With the final content patch of this expansion on our doorstep and Cataclysm following close behind, we'll be taking the next several weeks to look back on Wrath of the Lich King and everything that made it what it is, for better or for worse, in Wrath Retrospective.
Raiding has been the generic end game for massively multiplayer online games for the past 10 years. Originally comprised of hard-to-kill, non-instanced world and dungeon bosses, end-game raiding tested players' coordination, skill, communication and tenacity. World of Warcraft pioneered the accessible raid -- instanced dungeons that guaranteed loot drops. Many people forget that guaranteed loot drops was a huge deal, right along with no failures during crafting.
Vanilla WoW raiding was an evolution on the EverQuest system, naturally, due to the prevalence of EverQuest players' not only designing and producing World of Warcraft but also their prevalence in the installed player base. Raiding had a language all its own. The first expansion to World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, attempted to stretch the bounds of raiding by scaling down player numbers and, at the same time, creating new and unique challenges in an attempt to make content more accessible. EverQuest routinely failed to make content accessible, and WoW was determined to turn the tides with the introduction of the 10-man raiding tier comprised of Karazhan and Zul'Aman. The popularity of 10-man raiding soared more than Blizzard could have ever imagined.
Wrath of the Lich King's raid game is both the last vestige of EverQuest-style end-game raiding and the ultimate experiment of Blizzard's vast raiding project, combining the successful raiding elements of both the original game and The Burning Crusade. Ten-man raiding proved so wildly successful that it was included in every raid instance in Wrath. Groups and guilds still yearned for the challenge and epic scale of larger-scaled encounters, so 25-man encounters stayed on strong.
This series of articles will look back on Wrath of the Lich King raiding from a casual to semi-hardcore viewpoint. During vanilla WoW and The Burning Crusade, I was doing the top content and raiding more than I would have liked to. Wrath brought about a sense of casual raiding that never felt hampered and, for the most part, did not feel second class to the more numbered 25-man raids.
Matthew Rossi has already said everything that I could have possibly wanted to say about Naxxramas. He does a great job discussing the difficulties of tuning familiar content into a whole new experience that many people could not have believed would have been done with any kind of success. Naxx, however, was a success. Familiar fights' mechanics were tuned, changed, rethought and reborn into a fresh clone of the old-world necropolis. Patchwerk felt like Patchwerk. The Heigan Dance was just as I had remembered it. Noth still had my favorite voice emotes.
Starting off a more casual-friendly raiding expansion with old content was a risky move for Blizzard. While there was still the Eye of Eternity and Sartharion to keep players occupied, putting in reused content could have had a truly devastating effect on players who had already completed that content. The last thing hardcore raiders want to feel is that their accomplishments were practically worthless, and the ease of new Naxxramas for many hardcore guilds might have been a problem. Blizzard gambled, and the chance paid off. New players who had never stepped foot inside Naxxramas in either 10- or 25-man form, as well as the prominence of heroic dungeons, combined into enough content for a majority of players.
Loot was interesting in Naxxramas. Some players were excited to find old Naxxramas gear tiers recolored for amazing amounts of nostalgia and flair. Most players had never seen this gear. Other hardcore and more veteran players cried foul, as recolors of existing old armor sets are generally reviled. Calling the artists lazy, players wanted to know why new armor sets were not being created to pull raiders into a new expansion, as Naxxramas was the first raiding chapter in the new expansion. The general feeling, however, was that Naxx was reborn, a new experience with familiar elements that had the stamp of accessibility all over it. The saddest thing, I would imagine, for an artist is no one seeing your work. Again, Blizzard pulled it off, much like how the dungeon armors of The Burning Crusade matched old tier 1 and tier 2 graphics.
Naxxramas also introduced the raid quality meta-achievement, rewarding dedicated and skillful groups with the sadly short-lived Plagued Proto-drake or Black Proto-drake, depending on 10 or 25-player success. Glory of the Raider 10 and 25 were new ways for Blizzard to give special rewards to raiders looking for a heightened challenge out of raid fights. In order to make content more accessible, Blizzard had to turn down the difficulty on raid fights and make optional achievements for dealing with special conditions during these same raid fights. The result was, again, a resounding success. There were hiccups, however, and many considered some of these achievements too difficult, evidenced by the then terrifyingly difficult and dreaded The Immortal and The Undying.
