Elemental, Opinion, Shaman, WoW

4.1 Elemental AoE: Complicated and ineffective

It seems a pity to break my blog-fast by gorging on a large lump of sugary complaining, but – well, there is no but; it’s a pity, to be sure.  Especially as patch 4.1 has continued the trend of making important, timely and welcome quality of life changes to a game which otherwise should really be shuffling off to sip herbal tea and play chequers in the park by now.

Yes, Blizzard continue to do a good job by keeping WoW updated and moving forward.  No, I don’t always appreciate all their changes – I’ve not had a lot of time to play recently and I felt a bit foolishly and self-consciously resentful to have to log in just to catch up on all the changed mechanics and inevitable addon updates.  But Blizzard also seem to be using content patches to experiment with stuff lately, and elemental AoE has apparently become the test subject for 4.1.

In one of his recent Watercooler posts, Ghostcrawler talked about complexity in area-of-effect damage rotations:

On the topic of AE, some specs have some fairly interesting AE rotations, such as Fire mages (Flame Orb, Flamestrike, Combustion, Living Bomb) and Survival hunters (Serpent Spread, Explosive Trap and Multi-Shot). Other specs have really simple rotations, such as channeling a targeted spell over and over. Boring. Going forward, we’re going to make more of an effort to make sure everyone has a reasonable AE rotation that at least involves more than one button.

Elemental’s been singled out as not complex enough ever since the Wrath of the Lich King beta, to the point where two expansions later we’ve got a DPS “rotation” which manages to look just a wee bit complicated on paper but is rambunctiously complex to pull off in an actual fight.  At least a little bit of the complexity is caused by what can best be described as bugs, like searing totem’s exhausting inability to care about attacking anything or the fire elementals who manage to impressively and consistently suicide ten seconds after being summoned.  gg no re.  And at least a little bit more of that complexity is caused by class design choices made five or six years ago which don’t really seem relevant anymore yet interact in frustrating ways with new design directions – thinking especially of the linked shock cooldown here.

When elemental was given a channelled AoE as our iconic 31-point talent for Cataclysm, I wasn’t really too bothered.  It was a cool spell in Warcraft 3 and elemental AoE has always been weak, complicated and frustrating.  Now we could finally just spam the shaman version of blizzard and do decent, reliable area damage with a neat animation to boot.  Despite being “boring” it was a huge quality of life change and helped offset the growing complexity and finickitiness (that’s a word) of our single target damage.

Test bed

Rahana knows how to cope with change.

4.1 hit Earthquake hard.  It does half the damage it used to (it never did all that much in the first place) and has a new ten second cooldown; it also has a 2.5 second cast time instead of being channelled, and now functions basically like Flame Strike instead of Blizzard while still costing a daunting amount of mana.  The combination of this long cast time, long cooldown, high mana cost, low damage and static location make it almost a liability as a 31-point talent – ridiculously hard to place (and if you get it wrong, wait ten seconds then try again), hilariously unlikely to affect any mobs for its full duration, and so expensive it’s tempting just to not bother trying.

The reason EQ was hit so hard is because Fire Nova has been quite cleverly revamped: instead of spurting from your fire totem, it now explodes off of anything that’s affected by Flame Shock.  Because it’s instant cast and tied to the shock DoT, we can use it while we’re moving, and even while the mobs to be AoEed are moving – both otherwise still major weak points with normal elemental damage.  And Flame Shock is a spell we cast in our single target rotation anyway, so that’s good, right?

Well, yes, it’s a neat idea.  But FN now suffers the same problem that Mind Sear suffered until being changed recently – it doesn’t affect the target you cast it from.  Also, often the most important things to AoE die quickly, and Flame Shock is a spell which does damage slowly over time – casting it on something which is going to be dead in 10 seconds isn’t very useful.  And to top it all off, the damage of Fire Nova is so low that you need to have several flame shocks up to explode all at once before it’s competitive – and Flame Shock still has a 6 second cooldown, shared with our other shocks.

These things can be tweaked as simple balance changes, and I expect them to be.  But it’s really exposed and put even more pressure on the already frustrating single-target linked shock cooldown situation, as well as reminding us elementals of the concerns we voiced during the Cataclysm beta about the design direction of the elemental talent tree which were never really satisfactorily addressed.  Getting a complicated new AoE system which, for now, requires a huge amount of effort for a pathetic amount of reward, isn’t very inspiring in that context.

