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So there’s another Steam sale on, apparently to push the Exploration system, which I associate with the Discovery queue. Now, I’ve spent a good while playing queue roulette to see what it’ll recommend me – apparently an interest in RPGs gives one a tendency towards hentai dating sims, or so Steam would have you believe. Yeah, it’s good fun. There’s just one issue that keeps rearing its ugly damn head…

Well, fuck

Well, fuck

Turns out that when Steam generates these queues, it doesn’t bother to check whether a game is actually available to the prospective customer. And when the queue hits this error, it just… stops. No “oh welp we fucked up, here go to the next one” button – no, it boots you to that error screen, which has no links whatsoever to whatever you were doing before. Sure, just hitting the Store > Explore menu item resumes your queue from the next item… but as far as I can tell, these unavailable items count as “games viewed” when they really shouldn’t, and there’s no bloody way to mark them “Not Interested” so that they stop fucking up the queue by recurring like cheap beer.

Speaking of Not Interested, though…

Preeesss meeeee

Preeesss meeeee

It’s ever so easy to get into a rythm of slamming the NI checkbox over and over again. Sure, this is mostly because whatever matchmaking algo Steam uses is not exactly Google quality, but that also works against the few games that would otherwise be relevant to the user’s interests. There’s a sort of momentum there, an expectation that the default is to mark it as schlock and move on. I’m not sure that’s fair to games that are less eyecatching, but more interesting.

In the meantime, it’s really the aberrants – like, well, hentai dating sims (why does Steam even have these?) – that are getting the attention. I don’t know, that’s something they should probably look at for the next update.

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Yowza.

Yowza.

After a few weeks of running Galakras LFR exclusively, the Evil Eye is mine. Cackle, cackle, cauldrons and spackle, etc.

A couple of Public Service Announcements with regard to this trinket:

  • When mousing over your abilities to check the reduced cooldown, bear in mind that 1.43 minutes is not the same thing as 1 minute 43 seconds. This point may only apply if you’re prone to hot and cold running derp. No, the shiny new statblob did not just shave a whole 17 seconds off of Avenging Wrath.
  • I’m not convinced that the math on this thing is entirely straightforward. A 31% reduction on a 2 minute ability should math out at 2 – (0.31 * 2) = 1.38, but it’s somehow showing as 1.43.

On to the paladin-specific issues. Yes, you knew there were going to be issues, you’er reading my blog after all. Don’t act all innocent and wounded, we both knew where this relationship post was headed.

Okay, so this may be less paladin-specific than one would think – I wouldn’t be surprised if other classes have similar issues, but I don’t know the classes as well and, more importantly, I don’t have this trink on any of them.

The Eye messes with our talent choices. Not by reducing CDs on our active talents – that’d actually be pretty cool. No, the messing about is more subtle. With the advent of Mists, we received a tree that was supposed to give us some freedom in picking and choosing our abilities, with no real wrong choices. Unfortunately, if you want to choose anything other than Sanctified Wrath now, you’re wrong.

See, with a lower CD on wings, the benefit of SW is also active more often. Meanwhile, Holy Avenger is unaffected by the change, and Divine Purpose – being a passive effect – is just as static. But at least neither of those abilities actually breaks the CD reduction – unlike Clemency. See, Clemency gives us two charges on our Hand abilities. Unfortunately, a couple of those Hands are in the list of abilities modified by the Eye, but if you have Clemency, the CD reduction completely fails to apply. I can sort of see their point – we’d be able to throw more hands around than a squid in a rubber glove factory – but it still feels broken, since it means that we don’t get a benefit from 2 of our 6 reduced abilities.

So, what to take instead? Unbreakable Spirit, which modifies another ability covered by the Eye? Yeah, we’ve seen how that works out. How about Hand of Purity? See, despite being a good candidate for the most situational talent in the tree, HoP is actually the one and only talent to which the Eye grants its benevolent glance.

So much for “major abilities”, huh? This is a DoT-reduction talent, which states in the tooltip “less for some creature attacks”. That makes it a talent only useful for cheesing some boss mechanics, but which is nerfed not to actually be able to cheese said mechanics. And rather than give us a reduction on something genuinely good – like our 90 talents, for instance – they decided to try and buff what is, in the end, a lackluster also-ran. *sigh*

Regardless, as a CD-driven class I’m looking forward to letting rip with the Eye in my corner. Just wish that it felt a little less… limiting.

The first week that SoO Flex part 3 was available, we stomped all over Malkorok within 3 pulls. This was without our main tank, with one of our best healers taking his place, and without a couple of our best DPS. Think it was a test week at uni or something.

