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.


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 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.



Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

12 responses to “Appendix A: Warlock Spell Changes in Cataclysm

  1. Dejara Thoris thread for this post and “Warlock Complexity and the Magic Number”:
    Please add comments there as well, it will be a novelty to see more civilized discussion in the forums…

  2. First off – I don’t play a warlock very often. I have one but it’s probably my…. 5th alt or so. I heard a lot in Cata from Warlocks that things got really hard. As a feral druid, I understand complexity – I’ve been feral since the opening of the Dark Portal. Every time there’s an expansion and new abilities come out (and as a Druid, I have my share of spells), I say to myself “where am I going to put this one?” Blizzard likes to add “fun” by adding spells and mechanics – which is fine. But they don’t replace the existing ones often enough. I’d settle for not feeling as ‘powerful’ if I didn’t have to have 6+ bars entirely full of abilities that I can’t reach with just my left hand. I’m not a *great* player but I certainly get by. I fear for what MoP will bring – for myself and all other classes – because if the implosion of the talent trees doesn’t remove enough abilities it’s just going to get worse. (eg: I don’t raid much anymore but trying to do the Rags fight as a feral dps on stun duty just about drove me insane.)

  3. Not relevant to the topic, but given the complexity of marshaling your arguments, if I need someone to back me up in an IT meeting, I want you on my side.

  4. Pet management was also a big issue through cata for Hunters, though I don’t think it hurt the class to much. For example, some pets would not refresh debuffs until that debuff wore off, even though the ability cooldown is shorter than it’s duration. We also had buggy Passive and /petattack issues. I’ve never called the class broken, but if Hunters were to already have other major issues (focus regen in PvP, MM’s complicated haste and ISS, BM’s Killing Streak lasting barely longer than Kill Command cooldown, I need to write my own blog post on this), as you say, it diverts valuable attention.

    I wasn’t aware of pet swapping, but I know a lot of Hunters (myself included) that pet swap to get a second Call of the Wild. Once a DPS increase is discovered, it becomes standard. Anyone not pet swapping is not performing to the fullest.

    And that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Do the funny trick or get left behind?

  5. elkagorasa

    Ah yes, CC and the minion. Don’t forget how Blizzard almost demanded each warlock use the glyph of Fear for any sort of raiding/heroic running. I now have 2 giant buttons on my UI for macro’d focus-fear and focus-banish. Every 12 seconds adding yet one more thing to watch in the cycle.

  6. Ava

    let’s sum up raiding through Cata:
    1st tier of raiding:BWL,BoT,Throne of the Four Winds
    very friendly warlock raids,in particular destruction was good here,abuse of Bane of Havoc on many bosses+nether protection with soul link for high survability .Demonology was strong on 2 bosses.we had only al’akir as bad boss due to pet dispawning in faze3.all up:14 bosses,only 1 kinder bad for locks.
    2nd tier of riding:Firelands and introduction of legendary staff+moonwell chalice,7 bosses
    Demonology started shining here due to moonwell chalice and insane damage with doomguard,but we had 2 bosses we had problem with dps,Bethilac and Alysrazor(affliction still was ok in air faze,but behind on damage form Spriest and mage due to pet dispawning),also Domo was average dps boss fight due to heavy movement.all up:7 bosses,2 bad for locks on dps charts,also problem on progression nights(wiping) with 10 minutes CD on doomguard as our huge side damage.
    3rd tier of raiding:Dragon Soul,8 bosses
    First time then we needed all 3 specs(heroic mode) to be competitive,destruction for Morchok and Hagara,affliction for Warlord,warmaster ,demo for yor’sahj and ultraxion was only boss with pick what you like,probably same for madness(if you raid don’t need 10% spell power buff).Locks really lacked dps on hagara and in particular spine(even in demonology wow-factor(methamorphosis)with all CD’s up,we couldn’t match dps on tendons with many classes.
    all up:8 bosses,2 bad for our dps,even rest of bosses was average dps in compare to mages and Spriests(excluded melee classes here)
    In my opinion as gear get better through Cata,increase in stats didn’t scale as good as it did with other ranged classes and dps gap started to open more and more,add to it fights witch started to be more and more lock unfriendly(burst in short period of time),we started staying more and more behind.
    Add to this Solo questing(dailies) on PvP servers(tol barad peninsula dailies to get exalted rep to get hit trinket at start of cata,then Molten front offensive to get moonwel chalice) in particular locks with with low resilience and no wonder players are abandoning class(not to forget clunky mechanics and rotation in PvE,pet AI and bugs) and playing something else.

    This is view from lock which is not in top guild and I always ranked myself as average player,even then I play lock since start of vanilla.

  7. I have a warlock and I can tell Blizz nerfed it, thus I no longer play it, even though its a cool character. Im now playing a Pally and its easier to PVP or PVE. Dies less and has more DPS.

  8. Nyxy

    I think this hits the nail on the head for my ‘locking problems. I love complicated rotations, tons of buttons, juggling buffs and/or debuffs – my favorite toon since BC has been my shadow priest, plus my feral alts. I leveled a Worgen lock to 85 and felt like I had *no idea* what I was doing at the end of the leveling process. I could mostly guess what spells to use per spec by picking through my talent trees, but short of wandering to the forum stickies or EJ, figuring out priorities and rotations was impossible. I can’t think of another DPS class besides possibly Warriors that have such unintuitive per-spec choices – mages, spriests, ferals, rogues – you can otherwise typically figure out or manage a pretty good educated guess in what you should be casting per-spec and when; that’s how my alts have felt to me, at least.

  9. TJ

    Nice to see the annoyance written down somewhere. Luckily I like a challenge, but I have never been closer to giving up the whole class than I was during firelands. Destro locks could just walk of and die before the fights started. Once the gearlevels got relatively stable you just coulnd’t keep up as a lock. Work as hard as you wanted, it just didn’t help, your dps output didn’t budge while all the others jumped a good 8-10k up in dps with the new gear.
    Most depressing point was to get a 5 minutes crashcourse in retadin on a friends account, and get through first bosses in firelands as 1st dps while only banging 7 buttons in a very simple system. Why care about that lock when you don’t even get rewarded for it??

    You write about the immolate as if it was only joy for destro. A “fun” fact is that the spec that is most dependant on the buff hate it. Intensely. Imagine all your damage being closely knit up to one single spell that takes ages to cast, forces you to drop your entire rotation to refresh at the right moment. Even today, with the nice and comfy 4p bonus on the T13 (I believe it was given us to save destro from complete disaster), tracking and refreshing ISF is the single thing that cause me most work, and most frequently makes me lose completely track of dots and procs.

    And most anoying of all ISF problems was during Firelands (everything was a pain in firelands, except the nice complexity of the raid itself…): the lenght of the ISF buff and cast time+length of immonlate timed up prefectly. Unless you reached the magical haste softcap (which was almost impossible unless you got much heroic gear) your immolate and the ISF buff would drop at pretty much the same time. Which to refresh first, the all important buff, or the dot that does by far the most of your damage? Or had you moved somewhere in between the casts, delaying the cast of one of these so you can cast immolate first and the the loooong soul fire (try calculating the seconds of those two up against each other in the middle of a messy fight)
    Soulburn->Soulfire was also well and good, except that the CD on Soulburn didn’t add up with the buff at all, making you allways check and extra factor before casting soulfire. In a long fight it was allmost a relief when you ran out of shards halfway, forcecast the long spell and be done with the thinking.

    • TJ

      Hm, note to self: reread stuff you write late in the night….

      “You write about the immolate as if it was only joy for destro.”
      I tried to say ISF-buff. Honestly.

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