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Arcane Brilliance: Why Mana Adept might not suck

Christian Belt

It's time again for another Arcane Brilliance, the weekly mage column that needs more screenshots. Yes, I'm reminding all of you that I need more pictures of mages to open this column with. They can be any pictures of mages, whether they're mages killing warlocks, or mages setting warlocks on fire, or mages destroying a warlock's self-esteem, or a mage stealing a warlock's lunch money, or a mage sneaking into a warlock's backyard and salting the earth so that nothing can grow there for a hundred years. Really, any mage screenshot will do. Send them to; put "Mage screenshot" in the subject line, and sign the email with whatever name you want the picture to be credited to. My email's getting lonely. Seriously, all I get now are fake beta invites and porn. Sometimes in the same email.

Mana Adept concerns me.

I don't think I'm alone, in my concern, either. In fact, I think it's safe to assume that a very large percentage of arcane mages, upon reading about the coming mastery bonus for their spec of choice in the recent Cataclysm class preview, let out a collective sigh of deep unease.

The mastery bonuses for fire and frost are fairly straightforward. Fire is getting a powerful DoT component added to all of their direct-damage fire spells. Frost is getting a damage buff applied to all of their damaging spells but Frostbolt. Compare those to the mysteries of Mana Adept:

Mana Adept: Arcane will deal damage based how much mana the mage has. For example, Arcane mages will do much more damage at 100% mana than at 50% mana. If they begin to get low on mana, they will likely want to use an ability or mechanic to bring their mana up to increase their damage.

Wait ... what?

Now, in the interest of prudence, we should begin any discussion of these class previews with the following caveats:

  • The development cycle is still in its infancy; these previews are really just basic, embryonic mission statements for where Blizzard is hoping to take the class in the expansion, the actual release of which is likely still the better part of a year away.
  • We still know next to nothing concrete. The sum total of the official information we've been given so far on Mana Adept is six sentences from two sources: the official preview, and one follow-up blue post. To exacerbate the issue, all six of those sentences are very vague, lacking any quantifiable detail, consisting instead of a basic concept.
Still, while theorycrafting may be a futile enterprise at this stage, we were given these previews for a reason. Blizzard wants us to have some idea of the direction mages will be moving in as the expansion approaches. Though the bone they've thrown arcane mages is largely insubstantial, bearing precious few morsels of actual meat, I have no problem devouring that scant meal and then gnawing upon the remainder.

Here's the clarification post by Ghostcrawler:

The intent behind Mana Adapt (Arcane mastery) is that Arcane currently has a pretty fun mana management game going, at least at relatively high level. We thought it would be fun to extend that concept even further to where Arcane mages that use the mechanics to keep their mana high would do higher dps. I find many of the predictions that Arcane is doomed in PvE based on the very limited information you have at the moment to be quite premature.

So what we appear to have here is a new resource for arcane mages to keep track of: their damage. In a way, we already do this to a very limited extent. The highest DPS rotation for arcane is also its most mana intensive: spamming Arcane Blast. We throw in that fully stacked Missile Barrage proc to reset the stack and save mana. We juggle limiting our own damage output with draining our mana pools, balance that with our mana return options, and play a bit of a mana-as-damage-controlling-device meta-game. But what this suggests is taking that game-within-the-game to a very different level. It's frightening and worries the crap out of me.

Still, after the initial fear fades, I have to admit I'm becoming more and more intrigued. The concept, basic as it may be, has proved very difficult for me to wrap my head around. No other class or spec has ever had a resource management system as potentially complex as this one. In Cataclysm, arcane mages will be balancing the need for mana as a limited resource for the actual casting of spells as well as mana as a resource for actually increasing damage output.

As your mana pool goes down, your damage output also decreases. Each successful cast, then, lowers the damage potential of the cast to follow. Mana return spells will now conceivably become an intrinsic part of a regular rotation. Mana potions will also become damage boosters. It may become necessary for arcane mages to use Presence of Mind to restock their mana gem charges during even shorter encounters. Evocation may need to be popped -- like most other medium-cooldown spells we've got -- just about every single time it can be. The current concept of a burn-down rotation will vanish for arcane mages will vanish entirely, since our highest DPS potential only comes when our mana pools are full.

