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What it takes to be World of Warcraft's best raiders

The furious tempest of ice conjured by Jaina Proudmoore begins to literally freeze the 20 raiders in Method to death. Glacial rays cut swaths through the snowy battlefield and force the group to rotate right. Seconds later Jaina conjures one of her most terrifying abilities, Siegebreaker Blast. It's a scene Method has seen countless times this past week as they compete to be the first guild to defeat World of Warcraft's latest raid, the Battle of Dazar'alor. The Siegebreaker Blast targets Yliago, a damage-dealer in Method, who knows that in order to save the rest of the team from the secondary explosion, he needs to die. Yliago breaks formation and runs, hoping the icy vortex surrounding the party will quickly finish him off. It doesn't work. The entire raid takes an alarming amount of arcane damage and, for a brief second, it looks like Method is about to be slaughtered.

But Method's healers are made of sterner stuff. They manage to heal through the extreme damage and keep the party alive. They've been through the worst of it, and suddenly Jaina Proudmoore is on her last legs—the shoutcasters commentating on Method's livestream begin screaming. This is it. Is this it? Seven percent health remains. Then, unable to weather the assault, main tank and Method guild leader Sco dies.

Six percent. Tanks, healers, and DPS fire everything they have at the Daughter of the Sea. Sco is resurrected by a healer and comes back to life, joining his 19 raiders in an all-out final push. And then it happens. After six straight days engaging in the Battle of Dazar'alor, after 346 attempts, Jaina Proudmoore is defeated and Method erupts into screams of joy.

Since Method livestreamed the whole event, you might've seen the trials and victories of that six-day marathon, which ended earlier this week with Method becoming the first guild to beat World of Warcraft's latest (and hardest) raid. But what few people ever see is the enormous amount of effort it takes to be ready for that gauntlet in the first place.

Ready for raid day 

When Blizzard releases a new raid, it comes with three versions of difficulty. Each tier up rewards more powerful gear. The first two difficulties, normal and Heroic, release a week early and are what world-first guilds use to gear up and prepare for the main event: The Mythic world-first race. That's when professional guilds like Method put their real lives on hold to go all out for 16 hours every day—give or take some time for breaks—until the final boss is dead.

I don't even sleep much right now—five hours a night. Not optimal. It's not what I want, but I'm surviving.

Justwait

This intense schedule lasts only for the duration of what raiders refer to as "progression raiding"—the week or so of attempts to learn each boss' complex strategies and kill them for the first time. Fortunately, raids only come out every few months at most. "Usually, outside of progression, we raid two to three evenings a week. It's basically [a time commitment] like going to the gym for most people," Justwait, a tank and officer for Method, tells me.

But just as grueling as the race itself is the week of preparation where Method's members must use every available resource to equip themselves for the battles ahead. I talked to Method's raiders two days before the Mythic-difficulty Battle of Dazar'alor went live on European servers. On his 50-minute commute home from his job as a software tester, Justwait says that the guild is now in the most time-consuming stage of raiding. "Since last Wednesday I don't think I've had a social life. I've just been working, and then when I get home I'm busy with the game. And that will continue at least until we're done with progress this tier," he explains. "I don't even sleep much right now—five hours a night. Not optimal. It's not what I want, but I'm surviving." He's been saving vacation days for just this moment, ever since Method defeated the final boss of the Uldir raid back in September of last year.

The fight against Jaina starts on ship before she freezes an entire section of ocean, forcing the raiders into a final showdown on an iceberg.

Xirips is the guild’s healing officer when he's not at his day job as an accountant. Like Justwait, he strategically hoards vacation days so he can spend as much time as possible with his guild when a new raid is released. But the real time commitment comes in the week before the Mythic raid is even open.

To stay on top, Method is diligent about uncovering every bit of information they can leading up to the main event. They raid on the beta servers, they study videos of other kills, they datamine boss abilities, and they put enormous amounts of time into theorycrafting strategies.

And then there's gear. Each member must meet strict requirements to have the highest quality available gear and have suitably equipped alternate characters (aka 'alts') ready to step in when the raid composition requires different classes. The way they earn that gear is outrageously grueling. "The stress is a lot [worse] in Heroic week than Mythic," Xirips says.

The raid leader does painstaking calculations to figure out how to best distribute gear to different chunks of the raid while the raiders themselves run dungeon after dungeon and craft items to outfit themselves for the coming challenges. When a player is not actively raiding during progression, they are expected to be running Mythic dungeons back-to-back. Members of Method can spend hours every day running the same dungeon hoping to get lucky and receive just one upgrade. Raiding is a numbers game, and the tedium of farming is a burden they must endure to eke out every advantage possible.

