A couple of weeks ago, I promised that I'd return to priest PvP once the PvP-related problems on the Cataclysm beta were resolved. Things still aren't perfect either for balance or testing, but I have more information now than I did two weeks ago, so I'm willing to take a stab at it ... /bleed. Or take a stab in the kidney or something.
Overall, I'm going to say things aren't looking too great. I don't think you should panic, granted, but things are pretty rough for priests right now. Mana is a nightmare, options for spell selection suffer due to mana restraint, dispels are essential but you can't afford to cast them, and interrupts and crowd control run rampant.
I'll elaborate on all of these in a bit, but before I get started, I want to take you guys back to December 2008. Wrath had just come out, and the start of Season 5 was on everyone's minds. When at last it came, there was a deafening thunder as tens of thousands of priest bodies crashed lifelessly to the ground. Playing a priest was like not playing at all because of how fragile we were (unless you were one of those cheap holy priests who exploited the Glyph of Spirit of Redemption for a short while.) The outcry from the community was one of the more unified responses to priest class balance I have ever seen, as both novice and gladiator turned to Blizzard and screamed a resounding, "WTF?!"
At the time, Blizzard promised us that resilience would fix it -- and for the most part it was right, except that getting all that resilience wasn't easy when you were smeared across the virtual dirt. The whole process felt like a torturous, 10-year odyssey, and if you were anything less than hardcore, it was practically Season 5 by the time you had enough gear to compete. For top-rung players, priests retook their place in the priest-mage-rogue (PMR) triumvirate by the end of the season and stayed strong for the rest of the expansion, but that short period of time remains fixed in my mind as an example of Blizzard's stance and execution of game balance.
I recall the story now because I'm hoping that the beginning of Cataclysm doesn't mimic Wrath for priest PvP. The problem is pinpointing how to fix the problem and what problems needs fixing when observing players on so small a scale as the beta servers. Arena queues are pretty consistent, but battlegrounds testing is rather horrid right now, simply because when you do get queued in beta, testers aren't particularly good at working together. And since priests are still the delicious bacon sandwich we've always been (particularly to feral druids), you can imagine how my testing in battlegrounds has gone. I guess Blizzard added a little tomato in there to make us extra tasty; maybe a little herb aioli. Gosh, now I'm hungry ... Anyway, even though I'm not quite sure which problem is the crux of it all, I'll go ahead and explain what's going on right now.
It's quite surprising to see the veteran PvP spec suffering so much on the battlefield. Our damage reduction talents, resilience gear, and stamina are all working out nicely, but I'm finding myself completely OOM very quickly. If I'm in arena, the point at which I go OOM is almost always when the other team's healer is only at one-half to one-third mana. And I'm not even using Flash Heal! Double Rapture procs aren't something you can depend on, and Shadowfiend and Hymn of Hope are getting used way too early. Battlegrounds are hectic and stressful, and with a huge shortage in healers on both sides, I found myself being focused more than ever. I spent more time healing myself from incoming damage than assisting others, and it made me wonder if there is even a need for healers.
In arena, things were paced more slowly, and I quickly noticed I only needed a handful of spells to get the job done: Power Word: Shield, Prayer of Mending, Penance, and when I could get a nice cushion of time and space, I'd set up Greater Heal with Borrowed Time and/or Inner Focus. Though this is far less than what I use in PvE for spells, the cooldowns of these particular spells make them ideal for the pacing of the game. Sadly, I find myself reluctant to expand into the rest of my toolbox because the spell is either too slow or too expensive, yet I am clearly missing something. I think it's supposed to be Heal.
I found my constant attempts to use Heal were pretty depressing because I either made it inefficient by queuing it with Borrowed Time or I'd get interrupted when I used it without. And let me clarify that I'm not talking a well-timed, well-deserved Kick or other interrupt -- I mean a circus of stuns, silences, lock-outs, and crowd control. There is so much crowd control in the game right now that even if player health bars aren't plummeting, they might as well be, because you spend so much time not being able to do anything that your target might as well have been one-shot.
Slowing the game down health-wise hasn't changed the pace that much; it just changes what you do in your spare seconds. You have more time to get a heal off, but you scramble around a lot more, trying to find a way to get that cast off and avoid disables by separating yourself from your enemies. Cooldowns like Pain Suppression feel like afterthoughts, an "Oh yeah, I guess I could use this," followed by a doubt that maybe it's not even doing anything because there is so much time between damage. Power Word: Barrier is much the same way, which is unfortunate, because prior to the change it allowed you some time to catch up by absorbing everything for a short period of time, rather than a fraction of it.
People can still die quickly; CC the healer, focus a target, and blow your CDs. If you're a crystal ball player, this would be when you want to use Pain Suppression, because as long as your opponents chain an interrupt or stun right after the first CC, it's almost impossible to recover from the loss of health without going OOM. It's like the health pools have a point of no return, a point at which if they fall below a certain amount, you can't get them back up -- and if you do, you go OOM doing it. Atonement does help quite a bit, but it's troublesome to use sometimes because of the range (when everything else is 40 yards, 30 yards is a pain.)
Dispelling for both specs
Dispels seem to be the breaking point for the game. For the debuffs that can be dispelled, they must be, and doing that comes at a great cost. I'd reckon that a lot of mana issues I'm having in both specs (I'll talk more about holy in a second) have to do with trying to handle debuffs. In battlegrounds, I find I have much better longevity if I just ignore dispels and queue up a Heal, Power Word: Shield, or Renew. Oh, and do you remember Mass Dispel? I haven't cast it in 4 months. I don't think that's a bad thing, but after the Glyph of Mass Dispel made the reduced cast time accessible to everyone, I thought it might get more play. I still see it being used in very coordinated team play, but other than that, it doesn't seem to have a place.
Many of the points I made about PvP as a whole in the previous section still stand for holy priests, though many people feel holy is in a better place than disc right now. I'd say this is true in battlegrounds, where holy priests have a place to spend all those heals. Holy's biggest weakness is survivability, and that is a huge deal-breaker in arena. As holy, I was often a dead smear on the ground in the first minute, where as I had a lot of tanking potential as disc. Body and Soul is a must to get away, but if you have a poison (damn rogues) or some other slowing debuff, you can forget about that. Fortunately, though, there is still Holy Word: Chastise! But wait, I can't use any of my healing Chakra states if I want to use Holy Word: Chastise ... Hmm, that's a rather gnome-sized pickle, isn't it?
Typically, I opted to try and have Holy Word: Chastise available to me more often than not by using Chakra more as a utility. I would just use one state for a few casts, then forget about it and let it fall off. The nice thing is that this totally works (provided you've managed to stay alive). It makes Chakra very flexible and fun to use and works much in the way I wish it would have worked in PvE. Alas.
Big AoE heals like Circle of Healing and Holy Word: Sanctuary are usually overkill in the battlegrounds I've been playing (not a lot of Alterac Valley going on in beta) because players are usually too spread out across the map. Renew was my spell of choice in battlegrounds but not because it was particularly effective, just because everyone was running around in different directions and it was the best way to do something. I tried to avoid using Flash Heal too much as holy too, but with Serendipity, having those faster Greater Heals really helped out a bunch.
I don't know why, but as a holy priest, I found myself getting more use from Leap of Faith than I did as disc. I was using Renew more (after a few tries of Renew as disc, I pretty much abandoned it due to the cost and amount of healing done), so it makes sense that it wasn't so important to me to move around. Hauling my arena partner closer gave me a nice opportunity to help get a player off of me. I've yet to use it to grab someone back from a fear or knockback effect, but with practice, I would like to use it to get my allies back in the game. In battlegrounds, I found using the spell drew way too much attention to the fact that I was a healer, so I stopped using it quickly.
As I mentioned earlier, holy's overarching issue is living. It doesn't matter if you go OOM if you die before then. Talents like Blessed Resilience don't feel all that effective, and the extra healing from Chakra doesn't do any good if you're taking a lot of hits. Holy seems to be all about getting away and staying away, which is tough unless this Body and Soul bug is intended.
Body and Soul bug, you ask? Why, let me tell you! Basically, whenever you cast Power Word: Shield on another target right now, the holy priest also gets the haste effect of Body and Soul. It's probably the best bug you could ever encounter, as it makes the game insanely fun. If you're in a battleground, you can keep it up indefinitely, and while it's hard to keep it up all the time on a small 2v2 team, I think with 3v3, you'd be able to use it frequently on yourself. The effect is actually strangely similar to something I proposed ages ago about making holy priests delicate but hard to catch and disc priests resilient but capable of tanking multiple opponents (as they did in Wrath), but I'm pretty sure this is an unintended bug. Wouldn't it be amazing if it weren't, though? Holy priest would be the class everyone would want to play.
Overall, it feels like the damage models between PvE and PvP clash with one another. The amount of debuffs players can put on each other is huge, and it's crippling not to. Damage debuffs can usually be healed through, but all the other stuff needs your attention. Clutch play isn't too essential in the middle brackets of arena, and in battlegrounds, it's usually a lost cause.
I anticipate that priests in early Cataclysm are going to focus a lot on regen and resilience on their gear. Discipline priests will want to pour a lot of their stats and reforging into mastery, while holy priests focus on regeneration so they can keep the heals flowing. Holy will also want resilience but need to find a good balance to keep their regen up.
I do think the recent buff to the base healing of four of our core spells (Heal, Flash Heal, Binding Heal, and Greater Heal) has helped, as I find most of my complaints now have to do with not how much I'm healing for but how quickly I need to heal. This is a good sign in the right direction, at the least.
Finally, as an afterthought to afterthoughts, I'm anticipating more all-DPS teams in arena because of how effective the defensive cooldowns of some classes are at keeping players alive. Many times, my arena partner was able to solo two players if I got focused down early. I imagine these all DPS teams working like classic fighting games: You have one health bar to K.O. your opponent, and you can do all sorts of things to preserve it -- but when it's over, it's over. This could work out with healing becoming more difficult and stressful ... We may see another healer shortage in the coming expansion like we had back in The Burning Crusade and vanilla WoW.
Want more tips for carrying out your priestly duties? Spiritual Guidance has you covered. Check out Cataclysm beta roundup for a walk through on what priests are receiving in Cataclysm; and in preparation for your leveling excursions, check out Levels 80 to 85 as a priest.