Exclusive Shadowlands Interview with Ion Hazzikostas – Class Balance, Covenants, Season 1

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Exclusive Shadowlands Interview with Ion Hazzikostas - Class Balance, Covenants, Season 1



The Wowhead team sat down with Game Director Ion Hazzikostas for an exclusive interview on Shadowlands, the upcoming expansion for World of Warcraft! We learned about some of their design goals for Class Balance in Shadowlands, how Blizzard plans to handle Covenant and Legendary balancing post-launch, how many pieces of loot drop from a Mythic raid boss in Castle Nathria and more.

We also had a group interview that had some new information like Torghast being released with only 3 layers, the lack of a Flight Master’s Whistle and Legendary Transmog not be available at launch. Below is a list of additional topics discussed in the group interview, not our exclusive interview.

Classes and the MetaOnly 3 Torghast Layers Available at LaunchNo Flight Master WhistleNo Legendary Transmog at Launch
Storytelling and LoreShadowlands Delays and Working From HomeEngagement Metrics

Pre-Patch and Season 1 Preparation

In the first week of BFA Season 1, Mythic+ keystones were based off the final week of Legion. Should players do a high keystone this week so that they get a high keystone for the first week of Shadowlands Season 1 or will Keystone levels be reset?

They will be reset. That was a bug. As much fun as people had trying to do a +21 King’s Rest in pre-raid BFA gear, that was an oversight in terms of expansion transition. So no matter what your Keystone history is, that’s being reset when Season 1 starts. You should go and do a Mythic 0 and will get a Mythic 2 Keystone for a random dungeon and can have fun pushing that up.

Summary:

  • Keystones will be reset on the start of Shadowlands Season 1. You do not need to do a high keystone this week in the Pre-Patch.

Class and Covenant Balance

How do you plan to handle the balancing of Covenants and Legendaries after launch when players have already invested resources in those decisions.

The answer there is conservatively. We understand that when players have a permanent or heavy investment in something, we don’t want to change that out from under them. That said, if it turns out that there are outliers that are really harmful to overall game balance — that the community figures out some combination or synergy that we’ve overlooked — things like the Blaster Master, Mechagon Bracers, Lucid Dreams Fire Mage synergy come to mind where it’s like yup this is just way out there, then yes we would make tuning changes but we would do that with a eye towards not upsetting the ranking of things. If something is the best for certain situations by a whole lot, we would bring it down but maybe not quite as much as pure balance would dictate or as we might have done if we had faced the same issue in Beta, so that players aren’t regretting their choices or feeling like they should have done something else.

Would you change Covenants more drastically between Patches or Raids?

Yes. I think patches are where larger changes would occur. When we look ahead to major content updates those will include new Legendary affixes that players can seek out; there’s a bit more of a reset that comes with that. We also have the ability, it’s not something we will do lightly, but if we needed to, we can reset the Covenant switching cooldown or the history of “you left this covenant” to make that a more seamless transition if we have to make some larger changes but we don’t have any plans to do that — just in case measures.

A lot of consumable class utility items were removed like Scrolls and Drums were nerfed. What’s the design decision behind that?

A lot of it is underscoring class utility and class diversity within groups. Many of those consumables were used to cover up for stacking many of a certain class. Ideally, whether you’re in a dungeon group, whatever context you’re in, you should want as many different classes represented as possible and players should be happy that, “Oh cool we have a priest with us today, that means that we’re all gonna have a bit of extra health. Some of these things that are otherwise borderline one shots in this high key, we have a bit of an extra cushion against”. Same for each of the other buffs that are available. That’s something that has been part of WoW for a long long time and that we’d like to return to. It’s class identity. At the end of the day skill is essential, play with your friends, we don’t want these differences to be large enough to feel like you can’t do that. But all else being equal, if you’re a pug leader trying to fill out a group, a mix of classes should be better than bringing multiples of the same one.

Have you considered a more Revolving Door type of Class Balancing, as certain specs tend to dominate more often?

