Analyzing The Season 2 Mythic Plus Dungeon Pool and Affix Changes

So Blizzard’s announcements today for 10.1 – Embers of Neltharion – killed not one, but TWO draft posts I was working on slowly. The shame!

The thing that most immediately caught my eye in the news coming out today was the information about Mythic Plus. For the second time this expansion, Blizzard will be making some fairly substantial changes to the Mythic Plus system aimed at addressing player feedback. The early news we have today from just interviews and small snippets of data is that affixes are the big target, with one relatively huge change coming in patch 10.1 and Season 2 that is interesting. I’m also firmly of mixed feelings about these, so let’s get to it.

Removing The Seasonal Affix

Season 2 of Dragonflight already starts off with a bang, months before launch, on a simple piece of news – there will be no season affix for Season 2. Thundering has not exactly been well received, and while the seasonal affix concept has had both hits and misses in decent quantities of each, the overall trend has been poorly-received affixes. With Shadowlands, Blizzard largely settled on a kiss/curse design philosophy, where the seasonal affix was something that gave you power, but came at some cost. The cost could be added cognitive burden (managing debuff clears on Thundering, managing trash percentage and routing for Prideful, choosing anima powers for Tormented), but if managed well, they made the dungeons easier. Don’t get me wrong, they still added complexity, and a fair amount at that, but it was relatively straightforward to learn them and get better at using them, and they could be highly beneficial. Thundering, for all the talk of it being bad (and I do think it’s not their best effort for an affix), is relatively simple – dodge the spawn swirlies, hold the buff as long as possible while being near your opposite polarity to clear, clear before timer hits zero. It’s not, in a strict sense, difficult – but it requires a lot of tedious micromanagement, especially in bigger or rolling pulls, since it can trigger at any point in combat so there are inopportune moments to receive it.

Removing the affix, however, removes something interesting.

Blizzard’s rationale for the change is decently well-grounded – seasonal affixes were added in BfA with the realization that doing the same exact dungeons over two years and four seasons of content updates would be tiresome without some amount of change, and the late-expansion addition of a split megadungeon to the pool wasn’t exactly enough, so seasonal affixes were added to create a degree of unique play per season. The same philosophy held true in Shadowlands and made sense there as well – until the Season 4 pool was a mix of throwbacks with Tazavesh, it was the right call to have that seasonal differentiation in the mix, and it did add something you could change up and optimize differently for each season. In Dragonflight, with the new Mythic Plus pool methodology, it makes sense that such differentiation is no longer fully required, and logically, sure – that tracks. If we assume 4 seasons by the end of the expansion, we’ll see each DF dungeon twice, so there will be some repetition there, but with the seasons spaced far enough apart, it won’t feel as much like a retread.

However, I come back to the point I made above – removing these affixes removes something interesting from the game. When they’re good, they’re good, and even when they’re bad, they’re generally interesting and open up new options within the dungeon play of the game. Aside from the very first seasonal affix in Infested, I’ve generally at least been okay with playing each of them and they did a suitable job of varying up the gameplay, adding in those extra twists that keep runs fresh, especially how they could transform your play within a season as you moved up the keystone level ladder. Without that variety being spiked in as you go, the season will start to feel kind of flat, in my opinion. On the other hand, it’s probably fair to say that the seasonal affix doesn’t add so much to a season that it absolutely must be around, and a lot of seasonal affixes fall flat as interesting gameplay (touching someone else after 10-12 seconds isn’t exactly riveting gameplay) or are even trivial in a way that can be ignored (see Shadowlands Season 1 particularly in the MDI, where teams would use elaborate skips to avoid the Pridefuls they spawned), so perhaps it isn’t the biggest loss to see them go away.

So I come at this from two angles. One – I generally like seasonal affixes in concept, and I enjoy the variety they add to a seasonal climb. Two – they are also often tedious and just not that engaging, and the design work put into seasonal affixes could be better spent on baseline tuning of the dungeons to make the core gameplay experience better-balanced and more enjoyable. But we’re not done with affixes yet!

