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.
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.