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Spiritual Guidance: First impressions of shadow priesting in Cataclysm


Since watching Inception, your not-so-humble Spiritual Guidance counselors have been experimenting with dream states in an effort to better facilitate your uptake of priesting information. Since Dawn has yet to awaken from her Blunt Brainwasher-induced sleep, shadow priest Fox Van Allen will be taking over the Wednesday edition.

Rumor has it that my Light-respecting partner, Dawn Moore, spent a solid two weeks at Blizzard's headquarters pleading for a Cataclysm beta key. To get in their good graces, she plastered Renews on everyone who moved, cast a Greater Heal on a turkey sandwich and sang a Divine Hymn. She even tried buying them lunch at Jack in the Box. Nothing worked.

A few hours after Dawn left, your boy Fox Van Allen walked in, cast Mind Control and walked away with a beta key in about 16 seconds. I also stole the leftovers from the Jack in the Box lunch. Curly fries. Jumbo Jack. Diet Coke. That's just how I roll.

So, what's going on with shadow priests in the beta? What's going on with Cataclysm in general? To find out, I copied my shadow priest to the test server, created a new goblin priest and braced myself for shadow priesting 4.0. I came. I saw. I blew up bomb-throwing monkeys with Nitro-Potassium Bananas. Follow me after the break if you dare -- spoilers may be present, of course.

Starting from scratch: The Cataclysm leveling experience

The first major decision I had to make in Cataclysm: goblin or worgen? For me, it wasn't a hard choice. Did I want to play a monocled chap on my way to 19th-century tea party gone wrong, or did I want to play borderline insane creatures with a fondness for dangerous explosives and a distaste for gnomes?


Redefining the basics: Cataclysm gameplay

I will admit, my first thought when I first got control of my goblin was, "This is pretty cool." The goblin starting area is amazing fun, especially if you prefer the lighter, more absurdist side of World of Warcraft.

Blizzard has really redesigned the basic gameplay experience -- not just for priests, but for all players. It's the little touches that really got me. Bags jump to an empty slot automatically. You can track multiple things at once on your minimap, from profession trainers to mailboxes to reagent salesmen. Minor touches, yeah, but you can't help but wonder why it took so long to for Blizzard to implement them.

As far as priest-specific modifications, we got minor edits to Power Word: Fortitude and Inner Fire. The former now automatically hits all members of your party/raid, no reagent required. We already knew that Inner Fire would no longer have charges, but it now provides a buff to spell power at all levels, instead of just the last few. My baby priest saw a six-point spellpower buff -- small, but welcome.

Regardless of whether you chose goblin, worgen or even gnome (you have been disowned), the experience of starting a new character feels amazing. Much of what I disliked about the leveling experience in Wrath of the Lich King has been revamped. You no longer have to train new ranks of spells. That alone is an amazing development.

As if I needed to prove how awesome this is, I offer the first enemy in the goblin starting area you'll meet, the Tunnel Worm. At level 1, it takes three blasts of Smite to kill. Once you get to level 2, they start dying in two hits of Smite. Spells increase in power automatically as you level. You just feel ... more powerful every time you see that beautiful blast of level up light. Sure, you still need to head back to the trainer every now and then. It never winds up feeling like a chore, though, since you're always getting a new spell to play with.

Oh, and speaking of leveling up, it most definitely does not feel like a grind. Many of the things I did in the goblin starting area didn't result in my getting any experience at all. I spent time exploring. It felt good, natural -- much more like a console RPG than a MMORPG. Quests are connnected to each other and felt important. They advance a story, rather than forcing you to farm Diseased Wolf Pelts for a flimsy reason that exists solely to keep you busy. Getting to that next level was a secondary benefit of just plain having fun.

Besides, who cares about getting to level 9 when you're standing on a gigantic mound of dynamite?

Of stamina and mana

After toying around with my goblin priest (and after starting a worgen priest too, of course), I copied my ICC-geared level 80 over to the test realm. The first thing you notice is the huge shift in stats between your current Wrath of the Lich King character and the Cataclysm version.

As has been previously reported, spellpower has been stripped from most of your gear. It still shows up on weapons, in trinket bonuses, on gems and on your enchants. My Cataclysm shadow priest has about 1,000 more spellpower than he did in Wrath, but that doesn't seem to have a major (any?) impact on damage output. That, combined with the fact that Shadow Word: Pain is now subject to haste, seems to indicate that haste will likely be the shadow priest stat of choice in the early days of Cataclysm -- at least until we learn more about mastery and Shadow Orbs.

