Thursday, February 27, 2014

3.56. Conveniently Entitled

Mature joins a crew of guildies in defeating
the Devourer of Souls in heroic mode,
The Forge of Souls

Looking For Dread

A stream of yellow text dripped down the chat panel while gigantic chunks of the guild were cleaved from the game. Northrend was not looking well. Outside, the frozen wasteland was marred by instability and the virtual world continued to come crashing down. The first sign of trouble was a locked inventory. Buried inside the player's bags were precious items plucked from the land; any attempt to shift goods between the bag slots was met with failure, foreshadowing the server's imminent demise. Food, armor, potions...all commodities were afflicted with the immobilization curse, and no amount of clicking or dragging would free them. To my astonishment, Mature's items freely moved from spot to spot as I performed the server stability sanity test. I was not in the "outside world"; a dungeon instance shielded me from such travesties. Unbeknownst to the n00b, instance servers -- hardware dedicated to providing players access specifically to the dungeons of WoW -- remained separate from the hardware that powered the outside areas of the World. It was here in the Pit of Saron that the game played smoothly for my group and I. You wouldn't have guessed that WoW's infrastructure had just undergone a massive structural upheaval. While the guildies continued to struggle with logging in and staying connected, I blissfully moved from the Forge of Souls to this Pit, soon to make my way through the Halls of Reflection, and what horrors lie in wait.

Patch 3.3 came in with a literal bang. The majority of the explosion was most likely the cry of server blades collapsing under the pressure of the newest changes to the game. Looking for Dungeon, the muchly anticipated dungeon grouping functionality had finally surfaced. For years, anyone outside of a guild slaved over group formation to clear the likes of Scholomance and the Temple of Atal'Hakkar. In those days, dungeons were an investment of time most couldn't afford, so tacking on additional coordination logistics wiped them from the list of playable options to all but the truly masochistic. Blizzard's first attempt to lighten this burden resulted in the advent of Meeting Stones in The Burning Crusade. They were about as effective as a group of raiders in greens attempting Gruul: easing the summoning process didn't help when you had no one to summon. Back to the drawing board they went, emerging at last with LFD in 3.3. At the click of a button, we were in the instance -- no need to travel to the dungeon mouth (once discovered), and no need to summon. Not only did LFD service a huge group of previously precluded players, it expedited guild group formation. As our guild dined on this new feature, LFD paired us with many strangers of guilds we had never heard of. Some weren't even on the Deathwing-US server, as LFD pulled from the pool of our entire Nightfall battlegroup -- a luxury formerly reserved for the PvP crowd. 

The challenge of keeping complete strangers from screwing one another over was handled by LFD's risk / reward system. Wipes would empower the group with bonuses to health, healing and damage, and those players diligent enough to see it through gained fat bonuses of "Emblem of Triumph", which we could then spend at various reputation vendors for upgrades. This subsystem of plugging holes in raiding gear solved a very real problem that had plagued us in TBC and Vanilla: how does one gear out a new recruit for raiding when raiding itself is the only thing that produces gear? The evolution of LFD ended this age-old problem, and my job as both administrator and recruiter grew easier.

I stood firm on my advocation that everyone should get a chance to experience content, and LFD brought this to table in a grand feast. Not everyone saw it in the same light. Critics claimed it diminished the importance of world exploration. As time went on, LFD groups that wiped saw an increase in dropped players who were completely unable to find their way back to the instance:

"Dunno how to get back to the dungeon lol."

My biggest concern with LFD was anonymity. I joined those who supported LFD and made it a rule to randomly queue as much as possible with the intent of assisting those less fortunate than us. But with LFD came exposure to a wide variety of players no longer under our wing. I certainly dictated how our guildies should carry themselves, but random groups of anonymous players claimed no such loyalty. So while I lobbied for my guildies to approach LFD as an opportunity to "sell" the guild, spreading our influence across server boundaries, I knew that it could backfire. Influence can go both ways, subjecting my guildies to the wrong kinds of disparaging attitudes. The frustration generated by wiping alongside mouthbreathers was a plaque building up in our teams' arteries, unnecessary stress that could bleed into the progression team.

Mature and co. defeat Scourgelord
Tyrannus in a heroic 5-Man dungeon,
Pit of Saron

Pleasing Everyone

As I made my way through the Pit of Saron alongside Goreden, Milkmeh, Pallysmeku and a freshly-returned Kelden, an item of great purple power fell out of the hands of a slain Ymirjar Flamebearer. A battered hilt told the story of an ancient sword once used to defend Quel'Thalas from the encroaching Scourge, eventually meeting its fate via the banshee scream of its undead former owner -- a vampiric undead blood elf we'd soon pay a visit to. The group decided to roll greed on the item; as luck would have it, the hilt fell into my own bags as the virtual dice rolled in my favor.  But, no sooner I claimed my own hilt, than the quest item appeared again, both to Milkmeh and later to Goreden. Not long after the servers regained their stabilty, Blizzard announced that the Battered Hilt's drop rate was too high upon reflection, and the infamous blade appeared less and less. When it did make itself seen, money hungry profiteers snatched the hilt up, turning it over to the auction house for a sizable profit.

