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Mists of Pandaria Beta: The evolution of itemization

Matthew Rossi

Let me introduce you to the Massacre Sword. It was, and still is, a solid leveling green with a rather good model. I point it out to you to show you the odds of getting one with stats you'd actually want on a warrior, paladin or hunter (the three classes that would be using the sword at the time the game launched) and how likely it was you'd get, say, a Massacre Sword of the Boar or Whale. Granted, you could get a few fairly useful combinations (one of Strength or Agility, say, or a good two stat combo like Bear, Tiger, Eagle, Monkey or Gorilla depending on your class.

This was a green drop, of course. It wasn't meant to be the best of the best, just something to pick up and use on your way to dungeon loot. It's hard to compare it to what it would be replaced by nowadays, because a lot of that gear was re-itemized when Cataclysm came out and the dungeon levels were adjusted up or down. I remember replacing it with Lord Alexander's Battle Axe, followed by a Demonshear and an Arcanite Champion, before forays into Molten Core and Blackwing Lair. It's fascinating to consider how itemization works as a tool in driving players forward. Bad itemization, while baffling at times when encountered in game, actually serves a purpose in the hands of the developers. An item with too good of a stat spread can actually serve as a hanging burr, sticking to your character long after it should have been replaced.

I mention this because, to my mind, Mists of Pandaria is the first expansion to really know this, forwards and backwards. This is the expansion that will use gear design to motivate you better, more skillfully, and more expansively than ever before.

Do you want to keep your Apolyon or go for the De-Raged Waraxe? You don't want to invalidate player gear from the previous expansion too quickly, but neither do you want them rolling into the next expansion's first tier of raiding in the last tier's epics as many did in Karazhan. Many players were not even stopping to run normal or heroic dungeons except for attunement, as the Naxx gear they had was as good as or better than anything those dungeons had to offer.

One of the bigger flaws in Wrath of the Lich King (yes, for those of you who started playing then and think of it as the peak, it did have them) was how quickly itemization got out of hand. Because heroic modes were an experiment in raiding at the time, and because 10 and 25 man raiding had different loot tables, gear spiraled in item level and potency very quickly. The gear you had after clearing Naxxramas 10 was so thoroughly left in the dust by the time Trial of the Crusader came out, there was better gear in the normal mode five man dungeon that launched with that patch. Not even a heroic, mind you. The game had to be designed with all this gear, gear from normal 10, heroic 10/normal 25, and heroic 25 in mind, as well as dungeons and heroic dungeons that launched with gear on par with or superior to previous tiers of raiding.

However, one of the up sides to the gear whirlwind in Wrath was that it drove people forward. Gearing and improving your gearing is one of the engines that powers play in an MMO. People master professions, craft, run dungeons and otherwise seek to improve their characters, and one of the tools to get people to want to do that is to design the gear so that new tiers and new dungeons can surpass it.


Consider normal Dragon Soul vs. heroic Firelands gear. There's really only six iLevels of difference between the two. If the Firelands gear didn't have some weird itemization in places, there would be a lot less motivation for a guild that had been clearing heroic Firelands to bother upgrading, especially in a post-Reforging game world. (In some cases, there really isn't much incentive.) By having wiggle room in the gear design, you can create a piece that's certainly an upgrade from previous tiers without making the next tier simply be an exact copy but better. As you progress through raid tiers, the gear doesn't just get bigger numbers, the itemization becomes more ideal. This can be a difficult trick to pull off when, as an example, you have three classes using plate tanking gear and each of them values certain stats more than others. But it's the goal, and it serves to keep gear progression interesting.

It also means that as an expansion hits, you see the opposite. Pieces drop that have enough raw stats that they're an upgrade, even from your raiding gear, but which are lacking as wide a stat spread or have combinations that are significantly less compelling. This is intentional: it gives the dungeons room to grow. If all the leveling greens and blues had ideal stat spreads, you'd have to agonize more about that dungeon drop, and that's not the goal. The goal is to get you to want new loot, ultimately.

The leveling gear in Mists of Pandaria is doing a very good job of walking that tightrope, providing gear for players that will eventually force even the most progressed raiders to upgrade. Let me be frank: I am that category. My gear is all heroic Dragon Soul, I'm covered in 410 or even better epics. And for the first two levels of Mists, I didn't find any upgrades. By late 87 to early 88, the quest rewards and (even more so) dungeon drops are good enough to make me switch without being what I might call perfectly itemized. No gem sockets, and often stats like haste or expertise that are necessary at times, but never designed to make me want to hold onto these pieces overlong. The designers have learned a great deal about itemization, and they're making use of it.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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