Don’t Let Perfect Be The Enemy of Good – Some Thoughts on Raid Strategy and Mechanics

Fights in World of Warcraft are finding more, excessively complicated ways to make players respond to bosses outside of simply executing a rotation to some measure of precision.

For years now, Blizzard has been fighting a war of sorts with boss addons like DeadlyBossMods and BigWigs – players with them have to think less, on average, to execute to a reasonable level of success and to win fights. On the other hand, because Blizzard tries (not always effectively!) to have a fight have a clear progression of mechanics between difficulties and newer more interesting fights, every level of raiding has more mechanics than ever before. Sire Denathrius, as an example, has most of his mechanics on both LFR and normal difficulties – just easier versions of them. Shattering Pain still knocks back, just less distance. Feeding Time is a simplified version of the Heroic/Mythic Night Hunter that does about 2/3rds of the effects. You still have adds and all the other trim of the Heroic fight, just tuned down and in ways that make dealing with things ever-so-slightly different and easier.

When I’ve raid-led, one of the things I’ve thought about often as an unspoken rule to myself is how to present a fight in such a way that it reduces mechanics to as small a number as possible. That, of course, doesn’t remove the mechanics from the fight, but instead, it’s about reducing mechanics to less mentally-taxing ideas that most players can do easily. An example in Castle Nathria on Heroic is on Sire Denathrius in phase 1. You get a debuff (Burden of Sin) that makes you move slower during the phase transition, where you must make it to the middle of the room before a cast completes. Removing the debuff requires that you stand in front of the boss when he casts Cleansing Pain, which is a frontal cone that removes 1 stack of the debuff from each player hit in exchange for some damage and summoning an add that chain-casts unavoidable raid-wide damage for each player hit.

You can handle this a few ways, each with pros and cons. A lot of guides will recommend what is widely seen as a “perfect” strategy – having the group taking the hit be against the wall, giving the adds less room to fan out, players less room to be knocked back by Blood Price, and creating a way for players to rotate around in and out to manage the debuffs, as you don’t want to take every cleanse. You can also just have your tanks marked and have half the raid stand on each, using taunt instead to swap the Sire’s aim. This can, in theory, be worse – adds might theoretically have more room to spread out and you’ll be knocked back further! – but in practice, it usually works just fine.

What’s the difference between the two? Besides a hypothetical executional advantage to the first method, they both work very similarly – the second one has an advantage in that it does not require the players to think about the actual mechanic. It’s not “stack for Cleansing Pain” it is just “stack on this tank” – no movement, no shifting, you don’t even actually need to know what the mechanic is called and so it doesn’t occupy the same mental space or bandwidth.

Why am I writing this now, though?

This last week, my raid group effectively dissolved for the remainder of the tier – positively, for the most part, because people didn’t have an interest in farming on their mains and wanted to either take a break or chase other goals. For this first week, instead of just not raiding and taking a break (my vote for what I wanted), I decided instead to run with the other raid group. It was for fun – still an officer in the guild but not filling any actual leadership role, there to just observe how the other group does things and to play. I wanted to see how my DPS would be without being in a leadership role – and I had my best parses of the tier on every fight, vastly outperforming my normal DPS when co-raidleading and also playing.

But then came Sire.

There were a few fights earlier where the other team did things differently than I was used to – not badly, just different. I could see the rationale for the changes and in the case of their Sun King and Stone Legion Generals positioning, it felt like a net improvement, at least slightly. I made some jokes about how the Sun King positioning was managed to the raid leadership of the team, but I rolled with it and didn’t backseat.

Sire Denathrius sort of changed that, though, and as I was livestreaming the raid, I could see pretty easily why that was. Not that I talked out loud or backseat raid led on Discord, but instead, I was finding myself playing a John Madden role on stream, commentating about what I saw was a bit of an issue with strategy.

I used the example on Sire above because it was the first point where I found a genuine issue I would identify as such. They used the rotating groups strategy, with all players making circles around the boss and having to adjust for mechanics instead of simply stacking and moving. There were a fair number of pulls where a player or two didn’t get properly cleansed, and because the positioning is so floaty, the last cleanse (where the group stacks to avoid having to pause DPS for longer periods) was dicey almost always, and was often where folks would not get cleansed, whether due to not getting into position themselves in time or micro-adjustments or stutters from the tank’s positioning. It caused a fair number of wipes, as losing too many players early means less battle res availability later and that often creates untenable attrition in the group. Worse still, adds often still spread and were alive for longer than necessary, meaning a big chunk of the reasoning for positioning against the wall was not holding true.

