An introduction to classic
I fully admit that I was not an avid warlock player back during classic WoW. I did have a max-level warlock alt -- it was my first maxed-out alt, in fact -- but I wasn't able to get all that much raiding experience in with one. That honestly wasn't uncommon for a majority of people at the time. However, I remember very well most of the issues and calamity that clung to the warlock community like the plague. In all honesty, I don't know of many classes or specs that were very well designed back during those days. By the standards of the time, everything was cutting-edge, but from the perspective of today's WoW, all of it was rather grim.
Hybrid players from classic and The Burning Crusade are quick to point out how useless many of their specs were during those days (a fact supported by the design of the time), yet few seem to talk about the similar conflicts that pure classes suffered through. Perhaps it is merely that they don't remember. One thing needs to be made clear right from the start: Not all pures were created equal. Warlocks were not an exception to that rule.
Warlocks, as a generalization, were designed to be a debuff/disabling class. While they held no roles other than damage, their massive amounts of utility at the time were consider a major advantage, to the point that many weren't great DPS. To call warlocks bad DPS would be slightly unfair. They actually were on par with mages, rogues, and warriors, although it was very limited. You could bring a warlock and your raid would not suffer, but warlocks themselves were severely limited in what they could do. For those who feel they are pigeonholed into a specific spec now, you have absolutely no idea ...
Affliction was the warlock's leveling spec, as too was demonology -- and in fact, going purely down into any spec was a bad idea at the max level. Affliction was utterly unplayable in raiding. I don't mean in the sense that we view it today, where the damage simply wasn't up to snuff; I literally mean that you could not do anything as a pure affliction player. Mobs had a very strict debuff limit when the game first came out, and you couldn't have more than eight debuffs on a single target. Yeah, try using Corruption or Bane of Agony on a mob when you're in a raid with 15 or 20 other players. It wasn't going to happen.
There were required debuffs: Sunder, Demoralizing Shout, Thunder Clap, Curse of Shadows, Curse of the Elements, and Improved Scorch. Six of the eight slots were called for right from the start, and since at least one of your mages was going to be fire, another slot was called for with Ignite. There wasn't room to run Corruption or even use Drain Life. It was a shame, too, because the weak itemization of the time meant that DOTs were exceptionally powerful.
Some problems never go away
Eventually, the debuff limit was expanded enough to allow for warlocks to actually make use of their DOTs, and it was a huge benefit to our DPS when it happened. And yet you still could not go pure affliction, pure demonology, or pure anything. The spec of the day was an affliction/destruction hybrid called SM-Ruin. SM, or Shadow Mastery, was near the bottom in affliction and increased all shadow damage, but Ruin in the destruction tree gave you the 100% increase in critical strike damage. Both were requirements, since you could get both. There was no other spec option. Going full affliction meant giving up Ruin, and that was far too valuable. Going full destruction meant giving up Shadow Mastery, and there was no filler aside from Shadow Bolt at the time.
Such is the trend that warlocks (or any pure) has ever been able to escape. We trifle over DPS between specs now, but even the fact that warlocks have two viable spec variants is a long way from where any pure class in virtually any MMO has ever been. Forced speccing was the least of our problems of the day, however, and I'm not even going to get into the hassle that were pets.
A lesson in Fear
Fear was the biggest pain in the arse that ever existed, and that didn't change up until Cataclysm. If you've played for any expansion prior to the current one, then you understand the horrid affair that was Fear. It was all the same tune sung over and over again. In PVP, it was a running gag. Every patch, not only did Onyxia learn to do Deep Breath more, but Fear also broke earlier from damage. The number of times that Fear has been rebalanced is never-ending, and in every expansion thus far, Fear breaking has been adjusted in some way or another.
Not only was that bad, but it got so much worse. Death Coil, the spell that all warlocks (particularly PVP ones) love, didn't even exist when the game went live. Fear might have been considered grossly overpowered in PVP, yet we could use it so infrequently that they had to create an entirely new spell just so that warlocks could stand a fighting chance. But let me assure you that no warlock wanted to PVP back in those days; it was a pure lesson in masochism.
PVP aside, Fear was utterly useless in PVE -- that is, unless you had the situational awareness and reaction time of a gaming prodigy. Introducing, ladies and gentlemen, the original Curse of Recklessness. This awesome ability was your new best friend. Why? Oh, it had this little side effect of making the afflicted player immune to fear effects. And thus was born the euphoria that we called fear juggling.
Perhaps you've heard ancient warlocks speak of it as they might a garish horror story around a campfire. Fear juggling was the bane of every warlock's existence. The principle was rather simple. You Feared a mob, and said mob began to run around uncontrollably. If said mob began to get too close to another group of mobs, you tossed a Curse of Recklessness on it in order to suppress the Fear. Once the mob ran a safe distance back toward the group (and hopefully before it started beating on either you or your healer), you replaced Curse of Recklessness with Curse of Shadows – or any other curse – then re-cast Fear. This process was repeated until the mob no longer needed to be controlled. Sounds like fun, huh?
The recent years
Sadly, it really wasn't until Wrath that warlocks really became fleshed out in terms of design. While mages love to cry Sunwell! at anyone who is willing to listen, The Burning Crusade warlocks were a far cry from well-designed or fun. We had one viable build with the most boring rotation that ever existed. Sacrifice your Succubus, proceed to spam Shadow Bolt, win the internets. As much as we make fun of arcane mages now for being a two-button rotation, we were a one-button rotation, and with that, we destroyed everyone else without breaking a sweat. Mages want to constantly use that time frame to cry about their damage; warlocks just want to forget it ever happened, to spare us from having to relive the painful boredom that we suffered.
Wrath was an entirely different animal. We had problems then just as we do now, but many mechanical issues that have long since plagued warlocks have been improved far beyond what players back in vanilla could have dreamed of suggesting. Pet functionality and survivability is leaps and bounds ahead of where it once was, and though we still like to bring up the issues that still gunk the system, I can't help but marvel at what has been done.
Make no mistake, my friends -- warlocks have evolved far beyond what they once were. While we still serve the function of a disable-based class that focuses on DOT effects, our ability to complete in the DPS arena has sent waves throughout the gaming industry. WoW warlocks are the bar for which other similar games must meet, and it's not as easy a task as it might seem; being one of the best classes in WoW has the effect.
Blood Pact is a weekly column detailing DOTs, demons and all the dastardly deeds done by warlocks. We'll coach you in the fine art of staying alive, help pick the best target for Dark Intent, and steer you through encounters such as Blackwing Descent and The Bastion of Twilight.