Archive for November, 2009

And now for my next article, something a little different. I had hoped that Icecrown would hit the servers last Wednesday and I’d be able to jump in so I could give you another “first impressions” blog entry, but it would appear (quite fairly) that Blizzard aren’t fans of releasing major patches immediately before big holiday weekends, so that will have to wait. Instead of talking about strategy or UI or how to play a Discipline Priest, today I’m going to discuss Blizzard’s encounter design for healers over the months since Wrath’s release. How have they tackled the big problems that faced them and the complaints that were being made by healers? Have they been “successful”?

Now let me clarify “encounter design”. What I’m not going to be talking about here is the introduction of hardmodes and whether it was a good idea, or the limited attempts system from Trial of the Grand Crusader that will also be being implemented in Icecrown Citadel. Yes, I have my opinions on these matters, but you’re not going to find out what they are! There’s no point alienating half my readerbase straight off the bat by saying what I think of this stuff either way – I think the discussion surrounding these systems is a bit too “polarising” (people get very opinionated about it) for my liking and so I’ll keep my neutrality in tact.

Without further ado, let’s start looking at the problems that Blizzard have faced!

The Great Shaman-Stacking Problem

What Was The Problem?

When Blizzard released patch 2.4 and the Sunwell Plateau raid instance became available to play, it was designed to challenge the best of the best. Blizzard’s modus operandi was to create a raid instance that would keep guilds like Nihilum and SK Gaming (the merger of which became Ensidia) busy until the release of Wrath of the Lich King, or at least mean they would spend several weeks on it. The fights were tuned aggressively beyond belief and required near-perfection to kill. Many hardcore guilds had their entire memberbase reroll Leatherworking for the chain Drums buffs during M’uru, such was the damage output required.

But as we know, where there is a challenge and where a hardcore PvE guild comes across it, they will look in every nook and cranny of the game mechanics to find a way past it. A great example of this is Ensidia downing Hodir in under 2 minutes by spellstealing the Flower Power buff from some other trash; something which many players question the legitimacy of to this day (although, personally, I think it is an ingenious method of beating what was considered a mathematically impossible encounter). For Sunwell, the norm became the stacking of Shamen – mostly Restoration, but any Shamen were good.

Why? There were two main reasons;

1. Bloodlust/Heroism: In Wrath, the Sated/Exhausted debuff prevents anyone from being affected by Bloodlust or Heroism for 10 minutes after it’s used. The debuff is removed on death. The intended purpose of this is to allow a shorter cooldown on the skill so that it can be used again quickly if a guild wipes. In Burning Crusade, however, Bloodlust had no limitations, which is what made it so appealing – a massive, chainable DPS boost? Thank you very much!

2. Chain Heal: Of course, Blizzard had to make the healing just as difficult as the DPS requirements and it wasn’t uncommon to see gigantic amounts of raid damage being put out several times per minute, in one notable case (M’uru Phase 2) damage that wasn’t intended to be healed through forever. With skills like Wild Growth just a distant speck on the horizon, Shamen were the primary AoE-healing class and this made them an excellent choice for Sunwell.

So the fact that there was one class which excelled at AoE healing whilst adding tremendously to the damage output of the raid made them an excellent choice for any raid that was seriously attempting Sunwell.

How Has It Been Fixed?

“Bring the player, not the class”. This, I think it is safe to say, has been Blizzard’s primary motto through Wrath. They saw what happened with Sunwell Shaman-stacking and they didn’t particularly like it – whether a guild was hardcore or not, they shouldn’t be required to reroll an entire character and gear through several instances just to beat a few more encounters (an exception can be made for the world-first guilds who will do anything to win!).

So, class healing has been somewhat equalized. For AoE healing, Resto Druids received Wild Growth and Chain Heal was toned down. In return, Shamen had their tank-healing capabilities bumped up a little (although they are still behind Paladins and Discipline Priests here) and became a “jack-of-all-trades” healing class, something that many of the elite didn’t like. More casual guilds and even more hardcore guilds are able to fit their raid composition around the players available to them for almost every encounter. Yes, there are still some fights (inevitably difficult ones, like Anub’arak hardmode) that require certain healing classes; but by and large, this has been a big success on Blizzard’s part.

