05 November 2008

Raiding Zul'Aman

Not much playing time last night, there was some other stuff going on. But I still haven't talked about my ZA run on Sunday night.

Let me take a step back first. Before October, I had not raided much at all. I had been in a handful of Karazhan runs and a single attempt at Zul'Aman. Because I wasn't raiding, I did a helluva lot of research on what kinds of gear improvements I could obtain. Over time I was able to build up a good set, roughly on par with T4 or so for PvE. Anyone in TK or SSC would be ahead of me, but otherwise I was doing pretty good.

With the 3.0.2 patch and boss nerfs, people are a lot more willing to PUG raids, so I've been asked along on a lot of things. So in a month I've now had runs into Karazhan, Gruul's Lair, Magtheridon's Lair, Mt. Hyjal, and now Zul'Aman. Along the way I've performed about the way I would expect given my gear: excellent in Kara, good in the middle stuff, and a bit behind the curve in Hyjal.

So how did Zul'Aman go? It was work. We did the eagle boss first (Akil'zon), and struggled for a while. It's the kind of fight where one person messing up will wipe the raid. There was one poor noobie, a warlock I believe, who couldn't get the encounter right. I don't know if he was inexperienced or what. After the second wipe he got pretty much harshed on and kicked from the raid. He really was pretty clueless but I still felt bad for him, it's not easy learning this stuff. We also lost a hunter and a priest at that point. The priest was our second healer, but we needed to add to that the healing split was 70/30 which is waaaay too much. So we got replacements and kept going. The paladin healer that came in was good, I ended up #2 to him, with more like a 53/47 split. (So he was better but I was still pulling my weight.)

It wasn't easy but we made progress. I think we wiped once more on that boss but then we got him. We also downed the Bear, Dragonhawk, and Lynx bosses. I think those four bosses overall resulted in 5-6 wipes. We fought up to Hex Lord Malacrass, and wiped two more times on him. By the second wipe it was midnight and I had to get to bed, so I bailed out. I haven't heard whether they got past him or not.

So as a healer, it was a good experience but a lot of work. I tested all my healing skill to keep up with the incoming damage. Rolling Lifeblooms and Rejuv on the tanks. Wild Growth on incoming raid damage. Swiftmend and/or Regrowth to save gravely wounded toons. Nature's Swiftness + Healing Touch for times when the grim reaper was nigh. I cast everything I could, kept pressing myself to do better, and very rarely felt like I could coast.

For the first time in a long time, mana management was a serious issue too. I was low on a few fights, particularly Lynx, and I went essentially OOM on the Hex Lord fight, both times. I'm sure this is because I've never had to learn to be mana efficient. (For example, my fondness for Regrowth can burn a lot of mana.) Also, the druid+paladin healer combo can lead to a lot of overhealing, especially with a PUG where we're not used to working together. So I used Innervate on almost every boss fight, and drank more mana pots in one night than I've used all month.

That kind of struggle is great! It's really interesting to feel like I have to work to learn my class better. Frankly, this kind of experience is why I'm still playing so much WoW: I am still having a lot of new experiences. But it's also kind of daunting, and hints at the whole reason why I didn't raid between March and October. In short: the hill was too steep. Not for me, but for our guild.

The first part of the hill was getting attuned for Karazhan. It wasn't a huge barrier, but it was time-consuming. Since this was all before the 2.3 patch, we had to run every toon through three instances. Different people were ready at different times, so this mean dozens of instance runs. Many players who were already keyed had to spend their time running Shadow Labyrinth and Steamvault in particular. By the time we had a plurality ready for Karazhan, people were just burned out. That was the biggest factor.

The second part though was Zul'Aman. After a few Karazhan trips, we took one step into ZA and it was obvious we were totally outgunned. The gap between the two raids, both in required gear and in tactics, was immense.

That left guild members with a big sense of despair. We were built around 10-man raids. We were making steady progress in Kara, but eventually that would top out and we'd be running the same content over and over. The logical next step would be ZA, but it was clear we couldn't step right out of Kara and be successful in ZA.

Also, these are big, long, complicated instances. Kara has 11 or 12 bosses and a helluva lot of trash pulls. ZA has six bosses. Unless you're highly overgeared, you'll spend hours getting through them. Compare that to Mags and Gruul's, with 1 and 2 boss encounters respectively, and few trash pulls. You can easily get through these in an hour, if you know the encounter. Moreover, the 25-man raids are inherently more forgiving. If you have 1 or 2 slackers, you're probably still OK. Even 2 people AFK only loses you 8% of your raid. One person missing (or undergeared, or clueless) in Kara is already 10% of your capability. And the 10-man raids seem to have more of the encounters where nobody can make a mistake — Shade of Aran or Akil'zon require everyone to do the right thing.

The result was strange and unfortunate. It was easy to be a big casual guild and run the 25-man stuff. But a small guild had to be pretty intense to get through Kara and ZA. You had to schedule 3 or 4 raids a week if you wanted to progress. For us, we just didn't have enough people. If more than one person took the night off, the raid was probably called, and that made for a lot of frustration on everyone's part. There was a lot of tension there and most of the players ended up leaving for bigger guilds.

I have high hopes for Wrath of the Lich King. For one thing, every raid can be run with 10-man or 25-man participation. That already gives 10-man groups a lot more instances to run; at launch there will be 3 (4 if you count the PvP-connected Vault of Archavon) with two more slated. That also allows for an easier progression path too.

It does come at a cost. If you eventually switch to 25-man raiding, you'll be looking at the same instances. They do drop better loot, so they're still worthwhile. But it will be more of the same in encounters and storyline. I'm a bit concerned that this will make the 25-man stuff seem less elite. Even if I don't plan to run it, I would like to know that there's some seriously hardcore stuff out there, even if I never see it.

My hope is to tackle 10-man progression in a semi-casual fashion. I don't want to raid four nights a week or feel like I'm obligated to show up every time. I do want to be able to progress, and do more than just 5-man instances. My hope is that this is easier to start and has room for everyone to grow. And I'm a lot more hopeful of that in Wrath.

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