Soul shards -- the special resource that has been iconic for warlocks since the beginnings of World of Warcraft. Once nonstackable in-game items that there were special bags for, soul shards now in Cataclysm are part of the unit frame as a secondary resource. Soul shards are particularly a great flavor match for affliction and will stay as affliction-only in Mists of Pandaria.
The only problem is that the Soulburn mechanic doesn't jibe well with affliction. Sometimes the stick is too long for us to care about the crunchy, delicious carrot at the end. Sometimes the carrot isn't big enough for the properly balanced stick. Whatever the problem is, our soul carrots don't match our soul sticks.
What resources do to a playstyle
Resources are meant as limitations on what you can do. By limiting what you can do, the developers can push you toward or away from different paths of a playstyle.
The ultimate resource out there is health. Somebody once said, "Death is the best interrupt (on a mob)." Retrieving your body is the only thing you can do while dead. Mages gain an additional ability to use the cry emote while dead. Having health pushes players toward doing things that keep themselves alive.
The primary resources -- mana, rage, energy, runic power, and focus -- all drive players away from certain ability sequences. We see it all the time when the hotfix patch includes a mana cost adjustment for one healing spell or another. AoE abilities have high costs so they can't be spammed ad nauseum. A bad mana user either will run out of mana or won't use it enough. A bad energy user either energy-starves himself or caps out and wastes regeneration.
The secondary resources are there to push players toward a specific ability sequence. Eviscerates can't happen without combo points. Wild Mushrooms are fun, but then they're amazing in Solar Eclipse. A bad frost DK can Frost Strike whenever he feels like it, but a good frost DK might wait until a pair of runes are on cooldown to get an additional proc out of the ability. A good secondary resource design integrates with the spec it's for.
In Cataclysm, the Soulburn spell allowed us to spend a soul shard, our secondary resource, to boost an ability. Unfortunately, not many of the abilities listed as burnable directly aid our DoTs or drains, so the system feels rather useless. They feel more like an "oh, crap" resource than a real boost to and part of our damage output.
Why are we so resistant to spending our shards?
Nerf the stick, buff the carrot
The lack of passive regeneration for soul shards is the sticking point to spending them. Even DK runes have a cooldown that ends shortly after you use a rune. Soul shards don't have a cooldown; once one's gone, it's gone until you leave combat. If you're lucky, the fight can have multiple non-boss targets so that you can drain some shards off a dying add.
There is one exception, Seed of Corruption. I love soulburning a Seed in PvE, but it doesn't happen often outside of trash mobs in dungeons or raids. The catch to the shard refund is that the warlock has to let that particular Seed explode. If the Seed is overwritten with a new one before explosion, the shard stays spent.
The four-piece set bonus for warlock tier 13 was designed to attract more use of Soulburn. However, the earlier wordings didn't please warlocks very much. The use of Soulburn was rewarded with a spellpower boost and nothing more. That was awesome if you were a demonology player who switches pets mid-combat all the time using the instant summon option. On the other hand, it was quite crappy for an affliction warlock who might burn a Seed or a healthstone every other gimmick fight.
So the devs introduced a refund mechanic into the four-piece, and suddenly affliction warlocks were willing to use Soulburn on cooldown. The catch was that the Soulburn had to be paired with Soul Fire (making Soul Fire instant-cast) in order to refund the shard. Of course, we grumbled about how a direct damage fire spell is next to useless to our DoT-based shadow damage, but we'll take a spellpower boost on a short cooldown where we can get it.
In Mists of Pandaria, Drain Soul is returning as an in-combat regeneration method for soul shards. With our new filler spell Malefic Grasp completing the trio of channeled spells for affliction, I'll welcome Drain Soul back. If it proves to be a great way to regenerate shards, we might not even need a refund carrot on our tier sets. But I have a couple of caveats.
First, if the developers want a trio of filler spells -- that is, players will have to choose between the damaging Malefic Grasp, the survivability Drain Life, and the regenerating Drain Soul, depending on the situation -- then Drain Soul and Drain Life have to deal damage comparable to Malefic Grasp. Drain Life rose to filler prominence and fell after nerfing for its damage comparable to Shadow Bolt's.
Although spell coefficients aren't factored in yet, Drain Soul looks like it's shaping up to spend some time as a regenerative filler. The talent calculator has Drain Soul dealing 2,107 shadow damage every 4 seconds along with regenerating a shard, while Malefic Grasp deals 2,634 shadow damage over 3 seconds. Sure, Grasp's DoT-boosting effect will make the bigger difference, but in terms of filler damage, Drain Soul looks OK for now.
Second, Drain Soul won't be used at all for regeneration if affliction warlocks can't find abilities to reliably use Soulburn on. Currently, both demonology and destruction have solid uses for Soulburn, but shards will be only for affliction in Mists. The abilities need to match up to affliction's purposes, not demo's or destro's. Affliction doesn't need to switch pets or keep up a fiery buff.
Soulburn needs more actual carrots
Spellpower boosts affliction DoTs and damage. Ten seconds, the four-piece tier 13's buff duration, is just long enough to refresh all our DoTs and fire off a few Shadow Bolts. It's a great carrot for affliction warlocks because our DoTs are what matter, not the spell we spend the shard on.
The developers are on the right path separating Soulburn into two cooldowns. The longer cooldown on the ability used drives players to use different abilities, instead of spamming a macro of the same pairing. But the shorter cooldown on Soulburn itself means we'll be able to use it more often.
The question is, use it for what? On trash pulls, I expect a Soulburn: Curse of the Elements followed up by a Soulburn: Seed of Corruption. But we do that already today, just one less Soulburn. The other burnable spells listed in the talent calculator are reflavors of what we already have. Soulburn: Fear is an instant fear for 3 seconds, which is currently like Death Coil. Soulburn: Curse is like the Jinx talent.
While the utility abilities are fantastic for PvP, there's not much use for them in a raid encounter outside of gimmick add fights and saving your own hide from stepping into a floor fire. A damage boost would be more welcome in a PvEer's resource arsenal. Although I'm sure I'll get plenty of Shadow Trances in later content, I wouldn't mind a Nightfall on demand Soulburn effect. Even if the only effect for me would be a spellpower proc off a set bonus, that's better for my damage dealing role than all the utility in Azeroth.
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 tier 13 set bonuses.