Tag Archives: Warlock

Appendix A: Warlock Spell Changes in Cataclysm

As I was writing about Complexity and the Warlock’s Magic Number I found that I had a lot to say about specific spell changes that happened within Cataclysm. There were a lot of spells which were changed in very specific, inelegant ways that only players of the class noticed. These changes added up over the course of the expansion.

However, as I dove into the arcana of a lot of these spell changes, I found that they were drowning out the main point of that post. The individual changes were problems, but it was the mental chunking which was the problem. Dwelling on the different iterations of the Improved Soul Fire buff was obscuring the main point, which was that the buff was there at all.

But Warlock players went through those changes, and each one of these spells actively contributed to a culture of complexity which plagued the class throughout Cataclysm. Instead of cluttering up the narrative with my observations, I’ve chosen to move them to the back of the book, as it were, and drop them into an appendix.

This is the first for this series. There will probably be more.

APPENDIX A: WARLOCK SPELL CHANGES IN CATACLYSM

What happens when the game gets harder for you to play?

In some ways, this has been the core problem of Cataclysm. This expansion increased difficulty … everywhere, really. Stats dropped off quickly as you leveled through those 5 levels from 80-85. Healers hit 83 and watched their healing drop off the face of the planet. Leveling through questing involved dying again, sometimes a lot of dying. Dungeons became grueling, punishing exercises in punishment. Leveling dungeons involved a brutal step up from Wrath Heroics. T11 Raids were a brick wall that broke many guilds.

Many experienced, good players got a taste of the new environment of Cataclysm and said, screw this, this isn’t fun. Others said, great, finally, a challenge.

But, you know, an awful lot of players went ahead and said, that’s it, I’m done. Sixteen percent of the playerbase voted with their wallets and decided there were more fun things for them to do than play Cataclysm. Twenty-eight percent of Warlocks decided there was something better to do or play. My opinion is that the increased difficulty of the endgame had a lot to do with that, though there were no doubt other issues at work as well.

The split in opinion on how Warlocks are faring reminds me of the split on whether Cataclysm’s increased difficulty was a good thing. Warlocks became more difficult to play in Cataclysm, which led to fewer players being able to play it at a level where it was fun.

Did it really get more difficult?

Yes, yes it absolutely did.

Looking at the changes Warlocks received in Cataclysm, a clear picture emerges of a class that added more abilities and buttons without any corresponding simplification. There may have been quality of life improvements elsewhere, but operating a Warlock in Cataclysm involved more buttons than one in Wrath.

Affliction received a few changes:

  • Soul Swap added as multi-dotting spell
  • Soul Burn: Seed of Corruption added as multi-dotting spell

Demonology got a new nuke and a DoT refresh, but the clunky refresh mechanics were really problematic:

  • Hand of Gul’dan added as fourth nuke
  • Hand of Gul’dan refresh period works awkwardly with Immolate’s new Haste mechanics (Cannot be reliable refresh with Haste effects: 12 second CD + 2 second cast time + travel time vs. 15 second Immolate)
  • Demon swapping (starting with Felhunter, swapping to Succy/Felguard) required pet juggling
  • Metamorphosis CD became variable.

Destruction had a massive overhaul, gaining 3 DoTs, a nuke, and a buff that required constant uptime:

  • Improved Soul Fire buff required, very dependent upon RNG for instant Soul Fire casts via Empowered Imp
  • Soul Fire added as third nuke
  • Corruption, Bane of Doom, and Burning Embers all added as important DoTs
  • Bane of Havoc required for multi-dotting, limited to single target


On top of those changes, every single spec gained the following:

  • Improved Soul Fire as required buff to maintain through 4.0.6 for all specs, requiring three Soul Burned Soul Fires or hard cast Soul Fires to maintain every 15 seconds. Could not refresh before it fell off due to ICD.
  • Shadowflame added to rotation, required near-melee range every 12 seconds (Teleport CD still 25 seconds)
  • Demon Soul added as a 2 minute CD
  • Dark Intent added as required buff, required reapplication if target died
  • Fel Flame added as a moving nuke/DoT refresh, but lacked DPCT to be in normal rotation without T11 4-pc bonus.
  • Guardians (Doomguard, Infernal) no longer caused regular demons to despawn, making them a required 10 minute CD on boss fights.
  • Curses and Banes were split apart, situationally adding another debuff to maintain.

Spec by spec summary:

  • Affliction: 1 buff, 1 melee AoE, 2 long CDs. ISF through 4.0.6, Fel Flame through T11. were removed.
  • Demo: 1 nuke on short CD with refresh issues, 1 buff, 1 melee AoE, 2 long CDs. Demon swapping in 4.06 through 4.2, ISF through 4.0.6, Fel Flame through T11.
  • Destro: 1 nuke, 3 dots, 2 buffs, 2 long CDs, 1 melee AoE. Fel Flame through T11.


To sum up:All Warlocks rotations were made more complicated in Cataclysm. Nothing was made simpler.

It doesn’t matter if we look at other classes and see if Warlocks fared better or worse compared to them; this isn’t a complexity sweepstakes. The fact that abilities were added without any corresponding simplification of the existing rotation is the important one. If you take a complex class which was doing relatively well in Wrath (well in terms of fun and player acceptance) and then add more buttons to push, have you really added anything? Or just made the class harder to play?

Only focusing on player skill and ability, this design direction is disturbing. If you have a class which is reasonably complicated to play well, but has some variation between the different specs, and then you make them all uniformly more complicated and demanding, aren’t you going to alienate some of those players who previously enjoyed it? If you introduce mechanics which require absolute precision in execution for substantial portions of the class’s output, aren’t you going to cause some players who formerly worked within a more forgiving rotation to struggle?

Additional complexity might be acceptable if it translates into something that’s more fun or better output. But if it doesn’t and it’s just complexity for complexity’s sake, then players will rightly become dissatisfied and look around for simpler options.

I think this is what happened to Warlocks in Cataclysm. The rotations got both more complicated and less forgiving in this expansion, with no option for a more forgiving spec. It is still possible to master this class and these rotations; the performance of Warlocks in Heroic mode raiding attests to that. But it is more work. It is harder to master.

And under the Bring the Player model, there’s not a lot of incentive to overcome the additional complexity.

I’m going to discuss a few of these changes so non-Warlock players understand what kind of complexity was imposed upon the class.

Soul Swap

Soul Swap is a spell which allows Affliction Warlocks to take their DoTs from one target and apply it to another. When Glyphed, it leaves the DoTs behind on the original target but introduces a cooldown on the spell. In PvP, this is awesome for keeping pressure up on targets. In PvE this is used to apply DoTs on multiple targets.

The original implementation of the spell and glyph was fantastic because it had a 6 second CD. Soul Swap was a valuable, welcome addition to the Affliction toolkit, useful in dungeons, questing, raids, PvP – everywhere. I used it a lot while doing Tol Barad dailies because it allowed me to spread DoTs quickly between multiple mobs as I pulled through the various areas, much like how Drain Tanking used to work. It was also really great in PvP, allowing you to maintain pressure across an entire team with relative ease. If your DoTs were expelled, you could quickly reapply 3 of them and keep the healers Purging/Cleansing.

Soul Swap was exceptionally powerful in PvP, so the cooldown was increased – first to 10 seconds, then to 20, then to 30. Each increase made it less useful as a spell. Soul Swap is a convenience spell – it saves you time over reapplying DoTs individually, and allows you to move while doing it. The time to reapply UA, Corruption, and Bane of Agony is 4 seconds. Soul Swap triggers the GCD, so it’s 3 seconds to inhale and exhale, or a 1 second improvement over manually dotting (plus the movement bonus, which is actually pretty cool). With a 6 second CD, you gain 10 seconds every minute; with a 30 second CD, you gain 2.

It was neat to have on your bars at first, but as the CD lengthened it just became clutter.

Hand of Gul’dan

Hand of Gul’dan was the new, distinctive nuke added into the Demonology tree. It’s a pretty cool spell that summons a meteor and surrounds the target with a circle of demonic black flame. It hits hard, increases pet damage, snares mobs, and refreshes Immolate on the target.

It also brought the number of nukes Demolocks had to worry about to 4. They already use Shadow Bolt and Incinerate as filler nukes, depending on Molten Core procs, and Soul Fire as an execute. Another button, another thing to track.

But HoG’s real problem lay in the Immolate refresh mechanic during the early days of Cataclysm. Because of the way DoTs were changed in Cata, the timing on using Hand of Gul’dan to refresh Immolate was really hard, and sometimes impossible.

Immolate has a 15 second duration. Hand of Guldan has a 12 second CD and a 2 second cast time. This leaves 1 second for a player to refresh it. However, as a nuke, there’s travel time on the spell, so there’s another .5 seconds, with possible latency on top of that. So, without any Haste, Demo Warlocks are going to have to hit HoG as soon as the CD comes up to keep Immolate on the target.

Haste makes it worse by making ticks happen faster, reducing the duration of the DoT until a new tick was added. So if you don’t have enough Haste for to just get that additional Immolate tick, Immolate is going to have less than 15 second duration – sometimes as low as 13.5 or so. During the early stages of Cataclysm, there was enough Haste to shorten Immolate’s duration but not enough to shorten HoG’s cast time to use it to refresh.

Having a spell you have to hit on CD to refresh a vital debuff isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s even less fun when it doesn’t work. There’s no choice here – either you bang out a 2 second cast every 12 seconds, or you lose DPS by letting Immolate drop or using Fel Flame to refresh it.

Work THAT into your rotations. :(

When this first came up in the Cataclysm Beta, a lot of theories were proposed of how to deal with it. (I supported lowering HoG’s CD to 10 seconds, thinking that any changes to Immolate would adversely affect Destruction.) It was a problem for the very beginning or Cataclysm.

A few months after Cataclysm’s release, Blizzard made a stealth change to the Inferno talent to extend Immolate’s duration by 6 seconds in 4.0.6. This provided two extra ticks and smoothed out the refresh mechanic.

Thank goodness.

Improved Soul Fire

Improved Soul Fire is a neat idea that was executed horribly. I mean, sorry, objectively it was implemented in such a way that required multiple redesigns and impacted all three specs and quite possibly is one of the biggest problems raiding Warlocks faced in T11.

Subjectively, it was executed horribly.

The basic idea is that casting Soul Fire put a buff on the Warlock, mirroring the nuke-for-a-damage buff behavior of Affliction (Shadow Embrace) and Demonology (Curse of Gul’dan). Improved Soul Fire was a little different because it 1) was on the Warlock, not the target, and 2) granted Haste instead of damage or Crit. Since the Imp was now granting instant Soul Fires, it might as well be used for something, right?

Well, the problem at the start of Cataclysm was twofold:

  1. The Improved Soul Fire buff was low in the Destruction tree, making it available to Affliction’s and Demonology’s raiding builds.
  2. ISF was originally designed to be used at the start of the fight, not the whole thing.

See, ISF was originally a reverse execute – only worked at > 80% target health – so having it be available to all three specs wasn’t terribly burdensome. It made good use of the new Soul Shard mechanic by demanding instant Soul Fires – really, the only use for Soul Shards for those two specs – and allowed them to start with powerful openers.

In 4.0.1 ISF was changed to a buff that would be up all the time, creating a situation where now Affliction (which doesn’t use Fire spells) and Demo (which does) needed to keep the buff throughout the entire fight – without the benefit of Empowered Imp procs. So Afflocks added Soul Fire to their bars, and all Warlocks tried to weave in a 2.5 second nuke and another buff that had to be maintained to their rotations.

