You are always worse than the past
And Naxx was the ultimate raid when it came out, by definition. Some realms never saw a Naxx clear. Some guilds never finished Naxx until level 70. It was full of punishing, some might even say brutally tuned encounters and mechanics that didn't know the meaning of the word latency. The Four Horsemen fight required up to eight tanks. Eight.
I know a lot of people who raid, and a lot of them who raided back in vanilla or BC or Wrath. I see a lot of disparity of opinion on which expansion handled raiding best, which expansion had the better fights, which expansion did the job better of balancing content difficulty.
I do know this much for sure: What we called hardcore back in the day is almost unrecognizable from the way anyone I know plays today. I raid at most nine hours a week now. Back then, I could easily raid four hours a night for four or five days a week. That level of commitment to the game is possible only for a select few players, and those players burn out fast. Of course they do. They burn out fast because they're raiding 16 to 20 hours a week and also farming and leveling alts and doing all sorts of other things. People who played the PvP ladder back in vanilla? You heard tales of players playing characters in shifts, PvPing continuously.
That's not the game today. That's dead, and it should be dead. I don't lament that time at all. I don't miss it. I don't for a second believe that the encounters designed in vanilla or in BC or Wrath were inherently better than the ones we have today. I've done them all, at the level they were designed for.
Lady Vashj? Quite frankly, it's an annoying fight, with lots of moving parts and phases that don't flow well into one another at all. Tanking it was always an exercise in being bored for extended periods and then having hectic bursts of activity. The end of the fight is a biathalon of not standing in things. It was hard entirely because you had to spread your raid out, get tainted cores to the pillars properly, and then avoid standing in green crap. If you couldn't find a tainted elemental fast enough to get it dead and get the core tossed, you'd eventually wipe. There was no skill involved in that, just being on the right spot at the right time.
See? I can pointlessly nitpick BC content just as easily as modern content.
Not because it was hard but because it was the only way
I would put heroic Ragnaros or Sinestra against any fight designed in The Burning Crusade. Yes, even Kael'thas. The game has changed since The Burning Crusade, however. The Burning Crusade didn't have heroic mode fights; the closest we had was the Eredar Twins if you killed them in a specific order. With BC, every fight was as hard as it was going to get.
Now, I'm actually disenchanted with the concept of heroic modes. I think giving every single fight a heroic version is boring and that only specific fights should have a heroic mode. I vastly prefer the Ulduar model for hard mode fights to the TotC and beyond toggle mode. But the very existence of Raid Finder/normal/heroic and two raid sizes for every raid means that the current game is an entirely different beast than classic or BC and can't really be compared with them in terms of raid difficulty or how long content takes to clear.
There are no attunements now bottlenecking content. Guilds that start raiding can usually gear up through dungeons and Raid Finder and step directly into current content. They don't have to go farm Karazhan for badges for weeks in order to get geared enough to catch up to the current raid. Heroic content is harder, but it's the same basic raid, so you're not forced to relearn it.
These are all elements that contribute to the modern speed of raid clearing that have nothing to do with raid difficulty itself. The reason there are relatively few true hardcore raiders nowadays is because hardcore raiding is an unnecessary and outdated artifact of a style of play that died. We raided hardcore because there was no other way to access the content. We raided hardcore because we had the time to devote to it and because most everyone else didn't and could never hope to see that content.
We did it because we had to. Any attempt to present those days as a golden age of player skill and difficult content is simply someone poisoned by nostalgia. It's no different than the raid leader I had back in BC who constantly compared every fight to Loatheb and complaining that players today just won't work to overcome obstacles like they did back then.
Were there well-designed encounters in BC? Absolutely there were. Sometimes they were haphazardly placed. Sometimes they were sandwiched in between fights like Shade of Akama with a lot of boring lead-up and then a burst of crazy DPS while tanks tried to pick up everything. And sometimes they were fights like Archimonde, where people constantly screwed up on the tear and died for no reason. Yes, even in BC, people screwed up basic mechanics. No, seriously, those super-raiders from the golden age of raiding couldn't handle a slow fall mechanic on an on-use item.
Yesterday is gone
And yes, the Archimonde fight was extremely well-designed and well-tuned. That's not my point. I'm not saying it was bad (it wasn't); I'm saying we still managed to flub it up despite being the self-proclaimed hardcore raiders. Possibly this is because we didn't get to see the fight in the Raid Finder, then normal mode, then heroic mode Archimonde with Doomfire and Soul Charge. We only had one shot at him a week, and we never got to decide that maybe we needed more gear and then downgraded him to turn off his air burst to finish clearing the place.
In the end, you're not even comparing apples to oranges here. You're comparing apples to apples -- except that now, you can just get the apples. Before, you needed to farm suits of apple resist gear and clear each apple orchard in turn, and there were long chains that kept you out of the produce department until after you'd convinced various people in the store you deserved to be allowed to go buy apples. The hardcore is dead, and it died because it was necessary.
Now go eat your apples already.
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