Heroic Coven of Shivarra — bring your bookie

Last night our guild took another stab at Heroic Coven of Shivarra in Antorus the Burning Throne. It was our second venture into it, and we were unsuccessful. It’s not like we have run up against a brick wall or anything on this boss — think we only have something like 25-30 Heroic wipes so far. And I suspect we will kill it next week. But there is something about this fight that just feels wrong — a frustrating powerlessness that makes it more akin to a game of chance than the kind of tough boss fight Blizz used to design.

For those who have not been on the raid, Coven is a council-type boss fight, with three bosses that switch out so that you fight any two of them at once. At intervals, various types of large adds appear around the room. The adds are quite powerful, and failure to deal properly with them will wipe the raid, as will failure to deal with the various continuous damage powers of the bosses. At any given time, the raid is dealing with 3-4 or more simultaneous mechanics, and it can get quite hectic.

This in itself is not bad — kind of standard fare in modern raids. What strikes me as different about this raid is the extent to which raid composition and pure luck play a role in success. Yeah, I know there have been other tiers where certain boss kills were somewhat dependent on luck, but Coven seems to be in a class all its own for its dependence on these factors. Two examples:

  • Location of safe spots during the storm AoE. This AoE will kill you unless you are standing in one of several randomly-located safe spots for the duration. If most or all of these safe spots spawn on top of other one-shot mechanics, the raid will wipe. And this happens regularly.
  • Order of adds. Certain types of adds are much more difficult (ok, almost impossible) to survive if they spawn at certain points in the fight (Norgannon adds during Storm, for example, or during the targeted freeze mechanic or during the mass-slow mechanic). There are only four types of adds, so the chances of drawing a raid-wiping combo of them are pretty high.

The above are the major RNG factors, but there are a ton of minor ones, too. If a player gets more than one random targeted debuff — which seems to happen with distressing regularity — and happens to not be at full health when they hit, the player will almost certainly die. If a player happens to get the frozen debuff during Norgannon adds, that player will almost certainly die to the adds. And there are countless other debuff combos that will insta-kill you, all of them the result of random targeting.

Also, as I mentioned, the raid composition heavily influences your chances for success. One that is heavy on melee has almost no chance of killing this boss, and in fact any raid that is not nearly all ranged will have significantly more difficulty than one that is. Classes with shorter defensive cooldowns are at a distinct advantage over ones with, say only 1 or 2 long defensive cooldowns. And druids and DKs are really the classes of choice for their exceptionally efffective cc abilities for the Norgannon adds. Blizz is once again rewarding us for bringing the class, not the player.

When you add all this up, you get a raid boss that seems — more than any other thus far in the game — to require more luck than skill to beat. (Interestingly, in Mythic — so I am told, I do not know it firsthand — the order of adds for this boss is fixed instead of random. Can’t be introducing uncertainty for the professional players, can we now? After all, they are the primary target audience for this game.)

As I said above, we will almost certainly kill this boss within a week or so, and eventually we will outgear it so that we can roflstomp through. But that is not the point. The point is, that while the mechanic design for this boss may have been relatively decent, the RNG implementation of nearly every aspect of that design — along with the cascading effect on raid composition — is terrible.

Most raid teams consider Coven to be the most challenging boss in the raid, harder even than Argus, the final boss, another indication that it is badly implemented. Sorry, but I belong to the camp that still believes the final boss should be the most difficult one…

I have complained before about what I consider to be Legion’s over-reliance on RNG for nearly every aspect of the game. But the introduction of large-scale randomness even in a raid boss seems to be approaching a jump-the-shark point in the game. It is not fun™ to be put in a position in a boss fight where you know either you as a player will die or the raid will wipe and there is nothing you can or could have done to prevent it. You can ignore it to an extent if it is an exceptionally rare occurrence. But when it happens with the frequency it seems to in Coven, it is a worrisome trend. This is not the WoW raid design that drew me to the activity in the first place.

When Legion is in our rear-view mirrors, will we see its RNG pervasiveness as the point where Blizz recognized they had gone too far, or as the jumping-off point for a new genre: the Massively Multiplayer Online Game of Chance?

