Shadowlands is a weird expansion to me, in a way.
Last night, before going to bed, I had a completely random thought that serves as my starting point for this post, which I shared on my personal Twitter:
So the sort of bizarre thing with Shadowlands so far to me is this – when I sit here at my keyboard writing about the game, I can definitely think of things that are objectively problems and things I don’t personally like – the incredibly anemic anima and gear acquisition rates, the way in which slow gear acquisition can make some activities feel mandatory since the game allows you to boost your gear-up rate through an overly harsh amount of extra play, the imbalance of Covenant abilities, Soulbinds, and even the fucking mission tables, the number of new systems completely lacking any sort of meaningful explainer text or tutorial gameplay, the shortfall of meaningful world content compared to Legion or BfA, the nature of transport between zones in the Shadowlands (when I think about it, I do laugh at the idea of NPCs being forced to go to Oribos first, like imagine the invasion of the Necrotic Wake requiring a whole Necropolis to just fly through Oribos), and some various little issues I’ve noticed technically (every server reset is a shitshow for like an hour after servers come online as everyone jams in to check their Vault, and also there was a stretch of two Nvidia drivers where object shadows would flicker in a bad eye-straining pattern with settings higher than the lowest shadow detail).
Yet these things, noted as they are, haven’t really deterred me from playing, playing a lot, and getting a third level 60 character this weekend and pushing ahead on gearing and playing more.
Something that Rohan over at Blessing of Kings wrote about near the start of the month has resonated with me as a part of why that is. For all the bluster some players have about how overloaded the content schedule of the game is, Shadowlands is fairly lenient in most ways through what appear to be very intentional design choices. Mainly, as Rohan notes, nearly every endgame activity is front-loaded. Think about it for a second. Torghast? Love it or hate it, most of the Soul Ash income you can get comes from the lower layers, with each increase in layer granting less and less of that sweet melty stuff until eventually you’re doing a layer 8 solo to flex your relative skill with your class and to speed up your weekly acquisition of Soul Ash. With my third class and fourth played spec in the live version of Torghast, I will stick to my guns – I think there are two things hindering it for people – residual hatred of it from the overtuned weeks, and a need to progress class and spec skills to better meet the challenge. Not even just to say “git gud” but to say that you really need to use your whole toolkit. My priest almost never casts Psychic Scream in most content, but you definitely need it easily accessible in Torghast. Sometimes you can get a very problematic mix of Anima Powers – but even on a Discipline Priest so far, where the powers are very underwhelming for the most part, I’ve not gotten a complete dud, fail and try again combo yet. I do know this is a problem for some specs, and will carve that out as an exception to my opinion as stated above!
Let’s talk about other things though. Gearing? Yeah, it ain’t great right now, but the Great Vault offers easy-enough options and the first slot in each category is relatively easy to open. A single Mythic Plus key can take maybe an hour tops, unless you’re pushing past the timer to clear something arduous like a 10+. Raiding needs only 3 bosses down in total for the first taste, and you can do that on any difficulty or even a mix of difficulties, with the item level being based on some voodoo magic about the number of bosses per difficulty and such. Armor can be hard to come by, but you can upgrade and push that Covenant set right up to the edge of normal raid gear, and the Covenant campaign finale even rewards an LFR weapon token for you to push an otherwise difficult slot to a reasonable power level! You can then fill in a slot with a legendary – a lot of the generic, easy to unlock, or vendor Legendary powers are marked for use on necklaces and rings, slots left untouched by the Covenant gear. On my Demon Hunter who just became my raid main this last week, I have a legendary ring with the Judgment of the Arbiter effect, and it isn’t my parsing best or even all that high of damage or proc rate, but it does enough to both boost my item level and give me some extra damage. My priest is going to be making a ring with the Echo of Eonar ability, which is mega-generic but works with all specs and grants a not-insubstantial throughput boost.
Then there is content that is both front-loaded and also optional in the normal sense. For example, the Maw. You can argue, at a high enough level of min-maxing, that you have to do the Maw to get maximum Ven’ari rep to buy sockets for gear, and hey, maybe that is true in a Mythic raiding guild or for 10+ keystone pushers. However, for most players, farting around in the Maw is only as necessary as you want it to be, and the rewards you can get are heavily frontloaded here too. Ven’ari offers large and appreciable boosts to your gameplay in both the Maw and Torghast at lower reputation levels, and while the higher rep levels also offer some tasty bonuses, there are fewer of them and they can be pushed back until your weekly burden feels lighter. Ven’ari also offers most of her rep up front via weekly quests, making the smart play to do the two quests she offers, pocket around 2k reputation, and wait for next week. You only have to grab burning metal ingots, soul chains, or kill firebois if you really enjoy that content – and, if you’re like me, you might do that on your first 60 for a while before you kind of give up on it. Good news, though – all that progress on your main unlocks those purchased upgrades in Torghast and the Maw (with a couple of exceptions, mostly the Animaflow teleporter) on alts, so even if you do give up on the Maw, you’re still good for the rest of the expansion (for now, at least). No sockets though, but on an alt, that is minor, and hell, on a main, that is also minor, since they’re slot-limited as-is.
And let’s talk callings. Sure, they kind of suck – they’re typically easier than the old emissaries, but the tradeoff is that they offer little of actual value save for reputation and sometimes a drop of gear or a conduit. However, being told that we don’t need to rush every reputation to Revered now in preparation for Pathfinder means that reputation only holds sway if you want a vendor reward from that faction. Likewise, the chest of grey crap only holds value if you think it could offer a new conduit (on a new max-level toon) or if the calling itself offers a Renown, which, thankfully, callings tell you up front on the quest giver if they’ll offer Renown or not. Similarly here though, callings are front loaded (your first 30 minutes of world gameplay are the most impactful) and while the rewards are often garbage, it doesn’t feel any worse than a 2k gold emissary in BfA. In fact, it feels better more often – since you almost always get 2k in trash to vendor and sometimes something else. Not much better, but looking at the bright side here!
So overall, what I find is that while I still feel sort of raw towards some of the mechanics and systems that make Shadowlands tick, what I find is that each time through the journey is not just smoother from the knowledge of the past playthroughs, but that it feels easier each time – and is actually easier. My Paladin, whom I leveled as Holy, was a slog of sorts. I spent a lot of time grinding through that story on my way to 60, then spent hours upon hours for weeks pushing to get my gear up. In the two weeks we got between launch and raid season, I was around a 172 item level. My Demon Hunter, without raid drops, got there in about 3 days of effort at 60, and my priest got there in around 7 hours played at 60, without a legendary (yet).
So it ends up being sort of vaguely amusing to me, in that I rattled off a huge paragraph of problems at the start of the post, and yet ultimately, through all of them, I find myself playing daily, enjoying myself daily, thinking about the game daily, looking forward to new content, and trying to push through the content that is in front of me, especially in the coming weeks as there will no longer be the immediate campaign story unlock pressure to grab 1-2 Renown ASAP to get to the new quests. Playing my priest has been one of those unexpected joys – Shadow is a lot of fun now and really good performance when played well, and I can finally wrap my head around it and get myself to consistently good DPS with it, and I enjoy Disc a lot as well and use it as my core Torghast spec for the time being. My Demon Hunter became my raid main and this week with our foray into Heroic, I had a blast playing with my Soulbind and Conduit buildouts from night 1 to night 2 and seeing what things I could do to tweak and tune my performance.
What is especially amusing personally, and where I’ll end this post, is how the quality of the content as I see it has actually stopped me from quitting the game.
As I wrote about months ago, I had sincerely thought about leaving WoW behind prior to Shadowlands. I was having…let’s say, teething problems, with my guild’s merger and one or two members of the merged in guild, and the character of the guild post-merger definitely had me thinking about leaving the guild, and then, by extension, likely leaving the game, because I’m definitely at a point in my awkward millennial life at which the idea of finding a new social group to play with fills me with a certain unspoken dread. But, as I replied in many comments on that post, I ultimately knew what would happen – I’d suck it up, turn the two offenders down in Discord, and cruise through raiding – and that is what I did.
I switched to Holy Paladin at the start of the expansion primarily to avoid the pissing contests over DPS and parsing, which is one of the key issues I have with the two people in question, but also because I really do enjoy healing. It was the first role I ever played in a WoW raid (or an MMO raid) and it remains my main role for most content I play in Final Fantasy XIV. This was all fine for a bit – I raided, healed, didn’t have to hear any weird douchebaggery, and I felt pretty okay. After the first week of Castle Nathria, I was happy, even – I needed to skill up a bit, but I felt like I came prepared, bosses died, my numbers were decent, and everything personally felt okay.
Well, as I wrote when finishing normal Castle Nathria, we had too many raiders. With a single raid max of 30 players, we had between 32-40 people wanting to raid – perhaps a good problem to have in some light, but it created another wave of anxiety in me. Right now, I remain in my guild and raiding as a social event. About 10 of the players in our guild are people I know in real life and am friends with, so I had a lot of apprehension about a split meaning less face time with friends or being stuck with both of my problem children.
But, surely, a semi-random process built around banding people by performance and role and allowing each raider one buddy choice couldn’t shuffle me into a group with no friends and with both of my antagonists, could it?
As it turns out, the answer is it could, and it did.
Somehow, in an even split of raiders, I ended up in a group with none of my IRL friends and with both of the jerks that made me want to quit the guild in it. What bad RNG, cancel this game!
Of course, the challenge in being an officer in a guild is that sometimes, you handle your personal apathy for your play situation on your own, to enable the guild to continue on and keep everyone else happy. If we shuffled damn near any healer off the other team for me, it was breaking up some other pairing, and now you either make that person unhappy or have to trade two players, and then that risks breaking a chosen pairing for someone in my original group, and the whole thing is pretty problematic all over. So I toughed it out, and while it made me sort of not log on for a few days, by the time reset came, I was ready to play and try and make the best of it.
The way I saw it, there were two likely scenarios – I would hate it and we had discussed how that might look with some possible swaps and how to mitigate harm, or I would quit as I had been debating prior to the expansion. This thought actually sort of gave me pause – because I am definitely still a raider first in my gameplay, but also, I was genuinely enjoying the expansion and the thought of quitting the game over things outside of Blizzard’s control felt like a self-flagellation of sorts.
However, ultimately, the thing about good gameplay is that it can offset some powerful motivators otherwise, and coupled with my other mitigation strategies for that potential conflict, a third outcome emerged – I was actually having a sort of fun in the new group with no real life friends and my two enjoyment foes. Which, to me, was a baffling and surprising outcome! I mean, again, I can think of a few reasons why – more concise raid leading with better directions from our chosen raid lead for the team, some aspect of regained control (our guild largely has officers that are ceremonial in nature, with most things being dictated by the guild leader, regardless of how often he claims otherwise, so while we might banter or argue in O chat about decisions he makes, it ultimately ends up being his call and so being in a raid without him has meant being able to control my own destiny a bit more), and more interest in progression gameplay (our guild has, at the sole decision of the guild leader, always done Normal raiding until unlocking whatever skip quests exist for the raid on Normal, or until nearly everything that drops in a given run is sharded, which is always controversial and nearly no one in the raid actually likes doing) which allowed our group to clear Normal and then say with some certainty that we’d do Heroic the next week, while the other group argued for over a day in Discord about it, with the guild leader being snippy and short with everyone questioning it until the next day, when he got more kind about it and eventually overturned the long-hated skip policy).
In fact, my switch back to DH was borne out of trying to make the second group have a better go of things, since we were missing both the DH and Monk debuffs to increase damage alongside having too many healers. I volunteered the switch (I really do like healing, but DH gameplay is more pulse-poundingly fun than the careful strategy of healing) and I started straight away in Heroic on my DH with no normal kills and a lower item level than my paladin, but we still cleared and kept parity with the other group and given more time would have likely beaten them to a fourth boss kill on Heroic (we’ll see this week!). In a weird way, it actually ended up kind of changing my perspective on the doom and gloom I felt about the guild in the twilight of BfA – the idea of moving to a different guild to play filled me with a lot of dread, but so far, the new group feels sort of like a new guild anyways and by me acknowledging that the guild I helped build doesn’t really exist anymore, I can kind of push that original ownership stake aside and just play. It isn’t “my” guild but it is fun and clearing content is nice, and while I keep my two jerks on low volume in Discord, I’ve been able to raise it enough to ensure that coordination can happen and it hasn’t even been that bad.
It has progressed to the point where even if the switch between groups could happen now (and with me switching to DPS, it is very possible compared to the morass of trying to make the move as a healer), I’m not sure I’d want to. In a funny way, by being part of a new group that is full of people I mostly don’t know on any level, and only a couple that were in our original guild pre-merger, I actually get what I felt I would miss most back – a sense of ownership in the outcomes of the raid group and a desire to build it out better. While we’re trying to not be aggressively competitive between intra-guild groups, there is a sort of pride of knowing that we got through the whole of Normal in the first week faster overall, and beat them by raw time to the first guild Denathrius kill. Likewise, it was motivating to see them push ahead in Heroic this last week, and then come back ready on the next night to push to catchup and leave them behind with a much closer result on the fourth boss (Artificer Xy’mox for both groups) despite neither raid getting a kill on him this week. It will be fun this week to see how things move forward, and the exciting thing for me is that I have some measure of control over that outcome again – instead of trying to push a somewhat obstinate guild leader to adopt different ideas and measures, I can work with my group’s raid leader and the other officer in the group to tweak and change things as we go, and it is a fairly fluid and openly collaborative process. To be clear, while I have kind of ragged on the guild leader here (sorry!) I think it is just a leadership styles thing and not malicious in any way. A big part of it was that he just didn’t often ask for input as much on raid clears or strategies, while my current group’s raid lead likes to gather input and talk things through more.
The thing that relates back to my prior point is this, though – even through a few weeks of doubt during the expansion, and the few months of doubt in the leadup, ultimately, the game has been good enough for me in Shadowlands that I’ve realigned my point of view, see the positive in the circumstances, and enjoy my time, regardless of the obstacles, Blizzard-made or otherwise, that are in my way.