The Pace of a Boss Fight – Why Sylvanas Is An Awful Fight Design

Sire Denathrius in Castle Nathria was a boss with some interesting breakpoints in his fight. Phase 1 demanded perfect execution against simple mechanics, but a part of that was that you had to be able to turn DPS off as needed to push the fight properly – a feat that wasn’t always that easy given that WoW still has a lot of passive damage and ticking DoTs baked in. As a fight, however, the pacing was pretty alright – there was a sprint to 71%, a stop, a brief intermission, and then it was off to the races against 1-6 targets for the rest.

Sylvanas tries, in my estimation, to learn from the phase 1 issues many raids with “enthusiastic” DPS had on Sire. The first phase is a locked transition with a forced ability order to set you up for (theoretical) success in phases 2 and 3.

There’s a problem, though.

Progressing Sylvanas as a fight is dull as hell, because a well-rounded group should get phase 1 down relatively quickly, and phase 2 is a pattern recognition exercise nightmare that leads to the actual fight, phase 3.

But once you start learning phase 3, each wipe takes a near 10 minute pull to get back to. Yikes.

The Sylvanas fight in Sanctum of Domination is perhaps one of the worst endbosses I feel like I’ve progressed, solely down to the fact that the fight has no groove and is a disjointed nightmare of separate events. A lot of WoW’s modern, gotta-beat-DBM boss design boils down to pushing overlapping timers at players to create tension, and that’s fine, but Sylvanas has layers of this on top of other layers.

So I thought I wanted to visit this topic today, on top of a bunch of others in subsequent posts, because my raid leader brought up the pacing discussion yesterday and I found myself in agreement, wanting to share it. My raid team is still working on Sylvanas, but this last Monday, I got into a PUG for the fight and got my AOTC done (and a ring with crit, my least desirable secondary…!) so I have some perspectives to share and discuss.

Phase 1: Nothing Really Matters That Much

The goal of phase 1 is survival more than anything. A big part of that is learning mechanics for later, as short of a couple phase-specific mechanics, everything is practice. Get used to running arrow debuffs out, get used to dodging the various purple swirlies, get used to the boss being floaty but compensating for it with melee getting to attack where she was when Windrunner started, etc. The other goal is to get her to 83%. Now, obviously, these goals are in tension with one another but also overlap – a faster sprint to 83% means fewer Domination Arrow phases and less overall damage, and the overall encounter has an enrage timer you’re fighting against so you can’t take forever here either.

The problem is that there isn’t much meat on the bones of this phase, and failures to escape it come down purely to failure to execute. If you position decently, keep on top of freeing people from Domination Arrows, and ensure high-stack players with the Barbed Arrow debuff get cleared by Domination Arrows, then nothing else in this phase can kill you (oh, also, stand safely when Sylvanas throws her end of phase temper-tantrum). You also want the DPS performance to push to 83% with a safe gap between the Domination Arrows she casts before it and the one she casts on everyone to close the phase – you can have DPS on a cusp where you get arrow overlap, which is easily managed but also sucks and feels bad.

Coupling with this are some oddly difficult mechanics. Gauging distance on the Domination Arrows to ensure you are grabbed suitably seems easy, but it can be easy to mess up or miss and feels somewhat buggy. Last night, I had 6 stacks of Barbed Arrow to clear on one pull and couldn’t get an arrow to grab me to save my life, so I had to blow my defensives in phase 1 to stay alive as I took a comparable amount of raw incoming DPS to a tank! The rest of the mechanics are fine enough, but I still feel very disoriented at times from the visual of Windrunner – as melee, I know that her casting it means stay where I am and wail on her image, but the flips and visual mess of her bouncing around the platform feels odd and overloading.

But, if you have a good raid team, this phase should be over pretty quick and should only take a few practice attempts to get right, and while the hard DPS cap is annoying, it does at least feel somewhat better than the Sire phase 1 mechanic where you had to hard shutoff. The Sire mechanic is skill-based and intuitive, I get that – I just don’t like it (and if you raid with parse-chasers people will push that boundary and test the limits of it, haha). I would still rate Sylvanas phase 1 as a downgrade from Sire, in that Sire had more interesting mechanics, although a part of the overload of that fight as a whole is that phase 1 is loaded with mechanics that mostly don’t show up the rest of the fight.