Retuning the Level 7 Affix Pool

At keystone level 7, the third affix is added to the dungeon, and in Season 2 of Dragonflight, this will be the last level where an affix is added. The current pool at that level is 5 different affixes – Explosive, Grievous, Quaking, Storming, and Volcanic. Currently, this pool is some of the more contentious affixes added to dungeons, because there is an excess of healer burden among these affixes. Grievous is purely a healer affix, and it makes catching up on healing as the group takes damage increasingly difficult by simply doing more ticking damage to party members below full health, with more damage being dealt the lower they are. Explosive is, by community practice, a healer affix, as the healer is expected to target and pop the Explosive orbs in most groups given that they cannot be cleaved down, have small hitboxes best hit the ranged DPS kits most healers have (sorry fellow Monks, get that Tiger Palm up), and spawn in small enough numbers to be easily burst by quick healer button presses. The rest of the affixes in this set are just basic area-denial stuff that is easy to manage, although Quaking can suck for casters and healers (again!) and Storming is particularly rough for melee, although the penalty damage it deals is very minor (the actual issue is the displacement effect, which can make managing a pull more difficult than it needs to be).Volcanic is generally a joke, as it does low damage, is very easy to dodge without a panic or clutch reaction time, and at worst interrupts a spellcast if you’re not paying attention.

So what would I like to see, since they’re playing coy on this short of mentioning it?

Explosives should be cleaveable, with a reasonable, key-scaled level of health and larger hitboxes so they can be a group activity instead of another thing to misplace aggression towards healers. Grievous should have fewer total stacks at larger health breakpoints given the damage taken that is unavoidable, and you could probably consolidate Volcanic and Storming into a single affix that picks targets at random, honestly, since they are functionally quite similar. If you want the combined affix to be more annoying, it’s Storming with targets at random, and if you want it to be easier and less annoying, it’s Volcanic that can spawn in melee as well as range. Quaking, honestly, isn’t that bad as-is, but I would love to see 1-2 yards shaved off the radius of the effect so that it doesn’t feel bad in smaller dungeon hallways (looking at Uldaman in that season 2 pool).

Until we know more about the actual design intent and direction on these changes, there’s not much value to be had from speculating more than I already have here, so let’s move on.

The Dungeon Pool

The biggest question mark for the season was the dungeon pool, however, and today we got answers with the full unveil of the 8-dungeon pool to come in Dragonflight Season 2. We have the expected DF half – Halls of Infusion, Brackenhide Hollow, Neltharus, and Uldaman, and then in the throwback half, we have Vortex Pinnacle (from Cataclysm), Neltharion’s Lair (from Legion), Freehold, and Underrot (both from Battle for Azeroth).

One of the throwbacks was expected to a point (they’ve been suspiciously hotfixing damage tuning for Underrot since the start of February), but the others are interesting to a point. Neltharion’s Lair is a decent tie-in to the theme and story of the patch (and has existing Mythic Plus tuning to work from), Freehold is a fan favorite (allegedly, because it’s not a dungeon I am fond of in gameplay terms), and Vortex Pinnacle is an interesting choice that marks the first dungeon with no Challenge Mode or Mythic Plus timers and tuning, which means it will be an effective start from scratch and I fully suspect some of the bosses will need tweaking. Once again, like Season 1, however, it marks an interesting point of tuning in that the Dragonflight dungeons are, once again, swimming in interrupts and preventable damage through controlling mobs, while the older dungeons are mostly straightforward with minimal interrupt rotation and even less trash mechanics. Vortex Pinnacle has a couple of packs that might pose small threats, mostly with rounding up the trash, and the pack that roams around the spell-deflection dome will be an interesting twist on trash in Mythic Plus. The other 3 dungeons have existing Mythic Plus tech and that’s not likely to change too much when the season starts, especially since we have no seasonal affix to account for.

On fan complaints that the dungeons in DF are too complex and that complexity scales poorly into M+, Morgan Day from the WoW team simply said they’re looking to retune these dungeons at least a bit, with the promise that some mechanics that exist today on M0 in them will simply vanish so that you don’t hit too many roadblocks beyond the standard difficulty curve. Brackenhide’s early trash was noted specifically here, given that you often need 3 interrupts rotating to deal with all of it properly, so how much that extends out into other dungeons is definitely something to watch for. Of the Dragonflight dungeons rotating into the pool, I think Neltharus isn’t too bad and Uldaman is likewise fairly reasonable, although the scaling of the damage on the golem AOE will be interesting to see given that it can feel very big and nasty even with some gear for healers.

Again, like with the affixes discussion, until we see what the balance targets are and how things feel on PTR, it’s not worth speculating too much other than to hope that it generally goes well. There is one more thing worth discussing, though.

Gear Upgrades Are Changing, and It’s Good(?)

Blizzard rolled out a blog post today detailing a pretty massive shift to how upgrades will work in Season 2 (and theoretically going forward). Two new currencies are being added, one of which is a crafting reagent – Shadowflame Crests and Flightstones. Flightstones fill the role of Valor, in that they are spent solely on gear upgrades, while the Crests determine what level a piece can be upgraded to. Unlike Valor, upgrades can be done to almost any piece of Season 2 gear, with the exceptions being Mythic Raid gear at the very top end, PvP gear, and crafted gear. Everything else that drops in Season 2 can be upgraded to a max upgrade rank of 5 or 8 depending on the base item level. What this means is that the max item level of a piece is based on what level it initially drops at, with a fixed curve to avoid things pushing too high. Functionally, it means you’ll no longer be able to farm a level 5 keystone for a specific drop and then take it all the way to the top, or get a world drop and make it equal to a Mythic raid piece.

My initial understanding here is that you basically have two things to farm – the Flightstones, which come from doing any endgame content in Season 2, and the Crests, which drop in fragments and are eventually assembled to a full Crest for upgrade. The Crest is based on the item level band, so the higher the base item level of the piece, the higher value the Crest has to be, and the Flightstone cost is a fixed scaler on slot value and item level, climbing steadily as you go. The Flightstones drop from pretty much all endgame activities, while the Crest components are level-appropriate based on the content you are completing – so higher raid difficulties and higher keystones will reward higher level crest components and there is some mention that the time scaling of different modes are taken into account with how much stuff drops, so raids should, overall, drop a smidge more than M+ but everything should be relatively equal on a time-spent basis.

There is also a cost-reduction component, which means that once you have a higher item level piece in a slot, upgrading that same slot on a lower item level piece is discounted in Flightstone costs. The primary cases here are rings, trinkets, and weapons for dual-wield, as the costs should go down for lagging second items of these types and it will allow you to, say, maintain a banked set of trinket options all with discounted upgrades. This is genuinely a good touch and one where the Valor system absolutely failed – it was categorically harder to upgrade a Fury Warrior compared to almost anything since upgrading dual 2H weapons was…expensive, to say the least.

I am conflicted on this system, because on the one hand, it’s genuinely great – raid has been awful for gearing because of anemic drops and a lack of small checkpoint upgrades in slots you geared previously in the raid, so opening up upgrades to more content is good. Likewise, for world content players, this is a genuinely good approach to let them have more deterministic upgrades available and to keep them incentivized to play. For players currently in the Mythic Plus system, it’s a bit of a downgrade in terms of how far a single piece can reach, but the overall curve of it is pretty solid and I think it will still be a net-good for the game at this moment in time. However, I also can’t say that it will be a good addition until we know how the currency systems work in full – whenever Blizzard says, “just play and the rewards will come to you!” it always masks a shitty, opaque, and frustrating grind that feels bad with little you can do to directly target goals or map out how long you’ll spend on a given goal. At the same time, talk of allowing 10 of each Crest per week means that either the timegate isn’t that bad or that the Flightstones are going to be a pain in the ass, but if the Flightstones are the easy part with clearly-listed and understood reward and quantity, then I won’t feel bad about that at all.

However, I think that the overall system suffers from Blizzard overcomplication. Why do we need to limit what level a world drop can reach if the item to take it all the way to Mythic raid level needs to come from equivalent content? Why do we need to create tiered ranking systems that aren’t even consistent from start to finish? If someone wants to take a piece from the absolute dregs of item level to the tippity-top of the upgrade system, why not let them? It’s a longer path with more crests, more Flightstones, more time spent grinding, and still requires the player complete a non-trivial amount of content on-level for the power increase they’ll get. Adding a system on top of the new upgrade system that exists only to limit the maximum upgrade on a given piece of gear feels really bad and reeks of Bad Blizzard. If a player gets a perfectly-itemized Ottuk Hide Sash and wants to keep it and dump thousands of Flightstones and 20 Crests into it to get it to max, why not just let them?

Overall, I guess I should say this – I like this system as a concept. I like upgrades being more available and more deterministic, I like that there is a permissiveness to this system I would not have expected from Blizzard, and I like the general contours of the idea. Raid gear in general has needed a W for a while now and this is something good there. It just, like, needs to be 30% less complicated because it is clear the only reason it’s complicated as-is is due to Mythic raiders and the idea of them chasing a 1% advantage through some insane and idiotic shit and that means the end result ends up not serving the intended players as well as it could.

Overall Impressions

Too early to say too much, but this is an interesting set of approaches and changes in methodology for Mythic Plus. There’s a decent amount I like, but some of the changes I do like even still come with downsides that feel kind of bad. I will and won’t miss seasonal affixes, I will hope the level 7 revamp is good even if I have my doubts, and I think gear upgrading being expanded is fantastic even if the rails on the system miss the forest for the trees in my opinion. Given that I didn’t even expect to see 10.1 info for another week or two at this point, this was a welcome surprise and there will be more to discuss in the coming days!

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