Is World of Warcraft Gear More Complex Today Than Ever? (Spoiler Alert: No)

A core assertion among many dissatisfied WoW players that I see/read is that gearing in Battle for Azeroth is more complicated than ever – a thesis that usually is stated about and centers on the nature of Azerite traits, trinket effects, and now with 8.3 on the horizon, corruption effects.

It is an interesting narrative, because I think that, depending on how you define the timeline, it can be made true – but it does require fudging the timeline to get there.

Why is that? Well, the flashpoints most disgruntled folks point to are simple – the removal of reforging in 6.0 and the Azerite traits of 8.0. If you plant the start of your timeline at late 2014 and the endpoint in 8.3, sure, the statement of gearing being “more complex than ever” is true. You have Corruption effects that require trade-offs, the effects themselves possibly scaling to a point where you might need to be aware of caps or breakpoints, and then Azerite traits which scale based on a variety of factors. Trinkets and various other effects can also play into this interaction – so in the end, you might need to balance secondary stats around corruption effects, or pick specific corruption effects based on what secondary you favor or need most of. You also need to identify a Corruption breakpoint that you are willing to hit in order to balance the suffered effects of the mechanic with the benefits. On top of that, you then also need to sim your Azerite traits to find the best increase to DPS/healing/survivability for your character, and you may need to do this per spec or even multiple sets per spec, if you raid and do Mythic Plus, as an example.

This can all add up to be far too much for a player – I won’t pretend that isn’t a possibility. However, before I make my real point, let’s evaluate the current reality of the game.

-Azerite traits do need analysis, yes, but they can often be boiled down to a raw DPS increase or increase in throughput per item level. Many varying guides exist on Wowhead and other places with this information, and there are sites that literally exist just to provide charts of trait value by spec.

-Even if you don’t sim your azerite traits, it is usually fine. Unless you are playing at a Mythic raid or high keystone level, the loss of power from a poor azerite choice isn’t really going to impact your play in any meaningful way. Here’s where I let my perspective slip in – this is how I play, and I’m fine in an Ahead of the Curve pushing guild at Heroic without being noticeably bad, and when I am noticeably bad, it’s not because of gearing.

-The same applies to trinkets, moreso because you have fewer variables since you can’t stack the same trinket effect. BiS guides exist, sites with charts giving you a raw value score per trinket for your spec exist, and honestly – if you pick two trinkets you’re allowed to loot under personal loot rules for your spec, you’ll be fine all the way up to Mythic, even if they are poorly optimized or un-ideal.

-Gems almost don’t exist, and when they do, they follow normal secondary stat weights and rules.

-Corruption, when it comes into the game, will need more analysis and simulation to get the absolute values that most Azerite traits and trinkets already have. However, there are two things about Corruption that should be kept in mind – one, you can wait to build corruption resistance if you need that to feel confident playing with it, and two, the effects from Corruption are good but not game-changing. We’re talking about low-single digit increases to DPS in most cases, and the more common Corruption traits are fractions of a percent in value. A 12% increase to your critical strike from all sources isn’t going to be night and day – for my Havoc set right now, if I had just that trait added, it would result in a net increase to my Critical Strike of 3.5%, going from roughly 32% to 35.5% (worth noting that while it does increase in value with more rating, the effect doesn’t scale up more than maybe another 1% net Crit at most, and this assumes it just flat amplifies your total critical strike value, which is likely not the case). That’s not nothing, and it is worth thinking about, but at the same time, I could get a similar shift in rating by just equipping another ring that has Crit Rating on it. The benefit of Corruption is that I don’t have to make that choice, but instead I have another one to make – is the value of that Crit worth the hassle of dealing with the negatives in a fight? Some of the more special traits have some value that I would argue isn’t present in the stat traits, but even those are behind large proc walls or internal cooldowns, so they probably still result in very small overall increases to DPS. If, as a player, you decide that you don’t ever want to bother with the negatives, you can make that choice – and it is a viable choice even if that means 0 traits, unless you are a cutting edge world first raider.

The problem I have with this narrative, even as I myself don’t like Azerite or Corruption as systems, is that it takes a vague feeling (this system is really mathy, hard, and not for me) and ascribes to it a grander, conspiratorial narrative that is fictionalized to justify feeling that way (Blizzard is catering to hardcore eSports players and top-end Mythic raiders by making obtuse systems that no one can understand and everyone who interacts with them must understand!). It’s okay to not like the systems! I don’t either – but to spin a tale about how Blizzard designs everything for Method is, frankly, silly – and undercuts the value of any more genuine feedback you might have.

