Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part V - Farewell to Arms (Season 14 Wrap-Up)

The release of TESO is now just under a month away (for people like myself who have pre-ordered the early access edition) and with it my days as a rogue ganker on Illidan are coming to an end. This series has just about run its course – I don't think I have too much more to add about ganking as a topic in WoW, but I do look forward to picking the topic up again in the world of Tamriel. People who have slogged through my long winded posts will know that I divide WoW PvP into two basic types – open world PvP and ladder PvP. The former is meaningless and unbalanced due to the lack of strategic objectives, PvE/PvP gear differential and massive faction imbalances tolerated by Blizzard. The latter is very competitive but is really just a MOBA (massive online battle arena) separate from the MMO world it purportedly inhabits. Despite their differences I enjoy both flavours, and as Season 14 has come to an end, I thought this would be a good time to summarise my going-ons in both formats of PvP.

Halfhill Shennanigans on Illidan

Last weekend, as per my desire to bring a gank squad to the Horde dominated server of Illidan, my sister and I managed to rope in two local rogues to go ganking with us in Halfhill. Rather than write about it, I condensed an hour of gameplay into a 15 minute ganking clip and linked it below. My sister brought her restoration druid to the fray, and we were both on Skype so we were able to coordinate our movements to some degree. In this video you can see my messed-up control method, which consists of mouse turning when not in combat, and then reverting back to keyboard turning once in melee. To become a complete mouse turner I will have to purchase a specialised gaming mouse which has buttons for my abilities. What is happening is that I am mouse turning to look around out of combat, but once I engage in combat my right hand (which is my mouse hand) moves to the keypad where my abilities are bound. If I had a Razor Naga I could move those abilities to the mouse instead, and thus be able to maintain mouse turning while having access to my keybinds at the same time. This is what the pros do, and it is something I will have to do if I want to break the 2k barrier in ladder PvP. Luckily I don't even need to be good to kill someone in OWPvP. I can just bring friends, attack people when they are AFK or busy, and we can rack up those kills without any problems. I killed an Arena Master in the session I filmed – he was AFK at the FP and I had two other rogues assisting me – but hey, a kill is a kill, dammit. Right? Right?

Season 14 Wrap-Up

When I'm not ganking around Halfhill I spend my time in WoW pushing rating in 3s, 5s and Rated BGs on my holy paladin. My team mates and I are intermediate players, which means we are above 1550 but below 2000. My 5s team consists of myself, my sister, an affliction warlock named Coronaxtra, and an unholy DK named Ratsac. Ratsac and Coronaxtra are long time team mates. Corona was my 2s partner for the longest time, and we used to play 2s together before the new 25 minute time limit was introduced. The number of 45 minute games we played back in the day are mind-boggling to think about now. Corona is a great player and a very laid back guy - he achieved the rank of Duelist (top 0.5-3% of the active player curve) back in BC but I always poke fun at him about it because firstly, he did it before WoW started recording achievements and so there is no record of him ever doing it; secondly, he did it in 2s which is the most unbalanced out of all the brackets; and finally, he did with a resto druid in an era when there were no such things as diminishing returns. Can you imagine eating 6 second Cyclones and 8 second Fears without any respite whatsoever? People who complain about the game having too much CC nowadays have seem to forgotten the era in BC where you could literally be CCed FOREVER. For the uninitiated or non-PvPers diminishing returns halves the duration of CCs if caught within 15-19 seconds of a similar CC until the player is immune for a period of 15-19 seconds after the last CC is cast. Managing the time between CCs and knowing when to use your escapes is crucial, so much so that Gladius (a very common Arena add-on) tracks not only current CCs and trinket availability, but also diminishing returns (DR) in its display. Using your trinket to escape a double DRed Cyclone (duration of 1.5 seconds) is just plain silly and a waste of an ability which has a two minute CD.

