At the end of December 2009, I took over the Scattered Shots column from the esteemed Brigwyn at what was then WoW.com. Now one year and over 230 thousand words later ... a lot has happened with the hunter class.
It has been a year of massive changes, first with the non-stop information flow coming out of the beta (and alpha before that), then seeing those changes implemented in 4.0.1, and then, of course, the launch of a new expansion. Hunters changed their core resource mechanics, gave up the antiquated idea of consumable ammo, and shuffled around which spec was on top.
You could try to argue that another class has seen as much change as the hunter class has in the last year, but you'd be arguing that in the wrong place. We're hunters here -- as if the beauteous radiance of the crowd didn't alert you -- and we don't waste our valuable discussion space talking about support classes.
But of course, one year ago there weren't any big changes happening. We were blissfully ignorant of the coming storm and all eagerly awaiting the unlocking of The Plagueworks hall of Icecrown Citadel -- and oooh, Festergut looked hard! Join me after the cut for a look at the year in review for hunters, as well as my predictions for the coming year.
We started out the year happily marching toward the Lich King in ICC. At the time, the MM spec blew the other specs away with top-end raid gear, and BM never recovered from their brutal nerfs of the year before. Nevertheless, ICC saw a surprising representation from BM hunters who proved that while they may not be able to come close to MM numbers, they could certainly pull their weight and beat the enrage timers.
All three hunter specs were well represented in ICC, with nearly as many SV hunters as MM hunters and perhaps half as many BM hunters. ICC representation really goes to show the love that BM hunters have for their spec; despite averaging as the third worst DPS spec in the game (ahead of only frost mages and subtlety rogues), they nevertheless had massively larger representation than even arms warriors, who averaged better DPS. Every other class that had a low DPS spec had miserable representation for that spec; not so, hunters.
Clearly, no matter how hard you try to shove a BM hunter into the dirt, he'll still claw your eyes out and claim his kill.
Looking at competitive numbers (MM), hunters averaged ahead of median for ICC DPS. We weren't on top, but we weren't on the bottom or in the middle. On melee-friendly fights like Festergut, we moved more toward the middle, but on ranged-friendly fights like Rotface, we moved up to the top of the meters.
So based on the ICC DPS analysis, hunters were in a pretty good place for the end of Wrath. We had our broken and exponentially scaling armor penetration stat, and we had our frankly unlimited resource mechanic that never ran out. But all of that was about to change.
Soloing and pet tanking
Wrath was also a good time to be a hunter interested in extreme soloing or extreme tanking. By the end of the expansion, every normal-mode Wrath 5-man had been soloed by hunters. We could solo most BC heroics and vanilla raids like Molten Core and Zul'Gurub. In addition to bragging rights, this soloing ability brought us the opportunity to farm a variety of rare mount drops on our own.
On the tanking front, hunters were able to accomplish more pet tanking feats in Wrath than ever before. We started off light, pet tanking all the heroics and some Naxx and Ulduar bosses. By the end of the expansion, we determined that we could not only pet tank Sindragosa, but it was actually easier with a pet tank than a real tank. We could also demonstrate hunter prowess by pet tanking Rotface while simultaneously kiting all of the oozes.
While the pet tanking and extreme soloing communities were glorifying in their accomplishments, there was also muttering that it was all about to come to an end. We had already been told that the way resilience worked was going to be changing in Cataclysm so that we could no longer get the crit reduction benefit from it (or any benefit in PvE). Without the crit reduction from resilience, there was no way to make our pets crit-immune to bosses, which would vastly lower our ability to achieve the awesome kills we had been doing.
Class changes announced
In April, we got our first official hunter class preview. We were told about Cobra Shot, Camouflage, ammo just going away rather than becoming awesome, and a variety of talents that didn't actually survive the beta process. And of course, no more mana. As more previews and blue posts appeared, we started to get a vague, somewhat blurry picture of what Blizzard was looking at. We got some initial ideas of the focus cost for various abilities and the breakdowns of how some of the new abilities might work.
Right around then is when the hunter community broke down in a cacophony of QQ, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. A common (and frankly, really bizarre) complaint was: "We're just going to be ranged rogues!" As if the fact that our resource bar was the same color made us the same, despite radically different mechanics.
Then there was a flurry of complaints about specifics that, I suspect, made Blizzard regret releasing any specifics.
Hunters pointed out that the focus cost of various shots were too high, that Disengage with a focus cost means you might not be able to use it when you need it. That Concussive Shot costs too much focus, and so does that, and that, and heck, just give us mana back. Another common complaint was that it would take at least four, or six, Steady Shots to get enough focus for any other shot. We'd be reduced to just hitting Steady Shot all the time with one other button every 10 to 15 seconds.
Of course, all of this was going on before the beta even started, and as we know, it did not work out that way. That's why you should always listen to Grandpappy Frostheim on these things.
Beta does its job and life improves
Over the course of the beta, we saw a lot of changes -- not just the big things like the talent tree restructuring and Path of the Titans ditching, but steady changes to the hunter abilities.
