The Paradox of Choice: On Covenant Abilities and Community Reactions

One of the more broadly contentious aspects of the Shadowlands design paradigm is the use of Covenant abilities. Rather than building a spec-based system like Legion Artifacts, or broad powers as with Azerite Essences, Covenant Abilities aim to reach a mid-point between the two – class-based but not spec-based, integral to gameplay across the board, and balanced well enough that the player makes a covenant choice based on what they actually want and enjoy (which may be necessary more than we’d expect if my predictions on how endgame will shape up based on current beta gameplay hold true).

The community reaction to this has been, well…less than charitable to Blizzard, and I think with good cause. Much of the problematic balancing of the last several years of World of Warcraft has been built on the back of these abilities. The cost of getting it right for them is high – requiring lots of testing and gameplay scenarios run through the actual in-game environment, but the cost of getting it wrong is high too – if Covenants feel like a forced decision rather than a choice, it destroys the otherwise improved flexibility in systems Blizzard is displaying.

Before I dive into this actual topic, while I’ve seen a lot of debate around this, a tweet from MysticalOS (the author of Deadly Boss Mods) actually gives me an interesting jumping off point for the discussion.

It is an interesting bit of historical context (and, in my opinion, revisionism to a slight degree). When people talk about Classic lovingly as this time where everything was mysterious and fascinating, I do think a substantial portion of that was wrapped up in having a reduced information economy around the game. 2005 WoW had a lot of people discussing it at length online, but there wasn’t a hivemind of consensus opinion on the top DPS specs, best tanks, etc. It was a different time. Thottbot existed just for quest data, and the WoW database on Allakhazam was much the same. When Elitist Jerks opened their webforum, you started to see a pseudo-consensus around the conclusions drawn by the commentariat on their site, but even then, it was a good few years before WoW got into meta-gaming. I do believe that if players could have meta-gamed Vanilla in 2005, they would have, and there were some small-scale amounts of that happening anyways like with early BiS lists and raid compositions – predominantly Warrior tanks is one example, where Warrior DPS seeking out a mail hand item in Edgemaster’s Handguards is another example of an early meta-gaming element.

A part of that is down to Vanilla design – since it took so long to level, alt gameplay was rare, much less the state of today where having alts of every class is well within reach to most players. As a result, having a meta-class everyone latches onto wasn’t really a thing. Sure, late in vanilla, you might have folks who had a second level 60 or even more because they had more familiarity with the game, but since there wasn’t a theorycrafting scene of a large enough size at that time (and many of them were spending time trying to analyze things like item levels and base mechanics) there weren’t posts with data analysis attached advising on which classes, talent builds, or other such things were “the best.” My guild used a lot of ret paladins in Vanilla, and while the common wisdom that has since emerged is that it was a bad idea, we still cleared content pretty well.

As time has moved on and more people understand the base mechanics of WoW quite thoroughly, we move on to newer things and different things. Classic is an interesting petri dish for exactly this – in theory, the game would let people just play, but in practice in 2020, a significant portion of the community has this ingrained communal understanding of the best specs, best classes, and ways to optimize and meta-game that they couldn’t in 2005. Thus, you see a lot of weird things on Classic – optimized raids, naked raids, speed-leveling, and specific group compositions being favored for high-end content. Why is that? Well, the community has changed – the game in 2005 (to MysticalOS’s point) allowed for all of this, but it wasn’t a part of most player’s mindsets back then. Now, it is, and Classic shows a community changing around the thing they wanted, changing the character of it as the community of Classic is a far different beast than the one found in 2005.

And thus, we are led back to present-day, and the state of discussion around Covenants. Blizzard’s stated design intent with Covenant abilities is simple enough – you get a choice of faction and they give you power – but the problem in many player’s minds is a real one when looking at the state of the current game – Blizzard does not have a great track record in recent years of fixing balance problems, and when something is their design darling, they hesitate to kill it, instead offering halfway-fixes and enforced adherence to the design.

Covenant abilities fit into this because one of the things Blizzard continually comes back to is that switching Covenants will be easy, but going back to one you previously pledged to will require some added cost of time. This is, frankly, a problem. If/when a balancing change is made once the game is live, there will be a rush of people who want to change Covenants. When this happens, those people are going to be pretty irritated to have to wait a full week to switch, or that a power shift happens that might necessitate switching at all. This is a genuine issue that Blizzard sometimes seems unaware of – their goal in design is to say “everything works, pick what you like” but theorycrafters will always math out one that is superior in some way. As a Demon Hunter, for example, the Fleshcraft ability of the Necrolords (not even the class ability!) offers a powerful absorption shield. If I’m tanking this expansion then this ability is the only signature ability that offers me that level of power. The only one that even gets close is the Kyrian Phials, and those are pretty close (15% health and full cleanse 3 times in 5 minutes vs. 20-50% of maximum health shield every two minutes), as both the Night Fae and Venthyr abilities are movement only and offer no real raid/dungeon utility outside of mobility, which I won’t downplay because it matters, although for PvE, not as much as raw mitigation or healing.

Then there are the actual abilities by class. Looking just at Demon Hunter, the Kyrian ability Elysian Pact is pretty good. It has a cool effect, fits the class lore, and has AoE, strong damage, and healing via soul fragments. The Necrolord ability Fodder to the Flame gives some boost – bonus damage via attack power buffs and the demon killed from the ability drops a Soul Fragment that counts for the buff you get to damage for picking up Demon soul fragments. It offers a little bit of everything, but generally better suits Havoc – although the signature Fleshcraft ability, as discussed above, is potent for Vengeance as well. The Venthyr ability Sinful Brand is powerful for both specs, dealing a high amount of damage via a DoT, and the twist that using Metamorphosis during the ability duration applies the debuff to all nearby enemies is powerful. For tanks, this also slows attack and cast speeds for the enemies it is on, making it a powerful damage reduction. The Night Fae ability, The Hunt lets you charge to an enemy, dealing a decent chunk of damage and rooting the enemy for 3 seconds, while also applying a 60 second debuff that increases your fury generation from your standard builder attacks. This has a multiplier effect for ability use – you do some damage and have a small CC, but then you also have more resources to spend over the next minute, leading to more use of your larger attacks.

All of these are interesting in their own ways but I point to them as examples because they show a difficulty in balancing – all of them feel fine enough but there are clear distinctions between what feels tanky and what feels good for DPS. On top of that, the signature abilities have clear winners and losers – for a high mobility class like DH, the Night Fae and Venthyr abilities feel unnecessary, but if I’m a tank, the Necrolord ability is incredibly good and the Phials from the Kyrian are a solid runner up.

So all that scene setting for me to say a famous Kaylriene Controversial Opinion ™ – honestly, I think this is okay enough for the majority of players.

What?

Let me explain before you light up my comments – I do think some balancing work is needed and hope there will be multiple balancing passes on all of the Covenant abilities. The Venthyr DH ability feels like it does a lot of damage compared to the Kyrian effect, especially since it also has a slow and also has an AoE component, as an example.

However, the thing that I think gets overblown pretty frequently in this discussion is a simple point – these are a single ability in a rotation, and the damage they do over the course of their cooldown is relatively small. The two Eye Beam casts I can fit into a 60 second window do more damage than my Covenant abilities – any of them, save for a hypothetical high mob count scenario with the Venthyr ability where I can use Metamorphosis. All of them except the Night Fae offering have some sort of defensive component, increasing my self-healing via Soul Fragments (Kyrian, Necrolord), via direct self-healing (Kyrian signature), or via reduced incoming damage (Venthyr, Necrolord signature).

All of these offer a degree of utility, a degree of defense, and a degree of offense. None of them seem excessively wanting to me, as they all scale relatively well with gear and should remain powerful through the expansion. Now, that is just for the DH, and for classes with healing specs included, I know things are going to be more complicated. Looking over my original main raid class of Priest, I can see, for example, that Shadow really loses out in PvE taking either Night Fae or Venthyr as the Night Fae ability doesn’t do any damage at all, and the Venthyr ability requires the target to be capable of and casting a healing spell during the effect duration to deal its full potential damage. Druids likewise have a hot mess of abilities currently, with a mix of really cool effects (the Night Fae 16 spells in 4 seconds flurry sounds really fun and interesting) and really dull ones (stacking Haste/damage/healing buff that requires you to keep acting every 1.5 seconds or take a 1 second stun and damage for Venthyr). So, I won’t pretend that they all currently are balanced like the DH examples – but that if given proper feedback and implementing that feedback during testing, that I think Blizzard can make the abilities close enough for most.

