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Spiritual Guidance: The greatest Shadowfiend nerf (or maybe buff) of all time


The race to represent the Spiritual Guidance column is turning into a nail-biter. Dawn Moore, writer of the Sunday version, took an early lead due to her natural dual constituencies, holy and disc. Recently, though, Fox Van Allen, the shadow-specced author of the Wednesday column, has taken a statistically insignificant 46-44 percent lead over his rival in the polls. Some credit Fox's well-written, intelligent columns. Others point to the recent discovery of yet five more Shadowfiend-bite-riddled corpses; Dawn supporters all. "Yes we can" is so 2008 -- "... or else" is the new catchphrase for a new decade!

Ladies and gentlemen of the shadow priesting jury, I am outraged. Or possibly thrilled. You see, just this past week, Blizzard has done something totally unconscionable. Or possibly ground-breakingly awesome.

Of all the tools at the disposal of the shadow priest, there's one I hold in higher regard than most the others: my Shadowfiend. You see, spells like Mind Flay and Vampiric Touch -- they're all just spells. My shadowfiend is more than that. He's a pet. A friend. When I was sick and alone this past week, it was my shadowfiend who brought me a box of tissues and a remote. It was my shadowfiend that brought me a bowl of gnome noodle soup. It was my shadowfiend who rode across yellow- and blue-colored waves of sound to fight the evil dust empire that exists under my coffee table when I look down there and cross my eyes a little so things get blurry.

Granted, most of that may have just been a fevered dream or cough-syrup-induced hallucination. The key point stands, however: You don't mess with my shadowfiend.

This week's problem: Blizzard's been messing with our shadowfiend. Maybe. I mean, it's possible that Blizzard's been buffing it. I am incensed. Or possibly elated. We'll try out some funky, back-of-an-envelope math after the break to try and sort through exactly what's happening with our beloved shadowfiend and figure out whether or not this is cause for alarm ... or the best thing to have happened to shadow priests in the history of ever.

Shadowfiend 4.0: The overview

Blizzard just made three major changes to our shadowfiend:

  • The cooldown reduction of Veiled Shadows has been cut to 30/60 seconds, down from 1/2 minutes.
  • Sin and Punishment has been redesigned. Every time Mind Flay crits, 10/20 seconds comes off the shadowfiend cooldown.
  • Shadowfiend now only restores 3% of a user's max mana per attack, down from 5%.
For those keeping score, that's two nerfs and a buff. At the very least, these changes have completely revolutionized the shadowfiend model. We're more at the mercy of the RNG gods. And we won't see our shadowfiend as often unless ... well, wait, what if this means we see our shadowfiend more often? Do the buffs really outweigh the nerfs?

The shadowfiend in Wrath: A primer

Before we get into the changes, let's talk briefly about our friend, the shadowfiend. I named mine Gnomechewer. He's a fairly shy sort and doesn't like his time in the limelight. Right now, I'm only able to coax him out once every 3 minutes (for those without the Veiled Shadows talent, that's once every 5 minutes). He gets in about 10 hits every time he's called, sometimes more if he's timed well with Heroism/Bloodlust. Each time he connects with a hit, he restores 5 percent of my maximum mana. He's a giver, that Gnomechewer.

Some shadow priests think of their shadowfiend as little more than a tool to restore mana. Serious raiding shadow priests, however, view their shadowfiend primarily as a DPS-increasing tool that restores mana as a fringe benefit. You should be in the habit of using your shadowfiend early in the fight, and then immediately again when it's off cooldown (or otherwise using it immediately before Heroism/Bloodlust). It's a surprisingly powerful DPS tool -- a shadowfiend can contribute a solid 1,000-2,000 DPS while he's out there eating gnomes alive.

Clearly, shadow priests would love any talent or ability that lets us see our shadowfiend out and attacking more often. The new changes to shadowfiends conflict somewhat in this regard: One increases the cooldown, and one lowers it. Which one wins out?

Shadowfiend math for dummies

First of all, I make this promise: I will do my best to make sure this math-ish section doesn't bore the sweet merciful crap out of you. And just in case it does anyway, I will make sure that each mathy paragraph herein contains at least one link to an adorable puppy.

Let's start out by assuming that we're always going to be going 2/2 in Veiled Shadows. If we do, our shadowfiend will be on a 4-minute timer. To make the recent changes to the shadowfiend benefit us from a DPS perspective, we just need to see that timer reduced under our current 3-minute cooldown. If we're going 2/2 in Sin and Punishment (where each crit takes 20 seconds off the cooldown), we need exactly three Mind Flay crits in the first 3 minutes to make things as good as they are now. We need four crits in less than three minutes to make things better.

