Thursday, June 28, 2012

1.16. Paying the Entrance Fee

DoD surveys The Twin Emperors,
The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj

Options Dry Up

Attempts on Twin Emperors were not going well at all. One week earlier, the 40-Man raiders had successfully exterminated Princess Huhuran, earning the first set of "real" rewards in the instance. From Skeram up through Fankriss, loot was on-par with that of Blackwing Lair (for the most part). Blizzard tried something new with Ahn'Qiraj: instead of issuing our set pieces directly from the corpse of a boss, we'd collect tokens to be exchanged for the actual gear. These Qiraji Bindings were shared among multiple classes, which added a layer of complexity to our fixed-cost DKP system. It was already an administrative nightmare to catalog every item, estimating its worth to a particular class. Now we had to consider the value of the exchanged item, normalizing the cost between the classes that shared it. Players regularly dismissed their assigned loot, opting to pick-and-choose random off-pieces to maximize their play -- which only made the administration worse. The good news is that we finally had some Tier 2.5 tokens to our name, thanks to the death of Huhu...

...the bad news is they would be the last AQ tokens that Descendants of Draenor would see.

The problem of AQ40 was becoming more painfully clear upon each wipe at the hands of Emperors Vek'lor and Vek'nilash. First and foremost, we'd run out of time on the schedule. B-team became more prolific at leaving us "cleanups" as they failed to empty out Blackwing Lair. Instead of starting AQ40 work fresh, A-team continued to sink precious minutes into Nefarian kills before moving to Silithus. And, A-team themselves had issues with farm bosses. Our first kill of Skeram was months behind us, yet we still struggled with execution, and the same held true for Battleguard Satura. We regularly skipped the bug family to shave time off clears; the change was negligible. Even a mistake or two on Fankriss meant re-doing the gauntlet that proceeded him. Let us not forget about The Princess whom had already proven to us she was going to require multiple attempts per night; the self-proclaimed queen of the 1% wipe. After A-team swallowed all of that, precious few hours remained to work on The Twin Emperors, and we were only now digging into the tough content. For behind The Twin Emperors nestled Ouro and Viscidus (both of whom could be skipped) and the ultimate evil behind all of Ahn'Qiraj: C'thun. We'd heard the horror stories of world-first guilds burning week after week after week on the final boss. Two days a week was no longer enough.

So, there was the problem of time; a lack of a viable schedule. There was the problem of loot, that being nearly every boss we were killing en route to The Twin Emperors producing nothing of upgrade value. There was the looming expansion, still in development by Blizzard but in the forefront of our minds every day. A release date wasn't yet set in stone, but we predicted that it would be soon, and we wanted as much off our plates as we could stand.

And, of course, there was the issue with Naxxramas.

Kerulak and the 40-Man team gets Power Word: Fortitude
in preparation for the nightly work in Naxxramas,
Eastern Plaguelands

2.5 vs. 3.0

An entire raid instance still existed that we hadn't even set foot in. The ultimate raid in Vanilla, a devastatingly oppressive instance that only the dedicated few raiders of World of Warcraft could claim a victory over. We knew by pouring over the Elitist Jerks discussions and examining the loot tables buried within that Naxxramas was, coin-for-coin, worth every bit of energy put into it. Items that dropped off the first bosses alone put our existing gear to shame, and with most players in A-team built on Tier 2, the prospect of leap-frogging out of AQ40's pathetic 2.5 side-grades straight into Tier 3 made our core raiders drool with anticipation.

The only other possibility to increase our progress was to come to an agreement with a competing guild, one less progressed than us. These less progressed guilds whom were able to clear the first half of AQ40 were starting to "give up" their raid locks to more progressed guilds, who would swoop in, inherit the half-cleared instance, and then power through the remaining second half. The price on the "sale" of these locks varied from handfuls of gold, and/or promised loot if it dropped, to "carrying" several of the lesser-progressed-guildies along for the ride. None of these options sat well with me. They all seemed like forms of selling out. Could we actually say we cleared AQ40 if others were doing half the job for us? It didn't matter what I thought, anyway. There were no half-eaten AQ40 raid locks to assume on Deathwing-US. Whatever inter-guild agreements may have been on-the-table got scooped up by other guilds with greater desperation and less conscience.

