World of Warcraft Shadowlands gameplay interview: Balancing Covenants, classes, and beyond

World Of Warcraft Shadowlands Covenant Maldraxxus
World Of Warcraft Shadowlands Covenant Maldraxxus (Image credit: Windows Central)

World of Warcraft's next big expansion is Shadowlands, taking players into the mysterious Azerothian afterlife. The veil between life and death has been pierced, allowing mortals to traverse into this immaterial realm for the first time. Dubbed the "Maw Walker," you and your fellow players will seek to repair the cycle of death and rebirth, which has been disrupted by Sylvanas Windrunner's actions in the current expansion Battle for Azeroth.

Previously, we got to interview Ion Hazzikostas on Shadowlands' future, but now we've also been able to discuss Covenants, class balance, Mythic+, and much more with Lead Encounter Designer Morgan Day to learn more about how players will interact with the new challenges and systems in Shadowlands' promising endgame.

On Covenant balance

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Jez Corden, Windows Central: A lot of community members are concerned about the balance between Covenant power and the ability to freely choose between them. What if one Covenant has rewards I think are aesthetically more interesting, but another Covenant ends up being meta for my class? How will Blizzard approach balance there?

Morgan Day, Blizzard Entertainment: Like you mentioned, so far all we've had a chance to get into the player's hands is your covenant signature ability, as well as your Covenant Class ability, but that's just really a small piece of the overall package that we feel like covenant choice should play on on your experience with World of Warcraft and the Shadowlands.

We want them to feel like not only is this going to have a huge impact on things like you know, characters, power, and abilities, and now you also have a Soulbind that you can interact with. Once you've chosen a Covenant, you can actually engage with them and Soulbind with them to the point where they grant powers.

Other things that will form part of that power package are Covenant Conduits which are very much built into the class and are even spec-specific. We feel like this is where a big part of that Covenant power is going to come from.

We have a lot of balance tuning knobs that we can introduce, with Conduits.

Those are also things that we feel like we have a lot of balance tuning knobs that we can introduce, with Conduits. When we talk about class balance and how we tune them, a big part of that discussion is making sure that you feel like you have really distinct strengths and weaknesses. There should be aspects of the game where you're like, "Yes, I love these huge AoE pulls. I'm awesome at these," and then maybe the next boss is a single target fight, and you're like "I'm not as good at single target damage but just get me back to those AoE packs." The strengths and weaknesses are a big part of what make you feel unique and like you have a place in raids and dungeons and PvP.

All of the elements that come with Covenants, such as Soulbinds, Conduits, and those spells and abilities that come with choosing a Covenant are all part of that larger package. And we do want to make sure that even if there are some weaknesses that come from any of your choices that we have the tuning knobs required to make sure we can shore up those weaknesses. If we feel like those are too large of a gap where you feel like "Oh, I'm not getting invited to Mythic+ right now because I chose this," those are areas that we absolutely we'll try to make changes.

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But there's so much more to that Covenant choice, feeling like part of an RPG. It's about shaping your experience as you progress through Shadowlands. Some of the really cool things that are also going to be impacted by our code of choice are, for example, there's a max level campaign where it will be unique quest content, depending on the Covenant that you chose. We've also integrated your Covenant choice into some of our dungeon experiences. There's actually elements of dungeons that only you can interact with as part of a specific Covenant.

For example, there are these automatons in the Necrotic Wake, one of our new dungeons. It has been assaulted by Maldraxxus, and they're there to try to gruesomely harvest parts from the Kyrians because they're all about patchwork abominations and stitching things together. And as you go to on the attack, you see a defeated automaton on the ground, and if you're a Kyrian, you could actually interact and repair him. He'll grant you and your party buffs because you're Kyrian, and your little Steward buddy from your Covenant ability knows how to fix that automaton. So those are just other examples of things that are going to be different based on your Covenant choice.

