Raid Update: When the going gets tough …

It’s summer. The weather is hot. Exams are finished. And this means one thing: people are wanting to take things easy and cut back on raiding.

And even in a tight-knit raid group, unless you regularly had several people signing up as reserves for your raid, you don’t have to lose many regulars before you can feel the pinch.

So even though the raids we have run have been going reasonably well, we’re sometimes struggling for signups on raids. We don’t always have the luxury of going with the ‘A Team’ (this means that sometimes we need people to come as off-specs or bring alts). And it’s affected both progression and morale. Or rather, it’s in times like these that you see who isn’t interested in signing for the wipe nights. Or in my case, who’d like to come but can’t make the schedule.

Morale can be a downwards spiral if you aren’t careful. All we can really do is press on, keep trying to recruit, and keep things moving as much as possible.

Last week I cancelled a 10 man for the first time because of raid balance – I’m not saying that 3 warlocks, 3 shamans, 3 paladins and a warrior couldn’t beat the keepers with at least two of them having to come as off-spec … ok, actually I am saying that I didn’t fancy our chances.

Note: We’d previously cleared out all the bosses up to and including Auriaya so it wasn’t a failed week, just I’d hoped to press on for more tries on Mimiron. Which is actually the only keeper we haven’t yet killed in 10 man. Maybe next week. It’s always a hard decision as to whether to cancel a raid or press on.

We still have a lot of the instance left but it’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Tarsus who’s finding that some fights just are easier if you go with the optimal class balance (death knight tank, in this case). I say this cheerfully, but we don’t have a DK tank so if we get that far, we’re stuffed.

Raid Composition Issues

Death Knights making bosses easier isn’t the only composition issue in Ulduar. We’re finding that some fights are notably harder without a priest and since my main healers for 10 man are a paladin and a shaman – it affects morale.

We won’t stop trying but I don’t know that I want to have to do everything on extra hard-mode just because my friends don’t play the right classes.

I’m beginning to feel Syp’s reroller anxiety again. Did I make a mistake in not rerolling a Death Knight? Will they get nerfed into the ground? Will paladins be the next overpowered tank (this is my personal guess actually — as soon as they get an extra cooldown and block is fixed)?

There’s no way I will plan to gear up another tank now that Spinks is geared up and I like playing her but I sometimes wish Blizzard would just make us all identical – it would be better than this frustration. Is it bad to wish that you could be the best occasionally?

Ulduar Update: Beam up the rare pattern, captain!

I was struck this week by Veneretio’s post on tankingtips.com praising warriors as off-tanks in Ulduar.

I enjoy playing my character in the new raid instance. There are plenty of fights that showcase her strengths – I get to zip around picking up adds,  put on interrupt duty, kite stuff around in interesting patterns, run a tanking gauntlet, share a taunt rotation with the other tanks, and that’s just the fights I have seen so far.

If I were to write down a list of activities that make for fun raid tanking encounters, Ulduar would hit a lot of them stone cold. And not only that, I also don’t spend my time in raids fretting that another class would do the job better, it’s honestly something I haven’t even thought about since the last patch.

One of the reasons I am still loving Warcraft is because my character is such a blast to play. Love the game or hate it, their class design is generally excellent.

Although I do often off-tank, it amuses me that I always end up main tank on Ignis. I think the other tanks have a blindspot for him, they settled awfully quickly into ‘let Spinks tank the boss’ on that one. Come to think of it, they were never very fond of tanking Grobbulus either. Maybe I’m the only one who likes the boss kiting fights.

This week saw us consolidate a lot of past work. We knocked out five bosses on the Wednesday night, which involved no more than one wipe on any of them. While farm raids are less exciting than progression, it is a good sign of solid progression to get the early parts of the raid under control. We’re also running on a lighter rota than normal because the students are into exam time for another week or so and are sensibly skipping raids to revise. On Thursday they got Auriaya down and put in some solid attempts on Freya. General feeling was that she’d get killed next week.

Rare Patterns

We also now have a couple of blacksmithing patterns including the Indestructible Plate Girdle. In fact, I now have that recipe which is probably the first time ever I’ve been in possession of a rare crafting recipe. Our raid decided to prioritise tanks on crafted gear so I’m also second in line to get more runed orbs to make one!

Meanwhile I’m pondering how to profit from this knowledge. We have a crafting exchange arranged with other raid guilds so that we’ll make items free for each other to widen the range of available items, so no luck there.

