Brand new expansion, same old problems
One item that has been an on again, off again issue for balance druids is that of mana. When it comes to mana management, balance druids are perhaps one of the worst specs in the game. In terms of talented and other means of passive mana regeneration, we rather get the short end of the stick, though it isn't entirely a fault of our talents themselves.
As it stands in Wrath, we have two talents for passive mana regeneration, Dreamstate and Intensity, one operating off spirit and the other off intellect. Unfortunately, neither of these is sufficient in PvP. Intensity itself is not an issue as much as the lack of spirit on our PvP gear. Our other source of mana regeneration is the crit return from Moonkin Form, which also doesn't function very well in PvP due to resilience's lowering our critical strike chance.
Out of those three mana regenerations options, all of them have been removed in Cataclysm. Instead, every class has a standard baseline mana regeneration amount while in combat. Balance druids can further talent for additional mana regeneration through Euphoria, which returns mana upon gaining an Eclipse proc. Just as the mana return from Moonkin Form was ineffective in PvP, so too is Euphoria. Eclipse is only gained through the use of three spells -- Wrath, Starfire and Starsurge -- and only two of those ever see any sustained use in a PvP environment. It is very difficult for a balance druid to cast multiple Starfires throughout the course of a PvP encounter; the cast time is simply too prohibitive. This leaves the impact on mana that Euphoria has limited; couple that with Euphoria's currently not being effective enough in a PvE setting where the druid can chain cast freely, and you have a bad combination. It simply is not possible for a balance druid to sustain damage output in PvP. Factor in non-Eclipse generating spells such as Entangling Roots, Cyclone and Wild Mushroom, and the system simply cannot work.
A few patches ago, Blizzard did toss a bone in balance druids' direction by reintroducing Dreamstate as a talent that allows Innervate to return additional mana when used on yourself. Again, as with Euphoria, the talent is insufficient even in PvE -- so it is less effective in PvP, where mana consumption is higher. Further, this brings about a very troubling aspect of balance's mana issues. Blizzard intends to balance our mana regeneration around the fact that we will use Innervate on ourselves every single cooldown; that simply isn't feasible in PvP. Not only are we busy with other tasks, but Innervate has no dispel protection, meaning that our main source of mana, which we can both talent and glyph for increased effectiveness, can be stripped away in an instant. A new, passive system of mana regeneration has to be introduced.
Always an expansion behind
Two of the key elements of balance druids are their mobility and their control tools. We are one of the few classes with access to two completely different forms of crowd control on separate diminishing returns, allowing us many unique opportunities that other classes simply do not have. Cataclysm has only further expanded upon our control abilities by giving us things such as instant-cast, AoE Entangling Roots, an AoE silence via Solar Beam, and a ground-based snare effect through the Fungal Growth talent. From a straight observation, it would seem as though balance druids should be rising up to become the new frost mages, in terms of control. Sadly, this is far from the truth.
Solar Beam is a great talent, and it is wonderful to finally have a means of countering other spellcasters in PvP. Yet while Solar Beam holds some potential to be the most powerful silence in the game, it is also the weakest. Solar Beam absolutely has to be used in conjunction with Entangling Roots; otherwise, the player hit by it can simply move out in less than a second, making it the shortest silence in the game. Given that it takes at least two GCDs to be viable by any means, this also makes Solar Beam the only silence in the game that requires more than a single cast to be effective. Further, Solar Beam has a minute-long cooldown, which is much longer than any similar spell in the game.
In short, while Solar Beam seems fantastic, in comparison to every other similar spell in the game, it is the worst interrupt/silence out there. The fact that it has a 5-yard range, which is ridiculously short and will rarely if ever hit more than one player, does not make up for all of the additional maladies that plague the spell. Honestly, if the fact that a Solar Beam and AoE Entangling Roots combination is too overpowered is what is holding the spell back, then I would much rather ditch the AoE root than an effective silence from Solar Beam.
