Thursday, March 28, 2013

2.42. Wise Decisions

Descendants of Draenor defeats Gurtogg Bloodboil,
Black Temple

Wyse

It was about this time that a new mage named Wyse joined Descendants of Draenor. She was fresh out of the guild Hoax. They were not progressing well in raid content and Wyse looked to step up her game. I was aggressively assimilating players from guilds that were buckling from the weight of failed progression, and it was through mutual friends of these collapsing guilds that she learned of us. She, like many raiders during that era, were looking to get an Illidan kill by any means possible. The lack of solid mages in DoD remained a constant sore spot in my guild, so I gladly welcomed her in and set her up for raid rotations.

To my surprise, Wyse began sending me IMs throughout the day, often catching me during work hours. I never kept my contact information from the guild, and actually had a small following of guildies listed in Pidgin. They rarely contacted me. Usually, it was to send over a funny link or ask about a specific raid rotation. Otherwise, IM remained silent. Only one player consistently contacted me via IM: Ekasra, the shaman acting as Kerulak's replacement. Ekasra and I chatted in short bursts throughout the week. He fired off questions on how to deal with certain social situations and I'd give him my honest feedback. He'd thank me and go off to apply what he learned. That was the hope. The relationship was much like that of a student and teacher, and less of that which came between peers. We'd rarely chat away for hours about nothing, all conversations were short and to-the-point. So it was quite different getting IMs from a guildy who wanted to have long conversations about anything and everything.

Wyse was full of focus and energy about raiding. Almost immediately, she dug her heels in on Gurtogg Bloodboil, the next boss in line to taste cold steel. My mage officer, Goldenrod, expressed initial surprise at her performance. We were accustomed to picking up sub-par players from failed guilds, so it was a breath of fresh air to see a stranger join the roster and instantly put mediocrity to bed. from day one. With Wyse, it wasn't just about raw damage, though. For the first time ever, I saw a mage proactively decursing the raid without being asked -- an affliction that continued to plague the mages already present. In fact, everything about Wyse seemed to break the mold of what we were used to seeing in Descendants of Draenor. Of the few gals we had the luxury of adding to the roster, she was uninhibited and chatty in vent. Having a female player actively engage in digital conversation was something we simply didn't see a lot of; most gals remained reserved, and responded to our digital voices with transcription in raid chat. I implored the raid team to communicate and, more often than not, my female raiders would refrain from speaking. Wyse never had this issue. In nearly every way, she presented herself with a dedication I longed to see in many others that made up the roster.

After the fall of Gurtogg Bloodboil on June 1st, 2008, she was back IMing me the very next day. Where are those DPS charts? How'd I measure up against Goldy, Dandrak, Turtleman? What's the schedule for the next raid? Here's my progress on shadow resistance gear for Mother Shahraz! I was overwhelmed. Sometimes it felt like I could count the number of players that were this passionate about the guild's progression on one hand. To have someone brand new to the guild be this excited about completing Black Temple, well...I was humbled and thankful. Thankful that she hit the ground running, that her initial numbers were impressive on the meters, and that she was genuinely thrilled to be a part of us.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Mother Shahraz,
Black Temple

Mage Tanking

As the next boss loomed, my administrative duties increased. I was fine with it; it kept my mind occupied and off of recent events that had the tendency to depress me. I walked the roster, player by player, examining their progress on shadow resistance gear, marshaling my report over to Blain for his approval. Not only did I have to deal with the luxury of keying requirements for players, I now fielded the burden of vetting their viability for Mother Shahraz. The next boss in Black Temple would stick us in a blender and hit frappĂ© if our shadow resistance was anything shy of 365. In order to keep progress moving forward at a reasonable pace while maximizing our opportunity to gear the bench, Blain made the decision to start splitting the Friday and Sunday raids into A-Team/B-Team runs. Much like our strategy at the end of Vanilla, this tactic allowed us to take the undergeared to Mount Hyjal on Friday, using them to springboard the more experienced, geared group ahead into Black Temple. Double teaming content would, in theory, give progression more time to work on the latter bosses: Mother Shahraz, The Illidari Council, and eventually, Illidan the Betrayer himself. The potential for Blain's decision to cause drama was wildly apparently: who belonged on which team?

