Thursday, January 16, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part III - The Art of Combat

It's been a couple of months since I transferred my rogue to Illidan. Since that time I've attained the PvP power cap in WoW by gearing her up in full Grievous, and have ganked over 100 people on the server. I started making a list of my victims, but stopped after a while because I didn't see the point in it. What does it mean, to gank a number of interchangeable Horde? Pure quantity means nothing, and proves nothing. It's far more impressive for someone to say that they have attained 2k in the ladder competition than it is to say that they have ganked over 2000 people in world PvP. For this reason I am finding it difficult to maintain my ganking mojo, because it appears to be more and more meaningless. The only real good reason to keep ganking appears to be based on pitting my rogue against longer and longer odds to see whether or not she can survive.

Horde Occupied Illidan

Illidan appears deserted on the Alliance side. Walking around the Shrine of Seven Stars I am lucky to see two or three other Alliance pottering about, but this is on par with my experience on my main server on Thorium Brotherhood, which is also quite empty. The biggest difference for me is the lack of activity on the Auction House on the Alliance side – most items are either unavailable or grossly overpriced. It's difficult to sell items either – despite repeated attempts I have been unable to sell any engineering scopes, which I had hoped to be my rogue's main source of income. There is a work around for this based on moving items to the other side via the neutral Auction Houses and selling the items on the Horde side, but for now my rogue will just have to do with the gold she carried with her when she transferred over. In order to see how the other side lived my rogue went on a stealth mission to Orgrimmar and the Shrine of Two Moons. The difference was stark – these places were teeming with Horde going about their business, a far cry from the desolation found in the cities of the Alliance.

Sneaking above the Horde in the Halfhill inn.

The difference was starker when I went out in the world. In the two months I have been on Illidan I have met one other Alliance player wandering out in the wilds of Pandaria. It was a dwarf warrior whose name eludes me, but when we saw each other we both emoted a /gasp of surprise, /waved, and then went on about our business. I have assisted guildies being camped or fighting out in the world when they asked for help in guild chat, but aside from these instances where I was actually called out I have not met any other Alliance in the world at large. The Timeless Isle is unsurprisingly dominated by the Horde. Dominated is too weak a word – there are NO Alliance present on the Timeless Isle at all. If there are any I have yet to meet them in my wanderings.

The lack of players present in the world is misleading however, because Alliance players are in the game in significant numbers. When I went to Ironforge during the Winter Veil festival the place was veritably teeming with Alliance. It was a far cry from the impressions given by the numbers on the WoWProgress and US Population websites, which would seem to suggest that Alliance players were almost non-existent. I joined one of the biggest guilds on the Alliance side, and at any given time there are 20 to 30 players online. The biggest difference was that they simply weren't out in Pandaria – they were in instanced spaces, or dispersed over Azeroth levelling their low toons. Clearly the Timeless Isle was off-limits given the prevalence of the Horde, but the rest of Azeroth is a massive place, and the Alliance are out there, questing quietly in the empty spaces and scattering like mice when the Horde roll up.



PvE versus PvP Gear

When I first started my campaign I was under the impression that I would just roll up to the server and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting denizens of Illidan. While this was true with obvious newbies and non-PvPing PvErs, I found that experienced players gave me a run for my money and drove me away or killed me once they recovered from the shock of being ambushed. I also found that PvErs have a decisive gear advantage in world PvP, especially Heroically geared PvErs. I dueled a Heroically geared PvE enhancement shaman with my feral druid and I was completely shocked when I was three shotted. My druid can regularly tank burst from two to three DPS in Arenas and Rated BGs when I pop all my defensive CDs (Heart of the Wild/Survival Instincts/Might of Ursoc/Barkskin) but in the case of World PvP it didn't really matter at all – the shaman popped all his offensive CDs and dispatched me in less than five seconds. I found a way to win after getting smashed four or five times in a row, and this entailed getting the opener, getting some bleeds in, running away in order to restealth before the shaman could react, and reopening again. This allowed me to get a win or two, but this only worked because the shaman had no PvP experience at all (I looked at his achievements). Any halfway decent player would have destroyed me, and eventually this guy clued in to what I was doing, made the necessary adjustments and ripped me apart with superior firepower. This is a big source of complaint for many PvPers in WoW, and it is annoying to think that someone who can't PvP worth a damn can absolutely destroy people based purely on non-PvP gear. Nonetheless it is a non-issue for me because there is nothing significant at stake in WoW open world PvP. As stated in previous posts, we're not fighting for strategic objectives, or defending player built structures. We're not fighting for Honor or Conquest points, since these can be earned more efficiently elsewhere. We're not even fighting to stay alive, given the very lenient death penalty. It begs the question of "what are we fighting for?" Factional loyalty might have meant something in the early days of WoW, when you recognised that Southshore was Alliance turf and Tauren Mill was Horde. Nowadays my Rated BG team fights Alliance teams as much as Horde, and as far as I can tell, the only distinguishing factors between Alliance and Horde from a PvP perspective are the skins, and the racial abilities they have access to.

