Spiritual Guidance: Priests, shields and AoE healing in Mists of Pandaria

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Spiritual Guidance for discipline, holy and shadow priests. Dawn Moore covers the healing side of things for discipline and holy priests. She also writes for and produces the Circle of Healing Podcast.

If you recall, last November when Blizzard released its official talent calculators for Mists of Pandaria, I declined to make a full comment. At the time, the calculators seemed incomplete, with various abilities absent from the level-by-level breakdown for each spec. Without a comment from the blues on the matter, I didn't want to speculate on all of it until I felt I was looking at something more concrete.

Well, last week it seems we finally got something more concrete. The calculators don't seem that much different, mind you, but a few comments from the developers answer a lot of questions priests might have had about the direction of the class' design. Let's take a look.

Question: Why didn't the priest tree change?
Answer: We are still in development. It is a challenge, when giving players a sneak peak at work in progress, to decide when to release what we have versus waiting to accumulate even more changes.

Question: Do Discipline priests have Prayer of Healing or not?

Answer: Our current design direction is this: Holy does AE healing with Prayer of Healing, and Discipline heals with (a much more powerful than today) Holy Nova. Divine Aegis would work with Holy Nova under this model. However, please see the question above. The priest tree is still in heavy development.

So it seems discipline priests are losing Prayer of Healing and getting a revision of Holy Nova instead. The revision will adopt the Divine Aegis mechanic that Prayer of Healing currently uses, where all the targets of the heal will receive a Divine Aegis shield whether they were hit with a critical heal or not. This in turn makes me wonder how much Holy Nova is going to change. In its current incarnation, Holy Nova is instant-cast and has no cooldown; to balance the ability with other healers' AoE spells, it's probably going to have to cost a whole lot of mana or heal for a piddly amount.

Another thing that needs to be taken into account is how the healing mechanic works. Currently, Holy Nova heals for one set amount, regardless of how many targets it hits. The set amount is distributed over all the targets hit by the spell, meaning the more people you heal, the less healing each will receive.

Will Holy Nova work in the same way in MoP, or will it go back to healing every target for the same amount and capping at five or so players? The former would mean we'd have an adaptive shield in a way, which could sometimes be used for raid healing and at other times for single-target healing. Just think about it ... If you and one other player are separated from the rest of the group (think Nefarian platforms), you could potentially drop two sizable Divine Aegis on yourself and the other player. It would be like a sort of shield version of Binding Heal that only works when you're away from the group. There's certainly some PvP potential there, though the fact that Divine Aegis only takes 30% of the healing done as an absorb means the shield is never going to be that big until you've cast it a few times.

My only concern is that the positional nature of the spell may make discipline priests significantly worse raid healers. If you need to be next to the people you're healing, you're always going to lose some effectiveness from traveling. The spell's being instant-cast should remedy this, but it's really hard to know where Blizzard will go at this point in that regard. With everything we've heard about monk healing and our mysterious new talent, Divine Star, movement and positioning seem like they may become a big part of MoP healing right now. It's unfortunate that the details on Divine Star are still a big mystery, though.

Before we move on, some attention should probably be paid to the Glyph of Holy Nova, which stands to change in the next expansion as well. Lowering the GCD would be a great way to spam heals and stack Divine Aegis on a large group of players, but I could see Blizzard going any route with this glyph now. It could easily take on a new function, like what the Glyph of Circle of Healing currently does, or something entirely original. We'll have to wait and see.

Spirit Shell, Heal for disc priests

Spirit shell: How long will it last? Replacement for Power Word: Shield?
The intent of Spirit Shell is to provide a frequent-use absorb that recreates some of the gameplay where Disc priests put absorbs on lots of their teammates. This was a style many Disc priests told us they enjoyed, but was difficult to balance with Power Word: Shield (since PW:S is instant).

At this point, think of Spirit Shell as Heal and Power Word: Shield as Flash Heal.

When comparing discipline's Spirit Shell to holy's Heal, the differences in throughput and cast time immediately stand out. Both spells are learned at level 26 and cost the same amount of mana, but the amount of absorption done by Spirit Shell is just 70% of what Heal can heal for. It also takes .5 seconds longer to cast, totaling to a full 3-second cast time (five bucks says the glyph for Spirit Shell reduces the cast time, though).

What's so interesting about this is that it's the first time there has been such an apparent comparison between the value of an absorb to the value of a heal. Absorbs, after all, require less precision to apply and be effective and will almost always be used up if they're placed on the right target. Whether the target has taken significantly more damage since you started casting or been completely topped off doesn't matter. Seeing these two abilities side by side is like taking a peek behind the curtain. For the first time, we can sort of see how Blizzard quantifies the benefit of an absorb over a heal.

That said, I really wonder about the future of Heal and if Blizzard's investment in creating a discipline counterpart will make it rethink Heal in its current form. Right now, Heal is one-third of the cost of Greater Heal and does a bit more than a third of the healing Greater Heal does. According to the MoP calculator, Heal will still cost a third of the mana but only does a third of the healing (and in reality, it actually does a little less, though it's trivial). I know this is all in development, but if the mana for healing between the two spells becomes one-for-one and the cast time is the same, there really is no incentive to cast Heal at all once mana is no longer an issue.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that Heal failed as a spell in Cataclysm once players hit level cap. Only a small amount of gear was needed to take the edge off Greater Heal's mana cost, which meant choosing Greater Heal over Heal had little consequence and great potential reward. If a player was topped off by other healers a split second before Greater Heal landed, what you lost was acceptable; if a player took more damage while you were casting it, it became even more useful instead of a big waste of time. Those 2.5 seconds are an eternity when compared to the cast times of other healers, so if you're going to spend that much time casting, it better be worth it when you're done. Add in the amount of skill required to make a heal with a long cast time effective, and it makes me feel like holy priests are going to find less and less reasons to do anything but raid heal.

The sky could fall ... but not yet

With that comes the biggest question of all: Is there going to be a compelling reason to keep playing a priest in MoP? If holy priests are going to continue to be pushed into the role of raid healing and disc priests remain in their single-target utility niche (based on what I said earlier about their raid healing possibly suffering with the lost of Prayer of Healing and the positional restrictions of Holy Nova), then why would you stick with a priest when every other class can do both jobs well with one spec?

The love of the class isn't always good enough, in my opinion, especially when for as long as I can remember, paladins have always been stackable and priests are only occasionally so. Looking back at Cataclysm, Blizzard sought to get rid of healing niches, but I feel holy priests and discipline priests still do their best healing when placed into a niche. 10-mans demand a healer that can do both, and while I know priests of either spec can fill both roles, if they can't fill it as well as another class, there will be repercussions.

I know this all sounds extremely like I'm saying the sky is falling, but I don't think I'm wrong to worry. The new talent trees have a lot of potential for priests, who end up with a lot more options when picking talents. It makes us ideal candidates for tailoring ourselves to each encounter, but it also means we have to put an incredible amount of thought into how we approach each fight. WoW is not a game where playing a class that requires more effort and skills does not reap more reward ... It just means the class is harder to play. And while I'm fine with that, I do enjoy playing a more difficult class.

It's absolutely essential that Blizzard be proactive in making sure what a priest does well stays balanced with other healers. I know Blizzard can do that; it handled the buffing and nerfing of priests exceptionally well in tier 11, for example. Tier 12, on the other hand, was incredibly frustrating, as Blizzard was very slow to come around on the issue that holy priests needed a buff. What will happen in MoP, only time can tell.

Come to Spiritual Guidance for the inside line on current healing gear and trinkets, as well as advice for healing in Dragon Soul. Newcomer to the priest class? Look into leveling a healing priest, and consult our guides to Discipline Priest 101 and Holy Priest 101.