Archimonde was weighing heavily on my mind. Since Blain’s return to leading in full force, we had seen a tremendous turnaround in raid progression. We’d blown through Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep, and even knocked out the first boss in Hyjal without any preparation. The next few bosses didn't seem all that intimidating, but the one at the end of Hyjal was different. It fell into the dreaded category of personal responsibility raid bosses, which meant that the failure of one individual player was a guaranteed failure for the entire team.
I have never been a huge fan of this type of boss.
While I love a good challenge, and feel immensely rewarded for being able to pull off a difficult execution, there are a number of factors that make a boss like this difficult to work with. What happens when everyone in your raid team is a skilled, accountable player, but several of them suffer with connectivity issues? Kick them to the curb, and recruit replacements? Perhaps in a hardcore guild, this is an option; not for us. Players were more than the class they brought to the raid. It was my goal to work with who I had, and compel them to take action and solve problems on their own. Often, it was as simple as finding out what their network connection was like. If they were on wireless, for example, we recommended they wire up. Likewise, if they needed an add-on to alert them of certain death, I encouraged them to use it. My strategy was to reduce the room for error, which meant putting every possible tool in the hands of the player to increase their chances of success.
This was the tactic I chose to employ, because on average, players performed reasonably well, so those having a bad day would not cripple us. Anyone who's played World of Warcraft can tell you they've experienced this. It was not uncommon to go through phases where certain individuals performed poorly, while the rest of the raid picked up the slack. Likewise, we could easily have a raid night where we would have one or two star performers, while the rest of the raiders were sub-par. Neither situation supposes failure. But, when it comes to a boss where a single player’s mistake could instantly cause the entire raid to wipe, raiders are less like a sports team, and more like a vocal choir. Each vocalist needs to be pitch-perfect, and it only takes one sour note to cause every eye in the audience to twitch.
We already had the coaches, that was Blain and Ater's job. Now...we needed a conductor.
Why Raid Teams Fail
Based on Blain's schedule, I had a bit of time to explore options. He made it clear that after trouncing Anetheron, Kaz'rogal and Azgalor, we still wouldn't be ready for Archimonde. He had a very practical reason for this: Everyone in the core raid team was expected to have a PvP trinket. It would act as an emergency lifeline if we were headed uncontrollably towards Doomfire. Since some of our raiders never set foot in Battlegrounds, there was some time to make up. In the interim, I began looking for resources that might help give me some ideas on how to strengthen the individual members of the team. Coincidentally, it was about this time that my boss handed me a small red book.
The title of the book was “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, by Patrick Lencioni. It told the fictitious story of a newly elected CEO brought into a company to cure it of a fractured team. Profits were down. Teams communicated poorly. The book painted a picture of five core failures, stacking on top of one another, each one facilitating the next. Reading on, I began seeing specific examples in the book that plagued the guild. As an experiment, I drew a map of the five dysfunctions, and jotted down guild experiences under each.
First on the pyramid was Absence of Trust, which prevented players from admitting to mistakes or offering others assistance, for fear of rejection or humiliation. Lacking trust of one another led to the second tier of the pyramid: Fear of Conflict. Without conflict, a team cannot thrive, as it facilitates the passionate pursuit of issues that need solving. If you've ever wiped on a raid boss, and heard in Vent, “Ok, so...what happened there?”, followed by a long, awkward silence, then you know what I’m referring to. Raiders living in fear would never raise their concerns and generate healthy debate, which beget a Lack of Commitment. Ever had a raider complain, “Oh, I didn't know I was supposed to heal the tank...I thought that was someone else”, then you have this failure at hand, and it causes teams to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This was absolutely vital to convey accurately to my guild, with Archimonde looming.
The two remaining failures on the pyramid were the most painful to read, as they screamed “WoW Raiding Guilds” like none other. Players that aren't committed to the success of their guild’s raiding progression lead to an Avoidance of Accountability, which built animosity between great players and mediocre ones. Players stop caring. They sign up for your raids, but don’t show up. There is an undeniable stench of meh in the air. More importantly, it burdens the raid leader with excess responsibilities. Along with directing strategy, they must also administrate drama--which in turn, accelerates the raid leader’s burnout. The final tip of the failure pyramid, a sum of these team dysfunctions, is a team that has an Inattention to Results. They perform poorly and don’t care. They cause the rock star performers to look for a new guild. They build an environment where players care only about themselves, and not about the team as a whole. And, in the end, are beaten by other guilds in raid progression.
From my notes came initial changes. I outlawed the raiders from General Chat during raids to keep distractions to a minimum. I made a concerted effort to be more vocal about my own mistakes, ones that could be easily resolved; I encouraged the officer core to do the same. An environment where we didn't point and laugh every single time someone made a mistake was vital to build the trust needed in a solid team. We improved our healing assignments, and made certain that all players knew what they were responsible for, calling them out at random to ensure that everyone was committed. Above all, we continued to encourage a positive outlook, even on days when our execution wasn't up to snuff. I was confident these small changes would continue to build the healthy environment we would need in order to be ultra-efficient.
