Tag Archives: Decline and Fall

Decline and Fall, Now Available in HTML and eBook Formats

I appear to have written a small book about Warlocks in the past two months. It’s not quite NaNoWriMo volume, but there are graphs, and that evens things out, right?

Well, after some cursing at ebook format converters, I’m happy to announce that The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm is now available as a single electronic book for your reading convenience. Two files are available:

  • HTML – single web page, with original links and graphics
  • eReader Archive – a .zip file with HTML, EPUB, MOBI, and TXT versions of the series. Kindle users should try the MOBI, others the EPUB or HTML.

There’s some formatting challenges when moving from one medium to another – images go missing for no reason is my big problem. I’ve tried to smooth it out as best I could – the HTML file should be the best one to use.

Enjoy! Thanks again for reading!


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Out of the Mists: Reclaiming Warlocks in Pandaria

This is the seventh, and final, post in the Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

The first few weeks of the beta release of Mists of Pandaria was filled with all sorts of amazing news about changes to Warlocks. Every class received some changes, but it really seemed like Warlocks were getting a complete overhaul. Demo and Destro got new resource systems, Affliction’s Soul Shards were revamped. New demon models were added alongside the old stalwarts. Spells were simplified or redesigned, cruft was removed. Many spells were limited to specific specs.

Then came unexpected news: Demonology as a tanking tree. Green fire through a quest. Massive changes to the class were coming. The Cataclysm Warlock was going away, and in its place was going to be a something … very different. Even as things changed and the dual bombshells of Demon Form Tanking and Green Fire were retracted, the reports from the beta showed a class getting completely gutted and rebuilt.

The changes are pretty staggering.

I remember starting this series right around the time the beta came out and feeling a huge sense of urgency to get it done. I needed to get my findings online so people could see the reason for the attention. It’s not that Warlocks can’t DPS or PvP, it’s that the class is shedding players. It’s not that other classes don’t need help too, it’s that Warlocks were vanishing. More than a quarter of them quit. The trends were all going in the wrong direction.

But I also remember glancing at the changes and wondering: will these changes really fix the problems which caused the decline of the Warlock population, or are they just bandaids? New demon forms can get people excited, but if the demons weren’t the original problem then it’s wasted effort. Cosmetic changes can help sell a spec and class, but they can’t solve underlying mechanical issues. Cosmetic changes aren’t bad, at all! But there need to be major mechanical changes, too, or players won’t stick with the class.

I’m done with Cataclysm. Let’s move on to Mists.


Holy shit. Warlocks are going to be so much fun in the next expansion.

I can’t bring myself to level my baby Forsaken Warlock on the live servers anymore. Why? Because the leveling process is so much better on beta. If you are wondering if you should level a Warlock now or in Mists, wait for Mists. Gone are the awkward talents and abilities; in their place are simple, logical spells which fit the theme of the spec. Leveling Destro, for instance, I no longer shoot Shadow Bolts and dot on the run. Instead, I:

  1. Set people on fire.
  2. Explode people and stun them.
  3. Throw fire at people.
  4. Drop fire on groups of people.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s wonderful.

Simple for leveling? Yes, and that’s great for new players and new Warlocks alike. Affliction DoTs. Demo gets demon form early and gets to use it often. Destro slings fire at everything. By the mid-40s all the new resource systems are in place and you’re starting to learn the basics of how things work at endgame.

The class is very different at endgame. If you are going from 85 to 90, mentally start preparing to learn a new class. Affliction still feels familiar, but the changes have made it faster, more frantic at times. Demonology and Destruction are completely different; not only do they have new resource systems, they have jettisoned much of the shared Warlock abilities used in Cataclysm and are focused on the fantasy of the spec again.

The biggest problem, I think, will be the transition for current endgame Warlock players. I went in not knowing any of the new systems or having read any guides and was overwhelmed by how different things were. I had to start over from scratch to get used to the new way of doing things, nuking both my UI/keybinds and my preconceived notions of how the specs should work. The transition from Wrath to Cata was easier because it was just more stuff on top of stuff I already knew; Cata to Mists is new stuff. Jettisoning old concepts is hard but vital to the changeover.

I can already see that the developers recognize this is a problem by the appearance of clear, concise in-game directions on the Core Abilities tab. It’s relatively easy to put together a clear out-of-game guide, but a bit harder to teach people in-game. The Core Abilities tab wasn’t there when I started but it’s a really useful guide. The What Has Changed tab is another recent addition which I think will be helpful in-game advice for returning Warlocks.


I think the Core Abilities tab is a great addition to not only the Warlock class, but to every class in the game. Each spec gets a tab in the spell book summarizing their key abilities for use so that players understand the intended way to play, like this:

I love this tab. It provides a good overview of the endgame rotation of a spec. It lets you drag the abilities down to your action bars and go, okay, I’m playing Demo, here’s what I’m supposed to do: keep Corruption and HoG on the target, cast Soul Fire when MC procs, turn into a Demon when my Demonic Fury bar is full, otherwise cast Shadow Bolt. Got it.

It seems so logical in retrospect, but if there is a way a spec is supposed to be played, it makes sense that the game should teach it. This allows new and old players alike to pick up a class and get the basics quickly, while still allowing a lot of room for player growth. Mastery of the nuances of a class won’t be taught through the Core Abilities tab, that’s not what it’s there for. You won’t see things like “time your DoT refreshes with trinket procs with Demon Soul for max damage” or “use Fel Fire while moving” in these tabs, and that’s okay.

Core Abilities are the basics. Great addition. Love it.


You’ll notice that the number of spells on the Core Abilities tab is pretty low – the page supports six, which is a good number to try to get your head around when learning any spec.

One of the things I like best about the changes to Warlock in Mists is how the Core Abilities are not just the suggested abilities for the spec, they’re usually the only abilities. Competing abilities are just not available. Looking at Demo above, you might ask what happened to Immolate? It’s not available anymore to Demo! You can’t cast it, don’t even try!

This focus is created either by only granting abilities to certain specs, or transforming basic spells when the spec is chosen. Corruption turns into Immolate for Destro, so now there’s not a choice between the two, or a possibility that Corruption will enter the rotation. It can’t.

Locking many abilities to individual specs not only reduces player confusion, it eliminates the possibility of unintended crossover and the complexity that goes with it. The number of shared Core Abilities between specs is very low – Corruption is the only one, and it’s only shared between Affliction and Demonology. Everything else is different.

While this means we will likely see the three Warlock specs drift further apart in Mists, I think this is a very good thing for the flavor of each class and reducing overall class complexity.

The Destro Core Abilities (above) are a good illustration of how much more focused each class is on a few central, thematic abilities in Mists, and not presented with the dozens of choices you have in Cataclysm. I’m reminded of Bruce Lee’s quote on expertise:

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

This was drilled into me when I was learning martial arts: most black belts only really use 5-10 moves, but they know how to use them in dozens of configurations and combinations, and adapt them to any situation or environment. I feel like that’s what we’re seeing here. The cruft is being cleared away, leaving us players to focus on using those abilities we have.


Spells which weren’t useful in Cataclysm have either been jettisoned or made useful in Mists.

Searing Pain is gone. This was mostly a PvP spell, but Fel Flame can replace it nicely.

Shadowflame is gone. I love this spell, but it was both awkward to use and very, very mage-like. It’s been rolled into Hand of Gul’dan now.

Fel Flame generates Burning Embers and Demonic Fury now, making it an easy choice for whenever a Warlock moves. You move, you cast Fel Flame for damage or Life Tap for mana, period.

Curse of Enfeeblement takes the place of Curse of Tongues and Curse of Weakness and is actually attractive now, especially while leveling!

Demon Soul now has spec-specific iterations, decoupling it from the deployed demon and eliminating Demon Twisting.

Demons appear (and this is, of course, subject to change) to be chosen based on utility, not on spec association or DPS. Any given spec doesn’t have a specific demon that benefits it through talents or abilities, which I think is a great change.

Spells transform into new versions when Warlocks do things. Demon Form doesn’t give you new abilities, it changes the ones you have into new, related abilities. Curses become Auras. That’s clever. If you use Burning Embers to do AoE, your spells change to reflect that.

All of these things are pretty damn cool.


That said, there’s a set of other abilities that are shared across Warlock specs that are also needed – things like Life Tap, Demon Soul, Guardian Demons – that still need to be cast. There are also talents which are independent of spec.

The division of abilities into Core/Non-Core is great for playing multiple Warlock specs because it allows players another way to chunk up their abilities. I can look at my UI and go, Core (DPS) abilities go in one place, baseline Warlock abilities (defensive, movement, utility) go in another, and maintain a great deal of consistency in layout between specs.

Compare my Affliction and Demo setups in Beta:

This is Affliction, arguably the spec with the most buttons right now. You can see that most of the Core Abilities are grouped in the lower bars and the primary 1-10 keys, while utility spells are on keys around the QWES keys, like ADFGT.

