Category Archives: WoW

Meaningful Choices

In the comments to my last post, I got some pushback from stating Covenants in WoW “were choices in the same way stacking Crit vs Versatility is a choice: namely, choosing to be objectively correct or gimp your character in X or Y (or all) content.” Indeed, I believe that the proposed 9.1.5 patch changes that remove the Covenant-switching restrictions is something that should have existed from the beginning. Which, since some people forgot, it kinda did since you could freely change Covenants without friction outside of going back to one you previously “betrayed.” In that one scenario, you were limited to a once-a-week quest.

But let me go a bit further: I do not believe that “meaningful choices” can or ought to exist in MMOs.

What someone means by “meaningful choice” is critically important, of course. There is no one answer. For example, is a mutually exclusive choice always meaningful? Does a choice have to be permanent to be meaningful? Does a choice have to have lasting consequences (which is different than just being permanent) to be meaningful? Does a choice have to feel difficult to make to be meaningful?

I bring up these different dimensions of “meaning” because I sometimes feel that people fetishize Permanence in terms of choices. That if you can change something later, it must mean that the original choice itself didn’t matter. To them I say: Every Moment is a One-Time Event. Specs in WoW have been imminently changeable at the drop of a hat for many years. If you choose to not tank for a raid, that choice lasts only for as long as you want it to. But here’s the thing: the choice you made to not tank yesterday is permanent. You can’t go back in time and make a different choice for the Tuesday raid time. So… was the original decision a meaningful choice? If you were good at tanking, it certain was for everyone there.

Let’s bring this back specifically to WoW Covenants in Shadowlands. For those not playing along at home this expansion, there are four Covenants (i.e. factions) the player could choose to ally with at max level. During the leveling process, you got to do quests for each one and also play around with the unique Covenant abilities that each one offers – some are general abilities, and others are class-specific. Eventually, you have to choose a specific Covenant to champion and otherwise experience the rest of the expansion with.

Is picking a Covenant a meaningful choice?

As I wrote before, I would say No. Was it mutually exclusive? Yes, you can’t have more than one Covenant at a time. Were there consequences? Yes. Sort of. Covenants were swappable even before 9.1.5 but let’s not pretend there isn’t a significant time cost to essentially starting over with rebuilding a Sanctum, grinding Anima, and all the sort of nonsense daily quests one has to do. Plus, you lost access to any Transmog from the original Covenant. Was it permanent? Obviously not, but that would not have been the secret sauce if it was – instead of meaning, such a decision would have brought in frustration and betrayal.

Why? The Covenant abilities themselves are an extremely mixed bag. Sometimes they don’t matter, and other times they matter a whole hell of a lot. For example, if you are a PvP Priest, you want to be Venthyr for the Mindgames ability. Mindgames is one of the most unique CCs ever introduced to WoW, and I guarantee you that it will be brought forward into the next expansion as a Talent or even baseline ability. If you don’t PvP on your Priest character, then sure, your Covenant choice is more wide open. But if you ever thought you would, not picking Venthyr would be playing with a handicap.

On the PvE side, Night Fae is an attractive choice for Death Knights given it increases their mobility, which is otherwise the classical weakness of the class. However, Night Fae is extremely terrible for both Unholy DPS and Blood tanking. So your “choice” is between the optimal DPS/Tanking or improved quality of life. Explain to me again why it’s a good thing that we have to pick between the two.

Notice how none of the above considerations touch on the Covenants themselves: their theme, their plot, their aesthetics, their characters, or anything that actually makes them meaningful from a narrative standpoint. There are certainly players out there for whom Covenant theme is the number one consideration. Helistar said in the comments yesterday: “When I started Shadowlands it was obvious that my druid would be Night Fae, optimal choice or not.” That’s totally fine! Although… I have to ask the follow-up question: if it was so obvious from the start you were picking Night Fae, was the choice really meaningful to begin with?

If it seems as though I’m playing both side of the argument… I kinda am.

The real crux of my argument is this: the designers should not be going out of their way to “enforce” meaningful choices. In Diablo 2, you could not respec your character; in Diablo 3, you could swap your abilities around at almost any time. Was picking talents in Diablo 2 more meaningful? No! All it did was make me feel bad every time I leveled up, knowing I was always going to be 2-3 levels late to the actual good talents due to the dumb, blind decisions I made hours ago. That doesn’t feel meaningful.

Imagine if Blizzard designed Covenants such that Covenant abilities were interchangeable (and probably Soulbinds), but the Covenants themselves were not. Priests could have Mindgames but fight with the Kyrians. That sort of thing. Would that detract from the meaningfulness of the Covenant decision? Or would it… enhance it? I would unequivocally say the latter. Because WoW is an MMO where you could be spending 40 hours a week playing your character and not spend a second progressing whatever story exists. So for me, gameplay decisions and projected viability and optimization are my top priorities. And those things are largely math problems with clear, non-ambiguous answers.

In a hypothetical Shadowlands where Covenants had no particular gameplay impacts, suddenly that decision becomes meaningful. The choice more reflects who I choose to identify with, who I am as a person, who best reflects my values, and that’s a hell of a lot more meaningful than 2% DPS. It would certainly be closer to what I feel were the meaningful choices in, say, the Mass Effect series:

What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?

