Ready Check: Cooldown Management

Michael Gray
M. Gray|05.29.09

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Ready Check: Cooldown Management

Ready Check is a twice-a-week column focusing on successful raiding for the serious raider. Hardcore or casual, Vault of Archavon or Ulduar, everyone can get in on the action and down some bosses. Today, we're going to look at a specific tactic for speeding your success through each encounter -- cooldown management.

The proper use of a raid's cooldowns is pretty key to maximizing your damage output. (Cooldown is one word. Yes. it. is.)

One moment, you are a meager Retribution Paladin. You struggle to maintain your place on the DPS chart. Your weak blows are the stuff of ridicule and angsty blog posts. The Death Knight next to you merely smirks at your DPS, his condescending unibrow peering at you from within his dark, dark helmet of angst. Try as you might, you can barely generate a cooling wind as you struggle to perform for your raid leader.

And then you blow wings. Suddenly, your damage is the stuff of legend! With those golden heralds of power and magnificence unfurling from your broad, manly shoulders, there is no enemy who can stand before you! You speak in all exclamation points! Women and men in Leia-costumes hurl themselves at your feet, while you swat away weaksauce Rogues and OP Warlocks with the barest of effort! Ghostcrawler is forced to resign, offering you the ultimate power in World of Warcraft design! You are fantastic!

And then it's over, so very, very much too soon. You are left to wait until your next cooldown is up to once again recapture that former glory, and remember what it was like to be the quarterback.

Okay, I exaggerate. But the idea that cooldown use increase your performance should be obvious. They don't put a spell in your Spellbook because they don't want you to use it. (Well, they rarely do so, anyway.) But cooldown management is a challenge for every raider. While a lot of folks have their cooldown management well under hand, there's still plenty of folks out there who could use some handy tips.

Every class comes equipped with procs and cooldowns. Both of these game dynamics produce a temporary buff to either the player himself or raid members around him. (The rules as to whether such a buff affects only the player, the player's group, or the entire raid are a bit too labyrinthine for a single article, so we'll skip that issue for now.) While there are methods to force an ability to proc, cooldowns are usually consciously activated by the player.

Cooldowns, obviously, aren't limited to player abilities. You can pick up many cooldown abilities from trinkets (and occasional other items). You use the item, and you get the buff for a short time. Since the item is balanced knowing you'll only have that buff for a short time, usually the bonus you receive is fairly significant.

It's relatively to safe to assume that the use of a cooldown will always improve performance. But there's a lot to be said for using that cooldown at the "best" time. Do you want to use the cooldown early in the fight? Or do you want to hold onto it for something special? When will you get the most bang for your buck?

When considering when to use DPS cooldowns, I generally think of fights as falling into the "early and often" method or the "hold onto it" method. If a fight is an "early and often" fight, then you presumably don't have any reason to wait before popping a CD. The fight might even last long enough for you to use it twice, or it might just not matter when you blow your trinket. If you get to use it twice, that's pure bonus. There's is one reason to wait for special timing even for "early and often" fights -- I'll get to that in a bit.

The "hold onto it" method is a little trickier. Many boss fights have "phases" of the fight, during which certain conditions get a lot harsher. As a result, you want to get through the phase as quickly as possible. A good example of this dynamic is Kel'Thuzad. KT Big Bones himself doesn't really hit all that hard, and most of his damaging abilities are easily mitigated in other ways. (Don't stand in the circles, or interrupt his Frostbolt.)

But during Kel'Thuzad's third phase, he has a few helper friends come out. These big bugs need to be off-tanked. And while they don't start off hitting very hard, they stack a buff that will eventually mean they're one-shotting your off-tanks.

Obviously, you want to get through that third phase as fast as possible. In this case, you want to save your cooldowns for the third phase. When KT's helper bugs come out, blow all your tricks -- get through the phase as fast as possible. If you had used your CDs earlier in the fight, then you don't have that extra juice to get through the helper-phase that much faster.

I mentioned earlier that even for "early and often" fights, there's a reason to hold a few seconds for your DPS cooldown. That reason is a cooldown itself -- Heroism. (Or, of course, Bloodlust.) This buff was the subject of much angst, back during the Sunwell Plateau days. The buff was so powerful that you wanted to have many uses of it on tap, causing some weird situations with cycling Shaman players in and out of the raid. Since then, it's been nerfed a few times. Now, significantly, you get the Exhaustion (or Sated) debuff after being affected by Heroism, keeping you from getting it again for ten minutes.

Ultimately, then, you're only going to see Heroism once during most fights. Therefore, try and time your personal cooldowns such that you use them during the effects of this mammajamma buff. Letting your own cooldown ride overtop Heroism will get you some huge results.

Having touched on same basic ideas of managine your cooldowns, let's take a look at some popular fights, and when you're going to get the most bang.

Obsidian Sanctum

  • Drake-Minibosses: Early and often. These guys don't particularly freak out (or even take too much damage to kill), so there's no reason to hold back. The only exception might be the last mini-boss before going to fight Sartharion himself -- if you're going to get to the big guy fairly quickly, you'll want your CDs available for that.

  • Sartharion (Normal): Wait for it! In the final moments of fighting the boss, he'll freak out and summon a half million fire elementals. These elementals will immediately crawl up your healer's robes, and eat them alive. Save your CDs for when this happens.

  • Sartharion (Hard Modes): I've seen a variety of methods for how to take down Sarth-3D, and so there's a lot of good reasons to blow your CDs early and often. That being said, I generally reserve my CDs for when we're fighting each mini-drake; you really want to keep those guys under control.
Naxxramas: Plague Quarter

  • Noth the Plaguebringer: Early and often . . . when he's on the floor. You want to reserve your CDs for when you're on the boss, after each wave of adds have been killed.

  • Heigan the Unclean: Early and often. There's no reason to prolongue anything with this fight. And while dancing is easy once you get the hang of it, it's even better to get it done with.

  • Loatheb: Wait for it! Heroism should only be cast when most (if not all) of your DPS have their spore buff. If you can, it wouldn't hurt to reserve your personal cooldowns for that time, too. But if that's not feasible (or if you think you'll have them back for when Heroism's back), blow away. You do want to get your CDs firing relatively early, though -- Loatheb erodes raid damage significantly over time, and you want to get this over quick.
Naxxramas: Spider Quarter

  • Anub'Rekhan: Early and often . . . when everyone's on the boss. Like Noth, there's no reason to delay, but it would be best to make sure your melee are positioned to do damage. While I suppose you can Heroically jog across the floor, you really want those guys doing damage when the buff is up.

  • Grand Widow Faerlina: Early and often. . . when everyone's on the boss. As a special note about that, though. I've been focused on DPS cooldowns. Tanks obviously want to use their defensive cooldowns when she's enraged and trying to one-shot you.

  • Maexxna: Wait for it! Maexxna enrages at 30%, and starts hitting a whole lot harder. This is the perfect example of "sit on your CDs." You don't want to leave your tanks taking that kind of beating for long, so hold onto your CDs for this special moment.
Naxxramas: Construct Quarter

  • Patchwerk: Wait for it! (Maybe.) At a mere 5% of his health, Patchwerk frenzies. But even at Heroic, that's only 650,000 hit points. And Patchwerk's a pretty long fight -- you get a couple of shots at your personal CDs. Ultimately, I'd say blow your personals early and often, but save the Heroism/Bloodlust until the Frenzy. This is kind of a tough call, and mostly revolves around whether your Heroism woudl be wasted coasting through that last 5% of damage. Of course, Patchie is a 6 minute fight, so that's the long end of most cooldowns.

  • Grobbulus: Early and often. He does nothing freaky at the end of his health, and the faster he's down, the better.

  • Gluth: Early and often. Again, he does nothing freaky at the end of his health. There's no reason to let chow build up. However, I would tip that if you're having trouble getting all the chow down during each Decimate, that might be the best time for a damage boost.

  • Thaddius: Early and often (when you're on Thad himself): the very second you have your damage stacks buffing you. Obviously, that means you're waiting until after the first Polarity Shift has buffed your raid members, and then blowing Heroism and other CDs. After that initial burst, though, keep blowing them the second they come up. If you lose members during the fight, that just translates into damage potential you're losing along the way.
Naxxramas: Military Quarter

  • Instructor Razuvious: Early and often. Razuvious, for all that he taught some Death Knights to wtfpwn the battlegrounds, isn't very creative and thus does nothing special at the end of the fight. Tear him apart, kids.

  • Gothik the Harvester: Wait for it! You spend half this fight screwing around with adds. Assuming you're not having trouble keeping up with the spawns, wait until you're on the actual boss. Gothik stacks Harvest Soul when you're fighting him personally, and you want to minimize that part as much as possible.

  • Four Horsemen: Early and often. If you blow away your first Horseman right away, your tanks won't even have to do a frontline switch. And the faster you tear each one down, the less raid damage you'll be worried about. Tear into them one by one, and kill 'em asap.
Naxxramas: The Final Two

  • Sapphiron: Early and often. Due to the annoying area effects and such, Sapphiron can have an attrition effect on your raid. Group healing and even downright deaths can erode your raid's throughput. Killing him quickly at the opening is best.

  • Kel'Thuzad: Wait for it! We already talked about this. Adds come out at the end, and you don't want to be in that phase any longer than necessary. An arguable exception to this is that your raid's healing and DPS throughput diminishes radically over time due to void zones and frost bolts. In this case, it's possible that getting CDs done early might actually pull more output with you into the third phase.
Eye of Eternity

  • Malygos: Early and often . . . just after a Vortex. Timing it just after a Vortex ensures you won't lose buffed-time while someone's getting swept up and can't do damage. As a note, though, if you're having trouble downing sparks for whatever reason, your personal CDs might be best applied making sure that happens.

If you've rocked all the way through OS, Naxx, and EoE, chances are you've got a fairly good grip on your cooldowns. However, with as hard as the bosses there hit, I've seen a lot of good things from getting CDs firing early. (Given certain caveats: making sure Razorscale is on the ground, during Deconstructor's "heart" phase, etc.)

A caveat: Execute

There is another significant exception to the "early and often" rule, and that's what we call the "Execute Range." There's a series of abilities that only come into play once a critter reaches 20% of their life. The intent of most of these abilities is to significantly improve the character's DPS output during the last bit of the fight.

However, there are only a few classes that get these abilities -- Hunters, Warriors, and Paladins. There's an obvious case to be made that you might want to save raid CDs or personal CDs for that last 20%. The idea is that you'd be getting a huge overall raid boost from those three classes. But that's not gauranteed!

If you really want to figure out the math, you have to get your overall baseline raid damage. (You could use WWS or Recount, whatever you'd like, but I'd recommend grabbing it from Recount. An apples-to-apples comparison is always best) Then, using Recount, scope out your overall raid damage while your Heroism is up. Got it? Awesome. Subtract one from the other, and that's your raid bost during Heroism.

Now, do the same, while you're in "Execute Range" but only for the three execute classes. That number is the boost in Heroism from waiting until the last 20%.

Now compare your first number, and your second number. Which is bigger? Every time I've done this test, I've never found a reason to wait for Execute Range. While the execute classes definitely get a big boost from Heroism, it's never been nearly as big as what the entire raid gets at once. And while I like to think my on-the-fly math skills are pretty good, I'd rather not make a fight take longer waiting for the perfect second, and as a result miss a few seconds of buff.

If every DPS class had an effective "Execute," it would be a no brain decision. But they don't, and it's usually best to get your buff effects up front. While we'd all like to think we run perfect raids where noone dies, the reality is that the longer you wait, the more likely someone's going to die. And dead characters do no damage.

But that being said, if your raid rolls up on bosses with 5 Warriors, then maybe you should consider holding off so you can get the money shot.

Final Word

Of course, all this has to be taken with a grain of salt. Cooldowns are incredibly class specific, and there are lots of tricks can affect them. For example, as a Paladin with Darkmoon: Greatness, I try to time my wing-blow for when the card has procced.

Still, managing your raid's CDs to take place at the same time can provide an amazing burst of damage.

Good hunting.
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