Thursday, January 31, 2013

2.31. Resurrection via Apology

"Diablo Loot Piñata"
Artwork by Mark Gibbons
Copyright © 2007 Blizzard Entertainment

Viva Piñata

As far back as I can remember, video games have followed a very traditional design pattern in which the earliest obstacles a player must overcome are the easiest. As the player treks further into the game, learning new abilities and refining their skill, the game gradually increases in difficulty. Near the end of the game, the player must pull together all they have learned for the final, big battle, the apex of difficulty where the player is challenged to prove they have mastered all the techniques they've learned along their journey. This gradual increase in difficulty looks like an inverse arc; a skateboarder's quarter-pipe that plots difficulty over time. Some games have a flatter, more linear increase, but scaling the challenge along with the player's time invested is typically the same from game to game.

Blizzard's design approach for raid bosses had never followed this arc.

Instead, the path a raider must walk looks less like a bicycle ramp and more like a bolt of lightning, as it zig-zags back and forth from difficult to easy, then back to difficult again. Blizzard stated on multiple occasions that the reason for this is simple: difficult bosses at the start of an encounter are yet another means at implicitly gating content. Thinking back to how much of a roadblock Razorgore the Untamed was, it's easy to see their point. The appeal of not having any starting trash could have confused players into thinking Blackwing Lair was intended to be a pushover -- intentions that Razorgore very quickly put his boot down on. Because of this intentional top-heavy path of difficulty that Blizzard adheres to, a pleasant side effect is produced. To the resilient raider that perseveres, their reward comes in the form of one or more bosses strewn throughout the current tier...bosses that provide little-to-no challenge whatsoever. They grant a mental reprieve from the suffering a raid crew has already been subjected to.

We call these bosses "Loot Piñatas."

If you're an old-school raider, pressing the rewind button on your own personal story should make it easy to pick out the names of bosses that became synonymous with the term. Icecrown Citadel evokes memories of the Gunship Battle and Saurfang, while Black Temple had Shade of Akama bursting with candy. Although our story paints The Lurker Below as a nightmarish creature that blocked our progression, make no mistake -- he was the definitive piñata in SSC. And as for The Eye, well...there were two piñatas. One was already dead by our hand: Void Reaver. The other came to be known as High Astromancer Solarian. Solarian, however, boasted a paradoxical feature which challenged her position in the distinguished Hall of Loot Piñatas...

...for Solarian was also a linchpin.

Geddon v2.0

Solarian moved back and forth between two phases. In phase one, she was tanked-and-spanked where she stood, in the center of the remote east wing of Tempest Keep: The Eye. During this phase, the High Astromancer would target people at random, unleashing a can of arcane whoop-ass upon the unsuspecting victim. Only the healers with the fastest reflexes (and possibly a targeting macro) would be able to respond in enough time to keep these targets alive.

Phase two caused Solarian to disappear, spawning three portals in her absence. From these portals came blood elves of varying roles. Tanks would rush in and pick up these groups while players executed them in order, prioritizing priests, due to their AoE silences and their tendency to undo the damage we'd dug out of our enemies' health-bars. As the Astromancer approached defeat, she would transform into a giant voidwalker, the world-wide indicator that you were about to wrap up the fight. Solarian was almost entirely inconsequential...if it weren't for one remaining ability that added to my male pattern baldness.

Wrath of the Astromancer was a DoT that she placed on a target at random. While the DoT ticked away, the afflicted player would produce arcane AoE damage to everyone in the vicinity. After six seconds, the DoT would detonate in a flash of arcane energy, catapulting the player up into the air, and very possibly killing any nearby players that happened to eat the blast. The player, therefore, had to be spatially aware, quick on their feet, and run from their group as quickly as possible -- so that the detonation had no chance of striking another player.

It was Baron Geddon all over again.

Descendants of Draenor
defeats High Astromancer Solarian,
The Eye

A Fine is a Price

I wanted very much to fine people for not paying attention. Initially, we did exactly that: 100g donated to the guild vault if you blow the raid up. If you were a failure of a player, if your reflexes stunk, if you liked to blame your router or latency a lot -- go right ahead. Just be sure your pockets were lined with cash when you took your raid invite. The officers agreed instinctively, wanting desperately to put an end to the mouth-breathers that were constantly impeding our chances at progressing toward Kael'thas.

Ater stood alone, disagreeing with the tactic.

"Negative reinforcement is a bad idea."

"We have to do something", I replied, "I can't take the ineptness any longer. People need to be held accountable for their position in the raid."

He didn't push back. Playing the loyal soldier, he accepted my arbitrary, anger-fueled decree, continuing to lead in silence. And since Ater had such an impact on the guild, he didn't even have to name names -- players began to voluntarily step up and accept responsibility when they blew up the raid, calling out their name and confirming the 100g deposit. Ater was so well liked and admired by the raid in this regard that I can't help feel like our raiders felt guilty for these mistakes, possibly the first time since we set foot in the Core a year earlier. Like they were somehow inconveniencing him. I was amazed that anyone at all would step up to the plate. Imagine! A raid accepting responsibility for their actions! This was unheard of!

Yet Solarian wasn't dying. What was happening, however, is that the raid was continuing to explode in a blast of arcane death. It was as if players were paying for the convenience of failing. In an attempt to increase accountability, the fine was a convenient way to be absolved of it. Players in the raid thought they were being accountable by stepping up, waving their arm and going, "Yep, that was me. Here's your 100g", but weren't encouraged in any way to fix their mistake. That isn't accountability -- that's the absence of accountability. That's telling a murder victim you're sorry after the gun has already been fired. Much appreciated, but "sorry" isn't going to resurrect the dead.

Paying to fail had to come to a halt -- so we ended it. By banishing sales from the excuse factory, players had no other recourse but to get their shit straightened out, and move away from the raid as was their job. Just like it was when we expected them to click a cube. Or move away from one another during Shatter. Likewise, the onus was just as equally pushed back to leadership, to ensure we were training raiders appropriately, rather than assuming they knew how all the variables fell into place. This, in turn, led to leadership choosing raid rotations with greater judiciousness, plucking out the rotten, mold-covered fruit from a basket that was otherwise still edible.

Solarian wouldn't be the last of the linchpin encounters...not by a long shot. The quest to choose raiders with great care, therefore, continued in earnest. More would be left behind, more would throw tantrums, and more new faces would continue to breach the walls. As we closed in on Kael'thas Sunstrider, the roster would suffer a series of blows that left me bloodied and broken, and the completion of Tier 5 -- along with any chance we had to progress towards Illidan -- hung in the balance.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

2.30. No Easy Out

Vashj, the Highborne Night Elf,
before the War of the Ancients
Artwork by Jonboy Meyers

Inflated Self-Worth

Before she commanded legions of naga in her Coilfang army, siding with Illidan to wrest control of Outland, Vashj was the prime handmaiden to the head of the Highborne night elves, Queen Azshara. The Highborne were aloof and carried themselves with inflated feelings of grandeur; they believed their royal bloodline granted them great beauty, strength, power, and knowledge; traits not unbecoming of nobility. Yet to the untrained eye, the quel'dorei appeared to be no different than that of any other night elf of the Kaldorei civilization. They had the same tell-tale deep violet skin, the same sharply pointed ears, and even the same affinity for magic. In every measurable sense, the Highborne were no better nor worse than their commoner counterparts, yet their inflated sense of worth led them down a path of undoing. This unending superiority complex led them to side with Sargeras during the War of the Ancients, a terrible mistake that ended with their exile deep into the ocean as the Well of Eternity collapsed. Their pride led to their aquatic transformation, shedding purple skin for green scales, and sacrificing beauty for Medusa-inspired horror.

I much preferred humility over pride, not just as a way of life, but as a strategy in dealing with others. I don't feel it was due to a lack of confidence or skills. I simply preferred to walk a path as far away from douche-baggery and ignorance as possible. And nothing says douchebag quite like an inflated ego layered atop an otherwise ordinary human being.

Alongside Blain, Neps, Cattledrive, Chopliver and Turtleman, I assisted Depraved in several attempts on Lady Vashj that evening. Each try produced a few mental notes I filed away in the recesses of my brain, but most of the work was as straight-forward as Blain's initial strategy. There were subtle changes in the way they handled communication, coordinating the conveyor-line tainted core transfer, for example. They were noticeably cleaner in their execution of colifang elites, more elegant in their kiting of striders. Yet for all the additional organization and hardcore raiding experience this guild brought to the table, multiple attempts at clearing Vashj ended in wipes. The members of DoD that were present had never given me any reason to doubt their capabilities, and there really was no true point-of-failure for any given attempt. We chalked it up to the fact that this was a Depraved "alt" run, comprised of players pushing a second character through progression. Perhaps they weren't as geared as they needed to be.

Blain's motto rung in the back of my mind again. Gear doesn't make a bad player good.