It got me thinking about how I raid lead and explain strategies. The thing about this positioning is again, that it isn’t bad or even worse. It is, in fact, probably more ideal than the way my team did it, as it better manages some mechanics! However, what I noticed is that it took way more mental bandwidth from me to remember to position on top of everything else, because my position was variable. The way my raid does it normally is not perfect – but it also requires no thought outside of one thing – stack on your tank. What I realized is that when I would work with our raid leader on strategies or discuss how we were handling things, or when I’ve solo-led raids and had to figure out how to distill the strategy into a bite-sized morsel for the raid, a rule I follow, as I mentioned above, is to reduce mechanics. My team doesn’t call things by name – instead it is a short command of what to actually do – move here, stack with X, watch your feet, dodge this, use the portal, kill that, and so on. Now, you might think to yourself at this point that what I am describing is mechanics, and I am weasel-wording my way around describing them as such – and you’re right!

What my point is here, and what I have found works most effectively for the players I have often played with, is this: if you reduce a mechanic from a layered interaction and spell to watch for down to a simple action, you remove a lot of the mental bandwidth required for processing. If I tell you to position for Shattering Pain in Phase 3 of Sire Denathrius, that sets off a chain reaction in your mind – what is Shattering Pain, what is the correct position for that spell, do I need to move, etc. If I tell you to “position for knockback” then it is much simpler mentally – just move closer to the boss with your back facing platform of sufficient size. Sure, technically, you should know that the knockback on Sire is called that and not have to translate it each time, but there is a lot going on during that fight and it is easy to lose track of. I say that knowing that even for me, when I am being led, I vastly prefer short calls with direct action indicated, and being asked to know every name of every thing on the fight becomes stressful and overloading, leading to mistakes. The best way to push a raid to the edge of their abilities is to distill as much as possible – the average raider doesn’t have to know ability names, or memorize what positioning and when to take it to do well – just give them the easiest possible version of the fight within your capabilities to influence this. You can make players rotate for a theoretically perfect execution of Cleansing Pain, or you can just tell them to stay with their tanks and then give two commands all phase – to ensure everyone stacks for the fifth and final Cleanse and when to stop DPS/resume to burn.

And what I saw when running with the other group was a lot of this. Most mechanics were being called by name. Players were being asked to move a lot more than necessary to gain a hypothetical execution advantage that wasn’t borne out by the actual play on offer. In phase 1, this is fine enough – but the problem with Sire is that there are 3 phases, and each ramps in intensity and mechanical layering. At a certain point, you can’t call everything by its name without oversaturating voice comms. By making players run around and reposition constantly in phase 1, you are burning what is a limited resource in mental bandwidth. That isn’t a slam either – if I have to think constantly about what to do, it does make me get sloppier over time, and no one has a limitless supply of attention and focus. When I think philosophically about raid leading, the biggest observation I’ve probably had over the last decade is this – you save your player’s focus for where it is most required.

On Sire, you can execute a lot of mechanics perfectly in theory. Wallflowering for cleanses is a smart play for a lot of reasons, as is ensuring Impales move to a consistent location, managing add deaths, and more. However, the more you ask for perfection early on creates a focus deficit for later.

Our group did two kills, and in both cases, the kill attempt was reached by minimizing calls, asking less of players, and making calls that were action-oriented and focused on the outcome. I didn’t call anything the “correct” name, and we didn’t ask our players to perfectly manage their positions. Instead, we gave basic guidance whenever possible – move Impales out, watch your feet, dodge, plant seeds where there is room at range, and let the rest fall into place. If you have individual players you can trust more, you can put more on them – we have an exceptional fire mage who was able to solely manage a ranged add and bring him down, and instead of micromanaging when the add dies ourselves, we left it to that player, so that we entered phase 3 with a single ranged add at 25% or less health alive. During phase 2, there were very small stretches where we gave precise guidance with actual ability names – stay here if you have Impale, dodge Wracking Pain, and that was it. By making only two asks in phase 1 that were easy and non-spell focused, we saved mental capacity for later in the fight. By only making two more precise calls in phase 2, with a handful of non-spell focused reaction calls, we saved more mental bandwidth for phase 3, during which we then have to make a large series of calls and push players faster to respond, and because we didn’t overtax ourselves in the first two phases with a long list of boss abilities, we could then make more precise, but still short calls. Fatal Finesse is an ability name that may or may not be known, but “plant the seed” was easy nomenclature. The aforementioned knockback example was easier than knowing the precise mechanic name and making everyone buffer through what to do.

I want to stress here, as I know at least one or two of the leaders of the other raid team will likely read this but also just in general, that I don’t think they’re doing it wrong by calling stuff by name or leading as they are. I think they’re doing excellent but leading to perfection, a perfection that is costing them because it results in burned-out players, burned-out leaders, and general fatigue. My group does lazy positioning for phase 1 on Sire, and the trick – it works! It’s good enough to get through the phase without overwhelming additional costs or losses, and it allows us to simplify the calls for the entire raid, which reduces the mental bandwidth needed from everyone. In fact, my conspiracy theory is that by wallhugging for the last cleanse, it saved my group from having extra ticks of add damage (the other team usually gets dinged by the Burden of Sin adds during transition, which never happened for our group, and my suspicion is that the adds on the other group are too close to the middle of the room where you are pulled for transition. No evidence to support this, but hey!). Likewise in phase 2, the simpler calls mean less voice comms, less action, less processing – watch your feet is an easy reminder instead of calling Crescendo or trying to count them out loud, and the execution winds up being about as clean for less effort. Again, I think the idea of calling everything by name is fine enough – but it does ask more of the players in the group and creates gaps where things can very easily get overwhelming.

Ultimately, it boils down to expectations. If you expect your players to know the names of every ability and respond in kind with those calls, that’s well enough and there are probably hundreds if not thousands of groups that can meet that requirement with no challenges. However, if you have players who don’t meet that expectation, calling and expecting them to respond to ability names asks for trouble. When you call actions, everyone can reasonably be expected to respond to that regardless of skill level or willingness to memorize the mechanics by name, and that, in my estimation, creates a situation that is better overall. Figuring out how to lead a raid in that way requires more work on the part of the raid leadership – you have to take the videos and guides about fights and then filter through the lens of this kind of play to find simplicity. Our group actually did try the rotating phase 1, along with a different positioning that had both groups on the wall and had the boss taunted at 45 degree angles, before deciding that the easiest way to manage the other mechanics on top of cleansing was to simply put the group into two clumps, taunting back and forth parallel to the wall, with just enough gap for Night Hunter afflicted players to get into a pocket and have the lines run through the raid. We landed there after attempts with both other strategies and with asking questions – what do we gain by doing the fight in these ways over the simpler way? The answer was that the gain was not offsetting the added complexity, so we pulled it, and it made phase 1 much easier to knock over. It was still a painful grind through learning, but it got better quickly enough and ultimately that kind of evaluation got us over the finish line twice.

As Thursday’s raid ended, the group had not gotten their second kill on Heroic Sire, and the leadership had decided to not run him again and instead move to the break and small group activities as our raid had. Everyone was definitely burned out overall, but I think that the burnout could have definitely been reduced with some small tweaks to the fight execution and strategy.

But that’s just my opinion!

2 thoughts on “Don’t Let Perfect Be The Enemy of Good – Some Thoughts on Raid Strategy and Mechanics

  1. This reminds me, in a way, of the story attributed to Richard Feynman. If he couldn’t reduce a concept to a freshman level it meant he really didn’t understand it. Being able to state the concept and strategy of a boss fight without referring to the ability names means you understand the fundamentals of the fight. Too many get caught up in the window-dressing of specific abilities and their names. (Yes, sometimes you need to know this, but it is trivial to go into a boss mod and have that ability be emphasized. Then you can go back to leaving other stuff at a low mental effort level.)

    It is this increasing complexity of boss fights — to compensate for the boss mods making fights easier — that has finally moved me away from raiding. I just don’t enjoy the overabundance of mechanical bits to a fight. It feels like if I do everything correctly at best all I’ll ever be is adequate. There’s no chance to shine, to make my own judgement calls in a chaotic situation. Just hold my pinky _so_, and twirl to the left as needed, on time, and in the right place. Failure means I was inadequate, success means I was acceptable. There’s never a chance to be outstanding because all I’m doing is listening to the existing strats and following the boss mods call outs. :sigh:

    Liked by 1 person

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