Because, this is the core of the issue for me – people love to crow about how abilities are imbalanced in WoW based on cutting-edge simulations, top-level player feedback, and a model of gameplay that doesn’t really fit what most of us do in the game. If you are absolutely min-maxing every ability to the…er, maximum, then sure, getting 5% more DPS out of one ability every 60-180 seconds matters a lot. For most of us however, it ends up being such a small portion of our total DPS that it matters progressively less. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t want to optimize – part of an RPG is maximizing the return on your abilities and choices, after all. However, for a choice that has such broad reaching consequences on your gameplay outside of the ability, I find that the current discourse based on beta numbers and figures that are actively being worked on to be a bit perplexing. Feedback certainly is one thing – a productive and necessary thing, to be sure. On the other hand, a lot of posts I’ve seen on social media have basically been Chicken Little-ing the whole thing “well, Blizzard will never perfectly balance these and there will be clear winners and losers, so don’t even play.” Azerite in BfA was a problem because it affected your moment to moment gameplay in a really substantial way – they were buffs that were everpresent and so it was critically important that they be balanced to the margin of error if not perfectly balanced, and when they weren’t, it made a huge difference for your play. In Shadowlands, the covenant ability is one button you press every minute, at most. Looking at the DH ones, I put together a fun Excel spreadsheet (boy, is that a word combo) to see what the impact might be, and if I take a single-target assumption with no haste whatsoever, with Elysian Decree at current levels, I deal 2,501% of my attack power over the course of that time (using that as the math since the abilities all calculate using it). If you add a 5% buff to Elysian Decree (increasing its damage to 126% of attack power), I deal…2,507% AP. The Venthyr ability is an outlier here, since it would increase the damage dealt to 2,781% of AP in single target, but if I am in a cleave situation with 4 targets, the Kyrian ability wins…unless you save Metamorphosis for the Venthyr one, in which case it wins again in fights of appropriate length (since you can only cast Metamorphosis once every 4 uses of the Venthyr ability).

My point in all of this? The math matters to a point, and I would absolutely not say you shouldn’t care or bother with it and that it shouldn’t inform your decisions. However, what I will say is this – even in the current state for DH abilities, there isn’t an absolute clear-cut winner. The Kyrian ability offers very strong self-healing, something that Havoc feels like it absolutely needs on beta, and at 4 targets, it wins the damage race too (unless you always hold metamorphosis for Venthyr, which is only possible once every 4 casts anyways, so in a sustained AoE situation, Kyrian still holds strong). Provided that Blizzard gets the abilities to an interesting level of tradeoff like that, you’ll have an interesting choice to make and one that won’t hobble your DPS output in any real significant way.

And this is why I feel the way I do – I like the choice I get as a DH main because they all feel similarly compelling (I have reservations about the Night Fae ability because it feels like it makes the Blind Fury talent less worthwhile but that might be a net positive) and I think that the class abilities on offer are all fair in their own ways – perhaps not as directly comparable as I would like them to be, but still good. Provided that everyone gets that kind of choice, I have no qualms about Blizzard designing this system. I do have concerns that I would share with people on the other side of the fence about Blizzard being up to the task of balancing these abilities and making them all equally compelling to all specs/roles under a classes’ singular umbrella, as the Priest example illustrates clearly for me. I think that feedback is useful, and while it is popular to believe that Blizzard doesn’t listen (because, well, the whole launch window of BfA was a clear-cut case of that), but at the same time, in Shadowlands alpha they made a fair number of adjustments based on player feedback and killed their darling ideas of limited Torghast access and Torghast timers in order to make a better player experience.