As Depraved threw in the towel, I shot a /tell over to Blain.

"Did it help?"

"Yup," he replied, "Got what I needed."

Excellent. The raid began to dissolve, so I took the opportunity to thank Depraved before they left. Speaking into Vent, I began with:

"Hey guys. Want to thank you all for giving us a chance to see Vashj today, it's going to really help us out a lot..."

An unrecognizable voice interrupted me,

"Jesus Christshut up! Sounds like you guys are a bunch of fuckin' faggots..."

Depraved was a veritable cornucopia of class.

Zanjina surveys members of DoD assisting the
guild Depraved in a kill of Lady Vashj,
Serpentshrine Cavern

The Riot Act

Upon leaving the raid, I was immediately paged by someone in Vent.

"What are you doing in Zangarmarsh?" he asked in an irritated tone. It was Annihilation.

"Uh..." I paused, trying to assess what it was I had made a poor decision on, "...nothing?"

"Were you just in Serpentshrine Cavern a minute ago?"

"Yeah. Blain and a few of the guys wanted to see the Vashj strat, and they asked me to help."

"So you went in there to help Depraved kill Vashj?"

I stumbled. "Well...I mean, they were offering to show us the strat. So I figured the first-hand knowledge..."

He cut me off, "But you were helping them, right?"

"Well, yeah...if you put it that way..." I saw where this was going.

"Kerulak, Depraved doesn't need our help, alright? They've been raiding perfectly fine for years now. We don't need to give them any assistance."

I felt like a kid who'd been caught playing video games after being grounded from them.

"So, what was your plan if you beat Vashj in there?" he asked, rhetorically. He was being a wise-ass for good reason. Anni knew I wouldn't have a straight answer to this. It's what should have made me think twice about my decision: if we had killed Vashj while helping Depraved, a number of us would've become locked to the instance, unable to work on it later in the week. If the 25-Man progression team made it that far.

"Well, the chances of that were probably pretty slim, but it was worth a shot for the experience", I replied hesitantly, "but even if we managed to kill her, we could just end the raid early on the weekend if we make it that far."

Wow. A very shit-poor response from a guild leader, upon reflection.

"...and then you would've had to explain that to a bunch of your core raiders, people who have been busting their ass working on Vashj for DoD already. Nobody on the team is going to be happy to hear that, Kerulak." He continued to refer to me by my shaman's name, even though I had been playing Zanjina for several months now.

"The guild busts their ass every week in there, and then you and Blain and a bunch of random people sneak in early and get a kill that they aren't involved in?" He followed his own question up with his trademark chuckle. Not a chuckle of amusement, but of disgust in the human condition. It was painfully clear by now that I hadn't thought the decision through.

"Look," I interrupted him, "the goal wasn't to help them. Blain wanted to take advantage of the opening and see if he could learn anything by watching their strat."

"Kerulak, we didn't need Depraved's help when we were working on Nefarian. Or any of the bosses we killed in AQ40 or Naxx. Yeah, we got a few hints from Omura and people like that, but ideas over Vent or tells are one thing. Doing another guild's dirty-work is entirely different. We're a competent raiding guild. We always have been. Have some faith in your players and in yourself. We don't need to have our hands held like that."

I listened on in silence.

"Part of the reason we're as successful as we are is exactly that...because we don't have to have our hands held, y'know? And go out of our way looking for hardcore guilds to come and do the job for us. That's not going to do anybody any good. You're just going to piss off a bunch of your team that has been giving everything they can to nail Vashj, for what...a chance to see some other guild's way of doing things?"

He was right. I sucked.

The Right Decision

Without thinking, I made a bad judgement call that could have ostracized a significant chunk of the core raiders. DoD was a team. We had earned our current level of progression by relying on nobody but ourselves, and even though the roster did have a degree of churn, it was only from within our ranks. Any progress we made, any accomplishments we had to our name, were from us and us alone, and while that may not have seemed like a big was. I became so focused on getting the raid progression to end its streak of stagnation that I put our guild's integrity at risk. All of our effort making DoD a different kind of guild -- treating each other with a bit more respect, giving anyone with the gusto a shot in the raid team -- would've been for naught. What was the point of putting all that effort into building a successful raiding guild, if it meant turning the guild into another hardcore class act?

I circled back with Blain and let him know we wouldn't take part in anything like that ever again. When he asked why, I told him simply, "We don't need their help", and he was perfectly fine with it. We never again took assistance from another hardcore raiding guild "walking us through a strat". If things looked bleak and there was no progression in sight, we would pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, go back to the drawing board and work through it on our own -- no more easy way out. Once we completed the task, we could look back with a quiet sense of dignity, knowing that it was rough...but we managed it on our own. Together. No complaints. No begging for hand-holding. Just hard work.


We returned the following weekend to Serpentshrine Cavern, and in that third weekend, managed to land the killing blow on Lady Vashj. Blain's adjustments did the trick, regardless of whether Depraved's way of doing things validated his theories...or invalidated them. Whatever the case ended up being, the Lady Vashj kill was satisfying, and I was humbled that our team made it happen without having our hands held. More importantly, I was relieved that everyone involved played a part in the first official DoD Vashj kill, rather than making it the first kill for a handful of players who weren't online when Depraved had an opening in their wildly successful "alt" run.

In the midst of a chat a few days later, Annihilation slipped in an interesting observation, reflecting on our earlier conversation

"So Depraved has an alt-run? I bet I could pull something like that together..."

Thursday, January 24, 2013

2.29. Raiding With The Enemy

"Lady Vashj"
Artwork by Jianing Hu

Lady Vashj

Now that DoD's raiding expectations were public and ready to be consumed by the varying personalities in the roster, I felt slightly less anxious about the dark shadow hovering over the team. 5/6 in SSC, the final big, bad gal remained: Lady Vashj, a serpentine Naga with coils of snakes for hair and a penchant for ending the career of many a casual raiding guild. Vashj boasted one of the most complex set of mechanics we had to work through in WoW -- which made it that much more important that our members were intimately clear on what we expected of them. The Lady would require patience, practice, and a significant amount of communication in order to pull off a kill. Thus, work began immediately as we lifted the great seaweed-laden bridge out of the cavern, water gushing out the sides and back down into the murky depths.

Lady Vashj was divided into three distinct phases. Phase one was a non-factor: tank-and-spank her at the center of her podium-style room, paying attention to her Entangle, as roots would sprout up from the ground and lock several players (including the tank) in place, dotting the targets with ticking nature damage in the process. Mitigating this was simple: A Blessing of Freedom rotation was set up by the various paladins, freeing the tank to resume control of holding Vashj in place. The only other concern was Static Charge, placed randomly on a player. As the debuff persisted, AoE damage would eat away at the host and anyone around him as well. Afflicted players had to run to safety, far from the raid, reducing the ambient damage healers dealt with. This phase lasted until Vashj's health dropped to 70%, and was so trivial that the raid had mastered it within several pulls.

Phase two is where the complexity arose. Lady Vashj returned to the center of her podium, activating an impenetrable shield that rendered our attacks useless. The shield was powered by four generators encircling her, and it was our job to destroy them in order to finish her off. How this was accomplished made Magtheridon's Lair look like Magmadar in comparison. The cavern's water level had risen to the base of the steps surrounding the Lady's podium. From this water henceforth emerged Eeementals, moving slowly up the steps, responding to their master's beck and call. If any water elemental were to reach Vashj, they would dissolve and transfer their power to her, granting both strength and size. Letting too many through would guarantee that she would one-shot the tank...

...if we made it far enough to release her from that protective barrier.

Tainted Core to: %t !!!

While the raid spread out around the circumference of the podium, they watched for elementals, killing them before they reached their master. Raiders had to keep an eye out for a specific elemental:: corrupted and green, much like Hydross when pulled from his purifying beams. These tainted elementals were pivotal to the destruction of her shield; killing them produced a Tainted Core, an object we needed to loot and use to disable each generator. The trick was that by looting a Tainted Core, a player became affixed to the floor, unable to move. By being at the base of the steps, this positioning guaranteed they were completely out of range. Therefore, the raid team had to coordinate a series of Tainted Core tosses, in which the crucial object was handed from player-to-player, up the steps, eventually making its way to someone near the generator...blowing it up and getting us a step closer to phase three.

Tainted Core tossing was a complex task even by description. Performing the tactic itself was a nightmare of coordination -- of yelling in vent and of spammed macros announcing who was getting the core, who was tossing it, where it was going to. And this didn't speak to any of the other obstacles continually throwing a wrench into the mix: the coilfang elites that needed to be picked up, tanked and killed, the coilfang striders that needed to be kited and killed by ranged DPS. Anything caught in melee range of a strider would instantly be feared across the room, and elites hacked away at players if not picked up quickly. Phase two was the stuff of nightmares; cube clicking seemed tame by comparison.

