Patch 9.1 and Shadowlands Season 2 – My First Impressions

It’s been a little over a week since the launch of patch 9.1, 3 and a half-days since Shadowlands Season 2 began, and just over a week since I left my guild. WoW is really popping off for me personally lately, but also in general!

There’s been a lot of things to experience, and more things for me personally to deal with, so rather than writing about them (much more than I already have, that is!) I’ve allowed myself a few days to simply play, to collect my observations about the many facets of the patch content and the new PvE season and let my impressions build off a longer engaged time in the game. 9.1 has been a fascinating patch for me so far – a new world of exploring content more freeform and without the aid of a guild, but that has also let me define my own fate in a way.

The observations I am about to make are not conclusive or reviews of the patch content in full, because I couldn’t do so yet since I have not seen everything in the patch yet.

World Content (Korthia, The Maw Updates, Campaign Quests)

The world content of 9.1 serves as the backbone of the experience – bringing the story into focus to strengthen our ties to the other content, introducing the new subzone of Korthia and the characters that will drive the story forward.

Today, I’ll only be analyzing the gameplay – story analysis is going to be a much longer post, so I will save that for another day!

Korthia and the 9.1 Covenant Campaign are…pretty good, all told! My fear about Korthia from early PTR was that the zone was too small and wouldn’t hold interest for long, however, a lengthy PTR cycle of tuning and tweaking brought things into a new place. Korthia is still small – but the smallness of the zone is masked by a multi-layered verticality that puts lots of additional content above and below the base surface layer. The questing model is more akin to Nazjatar than Broken Shore – Korthia is its own bubble separate from the base Shadowlands content, but unlike Nazjatar, Covenant Callings won’t send you here (like Emissaries would sometimes involve Nazjatar content). Instead, each day in Korthia will give you a slate of daily quests to complete – 3 to start, 4 once you complete the fourth chapter of the 9.1 Covenant Campaign. These quests are fairly standard WoW daily quest material – kill x mobs, gather y items, rinse and repeat. The gameplay centers combat heavily, a standard, tried-and-true WoW design, but as with most modern expansion content, there are layers of different things you can do. There are the quests, but there is exploration, rare hunting, puzzles, riddles, various locks requiring keys from elsewhere in the zone (or one of the two new reputation vendors), and a mix of fun activities outside the gameplay norm for World of Warcraft – saving animals to gain new mounts and pets, mostly.

Korthia is something I have seen from 3 perspectives – my established item level 225 (now) Havoc DH main character, my item level 213 balance Druid, and a fresh level 60 frost Mage, who was sent to Korthia after doing the 9.0 Maw intro questlines. I have yet to skip the intro on any character. For those out of the know, Korthia and 9.1 offer an “I’ve done this already” skip option on characters past your first. In the past, this was a minimal sacrifice – you might give up a token item level boosting item like a ring or weapon, but in 9.1, you lose out on a fair bit more – namely, a substantial chunk of anima (I haven’t seen or done a conclusive summing of the anima lost, but I believe it breaks the 1,000 anima needed for the weekly quest!), a 187 weapon (on an alt, that will likely still hold value), and so skipping presents an interesting choice. On the one hand, by the time I start bringing my remaining level 60 characters in, I’m probably going to be very tired of the intro experience to the patch, but on the other hand, that is a lot of anima and ease in completing a tedious weekly quest!

The experience on my DH is about what most raiding, M+ characters from Season 1 can expect – you’ll probably steamroll Korthia quite easily. Very little is threatening, as is common for world content – just watch out for elites with more than like 200-300k health and you’ll be fine. My druid had a bit more trouble, but I would put that more down to my reduced skill with Balance than gear or any genuine difficulty tuning in the world content. My mage, on the other hand…my poor, poor mage. Actually, this was the weird part – it…kind of wasn’t bad? My mage went to Korthia at a 172 item level (yikes!) but because open world content scales to gear level, it actually wasn’t totally awful. It’s clear that the base scaling factor for Korthia sits on a higher gear floor, because I noticed fights would sometimes take forever and I would get hit decently hard, but not in a way that suggested I shouldn’t be there.

