Hey! These are all really good questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them in a way that’s hopefully transparent enough to provide some insight and not so vague as to be frustrating. A few disclaimers & some context before I start to set the stage: I was only personally responsible for a fraction of the set bonus / acquisition initiative (Rogue/DK/Part of Warlock w/ Frozzo), so I’m going to try to center on my experiences to open the door for my other teammates to engage with their own perspectives on this.
’What does the team feel the ultimate goal of a tier set is?'
Approaching Tier Sets or Class Sets was interesting because there’s so much history associated with them that caused a lot of perception & expectation for us to manage heading into the project - namely, how do we make good on those implicit promises without players feeling let down by their return without creating unrealistic design goals for ourselves to stack up against. This whole post is gonna get real philosophical btw, so sorry/you’re welcome lmao.
Tier Sets have always been powerful upgrades to your character, but the idea that they’ve significantly changed your gameplay or enhanced your fantasy is more of a modern idea as far as WoW’s lifetime is concerned. Even going back to the Wrath & Cataclysm eras, the design of some Tier Sets were clearly adhering to a different expectation than players have today. It’s absolutely true that some instances of raw stats additions like resource regeneration functionally changed the rotations for some classes (you got to use certain spells at different frequencies), but for the most part they were just flat upgrades that didn’t interact with your character, and in many cases they weren’t even unique (I want to say even as far back as Mists/WoD it was common for some classes or role types to share a functionally similar 2-piece or 4-piece bonus).
Even among those expansions though, it was common for a few Set Bonuses to rise to the top of the conversation. As a Frost DK ‘main’ I can say Nighthold (big surprise) made the biggest impact on me, but every class/spec has a few defining memories of a design that were so cool they made their entire patch better as a result - some even ended up as baseline, talents, or riffed on/referenced in Legendaries, Conduits, etc down the line. Our goal with 9.2 was to try and make Sets that evoked those responses as much as possible. So, that said, a broad summary of our goals were that for 9.2, Set Bonuses had to do any (or if possible all) of the following:
a. meaningfully change your spec’s rotation
b. enhance your spec’s core fantasy, or give other elements of that fantasy the space to shine
c. enhance a spec’s mechanical identity (or ‘niche’)
d. (secret bonus goal - as these sets do not exist in a vacuum, introduce bonuses that work well with the metagame systems present so they feel intuitive and synergistic rather than disruptive and obtuse. This one’s obviously hard to get perfect but it’s still a goal.)
I’m not quoting an exact document here, and not everyone’s going to agree on what these mean exactly, so I’ll dive a little deeper on these further below. However, the ultimate goal is that by adhering to these guidelines, we have a greater chance now (and in future tier sets) to make more of those lasting gameplay memories that people tell stories about tiers and expansions later. And, as a little treat to us, we get to experiment and learn more about what players like and don’t in ways that don’t necessitate a full-scale class rework or update that players might sometimes expect alongside larger or more significant updates.
How are Tier Set bonuses chosen?
Lots and lots of iteration, with those above goals as our sort of guiding star. For us, we chose/assigned classes based on comfort & generally speaking who was most passionate about which ideas. From there, we’d each just show off our ideas, give and take feedback on the designs, and tweak them until we liked them enough to show off in one big blast, like we did back in November PTR (I think? time is fake). I think for 36 bonuses our team had a pretty good reception generally speaking, which made me happy to see knowing how much work was put into the whole package.
For Frost DK I personally wanted to see Glacial Advance, a talent that’s never really seen significant play due to the opportunity cost of its talent row, tapped into via a different activator. The Assassination bonus envisions a slightly repackaged version of their Exsanguination talent, that similarly doesn’t see a lot of use, but is powerful in certain circumstances. There’s a number of these types of bonuses that try to capitalize or expand the sort of design space for certain specs, riffing off of talents or old effects that didn’t work for various reasons, but have a new shot at life in a Tier Set.
Speaking of Frost, let’s also expand that point about mechanical identity or niches - Death Knight’s DPS specs in particular often don’t feel different enough from one another, leading to even a slight edge in one being stronger in a current patch leading to a massive shift of spec swapping because they’re pretty similar in output. One goal for 9.2’s DK sets was to push these niches even further, with Frost having more consistent AoE/Cleave presence, where Unholy having even more strength when it came to heavy movement + execute, something that’s made it generally a safer Raiding spec this expansion thus far.
Players might look at some of the problems I just mentioned with DK’s and say ‘why not just rework them’ or some of the talents mentioned, but it’s here that I personally see how important Tier Sets can be with regards to the experimentation I brought up earlier: Frost as a cooldown-based burst cleave spec vs Unholy as a single target execute spec is only one example of how these classes could be tuned or developed further in the future, and aren’t too far from how they’re being used right now, so a Tier Set that pushes that dichotomy further has real value. For instance, the original version of the Unholy bonus veered far too heavily into pure Execute, which players quickly pushed back against - but a mixed version that’s more integrated into their ‘Undead Commander’ fantasy seems to have gone over better.
Bonuses like these not only let us test the waters to see what you like and don’t like, but also open the floor to give sets texture against one another as we move forward - a bonus that was heavily interacting with X or Y might focus on a completely different part of the spec in the future, which really taps into the depth of our combat and classes over time.
I could probably be here for hours talking about how cool I personally find the sets or how they achieve their goals, but I’ll probably cut this part of the post short. My last comment is that it’s also important to have a diversity of bonuses too. That naturally comes with having different designers playing off each other with their own styles, but it’s important to note that something that may not work for you personally (a crunchy numbers-focused bonus that gives you a clear mechanical output, or higher-fantasy stuff like some of Warlock’s creating new/additional demons) absolutely may work for others, so we’re really aiming to create solid legwork for future set bonuses and designers to give a great variety of experiences over time - which multiplied again by the raw amount of bonuses and classes, is certainly no easy task.
As for your other questions, let me try and answer those in a more condensed way (I did warn you)
How strong should a tier set be?
This one’s generally pretty hard to answer, which I get isn’t super satisfying - but the short answer would be that they should feel similar to Legendaries in terms of power budget. There’s naturally going to be outliers tier by tier, but also there isn’t a ‘magic number’ to reach that is a one-size-fits-all response. I don’t want to create the expectation that it’s like ‘surprise, it’s always X%!’ because we want to retain room to try different things in the future that also take into account other environmental factors to the game’s current systems, but yeah. a TLDR would be ‘it depends’ or ‘they should be in relative balance with one another’, but we’re always aiming for a result that feels more flexible and allows for our colleagues across other teams to tune stuff appropriately around it.
How is acquisition determined?
Another one that’s hard to say definitely - many of us weren’t at blizzard or working on WoW when the old Tier Sets were around, and the game’s changed since then as well, which is why we invested in making Tier Sets this time feel really integrated to the overall endgame experience - that is to say, obtainable the Great Vault (which also didn’t exist then) and from non-raiding activities. This one’s gonna come off as vague, but that’s because honestly we’re trying a lot of new things that weren’t true of previous Tier Sets, so to say definitively one way or the other might end up being a broken promise. That said, it feels right to us that something that’s been kind of iconic for WoW’s endgame is achievable by anyone who plays, even players who join late or swap classes mid-tier, which is the big goal around the Creation Catalyst.
There’ll be more information on that specifically Soon, so I won’t go too deeply into it here, but we recognized that if players heard Tier Sets were back, and rushed to play 9.2 and found it was impossible to get them because they couldn’t find a raiding guild or something, that might lead to a negative experience even if that’s similar to how they worked before. So, TLDR - trying stuff out, looking forward to continuing to try stuff out in the future.
Are active effect Tier Sets ever considered?
Lastly - not really? Actives have their place in WoW (like on some trinkets or special weapons), but often come with trade-offs for us design-wise that don’t currently feel right for Tier Sets. For example, they tend to be harder to use for the average player, but incredibly potent as skill level increases due to compressing/overlapping their effects with certain other buff windows for multiplicative effect. On the other hand, a lot of our ‘passives’ tend to be ‘active’ in the sense that you’ll need to perform specific gameplay actions to get the benefit (like pressing Pistol Shot more, or consuming a proc that you build up over time), which tend to work out better with the flow of WoW’s combat and be generally easier to tune.
I don’t want to give the impression that we’d never try actives on a Tier Set though, just that there’s enough added complexity with Actives that you’d expect it to have to be a pretty awesome theme or special situation to be worth the costs or barriers associated. TL;DR - they weren’t in the conversation for 9.2, have things running against them, but could totally be in the conversation for future sets depending on the right environment + reasons!
I know this was a lot! but I really appreciate your questions, and hope this answers them in a way that hopefully yields the insight you were hoping.
For your question about Resto Shaman, the driving design intent was to make a healing set bonus that felt fundamentally like Resto Shaman. Chain heal and totems are very core Shaman spells. While Chain Heal has fallen a bit out of favor in Shadowlands, this is due in part to how Legendaries and Covenant-related systems have altered the healing-per-mana of Resto Shaman spells. From a design perspective, that means there’s an extra roadblock to making a cool Chain Heal set bonus, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Chain Heal is off the table.
The first iteration of the resto shaman set bonus tried to build an engine around Chain Heal and Spirit Link Totem, but in addition to specific spirit link timing concerns, that would have had the issue of either pushing Chain Heal to the front of Shaman heals at all times, or not being enough to overcome the HPM concerns and ending up unused, depending on how tuning worked out. So we moved towards a bonus that builds an engine around critically hitting, which synergizes with the core mechanic of Resurgence, and rewards you for casting Chain Heal some amount of the time.
Broadly, players understandably look at set bonuses through the lens of how they’re currently playing the game. Sometimes a designer is trying to accent part of their class’s identity that has fallen out of favor, rather than something that already feels important to them. That distinction can lead to that ‘disconnected’ feeling. But ultimately, we all hope for the same thing in the end - fun gameplay that resonates with our class’s core fantasies.