It was clear after speaking with Blain and Goldenrod that Wyse needed to be included in A-Team. She proved herself in only a few short weeks in the guild, meeting all the needs of a core progression raider that could contribute to the defeat of Illidan. Thus, rotations were adjusted. Wyse quickly found herself rotated out of Mount Hyjal and into Black Temple, which she initially expressed concern around, making note of the less skilled folks taking her spot. Once I made it clear to her that she was needed for the bleeding edge group driving progression, her concerns melted away. She continued to deliver competitive DPS, and was soon pushing even the mage officer himself down the meters. By June 22nd, several weeks after Gurtogg's demise, Mother Shahraz collapsed on the steps of her stage. From a purely analytical standpoint, Wyse had achieved the number one spot among our mages, dominating both damage done and curses cleansed.

It was clear by this point that Wyse would be essential to what lay ahead. The Illidari Council was a unique encounter in which four bosses worked together, sharing the same health pool. Via a combination of abilities, they would keep an entire 25-man raid busy with monitoring stuns, heals, interrupts, positioning, and so on. Execution required exceptional control and communication. The Council's AoE effects alone pushed our spatial awareness to new extremes, a combination of Blizzard, Consecration, and Flamestrike forcing players to be forever on the move. Blain's strategy called for one of the four Council members, High Nethermancer Zerevor, to be range-tanked by a mage -- a very common strategy at the time. This would be Wyse's opportunity to shine, and she proudly stepped up to this role of responsibility, delivering results as expected. She was IMing me daily with her latest research, providing criticisms on mage specs for the tank, their positioning, the fine details of how to perform the initial pull, and how to best handle emergencies. Again, I was impressed at her capacity to take on this increased load, while still delivering top performance.

The problem with rising to the top is that it becomes much easier for others to make note of your flaws.

Descendants of Draenor defeats The Illidari Council,
Black Temple

Micromanagement

Because Wyse talked to me on almost a daily basis, I had insight into her personality and quirks that others did not. She was a younger and more passionate gamer, layered on top of all the complexities the female gender bestows upon us. Her mannerisms, her nuances, her likes and dislikes, and what affected her emotionally by the world were all bits of trivia I learned along the way. Much of the guild was not privy to these fine characteristics; their exposure to Wyse was limited to their observations of her in-game. Therein lies the dilemma. Relying on World of Warcraft as a medium to interact with one another in a social setting disallows for the capacity to gain cues from body language. This restriction is further exacerbated by a loss of tone, if one choose to remain completely out of Ventrilo. And while Wyse was active in VoIP during raid, it wasn't always the case outside of the schedule. What remained was plain text on the screen, devoid of context. Good-natured ribbing between friends comes across as cold criticism. Sarcasm delivers as genuine. And hyperbole paints the picture of a person sorely out-of-touch with reality. In short, the text arriving on screen lacks a human component that is vital to humans understanding one another.

Some humans, as it turns out, don't possess the insight to extrapolate true intent. Conversations shouldn't involve homework.

First on the "do-not-care" list was Dalans. Having a low tolerance for bullshit was his credo, and he was one of the first to start expressing distaste at Wyse. Although he appreciated her performance in raids, he disliked Wyse's tone regarding people constantly needing to improve, a tone that came across as "I'm awesome, why aren't the rest of you?" Poorly chosen words in the heat of the moment often meant the difference between an inspiring comment, and a condescending one. Dalans also grew annoyed at Wyse's exceedingly verbose add-ons, spaming the raid channel with excessive information about players lacking buffs, standing in fire, requiring a decurse, and so on. Bombarding the raid with alerts caused a new behavior to emerge: players began to silently /ignore the offenders...which they conveniently forgot to roll back once the raid was over. You can imagine the effect this would have on the unsuspecting player during off-raid hours. Wyse would ask a question in guild chat, and get little-to-no response. In terms of working together as a team, this was far from it. We lacked an official stance on add-ons, beyond my simple lobbying for raiders to use whatever they felt necessary. It never once dawned on me that add-ons could become oppressive and detrimental to our progress.

Other officers expressed a similar sentiment to me. Both the mage officer, Goldenrod, and my healing officer, Breginna, conveyed to me that Wyse was an outstanding player, but desperately needed  to work on toning down her criticism of others -- an act that was especially hard to swallow coming from a brand new guildy. Players would take one look at her "suggestions" and think the same thing. Who the hell is this person to tell me how to play? I've been here for years. For Wyse, it wasn't criticism; she was mentoring, trying to offer assistance and help those around her. I understood from our daily IMs that she wanted nothing more than for the team to succeed, but lacked the diplomacy skills necessary to convey this without offending people. It was not unlike Blain's own abrasiveness regarding honesty about a player's skill level. The difference, of course, is that the raid team had no choice but to obey when Blain dropped the hammer: He was the raid leader and they were obligated to follow his direction. As for Wyse, no such obligation existed. Animosity grew between the players and Wyse, which created a complex juxtaposition of concerns: how do I deal with a star performer that the guild is growing to loathe?

Managing Wyse would turn out to be a much greater challenge than I initially assumed.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

2.41. The Not-Knowing

"Shadowmoon Valley"
Artwork by SulaMoon

Waiting For Ater

When I was fourteen years old, I woke up one day and my best friend was gone. Not gone in the sense of some tragic accident that took his life, spiraling my childhood into a vortex of despair and anguish. This was worse. You see, if my best friend had died, at least I would know the ending -- I'd have some closure about the situation. A rare disease, a fatal car accident, whatever it happened to be, I could put my finger on it and say there. That's the reason I no longer see him, no longer hear from him. He's dead. End of discussion. In my case, however, my friend hadn't died. Things just stopped. No more phone calls, no more plans to bike down to the Mini-Golf to get in a few hours of Street Fighter II. No more plans to hit a movie or just plain hang out together. Nothing.

One day, it just stopped.

Why this was worse than losing a friend to death should be obvious, but if it isn't, here's the secret: It's the not-knowing. The unanswered questions. The whys. The what-did-I-do-wrongs. At least in death, you can reflect back and remember how it was. The last time you saw their face, or heard them speak. At least you'd have a sense of where things stood in that last encounter. You were friends, friends for life. Nothing could separate you, short of that thin fabric that kept your heart pumping, your chest breathing, and your ability to pick up the phone to chat. But when your best friend goes about his business as if nothing had ever changed, going to the same places, seeing the same movies, heading to the same video arcade -- all without you -- a darkness quickly moves in. Your brain struggles to make sense of this new alternate universe that has cut you out of the picture. Some have the capacity to move on to new friends quickly, shrugging off such radical changes as if they were no big deal; their brain gets it. Change. People grow apart, find different instances, have different opinions, seek out new adventures. Their brains find a solution, plug it in, and it allows them to carry on with the rest of their day. Others wrestle with the not-knowing for weeks, trying to maintain order and live their lives as it haunts them. Sometimes weeks...sometimes months.

My brain grappled with it for years.

I needed a reason, I needed to know why things had ended abruptly. More than anything, I wanted to know if it was something I had done, something I may have broken that could be fixed. Then, the pieces would fall back into place, and we could once again resume our friendship, as if nothing had changed. Change was unsettling and caused me great concern -- I didn't like it. I didn't feel like I had control over it. Stability is what I desperately wanted in its place, to be able to count on the same things, rely on the same people. To be able to count on someone to be there for me, to back me up, to support my decisions and actions and choices. They'd validate me, ensuring I was on the right path. Without that validation, I had no path. Suddenly, the path grew up around me, and I was lost in a forest, with no direction, purpose, or guide to ensure me that I was on the right track.

All I needed was some closure. Some sense of how close or far I was to the mark. Weeks went by as I logged into WoW, watching, waiting for Ater to return, to tell me he was settled in at work, and at last had a wide-open schedule. He'd say he was ready to jump back into Black Temple, ready to step up to Illidan and bring an end to The Betrayer.

The log in never came.

Eventually, my brain shut down the waiting part. The denial part. The not-knowing part. Temporarily disabled, until further notice. For now, something had to be done about the gaping hole that was left in the guild, in the roster...and in me.

"Essence of Suffering"
Artwork by Tom Baxa
Copyright © 2008
 Blizzard Entertainment / Upper Deck

The Fog

Shutting down left me numb to events unfolding around me. At work, sales managers berated me for my inappropriate estimates, and I just took it, while I stared into my laptop screen. Waiting for them to just shut their mouths. To walk away, leave me alone, let me code in peace. There was no point in fighting back, resisting them. They were wrong, but I was in no position to counter their arguments. What good would it do? So they berated. And I took it. And when they finally left me alone in my corner of the office, mindlessly churning out websites for people who barely knew how to use a website in the first place, I'd glance up and across the desk, looking for the place where Ater and I sat across from one another, months earlier. Him sharing new discoveries and troubleshooting problems with me. Talking about the guild, and how we were going to knock out the next few bosses.

Gone.

---

The numbness bled into my in-game persona as well. Blain's disapproval of less-than-stellar play slowly grew in power and magnitude during those weeks. He became hyper-critical of players that had long since performed at a sub-par level, and grew tired of the constant excuse factory. Returning to Reliquary of Souls, he ridiculed another rogue, Azraella, for the player's mishandling of interrupts in the rotation. You had one job. Kick the Spirit Shock. That's it. And in my semi-conscious state, rather than recommend he chill out, give these guys a break -- I latched on to this emotion as well as it filled the void 

Anger is an easy crutch to fall back on, especially when you have a career of breaking keyboards.

I was equally punitive towards players lacking focus, yet Blain took the blame for this mistreatment -- and he was not alone in his disgust. Eventually, players started to refer to him as "Blain the Tyrant", a badge he wore with great pride. It was a running joke among the 25-Man progression team, how the tyrant would command and ridicule in order to maintain progression, and others like Dalans, with a propensity to favor anger over compassion, jumped into that boat of ridicule with us and sailed to sea. In-game, I lost my temper, pointed fingers, reminded players that the days of failing were behind us, and if they didn't shape up, they would ship out. They would claim Blain was bullying them, demanding that they reach a level of skill simply unattainable. I'd fire back seething responses:

"Oh, so you'd prefer to go back to the way it was, pre-Blain? Wiping to The Lurker Below for weeks at a time? Like a complete failure of a raiding guild? How about you stop sucking, instead?"

Everything was so black-and-white.

When the raids ended for the evening, I wouldn't log out. I would just wander around Outland, performing mindless tasks, completing quests of no value. I flip over to my Rogue alt, and fly her over Hellfire Penninsula. In doing so, the memory of waking up in the middle of night with searing tooth pain stabbed me...and I remember calling Ater the next day after the tooth was pulled, hopped up on pain meds, yelling in to the phone, "Yeah, you can tell everybody at the office that I'm not coming in today! I'M ON DRUGS, MAN!" And Ater laughing.

There was the void again. Without something to fill it, my sentimental brain began bleeding back towards him. His presence. His absence.

Zanjina kneels beside the fallen Shade of Akama,
Black Temple

Promotional Distractions

In order to keep myself distracted, I tried to focus in on the tasks that were right in front of my face, the ones that needed immediate attention. I needed a number two, to fill the gap left by Ater. Blain was disinterested, and was already dropping hints that, come expansion, he would be ready to retire from raid leadership for good. Coming back in the middle of TBC had turned our progression team around, but had left him broken and worn down with weekly barrages from the excuse factory. I asked him to keep his exit on the down-low for the time being, to which he obliged. At this close stage of wrapping up Black Temple, coupled with the loss of Ater, I didn't want to take any more chances at gouging out what little morale was currently intact amongst the raid team. So, Blain had his marching orders. Continue to push us to Illidan. Keep the deadline in sight. Keep us marching.

Without Blain as an option for promotion, I began to survey the field of officership. I needed someone with a strong backbone, who shared my disgust of poor play, and was equally unwilling to let it slide. Someone who didn't put up with a lot of shit, and whom I could entrust to enforce my rules while I was offline. This approach, I felt, would stymie any possible excuse the raiders may give to go AWOL as we neared the final stretch. Based off this criteria, all signs pointed to Dalans, a fiercely dedicated member of the guild, and steadfast raider since as far back as Ater. Dalans had taken charge of the druids and kept them in shape for many moons. His no-nonsense style of dealing with whiners and complainers suited my expectations of the role. My current state-of-mind shared this zero-tolerance policy towards mediocrity with Dalans, and there was nobody around to disprove that line of thinking. He proudly took up the charge, and ran with his usual iron fist.

What remained was a spot for warrior officer, as Ater had been wearing multiple hats at the end of his tenure. The warrior most applicable for this position was Kurst, a raider stretching even further back than Ater, Dalans or Blain. Kurst's unyielding devotion to the guild, and consistent place among the raid progression team was most certainly enough criteria to warrant promotion to officership. He may have had a tendency here or there to make a mistake, but hey...who didn't, by this point? We were all human, we made mistakes every day! Maybe it was time to cut Kurst a little slack and give him a promotion that he rightfully earned. Yeah! Kurst for Warrior Officer! It's now official and done. You have any warrior problems, you take it to him, he's the expert now. Just get it out of my hair. Get warriors out of my hair. Get everything that has to do with warriors away from me right now.

Deal with it. Please.


