02/05/2021

Eight Years with Dread Master Styrak

Last year I wrote a post with some musings about how the way SWTOR keeps its raids relevant from one expansion to the next makes for a very peculiar experience for long-time players, as we may get to re-progress on the same bosses repeatedly, under different circumstances and with different people.

I've had a lot more time to think about that over the course of the last few months, thanks to Dread Master Styrak, the last boss of the Scum and Villainy operation. Scum was originally added to the game with the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion back in April 2013. My first impressions of it were favourable, though I would also note later that the last boss was a bit repetitive. I also remember that the first time said fight was explained to me, I had to ask for repeated confirmation about the Kell Dragon's spine mechanic, because I couldn't quite wrap my head around the idea that there was an ability in the game that you could counter with actual body blocking.

It only took about two months for us to also clear the operation on hard mode - but it was still highly meaningful to me because at the time the then-leadership team had decided that a whole bunch of us weren't really worthy of being part of guild progression and were therefore excluded from their hardmode runs. This initially left us feeling very lost and dejected, but when we eventually rallied and started to get our own hardmode kills (even if they happened a few weeks later), it was all the sweeter for it. I made a video of our first kill, and let's just say that the choice of Spectre General's "Nothin's Gonna Stand in Our Way" for the soundtrack felt appropriate in more than one way.

Scum's nightmare mode was out of our reach for a long time... but then the Shadow of Revan expansion added another five levels to our characters, and back then the operations didn't level with us yet, which suddenly granted significantly less skilled players a shot at some of those achievements as well. We got our own Styrak nightmare kill on the 3rd of July 2015 - I made another video out of that one:

In hindsight I can see just how much and how obviously we benefitted from being five levels higher than the boss - for example we stood in the purple ground circles more than once without taking significant damage, and of course there's the fact that we dispatched no less than half the team to deal with slowing the adds that form the chain, one for each corner - an incredible luxury the way I see it now. Still, there were new mechanics for us to deal with compared to hard mode, and it was still something to be proud of.

After that, Scum became just another operation that we went back to every now and then on story or hard mode. As the average skill level and encounter knowledge in the guild increased, hard mode even became quite doable on social nights when we'd bring along less experienced and skilled players or have people playing on alts. In 2018, I made a silly little video that shows us killing Styrak on 16-man hard veteran mode on such a social night (you can tell because I'm on my Scoundrel and playing dps, what is this I don't even), and in which I poked fun at the fact that Mr Commando and another officer were constantly complaining about our dps being too low and that we were bound to hit the enrage; and then we didn't. (Though the kill was still an extremely close call, with only one person left standing by the time the boss died.)

After the release of Onslaught and after we had cleared the new Dxun operation on both story and hard mode, it was time to go back to digging our teeth into some of the older content again and we found ourselves returning to Scum nightmare master mode once more, especially as some of our newer members had never done it before. With level scaling in place now, it was a lot tougher than we were used to, but fortunately we'd also got a lot better, so we still progressed through it at a steady pace. Until we got to Styrak himself that is, who turned out to be an absolute brick wall.

The boss's health values felt insane, and all the mechanics were now incredibly unforgiving. It took several minutes just to kill his Kell Dragon pet now, before the boss himself would even join the fight, and we'd regularly fail at getting even that done. It just felt like we were in way over our heads, and frustration eventually led us to agree to take a break from Scum for a few months and revisit Gods from the Machine veteran mode instead, another operation where team members were still missing achievements. That was in late summer/early autumn last year.

It was only in January of this year that we felt ready to return to Scum, once again with a couple of changes to the team's roster, and it did feel a little better initially, though progress still only came in baby steps from one week to the next. We finally became somewhat consistent at killing the Kell Dragon, but then ran into the next wall in the form of the chain add mechanic, which requires people to knock back rapidly approaching enemies repeatedly at just the right time or the group wipes. The way we had done it back in 2015 by sending one person into every corner was no longer viable due to the dps requirements, so the whole group just huddled in the middle and people would use their knock-backs whenever the chain came too close.

I was one of the people responsible for this and it was always hit or miss, as the window for the knock-back was extremely small and it was very easy to hit it either too early or too late - either of which would result in a wipe. It's hard for me to put into words how frustrating it is to try to perfect a mechanic like that when your only way to practice is to drag your whole ops team through five to ten minutes of boss fight first, where of course other things can go wrong as well, until you finally get to the bit you need to practice, get it wrong, and everyone dies so you have to start over. And it wasn't just me either: If I got it right, another person assigned to a different place in the knock-back rotation would usually mess up instead, with the same result.

Eventually, both Mr Commando and I were pretty much at the end of our rope with this fight and sat down with the rest of our team to ask them if they seriously wanted to keep bashing their heads against this wall, as it might well take us another few months to kill it. I think we expected them to say no, but surprisingly the majority of them wanted to stick with it regardless.

