Whenever I return to the subject of raiding in WoW, I’m aware there are always echoes of previous posts, concerning earlier raid tiers, if not downright broken record syndrome! Some things Blizzard get absolutely right and improve upon, but some things, even if hidden within greater things, persist as flaws.

One thing has to be said, despite what the rose-tinted goggle-wearing, Vanilla-nostalgia crowd might attest: raiding as a group activity has become progressively more difficult. Blizzard constantly has to provide exciting new fights, with mechanics rarely, if ever, seen before, to keep things interesting. Also, player skill is considerably greater than it was 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, so fights also have to be tailored for this, again to keep the encounters engaging and satisfying. Nobody except the dimmest LFR jockey wants raiding to be face-rollingly easy, otherwise – what’s the point? Raid bosses are puzzles designed by Blizzard developers that we, the players, set ourselves to solve. It’s as simple as that.

However, as once again our team has fetched up against an absolute wall of a boss, in this case Gorefiend in Hellfire Citadel, it’s struck me that Blizzard always does this – plonks an overtuned boss near the start of a raid. The effect this has on teams can be catastrophic. End bosses you expect to be difficult, they are the Big Bads of the raid, but surely bosses should build in difficulty, allowing teams to gear up as they progress, so they are better prepared to tackle the harder fights? I remember Horridon in Throne of Thunder – dear gods! Second boss into the raid and an absolute nightmare. Our team splintered over that. Many dropped out because of low morale and sheer frustration and boredom. Eventually, thanks to an influx of new members, we overcame Horridon, but at the time I thought he was far too difficult for a second boss, and I still think that. There have been others – Garalon in Heart of Fear being another example. Gorefiend is the same. He is the roadblock that teams have to take down to get to easier bosses deeper into the raid. It’s plain silly. You’ve got five potential farm bosses before him on which to gear up your team, but only one tier piece, since Gorefiend drops the second one. And only five bosses that players still needing the legendary ring can farm for the Tomes of Chaos they need. (Some of our players flatly refuse to partake in LFR, even for their rings.)

I’m not talking about Heroic or Mythic level of raiding – simply Normal. As with most teams who tackle this content, we can’t field a bunch of experts every raid. Even in teams that raid at higher level, you get a mixed bag of players – some excellent and some good to ok. In some teams, (more so at Normal difficulty, I assume), you even get fairly inept players, because they are friends or family, or simply because they’re a bum on a seat that means the raid can go ahead because of numbers. Gorefiend does not tolerate such players. Not only does the fight demand perfect execution against a lot of his abilities, but there is also a high amount of RNG involved – random factors that sometimes players have no control over. You can mitigate the damage from such situations by thinking ahead and using initiative learned over nearly a decade of raiding, but even so, players have to be on their toes at all times. That’s fine if you have a team of veteran raiders who are used to such things, but people newer to the game and wishing to learn suffer for it. Not to mention the teams who accommodate them.

Players do not generally learn how to raid at Heroic level or higher – they learn at Normal level. This is partly why I wonder what happened to what was once Flex mode. When this was brought in during Mists of Pandaria, it was an absolute gift to guilds like ours. One step up from LFR difficulty, and perfect for practice. Not only could we take a varying number of players, but the fights themselves were tuned forgivingly. We blithely assumed that in future we could learn fights – and train up new players – through Flex mode, and progress to what was then Heroic, giving us, in fact, more content to play through. We started doing this in Siege of Orgrimmar at the end of the expansion, and looked forward greatly to the new raids in Warlords of Draenor.

The first WOD raid, Highmaul, was fairly easy, with a middling-challenge of an end boss in Imperator Margok. He always felt ‘doable’ even when we were wiping on him. Then we hit Blackrock Foundry and met Oregorger, and the Blast Furnace… and some of their friends. The step up in difficulty seemed large to me, and it felt like we were back on the pre-Flex level of raiding. Moving into Hellfire Citadel confirmed it. While the first bosses were again fairly easy, which is what you should expect at the start of a raid, so that players can have them on farm to gear up a bit, bosses like Gorefiend are nowhere near what the bosses of Siege of Orgrimmar were like. This seems like Throne of Thunder difficulty – not the Flex which we were told is now the new Normal. It isn’t. I don’t know why Blizzard changed their minds on this. It seemed clear they wanted to encourage LFR players to learn the game properly, and Flex was introduced to help them with that, to progress from the farces that are LFR raids. But it seems to me that we’ve simply gone back to how things were pre-Flex. Difficult, then more difficult, and now, with the introduction of Mythic raiding, insanely difficult. We’ve also noticed that all fights are easier on Normal with around 15 players. If you only have 10 in the team (and this is often the case for us), it’s far tougher. While the bosses’ health pools scale in accordance with the number of players in a team, this doesn’t seem to affect positively the difficulty of the fight for a smaller team.

The officers of our guild have read forums about Gorefiend, discovering that he’s seen as a problem at all difficulties of raiding. One poster advised that no team should expect to take him down in fewer than 50 pulls. Others have gone well into the 100s in their attempts to conquer him. I think we’re at about the mid 40s in our number of attempts. We keep finding new strategies to try, and trust that eventually we’ll have the sublime ‘Eureka!’ moment that tends to happen on difficult bosses, when suddenly we can kill him, enabling us to move on within the raid. I don’t mind the puzzles, and enjoy solving them, but as a raid leader and officer, you can just sense when things are going on for too long and your players are starting to get disheartened and are losing interest. I really hope the two new techniques we’re going to try tonight will help matters. It’s not just kills that raise morale. I find that teams are happy to keep plugging away at a boss for weeks if they can only perceive progress. You can feel you’re inching towards a kill, and that’s fine – it’s what raiding is all about. But, the opposite, no progress, is vile and really bad for teams. People just feel like giving up, because they’re swamped by hopelessness.

That said, our team has made fairly steady progress on Gorefiend, depending on which players we have with us. The fact remains that when HFC began, we got 5 bosses down in about six weeks, but we’ve now been on Gorefiend for another six weeks or so. No new kill since early August. That’s not good. Our best pull on Gorefiend has got him to around 33%. Prior to that we were failing at 60% and above. But on some nights, it feels like we’re back at square one, usually because we’ve had a change in the team makeup, because some of our best players are on shift at work, and new faces come along. This lack of consistency does nothing to aid progress, but it’s a fact of life for guilds of mature players who have jobs and families. Three of our best players work shifts – and that’s a lot in a team of our size. Everyone still loves raiding, but often they don’t have the hours that a young person with fewer commitments can put in. With WoW now being ten years old, we can assume many of its players have far more commitments than they did when they first made their accounts.

To finish, I wish that Blizzard would think carefully about the raids in Legion, and once again have the different difficulties tuned for different types of teams. Perhaps they should be tested by a wider range of players than the hardcore ones who take their teams into Beta. You know, ordinary players, the majority? I don’t want faceroll raids, but neither do I want this horrible feeling of hopelessness. There is a happy medium. We once had it.