Now back to that original point!

The second problem I have with the notion that current BfA gearing is the worst the game has ever seen is that it is objectively not true. Mists of Pandaria still had Hit and Expertise, to the point that most players needed to sim every upgrade, and then because you had way more enchantable gear slots and sockets in almost everything, you often had to then redo your enchants and gems, not to mention changing your Reforges. A single piece of gear could often trigger upwards of 15-20 different changes to your gear loadout, just because of balancing Hit and Expertise. Since not doing so could actively harm your DPS, it meant more players at more raid levels did this more often and wasn’t a thing reserved for the top-end players. In fact, it is this very issue that caused Reforging to be removed in 6.0!

In terms of gameplay complexity, I would put Mists of Pandaria far above current BfA – when I get a new piece of gear in BfA, I seldom have to do more than figure out Azerite traits, or an enchant, or a gem socket. I might not need it, if it is a ring with non-essential secondary stats, or if the trinket effect isn’t good for me, but to suggest that BfA gearing is worse than MoP reflects a severe lack of historical understanding. Choosing the wrong Azerite trait isn’t going to actively hurt your DPS – it might result in a sub-optimal increase to DPS, but in MoP, you had lots of ways you could gear that would result in reduced DPS. Now, granted, if you healed in MoP, sure, I’ll give you that – balancing a healer often was simpler then, as you didn’t have cappable stats to the same scale. Overall, though? MoP gearing on average was far and away harder to manage than BfA’s was, and actually had potential for harm to performance – a thing BfA simply doesn’t have.

Further back than that, if we look at Wrath of the Lich King, there were all kinds of weird stats and ways to get trapped into bad choices. The easiest example to use is Armor Penetration and Spell Penetration. Let’s say you play a fun melee spec for most of the expansion, like Blood Death Knight when it was an amazing DPS spec with survivability for days (god, I miss DPS Blood!). Armor Penetration was one of the highest value stats for you, but only to a point and that point varied by target. It was possible, in theory, to face a low-armor target like a caster against whom ArP was only sort-of useful. Just look at the description of the math from Ghostcrawler in this Wowpedia article, and keep in mind – this is the simplified version for WotLK! It was very good in PvE, but in PvP, was a bit hit or miss. So gearing a Blood DK required gearing your Hit and Expertise to caps to ensure full hits, again balancing around raid-level enemies, and then you usually wanted a pretty substantial amount of ArP.

Then there was Spell Penetration. Sounds similar, right? If I switched to a Mage or something late in the expansion, I might believe, as was the case on my DK, that Spell Penetration has the same kind of value that ArP did. Sure, it’s weird that PvE gear doesn’t have it, but I can get gems to bring it up – so it must be really valuable! Well, no – in theory, it worked in PvE – it’s not like it was shut off there or anything. However, bosses in PvE content simply didn’t have innate resistances to spells on any level, so there was no resistance to penetrate. In PvE, it was a wasted stat – but the game didn’t make this clear via tooltips, and so you could end up having it gemmed only to be wasted.

Then, you could look at playing any hybrid class in Classic the same way. As a Priest, gear could have spellpower, increasing damage and healing, or Healing Power, just for heals. For mana regen, I had Spirit and MP5 gear, and there was a ton of debate about the right ways to balance these stats. If you played melee, you had Hit, but instead of Expertise, you could get some limited pieces with Weapon Skill in a given weapon type. The best gloves for most DPS Warriors were Edgemaster’s Handguards – a (mail!) set of gloves that offered weaponskill for most common DPS weapons a Warrior would want. Paladin healers often had mashed-up gear sets from all 4 types of armor!

When looking at these systems, all I can think is that they are far worse – there are ways to gear in nearly all of these systems that can either result in negative performance impact, or a possibility space far larger than that of the modern game – needing to balance caps, pick from more gear stats, managing around breakpoints and softcaps, or needing to evaluate gear from every available armor type instead of one. That is without touching on the problems with melee weapon selection (needing to know swing timer, swing speed, and maximizing both for certain abilities or values of Haste!).

There’s nothing wrong with being unhappy with modern gearing in WoW – as complicated as the old systems were, they had more elements of choice, and while those systems were indeed more complicated for some players, certain classes skipped it – healers didn’t worry as much, Hunters never had to gear Expertise, etc – but that doesn’t mean that the current systems are uncomplicated.

Given that, though, I find the discourse about modern gearing being “so hard it requires banks of cloud computers” or “the worst, most needlessly complicated systems the game has ever had” quite shortsighted and ignorant of the game’s history. I won’t deign to say that people who feel this way ignored the older systems being worse because they were happy with the game overall, but I know for me, that is definitely the case – I liked MoP, so the fact that we needed a guild subscription for Ask Mr. Robot was less annoying than it would be today. Likewise, it should say everything that in the modern age, AMR is far less popular than it was during MoP!

There are things about Corruption and Azerite that do suck, yes. Overall, I don’t think these are great systems or even good, and I will be happy to see both disappear in Shadowlands. However, I will not attempt to present the systems as objectively the worst or hardest to figure out, as they simply aren’t. As a shadow Priest in MoP, I made a lot of choices on my own that were actively bad and decreased my performance with gear. The current system has ideal choices that will usually be better, but there isn’t a trait that actively decreases your DPS below your gear floor.

Unless you are raiding in a world-first guild or a performance-obsessed Mythic/Heroic guild, there isn’t really a wrong choice and you can pick whatever you want without it placing you automatically at the bottom of the pack. To be frank, at nearly all levels of play, you’ll gain more from simply playing more efficiently than you will from perfectly optimizing every gear trait and then playing at the same skill level.

There are plenty of legitimate grievances to have with the game and even with these systems – adding hyperbole to them does little but undermine the case.

8 thoughts on “Is World of Warcraft Gear More Complex Today Than Ever? (Spoiler Alert: No)

  1. The argument is made more honest if it is reframed to ‘too complex to be enjoyable’, possibly with a rider of ‘complex in a particularly annoying way’, instead of the stronger claim ‘more complex than ever’. I also agree with you that the conspiratorial hyperbole of ‘Blizzard designs for Method’ is entirely unhelpful. But gearing is still a big problem.

    In my view, one of the main problems of BfA are the layers of qualifications that interpose themselves between the player and the gear that just dropped. It’s honestly somewhat difficult to be happy about the loot in the moment, since we know it has to be wrung through the simulation before being judged good. Our brains being what the are, the disappointment of ‘oh, wait, this sucks after all’ outweighs the initial pleasure of the drop. Then there is the frustration of ‘the stats are good, but the Azerite trait/proc/socketlessness sucks’ which, again because we’re not purely rational machines, feels worse than seeing a simpler number that incorporates invisibly the stat-loss of the inferior Azerite trait. These are small effects, but they add up, and the visceral aspect matters.

    For what it’s worth, during my stint from Legion until mid-Azshara’s Palace, I was at the level of progression you describe: AotC as the tier goal, anything beyond as bonus. My grasp of the Corruption mechanic is pretty wobbly, but it does kind of look like another coating of similar complexity. Obviously, one makes it work, there are class discords, charts, videos, probably more resources than ever if one cares to look for them. Still, I would prefer a level of complexity with more numerical stat math and fewer opaque effects and separate moving parts.

    Usually, in the past, if the ordinary player wanted to prepare for endgame, they went to elitistjerks (etc.), read the theorycrafted math for their spec thoroughly, practiced a rotation, and subsequently they were more or less competent in their own right. Now, we’re running monte carlo sims for every gear piece for at least a couple of specs.

    Perhaps I am misremembering something about MoP, but I don’t recall there ever being a point when expertise was more valuable than hit for PvE, until the hit cap. There may have been some complications for rogues with poison hit chance, but nothing like simming every piece of gear. Until you reached the 7.5% soft cap (or the 15% caster hitcap) you could pick the piece with more hit by sight, with perfect confidence. The main reason one would reforge and regem, as far as I remember, was to try to be as close to the cap numbers as possible, so as not to exceed them wastefully.

    As to Blood in WotLK, while that Ghostcrawler link is indeed a little spicy mathematically, raid boss armour was normalised. (something like 13k, I want to say?) So, as you acknowledge, you did not need to worry about its variable effects in PvE. You could stack it without worry, and cap it out thanks, if I recall, to the relevant 10% ArP talent Blood had.

