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The Art of War(craft): Alterac Valley, Part I - Evolution

Zach Yonzon

When Battlegrounds were introduced in Patch 1.5, it changed the entire PvP landscape. With the introduction of the Honor System in the patch before it, which included the now-obsolete ranks and PvP gear, there was suddenly purpose to PvP. In my previous column, I expressed how I preferred my PvP to have some sort of objective or reason. The Battlegrounds made PvP somewhat more meaningful, with thematic goals situated in instanced areas that gave popular war zones such as Hillsbrad and the Barrens relative peace. The first Battlegrounds came in two flavors: Warsong Gulch, which was designed to cater to short skirmishes because of its size and scope; and Alterac Valley, which was designed to be more epic, with a large zone that had numerous geographical features, multiple objectives, and -- unique to this Battleground up to the present -- faction NPCs. Warsong Gulch, although designed to be short, succumbed to a small design flaw that left it prone to unnecessarily lengthy games. I'll discuss WSG at length in a future article but will, for this week and next, focus on the grandeur of Alterac Valley.

Of all the Battlegrounds, AV has gone through the most changes, having received fixes and modifications with most of the patches subsequent to its release. Alterac Valley was an extremely ambitious project for the folks at Blizzard, and it was clear from the beginning that they had very high hopes for it. It was supposed to be epic, with the feel of a great war. The size of the zone, complemented by the faction structures and NPCs, certainly added to that ambiance. In terms of gameplay, however, Alterac Valley was flawed on many levels. In the earliest iteration of AV, there was a giant troll named Korrak the Bloodrager in the Field of Strife in the center of the map. The presence of a hostile boss where players would clash proved to be a nightmare. Players spent too much time trying to kite, kill, or flee from Korrak instead of engaging each other. Most of the other NPCs created the same problem, slowing down the game considerably. Subsequent patches saw Korrak moving to Snowfall Graveyard and eventually packing his bags for greener pastures. Blizzard later removed and weakened many of the NPCs, as well, facilitating faster forward movement towards the end goal.

In the latest patch, Alterac Valley received its biggest overhaul yet. The latest changes are the most drastic in terms of gameplay because it now gives another means of winning the game, making it the only Battleground with an alternative victory condition. There is now a new mechanic called Reinforcements, with each side receiving a count of 600 at the start of the game. Killing opposing players will reduce their team's Reinforcements on a 1:1 ratio while destroying a pair of towers or killing enemy Captains (Balinda and Galvangar) will reduce it by 100. Killing the enemy General will reduce the opposing team's reinforcements to 0, winning the game. Conversely, reducing an opposing team's reinforcements to 0 will result in the enemy General's death. The changes make Alterac Valley feel like an entirely new game, forcing a shift in strategy and encouraging more player combat. What used to work in previous iterations of AV no longer work so well in AV 2.3. The zerg rush that used to typify AV races have given way to a new kind of thinking: defend, push forward, kill everything in sight. It would seem, at last, that PvP has come to the Valley.

Honorable discharge

One of the design flaws in the first versions of AV was that it lent itself to protracted campaigns. Sun Tzu said, "if victory is long in coming, the men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened," and "there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." This was specially true of the old AV where games would last so long that the diminishing returns on Honor meant that all the carnage past the first few hours was largely meaningless. This led to the formulation of the race, effectively removing PvP from Alterac Valley as Alliance and Horde generally avoided each other in a mad rush to kill Lieutenants, Captains and the enemy General at the other end of the map.

In the interest of speeding up the game and removing Honor gain too early, Blizzard removed the Lieutenants that guarded towers and bunkers or patrolled the battleground. Each of the Lieutenants were worth 20 Honor, which had forced players to kill NPCs to maximize Honor gain. In this way, the old Alterac Valley was largely a PvE zone. While removing most of the NPCs has made way for more PvP, my one small regret is that is has left the immense zone feeling a bit empty. The old AV with its NPC armies milling about made me feel like I was fighting in a war. The new AV looks like a deserted battleground, with the vast geography still allowing players to easily avoid each other should they choose to.

