The Soulburn system of Cataclysm was a big bust for affliction, offering plenty of utility but lacking in role-buffing damage abilities. The biggest issue was that Soulburn didn't feel like a real resource. Soulburn largely felt like a complicated set of "oh, crap!" buttons.
In Mists of Pandaria, demonology and destruction are each departing from soul shards to gain new secondary resources. Soul shards will be affliction-only, so it's finally time to tailor shards to affliction purposes. Unfortunately, beta is where many things are broken or unfinished, including soul shards.
Blizzard has started in the right direction, but we've got a ways to go before the Soulburn system of Mists is finished. Some steps are going backward, and some steps feel like the spec isn't sure what exactly it wants to do with shards.
Unit frame shards disappeared?
With the arrival of the Glyph of Verdant Spheres, soul shards now appear graphically with the character model, appearing to hover over the character's head and shoulders. The shininess of this new sight quickly fades when it was discovered that other players could see these shards, and the number around the warlock represents how many soul shards the warlock currently has. The PvP concern is that it telegraphs the state of a warlock's resources to hostile players.
While it's probable that the shards could be seen in Arena combat, it's doubtful that the sight would have much impact in other facets of play. While zoomed out and on low settings, I could barely see my shards even when out questing alone. Once players add in spell animations and raid members in a stack-up mechanic, it's near impossible to see the shards on the warlock.
Which brings us to the current problem: The soul shards have disappeared from the unit frame itself. The unit frames are just health bar and mana bar for affliction. I think this is a bug, for destruction's embers are also stuck at full embers for unit frame graphics. I hope it is a bug, because it would be incredibly ludicrous to expect warlocks to gauge their very important resource from the character model alone.
In Mists beta, using soul shards feels really clunky and unfocused. Part of the problem is because Soulburn is a two-part spell working on a one-part user interface.
Soulburn in Mists has two cooldowns: one is Soulburn's personal cooldown, which is 15 seconds, and the other is the cooldown on using an ability with Soulburn, which is 1 minute. But how do you display this cooldown information efficiently to the warlock?
Clearly, Soulburn should get the cooldown counter for the 15-second cooldown. That's the one where you can't even soulburn at all if that clock is ticking. But what about the ability paired with Soulburn cooldown? Do you put it on that spell's action button? I don't think so, since it's only the "soulburnability" that's on cooldown, not the normal spell. Then ... what? Should we guess when it comes off cooldown?
The default UI really fails affliction. While one could possibly get by with scrutinizing the small icon timers on the target debuffs, Soulburn's two-part cooldown introduces yet another addon I'd wish I could have. Now I feel like affliction as it is on beta would struggle without a third-party DoT timer and a cooldown timer, like the popular ForteXorcist. We have channeled fillers, but you wouldn't know when a tick happens from looking at the default cast bar.
Core spells feel confused in purpose
There's debate as to whether Haunt is supposed to continue on as an ever-present target debuff or whether Mists is taking the new direction of Haunt as a short DPS cooldown. Some argue that a 40% buff to all spells on the target is too big a DPS boost to pass up, so it must continue on as a debuff to keep up. Others argue that because it's such a huge boost to DPS and because it takes the duration of Haunt to recover the soul shard cost, that Haunt must be a short DPS cooldown intended for either burstier damage or simply a mechanic to consume the resource with.
When the action bar lights up the Haunt ability on a Nightfall proc, you'd think it's a special ability. When the action buttons get the glowy effect, it's usually a super-special ability that you get to use only every 10 to 20 seconds. But Haunt doesn't fade out when Nightfall isn't procced; the warlock can still spend a shard normally. Is it meant to be a normal spell or a super-special spell?
If it's meant to be a normal spell, then there are problems with the shard regeneration mechanic. If Haunt's meant to be a cooldown or proc, I'd still like to tweak Nightfall, but it could almost work as is.
A resource regeneration mechanic needs to be balanced around the flow of the spec. Currently, Drain Soul ticks every 3 seconds. In beta, Drain Soul ticks every 4 seconds. The time difference is analogous to Shadow Bolt versus Soul Fire on a Cataclysm affliction warlock. Tell me how slow Soul Fire feels compared to Shadow Bolt right now, even in all your raiding haste. That's how slow Drain Soul feels like it ticks on beta.
A Soul Fire's length of time is not appropriate if soul shards are to be used in the DPS rotation on a regular basis. It's just too long between ticks. But shortening the time between ticks might mean that Drain Soul's base damage or damage modifiers would need to be rebalanced for the execute-range damage.
Nightfall as shard regeneration
I think the crux of the problem lies with Nightfall. Nightfall fills up to two shards when it procs, including granting zero shards if a warlock has all three or glyphed four. That's a problem right there -- the free shard isn't actually a free shard. It's free refill, but you have to have bought a drink first to claim it.
The other problem is how to proc Nightfall. It only procs from Corruption. MultiDoTing the target dummies grants me a Nightfall proc in seconds, but I can go for seemingly ages on a single target before I get a Nightfall proc. Since my granted shards aren't actually free, I constantly feel like I'm playing in soul shard debt and depend on Nightfall loans to get my damage boosting Haunt up.
I'm stuck choosing between Malefic Grasp in the hopes that with Corruption's increased ticks come a few Nightfall procs or Drain Soul, which will guarantee me a soul shard but probably take just as long as waiting for Nightfall. That's not a fun playstyle, Blizzard!
I think Drain Soul should just eliminate the soul shard regeneration mechanic and stay an execute-range damaging spell. Put the in-combat shard regeneration on Malefic Grasp's ticks as well as Corruption's. MultiDoT will still have an increased chance to proc Nightfall, but I wouldn't be totally shard-starved on single targets.
And please, for the love of fel, give me a real Nightfall buff that says my next Haunt or Soulburn doesn't cost a shard.
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 tier 13 set bonuses.