"All in all, a very stressful week," Xirips sighs. "When you also have to balance work on top of that it can get spicy sometimes."

Because Heroic raids only award loot once a week, Method has to game the system to maximize how quickly it can equip its members. Instead of running a single Heroic raid with everyone's main character competing for the same small pool of loot drops, Method splits the mains up into separate raid teams, populated mostly with alts, so that the pool of loot is much larger and the competition for each piece of gear less intense. It's called "split raids." This way, main characters can get the gear they need with leftovers trickling down.

Above: MethodJosh breaks down a play-by-play of how Method finally defeated Jaina.

Preparing for pain 

During a normal raid tier, this preparation grind is intense, but Justwait explains that a maelstrom of factors unique to Battle for Azeroth came together to make this particular week of Heroic splits especially painful. Prior to patch 8.0.1, which released just before Battle of Azeroth, master looting was an option that would allow the party or raid leader to allocate the previously fixed number of drops from a boss, at their discretion, to other members of the group. It's the classic way that raids have always worked—letting the team decide who gets what based on merit and need. That changed with Battle for Azeroth. Now, much to the chagrin of pro raiders, World of Warcraft uses a 'personal loot' system where each player is awarded loot directly and can then choose to trade it (with many restrictions) to other party members. WoW’s director, Ion Hazzikostas, explained in a Q&A that the rationale behind this change was to keep players from being at the mercy of the master looter and to also discourage this method of running split raids.

It's an extremely unpopular decision.

"Before this expansion we had master looter. You just ran [the raid] and gave the loot to whoever you wanted to. You didn't have to worry about trading gear," Justwait says. "With personal loot, it just made everything so much more complicated. It just doesn't feel right anymore. [Blizzard] tried to avoid split running, and of course they realized we're always going to find a new way to go over the line and push ourselves even further."

Another new feature exacerbated the grind, too. Titan residuum is a resource harvested from recycled gear. The better the gear you scrap, the more of the currency you get, and you can use this currency to purchase potent armor pieces. It's a benefit to casual players because it gives them yet another way of gearing up. But that just means it's one more thing Method has to obsessively grind in order to stay competitive.

During their week of prep, Method even enlisted the help of average players to farm tons of gear and recycle it for residuum, in order to dodge the lockout timers that prevent you from getting loot more than once a week. "I think I've killed King Rastakhan more than 20 times this week alone," says Justwait. When we talked, King Rastakhan had only been available to fight for a few days. "It’s not something you want to do every week."

By the end we're all like 'We're done. We need to finish this before we all go crazy.'

Justwait

Even with the intense mad science of this level of preparation, Mythic bosses are complex and challenging dances of coordination, communication, and raw stat checks. The final boss of a given raid can survive for days, even weeks. It took eight days to clear Uldir, the first raid of Battle for Azeroth. Justwait squirreled away enough vacation days to dedicate all of his free time to progressing with his guild for a week. Fortunately, Method managed to defeat Jaina Proudmoore before he had to return to work.

Method tried 655 times over 12 days before killing Kil’Jaeden, the final boss of the Tomb of Sargeras raid released in 2017. Morale was low because they hit a roadblock early on in the fight as they were faced with a barrage of overpowered and completely random attacks. To make matters worse, they reached him over the Fourth of July weekend when Blizzard was out of the office and unable to hotfix the encounter. "By the end we're all like 'We're done. We need to finish this before we all go crazy,'" Justwait says.

Fortunately, The Battle of Dazar'alor didn't take that long. As expected, the final boss posed a massive challenge that took Method 346 attempts before they were finally able to bring her down. By Tuesday dozens of guilds were working on the fight simultaneously. It could have been anyone's win, but Method managed to retain their crown.

"Downing Jaina […] was a huge relief. We knew it was possible, so we would've pushed far into the night. It's great to keep the world first spot once again whilst streaming,” Xirips tells me. 

Competing at such a high level has its own benefits, too. The guild is sponsored by companies like Corsair, MSI, and Vertagear. Some members have even been able to make money on Twitch, especially now that they are regularly streaming their world-first race progress. The money is nice, but it's not why Method's raiders sacrifice so much of their free time every few months. For all of the misconceptions about raiders having no lives and being recluses, competitive raiding is an inherently social experience. You're overcoming extreme challenges together. Xirips told me that much of the appeal of WoW nowadays is the friends he has made in Method. He is still hungry for more world-firsts, but a new raid bringing everyone together is something special for him.

Justwait agrees: "I've been doing this for 10 years. Back then it was just a fun game for me. Nowadays I think it's just the people that I'm doing it with. It's like going camping. You go camping for a week just to have a good time."