The State of Mythic Plus Dungeons, Part 2/3: Season 1 of Shadowlands

Yesterday, I wrote a big honking post with the history and explanation of Mythic Plus dungeons and some general pros and cons to them as I saw it.

Today, I want to step higher and evaluate the current season of Shadowlands and how Mythic Plus has been for this season.

This is really my first time engaging at this type of level with Mythic Plus, so I’m not going to lean too much on historical play-feel of dungeons in prior seasons. Instead, I want to look at SL Season 1 in isolation and explore the things that it has going for it and against it.

This will largely be my opinion, backed with some data where I was able to get it, and my perspective is very much that of a keystone novice. I’ve done some every expansion with the system, but not a lot until now, and so some of my judgments are based on that.

Pros:

Strong Seasonal Affix: I played the first seasonal affix back in BfA and it was a cool touch, but also very annoying. It had a pretty limited implication on the play of most dungeons in the expansion and didn’t add a lot of depth. Prideful, the Shadowlands Season 1 affix, is an interesting dynamic. When learning tanking routes, Prideful creates an incentive for careful route planning and a small punish for poor or non-existent planning. It takes time from the core dungeon, yes, but it rewards smart play with the ability to power a group through challenging pulls, and I think that’s part of why the high key game feels so full this season. Prideful on low-10 keys feels really interesting, because it creates a bit of a ramp-up where performance isn’t quite so demanding, since the Prideful buff can empower a lower-end group to push on. On higher keys and with veteran groups, Prideful itself becomes an interesting game – you can change up routes for Fortified versus Tyrannical weeks to smash through trash mobs with that sweet red glow, or you can pace it such that you get a Prideful for every possible boss. By using trash percentage as the spawn timer for Prideful, it also highlights the differences in each dungeon. Halls of Atonement will see you get 4 out of 5 Pridefuls before you pull the second of 4 bosses, at least by some easier routes. Meanwhile, a dungeon like Plaguefall or Spires of Ascension has you getting that final Prideful right on the last boss, after evenly-paced spawns throughout the rest of the dungeon with a mix of boss and trash Pridefuls. Some MDI groups even built routes around being able to skip pulling the Prideful, forgoing the buff for the sake of not having to fight the Prideful!

In short: it’s interesting as an affix, has an upside as well as a downside, and it works with the variations in each dungeon to deliver a unique experience in each scenario, all of which add up to making a fun, dynamic affix.

Varied Dungeons With Overall Okay Balance: We’ll revisit balance in the cons, since it isn’t all rosy, but here’s my take. Shadowlands has unique dungeons that often deliver on different themes within the same zones, with routes and gameplay flows that are unique to each. There are trash front-loaded dungeons, trash back-loaded ones, evenly paced ones, a majority with 4 bosses but one with 3 and one with 5 to make it up, and a load of different boss mechanics. Trash packs are generally less threatening than BfA Mythic Plus, where a lot of the trash packs were unnecessarily challenging, but there is usually a single or two enemies per trash pack with mechanics that need interrupts, stuns, or other forms of control, so there is still a little bit of the BfA trash flavor while still reducing density of pulls and lowering the number of interrupt/control-required moments.

In terms of balance, the dungeons do a decent job overall at presenting a relatively fair experience, where a same-level keystone feels about as challenging in each. There are a couple easier dungeons (Mists of Tirna Scithe and Halls of Atonement both feel a lot more doable in a larger variety of affixes compared to others) and a couple of harder ones (Sanguine Depths has a space constraint that makes some affix combos nightmarish in it, while Theater of Pain has some weird mechanics for the military wing trash and the construct wing trash is some of the worst pulling in the game), but generally each dungeon has a moment in the sun where a given affix combo will accentuate a dungeon’s best sides.

Well-Designed and Paced Rewards: Shadowlands loot is still a sore spot for many, and while fixes post-launch have accounted for some glaring points of weakness, the overall state of Shadowlands rewards is not great. I would argue that in PvE, there are only two working reward loops – the Covenant campaign progression and Mythic Plus. Why is that? Well, for the Covenant campaign, it has clear progression and milestones, rewards a majority of slots and provides a built-in stretch goal of upgrading the armor, and leaves slots that can be filled by crafted items or drops open for the market to provide. In the case of Mythic Plus, I’m talking about post-9.0.5, the current iteration with Valor points.

