Monday, April 25, 2011

Confessions Of A (Former) Altaholic

Leading into Cataclysm and early in Cataclysm's wake, I read a few perspectives that essentially called Cataclysm the "golden age of alts." The idea was that if ever there was a time to start throwing yourself into playing other characters, this was the expansion to do it.

On the surface, that made sense. There were two new races (complete with their own starting areas), new heirlooms, guild perks to smooth out leveling and areas redesigned to streamline the questing experience. Even lower level dungeons had been redesigned to breathe new life into them.

How to resolve, then, that I went the other way? I was a pretty significant altaholic during my time in Wrath. After leveling my main up to 80 around October of 2009, I leveled four more characters up to 80 over the next year--a shaman, hunter, mage and priest (who became my main, relegating my original paladin to "alt" status, but that's neither here not there) in addition to a druid that languished at about level 72 due to the end-of-expansion blues. Beyond that, I dabbled in more characters of other classes, sometimes deleting them as high as level 50, 60 or 70 because I wanted to make something new. I played a lot of characters when I wasn't raiding on my main.

Now, however, I've become very alt-averse. While I've leveled up most of my level 80 characters to 85, it was in a more desultory manner. A might-as-well mindset rather than real interest. My priest is my main and my shaman could almost be thought of as a co-main. I raid on both of them a lot and as seriously as I can, which is how I define a "main" character. As for my other eight characters? I only play my rogue with any real interest and even then only to level it in a very casual, slow manner (it's 66 at the moment). So I could argue that, in practice, I only have one alt I'm interested in.

So, from my perspective, was Wrath the "golden age of alts?" Not exactly. That was going to be the thrust of my post, but when I began thinking it over, I realized the true root of why I played them so actively then and not now. And the answer didn't lie in the specific nature of the latest expansion of the time.

Fading Light Gleams Golden

The answer is that the final year of an expansion is easy money for an alt. With previous tier gear available for justice points (known as emblems of valor by that point in the previous expansion) and those points easy to farm in heroics that most people overgeared massively. With raid teams able to mount more alt runs and PUG raids available. With the top-of-the-line enchants and gems no longer new and their prices down. With all of these factors, it was quick and easy to get a fresh level 80 raid-geared and into raids within a couple of days, and without abdicating the other priorities in your life to do it.

Now, this is a very end-game-centric view. For me, the only real enjoyment to the game is end-game raiding with people I enjoy playing with (though I also can enjoy running dungeons with friends, but that is more for the social aspect rather than the game aspect). So the only thing that makes playing an alt attractive is raiding with a new class. Every moment of the leveling-up and gearing-up process is a zero from an enjoyment point of view. It's an effort investment to have fun once it's done. The fun at the end has to outweigh the time spent getting there, or else the books fail to balance.

In Wrath, with five fewer levels to acquire and raid-worthy gear so quick to pick up, the accounting finished easily in the black.

You Mean I Have To Earn It? No Deal, Man!

However, Cataclysm has changed the math significantly. There are, as noted, five extra levels to acquire (this is mitigated to some extent by the faster rate of xp gain possible and the lowering of the xp needed for levels 70-80). More importantly, the gearing-up process is far from trivial now. Reputation items matter (by the next tier, they won't, since they'll be outdated compared to justice point gear and dungeon drops) so pencil in four to six reputation grinds. Justice point farming involves running heroics that are still challenging, which ups both the play time and effort as well as the social cost (when dungeons are challenging, there's more adversity, which leads to more negative personalities expressing themselves). Gems are actually not very expensive at all, but the top-line enchants are almost prohibitively so unless you're excellent at earning gold (and even for those good at it, making a lot of gold has its own time cost). Raid teams, outside of the harder-core guilds, are still struggling with content and are not deploying as many alt raid teams. PUG raids are very uncommon for anything outside the toy raid of Baradin Hold.

So now I find that the time and effort necessary is no longer worth the payoff. It's going to take me longer and require more work to get an alt to acceptable levels of raid readiness and in the end, I may not even have a raid spot for that character. This is not a complaint, at all, just an observation as to why Cataclysm's advent hasn't resulted in a surge of interest in playing alts for me and, in fact, has had the opposite effect.

I do put in a lot of effort to keep my main(s) in top form for raids and in the actual raiding. I just don't want to apply that same level of effort over three or four or five or ten characters.

I'm sure that the final year of Cataclysm will be pretty nice for (my) alts, though! Perhaps even the next tier of content will provide the easy access to alt raiding that will make all the zero-gain (for me) time of leveling and gearing worthwhile. Once it's fairly quick to get multiple alts into raids, I'm so there!

