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Spiritual Guidance: In defense (or condemnation) of Dispersion

This week your shadow priesting expert, Spiritual Guidance columnist and ace attorney Fox Van Allen, took on his hardest case yet: defending fellow columnist Dawn Moore against charges of murder! The trial was quick -- after presenting the same Rime-Covered Mace to the judge as evidence five consecutive times, Dawn was instantly declared guilty and hauled away. She was last heard muttering something about "the scent of fresh lemons ..."

I have this recurring vision of a grand council of shadow priests. We sit around a gigantic conference table in a dark, shadowy dungeon somewhere. We talk shop and strategy. We share recipes for roast gnome. We discuss our plans to conquer the world.

Then some joker mentions Dispersion, and the whole damn thing falls apart.
"It's a waste of a 31-point talent! We're being screwed!"

"Sit down, jerk, Dispersion is just fine!"
An epic fistfight breaks out. And the haters wind up using Dispersion to soak up the blows. Hypocrites!

Now that we know Dispersion is firmly set as our 31-point talent in Cataclysm, some old wounds are getting reopened. A lot of priests were never truly sold on Dispersion when it was first introduced, and while it's slowly gained acceptance (and more usefulness -- remember when it was garbage in Ulduar?), emotions still run high. A contingent of shadow priests loves the utility of the ability and the lore behind it. A contingent despises it for eating up the slot of some mythical perfect ability that's yet to be designed.

It's the shadow priest equivalent of Roe v. Wade. And we're going to jump right in the middle of it after the break.

Let's take a quick moment to introduce Dispersion to the uninitiated so we can better understand what -- if anything -- is wrong.

What Dispersion is
  • Mana restoration If shadow priests are known as "mana batteries," then Dispersion is our emergency generator. One simple push of a button restores our mana at the healthy rate of 6 percent of max per second (a total of 36 percent over 6 seconds). In Cataclysm terms, that's about 10,000 mana for a level 80. This best comparest to the druid talent Innervate, which returns 225 percent of base mana over 10 seconds -- 7,866 mana exactly for a level 80 at a significantly slower mana-per-second rate. Innervate is automatically learned at level 40.
  • Damage mitigation We're not totally invulnerable when in Dispersion, but ... we're pretty close to being invulnerable. The damage we take is cut by 90 percent, allowing us to take absolutely savage hits that would flatten even an unprepared tank. This compares to Hand of Protection, a paladin ability that completely protects versus physical (key word!) damage for 10 seconds. You could also compare this to a mage's Ice Block if you really wanted to, but this ability won't freeze you in place.
  • Snare escape While rarely a make-or-break effect in PvE, escapes are pretty valuable in PvP.
  • A 6-second silence inflicted on you This is the feature that makes shadow priests sad pandas. Blizzard decided that mana restoration plus damage mitigation was a bit too generous, so Dispersion comes with a price: 6 seconds' worth of inability to act.
What Dispersion isn't

Dispersion isn't a direct DPS increase. It isn't a DPS talent like Black Arrow. It isn't a DPS buff like Berserk or Titan's Grip. And really, that's the crux of what people have against it being our 31-point talent. It doesn't make us DPS better. Shouldn't that be what 31-point talents are all about?

Dispersion versus the other 29 31-point talents

Dispersion is sexy, but the complaint is that it could be sexier. It's like getting a Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly. It's a nice bonus and it beats winning second prize in a beauty contest, but still ... your grandmother just pulled the Advance to Go card and netted a cool $200. That's the card you really wanted. And crap, is she using that money to build another hotel? I don't want to play with her anymore, the lousy cheater.

Taking a look at the other two 31-point talents in the priest tree, it's easy to understand why some shadow priests feel slighted. In Wrath of the Lich King, discipline priests got Penance, which is a defining, game-changing spell for the spec. In Cataclysm, Penance goes baseline and discipline priests get Power Word: Barrier, which has the potential to be just as big a game-changer.

Holy priests have Guardian Spirit as their crowning 31-point talent, a huge 40 percent temporary boost to healing that comes with the ability to cheat death once. Another powerful talent.

The primary goal of the discipline and holy priest is to mitigate/heal damage, and their 31-point talents contribute directly to that goal. That's not the case for shadow priests. Ours is a support talent. That's not to say it isn't useful, it just doesn't result in a net increase to our DPS unless we get creative with it.

Sifting through the bonuses that other trees get in Cataclysm -- not just priest trees, but all 29 other trees throughout all 10 classes -- you see a recurring pattern. The 31-point talent in tanking trees makes you a better tank. The 31-point talent in healing trees are healing abilities or buffs that otherwise increase your healing power. Other DPS trees get DPS abilities. It's surprisingly consistent.

Only one 31-point talent -- ours --contributes to convenience and survivability instead of our primary mission. Granted, it can contribute to our DPS in a much less direct way. Creative use of Dispersion allows us to DPS right through Sindragosa's Unchained Magic and bypass Festergut's Gas Spore mechanic. At the end of the day, though, that's something a mage can do too with Ice Block -- a talent they get at level 30. The only difference is that we come out of our invulnerability with a 10,000 mana bonus.

Is that ... fair?

Now that we've reconciled the fact that our 31-point talent makes us special little snowflakes, the next question we have to ask is ... are we getting screwed?

The first metric we should look at is whether or not people actually take Dispersion as a talent. We may be disillusioned with it as a 51-point talent in Wrath, but we do still take it. It's much more useful than putting the point elsewhere.

Just the other day, Lead Systems Designer Ghostcrawler had this to say on the topic of the desirability of 31-point talents:

Re: Location of Furor for Druids
We want you to get your 31 point talent and most of the time that's what players want too. When they skip that talent they feel, as you seem to express, that something is wrong with the talent, not that there is a really fun choice in another tree. So once it's a given that we want you to spend 31 points in the main tree, then spending points in another tree as you level is just going to force you to eventually respec to get that 31st point anyway. (Technically, you don't need the bottom-most talent -- you just need 31. But we still consider it a problem when you don't want that bottom talent for some reason.)


The above was posted in response to a druid's post, but it's still relevant to us as shadow priests -- so much so that it took a mere three hours for a shadow priest to reply directly to the post and ask, in summary, "What about us?" Dissatisfaction with Dispersion may not be a majority position, but those who are unhappy with the talent do make up a very vocal minority. People complained about Dispersion a year ago. People complained about Dispersion two years ago. And people will complain about Dispersion for years into the future so long as it stays a 31-point talent.

You have to then ask yourself the question: Is Dispersion popular merely by default? If Blizzard is just playing a numbers game? If we're all investing in Dispersion, how will they ever realize that there's a problem?

How to fix what's wrong (if anything is wrong, that is)

If we choose to believe that Dispersion is a major problem, then we have to believe that there's a major problem with the shadow priest spec. That's not really the case here -- our damage in ICC is strong, and our prospects in Cataclysm look fine. Dispersion might not be setting off fireworks, but its obviously not eating up a space that needs to be filled with a spec-saving white knight.

Still, that's not to say that we have to be satisfied with the status quo. If we can make Dispersion a more compelling talent, we should do it. And for the PvE-centric player, the only way that's going to happen is if we add a damage component or take away the self-silence.

Altering Dispersion is a much bigger challenge than most shadow priests probably think. Dispersion is a key PvP ability, and any changes to it need to keep PvP balance in mind. Take away the DPS restriction, and Dispersion becomes insanely overpowered. Take away the survivability piece, and PvP advocates will be up in arms. Take away Dispersion altogether, and developers need to have an emergency meeting to rebalance arenas. Like it or not, PvP really is king when it comes to the great World of Warcraft balancing act, and Dispersion keeps the scale from tipping over.

Realistically, the only way we'll see a real change to Dispersion is through old-school glyphing. There has to be give and take, of course: to get some new benefit (or to kill the self-silence penalty), we have to give an existing benefit up. Perhaps we could trade the self-silence for a 50 percent nerf to damage mitigation and mana regen? Perhaps we remove the self-targeting limitation? (Figuring out how that would fit into lore would be a tall order.) Perhaps it could be glyphed to give a temporary spellpower, crit or haste buff. The Dispersion-haters won't be satisfied with anything short of the latter.

Believe it or not, Blizzard does care about what we have to say, and they are listening. Today's column is meant to be a forum of sorts. How do you feel about Dispersion? Keep it? Lose it? Is it deserving of its place as our 31-point talent? What would you be willing to give up about it?

The great council of shadow priests is now in session.

Are you more interested in watching health bars go down than watching them bounce back up? Think it's neat to dissolve into a ball of pure shadow every few minutes? Hunger for the tangy flesh of gnomes? The darker, shadowy side of Spiritual Guidance has you covered (occasionally through the use of puppets).

Filed under: Priest, (Priest) Spiritual Guidance

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