Realm Remixes: Stumbling Blocks

Looks like Round 6 has been announced to go off on Monday, November 4th, but there are a couple of changes:

  • Gul’dan getting hooked to Black Dragonflight/Skullcrusher has been pushed to Round 7.
  • Lightning’s Blade getting linked with Burning Blade/Onyxia and the new Winterhoof/Kilrogg connection have been pushed to Round 8.
  • Daggerspine is getting added to Aegwynn/Gurubashi/Hakkar in Round 6, which was previously unannounced.
  • Dentarg and Whisperwind, neither of which were connected before, are also being hooked up in Round 6.

So Round 6 will now look like this:

  • Haomarush + Detheroc/Dethecus/Blackwing Lair
  • Stonemaul + Bloodscalp/Maiev/Boulderfist/Dunemaul
  • Daggerspine + Aegwynn/Gurubashi/Hakkar
  • Tortheldrin and Frostmane
  • Dentarg and Whisperwind

More analysis on those connections to come, but let’s also sound off the complete lists for Rounds 7 & 8. I think it highly unlikely that these rounds will take place before BlizzCon on the 8th/9th, so there’s certainly a good amount of time for stuff to change.

Round 7:

  • Scilla and Ursin
  • Undermine and Anvilmar
  • Malorne + Firetree/Rivendare/Drak’Tharon
  • Quel’dorei and Sen’jin
  • Echo Isles and Draenor
  • Fizzcrank and Aggramar
  • Gul’dan + Black Dragonflight/Skullcrusher (pushed from Round 6)

Round 8:

  • Lethon + Detheroc/Dethecus/Blackwing Lair/Haomarush
  • Smolderthorn + Chromaggus/Garithos/Anub’arak
  • Gorgonnash + Balnazzar/Warsong
  • Lightning’s Blade + Burning Blade/Onyxia (pushed from Round 6)
  • Cairne and Perenolde
  • Winterhoof and Kilrogg (pushed from Round 6)
BLOW IT UP

BLOW IT UP

Conclusions:

  • The trend of CRs only gaining one realm at a time continues; as I asserted in the previous post, it doesn’t look like Blizzard plans to take CRs and connect them together. Instead, CRs will get incremented with a new realm in successive rounds. Probably less possibility of bugs in the process.
  • Kilrogg/Winterhoof getting pushed back to Round 8 leaves Nesingwary/Vek’nilash as the only PVE CR, but Rounds 7 & 8 both end up adding a lot of PVE realms into the mix. It’s notable that Nesingwary/Vek’nilash isn’t getting a realm added to it in these rounds, despite having an altogether low population compared to other 2-realm CRs; compared to all of the other PVE CRs from these new rounds, it’s at the bottom of the pack in terms of raiding population. However, with the exception of Dentarg/Whisperwind, all of the PVE realms look primed to get more connections down the line.
  • There doesn’t seem to be any significance to the number of realms being connected into single CRs; the Dethecus/Detheroc CR, with five realms, has still only got a small fraction of the populations on the larger CRs. There’s no way to tell what Blizzard thinks is an upper limit on the number of realms that CAN be connected to one another, but with both the Dethecus/Detheroc CR and the Boulderfist CR at five realms each at the end of Round 8, there’s no sign of really stopping.
  • Rank 35 Whisperwind picks up Dentarg, one of the lowest-ranking PVE realms, and consequently takes the prize for largest population in a CR yet. It’s ahead by a mile over the three other largest CRs, and again resets the goalposts in terms of what Blizzard might consider to be a healthy population. Unless the numbers of the two realms are somehow grossly exaggerated, this might presage even more additions coming to the Boulderfist CR, which is lagging in 4th place for raiding population amongst CRs at this point. It’s notable that the 5-6k range for raiders boosts these CRs to within the top 30 realms for raiding population.
  • The seven connections taking place in Round 7, followed by six in Round 8, signals that Blizzard is going full-steam ahead with the connection process. Granted, those numbers might be inflated from what was initially going to be a six-realm push in Round 6, but given that Blizzard backfilled with Daggerspine and Dentarg/Whisperwind, it seems like they’re not letting anything really stop the inexorable progress. It’s still possible that they might be keeping things light while priming up for BlizzCon and we’ll see stuff go fast and furious after Veteran’s Day.
  • As a follow-up note from my write-up last week on faction imbalances, the data for these rounds clearly demonstrates that tendency in action: all of the PVE realms have a notable Alliance bias, while all of the PVP realms have a notable Horde bias.
    • I think it’s significant that realms like Anvilmar, which had a dramatic Alliance advantage, saw the ratio brought down dramatically with the addition of Undermine; again, this appears to be done more to give the disadvantaged faction a larger playerbase to draw from simply so that play can take place, as opposed to attempting to balance the factions on the server.
    • However, for some of the super-high-pop mega-realms that have 99:1 ratios, I don’t see CRs being a solution, but Blizzard might ultimately be okay with certain realms being hugely biased to one side if there are enough players able to participate. If you’re Alliance on Illidan or Mal’Ganis or Horde on Sargeras, you just might be out of luck.