More than most specs, Elemental has always been about more than just doing damage – totems have to be managed in terms of position, duration and type; we are frequently on interrupt, purging, offhealing or kiting duty; we have a number of Big Important Fragile Cooldowns to take care of and we don’t have any quick movement or survival abilities to let us relax our guard during a boss fight.  None of this has changed, at least not in ten-man raiding – but we now have to do all this while managing an increasingly complicated and frustrating damage rotation.  We just have so many abilities now which do such similar things in such different ways and the game keeps demanding that we use all of them at once – so many cooldowns, durations, positions and targets to juggle all together and all at the same time – there’s just no let up for us in a fight, no moment of calm where we can catch our breath and take in what’s going on.

No let up

If AoE is called for – well, let’s take Maloriak as an example.  I have to keep him focused so I can interrupt Arcane Storm and purge his heal-over-time effect, while tracking where he is and when so I know when to Fire Nova, while tab-Flame Shocking as many adds as I can every five seconds, while watching my Fire Nova cooldown, while watching my Chain Lightning cooldown, while trying to predict where the mobs will be in three seconds so I can place Earthquake and maybe a Magma Totem.  On top of that I have to look at my mana and decide how much AoE I can even afford.  Then when it all ends – far too quickly for me to have built up enough Flame Shocks to explode – I have to rearrange my brain to deal with switching back to our complicated single target DPS rotation.  Right now it’s all five times harder what with being new and all, and I guess not playing much for the last couple of months doesn’t help either.

Elemental’s taken a lot of flak as being too simple in the past, criticism which I never really agreed with even though I understood it.  I always saw it as a spec which was easy to grasp at a basic level but very hard to really eke the very best out of.  I appreciated that it had enough simplicity in spell usage to allow for greater concentration on the peripheral stuff I talked about above.  But I think Elemental ended up in the developers’ minds as being a prime target for complicatification (also a word), and once the single target stuff was nicely complicatified, they saw the huge opportunity that shaman design history allowed for a nice big complicification of AoE too.

So we’re the guinea pigs for non-boring AoE, or the glorious recipients of an entirely new and fun way of approaching multi-mob fights – depends which way you look at it, really.  I’m not against the idea, but I am against the implementation.  Perhaps mostly I’m tired of new fangled complexity being hung on rusty old hooks, which at this point, is something WoW simply cannot avoid no matter how hard it tries.

4.1 brought many welcome changes, and I feel I should welcome this one as well.  But I’m not enjoying it.  I resent it.  I want our totems to work properly at last, I want to not feel like I’m fighting geriatric design choices made 6 years ago whenever I do DPS, and I don’t want to have to shut down all other brain functions just to cope with a brief period of AoE.  Most of all I want to stop bitching about it and find something positive to say, but instead?  Well, I also play a frost mage, and she can just happily spam Blizzard.



22 thoughts on “4.1 Elemental AoE: Complicated and ineffective

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I have been playing a lot of Elemental lately, but this makes me want to heal.

    Posted by Wugan | April 30, 2011, 9:00 pm
    • Healing is what’s keeping me in love with my shaman at present. I know resto has its own problems (as your recent post illustrated), especially in 10-man settings, but I’m much more comfortable with the rhythm and style of shaman healing as compared to DPS right now, and I also feel more useful as a healer than as a DPS for some reason.

      That’s odd because for most of WotLK I felt precisely the opposite. Curious.

      Posted by Zamir | April 30, 2011, 9:41 pm
  2. It’s kind of strange to me that Ghostcrawler, in that quote, mentions survival hunters as having an interesting AoE rotation. Serpent Spread isn’t even something active or something I’m remotely having to pay attention to, it’s just multi-shot’s free dot. And trapping once every 25 seconds isn’t exactly horribly difficult, especially with trap launcher these days.

    I do think hunters are a good example of what AoE should probably aim to be like: interesting enough that it’s not entirely boring (spamming Blizzard, or as in the old hunter days, spamming Volley), but not so complicatificated that it’s distracting and causes spontaneous headaches like current elemental AoE. Hell, multi-shot even lost its 0.5 second (ZOMG) cast time in Cataclysm.

