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The Art of War(craft): Arena Season 6, rise of the Casual Gladiator

Zach Yonzon

I know, I know, most of you hate Arenas. I've been writing for WoW Insider -- ahem, I mean -- long enough to know that you guys probably aren't the most avid of PvP players. But the fun thing about it is that at least I'm not preaching to the choir, right? Anyway, I have to admit that I've gotten pretty tired of Arenas myself. Aside from two to three weeks worth of games in Season 5, I skipped the season altogether, unhappy with the balance then and the constantly changing rating and matchmaking system.

That wasn't even the heart of it, really. In the past seasons where I'd had the most success, I played with particular classes and specs that were viable in that season's environment. More importantly, I teamed up with players who were focused on PvP and were expectedly competent at it. The downside was that our success as a team was proportional to my loathing of the players on my team, particularly our team leader who was prone to excessive nerd rage and finger pointing. It sometimes happens that the best PvP players aren't necessarily your friends, and working together towards high ratings is sometimes a marriage of convenience. At a certain point when the stakes were extremely high, where wins would net us measly gains and losses would tank us badly enough for us to lose titles, Arenas became more stressful than fun.

In the end, I felt that it simply wasn't worth it and stopped playing Arenas. At the end of the day, the people I truly enjoyed playing with were my friends, none of whom were truly into PvP or played a class and spec that complemented my own. In fact, the player whose company I enjoyed the most was my wife, who abhors PvP and whose only contribution to my passion is to call for retribution (literally) whenever she got ganked. Instead, I shifted gears and spent most of my time on getting Battlemaster, which turned out to be an extremely fun albeit overly lengthy endeavor.

The beauty of it was that I pretty much did it solo, with the very occasional premade contributing to a few Achievements. For the most part, I could PvP in my own time, on my own terms. Several times throughout the effort it felt reminiscent of the grind through old PvP ranks. It felt good. It felt fun. And it felt extremely refreshing, punctuated with the occasional game of Wintergrasp. I'm a couple of Achievements shy of Master of Wintergrasp, too, with my biggest hurdle being the 1,000 Stone Keeper's Shards considering I almost never do Heroic 5-mans. I still have to figure out a way to expedite that.

The casual season
Anyway, after obtaining Battlemaster it was time to move on to something else. I necessarily played Arenas in Season 5 because I needed the ratings to buy some decent Honor gear, but otherwise I forewent the items that were available exclusively for Arena Points. The great news is that Season 6 is probably the best season to start playing Arenas. I know I dissed the current Arena system a few weeks back, but that was because I'd grown accustomed to a high risk environment where match losses resulted in severe penalties.

It's different now. Arenas are more casual than ever in the sense that it is extremely forgiving. It isn't as punitive, with match losses resulting in either 0 ratings changes or minor single digit drops, and wins netting encouragingly high numbers. Ratings also jumped rapidly based on players' performance in Season 5, which means that even if the starting point is 0, the ratings should climb rather swiftly with a good number of games. In the beginning, I thought it was a flawed system. But the more I thought about it, the more it closely matched Blizzard's new philosophy for raids. That's actually a good thing.

I mean, Ulduar was nerfed several times since Patch 3.1 was released despite Blizzard's former claim that it was "hard". The more important point was that they wanted more players to experience Ulduar. Arena Season 6 is exactly like that. The new, lenient ratings system is designed to allow players to progress through the ratings with relative ease. I say relative because players will still need to win in order to actually see any ratings gain. But Blizzard has removed the frustration of regression. The old Arenas often felt like 'one step forward, two steps back' with the former low gain, high loss zero sum system. There's none of that now. It's pretty much upward movement all the time.

Players can now get the once-fabled 2k threshold simply by playing several games above .500 -- that's like getting into the NBA Playoffs as the eighth seed in the East or something. To illustrate how crazy good for casual play that is, let me point out that playing .500 sometimes (and often) pushed teams below 1500 under the old system. The only demand of the Arenas in Season 6 is that players keep on playing. The new system rewards more games, even though 10 is still the minimum required to qualify for Arena Points every Tuesday.

Play more, gain more
The more games you play, the more ratings you're bound to accumulate. Because wins accrue more ratings by a large margin than losses deduct them, it's theoretically possible to obtain 2k -- alright, let's not even think about 2k -- 1850 just by winning just a few games more than you lose. It might take a couple of hundred games for that to happen, but the fact is that it's completely attainable. 1850 is the magic mark this Season because the first tier Furious Gladiator weapons are absolutely phenomenal -- iLevel 232 weapons that can be obtained with just a little hard work. That's a very, very good thing for the playing community. Arenas for casuals? Who'd have thought, right? Welcome to Season 6.

My point is that even if you're not big on PvP, there's never been a better time to get into Arenas. Class balance still isn't perfect -- I mean, it never will be -- but it's not as glaringly favorable towards one class or spec as Season 5 was. Because the new system is extremely forgiving, players won't be penalized (too much) for fielding oddball comps and sub-optimal specs. The matchmaking rating also ensures that players won't be facing off against opponents playing at a different level. If ever, those matchups will be few and far between.

Blizzard may have stumbled several times along the way, but they're finally moving towards the right formula. A recent hotfix has applied the ratings gain in 2v2 to the other brackets, rightfully making 5v5 the most rewarding bracket of all. If you haven't tried Arenas yet, or even if you have no inclination to, don't be so quick to dismiss this aspect of the game. Particularly not this season. Blizzard has redesigned Arenas to be as accessible as their raids -- and players willing to put some time and effort into it are almost certain to get rewards.

Everybody wins
In Arena Season 6, there are no losers. Even teams with losing records and low ratings will accrue Arena Points every week as though they were rated at 1500. Even without qualifying for Arena gear that require ratings, players can use 100 Arena Points to purchase Commendations of Bravery to turn into Honor. The good thing? Players who excel at PvP will still advance beyond what less competitive players can attain. The new system doesn't drag high level Arena players down as much as it makes Arenas more enjoyable and ultimately rewarding for everybody.

Still only the best players will get their iLevel 239 weapons, the coolest-looking tabard, bragging rights titles, and a badass mount. The system may be good to casuals, but it doesn't punish the best of the best. The result? Everybody wins. It's just that players actually need to get into the Arenas. Trust me, it's never been more fun. Death Knights aren't quite so godly anymore, so players can safely step inside the Arenas without fear of getting facerolled. Ok, fine. Probably not. Some classes will still probably squash competition like bugs, but really -- what have you got to lose, right?

Arena Season 6 is the beginning of the golden age of casual PvP. It's a great time to play Arenas now, especially if you want to play with your friends. On the other hand, you can still be hardcore about it and reap bigger rewards. That works, too. What the heck, while we're at it, if there are any casual-yet-hardcore Discipline Priests and Restoration Shamans on Stormscale US willing to carry an old, washed up, semi-retired Ret Pally in 3v3, send me a tweet. I promise not to nerd rage. My acupuncturist said it was bad for my chi.

Zach would like to spread the love for PvP around. In what he attempts to be a weekly endeavor, he writes about Arenas, Battlegrounds, and world PvP in one column. Last week he asked if Wintergrasp was doomed by its own success.

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