What seems like a lifetime ago, we were introduced to an instance in the Ghostlands near Silvermoon known as Zul'aman, the last stronghold of the Amani Trolls, where a genius and diabolical Troll known as Malacrass worked under Zul'jin to bind Trolls and Animal Avatars together to create God like beings. His strange experimentations were somewhat successful creating the four Animal Gods of Zul'aman, the Eagle, Bear, Lynx and Dragonhawk, and infusing Zul'jin with the power of all four. The darkest powers were reserved for Malacrass himself, allowing him to drain abilities from anyone nearby, and to raise his own power level temporarily by reducing that of others. This dark nest of Trolls, while not directly a threat to the Eastern Kingdom at this time, could grow to rival the Old Troll Empire, and wreak revenge on those that did them harm.
Steeped in mystery, hidden north of the Eastern Plague Lands, a final enclave, and an end to the tale of Zul'jin, formerly involved in the 2nd war, and tortured by the Elves. This instance offered a lot lore wise, and presented one of the few last bastions of the Troll race within the Old World. (Though perhaps someday we will see a full Troll city, a 25 man raid instance on either an Alliance or Horde City, with boss fights in each major sector and multiple paths, it could be such an interesting CoT instance, "The sacking of Zul'Aman", or perhaps "The sacking of the Lorderon"). This stronghold holds dark mysteries, but great rewards for those that can challenge the Troll Gods and their Masters.
For those not interested in the lore it offered high iLvl gear in a short fast, and somewhat brutal instance. The challenge level was tunable to your gear and ability using a timer mechanic with additional loot, and the final prize of a special mount, the Amani War Bear. This timer mechanic allowed you to see the fights without worrying, but for those that had the gear level to push further, some of the best rings in the game, interesting gear, and of course the mount to tantalise the T6 Guilds who otherwise would have no real reason to run the instance beyond Badges of Justice. Zul'aman was in short a well designed instance for different levels of progress, and the start of the 10 man raiding as something more than a stepping stone into the 25 man raid instances.
A Brutal Instance:
Zul'aman can best be described as brutal, I honestly cannot think of another instance so unforgiving for mistakes or deaths other than perhaps the personal responsibility fights in T6 where your death can literally wipe the raid. Each boss was essentially tuned to a high level for the appropriate gearing, while of course extra gear will allow you to push further and faster, the fights can still potentially threaten you. The push for the timers makes this more apparent, with 4 timers achievable with a Tier 4 geared group, but realistically achievable in Tier 5, each mistake made contributes time to recover, and each second lost is one second further from getting the loot that you want.
Zul'aman serves as a short cut to many of the fight templates in the game, presenting you with movement, co-operative Tanking, split-Tanking, phased Healing, transition fights and many others within a short space of time, and for those doing the timers, no way to switch out effectively to give optimal raid compositions for each fight. Zul'aman in many ways can be seen as a training instance for Tier 6 content for those that skipped the Tier 5 content using Badge of Justice gear. This is perhaps a cynical, or too accepting view of it, however in many ways I have learned more from this instance and the stress of the timers than I have in other instances, where making a mistake was fine because there was time and capability to recover.
Taking a quick look at the bosses this instance presents to us:
Akil'zon - The Eagle Avatar:
Akil'zon is a fairly easy fight, a tank and spank, with the raid being forced to spread apart to avoid chaining spells (10-15 yards spells that jump between targets) to minimise the raid damage, then being forced to move in to avoid a lightning effect. Through out the whole fight birds will swarm the raid dealing minor, damage, and targets will be selected and thrown in the air taking roughly 50% fall damage.
This fight presents a few hazards, firstly the movement aspect of the fight, if the raid doesn't move it wipes, but you must be fast enough moving back out to stop excessive chained damage spells killing raid members. This part of the fight is a lot like Naj'entus, standing too close to each other is extra damage, yet being too far away makes the spines hard to retrieve.
The minor raid wide damage is an annoyance, but teaches your Warlocks and Hunters to weave AoE damage through their normal damage to stop the damage building, without completely stopping their dps.
Finally the fall damage is reflective of fights like Rage Winterchill with sudden spikes of damage on single targets that are not the tank, while these spikes are a little more predictable and slow, they serve as a training ground for the real thing.
This fight in many ways is the least fun of the instance, it does feel like a tank and spank boss, with the wipes / deaths resulting in the fight being very long, there is little variety or stress in this for the Tank, simply a threat race in a quite low threat environment (rage / mana can be hard to keep up in the longer term due to avoidance).
Nalorakk - The Bear Avatar:
The Bear Avatar is a Tank co-operation test using taunting and positioning to control the debuffs the boss applies. Threat in this fight is realistically not an issue, however without good co-operation and Tank assignment this fight will go horribly wrong.
The damage in this fight is also very high, the Troll phase has a swipe for ~ 6k per target (12K on a single target) so both Tanks must be healed well, as well as being an exceptionally fast attacking boss. In contrast the Bear form is based on bleeds, and with the debuff applied in the Troll phase can eat 16K health within a matter of seconds. While this boss is far from Brutallus, the sheer damage scope he can throw our (and if one of your Tanks dies without a way to resurrect then its often over very quickly until you out gear it).