After The Twin Emperors made it clear we would be spending weeks working on their encounter, and with our options dwindling, the officers and I came to a difficult decision: Our work in Ahn'Qiraj was over. Princess Huhuran would remain the final boss defeated by Descendants of Draenor in AQ40, and all of our efforts would now be turned towards the necropolis that floated above the Eastern Plaguelands.

Some of the officers didn't take this news well. Kadrok was particularly angry by this decision, and felt his voice hadn't been heard enough. An old school EQ player, he was unsatisfied with an incomplete instance on our track record. Trying to outline the logical reasons why we left AQ40 only reiterated to me that it was a decision not made lightly. But as an honorable officer, Kadrok bit his tongue and stuck to the assignment, continuing to lead and shape the Shamans into a respectable crew of healers. I encouraged him at every opportunity I could, but I could tell he was not pleased with leaving AQ40 behind. I wished there was a way that everyone could be happy. There wasn't. And for those of the raid team who couldn't stand AQ40, celebrating our decision with virtual backflips, Kadrok and like-minded completionists only grew more disgusted at our choice to throw in the towel.

Kerulak takes some flak from a non-raiding player,

The Need For a Gate

Before we set foot in Naxxramas, we needed all of our players to gain access, a process known as "attunement". Molten Core and Blackwing Lair both had an attunement that was easily digested: run a long dungeon and collect a quest item at the end. AQ40, meanwhile, had no attunement whatsoever (save the server-wide unlocking of the entire instance). But Naxxramas had a different plan in store for us. Stationed in Light's Hope Chapel stood a series of NPCs revealing the attunement quest to us. There was no challenge, no dungeon to run or quest item to return -- in fact, the attunement was completely free...

...if you were exalted with The Argent Dawn.

Now, if it turned out that you hadn't run 10-Man Stratholme or Scholomance a billion times already, no problem! You could also gain access to the floating necropolis for a small fee of 30 gold if The Argent Dawn saw you were at least Revered. Even those who were only Honored could buy their way in, though the cost was raised to 60 gold for these less dedicated folks.

Let me take a moment to propel you back into a game where having gold was practically unheard of. In those days, there was no such thing as a daily quest -- a quest you could repeat over and over, racking up vast amounts of wealth. In Vanilla, once you walked the entire surface of Azeroth, completing every quest in every zone, quests no longer became your primary source of income. From that point on, money came from either playing the Auction House, or farming high-level mobs until your eyes bled. And when carrion grubs in the Plaguelands dropped 2s each, it was a long, hard road to 30g.

The grinding became so incessantly awful that I often forgot why I was there in the first place, gaining temporary bursts of insanity that caused me to make bets with myself on what I would hit first, the reputation or the gold cost. In a burst of craziness, I'd scribble down some notes on how fast I thought I was earning reputation, then compare it to the insanely low income of mob farming. was definitely going to be the Gold that wins out. Ha ha! I told you, game. I told you!! I'm totally going to get the gold before I max my rep. 

Reality would quickly snap back like a bucket of water being dumped on me as I sat at the computer. What the fuck was I doing? Was this why I swore never to touch another MMO again? Why hadn't I listened to myself? Who considers this 'fun'? Didn't I learn my lesson in EverQuest?

"If they know what's good for them, they'll ditch any and all concepts of attunement in the expansion", I typed into guild chat.

"They do it to gate the raid," Kadrok replied, "Not everyone belongs in there."

"Nor should they be! But for God's sake, can't the player's skill...or lack the gate itself? There has to be a better solution than this."

"They should just do it off of your gear", typed Gutrippa, adding to the conversation.

"Yeah, exactly! This makes perfect sense. Examine a person's gear. If you don't have the gear, don't let people in the instance!"

Blain typed his two cents into guild chat, "Gear doesn't make a bad player good tho."

In that brief moment of lucidity, the Naxxramas attunement made sense. For all the technology that WoW was bringing to the table, a good ol' fashioned grind was the most practical way to keep non-raiders at bay. A casual would look at a grind like that and give it the middle finger. There'd be no complaints of 'the instance is too hard', or 'we can't figure out these bosses', because players who used those excuses as a crutch wouldn't even get a taste test. The rest of us might bitch to ourselves quietly...but then knock it out. Besides, players that didn't raid had other opportunities to take their jealous rage out on us, spitting on us in public at the sight of our gear. A /spit is much easier than, say, getting off your ass and making it happen. They were unwilling to pay their entrance fee like the rest of us. Those players would always exist, but the logistics behind these gates diminished their opportunity to bitch. Of what little animosity that remained towards our progress and success, we ate.