The bottom line on Naxxramas was that these vanilla WoW fights were tried-and-true learning experiences for old and new players alike. Heigan taught raids how to move. Noth taught raids how to decurse. Patchwerk taught tanks about effective health and threat. Gluth taught raids about kiting and tank switching. Maexxna taught raids about the uncontrollable RNG that can plague even the best players. Thaddius taught raids about debuffs and spatial awareness. The Four Horsemen taught raids how to adapt to caster-type tanks. Sapphiron made even the warmest heart appreciate frost resistance. Kel'thuzad introduced the dreaded Void Zone. Naxxramas was the perfect learning experience and succeeded as the entry raid if only for the fact that each fight was another class in raiding 101.
The new Onyxias
Vanilla World of Warcraft had another darling raid that players truly connected with -- the trashless raid. Granted, Onyxia had a few trash pulls before her fight, but for the most part, the one-room, one-boss raid was hailed as a wonderful success by the original WoW population. This raid genre was expanded upon in The Burning Crusade with Gruul the Dragonkiller and Magtheridon, both light on trash and big on encounters.
Wrath of the Lich King brought new life to the trashless encounter by incorporating the ease and accessibility of entering a raid instance with just one boss, and combining that experience with a very important experiment. Malygos and the Eye of Eternity was as straightforward as a fight can get, minus the pesky vehicle portion at the end. Making use of the new vehicle mechanics introduced in Wrath, Malygos destroyed the very ground you stood on, only to have the red dragonflight swoop in and save the day. Players had mixed reactions to the third stage of the Malygos fight, touting it as brilliant or mind-blowingly stupid, a nemesis for players who just could not understand the mechanics at play. Much like the then-and-still-reviled Oculus, dragon vehicles did not play nicely in the hands of many players.
Looking back on Eye of Eternity, one obscure fact seems clear -- this was the first raid built around dual specializations. Since the fight required only one tank, budding DPS could finally throw down their shields and Frost Presences and destroy a raid boss. The Malygos fight was, cleverly, a reason to have a dual spec. Tanks, especially, were finally freed from their tanking bonds and given another job without having to beg for it. Single tanks are few and far between in World of Warcraft, creating interesting opportunities and new found reasons to have competent dual specializations.
Malygos proved that a fast and frantic, trashless encounter was easily accomplished. Many other factors, including spark placement and hiding under magic bubbles, would decide if players had the smarts and the situational awareness to win the day.
Blizzard had been experimenting with ways to introduce rewards into World of Warcraft that were cosmetic and alluring, yet were not overpowered and game-breaking. First off, people loved achievements. Second, people loved cool, hard-to-find mounts, as evidenced by the Ashes of Al'ar and the multiple mount reputation grinds found in The Burning Crusade.
Sartharion was the first fight to introduce the concept of a hard mode proper -- a fight that could be tailored to the group's ability, skill and confidence. Sartharions three drake lieutenants stood guard over the twilight eggs in the Obsidian Sanctum. Leaving these drakes alive would increase Sartharion's power during the fight as well as create new challenges for players. While the Sartharion fight with no drakes was a simple tank and spank with movement and add elements, the drakes proved to create whole new situations and spark entirely new strategies. Sartharion was, I believe, the watershed raiding moment Blizzard yearned for. How could encounters be created that, while structurally similar, could be tuned for various difficulties set by the players? Hard mode was an instant success and a grave challenge for even the best guilds. Sartharion with three drakes pushed Naxxramas-geared guilds to their absolute limits, and only the most skilled were rewarded with better item level loot and the then-rare Reins of the Black Drake and Reins of the Twilight Drake.
Looking back on Sartharion, I see the beginnings of the tone of raiding for the rest of Wrath of the Lich King as well as a new direction that raiding could go. Hard mode was Blizzard's way of saying goodbye to the EverQuest model of raiding. In the old days, raiding was the hard mode. Getting people together to raid Molten Core was the limiting factor. The fights were difficult as well, sure, but coordination was the real triumph. Now, with dungeons and raids more accessible to a growing populace, Blizzard found a way to separate the wheat from the chaff and create two tiers of content within the same fights. Ulduar, what many people consider to be the height of World of Warcraft raiding, does just this and spectacularly at that.
In the next segment of Wrath Raiding Retrospective, we will discuss Ulduar and the advent of the new hard mode, and the gift basket of mistakes and oversights that was the Trial of the Crusader. Until then, be nostalgic!