Blizzard is trying to balance Azerite Armor, but we’re not sure it’s possible
Just to be frank, I’ve had difficulties with Azerite Armor pieces. Figuring out which Azerite power you want for which class and which spec, trying to decide if you should equip a higher ilevel piece over the piece you already have on that has the powers you want (and more importantly, has them unlocked while the upgrade doesn’t), and finding yourself grubbing every last bit of Azerite from every World Quest and Island Expedition just to get your gear to work has all been kind of unpleasant in my opinion.
So when WoW Game Director Ion Hazzikostas discussed Azerite Armor in the recent AMA on Reddit, I paid pretty close attention. I’ll be breaking his long post up into sections here to discuss it in depth.
The trouble with tuning
We’re certainly not entirely happy with how the system is playing out, and all of these are very valid concerns. We agree that it’s a problem for someone to look at a 30-ilvl upgrade under normal circumstances and feel like it’s not worth equipping. I know this risks sounding like a cop-out, but a few of the problems you’ve outlined simply boil down to tuning.
Once you get to Heart Level 18 (a process that will become increasingly fast as the weekly catch-up system continues to ramp up, effectively letting you gain AP 30% faster with each passing week), you can activate the outer ring of any item in the game, and that’s where the most powerful traits lie. That was by design, so that you wouldn’t feel as much of a loss when upgrading to a higher level item that isn’t yet fully unlocked. There’s a ton of primary stat on Azerite pieces in part to bolster the importance of item level there, and the power of traits is directly proportional to the ilvl of the item that contains them, so a 370 Heroic Uldir helm will have a ~30% more powerful trait than a 340 Raid Finder Uldir version of the same item.
I think part of the problem here is that assumption that everyone will be at Heart Level 18 when they get their first 370 piece. I think instead the first ring of any piece that drops should either require a lower Heart Level (say, 15 or 16) or maybe not be tied to the Heart’s level at all. The need to be at Heart 18 to use the first tier of the 370 shoulders from Doom’s Howl left me faced with a dilemma that was much more than these aren’t the best powers for my spec or class — namely that the 370 shoulders effectively had no powers at all and wouldn’t until I ground out a level and a half on the Heart.
Now, I know that’s not a problem for everyone, but it is a problem for people who have less time to sit down and grind AP. I understand that as the expansion progresses we’re going to have better and better Azerite pieces drop and that Blizzard wants AP to stay relevant so you can’t just say eh, I’ve got enough, all my Azerite pieces are unlocked. But making it so that the first tier requires higher investment as the pieces drop might not be the best idea. An upgrade should always, always be an upgrade. Tuning is absolutely an issue, but when your 355 shoulders just destroy a 370 piece, that’s just not good.
Add in complications like having to carry around multiple sets of Azerite gear just to perform different roles or specs — or accept greatly increasing gold costs to reforge your Azerite gear just to switch from tank to DPS… The result is a system that is in my opinion pretty complex with a lot of moving parts to keep track of. Tuning can’t fix all of that.
Traits and the metagame
Where all of this breaks down is when both of the traits on your 370 piece are significantly worse than the ones on your 340 piece. Reducing the number of situations in which that is the case is one of the system team’s top priorities right now. We made hundreds of unique traits for BfA, and 216 spec-specific traits for the outer ring alone. Many of those are undertuned. A handful are overly powerful, to the point that they stomp out the entire decision space for a spec, and the game becomes about getting a piece with one specific trait. We’ll be fixing the outliers on both ends (probably buffing dozens of weaker traits and nerfing a handful of too-strong ones).
I agree that there’s room for improvement on the traits that Azerite gives out. There’s always going to be folks out there simming the best possible pieces of gear and which power does best in which situation, of course. What really concerns me is the complexity of the system, which combines elements of the Legendary drops in Legion and the Artifact traits and Netherlight Crucible in a kind of stew of abilities that I have a hard time grappling with. Finding the piece with the best Azerite trait definitely feels like a laborious effort right now and once said piece drops you’re very reluctant to trade off for a higher ilevel drop with less desirable traits.
I hope they can get the balance right on this, because it’s what will make or break the system for a lot of us. Many design changes to World of Warcraft ever since reforging was removed were in service to the idea that an upgrade should always be an upgrade, but the Azerite system right now tangles up that simple, clear message.
Iteration and the future
While the generic traits are deliberately fairly straightforward, some of the spec-specific ones are indeed too passive, or interact awkwardly with spec rotations. We’ll be retiring some of those in an upcoming patch and adding better replacements to the pool. And of course we’ll be adding all-new Azerite traits on new tiers of gear from upcoming content as the expansion continues. Again, tuning is a big part of the current problem. If you look at a guide and most of the recommended traits for your spec are various flavors of “proc damage on your target” or “proc a buff on yourself” then yeah, that’s really underwhelming – no argument there. But there are dozens of traits out there with deep interactions on par with Legion legendaries, old set bonuses, or gold-border Artifact traits, such as interactions between abilities or resource generation in ways that vary rotations, talent selection, stat priority, and so forth. The problem is that they’re just mostly too weak to feel worth using right now. But we can fix that.
In terms of long-term prospects, we see the current system as a foundation upon which to continue building, not a treadmill to throw out there and let sit passively for the rest of the expansion. We’ll be adding loads of new traits in future content updates, for starters. But tuning work is something that is already ongoing, and which will ramp up in the very near future as we now have most of the data we need to make these adjustments.
This is simultaneously an encouraging answer — in that it shows a real willingness to explore and engage with what players like and dislike about the Azerite Armor as it is currently implemented — and a slightly concerning one — in that it seems to feel that the complexity of the system is an unalloyed good thing. Frankly, I’m not entirely convinced that it is. Keeping track of the fully unlocked traits of a host of Azerite Armor to be sure and try for the best pieces for your desired spec and role takes the complexities Legion Legendaries and multiplies their downsides by a factor of ten, at least.
I’m not saying that Azerite Armor is bad — I very much enjoy some of the Azerite traits I’ve managed to unlock. But it does require you to invest significant time and effort fully activating your armor. It can also create a hesitation to part with a piece for a ilevel upgrade when it doesn’t seem like it actually is an upgrade. In an expansion where people are by and large adjusting to the new GCD rules and trying to stack stats like Haste, taking stats off of three of our armor pieces in exchange for Azerite Armor traits means that those traits have to be spot on or players feel like the work they have to put in to fully realize those Azerite pieces is kind of wasted.
But I do like the idea of deeper interaction between an Azerite Armor piece and your class and spec, of them hearkening back to Legion legendaries in that they can potentially alter your spec or playstyle in new and interesting ways. Tuning changes went live with today’s maintenance, so here’s hoping it can and does improve the system.
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