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Arcane Brilliance: Mage AoE in Cataclysm, part 1

It's time again for Arcane Brilliance, the weekly mage column known for its special five-alarm chili recipe. It's a delicate blend of three different conjured beans, spiced up with Fireballs, Scorches, and slow-cooked over a smoldering Flamestrike, loaded with lamb, bacon, and the occasional roasted monkey, glazed with a dusting of Frostfire, then lit aflame with a Pyroblast. And the secret ingredient? Warlock tears.

If there's one thing mages have been known for during the course of this fine game we all play, it's mass murder. We have at our disposal a wide array of spells that wreak havoc over a large area, perhaps more so than any other class. When it comes to killing things in large numbers, mages are remarkably adept. It's a role we embrace wholeheartedly.

AoE has evolved quite since the inception of the game. In vanilla WoW, AoE was a great way to get yourself killed in an instance, a method of attack that was mostly limited to solo farming and certain trash pulls. These days, with the ability tanks have to hold multiple mobs with relative ease, AoE has morphed into the go-to way to deal with multiple-mob pulls of all shapes and sizes. Crowd control has gone the way of Wand Specialization; it simply isn't required in most situations in Wrath.

Cataclysm is bringing with it some fairly sweeping changes to the way we utilize our AoE repertoire. The developers have stated their intention to return us to a time when we actually had to worry about things like crowd control and pull-sizes, and though we're not reverting completely, pulls on the beta certainly feel more like vanilla or Burning Crusade pulls than anything we saw in Wrath. Join me after the break and we'll go over how our AoE spells will work in this coming era.

We'll begin with some general changes, then move on to the arcane and frost trees. The fire tree demands its own column, really, and here at Arcane Brilliance, we always do what the fire tree demands. We'll hit fire AoE next week.

Damage reduction

The first change was also the most sweeping. Blizzard cut the base damage of all AoE spells in the beta by 50-60% for every class, pretty much across the board. The effect is pretty jarring. Seriously, if you're a newer player who has cut his teeth on the "go, go, go," rapid-fire, pull--everything, gib-fests that are standard in Wrath's random dungeon-finder, the first 5-mans in Cataclysm are going to dramatically alter your world-view pretty much from pull-one.

The mobs have more health, they hit harder, the encounters last longer, and the mass-group pulls of Wrath will absolutely get you all killed. Crowd control isn't an absolute necessity, but it does help. You won't see a repeat performance of BC, when the trade channel was filled with groups looking not for DPS but for CC, but you won't see groups turning down your ability to sheep things, either. Simply burning everything down at once, every time, just isn't the go-to option anymore.

Damage increase

That initial AoE nerf may have been a bit too drastic for the developer's tastes, and so the most recent beta build has rectified things somewhat. The base damage for AoE spells has been increased substantially, in most cases by 33 percent. The numbers aren't back to where they were, but our AoE spells don't feel gimped anymore. With the increased health of mobs, simply burning everything down still isn't really a good option, but using your AoE spells no longer feels like a penalty, which is nice.

Mastery

Another massive change affecting AoE is the implementation of Mastery bonuses. The problem lies in the 20% bonus you get for your chosen school's spells, and the 20% bonus you don't get for everything else. Arcane mage who wants to cast Blizzard? Good luck with that. The damage your spells do is balanced around that 20% increase, meaning that casting anything from an alternate school feels horribly throttled.

This wouldn't be a huge problem, except that ...

Arcane AoE

... arcane AoE is just awful now. Arcane's best AoE spell has long been Blizzard, but casting it without the Mastery bonus feels like punishment. Arcane has no ranged or targetable AoE, which is a problem.

Arcane Explosion is arcane's sole AoE spell, and while it's a useful little spell, it is severely limited in its raid viability. It isn't ranged, and it's centered on the mage, meaning it can't be cast on a target or a specific area. Arcane desperately needs a way to damage multiple targets at range, and currently that simply isn't a real option.

Frost AoE

Blizzard is still what the frost tree 's all about. It's still our best and most reliable AoE spell, it still does excellent damage, it can still crit, and it still looks pretty. It's the AoE spell every other mage will now wish he could use properly, and the spell every warlock will cry about in his room while he listens to AFI and cuts himself.

Ice Shards has adopted the functionality of Improved Blizzard, adding a 40% snare to Blizzard and making the spell an excellent mass crowd-control option. More importantly, the talent also includes a range-increasing component for Ice Lance, tying the snare utility to an almost mandatory raid talent. This means almost every frost mage will have a slowing effect for their best AoE spell, which is just splendid.

Cone of Cold is still an excellent instant short-range option, doing respectable damage to mobs in front of the mage and slowing them by 50%. It'll still get most of its use in PvP, but it's also a great kiting tool in any situation. The utility of this ability goes through the roof with Improved Cone of Cold, a new talent that adds a 2/4 second freeze to the spell. This adds control and additional Shatter opportunities. The talent will mostly feature in PvP builds, I suspect, but there will undoubtedly be some raiders who find room in their builds for the added utility this would provide.

Piercing Chill should probably also be mentioned. It's a second tier frost talent that spreads Frostbolt's chill effect to up to two nearby targets. It can be awesome for multiple-target pulls, but can sometimes become dangerous, in that it's difficult to control which targets are affected.

Curtain of Frost is frost's new hotness coldness. We haven't really talked about this yet, so let me tell you how the spell works:

You train it at level 83, and it's available to any spec. It's targeted, and casting it will bring up a standard circular reticule, which you can then place anywhere on the ground within 20 yards of yourself. Once you place it, it conjures a white line of frost on the ground in that spot that stretches for ten yards perpendicular to the direction you're facing. That white frost line persists for 15 seconds and does two things to any and every mob that crosses it:
  • It does a rather substantial amount of damage (at level 83, I'm getting pretty frequent 6-7k crits with it)
  • It applies a powerful (70% movement speed reduction) but short (4 seconds) snare
It operates on a two minute cooldown and costs a relatively meager 7% of your base mana. It's absolutely fantastic for kiting, especially when multiple mobs are involved. Sadly, it only works on each mob once; you can't run a mob back and forth over it multiple times. Apparently, that would just be too awesome.

At two minutes, the cooldown is probably too long for the spell to be a real game-changer in PvP, but I could see some pretty effective uses of this spell with Cold Snap. That snare is just so freaking powerful. In PvE, this gives frost mages one more kiting tool in a box already brimming with them, and provides a very effective way for them to keep mobs in other ground AoE for longer. Pull a group with Piercing Chill, strategically place a Curtain of Frost in their path, then fall back and Blizzard away. If the mobs get too close, Improved Cone of Cold is the reset button. Given enough room to work with, a skilled frost mage could keep a fairly large group occupied all by his lonesome, pretty much indefinitely.

So that's about it for frost and arcane. Arcane needs some work, and frost is pretty solid. The real star of mage AoE, though, is the fire tree. Targeted Blast Wave with no more annoying knockback? Flame Orb? Flamestrike that's actually useful? Come back next week for as much hyperbole as I can fit into 1,000 words.

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent look at how much I hate damage meters or our lengthy series of mage leveling guides. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.

Filed under: Mage, (Mage) Arcane Brilliance, Cataclysm

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