Sometimes I feel like I can't get away from Illuminated Healing. Our holy paladin mastery has been receiving nonstop tweaks since its introduction, and it's always flirting with viability. Stats like haste and critical strike rating are predictable. I can draw up some formulas to show you how many extra ticks of Holy Radiance you'll receive at a given haste level. Mastery is much more nebulous than that, as its effectiveness depends entirely on the encounter and your healing assignment.
Everyone has some amount of mastery rating on their gear, and there's even some passively built into our characters. While having a bit of mastery to make our heals bubbly helps our throughput, it's certainly not overpowered. There are a few holy paladins who, in an attempt to see how far Illuminated Healing can go, have enchanted, reforged, and gemmed into mastery completely. With IH bubbles absorbing 35% of the value of the original heal, stacking mastery can obviously make something interesting happen. How potent can Illuminated Healing really become?
Zaroua of the top guild Premonition has always been one for trying unusual specs. He successfully used the Flash of Light playstyle throughout Wrath, even as his guild worked on the most difficult progression content available. While he's living proof that the FoL build wasn't completely awful, it still wasn't for everyone. Now, in Cataclysm, Zaroua has completely revamped his holy paladin into a mastery-loving machine.
With such a high mastery rating, nearly 35% of each of his heals becomes an absorption bubble via Illuminated Healing. With an average Divine Light healing for between 30k-40k, each bubble absorbs around 10k damage. A paladin or warrior blocking an attack with a shield reduces between 11k-15k damage from an incoming attack. By stacking mastery and producing huge bubbles, it's almost like adding a second shield to our tanks. To quote Zaroua, what our mastery is capable of is very nearly game-breaking.
The price of power
Tossing around huge absorption bubbles might sound like fun, but there's a downside to stacking mastery instead of haste. Mastery doesn't interact with Holy Radiance or Beacon of Light at all, and its increase in our raw throughput isn't actually that much better than haste. The key to mastery's potency is that the bubble is preventive instead of reactive, which is something that not every healer can do. If you stack mastery, you become a weaker AOE healer and a weaker multi-tank healer as well. We have a fixed amount of stat points available to us, and if we spend them on mastery, it comes at the cost of haste.
If you're in a top-tier 25-man progression guild, results are all that matter. You're surrounded by a ton of talented players, more than capable of doing their jobs with excellence. Zaroua can afford to strip away his AOE healing power because he knows that everyone else has him covered, allowing him to do amazing things while healing the tank. Firelands has several encounters that favor the powerful, single-target healing of a mastery paladin over a haste paladin, including Shannox, Baleroc, and Ragnaros. The mastery paladin is a utility player, using massive absorption bubbles to raise a tank's effective health.
Specialization vs. compatibility
I won't ever be able to pull off a permanent mastery build. I primarily raid 10-man content, which means that I'm usually only playing with one or two other healers. There's no room for the type of specification that a mastery build requires; I need to be able to perform well in every role. Haste boosts my single-target throughput enough and empowers my AOE healing to new levels, haste ensures I stay flexible. There's no room in a 10-man raid for a single healer who's focused only on healing the tank. I might be able to swap into some mastery pieces for a specific encounter, but I simply can't stack it that high.
Even in 25-man raids, it's pretty hard to have one healer who's a specialist. As fights get more and more difficult and DPS checks become harder and harder, raid leaders usually start cutting healers first. If you come to a raid with a glut of healers, then you're probably fine with a mastery paladin tagging along. The issue is that when healers are being cut, every healer who remains needs to do his job exceptionally. Everyone pitches in for AOE healing, and everyone assists when the tank is getting pounded.
It takes a very specific type of environment to truly foster a mastery build, and I think Zaroua has found that in Premonition. The potency of Illuminated Healing makes him valuable because he can heal in a way that nobody else can compete with. He's still going to be weaker than anyone else when he pops Holy Radiance, but he might just succeed in keeping a tank alive when he might otherwise have died.
Is mastery viable? It's certainly not worthless, and it scales quite well when you have a ton of it. The only issue is that getting to that point requires great sacrifices of haste rating, a price most holy paladins aren't willing to pay. I am glad that mastery is sticking around and seeing some use, even if it's only in very specific situations. The concept of Illuminated Healing isn't awful; it's just a challenging mechanic to implement while remaining balanced.
The Light and How to Swing It: Holy helps holy paladins become the powerful healers we're destined to be. Learn the ropes in Cataclysm 101 for holy paladins, study the new balance between intellect and spirit and learn how to level your new Sunwalker. Tanking is a job, DPS is a craft -- but healing is truly an art.