Powering up PvE gear over PvP is just a measure to protect PvErs from gankers like myself, and you can't really fault Blizzard for catering to their main subscriber base. I've noticed that the pejorative term “PvE heroes” has crept back in the lexicon of many PvPers I meet in OQueue nowadays, but PvErs have been on the receiving end of ganks over the years and it's really just a case of the wheel turning once again. Real PvP in WoW is found in ladder play, and since gear becomes scaled down in ladder matches this gear differential doesn't really matter. The big challenge for Blizzard will be the world PvP zone they are planning to implement in the upcoming expansion, because in this case something will be at stake. I guess the easy fix will be that items will be scaled down the same way once players are in the zone, but only time will tell what solution they decide on.

The counter-intuitive realisation I came to once I had moved to Illidan was that while unbalanced servers are not fun for the minority faction, they also rob the majority faction of the chance to engage in world PvP. Alliance are so rare in the world in Illidan that whenever I stir up a bit of trouble a veritable hornet's nest of Horde descend upon the area simply out of pure disbelief. It's like someone sighting Bigfoot or the Yeti, and it draws a pack of interested sightseers who are starved of any kind of world PvP. From this perspective seriously unbalanced servers are a disservice to legitimate world PvPers on either side, and the only real winners are players who flock to the majority faction in order to avoid engaging in world PvP while simultaneously claiming that they “live” on a PvP server. If there was a way for me to weed out these types of players they would be my targets of choice. I can't really talk, however, since by being a rogue I am effectively gaming the system too, giving myself the luxury of picking my fights while avoiding the retribution which would be my due if I wasn't playing a stealth class. Bottom line is, unbalanced servers hurt everyone. While asymmetrical encounters are the norm in world PvP, the bedrock of the system should be at least formal parity between the factions. It is the easiest, and perhaps the most fundamental aspect under the control of the developers. The fact that Blizzard tolerates such skewed populations is a tacit admission of barrenness of their world PvP system.



Learning the Art of Combat

The biggest impediment to my fledgling ganking career was not Horde numerical superiority nor PvE/PvP gear differential, but rather my complete ineptitude as a rogue. My co-mains are my holy paladin and my hunter, and so the rogue was relatively new to me in terms of play style and number of games played under my belt. After getting schooled by a monk when I was 87 I became semi-serious and started researching my class and spec, as well as practising more in randoms and 2s once I hit 90. I don't simply want to pick on newbies and the unsuspecting – I also want to present a credible threat to good PvPers and PvErs in equivalent or higher gear. There will always be players better than me – the ladder has taught me that – but if I'm going to gank, I'm going to be the best ganker I can be.

Another impediment to my aspirations as a melee class is that I still keyboard turn. I don't have this problem when I'm healing on my monk or my pallie, but oddly enough I still retain this habit when I play melee. This is a big no no, and I keep getting told to invest in a Razor Naga and to relearn my control method. This is sound advice, but I've decided not to take it. Firstly, I'm going to jump to TESO in April, which means time spent relearning my control method will be wasted anyway, and would be better spent on the new game. Secondly, keyboard turning is not as crucial for healing and ranged classes as it is for melee. Heals can heal “over their shoulder” and ranged classes are not usually required to make radical changes in facing and direction due to their play style and the ranges that they work with. Nonetheless I recognise this as a major defect in my game play, and it impacts my proficiency as a rogue.

I chose Combat as my main spec once I had enough points for the Grievous weapons. Once I spent my Conquest points my choice was locked in for the foreseeable future – Subtlety and Assassination both required daggers as weapons as opposed to swords/maces/axes/fist weapons for Combat, and so my choice of weapons dictated my spec until I completely max out my Grievous gear and am able to buy Grievous daggers with Honor. I chose Combat because it seemed the simplest out of all the three specs and therefore the easiest to learn. Subtlety has been the PvP spec for the longest time, but after doing my research I found that Combat had become competitive due to the changes implemented in 5.4. Woundman (a world championship level rogue) played Combat to 2k at the start of this season, and although he has since reverted back to Subtlety, his achievement has shown that Combat is a competitive spec. Killing Spree can now be used as a single target ability, and coupled with the burst trinket and Deep Insight can put out an amazing amount of damage in a short amount of a time. The fact that it gives the rogue immunity to CCs and peels while it is up makes it handy for forcing early defensive CDs. Another thing I like about Combat is the 8 second Kidney Shots (once the Revealing Strike debuff is on the target). Kidney Shot plus Prey on the Weak (10% extra damage on stunned targets) is a vicious combo, and is ideal for swaps. Since your team mates benefit from the extra 10% damage too, an ideal use for Kidney Shot is to call a swap on a target who has no Controlled Stun diminishing returns on them, Kidney them for 8 seconds and just go batshit on them. Hopefully they have already popped a trinket so they have to sit the whole 8 seconds, and in most cases it will be enough to land a kill.

Woundman (on the right with the long hair) is one of the leading rogues in the world, and early in S14 he showed that Combat can be a viable spec in 5.4.