The next week we went back with our full complement of heavy hitters, confident in our experience and with high spirits.

And we wiped on the fight for almost two hours before calling it.

What changed? Well… we brought two more people. Those two people pushed us over the threshold to four exploding swirls of doom rather than three. We tried dropping our lowest DPS, as vile as that may seem in a Flex group, but still couldn’t get it down again. It looks like the damage from the swirls doesn’t scale – just the number of them present.

Now, this might look like a bit of an edge case. We’re few enough that one extra swirl is 33% more burst damage. A bigger group might have less of a problem soaking that extra swirl. Still… it’s dispiriting rolling over a boss one week and then being completely unable to make progress the next. You’d think that someone would have thought this through.

But no. Blizzard has severe difficulty with scaling, and even more difficulty accepting that fact. Every time anyone mentions scaling it’s shot down by a blue with “we don’t like talking about scaling because the community uses it in a broader sense than we do” or the like… which basically translates (to me) as “you guys complain about scaling everywhere, so we don’t want to talk about it”.

Thing is, those scaling arguments everywhere are relevant. With Challenge Modes and Proving Grounds, the fact that some specs are utterly godawful until they’re in raid gear – a regular fixture of class balance, to the point where being weak in poor gear is even considered part of the warrior identity – is no longer just a minor concern that will be fixed by natural gear progression. Watching Fire catch nerfs in the last patch three expansions running because of their scaling isn’t a joke any more. Seeing everyone and their little sister play Frost because it’s the only mage spec that does well in challenge mode level gear and yet still manages good DPS at high end should be a red flag for a design team that goes on and on ad nauseam about wanting players to have choices.

There are other manifestations of blizzard’s trouble with math – low level PvP is rife with them, and heirlooms scale abyssmally at some points, for instance – but this rant would take forever if we went through every example in the file, as it were. For now, it’d just be nice if we weren’t punished for bringing more guildies along. That was the whole promise of Flex, after all.

Turn-based games are a heavy abstraction; the concept of everyone having their go like so many redcoats is a little laughable. Still, I’ve always had a fair-sized soft spot for anything that gives me time to make my choices, and it was in a turn-based game that I was first really introduced to the idea of competitive balance.

Disciples II is a turn-based strategy with four playable factions. It follows the familiar overland/battle map conventions, as one might expect, with battles being fought between parties of up to five units and one leader. It’s an old game; not quite as old as the games I’d experienced before, like Fallout or StarCraft, but in that range.

StarCraft has long been held as the pinnacle of competitive balance despite the asymmetric unit types available to each of its three races. Because factions are balanced around their entire package and the tactical options available to them, balance is an intricate and iterative process rather than an absolute. Because strategy and composition are so important, balance isn’t easy to see at first – it emerges.

Being much more limited, the balance of a game like Disciples is much easier to grasp. Each faction can produce largely the same basic types of units – warrior, ranged attacker, caster, a flavour unit and a special unit. Tech trees mean that all of these units develop in different ways, and the different factions approach different units from completely different angles – the undead faction’s ranged attacker does no damage but causes paralysis, where dwarves have the option of a tough single-target gunman or a fire-resistant flamethrower who attacks the entire enemy team as though he were a caster. The flavour and special units take this further to provide some pretty fun choices.

Still, looking at the overall packages, it was easy to see where weaknesses crept in. The demonic legion had powerful casters and good map access as a result of all of their leaders being flying types, but were over-reliant on slow, two-space units that levelled slowly and never quite seemed to match individual units of the other factions. The dwarves were ridiculously tough and had excellent access to a wide range of elemental attacks, but took the most experience to level and suffered heavily with their universally poor initiative scores. The empire had units which levelled very quickly and dealt well with consecutive fights thanks to their healing, but they had little access to elemental attacks and were individually very squishy. Then there was the undead horde.

The undead faction had a number of tricks. The paralysis unit mentioned above had the potential to turn anything up to a capital city battle around, and was an AI breaker – the AI always underestimated a party with a ghost in it, since they had no damage. Undead casters had a tree as extensive as the legion, but containing such delights as high-initiative elemental attackers with complete immunity to physical damage – aka the damage type of around 80% of the units in the game.

This physical damage immunity carried over to their special unit as well – a relatively low-hp high-cost fighter unit that levelled about as quickly as a second-tier fighter. All phys immunes paid a cost in base health, meaning that they were vulnerable to casters – theoretically, since any of the phys immunes could out-init a caster – and overland spells – again theoretically, since the undead faction had a spell which could replenish fog of war. Oh, and nearly every horde unit was immune to death-element damage, including the aforementioned phys immunes.

