(Edit on 9/24: I have a quick disclaimer about this post to add. You can read it here. Essentially, this post is not meant to be a “review” of Wrath of the Lich King. There’s still a month and a half to go.)

Wrath\'s release date up on Wowhead.

Over a week ago, anyone surfing Wowhead would have noticed this curiosity on their splash page. I was almost in disbelief, myself. Then I asked why Wowhead would ruin its reputation and relationship with Blizzard by fabricating a release date. Obviously, they wouldn’t. So I realized Wrath of the Lich King would be hitting shelves on November 13th. And with the launch of this ship, the landscape of WoW will change both literally and figuratively.

The Transition from 1.x to The Burning Crusade Serves to Remind

Many WoW players have already experienced the release of one expansion and how it can reshape the general atmosphere of WoW dramatically. The Burning Crusade was game changing in many regards. One need only consider what concepts TBC introduced to understand how dramatic the changes were. These include:

Tack on new spells and abilities, new talents, improvements to some existing spells and abilities, and people’s roles suddenly shifted. Shamans were the premiere raid healers come TBC, whereas in 1.x they were probably the weakest of the healing classes. Druids suddenly switched from spamming healing touch on the tank to spamming HoTs on the tanks and all around. Shadow priests were suddenly useful as mana batteries. And so on.

So too will Wrath of the Lich King provide these shifts. But to what degree? And for better or worse?

What Will Wrath of the Lich King Change?

Typically when a company commits to a release date they feel confident in the underlying concepts and ideas behind the product. It also indicates a point of no return, where most of the concepts and content in the beta will reach or at least affect the live version of the game in some manner. That doesn’t mean they won’t be tweaked or changed post-release, however.

With that in mind, let’s consider what we know is coming:

  • Death knights,
  • 10-man versions of all 25-man dungeons,
  • Inscription and glyphs,
  • A new vehicle system,
  • Destructible buildings,
  • Combined +heal and +dmg into “spell power,”
  • Combined physical and spell versions of crit, haste and hit,
  • Homogenized and redundant buffs and abilities,
  • New server architecture allowing Blizzard to individualize experiences (called “phasing”),
  • And a slew of minor changes.

Wrath of the Lich King will also introduce new abilities and talents, as well as reinvented ones. The idea of redundant buffs falls into this category, but they deserve special mention because of the concept’s unique effects on game balance.

The Minor and “Flavorful” Changes

There are some changes people will note I have not explicitly listed. This is because these new systems or features have only a superficial impact on the game.

Barbershops will allow people to change their characters’ hair, facial hair, earrings, etc. They are nice additions to the game, but they will not directly impact PvE or PvP game play.

Achievements

The achievement system will record and allow people to view their random accomplishments in the game. It is an interesting addition, but ultimately superficial. I feel Blizzard could have done more with the system, but I suppose there is a limit to just how much people should be required to invest in their characters. So the rewards do not extend beyond tabards, titles and viewable achievement records.

Passenger mounts are also a flavorful change, though they have the potential to become much more. But that potential is perhaps realized with the vehicle system.

Death Knights, and New and Changing Abilities

The Burning Crusade introduced momentous shifts in raid and PvP balance with new and changed talents and abilities. Wrath of the Lich King will also feature new and reinvented class design elements, while further complicating the matter by introducing an entirely new class: the death knight. Already, I can imagine what anti-magic zone, hysteria, and improved icy talons may bring to raid design and balance. Meanwhile, there are a myriad of abilities and talents that will have a major impact on PvP and where other classes stand in general. Death grip, for example, brings in a new concept: the ability to literally pull someone off your teammates in PvP. It is especially powerful when you can use chains of ice immediately following a death grip.

Anti-Magic Zone

Racial abilities are also changing. For example, shadowmeld will be usable in combat. However, it will also be receiving a two-minute cooldown, and from a PvE-standpoint it will result only in a temporary drop in threat. Hardiness, one of the orc racials, will only reduce the duration of stuns. Previously, it increased the chance to resist them entirely.

Considering the other new and changing abilities and talents, people’s roles and placement on the scales of balance will change for both PvE and PvP.

10- and 25-Mans for Every Raid Dungeon

One exciting new feature in Wrath of the Lich King is that all raid content will be available as either a 10- or 25-person dungeon with completely independent progression paths. Both the 10- and 25-person versions will be the same dungeon; the look, layout, and design of the dungeon will remain the same. However, each will be adjusted, tuned, and balanced for its respective player size.

This is a major concept coming in Wrath. If the same feature was included in TBC, there would be 10-man versions of Gruul’s and Magtheridon’s Lairs, Serpentshrine Cavern, Tempest Keep, Mount Hyjal, Black Temple and the Sunwell, and they would have their own progression path independent of the 25-man versions.

However, the 10-mans will be lower in difficulty and offer gear lesser in quality than the 25-man counterparts. So I doubt this will affect the most die-hard of raiders in any way other than providing them with new options for supplemental gear.

The Chamber of Aspects

The prospect of experiencing content with the same storylines is probably exciting for many who find 25-man raiding too stressful or time-consuming compared to 10-man raiding. For this reason, I imagine there will be more 10-man raiding guilds than there are now, especially because Karazhan and Zul’Aman provide a rather shallow experience with a broken progress line. Certainly, I think some 25-man guilds will fall apart over this change. Already there are rumors of a major guild on my server failing because a couple of their leaders are leaving and some people are considering 10-mans to be preferable.

I think the dissolution of some 25-man guilds is a small price to pay for an increase in accessibility to the game in general. Furthermore, it means I will see less players of poorer quality applying to my guild simply to see Illidan or Kil’jaeden and satiate their lore-driven desires. It’s not a bad thing people are into lore and want to see some of the most storied characters in the game, but I always have a difficult time explaining to a friend why I can’t take them to Kil’jaeden. 10-mans will offer them this opportunity without requiring them to endure the heightened raid difficulty of 25-mans.

Inscriptions and Glyphs

GlyphsWrath offers a new craft called inscription. The impact inscription will have on the game far exceeds that of what jewelcrafting had in TBC. This is because the glyphs produced by inscription change many core abilities dramatically. For example, glyph of regrowth increases the spell’s front-end heal by 50% on anyone who already has the heal-over-time portion of the spell. If I had this glyph right now, my regrowths would be landing for over 5K on anyone already with my regrowth HoT. This is particularly interesting when I consider how tanks in many situations are never without it.

Not only will Blizzard have to balance classes’ talents and abilities, but also their glyphs. Consider how a balance druid with both the starfire and moonfire glyphs will see quite a large increase to their overall DPS potential. Without recasting moonfire every 12 to 15 seconds, a druid can work in several extra moonfires during a six-minute fight while doing more damage with moonfire overall. For example, our balance druid on the last Brutallus he DPS’d for did an average of 3077 damage with his starfire and an average of 473 damage for every tick of his moonfire’s DoT. The fight took 5 minutes and 25 seconds to defeat. If he were to have the starfire and moonfire glyphs, I estimate he could cast at least seven more starfires and do 75% more damage on his 95 ticks of moonfire. That’s approximately 55240 more damage, or 170 more DPS, bringing him up to 2090 DPS from 1920.

The New Vehicle System

The vehicle system is not really a new idea. There have been mobs used in the pet system a character “possesses” while the actual character is banished or stationary. Some examples of this include:

The difference between this existing system and the new vehicle system is simply that a vehicle carries the character with it. That said, Blizzard has taken the vehicle system seriously and made some major refinements to the concepts of controlling something other than a traditional class. They have implemented new UI elements to compliment the system. And they have implemented targeting systems specifically designed to work with the vehicle’s different weapons and abilities. For example, area-targeting with cannons, catapults, etc. show the parabolic route your projectile will travel, instead of the typical circular area involved in targetting with spells like hurricane, blizzard and rain of fire.

Furthermore, some vehicles have different controlling mechanics. Some can’t strafe. And some can’t move backwards. This further separates vehicular movement from traditional character control.

The reason this system will have a major impact on the game is because Blizzard plans to use it in a lot of new content. Already, it plays a major role in the world PvP zone Lake Wintergrasp, and the new battleground Strand of the Ancients. Blizzard has also stated it intends to use the system in raid and instanced PvE content, as well.

Destructible Buildings, Siege Engines, Wintergrasp, Strand of the Ancients, and PvP in General

I’ve waited four years for siege engines and destructible buildings to make their way into WoW. Prior to WoW, I played Dark Age of Camelot, where siege engines and destructible doors have been a part of the game since its release in 2001, and where destructible buildings have been a part of it since New Frontiers was released in 2004. There was nothing more epic than battling for a good hour or two trying to break down a door and storm a keep or pummel it into the ground with trebuchets and catapults.

Personally, I thought Blizzard did its customers a disservice by not taking our desire to have siege engines and destructible buildings in Alterac Valley seriously. It was not a new concept amongst MMO’s, afterall. And I think by failing to seize the opportunity early, Blizzard has delayed the refinement of such a system. I doubt the system will reach full maturity before 2009, because of this. Blizzard could have had the system introduced in 2005 and refined by 2006. This would have come over two years before the release of Warhammer and established the feature as one of WoW’s strong points well before the impending competition. Furthermore, I also think an earlier development of the system would have given Blizzard a better idea of just how popular siege warfare really is amongst the MMO crowd.

That said, siege warfare will provide people with new opportunities beyond the usual fare of standing next to or clicking on flags and nodes. Halaa took one step towards unique concepts, but failed to deliver given that it did not reset nor provide ample end-game rewards beyond a unique resilience gem.

A skirmish in Wintergrasp.

However, the changes coming to PvP in general, beyond the arena and honor systems, is extremely limited. Arenas still dominate PvP in terms of offering rewards, because the gear you obtain requires you to increase your arena rating. Essentially, this means everyone is forced to play one style of PvP to get the best rewards. To crowds like the one I am a part of, this is extremely disappointing. I hate arenas. They foster an atmosphere of composition and counter-composition to succeed in long-term settings like seasonal ladders (tournaments are a different matter, since they are short-term). And the strategies involved are limited based on team compositions and what is typically successful against each. For this reason, I prefer Warsong Gulch, Lake Wintergrasp and Strand of the Ancients by far. And I would prefer rated battlegrounds over arenas any day. And I know over half of my guild is in the same boat. OVER HALF! And, of course, there are also people who prefer arenas over battlegrounds who would rather not have to step foot into any of them to obtain their belts, bracers, necks, etc. So it goes both ways.

So while Wrath offers us a new option for arena point farming in Wintergrasp, a new battleground in which to farm honor points, and siege warfare to increase our enjoyment of such tasks, the arena and honor systems remain fundamentally the same. Siege warfare will excite a lot of people, but the lack of changes to the PvP rewards system will disappoint a lot of people unless something changes before November 13th.

The Homogenization and Redundancy of Some Buffs and Abilities

The homogenization and redundancy of buffs really should be an issue to discuss in its own entry. I have a lot of negative things to say about this change. But I will try to keep it short and sweet in this entry to give you an idea of how it will reshape the landscape of raiding for Wrath.

As it currently stands, most classes and specs provide unique buffs no others have. Blizzard plans to change this. Unfortunately, it will also have dire consequences on certain classes and specs based on what they provide in comparison to others. Quite simply, there will be certain combinations of class specs that provide all of the necessary raid buffs while taking the least amount of space in the raid or producing the most cumulative DPS

Shadow priests have been hit rather hard with this concept. Misery has been changed to provide 3% hit, but it will fail to stack with improved faerie fire. Shadow weaving has been removed as a debuff and affects only the shadow priest’s personal DPS. And vampiric touch is changing to put a buff on the raid which produces a flat amount of mana regeneration, regardless of the damage done. This buff will be shared by survival hunters and retribution paladins. This means the only raid buffing shadow priests provide is 3% hit and mana regen, both already provided by other class specs. So unless shadow priests do more personal DPS or provide more utility in many fights than do moonkins, survival hunters and retribution paladins, I doubt you will see them in raids that have an extreme min-maxing mindset. Regardless of how skilled the shadow priest is, because most guilds look only for specific classes and then trial players to find talented players in those roles.

Of interesting note, our current shadow priest is a draenei, meaning he also loses symbol of hope to gain hymn of hope. Previously, he would just expend a global cooldown to cast it and then provide a good 900+ mana to his group. But after 3.0 he will have to drop shadow form, stop DPSing, and channel holy hymn for 8 seconds to return a smaller amount of mana to his group than did symbol of hope.

To generalize my point: for classes and/or specs that do not retain some or enough of their unique buffs, if their general performance does not compare to other classes, or if they don’t bring the tools you need to succeed given specific combinations of classes and specs, they will be tossed aside in favor of what’s best for min-maxing.

