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Spiritual Guidance: A shadow priest's guide to Cataclysm's heroic nightmares

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Spiritual Guidance for discipline, holy and shadow priests. Bear is for tank! Spriest is for fite!

It's time for a heartfelt confession. I think I'm done with Cataclysm heroics for a while. Don't get me wrong, they can be fun, but as of late, they've become miserable endeavors.

If you're not running heroics yet, you may not know what I'm talking about. If you are running heroics (through PUGs), you know exactly what I'm talking about. An awful lot of tanks, healers, and DPSers think Cataclysm heroics are the same kind of faceroll instances that Wrath heroics were. Nothing could be further from the case. And as more and more "casual" players reach level 85, a greater percentage of players are just so terribly lost that they don't know what to do.

Wipes on the first pull. Frustrating attempts on bosses with "teammates" who just don't listen. People who AoE when they should nuke. People who use AoE and ... no, no, wait! Don't attack that, it's CCed, and ... well, crud. Now we've got merchants throwing fruit at us now, don't we? Simply put, most people are just not prepared.

It's forgivable, of course -- new, more difficult instances mean a new, gigantic learning curve. Even the best Wrath shadow priest can muck things up in a Cataclysm heroic. But that doesn't need to be the case! The shadow priest spec is an incredibly powerful one. Not only do we do get to churn out the DPS, but we have an incredible number of tools at our disposal to make up for the problems that PUG groups routinely face. From crowd control (yes, tanks, we can CC) to mana regen, there's an awful lot we can do to make heroics run smoother. Even if you're saddled with a group of four 12-year-olds from <Mommy's Little Accidents> trying to make the run as difficult as possible.

Making things easier on the tank

The tank is, of course, the most important member of your group. If he dies, it's probably a wipe, so our first goal as shadow priests is to make things as easy as possible for the tank and help him or her do the job. There's probably no limit of ways you can help a tank, but here are a few of the most important ones:
  • Good communication is key. Not every tank is well-versed in the capabilities of shadow priests in general, and certainly not every tank is versed in the unique talents that you've chosen. If you're running heroic Shadowfang Keep, offer to start pulls with a cast of Shackle Undead. If there are a number of difficult humanoid opponents and you're otherwise short of crowd control, offer your service as a Mind Controller. And I strongly recommend all shadow priests running heroics spec for Improved Psychic Scream (properly glyphed with Glyph of Psychic Scream) and Silence for their ability to interrupt. Silence works especially well for Baron Ashbury, for example -- his casts of Stay of Execution are perfectly timed with your Silence cooldown (once every 45 seconds).
  • Ask the tank to mark targets. It's a simple act that most tanks know to do by instinct that makes pulls so much easier. Without that helpful little skull and follow-up red "X," it's all guesswork. It's also nice to know what targets you shouldn't attack -- if you don't know, ask your tank what moon means, what triangle means, and so forth.
  • Keep Fade on the cast bar. PUG tanks and PUG healers are notoriously unforgiving about DPSers who grab aggro. If you grab aggro in a non-wipe situation, Fade as quickly as possible, as close to the tank as possible. Further, if you're CCing via Mind Control, you'll almost assuredly have aggro on the MCed mob when your hold on it ends. Be ready to hit the Fade button. And if Fade is still on cooldown, use Dispersion to buy yourself 6 extra seconds of time.
  • Don't be in such a damn hurry. Wait a few seconds for the tank to get hold of mobs before you go attacking them. Shadow priests can generate a lot of aggro in a short period of time, so it's best to play it safe. If it's a high-health mob (as opposed to one you'd nuke down ASAP -- more on that later), open with an attack without up-front damage such as Vampiric Touch to give the tank even more time to ramp up aggro.

Making things easier on the healer

If the tank is the most important member of the group, the healer definitely comes in No. 2. After all, without a healer, the tank is going to wind up getting killed. And when the tank and healer are dead, you're next. Your success in heroics involves knowing why heroics are so difficult for healers -- and what you can do to make it easier on them.
  • Mana regen is brutal for healers right now. Some healers are skilled enough to know how to conserve mana and smart enough to understand that keeping everyone topped off is often an ill-affordable luxury. Many aren't, though, and like it or not, it's your job to boost their mana regen where you can. The most important mana-regen tool you have to offer is Replenishment -- it's absolutely required that you cast Mind Blast on a Vampiric Touched mob once every 15 seconds to refresh it.
  • Know your emergency cooldowns. All of them. Shadow priests are loathe to cast anything that drops them out of Shadowform, but survival is always more important than DPS in Cataclysm heroics. If helping the healer with a massive chunk of damage is your goal, then the 6-minute-cooldown Divine Hymn is your tool of choice -- it can restore anywhere from 15,000 health (spread across five targets) to 50,000 health across just a few targets with some lucky crits. It's a channeled cast, though, so be sure you're in a safe place when you're casting it. It also has a range of effect (40 yards, to be exact), so be sure you stay close to the tank when you blow your cooldown. It's only 8 percent worth in total, but that can often mean the difference between life and death in a tight battle.
  • Emergency heal if you can. Few boss battles in Cataclysm heroics are DPS races. If it's helpful for the group, you may be able to offer casts of Power Word: Shield, blasts of Prayer of Mending, and even Renew -- all at the cost of one global cooldown each. Know the limits of your abilities, though; your heals are exceptionally weak and unlikely to keep a tank up for long on your own. This is best saved for "assist" heals -- that is, times when the healer is tapped out of mana or simply unable to handle healing the damage.
Know your role and your abilities

In the first few heroics you run, though, the threat of running out of mana will be a primary concern for you. As your gear steadily improves, so too will your mana regen. Here are a couple of tips for dealing with mana regen concerns -- and for churning out the DPS like a pro.
  • Know when (and how) to nuke. A number of boss encounters have low-health adds that need to be burned down as soon as possible: Think (for example) the Chaos Portals spawned by Seteth in Halls of Origination, the Seedling Pods that are part of the Ammunae encounter in Halls of Origination, and the Faceless Sappers that attack Neptulon in the Throne of Tides. These three adds, all un-aggroable, require aggressive DPS. In these situations, go all out: Open with two or three casts of Mind Spike, follow up with Mind Blast (if off cooldown), and try to finish them with Shadow Word: Death. It's a mana-expensive strategy, but if your SW:D cast lands, you'll make back a large portion of it back over the next 12 seconds with Glyph of Spirit Tap. With the right gear and a few lucky procs or crits, you can take out a 80,000-health add in less than 5 seconds, all on your own. If Archangel is available, using it right before attempting to take out a number of adds will be quite beneficial -- the talent adds 20 percent worth of bonus damage to all three of those spells for a short period of time.
  • Know the difference between an AoE situation and a nuke situation. In Cataclysm, our Mind Sear spell has been severely hamstrung, and it can't really be counted on for anything but the lowest stakes of adds. Save the Mind Sear for swarming, non-elite mobs that show up with approximately 10,000 health. For higher health mobs, like the 38,000 health Frenzied Crocolisks that show up during the Lockmaw encounter in Lost City, you're better off relying on your nuke abilities. The benefit is obvious -- you take out your first add faster than you'd take out all three at the same time, and once that first mob is dead, its target stops taking damage from it. Adds are almost always the top priority -- don't be afraid to burn through your to take them down, even if it means you lose 6 seconds' worth of DPS on the boss once they're down because you need to use Dispersion.
  • Keep the mana-restoring cooldowns rolling. Yeah, I know it's a no-brainer, and I know I've talked about it before, but you need to do everything you can to keep your mana restore going -- it's the key to successful shadow priesting. Your Shadowfiend clearly plays a huge part in that. Use your Shadowfiend in the earliest moments of a boss fight once you're done DoTing the boss up. Get the mana restoration and DPS boost early, and set yourself up for being able to use it again towards the end of the fight when you'll really need it. Never wait until you need the Shadowfiend -- use it whenever it's off cooldown and you're not at max mana.
  • Use Archangel aggressively -- and smartly. Archangel does two great things: It buffs your non-DoT spells by up to 20 percent and restores 25 percent of your max mana. It's best to try and time it immediately after you refresh your DoTs, provided you need the mana restore. Again, don't wait until you need the mana regen. As with your Shadowfiend, using it early allows you to use it often, which keeps your mana bar in the blue that much longer.
  • Keep an eye out for special Shadow Word: Death opportunities. I'm not sure whether or not it was done on purpose, but a lot of bosses have multiple, low-health adds that provide the perfect opportunities to proc Spirit Tap. Frenzied Crocolisks? Glubtok's elemental adds in heroic Deadmines? Anhuur's Pit Vipers? They all just scream, "Use us for mana regen!" And best of all, if you mistime your Shadow Word: Death cast on one, there are likely other adds around to offer a second or third chance.
  • Know Mind Control and its limitations. I'm sure we'll talk more about Mind Control in the future, but for now, know its limitations. Don't cast it without talking with the tank first -- MC generates huge amounts of aggro. The tank needs to know to pick up the add once MC fades off. Don't cast it on a mob that's immune (hint: if it has over 1,000,000 health, it's going to be immune). Don't move the mob too far away from you; if you move out of range, MC will break. And finally, MC is subject to extreme diminishing returns; you may be able to re-MC a mob once your hold on it breaks, but that's not guaranteed.
  • Hit rating? Don't worry about it yet. An awful lot of people are fretting about getting to the new hit cap. But honestly, they're getting ahead of themselves -- it's just far too early to go all in and sacrifice every other stat to force your way to the 1,741-point cap. Most of the mobs in heroics -- even boss mobs -- are no higher than level 87. You only need 6 percent worth of hit to guarantee you'll never miss, and that can be accomplished with a "mere" 720 points of hit. Shoot for that number for now.

I'm sure there are plenty of more tips and tricks out there for making your way through a Cataclysm heroic, but I'm only allowed so much ink each and every week. Still, a few final thoughts: Be prepared to wait if you're not queueing up with a tank or healer. A lot. Be prepared to deal with some awful people, per the PUG usual. Be prepared for PUGs to bring out the worst in people. Hard heroics are hard, and because they don't face any kind of real wait, tanks and healers often drop at the first sign of any difficulty. Don't expect anyone to respect the length of time you waited in queue. Be prepared to spend several hours on a full complete of a heroic.

And, uh ... be prepared to have fun! And if you're not having fun, then don't put yourself through it. It's just a game, after all.

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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