Monday, July 24, 2017

The Potential Horror of a N'Zoth Expansion

We're in the middle of Legion - the second raid tier is open, with half the LFR wings available, and a third coming on Tuesday. This is the biggest expansion in terms of lore and stakes that we've had (though the stakes are generally pretty high.) Given that the expansion has built up to the ultimate confrontation with the Burning Legion, with the spoilers coming out of the PTR's version of Antorus, the final raid of the expansion, suggesting a truly significant dynamic shift will occur within the Warcraft cosmos.

I don't know what will come in the expansion after next, but I have a strong feeling that we're going to be dealing with N'zoth, the last remaining undefeated Old God in Azeroth's surface.

First off, the game has not definitively said that C'thun or Yogg-Saron are not simply dead. There are hints that their presences linger, such as C'thun's ability to mutate Cho'gall in Cataclysm and the appearance of Faceless creatures in Ulduar during the Legion launch quests.

But N'zoth is certainly still around.

Datamining has suggested that Kul Tiras might be a future zone in expansion seven, or even possibly a continent (though while I think Blizzard is wary of having a true archipelago lest zones feel totally disconnected like in Cataclysm - which explains why the Broken Isles is really more like the Broken Isle - I still think it makes more sense for an expansion containing Kul Tiras to have other famous islands in the South Seas.) We can extrapolate a lot of potential elements to an expansion that would contain Kul Tiras: It's likely that Azshara and her Naga will play a significant role, given their dominance of Azeroth's oceans (also, the Naga presence in Tomb of Sargeras and Azsuna seems like a good reminder of their threat to prepare us for a more heavily Naga-themed expansion.) Now, Azshara is linked to two major evil factions. The first is the Burning Legion, but we will obviously have dealt with that and will be sick to death of fel green stuff. The other major evil faction she associates with is that of the Old Gods, and particularly N'zoth.

N'zoth is the most aquatically-themed Old God, and its appearance in Hearthstone suggests that it's the basis for the look of Kraken. We also know that N'zoth had been kind of the custodian of the Emerald Nightmare (even though Yogg-Saron was its creator - given N'zoth's predilection for fighting Yogg-Saron and C'thun, I wouldn't be surprised if N'zoth usurped the Nightmare from Yogg-Saron.) If we ended the Nightmare by slaying Xavius, that could mean that N'zoth, who had been occupied with "dreaming" up the Nightmare, might now have awoken (I also think that the Pillars of Creation probably did something to unlock the prisons of the Old Gods, but that's like a couple other articles I've already written.)

We also, (SPOILERS,) see a group of Ethereals practicing void magic on Argus - sort of a shocking thing, given that Argus is the Legion's headquarters and they're theoretically all anti-Void. I don't know what we'll discover about the Void in 7.3, but this seems like a very standard "set it up to pay it off" kind of thing in a late expansion patch.

Now, while void magic of Ner'zhul's and these ethereals' style looks very different than Old God stuff, the truth is that the Old Gods were created by beings in the Void, and that they're really one and the same.

An Old God-centric expansion would have to deal with void magic, and the link between the gross, tentacles-and-goo feel of Old Gods with the cold and cosmic Void could be explored in an expansion that focused on them.

Personally, what I would love to see is at least one zone that leans heavily into Lovecraftian horror.

Blizzard is actually quite good at making gothic settings. Gilneas, Tirisfal, and most recently Black Rook Hold have all demonstrated a great sense of the macabre (I also love the aesthetic of Helheim, though that's not exactly gothic, but certainly spooky.)

