As I alluded to in my analysis of the Cataclysm priest preview last week, I will be taking a departure from my typical column this week on Spiritual Guidance. Instead of a guide or current event, I'd like to take some time to examine the priest class with a wider perspective. My analysis from Thursday was a response to the pinpoints of Blizzard's preview; this article, on the other hand, will examine the class from a broad design perspective. My hope in doing this is to get readers thinking about our class and the game differently and, in turn, start an ongoing discussion of where it could go.
Why do this? Because Cataclysm is approaching, and now is the time, if there ever was one, to suggest things we would like to see change. Blizzard is most likely to listen to strong and constructive ideas we put forth now, and I think it's valuable to get you guys in on the discussion. Now is the time to speak up!
Where we've been
To start, I would like to jump into a review of where priests have been in PvE content. What have we been doing all this time as healers? Surely the game hasn't been the same for over five years, so let's take a look. I'll start with 5-mans, then work into raiding.
Vanilla The game was vastly different in vanilla than it is today. Back then, quest content was very difficult, and good gear was not guaranteed. I remember getting five players together just to complete a quests in Ban'ethil Hollow in Teldrassil or the Silithid hives in Un'goro Crater, and we would often overexert ourselves just doing that. Knowing this, you can imagine that 5-man dungeons in vanilla were a huge step up in difficulty. Part of this came from most of us not really knowing what we were doing; the rest because it was a legitimately more difficult game back then. Five-mans were long, and you could easily spend two to three hours in one. Most trash packs had a strategy to keep from pulling the whole dungeon, and clearing an entire 5-man was only done in the best of groups.
At the time, I played a balance druid who liked to moonlight as a resto druid (for the challenge; only one person ever noticed). On the occasions I went damage, I often found myself playing the role of off-heals to a paladin or another druid healer. Off-healing was actually quite common at the time, except in the case of priests. Priests in vanilla never seemed to have any trouble healing through 5-man damage, and rarely did they require my Innervate.
It was a common idea (on my server at least) that if you wanted to clear a dungeon to the end, you would need a priest for it. The problem was, finding a priest to heal your 5-man almost never happened. They were such a rare sight back then, for some reason. All the same, it was my idea and the idea of many that priests were the best healers you could get for a dungeon.
The Burning Crusade Healing dungeons changed a lot in BC simply because the dungeons were so much shorter. Finding a group (and thus, a healer) was less difficult, since the time investments were much lower. Things were significantly easier in normal dungeons, due to easily acquired quest gear and less-complex pulls inside the dungeons. Trash packs were never positioned too closely together like they were in vanilla, and most bosses could be brute-forced through, even if they had interesting design mechanics attached to them. For me, wipes were less frequent and usually caused by bosses, not trash mobs. (As a note, heroic dungeons at the very beginning of the expansion were actually quite hard, but this didn't last very long.)
As a holy priest, I rarely had to cast anything but Greater Heal, which kept my mana pool quite full most of the time. If I did use Flash Heal, it was almost always on a DPS and never on the tank. You'd keep Prayer of Mending on the tanks for healing and to help with threat. I also rarely needed to use AoE spells like Circle of Healing or Prayer of Healing. I actually used to wonder, before I started raiding, what the purpose of Circle of Healing was.
Priests were definitely top-notch for dungeons in BC, and among the players I interacted with, they were still regarded as one of the strongest healers available in the early half of the expansion. When I played my alts, though, I quickly noticed more healers were available. Druid healers especially were the new HoT thing (see what I did there?). After a few months, more people were running 5-mans than I ever saw in vanilla; general channels were lit up with LFM requests. The reign of the priest as the one true healer ended, but with it the entire casual PvE landscape changed.
Wrath of the Lich King The current state of priests is not one we need to discuss in detail, since it is something we're all familiar with. I will quickly summarize it, though, for the sake of posterity: WotLK dungeons continued to be shorter, like they were in TBC. Trash mobs were reduced again. Boss fights got shorter but required more specific tactics to learn in order to win a kill. By the end of the Burning Crusade, priests were viewed on largely the same level as every other healing class in 5-mans, so this carried into WotLK. Holy priests have had little trouble healing dungeons, with their only worry usually being mana. Discipline's introduction as a PvE spec produced many fledgling healers into 5-mans with variable results. Discipline priests struggled early on healing content but later became quite formidable against the various types of damage and debuffs found in WotLK dungeons.
Vanilla As you may know from reading my column, I did not raid in vanilla. For that reason, I went and talked to Archanova, a priest who used to raid with the top progression guild <Drama> before they disbanded at the end of the Burning Crusade. I asked him what the role and feel of priests were in vanilla, and he supplied me with a wealth of information I thought you all would find very interesting.
"Priests back then were like the middle road between pally and druid. They were whatever they had to be. When we started out, it was just Flash Heal or Renew, shield to save someone if they dropped. It was basically a race against the encounter. We tried to maximize effectiveness and sit in the five-second rule as much as possible. Back then (in my guilds, at least), we really didn't have tank healers. Assignments were given to whoever was considered 'the best.' It was never strictly any class. Everyone just healed who was hurting. I tossed heals to the tanks if they needed them, but I almost always played the role of raid healer.