I say this as a raid leader who plans to do this. While I will not just toss aside people I know to be talented players, you can bet I will discuss with them the possibility of rerolling or respeccing when the expansion comes out if we perceive their current spec to be weak in terms of raid synergy or potential performance. And you can guarantee that when I recruit new people I will have my preferences for which class specs to recruit. I have further opinions on this, but I will abstain from relating them in this entry. I merely seek to provide some perspective on the huge impact the homogenization of buffs will have on the game.

Combining +Heal and +Dmg into Spell Power

When 3.0 is released, people will discover that +healing and +dmg is no more. Instead, there will be one universal stat called spell power. I suppose this is meant to homogenize the gear of damage casters and healers. And, personally, I think it’s a great change as sometimes there is some crossover to be had. With that said, however, I worry it has affected the design concepts of the itemization team. Already, I’m seeing the first tier of the druid healing set include crit.

Despite the inclusion of living seed, crit is a stat restoration druids won’t need. We rarely use healing touch, and we will rarely use it even in Wrath simply because it takes to long to cast and causes us to become “out of step” with typical incoming damage. What I mean by this is that if a mob hit for 8K every two seconds and has the capability of also doing a 10K spell between swings on occasion, our 3-second heal might not land before our assigned target is dead. So only swiftmend, regrowth and nourish are spells we might use that benefit from crit.  But swiftmend is on a 15-second cooldown, and nourish is highly inefficient, so they will be infrequent. This means regrowth becomes the standard for our crittable heals. But specced restoration, regrowth already has a high crit-rate. So I’m certain druids will want to stack spell power, spirit and haste instead.

That said, there are some items designed perfectly. And these work well as both healing and damage gear in some cases. So the homogenization is welcome. But I think this change will also cause early item sets to be poorly designed.

Caster and Physical Crit, Haste and Hit Combined, While AP Affects Spells for Some Hybrids

Wrath will be combining crit, haste and hit into the same stats for both casters and physical DPS. This will have no affect on pure physical and pure damage casters beyond the refinement of the general mechanics for how spells resist and abilities miss. However, it will have a rather large affect on hybrids that do both physical and spell DPS. Enhancement shamans, retribution paladins and death knights are the major players in this change. Furthermore, attack power will also begin to affect the damage some classes do with spells. This is a concept that already existed for retribution paladins, but the concept is being expanded beyond them such that different levels of attack power will supersede spell damage and vice versa.

New Server Architecture: Phasing

Blizzard has been working on new server architecture that allows individual characters to view the world differently from others based on what they have and have not done in the game. For example, if you have done a quest that charges you with capturing an enemy town, you would see this town in your own faction’s hands after completing the quest. Other characters would still view it as under the control of the enemy. And to prevent any breaking of immersion, characters in this area who have not completed the quest will be invisible, or “phased out” to those earlier or further in progression of the questline. This technology did not fully exist in TBC and the original version of WoW.

An example of phasing.

This new architecture has a high potential for changing the way the game is played, especially in outdoor zones. Already, Icecrown borrows elements from the system and allows you to do quests which progress the advancement of the armies fighting against the Scourge. One quest has you acting on behalf of the Knights of the Ebon Blade to capture a Scourge stronghold within the zone, turning it into a quest hub complete with a flight point after you have completed the task. It is, however, a little more limited in Icecrown than I’d like, but that might be because it is unfinished. But it is there and somewhat interesting.

The architecture is best used in the death knight tutorial zone. And one can read my prior report of the experience to get an idea of just how impactful it can be for Wrath and in future expansions.

Is Wrath a “New Game”?

Blizzard has stated in the past they wish to approach the development of each expansion as a new game building upon the underlying concepts of the old. I think Wrath certainly achieves this to some degree with the introduction of new zones, new instances, a new battleground and a new outdoor PvP zone. But in terms of offering a new game with new or changed fundamental systems, Wrath primarily offers:

  1. Siege warfare,
  2. Death knights and the rune system,
  3. 10-man parallels to 25-mans, and
  4. New server architecture that allows changes to the game’s setting for individuals.

However, I think three of these changes need refinement. Furthermore, I believe Blizzard isn’t taking the same risks it took in TBC that provided the game with sweeping changes to its fundamentals.

  • Yes, they are adding a new class, but it is something they already technically did in giving the Alliance shamans and the Horde paladins.
  • Yes, they are adding siege warfare, but they are not supporting the new style of PvP to the same extent that they have supported arenas all throughout TBC.
  • Yes, they are adding new server architecture that allows individualized experiences, but general improvements to the playability of the game is something I expect.

