The early part of the first Mists of Pandaria season features a lot of what Blizzard was trying to avoid -- heavy burst damage. This is particularly a problem when combined with a high level of crowd control, and as I've regularly said, heavy burst is one of the more frustrating things to counter. There is still heavy burst in the game, post the fixing of the hunter Stampede buff, so the question remains, what can you do about it?
I won't be giving you a class-by-class guide on what exactly to do about burst damage. Unless you happen to play one of the classes I specialize in, chances are you know your class far better than I do, and even if you do play one of my classes there's still a possibility you know it better! This definitely isn't class-by-class advice, but a general guide about mentality, tactics and the like. And please, do add to it in the comments with class-specific advice if you have it! Everything helps.
Prevention is better than cure
This is me stealing something doctors and aunts and grandparents used to say when I was a kid, usually referring to illness rather than WoW PvP. But it applies for this, too. If you can stop someone unleashing their heavy burst on you or your team-mates, that's a far better solution than having to pick them up from extremely low health afterwards. I haven't seen something in an arena in a long old time that can genuinely take a player from 100% to dead in one global, but there are some really hard-hitting abilities out there.
This is the first part of prevention. Most of these burst abilities have some kind of requirement. Let's take warlocks as an example, destruction in particular. While anyone who was watching the Battle.net World Championships over the weekend would have notice a prevalence of demonology warlocks, there was one well-known destruction warlock, Adouken, and perhaps some others that I missed. Destruction warlocks are of particular interest to us today thanks to their Chaos Bolt ability. My current 2v2 partner is a destruction warlock, and I've repeatedly witnessed the devastation these Chaos Bolts can wreak, particularly combined with Dark Soul, and my Stormlash Totem. As an aside, if you're a restoration shaman who's not dropping that totem when your team-mate(s) hit the burst button, do! We've seen them take over 200k off a player's health with all those cooldowns combined.
In order to fire off those Chaos Bolts, though, warlocks have to have a supply of a resource called Burning Embers. There are various ways in which they can stockpile this resource, by using other abilities such as Conflagrate, Incinerate, Fel Flame, Immolate ticks, and using Rain of Fire on targets affected by Immolate. Destruction warlocks do start arena battles with one Burning Ember ready to go, but they have to build up the rest. Using a chaos bolt burns through one whole ember, warlocks can accrue a maximum of four. One Burning Ember is generated by 10 non-critting hits of the above, or five crits, or a combination of both, so they take a fair while to build up.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I'm taking one class's example and using it to illustrate an important part of prevention, prediction. If you have anything to give you a clue that burst is coming, you can react. And so, taking the above example, if you're facing a destruction warlock, and you haven't seen them cast a Chaos Bolt yet, but a lot of the other stuff, and they start to build up a fiery aura, this should all be a clue that they're about to unleash chaos on you and potentially your team mate, thanks to Havoc. If the destro lock you're facing looks a bit like this, get ready for some burst.
Warlocks aren't the only ones with onerous requirements to unleash hell on opponents, they're just the one I know best. Look into others, look for clues. If you play with game sounds on, there's a hunting horn which sounds when hunters use Stampede. There are plenty of clues out there to help warn you that the hurt is coming. You can also look at mods like Afflicted3 to help with this, and if you're really clever, aura mods like PowerAuras and WeakAuras can help.
Returning to our example of destruction warlocks, once you know the damage is coming, prevention is the key. Their Chaos Bolt, while affected by Backdraft, is only affected by it once, and even then has a rather long cast time of around two seconds. Without Backdraft it's three seconds. This makes it very difficult to cast if the warlock is being line-of-sighted, i.e. if their target is running around pillars, generally keeping an impenetrable object between the warlock and them. It is also easily interrupted, or grounded, or spell reflected. Dark Soul is a magic buff, and can be offensively dispelled by any healer, or spell-stolen by mages. Stormlash totem can be killed. Dark Soul and Stormlash have limited durations, and can therefore be outlived by players who line-of-sight, and those who interrupt successfully, if there's nobody to take the buff or kill the totem.
Of course, another method to prevent damage from any burst DPS is to anticipate it with shields, damage mitigation cooldowns and the like. To the best of my knowledge, every class has at least one of these, though they will vary in effectiveness according to your opponents. HoTs are good as well, if you have access to them, as is any kind of bubble. Again, if you can see the burst coming, you can act accordingly.
Attack is the best form of defense
Crowd control, if it can be counted as a method of attack, is a really great form of defense. If you have an opponent who you know has popped a cooldown, maybe, instead of popping mitigation cooldowns on yourself, it's possible to control them. We've already spoken about interrupts and line of sight, but if a player is rooted in place it's far easier to line-of-sight them. If they're a sheep, they can't do anything at all, same applies for all other total loss effects like cyclone and hex. Sure, they can trinket, and most will if they've been CC'd with all their cooldowns up, but it buys you time. Disarm warriors who have used Recklessness, especially if it's with other cooldowns. Root melee classes and spellcasters and run the hell away. Particularly if you have access to a group root such as a frost nova, an earthgrab totem or similar, root stampeding hunter pets and get out of there. It's a funny old form of attack, I grant you.
But, more seriously, retaliate. Let's say a warlock has all his cooldowns up and is rather glowy like in the picture above. CC him for a moment and tunnel your own burst into that warlock's healer. You've then put the warlock into a tricky situation, does he then carry on with his destructive (or demonic) plan to kill you in the face? Or does he take a second to fear you off his healer? Will his burst kill you? Will he outlive you without his healer? Does his healer have any cooldowns left? Suddenly that team has gone from attacking to defending.
It's not exactly like there are two mutually exclusive modes in the head of the PvPer, and that if you're defending you can't attack, but there is a powerful bonus, literally and psychologically, to being in control of a situation. Whether it's chaining together CC or inflicting damage, breaking a combo, disrupting a plan, or turning the tide so that what was working perfectly is now going wrong can be a big deal. It's a move from being focused but relaxed, to focused yet concerned. A movement from practiced steps to improvisation. As an arena team I met at the EU Invitationals said, "it's about working out a strategy and executing it, while stopping your opponents from executing theirs."
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