Raid Awareness is a Learned and Practiced Skill

Italicized quotations throughout are from my old raid leader Sebudai, well-known for his efforts to teach his raiders to be better at playing WoW.

I’ve written many WoW guides over the past years, largely covering the details of min/maxing a particular class, but I always knew I was addressing a narrow slice of what makes a good raider. While there are reasons that players who know the nuances of perfectly optimizing their class’s output and ability use are prized, even they are no substitute for a raider who excels at the most important skill of all: not dying.

Volumes have been written on how to do good DPS, healing, or tanking. If you raid or want to raid at an intermediate or high level, I imagine you have long immersed yourself in that discourse already. There are many reasons why existing WoW guides, forums, and discussions are largely about optimizing those roles. They are the primary way players are measured by themselves and by raid groups. Large parts of them can often be solved with math, leading to simple and easily implemented results. But most important, I suspect, is a widespread impression that I hope to refute in this post: that your awareness and survivability in raids is a part of who you are as player and cannot be changed.

After outlining the basic premise that not making avoidable errors that kill you or other raid members is an area of play you should seek to improve, the bulk of this post is about specific things you can do or practice to accomplish that. Through the survey of techniques discussed—gearing your UI towards awareness, being more cognizant of your encounter routines, and constructive behavior post-wipe—what I most want to convey is a mindset. I couldn’t list out all the factors in the mental game of raiding even in much longer post than this. But if you adopt the ethos that every death is a puzzle to be solved, that somewhere in series of events leading to it is a decision you could have made better, you can train yourself to look for it.

You Are Your DPW: Deaths Per Week

“You guys keep dying in the shadow realm. I don’t die in the shadow realm. You just need to play better. That’s my current assessment of the strategy.”

The MVP of your raid group isn’t the person at the top of the DPS meter; it’s the person who hasn’t died by standing in fire in 3 months. Doing elite DPS is rare, but doing quite good DPS is somewhat common. A player who does quite good DPS and dies regularly to avoidable mechanics is nothing special. A player who does quite good DPS and dies very rarely to avoidable mechanics is the best prize a guild recruiter can find in their applicant pool. Because a raid full of those players, even if none of them are at the top of worldwide log rankings, is going to succeed at what matters. They’re going to win boss encounters.

Raiding at any level, it is a virtual certainty that the limiting factor on the speed at which you learn and defeat bosses is the rate of avoidable mistakes made by individual group members. No matter what other factors are present, multiple avoidable deaths (or sometimes even one) scuttle any attempt at a hard boss. With 10 to 25 people having to play for many consecutive minutes, and a win only being likely if virtually all of them make no death-causing errors on the same attempt, you can’t avoid the math of the situation. Even if you think your problem at a boss was “bad strategy”, realize how much this implicates your raiders’ error rates. Without mistakes, any strategy would take only one attempt to try and reject. Any wipe could be followed by a raid-level strategic improvement. Errors in play during the attempts are the reason a strategy persists for many attempts or even whole raid nights before enough evidence is gathered that something needs to be changed.

I won’t belabor this further except to state it as the premise of the remainder of this article: the most important way you can improve your skill as a raider and your contribution to your group is by reducing your rate of avoidable errors. With that said, the next important point in preparation for the meat of the post is that this error rate is not only important, but that you can improve it as a player.

Your Death Was Not An Accident, And It Was Probably Your Fault

“See how it was targeting me, and I moved, and then it didn’t hit me? It’s like magic.”

Raiding is fundamentally a challenge of mental organization. Your attention is a resource that’s every bit as real as your mana. Spending it on the wrong things causes you to make mistakes and potentially die.

When you stand in fire for 3 seconds and die, the problem is not that your reaction time is inhumanly bad (even if it were somewhat poorer than average, it would be well under half a second). A more correct identification of the problem is that you did not realize you were standing in it for at least (in this example) 2.5 seconds. Some possible causes or contributing factors might be:

  • Your visual scan of the screen has gaps of over 2-3 seconds where it doesn’t stop at the relevant part of your screen (here, your character’s feet).
  • Important features of your UI (for example, raid frames) are positioned such that the threat was not in your peripheral vision.
  • It was a boss ability that comes at a predictable time, and you let some other task take precedence over waiting/checking for it at that moment.
  • Your UI does not produce an alert whose attention-grabbing power is commensurate with the importance of the ability.
  • An irregularity earlier in the attempt resulted in your being in a different position from usual or doing different things from usual.
  • A event you typically use as a warning trigger (for example, a Vent call) didn’t occur.

