Classic Era Goes Viral

I haven't actually been playing that much Classic WoW for the past couple of weeks, as I've been more focused on SWTOR for a number of reasons. However, that doesn't mean that time has stood still for Classic era in the meantime - in fact, it's been quite the opposite: A lot has been happening while I've been gone. For example <The Old Raiders>, the guild in which I had placed two of my Alliance alts, exploded in a massive drama bomb and then reformed under a new name. I didn't witness any of this; I just found the Discord completely empty one day and then got the scoop about what had happened through the grapevine.

However, the really big thing that happened was that Classic era went kind of viral last week. It started with a video from medium-sized WoW YouTuber Metagoblin, someone with whom I'm mostly familiar due to an old guildie who used to constantly link his videos at the start of BC Classic to justify dumb takes about what "the meta" was going to be. A day later, streaming behemoth Asmongold "reacted" to said video on his stream.

Yesterday popular WoW Classic YouTuber WillE - someone who contributed a lot to the "Classic era is dead" narrative last year - released a video in which he admitted that era is alive and that he was wrong to write it off the way he did. And Asmongold actually logged into era himself and took a bit of a look around.

All of these videos raised era's profile massively within a matter of days. The community Discord was flooded with hundreds of new members, which was mostly nice to see, though the way some of them skipped straight past the FAQ to ask the same couple of questions over and over and over was a bit aggravating.

The effect was visible in-game as well, as the European PvP cluster (not sure about the US one) reached a "medium" population rating for the first time. Incidentally, this also showed that the community has been mistaken about how the population display works... we'd assumed that the cluster effectively had medium population already, and that it just wasn't showing because every individual realm was considered to be low pop on its own. However, when Firemaw ticked over to medium, all the realms connected to it ticked over at once, which shows that the indicator takes the whole cluster into consideration after all.

It's an exciting time to be a Classic era enthusiast for sure. Mind you, I don't think the game is in any danger of becoming the next big thing. With no more content progression it will remain niche, and to be honest the videos I linked above are hardly the greatest promotion for it either. Metagoblin and WillE mostly seem kind of confused by era being a thing, and Asmongold gets weirdly focused on a tangent about how he thinks Classic should be free-to-play... no, it won't really make much more sense if you watch it yourself. To them, the game remains an oddity that none of them really care about beyond using it as a subject to generate views.

However, considering that we know that many people - including those who actively play other versions of WoW - didn't even know era existed, this kind of exposure is still extremely valuable, because while era clearly isn't going to be for everyone, the current state of affairs feels like there must still be a lot of gamers out there who would enjoy it but simply don't know about it. I don't need or even want it to become huge - but I'd love it if the EU PvE cluster would grow to medium pop as well, as that seems to be my happy place. While high is too busy for my liking and low is okay, having a bit more players than we have right now would be great.

By the way, while I linked all the videos I mentioned above to give credit where credit is due, I don't think they are actually that interesting to watch if you have even the slightest idea about Classic era already and are actually interested in playing it. If you'd like a bit more information about what it's actually like to play on era, I recommend watching one of these two videos by active era community members JayTV and Morphious instead:


Vault of the Incarnates LFR

In Shadowlands I did two of the expansion's three raids through the raid finder. I was planning to do the last one as well before Dragonflight came out, but in the end I just couldn't deal with the prospect of hour-long queue times for each wing yet again.

In Dragonflight, I decided to give the whole thing another go, mostly because I'm spending so much time flying around the Dragon Isles doing chill world content anyway, I figured spending that time in the queue wouldn't feel like such a big deal. And it wasn't - though as it turns out, getting into LFR at the very start of the expansion helps a lot too, as I didn't actually have to wait for a pop for more than a few minutes at any point.

I didn't keep a detailed log of the experience this time. I was surprised to find that the introduction to the raid features version 2.0 of the Grim Batol dragon ride (just not a throwback I expected at all), and the spider boss was seriously creepy. Other than that, the bosses were... okay, but didn't strike me as particularly remarkable. The overarching Primalist theme is strong and the designers didn't deviate from it a lot throughout the raid.

I didn't watch any guides beforehand, which got me all philosophical about how unforgiving some mechanics are even in LFR if you're unprepared. There are a few things that are pretty self-explanatory, like not standing in circles that pop up on the ground, and moving away from other people if a circle appears around you. Except - then you'll suddenly get a mechanic where a circle around you means the opposite, that you need to stack up, and there's no obvious indicator to show the difference. So people get those circles for the first time, run away because that's what they're used to, and then they die. It got me the first time, and I saw it get others as well.

I do look at the in-game adventure guide sometimes, because I remember when that feature was added in Cataclysm to provide a sort of alternative to having to refer to out-of-game guides, but it really doesn't work. The thing is, the adventure guide will tell you something like this:

Raszageth and her Primalist forces seek to shatter the prisons that hold her siblings. As the battle begins, Raszageth uses Hurricane Wing to sweep her assailants from the central platform. [...] Static Field reduces movement speed and forced movement effects on players standing in the area.

I already cheated a bit there because I put two mechanics together that relate to each other, though in the guide they are just lost in a sea of text. But even so, can you deduce from this what you're meant to do? For comparison, let me tell you what the actual instructions about this mechanic are, as given to people inside LFR by other players:

When you get the big circle on you, drop it at the edge of the platform. When she does Hurricane, everyone stand in front of the circle to not get thrown off.

Quite different and much easier to understand, wouldn't you say?

Fortunately I've found people in LFR to be surprisingly decent overall. I think I've said this before, but retail WoW pugs have such a reputation for toxicity, I continue to be positively surprised by my interactions with random strangers there. Sure, there always seems to be "that one guy" who complains that the damage is too low, how this fight should be face-roll and we all suck blah blah blah, but these types don't tend to hang around anyway. Most people will just sigh at that person, move on, and do their best to work together.

I was actually kind of surprised when I queued for the last wing for the first time and was thrown into a run in progress that was already standing in front of Raszageth, and someone actually stopped and said: "Hey, we got newcomers. Does anyone need an explanation?" I'm a little ashamed to admit that I hesitated to speak up, despite knowing full well that it was the right thing to do! But I did speak up after a moment, mostly because I remembered the embarrassment I'd felt on that earlier boss when I'd died from the circle that I was meant to stack up for instead of running away. And so me and at least one other person got a friendly explanation of what to do and didn't mess up completely on the first try as a result.

I was still dead by the time the boss died though.

Either way, I'm actually kind of pleased with myself for completing the current raid in LFR, something that hasn't happened since LFR's introduction with the Dragon Soul raid back in Cataclysm. I wasn't too impressed back then, mostly because I couldn't get over how uninspired the whole thing felt compared to a "proper" raid, but more than a decade later, I know that LFR has to be approached with a different attitude and I've been pretty content with the results.

I was surprised to find that I even earned some loot from the Great Vault for the first time - I'd just assumed that LFR wouldn't count towards it, seeing how easy mode queued content doesn't count toward's the Vault's dungeon or PvP reward tracks either, but I'm not going to complain about some free bonus loot.

We'll see whether I'll bother to go back. Like I said, it wasn't an unpleasant experience, but the time investment required still feels like a bit of a drag for what you get out of it in my opinion.


Classic Hardcore and the Unexpected Revival of Hydraxian Waterlords

WoW has a long history of community-created challenges. The earliest one I remember learning about was the Ironman levelling challenge: permadeath, no grouping allowed, no professions or consumable use, and no gear better than white quality. In Classic, a variant commonly referred to as "hardcore" seems to have gained traction instead (and I wonder whether the name ever causes confusion, considering that the term has commonly been used to refer to other play styles). It's a similar concept to Ironman but a little less restrictive - probably because the open world in Vanilla is dangerous enough without asking people to run around close to naked.

I'd heard mutterings about it for years... a former guildie of mine really got into it for example, but personally I didn't pay too much attention to it. Similar to the changes made in Season of Mastery, I can understand on an intellectual level how the hardcore rule set could be appealing to some, but it's very much not for me. I loathe deleting characters in any game, for any reason, and not being allowed to group with others sounds extremely depressing to a socialiser like me. But to each their own of course.

Long-time readers of the blog may also remember that I spent most of my time in Classic on Hydraxian Waterlords, the EU's only English-speaking RP-PvE server. I actually started out on the biggest PvE server, Pyrewood Village, but rolled a character on HW as a side project and soon came to prefer it there. I did love the Hydraxian community throughout all of Classic, until Blizzard decided to make everyone transfer off during BC Classic... though they then changed their minds about that in Wrath and enabled free transfers the other way round from what I heard. Let's not talk about that; it just makes me mad again.

The era version of Hydraxian Waterlords did not do well, as the RP tag meant that Blizzard's server connection policy meant that it was left out in the cold with no connections to any other realms. There were some attempts to re-grow a small community there in the early days, but ultimately these did not work out. By the time I sadly transferred off my last (Alliance) character, there were no auctions left on the AH and /who showed me to be literally the only person on the server.

Anyway, to get back to the hardcore challenge, even as someone who's not specifically been following it, it's been hard to ignore that it's been gaining more and more traction over the past few weeks, helped by multiple streamers promoting it. On the Classic era Discord, the subject was even given its own dedicated channel. In the introductory post in that channel, the servers named as dedicated to hardcore play by the community were the old RP servers: Hydraxian for EU and Bloodsail Buccaneers for US.

This was an intentional choice because they were dead. As someone in the hardcore channel put it (in their words, not mine): they're aware that their play style can be considered "abrasive" by other players due to the whole not wanting any interaction thing, and a larger population doesn't really help a person going hardcore anyway. At the time, they stated that their guild on Hydraxian was very small... maybe 5-10 people online at a time.

However, as I said, the whole concept has been increasing in popularity recently, and today someone pointed out that Hydraxian Waterlords had become the first single era server on EU to be marked as having a "medium" population instead of low. I was so baffled by this that I had to log in and see for myself. And indeed, even on a Monday at 2pm, the medium flag was right there. I created a new level one character and killed a few mobs while my census addon ran a check on the population - and it came back with more than 400 people being online on Alliance side alone, just at that particular moment, which is more than we see on era Pyrewood Horde side even on a good evening. The hardcore guild was no longer small - in fact, they had filled up at least three guilds worth of characters and had started on a fourth one.

While I'm happy to see Classic era get any kind of recognition, I've got to admit it feels super weird to see my former abandoned home get repurposed like that, and to see the hardcore challenge generate so much interest much faster than era on its own ever has. I also feel like the server name still means enough to me that I'll want to keep an eye on what happens there, even if I don't care to "go hardcore" myself.


Classic Era Is Not Just Naxx

Most of the conversation about Classic era revolves around its population. How many people are playing on which servers? However, in the past couple of weeks I've encountered another... misconception about era that I've found interesting. The first time I really noticed it was in a troll comment in reply to a reddit thread about era. It was rightfully downvoted, but I still found it oddly intriguing. After first expressing annoyance with the era-focused thread, the commenter finished with a sarcastic: "Enjoy your never-ending runs of Naxx though!"

As it goes with these kinds of things, once you spot a certain trend for the first time, you suddenly notice it everywhere. First it came up in conversation with a friend, and then on the era Discord when a disgruntled player complained that everyone on era seemed to be all about min-maxing their Naxx speed runs. (When I asked him which server he was playing on, he said he hadn't made a character yet and didn't know where to go, so what he was even basing his complaints on, I have no idea.)

The common theme among all of these conversations is that people seem to think that Classic era is simply an exact continuation of the state of Classic as it was in May 2021 when the servers were split into era and Classic BC, with the majority of the player base being focused on Naxx. That is simply not the case.

That server split was effectively a social cataclysm for era. The world may have technically stayed the same, but all guilds disappeared, and 99% of the population effectively vanished in a form of rapture. You can't just go on as if nothing happened after that; doesn't matter if all the content is unlocked and your character is fully kitted out in T3.

I remember when I was chatting with the few who remained on Hydraxian Waterlords before the free transfers to Pyrewood Village were introduced, and hearing about how some had tried to continue their Naxx runs but had to give up eventually after barely being able to scrape twenty people together. In terms of social structures, everything was reset and couldn't just be rebuilt in a day.

From what I gather from comments by those who played era during that time, it was a slow process of scraping enough people together to even do ZG or MC again. Of course, nearly two years have passed since then, and yes, there are people who are running Naxx now, but they are by no means the majority of the player base.

New players are joining all the time, and old players stop playing (whether temporarily or permanently). Guilds that used to raid successfully fold and new ones arise as social groups that formed during levelling decide to try out raiding for the first time. People play the content at all levels, and I smile whenever I see someone post on the era Discord that their guild killed Hakkar or Nef for the first time. The content is static, and there's no "patch momentum" to carry a majority along at the same pace. Instead it's the fluidity of the small community that determines which content is run the most in any given month, depending on who shows up.

Don't get me wrong, if you want to step into Classic and play like it's 2020, speed-running all the raids with maxed out world buffs and most of the raid being warriors, you can probably find a guild that does that if you roll up on the right faction and server. However, you can just as easily find a guild that's focused on socialising, levelling, or maybe just starting out with raiding. You might have to shop around a bit, since not all servers are the same, but the important thing is that while there are obviously a lot of characters at level 60, there isn't a meta in terms of how to play, an "it's what everybody does". 

I think this is important to state for people who are worried about perhaps being late to the party, that it's all been done and that they won't have anyone to play with if they don't want to jump straight into Naxx. Era may not be everyone's cup of tea, but just like Vanilla WoW back in 2005 it accommodates people with lots of different interests.


Questing, Flying and Riding Dragons

I wasn't even playing WoW during Warlords of Draenor, but I still remember the big hubbub about the idea that Blizzard was considering not having flight in that expansion. It was just being talked about everywhere (as you can see from the "here's what other bloggers are saying" section in the linked post). At one point I considered reviving the blog purely to tell everyone that I thought they were being stupid, but fortunately I had enough sense not to do that. I don't think that lecturing devs or players of a game you're not actively playing about how they're doing it all wrong is a good way to spend one's time.

What I was thinking though was that I found both the complaints from players and the devs' attitude annoying in their own way. As someone who fell in love with WoW in Vanilla, back when there was obviously no flying, the wailing about how the game was literally unplayable without it made me roll my eyes every time. At the same time though, I didn't get why Blizzard were being so weird about it with these arguments about how flying supposedly trivialised the content. It's possible to design things like questing with flying in mind, and I had seen them do that in both Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King; why were they suddenly acting as if they couldn't do it?

In the end we got an awkward compromise in which Blizzard still designed the content for ground-bound play and then would let people fly over it by the end of the expansion after they'd "done their dues", as if questing was some sort of chore and AFK-flying through a whole lot of nothing while ignoring all the action on the ground was some sort of amazing reward. Because make no mistake - letting people fly in content that was designed around players being ground-bound does mess things up.

Playing Burning Crusade Classic was actually a good reminder of that, because while it did have content designed with flying in mind, the early levelling quests generally weren't, and if you went back to those with a flying mount later, they were kind of dumb: the stereotypical situations where you were supposed to fight your way through an enemy camp but would then just fly over it to pluck your objective straight out of the air.

Blizzard's decision to design Dragonflight with flight in mind from the very start has been a huge sea change after all those years, and to be honest it's been great. Aside from the first few intro quests, everything is meant to be done with a flying mount, and it really shows. There is more verticality than we've ever had in WoW before and it's very fun.

The fact that dragon riding functions differently from normal flying plays a huge part in this as well. In my opinion dragon riding is honestly so much better that it makes old flying kind of feel like a mistake in hindsight to be honest, with its slow and boring "swim through the air" mechanic. Dragon riding isn't difficult, but it does take a bit of practice to get used to, and it does require continued engagement, meaning that travelling is part of gameplay instead of "time to AFK" (though flight paths still exist if you do find yourself wanting to go for a bio break while flying from one end of the Dragon Isles to the other).

Actually engaging with the game while travelling in turn gives it meaning and opens up opportunities to get distracted and sucked into other activities. It's kind of like the travel in Vanilla, where crossing the landscape would give you a sense of scale, and while doing so you might find yourself discovering something interesting by the side of the road or running into other players. This isn't to claim that Dragonflight is totally like Vanilla (please don't @) me) - it's still a more modern game where everything is much more fast-paced and requires more key presses, but my point is that the vibe in the open world is similar.

Often when I log into retail and fly across the Dragon Isles with a certain goal in mind, I'll end up soaring over something interesting on the ground and landing to pick it up, then I spot a rare just a little bit away and go to that instead, and before you know it I've almost forgotten what I meant to do originally and been playing for much longer than I intended to. This is not something that happened to me in Shadowlands, but it's definitely something that has happened to me in Classic and I'm digging it in Dragonflight too... even if it means that I'm often spending more time playing it than I had planned.


Connected Realms Are Confusing

Server connections as introduced during Mists of Pandaria were one of Blizzard's more clever technical innovations, as they basically allowed them to merge servers without generating any bad press or complaints from people who were at risk of losing their unique character names. Connected realms continue to exist as separate entities on the server selection screen and for naming purposes, but otherwise they are server merges in anything but name: Players on realms that are connected will see each other in the world, use the same auction house, join the same guilds and so on and so forth.

It's also a feature that is utterly opaque from a player perspective if you don't already know about it and have looked into it in depth. In game there are zero indicators whether your realm is connected to another, not on the server selection screen nor anywhere else. At best you could hazard a guess based on the server suffixes that you see pop up in general chat, but that's unlikely to give you the full picture.

To give an example, most of my currently played retail characters are on the Azjol-Nerub server. As it was starting to fill up with alts, I began to worry that I might run up against the old ten-characters-per-server limit and found myself wondering whether there were any connected realms that I could use for additional alt storage. So I googled my way to this support article, which informed me that Azjol-Nerub is connected to the servers Molten Core and Quel'Thalas.

Wanting to see this in action for myself, I created a new mage on Quel'Thalas and asked my husband to invite her to our little guild. And it worked! Of course, this is when I found out that Blizzard apparently removed the cap on how many characters you can have on a single server some time ago, so if you want to reach your account-wide character limit on a single realm, you can - meaning that my worrying about creating alts on Quel'Thalas was entirely unnecessary anyway.

Which brings us nicely to another point: While the realm connection system in retail is weirdly opaque, it doesn't really matter to most players, because so much content is cross-server nowadays that it doesn't make much of a difference what server you're actually on and what it's connected to, with the exception of some edge cases like high-end raiding. But in terms of chatting, questing, dungeons... you can do all of those things with people from any server within your region, whether your realms are officially connected/merged or not.

When Classic Burning Crusade came out and Blizzard announced that they were going to connect era realms with each other to make sure they maintained a healthy population, I thought that sounded like a good idea. As much as people had balked against having any retail technology in Classic early on, by then this seemed like a sensible application. And in some ways it has been!

However, the problem is that in Classic (era), which server you're on does still matter, because aside from connected realms being effectively merged into a single server (cluster), nothing else is cross-realm. So if you log into Classic era in Europe (which is where I play), the realm selection screen presents you with a list of 38 servers with no indication of what's what. They're not even separated by language anymore, aside from the Russians! So you have no good indication of where would be a good place for you to play, and it's basically a roll of the dice whether you'll end up somewhere where people will speak your language and/or whether it's a server that's connected to an active cluster at all.

Fortunately the era community has done a lot of work trying to compile information on this and is sharing it at every opportunity to guide people. According to the Classic era Discord the European realms are grouped as follows:

  • Firemaw, Ashbringer, Bloodfang, Dragonfang, Earthshaker, Gandling, Golemagg, Mograine, Noggenfogger, Skullflame - this is known as the main English PvP cluster as it's the most populated, thanks to Blizzard offering free transfers to Firemaw from other realms for a long time
  • Pyrewood Village, Mirage Raceway, Nethergarde Keep - this is the main English PvE cluster, where I play - same deal with the free transfers to Pyrewood Village from other PvE servers
  • Gehennas, Dreadmist, Flamelash, Judgement, Razorgore, Shazzrah, Stonespine, Ten Storms - this is a second English PvP cluster that wasn't connected to the first one for some reason and we don't really know of any major activity happening there
  • Venoxis, Dragon's Call, Heartstriker - German PvP - there's at least one Alliance guild raiding there still based on Warcraft Logs, but that's about all I know
  • Lucifron, Patchwerk, Transcendence - second German PvP (whyyy is this separate)
  • Everlook, Lakeshire - German PvE - similar to Venoxis we know there's at least a tiny amount of activity there but not much
  • Sulfuron, Amnennar, Finkle - French PvP (no idea whether anything's happening here)
  • Auberdine (French PvE), Celebras (German RP), Hydraxian Waterlords (English RP), Mandokir (Spanish PvP), Razorfen (German RP), Zandalar Tribe (English RP-PvP) - due to serving different niches these servers were not connected to anything and basically had to be abandoned due to lack of population

So you have both a PvP and a PvE cluster with a healthy population, but they only contain 13 of the 38 servers, meaning a player rolling up on a server at random (since they all show as having low population on the realm selection screen) basically has a two in three chance of accidentally ending up on a realm that is either close to or completely abandoned.

Only the green lines actually lead to a healthy cluster.

Needless to say, this sucks and has not helped the perception of era being dead. I often see players campaign for full merging/connecting of all PvE/PvP servers and I have to admit at times I was a bit confused by why this was such a big concern. Yeah, I was sad that my old home Hydraxian Waterlords was left out in the cold, but that's just one server, right? Well, wrong! Actually it's two thirds of all servers that are being "left out" like that, and I agree that's very bad.

If I could get Blizzard to do one thing for Classic era, it would be to either to merge/connect (nearly) everything (I'd be fine leaving a smaller cluster for people who really like that empty world feeling or whatever... but not this many) OR to make the realm selection screen more transparent so that people understand what they're signing up for. Considering the realm selection screen is the same on retail and they haven't bothered to make things more transparent there in nearly a decade of connected realms being around, I'm not sure I'd hold out hope for that one... but more connections or merges for era should definitely be doable.