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.


Derrill Guilbert said...

I hope you're going to collect this in a book and sell it. I will buy a copy, even after I finish reading the blog.

I guess you'll have to have an overarching story. Having gotten only this far, I don't know, maybe you do.

I mean, I don't need an overarching story to keep reading this, but for it to be a book it maybe would.

I'm a BC baby, and look up to folks like you who paved the road for us, so this is some good reading. Honestly to me, this is what I think it would be like reading Eric Raymond's account of technology development through the 90s or something. Not that I have read that. Or I dunno if he's even published it, and I'm too lazy to look up if I've got the years right, just now, but the point, I have completely driven it into the ground.

Shawn Holmes said...


I definitely have an overarching story, and am presently exploring e-Book publishing options when the story concludes.

Fenris├╣lfr of Ner'zhul said...

'Top tier current raider here, and I know exactly what you mean by the Karate stance, but I never really learned it :) I had to buy a mouse with extra buttons, because my entire left hand keys are bound to abilities. A-g, Q-t, and X-B are all spells, with Z being auto run. Remapping is a must, but many ways to do it. Love these posts, will continue to read for awhile.

Shawn Holmes said...


That's a great setup. I'm currently the process of training my daughter to stop clicking on buttons for exactly that reason.

Glad to have you along for the read!

JHart said...

I always thought my control scheme was the obvious approach, but it seems like not many people do it. I mapped the two thumb buttons on my mouse to modifier keys, shift and ctrl probably. This gave me all the keys I could reach with my left hand x3, in addition the mouse wheel clicked left/right and each direction was mapped to another spell. I tried a mouse with like 9 thumb buttons but didn't care for it.

Sservis said...

I'm really appreciating reading your story. Thank you for writing it. It's bringing back nostalgic memories and many smiles. It's amazing how big a difference better keybindings make, and how much it hurts when you reorder mappings and your muscle memory has to change. I built my hand position based on TheCore. Those RTS players consider everything as they don't have a GCD, so speed and efficiency are paramount. They move their hand to the other side of the keyboard (thumb on modifiers) and remove some keycaps (avoid pressing windows key mid game).