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Blood Pact: On the sustainability of mastery

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.

When it comes down to mastery, Blizzard can be a little bit hit or miss. There are some classes or specs that love it, while there are plenty more that find it near worthless. When it comes to warlock specs, there isn't much of a difference. Well, so maybe there is a little bit of a difference; no warlock spec particularly loves or stacks mastery.

From an outsider's prospective, it would seem rather odd that mastery wouldn't be a better stat; after all, every warlock spec has nothing more than a flat boost to their damage for their mastery bonus. The problem, however, is in the dual nature of warlocks. With more focused or limited mastery, will warlocks be able to continually sustain themselves throughout the expansion? Further, will the scaling of affliction's mastery cause new issues once again?

Scaling and affliction's mastery

Affliction was pretty much the only warlock spec that gets any form of a decent return from mastery; thankfully, at least one of our other mastery bonuses was changed to be worth something. Recently (and in fact, dating all the way back into beta), affliction's mastery has caused something of an issue for Blizzard.

Yes, yes, we have all heard about it: Drain Life is being nerfed in the next patch in order to prevent it from becoming the standard filler spell due to mastery scaling. Yet that addresses both the success and the failure of mastery all at the same time. Blizzard was smart in its mastery design. Could it have been better? Of course, but for the most part, a lot of the mastery effects are fairly well balanced.

To be allowed a slight tangent for a moment, the original design goal for mastery was to keep it fairly constrained as a stat in order to prevent it from becoming "the best" stat to stack. When it can give such a direct damage increase, it's pretty easy for it to scale over other stats. This is why a majority of mastery effects don't impact 100% of the damage that a spec does -- and this is particularly true for all warlocks specs. By limiting the amount of damage that a mastery affects, Blizzard created an additional artificial limit on how well the stat could scale.

Overall, however, it was that limitation coupled with the low original return from mastery rating found on gear that forced Blizzard to buff the mastery bonuses of a large number of specs.

Setting limits

Affliction is supposed to have this limitation as well -- and in fact, it does via using Shadow Bolt as a filler. A very large complaint from affliction players this expansion has been how weak our DOTs actually are, especially in comparison to Shadow Bolt. Despite the fact that we gain some pretty absurd damage multipliers on our DOTs, they really just don't hit that hard. (As food for thought, balance druids get nearly as much of a damage spread from their two DOTs as affliction gets from three.)

This was the artificial cap that Blizzard placed on our mastery -- and that is the reason why Blizzard hates the Drain Life filler so much. Using Drain Life as a filler causes our mastery to increase approximately 85% or so of our damage; assume around 13% accounted to the pet and the remaining 2% being Nightfall procs. It's really a simple fact that using Drain Life as a filler gives us a much higher scaling value on mastery than Blizzard intended.

Honestly, does anyone really buy the line that "affliction using Drain Life as a filler would feel too much like shadow"? Really? I would have to counter that with this: If Shadow Bolt is the only distinctive difference between shadow and affliction, then the problem is far deeper than having a drain filler, and switching that fixes nothing.

Doesn't fire play exactly like destruction? They both deal fire damage, they both deal DOT damage, they both count on RNG procs for DPS, they both are nuke-focused. Where's the difference?

Can we truly kill Drain Life?

Blizzard has tried, time and time again, in order to kill the Drain Life spec for affliction. It did this back in beta at a great cost to Drain Life, and it's doing it again at another great cost to Drain Life. The direction the developers are taking seems silly, especially once you consider the fact that what they seek is an impossibility.

It is impossible for Drain Life to always be worse than Shadow Bolt. As long as Drain Life benefits from mastery and Shadow Bolt does not, DL will always manage to scale to a point that it will deal more damage than Shadow Bolt -- always. It's really only a matter if we can reach that point of gearing or not.

This entire system creates a completely new issue for Blizzard and warlocks that simply didn't exist before; Blizzard invented the issue. DL needs to be broken for PVE -- we get that -- but how many times is this cycle going to continue? After the next raiding tier, will we have to nerf Drain Life again to make sure that it doesn't outscale Shadow Bolt once more? Is there any PVP consideration in all of this?

Is it really fair that, as gear scales, our Drain Life will start to deal less damage in PVP? Yes, it will deal less damage. It will take next tier's gear in order for Drain Life to hit as hard as it does currently, yet by the same token, resilience will get higher, which holds a net result of a nerf to our Drain Life damage -- or a best-case situation where it deals the exact same amount of damage.

Fine, okay, we can accept that for now; Drain Life isn't a major contribution to our PVP damage. Can we accept it the next time it happens? When Drain Life has to be nerfed again because mastery is scaling too high, will it really be balanced toward PVP at all?

