Thursday, May 24, 2012

1.11. Five Excruciating Seconds

Members of the guild "Pretty Pink Pwnies" harass
Kerulak while he collects Whipper Root Tubers,

Drinking From an Empty Cup

The drake fights drained me dry. For eight minutes I would stand motionless, watching the CT_MOD raid frames, waiting to see Ater or Annihilation's health spike down, then click their name and heal them back up. If a crushing blow happened to sneak it's way past their shield block cool-down, I'd frantically throw out a series of Lesser Healing Waves to quickly get them back up to safety. Dire emergencies called for a Nature's Swiftness macro, giving me an instantly cast Greater Healing Wave bomb, hopefully preventing sudden death. In between these spells, I ensured all my totems were down, keeping the five of us buffed -- totems, like all buffs in Vanilla, were not raid wide; they only affected the five members of the group you were placed in.

This was life in Blackwing Lair from week-to-week. It may not have been terribly glamorous, but I felt in control and part of a team directly responsible for our success. As we delved deeper in to the Lair, this feeling of control gradually began slipping away. Fights became more strenuous. They squeezed every last drop out of my mana pool.

By now, I'd mastered the fundamentals of healing and was beginning to dabble in the dark arts of the hardcore raider. I'd kept all my gear enchanted as best I could -- no armory existed yet, so there was no way to analyze the setup of the hardcore. If you weren't good with numbers, your best hope was to seek the hardcore out directly (good luck getting a response) and query them on min/maxing strategies.

At one point, the makers of CT_MOD created a web-based armory-like tool where players could opt to recreate their toons via a web interface, but it was a manual procedure -- if a player didn't actively participate, their raiding setup remained a mystery. I took advantage of this site often, finding profiles of known hardcore raiding guilds, examining their gear and enchants. Surprisingly, what I saw often went against the grain of traditional gearing. A common observation was Shamans wearing specific pieces of Leather gear, even though their native armor class was Mail. This simply reinforced Blain's theory. Kadrok, my Shaman officer, famously wore leather shoulders throughout much of Blackwing Lair (and beyond) for exactly this reason.

Beyond gear, I also employed the tactic of consumables in my quest for efficiency. Health and Mana Potions sat stocked in my bags to each raid. In Vanilla, potions were on a two-minute cooldown while in-combat, so intelligent use of them near the start of the fight ensured a healthy boost to healing endurance. But the gap between potion usage was still extreme -- two minutes was more than enough time for the shit to hit the fan. My research into how best to deal with this limitation on Vanilla's consumables, led me to discover the hardcore's fascination with Felwood.

Late at night, or near the the break of dawn, I would catch hardcore raiders plucking Whipper Root Tubers out of the corrupted wood north of Ashenvale. Why the interest in this botanic hobby? Tubers were plant-based consumables that restored health on a cooldown separate from potions. Felwood's secrets didn't end there. Farming Satyrs would often produce Demonic Runes, another unique consumable that, when utilized, granted us mana by sacrificing a handful of health. As long as we weren't taking unnecessary damage in the raid, these runes extended our healing endurance.

Collecting Tubers was often a challenge as other hardcore raiding guilds did the same, sending players out in droves to camp the spawns, plucking them while taunting you in the process. Honor among guilds was fairly non-existent on Deathwing-US, at least as far as the Horde was concerned. Nevertheless, I folded Tuber and Rune farming into my weekly ritual, before I left for work, or late at night, after the wife and kids were asleep. When a single boss's progress was measured in months, 1% wipes weren't annoying, they were soul-crushing. If these plants made the difference, farming them was a non-negotiable.

After gear and consumables, a further technique I utilized in Vanilla was that of lower ranked spells. Back then, a toon would train new ranks of a spell as they leveled up. By the time they reached 60, they would have a half-dozen ranks of the same spell, each costing more mana than the former, but delivering a more powerful spell in return. As we layered on gear with bonuses to "+healing" on it (this also existed in Vanilla, different from "+spell damage"), we were able to deliver the same healing effectiveness with lower ranked spells, thus conserving mana. I opted to move between the last three ranks of each spell, choosing each rank judiciously based on the severity of the situation.

But even with all these techniques employed, I often found myself drinking from an empty cup by the time Firemaw, Ebonroc and Flamegor fell over dead. Lacking any other option to upgrade and wearing the best gear that our progression (and luck with drops) produced, I'd be hard-pressed to stretch myself any further than an eight minute fight.

How lucky for me, then, to discover that the next fight would be a fifteen-minute ordeal.

Chromaggus, 7th boss of
Blackwing Lair


Behind bars like some wild prisoner, he stared back at us with his two spike-encrusted heads. A sickening violet-colored set of scales stretched across the quadruped, shimmering as it adapted to the power of each of the five flights. An artificial construct, Chromaggus was Nefarian's latest experiment in genetically mixing Core Hound DNA with that of the chromatic flight, a "drakeadon" to lore nerds. He was all the drakes rolled up into one..with a lemony twist for flavor. Not only were we required to stand at odd angles against the wall, hidden away from dual sets of prying eyes, we gained the responsibility of dealing with a new decurse mechanic. Every few seconds, Chromaggus would apply an aura debuff to the entire raid that needed to be cleaned. The trick was that it was random aura, one chosen from each of the five flights (red, green, blue, black, and bronze). And in Vanilla, homogenization of dispels was minimized across classes. Shamans only handled poisons and diseases, Druids covered poisons and curses. Priests handled diseases and magical debuffs, and in a somewhat bizarre twist, a non-healing class, the Mage, handled curses only. Paladins had the luxury of handling diseases, magic, and poisons...but Paladins were only available to the Alliance in Vanilla. Decursing had to be done quickly; if any one player gained all five debuffs, they'd transform into a Drakonid and begin to wreak havoc on the raid.

There were additional considerations for sub-teams: the Hunters were once again called upon to cycle through a tranquilizing shot rotation. Meanwhile, Mages and Warlocks were constantly checking Chromaggus for a rotating vulnerability, denoted by a subtle "shimmer" effect that washed across Chrom's body. At any point, he could become susceptible to fire, frost, shadow, arcane or elemental damage, so spells had to be chosen correctly by our ranged classes. Chrom's breath attacks were no less forgiving; each week we would get two at random (out of a possible five). Based on the roll of the dice, you might get a Chromaggus that was reasonably easy or painfully evil -- the worst breath of the bunch was Time Lapse, freezing everyone it hit into a motionless statue, requiring an additional tactic of bringing off-tanks in from hiding and taking over for the tank stuck in stasis.

The fight was long and nerve-wracking. Keeping track of which debuffs Chrom laid on us was only possible by augmenting our unit frames. We needed to see who was affected, and with what, so that our appropriate decursing raiders could take action. One of the first add-ons that emerged to solve this problem was Decursive. Decursive not only targeted the correct players needing cleansing, it was smart enough to know which spell needed to be stripped, hiding it from the view of a player incapable of removing the particular affliction. Decursive took the edge off significantly -- so much, in fact, that its mere existence eventually lead Blizzard to the design decision which changed how addons interacted with the game, come expansion time. But, for the time being, it was allowed, and we would leverage every tool in the shed at our disposal.

Sadly, things were still chaotic. The demands of healing the tanks through tons of damage, coupled with the decursing mechanics that the Drakeadon levied on us, often resulted in a handful of healers to expunge their entire mana pool long before the fight was over. In order to wring the sponge out further, a return trip to the tool shed was warranted. And after digging further through that hardcore raiding shed, I caught a glimpse of something buried there. It was a tool that came in the form of paying attention to a little known concept, one that the hardcore raiders clearing AQ40 had already discovered: The Five-Second Rule.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Chromaggus,
Blackwing Lair

Hardcore Rabbits

In Vanilla (and more specifically, with Patch 1.4), a caster's mana regeneration rate fell into two buckets: your rate while casting, and your rate when not casting. Back then, all the gear you wore with +Spirit on it augmented your mana regeneration while out-of-combat; a fact which was of little concern during an encounter. While in-combat, the stat of choice for a healer was gear with +MP5 (Mana per 5) on it. This translated to "x amount of mana regenerated every five seconds". We stacked this as high as we could, as it was the primary influencer of how long we'd last in a fight. But, there was a secret mechanic at play that we weren't privy to: Following the completion of a spell cast, there would be a period of time when mana regeneration would shut down. This mysterious state of limbo had repercussions on healers who spammed fast, low-cost heals to deal with emergencies -- their mana regeneration was effectively crippled.
And how long did this "state of limbo" last for?

