The Guildmasters recently had a chance to sit down for an interview with the raid leader of Midwinter, gondlem. Many interviews with players in top tier raiding guilds focus on aspects like their thoughts on classes or the upcoming Warlords of Draenor raids. We were a little more interested in their overall guild operations as a whole. How are they transitioning to the new expansion? What does the organizational hierarchy look like? Where do alt characters fit in? Read on for more!

What is Midwinter’s goal for Warlords of Draenor compared to Mists of Pandaria? Where do you think the organization did well and what do you believe the organization can improve upon?

I guess we moved into more hardcore terrain as a guild in MoP, so our main focus in Warlords is solidifying our position as a competitive raiding guild and doing our best to keep improving and building on what we’ve achieved in the last couple of tiers. We’ve always focused on using our raid time as efficiently as possible and getting the best rank we can, but in MoP we also increased our raiding hours a decent amount, which helped us push through into the world top 10. At the end of Cataclysm we were still more or less a 20 hour a week guild that just added some weekend raids during the first week of a new tier, whereas now we raid 6-8 hours a day for most of the progression cycle – I think in ToT we had maybe two days off for the whole tier, for instance. The biggest difference by far between being world 20th and world 5th is the lack of videos, and raiding really is a whole different experience when you have to develop your own strats, and when you don’t know how close the guilds you’re competing with are, and if you might beat them. It really hooks you in, and it’s hard to go back to learning fights based on what other people do after that. So if I had to outline a simple goal for us in Warlords, it would be to solidify our position in that pre-video group and get that full progression experience.

In terms of where we can improve, my answer would lie in the same part of the game. With more raiding hours and the pre-video learning curve comes a lot of new challenges. You’ve got to stay focused through a lot of pulls on fights, sometimes when you’re not even totally sure if the strat you’re using is going to work or not. We had a significant problem at times in MoP with post-kill hangover – we’d nail a tough boss and be really happy with our performance, and then really underperform on the next one.Ask anyone in Midwinter about the experience of Tortos progression and they’ll have some sad stories to tell. So we need to get better at the bread and butter of being a high end guild, just staying consistent and disciplined pull to pull, boss to boss until the tier is done.

The game hasn’t seen a dramatic shift in the raiding scene size since vanilla to burning crusade. How is your guild transitioning to 20 man?

Since we’ve had a year to prepare, it’s not too bad. Overall the worst thing about the 25 man heroic to 20 man mythic shift is that we’ve still had to farm 25 man Siege for the last 11 months, with a full roster of 25. We’ve been trying not to overrecruit so we don’t have to cut people when Warlords comes along, but you still need bodies for farm every week. It would have been nice to have a longer 6.0 patch so that wasn’t necessary. But otherwise it’s fine, we’ve had a bit of natural turnover since Garrosh with people stepping away from the game, so we’ve just had to call on the occasional former raider to step in for a night of farm so we could get through Siege.

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What is Midwinter’s overall organization hierarchy like? I know you’re the raid leader and DPSonroids was the former GM. What responsibilities separate the two?

Every guild operates differently, but generally speaking, we share a lot of duties across all the officers, and we delegate things to people outside the officer group as well when appropriate. For normal day to day guild affairs, all the officers chip in with different things like forming up the raid, giving people assignments on farm, managing guild logistics, discussing policies, talking to members of the raid team about any issues they might have and so on. Some people do more of one thing than another of course, for instance our healing officer does almost all of our healing assignments and calls out CDs during the fights, and I don’t worry too much about what the tanks are doing unless it’s crucial to the overall strategy, since that’s Sloot’s field of expertise. The significance of the “raid leader” role in Midwinter is mostly just being the guy who makes the final decision about what to do when there’s competing strat ideas, or make the call to do something differently to fix an issue. I probably do the majority of raid calls as well, but definitely not all of them. Watch any of our kill videos and you’ll hear a lot of voices. In my opinion, having one person come up with every single idea and call out everything that needs to be called out just increases the chance of myopic fixation on a single strategy, or individual error or oversight of some kind. We have a really talented raid team and a lot of people contribute to developing and executing our strategies.