    There do exist counter-examples, but in general, if you were disinclined to dabble in theorycrafting yourself, following fixed stat ratios and memorising caps got you where you needed to be, back then. Not so, presently.

    Oh, and the point that playing better is more important than optimising gear has never sat well with me. Of course it is, but they’re in no way mutually exclusive concerns and past a certain personal plateau the latter is much easier than the former.

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  2. Thanks for the comment! I definitely agree on the first point – I think the larger point I definitely wanted to make is that you can argue against the BfA systems without painting them to be larger problems than they actually are, and it definitely does undercut the argument that gear is easier past reforging if you indeed have all these other layers of choice.

    In the moment of a loot drop, it does feel like there can be less excitement, but I do think the BfA model is mostly better than MoP at being equippable in the moment. There were a lot of pieces I got in Siege of Orgrimmar in particular that required holding until raid was over to be able to properly evaluate them.

    The larger issue I take with arguments against the current gear setup is that a lot of the running of sims and constant need to evaluate drops puts a ton of effort against what are relatively minor DPS increases. Sure, if you want the absolute best possible foundation, you should be reading guides and running sims, but my larger point is that it isn’t strictly necessary for most levels of play. The people I most often read doing this are either raiding LFR after a past of Heroic play or still trying to do Heroic as their guilds dwindle, neither of which sets a stage where every 1% increase in performance is a sea change.

    On the hit and expertise point, I don’t know for sure on rogues – I actually initially typed rogue and thought I removed it since I didn’t know. My melee experience in MoP was with DK mostly, and through that class, hit and expertise were both fairly valuable to a point. The math on caps is a good point, though – it is indeed easier to know how the raw value needed – but a lot of players ran through AMR for every upgrade to optimize the cap without missing secondary stats they wanted, which was often maddening.

    Corruption may very well push on that last point more, to the point where simming is less about getting that sharpest edge and much more necessary in decision making, and that is something I fear in the back of my head, but I do think they’ve pared down corruption traits in such a way that it won’t be as bad as the earliest implementations on PTR. Of course, saying “not as bad” and not “good” says a lot!

    To the last point, it is definitely something I waffled on putting in the post in general, because it is a hard argument to make without sounding weirdly elitist. Play skill does matter, as does gear, but I wonder how much of the emphasis on gear and this top-level play mentality is engendered by the constant early emphasis on world-first raiding when the game got really popular.

    For my own play, I usually read a rotation guide, follow a rough stat weight/BiS/best trait priority, and then just enjoy the game – and while I am definitely sure I personally am not near the apex of my class and spec, I play well enough to earn my raid spot and enjoy the time I do spend in the game. I play every class at least a bit so I’m certainly not good at all of them, but whatever I take into a preformed raid generally has some research and time investment behind it. I get that not everyone wants to have to consult resources outside the game, but most classes these days are relatively simple to master on a core rotational level – there are definitely finer points, and that is perhaps what I more meant to communicate.

    Mastering moving on a caster is a bigger boon than simming your gear, usually. Mastering positioning on a melee class is a smaller difference but it still adds up. Being a great player requires a balance of things, though – I do think that was poorly communicated on my part and I should be clear that gear does matter – I just tend to look at it as a smaller investment through my eyes.

    My major concerns with current gearing (which should be its own post!) is largely down to Azerite feels on alts, the traits still largely being uninteresting, and most of the fun design being put into Essences (which I think are actually good, all told). Couple that with random bonuses (whether forging or Corruption) and gearing feels a little less exciting.

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  3. I think it’s interesting that you use “complex” in the title but “complicated” in the first paragraph. To me, the two have very different meanings, that can be boiled down to one line in “The Zen of Python”: “Complex is better than complicated.”

    Complex implies a level of control and understanding that is missing in Complicated. And in this way, I will say that, to the average user, WoW currently DOES feel “complicated” and appears to be getting a bit more-so in 8.3 – though I’ll have to play with it to confirm. Anyway, why do I say this? I just feel that the entire gearing situation in 8.2.5 is a bit on the opaque side. There is a lot that is straightforward, but then there’s a lot that just feels kind of random, and it’s hard to make a good gearing decision when that’s the case. I don’t even trust sims anymore, because I feel that the sim designer may be missing some subtleties. So I go with what “feels best”. It’s gotten me by, but woe is me if I ever start raiding in anger again.