Lovecraft built on the foundation of Poe-style gothic horror, but added super-creepy aliens (and if you're not familiar, no, not little green men, but more writhing masses of tentacles and stuff like that.) The Old Gods are obvious homages to Lovecraft, but while Blizzard has gotten the weird, ancient and hidden civilization feel and certainly the creepy tentacle stuff, they've only rarely ever linked the Old Gods with the kind of madness it instills in populations. I would love to have us arrive in Kul Tiras and discover that there's some kind of creepy oligarchy that has developed in the absence of Jaina or any other Proudmoores that have the island on lockdown, and that there's a scared populace who are being dominated by a terrible cult (those same oligarchs.) The zone could then have you investigating this oppressive oligarchy and discover that they've actually sworn themselves to N'zoth, and he is slowly transforming them into aquatic beings - not unlike how he did this to the Night Elves to create the Naga or how Dagon turned the population of Innsmouth into weird hybrid fish-people in Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

World of Warcraft is generally a pretty bright and cartoony game, but I think that this makes the moments of creepiness hit that much harder. Diablo is kind of wall-to-wall gross monsters, and thus they don't really have much of an impact. But given that I imagine a South Seas expansion (if indeed that is what we are getting) will mostly be familiar Naga, maybe Zandalari Trolls, and other less horrifying stuff, it wouldn't be such a bad thing to have one zone really delve into just how horrific the Old Gods and the Void truly are.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Questions About Weapons After Legion

Artifact weapons are one of the key features of Legion. So much of character power has been focused on improving artifact weapons. The artifact trait trees are similar to the old talent trees in that there are a lot of flat bonuses to various abilities, and that allows relics to be more interesting than a simple item level upgrade.

Leaving artifacts behind at the end of Legion is going to be very strange.

I don't know the exact calculation, and I'm sure it varies based on the strength of various bonuses, but I would bet that if we were suddenly to use ordinary weapons at the same item level of our current artifacts, the result would be a very significant drop in damage output, healing, or survivability. There are the obvious 20ish% bonuses to every major ability, but also rotation-smoothing abilities and passives (I remember my friend who plays a Balance Druid was considering changing specs after eight years until he got the Scythe of Elune and thus access to the New Moon/Half Moon/Full Moon spells.)

In a game where everything needs to be balanced and scale, Blizzard is forced to sort of break things in order for the cool solutions they've come up with to have problems to solve. But this also means that following Legion, they'll either need to fully integrate the artifact traits (with a bit of culling and adjusting of course) or they'll need to seriously rebuild a lot of abilities to compensate for the lack of these traits.

A number of active traits could easily be reimagined as talents. For instance, Frost Death Knights' Sindragosa's Fury is a seriously iconic ability (borrowed from Arthas in Heroes of the Storm) that I could very easily see becoming a high-level talent, and that could probably go for a lot of these artifact abilities (and a number of them are either lore-specific enough or less centrally related to the spec that losing them wouldn't be such a problem.) Some, like Unholy's Apocalypse ability, or the Balance Druid's moon cycle, seem like they ought to become baseline for the spec.

This isn't even touching on passives, which could similarly be baseline or talents.

Another thing to consider about weapons is weapon sets. If you have a shield, off-hand item, or off-hand weapon, in Legion the set comes together as a single item that simply fills in both slots on your character panel. Now, everyone has the pain/pleasure of mismatches thanks to relics, but relics are perfectly cumulative. In the past, an Enhancement Shaman would generally want to put the better weapon in the main hand, but this meant Lava Lash could lag behind based on disparity between weapons.

Personally I wouldn't mind seeing weapon sets come in pairs in the future - if I get a good shield, it comes with a good axe/sword/mace. You would obviously preserve them as separate items for transmog purposes, but it could simplify loot tables and make it less penalizing for dual-wielders to gear up.

The last big question is about Warglaives. With Demon Hunters they introduced a whole new weapon type that is only accessible to that class. In an expansion where Demon Hunters' weapon progression is pretty strict (you basically get three sets of weapons not counting your off-spec artifact,) that's pretty easy. But are raid bosses going to be dropping Warglaives in the next expansion? And is it ok that that's a weapon only one class can use?