We spent the next few weeks applying these techniques, hammering them into the minds of the raiders. On February 17th, one week after we defeated Rage Winterchill, we blew through both Anetheron and Kaz’rogal. Azgalor followed a few weeks later on March 16th, officially clearing the path to Archimonde. Since some of the core were still missing their PvP trinkets, we diverted to Black Temple, and began cutting a path through the next tier. We slew High Warlord Naj’entus on the same day Azgalor fell. Supremus fell a week later, and Shade of Akama a week after that (while still clearing everything previously conquered). The night we defeated Shade of Akama, Blain shot me a tell,
“We’re doing Archimonde next week.”
Famous Last Pull
April 13th, 2008, was an otherwise ordinary Sunday. Discussion on the guild forums circulated around various topics: whether or not win trading was going on in Arenas, a link to a “Teron Gorefiend” simulator available on the web, and a group of players leaving MySpace for a new site that was gaining popularity identified only as “Facebook”. Chief among the posts, however, was a discussion about “Archie”, including videos, and references to Elitists Jerks’ forums. The guild was actively engaging in discussion, assessing valid strategies, and making sure everyone had earned their PvP trinkets (a backup plan to break Archimonde’s fear, if you were uncontrollably headed towards Doomfire). The healthy debate of strategy, what would work, what we should try, how we should solve problems on-the-fly was impressive. The raiders were getting it.
As we huddled near some Night Elf architecture, we buffed, flasked, and ate food, while Blain gave us the 411.
“We can do this tonight.”
I felt confident amongst the skepticism. My inner realist kept picking away at me. Archimonde was a brick-wall boss, a verifiable guild-killer. Every failure would be the result of a single player fucking up, and ruining the chance for the rest of the team. It would cause bitterness, and that bitterness would lead to animosity and eventually hatred and disgust. In turn, this would build apathy, and raid signups would falter. Players would stop talking to one another. "Oh, great. Him again. Thanks for ruining our raid night on Archimonde YET AGAIN. I love having my time wasted..." And, eventually, the guild would collapse, while the mice scatter amongst the sinking the ship. The risk was very real, the question was, would my guild be ready to rise above that? In a final act of encouragement, Ater wrapped up the strategy by reiterating to us a phrase he had coined long ago, one that had very real meaning now, thanks to Archimonde’s Soul Charges:
“If we don’t die...we win.”
The first few attempts allowed us to get a feel for timing on fears, Doomfire calls, and when the appropriate time was to use Tears of the Goddess to break our fall. Players had to adjust, but did so in a quick fashion. Blain continue to observe the position of the groups (4 of them, spread in a fork-like fashion, with the tanks/melee at the base), and continue to adjust and refine. Ater kept communication flowing back to the raid, alerting us of air bursts, and with each attempt, got better at not eating the burst himself. Doomfire wreaked havoc on us. Players cratered. The chain reaction of player-death-to-raid-wipe was alarming...and blunt. One simple mistake was all it took, and as soon as a player died, Archimonde’s Soul Charges took out massive groups of players until it was a wipe. By the fourth and final hour, we had made 22 pulls, and not a single one had gotten Archimonde below 50% HP.
“Last pull”, Blain announced in Vent.
We were at the tail end of the raid, and heading into our 23rd and final attempt. Images of Battle.net forum posts titled “DoD Fails at Raiding, Disbands” flashed by. We got into position and made the pull. Ater grabbed a hold of Archimonde, and melee swung around behind. Everyone moved with surgical precision. Air Bursts began, and in a natural rhythm, raiders hit their Tears on time, preventing them from falling to their deaths. Fears went out, but players continued to watch where they stood, and avoided Doomfire. We stayed focused and calm, continued on with our strat. Ater called out that he was Air Bursted, but got the heals he needed to survive. Players called out when they saw others heading towards a web of Doomfire; adjustments were made on-the-fly. Shamans continue to keep their tremor totems down, and the priests (myself included) rotated through Fear Wards on Ater. I glanced at Archimonde’s HP: 30%. We were doing it. We kept focused, used our Tears to prevent falling deaths, and kept the tanks alive. Suddenly, Blain callled for Bloodlust. We pushed into the final 12%. DPS shot up. Lightning bolts flashed all around Archimonde as the Night Elf wisps began to coalesce around him. Breginna called out to the healers to make sure they were adding damage as well--healing was no longer an option. Every raider blew every cooldown they had, and Archimonde’s HP dropped further and further...
...until at last, one single blinding explosion erupted, and Archimonde’s armor lay at our feet. We had done it. We’d killed one of the most difficult bosses in The Burning Crusade in only one night of work...a far cry from the 5 weekends it took to defeat Kael’thas. The players were in disbelief; the druid Dalans spoke into Vent "...four fucking hours??", as if it were an unheard of amount of time--like it was simply not possible to do. And yet it was.
Our famous last pull had become a staple in our success, one that continued to prove that we could work right up to the very end, and still come out on top. And as for my notes on The Five Dysfunctions? I tucked them away, and would return to them, months later, when I reached a crossroads in the guild...
...the day when both Ater and Blain were gone.