Thursday, May 31, 2012

1.12. Let the Games Begin

Kerulak and the 40-Man raiders
head through Blackwing Lair

Humble Pie

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

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

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

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

Easy to describe. Hard to execute.


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

"If We Don't Die, We Win"

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

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

And what was that goal?

Don't die.

Win.

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

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

Class Calls

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

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

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

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

We hadn't died. We won.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

1.11. Five Excruciating Seconds

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

Drinking From an Empty Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chromaggus, 7th boss of
Blackwing Lair

Chromaggus

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

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

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

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

Descendants of Draenor defeats Chromaggus,
Blackwing Lair

Hardcore Rabbits

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

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

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

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

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

Four times.

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

It all adds up.

---

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

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

1.10. Hammering Nails With Bare Hands

Descendants of Draenor defeats
Vaelastrasz the Corrupt,
Blackwing Lair

Voice of the Raid

When the corrupted red dragon slumped over dead, nobody in the guild had yet heard Blain speak.

After being informally inducted into the raiding roster by Ater, a relationship that had originally grown out of their shared Lineage II gaming sessions, Blain hadn't been talkative. The guild was known for blurting out crass jokes and nonsensical nerdy references in raid chat as we plowed through trash, but Blain chose to keep things close to the chest. Instead, his focus was on the raid and not so much on goofing off. The results spoke for themselves; in gear marginally better than a player would have minutes after dinging 60, he was wiping the floor with a good number of players in the raid. Some of these players would go on to claim he was cheating; that somehow, the add-on that we tracked damage with (Recount) was broken, and Blain had found a way to "fake" the values that displayed on our individual screens.

Denial, as they say, ain't just a river in Egypt.

We had managed a few attempts on Vaelastrasz before Blain set foot in our guild; they'd all ended poorly. The encounter was incredibly fun, taking advantage of a mechanic no-one had yet experienced: one-by-one, players would be cursed with the "Burning Adrenaline" debuff, giving them limitless mana, energy or rage, and cranking all their ability cooldowns to 0. Once transformed into this raiding machine, the player would have only a few seconds to crank out as much damage (or healing) as they could, before being forced to the back of the room, where the Burning Adrenaline debuff would overwhelm them, igniting them in a final explosion. Anyone near this living dynamite would be along for the ride to an early grave. Without preparatory research, we weren't equipped to manage the tank rotation needed to keep Vael still throughout the process, and he would turn randomly and blanket the raid with a crimson death.

Blain had only just re-written our raid strategy on Razorgore to deal with the undocumented totem aggro change in patch 1.10. His mastery at raid tactics and disinterest in listening to excuses had pushed us back into the Lair, wiping the floor with Razorgore using a legitimate strategy. It was through granular attention to detail that he gauged our viability on Vaelastrasz; if we were short by a thousand DPS, he'd know and would adjust accordingly. Vael was a tightly tuned boss, leaving only enough room to breathe without choking us. And Blain knew we were still very low on the raiding totem pole; most of us were decked out in Tier 1, with the occasional Tier 2 pieces from Onyxia, Ragnaros and Razorgore. Again, we were going to have to get through it legitimately, not by muscling our way through. So he dangled a carrot, and said if we could pound Vael into dirt, he'd speak in Vent.

Vaelastrasz the Corrupt took six weeks of exhaustive practice. We first laid eyes on him on March 14th, and in a moment of triumph on the evening of April 26th, 2006, with nearly all of the raid lying motionless on the floor, a young Mage by the name of Dandrak gained Burning Adrenaline. He unleashed all fiery hell from his finger tips in those last moments; his pyrotechnic acoustics layered amongst various raiders calling out, "Go Dandrak!", "Do it!!", "Kill him!!!". The great red dragon collapsed lifeless against the tiling. Cheers and screams filled our Vent server, our ears bleeding in this masochistic act of nerdism. When the yelling died down, my Shaman officer Kadrok reminded us of the promise, "And now, we must hear Blain speak!"

So on the sixth week, Blain spoke. And it was good.

--

Blain didn't reveal too much about his personal life, but I wagered a guess that he was located in the southern part of the US. His voice revealed remnants of a partially suppressed southern drawl, the way an accent tends to melt away as person spends time with people not from "these parts". I could relate; as a Canadian transplanted into America, my own pronunciations of words slipped away over time. But when tempers flared, I had a tendency to fall back on my instinctive tongue, rolling out "SORRY!" that was heavy on the SORE part. Likewise, when Blain got frustrated with folks in the raid, I'd catch him starting sentences with "Y'all".