Now, to be fair, bosses already (well, not this expansion, but in prior ones) drop bows, guns, and crossbows, which as of Mists of Pandaria can only really be used by Hunters. So perhaps Warglaives will be in a similar spot. The only difference is that Demon Hunters can technically just use Swords and Axes, meaning that while Hunters are forced to use those class-exclusive weapons, having Warglaives in the future would simply mean that Demon Hunters get additional options that other classes don't.

In Warlords, at least in Hellfire Citadel, Blizzard was playing with the idea of having a lot of these weapons and items be sort of spec-agnostic, complementing the changes they made to armor. For instance, shields all had both Strength and Intellect on them so that they could be used by tanks as well as casters. Artifact weapons don't need to worry about that, but I wonder if we'll see an expansion of this idea in expansion seven.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Set Investigation with Diablo 3's Necromancer

Diablo 3 works a bit like a snowball: you start off having to really watch yourself when you encounter an elite enemy, and your abilities are a mix of what seems cool at the time. However, once you get to level 70 and hope and pray to Rathma (or whomever) for set pieces, and those prayers start getting answered, things get kicked into high gear.

At this point, I have full sets of Trag'oul and Inarius armor for my Necromancer, and I'm close to complete on the Rathma set, and the Plaguebringer set I actually have six pieces, but need to farm Death's Breath in order to transform pieces until I get all six individual parts.

While I'd like to get a Rathma-based set going, I haven't quite figured out the survival game for that playstyle (using Icy Veins as my guide - I don't like that their build doesn't use Army of the Dead, which, unless I'm missing some Legendary that causes it to go off automatically, seems like you wouldn't want to bother with a six-piece bonus.)

The easiest one I've been able to work with is an Inarius build that uses Corpse Lance and of course, based on the set, Bone Armor. The Inarius set greatly increases the damage done by Bone Armor's activation, and also ups the defensive bonus from the set as well. At 6 pieces, it causes the bones to whirl around you, dealing a fair amount of damage to anyone nearby and I think just generally buffing your damage.

The build is very bursty - using Land of the Dead to fuel Corpse Lance and of course waiting for Bone Armor's cooldown, you'll utterly annihilate rares and elites if you can burn your cooldowns, but until then you're just going to be running through with your swirling bones and Grim Scythe-ing enemies. This is a close-quarters build.

Trag'oul also uses Corpse Lance, but this is a build that has absurd damage potential and can very easily kill you even if you aren't getting hit, as it's all about your life-spending abilities. Still, if played with finesse, it has a ton of potential, but the funny thing is that you will definitely be using Blood Rush all the time to give you a corpse to start the process going.

While leveling up I used lots of minions and Corpse Explosion as a major source of damage, and I'd like to find a build that incorporates those elements, but for now I'm very much still farming non-set pieces.

Friday, July 14, 2017

7.3 Nerfs Coming to Breath of Sindragosa Build, Buffs to Frost to Compensate

I have a complicated relationship with Frost Death Knights. I started playing Blood DPS when that was a thing, but when Blood became a dedicated tank spec and the other two specs became dedicated DPS, I went two-handed Frost. I still main-specced as a tank in Cataclysm, but through Mists, Warlords, and Legion, I've been primarily Frost.

Now, I really prefered two-handed frost, with its massive Obliterates. So when they made it dual-wield only, I actually started Legion as Unholy, then went Blood, but then went back to Frost. The thing is, my favorite color is blue. I know that seems really minor, but I've gotten so used to my Draenei (blue skin) wearing blue-tinged dark armor, wielding a weapon with a blue glow, and having all my attacks cause bursts of blue death, that it's really hard to get back to thinking of Death Knights as having another dominant color palate.

And given that look and feel are basically the main appeal to video games for me, that's a big deal.