"In the beginning, mana was awful and I was pretty much near OOM at the end of a fight, or if not, I was working off regen for the last 10% of the fight. After BWL (Blackwing Lair), when we had mostly AQ40 (Temple of Ahn'Qiraj) gear, I started down-ranking. It got ludicrous at the end when I had a few pieces from Naxx40 (Naxxramas). I could spam rank 4 Heal for 29 minutes before I went OOM.
"Back then, PvE healing was ridiculous, though. For instance, until about BWL, there was a mod called CTRaid. It was a raid frame that had a thing called heal-cancel. If I set the slider to 98%, say my tank was at 99% when my heal was about to cast. It would cancel automatically. I set the slider to 91% and spammed. When Blizzard removed the functionality, half our healers were awful. We literally gutted half of our healers over the course of the next month. We realized none of them had a clue how to actually heal. Another mod called Emergency Monitor, which wasn't disabled 'til Naxx, would set to five people max, and it would open a window that showed the most hurt player in the raid. I quickly realized I could set it to 98% and then click, Flash Heal, click, Flash Heal. Over and over. Believe me though, people still managed to mess up."
Archanova made note that a lot of the top guilds shared very little communication with each other back then, so his review might not be universal to what all priests were doing back then. Still, it's very interesting to see how things were back then. Before we move onto the next section, though, I want to stress the setting of Archanova's story. The majority of players did not raid in vanilla WoW. On a high-pop server such as my own, you could AFK in the city and rarely would you see players in set gear, much less equipment from raids. Guilds like <Drama> were one of the few very successful groups progressing through all the content available.
The Burning Crusade For this section, I decided to consult with one of WoW.com's newest staff members, Kinaesthesia. Kinaesthesia is the heal leader and holy priest of the progression guild <vodka>, and now he is our video tutorial producer. For this article, I consulted with him for his perspective on priest healing in the Burning Crusade.
"What priests were in TBC was a bit conflicting. In the early part of the expansion, priests were very underpowered. Paladins were what got taken to raids because they were so overpowered from Illumination, and they had the largest health pools so they were ideal for staying alive. (Shamans were good too, but most of the players hadn't mastered playing the class yet. Druids didn't stand out too well in the early expansion, either.) A lot of the frustrations disc priests have now are the frustrations that priests in competitive guilds had in early TBC. You'd say, 'I really can heal. I can! You just need to know how to use me right.' But early on, <Death and Taxes> said, when asked what their regular comp was, "Our paladins heal, our priests DPS, with one going holy for spirit," so a lot of guilds just copied that.
"Overall though, priest healing was fun throughout all of TBC until Sunwell. Once Sunwell came around, priests struggled to hold onto their raid spots because of how good shaman were. But before then, priests did very well in all the raid content, especially in the middle of the expansion. For all of Black Temple, Hyjal and early Sunwell, priests were amazing.
"There weren't strong niches in early TBC like there are now or at the end of expansion. Your basic healing assignments were pallys and bitch priest (the priest who went into the discipline tree for the spirit buff) on the tank. Druids would keep their HoTs on the tanks, Circle of Healing priests would watch the melee (since CoH was group-specific) and shamans would watch the range.
"Holy priests could even tank heal in TBC, which by today's standard seems crazy. We used various ranks of Greater Heal and two ranks of Flash Heal. Renew, we kept on the tanks. Prayer of Healing was also very good, but still situational like it is now. You basically used the same toolbox you currently use, only with more variety since you could down-rank back then. Because of down-ranking (something priests were used to doing from vanilla), few priests had mana problems."
Wrath of the Lich King Just like I said in my 5-man section, summarizing the PvE content in our current expansion isn't all that necessary, but I will do it to keep with the trend: In Wrath of the Lich King, raiding became the primary focus of PvE content by removing the attunement and reputation prerequisites to raid. Priest healing versatility was spread across two different talent trees, with the introduction of many talents into the discipline tree. The holy spec became most ideal for raid healing, while discipline was recognized in PvE for its strength at tank healing. As the types of damage in PvE changed halfway through the expansion, single-target raid healing, through the repeated use of Power Word: Shield or Renew, became a common way to produce effective healing output.
Where are we going?
So now that you know where healing has been, to varying extents, what do you think? Does it change your perspective on where priests should go, or might go in the future expansion? How will the previous designs of the priest class impact its future incarnations? What exactly is Blizzard's vision for the priest class and where they want to take it?
