Debuffs help us beat bosses, but not all debuffs are created equal. Over WoW's eight years, debuffs have dealt extra damage, prevented damage, healed us, given us mana, slowed boss attacks, sped up our own, and helped us to hit harder.
Some are more powerful than others, but today those concerns are meaningless. Applying every possible debuff and keeping it active is a critical component to success.
Believe it or not, however, there was a time when your raid leader would yell at you for doing exactly that. Your weaker debuffs weren't just considered useless -- using them was a dire liability.
Eight is not enough
Vanilla WoW had an interesting, longstanding, and highly criticized technical limitation. A raid of any size could only apply a maximum of eight debuffs to a boss. As you can imagine, forty-player raids had many, many debuffs at their disposal, but only eight could ever be active at one time.
To make things worse, the game didn't differentiate between debuffs. The latest one that was applied would knock off the oldest one, regardless of type or power. It's not difficult to figure out how this could become a huge problem.
Important debuffs such as Sunder Armor or Judgment of Wisdom that helped large segments of the raid could be replaced by a Hunter's weak Serpent Sting DOT. Compounding this problem, the base UI could only display five of the eight debuffs. You couldn't be sure which debuffs were active.
To help manage debuffs, raid leaders turned to addons such as pDebuffList, Demon, Catch Missing (de)Buffs, and Smarty. Part of their job back then was to make sure that the boss had the right debuffs, and that no one replaced those debuffs, whether by accident or as a sneaky way to boost their own meters. Players who knocked off crucial debuffs with their own were a big problem for raid leaders, and raid leaders responded accordingly.
Specs who had DOTs could never hit their theoretical maximum DPS, because they simply couldn't use them. The limit afflicted Warlocks more than any other class. Corruption and Immolate were usually off the table in larger groups. Warlocks were mainly limited to Curse of Shadow and Shadow Bolt spam.
Other specs were likewise limited. Shamans couldn't use Flame Shock. Warriors couldn't use Rend. Feral druids couldn't use Rake. The list goes on.
Predictably, players took to the forums to complain. A player named Memory posted in April 2005:
This limit is both stupid and game breaking. It signifigantly lowers the ability of raid parties, avaliable talent specs and so on. Certainly a debuff limit could be implemeneted to prevent mass debuffing mobs but the problem here is 8 is just a stupid number to chose.
Basicly I want an update on this limit, whats going on. It has been several patches and mobs can still only support 8 debuffs. Is this here to stay? Is there some game dynamic preventing its removal but you're working on it? Or have you just not started?
This limit is something that I think with the lack of followup Blizzard has given on this, should be adressed to update the players.
Three months later, similar complaints prompted Caydiem to weigh in:
We're not currently satisfied with the debuff limit. I know you guys will be satisfied with nothing short of an immediate fix but all I can tell you right now is that we're aware of the fact that it's a problem and we're trying to fix it.
Understand that the game is balanced with all these factors in mind -- including the eight debuff limit. Naturally just changing it out of hand without doing anything else would drastically shift the balance and difficulty level of several encounters.
It's definitely something we're working on, but we have to be cautious and thorough in our application of the solution.
Caydiem's promise came true two months later in patch 1.7. The limit was doubled to 16, and the game could now display all 16 debuffs. Raiders welcomed the increase. However, given that raids still fielded up to 40 players, doubling the limit hardly resolved the issue.
The debuff limit continued to be a problem in 2006. Despite frequent complaints, Eyonix told forum readers that updating the code simply wasn't a priority:
Warlocks still suffered the biggest disadvantages from the limit. A warlock named Allcapitals posted his concerns in July 2006:
World of Warcraft doesn't currently support an unlimited number of debuffs, but such is something that could be possible through change to our code. However, such code change would take valuable programmer time, which is best used elsewhere for the time being.
Tseric's reply was quite interesting:
Well I've been reading the forums lately, and noticed that many warlocks are nervous about their role in raids, being out DPSed, etc. etc. Some good ideas are out there, along with some very bad ones.
A main problem with not having the need for warlocks in a raid is because if you were, to say, have 4, then there would be a total of 8 minumun debuff slots being taken up. That's half of the raids debuff slots being taken up by 4 players.
At that time, then, Blizzard considered DOTs to be "passive damage" that should be limited in use compared to "direct" spells. Was Blizzard not aware of the skill that it takes to juggle DOTs and weave direct spells among them, without clipping them or dropping them for too long? Did the company simply consider such rotations too complex for players? Or should we take Tseric's comment at face value, that Blizzard actually thought dealing damage through DOTs was so easy that they should take steps to curtail it?
Passive damage dealing should face more limitations than active damage dealing or direct damage. While warlocks are more capable of DoT damage as a class, it is not their sole providence and this limitation does not affect them alone, but the raid as a whole.
Late in vanilla, Blizzard began systematically assigning values to debuffs so that a weaker debuff could not displace a stronger one. The system was announced in February 2006, but it didn't begin to affect the live game until patch 1.11 in June.
Blizzard announced that the limit would increase to 40 in The Burning Crusade. The expansion also reduced raids to a max of 25 players, so many assumed the debuff issue was resolved.
As it turned out, raids could still cap out on debuffs. Not only that, but the priority values Blizzard assigned didn't extend to the level 70 versions of spells. In other words, the game code protected level 60 versions of spells but not their more relevant, max-level counterparts. Some players turned to downranking to the level 60 versions to make sure others wouldn't overwrite their most important debuffs.
Debuffs go infinite
In Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard increased the debuff limit yet again. A limit still exists, but it's not currently possible to reach it. Effectively, then, you can now use as many debuffs as you want to and they can't be knocked off by someone else.
In Mists, the debuff system got another overhaul to make them easier to access. They were tied more frequently to entire classes rather than specs, and spread out among more specs than before. These changes are part of Blizzard's "bring the player, not the class" philosophy to prevent class stacking and limit the advantages of class diversity in raids.
It's been a long road for debuffs. Finally, today, all debuffs have a fair chance. All have a right to sit under a boss's portrait without shame.
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