The problem of Combat is that unlike Sub rogues who can Shadowdance every minute, Combat rogues have to time their burst to coincide with three major CDs – Killing Spree (2 minute CD), Adrenaline Rush (3 minute CD) and Shadow Blades (3 minute CD). I macro Adrenaline Rush and Shadow Blades together so effectively I have two major offensive CDs – Killing Spree every two minutes, and an Adrenaline Rush/Shadow Blades combo every three minutes. This is mitigated somewhat by Restless Blades, which reduces the CD on these abilities by two seconds per combo point used in a finisher (i.e. 10 seconds for a full five point finisher). I don't know what the real net CD becomes when you take these into consideration, but other Combat rogues have estimated that the real CD becomes approximately 90 seconds for Killing Spree and about two minutes for Adrenaline Rush/Shadow Blades. This is clearly dependent on how many finishers you can put out in the intervening period, and perhaps is the reason why Combat is called Combat – you have to stay in combat and fight in order to lower the CD on your major offensive abilities.

For this reason I've picked defensive talents on my rogue in order to boost her chances in survival in protracted fights. Feint is useful but I have to discipline myself to use it more often and I often end up wasting it. I also chose Combat Readiness over Nerve Strike, simply because it lasts longer, can be used on demand, and people in the six seconds after a Nerve Strike aren't really DPSing anyway, they are spending the first few seconds getting away from the rogue which means the damage mitigation only goes into effect in the last few seconds. On the other hand, Combat Readiness has a two minute CD, while Nerve Strike occurs automatically after every Cheap Shot and Kidney. The jury is still out on this one.



Ganking in a Meaningless World

I got my 1550+ achievement on my rogue so I'm out of the beginner phase and in the early stages of intermediate play. My own personal ranking systems runs like this – if you don't have the 1550+ achievement you are a beginner on that toon, if you are between 1550+ and 2000 you are an intermediate player, and if you have 2k or above you are advanced. By this criteria I am an intermediate player at best even on my mains since the best rating I have ever achieved is 1900+. I give kudos to players above 2k or more, because I know how hard it is to get there, having tried so hard and failed for so long. This is probably as good as I get, and having come to that realisation, the time is ripe for a move to The Elder Scrolls Online after almost nine years in WoW. In my remaining few months however, I'm going to make my rogue the best she can be, and try to keep pushing rating with my mains until TESO releases on April 4. But honestly, ganking lost its lustre very quickly for me. I need objectives and goals, and while the pure act of engaging in PvP combat still retains some of its charm, it is fleeting and short-lived. I can sustain myself somewhat with role-playing justifications, but ultimately without a corresponding structure within the game itself (i.e. the battle for the throne in TESO) it becomes an exercise in self-delusion. I cannot pretend to be “testing” myself against other players either, because a purer and more accurate format already exists for that in ladder PvP.

Hatakeyama surveys the carnage and finds it good. The skeletal remains mark the points where her victims fell.
More victims, viewed from the reverse angle. Most of the Horde that fell here were lured onto the guards who then attacked them. As long as you don't use any offensive moves the guards will not aggro onto you, but usually at this point the Horde are too mad to restrain themselves.

Despite my pretensions of maturity I guess that I am not immune to the lure of harvesting tears, which is the basest and honestly the most common reason why gankers exist. As I get older and hopefully more mature this type of justification loses its attraction, although it is a guilty pleasure I still occasionally indulge in. My rogue is based in the inn at Halfhill, and everytime she logs in she is surrounded by enemy Horde. I have to admit to a certain amount of glee when she runs around and kills people either AFK in the inn itself, or casually reading their mail at the steps to the inn. The biggest pleasure I derive from engaging in world PvP is flirting with the line between ganking people and escaping the swarms of vengeful Horde looking for payback. I enjoy the inevitable attempts at retribution that usually follow a gank in Halfhill, which usually consists of four to five Horde sweeping the inn's interiors and exteriors in a mostly futile attempt to find me. There is a thrill to be had in picking off people who stray a little too far from the group, dancing on the razor's edge of getting a kill or being cornered and killed myself. The biggest decisions I always have to make in world PvP when surrounded by multiple threats is whether to use my last Vanish or not – it is akin to the safety net below the tightrope walker, and once it is gone, I am committed to the fight to the bitter end regardless of how it turns out. This for me is where the fun of world PvP in WoW is, and I find myself going for riskier and riskier targets in search of vicarious thrills. When I started out I would never attack anyone unless they were alone with no other Horde in sight. Nowadays as soon as I log into Halfhill I am immediately on the offensive. I attack people reading their mail even if there are two to three other Horde standing close by. I attack people as they land at the flight path. Dying is a non-issue – the rez point is less than 30 seconds away. The fun for me lies in how many skeletal remains can I scatter around Halfhill and how much a pain in the ass I can be before I am finally brought to ground. It's a very shallow playstyle, but it is all I have until TESO comes out on April 4. On this date I change from being a ganker and a griefer to a scout, a reconnaissance unit, perhaps a diversionary unit, even into a front line soldier in the battle for the Ruby Throne. I can't wait.