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.

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