Shifting Perspectives: The future non-suck of mastery

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Shifting Perspectives for cat, bear, restoration and balance druids. This Tuesday, we contemplate the possibility of writing a future article on predictions that came true, because goddamn, we're amazing.

One of these days I really ought to write an edition of Shifting that's nothing but a smug-a-thon on how much I've been able to get right. That this necessitates ignoring the 95% that I get wrong is somewhat troublesome if you're one of those people who gets hung up on the ephemeral phenomenon sometimes known as "accuracy," but a good writer never lets the truth stand between herself and a great story.

On this occasion, I am pleased to say -- to a legion of people who could reasonably have expected an upcoming change anyway -- I told you so.


Symbiosis and chasing HOTs

We've talked previously about the general antipathy toward the restoration druid's ever-changing mastery. The first version in the beta boosted heal over time (HOT) spells by X% subject to the target's health, with lower-health targets deriving more benefit from the HOT. Except ... low-health targets are rightfully high priorities for direct heals, particularly from healers with more efficient means of addressing sudden damage. As Heilig noted at the time, the druid mastery simply wasn't designed to "play nice with the rest of the raid," and Blizzard wound up scrapping it.

The second version, which boosted direct heals on targets to whom a HoT was applied, seemed like an odd match at best for the restoration playstyle. Even if you allow for the Cataclysm changes that nudged us in the direction of more reliance on Nourish and Healing Touch, Symbiosis mostly boosted our least attractive spells, two of which (HT and Regrowth) were too expensive to use much outside of Clearcasting procs and one (Nourish) that had been redesigned as a maintenance heal. The third Symbiosis, which is what we're working with now during patch 4.1 on the live servers, affects all heals on targets to whom a HoT was applied. Mastery's a better stat than it used to be, but it's still in an awkward position as something that may not contribute much to a competent player's healing.

Players wound up coining the phrase "chasing HOTs" as a means of shorthanding the behavior you have to engage in (as I write this during patch 4.1 on the live servers) to get any benefit from the stat at all. While this isn't generally an issue for dedicated tank healers, raid healers -- particularly in 25-mans -- often get little use from Symbiosis and thus mastery as a whole. Then there's the issue of having to heal more on a target that, by definition, is already being actively healed for Symbiosis even to kick in. The developers have gone to great lengths to get healers thinking about careful mana usage and using the right heal for each situation, and that pressure's only going to increase in 4.2 assuming the Mana Tide nerf goes live. Having to apply additional heals to a target you're already healing just to keep mastery from being completely wasted isn't an encouraging state of affairs.

So the various designs behind the resto mastery haven't sat well with a large portion of the druid population, and mastery never wound up being a hugely attractive stat as a result. That it's the best stat for resto players after certain haste breakpoints have been reached owes more to the general weakness of critical strike for us than it does to mastery itself. Interestingly, patch 4.2 addresses both issues, though crit will remain our weakest stat.

The new HOTness

So what's the big deal? The most recent version of the patch 4.2 PTR notes gave us this little gem:

PTR Patch 4.2 notes
Symbiosis (Mastery) has been removed and replaced with Harmony. Harmony increases direct healing by an additional 10%, and casting direct healing spells grants an additional 10% bonus to periodic healing for 10 seconds. Each point of mastery increases each bonus by an additional 1.25%. Healing Touch, Nourish, Swiftmend, and the initial heal from Regrowth are considered direct healing spells for the purposes of this Mastery. All other healing from druid spells is considered periodic.

Harmony went live in the latest PTR build, but instance servers are a bit wonky at the moment. I have yet to see the new mastery in action in 5-mans as a result, but on a premade druid in ilevel 346 gear with 11.73 mastery, this is what I saw with no buffs up bar Mark of the Wild (canceling weapon/trinket procs):
  • A full stack of Lifebloom goes from an average 1,551 tick/3,103 crit tick to 1,725 tick/3,450 crit tick.
  • Rejuvenation goes from an average 3,619 tick/7,238 crit tick to 3,951 tick/7,902 crit tick.
Once you cast a direct heal, you gain the 10-second self buff called Harmony. Curiously, while Lifebloom "updates" dynamically if you gain the Harmony buff while it's ticking, Rejuvenation does not; you have to have the Harmony buff active when you cast it to see any benefit. I'm not sure if this is a bug or if I made a mistake, but it seemed to be pretty consistent.

