The Dragonflight Alpha Datamining – First Round Thoughts and Reactions

Dragonflight entered a more public alpha phase last Thursday, with the first rounds of datamined expansion content, a raid name, dungeon journal details, and a large variety of things coming out. There’s a decent amount of content to chew on and mull over, and I’ve found the changes quite interesting.

To start with, it is worth saying this – anything I have as an opinion is based on this early content, and there is a lot we do not yet know about the expansion and the gameplay experience as a whole journey, so I’ll probably be pretty positive overall. Early alpha for a lot of WoW expansions looks great, and then the end journey is a little less exciting overall, even in “good” expansions, so I am going to say that here up-top instead of having to qualify any praise, however faint, I will have.

Dragonriding Looks Fantastic

An early gameplay video of Dragonriding makes it clear that a lot of thought and effort has been put into making the experience of it fun, engaging, and full of gameplay. The maximum speed you can approach even early into the system is near 1,000% of normal ground speed, so substantially faster than even the current fastest flying mounts, which helps ground the larger landmass zones of Dragonflight and keep them from feeling too sprawling. Dragonriding as asystem is built on momentum – you can double-tap Jump to engage it or can engage it automatically when running off a cliff on your dragon, and a resource called Vigor is the cornerstone of gameplay. Your movement abilities cost Vigor and gaining momentum gives a buff to restore it, so there is a give and take in the gameplay of it. Ascending generally carries a cost in both Vigor and momentum, as you fight against gravity at your dragon’s effort, which means that your best and most successful dragonrides will be those where you run off a high cliff and coast off the momentum to build speed. Descending builds speed, at the cost of, well, descent – get too close to the ground and you’ll either have to land or ascend at cost. It builds an interesting gameplay system where movement is more carefully considered and that is highly valuable in modern WoW – the design paradigm of multi-level zones with lots of verticality suddenly is a reward with Dragonriding, as starting higher presents an advantage to movement.

The long-game interest will be in upgrades – how much Vigor can you reach, what is the theoretical maximum movement speed, and the like – but for now, this is a promising start and offering such high possible speeds immediately at launch is a good way to introduce players to the system, because it ends up feeling even less like a compromise on Pathfinder and more like just a flat-out better system.

Raid Consumables Are Interesting

The alchemy recipes for this time out seem quite fascinating, in that Blizzard is at last taking a risk on moving away from the static Flask model we’ve had since Vanilla. Instead of main stat flasks with basic power upgrades to all our abilities, we get Phials, which act like Flasks in some ways (long duration, counts as both a Battle and Guardian Elixir in locking you out of those effects), but then offer very different and situational bonuses and a shorter base duration of 30 minutes that can be extended to an hour with multiple consumptions.

The design intent here seems to be making Phials more flexible than Flasks and more in-demand throughout the expansion. Right now in Shadowlands, you just buy a big pile of your main stat Flask of choice and you’re set, regardless of the mode of content you play. In Dragonflight, the goal seems to be to differentiate more, by having Phials that are built to encourage different consumables in Mythic Plus versus Raiding. The Phial of the Eye of the Storm increases your main stat by a fixed amount per enemy attacking you (to a max of 5 stacks) and that will be less useful in raids than it will be in Mythic Plus (also, needs clarification to say if you need to be actively targeted i.e. a tank or just on the aggro list for an enemy to count on this buff), and there are also tradeoff Phials which have kiss/curse effects like increasing your damage taken while under 50% health but reducing damage taken while above that breakpoint. There are some interesting playstyle tweaks in these, like a healing phial that increases your next heal provided you spend 5 seconds not healing – perhaps an indication of some damage meta play for healers?

With this, there is a clear effort to make consumables more interesting and slightly less static and simmable, but at the same time, we all know that the metagame implications are going to be pretty obviously mathed out to a base level of accuracy, with recommendations made for each mode of content accordingly. Still, I like that Blizzard is trying to add flavor and intrigue to the process and not just make consumables a game of stacking your base stat as high as possible.

