We are now less than a week out from patch 9.1 for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands.
The patch is in an interesting state that reflects the nature of the game as it is today – a patch that feels sort of interestingly halfway between an x.1 and an x.2 patch. For the first time in an x.1 patch, we’re getting a new zone. For the first time since borrowed power became a part of the game, we’re getting a reworked system for it in an x.1 patch, however minor – with added Soulbind traits, Conduit slots, and the Empowered Conduits system.
I want to start this post off with an important declaration – I think the patch will be good. Maybe not great, but good. I think having a new zone, new dungeon, new raid, and a bevy of changes to core systems may help the patch find an audience among those disaffected by the current state of Shadowlands. Also, new content is always new – and as I said in recent posts, even if it is bad, new is still new and it will find players who crave novelty, which is the main reason why I sound like an idiot here repeating “new is new” haha.
However, I think the patch is stuck in an interesting dilemma because of this. Because of the length of time between the original expansion launch and the patch, Blizzard is trying really hard to make this patch feel sort of like a kitchen sink of content, even more than usual. Not all of the content is landing, and I think in particular, there are some real sore spots (once again) around Blizzard’s usually weak spots – system design, system complexity, and the way in which these things are presented and explained to players.
Let’s start with what should be simple enough – Renown. I’ve been playing on PTR at the start and end of the testing phase, and I still don’t even know how Renown past 40…works? Like, theoretically, there are quests that reward it – I can tell from searching Wowhead’s PTR database that Covenant campaign quests give it, but there are 9 chapters and…40 new levels, and the old weekly quests don’t give it, it seems? I did about 20 minutes of searching the web to try and find a single written or video guide with the details on how Renown past 40 will even work, and…couldn’t find it! Given that the new ranks of Renown tie to a bevy of cosmetic rewards but also the Empowered Conduit system and the new Soulbind traits, knowing how that works is pretty important to the mechanics of the patch!
Then there are the Empowered Conduits themselves. I noted several months ago that there wasn’t a really good way to preview the actual impact of an Empowered Conduit, and…that is still the case! If you socket it and waste the conduit energy, you can see it, but otherwise, nope, and worse still, because the effect of the empowerment varies based on the conduit so it isn’t even a fixed value like +2% or something similar! Given how much worse Conduit Energy as a system feels with more conduit slots to fill, this is pretty bad and a huge oversight!
But the cherry on top for me is the Shards of Domination system. If you have been following the game for the last week and change, you’ve probably heard about what is the final version of this system. If you haven’t, here is the rundown – each armor type gets 5 pieces of raid-dropped gear (with one slot that can be bought from a Korthia rep vendor), and those slots have a special gem socket called a Domination Socket on them. These slots can socket a Shard of Domination, which is a special type of gem. There are 9 of them, split into the 3 schools of Death magic in WoW (Blood/Unholy/Frost) and each school with 3 gems, roughly corresponding to damage, healing, and tanking. When you socket 3 of the same type, you get a set bonus, which is only active in Maw zones – the Maw itself, Korthia, Torghast, and the new raid.
You might already see some problems here – the gems are active all the time but the set bonus isn’t, the gear with those sockets only comes from the raid (except the one slot per armor type where it doesn’t), but even with gear that can be obtained outside of the raid with these slots, the gems are only dropped in the raid. You can change them out on gear, but you need to buy a chisel item to remove them outside the raid. Oh, also, the gems have ranks and you can and should upgrade them, but you need another currency for that, which you can only get in the raid…and a weekly from Korthia. So…yeah! Is it straightforward? Not really, but it is sort of learnable. I wouldn’t say it’s irredeemable, it’s just unnecessarily convoluted and mindboggling given it’s intent – which is, in case you hadn’t heard, making raid drops matter for the raid (?!).
