I love writing this column, but there's one thing that bugs me about it -- the druid class is tailor-made to defeat a sole writer's efforts to cover everything she can. No matter how hard I try, I'm never going to cover each spec and playstyle with up-to-the-minute and in-depth experience, because it would require the simultaneous mastery of ranged DPS PvE, ranged DPS PvP, tanking, off-tanking, melee DPS PvE, melee DPS PvP, healing PvE, and healing PvP. Even with all that, I'd be leaving out all the hybrid and kooky specs people dream up. This has been getting to me lately.
Consequently I thought that, before we get to some end-of-year and patch 3.3 business, it might be a good idea to spend some time on topics that -- to be frank -- I haven't been that great about covering. Balance as a whole needs some love and so do our kitties, but before I do that, I'd like to address a topic that, in contrast to Balance and Cat, I've been willfully ignoring -- PvP. It occurred to me that roughly a year after Wrath's launch, it might be a good idea to pop back into battlegrounds and see how the class' most common PvP spec (Restoration) is faring in combat these days, so I dumped badges and gold into a PvP set and went for broke.
And, well...a lot's changed.
I'm not a big fan of PvP, but some part of me always enjoyed battleground healing in BC. There just aren't that many players who do it, and if you enjoy seeing yourself own the meters, clawing your way to the top is usually as simple as sneezing in the general direction of your Regrowth button. Healing has the potential to pay enormous dividends -- even if you get targeted and annihilated by the opposing team quickly (having written this clause, I have to wonder at the sheer optimism displayed by that "if"), that's usually long enough to spread a few heals around, and sometimes that's all it takes to nudge your side toward victory.
Is it a completely thankless job with enormous capacity for frustration? Hell yes. More so nowadays, given that battleground achievements aren't well-suited to healers (more on this in a bit), but sometimes you wind up having a really good night where players protect you and, in return, you turn them into unstoppable gods.
This is just the perspective of a player who did (and enjoyed) a lot of battlegrounds in BC, is plunging back into Wrath PvP cold with more than a year's interim, and is doing so with a fatalistic approach to the likelihood of anyone else healing, dispelling, or peeling her in a pugged BG. Take from it what you will.
Observation #1: Restoration PvP got boring.
To be blunt, the PvP-Resto playstyle has lost a lot of its dynamism and interest. I played both the 11/11/39 (Insect Swarm/Feral Charge/Restoration) and 8/11/42 (more defensively-oriented version) Restoration PvP specs in battlegrounds and arena, and now I understand more of what was driving PvP players' complaints concerning Tree of Life. The talent, as we discussed earlier this year, was never designed to be used in PvP, and feels shoehorned into that role via Improved Tree of Life. The developers wanted to break up the aforementioned Restoration specs that trounced 2v2 arena in Seasons 3 and 4, and wound up moving both Insect Swarm and Feral Charge farther into their respective trees and giving Restoration IToL to compensate.The additional talent increases the form's defensive capacity but it doesn't change the underlying issue, which is that the Tree forces you to give up 90% of your spellbook to do the same job any other healing class can do without making that sacrifice.
Realistically, a healer needs his/her full toolkit to stay alive in PvP; you should not go into a pugged battleground with the expectation that anyone will look out for you. Popping in and out to Cyclone and Root, and/or DPS if you're alone at a node and being attacked, is stupidly mana-intensive, particularly in high-resilience, low-intellect PvP gear (right now the difference between my PvE and PvP Resto gear is right around 7K mana loss). The armor bonus to the Tree, especially combined with the jaw-dropping damage of which enemy players are now capable, is a strong incentive to pawn all damage and CC needs off on your teammates and never drop form. This is particularly true while gearing up; you'll run into a lot of situations where you might die if you don't CC an attacker, but you'll also die if you stop spamming Nourish to counteract the incoming damage. The result? The answer to everything, instead of thinking your way through a match-up, CCing an enemy player, or making a strategic retreat, is to try to outheal anything that occurs, if for no other reason than the Tree's inability to do anything else.
This gets annoying fast. I finally lost it after dying several times on defense to attackers to whom I basically couldn't do anything before they ran me out of mana, and wound up speccing out of the standard 2v2 and 3v3 Tree spec 13/0/58 and using a more aggressive 21/0/50 for Insect Swarm. I had to give up a ton of mp5 and healing throughput to do it, but having a fighting chance against an opponent when help wasn't coming from other quarters was worth it. In better gear I might go back to 13/0/58, but right now I'm uneasy being left alone on defense (as so often happens as I finish mopping up skirmish damage and find myself -- "Aw s&%*!" -- on my lonesome at a node).
Bottom line: being unable to do anything but heal sucks. This is not a new observation, and it's one that GC's made himself. It might be realistic to expect the Tree of Life to be tweaked at some point, but if that doesn't happen, don't expect to be dropping the form much at earlier levels of gear.
Observation #2: Improved Barkskin and Glyph of Barkskin are mandatory.
Blizzard introduced the new Improved Barkskin talent in patch 3.1 in an effort to combat both the aforementioned problem (the inability to leave Tree form safely) and what was then Restoration's abysmal performance in arena. It was subsequently changed to give additional armor contribution in caster and Travel Form too. On an abstract level, it was easy for me to understand the point of both the talent and the skill, but you don't appreciate just what a difference both of these make in PvP until you've gone back to a BG for the first time in a year and run into your first modern Retribution pally. Burst ahoy.
Because I still do a lot of PvE healing, I experimented with an array of PvP Restoration specs (you should be able to see what successful arena players are now using by using Arena Junkies rankings and filtering further into 2v2 and 3v3) that alternately included or did not include Improved Barkskin, and it's no contest. If you don't have the talent, there's no point to being in caster form; the amount of damage you'll take is just too high to risk whatever you wanted to do. I would even go so far as to say that without this talent, particularly while you're gearing up, you should reasonably expect to have a very unhappy experience in battlegrounds. It has the ancillary effect of making the PvP-Resto playstyle a lot more interesting, just because you can actually do something apart from heal while running just a risk (rather than a certainty) of dying.
After realizing that the endless parade of lawladins shows no sign of stopping, I made a beeline to the AH for a Glyph of Barkskin as well. You'll get the point of doing this in the 6 seconds you'll have to contemplate your fast-approaching mortality after a Hammer of Justice to the face. Intellectually, the glyph doesn't sound like such a big deal and kind of a waste of time versus Glyph of Nourish or Glyph of Lifebloom, but players will put massive damage on you while you're stunned. Between the +crit removal on the glyph and the innate resilience on your gear, Barkskinning through the worst stuns is huge damage reduction (at least versus melee) while you're at your most vulnerable.
Because Improved Barkskin represents at least a 47-point investment in Restoration -- and adroit readers are likely to have noticed that this describes 100% of the currently-viable PvP-Resto specs -- don't expect to see any hybrid or experimental specs burning up the charts in the near future. The talent is just that crucial.