---

I'd hoped that a player would come along and solve all those problems, someone that could magically snap their fingers, and make all the difficulties melt away. What I got, instead, was a mage that would push my people management skills to new extremes, granting me the perspective I needed to re-evaluate what it was to be in charge, and how to handle leadership without guidance.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

2.40. A Noticeable Lack of Party Favors

Before Mount Hyjal was accessible in present-day
Azeroth, Archimonde's remains decorated Nordrassil

No Pomp Nor Circumstance

There was no great fanfare on Ater's last day in the guild. No great celebrations were thrown, no group screenshots taken, no speeches given by the guild leader on Ater's many contributions to Descendants of Draenor. We didn't go around a circle and exchange stories about the fact that Ater was perpetually in a state of getting his bearings in Azeroth, often lost on the other end of a virtual continent as our raid team made their way inside an instance. We'd arrive at Molten Core and he'd be in Silithus, trying to figure out where he had made a wrong turn, then laugh and joke about it as he slowly found his way back. Nobody reminisced about the time Ater finally acquired Thunderfury after running Molten Core for entire an year. No one waxed melancholy about the fact that it was Ater himself who gave Descendants of Draenor our guild motto: "If we don't die, we win." No tributes were paid. No write-ups were written. Nothing was done in honor of Ater and the impact he had on us.

There was no fanfare on his last day, because nobody knew what day it would be.

Even in his ability to be a great leader, providing guidance to anything from playing a warrior, leading a group of misfits, dealing with people-related issues, or designing a new interface for a time-tracking application, Ater remained humble upon introspection. He avoided making a "Leaving the Guild" forum post because he didn't want it made into a big deal. To him, good-byes where too finite and depressing; he looked upon them as next steps in life, new beginnings rather than endings.

At least, this is what I like to believe Ater thought.

I can't be certain, because Ater never spoke of his true feelings toward the guild during his time spent here. Perhaps he saw it as a great experience; a chance to make a lot of new friends and work together to slay internet dragons. Perhaps these feelings soured as time went on, as the roster transmogrified from those Vanilla folks he considered close friends, to handfuls of strangers that no longer saw the game as he did. In his Vanilla days, Ater lived and breathed World of Warcraft, raiding, and our guild -- it nourished him and coursed through his veins. When not planning out Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, and the like, he was pushing groups of players through Zul'Gurub, practicing, refining, challenging himself and his team. As The Burning Cruade was tapering off, his hours outside of the 25-Man progression raid were similarly spent in Zul'Aman, seeking to lay claim to the Amani War Bear. And each week he came-up snake eyes. His current group wasn't like the one he stampeded through Zul'Gurub with. It lacked the finesse, the polish...

...the means to give a damn about doing it well.

Descendants of Draenor defeats Teron Gorefiend,
Black Temple

Teron Gorefiend

It had been several weeks since the death of Archimonde in our moment of shocking triumph. Having wrapped up Hyjal Summit, we returned to Black Temple to excise more bosses from the instance. Next on the to-do list was Teron Gorefiend, a zero margin-of-error linchpin like Archimonde and Magtheridon. I took some solace in the knowledge of our startling success with Archimonde's defeat, but working on Teron quickly began to eat away at the team consciousness. In the same manner as the those bosses who came before him, Teron Gorefiend could only be killed if each and every player took responsibility for their effort and contribution. Lacking any control over which players were chosen by Gorefiend as a sacrificial lamb, however, allowed patterns to once again emerge revealing who had done their homework and who had lied. Shadowy Constructs made short work of the raid if the sacrificial player was a scrub. All we asked was that players practiced until they got it right. For some, all the practice in the world was not enough.

On the other side of the screen, Ater had fully settled in to his new locale in the heart of Chicago, Illinois. As with all new jobs, the first few weeks take up the most of your attention: coordinating, getting to know new teammates, new responsibilities. And Ater, being the "people person" that he was, put every waking minute of time and energy into his newest challenges in the windy city. That meant less time in-game, just as it had been when he came to work alongside me. The only difference was that, this time around, I was no longer present during the day to pester him. To hound him...

To remind him that he was needed.

We had discussed an exit strategy informally. Months earlier, staring off his apartment balcony, I'd broached the topic; not much had come of it. There was going to be a final day for Ater and I needed to start planning for it. Yet, I lingered in denial. I looked at the tanks I had, amid a drought of new applicants, and none of them inspired me to throw a party. But, rather than take control of the situation and recruit with greater aggression and focus, I languished. I let it slide. I failed Ater, but he was too nice to say anything that might hurt my feelings.

Soon, Hanzo. You're running out of time.

Descendants of Draenor defeats the Reliquary of Souls,
Black Temple

Reliquary of Souls

Three weeks of insufferable work on Teron Gorefiend led to an eventual kill. Ater was all but completely silent in raids by this point, only to make calls during each attempt as needed -- that bit of communication that was essential to every efficient team. With the death knight's wheel spinning once again, we had a decision to make on our next boss. Should we approach Gurtogg Bloodboil and his complex mechanics involving a "dance" of the three closest players every few seconds? Or should we turn our attention to the Reliquary of Souls, a disembodied head of three faces crying out in desire, suffering and anger? Blain opted for the Reliquary, so we moved through a graveyard of ghosts, making our way down to the ribcage-shaped prison that held the disembodied head in place.