The Whack-a-Mole Issue

What Was The Problem?

The nature of healing is that we react to damage or (in the case of good healers) incoming damage. Somebody gets catapulted into a world of pain by some boss and it’s our job to try and stop them from dying. Healers since the dawn of time in WoW have always complained that healing is quite a monotonous affair. We put our raidframes in the bottom portion of the screen, somebody takes damage, we click their little nameplate and press a button; hence the “whack-a-mole effect”.

This, combined with many more casual healers feeling shut out by raid leaders blaming them for the fire-lovers dying, served to create a fairly disillusioned group of players who felt they did a difficult and boring job for not much credit.

How Has It Been Fixed?

The key to ridding WoW of the whack-a-mole effect is to create boss encounters that challenge healers in ways they don’t expect. DPS generally get their enjoyment of the game from seeing the boss die faster and the numbers on their Recount get gradually larger. Healers, on the other hand, don’t have this luxury. Numbers are generally meaningless to us, so the design team satiate our lust for fun by making us think about how we heal. It’s the basis of several great encounters and is most recently present in Anub’arak; see my last article for more on that. Fights like Val’kyr heroic and Beasts heroic are great gear checks but the healing is often frustrating (particularly Gormok, with his tank-gibbing tendencies) and almost feel like a rotation with no thought put into it.

Icecrown would appear to have more of the same interesting new encounters, with fights like Valithria and Sindragosa (will Penance cause three stacks of Unchained Magic?) having healers drooling over their keyboards already. Verdict? A partial success. I’ll admit you can’t always have great encounters for healers, but there are definitely more of them these days.

Instagibbed – Damage Output on Tanks

What Was The Problem?

For those of us who have been unlucky enough to try Beasts hardmode (our guild wiped on it over 250 times before killing it) you’ll know what I’m talking about. The problem is that as gear quality increases, healing throughput does so as well. Your heals get faster, stronger and… crittier? I love that word. Anywho, because of the way Wrath raiding has panned out; with hardmodes offering one or more different tiers of gear for every patch, in effect giving us 7 tiers already, healing started to become a spamfest. My Flash Heals can crit for almost 11k these days, and because of the higher levels of avoidance on tanks, healing becomes exponentially more easy. The tanks take less hits; and when they do, our heals heal them faster.

What was Blizzard’s response to this? They made the bosses hit harder. MUCH harder. Gormok was an extreme case of this, and I may cause some controversy by saying that I think it’s the biggest failure of Blizzard’s design team so far this expansion. When the tank took a full hit from a boss, his health would drop 25k. Combined with Gormok’s damage-increase and unlucky Impale ticks, (and especially given that before the first nerf Gormok was affected by parry-haste,) we lost about 50 attempts to tanks getting what we in the business call “gibbed” or “instagibbed” – killed before the healers could possibly react.

How Has It Been Fixed?

It hasn’t. Not yet, at least, because it’s still 3.2. For tank healers, Icecrown Citadel will be a pivotal point in the analysis of Blizzard’s balance team; they’re hanging their balance on Chill of the Throne, a zone-wide effect in the Icecrown raid that reduces tank avoidance by 20%, similar to Sunwell Radiance. The theory behind this is that allowing tanks to take more hits means that the strength of those attacks can be toned down, and tanks will take more of a “steady stream” of damage rather than 40k-40k-bang-you’re-dead. Will that be a success? We’ll see! Keep your eyes peeled.

So, is encounter design a “success”? The reason I have success in quote-marks is because the word success is polarised. It’s a yes or no question, really. In reality, Blizzard make a great game that keeps me glued to my screen when I have the time to spare for it! There are definitely places for improvement and we’ll see how Chill of the Throne works out when 3.3 goes live, but for the most part Blizzard’s encounter design has been very good this expansion; something that I think is overlooked by a lot of people.

Next article, first impressions of 3.3!

