Blizzard has had a difficult time finding a happy balance for 10man and 25man raiding since making the decisive split between the two raid sizes in Wrath of the Lich King and has been trying to balance the disparity every since.
In Wrath, 25man raiders were rewarded with higher iLvL gear that 10man, with separate lockouts for both sizes many guilds ran a 25 group and two 10s, forcing players to raid two separate difficulties every week to optimise performance. This was normalised in Cataclysm, 10 and 25 shared a lockout and gave exactly the same loot and did nigh irreparable harm to the 25man raiding scene.
In Mists, Blizzard have attempted to reach a medium with Thunderforged gear having a higher drop-rate in 25man Throne of Thunder, effectively bringing the average iLvL of 25man raiders up and bringing the paradigm full circle.
Yet 10man remains vastly more popular, simply because it is logistically easier for guild to manage a raiding guild on this scale, but this brings about its own problem of player rotating and benching.
Being benched sucks. Any player that cares enough about raiding to progress past LFR and show up to every raid night prepared with flasks, pots, food, etc, cares too much to be told they aren't being invited to the party and take it on the chin.
But it is absolutely necessary to have a roster larger than the minimum in case some of your members can't make it one night and you need people to step in, leaving some players out of luck every week.
At least until now.
Recently Blizzard announced the implementation of Flexible Raiding (immediately coined as “Flex mode” by ..everyone) as an additional difficulty setting between LFR and Normal mode and designed to scale depending on how many players are present in the raid group with a new iLvL of rewards.
But ..does WoW really need another difficulty level in an already bloated raiding system?
It certainly seems to serve a purpose right now in terms of filling a void for social guilds that have too many people for a 10man raid and not enough for 25 but how many guilds are going to make the decision to take an extra two people and run flex every week in addition to their 10man progression runs? It could be argued that it is simply a choice, much like LFR is a choice for players involved in normal mode progression but it is still difficult to argue the element of choice to those that don't have it; the two or three raid-ready players sat outside a raid instance portal hoping to be invited every week.
It would be amazing if Blizzard failed to implement this in place of normal mode entirely in the next expansion, 10 and 25man normal modes would simply cease to be a meaningful distinction and it would be a healthy change that the game has needed for some time.
This would be a great change for guilds currently running a 10man team, once they can maintain the minimum requirement of 10 players on their roster they never have to bench a player again, everyone wins and the guild can continue to grow without members fearing for their raid spots although this will no doubt mean more specific performance management from raid/class leads which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
25man guilds would remain unaffected for the most part, some with larger rosters may lose a few players who will settle for slightly less than 25man for the sake of a raid spot but it is definitely expected that guilds will flourish in this environment as more players find spots in guilds for median sized flex raids.
It is difficult to ignore the feeling that Blizzard have chosen to implement flex at this point in an expansion's life cycle, the final raid tier, intentionally to test it much in the same way that LFR was implemented in Cataclysm during Dragon Soul.
Implementing LFR at that time gave Blizzard a snapshot of what LFR would become, allowing them to make necessary changes after seeing how it functioned in a live environment and the problems it had initially with loot rolls, players losing out on loot they needed to those that didn't (simply because they could) and some guilds getting around the system of only looting a boss once per week via an expoilt.
I have no doubt that flex will have teething problems initially, it will absolutely be open to guilds “gaming” the system and figuring out the perfect number and combination of players to maximise efficiency but ultimately it is absolutely the right direction to take the game, not least to address the elephant in the room; shrinking realm populations.
Coupled with the newly announced Virtual Realms Blizzard are beginning to explore solutions for the inevitable decline in population whilst deftly avoiding the negative PR and logistical headaches associated with server merges. I don't want this to be a doom-herald post, but it is something that will need to be addressed in the future and the sooner that Blizzard make moves to explore the eventuality the better.
The only problem with having flex replace normal mode is how players would make the transition to heroic raiding, assuming that heroics will retain the 10/25 structure it could be a jarring experience to move to a more strictly regulated environment and the idea of being benched will be a huge deterrent for some.
Could Blizzard take a similar approach and add Flex to heroic modes?
Unlikely, but like so many changes Blizzard has made to the game in recent years I have learned to never say “never” but I expect that many players would feel that the experience would be cheapened by such a change, especially with regards to world firsts and other achievements.
Overall, this is a massive positive change for World of Warcraft at a time that the game desperately needs it and I firmly believe that it will not only be the defining feature of patch 5.4 but Mists of Pandaria's legacy for the next expansion.