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Do mages really need 3 competitive PvE specs?

Christian Belt

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. This week, we're talking about specs, and DPS, and possibly smurfs, though I shouldn't get ahead of myself.

Patch 4.3.2 has dropped, and for mages, the only item in the patch notes is a 6% damage nerf to Fireball and Pyroblast, ostensibly to bring fire mages back in line with arcane mages for top prize in the What Spec Will My Raid Leader Expect Me to be Raiding With This Week Sweepstakes. For good or ill, every patch brings changes like this, as the spec balance carousel continues its eternal round.

That's been mage history, in a nutshell -- fire and arcane take turns pushing each other from the top of the PvE heap, and frost just shakes its head and queues for an Arena match. It's like a giant teeter-totter, with fire damage stacked on one end and arcane damage stacked on another. Blizzard goes back and forth between the ends, adding just a bit more of each type of damage or taking some away in an attempt to get the thing perfectly balanced, but try as it may, one end or the other is always sticking up in the air.

The number crunchers crunch the numbers after every damage pass and crown one spec king ... until the next pass, when the cycle repeats. And frost mages just watch and wonder when it will be their turn to go raiding.

How different can different be?

Mages aren't a hybrid class. We don't have a healing spec or a tanking spec. We have three DPS specs, each with a distinct flavor and each with a constantly fluctuating potential damage output.

So the question becomes: How do you differentiate the specs?

And following that: What purpose does each serve to justify its existence?

The answer to those questions must be something other than "Well, one has orange spells, and one has blue spells, and one has ... bluer spells." The surface flavor of casting fire spells or ice spells might work in a single-player game, where the only object is to kill Sephiroth once and for all and see how the story ends, but WoW has plumbed much deeper down than that. The only way a game like this lasts as long as it has is on the strength and complexity of its systems. Those systems must have enough depth to justify a player's returning to them again and again, making real, rewarding choices with those systems that alter the experience of playing the game.

A fresh take

The designers realize this and over the years have done a great job of making each spec unique, mostly through the talent system. Those talents encourage certain playstyles, making each spec feel different enough to play that switching specs can almost feel like switching to a new character. Though the talents have changed and the dynamics of each spec have evolved, that uniqueness has remained.

The current dynamic is this:

  • Arcane is the top single-target spec, providing the highest, most consistent damage on the most fights. It functions on a simple-to-learn, difficult-to-master mana management mechanic that appeals to a certain kind of player but turns off a number of other players.
  • Fire is preferable to arcane on specific fights and is the best multiple-target spec, but it's highly inconsistent. It provides a potentially explosive damage ceiling but is too dependent on RNG for many players' tastes. Following some recent buffs, it is now being nerfed once more to balance with arcane.
  • Frost can provide high PvE damage, but only in the right hands and usually not to a level competitive with arcane or fire, though it's difficult to say accurately simply because not enough frost mages participate in high-end raiding to get a reliable sample size. Frost is considered a control spec, with multiple CC options suiting it perfectly to the PvP game. Frost is the PvP mage spec, and as such, it usually gets the short end of the stick when PvE damage balancing takes place.

The spec balancing from patch to patch and hotfix to hotfix is usually focused on keeping fire and arcane as competitive with each other as possible and on keeping frost from being too ridiculously awesome at PvP.

The struggle to be the best

The problem with all of this is that no matter how you differentiate the specs, players at endgame tend to go with whatever spec the community has deemed to be the best. It doesn't matter how unique fire is -- if arcane is putting out better numbers, everybody is going to be an arcane mage. When the needs of the fight dictate, they will switch to a fire spec. And when they want to kill warlocks, they will go frost and head over to the Hot Topic. Even making each class have a distinct flavor doesn't justify the existence of the spec -- not really.

And now comes the new expansion, Mists of Pandaria. The talent system is being completely revamped. The signature abilities of each spec are all going to be baseline. Talents are no longer a barometer for how good you are at copy-pasting the current best spec on Elitist Jerks. Instead, there will be flavor choices that don't significantly affect our DPS bottom line. The aim is that regardless of what talents your choose, every mage will have an equal out-of-the-box DPS ceiling in equivalent gear.

This should make it infinitely easier for the class designers to balance each spec against one another, since they will presumably be in complete control of every variable outside of player skill. If they want fire and frost and arcane to all be equal in the PvE game, they simply tweak spell damage for primary nukes until they get things where they want them. For the first time in the game's history, we may be looking at actual PvE viability for all three mage specs. We'll see how things end up shaking out, but that's my assumption going forward.

Three competitive PvE specs?

So we return to the titular question of this column. Do we really need three competitive mage PvE specs?

If things go the way Blizzard wants them to go, the only difference between the three mage spec in the new expansion will be the flavor, not the damage. If you want to take a frost mage into progression raids, you should be able to do that. Will one spec emerge as slightly better than the others? Probably. But balancing that should always be a tweak away. Will the peculiar abilities of each spec make them more or less suitable to certain specific tasks in certain fights? Of course. But you should never find your chosen spec excluded from a fight due to damage concerns. We lament the perceived lack of choice this pared-down talent system seems to allow, but what it actually offers is a choice we've never really had: a choice between three competitive PvE specs.

And that, in my opinion, will be the continued justification for three relatively equal PvE specs going forward:

Player choice.

As long as the three specs remain distinct enough that playing each of them will appeal to different kinds of players, and as long as all three specs remain equal enough in DPS output that choosing the one you like best won't handicap your raid, mages will be free to mage pretty much however they want to mage.

And yes, before you ask, I plan to incorporate "mage" into the English language as a multipurpose word that can serve as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, dangling participle, profane exclamation, racial slur, and so on. Much like the smurfs do with "smurf." If you don't like that, then mage you, sir. Mage you right square in the magehole.

And so to answer my own question, yes, I believe we need three competitive specs. I believe we need them right now. But I simply don't see that happening under the current talent system. My hope is that MoP will usher in a new era of peace, love, and spec equality that will allow every mage the same ability to raid as every other mage, assuming that mage is not a mouth-breathing half-wit. What do you all think?

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Start out with our recent beginner's guide to being a mage, then check out our three-part State of the Mage columns on arcane, fire and frost. Don't forget to look at some of the addons your mage should probably be using.

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