The last day of our calendar year is upon us, and for me the last day of the first full year of playing my shaman in a full expansion’s worth of raid content. This seems an appropriate time to take a glance back at where the year has taken us as elemental and restoration shamans, and me as a player of both.
It was indeed a bleak midwinter for elemental when 2009 began. Though not quite as bad as some had predicted – our damage was at least significantly above the tanks! – the beta testers had been right: elemental DPS was far lower than everyone else. The developers had been adamant that this would not be the case, so I almost wonder if they were counting on elemental being played in a different way to how it ended up. But at any rate – credit to them – they took note and intervened.
Patch 3.0.8 arrived near the end of January. It was the elemental band-aid patch and saw some defining changes for the spec:
- Elemental Oath and Elemental Focus were paired together so that the former caused the clearcasting effect from the latter to increase the damage of any spell it affected by 10%. As clearcasting was up for about 70% of all elemental spellcasts at this point, this was an increase in the order of 7% extra DPS. It also added a tiny bit (not much) of extra scaling to the class.
- Elemental Mastery changed from being a single guaranteed crit to increasing critical chance by 20% for 30 seconds.
- Shamanism was created: a talent boosting the co-efficients of our Lightning and Lava spells. At first the Lightning side of the boost only applied to Lightning Bolt and was only 10%; by patch 3.2.2 this was increased to 15% and also applied to Chain Lightning. This essentially reverted the coefficient loss caused by changing Lightning Bolt’s base cast time from 3.0 seconds to 2.5 seconds back in patch 2.3.
- Glyph of Lightning Bolt was changed from a mana cost reduction to a 4% damage increase to the spell.
Combined with some other tweaks in the tree, most elementals saw a jump in their damage output by nearly a quarter. I was one of them, and I remember going from being about middle of the damage meters to being right at the top. I’d been trying so hard to make my DPS competitive before the patch, that after it dropped I was essentially at the very top of my game and gear. I don’t think I’ve ever played that well before or since.
Raid content at the time was not challenging, and Fancy Hat Club didn’t yet exist: there were no hard modes on the horizon for me personally, so I exulted in pure DPS output; I went along to regular Naxx-25 PUGs and derived enjoyment simply from my performance on the damage meters. Not that I worked the meters – I took pride in doing my “job” as an elemental shaman very well – but at the end of the raid, I was always at the top, and it was glorious. (If the friends who later formed Fancy Hats with me were along, then I might be in the top three or four instead of at the top, but such was the nature of Naxx-25 PUGs.)
Patch 3.1 brought the fantastic Ulduar raid instance, the ridiculous Argent Tournament, and some more elemental changes:
- Elemental Mastery’s duration was cut in half and the crit bonus cut by a quarter, but it now granted an instant spellcast upon activation. This was mostly a PvP change.
- Booming Echoes was added, reducing the cooldown of two of our shocks by 2 seconds and slightly increasing their damage. It was a minor but welcome change, and especially (thought still not very) useful in high movement fights.
- Storm, Earth and Fire (the talent, not the blog) suddenly turned Earthbind Totem into our very own Frost Nova!
- Glyph of Totem of Wrath was added, granting a flat 84 spellpower bonus if used. Cue much theorycraft to decide which was better between it and Glyph of Lava.
The patch was released in April, but I spent most of the time healing and didn’t really get much chance to play with the changes. A month later, Lightning Overload was hotfix-buffed from a 20% chance to overload to a 33% chance.
It was still possible to top meters in Ulduar, and there were several fights that gave elementals a chance to shine – like Vezax hardmode and Hodir. There were also fights where we struggled, like Freya and Ignis… but here we found something to make up for the lack of raw damage: we were arguably the perfect choice to kill Constructs on Ignis, and were amazing Snaplasher kiters on Freya. Combined with our diverse totems and clutch-healing ability, elemental was in a fairly happy place in Ulduar – at least until we looked at the loot lists. The shaman Q&A that was released in June went some way to assuage our mounting concerns as we were reassured that the developers were aware of our problems and had some solutions in mind.
Coasting to the year-end
August saw the release of patch 3.2 and the most significant quality-of-life change to the shaman class as a whole since I can remember: totem bars! The ability to drop four totems at once! I can’t understate how much I’ve appreciated this change. It was by no means a total fix to every problem we have with totems, but boy did it make a difference to the enjoyment of the class. This almost made up for the fact that there were no other elemental changes in this patch. Then 3.2.2 snuck in a welcome change to our Flame Shock and Lava Burst interaction, and essentially gave us a brand new glyph in the form of the old tier 8 2-piece bonus – a small but welcome boost to our damage capacity (though the coefficient of Flame Shock went unchanged).
But Trial of the Crusader was another poorly itemised instance, at least for 10-man elementals, and now some raiders were reporting that our DPS was starting to slip behind the other hybrids. Those shamans who raided with demonology warlocks found they were still able to dominate by using their Searing, Magma or Fire Elemental totems in appropriate ways. Indeed, the combination of heroic Anub’arak and a Fire Elemental was meter-dominating… at least for a while.
Most recently, we’ve had patch 3.3 drop, again without any significant elemental changes. The Fire Nova change is barely a footnote in our playstyle and has been harmful to elemental’s already shaky PvP viability. The Elemental Mastery change is nice but not major. Apparently the developers feel that elemental’s OK.
Where we are
Is it? I guess it is. We’re not in a great place. I don’t think anyone can honestly say that elemental is great. It seems that our itemisation problems won’t be addressed until Cataclysm. Our 41-point talent, Totem of Wrath, continues to lock us out of a major series of DPS abilities while remaining an odd hodgepodge or convenient mix of two other equivalent buffs/debuffs: one technically superior (the crit bonus is AoE and passive, unlike the equivalents) and the other rather vastly inferior (the spellpower bonus doesn’t really compare to Demonic Pact, and doesn’t even grant the elemental any personal bonus to talent into unlike DP).
Furthermore, it seems if we use fire DPS totems we can be extremely competitive in damage meters, but our fire DPS totems are still awkward and counterintuitive to use. And if we don’t use our fire DPS totems, we slip a long way down the ranks. Meanwhile, we’re struggling to be enthused by our tier set bonuses and anticipating falling further down the damage meters when everyone else is wearing their own great four-piece sets.
Not, of course, that damage meters are everything! Heaven forbid I imply that. Let’s not forget that elemental is still a powerful mix of buffs, debuffs, damage and healing. And we have some great niches we can fill. For example, what class-spec is better at kiting and simultaneously killing Bloodbeasts on Saurfang? And what’s more fun than being given a unique job like that to do in the first place? It’s not all dark clouds and long faces!
…but I can’t help but feel that Elemental is a class-spec in the in-between places. From this end it doesn’t feel like the developers really have a strong vision for what we should be, and are a little lost at trying to fit us into the game in our current incarnation. We’ve had one hasty band aid patch and a few minor tweaks – seesaw balancing between PvP and PvE with neither ending up really happy – and yet essentially, in the big picture of the spec, remain unchanged since patch 2.0 bar the addition of Lava Burst. And even Lava Burst is a spell struggling to find its place. It’s awkward and problematic but has a “cool” (quoth the Ghostcrawler) mechanic. At the end of the day it seems to have been included as a case of “this isn’t really what we want, but it’s better than nothing and hey it’s even kinda fun”. Well, fun until you consider all the headaches it’s caused with balancing and itemising the spec. Crit and haste plus Lava Burst is just such a mess.
We’ve seen plenty of class-specs go from very poor places to very good places in the past few years, and Blizzard seem committed to making sure that each one is, at very least, viable in some part of the game. It can be disappointing to see our own spec seemingly passed over, but as long as we have our raid spots and are still having fun there’s no reason to don sackcloth and ashes just yet. Honestly, my biggest fear is not that elemental doesn’t get the visionary-level revisions it desperately needs in Cataclsym… but rather that it gets revised so entirely that I no longer recognise it. This happened to my hunter and priest in TBC and my druid in WotLK and I have no desire to repeat the experience with my beloved shaman.