Blain had a plan, but it wasn't coming together quite like he had hoped. DPS was falling behind on elites and we'd often have two up instead of one. Choosing who would kite the coilfang striders was still up in the air. Who was the best suited for the task? An elemental shaman? A frost mage? Maybe neither, perhaps a hunter brought the right kit for the task. On our first weekend of work on Lady Vashj, much of our time went into trial-and-error on many of these variables. As always, I deferred to Blain's expertise in matters of raid strategy, keeping the faith that he would soon have it nailed down with whatever modifications were necessary for Descendants of Draenor to make the boss killable. But with such a finely tuned encounter, and a series of players still struggling to come out of their shell and fully exemplify our new expectations, the margin of error was still too small, and Blain began looking at other options to validate his theories.


A few nights after our first weekend of work, my priest officer Neps sent me a whisper, "Do you have a few minutes to help with something?"

"What's going on?"

"Blain's helping Depraved with a Vashj kill. He says they have a few spots open. Can you come??"

I paused a moment to contemplate. Depraved had made a name for themselves during Vanilla as the number one progressed Horde guild on our server. It was Depraved's guild leader, a warlock named Phayder, that boasted the title of Scarab Lord, gained by banging the gong on Deathwing-US many years before and opening the gates of Ahn'Qiraj. Depraved had blown us away in Vanilla, as there was no viable way a non-hardcore raiding guild could compete; we certainly looked like children tripping over their feet in comparison. But by The Burning Crusade, Depraved was beginning to lose market share to Bru and Pretty Pink Pwnies, so their days of keeping a glorious stranglehold on our server's Horde progression were behind them. And perhaps they didn't care.

PPP was a constant thorn-in-my-side in terms of stealing away my best raiders, so any act of faith a competing guild chose to toss our way would be a least at initial glance. To even consider for a moment that a hardcore raiding guild would ever give us the time of day to share a strategy was unheard of, let alone being extended an invitation to participate, to watch first-hand, and to learn how to "do things right".

But as I typed a response to Neps, doubt lingered in the back of my mind. If hardcore raiding guilds didn't really give a damn about others...about us...why the sudden interest in allowing us to participate? Why come to us to fill a few extra spots? Why not Admonished Prophets or Thunder Billies or any number of other guilds on the server that hung below PPP? A sense of paranoia washed over, catapulting me back into Vanilla as I struggled to assimilate guilds, ever teetering on the edge of complete and total collapse.

Was Depraved going to quietly vet my best players and lure them away?

The question remained: do I join Blain and the others in seeing how to fix our mistakes and risk players being poached? Or do I demand that Blain and crew stand down from Depraved's self-serving "gesture", while continuing to burn weeks of trial-and-error wipes on Vashj as a result?

It was time to roll the dice.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2.28. Ashes to Ashes

The Gods of Zul'Aman - Patch 2.3 : Wallpaper
Copyright © Blizzard Entertainment

The Gods of Zul'Aman

Patch 2.3 had landed. With it came the addition of Guild Banks and a new 10-Man instance known as Zul'Aman. The new raid was nestled in the north eastern section of the Ghostlands, an area rife with Blood Elves beginning their journey into World of Warcraft. As with Karazhan before it, the guild began to assemble into groups of their own to take on this content, and no true formalization was ever etched into stone. Because of Zul'Aman's late entry into the expansion, there were no prerequisites buried deep inside it, no tentacles of attunement that wove their outstretched arms into the maze of keying requirements that already tied us up. It was nice, for a change, to have the option of simply running an instance, without the typical gates. With its smaller size and scope, it was clear that Zul'Aman would appeal to a much broader range of raiders -- yet still maintain some challenge to strive for.

Like Zul'Gurub before it, Zul'Aman contained an extra challenge, hidden for those who would attempt it. A speed run, as it would be called, was a challenge for players to push themselves, making their way through a series of bosses within a set time-limit. The timer was aggressive -- the only way to nail it was by playing flawlessly, executing bosses without even stopping to loot them, then racing to the next set of trash. A finely tuned group of ten players would look for every avenue to shave a few seconds off each corner they turned, exploiting every shortcut, utilizing every opportunity to knock time off their run. But unlike Zul'Gurub, which rewarded nothing more than bragging rights for a kill of Hakkar with priests still alive, Zul'Aman's incentive to raid with professional zeal produced a coveted Amani War Bear, an ursine creature adorned with troll-themed armor of red and yellow, the voodoo masks adding a final hint of troll flavor.

I knew this bear would be on Ater's to-do list.

The first time I knew we had catapulted ourselves out of perpetually casual beginnings was the day Ater took a group past High Priestess Mar'li in Zul'Gurub. Before The Final Cut, our best hopes of wrapping up any content in ZG was to claw our way to Jeklik, Mandokir and Venoxis. But the day Mar'li fell, Ater proudly driving the crew deeper to Thekal and Arlokk, I knew we'd broken through the casual barrier. Ater stuck it out, diligently pushing a team through the 20-Man raid, working on Hakkar week-after-week, sprinkled between our 40-Man progression raids. The day he slew Hakkar was an exciting triumph for him and the group. He thrived on challenge, and refused to be beat. So, I kept an eye on his progress through Zul'Aman, and hoped to see him show off an Amani War Bear in the months to come.

Those coming months would be a challenge for Ater, but not because of Zul'Aman.

"Ashes of Al'ar"
Artwork by Ruskiglon

Moving Out of the Fire

I was dead again.

Attempt after attempt ended writhing in a burning agony. I focused intently on the screen, aware of the looming danger that would snuff my life out in less than a second. I was determined to get it together. Yet, every attempt we made, no matter what strategy I employed, no matter how fast I tried to move, the result was the same. A ring of flames would appear at my feet, and by then it was too late. No amount of running, shielding, popping a healthstone or health-pot could save me. I was dead in an instant in that ring of fire and it drove me to the brink of madness.

Blain liked to stay aggressive. He enjoyed pushing the raid into content that the guild doubted it was able to do. Void Reaver was already down, so why weren't we thinking about Solarian? She was leaps and bounds easier to handle than Al'ar, but Blain insisted it was time to dispense with the coddling. The encounter was unforgiving, and the fiery phoenix rained down burning death on each successive pull. Handling phase one alone was a nightmare of timing: each tank had to leapfrog one another from position a, then to b, then c, then d and finishing with e. Missing a position would cause the phoenix to shower us with a torrent of fiery talons; a guaranteed wipe. So it had to be done in this awkward, uncooperative fashion. Only by bringing a consistent five tanks to our raid would we be granted any reprieve from the game of leapfrog, and tanks that were both geared and attuned were not easy to come by.

The truth was that five tanks was overkill. Four was the target in order to deliver the DPS necessary to kill the Phoenix God. They just needed to do their jobs. Therefore, leapfrog was in three of their immediate futures. The fourth tank was assigned floor duty to handle the baby phoenixes that Skarg would pull down from the upper platforms and mark for us to burn. True, five tanks would've made things easier in phase one, but may not have guaranteed the DPS necessary to get through the next phase.

The difficulty heated up as we moved Al'ar into phase two. She liked to disappear frequently, showing up in new random spots across the room, while tanks rushed to pick her up before she one-shot any clothies. Mitigating this meant positioning tanks "around the clock" at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00, respectively. This gave us the best chance at having a tank in range for one of her many random appearances. The part that wreaked havoc on me, in particular, was having to deal with the ring of flaming death she painted on the ground. As the cliché goes, not moving out of the fire was doing me in. But this was a entirely new level of fire. It brought death on swiftly, especially for a Shadow Priest draped in a set of Frozen Shadoweave for raid progression. This crafted set diminished my health pool and ensured Zanjina's death would be much more humorous. I cursed. I slammed my hands down on the desk.

My wife walked past the computer room and glanced in.

"Why do you raid if it makes you so angry?"

"BECAUSE", I yelled back, my blood still boiling as the rage coursed through me, "IT'S FUN."

She carried on into the kitchen, "Yeah! Sounds like a ton of fun..."

Descendants of Draenor defeats Al'ar,
The Eye

A Trip to the Keyboard Graveyard

If you haven't picked up on a common theme in TBC raids by now, let me hammer it home. Threat management was constantly a thorn in the side of a raider. Like Hydross the Unstable and his tendency to smash in the face of a healer with poor timing, Al'ar exhibited similar tendencies. Transitioning from phase one to phase two was tricky, due to the nature of the fiery phoenix being laced with DoTs as she flew between her five vantage points along the upper balcony. In a burst of flames, she would appear in the center of the lower platform, while tanks struggled to gain control of her.

...but her favorite meal was often that of a troll shadow priest.

