Why I’m excited for Warlords of Draenor

Part of the appeal of a new WoW expansion is the sense of “new:”  the expectation that we’re about to get a boatload of fresh content that we’ve never seen before.  Each expansion adds a new region to explore, new mechanics, new types of content, and other such things.  The key thing to note is that a lot of the “new” stuff of previous expansions was easily visible as being new; when members of a new race start running around your capital or a new class pops up in your dungeon groups, it’s easy to see that yes, you’re in a new expansion now.

The thing about Warlords is, on the surface, there seems to be little if anything truly new.  On the surface, it just looks like more of the same “new” stuff we get with every expansion, without some of the “new” stuff we’ve come to expect:  new PVE content but not new types of content, new PVP content but more of the same, new continent but we get one of those every time, and no new race or class to ogle.  Instead, an amount of people (maybe not large, but definitely vocal) seem to focus on the small amount of truly new things (garrisons, Draenor perks, new race models for ten races) and declare this expansion to be the least “new” yet, writing it off wholesale just because it doesn’t have what they believe an expansion should have.  A “back in my day” problem if I ever heard one.

Despite the perceived lack of new types of content, I’m still pretty excited for the expansion.  And strangely, it’s less to do with bringing in the new, and more to do with throwing out the old.

Ten years of bandages

For those keeping track at home, WoW is almost ten years old.  Its existence is almost half the duration of Warcraft’s lifetime, and will surpass that point in November.  When you have a game that you’ve been updating constantly for ten years, there’s a long legacy of changes made, most made in response to perceived problems.

I understand why Blizzard doesn’t make sweeping changes to a class or a spec in the middle of an expansion.  Nobody wants to be playing their spec one way at max level for a few months only to be forced to relearn their class in the middle of the expansion.  Big changes are better done during expansions, so that players can spend their trip to max level adjusting to the changes while everyone else is doing the same; everyone ends up on about the same level playing field when they finally hit level cap again, with an understanding (hopefully) of how they should be playing now.

The problem with saving big changes for expansions, though, is that if there is a problem that needs to be corrected, this policy prevents Blizzard from making the big and possibly correct change in favor of a smaller, bandage solution.  Instead of reworking a mechanic wholesale, Blizzard must just lightly patch over it and hope for the best.

And the problem with THIS is that these small patches might in turn accrue their own problems, which must subsequently be patched up.  And then when an expansion comes around, there’s the danger of balancing around these patches rather than ripping them off and fixing the core of the problem.  The net result is a pile of bandages for each class, each applied in response to a problem within the class or a problem with balancing against others.

I have a perfect example to illustrate the problem with this method of development, and it all starts with Magma Totem.

Case study:  Magma Totem

Back in Wrath, enhancement shaman dropped Magma Totem all the time, even on single-target fights.  On the surface, this would seem kind of dumb; why would you use an AOE totem on a single-target fight, especially a totem that you’d have to refresh every 20 seconds?  The answer you would have gotten at the time was simple:  “Searing Totem is retarded.”  Basically, the AI in Searing Totem was so bad that there was no way to guarantee it would hit the target you wanted it to; if you wanted to drop a fire totem to boost your DPS, Magma Totem was the only real option, as it would definitely hit anything you wanted it to.  It also meant you only needed one totem for your single- and multi-target needs.

In addition, Fire Nova was a standard part of our single-target rotation as well, despite being an AOE spell.  At the time, Fire Nova erupted from your fire totem, and hitting it would guarantee a little bit of extra DPS, which we sorely needed in order to stay on par with others; without both Magma Totem and Fire Nova, an enhance shaman would go from mediocre DPS to abysmal.

Naturally, Blizzard didn’t really want enhance to be using AOE spells in non-multi-target situations, so they had to do some redesigning for Cata.  First, they improved the AI of Searing Totem; now it would automatically prefer targets you were currently attacking, meaning you could safely drop it and rest assured it was doing its job.  To make sure we were using Searing Totem like we were supposed to be, they implemented a new mechanic, Searing Flames, a debuff on whatever target Searing Totem was attacking.  It stacked up to five times and would increase the damage of Lava Lash significantly with each stack; Magma Totem wouldn’t do this, so you were encouraged not to use it for single-target scenarios.  Finally, they changed Fire Nova to only be used off of Magma or Fire Elemental Totems, removing the ability to use it with Searing Totems so enhance wouldn’t feel like pressing it just for a bit more DPS.

However, these fixes only did more harm than good.  For starters, Magma Totem was now completely worthless; no enhancement shaman would give up the buff to their Lava Lash just to have Magma Totem do pitiful AOE damage, even with Fire Nova.  Second, Fire Elemental was also completely worthless; using it would mean giving up Searing Flames for a good minute, something else we didn’t want to do.  Third, target switching became a nightmare, and we inherited a problem that rogues have had since the beginning; with no way to move Searing Flames stacks from one target to another, we would have to gimp our DPS a bit if we needed to swap targets.  Finally, we still had pretty awful AOE DPS; the small bit we’d get from Magma Totem and Fire Nova was nowhere near on par with other classes, and was limited by having to drop our totem again if adds moved.  In short, it was a bandage to a problem that wasn’t a substantial fix.

So, in 4.2, Blizzard reworked part of the problem by changing how our AOE worked.  Instead of Fire Nova erupting from your non-Searing Totem, it would instead trigger from your Flame Shock and hit everything but the shocked target; if multiple targets had Flame Shocks up and Fire Nova hit them, it would increase the duration of Flame Shock by a few seconds.  In theory, you could get a Flame Shock going almost indefinitely, and some shaman used that to great effect in soloing Firelands trash by just kiting it until it died.  The problem with this fix, however, was that the ramp-up time was so abysmally long.  Since your shocks had a five- or six-second cooldown, you would have a scenario where you’d hit FS, FN, wait a few seconds and just do single-target rotation, then FS again, more FN, and so on, spending ten or twelve seconds just getting to a point where everything could be hit by your AOE.  Although it could be pretty damn powerful if we got a few shocks up, trash would usually die long before you could get any more than a couple up, and once again other classes with simpler AOE abilities would do better in those situations (can’t tell you how jealous I was of rogues spamming Fan of Knives).  And there were still the previous issues with the totem fixes from before.

Once again, another round of changes went out in 4.3, but these were still focused predominantly on fixing the AOE situation.  Instead of having to manually DOT each mob, an enhancement shaman would instead use Lava Lash on a Flame Shocked target, which would spread the DOT to four other mobs in the immediate area.  This shortened ramp-up time significantly; five Flame Shocks before would have taken 25-30 seconds, whereas the new system would do the same in only a couple seconds.  While this was a definite improvement, this still did nothing about the totem problems.  It also introduced a new problem:  Lava Lash had a long cooldown of 10 seconds; if you used it on the wrong add, you’d have to wait a full 10 seconds before you could begin setting up your AOE again.  Worse, if an add died to Lava Lash’s damage, there was a chance of the dot not spreading at all.

So then Mists comes along, and Blizzard decides to go back and look at the issue that Searing Flames has caused.  To improve the target switching problem, Searing Flames was moved from a debuff on the target to a buff on the shaman; now, you could use that 5-stack on any target you wished without suffering a penalty.  On top of that, they made Fire Elemental attacks also stack Searing Flames, so we could finally use our elemental again after a whole expansion without it.

There were still problems, of course; there was still no reason to drop Magma Totem as it wouldn’t give you stacks of Searing Flames, and there were still the issues with the AOE implementation with Lava Lash having such a long cooldown.  The latter problem was somewhat fixed with the T16 4-piece bonus, which would cause Flame Shock ticks to have a chance of resetting the cooldown of Lava Lash and give you five stacks of Searing Flames.  The problem with this solution, of course, was that this fix would immediately stop working as soon as we outgrew our tier set, which wouldn’t be long after the expansion’s launch considering how we’d be replacing everything while leveling.

So, if you’ve been following along, that’s a shitload of fixes that were just fixing problems that previous fixes had caused, all to fix the root problem of “enhancement shaman were using an AOE totem in single-target situations because their single-target totem had shitty AI.”  The thing is, along the way the actual problem got fixed (and got fixed early), but years of working and reworking ended up with mechanical bloat.  Mechanics that work together don’t necessarily mean they’re the best solution.

With Warlords, Blizzard is taking a step back and saying “okay, let’s not just fix the problems that cropped up from the last time we made changes, let’s actually redesign things so the problems are avoided entirely.”  In the case of enhancement shaman, Magma Totem, and AOE, they seem to be picking the best parts of each fix while removing the unnecessary fluff.  Instead of penalizing a shaman for daring to drop a Magma Totem, Blizzard is trusting that we’ll be smart enough to know the difference between a single- and multi-target situation and choosing the right totem for the job; hence, Searing Flames will be removed as a mechanic entirely, and Lava Lash will have its damage buffed baseline to compensate.  And with regards to the penalty of messing up a Lava Lash, a version of the T16 4-piece set bonus will be making a permanent return as a Draenor perk, allowing us to have an opportunity to catch up if we make an error.  On top of that, we’re also getting a passive that reduces the cooldowns of our various rotational abilities as our haste increases, further reducing the likely time to our next Lava Lash and also reducing those sometimes annoying gaps in our rotations when we have no buttons to press.  But that’s something to cover another time.

The net result is, you can use any fire totem you need to without doing your rotation any disservice, and each has its own purpose:  Searing for single-target, Magma for multi-target, and Fire Elemental for burst.  And on top of that, our AOE gets improved and refined while still being completely separate from our totems.  It’s an elegant system without the need for interconnecting parts and layered complexities.

And THAT’S what has me excited about the expansion.

Old and busted, meet new hotness

Yeah, I’m gonna drag out a Men in Black quote, sue me.

A lot of people have asked the question, “what’s the point of Warlords?”  Maybe not explicitly, but the implicit question is there.  There are corollaries, of course; “why Draenor and not Emerald Dream/South Seas/Burning Legion/Corgis Unleashed/[insert other idea here]?” or “why are they releasing another filler expansion?” or “how has Blizzard run out of ideas?  my fan concept is a million times better!”  You get the picture.  (I could dedicate an entire post to why the Emerald Dream would be an awful expansion idea, but eh.  I’ve walked that road before, I don’t much feel like doing it again.)

(Perhaps slightly more pettily, I also think druids don’t deserve an expansion.  They have enough fun stuff as it is.  Druids got more lore than shamans did in Cata, an expansion ostensibly shamanic-themed.  Like, fuck, what more do you want?)

I get the confusion, honestly.  Most expansions have either a big lore thing to deal with or a noticeable amount of new gameplay features.  BC and Wrath pretty much sailed on the promise of facing off against prominent WC3 villains Illidan and Arthas, and even Cata had a (literal) big bad to down (even though he hadn’t been seen since WC2, so he was less prominent in the community’s minds).  Mists was the first expansion where the end wasn’t visible from the start (at least until enough people started complaining and they had to spoil that Garrosh was the endboss), and Warlords is continuing that trend, with the only thing we know being that Garrosh won’t be the final boss twice in a row.  I could go on about how I’d actually prefer not to know the end before I get there, but that’s for another time.

And as for gameplay features, the only truly new thing is garrisons, which some people are less than enthused with; as someone who’s played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and thoroughly enjoyed the Mother Base management (and is looking forward to MGSV for the same reason; YOU CAN FULTON A GOAT HOLY SHIT), I don’t see how you couldn’t get hyped over managing a base full of dudes and sending them on missions for rewards.  Honestly, I think a lot of people misremember exactly how much previous expansions added in terms of new gameplay elements besides new races or classes; BC added, what, arenas and heroic dungeons and flying mounts?  Wrath added multiple raid sizes?  Cata added old world flight?  I’m not including things that were introduced over the course of an expansion; this discussion is on what a new expansion brings.  And if you really go back and look, new expansions in general didn’t offer a lot of new ways to play the game.

Regardless, there seems to be a general notion that if an expansion launches without a new race or class, it has “less content” than others.  This is an absurd notion if you actually think about it for more than a few seconds; the work being put into all TEN racial model updates is more than what a new race or two would entail, and adding a new class two expansions in a row would throw class design for an even bigger curve before monks have had a chance to fully settle in.  I do think we’ll see another class at some point just to make everything a bit more even; twelve classes would mean four classes per set token, and if it were a mail user we could have three classes per armor class.  But not getting one yet isn’t a travesty or anything.

Furthermore, if I can be perfectly honest here, what more do you want?  What niches could there possibly be left to fill in terms of gameplay?  You’ve got PVE content for groups of all sizes, on multiple difficulty levels:  scenarios and heroic scenarios for small groups; dungeons, heroic dungeons, and challenge modes for medium groups; and four difficulty levels of raids ranging from LFR’s pure pug to 20-man mythic raiding.  You’ve got an expansive world full of secrets to uncover, questlines to undergo, and vistas to sightsee.  PVP has its own variety, with skirmishes and arenas for small groups, and BGs and RBGs for large to massive groups, as well as a new world PVP zone for the largest battles.  I’m seriously wondering just what exactly it is that people who complain about “no new content” are still looking for, since there’s content that fits basically every desire already in the game.

I’m not primarily excited for Warlords because of some fancy new feature (although as I mentioned, I’m really, REALLY excited about garrisons and can’t wait to try them out, and the new character models are looking mighty nice and I’m probably gonna swap straight back to tauren).  I’m not primarily excited because of the lore (even though I do think that exploring a non-exploded Draenor will be fun as hell, and it’ll be neat to see regions that were last seen in pixelated form almost 20 years ago).

The reason I’m mainly excited for Warlords is the smaller stuff behind the scenes, the ability pruning and item squishing and QoL fixes that are more or less overhauling the game for a new decade.  It’s honestly kind of funny and weird what I get hyped over now; when I saw that we were getting a 98-slot profession reagent tab and profession mats were stacking to 100, I got positively giddy at the prospect of being able to have a large stash of leather and bars on my shaman without having to shuffle things around among alts constantly.  Same thing with the extra void storage tab and the toy box and not needing a full set of armor for multiple specs; I will finally have a lot of bag space again for the first time in years!

I have no doubt that the expansion will be full of fun things to do, and I’m also sure that Blizzard is taking the lessons they learned from Mists and applying them to Warlords (though there’s always the risk of the pendulum swinging too far, and I hope they don’t fall into that trap again).  But I also understand that it can be hard to see the forest for the trees when a lot of those trees are obscured from plain view.  For those who are still on the fence or firmly in the opposing camp, I can only say to give ’em a little faith, keep reading up on what’s to come, and not be dismissive outright just because it isn’t exactly what you thought it would be.

If there’s one thing to be sure of with expansions, it’s that you can never be sure of what to expect in an expansion.  Remember when people were arguing that pandaren wouldn’t be playable because expansions were supposed to go “two new races -> new class -> repeat,” and that would mean we were due for only a new class and no new races?  I do.  I still laugh.

Next time (and soon, not Soon™; I was in the middle of writing it when I got the urge to post this), another Wrath soloing mini-post for you guys, which mount hunters will want to keep an eye out for.  I’m going to make another attempt on it tonight just to be sure my methodology is correct before I post it.

And also, I’ll be putting up another post soon talking about the patch notes and how they relate to enhance; while I’m not in the alpha (and probably won’t be, boohoo) and can’t know exactly how all these changes will play out, I can at least do some speculation.

Until next time!

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