Note: this guide was originally written for patch 3.2. The numbers are now a bit out and it’s missing stuff like the new Fire Nova, but the conclusions remain accurate.
Chain Lightning has always been an iconic elemental shaman spell – remember gibbing entire armies with a level 5 Farseer in WC3? In World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, it was a staple of our single target rotation. January and Wrath of the Lich King’s Patch 3.0.8 saw it fall by the wayside; the developers considered making it more of a true AoE but eventually decided to leave it as-is; then six months later in patch 3.2, it suddenly received a pretty huge buff that had a lot of shamans seriously considering using it again.
Today I’m going to take an up-close look at what makes Chain Lightning worthwhile – or otherwise – and whether or not it deserves a place in our spellbook.
Chain Lightning as AoE
Using Chain Lightning in an AoE situation is sort of a no-brainer. Even in the dark days of pre-3.2 it was still worthwhile in this capacity. While its AoE damage is not great and the cooldown and mana cost are very limiting, as a sort of ranged cleave that does good damage to the primary target and “bonus” damage to secondary targets, it’s functional and fun. Each hit also has a chance to proc Lightning Overload Chain Lightning, which fires a half damage Chain Lightning at the target it’s procced off. This overload functions exactly the same as the parent spell and hence can chain to hit up to 2 further targets. If CL hits three targets, and each hit overloads… well, that’s a LOT of lightning.
To illustrate, Chain Lightning‘s average base damage is 1042. With Shamanism it has a 72.14% co-efficient and an extra 5% crit from Call of Thunder, as well as an 11% chance per target hit to proc Lightning Overload. Each additional hit after the primary decays its damage by 30%. At base damage and talentless, it’ll do an average of 2282 total damage if it hits 3 targets: first hit 1042, second hit 729, third hit 510. With 2500 spellpower and a standard talent build the non-crit hits look like 2988 / 2091 / 1464, or a total of 6543 non-crit, unbuffed damage for a 1.5-second cast spell – that’s 4362 DPS. With the same figures, Lightning Bolt does 3075 damage for a 2-second cast. Factor in full buffs, crit, and Lightning Overload and the damage from a full chain is looking pretty great.
As our other AoE (Magma Totem) is fire-and-forget and leaves us free to cast other stuff, CL’s a great way to add a bit of extra oomph to our multi-target damage. It also has the advantages of not interrupting our single-target DPS cycle and being usable from 36 yards away, which means we can do extra DPS on a secondary target while continuing to do full normal DPS to a primary target.
|Conclusion: While it’s not a proper sustained area-of-effect damage tool, if there’s more than one target in chain range and these targets all need to be damaged, Chain Lightning is definitely worth using.|
Chain Lightning vs single targets
This is where the water gets slightly muddier. Let’s compare our nukes. First of all, their base damage and DPS:
Base damage: 1355 (903 DPS)
Base damage: 1042 (694 DPS)
Base damage: 768 (384 DPS)
In terms of their base damage, even non-crit Lava Burst is better than Chain Lightning, but CL itself is well ahead of Lightning Bolt. Now let’s compare their scaling:
77.14% co-efficient (87.14% with Glyph of Lava)
122.08% crit modifier
+20% damage from Four-piece Tier 9
109% crit modifier
+5.5% damage from Lightning Overload
109% crit modifier
+16.5% damage from Lightning Overload
+4% damage from Glyph of Lightning Bolt
We can see that Lava Burst has both the highest base DPS and potentially the best scaling; factor in its guaranteed critical strike and it’s the clear winner. However, Lightning Bolt scales a lot better than Chain Lightning despite having much lower base DPS. Let’s run some numbers to compare damage in a raid situation. First we’ll simulate a newbie level 80, using a fully-buffed spellpower figure of 2500, crit chance of 40%, haste value of 18% and both raid damage buffs:
Average damage per hit: 5506
Average damage per hit: 6569
In this scenario, CL beats LB’s DPS by just over 11%. Now let’s try a more well-geared shaman with 3800 spellpower, 37% haste and 50% crit:
Average damage per hit: 7864
Average damage per hit: 9771
This time CL’s edge has narrowed somewhat due to LB’s better scaling, but it’s still ahead by 7%.
