This is a question I see with growing frequency in guild chat or raid chat as the group fills up. This is because, as a guild, we are in a strange place with regard to progression. We’re not quite ready for ToC-25 hard modes, but doing Ulduar hard modes can seem a bit silly. They’re definitely harder than ToC-25 normal mode, but with (mostly) inferior loot.
This makes the term “progression” a bit loopy. There’s no doubt that Algalon is significantly more difficult than Northrend Beasts on normal mode, but Algalon’s loot is a few item levels lower. If you look back at previous expansions, raiding progression was a bit more linear. In pre-BC, you started off with a mix of Onyxia and Molten Core. When you could reliably kill Ragnaros, you’d probably move on to a mix of ZG (which was harder than MC) and Blackwing Lair. Then you’d start playing around with AQ20 and AQ40. Then, if you were awesome, you’d head into Naxxramas (when it was actually hard).
In BC there were significantly more raids but again a fairly linear progression. You started with a mix of Karazhan and Gruul’s Lair, moving up to Magtheridon and then upgrading to the next “tier” of gear when you were ready. In Wrath, you can get Ulduar level gear from heroics. You can get ToC-25 level gear from an instance that is easily pugged (Vault). Malygos, Sartharionx3 and Kel’Thuzad drop loot that is comparable (and in some cases superior, as with the Signet of Manifested Pain and Pennant Cloak) to Ulduar gear.
Onyxia muddies the water even more. Another puggable instance that drops ilvl 245 gear! It’s crazy! Is it better, though? Hard modes have certainly made progression a fuzzier line than before. While I do certainly enjoy attempting (and later succeeding at, hopefully) the Ulduar-25 hardmodes, it feels off to be doing them after completing the normal mode of ToC. Invariably, progression is measured by the kind of loot you can get from an instance. So Ulduar is behind ToC in these terms. The major change we have seen in the last few patches of WotLK is that difficulty no longer necessarily scales with ilvl.
I recall talking to my GM about the subject (or at least something closely related) and he lamented the lack of a middleground. Something between ToC hardmode and ToC normal (which is simply too easy and a bit boring) for guilds that fall between casual and hardcore. What could this be, though? Perhaps if hard modes could be calibrated multiple ways with different loot, as with Sartharion, there would be more for middle-of-the-road guilds to do. This is my major frustration with having “hard” and “normal” modes. Where’s the middleground?
The basis for creating it is there. Have Freya with two trees alive drop, say, ilvl 236 loot (between 226 and 239, which is the ilvl of Ulduar hard mode gear). This would require tweaking of certain hard modes, such as Mimiron, where you have everything built into the press of the button. For other fights, such as the previously mentioned Freya encounter and Hodir, calibrating loot drops to have normal, medium and hard drops wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. It would also follow Blizzard’s trend of giving its players options.
Be casual, be hardcore, be casualcore. Play as much as you want. Just hope that Blizzard notices you and gives you something appropriate to your skill level to do.