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Totem Talk: Understanding the enhancement shaman priority system

Josh Myers

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Totem Talk for elemental, enhancement, and restoration shaman. Do your likes include bladed weapons, the elements, and fights with little to no movement or target-switching? So does Josh Myers, new kid on the block and now host of Totem Talk: Enhancement!

When multiple people are on the brink of death in a raid encounter, healers have a very tough job. They have to assess the number of people who need healing, how close to dying they are, and what their role in the raid is and how important they are to raid success. Once they have all these factors, they need to make intelligent decisions. Sometimes, they'll make the wrong decision and save a DPSer just in time to watch the tank die. Other times, they'll manage to pull off a glorious combo of heals, shields, and damage cooldowns that allows everyone to scrape through in one piece. And they have to make these decisions in seconds.

The idea behind a DPS priority system is similar to healing, with much less punishment if you make the wrong choice. Healers need to make split-second decisions regarding who to keep alive. DPS need to make split-second decisions about which ability to use. Unlike healers, the wrong choice will rarely directly mean your raid wiping. However, continually making the wrong choice will take a toll on your DPS, and your raid could end up hitting the enrage timer.

What is a priority system?

Before we get into the meat of the enhancement DPS priority, we need to figure out what a priority system is. A priority system is a way of assigning values to every one of your abilities so that you know which ability to hit when two abilities are off cooldown at the same time.

Priority systems are not rotations, as uncontrollable factors like Maelstrom Weapon stacking to five means that you can't rely always hitting the same buttons in the same order. Some of these priorities are fairly obvious -- Lava Lash hits harder than some raid bosses' melee attacks, so naturally you'd want to see it high on the list. Some of them are less intuitive, but the magical powers of mathematics and the nice people over at Elitist Jerks have worked to provide us with a basic priority system we all can follow.
  1. Searing Totem if not active
  2. Lava Lash
  3. Flame Shock if Unleash Flame is up
  4. Maelstrom Weapon five-stack Lightning Bolt
  5. Unleash Elements
  6. Stormstrike
  7. Earth Shock
  8. Feral Spirit
Following this priority system allows us to make intelligent decisions about what ability to use next, rather than following a static cast sequence. If you have both Unleash Elements and Stormstrike off cooldown, you'll know to use Unleash Elements. More importantly, if you see Maelstrom Weapon stack to five right before you hit the Unleash Elements button, you'll know to make the intelligent decision and fire off the higher-priority Lightning Bolt.

Why is Searing Totem so high?

There are a lot of factors that go into determining an ability's priority, and it isn't all just the raw damage we see put out by the ability. The most noticeable case of this is the fact that Searing Totem is the highest-priority ability for an enhancement shaman. First off, it's the highest damage-per-cast-time ability we have. Searing Totem has a rate of fire of approximately one bolt every 1.6 seconds, meaning that it fires 37.5 bolts during its short lifespan. In my gear, Searing Totem bolts average 4,000 damage on a non-critical hit, resulting in 150,000 damage from a single button push. That means Searing Totem is around 100,000 damage per cast time, without factoring in its chance to crit, the damage from the Searing Flames damage over time, or its contribution to Lava Lash.

These also factor into Searing Totem's spot on the priority list. While the actual bolts it casts cause Searing Totem to contribute over 10% of our average damage on a boss fight, the Searing Flames DoT they leave behind deals around another 4%. To top it all off, our second-highest damaging ability, Lava Lash, consumes all those Searing Flames stacks to do 100% more damage, making it go from a right hook to an uppercut.

However, Searing Totem is only on top of the priority list when it isn't already active and shooting fireballs. If it is active and not about to despawn, everything else on your priority list is a higher priority. If it has despawned, dropping is your priority. If it is active and not currently shooting fireballs, you should also drop it. This is really relevant, as a large number of fights in current content have target switches that could cause your totem to get confused. I have a gigantic fireball Power Aura in the middle of my UI to let me know any time I don't have Searing Flames debuffed on the target, so that I always know when the little bugger is shooting.

All of this adds up to a big, gigantic sign to all enhancement shaman that says, "Please don't let your Searing Totems despawn. It makes Josh cry." Luckily, Searing Totem's power is offset by how easy it is to make sure it doesn't drop off. Since it lasts a minute, you have an its entire duration to redrop the totem if you ever find yourself with a free global cooldown. Since we no longer use Fire Nova on single-target fights and some of our cooldowns are slightly longer, we're not nearly as global cooldown-capped as we were in Wrath of the Lich King, and Searing Totem is easy to keep up without sacrificing higher damaging abilities.

Why is Maelstrom Weapon so much lower than it used to be?

Instant Lightning Bolt is still going to be one of the staples of your priority. However, Lava Lash is a higher priority than Lightning Bolt because it outpaces Lightning Bolt's damage by a long shot. While Lightning Bolt has a higher chance to crit through Stormstrike's debuff, an average Lava Lash hit can hit as hard as a Lightning Bolt crit. You want to be using Lava Lash as soon as it comes off cooldown, even with a five-stack of Maelstrom Weapon.

The reason for Flame Shock being higher than Maelstrom Weapon is twofold. First, your average Flame Shock buffed by Unleash Elements will outdamage a single Lightning Bolt. However, the buff from Unleash Elements only lasts 7 seconds. This is why refreshing Flame Shock is higher priority than Lightning Bolt; you need to be able to cast Flame Shock while your 30% fire damage buff is still up. If you still have 3+ seconds left on your Unleash Elements buff and your Flame Shock is still on the target, use Lightning Bolt. Another important thing to remember with Flame Shock is that if you cast it before the last tick of the DoT, that last clip will be added to the new Flame Shock's duration.

If none of the other abilities are up for use, instant Lightning Bolt is your main ability. You want this thing cast as early as possible when it procs, because delaying casting it means delaying more potential Maelstrom Weapon procs. Also, Lightning Bolt gains a 35% chance to crit when the boss is debuffed with a glyphed Stormstrike. This chance becomes 45% with the tier 11 four-piece bonus. Lightning Bolt will go a long way toward keeping up your Elemental Devastation.

What about the rest?

Unleash Elements is the only ability left on the priority list that requires some real decision-making. If you have any other ability active and your current Flame Shock has more than 8 seconds left on its duration, you should skip UE in your priority list and go for the other ability. You want to avoid clipping your Flame Shock any more than two ticks before it runs out, and you want to recast it with the Unleash Elements buff up.

Other than that, Stormstrike is a nice ability with a chance to proc Static Shock, a good debuff, and chances to proc Maelstrom Weapon stacks and weapon imbue procs. It's still a great ability -- it just isn't as important as the other ones. Earth Shock is primarily our filler spell, used when everything else is on cooldown. It will still see a lot of use, though. Feral Spirits is our lowest-priority ability because of the prevalence of global cooldown gaps in our priority system. While they're excellent to have out, they're not strong enough to push back a Lava Lash to cast. Save them for a free global.

Show your totemic mastery by reading Totem Talk: Enhancement every week. Manage the trip through Cataclysm content with WoW Insider's tips for the best enhancement macros.

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