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Spiritual Guidance: The ups and downs of the 4.0.1 shadow priest

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Spiritual Guidance for discipline, holy and shadow priests. Your shadow-specced host Fox Van Allen encourages you to enjoy this, the Wednesday shadow version of Spiritual Guidance, for the world may end tomorrow night when he and Dawn Moore meet in person for the first time. Matter and anti-matter will collide, but with what result -- complete annihilation ... or karaoke?

For a few brief hours on Oct. 12, when patch 4.0.1 first went live, shadow priests were gods.

That's what it felt like, anyway. It was an interesting aligning of the planets: Shadow priests (and really, most spellcasting classes) were churning out impressive DPS numbers. Melee classes were lagging far behind, underpowered. Such imbalance was destined to be short lived, but it was damn nice while it lasted.

Patch 4.0.1 was -- and still is -- an unpolished work in progress. There's still a lot of rebalancing going on, and that often means, unfortunately, getting hit with nerfs. We got hit with a couple of them, and they both concern Shadow Word: Death. We'll talk about that -- and about the reality of 4.0.1 mana regen -- just beneath the fold.

Round one of the 4.0.1 nerfs

When patch 4.0.1 went live, Blizzard developers noticed almost immediately that shadow priest damage was a bit on the high end. They singled out Shadow Word: Death as the culprit, which was doing tremendous damage across the board. Lead Systems Designer Ghostcrawler said, the day after the patch:

Class balance as of Oct 13, 2010
We think Shadow priest dps is too high, but that's largely a result of Shadow Word: Death spam, which is tough on healers. We'll be fixing that.

Those who didn't get the chance to play on 4.0.1 prior to the nerf probably won't be able to appreciate the size of the nerf. It was pretty significant -- the spell saw its damage cut in half, at least. (It's down by 75 percent right now in the Cataclysm beta.) Before we could get over the soreness from that swift kick to the rear, though, Ghostcrawler followed up with another:

Class balance as of Oct 13, 2010
We nerfed Shadow Word: Death, but it is possible we didn't nerf it enough. It should not be Shadow's biggest spell.

Didn't nerf it enough? Ouch.

Granted, I appreciate what the Blizzard design team is trying to do here, and they're right -- Shadow Word: Death shouldn't be shadow's biggest spell. In early 4.0.1 logs, it was accounting for more total damage than just about any other spell save for Mind Flay. If you mastered the mechanics of SW:D of 4.0.1 in the few short hours the heightened spell coefficients were available, you were a damage-dealing monster.

The mechanic that existed, if only for a day, was compelling: We had the ability to deal huge amounts of damage at huge personal risk. A skilled healer and a skilled shadow priest, working in tandem, could add a whole new dimension to the damage-dealing game. Entirely unbalanced, sure, but the concept that skill (and a little bit of luck) could result in astronomical DPS was intoxicating. And, of course, far too good to last.

A bonus nerf

Ghostcrawler later explained the anatomy of the nerf:

Class balance of Oct 13, 2010
Shadow Priests – we lowered the damage of Shadow Word: Death, except when the target is at the 20% wounded state, at which point it will do full damage. We also fixed a bug where the energize from Masochism was causing too much threat. (This is just a clarification on the above note -- we have not nerfed it twice.)

Essentially, what he's saying here is that Shadow Word: Death should remain at full power when you're using it as an execute -- the way Blizzard intends you to use the spell. It's still a bit early to make the call as to whether or not SW:D needs to be scrubbed from your rotation based on the change, but from a purely damage perspective, things aren't looking good.

Now, you're probably saying, "But look, Fox, it's still fully powered at 20 percent -- we can still spam it for a huge damage increase in the final moments of a fight!" It's true, at least in the sense that it's still fully powered, but there was yet one more SW:D nerf that came in stealth -- Blizzard changed the Glyph of Shadow Word: Death. Don't let the tooltip fool you; there's one major detail left out: The effect now has an ugly little 6-second cooldown. That means you can still sneak in a double shot of SW:D, but the spell is no longer spammable.

What the SW:D nerf means

In last week's Spiritual Guidance, I dropped a massive patch 4.0.1 guide on you, complete with psuedopower calculations. I'd reprint the numbers here, but, as you can no doubt guess, they're already outdated because of the Shadow Word: Death nerf.

Because the instant-cast SW:D was turning into such a huge damage dealer, critical strike started edging out haste in the early calculations for patch 4.0.1. It was a very narrow margin, about 0.61 for crit to 0.54 for haste. The nerfs probably turn these numbers on their heads; I anticipate the next batch of theorycrafting will have haste back out on top. Or possibly, the line between haste and crit may get blurred to the point that we don't know what's best outside the margin of error.

Without any specific numbers and without any assurances that things won't change significantly in the next few weeks, I wouldn't go back and start stripping out crit for haste, spending a fortune in new gems. Let the dust settle first, or you'll be really mad when you read two weeks later that crit is back out on top.

Mana problems?

When checking my pageview statistics here at WoW Insider, I found something interesting. Usually, my older articles get a spattering of hits when compared to the most recent edition of Spiritual Guidance. Last week, though, my article about shadow priest mana regen was getting huge numbers of page hits -- the kind of numbers that new articles sometimes get.

I was confused at first, but after some thinking, I understood what was going on. People were having trouble with mana regen and were desperately searching for answers. A few readers commented on last week's article and wrote in (fox@wowinsider.com), bemoaning their mana woes.

For example, Mathieus wrote:
OK, went to ICC last night, running shadow, and actually ran out of mana during the Saurfang fight. I even used my shadowfiend and Dispersion. Still ran out. This has never, ever, ever happened before.
Mathieus was far from alone -- plenty of other people wrote in with the same problem. But I was also hearing reports saying just the opposite -- that mana wasn't a problem at all. Which reports were real, and which were ancedotal? I headed into Icecrown Citadel to find out.

Lacking the time for a full raid, I went in for a single battle: The Lich King. For those who have never tried the fight, it's a marathon battle, complete with target switching and the opportunity to multi-DoT. If shadow priests were going to experience mana problems, we'd be experiencing them here.

But I found out that I wasn't having mana problems at all. A combination of buffs and reforging put my crit up over 40 percent, which gave me damn near constant access to my mana-regenerating shadowfiend. What really seemed to make the difference, though, were the buffs. From Fel Intelligence to the Mana Spring Totem, my mana stayed topped off well into the final phase.

So, is there a mana problem for shadow priests right now? Not universally, though it's clear that some will feel a pinch. If you're wanting for mana, there are a few things you can do to improve your situation.
  • Improve your gear. The better the gear, the less likely you'll want for mana -- both intellect and critical strike rating are crucial here.
  • Keep your self buffs active. This means Replenishment. If you're not providing it to your raid, you're slacking off.
  • Keep good company. Having a raid with the right complement of buffs is more important than it has ever been before.
  • Cast smart. If you're fighting low-health adds (like Blood Beasts), skip the full complement of DoTs. I like starting with Vampiric Touch followed immediately by Mind Blast, Mind Flay and Shadow Word: Death. SW:D and Mind Flay are your cheapest spells in terms of mana costs, so lean heavily on them!
If you're not having mana problems in 4.0.1, enjoy it while it lasts -- once you get to Cataclysm's endgame, you'll long for the kind of mana pools and regen you have now, guaranteed.
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, Cataclysm

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