Tier Set Design Questions

There are lots of threads already about tier set acquisition, power level, drop rate, etc. While some of those points will get reiterated in this post, I want to ask more about the design philosophy of the tier sets when the team decides to implement them into a tier.

What does the team feel the ultimate goal of a tier set is?
Is it to increase the power of a core ability by __% to make the numbers bigger? To lean into a certain playstyle? prioritize a build? leave multiple builds open? cover a weakness? build on a strength? Genuinely curious what the process is.

How strong should a tier set be?
We can look at the history of tier sets and see what percent damage increase they usually give once complete (Off a quick glance 2-set is 3-5%, 4-set is 10-15%?). What does the team feel a “good” tier set should add to a class, in terms of performance? What is the metric?

How are tier set bonuses chosen?
Does the team look at a niche the class fills and try to expand on it? There seems to be an occasional disconnect from the tier set and it’s spec, for example the first rendition of Resto Shaman which affected chain heal, an ability not really in the current resto shaman rotation. Was the intent to bring back a core ability into the rotation?

Once chosen, how are they balanced and improved upon? (if necessary)
Dedicated PTR players give tons of feedback on class sets that feel good, bad, over/under tuned, etc - what is the decision making process to either change the numbers or change the effect on a tier set?

Are active effect tier sets ever considered?
I know not all players want another button to press, but I think of things like the Legendary hunter bow that drops from Sylvanas, if the tuning were right could an ability like wailing arrow be an active ability instead of a passive effect?

How is acquisition determined?
Most implementations of tier sets have been through a token system which allowed 3-4 classes to share a token. This felt good because if I was the only DK in the raid, I’m not relying on only my luck every night, but eventually another class that loots my token won’t need it. Is the reason that they are pieces and not tokens because of the vault availability and some coding with that?

Outside of tier sets, how do these same questions influence borrowed power/player power in other systems?

Thanks for taking the time to read and reply! Looking forward to the conversation

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Hey! These are all really good questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them in a way that’s hopefully transparent enough to provide some insight and not so vague as to be frustrating. A few disclaimers & some context before I start to set the stage: I was only personally responsible for a fraction of the set bonus / acquisition initiative (Rogue/DK/Part of Warlock w/ Frozzo), so I’m going to try to center on my experiences to open the door for my other teammates to engage with their own perspectives on this.

’What does the team feel the ultimate goal of a tier set is?'

Approaching Tier Sets or Class Sets was interesting because there’s so much history associated with them that caused a lot of perception & expectation for us to manage heading into the project - namely, how do we make good on those implicit promises without players feeling let down by their return without creating unrealistic design goals for ourselves to stack up against. This whole post is gonna get real philosophical btw, so sorry/you’re welcome lmao.

Tier Sets have always been powerful upgrades to your character, but the idea that they’ve significantly changed your gameplay or enhanced your fantasy is more of a modern idea as far as WoW’s lifetime is concerned. Even going back to the Wrath & Cataclysm eras, the design of some Tier Sets were clearly adhering to a different expectation than players have today. It’s absolutely true that some instances of raw stats additions like resource regeneration functionally changed the rotations for some classes (you got to use certain spells at different frequencies), but for the most part they were just flat upgrades that didn’t interact with your character, and in many cases they weren’t even unique (I want to say even as far back as Mists/WoD it was common for some classes or role types to share a functionally similar 2-piece or 4-piece bonus).

Even among those expansions though, it was common for a few Set Bonuses to rise to the top of the conversation. As a Frost DK ‘main’ I can say Nighthold (big surprise) made the biggest impact on me, but every class/spec has a few defining memories of a design that were so cool they made their entire patch better as a result - some even ended up as baseline, talents, or riffed on/referenced in Legendaries, Conduits, etc down the line. Our goal with 9.2 was to try and make Sets that evoked those responses as much as possible. So, that said, a broad summary of our goals were that for 9.2, Set Bonuses had to do any (or if possible all) of the following:

a. meaningfully change your spec’s rotation
b. enhance your spec’s core fantasy, or give other elements of that fantasy the space to shine
c. enhance a spec’s mechanical identity (or ‘niche’)
d. (secret bonus goal - as these sets do not exist in a vacuum, introduce bonuses that work well with the metagame systems present so they feel intuitive and synergistic rather than disruptive and obtuse. This one’s obviously hard to get perfect but it’s still a goal.)

I’m not quoting an exact document here, and not everyone’s going to agree on what these mean exactly, so I’ll dive a little deeper on these further below. However, the ultimate goal is that by adhering to these guidelines, we have a greater chance now (and in future tier sets) to make more of those lasting gameplay memories that people tell stories about tiers and expansions later. And, as a little treat to us, we get to experiment and learn more about what players like and don’t in ways that don’t necessitate a full-scale class rework or update that players might sometimes expect alongside larger or more significant updates.

