Sunday, July 29, 2012

1.21. Epilogue: Success By Accident

Headhunter does what he does best
on the Deathwing-US Horde Auction House,

Rich Ater Pennybags

I collected up my raiding paraphernalia for the evening. Marks of Illidari were exchanged for flasks to help take the edge off of raiding costs, and I refreshed my stack of mana and health potions. We were 3/5 in Mount Hyjal, stunned with the amount of progress we saw over the last several weeks. So much so, it even caught Blain off guard, and he had to address me about it -- but it wasn't for the reasons you might guess.

"If we keep up at this pace, we may have to adjust our plans somewhat."

"Azgalor's practically a done deal," Ater joined in.

"There's still a major chunk of people on the roster that haven't picked up their PvP trinket."

"Remind me again why this is important?" I butted in.


Blain wasn't even concerned with Azgalor, his mind was focused on a more sinister threat: Archimonde.

"If he fears a bunch of us into Doomfire, that trinket is going to be their last opportunity to save themselves. And the rest of the raid."

"I'm dumping some more gold into the vault for guild repairs," said Ater, changing the subject.

"Thank you again, Mr. Rich Money Pennybags." Somewhere along the line, Ater had let it slip that his family was in the oil business, which the guild immediately leapt on and like an undead rogue cannibalizing his prey. As it so happened, he was never shy of gold in-game, either.

"You are never out of gold. What's the deal with you, anyway? You best friends with Headhunter or something?"

Headhunter was a well-known gold farmer on Deathwing-US, having constantly been at the heart of swaying the economy to and fro during both Vanilla and TBC. Some were annoyed by his constant stranglehold on the Auction House. Others, as it turned out, used it to their advantage.

"Headhunter's a great friend to have," said Annihilation, joining the conversation, "I've bought gold from him several times. Made life much easier during that High Warlord Grind!"

I'd heard rumors this was true, at least as far back as Vanilla, but never got the official, on-the-record confession. And he wasn't the only one guilty of buying gold.

"Is that true, Anni? Damn, man! Way to totally ignore the the ToS!"

"That's why Graulm was pissed off at us," Ater added, "Well, one of the reasons, anyway..."

"Graulm knew you'd bought gold?"

"Yeah, he found out at some point and got pretty pissed off. Chewed me out, actually. I wasn't setting a very good example."

Suddenly, the Graulm/Ater animosity was painted with a new spectrum of color, no longer the black and white conclusion I'd settled on. Blaming the entire fallout on a difference of opinion regarding Xorena and Khaevil now seemed shortsighted upon reflection. Nevermind the fact that Ater had completely slipped under my radar on purchasing in-game gold. Tsk, tsk.

"You know you're going to Hell for buying gold."

Ater laughed, "Did you know that he's scared of you?"

I paused a moment. "Who?"


Wait, what?

"Why the hell would he be scared of me? I don't even know him. Never said a single word to him!"

Ater chuckled as he laid out the details, "Yeah, I dunno, either. But back when you were on Kerulak, he thought you 'ran shit' on Deathwing. Figured that you knew what was going on at all times, and was aware of his little gold making business."

"I can't imagine what would've given him that impression."

"Dunno, but he's super paranoid. For awhile there he was treading lightly in fear of your 'impending wrath'. Like at any point you were gonna turn him over to Blizzard and end his gold-selling days."

I just stared at my screen in stunned silence.

"...huh. That is...very bizarre."

I wracked my brain, trying to think of what possible clue I could have slipped Headhunter's way, either accidentally or on purpose, to give him the impression I was The Lord Ruler of Deathwing-US. The truth was far more amusing...and pathetic. I barely felt like I had control over anything. Most any of our successes had come from directives handed to me by Graulm or Ater. I must have said or done or acted in some way as to give our server's famous gold farmer the creeps. I wished I knew what it was. Giving off that impression of being in control worked wonders. Being led by a person with no confidence or self-esteem was like trying to cut into a steak with a wet noodle. So whatever it was that I was doing, perhaps it was working. If I could intimidate a random player on the server whose only goal was to accrue a massive amount of virtual wealth simply by existing...then perhaps I was following the right instincts in my quest to fulfill the role of guild leader.

I ran up to Zephyr in the World's End Tavern and clicked on her. She raised her arms and evoked a portal sound effect; in a flash, I was in the Caverns of Time, running toward the Hyjal instance. I chuckled to myself, reflecting back on the story that had just been revealed to me. Maybe I had a knack for this leadership thing after all. My hope was that the reasons for my success would make themselves clear.

