This is going to be, perhaps, a contentious issue to raise, but let’s take a look at something my raid group has encountered a fair amount in heroic Battle of Dazar’Alor this tier.
To begin with, I feel a need to describe my guild a bit better for context. I enjoy my guild as people, and as players, we have a good chunk of our raid made up of highly-skilled, focused players. However, we have a potion of our raid made up of what I would politely call “awareness challenged” raiders. If a mechanic requires them to be paying attention to something other than their DPS rotation or healing targets, they will fail it, nearly every time.
Now, in the past, this was mostly okay – individual failures often only put us behind to a small extent, and strong play from the rest of the group could push us through to a win. This is essentially the model we’ve played with for years – probably from Mists of Pandaria onwards, and it has served us well.
However, something peculiar began to happen in Uldir heroic runs. Often, these individual mistakes would begin to mark the end of an attempt – recovery seeming less and less possible. We got our Ahead of the Curve acheivements, and we’ll likely do the same this tier, but the grind of individual mistakes causing raid wipes was wearing quite thin, and after getting our Ahead of the Curve in Uldir, we took a raid break to come back to BoD feeling ready to raid.
Normal BoD poses some of these challenges, but deep into the raid. Rastakhan is the first boss I would point to as having clear mechanics that can take one player’s mistake and multiply it across the raid. Even on that fight, unless it is a crucial role, like losing the death realm healer or a tank, it is largely fixable. Mekkatorque and the charges pose a significant threat to the raid at the hands of individual players, Stormwall Blockade requires fairly strong individual execution from players with the add-summoning debuff, the tanks, and proper DPS priority. Jaina requires strong positioning that can screw the group up alongside proper movement to position debuffs precisely to maximize their use (breaking out barrels/not killing your fellow raiders).
Heroic BoD ups these mechanics substantially. The traps on Jadefire Masters can deprive the raid of needed DPS/healing, if triggered accidentally, and require enough attention to move out quickly when the telegraph is shown. The bombs require quick DPS switching and positional awareness. Dealing with the pyroblast is often easy, but demands a quick switch to remove the shield. The multi-sided strike mechanic is relatively easy to deal with, but at the end, when DPS are sent up to play, they must quickly orient themselves in the large grid of victims and aim appropriately.
Grong requires near-perfect positioning for fears, excellent timing on orb throws, and very strong tank mitigation play. Opulence requires everyone to be on target with one-another to keep the golems moving at a nearly identical pace, while also managing to dodge the myriad of large damage spikes you face in the tunnels, and once you escape, the boss itself demands strong awareness of debuffs and management of AoE cooldowns for the add phases.
And then there is Conclave. Oh, conclave. The fight demands a high degree of execution, from positioning for frogs, kill timing the bosses, kill ordering the bosses, dealing with large spikes in raidwide damage, tanking through the myriad of buffs and debuffs that can occur, proper purging of buffs off the bosses, and working to ensure minimal ability overlap from the bosses while reducing the effect of the overlaps that are bound to happen.
This fight tested my guild for about half of our raid week this last week, with no kill even in sight on our attempts. We tried a race strategy, attempting to push the first boss before the Pa’ku’s Wrath ability was used the first time. We tried going back to a similar kill order to Normal. We tried holding DPS and killing bosses on a less-fixed, but more controlled cadence. We tried various cooldown rotations, working through various meters and live logs in real time to try to diagnose the problems, and it ultimately came down to the same thing that always stymies us on bosses like this – execution.
The strategies (all of them, really) were pretty alright and would work if played well, but the level of individual play was too low. People were dying to frog leaps. Extra stacks of the tiger debuff were hitting. People were standing in front of the bosses and getting cleaved. We nearly always lost someone to their own lack of awareness during the first boss. The tank swaps were pretty awkward at times and would result in a portion of time with two bosses, empowering one another, beating on a single tank. Even when fight execution was better, the level of player execution was low, with several DPS doing less damage than the tanks, and the end result of all of that was 2 hours spent on one boss, smashing our face into the wall while trying to diagnose what went wrong, often resulting in trying different strategies.
It led to a fellow officer saying something that sort of resonated with me: “raid fights are harder this expansion.”
I thought about it, and at first I kind of disagreed, remembering how Legion’s opening had some difficulty via Helya, some of the fights in Nighthold, and particularly the soakfests of Tomb of Sargeras. However, while those fights were difficult in their own ways, the thing I notice as a trend is that BfA raid fights demand a higher degree of individual execution.
