From current encounter design, affliction is perhaps the least impacted of the warlock specs, yet there's certainly a significant amount of potential for it to swing either way. Most notable about affliction is the complete lack of burst the spec possesses. Being DOT-focused, we simply don't have any real ability to provide high burst damage against a target that has to drop within a short timeframe. Provided the target is going to live long enough for our DOTs to be effective, everything is dandy; less than that, and we can have some issues.
The Sons of Ragnaros from the Ragnaros encounter are a really great example of this. While they require burst, there's also a bit of time involved. An affliction warlock is an extremely poor choice to put on one of the Sons closest to the hammer itself, but we can be highly effective on the clusters that are farther away. This uneasy balance that we have makes me feel rather uneasy. Although we haven't yet come across a situation where it's problematic, the situation certainly exists where it can become highly frustrating for affliction players.
As more damage gets shifted to our DOTs, the potential for danger becomes greater. In this, Blizzard has been spot on. Affliction players often fuss that their DOTs feel relatively weak. After all, we utilize three DOTs, yet they barely account for a larger percentage of our damage than balance druid DOTs, who only have two. Putting more DOT damage on affliction only causes a higher reliance on a mob's lasting through them, though, which can get tricky in burst damage situations.
The current balance we have between DOT-based and direct damage is relatively stable, if anything, needing to swing back a little bit more to the direct damage side of things. This is difficult, as affliction players want their focus to be DOTs, yet giving them that reliance would only hurt us overall. Situations exist on both sides of the spectrum, though. In situations where multiple adds will last through a full round of DOTs, having too much DOT damage makes us far too powerful. It's a very tight line that we have to walk. Right now, we walk it very well; our DOTs are significant, but not overpowering. Come the next expansion, where we're likely to see new talents and new abilities, this line is only going to get harder and harder to stick to. Blizzard is on to a good system; the chore now is to keep that system intact.
Spell timing and travel time
Complexity is the last mechanic that specs need to be balanced around, and it is another that affliction has handled really well. Playing an affliction warlock is neither boring nor challenging to the degree that only the best of players can pull it off, which is exactly where we want to be. That being said, we do have a few mechanics that need to be kept in close check.
Haunt is one ability we have that relies upon somewhat precise timing. You want to get it up before the debuff falls off, but you also don't want to merely cast it the moment that it reaches the cooldown. It's a small window of time, but the window is there. Timing is everything, yet it isn't encumbering.
One thing of note: the elemental encounters that we've seen this expansion. Al'Akir and Ragnaros are very large creatures that have highly annoying hitboxes when it comes to spells. While their hitboxes are gigantic, every spell has to travel for several seconds in order to smack them right in the face. Normally, travel time is a passing concern on a boss encounter, yet on these types of encounters, a spell will literally not land until you've already gotten several others off. For a spell like Haunt, this is an issue.
Luckily, the cooldown and duration are enough so that it shouldn't ever drop once you get it up, but any form of movement that can delay a Haunt cast is going to set you back multiple DOT ticks without the benefit of Haunt. Travel time is a neat concept, but it needs to be adjusted for this type of encounter.
Dealing with multiple targets
The last complexity concern comes in the form of Shadow Embrace and multi-target damage. When rolling DOTs are three or so targets, you always want to keep Shadow Embrace up on all of the mobs in order to maximize your damage. In terms of putting a focus on player skill, this is a great form of design; the downside is that there simply isn't any in game support for this type of function. There are plenty of addons out there that can help a player track multiple debuffs across multiple targets, and for warlocks, particularly affliction, these addons are downright essential.
Needing the focus to keep both DOTs can a debuff up constantly on multiple targets in order to deal your highest level of damage is acceptable. Affliction deals more damage than the other warlock specs in situations where more than two targets after all. Yet the lack of any in-game support for this almost required level of play makes it difficult. The assumption now has to be that warlock players will use these addons and those who don't are at a significant disadvantage.
Back in the last expansion, we saw something similar with feral druids. Although the feral issue was one of a single-target rotation, as more and more encounters become less about single-target damage and more about multi-target damage, it's harder to justify this requirement. Shadow Embrace certainly shouldn't just be cut, but Blizzard should make some future considerations for how juggling it along with our DOTs against multiple targets impacts gameplay.
Blood Pact is a weekly column detailing DoTs, demons and all the dastardly deeds done by warlocks. We'll coach you in the fine art of staying alive, help pick the best target for Dark Intent, and steer you through encounters such as Blackwing Descent and The Bastion of Twilight.