Success by accident was not a very viable long-term strategy.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

1.20. The Longest 1% Ever

Naxxramas Loading Screen
Copyright © Activision/Blizzard

The Balancing Act

Her lair was a prison of webbing. In all directions lay stretched the delicate weavings of a spider large enough to put any arachnaphobe into the fetal position. She sat perched at the far end of this spherical cocoon, twiddling her eight black legs. Evil beads for eyes glared at us while a mandible expanded and contracted, as if licking unseen lips. Her yellow-and-red abdomen dwarfed the raid. And when we made our first pull of Maexxna, she filled our computer speakers with a nightmarish clacking sound, as if two undead claws were being dragged down a chalkboard of despair and anguish. Every time Maexxna uttered these terrifying sounds, I felt my composure slipping away. It was so horrific a sound, in fact, she continued to haunt me well into The Burning Crusade. Spiders sharing Maexxna's model became tamable by Hunters, and I would lose my shit in battlegrounds when the Kill Command was given. That sound made me jump out of my chair and spaz out on my keyboard and mouse in a last-ditch effort to save my pathetic self. Only two other video games had ever made me jump throughout my life: Rescue on Fractalus!, and DOOM.

There was a reason her image graced the Naxxramas loading screen; Maexxna embodied raw, unadulterated fear. This was a good thing™. If Naxxramas was truly the ultimate raid for Vanilla, everyone should have been losing their shit.

Her rules of engagement were a delicate balancing act of nerves, discipline and timing. The main tank would hold Maexxna in the center of her lair, while the raid grouped tightly behind. We were then subjected to an intricate web of mechanics she'd rotate through on forty-second intervals, staggered among each other. One such mechanic caused Maexxna to randomly choose three people and toss them backwards toward the far wall of her nest, encasing them in a cocoon. While incapacitated these players would suffocate; their lives were in the hands of the ranged DPS. It was up to our casters to break them out as quickly as possible. Another mechanic produced a swarm of spiders that would coalesce onto the raid. Off-Tanks would have to do everything in their power to hold AoE aggro on these spiders, so as to not let them attack and kill our healers. Maexxna's venomous mandible also injected a necrotic poison into players, suppressing healing by 90% -- this had to be cleansed immediately. If the Main Tank was the target, unattended poison would guarantee a wipe. We repeated the handling of these mechanics until Maexxna's health dropped to 30%, at which point she would Enrage. While all her mechanics continued to stretch us thin, it became a non-stop burn until either she...or we...ended up dead.

There was just one small twist amid all these mechanics, a monkey-wrench which instilled fear into the hearts of every healer to ever play the game...

...Maexxna would incapacitate the entire raid for a full eight seconds.

Every. Single. Player. 


During Web Spray, nobody would have any control over their character -- every one of the forty players in the raid would be completely immobilized. And while Maexxna was free to continue to tear the flesh away from our Main Tank, we could only watch helplessly as their health dropped to frighteningly low levels. Healers of today may look back on this encounter and think, "What's the big deal? Load the MT up with HoTs before Web Wrap and you're good to go."

In Vanilla, you could only have one unique HoT on a target. Even if you had five priests and five druids, your main tank could only have one Renew, one Regrowth, and one Rejuvination on them at any given moment.

Ater was our most well-geared tank at the end of Vanilla. Fully buffed at the pull, he had 10,047 hit points. Maexxna was striking him for between 2500 and 3500 hp per blow, white damage. HoTs ticked for about 300 hp. If Ater was topped off and lead into the Web Spray with a Shield Block, he'd be in a good shape with a couple of HoTs. But if not, and Maexxna happened to deliver a crushing blow, his health would be nearly empty by the end of the eight seconds. To combat this nerve-wracking mechanic, the healers and I set up a Nature's Swiftness rotation. One by one, the Druids and Shamans would cycle through an instantly cast giant heal at the end of the eight seconds, shooting Ater's health back up and preventing the raid from having a heart-attack. Nature's Swiftness was on a 3-minute cooldown, so a rotation was necessary to keep an emergency heal flowing in.

But while Healers were dealt the worst hand of the roles thanks to Web Wrap, the other roles were similarly impacted. A web-sprayed ranged DPS meant the possibility of players suffocating to death on the walls of Maexxna's nest. Ranged, therefore, absolutely had to make breaking people out of cocoons their number one priority. A web-sprayed off-tank had a pretty tough time collecting up swarms of spiders scurrying across the raid, so the spider swarm had to also take priority over Maexxna herself.

