I Spent New Year’s Eve Getting Dragonflight Keystone Master Season One, and I Have No Regrets

Well, as the clock rolled over to 1:55 AM PST on 1/1/2023, I did it.

The last time I documented a Keystone Master grind was in Season 2 of Shadowlands, when some rapid-fire pugging led to excellent results, with me getting KSM near the start of the third week of the season. I honestly didn’t quite expect to get KSM so quickly this time out, for all the reasons that doing anything at the start of a new expansion is often challenging – a diversity of new activities to do, a larger gear curve (For me in Shadowlands Season 2, I was only 29 item levels under the theoretical maximum I could reach from doing keys, while in Dragonflight Season 1, I was 41 away to start the season and even now I’m still 25 item levels average away from a full 421 loadout!), and then, of course, there is the holidays and a need to balance social events and family time with wanting to push very hard and very fast on keys. I wrote in my early impressions post about DF Season 1 that I saw myself maybe doing a brisk month for KSM in a very noncommittal way, because, well, who knew if I could pull it off?

Well, on the other side, here I am, with my ugly icy scaly boy, my Thundering title, an item level average approaching 397 (only 393 in heals, though!) and experience with all 3 roles in dungeons on a single character. Let’s recap the journey, discuss the pain points and the dizzying triumphs, and analyze if I’ll keep doing keys past this point, given that in the past, KSM was sort of my cutoff point where I gave it up.

The Ratings Climb – Not So Bad

With the extension of gear rewards in Dragonflight to cover keystones up to level 20, that led to some fair amount of speculation about how Blizzard would manage the non-gear rewards for keystones. So far, the answer is easy – mostly the same, and maybe even easier.

Keystone Master went through a big change for Season 2 in Shadowlands, going from a flat achievement of doing each dungeon timed on a +15 key once to the new rating system, cribbed from Raider.io – you had to earn 2,000 (or 2,500 with 10 dungeons in the pool) Mythic Rating to get the mount reward, a rating requirement which equates to doing each dungeon on a +15 twice, roughly – once on Tyrannical as base affix, and once on Fortified. In Shadowlands Season 2, this required roughly that level of play, although it was easy to find small loopholes to avoid having to push hated dungeons too high – if you could blitz a dungeon on a +16, that would ease the rating elsewhere, but generally, I found getting to SL S2 KSM (alphabet soup!) required me doing nearly every dungeon on a +15 twice, with a +16 timed run offsetting the need to do another dungeon as high, so I ended with a +16, mostly +15s, and then one or two +14 and a single +13 run adding up to get that 2,000 rating. In Dragonflight? Well, the requirements are ever so slightly easier…

So if you haven’t read Raider.io before, here’s the easy rundown – the numbers without stars means I failed the timer, but cleared fast enough for rating still, and the number of stars corresponded to x-chesting a run, where one chest is just meeting the timer, two is beating it by 20%, and 3 is beating it by 40% of the timer amount. I only timed 3 +15 runs (albeit a two chest run in Shadowmoon Burial Grounds that pushed me over the finish line with some folks who brought me and a healer who were on the cusp of KSM purposefully to get it done), and while I timed some 14s and failed a 15 Azure Vault just close enough to get rating, you’ll notice my Fortified results aren’t that high, and my Tyrannical week was not very high at all, albeit with some 2 and 3-chest runs and a floor of +11 keys to set a solid foundation. With that context provided and the contrast of Shadowlands Season 2, you can see that the rating requirement, while still high enough to require some level of skillful play, isn’t a daunting height to reach if you enjoy playing Mythic Plus.

Overall, the journey was pretty low stress for me. I enjoyed the runs, especially when I started pushing new key levels – the first 13, first 14, first timed 15 – and my methodical approach to the rating system kept me on the path here. With the Mythic rating system, I find that the best thing to do early on is establish a lead by doing any key you can get in each dungeon for the first two weeks, even if it’s a baby key for babies. Don’t have a Court of Stars Tyrannical week score but a guildie has a +2? Strap in, we’re blasting through Suramar to get those points. At the point you have scores for every dungeon, the real work begins – and for me, what that typically means is chasing a new higher key in whatever my lowest dungeon is, which the game helpfully illustrates in the UI by putting it far-right on your list of season dungeons.

By the end, the struggle of points is real, as I documented back in Shadowlands Season 2. The rating system feels great at first because the rating comes quick – a first clear of a dungeon on even a low key is worth near 100 points – but then once you’re “on the board” in everything, the rating becomes a harsh grind of single-digit point upgrades, with a new key record one level higher often only giving between 5-10 points. What this meant for me is that I sped forward to 1,200+ rating with ease, then took about the same amount of time to hit 1,600, then took around the same amount of time to hit 1,900, and then took nearly a full day of hard grinding on keys in the 14-15 range to get the last 65 points I needed. This is especially true in Dragonflight, where keys at +11 and up have harder difficulty scaling compared to prior expansions by adjusting the value of health and damage dealt increase for enemies in the dungeons, and doubly true for Season 1, where you start on a lower gear floor and thus everything on high keys feels like a sponge just absorbing your attacks.

However, the rating system being a little less restrictive (whether this was intentional or my multi-chest runs just pushed me up a notch is an unknown) makes it feel a bit better, because provided you can eke out the timer on a few high runs, you get a shot in the arm of points and it feels pretty great. Generally, the final approach to KSM felt less grindy than the Shadowlands Season 2 version, the last time I went for it, with most of the feeling of grindiness being due to having to apply for groups over and over to just get into those higher tier keys. Speaking of…

The Impact of the Metagame

Mythic Plus, especially in PUG runs, is dominated by the metagame aspects of WoW’s design. If your spec has strong multi-target, you’re gonna get invites, especially in Fortified weeks when the trash is sponged up. If you have great utility like interrupts, CC, and ways to move mobs around for affixes like Sanguine, you’re on the short list to get those invites.

I switched my main this expansion to Monk, to tank for my new guild with the physical damage debuff on enemies, since we already have a DPS Demon Hunter and because I genuinely enjoy Monk. Monk also allows me to pinch hit on all three roles, and I’ve played all 3 specs a fair bit since the class was added back in Mists of Pandaria. It was a former raid main and how I started raid tanking as a main role, and it was among the first classes I got all of the Mage Tower looks for in Legion.

It also helps that Monk is very strong this season in Mythic Plus, especially Windwalker DPS.

So, to start with, while I have done runs on all 3 roles, and while my main role for raiding is tanking, I refuse to tank for full-PUG groups. If the guild flag isn’t flying on my minimap when we zone into the dungeon, I ain’t tanking it, and the same is true of healing. What that meant is that the vast majority of my keys were PUGs as Windwalker DPS. I cannot deny that this had a fair bit of impact on my ability to get groups – there was at least one time where I was plucked out of a sea of applicants because the LFG listing explicitly asked for either DH or Monk DPS as the two most meta choices for melee DPS, and provided a group wasn’t looking for Bloodlust, I could generally easily slot in as a DPS for just about any group. While this made getting into PUG keys easier in a general sense, it was helped by my higher rating and high rate of success with keys. By the time I was getting into 14 and 15 runs, I was noted on Raider.io as having done 30 successful 10-14 keys, and since the addon in-game presents this information truncated like this, it adds a layer of mystery to peel away – 30 successful runs in that range, are they all 10s or all 14s? Who knows?

I think it also helped that with a break from most responsibilities (save for moving apartments in the middle of week one!), that I was able to run a lot of keys. For the season so far, I’ve already done something like 80+ keys. Granted, there were a mix of reasons for that – most were because I had this KSM goal in mind and wanted to constantly push against it to make progress, some were runs to help gear-up and skill-up guildies, especially at the point my tank set broke past 390 item level and I became functionally near-unkillable with proper play as a tank, and some were just goofing around – I ran a couple of low keys just for the sake of doing it. At a certain point, my record looks like that of a consistent, great player – and while I would not say either of those is spot-on for me, I think running a ton of keys certainly helps with it, because at a point, you get the muscle memory of your rotation, understanding of the resource systems that define your play, and the routing through a dungeon, and those things instill a measure of consistency, even if sometimes you also just goof up and get hit by the tank cleave as DPS.