My other team mate Ratsac is another great player in both formats of the game. He used to be a Heroic raider, but got introduced into PvP during Cataclysm and has never looked back. I actually think that Ratsac is a 2k player - he just hasn't found the right team to integrate into. In a sense, I think I am holding him back, because I really believe that he could slot into a 2k team and the team wouldn't lose a beat. People could say that he is being carried in this scenario, but in the 3s format carrying 1/3rd of your entire team's effective strength is actually harder than people make it out to be. Having two stronger players will lift the weaker player's personal rating but each combination of players has a cap they will eventually plateau at based on the combined strength of the team, and the weaker the weakest link is, the lower this cap will be. It's easier to carry someone in Rated BGs where the team is only carrying 1/10th of their effective strength. I know some players who could never be carried to 2k in 3s – despite the best efforts of the other two players the handicap imposed by the weak player would be insurmountable. Unkind, but true for some, and perhaps applicable to myself. Ratsac, however, could jump into a 2k team and acquit himself without any problems.

My sister Lelle (her main) makes up the final part of our regular foursome, and I had previously considered her the weak link of the team (I hope she never reads this, otherwise she is going to kill me). Recently, however, she has hit form big time on her warrior and her restoration druid, and the pressure is on for me to keep up with my team mates and not be the weakest link. My sister and I have similar temperaments, and some of our biggest quarrels have occurred in the context of WoW PvP. It might be laughable to say WoW can be a tool for personal growth, but after a particularly vicious argument I took a long hard look at myself and decided that I was an asshole. Since that incident I have never argued with team mates ever again, and backed off from trying to micro manage the whole team. It's funny thought how things which you tolerate in strangers and casual acquaintances are magnified when it comes to family. My sister and I have had nonsense arguments about small things which I wouldn't have cared about with other people. I have become aware of this peculiarity of human relations, and take great care now to keep an even keel when playing with my sister. If I do lose my rag (which is happily becoming a much rarer event nowadays), I switch off my mike and vent, then get back on once the moment passes. I drove away my sister's best friend Rykester (his old main) from WoW by being a bastard Rated BG leader, and I am resolved that this will never happen again. I am getting a second chance in TESO (our old crew is reassembling to play that game) and regardless of what happens in that game I am determined that people who group with me will never have any cause to regret it. I have learned (or am constantly trying to learn) to cultivate Zen by playing computer games. It is a retarded thing to say, but there it is.

This season, however, has been a particularly good one for our team ratings-wise. We established a number of personal bests in both 3s and 5s, and broke through a plateau we had been stuck on for a long time. The timing was quite ironic as I had already pretty much lamented to my team mates that this was as good I was going to get, and that I might as well call it a day for ladder PvP. The very next session we got the 1750+ achievement in 3s, which was the personal best for our whole team in that bracket. Ratsac, Lelle (on her warrior Qualar) and I ran a TSG comp (DK, warrior and holy paladin) and in this session I did everything I normally don't do – I abandoned cover in favour of aggressive CCing, I didn't save my CDs, and most importantly, I put my faith in Ratsac and Qualar to get the job done instead of trying to control everything. Our plan was just to bum rush the enemy, preferably a healer, and get a kill in less than two minutes because I could guarantee that they could stay alive and completely aggressive for that amount of time. If the game went on any longer than two minutes we usually lost, but it was surprisingly effective most of the time. I shut up, did my job, and the net result was that we broke the plateau and got the achievement in 3s. I believe we could have pushed further, but that session was our last 3s push for the season.

