The Shadowlands Media Blitz Recap – The Maw, Legendaries, Covenants, and More

So yesterday’s stream was as notable for what it didn’t say as it was for what it did. While the details around Beta for Shadowlands launching were promising, there was a lot of uncertainty and a push to “check it out in Beta!”

Well, while it took some time in the modern virtual model that 2020 has made a requirement, but today, an absolute blitz of information from interviews with media outlets and with streamers and YouTubers connected to the game. From these, we can cull a ton of new details, and coupled with datamining of the weekly alpha build, we actually have a pretty good impression of a lot of the announcements made yesterday and more details on how specific systems work. So given all of that, culling from the myriad of posts I woke up to on Wowhead, here are my highlights of the extra gameplay details we got!

The Maw: With the Maw now on alpha, a good number of impressions now exist of the zone, and it is something to behold. The atmosphere of the zone is incredible with a visually-appealing treatment that brings to life the vision of a desolate, unwelcoming region. From a gameplay perspective, there are some choices that serve the flavor but make the potential gameplay sound less fun, and it still sounds like there is a lot of uncertainty around how the zone works even on a design perspective. Some of the interviews mentioned that you might not be able to mount in the Maw…at all. Others mentioned flying is unlikely to ever be enabled in the Maw. While mobs in the Maw drop loot (actual loot), the zone is laid out with a variety of subzones, some of which may be too difficult for a fresh level 60 character to tackle. There are world quests in the Maw, but the current design is that no world map indicators will exist, instead using minimap markers similar to the vignette events from invasions in patch 8.3. There is a mechanic called Eye of the Jailer functioning as a timer of sorts, making longer visits to the Maw unviable. The design intent, as stated in these new interviews, is that the Maw is unwelcoming and thus trips to the zone are intended to last under an hour and be done maybe around 2-3 times a week, rather than a daily activity you would partake of.

To be frank, I like the idea of an inhospitable zone and have stated even as late as yesterday that I liked the idea. However, I think there are too many layers of mechanics here. The Eye of the Jailer and a lack of flight points is fine enough, and the world quest twist is acceptable on top of that, but the idea of never being able to mount at all is a bridge too far for me. Missing flying is one thing – I could, in theory, at least let go of the idea of flying in the zone, but no mounts at all, in a zone with a mechanic that progresses difficulty the longer you explore it? Yikes. It is, in many ways, almost stupid that they are considering this idea at all, because they’re even talking about adding flight paths to fix the problem – a problem of their own creation, alongside admitting that they may not even proceed with no mounts in the zone and they’ve left a loophole for flying as-is.

The Maw as an idea sounded really cool, but there is a fine line between fun flavor inhospitable and a zone that isn’t fun because too much flavor gets in the way. Granted, I haven’t played it, and the design sounds like it is still in the works and subject to change, but the current discussed direction sounds dreadful, and alongside a library of other viable endgame activities, it feels like something that could quickly fade away, and under the current design as stated, I feel like it isn’t long for this world. Maybe not quite as rapidly discarded as Warfronts were, but it feels much more on that track than something like Suramar.

Covenant Systems: One of the pillar systems of the Shadowlands endgame, Covenants have been a majorly-hyped and minorly-detailed system – until now. With the new build, we can see how Anima works – gathering to upgrade covenant sanctums, the upgrades to which are mostly cosmetic or affecting only the home zone of the given covenant. There are a ton of different upgrades, the Venthyr as the available option for testing showing food and drink provisions around the sanctum, upgrades to the Ember Court inside of the sanctum, and a transport network allowing for rapid transit around Revendreth (for the Venthyr). The perks seem fun, but it seems very much like Class Halls from Legion – one and done, effectively. They’ve stated the design intent is that switching covenants will be simple enough and easy to catch-up on, but switching back to one you’ve “betrayed” would likely cause a week or so of needing to do some questing for them to re-establish trust. Until there is a specific statement here, I’m inclined to leave that alone – it remains a case for min-max players and not so much for most of us, and even then, the idea of a week-long questing period isn’t particularly awful or egregious.