On that low note, it is time to start the weekend. See you on the other side.

Message on classes?


Yesterday, as I am sure you all know, there was another Blizz Q&A, this time with Game Director Ion Hazzikostas. I watched it live, then parts of it again this morning as I was munching my corn flakes. There were really no great revelations, and of course everyone will have their own take on it. If you want to check it out for yourselves, Wowhead has video of the entire interview and a nice text summary on this page.

In spite of the fact that we were told the Q&A is not the venue for discussing class balance issues, the one thing that struck me was a pretty defined thread of Legion class development weaving through many of the answers given to questions on varied topics. I think we are in the middle of a pretty significant swing on the entire philosophy of classes in WoW. That is not really news, I guess, but I do think we are finally seeing the emergence of a more or less clearly articulated set of class policies, which is something we have not had for some time now in the game.

The way I would express this policy is:

External game mechanisms are more important for determining class strengths than are individual player abilities, and those mechanisms should influence group compositions. 

Yeah, I know, but hear me out.

Gear. Gear level is the default measuring stick for all content in the game. Hazzikostas was pretty blunt about this when asked about the difficulty of the class artifact challenges in 7.2. He went to some pains to point out that the challenges were actually designed to get easier with better gear, and that player abilities could only go so far to beat the challenges absent good gear, and in some cases very specific gear.

However, in an apparent nod to player abilities (along with an obedient bow to the elitist mentality), he did add he is “confident that there will be a large number of people who just aren’t able to do [the artifact challenges]”. Yes, he used the word “confident”, which implies approval of the development. We don’t know whether he has this confidence because he also has confidence in the inept play of many players or because he has confidence in the fact that RNG makes getting decent gear unlikely for many players.

Nevertheless, the message was pretty clear: gear should matter more than almost any other factor.

External buffs discussion. This was eye-opening to me. The question being answered had to do with the wisdom of continuing to have external group buffs — of which there are currently very few. But Hazzikostas’s answer was quite far-reaching, I thought. It went far beyond the actual question, almost as if the question had been chosen to allow a public policy statement.

He first explained he thinks there should be more group-contributing type abilities, “not just numbers-driven ones”. I found this to be pretty amazing, considering Legion had gone to some pains to strip away almost all raid buffs.

He also expressed what I presume is the official Blizz stance on class value — that the game had veered too far in the direction of “bring the player not the class”, and that there is in his opinion significant value in bringing certain classes because of their unique group contributions. In fairness, he did point out that you can go too far in this direction, giving Sunwell Plateau as an example. But the message was clear: class should matter in group selection. He even went so far as to give the example of selecting a less-skilled warlock over, say “a third hunter”.

I admit I was annoyed that the only mention he made of hunters in the entire Q&A was to intimate there are too many of them, and that they are just generic damage dealers, but that is petty of me. And maybe I am reading too much into this, but it seems like he has completely forgotten that hunters used to be the premier utility class until under his watch nearly all utility functions were stripped from them. And now he has the nerve to imply hunters have no special utility and therefore should be replaced by a class that does have some??? OK, mini-rant over.

Anyway, I think this pronouncement is the formalization of the sea change in Blizz’s class development philosophy that we have observed evolving in Legion. I do not think it is overstating it to say that Blizz is moving back towards the idea of optimal class mixes for raids. In fact, he made this plain when he said (direct quote), “A well rounded group should always be the best one”.

Whether this will have any appreciable effect on non-elite raid teams remains to be seen. It seems unlikely, especially for flexible-sized difficulty levels. I suspect most semi-casual raid teams seldom run at the full 30 capacity, so if they have a few extra hunters (big fat raspberry to you, Mr. Ion “I Hate Hunters” Hazzikostas) it does not mean they can’t still add that oh-so-useful Warlock…

It will have an effect, I suppose, on Mythic raid teams, but many of those already configure their rosters based on class/spec contributions for specific fights. It could have an effect also on those non-Mythic teams who occasionally dip a toe into Mythic raids. I am thinking of my own guild, where just because of membership we frequently run with 4 or more hunters — if “proper” class mix becomes a thing, some of those hunters, regardless of their play abilities, could be asked to sit out if they are preventing a “useful” class from coming along. I think guild philosophy would supersede benching a regular raider solely because of their class, but if having a certain class mix is a clearly superior strategy, it could happen.