It is a difficult trade-off, wielding two dinky swords versus wielding a much more impressive runeblade. Basically the only real saving grace of the Blades of the Fallen Prince as an artifact weapon is that they literally used to be Frostmourne. Given the option to actually wield, somehow, Frostmourne itself in its intact form (and seeing variants on it the way that the other artifact weapons have,) I'd really prefer it, but I'll have to content myself with the swords made from it. Sadly, Blizzard feels that at least one DK spec should be a dual-wielding one, and with Blood as the tank spec and Unholy already having the whole "summoning undead" schtick, it's not terribly surprising that Frost got stuck with it. I only hope that in a post-artifact world, we can go back to using two-handed weapons (and maybe if we all beseech the Lich King like good little Knights we'll someday get a Frostmourne transmog piece. A DK can dream, can't he?)

Anyway, in the last few patches, the love-it-or-hate-it Breath of Sindragosa talent has been dominant - basically if you want competitive DPS as a Frost DK, you have to pick it and all the talents that allow you to sustain it as long as possible.

Thus Frost winds up being a kind of two-phase spec. You have the Breath phase where you desperately need to generate as much runic power as you can and get seriously penalized if you screw up or if you need to stop whacking the boss for a couple seconds, and the waiting phase where you just do the baseline Frost rotation while you wait for Breath to come off cooldown.

I'll be honest and say I've started to get used to this build, but the panicked resource generation required from the build isn't always what I want, especially given that I feel Frost, flavor-wise, should be more about being slow and steady (the "fight" against Arthas in Halls of Reflection is a great example of what I think a Frost Death Knight should feel like.) In fact, I could imagine a whole redesign of the spec that would have you build up Runic Power and unleash it in a massive single swing, but the point is that I don't know that Breath of Sindragosa fulfills my particular image of the spec's fantasy.

The changes they're making are fairly extensive - I believe the Hungering Rune Weapon talent is getting a bit of a redesign, and many talents are swapping around. The goal is not to nerf Frost in general (as far as I know they're not really exceptional these days) but to allow for greater build diversity, which is something I'm right on board with.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Fall of the Legion and Demonic Anarchy

When the Undead Scourge was defeated nearly definitively at the end of Wrath of the Lich King, this did not mean the end to the threat of the undead. Not only did the Scourge remain an entity, albeit one more or less under control of a Lich King who so far does not seem interested in global domination (though the tactics he uses and encourages within the Knights of the Ebon Blade are questionable at best,) but ghosts and other necromantic horrors have always existed outside of the specific domain of the Scourge. Both the Legion and the servants of the Void have employed necromancy in the past.

While the Scourge was perhaps the most iconic and intimidating terrestrial threat (ok, Old Gods probably take precedence, though I think the Scourge's actions in Icecrown suggest that they had a certain immunity to the power of the Old Gods and thus might have given them a run for their money,) the Legion has, historically, been the greatest cosmic threat (though again, the Void that spawned the Old Gods is likely the greater danger.)

However, under Sargeras, the Legion seemed in a position to really dominate every demon in the cosmos. Demons existed before the Legion, but vast numbers of new ranks were added - we know at the very least that the Man'ari Eredar and the Satyrs were originally members of mortal races (playable ones, in fact) and we could probably assume that a lot of existing demonic races were similarly corrupted specifically by the Burning Legion.

So while we don't seem to be fighting Sargeras directly in Legion (I think he doesn't have a corporeal body to fight,) the datamined dialogue does suggest that the leadership of the Legion will truly be eliminated in one way or another. Kil'jaeden is, I believe, permanently dead at the end of the Tomb of Sargeras raid, and it's possible that Archimonde truly died at the end of Hellfire Citadel (that's tricky, as only mythic kills him within the Twisting Nether, and the cutscene implies that he's back on Draenor when he dies.)

With Sargeras and his two Eredar lieutenants gone, it really does not seem like anyone is in a good position to take up leadership of the Legion. And here's the thing: many of the demons of the Legion were only doing Sargeras' will under threat. I imagine the Eredar and the other "newer" demonic races were devoted to him in a religious way, and would seek to carry on with his Burning Crusade, but beings like the Nathrezim are unlikely to hold any true loyalty to him.