The session after our 3s push we hit our personal bests in 5s, and ended the season at approximately 1850+. I have unofficially pushed up to 1900+ in the past, but our final rating of 1853 in 5s is a new official (meaning it is recorded in the statistics page of our character's Armoury profiles) personal best for all of us. It makes me really happy that we got it as a team and not with people we don't regularly play with. Our biggest problem has been finding a 5th, and we have tried various people in the slot, with varying degrees of success. We tried bringing a good friend and guildie in a role, but he was simply not good enough, and our combo capped out at about 1600+. This is the problem with ladder competition. Ladder PvP in WoW is structured in such a way that the player base is splintered into small groups based on skill level. This is a natural consequence of ladder competition – you naturally group with people around your own skill level. Better players than yourself generally want better team mates, and vice versa – you don't want to play with players whom you consider worse than you. This is fine if your primary goal is pushing rating, but poses problems if you simply want to play with your friends due to the spread of skill levels. The only possible way to play with friends in a ladder competition is to play at the lowest level of the group, and work your way from there. In TESO I am looking forward to playing with friends of mine who love computer games but have woeful hand-eye coordination which precluded them from playing Arenas and Rated BGs. By the same token it will be good to play with other friends of mine who I keep in touch with on Real ID but don't play with because they have far eclipsed me in terms of PvP rating and skill. In open world PvP numbers are a tangible advantage. Everyone counts, and that is a wonderful thing for games. We can all contribute, and this type of cooperation creates strong social bonds and factional identity. Ladder competition is very stark in that it illuminates exactly where you are on the bell curve. Furthermore the small team sizes keep socialisation to a requisite minimum, and you end up socialising with people based not on real life considerations such as character, demeanour or attitude, but rather on how well they can push buttons in a computer game.

To solve our 5s conundrum I tried swapping to a DPS toon and finding another healer on OQueue, but that only got us up to 1700+ and we hit another plateau there. On the last weekend of Season 14, however, I fished around in OQueue for a good warrior and was lucky enough to find one around our level. Like the rest of us, Themerciless was an intermediate player who hadn't broken 2k. Unlike us however, he had come pretty bloody close (1995 in 3s and 1879 in 5s), and he was the final piece of the puzzle. We kind of stumbled into our composition (we all have a gazillion fully geared alts we could use) and our tactics, but somehow the combination worked, and we got better as the games progressed. Our overall game plan became applying dot pressure on the whole enemy team with Ratsac's diseases and Corona's DoTs, while Themerciless applied single target pressure with his warrior. Lelle and I would also attempt to CC enemy healers whenever we could while keeping our team alive and offensive. Corona was our main CCer on paper, but in practice he was the tank because he was always the primary target of the enemy. Our big go-to combo (which again, was not pre-planned, but evolved over the course of our games) was for Ratsac to use Gorefiend's Grasp to grip the whole team to Themerciless, who would then Bladestorm around him for huge AoE damage. Corona would try to follow with an AoE stun on top of the clustered enemy, meaning that they would have to sit in the Bladestorm for at least 3 seconds. It was a vicious combo, and it served us well when it worked. I have recorded some of our games and posted it below – you can see the tactic evolve over the course of the games (i.e. watch the first and last games).

Season 15 and Beyond

I was going to quit WoW after Season 14, but the lure of the 2k achievement remains very strong. I will definitely play TESO because I have roped in friends and family to come with me, but I may not unsubscribe from WoW just yet. This season is significant because for the first time players are ranked together by region instead of Battlegroups. This means rank one means exactly that. Previously the top players in each group were ranked first in their own respective Battlegroups, which meant that there were plenty of “rank one” Gladiators in North America, who then proceeded to talk smack about the relative strengths and perceived weaknesses of the various groups. No longer. Rank one means rank one in North America (and Oceania, since the two are merged), not rank one in Vengeance or Bloodlust or whatever Battlegroup the player used to belong to. Similarly PvP titles will now be region wide, so any titles won will be a true reflection of one's standing in the region. This is why the last weekend of Season 14 was such a hotbed of frenetic activity on Twitch TV – all the rank one aspirants were frenetically trying to get pole position before the season came to a close. There are a lot of familiar names in the 3v3 leaderboard - 2012 World Champions Snutz and Venruki are placed first and second respectively, and I also recognise Chanimal at 7th, who was in the 2013 World Championship winning Skill Capped team.

Final standings in 3v3 (the tournament format) at the end of Season 14.

On a personal level the 2k achievement remains the Holy Grail of WoW PvP for me, and it has never seemed as achievable as it has been recently. I would really like to get the title of Rival, too. I have gotten Challenger consistently since Season 6, which puts me squarely in the top 10-35% of the active PvP player base, but getting Rival would make me one of the top 10%. The information on states that the cut-off for Rival in Season 14 was 1829 in 3s (and 2156 in 5s) – this is eminently achievable for our team given what we have done this season (we reached 1755 in our last push), and is something to shoot for in the future if we keep playing ladder PvP. Realistically my best chance at getting a 2k rating will be in either the 5s or the Rated BG format, and the Rival title if I work on my 3s and push to the mid 1800s. In terms of OWPvP, however, my days of ganking on Illidan are coming to a close with the imminent release of TESO. It looks like I will have two different games to scratch two different itches – WoW for the ladder PvP, and TESO for meaningful open world PvP.

Just when I thought I was out - they pull me back in...

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part IV - Cross Realm Exploitation

I've decided to make Halfhill my main base of operations. Drawing upon my own experiences I realized that the gankers that stood out for me in the past were those people who were associated with specific times and areas, and who integrated themselves as part of the world by their constant presence. I have fond memories of the shaman Ashishishe who terrorised Nagrand during the Burning Crusade on my server, and while I started out hating him, his eventual departure from the game was genuinely regretted. I could count on him to be present anytime there was a battle for the village of Halaa, and what started out as a bitter rivalry evolved to respect once I met the man behind the avatar on the forums. It must also be noted that on PvE servers people have to flag voluntarily in order to fight which means that all battles are predicated on consent in a much purer and fresher sense than they would be on pure PvP servers. Players on pure PvP servers gave their consent a long time ago when they first signed up – people who fight on PvE servers give their consent on a case by case basis, but it is freely given and much more immediate. This is why PvPers on PvE servers give the other faction more respect, at least in my mind – there would be no fights at all if the Horde didn't come out to play. Of course I am assuming that people will react to me in the same way I eventually did to Ashishishe. They might just consider me to be an annoying pest, which is also completely fine with me.

Illidan on Winter's Veil - not so deserted after all.


I chose Halfhill for a few reasons. It is a major resting hub for players due to its proximity to the farms which means there are always targets of opportunity. It is completely dominated by the Horde on Illidan – I have never seen an Alliance player in Halfhill in my two months on this server, and it tickles my fancy to mess with the Horde in their own heartland. The area around Halfhill also features some unique characteristics which makes it conducive to ganking. Firstly, the existence of the farm itself constitutes a safe zone to escape to if things go really bad. Once you reach the borders of your farm you are phased safely to your own instance, effectively shaking off any would-be pursuers. Secondly, the presence of NPC guards at the market allows for some creative ganks by proxy. The NPC guards will aggro if you use any type of offensive ability at another player, but as long as you don't fight back you can run to the guards and aggro them onto your attacker. While most people are already aware of this, one way to exploit this is to get into a fight away from the guards, move close to them, and get out of combat (i.e. Vanish). Once you come out of combat all the offensive abilities you used on the other player are cleared and you are considered a “civilian” again – if your opponent is not careful they will hit you again once they see you, and all you have to do then is to run to the guards, who will then aggro onto your opponent while ignoring you completely. This tactic is very useful once you have killed the Horde a few times and have them all riled up and angry for vengeance – it is very satisfying to drag a posse of would-be avengers into the market area, and watch as the NPC guards wipe them out while you stand innocently next to Gina Mudclaw and Farmer Fung.

If you're trying this it is very important to make sure that you get out of combat BEFORE you drag your enemies to the guards. If you don't, regardless of where you started fighting (this can be miles away), running to the guards after hitting an opponent will make them aggro onto you. What you want to do is start a fight, somehow get out of combat (Vanish or Shadowmeld works wonders), reappear before an enraged Horde, provoke them into hitting you, then run to the guards and aggro all the guards onto them. Also keep in mind that even after aggroing the guards some players will go down trying to kill you while ignoring the guards beating on them, so it is still to handy to use a defensive CD or two to make sure you survive their last gasp attempts. Just don't hit back!

One of most satisfying ganks I've done was with a shadow priest at Halfhill. I killed him while he was AFK in the inn, which obviously made him mad because he started flying around the inn in a demented search for retribution. I then jumped him down the hill near the river while he was isolated, and he showed his true colours by almost killing me and driving me away. Filled with new-found respect I filed him away under “dangerous opponent” and started ganking other people around him, making sure to CC him whenever possible, or smoke bombing while killing other targets so that he couldn't intervene. I then ran to the market to drink and replenish my health. You can do this in full view of the Horde, because no one wants to aggro the guards. Usually. The shadow priest, perhaps enraged at my cowardice and refusal to engage him in 1v1 combat, decided otherwise and attacked me. His assault forced me to Vanish, but it also aggroed the guards. In order to avoid spawning more NPC guards the shadow priest fled from the market and out into the wild while I watched the combat from the shadows. My respect for this guy increased as I watched him tank, and slowly begin to kill, four NPC guards. I started emoting /cheers and /applause as he killed the guards one by one. Emotes can still be read by players from opposing factions, and he would have known that I was out there close by even if he couldn't see me. The last guard dropped to the ground with the shadow priest at half health and all his major CDs spent. At this point I jumped him, unleashed all my CDs, and killed him.

That priest probably thought that he could have killed me on equal terms, and he would have been right. The fact that he couldn't do it because I wouldn't fight fair or just kept dodging him probably drove him/her nuts, and made me, a grown ass man in his 30's, giggle like a demented school girl. The funny thing is that I have the utmost respect for the WoW PvP ladder – if you have achieved higher ratings than me I consider you a better player than me, no excuses, and no questions asked. The numbers don't lie, especially over time and number of matches played. In world PvP though, I am willing to exploit every dirty, low-down and despicable trick in the book to stay alive and keep ganking. The best response against gankers is to show that you don't care, either by flying off, just continuing about your business, or taking a quick time out. If you stop to retaliate, or swap to an Alliance toon and rant to me in whispers, it just means you have dropped to my level and are playing my game.

Cross Realm Exploits

The advent of cross realm technology has had a number of implications for WoW open world PvP. People who scream bloody murder about being ganked while doing PvE content can now escape to other, more peaceful realms if they are fortunate enough to have a friend on real ID. People can farm across realms – a few weeks ago my friends and I farmed Warbringers across three different servers simply by virtue of switching leads and phasing into the current leader's server. One of the biggest objections to faction imbalance lies in the fact that the minority faction doesn't have access to a similarly sized pool of players to call to for assistance. This is no longer true with cross realm technology – theoretically you now have a region wide pool of players to call upon. The best defence to ganks is having friends, and this is why ganking is a good thing in a virtual world because it encourages socialization and grouping. Speaking from the side of the ganker, people questing in pairs is enough to deter me from attempting a gank, and seems a small price to pay in a place nominally called a massive MULTIPLAYER online world.

Of course cross realm tech is a double-edged sword, and what can work for gankees can work for gankers too. Because world PvP is so meaningless in WoW, gankers who are anti-social by nature are typically loners, operating by themselves. There is no real incentive to create groups, which is why these type of wolf packs are rare. However, if you are an anti-social social like myself, there exists fertile ground to exploit cross realm tech to bring ruin to the unsuspecting inhabitants of Illidan. It involves me making a group with someone in my present guild in Illidan and then inviting a corresponding number of people from my main server (Thorium Brotherhood) to join the group. Cross server technology anchors the party leader in their current realm as long as the number of people from the current realm is equal or more than the number of people pulled from other servers. In simpler terms, if I have myself and another Illidan player in my group I can invite two more people from a different server and keep the group anchored in Illidan. If I wanted to invite three people from a different server I would need to have at least three Illidan players in the raid to keep the raid in Illidan, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, as long as the number of players on Illidan is equal or more than the number of any single group of players from another server you will be able to keep the party/raid in Illidan. For example, if I had three players from Illidan, three from Thorium Brotherhood, two from Tichondrius and one from Darkspear, the raid would remain in Illidan despite having a net aggregate of six non-Illidan players. This is due to the fact that the number of players on Illidan is equal to or more than the any other single group of non-Illidan players within the raid.

