Something that is a theme with Dragonflight as an expansion is an idea of getting back to basics while also experimenting with the formula that has defined modern WoW for the last decade or so. There’s a twist back to something that resembles the old shape of things – talent trees, flight in the launch window – and then alongside those are newer models and ideas – talents that are borrowed not from traditional talents, but instead from legendary gear, old borrowed power abilities, and the like, or flight being Dragonriding instead of traditional air-swimming flight. Some of these things are quite good (I am a proponent of new talents) and some are less so (I really like Dragonriding, but I can sympathize with concerns about idling, the way it can sometimes be limiting of movement, and how it adds a layer of gameplay to something that maybe didn’t really need it).
Raid loot has been…well, a problem, probably since about Legion. Why is that?
Well, it’s less that raid loot is bad, and more that raid loot is bad in comparison to the options that have come around since.
Legion saw the introduction of Mythic Plus to the game. I am a fan of Mythic Plus, and it is a mode I enjoy a lot, but its reward structure tends to be more valuable for players compared to almost anything else in the game. In Legion, it was kept at bay by having an item level tiering that made it only seldom better than doing raids, and for a lot of BfA, it was that way too. Season 4 of BfA, however, marked a shift – Mythic raid level items could be rewarded through Mythic Plus via the weekly chest, and this model has largely been in place ever since. All of Shadowlands, you could get Mythic raid level armor and weapons through the Great Vault, with the carve-out being that end bosses on Mythic raids dropped the best item level stuff. Dragonflight has leaned on this harder, with the Vault now being able to drop items that match all but the last two bosses of Mythic raids and item upgrades of Mythic Plus via Valor soaring to match the entry-level items of Mythic raiding, where in Shadowlands, they stopped at the end boss Heroic raid item level.
On top of that, the repeatability of Mythic Plus and the amount of loot rewarded there eclipses raid in relatively short order. A 30-ish minute completed Mythic Plus rewards 2 drops to a party of 5, so in the amount of time I spend raiding on one raid night, I can be in a group of 5 that gets 8 drops. A full clear of Vault of the Incarnates, all 8 bosses, rewards an average of 1 item per 5 players, so in a group of 15, that’s potentially 24 drops total. A bigger number, but spread thinner and on Group Loot, which means that a drop might be useless to your group (my group getting agility daggers multiple times this tier already with no one that can use them is, well, a thing that has happened!). In the past, it’s also been a problem that raid loot is not granular enough, so you have stretches of progress that might take a month to finish a raid tier on one difficulty where the item level of rewards is a flat line, while Mythic Plus has steady, tiered upgrades that mean pushing a new high key and getting further in the system is constantly a rewarding endeavor.
So with Dragonflight, Blizzard aimed to attempt to correct this, at least somewhat. In Shadowlands, Blizzard did some experimenting with raid loot that largely failed – if you remember the Sanctum of Domination tier (and I wouldn’t blame you for blocking that out), the whole raison d’etre of Shards of Domination was to make raid loot more exciting and necessary for high-end play by placing the Shards and armor with slots to socket them as raid-only drops, alongside an upgrade mechanic that was vastly easier to farm in the raid than with the avenues available outside of the raid. It worked*, but I don’t think anyone was ever really happy with it – the effects of the shards were cool and valuable, but it also was a nuisance to those who only wanted to do dungeons, where the shard effects (but not their matching set bonuses) still worked and were incredibly valuable. Luckily for all of us, this failure led to the return of tier sets, but then the same problem they were trying to solve came back – they wanted tier sets available outside of raid (which is a good goal I agree fully with!) but then that also means that the raid ended up being superfluous.
Vault of the Incarnates saw Blizzard add a couple of tweaks to raid loot. The first is that the item level in the raid is a more gradual slope – Normal difficulty, as an example, starts with item level 389 loot and then increases by the end to 398 gear, with a step at 395 along the way. The second change was forced Group Loot, which means that loot is open rolls and what drops on the boss is anything on its loot table, regardless of the usefulness to your group. The third change was to remove trading restrictions on gear dropped in the raid – provided you and your trade buddy were there for the kill that dropped a piece of gear, you can trade it between each other with the standard lock once equipped. The last change was that adds with unique names in the raid drop guaranteed BoE armor, which provides an additional shot in the arm to raid groups, both as gear itself but also as a way to raise funds through sales of the armor as needed.
All of these are interesting changes, and I think it is worth saying first that I think some of them are good. Having an item level gradient through the raid difficulty is better than long blocks of fixed level. Having open trading with main spec priority on a group loot roll is a good thing. The BoE change is a good thing. However, here’s the challenge – raid loot still falls short.
The problem that I have been circling from the other side, when talking about Mythic Plus loot, is this – raid loot is not permissive enough. In Mythic Plus, I can grind as hard as I want and know that my chance of getting something is high. Because it’s still personal loot, it will always be something I can use – maybe not useful in my current loadout, but at least generally usable. And I can go as much as I want with no lockout or other limiter – if I want a Windscar Whetstone trinket (and I do, boy do I), then I can run Court of Stars as much as I want, provided I have a key or can find a group with one. If I want a Spiteful Storm trinket from the Vault of the Incarnates, I can run it once a week per difficulty and that’s it – at best, I have four chances at it, and that assumes I can run Mythic for it and also that a lower difficulty version of it would be an upgrade. It is possible, and perhaps likely, that neither of those are true – I certainly will not be Mythic raiding this tier, and the LFR version of that trinket might be, at best, a sidegrade. But I don’t get another way to push for it!
Mythic Plus has overtaken raiding as the best way to gear because it is permissive. It rewards more loot per 5 players in a similar amount of time investment, can be tackled endlessly with relatively frequent breakpoints with better gear levels as you go, and the Great Vault slots it has give you better gear than the dungeons you did would otherwise reward. And, to be clear, I think this is good. My problem with WoW gearing at present is that raid loot is too stingy, not that Mythic Plus is too rewarding. By the third week of the raid, I was already basically incapable of getting anything useful from Normal difficulty, because Mythic Plus leapfrogged it cleanly. In fact, I’m also already at a point where Heroic will only have a few marginally useful upgrades, mostly upgraded tier set shoulders (which I can circumvent via Mythic Plus and the Catalyst anyways) and my proper Heroic tier chest (which, again, can be beaten by getting a better, upgradable chest via M+ and then Catalysting it into tier). Outside of that…nothing is really doing from even Heroic. Now, the challenge here is that I might represent a unique case to some – I push keys above my raiding weight, so it logically sort of tracks that the raid’s usefulness to me in gear would be outstripped quickly by Mythic Plus, and I think that’s a fair point, but I would also bet that’s not a unique case, at least as much as you might believe. Pretty much every raid group I played in for any length of time in Shadowlands had multiple people in the same boat – in the raid for a good time, but not really needing anything from it because M+ had given them their ideal loot. Sure, sometimes there is a surprise BiS choice in the raid and if you raid Mythic difficulty, then the loot system has more twists and wrinkles, but otherwise, Mythic Plus is just better for loot in almost every way.
So how would I fix it? Well, I am not a professional game designer, but I think there are a couple of things I would target.
Loot Drop Rates
I think raids should drop more gear, full stop. The very start of Shadowlands had a couple of glorious weeks where loot was showering from Castle Nathria, before a hotfix nerfed it sharply. It was unpopular, but Blizzard stuck to their guns there. I think they should un-stick to them now. Why not drop 2 pieces average per 5 players? Why not add an extra piece for every 15 players? Why not have named trash drop 2 BoEs, 3 BoEs, hell even one per 5 players? A couple of extra drops would make those pieces that are useless to a group feel less bad, because taking up 1 drop out of 6 with a useless agility dagger would feel less awful than that same dagger taking up 1 of 3 slots.
Outside of the raw amount of loot dropped, a thing that Mythic Plus benefits from heavily is the ability to run constantly for rewards. Re-running a raid isn’t necessarily ideal (the time commitment to a full clear is a very different scale between the two), but there could be something to being able to drop in on a boss and have a second shot at its loot. I’ve just described the old Seal system from Mists through BfA, but I think that could be better managed, perhaps. If you have the time, maybe you could get some form of token or currency that would unlock the full raid for another go with loot available, or perhaps you could use it in the raid to do like a rewind that immediately respawns the boss for another shot. This one is trickier than it seems because “do the raid a second time” isn’t necessarily a good idea or something I would want to encourage, but hey, I’m sure that would work for some folks!
The biggest advantage that Mythic Plus loot has in general, though, is that a single piece can persist in your loadout for a long, long time through the Valor upgrade system. I have a couple of smaller gear pieces that I got like a month ago and are still in my equipped gear because I’ve been able to nudge them up the item level ladder in increments every week. This not existing for raid gear is baffling to me, because it feels like the easiest slam dunk they could pull off. Mythic Plus manages the upgrades through a level system tied to the rating system of M+, so you would need to find a similar idea for raids. Not rating, I think, to be clear – maybe at a point where you’ve killed the full Normal raid, you could upgrade to the mid-tier Normal item level, and then after X number of endboss kills you could upgrade any raid piece to match the Normal endboss item level, then rinse and repeat for higher difficulties. It could be tied into Valor or, god forbid, given its own currency system. Given that Mythic Plus is now an island in Dragonflight for Valor rewards (compared to Shadowlands where non-dungeon activity gave you some too), it would logically make sense for a raid-specific currency to be introduced there. Shadowlands season 4 had this with the Cypher system for Heroic and Mythic, but that was only for bringing Normal items up to that difficulty value, and I think with the item level gradient of Dragonflight, more granularity is a good thing. Speaking of Shadowlands Season 4 doing stuff right…
Where The Fuck Are My Dinars?