Things fell apart at the 30% mark. After working to perfect our timings with web spray, poison shock, and the never-ending swarm of spiders, we naturally lost a good number of players to web wrap. DPS was slow to move from Maexxna to the targets on the wall, and they would run out of air before we could break them out of their silken prisons. As it had been with Princess Huhuran, Maexxna's game was attrition; keep whittling the raid away piece by piece, so that when the enrage burn phase came at 30%, we wouldn't have the manpower to keep both Ater and the rest of the raid alive. Ater would die, and the remaining tanks would scramble to pick up, but not having the buffs or the gear that Ater possessed, they would be ripped apart as she systematically fed on every last remaining member the raid.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Maexxna,

Winning the Attrition Game

Our goal for each attempt was to keep just one additional player alive as we approached the 30% mark. As we refined our pulls, communication on her phases improved, warnings on the next mechanic were consistent. Our own internal timers began to adjust to Maexxna's, and healers were more prepared to proactively protect players before the spray froze us into position. Web-wrapped targets were broken out faster, and with players being topped off more consistently, those suffocating had more room to breathe before they met their maker behind a mask of webbing.

When the 30% mark hit, Ater granted us one last reprieve: Shield Wall, the last great bastion of defense for a Warrior in Vanilla. He could only use it once per attempt, so he saved it for the first Web Wrap post 30%. It would save his life, but systematically ensure his death by the second, as we watched his health spike from 10k down to 2k...and then nothing. His death marked the burn like a starter pistol. Did we have the manpower alive to tear through her remaining health while she feasted on the aggro list like a menu? Annihilation called out Warriors frantically to burn their Shield Walls as she turned to them, and the gong of RDX rang like a death knell. Ater, dead. Annihilation, dead. Darange, dead. Her taste in our raid team diversified as she found her rhythm, eating one player per second. Another Rogue. Another Druid. Another Shaman. Another Lock.

Having succumbed to the lack of air in my own cocoon, I watched helplessly as her health dropped into the single digits. Amid the chaos of her feasting, RDX showed that we were only down 4 DPS. She continued to one-shot players, eating Siax next--the only DPS Warrior in our raid, joining DoD after his own hardcore raiding guild had collapsed in Naxx. Only two Warriors remained alive: Demus and Kurst, while Zyr and Volitar poured Greater Heals into them.

Dalans yelled out her health "3% go....2% go..."

Kadrok continued to chant "Burn Her!!" to the remaining raiders.

Her health dropped to 1%.


It all seemed surreal. This was our second weekend on Maexxna. Two full months of work in Naxxramas. A year of raiding. Of assimilating guilds, meeting new people, building up a roster. I had gone from a player barely able to make it through Sunken Temple to this...a raiding guild. A 40-Man raiding guild. A Naxxramas-raiding guild. Forty strangers, all working together, virtually. Coordinating. Watching timers, boss alerts, churning out Pyroblasts and Shadow Bolts. We gained players and lost them. Decisions had gone well and gone horribly. And I'd met people that would profoundly affect my decision making in the years to come. What challenges would be next on my plate? Would I be able to handle them?

And it was in that moment that seemed to stretch out for all eternity, a bizarre realization set in. was my birthday.

I'd been so hyper-focused on the guild, on WoW, on our success, on the threat of 2.0 stripping away any further progress we could make in Naxx...that I had forgotten my own birthday.


I glanced up at the screen, The arachnid flipped over in a curled, twitching ball in the center of her nest. 

It was over.

Descendants of Draenor managed to clear The Arachnid Quarter a full month before the release of 2.0. It was our final greatest triumph of Vanilla, and a testament to the resilience of a guild with a year-late start in PvE. We'd grown from a handful of Counter-Strike LAN buddies into a 40-man raiding machine, one of the few Horde guilds on the Deathwing-US server to claim this level of progress. And while most of my success at the helm seemed based off of sheer dumb luck, I nevertheless carried on, trying new things, listening to the folks whom I felt would offer us the greatest chance of success. I vowed to learn from every mistake I made, every bad judgement call that was my doing. Above all, I left Vanilla with a real sense of accomplishment -- that Descendants of Draenor could continue to be a raiding machine with much greater dedication and focus.

But perhaps not to such a degree that I would forget my own birthday.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

1.19. The Sprint

DoD clears trash during an evening raid,

Nerfed by Proxy

The glue of the spider wing's webbing dragged Naxxramas out for weeks. I kept optimistic by reflecting back on how far we had come. Our raiding career thus far had produced plenty of accomplishments we could claim ownership of. Ragnaros. Nefarian. Princess Huhuran. And while other guilds may have progressed past us, we remained one of only a handful of Horde guilds on Deathwing-US to be Naxxramas-capable. We'd grown from a tiny handful of close-knit players to this monstrosity that was able to run two separate 40-Man raids per week. The players were respectful. They made an effort to be civil. And, we boasted a number of unique strengths, including a few High Warlords -- the first of which whom was both an officer and a trusted friend. Upon reflection, I'd made a real effort to stick to my guns on the guild's ideals. When it looked like trolling was about to start, either in general chat or on the forums, I shut it down. The officers were also aligned with those ideals; I trusted them to shut down trolling on my behalf. We kept a low profile on Deathwing-US, and as a result, were rarely called out by other competing guilds. We'd lost people, true...but not in massive quantities; we certainly weren't hemorrhaging players. For the most part, loyalty in Descendants of Draenor was good. The trash in Naxxramas may have been brutal, but players returned each week. They knew time was running out on Vanilla. The finish line was in sight. The sprint had commenced.

