We are back for the first article post-BlizzCon, and as with many of the other writers for WoW Insider, it's time to talk about what the next expansion holds for balance druids. Mists of Pandaria looks to hold many exciting new features for the game on top of an entirely redesigned talent and specialization system. While how everything will pan out is still nothing but speculation, there are a few things in particular which are worth exploring, especially for druids.
I'm no stranger to hand-waving, crackpot theories; today's article is no exception to that. No one knows precisely what the next expansion is going to hold for WoW, not even the people working on it, but I can give you my observations from the outside looking in. Keep that in mind, however, this article is merely how things seem from the glimpse of the future that BlizzCon provided. Everything is subject to change, rebalancing, and various other changes. That over and done with, let's get started.
The first tiers
As with every expansion, Blizzard has opened with the same grand claim that, frankly, I am getting tired of hearing. Once more, it is being sworn up and down that the new talent system will not have the same min-maxing that we have seen throughout the entire history of WoW. It is getting rather cute that Blizzard is sticking to its guns on this issue, but I think that it is time to just give in. It may not be the most popular stance to take at this moment, but the idea that talents will be meaningful yet not fall into a standard cookie-cutter layout is pure self-delusion. Encounter mechanics can alter the expected norm, but there will always be a norm, there will always be a best choice, and there will always be a right spec.
Take as an example the previewed talents that we have now for druids. In the first tier, there is only one choice that so much as halfway appeals to balance druids: Feline Swiftness. The other two abilities, Displacer Beast and Tireless Pursuit, are both long-cooldown abilities that impact mobility, yet they both also require Cat Form (or at least force you into Cat Form). Tireless Pursuit has some merit in PVP, and it might become a feasible choice, but this seems unlikely -- yet for PVE, Feline Swiftness is hands down the only choice to take.
The third tier is the only time we actually see any measure of choice, but that is only due to PVP control. Every option is a form of control. You can add a slow to Faerie Fire, gain a mass root, or keep Typhoon. Suffice to say, I highly doubt many PVP balance players would want to keep Typhoon, with all the issues that we've had in the past. Whether the slow or the AOE root is better, who can say? I'd probably vote for the slow myself, given DR issues and the minute cooldown on the root, but I could end up wrong. Regardless, none of these choices matter in PVE. Typhoon will probably be the default choice since the knockback utility comes up from time to time, but other than that, you can pick whatever you want and you'll probably end up using none.
The middle tiers
Moving to the fourth tier, we're finally faced with something that actually holds an impact in PVE, since thus far which choice you made doesn't hold much weight in the matter. The first choice, Wild Charge, is an escape tool, not all that great for PVE and probably not worth taking in PVP either, with the other two options. Next, there's Incarnation or Force of Nature. We don't know what Incarnation will end up doing for balance druids, but it will likely be some form of DPS cooldown to increase our damage in some way. Force of Nature, according to Blizzard, is getting updated to change functions depending on spec, but for balance it too will just be a DPS cooldown. One of the two will be a better cooldown at the end of the day, and that will be the one we take. Case closed.
Tier five is the bear tier, and it is totally disappointing. For balance, you don't really get a choice. Demoralizing Roar is the clear winner in PVP, as it's a solid escape tool to aid us with those pesky melee players. Ursol's Vortex is a really cool ability, but it's not really all too stellar for a balance druid. In PVE, you don't usually want to draw things to you, although you might find use for it to assist tanks with on adds. For PVP, you really don't want to draw things to you. There is some uniqueness to it in that you could use it to help your teammates -- for example, bringing back a mage who Blinked away from a DPS train or pulling a pillar-humping healer out into the middle -- but the balancing choice is giving up a much better escape tool. Bear Hug suffers the same issue. It can have some situational PVP application with the right setup, but that's purely an Arena-styled matter that largely depends on team composition. For PVE, there is no choice in this tier because your choice is meaningless. UV is really the only one that offers any marginal amount of use, and that's an extremely limited situation.