Further complicating things, the buff had a 15 second internal CD – you couldn’t refresh it by hitting Soul Fire while the buff was up. You couldn’t refresh it, requiring Destro Warlocks to try to hold Empowered Imp procs until the last moment, adding another element of RNG to their rotation.

This lasted from 4.0.1 through 4.0.6. Practically, it didn’t affect Warlocks until after 4.0.3 (only available at level 85), but it was in effect for the formative first two months of Cataclysm raiding. In 4.0.6 it was removed from Affliction and Demo’s rotations as part of the massive class balance overhaul of that patch

ISF was not a good design for 2 of the 3 specs. Even though it was present for only a few months in progression raiding, it was during the initial launch period and contributed to the initial difficulty of the expansion. Warlocks who raided in early T11 did so with the clunkiest, most complicated mechanics possible.

Shadowflame

Shadowflame is an AoE cone that can be glyphed to provide a slow. In Wrath it was primarily a PvP spell for this reason, but the damage was buffed and the spell entered into every spec’s rotation. If you could do it safely, standing in melee range and hitting Shadowflame was a DPS increase.

The challenge is that getting this DPS increase involved a lot of positioning tricks to use correctly. Warlocks either needed to charge in (forcing them to cast instants) and teleport out (wasting a GCD), position themselves with the melee and stay there, or forego use of the spell until it was only situationally viable.

I love Shadowflame. I really do. But I’m also a PvPer, and I remember seeing it first pop up in the PvE Destro rotation in 4.0.1 with some surprise. Adding this spell into the rotation is more complicated than just adding another DoT to maintain – it added range and positioning to the list of things a Warlock needed to consider in a fight.

Demon Soul, Demon Swapping, and Demon Guardians

Warlocks got a new 2-minute cooldown in Cataclysm, Demon Soul, which gave Warlocks some … while I can’t call it burst, exactly, it did give the class a DPS boost every 2 minutes.

My original opinion was that this was a good ability to bring into the Warlock toolkit. This was a missing ability, something that was usually filled in with On Use trinkets in Wrath. It requires proper attention to procs to maximize its utility, it’s interesting and challenging and it offers a direct reward for proper usage – a DPS spike.

I wanted to put Demon Soul out there as an ability that added complexity, but with immediate reward. A 2 minute DPS cooldown is pretty straightforward, offers a clear benefit, and is interesting without being overwhelming (especially since the class lacked one before.) The idea of it is great. The implementation of it was somewhat lackluster.

The effect depends entirely upon which demon was currently deployed, so at different times it could be advantageous to start off with one demon (say, the Felhunter), pop Demon Soul, then switch to a different demon (Succubus or Felguard) using a Soul Shard, and repeat as necessary. That was a complicated concept, a clunky mechanic, and probably not the best way to construct an optimal DPS rotation. But it was a side effect of pet balancing issues interacting poorly with this spell.

The other long cooldown spell that was added in Cataclysm was the revamped Demon Guardians, or the old Doomguard and Infernal. The biggest change was that summoning these two behemoths no longer despawned your regular demon, which was a vast improvement over the previous model. The Guardians became a long (10 minute) cooldown you could use once a boss fight.

All these things add up. Either you use all the tools in the toolbox, or your DPS will suffer.

Both of these changes were prima face benefits to the class. In hindsight, I think they actually caused more trouble than they were worth by adding additional mental complexity – an entire new chunk for Warlock players to have to juggle. Had they been added in isolation, they might have been good benefits.

But in addition to the other changes each spec underwent, this was just more fuel on the fire.

Pet Management

I’m not sure what to say about the state of Demons in Cataclysm.

The numerous changes to the pet AI in Cataclsym caused a lot of problems – demons not chasing feared units, demons randomly switching targets, demons randomly slipping into Passive or ignoring /petattack commands. Given that demons are a substantial part of a Warlock’s DPS, these bugs require players devote mental energy to managing their demon.

A lot of attention. SO NEEDY.

The nice thing about chunking theory is that you can just add this in as one more chunk that you have to worry about now, that you didn’t have to worry about then. It’s not that players can’t micromanage their demons – it’s that they have to do it in the first place which causes the problem.

There were periods when players had to swap out demons mid-fight for DPS gains, and those are splashy examples that are nice to point at as problems of elegance. But the persistent pet bugs represented a more insidious problem, one where a major component of your DPS would just randomly stop.

Demons would bug out on platforms. They’d bug out on Ultrax. They’d bug out on Magmaw. They’d bug out trying to finish the legendary quest.

I’m not someone who enjoys micromanaging their pet. I want them to attack when I attack and attack the target I ask them to attack, until I tell them to stop.

Pet management is a big problem if 1/4-1/3 of your DPS comes from your pet.

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Warlock Complexity and the Magic Number

This post is the fourth in the Decline of Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

Why are some warlocks doing well in Cataclysm while the class, as a whole, is shedding players?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question a lot since the last post in this series. While the overwhelming feedback I’ve received has been of people struggling with their Warlocks, there’s been a decided minority saying the opposite. I’m having no problems at all, I enjoy the complexity, we’re not broken.

Both kinds of feedback are important to listen to. It’s human nature to put weight into opinions which agree with our own, and dismiss those which contradict. Whatever reasons there are for the struggles of the Warlock class in Cataclysm, they have to take into account that the class did not fall apart everywhere. The mechanics and playstyle are adequate at the highest levels to not warrant immediate, urgent fixes like an across-the-board damage increase.

At the same time, we cannot dismiss the feedback of Warlock players who said, I struggled in Cataclysm. I tried everything I could and couldn’t get my DPS up to acceptable levels. I could bring in a Hunter or Mage alt and immediately do more DPS with worse gear. It’s as wrong to dismiss this feedback – just because it doesn’t fit in with our personal experience – as it is to dismiss that there are Warlocks doing well.

This conflict manifests itself in forum chatter across the Warcraft community. This class sucks faces off with L2P, noob, and there’s not a lot of middle ground given in the discourse. Either Warlocks are fine, learn to play, or Warlocks are broken, this class is underpowered, as though the other viewpoint somehow invalidates your own.

It’s not always the most civil dialogue, to be honest. It can sometimes be hard to accept divergent views on the Internet.

But if you get past all the name calling and accept both positions as valid – they’re not mutually exclusive, after all – you’re only left with a few explanations that make any sense.

  • More skill was required to do top DPS due to increased rotational complexity, thereby increasing the number of players unable to perform at the required level.
  • The penalties for failure increased due to more unforgiving, inelegant mechanics.
  • The class is highly gear dependent due to mechanics; performance decreases sharply with suboptimal gear.

It’s essential that we talk about this humanely, because each and every one of these explanations could be interpreted as a failure of the player, not the class. Each and every one of these could be, and often is, twisted into a kind of judgement upon struggling players. And that’s shameful and incorrect. It’s a terrible thing to do to another person, it’s a terrible thing to do to yourself.

And it’s wrong. I don’t mean just mean wrong in a moral sense – I mean it’s incorrect in an analytical sense. It’s a flawed judgement to make. It may be correct in individual cases, it is incorrect when considered in the aggregate.

Let’s get this out in the open. If you’re blaming a struggling player simply because they’re a Wrath Baby, you’re wrong. If you’re dismissing their problems as QQ, you’re wrong. If you’re blaming them because they need to learn how to play, you’re wrong.

And if you’re dismissing people for succeeding at playing a Warlock because they’re elitist, you’re wrong too. Only successful because they have a legendary? Wrong.

These problems are systematic problems of the class. That’s why they show up in an aggregate view of many players, not just individuals. The changes introduced in Cataclysm increased the difficulty of playing Warlocks to the point where players who previously were proficient were no longer able to keep up when performing under duress. Raising the bar of competence doesn’t suddenly make someone a “baddie” if they fail to keep up.

All it means is that the bar got raised.

Blame the person who raised the bar, not the people who could no longer jump over it.

The theory of Inelegant Complexity without Reward from the previous post talks about this indirectly, and focuses on player’s rational decisions when confronted with a class that was harder than the alternatives. In this post, I want to focus on the additional complexity and inelegance added in Cataclysm and its direct effect upon the players who played Warlocks.

MAGIC NUMBERS AND CHUNKING

George A. Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” published in 1956, is a famous psychological paper which investigates human beings’ capacity for short term memory. How many items can the brain hold in short term memory at one time? Miller’s original research pointed to the idea that 7 (plus or minus 2) was the limit most humans have for the amount of data they can retain.

Miller’s number has been hotly debated since this paper’s release. Some say that it’s 6, others 4. It seems to vary according to the type of data being stored and how the test subject frames that data. (My own experience designing UI and voice systems has been that it’s really around 4, but I’m also not a psychologist.)

How we conceptualize data is important. If you presented test subjects with a list of three words (“Apple, Banana, Bicycle”) to a group of subjects, their recall is going to be dependent upon one key skill – do they speak English? If they do, then the likelihood of their remembering them is pretty high, since the letters are grouped into units – words. If it’s in a different language, then the subject has to remember 20 or so letters, spaces, and punctuation marks. (Consider the same experiment in Basque: “Sagar, Banana, Bizikleta”).

This organization of data into discrete, understandable bits is called chunking, and I think it’s a vital concept to understanding how we play video games. Chunking is taking bits of related data or actions or mental things and putting them together into a conceptual unit. When we are first learning a task our mental chunks are small – you have to consciously think about each little tiny step. How do I move, how do I target, how do I cast. You start at the primitive level of “I need to physically move the mouse this way to make this thing happen on the computer screen” and advance all the way up to “I have 3 adds don’t let Shadow Embrace fall off of any of them.”

As you get better at a task the individual steps fade into the chunks and you can better perform more and more complex actions. This is why a lot of Warlocks spend so much time at the training dummies – they are trying to internalize the routine of their casting so that when asked to perform them under duress, they can execute without thinking. When your feet are on fire and the raid leader is yelling at you to pick up adds, you don’t want to have to stop and think about how to apply DoTs; you just want to do it.

I think these concepts are important to consider when looking at how the Warlock class changed over Cataclysm. There are human limits to how many variables you can juggle in your head, and the Warlock changes may have stretched the game past that point for many players.

Let’s examine the class changes and see.

THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH OF RISING COMPLEXITY

Consider Destruction’s playstyle in Wrath of the Lich King:

  1. Curse of Doom or Curse of the Elements. 1-5 minute refreshes.
  2. Immolate on the target? NO? Here Mr. Bossman, GET YOU SOME IMMOLATE.
  3. Chaos Bolt! ZAP!
  4. Conflagrate!
  5. Incinerate! BZAP!
  6. Life Tap to keep the buff up! (Through certain gear levels in ICC, then this stopped)
  7. Force cast your Imp’s fireball!

That was it. (It was enough fun to warrant the exclamation points.)

One curse, one DoT, three nukes which you had to juggle, and one spellpower buff tied in to your mana replenishment ability. There was some debate about using Corruption when you had to move, and possibly using Soulburn during an execute phase, but that was it. Your pet was the Imp; using the Doomguard at the end of a fight was a possibility but not always a good one. Force casting your Imp’s attack was through macros, it was simple.

Notice how you can chunk these actions together:

  • DoTs, debuffs, buffs: CoD/Life Tap/Immolate are a similar group of things to monitor, one which is easy to subitize (rapidly assess at a glance.)
  • Nukes: The other chunk is your nukes – Chaos Bolt if it’s up, Conflag if it’s up, then Incinerate. Conflag creates Backdraft, so you usually follow it with three Incinerates.

This left a lot of mental room for players to deal with the mechanics of various fights. Are you standing in Defile? DON’T STAND IN DEFILE. Circle down for the Valks? Shadowfury or Shadowflame on the Valks? YOUR FEET ARE ON FIRE MOVE.