So then what was their balance? Low territorial advancement. The only undead hero with overland flying capability was the relatively weak warrior type, and their territory control units were ground-bound and had a very limited movement radius. A theoretically disadvantaged empire opponent might have trouble in the earlier levels and find their party entirely outmatched coming up against a levelled undead opponent, but the same empire player would be able to keep his units out in the field much longer without having to return to a city, level their units faster, and gain more territory. This is an advantage that’s much harder to put into clear terms, and it was also the first step toward understanding the StarCraft level of game balance. There is more at work than the simple unit vs. unit math.

That, of course, is a strategy game. Every role-playing type game that I’ve ever played has, by comparison, been completely and hopelessly unbalanced – junk builds, entire unviable classes, perks which are basically traps for poorly informed players, etc. And that was (mostly) fine, because those games were meant for single-player action or in the case of ARPGs like Diablo I/II, it was easy enough to reroll. That was an accepted feature of the genre, and it even seems to have been the case for the early years of World of Warcraft.

Here’s where we get back to whining my usual subject matter. WoW is pretty tightly balanced nowadays. You really have to work at it to make a non-viable character. And yet… some classes just feel like they’re balanced by different criteria. Yes, I’m talking about warriors again, as usual.

A warrior actually has some pretty decent party tricks, but the emphasis here is on party. Mobility, mitigation, even snare-breaks are farmed out to abilities that require party members*. That’s not considering things they don’t actually have, such as for instance healing or dispels. Useful in PvE, and indispensable in PvP.

Warriors seem to be balanced around the strategic level – and as far as I can tell, they’re the only class that’s set up this way. It’s… weird. And despite the effectiveness that a supported warrior can bring to bear, it inevitably feels like playing the roadie in a game where everyone else is a self-contained rock star.

or a banner in the case of Intervene, but that’s clumsy as hell and leaves warriors in the position of being the only class needing to use a placeable CD, a target click/macro and multiple GCDs to have a snare-break…

Death to all who oppose us

Death to all who oppose us

Council down, and only a week after our first Horridown. Let’s get some detail up in here.

Part 1: in which we present the team

From left to right, we have:

  • Ellaelyra, apparently having bounced away from her elemental
  • Sidhe, hers behaving for once
  • Esirpus, just glad he no longer has to watch energy meters
  • Giac, wearing half a transmog, which is just weak
  • Idie, eyeing the stairs with trepidation
  • Raijin, who seems quite happy with the thunderforged fist that dropped
  • Yours truly, reconsidering that tabard for ranged shots
  • Madrox, not to be confused with his former death knight incarnation, despite both being tanks
  • Delta, presiding over the traditional “What’d he drop?!” ceremony
  • AODPriest, who despite being an Angel Of Death spent the fight healing

That’s two mages, two priests, three paladins and miscellaneous filler. Ideal comp we ain’t, but it works out, probably because of how damn pretty we all are. Well, except Giac.

Part 2: in which we discuss the fight

From the first pull, this fight already felt much better than Horridon. Everything’s up on the table. The issue with add fights is that each add is just another thing that can go wrong in its own special way, and is literally trying to do so at every moment. Horridon feels hopeless because every time you get a handle on one set of issues, a whole new set shows up. We didn’t exactly one-shot the council, but every time we wiped it felt like we were getting closer, like our tactical adjustments were making a difference. Progress felt like progress.

Our first night on the fight was a few pulls after a messy Horridon kill. Last night we approached it with a new tactic: stack ’em all up and cleave them down. If this sounds less than tactical, rest assured that you’re probably entirely correct. Still, it works.

In 10 man, the healing add actually heals for less than its own HP. That makes switching to it and burning it a complete waste of time, and also removes any incentive not to stack all three of the tankable bosses together for cleave damage. Stacking has another advantage if you have a paladin tank: Avenger’s Shield can interrupt Sul and Mar’li in one shot. This significantly reduces damage over the course of the fight.

As the one and only melee, I was assigned to stay on Sul from the beginning and burn/interrupt him until his inevitable messy death. The other DPS also focussed Sul until the empowering add hit a predetermined energy state; 50 for Malakk and Mar’li, 30 for Kazra’jin, since he’s annoying to stay on and using cooldowns is a good way to reflect oneself to death.

The fight effectively has three enrage timers. First there’s the usual one, which is actually pretty generous. Next there’s the empowered energy count per boss, which can be fudged without too much difficulty. And then there’s the one that matters, which is Sul’s turn at being empowered. Make no mistake – allowing him to empower is an enrage. There is nothing in the fight more damaging than Sandstorm, the adds that he summons are tough and will kill people without much effort, the sand-patches that the adds leave behind when they die do a truckload of damage, and to complicate matters, one of the tanks is usually stuck taking a Frigid Assault at the same time the adds show up.

