Changes to health and healing
One of the aims of the development team for Cataclysm was to parcel out more health to all classes, which should narrow the traditional gap of health between, say, those wearing plate and those sporting cloth. The increased health and shift away from tremendous burst damage -- a direction Blizzard started taking through the course of Wrath of the Lich King -- poses the threat of healing becoming overly dominant in the PvP environment. The good news is that Blizzard is well aware of this and they plan to curb that dominance by making healing mana intensive or at least require more careful management of the mana resource. In theory, this means fights will last a little longer and players will get to exercise more of their abilities.
Blizzard is homogenizing healing in a big way by giving most healing classes some sort of small, medium and large heals (druids retain their already considerable set of heals). This is a huge change that should impact PvP because short, efficient heals are important in a fast-paced environment where targeted, focused players can go down in health very, very quickly. Blizzard's philosophy is that there should be a trade-off for fast heals, so they're making them deliberately more expensive and inefficient. Healers will have access to slow, bang-for-the-buck heals that heal for huge amounts but take some time to cast -- time that, in PvP, players might not have.
It's an interesting scenario. One of Blizzard's aims is to prevent mana from being an ignored resource. Players in better gear or optimal raid set-ups these days can recover mana at a rate that allows them to no longer worry about it. If the developers manage to make mana management a challenging play experience, abilities that attack the resource directly such as Drain Mana, Mana Burn and Viper Sting become even more valuable against healers. The goal isn't merely to penalize healing but rather to put the three aspects of PvP gameplay -- healing, damage and crowd control -- on equal footing. That's easier said than done, but Blizzard has a wealth of experience from eight seasons of Arenas and five years' worth of tweaking the Battlegrounds ... hopefully they'll manage to strike that balance in Cataclysm. Or as close to balanced as rock-paper-scissors can possibly be.
New mechanics, new playing styles
The changes to class mechanics, particularly for warlocks, is a wild shift in perspective. Warlocks, typically known for a slow burn approach, suddenly becomes a cooldown class that plays with soul shards to achieve dramatic effects. The three soul shard limit per combat (Blizzard has mentioned the possibility of generating soul shards) makes warlocks an extremely strategic and fun class to play. Some will go all in and use their soul shards for maximum burn, perhaps with a succession of instant cast Soul Fires, which can result in spectacular victories or crashing defeats. Others will play conservatively and use soul shards as an emergency resource, such as gaining a speed burst after casting Demonic Circle: Teleport to flee from an opponent. Playing as and against a warlock has never promised to be so much fun.
One question that hasn't been answered is if soul shards will become an enemy-visible resource. Since warlocks will retain mana, it will be interesting to see if soul shards can also be tracked by opponents or hidden similar to death knight runes. In a perfect world, both soul shards and runes will be viewable by opposing players, making combat more strategic and less of a guessing game.
Last week, I discussed how the new dispel mechanics affect PvP. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Cataclysm is almost like a whole new game, with the new mechanics, stats and class changes paving the way for an entirely different playing experience. If you thought Wrath changed our view of certain classes, Cataclysm will demolish them. Hunters will shift to a focus mechanic, which Blizzard likens to rogue energy, but which should already be familiar to any hunter as the resource their companions use. It's a great change, if slightly less radical than the warlock soul shard change. The interesting side note: focus regeneration is affected by haste, making it a truly valuable stat for hunters.
Hunters will also be able to change pets on the fly, allowing them to pick a pet based on their opponents in the Battlegrounds. More casters? Bring out an anti-caster pet. Assigned to focus on the flag carrier? Get an ensnaring pet. Hunters will probably only get one opportunity to swap their pet in an Arena match (before the fight begins), but will have numerous opportunities in the Battlegrounds. A Web-tossing spider would be awesome in open ground pursuit in Alterac Valley but less useful than, say, a tallstrider kicking up Dust Clouds while fighting in the constrained space of a tower or bunker.
The developers figure that each spec has a particular role and playstyle, going so far as to create a dedicated tanking tree for death knights. This means each class spec will be more defined and feel distinctive apart from the other two specs. In the paladin class preview, the developers revealed that they intend to take away retribution's defensive capabilities in exchange for a more offensive skill set. It's a great move and a turnaround from their direction in Wrath, where they took away retribution burst and piled on its durability. Instead, retribution paladins will return to being offensive juggernauts with a bit of squishiness thrown in. By the same token, a lot of death knight survivability talents will be moved to the blood tree, which means unholy will lose access to Bone Shield. Small changes like these throughout all the classes indicate that DPS specs will lose some basic survivability but should expectedly gain more offensive oomph.
What does this imply? On the surface, it means a lot more variety on the battlefield. While Arena compositions will probably be whittled down to a few complementary or min/max classes and specs, the Battlegrounds will be supremely colorful, flexible, and downright crazy fun. With a renewed emphasis on Battleground play -- with several of the class change previews mentioning the Battlegrounds as an active consideration in development -- it seems clear that Blizzard is encouraging diversity in large-scale PvP encounters. Exciting times. Let's take a closer look at each class change in the next part.