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I won’t lie. Right now, Anub’arak heroic is my favourite fight in the game. I can see Valithria hardmode being a lot of fun (spoilers!) once Patch 3.3 arrives, but for now, this encounter trumps Vezax hardmode as what I feel is the most challenging and enjoyable fight for myself and other healers in the game. It’s got to the point where almost every guild is working on some form of the encounter, whether it’s 10-man (Tribute runs or otherwise) for more casual guilds or 25-man for the progress guilds (including my current guild). Today I’m going to be going over the fight itself, as well as how Discipline fits into the healing side of things and providing some tips for both raid leaders and DPS.

The fight varies vastly depending on which version of the fight you are working on (ie. 10 or 25) and there are several different strategies and methods of dealing with Penetrating Cold/Leeching Swarm depending on your raid composition. I’m not going to cover them all, but I will talk at length about the most common solutions. You might want to watch TankSpot’s excellent video-guide of the encounter before reading on, as I will take some elements from that. Firstly, let’s look at the fight itself!

Anub’arak Heroic – The Fight

Anub'arak - Picture from www.wowhead.com

Part One: The Gimmick

Every fight has a gimmick, but the gimmick on Anub’arak is more than just something to be aware of – to understand how to heal the fight, you actually have to understand how it works and that it affects everything from how you divide up your healers to the raid’s DPS. Blizzard have created a fight where the healers have at least partial control over how fast the boss dies. How cool is that?

Let’s skip straight to Phase 3. Anub’arak uses an ability called Leeching Swarm, which drains 30% of the raid’s current health per second (20% on 10-man heroic) and heals Anub’arak. What does this mean? When you heal someone, you’re effectively healing the boss. For this reason, the raid needs to be kept as low as is realistically possible without dying. But don’t worry – the minimum tick for Leeching Swarm is 250 damage per second, so if someone is kept at 1000 health then they’re still 4 seconds away from dying! This can present a big problem for inexperienced raid leaders, which I’ll talk about later.

Leeching Swarm also presents two other big problems; tank healing and dealing with Penetrating Cold – a debuff applied by Anub’arak to several members of the raid which ticks for 6000 damage (3500 on 10-man) every 3 seconds. I’ll talk about these in the next sections.

Part Two: Raid Composition

Whilst Blizzard have always aimed at having a “Bring the player, not the class” system, Anub’arak heroic is one fight that benefits greatly from having a comparatively precise raid setup; but thankfully not back to the days of Sunwell Shamen-stacking or requiring X Priests for Razuvious. Two Holy Paladins are virtually essential for tank healing, and Paladins of other specs are invaluable for both tanking and phase 2 kiting. Other DPS classes with good passive group-wide heals (eg. Shadow Priests and Elemental Shamen) excel here as well, and shield tanks are pretty much required for the blocks on boss/add hits.

So while there’s no hard-and-fast ruleset, you’d do well to think about what you’re missing when you’re putting your raid together.

As for the number of healers, there are a lot of different combinations. I’ve heard of many 10-man guilds that have successfully done the heroic mode using 3 healers; my guild generally uses 2 healers and 6 dps (thus only going through one submerge phase). As for the 25-man, the number of healers can vary anywhere between 5 and 8 (!) but the normal group of 6 healers, provided it’s well-structured, won’t really let you down.

How Does Discipline Fit Into The Fight?

Discipline has historically been about damage mitigation, which means that in a fight where the damage is predictable we normally excel. Anub’arak heroic is no exception; and we can go further by saying that, indeed, this is one of the only fights where we can actually raid heal!

Part One: What’s Our Role?

In this fight, you can take on a variety of roles depending on whether you’re doing 10 or 25. I’ll cover these two separately.

10-man healing can take one of four forms, depending on whether you’re running with a Holy Paladin or not (you should be, really) and whether you’re using 2 healers or 3. Assuming you’re running with a Holy Paladin, you’ll be either asked to respec Shadow to make way for another raid healer or given a free role. You’ll generally be shielding the tanks and concentrating most of your healing on the raid in phase 3 (all of it if you’re running 2 healers). If you’re not running with a Holy Paladin, 2 healers becomes almost impossible to pull off as keeping the tanks alive all the time is tres difficile without plenty of luck and cooldowns coming out of your ears.