I think the main options are either:

  • Buy the materials and sell the completed pieces at a profit. Runed orbs are not plentiful enough yet to make this viable. I wonder how much people really would spend for a best in slot tanking belt. I suspect the ones who would be more likely to pay high are the ones I’ll be making it free for from the other raid guilds. But later on when runed orbs get cheaper this will probably work.
  • Charge a high crafting cost.
  • Charge a modest crafting cost and sell the mats myself on the AH (i.e.. make the profit from selling the materials and use the recipe to create the demand). So that involve lots of titansteel, which is a time-limited resource.

The latter seems most appealing. But in the meanwhile, how on earth to decide how much to charge to people who are just looking to have the item crafted? I may have a temporary monopoly.

Incidentally, I take all this as a sign that the rare recipes are starting to get more widely distributed. Expect the price of titansteel and other materials to go through the roof shortly, as we find out who failed to stock up in advance.

10 Man

In the ten man team, we had a long raid last weekend. I came along to the evening portion. They’d already knocked out Freya for a first kill and we had some good learning time on Thorim. We all felt that it was a useful opportunity to learn the fights for 25 man.

Fighting Thorim requires you to set up a bridge team (to stay in the arena) and an away team (to fight their way up the gauntlet). If you had to use a teleporter to get to the gauntlet, the metaphor would be perfect. But in the absence of that, we just made lots of jokes about Thorim setting his phasers to kill whenever he nuked us due to wipes in the arena.

The gauntlet in 10 man is a bit of a joke. It’s easier than Utgarde Pinnacle. There really aren’t any special tricks to share other than kill the healer first (duh) and keep an eye on the minibosses. They had more trouble in the arena and although we tried swapping people around between the two teams, it wasn’t really working.

So, need more work on that. Maybe we’ll get another raid in before reset if people are keen.

When to use shield wall?

There’s a great sketch in “Yes Prime Minister,” where Sir Humphrey (a high level civil servant) is trying to persuade the Prime Minister out of wanting nuclear weapons.

I can’t find the script, but Sir Humphrey gives the PM a series of slowly escalating situations and after each one he asks, “Do you press the button?” and the PM shakes his head. Eventually the hypothetical Russian Armies (this was an old series) are destroying London and knocking on the door of Number 10 and it’s pretty clear that the Prime Minister would never press that button.

You can play this game with Shield Wall too (for non-WoWers, it’s an ability which severely reduces all incoming damage for 12s, and it’s on a 5 min cooldown):

  • You can see the boss in the room. Do you press the button?
  • One of your healers just got a high score on Bejewelled. Do you press the button?
  • You just pulled an extra mob. Do you press the button?
  • You haven’t used Shield Wall in the last 30 minutes. Do you press the button?
  • The boss enrages. Do you press the button?
  • The off tank just stood in a void zone and died. Do you press the button?
  • You’re down to 1k health and zomg you’re going to die. Do you press the button?

Lots of MMOs have similar types of ability. They’re powerful, but balanced by making you really think about when to use them to best effect. And although a bunch of dps who blow all their cooldowns at the same time can produce incredible spikes of damage, it’s the tanking and healing cooldowns that are most likely to prevent a wipe.

Tanking is a Joint Effort

There are two sides to tanking: holding threat, and not dying. Good luck on the not dying part without a healer at your back. Tanking is a team effort between the tank and whoever else is helping them to not die. As a tank, your main responsibility is to pick up the mobs, hold threat, and move them as required, whilst not doing anything that would make you more likely to die. The healers will do the rest.

So a tanking or healing cooldown is to help keep you alive. In other words, Shield Wall is there to make life easier for your healers. When you’re thinking about when to use it, you should be looking out for situations that would normally cause a lot of extra healing stress, or when the healers (for whatever reason) need you to buy them just a few more seconds of time to get the heals out.

Shield Wall can help smooth these moments out. It absolutely can help turn a wipe into a kill. And sometimes it will make no difference, you would have died anyway. If you have 2k health and a boss normally hits for 20k on plate, Shield Wall alone will not save you. That doesn’t mean it can’t help – you can always hit other cooldowns too to get some additional emergency health, and the rest of the group might have other ways to assist. But sometimes it’s just not going to make the difference.

Cooldowns and Communication

Matticus has a great post on WoWInsider discussing the different types of healing and tanking cooldowns in WoW, and the importance of communicating with the other players when you use one (i.e. so that they know to save theirs for later.)

Sometimes in the heat of the situation, that’s quite difficult to do. If things are going pear shaped, usually you react first and then announce to everyone what you’ve done.

