Elemental, Shaman, Theorycraft, WoW

Elemental: Chain Lightning

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

Stormcaller Brundir is a fan of lighting of several varieties.

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


Comparing DPS

This is where the water gets slightly muddier.  Let’s compare our nukes.  First of all, their base damage and DPS:

Lava Burst

Base damage: 1355 (903 DPS)

Chain Lightning

Base damage: 1042 (694 DPS)

Lightning Bolt

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:

Lava Burst

77.14% co-efficient (87.14% with Glyph of Lava)

122.08% crit modifier

+20% damage from Four-piece Tier 9

Chain Lightning

72.14% co-efficient

109% crit modifier

+5.5% damage from Lightning Overload

Lightning Bolt

86.43% co-efficient

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:

Chain Lightning

Average damage per hit: 5506

DPS: 4331

Lightning Bolt

Average damage per hit: 6569

DPS: 3876

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:

Chain Lightning

Average damage per hit: 7864

DPS: 7182

Lightning Bolt

Average damage per hit: 9771

DPS: 6693

This time CL’s edge has narrowed somewhat due to LB’s better scaling, but it’s still ahead by 7%.

Comparing DPM

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

I AM the Warchief.

There are two ways to think about using Chain Lightning as a regular part of your single target rotation:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

This is not my picture.  I don't do PvP.  But at least those Alliance dogs are getting pwne-- wait.

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!



15 thoughts on “Elemental: Chain Lightning

  1. Hi! Omg I’m so happy I bomped into this blog, it’s really nice and informative. Keep it up as this is one of the best ele-shammy-related links I’ve seen for a long time.

    Posted by Chakra | November 19, 2009, 9:06 am
  2. This is an excellent post 🙂 I wish I’d found it earlier

    Posted by pewter | November 19, 2009, 1:28 pm
  3. I’m going to need to modify my cast bars…

    Posted by tahas | November 20, 2009, 9:58 pm
  4. “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.”

    As Lava Burst is a very short cast time, are we better off not casting that during BL if we are over the 15.4% haste cap? Ie: Lightning Bolt spam for the duration of BL?

    Posted by Maker | December 14, 2009, 5:53 pm
    • A good question! But no, the answer is “definitely not” – the damage per cast time of Lava Burst is so much higher than Lightning Bolt that it’s much higher DPS to use Lava Burst even if it’s GCD-capped. Incidentaly, the same is usually true for Flame Shock.

      Posted by Charles | December 14, 2009, 8:43 pm
  5. Waww .. It’s cool .. Tq before ..

    Posted by Ra | January 1, 2010, 3:47 am
  6. Do the Lightning Bolt and Chain Lightning estimations in Average damage per hit and DPS listed include the damage of LO incorporated into the calculations of those numbers?


    Posted by Spaz | January 26, 2010, 7:05 am
  7. Curious as to the viability of CL relative to 2-pc t10. Given that either LB or CL will reduce the EM cooldown, you’d arrive at the requisite amount of casts necessary to push a new EM faster via shoving CL into your rotation whenever possible. The question is, is it viable to do so, given that CL is a mana hog / has a lower SP coefficient / etc?

    I’m not entirely sure that this is even theorycraftable, but possibly one more thing to consider.

    Posted by Manchego | April 14, 2010, 6:22 pm
    • I’ll wait for the official answer, but I would say no. I find that at higher levels of haste, working CL into my rotation will either cause me to delay my LvB by more than using a CL free or require me to sit around far too long to ensure I don’t delay my LvB.

      Using my haste figures:
      CL – 1.03s
      LB – 1.34s

      With these figures:
      CL Free – 8.04s for a full cycle
      CL Rotation – The best options I can come up with are:
      1 CL per LvB – 7.73s cycle with 0.27s wait
      3 CL per LvB – 8.45s cycle with 0.45 delay
      (2 CL rotation gave even worse figures.)

      I just don’t see it being worth it unless there are multiple targets to weave CL in for the sake of getting EM up sooner.

      Posted by Maker | April 14, 2010, 8:48 pm
    • Maker’s correct – there’s no significant effect on EM cooldown using CL (in any situation, really). “Significant” as in, even when the cooldown is theoretically shortened by a second or so, it’s worth barely a couple of DPS either way. So I’d say the 2t10 cooldown is not a consideration for CL use.

      This is, by the way, already fully modelled in ZAP! and you can see how DPS with and DEP for 2t10 is affected by using CL by toggling the relevant options.

      Posted by Charles | April 15, 2010, 1:35 am
  8. This has actually been very helpful, seriously thanks a lot for doing all this. I think that it’s insane that it requires this much testing to find whether or not to use what most would consider a core spell in a normal rotation. Needless to say, I dont think that CL will be showing up nearly as much in my boss fights.

    Posted by Eximo (emerald dream) | May 3, 2010, 7:30 am
  9. Any updates for Cata?

    Posted by Jeff | January 10, 2011, 5:33 am
    • I’m not planning on doing any serious elemental content over here in the near future, but there are various guides up at TotemSpot.com (some of which I have written or contributed to) as well as a forum on which to ask/answer questions and discuss stuff. Binkenstein has already got a full Cataclysm elemental guide up which touches on Chain Lightning use – basically, it’s only useful as a ranged cleave now and shouldn’t be used on single targets.

      Hope that helps!

      Posted by Charles | January 10, 2011, 4:47 pm

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