Right now, there are reasonably good odds that you’ll get an item at the end of a Mythic Plus – around 40%, and that is per dungeon and not counting Anima as a reward. Prior to Valor points and the 2-drop guarantee of 9.0.5, that wasn’t the case and even then, doing a low keystone with friends would offer an item that had a lot of competition and would be quickly replaced. Now, any level of player can run any keystone and get something with value. If you run a +5 with some friends when your normal mode of play is +15s, no big deal – if you get an amazing item at low item level, you can just pump some Valor in to upgrade it. On top of the high drop chances and Valor upgrades, you can also get that weekly Vault option, at an item level competitive with the top tiers of raiding. A large number of my guildies, raiding Heroic only, are over a 220 item level, and a big part of that is the stash of 223 and 226 items we’ve gotten from Mythic Plus vault options, which often are better than raid cache options unless you’re running Mythic Castle Nathria.

It is worth saying a con here, though – yes, the options are harder to chase since you are fighting a whole dungeon loot table per end-run chest and a whole expansion’s loot table on the weekly Vault side, so farming your absolute BiS in Mythic Plus is…pretty hard. Upgrades also stop at 220, the Vault level you get for running a 10 or 11 weekly, so you’re not able to upgrade into that Mythic raid item level tier, meaning that your absolute best possible BiS is always going to be from completing a 14 or higher via the Vault – subject to all the randomness that brings. But that is a matter of optimization more than anything – the likelihood of being able to get a full set of 226 gear with mostly optimized secondary stats is pretty high, and yeah sure, Poxstorm is gonna evade you all season and probably all expansion, but you can probably pull a Hungering Devourer’s Edge and at least have that and I know it’s not the same but that weapon DPS is!

…sorry, I think I let some pain out in that last sentence.

Cons

The Sheer Number of One-Shots and Overlapping Mechanics: Yes, trash in Shadowlands is better than BfA dungeon trash, in my opinion. However, what I dislike is that there are a lot of pulls that are built to be annoying and dangerous. There are flanking Adepts on both sides of the room in Spires of Ascension leading up to Orphyrion, and they seem small and unassuming, but their main attack is a spear toss that hits on high keystones for like 2/3rds of your health. Ouch! Oh yeah, and they also are a tough pull, and if the tank or first player in gets out of their LOS with another target in-sight, they’ll stop chasing the tank and just impale your noggin with a spear instead, and now you’re dead, 5 second penalty and all, and it sucks. De Other Side has mobs with an unavoidable enrage they cast regularly, and they come in a two-pack with other trash, so you end up having to do some insane kiting strategies to keep them locked down and it isn’t uncommon to burn a Prideful on higher keys here to avoid a one shot on your tank. The scaling gets so high on all sides that a lot of mechanics simply grow beyond a point of being fun and manageable and turn into things that you attempt to evade by all means available. Some of you might say that’s the point, and I think that’s fine in moderation. If there was one or two pulls per dungeon with that kind of scaling, I’d be pretty game for that. The problem is that there are 5-10 such pulls in nearly every dungeon, and it becomes stupid fast.

Covenant-Based Mechanics Vary Wildly and Are Unbalanced: On two Kyrian dungeons, Necrotic Wake and Spires of Ascension, you can get your hands on Kyrian Spears, which have massive effects in each. In Necrotic Wake, the spear is a massive AoE hit, dealing tremendous damage to all enemies between the target and the attacker, and in Spires, it is a large AoE stun with a damage component. These are great and offer tremendous rewards for taking a Kyrian player with you. Mists of Tirna Scithe has a 10 minute duration stat buff mushroom, the ability to take a side door to skip 1-2 pulls at the start of the dungeon, and the ability to move the respawn point further into the dungeon as you go, all of which provided you bring a Night Fae player. These are all helpful, but not exactly game-changing when compared to the Kyrian powers. But hey, maybe Night Fae players get something good in De Other Side? Oh, they get an AoE stun centered on jars in the dungeon that is somewhat useful for tank survivability? I mean, that’s helpful…but the stun doesn’t do any damage and can’t be targeted – so the Necrotic Wake one is just better. (edit: Commenter Marisa pointed out rightly that the Kyrian weapons in Necrotic Wake can be picked up by anyone, and it’s just the Anima orbs from repairing golems that are Covenant-specific.)

I like the flavor of each Covenant having dungeons their faction is in and able to help with – it makes sense and is cool. However, these abilities are wildly imbalanced (just like Covenant abilities!) such that having a Kyrian player for either Bastion dungeon brings so much more than having a Night Fae player in either Ardenweald dungeon. The Necrolords have two decent bonuses, although the ToP banner buff is very short, and the Vethyr buffs are both pretty decent and probably the closest to Kyrian in terms of being major gamechangers. If they were all weaksauce, they’d just be flavor, so it’s fine that they’re strong – it offers another point of mastery to learn. The problem is that some of these abilities are so far ahead of the others that it becomes a problem, like doing a high Spires of Ascension keystone or Necrotic Wake without a Kyrian is a huge nerf to your group’s potential, while having a Night Fae for Mists of Tirna Scithe is only kind of a benefit – still worth having, but nowhere near as exciting as Kyrian spears.

Tanking In Season 1 Shadowlands Is Bad and Stressful: The metagame for tanks this season sucks, just flat-out. On modestly high keystones, tanks cannot stand and take hits like their design normally dictates. Instead, you have to kite, nearly all the time, on nearly every affix set, especially on higher level keystones. Part of the reason that Vengeance Demon Hunter was so flat-out strong this season is that they can do so much in terms of damage and threat at range or while moving, on top of strong damage reduction cooldowns and self-healing, all of which synergized far too well with the Kyrian Covenant ability, Elysian Decree. Kiting is a good tank skill to have and it’s fine and good to make tanks move every now and then. The problem I have is with moving all the time, the need to constantly dart in, do good damage, and then dart out. Tank design should stand such that being hit is not a death sentence, but on higher level keys, you might as well be allergic to enemy contact, and that just doesn’t feel like tanking to me. This also feeds a clear metagame perspective, where perfectly good tanks aren’t taken to runs because they aren’t DH, even though some specs have similarly great performance (A Guardian Druid with the Thrash legendary can take a huge beating in most cases and still come out ahead while doing amazing damage). My hope is that Season 2 scaling will give tanks the ability to stand up in melee combat and get good melee uptime, instead of having to constantly kite.

Dungeon Balance Has Some Losers: I think that currently, the dungeons are all overall mostly in a good band with each other. However, there are winners and losers – Mists is consistently easier, Halls of Atonement is mostly easier than the others, with Necrotic Wake, Plaguefall, and Sanguine Depths all feeling kind of iffy to straight-up bad depending on the group. Sanguine Depths just received some targeted nerfs, and I think with them, the dungeon is overall better, but still an outlier. Very few of the dungeons are middle of the pack – maybe Spires of Ascension? – but overall, there are clear winners and losers and you’ll see some dungeons just flat-out appear less often in the Group Finder. If you want to run Mists of Tirna Scithe a lot, though, it’s almost always one of the easier dungeons on each affix set!

Fewer Mount Drop Rewards: BfA had a lot of dungeon drop mounts which could be won in Mythic Plus. There was the raptor from King’s Rest, the parrot from Freehold, the crawg from Underrot, two mounts in Operation: Mechagon, and an Engineering mount recipe from The Motherlode! In Shadowlands, there’s….one drop mount, from Necrotic Wake. Tazavesh could make this up if it has some mount drops, but even then, BfA had 5 actual mounts and a recipe for a 6th! Minor complaint, but just a thing that feels less rewarding.

Class Balance Has Knock-On Effect: Shadowlands has a strong division of tiers of performance, and a lot of the top raid specs are also great in Mythic Plus. Fire mages – exceptional in both. Balance druids – same, Unholy DK – same, and so on. There are some specs that come into their own in Mythic Plus compared to raid – Havoc DH, Frost DKs, Beast Mastery Hunters, and more. The balance of things is so fractured and tiered that a lot of the same specs are just too high in Mythic Plus, and since the difficulty ramps so sharply, every bit of damage matters. Same goes for healers – with one exception that we’ll discuss next.