Now, how many crits of Mind Flay can we expect to see in Cataclysm? That's a trickier question than it seems, because there's an awful lot of variables that we can't solve for yet. The main two we care about are: 1) How often will we be casting Mind Flay and 2) How often will we be seeing it crit? I'll have reliable answers for these two questions sometime after the Cataclysm launch. (Break for lunch, guys -- see you all back here sometime in November!)

In the meantime, let's get pessimistic about Cataclysm and see where those numbers take us. We know our four-piece tier 10 bonus is disappearing. We know Blizzard wants us to be critting less. So let's get real pessimistic and say that we'll only be getting off a good five full casts of Mind Flay in a minute. And let's set our Mind Flay crit rate at a measly 20 percent -- probably less than half of what you see today in a raid.

Here's where that math comes in. Each full cast of Mind Flay is three ticks, so five casts is 15 ticks. At a 20 percent crit rate, we'll see about three Mind Flay crits per minute. Now, if you'll remember a few paragraphs earlier, we said:
... we need exactly three Mind Flay crits in the first 3 minutes to make things as good as they are now.
In this admittedly pessimistic scenario, we're getting three crits in 1 minute. If you follow this scenario's math through to the end, we're on track to be able to cast our shadowfiend once every 2 minutes in Cataclysm, up from once every 3 minutes in Wrath.

This, my friends, looks like an overall buff. A very significant, game-changing buff. Shadowfiend is moving out of the realm of a mana-boosting talent and into the realm of a true DPS-boosting talent. That's something worth celebrating.

A few other scenarios to consider

I was discussing the changes to shadowfiend on Twitter yesterday and had a somewhat lengthy discussion (at least in Twitter terms) with fellow priest Derevka (of Tales of a Priest). He was a bit skeptical that Blizzard would be so generous to shadow priests:
I'd be SHOCKED if we can lose a whole minute with a triple critting Mind Flay. I'm waiting for a "this effect cannot occur more than once every X secs."
At first glance, this really does seem like quite the generous change, doesn't it? I mean, if five full castings of Mind Flay cut the cooldown on shadowfiend down to 2 minutes, what happens if we get six full casts? Or even 10? I mean, we're stacking haste like crazy now, right?

Without going too deep in the math, stacking haste doesn't do a whole heck of a lot to change our new shadowfiend cooldown. There are some serious diminishing returns:
  • At 5 casts per minute (20% crit), the shadowfiend cooldown is approximately 2:00.
  • At 6 casts per minute (20% crit), the shadowfiend cooldown is approximately 1:50.
  • At 10 casts per minute (20% crit), the shadowfiend cooldown is approximately 1:20.
Toss a higher crit into the mix, and you see that the new cooldown for shadowfiend still seems to be stuck in the somewhere-over-1-minute range:
  • At 5 casts per minute (30% crit), the shadowfiend cooldown is approximately 1:36.
  • At 6 casts per minute (30% crit), the shadowfiend cooldown is approximately 1:26.
  • At 10 casts per minute (30% crit), the shadowfiend cooldown is approximately 1:00.
While Derevka could still be right -- this change may never be fully implemented in the game for us all to enjoy -- it doesn't feel that radical from a game design perspective. For shadow priests, the shadowfiend is a DPS tool. Giving us the ability to reduce the cooldown of the shadowfiend (not unlike the way elemental shaman can lower the cooldown of Elemental Mastery via their two-piece tier 10 bonus) feels surprisingly natural as a buff.

Besides, seeing my shadowfiend out and eating gnomes more often meets my own personal definition of fun. This is a fun change. More shadowfiend means more fun. Thus spake Fox Van Allen.

A nerf to mana return ... ?

Our discussion won't be complete, of course, without talking about the change to the shadowfiend tooltip. It now reads (emphasis mine):
Creates a shadowy fiend to attack the target. Caster receives 3% mana when the Shadowfiend attacks. Damage taken by area of effect attacks is reduced. Lasts 15 sec.
Right now, a shadowfiend attack is worth 5 percent, so that's a nerf on the most superficial of levels. Consider, though, that if the above changes to shadowfiend go through as is, we'll be seeing our happy little fellow slaughtering to his hearts content far more often. More shadowfiend bites means more mana return.

The bar here is 67 percent. We need to see our shadowfiend 67 percent more often to make up for the mana cut to 3 percent. The new cooldowns definitely flirt with that number. It appears that shadow priests will see our fiend return about the same amount of mana it does now, possibly a bit more. For holy and disc priests ... well, they're not quite as lucky. This is a definite nerf to their mana regen, even if they do invest a couple talent points into Veiled Shadows.

Apparently, Blizzard got it into their heads that running out of mana adds some "fun" to healing, so maybe this little change to the shadowfiend helps advance that ideal. I'll leave it up to Dawn to hypothesize about that -- as a shadow priest, I'm not really familiar with this bizarre "running out of mana" concept.
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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