Thursday, May 31, 2012

1.12. Let the Games Begin

Kerulak and the 40-Man raiders
head through Blackwing Lair

Humble Pie

I don't think anyone on the raid team quite understood the gravity of the situation until the first night we successfully transitioned out of phase one. We had been slaying and re-slaying Onyxia on autopilot for so many weeks that it had become muscle memory, a nearly mindless task of us simply going through the motions, each week's kill blurring into the next. Nestled deep in her lair, guarded by the overprotective black dragonflight that paced the southern wall of Dustwallow Marsh, she'd been our only exposure to an internet dragon...of any real significance. Slaying her after weeks of practicing chaotic mechanics was a relief; we dealt with fears, players being knocked into egg chambers, lava spewing up from cracks in the cave floor, and the ever controversial deep breath that no player seemed to agree on. Yet that first kill was now months behind us. Ragnaros had tasted defeat, as did all of the minions of Blackwing Lair that stood between us and our next internet dragon. We were one step away from glory. But deep down, I think we all felt a false sense of security; anything could threaten our progress at this point. The day we saw him land for first time, blanketing the raid in a shower of Shadow Flame, his outstretched pitch black wings casting an entire shadow over forty players, was when we truly came to terms with a single fact:

Onyxia's big brother was going to teach us all a lesson in humility.

Nefarian required a two-pronged approach, Phase 1, which consisted primarily of wave upon wave of non-stop Drakonids collapsing onto us. Each week, we'd get two random colors of Drakonids, occasionally  joined by Chromatic Drakonids, a tougher variety to deal with. It was known that the Drakonids brought different issues to the table that called for multiple strategies, but Ater and Blain decided early on not to make things more complex than they needed to be. Wherein other guilds were opting to split the raid up into two groups, poised near each door where the Drakonids poured forth, the Descendants of Draenor tried an alternate approach.

Some might have called it a clever use of game mechanics. It wasn't exactly an exploit, but was certainly a strategy Blizzard wasn't happy about making the rounds. We positioned all forty raiders in a group in the center of the platform, with healers carefully positioned out of Line-of-Sight of each doorway. One Warrior would be selected to be the "Battle Shout" tank, and placed in a group with Hunters and Warlocks, all of which whom would have their pets out. As the Drakonids flooded in, the Warrior would Battle Shout, granting a buff to himself, the Hunters and Warlocks in his group, along with all of their pets. Since each application of the Battle Shout buff carried with it a tiny bit of threat, the total threat accrued by the Warrior through this process would turn Drakonids away from their beeline towards healers (from healing aggro), and return to the main pack of tanks and melee, where they would be focused down and killed.

Easy to describe. Hard to execute.

Nefarian, a moment before death at the hands of
Descendants of Draenor,
Blackwing Lair

"If We Don't Die, We Win"

Nefarian's Drakonid army hurt. Holding myself back from healing was tough; letting one Chain Heal fly at the wrong time could easily turn the Drakonid's away from the tanks and head directly for me. We managed this by mixing in Tranquil Totem, a newly added totem via patch 1.x which attempted to band-aid a larger problem that hardcore raiding guilds had already identified. Horde guilds would eventually go up against a threat wall as tanks were knocked back, reducing their aggro -- a problem Alliance guilds dealt with via the Paladin-specific Blessing of Salvation. Tranquil Totems helped, but didn't solve the threat wall issue. At the moment, it wasn't our most pressing concern. I simply needed to keep my threat as low as possible; a challenge when spamming Chain Heal across raid members being pulled apart by ravenous Drakonid.

It was touch-and-go, and we were losing players on each attempt. While Blain quietly tweaked and refined positioning and timings, Ater would continue to boost our confidence, re-iterating the guild's motto he had coined back in Molten Core, "If We Don't Die, We Win". His blatantly logical statement had a subtle elegance to it; in six simple words, he defined both our attitude and our outlook on raiding. We had fun and could make fun of ourselves, but when it came time to execute raid progression, it was time to cut away all the excuses, and draw the shortest line between two points. Wrought with the complexities of boss mechanics, our approach would be the most reasonable, the most practical, and as long as we focused in on what mattered, make that our one strength and goal to work towards, all other variables could be ignored.

And what was that goal?

Don't die.


