This week was my guild’s first serious raid in about 7 or 8 months.
First tier raids are always sort of…odd. They tend to be weighty things that showcase the design direction and ideals Blizzard has in mind for the expansion, but they are also very ephemeral things that escape us within about a year, leaving little or no real impression unless the raid is exceptionally good. Uldir was a fine enough raid, but I struggle to recall many of the bosses within it outside of the heavy lore characters, and a few I remember only via mechanics. Emerald Nightmare in Legion was a fun, bite-sized raid delivered with the promise of Nighthold as a part of its tier, and yet we waited two patch cycles, around 6 months, before storming the gates of the “real” first tier raid.
Castle Nathria feels more substantial than either of those examples. It has obvious lore implications setup by the story of the leveling content, it has a larger number of bosses than either Uldir or Emerald Nightmare, and while it largely rests on a foundation of new lore and new characters, it also has some interesting lore implications that have much deeper roots in Warcraft lore, and sets us on a path in a few different directions.
But I’m here to talk only about the impressions I have from my actual gameplay. Two nights at two hours a piece, my guild is four out of ten bosses deep into Normal and I have some feel for what the instance looks like and plays like. We’ve killed Shriekwing, Huntsman Altimor, Hungering Destroyer, and Artificer Xy’mox, and spent around 90 minutes putting in pulls on Sun King’s Salvation.
Firstly, the obvious – in terms of art direction, stylization, and atmosphere, Castle Nathria is an exceptionally well made piece of content. It has an abundance of props, decor, character interactions, and musical scoring that ties everything together, all of which is critical for conveying the message brought by these new characters and their new world.
Secondly, while the Castle ground are sprawling, large, and perhaps a bit confusing, Blizzard has done well with shortcuts, skip quests, and the like to make it somewhat less annoying to play through – although the game doesn’t do well with communicating this. There are mirrors in the major wings before your skip quest, and corresponding mirrors at the front door, and you must clear trash around the destination mirror to open the link back, making wipe recovery an easier affair. There is also a convenience at the front door of an in-raid repair vendor, waiting to fix your gear after botched pulls, which is a welcome touch. As you siege the Castle, some walls crumble down to reveal new paths and shortcuts alongside the mirror portals, granting additional timesavers.
Thirdly, the layout is excessively non-linear, in that it doesn’t neatly communicate the way to progress and allows you to roam aimlessly, potentially wasting some time. There are spots where you might find yourself feeling progress-locked, only to realize that trash must fully be cleared from a room in order to trigger an NPC event to open the next set of doors through.
Lastly, let’s talk about encounter design. My guild made serious attempts on 5 bosses and a joke pull on Lady Inerva Darkvein, and I have things to say about the design.
One of the things that always sits in the back of my head is a wonder at how Blizzard will continue to deliver new and different raid mechanics, now 16 years into the game’s lifespan. Castle Nathria answers this in a way that I like – using small, but substantial tweaks to existing mechanical concepts to create new takes. For example, Shriekwing – line of sight is a mainstay of MMO mechanical design, particularly WoW’s, but many fights in the past have used more static LOS checks. Shriekwing is dynamic, requiring the raid to adjust to both AoE elements of the encounter damage and also the bosses’ positioning during certain mechanics. As with any fight involving LOS, there are elements of coordination needed to ensure healer LOS, and the other mechanics of the fight play into this perfectly. A failure to execute on the sonar rings puts a player in danger of being hit by things they could otherwise LOS due to the fear it applies, and raid failures to position properly will in turn rapidly fill the room with AoE puddles, bringing the encounter to a close rapidly.
Likewise, Artificer Xy’mox is a favorite of mine already this tier for a simple mechanical reason. The boss uses what is effectively a simple structure – you need to place teleports via debuffs around the room and use the teleports to reposition a mechanic depending on the phase – but each phase turns this around to require new positioning and eventually forces the whole raid to engage with the teleport mechanic. First you have to kite adds by using the portal as they are too fast, then it is moving bombs to a fixed locale in the room to avoid massive AoE damage, and lastly it is positioning the portals so that you can port away from a massive AoE, all while the tank swap debuff also invokes this theme. It is well-themed, built on a fun lore premise, and has a simple core idea that takes minor tweaks and turns them into large shifts – it took our raid about one wipe per phase to really feel out the mechanics and get them down, after which a kill came fairly readily.
