What do you want from patch 3.1?

I haven’t written much about the upcoming class changes in WoW because it’s a moving target. Lots of changes have been mentioned. Some have been added to the test realm and then removed again, and other things have been tried which weren’t expected.

One thing we can see is that there’s some fairly hefty class balancing in the works here. It’s not a few minor changes. One goal of the dev team is to rebalance the various tanks so that they’re all roughly competitive for all the new content. So with that in mind, druids and death knights are lined up for nerfs.

Intriguingly, I don’t have a link for the quote but it was implied that Sarth+3 was never meant to be easier with a druid or death knight tanking. How could they not realise that the huge health pool and/ or crazy cooldowns on the main tank would make that fight easier?

But aside from that, there are two different types of nerf:

  1. tweaking some numbers (a bit less damage, a bit less avoidance, a bit more health, etc)
  2. changes in the way the spec plays (different rotations, new abilities, etc)

Nerfs are always bad because they imply that the designers made a mistake, but sometimes its unavoidable. And changing the way a spec plays is all very well, but what if there comes a point where it just doesn’t feel like the class the player loved any more?

That’s the danger of it.

I feel bad for my friends who play DKs who loved the interactive way the cooldowns and the avoidance gear played into the tanking. It’s not that the cooldowns are going away, I’m sure they will be fine, but being effectively told that your cool effective class was a design error is hard to take. They’ll be more like warriors in future, I think. Just instead of a shield they have loads of extra armour from auras. It’s not really the “Hey y’all, look at this! I can tank with a 2-hander” that a lot of people were looking forwards to.

This is not to say that DK tanks weren’t overpowered. They took the warrior niche of having the best ‘oh shit’ abilities and magnified it to the extreme. And it was partly those defensive cooldowns that had made warriors the preferred progression tanks in the past.

I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m actively hampering my raid in progression content just by being there. So yay for nerfs, I guess.

But at the end of the day, I’ll judge 3.1 for (prot) warriors based on whether we get:

  • dual specs
  • more damage/ threat
  • rage on dodge/parry so my threat doesn’t suffer when I get better gear
  • Not having to spam heroic strike on every cooldown to keep competitive threat

The first two are definitely in the works. For the rest, I guess we’ll wait and see.

Any special changes you’d like to see for your class right now?

Fun with Vigilance

Vigilance is a quirky warrior talent.

It’s a 30min buff that you can put on someone else in your raid and while it is active, you will nick 10% of their threat, the damage that they take will be reduced by 3%, and every time they get hit your taunt is refreshed.

When I first read the text, I thought that perhaps the idea was that you slapped it on someone mid-fight if they’d accidentally got aggro — that would not only reduce their threat and how much damage they take but also let you taunt off them quickly.

You can do this if you want. But we have other abilities that are just as good for grabbing a mob that has transferred its undesired attentions  to someone else (Intervene, or if the mob is tauntable then just taunt it with the new 30′ ranged taunt).

Ninjaing other people’s threat

The 30min duration hints at another use though. If you put Vigilance on whichever dps is likely to be top of the threat meter,  they get some extra breathing space on threat and you get a nice scaling threat talent. Bargain.

If you’re quick with your targetting, you can also swap it around during a fight if the previous holder died or someone else is coming close to you on threat.

If you read forums, you’ll find that a lot of warriors don’t like Vigilance on principle. The basic reason for this is because they’d rather have their threat increased via more damage. Warrior damage is already weak compared to other tanks (while tanking or off-tanking) and while the threat boost is very useful, why not hit two birds with one stone  instead of providing a strange pure threat talent that scales with other people’s damage?

The concern is that Blizzard may be balancing tank threat assuming that all warriors have Vigilance. In which case, we’ll always be way behind on damage because they’ll assume we don’t need it. Which is hard to swallow when you see other tanks pulling significantly more dps than you do, while tanking. Tanks aren’t picked for their damage but it’s not a good thing for the gap between top and bottom to be too high.

