The Perceptions and Realities of Faction Balance

June 4th to June 10th was a window of time in which significant changes were made to World of Warcraft.  There were no major patches.  There were no content additions.  Nothing special happened, aside from a week of half price Character Services – faction change, race change, name change, server transfer, appearance change.  During this time, a large number of raiding guilds made the switch from Alliance to Horde for the “minor” advantage that certain Horde races provide.  This was a not insignificant number – dozens of guilds in US and EU regions for both 10 and 25 player settings jumped from the sinking Alliance ship.

But how minor are they? Are these advantages really just minor, unnoticeable increases in player power, or are they game changers that have a significant impact on a progression race?  Here’s a great thread on the US official forums providing the viewpoints of many of the players in the guilds I’ve listed below, and the reasons and circumstances for many of them switching factions, as well as many examples not listed below.

List of the top 30 US 25 player guilds in Throne of Thunder as of the weekly reset on June 11 2013 (if there are any errors here, let me know, WoWprogress appears confused from numerous faction changes):

1 Blood Legion – Horde
2 Midwinter – Alliance
3 Exodus – Horde
4 Duality – Horde
5 Vigil – Horde
6 WHATEVER WERE AWESOME – Horde
7 Promethean – Horde
8 Unhuman – Horde
9 Reckoning – Alliance
10 Pie Chart – Horde
11 Defenestrate – Horde
12 Supermassive – Alliance
13 Refined – Horde
14 Dread – Horde (were Alliance)
15 TF – Horde
16 DONG SQUAD – Horde (Were Incarnate on Alliance)
17 Ascension – Horde
18 Overture – Horde
19 Temerity – Alliance
20 Nurfed – Horde
21 Intent – Horde (were Alliance on Kel’thuzad)
22 Raiding Rainbows – Horde
23 Midnight Sanctuary – Alliance
24 Demise – Alliance
25 Suit Up – Alliance
26 Huge in Japan – Horde (were Alliance)
27 Static – Horde
28 Pure – Alliance
29 OBSCURE REFERENCE – Horde
30 Angry – Horde

Keep in mind that this is just in the US region, and those listed as guilds that were Alliance were simply Alliance previous to this past week.  There have been more transfers from Alliance to Horde since it became possible to do so, and many, many more with 10 mans and the EU region included.  The most hardcore switched for the most obvious reasons, and the rest have followed suit for reasons of their own.  Eight of the top thirty US 25 player guilds are Alliance, or 27%.  Four of the top twenty, or 20%.

While they were far from the first guild to do it, Method was one of the first truly notable faction changes which took place in April of 2012, and they were followed by vodka shortly before Mists of Pandaria launched.  The reason was simple – Horde racials are better for PvE than Alliance racials, taken straight from a public post from the best 25 player guilds in the world.  While Pandaren aren’t the preferred Horde race as Method predicted they would be, it only meant that Horde were more dominant than they expected.  There are numerous other factors for the mass exodus from Alliance this past week, but it all stems from that one single point.  So what exactly is the problem?

Racial Imbalance

When it comes to the race for world first, something most of the top guilds understand is that your raid’s ability to deal damage and make changes in strategy and composition to increase your raid’s damage to meet various DPS checks while undergeared is one of the most important factors in progression.  Many players don’t understand this, but where strong healing and survival are necessary, a lack of either in gear and racials can be made up for in skill, coordination, and cooldown mapping – especially with the active mitigation model.  Damage, however, reduces the length of dangerous points in encounters and therefore reduces the healing requirement while increasing survival rate for the players in the raid while making it easier to meet DPS checks.

An individual player choosing Pandaren over Draenei in a raid group isn’t going to make a tangible difference.  1% increased hit chance compared to 275 or 300 of your primary stat from food isn’t really that much of a difference.  You’re not going to notice it, even if you think you will.  If you have an entire raid full of Pandaren over Draenei, the difference might become more noticeable – high priority targets will start dying a second sooner, that 1% wipe might not ever happen.  The benefit will still be pretty minor, however, as you’re trading a minor amount of sustained damage for a slightly less minor amount of sustained damage.

Where racials truly come into play are where a race has several of them, or they provide an on-demand burst of damage.  Strangely enough, all three on-demand burst of damage racials belong to races with passive DPS boosts as well, and all three are Horde.  Alliance has what are generally the best tanking and healing racials in WoW, with larger mana pools for healers (Humans and Gnomes), and more avoidance and damage reduction for tanks (Night Elves and Dwarves), and even a minor heal in Gift of the Naaru.  The Horde racials, however, indirectly apply these effects.