Soulbinds: Separating this from Covenants, because it is fundamentally tied to them but also very different and far more gameplay impacting. Soulbinds have some concerning implications for progression. Firstly, while there was mystery around the sources of Conduits yesterday, there is no longer – they are intended to be loot drops, coming from anything that drops loot. Further concerning to me, there will be item levels on them, meaning that as the expansion goes on, there will be changes to what your optimal loadout will be, even if the conduits themselves maintain the same effects – similar to Azerite traits of today, a higher item level version of a trait is always better in some way, and this will be the case for Conduits as well in all likelihood. In a world without Warforging, this is at least acceptable to a point – you’ll have an optimal conduit, and once you get it, you’re done for the tier. What I do find problematic in thinking through the process is that in a world with fewer drops overall, this may be hard to fill out when you need a large number of conduits to fill out your Soulbind. Questions remain on if these will be treated the same as normal loot, or if they’ll be an “in addition to” type of thing where a boss might drop their normal loot table and then a conduit. If that is the case, my concerns are eased. If, however, they function like Relics in Legion in drop style, that sucks, in my opinion. Relics were…fine enough, but it never felt particularly fun to get one as your sole drop in a week of raiding, and even when it had an outsized impact on your gameplay (favorable bonus trait and the item level increase for your weapon meaning a lot to your spec), it still felt kind of lame. I hesitate to judge until we see how endgame drops and content are actually tuned, but I feel concern about this.

Each Soulbind has a unique tree with Conduit slots and set traits, with a path that means you can not unlock every trait. However, you can build multiple Soulbinds and they can be switched between easily anywhere through the Adventure UI (similar to the Garrison tracker UI options added in WoD). Because Conduits are spec-specific and remain intact when you switch specs, you’ll likely want to maintain a soulbind per spec, and how easy this will be remains TBD. Lastly, you can reset the trait tree at an Anima cost, which is also TBD. Socketed conduits remain, but because Conduit slots are a part of your path, they are inactive until that slot is unlocked again.

Pathfinder: Yeah, it is contentious, and in BfA particularly so as the requirements were grindy as hell and required more factions than any prior implementation. However, there is perhaps some sign of hope in these interviews. It was stated that Covenant Renown level would be the primary requirement, rather than reputation. What this likely means is that you’ll be able to focus on your core gameplay with your covenant, and only need to gather the renown levels once to knock out that side of things. We don’t know what other requirements may exist, but the team has been using the Renown requirement as a favorable change compared to reputation tells me it should be better – although, it is worth noting that the WoW team’s read on the room as of late is notoriously bad and their dogged insistence on Pathfinder remains a blemish on their record. I’ll give them credit for admitting that the BfA pathfinder was tedious and sucked, but until I see a good, meaningful change to it for Shadowlands, it remains an obstacle to enjoyment rather than a feature.

Here’s the thing – I’ve actually been on both sides of the Pathfinder debate in my time in WoW. I appreciate that Blizzard wants the work of the team to show through, but it is endlessly frustrating that they insist on this player-unfriendly approach and force players onto a schedule of their choosing to “enjoy” the content they’ve created. I understand that flying supposedly makes you tune out the zones, and I even agree with that slightly, but at the same time, the Pathfinder-era of WoW has been marked with zones I can’t navigate by memory outside of the largest landmarks. In vanilla, BC, Wrath, Cataclysm, and Mists of Pandaria, I can find my way through nearly every nook and cranny of each zone regardless of how much or little I played in that zone. Warlords of Draenor forward, no matter how much I love some of the zones, they remain a sort of mishmash of points of interest and pathways between them, and many times I adventure in the older content, I see something I forget was there, before forgetting it was there again.

But I’ll point to this for now and hold onto it for the future!

Legendaries: At Blizzcon, it seemed the intention of the design for Legendaries in Shadowlands was that they’d be fully contained to Torghast – content there would unlock recipes and the materials needed to infuse that into crafted armor, and you’d be able to forge them there and be set to go. However, as with many things, the interviews today clarified something into a concerning light. Legendaries are tied to specific content, with recipes being rewarded from different modes based on the effect rewarded. For example, the Legion ring Sephuz’ Secret had a fantastic Haste proc based on successful CC/interruption, which to Blizzard, means it belongs as a primarily PvP effect and would likely be earned and unlocked via PvP content. The unlocks are account-wide, so in theory, if you like PvPing on an alt, then that effect is within reach, but for single-character players, this is a trainwreck in the making. There will be a min-maxing here, and while it won’t affect most common players directly, these things definitely leak into common perception of the mainstream playerbase, and there will be a desire for bloodletting if Blizzard locks favorable effects for a class behind less popular modes of play. Since they are intended to work like Essences, there should at least be a reference guide in game and a means to chip away at the needed items – provided, of course, that Blizzard makes good on that idea. The goal, as clarified on Twitter later today via Ion, is that a player will get the recipe, get a base-level item from a player crafter, and then be able to craft the item – and I love the simplicity in theory of that idea! However, the practice involves farming a recipe and your best recipe might very well be behind a mode of gameplay you don’t like, which brings a choice – do you farm it and hate the gameplay, or forego it and be “suboptimal?”