Not deliberately. I don’t think we’re considered saying “Alright, this is your turn to be dominant” and then next time around — part of the challenge is that, and this is something that we still talk about and we don’t have a perfect answer to, people have different strengths and weaknesses and there are certain pieces of toolkits that tend to lend themselves particularly to the things that high end Mythic progression groups value, particularly the World First groups where they’re doing things undergeared. There’s a reason why a lot of time you’ve seen Brewmaster Tanks very heavily used or back in Legion when Guardian Druids had gigantic health pools, they were very heavily used because they were the hardest tanks to spike when you’re tanking stuff undergeared and you’re underhealing fights. Longer term we saw much better representation with complete diversity about who was tanking but in those situations that was priceless.

Disc Priests and their absorbs again, when you’re doing this at the end of your gear thresholds, both the extra cushion they provide and the damage output when you’re trying to hit some 0.1% DPS check, as opposed to just trying to succeeding on the mechanics which is what later, even Cutting Edge guilds, have to deal with. Those things are uniquely valuable there. And so, part of the challenge on our end has been not wanting to gut the toolkits of those classes and specs that are part of what makes them interesting, but we also recognize that yeah, it’s not ideal if you’re a player of a different class that you prefer and you want to participate in that Cutting edge activity, I agree that we have more work to do. I think for 99%+ of players, you truly can play any class and spec and succeed in doing so. If you’re trying to literally win the MDI, if you’re trying to get a world first or world top 10 kill of Mythic raid boss, then every tiny little bit matters and there are differences there, but I think that’s part of the ethos of those players and our primary focus is on the vast majority of the rest of the player base including those who are doing high end competitive content and we think we’ve been much more successful there.

Summary:

  • Covenant and Legendary tuning will be done conservatively after launch. If there are outliers, they’ll make tuning changes but try not to change the ranking of things.
  • Covenants may have larger changes on Patches. There are no current plans for it at the moment, but if absolutely needed, they can reset the Covenant switching cooldown or the history of leaving a Covenant to accommodate this transition.
  • You should be able to play with your friends and skill is essential but part of the reason that consumable class utility is being removed is that many of those consumables were used to cover up for the stacking of a certain class.
  • Certain classes have different strengths and weaknesses, some of which are more suited towards the things that high end Mythic progression guilds are looking for when doing things undergeared, which is why they tend to be used more often.

Covenant Swapping and Renown

How often does a bonus Renown show up on Renown Catch-up system kicks in?

The more Renown you’re missing effectively, the faster acquisition is so it sort of slows down asymptotically as you’re approaching fully caught up. If you’re a few weeks behind, you can expect it 100% of the time from particularly daily or weekly activities like Callings. Things that are more repeatable like dungeons may have a lower chance as you get closer.

How long will it take to get caught up on Renown if you swap Covenants?

In general our goal is if you switch Covenants, you should — within a few days of gameplay — be at a point where you’re viable in your new Covenant, maybe not perfectly optimal, but a couple weeks after that you should be totally fine. And by totally fine, I mean completely caught up as if you had never been in a different Covenant. It’s not intended to be a massive burden, you probably don’t want to change Covenants the night before or the day of your planned Mythic progression raid or when you’re trying to push rating in Arena but if you do it and have a few days to make that switch over you should be fine.

How do Covenant Weapons Work? If you swap Covenants do You Lose Your Weapon?

I need to double check that actually. In terms of the intent, appearances are generally tied to being in the Covenant: If you want to ride a Larian and have glowing Kyrian armor, you should be in the Kyrian while you do that. If you leave the Covenant, you will retain those appearances in your collection but not be able to use them. If you come back to the Covenant, you’ll be able to use them again. With regard to your actual weapon, we will not want it to be the case that if you leave your Covenant, you are literally weaponless, so we’ll make sure that works.

With No Flight Master’s Whistle in Shadowlands, are there any plans to quickly teleport to your Covenant Sanctum from anywhere?

If you upgrade your Transportation Network to level 3, that actually also adds a portal to Oribos from your sanctum and so at that point, players should feel free to set their hearths in their sanctum and have free access to Oribos and the other zones from that and that becomes a quick shortcut.

