Dear Warcraft Community and Development Team.
Over the last few months of alpha and beta testing, the game is finally taking shape of a product ready to be shipped and so we can judge how the new expansion will look like. Despite a lot of improvements made (anima grind cap, no more TF system) and some really cool systems introduced (Torghast, legendaries), we, the Russian class discord community, can’t remain silent while one of the most important systems of the game has a timebomb at its core. Thus, we would like to draw your attention to this problem and explain our concern with it.
The discussion about covenants and the way the players will be allowed to swap them is not a new one. The Dev team decided to stick with the idea of not allowing players to swap covenants back and forth freely due to various reasons. We understand that this is a controversial topic which has brought up many discussions on forums, messengers, and other fan-base social platforms. However, the last month of game testing, including raids and mythic+, tipped the scale in favor of the idea, that the ability to freely swap covenant powers (Souldbinds and class abilities only, not the whole covenant) is necessary to make the whole system work.
In the majority of the interviews the dev team denoted several reasons why the restrictions to swapping have a place in the game. Even though we do not agree with the point made, we would like to express our gratitude for sharing your thoughts and building a dialogue with the community. We’d like to discuss this reasoning and point out what’s wrong with it from our perspective.
The efficiency difference between covenants will be small
One of the main arguments against the ability to freely change covenant abilities is “the difference between abilities worth only 1-2% DPS, so only top players will be caring about it”.
This argument doesn’t reflect the reality that even though covenants differ by numbers, more importantly they differ by design itself. Same for soulbind abilities: they are different in their design, in what they are. The only way to balance them is to bring their impact on the gameplay to the minimum.
For example, Hunters have Venthyr ability, which allows them to use Kill shot on targets above 20% hp and Kyrian ability which increases their crit chance and damage in a small area. These abilities can be balanced in a form that at the end of the dungeon you will have the same damage increase from both of them, but it still does not make these abilities equal. Imagine you have a dungeon, where you and your group need to make a giant pull in order to complete the dungeon in time. This is the most important moment of the dungeon and you need to maximize your efficiency in this exact moment. Kyrian and Venthyr abilities may be balanced in numbers, but the Kyrian one will be way more efficient for this run, simply because it’s AoE oriented and helps where you need its help the most.
Another argument for 1-2% difference is that it’s okay for players to be slightly behind on one boss, but be advantageous on another one because of having a different covenant. However, the average mythic guild can spend weeks trying to kill a single boss. If one of the players had good covenants for previous bosses, he will have to endure inefficiency on the final boss, holding back his own guild (or, most likely, he will just get benched). This only leads to frustration and dissatisfaction.
Aside from the fact that covenant abilities are different within a single specialization, they are much more different for different specializations of the same class. The same ability may be quite good for one spec, and be completely useless for another.
For example, you enjoy playing Restoration Shaman with Necrolord ability, but you would never like to use it for Enhancement spec since it’s almost completely useless for melee shamans.
Also, it completely breaks the entire “bring the class, not the spec” motto which developers have in Shadowlands. If you have to take the covenant, which is effective for one spec (for example, Kyryan for discipline priest), then when you play another spec, e.g. shadow, you feel yourself not a priest, but a discipline priest, who now has a penalty for changing your spec.
Soulbind passive abilities were introduced to balance the pros and cons of each covenant, but this approach has some design flaws as well. Soulbinds aren’t class-unique, so buffs and nerfs of every single one will affect several specializations, instead of just one.
For example, if you have chosen Venthyr, which is now the worst option for shamans, then you cannot expect the soulbind balance changes to put you at the level of a different player who picked Kyrian. Since soulbind passive abilities work not just on shamans only, boosting their effectiveness will cause some other strong specs, who pick Kyrian, to stand out even more.
Another important moment that we have to take into consideration is covenant ability balance changes. In one of the interviews, the developer team said that possible nerfs would aim to lower the gap between abilities, yet saving the leadership of the nerfed covenant ability. It would be worth considering the fact that covenant abilities effectiveness is highly dependent on both the content and the specialization you play. Any nerf could enforce the player to change covenant just because it became worse than the alternatives in the game mode they play. DPS specializations, obviously, will be affected by it the most.
Groups and Guilds will force players to always choose the best covenant ability, while people might not like it.
It seems to be a legitimate argument against the free swap. Players will create meta and will force other players to use what’s best instead of what they want to use.