Obviously the one leader works for plenty of guilds out there, so it’s probably just a culture thing, but that’s how Midwinter does it. The raid leader’s job is just to understand the boss as much as possible, and to make the final call that we’re going to do strat X instead of strat Y. This becomes more distinct when you’re working without videos as well, everyone helps brainstorm ideas and the leaders just sort it all our and decide what we’re going to try first.

As our raid team has gotten better and better over the years, we’ve transitioned from being a guild where one or two people told everyone else what to do, to being a guild where most people understand what’s going on and is actively working together to overcome problems.

The GM is really just another officer, with a sort of symbolic significance as a representative of the guild. It’s usually the most senior non-raid leader guy. They have more or less the same duties as the other officers, they’re just the one who knows the guild culture the best and people like having as their representative.

How difficult is it to make roster changes? Are there any specific factors that go into roster selection? What’s going to happen to the surplus players? 

Hopefully we won’t have too many last minute roster changes, since we’ve been planning for mythic for a while. As I mentioned earlier the need to do 11 months of 25 man SoO farm has made things a bit tougher on keeping the roster size small, but we’ve known about mythic the whole time and for the most part we’re ready to go now with our roster for Warlords. A couple of people are transitioning out and we know about that, once they are gone we should have more or less the sort of raid team we want.

We value former leaders really highly – officers, GMs, raid leaders of other guilds, or just people who have been the “senior” guy in their field somewhere before and know how it’s done.

As far as factors that go into determining roster selection, there’s so many. As we’ve become more hardcore I think fitting well into our guild culture and aligning with our goals as a raid team has become the most important element of being a good raider here though. We have a skilled raid team and we get great apps all the time from people who get great parses or whatever in their old guilds, but what we really value is someone who can come in, understand exactly what we’re trying to do, have a short learning curve on difficult content and do what needs to be done, even if it’s not their favourite thing or whatever. That stuff matters so much more than most people who raid in this game realise, once you get to a certain level as a guild. I’d take someone who did a little less DPS than the next guy competing for their spot but could understand the strat better, die one less time to each mechanic, or play an alt if it was needed to make the boss die.

Vision for the guild is important too. I mentioned our goals for Warlords earlier, even the best raider wouldn’t fit into our roster if they didn’t share those goals. There are a lot of other great guilds out there that do different things, but we need people who want the same thing from their raiding experience.

With two and a half weeks of no raiding, how does the guild plan to prepare for raiding during that levelling process? 

Levelling, and then getting raid gear from heroics. That’s about it really, they’ve reduced a lot of the pre-raid stuff you wanted to do in MoP like doing dailies for reps and so on, so we’ll probably just be grinding 5 mans and getting the gear we need to start progressing when raids come out in December. We’ve laid out our plans to the guild so right now we’re just finalising what everyone is going to be playing when the expansion launches and making sure they have the gear they need for levelling.

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Let’s talk about opening raid. In more system changes, there is an unprecedented 4 lockouts that will eventually be available. What’s your game plan for micro managing all those lockouts? 

The extra lockouts don’t really impact the top end of raiding very much, I don’t think. In Siege we basically did a bunch of normal mode clears with mixed mains and alts to funnel gear to mains, then when we did progression we’d re-clear each boss on our alts and mains that didn’t do the first kill on normal mode, just for a bit of extra gear. So like if we sat a DPS warrior for Sha of Pride progression, we’d do a normal mode Sha kill immediately afterwards before we moved on to Galakras, so that warrior could have a shot at a bit of normal mode loot they might be missing, or so we could throw some gear at an alt we anticipated we might need for Blackfuse, that sort of thing. The only change I can see the new lockouts bringing would be that we could do that mirror raid with mains if we wanted to, just for a little extra loot. Like if we were working on Mythic Blackfuse in the new four lockout system and we had a rogue that needed a trinket, we could go kill heroic Blackfuse with that rogue without having to use alts or anything, for a shot at the trinket. But realistically we’re not going to be doing normal or LFR or anything during progression except in the most unsual circumstances. It’s just not worth the time investment vs actually progressing on a boss.

Some guilds field multiple raid teams and allow for alts. Does your guild have a policy or plan in place to utilize alt characters for progression? 