When not on an actual boss, the conversation turned to 2.0 with curiosity and speculation. Initial talent trees had leaked out, promising new forms of heals to my Shaman -- the most significant of which came in the form of an Earth Shield. Other classes were similarly buffed with new talents; I'd bug Dalans by asking him if he was looking forward to the new Tree Form, and was promptly told to cram that tree of restoration up my ass. Dalans made no secret of his hatred in healing. Come 2.0, he would leave it behind once-and-for-all, and planned to follow in the footsteps of Ater and Annihilation as a Tank. Meanwhile, Volitar the Priest and Kadrok the Shaman were fully committed to leveling a Blood Elf Paladin, as the age-old faction restrictions fell to the wayside in The Burning Crusade. They spoke of marathoning a 24/7 leveling effort, sacrificing both hygiene and sleep...which was certain to produce some amusing dialogue in Vent.

As exciting as it was for all of us to pour over those new talents, a sinister side-effect remained: an implicit drop in difficulty to all the raid instances we were working on. Fights like Anub'rekhan that were so tightly tuned would suddenly become trivial with the existence of talents like Vitality, granting Ater an overnight bonus of 5% to his Stamina; the equivalent of an entirely new set of gear. The brunt of the free-for-all healing would no longer rest solely on the shoulders of the Shamans, with our raid's Priests blanketing the group with Circle of Healing. And of course, our damage dealers would all gain a 41 point talent that would inflate their DPS by a significant amount, the Hunters with The Beast Within, the Rogues with their Surprise Attacks...the list went on. Our heals would heal harder, our tanks would live longer, our damage dealers would be deadlier...

...and our raids would be nerfed by proxy.

To the guild, 2.0 meant a breath of fresh air, exciting new content and challenges. To me, it meant the end of Vanilla progression. The day that 2.0 hit, anything we had yet to execute would officially be off-the-table, tainted by the stench of these new talents...none of which had been considered in the design of Naxxramas. Whatever we could clear before 2.0 would be our legacy in Vanilla.

I wanted our final effort in Naxxramas to be significant.

Grand Widow Faerlina

We pushed further down into the Arachnid Quarter, clearing away the spider threat, until at last we came upon a room filled with cultists. They bowed and chanted toward a woman dressed in fanatic robes of yellowish greens, adorned with jagged black spikes -- instantly recognizable as the Tier 3 Warlock set, Plagueheart. The woman stood on her circular stage, flanked by six senior religious heads, four of which were deemed "Worshipers", the other two, "Followers". Ater and Annihilation rushed into the hypnotized crowd and the raid proceeded to put them out of their misery, granting us a wide berth to setup our strategy.

There was no rocket surgery here: Main Tank on the Grand Widow, Off-Tanks on the Worshippers. Kill the two Followers, then unleash Hell on Faerlina. Decurse the Poison Volley, move quickly from her Rain of Fire. There was only one gimmick to the fight: we'd call on our Priests again, as we had with Razuvious. Every minute into the fight, Faerlina would gain a powerful Enrage, making her sword strikes so brutal that healers would empty their entire pool just to keep the Main Tank alive. But, we could no longer rely on our Hunters to tranquilize the buff -- she was too powerful, even for them. Much like turning Razuvious' students against their teacher, we would have to call on our secret weapon Volitar, who would Mind Control a Worshiper. The Worshipers alone possessed the power to purge Faerlina of her rage. This power would cost the Worshiper their life, which meant we only had four silences at our disposal.

The first enrage came at the 50 second mark, then every minute thereafter. The 3:50 mark would be our last opportunity to purge her of her enrage ability. If the fight drew out to the 4:50 mark, our healers would be running on empty, and she would most certainly cleave us apart, one-by-one, until there was nothing left alive in our crew of 40 raiders. This style of fight, where resources are limited and poor execution can lead to a wipe via attrition, is what we referred to as a Soft Enrage. The terminology stands to this day in communicating to players whether or not they are fighting to beat a static timer before the boss goes ballistic (Hard Enrage), or we ultimately do ourselves in by not utilizing the hidden mechanics in the encounter.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Grand Widow Faerlina,

Emergency Maneuvers

Haribo had me and a few other Shamans on Kurst and Darange, the Off-Tanks for the Followers. They were the first to be killed; Follower AoE silence posed a threat not only to our other healers and casters, they could potentially cause issues for the Priests attempting to control a Worshiper. Once the Followers were dead, this freed Kadrok, Klocker and I to start painting our Chain Heals across the remainder of the raid.

