13 Apr 2010

Mage Playstyles in Cataclysm

The dust is beginning to settle following the almighty stack of class changes that came out last week. While Paladins are still waiting for theirs, the rest of the Warcraft population has been trying to work out what the changes mean for them. Mages are no exception – I wrote up an initial assesment shortly after the changes came out. There are a whole bucketload of opinions out there though that are worth digging through.

  • Euripedes starts off with a squee over the changes, following it up with a rant about the loss of Wards, the crappiness of Mana Shield and the Shaman hate.
  • Arioch has a desire to dance the Time Warp everywhere, but hates the Arcane Missiles changes.
  • Gnomeageddon is trying to be inspired by the changes, but struggling.
  • Krizzlybear is also doing the Time Warp and savouring the flavour of the changes.
  • Tarinae thinks the gains are pretty positive for mages.
  • Aurdon got crit by the wall of text and is still trying to recover.
  • ArcaneTinkerTank says the changes make him go hmmmmm.
  • Archaius thinks it’s Christmas with all the presents mages are getting.
  • Empowered Fire are excited by the changes.
  • WoW.Com has some initial reactions from their resident mage.
  • River is still waiting for more teleports. Oh, and he wants Blink fixed.

Now that the changes are out and the initial analysis done, what do the they actually mean? Can we start to work out how the typical mage will play, how the talent trees will play out and what each spec will bring to the table? Based on the information we currently have, I’ve done a rough sketch-out of how the three mage types will work.

Frost

The Deathfrost mechanic is probably the most interesting – cast Frostbolt on a mob and gain a damage buff. Now you could just carry on spamming Frostbolt, but then you wouldn’t take advantage of the Deathfrost bonus. Remember though that you’ll get random free Arcane Missiles procs, which will take advantage of Deathfrost.

But hang on – we’ve already got a spell that will make use of most of our Frost talents and it’ll take advantage of the Deathfrost bonus. Yes, Frostfire Bolt will live again in endgame raiding. In fact, as you gain more gear with the Mastery stat, this spell will do even more damage. Add into the mix talents like Brain Freeze and you have a setup that will allow you to cast high-damage spells that are instant cast, have no mana cost and benefit from Mastery.

The crucial bit is how Deathfrost will work. Is it a stacking buff that you ramp up, or a buff that sticks at the same level after you’ve cast Frostbolt once? Either way, you’ll end up with a rotation that has Frostbolt, Frostfire Bolt and the occasional Arcane Missiles proc. As the Deathfrost mastery bonus ramps up, you might even switch from one rotation to another, depending on how much bonus Frostfire Bolt gets. It could easily come out on top as the raiding spec of choice purely on the strength of Mastery

PVP as a Frost mage will be similar, except I’m expecting a lot more battleground play. There are bound to be talents that give you a boost to Wall of Fog, which are going to be incredible in rated battlegrounds. What I’d like to see though are two Wall of Fog bonuses – one in Fire and the other in Frost. The Frost one increases snaring duration, while the Fire one would increase the damage component of the Wall. Freezing Fog/Choking Fog.

I think there’s also a lot of chance for elemental mages to double-team as Frost and Fire, the Frost mage uses Wall of Fog, while the Fire mage uses Flame Orbs to send fiery death down the line from one end to the other. Depending on setup, it could easily hurt a whole group of players depending on how many get snared by the wall. A couple of classical AoEs and it’s all over.

Fire

It’s already been said that Fire Mages will play like Affliction Warlocks in Cataclysm, and the Ignite Mastery mechanic will make this even moreso. A Fire mage’s rotation is likely to shift from Living-Bomb-Scorch-Fireball then Pyroblast on Hot Streak, and change into something that focuses on maintaining DoTs and only casting Fireball or Pyroblast when you’re not reapplying a DoT or a debuff. Again, I think we’ll see a shift from one rotation to another as you accumulate Mastery bonus and the DoT element of the spell becomes more significant.

Burnout’s going to be a boon for Fire mages in raiding scenarios, as it’ll mean that they can continue casting even when out of mana. I’d like to see how this dynamic works – will it be a Life-tap style health to mana conversion, or will spells start consuming HP instead of MP? It’s also another way Mages can kill themselves, as if spell reflection and standing in the bad weren’t enough.

A Fire mage in PvP will be largely the same as it is now – great in battlegrounds where there is a chance to ramp up some serious damage against a single target or small groups. There’s also going to be comedy gold available when applying Living Bomb to multiple targets, triggering the haste buff from Pyromaniac and laying down some very quck cast Flamestrikes. I would like to see some kind of talent that will either cause Living Bomb to infect nearby targets, or that pushes all fire DoTs on additional targets.