Growing Pains

The last week has seen some more dramatic bugs crop up in the connection process. The issue where all but one realm in a CR group has an issue where character avatars aren’t appearing properly on the forums hasn’t been resolved. After Rivendare’s connection in Round 4, several players reported losing mail attachments after the realm restarts. And worst of all, players on Nesingwary started seeing all manner of wackiness happening with their characters lists after Patch 5.4.1 was applied: active characters had disappeared or were locked, preventing them from being accessed, and long-deleted characters appeared unexpectedly. The issue has at this point been resolved after a bunch of intensive work by the tech teams, but it’s certainly a sobering reminder that this is still a new process and there’s still a lot of risk to all of the existing CRs and the realms being added to them as the operation continues.

I feel like I should stress that problems like this aren’t really possible to anticipate, and that Blizzard only has a handful of testing realms that have virtually nonexistent populations compared to live realms. As such, Blizzard hasn’t got any testbed big enough to really ensure that these problems can’t occur when they push it live. Bugs happen. Unexpected code interactions cause unexpected reactions. I think the management of the Rivendare and Nesingwary events demonstrates that Blizzard is taking the process very seriously and has all hands on deck to make sure players are able to get back into play without too much disruption.

But some disruption is almost certain to take place. We just need to be patient and be confident that at the other end of this process, everyone is going to be on realms with playerbases large enough to participate in any content, and that’s on the whole going to be better for the game.

I expect this coming week might be light on CR news with BlizzCon taking place, but I’m confident we’ll get some commentary from the devs on how they think the procedure is going, and maybe how things are going to play out in the future.

And hell, there’s just going to be a lot to talk about during and after BlizzCon. Stay tuned. ^_^

Shadow Priest Ability Iteration for WOWX5

Over on Feckless Leader, Ross talked about his thoughts for what Enhancement might look like if Dr. Street gets his wish about culling abilities from all the specs in the coming expansion.

That in mind, I wanted to look at Shadow in particular and maybe do a bit of the same thinking.

The Current State Remains Current

As it stands, Shadow’s priority set-up looks like this:

  1. Cast Devouring Plague when you have 3 orbs.
  2. Keep Mind Blast on CD until you get 3 orbs. (During Execute, tap Shadow Word: Death at least once for orbs)
  3. Keep Shadow Word: Pain and Vampiric Touch up on the target.
  4. Mind Flay as a filler.

Obviously, the Talent Grid is going to play into that system as well, but I’ve got some thoughts on that I’ll get to in a minute. For now, looking strictly at Shadow’s regular toolkit, you’ve got the six priority spells listed up there, Mind Sear for AoE, Dispersion and Power Word: Shield for damage mitigation, Vampiric Embrace for occasional group residual healing, Silence, Psychic Horror, and Psychic Scream for fear/interrupts, Shadowfiend and Hymn of Hope for mana returns, Mind Spike for add-killing, Fade for aggro management, and various non-Shadow specific spells that aren’t locked to Disc/Holy.

