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Spiritual Guidance: Welcome to Cataclysm heroics, shadow priests


Welcome to the Wednesday edition of Spiritual Guidance, where your host Fox Van Allen takes on the darker, shadowy side of priesting. While your holy columnist Dawn Moore was busy trying to plant suggestions regarding the alleged superiority of healing, Fox was busy casting Mind Control to demonstrate the superiority of the shadows.

Right now, on the live Wrath servers, shadow priesting seems to fit like a glove. That's not necessarily a result of our class and mechanics being perfect -- they're not. It's a result of their feeling familiar. We've been playing under the rules of patch 3.3 for nearly a year now and it feels natural; it feels right. We're blessed with strong damage and near unlimited mana -- provided we put in the effort to know how to make both of those a reality.

It's hard to accept that 4.0.1 is bringing such major changes, especially in the realm of that once unlimited mana bar. It's gone, and it's not coming back any time soon. If you need any evidence, consider this: After slashing mana regen to the bone last week, Blizzard followed up by cutting regen even more this week in the latest beta build. (For something called a "nerf," these cuts sure hit like a Mack truck, don't they?)

These changes to regen may make the 80-to-85 leveling process more tedious, but they don't necessarily make it more difficult. If the pinch is going to be felt anywhere, it's going to be in 5-man instances, heroics and raids. Since raids aren't quite available yet, I decided to queue up for some heroics instead to get as much Cataclysm endgame flavor as I could.

Can our mana bars handle the stress? How weird and different are our new rotations? And how can shadow priests add much-needed value to a party above and beyond the standard DPS abilities in Cataclysm? The answers to those questions -- plus a stunning 47,306 damage crit -- are all after the break.

First impression: Yikes!

You'll no doubt hear this a lot over the next few weeks (months?) as people play around in heroics, but ... these things are hard. At least, they feel hard. (That's what she said.)

The majority of the growing pains in heroics right now rest with healers. They're still getting a feel for the changes to their classes and to the way damage is being dealt. That's not to say tanks aren't struggling too -- their (relative) stats have been slashed, they're dealing with new abilities and talents and they're taking on new content. Pulls will go wrong. In fact ... pretty much everything will go wrong. Encounters are bugged, abilities are bugged, and even when everything's going right, there will still be that guy who stands in fire.

Shadow priests, too, are going to feel the pinch of the new content. Our mana regen keeps getting cut, so we need to be more conscious about what we cast and when. If we go all out on every pull, we'll wind up out of mana on every pull. It's definitely an uncomfortable feeling at first, but you start to learn to manage. You learn by doing, and as battles progress, you find yourself limited by the mana bar less and less.

Understanding the new challenge: Anatomy of a wipe

It won't take long before you experience your first wipe in a Cataclysm heroic five-man instance. These instances are difficult, and the mobs are strong enough to eat unprepared tanks alive.

You'll quickly learn that there are two distinct types of wipes: one caused by an overwhelmed/underprepared tank, and one caused by an overwhelmed/underprepared healer. Occasionally, you'll find yourself in a situation where both are overwhelmed or underprepared. When that happens, you won't be able to make it past the first pull.

For the situations when the tank or healer needs just a little bit of help, there's good news. Just as in Wrath, we have tools at our disposal when a wipe looks like it's building. We can't go around slinging spells from the holy tree, but we do have access to Power Word: Shield, even in Shadowform. It's an incredibly powerful defensive spell, and it's just as easily cast on the tank as on ourselves. I created the following simple but powerful macro that I've found invaluable for progressing in heroics:

/cast [@focus] Power Word: Shield

[Hat tip to Smoke353 and Wellsee for simplifying that macro!] Just be sure to set the tank as your focus when you start the instance, and you have a powerful life-saving tool at the push of a button. PW:S often stops the bleeding just long enough for your healer to catch up. And given the dearth of good major glyphs for shadow priests right now, you can juice the spell even more with the Glyph of Power Word: Shield. Remember, though, the Weakened Soul debuff is still around -- don't go around using this macro when your party's healer is a fellow priest.

Mana regen: Not as bad as you'd think?

Since we last complained about mana regen cuts, Blizzard followed up with ... a new series of mana regen cuts. In the past week, we saw the shadowfiend cooldown reduction benefit of Sin and Punishment get cut in half, from 20 seconds per Mind Flay crit down to 10. A similar nerf also hit Dark Archangel -- the cooldown was jacked from 45 seconds up to 90 seconds. The cuts definitely hurt when you're trying to run a full, aggressive rotation.

But the cuts to mana regen aren't the end of the world once you learn to adapt to them. It's part of the Cataclysm give and take -- we now have the ability to do strong burst damage, but that level of damage is not sustainable long term. We can't go all out on every pull. We have to save the mana for when it matters, because our shadowfiend and Dark Archangel are not going to be silver mana regen bullets.

Managing your mana in Cataclysm isn't simple, but it's far from impossible. The biggest challenge, to be frank, is accepting the new reality: We need to curb the rate at which we deal damage to maximize our total damage.

Mind Control: Welcome back, old friend

Remember what the developers said about wanting to bring back crowd control for Cataclysm? Well, they did; pulls in heroics can be terribly challenging. But unlike in the latter days of Wrath, it's not Shackle Undead that we're going to be using for CC -- it's Mind Control.

You heard me right: Mind Control. If you're somewhat new to the game, you're forgiven for not being familiar with it. The patch 3.3 incarnation of the spell is unreliable, dangerous and short-ranged. Mind Control's risk-to-reward ratio is terrible. Hardly anyone ever uses it, and that's a shame because of the spell's promise and potential.

Thankfully, Blizzard took a second look at MC in Cataclysm, with terrific dividends -- it's an absolute blast to use right now in the beta. Developers bumped the range on the spell up from 20 yards to 30 yards. They also made the channel more reliable -- in my heroic Deadmines experience, the spell almost always lasted the full 60-second duration.

What makes Mind Control so great is that you get a double benefit out of the spell -- you get to force one of the bad guys to stop attacking the tank and start attacking one of the other bad guys. If you can grab aggro with your Mind-Controlled puppet, that's even better -- all of a sudden, you've got two adds off the tank. And you're not just limited to using "auto attack"; your puppets come loaded with a small handful of interesting abilities (like the kobold spell Candle Blast). Some are brutal attacks, and some are powerful heals. There are even buffs in the mix; I found one enemy capable of providing players with their own personal 30-second version of Heroism/Bloodlust. Oh, and did I mention the damage numbers?

Admittedly, that's a not typical hit. Most times, you're only doing 20,000+ per whack. QQ!

It may take a little bit of convincing, but if you're in the beta right now, ask your tank to mark a target for you to Mind Control on every pull you can. Be sure to use some caution -- your channeling shadow priest is helpless while MC is active (I died to an AoE blast while playing around with Mind Control), and you generate a lot of aggro with the humanoid you're controlling. The tank needs to be ready to pick the add up the moment Mind Control breaks. Remember, though, Mind Control only works on humanoids, and some humanoid mobs are immune.

The overall experience

I had a blast in my heroics. I didn't get any "loot" out of it, but that hardly mattered. The content was new, fresh and challenging. I got to use different abilities for different fights. I got to play tank with a couple of Mind-Controlled pirates. And the final battles in the instance ... well, I don't want to ruin them for you, but they're fun as hell.

Overall, yes, it did feel a little weird to be stingier with my casts. I was out of my comfort zone for a while, and when you start playing these heroics in Cataclysm, you'll be out of your comfort zone too. The real beauty, though, is that you'll be too busy having fun to feel oppressed by your mana bar. In fact -- and I hesitate to say this -- holding back on casting was more fun. No more tunnel vision!

Cataclysm is bringing major changes to virtually every aspect of the shadow priest experience. And the bottom line for shadow priests: Change is most definitely good.

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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