When I first walked through the Dark Portal in the Blasted Lands and ended up in Hellfire Peninsula, I was astounded at how quickly I replaced my gear. My hard-fought T0.5 gear meant nothing. My Rhok’delar? Nada. Even my Tier 1 gear, what little of it I had, was laughable. The stats on the gear that was dropping, even the greens, just far outweighed anything I’d ever even seen before. Just the stamina on the gear alone was astonishing. This was my introduction to gear resets.

Every expansion, it’s the same thing — wander around in the new zones for a while, replace everything. It’s always been a little sad for me, because it seems to devalue anything “tangible” (as tangible as anything is in this game, anyhow) you’ve earned over the last couple of years. Even mounts aren’t immune, since there’s no stopping people from getting Ashes of A’lar or whatever spiffy mounts are out there, thereby (in my opinion) devaluing them. I was truly saddened when I had to replace my heroic ICC gear in Cataclysm and am still somewhat miffed that my Reins of the Icebound Frostbrood Vanquisher can be earned by any yahoo who puts in two or maybe three weeks of effort (as opposed to my, oh, six months of effort), but no, I’m not bitter, nope… Okay, where was I? Right. Expansions.

For me, the worst part of a new expansion (aside from needing to relearn everything, of course) is how quickly the previous expansion is washed away. When we got to Northrend, who cared about Outlands? No one, that’s who. We dropped that continent and its endless demons like a hot potato and charged to the frozen depths of Northrend. And when Cataclysm came out, who went BACK to Northrend? Basically no one. Everything from previous expansions just vanishes so quickly when a new expansion comes out and gear is no exception. Not only that, but your gear is generally outdated in an insultingly short period of time. Of course, this makes sense, from a developer’s point of view: you can’t have someone who’s been playing for six years have an in-game advantage over the person who picked up the game three days ago. Gear resets make sense from a design standpoint because it allows new players (or returning players who had previously quit) to jump right in with everyone else in levelling content and early raid content.

It’s still kind of sad to see the gear go by the wayside. Maybe I’m just sentimental like that, though.

I was reading about the 5.4 upcoming feature, the Proving Grounds. It sounds great, to be honest. I love the idea of being able to test my skills, solo. And hopefully people will view it as a learning opportunity, too. Maybe now PUG tanks won’t be morons! Maybe PUG DPS won’t stand in bad! Maybe PUG healers will understand what COOLDOWNS are!

(Somehow, I remain pessimistic about the reality of the situation, but the possibility of those things will exist, at least, thanks to Proving Grounds… maybe.)

However, one of the phrases in the Blizzard post about it caught my eye.

“Upon entering the Proving Grounds, your gear will be scaled down much like it is in Challenge Modes.”

For some reason, reading this phrase just solidified a thought I’d had for months, maybe even a year. At some point, around last summer, something about the “scaling down” system they’d talked about for Challenge Modes bugged me. It irked me. When I thought about it, I couldn’t put my finger on why it bothered me. I couldn’t understand why I was moderately frowny about “upgrading” items via Valor Points. But now? Now, I GET IT. I understand why this bothers me! And, lucky you, I am going to share my thought with you.

My thought is this: Gear pretty much no longer matters in the game.

Blizzard has eradicated the need for gear because their “tech” has rendered it useless. I’ve seen this happen before, mind you. On various PTRs testing heroic modes, you would often get a shirt to wear that would augment your current gear by X amount, allowing you to participate in and test the heroic encounters.

I remember it striking me as odd, at the time, that they could just give us a shirt that augmented everything by a certain percent or amount and bam, even while wearing our same gear, we were suddenly that much more powerful. But I never really thought too much about it. Suddenly, over the last couple of days, my thoughts have finally gathered together and it’s made me realize that Blizzard has done so much with its “tech” that gear has lost meaning.

More than any expansion has ever done, Blizzard has made gear not matter. That’s not to say that you can expect to go to a heroic raid in the Twill set, mind you (although that would be hilarious), but in Challenge Modes, as long as you’re ilvl 463 or higher, you’ll be scaled down. I’m unsure about Proving Grounds ilvls, but you’ll similarly be scaled down, so people are on even ground with each other, much as they are with Challenge Modes.

But gear isn’t obsolete, Kurn, geez! you may say, scoffing at my thought.