[edited to add: Actually, the more I think about this, the more I think it's a daft thing to worry about. The extra dps added to a raid by letting one of your top dps have a 10% higher threat cap is probably way more than you would have done as a tank.]

I think this is mostly ‘sky is falling’ fretting. But we’ll have to wait and see what 3.1 has in store, tank changes are in the works and the proof of what Blizzard actually think/ expect will be in the pudding.

Taunt to victory

Passive threat increases are fine and good but what about the other side-effects of Vigilance? In most fights, taunt is only used in emergencies but sometimes having it available on every global cooldown is precisely what you want. And in those cases, you can Vigilate (it SO should be a word) one of the other tanks … as long as you are sure the fight isn’t threat sensitive for them.

I was messing with this in Naxxramas this week, on Gothik. For those not familiar, this is a fight where there are a lot of adds to pick up in Phase 1 which need to be tanked and killed on a priority basis. I was tanking the live side with a Death Knight helping out. I stuck Vigi on him, knowing that he was bound to be constantly aggroing something. It made it very very easy for me to keep taunting the riders and knights in a fight which is normally quite hectic.

You can use the same trick on Sartharion if you’re picking up adds or elementals. Vigi the main tank and enjoy being able to taunt everything all of the time.

Damage reduction

The other side to Vigilance is that it does reduce damage taken by the target by 3%. Which is another good reason to stick it on a tank in a non threat-sensitive fight. But I haven’t really found a place where I’d use the buff just for that yet. It’s more of a side effect than anything else.

What does Blizzard intend for the talent?

I do love abilities that can be used in several different ways, adapting to the needs of an encounter (I always thought that lifebloom was genius design, for example). But you always end up wondering ‘is this really the use that was intended?’

Is the intention for warriors to be able to taunt constantly or is that an unwanted side effect? If it is the intention then … that’s cool. It does give us something neat that other tanks don’t have, the ability to pick up streams of tauntable mobs quickly and neatly (and from 30′ away).

But that’s also the reason that I have my doubts. I expect that when 3.1 comes live, it will answer my questions about Vigilance and what Blizzard expects us to use it for.

Until then, I’ll be sitting here on the Live side of Gothik, enjoying my uber taunt.

HOWTO: Dual Spec

I hopped onto the Euro PTR yesterday to check out the current state of dual specs for myself.  I’m impressed. It’s easy to set up, easy to switch, and easy to understand. Note: I promise this is the last dual spec post until the patch hits.

You start the process off by talking to your class trainer of choice. (Does everyone else have a favourite class trainer who you always go to?)

And the trainer now has an extra option, if you want to learn about dual talent specialization. You’ll also notice that he doesn’t think a warrior’s role is to hit stuff hard with 2 handed weapons. Not much of a trainer, now that I come to think of it.

So you talk to him/her about dual specs and this is what you are told. And finally at the bottom is where you get to spend your 1000g for a shiny new tab on your talent screen.

So you spend your money and then go check your talents. You’ll see a second tab has appeared on the right hand side. Near the top of the window some text now reads “These are your active talents.” In any case, I have the top one selected at the moment and can respec that as per usual.

I can also slot in glyphs and arrange my hotbars just as I would normally.

I can also select the bottom tab and assign points for my secondary spec. BUT until that spec is set as being active, I can’t organise glyphs and hotbars for it yet. So to set up the hotbars, click on the second tab and then on the ‘Activate these talents’ button which will appear at the top of the talent screen when you’re looking at the set that are not currently in use.

It has a 5s cast time, and then you’re set. From what I can tell, it seems to save the hotbars in the state they were in when you last swapped talents. (ie. there’s no special way to save them.)

Last step: both sets of talents are now assigned. You can see that the icons on the right-hand tabs have neatly now changed to show which tree I’m most heavily specced in for each talent set. (Fury and Protection for me, I assume most people can recognise their own talent tree icons).

In this screenshot, I have just finished sorting out my hotbars for Fury and I want to switch back to Protection.