When it comes down to it, Shadow is pretty lean on spells in comparison to Enhancement, but I think that’s got more to do with Shaman. Shaman, as a class, has a lot of abilities that are accessible across all three specs, with a wide variety of spells that are mutually exclusive (weapon imbues and totems, specifically) while Shadow has really only got two spells that are like that in Inner Fire/Will. There’s also a lot of spells that Shadow flat out can’t use while in Shadowform (though I’m pleased to note that in the current iteration of the 5.4 PTR, the Glyph of Dark Binding spells are now rolled into Shadowform by default). So overall, I don’t think there are a lot of abilities that can just get cut or combined to reduce the bloat, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Mind Spike can go, mostly because it doesn’t satisfy the intended design of being a good spell in burst phases or against low-health adds, especially since losing synergy with Mind Blast.
  • One could argue that having to juggle two dots is a sign that one could go, but I’d say that if Shadow didn’t have to manage VT and SW:P it would trivialize the difficulty of the spec play.
  • I’m not certain Fade is useful when Shadow has Dispersion, but if that collapse happened you’d see Dispersion given to Holy/Disc priests.

Glyph It Good

Something that Ross didn’t really address, and something that I think might help in terms of reducing the number of buttons pushed, is considering how it might be valuable to turn certain spells into glyphs to collapse them together. Obviously this would add a layer where you’d have mutually-exclusive glyphs, but that doesn’t sound like it would be too difficult to manage.

For example, Psychic Horror, Psychic Scream, and Silence all have relatively long cooldowns (30-45 seconds) and all serve the same primary purpose of interrupting a target’s offensive ability. The difference is mainly in cost (Psychic Horror costs Orbs, while Silence and Psychic Scream cost mana) and number of targets hit (Psychic Scream hits up to 5, while the others are single-target).

So let’s make Psychic Scream the primary spell, and modify it thusly:

  • Glyph of Focused Screams: Your Psychic Scream now hits only one target, and instead of fleeing in terror, the target is silenced and unable to cast spells for 5 seconds. Non-player victim spell-casting is also interrupted for 3 seconds.
  • Glyph of Horrific Screams: Your Psychic Scream now hits only one target, and also causes the target to drop their weapons and shield for 8 seconds. Cooldown increased to 45 seconds.

As a result, players would have only one button for interrupts (though admittedly, fear-immune mobs made Silence the only viable interrupt anyway) but it would be one button instead of three.

On Talents

I am beginning to suspect that part of the reason for the talent grid design was not just its obvious purpose (give players a variety of choices about how to individualize their characters) but also the ability for them to control button bloat. Each tier presents the opportunity for three new abilities to come into play, allowing the designers to go wild with coming up with new potential concepts, BUT each tier only gives players one more button, if even that, since it might be a passive or an ability that alters an existing rotational ability. This wasn’t something that was hugely evident to players making the transition from Wrath or Cataclysm to Mists, because many of the abilities that showed up in the grid for most classes were talents that had been in the trees before. But in a new expansion, with the talent grid being well-established, Blizzard can really push into new territory and make the next tier something that’s got a lot of potential pop to it.

I’m actually pretty happy with the level 90 talents for Shadow, since it’s really a choice of “how many targets do you want to hit and where are they going to be?” So I’ve got faith that the next tier will be pretty dynamic as well.

Wishlisting

In terms of off-the-cuff ideas of stuff I’d like to change about or add to Shadow, here’s what I’ve got.

  • Alter Mind Flay to be the low-life add spell by adding this (either baseline or as a glyph): If Mind Flay is cast on a target with none of your Shadow damage-over-time effects, each tick decreases the cooldown of your Mind Blast by 2 seconds.
  • Make Void Shift a combat resurrection for Shadow.
  • Inner Darkness: A burst of shadowy energy fills the caster, making Shadow Word: Death usable on targets that have less than 50% health. Shadow: When not in combat, gain one shadow orb every 2 seconds. You can only have Inner Will, Inner Fire, or Inner Darkness active at a time.
  • Devouring Plague should be renamed to Devouring Shadows. The ‘Plague’ bit is an artifact of when it was a Forsaken Priest racial, and it doesn’t fit the themes of the class as a whole. (Admittedly, this is a quibble, but it’s one that’s bothered me since DP became a rotational spell in Wrath.)
  • Bring back Shadowguard as a glyph for Shadowform: When struck by a single-target spell, melee, or ranged attack, gain 1 Shadow Orb. This effect can only take place every few seconds.

What do you see in the future for Shadow as a spec? What about other classes and specs? Sound off in the comments. ^_^

Primer: Cataclysm, Part 3 (Patch 4.3)

The last content patch for Cataclysm brought a number of big changes to the game, but let’s get the story out of the way first.