Quel'Delar would be my primary weapon until such time that a more destructive, cursed axe revealed itself to me. But it wasn't due to the reason you think.


Jungard's freshly updated forum posts detailing Icecrown Citadel were polished and professional. After bringing over the high level summaries posted on, he had taken the liberty of kicking off an initial strategy discussion, a conversation both Omaric and Bretthew lept in to at their first opportunity. ICC was to be delivered in a staggered release over the course of the next several months. A total of four wings stood to be conquered, and we could expect to see a new wing each month. Each wing had its own "final" boss, marked by a limited number of attempts. Once all the wings had been unlocked, ICC would then provide a raid buff, not unlike the LFD buff granted to wipes mentioned earlier. Following a similar schedule which unlocked the wings, the raid wide buff would grow from 5% to 10%, then to 15%, eventually ending at a final 30% bonus to health, damage, and healing. This gated progression ensured that the most dedicated, focused, hardcore raiding guilds would burn through content early on, yet still offer a mechanism for casual guilds to eventually experience that content.

It was an extremely important design which, for the first time in WoW's history, truly gave both the casuals and the hardcores a chance to consume content at each's own respective pace. Building upon what they had learned with previous tiers, coupled with the Emblem of Triumph currency which adequately augmented gear for new and seasoned players alike, tier 10 stood to provide the widest level of accessibility to raiding that we had ever seen. At the same time, tier 10 retained the integrity of risk vs. reward, an important measurable incentive to both social gaming classes. 

So, is it any wonder that its criticism remained intact?

The hardcores pounded at the table, claiming the gating mechanism stifled their own schedules, and was merely a ploy to artificially extend the life of the instance. Cataclysm, the next expansion, was still far off in the distance, and Blizzard needed a way to keep players motivated and returning. The hardcores claimed this insulted their intelligence and was a blasphemous way to parade the cause of raiding to others not like-minded. That Blizzard could even consider a raid-wide buff to dilute raid difficulty only salted the wound.

As for the casuals, none were pleased at the decision to disallow Shadowfrost Shards from dropping in their 10-Man raids. The material components necessary in crafting Shadowmourne were limited only to those guilds which tackled the most challenging content in the game: the 25-Man raid. Their 10-Man cries and pleas fell on deaf ears, as Blizzard remained steadfast in the decision: legendary items demanded an appropriate level of risk vs. reward, and 10-Mans had been rolled in as a convenience to those unable to participate in large guilds. Much time had passed since the days of Sunwell Plateau and Black Temple, and memories had grown short. By now, convenience had been all but completely masked by the rise of entitlement. And although Blizzard refrained from changing their stance on Shadowmourne, not all ears at Blizzard were deaf to their plight. Behind the scenes, well away from the eyes in my guild, discussions were already well under way as to what a $14.99/month subscription should entitle one to.

Mature and a DoD group escape from the Lich King
in under six minutes, earning "We're Not Retreating;
We're Advancing in a Different Direction"
Halls of Reflection

Gambling With PvP

Descendants of Draenor neither joined in the casual crying nor the hardcore hate. Our attention was focused inward, assimilating all info relating to the first four bosses in the Citadel. And with the administrative noose relaxed more than ever, I was able to sink my teeth into the most recent round of applicants. Jemb was the first of these, a truly outrageous hunter with an affinity toward achievement whoring, a gaggle of exotic beasts following in his wake. His obsession bordered on addiction, but was tempered by raw efficiency in raids, and his green bar very quickly bubbled to the top of Recount. Before long, Jemb earned the right to see every raid rotation he asked for, and putting him in meant world-first quality ranged DPS.

I also saw an increase in applicants more likely found skulking through the nether regions of Deathwing-US, those folks who chose to socialize with far shadier ilk. This translated into a surge of recruits whose prime function was PvP. Traditionally, this wasn't a group I poured buckets of faith into. Folks like Ben, and his brother Ouleg before him, were a crap shoot when it came time to field them in PvE. On the one hand, PvP focused players brought a set of extremely sharpened knives to the table; their skills at manipulating a virtual self online were unmatched...and with good reason. Morning, noon and night they thirsted for the blood of other players -- an opponent no scripted boss could match. But with their finely honed skills came with them all the other distasteful PvP baggage: inflated egos, a vocabulary tightly tuned to trash talk, and an apathy toward rules so thick you could cut it with a knife. Recruiting PvPers for the purposes of raid progression was like wielding the sun as a weapon: unmeasurable power at your fingertips could catapult your guild from mediocre to exceptional, but any attempts at utilizing such power usually ended with a catastrophic explosion.

I surveyed the apps, those who knew Anni, those who had jumped into a BG with Haribo, those who chummed up with Neps, and squeezed every last bit of energy it took to approve the app on my desk: Sentra. He played a warrior, spending the majority of his time bouncing between his arena ladder work, and camping noobs out in the world. Sentra looked to get his foot in the raiding door now that ICC "was a thing", but whatever he had written down on his app as a reason to apply to DoD, it held little weight. He, like so many PvPers with a taste for edged weapons, had only one thing on his mind: how fast can I wrap my fingers around Shadowmourne. I expressed to him that it would be a very long while before that opportunity arose; we had an overflowing core of melee, all ripe for adding Shadowmourne to their repertoire. He cared little about the wait, stating he had all the time in the world.

