Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

Scattered Shots: Hunter spec and class balance

Brian Wood

Every Monday and Thursday, WoW Insider brings you Scattered Shots for beast mastery, marksmanship and survival hunters. Each week, Frostheim of Warcraft Hunters Union uses logic and science (mixed with a few mugs of dwarven stout) to look deep into the hunter class. Mail your hunter questions to Frostheim.

Last week, Ghostcrawler, WoW's lead systems designer, stepped in with a post to let the players know what Blizzard was looking at in terms of class balance. Hunters had the privilege of being the only class that had all three specs being mentioned in the post. He acknowledged that BM and MM DPS was too low and were in need of buffs. He also pointed out that SV single-target damage looked too high (along with DKs) and that AoE damage might be too high, as well.

Responses from the hunter community have been pretty divided. A lot of hunters are saying no, SV is not too strong, while a lot of others agree that they are a bit too high. Still others argue that hey, someone has to be on top -- why not us? And then there's the crowd that says it's too soon to tell. But everyone agrees that BM and MM need the buffing.

Today, we're going to take a look a hunter balance. We'll delve into raid parse data to see if we can find out just what Blizzard is seeing, we'll talk about hunter spec balance, and finally, we'll talk a bit about how current bugs in the game are affecting our DPS. Join me after the cut for an in-depth rundown of hunter class balance at the beginning of Cataclysm. Oh, and even if you're not a hunter, you're gonna want to see this.

What Ghostcrawler said

Before we get into specifics, let's have a quick review of exactly what Ghostcrawler said, pulling out specifically the parts that pertain to hunters:

Ghostcrawler - Lead Systems Designer
We're happy with damage overall. We have very few traditional tank and spank fights (even Argaloth likes to parry melee) so it's hard to get consistent numbers without very large data sets. Still, we see Survival hunters and Unholy DKs on top of a lot of single target fights. Arcane, Marksman, and Beastmaster damage is too low. ... On fights where there is a lot of area damage, Demonology warlocks, Frost DKs and possibly Survival hunters are all too high. ...

As part of the Marks and Beastmaster buffs, we're buffing Aimed Shot, Kill Shot, Chimera Shot, and Kill Command. ...

"GC, is this the final list of changes? Does this mean I can expect no changes for my class? Does this mean you don't care about me?"

No. This is some stuff we are looking at so that you'll have some context if you see changes on a future PTR. The final list of class patch notes for the next patch will doubtless be much longer.

Looking at the data ourselves

Let's start off by diving into some numbers ourselves, to see if what we can see matches at all with what Blizzard is saying. Of course, Blizzard is seeing far, far more information than we are. For us to get a feel for how specs are performing, our best resource is World of Logs, where there are already hundreds of raid parses, including all of the currently available bosses.

All of the data I'm about to present is pulled from World of Logs on 25-man normal fights, compiled as I write this on Dec. 30. I chose 25-man because we're more apt to have every raid buff there, whereas in 10-man, you could get skewed numbers right now because certain teams are missing buffs that are great for certain specs. However, since we're likely to see far, far more 10-man teams in Cataclysm, that's something we're going to want to keep an eye on in the future when we're into the tens of thousands of parses (and thus, balancing out the buff advantages).

I also specifically removed the Halfus Wyrmbreaker fight from this data, since it's a DPS gimmick fight and not a good representation (with 80k DPS common, as an example).

Not all specs have a good enough representation to provide reliable data; typically, the lower-performing specs rarely raid. So while there might be a good 300 SV hunters having done a certain boss, we might see only 20 BM hunters and 7 MM hunters. Thus, I have not included any specs whose representation was too low to be statistically significant; it doesn't necessarily mean that their DPS is very low, just that too few people are raiding with them to tell.

I've been monitoring all of this information and updating my spreadsheets weekly. While it's certainly early in the expansion yet, with only the best raiders completing all of this content regularly, it's interesting to note that the data has been very consistent from week to week. The numbers are climbing upward as people gear up, but the relative positions are remaining pretty fixed. Finally, I should not that hunters are performing much better in 10-mans than in 25-mans. Whether this is because we're less buff-dependent or we just are less dependent on as wide a variety of buffs, I'm not sure.

Okay, let's get to it. We're going to start by looking at top DPS representation.

For this, we're looking at the top 40 DPS benchmarks for each boss and seeing how many of those spots each class holds. For this chart, we're just looking at classes, not specs. For most classes, one spec was on top -- SV was the only hunter spec with any top benchmarks -- but other classes had two specs representing (and warlocks have three, if you count demonology totally owning every AoE fight).

Here, we're seeing warlocks and hunters very disproportionately represented in the top DPS benchmarks, with death knights pretty high as well. On 10-mans, hunters are doing even better.

What's happening here is that hunters, death knights, and warlocks are all doing very well on single-target fights, with hunters probably the best. On AoE fights, demonology warlocks completely destroy the top benchmarks, going so far as to claim 39 of the top 40 slots on one fight. Interestingly, SV hunters continue to do well on the AoE fights, though not nearly so well as the warlocks.

Of course, this is just showing us who is getting the very top results on various bosses. It's not telling us what the class representation is -- for example, maybe there are three times as many hunters as other classes, and that's contributing to our high DPS (it would make a difference, just not a huge one, as long as everyone has a statistically significant representation -- for example, you could have 10 times as many MM hunters as anything else, but they still wouldn't own any top spots).

The big thing this chart is not showing us is actual numbers. Who cares if hunters or warlocks are No. 1 if they're No. 1 by 10 DPS? After all, as many have pointed out, someone has to be on top -- why not us? It's only a problem if we're ahead of the pack by a large margin.

So let's look at some numbers.

The following chart takes the median of the top 20 benchmarks for each spec for every boss (except Wyrmbringer) and averages them to get an average top DPS. We're taking the median of the top 20 to get rid of some of the crazy outlier results, where the top result is 10k DPS higher than No. 2, but while still trying to represent the best the spec is capable of in the hands of the best-geared and best-skilled raiders currently out there. Specs with poor representation are not included.

This average represents all raid bosses, single-target and AoE. The median average top DPS is the boomkin with 18.7k DPS. SV hunters are leading the pack at 21.2k average, followed closely by the unholy DKs at 20.5k. Ret pallies bring up the rear with a meager 16.3k DPS.

Clearly SV is on top, and we're also on top by a lot.

To put this in some perspective, we can take a look at what was going on in ICC, during the 10% buff period (when I did a huge statistical analysis of hundreds of thousands of lines of raid parses). In ICC, every class (except the poor shadow priests) had a spec that was within 10% of the top spec. Right now, not even the median is within 10% of SV hunters. We're a bit over 13% ahead of the median (and the mean).

So yes, there's always going to be a spread, and some specs will be ahead and some behind -- but when the differences get this large, and if they continue this way as we get more results, then I agree that it's a problem and that SV needs a gentle nudge downward. After all, if I were a raid leader, I'd stack hunters, DKs, and locks as my only DPSers if I could. Well, and maybe bring a shadow priest for replenishment.

This leaves us with the "it's too soon to tell" argument. It's certainly possible that these numbers will radically change in the next few weeks and hunters will just be good, and not too good. But frankly, that's improbable. SV hunters in particular scale very well with gear, and over the past three weeks, though these numbers have increased, the positions have remained consistent.

Of course, if it is too soon to tell, then it's also too soon to say that SV and BM need buffs, right?

Hunter spec balance

While we don't have enough raid data to get a good feel for the BM and MM hunter specs, we're fortunate in that our class has very accurate qualitative tools for measuring these things -- at least for measuring them in a standstill fight. We can pop over to and make some good comparisons between specs to get a feel for the difference.

BM and MM are very, very close to each other in theoretical standstill DPS, and both specs are about 15% behind SV.

But we also need to consider in general how much various fight mechanics will hurt the DPS of the specs to get a sense of how they'd perform in a real-world environment. Let's take a look at some pros and cons of the specs:
  • Beast mastery BM hunters have excellent focus regeneration, and since they get a slightly larger percentage of their DPS from their pet's various auto-attacks, they have a nice advantage to their DPS in movement-heavy fights. On the other hand, they are particularly poor in target-switching fights, when compared to the other hunter specs. They have to wait for their pet to travel from target to target. Furthermore, fights with an air phase hurt them, as they lose their signature shot. BM also has the worst AoE DPS of all the specs -- they need a suboptimal DPS pet to enable their AoE, which lowers the damage of their pet and their signature shot considerably.
  • Marksman MM hunters have the most difficult rotation to maintain optimally, with the constantly changing priority involved with maintaining the Improved Steady Shot buff combined with random Aimed Shot procs. The result is that complicated fight or movement mechanics can make it easy for that delicate rotation to fall apart, and losing the Improved Steady Shot buff hurts MM a lot. MM also has a fairly poor AoE.
  • Survival SV hunters have it pretty good. SV doesn't have a lot of problems with target-switching fights -- less, in fact, than MM -- and in general has a far more forgiving rotation. If you screw up the SV rotation and delay an Explosive Shot or mess up your Lock & Load, the hit to your DPS isn't that large and your rotation doesn't crumble around you; you just pick up where you left off. In addition, SV has by leaps and bounds the best AoE of any hunter class -- better AoE than a MM and BM hunter combined.
What I'm suggesting here is that even if every hunter spec were able to do precisely the exact same DPS on a target dummy or Patchwerk-type fight, SV would generally still be doing considerably more DPS in practice over the various raid bosses. They're able to cope with all the different boss fight mechanics we see with less DPS loss than the other specs, on average.

Let me be clear here, before I get a swarm of angry SV hunters accusing me of hating SV. I like all the hunter specs, and I play whatever gives me the highest DPS. Furthermore, I think that if one spec has to be on top, it should be SV. They've earned it, after all -- MM had all of vanilla and the latter half of Wrath. BM had all of BC and the very beginning of Wrath. SV only had a small window of months being the top spec. They're due.

But I still want as much balance as we can get. I wan BM's target dummy DPS to be slightly higher than SV's -- then, in actual raids they'll be the same, or SV will be slightly higher. I think SV is due to be the top spec, but I also want hunters to be able to raid as any spec they want, rather than a Wrath situation in which BM underperformed so severely that you hurt your raid team -- or in BC, when we had the same situation with SV and MM.

The impact of hunter bugs

Something that I'm sure Blizzard is taking into account as it considers any possible hunter buffs or nerfs is some of the bugs currently in the game. We have a handful of known bugs remaining. A bunch of these are pesky pet-related bugs that are relatively small, and I can see how they aren't on the top of the bug to-do lists. But a couple of them impact our DPS and will increase our DPS when fixed. And they will boost SV's DPS more than any other spec.

The first is that our Serpent Sting and Black Arrow are still using the spell critical multiplier (150%) rather than the physical crit multiplier that all the rest of our shots use (200%). We are, by the way, pretty certain that this is actually a bug and not intentional, though it's certainly within the realm of possibility that Blizzard will choose to leave it be while SV is already so high on the charts.

Fixing this will slightly boost all hunter DPS, but SV's more than the others. SV does more damage with Serpent Sting because of its mastery. It's the only spec with Black Arrow, and it gets more benefit from those DoTs anyway with the Toxicology talent. Also, it's worth noting as an aside that SV gets more benefit from both of our tier 10 set bonuses than any other spec.

The second bug has to do with the 10% attack speed buff provided by the windfury totem or the SV hunter's Hunting Party. This buff is actually reducing our focus regen by 10%, rather than increasing it by 10% (the way that every other ranged attack speed buff does). Now this amounts to only about 0.4 focus per second -- perhaps an extra Arcane Shot every minute -- but that could really help make SV's rotation more fluid, removing those annoying choke points where there isn't quite enough focus to fire both Black Arrow and Explosive Shot on cooldown.

So this is where I'm seeing the hunter class balance at the moment and the factors that will contribute to it. What do you guys think? Too soon to tell? Do you have a different way of gathering World of Logs data that shows a significantly different result? Can you think of other factors that will affect our DPS that I haven't considered? How would you go about adjusting the DPS of the various hunter specs?

As a special favor to me, let's try to avoid saying anything like, "In my raid, the rogue always does more damage than me, so SV is clearly not too strong." That's anecdotal evidence and is neither compelling nor useful in this discussion.

Scattered Shots is dedicated to helping you learn everything it takes to be a hunter in Cataclysm. From leveling your hunter to optimizing for heroics to gearing up with pre-heroic loot and pre-raid loot, we've got you covered.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr