I was pleasantly surprised with last month’s Stability changes in Guild Wars 2. Changing Stability to stack in intensity rather than duration, with each stack nullifying a single instance of crowd control, rather than giving you full immunity to all control effects for its entire duration, was a perfect illustration of why soft counters are better than hard counters, particularly in a fast-paced game like Guild Wars 2, where player skill is supposed to trump build advantage.
Now builds that rely on control effects to either deliver their damage or to stay alive are no longer completely dominated by builds with a lot of access to Stability. Nor are supposedly game-turning skills with extremely long cooldowns, like Lich Form, brutally shut down by a single Corrupt Boon, which takes away the stability and lets you bounce the Lich around like a ping pong.
As you’ve probably figured, I love this new system! Although, as Noah Sky over at AspectGG pointed out, the effects of this change haven’t been that drastic, at least in sPvP (WvW group fights are a whole other kettle of zergfish, and the changes have had a heavy impact there!), the beauty of this new system is that it will let the developers to make far more granular balance adjustments! For instance, the “3 stacks every 3 seconds” elites might be a little bit TOO immune to boon removal for my liking, as stability is reapplied too quickly. On the other hand, Foot in the Grave is still far too weak for a grandmaster trait. Having control over both duration and intensity means these imbalances can be fixed far more easily: you can adjust duration, intensity, number and frequency of pulses. Stability no longer either makes you completely immune or not.
This system is so great, in fact, that I would like it to be extended to Aegis and Blind as well! Currently, the way these two effects work (Blind making your next attack miss and Aegis blocking the next incoming attack, both stacking in duration rather than intensity) makes them pretty marginal. In theory, you can time your Blind or Aegis to prevent a big damage attack from your opponent, forcing them to waste a cooldown and possibly winning you the fight. But, in reality, since some of the most powerful skills in the game have a casting time of a second or less, most of the time your Blind and Aegis end up preventing plain old autoattacks.
Let me pre-empt all the cries of “L2P”: the median human reaction time according to http://www.humanbenchmark.com/tests/reactiontime/statistics is 253 milliseconds. Using the median ensures that the data isn’t skewed upwards by people with abnormally slow reactions times. Such as me, who scored 264 on this test. Bear in mind that researchers get these numbers using very simple on-screen reaction time tests where you have to click a single button when the clown pops out of the box or the light changes colour. In Guild Wars 2, where you have to figure out which (extremely badly telegraphed, because ANet hate casting bars, but that’s another topic for another rant) skill your opponent is casting, and which of your 26 skills you should use to avoid it, and whether to avoid it at all, the reaction time of even a highly skilled player will be slower than 253ms. On top of that, most people play Guild Wars 2 with a latency of 75-250ms. I got 83ms last night, which was the best I’ve seen since this time last year! Moreover, the game client itself will add at least another 30-50ms, often more depending on your computer, your graphics settings, and even what mouse and keyboard you use!
(Pro tip: using a PS/2 port for your keyboard may shave off between 10 and 20ms of activation lag according to this study, although the researcher used some pretty ancient equipment to test. Tom’s Hardware certainly thought USB is fine when they reviewed fancy mechanical keyboards. NKRO might be a real benefit of PS/2, as it’s easy to go over the USB limit of 3 simultaneous keypresses in a game like GW2, but that’s a completely different issue to input lag.)
So I would argue that it’s impossible to Blind or use Aegis against an incoming attack unless the total activation time of the attack is 0.5 seconds or less, under ideal conditions of minimal lag (both internet and input latency) and reflexes worthy of The Flash. That’s more likely 0.75” for most players, who play on normal home broadband and a PC that doesn’t contain a Ming Mecca chip obtained through shady deals with evil corporations.
And that’s assuming your Blind or Aegis application is instantaneous. Casting time (plus projectile travel time for attacks that inflict blind) must be added to that! So if your blind skill has a 0.25” casting time and instantaneous travel time, you could only blind attacks of 1” casting time or longer. Any projectile travel time whatsoever and most players won’t be able to do it fast enough, unless they’re playing in the same room as the game’s servers! (Of course, good players routinely use clutch Blind or Aegis against even faster skills, but that’s not because they have godlike reflexes: it’s because they know when their opponent is likely to use a skill you’d want to blind or block, and casting pre-emptively. Nothing to do with our discussion.)
If you look at all the skills applying Aegis in the game, only two have an instant casting time: Virtue of Courage and Retreat. Every other Aegis application in the game is either a passive proc you can’t time, or, even worse, a random application (such as from Chaos Storm). As such, they’ll probably only block autoattacks unless you’re extremely lucky, providing nothing but a minor reduction to incoming damage, and making it impossible for you to use them to block that incoming big damage Fire Grab, or to stop yourself from getting interrupted while you heal.
Blind does a little better: sure, there are blinding skills with ridiculously long cast times such as Lightning Surge, or which have a short casting time but a very slow projectile travel time like Deathly Swarm. But there are plenty of instant or almost-instant skills that you could use to blind a skill you saw coming. You don’t often see it happening in the current meta, because sceptre elementalists are out of fashion, meditation guardians tend to use their blind skills offensively so they don’t save them for defence, leaving only dagger/pistol thieves and the occasional torch-toting shatter mesmer with the ability to clutch-blind their attackers.
Because of this (and because of ANet’s aforementioned hatred of casting bars), the only times we regularly see Blind and Aegis being used to prevent specific skills are during stomps, to prevent a downed player from using their interrupt, and thereby secure the stomp. Downed-state interrupts (the number 2 skill in every downed state) are the only skills in the game which can be easily predicted, have generally slow cast times, and have a clear visual cue, making them great targets for Blind or Aegis – even if the skill that applies Blind or Aegis isn’t instant-cast.
So: for one-off, unstackable effects, we see that Blind and Aegis are pretty weak. Unless you’re trying to stomp someone, where you can see that big, 2” interrupt animation from a mile away, your blind or aegis will just catch an autoattack unless you’re obscenely lucky. The skills that can provide instant and predictable Blind or Aegis so you can block something deliberately can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand. So what about all the rest of them?
I can see the point of skills that pulse Blind, such as Plague Form, where the objective is not to blind a specific incoming skill, but to consistently reduce the overall damage output of the enemy in a big team fight, or Black Powder, which, similarly, is there to provide overlapping blinds so the thief can unload their damage without getting torn apart. But what about random procs of blind, or single instances of blind? What is the point of only being able to shut down the enemy’s offence for only the half a second it takes them to perform a throwaway autoattack, if you can’t land the condition reliably and instantaneously?
In my opinion, therefore, Blind and Aegis should be allowed to stack in intensity, just like the new Stability. Each stack of Blind would make one attack miss, each stack of Aegis would block one attack. Most existing skills (especially the instant-cast ones discussed above), would still only provide a single stack of each. However, skills that are currently marginal (such as Lightning Surge, with its long cast time) could be made more useful by applying, say, 3 stacks of blind, forcing the target to either use a cleanse or spend several seconds autoattacking to get rid of each stack. Skills that pulse blind or aegis would do a more effective job of shutting down offense, as “unused” instances of blind or aegis would stack with the next pulse instead of being overwritten. Moreover, it would enable teammates to combine blinds and aegis stacks from multiple sources and multiple players. Trying to save your teammate who’s on his last sliver of health? Stack aegis from 3 different people on him, give him a nice long window of blocking to get his heal off! Want to stop that Lich from blowing up a whole team fight, but all your crowd control is on recharge? No problem, just stack multiple blinds on it from 2 different players and watch its Deathly Claws swipe around blindly in mid air! If you try to do that currently, and your blinds hit simultaneously, all your blinds will only make one of the Lich’s attacks miss…
The best thing about such a change would be that you can make random or semi-random procs of Blind or Aegis less random, and more meaningful. Traits that grant Aegis either on a threshold (eg. 50% health), or on an interval (like the rarely-used Armor Mods), could be made more useful by giving more stacks and increasing their internal cooldown to compensate. This would be beneficial both for the user, who’ll have a longer window of invulnerability in which to either disengage or cast a skill they don’t want to be interrupted, and for their opponent, who won’t have their attacks randomly blocked as frequently. Predictability the better player win, so getting 3 stacks of Aegis every 30″ will make the trait better than a single stack every 15″.
With the more granular balancing this will enable, this will make Blind and Aegis useful and meaningful outside the stomping minigame. Who knows, we might even see people using a cleanse to get rid of Blind (like they used to in Guild Wars 1) or a boon removal to get rid of Aegis, rather than just autoattack through them! Wouldn’t that be a sign that these effects were all grown up and found a place in the game?