The Warlock toolkit was still there for the specific encounter requirements, but the basic chunks of the rotation were easy to execute.

Compare this to Destruction’s priority rotation in Cataclysm:

  1. Improved Soul Fire buff
  2. Demon Soul on CD
  3. Infernal or Doomguard on CD, as appropriate
  4. Immolate
  5. Bane of Doom, Havok for adds
  6. Conflagrate
  7. Curse of the Elements (or some other debuff as required).
  8. Shadowflame
  9. Corruption
  10. Burning Embers
  11. Chaos Bolt
  12. Incinerate
  13. Soul Fire on Empowered Imp proc or to maintain ISF or on Soul Shard CD for T13
  14. Force cast the Imp’s Fire Bolt
  15. Dark Intent buff
  16. Fel Flame with T11 or while moving

… holy shit.

Let’s try to make some sense of that and chunk that apart.

  • DoTs, debuffs, and buffs: ISF, Bane, Curse, Immo, Corruption, Burning Embers, Dark Intent.
  • Cooldowns: Demon Soul, Doomguard
  • Nukes: Chaos Bolt, Soul Fire, Incinerate, Fel Flame (sometimes)
  • AoE: Shadowflame
  • Procs: Empowered Imp

… don’t forget to Life Tap?

I think the above chunking model might be too simple – like, if we strictly categorize our DoTs, buffs, and debuffs together it works, but there are 7 things to keep track of in that one chunk. You’re probably going to forget about Burning Embers, and maybe you can watch Dark Intent if you put it near your trinket and weapon procs. That’s really two chunks, except that there’s not really a good way to logically break it apart – maybe DoTs separate from buffs/debuffs?

Another point to consider is that because Destro gained more DoTs, refreshing those DoTs during any item procs became much more important. It’s not that you didn’t need to watch your procs in Wrath – you did – but in Cataclysm you needed to refresh more spells (Immolate, Corruption, BoD/A) and you needed to consider your cooldown usage to time with those procs.

As Destruction had a reputation for being the simple Warlock spec in Wrath, why don’t we look at something with a reputation for complexity next? Affliction fits the bill.

In Wrath, Affliction needed to deal with:

  1. Life Tap buff (3.1 through 3.3.5)
  2. Keep 2-3 stacks of Shadow Embrace up on the target (was 2 until 3.3.5).
  3. Keep Haunt on the target (Haunt on CD)
  4. Unstable Affliction
  5. Corruption
  6. Curse of Agony
  7. (Soul Siphon until 3.0.8)
  8. Drain Soul as execute ( Shadow Bolt filler (sometimes with a Nightfall proc)
  9. Force cast Felhunter’s Shadow Bite

This is complicated in practice because of the large number of DoTs, but can be chunked pretty easily:

  • DoTs and Debuffs: Shadow Embrace, Haunt, Unstable Affliction, Curse of Agony, Soul Siphon, Life Tap buff. Life Tap was really easy to maintain – it was a 40 second buff and constant healing from Soul Siphon and Fel Armor made it a straight mana/DPS gain.
  • Nukes/Drains: Shadow Bolt, Drain Soul

Affliction was rightly the DoT/debuff spec in Wrath – 4 dots and 2 debuffs is a lot to juggle. Haunt made it a bit easier, since refreshed Corruption and Shadow Embrace alike, as well as its own debuff.

Affliction received the fewest changes in Cataclysm, but that’s not to say that it was unchanged.

  1. Improved Soul Fire buff (4.0 through 4.0.6)
  2. Demon Soul on CD
  3. Doomguard on CD
  4. 3 stacks of Shadow Embrace up on the target
  5. Haunt on the target (Haunt on CD)
  6. Unstable Affliction
  7. Corruption
  8. Bane of Doom/Agony
  9. Curse of the Elements
  10. Shadowflame
  11. Drain Soul as execute ( Shadow Bolt filler (sometimes with a Nightfall proc)
  12. Optional Drain Life filler (through 4.1)
  13. Force cast Felpup Shadow Bite / Succy’s Lash of Pain
  14. Dark Intent buff
  15. Fel Flame with T11 or while moving

Affliction started out more complicated in Cataclysm than it ended up – the addition of the Improved Soul Fire buff was out of place for the spec, the Fel Flame addition in T11 was kinda meh. The Bane/Curse split didn’t affect Affliction locks as much as some, because adding a 5 minute curse on top of other DoTs really isn’t that big of a deal.

The addition of cooldowns, however, represents a new mental chunk for this spec.

  • DoTs and Debuffs: Shadow Embrace, Haunt, Unstable Affliction, Corruption, Bane of Doom/Agony, Curse of the Elements
  • Nukes/Drains: Shadow Bolt, Drain Life, Drain Soul, Fel Flame
  • Buffs: ISF, Dark Intent
  • AoE: Soul Swap, Shadowflame
  • Cooldowns: Demon Soul, Doomguard

Again, we see that the DoT/Debuff chunk starts getting big if we keep ISF/Dark Intent in the same mental space, but thankfully ISF was removed and you could relegate Dark Intent to the same chunk as watching your item procs.

Affliction’s chunks got more complicated, and there were more of them. Affliction now needed to manage cooldowns and time DoT refreshes accordingly; sometimes Haunt does not line up with your procs and you end up refreshing Corruption at the wrong time.

Demonology in Wrath was different from the other two specs; it had cooldowns. I played it extensively in 3.3.5 in ICC and found it to be highly engaging, a nice mix of DoT management, nuke choice, massive AoE potential with a few interesting CDs.

Demonology changed a lot during Wrath of the Lich King, so I’m just going to snapshot it as it was in 3.3.5:

  1. Life Tap buff
  2. Metamorphosis on CD as appropriate
  3. Immolation Aura if you could get close to the boss during Meta phase
  4. Curse of Doom
  5. Immolate
  6. Corruption
  7. Soul Fire (execute during Decimation)
  8. Incinerate (during Molten Core procs)
  9. Shadow Bolt filler
  10. Force cast your Felguard’s Cleave

Even the non-Warlocks should be able to chunk these abilities out by now.

  • DoTs, buffs, debuffs: Immolate, Corruption, Curse of Doom, Life Tap buff
  • Nukes: Soul Fire, Incinerate, Shadow Bolt
  • CDs: Metamorphosis/Immolation Aura (really a single CD used together – a chunk within a chunk!)

The challenge of Demo was that it involved some DoT management and some nuke management woven together. It was a nice balance between Affliction and Destruction, and had a very nice (and distinctive) DPS cooldown built in.

Cataclysm didn’t change the central idea of the spec (mixing DoTs and nukes), but it sure added complexity to it.

  1. ISF buff through 4.0.6
  2. Curse of the Elements
  3. Metamorphosis on variable CD as appropriate
  4. Demon Soul on CD as appropriate
  5. Doomguard on CD as approproate
  6. Immolation Aura if you could get close to the boss during Meta phase
  7. Immolate
  8. Bane of Doom
  9. Shadowflame
  10. Corruption
  11. Hand of Gul’dan on CD (tight CDs through 4.0.6)
  12. Soul Fire (execute during Decimation)
  13. Incinerate (during Molten Core procs)
  14. Shadow Bolt filler
  15. Force cast Felguard/Felpup attacks
  16. Dark Intent buff
  17. Fel Flame with T11 or while moving

Demonology gained a refresh nuke much like Affliction’s Haunt in Cataclysm, providing them with a unique spell that does damage, applies a debuff, and refreshes Immolate. The refresh mechanism ran into a lot of problems during the launch of Cataclysm, but was fixed in 4.0.6. (See Appendix A for more information on this.) This, plus the other now-standard additions to the Warlock rotation gives us:

  • DoTs and Debuffs: Immolate, Curse of Gul’dan, Corruption, Bane of Doom, Curse of the Elements
  • Nukes/Drains: Shadow Bolt, Incinerate, Hand of Gul’dan, Soul Fire
  • Buffs: ISF, Dark Intent
  • AoE: Shadowflame
  • Cooldowns: Metamorphosis/Immolation Aura, Demon Soul, Doomguard

I think the complexity of each chunk is worth noting here – each one increases by one or two variables, which in turn causes the entire spec to feel … heavier. More difficult. Used to juggling 3 nukes? Here, have a 4th. Have an additional debuff or two. Have Shadowflame in there. Have another CD that doesn’t quite match up with your normal one.

The inconvenient truth of Warlocks in Cataclysm is that they objectively became more difficult to play. Their abilities spiraled out of control without real benefit to players. Not only did the number of abilities increase, but the types of abilities increased as well, requiring players to use more mental chunks trying to keep track of it all. Eventually, that put many of the players over their magic number, causing them to flounder with a class that they used to be good at.

In the last post I talked a lot about the idea that abolishing the Simplicity Tax helped drive players away – that if there are simpler options available which do equally well or better, players will abandon the complex class. We now need to consider the Warlock class as getting increasingly more difficult over time. This erodes player confidence in their abilities, distances them from their chosen main character, and eventually alienates them from the game.

This is absolutely the wrong design direction for a class. As a class gets more complicated fewer players will be able to master it, and players who had mastered it will start falling by the wayside. Don’t get me wrong – this is a balancing act. Classes don’t need to be as simple as possible. Warlocks don’t need to return to the Shadow Destruction days.

But I think we’ve seen that Cataclysm brought complexity for complexity’s sake, and that it really frustrated many players. Not only did it become a barrier to entry, it became a barrier to continue playing!

As the game rises in levels, this is an issue that absolutely has to be addressed. If new abilities are to be granted, either old ones need to be removed, obsoleted, or made so that they are obviously not useful in certain situations. The class cannot continue in this direction, period. Continuing to make a class more difficult will only result in it frustrating more and more of its playerbase. This is bad for player fun, this is bad for the bottom line.

Any evaluation of class revisions in Mists must take this inconvenient truth into account. Yes, it may be cool to have new abilities, new spells. But are they grouped coherently? Can you chunk them and make sense of them, or will you flail trying to keep track of all of the new amazing things? Will the default UI suffice, or will it require players to have highly customized UIs to display the information necessary to the class in a comprehensible manner to players?

It’s fine that Warlocks are the complex caster class. Many Warlock players enjoy that complexity, and have enjoyed the additional complexity Cataclysm brought to their class.

But this can’t continue. The class is already at a cognitive tipping point where it’s just too much. If Blizzard wants to stop the Warlock class from being actively harmful to their subscriber numbers, the class needs to get simpler and easier to play.

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The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm

This is the eponymous third post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

THE PROBLEM OF FUN

Popularity data from the previous two posts in this series shows the following trends:

  1. Warlock popularity at max level is down 12% between Wrath and Cataclysm.
  2. Warlocks are the least popular class to level with, ending at 41% less popular than the average class. The class popularity declines as characters level.
  3. Warlocks have done well in hardmode raiding, with two or three specs as viable DPS options within each tier. No other class can boast this.
  4. Warlocks are overrepresented in high end PvP, especially in high-ranked 3v3 Arena.

The picture that emerges is of a class which is balanced at the highest levels of the game, but flawed everywhere else.

The overwhelming feedback I’ve received from Warlock players who abandoned their class is that playing the class isn’t fun. It might be that it’s not fun anymore for veteran players, or that it wasn’t fun to level one for a player new to the class – but fun is the underlying reason behind it all.

Fun, for as basic a concept it might be, is a difficult concept to define and capture. What makes something fun versus unfun? Why do some activities give us enjoyment while others do not? How can we take pleasure in certain tasks and not others, even if they are similar in nature? How is it that some people can enjoy activities (e.g. Archeology, raiding, PvP) that others find boring or frustrating?

Bringing it back down to Warcraft, why are some classes and specs fun to play and others not?

The Problem of Fun is the central problem of game design. It’s the whole point of making a game! It’s not that a game must fulfill all of the player’s stated desires, but rather that the game satisfies their unspoken ones – desire for challenge and reward, for mental stimulation, for stirring our imagination, for telling a good story, for immersing the player in a world which transports them elsewhere. Game designers struggle with this, constantly – how do you make something that a lot of people find fun, enjoy enough to come back to over and over again?

Some people might not like calling it fun. Call it overcoming challenges and obstacles, putting in a hard day’s work and getting amply rewarded for it both materially and personally, call it whatever you need to to make this idea work for you. I call it fun, because that’s what we have when we play. We’re playing a game, we’re either having fun – or we’re not.

If I could summarize the problem of the Warlock class, it is that the class suffers from inelegant complexity without reward. The class has long had a tradition of being one of the more complicated classes in Warcraft, with lots of buttons and demanding rotations that require players to juggle multiple variables to achieve maximum performance. The cycle of damage and healing between a warlock, their target, and their demon is not a simple one – but it was an elegant one.

It just required a lot of buttons.

What appears to have changed in Cataclysm is that the complexity of playing a Warlock increased, while the rewards for doing so decreased. Furthermore, numerous changes were made to the class which made the mechanics clumsy and awkward. This is manifest in the two chief complaints about Warlocks:

  1. Combat on a Warlock is more complicated than other classes, yet yields lower returns. Be it in battlegrounds, dungeons, or even questing, you do more to get less done with a Warlock than on other classes.
  2. Outside of combat, playing a Warlock is harder than other classes due to quality of life issues. Leveling lacks flow, talents are poorly planned out, acquisition of new spells while leveling is confusing, and utility is lackluster.

These are two sides of the same coin.

Cataclysm ushered in a number of failures in class design, talents and abilities, rotation, balance, and quality of  life issues for Warlocks, all of which contributed to the class’s decline in popularity. Part of this was due to the major redesign the class underwent at the beginning of the expansion; part of it was due to changes made to keep the class balanced at the high-end endgame with the other nine classes as the expansion progressed.

Other classes were less complicated, more elegant, and performed better in many common situations than Warlocks. They were more fun, so players gravitated to them.

In hindsight, we should have seen a lot of this coming.

THE PROBLEM OF EQUALITY AND THE SIMPLICITY TAX

The reason we should have seen these failures coming is because Cataclysm was, in most ways, a triumph of the Bring the Player, Not the Class school of class design. Buffs were redesigned so that they were distributed more equally between specs. Gone was the idea of the Hybrid Tax, where classes who could fill multiple roles would not do as well as those who could only be damage dealers. All classes could reasonably expect to have a competitive DPS spec. Select Hybrid DPS performed extremely well at many points throughout the expansion.

The implementation of this philosophy in Cataclysm is up for debate, but its presence is not. At no point did any developer say that Shadow Priests should do worse DPS than Mages, for instance. Blizzard’s design mantra has been Bring the Player since 2009. The goal was to create relative parity between the classes, and by in large Blizzard achieved it. Not perfectly – there are some notable omissions – but the attempts were made to keep classes in line.

What does Bring the Player, Not the Class have to do with the decline of Warlocks? Quite a bit.

The goal of Bring the Player is to equalize performance and utility across classes, in effect to remove the impact of class choice on common endgame activities. Raids shouldn’t be canceled or fail because you don’t have a certain class. DPS, tanks, and healers should all be relatively interchangeable.

So if all DPS classes are equal, what is the reward for mastering a complex class like the Warlock?

In many ways, this is the same question we ask when discussing pure and hybrid DPS classes, isn’t it? If all DPS specs are equal, what’s the advantage of rolling a pure over a hybrid? It’s the same concept at work, only dealing with spec complexity instead of role flexibility.

I think we need a new name for this idea that Warlocks are wrestling with. We already have the Hybrid Tax, the idea that hybrid DPS should do less damage than pure DPS because they have role flexibility. Perhaps we need a Simplicity Tax to capture this question: should complex rotations outperform simple ones?.

Quick quiz! Name the simplest high end raiding ranged DPS rotation?

If you said “Arcane Mages,” go sit in the corner for a minute. They have two buttons to push, sometimes three. :)

No, the simplest build goes to BC-era Warlocks with the 0/21/40 Shadow Destruction build, which was based entirely around sacrificing your Succubus and spamming Shadow Bolt. Remember that one, Warlocks? The rotation was a single button. One. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1.

So, is it fair that simple rotations do high damage? Leaving aside the question of fun and game design – I think there’s an argument that you can make a rotation too simple to be fun anymore, and the Shadow Destruction build probably got there – the idea behind the Simplicity Tax says that if you keep 6 debuffs rolling with 2 nukes, 3 CDs and still manage to use a melee cone effect, you should do more damage than someone spamming Shadow Bolt.

Think about how often we see people talking about this in Warcraft. You have players mocking faceroll rotations, outrage over 1-button Death Knight macros, countless jokes about how easy Arcane Mages have it. It doesn’t matter if it’s bubble spam or rejuv spam or moonfare spam, simple rotations have a bad rap.

Rightly or wrongly, we have the idea in life that effectiveness should scale with effort or skill. This is the foundation of the Warlock’s complaint in the Bring the Player model. Should a DPS class which requires more complicated maneuvers than other classes do equivalent damage? If you have to track 6-9 variables and use 12-16 abilities, shouldn’t that be worth more output than someone who tracks 3 things and presses 5 keys?

In the Bring the Player model, the answer is a resounding no. The model rejects the Hybrid Tax, and it rejects the Simplicity Tax, because they are about bringing the class, not the player. Play your class because you enjoy it, not because it’s going to do more damage.

Because it’s not, in the Bring the Player model.

There’s an argument you can make against the Simplicity Tax in real life – work smarter, not harder. While it seems fair to say that effectiveness should scale with effort, real life doesn’t usually bear this out. You see it with employment, where you can work for 60 hours a week at a minimum wage job and just barely get by, or you can work 20 hours a week at a bank and live quite well. You see it working on repairing a car or maintaining your home, where having the right tool can make a backbreaking job trivial. You can go get an automatic screwdriver or good drill to put together that flat-packed Swedish furniture in no time, or you can use the screwdriver on your Swiss Army knife and have it take five times as long.

But the idea persists, and it’s a powerful one.

I know that I supported the Simplicity Tax for the longest time. My own statement on the Warlock feedback forum thread from last November:

How do you feel about your rotation?

Other classes seem to be easier. I enjoy the rotation because it gives me a lot of buttons to push, and think it’s fine, but it’s complicated. I seem to have to do more to be excellent than other classes.

I feel like I’m a stick driver, defending myself against the influx of automatic transmissions. I want to feel like the extra effort I put into driving makes a difference in performance and economy. But whether it does or not depends entirely upon the car and how I drive it, and those automatic transmissions keep getting better year after year.

Let’s look at it from the other side of the fence for a bit. Much like the Hybrid Tax, you can argue that the Simplicity Tax isn’t fair to players of other classes. Just because the class is simpler to play than another, why should it be penalized? Not to pick on Arcane Mages for my example, but I think they’re a great example of a simple but elegant spec, where the mana management minigame adds the necessary complexity to keep the rotation just interesting enough to still be fun without being totally boring. Sure, there are only a few tools that you use – but when you use them is paramount. It’s not a Shadow Destruction spec, no matter how I might tease Mages about it. Is it right that an elegantly simple spec be penalized just because other classes have more complex rotations?

This is the bind Warlocks find themselves in under Bring the Player. All three Warlock rotations in Cataclysm are defined by complexity; there is no simple spec, they’re all complicated now. But the prevailing design direction is that the Simplicity Tax, much like the Hybrid Tax, is gone.

Yet, the complaint remains: it is no fun to do more work for equal performance and rewards than someone else.

You have to enjoy the complexity on its own merits for this class to appeal to you. Warlock players have to be able to say, I’m okay with doing more work for my DPS because the work is so much fun on its own.

Or else Warlock is not the class for you.

The ascendancy of Bring the Player Not the Class put players who enjoy playing Warlocks in a terrible position in Cataclysm. Either they embraced the complexity of the class and had fun with it, and were satisfied with average results, or they discovered that it was the combination of effort and effectiveness which they really enjoyed, in which case they were now playing the wrong class for this expansion.

We should have seen the decline of Warlocks coming. Bring the Player forces the Warlock class into a niche for players who like complex mechanics for their own sake, not for the sake of improved performance.

We should have seen it coming.

THE PROBLEM OF COMPLEXITY AND NICHE CLASSES

This has been a discussion on class design theory up to this point; whenever you hear the phrase “assume equal DPS across classes” you can be sure you’re in theoryland.

It was important to start in theoryland, because it puts assertions of actual performance by Warlock players into a framework which lets us understand their rational flight away from the class. Playing a Warlock is hard, and has been made even harder in Cataclysm, but if their damage was exceptional – or brought other fun things to the player’s experience – then we’d see people stick to the class. We aren’t seeing that.

I do more work for less damage. I can’t keep up with other classes. All three specs have low damage output compared to other classes everywhere except for the top tier of raiding, and even at that level DPS isn’t stellar. It’s not bad, it’s just not overwhelmingly great.

I think a lot of this is because the rotations are unforgiving – if the Warlock player makes a single mistake, they’ll lose a substantial portion of their DPS. Players in the top raid tier are excellent players – they don’t make those small mistakes the majority of the playerbase makes. They time their refreshes to procs, they can juggle 13 debuffs across 3 mobs. That’s pretty damn impressive! But it means that if the class is balanced around those players, the small mistakes the majority of players make will add up. And if the class is competing against classes who can AoE or multidot with 2 buttons and no debuff tracking … well, then we have a real problem.

I think that Warlocks’ three viable raiding specs work against them here, too. Individual specs might be better or worse on a given fight, so really skilled Warlocks learn multiple specs and swap between them as needed for an advantage. That’s tough to do; not only are you now trying to excel at one challenging rotation, you have to pick up a second (or even a third) complex spec and master it, too. Then you have to gear differently for it, too, because that’s the way DPS specs work.

And it’s not like Warlocks have a simple spec anymore, either. In Wrath, Affliction was the king of complexity, with Demo a close second and Destro coming in as “the simple spec.” That’s no longer true in Cataclysm – all three specs are now about equally complicated, about on par with Affliction’s Golden Age of 3.0.8/3.1 (a time, coincidentally, where Affliction rewarded great skill with great output.) This is a big weakness when considering the appeal of a class – classes which have varied specs can appeal to a wider range of players than ones which do not. Warlocks, quite frankly, don’t have a simple spec anymore.

Consider what each spec has to deal with at level 85:

There isn’t much difference in complexity between the specs anymore. If you play a Warlock, you are going to have a complicated rotation at level 85, period. You get to choose your flavor of complexity (debuffs vs cooldowns vs nukes) but not if you want it complex or not.

Compare this to other casters (and forgive me if I get this wrong:)

There’s a real difference in complexity within the specs here – something that Warlocks lack. Arcane versus Fire is a very real playstyle difference, and I think that flexibility is a good thing for Mages.

I think we’re seeing Warlocks becoming the class for those who love complex caster rotations. This might not be popular, but it fills a necessary niche within WoW.

Niche classes aren’t something we talk about much in Warcraft. It doesn’t really fit in with the idea that you can roll whatever you like and enjoy the game about as well as with any other similar class. But the niche classes are there – Hunters, for example, are promoted on the character creation screen as “excellent for solo play,” and they are. Hunters are excellent for leveling and playing without a group. Rogues are great in PvP at pretty much all levels, even as their utility in PvE continues to shrink.

Niche isn’t bad. It’s hard to accept, because class is the one thing our WoW characters are locked into, and if we come to love a character but not that niche there can be dissonance and friction. Not every class is going to be niche, and some will genuinely be flexible enough to handle pretty much any role. (Druids, looking at you.)  There’s a strange dichotomy here in that Bring the Player forces classes who lack flexibility into niche roles at the same time it promotes the idea that classes shouldn’t have niches.

Isn’t that odd, when you step back and look at it? Why do you choose classes under Bring the Player? It’s not for the buffs, it’s not for the performance, it’s for the intangibles, the side benefits, the utility, the flavor. It’s for the mobility and simplicity of a Mage or complexity of a Warlock; the cool pets a Hunter gets to collect or the sneakiness of a Rogue. Flavor matters, but so does niche.

Warlocks are filling an interesting niche right now. They’re a support class, exceptionally good at small scale PvP, wonderful if you have a healer behind you and a burst DPS working alongside you. They’re a great support class for Arena and Rated Battlegrounds, but weak on their own. They need other players to thrive, which is odd considering their flavor as evil, somewhat solitary crazy spellcasters. In a way, Warlocks are the anti-Hunters: hard to level, require other players to be really effective, lack burst but bring steady pressure. Both classes received major resource system revamps in Cataclysm – yet one class is thriving and the other is not.

The only time niche classes are bad is when you discover that you’ve rolled a niche class, and want to do something that they’re not good at.

Or, worse, when your class’s niche switches on you without warning.

THE PROBLEM OF THE MAIN

What happens when you have been playing a character for some time and you realize that they’re just not the right character for you?

Perhaps it’s part of the leveling process – you look up one day and go, I really don’t like playing a Rogue, why am I struggling to get to level 60? Hopefully that happens early enough that you can abandon the character and start over again. Different people will have different tolerances for this – I remember my first week of WoW, I’d rolled on a different server from some friends and they told me to reroll. I protested, but I’m level 12! They laughed at me and told me I could make that up easily.

They were right, but at the time it was a big deal.

Perhaps it’s an endgame character. Maybe it’s your first, so it’s hard to let go of the only way to experience endgame content. Or maybe it’s one of many, but it’s the one you spend all your time on. What happens when you realize one day that you’re not having fun with that class anymore?

I think this is a real problem for Blizzard. Players who get frustrated with their classes might reroll, but they also might quit the game entirely. Classes are the lens through which players experience the game, and a bad fit between class/player can put players off the game permanently. Correctly advertising a class before a player makes an investment becomes paramount to avoid those times of customer uncertainty.

Niche classes like Warlocks and Rogues present a business challenge to Blizzard. They help broaden the appeal of the game by presenting classes which are good at specific things or for specific playstyles. Even under Bring the Player these kinds of classes fill a distinct role. It’s okay for a class to be unpopular if it fills a niche.

But when a class is unpopular and shedding subscribers because of that unpopularity, that’s when it gets to be a problem for Blizzard. Can a class be allowed to continue like that during a period when subscriber churn is a very real problem?

Identification with a single character can be a boon – players are less likely to leave a game if they feel they have a personal investment in their avatar, and the more time they spend on one character, the more investment they have. But that identification can also be a problem when it ties players too much to a limited view of the entire game. It can also cause people to stay with a class they no longer enjoy, breeding resentment and anger which finally results in them quitting the game entirely.

Several of the changes announced for Mists seem aimed at making the transition between characters easier. Account-wide mounts and pets, for example, help assuage our collector instinct and free us to try a different class without worrying that today will be the day the Baron’s mount drops. Shared achievements serve the same purpose, freeing up players to move between characters.

I think we will see more changes like these coming from Blizzard as they try to address this problem. We will probably see more Scroll of Resurrection-style offers to lessen the impact of a single decision made at character creation 90 levels before.

THE PROBLEM OF WARLOCK POPULARITY AND PLAYING WHAT YOU LOVE

Is unpopular bad?

I don’t know if many people picked up on this, but in the first two posts of this series I tried to avoid making any value judgements about the unpopularity of Warlocks. Their unpopularity was a fact, nothing more, nothing less.

But the responses to that fact show that it is a problem. There are a lot of unhappy Warlocks and ex-Warlocks out there. There are a lot of people who left the game because their class changed underneath them – and not just Warlocks.

It’s not that I think classes should be equally popular; that’s a bad goal to work towards. You don’t want to try to make popular classes less popular. Every time you put a player in a position where they consider changing their character, you have also put them in a position where they consider leaving the game. That’s not good.

Every class should be fun for somebody. I think that’s the guiding principle here – classes should be different enough so that they have the broadest possible appeal, but still be fun.

Warlocks got changed over the course of Cataclysm to become inelegantly complex, and the rewards for their complexity vanished. This is a topic which I’ll touch on in a lot more depth in a future post. But for a lot of their players, this caused Warlocks to become less fun, and therefore less popular. Warlock players had to struggle with a basic, fundamental question – do I still enjoy the complexity of the class enough to stick with it when it’s only average?

This is the challenge presented by the Bring the Player school of design – find a class you love playing, that you have fun playing, because a lot of external validation for that choice will be removed. There won’t be a Hybrid Tax or a Simplicity Tax to drive you to one class or another – so you have to figure out what you love.

If the complexity of the Warlock rotation floats your boat, stick with it. If not, it’s not the class for you anymore.

That’s a hard thing for someone like me to accept.

It’s hard for me, personally, to stand up and say: I don’t love this class anymore. I loved it once, but not what it has become, and that’s okay. It’s hard for me to watch it become unpopular, to see hundreds, thousands of other players reach the same conclusion as me.

It’s been really hard for me to set aside my main, to say that you’re not the character I loved playing before. I still like you as a character, but I haven’t liked playing a Warlock this expansion except in one place – Arena. It took me a long time to accept that my class had become a niche class, that the class design philosophy had left me behind.

I’ve talked solely about the philosophical shifts which caused problems for Warlocks in Cataclysm in this post. The deck was stacked against the class from the start, and even if all the changes had been executed flawlessly we’d still be looking at an unpopular class.

However, there were flaws – lots of them. Cataclysm changed the class from something which allowed us to enforce our will upon the game to something which left us, a class founded on control and domination, feeling powerless, at the mercy of others.

For our dots were easily expelled, and we had no mana drain.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, Warlock Complexity and the Magic Number, where I’ll go into more detail about the issues Warlocks experienced in Cataclysm, and how those items need to be fixed in Mists to reverse the class’s fortunes.

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Interlude: New Series on Warlocks in Cataclysm

I have been completely overwhelmed by the response to my previous two posts about the decline of Warlock popularity in Cataclysm. I had tried to stick solely to conclusions that the data supports in those posts, and only focus on establishing facts. I needed numbers to tell me if my setting aside my Warlock main was just me or not. I fell out of love with the class. Had I failed the class somehow?

But what I wasn’t prepared for was how many other Warlock players were looking for the same reassurance I was. The numbers provided a safe haven to tell stories without fear of accusation of complaint, but rather stated as naked facts – yes, I used to play a Warlock. I stopped because of this.

I’ve now read hundreds of stories of Warlock players who have become frustrated with their class. They’ve become frustrated with something that used to bring them joy but was changed underneath them. They’re struggling with clunky mechanics, bugs, and low DPS. There are a lot of unhappy Warlocks out there right now.

My original intention was to come back with a post about the major problems I saw in Cataclysm, talk a little bit about what Blizzard was already doing in the Mists Beta to fix them, and call it a night.

But as I started writing, and writing, and writing, I realized there was no way a single post could contain it all. The problems are too damn big. It was no longer just about me; this was about a class I loved, once, and about how it disappointed and frustrated its players this expansion.

I’ve outlined where I want to go with this series, and to be honest – there’s a lot of material to cover. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. I will need another 4-5 posts to cover this fully.

So I’m making this a series, The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm. I’ve created its own index page in the Warlock section of this website (accessible in the left hand navigation), and will be adding links to the individual articles as they are published.

Hope you enjoy the series. :)

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Leveling Data on Warlocks is Worse than I Thought

This is the second post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

This is an addendum to Where Did All The Warlocks Go in Cataclysm?. It’s not the followup I promised, that is still in progress.

In that post, I wrote:

Unlike most classes, Warlocks decline as they level. There’s a slight decline from 80-84 to 85, which might represent people leveling to endgame and then dropping the character, but it’s not huge. They decline a bit (3%) through the leveling process, but that’s nothing like what happens to Rogues (5%). I think you have a stronger case for saying people have started a lot of Rogues but not gotten them to endgame than you do with Warlocks – 3% could be just noise in the system from the DK bump, plus, there’s the Rogue Legendary Carrot – but there is still something going on there.

I would like to retract those statements about Warlocks, and the conclusions that follow from it.

I was wrong and underestimated how bad things looked for warlocks through the leveling process. They decline 20% in popularity from levels 20 to 85, and are substantially underrepresented at all levels. Few players are rolling them, fewer take them to endgame, and even fewer still play them at endgame.

Jason left a great comment on the post. In it, he said:

Your chart showing the trend of toon popularity would look better if you indexed them to the average (for pre-DK the avg is 11.11, and 10 after). This really drives home the trends.

For hunters that would make their trend: 159,151,143,134,109,120,131,120,109.

For Warlocks: 79,71,71,63,50,60,61,70,59.

For those that don’t understand indexes, that mean that hunters were 59% more popular than the average 10-19, but only 9% above average at 85. Warlocks were only 21% below average at the start, and a whopping 41% below average at 85!

I took Jason’s suggestion and indexed the leveling data, a stats term for assigning the average value to 100 and then comparing each value to it in succession.

So we start with our original leveling data from the WarcraftRealms Census:

Leveling characters as percentage of total census population

We then turn it into an index so we can more clearly see how each value deviates from the average value for that bracket. What’s better, we can now track the changes accurately over the leveling process – no longer do we have to wave our hands and ignore the effect of DKs changing the average value midway through the process.

Where’s what the index values look like.

Indexed values of character populations through levels 10-85

The average value of this index is 100, so values over 100 represent classes which are more represented at that level.

Here is the same data, this time presented as percent deviation from the average:

Percent deviation from average character population per class, 10-85

The Class Distribution Spreadsheet has been updated with a new tab for this information.

This data shows how under or over represented a class really is, compared to what the average should be. At level 10-19, Mages and Warriors are about where the average is, while Hunters are a whopping 59% more!

Using the index helps explain and quantify one of the things I was trying to articulate with the Mage numbers: even though they start at 11% of the population at level 10-19, and end at 11% at 85, they experienced growth as measured by the average.

The index also allows us to measure the relative deviation from the norm for each class as they level. We can clearly see things like:

  • If you get through the first 40 levels on a Pally, chances are you’re going to stick with them through endgame.
  • Hunters are even more prevalent at lower levels than your average WSG twink game would have you believe. They remain popular all the way up through endgame, when they get put aside for other toons.
  • Warriors are oddly struggling at higher levels. Is this due to the sudden difficulty increase of Cata dungeons at level 80? Gear dependency with rapidly inflating item level curves? Or is it an endgame effect? I honestly don’t know.
  • There are a lot of Death Knights just out of the starter zone.

But what the data shows regarding Warlocks is disturbing.

Warlocks drop in popularity by 20% between level 19 and level 85. There is no level that they are a popular class. None.

People don’t want to try them, and when they do, they don’t stick with the class to endgame. They barely make it to level 40, for crying out loud!

I thought that the 6.7% figure of total endgame population was pretty bad. I think the -37% at 40-49 and -41% at 85 is worse, because it shows that the class is in trouble through the majority of the game.

Keep this in mind as you hear about Warlock developments in Mists.

(Thank you, Jason, for suggesting this way of looking at the data.)

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Where Did All The Warlocks Go in Cataclysm?

This is the first post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

Where have all the warlocks gone?

I heard this question more and more often as Cataclysm progressed. Raid leaders struggled to recruit them. Players didn’t see them in LFD, or later, in LFR. Battleground appearances became increasingly rare. Leveling warlocks became an elusive beast for me to find on my own leveling tanks and healers.

It’s not like warlocks were hugely popular in Wrath of the Lich King, but I didn’t recall quite so many people asking me questions like this one. Some of the major kills of that expansion featured warlocks prominently – remember Stars doing Yogg-0 and all those Drain Soul beams? – but Cataclysm had those kinds of moments, too. I remember several Demonology warlocks in the world first Heroic Rag video. DPS was never so lackluster that it couldn’t keep up. Warlocks weren’t getting benched for playing warlocks … they just became scarce.

At the same time, I went through my own problems playing my warlock main, Cynwise. At first I thought it was due to my dissatisfaction with the PvP endgame at the end of Season 9, but as the months ticked by and I made no effort to pick up a warlock, any warlock, I found myself wondering if it was really the endgame I didn’t enjoy in Cataclysm – or warlocks. I had become one of the missing warlocks, and I didn’t even really know why.

Was it me? Was it the class? I felt very uncomfortable extrapolating my own experience out to warlocks in general. The specific incident that knocked me off my warlock main was too personal, too isolated. It didn’t really have anything to do with warlocks at all – it had much more to do with the gear transition in endgame PvP, a lack of interest in raiding, and a desire to see more of the lower brackets.

Maybe it was just perception that there were fewer warlocks out there. Just because I’ve fallen out of love with a class doesn’t mean that the class is broken, right? People change. I changed. I learned to love healing and tanking, for crying out loud! What kind of a warlock likes to tank things that aren’t the floor?

The plural of anecdote isn’t data.

I stopped playing a warlock when 4.2 was released. She went from my main to a neglected tailoring alt over the course of Cataclysm.

But the months ticked by, fewer people talked to me about the hexenfreude of playing a warlock, and more asked me what was wrong with the class. I had to wonder:

Was I the only one?

THE POPULARITY CONTEST

Are warlocks less popular now than they used to be? That’s the question we must start with – is the decline one of perception only, or is it based in fact?

Comparing WoW census figures from the end of Wrath (patch 3.3.5) and what is presumably the last patch of Cataclysm (4.3.2) indicate that the answer to this is definitively yes.

Warlocks are less popular now than they were at the end of Wrath.

This data is taken from two sources: Armory Data Mining (fortunately, not updated since 3.3.5) and World of Wargraphs. (Here’s the spreadsheet if you want to follow along.) Without knowing the methodology between these two censuses it’s difficult to assign a high certainty between comparing between different data sources, but these numbers appear to be consistent across other census sites. Let’s go with them as being at least relatively accurate.

  • Three classes experienced significant declines in their playerbase: Paladins, Death Knights, and Warlocks. All three of these had substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm.
  • Two classes had statistically significant increases: Mages and Hunters. Hunters received substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm; this is somewhat counter evidence to the opinion that the change to Focus from Mana was bad for the class.
  • Three classes had small gains in popularity: Shamans, Druids, and Warriors.
  • Two classes stayed about the same: Priests and Rogues.

There are several key points I’d like to raise from this data set.

Paladins and Death Knights suffered a larger decline in popularity than Warlocks (2.1% and 1.9% respectively), but because their relative popularity (#1 and #2 in Wrath) was so much higher, the loss was less noticeable.

The Wrath numbers for Death Knights and Paladins may have also been inflated by the Legendary Effect, where more players were playing classes with a current tier legendary (Shadowmourne) available for them. What’s interesting is that we don’t see a corresponding rise in warlocks competing for their legendary, which is only one raiding teir past current (and still exceptionally good), while we do see a corresponding rise in the popularity of Rogues with their legendary in this tier.

Class popularity concentrated in a few classes in Wrath, with the outliers (Paladins, DKs) skewing high. There’s a nice little clump of 6 classes between 7.5% and 9.1%, Warriors are pretty close to even at 10.1%, and then there are the popular classes (Druid, DK, Paladin.) There isn’t an absence of Warlocks, Rogues, Hunters and Shaman in this distribution – rather, there’s a lot of people playing Paladins! Players notice that there was an abundance of a certain class, not an absence.

In Cataclysm, the popular classes became less popular and – overall – classes were more evenly distributed. There’s a nice clump of 4 classes at 10-11%, a clump of 2 at 9.3% and the popular classes (Paladins and Druids) at 12-13%. There’s less of a range between those 8 classes than in the previous model.

But notice that the outliers shifted from the high to the low end. Rogues are, relatively speaking, less popular compared to Hunters and Shamans than they used to be, even if their popularity hasn’t changed. Warlocks are even worse off – not only did they decline in popularity overall, they’ve declined relative to the standard set by other classes. No longer do you notice that there are Paladins everywhere; you notice the absence of Warlocks.

The salient feature of Wrath’s class popularity distribution was the abundance of Paladins and Death Knights; the salient feature of Cataclysm’s class distribution is the dearth of Warlocks.

It’s interesting that this is both a decline in fact and in perception.

UNDERPOWERED, OVERPOWERED, OUT OF POWER

So why are Warlocks in decline? Are they particularly bad at a particular area of the game? Is this a problem of balance, or power? Is this a case where warlocks are just plain underpowered? Are people making rational choices in raiding by shunning warlocks? Are they just bad in PvP? While I hadn’t heard of any of these problems, perhaps there was a rational reason to choose another class.

I first looked at DPS in heroic raids. While heroic raids don’t represent the entire universe of PvE, they’re a good place to start when looking at DPS. I took a quick look at Raidbot’s DPSbot and 25m H encounters:

Huh. Nothing in the last two months, really. Warlocks are solidly middle of the pack performers in hard mode raiding. Unlike some classes, their three specs are pretty well balanced between each other.

Maybe we need to look further back. Let’s expand our view for the last year.

Okay, now we’ve got a lot more data, with more diversity in the data set, so we can see trends over the expansion.

  • In 4.1, Affliction is one of the top DPS specs, sharing the lead with Shadow Priests and Arcane Mages. Balance Druids, MM Hunters, and Arms Warriors are also very strong. Demo and Destro are in the second tier of DPS.
  • In 4.2, Affliction is no longer top of the DPS, but still competitive. Demonology remains mid-tier, while Destruction drops like a rock to the bottom of the charts.
  • In 4.3, Affliction, Demonology, and Destruction are all mid-tier DPS performers. If you zoom in to various displays of the data on the linked site, Affliction is still the top Warlock performer, while Destruction has improved substantially.

So the picture that emerges of Warlock DPS is … it’s fine. I know that’s a judgement call, but realistically, it hasn’t been bad, and it’s even been pretty good at times. It hasn’t been so awesome that it’s an outlier (like Fire Mages an Shadow Priests), but at the same time, it hasn’t really struggled. It’s a solid performer.

What’s interesting is that all three specs have had a pretty good run of it in Cataclysm – more so than any other pure DPS class. Mages have tended to have one superior spec in PvE at any given time, either Arcane or Fire. Hunters have had wildly erratic performance in PvE, with Survival either great or terrible, but Marskmanship and Beast Mastery lagging behind. Rogues have also been forced into Combat or Assassination, mostly Combat. Except for a period in 4.2 with Destruction falling way behind, all three Warlock specs were viable for Cataclysm raiding.

That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it? You’d think that having viable choices for your PvE spec would be a benefit, wouldn’t it?

Nothing in the DPS rankings says that the class needed to be buffed dramatically. While there are some superior choices at specific times, there were few classes that were consistently better. Shadow Priests, maybe? Mages weren’t until they got the Fire buffs of 4.3.

So maybe there’s something more going on here than just straight DPS problems. Let’s go back to popularity and see if that sheds any light on how warlocks have done in raids.

One of the great things about the World of Wargraphs site is that it allows you to drill down to a specific environment, and compare how a class/spec combo does there, versus its overall popularity. This is important, because it allows you to avoid bias. If you looked at population distribution and said: 15% of everyone who killed 8 HM bosses was a Druid, therefore druids are overpowered in HM PVE content, you’d be making an erroneous statement. You have to compare this to the overall population – if 30% of all players played Druids, but only 15% killed HM bosses, Druids might be underpowered. Or Druids might have a disadvantage in PvE. Or there might be another class which is simply better than Druids at their tasks.

Let’s take a real example of this. Here’s the current distribution of classes of all characters who have killed at 4+ heroic raid bosses this tier.

Class Distribution in Heroic Raids, 4.3.3 (From World of Wargraphs)

Looking at only this data, you might conclude that Paladins, Priests, and Druids are better at heroic raiding, and Death Knights, Hunters, and Warlocks are worse at it. But this would be incorrect. You might have more Priests raiding than Shaman simply because there are more Priests playing the game, not because Priests have some natural advantages in raids.

When we take the data and mash it up against the global popularity percentages, we get numbers like this:

Class Popularity in 4.3.3 - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

4.3.3 Class Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This allows us to see which classes tend to be brought to heroic raids a bit more than average (those with green Popularity Deltas) versus those who are not (those with red scores). Priests and Hunters make up about the same amount of the player base, but one gets brought to the heroic raids more often (Priests).

The remarkable thing about Warlocks? They appear to be properly represented in heroic raids. They’re appealing enough to bring at the same rate as the general lock population. No advantages, but no real disadvantages, either.

The hybrid nature of some classes might throw these numbers off, though. We’re not really being fair to hybrids by lumping them all together – you might have a great healing spec but an awful DPS spec, which would balance things out.

Okay! Let’s look at it by spec, then.

4.3.3 Class/Spec Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This chart not only shows which specs are currently raiding hard modes successfully, but which ones are disproportionately good (or bad) at it. Survival Hunters make up only 3.1% of the WoW population, yet account for 7.5% of successful hard mode raiders. I think it’s safe to say that Survival is a good raiding spec. A Beast Mastery hunter, on the other hand, is scarce in hard mode raiding (only 0.3%), yet is 2.7% of the total population.

In this case, the results we see here match the results we saw looking at DPS. That’s good! This shows that for Hunters, at least, if you want to do Heroic Raids, you go for the one that produces the best DPS – which, right now, is Survival. I like it when data matches up like this, and we see it in other specs and classes, too. Fire Mage? Overrepresented. Frost Mage? Under.

Warlocks are a pretty small sample size, but we still see some parallels between the DPS scores and popularity. Each spec is equally represented, 2%-2.6%. Interestingly, Destruction is the most popular spec, and both it and Demonology are slightly more popular than their global populations. Affliction is less so. These don’t quite match the DPS figures that we saw earlier, but this might be because the current tier requires more burst, which both Destro and Demo deliver better than Affliction. The perception is that Destro was buffed and Affliction is weak right now. We find statements like the following boilerplate from the Elitist Jerks warlock guides:

With the release of Patch 4.3 the warlock class sees a number of changes, in particular the Destruction spec, along with a few changes to the Demonology spec. Following these changes we see that all 3 specs are quite close, and all have something to bring to the table. For single target DPS, the following should be true at all gear levels:

Demonology > Destruction >= Affliction

While Demonology does pull ahead in single target DPS by ~2k DPS, this is only in close to perfect conditions where there is minimal to no movement and the player is able to stand in melee range. This means that in most situations Destruction and Affliction will perform better than Demonology.

On multi-target fights with strictly 2 DPS targets Affliction and Destruction should be quite even. However once any additional targets are introduced Affliction will perform considerably better than Destruction. Heavy AoE fights are where Demonology really begins to shine, followed respectably by Affliction and then Destruction behind by a considerable margin.

As confusing as they are, I think these observations are pretty accurate. All three specs are quite close, and knowing their strengths and weaknesses is important when deciding which spec to play on which fight.

This leads to an interesting observation about specs. When there’s a clearly superior DPS spec for a class in raiding (e.g. Survival, Fire) players will flock to it. When two or three specs are raid viable, other considerations factor into the decision making process and muddy the water. We should not assume that having three viable raiding specs is better than only having one; Warlocks might have choices, but that isn’t drawing people to raid with the class more than, say, Survival Hunters or Shadow Priests. It may be more flexible, but it isn’t necessarily more appealing.

For Warlocks, there isn’t an easy choice of spec in raiding right now. Should you go Demo/Destro on Spine for burst, or stay Affliction? Do you have the gear to switch between Destro and Demo? Will you be multidotting, or just handling a few adds? Which spec is the player more skilled at playing?

Aside from having more spec choices than any other DPS class, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Warlocks in PvE raids.

Warlocks aren’t underpowered in heroic raids, but neither are they overpowered.

THE GREAT MYSTERY OF PVP AND RLS SYNERGY

If Warlocks are doing okay in PvE, perhaps poor performance in PvP is driving players away from the class.

I dunno. It could happen!

I toss this theory out because if you’ve leveled a Warlock lately in PvP, you know that battlegrounds can be tough on you. You have to have exceptionally good gear to succeed, and even then you’ll probably die a lot. I don’t think this theory holds at the endgame – warlocks have traditionally been pretty potent in PvP – but we should test it out.

The following graph presents all classes in all rated PvP environments  – Arenas, Rated Battlegrounds – with a rating of 2200+.

This is the first population chart where Warlocks are not on the bottom. Not only are they not at the bottom, Warlocks are disproportionately well represented in highly ranked PvP.

Class Distribution in 4.3.3 PvP (Season 11) - 2200+ Rating

There are classes which do better at rated PvP play than others, and Warlocks are on that list. If you look through the current 3v3 comp ratings, Warlocks are part of the dominant comp (RLS, Rogue Lock Shaman), and integral parts of most of the other comps.

3v3 Comp Popularity in Season 11 - 2200+ Ratings

The structure of 3v3 is usually straightforward: healer, controller, burst. Affliction Warlocks have the right tools to apply constant pressure on the healer, they’re hard to kill, they have great CC, and they can put out a lot of damage. What they can’t do is burst, which is why pairing them with a Rogue works so well. And Shaman healing works really well with Affliction PvP – Spirit Link totem is one of the keys to this synergy.

The PvP data on World of Wargraphs tells this story in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t matter what Arena size it is, there are a disproportionate number of ranked Warlocks in it.

  • 5v5 they are practically essential (Affliction is top spec, 12.7% of all players).
  • 3v3 they are dominant (#4, 8.5%).
  • 2v2 they’re respectable (#7, 6.1%).
  • Even rated battlegrounds, which I thought might have some falloff, sees 10.2% of all players as Warlocks – just behind Rogues.

That pretty much means every rated BG team is going to have a warlock – if they can find one.

The data tells a story about a class which is exceptionally good at ranked PvP, especially when working with several other players. They might be weak on their own, but they are very potent in a group. They are a damage support class, providing pressure everywhere. Other classes keep them alive or burn down the opponents; Afflocks provide the control and damage needed to create those openings.

Rogues are in a similar position; great PvP abilities, great PvE output, relatively low numbers. Both classes have received legendaries in Cataclysm, though Warlocks shared theirs with other caster DPS. Rogues are currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts in Dragon Soul, with their legendaries providing both class interest and top DPS for a class which has deserved some love for some time.

Hunters are in the opposite position. Terrible in ranked PvP, a single PvE spec doing well in raids after struggling for much of the expansion, and a completely reworked resource system. But Hunter popularity is up, and Warlock popularity continue to slip.

There isn’t anything wrong with the Warlock numbers.  That’s what’s so frustrating about this problem. The class isn’t out of balance, it’s not pulling in low DPS, and it’s doing really well in PvP.

So why the hell are people not playing warlocks anymore?

WHEN YOU HAVE ELIMINATED THE IMPOSSIBLE

The preceding sections tried to establish facts of the case:

  • Are Warlocks in decline? Yes.
  • Do they have DPS issues in raids? No, they even have some advantages over other pure DPS classes. DPS looks okay.
  • Are there problems in rated PvP? No. They’re part of the most dominant comp this season. Locks are consistently represented with high rankings.

The two most obvious reasons players would not choose Warlocks at the endgame – that they have performance issues in PvE, PvP, or both – are just not there. Especially when we look at the expansion as the whole, the data simply doesn’t support the idea that Locks can’t hack it. They can. They can shine.

They just aren’t.

So we must look elsewhere for answers.

My first theory about the data we’ve looked at is that it is very focused on level 85 play – and the upper tier of endgame play at that – which is why it fails to explain the lack of Warlocks. Heroic raiding and 2200+ PvP are not the activities of the majority of the player base, but they are activities which receive a lot of scrutiny from both players and developers. This upper tier endgame bias allows us to focus on the potential maximums of each spec, as well as see how a class is performing in demanding conditions, but it doesn’t represent everyone at 85, let alone everyone in the game.

PvP is not balanced around any level other than 85, and arguably it is only balanced for rated PvP play at level 85. Several detrimental changes were made to regular battlegrounds during the course of Cataclysm to solve problems that only existed in rated play. Changes were made to classes based upon their performance in Arenas, not regular battlegrounds. The emphasis of Cataclysm was getting players into Rated Battlegrounds, which meant that they were the (flawed) yardstick by which all PvP was measured.

PvE is a different beast, but the fundamental assumption is that balance still happens at 85. I think that the different buff and nerf cycles experienced in Cataclysm support this. I can’t say that they’re not looking at performances in 5-man content or daily content, but we don’t see a lot of changes aimed at fixing balance in those activities. Raids are where the logs are. Raids drive the nerfs and buffs.

So this theory surmises that the problem with Warlocks is not visible in the endgame data because the data is looking at the wrong activities. It’s looking at the endgame. Perhaps there’s something wrong with the class at endgame – people rolled warlocks, but end up not playing them at the endgame.

There could be a few things going on here.

  1. Warlocks attempt to raid/PvP at endgame, but stop for some reason other than their performance. Possible reasons include class mechanics, better buffs from other classes, easier to gear other classes through raid content/5-mans.
  2. Warlocks get to 85, don’t attempt to raid at all, but enjoy other endgame content.
  3. Warlocks get to 85, but are not played in the endgame at all, and the player rerolls or quits.
  4. Warlocks never get to 85, and therefore never get to endgame content.

The population popularity comparison is about the only data that we have to go on for the first point, but it’s telling that Warlocks are fairly represented in heroic raids compared to the general population (6.7%). If you want to raid, you can, and you can do well. If you are a serious raider leveling to 85, you’re about as likely to raid on a Warlock as a different class.

Casual raiders, of course, might have a different story. Warlocks might do well if executed perfectly, but if their rotation has less margin for error, then there could be a problem between the upper tier or raiders and the masses at 85. So we can’t rule the first possibility out just yet.

The second possibility is that people level their locks to 85 and choose to not raid on them, but do other things. Hunters and DKs appear to be in this situation – they are underrepresented in their raid popularity compared to their overall population. Warlocks, as break even, don’t seem to be here.

Three and four are different but would look the same to most of the data we have, just because the data appears to measure active 85s. We need to look at different data – in this case, realm population data across all levels, not just endgame data.

We have to find out if people are even bothering to level warlocks.

RISING THROUGH THE LEVELS

I was talking about this post with Narci from Flavor Text, and she was kind enough (thanks, Narci!) to cull the following data on class populations in different level ranges from Warcraft Realms:

Class population percentages, by leveling bracket, in 4.3.3

Let’s look at these graphed out, too.

Active Character Level Distribution by Class in 4.3.3

The Warlock line is there below everyone else. It doesn’t start there, but once it crosses the Shaman line around level 20 it never really recovers.

The introduction of Death Knights at 55 causes a population depression in all the other classes because, without warning, over a quarter of the player base is playing a DK at level 55-60. So we should ignore that anomaly, throw out the 50-69 data, and keep it in mind for the the 70-80 data. It skews comparisons for all the other classes, too, because there are only 9 classes represented at 1-10, and 10 at 85. Mages might be 11% at 1 and 11% at 85, but that’s actually an increase in popularity because of the larger number of classes at 85.

Look at Paladins! They start off behind a lot of other classes, but the loyalty shown at 85 is remarkable! There’s a 2% gain of total population share between 84 and 85, which means that people level them to 85 and play them there. Paladins like playing at the endgame. It looks like Druids – and Shaman – do this as well.

Hunters are almost the complete opposite – heavily loaded at the low levels, with a constant decline all the way up. Hunters are excellent leveling toons, and are extremely strong at low level PvP. As they get older they get more complex and less dominant, driving people to put down the class for a while.

It’s really amazing how popular Hunters are at the character selection screen. I wonder if this is because of the new races available to them? Does adding a class to a popular race increase its popularity? It’s something we have to consider when talking about class changes – Hunters got Humans and Forsaken, Warlocks got Dwarves and Trolls.

I like Dwarves, but very few people actually play them.

There are 3228 Dwarf Warlocks and 3867 Troll Warlocks on US and Euro servers versus 34,366 Human and 10,783 Forsaken Hunters (data from Warcraft Realms again).  Even if those numbers aren’t absolutely correct, they’re relatively correct. Hunters benefited more from their new races than Warlocks.

Unlike most classes, Warlocks decline as they level. There’s a slight decline from 80-84 to 85, which might represent people leveling to endgame and then dropping the character, but it’s not huge. They decline a bit (3%) through the leveling process, but that’s nothing like what happens to Rogues (5%). I think you have a stronger case for saying people have started a lot of Rogues but not gotten them to endgame than you do with Warlocks – 3% could be just noise in the system from the DK bump, plus, there’s the Rogue Legendary Carrot – but there is still something going on there. The trajectory is never one of growth, unlike Paladins.

I think if I had to break apart this data, I’d summarize it as follows:

  • Hunters and Death Knights are initially very attractive at character creation and for early leveling, but are normally represented at endgame. Death Knights are probably skewed because of farming/banking toons.
  • Rolling a Rogue is extremely popular right now, likely due to the Legendary Effect, but leveling them to endgame is a challenge.
  • Warriors and Warlocks are somewhat more popular at character creation than at endgame. There may be leveling problems with these classes.
  • Priests, Shaman, Mages, and Druids all increase their popularity  from 1 to 85. The relatively consistent numbers (or slight increases) are subject to the DK effect, making 11% at 85 mean more than 11% at level 10.
  • Paladins dramatically increase in popularity at endgame. They may not be the easiest class to level to 85, but once there, people play them.

Warlocks aren’t a popular choice at creation. I think it’s safe to say that – they’re not Hunters or Death Knights or Druids. But they are also not complete pariahs – people are choosing Warlocks at about the same rate as Priests and Shaman.

I had a theory that one of the reasons Rogues and Warlocks aren’t popular classes is because they’re the “bad guys” of the character creation screen. Both classes have evil flavor and feel to them – Warlocks perhaps even moreso than Rogues. Warlocks aren’t paragons of virtue, defenders of nature, or even very heroic – at best they’re ruthlessly efficient, at worst they’re evil incarnate.

But the data doesn’t really support that. People do choose to try out Warlocks, just not a lot of them – and even fewer make it all the way to the 85 with them.

Update: There is a followup post to the data in this section, Leveling Data on Warlocks is Worse than I Thought, based on Jason’s comment on this post. I was wrong about some of the data this preceeding section – I was overly optimistic and conservative in my interpretation of the leveling data on Warlocks, and should have been more open about how bad the situation is. Looking at the data in a different way revealed a different situation.

Thanks to Jason for his comment and guidance in building this data model.

THAT WHICH REMAINS, NO MATTER HOW IMPROBABLE

Where have the Warlocks gone?

I started this post with some ideas in my head about what caused the decline between Wrath and Cataclysm, and why Warlocks are just not getting played. The problems with the class’s unpopularity in Wrath were only exacerbated by Cataclysm. 

Fewer players are playing Warlocks. People who are noticing that there aren’t as many Warlocks in game are absolutely correct. It’s not that there is something wrong with their performance at the endgame – both PvE and PvP performance is adequate at the high end – but something is driving players away.

Leveling data suggests that the character concept is not the problem. People are rolling them, albeit not as many as other classes. Something happens between rolling the character and getting them into endgame content which causes the class to fall into disfavor. It may be questing, it may be dungeons, it may be battlegrounds. It may be class mechanics.

But something happens.

Here’s the conclusion I was hoping to avoid: people simply don’t like playing warlocks. It’s not that they don’t try them; they do.

Players simply stop playing them.

Some of them, no doubt, give up on Warcraft entirely. There’s plenty of evidence that that has happened. But it’s also likely that they look at other classes and switch. It’s likely that players are migrating to the classes which they find to be the most fun.

And they aren’t finding Warlocks fun enough to stick with them.

Next week, I’ll dig into why this is happening to Warlocks, and what Blizzard is doing to address the problem.

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How Warlock DoTs Work in Cataclysm, Part II: DoT Refreshing, Proc Stacking, and Getting Your Warlock Black Belt

In my post How Warlock DoTs Work in Cataclysm I went into detail about how Cataclysm’s significant changes to Haste mechanics affected Warlock damage over time spells. Haste went from a simple DPS increase to adding DPCT breakpoints, Haste values where DoTs gained new ticks and dramatically increased their importance.

There were a few other smaller changes to DoTs that were made at the end of Wrath of the Lich King that I didn’t talk about in that article, as well as how the new refresh mechanics work in Cataclysm, which I should have covered. The Haste changes were so big that talking about Spellpower and Critical Strike didn’t seem as important at the time. Mea culpa; I get enough email questions about how refreshing works that I realize I should have tackled these stats, too.

UPDATING DOTS: DYNAMIC VERSUS STATIC STAT UPDATES

What happens to DoTs when your combat abilities change mid-combat? If you get a proc from Power Torrent or Eradication, what happens to your Corruption or Unstable Affliction spells? You might think that all procs are handled the same way, and that the game client updates all DoTs automatically when you get a proc.

Not quite.

DoTs update all player-based values – Haste, Spellpower, Crit – upon cast or refresh. When you cast the DoT, the client takes your current combat values and buffs and computes the spell duration, ticks, crit rate, and damage. These values then remain until the DoT is refreshed, at which time new values are applied.

DoTs update all enemy-based values – debuffs like Haunt, Shadow Embrace, Curse of the Elements – every tick, regardless of cast or refresh. When you gain another stack of Shadow Embrace, all of your DoTs are affected without refresh. If Haunt falls off, the next tick of Unstable Affliction will lose 20% damage.

There is a lot of confusion on this matter. One reason for the confusion is the spell tooltip for your DoTs will update dynamically for all player-based buffs. If you get a Haste proc, the duration will fluctuate if you’re mousing over the tooltip. If Dark Intent is cast upon you after casting Corruption, the duration in the Corruption tooltip will drop. If you’re testing this out on a training dummy, your WoW client will make it look like Haste procs are taking effect. But if you look at the number of ticks each DoT has, you will never gain a new tick from a Haste proc without recasting or refreshing the spell.

The only time a DoT updates for buffs on the Warlock is when it’s refreshed, either through a hard cast or a refreshing ability (i.e. Everlasting Affliction, Pandemic, or Fel Flame). This is a change from how things worked in Wrath, which contributes to the confusion.

See, in Wrath, DoT values would be set on cast, but not on refresh. Refreshing a spell maintained the values it was originally cast with, leading DPS player to prepot and trinket before entering combat, blow trinkets before refreshing DoTs, and generally making initial casts as powerful as possible so that the refresh mechanics could maintain that high damage DoT for the entire fight. Really skilled DPS learned how to reset their DoTs when big procs happened – any Warlock who cleared their Corruption with Seed of Corruption just to take advantage of the Nevermelting Ice Crystal remembers what I’m talking about. You could boost your DPS by huge amounts just by preserving a series of procs.

This was changed near the end of Wrath, in patch 3.3.5, so that an automatic refresh of the the DoT updated all combat values on that DoT. If you got a lucky proc, you couldn’t apply it for the entirety of the boss fight.

The system that exists in Cataclysm is in some ways simpler by changing how DoTs are refreshed – you could now clip the last tick of your DoT without reducing your DPS – but that mechanical change introduced a new set of decisions into optimizing your DPS.

THE TWO SECOND RULE, AND WHEN TO BREAK IT

All other things being equal, Warlocks should refresh DoTs when they hit 2 seconds or less. This rule of thumb serves for Warlocks because our only fast-ticking DoT (Bane of Agony) is also the only one that you never clip, so we can ignore it. Everything else has a 3-second or greater base tick, which Haste almost never modifies below two seconds. So Warlocks can use the two-second rule with impunity, and it will serve their DPS well by never allowing DoTs to fall off the target.

Refreshing DoTs in this way is a path to good, solid DPS. But if you want to try advanced DPS techniques, you’re going to have to engage in some creative use of game mechanics. You’ll have to know your procs well, know how to refresh quickly, and learn to juggle refreshes to give you maximum uptime when procs occur.

The general idea is to take advantage of procs with a fairly long duration – 20 seconds or so – and get your DoTs ticking with the enhanced values at the start of the proc, but then refresh them before the proc drops off, effectively doubling the duration of the proc.

Make sense?

This gets tricky to apply in actual usage, so let’s consider two different methods: one that follows the two second rule while triggering Demon Soul, and one that tries to optimize uptime of the proc.

We’ll use a standard Affliction DPS rotation but ignore Haste and Bane of Agony for now. (Banes are a special case we need to consider later.) Demon is the Felhunter for the 20% damage increase. The Warlock in question has all DoTs rolling on a target when she hits Demon Soul. UA has 10 seconds left, Corruption has 8, Haunt’s got 4 seconds on CD.

I’ve illustrated these two methods in a separate spreadsheet (Warlock DoT Refresh Examples 1.0) so you can follow along; each cell represents a half-second of time in game.

(Click to embiggen)

Method 1: Haunt on CD, 2 second rule. This straightforward method yields pretty good uptime of Demon Soul on the two DoTs, giving 24 seconds of enhanced damage to Corruption and 15 seconds to Unstable Affliction. 9 Shadow Bolts were cast during the 35.5 seconds plotted out. Considering that Corruption’s normal duration is 18 seconds, this is pretty good.

Method 2: Timed refreshes, keep Haunt up (but not cast on CD). This method is more unorthodox: instead of casting Haunt on CD and following a normal rotation, prioritize getting DoTs recast, even if that means hard casting Corruption if Haunt is on CD. Getting all DoTs rolling with Demon Soul affecting them, and refreshing them as the buff is about to drop, is more important than any of the normal filler spells with this method.

And oh boy, while you might only get 25 seconds of enhanced damage on Corruption doing it this way, you get 29 seconds of Demon Soul + Unstable Affliction with this method, all at the cost of 1 Shadow Bolt – you fire off 8 instead of 9 with method 2.

Now, in this very simple example, if the 20% damage that you’d get from those 4 extra UA ticks outweighs the damage you’d lose from the Shadow Bolt, then Method 2 yields higher DPS. If it doesn’t, then it’s not useful and you just stick to the 2 second rule.

But real DPS isn’t quite this simple.

PROC CHAINING AND BLACK BELTS

If we were only talking about a single buff, then breaking the 2 second rule isn’t very appealing, to be honest. There are a lot of adjustments that need to be made for a marginal DPS gain.

But the key is to chain procs and stack buffs so that it’s not just a single buff affecting your DoTs refreshes.

Instead of just popping Demon Soul whenever it’s on CD, time it to correspond to other buffs – Power Torrent, Metamorphosis, a trinket proc, Heroism/Bloodlust, Eradication. Macro your on-use trinkets to abilities like Demon Soul or Metamorphosis. Make sure you use those Volcanic Potions. Watch for procs off your enchants and time your CDs accordingly. Details matter.

It’s tempting to take on-use trinkets and just macro them in to your normal attack rotation. It’s a good way to ensure that your trinkets are firing all the time, so that you’re getting maximum average benefit from them. I did this myself for a long time, so that my initial casts were always potent.

But I’ve learned is that to really get the great DPS, you have to have more control over your buffs than that. Waiting 15 seconds for a Black Magic or Power Torrent proc to pop Demon Soul and a spellpower trinket really hits hard. Chaining Metamorphosis, a trinket, and a potion all that the same time – and then hitting Immo Aura – is awesome.

Also consider your spell choice. I ignored Bane of Agony in my example above, but you should ask yourself – what happens if I switch Banes and put Bane of Doom on my target during time when I’ve got 5 procs going? Bane of Doom becomes a monster DPS increase, that’s what! It takes all the buffs from short, 10-20 second procs, and applies them over the course of a minute. Bane of Agony might gain a lot during 24 of those seconds, but there will be a second BoA cast that is unbuffed during that minute. Bane of Doom absolutely should get refreshed during a proc stack.

All of these details can seem daunting when you first approach it. What procs should you look for? How should you tie them together? What if they’re not lining up well, what if I wait for the perfect storm and it never comes?

But really, it’s not that complicated. There are only so many procs and cooldowns you need to track. You probably have a weapon enchant, and a trinket or two. There’s Demon Soul and Dark Intent at endgame for CDs, and you may have an on-use trinket, too. You may be in raiding gear with a proc that enhances your damage.

Once you’ve figured out which buffs could be impacting your DoT damage, you can start chaining them together. Macro Meta + trinket or Demon Soul + trinket to make sure that your boost is as strong as it can be when you sacrifice fillers for DoTing. Time your potion use for these burn phases. Make sure your Infernal or Doomguard some out during proc chains, not after.

You may want to consider customizing your interface to help display procs better. Power Auras/Weak Auras, Need to Know, Tell Me When – there are many addons which can give you a better view into which buffs are happening now, and, more importantly, what you need to do with them.

Raid buffs can be tricky to manage, but the challenge is more in coordinating your actions with your team members’s than in knowing what buffs are coming your way. You want to have already summoned your Infernal or Doomguard before Heroism/Bloodlust so they benefit, not after. But you don’t want to blow your other CDs until after they’ve cast it and you get some random procs, too!

It can be tricky. But it’s navigable.  It’s knowable.

Knowing just when to do these things is how you get your black belt in raiding, in PvP, and in warlockery.

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