And here’s the thing: elemental is, for me at least, more fun now than it’s ever been – despite the frustrations and problems.
Restoration’s year began less dramatically, as most of our problems didn’t start to surface until hard mode content and high gear levels. As the year began, we were still trying to figure out just how exactly to heal now that we had to press buttons other than the one labelled “Chain Heal”. It started to become obvious that we were having some mana problems compared to the other healers, but then Blizzard came out and said something surprising:
We were in the right place for mana regeneration; everyone else was OP. They actually wanted mana regen balanced down to where we were.
Now that’s an odd combination of “awww he likes us” and “…okay, but actually I’m still running out of mana twice as fast as everyone else” 😀 But I think it gave me hope for the spec, that it was singled out in that way.
Meanwhile, I was in love with Tidal Waves in heroic dungeons. My resto gear at this point was dire, and the ability to cast that big bomb heal so fast was just – I couldn’t believe it! How can this possibly be balanced! This is amazing! But then lack of healers in our new guild graduated me to an entirely new kind of experience:
Welcome to Ulduar
The release of Ulduar was where some niggling issues with our playstyle started to really inflate to huge problems, at least for some of us. In Ulduar, healing got serious. I’d been healing on and off for four years and had actually been considered a “good healer” by others, and yet it was Ulduar that really forced me to up my game. I improved more in two months of healing Ulduar than in all my four years before then.
And now suddenly all these things which had been minor quibbles shot to the forefront.
Haste was actually capping our our Lesser Healing Wave cast time to below the GCD, seriously harming our ability to chain healing spells and prompting a mass panic-shift to crit and intellect. The fact that Chain Heal didn’t proc improved Water Shield exacerbated this shift. We had guys healing entire hard modes using nothing but Riptide and Lesser Healing Wave, and gemming for intellect like paladins. Even then, Mana regen was awfully sketchy, and relied on us using valuable global cooldowns on constantly refreshing Water Shield. And if for any reason we had still actually wanted to use Chain Heal (which was perceived as being too slow to cast compared to Circle of Healing and Wild Growth), most of the fights with harsh AoE required the raid to spread out beyond its jump range.
Healing Wave was gimped by its long cast time – most of us (not me, but most of us) were stacking crit instead of haste – and by the fact that you had to cast it twice on the same person for it to reach its full effect with Healing Way.
A heal that hit for upwards of 16k.
On one person.
Within … 10 seconds? Or so.
So yeah. “lol”.
Patch 3.1 was the Season of the Sniper Shaman. We stood ultra still and sniped low health bars with ultra fast Lesser Healing Waves and spammed Water Shield on ourselves whenever we got the slightest break from sniping.
Then, Oh Lawd mercy! – patch 3.2!
The restoration of Restoration
Patch 3.2 was like a delicious drink of cool water and a beautiful downhill coast through leafy glades and sunny clearings after cycling uphill in the driving rain for the last fifty miles. I can barely understand how I coped with shaman healing before patch 3.2. The difference was as between night and day. Not, you must understand, the difference in our viability or balance – simply the difference in our quality of life.
- Water Shield was no longer actually procced by Improved Water Shield – it just pretended to proc. No more GCD lock as we tried to constantly refresh it! Combined with the new totem bars, we suddenly had all these extra GCDs that we didn’t know what to do with. Confused and frightened resto shamans would huddle together in corners furtively refreshing water shield on themselves for weeks after the patch went live.
- Tidal waves now increased LHW’s crit chance instead of its cast speed. Haste suddenly became all NOM NOM NOM GIEF MOAR HASTE PLX and angel choirs sang gloriads from on high.
- Chain Heal’s jump range was increased, jump decay was decreased, and mana efficiency was boosted through applying it to Improved Water Shield.
- Healing Way now passively boosted every single Healing Wave we cast. Combined with LHW being sloooooowed dooooown, this neglected spell started to look really attractive.
