Arcane Brilliance: Things I've learned while dying in Cataclysm heroics, mage edition

Christian Belt
C. Belt|09.25.10

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Arcane Brilliance: Things I've learned while dying in Cataclysm heroics, mage edition
It's time again for Arcane Brilliance, weekly mage column of choice for dress-wearing, warlock-hating Frostbolt slingers the world over. Also, fans of the short musical films of Journey, Short Imagined Monologues, and the sublime, video game-based synth and fretwork amalgams of Sixto Sounds. Seriously, listen to this one. Holy crap.

So over the past few days, I've found myself a broken corpse lying in a spreading puddle of my own bodily fluids a bit more frequently than I'm used to. The reason for this is simple: heroics. No, not the ones on the live servers -- where you can throw together a random group consisting of a ret pally tank, a six-year-old playing a hunter his mom bought him on eBay the day before, a feral druid healer who for some reason came into the instance suffering from nine more minutes of resurrection sickness, a mouth-breathing rogue who may or may not be a serial killer, and an AFK shaman farming badges while auto-following the healer -- and still blast through the place. I'm talking about heroics in the Cataclysm beta.

They're absolutely brutal, guys. Now, granted -- it's still early. The testing process for these beauties is still in its infancy. We're tackling them using premade characters with talent builds we threw together by looking at the talents and thinking, "This looks nice." We're wearing gear that's barely entry-level for heroics (if we're lucky) and using spell rotations that we're basically making up on the fly. We're going into instances we've never seen before, doing boss fights nobody knows the mechanics for, and dealing with crippling, often game-breaking bugs. These places simply aren't finished, not by a long shot.

But then again, that's why we have a beta. We go in, throw our soft, cloth-clad bodies against the long claws of some horrifying beast or another, use the final droplets of our blood to scrawl feedback for the developers ("Landmines ... everywhere ... can't feel ... legs ... fading to black ... tell warlocks ... hate them ... so ... much ... "), and then come back for another round. Blizzard takes the data it gathers from our gruesome deaths and uses it to construct a better game.

Still, there is much we can learn -- even in this unfinished state -- from the first incarnations of these heroics. Join me after the jump, won't you?

CC is back

Let me tell you a story.

So there we were, walking into heroic Throne of Tides, our prot pally tank leading the way. We made our way forward into the great underwater complex and saw a pack of naga. There were five of them. "Five of us ... five of them," we thought. Fair odds. Gripping his ilevel 333 shield, the pally pointed at the healer and charged. Seconds later, as my entrails vacated the spot beneath my ribs that they'd occupied previously and the light fled from my eyes, all I could hear was the screams of the healer, accompanying me on my final journey into the dark: "Too much damage! Too much! Too fast ... "

I'm not exaggerating. Those five-mob pulls are painful. Hell, the two-mob pulls are painful. You have to have multiple crowd control options in your group to survive in Cataclysm heroics. There's simply no way around it. Multiple mobs hitting your tank at once will end you. We got by using two sheeps and a glyphed Hex. Yes, the healer was also CCing. The tank -- a reasonably solid one, by my estimation -- could manage a melee and a healer, but not two melees.

So wipe the dust away from your Polymorph button. Relearn how to focus a target and keep it sheeped. Reprogram an annoying macro that alerts the group what your sheep target is and what the dire consequences will be if they break that sheep prematurely. You will absolutely be using CC on almost every pull.

Will there be chances to use your new AoE abilities? Yes, but not frequently. You'll mostly be AoEing in multiple-mob boss fights where CC isn't a workable option and in larger trash pulls that involve non-elite mobs where CC would be a waste. Most AoE will be the domain of the fire mage, whose DPS is designed around multiple-target damage.

Mana management isn't a big deal

Not for mages, anyway. For healers, it's a massive problem. At the end of even the longer, more intensive fights, I never really found myself below halfway down my mana pool, though that was with judicious use of Evocation, mana-efficient spell rotations, mana potions and mana gems. I'm not saying that you can ignore your mana pool. You still have to do all the things to conserve and return mana that a good mage does now, but if you do those things, your mana pool seems to be fine.

Healers, on the other hand, can run out of mana entirely on even standard pulls. What does that mean for mages? Well, it means your healer is far less likely to:
  1. be paying attention to your health situation while he desperately tries to keep the tank up, or
  2. actually have enough mana to spare for when you do get yourself into trouble.
Which brings us to our next subheading.

Survivability is key

There's a reason every tree has multiple talents that seem geared purely around keeping us alive, rather than increasing our DPS. In the current incarnation of the game, we'd refer to something like Prismatic Cloak as a PvP talent. Not so in Cataclysm. That's a "keep my mage alive" talent. We still have all of the incoming damage we have now -- AoE splash damage, aggro-the-wrong-mob damage, standing-in-the-wrong-spot damage, boss-randomly-decided-it-was-time-to-smack-the-mage damage -- but the difference is that now, we can't count on the healer being able to rescue us from our grisly fate. In Cataclysm, we have to save ourselves.

Mage Ward, Cauterize, Improved Blink, Ice Barrier, Invisibility, yes, even Mana Shield ... Our survival kit has never been so well stocked, and we'll be using each and every item in it in Cataclysm. Believe it. We can no longer focus entirely upon pumping out constant DPS to the exclusion of all else. In fact, let's talk about that a bit more.

Multitasking is more important than ever

We're used to focusing on two things: our own DPS and how much higher it is than the warlocks'. That's simply not going to work in this new expansion. Yes, damage output is still our primary purpose, but we must also pay close attention to our duties as crowd control specialists, and we must also take the brunt of the responsibility for our own survival.

If we shirk either of these duties, the best-case scenario is that we'll get ourselves killed. No big deal, as long as you don't mind watching the remainder of a fight play out from behind your broken and mutilated corpse. Worst case, you wipe the group.

We have to relearn the art of magecraft, in a sense. Wrath has likely left us complacent, but Cataclysm will drive that from us. A typical fight will have you alternating between pew-pewing away like normal, keeping your sheep up and running for your life -- and that's if you're doing it right. If walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time presents a problem for you, this new expansion may not be for you.

Speaking of DPS ...

DPS numbers are fine, for what they're worth

I mean, it's way, way too early for any of the numbers we're putting out in these heroics to mean much of anything, but from what I can see, we're more than competitive. So far, all three specs seem right with other ranged and melee DPS numbers. I'm not seeing any glaring issues.

The numbers will change going forward, without question, but for now we seem to be headed in the right direction, balance-wise. Fire is the clear favorite for now, with frost close behind and arcane bringing up the rear. There's nothing to panic about yet, and I'll repeat that the numbers will change. Still, taking note of them now gives us an idea of the way DPS balance appears to be taking shape. So far, I'm not worried. At the start of the Cataclysm endgame, mages are fine. We'll see where it goes from here.

And finally ...

I don't mean to scare anybody. Nothing I've said is intended as a dire pronouncement. In fact, despite my numerous deaths, I'm having more fun on the beta than I've had with this game in a very long time. The game is challenging again. I anticipate the difficulty level will regulate itself a bit before any of this goes live, but even with the roughest edges removed, this expansion is looking to be a fine return to form for those of us who enjoy the more hardcore aspects of the game, while still retaining the high fun factor we've fallen in love with in the current version of the game. It's approachable, but hard, and I'll be plunking down my hard-earned money to play it for as long as Blizzard would like to continue to remove it from my bank account.

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 how much I hate damage meters or our lengthy series of mage leveling guides. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.

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