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Spiritual Guidance: Will patch 4.2 redefine what it means to be a shadow priest?

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Spiritual Guidance for discipline, holy and shadow priests. Every Wednesday, shadow priesting expert Fox Van Allen rains sheer purple destruction down on the growing list of WoW Insider columnists who oppose him (and sometimes, even on those who don't).

I am Fox, thy columnist, who hath brought thee out of the land of the Light, out of the house of Dawn Moore. For thee, my loyal followers, I offer the 10 commandments of the house of shadow (subsequently edited down to five by his cruel editorial overseers):
  • Thou shalt have no other columnists before me.
  • Thou shalt not lie with Tyler as one lies with Fox; Tyler is detestable.
  • Thou shalt kill. With high DPS.
  • Thou shalt covet the hell out of thy neighbor's Dragonwrath, Tarecgosa's Rest, because that thing is sweet.
  • Thou shalt not freak the hell out over patch notes, even when they involve slashing the damage caused by our DOTs.

Patch 4.2 Public Test Realm Guide [Updated 5/13]
  • Devouring Plague damage done has been decreased by 12%.
  • Mind Blast damage done has been increased by 12%.
  • Shadow Word: Death damage done has been increased by 12%.
  • Shadow Word: Pain damage done has been decreased by 12%.
  • Mind Flay damage done has been increased by 12%.
  • Vampiric Touch damage done has been decreased by 12%.


The above patch notes, which detail a 12%, across-the-board cut to DOTs (and an accompanying 12% across-the-board buff to direct damage spells), represents the first major change for shadow priests to come out of the PTR. But what exactly does the change mean, and why was it done? Are shadow priests going to lag behind in patch 4.2? Are shadow priests being pushed away from a DOT-heavy model and toward something else?

Why u nerf us Blizz??? :( :(

No one ever likes seeing a spell get nerfed, even if it comes with an accompanying buff. It's even uglier when the nerf is to an entire class of spells, as is the case with our DOTs.

If it's any consolation, from an overall DPS perspective, the nerfs/buffs seem rather balanced. A quick (very quick) analysis of some World of Logs data suggests that DOTs typically account for 50% of a shadow priest's damage overall. If you buff one half and nerf the other by equal amounts, you haven't done much to change the overall DPS. Granted, that's a pretty simplified analysis, but you get the picture -- if this change happened tomorrow, you'd have to assume that we wouldn't see a major impact in our overall damage output.

So, what's the deal? Blizzard doesn't just buff and nerf classes at random. It's always an exercise in balance -- game developers don't want one class to be better or worse than the other. This suggests that developers thought shadow priests, as they're currently built, would have an unfair advantage in patch 4.2 if things continued on their current track.

There are a couple of theories out there as to why this might be the case.

The mastery Band-Aid theory

In patch 4.2, shadow priests are going to have access to a new tier of stronger and better gear. As a result, we'll see sharp increases in our stats -- more stamina, intellect, haste, crit, and mastery. The first theory behind the nerf takes that fact and runs with it, specifically the part about "more mastery." See, an increase in intellect, haste, and crit -- those will benefit all our spells. An increase in mastery, however, tends to disproportionately increases the strength of our DOTs via Empowered Shadow.

Certainly, there's no question that shadow priest mastery is wonky. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to think that gear escalation might break it. But is it the reason behind the nerf to our DOTs? Let's take a look at the evidence:
  • A comparison between the current raiding tier's i359 gear and the i378 gear that will drop out of the Firelands raid suggests that secondary stats (such as mastery rating) will be increasing by ~20%.
  • Since shadow priests are not actively stacking mastery rating at the moment, few have more than 700 points of mastery rating.
  • Increasing shadow priests' mastery rating by ~20% will rarely increase a shadow priest's mastery rating enough to give even one extra point of mastery (179.28 mastery rating = 1 mastery).
  • Recent PTR datamining suggests that Blizzard is cutting the value of (greater) mastery for shadow priests from +1.5% damage per point to +1.45% damage. This change is not in the official PTR notes, but it does suggest a devaluation in mastery.
  • For most shadow priests, new Firelands gear will increase the value of Empowered Shadow by ~1%.
That's pretty damning evidence. Theorycrafters have often said that mastery, as a shadow priest stat, scales rather well. That may still be true, but this scaling barely even makes a dent in the incoming 12% DOT nerf.