    Anyway, yeah, these seem like some fundamental design issues and some really strange experimentation on Blizzard’s part – let’s hope they’re listening and planning on making some changes.

    Posted by Razz | April 30, 2011, 9:19 pm
  3. Although I prefer enhancement, I still got the same feeling. The new aoe system feels really odd and difficult to get to work to maxmimum potential. The worst thing about it is that even when I get it right I don’t come close to mages, feral druids (now that they got their major buff) and warriors, to mention a few. Maybe I’m not getting it right after all. Still, shaman aoe feels like enchancement dps was back in Wrath, a whole lot of ass-busting, and not much pay off.

    Posted by Zinn | April 30, 2011, 11:37 pm
    • Elemental and enhancement still pay the price for having access to so many of the same spells – pretty sure the “Fire Nova not hitting the original target thing” is so that it doesn’t creep into the enhancement single target priority list, for example.

      I think the changes would be more welcomed if they simply put out more satisfying numbers more easily. Raids are very performance-focused and don’t tend to have a lot of margin for fun over function. If we were doing twice the DPS with Fire Nova compared to Earthquake, I imagine the reception would be a bit different!

      Posted by Zamir | May 1, 2011, 12:31 pm
  4. Funny this, I’ve been trying my hardest not to whine to my guildies about my elemental frustrations lately, but I’m starting to consider finally retiring her after 6 years of her being my main and being elemental since the end of Burning Crusade. So I came here to see if you had any of your usual insights into the changes and you’ve put my thoughts down far more eloquently than I ever could.

    There have certainly been annoyances before but this patch, well it just seems like shoddy design and I am once again starting to wonder if Blizzard actually have any internal play testing of changes or if they just chuck stuff on the PTR and listen to whoever screams the loudest. Ten minutes of testing should have convinced any dev that these AoE mechanics are clunky, have very little synergy, don’t really work and are just plain not fun.

    We have five AoE spells counting CL (six counting the fire elemental) and getting it all going to produce numbers that are in any way competitive has such a long setup time that you rarely have time to get full use of them. If the tank has to reposition or if you happen to flame shock mobs that die early, it all falls apart. I’ve been amazed at the contrast to playing my arms warrior the last few days where it boils down to “hit Bladestorm to instantly top damage in any AoE fight”.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m a bit disappointed.

    This comment is also far longer than I intended but I guess I wanted to vent a bit. Apologies for that. And thanks for a great blog that I’ve been stealthily reading end enjoying for a long time.

    Posted by Skalpadda | May 1, 2011, 2:03 am
    • I’d have liked to give you a more positive viewpoint to read, but I think for me – well, 6 years is a long time to play a single game, and so much of that time has spent pouring effort into being as good as possible at what I do. It gets tiring, and eventually you start to lose patience. The things which once excited and intrigued you don’t so much anymore. This is where I am right now.

      That’s why this change got under my skin so much, because I’m much less willing to be patient with stuff that seems like a bad choice.

      The PTR process, as Blizzard are keen to remind us, is pretty terrible for balancing or finding anything but the most serious bugs. I’d be very surprised if our AoE damage isn’t hotfixed or changed in a minor patch in the near future. What I’m interested to see is if they tweak the quality-of-life stuff too. I mean, what if Fire Nova spread Flame Shock to everything it hit, for example? That’d be glorious – I’d love that. Or if EQ’s control element was more emphasised, perhaps, giving it a more reliable or more effective knockdown to give it a proper niche?

      There are many ways this could end up being really fun and really effective. I think the depressing thing for someone who’s getting a bit tired of WoW like myself is that every time something goes live which isn’t fun or effective, I lose a bit of hope and patience with the game, and I don’t have a huge amount left at this stage.

      Hmm, speaking of comments that are longer than intended. Anyway, venting helps a lot, I do feel better after writing about it, and I have to remember that Blizzard has a long history not only of listening to genuine concerns of players but of dealing with them faster and faster as the years have gone by. So there’s that! And I’m glad you enjoy our ramblings, thanks for the comment 🙂

      Posted by Zamir | May 1, 2011, 12:41 pm
      • Hm abit “happy” to see that I’m not alone with those thoughts. I’ve played wow since vanilla, changed to elemental when LK hit and have loved to play ele all along with the ups and downs on the talenttree and abilities. In raids I’ve allways felt I had a nice spot, til cata. I came into half of BoT & BWD then i took a wow-break and came back for 4.1. and what for? Still waiting for blizz to balance ele’s dps. aoe= very confusing (what to do first?? Magmatotem, FS-FN, EQ hell all the adds are down b4 I even get to cast the firenova) Nah I don’t know, ele’s been undernubered as it is, understand if there will be a even lower nr. after 4.1

        Posted by Chakra | May 6, 2011, 12:39 pm
  5. Fire Nova spreading Flame Shock sounds like a fairly elegant solution, a bit like my warrior having the option to spec for spreading Rend around with Thunderclap. If they could also model Earthquake a bit after something like Blade Storm, a medium cooldown that actually feels powerful and well worth the talent point, I’d be very happy.

    I also wanted to say I entirely agree on the complexity of playing an elemental shaman. I played exclusively as resto throughout vanilla and much of BC and first started toying with Elemental when our guild was doing bear runs through ZA, going as the third “healer”.

    This was back when elemental DPS consised of nothing but LB and CL with the odd shock thrown in during movement. I fell in love with it because finally I felt like the hybrid I had chosen on the character creation screen, able to do solid damage while still providing significant healing where needed, great buffs, interrupting and purging. I felt valuable to my team and me playing well made a great difference (even though the resident BM hunter would snark at my two spell rotation whenever I beat him on meters ;)).

    The addition of the Lava Burst/Flame Shock mechanic in Wrath felt great. It added a cooldown management mechanic you could constantly play with to optimise your DPS while still being able to spot heal and do all the other little support things.

    By the end of Wrath, having played all three specs of shaman, warrior, paladin, mage and priest in raiding, heroic and PvP settings the only one that I felt came close to the overall complexity of a shaman was ironically the ret paladin, another class notorious for it’s simple DPS rotation but with a huge toolkit of support spells that required a lot of attention and situational awareness but could save the day if used well.

    There are still glimmers of that of course, in fights like Maloriak or Omnitron Defense System skillfull interrupting and purging while doing solid damage feels great. More often though, the added complexity of elemental seems to boil down to babysitting fire totems and hoping that shock cooldowns line up nicely with Flame Shock and Fulmination or that Lava Surges don’t happen at times where I can’t use them properly.

    I may have sounded overly negative in both comments here and as you say, 6 years of playing WoW should give some confidence that Blizzard usually get thing right (or at least close enough) eventually. Luckily I’m in a relaxed guild these days where I’m entirely free to sign up for stuff with any character I want which relieves a lot of stress and of course I still like going Resto now and then so even if Elemental is a bit wonky at the moment my shaman will offer fun times. 🙂

    Posted by Skalpadda | May 1, 2011, 3:12 pm
  6. I typically prefer Ranged DPS to Melee DPS, but a while ago I was thinking of switching to Enhance because I felt like Elemental was just too unforgiving. If spell CD didn’t line up well, or if you just missed LvB because LB decided to cast again (mainly because I spam, something I’ve tried to work on) you end up losing a lot of DPS.

    Problem is, I still hate melee DPS. I tried enhance, but being right up next to mobs and having less view of the “playing” field really made me feel confined. So I’m sticking with Elemental through thick and thin.

    As for the new AoE, I have found a decent “rotation” for it. Earthquake, Flame Shock, Fire Nova, Chain Lightning, Flame Shock (different target), Fire Nova, Chain Lightning, and repeat. There is some down time (1 sec between first CL and second Flame Shock), but it’s really the best for packs in my opinion. This of course assumes you can devote your full attention to AoEing.

    For single target fights, I’d love to see a return of the never ending Flame Shock. That way Fulmination would never collide with a recast of Flame Shock. I think it would be as simple as that to ease up the complexity and unforgiving nature of our single target rotation, and they could leave the shared CD.

    Posted by Govir | May 2, 2011, 7:10 pm
    • I meant to also comment on the Fire Nova spreading thing. I like the idea, but isn’t it actually better to have the damage be instant since as you say adds typically die quickly? Unless they kept the DD as well, meaning the Second Fire Nova gets triggered from every single mob in the pack. Now there’s some AoE damage with a burst component. They could also reduce the DD component, but if they got rid of it I’d say I’d prefer it the way it is now.

