For a lot of people, the reality of World of Warcraft is pretty bleak right now – a likely 5 more months of this damned raid. But for me, effectively, I’m done with it, and so as is customary for me here, it’s time to discuss the raid as a whole.
Unique this time is that I’ve done pretty much everything short of Mythic – LFR, Normal, Heroic, pugged, multiple guild groups, and achievements up to the meta-achievement Glory of the Dominant Raider. So in writing about the raid and its gameplay, I have a mostly complete picture, barring Mythic.
Let’s jump right in.
Sanctum of Domination sees the WoW art team try their level-best to fight against the overwhelming sameness of the Maw and Torghast and fail. Visually, they did good work – there are unique flourishes, details, and small things that work to try and set apart the raid, but we’ve all done enough Torghast for the rest of our lives and that aesthetic has roots that are 11 years old now, in the Icecrown Citadel of Wrath of the Lich King, so it is a tired visual kit for longtime WoW players, regardless of the higher-fidelity geometry and increased texture resolution. It leans instead on the Torghast model, with different color grading across the board, so there’s some red-sky grey metal and some red-fire grey metal and also, some blue-chill grey metal before more red-sky grey metal (but with stone!). In terms of the technical artistry and work, it’s great, but there’s only one moment of the raid that actually appealed visually to me – the room for Guardian of the First Ones, which looks like bits of Korthia were being sucked in via a wormhole of some sort. In fact, I actually want more explanation and details of what happened there, because it looks cool!
The Map, Layout, and Trash
Sanctum of Domination is one of the worst raids to run through in WoW in a while. It has long corridors with minimal skips in service of small, uninspired trash pulls with an increase in named trash for the sake of Stygian Ember farming. There’s a repair vendor in an awkward spot that is out of the way for Demon Hunters specifically (who can jump and glide past him), but the run back on some wipes is godawful. The raid has a single skip to Kel’Thuzad, which is fine enough, but the rest of the raid makes inconsistent use of teleports, skips, and respawn points, leading to frustrating runs back. Once you get used to it, the raid is easy enough to maneuver around, but for the amount of space present inside, there’s just not a matched capacity of meaningful gameplay. More than a lot of raids in WoW, Sanctum is irritating between bosses because so much of your time is fighting a densely-packed set of trash and then just running aimlessly for a minute or more at a stretch. I appreciate that there are multiple forks in the road for bosses, however – giving you two points at which your raid can take a choice of two bosses that better suit the player strengths of your group.
In short, the raid uses long paths of nothing with short bursts of trash, leading to a feeling of imbalance and listlessness as you go between being able to stack pulls for fun combat and just literally nothing but running. I don’t think more trash would be the answer, but rather less physical space. Not every raid can be Throne of Thunder, and this is a clear case where the team just didn’t pull it off.
The boss designs allow for some interesting achievements, like using the right mix of Anima Powers on Tarragrue to complete a side-quest from Torghast, or the mechanic-focused options like Soulrender Dormazain’s achievement. Some even force interesting exploration, like the Sylvanas achievement, which makes you scour the Phase 2 bridges for Covenant orbs to use in Phase 3. They’re pretty fun, lighthearted, and increase the difficulty of the fights a smidge. However, after the Glory of the Shadowlands Hero runs I did months ago, I swore I would never play sportsball in WoW again. However, the Remnant of Ner’zhul achievement was…field goal kicking, and I volunteered thinking it would be easy. Nope! There’s a spot you have to use where a static ring has to line up with a pendulum-ing ring, and that alignment, coupled with orb cast time and latency, is really tricky! Overall, though, I had a lot of fun on achievement night, and our raid knocked them out in a single night of focus with no problems or major timewasters (short of my field goals and the precise timing of clicking needed for the Sylvanas one).
I generally like when Blizzard throws curveballs in loot, like proc effects on weapons and the like, and Sanctum of Domination has this down. It has a mix of interesting weapons (the Cruciform Veinripper, Jaithys for 2H strength users, and of course the legendary hunter bow) and a complimentary blend of other items (the hunter quiver-cape, trinkets, etc). If that is where loot stopped, I’d have been quite happy this tier, all told.
But we have to talk about Shards of Domination. Do we? Yes.
The Shards of Domination is an ill-conceived system with a decent logical starting point. The idea was straightforward enough on paper – with raid loot feeling bad in Castle Nathria, quickly outpaced by faster Mythic Plus gearing and compounded by the ease and player agency of PvP loot, something needed to make raid loot stand out. The answer, however, was none of these things – overly convoluted, reliant on layers of RNG and a constant need to upgrade, with some aspects leaking out of the raid to overcomplicate the process of gearing further than it already can be. In the end, I don’t know any player who likes Shards of Domination, but yet we all have them and need to get them in our gear and up to max rank anyways. It is, quite literally, the endpoint of some of Blizzard’s worst impulses. You have to grind content for a chance at these, they were unwilling to share the drop specifics other than that they were personal loot and smart looted so you wouldn’t have duplicate shards, they work outside the raid but only sort of, making non-raiders feel forced to do the raid anyways for them, and that upgrading the full set would make the set bonuses more powerful. In the end, we all sort of figured it out, but it was one of those things that just never really felt good. I had one moment of positive interaction with them – once I had my full set bonus active in the raid.
What we don’t know for now is if they’ll even work in the future. When Season 3 of Shadowlands launches sometime in 2022, will we still have a use for even individual shards? My gut says no, but my mind says “who even fucking knows what Blizzard in 2021/2022 are doing?” and so I’ve built my best approach to an easy swap set with more shards for raiding and only the 3 damage shards for dungeons, but it is annoying to do and there’s a lot I think that could be done better – being able to get multiples of a single shard (with a Unique-Equipped carve out), simpler upgrading, maybe even being able to add the Domination sockets to your gear instead of needing specific dropped items, but yet, I’m sure those would have only made interacting with it less annoying, not necessarily good.
Rather than break down each boss individually, I want to speak to the raid as a whole.
I think that this deep into WoW’s raid game, 27 tiers now and hundreds of bosses, that any raid that has unique mechanics for a good number of bosses is a win overall. I think that Sanctum of Domination delivered that, mostly. It has a fun flavor fight in the Tarragrue, environmental interaction via fights like Eye of the Jailer/Painsmith Raznal/Guardian of the First Ones, has a good take on the old Patchwerk DPS race also in Guardian of the First Ones, a comms-heavy fight with Heroic and up on Fatescribe Roh Kalo, and a myriad of fights that make use of unique mechanics like curse-kissed dispels on Remnant, the split rooms of Kel’Thuzad, and the Windrunner mechanic on Phase 1 Sylvanas.
However, the problem that I have with Shadowlands raid design, taken as a whole, is the number of one-shot mechanics, and while this is largely down to the people I play with more than anything, I want to take a moment and explain.
In the past, a lot of fights in WoW had mechanics that were attention-checks and possibly fatal, but could also be recovered from. You’d strain your healers a bit and people might grumble at you, but it was still doable and the spirit of a raid spending a night wiping was generally higher. What I find bothersome in Shadowlands is that most of these mechanics will just flat kill a raid member – Night Hunter on Sire was like this as was Massacre, and Sylvanas is made up of a boatload of these mechanics.
So for the second tier in a row, now, the most memorable fight is the one I hate the most. Sylvanas as a fight is an attempt at taking some feedback from Sire on, clearly – the phase transitions are much clearer and require less stop and go on the push and the first phase requires more intelligent positioning than the predominant two-group dumb stacking of Sire. However, Sylvanas erases any goodwill those tweaks might have had with me for a simple reason – phase 2.
A few commenters read my Sylvanas pacing post and said it was silly, because long fights are fine and that’s the way of the last boss – but they didn’t read well enough, because the point I made there was not that the length itself was problematic, but rather the intersection of the length and the amount of that time which is spent not playing at full interaction. After a few more weeks of Sylvanas pulls (but not Sylvanas kills, sadly) I can speak more to this.
Nothing about the Sylvanas fight is excessively hard. Even on Heroic, the mechanics are largely simple tests of positioning and intelligent dispelling. Don’t stand in the swirlies, don’t let an arrow grab you into the death circle (on Heroic and higher), don’t walk off a bridge or chain, don’t put a debuff on other players, don’t stand in the purple goo unless you have to, and dispel the goo properly with a call between dispelee and dispeller coupled with proper placement and timing. None of these elements are individually taxing, and they rarely overlap more than maybe two at once.
But sometimes, people’s minds wander on a raid fight, and when that happens on Sylvanas, things get bad. Players who don’t pay attention to where they are standing is the greatest liability to your raid team, but if that overlaps with a tank being dispelled in the wrong spot, everyone pays. Against this backdrop of simple positional requirements is a DPS requirement that isn’t particularly high, but requires a bit more player skill to meet – it’s not near the cap for most specs (if your whole raid can do 4k DPS through the Sylvanas fight, you can win easily, and several specs can hit double that with excellent play) but if you have players that have to put processing into their positioning over their rotation, you have a tug-of-war.
If the whole fight was this interesting interplay of positioning and basic gameplay mastery, it would be fine. However, there are a couple of things that compound to make even the Heroic fight excessively frustrating – the long Phase 2 and how a single player can screw up the delicate balance of the whole raid.
My whole complaint about pacing in Sylvanas comes down to Phase 2. I don’t hate 15 minute final boss fights, in fact, they are the best place for long fights. I don’t hate multi-phase encounters, nor do I hate one where the majority of progress is in the final phase. What I hate is when there is a phase that requires minimal gameplay from me, and Phase 2 is that. Sure, you can DPS Sylvanas in parts of it, and there are parts with strict movement requirements, but you spend most of Phase 2 running. Just running – and that is the biggest problem. Thus, that 4k DPS requirement (which likely didn’t sound that bad) is 4k average across the whole fight, including multiple minutes with zero combat activity. If Phase 2 had fighting on every platform, or a totally different flow with combat being the focus, I’d probably love the Sylvanas fight!
However, it isn’t that. Compounding this is how delicate the balance of the fight is on a raid trying to make it for the first time. If most of your DPS are near that 4k mark, each death matters, and more than one or two signals an end to the encounter. You can wind up in a situation where a near perfect phase 1 turns to a mess as people walk off chains in phase 2, or someone isn’t paying attention in phase 1, gets hit by an arrow pulling them to doom, and that’s it – wipe city.
And thus, my core beef with the raid comes down largely to Sylvanas. I am so done with her fight and trying it, and I’m irritated by arguments that the fight is much harder than prior expansions or that she demands an excess of attention and isn’t for “casual” play. You can be casual and hit 4k DPS while watching your feet! You can do Sylvanas half-attentive by running through your rotation and watching your feet for the big moments! The arrows aren’t a threat if you pay attention to them! The chains aren’t a race and all you need to do is make it across safely! I’ve heard a ton of people argue that somehow these things are bad – that Sylvanas is excessively hard, that she’s overtuned or that Heroic Sylvanas isn’t for casual players who don’t do Mythic Plus, and all of those are bad, lazy arguments with no support from actual evidence. That being said, I would like it if Sylvanas had more recoverable mechanics and fewer instagibs, if the fight had a meaningful build up of mechanics from phase to phase where things behaved more alike (sure, Darkness is in all 3 phases, but in very different forms in each), and if the DPS requirement was slightly less nailbiting. At the same time, however, I think a lot of those elements are fine as-is and what needs changing is the abysmal, boring state of Phase 2. Spending literal hours of progression raiding on that damn chain is annoying, and sure – if you wipe on chains, it likely signals a lack of attention being paid, but nothing about the fight demands full, 100% attention.
In the end, what is frustrating about Sylvanas is that awful pacing that Phase 2 introduces, coupled with being chained to the mistakes of the less-adept raiders in your run. Everyone will fall off once in all likelihood, everyone will get hit by the various instagibs once, but at a point nearly 100 pulls deep when it happens, there is clearly just a lack of attention being paid. And thus, Sylvanas can be a rift point for many groups – asking for more from the players and seeing who does and does not step up to the plate and thusly driving conflict.
Also, the comms requirement on Heroic Fatescribe sucks really bad and needs everyone with Runic Affinity to be on top of their game, with no easy way to control that short of over-elaborate Weak Auras or excessive monitoring from the raid leaders. That fight can eat my whole ass.
But mostly, that dessert is saved for Sylvanas.
…is going to get a post of its own, because holy shit, it’s so bad and we all know that save for the worst holdouts.
Sanctum of Domination feels like a sort of placeholder raid. In many ways, it uses assets that already existed in the game and visuals that didn’t take a lot of time to create something that is okay. It reminds me a lot of the Battle of Dazar’alor in that way – take some stuff we already have and mix in some new assets and artwork to create a raid. Sure, while the Torghast-y areas of SoD are largely unique layouts, they use a lot of the textures and props already in Torghast to great effect – if it were a fresher aesthetic, I would have enjoyed that more.
Similarly, it feels like a placeholder piece of storytelling – setting us up to bridge away from Sylvanas and towards Zovaal as the clear threat. Everything else simply pays off the earlier storytelling – the Tarragrue dies for Torghast, Kel’Thuzad is banished at last, and we clean up a few loose ends like Ner’zhul, the Korthian Fatescribe, and oh yeah, the Sylvanas thing.
In terms of gameplay, it was enjoyable enough for the 3 months of relevance it had for me. I have little desire to push into Mythic, even with the time available, and similarly small need to revisit on alts, though I did run normal and Heroic on my Warlock for funsies. The bosses were varied enough that I had a good time through most of the raid, and while Shards of Domination as a system were awful, the gearing process for the tier was mostly forgiving enough (with the caveat that I did a shitton of Mythic Plus).
It will end up, however, being a raid that many will look back on bitterly, for a couple of simple reasons. Firstly, the Sylvanas arc leading here was both wholly predictable and also as awful as many expected, complete with all the tone-deafness one can imagine the WoW team having to player reaction. Secondly, the Sylvanas fight was a huge drag that saw a record-low number of early tier Heroic clears compared even to Sire, much less to better eras in the game. Lastly, this raid is going to overstay its welcome as it will likely live on to see 9 or more months as the dominant (ha!) endgame content in WoW.
And so, in the end, I find it hard to muster any sympathy or highly-asterisked positive points about the raid, even as I did enjoy a good portion of it.