A goblin in Azshara and Ashenvale

I rolled a goblin priest to see the goblin starter area some time ago. Those zones seems to be the kind of content that people either love or hate, and unfortunately my reaction fell on the negative side of the spectrum. Kezan and the Lost Isles just felt nothing like the Azeroth I used to know, and while I can generally appreciate pop culture references and the like, the goblins went overboard with it in my opinion.

So once I had seen what it was all about, I parked my little priest in Orgrimmar and didn't touch her for the next couple of months. I've found that not playing a character for a while gives them time to settle, and possible negative associations from the past are given time to dissipate. So I finally felt ready to play my goblin again the other week and took her to Azshara.

Azshara is a sort of continuation of the goblin starter experience, but officially open to all races and not quite as silly. Yes, the hyper-intelligent raptor that escaped into space with a rocket was a bit mind-boggling, and then there was that whole affair with Azuregos and the spirit healer. What the...? However, a lot of the zone was about fighting night elves and naga and typical wildlife, and I was happy.

I saw a comment on someone else's blog, I don't remember by whom, who said that Blizzard had "destroyed" Azshara with Cataclysm. It's certainly not the quiet and empty land it used to be, but... don't get me wrong, I certainly appreciated the old Azshara, but let's not kid ourselves: emptiness is cheap. Azshara was what it was due to Blizzard failing to do anything useful with it, not due to any intentional design making it awesome. They did the same thing again in Cataclysm in some areas, so if you miss that feeling of being lost in a landscape that is nothing else but land, you can always go for a stroll through Alterac. (Or actually, Gilneas works quite well too, due to so many things being phased.)

While Gallywix is ugly as sin, I have to admit that I still found this display oddly awe-inspiring.

Meanwhile, Azshara offers lots of questing fun now and I think it's a solid experience, though I had one problem here that I haven't managed to have in any other post-Cata zone: I managed to lose the plot. Suddenly I had no more quests in my log, even though I still had a good quarter of the zone left according to the quest achievement, and I was sitting out in the middle of nowhere, lost. I then spent about half an hour driving around the zone on my annoying-sounding trike, until I finally found a quest on a lonely mountain peak which then reconnected me with the rest of the story.

I wasn't sure how I felt about that. On the one hand it's nice to engage your own brain in search of quest givers every once in a while instead of blindly following a breadcrumb trail all the time. But if the entire zone is designed around the idea that you will be following the breadcrumb trail along fifty different mini-hubs, losing the plot is annoying because it could literally be anywhere. How I longed for just being able to check three different quest hubs for updates instead of having to peek into every nook and cranny of the zone in search of that lone missing exclamation mark.

I also felt bad about ending the zone by killing the former Alliance flight master.

I continued onwards to Ashenvale. For comparison, I wrote about how I experienced the zone on Alliance side in this post a few months ago. Horde side was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster to me. Oh cool, I get to ride around on a kodo. Argh, why are we killing all these night elves and I'm not allowed to join in? Why am I doomed to watching passively as the cut scene plays out? Combat cut scenes seriously need to go, considering that's the basic unit of WoW gameplay.

There were a couple of NPCs that I liked, like that orc couple where the guy made me pick flowers for his lady and she made me collect fel fire. It made me like the Horde. I was quite happy to slaughter generic night elves by the dozen, and I was absolutely delighted to see that the three named beasts from The Ashenvale Hunt were still around and dropping quest items.

Around the third time or so when I walked through Silverwind Refuge, I noticed that there were actually night elf corpses on the ground still... and named ones. Agrnagvekf. I didn't really remember them very well, but I found myself wondering which one of them had sold me the expert cookbook back in the day. Suddenly I hated being Horde.

Emotional turmoil aside, seeing the Alliance vs. Horde conflict in Ashenvale play out from both sides was also a bit strange. I've talked about how quests running in parallel on both sides can make for a more interesting story, and to some extent this is happening in Ashenvale, but it's all very inconclusive. The Horde has you bombing Astranaar and then happily sends you on your way with a pat on the back. But didn't I put all those fires out as Alliance? Didn't I save Astranaar? So Alliance wins, technically? Likewise a Horde quest sends me to corrupt the Forest Heart, and I do, but I know from Alliance side that they cleanse it afterwards. At Splintertree Post I fought off not one, but two major night elf attacks, but the attackers never really went away entirely. And at Raynewood Retreat the Horde kills the local Alliance leader, but the Alliance lays massive waste to the Horde army on their side of the quest. They then say that I saved the place, but did I really?

Silverwind Refuge is the only area where it's completely clear who won, but that happened before I even got there. Anything I contributed to the war effort made no particular difference from what I could tell. That's actually not a bad thing in principle, but what bothered me a little was that I couldn't tell whether that was by design, or whether the developers simply didn't want to tell Horde players that they lost those fights... because knowing what I knew from Alliance side, it kind of felt like they should have.

Next zones coming up in review from Horde side whenever I get around to it: Desolace, Southern Barrens, Thousand Needles.


Pondering the MoP priest talents

Okay, so I might think that completely revamping the talent trees yet again is a really bad idea (I think Nils has a very good summary on the subject here), but that doesn't mean that I'm not curious about what new talents the developers are thinking of for my class. Let's have a look, shall we?

Tier 1 aka The Mass CC tier

You only need to take a brief look at the new system to see that every tier of talents seems to focus on a certain theme, such as survivability or crowd control. The first tier of priest talents appears to be designed around our mass crowd control, and sees Psychic Scream being turned from a baseline ability into a talent with alternative options.

The Good: I think that the three options given here, mass root vs. "fearing totem" vs. the old psychic scream are interesting alternatives to achieve a similar effect. Void Tendrils sounds like a good way of getting melee off your back in an environment where psychic scream frequently fails to achieve much because so many classes have been given counter-fear measures by now. (Though I noticed that they are also planning to give shamans an anti-snare totem in MoP. Clearly the class is meant to remain our nemesis in PvP.)

The idea of a fearing totem, which is what the Psyfiend basically sounds like, is a very funny one. It's nice to imagine dropping this on top of a flag carrier under pressure for example. I do suspect that it will need buffing though, because one single-target fear every two seconds for ten seconds is not that amazing, and most of the effect can still be nullified by a single tremor totem while it still has twice the cooldown of good old psychic scream.

The Bad: All the good things above refer to PvP only. In PvE this choice is likely to feel borderline pointless for all specs, because single target crowd control is already used rarely enough in group content, and mass CC is used even less. At best you can probably hope to get some use out of it if you get into a tight spot while questing, but I'm not sure how likely that is to happen anymore.

Tier 2 aka the Movement Tier

This one currently looks very boring to me unfortunately: increased movement speed after getting bubbled vs. increased movement speed while levitating vs. Fade removing movement impairing effects.

The Good: Body and Soul is a fun talent right now, and I guess it's nice that they are making it available to all specs - I miss it all the time on my shadow priest.

The Bad: As it stands, I don't see this tier offering any genuine choice. I just can't see anyone taking Path of the Devout. Body and Soul is the clear winner for PvE, because being able to get out of the fire sixty percent faster is amazing. And Phantasm will probably be the undisputed choice for PvP in the future, since snares are the bane of any priest's existence. The only reason it would lose out to Body and Soul right now is that the current PvP 4-piece bonus for priests has something similar baked in for whenever you shield yourself. Hopefully something will be done to make this entire tier less of a no-brainer.

Tier 3 aka... Shinies?

Aha! Finally something that affects the priest's actual role, whether it's healing or damage dealing. We get to pick between Surge of Light / occasional instant Mind Blasts that consume no shadow orbs, a shiny holy boomerang of healiness and Archangel with the mana regen aspect removed.

The Good: For healers, there's a genuine choice here between saving mana with Surge of Light or increasing your output with Archangel (assuming that all specs will get Evangelism as well, otherwise having this as a talent would be kind of pointless). Divine Star sounds like the kind of ability that might end up with an awesome spell effect that makes you squeal in delight every time you use it, though its usefulness remains to be seen.

The Bad: Shadow doesn't appear to have much of a choice here. Two of the three available talents give dps boosts, and it will probably only be a matter of time until theorycrafters figure out which one is better.

Tier 4 aka The Survival Tier

Another tier that I feel very meh about as a whole. From what I gather they intend to give all classes a pick of survival talents, but I feel that to a priest the whole concept is probably less exciting than it is to other classes. Shadow already has a good survival cooldown in Dispersion, and the two healing specs are already dedicated to guaranteeing their own survival with their default tools all the time. Anyway, the offerings are Desperate Prayer, +30% effectiveness for bubbles on yourself, or a bubble that gets auto-cast on you when you get low on health (once every 90 seconds).

The Good: I think there is an interesting trade-off between Desperate Prayer and Final Prayer. The former has a slightly longer cooldown and you have to actively cast it, but you can choose when to use it. The latter is applied automatically and occurs a bit more frequently, but you have no influence on it; it just happens when it happens. That sounds like an interesting choice in PvP.

The Bad: Unfortunately I suspect that Angelic Bulwark is always going to win out over both of the abilities mentioned above, since getting more absorption and thus protection against spell pushback from your shields all the time sounds like a lot more bang for your buck in almost any scenario I can imagine. Also, I don't like that Final Prayer sounds like they just copied over Sacred Shield from the paladins and increased its cooldown.

Tier 5 aka The More Damage and Heals Tier

Aha! Finally another tier that affects core abilities! In this one we have more damage and healing done to targets at or below 25% health, Power Infusion and Serendipity / a tweaked version of Mind Melt.

The Good: I reckon Power Infusion is one of those talents that every spec would be happy to be able to pick up. Disc priests might enjoy being able to grab Serendipity to boost their single target output even more when required.

The Bad: I thought that we were past the age of flat bonuses to damage and healing. I guess holy is going to be rebalanced either way, but at the moment I find it hard to even imagine functioning as a holy priest without Serendipity, which wouldn't leave me any choice but to take that. I think for shadow PvE Power Infusion is going to be a no-brainer; I don't know enough about its PvP side to be sure what a PvP-ing shadow priest would pick here.

Tier 6 aka The New OP Spells

This tier is exciting simply because everything in it is actually new, and a lot of it looks extremely powerful in its currently suggested implementation.

First we have Vow of Unity, which looks like it's inspired by Beacon of Light and Hand of Sacrifice. Then there's Void Shift, which swaps health percentage with a friendly target, and Vampiric Dominance, which applies free extra heals to three nearby friendlies every time you heal or do damage (though it doesn't say whether they have to be near you or near your target; I assume the latter).

The Good: Well, it all sounds very exciting, doesn't it? Void Shift would be another very powerful survival cooldown that can either be used on yourself or someone else. And Vampiric Dominance sounds amazingly powerful for a healer (kind of like the old Flash of Light glyph for paladins, except even stronger) - so powerful that I have a hard time imagining this talent making it live.

The Bad: Vow of Unity is really hard to judge since there are so many unknowns about it, such as duration. I suspect that Void Shift will be a no-brainer for shadow priests as the other two talents are both healer-centric. It also has enormous griefing potential in the currently suggested incarnation - in battlegrounds for example you could swap health with some poor random schmuck whenever you're close to dying and get them killed instead.

Final Verdict

I think that even if I agreed that another talent revamp was badly needed, I doubt that I would be happy with this system in particular. People are complaining about the prevalence of cookie cutter specs in the current system, but as a healer this doesn't affect me nearly as much. As a holy priest I'm free to choose between a variety of talents to boost my hps, mana regen, cooldowns or effectiveness of different spells, all depending on my preferred playstyle, and they are all equally valid.

A reduction to six talent points is less than what I currently get to contemplate, and about half of them don't even affect any core abilities. A few of the new abilities sound very cool in principle, but it remains to be seen how frequently they will be used.


Dreaming of a different dungeon finder

While link-hopping the other day, I stumbled across a post by Doone - which is admittedly already several months old - in which he talks about why the dungeon finder sucks. It's widely known that the dungeon finder has a bad reputation, though people will quote different reasons for it: no consequences for bad behaviour, too much anonymity, being grouped with players from other servers in general etc. Doone on the other hand looks at the issue from an angle that I honestly hadn't considered yet: he says that the problem with the dungeon finder is mainly that it takes away the player's choice. You have no say in who you get grouped with, and if you do take matters into your own hands by leaving or initiating a vote-kick, there are systematic punishments involved. We are basically being herded into groups like sheep.