The Bear fight is a great fight, you can solo Tank parts of it, but doing so is stressful, you must co-operate with the other Tank and reposition yourselves as he charges in and out. Its not a difficult fight, but very short and intense, the raw damage potential he has pushes you to your limits, making this a long fight will tend towards making it one you might not walk out of.
Jan'alai - The Dragonhawk Avatar:
Split tanking, one Tank, Healer and DPS must maintain and control a potentially large group of Dragonhawks and their spawn rate while the rest DPS the boss (reminiscent of the Shade of Akama fight). Making the fight more interesting are bombs that are spread around capable of dealing very high fire damage to anyone silly enough to stand on or near them when they explode.
This fight is about control, about splitting into teams and communicating with each other to achieve a task. If the Hawks are not controlled they will typically aggro a Healer (area wide threat) and quickly end the fight. Making this control harder is a speed aspect, 50% of the way to the enrage, though it can trigger early, Jan'alai berserks increasing his damage and attack speed meaning your Healers must be capable of either healing both groups, or the group assigned to the Dragonhawks must deal with them before the berserk starts.
This fight is perhaps the hardest of the four Amani Gods, the forced movement, add groups, soft enrage and suchlike combine many aspects of later fights and do so in a non-standard way. The vital aspects of the fight are team work, and responsibility for yourself since the non-tank damage can be minimal if you take care. Its also one of the most fun, both Tanks are occupied, Healers must be aware of more than just their target, and DPS must be ready to swap targets to take care of the Hatchers if necessary. This is one of the hardest fights to learn however, as each new person brought in needs to be aware of the full flow of the fight, otherwise their death can push you towards the enrage.
Halazzi - The Lynx Avatar:
The WTFPwned Avatar of the Amani, sorry, Halazzi is a tuned DPS fight with multiple phases, a threat sensitive switch, Tank co-operation (soaking), a fast reactive dps component (the totems), and a very heavy healing requirement. Oh and he frenzies every so often increasing his damage and attack speed...
Ahem, Halazzi is an interesting fight, it requires fast reactions from the DPS to deal with the totems that spam (chained lightning attacks, flame shock debuffs) damage and DoTs onto the raid, it requires two Tanks to understand positioning and gear for soaking 18K lashes (split between 2 targets) potentially every 2-3s, and it requires the Healers to keep up one Tank under very high damage constraints and another above at least 9K to avoid lash deaths. Halazzi is simply a damage machine in his Lynx form, realistically he cannot be solo Tanked at the gear levels most people have (our record was 32% solo, before running out of trinkets and cool downs to survive).
Halazzi presents the last obstacle to the Amani War Bear, his raw damage is on par with Nalorakk's and his magic damage phases can cause you to lose players if you are not careful and have a watchful debuffer. In short, its short, intense, and fun, no fight short of Bloodboil feels this intense with a pressure to survive, its simply a challenge and a joy.
Hex Lord Malacrass - The Dark Power:
The Hex Lord is an easy fight, every 30s or so he drains a raid member for abilities, giving him potentially very high burst damage, AoE damage, DoTs, Healing Reduction, Mind Control, Fears... very hectic. Making it more complex, just before each drain (starting at 80% of his health) he reduces your damage by 1%, and increases his by 10%. His final ability is an AoE (All 10 members of your raid) shadow attack dealing 20 bolts of Shadow Damage (the BT Shadow Resistance gear makes this trivial), causing push back and making healing very intensive and vital.
The Hex Lord is accompanied by 4 adds that must be cc'd or killed (typically killing 2 and ccing 2 gives the best kill times, otherwise you may need to kill a target mid fight dealing with the soul drain if a cc'er dies mid fight). These are typically a minor distraction to your group rather than a real threat, they serve merely to enforce good cc practices onto the controllers, such as reapplying before the shadow bolts, which would otherwise stop the recasting of the control spells.
Hex Lord is another very fun fight, but his random nature, and the very high raid wide damage without Shadow Resistance gear (because its 20 separate attacks you will see a lot more average resists than your would if it was 1 large bolt so probability plays into our favour by averaging out the damage). There isn't a lot you can do to auto-win vs the Hex Lord, Hunters, Shamans and Druids stolen abilities are the least of your worries, a Paladin or Mage your worst, but no classes abilities are impossible to deal with.
Zul'jin - Leader of the Amani Trolls:
Zul'jin is a 5 phase fight, and perhaps the hardest fight you will encounter due to his seemingly random ability to make raid members die (no actual in game ability, people just seem to randomly die a lot :P). The first phase is a Tank and Spank, the second an exercise in standing on a mark and dispelling, the third a movement and minimal mana usage (you are damaged each time you use mana), the 4th a respone test (the target needs quick healing otherwise they die fast), and the fifth a movement fight (if you stand still you get caught in the fiery pillars, cast move, cast move typically results in little to no damage).
