How Hard Should An Endboss Be, Anyways? Sire Denathrius Discussion

On normal, inside the halls of Castle Nathria, I proclaimed the raid overall was pretty reasonably tuned, with a couple of wall fights early that made Sire Denathrius feel a bit weak.

On Heroic, that problem is no longer present – you’ll wipe a lot on Council of Blood still, but Sire…he takes far more out of you.

At this point, my guild’s raid groups have been working on the Heroic version of the Sire fight for nearly a month, with some small handful of attempts closing out each raid week. This week, for night one, my group decided to employ the skip to be able to spend a lot more time on Denathrius, and boy, is that fight tricky!

It does bring me to an interesting, longer discussion though.

Raids should be tuned, I believe, to offer increasing amounts of challenge as your band of adventurers pushes ever deeper into the boss list. That makes sense from both a lore perspective and a gameplay perspective – the head of the household sits atop the throne, the strongest and most capable, while those underneath are weaker and less able to win in the face of our power. Likewise, gameplay dictates that the time spent on bosses underneath the final one brings more gear, more player skill, and that the final fight of a raid should be tuned to lean a bit on those. How much is up for debate – but I don’t find the general concept to be disagreeable.

I do think, however, there is a scale to it and that balancing difficulty as you go is crucial.

I had a tad bit of disappointment in normal Nathria because it didn’t have a smooth difficulty curve, or even an expected one that continued to rise as the raid progressed. It instead, for our raid, spiked at Council of Blood and evened out, with normal Denathrius being much simpler on mechanics for our group, as normal used easily-understood and common mechanics like stacks and spreads with damage tuning that was fairly forgiving.

The problem as I see on Heroic is this – Denathrius inverts that here, where the rest of the raid is largely straightforward as you might expect, and then Denathrius multiplies difficulty one-hundredfold. He’s no longer a pushover by any measure, instead becoming a fierce and ferocious boss. The rest of the raid is bosses that take small handfuls of attempts to best, at their worst – Council of Blood gets trickier on Heroic by a fair measure, as does the Stone Legion Generals, because the damage that tickles on Normal is amplified A LOT on Heroic, and in the case of Council, mechanics become far more layered and complicated as the fight progresses, offering little solace with each defeated councilmember (although your raid’s decided-upon kill order can influence this, crucially).

Where most bosses in the raid can be beaten by a competent guild in around 10-20 attempts, Denathrius takes most guilds something like 100 attempts. He’s not just endboss hard – he’s on a wholly different level from the rest of the Heroic raid. There have been bosses like this in the past, where the endboss on Heroic easily exceeds the difficulty of the first few Mythic bosses – but Denathrius tips the scales such that a guild capable of beating him can almost certainly go for 3/10 Mythic afterwards.

In tuning terms, I think he represents a failure, if I am being honest. Guilds with average item levels matching the raid and difficulty have clear rates on Warcraftlogs at low numbers – the early season saw near 70% kill rates at a bracket of 212-214 item level as Mythic raiders came in for gear, only for it to drop precipitously to the current figure – just over 3% of pulls at this item level range resulting in a kill. It takes until the 218-220 item level raid average bracket for kill percentage to reach a double-digit value! (In the interest of transparency, what I also find funny is that there are brackets below 213 where the kill rate (even currently) increases, which I would put down to a mix of carries, skilled PUGs, alt-raids for Mythic guilds, and the like.)

Looking at the kill rates within that 212-214 bracket, even the hardest bosses in the raid (the ones immediately before Denathrius) have low to high 20% kill rates off of much fewer attempts (nearly 10% the total pulls of Sire), which shows guilds working to progress – a spot even our guild sometimes winds up in on reclears. So when I say Denathrius’ tuning is a “failure” what I am getting at is simple – Denathrius clearly is a wall extraordinaire, an obstacle to progress unlike any other (how fitting for a wealthy aristocrat!).

Now, I want to be clear before I get to my real point here – I don’t think anyone is owed a kill of an endboss, and I think there is a sort of value to an endboss in Heroic being something your raid group challenges, overcomes, and gets to gloat about afterwards. That is a good feeling, and worth having in the game! Likewise, is Sire uniquely difficult as raid fights in WoW go? No – he’s uniquely difficult within his tier, which is the overall sentiment I want to address.

