Thursday, August 15, 2013


The 25-Man Progression team defeats Ignis,
wrapping "Heroic, The Siege of Ulduar",

Unnecessary Nerfs

The strangest part of the Ulduar nerfs wasn't that they started coming in after the first week.

The concept of struggling on each boss in an instance was quickly fading into obscurity. As we drove our siege engines into battle, sowing fiery chaos and tearing Flame Leviathan apart in one pull, memories of brick-walling on Razorgore the Untamed seemed as though it were a bad dream. Those encounters that demanded our undivided attention for weeks on end were swept to the back of the room to collect dust while achievement spam flashed on our screens like fireworks. Even I had trouble remembering some of those events now. My attention would drift like a bored kid in school. Was Kael'thas four weekends of work? Or was it five? Vashj was three, so it must have been four...yeah, that's it. Then, I'd be jarred back into reality as the fireworks went off. "Heroic: Nerf Engineering". "Heroic: Disarmed". We pressed on, deeper in Ulduar, the walls of the ancient city telling stories of events that had also become the stuff of legend.

The strangest part of the Ulduar week-one nerfs was that they were to bosses we'd already defeated.

As Cheeseus set us up for our first attempts on Ignis the Furnace Master, I pondered the need for nerfs after only one week. By now, we'd gotten used to the typical ebb and flow of raid instance evolution. They'd hit the PTR, get tested by the hardcore guilds, providing Blizzard with valuable feedback on what was both over and undertuned. They'd adjust, considering the public commentary along with their own internal testing test results. Eventually, the instance would come out and, they peer into the Matrix, watching closely, monitoring how quickly raid teams cleared through, balancing against how frustrated players would be with a certain encounter. Blizzard's modus operandi had always been to err on the side of "too difficult", then relax the reins a bit when the time came. In those early days, nerfs were far and few between; C'thun alone went for months without an adjustment before both the players and Blizzard came to a "mutual understanding" that he was unbeatable in his original form.

Of course, C'thun was under Tigole's watch, not Ghostcrawler's.

The room shook as Ignis crashed to the ground, and my screen lit up with "Heroic: The Siege of Ulduar", indicating we were officially one quarter through the instance. There was no rest for the wicked. We plowed through XT-002's playpen, and crossed the bridge formed by Kologarn's fragemented body, at last coming to a wide circular room, exposing four exits along its compass points. The center of the room was hollowed out, providing a balcony-like view down into a pit that bore a single female figure of giant-like stature, perhaps Vrykul. Our attention wasn't toward the stranger in the pit, however. Instead, we eyed another woman that patrolled The Observation Ring, flanked by feline guards. When I caught my first glance, images flashed into my mind: The Maiden of GriefThe Maiden of VirtueIronaya.

Watchers for the Titans. This was Auriaya.

After only a few attempts, a blood curdling scream filled our headphones, and the cursed titan watcher fell over dead, the screen flashing with "Heroic: The Antechamber of Ulduar". At the end of the second week, we were half-way through Ulduar, and had yet to come across anything even remotely considered a roadblock. Yet the nerfs continued to roll in. By the start of the third week, every boss we'd defeated had been nerfed, save Flame Leviathan. Two of them, the Assembly and Kologarn, had been nerfed twice. For many of the raiders, it was a serious boost to their ego. All I could think was: we're good, but c'mon...were we really that good?

Or was it that the rest of the player-base was really that bad?

Auriaya falls, completing
"Heroic: The Antechamber of Ulduar",

Controlling Our Own Fate

May 1st, 2009 marked the start of our 3rd week in Ulduar, and for us, that meant the start of cranking up the difficulty. Cheeseus announced to the team that we would begin by leaving one tower up for Flame Leviathan. The "increased difficulty" had the impact of a mosquito bite. After one try, "Heroic: Orbital Bombardment" was added to our completion list. From there, we quickly moved to Ignis to try our hand at another achievement. In the standard execution of the Furnace Master, Iron Constructs come to life and are picked up by the off-tank, dragged through Ignis' fiery circle of molten flames that painted the floor. Once super-heated, they are then dragged to pools of water, instantly cooling them -- and making them as brittle as glass. This was the signal for one of our top ranged DPSers to blow them apart in a single blast of no less than 2000 damage. The achievement Cheeseus set us up to perform involved coordinating two Iron Constructs to be exploded within five seconds of each other. We accomplished this without much effort, earning us: "Heroic: Shattered".