Alts are a necessary part of competitive progression raiding these days, so yes. We did split farm runs in ToT with mixed mains and alts to gear our alts so we could clear normal mode SoO five times, for example. We won’t be changing anything in that regard in Warlords, alts will still have a number of important uses, gear funnelling probably being top of the list. Progression flexibility is important as well, it’s not unsual to call on someone’s alt for a specific boss when that class brings something to the table that their main can’t match. In Siege for instance I mostly played my rogue but I was on my warrior for some of Thok progression when we needed warrior CDs, and played my monk for Dark Shaman to kite blobs. One of our hunters played a DK for most of Garrosh progression, and our GM played a rogue instead of his warlock for Blackfuse. Healers and tanks swap classes a lot too – Sloot played warrior instead of Paladin for all the hard bosses in SoO and our healers swap around all the time based on what is useful on a specific fight.

How many players are on your roster for Warlords? Any idea on what your composition will definitely include? Speaking of raid composition, going down to 20 players, it means a reduction in overall healing capacity. Combined with the reduction to raid defensive cooldowns, what classes would you deem a virtual lock to include? 

This is a really tough question to answer. Class balance is in constant flux on the beta. A week ago I might have said we’d use six windwalker monks for every boss with more than one target, but Chi Explosion took a huge nerf. There was a time when guardian druids were the king of tanks and then a few days later it was something else. Generally speaking Blizzard nails most of these outliers these days, and for the most part, most specs are pretty viable unless there’s a specific fight mechanic that makes one thing in particular stand out.

What I can say is that certain things are always incredibly useful in a progression environment. Any abilities which allow you to ignore or hugely mitigate raid mechanics, for example. A big part of raiding is just minimising the amount of play errors made over a long period of time, and abilities that make you take no damage from something that might otherwise kill you are pretty good. A great example is the belts on Blackfuse. Anyone could avoid the beams of course, and avoiding them didn’t even have to involve a DPS loss if you were good at it, but given equal play a rogue would die less to them because they could just cloak and afk through the beams every time. Then of course you have stuff like being able to solo soak aim on Paragons, you really can’t quantify the value of something like that but it’s usually useful. Abilities that impact the whole raid in any positive way – movement speed, healing taken, damage done, etc., are always good unless they are undertuned to such a degree that you can’t even tell when they are being used. DPS warriors were among the best at this in MoP with skull banner, shattering throw and two defensive CDs. Hard to say where things will stack up in Warlords, but look for those sorts of abilities to still be really good even after the nerfs to a lot of them.

There are rumors of hardcore guilds who have a friend status rank within the organization who do nothing but to farm. Back in the day during vanilla, there used to be guilds which required applicants to farm before their applications were even considered. On Midwinter’s website, there is a post that mentions that you were buying crafting materials at market value during the various tiers of Mists of Pandaria. Is this a strategy you plan to continue during Warlords of Draenor? 800 stacks seems like a lot just to qualify! Were there any changes to Warlords of Draenor professions that would affect it?

We’ve had some farmers in the guild before, but they were generally paid for their services rather than just farming for us because they wanted to help out. Really it’s not a particularly important thing, it’s mostly just a time saver for Fusoya, Midwinter’s lord of the bank. We provide all consumables for all raiders (or Fusoya does, at least) so in a progression race we go through a ton of flasks and enchants and so on. Simplifying the process of buying and crafting all that stuff for the dedicated souls who do it Is just a net benefit for the guild. We’d rather pay a flat rate to have someone sell to us in bulk than go through the trouble of constantly checking the AH, and it benefits the seller as well of course with a quick and easy sale.

Though historically there have been some moments where the lack of mats on our server has been a problem for raiding. Mostly when Blizzard has made the materials too scarce at the start of a new tier, like with flask mats at the start of Cataclysm where we completely ran out of gold because crafting flasks was so expensive, or when there’s been an intentionally scarce raiding material like epic gems in Dragon Soul. In that tier we ended up transferring people off Ysera, which was our server at the time, to high pop servers to buy gems and bring them back. The fact that we had to do that was a big factor in our deciding to move to Sargeras for the stronger economy and more vibrant raiding scene.

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More importantly, how on earth do you afford buying all these materials at market value? 