In a way, the current raid game mirrors the state of the game and the looting options available. There is no team, no ascended state of cooperation – the fights use high individual execution checks more than any team mechanics. Sure, a strong bit of teamplay can smooth over some cracks in individual execution, but often, a single player is asked to do more, know more, and perform better than they would have in prior expansions. In Legion, if someone failed a soak, it often meant bad news, but it was typically recoverable, and my guild didn’t struggle too much with individual execution of mechanics until heroic Kil’Jaeden.
Hyperbole in the prior paragraph aside, it actually does feel sometimes like there is no way to cohesively power through mechanics as a team, and the fights require a much more skillful degree of individual play than before. Recovery after player death is much harder although somewhat possible, especially with a battle resurrection, but it has to be done quickly to avoid problems. The loss of even a DPS can often be fatal, as the tight tuning of many fights when doing them at or around intended gear levels means that every bit of damage matters. There are also high movement requirements in many fights in BfA, where players have to move constantly or over longer distances in order to avoid damage or prevent death from mechanical checks. Conclave is a great example of this, as later on in the fight, you have to move for frog (if targeted), for tiger spirit (if targeted), for Akunda thunder (if in range), and then you also have to move to the Pa’ku’s Wrath circle as quickly as possible. If you’re a melee player, all of these mechanics suck for you, and while you might be able to maximize DPS using gap closers or distance-creators (a Havoc DH could, for example, finish spending Fury and then use Vengeful Retreat in the direction of a Pa’ku’s Wrath, or to avoid a frog splash or tiger swipe) these mechanics overall mean a loss of DPS for you, and in some cases, drastically so. Now, a part of learning these fights for everyone is learning to maximize efficiency on movement so that your moves become planned rather than reactionary, but the curve and predictability of many fights can be a challenge.
Looking back on prior raid tiers from other expansions, I don’t think I could point at a fight that matches the movement complexity of most BfA fights.
The Tricky Question to Ask – Are Harder Fights a Bad Thing?
This is where we dive into the meat of this post though – are more mechanically challenging fights bad? On the surface, I have to say no – as we’ve grown more accustomed to the challenges we face in WoW, the game has had to respond by upping the difficulty through creation of more advanced mechanics requiring far higher player skill. However, the problem is that the game is largely built on the back of an assumption – boss mods necessitate harder fights which necessitates boss mods.
In the early life of WoW, raid fights were pretty simple, with most bosses having only one or two major mechanics to deal with. MC Ragnaros required positioning for knockbacks, healing rotations for your tank, fire resistance for all, and the ability to quickly grab adds and burn (heh) them down. Vaelestrasz required a race against time, using the Essence of the Red buff duration to maximize DPS while positioning the raid to avoid the dragon mechanics (tail swipe) and the unique Vaelstrasz chain-cleave (stand close enough and the melee could move around the entire room if players linked it). These fights did not need or use an addon like DBM, and I don’t recall even having such things for a long time past vanilla. If you look at Wrath of the Lich King boss fights, they all remain fairly mechanically simple, but begin to layer on additional mechanics as the tiers roll on and the prevalence of DBM or BigWigs grows.
By the time we arrive at Cataclysm, fights are being tuned to higher and higher levels – bosses have more moving parts, like Halfus Wyrmbreaker and the drakes mechanic, each with corresponding buffs and debuffs they added, leading to preferred kill orders and careful management of the drakes. These fights retained a degree of forgiveness, though, because while they’re designed to be harder on-average for those of us with boss mods, they could not be made so hard that they required them, and the game used announcements through raid text intelligently to alert players of things they should be paying attention to.
The problem is that BfA raid design makes apparent that at this point, Blizzard expects that you will be running with boss mods and so the fights are designed to increase mechanical complexity to account for that, meaning that the difficulty floor is noticeably higher than it ever has been.
Zul from Uldir is a great example of this. He has 3 different sets of adds on different timers, who spawn in different locations, one set of which requires a lot of finesse to bring into the group (or keep locked under CC), one of which requires delicate positioning to keep the front of the boss out of the group to avoid cleaves while also keeping it clumped onto Zul for friendly cleave damage, and then small adds that seem non-threatening enough but require quick burst DPS to remove the threat of their explosions. Each of these have a small number of mechanics, but they require immediate attention – the Ichors from the casters must be burned immediately, no adds should get the buff from the big add, but realistically, the small adds are the worst to buff as they do large amounts of damage and self-healing via damage, and will self-destruct in all likelihood if buffed, causing even more damage. All the while, Zul is casting shadow puddles that must be stepped into and the group is dealing with magic debuffs that spawn yet more adds, but these adds can be purged out of existence (provided you have the right classes!) which adds yet another layer to the fight.
So on a fight like Zul, a raid leader might need to keep DBM timers for all add sets, the dispellable debuffs, a health bar for Zul, the energy level for the big add, the CC status for the caster adds, and other various cooldown timers for the players in the raid. As a raid leader, this is a large burden – but likely not too daunting for a practiced lead. However, your average player is likely going to need nearly 80% of this anyways too, because they need to know how to manage their targets, when to reapply CCs, who to dispel, when to offensively purge to kill the smallest adds, Zul’s health to know when to back off cleaves, and maybe some cooldown indicators for themselves. That is a lot of data to digest to be an otherwise average raider, and while it gets easier during the main Zul phase (no new adds, fewer abilities overall), you still have to deal with any CCs (if you keep the second wave casters locked down the whole fight), managing the dispel and the tiny adds, the shadow puddles, and then also making sure the Zul blood is not stood in.
While Zul is an outlier, the thing about this example is that he really isn’t much of one. Grong requires tracking the fear timer, knowing where you are positioned relative to others, knowing the energy level for orb usage, watching for death sauce puddles, watching for slam circles, managing personal defensive cooldowns for Death Knell, and managing your range to healers effectively. It is doable, but the level of complexity and tug of war between these mechanics are more than most prior fights have asked of us.
Again, I have to wonder – is this too much? A part of me thinks that it isn’t. Raiding is made to be challenging, and I think Blizzard is trying to respond to player feedback by making the lower difficulties feel more rewarding. Beating normal Uldir felt good. Beating normal BoD felt really good. Each new fight felt like an achievement earned, something that was worth doing. On the other hand, the walls this expansion are much harsher and greater in number than before.
Heroic Uldir felt like a challenge at Zek’voz, Fetid Devourer, Vectis, Zul, Mythrax, and of course G’Huun. That is over half the bosses that stymied my guild’s efforts for around a week or so. BoD has more walls in Heroic – Grong is a challenge, Jadefire Masters is a challenge, Opulence is somewhat of a challenge, Conclave is a challenge, Rastakhan is supposed to be a challenge, and pretty much every boss in the last wing was a wall even on Normal, although how much so was variable (Mekkatorque was fairly easy to smooth over execution on, but Stormwall and Jaina were pretty tough). In a raid full of walls, at what point do people decide bashing their face on the wall isn’t fun anymore?
To be clear, I actually like Heroic BoD, and I had some fun in Heroic Uldir, although elements of the design wore thin very quickly (here’s a link to my thoughts on that). It’s just that I remember what walls felt like in Vanilla, and I actually don’t want that back anymore. I spent 24 hours a week (?!) raiding in Vanilla, just raiding. One full day out of 7, split up into four hour increments, 6 nights a week. In BWL, we hit a few bosses that were literally full week walls, although we did also split time between doing MC farms, ZG runs, and AQ20 runs, so it wasn’t a full raid week just getting stuck, but it was still 3 or 4 nights in total, 12-16 hours a week of smashing face into the wall trying to push through the tightly tuned DPS checks. I have a lot of nostalgia for those days, but it was a different time.
I also want to say that these walls aren’t the same as those previous ones – my guild will likely progress, and this week we’ll probably down Conclave and spend 30 minutes or so on Rastakhan, getting rewalled again. I don’t object to the challenge – I like raid fights that add the sense of reward from being harder to push over than you might expect. However, I ultimately land on this – walls are good to have and necessary to build a house, but once you get too many walls, your raid turns into a maze, and if I have to question if we’ll escape it, it does start to feel like I shouldn’t spend so much time on it. So far, BfA’s heroic raids are closer to mazes, too many walls and too much dead-ending, repeat progression, and frustration – and that isn’t a good thing.
End wing bosses should be challenging – I like that Grong doesn’t fall over without a fight, I like that Rastakhan is a challenge, and I really like the Jaina fight being what it is – it feels appropriate for a major lore to character to have a fight that shows off her power in the story. But then because of the different first-wing order, Jadefire Masters also has to be more difficult because it is the Horde’s end-wing boss, so you get two pretty tough fights in a row. Opulence feels like a break, but then Conclave is tough for reasons I can’t really discern, and the full last wing looks to be pretty darn tricky.
So I should circle back around again and answer the question – is having harder fights a bad thing? No – but in moderation, and BfA does not carefully pace these fights to be logically consistent, which makes it harder to accept.