What makes a main, a main?
I read a WoW Insider post today about mains and alts. I disagree with the answers offered in the article and the comments, so I thought I'd give it a try.
Let's get rid of two easy misconceptions.
First, if you're not raiding then the whole main/alt thing is nice for chatting with friends, but it's really more like your favorite flavor of ice cream–not important, except to you. Your "main" is just your nickname that people refer to you as, regardless of the toon you're currently playing. You don't even need to choose a favorite. Like any children you might have, your favorite will shift between them as the weeks come and go. You can change your favorite toon as often as you like and it won't really matter to anyone. Quest and instance to your heart's content. Enjoy!
Second, even for raiders, your main has nothing to do with your time spent playing each toon. I know many players who only raid with their main. When not raiding (that is, most of the time), these people are working on alts or farming with farm-friendly characters.
The common thread between these two examples is people thinking that the main/alt label is describing something about your relationship with your characters, but really, these labels are describing your raid group's relationship with your characters. In a raiding group, your main is important.
When you choose to progress through a gear-gated raiding/progression endgame like World of Warcraft, at every step the group of players has to achieve a certain gear/skill level to proceed to the next step. You start at Endgame A. If your tank can't survive or hold threat from X, or your healers can't keep the raid going during Y circumstances, or your damage dealers can't end a given fight in Z time, then you can't go to Endgame B. A lot of this is skill, and you don't technically need great gear to make that leap, but for practical purposes, most of us players have a far better learning experience when you have the gear right up to the point of progression that you're at. For example, to learn Endgame B, you are best prepared by being in gear from Endgame A. This is Progression in a nutshell. (Bonus definition!)
Your main is the character you join a group's progression cycle with. You're telling that group: "This is the character I want to be on this Progression journey. Invest in me and I'll help you along it." Then you and that group go forward as a team. When you're all ready, you collectively step to Endgame B, then Endgame C and so on. Switching mains means adjustment for that group and its raids, not just the player. This is why raiding groups often have rules about that process. (It's not an automatic move when a core character says "I want to switch this essential Endgame C character for my new favorite pre-Endgame A character.")
An alt is any character you have in that group which is not your main.
Progression happens most often in guild environments, but can just as easily happen outside of guild structure. The same basic guidelines apply. As far as a given persistent raid group is concerned, your main is who you are primarily in the group with. As far as they're concerned, every character but the one you've chosen to bring on their raids is an alt of yours.
Obviously, there are all kinds of weird social dynamics with raiding groups and mains/alts. Maybe I'll write about them another time.
(revised to reflect progression group/guild distinction, thanks Cynra!)
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