Covenants & Soulbinds & Conduits – oh my!

Quick heads up that the information contained in this post is accurate as of 12 July 2020. Shadowlands is still in Alpha, with the Beta officially slated to begin next week. Information here is correct as of this moment, but is more than likely going to be out of date in a very short period of time. Please do not use this post as a guide to these systems – it will not help you in the least!

This is a long post, sorry. So the tldr is this – please make the Soulbinds work the same way Essences do right now – once they are looted they are unlocked and usable and changeable within the Soulbind tree.

One of the things I’ve loved about World of Warcraft is how it has evolved over the years. Even as someone who didn’t start playing until Cataclsym, the game has still changed so much over this time- the stories, our classes, the races… what we have available to do and how we go about playing the game has also changed as the players behind the screens have changed, too. And I think that’s great. A product that doesn’t evolve won’t last long in the market. WoW has done what it needed to do to survive.

I say this, because the main topic of this post is about Covenants, Soulbinds and Conduits- how they interact, how we get them, and the impact on players. But what I’m seeing in the Alpha forums right now is a big argument about WoW as an MMORPG, and how that label should dictate systems that exist within the game. The short version is that some people believe as an RPG, players should be locked to one specialisation (i.e. restoration shaman OR elemental shaman OR enhancement shaman) without the ability to swap between them, giving the argument that this is the definition of a ROLE-playing game (e.g. you play one role).

So I wanted to start this post off by saying that sure, that may have been an original interpretation of RPG. But I argue that for WoW, that definition has evolved over time as players have grown and changed. I say that, because to me I think it’s important to start thinking flexibly here, and not getting bogged down in semantics that don’t address the issues at hand. So for the purposes of this post, let’s just for a moment agree that the definition of an MMORPG – whatever that may be for you – isn’t a factor in this discussion for now. All good? Great.

What are all the things?

In the upcoming Shadowlands expansion, there are currently a whole load of systems coming in. And when I say systems, I (very loosely) mean “choices” that players make that will set the tone for their other-wordly adventures.

Go check out this brilliant post from Wowhead that summarises the multitudes of interviews that have taken place over the past few days about Shadowlands – https://www.wowhead.com/news=316849/roundup-of-all-the-shadowlands-announcements-from-the-press-event-this-week . This is where I have drawn a lot of information from, as well as my own experiences on the alpha.

Covenants

Each zone is home to a covenant:

  • Kyrian in Bastion
  • Venthyr in Revendreth
  • Night Fae in Ardenweald
  • Necrolords in Maldraxxus

As you are levelling in Shadowlands you will visit each of the four zones and be introduced to each for the four covenants. When you reach max level (60) you will then choose one of these covenants to basically be your best friends for the rest of the expansion.

Each covenant will give you access to two abilities, and you will get a chance to test out all of these abilities as you level up through each zone, before you make your final choice:

  • one covenant-specific ability (signature ability) – this is an ability all players who choose this covenant will get, regardless of class
  • one class-specific ability – this ability is unique to your class, regardless of spec.

Also to keep in mind when choosing a covenant – once chosen, you will then embark on a campaign for that covenant (and that covenant only), unlocking a unique story for that zone.

At the time or writing this, we are also told that changing to a different covenant is straight forward enough, but going back to one you have left will be difficult. It is not intended that players swap between covenants on a regular basis, and definitely not on a boss-by-boss basis when raiding.

Soulbinds

Once you have chosen a covenant, you will then choose a Soulbind – basically your super very bestest friend within that covenant. Each Soulbind has two types of ability traits:

  • traits that have a unique set of abilities that are available to all players who choose that soulbind, regardless of class. You get to choose the path of abilities you like best.
  • blank traits for conduit abilities that are unique to your specialisation. More on conduits below, but for now, you choose the conduit to be inserted in to each trait slot.

(And so we start seeing some troubles here… but let’s press on)

As you work through your covenant’s campaign, you will unlock more traits and more abilities. (More on this in a bit.) And at the end of your campaign, you can unlock an additional Soulbind.

At the time of writing this post, you are able to change your Soulbinds at will the same way you change talents in a rested zone, with a Tome of a Clear mind etc. (Apparently my loyalties are a little fickle… 😉 )

Conduits

As I mentioned above, Conduits are inserted into the available trait slots in our selected Soulbind tree. Each trait slot has a type – throughput, defense and utility – and these can only be filled with conduits of the same type. These abilities are passive, and are designed to enhance either your class or coveneant abilities.

Other key features of Conduits include:

  • they’ll drop in places that loot drops, but they will not take the place of loot
  • conduits have levels
  • when you replace a conduit, it is destroyed (the same way if you change a gem, that gem is destroyed)

Think of these like relics for our artifact weapons back in Legion – the relics would enhance the weapon they were inserted into in different ways.

So what’s the problem?

Well, there are a few. It’s a bit of a knock-on effect actually…

Players are feeling forced to choose between the story/aesthetics/cosmetic rewards they want, and what is considered “best” for their class.
Initially I thought people just needed to get over this concept of “what’s best for their class”. And to a degree I still do. However having now actually played with all of the covenant abilities for shamans, I have to say even without numbers there are clearly covenants with better abilities than others. Or rather – different abilities are better for different situations. And yet we can only choose one.

To make matters worse, the story that we choose to play out on our characters is dictated by the covenant we choose to follow. As are the cosmetic rewards etc. And of course our Soulbinds. And this is where we get to the root of the problem…

Players shouldn’t be forced to choose between story and power. And our story choices shouldn’t punish us for wanting to do multiple forms of content, or play multiple specs.

Thank you to my guildie, Vell, for this comment, because it does sum up this issue quite well. Connecting our story choices with our power choices in theory sounds like it could be fun. But when the outcomes of that choice don’t just affect our experiences, but also how we are able to play our classes, that’s problematic. Because then we stop feeling like we have a real choice. The choice isn’t “which covenant do I best connect with, and which story do I want to progress”, the choice becomes “which is more important to me – aesthetics and story or my abilities and power.”

I cannot believe that that choice is really the one Blizzard intend for us to make with this system.

A follow up question to this is always “why do players feel like they don’t have a real choice”. First and foremost, it comes down to balancing the abilities. The argument comes back that, the scaling of abilities should make it so that the power difference between classes should be minimal. Other comments I’ve seen suggest these differences should be on par with the power differences between racial abilities – barely a noticeable difference to anyone other than the World First Raiders. And I would be all for that… except that’s not what’s happening here.

Numbers aside (because numbers tuning always happens much closer to the release of an expansion) the abilities on offer between each covenant differ so wildly. Let’s just take a look at the covenant signature abilities:

Kyrian: Summon Steward Call your steward to bring you a Phial of Serenity that can be consumed to restore some of your health and remove all Curse, Disease, Poison, and Bleed Effects. Your Steward additionally offers access to a selection of useful amenities, each once per day.
Instant Cast, 5 min cooldown. Lasts 3 min.

Necrolords: Fleshcraft: Form a shield of flesh and bone over 4 sec that absorbs damage equal to 20% of your maximum health for 2 min.
Channeling near a corpse claims their essence to grow the shield, up to 50% of your maximum health. This is most effective against powerful enemies.
Channeled (4 sec cast) 2 min cooldown

Night Fae: Soulshape: Turn into a [Shape], increasing movement speed by 30%. You may reactivate Soulshape to teleport 10 yds. forward. Lasts 12 seconds, or indefinitely while in a rest area.
Instant cast, 1.5 min cooldown. 

Venthyr: Door of Shadows: Wend through the shadows, appearing at the targeted location.
35 yd range, 1.5 sec cast, 1 min cooldown

Just looking at these four abilities on their own, we have 1 straight up utility, 2 movement abilities, and 1 defensive ability. And we have a different cooldown time for every ability. Even without numbers tuning it is clear that the value to a player is different for each covenant and for each player’s class (and probably spec). (I would bet any money MDI teams will be full Venthyr for that sweet portal!)

Add in the complexity and vast differences between the class-specific covenant traits and we have a bucket of abilities available for each player, but the ability to only ever have 2 of them. As said above, whilst we can change covenants, it’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s not intended to be done all the time. So for now, treat this as “locked in once chosen”.

So now we start looking at the soulbinds available for the covenant. And this is where things really start to get feisty. Because the abilities available on each soulbind are, you guessed, pretty different across the covenants both in type and in power. Let’s continue to ignore the power for now and trust the tuning will spread this more evenly.

In theory it looks like the intent is that you would (probably?) choose one soulbind for each spec. In some cases there are very clearly soulbinds targeted to tanks, others to healers and others to dps. The difficulty comes in when the abilities offered from one soulbind benefit more than one of your specs, or more than one type of in-game content.

“But that’s great!” you might say. And you would be right – it is great… assuming the abilities each spec wants to use are the same, and not on a different path between specs. Here’s what a soulbind tree looks like:

As you can see, you need to choose a path of traits. In most soulbinds it looks like there is one ability that all will get, the rest are choices made by the path. What if the path you would take as a healer is different to the path you would take for dps? Or let’s say you’re a fire mage – what if the path you would take for raiding is different to the path you would take for pvp?

This is just the minor issue here, though, because the more complex issues start coming in with the conduits. The conduits go in to the trait slots that are marked with an X or shield or lightning bolt in the image above. You can only put in a conduit that matches that slot type. I’m not 100% clear on what the conduit abilities are at this stage, but this will likely also impact the path a player chooses. Maybe some players will forgo a soulbind ability just to get access to a conduit path that includes a conduit type that’s really strong for them – who knows. The point is, there’s a lot of choices to make here that lock you out of other choices later on. Which means if you play multiple specs, or do multiple forms of in-game content, you may find yourself in a situation of having to make compromises to your power – and you may be doing this a lot. In fact, it’s such a running theme that I’m going to do a whole separate blog post about hybrid classes in Shadowlands because this post is already long enough and I’ve got things to say!

The most constrictive part, though, is that once a conduit is replaced in a soulbind tree, the conduit is destroyed. It doesn’t sound like a big deal – it happens with gems, and it happened to relics that we put in our artifact weapons in Legion. The difference here is that gems are easily obtained and remade. And in Legion, we had a weapon and ability tree that was specifically targeted to each spec, that we could swap to as we changed our spec. With Soulbinds we are working with a system that has a generic base that is the customised by our trait choices and conduit insertions. And once they are locked in, they can only be changed in a permanent way – we can’t go back without looting the conduit again. It doesn’t matter how easy it is to swap your trait tree choice if you don’t have the conduits to fill it out.

Choice for our players is good – it helps give us some ownership over our experiences and that can feel great. But when those choices lead to somewhat permanent outcomes, they don’t really feel like choices at all. It pushes players (at my level of raiding) into a position where they will always feel like only one build will be optimal, and the rest will be more the subpar. And that doesn’t feel good.

Enough complaining – what’s your solution?

Firstly, I think people could deal with conceding a little power if it’s done once. Let that be the covenant choice. I can deal with potentially weaker covenant abilities for the story and experience I want in game. But asking for further concessions by locking down soulbinds and conduits is asking a lot.