"In 15 seconds, we're going to have an enrage, healers get ready," Blain called out into Vent. I spun Kerulak around, winding up more Chain Heals.

"No. We're gonna do one more, then the Enrage", Volitar called back, as he prepared to take out a Worshiper -- his implication being that we were planning to silence Faerlina before her next Enrage. This tactic would also kill the Worshiper, but grant us 30 additional seconds of smoother incoming damage. Rather than risk a few seconds of Faerlina's enraged strikes, which could one-shot an ill-prepared tank, guilds would employ the tactic of silencing her before her enrage, granting temporary asylum from the onslaught, negating a round of poison volley in the process. Two birds to be killed by one stone.

But in the chaos of Naxxramas, it was easy to get mixed up. Volitar still thought we were on the first Worshiper, when we were already ready for the second.

"Nononono", Blain called back, "Need to let her"

Faerlina grew large, her entire body bathed in a deep blood red -- the telltale sign of an enrage mechanic. Volitar silenced her in an instant, and she resumed her normal size, the redness washing away. The raid continued to unleash while Blain's voice remained calm, giving us updates as necessary. A cool, collected head breeds success, Blain was adamant on stymieing panic. We gave up our fourth and final Worshiper, but he kept us focused with words like "plenty of time". The DPS poured in. Another volley of poison showered us while we decursed it away.

"She's enraging, Ater get ready to shield wall." Blain called out. Too late. Before Blain's digitized voice finished transmitting across the Internet, Ater was struck and killed by Faerlina's enraged blows. Initiate Plan B.

"Rogues, get ready to evasion tank." They swarmed in behind him, ready for an Evasion rotation, which would give each rogue their 15 seconds of fame as they held Faerlina, dodging her blows -- the raid pushing out the last of their DPS. But the Rogues would not see any fame this day, for as they moved into position to begin emergency tanking maneuvers, Faerlina's pool of health went dry, and she collapsed near the steps to the stage she was worshipped on. The death of Grand Widow Faerlina was a sigh of relief to DoD. After agonizing over Anub'rekhan for six weeks, the Grand Widow only took us one weekend of work.

If our luck kept up, we could potentially close the Arachnid Quarter down completely. But if the next boss proved to be another Anub'rekhan, Faerlina might be the last boss we could claim under Vanilla.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

1.18. A Shot of Adrenaline

Crazzyshade and Kadrok strip down to their
skivvies to show off DoD's first Tier 3,
Eastern Plaguelands

Solace in Loot

At the end of September, after being in Naxxramas for over a month, we finally collected the necessary Wartorn Scraps to exchange for our guild's first Tier 3 pieces. Blizzard was still playing with the "token" concept by this point. In AQ40, tokens dropped off of the more difficult bosses, and each token was shared by a number of classes. The tokens would be distributed to players, who would then exchange the token for their respective class tier pieces. It was a clever solution to the age-old problem of streakiness; due to the nature of random numbers, we'd often see the same loot drop week-after-week, which made gearing a chore. By granting us tokens, we now had some control over those items which previously seemed cursed with horrendously bad luck.

Blizzard changed up the token concept a bit in Naxxramas. Now, bosses dropped Wartorn Scraps of multiple armor varieties: Cloth, Leather, Chain and Plate. Players would collect up these scraps and after amassing a certain amount, they could exchange the handful of scraps with an NPC stationed in Light's Hope Chapel for their Tier 3 gear. The trick in this case was that each boss didn't drop all the scraps necessary for a single exchange. The plan was to farm multiple bosses each week, allowing the raid to collect a multitude of scraps so that at least one item was purchasable. But, after five weeks of work, we hadn't pushed past Instructor Razuvious -- only collected a handful of scraps each week. In our long standing quest to be an efficient raiding guild, this was the worst way to achieve progression. But we'd made our decision on Naxxramas and stuck to it, and in the process, earned enough Wartorn Scraps to issue out our first Tier 3 Boots, one pair to Crazzyshade, a dedicated Warlock, and the other, to my Shaman officer Kadrok. He may have been displeased at leaving AQ40 behind, but perhaps found some solace in becoming one of the first members of the guild to proudly show off a Tier 3 piece.

Not many on Deathwing-US could do the same.


After the kids were tucked in, I headed downstairs, fell into my chair, and logged in to WoW. There was nothing spectacular planned this particular evening, so I hopped on to my guild bank alt, Oxanna, to process whatever requests the guild had for me, either distributing Zul'Gurub Zandalari tokens, or Idols and Scarabs for AQ20. As soon as I arrived in-game, Blain whispered me immediately.