Beating a hasty retreat to the bottom of Halfhill. There's a pack of angry Horde at the top of the hill sweeping the area for Mutley and I.

I'm hoping to exploit cross realm tech to bring friends across to Illidan and create stealth groups that can gank two or more targets in a single fight. As a lone ganker I can be a nuisance, but my effectiveness is severely curtailed by the simple expedient of pairing or grouping by the enemy. I'm always under a time crunch at Halfhill because of the number of Horde present in the area. It's pretty easy to dispatch AFKers and unskilled 90s in about 10-15 seconds (less if not in full Grievous), but against experienced players who use their defensive CDs correctly this can go on for much longer. Healers and tanks take exponentially much longer to kill, if at all, depending on gear and skill level, and those classes pretty much get a pass if I chance upon them in Halfhill. If I can bring a friend or two or three along however, the potential for carnage is magnified dramatically and our range of targets increases to encompass everyone.

Preliminary Skirmishes

I tried this out by inviting a boomkin friend of mine over to Illidan, and we ended up having a ball. It seems that while a single rogue is considered an annoyance a pair of Alliance working together are rebel scum that must be exterminated. After a few kills a massive posse of Horde arrived to sweep the area, and massive AOEs rained down in the area around Halfhill. Rain of fire, blizzards, flares, death and decays, typhoons, you name it – the wrath of the old Testament was unleashed around that inn. It's a wonder that it didn't burn to the ground. At one point a lock was systematically sweeping the river that flowed beside Halfhill, exterminating the local fish stock as he called down a rain of fire that eventually traversed a significant section of the waterway. Still, as gankers we kept a close eye on those that strayed a little too far out, and hit them when they were isolated. We were made to pay on a number of occasions, but by in large we were able to keep out of trouble and leave a proportionally large number of skeletal remains around Halfhill. Once again, the biggest threats to us were Heroically PvE geared players. One on one a Heroically geared player can kill another player wearing full Grievous in about 4-5 seconds. The only defense against those guys was to either avoid them or CC them out while we killed their more vulnerable comrades then getting the hell out of there before retribution could be brought to bear. Not the most honourable way of fighting, but it was the only option we had, and besides, we're gankers – we have no honour. If there had been a clear opportunity to get a good 2v1 against one of these guys we would have taken it, but we never could find the time and space to have a go – there were always too many Horde about during the session we played.

This lock is Heroically PvE geared and is a major threat in world PvP. Heroically geared players can kill players in full Grievous in 4-5 seconds. Season 15 is coming in a fortnight, however, and soon the wheel will turn once again in favour of the PvPers.

In the future I'm hoping to bring at least a posse of three stealth gankers back to Halfhill and record the ensuing battles for blogging posterity. In the past my guild used to pick fights on Thorium Brotherhood by taking a 10 man raid to Orgrimmar, camping in the entrance tunnel, and timing how long it took before the Horde finally dug us out and wiped us. We were able to get the City Attacker achievement by continually attacking the Horde capital this way, but once we had the achievement our guild lost interest in coming back. I don't know why I'm even bothering attacking Halfhill, because we don't even have the veneer of hunting achievements to justify the organizational cost. Unfortunately in the absence of strategic objectives, factional relevance or jeopardy this is as good as it gets. I think I give WoW too much of a hard time about not having meaningful world PvP - WoW is just not the game I want it to be, and it's not its fault. I don't think it has ever advertised itself as a world PvP game the way Dark Age of Camelot, EVE and Darkfall have done, so really all my whinging and whining is akin to me staring at a cat wishing it was a dog and bitching because it isn't. WoW is a game of many parts, but it is primarily PvE, with a robust, competitive but disconnected ladder PvP competition on the side. Open world PvP is meaningless, unbalanced and just an afterthought. My rogue's dilemma and search for purpose has almost become an existential one, and she wanders a world devoid of meaning, filling her time with brief encounters with strangers that end in grief for one or both of them.

"Why in God's name are you a cat instead of a DOG?!?"

Bloody hell, that's a little too close to home for my liking.