Stabilizing performance from fight to fight

So, if the nerf is not the gear, then what is it? Well, I have a theory: It's about reducing our the volatility of our DPS and making shadow priests easier to balance.

See, right now, shadow priests put out a respectable level of damage on single-target fights such as Chimaeron and fights with a large number of adds such as Cho'gall. Where we really shine, though, is on two-target fights: Omnotron, Valiona/Theralion, Elementium Monstrosity, and Nefarion. The reason is clear: being able to multi-DOT.

Our spell priority tells us that our DOTs are far more powerful than our direct damage spells. As a result, we're almost always better off DOTing up a second target rather than Mind Flaying the first.

Consider a hypothetical Chimaeron fight, where we do an overall 20,000 DPS. Given that 50% of our damage comes from DOTs, we can assume that our DOTs are responsible for about 10,000 DPS (SW:P and VT are responsible for ~7,500 of that), with direct damage spells responsible for the other 10,000.

Now, consider a hypothetical Valiona/Theralion fight. In an ideal world, we can keep both dragons DOTed up with Shadow Word: Pain and Vampiric Touch. This suggests that we're giving up a portion of that direct damage -- let's say 5,000 DPS just to pull a number out of the air -- to add ~7,500 DPS worth of DOT damage to a second target. Thus, our hypothetical DPS is somewhere around 22,250: 10,000 (main dragon DOTs) + 7,500 (second dragon DOTs) + 5,000 (overall direct damage). Granted, it would take an incredibly skilled shadow priest to maintain a full multi-DOT rotation to that kind of perfect efficiency (and granted, the +2,500 DPS advantage is exaggerated), but it is at least theoretically possible.

The challenge is isn't precisely that shadow priests do more damage in one fight than the other, it's that only some shadow priests do significantly more more damage. A lot of priests aren't good at multi-DOTing. On a single target fight, a best-in-class shadow priest may be able to do 5,000 more damage than the average spriest, but on a two-target fight, that number might rise to 7,500 or more. That makes balancing shadow priests a bit more difficult -- exactly which priest do you balance around: the best one or the average one?

The move to nerf our DOTs solves an some of these problems for developers. On a single-target fight, that hypothetical DPS will remain approximately the same -- 20,000 DPS. On the hypothetical two-target fight, we'll see a decrease -- the 17,500 DPS we see from DOTs decreases by 12% to 15,400; the 5,000 DPS from direct damage increases by 12% to 5,600. Added together, that's 21,000 DPS -- about 1,500 less than before the patch 4.2 changes.

In other words, multi-DOTing will still pay off, but to a smaller degree than before. This makes things easier on Blizzard's game developers, who will have an easier time balancing shadow priests against other classes. Further, it makes things easier on beginner shadow priests who have a difficult time juggling their DOTs -- their performance will not lag so far behind more expert shadow priests.

So wait ... is this a nerf or not?

Remember that figure I gave earlier about 50% of shadow priest damage coming from DOTs? It's not quite universal. I went through a number of logs, and for mediocre and better-than-average shadow priests alike, the 50% figure was a good estimate averaged across all fights. Obviously, if this is the case for you, the newest changes on the PTR won't hit you hard (if you even notice them at all).

For best-of-class shadow priests, though, 50% is a bit too low. Top DPS requires the absolute maximizing of our multi-DOT potential. As such, it's not unusual to see a hardcore raiding shadow priest push the DOT component of their DPS to 55%. And that's who this nerf is targeted at (and it is a nerf) -- top shadow priests. Blizzard's game developers are seeing shadow priests top the DPS charts at a few too many places, and my best guess is that they're trying to "fix" that.

And so it goes -- top shadow priests will likely find themselves moved down a couple rungs on the DPS ladder once patch 4.2 hits. For the rest of you, though ... you'll likely stay on top. And that's a damn good place for you to be.
Are you more interested in watching health bars go down than watching them bounce back up? We've got more for shadow priests, from Shadow Priest 101 to a list of every monster worth mind controlling and strategies for raiding Blackwing Descent.

Filed under: Priest, (Priest) Spiritual Guidance, Worldwide Invitational

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