Summary:

  • The farther you are behind in Renown, the faster your catch up will be.
  • You should be “viable” within a couple of days in your new Covenant, but after a couple weeks, you’ll be completely caught up.
  • Quick travel to your Covenant Sanctum is only possible by using your Hearthstone. However, unlocking Transportation Network level 3 will add a portal to Oribos from your Sanctum.

Legendaries

Are there any catch up mechanisms for Soul Ash?

We’re happy with the overall rate of acquisition. A few people joining Shadowlands later will have access to more of Torghast since only the first 3 layers will be available until Castle Nathria opens and Season 1 starts, then 4 through 6 and eventually 7 and 8. Ultimately with Legendaries, since there’s an equip limit of 1, just getting your first Legendary makes you equal to someone in terms of your moment to moment power as someone who has 3 or 4 legendaries who can still only wear one. Catch up in the sense of more options isn’t quite the same as being strictly behind someone’s item level or Artifact Power like in the past.

Are Legendary patterns 100% drop chance when you meet the requirements?

It depends, not always. In general, things that have longer lockouts are but things that are more repeatable are not. If there’s one that can drop from a Dungeon boss, you may have to run that dungeon multiple times. If something comes from a World Boss that’s on a multi-week rotation, and you only get one shot a week, you’re going to get the recipe when you kill the boss because that would be a bit much.

Is there Bad Luck Protection on Legendary recipes then?

I don’t recall, but we’re not talking Legion Legendary rarity. They should be something that a player, if they set their minds to, can reliably obtain.

Summary:

  • No current plans for catch up for Soul Ash from Torghast.
  • Legendary patterns are not always 100% drop chance and depend on how repeatable the content is.

Conduits

How do PvP/Mythic+/World Boss conduits drop at higher ranks and Raid conduits drop at lower ranks?

There’s been a lot of datamining of Ranks as a behind the scenes thing but in terms of Player-facing, they’re just Item Level. Think of how Relics worked in Legion, things that dropped item level of a certain gear across the board will drop Conduits of that Item Level. So if you kill a boss in Normal Nathria, you’ll get an Item Level 200 Conduit, if you do a — probably getting the numbers wrong — Mythic 5 or 6, out of the end-of-run chest from that run, you might have a chance of getting an item level 200 Conduit. PvP Vendors will offer higher item level Conduits as your rating increases that can be purchased. It’s just the way item level works overall. Same with World Bosses. The exceptions there are Ve’nari specifically, the add a random Conduit that you don’t have item from Ve’nari will basically filling in holes in your collection. That could theoretically give you a 226 Conduit if you have a bunch of 226s and are missing some. If you’re someone who only has Item Level 180 Conduits, then you would get a 180 something from Ve’nari.

Are there any Conduits from the Great Vault?

There are no Conduits from the Great Vault. Conduits drop as Bonus Items, so if you get one from your end-of-dungeon Mythic+, it’s not replacing a piece of regular loot that you would have gotten. You’ll get a conduit for your class. Currently if you get lucky, you can get multiple conduits — if Boss #2 drops a Prot Conduit and Boss #4 drops a Fury Conduit, you could possibly get both from a single run. No Conduits from the Great Vault currently.

Summary:

  • No Conduits from the Great Vault.
  • Conduit Ranks are essentially just Item Level.
  • As your PvP Rating increases, the Conduits from the PvP vendor will scale in Item Level as well.

Raiding

For the Raiding Row on the Great Vault are you able to get Weapon Tokens or pieces of loot from bosses you haven’t killed yet?

You should be able to get weapons tokens but don’t 100% quote me on that, I’m pretty sure you can they’re just loot. For things like the end-bosses or higher tier stuff, you can’t get loot from the Great Vault if you’ve never killed that boss. Now, that’s not a week-by-week thing, there’s no I’m going to skip these bosses this week to game the system but you can’t just go in with 3 Mythic boss kills under your belt and then get a Denathrius item or Stone generals item. That’s not possible. You’ll have to have killed him on Mythic at least once before those because valid options. Same for Heroic, same for Normal.

