So on Wednesday, there was this small little thing that you may have heard about called a little live Q&A with the devs about classes and systems in WoW. While there were a few mentionings of things in the near future, most of the night's focus rested on the next expansion rising over the horizon. Highly understandable. There are a wide variety of changes coming in the next expansion for all of the classes, and I don't think that druids can claim to have a monopoly on the biggest ones.
The latest direction that Blizzard wants to steer druids, however, is certainly an odd one, and it may not be all that it's cut out for. After BlizzCon, I spent some time talking about the released talents and the design considerations that came along with it. I also spent a spot of time guesting (is guest a verb now?) on Team Waffle Cast along with Arielle and Lissanna, when we talked about the druidic future. In the live chat, I fear that my suspicions were confirmed. Join me for a trip to the future that will never be.
The current shapeshifting model
As it stands now, shifting isn't actually a key aspect of the druid class, and the truth is that it hasn't been for quite a long time -- if, in fact, it ever was. Druids are a shapeshifting class in name only, though the truth is that is what classic druids have always been. We do not and we have not ever used shapeshifting as a mechanic to alternate our roles or abilities on the fly. Instead, we specialize into a single shapeshifting ability, while the other forms are regulated to utility purposes.
Overall, this isn't a bad design scheme. Balance druids specialize in spellcasting, and a part of that is shifting into Moonkin Form. For combat purposes, we stay in Moonkin Form as often as we possibly can, just as any other class would prioritize its higher-damage abilities, stances, presences, or what-have-yous. The act of shifting in of itself only occurs when we need something from our other forms, some form of utility that they offer.
If you were to roll a fresh druid (or any hybrid class) today, you wouldn't really expect to play a jack-of-all-trades. Despite the fact that druids are the single most versatile class in the game -- we are the only class that is capable of filling every single role, after all -- we temper that benefit with specialization. Such is how the game has been since The Burning Crusade was launched.
Why we do shift, why we don't
This is not to say that we never, ever shift at all, merely that shifting in of itself is not a form of utility. Going into Cat Form doesn't inherently offer the druid any reason to be there. The same is nearly true for Bear Form as well; it is more defensive for feral and restoration druids, but balance druids get equal if not better protection out of Moonkin Form. Even not being shifted carries its own brand of utility in being the only means through which we can access our healing abilities.
It is not the basic benefits of shifting that we yearn for; it is the utility abilities that they provide. Cat Form gives us Dash or Stampeding Roar for when we need to escape quickly in the heart of combat. It also allows us to stealth when the skill is needed. As mentioned, not being shifted allows druids to have access to their healing abilities; weak though they might be for off-spec druids, they can still save your life. Bear Form doesn't have much to offer us, sadly. There's access to Bash, but that's been a long-standing joke for quite a good reason.
The point is, there is nothing inherently beneficial about shapeshifting to make us want to do it -- and that's fine! Specialized shapeshifitng is peachy in its own right.
Newest outlook on shifting
Blizzard, however, disagrees with this philosophy. From statements made at BlizzCon to questions answered at this week's Live Developer Q&A, the developers have indicated -- well, flat-out said -- that they want for druids to shift more. Their idea is that druids are master shapeshifters and should make use of those abilities. Look at how the system works now. Sure, Cat Form offers us some utility -- but outside of PVP, how often do you really see it? Is the need to Dash all that frequent in a raid or 5-man setting? Not really.
Blizzard's goal is for druids to make more use of all of their shapeshifting forms in combat. The problem is that the developers currently feel extremely direction-less as far as the means by which they want to do this. At the moment, they've shown the listed Pandaria talents as their evidence of what the new druid system will be like, of how they plan on creating incentives for druids to use all of their various shapeshifting forms. The problem, however, is that their solution does not deviate from the shifting model that we currently have.
Abilities such as Ursol's Vortex, Displacer Beast, Demoralizing Roar, and Tireless Pursuit are great utility talents to have. There's a wide variety of uses that you could find for all of them. The issue is that none of those situations has anything to do with DPS at all. Ursol's is great for dragging in loose mobs or fresh adds to a tank, or even to stack up a bunch of targets for your personal AOE while farming. But that's situational utility. It won't help you once you reach Beth'tilac phase 2, or any part of Baleroc, or Staghelm, or Alysrazor, or Shannox. Nor will any of those talents.