Every one of these is correctible. If you attribute these deaths to random occurrences, a perceived innate limitation in your skills as a gamer, a fluke (an event with no predictive value), or the like, your progress as a raider faces an insurmountable barrier. The remainder of this post is about how to better address these causes of errors. The two primary methods discussed below are:

  1. Never being unaware of abilities or debuffs that are important enough to kill you, through proper setup of your UI before combat and visual scanning in combat, and
  2. Anticipating your response to boss abilities before they occur, through formation of encounter routines and revision of those routines after wipes.

UI is a Tool to Aim Your Attention

“You should have added ‘Corruption:Sickness’ to your UI. If you haven’t, I can’t prove it but you’re an asshole and we all hate you.”

If somebody pricked you with a needle every time the fire appeared under you, you’d notice it immediately 100% of the time. It would grab your attention over anything that you may have been looking at—it’s something that your brain is hard-wired to respond to instantly. Associating it with an event that needs to supersede all others for priority in your response (move out of it now or you die) is a perfect marriage of a threat with a corresponding alert. This is the principle you want to keep in mind when configuring your actual UI to recreate that result in a more practical, and less painful, manner.

UI is necessarily personal, but a good one is one where you’ve made your addons work for you by showing you what you need when you need it. Good UI is less about which addons you have and more about how you configure them. When looking to improve your UI, you want to look for the config option in the addon you already have that addresses some need you have. Pretty much the only wrong answer to “what’s the best addon for this task?” is “a popular one, with all the settings left at default.” If you haven’t decided or thought about what you need to see and when/where you need to see it, you won’t have a good UI.

One concrete example of UI that should be used by every raider is the presentation of debuffs that kill you rapidly unless you move. The UI implications of this are easy to describe because, as discussed, such an event always belongs at the same place in your mental priority: at the top. So the UI’s purpose is simple to understand. Always put this at the forefront. Unless you have an alert for such debuffs that cannot be missed regardless of where your eyes or your mind are, your UI is failing you in one of its simplest and most important functions.

I took screenshots of the moment I had a certain dangerous debuff (Sha Sear at the Protectors encounter) in both the default UI (for buffs/debuffs), and in my raid UI.

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The top screenshot shows the default debuff icon near the bottom-left corner of the minimap. The bottom one is my raiding UI.

Not only do people in my raid never have to call out “Hamlet, you’re in the group with Sha Sear”, but this isn’t even hard to accomplish. Setting up this UI widget is a simple bit of preparation. A raider who fails to handle a debuff that can be solved in this way has chosen not to do it. In my view, they shouldn’t be viewed any better than someone who’s playing with no flasks. Worse, in fact, because their poor UI is probably far more likely to cause wipes than a minor DPS loss would be.

Visual Scanning

“I don’t care if you do 0 healing for the rest of this pull, just don’t die to slicers.”

A corollary to the UI discussion is that there’s a lot going on on your screen at any time. You can’t be looking at all of it at once; the best you can do is a sort of rotation that passes through all the important points of interest. Try to start being conscious of where your eyes are while you raid. You might go from your raid frames to your feet and back nonstop, not due to any alert or trigger, but simply as something you always do (it takes a fraction of a second).

At some encounters, not looking at your feet for 2 seconds at the wrong time can kill you. If follows that if your scan doesn’t cycle past them at 2 second intervals at the most, you’re leaving your survival to chance. Maintaining that tight of a visual scan takes very intense focus, but you can ameliorate the constant need for it with good UI alerts, discussed above, and a good encounter plan, discussed below. In contrast, you don’t need to divert your eyes to check your mana nearly that often (you probably have little need to know your mana status more often than every 30 seconds or so).

Once when my old guild asked what information I’d like to see on healer applicants, I told them I’d want to know the best score they could get at this flash game. I was only half joking. If you try it, it should illustrate the concepts of this section. Raiding is often made up of fundamentally easy tasks: reacting to something dangerous in a generous window like 2 or 3 seconds, using abilities in a familiar practiced rotation, using cooldowns at a planned time. The difficulty is in juggling all of it at once.

