Blood Pact: Educating myself on fel / emberstorm

The editors of WoW Insider have spoken the dark words, and another edition of Blood Pact has appeared to wreak havoc on the readership. This week, the first installment of Operation: Respec. And yes, columnist Nick Whelan is well aware that other classes have it way worse when dealing with respec costs. Please don't hate him.

I'd like to begin a new project for Blood Pact, which should prove both entertaining to play with, and interesting to write about, if this week is any indication. In an attempt to expand my perspective on the Warlock class -- thus expanding the perspective of this column -- I will test out a variety of different 'cookie cutter' specs, and detail my experiences playing with them. I've ever-so-inventively dubbed this project 'Operation: Respec.'

These won't be perfect tests of course. My contract with WoW Insider doesn't allow me to bill them my expenses, in or out of game. So any money spent on these tests will come straight out of my own digital pocket. I say this not to complain, but rather to explain why I won't be buying new gems, enchants, and gear for every test. Fortunately the stat requirements of the different Warlock specs are relatively similar. Mostly it's just crit rating and haste rating that get switched around, and for those I can at least switch between Spellstone and Firestone, as well as by using different statfood. Glyphs, unfortunately for my bankroll, have become rather essential to different play styles, so I will of course be switching between those within reason.

This week I tried out the much vaunted Fel / Emberstorm spec. I chose this one to start with primarily because it's the largest deviation from the norm for me. I've never been a fan of the demonology tree, and even less a fan of the felguard himself. In fact, I actually have spent some time as demonology since 3.0.2, but I purposely avoided getting the felguard. (I think it was 0 / 50 / 21 or something like that.)

Below is a breakdown of the relevant stats I had, after respecing F/E.

Health: 15846 (Improved by Statfood)
Mana: 16630
Spell Power: 2129
Spell Haste: 337 (10.28%) (Improved by Spellstone and by Statfood)
Spell Crit: 27.82%
Hit: Capped for destruction spells, but not for affliction spells.

For glyphs, the only one that seemed particularly important for the spec to work was Glyph of Felguard. My other two glyphs were Glyph of Immolate and Glyph of Curse of Agony, holdovers from my normal affliction build. Since these were the glyphs used by a Fel / Emberstorm lock who claimed to be able to get up to 5k DPS on Patchwerk, I figured it was as good a test set as any.

The tactic of this spec is to open up with some shadow dots so that Molten Core will proc. Most of the damage comes from sending your felguard in, and pounding your target with Immolate and Incinerate. Simple, and effective. Generally speaking, my rotation was to start with Curse of Agony and Corruption, which would cause my Felguard (on defensive) to charge in at the enemy, then I'd keep Immolate up while pounding the mob with Incinerate. I would occasionally stop to refresh Curse of Agony or Corruption, but the purpose of these dots isn't so much to do damage, as it is to proc Molten Core, so you don't need to watch them like a hawk the way you do when you're playing as affliction.

My preparations complete, I grabbed my buddies Mr Paladin tank, Ms Druid healer, Mr Death Knight DPS, and Mrs Hunter. The five of us then headed off to do some heroics. The Death Knight was particularly helpful, because he and I have been playfully competing in DPS for the last few weeks, so he provided a benchmark for me. We only had a few hours, but in that time we managed to clear Halls of Stone, Halls of Lightning, Utgarde Keep, and Utgarde Pinnacle. A decent sample group of instances, and enough variety in the encounters that I think I was able to get a pretty decent reading for the play style.

My first major impression was that this spec performs much better in live combat than it does against training dummies. I attribute this largely to the fact that the felguard's cleave ability actually had more than one target to deal damage to, bringing him up to about 700-800 DPS. There's no denying that this spec far outperforms affliction on trash mobs. Using the tactics listed above I was able to do several hundred more damage per second than I could usually pull off during a trash pull--and it was a great deal easier to do as well. Doing a respectable amount of trash DPS as affliction often feels like the most difficult thing about playing the spec.

Right around the time I got to some of the larger pulls in Halls of Lightning, however, I noticed that simply spamming Rain of Fire outperformed the single-target tactics that I had been using previously. In fact, I actually did manage to break the five-thousand DPS mark on a trash pull of about four mobs simply by spamming my Rain of Fire button over and over. After that I stuck to Rain of Fire on trash pulls for the rest of the night. After awhile I got to wondering if perhaps there was an even better spec, optimized for Rain of Fire spam. I filed that thought away for another time.

However, as affliction Warlocks are fond of repeating over and over again: trash DPS doesn't matter. So what this, or any, spec really comes down to is how it performs on bosses. Here again I was surprised by how well it did manage to perform, but I would be lying if I said it measured up to the damage I do as affliction. Which isn't to say that it performed badly, not at all. In fact I would say that I never strayed further than a few hundred DPS away from my usual fare. And there were certainly fights where Fel / Emberstorm really shined. The Tribunal of Ages event in Halls of Stone is obviously a nightmare as affliction, and Fel / Emberstorm handled it with ease. It also did remarkably well on all the bosses in Utgarde Keep, which tend to die too fast for an affliction lock to really get into a good rotation. Same deal with the second 'boss' in Utgarde Pinnacle.

Thinking I had enough data for this post, I gleefully speced back to good ol' DoT-heavy affliction, which I tend to cling to these days, knowing my beloved complexity will be gone once 3.1 arrives. The next day, though, I was in for a lovely surprise. A few people dropped out of my Saturday Naxx run, and replacements needed to be PuGed. It got down to needing only one ranged DPS, and since I like to have as many gear types represented as possible, I wasted a bunch of time looking for a Hunter.

Finding none, with our 3 o' clock raid time approaching quickly, I asked if anybody in the group knew a ranged DPS that could be relied upon. My best tree Druid piped up, and informed me that he'd run into a Warlock recently who might be interested in the job. Never one to back away from the opportunity to compare myself to another warlock, I asked for their name so I could armory them.

"Heyyy," thought I, "this Warlock's gear is remarkably similar to my own!"

"Heeyyyy!" I thought again, "His spec! It's Fel / Emberstorm!"

A jubilant grin spread across my face as I typed out the invitation. It was a golden opportunity, gentle readers, to get a direct comparison between the two specs, and I was eager to see the results. A few minutes talking with them confirmed that they understood the mechanics of their spec; using shadow spells to proc molten core, and hammering the foe with fire damage and the felguard (though they switched to sacrificing their imp on one or two bossfights.)

The group started with spider wing, and the F/E Warlock jumped to an early lead, using rain of fire to absolutely obliterate the trash pulls. On one pull I actually saw the F/E warlock achieve over nine thousand DPS. I'm not making bad references to internet memes here, I'm being serious. He did it by using rain of fire on a double pull right before the Grand Widow.

As impressive as the F/E Warlock's trash DPS was (leaving me grounded firmly in 5th place on every single pull) he really didn't seem to bring the heat during boss fights. This isn't to say his DPS output was bad -- because it certainly wasn't. In fact, that Warlock has already signed up to raid with me again next week, much to my delight. But I consistently found myself at least a few hundred DPS ahead of him after every single boss fight. (save Gothik the Harvester, where F/E's Rain of Fire is obviously superior to affliction's) To be fair, he missed the ledge when we started Thaddius, and he spent most of the Sapphiron fight dead, so neither of those really count.

So is this a condemnation of Fel / Emberstorm? Goodness no. The damage output of the F/E warlock was certainly far more than adequate for boss fights. No reasonable group could complain about how much DPS he was putting out. What's more, the relative simplicity and ease of the F/E play style means that it's considerably less frustrating to play than affliction can be at times -- and certainly far easier to pick up and play. Fel / Emberstorm will probably never be my primary spec, but the felguard seemed like a pretty cool guy, I might make this my secondary spec once dual specs come out, so I can visit him.

Blood Pact is a weekly column detailing dots, demons, and all the dastardly deeds performed by the Warlock class. If you enjoyed this presentation and would like to learn more, visit your local library -- or perhaps just check out our posts about gearing your warlock for Naxx-10, or WoW Insider's coverage of the most recent warlock changes.