Why we need difficult encounters
Challenging encounters are essential to a good raid -- there's simply no way around it. Were every encounter the same tank and spank or even built around the same basic movement mechanics, then raiding as a whole would quickly become boring and entirely unsustainable. Engaging players, forcing them to spend time and effort to down an encounter ... That's part of what raiding is all about.
Keep in mind that what is challenging for one fraction of the playerbase may not be for another. I fully admit that I'm a part of the upper crust of raiders. While I no longer raid with the hardcore crowd that pushes for world firsts with every new tier, I still do contend with hard modes and generally clear most content before the next comes out. This puts my perspective a little apart from that of most others, and I fully admit to that. Still, everyone does enjoy something of a challenge.
The most basic type of difficulty that you can work into an encounter is raw numerical difficulty. Personally, I consider this to be the lazy type of challenge to add into a fight, but that doesn't mean that it is entirely without merit. Numerical difficulty is merely the pure output requirements of an encounter. Generally, this comes in the form of DPS requirements, such as what you see with Patchwerk, although that doesn't always have to be the case. Constant, powerful AoE can make for a healing-intensive encounter, and certainly these types of fights crop up from time to time as well.
As I said, while I consider these fights to be lacking in imagination, they do have their place. Patchwerk, as always, is the prime example of this. While there have been several pure tank-and-spank encounters prior to Patchwerk, he fully embodied the concept. No raid movement, no raid damage, no tank swapping, nothing but pure, stand-still damage dealing. These encounters are great every now and again to offer up a testing ground for players, a measure by which they can pit themselves against each other.
The problem comes when there's one every raiding tier. It gets rather droll to reference the "Patchwerk of this tier" every single time.
The second type of encounter difficulty is mechanical. This type of fight revolves around various non-combat-related actions to make an encounter hard. A wide number of things can fall within this category, whether it be heavy movement, debuff juggling, add control, or pretty much anything that you can think of. It's rather a catch-all of encounter types, but it's that variety that holds everything together.
Keep in mind that most encounters borrow a little bit from everything. Ultraxion is a good example of how this is done. Despite being the Patchwerk of Dragon Soul, it still has some mechanical aspects. There's the debuff, the one-shot ability, and then the healing crystals -- simple mechanics, sure, and obviously a numerically heavy fight, but it still borrows from everything.
Last time around, I headed off what I thought would be some of the more popular choices in hopes of directing the conversation more in other directions. This time, I have no such reservations. While there are without a doubt classic examples of difficult encounters -- pre-nerf Mu'ru, C'thun, Y'ogg 0 -- the community has such widely varied experiences and there are so many different challenges to choose from that pinning down a few specific examples of what makes a creatively, fun, challenging encounter can be a challenge. Instead, I rather think I'll put forth my favorite difficult fights and explain why I find them so. Again, I suspect that my list will be different from others, but that's the beauty of it all.
The first example for me is Kael'thas from Tempest Keep, of course. Part of what made the encounter so difficult was the exceptionally rigid tuning that went into it. The fight was literally nearly impossible without having a majority of the raid already well geared from Tempest Keep and Serpentshrine Cavern. Without that gear, raids simply did not have the DPS to meet the various timers they were forced into meeting.
Yet the numerical challenge of the encounter was only half the battle, as the fight itself involved so many different facets all going on at once. Mechanically, Kael'thas was just a brilliant fight -- starting out slow with the single adds, then the weapons, followed by all the adds at once ... Sheerly brilliant. The fact that the advisors were not traditional tank targets made it all the better. One was ranged tanked, one not tanked at all, the other probably handled by a DPS; it was thrilling.
Yet that was only half the encounter. Needing to use the weapons you'd previously defeated in order to counter Kael'thas' abilities was amazingly fun. It was slightly disappointing that only warriors had the required talents to effectively tank Kael'thas, but that was more due to the design of the time, not the encounter itself. Still, I feel that Kael'thas really stands out as one of the most challenging yet fun encounters that Blizzard has designed.
Sartharion takes second place, though I feel that perhaps it is an unfair assessment of the encounter. The base encounter itself was rather on the bland side. Lava walls were neat, but from a DPS perspective, that's all there was to it. The adds were somewhat interesting, but I found their interaction with the lava walls to be more annoying than engaging.
What sold the encounter was really the way in which the hard mode was handled: three different drakes with different abilities and different passive effects that fly in at different times. It was glorious.
On its own, the encounter was just far too basic for my tastes (and rather lightly tuned, too), but even attempting it with even two drakes up changed everything. The drakes as adds on their own would have been enough to turn the encounter into a challenging mess, but toss in the abilities that they added to it and suddenly you're on an entirely different field. Dodging void zones, jumping into a different phase to slaughter eggs ... It changes everything for the better.
So there are my two favorite challenging fights. What are yours?
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