Note: I borrowed the term “visual scanning”, and the concept, from aircraft pilots, for whom it is a critical skill. Some studies have explored its relation to video games as well.

Keep Your Bossmods Under Control

“Don’t ever say ‘oh shit’ on Vent again. That helps nobody. Say it IRL and don’t push your Vent key.”

The other specific UI example I’ll go into is with regard to bossmods. It is very easy to have far more bossmod spam than you ever need (I surmise this is due to bossmod authors being inclined to show off the widgets they develop and having a strong bias towards turning things on by default that don’t need to be). Since UI is about drawing your attention to the things you most need to react to immediately, then having timers and alerts for everything a boss does causes an inevitable Boy Who Cried Wolf problem when you process the information on your screen. Without curating the alerts you need to have visible, there’s often a timer of some kind ticking down to 0 every few seconds. Realize the significance of this: you can’t know if it’s a timer you need to react to unless you read the small text on the timer bar, a task that absorbs a lot of attention, pulls your eyes away from everything else, and prevents reflexive responses from developing.

The problem is even worse when audio alerts are involved. Sound is a very powerful UI tool. Not only is human reaction time to an audio cue faster than to a visual cue, but it’s completely agnostic to where your eyes were. The catch is, to have a truly instantaneous reaction to the one thing at the fight that most needs it, you should only have one thing at each encounter that throws an audio alert. This is actually a completely practical way of recreating my hypothetical needle-poking feedback mechanism. If a loud chime means you have to move a few steps, and means only that, then after some time at an encounter you can start to do it without even having to think about it consciously. This is the best result. Multiple audio cues with different sounds can also work, but the reflex effect will be slightly less automatic. When every timer in an encounter comes with a bell or whistle, your bossmod is probably doing nothing more than giving you a headache.

My recommendation: the next time (or the first time) you do each fight, go into your bossmod config and turn all alerts off. All of them. After doing a couple attempts like that, turn on timers or alerts for abilities as it becomes specifically clear that you need each one. In particular, you should be able to articulate what you’re going to do based on that alert (“I want to press Barkskin two seconds before Swelling Pride“). Otherwise, think again about whether you need to turn it on.

Good Raiders Are Creatures Of Habit

“Engulfing Flame in 5 seconds, don’t die to this. . . . I specifically told you not to do that.”

UI alerts notwithstanding, the surest way to handle something that might kill you or wipe the raid is to be waiting for it. When you’re thinking of what’s coming next, and even what’s coming after that, not only are your odds of responding correctly very high, but the response will be executed calmly, leaving your attention free to continue thinking ahead. Your goal is to remain in that state continuously for an entire encounter, and much of the intense focus required in raiding at a very high level goes towards constantly updating that mental list of the upcoming events.

When I think back to the hardest fights I’ve done, I can essentially replay the encounter in my head, my own actions in particular. Heroic Lich King (middle phase): run in from the crumbling platform as transition phase ends, but stay to the left or right of the tank to not get hit by the add’s cone attack. Go to the clump spot for first Val’kyr (only actually clumping once add was dead). When the Valks grab 3 people, start running south and keep moving until Defile finishes casting. Circle around to second clump spot. Wait 10 yards away to see if Lich King casts Val’kyr or Defile first (the second one could go either way). If the yell for Val’kyr appears, move onto the raid marker; if not, move out and keep moving until Defile finishes casting. And so on. That encounter was brutal—if you beat it, you probably wiped 50 or 100 times to Defile alone—but once I had that routine, as long as I maintained it on a given attempt, I couldn’t fail it.

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If you’re not familiar with that fight, that’s okay, the point is what a routine for an encounter or a phase sounds like. It’s not merely that you know the response to each ability. It’s that you know what the order of events is. Most bosses use abilities on quite regular cooldowns, and you want to make the habit of noticing the rhythm. Sometimes it’s easy: Garrosh phase 2 always cycles DesecrationTouch of Y’ShaarjWhirling Corruption (but, notice how the 3rd Whirl is late enough to always come while you’re moving out of the 4th Desecration). Sha of Pride casts Reflection, then Banishment, then Imprison, then Manifestation, then Swelling Pride, repeating (as a bonus, Sha’s cycle is just over 60 seconds long, so you can close a Rift at the same point in the routine every time).