We saw the focus cost of almost every defensive ability removed -- no focus cost to Deterrence, Disengage, Concussive Shot. We saw the focus cost of many of our shots go down, and we saw our rotations reach the same steady to non-steady ratio as in Wrath, and then we saw the ratio get even better than Wrath for most specs.
We saw a ton of new features and changes to make the game more intuitive and require less research just to be able to play. The complicated and confusing interaction of Serpent Sting and Chimera Shot was removed, as was the danger of clipping DoTs. Our hit cap is neatly displayed on our tooltips. More than ever, we're able to focus on playing the game, rather than calculating in what funky way our shots behave under different circumstances.
We saw giant buffs and giant nerfs as different things were tested. Base focus regen started really low, then jumped up to a very healthy 5 focus per second before settling to a median 4 focus per second or so.
And of course, we finally saw new pet skins, new pet families, and a complete revamp to our pets that gave us totally awesome raid buffs, ferocity pet damage normalization, and complete pet scaling with all DPS gear. Now our pets were better than ever, contributing more than ever, and we don't all have to use the exact same pet.
And as a lovely treat at the very tail end of the beta, we saw a change to our pet talents that gave us the ability to make our tenacity pets crit-immune. Extreme soloing and pet tanking have a brighter future than ever.
In other words, the beta did what it was supposed to do. It let Blizzard test out a lot of different ideas and shape those rough ideas into something much more polished. By the end of the beta, the hunter class was looking quite good -- though there were still plenty of cries that Blizzard had destroyed the class and hunters were horribly weak. That too, as we were about to see, was not the case.
Hunters launch at top of charts in Cataclysm
At long last, every hunter got a chance to play with the changes with the introduction of patch 4.0.1. Since all the changes were balanced around level 85, MM hunters actually lost DPS in the patch. Without Cobra Shot, MM was still the top spec, but with the loss of armor pen, the well-geared hunters saw a slight drop in their DPS potential, even while other classes saw their DPS go up.
Blizzard make some downward adjustments to other classes, but in the end just assured us that come 85, we'd do okay.
And boy, did we! Leveling was easier than ever, especially in the limitless focus MM leveling build. And SV managed to make its way up to the top spec. Not just the top hunter spec, mind you, but one of the top couple of DPS specs in the game, blowing away most of the competition on both single-target and AoE fights.
Of course, it's not a perfect situation in Cataclysm. BM and MM are both far behind SV and in need of significant buffs, and their AoE is still very weak. PvP is in a rough place. Changes have made us better than ever at kiting -- especially the lower cooldown and focus-free Concussive Shot and the ability to cast Steady Shot or Cobra Shot on the move -- but at the same time, we're hurt more than ever when someone does manage to close with us. Now not only does it shut down just about all of our DPS, but it also shuts down most of our ability to regen our focus.
And of course as you'd expect, we have a handful of persistent bugs that didn't manage to get squashed during the beta, though I'm hopeful that they'll get taken care of by the next patch.
So while the changes of the last year have left us in a pretty good place, we aren't yet exactly where we'd like to be.
Frostheim predicts the future
Now that we're up to date on the hunter class, let's take a stab at predicting where the next year will take us. Twelve months from now, we'll see how right or wrong I am on these -- and just to make things fun, I'm going to try to go for a couple long shot predictions.
SV gets nerfed. This isn't much of a prediction, since Blizzard has already indicated this is coming, but it is something I've been talking about for the past couple weeks over at the WHU. I'm guessing we'll see the 15% agility specialization of SV turned down somewhat, possibly as far as to 10%. In addition, I expect a small decrease in AoE ability, and I'm going to predict that Blizzard reduces the percentage of damage that Improved Serpent Sting does on first hit. This isn't as bad as it sounds, by the way, if it's also combined with bug fixes. Fixing the current hunter bugs will slightly improve hunter DPS and will improve SV DPS much more than other specs.
BM and MM get buffed -- obviously, also stated. I'm guessing Blizzard'll buff Kill Command and then nerf it again, or the buff won't make it live and they'll find a different way to increase BM DPS, possibly by buffing Arcane Shot.
SV remains the top hunter DPS spec, or at least competitive for the top spot. Even if SV theorycrafts at a couple percent below another spec, in practice, they'll be above.
There will be two hunter specs very near the top DPS spec, and theory will be that serious raiders need to bring both of those specs to raids and switch to the one that is appropriate to each boss. These will be BM and SV.
PvP remains in a rough spot for hunters throughout the year. While minor adjustments are made, nothing major is done, and Camouflage remains mostly useless. Skilled hunters still manage to do well in PvP, and hunters are great in rated battlegrounds, but most average PvP hunters are destroyed in duel situations.
The BM bonus ability is changed away from Intimidation.
Counterattack is finally removed from the SV tree.
A new item type is introduced into the game: pet collars. There is no graphical display of these, but they give some further ability to customize your pets, include gem sockets, are crafted by leatherworkers, and are totally awesome.