Boss after boss met their fate at the hands of the 25-Man Progression team, without cause for fear or concern. "Farm" status may have lost the prestige it once held, but with that loss also went the threat of RNG jeopardizing our progression schedule. In Ulduar, I felt like we truly had the power to control our own fate. Staying dedicated and adhering to the basic expectations I levied on our raiders, we always made one step forward...and never two steps back. We could count on clearing every boss we had defeated, which allowed us to more accurately gauge how realistic each week's new goals were. It was empowering to be able to say "Our goal is to get through Thorim", free from the concern of not even reaching him because "XT-002 didn't want to play nice" or Kologarn's eye-beams were "completely random and unavoidable".

Just because you had a boss on farm status in Vanilla...didn't automatically make it a loot piƱata.


Thorim required us to split our raid into two groups, one focused in the amphitheater, while the second raced down a gauntlet-style hallway. The amphitheater team dealt with waves of iron dwarves and vrykul, while the gauntlet team worked their way up the staircase that led to a rear entrance of the stage on which Thorim and Sif were perched. This was the easy part. Once the gauntlet team surprised Thorim, the encounter shifted into its second phase. Thorim lept down into the arena as our teams converged. Two tanks traded holding him in the center, switching when afflicted with Unbalancing Strike, a debuff that would kill us in a single hit. Meanwhile, Thorim's lightning crackled across the room among a series of rods along the outer rim. Avoiding the lightning was vital; striking any one of us would chain the electricity from person to person, slaying players in the process. And if by any chance that lightning happened to jump back to the two tanks, they would be destroyed in an instant, making a wipe imminent. Two tanks were absolutely necessary due to the debuff; only one tank meant eventual swift death.

So, me being face down in the dirt wasn't boding well for our attempt.

An expired Mature watches as Poprocks (Annihilation)
performs emergency tanking on Thorim,

Tools of a Death Knight

There was a fundamental difference between Death Knight tanks and tanks who'd come before us. Warriors and Paladins each had a specific spec to tank in, Protection, and with that spec came a multitude of tools to mitigate incoming damage. The Death Knight differed in that it could Tank and DPS from any spec, and while they still relied on gear to push crits off the table, the magic came from the simple switch into frost presence. And since a Death Knight had damage mitigation talents in all three specs (Vampiric Blood for Blood, Unbreakable Armor for Frost, and Bone Shield for Unholy), Death Knights were extraordinarily good at diminishing the impact of incoming damage. These tree-specific abilities, when coupled with the tools native to each spec -- be they Icebound Fortitude or Death Strike -- made a DPS Death Knight a near complete replacement for a tank in an emergency.

Of course, we'd have to be lucky enough to have a Death Knight on hand that was crazy enough to prioritize mitigation talents over raw DPS. Perhaps a player that prioritized survivability in PvP over mindless boss kills in raids.

A player like Annihilation.


Phase Two was chaotic as we struggled to spread out, a tactic we'd consistently performed poorly over the years. I continued to swap during Unbalancing Strike, waiting for the next Lightning Rod call. I urged the raid to move into "Gauntlet Mode" for fights like these, swiveling the camera so that it faced directly down onto the group, a top-down view like the classic video game from which it took its name. In this view, the direction of the lightning was clearly visible, so players could move before it lit them up. But positioning was still a challenge. The healers struggled to keep Dalans and I alive, our new positions continuing to plague the rest of the raid with health spikes as lightning jumped across players.

