Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

Arcane Brilliance: The state of the Mage

Christian Belt

This week, Arcane Brilliance would like to address all Mages everywhere, from level 1 to level 80, in a spirit of optimism and brotherhood. We only have a little over six weeks left before the release of Wrath, and we need to come together as one freakish, mutant Mage with a million arms and legs and wands sticking out all over the giant, horrific ball of flesh, cloth, and silly hats that could hurl a Pyroblast roughly the size of a planet. Let's do it! I'm pretty sure if we all stand facing each other like so...and then blink at the same time...oh sweet mother of all that is good and pure...that's awful...just...just nevermind. We'll clean that up later.

My fellow Azerothians...

We've been through a lot these past four years and change. There was the great respeccing crisis of Molten Core. A string of Blink mishaps. The table-ninjaing scandal of '07. We've Fireballed our way through the scourge invasion, the rise of the silithid, the opening of the Dark Portal. We've killed Ragnaros, Kel-Thuzad, Nefarian, Onyxia, Illidan, and on like 14 separate occasions, Kael'thas Sunstrider. We've emerged unscathed from the bloody, neverending Southshore/Tarren Mill conflict (though countless questgivers and flight masters were lost), and moved on to more organized, focused wars in the various battlegrounds. These were battles with a clear purpose, an attainable goal, and with the notable exception of Warsong Gulch, a firm timetable for troop removal.

Fortunately, throughout all of these conflicts, the economy has remained strong. Seriously, have you seen the price of Runecloth lately?

So now, my fellow Mages, it is time for us to look closely at the state of our glorious class. We know where we've been, and where we are now. We're fully aware of our past, and we know where we want to be as the future rushes toward us. Let's take a constructive look at our unresolved concerns, and try to foretell our place in the coming expansion. Follow me through the break, won't you?

Ok seriously, we all have some worries, right? The beta has given our class a lot of cause to be optimistic--even excited--about where we're headed. Still, there are some nagging doubts. The gap between where we are and where we want to be is narrowing, to be sure, but is still sizable.

We're suspended in a state of flux at the moment--along with every other class--as Blizzard continues to balance and polish. I fully expect this "polishing" to continue even after the expansion is released, so this analysis is going to have to be adaptive and flexible. We'll look at the issues Mages face, and some of the possible solutions. We'll also note the positive changes, to give us a more complete view of our class as a whole.

Overall Concerns

  • DPS balance:
We've gone through an entire expansion playing the role of second-class DPS citizens to the likes of Warlocks, Hunters, and Rogues. We want a return to being DPS kings, or at the very least, the ability to be competitive relative to skill.

Blizzard has posted a few things that lead me to believe they share our desire to see Mages become an elite DPS class again, on some level at least. Though Blizzard's policy of keeping the classes balanced means that we may never again be considered the top DPS class, we can at least hope to be in the same ballpark as other DPS classes, to at some point see the day when a good Mage can top a good Warlock on the damage meter, if they play their cards right.

It will be nearly impossible to gauge the status of this concern until more of the class-balancing is finished, but I can say that in the beta currently, things are encouraging. Our damage output is high--higher in relation to other DPS classes than I can remember it being since the vanilla WoW era. The best part? It's high across all three trees, which means Mages may finally be able to pick their spec based on personal preferences and play-style, instead of based on the accepted raiding tree of the day.
  • Frost/Fire-immune targets:
In our current talent set-up, it is simply not a viable option to have a Frost Mage switch to using Fire spells when they run up against Frost-resistant mobs, or vice-versa. Using spells from an off-spec school consumes too much mana and produces too little DPS. When presented with a target that is immune to our chosen school of spells, we are rendered impotent. When entering any instance where we know we will be encountering a significant number of mobs that are resistant to our chosen school, we are almost forced to respec or be replaced in the group.

The catch-all solution Blizzard has offered us to this problem is the introduction of Frostfire Bolt. This is a simple fix, and is largely successful. It benefits from any talent that affects either Fire or Frost spells, and so is a viable nuke when presented with a mob that is immune to whichever tree we've specced into. The problem I see with the spell is that, unless you spec into an elementalist build to take advantage of talents from both trees specifically to buff your Frostfire Bolt spell, the spell just isn't useful for anything else. And to be honest, no matter how you distribute your talents right now in the beta, an elementalist build simply isn't nearly as worthwhile as speccing into one of the other three trees, damage-wise. Not to mention that a spec that requires you to cast one and only one spell over and over is incredibly dull.

Overall, Frostfire Bolt is a simple solution to an old problem for Mages, but not much else.
  • Mobility:
In a game where more and more PvE encounters require you to DPS on your feet, and PvP absolutely requires you to stay mobile, playing a class that often requires you to stand still and cast can become a chore.

