Loot is loot is an overriding, new/old philosophy that the WoW team has put into full effect with Shadowlands.
With Warforging systems all the way up to Corruption, one of the key levers that Blizzard has used to increase player engagement for the last 5 years is to make it so that there is always a perception of more value in playing a piece of content. Got a world quest that drops gear that might be good if it was 10 item levels higher? Still worth a try. Friend wants to gear an alt through heroic dungeons and you’re mostly in heroic dungeon gear? Might net you an upgrade anyways! In many ways, at times when the game offered reduced play value through repetitive, rote mechanics and layers of systems, the value of repeatable content was forced through these slot-machine upgrade mechanics.
And we did them, and largely, hated them.
So Shadowlands aimed to take a different approach, one that is new in some ways but old in others. Much like the vanilla style of loot, loot was to be streamlined for simplicities’ sake – it drops or it doesn’t, and you have no coins to change that or try again and no chance of it randomly being higher item level or otherwise more powerful (short of tertiary stats/sockets). This is mixed with new systems (reward weekly events with higher drop rates off last bosses of dungeons, timewalking vendors, seasons of play, being able to run non-Mythic dungeons over and over without a lockout, reward chests with normal and even heroic raid loot, Mythic Plus, the Great Vault, world quest gear, Covenant armor) and these create the Shadowlands loot ecosystem.
Now that we’re into week 4 and I’ve had a chance to raid multiple times, see what drop rates look like on both sides of the scary-sounding loot rate hotfix to Castle Nathria, and had my first pull from the Great Vault (203 shoulders!) and my first Mythic dungeon weekly event cache (213 pants!), I have some opinions.
On top of that, I want to take a minute and speculate as to what the future looks like. We’ve had the seasonal model for two expansions now, both of which saw insane levels of gear inflation that required squishes, so while a precedent exists for how these things are to function, we do not yet know the particulars of how a Shadowlands Season 2 would change things, and I have reason to suspect it will be different!
Covenant Armor – Good?
Covenant armor, in a world with the Legion or BfA loot systems, would be cosmetic almost fully, because it would otherwise serve no meaningful purpose. You’d probably get it 20 item levels too late and it just wouldn’t factor into your gearing decisions at all.
In the Shadowlands paradigm, however, I’ve found Covenant armor to be a surprisingly robust system that works well with the synergies of the Renown system and the lower amount of gear being dropped. If you’re doing your covenant stories weekly, you are slowly acquiring new gear of a good item level. The only weakness I see in it thus far is that it serves little purpose for your raiding main if you are tackling near the full breadth of available gearing routes. After raid tonight, I am wearing two pieces on my raid main, because I have not had a Mythic dungeon or raid drop in those slots yet.
For alts and those late to the party, however, it is actually quite perfect how it works. As of this moment, if you’ve reached Renown 11 and done Chapter 5 of your Covenant quest, you can upgrade all available pieces of the set to match Heroic dungeon item level. This is how I am currently rocking two pieces of the set – upgraded as high as I can take them to fill in for what were previously 168 crafted pieces. Because your alts acquire Renown as they work their way through the leveling process, they can reach level 60, complete the available story chapters for their covenant, and immediately have 6 pieces of item level 171 gear! This appears from beta to cap at item level 197, meaning it stops just shy of exceeding a normal raid piece from Castle Nathria (about 3% weaker).
It isn’t a primary gearing mechanism, and thus shouldn’t be what you count on for filling most of your slots, but it will certainly give you decent coverage of your main armor slots. It most closely fits with the Class Hall armor from Legion, as BfA did not have an equivalent gear upgrade mechanism.
And so, while it might have been a weak system on paper, in execution, the Shadowlands covenant armor sets do fill a casual play void that was left by the lack of world quest gear that keeps up.
Covenant Progress Unlocks and World Quests
The other system with Covenants that matters for gear is the Renown world quest upgrade mechanic. At Renown breakpoints (10 and 29) you gain an upgrade to the item level of world quest rewards. You may have noticed prior to Renown 10 this week that item level from world quests is kind of dire this expansion. With a good amount of gear, you can theoretically reach a point where WQ gear is in the low 160s, but for the most part, it will be lacking unless you’re a fresh 60 or really suffering for gear drops. These upgrades nudge the item level up slightly (so far, my best was a 174 necklace this week after the Renown 10 upgrade while I was at 176 average) but they do not offer much in the way of gear upgrades. In addition, a lack of world quests with gear rewards means they are no longer lucrative in the same way they have been the last 4 years. At any given time, the most gear quests I’ve had on my world map was 5, and two offered the same slot of armor.
As in the past, world quest rewards continue to scale based on your item level, with a firm ceiling in place, and the Renown upgrades nudging the ceiling higher. My guess is that by the time I hit Renown 29 in…six weeks (!), they’ll probably only go as high as mid-180s at best, with the average being 160 and low 170 rewards.