"Y'all need to pay attention."

"I can't do this for y'all".

Then he'd calm down. Just like that, the accent would be gone.

"Do you need me to give you assist?"

I smiled. We lacked the ability to read each other's facial expressions in dealing with one another entirely over VoiP, so it was the little things like the presence or absence of an accent that helped me read my players.

What Blain did reveal in those conversations in the weeks to follow were his experiences from his previous Alliance guild, one in which he raided as a Warrior and cut a path through Blackwing Lair with similar machete-like fashion. I laughed at this revelation: Blain had de-throned all of my rogues on the first day raiding with us, and it wasn't even his primary class. When we chatted, I came to understand his convictions about raiding, and what it took to succeed. In his eyes, performance was about how well you leverage the tools available. Gear didn't matter nearly as much as players thought -- he proved that with the embarrassing weapons he held when he joined us in the Core. Success in raiding required a state of mind and a professional approach. A carpenter doesn't build a house by pounding nails into boards with his fists.

Descendants of Draenor defeats boss no. 3
Broodlord Lashlayer,
Blackwing Lair

Plowing Through the Lair

The day after Vaelastrasz was defeated, we one-shot Broodlord Lashlayer, having never made an attempt against him. It was a euphoric boost in morale after struggling with Razorgore and the six week ordeal of Vael. One-shotting anything in Blackwing Lair legitimized what we set out to accomplish -- hardcore progression on a casual schedule. We were now 3 / 8, and pressing forward. The three drakes were next: Firemaw, Ebonroc and Flamegor, and we were able to knock them out a week at a time. All three of them draped us in Shadow Flame, so our entire raid had to be equipped with Onyxia Scale Cloaks, preventing instant death. We would, on occasion, have a forgetful player who left their cloak in the bank -- or simply failed to put it on -- and we'd know instantly when their health-bar emptied out in a split second. It even happened to Ater a couple of times and the results were nothing short of hysterical.

Everyone makes mistakes. We did our best not to repeat them.

Firemaw required bizarre placement:

Placement for Firemaw, 4th boss of
Blackwing Lair

I stood with the healers at a sharply acute angle against a wall in the suppression room. My view only granted me a glimpse of the tank, which alternated between Ater and Annihilation. This was done to LoS or "keep out of Line-of-Sight" Firemaw's Flame Buffet attack. Flame Buffet would hit everyone in line-of-sight of Firemaw, knock them back, strike them with fire, and stack a debuff which increased the fire damage they took. Staying in and being healed through it was not an option. One by one, melee and ranged had to step in sight of Firemaw, attack, gain a few stacks of Flame Buffet, then fall back to safety and let them drop. Meanwhile, the healers had to handle keeping the Tanks alive, which was especially challenging during tank transition. Moments where neither tank were visible were about as comforting as knowing your pet had broken out of the backyard and escaped into traffic.

Firemaw took patience and practice, but we got him without needing a prescription for Xanax. Ebonroc didn't require nearly the same intricate positioning as his brother, but called for three tanks instead of two, alternating between taunts to prevent Shadow of Ebonroc from inadvertently healing the drake back up to full. Shadow Flame was still an issue, so everyone continued wearing their Onyxia Scale Cloaks, the upside being we would be saved from instant death, the downsize being we lost the stats of our progression gear. For me, it was a loss of a piddly 17 Stamina and 19 Intellect from my Hide of the Wild. Today, it would be barely noticeable. In Vanilla, I lost a solid five minutes of healing mana in an already 15-minute long fight.

