Mists of Pandaria will introduce a new feature to WoW called challenge modes. Challenge modes are timed heroic dungeon runs offering rewards based on how fast you complete them.
What newer players may not know is that vanilla WoW also had a timed dungeon run. It was known as the 45-minute Baron, Strat 45, or sometimes simply Baron run. This "challenge mode" was actually just a quest (called Dead Man's Plea) to engage Baron Rivendare within 45 minutes and then kill him, or he would execute his prisoner and you'd fail. Why 45 minutes? That's just how Rivendare rolls.
The timed run was perhaps the most infamous step in the quest line to upgrade vanilla's rare-quality Dungeon 1 set into a mix of upgraded rares and epics known as Dungeon 2 or "tier 0.5." The quest line was added in patch 1.10, but it was removed entirely with Cataclysm's Shattering.
Because it was a part of that quest line (occurring roughly a third of the way into it), everyone wanted to complete a successful Strat 45 run. Trade chat in cities was full of "LFM 45Baron must know pulls!" However, very few PUGs in that era ever finished the run on time. It really was that difficult.
Not exactly a milk run
The undead side of Stratholme had some nasty surprises for an unprepared group. Patrolling gargoyles could fear your entire party, scattering them into other groups. This not only slowed down the run but could actually wipe you if you weren't careful. Eyes of Naxxramas are low-health mobs that start out stealthed. It's only when they encounter your group that they pop up. When they do, you have a few seconds to kill them or they will summon adds -- once again slowing your run.
Because of these dangers, a good puller who knew the route of every patrol was essential. Pulling is something of a lost art these days. Aside from the crazy trash at the entrance to the Bastion of Twilight, a good puller is rarely needed. But in vanilla, places like Molten Core, Upper Blackrock Spire, and Strat required timely and informed pulls in order to progress.
Strat had many more mobs than today's version. That first courtyard by the ziggurats was just crawling with undead. You couldn't possibly kill all the enemies and hope to finish in time. You had to be very selective with your pulls and careful with your path. The last part of the run before the baron himself was the big yard full of patrolling abominations. They hit hard and had nasty stacking poisons. Accidentally pull too many at once, and your run was over.
Burying the baron
Once you got to Baron Rivendare, he wasn't messing around. If you didn't kill him on the first try, no matter how much time you had left, he would execute his prisoner and your quest would be over. The only thing you could do at that point was avenge her.
The Baron was not a pushover boss. His pulsing AoE aura dealt damage to the party and interrupted spellcasting. Positioning him so that healers and ranged DPSers could stand outside its effective area was essential. Given how limited the AoE healing options were in vanilla, the aura was no joke to heal through if you had too many melee players. Also, for Horde groups, only priests could provide a shadow resist buff. If you didn't have one, the damage was far from trivial.
The baron also summoned adds, and he would use them to heal himself if you didn't kill them first. Unfortunately, good AoE damage was almost as limited as good AoE healing in vanilla. Depending on the classes available, killing all the skeletons in time could be rough. If the baron healed himself even once, there was a chance that your healer would fall behind the damage or run out of mana, and you would wipe.
If you beat him, you would free his captive Ysida, complete the quest, and get a bagful of potions for your trouble. You could also continue with the Dungeon 2 quest line, which for most was the real reward.
The run's difficulty and its place early in the quest line made it a lightning rod for complaints about the Dungeon 2 experience as a whole. It was intended to give nonraiders a challenge in order to earn better gear. Many simply found it too difficult. They accused the quest line of betraying its own purpose and becoming just another piece of content that only the "hardcore" could access. Players who couldn't complete a 45-minute run had no hope of completing the quest line, and so they pointed to it as another case of vanilla's "anti-casual discrimination."
It was true that raiders, with superior gear and a large team of like-minded players to draw from, could complete the run much more easily than a group composed of players in dungeon blues who may or may not have had a Vent server. It was also true that very few of them actually needed the gear from the quest line.
However, the run was not impossible for nonraiders. It simply took practice to learn which groups to pull and which could be skipped. Skill helped, since killing mobs faster and keeping everyone alive obviously increased your chances. Awareness was critical. Some players insisted on using every advantage they could: flasks, buff potions, food, sharpening stones, farmed Stratholme Holy Water, etc. This kind of preparation did provide an advantage, but it wasn't essential. The real trick was learning the correct path, killing Eyes before they could spawn adds, and not getting feared into other groups by gargoyles. If you could do that and your group's DPS wasn't horribly below average, you could get to the baron in time.
Thoughts on timed runs
I'll never forget the first time I completed such a run with my guild. We were getting jumpy while we fought Ramstein. It was going to be very close. We rushed in and pulled the baron just as time was running out. When he died, there was much rejoicing over Vent.
Timed runs in MMOs are not universally beloved, however. One disconnect usually means you fail. Some lag at the wrong moment can doom your entire run. Timed runs place both short-term and long-term stress on healers, since they have to worry about mana while they keep everyone up. The stakes are higher, since failing doesn't mean pulling a boss again. It means starting the dungeon over from scratch. In the case of Zul'Aman's original timed run, failing meant you couldn't try it again for three entire days.
Personally, I'm somewhat ambivalent about timed runs. Overall I think I would prefer greater difficulty in mob strength or boss complexity than a time limit. I realize it is easier for Blizzard to support speed runs, though, that it is for them to develop additional tiers of dungeon difficulty. I'd rather have challenge modes than nothing!
I do like that challenge modes aren't a binary pass/fail test like Strat 45. Rather, they grade and award you on a scale. To get the highest rewards, you will have to be highly skilled indeed -- and the bragging rights will have nothing to do with gear, since these modes will normalize your weapons and armor. The 45-minute baron run felt very satisfying to conquer, and I imagine that challenge modes will, too.
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