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!