This is Demo. The utility keys are almost identical between specs, withthe only variation being different talents or glyphs I’m testing out. The Core Ability section is different, but not overwhelmingly so – there’s still a relatively uniform layout there.

I’m amazed at how much space I have with my keybindings, to be honest. I know some people have been able to play Warlocks in Cataclysm without using all their keybinds, but I have had fully loaded binds from the start. I’m a bit in shock that I won’t need 60 binds and can use WASD without feeling like I’m sacrificing valuable keybinds space to do it!

The Talent system revamp is excellent. Instead of trying to shape your character by taking certain necessary abilities, you’re choosing utility and options instead of possibly making mistakes which affect your core abilities. What I like best about the Warlock talents is that you can often tailor the complexity of the spec based on your choices – often you are selecting between another button to push, replacing an existing button, or adding a passive ability to a button. This allows Warlock players to take 3 or 4 different damage absorption CDs if they like, or just have two.

I saw this with the Glyphs, as well. The Glyph of Demon Soul is fantastic, because it gives a passive bonus when DS is not on CD, effectively allowing players who don’t want to have a burst CD to ignore it – yet still get some benefit from it. The Glyph of Wild Imps is working like this too, only in reverse! It takes a passive and adds a button with CD, which is awesome!

The abilities are simpler, but I wouldn’t call them simple. Not by a longshot. The interactions with each new resource spec are still up in the air, but there is still a lot of mental juggling going on. Affliction feels much faster now with changes to Malefic Grasp and Haunt. Destro feels very rhythmic, where you build up to this absolutely massive discharge of damage (oh god, 6 Chaos Bolts on 2 targets with Havoc and Demon Soul, be still my beating heart) and then start over again. Demonology is in the strangest place right now, with a hybrid melee-caster rotation that’s unlike anything Warlocks have seen before. Meta form is no longer just a CD you use to increase your damage, instead it’s an entirely different way of playing.


Near the beginning of the beta there was a report that Warlocks would get a quest which would allow them to change the color of their fire to green.

There are times that I feel like I’m in the minority because I don’t really care one way or another about green fire for Warlocks. I mean, would it be cool? Sure? But I’d rather see mechanics fixed than spell graphics updated?

Well, that’s really a crumudgeon’s attitude, and it took me playing in the Mists Beta to realize it.

I chose the screenshots above deliberately because they show off some of the very cool new spell effects that are available for Warlocks. Chaos Bolt is now a HUGE green energy dragon with a swarm of smaller dragons launched at the target. Shadow Bolt can be made to swarm in a pack of three instead of a bolt, and it’s AWESOME. Soul Fire is huge, like, HUGE. Harvest Life is wild when you can get 3-6 targets in range. These spells are great.

I was leveling my baby Warlock when I realized how much happier I was that she was slinging sheets of fire instead of shadow bolts at her targets. This is how Destro is SUPPOSED to feel! I yelled more than once at the screen.

And that’s really what the new graphics are all about; fulfilling the fantasy of a spec. The abilities have to do it, the mechanics have to do it, but the graphics have to do it, too. And the new graphics are delivering on that fantasy. They are making each spec different from each other – you will not have to wonder for long what kind of Warlock you are facing. They’re also making the class visually distinct from other classes very early on – you won’t wonder if you’ve got a Fire Mage or a Destro Lock in your group anymore. You’ll know.

I know Blizzard came out and said that green fire wasn’t happening, but given the scope of graphical changes I’ve seen in the Beta – I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.


I have not seen a class community polarize faster than Warlocks did over the discovery of the Glyph of Demon Hunting, which allowed for Demon Form to work… well, to work like a tank. A real tank, not an off tank. Huge amounts of armor. Taunts. Melee attacks. Defensive cooldowns. All the basic abilities were there, they just had to be fleshed out.

Then there was lore that appeared, later – about how the Demonologists on the Council of Six Daggers went to the Demon Hunters of Outland to learn their secrets.  The reason for the name of the glyph became clear, at least.

But, after all that excitement, it was not to be.

Greg Street wrote:

Just to make our intent clear, the Glyph of Demon Hunting isn’t intended to turn Demonology warlocks into a tanking spec. You won’t be able to queue as a tank for Dungeon Finder for instance and won’t have the survivability or tools of say a Protection paladin.

Thus the dream of Warlock tanks ended.

If there was anything that indicated to me that Warlocks were really in trouble in Cataclysm, and that no idea was too wild to save them in Mists, it was this one. Tanking Warlocks represented the most outrageous thinking I’d seen yet on the class. Oh, sure, bloggers had talked about it before, but nothing had ever come out of Blizzard indicating it was a possibility. Taking a pure DPS spec and turning them into a hybrid? This is madness!

No, this is amazing.

Let’s assume for a moment that the intent really was to make Demo a tanking spec. Humor me.

Let’s consider the benefits:

  • Turns the class into a hybrid, resolving issues with the Simplicity Tax and Bring the Player, Not the Class model. This also invites players to try Warlocks who might otherwise be hesitant to roll a pure DPS character due to the needs of their raid composition.
  • Increases the number of potential tanks in the game. This both helps the general tank shortage, as well as offset the main quality of life disadvantage of a pure DPS – queue times for PvE dungeons and raids – by letting them jump in as a tank.
  • It is new and unusual, which can be quite a draw for players looking for something different. It also gives long-term Warlock players an opportunity to experience a different role in the game without rerolling.
  • Sets up the possibility of a fourth spec for other classes. Demo tanks would be an experiment in making one spec fill multiple roles (DPS/Tanking), much like Feral Druids did. If both roles are successful, spinning off a separate 4th spec becomes a logical extension of the tanking experiment, which opens up possibilities for other classes extending their specs.
  • Fits the theme and fantasy of the spec. Instead of transforming into a demon to make your spells hit harder, you turn into one to rip and tear into your enemies, using demonic magic to augment your physical prowess to be the equivalent of a giant dire bear or warrior in armor.

There are some challenges to overcome with this idea, though.

  • Automatic role determination by spec. Splitting apart Feral into two specs allows Blizzard to code LFD/LFR to only allow characters who have learned a tanking spec to queue as a tank. If this restriction comes to pass, Demo either needs to become a full-time tank spec or have the tank spec be split off from the DPS spec entirely.
  • Automatic quest reward determination by spec. If quest rewards are going to be chosen by your current spec, should Demo get DPS or tanking gear?
  • Attachment of Demo DPS players to their spec. Given the massive changes made to Demo in Mists, it doesn’t really resemble the Demo DPS spec we’ve enjoyed since Wrath, but current Demo players may not want to give up their DPS play style of choice. There is a related argument that Warlock players don’t want to be a hybrid and be pressured into tanking.
  • Balance with other classes. Demo tanks brings the number of tank classes up to 6, which can be a challenge for balancing under the Bring the Player model. There are also PvP concerns to consider, though to be frank those concerns exist with the glyphed version anyways.
  • Tank Cloth itemization. Honestly, I think this is the biggest obstacle for Warlock tanks. How will they gear for avoidance? A conversion of Intellect, Haste, Crit, Mastery into Dodge, Parry, or Expertise might be possible, but how will that work? New gear would be an easier answer, but adding in an entire new class of Tanking Cloth gear is a monumental undertaking, and fraught with the same perils as Intellect Plate.

The problem of making a cloth-wearing tank viable is an interesting one. Do you follow a Bear/Guardian model and convert Intellect into Dodge? Well, that probably needs to be coded, and only for Warlock tanks (since Agility gives Dodge already as a default).

What about health pools, do you make it so their damaging attacks suck life out of the bosses and give them a large effective health pool (but then how do they survive the big hits?) What about Parry, Expertise, melee Hit – how do you make it work, exactly, when there’s no available gear with tanking stats?

There’s also a question of theme. Demonology, as it stands today in Cataclysm, provides both the conjuror and  metamorph archetypes in one package. In some ways those concepts are at odds with each other – a conjuror summons other beings to do their dirty work for them, while a metamorph transforms to do the job themselves. Tanking stresses the latter philosophy, of internalizing the demons and becoming them, more than the former, which is more of a ranged DPS idea. Spinning off the transformation of Demonology into a separate tanking tree would allow both themes to flourish, but if only one can be chosen – I’d rather have some flexibility in my theme.

The Glyph of Demon Hunting is an interesting experiment. Because it’s a Glyph you can’t enable it in the middle of a fight, but perhaps it could be changed into an ability which allows Demo to activate tank mode for 5 minutes? That at least makes it an attractive option for tank death or tank swap fights. As it stands now, the best use will be for soloing or – as gear gets better – tanking 5-mans with a friendly guild group who likes pushing the limits.

That’s pretty cool, but I know that if there was more time in the development cycle this could be even cooler.

