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Arcane Brilliance: The constantly evolving, completely stagnant frost tree

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. This week, we bring you the second in our irregularly structured critical looks at ways each of the three mage specs could be changed for the better. Scroll down for the frost tree, and view last week's look at the arcane tree.

So here's the thing:

The frost tree frustrates me.

It is and always has been the preeminent mage spec for all varieties of PvP and right now is, in fact, one of the most dominant PvP specs in the game, period. It's an incredibly versatile and fun spec to play in PvE. It has a freaking water elemental.

But every time the damage capabilities of the spec look like they might be approaching a truly raid-competitive level, the same damn roadblock gets thrown up. Every single time.

The roadblock of which I speak, of course, is the perception that the only way to balance frost mages in PvP is to hamstring them in PvE. As someone who loves the spec and dearly, dearly longs for the day when frost mages can walk proudly into even the most elitist of raids with their heads held high and their DPS meters proudly displayed for all to see, this perpetual tug-of-war is a never-ending source of disappointment.

Why do I begin with such doom and gloom? Well, because frost mages are getting another buff, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let those cruel shysters fool me again. I'm on to you, class designers.

Fresh damage buffs on the PTR

Here are the latest notes from the PTR:
Now, both of those things are completely awesome. The Frostbolt damage buff is a much-needed straight DPS boost, and the Fingers of Frost change makes Ice Lance an even more integral part of frost's normal rotation. Both should result in a substantial DPS increase for frost mages in the raiding environment.

But immediately upon Blizzard's announcing these changes, the official mage forums lit up with threads decrying buffs to an already dominant PvP spec. I got killed by a frost mage yesterday, they shout. He swerved drunkenly into my travel lane and wiped out my whole family! Frost mages burned down my entire village, they cry. They made a necklace out of human ears like Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier! How could you buff them?

Perception versus reality

In Blizzard's recent Ask the Devs Q&A session, Bashiok addressed the perception of frost mages as "unbeatable." The very fact that he felt compelled to answer such a specific question simply underscores how widespread the sentiment that frost mages are overpowered is in the community.

Bashiok:
The kit of the Frost mage is to have a lot of control and emergency buttons. This gives them a high skill cap, both in that it can be hard to stop a good Frost mage and it can be hard for less skilled PvP players to handle even a decent Frost mage. At the high end of PvP, we think Frost mages are balanced. It's everything below that where they can be frustrating to handle. We need to figure out ways to affect the latter without affecting the former. One solution is to take some of their control away, but make some of the remaining abilities undispellable. Those spells are always dispelled in high-end games, but less often in lower-end games.

I applaud the diplomacy here and agree wholeheartedly. Frost mages are powerful, but there are some pretty solid counters to them in the upper echelons of PvP. Where they seem unbeatable is in the lower tiers, when those counters either aren't known or aren't being properly deployed.

But the problem has never been reality with frost mages. The problem, as ever, is perception. The community feels frost is overpowered. Thus, PvE buffs never stick. We get them, but then some poor warlock who was too busy putting on eyeliner and singing along weepily to Coheed and Cambria to play properly has his face blown off by a frost mage in PvP, and those buffs are blunted to the point of irrelevance.

The unending class balance see-saw

Sigh. I don't mean to sound grumpy. It's just that I get so weary of this nonsense. Frost is a fantastic PvP spec. Nobody's going to argue that point. If you don't know what you're doing, and/or you aren't the right class or spec to properly counter frost, you're going to feel like frost mages are pretty damn unbeatable. If I take my arcane mage up against pretty much any kind of death knight, I'm going to feel the same way.

So the point behind these complaints is valid: Frost mages are powerful in PvP. In the ongoing quest for PvP balance, it's tough for any class/spec that feels like it's underpowered to see a class/spec that most consider to be overpowered get buffed. You lose to frost mages already; why would they need buffs, again?

But for the raiding frost mage, who has seen his DPS numbers go from poor to mediocre to almost competitive to crap on a never-ending, patch-by-patch cycle, those buffs are an absolute necessity. We desperately want to bring our incredible crowd control and unique utility into our guild's progression raids, but we need to be able to do so without gimping the group's damage output. So we dual spec to fire and only switch to frost in certain, very limited scenarios. And we wait for the next upward cycle. And then we wait for the next downward one.

How to fix this

The most obvious solution is also one Blizzard steadfastly refuses to acknowledge: separate PvP and PvE damage numbers. Frost has so much control that any time our damage gets anywhere near the vicinity of viable, it becomes far too powerful in PvP. Bashiok suggests that the class design team is looking at lowering frost's control in some fashion, but that's a bad fix. Control is what frost is about; removing it removes the flavor of the spec.

So in the end, the designers keep returning to the damage nerf well, which of course is why the more frost changes, the more it stays the same. This is what happens every single time. Damage is buffed, PvP becomes too powerful, damage is nerfed. PvE is only sporadically competitive, and only for a very short amount of time.

If frost is forever going to be a PvP-only spec, I wish Blizzard would just come out and say that. If not, my suggestion is this: Just make frost's damage spells do more damage to NPCs than to players. Not every spec needs this kind of hard separation, but clearly frost does. This allows balance to be tweaked without regard for making the spec overpowered in either aspect of the game.

I've said it before and I will say it here again, to whoever will listen: There is absolutely no reason mages can't have three distinct but competitive raiding DPS specs. None.

Entirely random Stephen King reference

I'm not bitter. I continue to applaud the incredible and largely thankless job the design team does balancing this enormous and complex game. And I'm not blind to the plights of other classes. I wish the same kind of universal viability for every class and every spec, except warlocks. I want there to be a choice of DPS specs for everyone. But most of all, I want to be able to play my frost mage without any snide comments, raid kicks, or demands that I switch specs. I hope for that glorious day when fire mages, arcane mages, and frost mages can walk together, arm in cloth-robed arm, across the threshold of the Firelands, there to meet and destroy the armies of Ragnaros with whatever elemental preference we see fit to dispense. I hope I can make it across the border.

I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.

I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.

I hope.

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages or our recent preliminary look at patch 4.1. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.

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

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