We began to shift the strategy around so that the healers would stand in the center of a diamond, the four points of which were created by four Warriors. Now, with healer threat going solely into the middle of the diamond, Warriors in melee range were free to snap the Drakonids back into position immediately -- so long as the healers could survive initial blows. With practice this became easier and easier, eventually to the point where the tank diamond had such good control of the Drakonids, the healers would move quietly out of the diamond and rejoin the casters, raining down massive AoE attacks from afar. I listened to Ater and kept my  focus on not dying. Before long, Nefarian himself swept out of the crimson red sky, ready to deliver his lesson.

Descendants of Draenor snap a
kill shot in front of Nefarian,
Blackwing Lair

Class Calls

I'm certain that Onyxia was as large as Nefarian, but it didn't seem that way. As we scrambled to transition out of phase one, and move into position to prepare for phase two, he seemed as though he could swallow an Onyxia-sized dragon in a single gulp. We scurried into place like insects as the tanks swung Nef around, his head facing out over the balcony to survey the Burning Steppes below. Many of those initial attempts cost us players in a matter of seconds, thanks to Nefarian's Bellowing Roar, a fear sending us running in random directions. In those days, a well-geared tank only needed to take one good hit from behind, an undodgable, unparryable attack...and their life was over in an instant. We mitigated his AoE fear with Tremor Totems, and continued to practice.

Nef's clever mechanic was a class call: at various times, he would choose a random class in the raid, and steal an ability from that class, using it against us. Some of them were mildly annoying; Druids being stuck in cat form, Mages randomly being polymorphed and unable to cast. Other class calls had more severe ramifications  Hunters would have their ranged weapon immediately broken, forcing them to de-equip their weapon in preparation for each call. Rogues would be teleported to Nefarian's front, instantly cleaved and killed unless the Tank's lighting-fast reflex rotated the dragon away. As a Shaman, my class call forced me to drop Totems that would buff Nefarian, so I was tasked with running around smiting my own totems, hoping to prevent an accidental Windfury buff that might cause Nef to one-shot a tank. We developed a system to have a dedicated person calling out those class calls in Vent loud and clear, so everyone was prepared to deal with an emergency situation.

As we continued work on Nef, he soon approached the dreaded 30% hp mark, which would be the final test of our raid's endurance. In a single command of defiance, Nef would call out to all the slain Drakonids, raising their bones from the grave, and they would collapse on us in a single pack of brutal melee damage. The Mages would have to freeze them in position with a well-timed Frost Nova, and we would need to pour every ounce of AoE damage onto the pack that we could before they broke free. Any surviving undead Drakonid would surely begin wreaking havoc on the raid. Again, this took weeks to refine, many nights moving through a polished phase one and two, only to die at the 30% mark by an uncontrollable phase three.

And then, on the evening of June 18th, 2006, after having practiced Nefarian's mechanics for a solid month, the great black dragon bellowed out a final cry of defeat and crashed to the ground atop that balcony protruding from Blackrock Mountain. Vent filled with the screams and cries of forty players, who at long last could claim a victory against a devastating boss, and the end to the second tier of raiding in World of Warcraft. We had become a Blackwing Lair-cleared guild.

We hadn't died. We won.


Sludgey said...

Ahhh, to this day, I still have NO IDEA what caused the deep breaths from Onyxia. Was it from too many people in the middle? Or was it because too many people were grouped up together? We could NEVER figure that one out, but eventually just dealt with them as being random.

Also, as a rogue, I remember my guild saying that we had to just do white damage in phase 1, because people could pull aggro so easily from the tank as he was being knocked back into the wall. So we would take that time to level our weapons. I remember levelling my unarmed on Onyxia by punching the hell out of him with my rogue. :) Eventually, i just started using feint & vanish proactively so I could obliterate the DPS charts... Fun times!

Shawn Holmes said...


Deep Breaths were always such a grand conspiracy; we often thought what you did -- that it was a result of grouping up too much in the middle of the cave.

Leveling weapon skills on Onyxia to suppress damage! That's great! It's those little tricks we had to employ back in the day that just make my head spin.

Greg Mastin said...

The parallel's to my own raiding guild on Zul'jin is almost uncanny. The struggles, the in-fighting...and our first Nef kill was 6-19-06. Hard to believe it has been 10 years.