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Arcane Brilliance: A friendly introduction to mage crowd control

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. This week, a public service announcement:

An open letter to the guy who keeps breaking my sheep:

Please stop.

Sincerely,

Christian

P.S. -- Listen. I know it's Christmas and I should probably be doing a puff piece on things I want for my mage for Christmas or something like that. But I Simply can't stay quiet. We wiped 20 times in that heroic Grim Batol run last night, and though I know not everybody who plays this game reads this column, I have to do what I can. Evil triumphs when good men do nothing, or something like that.

I know The Burning Crusade happened like two years ago. I'm well aware that there's a distinct possibility you started playing the game during Wrath. Perhaps you either don't remember or don't have any idea what a "Polymorph" is or why it's not in your best interests to immediately begin whacking whatever I just cast it on as hard as you possibly can. I'm willing to allow for ignorance.

Mages, I can even understand it when you don't sheep things. Polymorph doesn't do any damage; in fact it heals its target! Why would you want to use a spell that doesn't blow things up when there are so many other delightful spells in your spellbook that do? It seems counter to everything we got into magecraft for.

Wrath was a long expansion. For the better part of two years, we spent the majority of our time chain pulling and AoE-farming our way through every instance in sight, concentrating on one thing and one thing only: DPS. Recount gave us a number at the end of every boss fight, and if that number was higher than the warlock's number, we had done a good job. Sure, the fights sometimes had mechanics we needed to pay attention to, but they mostly involved moving from one place to stand and shoot to another place to stand and shoot. We forgot a very important part of our jobs as mages.

We forgot how to sheep.

And now we've arrived at this new place, this new kind of heroic instance where the mobs hit like trucks, the tanks aren't unkillable damage sponges, and the healers don't have never-ending mana pools. Heroics in Cataclysm are hard. Fights take planning, strategy, and skill. Tanks have to leave mid-dungeon to repair their gear, interrupt orders need to be laid out beforehand, and when a boss goes down, it feels like an actual accomplishment instead of a forgone conclusion.

Only ... I'm getting tired of waiting 40 minutes to get into a heroic, only to then have to endure another three hours of ignorance, incompetence, and outright idiocy in order to reach that sense of accomplishment and its accompanying handful of justice points.

I don't have the room here to tackle every issue I'm seeing in these heroic pugs, but as a mage, one in particular stand out to me: crowd control, or the lack of it. One of our constant goals here at Arcane Brilliance is to endeavor to improve the lives of mages. This is why we keep coming here every Saturday and vomiting out a couple thousand rambling and frequently incoherent words into a blogging program. It's why we whined so vocally about the damage component of Deep Freeze being removed in the Wrath beta; it's why we continue to applaud the magnificent design of the new fire tree; and it's why we killed that flagged warlock in Uldum today even though he was clearly AFK, then camped his corpse until he logged out, presumably in tears. We did those things because we hoped each in its own small way would grant the mage community a small increase in quality of life.

And so it is in pursuit of that singular goal that I offer to mages new and old -- as well as to any other class that might be reading -- this brief guide to crowd control.

Maybe you don't need it. That's fine. Go your way, sheep in peace. But if there's anything I've learned in the past week running Cataclysm heroics, it's that pretty much everyone is stupid now. Including, on occasion, myself ... and probably you, too. Consider this a small injection of anti-stupid serum. Without any further ado, I present a mage's guide to crowd control.

CC in brief

The general idea of crowd control is to take one or more mobs out of each pull. If the pull is 5 mobs, casting a crowd control spell on one of those mobs effectively reduces the number of things pounding on your tank down to 4 mobs. In Wrath, this wasn't an issue, because even a moderately geared tank could absorb punishment from a ridiculous amount of mobs at once, hold aggro on them all, and we mages could just spam AoE spells until everything fell. This is no longer the case. Those of us in the group who have access to crowd control spells have to use them whenever possible.

Crowd control spells generally incapacitate a single mob, and in many cases, are broken on damage. The idea is to kill the non-CCed mobs first, saving those rendered harmless by your magical prowess for last. Most classes have one form of CC or another, and a lot of them are limited by mob type. It's important to take note of which spells work on which mobs, and organize each pull accordingly.