We do sales, basically. Usually within a few weeks of a tier ending we’ll start offering kills of the end bosses, mounts, gear, achievements etc to people for gold. That gives us a nice sum by the time the next tier comes out, which we use to purchase consumables, BoEs, BMAH gear and so on.

What loot system does Midwinter use for loot distribution? Is there a certain advantage for it in Midwinter’s case? 

We use loot council, and pretty much always have.

Loot is strictly distributed for progression purposes, as a means to an end. Our thought process with every item is basically that the most important thing is that it’s in the raid and gets use, so the characters we expect to be using on the hardest and most important bosses get loot first, and after that it’s based on the significance of the upgrade. So if an item is particularly strong for a certain spec, it’ll go to them, or if it’s a much bigger upgrade for one person than another. We’ll usually only take a math based approach if it’s a particularly important item, or a set bonus decision or something, generally most loot decisions are pretty easy. Healers usually get gear last since they benefit the least from it, though there are exceptions like tier, and you don’t want your healers to have really low stamina so you do need to give them some gear.

The loot council is a separate group of senior raiders from the officers, incidentally. Though officers also have significant input on loot distribution via slotting decisions.

Whenever we get to the point of farming heroic bosses during progression, like from the second week of a tier on, we’ll specifically distribute loot with the comp for the next hard boss in mind. For example, while we were working on Heroic Lei Shen in ToT, we would assign drops from the first 11 bosses on heroic during a reset to the 25 people who were in our Lei Shen kill comp.

Building upon that, how does a player ascend or take on a more leadership role (be it as an officer or as a member of the loot council)?

It ends up being a gradual process of promotion.  In the past, we had a hard and fast rule that no loot council member is an officer or vice versa. If a vacancy opens up, we think about the potential candidates and see who is interested overall. We usually look at the mature, senior members. While one does not have to serve on loot council before becoming an officer, it’s a fairly common apprenticeship. However, since we’re so much more hardcore now, officers indirectly dictate much of the loot related decisions. For example, the loot council will ask [the officers] which players will be in for the next boss and we’ll tell them. Those players get the loot. As such, there’s always an officer in the loot council channel for that purpose. Typically though, there are 3 loot council members and none of them are officers.

What would you say are the notable differences between a top 100 guild, a top 50 guild, a top 20 guild, and a top 10 guild? 

I guess we’ve been all of those things, so I’ll just use Midwinter as an example. When I first joined in Sunwell we were ranked about 150th in the US or so. Speaking just in region ranks, we broke into the top 50 US for the first time during Ulduar, got to 17th when we killed Lich King, sat around 10th for the first couple of tiers in Cataclysm, and then finished the expansion 6th, and then hit top 5 US in the first tier of MoP, and while ending at top 5 world later in the expansion.

There are two major things that change as your guild goes up in ranks – the guild itself and how you play, and what you actually do differently in the game.

In terms of the the guild makeup, the biggest difference by far is the quality of the weakest players in your raid. Most guilds out there have some good players, probably even a player or two who could cut it in the best guilds if they put their mind to it. The lower end is often far, far worse than the top end in those guilds. When you get to high end guilds, everyone tends to be good. Of course there are still skill differences in every guild, but your average 100th ranked guild is going to have players who learn stuff really slowly, and the lower you go in ranks the more that is the case. Over time the biggest thing that has led to our improvement as a guild has been gradual roster improvements. If someone is a weaker player on our team, we phase them out or they quit or whatever and when we replace them we get someone better. As our roster has improved, our rank has as well, and the combination of the two has made the guild more competitive, which has in turn driven more success, better applicants, and a continually improving raid team.

We’ve never really been the kind of guild that cuts people for poor performance unless we absolutely have to, but careful recruiting results in an improving roster anyway.

Another major difference in rankings is about competitive drive. There are definitely guilds out there that get to a higher rank by just wanting it more than their competition. They might raid more hours, handle their roster more ruthlessly, be comfortable raid stacking or using cheesy strats where other guilds aren’t, etc. Hour investment is of course the biggest thing here since there’s usually a direct correlation between the same raid team raiding more and killing bosses faster, but when comparing across guilds there are other elements. There are a surprising number of guilds out there that raid a lot without really cracking the very top ranks in their region.