Flamegor was the easiest of the three; his mechanics were similar to that of Firemaw, but he unleashed fiery novas onto the raid which kept us wrung almost completely dry of mana. His annoyance was a constant Enrage. Led by Kaleu, our resident beast-masters had to cycle through a dispel rotation -- one we hadn't leveraged since Hunters first acquired Tranquilizing Shot via a drop off Lucifron. It had only been called for on Magmadar, but the Hunters had Molten Core seared into their brain. Putting the rotation back into place was as easy as the flip of a switch.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Firemaw,
fourth boss and first of the drakes,
Blackwing Lair

Random Loot is Random

Our burst of efficiency had a drawback. By the time we were three quarters of the way through Blackwing Lair, we were still geared to a quality best described as "optimistically average". Working backwards, Flamegor had died once, Ebonroc twice, and Firemaw three times. Meanwhile, we had four kills of Broodlord and Vael; Razorgore perhaps twice that. At roughly three drops per boss, that equated to approximately 66 opportunities to upgrade, excluding our weekly clears of Molten Core and Onyxia's Lair. In a perfect world, those 70-ish upgrades would have covered a wide territory of players in the 40-Man team, but unlike a hardcore guild, we didn't take the same 40 people week-to-week. It was not uncommon to have a player reap tremendous rewards from our loot, then not return to the raid for several weeks. Re-training new players, exacerbated by their lack of upgraded gear was crippling, and drew our progress out. 

On top of all this: that handful of gear wasn't exactly a cauldron overflowing with purple power. The drakes were especially stingy with loot; they promised Tier 2 glove drops, but almost never delivered what we needed. In Vanilla, our set bonuses came at 3, 5, and 8 pieces. The most well-equipped folks (by this point) had Helm, Pants, Bracers, and Belt -- four pieces, one shy of the next bonus. Gloves or Boots would sate our hunger for more raid power, but the drakes refused to cater, and Broodlord liked to give us boots we already had. We took what they gave us, scurrying like rats in an alley as they dumped out the occasional scraps of nourishment; a Styleen's Impeding Scarab here, or a Rejuvinating Gem there. More often than not, though, it was garbage random off-pieces that the raid was unwilling to break their Tier 1 bonuses for.

And they knew what was coming, just around the corner: Tier 2 shoulders and chest. Staff of the Shadow FlameAshkandi. They weren't about to forfeit their place in line for a chance at a coveted weapon. They clung to their DKP and we dusted the side-grades. Constrained on gear and approaching the final two bosses of Blackwing Lair, I poured my faith into Blain's ideology. Gear is not what was going to get us over the hump that approached. We were going to have to be disciplined in our attack, leveraging every tool  available. They days of hammering nails with bare hands were over.

Chromaggus and Nefarian were going to need one hell of a hammer.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

1.9. Enter: Blain

Blain adds some DPS to Buru the Gorger,
The Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj

A Wild Rogue Appears

My Tauren Shaman took a seat at the mouth of Molten Core, drinking some of the Mages' conjured water, checking my inventory, making sure I had remembered to bring the Whipper Root Tubers I'd plucked from Felwood. Ater sent me a virtual nudge in the form of a /tell, indicating that the new Rogue would be joining us this evening. Fantastic, I thought, at last we'll get to see some real damage for a change. I spun Kerulak around to get a look a look at him.

His name was Blain, and he did not look geared for Molten Core. At all.

We'd spent half a year in Molten Core; it was now the second week of April, 2006. Both Onyxia and Ragnaros were regulars on the schedule. Weekly clears geared our raiders to the core-hound tooth; our players were some of the most well-equipped on Deathwing-US. Blain, by comparison, looked like any random scrub plucked from /general.

Yet, we struggled.

Part of the problem laid with the rogues; their damage was pathetic and inconsistent. They had one job: sustained DPS. A reasonably well-played, well-geared Rogue should easily top the meters. Ours weren't capable of such a request. Whether it was a lack of leadership on the part of my then-Rogue officer Evilexan, or the rogues' inability to grasp basic concepts like speccing out of PvP for raids, I wasn't certain.

They needed help.

The rogues needed guidance and leadership; someone to tell them to pull their heads out of their asses, get them educated on the proper specs and rotations. But the one thing they didn't need was gear. Seven months of running Molten Core had granted them nearly complete sets of Tier 1 Nightslayer armor. Some even boasted the Tier 2 Helm and Pants (Bloodfang), having been present to multiple Onyxia and Ragnaros kills. And in their hands they wielded Core Hound TeethBrutality BladesGutgore Rippers, and Vis'kags. No Alliance player on Deathwing-US was safe to perform their daily tasks with our rogues lurking in the shadows -- the might of their weaponry all but assured the Alliance a quick and painful death, perpetually terrorized by the "Descendants of Draenor" guild tag.

Razorgore held no such fear of our rogues.

So as I glanced up at this newly acquired Undead Rogue, standing before me wearing parts of the Tier 0 Dungeon set, augmented by a few random blues, wielding a Zulian Slicer in one hand and an Ogre Pocket Knife in the other, I had to ask myself:

How in the hell would this guy be our savior?

I sent a /tell to Ater, "Are you sure he knows what he's doing?"

Ater told me to have faith and to watch; I braced for the worst. Ater called out into Vent that he was about to pull the Molten Giants and for everyone to be ready. I swiveled my shaman into position behind the casters, and hovered over Ater's name with my mouse, my healing trigger finger waiting for the first blow to strike him.

And then, it happened.

Within seconds of making the first pull in Molten Core, Blain's DPS shot up through the roof, topping the damage meters, tearing the Molten Giants apart.

It was not a marginal increase in performance, it was an order-of-magnitude difference.

The raiders watched in silence as he moved from mob to mob, swinging around from behind, tearing each monster apart, moving with lighting-fast reflexes from one minion to the next, as his existing target was still in the process of falling over dead. It was as if he had the kill order already planned out in his head. I immediately had a flashback to that night in Scholomance with Maxxum and his guild members, ripping the dungeon open from the inside out. Precision. Efficiency. Speed. Maximum DPS.

Hardcore.


Warrior officer Annihilation wields The Untamed Blade,
Blackwing Lair

The Kill-All Strat

Blain mostly kept to himself. He didn't speak in vent and only typed responses when addressed directly. I continued to watch him, mob after mob, boss after boss, and night after night. Just as Ater had assured me, Blain continued to impress.

He and Ater had a synergy about them; they would work together to strategize and refine our current systems, making our Molten Core clears even faster. Long after the raid was over, Blain and Ater would venture off into a remote area of Azeroth, often with several other volunteer raiders in tow, mapping out new strategies, then trying them out in a kind of "dress rehearsal". Like kids constructing an attack plan in the sand with sticks and diagrams, they'd go over positioning, practice mechanics, movements, patterns. Ater had not lied -- Blain was a perfectionist. And when he assisted in the smaller 20-Man instances Zul'Gurub and The Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj, he completely dominated the damage meters.

But this was all still junior-level stuff for us. Bosses we had mastered were, for the most part, brainless in their execution. The task at hand was to re-learn Razorgore, a boss we already knew was a brick wall. We'd already practiced and perfected a strategy, but patch 1.10 crippled its effectiveness. I feared what this meant. Weeks of unlearning, then even more weeks of re-learning, equating to zero progress in BWL. I doubted a single rogue would be enough to turn the tables as fast as we needed it to be flipped. Failing to put Razorgore on farm status in a timely fashion would most certainly spell the end of raiding in DoD.

---

The 40 of us stand in Razorgore's egg chamber, staring at the boss, wondering how we are going to pull this off. The only viable strategy that remains is the dreaded "kill-all" strat. Only the the very best hardcore guilds can do this; guilds far better geared and played than us. It's going to be extremely risky; it has a significantly higher DPS requirement than what we are capable of, not to mention the risk of the Legionnaires cleaving us. And the egg-chamber is small, enclosed area, so our out-of-combat battle rezzer is going to be useless.

Blain types into raid chat, "we’re going to be doing the kill-all strat."

This is crazy. We're not a hardcore raiding guild! We don't have the gear to meet the DPS requirements. The cleave is going to take players out all over the place. This strategy is absolutely destined for failure.

I watch in silence as Blain opens up the raid management window and begins re-arranging groups. One by one he analyzes the most efficient make-up for each corner of the chamber: A tank to control the mob currently being killed. A Mage to polymorph the incoming Legionnaire. The Hunter responsible for Dragonkin kiting. A Warlock to back the Mage up with a Fear, in case the Legionnaire breaks free. A Druid will act as another backup to sleep a Dragonkin if needed. A healthy balance of healers and DPS to burn through each corner as fast as humanly possible. I wait for him to move us into individual Vent channels to coordinate the communication, as each corner is going to have to call out DPS, polymorph, fear, stuns, kill orders, emergency heals...if we're all in one channel it'll be a catastrophe.

"We’ll be staying in one Vent channel," he types into Raid Chat.

What? This guy has to be absolutely bonkers, Vent is going to be a constant mess of talking; nobody is going to understand a damn thing with everyone yelling.

"Each corner has an identifier", Blain types, “A, B, C, and D. I want one person from each corner calling out their respective spawns. You'll call them out by 1st dragonkin, 2nd dragonkin, 1st mage, etc, so we'll know is crowd-controlling what."

This ought to be rich. How the hell is the raid supposed to know that?

"Here are the crowd-control assignments," he types. Blain proceeds to lay out every single call. Every crowd-control, every kill execution, from start to finish. He has, essentially, orchestrated the entire boss execution in front of us.

"Designated corner announcers in Vent will call out if their corner is overrun. Adjust as necessary."

We start. We swiftly knock out the controller and his guards, and the mind-controlling of Razorgore begins. Corners move into position. They start calling out their Dragonkin, just as Blain instructed. The Dragonkin are picked up and kited by Hunters. Mages begin to spawn, corner tanks pick them up, announce they have good threat, DPS begins tearing the Mages apart. We burn them as fast as we can. Legionnaires arrive, calls are made. Our raiders move quickly, polymorphing them into harmless sheep. How are we doing?

"Eggs going well, down to half", says the controller.

He continues to weave Razorgore throughout the egg-chamber, popping eggs left and right. One by one, more Dragonkin, Legionnaires, and Mages spawn. I start to get nervous, and glance at my mana bar. Still Ok, I can continue to heal, and throw out a Frost Shock here and there to assist DPS. Were we falling behind? More mobs arrived. I'm not sure how the other corners are doing, but am too focused on the Rogue’s strategy to divert my gaze. I keep my focus on the task, keep my corner tank alive. Careful...careful! Don’t break the sheep. How are the eggs now?

“Eggs still going well”.

I re-focus my attention. Burn the Mage down. Throw out a few more heals. What about the other corners? I'm nervous again; not getting a lot of feedback from the other teams. They are quiet, save for the "clang" of weapons and "whoosh" of spells being hurled across the room at our targets. Anyone overrun yet? Ah God, a Legionnaire is closing in on me. Watch out for the cleave, give the tank the room he needs to work. He grabs it up, faces it away; I'm safe from the cleave. How's my mana looking? I’m doing pretty well, I’ll throw out a Frost Shock, help my team get our corner down. Another Mage dies, the tank breaks a polymorphed sheep, and moves to the Legionnaire. My corner’s looking low on health; I get them back up safely. Ater's voice breaks the silence in Vent.

"We have extra mages in the middle, get them picked up".

A far corner sweeps over and gets those mages handled, I toss out some more heals. Someone calls out for how many eggs are left.

"We’re on the last egg, get ready to move Razor into position."

Wait...what?

Before I know it, the final egg is broken, and the Dragonkin are running out of the egg chamber in preparation for Phase 2. The tanks pick him up and face him away from the raid, bearing the brunt of his conflagration alone. I hide behind pillars and begin line-of-sight healing, stepping in only to top off the tank, and then stepping back, safe from Razorgore's conflag. The tanks switch. More heals continue. Blain and his melee are wailing on the boss, giving it everything they have, while Mages, Warlocks send ranged attacks flying from a distance. I glance at the damage meters. Everyone is pushing as hard as they can.

...and all at once, Razorgore falls over dead, the victim of a kill-all strat.

The 25-Man Progression team defeats
Razorgore the Untamed,
Blackwing Lair

Have Some Faith

I was absolutely stunned. I never expected my guild capable of such refined raid execution; to be able to come together and work in such a synchronized, coordinated fashion. But we had, thanks to Blain, who wasn't interested in hearing about how or why we couldn't do something...but was more interested in humoring the possibility that we were. He not only put that effort into his own personal performance, he turned the Rogues around until they were all top-performing, dominating the meters like they always should have. I vowed to never again doubt our capabilities and made it a rule to preach Blain's ideals to the rest of the guild.

