Totem Talk: 2008, a Shaman Odyssey

Right now, as I type this I'm imagining Conan O'Brien's old "In the Year 2000" bit, which they kept doing way past 2000. This really has nothing to do with the shaman class, except that it's funny to imagine an orc in Earthshatter holding a searing totem to his face and doing it. Hey, it's New Years, I was up late, you're going to have to accept that my already tenuous grip on reality is a trifle frayed today.

2008 was an interesting year for shamans. When we covered 2007 for shamans, the general consensus for the class was that it needed some work. Now, a day into 2009, did it get the work it needed? Wrath of the Lich King has really only been out for over a month, but it (and the patch preceding it) more or less dominated the year for every class, shamans included. However, the year started off with another big content patch which more or less dominated everything up until the release of Wrath, namely Fury of the Sunwell. It's fair to say that most shamans didn't get to raid Sunwell (although they were in demand for Sunwell raiding guilds, which we'll discuss) but almost any shaman who was level 70 could do the various Sunwell dailies, get to exalted and pick up a nice necklace or three as well as various other pieces for your offsets.

Stormstrike has a new icon

When patch 2.4.0 released, we talked in detail about the changes, including changes that ended up not happening. In retrospect, it was the proposed change to flametongue weapon and totem that dominated the discussion, even though it didn't happen. The change to the totem UI added some timer functionality (long, long desired by shamans) and reducing totem's Global Cooldown was a really good change for shamans. There were quite a few tweaks aimed at PvP survivability and a rather impressive amount of new badge gear introduced that helped fill a lot of holes in shaman itemization. We could use more of that now, in fact.

One of the changes 2.4 brought that most shamans didn't see right away was a sharp increase in the desirability of the shaman class for top end raiding. The practice of 'shaman stacking' was based around the various abilities shamans have to increase the power of their groups, including totem buffs, totem immunizations (tremor totem, various cleansing totems) and especially around the strength of the Bloodlust/Heroism buffs. Sunwell introduced fights like Brutallus, that were very much DPS races and which made the ability to have four shamans to cycle through dedicated DPS groups to keep Heroism up for an extrended period almost mandatory. (I say almost because I know folks who killed Brutallus without shaman stacking. Even those people tended to have paladin alts waiting outside the instance for extra buffs.)

The problem with the sudden surge of interest in shamans for the top raid was that nobody had wanted that many shamans beforehand. You didn't see guilds bringing five or six shamans to SSC or TK. There just weren't that many shamans in T6 to supply the ravenous desire among top guilds to have shamans, leading to the ridiculous sight of guilds working on M'uru trying to poach a Karazhan-geared shammy from a 10 man casual guild. People were encouraged to bring that shaman alt to Black Temple and Hyjal in order to get him geared up for Sunwell.

Patch 2.4.0 and its iterations dominated the game from March (its release date) until patch 3.0.2 in October. Some guilds took shaman stacking to ridiculous extremes, but the fact is, the shaman is still one of the least played classes in the game and no amount of inflated desire for them at the absolute peak of raiding is going to make up for the fact that there was (and still is) a smaller pool of shamans to draw upon. A lot of players were frustrated seeing all these shamans invited to raids over them, some players resented being pressured to play their shaman alt instead of the main they'd invested time in, some shamans found it annoying that they were more wanted for being able to hit one ability every ten minutes than for their skill or dedication.

Change was in the air, however.

Totems are now considered on the "Physical" school, and no longer magical spells

The Shaman class saw the biggest change in the release of the Echoes of Doom patch in October. There's almost no way to underestimate how sweeping the changes to the class were. By itself, unified spellpower changes a great deal for both elemental and restoration shamans, who can now being confusedly staring at mail gear with spellpower and saying "Is this better for healing or DPSing? It's got crit, but a lot of my healing talents work on crits... it doesn't have hit or MP5, it does have haste... man, I don't know what spec this is even for! What do you mean the enhancement shaman wants it? Ah, I'm just going to try and pick up that leather piece, it has hit and crit on it."

I exaggerate for comic effect. The laughs, they are laced with bitterness. The great wheel of life continues to turn.

In addition to the changes to spell damage and healing we saw the loss of downranking (which affected all spell casting classes especially those that also heal) and a host of changes to shamans in new talents and alterations to how existing talents and abilities functioned. The change of totems to physical (meaning that shamans didn't have to worry about being locked out of being able to drop them by a bad silence or counterspell), the creation of Earthliving Weapon as a healing weapon imbue, new talents like Riptide, Maelstrom Weapon, and Thunderstorm, the change to the Windfury Totem mechanic (haste replacing the extra attack), the forbearance-like Sated/Exhausted debuff to prevent chain-casting of Bloodlust/Heroism... this patch introduced so many changes to the shaman class that it was difficult to make heads or tails of them all.

At the same time that elemental and restoration shamans were having to deal with the spellpower changes, enhancement shamans had their attack power values adjusted, now gaining 1 AP from Agility and gaining the talent Mental Dexterity that grants AP for intellect. Suddenly, all that mail they'd discounted as 'hunter mail' due to the agility and int on it was very, very good for shamans, while the leather they'd collected with strength wasn't as good. Lava Lash gave enhancement a new attack to fit into the rotation, while Maelstrom Weapon allowed for the choice between self-healing for soloing or instant-cast chain lightning for more damage. Stormstrike charges were no longer eaten by rogue poisons or elemental shamans, which made enhancement shamans happy and elemental shamans less so.

At level 70, shamans were looking pretty sweet in this patch. We didn't have access to Lava Burst or Hex, but even with the spellpower conversion our gear was still good for the roles we were using it in, the new talents and spells were awesome to play with. Elemental shamans were knocking people off of elevators, enhancement shamans could summon wolves to bite things, restoration shamans found themselves with an instant cast heal over time spell that increased the effect of chain heal. It was a giddy month. Flametongue totem was worth using! Still is, actually.

As astonishing as all the change was, it wasn't all roses and kittens romping in the back yard. Some shamans were reporting in the beta that at 80 they were seeing damage scaling issues, especially elemental shamans (okay, pretty much only elemental shamans). Enhancement shamans in the beta had gone through a weird period where wearing spell damage mail was actually giving them higher DPS

Once the honeymoon period was over and we began leveling in Northrend, we saw that some of these concerns were valid. Shamans lacked AoE, which was rapidly becoming an issue for every DPS class, and elemental in particular lacked a means to scale with gear comparable with other classes. Unfortunately, the changes meant to address these concerns didn't make it into the game in 2008. WTB Shamanism, please and thank you. I've played elemental more in the past month than I did for a year before, and I actually enjoy it now, scaling issues aside. I've collected an elemental set for the first time ever (it's got more leather in it than I'm happy with) and I enjoy burning faces off with it. I think Lava Burst is the reason why, frankly. Being able to guarantee a critical hit by interacting with flame shock means it's no longer spamming lightning bolts and chain lightning all the time. Once the changes go through I'll have a tough decision on what my raiding spec is going to be.

Restoration remained a strong healing spec but now has talents like Ancestral Awakening and Blessing of the Eternals aimed at making shamans less of a one trick healing pony. Riptide is my favorite spell as restoration: I'll actually spec resto just for a chance to cast this spell and giggle as it heals over time, procs an ancestor spirit to heal people, and give a boost to my next chain heal. The loss of downranking has forced me to rethink how I heal... no more spamming low mana cost chain heals to keep the group up then dropping a big nature's swiftness Healing Wave on the tank, but for now it's still a spec I enjoy, with a lot more flexibility. I still use chain heal probably more than I should, though.

Enhancement has probably fared the best out of the gate this year. It's still a strong spec for buffing other melee DPS, it has new abilities that increase the fun and flexibility of the spec (enhancment is the most hybrid spec of a hybrid class with Maelstrom Weapon and the changes to how int scales with AP, giving us more spellcasting options). It's still my favorite spec, although no longer by the huge margin it used to be, and when dual specs comes into play I may well spec elemental/enhance.

The Future, Conan?

All kidding aside, the shaman class has seen massive changes this year. It's easy to forget the previous ten months in the wake of Echoes of Doom. We saw a form of CC for shamans that actually works really well in instances and is not particularly well thought of in PvP in Hex (go ahead, bring Hex up in a PvP oriented discussion among shamans, watch the fun), totems go raid wide, changes to Windfury and Flametongue, the addition of a new imbue for healing... the list of changes, additions and alterations to the class is staggering, frankly, I could easily write about it for days (and hopefully will in the future).

My biggest regret is that elemental didn't get the scaling changes it needed on release. I think the DPS potential of the spec will only really be apparent once shamanism is in the game and we have a chance to see it in action: you won't hear elemental shamans telling stories of being 50% below other DPS then. A percentage of bonus damage means that as your bonus damage goes up, the buff will scale as well, so I'm very hopeful for it.

Shaman stacking is more or less a think of the past with the changes to Bloodlust/Heroism: while the debuff is regrettable, the buff's move to a raid wide benefit is the real reason you don't need to stack shamans anymore. One shaman using the ability buffs the entire raid. If it didn't, then you'd still see multiple shamans used in order to buff more than one DPS group. In general, the change to raidwide buffs and the new buff system (where buffs of similar nature don't stack) was the end of shaman stacking as we saw it in Sunwell. Probably the best for the game, although I've always had mixed feelings about it.

It's been a crazy year. I know I'm leaving out important changes, because there are just so many to discuss, so please use the comments: if I can I'll either come back and address them or mention them in further columns. Have a happy new year everyone.