<– (pardon the subtitles; Blizzard apparently doesn’t like this trailer anymore)

DEATHWANGED

So it turns out Deathwing is too damn powerful to really be beaten by conventional means, even if all four remaining Dragon Aspects (Alextrasza, Ysera, Nozdormu, and Kalecgos, having been just recently promoted to the role) combine their mojo to do it. The Aspects discuss what to do, realizing that the only weapon they could use that could potentially bring down Deathwing is the Dragon Soul.

“Wait, what?”

Okay, quick recap: the Dragon Soul was an artifact that Neltharion created, ostensibly as a weapon against the invasion of the Legion during the War of the Ancients. He tricked the other Dragon Aspects into investing their power into the thing and attempted to set himself up as a god, but ended up not being able to follow through with the attempt. Later, the Soul is stolen from him and was meant to be used by Azshara to fortify the passage for the Legion to enter Azeroth. This failed too, and the Soul was secured and hidden by the four Aspects, enchanted so that Deathwing couldn’t use it.

To make a long story short, the Dragon/Demon Soul comes into play in the Second War, but gets destroyed shortly thereafter, restoring the invested powers of the four Aspects.

So Nozdormu says that the Demon Soul is vulnerable at a certain point in time, but he’s unable to retrieve it because of someone in the future interfering with his ability to access that time. This kicks off the narrative of the three Hour of Twilight 5-mans:

  • End Time: Through Nozdormu’s power, the party gets poofed to a future Azeroth where Deathwing has won. Having destroyed all life on Azeroth, the Destroyer impales himself on the top of Wyrmrest Temple, his great corpse leaking molten fury everywhere. Within the Dragonshrines, players square off against the shades of Sylvanas, Jaina Proudmoore, Baine Bloodhoof, and Tyrande Whisperwind (you face two out of the four each time you run the place, and it’s random which ones you get) before going to the Bronze Shrine to throw down against the source of the interference, the creator of the Infinite Dragonflight, Murozond (which is really a corrupted version of Nozdormu who violated his charge and sought to prevent his own death). After killing his future self, Nozdormu appears to the players, saying that he’ll send them to retrieve the Dragon Soul from the one place and time it can be grabbed…
  • War of the Ancients: Disguised as Highborne Night Elves in the middle of Azshara’s gambit to invite Sargeras in for tea, the party gets some assistance from Illidan and Tyrande as they face off against the servants of Azshara, and then the queen herself. Azshara escapes, and the party takes on her captain Varo’then and the pit lord Mannoroth as the last obstacle between them and the Soul. With the artifact in hand, it’s back to the present-day Dragonblight to hand it off to Thrall so that he can deliver it to Wyrmrest Temple…
  • Hour of Twilight: … only it turns out that apparently the forces of Deathwing have laid a trap for Thrall, trying to catch him before he can reach the temple. The party escorts the World Shaman and protects him from ascendants, assassins and the turncoat Archbishop Benedictus to get Thrall and his cargo safely to the temple.

Which is just in time for a huge assault by twilight dragons, the Twilight’s Hammer, a buttload of angry elementals, and two Faceless Generals of the Old Gods to show up and try to bring down Wyrmrest. This is the Dragon Soul raid, and the final showdown is on.

Dragon Soul, Part 1

After clearing all kinds of nastiness at the base of the tower (the aforementioned elementals and Faceless Doods), the raid heads upstairs to meet with Thrall and the Aspects. The Dragon Soul is pretty juicy, but they still don’t think it’ll be enough to beat Deathwing. Kalecgos suggests going to the Eye of Eternity to get the Focusing Iris of the Blue Flight as a way to let the Aspects increase the power within the Dragon Soul. Somehow, the Twilight’s Hammer knew about this in advance and are waiting for the raid when the show up. With the Focusing Iris in hand, the raid heads back to the Temple to protect the Aspects while they charge up the death ray.

Dragon Soul, Part 2

Deathwing arrives to gloat that the Aspects won’t have a chance to play their trump card, because he’s going to sic the biggest, baddest twilight dragon ever created on them: Ultraxion. And imma link the Fatboss guide on this fight because I think they describe it well and give a sense for what fight complexity was like in DS as a whole. (Not the Ultraxion is the most challenging fight or the most technical fight, but it had some innovative bits to it that I enjoyed, in addition to the hard enrage element.)

So after killing a nice fuck-off dragon, you watch Thrall take Shot 1 at Deathwing. He doesn’t get a solid hit, but Deathwing’s hurt and knows he can’t really take on the Aspects at this point and rabbits out. The raid (along with Team Thrall) hop on an Alliance airship to chase down the Destroyer. You face off against the last wave of twilight dragons before doing the first Deathwing encounter, which involves prying the elementium armor plates off of his backside so you can buy Thrall some time and provide a better opening for a kill shot.

Everyone comes on down to celebrate, but then, of course, there’s the second Deathwing encounter, where he pops up out of the Maelstrom as a giant flaming tentacle monster, and you’ve got to protect the Aspects while they charge up what they really hope is going to be killing blow. Turns out it works, and you wrap up with this:

MEGA HAPPY ENDING

All right, so, Thrall and Aggra gonna have some brown babies, the Aspects have lost their mojo, but hey, Deathwing and the Twilight’s Hammer are all pretty much fertilizer at this point. So now what?

Well, there was a second round of big technical additions to the game that came in with 4.3:

  • The most important was the Raid Finder difficulty, which was tuned to be less technical than Normal raiding, pulled a proper mix of tank, healing and DPS characters from across multiple realms to form up a 25-man raid, and dropped gear that was marginally weaker than Normal drops. Big advantage was Hey! Raiding! for people who didn’t have teams. Big disadvantage was Hey! Ninja looting! Because 25 randomly-assembled folk aren’t really beholden to being fair about who gets what raid drops out of the place. This set the stage for a big change in MoP, but we’ll get there.
  • Void Storage added an expanded vault for item storage, which had limitations and a nominal gold cost associated with withdrawals and deposits. If you really wanted to hold on to a bunch of old tier sets or Archaeology doodads, it was pretty useful.
  • Transmogrification allowed you to take the appearance of any piece of gear you could normally equip and paste that appearance over your current armor. Want to roll in nothing but Paladin Tier 4 Justicar Regalia? You can do that. Want to mix up an outfit to create a unique look? Do that too.
  • Reforging (brief: shuffle up the stats on your gear in order to emphasize more of the stats you wanted) got a better UI and was co-located with the Ethereal Traders who offered Void Storage and Transmog, just to make it easier to find.
  • The Darkmoon Faire got an upgrade as well. Instead of shuffling between Mulgore, Elwynn Forest and Shattrath, the Darkmoon Faire is now its own instanced area, with a ton more games, its own deathmatch arena, Level 90 Elite Tauren Chieftains performing on the hour, and profession quests that gave you +5 skill points when you completed them.

Also added in 4.3 was the Rogue Legendary quest chain, but I’ll cover that next time.

REVIEW

For the most part, people received Dragon Soul relatively well. You could hear complaints about the amount of re-used assets that were employed, though: End Time and Hour of Twilight both just used mildly altered sections of the Dragonblight zone, while Dragon Soul itself used Wyrmrest Temple, the giant shells employed in Vashj’ir, the Eye of Eternity, and effectively the same Alliance ship used in the Airship fight from ICC. Obviously the fight on Deathwing’s spine and the final showdown in the Maelstrom were new assets, but people called out Blizzard for cheaping out on what was supposed to be the pinnacle fights of the expansion. The mechanics of the fights, when taken in Normal or Heroic difficulty, were pretty satisfying, but most people experienced the easy-mode variant in Raid Finder and complained that they didn’t feel challenged.

Meanwhile, the War of the Ancients 5-man was revealed to be the remains of what had initially been planned as a War of the Ancients raid. The assets in that 5-man were almost wholly unique and smacked of a lot of polish, while all the rest of the 4.3 instance content was recycled material. After the scrapping of the Abyssal Maw raid, the burnout of the ZA/ZG remixes, and the general opinion that the “all red and burning” palette of the Firelands was an eyesore, players were left wanting in the content department by the end of the expansion.

Raid Finder was something of a mixed blessing. The bad loot problems caused a lot of bad blood, the implementation essentially killed pick-up-group raiding, and many people blame the continued death of server identity on the addition of more cross-realm queuing gameplay. However, a lot more people saw Dragon Soul than had seen any pre-Raid Finder raid, and Blizzard chalked it up as a win.

So while the mystery of what the next expansion would be held out, Cataclysm ended with a bang that perhaps didn’t satisfy as many people as it could have.

