Hybrid Theory: Shadow Priests and the Wrath Alpha

Alex Ziebart
A. Ziebart|06.08.08

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Hybrid Theory: Shadow Priests and the Wrath Alpha

Welcome to Hybrid Theory, where we discuss all things hybrid in the World of Warcraft. Hybrid Theory is brought to you each week by columnist/blogger Alex Ziebart.

I really thought my excitement over Wrath of the Lich King would fade after the initial onslaught of alpha information and just come back around launch time, but that hasn't really been the case. It's been a pretty consistent type of excitement, and I pretty much devour every piece of information I can find.

We've talked about Druids already, but while I love Hybrids in general, my Shadow Priest is my main and my first love. Yes yes, I'm sure some of you still disagree with Priests being Hybrids, but I'm of the opinion that they are so I shall continue. If you want to disagree, do so in the Comments section below.

I adore playing my Shadow Priest, but I think all Shadow Priest players agree with me when I say there are some definite issues with the class on some level or another. Why don't we take a seat and see what might be on the devs' minds, eh?

As far as PvE is concerned, Shadow Priests have six major weaknesses that come to mind. Only one of them is substantial, but I see all of them as an issue with the class to one extent or another.
  1. Damage Scaling - Shadow Priest damage barely scales at all in The Burning Crusade. It scales a little, but nowhere near the rate that most of the other DPS classes do. This is understandable due to the nature of our abilities. Vampiric Touch already regens more mana than it likely should and is borderline broken. If our damage scaled at the same rate other DPS classes did, it would be far, far beyond overpowered.
  2. Range - Mind Flay only has a 20 yard range. 24 yards if you put talents in the range talent(which you should, if you haven't). This put Shadow Priests in the rift between Ranged and Melee in a raid. We are a Ranged DPS class that suffers a few of the weaknesses of Melee DPS. We get hit with most of the AOEs, it's easy for us to chain things that we shouldn't, etc. This requires more movement from us than most other Ranged classes. It's doable and can be worked with, but it's definitely a weakness of the class.
  3. Pushback Resistance - Pushback resistance? What the heck is that? We don't have any. How annoying. Again, it isn't class-breaking, but it's annoying.
  4. Threat - Thanks to Vampiric Touch and Vampiric Embrace, Shadow Priests generate way more threat than they really should, given how little damage they do. Vampiric Embrace should generate threat, it supplies a crapton (yes, a crapton) of healing in encounters with heavy environmental damage. However, it often creates a situation in which you need to make a decision between using your utility or DPSing away with the rest of the raid. Naturally, utility wins out, and you need to throttle yourself very, very heavily. It even comes down to 'I'll DPS for this part of the fight, but stand perfectly still and take my hands off of the keyboard for this other part of the fight' sometimes. Doable, but not fun.
  5. Lack of AOE - This comes into play primarily in smaller content, mostly 5-man dungeons, but also raids to a lesser extent. Shadow Priests are one of the few classes with no AOE at all, even in a limited sense (such as Whirlwind). Shadow Priest damage mostly rides on momentum. You pick a target, work up to a decent speed, and as long as nothing gets in your way, you can go full blast for a really long time. Once something stops you on that target, it's going to take awhile to get up to speed again. In AOE situations, tab targeting Shadow Word: Pain is very inefficient, and not terribly good damage. You can't stay on one target, because it dies too fast. Our burst damage is on cooldowns. This makes Shadow Priests dead weight in rooms such as the mana wyrm room in Magisters' Terrace, or the AOE trash packs in Tempest Keep, Black Temple, et cetera. An AOE, any AOE, would not only make Shadow Priests more useful in these situations, but more fun to play in these situations. No, Holy Nova doesn't count. It's difficult to fit into a Shadow build, and all of that +Shadow damage does nothing for it. You can get it, but it's a novelty.
  6. Shadow Word: Death Hurts - Ow.
None of these break the class. Not by any means. The first is the only thing that comes close, because Shadow Priest DPS comes so close to being non-viable, but squeezes through due to the level of utility rivaled only by Shaman of various flavors. The others are matters of fun and enjoyment. All of those are able to be worked with, and worked through. They're annoyances, but the class is very viable.

However, it's my belief that viable does not always mean fun, and fun does not always mean viable. Shadow Priests are certainly not the only class to run into this issue, but Shadow Priests do run into it. Currently, in the Wrath Alpha, most of this seems to have been addressed with is a good thing.

The biggest thing most people notice is the 'nerf' to Vampiric Touch. It's a pretty substantial change, and it's very easy to get upset if you take that at face value. However, except for itemization, Vampiric Touch is the single biggest contributor to holding Shadow Priest DPS back.

Take Brutallus, for example. The number one DPS and Gear check in The Burning Crusade. Your Warlocks are probably doing around 2000 DPS, and your Mages anywhere from 1800 to 2000 DPS. Shadow Priests, with all of the appropriate buffs, probably cap out at roughly 1400 DPS at the gear level you first meet Brutallus. The utility Shadow Priests supply justifies their place in your raid for this encounter, but imagine the mana returns Vampiric Touch would supply if Shadow Priests were doing just 300 or 400 DPS more than they currently do.

A very, very powerful ability can very quickly be pushed into overpowered. A nerf to Vampiric Touch opens up the possibility of allowing our damage to scale alongside everyone else. In the end, Vampiric Touch will likely return a bit less mana overall than it does now, but that's understandable from a game design POV. Shadow Priests are close to mandatory for raids, and as much as I hate to say it, raids probably shouldn't be hamstrung if they can't find one (or three).

Now, the lower returns on Vampiric Touch likely will make mana efficiency more difficult for Shadow Priests themselves, but it seems there's something being thrown our way to make up for that, too. A talent that allows your Mind Flays to refresh Shadow Word: Pain's duration when it lands sounds very tasty, as you will potentially only need to cast Pain once for an entire boss encounter, unless you get extremely unlucky with Silence, Interrupts, or Death.

An improvement on Spirit Tap also may allow 25% of your mana regen in combat (along with a boost to your Spirit, and thus Spell Damage) when you cast Mind Blast or Shadow Word: Death. As a raiding Shadow Priest, you should be constantly casting those spells. Essentially, this talent gives a passive 25% mana regeneration in combat. The potential personal loss from Vampiric Touch is more than made up for. In addition, this may potentially help Shadow Priests not be so reliant on Meditation.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I do not think Shadow Priests should do as much damage as Warlocks, Mages, Rogues, et cetera. However, the gap between the damage-specced Hybrids/Off-specs and the primary DPS classes should not be as big as it is sometimes. In extreme cases, the gap can be as large as 1,000 DPS. Yes, that is in extreme cases, but it should never really reach that point unless the encounter has a very specific gimmick to exploit.

On the Damage front, Shadow Priests may not hate Spell Crit so much anymore. Currently, it's useful, but eh. Ehh. If you can get Spell Haste instead, that's far superior. In general, Mages and Warlocks get a 100% damage bonus to spell criticals via talents. A 3,000 damage nuke will become a 6,000 damage nuke. Shadow Priests are stuck with a 50% bonus. 3,000 = 4,500. I probably didn't need to explain that, but oh well!

This doesn't look like it will be the case in Wrath. Shadow Priests getting a 100% bonus to crits is in line with Blizzard's stated goal to homogenize gear, to lower the different types of gear needed. Rather than Shadow Priests requiring gear completely different from Mages, Warlocks, Moonkin, etc, all of them will use one set. This is a great thing, and will cut down on how much useless loot gets destroyed, vendored, or disenchanted. Good for game design, good for raid morale. Plus, Mind Blast is a bigger part of a Shadow Priest's damage than most people think. A little Mind Blast love is a good thing.

The amount of 'free' crit percentage that Mind Blast and Shadow Word: Death get from talents is lowered, but that's pretty necessary to keep things balanced with Shadow Priests sharing gear with Mages and Warlocks, and the damage bonus.

All of that on top of an increased range on Mind Flay, Shadow Word: Death's backlash hurting less with talents, a Shadow based AOE (yay!), and Shadowform giving both threat reduction and pushback resistance, things are looking very good for Shadow Priests in Wrath. There are some negatives, but they balance out if all classes will be using the same gear, and on the same general level of damage output. This news is so good that it's almost unbelievable, and I would bet my firstborn that not all of this will survive until Wrath. It's just too good.

I would love to go in-depth about the PvP abilities Shadow Priests may receive, but I will honestly say that my PvP experience is limited. I do like what I see, but I couldn't tell you whether or not it will make Shadow Priests a dominant class/spec in the arena or not. I'll go over them, but don't expect an incredible analysis.

As far as I know, the big issues Shadow Priests have in PvP are range, survivability, and lack of escape maneuvers due to Psychic Scream being so easily broken. If I'm wrong, by all means, leave a comment and let me know. I'd love to be more informed about this area of the game.

Dispersion is one of the biggest things I notice. A reactive "oh crap" ability with a five minute cooldown that vastly reduces damage taken and regenerates health/mana, at the cost of being unable to cast spells. It doesn't last long, but it should last long enough to prevent Shadow Priests from instantly becoming a blood splatter when they turn into the focus-fire target. The mana regeneration also has its PvE uses, so that's a plus.

There are a few general talent changes in place to reduce how much damage a Shadow Priest takes overall, but another good thing I notice is Psychic Scream (talented) has a chance to Horrify instead of Fear. If you don't know the difference between them, a Horror effect is Death Coil. A Fear effect is... Fear. Fear can be broken by... well, everything known to man, but Horror? Not so much. The Horror doesn't last as long as the Fear, but it's something. Escape mechanism, ho!

The Alpha is the first external testing phase for the game, so take all of this in with caution. There's a good possibility some, most, or all of it will change by Wrath of the Lich King. At the very least, though, it's a good indicator that the devs have listened to our concerns. Let's all remain hopeful, with a heavy dose of caution thrown in so we don't end up disappointed.

Do you have a burning desire for more sweet, sweet Hybrid Theory? Take a look at our discussions on the Sunwell Plateau's Brutallus and the looming arrival of the Death Knight. For other class columns and guides, take a look at the WoW Insider Directory!
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