Image: World of Warcraft

The “Mythic” difficulty version of World of Warcraft’s latest raid, Ny’alotha, is a doozy. Top guilds began racing to complete the 12-boss hero sandwich of a dungeon on January 28, but it wasn’t until today that one guild, Limit, finally planted its flag at the top of the eyeball mountain that is the raid’s final boss.

But it wasn’t just the tricky, multi-phase nature of the boss that vexed Limit—as well as other competing guilds, like reigning Mythic difficulty world-first champs Method. Glitches and questionably-timed hotfixes from Blizzard also tossed caltrops on the race track. Granted, the race didn’t begin with everybody on even footing. Due to Blizzard’s staggered raid release rollout system, Limit, an American guild, got a 16-hour headstart compared to European juggernauts like Method and Pieces.

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Then came the glitches. On January 29, Limit was forced to relearn an entire boss fight against Ra-den the Despoiled after Blizzard made a hotfix that significantly altered one phase of the encounter. Before the hotfix, Limit had managed to get the boss down to 15.5 percent of its HP. It wound up taking the guild a total of 77 attempts to finish off Ra-den. All seven previous bosses had required a combined total of just 57 tries.

Limit’s raid leader, Maximum, was not pleased. “When you release a boss, keep it that way,” he wrote on Twitter. “Don’t let a guild get to 15% then completely change a phase.”

This setback gave other guilds some time to close the gap borne of Limit’s head start, so it didn’t feel entirely unfair. But this was not the last of Limit’s troubles. Once Limit reached the raid’s final boss, a towering, eyeball-coated old god named N’Zoth, the guild fought its way to a secret phase of the fight that only occurs on Mythic difficulty. This involved portaling between two separate dimensions and fending off a hulking Voidspawn Annihilator with roughly 76 million HP.

After a number of attempts, Limit noticed a point at which N’Zoth himself was conspicuously vulnerable, managing to burn him down to around 25 percent health before teleporting and completing the secret phase. When Limit returned to N’Zoth’s area, however, the boss immediately de-spawned, leading to confusion. In all likelihood, Limit wasn’t supposed to be able to do that kind of damage to N’Zoth prior to entering the portal. It was a bug. On the very next pull, Blizzard apparently hotfixed it, with N’Zoth reacting to the same sustained attack effort by firing off pulsing waves of energy that instantly wiped out the guild.

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Bugs like these are not entirely unexpected. Blizzard doesn’t put secret Mythic boss phases like N’Zoth’s on WoW’s public test server, for fear of giving guilds a chance to untangle their nefarious tendrils before they’re even in the live game. As a result, they don’t receive much external testing.

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For years, this has only affected a pinprick sliver of WoW’s player base, but increasingly, world-first raid races have become appointment viewing on Twitch, with hundreds of thousands of people tuning in to watch days-long races between top guilds. Guilds now turn these races into full-on productions, with commentary teams and special guests who talk while guilds persevere through the arduous task of dying against the same bosses hundreds of times in succession.

It’s low-key, reliable viewing—kind of like Awesome Games Done Quick—until a guild is about to score a world first on a boss. Then each pull becomes a nervous frenzy of edge-of-your-seat spectacle. This draws big crowds. Method, who wasn’t even in the lead this race, regularly had around 50,000 concurrent viewers all week. Today, Complexity, the esports organization Limit is a part of, managed to pull similar numbers, while Limit’s raid leader Maximum exceeded 100,000 concurrent viewers on his own channel when the guild was on the verge of taking N’Zoth down.

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This means, though, that glitches and hotfixes don’t just impact elite raiders anymore. Hundreds of thousands of viewers also wind up shaking their fists in impotent frustration. Yesterday, yet another glitch reared its ugly head, this one taking the form of a portal that hinted at the existence of a second secret Mythic-only N’Zoth phase when the boss was low on health. He also put up a shield, meaning that players didn’t really have another option.

It turned out, however, that the guild was not supposed to go through the portal. Rather, as Blizzard ended up informing Limit in an email, the raid party was supposed to do as much burst damage as possible to the boss before pools of inky black nastiness overtook the battlefield. And so, once again, the fight and the tactics needed to win it shifted before Limit’s eyes.

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On stream, Maximum voiced the frustration that he, his guild, and viewers were feeling as a result of Blizzard’s changes. “The boss used to put a shield up at 25 percent and then it used to spawn a new fucking portal,” he said. “What we just found out is that that was never supposed to happen. Ever. You were just supposed to kill him the whole time. That’s what [Blizzard] said. So what we did for the first 200 pulls, they just fucking changed their mind or something. So now we just do something else. It’s been bad before, but this is completely different.”

