The School of Hard Naxx
Awful pun. Thanks for clicking the link anyway. I promise it will get better from here.
I often wonder how exactly new WoW players learn to raid in the post-WotLK world. WoW was my first MMO experience and the time I’d spent playing console games with friends before getting into WoW really did nothing to prepare me for working within a complex co-op environment. The games I played were usually only for 2-4 players, not the 10-25 it takes to raid now, and no multiplayer game I tried had anything like the holy trinity of tank / healer / DPS.
For me, all of my initial knowledge about how to raid came from one quiet weekend in February of 2009 when my guild offered to let me tag along on their weekly Naxxramas run. I’d expressed some interest in learning how to tank on my Death Knight when she hit 80, so some friends helped me get enough tanking gear to be defense capped, took me through heroic Utgarde Keep to give me the most basic instruction in tanking mechanics like using line-of-sight, and within just a week or two I was scheduled to raid with them. The first time I tanked Naxx, I think I had about 17,000 health.
The title of this post isn’t just a terrible pun, it’s also not exactly accurate. The WotLK version of Naxx wasn’t hard, particularly for raiders who had just come from Sunwell at the end of BC. Even for guilds like the one I was in at the start of Wrath (for which raiding was not a top priority), Naxx wasn’t particularly difficult – we could usually clear all of its 15 bosses within 2 or 3 hours. That was nothing compared to the speed runs dedicated guilds pulled off shortly after the raid launched, but we also had a different agenda in mind.
Long after Ulduar and Crusader’s Colliseum released, that guild continued to come back to Naxxramas most weeks. It certainly wasn’t because we loved the place; it was because Naxx was the ideal environment to train future raiders, and to give people a chance to raid who never thought they could.
Naxx was such a perfect training ground because it had a wide variety of boss mechanics but still managed to be extremely forgiving to beginner mistakes. Though there were a lot of complaints that Naxx was under-tuned, for a group of people who often had to worry that a tank or healer might die, or that 2 skilled DPS might have to carry 4 others who were well below average, this relative ease gave us a chance to learn how to play.
Tanks learned about taunt-swap mechanics on fights like Gluth and Razuvious, picking up adds on Anub’Rekhan and Grand Widow, and complex movement on Heigan. My first sense that I was going to love tanking came when I saw Grand Widow for the first time. I was given add duty and told that all I needed to do was keep agro on the adds but not kill them (more difficult than it sounds for a DK tank at the beginning of Wrath), until somehow our main tank died. I ran over to the boss and managed to pick her up, along with the remaining adds, and we still downed the fight. It was my first experience of getting to “save the day,” and I was hooked.
Months later, when I leveled my druid because our raid group needed a healer, I got my first taste of raid healing in Naxx - even though Ulduar would have been current content then. Though our guild had moved on somewhat in its progression, we still returned to Naxx often because it was such a good place for raid training. New alts would go through Naxx to get their players comfortable with playing a different role and/or class, and we frequently took fresh first-time 80s there as well. We brought along players who had only the most minimal concept of what it meant to play their classes at endgame, people who were speced and geared wildly incorrectly and who couldn’t beat our tanks in DPS. We brought them because we knew that if they experienced a raid they would love it, and conversations about how to improve would happen more naturally once they got a taste of what raiding was about. How can you explain to someone why they need to be hit-capped if all they’ve ever done is grind quest mobs? How can you talk about rotations and managing cooldowns when you’ve never taken longer than 10 seconds to kill something? Though our system meant that, to some extent, we had to “carry” new raiders through Naxx their first few times, it also gave them a chance to see whether raiding was something they enjoyed enough to learn more about.
Naxx wasn’t the only raid to have a reputation as a good training ground – many BC raiders talk about Karazhan in similar terms. A system like this wasn’t perfect; we ran into some trouble with unskilled raiders who saw success in the under-tuned Naxxramas and believed this would translate to immediate success in Ulduar and beyond. At its worst, powering our under-geared and unskilled new raiders through Naxx might have given some of them a sense of entitlement about working through more challenging current content (not entirely unlike what I discussed in my last post on progressive nerfs). But at its best, “Naxx U” gave new raiders a giant boost of confidence and interest in raiding that could push them to do more research about their class, their role, and the game. If someone hadn’t decided to “carry” me through Naxx when I had no business being there, I wouldn’t be raiding today.
Learning to Raid Post-Wrath
Where do new raiders learn how to raid now? Tier 11 was the exact opposite of Naxx in that it was the first tier of the expansion and also the hardest. Many of its mechanics were entirely unforgiving and it suffered from having several fights in which a single player’s mistake could wipe the rest of the raid. While this makes for interesting and challenging fights for seasoned raiders, it is not an environment where you want to train anyone.
Cataclysm’s Heroic 5 mans (the ones that shipped with Cata, not the Hour of Twilight heroics) do a lot of the work to prepare players to make the jump from dungeons to raiding. Cata’s heroic bosses are more challenging than any we’ve seen in prior expansions because they each have several complex mechanics to test players. Learning to juggle adds, and a debuff, and a boss who enrages all within the same fight gives us some opportunity to experience the sort of multi-tasking we’ll have to do when we fight a real raid boss. It’s one reason why I enjoyed the difficulty of Cata’s un-nerfed heroics at the beginning of the expansion. They were challenging, but they warned us about what was to come in the even greater challenge that was tier 11.
No 5 man dungeon, however, can ever prepare a tank or a healer for the experience of having to work as a part of a tanking or healing team. This is something that happens exclusively in the raid environment or, now, in LFR. A lot has already been written about whether or not LFR is a tool that properly initiates people into the raiding world. I believe that LFR is an important tool for a new raider because it exposes them to the scale and complexity of a raid – but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that any new raider would come out of an LFR experience with the slightest notion as to why anything happened the way it did. On the rare occasions when anyone bothers to explain any aspect of a fight in LFR, no context is given because there isn’t enough time to do so before someone gets antsy and pulls. The most information that is given is what to kill, where to stand, and (maybe) when to hit that illusive button on Ultraxion.
LFR can’t possibly be treated as a true learning experience for new raiders because it lacks any sense of community or mentorship. No one in LFR is really invested in any of the other players getting better at what they do, because we’re unlikely to meet those strangers again. It is often faster to let new players die to mechanics they’re unaware of or don’t understand and then rez them after the fight is over than it would be to just properly explain the boss. LFR is designed for convenience and speed – not for education.
I can’t say enough how important a community experience was for me when I was first learning about raiding. In a game like WoW where the term “Elitist Jerk” is used as much as a badge of honor as it is an insult, breaking into the raiding endgame can be hugely intimidating. New raiders need to know that they are running with a safety net – in a safe space in which they are allowed to screw up, to misunderstand, and to need to see a fight before it makes sense to them. LFR is the anti-safe space, and Cataclysm’s raids on normal difficulty have fights that are complex enough as to overwhelm new raiders.
As WoW gets older and its player base becomes more seasoned and sophisticated, raid encounters will only continue to become more complicated. For those of us who already know what we’re doing, this is part of the natural progression of raiding, and an absolute necessity if WoW’s new raids are going to keep us entertained. But where does that leave new players? If Raiding 101 at Naxx U and Karazhan College is a thing of the past, in what environment can a new raider acquire the skills she needs to make it in the raiding world?
If you learned to raid during Cataclysm, how did you do so? For those who have been around longer, do you feel that the lack of an “entry-level” raid instance makes it more challenging to train new raiders? Does LFR have any value as a teaching tool? How did your community help you when you first learned to raid?