The second part of the world content however is a revamp of the Maw. There are a few changes made to the Maw that center on accessibility and making it friendlier to players – the removal of Eye of the Jailer (done via quest), the removal of mounting restrictions, and the addition of a small amount of new content to it. Without the restrictions, the Maw is a friendlier place, however, it still poses a few challenges.

Firstly, you still lose Stygia when you die and must retrieve it from your skeleton. Because Stygia is one of the main currencies used for the Death’s Advance faction in Korthia, this sucks ass, frankly, and it means you still need to play safe in the Maw. This is less significant in most places throughout the Maw, but there are still patrolling elites that are quite potent threats, and the newly accessible Desmotaeron area is awful to run through without a party and careful pulling. Oh, and if you think you’ll avoid it…wrong. Both the Sanctum of Domination raid portal and the new world boss that drops 233 item level gear are at the very back of the Desmotaeron, with the layout of the area functionally identical to a tunnel – so you’ll be pushed through roaming packs of elites and any death here means lost Stygia, including dying to the world boss! F R U S T R A T I O N.

Secondly, the Maw is still sparse on actual content, because the design of the zone still centers largely on the weekly/daily quest paradigm of 9.0. No Eye of the Jailer means you can do the optional discoverable content more easily – going on elite hunting sprees, plugging up every soul well in sight, and completing the Beastwarrens hunt quest rotation.

The added content centers almost-entirely on the Covenant Assaults, a new rotating feature reminiscent of 8.3’s Black Empire Assaults. Every 3.5 days (changing at server reset and again Friday evening in the US), a new Covenant will step forward to take charge of the combined Covenant forces in a protracted battle in the Maw. Each Covenant has a different starting point and offers 4 quests to complete during the assault window, which then leads to a finale quest, which then rewards a cache. These quests take around 30 minutes to an hour in total, and they’re a mix of activities – usually a gathering quest, a couple fighting quests, and some sort of vehicle/silly quest. These are actually pretty fun – the gameplay feel communicates the story they’re going for, which is to show the Covenants overcoming the threats of the Maw and the Jailer.

All of this feeds back into Korthia, through the weekly Death’s Advance quest. Bolvar will ask you to do a mix of activities to help the cause of the Death’s Advance faction in Korthia and the Maw – and everything you do in these zones helps. Killing the new world boss, completing Maw quests, completing Korthia quests, killing rares and named Maw mobs – all of it adds up, and you can complete the weekly progress in a day with a lot of focus, as I did on Tuesday to unlock flying!

The new Renown flow is simple enough, in that the 1,000 anima weekly continues to offer Renown past 40, while the Souls from the Maw quest does not. Instead, the Death’s Advance weekly quest takes up the mantle of your second repeatable weekly Renown, with Death’s Advance campaign quest chapters from chapter 4 onward offering 1 Renown for completion. There’s a knot, however, in this – if you are not Renown 40, but you have finished your Covenant Campaign, you can instead get 3 Renown per week, as the Souls quest will still offer it below 40, coupled with the 1,000 anima and the Death’s Advance weeklies. If you’re below 40, however, Renown gains are massively sped up, as most Covenant base story chapters on my mage were offering 2 Renown, and things like world bosses were offering 3. Catchup is still somewhat random and thus difficult to predict, but the general flow of “do content, you’ll get there” remains on an accelerated timetable up to 40.

The only world content that feels bad is the base game, as for most characters at level 60 there is little reason to do world quests in the base 4 Shadowlands zones. If you start running lower on Anima for your 1,000 weekly, sure, and as Renown increases past 40 start to further increase world quest item level rewards, you may find value in them yet, but right now, I’ve done precious little flight in core gameplay because I’ve spent my time largely in Korthia, the Maw, and Mythic Plus dungeons, so getting to dungeons is faster, at least!

Sanctum of Domination Raid

This is where I have little to say, somewhat unsurprisingly. I’ve killed one boss each in Normal and Heroic – The Nine in normal (mid-progress PUG that wasn’t great!) and the Tarragrue on Heroic, and the fights were fun and interesting. The Tarragrue sucks from one perspective – if a player doesn’t know about how Anima Powers work, they might pick something with a bad kiss/curse setup, like Ten of Towers. The heroic PUG I did the fight with last night had a Hunter take Ten Of Towers, which stuns everyone if that player dies, died to mechanical failure, and then we wiped because of that. She claimed she hadn’t seen the fight on PTR which is fine, except for the fact that you can read the Anima Power and see what it does BEFORE taking it, so she just didn’t parse it right and…yeah! Other than that aspect, the Tarragrue was actually a fun fight and I enjoyed it. I’ve seen (without killing) another fight each on Normal and Heroic – Soulrender Dormazain on normal, and the Eye of the Jailer on Heroic. We almost killed heroic Eye in that same PUG, getting a super-close 4% wipe – ah! Soulrender was with the bad normal group, who just didn’t pay attention and had vastly underperforming DPS (when I joined, they talked up their Demon Hunter player, who I doubled or tripled in raw throughput and outplayed mechanically, which was personally quite satisfying!), so I did two wipes with them, could see the writing on the wall, and bowed out.

The raid’s visual design is quite nice, and the bosses seem mechanically well put-together. There is definitely a mid-raid wall at Painsmith Raznal, from what I can tell – both of my former guild’s raid groups got stuck there for the week, and while my old team tried Heroic Tarragrue, they couldn’t get it either.

Mythic Plus In Season 2

This (well, and the world content chunk way up there) is the topic where I have the most to say. Without being bound to a guild, I basically ran a ton of Mythic Plus already this week, such that I’m even still in the top 20 DPS on my server by Mythic ranking and just in the top 12,000 DPS in the world. It might be going to my head.

I’m also going to be real – because a part of what drove me out of my guild was elitism about Mythic Plus performance, I have been petty-motivated to show up everyone in my old guild by keeping so far ahead in rankings that no one can catch up, but I’ve been especially keen to keep far ahead of my old co-lead as a point of demonstration! At the same time, however, I’ve just been playing to have fun and so I’ve been doing a lot of dungeons because getting into a Mythic Plus the first week of a season is easier in some ways and there’s more mystery and intrigue around the new seasonal affix and the like.

So, here’s what just my top run in each dungeon looks like….(I’ve run 18 total runs, at least 2 per dungeon)

So…a few observations.

Firstly, the Tormented affix. It is great fun, and I actually really enjoy it. It is my favorite seasonal affix I’ve played, although that is a deep roster of 3 – Infested from BfA season 1, Prideful from SL Season 1, and now Tormented. I was nervous that Anima Powers would be awful as an affix idea, because I envisioned it being too random and uncontrollable, but by subverting that, Blizzard has actually made a great system with layers of depth. For the uninitiated, the way the new affix works is this – there are 4 lieutenants of the Jailer in each dungeon, always the same, placed the same. You can fight them and kill them to claim an anima power – which is fixed per lieutenant and player role and is always the same 3 for each role type, or you can leave them alive, in which case each buffs the last boss of the dungeon with an aura that impacts your play sharply. The layout of the dungeons are such that you can almost always take the first boss with 2 out of 4 powers, and usually by boss 2 or 3, you’ll have access to all 4.

