WoW Archivist: The triumph and tragedy of Ulduar

Scott Andrews
S. Andrews|01.04.13

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WoW Archivist: The triumph and tragedy of Ulduar
Windows in Ulduar
WoW Archivist explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?

With patch 5.2 on the PTR, everyone is talking about Mists' next tier of raiding content. If the buzz seems more intense than usual, it might be because of the hints that Ghostcrawler and others at Blizzard have dropped comparing the Throne of Thunder to Wrath's Ulduar raid.

Perhaps it's too soon to revisit Ulduar in an Archivist column. After all, the raid went live less than four years ago. I don't care. I want to talk about how amazing this place was, how Blizzard still managed to screw up such a good thing, and why we should all be excited for an Ulduar-style raid in 5.2.

Put the rose-colored glasses away here, folks. You don't need them -- Ulduar really was that fantastic.

Gaze upon its magnificence

If Blackrock Depths is WoW's ultimate dungeon, then Ulduar is WoW's ultimate raid. Many of the same reasons apply. The lore behind Ulduar -- a titan complex housing the prison of an Old God -- demands a massive layout. Ulduar delivered scope like no raid has before or since.

The area where players meet the first boss, Flame Leviathan, is still the largest pre-boss trash area in the game by a long way. Every area except perhaps for Hodir's was absolutely massive. Kologarn was so gigantic that his death formed the bridge into the rest of the instance. Mimiron's area was so big you had to ride a train to get to him. The final push to Yogg-Saron featured huge stained glass windows, some hanging shattered but suspended in midair -- just to creep us out. Even a 25-man raid felt small in this place.
The train to Mimiron
The raid also had a great variety of locations: the wide-open outdoor Siege area, Hodir's frigid and claustrophobic caves, Freya's lush meadows (including tons of herb nodes), Mimiron's mechanical workshop, the evil cathedral vibe of the Descent into Madness, etc.

Fourteen bosses waited within to challenge players, from a giant protodrake to a childlike robot, titan guardians, and the scariest Old God ever. Of all the raids in WoW, only Naxxramas has more encounters than Ulduar, by one.

Equally vast was the number of loot drops. With so many bosses, Ulduar would have already approached the record for the most loot ever, but the hard mode drops put it way over the top on that score. Like all raids of its day, it also had completely different loot tables for 10- and 25-man versions.

Titan innovation

Ulduar had so much that was new to WoW, right from the very first pull. Clearing to and engaging Flame Leviathan was like playing an entirely different game -- for better or worse. Blizzard had experimented with vehicle fights early in Wrath, especially in phase three of the Malygos encounter. However, never before (or since) had players piloted vehicles through an entire room of trash and then a raid boss from start to finish. What's more, most of the vehicles required multiple players manning them, adding to the sense of teamwork and strategy. Many people complained about the Flame Leviathan fight early on, but it seemed like most players eventually embraced it. After all, how many fights let you launch your friends with catapults?

Blizzard never tried to replicate it, but bosses like Professor Putricide and Amber-Shaper Un'sok can trace their heritage back to the success of Flame Leviathan.

Even much of Ulduar's trash was new and entertaining. One standout were the Arachnopod Destroyers that you could arachnopod-jack(?) once you DPS'ed them down. Clever players used the mechanical spiders' abilities to wipe out consecutive pulls. Other trash mobs would put up a damage-negating shield over all their buddies or instagib your squishies. Freya's Elders, the Storm Tempered Keepers in the central chamber, and the two colossi in front of the Furnace were all nearly bosses unto themselves. Trash wipes were common in the early days of the raid. Many players wryly commented that Ulduar's trash was harder than Naxx's bosses -- a testament to Blizzard's ability to make even the trash engaging in Ulduar.
The Obsidian Sanctum introduced hard modes to WoW, but Ulduar perfected and expanded the system. Like Sartharion, Ulduar's bosses had multiple difficulty tiers and sometimes hidden triggers for the harder version. Not every boss had such a trigger, but the ones that did were memorable. Leaving up Flame Leviathan's four towers gave him extra damage, reduced his damage taken, and gave him new abilities. By choosing which tower(s) to leave, raiders could select one of five different difficulty levels. Breaking XT's heart enraged him. The Assembly of Iron became more difficult depending on the order of bosses defeated (an idea first explored in Ahn'Qiraj). Clearing Thorim's gauntlet quickly summoned his wife (or was she?) to his side. Freya's three Elders gave her extra damage, health, and abilities for a total of four difficulty settings. Yogg had five difficulties depending on how many Keepers you asked to help. And who could forget pushing the giant red button in Mimiron's room labeled "DO NOT PUSH"? Hitting it started an 8-minute self-destruct timer on one of WoW's most frantic, complex, and hilarious encounters ever.

Algalon the Observer was WoW's first "hard mode only" boss. To access him, you had to defeat five of the raid's hard modes, including all four Keepers. Algalon lived up to his billing -- he was indeed very difficult. The stakes couldn't have been higher, either, with the Observer impassively threatening to purge all life on the planet. (That, ladies and gentleman, is the ultimate enrage timer.) After defeating him, raiders could trigger an event in Dalaran that other nearby players could witness. The event called you out by name to the zone, which was a nice bit of recognition for all the effort. Blizzard carried this idea over to Cataclysm's first tier by giving us the Sinestra encounter.

Tremble, mortals

Some encounters like Auriaya and Vezax were rather average, but most of Ulduar's bosses were incredibly unique and epic in scale. Dragging the out-of-reach Razorscale down from the sky so you could whomp on her felt great. The childlike XT has the most striking personality of perhaps any WoW boss to date, with some of the most memorable lines of all time. Dying to his tantrum only to hear "I guess it doesn't bend that way" always brought a smile to my face despite what was likely an impending wipe. His popularity -- or perhaps infamy -- earned him a pet in the Blizzard store, a pet that had an equally infamous bug.

Fighting through Thorim's gauntlet while the rest of your raid struggled to survive his arena brought a sense of urgency that few encounters manage. His pre-fight speech even became a meme. Hodir had many interesting ways to boost your DPS that rewarded savvy and alert players. Mimiron's Voltron-esque creation was a masterwork of raid design. Each phase -- a tank, a turret, and a flying robot head -- felt completely different, culminating in a chaotic final phase where you faced all three pieces conjoined.

Even Kologarn and Ignis had their moments -- these were among the first raid bosses to actually pick us up and toss us around.
For the raid to achieve true success, however, Blizzard had to nail the Yogg-Saron encounter, and they did. The Sanity mechanic added a compelling element of terror, convincing us that we were up against something ancient and unknowable. Yes, the first phase with its hard-to-see clouds was overly long and dull, but Yogg's second phase remains one of the great all-time boss phases. Dealing with the tentacles took coordination and awareness. Subjecting yourself to the Old God's illusions by entering portals into his mind was a brilliant moment in the fight -- one that every raider should experience.

Algalon's Planetarium was like nowhere else in the game -- half constellation map, half Hell's disco. The mind-blowing visuals complemented the fight's epic difficulty. Few boss abilities were more terrifying or more appropriately named than his Big Bang. Blizzard didn't dub him "Algalon, Destroyer of Raids" for nothing. To make matters worse, you only had an hour after your first pull to defeat him -- still the only raid boss in WoW with such a timer.

New toys? For me?

As great as Ulduar's bosses were, players still may have been disappointed if the drops weren't equally amazing. Great weapons with fantastic skins seemed to drop from everything: Lifebinder, Voldrethar, Dark Blade of Oblivion, the Fang of also Oblivion, Aesuga, Hand of the Ardent Champion, Dark Edge of Depravity, and many others. Trinkets such as Mjolnir Runestone, Show of Faith, Dark Matter, and Meteorite Crystal were highly prized, even into the next tier. The Vanquished Clutches of Yogg-Saron summoned a friendly tentacle -- an upgraded version of C'thun's.
WoW Archivist The triumph and tragedy of Ulduar
Ulduar also provided the game's first and only legendary weapon dedicated entirely to healing. Players had to reforge Val'anyr, Hammer of Ancient Kings in the maw of Yogg-Saron himself. Acquiring all the fragments took a long time, but this remade titan relic was vastly powerful in its tier, especially given its shield proc. Its power in future tiers became controversial -- Blizzard didn't want it to be relevant throughout the expansion, but players felt that all the work required to build one warranted greater relevance in future tiers. Blizzard eventually buffed the weapon's stats to keep up with current itemization, but also nerfed the proc to make swapping to it in combat less advantageous.

