Like it or not, Arenas are here to stay. I think we should all learn to live with that. A couple of days ago, Kalgan showed up on the Beta forums and put up a lengthy, illuminating post about Blizzard's philosophy when it comes to PvP itemization. He talked about and mostly defended Arenas and the existence of Arena ratings for obtaining PvP gear. It goes a long way towards explaining the new tiered itemization -- an impressive three tiers that appear to be concurrently available -- within the PvP system.
One poster's contention was that there was no access to PvP gear before engaging in Arenas was countered with Kalgan mentioning their efforts to include craftable PvP gear. This was an omission in The Burning Crusade that became apparent as the seasons progressed, with newer players or Level 70s struggling to break into the Arena format faced against opponents who had gathered gear through several Arena seasons. This was addressed philosophically with the introduction of Outlands reputation PvP gear, which were identical to the rare PvP sets obtainable through Honor. I say philosophically because by the time these item sets became available to players, it was too late. Starting Arenas at that point would find players matched up against other players wearing epic gear from the past seasons. In fact, wearing such dated gear only served to mark the player as easy targets.
I appreciate Blizzard's efforts in making craftable PvP gear, mostly available at Level 78 in preparation for Level 80 Battlegrounds and Arenas. I think it will help a lot of players get a start in Wrath of the Lich King endgame PvP, but at the same time, I believe they'll very quickly be discarded as players obtain PvP Honor and Arena gear. Kalgan likens the rare level Savage Gladiator items to Heroic dungeon rewards. The flaw in that analogy is that there is technically a chronological limit to accruing Arena points.
Even though Kalgan points out that the points required to purchase the items is low -- from 175 Arena points for wands and relics to 700 points for main or two-handed weapons -- you can only get Arena points once a week. No matter how many Arena matches you play, you will only ever get a weekly payout. The Arena PvP system naturally limits your progression. On the other hand, you can run any number of Heroics a day with RNG the only barrier to obtaining your desired item. The Battlegrounds Honor system would have been a closer, albeit still imperfect, comparison.
That said, I'm extremely excited about the tiered PvP gear system and applaud the fact that it's all readily available from the get go. It certainly goes a long way into distributing PvP gear among the playing population and closely addresses the balance of skill and time investment. This is best exemplified by the middle tier Hateful Gladiator gear, which is obtainable with a combination of Honor and Arena points and require a modest Arena rating. The top tier Deadly Gladiator requires high ratings -- mostly above 2k -- and are purchased exclusively with Arena points. The tiered gear system is one of the best things to happen to WoW PvP, allowing players to get gear at pretty much any level of Arena play.
Blizzard views high Arena ratings as the equivalent of 25-man raids, which is a simplistic but inevitable philosophy. There needs to be a progression within the PvP system beyond the seasons, giving players something to aspire for and pursue. Arenas are a good barometer for progression simply because it has a rating system. Kalgan explains that a similar rating system for the Battlegrounds that measure's an individual player's skill would be difficult to implement.
Arenas as being necessary
The question was why the Savage Gladiator set required any Arena points at all. Kalgan responded that there needed to be something for players who rate 1500 or below to play for. He then explains that "requiring" Arena play was no different from other aspects of the game which players are seemingly required to participate in for them to excel. He contends that some Arena enthusiasts might dislike the Battlegrounds -- a near unthinkable scenario in my experience -- but are required to play it for the boots, bracers, and belt pieces.
In a later response, Kalgan shoots down the contention that Arenas were created for the purpose of professional competition (eSports). He says that this is irrelevant from a business standpoint, something I tend to believe. eSports have always been shaky from a business perspective, and a good majority of the WoW community doesn't even pay attention to what's going on in professional scene. If anything, eSports are a marketing expense, and not even one that's targeted at the paying market -- some pro players have stopped playing the live realms altogether. With the vitriol often spewed in the comments section here at WoW Insider, it's apparent to me that some players don't even like Arenas. So I trust Kalgan when he says that Arenas as an eSport endeavor is a mere "cool side-effect" of the format.
Arenas are another aspect of the PvP gameplay in WoW, and I personally appreciate the fact that it's there. There are tons of PvE aspects to the game, from regular quests to 5-mans to raids. In fact, aside from the Battlegrounds, Arenas, and pitifully few World PvP objectives, everything about WoW revolves around PvE. As a PvP enthusiast, I greatly appreciate that Blizzard is expanding the PvP aspect of the game, particularly with Wrath of the Lich King's Lake Wintergrasp.
Kalgan reassuringly states that the voices of players who rail against the seeming over-emphasis on Arenas is "heard and understood". Making high-end gear available through the Battlegrounds is planned for the future, but owing to the complexity of implementing a measure of "skill" in the format, it's difficult to make appropriate gear that isn't just a reward of time invested.