So I guess if I have a call to action on this post, that would summarize it – provide your feedback with specific points of discussion rather than doomsaying, provide that feedback even if you think it’ll go to a black hole, really look at the choices on offer for yourself and think critically about if there are any you wouldn’t take and why that would be. For my part, on beta I’ve provided a litany of reports about all kinds of different interactions (for example, in Torghast you can get Anima Power buffs for Covenant Abilities you don’t have when running solo, which is not great!) and I’ve made sure to give a fair shake to everything I’ve played from as many viewpoints as possible to make my feedback succinct and based on experience as much as possible.

Ultimately, my hope is this – when Shadowlands launches, I want Covenant abilities to be a real choice that allows you to pick the experience you want rather than picking the mathematically best spell and being stuck with all the dressing around it. For me, I love the Kyrian – Bastion has become my favorite WoW zone of all time and if my Demon Hunter is pushed into going with a different covenant because of raid viability, I would be immensely disappointed. As a DH, so far I’m pretty lucky in that it seems like Kyrian, while potentially a “sub-optimal” choice in a way, are still good enough (and in strong AoE situations, better on average) that I can take them without feeling like my raid is losing DPS because I want to frolic in Bastion for a few hours a day. For this, I sympathize with the people concerned about the possibility of Covenant choices being too one-sided, and I know that I don’t 100% trust Blizzard to balance it on their own anyways. But, if Blizzard can get close enough, than the vocal concern over lack of ability to switch covenants easily will be less of a factor, as if the choice is a true choice with no clear correct answer, there is less need to bother with switching. For the most part, the largest chunk of the playerbase isn’t going to need to change either – even if you have a stinker Covenant ability (Night Fae as a Shadow Priest, for example), it just doesn’t impact a large portion of your gameplay, although past a certain keystone level or raid difficulty, it will matter a lot more.

But I also hope that through a productive Beta phase and plenty of time to review and tune, that Blizzard can, with player input, land the plane in a good place so that the “choice” they emphasize so strongly in Shadowlands is a true one.

12 thoughts on “The Paradox of Choice: On Covenant Abilities and Community Reactions

  1. The sheer detail of ths post exemplifies the substantive change the MysticalOS quote outlines.Blizzard doesn’t publish numbers but we know a lot fewer people play WoW now than used to back in Vanilla/BC/WOTLK. The players who are still with the game are… gamers. Gamers are interested in this kind of detail about the games they play. Gamers will meta whatever can be metaed.

    In WoW’s prime, when it was a global meme, beloved of news editors and comedians, a good number, possibly, likely, the majority of its players would not have self-identified as gamers. At the time, where I work, I was almost the only person who would have openly admitted in public to playing video games and even I would have balked at being called a gamer. At the time, I was unaware anyone else there had played WoW. It was only years later, when attitudes to gaming had begun to change, that I found out several people had indeed played WoW.

    They’d played it because “everyone else was” and they wanted to see what the fuss was about. Most of them didn’t get far. They played for a few months then stopped, not necessarily because they weren’t enjoying it. A couple told me they stopped because they were enjoying it too much.

    It wasn’t even a new phenomenon. WoW just blew it up.Years before, when I was playing EQ, I met several people in-game who later quit, giving as their reason the addictive nature of the game and the way it was taking up too much of their time. They were enjoying it too much and it worried them. They didn’t want to turn into gamers

    They were the people who just “played the game”. At a certain point they began to realize that the next stage would be playing the game “seriously”. Which would mean, eventually, having to research and understand the kind of detail in posts like these. Which would mean becoming a gamer, with all that entails.

    These days, anyone who wants to play a game without becoming a gamer is exceedingly well served by mobile. These days everyone can play games and have nothing else in their life change as a result. None of them need WoW or anything like it any more. Which means all Blizzard has left is gamers. And gamers love the meta.