Fortunately, there is much incentive to engage in combat, as killing an opponent is directly contributive to winning the game. Healers directly bolster their team's chances by keeping their reinforcement count up. The slight downside to this particular change in AV is that lower level players become something of a liability. With the focus back on actual PvP, players in the lower range of the brackets (51-60 and 61-70) contribute less than they used to. The new mechanic encourages skirmishes almost, but not quite, to the point of detriment. Fighting on the road, formerly a practice frowned upon because it prolongs games, now has a positive effect in that it rewards the side that has combat superiority. It's a refreshing change from when players were admonished in Battlegrounds chat for engaging enemy players. With the addition of a reinforcement count, Blizzard ensured that a game of Alterac Valley has a finite duration. While 15-minute races are now highly improbable, games will no longer last for hours or even, as in the first versions of AV, excruciatingly long days.

The need for speed
To further speed up the game, destroying enemy towers and bunkers (which now take four minutes instead of five) no longer spawn a defending Marshal or Warmaster but still eliminates an equivalent Marshal or Warmaster on the opposing side. Now that it is no longer possible to pull them independently of the enemy General, tower destruction becomes a purely offensive endeavor. The key to maximum Honor gain, then, is total victory: destroy all enemy towers, kill their Captain, and keep all your team's Towers and Graveyards. Whereas in pre-2.3 it was fairly common to have the losing side gain as much -- and sometimes more -- Honor as the winning side, it is less likely to happen with the recent changes.

To offset the potential Honor lost by removing Lieutenants from the game, destroying towers and bunkers as well as killing the enemy Captain now grants 62 Honor each, up from 20. Furthermore, 41 Honor is awarded for each intact and untagged tower, as well as a standing Captain, at the end of the game. This makes it doubly important to defend your team's resources. Lastly, the death of an enemy General, or winning the game, is worth 83 Honor. Defense has never played as important a role in Alterac Valley as it does post-2.3, with bunkers and towers worth 75 Reinforcements and Captains worth 100. In order to win and maximize Honor gain in the new AV, there needs to be a good balance of defense and offense.

The change is significant and arguably the best thing to happen to AV since it was released. Played properly, the new Alterac Valley can yield considerably more Honor than the old AV even during AV weekend because of the additional Honor gained from engaging in combat. The new mechanics guarantee quite a lot of that -- one other change in 2.3 is that players no longer resurrect from their starting tunnel but at the nearest controlled Graveyard. If all your originally controlled Graveyards become contested or enemy-controlled, you will resurrect in Graveyards towards the enemy bases. You will only resurrect at the starting tunnel if your side does not control any Graveyards on the map. This ensures that the offense is constantly moving, and that a broken-through defense will fall faster because all its defenders will no longer resurrect nearby.

The only design change that is counter to this new philosophy of expedience is the new mechanic for Mines. Control of Mines now give 1 Reinforcement to your faction every 45 seconds, the only additive component for Reinforcements and is arguably non-contributive to strategy as a whole. The Mines are complicated to navigate through, filled with NPCs, and deliver very little in terms of team survivability. It takes 4 minutes to destroy a tower and eliminate 75 Resources. In contrast, it takes over 56 minutes for a Mine to replenish that amount. Of all the changes to Alterac Valley, Mine control seems to be the only palpable (or impalpable, in this case) design flaw. It seems geared towards giving an edge to a team when the game is at a stalemate but fails because stalemate games, rare in 2.3, boils down to skirmishes which diminish Reinforcements at a much faster rate since multiple players die within 45 seconds.

Overall, the changes to Alterac Valley are massive improvements. Patch 2.3 breathed new life into a Battleground that had begun to feel like a chore and was being played by necessity only because it delivered the highest net Honor per game than any other Battleground. The fun is definitely back. Alterac Valley hasn't been this much fun in a long time. Given the renewed (and long overdue) focus on PvP, it seems that Mulverick and Ichman will be flying more over the valley of Shadowmoon than Alterac; and Ivus the Forest Lord and Lokholar the Ice Lord may lie in slumber for ages to come. Alterac Valley has been reshaped yet again, this time hopefully for good (although Drysc said recently that AV may still be adjusted). A game of Alterac Valley, played with total dominance (see screenshot above), can net over 600 Honor -- from zone objectives alone, not even counting Honor Kills -- on a regular day. This number jumps considerably on AV weekend (I'll report numbers when the weekend rolls around). If you haven't forayed into the valley lately, I encourage you to go get some winter gear and warm up your weapons. Defend your towers, fight beside your Captain, push hard, and kill every enemy in sight. It's time to PvP.

Next week: Alterac Valley, Part II - Strategy and Tactics

Zach Yonzon writes the weekly PvP column The Art of War(craft) in between cleaning the blood and grime off Stormherald and playing Pusoy Dos with Lieutenants Murp and Grummus. He'll miss those fatties.

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