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!

Feeling a bit Spiteful

The Spiteful affix has officially reappeared to grace our Mythic+ keys this week, returning after a four week hiatus. The week the affix debuted, I formed some very strong opinions on its quality. However, I waited to finalize my stance. After all, four weeks ago, my knowledge of the dungeons, comfortability in my Shadowlands-era spec, and gear and character optimization was a lot weaker. The next time Spiteful appears, I would be prepared. This affix won’t get the best of me!

Spoiler alert, it did.

For those not as familiar with the Mythic+ system, every week features a rotation of affixes. There are a maximum of four affixes applied per week, with successive ones being added for each level of difficulty. The first affix is applied to any dungeon +2 and above; the second to any dungeon +4 and above; the third to any dungeon +7 and above; the final affix, which is the seasonal affix that is the same every week, is applied at +10. Affixes are meant to increase the difficulty of dungeons outside of simple damage scaling – they add a bonus challenge that change the way dungeons progress. Three new affixes were added in Shadowlands, Spiteful chief among them.

Most affixes require a quick but constant mindset shift in order to tackle. I generally categorize them in my mind in four main groups (this is by no means scientific, this is just my own thinking). There are mob death affixes that create challenges when trash mobs die (think Bursting or Bolstering). Then there are affixes that add environmental challenges which must be maneuvered around (think Sanguine and Storming). Next, there are the “challenge role” affix which add specific stresses to the healing or tanking position (think Necrotic or Grievous). Lastly, there are the additional spawn affixes that create new mobs to deal with (think Explosive and the recently removed Teeming). One affix can fit within multiple categories at once, but typically it does not fit into more than two.

Now let’s introduce Spiteful. According to the Blizzard tool tip, the Spiteful affixes causes “fiends [to] rise from the corpses of non-boss enemies and pursue random players.” These Spiteful Shades have about 100k baseline health (which scales with key level, of course). As soon as they spawn, they will bee-line to their fixated target and proceed to melee the player. Hard. It’s not unusual for a single melee from a Spiteful add to take off half a player’s health. Combine that with the general damage going out during mythic+s and we suddenly find ourselves with a highly deadly affix. Oh, and did I mention, their melee range is ENORMOUS?

Despite all these downsides, there are a few glimmers of good news. For one, Spiteful won’t ever fixate your tank (unless something is going horribly wrong with your pull). The shades also slowly die, losing 8% of their health every second they are alive. Lastly, they can be slowed, rooted, stunned, and crowd controlled in nearly every manner possible (but watch out, if you try something like a Paralyze or an Ice Trap, the spell will break immediately because the shade is technically always taking damage).

So how do you deal with the Spiteful affix? Well, if you’re ranged, you’re in luck! The Spiteful spawn right on top of the mob just killed, which means they will always be fairly far away from you. It’s a simple thing to throw a bit of CC and continue DPSing away without a care in the world. Nine times out of ten, the mob dies long before it ever gets to you. Pretty simple affix, huh?

What about if you’re melee? Well, as the Brokers always say, “death is the ultimate transaction.”

Grim humor aside, if you’re a melee, you immediately run. If you’re lucky, the mob is fixated on a different target and you can go back and DPS. However, if you’re not, you gotta keep kiting that add away until it gets CCed or it dies. And don’t forget, the melee range on that thing is huge, so you really gotta hoof it. If you’re lucky, depending on the size of the trash pack, there could even be two Spiteful Shades following you around, which means you don’t get to DPS for the rest of that pull! It’s wonderful.

This is bad enough but now I’d love to introduce you to my world this past week. You see, I play a Holy Paladin and, for a couple of expansions now, we’ve had a wonderful toolkit that incentivizes us to stand in the melee in order to heal. This expansion in particular, the meta for Holy Paladin really requires us to be in melee range using our Crusader’s Strikes on cool down in order to generate the Holy Power we need to then dump into our two big healing spells, Word of Glory and Light of Dawn. We rarely use our two casted heals on account of their long cast time and low throughput.

So this week, rather than healing, I’ve been running. The damage in a typical trash pull tends to start off bad with the tank needing a couple GCDs to establish their defensives, and then dips into the dangerous territory right at the end again as interrupts begin to run out and spells start getting off. I’m able to generate the holy power at the beginning of pulls but, by the end, I’m too busy running for my life to get off the heals I need. And this happens every single pull. Bubble can save me, but only once.