    Every MMORPG is slowly driving itself crazy trying to square this circle. And the circle gets smaller and tighter and more suffocating every day. There’s no way out.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My fear, and I tend to feel past Blizzard designs give it some merit, is that if you are a raider, especially if you are on a progression team, you will be stuck choosing the covenant that offers just that smallest extra. My wife raid heals, she will be taking which ever gives her the best extras. Even if it is a 1% difference, that’s what she will take. Since I only remain in the game because she loves it, I will be taking the same covenant. It might be the worst for me, but outside of raiding we quest and do things together in the limited time we play. We don’t have hours to spend working on covenant daily quests for one, then go do others for a separate one. As the information comes out, and we get a chance to understand better how the routine gameplay will work, we will be taking a hard look before we drop even the $39 for the basic version.

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  3. Maybe I’m totally misremembering but I was so sure that I was already going off BiS lists when I dinged 60. I have to admit that was relatively late in the Vanilla cycle, probably around the time ZG hit, or a little earlier.

    So while the theorycrafting wasn’t as far advanced I wouldn’t say that the general population was totally oblivious to these things. General population of people not playing 100% casually and not having advanced goals, that is.

    That said I think I never really cared that much about those 1% things when I raided. It’s more like taking in the information, and if it aligns with my goals then take the optimal route, if it’s a little off decide what to pursue and realistically if I had taken the worst choice I actually might reconsider unless it’s like my favorite faction ever. Unlikely.

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    1. No, I definitely agree and I think that is where I disagree with the tweet as well. Meta-gaming in WoW has a long tradition and it isn’t relatively recent or even Wrath-recent – it definitely happened in Vanilla, although to a smaller extent (BiS lists, class composition to a degree, etc). I definitely remember being in discussions on the forums about what was best and how people were playing – it was a part of why I stopped being a raiding shadow priest and went to Discipline when the priest talent revamp hit in vanilla.

      I’ll be curious to see how actual theorycrafting unfolds on the covenant choices, though. Right now it is hard to evaluate some of them 1:1 because the ways they interact are so different. Even my DH examples, I have a hard time parsing the Necrolord ability because it is a boost to attack speed that does no damage itself and requires you to divert DPS to kill the demon it summons. Thematically, it is cool. In data terms though, it is somewhat hard to evaluate without a lot of analysis of your rotation and current haste gearing. I am glad to be a class that has a relatively fair choice across the board (as far as I can tell) though, since it means I can take the one I actually like and run with it.

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  4. I agree that for the average player, choosing any covenant is fine. In isolation. The problem, as you say, is the meta and the community’s obsession with that. We’ve all seen the flavor of the month classes and specs based purely on community perception. Even worse are the classes which are just fine mechanically, that get denied spots in pickup groups because they aren’t meta or are considered ‘bad’.

    This is why I don’t think Blizzard is going to solve the issue via gameplay. This is a perception issue, and if / until Blizzard can alter that they are just going to be creating more headaches for themselves. The community has a reasonable skepticism about Blizzard’s ability to balance things. We all have talents in rows that are definitely bad, do-not-take talents in our class trees, They are still there after multiple expansions. Why should players trust Blizzard Balance when it comes to each new expansion’s talent tree? New things just don’t exist long enough to get polished.

    To paraphrase Taran Zhu, the cycle will continue because Blizzard isn’t willing to walk away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The point on talent balance is well-made and one of the chief reasons I’m concerned that outlier covenant abilities are going to remain iffy. Sure, in a 3-choice tier, it might be marginally acceptable if one of the choices is sub-optimal or even downright bad, but when that choice also gates access to cosmetics, mounts, and pets you might want, it will feel awful to feel forced to make a different choice. I’d like to see focused testing of covenant abilities and more regular changes, and until they show a willingness to do that, I think the skepticism is warranted.

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  5. I think the person you quoted there, Adam, is confusing meta with the solved problem issue. There was most certainly a meta about gear and spec and such back in 2005, just as there was a meta for EQ raiding and gear before WoW launched. I remember there being forums and meta discussions about class and gear in public forums for the original Diablo. The thing about meta is that it tends to change over time with patches and updates and people revise their stance and update threads and make new calculators. And a lot of these discussions happened on sites that have re-done their forums or simply disappeared.

    With WoW Classic we have a solved problem issue, the way we have had on the EQ retro servers. People are able to take advantage of all of the meta gear and class discussions of the past that figured out the best path forward. There is no discussion as to what the path should be, it is just a matter of digging up what path was decided on back in 2006 or so and running with that. Everything on a retro server runs faster… at least for the core raiders… because all the questions have already been answered and all the problems solved.

    As for alts, in the context of the time, WoW was viewed as very alt friendly when compared to its competitors. The statement “since it took so long to level, alt gameplay was rare” doesn’t fly with me. Relative to the market, alt game play was much more common WoW. Since you could solo to 60 people seemed much more inclined to roll up and level alts.

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    1. You’ve stated my dispute with the point made in the tweet better than I did! That’s precisely why it didn’t jive with me – while it wasn’t quite the extent of today, I do distinctly remember having a metagame that existed and making choices based on popular knowledge.

      As for the alt point, that is something that is more about my personal experience and that of my guildies at that time, and while some had alts, it wasn’t as common as today, which I think played some hand in the class and spec switching we have today.

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  6. I seem to remember that someone (probably Ion) once said in response to a question about why the item level gaps between tiers were so big that players didn’t care about upgrades and rewards if they didn’t bring a sufficiently large power increase. I feel that’s WoW’s problem in a nutshell… they’ve bred a player base that only cares about power and balance, so anything they do will be looked at from that angle above all else.

    My main reaction to hearing about these Covenants was that they sound like a pretty cool way of giving people variety in their alt play at max level. (I believe Ion said in a recent video that people should think of Covenants like “sub-classes”.) So if you level four characters to cap, they should hopefully have quite different experiences regardless of what classes they are. With the revamped and once again sped-up levelling it should also be easier than ever to get another alt up there if you e.g. want to know what it’s like to be a Night Fae druid in specific (or whatever).

    Instead, everyone just worries about whether that one ability will be balanced for their main as if they were in the race to world first. I’m not saying balance isn’t important, but I don’t get the sheer obsession at the cost of all else.

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    1. I have a weird affinity for balance problems. On the one hand, it matters somewhat that a power not be too gimpy so as to reduce group performance. On the other hand, I’m going to pick for flavor I want anyways since I’m not at that level of raid or Mythic Keystone play where it matters that much, and Demon Hunters are pretty lucky currently with good powers that are reasonably balanced – Night Fae and Necrolord probably need a tweak upwards, and maybe a slight improvement to damage for Kyrian, but otherwise, for my main raid class, they’re pretty reasonable already.

      As to your first point, I agree and something I want to talk about more in a future post is how the level/item level squish in Shadowlands is letting them try to fix the power bloat by making small changes matter again. The item level jump in dungeon tiers in Shadowlands currently on beta is 13 item levels, down from the current 15. Which is how it was until Warlords of Draenor, and while it doesn’t sound big, over the course of an expansion of content, that will curtail a lot of the inflationary growth that happens over the two year expansion window. Coupled with the fact that leveling only ups item level by 30, and I expect it to be overall better. It still poses some of the same inflationary issues that WoW has been cursed with since Wrath. On beta currently, a fresh level 60 only has around 19,000 health, which is a huge squish from even the two prior item squishes alone, and I think that will help balancing too – since the numbers are much easier to analyze, it should be easier to provide targeted feedback and make smaller changes that don’t pendulum swing balance so badly. In theory, at least – waiting to see how it actually pans out!

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  7. My experience of Shadowlands is likely to be just that of previous expansions. I’ll play through the expansion leveling story on my chosen Alliance main (TBC), then I’ll play through on my Horde main. I’ll maybe play a few more alts through eventually to bring a variety of roles to any dungeon group fun I can organise with friends. I’ll poke my nose into any more grindy aspects but quickly grow bored of them. For me, the game has always and will always be about story and group fun. I’m no doubt an extreme outlier in that, though all the family I know who play are the same, and some of my friends too. Only my husband, ironically, cares enough about the 1% upgrades to do the grindy stuff. Personally, I wish we could just get an expansion that actually added to our class abilities in a simple and direct manner – I’m bored with all this “new powers through items or resource grinding” nonsense that Blizz are so in love with. I do not need gradual power unlocks to encourage me to play the zones or dungeons.

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