"Flip over to Kerulak and head to Silithus."

"Why? What's going on?"

"Ater just looted the other bindings in MC. We're going to go do Thunderaan."

Kerulak stands next to Thuderaan's
massive weapon, Thunderfury,

The Blessed Blade

One year. Fifty-two raids. Eighty players across two separate forty-man raid groups. I had to hand it to Ater. He never gave up. Long after the A-team had left Molten Core behind and turned their attentions to most difficult challenges of AQ40 and Naxxramas, Ater continued to run through the Core. Even the mention of the Core made a lot of the A-team raiders sick to their stomach, never again wanting to set foot in the instance after having made it their weekly torture for so many months. But Ater swallowed the torture, the sole POW interrogated incessantly by the Surgers, Annihilators, Core Hounds, and Molten Giants. He's withstood more Pyroclast Barrages than any other player in DoD, and bore witness to more dusted Shadowstrikes than any mortal man should have to. Ater did it with a smile on his face, intently focused on the goal that drove him: Bindings of the Windseeker, two legendary materials held captive by Garr and Baron Geddon, in defiance of the Windlord's armies. And after running Molten Core for a solid year in Descendants of Draenor, the second Bindings dropped, and at last, Ater could claim a weapon that all tanks coveted in World of Warcraft:

Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker.

By the time I was logged in to Kerulak and en route to Silithus, Ater had already taken a crew to smelt the Elementium Bars necessary to craft the sword. Elementium could only be smelted in Blackwing Lair, in the covey behind Firemaw's path, just beyond the suppression room. The bars were in hand, and our raid invites continued to grow as more players logged on, ready to assist in completing the guild's first ever Legendary. When we arrived in Silithus, we quickly moved to the southwestern part of the zone. Unlike the brown sands dominated most of the zone, the Twilight Outpost in the southwestern region was shielded by darker, gray rock. Venturing out there by yourself immediately invoked a sense that you were somewhere you didn't belong, an ominous area where cultists were performing rituals, attempting to communicate with dark horrors hidden below the earth. It had an entirely different feel when protected by thirty-nine of your closest guildies. We paid no attention to the cultists. Today, we had another objective.

Ater announced he was talking to the quest giver, and in a moment, a giant windlord arose from the surface: Prince Thunderaan the Wind Seeker. He towered above us, matching the size of Ragnaros, but wasn't nearly as threatening. In fact, the slaying was over almost as quickly as it started. The raid pummeled Thunderaan into submission and he sank below Silithus only a few minutes after being summoned. A gigantic pronged weapon spun downward out of the sky, lodging itself in the dirt -- lit up by sparks of electricity travelling the length of the blade. After talking with the quest giver and handing over the materials, he called out in Vent:

"Oh, look at that!"

The same lightning-engorged blade that protruded from the sand was now in the hands of our main tank.


It's hard to say if acquiring the guild's first legendary was the shot of adrenaline we needed to catapult us forward in Naxxramas, but it certainly didn't hurt. Our milky, zombified eyes seemed to sharpen overnight. Exterminating the spider trash was a little less painful, a little less chaotic. Ater lept into battle, swinging the blessed blade left and right, tearing the abdomens of the arachnids wide open, bolts of electricity leaping from insect to insect. Not only was Ater's AoE threat greatly enhanced by the Nature Damage chaining across targets, I noticed a considerable smoothing of incoming damage he took overall, a result of his primary target's attacks being slowed by Thunderfury's cyclone effect. Whatever slight improvement it was,  the edge had been taken off of Naxx. We cleared with a bit more efficiency, stood our ground with a little more confidence, and knuckled down on our next boss with greater ferocity.

Positioning for the original 40-Man Anub'rekhan,

Dinner Time

Anub'rekhan was a Crypt-Lord; a giant scarab-like creature. Unlike a traditional insect, his features were more humanoid in prominence, he took on more the stance of a bear than of a beetle, and had a distinguishable face in lieu of classic insectoid eyes and antennae, while still demonstrating frightening spiked protrusions from his head and body.

He addressed us as dinner.

The mechanics behind Anub'rekhan were straightforward, but execution was an entirely different beast. He would require a tank to hold him position while large Crypt Guards would spawn in pairs, needing to be picked up and pulled to the side to be killed.  Where things got ugly was when Anub'rekhan cast his Locust Swarm ability. Locusts would infest the area near Anub'rekhan and would force the tank to kite him to the other end of the room. But, anyone (including the tank) caught in the swarm would take so much damage from the DoT that they would be killed within a matter of seconds, and to make matters worse, the locust swarm itself silenced and slowed anyone caught in its path. As Crypt Guards were already being off-tanked to the side, this circular room left little area to move...and having forty players in the raid made things extremely tight. The kite path, therefore, had to be along the outer edge of the circular room in a crescent shape. Dragging Anub'rekhan through the middle was out of the question. Too many people would be hit and killed in the process.