I won my own bet: the 30 gold pieces accumulated first. To this day, Kerulak is still not exalted with The Argent Dawn.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

1.15. Fumigation

Kerulak gets a 466 "critical" on the second
jump of a Chain Heal circa Vanilla,

Insane Carpenters

"What the fuck is making my system so slow?" one of the players typed into guild chat.

"My framerate is shit, rebooting. BRB" typed another.

I glanced down at officer chat. The whining was no less muted.

[Officer][Dalans]: This mod is a pig.
[Officer][Blain]: Just deal with it.
[Officer][Ater]: Make sure you have the latest. Couple of the other mods might conflict.

The A-team clearly had a very vocal opinion on RDX. They thought it sucked.

"Why do we even need this mod?" asked Cycotic, one of our Mages.

"In order for a lot of the raid-checks to work, everyone has to have it. The mod communicates data back and forth through specific chat channels to let us know who's repaired, what resistances you're at, whether or not you have health and potions. That sort of thing. It also helps us decurse."

Cycotic ignored the entire first part of my explanation, "Yeah, but I don't need to decurse."

I took a deep breath. Technically, you do; you're a Mage, but because you're also a moron that hyper-focuses on your damage to the exclusion of everything else, you don't think you need to decurse. The explanation never left my lips. Speaking aloud into Ventrilo would have no effect. We'd explained Mage decursing time and time again, but the Mages just didn't get why they had to do it. And they weren't alone. A lot of players didn't "get" why we had to do anything special, use any add-ons, perform abilities not essential to their damage rotation. Even in the face of our successes from continued streamlining, they clung to their old ways, defiant and stubborn. And it wasn't just the junior ranks that were guilty of this.

I clicked a button on my UI that Ater had shown me, one that would ping all the players in the raid and report back their version of RDX. Annihilation was still absent from the list.

"Anni, are you having a problem installing RDX?"

"I told you guys, I don't use add-ons!"

"You can disable all the frames, but we need it installed on everyone's system so it can communicate the other bits of data from the raid back to us." We were using different words to say the same thing, over and over.

He logged off and jammed the mod into his add-ons folder as directed. Officers needed to lead by example; I couldn't have any of the leadership bitching publicly about our new requirements. But, in Anni's style, he preferred to speak rather than type, so it was immediately out in the open on where he stood on RDX. Hearing that, members of the A-team continued to rag me about it. The insane carpenters insisted on using their bare hands instead of hammers. It made absolutely no sense to me at all. I thought we had put this behind us. I was wrong.

Annihilation logged back on. I clicked the button to report back RDX versions; this time, Annihilation passed the check.

"Wow!" he exclaimed loudly in Vent, "my system performs like shit now!"

Ventrilo lit up with laughter from the group.

The group, minus me.

Kerulak, en route to Princess Huhuran,
The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj

Princess Huhuran

The nature soak group was still shy of where we needed it to be, but Blain insisted that we get started. The giant olive-colored wasp hovered in the center of her cave, her wings speckled with dots of red. We reviewed the strategy. Princess Huhuran called for a group of ten players to encircle her, maintaining a close distance throughout the fight. The reason being: these ten players would be subjected to an AoE sleep via her Wyvern Sting. Even the Tanks weren't immune to this. Gear with a high NR rating would provide us with the chance to get a binary resist, but if not, we couldn't blindly decurse the effect. Doing so would immediately cause a spike of damage on the player decursed. Tanks were the only reasonable decurse targets in this encounter, the rest would have to eat the sleep.

Huhu's primary attack on the tank was Acid Spit, a stacking DoT that was completely unresistable, forcing us to employ a Tank rotation. But, for one of the first times in our raiding career, Princess Huhuran was an untauntable boss. A tank rotation was no longer just as easy as calling out, "OK take it from me!", followed by the press of a single button. The tanks had to be ultra disciplined in managing their threat, paying close attention to KTH Threat and performing their most efficient rotation of abilities. There were no Tricks of the Trade in Vanilla, no Misdirects...and without taunt, the management of threat rested solely on the skill of the tank. Use the wrong rotation and you'd fall so far behind that there'd be no way to peel Huhu off of a Tank loaded up with DoTs.