Some final notes on Cataclysm and some advance notes on Mists of Pandaria to come next time. ^_^

Primer: Cataclysm, Part 2 (Patches 4.1/4.2)

In terms of lore, there was initially a lot more to come in Cataclysm after the initial launch. The first major content patch planned was going to throw a raid covering what happens to Neptulon, Elemental Lord of Water, who got kidnapped by a giant squid at the end of Throne of the Tides. You might remember seeing previews of the Abyssal Maw raid at BlizzCon 2010.

Well, the Abyssal Maw never happened. Blizzard saw how people reacted to Vashj’ir and were having trouble getting up any excitement themselves for more underwater shenanigans inside of giant seashells or jellyfish, so Abyssal Maw got scrapped and all their efforts got focused on the Firelands raid, which would complete the Ragnaros narrative that had been left dangling in Mount Hyjal. But THAT process took so many resources to do that it needed to get pushed back to 4.2. And in an effort to keep players entertained while they finished Rag’s pedicure (just go with it), they threw out 4.1: Rise of the Zandalari.

BURNINATING THE COUNTRYSI- no wait trolls first

Blizzard’s original mix on the Zandalari coming into Cataclysm was that their homeland was sinking, and they were empowering some of their baddest dudes to try and secure a place for the Zandalari to go. My remix on Friday covered that relatively close to the original, but the core stuff went like this:

  • Zul’Aman got re-cut as a 5-man, with the timed Bear run still in place (because all the animal bosses were still there) but with a new final boss (Daakara) who worked slightly differently from Zul’jin. (No one really has an explanation for the switch, but aside from some bonus trash it’s the most significant change to ZA.)
  • Zul’Gurub got completely remixed: while the layout was the same, some areas (the Spider-boss location) were blocked off, the Edge of Madness was altered completely, and while some of the bosses share names with their original versions, the boss mechanics are wildly different. Aside from Jin’do and Mandokir, only the Snake-boss (Venoxis) and the Panther-boss (originally Arlokk but now her sister Kilnara) remain, Tiger and Bat are replaced with optional mini-bosses, and all over the place there are environmental hazards like rolling boulders, flamethrower turrets, and exploding poison flowers that change up the landscape completely.

The cool thing about the remixes is that it made ZA accessible and the infamous Bear run something you could attempt with LFD, and it made ZG both much more modern and simultaneously more of a throwback raid because of the sheer amount of optional stuff there was do in there. The big problem with the remixes was that they were the only content in 4.1. The dungeon drops were half a tier higher than the launch heroic drops, and they rewarded twice as many valor points as the launch heroics, meaning they were super-optimal for players. Meaning in order to hit valor caps and maximize upgrades without going into the launch raids, people were chain-running TWO HEROICS over and over, every week. There was a LOT of burnout. Which makes for a great segue into…

BURNINATING THA COUNTRYSIDE (for real this time)

Patch 4.2 brought us to the Firelands to face off against Ragnaros on his home turf. When we killed him in Molten Core, all we did was banish him from the mortal plane. Killing him in the Firelands will end him permanently. But getting to him is going to require cutting our way through the many, many denizens of the Firelands, including but not limited to a buuuuuunch of angry Flamewakers, a giant flaming spider, a walking volcano, a green dragon warped into becoming a flaming firebird (featuring the greatest aerial combat sequence in the game), and Majordomo Fandral Staghelm. Oh, and core hounds. LOTSA core hounds.

It also altered Mount Hyjal slightly, in terms of adding in some new daily quests that opened up the gateway to the Firelands, as well as creating a daily area WITHIN the Firelands that focused on disabling Ragnaros’ defenses and growing an exceptionally fire-retardant tree in the Firelands to further counter the Firelord’s power.

Something else in 4.2, for all the non-raiders, was the Elemental Bonds questchain, which capitalized on carrying forward Thrall’s journey as the World Shaman.

“Wait, what? World Shaman?” I hear you say.

*deep breath* So back before the Shattering, Thrall sensed the Elements were going bonkers, so he and the Earthen Ring rolled to Outland to talk to the elements of a world that had been destroyed. While there he meets a Mag’hari Earthen Ring shaman named Aggra, who basically spends a lot of time smacking him around for thinking he can be a shaman and a warchief at the same time. (Most of this gets covered in Christie Golden’s The Shattering: Prelude to Cataclysm.)