Despite all that, Limit still managed to claim the world-first kill after 274 attempts, leaving former champs Method, who have only been able to get N’Zoth down to 32 percent health, as well as top guilds like Pieces (8 percent) and Alpha (17 percent) in the dust. When Limit finally finished him off, everybody whooped in joy, Maximum included.

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After years of being an also-ran, Limit is now the guild with the target on its back. People are chalking this up, in part, to an interesting though slightly controversial strategy: Maximum, unlike other raid leaders, wasn’t actually in the raid. Rather, he was watching from afar and communicating tactics to his guildmates. In some ways, then, it was like Limit had a 21st person running the 20-person dungeon. Technically, though, it wasn’t against the rules, and Maximum believes it’s just a smarter way to approach these things.

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“When you raid lead, you want to have optimal performance in both directions,” he said during a post-raid interview on Complexity’s stream. “You want to be able to play well, you want to be able to lead well... I [previously] made myself worse as a player so I could handle more as a raid leader.” Maximum also said that his preferred character role, tank, makes for a mid-battle perspective that’s “horrific” for a raid leader.

“Do I think it’s changed the race going forward?” he said of the tactic. “I can’t say what other guilds will do, but it’s obviously superior.”

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That said, Maximum thinks that even if he hadn’t leaped from the thick of battle into the commander’s chair, his guild still would’ve pulled off the world first. “I still think we would have won otherwise,” he said. “There’s a few bosses where it’s great, a few bosses where it’s not. On a boss like [N’Zoth], it was amazing.”

He was also thankful that, this time around, Limit had the support of Complexity, giving the guild a facility and accommodations not unlike what Method has been working with recently. He believes that’ll be increasingly necessary as world-first races evolve and become a more standard (and grueling) part of the esports landscape.

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“It’s totally different,” he said. “There’s nothing in esports where you play 16 hours a day for two weeks.”

Update 2/7/2020, 1:15 PM EST: In an email to Kotaku, WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas acknowledged that Blizzard’s testing process for Mythic difficulty raids—in which the final boss of each tier does not receive public testing—can “increase the chance” that bugs will slip through. “We monitor guilds’ progression closely and move to address bugs as quickly as possible when they arise, whether that means rushing in on a weekend morning, or wrangling server engineers in the middle of the Super Bowl,” said Hazzikostas, also acknowledging that these world-first raid races have only really become a spectator sport in the past year and a half. Blizzard, it would seem, is still adjusting. Despite bumps in the road, however, Hazzikostas still feels like keeping elements of boss fights secret is the way to go: “We feel that the tradeoff is worth it to provide an experience that is genuinely novel and has the potential to surprise, and to allow the best players in the world the chance to prove themselves.” 

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In this particular case, N’Zoth’s secret, Mythic-only phase gave Limit repeated headaches. Hazzikostas explained that the issues stemmed from a bug involving a “backstop” intended to prevent guilds from taking out the boss before reaching his secret phase. In short, the fight’s second phase was intended to last two minutes, at which point a gateway to a separate area would appear and spirit players away to the Mythic phase. However, if players DPS-ed N’Zoth down to 25 percent health before two minutes elapsed, he’d shield himself, and the gateway would appear, beckoning players to proceed to the battle’s next phase in lieu of being able to do anything else. Unfortunately, this wound up happening to Limit a second time, after the guild had already completed the secret phase. This is why the WoW team opted to push a fix live as soon as they noticed the bug and—despite how frustrating it was for players and viewers in the moment—notify Limit that the composition of the fight had suddenly shifted.

“[Limit] emailed us to ask what had happened and to ask whether this was a bug since they were wary of potentially defeating the encounter in a way that might taint the legitimacy of their accomplishment,” said Hazzikostas.We replied to explain the fix, and to reassure them that things were now working as intended, and that they could proceed through the rest of the encounter. This wasn’t tactical advice, but rather just letting them know that we’d fixed a bug only they encountered.”

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In the future, Hazzikostas and company hope to improve their testing process for Mythic-difficulty raid encounters.

“There are some inherent limitations in trying to preserve the secrecy of incredibly complex raid encounters, balanced against ensuring the quality and reliability of those experiences,” said Hazzikostas.We’re as frustrated as anyone when bugs or other unplanned changes end up marring the experience, and deeply regret aspects of how the battle against N’Zoth unfolded, especially in front of the live audience. We’re actively discussing ways to improve our internal testing processes as well as our responsiveness and live support for the event.”

Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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