I feel like there are some options here:

  1. Make the soulbind abilities low impact – not the best idea because people wouldn’t feel a need to work towards obtaining them. However it would make multiple soulbinds and builds more viable as they won’t disrupt playstyle/power too much if you had to choose something else for a different activity.
  2. Balance all of the abilities – the ideal outcome, but unlikely to be possible given the multitudes of build/classes etc. and the complex interactions with base abilities, talents, trinkets and legendaries.
  3. Make conduits a craftable item – this would make replacing conduits in a soulbind feel less punishing, as we have a guaranteed source of additional conduits if we need to replace them (same as gems). It also helps make professions feel a bit more relevant. On the other hand, professions are crafting legendaries, so this might too much “profession-based” content, and also the cost might get out of hand.
  4. Give everyone everything and let them choose – not ideal from a story-telling perspective, but much more ideal from a play-style.

Option 4 is the one I think we should be looking at here. When I say “give everyone everything” I don’t mean give everyone access to all covenant abilities and all soulbinds – I just mean that there should be flexibility around what is accessible and changeable at any one time. Best of all – this already exists within the game.

The essences UI/system really nailed this. Blizz made it so that you only had to loot an essence once for it to be added to your “library” of available essence powers. And those essences could then be slotted by preference into our Azerite necks. We could change our essences at the Heart Forge or simply in a rested area or with a Tome. Simple, clean, effective.

I think the same idea would work really well for Soulbinds. Use the same systems where players can loot a conduit and it get added to their library of options, and let those conduit slots be changed as needed by drawing from what’s available in the library. I think it’s still reasonable to put limitations on what types of conduits can go in each slot (i.e. defensive, throughput etc.) but the number of times those conduits can be changed is limited only by what a player has earned. (Also for what it’s worth I think all specs should be able to access all the different types of conduits).

I also think it should still cost to change the path taken on a Soulbind – I’m happy for that to still be in place if the conduits can be changed as needed, I don’t have a problem with that if it’s the small amount of anima currently being discussed.

I don’t agree with changing covenants all the time. This is where I differ with others who think we should be able to change them whenever we want – I disagree with this from a story perspective, but also because it takes away some of the depth that these covenants give us.

Like I said, I am happy to be locked in to a covenant with a group of soulbinds if I have the ability to make meaningful choices about my abilities, and that I can make them as often as I need without being punished.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading 🙂 I am SUPER excited about Shadowlands – I think it’s going to be an amazing expansion. Which is why I’m so passionate about getting these systems right sooner rather than later so there’s adequate time to test them.

xo

EDIT 13/7/20 – This reddit post perfectly shows how the Essences UI/system could be implemented for Soulbinds – go check it out!

2 thoughts on “Covenants & Soulbinds & Conduits – oh my!

  1. What I am not really thrilled about is that I will have to choose based on which is best for my wife’s Resto Shaman. We level and play together. If I choose differently from her, we will be doing two separate quest lines. It seems obvious that they are forcing people to level 4 or more max characters in order to experience content. I play one character and right now I feel like I will only get to see 25%. Also I can’t imagine having to commit to one choice for two years, and if they make tuning changes in the second tier, having to swap and start all over again.

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  2. The more I read about Shadowlands, the more I’m scared this is going to turn into BFA mark 2 for me, wherein I absolutely hate the systems so bad that no amount of good storytelling is going to pull me back into it. I’m already retiring my longtime troll mage that’s been my main since Vanilla, because I just can’t continue to drag him through this story hoping it gets better. I had a new 120 Vulpera Mage ready to replace him, but Arcane is in such a bad state, and the changes to ignite spreading on fire have the potential to seriously wreck that spec that I’m honestly looking at other classes again.

    I just don’t know with this expac. Aside from the increased amount of customization options (FINALLY) I’m really struggling to feel hyped or even motivated about it. I feel like Blizzard isn’t learning from the mess they made with Azerite armor/essences/corruption, and their socalled “grand unpruning” hasn’t actually unpruned anything worthwhile, so it feels like an empty gesture. I’m still going to play it, so it’s not like I regret my preorder, but I don’t have a lot of good will left to give them a whole expansion to fix things if they’re totally broken. I might just sit this one out if it doesn’t get to me early on. Not like I write about anything but FF XIV these days anyway.

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