The word “casual” when used in MMO spaces is a de-pinned hand grenade in most contexts. It rarely gets used productively, it’s very often said insultingly, and it means 80 different things depending on who you ask, at what point you ask them, and what game they’re playing. When I first got into WoW discourse way back in peak Wrath, reading various blogs and news sites, casual was thrown out as a challenge.
The problem with using it is that it has an entire airplane’s worth of baggage from all sides.
I’m going to attempt, at least, to define it in a way that I think is more useful, and then describe how I feel it applies to me. Yes, really. Let’s go!
Nothing Casual About Commitment
In recent weeks, I’ve bounced from having a raid team lined up, to not, to PUGging my way through 5/10 in Normal Sanctum of Domination and 1/10 Heroic, to having a raid team again this week, going 7/10 in Normal, and feeling pretty good about it.
A few weeks ago, when I had churned on stopping raiding, where I initially landed was that I really wanted the time from raiding back. As documented, it became much more, and in that process, I found myself with a sort of vigor to raid again, but I haven’t run in PUGs for much of anything in over 10 years! So I found a raid group, because that was what I do, right? I want to raid, don’t I?
This last week in particular, I got pretty lucky to find a raid team and get an invite in about an hour before their scheduled raid start. I committed to the time, went both nights, six hours in total, and it was fun. We killed a bunch of bosses, the group was cheerful and fun, and while the progression was a little slower and more stilted than I’m used to, it was pretty cool. I don’t know anyone in the team, so it was awkward, but I actually have met at least one of them at least one time, since they’re a group that includes some Blizzcon attendees and event organizers whose events I’ve attended a few times. Everything felt pretty good overall – maybe about 65-70% of what I wanted.
I woke up on Friday and found myself thinking that I don’t know if raiding is for me anymore.
I struggled to put my finger on it, because things had gone very well overall. Sure, I was the odd man out, but that was going to be the case in any established raiding group and I was prepared for that. By night two, I was making some jokes and coming out of my shell a little bit – making a concerted effort to do so because I know it is a weak spot for me. We’d killed a fair number of bosses, and I was the leather-wearer’s favorite because my Mythic Plus journey meant that I had better gear in every slot at that point and thus anything I won was pretty much immediately up for trade. So why was I feeling so out of sorts?
It hit me, there – it was the commitment. PUG raiding had felt decently good because I could dip in and dip out as I pleased. Dungeons, likewise, were great because I could run dungeons at almost any time. I’ve run a +16 this season at 2 AM and 10 AM local time on weekdays, I’ve run dungeons in 4 hour blocks from 9 PM to 1 AM, and sometimes, I can just log in, grab a group in about 10 minutes, and be done quickly, total commitment of around an hour. But why hadn’t I felt that in a guild raid group, then?
Well, it’s tricky, I suppose. I viewed guild raid time as time with friends, and even when I was split from my real life friends, I still had been in groups with the vast majority of the folks in my raid team for a chunk of time spanning years. I had some culture issues, as documented, but I didn’t and don’t hate anyone in my group or guild, and we could still shoot the shit. I was maybe a little more apprehensive and less jazzed about raid nights under that arrangement, but it wasn’t gamebreaking and it didn’t suddenly shift to feeling like an obligation. A lot of it was that the time was earmarked for literal years – it was less of a commitment and more of a ritual.
Under the new world I find myself in, there’s less to anchor me to a raid time – no people I know, no near-decade tradition, and nothing else of the sort. I found myself feeling sort of…antsy, I guess, would be the way I’d put it. Not bad, mind you – just antsy. I kind of bristled at the idea, and I tried to reconcile it to the time I was spending in the game the last two weeks, chasing and chasing after Keystone Master relentlessly.
That’s where I landed, sort of – Raiding with a scheduled time commitment was something I’ve actually never done without friends, pretty much ever. My first guild had a real life friend in it, my Wrath guild had a bunch of friends in it, and when we founded our guild, it was all us, and that’s how it had been for a long, long time. I knew that if I ended up here, that I would need to find a group of strangers to raid with no matter what, but I found myself thinking it wouldn’t change much about how I raided. I liked raiding, right?
The Impact of Sanctum of Domination, Mythic Plus, And Change
Sanctum of Domination is a good raid overall, I want to start with that. From what I’ve seen so far, I do like it a fair bit, and while I think the latter half of the raid starts to veer too close to ICC color palette visually, it’s fine enough. I’ve always been a normal to Heroic raid pusher, so doing Normal isn’t something I’m opposed to.
However, something that had never really affected me before has started to this tier. Besides the social group changes and the like, the biggest change is that I became a Mythic Plus fiend. Normal to Heroic raid progression makes sense for mechanical exploration and learning at lower stakes, but without other modes of play filling gear gaps, doing the new raid on Normal always brings up the item level average of the whole group. In past tiers, I would have had lower item level gear slots to focus in on and that would have been valuable for me as well, but now…I don’t. I started the patch 2 item levels below the majority of normal raid loot, and my current item level is .75 item levels above the best item level normal raid loot. I have exceptionally good trinkets, two higher item level weapons including a Mythic raid equivalent with my best secondary stats, and every slot with at least a 226 ilvl piece, if not 229 or higher.
Now, you might say, “but what about Shards of Domination?” And yes, what about them? They’re an interesting mechanic, even if I think they fall short of the goal of making raid gear that much better than anything else. My current shard is worth 0.98% DPS increase, which is not insubstantial, but it only becomes highly valuable in a set bonus, where a full set brings between 10.94% and 12.75% increased DPS. That set bonus is only active in the raid and other Maw zones. On the one hand, if I intend on raiding the full tier and pushing towards Heroic and AOTC, those bonuses are must-have. On the other hand, while the bonuses from the Shards themselves are quite good, they end up being around 2% each for the DPS shards at rank 5. However, the Normal gear from the raid cannot match the value of high item level Mythic Plus gear, and while the Heroic gear is about comparable with DPS gems socketed…it may be a while, if ever, before I get those pieces. Gearing from Mythic Plus right now is exponentially easier for the time investment. 4-6 hours in raid is worth up to 3 pieces if you’re exceptionally lucky, but in Mythic Plus, that same time investment is worth as many as 4-5 items if you can time your runs, and then you can take a vault pick. A vault pick from Mythic Plus is worth a lot – going up to 252 item level, where the absolute peak you can hit from raiding without doing Mythic difficulty is 246, and that requires doing Kel’thuzad and/or Sylvanas at least once on Heroic.
The flipside is that while Shards are valuable for now, it seems likely that in 9.2, they’ll simply go away in some capacity, whether you just stop gaining their bonuses outside of the Maw even for the base gems or the new gear of Season 3 comes with some other change to make them less appealing, it is obvious that a nerf will hit with the patch to push you to new gear yet again. So right now, there is a lot of benefit to be had – and having 3 sockets for a full slate of DPS gems does seem to be valuable in most modes of play, at least if I can get Heroic item level base pieces to slot them into, and get the gems up to Rank 5 ASAP. It’s a very mixed system that seems pretty easily great if you just raid or if raiding is your primary mode of play, but as you add more options to the mix, it starts to feel a little bit harder to analyze.
So basically, I find myself in a conundrum. Raiding normal offers me little usable loot (I do have a pile of Shards of Domination, thankfully!) and it does so through a more limited, scheduled, and frankly burdensome engagement. I enjoy the raid well enough…but I also don’t have any deep social ties or really strong reason to stay raiding. In fact, in the literal process of writing this post, I might have decided to quit the game…but that is a topic for another day. Right now, the issue is this – raiding offers little tangible benefit, little social benefit, and pushes obligation into my schedule if I want to tackle it with an organized group that makes steady progress. If I don’t have a social tie to a group, I find myself feeling little reason to want to stick with it – when Mythic Plus offers me more effective power in a more flexible time and scheduling. I do want to see the raid all the way through, and the allure of AOTC is strong, but…maybe not that strong. The last time I took a WoW break, I missed Throne of Thunder, one of the best raiding tiers in the game. I haven’t really felt any strong pang of remorse for that, to be honest. Sure, I’m missing an AOTC achievement, but without a mount or title reward and without seriously looking for a new progression raid group, that means very little to me personally.
The Value of Flexibility
Here’s where I bring the post back to the original premise fully – I would say that my experience with pushing to Season 2 KSM and with the raiding I’ve attempted in multiple forms since the raid tier kicked off has illuminated why I believe I am a casual player. Because yes, by many common definitions of the term, trolling or not, getting KSM is not a casual thing by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, I would say that it was for me – not as a flex, but simply because I did it on my terms alone. I chose when to get into LFG trying to find a group. I chose what dungeons I wanted to apply to and how I wanted to chase my goal of KSM. I set that goal for myself with no other people invested in it and chased after it. It was my gameplay focus, the sole thing I dialed in on as the means to replace the activities I would have had in my guild. I would argue it was casual because I could choose when to push and when to stop. There were some early nights in the season where I spent hours running dungeons back-to-back, and others where I ran maybe 3 dungeons total, played for like 2 hours, and then logged off to watch TV with my wife. There were even a couple of times where I logged in, couldn’t get in to a group, and just logged out.
In a raid environment or a fixed group setting, I wouldn’t have that flexibility. Now, you can definitely be a casual raider with a time commitment – and I’d definitely say that 2 hours a night, 2 nights a week as I was doing is probably right in-line with that. But for me, the flexibility is very valuable and it is what has pushed me over into saying more loudly that I’m a casual player. Sure, the time I did spend running dungeons went to a pretty high total over the 10 days I spent chasing Season 2 KSM (man, I am still proud of having done it that quickly!), and I’d entertain the idea that such a time allotment would sort of push past most people’s definition of casual, and I think that sells my point at the top pretty well. At the end of the day, defining one’s play with the term “casual” is a quagmire that represents something different to everyone who hears or sees it. For me, it means that I engage with the game in a way that allows me nearly complete control over how my time is spent – that I can run at whatever time, for whatever activity, and get out of it whatever I may. For others, it might mean never running high-end PvE content, or not running PvP, or raiding and then logging off.
Ultimately, though, unless you’re getting paid for playing, I suppose we’re pretty much all casually playing, eh?