Finally, we come down to the last tier. The tier that has the most awesome of the awesome talents, yet I am extremely disappointed in all of the options that we have so far been presented with. Let's start with Heart of the Wild, an ability that offers something we've been asking for since Moonkin Form was introduced. That's right, you gain the ability to heal in Moonkin Form! For 30 seconds, on a 6-minute cooldown. Not only that, but our healing abilities work in conjunction with Eclipse! It's a win -- or a loss -- all around. Let's face it: The cooldown aspect just isn't worth the talent. I can think of over a million different situations where I would kill for this ability, but against other options, it just doesn't hold up. Healing in Moonkin Form is great, but the limited effect that the cooldown aspect offers makes the ability weak overall.
Master Shapeshifter is a highly interesting talent. It adds a stackable bonus to your off-skill abilities every time you use them, meaning you use a melee ability and you gain a boost to spell damage, or you use a spell ability and you gain a boost to melee damage. At face value, it is interesting, but the overall talent feels extremely impractical. In effect, it would turn the druid into an enhancement shaman, attempting to mix melee and spells together, yet we don't have the support system that they do in order for this to function. A feral druid isn't really going to use three melee abilities, shift out to cast three Wraths, then repeat that process. A balance druid really isn't going to cast three spells, then go up and use three melee abilities.
At best, you could say it offers a nice perk when the situation forces to you utilize your off-spec abilities, but when does that happen? Using Dash or Stampeding Roar? Other than that, what melee abilities would we ever use? Ignoring how much of an impact the numbers hold, it just doesn't work the way druids are structured. Blizzard clearly wants us to shift more in this expansion, but taking a talent for the sake of having your other talents not be as much of a DPS loss is downright ridiculous. The original talents shouldn't adversely impact our DPS, and Master Shapeshifter should do something useful.
Last, there's Disentanglement, which I will admit is probably the single most overpowered ability I have ever seen for any aspect of the game. The base effect allows the druid to shapeshift to remove roots -- not slows, only roots, but even that is pretty amazing on its own. Certainly worth the talent point, particularly to feral druids, but even balance druids need that root escape. It's the second part of the talent that is clearly not balanced. Every 30 seconds, shapeshifting also heals the druid for 20% of their health. Forget how amazingly powerful that is for PVP – who needs the ability to cast self heals when you can just do a quick double shift and heal yourself for 20% of your health? But in PVE, that is drop-dead amazing. Tanks, obviously, would get the most benefit from it by power shifting between boss swings, but even for balance, it is amazing.
Disentanglement makes us the best self-sustaining DPS in a PVE group of any size. Couple that with our other self-healing abilities, and only warlocks would be more survivable than us. Large boss abilities that usually require stacking healer cooldowns? Bah! Who needs that? We'll heal ourselves through them. Our DPS may not benefit from these talents, but our ability to utterly sustain ourselves through ridiculous amounts of damage would mean taking one less healer, and that is worth more DPS than any talent could ever provide.
Shifting into shapeshifting
Balance druids will be strong going into the next expansion. We have a lot of awkward talents that don't quite work with the manner in which we're designed, but we will be one of the most survivable specs for PVE and PVP. Our sustainability is reaching absurd limits with these talents. I'm to the point where I doubt things will go live as they stand, but the other part of me sees that Blizzard has to give us something.
The new emphasis on shapeshifting is spectacular -- I love the thought of it -- but a few talents here and there to support it will never be enough. Druids would have to be completely redesigned from the ground up in order to create the type of playstyle that Blizzard is attempting to force upon us through our talents. In PVP, all of it works out fantastically because sustaining constant, high DPS isn't the goal, but it just doesn't translate into PVE at all. Perhaps there are far more drastic changes for druids in store. Who knows? Right now, there are so few choices when it comes to talents that it's a joke for Blizzard to think that players won't be forced into a standardized build. That alone bothers me.
Every week, Shifting Perspectives: Balance brings you druidic truth, beauty and insight ... from a moonkin's perspective. We'll help you level your brand new balance druid, tweak your UI and your endgame gear, analyze balance racials and abilities, and even walk you through PVP as a balance druid.