Along with Wyvern Sting AoEs and a handicapped Tank rotation, Huhu would enrage throughout the encounter, forcing the Hunters to once again coordinate a Tranquilizing Shot rotation. Blizzard wasn't making this easy on us by any means. Those mechanics combined were more than enough to keep the raid fully tasked, yet Blizzard had one more trick up their sleeve. At 30% health, the nightmare began. Princess Huhuran would begin her Poison Volley in a last ditch attempt to wipe us. Every three seconds she remained alive, the enormous wasp would barrage the closest fifteen players with poison damage, to the tune of 2000 nature damage. As players dropped, new players with Nature Resistance needed to move in, keeping the soak team alive, which added precious seconds to our attempt.

The princess was a gear check, a skill check, a discipline check, and a communications check -- in short, she was a real litmus test of our ability as a progression raid team in Ahn'Qiraj. Making it up to Huhu was a walk in the park; it was well-known that less progressed raid teams were starting to clear Skeram through Fankriss. Making it past her would be another opportunity to define us.

DoD defeats Princess Huhuran,
The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj


The numbers on Poison Volley scared the proverbial shit out of me. My chain heals were averaging between 400 and 500 per cast, at a cast time of a flat 2.5 seconds -- back then, there was no Haste to speed casts up. Meanwhile, Poison Volley obliterated player health. At 2k a pop, my own pathetic health pool that barely broke 6k would be depleted in 6 seconds. Even if I were targeting myself, back-to-back chain heals would grant me a whopping one additional second of life. That meant that I, along with others who had no Nature Resistance, were not the priority -- self-preservation was off the table. The task at hand: those with the highest nature resistance absolutely had to be kept alive for as long as possible. That meant nearly non-stop chain heals, and practically no time to sit on the 5-second rule. Everything I could do to keep my mana pool up was vital.

I cannot begin to recount how many 1% wipes we had on Princess Huhuran. Players dropped like flies in the last 30% and trying to keep them up was like playing Whack-A-Mole in Hell. Since the stronger single-target healers were assigned to keep the Tanks alive, it was up to us Shamans to FFA heal, keeping the remaining roles alive for as long as possible. It wasn't easy. The tiny health pools of Vanilla coupled with the insane brutality of the nature damage involved meant that if you saw a player spike, it meant they didn't have the nature resistance necessary -- but instinctively, you wanted to save their life by winding up a heal...only to have them fall over dead before the heal was cast. With Lesser Healing Wave too inefficient, and Greater Healing Wave too slow, my only option was to down rank Chain Heal, pick a target I knew would survive more than two seconds, and stay disciplined on them.

A difficult prospect for a player like me, prone to panicking, spazzing out on any and every button available.

At the end of the second weekend, on the third night of attempts on the Princess, players once again expired at a rate I couldn't keep up with. I healed as long and as hard as I could until my Mana pool was nearly exhausted, and then I joined the dead. The RDX health bars emptied out, and Huhu's unit frame drew down to 3%....2%. Players alive dropped into the single digits. Six alive...five....four. Huhuran's health dropped to 1%. Three players alive. Two players alive. The enormous fly flipped over onto its back, its legs twitching as the ganglia got its final shots from a dying nervous system.

With only two players alive, the Princess's reign was over.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

1.14. Streamlining the Approach

Kadrok chalks up another Vaelastrasz kill,
Blackwing Lair

A and B

At the 10 month mark, I'd been present for the first kill of every boss from Lucifron through Battleguard Sartura. As August approached, so too did vacation time. I'd pile the kids into the car and take them far into the Canadian north, up to Grandpa's farm. This would be the third trip; the summer of 2004 was the first, when WoW was still in beta. We made the second trek again in '05 when the most exciting prospect on DoD's plate was a full clear of Upper Blackrock Spire. Now in 2006, DoD was in full effect, making weekly clears of Molten Core and Blackwing Lair, and our reputation had allowed us to grow to the point where we were fielding two complete 40-Man raid teams per week. The logistics behind it were insane, but Ater was always finding new ways to streamline our weekly raids. In order to make it work, he continued to layer on efficiency.