I would not count Warlock tanks out of the picture just yet. If not now, look for them in the expansion after Mists.


I find it ironic that I named this series after Gibbon’s masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireGibbon assembled a wealth of material around the collapse of Roman governance in Western Europe in the third through sixth centuries, but he used it to formulate a monocausal theory – that the Roman Empire’s fall was inevitable because of the influence of Christianity. This theory overlooks much in pursuit of forwarding an Enlightenment viewpoint of the Medieval period and Christianity as bad, and the Greco-Roman classical tradition as good.

As a historian, I have always preferred the works of J. B. Bury, who did not dispute the evidence Gibbon presented, but rather interpreted them differently. Bury posits that Rome’s fall was not inevitable, but rather the result of a series of incidents which lead to a catastrophe. Internal political pressures, external migratory pressures on the Germanic tribes, inflation, increased taxes to deal with the Sassanid Empire’s threat, a series of terrible decisions by Imperial and Provincial leaders alike – all these contributed to the calamity of the fourth and fifth centuries. I recommend reading Gibbon so you’ve read him, but I recommend Bury if you want to see the vast scope of problems in Late Antiquity, and how monocausal theories need to take them all into account.

To quote Bury:

The gradual collapse of the Roman power … was the consequence of a series of contingent events. No general causes can be assigned that made it inevitable.

It’s my hope that this series has been more like Bury than Gibbon. While there has been a central theme to this work –  inelegant complexity without reward led to the decline of Warlock populations in Cataclysm – it is my firm belief that it was a series of design decisions and balance changes during the expansion which contributed to the decline of this class. Attributing it to any one specific change misses the big picture. Our personal reasons and agendas need to take a back seat to the data.

The Warlock class declined in Cataclysm. Based on what I’ve seen so far in the Mists of Pandaria Beta, it is too early to write its epitaph, but its recovery is by no means a certain thing. It is transforming into something very different what came before, and it is my sincere hope that it flourishes and thrives in its new incarnation.

Let’s see what the future holds for this great class.


I honestly thought this would be a two-post series at the beginning. More than thirty thousand words later, I realize that I had a lot more to say about Warlocks than I thought I did, so, first and foremost, thanks to the hundreds of people who commented and shared your thoughts and opinions in comments, forums and emails, for promoting this work in the Warlock community. Thank you.

I’d like to thank Xelnath for his for his insights and convincing me to give the Mists beta a try. It’s been a delight discussing this work with you, and I can’t wait to see what you have up your sleeve next.

I have to also give many thanks to my undercover editors, Catulla and Narci of Flavor Text, for their unflagging support in the face of a mountain of text regarding a class they didn’t play. Narci deserves special mention as the one who convinced me this needed to be a series, and then stayed with the idea by reviewing every single draft, even the ones I threw away. Thank you both for your ocular fortitude.

Finally, thank you for reading. This has been a long journey, and I’m humbled and thankful that you chose to go on it with me. Thanks!


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Appendix C: Haste and the Butterfly Effect

Why did all Warlock specs become so DoT heavy in Cataclysm?

I’ve been wondering this as I’ve gone though the changes in Mists, because the difference is so startling; why did every spec start using all DoTs, all the time? Why did Destro end up getting damage from 5 DoTs and lose the nuking feel? Why did everyone end up using Corruption and Shadowflame?

Was it a deliberate design decision, or was it an accident?

I can’t answer designer intent, but I think the root of this was an innocuous quality of life change made to DoTs at the start of Cataclysm. Ironically, a small change to make DoTs easier to use ended up making the Warlock class harder to play overall.

I covered this early after Cataclysm’s release in How Warlock DoTs Work in Cataclysm, which looked at the different ways Haste affected DoTs in Wrath and Cataclysm. There were two changes:

  • You could now clip most DoTs without losing the final tick, and
  • DoTs would gain ticks of damage at certain Haste values.

The clipping was the quality of life issue, but to make it happen, the mechanics of DoTs had to be modified.

In Wrath, Haste meant that your 18 second Corruption with 6 ticks could be done in, say, 12 seconds, at which point you’d recast it. In Cataclysm this was changed so that DoT spells would remain roughly the same duration, but add additional ticks of damage when they got fast enough. Your 15 second/6 tick Corruption could potentially become a 13.64/6 tick or 16.25 second/8 tick spell.

This was, in retrospect, a really big deal.

Haste increased DoT DPS by making ticks faster, that’s easy. But in Cataclysm, Haste also dramatically increased the DPCT (damage per cast time) of DoTs like Corruption because each cast generated more overall damage. If a Warlock with no Haste cast Corruption, that’s a GCD to cause 6 ticks of a set amount of damage. If that Warlock has enough Haste to get an additional tick or two of damage, that GCD spent casting the DoT now does 16%, 33%, 50% more damage, depending on how many additional ticks were on the spell.

With Cata’s new Haste/DoT model, Warlocks of all specs had to cast every DoT available to them. They were too good not to cast. Corruption and Shadowflame became defaults for every spec. Destro was caught in a vice because Conflagrate was based upon Immolate’s total damage, so every additional tick Haste granted increased not only their primary DoT’s DPCT, it also made their primary nuke hit much harder, giving an additional DPS boost. So they’d stack Haste to get those Immolate ticks, which would in turn improve Corruption’s DPCT, making it even more important to cast.

Sweet delicious Haste, combined with shared spells across all specs, became a trap.
I think the changes weren’t intentionally designed to make Warlocks more complicated; changes were made to DoTs/HoTs for all casters, not just Warlocks, and in general the new model really is better. It’s certainly easier to be able to clip with the 2 second rule! And the extra ticks and associated Haste Breakpoints/Plateaus make Haste a more interesting secondary stat.

I think this points towards Warlocks getting hit by Lorenz’s butterfly effect – a small initial change in one part of the game had unforeseen major consequences in another.

  • DoT/Haste interaction changes with 4.0.1 release.
  • Corruption/Shadowflame DPCT rises.
  • All Warlock specs have Corruption and Shadowflame in their priority.

Plenty of other small quality of life changes were made that had an effect upon the class’s overall complexity. Banes being separated out from Curses, for example, seemed good at first (Banes caused damage, Curses were debuffs) because you no longer needed to do advanced math to figure out if you should take the 12% damage increase from Curse of the Elements or the damage caused by Curse of Doom or Agony. But then every Warlock ended up casting a Bane – and maybe a Curse too.

The DPCT of Shadowflame has always been surprisingly good, mostly due to its short cast time, so it was interesting to see it get used so prominently in Cataclysm. I haven’t really taled about Shadowflame much before, but it’s a spell that I adore – damage, dot, and a glyphed slow. It’s also a tremendous pain in the ass to use in PvE, and takes skill to use in PvP. It has short range so you either have to run in to use it or forgo it entirely. It’s not just a DoT or an AoE, it’s a spell that requires very good placement to use. Movement matters, which adds a layer of complexity far beyond just another spell.

Corruption presents an interesting problem because it was baseline damage for all three specs. Blizzard couldn’t change how it worked without considerable effort, so all that was left was tweaking the damage. If the damage was made too low, Affliction would be neutered, but if it was kept high, Destruction would benefit too much. So talents, Mastery bonuses, general damage all got modified – but Corruption’s DPCT was too good to pass up for Destro. (Demo always wanted it for Molten Core procs, but the damage was similarly good.)

I think the fact that Haste changed all DoTs and not just Warlock DoTs points towards this being an accident. I can’t prove it, and it’s not like it was the source of all Warlock problems in Cataclysm.

It was just a little butterfly, flapping its wings.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

The Loss of the Warlock’s Soul

This is the sixth post in the Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

In a role playing game, each class presents an archetype; every specialization sells a fantasy. Your character’s being is tied into what they do, in their abilities and resources. Their class is a shorthand to describe and delineate them. In Warcraft, it’s the single most important thing about your character. You can change their appearance, their gender, their race, even their faction – but their class – what they do – is unalterable.

The archetypes that WoW classes present are broad strokes: a virtuous knight, a fallen hero, a religious ascetic, an archer or rifleman. Some have common themes but subtle distinctions: servants of natural balance versus servants of the elemental forces of the world. Others present the same idea with different polarities: brawny fighters versus dexterous skirmishers, scholarly wizards versus volatile conjurers. Within each of these archetypes there is a lot of room for players’ imaginations to flourish.

The first two posts in this series dealt entirely with identifying the problem: Warlocks declined in popularity in Cataclysm more than any other class. They were the least popular class and declined further. The next three posts examined the theory of Inelegant Complexity without Reward, the idea that the Warlock class suffered from increased complication without commensurate reward while lacking leveling elegance to offset churn. These posts are focused on measuring those things which can be measured, of looking at the data and class abilities as impartially as I can and trying to make sense of one question: Why did players leave? Well, here are a bunch of things that changed between Wrath and Cataclysm, they probably all had something to do with it.