From here on out, raiding wasn't about what we couldn't reach, but rather, how fast we could get started.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

1.8. Razorgore the Unmaimed

Rogue damage is all over the board, as Kerulak
and the 40-Man raiders hover over Garr,
Molten Core

Terribad

At the macro level, we were making broad adjustments to our raid execution and seeing excellent increases in speed and skill. We were chain-pulling, tearing monsters apart, healers were buddying-up and managing their mana with much greater efficiency, and we had out-of-combat battle rezzers acting as a backup mechanism to ensure we kept a healthy amount of players alive through emergencies. Ragnaros was dead, and Onyxia's head was doomed to end up on the end of a pike in Orgrimmar, so swore our 40-Man raiders. It was time to raise the bar. Our sights were focused on the next tier of content, Blackwing Lair. However, the step up in difficulty was significant, and although no trash awaited us at the start of the instance, the first boss proved more than enough of an obstacle. After a few weeks of struggling on Razorgore the Untamed with no progress to speak of, we were desperate for answers.

I turned to my Ater for guidance, in the hopes of validating my own hunches as to where things were going south. A lot of those early months of raiding (and guild leading) in Descendants of Draenor were very much “learn-as-you-go”, and it wasn't uncommon for me to take a backseat and watch leaders emerge, taking note of how they addressed situations and resolved conflict. I had come to trust Ater's instincts more and more, as did the rest of the guild. People looked up to him, and when he spoke, they listened and followed. He exuded natural leadership, and employed all the basics (praise in public, scold in private, etc.) It was rare (if ever) that he had anything negative to say about anyone. So, it was that much more difficult to get him to speak negatively about anyone; it simply wasn't his style. It was this style which contributed to my mishandling of the Khaevil / Xorena situation, leading my Number Two officer, Graulm, to part ways with the guild. In my attempts to learn leadership by observing, I missed Blackrock-sized mountains of information.

I'd misread Ater's passivity as approval. Whether outright or innately, Ater understood the illusion of asymmetric insight, and didn't let it cloud his judgement of other people and the behavior we observed. We think we know people by watching how they behave and act, but we miss mountains of information needed to make accurate, impartial assessments. He picked his battles. He was less concerned with ego and players living out the persona of their in-game toons, and more focused on tightening up raid execution. Therefore, Ater would pour his energy into bringing clarity to raid strategy, rather than waste time telling someone they sucked. But even in the face of Ater's direction, bad players remained bad, and it didn't appear like he was able to get through to them. One group in particular took this terribad play to new heights, making them the biggest offenders of the bunch: the Rogues.

The rogues sucked.

Not having played a rogue, I couldn't be certain what they were doing wrong. Rogues in WoW were traditionally played by individuals who had a thirst for PvP (Player vs. Player) combat, and often specced into a role that would grant them survivability and burst DPS for that very reason (subtlety). However, these traits translated poorly into a raid environment, where high sustained DPS was a much greater priority. I discussed the Rogue situation at length with Ater, and while going over a few options one evening, he offered to reach out to a friend. They had played together in a previous game, Lineage II. He trusted this person, and stated to me that he would “whip the rogues into shape” and get us where we needed to be. Ater explained that, from his experience, this Rogue had an amazing attention to detail and could micromanage people's abilities on a entirely new level, providing insight into the tiniest of details, that even he wouldn't be able to keep track of while tanking/raid leading. It all sounded like a great idea...

...and then, Ater added, “there’s a possibility that this Rogue may rub some people the wrong way...”

The way I saw it, we didn't have a lot of options. Part of the reason we weren't making progress on bosses like Razorgore was that we were coming in way below the DPS requirement. If we could bring someone in who could tweak those numbers, I was willing to eat a few complaints from people who got their feelings hurt. I told Ater to seek out his Rogue friend, and determine if he could join Descendants of Draenor. In the meantime, I turned my attention to our other roadblock.

Kerulak and the 40-Man team prepare for an Onyxia kill,
Brackenwell Village, Dustwallow Marsh

Kiting Like a Scrub

The first boss of Blackwing Lair was a dragonkin named Razorgore the Untamed, and he would be the first of many bosses bring an entirely new level of complexity to our raids. It involved two phases, the first of which dealt with an steady influx of heavily armored Dragonkin, along with Blackwing Legionnaires that cleaved targets (hitting multiple players at once), and Blackwing Mages doing high DPS from afar. They trickled in slowly at first, but increased their frequently to such a pace that a raid couldn't simply overpower them all; they had to be controlled and killed in a focused, prioritized fashion. On top of that, a single player would have to mind-control the boss through the entire phase, weaving him back and forth across the instance, destroying all of the eggs in the chamber. Once the eggs were destroyed, phase two began, and Razorgore had to be taken to a corner and killed, switching back and forth between tanks, as one would periodically be doused with flames, causing them to become hysterical and run around in a panic.