True. But I didn’t say it was obsolete. I said it doesn’t matter. There’s a slight difference. The major difference, to me, is that Blizzard’s scaling “tech” has made obtaining better gear (for Challenge Modes and Proving Grounds) mostly worthless. In the same, upcoming patch, WoW players will also see Flex Raids, which will allow a raid to form for a group that is sized anywhere between 10 and 25 people and the raid will dynamically shift difficulties. They’ll also likely see Virtual Realms, grouping low-population realms together to act as though they’re all on one larger server. The “tech” they keep coming up with is changing things so that some core distinctions are being thrown out the window. This whole “upgrading” items? What is up with that? I first looked at it as another way to enhance items, like gems or enchants, but it still didn’t sit well with me. (As an aside, it’s suddenly clear to me why I never really liked reforging.)

Now, despite all this, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing (shockingly. Are you surprised?), just that it’s a significant departure from where WoW began.

Gear is always on everyone’s mind, regardless of what activity they enjoy pursuing in the game, basically. I loved getting new gear, but I didn’t raid for gear. I recognized that my raid group’s gear was how my raid group would advance, so I took my own upgrades (or lack thereof) in stride. Still, to this day, I remember that Halion never dropped his boots for me, that Heroic Saurfang never dropped that mail (!) belt for me, that I didn’t get EITHER Vashj’s OR Illidan’s maces… Gear should matter, even if it’s not the major reason we play. It’s the main way in which players interact with their opponents in WoW, so of course players want to improve themselves. By the end of Wrath of the Lich King, my brother (Fog), Majik and I could clear Heroic Gundrak (with the extra boss) in something like 11 minutes, on non-raiding alts, with Maj tanking, me healing and my brother DPSing, even if the other two DPS did less damage than I did as a resto druid. That’s a huge improvement on the time it used to take players, in crappy level 80 blues, when Wrath began. Gear made the difference, even if it was from ilvl 178/200 to ilvl 232/245.

All this “tinkering” with items and gear, well, it feels to me as though Blizzard has pulled the curtain aside by demonstrating that they can adjust item levels so easily, so arbitrarily. It’s as though I was in awe of the Wizard of Oz and then the curtain got pulled aside and there was the Wizard, just this old guy working smoke and fire machines with a microphone. The magic was gone.

WoW has always been a math-based game, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this has finally happened, but some of the allure of new gear was knowing that it would make a difference in what choices you made with your gear. And now… there are circumstances where new gear isn’t really going to make much of (if any) a difference.

Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For one, Challenge Modes and Proving Grounds are both skill-based challenges. It’s about how well you play as a player, not what kind of gear you got while some guild you paid carried you. It’s about knowing your class abilities, even the ones you rarely use. It’s about knowing what each different talent does and figuring out which would work best in those circumstances. (And I say all this without having DONE either Challenge Modes or Proving Grounds, so you can take that with a grain of salt, since I know people buy gold runs and such.) Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of rewarding skill versus luck.

I just find it a bit of a shame that Blizzard’s “tech” has enabled them to show us exactly how meaningless gear is. To me, it reinforces the utter futility in caring about gear so much, except we’re not just being shown that at the start of an expansion or on a PTR — we’re being shown that constantly throughout this expansion. When I was actively playing, I cared about my job in the game, not my gear, except as to how my gear would help with my job. (Stupid Halion boots. Grump.) But now that it’s just so easy for Blizzard to arbitrarily scale gear, raid difficulty and even actual realms… doesn’t it seem as though we’ve gone through the looking glass? I feel as though I can now see, with clearer eyes, the sheer pointlessness of the gearing aspect of the game. Raiders gear up for heroic dungeons as they level up. They ding max level and then start gearing out of heroics for raids, supplemented by crafted and rep gear. Then they gear up for heroic raids through a combination of LFR and normal raids. Then the raiding gear-up happens all over again for the next tier. And the next. And then, it really doesn’t matter because it’s the last raid patch of the expansion and in like, two months, all that gear you’re working for is just going to be worthless anyway.

If something as basic and integrated as gear can be arbitrarily changed in the blink of an eye, if something as solid as a raid’s difficulty can be dynamically adjusted based on the number of people in the zone or raid, if a realm can suddenly be grouped with other realms to the point of removing pretty much any distinguishing details between them aside from a name… is there nothing untouchable any longer? I guess I’m just wondering if the malleability of the game has gone a touch too far. If a piece of gear isn’t unchangeable at its core, isn’t as solid as something can be in this game, is there anything that is?

As my final word on the matter: Yes, I know, enchants, sockets, gems, reforging, upgrading and scaling are all different points on the same continuum. I realize that everyone’s limits will be different. Personally, I think my limit is up there after gems and before reforging, because I think as soon as you make things TOO malleable, you lose something in the process. My two cents. :)

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