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The New Class: Monks and class balance

I've wanted to talk about this for a while. The game's hybrid vs. pure debate is about to swing into high gear. With the monk, not only will there be a third class that can tank, heal or DPS, but it will be doing these things with entirely new mechanics. What does the monk mean for everyone, both those who will adopt and love it and those who will have to compete against it?

The first change the monk brings along with it is simple: the class numbers game. Not only will we have 11 classes now, but all sorts of other numbers change as well. For instance, there will now be five classes capable of tanking and five capable of healing. We'll have four pure DPS classes and seven hybrids that can DPS. There will be a total of 33 specializations (although it may be easier to balance with talents shifting to the new system) to design around.

What do monks mean?

With monk mechanics being new and different, it's likely there will be similar growing pains. When the death knight launched, the class caused quite a dip in other class demographics, with long-time players of classes like rogues and warriors gravitating to the new class and its new way of doing things. The monk, however, is a triple threat. A monk can do anything you want to do in World of Warcraft. The only factors working against it are its melee nature (the game's already pretty thick on the ground with melee, and many fights are less than friendly to the ground pounders) and having to begin play at level 1. Will these be enough to keep players from switching over to the monk?

It depends in part on when exactly we get the monk. If the monk ships with Mists of Pandaria, then some players will be under pressure to get to max level ASAP so that they can run heroics and raids as soon as possible. These players will not be adopting the monk unless they can put in the time to burn to 90.

If the monk class ships with the pre-Mists patch (I find this extremely unlikely -- extremely, but not entirely impossible), then it is more likely that more players will be willing to switch. Either way, I think most monks will be alts at first. By placing the monk at level 1, it's unlikely to surpass the DK as the alt of choice for ease of leveling, even if the Pandaren keep their racials that will aid in leveling.

The monk's real effect on class balance will come in its ability to compete in all three roles. At present, we know very little about how exactly they're going to do that, but we know that they'll be tanking, healing and DPSing, and it's likely that they'll draw interest from players of the classes that can already do all of those things.

Their itemization as it has been revealed to date is extremely similar to druids (staves, agility or intellect leather), and the presence of the monk tank may finally lead to agility items with dodge on them again, since two classes will get to use it. (That's one more class than can use intellect plate.) This means that the monk, with its wildly varied playstyle but similar itemization, may help or hinder the druid, depending on whether or not druid players shift over to monk.

Monks vs. paladins

Paladins and monks will share almost no itemization in terms of the tanking role, but since monks are speculated to use one-handed swords and axes, they may well be in some competition for healing items (no more so than monks and druids, or monks and priests, or monks and shaman, or even monks and the caster DPS classes, to some extent). But where the monk and paladin come into sharp relief is their almost identical class role. The druid has four effective specs in MoP: feral DPS, guardian tanking, restoration healing and moonkin caster DPS, a fourth option the monk doesn't share.

But paladins and monks have the exact same roles. They can tank, melee DPS, and heal. They perform these roles very differently and will share remarkably little itemization, but that only means that there's more reason for paladin players who've grown disenchanted with their class to try out the monk. More races can be monks than paladins, so if you're tired of your race and want to switch, the monk will provide you with more options later. The monk's wildly different mechanics will provide players who have burned out on their current way of doing things a whole new system with entirely new aesthetics to learn.

Monks will also provide players of the two role hybrid classes (warriors, shaman, priests, death knights) some reason to consider switching. If you can currently heal and DPS, or tank and DPS, why not consider moving to a class that can add a role? If nothing else, selecting a monk as an alt means you'll at least be comfortable with some of the role expectations while learning a new tool kit. Shaman use many of the same weapons as the monk (fists, staves, axes) and start out in leather before graduating to mail. The monk's exotic new playstyle and mechanics will attract some of these players while actually serving as a barrier to entry to others who are more comfortable and familiar playing what they already understand.

There are also the pure DPS classes to consider. The arrival of the monk pushes World of Warcraft into a clear position of favoring hybrid classes. With MoP, we will have four pure DPS classes and seven hybrids, three of which can perform any role. If you currently play a rogue, the monk class has a lot of things you'd find familiar (leather armor, swords axes and fists) while providing an entirely new mechanic that in some ways resembles combo points but removes auto-attacks. Of all the current World of Warcraft players, rogues are the first contenders for mastery of the monk. Ranged DPS players who are comfortable in their role (hunters, mages and warlocks) are not likely to switch to the monk due to the twin barriers of a whole new mechanic and no similar role (the monk is always a melee option) to ease them into the switch. I expect some will have monk alts, and clearly some will switch, but I expect them to be the least seduced.

Beware of monks bearing gifts

In the end, switching to the monk is a larger investment than switching to a death knight was in Wrath of the Lich King. DK players then only had to switch to a level 55 character and level from there, but monk players are switching at level 1. This will allow them to experience the excellently revamped 1-to-60 game that Cataclysm provided, but it still means that anyone intending to play a monk as a main has a lot of catching up to do. Some of course will, just as some rerolled paladin on the Horde side or shaman for the Alliance when The Burning Crusade came out.

Things to consider when the monk arrives:
  • They will change the balance of tanking and healing, adding an additional spec to balance for these roles and creating more need for leather items for these roles that currently only go to one class.
  • They add another hybrid class.
  • They add another melee class, meaning that melee unfriendly fights like we've seen in Cataclysm may be harder to design if Blizzard wishes to encourage players to try the monk out.
  • Their three-role hybrid nature, use of new mechanics, and familiar itemization seem likely to attract specific classes with similar aspects to select them as either a new main or an alt.
  • Their new mechanics will encourage some players unsatisfied with their current mechanics to pick them up and try them out, but other players will see these same mechanics as a barrier to entry. The monk selects for the adventurous.
  • We are likely to see surprising demographic shifts when the monk arrives, just as we did with the death knight, but the monk's new mechanics and their starting at level 1 may insulate current classes from as drastic a loss. Rerolling monk is a significant investment in time.
I'm really looking forward to seeing this all play out. I'm likely to roll a monk alt myself, although I'm not at all likely to make it my main. Too attached to my warriors. But I expect my monks will replace my DKs and be at least equal to my shaman in terms of alts I want to play. This is going to be fun.

The news is out -- we'll be playing Mists of Pandaria! Find out what's in store with an all-new talent system, peek over our shoulder at our Pandaren hands-on, and get ready to battle your companion pets against others. It's all here right at WoW Insider!

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Monk, Mists of Pandaria

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