Lightning Bolt is a cheap spell. Its cost without convection or 2t7 is 10% of base mana, which is 439 blue juice. Chain Lightning is a lot more expensive: 26% of base mana or 1142 points of blue juice. It’s 160% more mana than Lightning Bolt for ~10% more DPS.
Problems with Chain Lightning on a single target
Firstly, even in starter level 80 gear, Chain Lightning does not hit as hard as Lightning Bolt. That means that its value for single-target DPS comes from its shorter cast time. That means if you cast Chain Lightning and do not capitalise on the time you saved over casting a Lightning Bolt, its comparitive DPS plummets and you’ve actually cost yourself damage.
Secondly, Chain Lightning caps out to the minimum GCD a lot sooner than Lightning Bolt. It only takes 15.4% haste to drive CL‘s cast time below the GCD during heroism/bloodlust; much more than that and it becomes a DPS decrease to use Chain Lightning during BL.
Finally, the excessive mana cost means that over the course of a long fight you may suddenly find yourself having mana problems, which means you may start having to use Thunderstorm regularly or refresh Water Shield more than you’d otherwise bother to do. This costs you GCDs which costs you damage.
How Chain Lightning can fit
There are two ways to think about using Chain Lightning as a regular part of your single target rotation:
- Only use it after Lava Burst to ensure Clearcasting is up to reduce the mana cost (note it has to be the second spell after Lava Burst to ensure that LvB has actually had a chance to hit the target). Theorycraft done by Binkenstein and others has shown this to average about a ~50 DPS increase in tier 9 quality gear.
- Use it every as often as possible. Theorycraft has shown this to be potentially a ~100 DPS increase, some or most of which will be offset by increased mana management.
Option 1 reduces the mana impact significantly and may be sustainable through medium-length fights without having to Thunderstorm. Option 2 is higher DPS on paper but requires more care for mana regen and a lot more micromanagement of your cooldowns.
It’s important to note that if you use Chain Lightning and find yourself having an extra 0.3 seconds at the end of your rotation before Lava Burst cools down that you didn’t have using Lightning Bolt, you have to use that time to cast another spell or you’re costing yourself DPS. That means that CL use can actually be confusing if you’re used to an LB-only cycle and the brain-muddle can cost you whatever DPS using CL may have gained you.
|Conclusion: Using Chain Lightning on a single target is not a simple choice. You have to consider your mana usage, the length of a fight, your gear level and your ability to manage the extra cooldown. In addition you have to evaluate its effect on your normal DPS cycle. At the end of the day, the DPS benefit is marginal enough that it comes down to personal choice and skill.|
Putting it all together for Chain Lightning
We’ve established that Chain Lightning should definitely be used as often as possible (mana and threat permitting) when more than one target, tanked together, has to die. The damage from the extra jumps more than makes up for any confusion of your single target rotation.
On a single target, however, Chain Lightning use is much more of a considered personal choice depending on various factors. The most obvious time to use it is when you don’t have time to cast a full Lightning Bolt and Lava Burst is on cooldown, such as during a period of extended or sustained movement. And it’s of most benefit in lower-level gear, where it can help you clip the cooldown of Lava Burst less and accounts for a higher percentage increase in DPS over Lightning Bolt. In higher-level gear, it’s of greatest value when using it reduces the time between Lava Burst casts and of least value (indeed, it can lower DPS) when it increases that time.
Other than that, the only thing you can do is try it and see how it affects your ability to carry out your ‘rotation’, your mana usage, and even your situational awareness (concentrating too hard on cooldown timers is bad mkay). Then decide for yourself whether it’s (a) fun and (b) worth the extra ~50 DPS or not!