On AOE and demonology

One key principle about a variety of specs out there is how their ability to AOE benefits from their mastery. When you look at all of the extremely powerful AOE specs, their damage is high because their AOE abilities gain 100% of their mastery bonus. Balance druids? They sit in an Eclipse and DOT things. Fire mages? They spread their DOTs around via Impact. Survival? Serpent Sting is all elemental damage.

Demonology, too, fits into this pattern. A significant amount of our AOE ability comes from Metamorphosis, which now benefits from mastery as well. It's a total win. The flaw, and weakness, of demonology is that a large fraction of its AOE potential is tied into Metamorphosis ... Or perhaps that is merely the major perk?

Demonology is in an odd spot. After its buff, the Felhunter became the best single-target pet, too -- and no one saw that coming -- because Blizzard wants to make pets an actual choice. However, the niche for the Felguard is that it deals AOE damage. That is its large benefit over any other pet.

Here is my issue: Demonology using the Felguard and Metamorphosis is some of the best AOE in the game; without Metamorphosis but still using the Felguard, it can merely keep up with the rest of the AOE. Without Metamorphosis or the Felguard, Demonology actually has pretty bad AOE. Hand of Gul'dan is a nice touch and Hellfire does respectable damage, but it simply doesn't matter.

This is so much so that tab-DOTing is even more effective for demonology in certain AOE situations, although you would still use HoG. Demonology has proven a very effective AOE power in this raiding tier. I am merely more concerned about how it will continue to transition into future tiers. Balance druids and survival hunters don't lose AOE power; their AOE damage is extremely constant. If demonology's strength is to be AOE, then it really shouldn't have the capacity to dip so low.

More so than Meta, the larger issue is the Felguard. I honestly believe this is a place where Blizzard just needs to bite the bullet. I understand that demonology players should have pet flexibility, but that entire belief is a fallacy; there never was and there never will be pet flexibility. One pet will provide the highest DPS, and that's the pet that will be used. Period. Go ahead and make the Felguard demo's best single-target pet.

It doesn't have to be by a wide margin -- just slightly. Then, you still have your pet flexibility should you need to choose utility. Because that is all you need to create flexibility. The damage doesn't have to be exact, just close enough that you don't feel as if you are losing something important. AOE damage is not a utility; it's frankly silly that Blizzard thought it was.

Destruction's destruction

This has always been the part about warlocks that has confused me the most. Destruction, who has a mastery that impacts probably more damage they deal than either of other two specs, has the absolute worst mastery scaling. Aside from Corruption and Bane of Doom, everything that destruction does is fire-based.

Those two DOTs are good, but they just aren't that good. Why then is mastery such a bad stat for them? Really, there is a variety of reasons. To start with, each point of mastery is worth relatively little in terms of an increase. You only gain an additional 1.35% fire damage for every point of mastery. Seems high, but once you figure in the loss of scaling from shadow damage, it drops quite a bit.

There is also pet damage to account for. Although your pet does deal fire damage, he isn't a part of you and isn't set to scale via mastery as you are, which again causes a substantial drop in the worth of mastery. At its base, though, even a mastery that returns 1% DPS for every point would pretty much outscale most secondary stats.

Despite the fact that mastery is weak for destruction now, there isn't any reason to think that it will always remain weak. Critical strike in particular suffers from a diminishing return. Going from 14% to 15% crit is more valuable than going from 84% to 85% crit. It's been a pretty standard principle for a while now; every point of crit that you gain lowers the value of every subsequent point. Haste actually operates the same way as well.

The difference here is that intellect reverses this diminishing return, particularly for haste. As your spells hit hard, the value of casting them faster increases. We've seen it in numerous expansions, when haste actually ended up being worth more than spellpower simply because spellpower stacks so much higher than haste does. Although crit similarly benefits from this, it benefits on a lower scale. Crit doesn't gain nearly as much of a return from spellpower as haste does.

Mastery, on the other hand, doesn't have a diminishing return. Going from 14% to 15% increase in damage is exactly the same as going from 1,014% to 1,015%. It's a flat damage gain; it does not change, and it doesn't depreciate.

As crit loses value, mastery will stay exactly the same. Eventually, it is highly possible that destruction will reach a point that is has so much crit and haste that mastery becomes the better stat to stack. How soon that will be, I cannot say. I don't know Blizzard's gearing plans. But it will happen.

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, help pick the best target for Dark Intent, and steer you through encounters such as Blackwing Descent and The Bastion of Twilight.

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