How are Tier Set bonuses chosen?

Lots and lots of iteration, with those above goals as our sort of guiding star. For us, we chose/assigned classes based on comfort & generally speaking who was most passionate about which ideas. From there, we’d each just show off our ideas, give and take feedback on the designs, and tweak them until we liked them enough to show off in one big blast, like we did back in November PTR (I think? time is fake). I think for 36 bonuses our team had a pretty good reception generally speaking, which made me happy to see knowing how much work was put into the whole package.

For Frost DK I personally wanted to see Glacial Advance, a talent that’s never really seen significant play due to the opportunity cost of its talent row, tapped into via a different activator. The Assassination bonus envisions a slightly repackaged version of their Exsanguination talent, that similarly doesn’t see a lot of use, but is powerful in certain circumstances. There’s a number of these types of bonuses that try to capitalize or expand the sort of design space for certain specs, riffing off of talents or old effects that didn’t work for various reasons, but have a new shot at life in a Tier Set.

Speaking of Frost, let’s also expand that point about mechanical identity or niches - Death Knight’s DPS specs in particular often don’t feel different enough from one another, leading to even a slight edge in one being stronger in a current patch leading to a massive shift of spec swapping because they’re pretty similar in output. One goal for 9.2’s DK sets was to push these niches even further, with Frost having more consistent AoE/Cleave presence, where Unholy having even more strength when it came to heavy movement + execute, something that’s made it generally a safer Raiding spec this expansion thus far.

Players might look at some of the problems I just mentioned with DK’s and say ‘why not just rework them’ or some of the talents mentioned, but it’s here that I personally see how important Tier Sets can be with regards to the experimentation I brought up earlier: Frost as a cooldown-based burst cleave spec vs Unholy as a single target execute spec is only one example of how these classes could be tuned or developed further in the future, and aren’t too far from how they’re being used right now, so a Tier Set that pushes that dichotomy further has real value. For instance, the original version of the Unholy bonus veered far too heavily into pure Execute, which players quickly pushed back against - but a mixed version that’s more integrated into their ‘Undead Commander’ fantasy seems to have gone over better.

Bonuses like these not only let us test the waters to see what you like and don’t like, but also open the floor to give sets texture against one another as we move forward - a bonus that was heavily interacting with X or Y might focus on a completely different part of the spec in the future, which really taps into the depth of our combat and classes over time.

I could probably be here for hours talking about how cool I personally find the sets or how they achieve their goals, but I’ll probably cut this part of the post short. My last comment is that it’s also important to have a diversity of bonuses too. That naturally comes with having different designers playing off each other with their own styles, but it’s important to note that something that may not work for you personally (a crunchy numbers-focused bonus that gives you a clear mechanical output, or higher-fantasy stuff like some of Warlock’s creating new/additional demons) absolutely may work for others, so we’re really aiming to create solid legwork for future set bonuses and designers to give a great variety of experiences over time - which multiplied again by the raw amount of bonuses and classes, is certainly no easy task.

As for your other questions, let me try and answer those in a more condensed way (I did warn you)

How strong should a tier set be?

This one’s generally pretty hard to answer, which I get isn’t super satisfying - but the short answer would be that they should feel similar to Legendaries in terms of power budget. There’s naturally going to be outliers tier by tier, but also there isn’t a ‘magic number’ to reach that is a one-size-fits-all response. I don’t want to create the expectation that it’s like ‘surprise, it’s always X%!’ because we want to retain room to try different things in the future that also take into account other environmental factors to the game’s current systems, but yeah. a TLDR would be ‘it depends’ or ‘they should be in relative balance with one another’, but we’re always aiming for a result that feels more flexible and allows for our colleagues across other teams to tune stuff appropriately around it.

How is acquisition determined?

Another one that’s hard to say definitely - many of us weren’t at blizzard or working on WoW when the old Tier Sets were around, and the game’s changed since then as well, which is why we invested in making Tier Sets this time feel really integrated to the overall endgame experience - that is to say, obtainable the Great Vault (which also didn’t exist then) and from non-raiding activities. This one’s gonna come off as vague, but that’s because honestly we’re trying a lot of new things that weren’t true of previous Tier Sets, so to say definitively one way or the other might end up being a broken promise. That said, it feels right to us that something that’s been kind of iconic for WoW’s endgame is achievable by anyone who plays, even players who join late or swap classes mid-tier, which is the big goal around the Creation Catalyst.

There’ll be more information on that specifically Soon, so I won’t go too deeply into it here, but we recognized that if players heard Tier Sets were back, and rushed to play 9.2 and found it was impossible to get them because they couldn’t find a raiding guild or something, that might lead to a negative experience even if that’s similar to how they worked before. So, TLDR - trying stuff out, looking forward to continuing to try stuff out in the future.

Are active effect Tier Sets ever considered?

Lastly - not really? Actives have their place in WoW (like on some trinkets or special weapons), but often come with trade-offs for us design-wise that don’t currently feel right for Tier Sets. For example, they tend to be harder to use for the average player, but incredibly potent as skill level increases due to compressing/overlapping their effects with certain other buff windows for multiplicative effect. On the other hand, a lot of our ‘passives’ tend to be ‘active’ in the sense that you’ll need to perform specific gameplay actions to get the benefit (like pressing Pistol Shot more, or consuming a proc that you build up over time), which tend to work out better with the flow of WoW’s combat and be generally easier to tune.

I don’t want to give the impression that we’d never try actives on a Tier Set though, just that there’s enough added complexity with Actives that you’d expect it to have to be a pretty awesome theme or special situation to be worth the costs or barriers associated. TL;DR - they weren’t in the conversation for 9.2, have things running against them, but could totally be in the conversation for future sets depending on the right environment + reasons!

I know this was a lot! but I really appreciate your questions, and hope this answers them in a way that hopefully yields the insight you were hoping.

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For your question about Resto Shaman, the driving design intent was to make a healing set bonus that felt fundamentally like Resto Shaman. Chain heal and totems are very core Shaman spells. While Chain Heal has fallen a bit out of favor in Shadowlands, this is due in part to how Legendaries and Covenant-related systems have altered the healing-per-mana of Resto Shaman spells. From a design perspective, that means there’s an extra roadblock to making a cool Chain Heal set bonus, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Chain Heal is off the table.

The first iteration of the resto shaman set bonus tried to build an engine around Chain Heal and Spirit Link Totem, but in addition to specific spirit link timing concerns, that would have had the issue of either pushing Chain Heal to the front of Shaman heals at all times, or not being enough to overcome the HPM concerns and ending up unused, depending on how tuning worked out. So we moved towards a bonus that builds an engine around critically hitting, which synergizes with the core mechanic of Resurgence, and rewards you for casting Chain Heal some amount of the time.

Broadly, players understandably look at set bonuses through the lens of how they’re currently playing the game. Sometimes a designer is trying to accent part of their class’s identity that has fallen out of favor, rather than something that already feels important to them. That distinction can lead to that ‘disconnected’ feeling. But ultimately, we all hope for the same thing in the end - fun gameplay that resonates with our class’s core fantasies.

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Any chance we could get a look at Mistweaver set bonuses for PvP? Currently channeling essence font is next to the worst thing to do healing wise as its not really that well optimized for PvP and the 4 peice requiring you to stand still is basically a death sentence. Any plans to change these at least for PvP?

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For that matter, can you offer any insight on why PvP gear didn’t get its own bonuses as it did in every previous expansion prior to Legion? I feel like a lot of these bonuses are going to be insane in PvP while other classes, like you mentioned, won’t really even benefit. With past PvP bonuses, at least everyone had something that was designed with PvP in mind, even if the bonuses were a lot simpler than some of the PvE tier bonuses.

It also is kinda weird that since PvPers will want to use PvE tier, they will have to use PvE itemization from the Creation Catalyst. I really don’t think the set stats on those pieces are going to be designed with PvP itemization in mind, so it seems like it will be hit or miss for PvPers on whether the tier they make will have useful stats. Obviously for some the bonuses will make up for it, but it still will probably feel pretty bad.

Also, if the conversion method is a catchup that isn’t available initially, are we going to see another BFA situation where competitive PvPers are going to need to raid to get tier? It will be available in the PvP vault, but that is entirely RNG. I think one of the things SL s1 and s2 did really well was ensuring that you didn’t have to raid or do M+ (other PvE chores like Torghast or world content are another story) and could just PvP for your actual gear. But if people that both raid and PvP are getting their crazy bonuses weeks or even months earlier, that could be a problem, no? Is there any plan to address that, or should PvPers just expect to need to raid for the first part of the patch?

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Wish it was just like a go to a vendor and change between two set bonuses for PvP and PvE and also pick those stats like legendaries

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I don’t mean to nitpick you here as the person not working on my spec of concern, but I would like to challenge this specifically on WW. Please forward on as appropriate.

The 2p doesn’t change anything, even in kyrian where you are still going to cancel FoF during your Weapons window. Canceling with a tierset-buffed ability feels so bad, and on the other covenants you won’t change much either.
The 4p is largely best if ignored because it’s not enough of a bump to play around and move CDs and the current bugs make it unusable with our cooldowns anyway to get a proper feel of how it “should” be with proper planning.

The WW 4piece (in theory, current implementation too bugged to tell) is a huge burden of planning if you want to maximize it (which isn’t worth it most of the time) - this sort of planning was WW’s fantasy in Legion, but lately has been the opposite with all the procs we rely on and have relied on. Heck, it started in Antorus with that RNG Blackout Kick tierset, before evolving into Dance of Chi-ji RNG in BFA (and SL) and Bonedust Brew (Bountiful Brew legendary) and Faeline Stomp resets in SL, all RNG we can’t really plan around. Can we get a solid direction on what the team thinks the WW fantasy is? I am getting conflicting ideas of what that is and I don’t really understand the direction of this tierset. It almost feels like it was designed from an outdated fantasy of WW not inline with current design.

Some niches don’t need enhancing, and I’d say WW aoe is one of them. Necrolord itself can entirely define that niche for us wholly, the two set bonuses also doing it is a little redundant. Is there any consideration for enhancing SOME specs’ non-niche utility with sets? Or maybe adding an additional utility in lieu of just enhancing existing ones? WW used to have a ST burst niche (think the shield on the Maiden of Valor on Fallen Avatar in Tomb of Sargeras or Kin’garoth robots in Antorus), but that has been surpassed by others and also extremely outshone by our aoe niche, it would be cool to have something like that reinstated in a tierset while also buffing us where we need it more rather than where we don’t.

Does this include the timeline of the actual introduction of the set? Getting the current 4set as WW will actually introduce some extreme obtuseness into raiding as a WW after a couple weeks (presumably) of not raiding with it. You’re gonna be getting used to new fight timers (and again after a double legendary power boost) and all of a sudden will have to introduce planning 10 moves ahead of time on top of learning all this, it’s going to make it kind of obtuse and disruptive by nature.

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Gonna have to agree with this current WW really isnt the same kind of fun it use to be which is why people seem to not like it compared to the old style. While I certainly like the 2 set bonus the 4 set bonus is basically silly

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I’m definitely on the “you’re welcome” side. Thank you for this post!

Same. lol

These are great insight. As you mention later on, bringing in old/unused talents and effects (with reference to Glacial Advance and frost DK) is a great way to incorporate class fantasy. As an aside, I think more regular tuning of talents would be really cool to see. It’s simple, but not as fun to be “locked” into a talent in every situation.

I was really glad to see GA used in the tier set. In my Frost DK feedback post (context: Feedback on Frost DK) I asked for GA to be made baseline (and I think this tier set could be the first step in that direction) and replaced on the talent tree with a buffed Chill Streak, which might have a chance to take Gathering Storm off its untouched throne.

What are your thoughts on reworking vs buffing? When does a talent need to be tossed and replaced or just improved on?

This was an AWESOME change to see btw. Thank you. (Although I do still find the way the unholy set interacts with regular soul reaper casts to be a little weird)

Is there a point where “being in balance” is too much? Obviously a 50% effectiveness increase is too much for a tier set, but if they’re all 50% then its fine (lol jk) But maybe some top performing specs (rogue, balance druid, etc) get slightly smaller % effectiveness increases than bottom specs (destro lock, Hunter, DK etc)

I’m so glad to hear this. Joining 9.1 late felt REALLY bad for alts / people who started or came back to the game, especially with Domination Sockets/Gems. Amazing to hear.

Thank you so much for this post. Looking forward to more discussion in the future!!

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Would just like to pop a quick note in here to say thanks for providing Insight into this.

Knowing design intent is super valuable to help guide feedback and know what the purpose is to then be creative with it. It’s quite easy to look at a set bonus and say it’s dead on arrival without knowing what the purpose is.

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While I can see why this is being done, would it not be better, at least for after this tier, to look into why this is actually the case? If you always end up ignoring 1 talent because of various reasons such as (for some classes) it simply does what 1 or both of the others do but worse or if it’s just in a row where 1 talent is picked 100% of the time then would it not be better to either do something about the talent or look into the 100% pickrate talent instead?

This isn’t necessarily for dk or rogue but I can think of quite a few classes that are in this position.

I’m personally really not a fan of this when they get throw into talents because more often than not it ends up in a talent row conflicting with an already existing build and it just ends up being either always picked or never picked. It doesn’t happen for all but it’s really sad to see a really cool set/legendary/whatever never see any use or to just completely replace an already very nice talent. It would be nice if we could get an extra talent row maybe? : )

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Now that we’re a few months into the patch and Creation Catalyst has been out long enough that everyone I know of who has played the full patch has full tier on one or more characters, I’m wondering if we can get any feedback on if you think these goals were met with tier this patch, and whether it was or wasn’t, if there is a way it can be improved going forwards.

For example, I think for Frost DK the “Enhance a spec’s mechanical identity or niche” was well achieved because of Glacial Advance applying razorice, opening the door for another runeforge which has drastically increased the uptime on Breath of Syndragosa. I love that aspect.

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