Coming fast on the heals of the chaotic hunter changes from patch 4.0.6 and the hotfixes that followed, we now have more changes to look forward to in patch 4.1. Happily, we are not seeing another overhaul of the hunter class to disturb the precious state of hunter balance we're enjoying now.
Instead, we have some nice quality of life improvements -- no more pet happiness system to juggle, and when we tame a hunter pet, it will now automatically level up to our hunter level, instead of three levels below. I definitely think this last was a needed change; hunters were the only class that actually had to level up one of their key DPS abilities in this way. It's worth noting that for the moment, this only works for newly tamed pets. Your existing pets still have to be leveled the old-fashioned way.
But aside from making the collection of our 25 pets easier, the other thing (so far) that we know patch 4.1 is bringing us is some attention to our AoE abilities. Join me after the cut for a look at what we're seeing on the PTR and how that affects the balance of each spec's AoE.
AoE focus in patch 4.1
Very early in the PTR process, Blizzard let us know that AoE was going to be a focus for this patch. Specifically:
It's probably worth noting that it's a bit of a relief to hear that Blizzard intends to make fewer balance changes in 4.1 than it did in 4.0.6. And that makes sense, too. Patch 4.0.6 was the balance adjustment to Cataclysm itself, the first patch since launch, and there were a lot of balance issues to iron out, which is inevitable with a new expansion.
The Multi-Shot change
Very shortly after getting the announcement that spec AoE balance was going to be a focus, we saw this pop up in the patch 4.1 patch notes:
A 250% damage increase to Multi-Shot certainly sounds like a giant AoE buff for hunters! In practice, it doesn't look like this is actually a 250% buff. MMO-Champion's datamining shows that it was just the base damage component of Multi-Shot that was buffed, not the attack power coefficient. (Note, as always, that datamined information is not always accurate.)
I suspect we're only seeing the first iteration of hunter AoE tweaking here. Right now, this buff certainly helps MM and BM AoE catch up with SV; however, SV is still going to be the king of hunter AoE unless something else changes.
Right now, BM AoE has two components: Multi-Shot and their pet. For true AoE fights, a BM hunter needs to bring a worm pet -- or possibly the difficult-to-manage chimera pet (their AoE won't necessarily hit the entire group of mobs without significant micromanaging of pet positioning).
BM AoE pets do an awesome job of contributing to AoE. Multi-Shot, on the other hand, is usually only worth while during Bestial Wrath. Outside of big red pet, BM hunters need at least seven targets up before Multi-Shot is worth using over Arcane Shot, and significantly more if that Multi-Shot is going to replace a Kill Command.
During Bestial Wrath, however, BM hunters enjoy a 50% discount on Multi-Shot and can fire with only four targets active (or five, if you're replacing Kill Command).
With this change, the BM threshold will move down, but BM is still really only going to want to Multi-Shot when Bestial Wrath is active. On the other hand, if we plan our cooldowns well, BM can do some exceptional short-burst AoE DPS; the combination of Explosive Trap, our pet's AoE, and our Bestial Wrath Multi-Shot gives us a good 10 seconds of crazy-high AoE ability.
Of course the flip side is also true: If we screw up our cooldown or pet positioning or have to AoE more than once every minute or so, then our AoE ability is still going to be total junk.
Marksman hunters with Bombardment can essentially get the same Multi-Shot benefit that BM hunters get during Bestial Wrath, only all the time. On the other hand, as MM we don't have AoE pets, either.
MM currently requires around four to five targets active to make Multi-Shot worthwhile, and we have to be in a situation where we can spam Multi-Shot to take advantage of the Bombardment discount. This change will move that threshold down a bit, certainly, but MM will probably be the least attractive AoE spec. SV has the highest sustained AoE, and BM has awesome burst AoE with proper cooldown and pet management, but MM is just okay.
MM AoE does still have the advantage of Concussive Barrage to slow all the targets of their AoE, but in practice, this hasn't proved to be terribly useful in raid encounters -- an Ice Trap is all we really need to slow our AoE packs so far.
Without question, SV has the greatest AoE of all the hunter specs -- and frankly, Multi-Shot is an insignificant part of that AoE. With Serpent Spread, every target hit by Multi-Shot has Serpent Sting applied, and those Serpent Stings do instant damage with the Improved Serpent Sting talent. Furthermore, Toxicology doubles the crit multiplier of those Serpent Sting ticks, and the SV mastery boosts all that Serpent Sting and Improved Serpent Sting damage, as well as boosting the damage of Explosive Shot.
Already, SV only needs three targets to make hitting Multi-Shot to DoT up the targets worthwhile. This change to Multi-Shot ceratinly boosts SV AoE a bit, but not terribly significantly, since the vast majority of SV's AoE damage comes from those magical damage effects and not the physical damage of Multi-Shot itself.
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