At first, we drew Molten Core out into a single clear in one long evening, split among two separate raid teams -- both of which shared a small core of officers. The first half of the night would be the newer, less geared raiders in the guild, and Ater would run them from Lucifron through Baron Geddon. He would be no less strict with this "B-team"; he pushed those under-geared starters through like a drill sergeant at boot camp. All the while, he dangled the carrot in front of them, "We're swapping the next group in at the two hour mark," he said to them, "so if we don't get through Geddon, you'll lose out on that loot." They did everything in their power to squeeze out those first five bosses in two hours, wearing their crappy gear. As promised, when the two-hour timer was up, he'd announce the swap, which is when I would tag in with another contingent...the core raiders who had cut a path through raid content for the guild. The folks responsible for the first boss kills and painful weekends of wipes while perfecting new strategies -- this group became known as the "A-team".

Once A-team was locked and loaded, the guts of the Core exploded in a fine paste in our wake. We made short work of Shazzrah, Sulfuron, Golemagg, Domo and Rag, and moved quickly up through Blackwing Lair, clearing as much as we could in the remainder of the weekend, nearly always securing a Nefarian kill. In those days, having a boss on farm wasn't always a guaranteed kill. Sometimes RNG just didn't work out. Sometimes Nefarian simply didn't want to play nice. But for the most part, we got work done, and A-team inched closer to the more difficult raid content yet untouched.

As time went on, and A-team spiraled down below the surface of Azeroth, working our way through insects rather than dragonkin, time grew short to clear Molten Core and even Blackwing Lair, so Blain drew a line in the sand and stated that in order to keep progressing deeper, we'd need more time to devote to AQ40. So, A-team no longer swapped in for Molten Core, leaving B-team team to fend for themselves against the ancient Fire Lord. When it came time to have them clear the start of Blackwing Lair, I worried the complexity would brick-wall them, as it had done to us. To soften this blow, I created a series of training videos to help educate them. I produced videos for Razorgore, Vaelastraz, Firemaw, Ebonroc and Flamegor...and even created videos to train them on various trash mobs -- namely, the Death Talon and Lab packs. Soon, B-team was clearing up to Nefarian, and A-team's weekly AQ40 raid either had a "cleanup" prerequisite or not; "cleanup" meaning we were responsible for killing B-team's Nefarian before doing our own work in AQ40.

The raid mocks Kerulak during the second
kill of Fankriss the Unyielding,
The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj

Where's Kerulak?

Ater, along with my Shaman officer Kadrok, were the ones primarily responsible for the success of the B-team clears each week. B-team was vital, as it produced more quality players to be inducted into A-team, but both Ater and Kadrok had another dark secret for running the Core until their eyes bled...both needed components for their legendary weapons. Kadrok sought the Eye of Sulfuras, while Ater had his mind set on Bindings of the Windseeker, dropped by Garr and Baron Geddon. Their luck wasn't as good as some other guilds. Week after week they coordinated and led the B-team through Molten Core in search of the coveted drops -- and each week they would come up snake eyes. Long after the officers and I were done with Molten Core and BWL, fending off wife-aggro or other excuses to not be there for the guild, Ater and Kadrok returned for more insanity, pushing B-team further each time, setting the stage for the A-team in our quest to dig deeper into AQ40. Their farming continued in vain, and eventually, Kadrok threw up his arms in exhaustion and removed himself from the B-team rotation, leaving Ater to fend for himself in the Core.

Meanwhile, Blain had already put our next assignment on the table: farm nature resistance gear in preparation for Princess Huhuran. She was still a boss away, nestled quietly behind Fankriss the Unyielding, but we needed to build a solid nature soak group, so our off hours were spent grinding away reputation with the Cenarion Circle. You could only do this a few ways during Vanilla: run the 20-man raid The Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj, or spend an exorbitant amount of time farming Twilight Cultists in Silithus. This rep grind was only slightly augmented by our work in AQ40, generating a tiny bit of reputation in the process. When not performing these tasks, we were carefully watching every piece of green loot that dropped in our weekly clears -- anything having a remote amount of nature resistance on it was cycled to the guild bank, Oxanna, to be re-distributed to members in A-team for soak purposes.

The farming progressed slowly, and we did some initial work on Fankriss...but our first attempts didn't quite close the deal. Things would fall apart near the end of the encounter. The Spawn of Fankriss had to die in 20 seconds or it would enrage, and the longer you drew the fight out, the greater the chance of a Spawn eating one of your tanks for breakfast. Less tanks meant less Vekniss Hatchling control and...well, you see where I'm going with this. Fankriss was your typical attrition-style boss fight. If your raid can't keep up, eventually, you'll be overwhelmed and die. We were close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades, and I wished the A-team the best of luck as I headed up north for my vacation.