A lot of groups I was in followed a pretty safe template – you’d see any tank (because they all seem great save for maybe Guardian Druid), an Evoker or Druid healer, and then a DPS comp with myself on Monk, a second melee (DH, Rogue, or Fury Warrior), and then a ranged (almost always a Hunter or Mage, sometimes a Warlock). I rarely noticed a specific effort to exclude non-meta specs, but I think that was definitely a thing through either group leader shenanigans or self-selection – I rarely saw Fire Mages, Balance Druids, Survival Hunters, Affliction Warlocks, and on the healing front, Shamans, Priests, and Paladins were relatively rare by comparison. Sometimes, you’d get folks who were absolutely insane at those specs – I saw a Balance Druid that was bursting up to 120k DPS on trash pulls (which lends credence to my theory about most boomies I saw early in the season being bad at the spec) and I saw an absolutely cracked Discipline Priest who powered a group to a near-timer finish in a Ruby Life Pools +14, but generally, the non-meta specs are relatively harder to find. WoW is often more or less enjoyed by virtue of how meta your spec is, and with Windwalker being rated in that S-tier for M+ by most guidewriters, I’ve found it pretty easy to get into groups. Past that, I think my own results speak for themselves – I’ve been willing to push hard keys, stay for completion, and I got my rating up quite high early on and kept on coming back for the point gains to keep myself top ranked, such that I’ve pretty consistently been in the top 100 Alliance on my server and top 150 for both factions on my server cluster.

The Community and PUGging

So, how was PUGging the keys?

Well, it was good!

Overall, one thing I’ve taken to heart and tried to put forward for myself is that I can be the change I want to see. When I get invited to groups, I greet everyone, I apologize for mistakes, I partake in banter, and I’m water under the bridge if someone makes a mistake that scuffs the key (imagine, you can just not be an asshole to people who make mistakes! Whoa!). I had a Halls of Valor +15 in the final push where positioning on Fenryr and the healer just kind of tuning out cost us the timer and rating bump, and instead of berating or being intolerant towards them, we ended the run with a “shit happens, all good” and it was like, really nice. People still got loot, we still got the +15 credit for the vault, everyone parted nicely and no one had to feel worse because of some asshole raging at them.

The average run in a PUG is a bit on the quiet side, as with many social activities in modern retail WoW, but that’s not altogether awful. Even runs that fall apart largely end up being peaceful until someone breaks politely, and while I’ve had a few moments of aggressive banter (I play late on the west coast of the US so sometimes I join Oceanic groups and they tend to be a smidge more aggressive in that way, anecdotally), I can count those on one hand, and given a sample size approaching 100 runs, that’s not bad!

What I can say that is somewhat negative is that higher keys are still very much gatekept by a lot of groups. I’ve seen item level and rating requirements on even lower keys like 7s and 8s, and even as your rating approaches KSM levels, you’ll still routinely be turned down for keys. Getting my last few points involved almost as much time applying to groups as it did actually running dungeons, and this was at the point I was at 1960+ rating and a 396 item level! Ultimately, it’s whatever – people can choose to run their groups however they please, but at the same time, it sometimes veers away from being a thoughtful measure of competency and more towards just being weird about it. I also saw a tank apply to a 15 with a 370 item level and literally 0 rating, which was kind of funny (needless to say, he was not invited).

In some ways, the PUG scene is what you make of it, and your mileage may vary – I’m under no delusions that what I just wrote is anything more than anecdote. But I had a good experience!

Dungeon Notes

My first timed 15 was Nokhud Offensive. I was fucking shocked too.

My favorite dungeons have tied up between Shadowmoon Burial Grounds, Algeth’ar Academy, and Halls of Valor. All of them have straightforward routes with some choices you can make, all of them are relatively easy to complete with competent and consistent groups, and Shadowmoon in particular gets my vote as the best newbie dungeon to take someone to – the route is incredibly simple, there’s a good mix of trash mechanics with interrupts, control mechanics that can be used like AoE stuns, and the tuning is forgiving compared to other keys at the same level (that and running with Mythic raiders were the recipe for my first two-chest +15 of the season). Halls of Valor is always just gonna be up there, it was one of the best dungeons in Legion and the best first dungeons in M+ and it still holds a high mark, and Algeth’ar is great fun and has some fun tricks (having trouble with tree boss? Bring Potions of Shocking Disclosure and plan a rotation for players to run loose on the germinate adds with the potion active).

My least favorite dungeon is absolutely Nokhud Offensive. Releasing means flying back to a boss, oof, the routing is a little too loosey-goosey, and the general tuning is tough – Tempest boss absolutely sucks on Tyrannical, the adds at Nokhudon Hold for the last boss include what I would say is the hardest pack in the current season (which you can route around, but some tanks don’t know that and grab a pack with 3 interruptible mobs that must be locked in a group with only two reliable short-cooldown interrupts and then wipe to it and oh no), and there are some absolutely devious pull traps in there, like the pats before Granyth and the renegade birds before Teera and Maruuk.