Reliquary of Souls was a three-phase fight. In each phase a new essence took control of the head, spinning it like a top until the new face gazed upon the raid in contempt. The Essence of Suffering was first, a phase that negated all healing. Tank control was handled by measuring proximity to the head. Since we had no way of keeping the tank alive, each tank in the rotation would take a few steps away as their health dropped to dangerously low levels. A new tank would then step in, automatically shifting the Essence's gaze to the new tank. Phase two was the Essence of Desire, sapping the raid's mana, eventually preventing healers from keeping the group alive. The gimmick with desire was dependent upon a warrior's Spell Reflection. With great precision, a coordinated team of interrupters needed to stop her Spirit Shock, which would daze the tank. If timed correctly, the tank would then be free to Spell Reflect her Deaden back on to the floating head, increasing damage taken by the boss, allowing us to close the deal before mana was completely expunged from the raid. The window of time between the interrupt of Spirit Shock and the Spell Reflect of Deaden was tight; it required all parties involved to be exceedingly sharp. And even in this expansion, where classes were beginning to take on more roles than what was held classically in Vanilla, defeating the Reliquary of Souls depended on one and one class only: warrior. Without a warrior main tank, you didn't just "suffer" through a handful of deaths and then go on to pull off a messy kill...

You wiped.

The final phase was the Essence of Anger, a balls-to-the-walls blow-every-cooldown-you-have phase, in which the boss slowly built up a spell reflection that would inevitably cause us to kill ourselves if the fight ran too long. Meanwhile, aggro on the floating head was by standard tank abilities alone -- no taunts were allowed. Every time aggro shifted to a new player, the head would Seethe, causing it to grow in size, power, and attack speed. The burn needed to be a controlled burn; at no point could we allow any one player to overtake the tank's quickly diminishing threat.

The Suffering phase was a non-factor, freeing up all of our efforts to pour into Desire. The raid delivered a one-two punch, thanks to Blain's careful coordination of rotating interrupts via the rogues, and Ater shouldering the responsibility of reflecting Deaden. It wasn't long before we'd made progress into the final phase, letting a barrage of damage pour into the screaming head of Anger. On May 18th, 2008, Descendants of Draenor defeated the Reliquary of Souls, only one week after defeating Teron Gorefiend. We were now 5/9 in Black Temple, more than half-way through. So close to the end, Illidan became more of a reality with every approaching raid.

We lined up in front of the fallen head, their three faces now quiet, eyelids closed over angry, suffering eyes. When the aesthetics fell into place, I took our screenshot of the Reliquary of Souls, then promptly uploaded it to the forums that evening. I stuck to my guns on the promise I made to Ater, stressing how important our team progress was in Black Temple, and how important each and every one of the contributing raiders were to our continued success. I was determined to acknowledge their efforts and remind them that while we (much like the Reliquary of Souls itself) may have changing faces, we remained a family and a team. I needed to tell them. I needed to convince them.

I needed to convince myself.

The Reliquary of Souls was the last boss that Ater defeated as a member of the 25-Man progression team in Descendants of Draenor.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

2.39. The Different Guild

"Archimonde the Defiler"
Artwork by Jim Nelson

Archimonde Anxiety

I have reason to believe that Xanax was invented as a result of the Archimonde encounter.

Since Blain's return to leading in full force, we saw a tremendous turnaround in raid progression. Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep were systematically blown apart, and the first boss in Mount Hyjal, Rage Winterchill, was one-shot with zero preparation. Bosses that followed -- Anetheron, Kaz'rogal and Azgalor -- were all pushing up daisies. To ensure our continued momentum, Blain switched gears and diverted us to Black Temple. High Warlord Naj'entus was our first victory there, and I earned my five minutes of fame dominating the damage meters during our execution of Supremus. But our rocket thrust was now in jeopardy. Blain was comfortable with the amount of people now in possession of their PvP trinkets, which meant it was time to return to Hyjal Summit, and wrap up the only outstanding obstacle:

Archimonde.

I dreaded the return to Hyjal Summit because after stripping Archimonde of all his bluish tint, his ret-conned Eredar lore, his pixels and sound effects and 3D model animations...I knew exactly what he was: A zero margin-of-error linchpin encounter. Linchpins like this caused anxiety to nearly strangle me, ever since Magtheridon fell to DoD's raiders a year earlier. Our strengths would be diminished, while our weaknesses would float to the top. Team jell was now much lower in importance on the totem pole. In its place stood the "personal accountability" obelisk of doom, wherein each player had to take their survivability into their own hands -- or ensure the death of all of us.

No carrying.

No covering for one another.

No room to excuse lag or timing or your add-ons or your slow-ass computer.

Everybody performs...or everybody dies.

As with linchpins before this, the typical tactics of a guild leader weren't an option. Continued failure couldn't result in kicking these players to the curb, bringing in another round to replace them. We had invested heavily in our 25-Man Progression team by this point, many of whom were well-geared -- starting from scratch because a certain person who "didn't get it" wasn't going to work. I had to be proactively correcting the roster's issues, not be a victim to it. Rather than wait for someone to complain that they used their Tears of the Goddess, but "lag got them", I went to the roster ahead of time, spoke to each player individually, and got a rundown of their Internet provider, general stability, problems they'd experienced with latency in the past. I even went so far as to check which players were using a wireless router, many of whom were none the wiser on its detrimental effects to real-time streaming online games.

In today's age, where Netflix usage is commonplace and every third house has an XBox 360 playing Call of Duty online, this may not seem like such a big deal. In 2008, however, working on Archimonde via a wireless router would sign our death warrant. Packet loss was an inevitability on hardware in those days. Even with players that claimed to have never experienced a router problem in their life, I still politely insisted that they cut over to a hard wire. It would only take one player death for this to end poorly. One lag spike, one moment of wireless latency that would bring it all crashing down. Each vocalist in my choir had to be pitch-perfect. The potential for any one single player to be the cause for a wipe left me perpetually wound up, a constantly bouncing ball of nerves. My mind begged for release but would gain no such relief from prescription meds.

"Legend of Mount Hyjal"
Artwork by Trent Kaniuga

Twilight of the Gods

April 13th, 2008, was an otherwise ordinary Sunday. Discussion on the guild forums circulated around various topics: whether or not win-trading was taking place in arenas, a link to a "Teron Gorefiend" simulator available on the web, and a group of players leaving MySpace for a new site that was gaining popularity identified only as "Facebook". Chief among the posts, however, was a discussion title "Archie", including videos and references to the Elitists Jerks forums. DoD actively engaged in discussion and assessed valid strategies. Of primary importance was the acquisition of PvP trinkets: our backup plan to break Archimonde's fearbomb...if you had the good fortune to be heading uncontrollably towards Doomfire. The healthy debate of strategy, what would work, what we should try, how we should solve problems on-the-fly was impressive.

They were aligned. Constant, consistent success.

---

As we huddled near some Night Elf architecture, buffing, flasking, and eating food, Blain gave us the 411.

"We can do this tonight."

Inside my brain, confidence was at war with skepticism. My inner realist kept picking away at me. Archimonde was a brick-wall boss, a linchpin with no room for error, a verifiable guild-killer. Every failure would be the result of a single man or woman fucking up, ruining the chance for the rest of us. Handled incorrectly, this would cause bitterness to impregnate the team. Animosity would incubate, eventually blooming into hatred and disgust. An undeniable stench of meh would fill the room. Left alone, it would infect the team and devour us from the inside out. Signups would fall off. Players would stop talking to one another, replaced by sarcasm and cheap shots.

"Oh, great. Him again. Thanks for ruining our raid night on Archimonde YET AGAIN. I love having my time wasted."

Eventually, the guild would collapse as its insides were eaten out. The risk was very real, the question was, would my guild be ready to rise above that?

In a final act of encouragement, Ater wrapped up the strategy by reiterating the guild motto he coined many moons ago -- one whose meaning was more relevant now than ever, due to Archimonde's Soul Charges:

"If we don't die...we win."

Descendants of Draenor defeats Archimonde,
Hyjal Summit

Famous Last Pull

The first few attempts allowed us to get a feel for timing on fears and Doomfire calls. Most important was the first-hand experience on the air blast, and at what part of the arc was most appropriate to use Tears of the Goddess. Too soon, and the buff would wear out before the player landed. Too late, and they'd become a fine red paste across the green plains at the Hyjal Summit. Misjudging either way produced the same result: falling to one's death, or "cratering". Each death allowed Archimonde to generate a Soul Charge, which he would then burn on us and wipe the raid.

While players adjusted to the timing of air burst and perfected use of their Tears, Blain observed the position of the groups. He spread us into the four prongs of a fork, with the tanks and melee at the base, and continued to refine this placement as the hours ticked away. Ater kept communication flowing back to the raid, alerting us of air bursts, and with each attempt he improved his own positioning, avoiding the air burst himself.