If you really want the raid to know every time you use Shield Wall, you can macro in some comment like /ra Shield Wall used!! to your hotkey. Or use an addon like castyeller that can be set up with custom announcements on different abilities. It won’t be as effective as shouting over voice chat but has the advantage of happening automatically.

Anyway, there’s three different types of situation where you may want to use Shield Wall. (Four if you include when you press it by mistake). With some of them you’ll have more time to communicate than others.

Usually though, in an emergency we prefer to have the tank use their cooldowns first since they’ll probably be the first to notice when a boss does anything unexpected (due to staring at it). Healers may need a few extra seconds for their UI to update before they can react. That’s not universal, some healers are really good at watching the fight, but as a tank you have no excuse for not being the first to know.

1. Predictable in advance

You know in advance that there will be brief but heavy healing stress and Shield Wall can help (in extreme cases like Sarth+3, the fight requires timed uses of cooldowns or you won’t make it).

This could be some badass boss ability. It could be that there’s a period of extremely heavy but predictable damage (e.g. an enrage). It might even be that the pull is particularly tricky. Or there’s a period which is very threat sensitive (i.e. so if you take less damage then your healers are less likely to pull healing aggro).

In any case you can discuss it in advance and work out some kind of cooldown use order. If you do this,  watch out for people being unexpectedly taken out of action and report this pretty smartly. A healer who’s died in a flame wave can’t use a cooldown … unless someone else uses an emergency battle res to get them back up.

Don’t forget that you can use Shield Wall when you pull if the pull is the most stressful part of the fight.

Try to think through fights where you have died before due to spike damage. Was any of that damage predictable? Ask your healers for their suggestions also. If there are, Shield Wall will soften the blow.

2/ Unpredictable, but you saw it coming and had time to think

The fight is not going as planned. You have to change tactics on the fly. You can see that you are imminently about to take a lot of extra damage and you know the healers probably weren’t expecting it. Use Shield Wall.

Examples:

  • Unexpected change in tanking orders – maybe one of the other tanks died and you’re picking up their assignment on the fly.
  • One of the healers died or is out of action. You can buy some time to help the healers adjust.
  • The boss is almost dead! But there are no healers up. Can you survive for just a few seconds longer to get the kill?
  • It’s a progression fight. What’s that void zone doing? Wait, is that add meant to be there? (i.e. you don’t know the fight well, but you can see some heavy damage coming.)

This is where Shield Wall truly shines and a lot of tanks are so busy fire fighting that they don’t think to use it.

If you have more time to discuss the situation (maybe you have some time in hand before the next bout of heavy damage) then it may be that someone else will offer to use their cooldown first.

I was thinking of this the other night when we had a main tank disconnect while fighting XT-002. I was only tanking one add at the time  and I saw the boss turn to the raid, so I charged in, hit Shield Wall, taunted it back and yelled on teamspeak that I was taking him. The other off tank spotted what I was doing, grabbed my add, and took it off somewhere (I may have mentioned before how awesome she is).  We killed him. It may well be that the healers noticed immediately – they’re pretty good – but the initial healing assignments wouldn’t have had me on the boss, so why not make their lives a bit easier when you can? Tanking is a joint effort, after all.

Point is, it can all happen very quickly. By the time most people had noticed the boss was loose, it was already under control again.

3/ Emergency

Usually signified by your rapidly dipping health bar catching your eye, accompanied by thought process along the lines of, “Argh, I am dying!!!”.

You don’t have a lot of time to think. You may not even know exactly what happened. All you know is that if things look to be going south and your cooldowns are still up, and there’s a chance of saving the fight, you might as well blow them. This is reasonable with a 5 min cooldown. Back when it was on a 30 min timer, you might have been keener to save it.

Maybe the Shield Wall will help. Maybe all the other cooldowns that people are probably dropping on you will help too. The key with emergencies is that since you don’t really know what happened, you’re just pressing buttons blindly and hoping for the best. Maybe it’ll be that day.

Would you choose the same class again today?

I was writing last week about recent tweaks to warriors in the PTR that were going to result in Fury scaling better with Strength than Attack Power, and hence favouring plate over leather.

Bo@Vampiric Embrace riffs off this with a thoughtful look at why he’s not fond of dps warriors in raids and prefers them to tank.  Or in his words:

DPS is OK for Ret Pallies and Death Knights, the other two plate wearers, but I have a problem with DPS Warriors.

From an objective point of view, he notes that given three plate wearing classes/ specs who do similar dps but one needs more healing and brings less buffs, why would you want to bring the latter.