With the introduction of several short-cooldown, high damage, instant-cast options, Blizzard has gone a long way toward fixing this problem. Our DPS still dips considerably while moving, but not to the point of irrelevancy. Spells like Arcane Barrage, Deep Freeze, Living Bomb, and multiple procs that allow for occasional short-cast or instant cast nukes have made casting on the go an increasingly attractive proposition for Mages.
  • PvP viability:
Right now, being PvP viable as a Mage is a two-step process:

Step 1: Spec Frost.

Step 2: Don't fight Warlocks.

Blizzard has stated their desire to see more specs become viable in more aspects of the game, and this is one area in which Mages could really use a bit more flexibility. Our increased mobility--as well as some very significant improvements in the organization and implementation of the talent trees--has really increased the viability of the Fire and Arcane trees as possible PvP options. Survivability has gone up, mobile damage output has improved, and escapability options have become more plentiful and effective.

The Arcane tree has gained escapability in the form of instant-cast Invisibility, survivability options in the form of the massive upgrade to our spell resistances provided by Magic Absorption, and rock-solid instant-cast damage in the form of Arcane Barrage.

The Fire tree, though still overly fragile, has gained some game-changing mechanics in the form of knockback abilities like Blast Wave and Living Bomb, and Fire Mages' burst damage output has improved. This still appears to be the least viable PvP option for Mages, but at least it won't be entirely useless anymore.

Also, the Frost tree is still really, really good. Mirror Image looks to be a PvP godsend for every spec. And yes, Warlocks are still giant pains in our collective hindquarters.
  • Itemization Problems:
This isn't really a problem now, but it's going to be, unless things change. A disturbing amount of the high-level caster gear in the expansion foists a load of spirit upon us. Here's the problem: Mages don't really use spirit. When you're constantly casting, a mana-return mechanic that requires you to stop casting for more than five seconds is a bad idea. For about a minute, early on in the beta, the Arcane tree had a talent that translated spirit into critical strike rating, but once that was eliminated, we no longer have any talents or abilities that depend upon or use spirit in any way shape or form. Inexplicably, we do still have one that increases our spirit.

Ideally, if we're going to be forced to waste item stats on spirit, we need something to help us take advantage of it. Honestly, I'm still not sure why spirit hasn't simply been converted into Mp5 and health return become an innate flat percentage across all classes. If it's going to stay a Mage stat, and our gear is going to have it at level 80, we need talents or spells that reflect a need for it. Otherwise, we need more Mage-appropriate gear.
Though I still love this spell and have been known to pop it even out of combat, simply to walk into the barber shop or whatever with my own entourage, it has some issues. The damage has been scaled back significantly, which was probably needed, since the original damage was so high and so buggy. The problem with this is that the spell does not scale at all with your spellpower. It doesn't benefit at all from any of our talents. As our gear improves, the spell will become less and less viable. It needs to scale with spell damage, and the spells cast by the copies should benefit from talents that would affect the kinds of spells they're casting. It's no fun to press your big DPS burst button in a boss-fight and then watch all of your copies' spells get resisted because they're rolling with no spell hit rating. As it stands now, Mirror Image will be loads of fun for a fresh level 80 Mage against lower-level targets, and less so as you prgress through the end-game content. That's not good enough.
  • School-specific Concerns

Arcane Tree

The 300% I mentioned last week has been reduced to 200%. This means two things: first, the 300% wasn't a typo, and second, Blizzard doesn't want us to use Arcane Blast.

At least, not more than once in a row. They've stated that their intention is to force us to avoid spamming a single nuke spell, to make us switch things up. They want pressing the Arcane Blast button once to be a good idea, pressing it twice to be a bad one.

Frankly, that's just stupid.

I can understand what they think they're doing here, and I agree that pressing one button over and over again is no fun. The problem is that pressing the button once was never that great, it was ramping up the damage over several casts that was the good part. You ramped up the damage, you took the mana penalty, and you learned to rotate it with other spells so that you could maximize the damage and minimize the mana burn. It was one of the more interesting mechanics we had. It certainly beat spamming Fireball or Frostbolt.

Blizzard even introduced a very fun proc mechanic in this expansion--Missile Barrage--that depends on Arcane Blast spam to function. It provided a built-in break in the rotation, and coupled with Arcane Barrage made for a fantastic, interactive, powerful Arcane spell rotation that just felt right.

Now, not only is Arcane Blast too expensive to cast more than once, it's not even really worthwhile to cast the first time. Missile Barrage has been rendered useless, and a spec that was feeling like a very viable standalone spec now has no primary nuke.

What I hope is happening here, what I pray is happening here, is that they're just over-nerfing a spell for testing purposes, and then gradually reducing the nerf to a more acceptable level. The mana penalty needs to be less than 100%, or the damage increase needs to be increased to match the penalty. Mages will manage the rotation themselves, Blizzard; you don't have to force us to play a specific way by instituting an absurd penalty for casting the same spell more than once in a row. Give your player-base a little credit. If you don't want Arcane Blast to be our primary nuke, what's the spell good for? Also, what spell would you prefer we use? Arcane Missiles is already mana-prohibitive, and Arcane Barrage is an instant-cast spell with a cooldown. That's...well...that's it for single-target Arcane damage spells, really. How would you have us play, Blizzard? If Arcane Blast isn't our nuke, what is?
  • Arcane as a standalone tree:
Currently, Arcane is the red-headed stepchild of the Mage trees. It has a lot of good talents, but they seem to be geared toward augmenting the other trees. Arcane isn't really viable as a standalone tree. Fire is better for PvE, and Frost is better for PvP.

The expansion may just change this. If the Arcane Blast issue can be resolved, this tree can absolutely provide a viable PvE or PvP alternative to Fire and Frost. Almost every talent in the tree has been improved, and the new talents are almost universally good. The tree has the potential to be very fun to play, and provide viable PvP and PvE damage.

Fire Tree
  • Survivability:
A deep Fire Mage is currently the single most killable class/spec in the game. Nobody dies with greater speed than a Fire Mage. in PvE, this is balanced somewhat by a Fire Mage's high damage output, but in PvP, this makes the spec a liability.

The expansion won't change this much, but the advent of knock-back mechanics improves the situation a bit, and the increase in DPS due to things like Hot Streak helps to balance the continued glass-cannonism this spec appears relegated to.
  • Living Bomb
Still a bit buggy, but looks to be improving. This is a powerful DoT that can be applied between casts in PvE, improving DPS, and a ticking knock-back bomb in PvP, one that will have very disruptive effects and can be applied on the fly. The mana cost is still too high. I'd rather see a cooldown added to prevent spamming, and the mana cost reduced to allow this spell to be a more useful option in PvE. A 51 point talent should be worth a solid DPS increase, and the mana cost prevents this from really happening.

Frost Tree
  • Raid utility:
Though Frost is still the king of PvP action, a Frost Mage should still be able to compete in the realm of PvE damage output. This is looking to scale pretty well in the expansion. More options to freeze an opponent, and more talents that improve damage against frozen targets means more damage for Frost Mages. The addition of a still-buggy Improved Water Elemental means everybody in the raid should love you for bringing your big blue buddy along. Talents like Brain Freeze provide a very nice increase in damage output against even non-frozen targets. A Frost Mage will still be unlikely to provide the raw DPS of a Fire or Arcane Mage, but the gap is narrower.
If you want to discourage spamming a single spell, why provide a mechanic like this spell, which in its current form provides a two-charge freeze effect on any target, even raid bosses? Those two charges are currently best spent on two consecutive Frostbolts. This means more of what Blizzard claims to want to avoid: the one-button Mage. This effect needs to be changed to a short duration debuff, which may only allow for two spell-casts anyway, but doesn't discourage you from coupling a Deep Freeze or Ice Lance with your Frostbolts.

In the current build, though the tooltip doesn't reflect it, this spell has had its damage component removed completely. It is back to being a flat stun talent usable only on frozen targets and limited by a 30 second cooldown. No response has been given to multiple queries on the forums, so it's difficult to say whether this is intended or simply a bug. My guess is that it's intentional, along the lines of the 300% mana penalty they applied to Arcane Blast in the last build. I think Blizzard wants to see how Frost Mages fare without the damage portion of the spell.

I'm going to try to be reasonable about this. Perhaps it is unintended. I'll wait for the next build, see if the spell still does no damage.

When that build comes, and the spell still only stuns, I cannot be held responsible for my actions.

On that dark day--and this is a promise--I will type things. They will not be nice things. I will type firmly, and without remorse. I will press keys loudly, and in rapid succession. My words might even be...inflammatory. They may even be italicized, or punctuated with exclamation points. Perhaps both.

I have lain down the gauntlet, Blizzard. Don't test me.

I will make this keyboard sing the song that ends the world.

In conclusion

You may not have been able to tell, but believe me when I say that I like where Mages are going. With a only few small tweaks, the future could be very bright, mainly because it will be lit with the burning corpses of our enemies. Our class is still due for some polishing, and we can hope that it will emerge from that process all the shinier. Playing a Mage in the expansion has the potential to be very exciting. Our new spells and mechanics are largely excellent. Damage-wise (which, when you come right down to it, is really the most importnant issue for Mages), we could end up being very powerful, assuming a solid position as one of the top DPS classes in the game, if not the top DPS class in the game.

If you happen to be in the beta, be sure to give as much constructive feedback as you can both in-game and on the Mage forums. If you aren't in the beta, download the PTR client and test the new talents, then provide as much PTR feedback as you possibly can.

Together we can Blink forward (or backward, whatever) into the future--a future in which we can hold our heads high as we turn things into cats and snakes and then blow those cats and snakes up.

Every week Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of Mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent look at the potential of the new Frostfire Bolt spell, or our analysis of the WotLK beta changes to the Arcane, Frost, and Fire trees. If you're sick and tired of all this Mage-talk, there's a veritable treasure trove of guides and tips related to all of the other aspects of WoW over in the WoW Insider Directory. Until next week, keep the Mage-train a-rollin'.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr