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Arcane Brilliance: Perfecting the fire tree

Christian Belt

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. This week, though, it's mostly for fire mages, a spec that isn't at all broken. And yet, here we go, spending a thousand words or so endeavoring to fix it, just going to show that mages, given the opportunity, can and will complain about absolutely anything.

When I started this triumvirate of columns highlighting the shortcomings of the three mage trees, I knew that this would be the point at which I would start having problems. See, things were pretty easy with the arcane and frost trees. You can find those two previous columns behind the following links:
Both of those trees have real problems. You remember when you were a kid and you didn't want to eat your mom's meatloaf because it looked and smelled like something left in the wake of a mule with irritable bowels? And then she'd tell you to eat it because kids in whatever African country happened to be having a famine that year had it way worse than you? That's how frost and arcane mages want to respond when fire mages complain.

You think you have problems? Well how about I trade you my Arcane Barrage for your moving Scorches? See what kind of problems you have then.

The fire tree is flat-out incredible right now. It's near the top of the damage charts at the highest levels of Cataclysm raiding, the talent tree is spectacularly designed from top to bottom, and most importantly, the spec is just really fun to play.

Still, there are a couple of nagging issues -- annoyances that, if addressed, might just result in the game's first truly perfect spec. I think that's a noble goal, and we're gathered here today in pursuit of it.

Ignite munching

After more than four years of losing perfectly good DPS to ignite munching, it's becoming less a fixable issue than an accepted feature of the spec. The developers are fully aware of it, they balance around it, and they've told us in no uncertain terms that they really don't ever intend to fix it. Indeed, they deem it virtually unfixable, due to design limitations.

So if we know we're losing damage to this phenomenon, and the designers know it, and they take it into account when they balance our numbers, is it really a big enough deal to get upset about?

Yes. And here's why:

Ignite damage depends on crit. In a munch-less world, the higher your crit numbers, the more Ignite procs you'd get. But since Ignite munching causes you to lose a good percentage of those potential Ignite procs, independent of your crit rating, crit as a stat is substantially devalued by this bug. In turn, this devalues mastery, and it hurts our chances of getting a good Combustion off. It's a substantial issue.

Crit should be a hallmark stat of the fire tree. The tree is designed around crits, from top to bottom. No less than six fire tree talents depend upon crit to function properly. If the tree were working as designed, crit rating would be the consensus secondary stat for fire mages, just behind intellect and hit-to-cap, but well above mastery and haste.

As it stands now, though, crit isn't worth anywhere close to what it should be, and so for a large number of mages (depending upon gear), haste is a more attractive stat than crit. The tree becomes less about giant, frequent crits (which is precisely what the tree is quite clearly designed to be about ... see Hot Streak, Master of Elements, etc.) and more about lowering cast speed and getting additional ticks on DoT spells.

Now, you might ask, what's really wrong with that? So you stack haste instead of crit. You're just swapping one kind of effectiveness for another.

And while that may be true, I would counter that for a fire mage, the difference between stacking crit and stacking haste is the difference between being a fire mage and being some other kind of mage.

Then you would of course reply Your mom, and I would say Nu-uh, no you dint, and you would retort with for reals, at which point we would, um, throw down? I believe that's how this kind of thing goes.

Bottom line here: Ignite munching screws up the fundamental, unique essence of fire-magehood. I understand that it's nigh impossible to fix at this point. I don't really have a solution to offer here. I don't want a massive redesign. But I don't want another tiny Band-Aid, either. All I want is to see my Ignites happen when they're supposed to. Oh, and a throne constructed entirely out of warlock skulls, upon which to sit and survey my kingdom. I want that too.

Praying to the RNG gods

So you're in a lengthy boss fight. You're Fireballing away, nailing the timing on all of your cooldowns, refreshing Living Bomb at the optimal moments, moving skillfully when necessary, watching your mana, managing your threat generation, and just generally being awesome.

Combustion comes off cooldown. Now you only need one thing: a good solid Ignite proc. Ideally, you'll get a good Hot Streak/Pyroblast crit. Three Fireballs go by. No crits. Four. Still no crits. Then you get a crit on the sixth Fireball, but not on the next one. Fine, you think, maybe a Hot Streak isn't in the cards, and I've been sitting on this Combustion cooldown for going on 30 seconds. You decide you'll settle for a Fireball crit. Three more Fireballs go by with no crit. Four. Five. You open a GM ticket with the subject line "I HATE YOU ALL SO MUCH." Meanwhile, your DPS has dropped below the guild leader's girlfriend and the DK off-tank, and you're curled up in a fetal ball on your computer chair, weeping softly and praying for god to end your misery.

I'm not aware of any other class/spec that is so completely beholden to the random number generator. As we just discussed, we're a crit-heavy bunch. That's the way the spec has been designed. When the crits are coming, we're gods. When they aren't, we're not, and there is no in-between. It's a bit like that old Norm Macdonald routine about the sport of cliff diving: You're either Grand Champion or stuff on a rock.

Regardless of skill, any fire mage can be a terrible fire mage at any point. All it takes is a streak of bad luck. See, the problem lies in the fact that fire mages are so dependent on what amounts to a constant series of dice rolls. Each time we cast a spell, it's a roll of the dice to see whether or not we get a crit. Even if our crit chance is 50%, it's 50% every time we roll that dice. That's a fresh 50% every roll. It never goes up to 75%, and it will absolutely never be 100%. Which means that it's possible that we could cast spells forever and just never see the dice roll our way. It's numerically possible for a fire mage with a high crit chance but spectacularly bad luck to cast Fireball forever without ever seeing a Hot Streak proc.

Now, it's also incredibly improbable for that to happen. The laws of probability dictate that at some point, even the most unlucky schlub will get two crits in a row. But tell that to the fire mage who finds himself mired so deep within that swamp of bad luck, he's forgotten what a crit looks like.

Our numbers can fluctuate so wildly during the course of even a short fight that it becomes very difficult to depend on anything. The spec begins to feel so dependent on strings of luck that you stop feeling like your success has anything to do with your own skill and everything to do with a series of good or bad dice rolls. Downing a boss shouldn't feel like pulling the arm on a slot machine.

Now, how to fix this? I've already shared my feelings on the nature of the fire tree, and how crit should be the most valuable secondary stat. The tree is designed around an amount of uncertainty alternating with streaks of awesomesauce. I don't want that to change. But I do want to see a bit of a concession made to the fact that at any moment, the RNG gods could frown and any fire mage could suddenly become awful through no fault of his own.

Here's my solution:

Cold Streaks. Whenever you go a certain number of casts without a crit, you go cold, which triggers a buff that grants you a free crit on your next cast. Cold streak is probably a stupid thing to call it, but the idea is that even streaks of bad luck can generate a way to get back into a streak of good luck. I just want our luck to be just a teensy bit more controllable.

What do you think? What are some ways we could fix this issue without compromising the essence of fire mages?

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Start off with our Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages, then find out which spec is best for raiding, get advice from the poor mage's guide to enchants, and learn how to keep yourself alive.

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