As luck would have it, it was the weekend I took off for summer vacation that would produce our first kill of Fankriss the Unyielding, making it the first boss kill I'd miss since starting our 40-man raid team 10 months earlier. Luckily, the raid team did a good job to both capture a screenshot of that kill, and make me feel guilty for missing it -- for the next several months to come.

Everyone in the raid team is a comedian.

Kerulak adjusts his UI, working
RDX into his list of add-ons,


When I got back from my summer vacation, Ater had another efficiency waiting for me.

"I'd like the raid to try this mod out. It's insane."

Up until this point, we'd been using a multitude of mods: CT_Raid, Decursive, name a few. And they worked reasonably well, augmenting our ability to change our healing targets quickly, cleanse players of debuffs, and see how far off our damage was. All of these mods were freely available to download from a variety of websites, and it was a well-known fact that world-first guilds were using some pretty customized UIs, so I made it a habit of keeping up on add-ons. But I had never heard of RDX before, and Ater made it clear why that was: it was the only mod that required a subscription fee. The developers had put so much time and energy into it, they expected some monetary compensation for their effort.

"You have to pay for the add-on? Wow. It must be pretty damn awesome."

"Oh, you have no idea, check out what it can do. It's bizarre..."

Ater gave me a demonstration. Immediately, I noticed that the healing frames would allow me to see incoming heals on targets. With this information available to me, we could gain an entirely greater level of healing efficiency and mana-conservation. I could also left and right click the frames to instantly decurse my target, obsoleting both CT_Raid and Decursive in a single blow.

"Check this out", Ater said, prompting me to open up a window that displayed a diagram of a room with geometric shapes representing various objects. Without touching a single key, the screen began to draw lines and diagrams by itself -- a ghostly pen laying an entire set of movement strategies out for me while I watched.

"You're drawing this!" I said.

"Yup, you can lay the entire thing out for players. No more confusion. They see exactly what you are talking about. But that isn't the best part, look at this..."

Another window popped up, "Downloading 56b of 4k..." It looked like a typical download progress bar. The numbers spun up to 4k as the bar filled with a new color, then disappeared.

"What was that?"

"I just sent you a new game. No need to go out and install anything."

Jesus, I thought. This mod was insane!

"So, we're going to have everyone run this now?"

"Everyone that needs it," he replied.

"But what about the cost? Some people will probably get upset if we ask them to pay for it."

"Don't worry about that, I've spoken to the guys that make it. The licenses are good."

It was settled, then. The A-team raiders would load up RDX, and we'd need all the help we could get... was Huhu time.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

1.13. The Day Healing Changed

Descendants of Draenor defeats
The Prophet Skeram, 1st boss in
The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj

Entering the Temple

One week after jamming Nefarian's severed head onto a pike in the middle of Orgrimmar, we wasted no time in putting the next tier on the schedule. The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj had already been a part of WoW for seven months, launched at the beginning of the new year. We were late. Most of 2006 had been spent in Blackwing Lair, backtracking after the 1.10 patch fiasco that flushed our Razorgore strategy down the drain. We'd managed to get things situated once Blain had been brought on board to straighten out the Rogues; in doing so, he provided new leadership to the raid team. With Ater's help, he'd delivered an electric shock to the raid team's temples, catapulting us through Blackwing Lair. But we had no time to rest. Descendants of Draenor needed to narrow the gap on the remaining raid content, before the release of the first expansion rendered it obsolete.

The first boss on the docket was The Prophet Skeram, a gigantic insect-like creature guarding a staircase leading downward toward unknown horrors below Silithus. The forty of us laid waste to the trash mobs blocking our path to Skeram, looting them frantically for a chance of one of the four bug mounts that were unique to Ahn'Qiraj -- they allowed us to mount inside the instance, covering a large amount of territory in a short time. It wasn't long before we were face-to-face with The Prophet; we prepped for the first pull. Skeram's strategy called for players to be positioned strategically around the staircase; a necessary evil of having to deal with his mind-control mechanic which would set us players in the raid against each other. Our positioning maximized the amount of time it would take a mind-controlled player to reach each other, granting our Mages additional time to polymorph them. I stood with the healers along the wall behind Skeram, giving me a bird's eye view of Ater and tanks as the events would unfold.