I started talking to members of our guild's other progression team - who'd successfully beaten this fight - if they had any suggestions for what else we could do to improve our chances. We're not that much worse than they are and it didn't quite seem to make sense that we were struggling so much more. Their advice was pretty unequivocally that we needed to change our group composition (in terms of classes that is, not people), as the knock-backs become a hundred times easier to deal with if you use Sages or Shadows to do them instead of Commandos and Gunslingers, as the former have a much larger range on their ability.

This was a very bitter pill to swallow, as we've always been believers in letting everyone play what they want, and that technically every fight should be possible with a halfway reasonable group composition and not require extreme class stacking. Mr Commando remained adamant that he was never going to play a Shadow tank as he hates them, but I'd always considered my Sage my main alt... so I started bringing her to some progression nights instead - and the difference was like night and day. Where my Commando had struggled to maybe hit a fifty percent success rate on her knock-backs, my Sage did not mess up that mechanic once, ever. It was just that much easier.

Fortunately we had some other team members who were willing and able to switch to alts to pad our group with additional Sages and Shadows... and while things were still a bit rocky as people got used to their new roles, progress was suddenly palpable. Incidentally, our monthly 16-man progression run set its eyes on master mode Styrak as well and got him down a bit over a week ago, showing us all what a successful run could look like. And this week it was finally our turn on 8-man... how could I not return to that Spectre General song?

The kill was a little marred by the dragon bugging out at the end and miraculously ridding itself of 85% of its health within two seconds, but as one of my team's members put it: considering how many times the fight bugged out on us in negative ways (usually adds appearing or abilities firing at seemingly random times), it was about time that a bug did something nice for us. Also, after how much time we spent on practising the fight and how smoothly it went at the end there, I'm fairly confident that we would have got the kill anyway, even if the dragon hadn't bugged out.

It still took an amazing amount of persistence to get there - the kill was a 22-minute fight, and we had to go through the phase with the chain adds no less than twelve times... and to think I thought this part was repetitive on story mode, where you have to do it what, three or four times? That's definitely not a well-designed mechanic at all.

But for all its faults and all the associated pains I've suffered, I have to say that this boss kill will forever be memorable to me now. I'm so proud of my team members for voting to stick with it when I felt like giving up, and for stepping up to play Shadow and Sage alts to improve our odds. I'm also a little proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone on the Commando and learning to heal a progression fight on my Sage for a change.

We're looking at revisiting Dread Palace next, but to me the thought of going somewhere other than Scum is almost confusing right now. It feels like we've been there for so long, I'm not sure I remember how to do anything else anymore.

3 comments :

  1. First of all, congratulations!
    Then - yes, it is amazing how some fights seems to *need* certain composition to be doable - or, maybe, it's just become SO dependant on the cheese that even guides can't explain how to do without it (I'm looking at you M&B).
    As for the repetition of the chain-adds... Let me ask you something: isn't there a limit? Because I recall, on my first progression on HM Styrax, back in 4.0, that if you had more than 4 chains (on HM), it meant you simply hadn't done enough dps and inevitably you'd hit enrage and be one-shot before Styrax died (sometimes before the Dragon died again, too). Does NiM Styrax just watched too much Mean Girls and decided the limit does not exist? I wonder at the logic of having a hard-cut for easier modes instead of harder ones... Then agian, it may just be being aware of how unforgiving the whole thing is.

    I recall you mentioning (last year? the year before?) that you felt your happy-zone was HM. I guess I feel the same way. Can't say NIM runs appeal to me, HM is already at the limit of my ability (well, HM Gods/M&B/Revan and I don't even want to think of Dxun)... Though if they brought back NIM EV and KP I'd jump at it first thing! Hahaha. But, you know, feels like the pain isn't worth the gain - again, to me. I'm honestly happy for you :)

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    1. Let me ask you something: isn't there a limit?

      It's like you suspect, and the hardmode limit doesn't apply on master mode. If there's an enrage timer, it's extremely generous. I'm not sure why the fight was tuned to be this way on master mode to be honest, because while it does test your ability to repeat a mechanic flawlessly and repeatedly, it just makes it sooo long and tedious. I mean, we didn't have the highest dps so I'm sure it can be done with fewer chains (maybe 8-10) but that's still a lot more than you need on any of the other difficulties. They didn't have to set his health values to be so stupidly high.

      And yeah, I used to think of us as a hardmode raiding guild that was only dabbling in NiMs, but at this point I'm honestly not sure anymore, considering how much time we spend in master modes and how much we have killed in there. But "real" NiM guilds always seem to find everything so easy, so I don't know. We continue to live on the edges I guess and things are a bit awkward there.

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  2. Congratulations! It's always good to hear that some games don't just throw away "old" content after half a year.

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