My big sadness dungeon? Temple of the Jade Serpent. I love this dungeon, truly, but the tweaks made for Mythic Plus kind of wear on the dungeon a smidge and the tuning for it is also quite white-knuckle on both base affixes. It’s not a bad dungeon, but playing it sometimes feels bad, especially because groups have lots of failure points to fall apart at.

My Future in Season One of Dragonflight

So in the past, this was unintentionally the time where I would stop doing dungeons. Once you have KSM, it kind of feels like a mountain has been conquered and atop that peak, there are no goals in sight. Well…I think that’s not quite true here.

Dragonflight’s reward changes for gear in M+ means that there are still 5 whole key levels I can do to push my gear ever higher, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing that. I also still need, I believe, another 400ish rating points for the last upgrade tier for Valor, which is something I very much want to have unlocked. I also have a responsibility to my guild to help guide more people through dungeons, teach them the ropes, and help bring people along to get their KSMs and gear, and this will likely mean me learning a bit more about dungeon tanking to make sure I am on the ball for that. While the portals at +20 are not a huge incentive for me, there’s a certain appeal to getting there and having them for the sake of it, especially since some of the Dragonflight dungeons don’t have direct flight points, but instead require some additional trip through the zone in question. If I keep pushing at keys in the coming weeks, it’s conceivable I could be near a Heroic raid item level without having touched the Heroic raid, which is an appealing thought, especially for how it will ease the experience of getting to Heroic for my group.

I also have two ready alts for doing keys in my Demon Hunter and Evoker, both of whom are reasonably well geared and have at least done a single key as a baseline. In addition, I’m keen to try learning Mistweaver healing better so that I could heal on my Monk as a way to keep running keys with some more pressure.

In any case, I’m genuinely still excited to keep running dungeons, and while there’s no longer a need to put in 3-4 hours a day on them for the sake of KSM, I still want to get my 3 Vault slots for M+ per week, and if I’m going to do that, I might as well keep pushing the item level higher and higher by pushing the key level.

In Closing

Some of what I’ve described here probably sounds iffy or bad if you’ve never done keys, and I can understand that viewpoint. I want to emphasize that I had a ton of fun and personal fulfillment from doing this, and it reaffirmed that beyond any self-deprecation (or external hurling of insults as the case may be!) that I am still a good player of WoW and gave me a feeling of accomplishment, especially coming back to do this after a nearly full year not playing WoW at all. While initially, I didn’t think much of setting a timed goal for getting KSM, once I was about halfway into week one, I knew I was going to push hard and I set a month as a soft goal to reach. Once I got into this week, I knew I could get it before reset based on my rating if I went harder on it, and I spent a lot of this week pushing beyond my comfort zone – higher keys, tougher stuff, dungeons I’m not a fan of as my first 15 (seriously, would not have ever thought Nokhud would be my first timed 15 of the expansion).

Long-time readers of my blog know that I am a goal-driven player and that I am my happiest and most engaged with a game when I have a clear objective and path that I can map out to achieve it, and Mythic Plus always gives me that in return for a chunk of my time. For that reason alone, I will probably always gravitate to M+ as a good way to play – it’s something that always ropes me in even if I feel iffy about the rest of the game, it’s always the thing I miss when playing FFXIV, and there’s something cool that in modern, anti-social WoW, M+ is a mode that puts you in contact with tons of new people. I probably ran keys with well over 200 people I’ve never met before and might not ever meet again, but for a moment, there’s a camaraderie and shared sense of purpose that can be quite powerful and fulfilling.

And while the mount is ugly, he’s also cool and I’ve been AFK in Valdrakken while writing this post just sitting on him, enjoying the taste of victory. (Imagine giving a KSM mount in the expansion about dragons and early access to flight that is neither a dragon nor a flying mount. Imagine!)

(Also, I’m the 69th best DPS on my server cluster by Raider.io’s ranks as I write this, which is very….nice.)

One thought on “I Spent New Year’s Eve Getting Dragonflight Keystone Master Season One, and I Have No Regrets

  1. Congratulations. 🙂 I always enjoy reading these kinds of stories from you, because even though a lot of it is gibberish to me and M+ doesn’t fit the way I play nowadays, I have to admit there’s a part of me that reads these posts and can’t help but think that at a different point in my life I probably would have enjoyed this kind of play style too, so I do still get it to some degree. And yeah, handing out ground mounts as rewards for this kind of stuff is kind of weird!

    Liked by 1 person

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