The raid has a good mix of fights so far, with single-target fights, cleave fights, add-heavy fights, a healer and DPS check fight all in one, fights with mechanical complexity and attentiveness as the core check to meet, and some fights that begin to mix all of that in. In a raw mechanical sense, I’m very happy so far with the fights. They scratch a lot of different itches and feel very diverse mechanically, which is great for a first tier raid.
Having said that, however, we must talk about the balancing.
The easiest word to use to describe the balancing of the raid thus far is “neglected.”
It isn’t all that bad, but it is clear that the delay prioritized the more far-reaching endgame activities like world content, the Maw, Torghast, and the likes, and less the raid balancing, because it has been all over the place. Prior to the season even starting, Blizzard applied hotfixes that pushed substantial buffs that hadn’t been seen in beta. Okay, fine – the result of testing, perhaps – but then on Tuesday, both Normal and Heroic proved quite difficult, with few guilds pushing over Normal and no guilds toppling Heroic on day one – not the worst outcome, but very unusual for WoW raids. In some cases the buffs made fights much harder, and it also created trap choices where mechanics that were intended to help actually scaled so poorly as to hurt or hinder progress (the soul pedestals on Sun King’s Salvation to help healers with the core mechanic actually caused so much extra raid healing to be required that they were not worth using until Wednesday’s hotfixes).
Luckily, for exactly this reason, when our raid went to a two-night schedule years ago, we chose Weds/Thurs – let raid launch day go however it will go, let the first round of immediate, high priority hotfixes go out, and then we get to go in after the mess. This played out very well for us, but I will say we still met challenges.
And here is where we reckon with the fundamental design of Shadowlands from a rewards perspective.
Loot is loot, and loot should feel good – those are two basic tenets the WoW team is trying to restore to the game with Shadowlands. We’ve already previously discussed the design in non-raid content – how it funnels away from world quests and towards dungeon running, but that alts will catch up relatively faster because of higher renown allowing better world quest rewards, more available covenant progress unlocking further tiers of Covenant armor upgrades, and the like. For raid mains right now, however, it creates something of a problem.
Our guild is pretty casual – short of a few tryhards and a few godawful meter maids who often die to dumb things trying to pad their numbers, everyone came as they were. In a Legion or BfA design paradigm, this would have been fine – item levels would have been in a narrower band of power, and we’d be able to progress a bit better. In the Shadowlands paradigm, however, our raid had a 33 item level delta from top to bottom, and we had a distribution among our 30 players that was split into even thirds – one-third in the 180s who had been running Mythic dungeons a lot, one-third in a mid-170s area who had done Heroics and maybe a few Mythics or bought some BoEs (this is where I was, btw), and then a third of the raid down in a low 150 range – people who’d gotten so used to the old design that they hadn’t really run dungeons, bought BoEs, or anything – they basically came in with quest gear, covenant armor pieces, and world quest stuff, plus maybe a few drops from Normal dungeons, and that was it. So our DPS was extremely lacking, and a lot of checks that we encountered were insurmountable for it. Our Artificer Xy’mox kill, for example, was a messy affair that pushed over the finish line nearly 5 full minutes over the average kill on Warcraft Logs!
This isn’t fully Blizzard’s fault, mind you – our guild is casual and the idea of sitting people for item level isn’t something we’ve been particularly fond of doing. However, at the same time, the game design is sort of unintuitive around rewards for players who’ve really been picking up their level of play in the last 4 years – dungeons are a fun thing you can do, but a lot of people are used to them being optional, and the game doesn’t necessarily do a great job of making that change clear to players who aren’t used to it. Sure, if you open the Adventure Guide, it’ll recommend doing dungeons to you – but who actually opens that for serious input on their play? I mean, I’m sure someone does…but I haven’t met them yet.
