The forums have been quiet lately. Quiet about Alterac Valley, that is. Whereas the changes brought about by Patch 2.3 resulted in an uproar, with reports of entire realms reportedly boycotting the Battleground, Patch 2.4 seems to have delivered a modicum of balance at long last. Prior to the last patch, some people seemed to believe that the new mechanic prevented the Alliance from winning the Battleground unless the Horde played below par. The stink brought about by the supposed imbalance was so huge, in fact, that Blizzard quickly hotfixed Balinda Stonehearth and Vanndar Stormpike to have more life in an effort to "assist in balancing the opposing sides."
In Patch 2.4, Balinda and Vanndar were restored to their original (lower) health totals and included minor tweaks in order to further balance the ambitious map. The biggest change in the patch, however, was a geographical one. The Horde starting cave -- which was reputedly so close to the game objectives that it gave the Horde side an unfair advantage under the new mechanics -- was abandoned and a new one created further South. The old cave is still there, oddly, except that now it's just an empty hollow where people can presumably AFK in peace.
The time is now
If you've never played Alterac Valley, there's never been a better time to start. The Battleground has gone through numerous iterations, but it looks to be in its best version yet. In a recent Breakfast Topic, Amanda asked if AV has been fixed with the new changes. The general consensus seems to be that status quo has been maintained, but at least there's no longer the perception of a gross imbalance created by the mechanics change in Patch 2.3.
On the other hand, the same geographical ills still plague the map. Frostwolf Graveyard is still on an open plain, the bridge to Dun Baldar is still a bottleneck while Alliance can still leap over the Frostwolf Keep fence, Relief Hut is still unreachable by NPC archers while Aid Station is, and Snowfall Graveyard is still oriented towards an Alliance capture (the natural tendency in the map is to stick to the right).
Perhaps the one good note is that the new Horde starting area further South encourages Horde defense in a way that the previous area never did. With Frostwolf Keep and Graveyard within such close proximity, players gravitate towards them more naturally. It was an unintended side effect that results from a combination of player psychology and game geometry.
One crucial change to the game was the partial return of group AV. Even without the AddOn Preform AV Enabler, players could now join Alterac Valley as a party of five. This small change allowed small groups of friends or guildmates to participate in AV in small guerrilla units. It's not quite the original iteration that allowed players to join as a raid of 40 people, but it encourages teamwork to a degree. Given the objectives of the game, it's easy enough to send one or two parties to defend while the rest goes on offense.
In theory, it becomes like a cooperative unit of eight groups rather than forty raucous ruffians. In theory. In practice, parties of five get thrown into a mix of individual players who still refuse to listen. But it's a good start, and players are easily accountable for leaving a tower or graveyard that has just been capped. Small teams, even as small as two people, can easily coordinate staying at a tower until it burns down. In fact, in the new Alterac Valley, coordination counts more than blind rushes to the General.
By keeping the pre-made teams to groups of five, queue times are kept short while maintaining the option to work as a coordinated unit. In fact, it becomes even more fun because players can assume the role of specialized teams -- tower or graveyard defense, mine capture, or even five stealth-enabled classes working as ninja units going behind enemy lines. It not only adds a small measure of order in a usually chaotic free-for-all Battleground, but it adds flavor to the game. Even Role-Players can enter Alterac Valley as a group with a mission in mind, like some sort of Azerothian Rainbow unit.
Piece by piece
Now that each Marshal or Warmaster contributes to their General's strength by a stacking 25% effect, it becomes progressively easier to kill the enemy General by taking down towers. It is important to burn down each tower or bunker no longer just for the reinforcement count of 75 but in order to allow your offense to progress at the General at the end of the map. Conversely, it is important to defend towers and bunkers because one lost tower means that your faction's General is 25% easier to kill.
Alterac Valley is a progressive game. It is no longer a tenable proposition to rush blindly into the General's den because he will crush your army. The best approach is to take the map piece by piece, advancing only as your side defends. Again, this is now easier to do because of the option to join as a group. Even with the new rules in place, AV yields the highest Honor per hour among the Battlegrounds, particularly with the removal of diminishing returns in Honorable Kills. Staying within the proximity of a battle yields high Honor returns because of the sheer number of players on the field continuously dying and returning to assault or defend.
Small change, big ambitions
The changes that arrived in Patch 2.4 were relatively small, but combined with the cumulative changes that the Battleground has had over the years, Blizzard seems to have arrived at a moderate compromise. Alterac Valley is more balanced now than it has ever been, regardless of what people may say. What it has become is a more involved game where strategy and coordination count for more than speed in getting to the other end of the map.
The map is still too big, of course, as it was designed with an entirely different, ambitious, epic feel. Originally containing numerous NPCs, the map's inhabitants were pared down to bare essentials, leaving the sprawling geography feeling empty. This little quirk caters to small movement, making it easier for one or two stragglers to bypass a defended area as opposed to a large unit.
Overall, Alterac Valley is a much improved Battleground. It is still prone to prolonged stalemates -- more now than prior to the patch -- but the game was designed to feel epic. It wasn't meant to be finished in fifteen minutes as was the norm when AV races were all the rage. With Honorable Kills delivering instant gratification, the Battleground is a great place to rack up Honor points. While AV still has its troubles, there's more actual PvP in the Battleground now. And that's just the way it should be.
Welcome back to beautiful Alterac
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