Blood Pact: Encounter design, demonology, and tier 13

Tyler Caraway
T. Caraway|10.10.11

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Blood Pact: Encounter design, demonology, and tier 13
Every week, WoW Insider brings you Blood Pact for affliction, demonology and destruction warlocks. For those who disdain the watered-down arts that other cling to like a safety blanket ... For those willing to test their wills against the nether and claim the power that is their right ... Blood Pact welcomes you.

Patches are always trying times, more so for pure classes than any other. Hybrids benefit by generally only having a single DPS spec that Blizzard focuses on balancing; pures have to worry about which of their three specs is going to remain viable and scale well into the next raiding tier. While some of that is dependent upon the raw damage a spec is capable of putting out, many times the situation is far more complicated than that. Tier bonuses, encounter design, and gearing all play a vital role in determining which spec reigns supreme and which falls by the wayside.

We've talked before about all of these topics, but it's time to focus that on how the game is shaping up for the next raid. While most of the encounter design is still slightly unknown to players, there are things that we do know and concerns that we have to be wary of. This week, we'll take a look at what might be in store for demonology, the part that tier 13 plays in that, and how the bosses themselves will be the deciding factor.

Encounters which support demonology

If you're a raiding warlock, chances are that you've either thought about or been asked to go affliction at some point in time. Affliction is currently our highest single-target DPS spec, plus it still does pretty great multi-target and AOE damage, making it our most solid raiding spec at this point in time. That being said, demonology is still an extremely popular raiding spec for Firelands. A part of that is because demonology isn't all that much weaker than affliction, making it a viable alternative choice if you don't care for affliction.

In fact, there are several encounters where demonology is actually the preferred spec over even affliction. The reason for this is that demonology offers one thing that affliction does not, burst DPS. I've talked before about how burst is defined largely by the context in which you're playing. While most players view burst damage as what you can deal in a very short time frame, how long or short that time frame is can change depending on what we're talking about.

As an example, heroic Ragnaros and Alsyrazor are great encounters to look at. While the overall damage that you can deal within the course of the encounter matters, the larger focus boils down to select periods of burst damage, the benefits of which outweigh anything else. On Ragnaros, what you're capable of doing during the third phase for meteors is all that matters. While the other phases and the transitions offer their own challenges, the hardest portion of the fight is, by and large, the ability to bring Ragnaros down before you are overwhelmed by meteors, and in heroic you can't have any more than two spawn. Affliction brings nothing to the table as far as this type of burst damage is concerned; it has access to Demon Soul, but so too does every other warlock spec. Demonology, on the other hand, brings a more potent Doomguard and Metamorphosis to the table.

This aspect of demonology has been essential in keeping the spec relevant within Firelands. While the mechanics of each encounter differ, there are still three important fights where the end result of success or failure rest of the damage output that a raid can do in a small amount of time: Lord Rhyolith, Alysrazor, and Ragnaros. Because we have these types of encounters, demonology doesn't only remain a viable alternative to affliction, but also even the preferred spec on some bosses. How this will transition into the next raiding tier is vastly important. Should we see more burn-phase-styled encounters, then we're likely to continue to have a trend where demonology has a high representation among warlocks; without those types of battles, affliction, which offers higher dual-target and sustained DPS, becomes the better choice.

Encounters that hinder demonology

Although there are parts of encounter design that can work toward supporting demonology, there are just as many that can work against the spec as well. This is also something that we have seen within Firelands, and it brings about a highly disturbing game mechanic that is rather counterintuitive toward the playstyle that demonology is rather forced into.

Perhaps some of you recall Magmaw (at least I would hope so, since it was only a single tier ago, particularly heroic Magmaw). Part of that encounter relied heavily on a specific, creative use of game mechanics that has long been a part of WoW. In that encounter, players at range had to worry about falling meteors as well as erupting volcanoes spawning all across the room. To combat this, raids would often stack everyone they could into melee range, while only leaving the minimum amount of players at range. This helped in several ways. First, it reduced the complexity of the encounter, as there were fewer people who could make a deadly mistake. Second, it increased the raid's overall DPS, as there were fewer players who needed to move at any given time.

