KSM, Baby!

A lot has happened during my short hiatus. On a personal front, I moved back to school, settling in for another semester of college. On a news note, Blizzconline happened, with the subsequent info dump that follows every Blizzard convention. As important as the second event was (and trust me, I have blog posts in the work for a lot of the info we learned there!), something even more momentous has occurred in the interim of my mini blogging hiatus.

You see, dear readers, I achieved the Shadowlands Season One Keystone Master Feat of Strength. Along with four other intrepid guildies of mine, we successfully timed every single dungeon at a +15 or higher!

How Did We Do It?

For a couple weeks now, I’d been pushing solid keys with a wide constellation of guildies, mostly ending up in the +12 to +14 range. We were getting incredibly solid at the mechanics to the point where our mistakes were becoming more group comfortability issues rather than lack of knowledge about the dungeons. For anyone who’s pushed a lot of keys, you probably can guess what I’m speaking of – knowing who interrupts first, who activates particular mechanics, who shot-calls what, the like. One of my good friends recommended that a number of us who were running a lot of keys should group up and try and push for all of our +15s on time. I was completely down.

After a bit of schedule organization, our key team was set. For a tank, we had a Nightfae Guardian Druid. For a healer, we had myself on my Kyrian Holy Paladin. For DPS, we had a Venthyr Fury Warrior, a Nightfae Shadow Priest, and a Necrolord Destruction Warlock (our Warlock actually already had the KSM achievement from pugging but he graciously offered to help out). A good spread of stuns, brezzes, interrupts, and other utilities but not the most on-meta group set up. We did not have a Heroism (relying instead of the bongos I toted around) nor a wealth of immunes. However, what we did have was coordination and determination.

The first week we met, we timed our first +15 together, a Necrotic Wake that we thoroughly smashed. Without any major issues or wipes, it was clear that we had the stuff we needed to push through these dungeons – we had huge DPS, strong mechanics knowledge, and solid communication. We started making plans for the next week, since we knew it would be a solid week to push. Fortified, Grievous, Sanguine, and Prideful? Sounds like a winner for our group comp!

The push week came and we timed our second +15. Then our third. Then our fourth. Each key we got, we successfully pushed over, sometimes even two chesting them. We zoned into Sanguine Depths on a +16 level, one of the harder keys to push over, and blew through it. There was a stressful moment where I died about 3% off of the kill on the last boss but the surviving DPS and tank managed to push through the final bit of damage to net us the timer. We were on a roll.

Monday rolled around and we found ourselves only two +15s away from the achievement. Plaguefall and De Other Side. Definitely two of the more difficult dungeons but not anything spectacularly unachievable. The only problem was, we only had access to one +15 Plaguefall key. We attempted to pug a De Other Side key from the group finder while we waited for our Warlock to arrive (he graciously offered to sit should we find a group for that since he already had the achievement) but it was to no avail. Determined to at least get one of the two last keys completed, we zoned into Plaguefall.

The Plaguefall +15 went incredibly smoothly. There were a few deaths – there are always a few deaths – but we progressed through without any major wipes or complications. We even managed to try a new strat or two, preparing for the day when we might push keys higher than +15. Then, we arrived at the moment of destiny. Every time you successfully complete a Mythic+, you are rewarded with a new dungeon key for one of the other dungeons this expansion. With the key completed, our keyholder opened his rewards chest. We had a 1/7 chance of proccing the dungeon we wanted. Seven paths for fate to choose.

We procced a +16 De Other Side.

The Keystone Master Achievement would be ours!! Hurriedly, we made our way over to Ardenweald. The tank and I talked strat very quickly, almost too excited to delve into our typical pre-routine of poring over every single pull. We opted to push the key on the +16 level rather than dropping it automatically as a fail-safe in case we botched the run. Then, with a bit of nerves and a lot of excitement, we started the key.

De Other Side has historically been a very difficult key because of how tight the timer is. The instance itself is huge and all the running around, double-backing, and RP makes the dungeon quite difficult to complete in time. Many groups, ours included, have taken to pulling huge groups of trash together to help speed up the key. The first and second pulls are like that, often serving as the unofficial test to see if the key was even doable. We passed the test with flying colors, only netting a few scattered deaths but a lot of gained seconds.

The rest of the dungeon passed in a blur. We tore down Hakkar in a matter of seconds and flew through the Mechagon wing as well. The Enraged Mask mob gave us just a touch of difficulty, but nothing close to the full party wipe needed to stop us. Before long, we were dashing up to the very final boss, a comfortable 6 minutes of time left in the key. This was it. The moment we were all waiting for.

The Mueh’zala fight is quite exciting as there is a moment where the group can opt to split four-ways, each teleporting to a different platform to kill a mob and then release a totem. If you successfully kill all the mobs and click all the totems, you can finish the fight before that mechanic ever comes up again, thereby cutting the boss fight time down significantly. In past runs with past groups, we’d all run into difficulties properly executing that portion – there’s a lot of moving parts that could go wrong. Luckily, the fates were with us that day.

We did the boss’s hokey pokey. We turned ourselves around. And when it came time to kill the adds and click the totems, we knew what it was all about. With Bwonsamdi cheering us on, the five of us successfully brought Mueh’zala to his knees. Achievements flashed, mounts dropped into collections, and we knew. We had done it!

What’s Next?

Now that I’ve successfully gotten KSM, the pressure to keep pushing keys as fast as possible is off. I definitely want to see how high we can go, and my group and I have all but resolved to keep running together every week, but now our focus is primarily on helping the rest of our raid team achieve their own KSM. A swirly death elemental mount is pretty cool and all, but you know what’s even cooler? When your whole guild is riding one!

The Never-Ending Quest for AP

First it was Artifact Power. Then it became Azerite Power. Now, it has become Anima Power. In our long quest to farm up “AP”, we have seen the system go through many iterations and conceptualizations before arriving at the current state. Just how well is Anima Power working this expansion? And is it even the same beast we’ve dealt with in the past?

A familiar face…

For the past three expansions, Blizzard has instituted some sort of grind system around a resource that (coincidentally?) has had the acronym AP each time. Players have been able to generate AP by completing repeatable content. A smaller amount of AP was rewarded for completing world quests and a slightly larger amount came from dungeons, raids, or weekly world bosses. AP was acquired gradually, eventually culminating into powerful rewards.

In the past, the AP grind has been plagued by a persistent and critical problem – there has been essentially no cap to the AP grind. Players could endlessly grind for more and more AP since there were always more sources to farm. What made it worse was every little bit of grinding done directly translated into increased power. Thus, theoretically, every moment not spent grinding AP was a moment spent falling behind. Raiders were largely expected to grind as much AP as they could. Even for players who did not have to stay on top of this grind, the psychological pressure of always being behind was demoralizing.

No bones about it, I have hated the AP system in every iteration prior to Shadowlands. For one, I’m just not a huge fan of world quests, a major source for AP. I’ll do them if I have to, but I generally consider them to be one of the more insidious wizard chores. However, my other, larger complaint was that the AP system greatly benefited players who are able to log in and play all the time while offering no catch-ups for players who can’t get online as much. The time expectation for activities like raiding jumped up enormously. While I definitely understand Blizzard’s desire to prevent raid logging (the pattern of play where people only log in for their scheduled raids and don’t play WoW other than that), adding an endless grind was the worst way to mitigate that harm. It killed many guilds, mine included.

…Or so we thought

When Blizzard highlighted the Anima Power system for Shadowlands, I was incredibly nervous. The Azerite Power was the straw that broke the camel’s back for so many of my friends who were only tentatively returning for a new expansion. I didn’t think the game could handle another endless power grind. I began Shadowlands with the same mindset that I’d adopted in Legion and Battle for Azeroth – scrounging up every possible bit of AP I could get my hands on so I wouldn’t fall behind.

Fairly quickly, I realized that this AP was very different than the prior AP grinds. Rather than feeding into a particular piece of gear I was lugging around, the Anima I gathered went directly into my Covenant’s sanctum. I could then choose to spend it on sanctum upgrades, cosmetic items, gear upgrades (which were largely useless for my main), and other odds and ends. Critically, none of these uses directly related to my character’s power level. Anima provided quality of life upgrades for my sanctum or let my character look fancier. As much as I enjoy both of these, they aren’t critical to my favorite activities in the game: raiding and mythic+.

From that moment on, the pressure was off. I stopped farming AP outside of the 1,000 I needed for the weekly quest, and I honestly don’t have to reach much for that benchmark. There’s enough passive anima gain in the activities that I do (raiding, keys, and a few callings when I’m in the mood) so I don’t actually have to devote any additional time or energy to the system. I definitely want the cosmetic appearances but I don’t have to have them right away. After all, I’ve got a whole expansion to work towards earning them.

I cannot stress this enough: this is the best game design shift in Shadowlands. The endgame experience has moved from an endless treadmill where all but the most hardcore begin falling behind into an enjoyable checklist of weekly activities with a reasonable and realistic cap. Sure, there’s always more keys that you can run but the list of wizard chores that you have to get done each week is manageable and approachable.

I’m sure the Necrolords are begging my monk to go gather just a bit more Anima at this point

Drought-like Conditions

Perusing through Warcraft Twitter or the various Warcraft Discords, the most common complaint you’ll find about Shadowlands right now outside of the gearing issue is the Anima drought. I think Matt Fossen sums it up best here, breaking down just how unsatisfying the grind feels to a portion of the player base. I won’t deny, despite what I’ve written previously, Matt and others bring up some really good points. Even if a system isn’t related to power-scaling, it still needs to feel fun to play and, currently, Anima doesn’t strike that balance. However, I do think there’s a bit of an issue of player expectations here too.

For one, I suspect there’s a portion of the playerbase that haven’t yet disconnected the idea that AP = power. We’ve been so hardwired to grind for any A-named power in order to improve our character’s strength that it’s an incredibly hard mindset to break. It took me a few weeks to fully shake the feeling of “falling behind” every moment I wasn’t grinding for Anima.

Part of this problem also originates from the way Blizzard frames Anima. Similar to Azerite, which is explained in the story as an incredibly powerful resource that can be used to do amazing things, Anima reads throughout the entire campaign as magic Red Bull. Our characters need as much of this as we can get so we can strike down more and more powerful foes. However, gameplay-wise, that’s not quite how Anima works. Having 15,000 Anima in your sanctum doesn’t mean you’re going to do more DPS or healing, it just means you can afford some cool transmogs or activate a faster transportation network. There’s a jarring disconnect which is making it harder to break the AP = power mindset.

Another factor is that the drought seems even more severe coming from our AP gains in Battle for Azeroth. By the end of BfA, we were getting Azerite Power by the thousands. Jump forward into Shadowlands and now we’re getting 35 Anima Power from the majority of the activities we complete. The psychology of big numbers is really screwing with us because it feels like we’re just getting nothing. The rate of AP gain is absolutely lower than it was in Battle for Azeroth, but I don’t think the drought is as severe as it feels.

At the end of the day though, how a system feels is a huge portion of whether or not the system works. If a game isn’t fun to play, then it doesn’t succeed at it’s fundamental task. So how do we solve the Anima drought? Well, on one hand, player expectations probably need to shift. Anima Power isn’t the same AP we’ve had before and the sooner we realize that, the sooner the system will feel less brutal. I’ve heard from so many raiders stressed about falling behind on the AP grind and feeling like they’re slipping behind the rest of their raid team when that just isn’t the case anymore.

That being said, I also definitely agree with what other’s have said before me – we need to be earning a bit more Anima Power than we have been. The story has progressed passed the initial Anima Drought phase anyway, the gamplay should update to reflect that. We might not have fixed the Shadowlands yet but (spoilers for Castle Nathria I suppose), we have put an end to the Anima leech that was Sire Denathrius. Even if the zones aren’t back to their former glory, at least they aren’t being completely bled dry any more.

I also realize that there are plenty of Shadowlands players who aren’t interested in raiding or keys, and that for those players, hunting cosmetic items is the endgame. Making Anima more plentiful may make the game more enjoyable for those players as well – as it currently stands, transmog and mounts are ridiculously expensive. Warcraft is a grind, inherently. Let’s not make a painful one if we can help it.

Shadowlands, so far, has actually been one of my favorite early endgame experiences. I’m loving the alt-friendly design and I think the raids and dungeons are some of the best they’ve created. That being said, I totally recognize that not all the systems in place are working as well as they could. Like all expansions, Shadowlands needs tuning in order to be enjoyable for the largest pool of players. It’s a great start, but there’s always more to go.

And Blizzard, for the love of the Titans, stop naming systems AP!