23 September 2008

When will I replace my gear?

With Wrath of the Lich King on the horizon, one of the biggest questions we're dealing with is "When will I replace my current equipment?"

The history dates back to the Burning Crusade launch. Experienced raiders found that their epics were quickly surpassed by simple green quest rewards in the early starting zones. The more-powerful gear was cool, of course, yet it was still depressing to replace purple pieces that represented hundreds of hours of raiding.

(Plus, the new greens didn't look as good as the epics.)

So we're all wondering: will the same thing happen in WotLK? The message I've heard from beta testers is that it won't be the same in WotLK. Raiders will hang on to their gear much longer, and even more casual players will see a more gradual transition.

I wanted to track down some quantitative info behind that. Is it really true? That involved getting down and dirty with the numbers. It all begins with this article on Item Values from WoWWiki.

There are a few key concepts in play. The main one is ilvl. This is an overall metric of item quality; Wowhead and many other information sources will show it to you. It's basically a metric that determines how strong the item can be -- how much +agility or +attack power or whatever.

The complication is that ilvl is tied to item quality as well. An ilvl of 115 means different things if the item is green or blue or purple. The relationship isn't a straight modifier — the formulas have scalar and linear components. (There's also a slot value, which doesn't matter right now since we're wondering about replacing helms with helms and so forth.) I dug into this and built some spreadsheets that break it out; I won't share my work because it's pretty boring and I did a good bit of handwaving too. (The formulas have weird results at low ilvls, such that purple items appear to have less Item Value than a blue item of the same level. I fudged a bit to get past that.)

I also went through and compiled information on key items from original, vanilla WoW, Burning Crusade, and what we know of WotLK so far. I looked at ilvls for various types of gear, and normalized those out depending on whether they were greens or blues or purples. To make a long story short (too late!) I came up with this graph.

The bars show the relative power (Item Values) of various types of gear. I broke down quest rewards into early/middle/late, where early gear would be quest rewards from Hellfire Peninsula, for instance, while late stuff would come from Netherstorm/Shadowmoon or from the later group quests. I also broke down the drops into normal/heroic.

So what's in the graph? First, let's look at the launch of Burning Crusade. You can see that the early quest rewards, from Hellfire and Zangarmarsh, beat even Tier 1 and Tier 2 gear. So unless you were raiding Naxxrimas before BC, your gear was getting dropped within the first couple zones. Even the Tier 3 gear was out the door by the time you dinged 70.

But if you look back, it's clear why Blizzard did this. Look at the quest gear from vanilla WoW. It ends right about where the BC quest gear starts. In other words, they designed things so that non-raiders could make a nice steady progression into BC content. If they hadn't, casual players would have hit a huge wall in Hellfire — or would have received huge upgrades right away.

Now, look at the WotLK gear. But a caveat: it's still beta, and this could all change. Tweaking ilvls isn't that hard I believe; they may well do some more before launch.

Having said that, it looks like a smoother transition now. T4 gear doesn't start to get replaced until fairly late in the first zones, and will be relatively decent even into your mid-70s. T5 will last to your late 70s, and T6 won't be replaced until you get into heroics or the new Naxxrimas.

Casuals in quest rewards or instance drops will begin replacing those pretty quickly. But the mitigation this time is BoJ gear. The lesser BoJ stuff — the 20 or 25-badge items — gets replaced early. But the later, 100- or 150-badge items will last you to 80 now. I didn't include PvP gear, but for the most part that will be true as well, depending on how much of a gap there is between your PvP and PvE needs.

This is a bit of a generalization. You'll choose upgrades based on specific stats and specific rewards. My PvP healer pants might be quickly replaced by a quest reward tailored to Boomkin, for instance, even though there might be a big ilvl gap. But overall, you should be able to hold onto gear for a lot longer this time around.

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