How much of this is merely a lemming-like following of the raiding leaders, top guilds?  It’s an interesting phenomenon, really, how many players will look at others above them and assume that there’s a specific reason for everything they might do even when there isn’t, or how a top-guilded Warlock using Destruction convinces everyone else to do it and makes Demonology “worthless”, or how the strategies earlier guilds use to tackle raid mechanics automatically makes it the best way to do it.  Much of the time, the advantage of or reason for doing these things may be negligible or completely nonexistent and the pack of lemmings simply creates a sample bias causing aggregate sites, written guides and so on to promote both lemming reproduction and a larger gathering of more groups of lemmings heading in the perceived “correct” direction when there may be no “correctness” to it at all.  Yeah, that was a mouthful, I apologize.

I don’t think this is one of those cases, though.

Examples of Horde racial value

Horridon – On week one, Horridon was a difficult check in every regard – tanks took heavy damage, the raid took heavy damage, and very dangerous adds needed to die in as short a time as possible while whittling down Horridon as much as possible along the way.  This is an encounter that Horde had significant advantages on. What were they?

  1. Beastslaying.  This racial for Trolls (+5% damage to Beasts) was an absolutely huge advantage on a fight with a very difficult DPS check.  If 40% of your raid’s DPS are Trolls, this alone is a 2% increase to all damage done to Horridon, which can very easily be the difference between a kill and a wipe.  I’ve lost count of how many 1% wipes on heroic bosses I’ve seen this expansion alone.
  2. Berserking, Blood Fury.  These racials allow for players to squeeze out more damage in small windows, which had a large impact on this fight (as it does on most) due to being an additional tool that could be used to prevent additional casts of the encounter’s deadliest mechanics – Venomous Effusions, Frozen Orbs and Lightning Nova Totems, while further reducing the boss DPS check by allowing the raid to be more likely to beat extra Dino-Mending casts.

This is an encounter my guild did not manage to complete on week one of heroics.  While we came in the next week with a set of upgrades and smashed it, it was a lot of time lost.  We were so close to a kill that simply being Horde would’ve easily put us over the edge and given us time to work on something else as well on our first week, putting us a step ahead in progression from where we ended up on week one.  This alone – not counting the impact of any gear we might’ve obtained – put us a night behind.

Megaera – The Horde advantage here are the same ones, but one in addition to them – Arcane Torrent.  Without going into too much detail, having a single Blood Elf with the presence of mind to use Arcane Torrent or having a handful of Trolls and Orcs would’ve easily been enough to turn our 3% wipe on the final head into a kill and save us an hour or two of progression time.  We ended up killing it the next night.

Iron Qon – Numerous times, we barely missed DPS checks on the Quilen and didn’t learn as much from attempts as we could have if we were Horde.  Simply being on the red team would’ve saved us a few hours.  We killed it the week after a low percentage wipe.

So… a few hours here or there on a couple bosses is worth a faction change?  Probably not.  These three bosses alone cost us about 2 nights of progression time, which would’ve put my guild in 18th instead of 19th in the US.  There are other factors of course – a half week’s worth of valor upgrades may have negated that jump in rank, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Who knows how many wipes Beastslaying alone would’ve prevented and how much time would’ve been saved on Tortos and Ji-kun, completely ignoring the important racials and all the other fights in the tier?

Think of it this way:  A Horridon kill a week earlier would’ve likely resulted in six pieces of gear (or more from coins) with a range of 13 to 32(!) item levels above what those players were already wearing, while also allowing us some pulls on Tortos on week one, and a faster Horridon kill on week two due to the gear and experience of already killing it giving us even more progression time that week.  In other words, Horde racials have a snowball effect in a tier of raiding – the longer the tier, the larger the impact when the dust settles.  Throne of Thunder was a very long tier of raiding with no gating at all.

Now imagine thirteen bosses of being at a snowballing disadvantage due to being a part of the wrong faction.  A couple early bosses being killed more quickly, providing more gear and more opportunities to start on the later bosses which your racials provide a slight advantage for you over the Alliance guild behind you.  What would my guild, Temerity, have ranked if we had the Red Team Advantage?  Hard to say where we would’ve ended up exactly, but certainly a few steps higher than we did.  Would Midwinter be pushing for world firsts as a Horde guild?  The race outside of world first might not matter to most players, but it often does for those involved at their respective levels, and being at a perpetual disadvantage over the course of the past six years is starting to feel a little old.