During the Live Developer QA, Wradyx liked to use many different examples of feral druids' using their healing abilities as reasons why a druid would shapeshift; in fact, this was the only example that was given, and it was used several times over. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is the perfect example of when druids should shapeshift: situationally, in order to provide raid or personal utility. Healing is a situational tool for DPS -- it's a very powerful tool, but it is merely a tool, and it isn't one that is used during every encounter.
The only way you could force balance druids to actively make use of Bear or Cat Form aside from the random uses of Dash, Prowl, or Ursol's would be to create damage incentives. There simply isn't another option. You can toss druids utility until it's popping out of our ears, and it won't change the fact that being in Cat Form is a significant loss in DPS. So far, there hasn't been anything put forth by Blizzard to suggest this is being fixed.
What's good for the goose
What we face is an issue of transition. The developers see that feral druids actively shift between forms in order to make use of their healing abilities, and they want to emphasize that, which is a great thing. However, they also hold a belief that the reverse needs to be true as well, that balance and restoration druids need to make more use of their feral forms. This is where the problems rest.
The feral forms do not inherently offer any reason to be in them. You go Cat if you need to deal physical damage, Bear if you need to tank. Our ability to deal physical damage as casters is horribly low, and allowing us to have even a 100% AP conversion from intellect won't change this. It isn't a matter of balancing. It isn't a matter of being interesting. It's purely a matter of design. Either casting will deal more damage, or physical attacks will deal more damage; we'll use one, ignore the rest.
Master Shapeshifter as an example
A talent such as Master Shapeshifter, as it's listed for Pandaria, doesn't have a definable purpose for balance druids. MSS is a talent that isn't so much a talent as it is a core design aspect, the ability to mix-and-match melee with spell attacks. Tossing it in arbitrarily does nothing; it isn't situational, it's mandatory. With such a core talent, things can only go one of two ways. Either it yields a DPS increase, in which case it becomes mandatory and balance now becomes a weird hybrid in which we alternate three spells with three melee attacks, or it doesn't yield any DPS, giving us no reason to take it.
The idea behind MSS is solid, but the idea is one for an entirely new spec and way of playing, not for a fun little optional talent that you might pick up. Actively making use of all of your shapeshifting forms isn't a permeable class design direction; it's a spec direction. A druid that fluidly moves between casting offensive spells and shredding people's faces off as a Cat is an entirely new spec that we don't have at this time, and you can't impose it on the class as a whole. It would work if druids only had one DPS spec, but we have two, and two DPS specs can't operate under the same DPS scheme and be considered different.
We can't both actively shapeshift between using magic and melee; one of them has to give. In this case, it should be balance.
All of the other tiers are focused in their design. There's a Cat tier, a healing tier, a Bear tier, a control tier, and a cooldown tier. Our final tier, though, is in dissonance with itself. Heart of the Wild is a healing cooldown, at least for feral and balance, whereas Master Shapeshifter is kind-of-sort-of a DPS talent, and Disentanglement is a mobility talent with self-healing tossed in.
Overall, this is supposed to be the "shifting" tier, but shifting is far too generalized to be used, especially in such a powerful location. Instead, just focus on making that tier a major healing cooldown tier and we'll all be fine with that. Non-restoration druids lack a solid raid cooldown to use -- here's a chance to give us one.
We've plenty of utility reasons to shapeshift as it stands now, and in the next expansion, we're only getting more. Blizzard doesn't need to add fancy bells and whistles to get us to shapeshift, and we don't need to convolute our DPS rotations in order to force it. Shapeshifting for utility as we do now, as we will continue to do, is the perfect balance of where we need to be.
Every week, Shifting Perspectives: Balance brings you druidic truth, beauty and insight ... from a moonkin's perspective. We'll help you level your brand new balance druid, tweak your UI and your endgame gear, analyze balance racials and abilities, and even walk you through PVP as a balance druid.