How many pieces of Loot are going to drop from a Mythic raid boss?

3.

Any plans to bring back Guild Master Loot or Master Loot?

No plans.

Do you see Armor Stacking/Funneling as a Problem with Personal Loot?

It’s one of the edge case sort-of abusy things that happens. The things that very high end raid guilds do, at the end of the day they’re going to do everything possible to prepare and get every advantage for when Mythic opens and if we locked those opportunities down, they would spend more time gearing other alts or doing other things. They’re going to play many many hours to try to get any marginal advantage. I think it’s not something that really affects the vast majority of players and there are some positive elements to it too, that are a little gamey maybe, but it’s the sort of thing where later in a tier, you might see casters set their loot spec to a melee DPS spec because they want to try to get a trinket or some drop for someone in their raid group who has been chasing after that and those are light social interactions that are fun and positive for everyone involved. We definitely don’t see it as this is a huge advantage of the system that these people can make these all leather raids but by and large it works for people.

Are Tier Sets still planned for later on in the expansion?

Still planned for later on in the expansion. We’ll have more details to announce when we get there. The art from them is well under way and they’re going to be awesome. We’re just as excited as players are to see their return.

Summary:

  • Only 3 pieces of Loot per boss from Mythic Castle Nathria.
  • The raiding row of the Great Vault can drop Weapon Tokens (probably).
  • The raiding row of the Great Vault can only drop loot from Stone Legion Generals or Denathrius if you’ve killed them at least once on that difficulty.
  • No plans to bring back Master Loot.
  • There are some light social interactions that are fun and positive to Armor Stacking / Funneling with Personal Loot when you try to help someone get a trinket or drop.

Mythic+

Are there any plans to nerf Bolstering or Necrotic in Shadowlands?

No current plans. With regard to those, we definitely been sensitive in making Shadowlands dungeons and responding to the great feedback we’ve gotten over the course of Beta, recognizing there’s certain types of pulls that tend to be more frustrating with those affixes and we always have the ability to exclude certain mobs entirely from applying Necrotic or from Bolstering on Death, particularly weaker ones. I think when we look at some of the greatest frustrations over the course of BFA was some of those pulls in Shrine of the Storm or elsewhere where you have like a single high health lieutenant mob and bunch of small things and that becomes awkward to play around. We’ve tried to avoid making those types of pulls.

Also, average pull sizes are a little bit smaller across dungeons in general in Shadowlands. Now of course if what players are trying to do is round up three separate packs at the same time, they may create some of those situations for themselves but at the end of the day, that’s part of the point of affixes. Part of the point of affixes is to vary players’ approach to the dungeon and the optimal route from week to week and while we understand that it can be frustrating to want to just pull everything and blow it up the way you might in a different week — things like Explosive or Bolstering, Necrotic can complicate that and it’s deliberate.

Summary:

  • No plans to change Bolstering or Necrotic at the moment.
  • Dungeons were designed with these affixes in mind and they have the ability to exclude certain mobs entirely from applying them.

The Maw

Do you think the Maw is in a better state now and why were some of the recent changes done to it?

It’s come a tremendous way in the last couple of months. There’s a large multi-disciplinary effort really looking to rework every aspect of the Maw from the moment-to-moment gameplay within the different sub regions within the Maw, to the rewards offered from Ve’nari, to quests and other content and structure that gave players clarity around what they’re supposed to do when they visit. I think originally it was a little too far on the sandboxy end of the spectrum where there are cool elements to sandbox gameplay and it was certainly inspired by places like Timeless Isle or Mechagon, World of Warcraft doesn’t actually do all that well when we just drop you in a place and say “Go do stuff”, “Go do whatever”, “Things drop stygia”. There are quests, there is a progression now within the Maw.