Until then, my rogue will take the scenic route to the level cap and perhaps take some time off to bum around Europe and maybe acquire a classical liberal arts education.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Raiders Don't Eat Quiche (But Maybe They Should?)

World of Warcraft has a long and fine culinary history and it's for more than just has become intertwined with the actual play aspect, as food is an important consumable for running end-game instances, especially raids.

However, Blizzard appears to take the position that only meat and fish can get a fine blood lust (not Bloodlust[tm]) going in people. While I fully appreciate the powers of protein, characters are probably getting enough protein from all the non-buff food that they can be assumed to be eating to fuel their metabolism for all the non-instanced activity they engage in. It's also to be expected that characters are mostly carnivorous. To my eye, the lands of World of Warcraft are significantly less agrarian than our real world.

Fruits and vegetables obviously have virtues, as well, though. Why shouldn't we have some vegetarian buff foods in addition to the meat- and fish-based ones? Let me be clear: I'm nothing even remotely resembling a vegetarian in real life. This is not a "Blizzard, validate my life choice!" rant. This is just something I thought about and thought was fun.

Currently, buff foods mostly come from fish and meats, which require farming. Now...where might we find vegetable matter that can be farmed? Herbalism? That was my first thought...why not allow for cooking recipes that require herbs? Of course, the main drawback to this is that any character can pick up fishing or kill beasts that drop tasty meats. Any character cannot pick up herbalism, as not everyone wants to be an herbalist. It may not be ideal to have some foods depend on a primary profession.

But Blizzard could always institute a pseudo-herbalism. Humans (and humanoids) are inherently hunter/gatherers. Currently, most of our gathering is strictly the gathering of loot(z). Why not be able to gather fruits and vegetables? Blizzard could create a new set of nodes that are based on a secondary profession to gather. I don't have a good name for it, at the moment. Like fishing, you'd skill it up through gathers (though fewer gathers per skill point, since you're not able to sit in one spot to do it) and higher level fruits and vegetables could be used in higher level foods.

And if Blizzard ultimately wanted to incorporate herbalism into it, I don't think it would really be a problem. Food is never soulbound and most people don't skill up fishing on every character they play. Just as you may have a fishing character who sends the fish or the completed food to your raiding main, you could have an herbalist character who sends the herbs or the completed food to your raiding main. And if you just refuse to skill up herbalism on any character (I just did it the other day, it took less than two days to do!), there's always the auction house.

Some foods, maybe even more powerful ones, might use both fish/meat and herbs. Wow! Fancy. I hope I didn't just blow your mind with the complexity implied here.

I think it would add one more (slight) level of depth and a little bit more fun. One more way to do the things you already do: grind, make stuff, kill bosses.

On the other hand, maybe it's pointless because why add another thing to grind and make, when all we want to do is kill bosses?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Building Your Skills From Basics To Fine Polish

So, Khizzara, of [Blog of the Treant] wrote a very cool post building upon some things I wrote about earlier. Now, like the blog equivalent of a Prayer of Mending bouncing back and forth, I'm going to write a post inspired by what she wrote.

I very much enjoyed her recounting experiences as a vocalist and how practicing that can be applied to practicing healing. She then provided an excellent list of tips on how to proceed...and that list inspired me to try to formalize an approach to first reducing your toolkit to a manageable, but still usable, level and then adding layers of sophistication.

To some extent, this is for those who would like to start healing...but I think formalizing things can provide benefits even to those who are veterans. I am reasonably veteran as a healer, but I found this a useful exercise and it paid dividends when trying to raid at a high level with an alt healer of a new class.

Edit: Let me make a clarification at the outset, based on some feedback that I've received. This is not meant as a priority guide. The steps of this guide are not meant to display the order of your most important spells, nor your most used spells. That isn't the mapping I am aiming for. The idea was to create clusters of logically connected spells (in my opinion, of course) that don't create an overload of concepts at any one time but hang together reasonably successfully. Once you understand your entire toolbox, you should be discovering for yourself which spells are most effective for you to use most often and when to employ them. This guide is meant to ease you into your toolbox in what I view as the simplest way while still getting you into your entire toolbox.

Reduce Your Toolkit To Only The Needful

Forget your longer cooldowns. Go on, just forget them. They don't exist. They're gone. (By "longer cooldowns," I mean anything longer with a cooldown that is more than around 30 seconds.)

Cooldowns will be important, but they're an added level of complexity that you don't need to start with.

Of your remaining spells, focus on three as your core:

1. Your slow, cheap, weak heal. This is Heal for priests, Holy Light for paladins, Healing Wave for shamans and Nourish for druids.

2. Your slow, expensive, big heal. This is Greater Heal for priests, Divine Light for paladins, Greater Healing Wave for shamans and Healing Touch for druids.

3. Your fast, expensive, moderately large heal. This is Flash Heal for priests, Flash of Light for paladins, Healing Surge for shamans and Regrowth for druids.

With just these spells, you can conceivably heal a Cataclysm dungeon on normal mode. And if you're just starting out, you should start in a normal, no matter your gear level, just to get acquainted with your spells. It's not optimal to just use these three spells, but they are robust enough to get the job done in a normal dungeon. In a heroic, it would be very difficult to use just these spells...but even then, it's possible if the tank marks kill order, CC is applied and everyone does their job. So, on second thought, no, it's impossible.

These three spells, though, can be practiced outside a group setting, sitting in Orgrimmar or Stormwind. Get thee to the training dummies, injure yourself (hop on your flying mount, fly up a little and dismount) and attack a dummy to ensure you're using combat mana regen and not out-of-combat regen. The main thing is to get a sense for how fast the spells "feel" (numbers are numbers, but as I said in a previous post, you need to develop a feel), their effect on your health and their effect on your mana pool. Experiment and get a sense for how much each can be "spammed" and effective mixes of each spell that allow you to maintain your mana pool for different lengths of time.

Adding A Layer Of Complexity: Flavor

So you understand your core, the spells you can always fall back on. However, the real power of healers comes with the spells that they can sprinkle in around the core. Spells that are meant to be used regularly but aren't meant to be spammed nonstop. I call the the "flavor spells." These spells give each healing class their unique flavor.

Let's look at the most commonly used flavor spells.

Priests have two specs, discipline and holy. Discipline is going to be making heavy use of Power Word: Shield and Penance, while Holy is going to be making heavy use of Renew and Circle of Healing. Both specs should be utilizing Prayer of Mending whenever possible.

Druids have a few spells that could fit into this category, but I'm going to suggest focusing on three of them to start with: Wild Growth, Lifebloom and Swiftmend (be sure to notice the Efflorescence effect from your talents).

Paladins have Holy Shock, Word of Glory and Beacon of Light as key flavor spells.

And finally, our shaman wolves have Chain Heal, Riptide and Earth Shield.

Let me take a moment here to clarify something: This is not a "how to heal as a paladin/druid/shaman/priest" or even a "how to heal" piece. I certainly have my opinions on that, and there is a ton of content on the internetz on those topics. My aim here is to help you narrow your focus at first and then gradual widen your scope as a healer, as it regards your toolbox. So I won't be going through how precisely to use each of those abilities. I've simply highlighted the spells that, in my opinion, you should be focusing on as your "next layer" after mastering your three core heals.

So really study the tooltips on those spells for your class and glance through your talents for any additional effects that your talents might provide for any of those spells (I gave an example of one for the druidic arts). Get a solid sense of what each of those spells and think about when each spell would be most useful and when it would be least useful. For example, Chain Heal: this is clearly maximized when four injured targets are within the spell's jump range of each other. This spell is minimized when just one person is hurt (leaving out the trivial case, in almost every spell's case, of no one at all being hurt).

That's an easy and obvious example, but going through each spell and really understanding when it's maximized and minimized builds structure in your mind that you can apply to novel situations. If one or two people are hurt, that's too close to the minimization scenario of chain heal, so you don't need to spend time calculating the healing you'll do versus the mana and time you'll can guess immediately that it's not the best spell and not use it. Five people are hurt? Well, that's very close to the maximization scenario, so fire it off and see where you are after that. You don't want to get stuck, as I've explained in a previous post, cogitating on what spell to cast next, weighing the pros and cons and mathing it out. You have to have a "feel" for what comes next. Forcing yourself to identify simple characteristics of each spell you have, like maximization and minimization scenarios, helps you develop that feel.

Weave these spells in around your core heals. Always fall back on your core heals when you're unsure of what to do but you know you must do something. Stay on the look out for good opportunities to use your flavor spells. Your core heals are trusty vanilla...your flavor spells add the sparkling sprinkles whenever the situation calls for more than vanilla. Swirl them into the cool delicious....mmmm, ice cream.... what were were talking about again?

You now have six spells in your arsenal, acquired through two steps. Neither step involved learning a large contingent of spells. Further, you now have enough in your active toolbox to heal a heroic. It will be hard, especially at first, but you have the tools to get it done. You aren't maximizing the potential of your class yet, of course, and the result is that some people will die that wouldn't have if you had mastery of every spell...but trying to jump in and effectively use ten spells that are new to you, in the fast-paced environment of heroic dungeon healing, will likely lead to more deaths and potentially some trauma for you. A lot of people try to pick up a new role and, not being sure of what to focus on, use everything badly, feel like a failure and quit. Don't let that happen to you!

The Filler Spells

I feel bad. I've given some very great and noble spells a pretty lousy name. "Filler" if they were the pork anuses and chicken snouts that fill in your hotdog. I couldn't think of a more dreamy name for them that was usefully descriptive, though. These are the spells that you should be turning to when you've internalized the above six spells and can use those six spells quickly without having to think much. They should bore you, like a teenager who can parallel park and and drive from stoplight to stoplight without incident. "Give me more, man!" you should be thinking. "Let me open this thing up on the open road and slice through the wind like a...wind-slicing...thing. That goes fast." That is what you should be thinking if you're moving on to the next step.

So get a load of these spells, spells that fill in the gaps around your core heals and flavor spells. They occupy niches and are unlikely to be spells you want to use constantly, usually for mana reasons. But not always.

Priests should be eying Prayer of Healing and Binding Heal.

Paladins should study Holy Radiance and Light of Dawn.

Shamans should research Healing Rain and Unleash Elements.

Druids should scope out Rejuvenation and, um...that's all. Hey, what can I say...some classes have slightly smaller toolboxes than others.

Some of these spells are used more often, some are used less often. Mana cost, length of cooldown and effectiveness will dictate to you how often you use them, but none are essential to making it all the way through a dungeon. All of them are essential to maximizing your healing potential, which will keep deaths to a minimum in a dungeon setting and will matter a great deal whenever you decide to hit the raiding circuit. So once you're very comfortable with your Core Heals and Flavor Spells, start mixing in some Filler Spells. Every great chef will tell you that the best dishes require some filler.*

*May not be true of many, or any, great chefs.

Hey, Cool Down, We're Not Done Here

Remember those long cooldowns I told you to forget? Something about them being gone? Well, they're back. In pog form.

Cooldowns are the final frontier of the healing game. It's where good healers become elite and elite healers discover they can do more with their lives than wasting it playing World of Warcraft. Cooldowns, to put it another way needlessly, are where you take it to another level.

This is not for beginners. These spells take uncommon flair, brilliance and subtlety of mind. The uninitiated, the unready, can have their minds warped just as surely as gazing unprepared upon the home world of Cthulu*. Needless to say, we're getting into serious juju here.

*Cthulu is my neighbor's dog. My neighbor's apartment is positively filthy. I shudder to even think about it.

Holy priests need to figure out Chakra and what it converts your Holy Word spell into.. Discipline priests need to wrap their minds around Power Word: Barrier. Both species of priests need to master the fine art of singing away the hurt: Divine Hymn and Hymn of Hope.

Paladins, well, you have about a thousand types of Hand spells and Protection spells. Often they're named the same with little accent marks differentiating them. Learn them, live them, employ them. And don't forget Lay on Hands. Or Avenging Wrath. Or Guardian of Ancient Kings. Or Divine Plea. So, basically, paladins don't heal, they merely cooldown. Or something.

Druids have Tranquility and Tree of Life. And, technically, Rebirth. They also have Nature's Swiftness if they choose (so do shamans...Blizzard's design team sometimes needs an afternoon off, after all).

Shamans, in addition to having the aforementioned druid cooldown if they choose to take that talent, have Spiritwalker's Grace. (I'm not going to get into the non-healing-related cooldowns, so Tremor Totem and Bloodlust will not be mentioned. At all. Besides, if I mentioned Bloodlust, then I'd have to field complaints from weirdos who call it "Heroism." Best not to rile those people.)

Okay, We're Done Here (i.e. The Big Finish)

I have not hit on every single spell a healer might employ. This isn't meant to be a complete compendium of healer spells for each class. I've largely included the ones that feature the most, but you should dig around in your spellbook and look at talents and figure out other creative applications of spells. I haven't even gone into Atonement healing for discipline priests (smite your friends to better health)  or Telluric Currents mana regeneration for shamans (lightning bolts are weaponized mana).

The main idea here is to start small and build larger and larger towers of healing expertise. I tried to lay out a logical plan for where to start and how to grow. This may work for you or it may not. The general concept is paring down to essentials and building from there, ensuring that you always have enough tools to survive but not more than you absolutely need at each phase of development.

However, you may be the type that likes to put everything in your spellbook on your bars, queue up and see what happens. If that is you, I salute you. We can't all drink Mountain Dew, though.