So yeah. The very first attempt where we downed Sul was also our kill. It took a couple of tries to refine, and we did end up with two of the three healers in atonement spec hammering at Sul as well. Once he’s down, though, the rest are just a formality.

Part 3: in which we consider the future

Yeah, having some second thoughts about this...

Yeah, having some second thoughts about this…

So we’re 3/12 now, and facing off against the might of Tortos, who is most assuredly a goat. As that video points out, melee DPS aren’t great on this fight. We tried one or two pulls just to have a look, and for my paladin the outlook is pretty dismal.

I can’t effectively DPS the turtles, can’t kick, and the only AoE slow that I have is also my primary DPS talent, which doesn’t maintain the snare outside its stationary area of effect. I could maybe go with Burden of Guilt, which I used for a while as a PvP talent. Most of my usual utility is useless here.  Perhaps Hand of Sacrifice isn’t, but warriors get the same ability as a talent and we have two other paladins now.

As for specific challenges that we’ve encountered: the turtles spin fast. Despite having two frost mages, we’re still seemingly coming up short on slows. Our ‘lock has no idea what the AoE snare that fatboss mentioned even is. Further, the bats will happily take a tank to the cleaners in the short stun just after Quake Stomp, so we’re going to need an antidote for that. Blinding Light doesn’t appear to work on them at all.

We’ve only had three pulls on the fight, though. We’ll adapt and overcome.

Part 4: in which Leit whines about gear, because he is bad at this game

By halfway through part 3, anyone with a semi-intact cognitive center was probably already going “oh, he’s thinking about changing mains again“. Well, yeah. Altoholic, right here. I hope you’re very pleased by your impressive deductive skills.

Thing is… I finished out t14 without a single normal drop equipped. The couple of drops I did get were tanking gear that no-one else could use. Even LFR refused to give me any slack. Things looked up for a minute on the release of the third segment of LFR ToT, where I suddenly got two whole useful drops in a single week, but before and since it’s been just as barren.

Paladin’s been gearing decently from valour. Started out with a decent nest-egg that’s paid off well, and not having to grind a hundred different reps in order to actually spend my currency means I’m actually motivated to go out and earn it in the first place. Thing is, though, gearing from valour means I only get an upgrade every couple of weeks. Without an edge from raid drops, alts can catch up pretty damn quickly, especially if they’re the tiniest bit luckier than Dry. If the alt in question can bid on gear that isn’t also desirable to other players in the raid, that helps as well.

That last item in particular points to my rogue, who brings decent mobilty, damage equivalent to my better-geared paladin, AoE slows and cast time reduction, a misdirect, good personal survivability and no real raid utility beyond Smokebomb. Unfortunately the rogue’s gearing has sort of fallen by the wayside as I’ve been reconnecting with my warrior, and his only foray into gearing this week resulted in ragequitting after ending up in multiple PoS runs with only Lei Shen up.

Meanwhile, said warrior brings a mean amount of raid utility. The only class that can bring the raid cooldown of Skull Banner, she’s got a raid damage reduction banner as well, an AoE taunt banner if I’m feeling suicidal, excessive amounts of mobility, a raidwide health cooldown, talents for AoE stuns, interrupts, spell reflects, slows and snares, a talented Hand of Sacrifice equivalent, and exceedingly good AoE damage. Where she falls short is in personal survivability and the fact that she’s still rolling on the same plate and strength weapons that everyone else wants. At least she isn’t on the same token as literally 60% of the raid, for one day when that matters.

There are two things that have been keeping me on my pally for the moment: momentum and utility. Now that we’ve got a paladin tank again the second is less important, and I can bring plenty to the table with another class. Dry is still the best geared of my characters, and the one whose ins and out I know best, so he’s still got momentum on his side. But how long before the same frustration as t14 rears its head?

Nice thing about March is that all of the public holidays make for some great long weekends. Capped three characters three weeks running now, which is a fair achievement when I couldn’t even reliably cap my pally back in 5.1.

Rogue’s made it to ilvl 486, which isn’t bad at all. Damage doesn’t seem to be improving linearly with gear, unfortunately, but it’s still my best option if the line’s lagging. Feint with Elusiveness is amazing for most bosses, but costs me a fair bit in terms of energy to keep up. Leeching poison still seems to be the best option for anything that isn’t a raid instance. Hell, the 486 rogue sometimes feels tougher than my better-geared pally, and always leaps and bounds ahead of the shammy. Who is 10 entire ilvls ahead, and still can’t heal for buggery.

