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.
THE PROBLEM OF SPECIALIZATION
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?
- Bane of Doom
- 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.
BATTLEGROUNDS AND DUNGEONS
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.
THE PROBLEM OF INELEGANCE
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.