As expected, the mechanics were unforgiving. Doomfire wreaked havoc on us, especially during fear-bombs. Players cratered as they struggled to match their timing with their latency. The chain reaction of player-death-to-raid-wipe was alarming...and blunt. My fear was realized. One simple mistake was all it took. As soon as a player died, Archimonde's Soul Charge took out massive groups of players until it was a wipe. By the fourth and final hour, we completed a total of twenty-two pulls, and not one attempt had whittled the boss's health down below 50%.

"Last pull", Blain announced in Vent.

We arrived at the tail end of the raid. I did not want us to leave with ours tucked between our legs.

---

Ater's infamous countdown in Vent began, thus signaling the start of our twenty-third and final attempt of the night. I moved into position along my fork prong and began to light the giant Eredar up with Vampiric Touch and Shadow Word: Pain. A bluish beam of shadowy energy followed my DoTs, flaying Archimonde's mind. Doomfire etched its way across the plains without remorse, seeking targets to ignite; I side-stepped the fire and continued my shadowy barrage. Images of Battle.net forum posts began to flash in the back of my mind:
"DoD fails at raiding, disbands. LOL"
"Zanjina an embarrassment to Deathwing-US. Worst player on server."
I snapped out of it and refreshed Vampiric Touch to keep the mana flowing back to my group. Ater held Archimonde tightly in position, calculating small, surgical shifts to avoid air bursts. A tremor totem hit the ground, and moments later, Archimonde dropped a fear-bomb. Melee shifted for half-a-second in terror, then instantly returned to their duties...the tremor totem mitigating the bomb. My chat window lit up in bright purple as Melkezadek's' macro spammed me.

[W From] Melkezadek: FEAR WARD Cast: You're next!!!!

I moved towards Cyrant, hit him with a Fear Ward, and and spammed my own macro.

[W To] Neps: FEAR WARD NOW ON CYRANT...YOU ARE NEXT OMGWTFBBQ!!!!!!

Calm. 

Focus.

The air burst struck me and I was flung in to the air.

Hold.

Hold.

I reached the apex of the arc.

......Now.

I spammed Tears of the Goddess and drifted back down to the grass, rushing back into position. Cyrant dropped his tremor totem, moments before another fear-bomb, safe with my Ward shielding him from the chaos.

"Ater's air bursted."

"The warlock's are cut off from Doomfire."

Blain called out to Eacavissi, warning him of the impending fear bomb. A handful players along the ranged forks began running in random directions as panic and tension continued to smash its fist at the door.

"STRAIGHT. BACK." Blain reminded everyone. Running in a zig-zag pattern would only make Doomfire more vicious as it snaked its way toward targets. Staying in a straight line was the only way to keep it at bay, running along the length of the fire, rather than towards the tip. The fear-bomb hit; melee and tanks remained safe and in control.

"Oh, sweet Tremor." Blain said with relief.

I dropped from Shadowform and began putting whatever minuscule heals I could on the the players eating Doomfire. Houla dropped dangerously low, his health-bar a tiny green sliver on my screen. One more tick of damage would end him...along with this final attempt. I slapped on a renew and continued to look for players that needed help.

Suddenly, Blain called out. The moment of truth had arrived.

"OK, Bloodlust in 3, 2, 1...Go Bloodlust. GO. All out."

"Even healers. DoTs..." called Neps.

"Everybody DPS, there is no healing" added Breginna.

Lightning bolts flashed around the great Eredar, and the sky faded to red as night elf wisps bore down on him. Every raider blew every cooldown they had, all DPS, all working together, all alive....

At last, one single blinding explosion erupted in a shower of arcane energy, and Archimonde's battered armor lay at our feet. I couldn't believe it. Other players in the raid joined me in disbelief.

"...four fucking hours??" asked Dalans, as if to say how is this even possible?

Disbelief hung suspended while reality slowly set in. One of the most difficult bosses in The Burning Crusade, killed in only one night of work. Visions of the weeks we wasted on Gruul and Magtheridon, making the same mistakes over and over, were quickly blurring over. We had become so used to the same failures, the same excuses, that it was hard to digest what an accomplishment this truly was. Our crutch had been the profound claim that we took anyone to raids; that we felt everyone deserved a shot at end-game content. That mission statement wasn't wrong, but simply incomplete. We had failed with an incomplete vision for so long that an accomplishment like this seemed unreal.

But it was very real.

"Setting players' expectations of what our unified goals were" had finally taken hold of this group of players. Keeping people accountable, disallowing them from making excuses for failures, proactively solving problems before they manifested...it was like a different world. A different game.

A different guild.