Five excruciating seconds. It came to be known as "The Five Second Rule".

What was the secret of wielding this newly discovered tool? The cast-time of the spell would not trigger this limbo; winding up a spell, then interrupting it, was still a safe prospect. The key piece to remember was that once that spell landed on its target, the caster was in the five second rule. For example, if a Priest could be disciplined enough, they could cast a Greater Heal, then hold off for five seconds before casting a second spell, getting them out of limbo and regenerating mana again. It wouldn't always be the case, but winding-up a big heal to prepare could off-set that, as the cast itself would not re-trigger the five second rule. All they would need to do is interrupt themselves; a slight movement or jump would do it. Before you could rattle off a clich├ęd Bugs Bunny quote, we were hopping in place like hardcore rabbits.

Adapting to the five-second rule in our raids led our healers to embrace an entirely new tactic: proactive healing. By winding up large heals, then cancelling them at the last second to stay out of the five second rule, our healers naturally delivered more efficient heals. The ratio of time spent in the five second rule to outside of it shifted in our favor, meaning we held onto our mana pools for much longer periods of time. When we did let our spells land, they hit much harder, as we were winding up the biggest, heaviest spells in our kits. So, when Demus or Burburbur took a crushing blow, instead of frantically spamming three Lesser Healing Waves to quickly top him off, a single Greater Healing Wave was already mid-cast. We'd let it land, delivering a surge of health that spiked them back up to safety.

The five-second rule was about more than just hopping in-place like a bunch of insane bunnies. Suddenly, an examination of cast order became increasingly popular (or neurotic, depending on your point of view). A finely tuned Priest would know that if they needed to land a Renew and a Greater Heal on a target, that they should prefer to cast the Greater Heal first, followed by the Renew. The reason? Casting the Renew first placed the Priest into the five second rule for the first three seconds of the Greater Heal cast -- three seconds which would've netted the Priest 50 mana. At 50 mana per tick (two seconds), two ticks netted you 100 mana you would've lost to the five-second rule. If you could discipline yourself to make it happen four times, you'd save yourself enough mana for an additional Flash Heal.

Four times.

In a 15-minute fight, how many times do you think a healer casts a spell? 100 times? 200? 300?

It all adds up.


Embracing a much more OCD-style of casting led the healers and I to keep a tight grip on our mana pool, stretching our endurance out even further. As a result, the brutal demands of Chromaggus's healing and decursing requirements were no match for the Descendants of Draenor. In an otherwise uneventful night of practice in the last week of May 2006, the drakeadon slumped lifeless to the floor. Cheers of great excitement and relief filled Ventrilo as we began to dive into his corpse to issue out our first pairs of Tier 2 shoulders.

We snapped our screenshot, took a deep breath, and wandered out to the exposed balcony at the top of Blackrock Mountain. Perched on his throne, a crown engulfed in flames upon his head, he waited for us.


Dalans said...

If I had an in-game stapler, Ater would still be wearing his Onyxia Scale Cloak.

Anonymous said...

Having read up to here... one of the "improvements" that really hurts WoW in the long run (not short) was Decursive. And every add on that played your character for you. Now mind you, we used the shit out of it based on our own competitiveness. But these kind of add-ons are simply not needed. Figuring out the debuff and who its on and targeting them is part of the challenge. And when you remove that - you make game play easier (not a happy result for anyone who wants a challenge) and the Devs will simply find other ways to re-instill that challenge. But, in the meantime we have dumbed down the players own skill.

Love the blog read. Thank you for taking the time.

Tony D (Steeler to those that know me and Frenzy)