I asked for a second opinion.

"Yeah, he's fine," Neps assured me.

"You think everybody is fine!"

"Not Blain, he's a big meanie."

Hesitantly, I turned back to the app and fired off an approval email. My inner voice rung out.

You realize nothing good will come of this?

We're in a good place, I rationalized. If Ben can be shaped into someone responsible enough to text me when he's going to be late for raids, why couldn't Sentra?

You already know the answer to this. You're postponing the inevitable.

Perhaps, I thought, but I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

Neps offered a final thought, "You should check to see if he has an arena partner this season."

He had a great point. It might give me an opportunity to break the ice and get to know his side of things a bit clearer.

"I'm sure anyone would want a scrub like me that just happens to have a Shadowmourne."

"It is a nice weapon..." he fired back.

Yes. It will be.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

3.55. Nine One One

Patch 3.1 - The Secrets of Ulduar
Official Artwork (Algalon pictured)
Copyright © 2009 Blizzard Entertainment

The Incident

Talk to enough World of Warcraft players and eventually you'll get the story about "that one night". A player remains fastened to their chair while, two rooms away, an unattended skillet of bacon catches fire. The stove ablaze, the player recounts the boss's health trickling down, staying just long enough to secure loot before brandishing a fire extinguisher. Whether dull (drove around stealing my neighbor's wi-fi) or disgusting (puked in a bucket next to my computer through an entire night of attempts on Sapphiron), sooner or later, a raider lives through such an experience...and our guild wasn't exempt. A car crashed through one raider's living room wall, another raider was escorted away from his computer in handcuffs. These bizarre raiding-under-duress stories resonate deep in the hearts of players who've experienced such circumstances themselves. 

In today's blog post, I join those ranks.


The weekend before patch 3.3 landed, there was an incident.

I hoped for a laid-back weekend. Guild issues consumed most of my attention in the weeks leading up to the next big content patch. My attempt at appointing a new Alt-25 leader led to an almost immediate shitcanning of the player, damage quickly repaired thanks to the help of Mangetsu (his efforts earned him the Avatar rank in the process). Bheer had dropped a bomb on me, walking away from the 25-Man progression team and his Elite rank, providing neither forewarning nor explanation. And my finely crafted loot rules were about to get their first amendment, something I hoped to save until the end of the expansion. It was a lose-lose scenario: avoiding the loophole would have compounded its effect, but changing rules ad hoc carried the stigma of a dictator arbitrarily "playing" his people to suit his own needs. With these latest upheavals, I gladly welcomed a weekend with no surprises. 

I was about to get one I would not soon forget.

It was Saturday evening when the text message arrived from Blain,

"10-Man Algalon?"

The progression raid had only spent one weekend in the Celestial Planetarium thus far, a star-filled room locked tightly in the recesses of Ulduar. Our attentions had been divided. Focus shifted to the Tournament of Champions once our Ironbound Proto-Drakes were in hand, yet loose ends dangled in Ulduar. Algalon the Observer was a unique hard-mode only boss, and few 25-Man guilds on the server had wrapped him up by this point. We were going to have to bite the bullet soon. Blain's text optioned a chance for me to get more hands-on practice with the Observer, get familiar with his airtight tuning and mechanics. With luck, we could leverage that experience in the 25-Man, communicating his subtleties to the remainder of the team. The night was a blank slate. The kids were busy entertaining themselves in the living room, and my wife was out running errands. I rarely got the chance to raid on nights I hadn't scheduled real life around, and so thumbed a text back to Blain,


Excerpt from "World of Warcraft Comic - Special #1
Beginnings and Ends"
Copyright © WildStorm / Blizzard Entertainment

Celestial Assembly

The invite dialog popped up as Mature materialized on screen; I glanced at the assembled team while popping into Ventrilo. Omaric was present on Ikey-bear; I saw no other tanks...which meant the plan most likely pointed to me for tank No. 2. Healers appeared to be Neps via his paladin Jlo, alongside the 25-Man healing officer (and Eh Team member) Gunsmokeco. As for DPS, familiar faces stood next to Blain. Turtleman was present, as was Crasian, my "departing" death knight who hadn't quite cut the cord. Was he back already? Had he even left? It wasn't clear. Borken the shaman, a long-time veteran of DoD, offered up his power over the elements. Also present was Shiftr, a druid dating back to TBC, he had taken time off and was now back, lapping up our recent successes. Rounding the team out was Razzy, a player often seen chumming it up with Neps in PvP during the off-hours. Raz boasted multiple characters; tonight, he chose the retribution paladin. So, the final role call consisted of:

2 death knights: one blood, one unholy,
2 druids, one feral, one boomkin,
2 shamans, one restoration, one elemental,
2 paladins, one holy, one retribution,
1 fire mage,
and 1 assassination rogue.