- Nature’s Swiftness got a 33% cooldown reduction, giving us just a little bit more clutch and movement healing capability.
Combined with our poison and cleansing spells and totems having been merged and generally improved (though the former didn’t really affect us, and the latter happened in patch 3.1), being a restoration shaman was suddenly – for me at least – five times more fun. No, wait. Ten times more fun. Grace and beauty was restored to the spec. I think we are now honestly the most graceful, elegant and fluid healing class-spec in the game (and yes, I’ve tried all the others).
(And there were various changes that PvP people got excited about too.)
Since patch 3.2, we’ve not seen any major changes to restoration, but then we haven’t needed them. In fact, our major problems now are problems of the healing game in general – things like the healing-punitive design of hard modes, or the near irrelevance of mana.
Where we are now
There was some pretty extreme healing in Ulduar, but generally – and apart from the problems we had in 3.1 – I liked it. It was well-designed and challenging. Then we started doing hardmodes and I started liking healing a wee bit less, because if anything went even an itty bitty bit wrong it was the healers who had to pick up the slack… and they were already working at near maximum capacity anyway. And Trial of the Crusader was – well, after Ulduar hard modes it wasn’t that surprising really, but some stuff like heroic beasts the first time you tried it in ilevel 219 gear was pretty harsh. But with patch 3.2 sitting next to us with a huge grin plastered over his big jolly face saying happy things in his big deep voice (with a slightly Northern accent, for some reason) about Tidal Waves and Healing Way, I honestly don’t think I’ve been happier raid healing than I was in those early heroic ToC days. Overall it was a fun place to heal, once you got over screaming OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD THE ENTIRE RAID IS ABOUT TO DIE OH MY GOD on heroic Anub’arak phase 3. And the rhythm of healing in ToC was pretty great: the different phases of Northrend Beasts, the thoughtful pacing of Jaraxxus (who was actually very easy to heal unless something went wrong), the crazy free-for-all of Faction Champions and the constant, desperate spamhealing on everyone in Twins.
I’ve only healed Icecrown’s raid once, and it’s only four bosses (I only healed three) and on easy mode, and my entire raid group is overgeared for it thanks to ToC hardmodes. But it was fun and often even relaxing. Partly this reflects my own development as a healer, as I’ve gone from nervously struggling through those early Ulduar fights to confidently healing hard modes. But I think that mostly it reflects the great place shaman healers are in at the moment, and the leaps and bounds Blizzard are making in their encounter design. (Hard modes may well be a different story, but we’ll see.) And the new Icecrown five-mans are a joy and a delight to heal, such a great mix of challenge and fun.
Er, but I’m done gushing now.
2009 is the first year that my shaman has been my “only” main character. When I first levelled her up in TBC, she was my beloved “second main” on whom I doted and to whom I swapped whenever I could justify it. I still loved my druid enough that I was happy with him being my raid character (and we were desperate for good tanks), but I loved my shaman just as much. WotLK saw my druid get sadly relegated to alt status and my shaman flourish as my new raiding main.
And there has been plenty of reason to enjoy the shaman class this year. We had a rocky start, but both elemental and resto got the changes they needed: elemental got sort of roughly dragged out of bed and given cold bread and a cup of water to make sure it remained viable for raids, but resto endured a longer period of hardship to eventually become a paragon of beauty in design and play. And encounter designers have sometimes smiled in our directions and given us many things to exult in and enjoy about each spec in the various raids and 5-mans that have come along.
(Let’s also not forget the revolution that was dual-specs, finally added in patch 3.1, which gave me such freedom to quickly and easily swap between my two favourite specs and playstyles and thus enjoy both!)
The journey that restoration has taken since TBC gives me some hope that elemental will experience a similar “revival” in its vision and fortunes, but even if not then I’m still pleased to be able to play a shaman in World of Warcraft. We’ve had and in some cases continue to have our problems and fallouts and frustrations, but I reckon it’s probably been the best year to be a PvE shaman of any spec since WoW was released.
Here’s to a stormy and wet 2010! Uh… if you catch my meaning.