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.