WoW Classic’s Season of Mastery and What Lies Ahead

This week, Blizzard announced something that seemed likely for a while now – a fresh start server for the Vanilla WoW experience.

However, instead of just a new Phase 1 do-over, they took a page from the playbook of now-WoW Classic lead producer Holly Longdale and the way the other classic MMO she has worked on, Everquest, managed classic servers. Instead of just a fresh start, second verse same as the first experience, the Classic team is launching the “Season of Mastery.”

Season of Mastery takes the original Vanilla WoW experience and makes a few tweaks, guided by the framework of the original Classic run. The 6 content phases remain identical to the original Classic servers, with content rolling out in the same order. However, instead of a loosely-defined living schedule, the Season of Mastery run is planned for a 12-month total cadence, with each of the 6 phases being two months on that calendar.

In addition to that, 3 large sets of changes are being made to the core experience which will fundamentally transform the WoW Classic gameplay. The first is faster leveling, using the 1-60 XP rates from Burning Crusade Classic as the guideline, with a “bigger focus on quest XP increases,” for whatever that will ultimately mean. The second is quality of life changes, with Meeting Stones being changed to Summoning Stones, matching their current modern functionality, and another example provided being increased mining and herbalism nodes, a response to the level of enthusiasm for Classic providing more densely populated servers than the original game had.

The third and last announced change is perhaps the largest, and one that goes in an interesting direction for the Classic landscape – raid boss updates. Original Classic provided the bosses from Vanilla as they were tuned in patch 1.12, the final Vanilla WoW patch. This means cumulative nerfs, buffs, and tweaks were all carried over into Classic. In Season of Mastery, there are changes coming to increase the challenge of the raid bosses on offer, as they simply weren’t that challenging to begin with (which anyone without rose-colored glasses would have told you and might very well have told you). The changes include a bevy of things: disabling world buffs, restoring removed mechanics from the fights, no debuff limit on bosses, and increased boss health.

This is…an interesting set of changes. These changes, done right, will make Classic raiding far more interesting than old, much easier than people idolize it as being content being turbo-cleared by world first, cutting edge players, and make it into a journey of rediscovery and adjustment. Of course, the key words in that last sentence were “done right” because every possibility exists that the tweaks and tuning miss the mark. In researching this piece, I found it difficult to identify the mechanics that were removed early in each raid’s lifespan, as actual documentation in blog posts, WoW site posts, or community forum posts wasn’t as common and a lot of the resources of that era were wiped out at various points, along with hotfixes often being less well-documented than they are today.

The extra health and removal of both world buffs and boss debuff limits is also interesting. A big part of the Classic raid composition was working around limited debuff slots – if you brought too many DoT classes or specs, then you could be artificially nerfing players whose debuffs get pushed off the boss. This should mean that Season of Mastery will allow the Vanilla environment to properly host a showdown for DPS supremacy, as there will be no cap to the amount of DPS a party with lots of DoTers can do. Accounting for player skill in 2021 compared to 2004/5/6 is a challenge, but I would expect that where removed mechanics and the debuff limit removal don’t close the skill gap, you could see exponentially larger health pools against the enrage timers of Classic and still be fine – in some cases, I would wildly speculate you could double or even triple boss health and still come out with a raid that crafty players will defeat in days flat.

Overall, at face value, the concept is fascinating to me and has me contemplating something I haven’t since 2019 and again in February and May of 2021 – playing Classic. For me, it’s simple – this version of the experience would let me have the nostalgia bite while also being new.

And it is through that lens that I want to look at the bigger trends – for WoW, for WoW Classic, and for the audience that will take this well.

The Trajectory of WoW Classic Moving On

The launch of The Burning Crusade Classic in June this year was…an interesting one. It was popular to a point, but it also met with nowhere near the fanfare that the original Classic launch did. In fact, it actually went quite off the rails in some ways – with content creator Madseasonshow announcing that due to boosting and potential WoW Token testing for TBC Classic, he was leaving WoW behind. Given that he was pretty much strictly a WoW content creator, it was kind of mental to see that, but it became something of a trend. The availability of character boosts for Classic, however limited, was a straw for many, and coupled with the heavy monetization of a Collector’s Edition and character cloning to be able to remain active in the Vanilla-era servers (a digital service that literally does nothing except enable you to access something that is locked by Blizzard with the sole intent of monetization), players were kind of mad. Yet at the same time, there are a fair number of people who loved TBC and so servers filled up and life moved on.

Classic as an experience is there to allow players to enjoy what is, mostly, a faithful recreation of the various eras of World of Warcraft – built on the modern engine and with some compromises, but generally an open, free space to relive those halcyon days. Most of the audience for Classic like it because it hearkens back to that original gameplay – exploration-heavy, world-focused and with more classical RPG elements like character builds, now-retired stats like elemental resistances, and those classical restraints – scaled down numbers before nearly two decades of inflation and efforts to fight it, no transmog, no flying, and all the other trimmings that kept a lot of us in our late-teens and early twenties back in 2004 entertained to no end.

Season of Mastery being the first “event” server for Classic speaks to an interesting dilemma in the community, though. WoW at present is, by focus and where the quality content is found, a competitive PvE game focused on cutting-edge, difficult raid content and repeatable, endlessly reconfigurable dungeon gameplay. WoW Classic, at least in the Vanilla era, represents a refutation of that ideology – slower paced, less “go go go”, more leisurely, focused on the world and just living in it. SoM changes that focus, making a Classic server that explicitly says “this is a raid content event.” Sure, you could argue that the phases also mean dungeons roll out differently, and there’s still PvP and everything else that defined the WoW of that early era – but the core changes of SoM are built and designed around highlighting the raid content and pushing players to it.

In effect, the modern community wanted raiding, and they’re getting raiding, with wrinkles to bring it more up to the challenge level players had created in their head, in that perfect prelapsarian version of the game they definitely played. Raiding and raid racing in WoW Classic wasn’t anything like what that rose-colored glasses equipped fragment of the community expected – it was short, over quickly, and nothing really posed any serious threats. Most casual guilds on Classic were able to clear Naxxramas all the way – a feat that was done by less than 1% of players in Vanilla. This was for a lot of reasons – metagaming and theorycrafting being more popular, more common, and more accessible was certainly a big part of it, but I think the other thing is that years of DBM-addled boss fights with more layers of mechanics than an onion has layers of…onion set players up for easy success against vanilla raid design, which was largely variants of simple positional checks, meeting raw DPS races that were in-actuality quite forgiving, and usually some sort of healer check that usually involved pulsing AoE damage or a tank getting trucked by incoming melee damage. Mechnically-dense fights from later in Vanilla, like Nefarian or C’Thun, are matched or even exceeded by dungeon bosses in Shadowlands in terms of complexity. I won’t say this is universally good or bad, as your mileage may vary (I enjoy the current game myself) but it is a trend over time.

This focus will, inevitably, sting for some who want that fresh experience but want it to be a journey with no set destination in mind, which was very much something you could do in Classic before. You could still do it in SoM, in theory, but the server ruleset makes it crystal-clear what the goal is – get in, get leveled and geared, do raid content. It is perfect for a player like me, who is low-key competitive (I really enjoyed chasing KSM Season 2 in 10 days, I am happy with having AoTC for Sylvanas ahead of a lot of players, and a big reason why PUG raiding and the raid teams I found in my guild hiatus were unappealing to me was because progress was just too slow for where I wanted to be and felt I could be) but it is far less so for a lot of folks, like perennial MMO blogging favorite Bhagpuss (I would assume from prior conversations on the matter, as he has yet to write about SoM, given that New World has been on the radar this week).

Now, outside of this server itself, what does this mean for Classic in the future? I think we’ll see an event like this for each era, as new eras continue to roll out – it seems like you could find margins for tuning in TBC and Wrath that would bring up raid challenge and it would probably do so to a degree that would make those have genuinely exciting world first races again. Ideally, there could also be rulesets that make other changes – a long experience route through TBC or especially Wrath of the Lich King could be really interesting. Classic being built on the foundation of the modern game allows some interesting wrinkles – you could do scaling content as an event server (the pitchfork and torch supply would reach GPU-shortage levels if it was ever applied to base Classic rules), you could maybe add a time-trial style of play to old dungeons and raids, and there’s flexibility for gear enhancements the modern game has used at times, like Corruption. If you made any of these tweaks on a baseline Classic server, people would (rightly) lose their shit, but an event server makes it interesting and, most importantly, temporary and additive. Nothing is lost and the base experience is still there, albeit on aging servers with a mostly-capped community of curmudgeons who haven’t moved to TBC.

I suspect that event servers like Season of Mastery will also serve as an opportunity for Blizzard to further plug up the giant gaps of content in the live game as well. With vanilla Classic, they used the phase schedule there to augment weak spots in the retail calendar, but once all phases are released, there’s less chance to do that. With event servers, any time we get another 9-month patch cycle Blizzard can just spin up a new event server on Classic, and then we can all talk about how a PvP-focused event server called “Season of Bloodlust” with Brawls and various modern tweaks signals a new era in Classic (that idea is free Blizzard) (also, I think Season of Bloodlust sounds like a shaman naughty-photo calendar). I say that tongue-in-cheek, but I do think more rulesets are cool.

For me, Season of Mastery makes me really openly contemplate trying WoW Classic for real. No sub-10 characters I give up on, but an actual full-on effort to play it. The allure of “like new” raid content (renewed? refurbished? not sure what fits in this context!) coupled with the smoother leveling curve of TBC but capped at 60 is something that appeals a lot to me, as it gives me something I enjoy as the centerpiece and smooths out the road to 60 in a way that appeals to me, who has a full cadre of alts mostly leveled in Cataclysm via Recruit-a-Friend multiboxing in order to reduce the tedium I feel when leveling.

In the end, I think that Season of Mastery is a net positive all around for WoW Classic. It’s the first of hopefully many more event and special rules servers, represents a new idea to WoW players who’ve never seen another MMO in Classic mode, and is easy enough to implement while offering something new and different in the same old familiar guise while still keeping the untainted Classic around for the purists.

Now where does the Season of Mastery fall on the calendar? Open beta is this Tuesday, 10/5/2021, but I suspect that this is the counter-programming for Endwalker and thus I suspect that the Season of Mastery is late Fall (by Square Enix’s standards, haha) of this year. That’s just a guess, but I have a strong feeling that it’s going to be smack dab in November because Classic represents the game’s best chance to pull lapsed players back in.

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