Then ten of us headed to Ulduar while Vent lit up on the topic of strategy. How were the healers going to coordinate a rotation on the Big Bang tank? Should Crasian retain sole responsibility of the living constellations? Would the tanks be moving Algalon near a black hole in prep for Phase Punch? The conversation was almost entirely tactical, peppered with occasional reminders about the fateful one hour limit. Once we loosed our first arrows upon Algalon, the clock began to tick. From that point forward, we would only have sixty minutes to defeat the boss. Sixty minutes of attempts, wipes, running back, cleaning up, and getting mistakes straightened out. Baby steps, the core ideology fueling our progression since Molten Core, was no longer a viable option on tonight's agenda. We would have to move swiftly, adjust on the fly, and play with surgical precision. Repeating mistakes would waste precious minutes, so for the purposes of speed and efficiency, we did away with the politically correct formalities.

Tonight, it was about not fucking up.

As the first seconds ticked off the sixty-minute clock, the team jelled with synergy. Those present from Eh Team already claimed first-hand experience, calling out as many live adjustments as possible. I watched my health spike as the titanic guardian laid me out; Algalon hit like a truck. Every ounce of willpower bubbled to the surface in an attempt to keep me from spazzing out. I reached for Icebound Fortitude as he bashed my skull in, but resisted as Guns and Neps kept me alive. That cooldown needed to be ready for Big Bang while the rest of the team escaped the incoming celestial blast. Any and all mitigation was necessary to withstand its power; without IBF, I'd surely die. We survived the first transition, but a series of mishaps led to a healer death. This prevented Ikey from receiving much needed protection during the second Big Bang, ending the attempt in a wipe. 

With the clock ticking, we rushed back to the Celestial Planetarium, buffed, and prepared for a second pull. This time, it was well into the attempt before things fell apart. Someone stood too close to a Cosmic Smash, its AoE damage lowering their health just enough to be picked off by the implosion of a collapsing star -- further AoE damage which tore a black hole open in the planetarium. We judged the death too early in the attempt to recover from, so decided to call a wipe and raced back for our third attempt. 

Fifteen minutes of sand had already slipped down through the hourglass.

I heard the familiar scrape of the computer room door behind me, its hinges clung for dear life into a frame boasting multiple repair jobs...none of which had been successful. What intruder dared enter the cave during raid time? Hunter, my eleven year old son, stood there. Across the room, his older sister Ariel glanced up from the Alienware laptop I won four years earlier at BlizzCon, images of Invader Zim flashing off the display. Hunter's wide blue eyes prepared to deliver a message he wasn't entirely sure how to deliver.

I lifted my headphones off just as the sounds of Blessing of Might and Arcane Intellect echoed in the distance, and I gave my son a foreboding "Yes?", intent on conveying the severity of time at this very moment. I expected a request of ice cream or a new movie to be queued up.

"Dad, there's someone at the door. He says he's having a heart attack."

My headphones hit the floor.

A Denver Emergency vehicle not unlike the
one that showed up at my door during Algalon

Paramedic Equation

I slammed my hand down on the 'talk' key, fumbling to grab the headphones' mic off the ground.

"Guys, I have an emergency. I think. BRB."

I kicked my chair away and nearly ripped the door from its rotted frame, racing past Hunter to the front door. Swinging it open, a stranger stood there in the cold Colorado night. He looked about six foot two inches tall, late fifties, hair wild like a mad scientist and beard disheveled and unclean. A tattered, filthy dark green jacket struggled to keep his frail body warm, and his jeans were caked with patches of mud. He swayed uneasily as drool dangled from his mouth, and his left hand clutched at his chest. Unintelligible sounds gasped from his mouth; the only ones I could decode bore a vague resemblance to "help".

I guided the old man out of the cold, kicked the door shut, and helped him to the couch several feet inside. He slumped down like the weight of the world had been taken off his shoulders, yet continued to grimace in pain. I spun around to face my kids, now both standing and staring wide-eyed. Pulling out my phone and reaching for the only three numbers anyone dials in a situation like this, I pointed at the cave like Steve Jobs calling out his critics, "Hunter. Go tell them I'm calling an ambulance for someone having a heart attack. Go! Go!" He tore into the computer room with his father's assignment. In moments I was rattling off my address to the 911 operator, explaining the situation. An emergency vehicle was on its way.

"And can you give me the name of the person who needs assistance?" she asked me.

I stared at the old man on the couch, still grimacing, unable to articulate.

"I have no idea. He is a complete stranger."

Not two seconds after we were disconnected, I heard the wail of sirens spin up in the distance -- a convenient side effect of living in the downtown area. Red lights pulsed from the street, soon painting my living room through the main window. One by one, medical personnel flowed into into my living room, each with a different mission. One began shining a flashlight into his eye, another held his wrist, listening intently for his pulse. Still the paramedics continued. "Hey how are ya?" "Hey thanks for coming." "Hi come on in." "Hey there, he's right over here." 

What was this, the clown car of ambulances? How many paramedics can they fit in one of those things? The room swarmed with medical staff. One shorter, female paramedic began drilling me for more information. Oh, this homeless dude that's a complete stranger to me? Here's his entire medical history!