But one thing I’ve avoided talking about has been the fantasy of the Warlock, the soul of the class. For one thing, it’s too personal, too steeped in a player’s imagination to objectively measure in the aggregate without a lot of surveys. For another, I think that there’s compelling evidence that the theory of Inelegant Complexity without Reward is right, that it’s the obvious reason why players put down their Warlocks.

Yet, I don’t think it’s the only reason.

I keep looking over the Warlock changes made in the various patches and the community’s reactions to them. Warlocks were able to perform at the highest levels of the game both in PvP and PvE, yet players abandoned the class en masse over the expansion. Objectively, the class got slightly easier to play from its apex of complexity around 4.0.6, which in turn implies that it was a combination of fatigue from class complexity as well as the complexity itself which drove players away, not simply the complexity.

Subjectively, though, I think the Warlock class lost its way. Each individual spec failed to deliver the fantasy it promised. The changes made during Cataclysm exacerbated the effect of this failure, so that even if a player wasn’t affected by complexity fatigue, they found themselves wondering if this was still the class they originally chose to play.

There weren’t any substantial changes to the vision or presentation of the Warlock class in Cataclysm. The failure came from muddled mechanics.


Setting aside questions of good or evil, the core idea behind Warlocks is that they’re the tough spellcasters who can survive a beating. This is in direct contrast to Mages, who are presented as fragile but elusive spellcasters, able to escape any trap. One class emphasizes durability; the other emphasizes mobility. Each classes’ spells and mechanics emphasize this contrast. (c.f. Demonic Teleport and Blink.)

The flavor of each specialization suggests a certain kind of character, to be sure. Affliction is good if you want a hexer, a corruptor, a dark enchanter or necromancer. Demonology is the conjurer, the witch summoning dark spirits, the summoner of devils and demons. Destruction is the mad invoker, the pyromaniac. There’s flexibility for players to define their own roles within each specialization.

But mechanically, the three specializations could be summed up very simply.

  • Affliction: damage over time spells, drains.
  • Demonology: demons.
  • Destruction: direct damage spells.

Mechanics have to support the fantasy of the class and specialization, or else the class feels wrong to play.

In Cataclysm, the mechanics of each Warlock spec failed to deliver on their promised fantasy. They created a dissonance between what players thought they should be playing versus what they actually played, which in turn contributed to the flight from the Warlock class.

  • Destruction had more DoTs than Affliction or Demonology.
  • Demonology had more (and better) nukes than Destruction.
  • Demonology didn’t have much to do with demons.
  • Affliction was forced to use Destruction spells instead of drains.

Let’s look at each one in turn.


Destruction had more DoTs than Affliction in Cataclysm. Affliction had more overall debuffs to monitor, but in terms of actual damage over time spells, Destruction used more.

Destruction had 5 DoTs contributing to its PvE damage, with the player having to manage 4 of them. Affliction and Demonology had 4 DoTs, with players having to manage 3 of them.

If a player wanted to play “the DoT spec” and picked Affliction – which thematically is correct – they did it wrong. If they picked Destruction because they didn’t like juggling a lot of DoTs – well, that turned out to be wrong, too.

That’s bad. Players shouldn’t feel like they did things the wrong way, that there was a bait and switch between the fantasy of a class and its reality.

Contrast this with late Wrath’s model:

The only time Destro locks used Corruption in late Wrath was while moving, and even then only if you didn’t need to Life Tap or Death Coil was on CD. It was better than doing nothing while moving, but it was never part of the standard rotation. You wouldn’t use Corruption in a Patchwerk fight.

Destro had distinctly different damage sources before Cataclysm. Wrath Destruction had a few DoTs, Burning Crusade Destruction had a few DoTs – it’s part of the class flavor – but it was never the DoT spec.

Until Cataclysm.


Demonology had more nukes, and more useful nukes, than Destruction.

While I counted Conflagrate as a CD-locked nuke for my complexity analysis, thematically it’s not really one – you don’t stand and cast it, and it doesnt have a travel time. It’s not visceral, like shooting a sheet of fire from your fingers or hurling a meteor at your enemy.

But even if we include Conflag, I also have to point out that at current gear levels, Chaos Bolt drops out of the Destro rotation because Incinerate scales much, much better with Spellpower.

Compare it to Demo, where Shadow Bolt is a solid filler – but when Molten Core procs, Incinerate becomes a better nuke – and when Decimation procs, Soul Fire becomes the execute nuke of choice. On top of that, Hand of Gul’dan hits harder than Incinerate, provides a debuff on the target, refreshes your primary DoT, and buffs your demon’s damage.

Destro uses Soul Fire to keep up a buff and as a proc, not an execute. The signature 31-point talent nuke doesn’t add anything special, and it gets beaten out by Incinerate.

Why does Demonology have more interesting nukes than Destruction? It’s not that Demo shouldn’t have interesting nukes, too – it’s that Destro fails to deliver on the spec’s promise that you’ll be slinging fire. You sling it, but only after you’ve gotten all of your DoTs ticking.

If anything, Destro’s use of Incinerate/Soul Fire feels more like Affliction’s Shadow Bolt/Haunt mechanic than Demo’s nuke weaving – one nuke for damage, another one for buff refreshing.

That’s not right. It should feel fast and furious – and distinct.


Why doesn’t Demonology have more to do with demons?

It’s kind of strange to phrase it like that, but when you look at the mechanics of what Demo Warlocks use, there’s demon form on 2 minute CD, and a unique demon… which is only used in AoE situations, not on bosses. And that’s it.

For the master of demons, that’s kind of disappointing, isn’t it?

This isn’t a problem I think got dramatically worse in Cataclysm. Rather, the spec has always lacked a real emphasis upon demons. The fel flavor is there in name, but not in execution. If you look just at the mechanics, Metamorphosis and Felguard are the extent of demonic influence for the spec. Demonology lacks cosmetic features (demonic horns and wings, demonic flight form, glowing fel tattoos on the character) to emphasize the vision of the spec, while the mechanics are grounded solidly in shadow and fire magic – not conjuration.

A demon form every two minutes, and the ability to save shards while switching demons. That’s what being a master demonologist got you in Cataclysm.


Cataclysm launched with some Warlock spells being unintentionally powerful. This was usually as a result of specialization and Mastery bonuses. There was a point where Searing Pain – formerly used for PvP and Warlock tanking due to its high threat component – was the best filler spell for Destruction, which made a lot of tanks very concerned. But that was quickly nerfed to prevent tank heart attacks.

From Cataclysm’s beta through May 18th, 2011, Drain Life was inordinately good for Affliction – so good that it offered a viable alternative to the traditional Shadow Bolt filler spec. Instead of spending talent points in Destruction, Affdrain buffed pet damage in Demonology and only used Shadow Bolts on Nightfall procs or an opener to get stacks of Shadow Embrace.

Drain Life spec had a lot of things going for it.

  • It’s thematically appropriate to the class. Warlocks should be tough and durable.
  • It’s mechanically appropriate to the spec. Affliction uses DoTs and drains.
  • It was new and different for a spec which hasn’t changed much in two expansions.
  • It offered challenge with reward.

That last part is worth emphasizing – Drain Life spec required a little bit more skill to play than Shadow Bolt because of having to watch ticks and interrupt your Drain Life at exactly the right time while refreshing DoTs. But the reward for this complexity was worth it; Affdrain brought the buff of survivability to raiding Warlocks. It freed up healers to concentrate on other raid members during some of the most intense triage healing this game has ever seen – T11.

Shadow Bolt, on the other hand, is a Destruction spell, and requires Destruction talents to buff it into usability. There’s only one thing in Affliction which affects Shadow Bolt – the base line passive Shadow Mastery talent. Regular Mastery (Potent Affliction) doesn’t, all the other Affliction talents don’t. You have to take Bane to make it even usable, and Shadow and Flame to buff it. This is problematic while leveling with the new talent tree restrictions (no help until level 71, minimum) but it’s thematically bad. To quote Tyler Caraway from Blood Pact:

Blizzard spent an entire beta lamenting about how it really wanted for Shadow Bolt to be affliction’s filler, and yet there is absolutely no support for the spell in the affliction tree. Does it really come as a surprise that the spell that is supported by mastery and several talents ended up performing better than the spell that got kicked to the curb?

Simple fact: If you want Shadow Bolt to hold such a lauded position within the affliction spec, then why is there not talent support for it?

Rightly or wrongly, this did not fit in with Blizzard’s design goals for how DPS caster classes should work in Cataclysm. Greg Street, in Explanation of 4.2 Balance Changes:

We nerfed Drain Life because Affliction was forsaking Shadowbolt in PvE, which wasn’t intended. We want Drain Life to be for utility, not primarily for damage, and we want all casters to have to hard cast at least some of the time. This was done via hotfix and players won’t see a change in 4.2.

The Drain Life spec fit Affliction’s theme. It fulfilled fantasy of the spec – a strong but tough vampire-like caster, taking health from their enemy and using it to fuel their own dark magics. It offered a unique reward for mastering the most complicated class in Warcraft. It was interesting and different. But, because Drain Life was a channeled utility spell, it did not fit the intended model for DPS.

It was therefore eliminated.

I don’t know if I can underscore this point enough. The fantasy of the Affliction spec was set aside for general design principles, not balance. It wasn’t that Drain Life was too powerful — it was on par with Shadow Bolt spec — it’s that it was too useful. Raiders don’t really care if a spell is channeled or hard cast, they have to stop moving for both of them.

But it was important to Blizzard that Affliction use Shadow Bolt and not Drain Life.


Why was it so important to force Affliction to use Shadow Bolt, instead of embracing the soul of the spec and going with Drain Life?

I think this is a legitimate question to ask in light of what happened to Warlocks in Cataclysm. I believe that had Drain Life spec been allowed to flourish, Warlock popularity would not have dropped as much as it did. Inelegant Complexity without Reward would have been replaced by Inelegant Complexity with Reward.

Yes, players would still have wrestled with the complexity of the class, but they would be able to say, I make our healer’s lives easier. I make it so we can two-heal this encounter instead of three-heal it, because I can heal myself through the whole thing.

I don’t know if keeping Drain Life spec Affliction would have been enough to save the class. I honestly don’t.

But I do know it would have given Affliction a fighting chance.


OH MY GOD … they are right… I have no mana drain. Plus a bunch of other crap has been changed. I check the patch notes. UA weakened, devour magic weakend, CoE weakend, fel armour drastically weakend everyone who plays a warlocks wobby has been nerfed by 60% size reduction.(I look downstairs… MY GOD ITS TRUE… My wife is gonna be so upset) Why whyyyyyy? I dont understand… what did we do wrong?

I decide to go to outlands to take down some level 70s. But my dots are easily expelled and I have no mana drain to kill their healers and I dont have the survivablity anymore to propel their powerful lvl 70 attacks.

So I head to stranglethornvale to farm some mobs for my leatherworking. But my dots are easily expelled and i have no mana drain, so their level 30 healers make quick work of me.

Ive had enough. I log off wow.

By the end of the week my wife has left me for a new man in her life. Rodney Oboogaboo. A pygmy paupa new guinian 35 year old paper boy with a skin irritation that bleeds a smelly puss like substance. But he plays a frost mage and can pull more DPS then I can. But what can I do? my dots are easily expelled and I have no mana drain.

Your kind aint welcome here, Zhing @ Frostmourne

The 4.0.6 patch had a lot of changes for Warlocks. Most notable was the complete removal of Drain Mana from the game, which prompted the classic Warlock forum thread above. The Felhunter’s Devour Magic (offensive dispel) was given a 20 second CD, up from 8. Unstable Affliction’s silence was reduced and Fel Armor was completely redesigned.

Losing Drain Mana sucked, but not for the reasons you thought.

These changes were all PvP changes, and in hindsight they were (probably) needed. They were part of a discussion of Upcoming Class Changes which included the following analysis from Greg Street:

The larger health pools, decreased impact of Mortal Strike debuffs, and slower healing are all having the desired effect in PvP. Burst damage has its place, but doesn’t determine the outcome of every encounter. There are several individual abilities that we aren’t happy with in PvP.

We’re keeping a close eye on dispels. We still like the design of making dispels more of a commitment rather than liberally sprinkling around dispel resistance or consequences for every class. Defensive dispels (removing a debuff) generally feel good, but we think offensive dispels (removing an enemy buff) feel too powerful, especially for DPS specs. In particular, Purge and Spellsteal will probably get nerfed.

We’re also looking at crowd control, interrupts, and self-healing in PvP. It’s possible we’ll reduce the durations of some crowd control effects, especially the area effect ones, and decrease the duration of interrupts.

Priests are a little weak in PvP, especially at mobile healing. We have made some changes to glyphs and talents to enhance their survivability and instant healing.

There was an overhaul of PvP mechanics during this patch, with CC durations being standardized, interrupts and counterspells being set on a standard CD, that sort of thing. Warlocks had a lot of changes to absorb, but they adapted. You cannot look back at the PvP changes of 4.0.6 and say they made Warlocks useless in PvP. You can’t even say that they hurt them much at the top levels of the game – Warlocks were strong in rated PvP throughout the entire expansion. The really good Warlock players adapted to every change and still excelled.

But this overhaul introduced changes which contributed to the decline of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

There were two types of changes:

  • Changes which widened the skill gap between the great and the good.
  • Changes which made other classes look more attractive or easier to play.

Changes to some PvP abilities were applied across the board in this patch – consistent CC and counterspell durations. When an ability is standardized across classes, no one really complains – it feels fair. But when it’s changed for one and not another, it makes classes feel singled out. It makes players compare classes and consider questions like: would I be more effective playing something else?

Drain Mana’s removal wasn’t bad in and of itself, it was that it was removed while Mana Burn was left intact that was the problem. It wasn’t that Devour Magic got a 12 second increase to its CD, it’s that other offensive dispels didn’t get the same CD – or any CD at all. It’s not that the automatic self-healing of Fel Armor was removed, but rather that other classes didn’t see a similar reduction.

“Priests are a little weak in PvP,” noted Ghostcrawler, and in that context the removal of Drain Mana without the corresponding loss of Mana Burn makes sense. Other caster classes needed to be made more attractive in PvP, so Warlocks were made less effective. This – combined with all these other changes – made it harder for average Warlock players in PvP, who then looked at the other classes and realized they were more attractive at their skill level: easier to play, more effective abilities, fewer buttons to push.

If it wasn’t Drain Mana, it was Fel Armor. If it wasn’t this patch, it was the 12% damage nerf in 4.1. The little things piled up until players decided it wasn’t worth the hassle anymore.

At some point, people started realizing it wasn’t fun for them anymore, and either rerolled or quit.

Inelegant Complexity without Reward strikes again.


Have Group, Will Travel is an insanely useful level 21 guild perk. With it, any member of a guild can summon their entire party or raid to their location. It has a long CD, but since it’s available to everyone there are usually enough to bring any last-minute stragglers into any guild activity.

It’s easy to use, too – click on the ability and it summons your party/raid.

Compare this to the Warlock Ritual of Summoning: a single class has access to it, requires 2 other people and a bunch of clicking, but it has no CD.

Have Group, Will Travel is the superior ability. It eclipses the Warlock summons in nearly every aspect, effectively negating the class perk. This, no doubt, hasn’t helped with overall satisfaction of the Warlock class. It’s not special or unique anymore. About the best you can say is that it’s always available if you have a Warlock around. But Warlocks can’t use it on their own – it has to be part of a group.

The wrong thing to do is to remove Have Group, Will Travel so that Warlocks can feel useful about this ability again. This solves the problem of uniqueness for a small fragment of the playerbase at the cost of increased dissatisfaction for everyone. People like HGWT. It’s useful. Taking it away will just piss a lot of people off.

The right thing to do here is to make Ritual of Summoning better than Have Group, Will Travel. Make it as easy to use as HGWT – no need for a group – with a reasonable cooldown. Do it by Glyph – let Warlock players choose between a Demon TV (which can be used all the time but needs 2 other players) or a HGWT group summon with a 10 minute CD.

Don’t go backwards with quality of life improvements just to make a class feel special.

Make them feel special by giving them a better quality of life.

Next up is the final post of this series, Out of the Mists: Reclaiming Warlocks in Pandaria, where I’ll finally start looking ahead to Mists of Pandaria and the complete reworking of the Warlock class.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

The Care and Feeding of Baby Warlocks

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

I’m struck by how limited the publicly available census data is, especially around leveling characters. It tells us things like: Hunters are hugely popular to roll and start leveling, but they decline in relative popularity well before the endgame. Priests, Paladins and Shamans seem better suited towards leveling all the way to 85. Warlocks struggle and get less popular as they level.

But it doesn’t tell us things like: Warlocks have a problem at level 25 in the leveling process.

That kind of data should exist, privately. I assume that Blizzard has attrition data that would let you see account-level details like: at what point people stop spending more than 25/50/75% of their play time on a given character? At what point people quit? Which character they were playing prior to their quit? What are the demographics of common play patterns, and are there certain patterns which players adopt before they quit?

Account-level data is the holy grail for Warcraft analysts. I would do bad things to get my hands on that data and dump it into Adobe Insight. I’m not going to lie; I would do bad things.

I’ve already talked at length about Warlocks the endgame, so let’s turn to the lower levels – to the leveling game. It’s easy to overlook this part of World of Warcraft once you’ve begun raiding, but it’s a large part of a game, and more importantly – it’s a large contributor to the health of a class. A good leveling experience can bring players into the class and keep them in it; a poor flow can drive them out, either to a different class or out of the game entirely.