In order to prevent her from making me lunch, we had to get a handle on letting our DoTs drop off with the right timing near the end of phase one. If I let one Shadow Word: Pain or Vampiric Touch linger on through the transition, I knew who she'd be coming for once she made her explosive appearance. I got a handle on this by never assuming it was a clean transition -- I entered every phase two as if I had left her fully dotted. Then, with careful practice and timing, would pop Zanjina's fade the instant the phoenix arrived. That was enough to let the tanks get a handle on her. For a priest, Fade was a no-brainer.

Watching Al'ar change directions from me to Eacavissi the warlock, post-Fade, often left me chuckling. He quickly became adept at timing Soulshatter to coincide with my Fade.

Well into phase two, Al'ar slammed into the ground in a fiery meteor, sacrificing herself and killing unsuspecting players that struggled to withstand the blow. Upon respawning, the battle for threat continued, as she ping-ponged around the platform, looking for a target, while our tanks struggled to get into range to pick her up. It was at this point that the fiery flame circles ended me. Not only did they cover a wide radius, they were insanely difficult to see. Imagine dripping a small ring of gasoline on a sheet of glass, lighting it, and then placing the glass on top of a high-powered flood lamp. This is what it was like to move around Al'ar's room, trying to target her, making sure you were fading on every re-spawn, all the while scanning the floor for flames to avoid.

Each attempt fueled my rage further. It took every ounce of energy to keep it under control. I desperately wanted to reach into my monitor and strangle the bird, wring its neck in my burning hands. It was during bosses like these that I missed my shaman the most. I wanted to heal.

I wanted to heal myself.

And yet, I couldn't. Even in the face of such obvious facts as my class being the very core of the holy trinity, dropping out of Shadowform to toss up a Renew or a Power Word: Shield wouldn't save me. Redemption would only come from moving out of the fire. Quickly.

So there I lay, an attempt like any other. Face down, dead again. I felt a return to the keyboard graveyard fast approaching. Then, Al'ar herself collapsed in a heap in the center of that crimson wing of The Eye. Relief washed over me. At last. I could rest in peace.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2.27. The Tantrum

"Emonator - Blood Elf Paladin"
Artwork by Katherine Dinger

Making an Example

The rules had been written down and formalized. At last, the "I didn't know" excuse could no longer hold water. Blain was back in charge of commanding the troops, and my forum post "Let's Talk About Raiding" fulfilled one of his conditions to returning. It was no longer appropriate to allow players to justify their terrible, horrible play. Expectations were now crystal clear and concise. There wasn't anything wrong with choosing either a high or low level of commitment to the guild, but the days of treating these vastly different levels of dedication equally were at an end. The new edict was as follows: come in with a casual mindset and your chances of getting into a raid would be slim-to-none. But, prove to us you were willing to go the extra mile, take some ownership in your place on the raid team, and you'd see continued rotations. Ultimately, the goal was not to change the feel of the guild as we sold ourselves as a family-friendly option on Deathwing-US. The difference now was that in order to be considered for progression, you had to step up. It wasn't a requirement for was a requirement for progression.

The first time I made this type of change was back in Vanilla, after the fallout of a poorly thought-through guild merger...if one could call it that. I took a temporary leave from DoD and instructed my officers, along with a core of raid-focused players, to follow me to Ugly Black Warhorses. That lasted all of a day. The consequences of my actions reflected the severity of such a decision: those casuals who were ignored and felt betrayed took their leave, and thus produced the first exodus of DoD. That ostracized group of players were those unable to commit to any sort of raid schedule, and felt our approach was far too serious. But seriousness was vital to continued success. A fly-by-night attitude wasn't going to get us through Ragnaros...and certainly not through any of the content in Blackwing Lair (or beyond). So when I communicated our latest round of new raiding expectations to the guild, ones where we defined what was 'fun', I expected a similar backlash. Surprisingly, the pockets of resistance that developed didn't come from the casuals of the guild, but from certain players these rules were tailored to protect -- players that possessed a set of raid skills greater than the average guildy.

By wanting to increase accountability among the group, I (and the officers) naturally gravitated toward keeping the guild on a much tighter leash. As an extension of Blain's wishes, I wanted less fucking around in raids. We were there to get a job done; even Ater got caught up in this, once joking in Vent, "We're not here to have fun!" But the line between joke and reality had been washed away amid Blain's militant leadership style -- he was getting us back on the rails, which meant the raid team wasn't afforded freedoms and distractions formerly allowed in the instance. I continued to tighten the noose on players found hanging out in general chat while in raids. When people went AFK mid-instance without telling anyone, we docked them 1 DKP per minute. Efficiency inside the instance grew week-by-week, but my mentality bled outside of the raid and into the day-to-day operations. Suddenly, players that traditionally were brash and lacked a set of inter-personal skills became the target of more frequent officer wrath. If word got back to me about inappropriate behavior, players throwing tantrums, talking shit in battlegrounds, on forums, or in trade chat, punishment was swift. Before, I would often turn the other cheek and allow various cliques to play their little reindeer games. Now, I was calling people out: taking them aside and issuing a direct warning to them. If I don't see an immediate change in your behavior, I'm pulling the plug. During an evening of play at the start of November, a player by the name of Lhaktar pushed me too far. He'd been a perpetual repeat offender, derailing into bouts of unprofessionalism and profanity in his dealings with other players. I removed him from the guild temporarily -- a timeout of sorts -- with the expectation that this would be a wake-up call, so he could get his act together. He would become the example to which others would refer when contemplating taking our guild rules for granted.

Kerulak mediates an issue involving Lhaktar,

Clique Healing

Meanwhile, back in raid progression, we continued to scrutinize player behavior and attitude, assessing the driver behind each respective wheel. Players that came prepared, flasked and with food buffs were praised, while I made notes of those who were adept at the excuse machine.

"I don't need a flask, the carries do." 

"This is overkill. I know my job, why don't you focus on the other failures in the raid?" 

It was easy to pick out the players that were vocal in their defiance, they were dealt with the quickest. The ones who remained quiet in their solemn, critical rage were a much bigger problem to solve.

With Kadrok and Volitar both gone from the roster, my healing paladins had dwindled. Sir Klocker was my one guarantee from week-to-week and I'd relied on his healing since his early shaman days in Vanilla. But I needed more. We enjoyed the benefit -- albeit a temporary one -- from a passionate guy by the name of Corivs. His claim to fame was a multitude of paladins under his belt, both on the Alliance and the Horde. He understood all facets of the the class, be it Retribution, Protection or Holy, and helped immensely throughout SSC progression. But, as luck would have it, Corivs performed a magical vanishing act, without notice or forewarning, causing the officers and I to look elsewhere for divine inspiration.

The result of our collective recruitment effort produced two gals, Shimerice and Falnerashe, who both gave us a dedicated, loyal set of signups as we pushed further into SSC and beyond. By Tempest Keep: The Eye, the two pallies were nestled firmly into progression, spending their off-raiding hours within their respective yet independent social circles. Shim spent her off-raiding hours with folks like Dalans and Sir Klocker, a group of players that were long time veterans of DoD, and who had long proven their worth in our raid progression. Coincidentally, this group demonstrated an equally short amount of tolerance toward players that sung the excuse song, rather than take some responsibility for their play. Shim was generally quiet, while Dalans and Klocker fielded the brunt of incessant, ignorant play. She had a much subtler way of taking out her aggression on players that disgusted her: she simply stopped healing them in raids. Their group kept this on the down-low as much as possible, and since Dalans was in officership by this point, he took it upon himself to mediate issues that arose as a result of Shim's judgement. No sense in stirring the pot, he thought, especially with the leader on a guild-kick bender for any little infraction.

Fal shared Shim's disgust with casuals, but was more overt in how she vocalized this distaste. She became frustrated easily, and liked to point out where players were failing, even if it meant ridiculing them in a public channel. "Idiotic" and "Retarded" were adjectives she wielded like a machete, slicing through the roster's self-esteem when players made mistakes. This outgoing, tell-it-like-it-is demeanor caused her to fall into a group of similar-minded folks, a social group less adept at discretion. Folks like Kargor, a hunter who continually managed to rub Dalans the wrong way with his less-than-stellar attitude towards raiding. Folks like Cyrant and Bamorm, two enhancement shaman brothers with a tendency to lash out at other players that got under their skin...

...and folks like Lhaktar, who may have meant well, but lacked the social graces I now demanded of the guild.

Complaints about loot were the worst, especially in a guild where I continually harped on the importance of skill over gear, an ideology Blain burned into my brain back in Vanilla. So in heated moments of aggression when players took to guild chat to whine about the loss of loot -- as Lhaktar did that fateful evening -- I had come to the end of my rope, clicking the big red button that ejected him from our roster.

As it turned out, someone else had come to the end of their rope...fed up with the shitty, imprecise decisions of the guild leader.