When Sargeras first discovered the Nathrezim, they were serving the Old Gods on a different planet. Given that they are so gifted in duplicity, it would not shock me in the least to discover that the Nathrezim were in fact playing all sides all along. And in the wake of Sargeras' fall, they may eagerly go back to serving the Void.

While Sargeras aligned his demonic forces in opposition to the Void (by way of all of creation,) there's nothing inherently anti-Void in demons.

So basically, after Legion, don't expect demons as a creature type to vanish all together (though they'll certainly take a backseat to things like Aberrations if we're doing Old God stuff next.)

Argus Further Impressions: Mac'Aree

Yes, I know we have a new raid finder wing, but I can't help but feel a bit focused on the upcoming patch.

Since Burning Crusade I believe introduced the world of Argus as a concept (I can't remember if those Argus Wake guys in Alterac Mountains existed already) we've more or less known only one geographical feature of the world from which the Eredar who would come to be known as the Draenei fled, and that was the capital city of Mac'aree.

Your adventures on Argus will begin in what is called at least for now "Argus Wastes," and this area will feel pretty familiar given the Legion's MO. There is some interesting new wildlife, and I think they get the feeling of a desolate, ruined, but at least somewhat still intact world in this area. Unlike, for example, Niskara, not everything is burned black with green flame, but it is still a place where there's almost no non-demonic life there.

After completing the first leg of the Argus quest chain, you'll eventually travel to Mac'aree. You can see the capital floating above the Argus Wastes in the skybox (cleverly, they tend to point you in the direction of Azeroth as you adventure across its new twin world, and you also see Mac'aree in the skybox.) Traveling to the capital, you'll be able to access a fragment of the city, the rest of which is drawn into the skybox behind, to really give you a sense of how enormous this place was.

And Mac'aree is broken, but not utterly ruined. And it certainly does not have the stereotypical Legion look. Mac'aree calls to mind much more the Warlords iteration of Shattrath, with the Draenei (well, Eredar) style of spire-like buildings. (In fact, I think they took assets created for Warlords and adjusted them only a bit to build up Mac'aree.) Far from Black and Green, Mac'aree is awash in golden grass with spots of purple vegetation and buildings of yellow, grey, and some blue. The impression this suggests is one of the city as the seat of a society that was once near-utopian. At least in the first few quests, the NPCs are largely ghost-like echoes of the ancient Eredar. You'll even go to the academy where Archimonde (and his teacher Thal'kiel) once studied and researched.

I really have to say that if you have any kind of roleplaying sensibilities and you play a Draenei character, Mac'aree perhaps even more than the Argus Wastes will feel like coming home.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Kul Tiras: Zone or Continent? Assuming We're Understanding the Leak, That Is

Much as people discovered an "Iron Horde" texture in Mists of Pandaria's 5.3 Insurrection (or whatever the pre-Siege patch was) patch, which gave us our first obscure hint of the Warlords of Draenor, much buzz is coming up around a few textures and icons that are labeled Kul Tiras, with what looks like an armor set that incorporates a lot of nautical-themed elements like ropes and anchors, as well as a rough in-game (as opposed to UI-based) map.

Given how Kul Tiras has nothing to do with Argus and that even more than the Iron Horde texture (which was just kind of a grey square) these are very clearly referring to stuff that don't seem linked to Legion, it seems very hard to come up with any explanation other than that Kul Tiras will play a role in the expansion that follows Legion.

Let's talk Kul Tiras lore:

Kul Tiras was one of the seven human kingdoms, along with Stromgarde, Lordaeron, Gilneas, Alterac, Dalaran, and Stormwind. Kul Tiras was the major naval power among the kingdoms, as it was situated on an island off the coast of the Eastern Kingdoms (not far from Tol Barad.) The monarch of Kul Tiras is called the Grand Admiral, which gives you a sense of how important sailing is to their culture. The previous Grand Admiral was Daelin Proudmoore, father of Jaina.

