Here at WoW Insider, we're somewhat known for our crock pot, tin foil hat theories. Anne Stickney and Matt Rossi are definitely the best-known for this, as both of them possess levels of lore knowledge that can only be bested by Red Shirt Guy. Personally, I'm not a lore buff. My tin foil hat theories have relatively little to do with wondering if Elune is secretly a Naaru but instead with class balance, generally within the DPS role. With last week's announcement of the monk class in Mists of Pandaria, I've kicked my brain into overtime to figure out just how this class -- and specifically, the windwalker spec -- might come out.
What do we know about monks?
We know that monks will be agility-based melee DPSers (and tank and healer, but I'm focusing on DPS today). We know that they'll be able to use staves, polearms, fist weapons, and one-handed maces, axes, and swords, which means they'll need to be balanced with both two-handed weapons and dual wielding in mind (that is, unless Blizzard restricts dual wielding to DPS and two-handers to tanking, which is a possibility).
We know the resource system has two parts: first, you have chi. Like rogue's energy, chi starts at 100 and is consumed by using abilities. From Joe Perez's first impressions, it looks like chi replenishes over time, and it also replenishes more quickly by completing combos. The other resource is orbs called light and dark force. These fill up by using abilities that cost chi and are then consumed to use other abilities. The light and dark force abilities don't seem to cost chi.
The last thing we know for sure is that in current plans, monks do not have an auto-attack. Explained in the game as "needing to focus their energy between strikes," this is the main thing that separates monks from all other melee classes. As a result, the ramifications of what this means is what I'm going to focus on first.
Why does not auto-attacking matter?
First things first: Monk special abilities that consume dark and light force are going to hurt. They're going to hurt lots. Since we've only seen them up to level 10 so far, we don't have a scope on how strong they're going to be yet, but Dan O'Halloran has a few comments on the matter. Why will they hurt so much? Well, Blizzard does a lot of things to balance damage-per-second between casters and melee. The main source of this is melee's use of auto-attack vs. caster's high-damage cast times.
As an extreme example, compare an enhancement shaman to an arcane mage. The enhancement shaman has a few high-damage abilities on long cooldowns, such as Lava Lash and Stormstrike. In between their cooldowns, they have a few lower-damage specials -- but more importantly, they have auto-attack. Auto-attack for melee is a constant source of background damage in between specials. It's also generally tied into procs that result in more damage such as Windfury Weapon, rogue poisons, death knights' Killing Machine, or retribution's The Art of War.
Individual melee attacks rarely ever hit as high as a caster's individual spellcast. An arcane mage has Arcane Blast and Arcane Missiles, with no other small damage going on in the background. While melee classes have a bunch of smaller hits going on constantly that add up, individual spellcasts by the arcane mage need to somewhat equal to the amount of damage that's adding up for melee in the same span of time.
As a result, this means the monk's melee specials will have to be tuned to be higher than other melee DPSers, as they won't have that background damage to add up. However, the other way Blizzard throttles damage and allows casters to hit so incredibly hard with their spells is that most of the really hard-hitting spells have cast times on them. This means they can be interrupted, either from opposing players or by boss mechanics forcing the caster to move.
Since the only melee cast-time spell in the game is definitely not a fan favorite, Blizzard will probably forgo the route of putting cast times on melee spells for monks. This means that damage will need to be throttled in a different way, so that monks can't pour out all their highest damaging abilities up front. This is where combos will come in. Much like arcane mages who needs to stack Arcane Blast's debuff four times to hit their hardest, monks will need to build up light and dark force to unleash their most devastating attacks. You can bet, though, that once built up, they're going to hit pretty darn hard.
What about weapons?
The other thing that stands out to me about monks at the moment is their use of weapons. First off, I wonder if they'll have off-hand attacks to use while dual wielding and if those attacks will suffer from the 50% off-hand damage penalty. With no auto-attacks, I don't really see the point.
Second, though, I wonder if they'll even use weapon attacks at all. This is where I'm really putting on the tin foil hat, but I'll say it: I think we very well might see the first melee class in the game for which weapons are just a cosmetic choice/stat stick.
My evidence is in the playable demo at BlizzCon. If we look at the abilities presented to us, none of them are the typical percent weapon damage abilities we're used to on melee. Instead, both sites that reported monk abilities reported them as doing static amounts of damage at each level. MMO-Champion says Jab does 5 damage (presumably at first level), while Wowhead News' reports 11. This trend of using static numbers stays consistent through the rest of the monk's abilities, such as Tiger Palm and Blackout Kick.
There's a number of reasons as to why this could be. For one (and the most likely answer), Blizzard wanted players to get a chance at what it feels like to play a monk and to not concern themselves with actual numbers. As a result, it just put in static numbers at each level so that people could play and have fun without them needing to worry about it being balanced.
The second option is that these abilities are the Primal Strike of the monk class -- that is, low-level abilities designed to be replaced by other moves once you get your specialization bonuses. They're designed to be useful to the monk leveling through the Wandering Island but will quickly fall out of common use as you progress through your specialization.
The third (and this is what I'm most hoping for) reason is that Blizzard is designing these abilities purely off an attack power coefficient, much in the same way that spells are designed with only a spellpower coefficient. Since you're not auto-attacking, you won't actually need your weapons to do damage. As a result, weapons could become pure stat sticks, much in the same way staves and other spellpower weapons work now. This is definitely the most farfetched theory but also the route I'm truly wishing Blizzard will go. It's also held up in a small way by the idea that Blizzard wants to normalize melee classes so that they all use similar weapon speeds in Mists of Pandaria, which has been said in a few forum posts.
This all might change!
No matter which route Blizzard chooses go, the monk is looking to be a truly fresh and exciting class in Mists of Pandaria. Their gameplay is different than any melee we've ever seen before, and I can't think of any reason not to be excited about that.
It's important to note that we're not even in the friends and family alpha yet and that everything can change. Auto-attack can make a comeback, light and dark force could be scrapped entirely, and everything I wrote in the post could be proven false -- and that's all fine. All I can say is that I'm terribly excited and eagerly anticipating any more news about the monk class, even if everything in this speculative post turns out to be wrong. The news is out -- we'll be playing Mists of Pandaria! Find out what's in store with an all-new talent system, peek over our shoulder at our Pandaren hands-on, and get ready to battle your companion pets against others. It's all here right at WoW Insider!