After a little bit of time to reflect on the changes to Ulduar – and even enjoy the instance, for once – I got back to the business of philosophizing about the place again. Was it really that hard, and so uber-tuned to the point that Naxx-25 + Dragon gear was just meeting entry requirements, was it the new tactics of the place that we were still learning, or was it more about our abilities as raiders? I think that it winds up being a bit of each, but let me elaborate for a bit.
Firstly, with regards to gear: it is, and it isn’t. Initial forays into Ulduar probably wouldn’t have been too much more successful if you had a Naxx-25 geared raid versus a Naxx-10 + a few goodies, and this is mostly from the standpoint of party endurance. There are an awful lot of ways to die in Ulduar. Despite the fact that nearly everyone is sporting 20,000+ health when you’re raid buffed – a number that is nearly incomprehensible by BC standards (my Druid Tank, who was very well geared, wasn’t over 20,000 in some Kara / ZA runs) – 20,000 doesn’t matter a lot when every hit you take is for 7-12k. You make one mistake, you might live. Fail to recognize and correct your error in ~2 seconds, or make another mistake? WTB rez, lol. Thus, while gear might have placed your ranged DPSer at 23,000 health instead of 20,400, how much did that matter in Ulda week 1 or 2? Not so much, unless you knew where to go.
Of course, gear affects your tank mitigation, healing throughput and DPS too – but the reality is, unless you knew how to move or what to do, those numbers wouldn’t get a chance to bear themselves out. Naxx 25, Naxx 10 or Quest Blues, if you couldn’t get any Siege boss besides Flame Leviathan below 80%, it wouldn’t matter anyways until you look at the repair tab. If you *did* have the top shelf gear, though, then it was a matter of tactics.
Ulduar wasn’t like any previous content. PTR testing was fairly sparse, and the amount of knowledge out there just couldn’t provide as accurate of an illustration as a raid would need in order to understand and execute the fights. People were going to have to die, raids were going to have to wipe repeatedly, and only then could we as a community begin to gather the knowledge necessary to successfully execute the encounters.
I think that part was equally enjoyable and frustrating. Enjoyable in that it really did represent new territory for us to move into that couldn’t simply be referenced in a Brady Games guide; frustrating because we’ve all collectively had so much success in Naxx, and the rest of WotLK, and the days of running up against the Unmovable Object were kind of fading from memory. Hubris. Of course, being the natural competitive SOB that I am, frustration more than won the day for me…
But really, what it comes down to is tactics. We all got soft before Ulduar. With the possible exception of Malygos, and a few other select fights, there was not a lot of need for anything resembling advanced tactics. For the entirety of content, we’ve all learned one thing for our approach: Round it all up, AOE it down, and brute force wins the day.
It all started with the WotLk Heroics; never was something so misnamed. In BC, Heroics were serious business. Bad pulls, failed CC, deviation from the kill order or a mistimed cooldown could all get you killed, even once your gear got to the point that you were well past finding a use for the heroic rewards. Stuff in there was flat-out dangerous. Think about it, every instance had some major trash wipe points. The dual Bog Lords before Hungarfen, or those Coilfang Defender pairs in Slave Pens. The Screamer pulls in Steamvaults. The Six-pull in Magister’s Terrace, and the Gargantuan Abyssals in Arcatraz. We all knew these pulls, because they all sucked to do. You had to approach them just-so, and frequently with the use of a lot of different abilities from your 5-man party to make it happen. If you didn’t, it was often a corpse run.
BC Heroics were also a bit more exclusive from a gear standpoint. It wasn’t easy to bring a fresh 70 in there, unless you were skilled at CC and the 3rd DPSer. Healers, and especially Tanks, had to do some legwork beforehand in order to get up to snuff. In short, when you got there – you either deserved it, or you had some really nice friends and guildies.
In WotLK, we all got into heroics more or less from the moment that we hit 80. Not only that, but the tactics needed in them were vastly different from those in BC. All of those skills that we had honed through endless Slave Pens runs, Zul’Aman or whatever? We lost them. No longer did any single trash pull have the wipe potential that the BC trash pulls had. Sure, there are moments – everyone still hates Slad’ran, or that Ethereal prick in Violet Hold – but those moments are few and far between. Quick, what’s the most dangerous trash pull in WotLK Heroics? Maybe the big Vrykul guys in Halls of Lightning, but that’s about it. There just isn’t anything to fear in Heroics anymore.
The Raids didn’t get much tougher. Archavon? That guy is a loot pinata. Obsidian Sanctum was ridiculously easy for any raid to knock over regardless of gear, once they hit 80. Only when it got to 2 and 3 Drakes up did that content become difficult. Malygos was more of a gear check to push that enrage timer, plus the learning curve for the phase 3 gimmick fight. Naxxramas? Precious little was pushing raids there.