What I love (yes, love) about this affix is the strategic depth it has that hides away. Sure, in theory, there is a “best” anima power per spec, you take whatever powers that theorycrafting has devised, and off you go. However, there are choices where it makes sense to take different powers per week (Tyrannical vs. Fortified, certain secondary affix sets), for your group composition (low interrupts, etc), or just for your personal playstyle (the defensive choices are largely down to this). For example, as a DPS, the lieutenant Incinerator Arkolath always offers me a Raging Battle-Axe power (attacks have a high chance to throw a battle axe at my target when they’re below 30% health), or Bolstering – a mimic of the affix that buffs my damage when a mob is killed, stacks up to 5 without increasing the duration, and is a pretty solid increase to throughput. Both are great powers, but with different niches. I started the week taking Bolstering, because using affixes against an M+ dungeon is a fun concept and makes me laugh. However, it’s Tyrannical week, and few bosses have adds or anything where I would get to use Bolstering at all, much less stack it high. So then I took Battle Axe, and hey – big DPS increase on bosses! Next week, however, given the same choice – it’s Bolstering time, baby! The same is true Executioner Varruth – he offers two affix powers, Necrotic and Volcanic. For players, Necrotic can stack to 8 and is a small DoT over 8 seconds, dealing around 500 damage per stack over 8 seconds at a +12 keystone. Volcanic goes off very frequently, but hits for around 2,300 at the same keystone level. This week, the choice between the two is pretty even, surprisingly – because they both ended up giving me about the same contributed percentage of my total damage dealt – but they both have different niches. If you have weak AoE, Volcanic will give you stronger DPS performance in those pulls, while Necrotic is very good when you’ll attack one target a lot to keep stacks high – i.e. bosses, especially on Tyrannical. However, because the damage is about even, you could take Volcanic, because on trash, it also does the knock up effect, which interrupts spellcasting! So in a group with a lot of casters and slow-recharging interrupts, having Volcanic on two DPS makes a TON of sense, and because the damage between it and Necrotic are roughly equal, it doesn’t feel bad to have to take it.

What I am eager to see is how much the metagame changes next week, when Fortified trash pulls push players to take different powers and see how to maximize their use. The lieutenant placement is mostly thoughtful – they don’t have social aggro, so you can body pull or taunt them at range without pulling any neighboring trash, but what really shows a degree of design precision is that the placement of each lieutenant is mindful of their abilities. Incinerator takes a lot of room since he leaves big flame patches on the ground, and hey, that sucks – but he’s always in an open part of the dungeon, where if you clear trash first, you’ll have more than enough room. Executioner Varruth has a fear, but if you stack, the fear is negated, so you just have to stack and then have the player targeted by his AoE ability move out to avoid chunking the party. Oros Coldheart is the one who is often placed irritatingly, since he needs a reasonably large amount of space to move throughout, but his Ice Lance frontal ability is very narrow and easy to dodge, and a group that carefully clumps around him and then moves out for Cold Snap won’t need that much room. Soggodon the Breaker can be tricky if pulled poorly, because he pulls the tank to him for his main tankbuster ability, but you get about 3 seconds to position him before that becomes a potential problem. The only add placement issues I’ve had so far is Oros Coldheart in Theater of Pain (he’s in the Construct wing, in the descending ramps where players in Season 1 would sneak around to skip, and it’s narrow, so pulling him out is very tricky without also getting a Gasbag add and I have yet to have a tank do that pull gracefully) and Soggodon in Spires of Ascension (he is at the top of the steps leading to Oryphiron, near the pack that people would invisibility skip or Warlock gate skip, and since he pulls the tank in, poor timing can lead to the tank being yanked right near the pack, causing proximity aggro).

The affix design is surprisingly great and I am loving it far more than Prideful, as the powers are perpetual and they remove a lot of the routing pressure on inexperienced tanks, which means finding people willing to tank 10+ keys should be easier. The choice of powers being personal and having these layers of strategy is great as well. The only thing I cannot speak to yet is how the final boss buff part works – on 15 and lower keys, the incentive seems to be strong enough for powers to simply kill all the lieutenants. Also, because the buffs from Anima scale on key level, damage-dealing powers don’t get too outpaced as you move up, since the damage also scales up.

So now let’s talk Blizzard’s M+ rating. It has been contentious, as Blizzard has used it as a cudgel to get players to do both Tyrannical and Fortified keys with vigor, and while the boss nerfs have helped with Tyrannical a fair amount (having done multiple successful De Other Side keys and Spires keys this week speaks to improvements there!), Tyrannical is still dull. But we’re talking rating.

Blizzard’s Mythic Plus rating is actually fairly simple. It is a linear scaling value, with a keystone having a base value, with points added per key level, per affix, and a value of points allotted for time of completion, with the highest points awarded at 60% of the dungeon timer and the lowest possible points at 140% of the timer. Any run that takes longer than 140% of the timer is not awarded points. You get points for each dungeon twice – once on Tyrannical base affix, and once on Fortified. The highest of the two is awarded at 100% value, while the lower of them is at 33.33% value (repeating, of course). The Keystone achievements from Season 2 for Valor upgrades and Keystone Master for the mount reward are tied to this system instead of simple timed completion, with the breakpoints for the 3 achievements at 750 rating, 1500 rating, and 2000 rating.

So, there’s a metagaming aspect to it – to maximize your rating and speed up your path to achievements, Valor upgrades, and prizes, you want to have at least one run per base affix per dungeon. Any keystone level, and as long as you squeak across the finish line prior to 140% of the timer, there is rating up for grabs. Unlike the prior Keystone achievement tiers, which required timed completion of each dungeon just once, you can now miss the timer a handful of times and still make it to the tiers of rewards. In my case, the Raider.IO screenshot I provided above shows that my very high rating is built on the back of only 3 timed runs – two +14s and a +12. Despite that, because I was within the 140% mark on the remaining runs (all of them were pretty close, agonizingly so in the case of my Mists +15!), I received a fairly large chunk of points for all of them. This does mean that, yes, theoretically, you could get Keystone Master (and the death elemental mount recolor) for Season 2 by getting close-enough runs across the board. Doing the math on my close-call Mists +15, if I were to mimic that across the board in all 8 dungeons on both affix sets, I’d wind up at 1,907 rating or so – under 100 points short of KSM. Timing even a small handful of those would net me nearly enough points to get all the way there! If you’re an elitist jerk, this probably sucks for you (one of my old guildies went on a weird, formless, rambling rant about this very topic when there were rumors of this on PTR) but I think it’s not that bad. Thinking objectively about it, if you can finish a 15 that close to the timer, you’re where you need to be to time it, so in many ways, it acknowledges player skill without being as restrictive.

I think it will actually help those of us trying to push KSM – both because it is slightly easier conceptually with the reduced timer pressure, but also because it’s less forceful. In the old system, you had to time a 15 in each dungeon, so you had to run very specific keys and you were always strapped for options as you got closer to the finish line. Now, theoretically, you can push whatever ups your rating – higher keys, a new record key for the week’s chosen base affix, better time on the same key level you’ve already scored for, etc – and all of those are viable activities towards a goal. It actually makes the keystone achievements more open-ended and freeform, and it allows you to pursue the goal in ways that you like. If you have a favorite dungeon you can do really well at higher key levels, you could nudge that higher to boost your rating. For example, as my gear climbs, I’d probably be down to push Mists of Tirna Scithe into a 16, 17, maybe even an 18 as gear allows, and if I can complete those runs within 140% of the timer, it’s got value for me! Likewise, next week, I’ll certainly get a rating push from Fortified, because it plays to my strengths as a Havoc DH, and some of the runs I’ll likely do next week will push to my top runs for each dungeon, further increasing my rating.

My rating now is around 100 points higher from when I made this meme, but my realm ranking has gone down a smidge!

To top things off, Blizzard rewards bonus valor to the whole party when someone in the group has a ratings increase due to a dungeon you just finished, making capping weekly valor quite easy. I was capped as of Wednesday morning, and sure, I no-lifed it all night on Tuesday, but that wasn’t a huge number of runs either – like 4-5. As the season progresses out of the first month, that bonus is likely to be rarer, but then you can run with friends on alts to trigger the bonus and rotate people on alts to make sure everyone caps their valor, and that is another layer that encourages Mythic Plus gameplay through smart use of rewards. It’s actually rather smart and something that Final Fantasy XIV does well with first-timer bonuses to the party in any duty – bring them through, get a prize. It means that low rating groups also carry value, because if you’re a badass tank looking for groups in LFG, you could pluck a low-rating group up into a higher key, help them through it with your badassery, and then reap a reward for having done so. I might actually say this is brilliant – it reduces the social friction and encourages high-tier players to step down a rung and pull more folks up into the higher key levels, and that is exactly what M+ needs.