Another area that might be affected is pugs. Hazzikostas seemed to think increasing class relevance would be beneficial to pugs, because group leaders would not just be looking to grab the player with the highest ilevel. True, but it could also serve to really harm a class perceived to have no “special” contributions. Even if Blizz is forward-thinking enough to give every spec an identifiable beneficial utility, it could still backfire if that spec’s utility was not useful in certain fights — you might be able to get all the first wing Nighthold you could handle, for example, but no group would even think of picking you up for the second wing.

I often criticize Blizz for not communicating policy changes, so it is only fair that I hand them a kudo this time. Though it was subtle, I do think Ion Hazzikostas in the Q&A delivered a policy pronouncement on the role of classes in Legion and going forward: Gear and group utility (as handed out by Blizz in the form of unique class abilities) are significant pieces of class power, slightly outweighing player proficiency except in the most extreme cases, and it is desirable that these class attributes play a role in determining group composition strategies.

I may not agree with it, but I can’t argue that I have not been told about it.

Oh, and Blizz, please for the love of anything you may hold dear —


And have a good weekend.


What’s next?

It’s way too soon to start speculating about the next WoW expansion (NWE), so let me speculate about it. There is not much else to write about these days anyway, and it has been a while since I have put forth any crackpot ideas, so what the hell.

Disclaimer: Everything in this post is the product of my warped but robust imagination, I have absolutely no insight into any current or future Blizzard development plans.

In considering what we might see in the next WoW expansion, the process I used was to look at past trends and add in recent game features. I am not a lore buff, so I am not going to address much at all about the background story line — plus, honestly, WoW lore/history seems really only to exist in order to explain game design not the other way around, so I have never been able to get too excited about it. (I know some of you really love it, not disparaging you for this at all, just it is not my cup of tea.)

Location and scaling. There will be new zones. Whether they will be somewhere on Azeroth or — as has been coyly hinted — on another planet is, in my opinion, not important. On the other hand, zone scaling, a huge hit in Legion, will continue in NWE, and I look for it to be expanded in some way. Not sure exactly how, but one idea might be that some legacy zones become scaled, permitting leveled players to revisit and explore them in a somewhat challenging way, making it more fun to go back and finish unfinished or even new quest lines in those areas.

Content. Blizz believes they have finally hit on a winning plan to keep content flowing in Legion — whether this is true or not is a subject for a whole different post — and so NWE will see the same content paradigm. To wit:

  • World quests.
  • Mini-events/holidays.
  • Rapid patches and semi-patches.
  • Continued use — and likely expansion — of RNG as both the carrot and the stick to force more play hours for every facet of the game, from gear to professions.
  • Mythic+ dungeons, expanded in some way. For example, there might be some sort of “plus” mechanism for non-current raids, or add the “plus” concept into weekly timewalker bonus events.

Classes. I do not expect to se any new classes introduced in NWE, but I think we may see some or all race restrictions lifted for class selection. I also think we may see some further spec role changes (not mages, of course, don’t be ridiculous). For example, we might see another spec added to Demon Hunters to give them three. I would not expect it to be a healing spec, more likely would be a ranged spec, possibly using a combination of magic and thrown weapons. In the wishful thinking department, I would like to see SV hunters become a tanking spec, using pets in creative ways to really open up possibilities for some exciting tanking innovations.

I expect to see yet another huge rewrite of nearly every class, because Blizz has demonstrated that they simply cannot refrain from doing this every expansion, even when they are able to achieve a semblance of balance by the end of one. The rewrite will continue the recent trend of making some classes more or less indispensable to certain raid fights, finally driving a stake into the now disfavored notion of bringing the player not the class.