25-man healing invariably takes the same form. You’ll be helping out on both tanks and raid members in phase 1/2, dealing with Penetrating Cold and throwing shields around when you can. In phase 3, your attention will switch to the raid and your designated Penetrating Cold target. More on this later.

Part Two: How Can We Raid Heal?

Discipline hasn’t been very good at raid healing encounters in the past. While we can throw out a metric ton of shields and almost trivialise several bosses’ AoE attacks, when it comes to huge amounts of unavoidable damage that needs healing up quickly in a 25-man raid, we just don’t cut it. So how is Anub’arak different? Well, while the damage output in phase 3 is gigantic for the first 6 or 7 seconds, it doesn’t need healing up. We don’t have to get everyone back to full health; we just need to keep them alive, which is where small but precise heals like Holy Nova (your key tool in phase 3) come into their own. Because the actual healing required is restricted largely to Penetrating Cold targets, it might look like you need a Holy Priest or Resto Druid but really the job gets done just as well by a DPriest.

So How Do We Kill Him?

So, down to the nitty gritty.

Phases One and Two

The healing in these phases are pretty simple and shouldn’t take much more exertion than normal. The tanks will be hit slightly harder and the stacking debuff from the Swarm Scarabs gets annoying; but ultimately, the most important thing in these two phases is to kite correctly and this is something that the TankSpot video covers much better than I could.

What you’ll spend most of your time doing in these phases is conserving mana. Because the damage output is pretty low by comparison and because the mana requirements in phase 3 are so heavy, you’ll be wanting to keep your mana in as tip-top a condition as possible. Holy Nova may be extremely useful in phase 3 but it’s mana-intensive to use and the final phase continues for much longer than you might think compared to normal mode. Don’t underestimate the importance of a healthy mana bar in phase 3, and err on the side of caution.

Phase Three

In General: The trick to healing phase 3 is to keep everybody without the Penetrating Cold debuff (and the tanks) as close as possible to ~2000 health. This gives you plenty of time to react to the Leeching Swarm debuff (between ~4 and 6 seconds) and means that Anub’arak doesn’t heal too fast. Tanks and Penetrating Cold targets should be kept at ideally 50% health or higher; perma-blocked hits from tanks give them much more survivability when you do this. Get the raid stacked as close together as possible so your Holy Novas won’t miss targets (and may actually damage the boss and adds, however small the output is) and make sure for the first time on progress that everybody has Frost Protection potions at the ready. Nope, I’m afraid you won’t be getting a mana potion on this fight.

As for DPriests, the only really general rule is not to use Prayer of Mending! It can crit for upwards of 9k on any random target and that’s really what you don’t want in a fight where precision reigns supreme.

10-man: Healing this phase in 10-man depends heavily on your raid composition. With two healers, you’ll probably be raid healing and will thus want to keep a hasted Prayer of Healing in your bag of tricks for the other group of the raid (ie. the one you can’t Holy Nova). There are several little chain-cast tricks that come in useful here: one example would be immediately after Penetrating Cold is applied, a Shield –> Flash Heal –> Shield –> Penance –> Holy Nova –> PoH with the first four casts on the PC targets. Try and weave casts like that to get the maximum haste possible from Borrowed Time. It’s really important here!

You’ll be using PoH and Holy Nova to keep the raid from dying to Leeching Swarm, so your mana will drop extremely quickly. Ask a Druid if he can save an Innervate for you or, failing that, a Hymn of Hope from a Shadow Priest; this will help a great deal. Save your shields and Penance/Flash Heals for the PC targets as they’ll need extremely quick healing (you have to deal with two within a matter of seconds).

With three healers, the load on the raid is decreased considerably. You’ll probably be raid healing; divide the groups between the two of you, assign yourself one PC target each (raid icons help here) and keep your assigned group/PC target alive. Throw a shield off on the tanks when you can!

25-man: Many of the concepts here carry over from 10-man. Normally, each group will be assigned one healer who will keep them up through the entirety of phase 3, with the two Paladins on the tanks. Try and co-ordinate the healers so that if you’re short one raid healer, one of you heals the two groups which already have passive effects like Vampiric Embrace. Each healer will also be assigned one Penetrating Cold target, designated by a raid icon that’s automatically applied by DBM. Make a macro to target that icon, because Grid won’t tell you which of the targets with PC is yours!

Your key tools will once again be shields, Penance on your PC target and Holy Nova, but this time without PoH as you don’t have to deal with another group. Don’t forget to pop your Shadowfiend!

Some Notes for Raid Leaders: Common Mistakes

Having been in a good 50 failed attempts on Anub myself, I’ve heard quite a lot from raid leaders on “where we’re going wrong”. I figured I’d add this section as an appendix of sorts, so that disillusioned healers (or helpful healers) can link their RLs here and make the process a lot nicer for everybody! 🙂

Problem One: Asking DPS to offheal

Some raidframes, like XPerl, flash red when someone is on low health. If a raid leader uses a set of raidframes like this, I can guarantee you they’ll have a heart attack when phase 3 arrives. You’re sat there with your precise heals and your calculated casts but all the raid leader sees is “people are dying”. This has led to an RL asking an Elemental Shaman or Shadow Priest to offheal in the middle of phase 3 several times.

It might seem like an inconvenience for healers and you might get a little pissed when someone does it, but just remember; your raid leader may not know the kind of specifics that you do! They’re just trying to keep everyone alive and in check – it’s their job. When we were progressing on heroic 10-man, (sadly we didn’t down it before I went to university,) my RL certainly didn’t know how the healing worked on the first few tries, and neither did the rest of the DPS. Every fight on that first evening you’d see an overeager Mage Ice Block because he was at 3k health, or a Shadow Priest jump out of Shadowform and pop Divine Hymn.

So, how do you know if your healers have the situation under control? Simple! If half the raid is dead, they don’t. If less than about 10% of your raid is dead, unless it’s a tank, don’t worry. People do die here and there on Anub’arak and it’s unfortunate when it happens, but most of the time your healers are still dealing with it. If you start losing healers and it creates a snowball effect, you’ll wipe. But that doesn’t mean that you should divert DPS to offhealing just because the healers are on low health!

Think of it this way: it’s not like a fight such as Kologarn or Ignis, where you can see how your raid healers react to raid-wide damage and analyse it. Raidframes just don’t tell you that on Anub’arak. In this fight, there’s simply a line that separates someone being alive and someone being dead and you just have to place your faith in the healers. If someone’s health is at ~500, nothing has gone wrong yet. If someone’s dead, it has.

Problem Two: “Keep the raid at X%”

I’ve heard just about everything from raid leaders! Do I keep the raid at 20%, 50%, 5% or just spamheal my socks off? The generally accepted “correct” figure – which gives a balance between survivability and lack of healing on Anub’arak – is roughly 2000 health. If you want a percentage, this will work out at between 10% and 6-7% of someone’s health. Tanks and Penetrating Cold targets should be kept as high as is realistically possible, but 50% is a good health count to aim for on them. One of the big communication issues in this fight is different raid leaders hearing different things and nobody knowing who’s right.

Problem Three: Defensive Cooldowns on DPS

A great example of this is Ice Block. Something that reduces someone’s DPS for a gain in survivability. Well I’ve got news for you, buddy! Us healers don’t want you to pop Ice Block (unless perhaps you’re using it to get rid of PC); we want you to kill the boss faster. I remember someone once telling me that “DPS is the best mp5” – well in this fight, it certainly is. You kill the boss faster and let us worry about keeping you alive. 🙂

Of course, you should take this with a pinch of salt. What’s a good figure to start worrying about defensive cooldowns and Ice Block and the like? Maybe if you’re one or two ticks of Swarm away from dying – that’d be about 250 to 500 health left.

Anyway, hope this helps. I always have a blast on this boss and it’s a great fight for Discipline. Good luck!

— Roble

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