Part of the problem with that is that Blizzard just recycled an old instance, with old bosses, and buffed them up to be calibrated versus level 80 players instead of 60. The issue with Naxxramas, though, is the boss mechanics. When 40-man, level 60 Naxxramas was introduced, these fights were revolutionary. By the time that we had progressed through BC content, we’d seen those mechanics re-used and adopted to different bosses. Gruul took on Patchwerk’s mechanics. The Lurker Below is more or less Noth with a Spout.
A few fights still required coordination; The Four Horsemen, for instance, was murderous until people got the timing down. Once they did, it was surprising at how little damage that a raid sustains in that fight. Kel’Thuzad was tough the fist time or two that you saw him – but once everyone got the hang of spacing and Ice Block healing, he became farm content quickly.
In short, outside of Sartharion + 3 Drakes, there was nothing left to challenge our raiding skills – and along came Ulduar.
Ulduar showed us what we had all forgotten about raiding. Some of it harkens back to lessons taught as long ago as Molten Core. Some of it is more reminiscent of BC progression raids. None of it – outside of Flame Leviathan – really resembles what had been available in WotLk content before. It was something far greater in scope and complexity than we had grown accustomed to.
Take Razorscale, for instance. She’s one of the very first bosses that you face, and was very difficult to handle. What had been seen recently that was like that? Maybe Gothik, if every wave was two Death Knights and a Rider – and if he was always dropping AOE DoTs on the room from the balcony that would kill you in 2-3 ticks – which is to say nothing of the ‘grounded’ phase (although that one is far more easily managed). If your raid was like mine – and judging by the numbers, as less than 10% of raids downed her in week 1, it was – then you spent a lot of time running back, rebuffing, and wiping all over again. When it was done, and you got a chance to look back and say “what happened there?”, an obvious answer arose – our skills have eroded to the point where we couldn’t execute the encounter.
This is the heart of the problem, and the primary reason that Ulduar had to be nerfed. You see, once you’ve had that moment of clarity and realized why your raid is sucking, you come to step 2: where can we relearn our skills? Nowhere, or at best precious few places. Naxx is so easy that 12-14 competent players and a batch of imbeciles can knock it over. Even if you try to make it tougher, it’s difficult. the most cohesive 25-man event that you can possibly pull from it is getting your group focused enough for an entire run to get “The Immortal” – and after the first random death to whatever idiocy, you can kiss that focus goodbye. Not that it would do you any good, since you’re still not learning to handle angry adds, CC trash or focus specific targets among many. It’s still Naxx. Malygos? You might be able to glean a little bit from there that tightens up your performance, but so much of that fight hinges on the gimmick, while the rest of it is largely a simplified variant on either the “stand where you are and pew pew” or the ever-present “adds” themes. Sartharion +2-3 Drakes is a possibility, as it will focus intense needs for add control, movement and all three facets – Tanking, DPS and Healing – to be successful. Even more importantly, you can’t stand in fire and / or void zones. Still, that’s once a week unless you call for a raid wipe at 5% or something. What’s left, run Heroics in greens to make them tougher?
No, the issue is that Ulduar is merely the second step in major progression raiding for this expansion. If WotLK follows BC for numbers, then you can expect three more tiers (SSC -> TK -> MH -> BT -> Sunwell for BC, so Naxx -> Ulduar -> ? -> ? -> ? for WotLK, one of which is Icecrown Citadel). Thus, Ulduar had to be at least accessible for people in order to allow for those further tiers to scale upwards without being ludicrous. Do I fully expect Icecrown Citadel (or whatever the top tier winds up being) to be on par for difficulty with Ulduar, relative to the raid’s gearing. Yes. Do I expect them to nerf it? Not until the next Expansion.
However, Ulduar proved to us that we are not ready for higher content yet, loud and clear. It walked right up to us, smacked us in the face and said “get your crap together and do it now, because this Naxxramas cakewalk stuff is over!”, and then it quietly nerfed itself to an acceptable level where it remains challenging without being insurmountable. As it stands, it now presents as fine of a location for you to relearn all of those old raiding skills as you could hope to some across, with a bevy of diverse encounters that will push you to develop your raiding abilities to a level that you have either forgotten, or did not know that you could reach.
You will do this because you must, if you ever intend to advance beyond Ulduar – the next raid won’t be so compassionate. Ulduar has been kind enough to provide you with a stern warning about the state of your game, and an amazing field of battle in which to hone your skills. Use it, and learn from it – and you will prosper. Keep on employing the same strongarm tactics that have ruled WotLK until now, though, and you will be excluding yourself from the future content.
Ulduar was your wake-up call. Recognize that, embrace that, and make the most of it – because now is the time for true progression guilds to separate themselves from the rest.