Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hardcore Raiding in MoP - Part 3

This is the third article in a series, you might want to start at the beginning.

In Part 1 we talked about the kind of time commitment hardcore raiding takes right now, and in Part 2 we talked about the kinds of decisions raiders need to make regarding their class, spec, race, and faction in order to maximize the odds of success. This stuff is certainly not rocket science, but I hope it gives an insight into just how much thought goes into the process.

But there are some things that I think are uniquely important to progression and competitive guilds, that most other guilds don't have to contend with.

Part 3: There's No Place Like Home

Server


Most guilds form on a particular server and much of the guild identity is associated with that server's identity - it's likely that most of the members met on the server, formed the guild or joined through a local recruiting effort and have been calling the server home for several months if not years. The familiarity is comfortable and most players have invested in alts with professions and resources that make it difficult to hop servers even if they wanted to.

Hardcore guilds face a significant issue with the server architecture - how do they recruit very well qualified raiders if their server is an undesirable back-water? If the guild is very well established with high world ranking, it's likely that people will transfer regardless of the server, but if the guild is new, or if it wants access to a broader set of raiders, or even if they want access to resources that a broader raiding community brings to the Auction House - they have to consider where they play very carefully.

Do you move to a high-population well-progressed server with several ranking guilds? There are benefits, certainly - you have more choice in recruiting locally, you (likely) have a vibrant AH with many raiding items and resources available and many buyers to grow the guild coffers, and you have competition to encourage you to keep pushing progression.

The con, of course is that the competition is a double-edged sword, and if your guild is struggling at any point, it's not difficult for your raiders to find another guild on the server and that's a constant threat to contend with. The server ranking on a very competitive server can also be misleading - on my server, we are ranked 10th overall and 6th in 10s mode with 9 heroic bosses down. But the server is ranked 5th overall in progression in the US, so on just about any other server, we would be ranked in the top 3 overall, and on over half the servers in the US, we'd be ranked first.

We chose to play on the highest ranked PvE realm in the US (Stormrage). My old server - Moon Guard - currently has one guild in heroic modes, and they are two bosses behind our progression. I was one of the people who lobbied hard for us to transfer to Stormrage because of the pros I listed above, but for me, the highest reason for transferring was the competition. I wanted a server with a very vibrant and competitive environment. I wanted to be looking over my shoulder constantly and making sure our ranking remains in the top-10.

The additional benefits are certainly helpful, the Auction House is miles and miles better than our last server, and we've had very good luck recruiting locally.

So - unlike most guilds, hardcore guilds have to make the decision about their server very carefully. They don't want to get the reputation of being ranking-snipers by switching to a quiet server, and they don't want to handicap or demoralize themselves by moving to a server where they have no chance of competing. The location of a guild tells you much about the culture therein, and what the members wants.

Order of Progression


Image from WoWPedia's Naxxramas article 

As seen above, Naxxramas presented an absolutely huge roster of bosses (15 in the one raid alone). 13 of them were available with no gating in 4 wings and the final 2 were gated behind them. The difficulty was even enough, that guilds could do the wings in any order. Many a nights were ruined when new guilds chose to start with Military wing and ran face-first into Instructor Rezuvious.

Anyway, this is a topic that has caused much passionate debate in most raiding guilds, whether hardcore or not. In a tier as broad as Tier 14, with so many choices in terms of places to go and in what order to kill bosses, it's not difficult to abandon raids or extend lock-outs, or skip around and choose one boss over another to kill.

Progression can go in two different directions for the majority of guilds. First, there's the idea of, well, progression! Kill the new boss, and move up the ladder. That's a fairly straightforward concept. But there is also the idea of farming - more loot makes things easier. Certainly, but no serious hardcore guild will spend time on farming loot when they have viable progression bosses that are not gear-gates (very strict DPS checks, for example).

So, for hardcore guilds, it's progression - but what boss do you tackle?

Hopefully, your decision is made bereft of loot concern. If you bring loot into it, then different people will have different bosses they want to get down in order to get the particular item that they're after - so what guides you? One is the established order of progression from guilds that are ahead of you.

For example, to generalize Heroic Tier 14 a bit, the order goes more or less like this for most guilds:

Stone Guard > Feng > Elegon > Gara'jal >
Blade Lord Ta'Vak > Spirit Kings > Wind Lord Mel'Jarak > Garalon >
Will of the Emperor > Lei-Shi ~ Imperial Vizir Zor'lok > Amber-Shaper >
Protectors of the Endless ~ Grand Empress Shek'zeer > Tsulong > Sha of Fear

In our case, we stuck with the order until Blade Lord, then we chose to go after Will right after killing that, then we picked Garalon, and then Wind Lord. Now we're after Amber-Shaper.

For us, the progression order was decided by the ranking weight. Heroic Will was given a lot more weight than the other bosses in the general progression order, so killing Heroic Will gave us a solid lead and breathing room on the ladder against guilds who were still working on that fight. It also gave us the confidence we needed by getting a boss down out of the progression order to get Heroic Garalon and Heroic Windlord down in more or less one night of work, each, getting us to 9/16 heroics.

Is it fair to attack bosses with different ranking weight to improve one's ranking? I think it is, as the rankings are not secret, but others might disagree.

This is by no means a simple conversation - even now, my guild is debating whether Lei-Shi might not be a more viable target than Amber-Shaper. Maybe there is no right answer, and this is a topic that will go around and around every tier as raiders debate what boss is more viable for progression. In a 10s mode guild, you also have to consider composition - on a given night, do you have enough people to do one boss more easily than another? Ideally you have all raiders showing up, but that's not always possible, of course, and I imagine often times the decision is made for you by circumstances.

Regardless, our raid-leaders made the decision and tonight, we will be fighting Heroic Amber-Shaper.

Next time, in the conclusion, I'll try to wrap up this process, and then (rather ambitiously), I'll try to arrive at some general thesis about what progression raiding feels like and why so many people are attracted to it.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hardcore Raiding in MoP - Part 2

It's been a while since I posted, buying a house and moving ate my life last month. But I'm moved now! Anyway, on with the show.

Last time I talked about why I'm writing this series of articles. To recap, last week we talked about the kind of time investment heroic raiding takes, and for my guild right now, it's an average of 20 weeks in game per week just raiding and preparing for raids by farming up materials for food, Valor, flasks and potions.

That's a significant investment, but time is something we can afford to part with fairly easily - depending on our situation. Heroic hardcore raiding also comes with certain decisions that I don't think are made easily by more casual raiders - such as questions of faction, race and class.

Part 2: Tip the Scales - Race, Faction and Class

I have a fairly long history of race-changing and even an ill-advised bout of faction-changing, but all of those reasons were fairly casual - either I was tired of the model, or I did so for role-play or immersion reasons. That is to say, personal reasons that had no impact on my actual game. But as a raiding character, there are far more important things to consider.

Race

You might imagine that the aesthetics of your race is an important factor in considering what you play - but not so when racial bonuses come into play. I'll get into class-choice later, but each class (and spec) choice does have an ideal race that is most beneficial to play. In my case, as a Paladin, Alliance side, I've got 3 races - Humans, Dwarfs and Draenei - that I can choose from.

The big bonus as Draenei is the bonus 1% Hit. Gift of the Naaru and Shadow Resistance are pretty irrelevant due to how weak they are.

As a human, you get 3 bonus Expertise to using a sword or mace (useless if the best in slot weapon for a particular tier is an axe), in addition to a reputation bonus (good early in the expansion or patches with extensive grinds, useless afterward), and Every Man For Himself (encounter specific, but very powerful when it can be used like on Spirit Kings to break out of Rain of Arrows and very powerful in PvP.)

Dwarfs get that same bonus to Expertise (maces only) as humans, (useless otherwise), and a fair tanking cool-down in Stoneform on a 2 minute CD. The bonus to Archeology and 1% ranged expertise isn't useful for tanks, but might be a factor for Hunters.

As a tank, the Dwarf bonus is pretty damned appealing, except that I play a Paladin which gives me plenty of cool-downs already and I haven't found myself wanting, especially once you factor in external cool-downs. If there was a situation where you did want more cool-downs, here is a choice. Otherwise, the human is the default choice for efficiency simply with regards to how much Expertise it takes to hard-cap that stat. Unless the weapon in a given tier doesn't benefit from the bonus, at which point, Draenei might be best from a purely stat-based perspective and the Dwarf from a cool-down perspective.

Your decision on the race of your character should be based on these factors before anything else. Now, I'm certainly guilty of going after the more visually appealing race, and I play a human because it's a compromise between the hideous but practical Dwarf and the pretty but useless Draenei models.

Still, these aren't terrible by any measure, but what if the racial bonuses are just better if you play the other side?

Faction

Right now, the majority consensus seems to be that playing Horde is the way to go if you want to truly min-max to the hilt.

Certain Alliance racials do put up a good fight, as I listed a few above - but there are things on the Red Roster that make min-maxing as a Horde guild far easier and more efficient. Consider the following:
Given the fact that Horde racials include direct damage attacks, dps cooldowns and direct buffs to core survival stats - is it any wonder that just about every guild listed in the top rankings is Horde? And as a hardcore guild, it's a gut-wrenching decision to make if you stick with the Alliance. From a purely numbers perspective, these racials beat the Alliance hands-down - but at some point, the human element kicks in and for whatever reason, be it loyalty or friendship or a fondness for the faction - if you stay Blue, you are giving yourself a slight handicap in the rankings race.

Class

This is the most difficult one for me.

Characters - at the end of the day - are Classes, and Classes in turn, are sub-sets of buffs and abilities, and arranging a raid-team to ensure the proper distribution of abilities and buffs is one of the most vital parts of raid preparation.

It sounds bleak when put this way, doesn't it? Rather cold and technocratic, in a way.

But consider the reality - in Tier 13, I bemoaned the collapse of the paladin tank in heroic progression. Some fights made block-tanking just plain the wrong way of doing things. This was the first time I found myself in a situation where my class just plain couldn't do the heavy lifting necessary for progression. Thankfully we had a Death Knight tank in the guild who picked up the slack, but the point remains - had we been a Warrior/Paladin tanking team, we could have been stuck for a good long while on these bosses.

In order to mitigate these sorts of gating situations, the ideal way to progress is to play the most versatile classes possible and keep a roster of alts at hand to bring in in, should your class face severe nerfs during the course of the expansions, like the great Death Knight nerf of 2009 when Ulduar came out and Death Knights suddenly found themselves bereft of the Dual Wield/Pet/Gargoyle mega-spec.

That was a good day.

Anyway, right now the Paladin class is strong - viable for heroic progression, strong support abilities in the various hands if with a somewhat lackluster raid-wide cool-down. However, the class lacks a vital buff that other tanks bring to the raid - Attack Power. In 10s, this is especially painful and so, I've leveled up a Death Knight to cap and am now in the process of gearing her up as a stand-by in case we do run into the roadblocks of the past. Gearing up in Mists isn't quite as easy as it was in prior expansions, but with LFR and the expected nerfs to Tier 14 when Tier 15 is released, I don't imagine I'll have a hard time catching up.

And if you notice, once again, the decision is based purely on logistics - regardless of one's attachment to a particular class or character. So, having a well-geared alt of a completely different class is one of the best things a hard-core raider can do for their raid team. In the world top ranked guilds, people often maintain a small stable of characters to ensure each fight has the best composition possible, but the idea remains the same. Even relatively in low-ranked hardcore guilds, more people will have at least one or two well-geared alts to bring into raids, just in case.


Next time, we'll talk about where you play and we'll tackle a problem that generates healthy debate in my guild - order of progression.