I hate Tauren cat form.
Good. I got that out of my system and can write something productive. Although, believe me, if I could get away with it, an entire Shifting Perspectives would be devoted to just how much I hate Tauren cat form. I mean, just look at it! Look at the angle on the horns! The cat can't bite anything! Christ, I just -- hi, Dan. Yes, I'm totally writing the column! Look at me go!
This week, mindful as always of American election-year politicking, I'm going to borrow a page from presidential duties and write a little something I like to call "State of the Class." Druids have undergone a number of changes in the transition to Wrath of the Lich King, and will acquire even more as they level to 80. We are one of Blizzard's primary targets for both gear and role consolidation, which raises a few questions over how comfortably we're going to scale in relation to pure classes and what we can realistically expect on the march to a new level cap.
The TL:DR version of this article -- I believe our future is generally bright, the Druid community continues to have a few concerns over certain aspects of the class, our focus in PvP seems to be changing the most, and I hate Tauren cat form. This is a three-part post, so let's get started with balance. However, if you want to jump ahead to feral, you'll find that here; and the third part, restoration, is here.
Our assessment of new and altered balance talents and skills can be found here.
Good stuff: This is pretty straightforward. As we've observed here before, balance is stronger than it's ever been, with better and more powerful AoE capabilities, better direct DPS, and significantly better raid contribution between indoor roots, 5% spell crit, 3% haste, and 13% increased spell damage to the Druid's target (assuming that the player is specced into Moonkin Form, Improved Moonkin Form, and Earth and Moon). A well-played moonkin will be significantly more competitive DPS than in years past, and the changes reflect a stratospheric improvement over the buffs that balance got entering Burning Crusade.
(Potentially) Bad stuff: I'm reserving judgment on how the spec is going to scale in endgame Northrend raiding. As with all hybrid DPS, I would not be surprised if the advantage that pure DPS classes retain becomes more pronounced as classes work their way through more and more advanced gear, but we'll see how things play out. Early numbers from the beta give me reason for optimism, and it's my overwhelming feeling, having played all three specs extensively in the beta, that moonkin PvE gameplay has been improved the most out of all of a Druid's possible roles.
The ongoing fight concerning lunar movement: Druids continue to disagree about the merits of Eclipse, as talenting into this incentivizes deviation from the high-DPS Insect Swarm + Moonfire + Starfire (or, with gear progression, Moonfire + Starfire) rotation. Wrath continues to be better DPS but worse DPM than Starfire at 80, but an Eclipse proc (as of patch 3.03) results in a Wrath with 20% more damage -- or in Starfire's case, 30% more likelihood of a crit. This is a pretty decent improvement over the older versions of the talent.
For 5-man and trash work, don't worry about taking it; Wrath is just better for clearing trash, unless you can AoE safely, in which case Hurricane is the clear DPS winner. For raid bosses, it's debatable. If you follow your procs closely and have a decent (>20%) crit rate and mp5, a point or two in Eclipse will almost certainly result in a DPS gain. With better gear you can also afford to drop a point or two as higher crit rates will virtually guarantee being able to use the proc on cooldown. Eclipse may wind up being a more worthwhile talent for PvP, however -- more on this in a moment. If you do invest points in the talent, you may find the new mod SquawkAndAwe very helpful.
A note concerning current Sunwell raiding and 70-80 leveling: My guild's moonkin (the new main of an experienced former warlock) is consistently our top damage-dealer, and I don't think moonkin are still being punished (at least, not as heavily) for not playing a pure DPS. The same is true of soloing and 5-mans (just please, please, please don't use Typhoon in 5-mans unless it's an emergency or your tank is OK with it). I was balance for the purpose of leveling for several weeks in the beta and rarely had mana or DPS issues, despite several different beta builds going live. Gray Matter, which has pretty much become my go-to blog for moonkin information, had an excellent article yesterday on a 70-80 leveling build.
Some background: Way back in ye olde classicke WoWe, balance was considered to be the Druid PvP tree, although I suspect the developers may have arrived at that conclusion mostly by process of elimination. Resto was the raiding spec, feral was for Azgaz to make PvP videos*, and balance was for...well, balance had to be for something, so PvP was assumed to be it. When Moonkin form was introduced with its then 450% armor modifier and melee-for-mana mechanic, it was designed to be a caster both resistant to melee attack and with some recourse to melee damage of its own. Some of this lingers to this day in feral staves, which provide attack power for "Cat, Bear, Dire Bear, and Moonkin Form."
The /dance was too compelling: Well, as we all know, balance turned out to be more popular for PvE, and moonkin subsequently existed in an uncomfortable gray area between the developers' original vision for the spec and what players actually wanted to do with it. While the spec was greatly improved going into BC (particularly its mana efficiency), the concurrent buffs to feral -- and the constant need for tanks -- overshadowed the improvements to balance, I think.
Advice from a pro: Gray Matter carried an interesting interview with FSU, a top-ranked PvP moonkin concerning the spec's performance in arena, and FSU notes that for the moment moonkin seem to be doing best in 5's (a bracket where resto has generally been weak). FSU also recommends a rather intriguing combination of 3/3 Eclipse and 3/3 Nature's Grace, which combines a 30% increased crit to Starfire proc while shaving .5 seconds off its cast time, resulting in the potential for serious burst. A little questioning around my own realm recently and some sleuthing on PvP discussion boards has seen some informal consensus that balance's improved firepower and 3-instacast DoT's (Insect Swarm, Moonfire, and now Starfall) have made moonkin significantly more dangerous opponents with respect to damage potential, although apart from the breathing room afforded by Typhoon's knockback, our previous weaknesses are largely unchanged. Your playstyle in arena and battlegrounds is going to be roughly the same post-patch from a defensive standpoint -- though might I suggest forcing your battleground opponents to engage you with their backs to a cliff?
Beyond that I'm genuinely not sure how things are going to develop. Balance and feral both needed help in arena, but with so many class talents and abilities in flux right now I don't know that there's anything I can write that will stay true once Season 5 starts chugging. The one thing I can observe is that Earth and Moon is an enormously valuable addition to caster damage, which is going to prejudice your team makeup even more than it already does. PvP enthusiasts of my acquaintance are beginning to see more Druid/Mage teams in 2's. Stay tuned.
*Yes, this is a post-BC Azgaz video, just one with the funniest opening. Unless you can find the non-PvP one that starts with a worshipful gnome.