Whenever I see the subject of the dungeon finder come up anywhere these days, I have to admit that I'm overcome by a certain defeatism. Yes, it's had some very bad effects on the game, but what is the alternative? Not getting groups at all? Clearly future MMOs will have to implement a dungeon finder too. Doone's post was a nice reminder that the issue is not as black and white as that, and that there are ways of providing players with group-finding tools that don't take away their choice.

This got me thinking about the way WoW's looking for group tool worked before the dungeon finder. Personally I always thought that it worked quite well actually - as evidence let me refer you to this old post of mine in which I talked about completing the daily heroic on four different characters within only two hours, with groups that were formed manually, by people using "looking for more".

Looking back at it now, I think the tool's main problem wasn't actually anything related to its technical implementation, but that people simply weren't ready for it mentally at the time when it first came out. They had loved their old LFG chat channel, and I remember there being lots of complaints when it was removed, with players stubbornly refusing to use the new tool and spamming trade with LFG requests instead. Whenever I hear people complain that finding groups before the introduction of the dungeon finder was so hard, and that they spent hours sitting in trade without getting anything done, I can't help but think that maybe they should have just used the damn tool instead of sitting in trade? But what do I know.

Fun fact: The old tool also had an "auto join" option, to automate group formation if enough people were available, but nobody in their right mind ever used it because obviously you didn't want to risk getting grouped with some random schmuck you didn't like. Kind of funny to look back at that now.

Aside from simply having an undeserved bad reputation, I think that the old looking for group mainly had three problems: First and foremost, a lot of the time there simply weren't enough people using it, partly due to the aforementioned stubbornness, but partly also because a single server generally couldn't sustain a large enough player base interested in dungeons across all levels. If you wanted to get a group for Zul'Farrak, nothing could really help you except maybe for spamming general chat in the right levelling zones and some helpful guildies.

Secondly, for some reason you were only ever allowed to queue up for a maximum of three instances at once. This made things quite awkward if you just wanted to run some heroics, any heroics, as a lot of people would not even see your availability on the tool if they happened to look at one of the other thirteen you weren't queued up for.

And thirdly... well, some of it just felt kind of clunky to me to be honest. For example there was no option to "view all" players in my level range who were looking for a group, you had to go through sixteen different screens for individual dungeons to see them all. Actually putting the group together also felt a bit mindless and involved sending lots of messages that you might as well have macroed for their sameness: "Hey there, I'm putting together a group for [instance], would you like to join us as [role]?" Or you could just throw out ninja invites, but those were considered rude by many people.

Looking back at that now, those problems could have been fixed quite easily without turning the whole thing into the fully automated dungeon finder that we have right now. For example we already have the option to queue for all instances in our level range at once instead of just three. I would think that making the default view show everyone in the right level range, with optional filters by dungeon, role, level or whatever, couldn't be that difficult either. Finally, they could implement a special invite window for the tool, similar to the current guild invite and dungeon finder pop-ups, that says "[Name] wants to invite you to play [role] in [instance]. (x/5 spots filled)" or "[Name] wants to join your group as [role] for [instance]" and saves you from having to type slight variations of the same questions all the time.

That only leaves the admittedly major issue of not having enough players to work with - but I think that if players were actually able to choose who to group with, allowing cross-server grouping wouldn't be that much of a problem. It could simply be another filtering option to only see people from your server or to see everyone in the battlegroup.

You ask, what's the point of choosing among a huge bunch of strangers? I think there are still a lot of factors that can influence your decision even then: maybe you like or hate someone's name, maybe their guild name rings a bell, maybe you really want to have a certain class in your group... you could also check out people's gear on the armoury. Are all of these things a bit superficial? Absolutely, but we are also happy to heavily judge people by first impressions in real life, and it's not completely without merit. Also, if you make a wrong choice, you can learn from it and do better next time: okay, so that guy's guild name sounded cool, but he was a total jerk so you'll avoid him and his mates in the future. And so on and so forth. Over time you'd probably be able to find some friends and make a name for yourself even in an extended cross-server community, because people would actually have to pay attention to who they play with, and acting like a twit would increasingly cause others to avoid you.

Of course a system like that would also need proper group leaders again, but I think that's okay. Clicking on a bunch of people of the right classes to invite them is not exactly a huge amount of work, but it shows some investment, earning that person the right to retain group leader status in the actual dungeon as well. There would be no need for vote-kicking or deserter debuffs because it wouldn't be random. You get to choose your groups anyway, and if you're not happy with the way things are going, you can always try again and do better (instead of queueing for the same amount of randomness again and blindly hoping that your next group will be less obnoxious).

Finally there's the issue of teleports. While they are not directly connected to the process of group formation, I'm not a fan of them in the current dungeon finder and would happily get rid of them as well, partly to emphasise the dungeon's place in the world again, partly to increase people's investment in the run by making the whole endeavour take a little more time. I'd probably put a summoning stone inside the instance portal though, which could be operated by a single person to mass-summon the entire rest of the party inside, across servers and all.

There are still some issues for which I don't really have a solution: For example the tank shortage would probably persist, so getting a tank for your group might come down to who can "snipe" an invite the quickest as soon as a tank appears on the list of available players, which isn't really desirable. There is also the awkwardness of multiple half-formed groups floating around that can't really merge without kicking anyone. And on lower levels, with few available players even across multiple servers, one might have to "camp" the looking for group window for a while to find enough people, which would be pretty boring - maybe the optional "auto-join" feature could make a comeback for that.

The main things that a system like that would change about instance groups compared to the dungeon finder would be that people could choose who to play with again and filter out unsavoury elements more easily, and that dungeons would require a bit more organisational effort again, thus becoming a bit rarer. Still, I'd rather have a really fun experience every so often than lots of half-baked runs that I end up being completely sick of after a few months.

To be sure, I have no illusions that Blizzard is going to take the current implementation of the dungeon finder back out of the game. They must be really proud of whoever designed the thing. But sometimes it's nice to dream.


So... Mists of Pandaria is official.

There is a lot of raging and incoherent complaining going on right now, and I don't really want to add to that... but I'm sorry to say that I am disappointed. When the title of the next expansion first came up as a rumour, I said that I was feeling pretty indifferent about it... but I have to admit that since then I'd developed some hopes that regardless of what the expansion was actually going to be about, it would contain something that would reignite my spark for the game. Unfortunately the expansion preview panel hasn't revealed anything that excites me - on the contrary, I kept reading about plans for the game that I personally find nothing but extremely off-putting.

As far as the pandaren themselves go, I don't mind that Blizzard changed their mind about including them and that they want to make a former joke race a more serious part of the lore. New races have always been one of my favourite expansion additions. And a race that at least starts neutrally is something that I'm sure a fair amount of people are going to be quite excited about. (I have to admit I'm somewhat intrigued by the further-reaching implications myself - if Blizzard doesn't care about race as an easy way of identifying friend or foe anymore, could other races eventually be allowed to change sides as well?)

However: while I approve of new races in principle, I personally don't find the pandaren appealing at all, and unfortunately it kind of looks like there isn't really anything else to this expansion. I don't think Burning Crusade would have been as good if it had just been "WoW: Blood Elves and Draenei". Or think "Cataclysm: Goblins and Worgen", with no Deathwing or anything. I get the impression that Blizzard is counting on the pandaren being such massive fan favourites that nothing else will matter. Well, it doesn't work like that for this (soon to be former?) fan.

There are other features that don't sound bad in principle, like the pet battles (Pokemon is popular for a reason), but that simply don't interest me personally and just work to reinforce my feeling that I'm not part of the target audience anymore.

The real kicker for me however were a bunch of announcements that actively made me shudder:

Talent trees getting reworked again

Or is it more like "removed"? Whatever. Cataclysm's talent tree revamp was extremely painful for me and actually made me fall out of love with my favourite class for several months because things were just that bad. They did manage to balance things out somewhat after a while though, and in fairness, I did feel like it was worth it. I think the Cataclysm talent trees are good. Not perfect - people who love to go crazy with customisation find them boring I believe - but they achieved what they set out to do.

So why they hell do they want to turn everything upside down again? You know it's going to be another balancing nightmare, and I absolutely do not have the stomach to relearn everything about all the classes I play from scratch again. I think Elder Game has the right of it when he says that Ghostcrawler has gone overboard with the idea of trying to achieve perfect balance.

Challenge Mode Dungeons

"Complete a dungeon in x minutes". As Redbeard already pointed out in a comment, it's pretty ironic that this feature is announced right after I mentioned in my last post that I hate the "rush rush" culture that has developed in instances since the introduction of the dungeon finder. Meanwhile, Blizzard thinks that players should be encouraged to rush more! Sorry, but we simply don't see eye to eye about what makes a fun dungeon experience anymore.

Changes to Questing

"Incentives for dungeons/raiders to run quests and do outdoor/daily kind of stuff. For example finishing a quest might give you a buff for the day, and maybe that buff will let you roll on a loot that only appears to people with that buff." I don't know about you, but once again I can't help but think that this sounds like an absolute nightmare. Dailies and random dungeons are already making people feel burnt out with their subtle pressure to do ALL THE THINGS every day. At least you still have a bit of choice about whether to focus on dungeons or dailies right now, but with a system like that people will not just feel that they have to do the daily dungeon, but to make it worth it they also have to do the quests that will provide the extra loot later... ugh!

I suppose one should never say never, but I really can't see myself buying that one.

Ran some normals again

I don't think I've ever hit my weekly heroic cap since it was first introduced, but I used up all of my weekly random bonuses for normals on my newly dinged night elf priest within two days. I think that says something about me as well as about normals, but I'm not entirely sure what it is.

I've talked about the advantages of running normals before, and all in all, they still apply. I think I'm also finally managing to pin down what has been bothering me about dungeon runs in the game as of late, and it's not so much about point systems, immersion or difficulty by itself, but the whole "rush rush" culture. Players want to get through dungeons as fast as possible, and the developers keep talking about releasing content at a faster pace. I don't like that! It turns fun into stress for me. My favourite run these past two days was actually a normal Grim Batol with four people from the same guild who advanced at what most people would consider an agonisingly slow pace (one trash pull every other minute or so). At one point their dps warrior fell off a bridge, died, and took ten minutes to find his way back. The tank apologised profusely for his friend's drunken stupor, but I honestly didn't mind. I just watched a bit of tv on the side and was happy. I'd rather deal with someone who's ten times slower than my "ideal" pace than someone who pulls even a bit too fast. It's pretty obvious that I'm exceptional in this attitude though - I'm pretty sure that ninety-nine percent of pug healers would have abandoned that group quite quickly.

I also met several nice players again with whom I continued to do more than one run, and even the not-so-nice ones were never outright mean or rude.

It wasn't all sunshine and roses however. In fact, my very first run was pretty disastrous. I got into Lost City of the Tol'vir with nobody using crowd control, two melee dps, and the very belated realisation that my keybinds were completely messed up. I struggled on for a bit, casting the wrong heals all the time and finding myself forced to drink after every single pull, but when we wiped on some trash after the first boss, someone finally complained about "bad tanking and healing". Since I was most definitely performing sub-par, I apologised and left, to try again later.

Subsequent runs with properly set up binds went a lot better, though getting fewer melee dps that loved to bathe in any ground AoEs helped as well. Still, I have to admit that I felt a lot more performance pressure than I had in a while. I think I only met one person who wasn't geared for heroics yet, and most tanks had around 150k health. I remember when we tanked heroics with 125k! I really didn't think I'd feel so undergeared in normals of all places - and other people having better gear only did so much to make my job easier, as AoE damage remains the same if people don't dodge or prevent it, and I was still left with a lot more green bar space to fill than my poor mana pool could handle at first.

There wasn't a whole lot of gear to be had either, since mages are still needing on all the spirit cloth (and winning it) even a full year after 4.0 made the stat obsolete for their class.

At some point I did the Horseman and won a ring, at which point the system suddenly tried to put me into heroics. What is this, I don't even! I'm in greens and can't heal my way out of normal Lost City and you want to put me into heroics? Clearly a single high-level epic can seriously screw with item level restrictions.

In a Vortex Pinnacle run, my group spent eight minutes on the first pull with two Temple Adepts because they just could not control or interrupt the heals. I still don't know how I managed to keep everyone alive that long, even with blowing all my cooldowns. When we ran into the same problem on the next pull, I did run out of mana eventually and we wiped. The tank told everyone that they sucked and left, at which point everyone else dropped group as well, presumably in shame. I requeued for an entirely new group, and we almost wiped to the same problem again, though we eventually managed to scrape by, barely. I think I might have to reconsider my opinions on Cataclysm dungeon difficulty...

Lost City of the Tol'vir was the instance that came up for me most often, and I think there wasn't a single group that didn't wipe on those trash packs at the entrance to the last third of the instance - you know which ones I mean, the ones that people always try to skip, but then someone inevitably butt-pulls them, you get two or more groups at once and you die. I thought it was amazing how consistent that was. You'd think people would learn eventually.

Still, I had fun, because even if it wasn't perfect, nobody was stressing about speed and that made all the difference. Also, chain-running instances is an awesome source of cloth for levelling tailoring!


Questing from 80-85 again, this time as Alliance

I still feel burnt out on Cataclysm questing and have avoided completing zones that my various max-level alts are still missing because I just don't find it fun - even if it would benefit them by unlocking certain reputations and perks. I did manage to finally level my night elf priest to 85 the other day though, driven by the desire to see what this stretch of levelling looked like from the other side.

Mount Hyjal and Deepholm were exactly the same, but that didn't really come as a surprise since it was always obvious to me that these quests were given by neutral organisations. I still think that these two are probably my favourites of the five new zones.

I only dipped my toes into Vashj'ir briefly to unlock the portal, get my sea legs and the sea horse. From what little I saw, it reeked heavily of "superficially different but actually the same" syndrome, as I wrote about it two weeks ago. The only thing that made the experience feel different to me was the fact that I realised for the first time that Vashj'ir was actually located off the coast of Stormwind. As Horde I just got a loading screen while sailing there and assumed that the zone was placed in a separate instance, since the coast was too far away to see it anyway. In contrast, sailing there straight from Stormwind harbour and with no interruptions felt nice and immersive.

Something that has nothing to do with factions but that struck me once again was that the Vashj'ir intro quest makes no sense. First you get a summon from the Farseer/Earthspeaker who then gives you that vision of Thrall... and then they send you off to some random island off the coast to fight the other faction. Talk about a non sequitur! When I first did these quests as Horde and skimmed parts of the quest text in my drive to advance quickly, I actually thought that the boat was supposed to take me to the Maelstrom. It just makes no sense to have Thrall's call for help as an intro to a completely unrelated zone - in my opinion it should have been part of the introduction to Deepholm if anything.

I avoided Uldum and then got started on the Twilight Highlands - finally a zone with noticeable differences between Alliance and Horde! And it was quite a pleasant surprise to me too: on Horde side I didn't really like the introduction to the zone much. First Garrosh has you kicking around scared goblins and lazy orcs, and then you have to endure a twenty-minute "event" that is effectively a long, unskippable cut scene that still requires you to move on and off the blimp at the right moments (so you can't just go AFK or you'll eventually have to start all over again).

The Dragonmaw storyline is... a bit weird as well. Like I mentioned in my review of the Stonetalon story at the time, I find it kind of unpleasant when the game mirrors real life politics too closely, and a story where a large foreign power kills off the local leadership and puts rebel sympathisers in charge instead felt way too close to comfort for me, even if the lines are very clear-cut in this case, as Warchief Mor'ghor is an evil bastard and Zaela is likeable. That aside, the Horde story then sends you on missions that are all over the place and on very different ends of the seriousness spectrum, from dealing with wild dragons and evil spirits to shooting pool ponies out of goblin contraptions, which makes the whole experience feel a bit disjointed.

The Alliance version really is very, very different. Where Garrosh just continues to cement his reputation as a massive ass, Varian has you strolling around town with Anduin in tow - and that boy is freaking adorable. He actually cares about his subjects, and he wants to be a priest when he grows up, just like me! D'aww. Mercifully, the Alliance doesn't have to endure an endless travelling cut scene either; you just hop onto a plane, see it fly away and then it's fade to black and a straight cut to you already being in the Highlands.

Once there, the story flows a lot more organically as well, as you visit the various Wildhammer tribes to get them to work together and basically get to save the day by being a successful diplomat. A certain degree of humour also comes naturally to the dwarves and it doesn't feel as jarring as the contrast between the super serious business of the orcs and the utter silliness of the goblins on Horde side.

There are some parallel quests, but it's not excessive. It's also notable that there are examples of how you can use parallels to make interesting content for both sides. For example the Horde has a story where one of the Dragonmaw warlords rushes off to attack the dwarves and gets killed. You don't actually get to see this, but you see him storm off and then have to retrieve a valuable item from his corpse afterwards. On Alliance side on the other hand, you get to fight off this attack and personally get to land the killing blow on the orc. I think this is a great example of how synchronous storylines on both sides can be used to provide different experiences that add up to a more interesting whole, instead of just giving the orcs a quest to kill ten dwarves and the dwarves a quest to kill ten orcs (though those exist - and have their place - as well).

I dinged 85 not long after the Maw of Madness, and while I still intend to finish the zone, it looks like the rest is going to be a mix of neutral hubs and more "different but the same" quests, except that you get to work with Mathias Shaw instead of Garona and the Gob Squad.

All in all, I enjoyed the dwarf quests enough that I think my endeavour to level an Alliance character to cap was worth it to see those alone, but I still think that it's a bit of a shame that the developers didn't try to differentiate the experiences of the two factions more.


Playing a holy priest in (rated) battlegrounds

I have to admit it: I'm jealous of discipline priests. Not because their spec is sometimes a raid leader's preferred choice in PvE; that's all part of the normal up and down of class balancing. But because discipline is still considered to be the only viable PvP healing spec for priests.

I didn't mind the situation back when disc was designed for PvP only and holy was designed for PvE only, and I actually played both at the time. I don't require perfect balance for everything if different specs simply cater to different niches. But then WOTLK came, disc was made to be PvE viable as well and I thought that was great for all the priests who had longed to play it seriously in PvE for a long time... but I have to admit, I'm rather cheesed off that holy never got the same treatment for PvP. Like I said, I'm fine with different specs having different niches, but if you make one talent tree able to do everything while still limiting another, it gets kind of annoying for those who suddenly find themselves left behind.

I know that various damage dealers have had to deal with this issue for a while, but as far as healers go, holy priests are currently the only healers who are not considered PvP viable at all. I don't know why Blizzard can balance all other healing specs around both aspects of the game but not holy priests. It gets really depressing though when you're trying to look up guides for playing rated battlegrounds as a holy priest and find that there don't seem to be any because even the most basic "rated battlegrounds 101" guides assume that you won't want to bring anything other than a disc priest.

Well, screw that, I say! I'll write my own guide then!

As far as credentials go, I'm not amazing at PvP, but I've managed to get Legionnaire as holy this season and I feel that my team's further progress has not really been limited by my spec but that we've simply hit our skill cap. I reckon that a really good player could get much higher as holy still.

Here's the thing: while holy is still not really balanced around PvP, it's actually in a much better position than it has been in a long time. I believe that the bias against the spec mostly comes from two sources: disc priests having greater survivability, and that holy is still more focused on AoE healing, while PvP tends to be more about being able to keep a single target up while it's being nuked. Both are fair points... however there are "but"s attached.

As far as survivability goes, I would still agree that disc priests have more of it, but the difference is not as pronounced as it used to be. When I come up against a team with a disc priest while playing in my (admittedly low ranked) arena team, it never feels to me as if they are that much better at keeping themselves up against damage - the bigger problem tends to be mana regen, as a disc under pressure keeps getting returns from Rapture, which works in a "the more you get attacked, the more you regenerate" way similar to a shaman's Water Shield. As holy on the other hand I'm in serious trouble once I run low, because even with full "of meditation" gear (aka spirit on everything), the rate of regeneration is comparatively slow and if the match continues for long enough, I'll eventually die simply due to being oom.

In rated battlegrounds, with the sheer amount of people involved, survivability is in an entirely different ballpark. A good team can pretty much burst down any healer if they are truly focused. Still, your best bets for survival are paladins and shamans, because they are a bit sturdier due to their armour. Druids and priests of either spec are all considered squishy, with the differences being so marginal as to hardly even matter. I'm still continually surprised by how many teams will go for our resto druid first before coming for me because it just feels weird to not be the primary target.

Also, the holy PvP talent Blessed Resilience works much better when there are other healers around to help you out. Survivability going up when someone else heals you may sound like a bit of a "duh" observation, but compare Blessed Resilience to the disc equivalent Focused Will, which provides the same amount of damage reduction regardless of circumstances. A +30% healing taken buff on the other hand scales in effectiveness the more people you actually have healing you.

As for holy priests being AoE healers... well, that's true, but it's also the reason why the spec works much better in battlegrounds than in arena - there are actually enough people around to make AoE healing worthwhile. You just have to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly. Leaving your holy priest behind as the only healer to guard the tank against rogues is a bit of a waste, and a paladin or a shaman could do a much better job. As a holy priest you always want to be hanging out with as many people as possible so that your AoE heals get a chance to shine. I love joining the big battle for the waterworks in Battle for Gilneas for example, because Prayer of Mending and Circle of Healing are absolutely perfect for easily healing up incoming AoE damage as the enemies try to prevent you from capping the flag.

Let's look at some holy talents and talk about their best use in PvP.

Desperate Prayer

Okay, this is far enough up the tree that I'm guessing that most disc priests are specced into it as well, but I wanted to mention it because it's a talent that I've always avoided in my PvE specs because I simply didn't need it. In PvP however it's awesome, because it's a sizeable instant heal, and in an era where every single melee class has at least one interrupt on a short cooldown, instant heals are king. I use it all the time whenever I get nuked, which is quite often. I think that it should always be your first choice of survival cooldown, because as opposed to Guardian Spirit it can only be cast on yourself - better to save the latter for someone else if possible.


Now, I have to admit that Blizzard managed something that I had thought impossible with Lightwell this expansion - they actually made it not completely pointless. Still, its actual viability remains highly dependent on how well you can train the rest of your team to use it. I'm quite fond of it in arena, because it's easy to convince one or two other people to use it, and sometimes I simply use all the charges myself to click-heal myself through various stunlocks and silences. In battlegrounds, even rateds with a fixed team, I have to admit that I haven't had as much luck, and even in very heated battles I often see it expire with several charges still unused.

Still, in base-capping games it's worth plopping down a Lightwell near a flag that you're defending or assaulting - only if you intend to stay there yourself though. I learned the hard way that you can't "leave" a lightwell for someone else to heal themselves in your absence as it despawns if you move too far away. In flag-carrying games I tend to put one down near our flag carrier if we're preparing to defend against an incoming assault in the flag room - he's the only one I've seen click on it with any regularity whenever he gets nuked.

Spirit of Redemption

"Improved Death" has never been a favourite of many priests, and I remember intentionally skipping it in my PvE spec for a long time because I didn't want to "reward" people with free heals for letting me die. I have to admit though, in PvP it's quite awesome. In PvE you can argue that counting on your own death is a bad idea since you should always plan to beat each encounter with no deaths, but in battlegrounds in particular, most people will suffer several deaths each game (unless you're dominating your opponent completely) and there's no shame in it either.

In such an environment, Spirit of Redemption is actually a bit of an Obi-Wan Kenobi power: "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine!" Massive uninterrupted healing for fifteen seconds, hurrah! Considering it's usually quite tricky to get cast-time heals off due to the many interrupts and silences, this is seriously huge. You can generally recognise the smart teams because they'll actually avoid killing me until almost everyone else is dead, so that there's nobody left for me to heal once I'm in spirit form. If I die while there are still people up, I'll spam Flash Heal x2 for Serendipity stacks and then follow it up with a Greater Heal or even Prayer of Healing. If the group is under serious pressure, being dead is a great time to pop a Divine Hymn too.

One thing to keep in mind is that since dying actually provides a (limited) benefit to healing, it goes from being something that just happens to you, to something that you consciously plan for. For example if it looks like multiple people including me are close to going down, I'll stop healing myself and try to die, so I can spam uninterrupted heals on the others and keep them up for longer (which can be quite essential when all you need to do is hold on to a base or keep a flag carrier alive for just a few more seconds).

Resurrect timers are an issue as well. In rated battlegrounds you should always try to communicate them anyway if someone's already dead, so that others can "die up" at the right time and res up again immediately, but this is even more important for holy priests. If another round of resurrections is imminent, it might be better to click off the spirit buff early so you won't get stuck with a 40 second res timer once it runs out. On the other hand if you die and just missed a res, it can be fun to have someone else throw you a combat res, die again, and then spend another fifteen seconds spirit healing while you wait for a "proper" res. Might as well make use of that downtime, no?


Chakra is interesting because the way it was first introduced, it was not very useful in PvP at all. The 30 second duration was simply way too short, and nobody had the leisure to recast Heal or Prayer of Healing to refresh it either. Now that it's got unlimited duration however, you can "buff up" into the correct Chakra state at the start of the match or after resurrecting and then you don't have to worry about it anymore.

When I still ran into other holy priests in our rated matches (haven't seen any in a long time), they seemed to be using the Sanctuary Chakra state most of the time, but I never understood why. Yes, the buff to Renew's output is nice, but the associated Holy Word is quite useless in an environment where you have little to no control over people's positioning and they move around all the time.

Chakra: Serenity on the other hand is awesome, simply because it's an instant heal on a short cooldown, and you remember what I said about instant heals earlier, right? The fact that it refreshes your Renew on the target is just a nice bonus. I pretty much use this on cooldown.

Holy Word: Chastise is worth mentioning in so far as it's nice to have a brief stun/disorient effect if needed, and one that people generally don't expect at that. It's useful to have a macro to quickly cancel your current Chakra state so you can use this as your Holy Word instead if needed; however, it can be a bit of a pain to get back into your desired Chakra state right afterwards once you're in combat.

Circle of Healing

There isn't much to say about this one other than what I already said above about AoE healing in general: try to stick to larger groups so you can get the most bang for your buck when casting this. For PvP it's generally not worth glyphing it for the extra target. Also, if you're really under pressure it's nice to keep in mind that this is basically another instant heal that you can use on yourself, even if the single-target portion of it is relatively small.

Guardian Spirit

Once again, similar to what I said about Blessed Resilience above, this is not as powerful as Pain Suppression in PvP, because preventing damage is more powerful out of the box than increased healing. Still, it's a pretty decent survival cooldown to use on a beleaguered flag carrier... or anyone else for that matter. I have it glyphed for the reduced cooldown because unless I'm anticipating an attack on our flag carrier, I'm pretty much using it on cooldown. Glyph of Desperation is a must-have as well - nothing like seeing someone be sure of their kill as they apply a stun on you on low health - and suddenly the wings go up and you're saved.

In general however I actually avoid using Guardian Spirit on myself, because I have Desperate Prayer as a survival cooldown for that purpose, and because as I mentioned in the Spirit of Redemption section, for a holy priest in PvP dying can actually sometimes be a good thing. (And you can still cast Guardian Spirit on someone else while dead/in spirit form!)

Anyway, this is just an attempt to summarise my own knowledge about holy priesting in PvP, as I've acquired it over time. There needs to be more information about this out there! I'm open to feedback or links to more resources if anyone's got them.


The homogenisation of WoW's two factions

I've been hopping back and forth between a bunch of my lowbie alts lately, looking at the last corners of revamped Azeroth that I hadn't seen yet, and while I've been enjoying the experience overall, it also reminded me of something that has been bugging me about the Cataclysm quest revamp. No, I'm not talking about the speed and ease of levelling this time - I'm thinking of the homogenisation of the two factions.

Let me grab my veteran cane for a moment and say that "back in my day"... I levelled up as Alliance first and found that, in the most general terms, Alliance quests mostly seemed to be about one or more of the following things: politics (mostly human-based), searching for ancient artifacts and lost treasure (dwarves), slightly mad inventors trying to reclaim their lost home (gnomes), protecting nature (night elves) and gathering goods for trade. Basically the Alliance side seemed to represent a "classic" fantasy society that was reasonably well off apart from the occasional intrigue, kobolds in the woods, and bigger but also more vague threats looming beyond the borders.

When I rerolled Horde several months later, it was actually a bit of a culture shock, and not just because Orgrimmar was very different from Stormwind and I kept getting lost in the Undercity. Playing the other faction just felt very different in terms of atmosphere and story. The Horde felt a lot more down to earth, or more savage if you prefer, and the quests seemed to imply that everyone was constantly fighting for survival. They were about hunting for food (tauren), gathering building materials (orcs), trying to carve out some space in the world, ancestor worship, dealing with dark magic (trolls) and struggling with and rebelling against an unpleasant past (undead).

Even though there wasn't a whole lot going on in terms of Horde vs. Alliance in the overarching story, I was always kind of wary of the enemy, because I knew first-hand that they lived in a very different world and had very different priorities.

There've always been zones with neutral quest givers, but those never bothered me. I didn't find it hard to believe that there were outsiders who simply didn't give a damn which side you belonged to and simply wanted to hire you regardless, especially if it concerned a greater cause. I didn't feel that this affected the way I viewed either side.

In Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, the borders between the factions started to get a little fuzzy however, as they still had separate bases in most zones but often pursued the same goals regardless, which made many faction-specific quests feel a bit same-y. Still, there were a fair chunk of storylines left on each side that were exclusive to that faction and remained in your memory as uniquely Horde or Alliance.

To take Hellfire Peninsula as an example, there are a lot of parallels between the quests from Thrallmar and Honor Hold. Where the Alliance clears up the Path of Anguish, the Horde kills the exact same mobs in Felspark Ravine. While you burn Horde blade throwers for Honor Hold, the Horde has you setting fire to the Alliance cannons on the other side of the map. Both sides send you on the same tough group quest, even if it comes under two different names.

However, the zone also still had plenty of interesting moments that were unique to their faction. On Alliance side, who could forget The Exorcism of Colonel Jules? Who didn't feel bad about the events set in motion In Search of Sedai? Who didn't get tired of players asking in general chat where to find Nethergarde Bitter, over and over again?

In the meantime the Horde got to be amazed to rediscover the clan of its Warchief, the Forsaken got to make friends with some local undead, and vindictive players got to help a duped blood elf woman get revenge on her cheating husband's mistress. While Horde and Alliance may have shared the same goals in regards to the Burning Legion, they were still two distinctly different cultures with different priorities.

In Cataclysm however, it feels to me like the borders haven't just become fuzzy, they've almost been completely erased beyond the immediate starter zones. The two factions seem more and more alike to me, or rather the Horde appears to have become more and more like the Alliance. Orgrimmar may still look very different in style, but it's every bit as pompous as Stormwind these days. Garrosh and Varian are both unpopular warmongers, and the orcs in general feel a lot like more aggressive humans to me, with their fight for survival and shamanistic roots largely swept under the rug. (There is a quest in Durotar where a shaman tries to convince an enforcer to be less hasty and aggressive, gets completely ignored... and nothing bad comes of it.) The Bilgewater goblins have been set up to be "gnomes for the Horde" and even share the gnomish backstory of having lost their home. Even sub-factions have been copied across, and where the dwarven Explorer's League formerly had a monopoly on archaeology as a hobby, the Horde has now received its own version in the Reliquary.

If you look at it at the level of individual quests, the parallels become even more glaring. In neutral zones where both factions have their own bases, it's often shocking to see just how close to identical their quests are. During the end of the Lashtail Hatchling chain in Stranglethorn you talk to a draenei priest who can't speak proper common as Alliance... and as Horde you get a troll priest who speaks orcish exactly the same way. (One of the user comments on the page for the draenei does in fact bring up in-game evidence to show that the character was simply copy and pasted.)

Or take the Badlands, which I replayed only yesterday: as Alliance you get sent out to hunt with a group of dwarf NPCs, as Horde you get a group of orcs with exactly the same abilities. God help us if either faction did anything slightly differently.

This just strikes me as lazy. Clearly the developers thought that if they made a nice quest chain for one faction, they could just copy it over to the other side and get two quests for the price of one! Maybe they even thought that they were doing their players a favour this way, by not "limiting" precious lore to one faction only. I really dislike this practice however. If you're just going to give both sides the same quest, simply make the quest hub neutral and be done with it. Making two faction-specific towns that offer exactly the same quests, only from different NPCs, just waters down faction identity and sets players up for disappointment. The former because a draenei shouldn't be acting like a troll and orcs shouldn't be acting like dwarves, and the latter because by setting up separate bases for the two factions, you create an expectation that they'll actually contain different content that makes it worth levelling an alt of the other faction to see - if you then just end up with a carbon copy of the same content you've already done, that's nothing but a massive letdown.

That aside, I also think that it leads to Blizzard making their own lore less convincing in a way. These days the writers are all about beating the war drums between the two factions, but when the game actually represents both sides as more similar than ever, the hostility only becomes less believable. Don't waste all that wonderful background lore by having all races of both factions pursue the exact same interests in the contested zones!


Blizzard Entertainment wants my feedback!

That (sort of) was the title of a mail that I found in my inbox this morning. After careful inspection it turned out to not be just another stupid phishing attempt - Blizzard does indeed ask random players for feedback this way sometimes. Considering that I've been rather unhappy with recent developments, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to make my voice heard and immediately went to fill out the survey.

Unfortunately... I'm not sure it's actually going to be very useful to anyone. On the plus side, the questions indicated to me that Blizzard is quite aware of most of the game's current problem areas, but the way they were phrased I doubt that my (or anyone's) answers are truly going to provide a lot of useful feedback to the developers.

Am I "satisfied" with daily quests? No, not really, though some are better than others. They never asked about the whys though, so for all I know they could interpret my answer as "There aren't enough dailies, we need to make more!", which could hardly be further from my intended message.

Same with raiding. How useful is it really to simply ask me to rate how "fun" I consider raiding on a scale of one to seven? If you're just going to guess about what exactly I like and dislike about it, you're just as likely to make things even worse. Am I satisfied with Cataclysm raiding? Considering that it made me quit that part of the game after more than four years, definitely not, but it's not as if Cataclysm just dropped one big change on me that instantly flipped my feelings from love to hate; it's been a long time coming based on changes that already started in WOTLK.

Do I approve of storyline quests? In principle yes, I just wish that they didn't turn entire zones into one giant linear quest chain. But again, if I simply declare that I haven't liked the Cataclysm storylines that much, how are they going to interpret that? Now I'm actually kind of worried about my responses being used to justify more changes that I won't like.

At least I got a chuckle out of how many questions they asked me about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Are you going to buy it? Are you going to stop playing WoW then? They may not care about the details of my opinion about the game, but they are certainly concerned about the competition...


MMOs can really spoil you for single-player games

It's been quiet on here because I haven't been playing much, and as a consequence I haven't had a lot to say about my limited play time. On the plus side for me, this means that I've had time to do other things that I hadn't done in a while, such as play a single-player game, in this case Dragon Age II.

Without going into too much detail about it, I can say that I really enjoyed it. I was a bit wary of it at first because it had received some very mixed user reviews, but my worries were completely unfounded. I had a blast. I stayed up late several nights in a row just to play that little bit further. And when I finally completed it, I was happy to simply watch the credits roll by for a good ten minutes or so, just to allow the whole experience to sink in.

Even after I had finished my first playthrough, I still wasn't done. There were alternate progression paths to be explored! But more than anything, I felt an urge to connect with other people who had also enjoyed the game. I talked to friends who had played it, read reviews and sought out a bunch of forum threads that were discussing various aspects of the game. This was enjoyable for a while, but oddly enough it also diminished my desire to actually play again somewhat. I wanted to share my enthusiasm, but playing the game again effectively meant isolating myself.

At the end of the day, I can talk to other players about how they played the game all day long, but I can never actually meet their characters. We all play in our own little bubble worlds, and we can talk about how much fun it is but we can never actually interact while playing. And it's kind of scary just how much I miss the ability to share space.

Back before I got into WoW, The Sims 2 was my game of choice. I spent hours upon hours breeding funny-looking Sims, taking screenshots and making up stories. I was also a member of various communities and took part in a vivid exchange of ideas and information there. It was all I could have wanted from a game.

But then I started to play WoW and... in principle playing with my Sims was still as good as before, but I just could not stand playing completely on my own anymore, having to wait for the interaction to happen afterwards and on forums. In Dragon Age II I could briefly overcome this problem because I managed to really immerse myself in the story and wanted to see where it was going, no matter what. However, now that I know the ending I'm really longing for company again.

It's a bit of a shame because intellectually, I'm aware that single-player games can still offer great entertainment. And I would kind of like to play around with different settings and options. After having spent so much time playing an MMO however, the experience of just doing my own thing in my own lonely little world just feels a bit hollow these days.