Listening Music: José González's "Hand on Your Heart." One of my favorites.
Vanilla WoW PvP was very fun, even if the top raiders on the server had enough gear to kill you in a global or two. The speed of combat got progressively faster before The Burning Crusade came on scene; a full tier 3 player could change the tide of a battleground by himself easily. Resilience was added to the game to slow down the game -- and it worked! Arena games in The Burning Crusade took a long time to complete, but they were interesting and definitely had depth, even if they made you miss dinner once or twice.
Wrath of the Lich King revamped arena completely by emphasizing burst kills and huge crits. In Season 5, death knights and holy paladins were the best classes in the game because they could sustain damage for periods of time longer than 20 seconds. It was shellshock for arena players everywhere. The 30-minute games we had come to know and love were a thing of the past. Damage was king, and the law was a quick death.
Cataclysm appears to be returning to a Burning Crusade era of controlled arena matches. Giant crits and powerful damage combos are unlikely to be making an exit from arena, but their grip on PvP will be loosened when Deathwing's presence is felt.
Increasing health pools
Similarly to what happened in The Burning Crusade, health pools are inflating like crazy. If you've ever tried to kill a fully stamina-geared player, you'll quickly realize that size matters. A big health pool is awesome for staying alive, and Cataclysm is giving us lots of room to work with. Who knew five levels would be enough to quadruple (or more) my life total?
Increasing HP is crucial for PvP. Battles should feel interesting, and in depth, you should understand why you died instead of going from 100 percent to 0 percent with little to no interaction with the opposing team. A game-ending mistake shouldn't be, "I strafed too far left of our pillar." Bravo for the giant HP change, which I assume is largely because of the bursty nature of Wrath PvP.
While health pools are rising, it doesn't necessarily mean that balance is completely awesome. Before the most recent damage nerf, I've heard reports of calculations that offensive stats are getting a bigger upgrade (in proportion) to health pools! That is, even though we might have 100k health at level 85, our abilities might scale to hit for 80,000 damage each (obvious hyperbole here; don't take these as exact numbers). That would be a pretty big problem.
Apparently the memo got to Blizzard, and we've received an awesome around-the-board damage nerf to compensate. I've listed warlock changes below for reference, although all classes experienced a hefty nerf on their damage sticks. Hooray!
The new and improved resilience
Resilience is changing a good deal in Cataclysm. Developers have hinted that it will be more important than ever, and changes to increase its effectiveness in PvP encounters reflect that. If resilience were a stock, I would be buying like crazy.
However, a new change to resilience makes it far more exciting: Resilience no longer reduces the chance that you will be critically hit. This new change is awesome. For eight seasons, arena players have been shy to choose a specialization that emphasizes heavy crit chance. If your crit chance is 30 percent, but an enemy player's resilience reduces that to 20 percent, your spec lost a lot of its gusto, and that's only with 10 percent chance gone!
Now, players can experiment freely with different kinds of specs. Perhaps fire mages will finally have their day in arena, or an awesome rogue build that picks up tons of crit! The exciting possibilities are endless!
A cataclysmic healing nerf
Increasing health pools and decreasing damage lends itself to an interesting problem: If heals are too powerful, no one will ever die until mana runs out. This, of course, was the big issue with The Burning Crusade's arena PvP.
Restoration druids were largely dominant in later seasons because of the efficiency of their HoTs. Cyclone was also exceedingly helpful because you were able to cyclone enemies so their healers couldn't get any heals through (and so their HoTs would fall off). Kind of sad, when you think about it.
Cataclysm looks to remedy this problem by nerfing healing to the ground. Bravo! While I'm sure Blizzard developers won't have everything balanced perfectly the first time around, the theory behind the changes is absolutely correct.
Due to the nature of different abilities and playstyles associated with specializations, certain classes are bound to thrive in the new environment while others have some catching up to do.
Historically, classes that have infinite energy mechanics and efficient heals do well in low-burst environments. Restoration druids, affliction warlocks, rogues, and warriors are all prime examples of this subset of arena theory in action.
In high-burst environments, classes that can put out a large amount of damage, survive through it, or help their team survive through an enemy team's burst are powerful in these times. Holy paladins, death knights, and burst-spec DPS casters are all pretty awesome when it comes to this kind of arena play.
Cataclysm is shaping up to be a mixture of the two subsets. My personal prediction is classes will be far more balanced at the start of the expansion in comparison to the other two we've seen. Season 9 will most likely have a large variety of team compositions and a balanced SK-100 (at least, balanced compared to 40 percent Season 1 paladin/warrior and 60 percent Season 5 paladin/death knight).
As the seasons pass, we'll likely see even greater class balance come into the equation not only for arenas, but also battlegrounds. I've spoken in articles past why battleground balance will likely impact arena balance for the better, and I'm sticking to those guns. Rated battlegrounds are one of the best things that could happen for rated arena from a balance perspective.
Overall, I am ridiculously excited to PvP in Cataclysm -- far more than I was for The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King. I hope I won't be disappointed, but somehow I doubt that with all the wonderful changes Blizzard has been applying to PvP. (If you wanted me to talk about PvP gear restrictions on arena, that might be next week -- stay tuned!)
Want to ascend the arena ladders faster than a fireman playing Donkey Kong? Read Blood Sport for pointers on arena play. Don't miss our interviews with successful arena PvPers, and see The Art of War(craft) for the inside line on battlegrounds and world PvP.