As a final fight this is quite impressive and fun, it pulls together all the threads from the previous fights, offering large damage, mobility, and self responsibility. The fight is not realistically a DPS race, we have pushed the final phase (20% of his health) with 1 DPS, 1 Tank and 1 Healer before, but that doesn't make it fun.
Starting out in Zul'aman is a real shock, each of the bosses is capable of damage similar or exceeding that of Prince phase 2, this in itself is a shock, but then the timer that appears makes you want to rush, while in truth rushing is the last thing you should do at any stage simply becuase doing so will make you make a mistake. The first step is typically to walk through each of the bosses and approach them as though you were on the timer, learn the fight, then learn it under some pressure. Really there isn't a lot I can say that others already haven't, learn each pull, learn the patrols and most importantly know your raid. To truly progress through the timers the most important thing you can have is communication and trust.
The Elusive Timer, and Trusting your Raid:
Timers are hard, my Guilds worked for months at the T4, T4.5 level pushing through the content, slowly moving from "OMG, how do you get 2 timers?" to "Oh wow we have 12 mins left after the third", and finally to "If we can shave off 3 minutes we get a Bear!", at each stage the key things were that everyone knew the fights, making a single mistake that costs you a resurrection costs the raid time, effort and mana, secondly is high DPS and synergy. Without synergy your raid will be sub-par, of course its possible to run all the timers with any group, but stacking your 5-6 DPS to maximise their benefit will do far more for your raid than you can imagine, while a Mage, Warlock, Rogue, Hunter and Priest will work, making that a Rogue, Shaman, Hunter, Hunter and Warlock would do far more damage. Know what you can give to your DPS to help them, as your Healers will eventually go OOM and then you wipe.
Trusting your raid is vital, if someone says its safe to move, move, if they say stop, stop. You need to not only know your raid and Healers / DPS / Tanks, but also to trust them, simply doing your job is not enough, you need to be there for other people and be ready to make it work. Bad things happen, but you can start pulls below full mana, react to Tank deaths and suchlike in a way which will make the Timers trivial, and its trust. Go into the instance with people you can count on to do whats necessary in an emergency and you will do well, I have seen a near bear run with us accidentally pulling 3 trash packs, which had 3 Tank deaths, 4 Healer deaths and 7 DPS, and we didn't wipe. Each time we suffered a setback the others picked up the slack (running in, DPS healing, self resses when appropriate, battle resses). Its never the end, push forward even if you stand no chance, because the experience of keeping on the pressure will pay off.
Mounting my Amani War Bear:
Eventually I got my Amani War Bear, it was with a new group however, not the old group I had worked for months with pushing forward each step, we got a Bear the first night we entered, and every night there after for 15 resets (the full group). However in many ways doing it this way was meaningless to me, our original group failed when summer hit and we no longer managed to pull together the 10 people needed, yes I made the Bear run with friends (or people who would become friends, since our first Bear was the night I joined the Guild), however it was too easy. The challenge of the Bear was not in actually getting the Bear, but the road towards it.
The Bear runs to me were always a challenge, about trying to move forwards and that feeling of working in a group, of struggling against the odds and getting so close. Those of use in those runs spend endless nights working on the best way to approach the fights with what we had, and trying to maximise our efficiency. We became very close through it because we needed that trust and closeness so that we could react to each other and any eventualities. The newer group was better geared by a long way, simply we had the DPS and Healing to pull through the fights without the challenge, of course the closeness and friendship grew over time, but the instance lacked the lustre it once had. The knowledge those first runs brought me made the new runs very easy, our first run finished with 6 minutes to spare, and runs there after hit 9 minutes to spare (sometimes with 4 wipes in the middle). While my first runs and experiences were serious affairs, preparing and making sure everything was likely to go right, we could now mess around, more like a Heroic instance than the ultimate 10 man challenge.
Its probably looking at this through rose tinted glasses, after all many people still want a War Bear, its going away in WoTLK after all, but its a mount I rarely use. It's a nice mount, and its quite rare still even with people selling runs for it, however its also a mount that should have a story for each person that has one, everyone who went through Bear runs can likely tell you a tale of how they got it, how long it took and how many nights they spent getting close.
The Amani War Bear is a mount many people have, many more people want, and yet I tend to use my White Hawk Strider from Magister's Terrace more. Of course this mount requires a lot less effort to acquire, and indeed is likely less prestigious, however it had and has a meaning to me. Magister's Terrace was the first instance we hit the ground running on, never before had we been at the cutting edge trying to work out strategy, and tactics for each fight, discovering what WoWiki didn't tell you. Again it took many nights of running the instance, but eventually we worked out the best tactics for every Boss, for each combination of DPS and Healer, the mount thus represents the friendship and troubles we went through to get it and the hardships we had when learning the bosses. Its a sentimental mount really, its still simply a collection of pixels, but its an avatar for the memories it evokes, its a mount that means something because of the history behind it.