The Reagent Bag Slot and Stack Increases Are Nice, If Confusing

It wasn’t all that long ago that WoW added the Reagent tab to the bank, along with an increase in stack size of most crafting reagents to 200. Since you can dump items there and use them from anywhere, it works pretty well. Functionally, sure, you can fill it up pretty easily if you are holding stuff from multiple expansions, but it’s not a terribly hard task to filter through and keep it useful.

With Dragonflight, a fifth equippable bag slot is being added to the character sheet, allowing just for a reagent bag which appears to go up to 36 slots. This bag can hold crafting reagents, just like it says on the tin, with an improvement being made that reagents can now stack to 1,000. These changes will go a long way towards making crafting in WoW less inventory sucking, although both together are somewhat confusing. Given that the reagent bank is still useable anywhere (the stuff in it, at least), it raises a question as to why both of these changes are being implemented simultaneously. Increasing stack size of most crafting reagents to 1,000 goes a long way towards consolidating slots in reagent storage (something that is taking 5 stacks at present will go to a single stack instead), while adding a bag a bit over 1/3rd the size of the Reagent Bank is nice and would be useful in the context of no additional stack size but is less clear here. Certainly, there are pack rats with a ton of reagents (my raid mains all had full Reagent Banks even with how little I often cared for crafting in WoW) and so I am underestimating the impact of that, but it also feels like it could be setting up a larger array of optional reagents, which does seem to be the case with the new quality system coming in Dragonflight.

The Pledged Crafting Changes Are Nice if Stuck To

Blizzard had a blue post up detailing the philosophy behind the coming profession changes in Dragonflight, and one of the big points was that crafted gear will now be equippable in larger amounts than present (up to 5 “high-quality” recipes with a 2H weapon counting as 2 pieces) and while the gear will be BoP, it can be crafted and given to another player if that player places a Work Order for it. The gear can be crafted as high as Mythic raid item levels, which also goes a long way to creating some value for crafters that could be beneficial.

Coming at this from the FFXIV side, the limits are slightly vexing to me, as you can wear a full crafted loadout at any time in FFXIV, albeit with the max item level either matching the current Normal raid or the current high-end tomestone based on what patch it is. I get why Blizzard is hesitant to let it rip with full crafted loadouts, but I think you could design a space where that might be possible – through some mix of material requirements, crafting skill and stats (since those will be a thing now), and through forced use of high-end materials that would assign a high price to them and slow the rate of crafting to be tightly controlled. Even if most players would balk at the idea of a full Mythic Raid-level loadout from crafting, you could at least loosen the restrictions to full Normal raid with maybe 1-4 pieces of Heroic item level, or something in that vein. Even a total value system that would allocate points so you could equip a bunch of lower-value slots like wrists, belt, etc with high-level crafted gear or could choose 1-2 big value items like 2H weapons, chest, helm, legs, and the like, but that would probably be very complicated and perhaps not worth the design effort.

It still represents a big improvement and a way of allowing crafters another avenue to profit while making heavy use of a new expansion feature as a proof of concept, so it seems pretty cool in that light, and it relaxes the current draconian limits on crafted gear (the wordplay of a draconian limit lifted in Dragonflight is totally coincidental, I swear).

The Team Interviews Are Pretty Decent For Now

Ion Hazzikostas admitted that the Sepulcher raid tuning was an arms race and a miss from the team. Morgan Day and Ion both discussed that the expansion is going to hit that 2022 release window. There’s a fair bit of contrition and open dialogue in the air. Do things seem decent? Yeah, kind of – and provided these things stay on track, I think we’ll be in decent shape come Dragonflight. One thing that worries me is that the team is staying pretty light on big details and there are things where they are indicating that they’ve missed some basic ideas that should be a part of the expansion – like being able to customize your dragon mount on appearance but not having an option to name it. I worry about how much they can truly pivot – the response Day gave to the dragon-naming question was “tell us now so we can implement it” and I wonder how able they are to pivot given that in the past, something being in Alpha or Beta was pretty close to done and often un-pivotable, but I would love to be wrong and the team seems to think they can do it if the feedback is there, so hey.

