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Spiritual Guidance: Revisiting the hybrid tax

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Spiritual Guidance for discipline, holy and shadow priests. And every Wednesday, Fox Van Allen takes over, encouraging priests to abandon the light in favor of the shadow. Shadow priesting: Because friends don't let friends lolsmite.

When I first sat down to write, I had decided my column this week was going to be all about patch 4.1.0 and the PTR. Once I started looking through all the priest class changes, though ... well, there's not much there. That's not to say there aren't any changes. There are some tweaks to Power Word: Shield (which I do use all the time), and Inner Fire no longer has a duration (which is great). It's just that there are no changes to our damage-dealing spells in the mix.

Perhaps that's a good thing. Our boomkin friends are getting a pretty ugly-looking nerf to Starsurge in patch 4.1.0, which surprised me a little bit. Admittedly, I'm no expert on balance druids, but from what I've seen on the DPS meters, their damage didn't seem stratospheric. In fact, I usually see boomkins trailing shadow priests across the board.

The whole thing got me thinking. Why are boomkins being nerfed if they're not topping the meters? Is it a "hybrid tax" thing? Does the hybrid tax even still exist in Cataclysm? And what does it all mean for shadow priests in a post-4.1.0 world?

Revisiting the hybrid tax

One of my first articles here at WoW Insider was about the hybrid tax. For those unfamiliar with what the hybrid tax is, it's a pretty simple (institutionalized) concept that says pure DPS classes should do more damage than hybrid DPS classes. As the logic goes, a shadow priest can stop DPSing, change specs and heal; a warlock or mage can't. Because shadow priests have more utility (or so the theory goes), shadow priests should do less damage.

How much less? In January 2010, right after ICC was released, shadow priests paid a hybrid tax of 6.29%. That is, when compared to mages, warlocks, and hunters, a hybrid DPS spec like a shadow priest should do 6.29% less damage.

It's a simple concept, but it's a terribly controversial one. A hybrid tax is, at its base, a utility tax. We're "punished" for having utility (read: a healing off spec) that warlocks and hunters don't. Shadow priests suffer it, boomkin suffer it, elemental shaman suffer it. We can argue all day long that shadow priests almost never wind up healing, but that's irrelevant. The hybrid tax is just a way of life. Right?

Maybe -- but then again, maybe not. Given that a major theme in Cataclysm has been the homogenization of the classes, is there really a significant utility gap anymore? And beyond that ... what's the current value of the hybrid tax? Does it even still exist?

SimulationCrafting the hybrid tax

All throughout February, I've been talking about the SimulationCraft program. It's nothing new -- it's been the theorycrafting standard for shadow priests for the last few years.

But it's not just for shadow priests. SimulationCraft can model any class and spec World of Warcraft has to offer. It's terrific for making gearing decisions. It's also a natural tool for finding out exactly where we stand in comparison to other classes:

The print-out above represents theoretical DPS in a stand-still fight. Everyone's wearing full ilevel 372, four-piece tier 11 heroic gear, and everyone's fully buffed. It's not a real-world depiction of damage so much as it is a best-case scenario, so don't go banging your head against a wall if you're not even coming close to 27,226 DPS.

More important than the raw numbers are the relative numbers: Shadow priests are, at least in theory, the strongest of the hybrid DPS classes. (Take that, Tyler Caraway.) We're still performing behind most of the pure damage classes. Especially hunters. The big, stupid jerks.

If we combine and take the average of all the pure DPS specs, we get 27,505 damage per second -- slightly higher than our 27,226. That's a mere 1.0% difference. If we limit our calculations to only the top performing of the pure DPS specs, the hybrid tax increases to 4.3%.

So, you know that underpowered Renew that you never wind up using? It's costing you a little over 1,000 points of damage per second, on average. In theory.

Reality versus theorycrafting: StateofDPS.com

There's a major drawback to theorycrafting: The numbers you get in the lab are often different from the numbers you get in the real world. The site stateofdps.com, which pulls data from the top performers at World of Logs, shows something of a different picture over the last few days:

Now that's a sexy graph. When you look at top-tier raiders -- that is, the absolute best of the best -- shadow priests are on top in a big way. We're the spec, pumping out a massive 26,559 DPS. Fire mages, balance druids, and destruction warlocks are all close behind. But they're still behind us. We're the best. Awesome.

Obviously, that throws a bit of a wrench in our hybrid tax calculations. It's hard to calculate what doesn't exist.

So, wait, is there a hybrid tax or not?

The final judgment as to whether or not the hybrid tax exists in Cataclysm is still up for debate, of course, and we could see some major changes coming with patch 4.1.0. For now, though, we have to deal with reality, and that reality (at least for me) is this: Shadow priests are one of the strongest DPS specs out there right now. It's not an easy spec to master, but once you do, it's an incredibly powerful one.

That's not to say that the hybrid tax can't and won't make a comeback. Warlocks are slated for a flat DPS buff in patch 4.1.0, which should bump their DPS nicely. And, as we already stated, boomkin are in for a DPS nerf -- a spec that's already underperforming shadow priests by just about every metric. Patch 4.1.0 could just as easily contain more buffs for pure DPS classes and more nerfs for hybrid classes.

So are shadow priests in for nerfs in patch 4.1.0? It's clearly too early to tell, but it really depends on Blizzard's core class design philosophy. Are classes really balanced around best-of-the-best DPS -- that is, around progression raiding? Or are classes balanced around a more typical DPS player, a philosophy that wants to find a middle ground between the hard-to-master shadow priest spec and an easier-to-play boomkin spec?

We'll know the answers in the next couple of weeks, as more players participate in the patch 4.1.0 PTR. My gut feeling, though? Minor nerfs for shadow priests are likely still on the way.
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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