Finding the voodoo
For the longest time, druids only had a single race choice per faction. If you wanted to play Horde, then you were a tauren; if you wanted to play Alliance, then you were a night elf. End of story, no discussion. With the recent patch, all of that has changed. Druids now have the option of two races per faction -- tauren and troll for the Horde, worgen and night elf for the Alliance -- which is a huge change. Druids might not have as many choices as other classes have, but we now have a choice, and that completely changes the ballgame.
You see, prior to this change, racials didn't matter for druids because we had no race choices. It didn't matter if Every Man for Himself was grossly overpowered because druids could not be human; it didn't matter if undead or gnomes had the best DPS racials because they couldn't be druids. Now we have a choice when it comes to racials, and Blizzard has really dropped the ball in this standard.
Let me make one thing clear: Racials are not going to make or break anyone's DPS. In the grand scheme of things, they are not going to be that one factor that determines whether you sink or swim. That being said, racials do make a difference, and they do matter. If we were talking in terms of, say, orcs vs. trolls for a hunter, where both options give a viable DPS increase, then there wouldn't be much of a discussion. The elite could sit on their clouds and debate which is the absolute best, but for laymen such as myself, it would be a triviality that isn't even worth mentioning.
That isn't what we're talking about. The issue that that needs to be addressed is this: Night elves and tauren get no DPS increase at all from their racials; trolls and worgen do. If you plan on focusing on PvE, then there is simply no reason to be a night elf or a tauren balance druid, none at all. That bothers me.
A slight argument might be possible for night elves in PvP, but the case for tauren balance druids, even in PvP, is rather weak. I am not advocating that you must be a troll or a worgen. I am not saying that you are a failure if you choose a different race, nor am I saying that your DPS is going to be horrible if you choose to remain the race that you have been since you rolled your druid. What I am saying is this: If you want to do everything you possibly can to increase your DPS, then your only choice is to go troll or worgen. Although I prefer being a troll, I wish that races were actually a choice, but with the current balancing of racials they simply aren't. I hope that Blizzard realizes this and fixes it in the future, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Growing Wild Mushroom
Cataclysm will finally bring forth something that balance druids have been asking for an extremely long time: a new spell. In fact, balance druids gained several new spells in the recent patches and in the coming expansion. Starsurge and Solar Beam are two of these, and they are indisputably useful. Starsurge deals great damage, works into our rotation in an interesting way, and has some synergy with our DoTs; all in all, it is the perfect new addition to our toolkit. Similarly, Solar Beam is something that balance druids have wanted for a very long time. In comparison to other silence effects, it is different, but different can be good in many ways. Solar Beam has its ups and it has its downs, but I don't think anyone would question that it is a fantastic new toy to have.
This, however, brings us to our third new ability, Wild Mushroom. Wild Mushroom isn't yet in the game; we won't have access to it until level 85. However, it is a very strange spell that really doesn't have a place as of yet. For those out of the loop, Wild Mushroom is an AoE-type ability that has two parts. The first is a spell with a 0.5-second base cast time that places a single mushroom at a target location; you can have up to three mushrooms present at any given time. The second spell then detonates any mushrooms that you have out at the time; this ability is instant-cast and has a 10-second cooldown.
To point out the first flaw, let's look at actually placing the mushrooms. Having a 0.5-second cast time is excessively annoying, even more so once you add haste into the mix. For all the problems that balance druids faced with Wrath's breaking the 1-second GCD, you would think that Blizzard would have realized this flaw -- but alas, it has not. Although I haven't myself confirmed or seen any reports to support that the GCD may actually be the same as the cast time for Wild Mushroom, even if that is the case, people cannot function with such a small time frame, especially when you consider latency. Wild Mushroom should have been instant-cast; the reason for giving it a cast time really doesn't make any sense. In fact, I've never really seen a reason for giving it such a short cast time to begin with.
The other issues are slightly more ... practical: damage and effectiveness. The damage for Wild Mushroom is fairly low. Perhaps for an instant-cast spell, it is fairly more acceptable, but this is a special case. Wild Mushroom seemed balanced in the same way that any standard instant-cast spell would be in terms of damage, such as Moonfire without Lunar Shower; it is slightly higher than normal, but still low. The damage balancing is tricky, I will give you that, but it does need to be increased.
Wild Mushroom is technically an AoE ability, and Blizzard fears making AoE powerful for a variety of reasons. This makes increasing the damage of Wild Mushroom very difficult. If Wild Mushroom has a higher DPSC than Wrath, then it is going to be used on cooldown every chance that we get; this is problematic because having an AoE damage ability that does more single target damage than a single-target spell goes against every philosophy that Blizzard has fought to change for Cataclysm. The functionality problem is the range of Wild Mushroom. Late in beta, Wild Mushroom's effect range was reduced to a meager 3 yards, which is downright terrible. In PvE, it makes the AoE viability of Wild Mushroom very limited, and it makes PvP targeting excessively difficult.
The fact of the matter is that Blizzard needs to make a choice in how it wants to develop Wild Mushroom, and it hasn't done so as of yet. Either the damage needs to be dramatically increased in order to compensate for the long cooldown and short range, or the range needs to be increased to make the spell viable for AoE and being easier to use in PvP. Right now, the spell is halfway between both options, and Blizzard isn't making a move in either direction.
Getting the right information
I know there is more out there to discuss, much, much more; however, I simply cannot touch upon all of it. I would like to talk more in depth about PvP issues, Owlkin Frenzy, Moonkin Form, the rotation, glyphs, talents, and everything in between. Sadly, I do not have the time in order to do all of this without seriously pissing off my editors and probably boring the rest of you with a massive wall of text every week. That being the case, as awesome as I like to believe I may be, I am not the end all, be all of balance information, and I would encourage you to check out other sources -- not solely because each of us will talk about different things, but because everyone has we all have our own views on the class and on balancing, and different opinions are what make this game so great.
Just to give a shout-out to all of the other fantastic balance druids who are out there peddling information just like myself, I strongly suggest you take the time to browse through the following people:
Lissanna www.restokin.com; also check out her leveling guide
Eluial Moonfarespam: The Moonkin PvE Guide
On top of those specific people, and I know I am forgetting somebody. The Moonkin Repository and Elitist Jerks are always great sources of information, and TMR is a great place to hang around and just chat with fellow balance druids about anything at all. As Cataclysm draws closer and more and more topics come for debate, I cannot give any better suggestion than to check every source of information out there. Balance druids have an awesome community that strives to make our spec better in every aspect of the game, and it's that community that is honestly the best asset to any balance druid out there, be they new or old.
Every week, Shifting Perspectives treks across Azeroth in pursuit of druidic truth, beauty and insight. Whether you're a bear, cat, moonkin, tree or stuck in caster form, we've got the skinny, from a look at the disappearance of the bear tank to thoughts on why you should be playing the class (or why not).