As Jaina was establishing Theramore down the coast from Orgrimmar, she had worked to secure a lasting peace with the newly-situated Horde. Her father, unwilling to make peace with the Alliance's old enemy, led his fleet in an attack on Orgrimmar. Jaina ultimately allowed Rexxar to lead Horde forces into Theramore to defeat and kill her own father in exchange for a lasting peace - which is why the notion that Jaina is overreacting in her current antipathy to the Horde is total absurdity. She literally sacrificed her father for peace, and was paid with the destruction of her city in return.

Since Cataclysm, Kul Tiras has been missing. While it never appeared in-game, the notion was that it was still where it had always been. However, as Tol Barad was added in that expansion, the fate of Kul Tiras remained a mystery, and devs suggested that it had been moved by the massive tectonic shifts that came with Deathwing's emergence from Deepholme.

While not officially confirmed until we get a real announcement, I strongly believe that Kul Tiras will be a location in the next expansion. The question, then, is what form it will take: A zone, or the whole expansion-spanning continent.

I'm leaning toward the former, as I think that a sea-based expansion would benefit from having other island cultures, such as a visit to Zandalar, perhaps a return to Kezan, and perhaps a journey to Nazj'atar.

To return to lore for a moment: in the apocryphal WoW tabletop RPG, Jaina had brothers, one of whom could now lead as the Grand Admiral of Kul Tiras. If these brothers are not, in fact, canonical, it would mean that technically Jaina should be the Grand Admiral and Queen of her people. Jaina has been notably absent from Legion, and it seems that trouble at home would be the only reasonable explanation.

Now, I could actually imagine Kul Tiras as a continent, even if I think it would work better as a zone. Taking the Broken Isles as an example, in ancient times, the zones of Suramar, Azsuna, the Broken Shore, and Val'sharah were all considered sort of "the Greater Suramar metropolitan area." We see this with Lordaeron and Stormwind as well, each kingdom being represented by a cluster of zones rather than a single one.

Still, given the nautical theme of Kul Tiras, I would find it very hard to imagine an ocean-faring-based expansion that does not include the aforementioned zones - particularly Nazj'atar, as I can't imagine a sea-based expansion that does not put the Naga at the forefront.

I wonder if they'll keep the level-scaling of Legion. I think it worked out well, with the one flaw being that the story couldn't really develop zone-to-zone as you leveled up, and that if you picked your zones in the wrong order, you could feel handicapped (like if you got a class quest sending you to Azsuna right after you'd chosen Stormheim as the zone you were heading to next.) Certainly it helped provide max-level content - I'm happy to have now six zones to do world quests in instead of being stuck with only Suramar and Broken Shore (even if Suramar might be my favorite zone in the expansion.)

We don't have a trademark for an expansion title, which I think will give us a much clearer idea of what the expansion will be, but we can infer a huge amount of information from the presence of Kul Tiras items. If you're feeling skeptical about this, I would consider that the quality of these textures is really way too much to dismiss them as meaningless. Aside from an epilogue-patch trip to Kul Tiras (which again, seems to have utterly nothing to do with Argus and the Legion) that seems incredibly unlikely (I don't think we've ever gotten a whole new zone after the final raid tier; the biggest thing we ever got as an "epilogue" patch was a one-boss raid in the Ruby Sanctum,) the only other explanation I could give you for this is a setting for a new expansion.

Gamescom, which is where they announced Legion two years ago, runs August 22nd-26th, and Blizzcon runs November 3rd-4th. I wouldn't be shocked if they announced the next expansion at Gamescom to keep up the sense that there's something coming, though 7.3 is unlikely to go live until the end of summer or the beginning of fall. Before Mists, new expansions were always announced before the final patch of the current one came out, and while I can tell you I'm happy to focus on Argus right now (holy crap am I excited for Argus) I also think it's wise for Blizzard to always keep players aware of what is coming next with WoW. The Siege of Orgrimmar and even more Hellfire Citadel patches seemed to go on for an eternity largely because for a big stretch of both, we had no idea what was coming next. Giving players something to speculate about and await with eager anticipation is never a bad idea.