The genophage choice is definitely one that I felt was meaningful. It can say a lot about you as a person. Maybe the fact that Covenants primarily boil down to a numbers game to me still says something about my values, but I don’t think you can read much more into it other than sometimes 2% DPS actually matters. Rather, I would say that the meaningfulness of a choice in an MMO is directly disproportional to its gameplay effect. If you care about the numbers, then it really isn’t a choice; if you don’t care about the numbers, what are they doing there in the first place? Just remove the numbers.

Finally, for those still stubbornly sticking to their guns regarding “permanent choices are meaningful choices,” I say to you one word: alts. Nothing is permanent if you can have alts. So really it’s just a question of how many hours of hazing you want to require someone to go through to experience the other choice. Or just to potentially be viable in another subset of content.

WoW Should Face Existential Crises More Often

(More Blizzard than WoW, specifically, but I’m doing a call-back to this post from 2012)

Blizzard’s next patch for WoW is 9.1.5 and it contains… well, the words speak for themselves:

Over the past few weeks since we shared an update, the WoW team has been focused on the immediate future—both for our people and workplace, and what’s next for players too. As a part of that, the entire team came together to ask: What are the biggest things we’re hearing are getting in the way of your fun, and what are the most impactful changes we could make to WoW today to fix that?

Shadowlands Update 9.1.5 will be going on the PTR next week, and a lot of what you’ll find in it is the direct result of your collective feedback. It includes long-asked-for changes to make it easier to swap covenants and conduits, updates to make it so you don’t need to repeat covenant campaigns on alts, new character customization options for some races that were lacking them, and many more changes to help you play the way you want.

https://www.wowhead.com/news/shadowlands-developer-update-9-1-5-ptr-next-week-323931

Just in case you’ve missed the context here, Blizzard is getting sued by California for rampant sexual discrimination, some egregious harassment, and general nefariousness. Oh, and more recently, allegedly shredding documents concerning all that. Some executives have been fired, some worker walk-outs have occurred, and all of this has come AFTER the mass-migration of WoW players that has been a result of poor game and story design leading into/throughout the Shadowlands expansion.

I cannot quite tell what it is exactly, but the whole thing feels nauseatingly patronizing.

Like it took throwing two decades of reputation in the garbage and an existential crisis for these designers to finally go “Huh, ain’t got shit to do today cuz the bosses are either sacked or hiding in the Cosby room… maybe I’ll give this whole ‘make fun games’ thing a try.” No, really, they basically said that:

While we hope many players will be pleased at the increased accessibility and freedom for experimentation these changes will permit, we know that you might be wondering why we didn’t make adjustments like these sooner. After all, a large portion of the community has been vocal about wanting to see changes along these lines since mid-2020, when Shadowlands was still in Beta.

When it comes to the limitations on Covenant-switching, millions of players experienced Shadowlands for the first time through the lens of their Covenant of choice, and that would have not been possible had the choice carried less weight from the outset. Nevertheless, after the conclusion of the Chains of Domination campaign, the Covenants are united against the Jailer, and revisiting player feedback in that context has led us to re-evaluate our approach.

“Covenant of choice.” Tell me how much choice a PvP Priest has in regards to Covenants again. Or Warlocks. Or basically any class/spec across the entire game? Covenants were choices in the same way stacking Crit vs Versatility is a choice: namely, choosing to be objectively correct or gimp your character in X or Y (or all) content. But now that Blizzard’s stated goal of forcing you to experience the game in a specific way has been achieved, the devs will now, in their extreme beneficence, sell you the solution to the problem they created.

This is not a new tactic for the WoW devs, of course. Each expansion launches with an obviously asinine timesink that the devs conveniently “fix” a year later after it successfully sunk millions of player dollars in subscriptions. In any other year, these Shadowlands changes would be par for the course. The fact that these changes are cloaked in this “we’re reexamining everything in the company” is just gross. It’s like, no you aren’t, and stop pretending you are doing anyone any favors here. Shit should have been changed a year ago, when everyone told you it was a terrible idea.

It’s gotten to the point where I just dread hearing anything about WoW. You know those shows out there which just sort of revel in awkwardness, scripted or not? I can’t stand them. There’s something about them that is physically painful to watch for me. And that’s what WoW news is to me now.

I watched that Sylvanas cinematic and I just couldn’t anymore. How many years have they been building to this moment, and some committee of writers thought “I will never serve” fit in with anything that was going on? What did she think she was doing up to this point? There is zero way to write themselves out of the hole they wrote themselves into. So now we’re all just sitting around and waiting to see how painfully awkward the conclusion is going to be.

To some extent, we expect Xanatos Gambits from evil masterminds. Heroes doing things that end up playing right into the villain’s hands. The key is that the heroes’ actions are usually, at worst, dumb in retrospect. Other times, they just had no way of knowing the extent of scheming that took place; can’t blame them in those scenarios. But there is no coming back from this for Sylvanas as a character. She wasn’t looking for an opportunity to snatch the One Ring at the right moment. She’s just dumb and got bamboozled by someone called the Jailer. Sylvanas never took a moment to look around the Maw? Maybe notice all the chains, all the dominated souls bent to serve? In her mind, the Jailer was just going to be like “everyone’s free now” and then put down the McGuffin of ultimate power?