It is very unfortunate that meta exists and we completely understand the problem of “looking for healer mythic+5 (only MW monk)” and we support the willingness of developers to prevent such situations from happening. Unfortunately, the current system does not aid in solving the problem and only makes it worse.
Since the majority of content presented in the game is relatively easy and does not have restrictions forcing people to follow the meta, it will most likely be accessible for players of any and all covenants. However, if we take a glimpse at the content with the difficulty higher than average, players will prefer to stick to the meta anyway. The problem behind this is not only in the difference of class/spec/covenants efficiency but in players’ perception that the easiest way to achieve their goal is to copy MDI class composition, simply because “these guys definitely know which classes are the best”. The biggest issue is that meta exists anyway, no matter which restrictions players have.
In one of his interviews, Ion Hazzikostas said that it’s not possible to make covenants abilities changeable, because players will force other players to do it every time it makes sense. However, if we don’t misunderstand his point, if Blizzard puts restrictions on changing covenant abilities, players will stop forcing others to use a certain covenant against their will. History proves it’s only partially correct. When Legion expansion came, players didn’t have any control of what legendaries they looted. However, even though nobody could guarantee obtaining best-in-slot legendaries at the start of the expansion, guilds and mythic+ groups, which can’t be considered super hardcore, were always looking for players with a specific legendary for their class (such examples were Demon Hunter ring and Holy Priest cloak).
About half a year ago patch 8.3 launched, introducing corruption effects. Initially, some of these effects were way more powerful than others. It’s fair to say most of us wanted to open the weekly chest and get tier 3 Infinite Stars or Echoing Void in the first weeks of the patch. Even though people didn’t have any control over getting those items, we witnessed a lot of “LF DPS link t3 infinite stars” groups in mythic+ or even heroic Nyalotha raids. It is a case example that even in the situation when players can’t change their powers (legendaries/corruptions), the community still generates meta and predominantly looks for players that have these most efficient powers.
It is possible that your guild will require you to pick a covenant ability which you’re not personally interested in having, just so it helps your group to beat the hardest moment of the fight (e.g. Kil’Jaeden encounter which forced a lot of semi-hardcore or even casual players to roll their characters to goblin to obtain “Rocket Jump” racial ability). As it stands now you wouldn’t be able to get back to the covenant of your choice after switching to the option guild required.
The casual community will not be affected by any variation of the covenant system. The content that they usually do doesn’t have strict requirements for optimizing the character’s efficiency. “Looking for priest (Kyrian only)” type of groups will exist anyway because each covenant will have different efficiency for dungeons, PvP, and raids. With the “free swap” system in place players will at least have a choice. Do they want to join the group that requires them to use Venthyr ability instead of Kyrian, or they maybe want to find another group? Putting restrictions on swapping basically does not let them choose, while still allows groups or guilds to have covenant requirements.
Meta will always exist, and players will self-organize to exploit it anyway. In the end, we will get into a situation where a major part of a specific spec will all use the same covenant, and this choice will be made not by a reason of lore or appearance, but according to the combat effectiveness.
Choice must matter
This is the point that we can agree with. If a choice does not have any consequences, then it doesn’t let you feel that this was the real choice at all. The issue with this is that in MMORPG, unlike single-player games, people won’t care about what they get by choosing one covenant, but will care about what they lose by not choosing the other three.
Moreover, abilities and soulbinds should not forcibly be bound to covenants. Even without it, covenants give players a lot of consequences for making the choice, including Sanctum, Story Line, Transmogs, Special events like Ember Court, and other things. All of which are essentially important to players who are not going to judge the covenant only by its efficiency. It’s still possible to give players a choice which is hard to change without tying their character’s performance to that choice.
Another thing which worries us a lot is the situation where active players will prefer covenants which they do not like simply because it better suits raiding, PVP, or mythic+. A lot of average players would not like to sacrifice their characters’ efficiency, so they will have to choose something they don’t really like. If the system had a free swap of covenant powers, they could choose their covenant without even thinking about efficiency. This, from our perspective, leads to a more meaningful choice and more fun playing the game.
Even right now, during the beta, in discord class servers we often see questions like “Which covenant will be the best for my spec?” These questions, are raised not by top-tier hardcore guild members, but by casual ones. The reason why they ask all these questions is their anxiety to pick the “wrong” option, which would lead to loss of effectiveness, compared to the other players who picked the “right” one.
Any player who will open a spec guide firstly will look for which talents to pick, which gear to use, and which covenant to choose. Three out of four players will be sad to read that the “best” covenant option for the game mode they play is not something they would like to pick because of the appearance or lore. They don’t want to make the “wrong” choice only to regret it. For them it’s a safe bet to use something which is used by the top players.
In any competitive gameplay, which is quite typical for MMORPG, players wouldn’t like to perform worse because of the wrong decisions they made in the past. So there’s a high chance that top level players will start levelling several characters (“mirrors”), one for each game mode or covenant, while casual players will feel restricted by the choice they made.
In the past we had good examples of introducing hard choices:
Let’s remember the main choice horde players have been making in BfA: Sylvanas or Saurfang. Or choice demon hunter players had to make during their start campaign: Altruis or Kayn. Both of these choices did affect the story in some way, but let’s imagine that picking Sylvans would have given you a permanent +500 mastery bonus, while picking Saurfang +500 critical strike rating instead. Imagine that Altruis would grant you non-changeable Unleashed Power talent, and Kayn taught you Fel Eruption. Instead of making the choice, considering the character lore, players had to make it considering which combat abilities they would have in the end. If it was done this way, the choice would be complete nonsense story-wise.
Another example is Scryers vs Aldor. This choice used to give you some rewards, which were not the same in terms of power for different classes and specs. Yet, after reaching Exalted with one of them, you may buy these rewards and recipes, then apply for another faction, without losing what you have obtained earlier.
What can we do about this all?
We want to present a few suggestions and solutions as we think that criticism should always come with those.
The first solution we have, which is quite obvious, is to allow players to switch covenants as easily as they do with their specialization and talents.
If we go with this option, the player will still have to choose: which covenant to pick first. Hardcore players who have a lot of time, instead of wasting it for power-leveling duplicate characters, will just put this time to level the first, then second covenant on their main character. As an option, levelling each following covenant could take more and more time. This way, we will save the feeling of choice having consequences, yet still give players some option to ‘tweak’ their effectiveness, if some mistakes were made. The most important is to make sure that getting back to your old covenant wouldn’t give you any penalties.
The second option is to bind covenant abilities to soulbinds rather than to covenants.
This is a suggestion made by Preach during his interview with Ion Hazzikostas. By choosing the soulbind, we’re obtaining all its passives, and two covenant abilities that are now bound to the soulbind. Your covenant stays the same. And so does our choice, with the system itself becoming deeper and giving players a chance to tune their combat effectiveness the most convenient and logical way, while not interfering with the audience of players who don’t want to do so.
Conduits and specialization change
Another thing that we wanted to point out (hoping to convince the developers team to change their decision) is the conduit system. Right now each soulbind has 3 potency slots for conduits and these conduits are picked in your class hall as you unlock them. The fact that they are not consumable items, like Jewelcrafter’s gems, or relics from Legion was, is a great change!
Yet, we still have a problem of a week-long cooldown to change conduits which in turn limits respeccing. This will affect every player, who plays more than just one spec.
So now we have two options, one is to set up soulbinds the way it’s better for just one specialization and game mode you like the most (let’s say, for the Shadow specialization I play in raids, while my mythic+ party requires me to heal), or to play several specializations without being able to tune my combat effectiveness with conduits. This both limits players in making builds and also kind of pushes players to create other characters if they want to realize the full potential of several specializations.
It kind of reminds us of the Legion artifact issue which was almost successfully solved in BfA (despite it being somewhat annoying to visit the reforge vendor and waste some of your time and money, changing your azerite traits for another game mode you’re about to start). In Shadowlands, we’re getting that old issue back, and that’s another blow to the “bring the class, not the spec” system since I cannot even be the Restoration Shaman, who sets up conduits for different game modes, I have to be versatile Restoration Shaman, or even worse, versatile Restoration/Enhancement Shaman.
It’s kinda obvious what to do with this flaw: Conduits should be replaced the same way spells do when players change their specialization. With this change implemented players will still have to make a choice in which game mode they want the best combat performance, and players who want to play several specializations won’t be punished with combat ineffectiveness.
The Covenant system is a great idea with a quite good potential. At the moment they all look quite different, yet interesting, so we’re pretty sure that every player will be able to pick something that appeals to them the most. However, covenant choice shouldn’t do anything to a character’s combat effectiveness, since many players will be just picking the option which is “BiS” for their spec, even if they don’t like the option at all. Right now, the most discussed thing in Shadowlands channels is covenant abilities and the way they are going to affect the gameplay. So we’re hoping that the developers team will come with the decision to allow players to switch covenant abilities without penalties, or just unbind covenant class abilities from the covenant system.