Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Entry 18: Lean Theory Applied to Leveling - The Grind

Being a hybrid is odd. It seems to me, at least at this stage of the leveling game, that enchancement is about head and shoulders above either restoration or elemental in terms of efficiency. Why? Gear availability, and the stats that go with that.

As a melee dpser there are two stats that interest me the most: strength and agility. Strength makes every melee strike hit for more and agility increase my chances to crit (thus enabling all my talent-related melee buffs). Applying a bit of the logic behind gear I learned on Ferenczys, I am actively pursuing both Str and Agi to the complete exclusion of Stam, Int, and Spi. Why? For the exact same reason warlocks are told to stack as much +dmg as they can: stamina does not matter when your fights only last 15 seconds.

My first run through the game, I clung unquestioningly to the stats of survival and longevity. Stamina and Intellect (and yes, spirit too) were everywhere on my gear because I was under the impression that a longer life/mana bar meant I would survive more. While this is true, it's a paradigm worth investigating a little further. Let me use both Feren and Shatterhoof for comparison.

Leveling with Ferenczy was an exercise in patience. I didn't master Drain Tanking until late in my warlock career, and Demonology (at the time) was a grossly underpowered talent tree, so I went the way of Destruction. My fights consisted of blowing the bejeezus out of things, and usually ending fights with 70-60% hp and mana. My threat was through the roof, so I couldn't use my pets to tank like other lock builds. I NEEDED Stam and Int because the more of those I had, the more fights I could go before needing to eat/drink. Or so I thought.

The flipside, which I hadn't learned till much later, was that stacking +dmg made much MORE sense because you could kill the same number of mobs with fewer spells. Fights are much shorter, and consequently your mana pool is taxed much less. There is obviously a tradeoff, as even highly efficient spells are limited by a smaller mana pool, but by and large you are increasing something more useful to a leveling character: SPEED. The faster you kill, the faster you earn xp, and thus the faster you level.

What +dmg is to locks, +agi/+str is to an Enhancement shaman. I usually have to settle for gear options that are one or the other with a stam component, but by and large everything on Shatterhoof is focused on melee damage. The fact that he's in mail armor (well, mostly; I still have a few leather pieces that I'm using because the stats are more in line with the above reasoning) helps considerably, as I'm penalized less for having a smaller health pool. This has allowed me to grind a hell of a lot faster than I would have thought. Last night for instance I cleared out an entire camp of Grimtotem tauren in under ten minutes, drinking/eating once. Shamans have a distinct advantage when it comes to closely spaced mobs in PVE, because it allows us to maximize the use of our totems. If I know I will be able to pull from a single spot for a good while, I will generate my little field of totems and pull with rank 1 Lighting Bolt. The range is ridiculous, and the cost is minimal.

If a full complement of totems is inefficient but I want a good boost, I have found that Grace of Air is by far more useful than Strength of Earth. The totem increases my crit chance by a good amount, and that just makes everything else gel better. Though Strenght of Earth is very powerful when coupled with Windfury, the proc chance of WF makes it an unsure thing. I would rather have the guarantee of more Flurry/Unleashed Rage/Shamanistic Focus uptime more crit brings to the table. This has led me to consider Agi a more important stat for Enhancement shamans than Str. Apart from being a talent enabler through crit %, it enables Dodge too, which only serves to reduce my downtime between pulls even further.

I don't see how Elemental, the other shaman DPS tree, could possibly compare to the sheer killing speed of Enhancement at this point. The availability of +nature/+spell damage on mail pieces at this level seems to be pretty sparse. Sure, I could go into some cloth pieces the same way I now dip into Leather, but shamans lack the ability to CC a mob that other casters enjoy. Pure casters like Mages, Locks and Priests can root, fear, and stun long enough for their spells to cast and kill the target. Druids, like shamans, have more limited ways of keeping something under control, but whereas they can Root a target outside, the best a shaman can do is Frost Shock when the target is in range and kite the target. Running means not casting, and not casting means you aren't killing things, which, to borrow a term from lean manufacturing, is muda.

So here I am, deep into Enhancement and up to my eyeballs in melee stats. What use have I of my other tree abilities? I might use Healing Wave a couple of times, but by and large bandaging is more efficient because it doesn't cut into my mana pool. Lighting bolt is better suited towards poking a target to get it's attention, since the only time I ever do that is when I've got my forest of totems up, and at that point I don't want to waste the mana on the full-rank spell because the almost-guaranteed Shamanistic Focus buff makes shocks so much more efficient.