Judging Righteousness

With Shimerice making privately bad decisions about who to heal, and Falnerashe making publicly bad decisions about her etiquette, sides began to take shape. Unfortunately for Falnerashe, the winning side was the public-facing one: the one that came to raids each week, proactively driving progression, mediating issues with diplomacy rather than insults. It was not enough to kill bosses, we had to do so under the guidelines of our charter. Our guild image would be our success, and any blemish on that guild complexion would be lanced like an infected boil. Personal accountability. Respect to fellow players and guilds. Constant, consistent success.

If Shimerice's propensity to stop healing people reignited, Dalans or Klocker would smother it with a blanket, keeping it out of the public eye...and my own. Fal's support circle was less proactive and her fire raged into an inferno. Her behavior was out-in-the-open, pissing off guild members and officers alike, and was front-page news to me. With every new "retard" claim that Fal made, her mediation options dwindled; I was left with little choice but to rotate her out with greater frequency. And Falnerashe had no back-up crew in her clique -- she was already surrounded with like-minded folks that had troubles of their own adhering to guild law. Her only ace-in-the-hole was Annihilation, but unlike Dalans' strategy of simply dousing the fire, Annihilation's days of mediation were behind him. He had no intention of solving Fal's problems. As was his nature, Anni knew people; there was no point in teaching diplomacy to those who would never wield such discretion. As Anni explained succinctly, Fal was very much "like a cricket. Makes a lot of noise from a distance...but once you get up close, goes completely silent." 

He was right. Any attempt to reach out to Fal to help resolve her people issues was met with a closed door. So, my only other option was reduce her rotations, thus diminishing the impact of her negativity on the raid team.


A few days after I fired a warning shot over the bow for Lhaktar to get his attitude and behavior together, he was gone for good -- off to start a guild of his own: Triple Zero. It came as no surprise, then, that when I logged on to my forums a few days later that I was greeted to a scathing exit post, denouncing my mishandling of guild leadership. Falnerashe tore into the guild like an Enron shredding machine. It was a post of cruelty and self-righteousness, spinning a tale of how we had all failed her, failed the guild, and deserved her wrath for such mistreatment, while her friends were ignored and raked across the coals. The post radiated so much vitriol that I deleted it out of disgust.

The actual content of that post is foggy in my memory these many years later, and I do not recall the specifics of who she attacked and why. I can only hypothesize that her fury centered around Lhaktar's treatment (along with other friends in her clique) while players like Shimerice were allowed to run free with more discreet contempt. Perhaps Falnerashe felt she was better than all the rest of my players, better than me, and was too good for my guild. Perhaps it was none of these things at all, and Falnerashe was driven into a rage by an event that will forever remain a mystery.

What I can say for certain is that -- for Falnerashe -- the story would not end here. We would pick this up again, amid a backdrop of the frozen north, during a struggle to gain dominance over Wintergrasp. On this day in the not-so-distant future, it would remain to be seen if people, in fact, can change -- or if they remain shackled like slaves to their life-long hatreds and grudges.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Let's Talk About Raiding

Six months into The Burning Crusade, progression had come to a dead halt. Factors included a thinned pool of raiders after 40-Mans shrunk to 25-Mans, Ater's growing work schedule which took him away from researching boss strategies, and a lack of assistance from Blain, who had retired from leadership to pursue arenas. More than anything, however, the family-friendly guild I had grown from a handful of friends at the start of Vanilla lacked a common set of expectations in approaching raids. Every player defined 'fun' a different way, and many players allowed their own interpretation of 'fun' to absolve them of any accountability in raids. 

When Ater, Blain and I determined that we had to find a way to motivate a family-friendly guild to approach raiding with the mindset of a hardcore player, we determined three things needed to change. We had to foster a sense of individual ownership in the guild's goal of defeating Illidan. We needed everyone participating in raids on the same page, which meant everyone's expectation had to match that of the guild's. And, we needed a way to identify those players which were aligned with the guild's goals, keeping them separate from those whom chose to tread off the beaten path.

By the beginning of October, Blain had returned to raid leadership and turned around the stagnant progression team, going from no progress in months, to going 5/6 and 1/4 in SSC and TK, respectively. As we began to acknowledge the efforts being made by the team to foster ownership of the guild's success, it was time to tackle resetting expectations. I drafted a forum post which intended to clear the air and set the record straight on exactly what we were trying to accomplish.

Submitted for your perusal is the content of that original forum post titled "Let's Talk About Raiding", initially drafted on October 8th, 2007.


When DoD first began raiding, we honestly did not know what we were getting into. A bunch of us were heading over to Zul'Gurub one night to tackle some content when Kadrok sent me a tell, "You know...we have 40 level 60s on right now. We could potentially go to Molten Core." And with that one quick whisper, God damn him, it was over. We were off and running, pretty much by the seat of our pants. The officers and I scrambled to find out what was fair, how to distribute loot, where to learn about boss strategies, when the best times to run a raid were, who should lead those raids, and what all of our roles would be. And while all of those decisions were made, we tried to keep the atmosphere fun, laid back and enjoyable.

A lot of players would call this: "Casual Raiding".

We ultimately decided that, for what our guild wanted to do, 2 hours an evening was an adequate amount of time. And, furthermore, we would maintain a large pool of players, and focus heavily on rotations. Rotations would allow us the freedom to have more people available to fill spots in an emergency. What we found in practice, however, was the following:

1) Two hours an evening was barely enough to accomplish anything. As the raid-game increased from MC to BWL, and BWL to AQ40 and so on...we felt we had a responsibility to continue running old instances, and so continued to grow our guild to a massive size, which lead to problem #2...

2) The rotations which were to help us fill spots, now became our crutch: We would rotate so many people in, we would often find ourselves running a raid with strangers, with whom we were unfamiliar with, gear-wise, spec-wise, and experience-wise.

You live, you learn. We adapted and changed our outlook on raiding slightly, while still maintaining a sense of the original guild's vision, "To have fun, and enjoy playing WoW in a respectful, mature group of players, and to progress as far as we could through end-game."

However, TBC threw us a curveball again. We discovered from previous raids that two hours is simply an unacceptable amount of time to get anything significant accomplished. Two-hour blocks cannot be overcome by adding more nights to the week; you inevitably end up with another insignificant amount of time where nothing is accomplished, and it causes burnout. Furthermore, our pool of raiders has become saturated with people that are perfectly comfortable with doing the minimum amount possible, relying heavily on their raid-mates to cover their ass, or hoping that Blain will instruct them on-the-fly as to what it is they ought to be doing. And in their defense, some direction is in order ("no direction" is flat out dumb)...but hand-holding is far too much micromanagement.

DoD will always be a guild where you can log on and hang out with friends and enjoy some quality time with people you like, I will never impose restrictions on how/when you should play WoW. But, starting today, the restrictions on the raid-team requirements change. Let's talk about those changes now:

1. Guild Ranks

The Guild Ranks have changed:

A. Guild Leader. Pleased to make your acquaintance.

B. Raid Leader. Blain. He oversees everything that goes into raiding. What bosses are we working on, and which nights. Who our top raiders are and who remains a liability. He'll mark targets and be sure that by the time we kill a set of trash, the next set is already marked. He'll review boss strategies with us pre-pull, but he won't hand feed them to you. He'll let you know when we are performing well and when need to call the raid because it's our third (and final) attempt on Lurker. He is the coach of the team, and as expected, you'll execute his plays.

C. Class Officers. You'll remember these folks. They will carry on with their duties. They'll give you advice on your class, spec, and generally be a mentor if need-be. They help me with handling applications, and will be doing a bit more in their off-hours to recruit across servers, but for the most part, their role remains unchanged.

D. Raid Assistants. This is a new role I've created to help manage raids. Raid Assistants are people of various classes and roles that are vital to a smooth and efficiently run raid. Raid assistants have various roles, such as calling out targets, declaring healing assignments, communicating cc targets to the raid, and so on. In their off-hours, they communicate raid needs back to officers, the raid leader, and myself, so that if we have poorly performing players, we know to take action. They understand raid mechanics well and will assist you in learning how to use Wow Web Stats to improve your own personal performance. They also have access to officer chat, so they can let us know discreetly if there are grave concerns in a raid that need changes.

E. Bank Assistants A & B. These are two placeholder ranks I hope to take advantage of in WoW 2.3. More info will come on their use when I know more about the future of guild banking.

F. Raider. If you are a raider, you've passed the test. We've raided with you and seen that you are a huge benefit and a core member of our raiding team. You'll be considered for all rotations in the 25-man progression raids.

G. Veteran. You have been with DoD for a good long time, and you may not necessarily feel that Raiding means all that much to you, in fact, it means more to you to hang out with us online, chat, perhaps level some alts or run some 5-mans. It simply means you have a different goal and direction than the raid-team and nothing else. You are still an important person to us. You are a veteran.

H. Recruit. You're new to DoD and still cutting your teeth with the guild. We'll promote you when we see that you've made a name for yourself with us.

I. Silenced. You've pissed us off, and now it's time to be quiet.

2. Raiders

The rank of raider is a special one. It lets us know you are an exceptional player, looking to do exceptional things.

A) You care about self-betterment. Constantly striving to improve oneself in the PvE realm. It is your day-to-day tweaks  that make our raid team strong and dynamic. To you, it is no longer acceptable to just be 20-30% below your fellow players in a statistical analysis. Every night you raid, you push yourself hard to be #1.

B) You have the same vision as the raid team: Serious, competitive progression through end-game raid content, with the ultimate goal of conquering all that WoW has to offer.

C) You learn quickly, can adapt and work well under pressure. You take criticism well, and grow from it. You have excellent coordination and can deal with emergency situations, and you hone this skill in your off-hours through PvP.

D) You are always prepared, with consumables and flasks. You are on time and never make excuses. You take personal responsibility for your own performance, and never blame other people for your own faults. If you have a legitimate problem with another player, you take it to a Raid Assistant, or higher up the food-chain, if need be.

The main difference between raiders before and raiders today, is simply this: Raiders are here to win, at whatever the cost. For some raiders of the past, it may have equated to "Just something to do tonight, no big deal, just here to have fun." It's important to understand what's wrong with this thought now:

Raiders who want to justify poor performance and behavior with 'just being here to have fun' are not raiders.

To the new raid-team, our definition of "Fun" is constant, consistent success.

In order to do that, we all need to be on the same page and be in the same frame-of-mind, and that is to stay sharp and be performing at the top of our game...every night. If you are here simply to fill the evening with something to do, or you feel compelled to raid because of something we've said or done, now is the time to step down from raiding. To those who wish to stay on and help us work through this content, I salute you. Read on...

3. Schedule

The new schedule begins this week, and it is as follows:

Friday: 7pm - 11pm (MST)
Sunday: 3pm - 7pm (MST)

We are going to start with two blocks of four hours each. The #1 cause of burnout in the past is too many nights of the week where nothing is accomplished. Most dedicated, PvE focused guilds raid in blocks of four hours (anything more is simply ridiculous imo). We are going to ease ourselves into this new schedule to start, and see if, in the near future, we can possibly work a third night in. For the moment, I want the Raiders to focus on Fridays and Sundays until we come to a point where we can reschedule.

These two blocks of time were chosen, simply to allow the most Raiders an available spot due to family- or job-related restrictions. For people that balk at this initially, keep in mind that I am well aware of Tuesdays and Wednesdays being the most common nights of the week for raiding. If we can move to them in the near future we will. I politely ask that the Raiders please work with us on these initial nights and we will see how well we do before manipulating the schedule again.

4. The Raid-Game

1. We will be analyzing our top performers each weekend and rewarding exceptional performance with gold from the bank, to assist with repairs and flask purchases. It doesn't mean you have to be #1 Dps or #1 just means you have played well enough that weekend to make the raider leader and assistants take notice. All raiders should have the potential to be #1 at any given night, based on their luck with crit streaks or other random factors.

2. All raiders are now flasked. Every night. This is no longer optional. Potions are mandatory. Mana for casters, Health for DPSers and Tanks. Food is optional but extremely recommended. It is cheaper to flask for trash/bosses, then it is to wipe and re-clear. We are going for the gold, and we are going to be buffed accordingly.

3. We are imposing a three-wipe maximum, also to curb burnout, and to encourage the raid-team to stay alert at all times. In a four hour block, the potential for burnout on 2 full clears of trash and 17 attempts on The Lurker Below is mind-numbing. Perhaps in other guilds, the Raid Leader would call you "idiots" and continue to throw you at the boss until he dies, but we're not even going to bother. If your head is not in the game and you can't perform the task on bosses we've killed many times before, the raid ends early and you go home empty handed. I don't want to suffer through four hours, and neither does Blain or the rest of the team. So, a three-wipe maximum on previously killed bosses is your "room to breathe".

If the first question out of your mind is, "Does the three-wipe maximum reset on each boss?", my answer to you is, we'll call it as we see it. Obviously, this rule doesn't count on bosses we're learning.

4. We are going to be looking at raiders (current and future) and their abilities spent in off-hours PvPing. It has become painfully clear that most of the dynamic players who work well under pressure and adapt quickly in emergency situations do so because they have honed their skills PvPing. I am going to recommend that raiders do investigate some PvP in their off-time if they have not yet done so.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I would hope that these changes encourage and revitalize a lot of you for raiding. For some, I won't disagree, it may be painful, or hard to take. I will not hold it against you if you cannot step up to the task of meeting these new requirements. If you are burnt out, or if raiding no longer holds the appeal it once did, now is the time to step down, so that we can begin the process of looking at our pool of raiders and recruiting if need be.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2.26. 9:53

Positioning for Leotheras the Blind

The Totem Trick

Players were dying to bad luck. The uncontrollable whirlwind was too much for them to handle, and a series of ping-pong movements across Leotheras' underwater cave picked people off one-by-one, bleeding them out. Chief among the bleeders: yours truly. My shadow priest had only been a part of progression for a few months and her gear was essentially unchanged from the moment she first set foot in the Cavern. Not due to a lack of progression, mind you...but more a product of the poor itemization that SSC offered shadow priests in The Burning Crusade. With little option to augment her attire, I was forced to fall back on Blain's age-old idiom, repeating it to myself as a means of staying motivated.

In the end, your gear doesn't make you succeed. Gear won't make you good. Your skill at the game will.

If gear wasn't the solution to my problem, I would have to find a way to survive without it. I'd have to make my own luck. Just as anyone else in the raid.

Sifting through the logs and forum threads of guilds well past Leotheras, we made a clever discovery: a shaman's totems could be targeted by Leo during his whirlwind. The epiphany was a relief, yet bittersweet. I was already dealing with the guilt of benching my shaman in lieu of being the only consistent Replenishment provider of the raid -- and the subsequent loss of control I perceived as a result of giving up healing. But, with the discovery of this tactic, I felt worse! If only I had Kerulak again. I could drop totems seconds before the whirlwind, bolting for safety and once again bringing control to the chaos that unfolded. It wasn't an option. I'd made my choice. Zanjina was there to be a mana battery, and I accepted this decision inexorably.

I had to put my faith in the team. Only they could kill their inner demons while I dealt with my own.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Leotheras the Blind,
Serpentshrine Cavern

The Blind Killing the Blind

The intricate dance began with Blain setting Eacavissi up for Demon Form tanking. Our trusted warlock geared for the fire resistance necessary and wrestled for control of the boss via Searing Pain, a spell with increased threat -- vital to a warlock tank. As the fire vulnerability stacked too high, Blain called Sir Klocker for a Divine Intervention, cleansing our warlock of all his debuffs, sacrificing the paladin in the process. The expired paladin would return to life via Breginna's battle resurrection, as Blain's carefully choreographed strategy continued to unfold. As for the whirlwind, Blain laid it out on the table: he'd announce to the melee when it was time to get to safety. At that point the shamans would drop their totems and head for the hills, while the remainder of us dashed into the nooks and crannies along the outer edges of the room. The hope was that by being out of line-of-sight, Leo would prefer the totems over players, saving us from a painful bleeding death.

Once we got the timing right for getting out to safety, the totem gimmick appeared to do its trick. Leo spun into a mad frenzy, bouncing back and forth between various sets of shaman totems like a pinball working on a high score. Every precious second the gimmick granted us grew the margin of error further, allowing us a flatter learning curve; a more approachable encounter. With a greater margin of error, the raid team began to close in on the final 15% with everyone alive. It wasn't long before we were into the final phase, having to deal with both Blood Elf and Demon Form at the same time. This was the real madness, and it was intense. Having already used Divine Intervention, Eacavissi's life fell into the hands of the healers, which realistically only lasted ten or twelve seconds before the fire vulnerability burned him to a crisp. Lacking that warlock tank, the Demon Form pummeled the raid with blasts of fire damage as he walked the threat list, looking for a new target. Meanwhile, the Blood Elf form hacked away at the tanks while healers struggled to keep them alive, moving to avoid incoming blasts of fire in the process.

With the whirlwind continuing to bounce between player and totem, I ran to the back of the room to get out of line-of-sight. To my horror, Bojax and Raziei followed me, yet stayed in plain sight. Leo headed straight for us; there was nowhere to run. A single thought jumped into my mind. You're doomed. Doomed by your own blind players. As predicted, Leotheras struck the group I cowered amongst, and the bleed ticked of handfuls of my health. Facing imminent death, I sprinted from the room, laid on a final Vampiric Touch and Shadow Word: Pain, then collapsed to the floor. My attention turned to the roster. Gunsmokeco was still alive. Ekasra was still alive. The shamans continued to blanket the raid with their chain heals, dropping more totems to act as targets for the spinning saw-blade. The tanks were staying alive. DPS was staying alive. Leo's health ticked down to 3%....2%....1%.

And it was over.

A cheer filled vent as Blain added the icing to the cake, "with seven...seconds...remaining."

We beat the enrage timer by seven seconds, clocking our first official kill in at 9 minutes 53 seconds. As close a shave as any could get...without bleeding out. I glanced down at the damage meters, to see where I placed.


Any progress is better than no progress.

That Public Relations Spin

It was time to start moving our recovery plan into action. Ater, Blain and I decided to set a new precedent for the guild -- one that separated the wheat from the chaff. In order to identify "rock stars" in the environment we'd bred, a certain level of diplomacy was needed. That involved careful language and setting the expectations of the players appropriately. The first part of that plan came about in the wake of our recent success. The proof was right there in front of us; after Blain's return, we'd gone from seeing no progression in months, to 5/6 and 1/4 across Tier 5. That fact alone spoke volumes -- that we absolutely possessed the potential and crew to accomplish great things...even Illidan himself. We just needed the right leadership. In the face of that mounting evidence, I moved to the next step in the plan -- a promise I made to Ater. Acknowledge the accomplishments of the team.

At the close of the weekend which produced our first Leotheras kill,  I created a new section in our forums called "Accomplishments". Here, I demonstrated to the guild that their work was not going unnoticed; that their individual contributions had real value and worth. To leadership, it was clear as day that Blain's return had caused an about-face in our approach, but my next move wasn't to bolster the rogue's ego, it was to affirm to the troops that what they brought to the table each raid night was a quantifiable contribution. Regardless of what organizational changes brought about our recent success, I wanted one message to be common: It was because of the raid team that we were back on track today,. What went on behind closed doors in the officer channel was no longer relevant, who we happened to be talking about or which "carries" were next on the chopping block. The public face of our success is what was most important now, and we wanted to hammer that home. The raiders would focus on these accomplishments, and in turn, have less time to devote to rumor and innuendo.

I let the guild know that this forum topic would never be purged and would stand for eternity as a reflection of the many great deeds that the guild had accomplished in progression. I played it up, big-time. The forum thread was even made viewable to the public for others to see. Members of our team could use it to show off to their friends in competing guilds, maybe even entice them into joining. We'd call out a show of thanks to those individuals who helped us work through the boss mechanics, so that players could see their name in lights, make them feel important...

...make them feel like they were good at something.

The "Accomplishments" forum thread was the start of a revolution in how I approached the management of DoD; it was an audit trail of our success. A means to show thanks for the effort players were giving us. A reminder that each individual player was important. A sales pitch to anyone interested in investigating our guild further, to see if we had something to offer them...

...and all the evidence I needed to start leaving certain people behind.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2.25. The Zanjina Monologues

"Undead Priest",
Artwork by UnidColor

The Feeling of Power

The first weekend of raiding on my shadow priest left me feeling like a bullshit leader. In the face of some of the greatest progression we had seen after months of stagnation, the guild leader was the lame duck. I saved face as best I could, congratulating the guild for their terrific wins in SSC, while quietly sickened by my own performance. Feelings of regret floated to the surface regarding my decision to bench Kerulak. Damage-producing machines like Turtleman, Blain, and Eacavissi dominated the meters, while Zanjina sat at a dismal 10th overall. It was the predictable result of a freshly minted 70 shoehorned in to the middle of TBC progression. My only consolation was the knowledge that we now had a dedicated replenishment buff that Blain could freely utilize in whichever group would gain the most from it. I knew mana regeneration was valuable. I was well-aware of the impact my small role played in the grand scheme of our progression. Those nights where boss kills easily could have been 1% wipes we'd now have the edge over. But I still couldn't shake the feeling that I was a burden more than a boon. And as I thanked each player for coming to the raid that night, reminding them that we were once again focused on getting to Illidan, nobody thanked me in return for sacrificing Kerulak in place of few extra mana points.

It was my job to motivate and encourage others without any expectation of warm-fuzzies in return. Self-sacrifice: all part of the job description.

Every day we returned to SSC to plug away at bosses, the damage meters stared back at me, a stark reminder of what my "contribution" looked like. Up went Shadow Word: Pain, then a Vampiric Touch, followed with a series of Mind Flays, my damage production capabilities continued to languish as the rest of the crew bubbled to the surface. As a leader attempting to set an example for others, this was an embarrassment, at best. It bugged me. I felt like I had no control to determine the raid's success. With Kerulak the rules were much simpler; the power of controlling players' lives through healing was much more palpable. My tauren shaman flung totems to the ground and dazzled raids with leaping beams of healing energy, saving tanks from imminent death and keeping facerollers in the fire from meeting their makers. Kerulak kept the raid progression alive. In his hands rested the fate of the players he healed. That was control. I would even go so far as to claim that a healer held more control of the raid than a tank, whose sole purpose was to bash a boss's brains in and not let the boss return the favor to others. The rejuvenating power of healing was intoxicating, which made it difficult for me to see the rational side of my current mediocrity.

I held the fate of our raid in Kerulak's hooves, and that felt like real power. I felt no such power in Zanjina. All I felt -- after looking at my 10th place on the damage meters -- was shame.

Shadow Word: Fail

Avatar Regalia:
Great to look at, set bonuses that
were nothing to write home about.
(Cosplay by Stéphane You)
The weeks that followed ate away at me as we neared the next hump in progression. One boss remained before Lady Vashj, Leotheras the Blind, and he would be the most unforgiving encounter yet. Every waking moment I spent in-game was to polish Zanny. I practiced in 5-man Heroics The Steamvault and The Shattered Halls. I struggled to keep myself alive in Eye of the Storm. I did anything I could to diminish my perception as a bottom-feeder. And to be quite clear, there wasn't much to adjust. In the days of The Burning Crusade, mastering a shadow priest was about as difficult as tying your shoe. Vampiric Touch, Shadow Word: Pain, Mind Blast, Mind Flay, rinse and repeat. As your target approaches death, add in a few casts of Shadow Word: Death for good measure. That's it. No complicated priorities. No "change your rotation when this one special ability procs" or "use this sequence while moving". The only flavor to the mix was an occasional Inner Focus, granting a free Mind Blast with a 100% critical chance.

Only a person who tied their shoelaces into knots could mess up a shadow priest's rotation.

My numbers remained low, and I continually enjoyed the luxury of random nagas leaping out and striking me down, my limited health pool and elegant Frozen Shadoweave ensuring a quick and embarrassing death. I gave new relevance to the phrase "standing in the fire"; a phrase no longer reserved simply to persuade others into getting their shit straight. If I was to lead by example, I was doing a piss-poor job of it, dying (it seemed) just by being looked at. Hyper focused on my pathetic damage and simplistic spell rotation, I became the textbook example of how to fail at raiding. And each time I was killed in the game, it killed me in real life.

I wasn't even able to take solace in loot. Yes, we were back on track, killing bosses and doing weekly imports of DKP strings boasting fabulous loot assignments. The raid's power grew stronger. But there was no loot for me. Not only had my DKP pool reset by switching to a new character (which was only fair to the rest of my players) but no items in tier 5 held significance to a shadow priest. We weren't going back to Tier 4, and as for the Avatar Regalia, its set bonuses left a lot to be desired. Under the oppressive iron fist of TBC raids, a steady boost of self-healing via Frozen Shadoweave's set bonus far outweighed random breaks in mana.

Mana cost was never an issue for a shadow priest. Replenishment...remember?

So, the steam train pressed on to Leo, clearing bosses and looting gear while gaining both power and strength. And I brought up the rear end, endlessly tripping over my knotted shoelaces.


September 2nd, 2007. Seven months into The Burning Crusade. Kael'thas Sunstrider's five blood elves, previously sent to Illidan to train as demon hunters, had produced only one viable candidate. Of the four failed students, three had perished in training. The remaining demon hunter apprentice had gone mad, exiled to the depths of Serpentshrine Cavern. We drank our flasks and ate our food, eyeing the three Broken that kept him leashed to the floor in draenic magic. The tell-tale blindfold wrapped tightly across his eyes marked him as a demon hunter. As it was with Illidan himself, blinded by Sargeras and granted new, truer sight to find and slay demons wherever they lurked. The only demons Leotheras saw were his inner ones, and it was up to us to bring his madness to an end.

Leo shifted between two forms for the duration of the encounter. In blood elf form, he would wail on the tanks, stopping on occasion to perform a whirlwind that bounced him around his cave like a pinball. This was when he was at his most treacherous; the blow from a whirlwind not only struck for a massive amount of damage, it left a bleed ticking away at the health pool of the afflicted player -- especially damning to a shadow priest already suffering in the hit-point department.

In his demon form, Leotheras focused fiery attacks on his highest threat target, and with each successive ignite, caused his target to take increased fire damage. Without a viable solution, whomever he chose would eventually burn to death, no matter how many healers were assigned. But this wasn't all that demon form had in store for us. His transformation caused five random players to face their own inner demons -- splitting out a copy of oneself that only the afflicted player could target and kill. Only Ater could kill Ater's inner demon; only Zanjina could kill Zanjina's inner demon, and so on. Failing to do so before Leotheras shifted back to blood elf form would cause the player to lose her own grip on sanity. And under the influence of this madness, fellow raid members would turn and cut one another down in cold blood.

The final 15% of Leotheras was the deal breaker. He proceeded to split into both forms at the same time, forcing the raid to deal with multiple sets of mechanics at once. With a solid 15% of health in his pool, this could not be handled as a final hail mary of damage, sacrificing tactics for bloodlust. Without keeping a cool head and staying focused on the strategy, 15% would most certainly eat away at us like parasites.

It only took a few attempts to truly understand how handicapped my undergeared priest was. Leo's whirlwind killed me more times than I could count. Fully raid buffed, I barely scraped past 8k in my hit-point pool...but in less than 4 seconds, the bleed did me in. But, Leotheras wasn't about surviving the bleed.

It was about not bleeding.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2.24. Back on Tracks

"Wage Slave"
Artwork by Michael Dashow

A Positive Work Environment

"Use your fucking head. You're a fucking train wreck."

I sat in stunned silence, looking up from my desk. She waited for a response and didn't get one, so proceeded to question my reasoning further.

"Honestly, I might as well just call Google themselves. Because I don't have time to sit around and wait for you to come up with a estimate on how long this work will take. So that you'll just come back to me in, what, five days? And tell me some bullshit number. I need speed."

Anything I said at this point would more than likely make matters worse. Yet I felt the need to speak anyway, a chance to remedy the situation.

"How about...half that time, then?"

She shook her head in disgust and walked away, "Whatever, Shawn. I'll just make up a number, how's that?"

Agency work wasn't exactly all that it was cut out to be. On the plus side, we had the luxury of putting big name clients on our resumes, certain to improve our worth in the field. On the downside, the game came down to money, and the wider the profit margin, the deeper the sales commission filled pockets. Sales wanted things done quickly, cheaply, in as little billable hours as possible. Yet the developers wanted the exact opposite. To take their time, produce some thoughtful, quality work. Two worlds completely at odds, forced to work together on a daily basis, in order to keep a business afloat. I looked back down at my laptop and watched as another guild application arrived in my inbox, and doubted if I had any development worth outside of these walls. If I was able to do anything of any real value outside of a virtual world slaying Internet Dragons. I was a self-taught programmer after all, how realistically viable could I have been? I hadn't even been able to come up with an original idea for a web application in years.

I looked over to the empty chair on the opposite side of the table, where Ater used to sit. Since the merger, he'd been pushed up to a high profile project for a major sub sandwich chain -- a time-tracking app that was sucking up more and more of his time. Most of the work day was spent in the other of our two offices, while he focused on creating cutting edge technology in the UI. He was definitely the right man for the job. But I saw him less as a result, and was left to fend for myself when sales came calling with aggressive schedules and a call for the least amount of hours possible.

I packed up my laptop and headed home for the night, unsure if I'd see Ater in the raid. The bigger concern was setting foot in as a Shadow Priest, my first official class change since Vanilla. I'm certain if I had any opportunity to be a train wreck, tonight would be the night.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Fathom-Lord Karathress,
Serpentshrine Cavern

Fathom-Lord Karathress

DoD had a poor track record with council style bosses.

Fights involving heavy coordination, tons of communication, and which required significant spatial awareness were not our forte. Blain's strategy wasn't anything particularly unorthodox for our attempts, it was a by-the-book strategy. Separate Karathress from his guards and kill them one-by-one. The shaman Tidalvess would die first, due to his spitfire totems causing collateral damage. From there, we'd move to the hunter Sharkkis, which drained our casters of their mana. Once he and his sporebat pets fell, it was time for the final guard, the priest Caribdis, which would heal Karathress, requiring a dedicated interrupt contingent -- a challenge when you are constantly being knocked up into the air.

If all three guards could be executed, the raid would collapse on to Karathress himself, who absorbed the powers of his fallen defenders. It was going to be a long fight. If we had the endurance to survive his guard, and continue to stay alive during the final phase, it would be a done deal.


The strategy required us to split up into individual groups responsible for handling individual mechanics. Adding insult to injury, these groups would then shift responsibilities with the death of each guard in the council. Rogues helping us burn through Tidalvess, for example, would then split apart, a few going to lend their DPS to Skarkkis, while others moved back to the Caribdis to assist with interrupts.

Chopliver was one of these rogues.

Chop had joined us months earlier, and his gnarly attitude with a headbanger-quality voice lent itself well to the undead rogue he had chosen to play. Chop may have come across as a metalhead in Vent, but come raid time, tore shit up. His damage was excessive and he prided himself on moving through targets quickly and with extreme prejudice. Blain picked up on Chop's refined play from the sidelines, long before I reached out to him to resume his role as our raid leader. Now in command, Blain had promoted Chop to raid assistant, and relied on him to mark targets and act as an effective focus target, if players weren't certain which mob we were on.

It was on an particularly gruesome attempt on Fathom-Lord Karathress that things looked like they could go either way. The start of the fight was always the toughest, just surviving the barrage of damage and many mechanics from all four bosses was a testament to will. As we poured a desperate amount of damage into Tidalvess, closing in his remaining hitpoints after having burnt out another spitfire totem, Chopliver opened his mic and the raid heard him hammering on keyboard as if trying to drill a hole in the middle of it.

"I got this, I got this, I got this..."

A solitary Cataclysmic Bolt leapt from the Fathom-Lord's fingertips and ended Chop's life in a single shot.


The raid had a good laugh at poor Chop's expense, but his death wasn't in vain. A few attempts later and we stood proudly atop the fallen council and their Fathom-Lord. I checked the date: it was August 14th.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Hydross the Unstable,
Serpentshrine Cavern

The Duke of Currents

Three days after defeating Fathom-Lord Karathress, we once again stood at the head of Serpentshrine Cavern, staring watery death straight in the face. Technically, Hydross the Unstable was the first boss in the instance, but no guild (short of a world-first one) in their right mind would've started with him. The Lurker Below was a much easier pill to swallow, as were many others in this underwater pumping station -- the last few weeks had proven it. But before we could stick a fork in Lady Vashj, and Leotheras the Blind, we had to overcome our fears, once and for all, and deal with this brutally unforgiving fight.

We knew the issue all too well. Ater had struggled with it. Volitar had struggled with it. The success of the encounter hinged on a surgical handling of the transition. Each and every time Hydross moved away from...or into...his watery beams, Water Elementals would spawn and his aggro table would wipe completely out. In an environment where people are being healed nearly non-stop, the threat of a healer pulling aggro was very real and happened constantly. Even so much as a totem drop would cause a double set of Elementals to spawn, rendering the attempt futile. I was no longer in the position of dropping totems, but just as he assured me, Ekasra was right there filling Kerulak's spot. Hydross had it in for Ekasra, but his totem aggro would no longer be an issue. Not if I could help it.

Nature damage stacked higher onto Ater to the point that he could barely withstand each of Hydross's hits, and he dragged the colossal Elemental, shifting it back towards the beams. Blain called into vent, "Prepare for transition, no more DoTs", and I followed up, addressing Ekasra directly. "Ekasra, stop heals". Ekasra did as instructed, moving far away from the tanks as they got ready to shift. Hydross sloughed off his greenish tint and became bright blue as the Lady's water-system purified him, and Dalans moved into position, swiping the four miniature elementals that spawned as a result. The transition was clean. Kurst now had control of Hydross, and began taking stacks of Frost damage while Ater recovered.

With a little extra micromanagement in Ekasra's direction, we managed our way through the encounter, whittling the Elemental away a bit at a time, healing through players encased in bubbles. There was no brute force here, all movements, all attacks, every single heal was measured. It was an exercise in discipline to maintain control and not panic for the full 15 minute fight. One wrong move, even near the end, would mean a wipe.

As Hyross' health dropped down into the final few percent, I felt a guild first approaching. We kept calm, cool, collected -- we treated that last 1% of health as if it were still at 99%. In a gush of water, Hydross spun into a vortex and dissipated, his shackles falling to the ground in a splash. The Duke of Currents was down, and we had gone from a completely stagnant guild, progression-wise, to 4/6 and 1/4, completing a total of four new bosses in the span of two weeks. Perhaps a bit of Blain was what pushed us over the edge, perhaps it was Ekasra's newly found confidence and strategy in handling his fellow raid mates. Maybe a little bit of Replenishment was all we needed.

Whatever it was, we were back on the tracks...full steam ahead.