Over the past few weeks here at Spiritual Guidance, we've been talking a bit about the simple mechanics of shadow priests, ultimately exposing them as anything but simple. In April, I put the inner workings of shadow priest mastery on display, spending over a thousand words to explain a concept that some other specs can wrap up in a few sentences. Last week, we talked about shadow priest spell haste and DOT mechanics, something so complex that even I messed up a bit when explaining.
Today, we're giving Shadow Word: Death the same treatment. No other single spell generates so many questions in the shadow priest community, because no other single spell has so many complicating modifiers. You can improve it through three different talents and two different glyphs. The spell's effect changes depending on whether the target's health is above or below 25%. And, if that wasn't enough, the effect also changes depending on whether the target dies as a result of your SW:D cast.
Oh, and unlike all your other spells, Shadow Word: Death can kill you. That seems important to work in there somehow.
Should I even bother?
Certainly, the most frequently asked question about Shadow Word: Death is "Should I include it in my rotation?" It's a complex question to answer and depends largely on the situation you find yourself in. In short, shadow priests use SW:D to regen mana (as part of a lengthy raid boss fight), to cause a lot of damage fast (as part of any boss fight), or to finish an enemy off (to both cause a lot of damage and restore mana).
When your target is above 25% health, Shadow Word: Death is largely a mana regen spell (provided you are talented into Masochism). Essentially, the cast requires you to give up a small portion of your health (and one global cooldown) to instantly restore up to 10% of your maximum mana. Because SW:D causes so little damage in this scenario, it should be used only as necessary to keep you from running out of mana. SW:D is also a great option for when you're on the move and need an instant-cast ability to keep up the DPS pressure -- it's (clearly) much more mana-friendly than spamming Devouring Plague for its upfront damage, and it causes about the same amount of damage.
When your target is below 25% health, SW:D both restores mana and becomes a powerful tool for dealing large amounts of damage. Shadow Word: Death's instant-cast nature allows you to easily churn out over 60,000 points of damage in less than 2 seconds (when properly talented and glyphed). But with great reward comes great risk ...
Finished by your finisher
Shadow Word: Death was primarily designed as an execute -- that is, a spell intended to be cast as a finishing move. To this end, Blizzard developers added a penalty to the spell: If the cast doesn't kill the target, both you and the target take the same amount of damage. This penalty can be lowered via talents, but the point remains -- an unlucky crit in the wrong situation can and will kill you.
When your target is above 25% health, SW:D is generally a safe cast. (There are exceptions!) For shadow priests at level 85, you'll typically be doing between 3,000 and 4,000 damage, up to 8,000 damage on a crit. At the upper range, this means you should plan on taking 5,000 points worth of damage yourself (~5% of max health) for each SW:D death cast.
When your target is below 25% health, SW:D gets much more dangerous. When talented with Mind Melt, the spell can crit for well over 30,000 damage, meaning you'll take significantly more damage yourself. To be safe, assume each cast of Shadow Word: Death will cost you 20,000 of your own health at level 85 -- about 20% of your total.
Ask your healer if prescription-strength Shadow Word: Death is right for you. Ultimately, before you cast Shadow Word: Death, you need to analyze the situation you're currently in and decide whether or not it's safe to use. This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are many, many situations where using SW:D is a no-no.
- Don't use SW:D in fights with increased damage mechanics. It's easy to forget that when your opponent is taking more damage from your casts of Shadow Word: Death, you are taking more damage too. Ozumat (Throne of the Tides), Halfus (Bastion of Twilight), and Magmaw (Blackrock Descent) all have phases when your damage is dramatically increased. During these fights, SW:D should be taken off the table.
- Don't use SW:D in fights with mechanics that reduce healing (Chimaeron, Cho'gall). This is a no-brainer; if the damage you take from SW:D can't be healed, you don't want to cast it.
- Don't use SW:D during times of high raid/party damage. Though healers have come a long way since Cataclysm's December launch, they haven't reached the point yet where healing is a simple, mindless affair. There are times when healers need to prioritize, and that may mean your own health isn't always topped off. Be smart -- if the damage is significant and unavoidable (Baron Ashbury's Dark Archangel phase comes to mind), don't use SW:D.
To glyph or not to glyph
There are two glyphs related to Shadow Word: Death, the Glyph of Shadow Word: Death and the Glyph of Spirit Tap. The former allows you to instantly recast SW:D if your first cast fails to kill the target (so long as the target is below 25% health). The latter causes you to regain 12% of your max mana over 12 seconds via the Spirit Tap proc. As you can gather, both are damn useful.
But do either of them deserve to eat up valuable real estate on your glyph page? For Glyph of Shadow Word: Death, the answer is easy -- yes. For soloing and in 5-man instances, the glyph is a slam dunk. There are a few raid fights where you may prefer something more situational (maybe Glyph of Dispersion on Nefarion?), but on the whole, it's a damn solid choice. Always keep in mind, though, that casting it twice can result in you eating two gigantic chunks of damage -- possibly as much as 40% of your maximum health over the course of 2 seconds.
Likewise, when it comes to soloing and 5-mans, the Glyph of Spirit Tap is a no-brainer, even at level 85. Don't be discouraged by the tooltip -- if you would have gotten experience from the kill had you not been capped, Spirit Tap will proc. It's a huge boost to mana regen during 5-man instances, and it keeps you rolling in the blue during battlegrounds. It's not always the most useful in raids (and it's not useful at all in fights without adds, like the double dragons and Chimaeron), but it's rare that you'll find a better glyph to replace it with.
Play it safe
Shadow Word: Death is a dangerous tool, especially when used on targets under 25% health. You can put out pretty darn good damage without it, so don't feel pressured into using it if you're not comfortable. Work it into your rotations on your own schedule; as you do, you'll start building your own confidence. Training yourself to cast SW:D when a boss mechanic forces you to move is a good start. Being a good shadow priest takes lots of practice, and mastering SW:D is a part of that.
Ultimately, your #1 concern should always be your own safety and the well-being of those you're playing with. Chart-topping DPS isn't worth dying over, and raid healers usually have better things to do than compensate for your SW:D spam. If you can't heal through the SW:D damage yourself, it's not worth the risk.
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.