This Too Shall Pass: Balance and imbalance in World of Warcraft

Matthew Rossi
M. Rossi|04.10.12

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This Too Shall Pass: Balance and imbalance in World of Warcraft
First off, we know that game balance is an eternal goal. As the game evolves and becomes more complex (as it does every expansion, because new abilities are introduced and new classes or races make their debut), balancing them all for every role they can fill and every aspect of the game (Arena PvP, BGs, 5-man instances, raiding) becomes ever more complicated. Abilities that seem minor in impact can mushroom in importance due to synergy with other talents or abilities. As an example, Vengeance in PvP became important enough to cause it to be turned off, as gear improved and health pools rose.

This has been the case in World of Warcraft since its debut. Heck, thanks to Indalamar, warriors got nerfed before the game went live. Balance is ephemeral. Your class may be on top one day, but your day will end. Anyone who's tanked for the past six years can attest to the roller coaster of which class is best at which aspect of the role. There was a time where paladins were the undisputed kings of AoE tanking, a time before Death and Decay or Blood and Thunder.

There are players who have alts of every class in the game, players who only play one or two classes, and a variety of playstyles in between. Even as someone who really focuses on one class, I'm aware that this creates a perceptive bias when considering game balance in World of Warcraft. It's easier to see what others do better than you do than to see what you do better than they do.

This doesn't mean some classes aren't unfairly stronger in specific situations; it simply means that perspective must be maintained. Blood DKs have risen to dominate tanking in this expansion, especially in Firelands and Dragon Soul, because of the mechanical advantage they gain from Blood Shield. Since Blood Shield absorbs damage, the bigger that Blood Shield gets, the more predictable the damage and the easier the job of the healer. (Edited to correct an error) Is it unbalanced? Yes, it is. Does it matter? At this stage of the game, no. The time to fix it for Cataclysm has passed. At present, any guilds that could connive to switch tanks have done so; the rest shall remain as they are.

There are absolutely imbalances in the game's design, artifacts of the rather astonishing game of Jenga the designers have to play with every single ability and talent and all the itemization. Itemization in particular always stresses the game's balance to its limits. Ten DKs couldn't run Firelands when Firelands was current content. Yes, they can do so now that they significantly outgear it, but does that matter? It's neat, yes, and we're all envious of it. But it's not significant. Back when paladins and druids were soloing content the rest of us couldn't dream of, that was technically a balance issue, but it again wasn't a significant one.

We have to consider balance in terms of active, at-level content first. My warrior goes fury to solo old content, and thanks to how Victory Rush works, I can solo Wrath content in some cases more easily than I can BC content. This is an oddity, yes, but again it's not a significant one.

We tend to see balance changes earlier in an expansion. Once we reach the final patch, which tends to have some balancing changes (ruining fury for all raiding, for instance), there's rarely a big rebalancing afterwards. To use Cataclysm as an example, we saw rebalancing in every patch from 4.1 to 4.3. Since it is unlikely that there will be a patch 4.4, the next significant balance patch we'll see will be patch 5.0, which will be the pre-Mists of Pandaria patch that will redraw the game entirely, introduce the new talent system and leveling abilities and, in the case of druids, create a fourth spec.

With all of that coming, it's far less likely that there will be a patch redressing any changes made in patch 4.3, whether or not they're unbalanced. Work is dedicated to the goal of balancing the entirely new scheme that's coming, not trying to redress imbalances in a system that's about to be tossed out.

When Mists comes out, it will create whole new imbalances to correct. This is the way of things. It's possible Dragon Roar will end up being ridiculously overpowered, or Temporal Shield may make us all cry in PvP. In the end, something will. We could see rogues become fairly useless in PvP but absolute beasts in PvE. We could see death knights so underpowered that no one wants them as tanks. It's impossible to say this early into the beta.

What is possible and even probable is that once we've passed a tier or two of raiding and gear has a chance to inflate, the systems cracks will begin to show, as they always do. What you least expect is what is bound to happen eventually. Balance is a goal, something to attempt. It will never be achieved until the game stands still.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has destroyed Azeroth as we know it; nothing is the same! In WoW Insider's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion, from leveling up a new goblin or worgen to breaking news and strategies on endgame play.
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