The challenge with Sire Denathrius is that the fight has a pacing that dictates strict levels of control more than anything else. What do I mean? Think about an average raid fight and especially think about things like throughput – your DPS rarely, if ever, have to stop DPS, and even if a fight has a punish for too-fast DPS pacing, it can usually be easily recovered from. Sire has a weird pattern where DPS is crucial (you need to hit 70% before the room in Phase 1 fills with pizza sauce!) but also must be carefully meted out (don’t push him to 70% until all of the Burden of Sin stacks your group needs to clear are cleared!). Positioning is crucial (tight stacks for Cleansing Pain, careful positioning for Night Hunter) but also must be broken regularly (adds spawning in random proximity to the group on Cleansing Pain, Night Hunter placement forcing the group to adapt). When you get to Phase 2, the fight gives off this aura of being a DPS check – you have to race, conventional wisdom says you better push phase 3 before the third set of Cabalist adds – but in truth, it continues to be about control. You need to push adds when the raid has the luxury of movement. You need to use mirrors to pass forward and back, but you might be fine without going back and it may be to your benefit at certain points to control adds. The raid is taking constant ticking damage from adds, but they also can’t die when Massacre or Hand of Destruction are being cast, because the Crescendo puddles do reasonable damage with a knockback, which can really hurt positioning for Massacre and can knock you out of the grab done with Hand of Destruction, sometimes fatally.

Phase 3 likewise encourages control – you have debuffs with big keep out zones that leave globes you have to soak, but their radius is smaller so you can’t really cheese them with a tight stack because you’ll kill your debuffed players and their tightest possible stack still creates 3 fully-separate AoE zones. You have less of the room to use and a Denathrius-centered knockback that requires readjustment – if your tanks suck at positioning, you’re going to hate this phase (not speaking from experience…okay maybe). You now have to deal with Hand of Destruction without mirrors, while the room is filling with soaking globes and pizza sauce, but the whole thing is also framed like a DPS check, because it is – kill him before the room fills or else!

What makes Denathrius singularly frustrating in this tier is that he suffers the dreaded affliction of many a modern boss in WoW – one player fucking up screws everyone. Even on basic mechanics – someone can’t position correctly for Night Hunter and dies? Well, now Blood Price hits harder on the living players. Fail to move an Impale out correctly, or have a sword tank who really can’t position to save their life? Well, there’s gonna be some spilled marinara slowly making things harder, on top of the high ticking damage the players in the path will take. Someone can’t watch timers and kills a Cabalist at the start of the Massacre cast? Well, now you have the fastest-moving line AoEs in the game and your escape zones being filled by little knockbacks that will take around 25% of your health and push you off in a different direction, from which you may not be able to dodge the giant sword images coming for you. Everyone does mechanics well enough but you have 2-3 people who are friends of players in the group who couldn’t do enough damage to tear open a wet paper bag? Well, I hope you enjoy your excruciating phase 3 wipes when Denathrius finishes saucing up his pizza.

The frustration of co-raid leading this boss and trying to keep group cohesion up is immense, especially if you have a little bit of everything I mentioned above. If you, say for example, hypothetically speaking, have two tanks who position with the elegance of a drunken baboon, a hunter DPS who is friends with two core players and can’t out-DPS a tank while playing a flavor of the month spec or even live past the first phase because he never watches his fucking feet, a druid who pads healing meters by failing basic mechanics and then self-healing while bragging about his total HPS on the meters and also never listens to the raid leads, people with mechanics that never talk on comms, and then the rest of the group trying their level best – you might do exceptionally well against expectations. You might even get to Phase 3 a few times with what look like decent attempts only to see the tanks, clearly unaware of how anything works in the phase, position incorrectly and for everyone to then get flung off the platform, ending that pull in disaster. Venting aside, I imagine this is the scenario for most groups in that 97% of unsuccessful Denathrius pulls – doing their best with friends and family but watching people pull things apart because you can no longer mask the poor execution of some with amazing play from others.

There have been tiers like this in the past too – Eternal Palace was heavy on group execution checks, and Tomb of Sargeras before that, with tons of other examples, I am sure. However, I say “tiers” here because both of those raids had multiple encounters where that expectation of strong individual play was set throughout, and those I actually sort of don’t mind as much. When a raid ramps up the individual skill checks over the entire tier, it creates a better scenario where people reach the end sort of battle-hardened and ready. In the case of Castle Nathria, though, there are so few fights where that happens that the sudden need for everyone to be at peak performance is startling and can cause some rifts. Sludgefist maybe gets closer to that ideal than most of the fights this tier, especially since someone tunneling will usually kill another player at the same time and that likely creates more direct animosity between players than something like Denathrius, where it ends up being a slow attrition due to that one fuckup.

Basically, my thought is this – Castle Nathria is a well-designed, mostly well-conceived raid from a gameplay perspective, that unfortunately suffers from having fairly simple bosses up-front that you can pull a group through with a set of strong core players before giving way to an endboss that will uniquely mess you up if your group does not all individually play to a high level of execution not asked of them anywhere else in the raid. If the early part of the raid leaned more heavily into the execution checks at that low level, it would be fine, or if Denathrius was tuned differently to draw more challenge into group-level execution checks, like keeping the raid alive through high damage from multiple and varied sources while requiring high DPS throughput that can still be done well by a group down one or two players. Instead, you have a raid that has little execution finesse in the early stages that cannot be recovered from, before backloading it horribly in Denathrius (and Sludgefist) and making progression in the final part of the raid feel sort of unfulfilling to play and challenging to raid lead with anything approaching diplomacy.

Do I think they should nerf Denathrius? Eh….I don’t actually know. You could make some very small tweaks with big impact, like reducing the number of Crescendo AoEs launched from dying Cabalists, or making a minor speed reduction to the Massacre lines – both changes would increase the odds of success for an otherwise capable group without even touching the raw damage output the boss has on players. If you were going to target some actual, standard nerfs, I could see a hit to Cabalist damage – maybe starting it lower but allowing it to ramp over time to deal the same amount of damage it currently does rather than outright reducing it. Impale positioning could be made clearer with a permanent arrow showing the path of Remornia instead of the animated one that sort of pulses across the whole path of the blade. I think you could actually do a lot to help guilds that are on a cusp without actually ever hitting damage, actually – simply tweak speed of AoEs here, number of AoEs there – and you’d actually get to a point where things feel a bit better.

But I guess the last thing I want to say with this post is conflicting with all the rest of it. As frustrating as it is as a fight, as much as my specific raid players sometimes make me want to pull my fucking hair out at the end of 90 minutes worth of wipes to him…I think that sometimes, maybe the game needs a Denathrius, who functions as a skill check for individual players and puts the small number of successful pulls on a pedestal. Right now, it sort of means something if your guild raid has killed Denathrius Heroic, and that isn’t something the game always captures with endbosses. A lot of times, in fact, the end of a raid is perfunctory – if you can get 10+ players into the instance and with a modicum of focus, you’ll get to the finish line in reasonable time and it will feel fine enough – but there have been a lot of raid tiers in WoW where the end is sort of a weird wet fart, it just sort of happens and no one is all that hyped for it before or after. Xavius in Emerald Nightmare didn’t feel special, nor did Imperator Mar’gok in Highmaul or Will of the Emperor in Mogu’shan Vaults. In fact, WoW’s first-tier raids almost always have disappointing endbosses – I’d carve out G’huun on Heroic or higher and the first tier endbosses in Cataclysm as exceptions, but largely, that first tier just sort of ends and you’re left waiting for what comes next.

Denathrius Heroic being challenging is maybe a good thing, after all. My raid is struggling with it now, and in our very standard way – a fantastic pull followed by 45 minutes of regression as everyone fucking forgets how to play or something, I guess? – but that pattern always pushes the good pulls into higher and higher levels, before we eventually break through and win. Do I think there are elements of the design of Denathrius or the overall raid that could be improved to allow for natural progression through multiple fights? Yes, absolutely. Overall, though?

I’m probably gonna be mad at this fight for another week or two, and then we’ll finally join that 3% and it will be so, so sweet.

4 thoughts on “How Hard Should An Endboss Be, Anyways? Sire Denathrius Discussion

  1. I wish – for once! – Blizzard pulled an Earthworm Jim-like gag. As you might remember, his Bob the Goldfish encounters were hilarious, as he just ate the fish or did smth. like that without actually fighting 🙂 It would be just amazing as a real, final raid encounter, not just a Mechagon/Taza’vesh quirky thing. A 3-minute pompous speech, then someone just walks in and kills it. To mess up with players, it should not be on PTR and have abilities listed in dungeon journal as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What you describe about everyone in the group needing to pull their weight…I know this so very well from my time with SWTOR raiding.

    To be honest, unless we’re talking about the highest difficulty I really think every raid in every MMORPG needs at least one or two spots – depending on the overall size of the raid – for players who aren’t good with mechanics nor damage output.
    Of course it’s easier said than done to design a fight that way, but I think it would help so much with getting more people to raid and actually have fun that it’d be worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree – and I find the challenge is that WoW already does that. Our raids have a few players who either underperform on throughput or awareness, or a little bit of both, and yet we’ve gotten every Ahead of the Curve achievement for timely besting of the last Heroic boss in a tier for around a decade – at least since they started adding the achievements for it to the game.

      This tier is one of the first where most of the bosses are pretty friendly on that front, only for two near the end (arguably 3, but I think that is debatable) to require near-perfect execution from everyone in the raid or else it is a waste of time, and that makes it a bit more frustrating!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I may be out to lunch but I seem to recall somewhere that Blizz was aiming for like 20% clear rates by the time the next tier came about? Course this is complicated with M+ gear.

    This comes from way back in firelands, where the clear never went over 1%. Probably changed over time.

    Like

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