Okay, so when I went to bed…this morning, let’s be real, I was expecting to write a very, very different post today. I was gonna talk about the raid, because I’m now 8/10 on Heroic with Fatescribe down, and it has been an interesting experience. I was also planning an update post on the ATVI lawsuit from the CA DFEH, not just because I like alphabet soup at the beginning of a post but because there has been news there (McCree in OW is changing names and HR appears to have been shredding evidence, which is just awful and I will still be visiting this topic).
But as I rolled out of bed, guild Discord was triumphant with news of what may be, to date, the most substantial set of systems changes in a x.x.5 patch.
Today, Blizzard announced that 9.1.5 will be on the PTR next week, and with it, a sweeping set of changes set to address what I would summarize as the vast majority of actual problems with the Shadowlands experience. In summary, a listing – the Maw experience for level 50 alts will be skippable, at a set Renown breakpoint, you’ll be able to freely switch Covenants with no penalty/grind/with the ability to use items from the old and new Covenant, alts doing a Covenant story you’ve already done can now skip the story and go straight to base story complete with their 3 soulbinds, Conduit Energy is gone, new character customizations discussed are coming, Island Expeditions from BfA can be solo queued, and then there is the expected announcement of Legion Timewalking, but with Mythic Plus for it as well (I’ll take my royalty check in the mail Blizzard, you can DM me for my address).
On top of these changes, there is a Developer Update graphic floating around that has some tantalizing bits on it – most notably for me is “Legendary Item Recycling” which, dare I hope, is what it sounds like with no penalties. There’s also “Legacy Raid Tuning” which sounds like a lifeline for raid solo-ers (I will take it, thank you!), and there are a mix of things that sound like stuff they’ve mentioned in passing, plus the ominous (but promising) “Reporting Improvements,” probably because the mass-migration to FFXIV and the praise of that game’s rule enforcement in curbing toxicity was something they felt a need to finally address, which I will still give them credit for.
So, I guess up-front, why am I so geeked-up for these patch details, thin on actual detail as they are?
Well, it’s a single word – listening.
Blizzard has the nasty, no-good habit of ignoring player feedback (and we’ve seen from the leaks of the last year that this is very much the case) and instead letting their masterful designs ship as-is, letting players tell them a second or third time that they are not working as envisioned, and then retreating in the x.2 patch for an expansion. So while, in a way, this is very much on-trend for Blizzard, it is still a faster reversal (in patch schedule at least, because in raw time…probably not) and getting closer to what players want sooner.
Their big post for it puts the covenant changes in context thusly – for the actual free switching, Blizzard thought it was vital that players see the experience through a single lens that would not have been possible if you could switch at the outset – which I find…debatable, because sure, yes, each Covenant did have a unique story, but unless you did all 4, you’re also missing key details even right now as of 9.1. So I get what they’re trying to say here, but also, it doesn’t pass the smell test – you made the choice that way and it didn’t work, and it’s okay to just say that, Blizzard. On the Conduit Energy front, they’re at least apologetic – admitting it didn’t work how they wanted and that they should have just responded to player feedback by removing it, finally getting to the juicy line “a majority of players largely ignore the system and are unaffected by it, while the minority who want to engage in multiple content types competitively feel constrained by it.”
This is very deja vu to the 8.2 video guide and apology in BfA, so I’m not necessarily going to hail this as a new chapter for Blizzard yet, but it’s a good set of changes and I’m happy they are making them, so a pat on the back is in order.
The next thing worth discussing is the multiple skips for alts coming – all of which are welcome. The biggest is that once one character on your account hits the point of being able to freely switch Covenants, it will be account-wide, so you won’t have to spend weeks grinding Renown on multiple characters to be able to switch without penalty. The second is the story skip for second playthroughs of a Covenant story, which is also quite welcome. The scope of it is as-yet unknown (just 9.0 base or all the way up through 9.1?) but either is a good move and I suspect it will be just 9.0, which I think is appropriate given that the 9.1 story will still be “current” content in a way with a 9.1.5 patch. Lastly, your fresh level 50 alts can skip the Maw opening experience. This one is overdue and thus very welcome, especially because the 9.1 changes for level 60s make the Maw even more outdated (no mounts unless you have a Corridor Creeper) but also because it’s just a very dull hour of gameplay that does little other than set the stage for the main story of the expansion, which you won’t even touch for 10 levels worth of level-up gameplay and a pretty big handful of post-cap progression.