I won't go over every CC spell, but here are the major ones for the purposes of PvE content:

Mages Polymorph (beasts, humanoids)
Druids Hibernate (beasts, dragonkin) and Cyclone (balance druid only, can be chain cast to lock down annoying casters for up to 10 seconds)
Hunters Freezing Trap (everything)
Priests Shackle Undead (undead)
Retribution Paladins Repentance (demons, dragonkin, giants, undead, humanoids), Turn Evil (undead, demons)
Rogues Sap (humanoids, dragonkin, beasts, demons -- only works out of combat)
Shaman Hex (humanoids, beasts), Bind Elemental (elementals)
Warlocks Banish (demons, elementals), Fear (everything ... and don't forget the glyph); I'm not counting Seduction, because Seduction sucks.

Polymorph

This spell comes in many flavors, but the basic ingredient is always the same. It takes a single mob at once and turns that mob into an adorable woodland creature or farm animal. Or a monkey or penguin. Original recipe Polymorph turns the mob into a sheep, hence the term "sheeping." As mentioned above, it only works on beasts and humanoids. If the tank asks you to sheep a demon or a dragon or a freaking boss or something, politely remind him to check himself, presumably before he wrecks himself, as an inevitable result of not checking himself.

Any mob so affected will be taken completely out of the fight for up to 50 seconds, unable to attack, cast spells, or do anything but wander around aimlessly, looking cute. That same mob is also healed at a rapid clip, meaning you can't use this spell to CC something, damage it, then re-CC it, then damage it some more, ad infinitum. The spell breaks on damage, and when it does, the mob will only have eyes for the mage that cast it on him. He'll need to either be re-sheeped or grabbed by the tank before he smashes your squishy ass.

A few things to note about Polymorph:
  • That duration is pretty damn long. 50 seconds is an eternity in terms of crowd control. Keep in mind that it doesn't always last 50 seconds, though. It can break early, even if nobody smacks your sheep.
  • Because the spell has no cooldown, it can be re-cast as necessary. This, combined with the long duration, makes Polymorph one of the most reliable CC spells in the game.
  • Breaking on damage as it does, and generating as much threat as it does, this spell is best cast when the mob is a good distance from the area where your tank will be tanking the rest of the enemies.
  • The raid icon generally used to indicate the sheep target is a big silver moon. If you see the tank putting this over a mob's head before a pull, you can pretty much assume he wants you to sheep that mob. It'd be nice if he just said so, but I'm becoming convinced that a good number of WoW players are incapable of stringing letters together to form actual written language.
  • Nothing tastes better than barbecued sheep. No, not even barbecued monkey. Although flame-grilled pig is pretty tasty. Just don't try turtle. Too rubbery, yuck-o.

The art of the sheep pull

This isn't actually hard. The idea is that the mage casts sheep before the tank does anything, meaning that for a brief moment, all of the rest of the mobs will target the mage and will need to be gathered up by the tank before they usher the mage to a sudden and violent demise. This makes sure that the mage's sheep target is a good distance away from all of the tank's AoE abilities, the odd random stab-happy rogue, and that druid who thinks he's an off-tank and must keep the fearsome wandering lamb away from his fragile mage companion.

The hardest part of executing a sheep pull isn't in the actual sheep pulling, it's in the convincing of the tank that doing so is a good idea. I was told in no uncertain terms in a group last night after suggesting a sheep pull that "DPSers don't pull." While this is generally true, in a lot of cases it's most certainly not. Is your sheep getting broken regularly by damage because it's too close to the group and everybody insists on spamming every AoE ability in the book? Then a sheep pull might be a good idea.

Keep in mind that this is only a good idea if you can sell the rest of the group on it, but most importantly, the tank has to buy in. He has to be willing and able to gather up multiple mobs on the move. This is typically not a difficult thing for experienced tanks, but can often be a terrifying prospect for a tank that's never done it before. Respect your tank's wishes.

And then you've got to worry about the ranged or caster mobs that won't be moving toward the group with the rest of the mobs. The tank and DPS have got to be willing to CC them, silence them, Death Grip them, or whatever else they can do to bring those mobs in so the tank can snatch them up and stop them from concentrating their ranged fire on the mage.