Razorgore required a nearly surgical level of control, and communication was the most important priority. Many competing guilds stopped dead at this first boss of Blackwing Lair, never to progress further. In extreme cases, raiding guilds arrived at Razorgore, failed, pointed fingers at each other, and ultimately disbanded; a very real concern and possibility for us.

The longer the guild went without killing Razorgore, the greater the chance of completely falling apart.

At the time, we were employing a “totem-kite” strategy, made popular by raiding guilds on the Horde side (as the Alliance didn't have Shamans in Vanilla). The strategy involved the Shamans dropping Earthbind Totems (which had a slowing effect on enemies) and running around the room, casting their infamous Frost Shock on every cooldown, which caused monsters to chase the Shamans. Once the Shamans had aggro on all the Blackwing Legionaires and Dragonkin, players would run laps around the egg-chamber, re-dropping their totems, ensuring the the monsters remained slowed. This monster-chasing-you act is referred to as "kiting". With the Legionaires and Dragonkin in tow, the remainder of the raid would spread around the outer perimeter of the egg-chamber and methodically kill what remained: the Blackwing Mages. The theory to the strategy was that if the Shamans could maintain a healthy amount of aggro and kite these slowed minions or "mobs" through their Earthbind Totems, the raid would no longer be stretched thin, and would be free to focus on killing mages. The strat had merit, because when the first phase ended, all of the kited monsters would turn and exit the room in a scripted event, leaving us to focus on Razorgore himself.

From a practical standpoint, the strategy was anything but. It was difficult. It put the wrong players in the wrong roles. It felt "gimmicky", like we didn't know what we were doing, cramming a bunch of things together at the last minute like a bunch of amateurs. I felt like an idiot running around in circles. I hated it. It took me out of a role where I felt I could contribute (as a healer) to being completely powerless to help (running around like a moron with minions chasing me, one wrong move meaning instant death).

The only other option was a fabled "kill-all" strategy, employed by only the true hardcore raiding guilds in World of Warcraft. The rumor was that these top played, top geared guilds would separate themselves into four sub-groups, each communicating to one another in their own designated Ventrilo channel, and they would simply kill everything. Technically, they would ignore Dragonkin (due to their high armor), but Legionnaires and Mages together were fair game. The DPS requirements to keep up with the kill-all strategy was completely out of our league, not to mention the extreme level of coordination and focus that was required.

It was a level of discipline we simply hadn't reached.

So, we put this pipe-dream out of our minds, and continued on with the totem-kite strat. Several more weekends of attempts went by without a Razorgore kill and things became more frustrating and stressful. But on March 15th, 2006, the Shamans and I managed to kite our way into Phase Two, and Razorgore was dragged to a corner, tanked, and killed. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and set our sights on moving forward, confident that Razorgore was behind us.

He wasn’t.


Patch 1.10 added weather effects to WoW,
along with the undocumented side-effect of
Shamans' Totems generating threat.

1.10: Totem Aggro

Less than a week and a half went by, and we were treated to a new patch, v1.10, which added Weather effects to the game. While casuals frolicked through the rainstorms and snow out on the surface, the Descendants of Draenor had bigger issues to deal with. Upon returning to Razorgore’s egg-chamber, all hell broke loose. Suddenly, our strategy of dropping totems and kiting mobs around the room completely failed. Unbeknownst to us, a undocumented "stealth" change snuck its way into the v1.10 patch:

Shaman totems would now generate their own aggro.

As soon as the Shamans and I began our kiting, the Legionaires and Dragonkin would turn to the totems, destroy them with a single punch, free themselves from being slowed, then catch up to us and beat us to death. We were nearly ready to break ground on the next boss, Vaelastrasz the Corrupt, and now had to deal with a huge setback; we couldn't even kill a boss we were supposed to be farming. We picked ourselves up after many failed attempts in the egg chamber, crawled back home empty handed, and I thought to myself, “now what?”

Before I logged off for the evening, Ater took me aside and said his Rogue friend had decided to join us, and would be present for our next raid in Molten Core.

A glimmer of hope, perhaps?