SCENE: A 25-man raid of Lord KillMeIHaveCandy in Mists of Pandaria. The raid is buffing before the pull while class officers discuss strategy. Allie opens the bidding war.
Allie: Alllll right. Who gets Symbiosis? Let me think.
Allie: Last time I gave it to you, you blew my Rebirth cooldown on the guy who dies every fight. You are now my mortal enemy, and I will remind you of this on your deathbed.
Death knight: I could use it.
Allie: I don't know what I get from you yet. Bug off.
Warrior: Me me me!
Allie: Oh, come on. Enrage isn't that great.
Monk: I could use it.
Allie: You roll on my gear and want a favor from me. You're funny.
Priest: Oh, look! I accidentally tripped over 5,000 gold on the ground for which I have no earthly use. Would you like it?
Allie: Let's talk.
When Blizzard clarified the mechanics behind Symbiosis in a recent forum post, it answered a lot of questions but raised others. Here's what we know, plus a few guesses as to how the skill will work once it's introduced to the game.
Not a Focus Magic or Dark Intent lookalike
Symbiosis is not a Focus Magic or Dark Intent doppelganger. This had actually been my greatest fear when we first heard about the spell at BlizzCon 2011. While the buffs are similar in the sense that you'll almost certainly be casting them before combat and retaining them for the length of the fight, there's still a pretty big ideological distinction between the two. Focus Magic and Dark Intent are pretty baldly intended as DPS increases, whereas Symbiosis is just as baldly intended for utility.
While Blizzard still seems to be ironing out the specifics of how Symbiosis will work vis-à-vis specific classes and specs, one pattern is very clear: Whatever skill you're going to get (or give), you won't be using it as part of a DPS rotation, and nobody else has the right to expect a damage increase out of the deal either.
To me, that makes Symbiosis a lot more interesting while simultaneously allowing it to bypass the fights that FM/DI have historically attracted over which class/spec will get the most out of it. For the bears and trees among us, this is a pretty good deal. We don't really care about damage as long as the players charged with doing it stay alive, and it's easy to think of a concrete use for all of the abilities cited here (e.g., Ice Trap, Hand of Sacrifice).
Having said that, that doesn't make Symbiosis trouble-free (see below), but it does remove a major game balance concern. Giving and taking utility spells means that their use will depend entirely on the skill of both players concerned and how they anticipate handling a fight. That seems consistent with how Blizzard is approaching class design in Mists.
More active concern for raid balance
Let's face it: While it might be a little overambitious to say that 25-man raiding is going the way of the dinosaur, it's not an attractive model to most raiding guilds these days. A 25-man raiding guild is harder to run, more time-consuming and stressful to administrate, and the barrier to entry is much higher. While raid balance won't be a problem if you raid solely through the Raid Finder, it will definitely be one if you're otherwise restricted to 10-mans.
With the addition of the monk, it will be impossible in Mists and beyond for a 10-man raid to field one player of each class, and I've been wondering how that'll work out for the inevitably unlucky player who wants or needs to Symbiosis a skill that his/her raid can't possibly provide. "Needs" is perhaps a strong word for this, but my personal nightmare is tanking a fight in which I could really use a Symbiosis'd Fear Ward and knowing that ain't gonna happen.
(Sudden thought: Does the presence of Fear Ward in the list of Symbiosis skills imply that the guardian druid won't be getting a Fear break? Not that Fear's played a massive role in raids lately, but nobody liked seeing Berserk nerfed just because cats stopped sucking in Arena for a few minutes.)
Any time Blizzard introduces a new talent or skill, it's useful to consider it within the context of the following: You will be balanced around its use. We do not get this stuff simply because developers like us and want us to be happy, although that would be reason enough (for me). We magically got new cooldowns in the beginning of Wrath of the Lich King, only to find that a host of raid bosses would now kill us if we didn't use them. But Symbiosis' rather complicated nature makes me wonder how -- or if -- Blizzard is approaching raid content with its presence in the raid in mind.
Babysitting the raid
My now-greatest fear is that Symbiosis is going to be used as a crutch in situations that the druid is otherwise poorly designed to handle or -- more likely -- that we'll be spending the length of a fight casting and recasting it on the players who could get the most use from it in a particular moment. I can see a Kael-style fight where different players would inarguably be getting the most use from Symbiosis depending on fight conditions (e.g., a warlock "tanking" the phase 1 caster wants Rejuvenation, a hunter getting focused by Lord Thaladred needs Dash). This places a high skill cap on how druids can prioritize and use Symbiosis, but it also raises the ugly specter of having to babysit the raid, which I don't think anybody wants.
Then again, would that be worse than having a cooldown on Symbiosis, the likeliest answer to such a problem?
Shifting Perspectives: Bear and Resto Edition takes a peek at healer balance in Dragon Soul, discovers why bears and PvP gear are a pretty good mix, lends advice on gearing up to hit the Raid Finder, and helps you level a druid in the Cataclysm era.