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Balance is mostly being left alone.  Cats and bears received (mostly) a string of nerfs (the mangle buff seems unlikely to fully offset the hit to bleeds, which form such a core component of cat damage).  Bears I guess were dealing too much damage; it doesn’t appear bears received any mitigation nerfs.  Oh, and berserk doesn’t break fear.  Lame.

Resto…well, resto received some interesting changes.  Malfurion’s Gift now provides Omen of Clarity for resto druids, meaning it has suddenly bumped to being a core talent.  If I had to guess, this is to offset the fact that, till now, it was a pretty low-priority talent.  Not bad; just not necessary.  Regrowth received some buffs, both by having nature’s bounty apply to it and the glyph getting improved.  Finally, Rejuvenation got a buff through a mana cost reduction.

The change to Nature’s Bounty is worth discussing.  Due to how swiftmend procs Efflorescence, it constitutes a major component of our AOE healing.  That meant that the CD reduction granted by Nature’s Bounty (which could be substantial if you’re just hitting SM, then spamming Nourish/HT and scaled with haste) provided a pretty big increase to our targeted AOE healing.  Obviously, that’s being nerfed.  Instead, we’re moving a bit back to rejuvenation layering.  With the cost reduction and the new bonus from Nature’s Bounty, it becomes much more rewarding to maintain rejuvenation on at least 3 people.

I guess we’ll have to see how that plays out.

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With Cataclysm hitting in less than 2 months, I’m probably going to head back into Azeroth on a more consistent basis.  In addition to making sure I have a server to land on, this means making sure I understand the healing model properly.  Math will be forthcoming on this.  In the meantime, what does everyone think of the class changes, now that they’re live?

Balance Druids should find that the eclipse mechanic is relatively simple to manage.  The rotation will basically run as such: spam wrath into a lunar eclipse, apply moonfire and spam starfire until you hit a solar eclipse, then reapply moonfire (now in its nature form), apply insect swarm, and spam wrath.  Cast starsurge whenever it is available.  The prime glyphs tend to affect the damage of one part of eclipse or another.

I’ll do some testing to see whether the damage on DoTs drops when eclipse falls off (i.e. you hit equilibrium again).  If it does, that reduces the efficacy of the starfire glyph.  If it doesn’t, then you’ll need to make sure to reapply DoTs just before pushing past equilibrium.

As I said, I’ll do more testing and math later.

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Apparently, we get Cataclysm in December.  You likely know this.

I wish I could say I was thrilled and excited.  For whatever reason, this time, I’m not.  The quest stuff really is cool.  The new zones are lovely and well-crafted, and the redone old zones simply sparkle from polish.

But meh.  Don’t care right now.

Not that I give a rat’s left butt cheek for any other MMOs at the moment.  Final Fantasy XIV looked pretty, but simply couldn’t arouse my interest like Civ V.  I’ve played more Magic: the Gathering and League of Legends i nthe past 2 months than I’ve touched WoW.  In fact, I think I’ve actually played more DS than WoW.

I simply can’t rally any major interest in TOR.  I’m not a Bioware fanboi, certainly not since they left me so crushingly disappointed with Dragon Age (Obsidian captured the spirit of NWN far better than Bioware, IMHO).  As far as I can tell, TOR is a replica of WoW gameplay, with dialog trees and VO grafted on top.  I’m just not thrilled.

Ah well, a new Magic expansion hit, and LoL keeps pouring out new champs, so I think I’ll be kept busy.  If any of you care about Magic, what would you suggest for an Infect deck, adhering to the current Standard (so Zendikar block, M11, and SoM)?  Right now, the number of Infect critters is pretty slim.  They’re all relatively weak (except the dragon) and expensive, which means you have to know their going to have the blockers to halt you.  From what I can tell, it behooves you to come up with as many ways to sneak creature damage past their defenders as you can.  Suggestions?  I already have some sneaky combos planned, but I’m open to ideas.

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I haven’t said much about WoW because I’ve said all I can: the  quest changes are pure awesome.  The zone revamps really expand the story.

And I just have nothing to say about the talent tree revamps.  They haven’t done anything for me.  I don’t like them.  They killed even the old illusion of choice.  When you go through and spec out a toon, you grab almost the entirety of the tree on your way down.  Very few talents are out-and-out choices.  Most of the time, there’s (as there always has been) utility, pvp talents and damage talents.  Builds have absolutely collapsed.  At this point, I’d rather they yanked even more straight damage talents out, and put in talents that altered the impact of a single core class ability in a unique way…but offered basically the same DPS.  Then, put these side-by-side and bloat the shit out of the talent tree.  Essentially, every choice becomes a “choose how you want to use this” choice.

Right now?  There’s no choice at all.

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I’m a systems designer, so I tend to focus on the numbers and such where those crop up in games.  Planning, ability combinations, play options, the underlying conceptual form of a game: these are what I tend to focus o nthe most.  These are the things that imbue the background structure of the game, the ruleset which allow the game to progress.

However, games also consist of ways of driving players to use these things; they consist of puzzles and challenges, which are creatively designed world states and end conditions, along, usually, with a narrative structure making them cohere within the world.  I don’t talk about these because they tend to be more visceral, last responsive to words.  They are the equivalent to the music of a game, not well bounded by the binaries of language.

Quests in WoW tend get little attention from me, beyond the recognition they’re there.  This isn’t because I dislike them; indeed, I enjoy them immensely, because WoW has given me this vast world to explore.  It’s that I don’t really feel that they can be discussed, particularly not their mechanics, without losing a bit of their artistry in the discussion.

That said, it’s worth talking about the quests in Cataclysm, both the revamped vanilla content and the new areas.  Each zone has always had something of its own story; a focus, of sorts, with quest chains forming short stories that provide exposition on that broader narrative.  Famed zones quests tended to really focus on the broad narrative, things like the Defias lines in Westfall or the Death Knight starting area.  What Blizzard has done is provide each zone with a story, one that is both self-contained and tied to expanding the perspective of the player, bringing to their attention ever-unfolding views of the drama unfolding across Azeroth.  Initially, players are given a very small look at what’s happening.  Some sort of crisis has occured, and you need to help.  Inexorably, you are pulled from the small starting area and linked into the broader story of your full starting zone (Elwynn was a bit bad about this, suffering from the old diverging quest area problem).  From there, you are ushered from zone to zone, story to story, integrated in its unfolding development.

These zones represent a new pinnacle in the art of WoW quest design.  I won’t say “Quest Design” generally, because these are very much WoW quests.  But these demonstrate that the people developing and designing quests have matured considerably, and the results of their laborious love are a joy to behold.

The broader zone narrative is progressed in chunks of quests.  At any time, you’re likely engaged in only a few (2-3) simultaneous quests, all located in the same small area.  Each area is dedicated purely to the advancement of a single chunk of the narrative.  Each section imprints the player: we know what happens here, we are driven to care, if only for a bit, about each minor chunk of land and how it relates to the broader whole.  Granted, in some places they do this better than others, but overall, they’re quite successful.  Wrath did this quite well, initiating you in the zone with a small, well defined starting node, which gates you through a series of quests.  You repeat quests moving slightly farther or in a different direction from the quest base, and just as you feel like the runs are getting too tiresome, they add a new base camp, with new quest hubs, and you start working from there.

Cataclysm’s new quests work like this, but substantially more streamlined and focused.  Here’s an example: as Alliance in Redridge, you are sent to rescue a group of soldiers, who had been captured by nearby orcs.  You are also given some orc-killing quests, and the orcs are in the same area.  Fair enough; you trek off to that area.  The first soldier (the only one whose location you know to start) asks you to find a key to free him.  This involves sneaking past sleeping worgs and patrolling worg riders and back, while killing outlier guards.  When you free him, he joins up with you and works like a companion mage.  Additionally, he points you at his next captured compatriot.  You head off, slaughtering your way to the cage holding this last, grabbinga  key on the way and freeing him.  He now also joins your party (a DW Fury warrior) and directs you into a nearby cave to quickly free the last two, who’re slated for sacrifice.  Dashing into the cave with your new allies, you find the troll about to sacrifice the third.  Holy crap, it’s an Elite!  But wait…you’ve got a 3-man group, and take him down, saving the soldier, adding him to your posse, and learning the whereabouts of the final captive, who is guarded by an even tougher elite.  Luckily, you just picked up a paladin who is quite content to heal you.  Slaying this final warden, you free the last soldier and head back to Lakeshire.

You’ve accomplished multiple quests, finding and rescuing prisoners, battling down elites with a small party, listening to them banter back and forth amongst themselves, completing a lengthy, interesting side quest…all of which is part of a much, much larger zone-wide narrative.  Rescuing these guys was just one step along a much, much bigger story (which, by the way, is pure joy to complete).  Each zone works like this.  All of them have the narrative-driving quests, some more relevant to the ongoing world narrative, some more intimately tied to the zone narrative, and some just there to help expose you to the world.  By the end, though, you understand why the zone is the way it is, and you care.

You care.  Seriously.

I’m not the only one who cares.  One of the more interesting things Blizzard has done is to re-introduce the Horde-Alliance war.  I know they talked about it in Wrath, and they tried to.  ICC did a lot to work on the ongoing competition between the two.  But all of that absolutely pales in the face of the war which has erupted in the wake of the Cataclysm.  It is everywhere.  You will see the other faction doing horrible things…and they will see you do horrible things.  But you only ever see your side of it, you only ever see the atrocities committed against you, never the why.  And so, the alpha forums erupted at one point in a massive (for them) thread about who was more morally reprehensible: Horde or Alliance, with both citing a list of new atrocities.

None of these atrocities were player committed.  All of them were quest and story driven events; the bomb in Ashenvale, the events at Taurajo, the battles in Stonetalon were all simply stories about things.  Nevertheless, people honestly cared and were emotionally impacted.  That, I think, is impressive for a story-telling method as venerable as WoW’s is.

I’ve entered a lot of bugs, niggling little things, during my Alpha time.  I engaged in a great deal of discussion about Druid caster trees and provided, I think, the first primer on the new haste system.  All that was great and worthwhile.  But nothing was quite as worthwhile as replaying the game and feeling a fresh sense of wonder and a sense of, well, loss.  They drive that home.  New players coming in will never quite know or understand what has changed or be able to see the world like we will, those who’ve been with it since the beginning.

I started as a Night Elf Druid (because only night elves could be druids and I had to go Alliance to play with friends).  I powered through to Darkshore and ran the long, long quests up and down the length of that benighted place.  Hours were spent in Auberdine, traipsing amongst the inhabitants and running their errands among the ruins of ancient Night Elf cities.  When I returned as a new Night Elf mage, I flew out of a shattered Nordrassil into a new outpost, north of Auberdine, where Night Elf Sentinels raced to save the survivors of Auberdine, which has been shattered by the Cataclysm and the workings of the cults of Deathwing.  It was shocking.  Awesome, but mournful.

I’m looking forward to the release, when everyone else can share this.

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Yay!

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Blizzard has sent the blue posters out in force the past couple days, with several major posts detailing overhauls to important existing systems.  Rage is getting the promised overhaul (though you aren’t getting the promised pony), The major dispels are being more evenly distributed among healers, and Ghostcrawler is admitting defeat and creating a dedicated Death Knight tanking tree (Blood).

The rage changes are pretty straightforward: every auto-attack that deals damage will generate rage based on base weapon speed, with off-hands generating 50% of main hand rage (I suspect that wielding a single 2-hand weapon will yield 150% of wielding a single, 1-hander, though that could get build into the arms tree, instead).  Significantly, that means blocked attacks will still provide full rage, though misses, dodges, and parries will not.  In addition, crits will generate 200% of the normal rage, and haste will increase rage generation, since the rage normalization formula uses the base weapon speed, not hasted weapon speed.  One can assume that this will provide a much more consistent rage generation mechanic for DPS warriors across all tiers of gear, in addition to beefing up the rate of rage gain for protection warriors.

Since attacks which are dodged, parried or miss do not generate any rage, I guarantee you that hit rating will remain one of the highest priority stats to stack, particularly if the current base miss rates apply for dual wielding fury warriors.  When Lich King was in beta, and Titan’s Grip applied a massive swing speed debuff, rage generation was so spotty as to make levelling Titan’s Grip nearly impossible (while the DPS gain from taking it at more reasonable gear levels still made it worthwhile).  It sounds like this problem may plague fury warriors again.  Regardless, I believe this may also increase the weighting of expertise compared to more standard damage stats, as the multipliers on straight DPS stats, say Strength, will decline in value (since it doesn’t increase rage gain) while expertise will remain the same, or gain in value.

Rage gained from damage dealt to the warrior is also being normalized: any attack will provide rage based on the unmitigated damage the attack would deal (regardless of whether it hits) divided by the warrior’s health (and multiplied by some constant).  Assuming damage dealt relative to health level remains the same at any level or tier of gear, rage generation from damage taken will also remain the same.  Interestingly, it is made very clear that simply the intent to attack is sufficient to give rage to the warrior. As an aside, that implies that, on the tech side (and assuming the blue poster doesn’t happen to be wrong about this), they calculate damage dealt before determining if you actually take the damage.  Anyway, this will mean that warrior tanks should have extremely consistent rage generation, without needing bosses to absolutely maul them every hit so the few hits which do get through actually generate enough rage for the warrior to be effective.

While it is the case that warriors will lose rage generation from damage taken as they gear up, it shouldn’t be at quite the rate they do now, particularly if Blizzard follows through with their intended changes to the way damage should be coming in.  On top of that, the changes to rage gained from dealing damage should mean that, as warrior tanks gear up, their rage gain from damage dealt will also improve faster than it does currently, which may offset the rage lost by health pool gains.

Perhaps to address my concern above that the normalization of rage gain from damage dealt will make missing inordinately more painful, Blizzard intends to add more instant rage gains (i.e. in addition to Bloodrage).  Specifically mentioned was Battle Shout: “Instead of Battle Shout consuming Rage, it will generate Rage but have a short cooldown”.  If enough such tools exist, then warriors may be able to fill any gaps in rage gain, at least well enough to maintain their base damage rotation.  However, as gear improves and rage generation inevitably increases (which is nice, because it makes haste succeed at GC’s stated goal of having it let you “do stuff more”), warriors and bears are going to need rage dumps.  Traditionally, this has meant Heroic Strike or Maul; that’s not changing in Cataclysm.  What is changing is how those abilities work: all “on next strike” abilities are disappearing (I can only think of Heroic Strike, Cleave, Maul, and Runic Strike, anyway).  Heroic Strike, Cleave, and Maul are becoming instant attacks and will now consume a base amount of rage, plus extra rage, up to some maximum, which increases the damage dealt.  It sounds suspiciously like GC plans to weight this so that the damage per rage spent for one of these rage dumps is highest when you max out the rage used, but never comparable to any of your standard rotation abilities.  These are intended to be used when you notice you have excess rage that won’t be expended during your normal rotation.

It’ll be interesting to see how that change gets balanced.  As it stands now, only fury warriors have the free GCDs to really take advantage of the rage dumps.  If you don’t have a free GCD available for the rage dump, you have to make the choice of replacing one of your standard rotation abilities with the rage dump, and in order for that to work, the rage dump has to deal more damage per rage it replaces than the base ability.  So let’s say Mortal strike uses 15 rage, and deals 1000 damage per rage, while heroic strike deals, at 30 rage (the max it consumes), 1200 damage per rage.  If you have 30 rage (and are sure you’ll also have enough excess rage to hit mortal strike on your next GCD after hitting heroic strike), you want to use Heroic Strike rather than Mortal Strike.  In fact, that would mean you’d want to press Heroic Strike right around the point when you have 45 rage, ensuring you have 15 rage for MS on the next GCD, while maximizing HS damage.  I think the system would end up basically ensuring you always use your rage dump for maximum rage.  Consider the above case: the only way you could possibly not spend maximum rage on Heroic Strike was if you used it at <30 rage.  However, if you do that, on the next GCD you may not have sufficient rage for Mortal Strike, implying a DPS loss (as you’re wasting time waiting on your auto-attack to generate rage).  Since you always want to make sure you have rage for an ability on your next GCD, optimally you can’t afford to use Heroic Strike at <30 rage.  Optimally, you’ll want to use it whenever the amount of rage you’ll have left over plus rage you’ll gain from auto-attack during the GCD is equal to the cost of the next ability you’ll use.  Given that you can’t be sure of how much rage you’ll gain during a GCD (your attack may miss or be dodged, movement may interfere, or lag may cause you to misjudge when your swing will connect, or some such) and you can’t be sure if a proc will change what ability you want to use, I’d hazard a guess that Heroic Strike usage will be best used when your current rage is greater than the max rage used by HS plus the cost of your most expensive ability.  If you want to get really exact, it’d be max rage used by HS plus the cost of your next ability or your most expensive proc, whichever is higher.  I’m sure Ovale will be able to tell you that one.

The changes to Dispels are equally comprehensive.  Blizzard notes there are 5 types of effects that can be dispelled: debuffs on allies (curses, diseases, poisons, and magical effects) and magic buffs on enemies.  They decided to balance out the distribution of dispels among healers so that it was much more likely a group would have all of these dispels.  Most importantly, they decided (for whatever reason) that dispelling magical effects from allies was important enough to warrant it that ability being given to all healers, so in any group setting, whether it be 5s or 25s, you’ll have a way to dispel magical effects from allies.  Every healer then got 2 other dispels from among the remaining four.  Due to these changes, some specs are losing existing dispels, and most healers will have to spec into the ability to dispel magical debuffs.  Mages can still decurse things, however, so don’t uninstall Decursive yet, peeps.

In addition to providing a more equitable distribution of dispels, Blizzard wants to make dispelling a bit more involved.  You will once again be able to cast dispels on people with nothing to dispel (you could happily cast dispels on anyone who didn’t have anything to dispel in Vanilla, but Blizzard was all merciful and pulled that out).  Dispel mana costs are set to increase (precipitously, I think).  Finally, automatic dispels are being removed: no more Abolish Poison, Abolish Disease, or, the big one, Cleansing Totem.

The goal of these last changes seems to be forcing healers to think a second before mashing a dispel.  Since anything they dispel probably deals damage, whether directly or indirectly, the healer needs to weigh the opportunity cost of ditching losing a GCD to dispelling the effect versus spending the GCD on a heal.  Currently, debuffs deal so much damage and dispels cost so little that the choice is simple: always dispel.  However, as Blizzard moves forward with making mana more of a limiting factor on healing, healers will become more miserly with their mana pools.  If the mana cost of a dispel increases to match, say, a fast-cast, low efficiency heal, that’d be sufficient to make healers stop and think about it.  In a land where health pools or higher, there’s a good chance that debuffs won’t be quite as devastating, meaning the opportunity cost of casting dispels increases, while the relative gain declines.  I suspect dispelling will still often be the right decision, but you’ll have to think about it a bit more.

And finally, the most recent announcement: Ghostcrawler has admitted defeat on the hybrid whose every tree can work for both of their roles.  Death Knights will (re)gain their dedicated tanking tree.  Remember that, during the beta, frost was the dedicated tanking tree.  Eventually, GC moved to try and make every tree viable, which involved reshuffling tanking talents so that each tree had powerful tanking abilities buried so far down the tree that you couldn’t hybrid into two of them, and that has remained in place for the duration of the expansion.

In defending the decision to backtrack on the “tri-tank”, Ghostcrawler points at dual-specs and the lack of tanking toys for DKs versus tanks with more dedicated trees (bears are pointedly not included here, ye tanks of 3 buttons).  However, I think the much bigger reason for the change was his point about the new passives trees will be granting: either you pepper tanking stats in every tree, removing opportunities for damage-dealing stats (and screwing the DPS specs), or you try and make DPS stats translate to tanking stats via talents…and since each tree will have different passives, well, that will get messy.  I’m guessing the system designers stared at that for months, tried things, iterated, then threw up their hands and said, “fuck it, make a tanking tree, this won’t work”.

As a nifty side benefit, this makes it easier to normalize the damage dealt between the various tanking classes.

In the next few days and weeks we should see previews of class changes.  I’ll provide analysis when I can.  Enjoy, in the meantime!

Oh, and you may already know it, but Paragon downed the Heroic 25 man Lich King, just before the 10% buff hit.  I wrote my blog post wherein I theorycrafted out how far behind in damage raids were from a kill back on February 12th.  It looks like Paragon downed him on March 26th, making it damn near a month and a half between clearing every boss up to him in heroic mode, and actually killing him.  That was a long time even by my expectations.  If Blizzard can maintain those sorts of time-spans on heroic kills in Cataclysm, I think we’ll hear less arguing about the difficulty of raids for the hardcore.

UPDATE: I wasn’t at all clear when I said ‘all “on next strike” abilities are disappearing’.  I should have added – and have below – that Heroic Strike, Maul, and Cleave are becoming instants.  I am making the assumption this means they’ll trigger a GCD and be unusable during a GCD (Blizz tends to only peel toggles and interrupts off the GCD, so I think I’m safe in that assumption).  I’ve updated the post to reflect this.

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