Widely accepted thesis: Cataclysm heroics are hard, much harder than Wrath heroics. Conclusions range from being excited about it to quitting because of it. Unsurprisingly, I’m here to challenge the thesis itself.
Wrath heroics were easy, right? Like, really, really easy? Are you sure? Let’s have a history session. The Dungeon Finder, and with it the practice of running heroics in high volume, was introduced in patch 3.3, i.e. at the tail end of patch 3.2, also known as the TotC era, which, in itself, primarily served the purpose of gearing up absolutely everyone to where it could be guaranteed that they’d be able to take on ICC and Arthas, because this was going to be the conclusion of a 15 years old storyline, the storyline that made Blizzard into what they are today, and they didn’t want anyone to have to miss it. Prior to the dungeon, during patch 3.2 itself, we already had daily dungeon quests that would, via emblems, effectively reward us with raid gear. Saying that everyone entered the Dungeon Finder ridiculously overgeared would be an understatement. Everyone? Let’s go further back in time .. maybe a month or two.
During that time, in the middle of the TotC era, I reached level 80 and was just starting to run dungeons, together with a fixed group of friends, who, like me, were just beginning to learn the finer details of WoW group play. And you know what? Those dungeons were pretty hard! The first heroic we attempted was Violet Hold – yes, the same Violet Hold where later the timers between waves were hotfixed to be shorter and shorter, because everyone was just standing around bored, the same Violet Hold which I came to hate because the mobs were dealing so little damage I would be constantly rage starved. That Violet Hold. It was freaky hard. Granted, we pulled a tough one with Xevozz, and wiped, and wiped, until we finally managed to get past him and with much cheering and rejoicing completed the dungeon. We were cheering about beating Violet Hold, picture that!
We were really fighting our way through those heroics. We were using CC, following a kill order, taking breaks between pulls. I remember being proud of avoiding Loken’s Lightning Nova by breaking line of sight, which was more efficient than running all over the place – later you would just stand there and take it, a minor scratch on the health pool, giving you at least some rage and releasing the healer from total boredom. I remember us executing the complicated positioning tactic to get Consumption Junction – something a few months later was dinging on every run (assuming there would be someone who didn’t have it yet) simply by blowing him up in under 20 seconds. I remember racing hard to get the Bronze Drake in CoS. I remember the terror that was the Black Knight when you fought him in appropriate gear. I remember how half a year later, all that was gone, nothing could put much of a dent in our huge health pools a Rejuv-tick wouldn’t fix, and every group member would be putting out damage comparable to what an entire group once used to do combined.
Wrath heroics were not easy per se. I don’t know how they compare with BC hard hitters like Magister’s Terrace or Shattered Halls, but would like to suggest that during BC it was much more common to “design to niche”, essentially leaving you in the dirt if you didn’t have the specific set of abilities to handle a particular encounter/dungeon. Also – and importantly – even toward the end of BC, high quality gear was much less easily available than even at the start of WotLK. To anticipate: no, I do not mean to say that gear is all that matters – what I do mean to say that it helps a lot. Back to Wrath heroics – for those who had not, pre- or post-3.0, acquired a set of high quality BC raid gear, they did pose a rather reasonable level of challenge. However, lots of people brought their legacy equipment over, the quality jump having been much smaller this time around, crafted epics were more accessible than ever before (not BoP to begin with), and Naxx was deliberately accessible and over-rewarding. Thus for most active – and vocal – players, the phase of challenging heroics passed pretty quickly.
Most importantly, by the time the Dungeon Finder rolled around and transformed heroics into the sort of gaming popcorn we perceive them as today, that phase was long, long, long in the past. By the time dungeon groups went from manually organised to automatically matched, an estimated 80% of the participants were overgeared to the point of being able to just power through. Even new characters were not exempt from this, as rewards were – deliberately – coming in so quickly, that after a week or two of running along with overgeared others you’d already be overgeared yourself. This is the “Wrath dungeon experience” that we remember. This is, curiously, what we compare Cataclysm heroics with.
Cataclysm reset us to zero. The gear jump was so big again, that whatever you acquired in Wrath raiding, wouldn’t matter. It didn’t give us a shortcut to superior gear, but kept us honest. Cataclysm heroics were brutally hard … back in December and early January, when I was carrying spell plate shoulders, an agility cloak and a self-crafted PvP piece in my bags to make the 329 item-level requirement – and everyone else in the group was doing the same. When we didn’t know the fights and were still getting to grips with how our abilities changed. We used excessive crowd control, we treated every trash pull like a significant battle, we really worked together. For a month or two. Come March and 346+ gear with some raid loot sprinkled in, a tank would typically say “I would ask for CC, but it’s better I pull the entire pack, that way I get more Vengeance, makes it easier to hold aggro”, a healer would say “hmm, it’s getting boring” and we’d go off, rampaging and destroying.
I’m not exaggerating, nor am I showing off. Except when having fresh 85s in the group, our guild heroic runs have long began to increasingly resemble the “Wrath dungeon experience”. Not quite there yet, but certainly on our way. It turned out that Cataclysm heroics are not “clever hard” – they’re “numbers hard”. Klep wrote about this in January already. To sum up his post very briefly, there are two very different kinds of reasons to use crowd control: to counteract an encounter mechanic, or to reduce incoming damage. The latter becomes obsolete as soon as you gear up a bit. Quite evidently, what we got in Cataclysm, after much advertising and discussion, was pretty exclusively of that second sort. So, here’s the thing: Cataclysm heroics do not require crowd control any more. With every passing week and the increasing average gear level of the population, they require less and less coordination. By design.
Heroics are not hard – not all that hard, at least. It’s just that it’s the first time the Dungeon Finder exists in a time when there is no vast difference between player gear and dungeon level. And it’s been a culture shock to many having to relearn that a dungeon run can be something other than a trip to a vending machine.