This is why Thrall offloads his warchief duties to Garrosh Hellscream, and why he drops the armor and rocks a hoodie and a big bead necklace. He dedicates himself to becoming the World Shaman so he can heal the world. (Oh, and Aggra starts warming up to him.)

The Elemental Bonds questchain starts off with Thrall attempting to link up with the Cenarion Circle and the Dragon Aspects to try and heal Nordrassil fully, thinking that might help the world mend itself. Before the ritual can start, Fandral Staghelm, empowered by Ragnaros, drops in and curses Thrall, splitting his essence and scattering him to the four elemental planes. Aggra takes any heroes who’ll go along with her and chases after Thrall’s essence in each plane, revealing the struggles he faces within; his desire for peace, love, and progeny, his doubts over putting Garrosh in charge, and his rage over the thoughtless war and death that Garrosh and Varian Wrynn have wreaked upon the world. At the end of it all, Aggra is able to reassemble Thrall, and they continue on together with new resolve. (Oh, and Thrall proposes traditional orcish lifemate bonding wedding thing, and all the Dragon Aspects and Jaina are there and it’s really pretty awkward but roll with it.)

FIRE EXTINGUISHED

The Firelands raid overall was pretty straightforward, even though a lot of people complained about there being too much trash (which was because of all the haters that didn’t like the dearth of trash in launch raids) and was in many ways a remix of Molten Core. When you look at it, Molten Core wasn’t a very diverse raid: it was a LOT of trash, where the bosses where either super-sized versions of the trash mobs OR were a bunch of flamewakers who’s only mechanics boiled down to “dispel spam” or “interrupts”. Firelands made the Plane of Fire feel like it had more an ecosystem to it, and the bosses were very distinct from the trash in addition to having some complicated mechanics to them.

The Elemental Bonds questchain served to deliver story on Thrall that wasn’t contained in a novel, but had some quirky mechanisms at each stage, in addition to being something that multiple characters not linked together were attempting to do simultaneously. And the big thing it did (aside from showing Aggra being really hung up about Thrall) was convince everyone that Blizzard needed a better method to deliver story within the confines of the game that didn’t require extensive art development. Thankfully, a solution for that was in the pipe for Mists of Pandaria.

With Ragnaros’ defeat, all of the major conflicts presented in Cataclysm had been resolved, aside from the faction war and Deathwing himself. Guess what’s coming next. ^_^

Primer: Cataclysm, Part 1 (Launch Content)

Back when I killed the Lich King, it was with a guild mostly made up of RL friends who’d been rolling the WoW game for awhile. Shortly after that kill, however, many of the players considered it their pinnacle achievement that nothing could ever really top, so they left the game. Lately, they’ve shown a bit of interest in what’s going on with WoW (even if they can’t really come back because family, time constraints, and the $15 sub cost) and I offered to write up a primer covering the broad strokes of what happened since Arthas went dark.

The Shattering

So Deathwing chestbursts his way out of Azeroth, with a huge mad-on for roasting the world. The Old Gods have driven him mad as well as empowering him far more than his monstrous draconic elementium-armored form can even contain, so he decides that bringing an end to the planet he was sworn to protect is the best way to go out. Because it’s an apocalypse scenario, the end-of-the-world cult the Twilight’s Hammer join up with DW, as well as servants of the Old Gods, and the elemental lieutenants who have warred for them for millennia.

Atop Mount Hyjal, Ragnaros is summoned in and is aided by the Hammer in attempting to burn down Nordrassil. The Cenarion Circle calls for aid and they rally/resurrect many of the Ancients atop Hyjal to assist in fighting back the Hammer.

In the sunken depths of Vashj’ir, the naga are stirring, but it seems like they’re fighting against the Old Gods too… and hey, they still want to kill the surface dwellers too, no kidding.

In Deepholm, Therazane the Earthmother, Elemental Lord of Earth, refuses to let the earth elementals be corrupted by the Old Gods. So the opposition destroys the World Pillar, which is apparently a loadbearing structure for Azeroth, and the Earthen Ring struggles to rebuild the Pillar to keep the world from collapsing on itself.

