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Blood Pact: Questioning Drain Life's position in the affliction spec

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.

I know that I had originally promised to continue on with the next edition of the Art of Staying Alive this week; however, I just really couldn't put it off any longer. You see, I have a confession that I must make: I'm ... an afflock. It's true, and I'm not ashamed to say it either. Destruction and demonology are fun past times that I've "experimented" with, but I'm 100% affliction. I've tried forcing myself to change. I've told myself it's just not normal to be affliction. But I can't help it. I can't change who I am.

Really though, I do have a deep love for affliction, and the changes that have been made to it on the PTR so far are fairly interesting, and I think that they are worth talking about. For the dark types who wish they were more like mages, well, I'm sorry, this week isn't going to focus on you. Maybe another time.

PTR changes

Oddly enough, there aren't all too many changes up on this PTR yet for warlocks (or really any class), which isn't all too surprising, considering that it has been said by Blizzard has said that this patch won't hold as many class rebalancing tweaks as the last one did. So far, the major aspects of this patch have been a focus to reduce burst from various specs and to equalize AoE DPS a little bit more. Here's everything for warlocks so far:

  • Rain of Fire damage has been increased by 25%.
  • Seed of Corruption damage has been increased by 20%.
  • Talent Specializations
    • Affliction
      • Haunt damage has been increased by 30%.
      • Shadow Mastery (passive) has been increased to 30%, up from 25%.
    • Demonology
      • Mana Feed now restores more mana (four times as much) when the warlock is using a Felguard or Felhunter.
  • Pets
    • Doomguard's damage has been increased by 50%. The Doomguard is intended to be the best guardian for single-target damage, and the Infernal the best when there are multiple targets.
    • Lash of Pain (Succubus) damage now scales with level, reducing the damage done at lower levels such that it will deal 50% damage at level 20, and 100% damage at level 80 and above.
    • Shadow Bite (Felhunter) damage and effect has doubled.

Neat stuff, right? The Rain of Fire and Seed of Corruption changes are obviously there to help out affliction and destruction's AoE, while there are a few changes to Haunt and Shadow Mastery to boost up affliction's raw DPS. The biggest change, however, is the increase to Shadow Bite, which allows for the Felhunter to deal equal to more damage than the Succubus for affliction warlocks. All in all, none of these changes are that surprising. The most interesting change, in my opinion at least, is the one to Mana Feed for the Felhunter.

The affliction spec

Why changing Mana Feed seems odd is because affliction usually doesn't have the points in order to pick that talent up. Afflocks run some form of a 31/3/6+1 spec that is forced to pick up the Shadow Bolt talents over in destruction. With that investment into destruction that we have to take, there's no way for us to pick up Mana Feed -- so then why would Blizzard buff the talent to allow for it to provide a ridiculous level of mana back when using the Felhunter?

Truth be told, there is an affliction spec that does pick up Mana Feed. The fabled affdrain spec, which uses Drain Life as a filler over Shadow Bolt, doesn't have the same point investment into destruction that the standard affliction spec does. Instead, it runs a 31/7/3 spec that focuses more on demonology. Glyph-wise, both specs actually use the same ones, which can seem a little bit odd considering that affdrain doesn't use as many Shadow Bolts as the standard affliction spec, but the mana reduction glyph is still rather noticeable even without Shadow Bolt being the filler.

The viability of affdrain

Very few affliction warlocks actually run the affdrain spec; I know that I personally don't and favor the standard affliction set up instead. For a long while in beta, affdrain was the standard spec for all affliction warlocks simply because Drain Life did so much more damage than Shadow Bolt did; however, Blizzard made it very clear over multiple posts that this was not what it intended. The designers did not intend for affliction to use Drain Life as their filler. The reasoning behind this was that it made warlocks far too similar to shadow priests -- both used multiple DoTs, both had a channeled filler spell, and both focused on shadow damage.

Blizzard has said time and time again that it does not want for affliction to be using a Drain Life-focused spec, and to a degree, players haven't been. For the longest time, affdrain has actually been higher DPS than the standard affliction spec in simulations. The issue, however, is that affdrain is excessively difficult to play.

I know what people are thinking -- WoW, difficult? It's true, though. Using Drain Life as a filler requires very precise timing in order to actually parse out as being higher DPS than using Shadow Bolt out in the real world. The simulated data may support using Drain Life, but in practice, the timing requires to prevent clipping are rather brutal, making it fairly ineffective.

Why it is interesting, then, is that Blizzard would alter a talent to support a playstyle that it had previously condemned. Again, Blizzard doesn't want for affliction to use Drain Life as their filler, so why would they adjust Mana Feed to support the Felhunter when only affdrain can get the talent?

The ramifications of Mana Feed

One theory could be that it is more geared toward a PvP change. In PvP, affliction would use Drain Life as a filler when they got the opportunity due to the health return portion of the spell. Further, picking up Mana Feed for PvP is slightly more beneficial than going full into destruction because you don't always have the option of using Life Tap for mana -- then again, how often is your Felhunter really going to be critting players in PvP either?

Changing Mana Feed for the Felguard makes more sense. Even demonology would use the Succubus for single-target DPS because the damage was on par or higher than that of the Felguard, but with Mana Feed, the Succubus just provided a far higher return than the Felguard did. With this change, that's no longer an issue, so it should make the Felguard more desirable even for single-target encounters -- slightly, though.

This same logic doesn't work for the Felhunter. When using Shadow Bolt as a filler, it's just impossible to get Mana Feed, so even if the Succubus was still better with this talent than the Felhunter, it wouldn't have any real impact on affliction -- so why make sure that it was equalized for both pets?

Drain Life returning?

Given that affdrain parses higher than standard affliction, I'm curious whether or not Drain Life will take back over as the preferred filler for affliction warlocks. At this point in time, I really don't think that this will be the case. As I had mentioned, using Drain Life over Shadow Bolt requires a lot more precise timing in your spell queuing to avoid clipping issues that can result in lower DPS than you would see merely using Shadow Bolt. With the simulated difference between the two only being 500 DPS in favor of Drain Life, it is unlikely that a majority of players would actually be able to play at the level that would support using the affdrain spec.

I know that may seem like a harsh thing to say -- that players just aren't good enough to do it -- but it's the honest truth, and I am certainly in the faction of players who can't make it work. This is not to disparage players; it's merely the truth. I know that I've repeated it a few times now, but that's only because it is very important to understand that using Drain Life is only a simulated increase in DPS and isn't always observed in game.

That being said, the Drain Life spec actually scales better than the Shadow Bolt spec. In fact, it scales better not only from mastery, which was the key factor that had made Drain Life better than Shadow Bolt previously, but the rotation also scales ever so slightly better from haste and crit as well. Given the superior scaling values of using affdrain, it is entirely possible that we'll see it completely dominate standard affliction within the next tier.

Once we reach a point where the simulated difference between the two specs is 1,000 or 2,000 DPS, it will be much harder to ignore switching over even with the timing issues. Latency factors only put so much of an artificial limitation on performance. The biggest issue is what will Blizzard do about it?

Given that Blizzard doesn't support using Drain Life as a filler for affliction, will it take measures to try and nerf this playstyle once again? Or perhaps Blizzard will finally just give in, as has happened before, and let the style live. There have been times where Blizzard will make certain balancing adjustments to break a playstyle only to fail and be left in a situation in which the only feasible way to get the results they want is to break the spec entirely.

For affdrain, I doubt that will end up being the case. If Blizzard really wants to prevent players from using Drain Life as a filler, all it has to do is attack the Soul Siphon talent -- which brings up the point, why hasn't this been done yet? Perhaps it is PvP balance; perhaps Blizzard isn't as against Drain Life as they initially seemed. No one can say for sure, but one thing is certain. For an amazing player, using Drain Life now can be a DPS increase; in the future, it will be a DPS increase for everyone. It's only a matter of time and scaling.

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, advise you on tip-top trinkets and steer you through encounters such as Blackwing Descent and The Bastion of Twilight.

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