Update regarding me: in the middle of a move, barely had time to raid lately let alone work on the blog. Sorry. Guild is currently 10/13H and working on Heroic Dark Animus. Think I've managed to work out a way to get in about 30 minutes of writing each day at work during some downtime, but we'll see.
I'm sure everyone has heard about the new flexible raid feature coming in 5.4 - a raid that scales between 10 and 25 people, is harder than LFR but easier than normal, uses the LFR loot system, and is designed to help create social bonds. There's been a lot of discussion about many parts of this feature, but today I wanted to focus on one particular aspect: the item level it offers.
Ghostcrawler has suggested some tentative item levels for 5.4 in this tweet. If we put everything together, we get the following:
502 ToT LFR
522 ToT Normal
528 SoO LFR
535 ToT Heroic
536 SoO Flex
553 SoO Normal
566 SoO Heroic
Now, I do want to mention one thing right off the bat: I am generally happy with how LFR was handled in Throne of Thunder. Except for legendary items, I had very little reason to run LFR. The staggered release coupled with heroic gear from the previous tier meant I didn't need items from there. For those unaware, heroic raiders were compelled to run LFR for the gear in both Dragon Soul and tier 14 in order to remain competitive - see this post about something being "optional" if you disagree.
It wasn't an accident that the nightmare system from Trial of the Crusader was changed and the 10 and 25 lockouts were combined - Blizzard realized that people feeling compelled to run the same raid twice as week was not a good idea. There's a reason the weekly raid lockout exists in the first place.
But now many heroic raiders are worried about the SoO Flexible raid item level because it's actually an item level ABOVE heroic raid gear from the previous tier. And while this might not matter much for a ring or necklace, it absolutely matters for things like tier pieces (which CANNOT be Thunderforged), trinkets, and possibly weapons (remember the proc weapons from Dragon Soul?). Heroic raiders are likely going to be compelled to run Flex raid each week for these.
Don't get me wrong - I'm interested in Flex raid and I like the idea of being able to help out friends who aren't as skilled in a difficulty mode that's perfect for them. However, I do not want to feel obligated to run every section every week for a decent chunk of time (possibly 2+ months). There are three main ways to avoid this - removing tier, powerful trinkets, and proc weapons, putting Flex on a loot lockout with Normal/Heroic, or simply lowering the item level.
Blizzard's already stated they don't want to remove tier at a minimum and instead are planning to add new things to normal/heroic that aren't available in LFR/Flex. We'll see how this works out since we don't really have any other details, but I suspect I'll be obliged to run Flex for tier gear at a minimum (which, again, is actually higher ilvl than ToT Heroic tier gear - and if you're about to bring up item upgrades, keep reading).
It also seems unlikely that Blizzard will combine lockouts right now for fear of lessening the people playing Flex. If they lock it with LFR then that doesn't solve the problem for heroic raiders (though it does help). If they lock it with normal/heroic then people might not move up from Flex to Normal which is probably what Blizzard would like to see. One could argue that the people could simply do normal modes first and thus they'll just get gear from the bosses they DON'T kill on normal - and I think I might agree - but for the moment that solution probably won't happen (and is beyond the scope of this post).
Our final option is lowering the item level on LFR and Flex - but here's the rub: that's not possible. Why not?
Imagine a world with no valor gear for a moment. People in full LFR gear have full 502s that are upgraded to 510s. Overall item level is probably in the 508-510 range (they might be missing a slot or two).
People doing normals would have 522s upgraded to 530s, so probably 528-530 item level. Heroic raiders would have 535s upgraded to 543s, so 541-543 item level. These two groups may also have some Thunderforged items (especially if they raid 25 mans) which may boost these numbers slightly.
So, in summary:
LFR player: 509ish
Normal raider: 529ish
Heroic raider: 542ish
This means, for example, you could do something like the following for Siege:
Now Flex raid item level is seven below heroic items instead of one above. But valor gear throws a wrench in the works since those are 522 items available to LFR players. You can get the following from valor:
Shoulders (not technically valor but vendor bought at exalted Shado-Pan Assault - badly itemized but still 522)
That means you can get 10 items that are 522 without stepping foot into normals (and without doing Oondasta). Suddenly getting 522 from SoO LFR does not look appealing because more than half of your gear slots have that same item level already.
This is the problem with valor gear in a world where you obtain it without doing normals - it means LFR item levels have to always be higher than the previous tier's normals or else people won't get much from a new tier of LFR. Something like the Sunwell token system could get around this but Blizzard might have a simpler solution in mind - removing valor gear entirely and only using valor for item upgrades. This means you only get item levels appropriate to your difficulty.
Another point of note: Blizzard has been moving toward larger ilvl gaps between tiers to act as a progressive nerf. We're used to 19 in WotLK/Cata. We saw 26 for ToT. Now we see 31 for SoO. Let's go with a value of a 30 item level gap below to act as an organic progressive nerf.
Here's a summary of the expansion's item levels as it actually happened:
476 MSV LFR
483 HoF/ToES LFR
489 MSV Normal
496 HoF/ToES Normal
502 MSV Heroic and ToT LFR
509 HoF/ToES Heroic
522 ToT Normal
528 SoO LFR
535 ToT Heroic
536 SoO Flex
553 SoO Normal
566 SoO Heroic
Now let's remove valor gear (but keep valor upgrades for epic items) and see if we can get something better (using our 30 ilvls between tiers number from above):
463 (Heroic) Dungeons
469 MSV LFR
475 MSV Flex
476 HoE/ToES LFR
482 HoF/ToES Flex
493 MSV Normal
499 ToT LFR
500 HoF/ToES Normal
505 ToT Flex
506 MSV Heroic
513 HoF/ToES Heroic
529 SoO LFR
530 ToT Normal
535 SoO Flex
543 ToT Heroic
560 SoO Normal
573 SoO Heroic
That includes a possible flex ilvl for the whole expansion. Some things we notice:
1, normal from the previous tier is equal to (technically 1 ilvl higher) than the current tier's LFR - meaning it is valuable in gearing up a new character and provides an alternative to LFR (aside things like set bonuses)
2, flex from the current tier is always 8 ilvl behind heroic items from the previous tier - while set bonuses and insane trinkets/weapons can still cause problems, heroic raiders aren't generally compelled to farm flex mode for gear.
3, everyone has a constant gear progression and never goes through weird situations like people doing ToT LFR and getting 522 gear. As long as you're doing your desired difficulty, you're golden.
4, instead of LFR being forced into Flex and Flex into normal if they want to do more, these players can try the previous tier's (nerfed) normal and heroic modes respectively if desired since those offer alternative or even better gear than they'd get otherwise.
Obviously it's too late to do anything this expansion - I expect we'll simply need to suffer through whatever we get during SoO. Hopefully it's not too bad.
But I do find it interesting that Blizzard has backed itself into a corner with LFR item levels due to valor gear and made it so LFR *must* surpass the previous tier's normal. Perhaps a solution would be to make valor gear equal to the current tier's LFR gear. So valor would have bought 476 initially, 499 in ToT, and 529 in SoO in our "new" ilvl ladder. Would have acted as a catch-up mechanism or a way to get slots that refuse to drop for a person in LFR.
Food for thought.