I hit the reforger and managed to reach 15.04 mastery on that same druid, and this was the result:
  • A full stack of Lifebloom with Harmony active reaches an average 1,774 tick/3,548 crit tick.
  • Rejuvenation with Harmony active reached an average 4,044 tick/8,088 crit tick. However, because the character in question fell below the haste breakpoint needed to add another Rejuvenation tick (1,602 outside of a raid) while reforging, this wasn't actually a net improvement to her output (from 18,095 healed by the average non-crit five-tick Rejuvenation to 16,176 healed by the average non-crit four-tick Rejuvenation). As always, folks, be careful while reforging if you're anywhere close to the spec's breakpoints, because losing haste is going to get messy fast.
Harmony's benefits and a persistent worry

Harmony's a flat boost to the direct heals in our arsenal (Nourish, Swiftmend, Healing Touch, and Regrowth) and -- assuming you can be bothered to cast one of the above heals every 10 seconds -- a boost to everything else, too. Not surprisingly, it matches the duration of Lifebloom so ... see where they're going with this? It's a bit more brainless than chasing HOTs, but let's be frank -- having to think more about a mastery while getting less out of it is no great recommendation for its continued existence. Personally, I always found chasing HoTs just to get any benefit from mastery on someone other than the tank somewhat annoying.

However, brainlessness is kind of relative; the druid mastery continues to be the least passive of the five healer masteries:
  • Holy paladins automatically "bubble" their targets upon direct heals.
  • Discipline priests passively get better shields, which is what they're doing anyway.
  • Holy priests get an automatic HoT upon direct heals.
  • Restoration shaman automatically heal more on targets with lower health.
Any reasonable person would observe that there are underlying problems with the design of all four, at least in the sense that each has the potential to be completely wasted. But something that's starting to niggle at me over the druid's mastery is that both Symbiosis and Harmony are one more thing that the druid has to track over the course of an encounter. Assuming that the present version of Harmony goes live, you'll have two 10-second buffs to monitor (Lifebloom and Harmony) in addition to watching for Swiftmend's cooldown, who's got Rejuvenation, who's got Wild Growth, where you can stick Efflorescence where it'll do the most good provided you even get a choice in the matter, and juggling the Tree of Life/Tranquility cooldowns. Then there's the minor matter of staying alive in raids and watching for encounter cues. As much as this is an enjoyable challenge for an experienced player, something about it's starting to bother me in an age with no long-duration HoT. Maybe I can shorthand the matter by saying that setting up a useful user interface for a raiding resto druid is a headache.

But as Lissanna observed, simply using Swiftmend on cooldown is enough to keep Harmony active for two-thirds of an encounter, and I hope that pushes more druids in the direction of remembering to do this. Bad Swiftmend usage is one of the most common problems that crops up in raid logs, though I'll grant that Swiftmend's being linked to Efflorescence sometimes throws a wrench into the statistics.

Overall, I think this iteration of the resto druid mastery comes closest to what Ghostcrawler acknowledged the developers were aiming for during the Cataclysm beta -- namely, getting druids to use spells other than HOTs without punishing the HOTs themselves. That's not to say that the spec's troubles are over -- the talent tree as a whole is still bloated, and the lack of a damage reduction cooldown continues to be a worry -- but this is a step in the right direction for what's certainly a good design goal. I guess I'm just worried about what seems to be an increasing number of buffs, cooldowns, spell durations, and cues competing for resto players' attention during encounters. I'm also a little uneasy about the developers' decision to use mastery to incentivize the gameplay they want to see, rather than allowing the stat to be a simple means of improving the spec's strengths.

Shifting Perspectives helps you gear your bear druid at 85, tempts you with weapons, trinkets and relics for bears, then shows you what to do with it all in Feral Druid Tanking 101. We'll also help you gear your resto druid.

This article was originally published on WoW Insider.