On Nerfs and Difficulty

In the current era of WoW, it’s inevitable to expect content nerfs over time.  In some ways, this is a good thing, since it allows Blizzard to release difficult content, and then proceed to make it more accessible after the most skilled and dedicated players have had a chance to conquer it, it allows for more access to those of us who aren’t capable of playing at that level.  It becomes a mark of pride to kill something “pre-nerf”, and that’s motivational to some of us.

However, looking back at Firelands, I am of the opinion that the system used to nerf Firelands has some serious flaws, and some of it is related simply to the difficulty disparity between 6/7 and 7/7.  When the nerfs came down, there were a large number of guilds working on Heroic Ragnaros, and a very small number of kills.  It may well have been appropriate to nerf Ragnaros himself by as much as he was nerfed, but I’m of the opinion that the nerfbat may have been applied too liberally to everything else.

In retrospect, the system used to nerf ICC may have been the best that Blizzard has ever come up with.  It was predictable and gradual.  While I would personally prefer that such a system be implemented as boss debuffs, rather than player buffs – jumping from 0% to 5% buff levels made an impact on fights without quite ripping their hearts out in one fell swoop.  A 15% reduction in boss health and damage is roughly equivalent to moving from the 0% buff level in ICC to the 20% buff level in one step.  Many of the encounters end up fundamentally different, because things that were dangerous are no longer dangerous.  Mistakes that could kill you no longer will, and even if they do, it’s much less of a problem to lose someone.

An ICC-like system provides the required difficulty reduction in a more gradual way, so that raiders can still feel like they’re progressing through content.  The guilds that were 2/7 pre-nerf and went 6/7 within two weeks after the nerf didn’t have a chance to really progress or learn the content – they were suddenly handed the content on a silver platter – and I’m not sure that’s good for the raiding game at the heroic level.

Ragnaros is probably the only encounter left in T12 that’s worthy of the “heroic” designation at this point – even after enormous nerfs he’s still a very difficult encounter, and that’s probably part of the problem with Firelands.  With a smoother difficulty curve up to the final boss, there’s no real issue with 1000 guilds stuck at 6/7 – everyone gets to progress through the instance.  ICC had the same fundamental flaw, and it’s something that no nerfing system can really fix.

It’s fine and expected for the final boss of a tier to be harder than those who came before.  The final encounter should be more difficult, it should require more from every member of the raid.  I’m not sure I like the T10/T12 paradigm of having the final boss be that much harder.  In both cases, I’d prefer that the bosses that came before were made more difficult, so that there’s a ramp to the final boss.  Hard bosses are great – they’re the ones memories are made out of.  Everyone remembers their M’uru kill, or their Firefighter kill.  Difficult encounters are good content.  Suddenly shockingly difficult encounters presented without warning just leave the rest of the instance feeling stale.

I have an immense amount of respect for guilds that killed Ragnaros before the nerfs – given how hard he is now, and just how massive an effect a 15% nerf to every aspect of the fight has on his overall difficulty, he’s without a doubt one of the hardest challenges WoW has ever placed in front of us.  We pounded our heads against him for a while, pre and post-nerf, and I personally wish that we’d had a more gradual change – a chance to kill him in something closer to his intended incarnation.

Overall, I think that more gradual nerf systems and smoother difficulty curves are something that would make the raid game a lot more rewarding.  That’s hardly a revolutionary sentiment, but I’ve been thinking for a while about what could have prompted nerfs to Firelands as severe as what we saw, long before the PTR even went active for T13.  While Ragnaros himself probably deserved it, I’m not sure the rest of the instance did – and I hope that whatever they decide to do to Dragon Soul post-release is a little bit more well thought out.

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9 Responses to On Nerfs and Difficulty

  1. Pliers says:

    I think end-boss difficulty being such a large step up is a function of a low (7) encounter tier. While HLK was a step up from the rest of ICC, so were Putricide and Sindragonsa, relative to the bosses before them. I’m not sure it was as big an issue as the gap between 6/7 FL and Rag.

    Shannox had to be easy. Beth’tilac was a step up, but still not difficult. Rhyolith was hard, but for the wrong reasons, and had to be made easier. With three bosses down, that only leaves 3 more as a ramp up to Ragnaros. I assume Staghelm was supposed to be much more difficult than it was. It seems like there’s a missing mechanic to the fight that should be dealt with, because it’s about as straightforward as can be. Stack, spread, and don’t stand in fire. Really? It’s insanely basic for the 2nd to last encounter.

    On heroic, it was even more noticable. Shannox was a joke, Rhyolith was a joke after the early “fixes”, Staghelm was definitely a joke. Alysrazor was the exact same fight as on normal, with meteors. Beth’tilac was in my opinion, well done, with a high dps requirement throughout, and long healing intensive burn phase. Baleroc was well done too, with a tight dps requirement before allowing you to advance, and everyone having a responsibility. But there just wasn’t much of an opportunity for a proper spread of difficulty. Ulduar and ICC, and even T11, did quite well on allowing people to set their own paces. With so many bosses to choose from, and nonlinear progression, you could pick a boss within reach of your guild. You couldn’t in Firelands, and I imagine it will be the same problem in T13.

    • Meloree says:

      Your memories of T10 and mine differ. Certainly Putricide and Sindragosa (and Lady Deathwhisper, of all things) were more demanding than the eight free-loot bosses of ICC Heroic, but none of them were very demanding when compared to a) previous content in the expansion – all three stacked up well with Twin Valks, or easier Ulduar heroics like Thorim, Council, and XT.

      Which is sort of the point – ICC had eight very very basic heroic encounters, three entry level heroic encounters, and one of the hardest fights placed in the game up until that point. There was a staggering discontinuity between 11/12H in ICC, and 12/12H – not just in the numbers, but in time-spent on the final boss, and in overall difficulty.

      You’re also making a very inconsistent argument by suggesting that only three bosses matter in T12 while still maintaining that somehow all twelve bosses matter in ICC. I would argue, instead, that T12 has *more* relevant bosses than ICC did, even with less bosses overall – that aside from Shannox and Staghelm the bosses were generally much more demanding than ICC bosses, and much more interesting (prenerf, of course).

      Firelands had every opportunity to create an appropriate difficulty spread – as did ICC. I will offer Sunwell as an excellent example of doing this in just six bosses. Both larger instances failed – and both failed because the majority of the instance was too easy, as much or more than because the final boss was too hard.

  2. Pliers says:

    I’m not saying that all the bosses in ICC mattered, but that there was a ramp up in difficulty. You guys probably blew through the content much faster than I did, so it was largely a blur of loot for you, but the difficulty did increase over the course of the instance, at least for my guild at the time. There were just much larger gaps before LDW/PP/Sindragosa, and before LK. I’m perfectly willing to accept that it may have just been my personal experience, rather than a proper evaluation of the typical experience.

    I’d agree that it was a step down from Ulduar, in almost every respect.

    • Pliers says:

      And apparently I fail at replying to the response.

    • Meloree says:

      Compare the amount of time you spent on easier ICC bosses to the time you spent on, say, Thorim or XT – the entry-level Ulduar heroics. For that matter, compare the time spent on those 8/12 ICC bosses to, say, Beth’tilac or Alysrazor.

      In my experience the entry-level weakest bosses in Ulduar or Firelands compare very favorably to the hardest of the 8/12 “free loot” bosses of ICC. And by favorably, I mean “they’re harder”. We haven’t really talked about T11, I think it was generally well done, and had a good difficulty curve through the heroic modes. It’s bracketed by perhaps the two worst raid instances in WoW, by that metric.

      T10 had multiple one-shot heroic modes. It had many more sub-2 hour bosses. I would even argue that T10 had a fairly smooth difficulty curve up to 11/12, but it went from “one pull” bosses through “2 hour” bosses into “one night” bosses into Arthas, the 2 month boss.

      But so as not to lose sight of the original point, I think there’s a huge discontinuity between 11/12 T10 and 12/12 T10 – there’s a huge discontinuity between 6/7 T12 and 7/7 T12. The numbers, in both cases, back this up. H-LK had ~650 worldwide kills when the 4.0 patch hit, 9 months after his release. At the same time, Sindragosa (the 2nd-least killed boss at the time) had over 5000 25H kills. There are 281 kills of 25 H-Ragnaros right now, and 1770 kills of 25 H-Baleroc.

      The difficulty gap seems fairly comparable, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the length of the instance.

      • Pliers says:

        I’d say that saying the gap has nothing to do with length is a flawed argument.

        Just because a 12 boss instance also had a large step up between last and 2nd to last does not mean that a large step is not far more likely in a short instance. I’m not saying it’s limited to short instances, but is a result found in short instances.

        The rest of your points are completely reasonable.

      • Meloree says:

        Well, my perspective is pretty narrow, because I haven’t raided all that long, but if I go and look back at tiers that have done the difficulty curve well vs. poorly:

        Good tiers: T6, T6.5, T8, T11
        Bad tiers: T10, T12 (maybe T5? I heard a lot of people cockblocked at Vashj/Kael, but I didn’t raid then)

        Tiers that don’t count because I refuse to acknowledge their existence: T7, T9 (Note that I’ll argue that T9 did well with difficulty scaling, even considering that it started out with some serious joke bosses)

        T6.5 is short, the other 3 are long.
        T12 is short, the other two are long.

        It’s a result found in one short raid tier, and not in others. There aren’t really enough relatively modern-design-paradigm instances to draw any conclusions out of that information, aside from this: it’s been a problem in both short and long tiers, and it hasn’t been a problem in both short and long tiers. I’d suggest that the problem is at best only loosely related to length. Assuming Blizzard considers it a problem.

  3. Calleana says:

    I realy enjoyed this article and the thoughts put across from another end of the raiding scale. My guild is fairly casual and has just about managed 5/7 Hc in 10s. For our guild the post nerf bosses weren’t as joke but were fairly easy in comparison to other tiers heroics (we had just about start heroics in Ulduar post nerf and T9 but didn’t get to try out heroics in T11 or T10 due to raid group difficulties). I can’t comment on pre-nerf as we couldn’t make it past Raggy on normal.

    I would guess that our guild is probably the intended receivers of the post-nerf heroics. I think Firelands was a fairly decent set of encounters, most fights made every member of the raid contribute to the mechanics a lot more than I recall from previous tiers but post nerf it seemed like the tuning was slightly off. Being able to continue a boss fight with people dying from standing in fire and still manage a kill on heroic doesn’t feel quite right.

  4. Nikachelle says:

    Completely agreed with your post. I was in the 2/7 heroic pre-nerf camp you mentioned and we laughed our way through to 6/7 heroic the next week or two, while I had a sinking feeling that in no way shape or form were we going to be prepared for Rag heroic. A gradual difficulty slope sans nerfs would’ve been highly appreciated.

    Rag heroic being so difficult versus the other hard modes is just a total cock block to my group and completely mentally misleading to my group. Nerfing the previous 6 heroic modes gave several raiders the illusion that Rag heroic would be the next (logical and easy) step in our progression path. But nope!

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