The rise of affliction
It has been a long time in coming. If I haven't been talking about it (and I do, frequently), then there were at least 50 different comments made about affliction being "the" warlock spec in 4.1. It's all true. Every story that you've heard so far is true. Affliction does currently sim as the highest DPS. Now, I really, really want for people to focus on the key word of that sentence: It sims as the highest DPS.
When people go to the forums and claim that a certain spec does the highest possible DPS, there are several factors that you have to look at. First, and most important, are the parameters that are being set for the comparison. Simulators have become more and more refined as time has gone on, but that doesn't always mean that the users are as apt at getting the proper results.
The most basic coding of simulators is for a Patchwerk-style encounter, one with little to no movement and no boss mechanics to hinder DPS in any way -- just a pure sit-and-nuke-styled fight. Aside from Patchwerk, this type of encounter doesn't actually exist in the game. Even the most Patchwerk-style fight in this raiding tier isn't perfect, containing movement and inhibiting debuffs.
Every spec handles movement differently; every spec handles certain types of encounters differently. Encounter parameters matter; if nothing else, they are the single most important influence on the outcome of simulated results.
There are other considerations: encounter type, latency factors, buffs/debuffs, "skill" level, and more. All of this can usually have a larger impact on DPS than spec, assuming the specs are remotely balanced. Luckily for warlocks, our three specs are balanced.
Affliction may sim higher than destruction, and if you switch to affliction, you may see a minor increase in DPS, but the honest truth is that it doesn't really have that much of an impact. Your performance at this point will honestly be better using the spec that you are more apt at, the one that you prefer, than you would to just jump up onto the affliction bandwagon, as it were.
Playing the spec that you enjoy is far more important than playing the simulated best spec. While affliction is the highest DPS spec, it doesn't have such a large gap that it makes all of the other specs obsolete. This isn't the same situation that you see with, say, marks and beast mastery, where one is simply just not up to par. Destruction is still a perfectly viable spec to play, you won't be holding your raid back at all in using it. Demonology is just the same.
I love affliction. I gladly play the spec and am thrilled that it has the highest potential, but I would still never say that every warlock has to play affliction or they are doing a disservice to their raid. Our other specs are fine, and if they are your preferred choice, then stick with them.
The downfall of Dark Intent
Oh poor, poor shadow priests. I know that warlocks really have nothing against their priestly copy-cats, but, sadly, the druid in me just cannot help taking a few sharp jabs at them. Dark Intent has been something of a fodder statement for quite some time now. People loved to throw out Dark Intent for a wide variety of ills that they perceived in the game. Certain specs are overperforming; it's all because of Dark Intent. Shadow priests are so obviously balanced around Dark Intent; they're simply worthless without it. Fire and balance are only great at AoE because of Dark Intent. And the list goes on.
A nerf to Dark Intent was pretty much expected. I could disagree and argue the points of balance, but it would be a fruitless effort. When there are situations such as this where players complain, I've pretty much always seen Blizzard make the adjustments. Was it wrong? It's all a matter of perspective.
Before going into the philosophical nature of Dark Intent, let me say what the nerf actually did. In terms of Dark Intent targets, it did virtually nothing. The specs that were/are prioritized for Dark Intent are prioritized so because they gained the highest return from both the haste and the DoT bonus. Shadow priests and balance druids gain the most DPS from the haste portion of Dark Intent, after which comes any spec of rogue, then elemental shaman. The worst on the haste list is pretty much any non-rogue melee and any non-marks hunter.
By reducing the DoT bonus for the target of Dark Intent, the actual priority of the spell doesn't particularly change all that much. Shadow priests and balance druids should have been your top two targets anyway; they gain the most from haste and the DoT effect, and this still remains true. The differences come in after that for fire mages, feral druids, and survival hunters. All three of these specs were good Dark Intent targets, and they still are, but they lost more potential than the other two. This is because they had a complete reliance on the DoT increase. Neither of those specs got much from the haste, but they did gain a significant amount from the secondary proc. With that being cut in half, their standing has slipped.
The overall priority doesn't actually change, however, because all other options are still worse in every scaling point. What this change did do was solidify shadow and balance as being the best options. While both saw a high return from the DoT effect as well, they also saw the highest return from haste. With the haste now accounting for more of the damage contributed by Dark Intent, it takes more precedent.
Should Dark intent been nerfed?
This is a question that has often been asked by shadow priests as of late; warlocks, we really don't care about it either way. Still, I think it is good to talk about the philosophy behind the ability in this situation.
There are numerous claims that shadow priests (and actually any DPS spec that receives Dark Intent) are balanced around having that particular buff. This is both true and untrue. Given that it cannot be assured that any of these specs will have the buff at any given time, it wouldn't be fair to assume that they always have it; thus, you cannot balance their DPS around it. On the other hand, if you completely remove Dark Intent as a balancing factor from the specs that benefit the most from it, then you create situations in which their DPS becomes too high when they do have it.
It isn't a matter of personal DPS; when speaking in terms of Dark Intent, this is something that people fail to realize. The damage contribution of Dark Intent cannot be used to balance personal DPS, but it must be used in order to balance raid DPS.
Boss encounters themselves are balanced around an expected DPS level from every player. Spec is an irrelevant factor; what matters is the total DPS output of the raid. This forces Blizzard into an excessively tricky position.
Say you want to have every spec deal approximately equal levels of DPS, and you want everyone in a raid to deal a certain level of DPS. For example, you are doing a 10-man boss that uses 5 DPSers, where the expected total DPS output is 100,000. The easiest solution then is to have every raid member be capable of 20,000 DPS, which would leave the raid on target with everyone having an equal contribution.
Now you have a warlock and he needs to choose a Dark Intent target. All DPS is balanced around having all possible buffs, but only one person can benefit from Dark Intent. The obvious choice is to give it to the player who gains the most from it. If a shadow priest would gain 5,000 DPS from Dark Intent and a fire mage would gain 3,000 DPS from Dark Intent, you would clearly give it to the shadow priest.
This, however, creates an issue. With everyone doing equal 20,000 DPS, the shadow priest is now outperforming everyone with 25,000 DPS. To the players, this creates conflict because the priest seems "better"; from the development standpoint, you have an issue because a single buff alone has given the raid a flex point of 5,000 DPS in order to reach the required raid DPS values.
The former isn't an issue; a player's position on the meters due to a singular buff isn't a factor that you can actually consider while developing a game. This is because it is impossible to create a middle ground; the spec will always either be too high with it or too low without it. The only factor that matters is the total output of the raid.
In this situation, you cannot lower the shadow priest's damage, because it would unbalance them should they not have a warlock. Nor can you increase everyone's DPS, because not only would it create the same issue, it would further push the total raid's DPS beyond the expected point. The only option, then, is to nerf Dark Intent.
Players can claim their spec is balanced around the assumption of Dark Intent, but it simply isn't true. Blizzard rarely balances around personal performance in such a manner. The game is balanced around two factors, which players just don't often take into consideration; instead, they only see the factor of their personal output. Instead, Blizzard takes an entire raid's DPS potential into account and then configures personal DPS onto benchmarks that it's selected.
In short, you cannot balance specs around having Dark Intent, but you cannot ignore the balancing of Dark Intent. Something, somewhere, has to break. This time, it was Dark Intent.
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.