Instead of only worrying about keeping enough mana around to continue casting a high-damage rotation, we'll also need to worry about keeping our mana pools full enough to keep damage output optimal. I imagine a fluid rotation will emerge quite quickly after the expansion becomes available, evolving as our gear improves. A point will be determined where casting the next damage spell is less valuable to our DPS than using a mana-return option. The idea has the potential to be as troublesome as it is interesting.

Still, I find I'm becoming more and more optimistic as I have more time to consider the ramifications of this change. If done right, Mana Adept could actually make arcane the single most unique and interesting playstyle in the game. For this to work, here are some of the things I believe must occur:
  • The damage output at max mana must feel like a substantial bonus, and the output at mid-range must be considered "normal." In no way, shape or form can this mastery bonus feel like a penalty. Popping your mana-return cooldowns must equate to a short-term DPS burst and not a return to "acceptable" damage output levels. The mid-range absolutely has to be the norm, and full mana well above that norm. I cannot stress this enough.
  • There must be a variety of mana-saving/mana-returning options available to arcane mages. Evocation/mana gem/mana potion once per fight isn't going to cut it. The decision to return mana rather than cast another damage spell needs to be based purely upon when it becomes optimal to do so from a DPS standpoint, and not based upon when a mana return option comes off cooldown. Mana management resources must always be available. I trust Blizzard to do this. They've already made a start in that direction with their one revealed Cataclysm talent change to the arcane tree:
Arcane Focus will now return mana for each spell that fails to hit your target, including Arcane Missiles that fail to launch. We want Arcane mages to have several talents that play off of how much mana the character has and give the player enough tools to manage mana.

  • Though I find wording of this initially confusing, looking at it in the larger context of Mana Adept renders it more transparent for me. This is one example of a mana-conserving talent we'll have access to in the arcane tree, should we choose to take it. Casting an Arcane Missiles (or other spell) that is somehow interrupted or otherwise fails to strike the target will now return a portion of the spell's mana cost to us. I can only hope this will include spells that are fully or partially resisted (a partial mana return?), miss due to hit rating or are cast at a mob that dies prior to the spell striking.
  • Mana conservation needs to be more of a strategy and less of a necessity. The mage who decides to continue casting through a low mana pool should do so at a cost, but one that is actually weighable (if not actually preferable) against the strategy of continually maintaining a maximum mana pool. There need to be times -- however scarce they may be -- when it may actually be a defensible idea to blow the remainder of your mana pool spamming Arcane Blast instead of stopping everything and Evocating.
  • The bonus as you gain more mastery needs to be substantial. It needs to do one of three things. It must either increase the damage done at high levels of mana or lessen the damage reduction at lower levels -- but what I'd really like to see it do is a combination of both. At higher levels of mastery, the bonus needs to be large, but the sting of a low mana pool should also be softened somewhat. The important thing is that this "bonus" actually feels like a bonus, and getting more of it should be highly desirable.
It's difficult at this point to assume much of anything. When Cataclysm arrives, everything we currently use to measure the cost/benefit of changes like this may be completely different. Can we assume that Arcane Blast will still be arcane's primary nuke? Is Arcane Missiles something we'll be able to depend on to get rid of a full stack of Arcane Blast's buff (probably not anymore)? Will Arcane Blast even follow the same stacking buff mechanic? What other damage spells might we find ourselves including in arcane's rotation (fingers crossed for Arcane Barrage)? What will mana pools look like at level 85? I'm sure you can think of a million more burning questions.

My hope is this: that arcane will -- after all is said and done -- be fun. I'm looking cautiously forward to what I hope will be an interesting and dynamic arcane rotation, a constant decision-making process, with strategic swings between conserving mana, balls-out DPS and judicious use of mana return abilities. I want every encounter to be an exercise in resource management, requiring a fluid and satisfying sense of stratagem. Good or bad, at the very least it will be something different. What do you guys think?

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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