It is hard to say or judge how this will work based on the first week, however, because I’ve had a mix – groups checking Raider.IO for prior seasons, or asking for KSM achievements from Season 1, but I’ve also had very chill groups that pushed keys up a few times and had a blast, or my Mists +15 group, which ran just for completion, was very fun, chill, and focused, and we only missed the timer by 2 minutes with no deaths. It was a great run and a fantastic group of people, and I think that as people come to understand how the rating system works and what the incentives are, you’ll see good samaritans at higher levels come down to bring up more pushers for the free valor, which increases the viable pool of players. Fantastic, excellent, great stuff, I cannot say enough. I’ve had a lot of fun with Mythic Plus already, and if I stopped for the week right now and then repeated the same basic levels of keys next week, I’d be within spitting distance of my KSM achievement already which feels fantastic.

Oh, and the boss nerfs make Tyrannical way less frustrating. It is still dull, as I started in on above, but there’s a lot less insta-gib bullshit, and that’s good!

Torghast in 9.1

…deserves its own post. Sorry!

Class Balancing

I can only speak to Havoc DH intelligently here, but man, I love the buffs. It feels great to have stronger single-target damage in addition to already-strong cleave and AoE. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of meta-mixing yet, but through my mega-sprint of Mythic Plus, I can say that the new meta of guardian druid tanks and holy paladin healers are going to have teething pains. Guardian Druids are great, but their defensive paradigm is quite different, with more long-term CDs and less immediate responses to incoming damage, and I’ve seen a lot of overconfident Druid tanks get their faces taken for their lack of understanding. Likewise, paladin healers are being overemphasized due to the damage meta, which is fine, but playing Holy Paladin in that way requires a lot of understanding of when to be doing damage, how to build and spent Holy Power, and how to handle tough situations like AoE damage that the class toolkit doesn’t deal with well, and that has also been rough as both toolkits require a bit more learning and have higher skill floors relatively speaking. Shaman healers seem a smidge stronger, probably down to the first week of a new season where health trends lower and their mastery works more as a result, and priests have been more common so far for me than last season.

Tazavesh

I’ve only done 3 bosses in here. It’s cool – seems a smidge overtuned, but I have also been running it with a group of old guildies, including a clutch shaman healer, his two hunter friends who are learning the game (and are, by skill level, perhaps not quite there yet, but I enjoy playing with them) and an elemental shaman player I’ve raided with for like 7 years. I’m rusty at tanking, so it’s been a bit meh on that front, and the DPS makeup of the group is a little slow to react and respond because two of them are still learning the game and their class at a fundamental level, but I’ve had fun. The bosses and dungeon as a whole are whimsical and light, and I already got my Direhorn soulshape for my Demon Hunter, so hey – all’s well that ends well!

Overall

Patch 9.1 is, so far, a pretty strong addition to World of Warcraft on a gameplay front. There’s a fair amount to do with minimal timegating and a lot of “choose your own pace” type gameplay, with a variety of activities to engage in. The current season of Mythic Plus is probably my favorite so far, and I’ve really enjoyed being free to push keys and nudge my rating higher and higher, such that I was the number 1 Havoc Demon Hunter on my server for most of the week, and even still, top 5! I can’t wait to sink into the raid even more and see how the early fights feel on Normal (I need an N Tarragrue kill for a shot at my BiS raid weapon!), and I’m excited to push keys ever higher.

Playing without my guild is still bittersweet in many ways, but I’ve played with a lot of my guildies, doing Tazavesh, a few keys, and discussing the raid, and without being chained to trying to lift up more people into keys or worrying about hurt feelings or old co-lead temper tantrums about not getting his way, I’ve been able to just…play. And that’s actually been a really nice feeling, one that has made me enjoy the game much more in some ways. WoW is a social game, and for a long time I’ve been playing upper-case Social, lower-case game, but this last week, it’s been lower-case social, upper-case Game, and that’s been a great inversion for me after so long!

2 thoughts on “Patch 9.1 and Shadowlands Season 2 – My First Impressions

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