Ulduar and Trial of the Crusader/Grand Crusader (collectively "ToC") were the middle children of the Wrath raiding family. And like many middle children, they both turned out wildly different from the children before and after them. Ulduar and ToC could not have been farther apart in design, structure, implementation, and style. I would love to share with you my experiences in both raids as a business-casual raider and my own thoughts looking back on these two distinct experiences.
Ulduar, my love
Rossi, my warrior hero, has written up an awesome look back at Ulduar from his perspective. My perspective was a little different -- let me give you a glimpse of what my raiding experience with Ulduar was. I was never part of progression Ulduar raiding. In fact, right as Ulduar was released, I took a break from the game. My guild at the time was struggling on Sartharion plus three drakes and, as business-casual raiders, we did not spend the hours upon hours of wipe attempts and fight practicing needed to get that fight done in Naxxramas/EoE/Sartharion gear. It was a challenge, and we got close, but were never valiant. So I took a break from burnout.
I came back to WoW when ToC first opened up. My first experience with Ulduar was only a few days after my server transfer to the new server. A dedicated 10-man Ulduar group lost its offtank and the call went out for a one time replacement. I was as geared as you could be in Naxx gear and was available, so I went. Little did I know, this group was continuing their Ulduar hardmodes for their Rusted Proto-drakes. I was never asked if I had been to Ulduar before. People just assumed, I guess. Shortly thereafter, Orbit-uary was completed with relative ease, and my cover was blown. Every achievement previous to Orbit-uary showed up as completed. The jig then up, I confessed. I have never known Ulduar other than hardmode. I have never fought Yogg-Saron with more than one keeper alive.
I eventually became the permanent offtank for this 10-man, completed ToC and our Ulduar meta-achievement. What stuck with me for so long was how tight the Ulduar 10-man encounters were. Every fight I experienced first as a harder version of the encounter, so it always felt challenging and engaging. Ulduar had the right sense of scale and wonder, history and style that reminded me most of a better tuned Blackwing Lair.
Ulduar took the classic boss concepts and occasionally turned them on their heads. Encounters were less about the tank and spank and more about the room, being constantly aware of the boss' abilities, movement, area-effect abilities and debuffs. Actually, the only fight that I can remember from Ulduar that even had the boss standing still most of the time was Kologarn, but that was mainly due to his own inadequacies. At the height of this new emphasis on movement and mechanic changes was Mimiron, possibly my favorite fight in the instance. The phase changes, voice overs, and the exceptional hard mode Firefighter bring back memories of a frenetic and frantic fight with explosions, lasers, rockets and an ominous timer that was ready to blow.
Lore -- not a bore
Yogg-Saron did something remarkable -- lore became part of the encounter. After successfully bringing down Sara's shield, Yogg emerged in his true form and opened portals into the twisted brain room. Here, players experienced events past and future, including the eventual torturing of Bolvar Fordragon at the hands of the Lich King. I do hope that in Cataclysm and beyond, lore is woven into the boss encounters much like the Yogg-Saron fight in Ulduar. You couldn't send me into the brain room because I would probably just stop, listen and marvel at the events transpiring opposed to doing my job.
Ulduar is my raid of choice for the expansion. If you have a chance to go back and experience it, please do, especially if you have never been before. As a casual player these days, Ulduar is excellent, as it rarely takes a long time to complete with a competent group of people, even on hard modes. Read up on the fights and experience some of the best dungeon design the World of Warcraft has yet to know.
On my next retrospective, Trial of the Crusader takes the spotlight, bringing some interesting concepts to the table but ultimately falling flat as a raiding experience.