Why is DPS (and especially burst DPS) so important?

Put simply, DPS is healing and tanking.  Healing is just healing, and tanking is just tanking.  DPS is all three.  How do I get to that conclusion?

  1. Many healing abilities are based on damage done. 
    Examples: Ancestral Guidance, Vampiric Embrace, Nature’s Vigil.  This is pretty straightforward.  More damage quite literally equals more healing with abilities like this.  Not a big deal, really, but its value is greater than zero.
  2. Higher DPS reduces risk during dangerous periods of encounters.
    Using the Horridon examples above, you can use controlled bursts of damage to drastically lower the risk throughout a raid encounter.  Having to deal with two less Venomous Effusions, Frozen Orbs, Lightning Nova Totems and Hex of Confusion removes a very substantial number of possible deaths in your raid group.  Depending on the encounter, this can range from “mildly beneficial” to “absolutely vital”.
  3. Higher DPS reduces the number of hits your tanks take.
    Burst DPS racials reduce the lifespan of adds and the boss itself which is likely to add up to more than the Night Elf racial accounts for in damage received.  If a creature has a 2 second swing speed and lives for 100 seconds, that is 50 attacks made against the tank.  If Horde racials account for a 2 second reduction in the creature’s lifespan (a reasonable estimate), that’s one less attack made against the tank.  With Night Elves receiving a 2% increase in avoidance… well, that’s also one less attack against the tank.  Stoneform being used would add up to half an attack in this same scenario, and Stoneform’s benefits can be conveyed in other forms – the various absorbs and damage reduction cooldowns available to players.  Additional DPS cooldowns cannot be duplicated, however, since they are all always being used, which can’t be said for tanking and healing racials.
  4. Shorter fights mean a higher percentage of your mana comes from the mana you start with, mana restoration abilities, and potions.  This lowers reliance on spirit and gear in general and/or increases your freedom to use higher throughput heals or deal damage.
    A core part of learning how to heal an encounter is learning how to last the duration of the encounter without going completely out of mana.  The goal is, of course, to end an encounter with as close to zero mana as possible without ever being prevented from casting a spell due to lack of mana (in a perfect world, at least).  A reduction in fight length conveyed by the Horde racials not only lowers the damage taken by the raid while the fight is in progress due to specific periods being shortened, but also reduces the healing requirement more directly because less time fighting = less healing needed.  This on its own isn’t a huge advantage, but it is one nonetheless.  This allows healers to favor throughput over longevity slightly more, which helps in those already less dangerous periods.  It also allows mana restoration abilities and potions to (usually) provide a larger percentage of your “virtual mana pool” (maximum mana plus all mana regenerated in all forms during combat) which reduces your reliance on spirit and increases your freedom to spend your mana on higher throughput or spending more time adding some damage.  These points aren’t huge, but their value is certainly greater than zero and the damage mitigation/healing benefits of the Horde DPS advantage absolutely makes up for their lack of notable healing and tanking racials.
  5. The most basic point possible, bosses die when you kill them, not when you heal or survive for 10 minutes.
    Never in WoW’s history has there been a raid encounter that didn’t heavily rely on players damaging targets.  Even “healing encounters” like Valithria Dreamwalker or Tsulong could not be done without meeting certain DPS checks, and were made significantly easier as your damage dealers got better and geared up.  Even in those two cases, a DPS increase reduced the healing requirement.  Utility, like healing or damage prevention are things you typically want to bring “as much as you need” of.  Damage, on the other hand, is always useful.  It’s always being used, in every fight.  Every encounter in every raid ever released is made substantially easier by adding more damage.  This is why you frequently see top guilds tackling encounters with absurdly low numbers of healers.

Despite the availability of Pandaren to Alliance, why is this a greater problem now than ever before?

Pandaren is the highest DPS race available to Alliance for most specs, though there are a few that prefer Worgen and a few that just can’t be Pandaren.  You’d think this addition would’ve reduced the discrepancy between the factions, but other changes actually made the imbalance more pronounced.

One change in Mists of Pandaria is that many damage-dealing specializations have received an increase in their burst damage cooldowns.  It’s basic math, a 10% damage increase cooldown used with 10% more attacks from a haste cooldown will yield 21% increased damage, so a 1% increase from using them separately, or an 11% increase from not having the haste cooldown at all.  Where a spec may have had a 10 or 20% damage increasing cooldown in Cataclysm, in many cases they now have a 50% increase, which yields a 65% total increase to damage done if used with that haste cooldown, or a 5% increase from using them separately, or 15% from not having that haste cooldown at all.  Make sense?  Now add in the effects of Stormlash Totem and Skull Banner, which are raid-wide damage cooldowns that scale with the Horde racials as well.  Because of the greatly increased emphasis on controlled bursts of damage, the Troll and Orc racials have become substantially more beneficial.

Not everyone gained burst damage, Arcane in particular lost some, but many (I’d even say most) specs did.  Enhancement didn’t have any burst to speak of in Cataclysm… now, we have Ascendance, Elemental Mastery, and an insanely powerful Fire Elemental that does nearly as much damage while active as a player does.  This only serves to make Trolls and Orcs significantly more attractive to the spec for the stacking benefits of their racial cooldowns.

On top of this, Throne of Thunder added legendary meta gems, the caster version of which provides a substantial amount of haste as a proc.  This, of course, is multiplicative with other haste buffs so DoT classes often gain substantially more benefit from Berserking than they once did… even though it was already very powerful for them.

What other problems has this caused?

The racial imbalance has had other impacts, primarily dealing with recruitment.  Many top guilds have left for Horde over the years which removes a significant portion of the population those remaining on Alliance would like to recruit.  While my own guild hasn’t had difficulties maintaining a healthy-sized roster of raiders, I have certainly noticed a decline in the number of applications we receive in the past 3 months.  With a significant majority of the types of players we would normally recruit belonging to the red team, attracting people to faction change to the blue team is difficult.  They simply have more, better options on the Horde side, and it costs them a great deal more money to give us a shot.

It’s also negatively impacted Alliance economies on various servers, among other things, but those details are more difficult to identify and sort through.

How can this situation be rectified?

  1. Provide Alliance with similar DPS racials.
    Examples might be causing Gift of the Naaru to increase the target’s Mastery by 5000 rating for its duration instead of its current healing effect.  Night Elves could use something like Shadowmeld increasing damage done by 10% for 10 seconds after it breaks.  Maybe Gnomes could get a Touch of the Grave-like racial that deals Spellstorm damage but doesn’t heal.  Stuff like that.
  2. Spread out and/or nerf existing Horde racials.
    Why Orcs and Trolls each have not one but three DPS-related racials is beyond me.  Seriously, what the hell?  Also, Berserking alone is way over budget.  Not sure more needs to be said.
  3. Remove damage-increasing racials entirely.  This has the advantage of providing immediate faction balance in practice, but will remove what many players view as “flavor” for each individual race.
  4. Add a racial talent tree, with similar-yet-different racial talents for each race.
    Say, choose one of three race-themed profession bonuses, one of three passive stat increases, and one of three “utility” effects.  As long as there’s a burst DPS option available to each race, faction balance will be far better than it is currently.
    The Orc racial tree could look like this:
    Tier 1: 1% expertise, 1% crit, 2% pet damage.
    Tier 2: Skinning cast time reduced, 10% more ore from mining, can eat rocks to replenish health out of combat
    Tier 3: Blood Fury, Hardiness, 10% less damage and more healing taken for 10 sec.
    Draenei could look like this:
    Tier 1: 1% hit, 1% mastery, 2% primary stat.
    Tier 2: Jewelcrafting skill increase, Enchanting scrolls don’t require vellum, First Aid heals more
    Tier 3: Gift of the Naaru, 5000 mastery for 10 sec, Become immune to all damage/spells for 1 sec.
  5. Merge faction and realm change into one service with a single charge.
    Switching faction and server simultaneously needs to be less costly, or any of the above may simply slow the bleeding instead of healing the wound.  If racials are balanced out, the Horde population will likely remain as is or continue to grow while Alliance continues to shrink due to there being more openings and options for recruitment on the Horde side.  Easing the ability to switch factions like this would allow Horde players to try out Alliance guilds more easily… but there is the possibility that it may instead expedite the exodus.

I’m not sure how to balance the factions for hardcore raiders once again, it might not even be reasonably possible.  The first step, though, is evening the racials out in one way or another, the imbalance has been plainly obvious since Burning Crusade.  Why has nothing been done?

The time to fix this was four years ago.  Now, with the increased discrepancy, especially with Beast Slaying, it can only be described as insulting to remaining Alliance guilds.

Fixing the racial imbalance is long overdue.

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