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Season 21 Retrospective by Deadset and sVr: Did It Break the Core Game Concepts?

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Season 21 is almost done (although we might be seeing some delays/extensions) and it hasn't been the most popular of seasons, but it did have many unique aspects to it, from the almost-kinda-exploits to the crazy 10K+ gathering of the seasonal stacks outside Greater Rifts, and much more. Today we'll be taking a look back and discussing what the issues with this and similar themes, how they potentially ruin the core concept of the game, how this type of seasonal power should be done in the future and much more.

To do this we have our own guide writer Deadset and special guest sVr, an EU player and top theorycrafter who has been concocting guides and mechanical analysis to the benefit of the whole Diablo community since the dawn of seasonal play. You might remember him for unleashing the Bazooka Wizard onto Sanctuary, breaking down the veil of obscurity on Spirit Barrage, and many other math-heavy feats and word-laden reddit posts. You've certainly seen him on Twitch, both as a regular caster and a Blizz-sanctioned invitee to Gamescom and BlizzCon broadcasts. He likes crunching numbers, crunching hugs and horrible Californian iced tea. So let's get to it as the two take on the Trials of Tempests.
 

 

Introduction

Deadset:
Season 21 bears the name “Trial of Tempests” and uses a mechanic that is closely related to the one from Season 19, the “Season of Eternal Conflict” — it is once again based on abilities spawned by the game, but based on a timer rather than kill count. The goal was, once again, to make the effect Season-defining in terms of power, and the developers have matched — and even surpassed — the powers of the former mechanic. It has certainly led to a spike in build potential within the 10+ Greater Rift tiers range, with certain builds of course benefiting more from the theme than others.

Whenever a proc-reliant, percentage damage-based power gets introduced to the game, it opens a window for ‘clever use of mechanics’, or outright exploitation, and it requires careful monitoring by the developers. And while I can certainly commend the teams for squashing out abusive strategies in a timely manner, I can safely say that with two proc-based Seasons behind us — the sheer potential for abuse and the diminished feel of player agency stemming from themes like these bring down the morale of casual and veteran players alike. The visual treat of these effects fades away in the early stretch of a Season, leaving players to a prolonged period of visual fatigue, lessened screen readability, and even technical issues in certain cases.

sVr:
The Trial of Tempests seasonal theme had a very similar feeling to S19, where generated (not-selfcast) abilities would spawn after a certain condition is met. A couple of severe issues were identified on the PTR and were fixed appropriately. As an example, the theme itself scaled with Area Damage equipped on one’s character, and a player was able to teleport out of the GR, safely wait in town for the countdown, re-enter the GR and “idle in the immunity phase of entering a rift” while the seasonal theme would proc and kill everything. These issues were fixed, but I feel that the general concept of auto-generator themes are flawed and they simply brick the core concept of Diablo 3 for me.
 

 

Theme Behavior and Relation to Core Gameplay

Deadset:
All this, of course, is not to say the theme lacks strategizing potential; simply that it externalizes the potential from the capabilities of the character and the build choices you’ve made along the way, and shifts decision making all too much in the direction of effects that feel even more arbitrary and unpredictable than the “usual suspects” of rift layout, monster composition and elite affix RNG.

To put this in perspective, a Greater Rift pushing attempt that falls into the “stars have aligned in your favor” category — one with desirable open spaces, monster density and decent Pylon spawns — can be completely ruined by a bad proc of the Seasonal theme. Some work mostly to your advantage, like the Beam proc and the decent amount of control you can apply to its effect. Some of the procs are reliant on the spaces you choose to fight in — the Twisters and Snowball, for example, benefit greatly from small, closed off spaces and tight corners. And others still require plain luck — maybe the Meteor strikes the cluster of monsters you prepared... or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the Fire Wave melts the Elite pack ahead of you, or maybe it bugs out and doesn’t spawn at all, and ends your push then and there. To make matters even worse, the harder you lean into the Seasonal theme to make the Rift clear — very understandable considering its ubiquitous power — the more you open yourself to bad RNG from the procs, inevitably leading to some very unsatisfying pushing sessions where you have played your build to the maximum of its potential, played around Rift RNG, and still fall prey to an additional layer of randomization.

sVr:
To elaborate on my comment about ‘bricking the core game concepts’, this is how I see it: the power of one’s character in Diablo 3 comes from three different sources.

  • Paragon and Augments: Increasing one's damage via the (1 + mainstat/100) multiplier, as well as one's toughness via the respective defensive mainstat bonus (All Resistance via Intelligence, Armor via Strength/Dexterity). 
  • Gear and Affix Quality: Increasing one's damage via appropriate primary affix rolls (e.g. quadfecta weapons or gloves, trifecta jewelry) and high legendary affix rolls. Increasing one's toughness with appropriate primary (All Resistance, Elite Damage Reduction %) and secondary (Reduction of damage from melee and ranged sources, Crowd Control Reduction %, single element Resistance) affixes.
  • Main Gems: Increasing one's damage/toughness via high gem levels.