Wild Mushroom -- or rather, the snare left by Wild Mushroom with the Fungal Growth talent -- was originally thought to have great potential as a kiting tool to finally help balance druids counter melee players who seem to eat us like candy. Sadly, this too has failed to fill that niche. Planting the mushrooms themselves requires a cast time (albeit a very short one), which prevents them from being used while on the move. That is a manageable flaw, but the horrendously short range of the mushrooms is not. Wild Mushroom now only has a 3-yard range on their explosion, which is shorter than melee range (5 yards) and makes any pre-emptive planning for snares beyond difficult. The spell can be used as a defensive ability by surrounding either a friend or yourself with mushrooms to counteract any melee players who think it's wise to come and play with your face, but using them as a mobile, on-the-fly snare is simply out of the question. The reduced range on the mushrooms has completely neutered the spell (although it isn't the only flaw). The mushrooms are also targetable, much like totems, and have low enough health that they can be safely one-shot at range by anyone. Further, the mushrooms don't act like a trap at all; in fact, players can tap dance on top of your mushrooms all day long if they wish. The only way the mushrooms will go off is if you cast the detonate spell.
The damage of Wild Mushroom is ridiculously high -- so the spell at least has that going for it -- but beyond using them as a trap while hiding out in the WSG flag room, there really isn't a place for the spell in the heat of action. It feels far more like a buff or a little defense grid that you set up prior to the encounter rather than anything that you would use beforehand. Perhaps other druids are having a better time of it than I am, but that's the feeling that I've gotten from the spell.
Although we have a plethora of control tools, all of them are relatively weak. I value quality over quantity in this situation. I would much rather give up a few of the weak tools that we currently have in exchange for having just a few control tools that function exceptionally well.
Let them burn! ... or not
Let's face a simple fact: PvP is all about damage. All of the fancy tools and control abilities are dandy, but at the end of the day, it boils down to who can blow up who faster. In that race, balance druids lose hard. We have never really had any means of controlled burst that we can perfectly time in order to take down an opponent quickly; instead, we have relied upon timing Starfire casts with Cyclones and praying for some lucky procs.
Things in Cataclysm are honestly no different. We have a few burst tools, but they really, really fail. Our only choice of burst comes in the form of the aforementioned Wild Mushroom. As I said, the damage from the mushrooms is high, very high, and you can certainly use them to quickly decimate a player in a matter of seconds. Sadly, just as with all of our other tools, the spell just does not compare to what other classes have. Yes, we may be able to put out the same amount of damage (possibly even higher) if everything rolls in our favor, but every other class has equal damage output that's far easier to set up and reproduce.
Balance druids need to have some burst, but we simply cannot seem to get it. Starsurge is respectable, but it just isn't in the same realm as other classes. We need something more -- this is a hot war arms race, and we're losing.
Defensive tools or the lack thereof
The last topic that I would like to brush upon is the matter of defensive tools. Balance druids have never really been known for our defensive capabilities. We are actually one of the weaker classes all around, and Cataclysm has done nothing to address that. Our primary defensive tool has always been our higher than average armor mitigation, yet that is starting to slip drastically. In Cataclysm, all non-plate wearing classes are having their base armor increased in order to better equalized the disparity between cloth and plate, in an effort to better balance physical damage output. Unfortunately, this has not worked out well for balance druids. Moonkin Form's armor bonus has once again been equalized due to this change, but a level 85 balance druid actually has less physical damage reduction than a current level 80 balance druid has. We are losing armor, once again, and it's bringing the rest of our defenses down with it.
Beyond our standard passive damage reduction, we also have Barkskin. Although I am in love with Barkskin and think it is the best thing since sliced bread, it really doesn't hold up against some of the other defensive tools that other classes have.
There is also the issue of magical damage reduction. Most classes, especially other casters, have some form of passive magical damage reduction; balance druids do not. This places us yet another step behind other classes in terms of PvP combat. It isn't so much that balance druids lack the tools to be an exceptional PvP spec; it is that our tools are not balanced up to par to what other classes possess.
Every week, Shifting Perspectives treks across Azeroth in pursuit of druidic truth, beauty and insight. Whether you're a bear, cat, moonkin, tree or stuck in caster form, we've got the skinny, from a look at the disappearance of the bear tank to thoughts on why you should be playing the class (or why not).