So I look at my talent screen, select the Protection tab, and then hit the red “Activate these talents” button. And 5s later, I’m specced, glyphed, and hotkeyed for Protection again.

Switching Gear

There is also a new wardrobe type function that lets you save gearsets. This is activated from a new button on your paperdoll screen (ie. the one that shows your character and the gear it is wearing).

I wasn’t so impressed with this so didn’t take screenies.  It lets you ‘save’ sets of gear that you are wearing (so first wear the set you want to save, then use the new wardrobe to save it under whatever name and icon you want to choose) and then retrieve them by clicking an icon. There’s no extra storage, the gear is still in your bag.

I found it a bit clunky to use and I think I prefer other addons to for gear switching and don’t plan to use the baked in one. It also isn’t synched to spec swapping in any way that I can see.

Keepin’ it rare

Anyone who was aiming to get a cool flying mount from completing all the raid achievements from current Wrath raids will need to get a wriggle on. Because the mounts won’t be given out any more after patch 3.1 goes live. It’s apparently because they need to stay ‘rare’ so that people who fancy themselves hardcore can get an egoboost.

I could care less about the mount. Achievements have served their purpose for me in that they kept my 10 man raids entertained with dps checks, movement checks, and new strategies. But what I don’t like is the feeling that I’m being chivvied along at Blizzard’s pace, not mine. So we waited for people to hit 80 in a casual guild before we started raiding and then chose to just spend one night a week on 10 mans. I just picked out the achievements that I thought would be fun or encourage the raid to focus on some aspect of play.

I didn’t think we were on a timer. And I resent that, despite not caring about the mount myself.

I also never planned to schedule the undermanned runs (to get the full set of achievements, you need to run the 10 man instances with only 8, or the 25 man runs with only 20) – I’d always assumed that people would eventually get bored and we’d have less people signing anyway. I will not leave people sitting outside when there is room in the raid just for an achievement,

But this extra pressure of omg mount disappearing is going to stress some of my friends out. I’m away this week and the friend who is running the raid in my absence scheduled an 8 man run and … yes, left two people on reserve to do it. I hope they get the achievements they want and have a smooth run –- and it will never happen on my watch. I have goals for 10 mans and that isn’t one of them. But now I wonder, is that really fair to the guys who do want (and deserve) their fancy mount.

It may never matter. I don’t know if we’ll kill sarth+3 in a 10 man, which is what we’d also need to do. (and by the way, that was a sucky thing to do to a 10 man raid, give them an achievement that truly was not scaled properly to the lower number)

So there is more to 3.1! New mounted combat

Blues speak out about the new Argent Tournament.

OK, so patch 3.1 is finally shaping up to make some sense. This new announcement sounds as though we will have a slew of new daily quests somewhere in Icecrown (commenters on that thread think Scourgeholm and that sounds likely to me also) to help the Argent Crusade with some rebuilding.

It will lead to the construction of a Coliseum (possibly a new arena?), and there will be associated achievements, titles and the other usual suspects (pets, mounts, tabards, and so on).

Mounted combat sounds great but in practice I’m curious to know how it will work. If the mount is a vehicle then we’ll only be able to use its abilities. Could work, tank fights sound fun. If the mount is more like a regular mount then we might be able to use our own abilities but that would mean having to stand still to cast — which is not really the point of mounted combat. Or it might be that the mounts will be more like chariots, small moving platforms that you stand on so you can cast on the move.

In either case, it’ll negate a lot of the stealth and movement abilities that characters rely on in PvP so will make for a very different type of fight. Can’t stealth, intervene, or use travel form on a horse. And why exactly is the Argent Dawn wasting time building a Coliseum when there are scourge to fight? Priorities, people!

But I will forgive them a lot if I can charge people with a couched lance. On my undead horse.

Patch Notes

Patch notes are also out (in first draft at least). They will probably change a lot before the patch goes live.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was deeply disappointed at the current list of warrior changes:

  • Blood Frenzy improved to 2/4% increased damage.
  • Heroic Throw missile speed increased.

The blood frenzy change is just to bring the debuff in line with rogue changes. I’m assuming there is more to come. But it’s kind of rough to see other classes get sweeping changes and not see any of the tweaks devs were talking about for mine.

Here’s hoping that swapping specs in raids will be quick, cheap and easy.  As long as Blizzard keep designing raids to need different numbers of tanks on consecutive bosses and we continue to be poor off tanks or dps in prot spec, we’ll need the in-raid respeccing.

An Ulduar boss of our own to test!

Blizzard have released the PR hounds with some Ulduar information over the last few days. I mentioned the website, but we’ve also had some information about plans for testing the patch/raid on the public test realms.

This hasn’t been so widely geeked over but it’s actually very exciting.

Ulduar marks a departure from the standard test methodology, which was to dump the raid on the test servers (possibly with some bosses disabled) and let people have at it. This time, Blizzard are planning to test in a much more focussed manner. Testing Ulduar will be organised at pre-arranged prime time sessions, and a schedule for specific boss testing will be posted up in advance.

I say it’s exciting, but this is really very similar to the way I remember EQ2 doing its beta testing. Leaving the test servers running all the time, but have focussed sessions for instance testing with devs on hand to take feedback and reset things.

And we finally have an answer as to why companies bother with an EU test realm (other than to test networking issues and for PR), there will be different schedules and different bosses tested in the EU than the US. A smart company might also try to get some competition going between the two zones, because you can be sure we’ll be blaming each other and not the developers if the respective bosses go live with bugs.

What it does mean is that the PTR is going to offer quite an interesting gaming experience. The test schedule means that it may be much easier than usual to sort out raid groups, just be online at the right time.

My guild is starting to talk about testing on the PTR, which they never normally do. So the buzz is definitely working. The testing phase is now intriguing to people. Part of this may be boredom with current content, but I think the appeal of scheduled raid times and ‘a boss of our own’ to test is already luring people in who would not usually be interested.

Are talent trees a failed design?

Blizzard’s plans to implement dual specs (ie. the ability to switch quickly from one talent spec to a  different one, complete with a change of gear and glyphs) is an admission that talent trees have failed them as a design.

It’s a band aid for a broken system that makes MMOs less friendly, more frustrating, and more inaccessible to casual players than they really should be.

Where did talent trees come from?

Talent trees on paper should never have grown into this strange monstrosity that they have become. They were intended to let players customise their characters and their abilities, to tailor the character to their play preferences. So as you went up levels, you had more points to spend on growing your character the way you wanted it to be. It was intended to mirror the way xp get spent in pen and paper games. When a character levels up in a tabletop game, they usually get some points to spend on stats, some to spend on abilites, and they may be able to buy new abilities also. In a tabletop game (D&D for example) you can easily build a cleric which focusses on buffs and damage. You can build a caster who chooses to specialise in support rather than damage.

Implementation of talent trees in games is associated with Diablo, so it isn’t surprising that Blizzard decided to go with the same successful model.

I hated talent trees in Diablo. You had to make some fairly fundamental choices about how your character played with no option for respeccing apart from starting again. You had almost no information to go on about how the different specs might play or what you might find more fun other than trying it (and starting again if you didn’t like it). The talent trees on offer gave you access to such different playing styles that each class was really a bundle of 3 (or more) completely different classes.

So on the one hand, there were lots of different things to try out, and lots of different aspects to each class. On the other, the only way to really try things out was to reroll a lot. It was also very easy to come up with a build that would be fine at the start but very weak later on in the game, and never realise until you had many hours of play under your belt.

Being able to tweak talents and try out different builds did give the game a lot of replayability. But ultimately people gravitated towards cookie cutter specs because sometimes you just want to beat the game, y’know? Without having to spend a lot of time starting again from the beginning.

The more hardcore players worked out the more effective talent specs. After all, they had the most time to spend on experimenting and starting again. They posted about them on forums. Less hardcore players read the forum posts and followed their advice.

Sound familiar?

Things I dislike about Diablo talent trees:

  • Being forced to make game changing choices without enough information to know how that choice will affect your game.
  • Being unable to change your mind easily when you find out that you wanted to try something different or have made a mistake.
  • Having the experimentation phase tuned such that only hardcore players really have access to it.

Note that these factors are frustrating for players like me, but may be good for replayability and building up a hardcore fanbase.

Three Characters in One, Bargain?

The peculiar thing about talent trees in WoW is that you sometimes feel that it’s like playing totally different character classes. The hybrids in particular suffer from using completely unrelated mechanics and gear from one spec to the next.

Paladins may be the worst example of class design ever seen in an MMO. They have three unrelated talent trees, each of which requires a totally different gear set, and playing style. There is no overlap at all. Balancing them in a sensible way has been a struggle for Blizzard right off the bat. It isn’t just the difference between switching from healing to dps to tanking, although that is also quite a fundamental change just from respeccing. It’s the fact that when prot/ret are balanced for mana regeneration, holy becomes way overpowered. It’s the fact that when prot/holy are balanced for survivability, ret becomes a nightmare.

Three classes in one sounds fine as a design goal, it gives players lots of options and lots of customisability. But in practice it’s proved almost impossible to balance. I think Blizzard generally does a good job these days, but they’re fighting against a talent tree system that is fundamentally broken.

Choose your talents to fit your playing style

If it was just a case of picking talents to fit your style, that would be fine. But it isn’t. The different talent trees support different areas of the game. There are PvP specs, group friendly specs, solo friendly specs.

This is glaringly stupid. People may prefer one or other part of the game but why on earth would you want to put barriers in the way of having players participate in all of it.

Why force healers to have to spec differently if they value soloing? Why force anyone to spec differently for PvP? Don’t they want people to have fun and be able to take part in every aspect of the game?

The cost of having talent trees that are specialised for different aspects of the game is that it directly flies in the face of one of the major strengths of an MMO. The fact that there are lots and lots of different things to do.

So it’s really not surprising that lots of people in WoW respec a lot. I used to respec my warrior about twice a week, and that was even without PvP. I welcome dual speccing with open arms as a band aid for a broken system.

Developments in Talent Trees

Other games have improved on the talent tree implementation. LOTROs traits, legendary weapons, and stances (I think most classes now have the ability to switch focus between group and solo style play) may not offer the wide range of customisation but let players tweak their characters but still recognisably remain the same core classes. WAR’s tactics let you easily switch from PvE to PvP focus and back again.

Guild Wars (which is on free trial at the moment by the way) has probably the best system ever devised for handling talent trees. You can respec for free any time you are in a town, and you can only pick 8 abilities to slot in your quickbars for any mission. A big part of the game is figuring out how to tailor your character for whatever it is that you wanted to do.

But what about actually just building and identifying with your character?

This is the flaw of easy respecs. Another aspect of pen and paper games is that you build up your character over time, and you can identify with it. Reworking all of its abilities every week would make it more difficult to do this.

This is one of the reasons I never really glommed onto Guild Wars, although I do think it’s a cool game. Sometimes you just want to grow into your character, not just switch it around every time you are in town.

It’s the reason that respeccing a lot on my warrior sometimes does my head in. I wrote before about identifying with a talent tree, but I know I’m not alone in this. People in WoW often do describe themselves by their talents, eg. I’m a moonkin, I’m an affliction ‘lock, etc. Easy respecs confuses that.

So from a gameplay point of view, I think that talent trees have failed. I think dual specs (and presumably triple specs sometime later) are a band aid for that, for making it easier for players to take part in all aspects of the game. I do wonder how future attempts at balancing talent trees will change to take this into account (eg. who cares how much damage holy paladins do, when they all have the option of just respeccing to ret?).

I think in future, talent trees will be tweaked more with PvP in mind than PvE, for this reason.