Frankly, though, there was never going to be a good way to drop this particular hammer on our toes. Yes, you have a little more than nine days or so to go in Wrath, and you're going to have to endure it weaker than you were. But after a while, you get used to this constant cycle if you play a warrior. We should still be able to tank and DPS our way through the new content, although expect prot to see some buffs a couple of months after release. Right now, though, we're in lockdown mode, waiting for the new content. This is nothing new. This is how it was before BC and before Wrath.
So let's talk about what those expansions have taught us we can expect going forward.
Expect fluctuations during the first tier of raiding
If this expansion is anything like the others, there's going to be at least one tanking class that lags way behind the others in the first push through heroic instances and into raiding. It may be us, or it may be one of the others; it's not important which class it is, but rather what effect it will have on us when Blizzard attempts to adjust tanking to bring classes in line.
Interestingly, Cataclysm has already seen adjustments of this kind before it has even released. There will be more of them. What usually happens is either a class that is seen to be outperforming others will be reduced to their level, or one that is lagging very far behind will be brought up to par. In this situation, it's bad to be very far ahead but also bad to have been behind the whole time, because perception trumps reality. If people come to believe (based on a mechanical disadvantage) that X class can't tank as well as Y and Z, they're more likely to sabotage runs consciously or subconsciously by complaining, making bad assumptions or just plain dropping group. In this particular case, I expect warriors to be a fairly middle-of-the-road tanking class, and so I don't expect us to undergo this particular issue, but it bears watching.
With the amount of fiddling abilities like Shield Slam have undergone to keep them from benefiting too strongly from Vengeance, I'm not fully confident that warriors won't come out of the gate somewhat weak as tanks. However, since all four tanking classes have been redesigned to some extent, I do expect other tanks to have similar issues. In essence, we won't be any worse off than those other guys, which ultimately benefits us.
DPS is going to be low for a while, and again, the culprit will be gear. Arms will be easier to gear for than fury, but yet again arms will be clearly behind fury DPS the first tier of raiding. The buff-nerf cycle will continue (as the past month has made clear), but the new systems should at least make the eventual buffs easier to apply and the eventual nerfs easier to predict. Once fury warriors close in on anything close to enough hit, our DPS will increase as normalization still means we need to get white hits to get rage to use. Hit and haste will be stronger in the first tier of Cataclysm than they have been for warriors in quite some time, and we probably won't be able to cap on hit until the next tier is released. (As of yet, I don't know if it's still planned for next tiers of raiding to require more hit, but if it does work out that way, hit will always be a fury warrior's best friend.)
You are still gear-dependent
Rage normalization wasn't intended to remove gear dependency so much as to make it linear rather than semi-exponential. What fueled the engine of warrior power fluctuation before was the fact that an undergeared warrior easily rage starved because not only did he or she hit infrequently, but his or her hits generated little rage due to the way rage was generated (the more damage you dealt, the more rage you had). Now, while undergeared warriors (you know, people in quest greens, alts who never get a chance to raid or who rolled halfway through an expansion) will still generate less rage than fully geared ones with the proper amount of hit and expertise, at least when they do hit, they will generate a dependable amount of rage allowing them to do something.
This does not mean you will not get more powerful with gear, nor does it mean that rage won't scale with gear. Hopefully, what it means is that warriors will scale predictably with gear and rage won't become effectively infinite, making it difficult to design around. This does mean we need to spend some time actually considering our rage and how to most wisely spend it, a habit many of us have gotten out of and will need to resume. Expect to feel fairly constrained for a while, especially as ratings decay makes older gear obsolete and you're upgrading in instances and heroics.
Protection is still going to be the king of leveling specs
You may never set foot in an instance and still go from 80 to 85 as a prot warrior. I'm not entirely sure why you wouldn't run instances, but protection will continue to be a very strong leveling spec coming off of its Wrath of the Lich King high. While the DPS specs will certainly work for leveling, both have seen adjustments to their relative power and auxiliary abilities (especially fury, which has lost a lot of self-healing) that will make protection really stand out as the survivability leader.
The addition of Vengeance to all tanking specs means that protection will also have a means to pull a lot of mobs, stay alive, and steadily ramp up its damage in a way it has never seen before. Since protection was already the king of multiple-mob chain pulling, this makes it ideal for questing out in the world. And with tanks most likely going to see a certain drop in popularity with the changes to tanking and the switch from being in end of expansion gear to beginning of expansion gear, those of us who tough it out and keep tanking will have a much easier time queueing for dungeons.
I expect arms' popularity in PvP to be challenged. The drop to a 10 percent MS debuff makes it effectively meaningless with health pools approaching 130k at level 85 and the new triage healing mentality. Arms mobility won't be much greater than fury (and no greater at all than protection), and while Throwdown is a lovely ability, it's not going to make up for arms' inability to really close the deal damage wise for the first few months of the expansion. Protection, at least, is going to be a very popular PvP spec, with its innate critical strike reduction, high mobility, stuns and cooldowns. Fury may be popular if it can bring enough mobility and its damage output is high enough, since arms will no longer have a "killer app," so to speak. With the rise of rated BGs, I expect to see some variation in what specs get used in PvP.
Enjoy the next week or so off from things. On Dec. 7, you get to start the treadmill again. Oh, and it's also my birthday. You can get me something nice.
Check out more strategies and tips for warriors of all specs in Matthew Rossi's weekly class column, The Care and Feeding of Warriors.