I don’t want to diss him (or encourage anyone else to do that) since I like to see people examining their own opinions to figure out where they came from. And also he’s right, although dps warriors have been posting very high numbers recently – but they’ll come into line next patch.

And as an aside, Death Knights, Druids, and Paladins are actually  stronger tanks at the moment than warriors also, at least in terms of threat, dps, buffs, and survivability.

A thread on the WoW US boards even asks whether Warriors should always get MT priority, on the grounds that they’re more useless than the other tanks when not main tanking. And several respondants say, quite reasonably, that if one tank is less flexible in one area and the others are all equally good, maybe it’s better to just not take them at all.

So my question is: If you were starting again, knowing what you know now about class roles and balance, would you pick the same class again today? Would you recommend it to anyone else?

I would.

I have played a few classes and liked them, but my warrior was my first and always my favourite. I really like the more involved playstyle and find her fun to play. She is perfectly well able to tank or dps any encounter in the game (apart from the really gimmicky ones like sarth+3, and people have done that with a warrior tank).

No one knows what future patches hold or how class balance will change in future. But whether or not a class is fun to play is a fairly core mechanic. Also, every class (aside from hunters in LOTRO) has their gripes and problems.

And the other reason I’d stick with Spinks?

CHAAAARGE!!

(I apologise for this being a quickie. I am that person who forgot to move their clocks forwards yesterday. )

Is the T8 warrior set bonus too good?

OK, latest news out of patch 3.1 is that the Tier 8 set bonuses have been added to the latest test patch. Everything on the test realm is still subject to change, but I did double-take when I saw the warrior tanking bonuses.

  • Protection 2Piece Bonus — Increases the critical strike chance of your Devastate ability by 10%.
  • Protection 4Piece Bonus — Shield Block also grants you 20% reduction to magical damage taken.

The 2 piece bonus here is OK but not stunning. We do use Devastate as part of a regular tanking rotation, but only enough to keep up the associated debuff. It simply doesn’t do enough damage or threat compared to other tanking abilities to make it worthwhile otherwise.

Or in other words, the warrior tanking skill use is based on priority. The basics of it are: On every GCD you check which of your abilities is ‘up’ and use the one that generates the most threat. That ability will never be Devastate. But you’ll weave it in to keep the debuff active.

Adding 10% extra crit to Devastate is unlikely to boost it past Heroic Strike in terms of threat. Therefore it’s a minor boost to non-core threat ability. Nice enough to have, but not a patch on the T7 2 piece bonus which is 10% extra damage on one of our most used tanking abilities (shield slam).

But the 4 piece bonus here is a doozy. Shield Block is an ability that is on a 1 minute cooldown. So what warriors are being offered here is an extra anti-magic cooldown on a shortish timer, and reducing spell damage by 20% could be awesome in a fight featuring heavy magic damage, especially if it happens on regular intervals that are … ooh … spaced out by about a minute.

Much as I’d love the extra anti-magic cooldown, I hope fervently that this set bonus does not go live.  And I want to talk some more about why I feel that way.

What’s the point of a set bonus?

Lots of MMOs have different sets of armour that your character can collect. Part of the appeal is that the armour sets match and (can) look good. They can be easily identified by sight and can be good for bragging rights. Part is that they often have good stats. Part is because they appeal to people’s natural collecting instincts. And part of the appeal is the set bonus.

Set bonuses (bonii?) are used in different ways. In games like LOTRO or WAR, high level raids are set up in such a way that you explicitly need the set bonus from previous raids/PvP to fight the next boss, there is no point even stepping inside the instance if you don’t have it.

Blizzard is actually less hardcore that this. They take the same approach that they did with Diablo. Set bonuses can include extra stats or tweaks to abilities, and they often give a perk to the wearer that they could not get in any other way. So the tiered armour sets in WoW are nice to have but not actually compulsary. There are non tier pieces available from the same raids and players will usually mix and match them.

Part of the gearing game is to weigh up the different alternatives, decide how much you want the set bonus, and come to some kind of compromise based on what you ideally want and what actually drops. To make this more interesting, tier armour often is not the best in slot — it used to be back in Vanilla WoW but that changed in TBC. Some pieces are usually better than others, but if you choose to wear the whole set you are probably giving up some useful stats that you could have had from nontier gear.

Making the tier bonuses attractive is a way to give players interesting gearing choices. Do I want the badass looking matching set, or do I want to take a more utilitarian approach? Is the set bonus good enough to outweigh the loss of stats from non-tier items?

Can a set bonus be too good?

You know that a set bonus is too good when people feel that they have to keep using it in future tiers.

