hand up against the lock where four symbols were marked: a green leaf, red flame, white snowflake, and blue bolt of lighting. The locks beamed brightly upon activation and spiraled apart; the enormous doors slid open to reveal a massive chamber of stars. We approached via a long causeway, and the floor itself became glass as our insignificant selves collected near the circular platform. We were in the Celestial Planetarium, home to a timeless Titan guardian charged with observing the "Azeroth Experiment" in the absence of his creators.

This was Algalon the Observer, the solitary hard-mode only encounter in Ulduar.

DoD defeats Algalon the Observer,
earning "Observed (25 Player)",
Ulduar

Astral Walkers

When not fielding the excitement of homeless people suffering heart attacks at my front door, I had the luxury of attending a 10-Man defeat of Algalon a few weeks earlier. Much to the delight of the raid leaders, a sizable chunk of the 25-Man progression team shared similar exposure. Ostensibly, this first hand experience would ease us into a flatter learning curve for the more significant 25-Man execution on deck. The gamble paid off. No mechanics significantly differed between 10 and 25. The only noticeable change was the most logical: everything hit harder, the go-to stratagem Blizzard employed when attempting to scale raid difficulty. In many cases, scaling damage while keeping all other mechanics intact was a viable solution, the effect of which produced a "lite" version in 10-Man mode, perfect for those guilds who chose to approach raiding with a less serious amount of dedication. On the flip side, being exposed to this simpler version gave 25-Man raiding guilds an edge in learning the more brutal implementation. Like add-ons, I saw the 10-Man versions as tools, and we would take advantage of every tool we could in order to maintain competitive 25-Man progression.

Algalon attempts were noticeably tighter. One might predict this behavior was a result of the looming timer hovering atop the raid's UI -- a permanent reminder burned into all eyes that every second was precious...and slipping away. With only one hour of attempts per week, attempts had to be efficient, recoveries quick. It was imperative that the mechanics of the encounter remained fresh in players' minds from week to week. The more new faces we took each week, the tougher the challenge grew as we revisited mechanics: dodging the cosmic smash, watching out for the living constellations, being aware of black holes and their tendency to appear underfoot. Indeed, December was focused heavily on ridding ourselves of Algalon, and after what seemed like an eternity, he fell on the fifth week of attempts, two days after Christmas morning. To us, Algalon seemed to stretch out the fabric of time, but for the Celestial Guardian himself, it was a mere four hours and eleven minutes in a room with Descendants of Draenor.

Algalon's defeat by the 25-Man progression team marked our official completion of Ulduar in its entirety. To this day, it remains one of (if not) the most remarkable experiences ever put in front of us. The addition of a final "hard mode only" boss provided an unmatched level of polish to Ulduar. It was a final, significant challenge to sate the hunger of progression-focused raiders, giving them one last chance to push themselves to new levels, ones they most likely never thought achievable. In the changing landscape that was raid content in World of Warcraft, where "hard modes" were optional, and standard clears were a mindless endeavor, bosses like Algalon sent a message back to the raiding community:

We know that not all raiders share the same dedication to tackling difficult content, and that shouldn't be a barrier to entry...

...but some of you are still out there. Let's see if you have what it takes.


The 25-Man progression team poses after their defeat
of Algalon the Observer,
Ulduar
Descendants of Draenor took up that challenge, and became Astral Walkers for our efforts. "Hard mode only" bosses would show up again in Cataclysm and beyond, but Algalon the Observer would be last hard-mode only boss that Descendants of Draenor ever completed in 25-Man during its relevance in raid progression.

DoD keeps everyone from staying impaled over 8 seconds
during Lord Marrowgar, earning "Boned (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel

Cramming

A blue post confirmed our suspicions. The second wing of Icecrown Citadel, the Plagueworks, would unlock on January 5th, 2010. We'd spent December diverting all our efforts into ToC and Algalon; we had some catching up to do. The final weekend before the 5th saw the 25-Man progression team shifting into overdrive in an attempt to make up lost time. The first checkpoint was "Boned (25 Player)", an execution of Lord Marrowgar in which no member of the raid team remained impaled longer than eight seconds. Rogues and warlocks dominated this fight; burst damage exploded out of players like Riskers, Blain, Eacavissi and Mangetsu, essential to freeing impaled players. Sandwiched between their yellow and purple bars sat our lone boomkin Bulwinkul, bending the night sky to his whim as gestures painted in the air forced blasts of moonlight into Marrowgar's three heads. Meanwhile, I continued to focus my attention on improving DPS, noting that Hellspectral -- a fellow death knight whom had only just respecc'd to frost -- was quickly gaining on me. Without serious improvement on my end, he'd surpass me, a lathe continuing to shave off what little credibility I clung to as a means of justifying the first Shadowmourne.

