That dude's a beast.
If ever you were to use the above phrase to refer to a fellow WoW player, these are the guys that should inspire it. Nerthfu and Bouleau of Haven (Lethon-US) have manhandled WoW's challenge modes into submission, setting scalding instance completion times across the board. As of this writing, the duo from Canada holds all but one American region record, with the rest mere seconds behind the EU's world records.
As you can well imagine, a conversation with such high-performance monsters plunges into the realm of the specific almost immediately. That's why we're dividing their perspectives into a two-part interview over the next two weeks. We'll look at both tanking and healing at warp speed and find out what kind of play it takes to defend the top spot on the charts week after week.
WoW Insider: How does one become addicted to speed on this level, guys? Are speed runs something you guys have always enjoyed doing in WoW, or did the addition of challenge modes mark a new way to play for you?
Nerthfu: As far as I can remember, I always loved running dungeons as fast as humanly possible in WoW, but it wasn't really organized or a goal but rather just my way of doing things. It started in vanilla WoW, where I would constantly get aggro on my rogue and had to use Feint and Vanish almost on cooldown to wipe my threat.
Then came Burning Crusade, and I switched to a fury warrior. That's where things started changing a lot. I started playing much more often with Bouleau and had even more issues than before with my threat -- so much in fact that I would end up always getting aggro off the tank and die in most heroic dungeons and raids. ... That was how most of our heroic dungeon went until we were so overgeared that Bouleau could heal just heal me while I was tanking entire packs of trash in heroic dungeons, and that's where we really started running dungeons as fast as we could, which most of the time meant four DPS and one healer.
Main character Nerthfu, pandaren brewmaster monk
Realm Lethon (US)
Main character Bouleau, pandaren discipline priest
Realm Lethon (US)
Nerthfu: When all the new features for Mists of Pandaria were announced, the challenge mode immediately caught my interest. ... In CMs, I get to min-max my character, theorycraft new strategies and character builds, and it has that adrenaline rush when you're trying to compete for world-best time and you're near the end of the run.
The fact that Blizzard implemented a leaderboard was just the cherry on top.
Bouleau: Clearing heroics quickly is the closest thing to time attacks that I had done in WoW prior to Mists of Pandaria. Hearing about challenge modes in August piqued my interest for the expansion, and I have been excited for them ever since.
Nerthfu: I felt like playing a new class since I got bored of playing the same class since vanilla WoW, and monk was a breath of fresh air for me. I chose a pandaren because I always liked them even before WoW came out (in Warcraft 3). And as for the professions, I took alchemy because it's so easy to level up and engineering because I always felt it was the best DPS profession since Wrath of the Lich King. It all turned out to be an excellent combination for challenge mode, but that's more of an accident than anything.
Bouleau: Having a very real taste for beer, I was with the dwarves ever since Burning Crusade launched. When I had to faction change to play with Nerth, I chose the Horde race that promotes brewery as an art, the pandaren.
Do you use different gear for challenge runs than for raiding?
Nerthfu: I did at first, but I don't need to anymore. I stopped raiding when my group disbanded. I still wanted to raid but, honestly, raiding is just too time-consuming for me, and what kept me going is the fun I had playing with real-life friends. ... For me to go back to raiding, I'd need to find a cutting-edge progression guild that only raids once a week, which is very unlikely. On top of it, I don't really feel like searching since my focus for now is on CMs.
Back on topic: I always min-maxed my character, so I had multiple sets of DPS [gear] depending on the fight, multiple sets of tanking [gear], and a special set for CMs. The number of sockets on gear made some PvP gear BiS for CMs, but with the lower item level, those pieces were not viable for progression raiding. Most of the time, the difference between raiding and CMs is item level vs. stats allocation and number of sockets, all because of the item level limitation of 463 in challenge modes.
Bouleau: Two different sets of healing gear fill my bags, one for raids and one specifically tailored for challenge modes. The relevance of having two sets is best explained by the variance of my spell usage in each format.
Current raid encounters, by their length and by the type of AE damage going out, promote extensive and optimal use of Prayer of Healing and Spirit Shell, making spirit and mastery very desirable stats (at least for what I'm expected to do and as of 5.1). In challenges, however, I am rarely in combat for much more than 120 seconds, and spirit is greatly devalued because of this, to the point where I avoid it like the plague. I run at 2k spirit now, and I think that's 2k spirit above what I need. This applies to mastery too, spirit shell being sufficiently strong in 5-man regardless of your mastery value.