Phase 2: The Most Annoying, Frustrating, Bullshit In A WoW Fight Ever

Okay, angry hyperbole aside, this is the phase that makes the fight a pacing disaster.

Phase 1 ends on a relative soft note and you back off to avoid mechanics since you can’t really meaningfully damage Sylvanas anyways, fine. Phase 2 is mostly a…platformer game. Again here, I have to say – movement mechanics are fine and having to be fully in control of your character as the fight mechanics push you to move differently is fine – it’s a skill check. What makes this frustrating is the tedium of the phase. The start of the phase is strictly a movement check – run across, mind the gap, don’t get hit by Haunting Wave. There’s no incentive for racing here, so once you understand that, it’s pretty basic – just get across at your best pace mindfully.

The timings in this phase are fine and are meant to be DPS checks – you need to kill your Mawforged adds quickly on each platform to get the next bridge to spawn in time to get to Sylvanas for Ruin interrupts. Mechanically, however, the fight gets to an extreme amount of area denial with Crushing Doubt debuffs, Haunting Wave pushes and Darkness circles, topped off with Banshee’s Wail for that extra spread. Largely, once the movement and target selection is down, this part of the fight is a slow slog of movement and a healer check. Very little about this phase is exciting and good attempts can be washed away if you glitch the bridge, don’t mind the gap, or expect one spawn pattern for the bridge and get another, because it can change!

Mostly, what I hate about this phase is that it is a clear timewaster phase – you only bring Sylvanas down by up to 10% of her health in this phase and the target is around 6% for a raid group closer to the margins, so the rest of the phase is down to add management and movement management, neither of which are particularly exciting and which this phase and its design go out of their way to make as painful as possible. Very little about this phase gives you anything fun to chew on – just amble across the bridges correctly and mind your debuffs. The DPS check component is real, but the adds also seem to melt with proper target selection, so there’s not a lot of tension unless your group is underperforming or doing the platforming parts too slowly.

After you get through this absolute slog, the real fight begins!

Phase 3: Arrows, Banshee’s Bane, and You

Phase 3 is the real fight, in actuality, and yeah sure, that sounds like a weird thing to say, but this is absolutely where the progression happens – 8-10 minutes deep into the fight. Yep.

I actually like the design of Phase 3 overall, because it has a more reliably predictable version of area denial that made Sire phase 3 hard – instead of picking a focus target to obscure a portion of the room, it’s the active platform that Sylvanas denies after some time by casting Raze, which makes the fight have a predictable pattern and cadence to it that allows the other mechanics to be a little bit more wild. The use of Wailing Arrow as a bomb is interesting and it plays with the way the encounter space is designed in a really good way, especially because it also becomes a modifier later on when you’re on that last platform and trying to eke out a win.

The only mechanic that is somewhat frustrating on Heroic is the interaction of Banshee’s Bane and Fury. Banshee’s Bane are the absorbable blobs of goo on the ground, which replant when dispelled – the idea being that a tank or sturdy person of some sort grab a bunch, place them in a predictable corner to control the space better, and then is dispelled. You have healer control in check here, since you don’t want to blindly dispel the debuff, and you have area control and management as a part of the toolkit – great elements to test in a fight like this. The challenge here is the interaction with Banshee’s Fury and the nature of ground debuffs in general – the area of the initial visual effect does not match the patch left behind (it is smaller for once, at least!) and because of the scattered, random placement, non-designated players are likely to get at least 1 or 2 stacks of the Bane. When Fury is cast, the new Heroic mechanic, Sylvanas explodes each of those debuffs still on players for 10k damage to the entire group, per stack. At 1 stack, that sucks. 2 stacks, you’re probably losing someone, and 3 stacks or higher is likely to be fatal to the raid unless extreme measures are taken.

All this means is that you have to be meticulous at clearing the platforms and controlling dispels – you need players with the debuff to get to the safe zone and get dispelled quickly, you need the boss tanked away from the safe zone to allow debuffs to drop safely without being picked up immediately again on dispel, and you need to manage a rotation of healing and damage reduction cooldowns for the Fury even without stacks of Bane on people in order to effectively survive the incoming damage without losing people.

If the fight was just phase 3, I’d actually love it. I think there would be a cool concept there, with the timer ticking on each platform to push harder and harder against insurmountable odds. However, we have to evaluate the fight as a cohesive whole, and that is where the problems lie.

The Fight As A Whole

As far as WoW fights go, I’m perfectly fine with marathons as last bosses. 12 minute pulls are alright if there is a steady progress through phases and the time builds up per pull as you get better. The problem with Sylvanas is that she is not that – she’s a marathon, yes, but the meaningful bits of progression are all phase 3. Phase 1 progress is just jitters getting out – any group that’s done normal should be able to pass through it fairly simply after some adaptation, since the major new mechanic is that being close to your own Domination Arrow will one-shot you. Everything else is the same – and managed well, plays identically short of melee not being able to smack around their own DAs. Phase 2 is bad on all difficulties because it just isn’t fun – it’s a race but you need to move measuredly, it’s a DPS check but only against very specific targets with a lot of filler added, and the overall pacing is abysmal – a lot of time spent not really playing your character but instead just running.

And that is the real problem in many ways – phases 1 and 2 are not really meaningful bits of gameplay or learning, and they feel very similar across all difficulties save for Mythic, and even Mythic phase 1 is very similar in execution save for a stack management mechanic on Domination Arrows. These parts of the fight are simple – perhaps not easy for some raids, but they are simple to wrap your head around and execute against and don’t require too much management of cooldowns or defensives.

So the big progress block is Phase 3, and that’s normal, but the problem is that the vast majority of the actual fight time is spent doing the first two phases, and then 3 is a quick sprint to the end, either to a progression wipe or to a kill. Similar in many ways to how Sire was a fight about later-phase progression, Sylvanas is that to the max – Sire had meaningful progress to be made on both P2 and P3, where Sylvanas is won or lost in learning Phase 3 mostly. And the path to get to that phase is long, winding, and somewhat dull – a lot of phases of stopped DPS, a lot of phases of pure inactivity, and generally just a lot of waiting for things to happen while playing a fairly standard rotation with some movement requirements. The overlapping mechanics are implemented between a mix of timers and health values that have some conflicts, but not in the traditional way. For example, Domination Arrows on P1 can be triggered normally by timer close to the phase 1.5 transition set of DAs, which might normally make you think double-arrows and people hooked by two. Instead, what it means is that Sylvanas waits there until you clear the arrows from the first cast and then immediately sets up the second, so the phase elongates without a meaningful progression of difficulty (although the arrow DoT can challenge healers with so many stacks out over a short window).

This leads to a fight that feels sort of odd, janky, and unsatisfying. The fight stops and starts in weird ways, has mechanics without meaningful synergy, and feels like wasted potential. Phase 2 could be an interesting tug of war to interrupt Ruin, but it rarely feels that way once your group gets the tempo of the moves right, and even then it largely boils down to having a speed racer (warrior leaps, DH leaps or rushes, shamans dropping Wind Rush Totems) who can get to the interrupt in a timely manner while the DPS of the group burns the necessary adds to keep the raid pushing towards Sylvanas.

And so I’m left with a sort of weird feeling – the fight is interesting in some ways, and I really do quite like phase 3 overall and the way it stretches your raid in unique ways, but the rest of the fight is kind of an unfun slog. It’s funny in a way, because when I wrote about the Denathrius AOTC pull, there was this real sense of excitement in the raid that we had done it. I think that will be there in some measure for Sylvanas, but I think the bigger part will be relief – freedom from the fight, achievement earned, item levels averaging closer to what Sylvanas on Heroic already drops as-is, and then begins what is likely to be a very long wait for the next raid tier, one not likely until Spring 2022 at the earliest.

Sylvanas is a race – a run on uneven track, one designed to disorient and frustrate you all in order to prevent you from realizing that the design just isn’t that great in the first place.


2 thoughts on “The Pace of a Boss Fight – Why Sylvanas Is An Awful Fight Design

  1. Mythic raiding is the apex of wow currently. I can understand your thoughts on this but talking about sylvannas is this manner is just silly. Go back two bosses to Nzoth, a horrifically boring LONG boss, and when you look at all these bosses when it comes to mythic theyre all the same. The ending of the fight is the most intense and difficult part after you just spent close to 10 minutes getting to it. Youre just being silly.


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