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Spiritual Guidance: The case of shadow priests v. Blizzard


Despite Ms. Moore's best attempt at poisoning him this past weekend, Fox Van Allen triumphantly returns, spending 13% of his base mana to drop Spiritual Guidance back into Shadowform. His holy adversary's misguided attempt at sacerdoticide failed due to two key miscalculations: (1) holy priests are laughably pathetic when it comes to causing damage over time, and (2) she failed to consider that the proverbial stick up Mr. Van Allen's ass is indeed a cleansing totem.

Oh, you lucky shadow priests, you. Last Thursday afternoon, you were treated to a bonus column by yours truly providing some surface level analysis to the upcoming shadow priest changes in Cataclysm. I tried to keep things as level-headed as I could, but a tone of cautious disappointment seeped through.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter saw a much uglier reaction to the changes Thursday morning. Perhaps I jumped the gun. Perhaps I was setting the bar way too high for priests when I saw how Blizzard vomited all sorts of awesome upon shamans of all stripes. I want my damn pony, and I was pissed off that I didn't get it.

So, okay, emotions have cooled. I've had time to digest the changes, to compare the ponies that we were promised against the ponies that Ghostcrawler promised the other classes, if you will. There's only one thing left to do: hold Blizzard on trial for crimes of high treason against the shadow priest spec, of course. You shadow priests will make a fairly unbiased jury, don't you think? /cough

Ladies and gentlemen, please rise. The case of Shadow Priests (plaintiff) vs. Activision Blizzard Inc. (defendent) is now in session. Judge Harry T. Stone presiding.

Exhibit A: An ugly little history

The Blizzard gives, and the Blizzard taketh away. That's the nature of a living, breathing, constantly evolving game. We have to have some level of trust that, in the end, the game developers will get it right.

Like the game itself, the role of shadow priests has evolved over the course of the last six or so years. We went from a primarily PvP spec in vanilla, to a must-have super-class in Burning Crusade, to a ... well, whatever we were at the start of Wrath of the Lich King. Admittedly, I haven't played a shadow priest since the day World of Warcraft hit the shelves, but over the last year, few classes have seen such constant efforts to "fix what was wrong" than shadow priests.

When WoW Insider was holding their open casting call for Spiritual Guidance columnists, I wrote my future employer about the changes we experienced in Patch 3.3: Hasted DoTs. More damage. A four-piece tier bonus that spriests will actually want. The ultimate message of my sample column was this: "It looks like they finally got things right. This is going to be awesome. I hope it lasts."

Deep in my heart, I know it won't last. It's the nature of the game -- the best class of today will eventually become laughable. Shadow priests are an absolutely awesome class right now, especially when it comes to dealing damage in some of Icecrown's most challenging fights. I concede that a lot of my reaction to the Cataclysm changes is based in a paranoia that they're going to screw things up again.

Why mention this? Despite all we know about Cataclysm, the future of shadow priesting is still one big question mark. So much about our playability depends on the implementation of the Shadow Orb system, and we got virtually no details on that at all. Unlike some of the cool benefits other classes are getting, our mastery bonus is still a mere generalized concept. As such, so many of the arguments defending Blizzard hinge on the "we don't know everything; things could change" line.

It feels like there's almost a delusional glass-half-full insistence that there's really awesome stuff coming that we haven't been told about yet. How can any shadow priest who knows their history not be at least a little bit nervous about the validity of that idea?

Exhibit B: Does Blizzard even know we exist?

With the background down, let's get into the meat of the changes.

There are currently a slew of different buffs shadow priests can currently add to a raid: Prayer of Spirit, Prayer of Fortitude, Prayer of Shadow Protection, Misery, Replenishment and even Vampiric Embrace. Before Cataclysm goes live, we'll lose our spirit buff and Misery completely, and they're "also going to cut back on the benefits of buffs such as Replenishment so priests (and all healers) don't feel as penalized when those buffs aren't available."

I know shadow priests feel terribly penalized during those two seconds at the start of every fight when Replenishment isn't up yet. Of course, Blizzard wasn't talking to us. They were talking to priests. You know, the real priests. The ones that heal.

In the grand scheme of things, a lot of the changes they're making for Cataclysm are good for the whole. Fewer class-specific buffs makes for more flexibility in raid composition. A simpler system for determining your chance to hit is definitely going to be a plus for a lot of casual players. Unfortunately though, in the quest for bettering the whole, shadow priests make have gotten knee-capped. It just doesn't make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside when Blizzard says, in the priest change list, that they want to make other players feel like they don't need to bring priests along.

Misery sucks compared to other buffs like Elemental Oath, because it forces people to make gear choices based on its presence. But like it or not, it's our buff. Same goes for Replenishment. What we (as shadow priests, specifically) then have left to gift our teammates is the healing we dole out from Vampiric Embrace. It's a terrific bonus, but a vast majority of it winds up being over heals.

The whole tone of the official blue post made me feel like shadow priests were just an afterthought. Why bother giving any specifics? Why bother addressing the effect of removing these buffs aside from repeating, "They'll still bring you along if you're a good player?"

But hey, maybe this isn't exactly being fair to Blizzard. So allow me for a moment to speak on behalf of the defense.

First, we know that healing is going to become much more strategic in Cataclysm -- it's a major goal of the developers. (Dawn Moore won't be able wander around with her little Ember Skyflare Diamond spamming heals while tabbed out to look at pictures of puppies like she does now.) This could be really good news for us shadow priests if we're still dealing out the same kind of "free" heals to our party. It's simple economics: If you raise the cost of healing for everyone else, you raise the value of the background healing we provide. Less of it may wind up being lost to over healing.

Second, we're not the only ones getting hit with some negative changes. Druids lost pretty much everything that us shadow priests lost -- a hit talent, Replenishment and dispel utility. Shamans lost their cleansing totems and the uniqueness of Heroism. It's all part of the give and take.

It's not like we didn't get something in return.

Exhibit C: How useful are the new spells?

I want to talk real quick about the new holy and disc spells, just to get them out of the way.

Inner Will is going to come in really handy for us priests when we're moving back and forth between the bank, auction house and mailbox. Basically, any situation where we're not fighting, because if we're fighting, we'll want Inner Fire.

The new (presumably) holy ability "Life Grip" -- we're not going to use it. Seriously. Anything that causes us to drop Shadowform is essentially useless 90% of the time. Granted, it looks fun to use and abuse. But we're there to melt faces, not save other raiders from themselves.

The new disc ability Power Word: Barrier is a little more exciting, since we can presumably cast it without dropping Shadowform (if we're even allowed to cast it at all -- it could be a "deep" disc tree talent). We don't know the full mechanic, but you'd almost have to assume that people getting hit with a barrier will also get hit with some version of Weakened Soul.

This means two things: We have an awesome new ability to protect the raid when we're without another priest in the group. Unfortunately, it also means that when there's another priest -- especially a disc priest -- we're effectively messing with (or worse yet, ruining) the healers' strategy by using it. It's hard to get excited about PW:B as a shadow priest if we can't really use it.

If you spend your time in 25-man raids, this means that you basically got one new spell that you'll be able to use: Mind Spike. We wanted a nuke. We got a nuke. This one is a definite win. But how big of a win? Let's do some quick math on it.

Consider that we're raiding and a low-health add just popped. What we'd do now in 3.3 is make a spot decision whether or not to use a DoT, and then spam Mind Blast and Mind Flay. If we get a little over 8,000 damage out of a cast of Mind Flay (over 2.5 seconds with tier 10), we'll get the same damage out of Mind Spike approximately one second quicker (and probably close to 9,000 damage on our next use, thanks to the debuff).

Just throwing some simplified numbers out there (without taking haste into account), Mind Spike alone might turn out to be worth about 5,500 damage per second, cast on a brief fight. Compare that to Mind Blast's 3,800 damage/second cast and Mind Flay's 3,400 damage/second cast, and you can see where there's cause for some excitement.

But before you get too excited, consider that we do already have something of a mini-nuke: Improved Devouring Plague. The up-front damage component is worth about 3,000 damage/second cast (it triggers the global cooldown), but every tick that gets off raises the benefit of casting it. If the fight is long enough for DP to tick twice, you're going to be better off opening with it (presumably following up with Mind Spikes).

The use of Mind Spike overall, of course, is going to be highly situational. And since Cataclysm won't be released for months, we don't know what kind of situations we're going to be faced with. Still, It's hard to get too excited over a spell that we'll only be casting in a few select instances that really doesn't do anything but cause a little bit more damage.

But again, in Blizzard's defense, that's for raid situations. If we're talking about soloing, all of a sudden Mind Spike starts sounding more and more beneficial. If a new Cataclysm quest calls for collecting 12 wolf pelts or something -- just burn 'em down as quick as you can and move on.

Closing statement

Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of another Warcraft class. If you were a shaman, would you be excited? Personally, I would -- a neat new AoE heal mechanic, more choice in fire totems and an ability that allows casting while on the move. What about mages, with their new fireball and "Heroism plus?" Hunters get launchable traps and the possibility of a viable Beast Mastery spec. Pallies get an angelic ass-kicker.

Life Grip was supposed to be our "whoa!" talent. I feel a little cheated, since I know I won't be casting it. The Shadow Orbs might be a "whoa!" talent, but accepting them as such requires a Leap of Faith (screw you, I'll use bad puns if I want to) that I'm unconvinced that Blizzard has earned, with respect to our spec. In fact, the most exciting, solid change to the shadow priest class that's around the corner seems to be a "fix" to Shadow Word: Death.

And we did lose a lot in terms of buffs -- and hence, utility. That's a bad thing. Is it necessarily unmitigated? Maybe not -- more cool stuff could be on the way. It's still possible that Blizzard is going to start prioritizing our damage over our utility and keep us at the top of the hybrid damage meters. (Possible, but unlikely, yeah.)

None of it necessarily seems like the end of the world, though. It's not as if we lost our identity.

I was damn excited when I read about the patch 3.3 changes for shadow priests. These Cataclysm changes don't have me excited. Or angry or even upset for that matter -- just disappointed.

If this column is meant to be a trial, then you, the readers, are meant to be the jury. In the case of shadow priests vs. Blizzard, how do you find? Do you feel ignored? Slighted? Have the cooling of emotions changed your opinion of what's in store for Cataclysm? Is a bright new day around the corner, or is it still the end of the world?

Hunger for more information about bending the light to your advantage? 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? Hate gnomes? The darker, shadowy side of Spiritual Guidance has you covered.

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