I try to refrain from making sweeping statements like this but, in this case, I feel this is justified. Spiteful sucks. It’s the worst affix by far, for a couple of huge reasons. First of all, as I have hinted at heavily, the affix is horribly skewed against melee. Melee spend much of the end of each fight running while ranged players chill out at max range. Sure, the mobs can be CCed, but the amount of attention and maneuvering that melee players are forced to do even when the Spiteful is well-handled is completely out of sync with what ranged players are having to do. I’ve been running keys on my Marksman Hunter this week that are nearly as high as the ones on my paladin (a difference of 1-3 key levels for the most part) and the difference is night and day.

Having affixes aimed only at the ranged or at the melee isn’t inherently a bad thing. After all, the other affix for this week is Volcanic, which take the form of small plumes of fire that must be dodged or the player takes damage and gets thrown a bit up into the air. This ability only spawns underneath players further away from the mobs, meaning it’s largely a ranged affix. However, the damage profiles between a Volcanic hit and a Spiteful hit are apples and oranges. Volcanoes tickle. Spiteful Shades truck. And what’s more, the Volcanic affix is mitigated by a simple side-step. The difference in difficulty between the ranged responsibilities and the melee ones has been pretty massive in Shadowlands thus far (Sludgefist says hi) and Spiteful is one of the most egregious examples.

Spiteful also sucks as an affix because it does too many things. Jumping back to those four categories for affixes I listed earlier, Spiteful can easily be said to fit into three of the categories. It both spawns on every mob death, requires environmental positional, and creates new mobs which must be dealt with. The affix is simply overwhelming. There isn’t another affix that adds that much management to the dungeon.

I’m not advocating for mythic+ dungeons to be stripped of their difficulties. If anything, running successively higher keys is one of my favorite challenges in the game currently! I enjoy the creativity, attention, and care that go into a successfully timed key. What I want to see, however, is a challenge that is balanced. When I have to work twice as hard as a ranged healer in order to keep my group alive because of one affix, that’s simply not fun. When most groups opt to run full ranged comps because of how bad the melee affixes are, that’s simply not fun. I understand when certain classes or specs are better able to handle some challenges but it starts to feel rotten when the disparity is this bad.

Despite this doom and gloom, I don’t think the situation is unsalvageable. I don’t like to give critique without workable solutions and, in this case, I think there are a number of potential fixes to make Spiteful fun for all without scrapping the affix entirely. Spiteful shades could only spawn off of some of the mobs, rather than every single of of them. The shade’s melee range could be reduced. The amount they melee for could be reduced. Their movement speed could be decreased. Their health could be reduced, or the amount they lose over time increased. Any one of these fixes, or even a combination of them would go a long way towards making the affix more manageable for melee players.

As I said earlier, I’ve been really enjoying keys this expansion. I generally love all the dungeons (even Plaguefall) and I can’t way to see how keys change and progress throughout the expansion. However, as it currently exists, the Spiteful affix needs some tuning before it is in line with the rest of the affixes and the key experience in general. The best affixes are ones which add interesting wrinkles depending on the dungeon but, so far, Spiteful has just added melee panic indiscriminately to every dungeon. Spiteful has left me a bit… spiteful!

Gender and Sex in the Lands Beyond Death

When I first arrived in Bastion after braving the horrors of the Maw, the detail that most surprised me about the beautiful, golden new zone in front of me didn’t have anything to do with the landscape or the quests or even the music. Instead, I was delighted to find that the NPCs I interacted with looked remarkably similar regardless of their sex. At first glance, I could not easily tell if Blizzard had intended a certain model to be male or female. Everyone just looked Kyrian.

As someone who has spent years wishing my female paladin looked a bit more bulky, this design change was absolutely fantastic to see. I really got the sense that the Kyrian were warrior philosophers first and foremost, which was totally in line with the task-oriented afterlife they’d constructed. Xandria, the Paragon of Courage, truly looked built enough to charge into battle at a moment’s notice and hold the front line, unhampered by the somewhat scrawny female character models most other women in WoW have. It was great!

Sexual dimorphism, a term which describes when male and female individuals of a species have drastically different features, is rampant in Warcraft. Compare the models for the male draenei with that for the female draenei and you can pretty clearly see just how differently the two appear. Male draenei are taller, wider, immensely muscled, and tend to have dramatic head crests. Female draenei, by comparison, are shorter, skinnier, far less muscled, and have elongated horns. Sexual dimorphism isn’t necessarily bad, but it can lead to stereotyped depictions of sex. I won’t dig into that discussion much as it is extensive and multifaceted, but you can read some pretty fascinating work here. The short version of this is that World of Warcraft tends to make character models with pretty stark differences between male and female individuals. In general, the men are beefier and bigger whereas the women are skinnier and smaller.

Not so in Shadowlands. Zone after zone, NPC after NPC, I was struck by the ambiguity and design equality between male and female characters. The silhouettes of NPCs of the same type were incredibly close, if not indistinguishable. What was more, the typical breakdown of muscles equaling men and slenderness equaling women also faded away. In Maldraxxus, there were big hulking warrior men and women, as well as narrow bony skeletons with no discernible sexes. Ardenweald even took the female draenei base model and built up a male and female race from it to represent the Sylvari. Revendreth’s NPCs might have been more distinguishable but this was based purely on the clothing worn (which matched the vampiric source material) rather than any huge difference in silhouette.

Thematically, this design decision makes a lot of sense. As the saying goes, death is the great equalizer so it makes sense for sex and gender to be included as one of those facets of the living that ceases to be as important once one passes beyond the veil. The connection between sex and gender is far less intractable. There’s also explicit discussion of this concept through Pelagos’s existence as Warcraft’s first canon trans character. Gender is far less codified, regimented, and important in the Shadowlands, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

As someone who grew up looking for the scant few major female characters in movies, TV shows, and video games, Shadowlands is a huge blessing. Not only are there a wealth of prominent female characters but they also come in huge diversity. For so long, I have felt that Blizzard has pigeon-holed major female lore characters into one of two design molds. Either they’re the slender spell-caster (think Jaina Proudmoore) or they’re the slender rogue-type (think Sylvanas Windrunner). I have absolutely nothing against either of these characters or these design tropes but I’ve always wanted to play games where there were more depicted. Show me my barbarian women crashing through the front lines like tanks! Show me the wise old sage women attuning to the spirits. Heck, show me the cowardly traitor women who betray the cause purely out of fear!

World of Warcraft might be a work of fantasy, but it’s a work of fantasy grounded in the stories that we want to experience. And in that sense, I would love to see a wider, more realistic depiction of the types of women (and for that matter, expressions of gender) that actually exist. This comes both from story characterization for the major lore characters, but it also comes from something as simple as model design for your basic NPC. Shadowlands has achieved that better than any expansion in my mind. Sure, all the Kyrian may look the same, but Kyrian women look far different then Venthyr women, who look far different than Volkai women, and so on and so forth.

For a lot of reasons, Shadowlands is one of the strongest expansions to date. However, one of the most positive changes in my mind is the way Blizzard is handling diversity. I firmly believe that the game can only get better the more is added. Whether that comes in the form of increased character customization or greater heterogeneity of female characters, I am 100% down for the ride. The greater the diversity, the deeper the world!

Maldraxxus: A Masterpiece of Mischief and Monstrosities

I will be the first to admit – I judged a book by its cover. When the new leveling zones for Shadowlands were announced, I was already deciding which ones I liked and which ones I thought were not my taste. Chief among those that I decided I Did Not Like was Maldraxxus. With an emphasis on all things gross and a storyline featuring a Horde character I was only so-so on, I decided before ever stepping foot in Maldraxxus that it just wasn’t the zone for me. I would quest through there because I had to, but Bastion was certainly the zone for me.

I have never been more wrong. After leveling through the storyline on three separate characters, I will openly admit that maybe Maldraxxus is the zone for me. In fact, it might even be one of my favorite leveling zones to date. (Bastion still holds a special place in my heart and I did join the Kyrian Covenant, but the choice was a lot harder than I thought!) Despite the icky exterior, Maldraxxus has a perfect balance of whimsical comedy, genuine tragedy, and sheer badassery to make every single play-through enjoyable.

Off to a Running Start

After questing through Bastion, an experience which could be summed up by the word “stoicism”, I found myself being unceremoniously dumped into a massive arena and told to fight for my life. The juxtaposition between the two zones – one where I spent half of the quests trying to win an audience with the Archon to another where I’m immediately enlisted in the skeleton army – was a perfect introduction to everything that Maldraxxus would come to be. As frantic as the first quests were, I found myself having loose, unrestrained fun. And who doesn’t love being a gladiator champion for a bit?

Immediately after this, the major story beats are laid out – a civil war between the Houses has just kicked off and the good guys are hopelessly outnumbered. I like a good exposition as much as the next person but, given the immediacy of the threat, throwing the players into the conflict right away felt right. The quest design itself conveyed the Maldraxxian notion of “shoot first, ask questions later”.

Personally, I also really appreciated how I could tell exactly how long the storyline was going to be. There were three major breadcrumbs corresponding to the three major sections of the story, which made it really easy to measure my pacing in the zone. I know myself as a gamer, and I tend to get impatient with questing where I don’t really see an end in sight (cough cough Ardenweald). Maldraxxus wasted no time letting me know exactly what we had to do to give the House of the Chosen a fighting chance.

Always Look on the Bright Side

Conceptually, Maldraxxus had the chance to be an incredibly grim zone. We’re talking about a zone where the souls of the dead are forced to fight in a brutal, endless war. With decaying bodies stitched together into unspeakable abominations, chemical warfare, and necromatic magics, Maldraxxus is a horrifying place. And yet, the zone managed to adopt a tone bordering on… positive. Absolutely, war is hell and the quest line and environment don’t hesitate to make that clear, but there’s enough zany interruptions to prevent the darkness from becoming pervasive.

The section of the zone that best illustrates this phenomenon are the quests discovering what happened to the House of Plagues. Right off the bat, you meet Plague Deviser Marileth and his pet slimes (shout out to my man Kevin!). Everything is clearly not all there with Marileth, but that doesn’t stop him from cheerfully requesting your help concocting more slimes and plagues. Throughout the quests you do for the Plague Deviser, you uncover the tragedy of the House of Plagues, including the fate of Margrave Stradama. The bleakness of the story is tempered, however, by Marileth’s zany nature. Even when things are at their worst, life (or unlife) finds a way to continue and even thrive.

Despite being a zone of death, Maldraxxus continually nurtures a storyline of rebirth and reinvention. People are remade, perhaps not as they had envisioned, but they find a way to make the best of it. Once one puts aside the visceral horror, there’s a lot of humor to be found in the state of unlife. So go ahead, give yourself a hand (perhaps not your own), pet a slime cat or two, and enjoy the ride.

The Horrors of War

Not everything is Monty Python songs and whistling in Maldraxxus however – when the zone does dive into the darker aspects of its nature, it pulls no punches. I’ve quested through a lot of tragedies in World of Warcraft but few have hit me as hard as when we find out what happened to the kidnapped Kyrian in the House of Constructs. It was one thing to see the attack on the Temple of Courage within the context of Bastion as a whole – an unsightly blemish yet still one which could be made right. However, seeing the hundreds of blue and gold and silver bodies of Kyrian and stewards in the grimy setting of Maldraxxus really hit home how wrong the attack had been.

My character has seen a lot of stomach-churning things throughout the years. However never have I ever had to claw my way out of a pile of dead bodies. Upon doing so, I was met with another unfortunate survivor who had only his eyes deemed to be valuable before being cast off to die. While exploring through the area, I found another Kyrian who had crawled off somewhere quiet to die, still clutching the letter to someone she loved. These are small details in the grand scheme of the zone but they were powerful. Suddenly, I had an incredibly personal stake in the narrative of the zone, more so than any other point in the campaign storyline. When I was sent to destroy members of the House of Constructs, I did so with zeal.

Maldraxxus beautifully walked the fine line between gloomy and irreverent. The zone hit notes of comedy and tragedy at the perfect moments, giving it a compelling arc that carried me through in one riveting play-through. As someone who approached the zone already decided that I would not like it, Maldraxxus not only convinced me to give the story a chance but also got me to fall in love with the characters introduced. Baroness Draka and Bonesmith Heirmir are an absolute badasses. I would defend Aspirant Thales with my life. Kevin! Maldraxxus is the gold standard of Warcraft questing in my eyes, and I cannot wait to follow the rest of the storyline in the Covenant campaign.

