Spiritual Guidance: Has mana regen become collateral damage in patch 4.0.1?

Spiritual Guidance's shadow-specced Wednesday correspondant Fox Van Allen recently got his performance evaluation here at WoW Insider, and it wasn't pretty. While his ability to recall distant pop culture references and melt faces has been deemed "adequate," his people skills "need improvement." Action item: "Stop ganking Dawn Moore in the hallways." Salary action taken: "Convert salary from U.S. dollars to old America Online CDs."

If you're a regular reader of WoW Insider, you may have noticed an interesting trend about patch 4.0.1 and the upcoming class changes it brings: Almost everyone's freaking out. It's bad enough that almost every other class columnist on here is telling it's readers not to panic. It's as if we're running some kind of Douglas Adams convention around here.

You won't hear all that from me, though. And it's not just because I'm too cool for books. It's because shadow priests aren't panicking, for the most part. There are disappointments here and there -- mostly regarding the mastery mechanic and the (currently) low value of the mastery stat -- but otherwise, things are pretty decent in this neck of the woods. So decent, in fact, that there's someone complaining on the beta forums that shadow priests are probably so overpowered because Blizzard reps all play shadow priests. (I LOLed.)

But that's not to say we don't have our concerns. My latest concern is mana regen. While our damage has actually been buffed in some of the latest beta patches (most recently, Dark Archangel has been buffed from 3 percent per stack up to 4 percent), our mana regen continues to get hit with nerfs. Granted, Blizzard is really trying to aim for healers, but with most holy and disc nerfs to regen affecting our abilities too, are shadow priests becoming collateral damage?

Nerfs to mana regen: A beta testing retrospective

There are two major stories with regard to mana pools in Cataclysm -- and in patch 4.0.1, for that matter. First is that mana pools are bigger overall. The second is that Blizzard is actively trying to cut down on healers' mana regen, to put more "interest" into the healing side of the game. The nerfs have hit us in two different areas of our build:

  • Nerf No. 1 Our mana regen has taken hit after hit in Cataclysm testing -- it seems like every time a new patch comes out, Blizzard has found a way to keep our blue bars from filling. It's been a death by a thousand cuts, and it all started with the scrapping of our 51-point talent trees. Meditation, a hugely powerful regen talent, is now available only to healers. Improved Spirit Tap is gone. Shadow Focus is gone. Focused Mind is gone. Those abilities represented not only an awful lot of talent points, but also an awful lot of mana regen.

  • Nerf No. 2 There are four key abilities shadow priests can use to restore mana; two of them, Hymn of Hope and Shadowfiend, are available to healing priests as well. We've already stated that Blizzard wants to slash regen rates for healers, so it was inevitable these would get hit. Hymn of Hope got its mana regen cut from 3 percent per 3 seconds to 2 percent per 3 seconds. Shadowfiend saw a similar cut, from 5 percent of mana per bite down to 3 percent. Granted, we can use shadowfiends more often than before as shadow priests, but it's very difficult to maximize their mana benefit while soloing/questing.

Given how "overpowered" our mana regen was getting at the end of Wrath, there's no doubt room for some "fair" nerfing. But did Blizzard go too far?

Replenishment: The lastest nerf

In Wrath (and just as likely in Cataclysm), the ability to restore a party's mana through Replenishment is one of a shadow priest's key abilities. It's not a make-or-break talent, given the hearty mana regen rates we were blessed with for Wrath, but it certainly makes life easier for every magic-using class. I can't speak from the tank's perspective, but for healers, heroics are just plain easier with a shadow priest in the group. More mana regen plus bonus healing -- we're a healer's best friend. (Dawn, you're welcome.)

Sadly, though, Replenishment just got kneecapped the most recent Cataclysm beta build (12984). The cut is pretty harsh, too -- Blizzard cut the mana regen it provides in half. It used to restore 1 percent of your max mana per 5 seconds. It now restores 1 percent of your max mana per 10 seconds.

On the test servers, the difference was pretty noticeable right away. Prior to the nerf, I was able to quest freely, chain pulling mobs to my heart's content. After, I was forced to use my mana regen cooldowns at every opportunity to limit the amount of downtime between mobs. I cast Dispersion. I used my Shadowfiend. Replenishment was up at all times. And despite all that, my mana regen still wasn't keeping pace with the mana I was spending.

Either Blizzard sent shadow priest mana regen into the toilet, or I needed to find a new approach. (Maybe both!) I created a premade level 85 shadow priest with blue (ilevel 333) gear to investigate.

Level 80 raiding vs. level 85 raiding

Those shadow priests who came of age during Wrath of the Lich King know that there's a special shame the comes with running out of mana. Perhaps the reason for that is because it's just so damn hard to run out of mana these days. I grabbed a stopwatch, loaded up Wrath (version 3.3.5, of course) and hit the dummies in Stormwind. I ran a full rotation, trying to keep all DoTs and Replenishment up at all times. When my shadowfiend was available, I used him. Though it felt like it took hours, my stopwatch assures me that it "only" took 8 minutes to finally hit zero on my mana bar. That's as close to an infinite mana bar as you'll ever see -- it's certainly long enough to ensure I'd never run out of mana while raiding Icecrown.

The infinite mana bar of Wrath couldn't contrast any more sharply with what I experience at a training dummy in Cataclysm as a level 85 heroic-geared shadow priest. My first run at the dummy was abysmal -- I could only get out 1 minute, 38 seconds of damage before my mana ran out. My second run wasn't much better. (So much for being the mana battery.)

My preliminary failures encouraged me to take a serious look at my talents and start prioritizing. I decided I wouldn't cast Mind Blast at every opportunity, only when three Shadow Orbs had accumulated (for mana savings and max damage). I would cast shadowfiend almost immediately and follow that up with Dark Archangel for the 5% mana -- it felt important to start working on their cooldowns immediately. I even started casting Shadow Word: Death on occasion to try to benefit from the mana rebate built into the Masochism talent. I kept up my DoTs and used Mind Flay as filler as much I could.

All the little things I did clearly helped, but in the end, my results weren't much better. My best time at the dummy was 2 minutes, 38 seconds. That seems like a clear sign that either mana regen was slashed way too much, or Blizzard intends for us to be extremely miserly in our casts to the point where we're not supposed to have DoTs up on every time.

Will things be this bad when 4.0.1 hits?

Likely not. You'll have a lot going for you in 4.0.1 that I simply don't have going for me in the beta client test runs. When the switch-over happens, you'll keep your patch 3.3.5 level of crit -- for many of us, that's 30 percent. For comparison, the heroic-ready level 85 priest above has a mere 10 percent crit. All that crit is important, because more crits of Mind Flay means more benefit from Sin and Punishment, which reduces your shadowfiend's cooldown. He's going to be playing a major part in your mana regen from now on, so use him early and often.

You should also be prepared to change up your rotations a bit to start, including casts of Shadow Word: Death. It can be a dangerous spell to use in general, but recent patches have cut the damage you suffer from it. Further, the Masochism talent makes it an almost mana-free cast. If you're soloing, be sure to grab the new Glyph of Spirit Tap and Glyph of Shadow Word: Death to make the spell even more attractive as an execute.

And, let's remember, raid situations are a lot different than standing around in front of a dummy. You'll have other buffs to help you out, and any significant raid-wide damage will actually generate mana for you. You'll still notice a severe drop-off in mana regen, but you'll have enough tools to handle it. (Don't forget Dispersion -- you'll be really glad you took it in 4.0.1!)

But is Cataclysm DPS fun?

Does mana management mean more fun? That's something you'll all have to answer for yourself in the coming weeks. From my perspective, though, it's a mixed bag. Certainly, more thought goes into DPSing now. Rather than spamming the same few spells, a modicum of thought goes into each button press. Strategy will be required to balance mana expenditure and DPS. I'm growing to enjoy that aspect. It means that being a good shadow priest in Cataclysm will be harder, but the most skilled shadow priests will truly shine above the rest.

Still, there's a definite downside: You will run out of mana, and chances are, it'll be when you need mana the most. Those moments may not come immediately when 4.0.1 hits, but with each passing level in Cataclysm, the mana balacing act gets harder to manage. Running out of mana is never fun, and you'll be running out a lot as you try to find a new, comfortable rotation. Even severe mana management isn't fun -- if you're doing nothing but casting Mind Flay to try and force your shadowfiend off cooldown, is that really that much better than just sitting around wanding?

Overall, I do think the developers went a little too far with the mana regen nerfs, but there's no need to crack each others' heads open to feast on the goo inside ... for now. Removing the infinite mana bar from the game isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's always worth reminding everyone that this build (like the hundreds preceeding it) is not final. Expect mana regen rates to continue to be tweaked (for better or worse) in the future, even after 4.0.1 goes live.

In the meantime, though, don't leave home without your Basilisk Liverdogs. It looks like we'll be snacking a lot this expansion.

Are you more interested in watching health bars go down than watching them bounce back up? Think it's neat to dissolve into a ball of pure shadow every few minutes? Hunger for the tangy flesh of gnomes? The darker, shadowy side of Spiritual Guidance has you covered (occasionally through the use of puppets).