I have a problem with my Druid.
Whenever I log in to her, I’m overwhelmed by the options presented to me. What am I supposed to use to do things? Why do I have so many heals, so many melee attacks, so many different interesting things to cast? And shapeshifting? I have to remember to shapeshift, where are those buttons? Honest to goodness panic sets in as I try to figure out what it is I’m supposed to use.
After about 15 minutes of flailing away at something, anything, I’ll switch to a different character, and I inevitably wonder – how on earth did I ever get this character to level 70? I’ve been a bear, I’ve been a cat, I’ve been a tree – but if you ask me how to play a Druid, I couldn’t tell you what works and what doesn’t. Mangle spam, maybe? Swipe and Maul? Rejuv and Lifebloom?
It’s not that a Druid is more complicated than other classes I play well – Warlock and Warrior, if you’re keeping track at home – it’s that there are too many options, too many things to take in if you only play it very occasionally, and that I haven’t figured out how to organize abilities in a way that makes sense to me. Look at that Druid UI and the keybinds – can you even guess what spec she is?
(Please don’t hurt me if I tell you she’s in her Resto spec.)
I was thinking a lot about my Druid when I read Ghostcrawler’s recent post, Number of Abilities, where he talks about how developers consider abilities and their place in a spec, and balancing abilities to keep play interesting without being overwhelming. There was a bit at the very end that resonated with many of the problems I’ve had with old alts in Cataclysm, where they feel unfamiliar and strange.
So when do we cross over from having “enough” cool abilities to “too many” cool abilities? The depth that comes from lots and lots of content can feel cool to a veteran player, but even for them, the intended role and nuance of every ability can become blurred. For the new or returning player, it just becomes incomprehensible.
I look at the action bars of many of my alts, and I see all these shiny buttons which are useful and I should have ready to press because buttons make me kick ass – and then I wonder why I can’t find the right ability to be effective. Druid, Death Knight, Rogue, Priest: they have bars full of abilities that I probably don’t need to use to be competent on the character.
In fact, I’d argue that having cluttered bars is a sign that I’m not really competent with the character – certainly that I’m not organized with them.
THE 5×2 PROJECT
I was really intrigued by an idea that Mat McCurley (@gomatgo) tossed out on Twitter:
The idea is a great one, and related to Ghostcrawler’s post. How can you cut away all the unnecessary spells so a disabled player can play, in a variety of situations? If you have only 11 buttons, how would you set them up? What would be critical to include for combat, what can you leave out?
While Mat’s project is geared towards disabled gamers, this shares a common theme with most accessibility initiatives in that this has a lot of value for everyone, disabled or not. What do you absolutely need to play? What are your rotational abilities, what are your situational abilities, and what are the top 11? What would you have ready and available to click, but not necessarily keybound?
Poneria at Fel Concentration has been brainstorming about the 5×2 project for warlocks, and has some great suggestions in there about distinguishing between group and solo play (and using macros to save space.) I took a different approach in my own attempt, trying to minimize the use of macros and provide a set of keybinds that would be consistent across different specs, to minimize muscle memory problems when switching:
For reference, entries marked with an asterisk (*) are castsequence macros, either set to reset before the first spell comes off CD (like Haunt/Drain Life), simple quick reset castsequence macros (like Bane of Doom/Curse of the Elements, both with long durations) or a pet ability macro. Click Attention are things you should keep handy for clicking, but don’t need keybound.
(Here’s the Excel file of the above graphic if you want to use it as a template.)
Assembling a list like this is an intensely personal exercise, and one that really makes you think about how your class operates. It also makes you think about what’s really necessary – is Soul Swap really needed, or is it for convenience? If you’re raiding all the time, can you afford to have Demon Soul off your keybinds? If so, what do you drop? Do you actually need your AoE keybound, or can you skip it?
Then there’s the question of arrangement: what is a primary keypress, and what uses a modifier? All of these are important, but some are more important than others. I chose to put rotational abilities in the primary row, with situational abilities like CC and executes in the modifier row, but perhaps you would want to move your interrupt into a primary spot.
There’s also the question of cross-spec consistency: should you design your keybinds so that similar keys trigger similar abilities? I did, but that’s because I think it’s important to keep your muscle memory consistent between specs. There’s a method to my madness:
- 1 is your most important DoT, which should be up all the time.
- 2 is your filler spell, or a secondary DoT.
- 3 is Corruption, which every spec needs right now.
- 4 is your spec’s special ability, which is on a cooldown.
- 5 is your non-execute nuke, used for procs and keeping up buffs.
- Mod-1 is your CC, Fear.
- Mod-2 is your default boss Bane and Curse.
- Mod-3 is your AoE.
- Mod-4 is inconsistent, being either an execute or short range attack.
- Mod-5 is inconsistent, being either add management or execute nuke.
- Middle mouse button is mana regeneration.
What I like about the 5×2 Project is that it forces you to embrace constraints and really think about what your class abilities are, and how you use them. It provides a framework for analyzing your own actions, cutting away the cruft, and simplifying your setup to the necessities. You have to make hard choices about what to keep and what to take away. You have to work with macros to cast the right spell in the right situation. You cannot include everything.
The 5×2 Project simplifies keybinds for every kind of player, not just disabled ones. Players new to the class can look at it and know what the important abilities are. Returning players can see the changes and see how new abilities fit in. Players who are dabbling in a class outside of their main – let’s not call them altoholics, they might just have an “alt problem” – can see what they need to prioritize.
I don’t think that you need to play in a 5×2 (+1) setup in order to take something away from it. Thinking about your class abilities in this structured fashion is challenging, and the exercise of getting your character down to 10 primary buttons will make you think about what you really need, versus what you might need occasionally, versus the abilities you don’t need at all.
And that’s a very good thing.
THE CHALLENGE OF LEVELING
I’m leveling a Warrior right now, a by-product of the fun I had questing on Cynderblock getting her the Ambassador title, and I’m really enjoying it. I started off as Arms, but switched over to Prot to tank an instance at level 25 and haven’t switched back yet. Turns out I enjoy smashing my shield into the faces of my enemies, and madly charging around the Plaguelands, pulling more mobs, more, more, MORE MOBS!
I know how to play a Warrior well at level 19, but as I leveled up, the new abilities and talents started making me feel like … like I was starting to not really understand the class. By the mid-40s the feeling crystalized when I looked at my action bars and and realized that while I could continue doing all the things I did at 19 – Rend, TC, Shield Slam/Heroic Strike – I had accumulated a toolbox of tools I didn’t know how to effectively use. Should I use Overpower? It lights up a lot, maybe I should use it. Hamstring, old friend, glad to have you back again, but how do I use you and Disarm together?
And this was just my primary spec – I hadn’t even considered how to set up my offspec, Arms!
I’ve been working on a pet theory about the loss of the no-XP battlegrounds over the past few months. I’m starting to think that being able to take breaks between leveling, while still remaining active in normal PvP, was a very good teaching tool, and that the addition of XP gains to PvP has had an unintended detrimental effect on learning one’s class as you go. Every 10 levels you could, if you chose, stop to PvP for a bit, absorb the new abilities you’d gained, tweak your spec, figure out how things worked – and then move on once you’d had your fill.
Leveling is really fast now, especially with guild perks and heirlooms, so there’s not as much time to absorb the new information. You have a lot of levels to get through, after all! But the lack of a battleground pause button meant that as you practiced to try to really master what you’ve learned, you’re already moving on to the next thing.
That theory is a post all its own.
Anyhow, in response to this, I did what any sensible PvPer would do – I locked my XP at 49 and prepared to spend some time at that level. Not with the goal of making a twink – no, this goal was to get a handle on my growing Protection Warrior, to make sure I really understood how her abilities worked before adding more.
After locking my XP, the first thing I did was sit down and try to simplify her keybinds into something that made more sense than the organic mess which had sprung up.
I went from this, at level 45:
… which is not bad, just disorganized, to this:
The changes are subtle but deep. I went from using non-macroed abilities on paged action bars, and trying to keep track of exactly what would happen in what stance, to conditional macros that grouped similar abilities together.
Here’s a detail of the key area:
(See the spreadsheet for more details.)
You can see the influence of the 5×2 Project already starting to show. There are 10 keys in the primary zone, many of which use context-specific macros to select abilities according to the current stance. For quick kills I’ll only use 1-4, Q-E. Larger pulls will switch to using the Naga 1 and 2 keys to spam Revenge and Cleave once Blood and Thunder has done its work.
One of the big changes I made was consolidating abilities that did similar things in mutually exclusive stances in stance macros. Instead of having Disarm and Hamstring taking up two spaces, I went for:
This will put Hamstring up when in Battle or Berserker, and Disarm in Defensive.
Similarly, Execute and Revenge are mutually exclusive in stances. Even though they aren’t exactly the same idea, they’re both rotational abilities, so they get a macro and shared button, too:
/use [stance:1/3] Execute; [stance:2] Revenge;
Because Revenge and Execute both hit like trucks filled with explosives driven by angry bears when they’re available, I have them bound to both my keyboard and my mouse keypad, and I spam them gleefully when they light up.
There are some places I opted for a simple modifier of an ability, like having Heroic Strike bound to W and Cleave bound to Shift-W. Both of these are Rage dumps, but one is single target and one hits several. Pretty easy.
Some abilities require a change of stance to use: Charge (early on) and Taunt both require some stance dancing to use. For Taunt I knew I’d need to get into Defensive Stance first, so the macro looks like this:
/use [stance:1/3] Defensive Stance; [stance:2] Taunt
That’s a simple version of the ones used above. My mouseover Taunt macro (bound to my mouse) is from the web, and therefore a lot more complicated:
/cast [nostance:2] Defensive Stance; [stance:2, target=mouseover, exists, harm][stance:2, nodead, harm][stance:2, target=targettarget, nodead, harm][stance:2] Taunt
Basically, if you mouse over a hostile mob, you’ll taunt them, mouse over a friendly mob, taunt the mob targeting them, or taunt your target. Lots of taunting going on there.
I should probably use this macro and not the other one, come to think of it.
See, that right there is the part that gets glossed over when talking about macros and keybinds and setups – that this is an iterative process, something that happens over time. I make a few changes, queue up for a LFD run, try them out, then make changes. Or go run some quests in a level-appropriate zone and see how the keys work there. I’d like to include PvP in this, because I think battlegrounds are actually the best way to really understand your situational abilities, but the XP-locked queues have yet to pop for me at level 49.
This will be a process I’ll continue for a while: tweaking, refining, and adjusting both my keybinds and UI to make sure that I really understand what’s going on. I’m sure that if I respec over to Fury and Arms, just to see how they play, I’ll have an entirely new set of questions, but I’ll have a good understanding of those specs before moving on, too.
And the best part is that after all this, I’ll unlock my experience and hit the battlegrounds with a clue of what I’m doing!
MAKING THE HARD CHOICES (AND SWALLOWING MY PRIDE)
In contrast to my Warrior, where I feel like I know what I’m doing (at least with one spec), my Druid continues to stymie me. Perhaps it’s because Druids are so flexible, able to fill any role, that I sort of drift along with her and never commit fully to an idea. I’ll level as a bear tank for a few levels, get bored or frustrated with it, set her aside for a few months, then decide to go heals, only to discover that I still don’t know how the heals work together.
Some of my incompetence with the Druid is because of inconsistent leveling. If you stick with one spec from 1-80, you learn that spec inside and out, you have the time to absorb it. But spending a few levels as a tank, then a few as a healer, then a few as a melee DPS – that’s not the way to make your knowledge gel. It doesn’t even come close to educating me on the right way to play in different environments, like questing, dungeons, and PvP.
I am the easiest HK ever in the battlegrounds on my Druid. It’s hugely frustrating to know what a class is capable of – I see you awesome shapeshifters out there! – and not be able to replicate even a little tiny bit of that excellence.
More than any other character I have, she’s the one that I most desperately need a 5×2 sheet for. She’s the one I need help with.
She’s the one I need your help with.
I think, and this is open for debate, but I think what I want to do is skip Northrend questing entirely and just do instances and PvP to level up. This likely means staying Resto, but I’m willing to start all over. If you think I should go Boomkin or Feral, make your case!
But what I really need is a good 5×2 grid. Yes, I know I should use VuhDo, but I need to know what to click there. I need to know what my top abilities are. I have a feeling that seeing what an experienced Druid player would do with 10 buttons is exactly what I need to finally find my groove with this character. I think I should use form macros, because paging action bars drive me nuts, but I’m not sure what I should prioritize. Should I have heals up top with mouseover macros? Should I put CC in the primary row and only heal through Vuhdo? Should I skip healing and just level Boomkin?
I don’t know, and I could use your help in figuring this all out.
Her name is Snowfalls, and I just don’t want to level her with Herbalism all the way to 85.
She deserves better than that.
THE 5×2 CHALLENGE
I think you need to do the 5×2 exercise. The act of taking a few minutes to think about what your abilities are, what you would keep and what you would trim away, is immensely valuable. You don’t need to do it for every possible spec your character could be, but you should do it for the ones you play. Just set up a 5×2+1 grid and plug in your spells – once you do that, you’ll start making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. It’s an amazing thing to try.
Keep in mind that the value of this exercise comes not from trying to play in the 5×2 grid, though you can certainly do it. (I’m not advocating that, though it would make for a really interesting challenge.)
No, the value comes in looking at your abilities with a critical eye, and of concentrating your most important spells into a confined space. You’ll definitely use more than ten buttons – but you’ll know which ten buttons are the absolute most important to you.
And I think you should share what you come up with, too. Let @gomatgo know over on Twitter what your grid looks like. If you have a post, leave a link for Poneria at Fel Conecntration, as she’s started collecting pages on this project. Share it with your guild mates, on the forums.
There’s no correct answer for this challenge – people will surprise you with what they come up with. PvP and PvE will color people’s designs, as will their comfort with certain addons, hardware, and macros.
But I really, really want to see what you come up with.