Segue! Is it just me or is LFR not intended for minimally co-operative PUGs any more? I mean, I thought that was the intent – a nerfed instance that offers endless sacks of gold gear upgrades and a pseudo-raiding experience to those people who don’t have organised groups. Then we see fights like Council and Tortos, where it’s hard enough to find the one damn spot on the floor that won’t kill you when you stand in it, and then they dump an entire sensory overload experience on you to boot.

The worst offender is probably the most subtle. Ji-kun’s fight is impossible – and I don’t mean difficult, I mean impossible – without a nest group. Most of the raid probably won’t even be aware of the group or what their responsibility is. The group has to have a reasonable composition, use an ability they get on the fly (ha ha) without any announcement, manage to be observant, know the layout of the zone… hell, most people don’t even know that there are nests up above. The group needs to move together or they’ll get devoured one by one. The nest group needs to be organised.

So far when I organise a nest group in LFR, I’m greeted with a mixture of derision and confusion.

So yeah, for at least that fight, you’ll need a somewhat organised and independent group handling that aspect. PUGs aren’t going to cut it fr a while yet, and this isn’t a problem that’s going to be outgeared any day soon. Neither is how many plates are spinning in the air on Council, Tortos, Horridon etc. What I suspect is that people will just get better at ignoring mechanics as healers get better at healing avoidable damage and health pools improve.

The first past of LFR impressed me, but the second… hasn’t, so much. It’s a crawl through a sewer infested with obnoxious trash, including my perennial favourite – mobs that are ridiculously melee-unfriendly. Snail turns at the wrong time and anyone swinging a pointy stick is toast, no two ways about it.

Megaera’s summoning is especially bad – nothing tells you to hit the bells, so tanks tend to beeline for the boss area unless otherwise convinced. Worse, the trash in the swamp bugs once you get to the bottom – if it’s pulled and the target jumps down, which they always do, the mobs will port their target up until squishy death happens, then start in on the rest of the raid one at a time, usually healers first. The tiny jump-nozzle to get back up also isn’t equipped to deal with this – it needs to be clicked, but can’t be with half a raid clustering around it confused about why they’re not being shot to the top automatically. If anyone even knows how to get back up, that is, since the people who know what they’re doing probably stayed back up at the top.

Sigh.

The whole mess reminds me of the unofficial slogan of the Top Gear presenters: “Ambitious – but rubbish”.

Beginning to hate Horridon.

We downed Jin’Rokh in no time at all, first week of the expansion. I guess that was the idea, having him as a confidence builder. So basically for the past 3 weeks we’ve been working on Horridon.

It’s… not really going our way.

We know the tactics, and we have a plan, but things just spiral out of hand very quickly. Particularly on the second door. Those Gurubashi… I don’t know. We have dedicated interrupters for the priests, but their effusions cast the same thing, and we seem to get a bunch of those. Last night I was having issues with the sand traps – for some reason with my settings I can’t see sand traps if there’s a hunter freezing trap out, but those hunter traps are good for add control… aargh.

We haven’t even seen War-God Jalakk yet. Don’t know if it’s gear – my paladin was below 490 the first time he stepped in there, and we haven’t even cleared HoF yet, so we don’t have drops from there – or whether we’re just missing something.

We’re three-healing, which does leave us down a DPS. Standard procedure for our guild is to push with fewer healers, but we only have one real stand-out healer at the moment. He’s a gem, but the damage happening means we’ll need another one at least in his caliber. My shammy would probably fit the bill, except I can’t seem to get anything like the numbers I should be out of her. Her gear’s good, better than my paladin in fact – she’s actually gotten gear from LFR, unlike him. I just can’t get it to pay off in numbers.

We don’t really have a steady stable of players either. Most nights we’re sort of reaching to come up with 10 people period. That, along with the loss of our former raid leader, seems to have left a sort of stain on the people who are trying to do the job. There are a couple of returning players who’re levelling characters to 90, and hopefully they’ll re-energise the team. The old guard as it were seem pretty excited about them.

Meanwhile we have something of a co-ordination crisis. We struggle getting Garalon down, and still haven’t beaten Amber-Shaper. Execution is… problematic. We’re still gearing slowly, and maybe that’ll make all the difference despite our apparent lack of ability. Personally I’m finding that LFR is most unkind to my pally, but others have been doing better.

I don’t know. Can’t really think of any solution. It’s just a bit dispiriting to hear “what’s the point, we’re not progressing” over mumble.

Next time on int i;: maybe I’ll try and post something more depressing, like the story of a one-legged kitten who catches the rabies and gets turned into KFC.