29 August 2008

The offical word on buffs and debuffs

Thank you to suicidal zebra for alerting me to the massive shake-up announced yesterday to raid buffs and debuffs (link here via mmo champion).

And guess what? I must be psychic, or else someone at Blizzard is paying attention, because the mana regeneration of vampiric touch will be uncoupled from damage done and return a percentage of base mana instead.

There are other big changes for shadow priests in that post, some of which even my razor-like mind failed to anticipate, and once again the dwarf priest has a great run-down of them.

I'll bring you my thoughts when I've had time to digest. Right now though, I'm thinking of rolling a boomkin.

27 August 2008

Why a VT nerf is not the answer

If you've read any of the community feedback on shadow priests, you'll know one of the biggest issues for the class is the poor scaling of mind flay — that is, as your spell damage bonus grows, mind flay benefits from a smaller percentage of it than other spells.

There are two likely culprits for this situation. One is the snare component of the spell. Other spells with snare components are similarly penalised. However, never by as much as mind flay. And that's not accounting for the spell's reduced range which is, in itself, probably due to the snare.

So while this might be a factor, I think the second candidate is more likely to be the main cause of the spell's poor scaling.

And that's the mana returned by vampiric touch. If shadow priests were allowed to scale as efficiently as other dps, the mana returned would be silly. Even as it stands now, it's considered too generous. That's the whole reason it's getting nerfed. So I suspect shadow priests have been hamstrung by the need to cap the effective amount of mana they have provided to their parties.

In retrospect, this was always going to be an issue. Mana pools don't grow significantly as a player's gear improves, so as spell damage and performance grew the mana returned was always going to be disproportionately significant.

Even with the nerf, this will remain an issue in Northrend, even if its effects will be less pronounced and targeted more at the under-geared player.

Blizzard clearly knows this, as evidenced by the two new mana batteries in Wrath, survival hunters and frost mages. Both will return a percentage of a player's base mana, not a percentage of the caster's damage. What this means is that the mana regeneration is predictable and controllable at all levels of the player's progression. It also severs the link between damage and utility that holds shadow priests back.

The surprise is that Blizzard hasn't carried the lessons from this into its design for shadow priests in Wrath. They have nerfed the shit out of vampiric touch and claim we are still returning similar amounts of mana.

If that concern is holding Blizzard back from making some meaningful improvements to shadow priest dps, there's a very simple solution: tie vampiric touch to base mana, not damage done.

26 August 2008

Fame won’t change me vows blogger priest


WORLD’S END TAVERN, SHATTRATH The latest WoW blogger to be outed by WoW Insider has declared: “I’m still the same old face-melter”.

Speaking from one of Shattrath’s more salubrious watering holes, the self-styled ‘Misery’ — or Merlot to his friends — recalled how he came to join the ranks of struggling WoW bloggers.

“I was just another honest, hard working shadow priest looking for a gig at 70. I knew I was ready to take on Illidan but the guild masters around these parts had other ideas. They wanted ‘experience’; they wanted ‘better gear’. I mean, wtf, everything I wear looks the same man.”

So he started a blog as a way to let off steam and set himself apart from the ranks of other adventurers drawn to Outland by the promise of gold and glory. This sometimes witty, sometimes tragic, always heartfelt account of his true-to-life experiences is what first captured the attention of blogging titans WoW Insider.

Close friends tell of the two distinct sides to his personality; the ruthless ambition that drove him to the dark side, and the frivolous, playfulness that leads him now to drop shadowform and let us see him in all his colourful glory, if only for a moment.

“It isn’t always like this,” he said, gesturing to the bar wenches hanging off each arm. “I can be serious too, you know? I have ideas. And I’m not done with Illidan yet, either.

“But at heart, I’m still the same, honest, grafting mana battery my loyal fans have come to know and love. I won’t let this one link change me. I’ll still move in flame wreath, I’ll still dot up the sheep, and I’ll still do my best to top the death meters.”

What next for this plucky purple priesty now that fame has come knocking?

“Uh, I dunno man. I’ve been a little short on the spondoolicks, you know? I need to get back to Quel’Danas and grind some gold for one of those sweet epic flyers. And I hear there are a couple of grons in Blade’s Edge Mountain that need putting in their place. I might head there when I’ve finished here.”

He ostentatiously orders another round for the entire taven, putting it on his tab. The bar manager looks confused but starts pouring.

Suddenly, he jumps to his feet, summons the shadows, and bursts into dance. As he swings his arms and gyrates his hips, the wenches giggle and clap and dance along. One or two gruff warrior types roll their eyes and look away, disgusted.

He winks at me. “You should check out my blog man, it’s imba.”

I leave the tavern wondering just how much danger those ogres are really in.

25 August 2008

I spoke too soon

How's this for timing? We get a blue post on the issue of raid composition on the same day I kick up a fuss about exactly that.

Ghostcrawler listed the reasons why Blizzard is examining raid buffs — and to put words in her mouth, I think raid utility as a whole. Not surprisingly, number one on this list was the fact that with a new class, and more 10-man content, raid stacking will becoming increasingly difficult in Northrend.

She also made this statement on raid-wide buffs:

"We are moving almost every buff to affect the entire raid. There are only a few exceptions, and these tend to be short-term, bursty abilities."

You can't call vampiric touch short-term or bursty. Does that seal it then? Will we become raid-wide mana batteries?

But this reason, to me, is the most interesting:

"Stacking a raid in order to get the right buffs has started to feel a little like a crutch, much like stacking consumables felt not so long ago. Because some of the buffs scale so well and have so much synergy with other classes, you may sometimes feel that you should pass over a really skilled player in order to pick up a buff that will bring more to you group. We'd rather get back to bringing good players or, gasp, even your friends."

On the one hand, that's exactly the right approach to take. It shouldn't matter what classes you have, you should be able to take on any encounter and succeed. But there's a sting in the tail depending on how you read this. Does it mean they will be balancing the damage output of hybrid dps, so they can compete, or does it mean you will no longer need to bring hybrid dps for their utility?

That's one frightening conclusion to this business. With raid-wide buffing and less dependency on group buffs, it's the support classes that stand to loose the most.

She goes on to give some examples of the changes we can expect to see:
  • The ability to easily get all major buffs and debuffs in a group while still having slots to spare
  • More parity in which classes can raid — that's right, they promise a degree of equality for all 'classes' when it comes to raid slots (note: not 'specs'); whether that means only one viable spec for each class (holy priests, for example) remains to be seen
  • More overlap in buffs and debuffs and very few unique abilities — multiple classes are going to be to deliver the same utility, like we've already seen with mana regeneration
  • No two classes should have the same set of buffs and debuffs, so there's always something unique they can bring to the group
I personally think these last two points are contradictory, but we'll have to wait and see how they deliver it.

Ghostcrawler gives a few examples, trotting out mana batteries as a prime — shadow priests, ret palandins and survival hunters will all be viable in that role. She forgets to mention frost mages and shaman too, of course.

"The goal is to get more people into raids and to let you bring the people you want. Ultimately, that should benefit everyone."

Well, I can't argue with that. But I'll reserve judgement until I see the execution, I think.

22 August 2008

Utility v damage = flawed argument

If you are sick of reading increasingly hysterical posts about the state of shadow priests in Wrath, this blog is not for you. The trend is set to continue.

But today you get a reprieve. Well, of sorts. The dwarf priest has put out a call to arms for shadow priests everywhere, and I really can't improve on her eloquent words. I urge you to read the post, pick up your pitch forks and start marching.

Today, instead, I want to get something off my chest.

There is an accepted wisdom in raiding theory that dps classes should be balanced around two things: damage and utility. Some classes provide pure, raw damage, but don't really add much to the raid, while others — primarily the hybrids — bring buffs and debuffs to enhance the performance of their party and raid while delivering a lower personal damage output. Think of the synergy between a rogue and an enhancement shaman, for example.

This trade-off is practically set in stone. It's as if the value of a class's utility is inversely proportional to their dps potential.

So you end up with a two-tier structure where some classes are designed to top the dps charts while others are held back in support roles.

Ret paladins have just felt the nerf bat on the beta forums for this very reason — they were deemed to be doing too much damage. They're just a support class after all, let's knock them back in their place before they get ideas above their station.

Poor ret paladins. But there's a very good reason for the nerf according to the accepted logic. If utility classes could provide top notch damage as well as utility, then raids would stack them at the expense of their pure-damage cousins.

This is a bad argument by any standard, but in Wrath it only looks worse.
For a start, the distinction between utility and damage is conspicuously fuzzy. Take locks as an example, who currently vie for the honour of top dog dps. What is banish, if not utility? Or enslave? Or curse of elements, or shadow embrace? Or, for that matter, what about seed of corruption, a spell that makes aoe situations trivial. Not to mention that hybrid classes have only situational crowd control.

The fact is, the 'pure' dps classes do bring utility (admittedly, to varying degrees); it's just more situational.

But the fundamental flaw in the concept of balance is the assumption that there is a perfect raid makeup, some kind of paradigm of classes and specs. In 25-man raids, it's easy to find a spot for almost everyone, and that's how it should be — every class and spec should have the potential to fit and perform in a raid. But that doesn't mean guilds should be forced to roster specifically for it, nor that an imbalanced guild shouldn't be able to take on a specific encounter.

Three things in the expansion will throw this flawed design into further relief.

More 10-man raids
Small, casual guilds will flourish in Wrath, being able to make steady, rewarding progress through the array of 10-man raids without having to make the difficult transition to 25-man raiding. These guilds aren't the type to recruit specific dps classes, or try to find the perfect raid makeup, and in 10-man raids that's a futile activity anyway. You simply can't have balanced representation of the classes when their are so many permutations of roles and specs. You are forced to make sacrifices — casters get an elemental shaman but the melee loose out on a kitty, and so on. Similarly, some utility will be wasted in the wrong makeup — what use is shadow weaving if there's no lock in the group? In Wrath, every class needs the potential to function at its best, because there won't always be locks and rogues around to make up the slack.

Greater class utility
While I haven't studied every class in the beta, there does seem to be a conscious effort to improve class utility — and it's not confined to the classes usually considered 'utility'. Frost mages, for example, who right now probably fall in the pure-dps camp, could become the new shadow priests in Wrath, thanks to the mana regenerating potential of the water elemental. And hunters are getting some buffs to their group abilities as well, on top of some shiny new ones. Their dps is unlikely to suffer as a result.

This is not to be confused with the time-honoured argument of who does the most damage. I'm not concerned with balance between mages and locks, for example. Quite frankly, I don't care who tops the charts.

Similarly, I don't mind that other classes are getting extra utility. I think it's a positive thing. But if you're going to keep support classes in their place, you'd damn well better have a good argument for why.

Raid-wide buffs
This is something Blizzard is looking at across the board. Some buffs have already gone raid wide (like the water elemental's mana regen), while others are still being considered.

It's a curious dilemma. On the one hand, moving a party buff raid wide makes the buff more powerful — and therefore, more desirable. But at the same time, it makes that class more expendable. Why bring two or three shadow priests to a raid when you only need one?

In an environment where raids could be tempted to stack multiple utility classes for their buffs, it makes sense to temper their damage and balance that temptation. That's the reason why many buffs don't stack.

But if a single buff can reach the whole raid, suddenly you are in a situation where utility classes are at a distinct disadvantage.

If utility buffs do end up raid wide, the only way to level the playing field for those classes is to raise their damage potential.

The argument for balancing utility with damage is looking thinner every day as Blizzard shakes up the skills and talents available to the dps classes and re-examines its raid philosophy. It's no longer acceptable to have a two-tier system of damage classes. Utility is something that classes should bring to encounters on top of their damage output, not instead of it.

Now maybe there should still be compromises — but these should be by choice, not by design. There are so many factors that affect dps, it doesn't have to mean the end of variety, synergy and co-operation within a group. Perhaps you would have to spec for utility (like survival hunters) or gear for it, or maybe providing your utility simply compromises your actual damage output.

As shadow priests push for a level playing field in Wrath, I really hope we don't settle for handouts like a glyph to fix our troubles, or minor utility tweaks. We deserve so much more, as do all the utility classes.

19 August 2008

Shadow 'tweaks' on their way

If you haven't read the comments in the previous thread, you might have missed this.

MD, our favourite beta tester, shared a long and eloquent plea for some shadow priest love on the wrath forums (courtesy of mmo champion), to which class designer Koraa gave an enigmatic, one-line response:

We're going to do some further tweaks to Shadow soon : ]

So there you have it folks. The fat lady is still warming up.

BTW, if anybody is any doubt about the peril our class is in, you should read that post.

18 August 2008

Bitter and twisted

Hands up if you think hunters are broken.


So why can't I find beta news without tripping over the hunter's latest amazing talent overhaul, or choking on the latest gushing hunter promise from a Blizzard rep?

I admit it, I'm jealous. I'm sick as fifteen parrots. All these great new ideas, all this exciting dialogue on the forums, about the development of a class that — let's be frank — was pretty damn spiffing to start with.

Even if the picture's not as rosy as I paint it, who cares? At least they are getting some attention. It's the silence that I can't stand.

Are priests next? Is there a roadmap that puts priest development further down the line? Or are they done with us?

All I really need is an indication one way or the other. I want someone to manage my expectations. Because if further review is on its way, I can bite back my impatience and sit on my hands till it comes.

And if we're done, I'll hang up my shadowy gloves and gear up my shaman.




12 August 2008

Maths is not my strong point but...

The prospective nerf to vampiric touch in Wrath of the Lich King is an interesting proving ground for my latent ability with numbers.

In the original beta build the amount of mana returned by vampiric touch was reduced from 5% to 2%. I know enough to be confident when I say that's a 60% reduction in the amount of mana returned.

MMO Champion is today carrying a quote from Blizzard on this very spell, in which he implies the actual value is 2.5%. The talent calculators still read 2%, but if this is true it would represent a mere 50% nerf to the current spell. Let's work with that optimistic number shall we?

I can't check the whole thing because I'm at work and there are firewalls and other draconian obstacles to my research, so if I've taken this out of context I trust you to put me straight, but what the quote says is:

To be honest, 2.5% still might be too high. In our tests, Shadow Priests were still providing around the same amount of mana to their party (if not more) than before because of their increased damage output. Not to mention the Priest wasn't going out of mana at all because of Spirit/Improved Spirit Tap.

This is where I do a bit of cyber head scratching. Same amount... if not more?

If I spend ten minutes scribbling notes on a bit of paper, then give up and go ask a numerically literate friend for help, I can work out that to return the same amount of mana through VT with a 50% nerf to the mana returned in place, you would need to sustain double the damage. That's 100% more, apparently.

So what this guy or gal is saying is that in their tests, shadow priests were pumping out TWICE the dps.

I want to know more. A lot more. Like what kind of tests? Were the shadow priests at the same level in idential gear with the same spell damage fighting the same mob with the same buffs and debuffs?

They'd better be if you're gonna make statements like that. The same amount!

I find it very hard to believe that simply with the changes to priest talents we have seen so far a like-for-like priest would pump out double damage.

Admittedly, maths is not my strong point, but I'm beginning to wonder if it's Blizzard's either. Place your bets now for math failure of the year...

11 August 2008

Blogger on the edge

Shadow priests can pack up and go home now.

According to the latest frost build on the Wrath beta servers, an improved, talented frost elemental will return 36% of mana over 60 seconds — to the entire raid. Talented, they could pop that baby every two and a half minutes. Then they could cold snap and do it all over again.

Do you think their dps will be capped because of their awesome utility?

9 August 2008

From the beta: shadow priest glyphs

Judging by the amount of attention most other classes are getting in Wrath, you'd be forgive for thinking Blizzard had forgotten shadow priests exist. Not so: we haz glyphs. I'm not going to waste energy repeating Wow Insider though. They cover it all beautifully, and besides, these things don't deserve the effort. Glyphs schmyphs.

7 August 2008

J'accuse shadowfiend

In the Burning Crusade, priests were given an active form of mana regeneration in the shape of the shadowfiend. But who's bright idea was it to make it a pet? It's crabby, temperamental and downright unreliable. Of all the possible ways Blizzard could have conceived for priests to regain mana in combat, the shadowfiend is probably the clumsiest.

When you cast the spell the fiend pops up and start slapping your target. You gain in mana 2.5 times what it does in damage. It does melee in the form of shadow damage and will generally fit in 10 or 11 swings before it belches out an emphysemic wheeze and gives up the ghost.

A base hit will do about 100 damage. It can crit, it scales quite nicely with spell damage, and it benefits from debuffs on the target including misery and shadow weaving.

But it can also miss, be dodged, parried and partially resisted. Not to mention it can be squashed or burned, peel off and break nearby crowd control or else just sit there right next to you and wave its tentacles harmlessly in the air. And the scaling of shadowfiend is, in itself, an idiotic design directive that disadvantages lesser geared players.

To be fair, you just need to know when to use it. Get that right and you can probably hope to get a good chunk of your mana back in an average use, even though the variables involved make it an unpredictable spell in the best of circumstances.

My issue is more with the shadowfiend's... well... concept, for want of a better word. Why conceive it a pet? While shaman elementals last two minutes, a frost mage's water elemental lasts 45 seconds and a balance druid's treants last 30 seconds, our pet lasts only 15 seconds. It's not really much of a pet anyway. It can't be controlled and it's not around long enough to really have any presence or personality. It doesn't add to our dps like other pets, and can't tank anything.

And no wonder it doesn't compare favourably to other pets in the game — because it's not really a pet at all, it's a mana regen spell dressed up like a pet.

I'm sure somebody someone thought it would be 'fun' to make it a pet, instead of a bog-standard spell. But it would work so much better as another dot. Consider, as a parallel, the druid spell insect swarm — this too conceptually, conjures other creatures, but they don't exist as pets. Their damage can't be avoided in the conventional melee ways and the effect is at the complete control of the druid. A similar shadow effect could have easily been used to draw mana from the victim without the clumsiness of summoning a pet.

In fact, something along the lines of the Wrath beta 51-point talent dispersion would have been the obvious solution — a priest's equivalent of evocation that returns a flat percentage. Instead, we ended up with a supremely unreliable spell that can return anywhere from little or no mana, to upwards of 6000.

The question is: will we come to rely more on the shadowfiend in Wrath or less? If current beta changes carry through into live, mana regeneration will certainly be a very different creature. Chain potting will be off the table and vampiric touch will return a tear-jerking 60% less mana. But a whole host of other options will open up to us, including new talents and new best friends — go creep up to your ret paladins and survival hunters now. Even the duration of the humble shadowfiend could be extended, and it may well benefit from the caster's spell hit.

So who knows, we may come to rely less on the fiend in Northrend. It's still stoopid though.

5 August 2008

Bore bored bored

What do you do when the server closes early for maintenance? Well in my case, you play around with a new banner then you go do the washing up. I'm not sure it turned out quite how it looks in my head. What do you think?

I don't know how to do half the things I want to in this blogger template. The rounded corners give me a headache and the colour scheme is a mess. I'm not sure how to change the background colour, and even if I did I couldn't because the rounded corners are made by tiny images in the same colour. And why did nobody tell me the tag cloud is MASSIVE in Firefox!?

I'm going to have to do some serious research. In the meantime, if you have any tips for customising a blogging template please let me know.

4 August 2008

Weathering the storm

About two weeks ago I quit my guild in a huff of indignation without much of a clue what I would do next. And since then, I've been putting off writing about why.

Actually, I've been putting off thinking about why, because I don't want to corrupt my memories of a very happy time with the guild. It's tricky gauging how much to say about what went on. Skullcrackers is a real guild with a lot of great players. I was very happy there for the best part of a year and have no wish to turn on them now.

If I tried to catalogue the problems in Skullcrackers, you would doubtless recognise many of them from your own experiences. Guilds the world over face the same issues — how do you balance the conflicting wishes of 'casual' and 'hardcore' players, how do you recruit tanks and healers, how do you ensure enough players are online at the same time to raid, how do you keep experienced players interested while newer players gear up, how do you make that jump from Kara to Gruul's?

But what defines a guild isn't the problems it experiences but how it responds to them. The guild that faces up to its problems will go on to prosper; the ones that ignore them will wither and fade away.

While we had endless chats in Skullcrackers about how we could recruit more tanks and healers, how we could ensure reliable raid attendance, how we could actually make some progress through ZA while gearing up enough players for 25-man raiding, we never took any significant action to tackle them. When even the guild master is an hour late to raids without apology, while the guild is haemorrhaging its best raid-level players, you begin to see how cheap words are.

It would be easy to blame the GM for the fate of the guild, but that would be unfair. As an officer, I have to accept part responsibility for the fact that Skullcrackers struggled to address any of these problems in a meaningful way. But when I stop beating myself up and consider what I could have done better, or differently, I draw a blank. I genuinely tried to drive change and force the guild to adapt for many months; resistance or apathy simply beat me down.

That's not to say I am blameless for the problems the guild had; simply that it was the right time to leave, and leaving was the best thing for both me and Skullcrackers.

So now I join several other ex-Skullcrackers in Freak on a Leash, hoping we don't fall prey to the same flaws. We have the benefit of knowing where Skullcrackers went wrong, and vowing not to make the same mistakes. But knowing and doing are two different things. Just like Skullcrackers, we are having to recruit fresh level 70s and help them gear up through Kara and heroics just to move forward.

At the back of our heads, I think we are all aware that the time for raid progression could well have passed. With the expansion looming, if we can't build a balanced roster of active, like-minded players soon, we may have to accept that the future of Freak lies in the 10-man raids of Northrend. There's no doubt that the development of more 10-man content will make it much easier for guilds like Freak and Skullcrackers to prosper, we just have to hope that we can all make it there in tact.

1 August 2008

Dots for dummies

I'm an idiot.

Ho Ho's comment to my post on haste raised a question in my mind about how dots work. I have, for some time now, and without any apparent empirical evidence to support my view, been operating under the assumption that the first tick of a dot happened instantly.

If you are nodding encouragingly at this point and waiting for me to get to the punchline, you too are an idiot.

What Ho Ho knows, and what every self-respecting shadow priest should know (especially the ones who blog about it) is that the first tick of damage occurs only three seconds after application. This is true of shadow word: pain, vampiric touch and devouring plague. All three spells go on to tick every three seconds till they expire, the final damage occurring at the exact moment of expiry.

Even mind flay, which ticks every second, takes a full second to kick in.

If I'd stopped to think about it, I might have worked it out. But of course, I didn't: I'm an idiot.

What this means is that I have to completely re-evaluate my approach to overlapping spells.

When I talk about overlapping, I don't mean spamming the spells every time you get the chance. The issue is about how accurately we can maintain 100% uptime of our dots. In an ideal scenario, your shadow word: pain would tick every three seconds for the entire duration of a fight. But there are so many variables that make this difficult, if not impossible. Lag, movement, pushback, resists and the sheer mind-boggling complexity of juggling spells all contribute to an imperfect spell rotation. Sometimes, you're faced with a choice between reapplying a dot just before it finishes, thereby 'clipping' the end of the existing dot, or taking a different action and allowing a short period of down time.

Take a look at this first chart. This, in my ignorance, is what I thought happened when you clipped. The pink line is the first dot, the green is the second. Each vertical line is a tick, and the black bit is what's clipped.

Omg, what a tit. You see what happens there? Without realising it, I had created a fantasy world in which clipping actually improved dps — if a dot ticked instantly on application, you could manufacture shorter tick times every application at the expense of a little mana (more casting over time).

If I had ever stopped to think about this, I would have realised how unlikely it was.
So, as you probably know, this is what really happens:

Just as Ho Ho said, you could go five seconds without a tick, instead of three.
The consequences are horrendous. I've even done some maths to prove it. For shadow word: pain first, over a five minute fight, if you consistently clipped one second off the spell, you would loose eight ticks or 8% of damage.

Vampiric touch is worse, as it needs casting more often, potentially resulting in more clipped dots. In the same fight, once again consistently clipping one second off the spell, you would loose 14 ticks or 14% damage.

Perversely, if you're gonna clip at all, it's better to clip more time than less (up to just under three seconds), as this results in a smaller gap between ticks. But this would use up more mana and it still eats into your dps.

The conclusion, if you haven't reached it already, is to be perfect. And if you can't manage that, it's preferable to let your dots expire than overlap. I'm going to have to go back and edit my haste post, (although I don't see how this affects my overall scepticism of haste for shadow priests).

There's promise of some relief from this situation in Wrath. A tier 9 talent, pain and suffering, currently enables mind flay to refresh the duration of shadow word: pain. Notice it says refresh, not reapply, so we would no longer need to worry about timings. Mind flay would simply ensure the spell kept ticking along nicely and indefinitely. With one less dot to worry about, spell rotations could get a whole lot more manageable. We'll have to wait and see.

Huge thanks to Ho Ho for putting me straight on this.