I sometimes fail any of the above mechanics, as does anybody. A common case is when an oddity earlier in the fight (say, tank having to move the boss to an unusual position) meant I had to improvise. That is unavoidable at times, and a good ability to think on your feet will of course be valuable. But the raider with no routine is in that situation every time. They’re doing something else like looking at DPS cooldowns, a bossmod alert goes off, and they think “Whoa, Iron Tomb (or Corrupted Brew, or Hurl Amber), guess I’d better move!” and look for somewhere to run to. If they even do notice it and dodge it, that is. You want to be person who’s thinking “I’m going to cast these next three spells, then it will be time to move for Tomb, and I’ll cast this instant while moving.” Or “After that spell I’m going to stare at the ground for 5 seconds until I spot the Amber targets, then go back to check on my DoTs.” When you put yourself in the latter category of player by having a plan, then most of the time handling a boss ability is not an issue of reaction whatsoever. It’s doing what you knew you would do, when you knew you would do it. And you’ll do better DPS to boot.

Postmortems

“Who just said ‘unavoidable’ on Vent? Who was it? I want to know who said that so I can back up and list the numerous ways that death was not ‘unavoidable’”

In the ideal case, upon a death or wipe you cause, you give not only an explanation of what caused it, but of what change could prevent it from happening. There’s not always a raid-level change to be discussed; sometimes it was truly an individual error (I was thinking about DPS and didn’t alert myself that the ability was coming), but even then the player should be asking internally what change should be made. Can you adjust your debuff or bossmod alerts (if so, ask for a resurrect and do it while people are running back)? Maybe your routine should consistently use that DPS cooldown either before or after that boss ability on every pull?

Admitting to being the cause of a wipe is laudable. People who won’t do so are likely outside the audience of this post, as they’re not primarily interested in improving the success of their group. But addressing people who do discuss when they’ve made a mistake, you have to make sure not to let yourself off the hook with responses that are useless. If I’m your raid leader and you missed an interrupt, don’t simply say it won’t happen again. Tell me why it’s unlikely to happen again. If you can do that, I won’t feel like we’re playing Russian Roulette with the raid every time your turn to interrupt comes up.

You’ve all heard an interrupter say: “I pushed the button, I don’t know what happened!” The statement may in fact be 100% true. But what you should focus on is that it accomplishes nothing at all. Train yourself to never say it. Same for “I think was lag” or “it must have been a glitch.” It’s possible you could get away with “lag” if you did it very rarely and only when it was the correct diagnosis, but people like that are so rare that it’s probably a bad habit to try. Don’t even get me started on “it showed up as interrupted on my screen.” Any raid leader worth his salt translates this in his head to “I almost pressed the button in time.” If you caused a wipe and you don’t have anything better to say than one of these confabulations, then accept that there’s nothing you can do this particular time to avoid being placed in the Russian Roulette category.

But if you’ve taken the principles of this post to heart, a failure will usually mean you have a meaningful productive comment to make while the raid runs back. Most of the time it’s as simple as having to make an individual adjustment to your routine. Even that’s valuable to describe as it shows the raid leader the wipe was worth something, and it helps other people in your class or role benefit. And sometimes there will be a raid-level change you can suggest to positioning or even something as simple as Vent calls. When you have any of these sorts of things to say during the runback, a good raid leader won’t even be angry about the wipe. Your job as a raider isn’t to never cause wipes—it’s impossible to learn a boss without wiping unless you’re doing trivial content. It’s to make every wipe you cause into one where the raid learns something.

Sometimes There is Fire

“When I ask what killed you, I’m not looking for you to say ‘Why, damage killed me, Sebudai! I died because I ran out of hit points.’”

If a raider of any level asked me how they could improve their play, I wouldn’t start by worrying about whether they use haste or crit. In truth, I’d much rather a newcomer to a raid team read this rather than any guide I’ve ever written about what talents to select for your class or what stat to reforge for. Most importantly, because knowing whether to use haste or crit is easy. When you start playing a class, you can learn that on the first day. But being a good raider who stays alive during encounters is hard. I’ve been trying to learn it for nine years. No matter how long you’ve been playing, what class or role you are, or what level you play at, you too can find room improve these skills for the benefit of you and your team.