Execution required surgical precision on the part of the main tank because there was only a split second warning before Anub'rekhan summoned the swarms of locusts. The main tank had to be running away before the cast began. Furthermore, a player's standard run speed would not be enough to outrun the swarm; the main tank would have to be accelerated by a Hunter's Aspect of the Pack. This was already a frightening concept, due to the single reason that if the tank was late by even a fraction, he would be hit and stunned from Aspect of the Pack, eliminating any potential option of escape. No single person could afford to be caught in the insect's path. It required everyone to be alive. Each person that died would spawn a corpse scarab that would add to the ambient damage flowing in to the raid. On top of all this, Anub'rekhan impaled random spots in the room, spikes shooting up from the floor, tossing packs of us into the air and interrupting whatever cast we had planned. It all added up to one single fact:

Everyone had to play perfectly, and nobody could die.

Annihilation opted to handle Anub'rekhan, to learn and perfect the kite, while the remaining Warriors held the Crypt Guards at bay. The Hunter officer Kaleu was responsible for remaining in Anni's party, since buffs only affected the five people in each sub-group during Vanilla. Nights were spent practicing this mechanic, over and over. Anni watched for the warning, Kaleu flipped on Aspect, the kite would commence. I would stand ahead of him, throwing out a few heals in the process, eating the occasional impale, while the raid blasted away at Crypt Guards. The execution became almost clockwork in nature, after repeating it again and again, only to make one small error in timing half way through. Then, the chain reaction began. Players would die, corpse scarabs would spawn. They, in turn, would eat away at other raid members until they died, producing more scarabs. We were soon overwhelmed. Kites would be repeated in perfection by Anni for the duration of these attempts, only for a momentary lapse in timing which would cause the fight to unravel and for us to start anew. Perfect...or nothing. No gray area in between.

On October 15th, six weeks after our first kill of Instructor Razuvious, we punched through Anub'rekhan's thick scarab shell, and its wings flapped one last time as the bug collapsed on its side. I glanced up at the raid -- everyone was alive. It was as I predicted. Only perfection would fly at this late stage in the game. But at a grueling six-week duration on boss practice, how much further were we going to get?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

1.17. In The Mouth of Madness

The 40-Man raid team defeats the first boss of
the Military Quarter: Instructor Razuvious,

Sweep the Leg

Naxxramas gave me chills the moment we set foot in the instance, much of which I owe to the soundtrack. Matt Uelmen's orchestration of the floating necropolis was a crescendo of strings layered amid frightening horns, driven by the rising anxiety of a snare-drum death march. In the distance, the angelic choir seemed to morph into empty, hollow souls -- the damned crying out to be saved from the wretched hell of undeath. The hairs on my arms stood up. I would come to find out, years later, the reason Uelmen's soundtrack for Naxxramas had such a profound effect on me was due to the fact that he originally scored this music to drive Diablo III, a game which Blizzard had been working on in secret, only to be re-booted and re-orchestrated as time went on. Luckily for us, Blizzard re-purposed Uelmen's Diablo III score, melding it to the wings of Naxxramas, and it remains one of my most beloved pieces of video game music to this day.

Naxxramas boasted fifteen bosses, divided among the corridors of four wings. In the past, raid instances adhered to a more linear path, but this was no longer a concern; for the first time, we had the freedom to choose which direction we wanted to go. Each wing housed three bosses (save the Construct wing with four). That left two bosses remaining in the upper reaches, so we could take the wings however we chose. Blain chose The Military Quarter to start, with a plan to switch to The Arachnid Quarter following our first boss kill. That first boss was Instructor Razuvious.

Razuvious' job was to train Death Knights. We approached his ring, eying him as he meandered between his four students, each of them practicing on a training dummy. The curve ball that Blizzard threw at us was something completely unexpected: role reversal. Priests would now be called upon to do the tanking. Utilizing their unique ability to Mind Control a target, they would mentally wrestle one of the Instructor's understudies into submission, turning the pupil against its teacher. This option was the only viable one, as only the students were capable of withstanding the devastating blows that the Instructor dished out -- not even Ater or Annihilation could take such a beating. Our tanks would be responsible for holding the students whom weren't mind controlled, and act as a quick emergency between Mind Control transitions if things went awry. At the most, our tanks might survive a swing or two -- there was very little room for error.

We took a solid two weeks of work just to get a handle on clearing trash to Razuvious, and to get the Priests situated with their new role. I was very lucky to have the Priests that I did. Haribo handled his MC tanking like a true professional, keeping communication open and flowing for each transition, partnering up with Volitar to do the same. By September 10th, we were able to claim a kill of Instructor Razuvious, officially putting us on the board for Naxxramas progression for Deathwing-US.

I took a deep breath and whispered Blain, "See? That wasn't tough, eh? We got this."

Six weeks would pass before we killed our next boss.

Wiping to Trash

Failing is a part of learning, but when faced with oppressive odds, it sometimes seems as though you learn nothing. You begin to second guess yourself. Did we make the right decision? At least in AQ40 we were killing bosses. Yet, week after week we returned to Naxxramas, burning hour after hour on trash, clearing to Razuvious, botching a number of attempts -- then finally killing him. From there, we moved to the wing infested by spiders, only to be killed by trash on nearly every pull. There were no more opportunities for "healing buddies", no more chain pulling, no more carrying dead-weight. Every single one of the 40 players in our raid had to play at top of their game...just to survive the swarm. But the trash in the Arachnid Quarter continued to mock us, algorithmically dividing and conquering. Trying to cut a path through the web-work reminded me of how n00b we were on that first pull in Molten Core. Everyone thought they were a bad-ass, fresh off their latest Alliance slaughter at Tarren Mill. We didn't know what to expect, and dropped like flies as a result. We were ill-prepared for the devastating damage that the Molten Giants, Firelords, Core Hounds and Lava Surgers showered down on us.

Molten Core was a joke compared to this.

Even something as basic as pulling trash was an ordeal. Ater and Kurst slowly inched towards the pathing spiders, trying to get close. Heroic Throw had not yet been invented, pulling options were limited. Annihilation ran a tight ship: the Warriors knew better than to pull with taunt. Taunts produce temporary threat, gone in a matter of seconds, at which point the mobs they controlled leapt to the faces of Mages and Warlocks. The only way to pull from a safe distance was to use a ranged weapon. In Vanilla, the volume of a gun blast produced more AoE aggro than the silent shot of a bow and arrow, so guns were commonly equipped by Warriors. They snuck close, but not too close to aggro neighboring packs. Annihilation and Darange stood at the ready, with Taba close behind, waiting to pull off them as fast as they can, so that multiple blows didn't drop a single tank in under a second. I waited in silence, my finger hovering over healing keys, leaned closer to the monitor, and prepared for the blow. Ater inched forward a bit more, a bit more...

...then, the madness.

Over in an instant, it played out in slow motion. Nothing I seemed to do made any difference. A white rope of spider silk gripped Ater across the room, out of range of heals. I scurry down into the pit to save him, while the chaos in Vent grows loud, voices become indistinguishable. Zyr's hands drew a pattern in the air as he summoned a Greater Heal, and in the blink of an eye, he became a statue. I watched while silken bandages spiraled around his feet, his legs, up his torso and finished at the top of his head. Cocooned. To my left, bolts of green acid spat from the arachnids infected mass quantities of the raid. The bursts of damage continued, and players died faster than the insects were. I'd panic. Do I struggle to keep purging poisons or heal those about to fall over dead? I'd have my answer in moments: neither...because I'm laying face down in the dirt. Again. It is another wipe on trash. We ran back from the graveyard in a ghostly procession, crossing Plaguewood, and found our way back up to the floating necropolis, only to repeat the process ad infinitum.

Maintaining The Facade

By the time we eventually made it to the first boss in the spider wing, the majority of the night was burned away. Repair costs were steep, attention was waning from exhaustion and frustration. The lesser motivated players cancelled more frequently...forcing us to pull from B-team -- which only served to increase the time needed in Naxx. This ate into morale, and we were treated to a rise in grumbling from various A-team members still displeased with our decision to divert from AQ40. 

"We'd so be through Twin Emps by now," I'd catch someone saying. I said nothing in response.

I doubted my own decision making capabilities. Each day I arrived back in the instance to try to chip away at it, I braced for the other shoe to drop: the day that I'd be "found out", that all of this "guild leadership" is a sham and I have no idea what I'm doing, no idea how to lead. I waited for the day that the guild decides to call a meeting and reveal to me that the jig is up, and that they've all figured me out...that the true leaders of the guild are tired of putting up with my shitty, uninformed decisions, ready to return to AQ40 to get real progress done. The turning point of so many guilds. The separation of the casuals and the hardcores. My mind was made-up that this was where we were headed, like so many other guilds that brickwalled on raid bosses. The guild would divide, and the truly talented players would form a new, much stronger, more efficient guild. And the casuals would be left behind to suffer and rot, eventually quitting the game. 

How long before they saw through the facade? I wasn't leading anything. I held the title while others did the work. Each day I returned to Naxxramas to wipe on trash, I braced for the blow.

The blow never came.