We feel that Covenants are a holistic package that have lots of interesting things to make you feel good about your choice. you feel like maybe there is an area where you're not the most amazing at "this thing" over here. But look at all these other cool things that you're really happy and proud to be able to bring to the group.

On switching Covenants

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Even still, let's just imagine that someone does invest in a Covenant and maybe they want to try another Campaign or they get bored of the aesthetic and they just decide they want to switch, for whatever reason, how hard will it be to switch?

So that's something that we've gotten a lot of feedback on. And we are working to come up with solutions for right now.

One of the main things that we've talked here, such as "what if I regret my choice, what if I picked this Covenant to see the story, and actually, it's not quite for me," or there's something I don't like about it.

We think switching to another Covenant won't be that challenging. Say you're Kyrian and you actually want to be in Revendreth, because those guys throw awesome parties, and that sounds like a lot of fun, and also they have a cool Covenant ability with the Door Shadow teleport. Swapping into Revendreth will actually be easy, or at least lower friction than going back to the Kyrian. Leaving the Kyrian, they might be like "what the heck, why did you leave us? You've betrayed us, what's going on here?"

So, going back to the Kyrian if you have left will pose a greater challenge. There might be some tasks that they would ask you to do to go back to them. But once you've done that, you will keep the progress that you've made. Any Renown that you would have or any progress you've made on your Soulbinds, all that stuff should be saved when you go back so that you haven't lost that progress.

A thing that we've taken a lot of consideration on is. If you love alt characters, and you want to check out all the different Covenants on all different characters, we don't want you to feel like you're permanently behind some of your friends. There will be really strong catch-up mechanics that are in place from the beginning.

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So Renown is something that you're building with your Covenant as you progress through the Shadowlands. It's not quite like Artifact Power or Azerite Power that we've seen in previous expansions. Those were more like an experience bar that you could earn small chunks of and eventually earn another "level" in your Heart of Azeroth for example. Renown comes purely in levels, you will just be given a level all in one go.

Your Covenant will give you different tasks to gain this Renown. Maybe they want you to go find Anima out in the world and bring it back to them. Anima is the lifeblood of the Shadowlands. And there's a huge Anima drought right now. They essentially need you to help them keep the lights on. As you bring them Anima back, they'll give you your Renown point.

And if there's ever a point where you're too far behind on where you should be at with your Renown for the current tier. There will be new opportunities to earn Renown from things like your Callings that your Covenants are going to be giving you, which are an evolution of our Emissaries that you might have seen in Battle for Azeroth and Legion, but these are much more strongly themed around the Covenants.

So if you're too far behind, your Callings will start to give you Renown now as an additional reward, so that it can help you catch up and get to where you feel like you should be or where your friends might be. If you're even further behind, there are additional opportunities to earn Renown from different repeatable activities, like maybe doing PvP or Mythic+. There will be a chance to catch up and gain Renown from doing those activities too.

The evolution of Mythic+ dungeons

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Speaking of Mythic+, one thing my friends often discuss in my guild is this idea of "Dead Weeks" in Mythic+ dungeons, where the Affix combos are too nasty to be worth it, or maybe certain specs might suffer disproportionately as a result. What's Blizzard's thought process on that phenomenon?

That's a great question. So Mythic+ is a system that we really love. We're really happy with it. We do want to look for opportunities to evolve and improve it coming into Shadowlands. So Ion has mentioned that in the coming weeks on beta, we'll be introducing a lot of the existing affixes into our Mythic+ system so that we can get a much earlier look at how these affixes are interacting with some of these dungeons? Are there some things that feel really unfair and overly punishing?

With Battle for Azeroth, we didn't add Mythic+ to the beta until much later in the process. This time, we're going to try to get it out as soon as we can. For Shadowlands, we're not going to have the new Seasonal affix which was something that we introduced with Battle for Azeroth, this concept of seasonal affixes, very much so themed after the expansion or the new raids coming with tiers.