Shadowlands Season 4 added a genuinely great idea in the use of Dinars, a currency you could earn through completing raids in Shadowlands when they were Fated. Every 30 Fated boss kills gave you a Dinar, and you could trade it for a single piece of raid loot of your choosing, with the limit being that Dinars were capped at 3 for the full season and you could only buy a Normal difficulty version of the item, with upgrades for later coming via the Cyphers you got on Heroic and Mythic difficulty raid bosses. So, then, question – why in the hell are these not a now-standard part of gearing in Dragonflight? Sure, there are some answers I could poke at – Dinars existed because Fated raids rotated on a weekly basis and because the seasonal raid loot pool was deep, given that 3 different raids smooshed together were all on the same item level tier, and in a single raid with 8 bosses and a fairly shallow loot pool, it perhaps makes less sense to offer that kind of mechanism. However, I would push back on that – deterministic options are quite often better than RNG, and giving players a small measure of control over their gearing is vastly better than no control. You could even make it work similarly – have the Dinar-adjacent currency buy only a Normal difficulty version of an item, and then upgrade it through the raid upgrade idea I mentioned above. It is puzzling to me that Blizzard did something that was genuinely well-received with Dinars, and then immediately threw it out.
Gear Philosophy Going Forward
I think Dragonflight represents an interesting crossroads for WoW in a lot of ways, but the biggest is perhaps gear, loot, and rewards. A lot of WoW’s modern systems for loot distribution came to be in the borrowed power era, where loot was a smaller piece of a bigger puzzle that was empowering your character, where in Dragonflight, gear is the main avenue of those improvements. Dragonflight has kept a lot of the gear philosophy that came about in that era, where it can rain from the sky with regularity in most modes of play, and in fact, Dragonflight has expanded that with new permissive gearing mechanisms like super rares and weekly event caches. I think all of this is great, because modern WoW gearing actually does address a fair number of problems that could occur in older versions of the game, but it is this contrast by which raid loot sticks out like a sore thumb.
Ultimately, it feels pretty bad to say that the best way to gear for a raid is not to simply reach a baseline item level outside of it and then do the raid, but instead to engage in other modes of play. Sure, for Blizzard, it’s great – more engaged players means more MAUs and stickier player retention, and to be fair, it’s not like doing Mythic Plus is completely unenjoyable or anything. However, I know plenty of players who enjoy raiding, and want to be able to raid and have that gameplay give them what they need to be competitive and play to the level they want, and those players fall behind due to gear being vastly more accessible outside of the raid environment. As a raid leader, it’s a sticky scenario no one wants to be in – when you’re considering pushing up in raid difficulty, there’s a very real question of readiness that comes from half the raid eclipsing Normal and the other half still a few levels below the baseline boss rewards from Normal, and it can create dissatisfaction and unwinnable situations when some folks want/need the gear from Normal still while the other half is twirling their thumbs knowing that the raid has literally nothing to offer them except the gameplay, and even that starts feeling bland once you can straight-up overpower it, and the inverse situation sucks too, because then you have people feeling left behind when the motivation is, much more simply, to try and leapfrog them to even better gear and to keep the people who have been doing extracurriculars having fun by layering on the challenge they’re wanting.
My position is that I think people should be free to do what they want, and if people don’t enjoy dungeons, it feels pretty bad to say, “well, the best gearing is over there, you should do them,” because at the end of the day, it’s a game and people should be having fun. In the past (and in fact for much of WoW’s history!), raid gearing was the ultimate way of gaining power. I am glad that alternatives exist (again, don’t get me wrong here – I love Mythic Plus and I think it’s current reward mechanisms are solid) but I think that it is through the lens of those alternative options that raid gearing now looks sad and anemic. Blizzard will hopefully keep experimenting, and hopefully Dragonflight proves that removing a ton of the bullshit make-work systems that keep players artificially “engaged” is a recipe for success which will then turn their eyes to how raid gearing currently works (and quite often doesn’t work).
Do I expect change? Eh, I am skeptical. Blizzard has, quite purposefully, avoided making real big changes with loot. While the changes in Dragonflight do represent a shift, it’s not quite as big as it was made to sound, and it still skirts around what I believe is the core issue with gearing in the raid – it’s too slow compared to the alternatives and it’s not difficult for an average player to run right past raid gear with just a few dungeon runs. There still seems to be an idea that raid loot is fine as is, and I think the past two expansions, in particular that end tier of BfA and all of Shadowlands, show that there is a large gap in the gearing mechanics of WoW that needs to be addressed.