Legion Timewalking is the one I most want to talk about, because I loved Legion dungeons and also because this will be the first implementation of Mythic Plus with Timewalking. Jokes about how I called it aside (seriously though, Blizzard, get in touch so you can pay me), I think this will be fascinating to see because Legion M+ was a very different beast than the current system. Either Blizzard reverts back to the Legion model for these dungeons (3 affix max, last affix at +10 being either Tyrannical or Fortified, Legion-era design and scaling for said affixes) or they go current, and then that raises a lot of questions – do we get Seasonal affixes inside of Legion dungeons, a concept which didn’t exist at that time? Will the scaling of Legion dungeons be adversely affected by the inversion of the Tyrannical/Fortified affixes? Will there be a normal Shadowlands seasonal affix added if they do use Seasonal affixes, or will they make a Timewalking seasonal affix appropriate to the expansion in question? Will Legion M+ Timewalking count towards rating for Keystone Master and upgrade rating breakpoints? If not, why not? How will item level of rewards scale given that Timewalking drops are always lower than the current Mythic dungeons? Will Return to Karazhan be a part of the Timewalking, and if so, in Mega-dungeon form or in split form with M+ available?
There are a lot of interesting possibilities this opens up and a lot of potential pain points too, but my biggest question remains – Blizzard, where is my money? (okay, I’m done with this joke)
Overall, this news is mostly great, and I think it brings out an interesting follow-along discussion – why these changes now? The more cynical and conspiratorial among us (myself somewhat included) seem to see these changes as a knee-jerk response to the bad press Blizzard and especially WoW are getting. To be fair, I don’t think that is outside the realm of possibility either. These are the kind of broad systemic changes I would expect to see in 9.2, so seeing them early – especially as the game’s star wanes in response to the CA DFEH lawsuit and the astounding continued ascent of Final Fantasy XIV whose next expansion is due around the time such a patch would likely be launching – creates a perception of desperation. At the same time, the WoW team has had only one high-name listed in the lawsuit departures – Jonathan LeCraft, who was a senior game designer on the team. So what we are seeing here is likely the plan, and was the plan before the shitstorm – the pattern recognition in my brain suggests that some things may have been moved up to compensate, it doesn’t seem like a huge shift either. Past borrowed power changes were far larger in scope, like Azerite Essences and Legionfall bonuses, and so while this change is massive in the limited scope of Shadowlands borrowed power systems, it also doesn’t preclude the possibility of an x.2 patch appropriate further shift in systems.
So less-cynically, I think what we are seeing feels like a logical, otherwise-standard 9.1.5 patch. Very little about it as announced feels like it would have been rushed or built in response to a panicked team, and instead it feels like the standard Blizzard fare of “a year and change later, we finally listened to you and are making the game better for you.” The fact that this is the case is also perhaps not great, but it is what it is.
Either way, change is coming, and so far, all of it seems good, and that leaves me in a weird spot – praise for Blizzard. Right now, such a thing feels a little iffy, given…everything else that is going on with them at the minute, but I will say that the hardworking employees of Team 2 who have persevered through all of this have earned a moment of adoration from me with these changes. If it marks a new trend of listening to player feedback and acting more on it sooner, I will continue to praise as appropriate because, to be fair, it is hard to be completely excited by WoW in 2021 and the moments I get where that feels right are rare enough that I am taking this one to be excited. Not without qualifications and conditions, as the previous 1,701 words attest. But good news about WoW is good news, and for those of us still playing the game, good news is great.