We also have significantly reworked Eye of the Jailer and how that interacts with the various objectives. There are some changes that have just rolled out to Beta within the last few days. We saw some original reactions to the new penalties for Eye of the Jailer level 3 and 4. At Level 4, a Winged Abductor would come and pick you up and basically carry you up in the sky and drop you to your death. The length of the time out involved in that was frustrating to a lot of players and rightly so. You can purchase a counter to that from Ve’nari once you get in her good graces and earn that with Stygia by in the mean time, we wanted to give players more clear counterplay so we reduced the health of the Abductor significantly, so you can DPS them down to break out but while you’re in their clutches you’ll be gaining more Eye of the Jailer, since once you reach Level 5, you’re basically have to leave the Maw.

In general, the way it’s structured for all players, you’re going to want to visit the Maw at least once a week to rescue Souls and support of your Covenant, to upgrade your Covenant features and your Sanctum and to gain a Renown from that Weekly Quest. Beyond that, there’s a sliding scale of efficiency if you want to do the weeklies there that are very efficient with regards to Stygia and reputation, you can do that. If you want to return on a more daily basis, the way that people engaged with 8.3 Assaults, many people would just do the wrappers and then come back the next week, others would come back and do dailies on a more regular basis if they wanted to farm up Gorged Eyes to socket all their gear. Players kinda pick their preferred level of interaction with the system and the rewards they want to get out of it.

Is the Torghast Twisting Corridor Mount intended to be mountable in the Maw and how many mounts work in the Maw?

There are two mounts that will work in the Maw. That is one of them, the other one is another Shadehound that is native to the Maw that can be obtained as a rare drop somewhere within in the Maw. So I wish players luck in seeking it.

Summary:

  • A lot of work has gone into the Maw over the last couple months.
  • It’s a lot less Sandbox and more directed with quests and progression.
  • Eye of the Jailer has been reworked and the Winged Abductor at Eye of the Jailer Level 4 has been reworked as well.

Lore

Will we see Nathanos return in Shadowlands?

There is certainly a chance. We’ll see for sure, I’m not going to give a specific answer to that but he said what he said for a reason.

Summary:

  • Nathanos said what he said for a reason. We’ll see.

A Day in Shadowlands

Can you describe what a Day in Shadowlands looks like for the average player?

The average player is tricky as its like a super position of a bunch of different playstyles but I’d say top level on a weekly basis, once you’re max level, I think the main things that we encourage everyone to do are the core covenant progression. Over the course of the week do primarily World Quests (though there are other sources like Castle Nathria, World Bosses) to get your Anima for your Covenant that will give one of your Renowns for the week. Also go into the Maw, rescue souls, that will get your other Renown for the week. If you have new Covenant campaign chapters that have been unlocked as you raised your Renown, I would encourage doing those. In addition to rewarding Renown, also can offer key things like access to a new Soulbind or more of your Covenant Armor or what not.

I would recommend that you do a Torghast run or two each week to get your Soul Ash so you make progress towards Legendaries. That’s the third activity that is part of the, mandatory is a strong word, weekly loop. Really for a lot of people also, once you have the couple of Legendaries that you’re most excited about that you think you’re going to use most of the time, there’s also a clear point of diminishing returns there as well. For some players who may, personally I love Torghast, if it’s not your cup of tea, you can start to back away from it at that point once you’ve met those goals.

Beyond that, many players are going to want to do their Callings, which are the evolution of Emissary quests, on a daily basis and then a lot of the rest is going to be a factor of what gameplay you prefer. Are you queuing Battlegrounds to get Honor to upgrade your Honor gear or Conquest gear that you’ve gotten from Rated PvP? Are you running Mythic+, pushing keys, trying to fill out your Great Vault options from that source. Are you raiding? Within that, there’s a wide range of more purely optional pursuits, things like the Covenant specific features like Queen’s Consortium in Ardenweald or the Ember Court where you’re mostly chasing cosmetic unlocks, utility, some profession items that have economic benefit but
aren’t necessary power. Players will choose ultimately what is of most interest to them. There’s a lot to do, and my advice to players getting into Shadowlands would be not to get overwhelmed. The vast majority of it, unlike a couple of the recent expansions where nearly every activity was something that if you skipped for a week, you might feel like you were falling behind. That’s not the case for most of what’s there in Shadowlands. Go get your Renown Upgrades, get your Souls, get your Anima for your Sanctum and then go do the content that you enjoy most and then as it suits you based on your own personal preferences, dig deep into some of these systems in the Maw, in your Covenant Sanctum and more.