Actual Blizzcon News Recap

After the last, admittedly pretty touchy-feely blog post, I figured it was time for something a bit more concrete and analytical regarding all of the news at Blizzcon.  So here it is, Fussypants’s Very Serious Take on all the gaming news announcements!

World of Warcraft

Pants is getting herself wings!!!

Ok, jokes aside, I am tentatively optimistic about the upcoming World of Warcraft changes.  On the whole, I feel like Blizzard is finally recognizing the major gripes with the current system, gripes that have cause both my and other guilds I know of to step away from the game for hiatuses.  The big test will be if these changes actually find their way into the next iterations of the game or not.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands truly does have a nice ring to it!  I will not lie, I enjoyed the cinematic as I always do, but it wasn’t my absolute favorite.  I think part of it was I found it too plot-advancing. For me personally, the best WoW cinematic are the ones that aren’t entirely on the nose.  They might advance the story a bit, but the bigger emphasis should be on portraying themes from the coming expansion.  

Wrath, Mists, and Legion all three stand out as particularly good examples of this.  From each, you got a sense of the tone of the coming expansion, whether it be centered on snow and zombies, exploration and the unlikely, or conflict and demons, respectively.  Yes, there was absolutely lore significance to most of the events portrayed, but they were either events players also participated in or events that were more symbolic than causal. 

While I loved the art style, as always, I didn’t feel like the Shadowlands cinematic did that for me as much.  I was watching a lore movie rather than a thematic introduction. Clearly, the events depicted within need to be communicated to the player base, but I’m not sure a cinematic was the way to do it.

Quibbles about the cinematic aside, I am very excited for the expansion itself.  When Blizzard announced that there would be no more AP, I just about wept tears of joy.  Finally! They’re listening! The game won’t be a giant grind-fest inaccessible to folks with busier lives!  I have seen so many guilds and players burn out in Battle for Azeroth directly because of the endless slog of world quests and islands and artifact power so I am so glad they recognize this fact and, rather than working to tweak the system, are completely overhauling that aspect of it.  We so desperately needed it.

The Covenant system also looks particularly interesting.  I am very excited to see them really lean into cosmetic incentives (such as the aforementioned WINGS), especially as a reward for those grindier portions of the game.  Personally, I’m super heavily biased towards towards the Kyrian, just given my paladin and her backstory, but I definitely am interested to see them all! My one concern is I hope the power-perks they give don’t just turn into a min-maxing headache for raiding, but it’s definitely too far out to pass any judgement on that particular issue. 

Torghast, the endless tower of DOOM also seems rather interesting as a concept.  I definitely will want to play this out for myself before passing judgement. As a main-spec healer, I’m likely only going to be going in with groups, which will definitely impact how often I find myself going in and experiencing the tower but if Shadowlands does truly succeed in enticing back players, many of my friends who have gone on hiatus might again be available to push levels in it.  We shall see!

Last but not least, Blizzard also announced that they would be drastically increasing the customization options available.  I have just two things to say about this.

  1. YES
  2. It’s about time!

My pipe dream would be that they add in more curly hair options for draenei so my character model can better reflect my out of game concept of my main, but I will honestly be happy with any and all customization increases.  I’m particularly excited for the changes to humans – those were so long overdue and I know how important they are for some people who haven’t been represented until now. I’m also looking forward to the addition of tattoos, hopefully we can get some scars in the mix as well!

Overwatch

While I know this is a predominantly a World of Warcraft-centered blog, I do play Overwatch and boy, do I have thoughts on the news in this arena.

Genji has pants!!!

Also, Overwatch 2 or something.

But in all seriousness, I am so super stoked!  I have wanted story-mode Overwatch ever since the game’s inception, both because I think the world is deeply fascinating and because I’m so terrible at PvP.  The proposed PvE mode gives me the chance to be bad and not be bringing down a team – at least, as much as before – as well as dive into the lore far more than before.  Additionally, the new character models are pretty awesome (shout out to my boy Lucio)!

All in all, the Blizzcon announcements were exciting and positive-leaning in my mind!  There’s something so electric about sitting in the rooms as things are being announced, so I’m doubly happy that I was able to attend a Blizzcon where so many games I cared about had so many major changes.  I know I’ve got a pretty long while to wait before any of the things I discussed above make it into their respective games, but I am more than willing to wait and allow the game developers to fine-tune everything to be as close to perfect as possible.  And just please, keep true to the “No AP” promise!