It’s all so dumb.

Everyone has predicted for a decade or longer that the true WoW-killer was going to be WoW itself. But I couldn’t even imagine it playing out this way. Shit design, shit corporate culture, shit story. That’s the trifecta right there. They are working on it though! They sat down and brainstormed and talked about their feelings and remembered that all the problems were correctly identified in beta (again) so they could continue to put in minimum effort into what once was a billion dollar franchise.

The one hope that WoW has is that corporate spreadsheet dweebs like Ion Hazzikostas have an outsized effect on game design direction. So that, you know, when they are fired or quit, the ship can be turned around. If things really are built by committee though, WoW is straight fucked and the ship is going down. Or arguably already has, and the remaining population is clinging to dressers and doors while everyone else is paddling the life boats away. But hey, at least the knobs were fixed in a patch.

Shadowlands Alt Leveling is Bad

It is difficult to say with any sort of conviction, but I’m strongly leaning towards the Shadowlands alt leveling experience being the worse it’s ever been in any expansion.

The normal leveling experience in Shadowlands is certainly the most on-rails I can recall, perhaps in the history of WoW. You go through the Maw tutorial and head into Kyrianland, which just happens to be the least interesting of the afterlives. And the actual quest content and layout in Bastion is horrible. There are long stretches of time in which you are far from an Inn or mailbox or flightpath. Want to take a break after 30 minutes? Better hearth back to wherever and then plan on spending 5 minutes riding back to whatever quest you were on. Or just buckling down and spending the extra 15 minutes to finish the quest chain in that area.

For as bad as Hellfire Peninsula was back in TBC, you at least had the ability to skip certain hubs and go to others. Once I figured out that hitting level 62 opened up the questing Christmas trees in Zangarmarsh, you bet your ass I was hoofing it out of Hellfire. No such skipping in Shadowlands. Do every quest in order, every time. Oh, and if you’re not level 53 by the time you get to Elysian Hold, go do some sidequests or pick some herbs until you are.

And can I just say something that I don’t feel enough people have complained about yet? The gearing situation is shit while leveling. Every single expansion I can remember had you immediately kitting out in expansion-reasonable questing gear within the first 30 minutes. That leads to casual raider tears when yesterday’s epics were replaced with greens, but it’s a necessary evil. Because it’s an incredibly dumb, unnecessary evil for my toons to still be rocking ilevel 58 shoulders throughout the entire fucking zone when 87-100 is the baseline.

What could be worse than all that? Threads of Fate.

On its face, Threads of Fate sounds like an incredible innovation. NPC meets your alt immediately outside of the Maw tutorial, and you unlock all the zones to complete in any order. What they neglect to mention is that “complete” means “grinding mobs like in a 1990s MMO.” Some of the Bonus Objective areas literally give you 1% completion per mob kill. “Just don’t do those.” Sure, let me just ride around this entire zone with only three flightpaths unlocked while trying to complete the same World Quests I’ll be grinding at endgame for the next two years. Oh, and they give 12k XP, same as each of the dozen story quests you could do in the same amount of time.

In many ways, Legion was considered the worst expansion for alts due to the way Artifacts (and AP) were spec-specific on top of the RNG of Legendaries. What is mentioned less in that calculus is how all the zones were available from the start and each class had engaging class-specific story content on the way up. With Shadowlands, everybody has the exact same story and quests in the same order until endgame, and then everybody is grinding Torghast for their Legendary, on every character.

There’s some Kyrian NPC who mentions that the Path is grinding Aspirants into dust. You’d think I’d remember his name after seeing it ten times but whatever. That’s what leveling feels like: being ground into dust. My character roster is 60, 60, 57, 54, 53, 52, 52, 52, 51, 51. I kept thinking maybe a different class would make leveling more enjoyable. But that’s when I realized that it wasn’t the class that was the problem, it was the rote, banal, awful design of Bastion through which all characters must pass. Well, that, or level 4x slower by chain-killing mobs inside a yellow shape on your mini-map. Engaging!

No escape in BGs either. Winning a 15-min match gives you… 12k XP. Once per day. Then it’s half that every other time, for a win. Not particularly reliable when you queue as Alliance.

I have never been more discouraged trying to level alts in an expansion than Shadowlands.

What would fix it? There is no fixing of the on-rails story portion, which wasn’t that bad the first time. It really comes down to Threads of Fate and fixing the jank there. Take the only page out of the Jay Wilson handbook and just double everything. World Quests give 24k XP, Bonus Objectives complete twice as fast for 16k XP, and the overall zone meter gives 1.5 levels. I am not even sure that this doubling would result in things being faster than mindlessly grinding the story quests, but at least it would be closer. And what exactly would the point of Threads of Fate be if it was slower than just doing the story again? I think you get a whole 4 extra Renown that you wouldn’t have, for all the good that does an alt facing down the barrel of 10-20 hours of Torghast and Maw busywork.

I forgive you for wondering whether I just don’t like leveling anymore. Thing is, I would take all my characters through Maldraxxus again in a heartbeat. I want to start over there. The Theater of Pain is where the actual Shadowlands experience begins, IMO. But you have to drag your face through four levels of Bastion broken glass to get there. Every. Single. Time.

I hope that this leveling setup is an experiment that Blizzard never tries again.

Torghast: Fun?

I have spent about 15 hours total in Torghast thus far, and I can’t quite tell if I’m having fun. Which probably means I’m not.

The design of this endgame activity is weird, which may be a result of Blizzard’s whiplash direction. It was originally very challenging for a solo player, then it was made to be harder presumably to not surprise players at reaching an unkillable (to them) final boss, and then made much easier across the board. Which is fine, because this is the primary source of Soul Ash, which is necessary to craft Legendary armor this expansion. And everyone is absolutely expected to have one. The recently-released Twisting Corridors with its cosmetic rewards is a better place for challenge. 

But even that aside, it doesn’t feel great. Each run takes me 40-60 minutes and it is a commitment. If you don’t kill the last boss, you get nothing. If your gameplay gets interrupted by something, you get nothing. If you die too many times to random things even before the last boss, you get nothing. So, given the risk, you are highly incentivized to kill every mob pack and scour every crevice for Anima Cells to gain more power. If you skip things on the early floors to try and finish more quickly, but end up not having enough juice to kill the boss, well, you get nothing. 

Oh, and don’t forget that the elites and bosses all get a rapidly-stacking 10% damage buff every dozen seconds or so. Berserk timers would have been one thing, but really? Why is that necessary at all?

When you first unlock Torghast, you just have access to Layer 1. Beating a Layer gives you Soul Ash and unlocks the next Layer. Each Layer gives you a decreasing amount of Soul Ash – it goes 120, 100, 85, 70, 60, and so on. The good news is that Layers stay unlocked, so that next week you can instantly go to Layer 5, beat it, and gain all the Soul Ash from that and the lower Layers automatically (435 total in this case). Plus, by virtue of having beaten Layer 5, you can do Layer 6 next week. Or this week, if you want to put in another hour or so for 50 Soul Ash. 

The bad news is that unlocking 5-6 Layers right away on a toon is exhausting and will burn you out quickly. All of your alts start at Layer 1 just like your main, and Legendaries are gated behind Torghast, so it is not as though you can readily ignore it, even if you only PvP. You could “take it easy” and only run one Layer at a time, but that’s going to delay your Legendary by weeks. 

Finally, the Anima Powers you have available are really hit or miss. There are sometimes fun combos to unlock, like when my Guardian Druid got to auto-cast Roots on enemies that stuck me when Barkskin is up, and when Roots breaks it deals 4000 damage to nearby enemies. Oh, and Barkskin was all but permanent with duration boosts. That combo let me charge into multiple mob packs, do a few Swipes, and then the Roots breaking for 6+ mobs simultaneously dealt 24k damage to everything. 

When you roll in with an Affliction Warlock though, you get runs where your Seed of Corruption gets buffed five times. Which is fine for trash, but doesn’t do anything for the boss.

Torghast is probably one of the most interesting design decisions Blizzard has implemented since Scenarios. Reminds me of Dungeon Runs in Hearthstone. But is it fun? Eh, it can be. Sometimes. It’s also exhausting, kinda formulaic, and also required. If Blizzard leaned more into the overpowered abilities angle, or if each floor guardian gave a little Soul Ash, then I could see it being better. 

WoW: End of 2nd Month

Things have been interesting these past two months.

Druid

My druid was the first to hit level 60 in Shadowlands and the one I got furthest on in terms of Renown and Torghast. I have been Guardian the entire time, as I have not liked Balance while leveling and Feral is just annoying having to heal up after every encounter. 

I sorta came to a hard stopping point with the Druid after a few weeks when I realized what the endgame means. For one thing, I’m trapped. I don’t want to tank dungeons but all of my gear is Agility-based. World Quests are giving me straight garbage Agility pieces even though I switched my loot specialization to Resto. I am interested in doing Raid Finder, but you need a 170 gearscore to even queue, and I’m barely pushing 155. If I want to PvP, it’s going to be as Boomkin or Resto, which again, I don’t have gear for.

Technically I could spend a few grand on the AH buying crafted gear or something, and then muddling through PvP to get Honor gear and hoping that crafting a Legendary will get me over the gearscore hump. But as always, the first hump is unnecessarily difficult, IMO. I remember early BFA where it was a challenge to get past the War Front gearscore wall, but once you were in, epics rained from the sky for zero effort and thereafter you had no issue qualifying for the rest of the expansion.

Kyrian Covenant

I have chosen the Kyrian Covenant because that was supposed to be the best for Druids, but it’s boring. Boring ability, boring quests thus far, and a boring, broken Mission Table experience. 

Seriously, the fact that it has been this long without a fix to the Mission table experience with Kyrians (and Venthyr, so I’ve heard) is just embarrassing. Basically, the champions and normal troops are just garbage who cannot defeat the level 20 elite Soul Ash mission even when they are level 25. Meanwhile, Maldraxxus and Night Fae have basic troops that can defeat 10+ levels above themselves, no champion required. 

I get that Mission Tables are less of a focus of the endgame experience this time around, but… really? The WoW Companion app revolves entirely around the Mission Table, and it sucks that I lose out on potential bonuses because Blizzard is bad at balance and worse at fixing their mistakes.

Warlock

I hit 60 on my Warlock a few weeks ago. This toon’s purpose was primarily to PvP in battlegrounds for fun, but the results have been… uneven. I played BGs pretty much nonstop from levels 55-58, but stopped when I was capping out on Honor. I’m not sure why Blizzard made it impossible to pre-purchase level 60 PvP gear, but it forced me into Threads of Fate and back to questing.

Hitting 60 and immediately getting full gear in every slot was rather refreshing. I even had several thousand Honor left over. The design appears to be for the base-level gear to be cheap, and then you upgrade individual pieces up a few ilevels at a time via ever-increasing Honor costs. It also appears you need to hit certain Renown levels with your Covenant to unlock the higher ilevel caps. 

But like I said earlier, the Warlock isn’t all that fun to play even with decent gear. The missing piece of the puzzle may be the Legendary, which requires Torghast runs. For Affliction Warlocks, one Legendary has Corruption deal more damage and adds a 50% snare on top. With the Absolute Corruption talent, that means you can toss out Corruptions that last 24 seconds on players and snare them the whole time. That may be worth the fun even if I get blown up with zero recourse once melee closes the gap.

Night Fae Covenant

I chose Night Fae for the Warlock because it was the best-ranked, and plus it was different from the other I had picked. The Covenant story was unexpectedly poignant so far. I definitely recommend people to at least roll an alt through the Night Fae so they can see the mock play scenario where a history of Azeroth is run through. The crowd’s reaction is hilarious, and [redacted]’s shock at the events throughout is a little sad considering you know the news is about to get worse.

Alts and Boosts

I had two character boosts in my back-pocket for a few years now, one from BFA and another from… maybe Legion? They had been converted by the level squish into an instant level 48 toon. I have been holding onto them for a while for if I ever got sucked into a social situation in which I wanted to play on a different server. Then the thinking was that I would use it on the Horde side eventually.

Well, I spent both of them to create a Mage and Shaman. Despite having a decently high-ish level Mage & Shaman on my original Auchindoun-US server.

The Mage was almost an instant-regret situation. I did play with my old Mage for a few hours through WoD (the go-to fastest leveling place post-squish) and it was a blast as Fire. Mobs falling left and right. Level 48 Fire Mage forced into Shadowlands content right away? Not so much. Hit level 52 and was generous with some crafted gear and it still felt bad. Tried Frost and Arcane, and the latter was the closest to fun I could get. 

I thought about BGing with the Mage like I did with the Warlock, but it was around this time that I realized that level-scaling in BGs was actually removed in Shadowlands. When you join a match, your level will say something like 52 (59) and everyone else shows 59 around you, so I had been like “cool, let’s level via BGs.” It’s just a lie to cover for lowbies not being targeted/called out. You really are level 52 with crap gear being matched against actual level 59s with higher gear and possibly people with Covenant abilities (via Threads of Fate). This suddenly explained why my Shadow Priest was struggling to affect any team fight whatsoever in BGs despite DoTing up the entire team. Or possibly Shadow Priests just suck in BGs like Affliction Warlocks.

The Shaman boost was on purpose though, and I’m enjoying it. I have a fondness for Shaman considering it was my first serious alt after my namesake Paladin, and Shaman in general have come a long way since TBC. Elemental is decent even if it hasn’t really changed all that much from Lava Burst and Lightning Bolt spam. Based on some BG videos, I’m excited to try Elemental in PvP and then fall back on Resto if it comes to that.

The only two classes I don’t have at this point are Warrior or Hunter. I have one apiece back on Auchindoun-US, but it’s tough to justify spending time leveling them on a server with considerably less resources (including crafter alts to gear them). I suppose server transfers are cheaper than level boosts, but at some point I have to recognize the fact that my WoW days (in this expansion) are numbered.

Shadowlands Warlock PvP

One of my stated goals in Shadowlands was to level up a Warlock alt and do some PvP. In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure WHY I had thought that was a good idea. Perhaps memories of ages past in which Warlocks were Battleground gods. That is, unfortunately, no longer the case.

Or maybe it still is, and I just suck.

Once I hit level 55 I was terribly tempted to use the Threads of Fate feature and otherwise abandon a rehash of the same storyline I had just completed a few weeks ago. What was stopping me was just the idea that perhaps slogging through the story again was going to be the fastest way to level, and thus using Threads would be a mistake. While waffling, I realized that there was the 50% bonus Honor buff active for only the next few days (at the time), so why not just head into BGs and see how it goes.

At the time of this writing, I have gone through roughly 50 BGs on the Warlock and hit the level cap, the majority of that being Affliction. And what I have come to realize is how many other classes/specs seem tailor-made to counter all of my shit. Kicks, stuns, magic immunity. Rogues are BG gods again, because of course they are, but it’s not just them. Monks have Diffuse Magic to send all my DoTs back to me, Touch of Karma for basically a 10 second immunity which also, hey, sends my damage back to me, mobility out the ass to counter my portal shenanigans, along with the usual stuns and interrupts. DKs are hard counters, but I guess that is what they are designed to be, so whatever. Retribution is Retribution. Warrior is Warrior.