    I imagine that on the flip side, Blizz views this as “complex” rather than “complicated” because they implemented it. I HOPE they do. I truly hope they’re not painted into a corner with a gearing system that has escaped their control and now they’re just making tweaks trying to get it back. I’m pretty sure that won’t make it into the forums from one of them, for sure 🙂

    On the surface, gearing follows some pretty basic rules and I feel like you can get a handle on it fairly easily. And they’ve dumbed down enchants and gems to the point where nobody really needs to sim it out too deeply. Beyond that, there are hard decisions to make, and I don’t always feel properly equipped to do so.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! It’s interesting that you point out that word choice – I agree with the idea but it was definitely a slip!

      I do think that your assessment is sound, though – complex is (generally) good where complicated implies a needless amount of baggage in the process. I think the overall process currently is complicated – your gear is linked to a leveling system, trait rings per piece for 3 pieces of gear tied back into that leveling, and then the essence progression which is tied to the leveling as well, but then also layers in quests for essences and the other means of acquisition, not to mention the levels of essences being yet another layer on top of everything else. I think if you remove one or two layers, it would just be “complex” – i.e if it was all down to trait and essence choice rather than acquisition and leveling.

      On the point of the current system, I do think the opaque-ness of it is there. I just also find that it isn’t really in the possibility space to make a bad choice, just a less-optimal one, which can be contextualized to being bad, but the point on sims is a good one too – there are a myriad of sim settings one can look at and not all of them are going to model your gameplay. A Patchwerk fight model might reveal the raw potential but maybe you have a target-switching fight that stretches the benefit of a given trait too thin. For some classes, you’re dependent on procs that increase output and if those don’t come through, perhaps a model that assumes they do is no longer accurate. At the end of the day, that (plus my general lack of desire to hyper-optimize) means that when it comes to Azerite, I make the choices I want with less delay, and that definitely colors my interactions with the systems underpinning all of that.

      I am optimistic that Shadowlands will pull back on some of that, but I think Soulbinds and Covenants have the possibility to create similar situations. There will be a best Covenant per spec, no matter how much Blizzard insists otherwise, and likewise ideal Soulbinds and ability selections. If you play flavor of the month specs, I expect that Shadowlands is going to be very annoying in a similar way to Legion with swapping, since you may very well need to grab a new Covenant and Soulbind to fully optimize. I think they can cut a balance there to where the system works without being needlessly frustrating, but I think that there will always be a community perception of best and worst – driven from the top players, down to the worst pug leaders, and obscured enough that optimizing means spending time out of game reading guides and simming choices.

      Lastly, just because I don’t want to leave it unaddressed, totally agree on enchants and gems – they definitely knee-jerked away from them after MoP and reduced choices in a bad way, but I think the stat changes they made alone between then and now should mean that enchants and gems could come back without the annoying, constant shuffle that cappable stats entailed.

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      1. “I just also find that it isn’t really in the possibility space to make a bad choice, just a less-optimal one”

        – that’s a good way of putting it.

        Being a “filthy casual” these days I’m very content to go with “okay” especially for active options, by which I mean if I have a choice between a decent passive and a decent active, I’ll go with the former because that’s just one less thing I have to keep track of when things get exciting. Especially skills and abilities that I know aren’t going to be around into the next patch or expansion. (one of the things that made me grumpy about the legendaries of Legion)

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      2. As unwieldy as it would be, I kind of wish there was less to learn per expansion. I think the old model with a few new spells per class per expansion was a good one, since there was something new, but not a myriad of new things to grapple with. The problem I’ve felt with Legion and BfA is that while the pruning has simplified the core classes to a fairly basic play model, there is a ton of extra stuff I need to know for two years to play at a decent level, and all the brainpower I put into learning that stuff is going to immediately be wasted when the next expansion hits and all of that stuff is invalidated. In fact, if I had to pick one thing that exacerbates people’s poor perception of the systems of BfA (and Legion), it is that temporary nature. I’m not sure how you keep progression interesting without those systems, but at the same time, WoW’s best performing times didn’t have such systems either, so maybe that’s a realization Blizzard needs to make.

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      3. That’s a fairly good accessment, I think. It’s especially jarring if you also play Classic. My BM hunter in Classic barely has enough abilities to fill his primary action bar (and that’s including both ranged and melee abilities). WoW became the biggest MMO in history based on those sparse models. I think there’s something to learn from that.

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