Why do we stall out on leveling a class? Is it the class, or the game? It’s hard to say with current data, and analyzing our own motivation is hard. Why can’t I bring myself to log in to my level 43 resto Shaman, or pick up my level 60 Rogue? I don’t know. I really don’t, beyond vague statements of “boring” and “no clue how to play this class anymore.” Much like setting aside an endgame character, stalling out on a leveling character is probably best understood in the aggregate, in looking at trends – yet we don’t have a lot of trends to look at.

So we’re going to have to speculate a little bit.

I struggled to level a Warlock in Cataclysm. Intrigued by the introduction of specializations at level 10, I rolled a trio of them at the beginning of the expansion, and then failed to level any of them past 15 or so. I rerolled one later on and got her up to 25 or so, but the whole process feels flawed, inelegant.

Leveling is an important part of the World of Warcraft. Leveling teaches players how to play a class as they learn to play the game. It’s supposed to give people a flavor of what the class plays like at endgame while introducing abilities in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the player. As new abilities are added each expansion, players need to learn and assimilate them.

An obvious side effect of increased complexity at the endgame is that the leveling process has more work to do. There’s more stuff to teach in about the same amount of time – the number of abilities goes up, but the amount of time it takes to get to endgame is kept the same (or even decreased.) This observation isn’t just for Warlocks; it’s for all classes. It can be difficult to learn your class when abilities come too quickly to process and internalize.

Based on the previous entries in this series, I think it’s a pretty easy leap to relate endgame complexity to leveling complexity. Not so much that leveling as an activity becomes increasingly difficult, but learning to play a class becomes a bigger job. There’s more material to cover. Players may take breaks to consolidate their knowledge by locking experience – a practice I heartily endorse – or they may be able to proceed to the endgame without issue. It really depends on the player and the class.

That point is pretty straightforward, so instead of dwelling on it for another thousand words let’s move on to something new.


A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Cataclysm introduced a fairly radical change to the way in which characters could level: specializations at level 10. Players were asked to choose a specialization right out of the starting area, with the implication that they are focusing on one specific aspect of a character class.

This change had several components:

  • Granted a new, signature ability of the spec
  • Gave a bonus to the core thematic abilities of the spec
  • Allowed characters to begin assigning talent points in that talent tree
  • Restricted characters from assigning talent points in other talent trees until 31 points had been spent in the primary tree.

Choosing a spec at level 10 seems to be a great idea when we look at what leveling is supposed to accomplish. It gives people a sense of the spec early on, both with playstyle and flavor. It focuses player attention on specific talents and abilities. It should provide guidance on how to gear, on how to group with others, on how to PvP. And it gives people cool toys early on in the game.

There are other benefits which we never really saw implemented in Cataclysm. In theory, the random dungeon finder could restrict queues to only hose who have talented into that role, though dual specs makes that a bit of a challenge. Queueing is not a simple problem to solve.

Specializations at level 10 are a learning tool. I think there’s a real benefit here of guiding players into learning specific roles early on, especially for hybrid classes that can tank or heal. Practice in the forgiving leveling environment helps get players ready for the harder challenges of endgame.

Even more than teaching, though, I think specialization at level 10 lets you play what you want, as soon as you want. It’s a different expression of the Bring the Player, Not the Class philosophy – not about balance, but rather about offering players choices in how they play. If you wanted to play a Fury Warrior because the idea of someone with two axes appealed to you, now you could do it right out of the starting area and continue it all the way up to endgame.

This should be contrasted with the way leveling was handled before Cataclysm, where each class generally had a spec (or two) considered best for leveling, with the other specs filling other roles. For Warlocks, Wrath leveling went something like:

  • Affliction through level 40.
  • Around level 40 Demonology became viable with the Felguard.
  • Around level 69-70 Destruction became viable with Chaos Bolt.

It’s not that players couldn’t start off and level as Destruction, it’s that it it was really clunky compared to Affliction until around level 70. Players could level as Affliction all the way to 80, but if they didn’t want to play an Affliction warlock they still had to get through 40 levels before they could switch to Demonology and get their Felguard. Destruction, frankly, didn’t even work until 64 because of a lack of nukes (Chaos Bolt and Incinerate in the mid-60s) and the wonky mechanics of Conflagrate, which needed a Glyph to be practical for the spec. (It consumed Immolate on the target without a glyph.)

Cataclysm changed this. Every spec became, in theory, a viable leveling spec. You picked your spec at level 10 and went with it.

  • Affliction got Unstable Affliction, making it a three DoT leveling spec.
  • Demonology got a separate pet with the Felguard.
  • Destruction got a CD nuke in Conflagrate (revised so no Glyph was needed).

In theory, this meant that you would have three different styles of leveling (dot, pet, nuke) that taught the basics of each spec, giving them a flavor of what was in store for them.

The theory isn’t bad. It’s really not! While I like the idea that you level as a class instead of a spec (Mage not a Frost Mage, etc.), that isn’t always practical, and it’s okay to make a choice early on and stick with it all the way through.

The problem, at least with Warlocks, came from the inelegant implementation. Flaws like:

  • Spending talents to buff abilities you wouldn’t get for 40-50 levels
  • Weak, situational abilities granted early on without obvious use, while core abilities are unavailable
  • New resource system with no real use until higher levels
  • Abilities outside of specialization being necessary part of leveling

… all contributed to making Warlocks feel clunky, hard to level, off-putting.

Much of this has been cleaned up in the Mists beta, but I think it’s worth noting that these problems were present during Cataclsym. It’s important to acknowledge the problem and recognize if it’s been fixed. The impact is hard to quantify, but that doesn’t mean it was negligible.


Talents got an overhaul in Cataclysm, but they still worked in a tree structure – some talents you have to take to make the spec work, others are kinda optional. There’s a larger discussion to be had about talents, but for leveling talents form a series of choices – what should I take now that makes the most sense?

You could argue that there are several ways in which this model fails – if new players don’t take an obvious talent, they might get penalized – but the way I saw it fail most for Warlocks was in one of two ways.

  • Talents affect abilities you don’t have yet.
  • Talents affect abilities you shouldn’t use.

The confluence of abilities getting handed out at certain levels and talents opening up at certain levels makes the first one difficult to talk about without specific context.

For example, at level 10 an Affliction Warlock only knows Corruption and Unstable Affliction for DoTs; they don’t learn Bane of Agony until level 12. Yet, the first tier of Affliction talents gives you a chance to buff three spells: BoA, Life Tap, or Corruption. The right choice (and yes, there is a right choice) is to buff Corruption first through level 13, then buff BoA at level 15 and 17.

An experienced player can look at the choices and go, you know, those levels will go pretty quickly, take Improved Corruption and move on. But I don’t think that’s obvious to a new player. Wait, Bane of Agony, what is a Bane, I get one at level 12 and one at level 20, so should I take this now or not? It’s a false choice, a point of confusion that – while navigable – is inelegant. It’s clunky. Yes, it’s only a two-level gap. But it’s still clunky.

Affliction’s first tier isn’t even really the best example of this kind of wasted talent. Destruction’s talent tree is full of places where you are buffing spells you won’t have for some time to come. Improved Soul Fire used to be a tier 2 talent, resulting in situations in the 20s and 30s where your only option was picking talents to buff spells you would not get for 20-40 levels. Emberstorm in the second tier makes sense in tier 2 because Demonology needs it at endgame, but it is completely wasted because Soul Fire wasn’t learned until level 48 and Incinerate at 64!

Leveling players notice every time a talent buffs a spell or pet ability that isn’t available. They try to make sense of the trees and do the right thing, but sometimes there is no right thing to do. Sometimes, the lack of an ability will cause someone to pass over a critical talent for the spec. Emberstorm is mandatory for Destruction, even if it did nothing before Soul Fire was lowered to level 20. Molten Core is mandatory for endgame Demonology, but it’s available at level 37 but has absolutely no effect until level 63. Jinx is available at level 19, but Curse of the Elements is learned at level 53.

These kinds of mistakes are frustrating. It’s solved by leveling and respecing, of course, but we shouldn’t ignore the inelegance of it all. I think the talents which drive players to use the wrong spells are actually a little bit worse, to be honest, because they betray a key goal of the leveling process – teach the player how the spec plays at endgame.

Should Destruction Warlocks be casting Shadow Bolt? Their specialization perk improves Fire damage, but most of their early talents also buff Shadow Bolt. For a long time, your choice of nuke was either Shadow Bolt or Searing Pain until the 40s. You can buff Searing Pain while leveling, but even buffed, it’s not that great of a spell. (I tried to make a crit-heavy Searing Pain leveling build, it sucked.)

