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Cataclysm Class Preview: Shadow priest analysis


As the person here at tasked with following all things shadow, I was essentially on call all day yesterday, waiting for the priest changes for Cataclysm to drop. Around lunch time, I had already seen the shaman changes and I was getting excited. The bar was set pretty high.

When the change list for priests
finally hit (at 3 a.m. EDT; thanks, Blizzard), my reaction was somewhat muted. There are some cool changes in store for priests to be sure. Holy priests assumedly get Leap of Faith, the diametric opposite of a death knight's Death Grip. Disc priests get a multi-player version of Power Word: Shield. Did the shadow priests get something just as cool?

We got a situational nuke, but it's hard to say it's inspired. We also got some great changes to our DoTs. But so far as stepping up the cool factor is concerned, the status of shadow priests in Cataclysm is yet to be determined. There's an intriguing new mechanic in place for the class, but whether or not it winds up being ground-breaking, innovative or even fun depends entirely on the execution.

Meet the Shadow Orb, our new mastery mechanic.
They didn't provide a lot of specifics, but for now it's safe to think of them as something like "shadow priest currency." You attack a baddie, earn shadow orbs and then spend them to increase your damage, reduce cast time or whatever other benefit is dreamt up in the meantime.

There are a lot of different directions the shadow orb system can take. Will they be our version of warlock Soul Shards? Rogue combo points? That's not quite clear yet, nor is it clear how much complexity they'll wind up adding to an already complex spec. This could completely revolutionize the shadow priest spec, depending on how it's executed.

Whatever they do with it, I hope Blizzard will avoid letting it become nothing more than a "prettier" form of Shadow Weaving.

Goodbye, clipped DoTs.
As things currently stand, damage over time spells are a difficult thing to master. They require precise timing (and a lag-free internet connection) to min-max. If you wait too long to refresh a DoT, you lose valuable DPS time; refresh too early and the last tick is overwritten. Cataclysm is making clipping a thing of the past. We still get a benefit from haste (DoTs tick for damage more frequently), but it only affects the spell's frequency, not its period. Refresh early and the next tick still happens right on schedule.

This removes a layer of complexity for mastering our rotations/priorities, but that's a good thing, especially if the Shadow Orb system must be actively managed during battles.

Inner Fire no longer has charges.
In addition to this nice little change, Inner Fire is getting a PvP-friendly cousin, Inner Will. The new buff will reduce the mana cost of instant casts by 10% and increase run speed by 12%. You can only have one of the two buffs active at any given time.

We finally get our nuke.
Shadow priests have had the same complaint for a long time -- we're useless in short fights because it takes too long to ramp up our damage. Blizzard's solution is Mind Spike, a "shadowfrost" spell we'll be getting the first time we ding a level in Cataclysm. It's Mind Flay-level damage -- presumably with an increased mana cost but no cooldown -- that lets us do more damage on trash and adds.

The mechanics of the spell make it clear that it's intended for situational use. The first cast of Mind Spike applies a debuff that makes subsequent casts all the more powerful, making it clear that the new spell would be the preferred new way to burn down Blood Beasts and Ice Tombs in ICC.

Added good news about the new spell: Mind Spike can still be cast even when you're otherwise locked out of the shadow school.

Shadow Word: Death is being overhauled.
It sounds like Blizzard is returning Shadow Word: Death to the shadow priest arsenal by making it more like the warrior ability Execute. Again, there are no firm specifics, but it sounds like we may be trading our ability to use it on enemies over 25% health for a more powerful hit of damage. It's hard to see this being a bad thing, given how useless (and dangerous to use) SW:D is as things currently stand.

So, that's the good news. With the good comes the bad, and unfortunately, there's a surprising amount of bad.

We're losing Prayer of Spirit.
This was announced months ago, but it still stings a little. Fortunately, not a whole heck of a lot of other classes needed the extra spirit in raid situations.

We can't cure diseases in Shadowform.
This was announced as part of the changes to the dispel mechanic, but it's worth noting here as a nerf that's definitely coming for Cataclysm. Fortunately, curing diseases was so infrequently required of shadow priests that you can't count this as a huge loss.

Gnomes can still be priests in Cataclysm.
Blizzard has yet to correct this fatal error. Gnomes are supposed to be food, not priests.

Raid utility may be a thing of the past.
Here's what really stings: We're losing the hit benefit to Misery and getting a heavy nerf to our mana regen ability, Replenishment. The reason Blizzard gives is simple: They're continuing to promote their "bring the player, not the class" mentality.

I plan on having more about these changes in a coming edition of Spiritual Guidance, but there's cause for a little bit of worry here. Shadow priests are already used to having the short end of the stick with respect to raid utility. Replenishment and Misery are our top selling points to raid leaders. Without that, we become pretty generic ranged DPS (with a propensity to dish out overheals through Vampiric Embrace).

Presumably, this means other classes are taking major hits to their utility as well, but shadow priests are so far the only spec that have the nerf spelled out in black and white. Will elemental shamans lose Elemental Oath? Will mages lose Arcane Empowerment? And if not, will shadow priests get a new (minor) raid-wide buff to fill in the gap?

Overall, I'm a little bit unenthused about the changes to shadow priests in Cataclysm, but I've yet to give up hope. A lot of the future of the class depends on how Shadow Orbs get implemented, and we don't have enough information on that to cast real judgment on them.And keep in mind, these are only the announced changes to shadow priests thus far. Some of this stuff could be changed or even dropped before Warcraft 4.0 hits store shelves. Maybe even that bit on gnomes. (Fingers crossed!)

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm will destroy Azeroth as we know it. Nothing will be the same. In's Guide to Cataclysm you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion. From Goblins and Worgens to Mastery and Guild changes, it's all there for your cataclysmic enjoyment.

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