I think Blizz will also place more back-door restrictions on spec flexibility. They will continue to tout how a player can freely switch among all their specs, but they will increase the penalties for doing so, whether by charging gold or by creating restrictive gear or by limiting the times/places it can be done.

I also think we will see a continuation of the trend of “mini specs”. In Legion, we saw the notion of class begin to take a back seat to the notion of spec, as demonstrated most obviously with artifact weapons. In addition, we saw a very distinct differentiation in spec “specialization” emerge based on talent selection, and we saw a very slight but nevertheless active attempt to put some controls on changing that specialization. In effect, I think we saw the emergence of specs as the new class, the concept of class becoming more one of general category, and a growing importance placed on specialty builds for each spec. This trend will continue in NWE, and it will become more pronounced, to the point of identifying players by class, spec, and build specialty — “Single-target destro warlock”, “Bursty MM hunter”, etc.

Gear. First of all — RNG, RNG, and more RNG. Also, the secondary stat mess will continue and possibly get worse, compounded by the inevitable total rewrite of most classes and consequent unforeseen results of overpowered or underpowered secondary stat interactions.

As I alluded to in a reply to a reader comment a couple of days ago, I expect to see some continuation of the artifact weapon mechanism in NWE. Yes, I know Blizz has told us that artifact weapons are a one-expansion thing, but remember they also told us that same thing about garrisons, then gave us mini-garrisons in the form of class halls. We will have some piece of gear in NWE that will require upkeep mechanisms eerily similar to AP and relics and such, because:

  • Too many dev resources have gone into artifact weapons to trash the idea completely.
  • Spec abilities are rather intimately tied to weapon abilities now, and Blizz seems to like the possibility of tweaking abilities by tweaking gear traits.
  • The artifact weapon — or follow-on — plays a rather large role in encouraging players to spend more time in the game chasing infinite upgrades.

As to the whole Legion legendary debacle, who knows? I think Blizz is embarrassed enough by it that we may see legendaries as lottery winnings disappear in NWE, but we may see some return to quest lines for them. I would expect these to be less involved and time-consuming than the ones in Mists and WoD, but still requiring weeks to complete. Moreover, I think we may see options for obtaining more than one legendary per character, once again with the Blizz benefit of extending game play time.

Crafted gear? No clue. Wishful thinking is that it would become relevant again, for all professions, but I don’t know. My suspicion is that it will fall prey to the drive to devalue professions in general. Which leads me to —

Professions. I am not hopeful about this area. I think NWE will give us even more hurdles to professions, and I think Blizz’s inability to see the large picture will once again give us clear winners in losers in the profession lottery, as we saw with for example winner alchemists and loser skinners in Legion. The problem I see with professions is that they are totally tied, in Blizz’s collective mind, to the use of alts. To allow profession leveling and item production for characters not played the same number of hours as mains is to condone the evil practice of having alts support a main. Why this is bad is still a mystery to me, but we have heard that oracle of acceptable game play and approved fun, Ion Hazzikostas, lecture us many times on the fact that, take his word for it, it is evil evil evil. So it must be. So professions will continue to become more and more elusive for characters that do not spend main-level time in game.

Alts. They will continue to be forced into an “other mains” play style temulate. See above, end of discussion.

In short, I expect the next expansion will be a veritable clone of Legion, just different locations and a few changes either for cause or merely for the sake of change. I am not saying if this is good or bad, I am just saying that Blizz considers Legion to have been an unqualified success, they think they have found a winning formula after the failure of WoD, and they are going to stick to it. They certainly have cause for considering Legion to be successful — I agree with them for the most part — but I suspect the formula will wear a bit thin if it is repeated. Furthermore, the tendency for self-congratulations on the success of Legion means it is unlikely Blizz will take seriously some of the major flaws and missteps they committed. They may have gotten the message on legendary gear, but thus far it still seems like they are oblivious to the pain and chaos they caused by their horrible changes to many classes and specs, and I honestly expect them to repeat the same mistake in the next expansion.