In the spirit of true lean principle, I will now state what should be common sense to anyone leveling a toon in WoW:

1. Gear to your strengths, and find the most efficient method of killing your target.
2. Stamina/Intellect/Spirit are not imporant while you level. Damage output is.
3. Downtime is bad (lean: Non-value added); travel time is downtime, so the faster you get from A to B (or the less times you have to span the gap), the more time you'll spend doing something productive. See number 4.
4. Install QuestHelper. It modifies your map to show you the location of every one of your quest objectives, letting you work out a logical path from one to the other to maximize your grinding efficiency.
5. Gathering professions are more efficient than crafting professions for two reasons:
5a. You are already out in the wilderness, so you aren't 'wasting time' endlessly crafting in a major city
5b. You don't need to spend gold to increase your proficiency (beyond ranking up that is)
6. As soon as possible, set your Hearthstone to Shattrath City. While you lose the ability to instantly port to the nearby inn while you are leveling, the capability of near-instant travel across continents is huge.

I am now 4 days /played on Shatterhoof and nearing level 50. I'm not sure what a 'good' rate of leveling is, but this seems pretty damn quick compared to all the time I seemed to have spent putzing around with Ferenczys, and a good part of those 4 days was spent pre-30 gearing up for some casual twink PVP. I can only really play in 30-40 minute increments, but each play session I average roughly half a bar of XP if I turn in all the quests I complete. Rested state is awesome. The 'slow' period between 30-40 seems to have gone by pretty quick, and if memory serves, things pick up again once I cross 50 and get access to more centralized quest hubs.

Not sure how much longer I'll be at this though. My family is expecting a new addition soon! It will soon be time for me to hang up the gamer hat and start being a daddy. :) Who knows, I may be back for Wrath of the Lich King, which is looking more and more casual friendly with every tidbit I hear. Thanks Blizz for making even a part-timer like myself feel welcome.
Continue reading 'Entry 18: Lean Theory Applied to Leveling - The Grind'

Entry 17: U heal Mara?

That was the whisper Shatterhoof got as I was unloading his bags at the AH in Ogrimmar last night. For a moment I was overcome by a wave of surrealness (surreality?). Instantly it seemed that every time I'd ever blindly whispered for a healing spot in an instance run flashed across my mind's eye. I recalled the vacant, blind depression associated with a blind tell, with the knowledge that the person will more than likely tell you no. I recalled the terrible sinking feeling as the clock ticks to the ten, twenty, thirty minute mark in LFG. I remembered the increasingly ambivalent party messages from the other group members, the sight of their little map icons shuffling off to the daily quest areas, or worse, to the battlemasters. I was acutely reminded of the sick feeling of knowing a run is dead before it even started.

Then the person whispered me again, 'U heal mara??'

To which I calmly replied, 'I'm spec'd for enhancement, but I can try.'

The party invitation popped up so fast I hardly had time to blink.

Now, I'm no expert at healing, and by this point Shatter is pretty deep into Enhancement, with absolutely zero investment in either elemental or restoration talents. He's a melee dps'er, and his gear is not meant for sustained heals. So, since I had a nice cushion of gold from dual gathering professions (yay!), I hopped on the AH and picked up some cheap 'of the Eagle' gear and a nice +healing staff. Whatever right, if I'm going to heal I'm going to at least make an effort of it.

Alas, my eagerness proved unnecessary. Five minutes later our tank dropped because of work related issues, and then I get another tell from the guy who recruited me.

'U tank in bear form??'


/p Thanks for the invite everyone! Good luck!

/leave party
Continue reading 'Entry 17: U heal Mara?'

Entry 16: How much is your time worth?

I'm crunching along merrily on my shaman, and at the moment I am perfectly content to follow the leveling guide and just sort of cruise through the game in melee mode. Just got into the first few ranks of Unleashed Rage, so now that little shudder of glee I get whenever I crit has evolved into more of a sick cackle. The thing I can't stand about my shaman at this level is the unpredictability of fights, since everything is predicated on getting off a crit. Sometimes I run in, get crits/windfury procs like crazy and the target is dead before I can blink. Other times, I'll stand there for what seems like forever just dual swinging away, getting increasingly frustated as the white numbers continually get broken up by MISS, MISS, DODGE, etc, with nary a crit in sight. I hardly ever drop totems unless I know I can reliably pull multiple mobs in sequence. I've found that using Lighting Bolt Rank 1 is a great way of getting something's attention without having to leave my little bubble of awesomeness.

But that's kind of besides the main point to this article.

See, I think I've finally gotten up enough courage to blow away Ferenczy's Enchanting profession to take up a new one. I've long had an antagonistic view of my enchanting skills because I just don't find it all that useful. I disenchant more than I enchant, and it's getting really old. I've turned to guildmates with more time/less common sense for all my high level enchanting needs, and I haven't missed it at all. I've decided to drop Enchanting (sitting at 301 skill now) for Alchemy.

My reasons for this are manifold. First of all, I love thinking systemically. Having Feren as an alchemist seems to gel really well with his primary-primary profession, Tailoring, because of the high demand for elemental reagents in tailoring recipes. Transmutes could come in really handy, I think. Thinking cross-character, I could have Shatterhoof supply quite a lot of Feren's herb needs once he gets up to speed, further alleviating the costs of leveling a profession from scratch.

A quick Google search will turn up a plethora of various profession power leveling guides that walk you through exactly what you need to make at the various skill levels in order to progress. This sure beats having to figure things out for yourself and potentially wasting valuable resources, the most critical of which is time.

You see, most casual players are lack not the want, ambition, or skill to do well in the game, they simply lack time. Between my responsibilities at work and the time I want to spend with my family, my time in-game is significantly less than that of most of the population. This means that I have to plan ahead for what I want to do and prepare as much as possible outside of the game in order to fully utilize the time I do have. This means reading up on boss strategies, searching for the quests or bosses I'll need to overcome for the loot I want, or, in this case, brushing up on a leveling guide so that I can set up the necessary milestones I'll need to hit every play session.

In a roundabout way this has led me to my current situation, and it's given me some insight into how the free market within WoW really works. Every player, casual or not, has to determine for him/herself just how valuable their game time really is. Take the epic crafting recipes for instance. If you don't have a lot of time, it's probably more efficient for you to do dailies in small blocks of time and just buy your mats on the AH. Grinding can yield the materials far more cheaply in terms of gold expenses, but you end up having to rely on the randomized loot of every mob you kill for the stuff you want, whereas completing a daily will ALWAYS give you the monetary reward you set out to acquire.

If you need, like I did, more than 25 Primal Fires for all the Shadoweave I needed for my Frozen Shadoweave Set, you're looking at over 625g in Primal Fires alone. That's the equivalent of 250 Motes of Fire, which, at BEST, would take you 150 Fire Elemental kills to accomplish if every elemental dropped 2 Motes. We all know they do not, that the drop rate is probably closer to 20% for every Mote, so those 250 Motes are more realistically going to take you around 1250 elemental kills to achieve. On my best days I could take three elementals at a time in roughly the duration of a single Corruption spell, or 24 seconds. Add in travel time to and from mobs, global cooldowns and the like and you raise that to roughly one minute per elemental pack. That equates to roughly 7 hours of game time just killing elementals, assuming I can get three pulls per minute and don't have any competition.

Can you say bloody unlikely?

On the flip side, assuming you can earn 40g an hour doing dailies (some people put this as high as 100g, but I'll be conservative, and assume you have a non-epic flying mount), that's about 16 days worth of dailies to purchase all those mats. Sure it might take longer, but if you're strapped for time, a slow, gradual build up towards your final reward is less stressful than the randomness of the loot generation system and open competition on the mobs.

So what am I getting at? Time is valuable. Time is worth gold. Those seven hours spent grinding could just as easily be spent running two or three instances (or at least two heroics), or clearing Karazhan once a week. If you want to maximize your play experience, you need to figure out what kind of returns your likely to see for your time investment and choose the optimal path. How you define 'returns' is entirely up to you. For some people it means improving gear, or earning gold. Others might define it a little more abstractly by simply calling it 'fun'. If grinding on elementals is your idea of fun, more power to you. After all, someone needs to fill in the supply side of supply-demand. I'll be more than happy to reward your hard work with the gold I earn running dailies, if it means I get more time to do what I consider 'fun'.

In case I wasn't clear, that does NOT involve farming.
Continue reading 'Entry 16: How much is your time worth?'