There isn't any other “dimension” that gives power to the overall capability of one's character. Sure, there is the “capability” of a player on how well one can play his character, however, for the sake of this argument, assume that everyone has the same exact skill; everyone is a god tier gamer. In this scenario, each time a player logs in to play his goal is to progress his character making it stronger. One chooses to scale these three pillars over the span of a season progressively to reach higher and higher in GRs.

  • For the first pillar (Paragon) people would choose to run XP meta runs, such as Rats runs (or historically Vyr Wizard XP groups, Charge Barbarian XP groups, Rend Barbarian XP groups, etc.).
  • For the second pillar (Gear/Items) people would choose to run Bounties in "teched out 4 Man groups" (quad-Unhallowed Essence Multishot Demon Hunters) to ultimately reforge their gear into the desired rolls.
  • For the third pillar (Main Gems) people would choose to run 1%ers (mostly solo) or group meta (GR150) to level their Main Gems to max cap. While 1%er runs are, quite frankly, a “thing of the past” nowadays, back in the days these runs constituted another end-game activity with a different group setup. Technically speaking, only solo self found players regularly play 1% runs to increase their gem levels.

     

How the Theme Circumvents Progression

Deadset:
Over the course of the Season, experienced players have learned a great deal about the inner workings of the Season 21 theme, and using them to their Greater Rift pushing advantage. The theme even enables the tantalizing proposition of dropping Bane of the StrickenBane of the Stricken — one of the game’s staple pushing Legendary Gems, which is often single-handedly responsible for taking down Rift Guardians with its damage stacking mechanic — and going all in with the proc RNG, hoping circumstances and its damage would be enough to obliterate the biggest HP obstacle in the Rift.

The general strategy for S21 Rift progression got distilled to the maximization of trash pulls, with heavy emphasis on getting the most out of the initial proc in terms of stacks, and snowballing that effect into future trash pulls — with the added factor of their even spacing and preparation for the 90-second interval of the theme effect. The timing aspect attains some additional complexity in groups, where synchronization of the procs between party members comes into play. Killing elites got relegated to (mostly) collateral damage in favor of building momentum via trash throughout the clear, although exceptions could be made when stacks were deemed high enough, elite health got low enough from circumstances, or a combination of both. The overall principle for elites, especially in a Stricken-deprived build, was to simply skip them.

If we were to summarize the optimization of the Seasonal theme’s effects, it would be to:

  1. Amass a huge monster pull to kickstart your stacks as soon as the first proc comes into effect.
  2. Chain trash pulls for every subsequent theme proc, trying to keep your stacks well above a 50 stack minimum — although ideally, much higher.
  3. Chain trash pulls with careful positioning and judgment of your surroundings to squeeze the most of the upcoming effect.

With some practice, rinsing and repeating steps 2 and 3 will take you much higher into Greater Rift progression, but also translates into half of the time spent in a GR push attempt or more being spent on proc setup and positioning, instead of using the capabilities of your own character. This is very reminiscent of the gameplay loop forced by exploitative mechanics, and I’ll once again leave it to the capable hands of SVR to walk you through his definition of the term (that I also share), as well as some of its history in Diablo 3.

sVr:
Each of the gameplay pillars I described before aren't entirely perpendicular to one another, but they all serve to increase one's power — allowing for higher GRs to be DPS-ed. Once a mechanic short-circuits all those three pillars (you don't need to scale the pillars anymore to go "higher in GRs"), it fundamentally breaks the feedback loop and core concept of the game. One technically doesn't need to "scale one's character" (or in other words, play the game as intended) to increase one's power.

Historically, this was always my train of thought on how to "identify an exploit" that is clearly not just “a clever use of game mechanics” (as often postulated by 'exploit'-defenders). An example would be the “Necromancer’s FrailtyFrailty curse plus Demon Hunter’s Marked for DeathMarked for DeathGrim ReaperGrim Reaper debuff” exploit after the Necromancer's release, where an entire screen would get one-shot by the interaction of both skills, regardless of what gear, paragon and main gems the Necromancer and Demon Hunter players had equipped. The Necro and DH were the damage dealers in that scenario - yet, their damage was "un-scalable" by any ingame playtime investment: regardless of how much time those players would've put in the game, they would've always executed the entire screen by the maximum damage value the game could apply. This mechanic short-circuited the entire concept of "power", hence, an exploit in my books.
 

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Conclusion

Deadset:
There is depth to be found in Season 21’s mechanics and what they bring to the game; certainly, an argument can be made that it forces you to play differently, to think differently of the things you do during the Greater Rift pushing attempts, which has always been the highlight of ‘hard’ content in Diablo 3, the proving ground of your heroes. In my book however, the shift from the intrinsic qualities of the aRPG genre — gradual character development, set and legendary item interactions, proactive use of abilities and their synergy — into a thinly veiled management of timers, is the wrong one to make. I greatly appreciate the practice of “themed Seasons” and the additional developer thought and effort spent, but in the future I’d be happy to see more player control and agency over the things happening on screen.

sVr:
Unfortunately, the S21 Theme, while not technically an exploit, nominally behaves the same way as an exploit in its current iteration. No amount of time investment scales your character's capability in GRs. While this is not entirely true and definitely and over-exaggerated statement, since you still get tankier and can increase your non-theme damage output, the core of the issue remains the same: there is no reason to play, besides playing the S21 Theme itself until you clear GR150 with it. To me this fundamentally breaks what Diablo 3 and GR progression is about; a journey of your character’s progression.