Offering 10-man parallels to every 25-man is a very solid paradigm shift, however. When doing the 5-man version of Kael’thas in Magister’s Terrace, I realized how cool it probably would be for those who were unable to see or kill him in Tempest Keep. So to make such characters and lore accessible to more casual players is a great change.

But there are issues Wrath does not address. These include:

  • The imbalance between the Horde and Alliance on some servers.
    • Proudmoore has an estimated 3:1 ratio of active Alliance to Horde, and it is only increasing now that people can transfer from PvE to the PvP ruleset. The buff for an outnumbered faction in Wintergrasp will help, but I doubt it will be the turning point if a faction is overwhelmed three to one. It dissuades them from even trying. Something fundamental needs to change for such content to be entirely successful in the future. Be it a third faction to foster temporary alliances between overwhelmed factions or something more than just a buff.
  • The desire for a large amount of the playerbase to have better supporting systems for a variety of PvP.
    • The honor system provides top-end rewards, yes. But it’s the plain and simple fact that you have to do both arena and battlegrounds to get all of the best PvP rewards that is concerning. Some people loathe arenas. And some hate battlegrounds. But both have their difficulties and limitations separate from each other. There’s no reason different PvP systems can’t offer the same level of rewards, so people can choose to participate in the style of PvP they prefer.
  • The spell-casting and melee systems are generally the same as they were in 1.0, with some minor tweaks made to rage normalization and spell pushback.
    • Death knights offer an entirely new system underlying their spells and abilities. I think it is perhaps time to consider new systems for existing classes. The mana, energy and rage systems have proven to be limiting for some classes in raid and PvP balance, afterall.

I don’t have answers to these problems, currently. They are incredibly complex and it is not the intention of this entry to provide suggestions for them. But I felt it is important to note what Wrath of the Lich King will not change, in addition to what it will.

Wrath does offer some exciting new content and systems, despite the outstanding issues. And I do not want to ignore any positives:

  • The inscription system is intriguing.
  • Death knights are fun, even though they still need balance and polish.
  • Some class specs have great new talents and abilities, even though others still need work and improvements.
  • Having 10-man versions of 25-man dungeons is a great concept in general and will help even raiders fill their time.
  • Lake Wintergrasp and Strand of the Ancients are enjoyable on a basic level, even though I think we could use better faction balancing and rated battlegrounds.
  • The daily system has been expanded and there are plenty to choose from.
  • The lore in general surrounding death knights, the Argent Crusade, Icecrown and Storm Peaks is top notch.
  • A lot of the new zones are great fun, especially Icecrown and Storm Peaks.

This expansion’s story will also offer revelations to surprise people. And perhaps some that are to be expected. Tirion will wield a weapon of great power and continue to increase in his role as a leader of the mortal races against the Scourge. More Scourge will break free from the Lich King’s control, but we will also discover why. Someone thought to be dead will actually be alive, and he will turn up in an odd location. And there will be some major struggles amongst the oldest races of Azeroth.

Wrath of the Lich King takes the style of lore seen on Quel’Danas and expand upon its principles. And with it Blizzard creates a more involving experience. Admittedly, it is one that still sometimes fails the ideal of self-containment, but it better presented than the Sunwell.

It’s Time to Prepare

With all these changes in mind, people can now begin preparing for the impending release of 3.0 and Wrath of the Lich King. How you prepare will be dependent on the research you do and what you plan to do with your time once 3.0 and Wrath go live. I do have some advice, however:

  • Level your alts, if you want options for leveling to 80.
  • Reserve your death knight’s name with a level 1 character.
  • Stockpile low level herbs for leveling inscription or profiting off the mad rush to 375 when 3.0 comes out.
  • Sell all of your mats and items that will become defunct.
    • Spend all your heroic badges on epic gems and sell them before they are worthless.
    • Sell all your scryer signets and your aldor marks.
    • Sell all your excess primals and enchanting materials.
  • Get your epic flying mounts, because you don’t want to be doing Storm Peaks or Icecrown with 60% flight.
  • Don’t stockpile honor or arena points, because they are going to reset when Wrath is released.
  • Start making plans for rerolling or respeccing if your class or spec has major weaknesses.
  • Start making plans for your guild if you are an officer or a leader. The last thing you want is to be caught with your pants around your ankles.

And, lastly, prepare to enjoy yourself, but don’t forget you might meet some frustration along the way.