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Blood Pact: The failure of Soul Shards

Tyler Caraway

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.

Greetings again, warlocks. For the past few weeks, we've been discussing raiding strategies for the various raids of this tier. In this week's edition, I would like to take a slight change of pace and discuss warlock mechanics at a more basic level. I understand that most come here for guides or reference materials -- and I promise to get back on track with those soon -- but I also like to highlight what I view as flaws within the game in order to bring about dialog within the community on how to adjust these issues. When playing as a warlock, the most unavoidable mechanic that you run into is that of Soul Shards.

For years, warlocks pretty much hated Soul Shards; they were annoying, took up vast amounts of bag space, and had to be farmed for every raid. In Cataclysm revamping, Soul Shards was one of the major goals for warlocks. Now we have a system in which warlocks only have three shards usable in conjunction with the new Soul Burn ability, which can be used to alter certain spells in a variety of ways. But is this really an improvement? Did Blizzard actually fix the problems associated with Soul Shards?

Soul Shards: the beginning

Back in ye olden days, Soul Shards were predominately used for utility abilities. The major source of shard consumption were Ritual of Souls (or creating single Healthstones, if you really want to go far back), Ritual of Summoning, and summoning pets. As far as damage abilities went, the only ones which used shards were Shadowburn and Soul Fire, neither of which saw heavy use save generally for PvP purposes. Soul Shards were annoying at this point because of the absurd amount of bag space that needed to be spent on them.

On farm content, a warlock may not have need quite as many shards -- probably just one per boss -- but when learning new content, a warlock could easily burn up 40 or more shards any given night. Think: Every single attempt meant dropping another Soulwell and summoning your pet back. Then factor in any time that a player would need summoned so they could switch specs, switch gear, grab something from the back, switch out for a different raid member, or the billions of other reason that people went in and out.

Simply put, the old shards were annoying, cumbersome, and just unfun.

Soul Shards: a new direction

It took until Cataclysm, but Blizzard finally realized that Soul Shards just weren't working. For this expansion, it sought to recreate the old system into something new, fun and interesting for warlock players. Thus was born Soulburn. Soulburn was a neat idea that would allow warlocks to consume a Soul Shard to enhance some of their spells temporarily.

From a paper standpoint, it sounds great! The same fact is that it simply hasn't worked out into anything quite as grand as was hyped up pre-launch.

To start everything out, let's look at the good. The most annoying factor of Soul Shards was completely removed. Demons no longer require shards to summon; neither does Ritual of Souls, Ritual of Summoning, or any spell at all really. Soul Shards simply aren't a requirement for warlocks any more -- yet that amazing solution is also a part of the problem.

There is no actual use for Soul Shards any more. The utility that they used to have, which also caused so many issues, caused the entire system to become irrelevant once removed. Can any warlock player now actually say they would notice a massive gameplay difference if Blizzard announced that Soul Shards were to be removed completely in the next patch? Sure, we would all miss some of the quality-of-life utility that Soulburn brings, but would it hold any significant impact? No.

The current Soulburn system is almost entirely geared towards PvP (which isn't inherently a flaw). In any raiding situation, the DPS difference between a warlock who remembers to use Soulburn and one who doesn't isn't all that noticeable. While there are a few PvE perks in using Soulburn -- Seed of Corruption for affliction, Soul Fire for destruction, and to a lesser extent demonology -- the limited use of Soulburn limits any real power said utility might have.

Is three instant Soul Fires within a single encounter really going to have a noticeable impact on the damage output of a destruction warlock? Is there even really any incentive for timing? Yes, exceptional warlocks will deal more DPS than average warlocks, and yes, Soulburn will have something of an influence on this -- but we're speaking in terms of maybe a few hundred DPS, when players are doing over 20,000.

Soulburn: the issue of utility

Barring that Soulburn doesn't equate to a large gain in damage, the more significant issue with Soulburn that needs to be addressed is one of the inherent disparity between spell effects. Warlocks do not have much in the way of base defensive utility. Although every spec has some form of self-healing, this is largely off set by the fact that warlocks use their own health to supply their mana. Beyond that, a warlock is left with Soul Link and Shadow Ward (Nether Ward for destruction warlocks).