Five different cultists are on deck as Lady Deathwhisper falls,
earning the 25-Man Progression team "Full House (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel
From there, we moved to Lady Deathwhisper, forcing the same artificially drawn-out kill that Si Team had, weeks earlier. We struggled to get the Lady in position, her green Death and Decay painting the floor as players leapt out of the way. Ghostly apparitions headed toward us like ticking time bombs as we called out for shields and freedoms. Melee proved the greatest threat to this achievement's execution: if targeted by a Vengeful Spirit, sprinting away from the tank was the immediate emergency maneuver. An AoE explosion produced by a Spirit reaching its target would most certainly kill the tank, taking out a chunk of other melee as collateral damage.

The Alliance Gunship is blanketed in explosions
as DoD earns "I'm on a Boat (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel

Omaric and Bretthew struggled to maintain control while handing the Lady off to one another. Her threat suppression mechanic increased Deathwhisper's likelihood of turning and swatting melee during this touchy transition. As we neared our completion of Full House, both Blain and Riskers had been dealt a fatal blow. Moments earlier, our warlock officer Eacavissi fell alongside Larada the hunter in a similar ghostly explosion. But the 25-Man team persevered. Lady Deathwhisper gasped her last breath surrounded by a myriad of cultists, and the golden bar flashed up on our screens indicating success.

Twenty-five swarm scarabs are destroyed in under thirty
seconds, earning DoD "The Traitor King (25 Player)",
Tournament of Champions
"I'm on a Boat (25 Player)" immediately followed, requiring little coordination beyond our standard setup. The cascade of explosions billowed out as the gunship lost control and plummeted downward to the glacier below. We then engaged Saurfang, burning every cooldown available, racing for a kill before he completed three casts of Mark of the Fallen Champion. We pulled it off with two hours to spare, granting us "I've Gone and Made a Mess (25 Player)". We immediately folded those remaining two hours in the Tournament, killing Anub'arak alongside twenty of his insectoid friends, a feat that granted us "The Traitor King".

---

As the final grains of sand trickled through the glass, our plate was in much better shape. We'd taken a huge bite out of the achievements in ToC; Algalon had also been devoured. We took a deep breath of relief and prepared for our entry into The Plagueworks. After the rush of challenging encounters behind us, I thought Team Si's first venture into the second wing would be a breeze.

I thought wrong.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

3.57. Obsessive Compulsion

"Bone storm"
Artwork by Ka7

Si Señor

The sharp, echoing shatter of a death knight's Icy Touch broke the silence. I glanced down at my phone, pulling up the SMS message. It was Blain:

"Forming a 10m team for icc. Want in?"

The first four years of my time spent in World of Warcraft saw me wrestling the delicate balance between game and real life. Finally, I had achieved some semblance of discipline in that regard, reducing my in-game time from "obsessive" to "measured". Maintaining a strict schedule of only two raid nights per week afforded me enough time to field all the remaining responsibilities on the other side of the screen. I ran my errands, paid my bills, grocery shopped, and spent time with the family throughout the week. Then, as the kids went to bed and Julie retired to her blogging, it was that evening time I utilized to piddle around, knocking out achievements or providing emergency services to other 10-Man teams looking for replacements. I glanced down at Blain's text and balked at the proposal. I had a good thing going. Did I really want to risk jeopardizing the balance I'd managed to wrap my arms around?

The lure of the game beckoned. My mind cycled through all of the latest changes to WotLK and how my administrative load had been lightened from the guild reboot. Taking both into consideration, my stress was the lowest it had ever been while running Descendants of Draenor. Perhaps I could finagle a tiny bit of additional raiding each week. I felt like I had earned at least that much. I thumbed a response into my phone:

"Schedule must be lite"

Another Icy Touch vibrated out of my phone.

"6-9. Anything past is too late"

I remembered Blain's east coast time zone, putting him two hours ahead of both me and the server.

"Dunno about 6. Too close to dinner after work"

Again, the Icy Touch.

"Get on when you can? 6:30?"

It was time to wrap up the negotiation. If I was going to sacrifice a little more of my free time, I needed to ensure I shaved it off of my administrative duties.

"Will join on one condition. You keep tabs on Omaric + Taba in 25"

"OK. Also have great name: Si Team."

I laughed at the juxtaposition, a clever play on words that poked fun at the Eh Team.

"Great name. Suspect Neps was involved"

A few minutes later, a final Icy Touch:

"See you Friday night"

I thumbed back my last response for the evening.

"Negative. 25m on its own this Fri. GL!!"

The 25-Man progression team was ready to begin digesting Icecrown Citadel, but the guild leader would not be present.

Mature clears the first four bosses in Icecrown Citadel
one week after the 25-Man progression team,
earning "Storming the Citadel (25 Player)"

Fly on the Wall

"You just about ready?" I called upstairs to the wife. Julie mumbled something back, indicating ongoing preparations. I took my seat at the computer for a moment, then immediately stood up and circled the room. Moments later, I was sitting again. Looking for something to do, I clicked around with the mouse, scrolling up and down through the list of names. The only visible app running on my desktop was Ventrilo, the "PvE" channel populated with twenty some-odd names. The roster for this evening's very first foray into ICC was coalescing, just as I had decided via their rotations. I listened in on their conversation, watching as the speaker icons lit up, digitized voices chatting away. But I only listened; I offered no response, even if addressed. I spun the mouse wheel up and down with my middle finger. Snap out of it. You're not here. You're taking the night off. I took my hands off the mouse, then rubbed them together, standing, and then proceeded to pace the room once more. I was killing time, and they did not need me. They don't need you. Everything was under control. Everything is under control.

"Is Mature logging on?"

"He's not here tonight. Gone to an office Christmas party."

"I see him in Vent, though."

"He's spying on you, planning your imminent removal."

"Nice."

"I like to think that he's listening in to us as we speak, wondering how we are all so awesome."

"So, this is gonna be my first time as Frost. Damage might not be quite right yet."

"You'll be fine, Hells."

"Hey, anybody seen Bheer?"

"Dunno, haven't seen him on in like a week."

"Wow. No Bheer, no Riskers, no Mature? What's with all the losers?"

"Riskers has finals. He's studying."

"Studying for what?"

"I think he's going into lawn care. He does such a great job on my garden."

"Wow. That was wildly racist."

"But also hilarious."

"Oh, here's Sixfold. Nice work being on time and all."

"Sorry, I'm late, everyone. Court didn't go so well for me today."

"No worries, we're just pulling trash. I got your text."

"Get this group on the left, here."

"I see the rep is coming in now. Can't wait to get my hands on that ring."

"Have you seen inside this place? We have a lot of shit to cover."

"Yeah Eh Team did an initial kind of investigatory run, shall we say."

"I thought Eh team was done?"

"You were sadly misinformed. The first four are real pushovers. Interested to see what they did with 25-Man version of Deathwhisper. Gunship's a loot piñata. The other two are non-factors."

"I dunno what you were complaining about. That DPS is through the roof."

"Howling Blast, baby!"

"Ow, ow, OW!"

"Do we want to crowd control these?"

"Pretty sure we haven't crowd controlled anything since Serpentshrine."

"DKs suck. Go die in a fire."

"Ha ha! Jealousy is unbecoming."

"Your Mom is unbecoming."

"...go on."

"Ben, your damage is absurd."

"Hey! I'm just gettin' fed buffs. Spray this shadowy lovin' all over your faces."

"I just threw up a little. In my mouth."

"Here, check this out. Ah! Ahh! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!"

"Wow, I'm deaf now. Is it absolutely necessary to scream like that?"

"...aaaand muting Ben."

"Ha ha, owned!"

"Oh shit, I just realized...Mature's gonna miss the first round of Shadowfrost Shards."

"Next in line is Jungard. We already talked. Neps will issue 'em to him in the interim."

"Heh, not likely. I'm sending them all to myself."

"That won't earn any brownie points with me!"

"I like brownies."

"So what's the deal with loot? Was there a consensus on how we're handling off-spec items?"

"Ah, yeah, thanks for reminding me. We had some discussion with Kerulak about this. Basically if you are bidding on an off-spec item, you add 'off' to you whisper to Neps"

"So, like, 50 dkp off?"

"Yup, exactly."

"Also if you are a girl, whisper me links to your pics."

"I'll get those queued up for you right away."

"So, alt bids get dumped?"

"Yeah, when paired up against main spec bids. So mains will never lose to an alt bid."

"That's so much easier. Thank God for that change."

"Uh, guys? Yeah I uh...I have to go. I'm...being arrested."

"Wait, whoa...what? You serious?"

"Hold up. Six? Is he...is he responding?"

"Nada. He's still in Vent but it's dead."

"What the eff!!"

"I'll flip over to heals"

"Get Flamestriker on the line. The new mage? See if they can come."

"He cancelled out. Here, lemme see what's in his note. Says here he's working until 9."

"That’s fine, we'll go with 24 until he gets on."

"Wings, are you switching to heals?"

"Yeah, I just said that!"

"Hello, all. I understand my services are required."

"Can you heal?"

"No, but I can bandage like a motherfucker."

"Can't believe Six got arrested before the raid even started. Mature's gonna flip when he hears this."

"Get the feast down. Eat up."

"Guns, you got the..."

"...Healing assignments are out."

"Shit, I forgot flasks. Sorry, swore I had these earlier today."

"Open a trade with me."

"Thanks, Wings. What do I owe you?"

"YOUR LIFE."

"This does not look terribly difficult."

"It's only difficult if you're a moron."

"But I'm mildly retarded!"

"Shhh, quiet, everyone. OK. Quick rundown: He's a tank-and-spank, stay out of the blue fire. When he starts spinning, spread OUT. Got it? Please do not stay grouped up, just...y'know...find some open space. Gonna make healing this a lot easier."

"Spikes?"

"Yup. During his Bone Storm whirldwind thing, he's gonna impale folks on spikes. Focus them down, then back on the boss."

"If we can get people off the spikes fast enough, we'll get an achievement!"

"You get an achievement just for logging on now."

"Sorry Mr. Grumpy!"

"Ready check going out."

"I'm still missing Fort and Might"

"Yo yo! Sleepy priests and pallies! Get on that, please."

"He probably can't hear you. Muted, remember?"

"I muted him, not the other way around."

"Wow, I am a professional moron."

"Ok, I'm ready now."

"Taba, do the honors?"

"PULLING IN....three....two....one...."

I felt a presence behind me. Julie stood in the doorway, purse in hand.

"Ah, nice. You're ready. Alright then, let's get this party started!"

I grabbed my keys and left the computer room, flipping the light switch off. Behind me echoed the shouting of commands and the rush of adrenaline, filling the emptiness of the dark and vacant man-cave.

Mature wins the first Kalu'ak Fishing Derby,
completing "Accomplished Angler",
Dalaran

The Accomplished

The first weekend in ICC was wildly successful. But it wasn't really a weekend, it was one night.

While my company wined and dined my wife and I at a restaurant in downtown Denver, the 25-Man progression team proceeded to knock out Lord Marrowgar, Lady Deathwhisper, the Alliance Gunship, and Deathbringer Saurfang. Because of the Friday steamrolling, Sunday afternoon was freed up to return to the Tournament of Champions. I looked forward to knocking out a few more achievements; none came.

Heroic achievements in Trial of the Grand Crusader were falling to the wayside and needed attention. The longer we spent in ToGC post 3.3, the greater the risk grew of animosity towards an outdated raid. Our saving grace was ICC wing unlock strategy. By blowing through the first wing so quickly, we were able to still cram in Onyxia, ToGC, and even a bit of Algalon work before the weekend closed. But this grace period wasn't infinite: an end point was materializing in the distance and urgency remained elevated. The player base estimated the second wing's unlock date would coincide with the coming of the new year. That meant we had until January of 2010 to wrap up as much outstanding work as could be swallowed. Yet, the looming holiday schedule meant many core faces would be absent, increasing the risk factor of hitting our milestones. So even amid this urgency to wrap up outstanding legacy achievements of former patches, the first weekend in ICC produced no additional achievements from the Trial of the Grand Crusader, and Algalon certainly met no fate by our hand.

In fact, since missing our initial descent into the Lich King's fortress, excluding me from "Storming the Citadel (25 Player)", the only achievement of note that flashed on my screen that weekend was one having absolutely nothing to do with raid progression whatsoever. It took place far away from the madness of the raid, well away from the icy citadel. I stood on the sandy eastern bank of the Howling Fjord, listening to the repeated clicks of a fishing line been cast over and over into the digital sea. With the server's attention diverted toward ICC and LFD, I made note of a subtle addition to the fishing contest -- and its unique reward. The bob dipped below the water, and I clicked, drawing in the line, and saw what I had come for. I clicked my hearthstone, appearing in Dalaran seconds later, and immediately made a beeline towards a large, Walrus-shaped humanoid awaiting my catch. I jammed the Blacktip Shark into his webbed hands, chose my reward, and completed the quest, becoming the first player on Deathwing-US to win the Kal'uak Fishing Derby...allowing me to acquire the only Bind-on-Account Ring in the game.

It may not seem like much, but +5% experience gained is big deal, particularly with altoholics. You never know when you'll have to switch mains for the good of the guild.