Summary:

  • There are a bunch of weekly objectives that you should do: Your 2 Renown Quests, any Covenant campaign chapters, Torghast runs.
  • After that, you have Daily Callings and then whatever content you want to do: Battlegrounds, Mythic+, Raids.
  • There’s a wide range of optional goals like the Covenant specific features like the Covenant minigames.

Shadowlands Delays and Working From Home

Did delaying Shadowlands cause a shift in the future patch cycle? Will it be a similar cadence to BFA?

Patch cadence is something we will figure out the details of over the course of the next year. There’s no question that for some parts of patch development, this had an impact but at the same time because it pushed the expansion back as well that shouldn’t matter in terms of the gap between expansion and when the first major patch is, which is what I think most players are concerned with, as are we. It’s less the calendar month and more how long is this tier going to last, how long do I have to wait until I get new goals and new places to explore and that’s something that I think we’re pretty happy overall with how Patch cadence during BFA worked, the 10 month long 8.3 withstanding that’s a separate matter, but within the expansion itself it felt like a pretty good approach that we’re looking to continue. There’s a lot to learn, as always, with every expansion with post-mortems and looking back at the process. Some of it without question is a product of the unique circumstances of 2020 and adapting to work from home and some things have come naturally in cases and been smoother than when we were all in the office. Carving out time to just focus and work on implementation or certain types of review meetings, going over art assets and sharing things with each other — that can actually be much cleaner purely digitally, purely virtually versus someone sitting in the back of the room sitting and looking at what’s on a board. The process of feedback and playing the game internally, talking to each other about where things are at, identifying concerns — those processes that so often happened from people in a shared office having conversions with each other, that’s what’s been harder to reproduce from work from home. We’ve obviously learned a lot along the way and continue to learn a lot. We haven’t really completed our review of what exactly we want to change going forward, we want to get the game out there first but there’s not question that there will be a lot to learn and improve upon — I’m sure we’ll make entirely different mistakes next time.

How happy are you with communication overall between the developer team and players throughout the Shadowlands Beta?

It’s something we can always continue to improve at. It’s almost impossible to communicate too much. We as much as possible want to be transparent with what’s going on. We want to get context, particularly during Beta to changes that people are seeing. No offense, sometimes when people are guessing at the intent of something based on datamining from fansites who shall remain nameless, they may jump to conclusions. The only way that we can fix that is to get ahead of it, to explain hey this is what you’re going to see, either this is a change that’s in progress or you’re going to see the rest of it next week or this is what we’re trying to accomplish, don’t be alarmed. It’s a huge game with a lot of moving pieces to say the least and one of the challenges been balancing the bandwidth of individual developers between making changes and working on the game and communicating those changes out. We have an incredible community team that helps us every step of the way there, but at the end of the day the context for what was in a designer’s mind when making the change has to come from that designer. We always want to do more and recognize that sometimes and particularly when there’s so much happening at the same time as we are trying to hit a deadline, trying to get some some major change rolled out, communication may lag behind. But we can always do better, the one thing I can say is that we’re always listening, even if we’re not talking, even if we’re not able to respond to every point with thorough detail in real time, the things that are being discussed on our official forums, on our beta forums, on Twitter, on Reddit, everywhere are being absorbed, are being surfaced and being actively discussed among the team.

Summary

  • They’re happy with how the Patch cadence during BFA worked.
  • There have been some benefits to working from home but also things that have been harder to reproduce when working from home.
  • For communication, they want to be transparent with what’s going on and give context, especially during Beta.
  • Datamining may lead people to jump to conclusions, and the only way they can fix that is to get ahead of it and explain things.
  • Blizzard has an amazing community team that helps, but the context for what a designer did has to come from that designer.
  • However, Blizzard is always listening to feedback on their forums, Twitter, Reddit, everywhere.





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