What about you? Any predictions for the next expansion? (Tinfoil hat theories also accepted.)

Class balance revelations

Late breaking edit: Hell has frozen over. Blizz CM Ornyx has opened a forum thread soliciting comments on hunter changes. (Also one on Warlock changes, I think.) Head over there and make your opinions known. I am not going to go into why Blizz has ignored hunter pleas for months, and now wants to hear them again, as if this is news to them…. It may all come to nothing, but we should still give it a try.

During the recent Gamescom 2016, WoW Assistant Game Director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas granted some in-depth interviews, covering most aspects of Legion. MMO-C has posted videos and text summaries of them:

I’ve written some of my impressions from these so far, and today I’d like to take up the subject of class balance. Watcher gave us what is, I think, the most insight we have yet had on the tumultuous upheavals for many classes in Legion. This is not to say he went so far as to be actually forthcoming on the subject, but he at least dropped a couple of tidbits that help us to put the changes into some context.

Pruning. That dreaded word. After spending a couple of expansions focusing on (mostly) adding to class abilities, Blizz reversed course in WoD and Legion and embarked on a program of cutting the very abilities they had added, plus a few more. In some cases, they pruned a class spec but then added in some features that resulted in a more complex and thus interesting play style — combat/outlaw rogue is an example (just my opinion, those of you who main a rogue may disagree). In other cases, they pruned a spec and did not add in anything else, resulting in something an above-average carrot could easily play — of course the prime example of this is BM hunter. Then, of course, there were some classes and specs that, while not escaping all change, were pretty much left alone, at least in Legion — mages, of course, because they are untouchable, and druids come to mind.

In the Fatboss interview, Watcher discussed the Great Pruning Massacres of WoD and Legion at some length, and I found his comments to be somewhat of a mixed message, but ultimately unsettling. On the one hand he said that adding abilities to classes, as happened prior to WoD, was a bad thing because it resulted in “homogeneous” classes, such that the only thing a group leader would need to look for would be, for example, a “ranged DPS”. On the other hand, he said that one reason to prune anything, like a plant in your garden, is to give it room to grow, implying that eventually Blizz will return to adding new abilities back in to classes.

The best interpretation I can come up with for this is that Blizz has abandoned the concept of “Bring the player, not the class”. Watcher’s comments seem to point to a goal of making every class — no, make that “every spec” — fit a specific niche, and any eventual “un-pruning” will add in certain niche abilities. He said that a desirable goal is for a raid leader to seek out “a good hunter” rather than a good ranged DPS. (He ignored the fact that hunters are now for all practical purposes 3 different classes, and it makes a pretty big difference which spec is included in a raid. But then, as I have said before, no one at Blizz pays much attention to hunters any more except as a convenient stereotype.)

Well. Talk about your complete philosophical turnarounds. As it is a virtual certainty that Blizz will design raid bosses and wings with heavy emphasis on specific types of mechanics, it would seem we are destined to return to the days of selecting raid members on the basis of spec first, skill second.

The good news is that this will not significantly impact most guild raiding, because Normal and Heroic raids are flex, so it is relatively easy to accommodate one or two less-than-optimal specs for any given boss. Also, most casual or semi-casual guilds worth their salt do not bench competent players in order to stack a raid with “the best” specs for the fight.

The bad news is that this will probably have the biggest negative impact on damage dealers who rely on the Premade Group Finder for their raiding, especially those specs that are perceived as low-performing or as not bringing anything of value to the group. (Looking at you, all you BM hunters out there.) Now, in addition to having to meet often-ridiculous gear level requirements, a potential pug DPS will also have to be an approved spec to qualify. This is not encouraging for anyone whose spec appears at the bottom of some of the sim lists.

Side rant on spec “uniqueness”: I realize that hybrid classes have had to deal with group role pickiness for quite some time, which is somewhat akin to the upcoming spec preferences for DPS. But for the most part this has worked in favor of hybrid classes. For one thing, they have the option of queuing for roles in demand, such as healer or tank, which usually grants them expedited acceptance if they meet the other group requirements. And they have the added beneficial option of setting their loot spec to whichever spec they want to gear up. So, for example, if a balance/resto druid is trying to gear up their moonkin, they can still get into a pug as a healer and get moonkin gear. That is not true for the so-called “pure” DPS classes. Yes, they can “select” a loot spec but it makes absolutely zero difference in the gear they get, since primary stat and gear type is all that is considered. (Not even sure why loot spec is an option for pure DPS players, it seems kind of like the faux thermostat in offices that give workers the illusion of temperature control but in reality the thing is not even hooked up.)

I predict what we will see for the Premade Group Finder is this situation: eventually Blizz will change the queue filters to reflect a player’s spec as well as class when they apply, thereby relieving the group leader of having to ask which spec potential damage dealers are, since specs are now so differentiated. I can’t imagine most group leaders, for example, just blindly accepting a hunter — even with high gear level — without knowing at least if he is melee or ranged. So it is almost inevitable that the Group Finder will sooner or later start to reflect a player’s spec (not just role selection). For pure damage dealers, this further handicaps them, because they will then have the disadvantages of a hybrid class (sorry, we need a different spec) without the compensation of being able to queue and play with the “desired” spec and still get gear for their main spec — because Blizz considers all pure DPS gear to be equal across a class.

It is high time that Blizz consider secondary stats the same as they consider primary ones (like agility, strength, etc.), and allow pure DPS players to select a loot spec that actually gives them a reasonable chance at some optimal gear. If Blizz insists on making every spec “unique” and conforming to a “spec fantasy”, then by golly they need to hold up their end, too, and configure gear tables to conform to all these unique specs. We have heard the party line now for some time that secondary stats really are not all that important, not to worry our poor little heads about it, but that is just not true. Secondary stats have a very noticeable impact on player performance, and the inability to reliably loot gear appropriate to one’s spec is just sloppy design.

What about current class imbalances? Hazzikostas as much as admitted that classes and specs are not well balanced, that there are some clear winners and losers. But he also said that, due to the overwhelming importance of artifact weapons and the time that needs to be invested in them, Blizz will not be correcting these known imbalances any time soon. When or if they decide to do a better job of balancing, he indicated it would be done via extensions to artifact abilities. In other words, if you were a lottery winner and your spec currently rules, you can expect it to continue to do so, possibly ruling a tad bit less but ruling nevertheless. On the other hand, if your spec currently stinks, you can rely on it continuing to stink for the foreseeable future. Sucks to be you…

This is disappointing, and yet another example of Blizz’s new Commitment to Exellence Good Enough. The major redesign they opted to do for classes in Legion was a complex, tedious undertaking, with predicably major problems of balance both within each class and across all classes. It’s not like they haven’t done this before, not like they don’t have experience with it. But they went ahead with it anyway, failed to devote sufficient resources to follow it through, suddenly “realized” they could not continue to adjust the imbalances because of their other decision to make every spec dependent on a single piece of gear, ran out of time before the launch, and so threw up their hands and called it done.

Some final thoughts.  Based on the information we got from the Gamescom interviews, combined with the class and spec changes we have seen, I am beginning to think it is time for Blizz to admit that the designation of class is less important than the designation of spec, and to start supporting players on that basis. That means redesigning loot tables as well as player designation filters for mechanisms such as Group Finder. It also means much more balancing effort at the spec level, and much more attention to the interplay of gear, talents, and abilities for every spec.

Is this vastly more complex than designing and balancing for class? Yes, but it is a complexity problem of Blizz’s own making. As far as I know, players were not clamoring to make every spec unique and do yet another complete redesign, were not petitioning to get rid of the “Bring the player, not the spec” philosophy. Players were not demanding a different, unique, high-maintenance, play-determining weapon for every spec in the game. Those were internal Blizz decisions, made for who knows what reasons. But having embarked upon this course, it seems like the approach should be to embrace it completely, not half-assed. You want to get rid of homogeneity? Fine, but have the professionalism to see it through, don’t get three-quarters of the way there then call it “too hard” and abandon it.