This isn't a new mechanic. Bosses have had abilities that primary target ranged members for the longest time, but Firelands brought in a new way in which bosses utilize these abilities. Enter Majordomo Staghelm. On the cat phase of Staghelm, he will use his leaping ability at any ranged player, but it's important to note the difference; he won't leap merely onto players at ranged, rather any player designated as ranged. How to tell the difference? By spec and class, of course.

If you are any class or spec that the game designates as a ranged DPS -- warlock, mage, balance druid, or elemental shaman -- then Staghelm will leap at you, regardless of your current position. Even if you are standing in melee and you have more than enough ranged targets present, he can still leap right onto your face and that of every other melee DPS around you. This change in targeting mechanics does more than break the traditional method of avoiding such abilities via stacking in melee; it actively hurts the demonology method of damage.

While demonology is a ranged caster just like either of the other two specs, during Metamorphosis, we actually want to be in melee range. Doing this allows for us to take advantage of our demon form's Immolation Aura to increase our DPS further. Yet, this is rather impossible, or at least counterintuitive, with mechanics that prevent ranged players from being in melee. Normal Staghelm doesn't present too much of an issue; about half or so of the encounter is spent with the boss in scorpion mode, anyway, which allows you to be in melee. But heroic Staghelm doesn't have such a luxury.

It's nice to think that demonology's damage isn't balanced around the use of Immolation Aura, but the simple fact remains that as long as the ability exists, then the damage it can contribute is accounted for and we are balanced with that in mind. To some, it might just be a triviality, yet it's undeniable that preventing the use of a spec's full abilities merely by encounter design makes that spec less desirable for raids. The impact here might not be significant enough to render demonology worthless, but there are other such deterrents, and stacking enough of them can be the final nail in the coffin.

Updates to tier 13

Last, though certainly not least, there is still the matter of the tier 13 set bonuses. First, it is worth mentioning that the four-piece bonus now slightly favors destruction. For those not keep up with all the hubbub, the four-piece bonus has been modified so that using Soul Fire in conjunction with Soulburn will now refund a Soul Shard. The reality is that this was done to prevent affliction from being the only spec that could refund its Soul Shards on single-target encounters by using Seed of Corruption. The change does, however, slightly benefit destruction more than the other two specs because of Improved Soul Fire. It still isn't enough to bring destruction's DPS in line with the other two specs, but it is worth mentioning, I suppose.

Originally, the two-piece bonus favored demonology, although that too has now been changed. When it was first announced, demonology actually got a longer duration increase on the Doomguard than both destruction and affliction; that has now been swapped around. This probably isn't news to anyone, as just with the Doomguard nerf that we saw, it was rather obvious that the bonus couldn't remain as it was without upsetting the balance. The set now increases the duration of demonology's Doomguard by 20 seconds, while affliction and destruction see a 30-second increase in damage.

Although demonology should still see a slightly higher return from the set bonus, it isn't nearly what it once was. In all, destruction and affliction will now have a Doomguard that will last for 75 seconds, while demonology's will last for 85 seconds -- a mere 10-second difference, as opposed to the 20-second difference we see now. Regardless, the mastery increased strength of demonology's Doomguard should still allow them a higher benefit, although it rather feels like getting the raw end of the stick, even if that isn't the case.

A factor that many people haven't brought up enough is the cooldown reduction that the set bonus also offers. Reducing the cooldown by 4 minutes might seem extreme for a set bonus -- and at face value, it is -- but the reality is that this more serves to allow the use of the Doomguard on every attempt instead of any additional usage during the encounter. As with most mechanics in WoW, there are still some exceptions. While a majority of encounters are fairly short in nature, most end encounters tend to be rather long. Heroic Lich King lasted for near 15 minutes, as did Ragnaros. It wouldn't be at all surprising should Deathwing turn out the same. The ability to use the Doomguard twice in a single encounter is fairly powerful. This is balanced, slightly by the set bonus itself, but it will still be an additional perk that I am looking forward to.

Blood Pact is a weekly column detailing DOTs, demons and all the dastardly deeds done by warlocks. We'll coach you in the fine art of staying alive, help pick the best target for Dark Intent, and steer you through encounters such as Blackwing Descent and The Bastion of Twilight.

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