Before we begin, let's get one thing clear: there are no armies in Alterac Valley, only mobs and rabbles and bloodthirsty riffraff who will, under the best circumstances, happen to be in the same vicinity and fight alongside you. Unless Tigole and company decide to bring back group queues to AV, you will often find yourself fighting the war with an over-sized, sometimes uncooperative PUG. In my column last week, I went over the changes made to Alterac Valley and what it meant in terms of gameplay. I had promised for this week to detail some strategy and tactics for the new AV but realized that, after logging countless hours of Alterac Valley since 2.3, in order to actually execute any manner of battle plan, you will need an army. An army the way Sun Tzu sees it; an army with a Commander; an army with will and purpose. Unfortunately, there are no armies in Alterac Valley. There are, however, drifters. Ronin, if you wish. Ronin were the masterless samurai of feudal Japan. In a game of AV, what you will have, essentially, is a band of about forty ronin doing their own thing.
That said, there can be no definitive guide to playing Alterac Valley. There will be epic battles where Horde and Alliance will defend and fight raging, bloody battles on the Field of Strife, on top of towers, or beside their Captains; there will also be mindless races with no defense where all towers burn and Generals and Captains die to a frenzied mob. Both methods can win or lose games. You as a masterless warrior -- or Rogue, or Mage, or Shaman (you get the idea) -- can choose to play it either way. There are so many variables involved in Alterac Valley that it makes it almost impossible -- and unwise -- to dictate one particular course of action. While it may not be practical to write a guide for an army's incursion into the valley, it is a rather simple task to draw up some simple reminders for ronin. Because what do not change from game to game are the map's terrain and objectives. In every game of AV, there is a General and a Captain to be slain, towers to be burned, graveyards to be captured, and of course, enemies to be defeated on the field of battle. Depending on your faction, there are particular objectives that are easier to access because of the terrain. Terrain, more than anything else, will dictate the flow of your offense.
Flow like water
"Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing."
The landscape of Alterac Valley doesn't lend itself well to direct conflict. Because of terrain, the roads, and a tendency to move towards the right, the natural flow of each faction's offense has little overlap in the early stages of the game. The Horde offense, for example, leads directly to Stonehearth Bunker, followed by Stonehearth Graveyard. The Alliance offense flows directly into the Iceblood Tower and Graveyard chokepoint if passing through the Field of Strife, or through Captain Galvangar's garrison if coming from Snowfall Graveyard. In order for direct combat to ensue, players have to deviate from this natural path. Alliance have the strategic advantage of securing an offense-pushing graveyard because Snowfall is too far West for it to be part of the Horde's early agenda. The Horde, on the other hand, are able to tag and, defended well, burn down a tower early in the game, giving a 75 Reinforcement advantage.
Sometimes, that advantage is all it takes. All things being equal, if a tower is destroyed or a Captain killed early on, defense will spell the difference in a war of attrition. While the old adage of "the best defense is a good offense" applies here, the roots of a good offense lies in a solid defense to begin the game. It is important to establish your position for a good defense, but in order to do so you must deviate from the natural path. This will often mean that you are unlikely to have much help, but I personally find playing defense to be greatly fulfilling and ultimately rewarding. With Patch 2.3, defense is more key than ever to winning in Alterac Valley. In fact, I'll be so audacious as to state that if you do not play defense, you will lose (*puts on flame retardant suit*).
"Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle, will arrive exhausted."
As a general rule, you need to fortify your position for any defense. It is far more difficult to recapture an objective than to tag it. Any tagged objective such as a Graveyard or Bunker has four minutes before it is captured or destroyed. This gives defenders a very small window in which to act. By the same token, defending a tagged Graveyard or Bunker is easier because you only have to play four solid minutes of defense. Because Towers are destroyed rather than converted, Towers are far more important than Graveyards in order of defensive priority. If a Graveyard and Tower are tagged at virtually the same time, it is a far more prudent thing to try and recapture the Tower. A burned Tower is a loss of 75 reinforcements and contributes directly to losing. A captured Graveyard is a strategic investment that only assists in troop movement and can be recaptured at some point in the future. It is, therefore, important to be in position to defend certain points of interest from the beginning rather than as an afterthought.
Protect thy own
If you are Alliance, the very first target you should defend is Stonehearth Graveyard. Given the distance of Stonehearth Bunker from the Alliance spawn point, you are unlikely to reach it before the Horde does. Stonehearth Graveyard is almost always where you will encounter the Horde. Your offense will often flow westwards, past Balinda's garrison; defense is a South Eastern detour. You should prevent the capping of the graveyard at least until your side has secured Snowfall. If you can manage, attempt to recapture Stonehearth Bunker after repelling the first salvo at the graveyard. Defending Captain Balinda Stonehearth should be relatively easy with the proximity of the graveyard. Balinda is far easier to defeat than her Horde counterpart so any help, such as a boost to her attacks like Curse of the Elements on the player tanking her (if any), is good.
Further North, the Horde often run into a brick wall with Stormpike Graveyard. They will have to fight uphill unless they take the East road -- and few of them do -- which leads to the Alliance spawn point and Irondeep Mine. This is a tactical advantage as there are numerous points from which to snipe or heal as the Horde will be moving through the pass. Because killing opposing players reduce Reinforcements at a 1:1 ratio, the defense of Stormpike Graveyard often results in an Alliance advantage in the long run. Finally, the last bastion of defense is Stormpike Aid Station. Should the Horde break through the bridge, traditionally a source of their consternation, it is best to fight several yards East or in front of the Aid Station. This brings the Horde within range of the Stormpike Bowmen in the bunkers as well as within aggro range of the various NPCs that patrol the Stormpike grounds.
On the Horde side, defense should bolstered at either Captain Galvangar's garrison or the bottleneck between Iceblood Tower and Iceblood Graveyard, depending on where the Alliance is headed. This potential split in defense is a weakness and safeguards must be made against it. There are clear vantage points from where to see their movement as they will pass through the Field of Strife. If a rush comes from the West, they will head for Galvangar; fight inside Captain Galvangar's garrison and not in front of it. The Orc Captain has whirlwind and cleave attacks that are devastating to players, so use it to your advantage. Pick off the ranged DPS and healers and let Galvangar handle those in melee range. In defense of Iceblood, pick high vantage points from which to snipe or heal. Should Iceblood Tower get tagged, it is somewhat difficult to recapture because it is flush against the mountainside and the only way to access it is to pass through the flow of Alliance offense. If Iceblood Graveyard is tagged, Iceblood Tower is almost guaranteed to burn. Stonehearth Bunker, in contrast, is easier to assault and, conversely, retake because of its accessibility.
Frostwolf Graveyard is arguably the hardest graveyard on the map to defend because it's on an open plain. This is why Frostwolf Graveyard is almost always tagged before Stormpike Graveyard -- its equivalent -- or even Iceblood Graveyard. There is no easy way to defend Frostwolf Graveyard, although most of the Alliance offense will come directly from the North. Smarter players, however, will ride around Eastwards, spreading the assault to all sides. Should the Alliance break through past Frostwolf Graveyard, the only real chokepoint is the uphill passage leading up to the East and West Frostwolf Towers. It doesn't work as well as the bridge on Dun Baldar simply because the line-of-sight issues prevent any real defense and combat will have to take place on the landing between the two towers. On a positive note, both towers are about 40 yards apart, so it's possible to help defend one tower while standing atop the other. Most of the Horde NPCs are on the Northern or lower part of Frostwolf Keep, so they will hardly play a part in defense the way Stormpike NPCs do.
Headlong into battle
"Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards."
Always seek the higher ground. Whether in offense or defense, terrain plays a large role in tactical advantage. For example, Horde players must avoid rushing Stormpike through the uphill West road as it is tantamount to walking into a trap. Yet game after game, Horde players will ride uphill to Stormpike like lambs to the slaughter. Alliance players sometimes fall into the same trap with the uphill road East of Icewing Bunker. Tactical standpoint aside, the practical reason for this is because the default camera view in World of Warcraft looks downwards over your character. Fighting elevated targets requires manually adjusting your camera view, which can prove very difficult -- not to mention impractical -- in combat.
Snowfall Graveyard, long conceded to the Alliance to expedite games, has taken on a more tactical advantage and it has become more almost necessary for the Horde to capture in order to prevent further assault into South. Use Graveyards such as Snowfall to move quickly throughout the map. Because of the changes to Alterac Valley's resurrection mechanics, players will be moved to the nearest controlled Graveyard instead of the spawning point. Use suicide runs to try and move as deep into enemy territory (or as far back into your own for defense) and rezz closer to your objectives. Conversely, tagging graveyards removes defenders methodically and speeds up the game considerably. For example, let's say the Alliance have converted Iceblood and Frostwolf Graveyards and are pushing into Frostwolf Keep; the fastest and most efficient way to break Horde defense is to tag the Frostwolf Relief Hut. This will send all slain Horde players too far North into Stonehearth or Stormpike Graveyards (assuming they have been converted) to come back and defend. Post-TBC, very few players now carry Frostwolf Insignias or Stormpike Insignias, making assaulting bases much easier. That said, any serious PvPer must possess either trinket.
As I mentioned in my previous column, killing opponents has a direct contribution to winning the game. If both sides are even in terms of captured or defended objectives, it becomes imperative to kill in a more efficient manner. Fight in areas where your side has a tactical advantage such as higher ground, proximity to a controlled Graveyard, or a favorable chokepoint. In terms of straightforward engagement, the Field of Strife is still the best area to clash as the flat plain favors neither side. This is where combat superiority, either in sheer numbers or skill, will spell the difference.
I didn't include old mechanics of the game such as the summoned NPCs or Wing Commanders because they no longer have any strategic value in the new Alterac Valley. With games rarely lasting beyond thirty minutes, the ten minute spawn of Ivus the Forest Lord or Lokholar the Ice Lord is too long to be of any relevance. Because there is little opportunity for nor wisdom in turning in necessary lootable objects, most of the quests in the zone are now obsolete. Even capturing the Coldtooth or Irondeep Mines is inconsequential as their additive bonus of 1 Reinforcement every 45 seconds is too slow to have any impact on the new, faster pace of the game.
The home stretch
Always be aware of your team's Reinforcement count. In the latter stretches, protecting or destroying towers will be all it takes to finish the game. If, for example, you are Horde and your team has reached an impasse at Stormpike Graveyard (as can and will often happen), it is sometimes wiser to ride through into the North and South Bunkers and burn them down. That deep into the game, it is likely that the Alliance's Reinforcement count will be somewhere in the vicinity of 150-200, making the destruction of their Bunkers a far more strategic choice than capturing either Stormpike Graveyard or Aid Station. The same goes for an Alliance offense. Towers are key. If burning all Towers does not end the game, it still becomes easier to assault Drek'thar or Vanndar Stormpike because they will no longer have Warmasters or Marshals, respectively.
To optimize Honor gain in Alterac Valley, it is important to win, specially after the changes. Formerly, during the Alterac Valley weekend, there were massive Honor bonuses to each side even during a loss. It was even possible to obtain more Honor than the winning side under the right conditions. This is no longer possible with the new Alterac Valley. The only bonus Honor during the weekend is 83 Honor at the end of the game for the losing side and 249 Honor (83x3) the winning side. The most Honor is still obtained by achieving the map's objectives, with Towers and Captains giving 62 Honor when destroyed or killed and 41 bonus Honor at the end of the game if intact or alive.
Here's a WoW Insider exclusive tip: the timers for tagged Towers or Bunkers continue to cap even after the game ends. An AddOn such as Deadly Boss Mods will help you see how long each Tower has before burning. Battlegrounds close within 2 minutes after the end of the game; if a Tower has less than 2 minutes to burn, do not leave the Battleground. Stay until it burns. Doing so will net you an additional 62 Honor for each Tower burned in this way. Furthermore, there's an additional, undocumented, and not -- I suspect -- "working as intended" bug that occurs when a Tower or Bunker burns. Burning a Tower still counts against the opposing team's Reinforcement count, even after the game has ended. When it burns, the Tower will subtract 75 Reinforcements from the opposing team's Reinforcement count. If that reduces the opposing team's Reinforcement count to 0, you will not only get the 62 Honor from burning the Tower, you will also be awarded 83 Honor for killing the enemy General. It gets even better. If you have successfully defended Towers, you will also get the bonus 41 Honor for each one when the opposing team's Reinforcements are reduced to 0. In rare occasions where the enemy General is slain before all Towers are burned, it is even possible to be awarded all Honor bonuses twice (see illustration). In very close games with a difference of less than 75 Reinforcements, a tagged Tower can mean snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Under those conditions, the two minutes you spend waiting for Alterac Valley to close becomes the most Honor-efficient two minutes in the entire game. Happy hunting.
Next week: Warsong Gulch.
Zach Yonzon, who writes the weekly column The Art of War(craft), is under the "tutelage" of Lady Liadrin, learning how to swing the Light in the basement.