Skeram was extremely technical. Blackwing Lair contained its fair share of bosses that required us to monitor a few things at once; Razorgore, Chromaggus and Nefarian himself being the biggest offenders. Skeram was something else entirely. He would split into three different copies, tanks needed to be ready in three different locations. Every second a tank wasn't available to pick up a copy (or Skeram himself), the boss would spam Earth Shock, annihilating any player not dressed entirely in Nature Resistance. Meanwhile, melee were prevented from dog-piling on the tank at Skeram's feet and dig in; if more than four players were in melee range, Skeram would begin spamming Arcane Explosion for tons of damage. Not even tanks were safe from Skeram's mind-control tactic -- when it happened, if you were short on tanks, nothing less than chaos ensued. The only guaranteed way to counteract this was to have six dedicated tanks, two in each teleport location. Bring less than that to your raid, and you had damn well be prepared to make use of some clever mechanics in order to survive. Skeram required a paced, methodical execution, and every player had a responsibility beyond damage or healing. The first weekend ended in wipes, but we came away with enough hands-on experience to know what to expect in round two.

Round two came on July 9th, 2006th, and Skeram fell in a haphazard and embarrassing attempt, ending with half the raid face down in the dirt. If his complexity was any indication of the bosses to come, the weeks ahead would be painful and slow.

Kerulak is flanked by the 40-Man raiders,
after the defeat of The Bug Trio,
The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj

Something Is Amiss

For the first time in our raiding career, we had the option of choosing where to go next. Ahn'Qiraj twisted downward in a labyrinthine series of tunnels, splitting and rejoining one another. We rode our bug mounts deeper into the maze and came upon a fork that allowed us to either tackle the next main boss, Battleguard Sartura, or opt for a bit of royalty. To speak their names, Lord Kri, Princess Yauj and Vem, one might imagine we were about to take on some humanoid nobility. The Bug Trio was far from humanoid. Enormous insects, protected by bulbous exoskeletons, were what met us at the entrance to The Bug Trio's room. They looked more like creatures you'd find scattering under a rock than some royal family perched high in a castle. After we had the run down from Blain, we prepared for more chaos: The three insects would be need to be separated and killed; execution would be nothing short of hysterical panic. The "princess" would hammer us with an AoE fear which sent our raid running into random directions, and while this insanity transpired, Yauj would wind up a massive heal. If that heal wasn't interrupted, the fight would essentially start over, and we'd be down mana, health...and have to force a reset. Mitigating the AoE fear with Tremor Totem was our only option; in Vanilla only Dwarf Priests possessed the Fear Ward spell as a racial. And as a Horde guild, we were fresh out of Dwarf Priests.

Initial attempts were brutal, ending nearly as quickly as they started. There was a specific kill order your raid could choose; depending on your choice, different rewards awaited you. Sadly, the hardest kill order (Lord Kri last) was the only one yielding a benefit to us; anything else would be a side-grade or dusted. After attempting this difficult kill order a number of times, it was obvious we lacked the preparation and skills necessary to make it happen. The entire time the raid team spent on The Bug Trio...I was a complete and utter mess. So many different mechanics came into play that it seemed like as soon as I prepared to handle one, another would completely catch me off guard. I would find myself reaching for the Tremor Totem too late, and a fear bomb forced us to miss interrupting Yauj. Then, I'd get a handle on the totem timing, but miss the Earth Shock which would interrupt Yauj's heal. Once I finally perfected interrupting the spell, people were falling over dead, and I needed to be quicker on my healing. Yet, when I healed faster, I'd miss dropping the Tremor Totem; the vicious cycle repeating over and over ad infinitum.

The Bug Trio was a nightmare, and killing Lord Kri last was out of the question. After converting to the easiest kill order (Lord Kri first, Princess Yauj second, Vem last), we barely managed to get it done by the following week of July 16th. An uneasy feeling gnawed away at my guts.

I felt like we were a fraud.

Something was amiss in how we were playing...but I didn't know what. I couldn't put my finger on it. Sure, our abilities had got us all the way through Molten Core and Blackwing Lair, yet I had this nagging feeling that something still wasn't right, that we were missing some key piece of information that simply hadn't been called upon before. It was unnerving. Whatever we were missing was vital; without it, we were a house of cards just waiting for a gentle breeze to pull everything apart.

As it turned out, Battleguard Sartura was a typhoon, in every sense of the term.