"It's like I said on the phone, I have no idea who he is. Just showed up on my doorstep."

Notes were scribbled onto paper attached to boards. Blood pressure cuffs went on, then came off. Black leather emergency kits were unzipped, and produced medical tools of various sizes and shapes. Before long, they had the old man back up on his feet, and were hobbling him off to the ambulance waiting outside. I stood there for a few minutes, stunned, not realizing that the last paramedic was heading out, shaking my hand on the way, thanking me for making the call. 

And just like that, my living room returned to silence.

As I began to mentally process just what in the hell had transpired, a surreal daze set in. Hunter walked up to me.

"Dad, they're still waiting."

Fuck. Algalon. Sixty minute timer.

I ran back into the computer room, grabbed the headphones, shuffled them onto my head, and pressed the 'talk' key.

"OK. I'm back. Sorry about that."

Digital voices on the other end of Ventrilo spoke hesitantly, "So...Hunter said you had to call 911?"

"Yeah. There was a homeless dude having a heart attack on my doorstep."

"Oh my god! Is he gonna be OK?"

"I'm not sure…I mean, I think so. He was able to limp out of here on two feet, with help from the paramedics. That has to be a good sign, right?"

The digital voices all agreed that 'walking' was a positive sign. An uncomfortable silence followed. I looked at the clock under the mini map. Thirty more minutes had clicked off. We were down to our final fifteen minutes of attempts.

"So...should we finish Algalon or…?"

I put their minds at ease.

"Yeah. Let's do that."

We made our third pull on Algalon. My senses seemed heightened, no doubt a result of adrenaline still coursing through my veins. I dodged cosmic smash a little easier, I brought the boss next to black holes a bit quicker. And I think everybody else seemed like they were sitting up a little straighter in their chairs. And in those fifteen minutes that remained of our original hour-long countdown, we defeated Algalon the Observer, the golden achievement bar flashing "Observed (10 Player)" up on the screen.

"So, now we know what it takes to get new bosses killed!" someone said over Vent.

"Please," I replied, "I think I've had about all the heart attacks I can withstand for one guild leadership."

Mature assists a crew in securing their
first 10-Man kill of Algalon the Observer,

Thursday, February 13, 2014

3.54. Losing My Liquor License

"Fall of the Lich King - Patch 3.3" Official Wallpaper
Copyright © 209 Blizzard Entertainment

Any Given Raid Day

When a motivational speaker or a coach declares the statement "everybody plays an important role", it's an emotionally charged, grandiose proclamation. Broadly sweeping statements such as these try to make individual members feel like they are all contributors, that they all matter. When the cameras are off and the interviews are over, the truth is a much colder reality: some team members bring more to the table than others. Messages that inspire the team to see themselves as a single unit have their place, but when it comes down to brass tacks, an astute leader must have his eye sharply focused on each individual's skill set. If a football team loses a key position like the quarterback, no amount of motivational speeches, morale cheers or team building exercises are going to magically push that offensive line down the field. A coach trying to put a positive spin on a series of bad plays is painful to watch, yet has to be done for political reasons; to keep spirits up and professionalism intact. But to assume that everyone's contribution is equal is a foolish conclusion to draw. I faced that truth every week when I churned-and-burned through the bench. My raid leader may have been responsible for strategy out on the grass, but before he could make his plays, I had to ensure the raid brought all the necessary tools to the field.

Bheer's timing couldn't have been worse. It was one week into patch 3.3, Fall of the Lich King. Three new 5-man dungeons had landed, continuing Arthas' story and plunging us into the Forge of Souls, the Pit of Saron and coming face to face with Frostmourne itself in the Halls of Reflection. We'd also see the addition of a new feature long clamored for by the WoW community: a new-and-improved Looking For Dungeon tool, plucking players at random and jamming them into a dungeon at the press of a button. Its hefty reward system and damage/health bonuses overshadowed the impact LFD had on the world: players no longer needed to know where dungeons physically existed. Of course, the biggest and baddest change was the addition of Icecrown Citadel, setting the stage for raiders to ensure the Lich King got what was coming to him -- the end of an epic story line that had stretched as far back as the Warcraft III RTS game, released six years earlier. In the face of all this 3.3 content, one would have to be a fool to walk away from the game now. 

Or have to have a very good reason.

In the quiet contemplation of my offline hours, while the guild machine continued to hum across the virtual sea, the air raid siren of impending doom was suspiciously quiet in the recesses of my mind. I expected no mishaps and wasn't prepared for any surprises; a relaxed gut is ripe for the blow. On this seemingly innocuous afternoon, that blow came via instant messenger. And as with many a surprise hook to the jaw, there was no explanation or visible intent.

"I can't return to raids. I'm sorry."

My jaw stung. It left me little to work with and a ton of unanswered questions.

Death's Choice

Choosing Death

There was more that made Bheer's unplanned exit inconvenient. Not one raid weekend earlier, rays of light shone down on the 25-Man progression team. The loot gods had finally blessed us with a second Death's Choice, a highly coveted melee trinket, yanked from the clutches of a pair of fallen Val'kyr twins. Inhaling the sweet boon of Death's Choice was like a sugar-fueled overdose of peppermint candy canes on a cold Christmas morning; players wielding the trinket tore into raid bosses with all the rage of a child slashing through wrapping paper. Melee was always hungry for candy, hungry to climb those meters. Death's Choice had appeared only once before, going to the now-retired raid leader Cheeseus. In my humble opinion, it was a poor way for a player with one foot out the door to spend his remaining DKP, but I chided him in private and continued to honor the guild's loot rules as dictated. Leading by example, unfortunately, doesn't always work out the way I intend. We returned week after week, kept a stiff upper lip, and prayed to the Titan gods that Death's Choice would unfurl from the dead Val'kyrs' hands once more.

It did. And the winner was Bheer.

I felt like the trinket was in good hands. After all, Bheer was Elite now, a core member of the 25-Man progression team, expected to be at all raids. He was also a founding member of The Eh Team and they had torn Deathwing-US apart in the 10-Man department; few others could claim similar dedication and success. Moreover, Bheer wasn't a "Yes" man; when others would blindly accept my governance, Bheer would speak out against bad judgement calls, giving me an oft overlooked other side of the picture. Weeks earlier, he was one of the first to point out the mishandling of main vs alt loot in Ulduar; a loophole in my rebooted rules allowing Mangetsu's alt to deny Omaric a tanking trinket, fair-and-square. Bheer lived up to the expectations of Descendants of Draenor daily, so I felt confident when Neps assigned Death's Choice over to the lone enhancement shaman. He'll make great use of it. We'll see some incredible numbers out of those first few weeks in ICC.

Bheer wasn't present in ICC the first week it opened. He wasn't in the raid, not rotated in, not signed up, not logged in. He was gone. As a parting gesture, he jumped through the necessary hoops with Blizzard customer support to have Death's Choice re-assigned to me. Even upon his exit, he upheld that which was important to me: the constant, consistent success of the raid team. I didn't have the DKP pool he had, the product of my bidding zeal as a tank in a former life. I was unsure how to handle the discrepancy; my stance thus far had been to disallow any player from going negative -- you cannot bid what you have not earned. Blain kept me honest. The only fair thing to do was keep the cost intact, the act of which dumped me horribly into the negatives. It would be a long time before I saw any immediate upgrades in the Citadel. I kept my complaints to a minimum, knowing full well what was on its way. The more immediate concern was to deal with Bheer's missing Windfury totem. 

For that, I turned to someone who, only several months earlier, had been a heartbeat away from a permanent gkick.

DoD defeats Deathbringer Saurfang, earning
"Storming the Citadel (25 Player)",
Icecrown Citadel

Blessed Be

"Ever play Frost before?" was the whisper I fired over to the death knight.

"Nope just unholy"

"Any interest in giving it a try?"

Hellspectral's rapid-fire responses were free from the boundaries of punctuation, "Sure but why"

"Well, I have a bit of a situation with the 25-Man. We've lost an enhancement shaman, and with him, his melee haste buff. You know it comes from two places, right? Windfury totem and Improved Icy Talons. That's where you come in."

"How much again? I forget"

"20% melee haste."

"Need to check my bank to see if i have another one-hander. Havent dual wielded since launch."

"Do you like Unholy a lot?"

"Yeah its fun but i dont mind switching tho"

"So what you're saying is you're not having a love affair with Unholy."

"lol no. I dont mind really."

"Alright, well...if you do this, Hells, I can assure you that you'll be seeing a lot more raids in ICC. It's vitally important we bring this buff each week. I can switch in a pinch if necessary, but I'd prefer to hone Unholy for…shall we say...other...purposes."

"Shadowmourne mmmmmmmmm."


"So, can I expect that you'll be ready for this next weekend?"

"Yup. Imma alt-tab and look that frost shit up now!"

"Good man. See you Friday."

As all seasoned WoW players know, random loot is indeed random. Despite this fact, our first week in ICC produced a Bloodvenom Blade, which went to Hellspectral. One week later, a second Bloodvenom Blade dropped, fully equipping the freshly respecc'd frost death knight.

The loot gods blessed us once again. Exit Bheer, enter Hellspectral


"I've got 99 problems and loot seems to be all of them," was the whisper I sent back to Blain.

He remained quiet as if to say stop beating around the bush and get to the point.

"From what Omaric and Bretthew tell me, the raid isn't geared enough to take on the heroic modes in the Tournament. They've expressed to me their desire to hold off until the more significant upgrades arrive in ICC. And since they're in charge…"

"We have the DPS now," he interrupted, "what are they basing this on?"

"I can only assume they're basing it on their experience in the 10-Man version."

"Eh Team's retired. They're filling it with unknowns."

"Probably. I'm sure they're picking competent fillers, though. They don't really put up with a lot of whiny shit. At least that's my understanding."

"But it's OK to put up with it in the 25-Man?"

Once again, Blain had a point.

He returned to his arenas while the snake slowly coiled back upon itself. Dual specialization was broadening the window of gear that players felt entitled to acquiring. Without a definitive cut-off point set by the raid leaders, progression was slowing needlessly. Meanwhile, the main spec/off spec issue had to be addressed; a drama bomb poised to explode its messy contents all over the guild. I hated the idea of changing the guild's rules mid-expansion; it felt weak and unprofessional. More importantly, changing things up mid-stream had the potential to set a precedent in the guild, implanting a horrible thought into the minds of my guildies. Oh, so he can just go ahead and change the rules whenever he likes? What's to stop him from changing them again? And again? He could totally screw all of us over! It was the perfect chemical compound to catalyze another exodus. That bothered me. But I couldn't sit back and allow loot distribution to treat alts favorably -- it violated the guild's ethos. The loot paradox was already slowing the raid machine down, and bad blood between comrades could do far worse damage to us in the long run.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

3.53. Time for a Beer Run

RaidComp, a raid buff management tool that
allows raiders to strategize efficient rotations,

How Very Meta

There was more to my rotations that simply bringing two tanks, six healers, eight melee and nine ranged. Equally (if not more) important was to look at each week's rotations and determine if the scheduled twenty-five people collectively brought all the needed buffs. I had a bit more play in the line during Wrath of the Lich King, when compared to the raids of their forefathers back in Burning Crusade. Up to my neck in naga and/or blood elves, certain buffs could only be provided by a single class -- it was for this reason alone that forced my hand into changing mains midway through WoW's first expansion. The mana-regenerating Replenishment was a lifeblood only a shadow priest could provide, and since I couldn't come to rely on others to step up, I made the sacrifice myself. I like to think that this contributed to our turnaround, giving our casters a few more rounds to finish a foe.

Paying close attention to your raid's buffs was a metagame that extended as far back as Vanilla. Turn the clock back a bit further, and I can remember a time when certain buffs simply weren't available...and you had no choice in the matter. Razorgore the Untamed was a totem kiting fest for the Horde's shamans (until a patch wiped that option away), while some Alliance gleefully exploited a paladin's Divine Intervention, trivializing the encounter with the sacrifice of a single player. The Alliance also held the upper hand in progression with Blessing of Salvation (again, thanks to paladins) while the Horde continually smashed their faces up against threat walls. Late into a boss fight, it wasn't uncommon for a Horde raid leader to order warlocks and mages to perform a final act of self-sacrifice, running headlong into the boss until dead -- an unfortunate yet effective way to prevent a caster from overtaking the main tank's threat. And of course, who could forget a dwarf priest's Fear Ward? Tremor totem may have seemed stronger, but I'm here to set the record straight. Hoping for a tremor pulse at the precise moment you need it doesn't hold a candle to the discrete control granted by an instant get-out-of-fear-free card that Fear Ward delivered. The lack of buff parity in Vanilla was tangible, and anyone raiding in that era knew the truth: the Alliance was easy mode. Anyone who tells you otherwise wasn't raiding during that time. 

...or probably has a love affair with the Alliance.

Fast forward to Wrath of the Lich King. The patchwork of raid buffs brought by individual classes crossed much more territory; this was the result of more classes sharing duties with formerly unique buffs -- a term hardcore critics refer to as "homogenization". They saw class homogenization as a dulling of class diversity. And in typical Ghostcrawler form, Greg took to the forums and defended Blizzard's new mantra of "bring the player, not the class". He argued on behalf of Blizzard that players shouldn't need to kick their best friends to the curb in order to bring that one dwarf priest for Fear Ward. His argument spoke to me personally. I had experienced, first hand, the result of having to make painful decisions to bring certain folks while leaving others behind -- it had even affected my own raiding character. The metagame of yore seemed unnecessarily harsh. Logistically, it was dreadful to plan for. It was counterintuitive to bench a seasoned player lacking buffs in favor of a player that could barely spell his own name without drooling all over himself...just to get the buff he brought. So, while players ranted publicly how Ghostcrawler and Co. were watering down the game, I looked at my weekly rotations with optimism, free of stress, picking players like a kid in a candy store. Making use of online tools like RaidComp, the matrix of buff coverage was easily filled out week-to-week. Throughout the course of Wrath of the Lich King, I almost never had any reason to be concerned.

Almost never.

"High Shaman Mairne Ragetotem"
Artwork by Carmen Torres

Nerf Shamans

There was one buff the Horde held over the Alliance's head in Vanilla: Windfury. The totem's buff radiated across the four players sharing a group with a shaman, granting them an occasional second attack in each tick of the swing timer. Back in Vanilla, haste had yet to be implemented in any capacity, so this "instant second attack" design made for a devastatingly strong melee group. You can thank Windfury for the reason shamans were deemed "overpowered" in Vanilla. When a tauren draped in Earthfury stampeded into Tarren Mill wielding The Unstoppable Force tightly between cloven hooves, giant swaths of Alliance were cleaved in seconds, sending night elves to their graves and forcing paladins to earn a label of their own...scrambling to bubble through the damage and hearth away in terror.