Right now, I give them the benefit of the doubt – if it’s November with no pre-patch and there is an angry thread on the official forums about renaming dragons not being implemented, well, we’ll know they haven’t learned much, but right now, there is some evidence of lesson-learning in Irvine, and I hope that trend continues.

Master Loot Is Back, Sort Of

To the excitement of every high end guild and exclusionary self-aggrandizing douchebag who thinks that loot should be meritocratic, Master Loot is coming back in Dragonflight – for raids, at least. The admission is pretty clear-cut and clean – in a dungeon, having anything drop at a group level, including unusable loot, kinda sucks and feels bad, so not there, but in a raid, you can take that chance and risk in exchange for the group having more control. There are some clear helpful indicators added (a warning about a group being set to Master Loot) so if you join a pug with it, you’ll get tipped off prior to any loot dropping, but otherwise, it’s there as it was before for raids. My opinion on Master Looter is that it only really makes sense for a high-end guild that has a specific, agreed-upon strategy for funneling gear to the group’s whole benefit, and that most casual guilds that use it are only inviting struggle and trouble, where your loudest assholes are going to demand it be used under the thought that they are the most deserving and most players are going to be irritated with it otherwise, but I also generally believe that having more options in a social game to push choices to players is a net good, even if those choices come with downsides.

The Testing Is More Methodologically Focused

Alpha and beta phases of a WoW expansion tend to be disasterpieces in terms of professional software testing. Internally, sure, you can have a run-loose phase or give people broad assignments, but with public testing, you cannot guarantee a high volume of players and feedback if you simply open the gates wide and let people run through. The Dragonflight alpha is taking a more tempered approach, with single zones open at a time, testing out-of-order, limiting available content to a severe degree with a stated plan of multi-phase testing, opening pieces of content one at a time and closing other content to maintain focused public testing.

That is, for now at least, reassuring. Even when the Shadowlands alpha and beta had limits, it was still fairly wide open – when I first got in the beta for SL, you couldn’t do start-to-finish leveling but you could roll a character per zone experience and run them all with no real focus or designed mechanism to shift you in a given direction. Right now, it seems to be very well-focused with only a small and specific roster of open content for testing, and while datamining is turning up more than that, there’s no wavering as of yet. Of course, the test is only 4 days deep or so, and thus a lot can change with the approach, but if this is the ideal that persists for the whole test? Things could turn out pretty decent, at least if iterative changes and pivots are made as needed.

In Closing: The Alpha Just Launched, Of Course The Hype Is High

Shadowlands marks a peculiar point in WoW history, where two expansions back-to-back have been poorly received, albeit for differing reasons. Dragonflight needs to be a slam dunk for Blizzard to win back trust in the community. Will they pull it off?

Well, who the fuck knows?

Right now, it is way too early to make any assumptions. Testing seems good and promising at this very-early juncture, and there is some interesting evidence of changes to philosophy that acknowledge player feedback. How well these changes stick when we can see the whole picture will change, and whether that is for the better or the worst remains to be seen. I think just having new content on the horizon and a view into what it is alone is exciting enough for WoW fans, who have been positively starving for some new content with the current patch cycle largely leaning on the additions of 9.2, which was released back in February and had a mix of strong and not-strong content.

Right now? New is good and there’s plenty of new to gawk at. If it ends up staying good when it is current…well, we’ll have to wait and see. My optimism is shored up slightly by the state of the early alpha here, though.

19 thoughts on “The Dragonflight Alpha Datamining – First Round Thoughts and Reactions

  1. Okay, I think I’m gonna need a primer on exactly how loot is supposed to be handled in without a Master Looter in raids.