In Uldum, the former servants of the Titans called the Tol’vir are faced with both incursion and betrayal. Some of the Tol’vir are returned to their former pre-Curse-of-Flesh forms by servants of Deathwing in return for crippling the area’s defense. What are the Tol’vir defending? Tell me, you remember back in Ulduar how Algalon the Observer was about to initiate a process that would trigger the world to get reset to a blank slate, thus wiping out all advanced life on Azeroth? Uldum is where the machinery for that process is kept, and the Tol’vir were there to guard it. “World-destroying machinery?” you say, but in the next breath the Twilight’s Hammer are there. (Also a bunch of tiresome Indiana Jones references.)

And in the Twilight Highlands, both the Horde and Alliance are making inroads to bring some old forces into the war; the Alliance arranges a wedding (really) to bring the many disparate Wildhammer dwarf clans together under the Lion Banner, while the Horde throws a coup to bring the Dragonmaw clan back into the fold. Aaaaand the servants of the Old Gods are chestbursting out here too because hey tentacles.

If it sounds like the narrative is somewhat all over the place, that’s because it is. Instead of a single-continent narrative, as was used in BC and Wrath, Cataclysm had the 80-85 zones spread out across the planet, linked only by portals from Stormwind and Orgrimmar and not really linked well in terms of narrative. The first round of raiding brought some of those narratives mostly to a close as well:

  • The Bastion of Twilight (in Twilight Highlands, natch) had everyone clawing their way against the Twilight’s Hammer, from their dragon servants and Elemental Ascendants up to Cho’gall himself. Clearing the joint on Heroic unlocked a really crazy fight against Sinestra, the broodmother of the Black Dragonflight, who’s been hatching all the twilight dragons for her baby-daddy Deathwing. For the most part, this ended the Twilight’s Hammer involvement in the expansion (though some holdouts appeared later, because you can’t keep a good cult down.)
  • Throne of the Four Winds was pretty similar to Gruul’s Lair from back in BC: first a council fight in the Conclave of Wind, and then a one-boss ohmygodhe’shugewhyarewedoingthis fight against Al’Akir the Windlord, Elemental Lord of Air. This ended the Uldum narrative pretty handily, even though the place wasn’t really given a strong narrative to start with and all of the potential with the location and the Tol’vir was really just left on the table.
  • Blackwing Descent is an interesting anomaly because it’s really only tangentially related to the other narratives going on. Turns out that Deathwing stopped in Orgrimmar and Stormwind to pick up the heads of his two greatest children, Nefarian and Onyxia (respectively) so that Nefarian could continue experimenting with stuff, just like he’d been doing in Blackwing Lair all those years ago. Oh, and Nef got to take her sister and make MechaZombieOnyxia. There’s no Twilight stuff, no elemental lord stuff, no Old God stuff: in a lot of ways, BWD is a remix of BWL in terms of trash, boss flavor, and Nefarian’s constant mocking presence. And the final fight is Nefarian and MechaZombieOnyxia together versus your ill-equipped 10- or 25-man raid.

The End of the Beginning of the End

All that up there (well, in addition to a clutch of launch 5-mans which were all pretty diverse and mostly tied in with the above zones/narratives)  was the launch content in Cataclysm. In terms of most of the systemic changes in the game, you’re familiar with most of those already: the talent crunch to shorter trees, the greater emphasis on spec identity, the first release of heroic remixes in Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep, the addition of worgen and goblin PCs to the game, as well as gritty things like the Justice Point gear sets that prepped you for that first tier of raiding. And the new class/race combinations. And the revamp of virtually every single pre-BC zone.

Through all of these changes, Cataclysm was very ambitious in trying to make the leveling experience more approachable to new players, but it also did that at the cost of endgame content. The linearity of the end-game zones, the initial punishing difficulty of the 5-man heroics (combined with the Luck of the Draw buff being bugged and healers having to contend with sweeping system changes), and the incredibly grindy aspects of Archaeology as the new profession were a turn off to a lot of players.

So evidence demonstrates that there was a swift drop in subscribers not long after Cataclysm launched. Aside from some of the flaws listed above, it might be because Deathwing wasn’t widely received as compelling a villain as Arthas had been (and aside from occasionally carpet-bombing a zone, he wasn’t as present as Arthas was in the leveling experience); for others, it’s because the game had changed too dramatically from the familiar. But as I’ll demonstrate in the primers to come, there was a lot more change to come down the pipe, some of it actually for the better.

What do you recall about the launch of Cataclysm? Any questions about the period I didn’t answer? Sound off in the comments.