Kerulak, deep within
The Temple of Ahn'Qiraj

Changing The Karate Stance

Battleguard Sartura, a fly-like humanoid buzzed around the gigantic hive, along with her royal guard, whirl-winding into a twister that sliced through my raid without remorse or pity. I ran around in a panic trying desperately to stick to my healing assignments, but it was of little use. The healing add-on I used at the time, CT_MOD, had no concept of distance, so there were no visual indicators of players that were too far away to be healed; I simply clicked on a name...and got no response. For the first time in my healing career, my healing mod was completely useless -- I was going to have to visually keep my eyes on players throughout the entire fight, moving appropriately to remain within healing distance. But, I was constantly having to glance down at my keyboard to figure out what button I needed to press and when, since my heals had already been mapped to various left / middle / right clicks in CT_MOD. And as soon as I glanced down to fire off an ability, someone would die. My eyes couldn't leave the screen for a split second, yet I was in a constant state of looking away from my screen.

In order to heal Sartura, I was going to have to change my karate stance.


Place your left hand on your keyboard. Put your middle finger on W, your ring finger on A, and your index finger on D. If you aren't already, place your right hand on your mouse. This is the karate stance of a World of Warcraft player. We look with our mouse, swiveling the camera up, down...all around. To move, we press W to go forward, A to side-step or "strafe" left, and D to side-step right. Sliding your middle finger back and forth between W and S allows us to move forward and back, respectively. Layouts differ slightly from player to player, some opt for ASDX, some assign movement to the arrow keys instead of WASD, but  for the most part, an expert WoW player uses a layout just like this.

These are not the default controls for WoW.

For a freshly installed copy of the game, spells and abilities in World of Warcraft are assigned to the number keys along the top of the keyboard (1, 2, 3, etc.), and many players play this way without ever changing  their controls again.

Humor me a moment. With your left-hand still on WASD and your right-hand on the mouse, hit the 9 key along the top of the keyboard as fast as you can, then return your left-hand to WASD. How long did it take? Did you have to look away from the monitor and back down at the keyboard to get the correct placement?

In Vanilla, if you were healing a tank that was spiking low on health, a crushing blow could kill them in less than a second. If you took longer than a second in my experiment above, you failed. Part of becoming an expert healer meant keeping all of the most important spells within one finger's reach of the movement keys. I was among the masses that used these default controls, fumbling across the number keys at the top of the keyboard. I got pretty good with practice, much like someone who doesn't know how to type gets "good" at typing in short bursts, glancing minimally at the keyboard. It works, but is amateurish at best, and when pitted against a professional typist, falls embarrassingly behind.

The Logitech MX1000

I began very simply. Since I had been using ASDX since the days of Quake, the nearest keys to me became Q, W, and E. Mapping began with Q to Chain Heal, and E to Greater Healing Wave, and I chose to attach the Shamans infamous Purge spell to W. I hadn't been full utilizing the buttons on my Logitech MX 1000, so now was a better time than ever. The MX 1000's mouse wheel famously allowed it to be tilted left or right for additional bindings, so left-tilt became my new Earth Shock. Now, I could stop Yauj's heal without ever lifting a finger up off my keyboard. The MX 1000's thumb button became home for the Tauren's racial Warstomp, which I'd use to stun opponents if the proverbial shit hit the fan. I also devised a system to throw down totems with the remaining tilts and various buttons the MX 1000 boasted. With my new key-mappings in place, it was time to crawl all over again.

It took several weeks to re-program my brain to use this new layout, reaching up for Q and E, instead of the number keys I'd be using for so long. I'd catch myself, at times, reaching for the old numbers, but slowly those memories faded away as my new bindings took hold, deep in the synapses. Practice, they say, makes perfect, so I stuck it out. Eventually, I was freely able to move, heal, and drop totems without ever having to glance at the keyboard for an emergency Earth Shock, Purge or Warstomp. With this new found freedom to move and cast without having to look at the keyboard, healing Sartura became far less frantic (as did the Bug Trio). I was able to watch the events unfold, eyeball certain players and target them (rather than always relying on my whack-a-mole addon), and fire off heals without my left hand ever being lifted from the movement keys.

Predictably, Sartura met her fate after other players adopted similar key bindings. The price of re-learning came at the cost of time, however, and a full month had passed, pushing us into late August. We had more work to do, and decisions to make. Decisions that would not come easy.