    My entire raiding experience –ever– can be found in WoW Classic and TBC Classic (with the very rare occasion of getting into a World Boss raid in SWTOR), and it’s pretty much a standard item that a guild or pug will have Master Looter set and there’s a raider in charge of implementing the loot distribution. The methodology changes from raid to raid –DKP, Loot Council, Soft Reserve, Main Spec / Off spec, etc.– but there’s typically a single person in charge of distribution. Just how is it handled in Retail without a ML?

    Does this mean the ol’ traditional Need/Greed roll for a non-raid group is what is used in 5-person instances and raids?

    As far as the rest of Dragonflight, one thing that I’d find interesting is if Blizz would tie your ability to use dragon riding to your standing with the Flights themselves. Not in the way you might expect, as a reputation gated thing, but that you have to burn reputation to use dragon riding. After all, we’re talking dragons here being used as glorified taxis, and while yes I’m channeling my D&D experience of dragons being fickle and prideful creatures who wouldn’t submit to being mere mounts, but it would prove interesting if you basically have to “suck up” to the Flights to be able to use dragon riding but the process of using the dragon riding itself burns your reputation to where you might not be allowed to use dragon riding again until you “build up” your rep once more. Then again, Blizz kind of threw out that sort of attitude about the Flights by the time they got to Wrath with those drake mounts, which always confused me since we fought drakes in Sunken Temple, and here we are cruising around Northrend riding a drake mount and going to visit the Wyrmrest Council as if we were good ol’ buddies.

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    1. Retail has had personal loot for everything for a while now. That means whenever you kill something as a group, everyone loots the body and only sees their own loot, whatever the randomiser designed to assign to them.

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    2. Blizzard had made it all personal loot. You killed a boss and if you were lucky an item appeared in your bags. If you already had previously equipped an item of that ilevel you could trade it to another member of your group, if you wanted. Otherwise, the item was Bind on Pickup, even if it wasn’t actually useful to you. (BiS lists and all that.)

      The system generally worked well enough if everyone was at roughly the same item level. Where it sucked was if you were trying to help gear an unlucky player. For example, there were times we were trying to help gear a healer with a better weapon. If you couldn’t select a healer as a loot spec you couldn’t help. If you couldn’t equip, say, a 1H mace in your healing spec, you couldn’t help. If you hadn’t equipped a 1H mace of the same ilevel as what you got, well, you were screwed from trading it.

      As you can see there were pain points if you were trying to help the group. Personal loot was perfect for making sure pugs were loot-drama free (and keeping the Blizzard support tickets down), but caused issues with static groups who had gone in being comfortable with master loot.

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    3. (Okay, I’ll cover responding to both Shintar’s and Pallais’ responses here.)

      So, if I’m reading this right, the same amount of gear per boss drops, but who gets it is totally up to the RNG gods? And it’s only tradeable if you already have a piece of that gear? It’s untradeable otherwise?

      The reason why I’m asking is because in Phase 2 of TBC Classic, our Monday raid team had terrible luck in that a lot of the drops did absolutely no good to the team, and most people really only wanted gear that dropped off of Kael’Thas and Vashj. It was as if our raid for a couple of months was getting Vendorstrike out of Molten Core on most of the bosses we were downing instead of anything useful, and it seems like that problem would not be solved by the “personal loot” system that Blizz put in place.

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      1. More or less, yeah. I think in general you get more drops per boss than in Classic, but bad RNG is still a thing that can happen, the change was just meant to prevent loot drama/ninjaing in pugs.

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      2. During Battle for Azeroth I wasn’t raiding, I did World Bosses, and Paragon rep chests. During the second tier of raids I had better gear than our raid leader doing heroic raids. He had 2-3 pieces that he just couldn’t catch a break.

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      3. Wow. So Loot Council –or a form of it, where you could trade loot to people whom the leads determined “ought” to get the gear– went the way of the dodo.

        What I’ve seen numerous times in my stint as Raid Lead for Karazhan is that since we’re really low key on the priority for gear, we frequently see people get some gear via a roll and end up trading it to someone who finished second (or third) because they needed the gear more than the person who won. Kind of sad that being generous and giving someone else what you won simply wasn’t on the menu with Personal Loot in place.

        (Mists? Really? Personal loot has been around THAT LONG? Well, it certainly didn’t help with the decline in players, that’s for sure.)

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      4. It was a bit more complicated. The amount of drops you got was supposed to be a bit better with personal loot, but there’s a apples to oranges situation in play. Normal and Heroic raids can go from 8 to 30 players in the raid, while Mythic is strictly 20 players. So per player the two styles should drop the same amount, but if you chose to stack the raid with alts to help funnel gear (overload on Paladins, for example) you could game the system a bit. This all more about top end raiding guilds, but some other guilds did try it, now and the, where the wanted pieces could be traded by the extra alts.

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      5. The one thing Blizzard did alongside the intro of Personal Loot was to relax restrictions on trading loot to other players in the raid. Generally speaking, if you have a piece at the same item level or higher in the slot that the randomizer gives you loot in (or both slots for a weapon/ring/trinket situation, although weapons are also funky per 1H+OH/2H equip possibility), you can freely trade it to anyone. Over time, this is meant to help an organized group push loot to the unlucky ones. In practice…eh, it depends. Pallais’ point about group stacking is something you can do to mitigate some of the side effects of the system, and a lot of high-end guilds do split runs, where everyone runs on alts with similar armor type and drop tables to funnel gear to a specific player/players for progression purposes.

        Personally, from the raid leadership perspective, I found personal loot a bit easier – it saves some time and headaches of loot drama and it does a generally good job of offering everyone *something* every week once you can clear a smallish chunk of the current tier, but it does come with an amount of inflexibility and lack of control. Sure, you won’t get a bow if you don’t have hunters, but you might be waiting weeks/months to be in the situation of a tank getting a weapon upgrade, whether that is because they win it or someone in the group does and is able to trade it. It also reduced the viability of having a guild enchanter to DE drops – it’s still a thing, just not nearly as much and I know in my guild the stash of enchanting mats we had at a guild level dropped on the introduction of the system.

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      6. @Kayrliene, then the question that pops into my head is what is the final arbiter whether a piece of gear is BiS or not? I know that in Classic and TBC Classic you can find gear that isn’t has high an iLevel (or equivalent) and discover that qualifies as BiS for your particular class and spec; if this is the case in Retail, then wouldn’t the mere presence of gear without the appropriate iLevel mean that you may end up getting loot when you don’t want it?

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      7. Actual BiS is still a community theorycrafted thing, albeit complicated by the interactions of gear like tier sets and legendaries in Shadowlands that results in “just sim it” and evaluating drops much more independently when compared to the old shopping list style BiS. You can still have a BiS list but it hasn’t been unheard of at points in Shadowlands for that BiS to change mid-tier due to tweaks and changes to legendaries or extra bonuses.

        The game doesn’t account for BiS (either fortunately or unfortunately) and just cares about gear you have on your person – either equipped or in-bags. In the scenario you mentioned, you’d be locked in to keeping the higher item level piece of loot – and that does still happen on retail, where certain weapons are BiS over higher item level ones (my last tier in Shadowlands, my BiS weapon for the level of content I was at was a Heroic raid drop at 239, compared to my M+ weapons of 246-252 item level) and where trinkets are a hot mess where a vastly underleveled trinket can still be BiS if the stat mix plays with your gear and stat prio just right. The game makes no exceptions for that – you get a piece that someone else can use, tough – you’re stuck. Provided you hold onto higher item level gear in your bags, you can avert some of that, but that is a rough edge case that requires some really dedicated group dynamics that not a lot of casual raiding guilds are going to do.

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  2. My concern on crafting, well two concerns I guess. Firstly, auction house game wide. If the AH is across all realms, those people that compete at top of the game will have max crafters and an abundance of the top end mats to craft things, so to me, I won’t be bothering to level my tailoring beyond making the basics, and will probably end up maxing it using Darkmoon Faire.

    The second concern is what soulbound materials will I need to place a work order. Will there be a few components that have to be acquired by me in a high end Mythic + dungeon, or raid in order to get a higher level piece of gear. If so then the whole change to the feature will be lost on me. And if they adjust it so that a crafter can supply everything for a price? Expect to see top end BiS pieces selling in the millions, just go buy some gold from the cash shop. Personally I would rather a return to the old expansions where it took you two weeks of making 1 piece of cloth a day to make 1 decent piece of epic gear. Make it BoP, I would be fine with that. I would still need to gather the other cloth and materials. Just don’t gate making it behind having to do top end content.

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    1. The biggest issue with crafting is that crafted gear has to be good enough to compete with LFR gear, because if it’s harder to achieve than LFR gear the path of least resistance will lead people simply into queuing for LFR rather than bothering to craft. People like me, who kind of prefer to craft gear because I don’t have to commit to who-knows-how-long a raid or chain running instances might be (or for the coolness factor of what the crafted gear looks like), are not the average WoW player.

      Ergo, you have to do something about LFR or the crafting process if you want crafted gear to be a viable alternative to the “hitting max level” -> “start grinding gear in instances/LFR/other grindy methods” process.

      In TBC Classic you could craft gear –especially early in the expac when Kara/Gruul+Mags and Heroics weren’t nerfed– that would last well into Phase 2 (and in the case of Fire Mage/Warlock gear be viable even in Phase 3), but by the time Phase 3 hit you could make it into Kara as a fresh L70 and be a viable player without any crafted gear at all.

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      1. Mostly I am beyond tired of Tailoring ending up being a bag profession. Pandaria was the last expansion where I felt what I was making had some value. Especially being able to make myself a full set of PvP gear that could at least let me live a few minutes before getting killed.

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    2. The last time I crafted gear of any sort in Retail was… Wrath? I tried to go get mats to craft gear in Cata, and when I realized all the dailies effort + doing the grinding for the mats was going to get me blue gear that wasn’t even good enough to handle 5-person Heroics, I kind of threw in the towel. It was much easier to just go run Battlegrounds and get gear via the Honor system.

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      1. Yep. In Cata you at least had pieces you could buy once you maxed each faction to exalted, or with valor from the vendor from running heroic dungeons. But I guess random gear drops that may or may not be good, or a 5th time getting the same piece is more exciting and rewarding.

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    3. The materials point is super valid and one I think will be interesting to see over the course of testing before the game goes live. Right now, it’s not known where the mats will come from, but there seem to be hints that some of the “progression reagents” are raid drops. If that’s the only place they come from remains to be seen (or if that even ends up being the case at all), but it would be a good/bad situation – would definitely increase the value of the gear to the crafter trying to sell it, but then would limit who can craft it. If it scales to difficulty as well – clear Mythic for the Mythic reagent – that feels pretty bad and kind of defeats the openness of the idea in my opinion. I guess if they are raid drops and not BoP, that’s *probably* okay, but then it is subject to market makers keeping prices artificially high or prices crashing as the expansion moves on, and both come with their own pros and cons to different players.

      The older time-gated reagent system was a decent way to handle this, as is FFXIV’s use of timed gathering nodes with limited availability – both let casual non-raiders build up to a piece they could use eventually (or in FFXIV’s case craft a whole set pretty quickly with sufficient materials because why not?), but my hunch is that Blizzard is not going to be as open and permissive in 2022. Would love to be wrong, though!

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  3. I wonder: does anyone even foresee basic troubles with Dragonriding compared to flights? Cause flying has always been a lot more than getting from point A to point B. It’s the means of getting most spectacular scenery screenshots, choosing your own route, taking your own pace, it’s a sort of ‘game pause’ in the middle of hostile area when you need to handle a kettle, take a pee, or answer a door, it’s merely a chill activity… Long story short, when novelty wears off in a couple of weeks, the mini game goes to fuck itself, and it should.

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