Arcane Brilliance: The new and improved arcane tree in patch 4.1

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. Unless it's a week when I move into a new house and Cox Cable decides my internet doesn't need to be hooked up on the same day week I tell them I need it hooked up. Also, why does my shower only produce cold water when the sink in the same bathroom is so hot it is capable of scalding flesh from bone, and why ... why when I flush the toilet does it sound as if my entire house is freeing itself from its terrestrial moorings and returning to the mothership?

Before we begin, I'd like to see a show of hands. Are you a mage? Okay, good. Now, put your hand down if you're a fire mage. Hoo boy. We just lost a lot of hands. Now frost mages can put their hands down. Now warlocks who only came here because you secretly hate yourselves and want to hear about how much you suck. Okay. I see there are still some hands up. Arcane mages, you stalwart few: This column is mostly for you.

While I was away, the PTR patch notes for 4.1 were updated, and there are more than a few important items for mages in there. Let's get the non-arcane news out of the way first, so everybody who's too good for a little Arcane Blast spam and Mana Adept management can move on with their day.

Keep in mind that though these changes are in the official notes, as of this writing, none are actually live on the PTR, so none of this is tested, and as with everything in the PTR notes, all of it is subject to change.

Blizzard gets a massive buff

So, I'm not convinced that AoE is where frost mages need help the most, but I'm not going to look a buff-horse in the mouth. Blizzard is getting a 70% increase in base damage when patch 4.1 hits, assuming this makes it through the testing process unscathed. I don't know about you, but that's the biggest straight damage buff I can remember seeing to a major spell in a very long time. Perhaps this is part of the class designers' stated desire to make AoE a little more relevant, and frankly it's a pretty good start. I wouldn't be surprised to see this number fluctuate as testing goes on.

No more global cooldown for Combustion

This is also awesome. Combustion is, perhaps more than any other ability in the game, completely dependent upon precise timing (and, of course, dumb luck -- thanks, random number generator!). It often needs to be cast at a moment's notice, during a very short window of maximum potential, and removing the global cooldown from it is a needed change. This allows the spell to be cast without regard for altering your rotation, and it can now more easily be written into macros.

And now, the Arcane tree

For the duration of this expansion, arcane has been an almost experimental spec. The Mana Adept mastery mechanics required such a different approach to playing the game that an entirely unique set of strategies had to be adopted in order to achieve high-quality DPS. Even after a lengthy beta phase and several months of post-expansion hotfixes, it still feels like the playerbase is testing this spec out. Most simply gave up, declared arcane second or third-rate, and switched to fire.

The spec defies standard simulations, and arcane's performance can vary widely depending upon playstyle, length of fight, movement phases, and even trinket usage. Combine that with what I imagine are very low numbers of arcane mages actually getting the opportunity to do high-level raids, and I'm guessing that gathering reliable DPS data and doing normal balancing has been a difficult proposition for the development team at best.

And that's why I believe the spec is where it currently is: able to produce high amounts of burst damage over short periods, and almost completely unable to provide consistent numbers over long encounters. A playstyle wisely accepted as "best" has emerged, and that playstyle involves rotating three distinct casting phases but relies upon static conditions, negligible interrupts, and low movement requirements. Arcane can shine in short fights, but in the majority of longer, more demanding raid scenarios, it falls well short of acceptable ranged DPS numbers. For a pure DPS class, this was unacceptable.

Apparently, Blizzard agrees. Here are the latest 4.1 PTR patch notes for arcane mages:
So right there, we get major base damage buffs to all three of arcane's nukes. Couple those straight damage increases with the straight mana cost reductions we got earlier in the PTR process, and arcane's all-around damage numbers should go up significantly.

Lowering the mana cost of arcane nukes results in a direct DPS increase because with Mana Adept, more mana equals more damage. And here we get straight base damage buffs to our main nuke (Blast), our main Arcane Blast reset spell (missiles), and our main nuke for movement phases (Barrage). Can't complain about that.

Another area in which arcane was sorely lacking is also being addressed, and that area is AoE.
  • Arcane Explosion damage has been increased by 13%.
  • The stacking effect of Arcane Blast now increases the damage done by Arcane Explosion, and Arcane Explosion does not consume that effect.
We still only have one viable arcane AoE spell, but at the very least, Blizzard is making some attempt at improving that one spell. Though it still requires us to park our squishy bodies in harm's way and basically act like a living Magma Totem, Arcane Explosion is improving. It will now benefit from Arcane Blast's stacking damage debuff, making it the only spell other than Arcane Blast itself that this debuff affects. Better, casting Arcane Explosion won't consume the debuff, meaning that with a full stack of the debuff, you could potentially cast around 12 Arcane Explosions (or six if you haven't taken Improved Arcane Explosion, a talent that just got substantially more valuable), each of which would be doing 40% more damage than usual.

The strategy for arcane in AoE situations now would have to be Arcane Blast to four stacks, then Arcane Explosion spam for 3 seconds or so (six talented casts for most mages), followed by a single Arcane Blast cast to refresh the debuff stack, then more Explosion spam. It's awkward at best. I'd like to see Improved Arcane Explosion grant a chance to refresh the Arcane Blast debuff, something in the neighborhood of 15-20%, high enough that you'll only occasionally have to refresh the stack during AoE phases with Arcane Blast but still low enough that Arcane Explosion doesn't ever become a viable method of refreshing during single-target rotations.

It's not a perfect solution, but it is something of a compromise. I'd still love to see an honest-to-goodness ranged AoE option for arcane, and I could still do with a larger base damage increase for Arcane Explosion (still a very weak AoE spell in the larger scheme of things), but this change shows the designers are trying to fix this ongoing weak spot.

Arcane is improving, guys. And short of kicking a warlock in the groin, nothing makes me happier than that. What think ye?

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages or our mage Thanksgiving spectacular. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.

This article was originally published on WoW Insider.