The Shards of Domination system is a damn-near perfect microcosm of the kind of problems that modern Blizzard has with game design. That is what makes them a rich topic worthy of their own post, and today, I’m here for just that.
First, let’s recap the launch state of Shadowlands loot (this will be important to the SOD system). Players were pretty unhappy with drop rates at the outset of Shadowlands for loot in raiding content. Mythic Plus players had higher chances of getting a piece in an average run, and the vault rewarded them weekly with the first drop coming at a breakpoint that, in most cases, took less time than killing 3 raid bosses. PvP players had reason to be elated, as their loot system was just about perfect – and the ease of acquisition meant a pile of PvE players were also joining in on PvP for those sweet, sweet loots. Over the course of 9.0, Blizzard bumped raid drops to what they saw as a happy medium – more than launch SL, but less than BfA. Players were largely still grumbling about it, but people either got used to it or left the game as 9.0 ground ever on.
The Shards of Domination were announced as this new thing that was intended to make raid loot exciting and uniquely rewarding. Before the alleged return of tier sets, we’d have something that would give us a similar boost in power, but selectable, and it was supposed to make raid loot feel better. It came at a crucial moment, as PvP loot was moving to a model where it would be at a lower base item level and then gain a tier’s worth of power in PvP instances, meaning it was no longer as suitable a replacement for bad raid luck. Mythic Plus remains, with that change, probably one of the better means of acquiring loot, as it is upgradable over time, drops at a higher overall rate than raid, is farmable, and gives reasonable means of getting 252 gear (via the Vault) over time to slowly boost up your power.
So how do Shards of Domination, in theory, improve raid gearing?
Firstly is that the whole system (with a couple of outliers) is only acquirable via raid. You need to pickup raid loot with Domination Sockets on them, specific pieces that enable the set bonuses (which, with a hotfix on 8/31/2021, will be easier as there will be two slots of gear from the raid with each bonus), and the Shards themselves, which are push loot you have one shot per boss per week at getting, with bosses capable of giving you any shard you are missing and no duplicates rewarded. You can see the wheels turning – everyone I know has, for the most part, one raid week where it feels like they get a lot, because they get their raid-week standard 1-2 pieces, unlock a couple of Vault slots for the raid, and then get a pile of shards dumped into their bags.
Secondly, the system confers unique, upgradable power boosts that are usable anywhere through each shard’s unique effect. These often offer a 0.5%-2% raw throughput bonus, depending on spec and shard, so even outside of raid, the DPS shards, for example, are highly sought-after and rewarding, especially at full upgrade levels. These are interesting for simming gear, because they will often (but not 100% of the time) beat out wearing a higher base item-level piece of loot without a Domination Socket, based solely on the power of the Shard. You can upgrade them easily in Korthia with the Stygian Ember currency, which is rewarded in piles during the raid, with named trash lieutenants and bosses dropping them on a scaling quantity per difficulty, meaning that starting on Mythic confers maximum Ember count, but you can also piecemeal run LFR for a base number, Normal to get a few extra, Heroic for more, and then Mythic to max out (I don’t think I know anyone who would do that, but the intent is that you run your highest-possible difficulty to get what you need).
Thirdly and lastly is the set bonus. The set bonus is the unique part – only usable in the Sanctum of Domination, The Maw, Korthia, and Torghast, these set bonuses are insanely powerful and they are the centerpiece of the system. Once you get 3 shards of the same magic school into your gear and at least one of those pieces confers the set bonus option (helms give Unholy bonus, chests give Blood, and shoulders give Frost, typically), these bonuses unlock, and they provide the contours of choice to the system – as a DPS, waiting to fill out your set bonus means probably having the DPS shards equipped as your 3 Shards, but the system eventually fans out to 5 available Domination Sockets, which gives a satisfactory result for all – the full spectrum in a single-school for set bonuses, and then the two other-school choices for your preferred role or bonus – for most save for perhaps healers and some tanks, that means the other two DPS shard options. The set bonus ends up being worth a pretty massive boost – for a lot of DPS players, it can be close to a 15% raw DPS increase – and thus it also changes the calculus on your equipment loadout drastically, to the point that even at Mythic raid level, wearing an LFR piece with a Domination socket needed to open a set bonus is valuable.
So the intent here is quite clear – raid gives a pile of rewards via Shards and Stygian Embers, so you feel like you’re getting more rewards more often, then the normal loot drops, and those pieces with Domination Sockets, especially the set bonus unlockers, are highly sought after. They make you think about raid loot and what you want to farm, they give you targets to run certain bosses in order to max out attempts at getting Shards (I ran Sylvanas on LFR this week just because we skipped normal and I wanted a shot one of the two missing Shards I need), and there’s some benefit to even Mythic Plus players, such that getting the DPS shards is often worth doing your highest-available difficulty for sockets to drop them in.
How’d the system do, or how is it doing, so far? Well…
The Shards and Sets Are Potent: There’s no denying that on the goal of making raid loot viable for more, this system works. Stacking up the DPS bonuses gives you an interesting shift in damage profile (Frost making a potent opener, Unholy stacking up in that same window to give you a steady, short climb to a buff plateau, and Blood making for a small pseudo-Execute window in which your damage is buffed and you are incentivized for not taking heavy damage), and each has uses in both single-target and AoE – Frost makes damaging each enemy in a pack have a nice boost on startup, Unholy can stack off of AoE abilities and is relatively straightforward to refresh on multiple targets if using AoE abilities for most specs, and Blood gives you a strong burst in both single target and cleave, provided that you at least hit every target once your health percentage is higher than them.
The set bonuses are…wow, quite effective. There is an imbalance we’ll talk about later, but over time, the team has made all 3 bonuses pretty decently strong and there is definitely an inflection point when you reach the bonus where the system feels really, really good. It is, in effect, a feeling that a lot of people chase in WoW – that plateau moment where your performance spikes and everything falls into place. There is no one singular upgrade that beats the full set bonus, including even the best trinkets you can get right now, so the set bonus is highly worth chasing. The individual Shard bonuses themselves are nothing to sneeze at either, as the DPS shards offer a near 1% throughput increase in their own right, which is often on-par or better than upgrading a slot of gear 26 item levels, depending on the stat loadout.
The System Does Create More Moments Where You Get Something: The chief complaint I had with 9.0 gearing, especially pre-raid fix, is that you could spend a whole week raiding and get literally nothing. The more bosses you cleared, the less likely that was, but odds were pretty decent that you might not need the drop you would finally get, especially if you were clearing M+ on the side. So on that note, Blizzard did succeed here – every week inside of Sanctum of Domination makes some progress towards empowering your character. If not a gear drop, then a shard. If not a shard, than the Stygian Embers needed to empower your shards.
Getting Shards Is Annoying and I Hate It: Push loot is fine enough and the relative intelligence of the system is good. However, what I find especially obnoxious about it is that there is a definite slowdown as you get closer to set bonuses. I’ve been trying for 3 weeks to get the Unholy bonus, and no healing shard drop. I could finish the Blood bonus, if only the world boss would drop his shard (the one shard obtainable outside the raid, and only outside of it). I think I have the Frost bonus in my bags after my LFR Sylvanas journey, and Bloodmallet says that might actually be best for single-target, but that’s it. If I could use Stygian Embers to buy a shard, now that would help – I’d gladly save up like 100 or something to just buy the base shard instead of waiting on the agonizing loot rollercoaster.
Gear Upgrades Are More Complicated and You’ll Need More Sets: If you’re a high-end, try-hard type, this point is eh, whatever, but I like having a single set of gear that I’ve got relatively well-tuned for me to turn in upper-band performances in raid, M+, and world content. With Shards, you’ve got a set-bonus area set, an M+ set tuned for item level but that still needs 3 Domination Sockets for throughput shards, and then you need to use that chisel over and over again to swap shards between raid config (for the set bonus) and non-Maw content (for 3 throughputs). If you could have multiple Shards of each type, that might go a long way to help, but then you’d also need multiple pieces for the same slot and…ah!
The Soulfire Chisel Is Stupid, Sorry: Needing to buy an item to remove the Shards – okay, I get it, the game uses the standard Gem UI for Shards so you don’t want players who don’t consume 80 posts a day about the game to think they can or cannot remove normal gems. But there’s nothing in-game to explain how this stuff actually works, which led to people deleting shards by just socketing over them, and then they hotfixed it so you just can’t do that, so now you absolutely need the Chisel, and yes, it’s a low Stygia cost, but it is a layer of frustration that doesn’t need to be there!
The Core Loot Issue of Shadowlands Still Looms: Most critically for me, this whole system was the perceived solution to the lack of loot that was designed into the game. It aims to make looting exciting by…not giving you actual direct loot you can equip straight away. Loot drops in the raid remain as anemic as the tail end of Castle Nathria.
Blizzard’s Attempts at “Solutions” Continue to Be Increasingly Complicated Layers of Systems: If players are not excited for raiding because of a lack of loot, the solution seems like it should be to…drop more loot, or better loot overall. This solution is a half-measure for a single tier that makes things needlessly complicated, when adding tier set bonuses in (without actual class sets with unique aesthetics) or something along those lines would have done the same in a less obtuse way. As it stands now, you’ve asked players to spend a tier precariously balancing their loot between non-raid and raid sets while managing the shards and their upgrade paths all at the same time. It’s not awful or even bad, but the challenge is that it doesn’t have to be complicated or excessive.
In the end, what I find interesting is that there is a kernel of fun in the system. I don’t actually hate it, and that creates an interesting dilemma. In my opinion, as a system it isn’t good, and it doesn’t really directly solve the problem Blizzard wants it to. At the same time, the bonuses are all cool and have varying degrees of flavor, and the shards themselves offer decent little power increases that add wrinkles to gearing. It has a lot of problems that exist only because Blizzard insisted upon a multi-layered acquisition methodology with layers of upgrades.
It didn’t have to be that, but I suppose Blizzard is reliably overcomplicated if nothing else.