So, yeah. The general sense I get is that if any melee actually gets in melee range, I am just stuck refreshing Agony and Corruption until I die. Even if I juke an interrupt and have already survived their stun and am not facing what appears to be a direct Warlock counter, the damage I deal is mostly garbage within the timeframe of my remaining health. 

Can I deal a lot of damage when left alone and DoTing the whole team from the bushes? Yeah, sure. It’s fun throwing everything out there and then Malefic Rapturing everyone without actually giving away your position. But what caster CAN’T deal a lot of damage when left alone to freecast at the enemy team from the bushes? And what’s more, my overall damage pressure really isn’t enough to change the direction of a team fight at the time. 

Compare Affliction to Destruction, for example. If I’m able to turret from the bushes, I can pretty much delete people with Chaos Bolt – that has a much more immediate impact to the current fight than everyone being at 50% HP thirty seconds from now. Getting trained by melee is still a bad time, but I’m a little less concerned about eating a kick when I actually have more than one spell school. Also, you can use Infernal as another emergency CC to try and get space for when Mortal Coil is on cooldown.

Why not just play BGs as Destruction then? Well… why not just play Mage instead? Or Boomkin, for that matter? There is something very satisfying about absurdly slow-moving Chaos Bolts hitting for 4700+ but I have all the same issues with melee as Affliction.

What I keep coming back to with both specs is this: what is the Warlock niche? What do Warlocks counter? With the ascendance of Shadow Priests, it’s not as though Warlocks are “the DoT class.” Destruction hits hard, but so do any freecasting caster. It’s not as though Warlocks possess an abundance of CC, especially when Fear takes 1.6 seconds to cast at a short range (well, shorter than normal spell range) and a single interrupt locks you out of everything for 3+ seconds.

Way back in the day, I remember Warlocks basically having all the same issues but they were at least extremely difficult to kill. Am I remembering wrong? Has it just been a general ability creep over the years that made melee so potent a counter? Or perhaps I am just doing everything wrong.

All I know is that I’m not having the best time as Warlock. I will stick with it a bit longer, focusing on Destruction. Having Covenant abilities might improve the experience, along with the Affliction legendary that basically makes Corruption a 50% snare for 24 seconds. Perhaps that will cause enough annoyance/disruption to the other team to make my presence on the field worth the pain. 

Shadowlands Complete

Not complete complete, of course, but I successfully leveled up to 60, saw all the story zones, and spent a week doing dailies/world quests. Just got to repeat that last part for two years, and that’s a wrap.

In case you’re curious, I broke down and just plowed through the story on my Guardian druid. The tipping point was the fact that the herbs in Bastion had came down to 30g each, but the ones from later zones were still selling for 120g apiece. Under normal expansion scenarios, I would just head over to the new places even if I were underleveled, and just hope to find a few farming spots with neutral mobs. Unfortunately for me, Shadowlands is locked up pretty tight. “Fine, I’ll just do the story quests and nothing else.”

As it turns out, you can just do the story quests and sail into the endgame pretty quickly. I’m not quite sure how things would have worked out had I not been gaining supplemental XP from picking herbs, but I was quite pleased that optional quests were optional.

I concur with just about everyone that Blizzard stumbled with the beginning zones in Shadowlands. The Maw “tutorial” is a drag and never actually gave me any impression that it was as terrible a place as it was portrayed. The Maw at the endgame though, that feels hostile and properly hellish. In any case, going from the Maw tutorial into Oribos and into Bastion was just an incredibly weak, underwhelming transition. There’s a point where a quest giver says something like “this might not look like much with the drought, but see how it used to look,” and then they show you… the same sterile landscape with some white light beams in the sky. I seriously questioned whether a bug or something was preventing the “vibrant” Bastion from appearing. Nothing drives this more home than when you eventually see Elysian Hold, which was actually impressive.

I will further agree with everyone that things flip 180 degrees when you drop into Maldraxxus. It’s textbook “Show, Don’t Tell” right from the start. The entire zone experience is so well-crafted that you have to wonder if it was really designed by the same team. Maybe it wasn’t? From previews of the zone I was a bit worried that a sort of plague/undead zone in an afterlife setting would be boring, especially when you already have the Maw. And, you know, pretty much that exact zone motif in every expansion going back to Plaguelands in Classic. Instead, it felt just right that the final resting place of warriors is a sort of destroyed wasteland battle royale, with bugs, slimes, necromancers, and literal warts on the landscape that you can skin for leather.

As for the remaining two zones, they were okay. Ardenweald started to become intriguing, but ran on just a bit too long for my tastes. I’m a sucker for “everyone you helped earlier marching alongside you at the end” though, so it got some late points. With Revendreth, I think the zone layout was made bad on purpose, and that annoys me – the map is all but useless at assisting you to navigate the severe verticality. I also had an issue with a particular “reveal” about the anima drought that made no sense. I don’t know what counts as a spoiler, so I’ll just post this link, which basically sums up my confusion.

So that is that.