The biggest, most noticeable change to you shadow priest's stats will be in stamina. In his current ICC gear, my shadow priest stands at 19,290 health and 23,068 mana unbuffed. That same shadow priest, in the same gear, has 30,460 health and 27,508 mana in Cataclysm. Hit rating and haste seemed to stay constant (which seems to suggest that Twisted Faith is not yet implemented). Crit jumped slightly, from 28.39 percent to 31.00 percent.

We'll also see a massive boost in armor, too. In Wrath, I have 2,322 armor unbuffed, a reduction of 13.23 percent in physical damage. In Cataclysm, that number is 6,905 -- a physical damage reduction of 31.19 percent. And don't think Blizzard is just fudging numbers here -- you really can take more damage and last longer than you'd otherwise expect because of the changes to your gear.

Is damage holding up?

Yes and no. It's kind of hard to tell. And even if it wasn't hard to tell, it'd be too early to tell.

For now, Cataclysm spell priorities (rotations) are pretty much the same as what I'm using in Wrath. It's like watching a new season of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air -- sure, Carlton looks a little older and Aunt Vivian is being played by a different actress, but it's still comfortably familiar despite the changes.

There's no huge jump to shadow priest damage as a result of the Cataclysm change-over, but you should expect that tweaking damage levels will be one of the final things Blizzard's development team actually does. I'd post you some comparative damage logs from Recount, but addons don't work in the beta.

The overhaul to our talent tree resulted in a minor nerf to our standard spells. Mind Flay, Mind Blast, Devouring Plague and Vampiric Touch still hit hard, but just a little less hard than you remember. Mind Sear is much weaker, a consequence of a Cataclysm-wide nerf to AoE damage. The only big positive change to damage comes courtesy of Shadow Word: Pain -- it's finally subject to haste, and it's a prerequisite for creating those Shadowy Apparitions you've heard me go on about.

When you're doing the standard stand-and-nuke fight, Shadowy Apparitions don't really factor much into your damage. When you're on the run, though, they spawn like crazy. Though I haven't done any calculator-heavy theorycrafting with the ability, a few minutes of actual play time confirms that fears of a stutter-step raiding priest are vastly overblown. In practice, it just doesn't work to boost damage, especially once the damage coefficents on the apparitions are fixed. The ability is clearly there to patch a minor chink in the spriest armor -- our ability to deal damage on the move.

One thing is definitely for sure: We don't have to worry about running out of mana. I had no problems keeping my bar up while questing as a level 80 and only minor issues on occasion with my leveling priest.

I was quite disappointed in the fact that the mastery system is not implemented in the current Cataclysm build. While making my rounds in Mount Hyjal, I found plenty of attractive-looking, green-quality gear loaded with mastery. Unfortunately, there's no benefit to wearing it yet.

Oh, you found green-quality drops, did you?

I hopped into Cataclysm loaded up with a solid mix of Icecrown Citadel gear, from 10-man regular stuff to 25-man heroic drops. Make no mistake, it holds up exceptionally well in the new content. I was easily overpowering the level 80 mobs I found in Mount Hyjal.

Cue the QQ, though, because all that gear you worked so hard to get in Icecrown is going to be overshadowed shortly into the new expansion.

About three minutes into my questing, I got my first green drop, the Mistmantle Leggings of the Flameblaze. To get an idea about how strong your shadow priest will be in Cataclysm, consider the stats. A basic green drop that a level 78 can wear has nearly 120 extra points of stamina, about 40 more points of intellect, and slightly more hit than our tier 10 Sanctified Crimson Acolyte Pants -- plus it has mastery. We probably won't be swapping our Wrath epics for these new Cataclysm greens immediately, but by level 81 and 82, some of the quest rewards start looking damn appealing.

Then again, this is not exactly new. Blizzard tries to put everyone on a somewhat equal playing field every time they release a new expansion. I mean, you don't farm Molten Core to prep for heading to Hellfire Peninsula, right?

Did you start a gnome priest?

Interface\GlueXML\GlueParent.lua:395: Usage: PlayGlueAmbience("sound name", "(optional)fade in time")

Um ... what does that mean?

That means it didn't work. This beta thing is filled with bugs, and as such, it's hard to tell what's for real and what's not. Trolls floating in mid-air like they're swimming in something. Quests that you aren't actually able to finish. Random crashes and restarts. Shadowy Apparitions that hit like a damn truck. Plummeting to your death because the game dismounted you. Even 5-man dungeon bosses you can solo. It's an unpolished work.

Of course, my inability to play a gnome priest may have been caused by some intrepid Blizzard software engineer fiddling with the code in an effort to sabotage any attempt to make an ugly little gnome priest. I'll let you be the judge.

Are you 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? Hunger for the tangy flesh of gnomes? The darker, shadowy side of Spiritual Guidance has you covered (occasionally through the use of puppets).

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