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I thought that was pretty successful and we want to carry that forward. But we're not going to do that right when we introduced Mythic+ in the beta, we really just want to see how are some of these existing affixes are interacting with the dungeons

When it comes to tuning those affixes, we are constantly looking at the delta between being able to do these crazy high keystones, and then next week, maybe you can't even do a keystone several levels below that. Those are things we're constantly trying to make adjustments to. And there's any number of things we could do like making tweaks to individual affixes so that maybe there's a little bit more counterplay around it.

Something that we heard a lot of feedback on, for example, like Grievous, sometimes it can feel like when that affix is active, certain bosses I just can't beat because there's so much damage happening to my party with this affix is in place. Okay, well, what if we added more counterplay for that affix to try to find more opportunities for healers to play around that, and then that should help resolve some of those issues where, you know, certain dungeons with certain affixes feel really unfair. And that's a big part of our goal of having the stuff be testable and playable as soon as possible so we can start getting that feedback and try to resolve it.

Approach to class balance

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This next question I'll frame with a personal experience. I really like the Demonology Nether Portal playstyle, but Nether Portal just hasn't been an option against Demonic Consumption for practically the entire expansion. It's just one example, but I still fear that it'll just be another expansion with a load of unviable talents, across various classes. I feel like in previous expansions years ago, weak talents got tweaked more often mid-expansion, rather than being ignored for an entire expansion. What's Blizzard's thinking on this?

Live tuning and balance is something that we're we're always keeping an eye on. Like you mentioned, sometimes, be it a specific talent or ability or something might require some substantial change to make it viable. But when you look at talents in particular, something that we always discuss, you know, where's my opportunity to use this talent? And, you know, is this a tuning problem? Is this a design problem? Where's the issue that we're trying to resolve here?

Sometimes we will take a look at talents and say, "Okay, cool. Well, that one is not super popular," but in the places where we do feel like it should be strong, people are using it, and that's awesome. And then sometimes there are talents that are just like, "hey, because we designed in a specific way, it's just better in all situations at all times." And sometimes it's a tuning problem, sometimes it needs a lot of substantial rework.

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Depending on the focus at the time, that might be something that we would look at in a patch for sure. Class balance and WoW is is an art and it's never done. It's always something that we're looking at. We're always trying to take a look at how severe of an issue it is and kind of triaging those this your issues as they come up.

As you mentioned, with Shadowlands, we have the opportunity to potentially redesign some abilities or talents. There's been a ton of really awesome work that the combat and class team have been doing. With things like "the unpruning" of abilities. With your example of warlocks, we have introduced curses again as a concept, with Curse of Weakness and Curse of Tongues and things like that returning to flesh out the kit of Warlocks, as well as create a more cohesive kit for the class as a whole, not just the spec.

Warlocks as classes for a while became very, very tailored to their specific specs, and it didn't feel like the class had a lot of abilities that were shared between the class as a whole. That's something that we've been really looking at and Shadowlands to try to bring back that idea of "this is my class fantasy," and not just "this is my spec fantasy." So that's something we're adding new tools for you to deal with, while also taking the opportunity of Shadowlands to address some of those tuning concerns and potentially even larger, larger design concerns.

Thanks to Morgan Day for joining us!

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is set for a Fall 2020 launch date if all goes well, with a closed beta test currently underway for players to explore the game's Covenants and other systems.

We've been playing through Shadowlands beta a bit ourselves, and have found the new roguelike-esque Torghast dungeon to be incredibly promising, especially when combined with some of the game's new intersecting and overlapping systems. It feels like Shadowlands could be a huge step up from Battle for Azeroth's launch-state, which featured various systems that seemed cool on paper, like Island Expeditions and Warfronts, that simply didn't resonate very well in practice. Shadowlands looks set to sidestep some of these problems. Hopefully, they'll also drop more buffs on Nether Portal as well (Blizz pls).

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!