Throughout these first two and a half months of Shadowlands (it has been that long already?!), something of a constant theme has been bubbling up to the surface among the player base – that loot feels kind of bad, slow, and it brings down some of the genuine joys of the expansion.
I want to start this post, after that framing statement, with my conclusion. It will likely set some readers off, and if that is you and you’re about to scroll to the comments after this, I would encourage you to read on. Here goes…
Gearing in Shadowlands is actually easier than it has been in recent years, up to the Normal raid level.
So now you see why that was something I prefaced!
Let’s dive into that statement.
Shadowlands aimed to slow the flow of loot drops, such that players value each drop more, there is less RNG via the removal of random item level upgrades, and players can better target their drops and other loot through semi-deterministic means, like running a Mythic Plus dungeon that rewards the gear you’re after, targeting the bosses in a raid that reward your coveted item, or through a much-improved and fully deterministic PvP gearing system that allows players access to the items they want without any bullshit short of earning the currency.
There are also robust catch-up mechanics alongside all of this – Covenant armor to fill non-jewelry armor slots right up to just underneath normal-difficulty raid item level, a Covenant campaign that concludes with a weapon reward at LFR level, Renown world quest item level upgrades that take players up to a max of 194 from world quests at Renown 29 (with item level 200 conduits and sometimes 203 equipment in calling caches), and crafting systems that over time, increase the item level of crafted armor available in the Auction House.
I want to start with what I think is the weakness of the current paradigm – the first character through at the launch. If you start in on Shadowlands right now, you’re in phenomenal shape. You can sprint ahead on Renown, skipping the painful parts that most of us have been discussing since you can go straight through the Covenant campaign and get to max upgraded Covenant armor (pending the anima required to upgrade said armor, which is another topic altogether!), the LFR weapon token, and as of this week, the full slate of World Quest item level upgrades via Renown.
What was difficult and objectively worse about Shadowlands gearing was the start on a main character. When you have that fresh, week 1 level 60, gear immediately was the chokepoint for player progression. In many ways, it was actually a subversion of what has made Shadowlands more fun to play in my opinion – where all the activities in the game are frontloaded, low resistance in order to enable players to dip a toe in and still get a lot out of it, gearing is stubbornly the opposite of that, where a fresh level 60 in those first weeks of Shadowlands suffered from an anemic rate of power progression, unless you spent an ungodly amount of time in dungeons and playing PvP.
However, now, we’ve reached the endpoint of these progression systems, and gearing a fresh level 60 in week 10 of the expansion is substantially easier. I have 3 level 60 characters at present, and all of them are above item level 195 and all have the Epic achievement. The third, my priest, got there without doing any PvP, any raiding, and has run a single Mythic Plus dungeon on a low key. There are still flaws in that progression, make no mistake – anima is still a chokepoint to the experience, the inconsistencies in Renown catchup can make getting to the point where you have full Covenant campaign availability and the full assortment of World Quest upgrades annoying, and PvP upgrades, while consistently available, are obnoxious if you don’t PvP and offering them as an option sort of ignores the fact that depending on how you play, PvP might just not be that appealing.
But I want to take it back to BfA, widely regarded as the biggest loot faucet era in the game’s history, because I think there is another side we haven’t discussed as much.
In BfA, most of my alts geared to around heroic dungeon item level before capping out. Sure, I could run a dozen world quests and get 6 pieces of new (mostly useless) gear, but unless I wanted to progress to Mythic dungeons or LFR raiding on a given alt, that was the end of the road. Over BfA, your ability to progress gear further increased, but mostly in Azerite slots and your average item level still meant that Mythics or LFR were the only meaningful way to progress further. This led to, in my opinion, a sort of dissatisfying feeling in play – you could really enjoy an alt, but there was a pretty firm gearing wall very quickly approaching, and to play beyond it, you had to drastically up your time commitment to that character.
Unexpectedly, Shadowlands turns this on its head quite drastically. Players can gear right up to around a 200 item level or very close to it without ever doing a raid or dungeon (outside of the one dungeon needed in each Covenant Campaign, which can be done on any difficulty) and can get there with relative ease and speed, given that the bulk of that item level comes via a fully-upgraded Covenant armor set.
What I find challenging about Shadowlands loot is that there are those runs where you just get nothing and it sucks. Tonight, in Castle Nathria, in fact, I received not a single drop of loot, and everything I could roll on from other people was stuff I already had or had better items filling in for. You can run a dungeon and get nothing, and if you’re unlucky, it can even happen multiple times in a row! This challenge remains, but it was compounded for many by the early weeks of the expansion being the toughest in which to gear, making it almost a burden exclusively taken on by those playing the game the most – the most loyal players.
However, most of my friends and guildies are just under or at 205 item level, and while the grind of upgrades is slow and somewhat painful, item level ticks upward for most of our raiders week after week. While I didn’t get anything on my DH from the first night of Heroic raiding this week, I got a trinket in an extra normal CN run we did, and then with a 213 chest from my Great Vault, a necklace from a world quest, and the upgrade of my Collective Anguish legendary cape from Rank 3 to Rank 4, my average item level went up by 6 less than 48 hours after reset, to where I am up to 206.
So I think there are two things we can kind of break out of loot in Shadowlands.