The Focus on Raw Damage Output Creates Weird Gameplay: In WoW, tanks and healers have incidental DPS that rarely turns the tide. However, in Mythic Plus, especially this season, the metagame favors maximizing tank and healer DPS, to a point where some gimmicky group comps involve things like Venthyr Holy Paladins doing huge burst damage with their Covenant ability. It’s a good thing to have variety in gameplay and to have the means for a healer to be able to do things like contribute damage, but when it starts becoming an expectation, it can be a problem. Similarly, when a healer can easily outDPS a DPS player, that feels bad, and the Venthyr Holy Paladin is an example of where that can happen.

Metagame Emphasis In General: Mythic Plus is far more subject to the whims of the playerbase and what they see as ideal. Raiding suffers only slightly for this due to the number of players that can be brought, where Mythic Plus absolutely has some issues due to who you can or cannot bring. Having a Bloodlust/Heroism/Time Warp is crucial for high keys, as is ensuring a good mix of other effects like castable buffs (Arcane Intellect/Battle Shout/Power Word: Fortitude) and the enemy debuffs (increased Physical damage taken via Monks and magic damage via DHs). A group where everyone offers a buff of this sort can do very well, especially since these buffs scale up and can help players overcome challenges they’d otherwise be ill-equipped for. Group comps are always so touchy a topic, but in this current season, they’ve become massively important and they define so much of the game right now.

Participation Levels

Using Raider.IO, I attempted to find the number of players for the first season of BfA compared to Shadowlands. Because the data they offer doesn’t provide a filter by account, it is based on unique characters completing a run, so the number will be very high because one player might have 4+ entries. I personally have played 4 characters in a Mythic Plus in Shadowlands Season 1, where I only played 3 in BfA season 1.

BfA Season 1 Unique Characters: 4,378,448

Shadowlands Season 1 Unique Characters: 6,721,071

These numbers are huge, and this definitely surprised me slightly. However, there are a few things I think we need to factor in.

Firstly, BfA’s first season was much shorter than Shadowlands Season 1, which means quite simply that there was just less time for people to participate. That would drive down unique characters by translating to fewer alts, fewer overall players, and a lower level of participation. While the Shadowlands number is nearly 7 million unique characters worldwide, BfA’s last season had 7,563,563 unique characters, so despite the large amount of time in Shadowlands season 1 and the returning playerbase for a new expansion, participation is down. On the other hand, Season 4 of BfA lasted for 10 months, much longer than even Shadowlands Season 1 will end up being, so it isn’t a 1:1 comparison. A video from Preach Gaming analyzed some of these numbers week over week and found that participation has trended down quite a bit past the first few months of Shadowlands, but I would expect that increasing numbers of players in a boat like mine (done with raiding for now, needing something else to do) and the 9.0.5 changes would combine to result in an increase. I couldn’t find data publicly to validate to that level of granularity, so I won’t say my hypothesis has evidence to support it – just a hunch!

Secondly, the first season of an expansion is the hardest. The dungeons are new, balance is precarious, and the scaling is sharper due to the bigger gap of low to high item levels. As the expansion progresses, I would expect participation will improve slightly for some as the overall top-to-bottom difficulty gap closes slightly and class balancing generally improves to keep things moving. The overall trend will fluctuate – both BfA and Legion went up and down over seasons – but current scaling generally means that more people can get in successfully as the expansion moves forward.

But we’ll talk more about that all tomorrow for the final part in this series!

2 thoughts on “The State of Mythic Plus Dungeons, Part 2/3: Season 1 of Shadowlands

  1. Not a huge nitpick, but the Spears and other weapons in Necrotic Wake are available for anyone to pick up. The only thing that is specific to the Kyrian covenant in Necrotic Wake is getting the bonus from repairing the Goliaths. The damage and healing buff is nice, but not essential — and are much lower impact compared to the weapons (spears, hammers, orbs.).
    https://www.wowhead.com/guides/necrotic-wake-shadowlands-dungeon-strategy-guide#kyrian-covenant-dungeon-buff

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