Many people are currently all in a tizzy over the recently released ability lists and talent trees for all of the classes in the next expansion. I suppose I too am no different in this respect. Yet while all others are in their throes of joy (or desperately pleading for changes), I am struck with a thought, a concern if you will, that leaves me slightly worried for the future of raiding. At some point in time, a great wise man once said that we are doomed to repeat history and all that jazz often if we fail to remember it. Sometimes I feel that he is only half right.
Much like Know Your Lore, this week is something of a tinfoil-hat deal, meaning that it's all speculation on my part. I could be wrong -- in fact, this time around I beg to be incorrect -- but I am merely reporting what it is that I see trending. Take it all with a grain of salt.
A brief turn in history
At this point, you must be wondering what I'm talking about. My friends, I am predicting the return of raid stacking. For those who were more committed raiders during The Burning Crusade, you would know well the horrible consequences that raid stacking has and all that it entails. What's important to note that is raid stacking was never a requirement to actually down content, it as merely a convenient shortcut. Why spend weeks, possibly months farming the first three or so bosses of a single raid in order to get enough gear in order to complete a raid when you could fudge your numbers by stacking specific specs?
Raid stacking was never a requirement imposed by Blizzard. It was merely the easiest method of clearing content -- and thus, it was all that was used. With Wrath, Blizzard attempted to fix the matter of raid stacking by introducing the Bring the player, not the class design strategy. The crux of this entire philosophy hinged upon a single matter: that no class, no spec, would ever bring something so powerfully unique that it made it a requirement. The bits about damage balance were superfluous to the core utility design; after all, shaman were terrible damage in The Burning Crusade, but they were stacked without end for Bloodlust.
That's all a wonderful history lesson, but what does it have to do with raid stacking in the next expansion? Well, just look at the talent trees.
Setting up for the fall
Once more, Blizzard is going through a massive talent system redesign, only this time it is far different from any other revamp that we've seen so far. It's often been talked about how Blizzard wants player talents to focus on utility over damage, but it's never been able to pin that down -- at least until now. Now all of the talents do focus exclusively on utility for the most part, which is rather the issue.
In Blizzard's efforts to equalize DPS and utility among the classes, it's actually left them far more vulnerable to raid stacking than they were before. All it takes is one spec to grossly outperform the rest, one utility ability to be far too valuable, and suddenly you have players game-round that are clamoring for that class. And that is exactly what we are setting ourselves up for in Mists of Pandaria.
Each talent has a distinct focus on utility, and while there is a significant amount of crossover between the classes, such as talent tiers that focus on control or a strong damage cooldown, there is also a large focus on individuality. This is all well and good. The intentions of making the classes more distinct is a noble goal. But the game of balancing utility is far more difficult than balancing raw damage.
An example of potential abuse
Allow me an extreme example. Druids have a talent called Heart of the Wild. It's a 6-minute cooldown that allows them to fulfill a secondary raiding role for 45 seconds – allowing a DPS to heal or tank, a healer to tank or DPS, or a tank to heal or DPS. Now obviously, a DPS using Heart of the Wild isn't going to be as good as a tank as a pure tank, but in order for this talent to hold any value at all, it does have to be possible for them to use it in order to effectively tank for a time. Potentially, why would you ever need an off tank? If you could merely stack three or four DPS druids instead of taking an off tank, why bother with the off tank at all?
What situations require for us to use an off tank right now? Clearly, this wouldn't work on an encounter such as Shannox that has a persistent add that needs to be tanked, but there's no reason it couldn't work on an encounter such as Baleroc where all you need is a quick tank for Decimation Blade, or Beth'tilac, where all you need is an off tank for a short period of time on an add and then to take a debuff. It may seem strange. It may seem like excessive work. But top-end guilds have done more for a minor DPS gain on a boss, and if it becomes popular within the high end, it always trickles down to the low end.
Matters of survivability and raid utility
That's an extreme example, though. It's far more likely that we'll see the matter of survivability stacking to become much more prominent. Compare bringing, say, a second mage to a second warlock. Warlocks can passively heal themselves for 15% of their damage, passively split damage with their demon, and have a shield they can use for 20% of their maximum health. Mages do have Ice Block, potentially Ice Barrier, and then either Cauterize or Cold Snap. The warlocks are far more survivable, but the mages aren't useless -- they still have their own survivability options.
Now compare that to shaman who can heal the entire raid with a cooldown while also having their own survivability skills, or to priests who can bring a major tank healing cooldown or can passively heal three people for 15% of their damage done. The fact that any paladin now has Ardent Defender and the power of that ability goes well without saying; people already prefer paladin tanks on heroic Staghelm because it allows them to cheese every other Flame Scythe.
It's more than just healing, too. Druids have access to a knockback and a mob pull, similar to death knights also having a pull. Elemental shaman have access to two knockbacks; other shaman only have one. Warlocks with their new Demonic Portal have one of the best raid movement tools there is, and since it's limited to only five charges per portal, a 25-man raid needs five warlocks to transport everyone.
What the future might hold
Will we see a return of raid stacking? I don't know. At this point, no one knows, but it isn't beyond the realm of reason. Classes are getting a lot of unique utility -- extremely powerful utility, at that -- which is the very foundation of the cause of raid stacking. All that it would take is for a group of encounters to support a specific raid setup, and suddenly you're back to stacking as you were in the old days. We already see stacking for specific encounters, and that is certainly only going to get worse as the utility between the classes becomes more diverse. We could just as easily fall back into a much larger scheme of raid stacking.
I'm hoping this doesn't happen, but the unique abilities provided by the Mists talents is exactly the thing which caused it to happen in The Burning Crusade.
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