This leaves me with crit and haste, which is perfect. Atonement is king. The more damage you deal with Penance, Smite, Holy Fire and Divine Star, the less time and mana you have to waste on direct healing spells, which really should be your goal when going for top times.
Nerthfu, you've suggested on the forums that blood DKs are a bit overrated -- but then again, you've also observed that they offer great utility and CC. Let's talk about what class you think makes the best challenge mode tank and why.
Nerthfu: I think class balance is one of the hardest question to answer to. It depends on so many factors, and I feel like we (the groups I run with) only scratched the surface of what some class can do in CMs. There's multiple angles on which we can evaluate the performances of each tanking class. If I had to pick the more important ones it would be utility, survivability and damage. Each one of those needs to be differentiated between trying to simply complete gold times or trying to compete for world-best time.
For someone that is starting CMs, the first issue you encounter is tank survivability. You'll often see your tank die within a global if you're not careful on some of the harder pulls. That's where DKs shine. When doing safe pulls, they're less likely to die in an instant than most other tanks and they heal themselves to a point where sometimes the healers don't even need to heal the tank. This achieves two things: greater stability and generally more spare mana for the healer, which I suspect are the reasons most people find DK so dominant in CMs.
They also get really screwed by Disarm's effect, which limits their capabilities a lot in some pulls. I'm not 100% sure which tank would be best in those situations because I don't know paladins and warriors as much as I'd like, but from my personal experience, monks outclass DKs and pull a bit ahead of druids when it comes to maximizing your damage reduction using your cooldowns. For paladins and warriors, I'm not sure if either of their block mechanics can keep up with the high avoidance and high stagger amount a monk can have, but I'm confident they pull ahead of DKs. Bottom line: DK survivability is great outside of cooldowns compared to other classes and in limited pulls but falls behind when it comes to competitive times.
The second thing going on for a DK tank is his utility. They offer a lot of tools, between Death Grip, silence, AoE grip (or AoE stun), Army of the Dead, Purgatory, and much more. These kind of tools helps complement the arsenal of a class and compensate a bit for its weakness. For example, a DK can use Army of the Dead to tank for them the pulls that would otherwise be to hard for them to tank, or they can use their AoE stun to help achieve the same result.
Without going too much into details, their greatest tools (Army of the Dead) is also the one they should not use if they want to compete for world best time. The problem with Army is that it will prevent the tank from gaining Vengeance, which will severely reduce their attack power in contrast of tanking everything directly -- the end result being a giant loss of DPS.
Once you remove Army of the Dead, the only thing that really separates them from other tanks in terms of utility is Purgatory, which gives the healer some extra margin of error, and Death Grip. Once again, if you only try to get gold times, Army of the Dead can trivialize a pull that your group is struggling on, and Purgatory will save some runs from a wipe, which is really nice. On the other hand, in competitive times, all that's left is Death Grip, which I'll admit is still very nice but not enough.
There are other forms of utility a tank can bring to a group, and in the end it's mostly a matter of preference. But one that I feel is worth mentioning because it has a bigger impact than most is the ability to heal the group. On some of the hardest pulls, when a tank's Vengeance goes upward of 200k attack power, monks and paladins can heal anyone from near death to 100%. In contrast, DKs, druids, and warriors have very limited options in that regard. There's many way to help a group survive challenge modes, and I feel that all in all, Army is really strong, but it's got limitations, especially its cooldown.
Finally, there's damage. There's not much to say about it except that in AoE, monks are kings, followed by warrior and paladins. (Again, I'm not sure on the exact numbers for both paladins and warriors, but I think I'm not too far off on this one.) And in single target, the difference between each tank isn't big enough to really matter. I also think that with some proper planning, warriors might outdo monks with proper use of Bladestorm, but that's something we still have to test.
In the end, the best tank depends on your goal. If all you want is to achieve gold time, DK is probably the safest choice, but other tank might make the gold times easier to achieve by outdoing a DK in term of damage, which is why I think they're overrated. Their advantage over other tanks isn't as clear-cut as what some may think. As for competitive times, I feel monks and warriors are both contenders for the best tank, followed closely by paladins -- because having a competitive time comes down to clearing the instance fast, which comes down to doing as much damage as you can and surviving some insane pulls, which they all excel at.
NEXT WEEK: Bouleau opines on optimal healing for world-record times, plus both players explain how they fill groups for their timed attempts and offer pointers on shooting for record times.
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.