My plans, for now, is to continue doing some basic chores in the form of Callings, herbing, and whatever Covenant stories I manage to unlock. Aside from that, I will be focusing on… perhaps the Warlock, getting them to the level cap and otherwise doing some random BGs for giggles. Once Raid Finder difficulties unlock, maybe seeing how those things go. And then? Letting the sub lapse again, most likely. I have already managed to get 3 WoW Tokens between selling old mats and grinding new ones, so that should cover me for a while.

Shadowlands Class/Spec Feel, part 1

One of the big distinctions of WoW, for good or ill, is how much things change across each expansion. I never really took these changes to heart much, as I was a Protection/Retribution paladin main and thus things seemed to only really get better over the years. Seriously, when your “rotation” was re-casting Seals every 10 seconds and just auto-attacking, for years (!!!), everything was an improvement.

With Shadowlands still shiny and new, I decided that I could kill two birds with one stone: level up all my classes from 45 to 50 and decide which ones were worth crossing the veil. Luckily, leveling only took 2-3 hours via Warmode in WoD’s Shadowmoon Valley per character. If a character had cleared out that zone in years past, I plowed through Redridge instead. Kinda weird, but it works.

Druid

I started with Druid as that had been my “main” in Legion, and they are very nice for Gathering. And while I stuck with it until level 52, it was precisely this class that led me to start this “let’s maybe play something else” experiment.

Balance Druid – Technically speaking, I may never have really liked Balance as a spec despite playing it for like a year. Part of the problem is with Druids generally, which is Too Many Buttons. And yet none of them really feel good to press. Balance in particular is supposed to have this Lunar/Solar gimmick, but being in those phases never really feels impactful. And then you have 2-4 DoTs you can place on mobs, but those are absolutely not enough to kill anything on their own.

About the only enjoyable thing about Balance is being able to pool and then fire off multiple Starsurges against, say, a second nearby mob after finishing one up. Or just using a Starsurge as a sort of execute-effect against the mob you’re fighting. And, yes, I’m aware that Starsurge technically buffs your Eclipse state and so you should fire it off immediately before chain-nuking. Doesn’t change the fact that neither Wrath or Starfire feel good to cast, buff or no buff.

Guardian Druid – While technically a tank spec, Guardian is actually the recommended leveling spec for Druids… which should really tell you something about Druids as a class. In any case, I took Guardian for a spin in Redridge right before Shadowlands and it’s pretty okay. Tanks are not especially meant to be focusing on moment-to-moment coolness as much as they are weaving in defensive cooldowns to counter boss abilities.

Having said that, Guardian is overall an enjoyable experience. Having a proc that turns Moonfire into a capable nuke is fun, and I also enjoy keeping track of stacking Thrash bleed effects.

Feral Druid – I haven’t actually spent much time as Feral, aside from parking my Druid back at the Auction House. Tiger Dash outside the AH, and Flight Form back in is OP. My initial impression is similar to Balance though: too many buttons, not enough power. Which makes sense in a way, as Feral’s whole schtick is layering bleeds and that doesn’t do much for mobs that die in 10-15 seconds.

My other problem is Tiger’s Fury. This is a 30-second cooldown that gives you 50 energy and grants you a 15-second damage buff. Okay. This is sort of like Rogue’s Marked for Death talent which grants 5 combo points, including the ability to have it reset on mob death (if talented) to essentially keep it active for every encounter. Thing is, Marked for Death is useful for prepping Slice and Dice on the first mob and then burst for other mobs. Conversely, I never really know how to use Tiger’s Fury. Open on a mob, spam away my energy, then pop it to spam some more? Pop it before the opener?

I fully concede that perhaps my own skill/familiarity with the class is at the root of my dissatisfaction. That said, if all the fun is being hidden under a bushel, that’d kinda on the designers.

Paladin

Retribution Paladin – my namesake main has been neither for a few years now (had to change to Azuriell when I migrated servers), and there is a part of me that is sad about it. Another part of me is just fine. While paladins in general, and Retribution specifically, have massively improved since the “let’s make only Horde paladins viable DPS, haha” TBC days when I first started, I don’t actually like them now. There’s just… something missing. Even Hammer of Wrath (at level 46!) can’t fill the hole.

If I had to guess, it would be two things. One, Crusader Strike having a cooldown. Seriously, it’s dumb and creates dead space in any rotation. I think I read an interview once that said it was intentional because that created opportunities for paladin players to weave in other utility abilities, like the various Hands/Blessing spells or a random heal. That’s great… in organized group content, potentially. It also creates massive overhead in terms of setting up macros because ain’t nobody got time to manually click Blessing of Sacrifice or whatever on the healer or tank in the thick of combat.

The second thing is Sacred Shield. God, I miss that spell. Was it OP? Probably. In fact, it absolutely was when it was first released. And seeing as how it no longer exists in the game even as a PvP talent, I think Blizzard agrees it still would be.

Regardless, I liked the design of Sacred Shield as a 30-second buff that granted a 6-second bubble every 6 seconds. It created a buffer when getting dispelled in PvP, it added to Retribution survivability, the mini-bubble gave Flash of Light a 50% crit buff which increased its strategic value, and the targeting limitation (only 1 at a time) made it mean something when you gave it to someone else.

That was great design! Sigh.

Priest

Shadow Priest – My Shadow Priest has changed a lot over the years. Or I suppose it’s possible that I just haven’t played them in years? Devouring Plague being a “spender” for the Insanity resource feels really weird. It’s a cool effect and all, but not the first thing I think of when I imagine a spender. A-ha! I’m now crazy enough to give you this… six second disease!

Having said that, the Shadow Priest feels really, really good while leveling. Downtime is practically nonexistent. Lead off with Vampiric Touch which auto-applies Shadow Word: Pain (via talent), hit with a punchy Mind Blast, then immediately start channeling Mind Flay. By the end of the channel, you either have an instant-cast Mind Blast or a Devouring Plague ready to get them into Shadow Word: Death range. Successfully executing the mob this way gives you 40 extra Insanity (via talent) to plaster the next mob with early Devouring Plagues. Meanwhile, you’re zipping around with speed boosts from Power Word: Shield and only really need to heal once with Shadow Mend, if at all.

Seriously, there is no comparison between this and, say, Balance Druid or Retribution Paladin.

The one downside – really apparent when leveling in Warlords – is the weak AoE. The sweet-spot is 1-2 mobs. Against more than that you can multi-DoT and perhaps channel Mind Sear, but it just feels bad. Much better to DoT a few and try to burn a single mob down so you can start the Shadow Word: Death train. Still, it’s not as though Balance or Retribution felt better in crowds.

I am a little saddened by what Blizzard did with Voidform. Building up Insanity as a resource to unleash Voidform, in which you grew increasingly powerful the longer you were able to maintain a rapidly-draining Insanity bar, was extremely elegant design. Use void spells –> go insane while rampaging –> come to your senses. Now it’s… what? A DPS cooldown? I mean, sure, every class needs a DPS cooldown, but it’s just sad how little interaction it has with Insanity anymore. I understand that Blizzard kinda burned themselves with the original design insofar as players get obsessed with trying to prolong Voidform – to the point where Surrender to Madness was a viable talent! – but I don’t think the current incarnation is the right solution.

Unprepared

I am not prepared for Shadowlands.

Given how I only restarted playing WoW on a whim after a two year lapse, it is debatable how prepared I should be at this point. And yet I have been playing daily since then. Know what I have been doing? Perhaps leveling up on the Horde side? Leveling my characters to 50? Deciding on which character is my (new) main?

Nope. I was working on unlocking flying in BfA. Because that’s a priority… for some reason.

Like so many things, I started with good intentions. I created a Horde druid to experience BfA from the other side and to unlock Vulpera eventually. Thing is, the lack of mobility is a huge drag, especially with the way the main Horde hub is set up. Since I was on a new server, I did not have spare gold to even purchase Goblin Glider kits. “This would be a better experience with flying.” So off I went back to the Alliance Demon Hunter, the only level 50 I had.

In fairness, I did get at least two other classes to 50 in the meantime. But most of my playtime has been emptying banks full of outdated crafting material at bargain-basement prices and doing Tortollan and Champion of Azeroth dailies, as I did two years ago. I think the fact that all the necessary reps were already into Honored territory lulled me in a false sense of security that I could achieve the Achievement in a reasonable amount of time. Which I did!

…Pathfinder Part 1, anyway.

Alas, even though Blizzard’s philosophy has changed in Shadowlands, they decided not to drop reputation requirements to BfA flying. At least, not yet. So after spending a few weeks grinding one set of reputations, I unlocked the need to grind two more, right before the release of an expansion that makes it all moot anyway. All for what? The ease to experience quest text at slightly faster pace? I try to optimize many things in the course of playing videogames, but I recognize that sometimes it spins me off in absurd directions.

Or perhaps I was just subconsciously rebelling against the fundamental task. I am referring to experiencing the Horde side of things, but it might very well be playing an MMO casually at all. Think about how many polished single-player games I could have experienced in that same amount of time.

On the other hand, IRL work has picked up significantly and sometimes I just want to turn my mind off and plow through some meaningless but achievable, repetitive tasks. And there ain’t many things better than WoW for those.

Also, I’ll be paying for Shadowlands and another two months of gametime (if necessary) exclusively via WoW Tokens. There really isn’t a better time to make bank than the release of a new expansion, so I kinda don’t want to miss that. You know, setting up for the expansion after this one.

Missing Anything from the Other Side?

One of the little WoW goals I had been thinking about doing was leveling a character on the other faction. The last time I had characters on multiple factions in any serious way was back in Wrath. At the time, I do vaguely recall there being some worthwhile differences in questing and general lore. For example, I remember it being a cool experience bringing the Taunka into the Horde fold and seeing that process. Also, I think there was something way different with Horde Death Knights compared to the Alliance experience.

Having said that, I don’t want to go too crazy here. My Horde toon would be completely divorced from my Alliance gold/material stockpile and otherwise have to rough it through life. I have done the beginning experiences of WoD and Mists on Horde but nothing further than maybe two dozen quests.

So… think there’s something worth seeing on the other side? I’m sure 90% of it is the same crap regardless, but if I’m going to do something silly like unlock Vulperas or something, I may as well check out a new (to me) zone along the way.