Over the years, Windfury saw a number of changes. Most notably, the self-applied weapon buff began to diverge from the totem buff granted to the shaman's party. While extra attacks continued to proc off the class-specific weapon imbue, the totem conversely took advantage of a newly appearing stat: Haste, a flat increase in attack speed. By the time Wrath of the Lich King arrived, Windfury Totem had converted into delivering a 20% haste buff to its group. This slightly less potent totem buff was still brilliant when paired with well-played melee. The Windfury totem buff was a gap closer. Buffing the right melee was often the difference between laid-back, enjoyable boss kills, and repeated 1% wipes. Therefore, having Windfury was vitally important to the success of the raid, so it was my responsibility to ensure we had someone bring it each and every week. I couldn't think of a better person to take up this job than a veteran of Descendants of Draenor: Bheer.

In DoD's early days, battered and bruised below Blackrock Mountain, a warlock named Kragnl was one of the faces that helped put us on the map. Under the leadership of my first warlock officer Gutrippa, he faithfully made his weekly penance in Molten Core. In the days of never knowing who would show up week-to-week, those few individuals who were consistent are the ones who remain clear in my mind today. Kragnl was a regular in the 40-Man and was present for many clears of the Core and the Lair. Never causing drama or questioning authority, Kragnl was representative of someone I hoped many others could strive to emulate. It was sad, then, to hear that he would be leaving us at the start of The Burning Crusade. So many classes and roles were in such heavy flux throughout TBC; it would've been nice to have one more person I could rely on to be faithful to the roster. But it wasn't for a new guild, he promised, just the dreaded "real life". He assured me he would be back if he could make it work.

It meant enough to him to do so.

Snippet from the
Raid Slot Template

The Drinking Cow

My instant messenger popped-up one morning, revealing that Kragnl was returning to WoW for Wrath of the Lich King. He inquired as to whether or not there was still a place for him in Descendants of Draenor. Of course! I concurred without hesitation. He informed me he'd be switching things up, retiring the warlock and bringing a druid named Beercow to the table instead. He was excited about the new possibilities that druids had in Wrath, as they were now capable of so much more in a raid setting. 

To the hardcore naysayers: a little homogenization wasn't necessarily a bad thing. For many, it breathed new life into the game.

We scrambled up to level 80, making weekly updates to the Raid Slot Template, a forum post I created during the reboot of the guild. It acted as a single point of information for all forthcoming raiders on who we had ready to hit the pavement, and where our abundances and shortages lay. My plan with the forum post was for it to enforce one of the guild's new edicts: I won't tell you what we need, you tell me what you enjoy playing. The intent of this new ideal was to produce a raid of passionate players, as opposed to a disjointed mix of folks halfheartedly playing a role they were forced into...just to see content. Guildies kept their eye on the Raid Slot Template, saw which classes/roles were filling out, and where the shortages became most apparent. This new information, I wagered, could lead them to introspect and make a more informed decision about cutting over to class they enjoyed playing...that we also just happened to lack.

Beercow was the first player to take advantage of this.

The warlock-turned-druid noted the increased surge of interest in tanks. The advent of the death knight -- coupled with the broadening of other capabilities to existing warriors, druids, and paladins -- made for a healthy abundance in the tank category of the Raid Slot Template. He was in contact with me daily, over the forums and instant messenger, doing the math and sizing up his chances at a regular druid spot in progression. Between myself and Dalans, two officers had tank spots locked down every week. In Wrath, three tanks per 25-Man was still feasible, with four being an extreme exception (sacrificing DPS as a result). Realistically, this meant only one floating tank spot per week for Beercow to squeeze into, yet we were overflowing with warriors and death knights trying to vie for a spot in progression. He expressed his concern, so I sat down with him and reviewed the holes in the Raid Slot Template, discussing a possible contingency plan. To Beercow, being a part of the progression raid team was of the utmost importance; in the back of my mind, it meant he was determined to claw his way up to Elite. If that was the case, I wanted to do everything in my power to make it happen. 

One glaring deficiency stood out in the Raid Slot Template: any semblance of a dedicated enhancement shaman. It seemed that no one had yet to express an interest in filling that particular niche. Was it a possibility? Absolutely. Something new, fresh and exciting to try -- and with the thought of being the only regular, consistent enhancement shaman in 25-Man progression, Beercow saw it as an opportunity to stand out as a pillar we could rely on. His chances of seeing every raid shot through the roof.

Thus was borne Bheer.

With the same tenacity he demonstrated years earlier during Vanilla, Bheer signed up consistently each week for our 25-Man progression raid as the sole enhancement shaman. It was easy to justify a rotation every week. Not only did it mean that Mail melee gear wouldn't go to waste, he would be bringing Windfury to his partners. The demand for Bheer's unique talents and buffs skyrocketed. When not in the 25-Man progression raid, he found more to fill his plate with throughout the week. Bheer became a member of the infamous Eh Team, helping produce a nonstop stream of 10-Man achievement spam in guild chat. I'm happy to say that he fulfilled his duty to become a pillar of the 25-Man and remained one of the most dedicated, reliable raiders in 25-Man progression.

...which is what made the blind side that much more difficult to deal with.