A delicate balance
The truth is, more than PvE, gear parity for PvP is a moving target. Unlike bosses who stay static in difficulty -- sometimes even made easier over time -- opponents in PvP just keep getting better with gear and sometimes skill. This is simply the natural progression of PvP. The original poster's contention of players getting ahead of others is simply inevitable. If you're late coming into the PvP game, you really will have a ways to go in order to catch up.
This is where an "under the hood" rating system comes in. Blizzard recognizes that entering at the 1500 bracket and getting rolled by teams in gear a full two or three seasons ahead is no fun for anybody. This prompted Blizzard created a persistent rating system that is invisible to players but generally tracks a player's or team's performance and more or less ensures that match-ups will be made with players and teams of relatively similar skill. Hopefully it works because it will go a long way towards ensuring that players remain interested in competing in Arenas.
Playing with friends
One of the problems many players, even myself, will encounter in Arenas is that playing with your friends doesn't always deliver the best results in Arena play. Certain class combinations are sometimes optimal and not all your friends will have skill in or are even interested in PvP. This is just the way it works. My Arena teammates aren't necessarily my friends -- they're simply like-minded people whom I trust to PvP better than my friends. In fact, some of the best PvP teammates aren't friends at all. Pro Arena player Neilyo reportedly detests his teammate Serennia (as do many other people, supposedly), but they play together simply because Serennia is really good at PvP. It's nothing personal.
Of course, you can luck out and have one to four of your good friends be excellent PvP players, but then comes the organizational difficulty of getting a decent schedule together. It's really not too different from getting 10 or 25 people together to raid. Sometimes, not all of those people are your friends. They're just people you raid with. Of course, there are family and friends guilds, but those don't necessarily translate to endgame progression.
Nothing in a vacuum
In order to progress in the game, players need to participate in its different aspects. Limiting oneself to 5-mans will yield no better than 5-man gear, for example. Even raiding exclusively, as Kalgan points out, will eventually run a player's resources dry. When one plays World of Warcraft, the best experience comes from taking all the different aspects of the game -- from quests to reputation grinds to instances. The same goes for PvP. One needs to play Battlegrounds, Arenas, and even world PvP.
I know that right now, particularly with the Savage Gladiator gear, it feels as though Blizzard is forcing Arenas upon the players. The fact is, nobody has to play Arenas if they don't want to. The Savage Gladiator gear isn't even particularly compelling -- for me, anyway -- and you will do just as well with several PvE epics and carefully chosen Resilience gems and Enchantments. Arenas are, like it or not, a solid barometer for PvP play. Yes, it has a bias against some classes and specs because of the close quarters and small team format, but hopefully the changes in Wrath of the Lich King and at Level 80 will smoothen that out a bit more.
In order to be competitive in WoW PvP, one has to participate in all aspects of WoW -- even, oddly enough, some PvE. Take the Lake Wintergrasp boss Archavon, for example, who drops tokens for PvP gear. The top Arena players in the world commit to professions that give them the greatest advantage in Arena play, such as Enchanting and Jewelcrafting. It's impossible to play the game in a vacuum, at least not if you want to progress.
PvP in the coming expansion is going to be a good experience. I say this with a mix of confidence, knowledge gleaned from experience, and mostly a lot of faith simply because I've been playing this game for almost four years and I've seen it grow and get better. Blizzard is not taking class balance for granted, despite how it might feel in Wrath Beta right now. The tiered PvP gear is an excellent idea and hopefully only the tip of the iceberg. PvP gear already comes from several different sources now, and it isn't too hopeful to imagine there'd be a few more.
Play the Arenas, if even casually. My very good friends' Arena team have taken to the habit of playing their last, or tenth game of every week naked wearing only sombreros in a gesture of fun. It boggles my mind as I could never contemplate such a thing, but he says they know they're not cut out for Arena play. But they enjoy it anyway. These are the kind of players who know how to have fun and get the most out of the game. In Wrath of the Lich King, they'll even get gear. That's not a bad deal at all.
Zach Yonzon writes the PvP column The Art of War(craft), where he mulls over the underwhelming new designs for Arena and PvP gear. He looks forward to the new PvP environment as well as encountering new challenges. He's still grumpy over the fact that Warhammer Online is only for PCs.
Check out The Art of War(craft) and prep yourself for all the glorious PvP Achievements -- from ones you can pursue now, to the Battlegrounds part I and part II -- coming to game soon. Speaking of soon, Patch 3.0 is right around the corner, so you might want to read all about PvP 3.0!