      Posted by Govir | May 2, 2011, 7:13 pm
    • I usually try to avoid making direct suggestions about ways to “fix” stuff I don’t like, but there are certainly a lot of ways both old and new that some of the pressure could be taken off Elemental’s rotation. Of course, that only matters if the designers agree, which they apparently didn’t in the case of Lava Surge for example. Restoring a 4t10 type mechanic into our talents or glyphs would certainly be pretty cool.

      For FN spreading FS, I was thinking in terms of the DD portion remaining as it is so the first hit would do low damage but spread the DoT, and the second+ would do maximum damage. I’d be vaguely surprised if they went for something like that though, just seems too… perfect.

      Of course the whole discussion would be considerably different if the title of this post was “Elemental AoE: Complicated but I’m topping the damage meters!!!” 😎

      Posted by Zamir | May 3, 2011, 12:15 pm
  7. A 10 second cooldown on a spell that lasts for 10 seconds what were they thinking?

    Since its not channeled you can do other stuff for 10 seconds unfair.

    Mana costs equal to the mana cost of other casters just not right.

    My god a hard single target priority 5 things to do.
    Keep Searing Totem/Fire Elemental Totem up

    Keep Flame Shock up.

    Lava Burst whenever it’s off cooldown. Watch for Lava Surge procs.

    Earth Shock to proc Fulmination if you’re at 7+ stacks, or if you’re moving and need an instant to fill a gap.

    Lightning Bolt as filler.

    Compared a destro locks list.

    Curse of Elements – Assuming no one else got this. Unholy DKs, Balance Druids, and some hunter pets can.

    Soul Fire – To grant ISF, this should be cast every 15 seconds.

    Immolate – Our best dot, and it makes some of our nukes better

    Conflagrate – Great damage and it makes CB and Incinerate cast faster. Cast on cooldown

    Bane of Doom – Long dot and it gives more imps!

    Corruption – Another great dot

    Soul Fire – If instant cast from Empowered Imp

    Shadowflame – If you can use it, see the note below

    Chaos Bolt – Should be cast on cool down. Heals you through Soul Leech and grants the raid replenishment.

    Incinerate – This is our filler spell, cast it when you’re not doing anything else.

    Posted by rick | May 3, 2011, 9:10 pm
    • Any DPS rotation sounds simple when you break it down to core ideas, it’s always the execution – the unexpected interactions, the slightly buggy or broken mechanics and the vagueries of individual encounters – which add the often unquantifiable complexity, which folks can either happily ignore or try hard to master.

      Just by way of example, your list makes no mention of the linked Flame Shock/Earth Shock cooldown, and the requirement for Flame Shock to be up before Lava Burst is cast, or the frankly weird behaviour of totems which need to be closely babysat to make sure the raid is in range of the relevant buff totems, and that the fire DPS totem is also in range of the raid and in range of, and attacking, the correct target – and, if it’s the FE, that it’s going to survive long enough to justify the 10 minute cooldown.

      Even if we’re just talking about single targets, you also neglected to mention elemental mastery, spiritwalker’s grace, and unleash elements.

      Elemental has incredibly narrow windows in which to use its main reactive nukes. It’s not just “cast on cooldown”. Add to this the frequent use of elementals as the raid’s main interrupter/purger and, in 10-mans especially, kiters and even offhealers. *Every* class and spec is way, way more than a simple priority list.

      So my point is not and has never been that elemental is too hard or unfairly balanced or not enough like class X or spec Y or anything like that. I’m a long time elemental player and supporter and have far too thick a skin to really get upset about the ups and downs of class balance, and I’ve played almost every class and spec at the endgame in all four endgames. What I’m talking about is the ‘fun factor’, the sometimes intangible stuff which makes a spec either exciting or frustrating.

      Also, at the risk of sounding snarky: thanks for the comment but if you wish to do so again, please skip the sarcasm – you’ll notice my original post contains none of the sort of unqualified complaints you’re making fun of, and acknowledges clearly the subjective and limited viewpoint involved.

      Posted by Zamir | May 3, 2011, 9:28 pm
  8. Do you mind if I link this to the Damage Dealing and Shaman Forums? I would really like more people to read this and your blog in general. Your insight has put into words how most, if not all, Elemental Shamans feel. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks.

    Posted by Crimsin | May 3, 2011, 10:36 pm
    • You’re most welcome to do what you like, but as I posted on TS – this is more my personal whinge spot than a serious evaluation of the mechanics; a subjective rather than objective analysis!

      (Glad you enjoyed the post though 🙂 )

      Posted by Zamir | May 3, 2011, 10:55 pm
  9. I’m all for having more to AoE than channeling Earthquake, but what we have now still needs some work done.

    EQ: If anything, it at least needs to be an instant cast again. It’s not like it does an ungodly amount of damage that can’t be avoided by stepping aside. Of course, I wouldn’t mind seeing the damage being bumped up, but if there are changes made to FN akin to what I’m about to mention, EQ damage increase may not be necessary. Cooldown removal would be nice; being limited to 1 EQ up at a time would suffice. Mana cost should be adjusted, too, IMO.

    FN: I like how FN works now, not being tied to a fire totem. The whole multi-dotting for more AoE is a bit clunky, though…FN could have a dot component that it applies to mobs, a dot that doesn’t stack from multiple FS. Said dot could be 5-6 seconds worth of FS, but I wonder how that would interact with Lava Flows (non stop lava bursts during aoe). The dot being FS would potentially allow us to target switch during AoE a bit easier, too.

    I think given time, along with constructive criticism/feedback, we’ll see some tweaks to our new AoE setup.

    Posted by Kazgrel | May 5, 2011, 3:19 pm
    • The principle is welcome – words like “interesting”, “fun”, “dynamic” and “actually usable while moving” were probably floated around the dev offices when they came up with it – but the current execution is *so* clunky (and poor damage) that it feels like a test or experiment. In which case tweaks or even bigger changes would be expected as well as hoped for.

      I also like that FN isn’t tied to the fire totem anymore – even though that was a cool mechanic, the flame shock one feels better! I still think that it’d be cool to get some kind of fire totem launcher, though. Something shamanic of course, calling a fire totem into existence on a certain spot. But at this stage that’d be bottom of a pretty long list of convenience/quality of life fixes that I’d like.

      The tier 12 bonuses on the PTR are interesting – Lava Surge making LvB instant was an early suggestion on how to fix its quirky interaction with the FS DoT timer back in beta – but I’m curious as to why they’re making that a set bonus rather than a baseline feature. I suspect it may have something to do with one or both of two words: “experiment” and “pvp”.

      Posted by Zamir | May 5, 2011, 4:53 pm
      • Hopefully the 4pc T12 didn’t trigger a gcd, else it didnt help a lot. If it wouldn’t trigger a gcd it would be very helpful and dps improving. Otherwise it simply let us save 1.x casttime and help sometimes while moving.

        Posted by Vory Mannoroth - EU | May 9, 2011, 12:57 pm
  10. Do you really think they are worried about Elemental shaman becoming overpowered in pvp? I just don’t see it being possible even if EQ’s damage wasn’t nerfed and Lava Surge LvBs were instant cast by default, I don’t see the latter being all that useful in pve either due to how low the cast time is already.

    Posted by emanresu | May 6, 2011, 3:50 pm
    • It doesn’t matter how low the Cast Time is; If it isn’t instant, it can’t be used on the move. That’s why Multi-Shot had a .5 cast time, couldn’t be used on the move, but in practice was an instant cast.

      I still think the main problem with Elem priority is the linked nature of Flame Shock and Earth Shock. A rolling FS would fix this, without giving PvP an extra instant spell to throw at people. I don’t know enough about other classes, are there any other classes that have two or more spells that share a CD but have to use both to maximize DPS?

      I noticed recently they took the Elementals off of a shared CD (the mini CD), so why not the shocks?

      The 4P T12 bonus just makes it so our reactionary spell casts are all instant. We’ll only have to spend time casting LB.

      Posted by Govir | May 6, 2011, 8:18 pm


  1. Pingback: The Daily Quest: Let’s talk about specs, baby | WoW Cata News - May 7, 2011

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