A general tip is to have the group stay well out of range, the mage approach until he's at the maximum range for Polymorph, cast, and then the mage gathers his dress around his knees and high-steps it back to the group, forcing even the ranged mobs to move away from the sheep target and come toward the group. This allows a more natural process of gathering up mobs for the tank. It's also important that the mage give the tank a second to do that gathering before unleashing his most powerful damage spells and pissing everything off all over again.

Glyphs and talents

There are ways to modify your sheep. Here's a helpful list:
  • Glyph of Polymorph Removes all damage over time effects from your sheep target when you cast Polymorph on it. Helpful when your warlock is an idiot, which of course means always. Requires a major glyph slot, making it tough to justify outside of a PvP build, but still an option to take note of. Nothing sucks quite like seeing some moron put a bleed on your sheep target and knowing that they've effectively killed your ability to sheep that target until the duration of the DoT expires.
  • Improved Polymorph This fourth-tier arcane talent alters your sheep so that when it is broken by damage, the mob is also stunned for 3 seconds. This gives you a 3-second buffer each time your sheep is broken to reapply the CC or just kill the mob. A powerful PvP ability, that buffer is also nice in PvE, though you might have trouble justifying the two talent points in a raiding build.
  • Glyph of the Monkey and Penguin Cosmetic glyphs only, these trade your traditional sheep for a penguin or monkey. Keep in mind that while you have this glyph applied, you can no longer actually sheep something. But you can "monkey" or "penguin" them, and frankly, those are also pretty good made-up verbs.

Other mage CC abilities

Polymorph isn't our only way to control mobs. Though it is the most effective single-target CC we have, there are other options for mages to keep mobs away from ourselves and others.
  • Snares Slow, Frostbolt, Frostfire Bolt, Blizzard with Ice Shards -- These can be useful for kiting or simply for keeping a mob from reaching his destination long enough to down that mob. Think the adds on heroic Erudax.
  • Roots Frost Nova -- This plants mobs in one spot but still allows them to attack anyone in range, cast spells, et cetera. Can be dangerous if used by stupid people. Pro tip: never use this within whacking distance of your healer.
  • Freezes Ring of Frost, Improved Cone of Cold, Shattered Barrier -- These are all good for keeping mobs in a specific spot and incapacitating them for the short term, but mostly for improving a frost mage's DPS.
  • Interrupts/stuns Counterspell, Impact, Deep Freeze -- Though they aren't technically CC spells, these are useful for temporarily stopping a caster from casting and can be great for repositioning caster mobs, bringing them closer to yourself or the tank. Control is control.
Always keep all of your tools in mind. Even on pulls where sheep isn't an option, you have the ability to control a mob. Something nasty smacking the healer? Feel free to peel that mob off of them and kite it around the room. A group of adds coming in from stage left and the tank might not be able to round them up easily? Ring them with frost and give him a few seconds to gather them up. Remember, kids: If the group wipes, it doesn't matter what your DPS was.

Focus

By right-clicking a mob's unit frame and selecting "set focus," you can set that mob as your focus, adding a handy unit frame to your screen with that mob's target on it. Feel free to use this on your sheep target. It's immensely handy to keep visual tabs on that mob, so that if and when your sheep breaks, you're on top of it. I know a lot of you prefer to focus the tank, so you can always know what he's targeting, but there's something to be said for using you focus on your CC target also, especially considering the high importance of CC in this expansion.

Another good idea is to find an addon you're comfortable with that will alert you to specific triggers, including when your sheep is broken. I use Mage Nuggets for this, but pretty much any mod with spell alert functionality will do.

In conclusion

CC is great. It adds a whole new dimension to the game that I feel was missing during the Wrath era. It'll be a little while before everybody gets used to it being such a prominent part of our instancing etiquette, but eventually columns like this won't be necessary. Until that point, though:

Stop it.

You, the guy breaking my sheep. I'm about 2 seconds away from setting your whole head on fire. You have nothing to fear from the sheep. Leave it alone.

Seriously.

Oh, and to each and every mage family out there, merry Christmas! If you're wondering what you're getting from me, it's strudel. Always strudel. Unless you're a warlock. Then you're getting a violent death when you least expect it. Peace on earth, goodwill to men, Pyroblasts to the face for warlocks. Man, I love the holidays.

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages or our mage Thanksgiving spectacular. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.

Filed under: Mage, Analysis / Opinion, (Mage) Arcane Brilliance

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