In the Shadowlands paradigm, world quests have little value for gear. They are slightly valuable for Conduits, which are treated as gear, but I would be hesitant to encourage you to do more than what you need for calling reputation rewards. Speaking of which…
Reputation Rewards – An Old Throwback
The Covenants of the Shadowlands all carry a normal faction reputation with them as well that all players earn, and which gates access to gear rewards that can carry you up in item level. This used to be a staple of gearing back in the day (my priest got a 359 belt from the Hyjal reputation which carried him through the first raid tier!) but fell off around Pandaria and has never really made a comeback since upgrades from other sources have generally been better. You might have grabbed a piece or two to fill in for bad luck, but it was exceedingly rare after Cataclysm.
Not anymore, though! In Shadowlands, every class has access to fairly good upgrades from the covenants as their reputation rises. At Honored, item level 164 gear awaits, at Revered, 181, and at Exalted, a large piece of item level 200 gear (unless you get Court of Harvesters to Exalted, in which case, it’s a necklace, boo). So if you aren’t used to checking the reputation vendors closely for gear (I know I was out of the habit), it is worth doing again now!
Dungeon and Raid Drops – Somewhat Stingier Than Before, but Still Your Best Option
Raids drop less gear in Shadowlands, at least they do after the fix this week. Dungeons remain mostly as valuable as they have been in years past, although Mythic Plus does seem slightly less giving, anecdotally at least. In spite of this, however, they are the best choice for gearing past a certain point. If you stick really diligently to world quests, covenant rewards, reputation, and crafted items, you can probably get to an item level around 180 – sometime early in 2021. Heroic and Mythic base dungeons still drop a good amount of gear – doing a full slate of Mythic base dungeons on a weekly basis will net you 5-9 pieces of loot at item level 184, and this week, after 4 of those, you can get a 213 piece of loot too. Couple this with Heroic dungeons to fill in any weak spots, Covenant upgrades after that, and then in the long game perhaps some reputation rewards, and you can quite easily get yourself up to a 200+ item level with relative ease.
That actually neatly summarizes the current state of things, actually – outside of PvP (I’m absolutely not your guy for that scene), in PvE right now, the best and really only way to push most of your slots past a very slow-paced march to the low 190s is to run dungeons and raids. Anything else you do can supplement this and boost lagging slots, but right now, just do dungeons and raids is pretty much the answer to anyone’s gearing questions. Can’t get a raid? Run mythic dungeons. Can’t get a mythic dungeon group? Run heroics. Can’t succeed in heroics? Well, then your choices do open up more, but generally, the answer then is “run normals.”
As I sort of touched on in my recent Shadowlands posts, I am of two minds on this point. On the one hand, every gear drop I’ve received has been valuable, worth equipping almost immediately, and hasn’t required a lot of waffling about. My path to upgrades is clear, and what I really like is that there is a point of finite return every week. At a certain point, unless you’re pushing every keystone with your friends and guildies, you run out of activities that return valid upgrades – and that might sound bad, but it is what I have desperately wanted out of WoW for the last several years. When you hit that point, you can keep playing, but the value of it drops sharply in terms of rewards. Even when discussing pushing keystones, there is a point of diminished returns once you max out the Mythic Plus portion of your Great Vault. Do 10 keystone runs and then after that, you’re either fishing for upgrades from the end of dungeon chest, or trying to nudge the item level of your Vault options higher.
On the other hand, this absolutely sucks for more casual players. Even I had dungeon jitters until late last week, and tried my level best to avoid running too many because the social friction of finding a Mythic group was not something I wanted. Once my whole guild was running 2-4 groups in parallel through them, on the other hand, it became easy to spam them – I can go with my IRL friends, the chill OG guildies, the tryhard new guildies, and about the only groups I avoid are ones with the two players I mute in Discord because they are aggressively douchey. Everyone’s item levels for this week’s raid were up, some by a lot (I’ve gained 18 item levels in the last 7 days!) and it made rekilling our first bosses from last week much easier, save for Huntsman Altimor because of excessive AoE damage that was mistimed (we even got a one-shot for the week on Sun King’s Salvation, our first time clearing that fight!).
And therein lies the rub – in many ways, the approach in Shadowlands actually inches closer to the classic WoW vibe – dungeon groups and building meaningful social interactions is key to ensuring that you keep pace on gearing and player power. Even if you’re not raiding, there are good reasons to keep up too – the Maw gets a lot easier with good gear, as does Torghast, and it becomes essential to Torghast above layer 6, as 7 and 8 are absolutely brutal even in the mid-180s!
Predicting the Future – What Does Shadowlands Gear Look Like in 4 Months?
So all of that covers the current state of affairs. What about the future?
In Legion and BfA, both expansions with the Seasonal model, it went pretty straightforwardly each time – dungeons shifted upwards such that Mythic dungeon base item level matched the prior tier Heroic raid item level, and everything else went up accordingly, with the new LFR being matched to Mythic base dungeons and the normal/heroic/mythic raid item levels scaling up from there.
However, in Shadowlands, LFR is ever-so-slightly better than base Mythic dungeons (3 item levels, scaling up to 10 item levels better off Sire Denathrius). On top of that, the game has reverted back to 13 item level tiers instead of 15, meaning that the jumps are just a smidge smaller, seemingly with the intent of reducing the upwards creep of item level even just a bit (2 item levels a jump means a full 4-difficulty raid tier is 8 levels lower, and that kind of decrease over 3-4 tiers of content adds up if you’re trying to stave off another item squish).
The challenge I see with the application of the season model is that it is going to make the idea of “loot-is-loot” at least partially invalid in a few months. Right now, everything I get is a good upgrade, and while that pacing will slow down, the old model meant immediately chasing upgrades from all sides – you could get upgrades from running Mythic dungeons, Mythic Plus picked up a lot of value, and of course, the new raid tier will (and should!) be a valued source of upgrades.
What worries me from the design perspective is the catch-up mechanics. In the grand scheme of things, having easily available gear to bring up alts or new max-level characters is a great thing. I want to see it continue in Shadowlands. However, in the current paradigm, how do you fit it in? In theory, the Covenants have something to do with it – more upgrades to the covenant armor sets, some sort of Renown cap increase where the first week of available Renown rewards in a theoretical patch 9.1 includes a massive world quest item level boost, or an immediate tier of armor upgrades to push past item level 200.
In practice, my fear is two-fold. The first is that pushing to have catch-up will feel at-odds with the current design, which I think does have holes. If you are a casual player, using all available means to upgrade your gear, you will be working over the next several months to get just near a 190 item level. On the current timescale, that would collide nearly with a patch 9.1, meaning the literal months of pushing your gear up and up ends up being invalidated, and any catch-up mechanic just feels like a slap in the face. Now, I don’t pretend to speak for that playerbase – I’m casual, but I am raiding and doing mythic dungeons, so by the end of this base experience of the expansion, I fully expect that I’ll be at a point where gear upgrades will largely come from the next tier of Shadowlands raiding, which is the way it has always worked for me and is comfortable and familiar. Maybe a long chase is a good thing for casual players to have, and I won’t pretend there aren’t people who would feel that way. It may actually feel better than having a higher item level now, to chase it, accomplish the goal and plateau, and then have new goals to chase.
However, I think that leaves a problem in that long-term, it feels like patches won’t live up to that experience. Right now, a non-raiding, highly casual player has an extremely long road in front of them, and while “extremely long road” sounds like a loaded negative statement, I think that is actually good. Unlike the Heart of Azeroth or Artifact weapons, it isn’t this weird, ephemeral thing with hidden experience curves and modifiers that requires constant attention. It is gear you can plan in some part. The covenant upgrades are on a predictable schedule at the current 3 Renown per week, and while world quests have some aspect of randomness, you can reasonably plan to put more effort into them at Renown 10 and 29 as the reward scaling should benefit you there. In a patch with catch-up mechanics, once you leapfrog the normal Nathria gear, where is there to go? If the seasonal scaling remains where it has been in Legion and BfA, that means there just isn’t a lot of cap left to go – maybe 30 item levels tops, unlike the 50+ you can improve under a non-raiding playstyle in 9.0. 30 item levels isn’t nothing, but as with any WoW patch, your available sources of upgrades go down. Launch Shadowlands has 5 factions, 4 of which offer gear upgrades. A patch is likely to have 1 or 2 at best, and while a Covenant campaign with upgrades could pick up the slack here, it may not do enough to match the journey that is available in the base game.
For raiders, on the other hand, not much changes with their experience, and they probably feel about the same as they ever have with it. Once you get into Nathria and it is the source of your upgrades, it mirrors Legion and BfA on gear progression – all attendant feelings for that model come along fully intact, good or bad depending on your perspective.
And of course, the bigger problem is that solving this paints Blizzard into a corner. If you offer an epic, 50 item level journey that casual players undertake every patch, then item level inflates massively and you basically restart the cycle for raiders and Mythic Plus pushers every patch, with them wanting to run Heroic dungeons and Mythics to push up their item level and circumvent much of the waiting, and then we end Shadowlands back around a 400 item level with a likely squish back on deck. If you don’t offer that, then you’ve committed that the base journey and maybe story content from patches is all there is for the more casual player. Some will do LFR, some will do dungeons on their own terms, and others may come around to raiding, but a lot of people who are long-term WoW fans know what they like and have a comfort zone established. I won’t say you shouldn’t try and nudge them into something new, but it is a difficult balance to strike in a game with so many players of varying interests.
In short – I’m coming around on the current gearing paradigm, while recognizing that it has shortcomings for many players, but I think there is a journey there worth capturing that is at risk of being trivialized or lost in patch content.
What the future holds, we don’t know at this point, but I am very curious to find out!