Soul Link is a great defensive ability, but it rather pales in comparison to what most other classes are capable of. In a tight spot, a druid can use Barkskin, a shadow priest can use Dispersion or Power Word: Shield, a mage can use Ice Block, Mage Ward, or Ice Barrier if frost -- all of which can reduce far more damage than Soul Link.

Shadow Ward is far too specific to be considered a true defensive ability -- although Nether Ward and Nether Protection are fantastic. Yes, when confronted with shadow damage, Shadow Ward is spectacular, but you cannot count on damage being of that type, not in PvP and certainly not in PvE. In this raiding tier, there is only one raid encounter that I can think of off the top of my head that even has shadow damage (I guess technically two, if you count Halfus' Shadow Nova).

Instead, several of a warlock's defensive abilities are tied into Soulburn. You can Soulburn a Health Stone in order to increase your maximum health, or you can Soulburn Demonic Teleport to increase your movement speed. You could even consider Soulburn: Drain Life as something of a defensive utility, given the health that it restores. Yet none of those abilities are usable in PvE at all.

You cannot say to a warlock, "Okay, save your Soulburn for the off chance that you may find yourself in a bad situation and need the defensive utility," especially when no other class has to make the same choice. When a destruction warlock has to choose between an instant Soul Fire or maybe needing to Soulburn a health stone at some random point in the encounter, which do you think he will choose?

That's not a choice. Soulburn's being tied to both defensive and offensive utility is a terrible mistake. If there wasn't a limit of three Soul Shards per encounter, then this choice could be more understandable -- but that isn't the case. You get three uses of Soulburn per encounter. The end.

In PvP, this choice makes more sense. Do you use your utility for defense or offense? That's a tactical decision, and it's practical to force players to make it. In PvE, this choice makes absolutely no sense at all. Within these situations, players need to optimize their damage output. While one could argue that dead DPS is 0 DPS, that factor just doesn't apply. A frost mage doesn't have to make the choice between being able to Ice Block or to use Deep Freeze. It may seem an extreme and frivolous comparison, but it isn't. Classes are balanced around their optimized damage output; meaning warlocks are balanced around using Soulburn for DPS.

A contradictory comparison?

It may seem strange to have one hand saying that Soulburn is a failure because it doesn't hold enough of an impact within a warlock's damage rotation while the other hand is slamming Soulburn for forcing the choice between defense and offense when such a choice shouldn't exist, but both are perfectly valid arguments.

Both challenges address entirely different flaws within the system. The first is a failure in the ability to be meaningful; the second is an issue of how an ability operates on a mechanical level. You cannot address one without addressing the other. If you make Soulburn a meaningful part of the warlock's rotation, then you only emphasize the issue of locking out defensive utility. If you fix the problem forcing the choice between offense and defense, then you are still left with the offensive side lacking in potency. Both problems must be addressed.

The final solution?

Last week, there was a wonderful topic on the Damage Dealing Forums that brought up this very issue, and I am sad that I can no longer find it. In this thread, the original poster suggested a feasible solution which rewarded players for using Soulburn at certain times when the utility seemed appropriate.

For example, if you used Soulburn: Teleport while snared, then the shard would be refunded; similarly, using Soulburn: Healthstone while low on health would also refund the shard. While eloquent in a way, I have to disagree that creating a system of "rewards" for "proper" usage of Soulburn is the right way to tackle the problem.

Here is an example as to why: Atramedes' air phase requires players to kite his breath for a certain period of time to prevent using too many gongs. While not the best choice, you can have a warlock hit a gong, which would force Atramedes to target him; the warlock would then Soulburn: Teleport in order to get away from the beam and have increased run speed to allow for better kiting. Perfect, and proper, use of the ability.

Yet there are no catches here that could be implemented to "reward" players for using Soulburn in this way. The player isn't slowed, and there isn't a dire "need" for the speed increase; it merely provides a unique method for dealing with the encounter's mechanics. Instead, a more intuitive method needs to be developed for dealing with Soul Shards and Soulburn.

Separate and equal

The first thing that absolutely must be done is to remove the tie between the offensive and defensive usage of Soulburn. Frankly, there is no reason that Soulburn's offensive utility should be limited at all. There are no drastic PvE ramifications for allowing warlocks to have an instant Soul Fire every 45 seconds, and the damage from Soul Fire simply isn't dire enough that this would cause horrible PvP imbalances.

After all, this system already exists in PvP. Although it is currently limited to three uses per encounter -- or more if you can drop combat and channel Soul Harvest (ha!) -- if this was that overpowered of a mechanic, then warlocks would already be using it to dominate the PvP scene. Does this provide strong burst? Yes. Could it deadly? Absolutely. Does that make it OP? Not in the least.

"Spamming" an instant Soul Fire every 45 seconds wouldn't even be the best PvP tactic to begin with. While it hurts, the damage isn't so extreme that using it on cooldown, every cooldown is the most viable method. Instead, it's better to whittle a player down some and then provide the additional burst when going for a kill. The current system already provides for this, so the effective change nets nothing.

To accomplish this, the Soulburn effects for Soul Fire, Drain Life, and Searing Pain should be removed and a new ability added in that has the same effect yet isn't tied to Soul Shards. If need be, the cooldown could be increased to 1 minute, but I cannot fathom why this would be needed. In terms of PvE damage, this wouldn't be that significant of a difference -- it provides around three or four additional uses per encounter -- and in PvP, there again wouldn't be an actual net change in utility.

All of the "defensive" abilities -- summons, Teleport, Healthstone -- should remain as they are now.

The balance of usage

Once the damage and defensive sectors of the spell are split from each other, there still remains a single issue: the three-use limit. Before going on, let me be clear that I am not saying warlocks should have a Last Stand or Sprint on a 45-second cooldown; that would be far too much, regardless of how "weak" they might be in comparison to their respective counterparts. However, it should also not be considered a proper tactic to "run the warlock out of cooldowns."

A warlock's primary defensive utility lies in Soulburn. Their other two abilities are nice but rather weak and flawed in PvP. Soulburn is actually rather powerful, despite what limitations it might have. Allowing it to be used without repercussion every single cooldown would simply be too much.

That, however, does not mean that warlocks should never be able to regenerate Soul Shards. Simply put, getting shards back now is rather clunky. In combat, you either need to kill something with Shadowburn or Drain Soul up, which can be rather difficult in PvP, or you need to get out of combat long enough for channel Soul Harvest. In somewhere such as Arathi Basin, this is more functional with the downtime between node rushes, but in a constant battle situation such as Warsong Gulch, you simply don't have the option to stand there channeling a spell just for the sake of shards.

For the sake of balancing, we have to look at the cooldowns of similar abilities. Sprint is on a 1-minute cooldown; Dash is much higher, but feral druids have other gap-closing tools. Last Stand is a 3-minute cooldown, but Vampiric Blood (which is closer in strength to Soulburn: Healthstone) is a 1-minute cooldown. Given all of these factors -- and that Soulburn cannot merely be "used" but requires setup of some form -- having warlocks regenerate a single Soul Shard every minute once all shards are depleted isn't absurd.

Essentially, this would give Soulburn a 1-minute cooldown after three 45-second uses have been consumed -- and you can only regenerate a single Soul Shard this way, not all three. From a PvP standpoint, this would give warlocks the same defensive longevity that other classes enjoy. Sprint may have a 1-minute cooldown at all times and Soulburn only 45 seconds for the first three uses, but Sprint can just be used, while Soulburn would require a Demonic Circle to be placed first and the warlock is restricted to that location. Vampiric Blood may have a 1-minute cooldown at all times, but Soulburn: Healthstone requires, well, a Healthstone -- which the warlock would need time to recreate after each use.

Given the special dependencies of Soulburn, giving it an effective 1-minute cooldown after the first three uses isn't that extreme. If anything, Soulburn would still be somewhat weaker than all of its comparable abilities.

Where's the solution?

These may not be perfect solutions to the problems that plague Soulburn and the new Soul Shard mechanic, but they would be a major step in the right direction. No matter how you look at it, something must be done. The new Soul Shard system is not better than the old one, it isn't all that interesting, and it certainly isn't all that interesting.

If Blizzard is truly serious about improving the Soul Shard system, it would take a serious look into the inherent disparities between the uses of Soulburn as well as the overall balance between the defensive utility it provides and the defensive mechanics of other classes.

Blood Pact is a weekly column detailing DoTs, demons and all the dastardly deeds done by warlocks. We'll steer you toward tip-top trinkets and Soulburning your way through Cataclysm.

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