Finally, killing Yogg without any Keepers earned you the best flying mount ever: Mimiron's Head. This version of the encounter was no joke, however. The first guild to do so resorted to an exploit to beat it.

Lose your illusion

Achievements were still new in Ulduar's heyday, and Blizzard had yet to work out some of the kinks. Beyond the hard mode achievements, we were also charged with such tasks as killing adds with Mimiron's own rockets, getting all of Hodir's buffs at once, and blowing Sara a kiss. These achivements were at least entertaining.

The meta had some issues, however. Some of the requirements were flat-out exasperating rather than difficult. Destroying both of Kologarn's arms and then the guardian himself for Disarmed was tricky to time -- and usually you only got one shot at it per reset. Iron Dwarf, Medium Rare was easy to earn, but it took the patience of a titan. So many things could go wrong, and Razorscale didn't use her breath attack very often. It often took several rounds of hitting her enrage timer to roast enough dwarves.

Blizzard shoots themselves in the tentacle

For years, Blizzard gave lip service to the idea of pushing content patches faster. Despite this goal, patch after patch, expansion after expansion, it seemed like players were bored to death of the old content before we got anything new. In Mists, Blizzard seems like they've finally figured out how to do it -- at least so far.

The only other time they pushed a patch through so quickly was patch 3.2, the one right after Ulduar -- and it was the worst thing they could have done. If the patch had included only daily quests like 5.1 did, that would have been fine. Unfortunately, the patch brought with it an entirely new raiding tier, making most of Ulduar "obsolete" just 14 weeks after it released.

Granted, if the Trial of the Crusader had been as epic as Ulduar, or if the lore hadn't been quite so silly, perhaps we wouldn't look back and sigh like we Wrath vets do now. Alas, many players consider this raid to be the worst that Blizzard has ever created. ToC offered only five bosses. All but the last took place in one static, circular room -- the Crusader's Coliseum. It was the opposite of Ulduar in virtually every way: tiny in scope, less interesting in its mechanics, and lacking the varied hard mode triggers of the prior tier. That's partly why the gap between patches was so tragically short.
You face Jaraxxus
As a result, many guilds had just begun to scratch the surface of Ulduar when they had to make the switch to the Coliseum for progression. Ulduar, the greatest raid in WoW's history, never had the relevance that it deserved. Sure, plenty of people went back for achievements, mounts, or Val'anyr. Even so, if ever a raid could have lasted us through the typical six-month-plus wait for new content of years gone by, it was Ulduar. Yet it was one of very few tiers that didn't get that gap.

The other tragedy is that no raid has implemented such a dynamic system for hard modes since. We got a boring toggle in the Coliseum and it's been a toggle ever since. Blizzard told us that the triggers were too obscure and unintuitive, or too easy to enable accidentally. XT's heart and Thorim's timer are two such examples.

I'm sure part of the reason was also how difficult the triggers were to implement and how easy it may have been to run out of new and interesting ways to create a hard mode trigger. The Protectors encounter in the Terrace of Endless Spring, reminiscent of Ulduar's Assembly of Iron, hopefully points to more Ulduar-style options in the future.

When the Throne of Thunder goes live, we will have had seven tiers since Ulduar, or basically half the tiers in WoW. It's appropriate then that Tier 15 should endeavor to return to the Ulduar model. I can't wait to see what Blizzard has in store for us. We already know that it will feature at least as many bosses as Ulduar's normal modes: 13 are known so far. If the Throne of Thunder is even half as amazing as Ulduar, we'll be in for a special treat during this expansion -- and I have a feeling Blizzard will give us ample months to explore it this time around. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another seven tiers for a similar raid!

After months of surveying, WoW Archivist has been dug back up! Discover lore and artifacts of WoW's past, including the Corrupted Blood plague, the Scepter of the Shifting Sands, and the mysterious Emerald Dream.
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