With that, it's now time to explain that picture at the top of my article, which I'm certain will have raised a brow or two. You see, one thing I have noticed about priests in WoW is our loosely defined fantasy niche -- meaning we don't really have one. Shamans are strongly tied to the elements, druids to the earth and paladins to the Light. But wait, aren't priests also supposed to be tied to the Light? That's pretty obvious for humans and dwarves, and the night elves clearly have Elune. But what about the trolls; don't they worship voodoo gods? What about the forsaken? Even the blood elves don't really revere a deity, and priests in their society seem to be a minority. (Nnotice that of the three influential leaders of Silvermoon City, there is no priest, even though they're not an "in the shadows" kind of class.) Soon we're going to have the atheistic gnomes as priests too, so what gives?
Obviously this whole stream of thought slips into a more lore- and roleplay-oriented discussion, but you have to admit ... When was the last time you really felt like an implement of divinity? Sure, the Light isn't necessary specific to one religion or race, but the holiest thing about us comes in the forms of our spell names. Even that is getting thrown on its head with the introduction of a spell that breaks apart the western theological naming scheme with a sledge hammer: Chakra. Continuity, anyone? Honestly, I'd like a bit more definition and flavor to the priest class. Right now, all we have is a gold and white color palette for our abilities. The problem is that paladins have that, too, and they've taken all the cool factor out of the Light for themselves. For example, the first time I saw Tirion Fordring break out of his icy prison and disarm the Lich King atop Icecrown Citadel, part of me squealed like a fan girl while the other part of me sighed and thought, "Why are there no iconic priests who are so closely linked to their power like paladins are with the Light?" I really think more could be done. For now, take a look at this:
The above is a screenshot from the old official website when WoW was in beta testing. It describes, for the most part, the priest we know right now. But one line caught my eye: "regardless of their faith, however, all priests share in their ability to manipulate the minds of those who turn to them for spiritual guidance." Now, look at all of our shadow magic spells (which are not dark in the way warlock magic is dark) and notice they all have a theme of mind: Mind Flay, Mind Sear, Mind Soothe. Priests are painted in this short text as having an incredibly strong force of will. That would explain the name of the discipline tree, don't you think? But is that really exclusive to the Holy Light? Not at all. We're more like psions from Dungeons & Dragons or early incarnations of the White Mage from Final Fantasy. So that explains us, sort of, but it's not very distinct in comparison to other classes.
Whatever happened to Hymns? Didn't Blizzard say they wanted to do more with that and construct us into a high-utility class? That would have been a lot like the bard classes you see in other games, who provide a lot of buffs and utility through song. That seems to have disappeared from the table, which makes sense for balance purposes. But now I see a name like Chakra, and I'm confused. Where is our class going? Right now, we are such a hodge-podge of ideas. There is no character to Flash Heal the way that there is for Riptide or Nourish. Now I see that druids are going to start sprouting flowers in combat, I'm realizing how much I want our class to be its own class.
Here's a thought: look at Spirit of Redemption, the most iconic symbol of the priest healer. That's certainly a form of flavor, right? But what flavor is it? We take on the form of a spirit healer; but spirit healers aren't specific to any religion, like the Alliance's Church of the Holy Light. Why don't we expand on that more by flavoring our class as masters of life and death? A class that intervenes before "the Light." A class that guides spirits (*cough* spiritual guidance *cough*) and walks in the world of the living and dead. Chakra's "in the zone" feel could come from the infusions or directions of different spirits who aid the priest.
While on that topic, why not rework Lightwell as a spirit beacon for the souls of dead players, where players' spirits could run to it and be restored to life? That would give us the battle rez we've been asking for and would seriously help with the "bring the player, not the class" idea (just like mages getting Bloodlust). And if that idea is too hard to code, simplify it by giving Lightwell a "pet" bar with a battle rez, so the priest has to direct the rez to the dead player and can only do it when a Lightwell is present. Holy priests could then get an Improved Lightwell talent (since spirit beacon would become baseline) that would let them self-rez or buff themselves for as long as the beacon isn't consumed. If a life-restoring Lightwell is too powerful, maybe the Lightwell could give dead players the option to spawn as a spirit (like death knight Ghouls) and be given a limited healing bar to heal the raid with. Or maybe just have the Lightwell provide a buff the way discipline priests have Power Infusion. Any player who clicked on the spirit beacon would receive the buff of a spirit companion, buffing his abilities for a short time. DPS say they can't take time to click something? You offer them a buff and you can be certain they'll find a way.
Obviously with all of this, you'd have to be careful of treading too close to shaman and warlocks while re-flavoring the shadow spec. Shadow priests would obviously walk in the world of the dead to an extreme. Maybe instead of changing forms (and not being able to see their armor), their vision would shift and they'd be able to see a blend of the living and spirit world. Their abilities would then all be oriented around attacking the spirits of your enemies and healing the spirits of your allies.
So what do you guys think? Blizzard is listening! Start talking. Go, go, go!
P.S. Blizzard, if you can't do any of that, I want to fly. XOXO.
Want to find more great tips for carrying out your priestly duties? Spiritual Guidance has you covered with all there is to know. Check out Holy 101 or Disc 101 for an introduction to healing as a priest, or assess yourself for advice on how to improve yourself as a healer and raider.