In the last attempt of the evening, it was my turn to eat dirt. Whether it was due to the healers becoming used to the fact that I took the least amount of damage, or due to a series of chain events leading to their death, I can't say for certain. All I remember is that as Thorim's health dropped below 10%, I was killed in an instant while Unbalancing Strike was still on the other tank. It was at that moment that Annihilation, my trusted ex-Warrior officer and steadfast PvPer -- who happened to be present on his Death Knight that evening --flipped his frost presence on burned Icebound Fortitude while the raid continued to pour every ounce of damage they could into Thorim. As Unbalancing Strike continued to tick off of Dalans, the healers kept Annihilation alive, as he churned through more cooldowns, his health spiking wildly...but never emptying out. Unbalancing Strike finally hit Anni, and he handed Thorim back to Dalans, while DPS continued the burn. At last, Thorim halted the fight, awakened from his hypnosis, indicating that we'd completed the encounter.

Saved by a Death Knight.


Mystidruid said...

What an epic kill! Reminds me of one of our early Heroic tortos kills in ToT. We had our pally tank on tortos and our monk kiting bats. Me, being the classic druid that favors utility over all out DPS, raids with the talent Heart of the Wild. At about 15% left our pally tank got jibbed. Bear form + hotw gave the raid 45 more seconds of having a tank and allowed us to finish the burn. Was one of the most satisfying kills I've had this tier.

Shawn Holmes said...


Nice! I'm confident that a lot of the old-school DoDers would enjoy ToT, it has the depth of both Black Temple and Ulduar (imho), and a lot of our old roster would approve.

Unknown said...

It is no coincidence that the most memorable of the hard fought boss fights to me have been the ones in which someone steps out of their standard role and utilizes one of thier rarely used talents to give just that little push to completion.

The rogue that fires off evasion and gives healers time to fire off a battle rez on a downed tank.

The boomkin who throws up a tranquility when he sees the healers having difficulty.

The mage who throws up a polymorph to control an add that is on a healer before the tank can establish aggro.

The hunter who not only pet tanks an add off a healer, but directs that pet and its add over to the tank to pick up.

All of these mean a loss of dps, but the drop of a boss. These are the memories that linger, the player who forgets about the personal reward of recount and places the need of the group over their own uberness.

Loving these Shawn, have enjoyed the entire series of posts so far, hungrily awaiting the next installment each time.

Shawn Holmes said...


Thanks so much for your readership, and what a great set of examples these are! Coming out of a kill with a real sense of teamwork is the part I miss the most.

Kelden said...

Way to go healers! ;)

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your recollections here Shawn... I'm looking forward (hopefully) to some thoughts on why you guys retired from the raiding scene.

Shawn Holmes said...


Thank you for the kind words. I assure you that all will be made clear in the end.

Sarge said...

Every week brings me back to the good days in WoW. Before I burned out. And for that I thank you Boss. Seems like we're getting ever closer to my appearance in the Progression team. Not that it meant much but I'm ready to revisit those times from another person's perspective

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of when I first started my paladin for the guild. Originally went heals before settling into tanking for the rest of ICC. I remember the final 4% of the loch king fight being a 2 on 1 with me and the healer vs that bastard.

That has always tied for me with the 1 on 1 duel with Thok at 10% and myself in Mists of Pandaria.

Reading these articles brings so much nostalgia back to me of days of yore.

Mark Wilkins said...

Another small note: Jeff Kaplan (Tigole) was succeeded by Tom Chilton (Kalgan) as game director. Greg Street (Ghostcrawler) was Lead Systems Designer, and led design of classes and class abilities. Ghostcrawler got a lot of attention for his speaking publicly about class design, but approaches to PvE content were likely not primarily his responsibility.

Anonymous said...

One thing I missed from the earlier Vanilla raids (MC and maybe to a little lesser extent BWL?) was the ability to save the day as a dps warrior. The MT or OT goes down? Whip out your shield and grab aggro. Sure you weren't ideal but it could be done if both you and the tank heals figured things out quickly enough.

As I remember this was close to over before Vanilla was done as dps warriors started giving up their health pool/mitigation in order to deal as much damage as possible, but goddamn did it feel good back when you could pull it off.