A tier set is only intended to last people for the duration of that tier of raid content. There may be some occasional pieces that remain best in slot for an entire expansion (legendary items are likely candidates)  but in a gear-based game, a large part of the motivation to raid is to get upgrades.

You can usually spot these kind of bonuses because they either add some particularly useful new ability to the spec or because they are percentage based and thus will scale well. It’ll be tough, for example, to give up the 10% extra damage to Shield Slam UNLESS warriors get enough extra threat in patch 3.1 that it’s no longer an issue. As it happens, we’re currently in line to get 5% extra damage across the board which will help out.

The Tier 8 4-piece bonus is something very different.

No mere tweaks are going to give warriors a new anti-magic ability like that to replace the set bonus. Collecting the tier set will be the only way to get it. And if Blizzard intend to keep putting up new encounters which have heavy magic damage, having that set bonus available will make a big difference to protection warriors and the raids for which they tank.

If it stays this way, I’ll be tempted to press my raid leaders to give protection warrior priority on tier gear (admittedly, this actually means Spinks-priority but you get the general point). I don’t want to have to be in that position.

If Blizzard wants protection warriors to have better cooldowns to use on heavy magic fights, they should darn well get in there and tweak our talents or glyphs to do it. If it’s there at all, it should be available to all warrior tanks at the start of Ulduar; an instance which, from PTR reports is — yes — full of fights which are based around magic damage.

I’m all for making tier gear appealing (note to designers: looking like a goat doesn’t really do it for me) and it’s fun to have something cool to collect from raids. But don’t force us on this one. If we should have a new ability then give it to us by all means, but that’s not what set bonuses should be for.

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?

The road to raiding

My guild alliance ran its first 25 man raid in Wrath last night. This is a milestone for any raid group, like when your startup gets its first real customer or your band gets its first gig and someone who isn’t actually a relative or partner turns up to see it (bonus points if you didn’t bribe them with free beer).

The reason it is such a big deal is that it’s  a delicate process to get raids running in a new expansion. Players are deciding which raid group they want to associate with, and everything is up in the air until the point where you can strongarm or cajole enough people along and bosses start dying. I know a few people in our group had already been to pick up raids (ie. someone on one of the public channels asks for more random people to join them) or been triallists in other raid groups before deciding that they wanted to stick with us instead.

The startup is a pretty good comparison. Imagine that you are starting up a new business and it’s in an employees market so most of your potential staff have their choice of places to work. Even if people agree verbally to contracts with you, you’ve no guarantee they won’t suddenly change their mind when they get a better offer. Once you actually have real customers and can show your candidates some track record, your chances of attracting them are higher.

Of course raiding isn’t the same. You’re only paying people in terms of providing entertainment (that’s what running raids is about really), although there are social benefits too. But when people commit to a raid schedule, they want to know that they will be getting something worthwhile in return — to whit, a working and viable raid to be part of.

So the first successful raid is like a callout to all the guys who hung in there even before the raid had proven itself. It shows they made a good call. This is also why it’s great that the initial Wrath raids are fairly easy; if you can get 25 people together you WILL be able to go kill something.

Anyway, my guild alliance is a fairly casual setup. They’re being a bit more organised in Wrath than they had been in the last expansion and trying to keep a quota on class/roles so that we don’t end up with a gazillion tanks (again). This is a bit of a culture shock but going reasonably well so far, mostly because people from the old raid got grandfathered in and they only recruited for roles they were lacking.

The raid yesterday was notable for some other reasons:

  1. I was main tank (my main is a protection warrior). I spent a lot of the afternoon chewing my nails nervously and reading raiding websites; it helps that a) I was at home with a cold and b) I don’t work wednesdays anyway. Oh, I was nervous alright. 24 other people relying on me to not mess up their evening.  In practice, it’s nowhere near that bad. If one tank dies, someone else can often pick up. But you do feel a sense of responsibility. I also feel lucky to have the chance to raid as a protection warrior because it’s traditionally been an oversubscribed role.
  2. We were late starting raiding. Although other raid groups have cleared all the content, and actually quite a few of the people there had seen much of it in pick up groups, we knew that as a more casual group we wanted to wait until January when more people would be ready. One of the odd side effects of that is that some of the guys we recruited were knocked back from more hardcore groups due to lack of room — so we were not their first choice but they wanted to play in 25 man raids and … well, there you have it. But it’s nice for everyone involved to see that even if you start late, you can still get things rolling.

We did clear a couple of wings in Naxxramas for anyone who wants the gory details, and we were happy with that for our first 3-hour 25 man raid.