It's hard for me to believe that Cataclysm has only been out for slightly over one year, especially given how we're already on the last raid of the expansion. It's been a turbulent year for the shaman class, and elemental as a spec is no exception. Between legendaries, highly fluctuating DPS, and more tweaks to AoE then I care to count, elemental has had more than its fair share of ups and downs this year.
Tier 11: The lows
Elemental was not a strong DPS class in the first tier of Cataclysm raiding. Fights like heroic Halfus, Maloriak, and Sinestra brought our lack of competitive AoE damage into the limelight, while Cho'gall, Conclave of Wind, and Ascendant Council all highlighted how elemental's mobile DPS was terribly low. With Unleash Elements and shocks being our only mobile cast -- not to mention low levels of haste that left us with terribly slow Lightning Bolt casts -- and we really struggled to pump out respectable numbers on any fight that wasn't Patchwerk-esque.
Tier 11: The highs
The highest point of patch 4.0 was that it brought us a ridiculous number of class changes. Icecrown Citadel's elemental shaman had a very rigid rotation, with an 8-second Lava Burst cooldown, Lightning Bolts until LvB was up again, and the occasional Flame Shock thrown in. Blizzard implemented a number of changes in Cataclysm to address the snoozefest that was elemental in Wrath of the Lich King -- namely, adding in Lava Surge to add some RNG to the rotation and Fulmination for some more damage. It also implemented the mastery system, providing elemental with a viable alternative to critical strike rating, as Lava Burst's instant-crit effect makes critical strike rating a very lackluster stat for us.
Tier 12: The lows
In patches 4.1 and 4.2, we saw some changes to AoE that were designed to make it more competitive for elemental. Unfortunately, they didn't really work. Earthquake's damage was buffed by 10% as well as made into a fire-and-forget spell. Call of Flame allowed targets that were already affected by Flame Shock that were hit by a Fire Nova to increase the duration of their Flame Shock. This system was as confusing and clunky as that sentence sounds and ended up not being worthwhile. Luckily, most fights in Firelands didn't rely on AoE damage, unlike tier 11. Unfortunately, the one that did need incredibly good AoE damage was heroic Ragnaros, the hardest boss of the patch. Tier 12 also gave us our insane reliance on our two-piece tier bonus, which was both a blessing and a curse.
While reliance on gear that we won't be using forever is not a good way to balance the damage of a particular class, I can't make the argument that it didn't work. The latter end of tier 12 saw some very nice damage coming from elemental shaman, and that was almost all because of good use of permanent Fire Elemental Totem. Of course, this is why the bonus was subsequently nerfed when tier 13 came out, but we kind of foresaw that.
Tier 13: The lows
The main low to playing elemental post-4.3 is the nerf to our tier 12 bonus. While getting new gear is exciting, this was a set bonus that provided thousands of extra DPS and scaled ridiculously well with the rest of our gear. Pre-nerf, I would have wagered that a legendary-wielding elemental shaman with heroic two-piece and heroic Dragon Soul gear in the rest of their slots would be one of the highest DPS classes in the game. Now, we're solidly among the upper middle class of DPS specs ... but that is with a legendary. Without a legendary, elemental is more lower middle, with buffed melee like enhance shaman and arms warriors taking the lead. We're also unfortunately still reliant on a 2-minute duration/10-minute cooldown ability for our maximum DPS, which is an awkward spot to be in.
Tier 13: The highs
The biggest bonus in 4.3 is that we have competitive cleave damage in a spammable Chain Lightning. With no cooldown and the ability to proc Rolling Thunder multiple times, post-patch AoE has gotten considerably better. It's quite fun to use on Yor'sahj, Hagara's Ice Tombs, and Madness of Deathwing. We also received some slight quality-of-life bonuses, like the change to Flametongue Weapon that gives us a percent increase to spell damage rather than static spellpower. While this isn't immediately helpful, it's a great change for going into a new expansion with a properly scaling weapon imbue.
It's really easy to get lost in the downfalls of any spec while you're playing it. Anyone who devotes time and energy to playing something for extended periods of time will mainly perceive its flaws, and that's a normal reaction. However, going into the new year (and soon, a new expansion), I think it's important to look back and realize that the elemental shaman has been gradually being refined and fixed and that for all the bad times we've had this year there have been a number of good changes and buffs.
Show your totemic mastery by reading Totem Talk: Elemental. Let's get down to business with a heart-to-heart on fixing the fire elemental problem, and then join us for a discussion of best practices for elemental shaman.