Passive Effects: Devs have been stating that the passive effects of BfA were too much and Shadowlands should see less of that kind of gameplay affecting DPS massively, which I agree with and have no complaints about!

Heirloom Experience Gain Is Going Away: This one might seem contentious on the surface, but I think this is fine. With the changes to leveling and the expedited pacing in Shadowlands, Heirlooms will no longer have an experience bonus on them. If this was absent any other changes, I’d hate it, but they’re cutting the whole experience curve in half anyways, so I think it is an okay change. There’s still value in them as gear that levels with you, keeping your power steadily on the rise without needing to focus on gear rewards from quests, and it allows you a base set of gear you can transmog as you like and set off on your journey.

Transmog Notes: A couple of good things – the last boss of Castle Nathria will drop a token you can exchange with your covenant for a matching weapon that goes along with the covenant armor. That seems cool and I’m happy to see cosmetic rewards being thought about as the game’s systems evolves. The interview rounds also indicated that they are working on bringing cross-spec Artifact transmog to life, allowing you to use a different spec’s artifact look in your transmog.

BfA Cleanup: Corruption will go away in 9.0 pre-patch, and the wording suggests that it will stop working completely. Essences and Azerite traits will continue to work, except in the Shadowlands, meaning that other than some edge-case min-maxing for old content, there’s not any purpose to holding on to that gear.

Mythic Plus Changes: Bursting and Volcanic have been adjusted to make them scale to key level instead of max health, which should make them more forgiving at low levels and places a cap on them at higher levels. Seasonal affixes will continue, but they’ll be testing a few on beta and the first season of Shadowlands will use an easier seasonal affix since the challenge will be in learning the dungeons and routes.

There Will Be Cinematics: Cool.

Tech Matters: Ray-tracing is something the team has added to keep the game contemporary, which is cool. They’ve talked about controller support more (and reiterated that the game is not coming to consoles or Stadia) and how they like to keep options and support for things in the game. There is some emphasis being placed on engineering realm stability and trying to ensure a lower-lag, more stable experience, which is cool but also sort of a baseline expectation I would have of them.

Legion Timewalking Dungeons: Not at launch, but probably in a patch, similar to the way in which MoP and WoD dungeons were added to the cycle.

That’s about all I want to discuss for now, but there are a few lines that deserve their own posts, so expect to see more content coming on all of this soon!

4 thoughts on “The Shadowlands Media Blitz Recap – The Maw, Legendaries, Covenants, and More

  1. My only thought on the maw is that if I end up dead too many times in a 1 hour session, it will get tiresome and I just won’t do it. They have a really bad track record with me on scaling mob health and difficulty, and I will walk away from doing content that makes me even more frustrated to play.

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  2. Someone please correct me here, but BfA’s design goals included;
    – clear power increments through ilvls, and moving away from SIMs. If the number is bigger, its better.
    – dramatically removing passive DPS (boring) and moving towards rotation changing boosts (active).
    – a reduction in overall randomness to offset the Legendary acquisition from Legion

    Each of these was missed at launch, and even further pushed aside as Blizz tried to get themselves out of their painted corner.

    I am not even cautiously optimistic. This seems like another spin of the wheel of ideas vs. execution.

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    1. Fair points all! The words are right but gameplay has to back them, a record that Blizzard is…inconsistent on, to say the least. The legitimate kudos I will give them is that the cycle of Shadowlands testing has already had them responding to feedback with rapid, immediate changes – removing keys and limiters from Torghast to allow unlimited runs weekly was based on player feedback. If that trend continues, they could earn some additional trust, but skepticism is certainly warranted at the moment.

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