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      Step 6: You will be disconnected from the PTR client.
      Step 7: Log back in. Your copied characters will be available for play.
      Please note that you can only copy characters from one gameplay region at a time. If you choose to copy characters from a different region, any previously copied PTR characters will be lost. In addition, you can only copy characters over to your PTR account once every 24 hours. Attempting to copy characters before this cooldown is up will result in an error.
      Return to Top
      As this is a test server, please anticipate uneven game performance, and note that restarts and downtime may occur without warning. Thank you, and we look forward to your feedback!
    • By Staff
      There's more loot to be had in Season 22, as Blizzard have just doubled (most of) trasure goblin spawns for the remainder of the season!
      Goblins (source)
      For the rest of Season 22, all Treasure Goblin spawns will be doubled. This means that each time you encounter a Treasure Goblin in the wild, they’ll be accompanied by an exact duplicate of themselves for two times the loot, chaos, and fun!
      There are a few important details to keep in mind with this effect:
      This does not affect goblins encountered via Bandit Shrines, Goblin “Rift” packs, or in the Realm of Greed. Duplicate Whimsydale portals created by the Rainbow Goblin will enter the same instance of Whimsydale. The Insufferable Miscreant is not affected by this buff; this is intended. Need a refresher on the various types of Treasure Goblins and what they do? Be sure to check out our Game Guide 43 for more information. We’ll otherwise see you in Sanctuary!
    • By Staff
      Diablo's anniversary event, the Darkening of Tristram ends January 31.
      (Source)
      Whether you’re a series veteran craving nostalgia, or a newcomer hungry for your first taste of the franchise’s past, this annual loving homage to the earliest days of Diablo is for you.
      Read on for more, including a closer look at the anniversary dungeon and its unique rewards.

      Stop the Cultists
      Your journey begins on the trail of a group of mysterious cultists causing trouble in Sanctuary. As you hunt them down in Adventure Mode, you’ll uncover clues leading to a portal into Tristram’s past, and the terrifying darkness that took hold of the town so many years ago. . . .

      Explore the Cathedral
      Follow the clues and you’ll soon find yourself in a realm of glorious RetroVision™, where an all-too-familiar cathedral looms. Explore the depths and you’ll discover familiar enemies and iconic items, all brought to life in the Diablo III engine. Meanwhile, deep beneath the catacombs, the Dark Lord himself awaits any intrepid adventurer who dares to challenge him. . . .

      Discover Precious Loot
      What is a Diablo game without shiny new loot to call your own? Completing activities in the anniversary event yields unique transmogrification effects, achievements, portraits, pets, and more.
      While some rewards are easy to find, others may have you scouring every nook or unlocking every achievement before you can get your hands on them. Can you earn them all? There’s only one way to find out!

      Your Journey Begins…
      Exclusive rewards and challenging enemies await you, but they won’t last forever! The cultists will appear on December 31 at 4 p.m. PST, and the portal opens January 3 at the same hour. Both parts of the event end January 31 at 4 p.m. PST.
      Enter the dungeon, reap your rewards, and survive the evils within—or die in the process, never to be heard from again. . . .
    • By Staff
      Diablo's anniversary is almost here and the Darkening of Tristam event returns January 3.
      (Source)
      Diablo’s anniversary is right around the corner, along with the Darkening of Tristram event! Whether you’re a series veteran craving nostalgia, or a newcomer hungry for your first taste of the franchise’s past, this annual loving homage to the earliest days of Diablo is for you.
      Read on for more, including a closer look at the anniversary dungeon and its unique rewards.

      Stop the Cultists
      Your journey begins on the trail of a group of mysterious cultists causing trouble in Sanctuary. As you hunt them down in Adventure Mode, you’ll uncover clues leading to a portal into Tristram’s past, and the terrifying darkness that took hold of the town so many years ago. . . .

      Explore the Cathedral
      Follow the clues and you’ll soon find yourself in a realm of glorious RetroVision™, where an all-too-familiar cathedral looms. Explore the depths and you’ll discover familiar enemies and iconic items, all brought to life in the Diablo III engine. Meanwhile, deep beneath the catacombs, the Dark Lord himself awaits any intrepid adventurer who dares to challenge him. . . .

      Discover Precious Loot
      What is a Diablo game without shiny new loot to call your own? Completing activities in the anniversary event yields unique transmogrification effects, achievements, portraits, pets, and more.
      While some rewards are easy to find, others may have you scouring every nook or unlocking every achievement before you can get your hands on them. Can you earn them all? There’s only one way to find out!

      Your Journey Begins…
      Exclusive rewards and challenging enemies await you, but they won’t last forever! The cultists will appear on December 31 at 4 p.m. PST, and the portal opens January 3 at the same hour. Both parts of the event end January 31 at 4 p.m. PST.
      Enter the dungeon, reap your rewards, and survive the evils within—or die in the process, never to be heard from again. . . .
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