The first is that for any character at level 60, just following the progression content route the game lays out via campaign quests, Renown farming, and the like will, eventually, get you up to just under item level 200 average. If you’re willing and able to hit the AH for things like a Darkmoon Deck trinket, then you’ll get there faster, but if not, world quests drop a reasonable mix of gear slots and you can get the main armor slots and a weapon all fleshed out via the Covenant. Unlike past expansions, including the loot showers of Legion and BfA, this puts you on a more powerful footing without doing dungeons or raids of any sort than you would have been in those expansions, where world and story content gear progression was intended to push you towards doing something else. If you want to just play world content and solo stuff, the gearing model of Shadowlands lets you do that with more relative power than ever before – eventually.
Where most of the pain comes from, for me personally and I feel fairly safe in extrapolating this as a larger anecdote, is that the slowing of gear rewards is felt most directly by those playing the game eagerly. If you logged on at global launch time for Shadowlands ready to go, you probably have a dim view of the gearing of Shadowlands, and I don’t blame you! Because so much of the system is designed to roll out over weeks of effort, the first few weeks are particularly punishing, making those dungeon runs with no gear drops, reduced Mythic Plus end chests, and raid weeks with no good gear feel especially awful, while someone who just heard people generally liking Shadowlands and coming in to the game now is probably going to have a great time with gearing, outside of anima upgrades being a bit slow but farmable.
Where I find this especially interesting is in what this loot system is designed to fix, though. The idea of slowing loot is Blizzard’s idea of making content more meaningful, something you do because you want to play and the reward for playing ends up being more fulfilling, interesting, and generally useful in the end. Was this a problem for players? Well…I think it was, but this model introduces a new set of problems.
In Legion and BfA, warforging and the flow of gear were designed to be content enticers. Even if you were overgeared for the rewards of a mode of content, there was always a chance, however remote, that the gear rewarded could upgrade via forging, tertiary stats, or a socket to be appealing to you. The second mechanism to enable this was ensuring gear was always dropping, thus creating that opportunity in the player’s mind – every activity gives me something, and each “something” is a chance for the slot machine to pay out. Shadowlands got rid of both – doing more content is still a surefire way to ensure more drops, but on a vastly elongated timetable, and the slot machine is instead down to simply whether or not you get anything (with tertiary stats and sockets still existing as an additional, much less chase-able carrot for you to want).
What this does to gameplay in practice, though, is potentially problematic.
In a previous post, I mentioned that one thing I found true as I went through the game on alts and additional characters is that I had an easier time gearing. My first raid main this expansion, Holy Paladin, took tons of time to gear, kit out, and get raid ready – hours of dungeon runs, buying crafted gear, pushing through lower layers of Torghast for Soul Ash to make legendaries, and more. My Demon Hunter, second level 60, took around half the time to gear to the same level, and ran far fewer dungeons and had only raided Heroic Castle Nathria until this last week when we started doing off-night Normal runs to try and push some gear drops. Then, my priest, my third level 60, got to 195 in a matter of around a week, starting level 60 at 140ish, and I’ve done one Mythic+ 2, no raiding, and maybe 3-4 Heroic dungeons.
The reason this is getting easier (and I’m enjoying myself more personally) is because the early weeks are setup to build dependence on group play, only for that illusion to shatter as catchup mechanics break off bits of that inter-dependence that MMOs thrive on. In theory, Shadowlands loot should be like Classic WoW – I need to work with others to get to a favorable outcome and get what I want, but in practice, it works very much like the rest of the modern game – I can generally do this alone, but grouping with people gives me a slightly better chance to get it done faster.
In the end, Shadowlands gearing has a weird, almost bell-curve like distribution of item levels, and it seems purposefully designed to do that. The largest part of the curve, at the end of the launch cycle, is very likely going to see most players around 195-200 item level average, with a smaller number of players at that fresh level 60 gear range and a small number in that Mythic raid/high Mythic Keystone item level. I think that this makes open-world gameplay, especially on non-raiding characters and alts, feel much better, but it comes with a few tradeoffs. If it continues, I think that there will be an exodus of players away from LFR, at least those concerned with gear rewards, and likely baseline Mythic dungeons as well. Both of those, in the Legion/BfA paradigm, were the next logical step for players looking to progress their gear, but in Shadowlands, they feel sort of out of place. They serve a purpose for non-armor gearing still – they are the easiest way to get 184+ weapons and jewelry, but once that purpose is fulfilled…what value is there? Meanwhile, Normal and Heroic dungeons continue to feel very much out of place in even the new model, serving very little purpose for gearing or progression at all to anyone except for filling in very limited slots, and they’ve already felt very much out of place since Legion!
So the endpoint of this post is simple enough – the more I think about it, I would place the challenges of gearing in Shadowlands on a different point – gearing has never been better in terms of player power offered outside of dungeon and raid content, but getting there as a dedicated WoW player required waiting through weeks of ramp-up, and it comes at the cost of making dungeons and LFR raiding feel far less rewarding, to the point where I genuinely believe on the current path, these modes of play will struggle a bit to find their footing should the current paradigm continue for the rest of the expansion. Would they die off? I don’t think so – ultimately there are reasons other than loot that people do content (surprise!) but without the core incentive to the modern WoW playerbase, I could see them starting to dwindle in population.
My opinion after these realizations? Eh…I’ll give Blizzard props for letting players have more power without doing raids or dungeons, but at the same time, I don’t like the pacing and it feels overly punishing for us WoW diehards to have the worst go of gearing while catchup mechanics slowly take hold over the course of a single patch. I say that, but at the same time, I actually like that these mechanics are there – alts are a genuine joy this expansion – but I think you can walk a finer balance between the journey for a diehard and the shower of loot on alts/latecomers. Overall…I still think Shadowlands loot is a swing and a miss, even though I can recognize that some genuine good was done here, and that feels like as good a point as any to end on!