Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The truths about Alterac Valley

Tobold had an interesting post on his blog concerning AV and whether or not it was now actually balanced. This sparked a hot topic that has been brewing inside me for a while now because I have played both sides of AV extensively and I am constantly amazed at the myths and blatant idiocy that is perpetuated by this battleground.

First, a few quick facts about my AV experience for the purpose of establishing credibility:
  • I have four “more than Exalted” toons with the AV faction. It’s “more than” because if it wasn’t capped, I’d be Exalted several times over. In fact, I typically use AV to get Exalted in the four normal factions.

  • Those four toons span both factions: Gnome Rogue, Night Elf Warrior, Troll Warrior, Troll Rogue

  • All AV experience for the Rogues is after patch 2.3, the Troll Warrior was pre-BC and 2.0, and the NE Warrior is ~ patch 2.1

  • I have played both factions extensively in the most current 2.3 patch

  • I have won regularly with both factions during every patch. By winning regularly, I mean 50% or more of my AV games.

  • I have never played in an organized pre-made for AV. I point this out only to indicate that’s very possible to win in Battleground PUGs.

The first truth about Alterac Valley is that faction and map imbalance means nothing in the face of good communication. The most obvious proof of this is that a pre-made AV will typically school you in 9 to 11 minutes and will often result in almost no honor gain. Interestingly, it’s not even important that it be the best strategy, only a winning strategy that everyone follows. Each faction has several different strategies that will win. Granted, there is a BEST strategy, but it’s less important that it be used than it is to simply get everyone to agree to follow the same strategy. The most critical moments for establishing communication happen at the very start before the gates open. If you or someone else simply steps up with a winning plan and you (in turn) endorse it vocally in chat and help shout down the inevitable “we tried it that way last time and lost” crap that happens, you’ll increase your odds of winning by 75%.

This type of communication works because of the second truth about Alterac Valley. Twenty-five of your 40 players are sheep and run around on auto-pilot doing whatever everyone else is doing. They just look for the most mayhem and chaos and run to it. Five are AFK and guarding the cave. The other 10 are the Difference Makers. These Difference Makers are the ones who win the AV for you. Speaking from experience, you don’t need to be well-geared to be a Difference Maker in AV. You need to be well-geared to pwn face, but not to help your team win. He who contributes most is not the one at the top of the damage or killing blow chart. Many times, it’s that key moment when a badly geared Paladin held out for that extra few seconds to allow a graveyard respawn or a flag to cap.

Which brings me to the third truth about Alterac Valley: Helping the team win is simply about being in the right place at the right time. The best example of this is recapturing the towers and bunkers in the middle. Each undestroyed tower means that an extra NPC is waiting inside with your General. If you can retake the tower before it pops and the offense is well past the middle, then you have a good shot at keeping that NPC alive and making the encounter with the General more difficult for the other side. Even one NPC can make a huge impact if you can get one or two defenders in with the General to wreak havoc. If you have an addon like Capping, then it is very easy to track how much time is remaining on a tower. I find the best time to start looking to retake a tower is between one and two minutes. Often, the rush of attackers that assaulted the tower have moved on to something else and left it lightly defended. Given the current environment post 2.3, the best tactical advice I can give for helping your team win is generally either a) assaulting a tower or b) defending a tower until three to four towers of one faction are destroyed.

The point here is that the single biggest contributing factor to winning and losing in AV is not strategy or map imbalance—it’s YOU! If you choose to be a Difference Maker and work at winning by communicating and not acting like a sheep, then you will win more games than not. One thing you’ll notice about the pre-mades is that it always seems like there is 4 or more of them defending or assaulting all the towers at the same time. Does it feel like they are all in one place like sheep or does it feel like they are everywhere?

Horde vs. Alliance
To my earlier point above, I’ve played both sides extensively and have been a Difference Maker regularly winning 50% or more of my AV games regardless of factions. When I played Horde exclusively, I was convinced that AV was not just imbalanced, but incredibly imbalanced in favor of the Alliance. While I still maintain that prior to patch 2.3 this was very true, I formed a different opinion when I started playing AV as Alliance. It turned out that the edge was quite a bit less than I had believed when I was Horde. Properly played, the Horde have some equally frustrating choke points and some other nice advantages. Unfortunately, prior to 2.3, these advantages often didn’t result in a win for the Horde, they just made the game more lengthy.

Each side has two choke points. The Alliance have Stormpike Graveyard and then the entire Aid Station, Stompike Bunker, Bridge of Death corridor. The Horde have Iceblood Graveyard and the Frostwolf Towers.

Iceblood is superior to Stormpike GY. It has covering fire from two relatively nearby towers and a nice chokepoint. Unlike SP GY, the assault on IB GY can only come from one direction and that is through a tower. However, it is much easier to skip IB GY than SP GY if the defenders fight on the flag. For that reason, it’s better to fight nearer the tower where the two points are more narrow. Even prior to patch 2.3, a strong early defense at this position could often fragment the Alliance offense and give the Horde a decided advantage in the race to the General. Smart Difference Makers can easily take Stormpike Graveyard by assaulting the flag from behind. Typically, the sheep attacking from the main road (where they are easily choked) often provide a great diversion to SP defenders.

The Bridge of Death, SP bunkers and Aid Station are superior to the Frostwolf Towers. Prior to patch 2.3, this difference was the source of most of the imbalance complaints the Horde made about Alterac Valley. First, the bridge is easily defensible from the Aid Station with covering fire from the bunkers and support from the NPCs. The proximity from the Aid Station flag to the bridge chokepoint makes an Alliance defender capable of defending both the Aid Station and the choke point. The Horde, by contrast, have to leave the FW Relief Hut susceptible to getting easily taken by a Rogue or Druid while they defend the FW Towers. Any Alliance that recall back to defend the base are also conveniently placed right next to the Aid Station flag. To make matters worse, the Alliance NPCs nearby are easily aggroed and frequently end up in combat. When defended by 5-10 Alliance, this can be incredibly difficult to capture for the Horde. In any “race” to kill the General, this is a very decided advantage for the Alliance.

Frostwolf Graveyard and Stonehearth Graveyard deserve a brief mention. Basically, these are of equivalent strategic value in that they are of very little value. Both are easily taken by the other side. Arguably, Frostwold GY is a bit more valuable to Horde defenders after the Relief Hut has been taken by the Alliance now that they no longer pop up in the cave when they die. Likewise, Stormpike GY has similar value once the Aid Station has been capped. But beyond that, very little value to either of them.

Snowfall GY is the enigma. Alliance pretty much get this GY as a freebie. In a way it’s equally valuable for the Horde to WANT the Alliance to have this GY as it is for the Alliance to take it. Arguably, you could say that the Alliance DO have a third chokepoint next to Icewing Bunker, but allowing them to take Snowfall generally acts like “popping a cork” and lets the sheep pass each other. Since this turtle effect here only really happens when the Alliance don’t have control of Snowfall, I tend not to think of IW bunker as a real chokepoint of strategic value.

You’ll note from the above commentary that the towers and bunkers play a prominent role in defending the choke points. Interestingly, both Horde choke points involve towers while only one of the choke points has a bunker for the Alliance. In fact, as I point out above, that’s one major reason why Iceblood is superior to Stormpike Graveyard. The Alliance actually have two bunkers that just float out there and are easily taken by the Horde with little strategic value other than that which is inherent to a tower. The net result is that the Horde get two towers for very little effort while the Alliance are forced to expend more effort and time taking four towers.

In the old AV, the effort expended to take towers was meaningless. If 10 Alliance went back to defend the Aid Station, then towers or no towers, the Horde were going to have a rough go of getting in a position to take out the General. A stout defense even at Iceblood and the Frostwolf towers would inevitably lose ground to the Alliance based on sheer numbers alone. Faced with a long drawn out loss that netted 200 honor or a quick loss that netted 200 honor, most Horde found honor was ironically gained more quickly by simply acting like sheep and racing to the other teams General.

Part of the irony is that there is a nice “rush” strategy that properly executed results in a very quick Horde win due to the Horde starting position being closer to the middle. However, it’s not something easily explained through chat and never became common knowledge. (I’m still surprised at how many Horde go down the hill at Icewing bunker instead of up the hill through the trees past Jeztor and then on down the high road.)

Patch 2.3 changed things a bit in the Horde’s favor. And, dare I say, made the map more balanced as a result. With the introduction of reinforcements and their relationship to towers, the emphasis on holding and controlling towers is far greater than it was previously. The two near-freebie bunkers in the middle for the Horde allow the Horde to take an early edge in the reinforcement war that rewards a stout defense at Iceblood and Frostwolf. This is a fair counterbalance to the Bridge which can easily stall the Horde offense if properly defended. However, now if the Horde get stalled at the bridge, a stout defense can win the game for them anyway. Suddenly, there is an incentive again to practice defense and net more honor. The games are capped in length due to the reinforcement mechanic, so any war of the turtles is not doomed to an hour long game.

On the surface, that would seem to give the advantage to the Horde. Of course, when I play Alliance in 2.3, I still win all the time. Why? Because the Alliance STILL hold the advantage in being able to break past the defenses and kill the General. Optimal strategy for the Alliance is built on speed and ignoring objectives you don’t need right away. Skipping Iceblood altogether if it’s decently defended will force the defenders back to Frostwolf and make Iceblood (and the middle towers) easy pickings. Once you make it about a race to kill the General, the Alliance gain the advantage.

In short, the Horde and Alliance need to play different games. The Alliance are rewarded for playing offense fast and early. Whereas, the Horde are rewarded by keeping a modest part of the team (10-13 players) back on defense.

As to the differences in the Captains… Yes, Balinda is easier kill than Galv. But it’s really pretty pointless since neither of them are very difficult to kill and get taken in just about every game anyway. A group of Horde can wipe the Alliance at Galv, but only at the expense of leaving the Iceblood chokepoint lightly defended. A smart group of Difference Makers can just skip on down to the FW towers and cap the Aid Station.

I don’t know if we have “perfect” balance, but in my mind – there is a level of “acceptable” balance. The Alliance boycott is simply behavior induced by Blizzard caving to mismanaged perceptions. If you go from rarely losing a match to losing 50% of your matches, there might be balance – but you certainly don’t feel that way. Your satisfaction and reward from playing is half of what you were used to experiencing. Understandably, you might feel screwed, but it’s not really the case.

No comments: