It was for these same reasons that Tree of Life is going to be changed into a cooldown-based ability instead of a true shapeshifting ability. With that announcement, many players were hoping that the same would happen to Moonkin Form, although there were still plenty of people who want Moonkin Form to stay as it is. I'm indifferent either way; I just wish for Moonkin Form to have a purpose. Right now, balance druids do have a few reasons for shifting into Moonkin Form. In PvE, druids shift in order to gain mana regeneration and additional spellpower and to provide raid utility; while in PvP, we shift for the survivability. These are all good reasons for shifting into Moonkin Form -- it is just that, in my opinion, they feel flat. Shifting for the reasons that we currently do now doesn't feel meaningful to me; it feels akin to casting Gift of the Wild to buff my group or raid before a pull.
More than just a buff bot
As I said, right now shifting into Moonkin Form feels the same to me as when I drop down totems on my shaman. Moonkin Form is merely a flat buff, nothing more and nothing less, and that makes the form itself feel superfluous. Do not get me wrong, though; it isn't easy to make Moonkin Form feel the same as Cat Form or Bear Form. We're shifting from a spellcasting form into another spellcasting form, while the others are shifting from a casting form into a melee or tanking form. We cannot just simply follow the same model as all of our other forms; restricting specific spells to Moonkin Form would feel terrible when you are unable to use some really cool abilities just because you are currently out of form.
It is a very fine line that Moonkin Form should dance; the form needs to feel as if it does something meaningful, yet at the same time, a balance druid doesn't particularly want to feel completely useless when not shifted. Having a few of our raid buffs tied to Moonkin Form as an aura used to be a good mechanic for this. Back when the form was first released and later in The Burning Crusade, balance druids felt that being in Moonkin Form for PvE purposes was a meaningful choice because it did allow you to buff your party with a handy aura. That is still true today, and the aura has only improved since then, but with the homogenization of buffs, the same feeling of requirement simply isn't there. I really don't feel the same sense of needing to stay in Moonkin Form when I'm already running with an elemental shaman and a retribution paladin.
Although there are key differences between Tree of Life and Moonkin Form, the new theory behind Tree of Life is one that I would like to see applied to balance druids as well, if only in a limited scope. In Cataclysm, Tree of Life does more than just increase healing output; it also slightly changes the way certain healing spells function for a limited amount of time. That is something I would like to see as well. I am not speaking anything drastic here, just slight modifications to the existing mechanics. There are tons of ways that the existing spells could be tweaked ever so slightly when a druid is shifted into Moonkin Form in order to make the form feel more unique without making the form feel exclusively mandatory.
Eclipse as a system is being changed drastically in Cataclysm, and one of the key things that could be introduced is to better tie Eclipse into Moonkin Form. Obviously having Eclipse being directly tied to Moonkin Form is out of the question; however, having Moonkin Form increase Eclipse gains is certainly possible. Instead of a flat gain system, Moonkin Form could mirror the warrior talent Unbridled Wrath, wherein the additional Eclipse generation is a randomized chance to occur. You could also use a system where the increased Eclipse generation only occurs on critical strikes; say, for example, a normal spell would shift the Eclipse bar by a factor of 2 and a normal critical strike would move it by a factor of 4, but a critical strike in Moonkin Form would move it by a factor of 5 or 6.
Languish could be re-introduced as a baked-in mechanic to Moonkin Form. I know that I've made similar suggestions before, and it is only because the tier 10 four-piece bonus is simply that good. From a pure DPS perspective, the effect isn't worth an absurd amount of DPS, and it would be worth even less in Cataclysm where our critical strike chances are drastically reduced, but it is a solid mechanic even still. Having this would give Moonkin Form a bit more of a personal DPS increase while not making it so drastically huge that anyone without Moonkin Form or simply not currently shifted into the form would feel that his damage is going to tank.
That is the point, however. Moonkin Form needs to feel important. It needs to feel useful, but it does not need to become the next Shadowform. The damage difference between being in Moonkin Form and not being in Moonkin Form doesn't need to be so great that a druid feels they cannot DPS at all without being in the form -- that simply wouldn't be fair to restoration druids, who already struggle with solo damage -- but the damage does need to have a noticeable difference.
Mana regeneration, again
Even though it was the focus of last week's article, I would like to brush upon the topic of mana regeneration's being tied to Moonkin Form once again. I'm not entirely sure that I was perfectly clear last week when stating that having the vast majority of our mana regeneration tied to Moonkin Form is a bad mechanic, so let me try once again.
Having our mana regeneration heavily tied to Moonkin Form -- not to the point where it is all that we rely on but a decent amount -- is probably a good thing. Doing this allows for several things. First, it allows for the difference between balance druid mana regeneration and restoration mana regeneration that must exist. More importantly, however, it can also allow Moonkin Form to have meaning. Having mana regeneration tied to Moonkin Form is not bad. It is good; it is merely the current mana regeneration system that is based around critical strikes that is terrible.
Balance druids need to have a reasonable level of expectancy to not drive themselves OOM during any given encounter unless they are doing something completely wrong. What is wrong for a balance druid, though? We have a very limited number of spells, and the choice to not use any of them simply doesn't exist. Starfall, as an example, is one of our more important cooldowns now; our DPS capacity is completely balanced around being able to use it on every cooldown, yet Starfall is a fairly expensive spell. A balance druid shouldn't go OOM just because he uses something like Starfall on every cooldown. What should run the risk of running a balance druid OOM should be chain casting Hurricane or spamming Moonfire.
The Hurricane mana consumption is fine; Moonfire's isn't anymore, though. Although I don't want to discuss alpha leaks, for the brief period that the alpha talents were running rampant on the internet, we were given a glimpse of a new Wrath of Cenarius that increased the damage of Moonfire while moving. To be fair, it also reduced the mana cost -- yet that is the issue. Spamming Moonfire is generally a bad tactic, not only for the horrid damage it does but also because of the massive mana drain that it creates. If the mana-draining aspect of the spell can be completely avoided by moving around, then the only risk of bad play that will cause a druid to go OOM would be from Hurricane.
To any degree, having Moonkin Form be one of the foci of our mana regeneration is probably one of the better solutions to both the mana regeneration issue and the issue of making the form feel useful, although I somewhat dislike the taste of mana regeneration being the sole purpose of a form. The predominate issue is how it does this. Again, the current mana return mechanic cannot remain; it simply isn't sustainable within the system changes of Cataclysm unless it sees a significant overhaul. Even though it seems boring, having Moonkin Form provide some level of scaling passive regeneration is probably the best way to go. It could be tied to spirit since we're losing Intensity and we'll use spirit for hit anyway, or it could be tied to spellpower. Intellect would have been a very good choice, but that niche is already taken with Dreamstate.