In Arenas I expect the Fire mage to struggle. There’s no burst damage and little utility there, areas that the Arcane and Frost trees have always been good at. Let’s be honest though – Fire mages will play fine, I’d just be surprised to see them in the very top brackets of PvP. I don’t think the new Playing with Fire mechanic will help that much either – with Rogues able to stunlock a player completely, being able to AoE knockback, snare and get away is going to be tough to perform.

Arcane

I think that the Arcane spec is going to be possibly the only one that gets more annoying to play as the Mastery bonus becomes more relevant. The Mana Adept bonus basically means that in order to do the most damage you need a full mana pool. Great if you only need a short burst of damage to nuke someone down (arenas) or where you’re doing relatively short fights (solo or 5-man work). As soon as you have fights that stretch out and require you to start playing around with Mana gems and similar, it’s going to become more of a pain. Trying to keep your mana pool as full as possible when you’re in the last 30% of a bossfight is going to become a pain.

In fact, the only time I think Arcane is going to be reasonable is when you’re still gearing up at 85 and you still miss regularly in boss fights. A miss means that Arcane Focus triggers and you’ll get a small amount of mana back. With this mechanic it might make the mana management game easier, but it’s only going to be until you have enough good quality gear to hit bosses on a regular basis.

The other loss is in the three different rotations that Arcane has in Wrath. Currently there are three traditional rotations that are swapped when mana conservation, overall DPS or burst damage are required. I think that the Mana Adept bonus will upset this balance, meaning that just a single rotation becomes usable.

That said they may yet pull it back, particularly if there are talents that adjust the new Time Warp spell in some way. Currently the Exhaustion debuf lasts 10 minutes, meaning that you can’t fire off both a Heroism and a Time Warp in the same fight. If the Arcane mage is able to talent a way around this, either by reducing the duration of Exhaustion or increasing the duration of the warp, they may become much more useful.

The final kick-them-when-they’re-down for Arcane Mages is the final nerf of Incanter’s Absorption with the removal of the fire and frost wards. Euripedes pointed out on his rant (see link at the top) that Mana Shield is just not useful to mages at the moment – we have other ways of getting out of the bad stuff or avoiding damage. I agree that it really needs serious work to become useful again in order for this mechanic to become useful.

PvP as Arcane will still be doable – all the burst damage you know and love will still be there. As that fuel gauge moves from Full to Empty though the damage output will drop. It goes back to the old Three Minute Mage back from vanilla, where an arcane mage would pop Zandalarian Hero Charm and Talisman of Ephemereal Power along with your other cooldowns to do an obscene amount of damage for a whole fifteen seconds. They might rock in Arenas, but battlegrounds might be more of a sniper rather than Gatling gun affair.

Overall

If there’s one thing that’s clear from this arrangement of talents, it’s that mages will need to work with eachother and other classes moreso than ever in order to optimise their abilities. This isn’t just the Focus Magic round-robin that we currently have going, this is about syncing our crowd control and AoE together in order to deliver the best result. It’s about making sure that there’s a Scorch on the boss so that the Frostfire-bolt casting frostmage can take advantage of it as well as the fire mage. It’s about hitting Time Warp when it’s needed for the raid, and not when you need the 40% speed boost to Get Out Of The Bad.

It’s going to take some raw numbers to see how these stack up, followed by a bunch of people coding some spreadsheets, but you can see how the principles will pan out. It’s also early, but my feel is that it’ll be a close battle between Fire and Frost, with Arcane losing out as the spec of choice. It’s partly because of the mastery bonus being hard to take advantage of, but also because of the change to Arcane Missiles and how it’ll affect the spec’s rotation.

I’m also struggling to see how Time Warp will help that much. Don’t get me wrong, it means that a Shaman no longer has an automatic spot in a raid, but it also means that you’ll have a lot of Heroism shaped abilities and a huge cooldown in which to use them. Without reducing the duration of Exhaustion or allowing more than one to be used during a boss fight, there seems to be little practical purpose in spreading the ability around more.

For now though it’s a case of pulling up a chair and waiting until Beta is announced. When it opens, you can be sure that a lot of questions about the Mage mechanics will be answered by those with access to it. I think there’s something for all mages to look forward to, either in terms of how the Mastery bonuses will actually play out or in terms of how the new rotations will shape up. Either way, it’s a good time to be playing.

In the meantime, if you have your own insight into how the mechanics will play out, or want to share your own insights, feel free to sound off in the comments.

(Image Source: Poster for the stage magician Alexander Conlin)

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