Shadow Bolt is a fantastic spell early on. It scales well, it gets buffed by most of the early talents – and once Incinerate is available, Destro Warlocks shouldn’t use it ever again.

Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

My personal preference leveling Destro has been to ignore Immolate/Conflag – too slow – and just spam Shadow Bolt (with occasional Soul Fires thrown in) for good measure. I know that that’s personal preference, and that I could Immo/Conflag, but I don’t like the long CD and it honestly feels faster just to spam Shadow Bolts at everything. (They hit like a truck.)

But how is this teaching me how the spec will play later on? How does this capture the flavor of the spec as fire-crazed pyromaniacs?

Affliction, as the former preferred leveling spec, has fewer of these problems than the other two. Sure, you never hardcast Shadow Bolt because it’s untalented until level 71, but Drain Life is … was… a sufficient filler spell. It’s thematically appropriate and the MOAR DOTS theory embraced by the leveling tree is the correct one.

The promise of the specializations at level 10 in Cataclysm was that it would let you level how you liked. The reality was that it exposed many flaws in certain specs’s talent trees and ability distribution, which in turn were the original reason why those specs weren’t used to level with in the first place! This isn’t a Warlock-only problem – I hit problem spots on other leveling toons – but it seems to have hit Warlocks more seriously than many.


Soul Shards were completely revamped in Cataclysm and were … well, they freed up a bag space, which was awesome, but otherwise they were a bit of a disappointment. They had some specific uses at the endgame, but as you level the abilities are less than thrilling. Instant summon a demon: how many times does your demon die while leveling? Improved healthstones, yay? Searing Pain, even at 100% crit, tends to do less damage than Shadow Bolts cast during the same period of time. (I wanted to like Searing Pain filler, really I did.)

Pretty much it’s good for fast Drain Life and instant Soul Fires while leveling, and only once Soul Fire was brought down to level 20.

The CD on the shards is long (30 seconds), they take 9 seconds out of combat to regenerate, and they just don’t do a lot. They save you 2 seconds every 30 at the cost of 9 seconds later on, which is a net loss of 3 seconds every minute and a half.

Think about that. Sure, it’s nice to be able to cast a Soul Fire on the run, but why would you do this as part of a leveling rhythm? Soul Shards add complexity without a lot of return, but they do so inelegantly. Did you really need them at level 10?

Say you’re leveling Destro, which should be able to make good use of instant Soul Fires. But you probably have Shadow and Flame, so you try to open with Shadow Bolt whenever possible. Okay, so you stop moving to cast Shadow Bolt, then follow it up with a soul burned Soul Fire. BAM! POW! That mob is probably dead.

Now wait for another 30 seconds before you can do that again.

See, even the 10 second CD on Conflag is irritating if you’re trying to use it all the time – effectively limiting you to 1 mob pull every 10 seconds, which is actually kinda slow. The 30 second CD is understandable in the context of the endgame, but while leveling?

It’s an emergency button you’ll hit every so often.

I admit, I was more disappointed by the Soul Shard revamp on my low level Warlocks than on my 85. It wasn’t so bad at endgame, but when leveling I realized that it was … clunky. Inelegant.

Oh well. At least I got a bag slot back.


Quick! Which spells should all Warlocks use in Cataclysm, regardless of specialization?

  • Corruption
  • Bane of Doom
  • Shadowflame
  • Immolate/Unstable Affliction
  • Demon Soul

One theory I have for why all three Warlock specs are relatively equal in raid DPS is because they share so many of the same spells. Everyone should be running with 3-4 DoTs, a Curse, and one of 4 nukes. Few abilities are unique to a single spec; there is a lot of cross-pollination of strong abilities, with some modifiers in application and execution.

While this common base of abilities presents some issues at the endgame, it also presents issues for leveling Warlocks in that there’s no clear delineation for what abilities should be used, or not used, according to their spec. In many ways spec doesn’t matter. You should use Corruption, and Bane, Immo/UA, and Shadow Bolts until the mid-sixties. Each spec gets one or two signature additions – Haunt, Hand of Gul’dan, Conflagrate, and Chaos Bolt – but your toolkit is going to have some Affliction and some Destruction, no matter what. You can level by sending in your demon and hitting random DoTs if you really want to.

I think this is a shame. Specs should have a unique feel to them. They should have a core set of abilities which define them and make them feel different. The shared toolkit of Warlocks works against them here, as does the general complexity of each spec at endgame; while leveling there just isn’t a firm direction one way or another. You can dot, you can nuke, it will pretty much all work out for you in the end.

The core abilities need to be better defined to give a sense of flavor and distinction to each class. Some shared abilities are okay – they signify that you’re playing a Warlock – but too many, and you lose the feeling that your spec choice mattered at all.


The distribution of Warlock abilities rendered them pretty weak in leveling battlegrounds. They were never really all that strong, but with the high burst in lower brackets, coupled by fewer escapes than many other classes, contributed to leveling frustrations with Warlocks.

Fully in the realm of anecdote now, the twink brackets I played in (19s, 24s, 70s) all considered Warlocks and Warriors to be their weakest classes. Not unplayably weak – a really skilled Warlock (or Warrior, for that matter) is a wonder to behold – but they do best with a healer behind them to compensate for their lack of escapes and solid defenses.

What I’ve seen in PvP is mostly a problem of ability distribution in any given bracket. Some classes receive powerful PvP tools right at the start (Hunters, Rogues, Mages) and others do not (Warriors, who instead are the best tanks at low levels). Warlocks gain some key PvP spells very late in the leveling process – Shadowflame, Fel Flame, Demonic Circle, Demon Soul.

Similarly, Warlocks have always seemed to struggle in leveling five mans because of their slow rampup time and poor ability synergy at early levels. This trend seemed to get worse in Cataclysm, with each spec relying on DoTs for the majority of their DPS, which results in low DPS if you can’t ramp quickly. But to be honest, I don’t know if there was really a decline in Warlock leveling 5-man performance in Cataclysm. I really don’t. I rarely saw Warlocks while leveling other characters, and when I did they didn’t have notably good or bad DPS.

The one thing I noticed while tanking or healing was just how few Warlocks that were leveling.

I think that, in leveling PvP, Warlocks fared a bit worse in Cataclysm compared to other classes. Some classes started off strong but faded as the levels piled on (Hunters), others started strong and finished strong (Rogues, Mages). Warlocks seemed weaker at all levels in comparison. I think that many of the changes which were made to balance the class at level 85 in rated PvP play had negative effects in the leveling bracket. I know that leveling PvP has never been balanced, and was not intended to be balanced, yet I think that this had a negative effect on the leveling population. For a PvP class to not be very good at PvP while leveling is kind of … odd.

That said, the flip side of it is that generally, Warlocks who leveled via PvP became excellent at it, thus perpetuating a class of players who excelled at Warlock PvP at endgame, hiding a multitude of class flaws.


All of these small, clunky things add up while leveling. All of the little errors of logic, of false talent choices, of no clear guidance for players, they contribute to making a class not just complicated, but also inelegant. And that inelegance matters when you’re trying to convince a player to take up a class.

Leveling is a sales job. It’s training players how to play a class, sure, but it’s also there to sell them on it, to convince them that this is the class for you, my friend. A good leveling experience draws in players and bolsters the ranks of a class. Leveling a class isn’t hard; convincing someone they want to level it is.

The promise of specialization at level 10 is the promise of leveling the way you want to play at the endgame, of training players to use the abilities they were going to need later on. I think Cataclysm didn’t do a very good job of that for Warlocks. The two specs which became viable leveling specs both suffered from learning abilities and talents at the wrong time, and in some cases essential, core abilities were absent for much of the leveling process.

The Soul Shard revamp also failed to deliver on its promise to bring something new and exciting to the class, which in turn led to abilities being learned early on with limited utility and questionable time savings.

Unlike previous posts in this series, I don’t have numbers to stand by with these assertions. I can point to flaws in the class design and say, it doesn’t make much sense to give players talents which buff abilities they don’t have yet – but I can’t quantify that impact. It doesn’t make much sense to give people a specialization but not give them the core tools of it. None of this could have helped players choosing to level a Warlock in Cataclysm.

There is some good news here. I’ve taken a look at the changes coming to Warlock leveling in the Beta of Mists of Pandaria, and many – most – of these problems have been addressed. Leveling a Warlock looks to be a lot smoother, a lot more fun.

But these problems didn’t help Warlock popularity in Cataclysm.

Next up in the series is Cataclysm Changes and the Loss of the Warlock’s Soul, where I’ll be looking at how the changes affected the theme of the class, and then we can finally look ahead to Mists of Pandaria.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Appendix B: The Problem of Evil

I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the responses on the Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series. There are a lot of questions and points raised which modify my original outline to the point where it the topics need to adjust to suit. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” and all that.

As such, I have found myself writing posts which I think are related to the main thesis, but where the data doesn’t strongly support the central theme. Or, like in the following piece, I think the data is far more interesting for analyzing other classes than it is for Warlocks. I had hoped that analyzing the initial lack of appeal for Warlocks would yield some new insight into the class, but ultimately there are limitations on the publicly available data which outright prevent it.

This is a data-heavy post, which is pretty much the only reason I’m releasing it into the wild. All of the charts can be found in the 4.3.3 class distribution spreadsheet. If nothing else, this will hopefully prove a solid snapshot of class popularity at the end of an expansion.


One common theory I’ve heard about the scarcity of Warlocks is that it’s because they’re the evil class of Warcraft. They personify the ends justifying the means. They rationalize using the tools of the Burning Legion against everyone, without worrying that perhaps this really isn’t a very good idea.

There are NO noble or virtuous Warlocks in lore, and Warlock characters aren’t portrayed as good or nice in the World of Warcraft. At best, no one trusts them, and at worst, they’re feared and reviled – and rightfully so! They consort with demons for fun and profit. They take delight in pain and torment. They are corruptors of the highest order.

And yet, they can also be the saviors of Azeroth.

Reconciling these two positions can, frankly, require some mental gymnastics.

Anti-heroes are a tough sell in a fantasy setting. Yes, there’s some appeal for those who don’t want to play a noble paragon or protector of the natural order, but it’s a limited appeal. A class based on the worst villains of WoW isn’t going to feed into people’s desire to be a hero.

I think there’s something to this idea that Warlocks are naturally an unpopular class at the character selection screen because they’re the bad guys. Even Rogues – the other anti-hero class – are a bit easier to recast in a heroic light. Sure, they’re ruthless and efficient, but you can picture them as secret government operatives, swashbuckling pirates, street urchins turned heroes. The noble Rogue is part of fantasy archetypes like The Gray Mouser or Bilbo Baggins; it’s part and parcel of the AD&D-inspired syncretic fantasy legacy Warcraft is heir to.

Warlocks are either necromancers, crazy conjurers, or wizards who crossed the line with the Dark Arts. They have their own place in a fantasy setting, but not as heroes. So it’s difficult, at character creation, to see how this character would appeal to a broad base of players.

The central questions of the previous posts in this series were concerned with the decline of the Warlock class over the course of Cataclysm. The revocation of the Simplicity Tax and additional complexity beyond the magic number introduced in Cataclysm created a situation of inelegant complexity without reward, which in turn led to a decline in Warlock popularity. These are based upon the significant changes to the class during this expansion.

The reason which I haven’t considered that the class’s character unduly affected it in Cataclysm is because I didn’t see any real change in the portrayal of the class to account for its decline. In other words – Warlocks didn’t get any worse in Cataclysm’s story. Warlocks still don’t have any sympathetic characters in Warcraft lore. All major Warlocks characters are unrepentant villains (Ner’zhul, Gul’dan) or they reform and renounce their fel ways (Drek’thar). None of this changed in Cataclysm.

That said, while I don’t think that the idea of the class caused the Warlock to decline, I absolutely agree that it doesn’t help its case to become popular.

Sadly, the data we have publicly available is limited and doesn’t let us look at things like: out of every character rolled, how many people choose a Warlock? How much time do players spend considering the class on the creation screen versus other classes?

The majority of the data we’ve considered so far has focused upon the Warlock class at endgame, level 85. It’s tempting to use popularity data from the leveling brackets (c.f. the second post in this series) to try to prove this point that players don’t choose Warlocks at the creation screen. Looking at the leveling graph again:

The important data point is in the 10-19 bracket, where players have gotten over the level 10 hurdle and are showing enough interest in the game to commit to more than an hour or two.1 Warlocks show up with a resounding 21% deficit, and it gets worse from there. It’s safe to say that they’re not popular at creation, and that points to the class not having immediate appeal. They’re the house in the nice neighborhood which lacks curb appeal.

But what’s interesting is that they’re about as (un)popular as Priests, and more popular than Shaman from 10-19! Heck, even Paladins – the most popular class in the game – are unpopular at that level, though they quickly make up ground. If it’s the Warlock’s evilness which dooms them to unpopularity, why are traditionally heroic classes also unpopular?

That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Well, no, it doesn’t really.

The data in the 10-19 bracket represents the current number of characters in that bracket, not the sum of all characters who have passed through that bracket. It’s correct to say that Shaman are not very popular in 10-19, but that might be because they’re all moving on quickly to other levels.2 The shape of the line, and relative position, and how it ends up is more important for analysis than any specific intrabracket comparison.

Let’s look at this by directly comparing Warlocks to another popular class as they level.

Both classes experience a decline between their 30s-60s, but Paladins gain in popularity as they level. They’re almost twice as populous as Warlocks in Northrend.

When you hit Cataclysm:

Man, look at that hockey stick with the Paladin line! People love playing their Pallys at endgame.

Here are the numbers, which have also been added to the class distribution spreadsheet:

It’s tough to say, definitively, that people aren’t rolling Warlocks only because they’re the evil class with this data. It’s really tempting to say that because there’s such a small difference between Pallys and Warlocks in the lower levels, it must be because they like them equally. This is probably false.

The key isn’t in the 10-19 bracket and where they start – it’s with the overall population of each class. Character creation encompasses all characters, not just a subset of those leveling. What we see with the above graphs is that players enjoy leveling Paladins to the endgame and playing them there. They’re not rolling other alts, they level up and they play them. This is true to a much lesser degree with Warlocks, too – but the overall population of people who rolled a Paladin is much greater than the population of people who’ve rolled a Warlock.

In previous posts, I focused on endgame statistics – how many Warlocks were being brought to Heroic Raids, how many were getting 2200+ Arena ratings – which required focus on endgame, level 85 data. Determining if a class is over or underrepresented in Heroics/2200+ required a comparison between characters who could compete in an activity (because they were the correct level) and those who actually did. If we’d compared the total raiding population of a class to the entire class population, we’d draw the wrong conclusion. That’s not right.

So, let’s at total population data.3

Going back to the same source as the leveling data (Warcraft Realms), we get the following:

And let’s look at that as a graph:

There are some surprising results when you compare this data to the level 85 data for other classes – Hunters, Rogues and Shaman especially – but it’s not quite so revealing for Warlocks.

They’re still at the bottom of the barrel. This shouldn’t be surprising – leveling data puts them at low popularity, raiding data puts them scarce – but it’s good to see the data match up from different sources.

Let’s go ahead and compare the total population to the endgame populations.

This data is really interesting for other classes, but not really for Warlocks.

There are a few items to note:

  • Hunters make up 12.3% of the overall population, #2 behind Paladins. Their leveling popularity translates into a sizable active character pool, but a comparably scarce population at endgame.
  • Like Hunters, Rogues are more likely to be leveling than found at 85. This is probably due to the Legendary Carrot Effect. I think we’ll need to see Rogue data at different times to see if this really held true for Cataclysm.
  • Shaman are more likely to be 85 than leveling.
  • The massive DK population in the 50s and 60s is statistically a blip due to low populations at those levels.4

This, sadly, doesn’t really shed a lot of light on the question we’re trying to answer – is the reason for the class’s unpopularity because of their reputation as evil spellcasters, or because of other reasons?

We don’t really know. All we can say with confidence is that Warlocks are unpopular from start to finish.

There are a few ways we could test the theory of evil:

  • Add a major sympathetic Warlock character to lore in the middle of an expansion (to isolate it from expansion-basedclass changes) and see if popularity rises.
  • Conversely, add more negative Warlocks to lore and see if class popularity falls. Or rises! It all depends on the character. (…I do not really recommend this.)
  • Change the introductory class text and reskin the class to be a Friendship Wizard. See if people reroll to play with Rainbow Bolts.5
  • Survey Warcraft players to determine why they did, or did not, roll a Warlock.

Aside from those suggestions, I think this specific theory of evil driving players away is unprovable with existing data. It’s suggestive, and there’s an argument to be made for it.

But we need more evidence.


(1) This data set is limited in a lot of ways – unfortunately we can’t see how many Warlocks really get rolled at the character screen. We’ll have to extrapolate initial character creation choice from the lowest level bracket, which isn’t perfect – but we’ll make due.

(2) Scroll of Resurrection toons went through it REALLY FAST.

(3) This doesn’t represent characters from all active subscribers, but a representative subset. When you look at the population of active characters across tracked realms, the sample size is statistically significant, so we can make due with it. This is one reason why I tend to deal with percentages instead of absolute character counts in this series.

(4) This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Death Knights are well represented in the endgame, but their status as a “Hero Class” makes them ideal bankers on new servers. At least a life of service to Auctioneer Jaxon is a far better fate than serving the Lich King?

(5) Mark my words, Friendship Wizards are going to dominate the DPS charts in the expansion after Mists.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

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

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.


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.


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.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm

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


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

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. 🙂


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery