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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- Warlocks get to 85, don’t attempt to raid at all, but enjoy other endgame content.
- Warlocks get to 85, but are not played in the endgame at all, and the player rerolls or quits.
- 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
Let’s look at these graphed out, too.
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.