I think this actually creates a portion of the conundrum of balancing we see. In a Legion/BfA world, the buffs prior to launching the season would probably be fine, because an average raid wouldn’t be stretched to the point of impossibility by having to heal players instead of the Sun King (minding my spoilers here), or things like our messy Xy’mox kill would have been a lot cleaner. The other problem here is that both Legion and BfA had longer pre-season windows to run Mythics in – a full extra week in the case of both of those expansions, so you got more loot on average from more sources and had an extra reset week to run Mythics, pad out gear with Heroic drops, and generally get into that raid-ready state. Here, we got two weeks, with lower loot drops, fewer loot sources, and all of that creates a compounding problem of reduced item level. It may not seem like much due to the scale of things post-squishes, but in the past, Blizzard has recounted item level as a 1% player power boost. Players at 150-ish are performing 30% lower or thereabouts compared to the Mythic-geared raiders, or even 20% lower than the Heroic geared ones, and maybe more depending on how that scaling works (if it is multiplicative, the Mythic players would be even higher still in raw power!).
And I mean, I’m very well aware that this is a social friction problem and not solely a design problem – if our guild is hampered by players unwilling to prep outside of raid, then there is a response that we can make through benching or enforced item level minimums. Some of that should abate next week, as raid drops, the Renown 10 world quest item level increase, the Chapter 4 and 5 Covenant campaign completion unlocking item upgrades for Covenant armor, and more legendary crafting should all help even without dungeon runs, but with them, average item level should increase substantially. In fact, tonight, I upgraded a legendary already to item level 210 easily with the Soul Ash I earned this week, and my item level has increased about 7 over the week between raid drops (I got lucky with two!), Covenant gloves being upgradable, the Legendary upgrade, and some luck with maxed-out world quests giving me a marginally better trinket.
The balancing problems with loot don’t end at the front door of the Castle Nathria, however. In a post earlier today, Blizzard confirmed that the amount of loot dropping in the raid is higher than intended and will be adjusted downwards with next reset. I get it, on the one hand – the design paradigm is that it takes some time to get loot and each drop should feel special and empowering, but at the same time, I’m not sure I like this idea of changing it after the fact. I suppose at least they aren’t trying to find ways to remove drops or the like, but in a way, I dislike this approach to the error while also acknowledging that not fixing it makes Mythic Plus and the reduced gear drops there feel inequitable.
Overall, so far my opinions are mostly positive on Castle Nathria. The tuning notwithstanding, the design ideas on display are pretty sound, I like the blend of immersive environment with modern conveniences like multiple teleports and shortcuts, the artistic presentation is outstanding, and overall, I’m a fan of where things seem to be heading.
From a tuning perspective, I don’t mind raids in general being more challenging. In fact, I think that is actually a good idea, all told! There is, however, a fine balance to strike here – I think Blizzard tuned around the Legion/BfA model of gearing and that was a mistake, since a Normal raid group is more likely to have a variety of item levels across the effort spectrum, as our raid did. But I am not opposed to the idea of a raid tier (especially the first one of an expansion) being something that requires a bit more focus and mastery to get down, and after the Wednesday hotfixes at least, I feel like Castle Nathria is getting pretty close to drawing that line fairly well.
From a lore perspective, stay tuned for more on that, but I will say that while I know it is unlikely to happen, I’d love to see every zone in Shadowlands get a raid of its own to showcase the major lore characters and aesthetic. For me personally, Castle Nathria captures so much of the flavor of Revendreth’s story in a different light (and is, in fact, the duality you need to see to drive home the themes of the story in the zone!) and leans on literary tradition around the depiction of vampires and their frequent use as stand-ins for the inherent inequality of capitalism, and given that one of the pieces that shaped my worldview is Exiting the Vampire Castle by Mark Fisher, I particularly enjoy the metaphor presented on all fronts.
What remains to be seen is how subsequent hotfixes hit this raid on the balancing front, both in terms of actual raid changes but also class changes borne out from the raid being played through en masse on live, and then how the lessons learned here translate into the remaining raid tiers of Shadowlands. Too much aggression on that front could tank the raid, but too little could threaten to render it a wall to a majority of the raiding audience.
But those concerns are in the immediate future, and at least for now, I think this is a solid first tier. Will it be fondly remembered in a year’s time? I don’t know yet – but it certainly has a recipe to be someone’s favorite raid.