As our guild has improved, this level of investment in the game manifests in new ways. Alts are a good example – your average guild might have players that love their alts and players that never bother with them. In a top guild, you pick up alts because it helps the guild, not because you love playing them. It’s not unsual for people in Midwinter today to sit around on the beta hitting training dummies on their alts, to perfect a rotation for a spec they rarely play just so they’ll know what to do on live if it ever comes up. That’s simply something that never would have happened when we were a 50th ranked guild or so.

The other element is how the game functions when you’re in a high ranking guild, and this is something that has changed a lot over the history of the game. In Vanilla and Burning Crusade, the hallmarks of high end play were mostly related to buff and CD stacking, more or less fundamental MMO grinding that was required to beat the hardest content. Aside from nerfs, the content was pretty static. You simply needed the gear from the previous content and a certain level of execution to complete the fights. A couple of guilds killled M’uru before the first nerf, then a bunch more killed it between that first early nerf and the big one a couple of months later, and then a few hundred between that nerf and the 3.0 patch, and then thousands after 3.0. While you did pick up gear upgrades week to week, the size of those upgrades and the rate of acquisition was low enough that M’uru was a very similar fight week to week, and gear scaling paled in comparison to the significance of the nerfs when they came.

Today, gear scaling is so fast that any fight with any DPS component gets a significant nerf just about every week. Tight DPS checks remain so for such a small amount of time that the version of a boss Method kills in week one functions fundamentally differently from the version people are killing a month later, or at least the nature of the difficulty changes a lot.

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To give a specific example, when we killed Heroic Durumu in Throne of Thunder, we got it on Monday night of the first raid reset for that tier. We killed it 1 second before berserk, with basically everyone alive, after repeated wipes to the berserk, and most guilds that got it that week killed it during the cast that wiped the raid, or similarly beat it by a second or two. On Tuesday, the lockouts reset and we cleared back to Durumu and killed it 20 seconds before berserk – so basically with a few normal mode farm bosses on Monday night and 7 more heroic bosses on Tuesday we shaved 19 seconds off our kill time on a 10 minute fight. 20 seconds on that boss means you don’t have to stack large radius AoE for walls any more, people can just hit them with direct damage, you don’t have to min/max drain life stack management any more, people can just sit in drain life and swap off if they’re going to die, and so on. It makes a fundamental difference to the way encounters work. This is a factor with incoming damage too, adding a few more pieces of gear increases your stamina to the point where something that would have killed you before without a CD no longer will, reducing the coordination requirements of most fights a fair amount.

It’s a relatively new phenomenon, but I think that’s probably the biggest difference. The closer you are to the cutting edge of progression, the harder the actual content is. My memory of Ascendant Council in tier 11 was that it was an average difficulty encounter we learned and executed in about 6 hours, maybe 40-50 pulls, for a US 10th kill. Ask someone in a cutting edge guild from back then and they’ll tell you it was extremely hard. It’s Blizzard’s solution to the relative unpopularity of stacking nerfs to zones and other things they’ve tried in the past to up completion rates. By tuning bosses to be difficult and then letting you scale like crazy with gear upgrades, they can make some of the hardest bosses they’ve ever made while still letting thousands of guilds experience and defeat the content. Bonus rolls, VP upgrades, Thunderforged/Warforged gear and the legendary chain all worked to emphasize this process in MoP as well, and we’ll no doubt see similar systems in Warlords.

The other thing I’d mention would be the video factor again. If the difference between every tier of raiding guild is how quickly you see the content relative to your rate of gear acquisition, the quality of your players and how seriously you take progression, the one thing that is unique to the top echelon is learning fights from scratch without any outside input. It’s a pretty small window – while we went from US 150th to US 6 between the end of Burning Crusade and the end of Cataclysm, we never really killed or even substantially learned any difficult boss without the aid of a video from someone else that had already killed it. It wasn’t until ToT really that we started running into fights that were actually challenging where we didn’t already know what to do.

That was all quite illuminating and eye opening, wasn’t it? Midwinter is still recruiting for Warlords of Draenor. Think you’ve got what it takes? Give them a shot and head over to mwguild.net! Carry on the discussion below or head over to our new community forums!

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