Here’s where it gets worse, though – the three armor slots everyone gets a Domination socket in are head, shoulders, and chest. Fair enough, but here comes the kick…those slots are where a vast majority of the BiS legendaries live! Oh boy! So this then brings us to legendaries, and here is the kicker – if you have a legendary in those slots and intend to raid, do Torghast, or play in Korthia (you know, the majority of the patch content) you will need to craft a new legendary in all likelihood, save for a few lucky specs, in order to equip yourself properly. Also, it’s based on a drop, so big challenge – do you craft the new preferred slot now, upgrade that new item, and keep your underpowered legendary on waiting for a drop of Domination socketed armor? Do you upgrade your existing legendary as-is and then just craft and re-run the whole progression all over after you get your drop? Do you have alternate armor for those slots right now just in case, or do you need the Domination socket gear to drop so you can fill the slot?
All of this is annoying, but making it worse is that you cannot get a refund of Soul Ash spent on the item you will no longer use – you’ll want to replace it by spending more Soul Ash, which you could have already farmed up (theoretically) and which, at least, Blizzard was somewhat responsive by uncapping Soul Ash on a weekly basis in 9.1 such that you can run Torghast lower wings over and over again for Soul Ash, which will also drop at a 50% increased rate. They’ve also attempted to account for this by adding one extra slot option to legendaries that are hit by the Domination Socket system – so you always should have a non-Domination socket slot to craft a legendary of your choosing in.
This system is, to me, emblematic of modern Blizzard. The problems most people had with raid gear in 9.0 and 9.0.5 is that it just dropped too little, making it much harder and longer to farm and get to that BiS level you might want from raid, while also making early-reset drops of armor you’ve already gotten feel that much more frustrating. While Blizzard did eventually hotfix up a higher drop rate for raids, it still feels quite anemic, and the major problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any real form of bad luck protection or duplicate prevention mechanic added. You get what you get, slowly, and if you already had it, tough shit. This system doesn’t really increase the value of raid gear relative to other sources. It just makes a couple of specific drops worth more, and it pushes players into doing raid content if they aren’t already to be at maximum effectiveness – because again, while the set bonuses don’t work in other modes of content, the individual gem bonuses do. Couple this with a PvP gear item level nerf that only applies outside of PvP, and you have the recipe of what Blizzard has tried to do here – valued raid gear better in some slots, devalued PvP gear to those outside of PvP (although it is still pretty decent), and then Mythic Plus kind of skirts by as it has, with the value it offers being more gear drops per unit time (relatively). Instead of actually addressing the root concern, they’ve caked the game in two new systems, changed two existing systems, and then put lipstick on the pig and presented it as a solution. I’m sorry, to whom is this a solution? It doesn’t make my raid gear as a comprehensive suite of options more valuable, it just empowers a couple of slots at great cost.
That’s the thing that sucks about modern WoW, if I may be so blunt. I really do like the game, the content, artistry, overall idea, and all – it’s actually, to me, pretty good. I really liked Shadowlands first season – I did more content than ever, stretched to reach more goals, and overall, I had a pretty good time, warts and all. I like what I see content-wise in 9.1 – the raid looks cool, the mega-dungeon looks great, I still think Korthia is too small but it has more things to do and the finished state I saw on PTR this last week looks great, and I think that the story is going to be amazing – it might end up being amazingly bad, but I like when WoW has a story-spectacle, good or bad.
But then I just think about the layers of systems, the tedious grinds that don’t even conceal their time-sinkiness, the clearly missing player consultation and feedback, and I just wonder what the hell is even going on with the game. And with that, I have to return to my original point – I think even with this in consideration, 9.1 is going to be a good patch. Will it be a great patch? Well, I don’t know that. I think it could be, but it has a lot of stale, old, bad things stapled onto it, weighing it down.
However, ultimately, it may not matter to me that much, as today, I made a decision for myself that I wasn’t sure I was ready for until this week – I benched myself for raiding this tier. I made it official that I am not going to be raiding in 9.1. Why? Well, this post actually has very, very little to do with that – but my next post should be a fair bit more illuminating in that regard. (yes this post just ended on a teaser and no you can’t stop me)