One constant, no matter how hard I've tried to ignore it, that has always existed in WoW is that one spec is always "best." The class designers are constantly tweaking the numbers and trying to keep things balanced, but once we all sit down with our collective calculator and spreadsheet, one spec always emerges to rule them all.
It has been a sad reality that while we have always had freedom to choose a spec and personalize it to fit our preferences, when it comes time to raid at high levels or take part in PvP at high levels, that freedom essentially vanishes. You can make arguments for utility over damage or for certain specs in certain fights, but in most cases, under most circumstances, you're going with whatever cookie-cutter spec the internet has agreed upon that week, or you're not getting an invite.
Well, now we have a fresh expansion to leverage our calculators and spreadsheets upon. It's still early in the beta process, and hard numbers are in short supply. Still, the overall design of the specs seems to be fairly well-defined, even if the actual percentage points are still in flux. What conclusions can we draw at this stage? Which spec looks to put out the best damage? And most importantly, which spec will let us kill warlocks most efficiently?
The present shape of mages
Over the seven-plus year history of this game, the mage spec PvE hierarchy has looked a little something like this:
- Fire or arcane, switching on a patch-by-patch basis ... or frost (during Molten Core and never again)
- Fire or arcane, again, depending upon which way the wind happened to be blowing that week
- Don't bother
That's just the way it is, and though a talented mage with an understanding raid leader can make other specs work, ultimately, that talented mage's damage output is going to be lower than another equally talented mage using the "best" spec. So in the end, your freedom to spec how you want is hampered by the knowledge that your deviation from the accepted spec of the month, while allowing you to have more fun and play how you want to, is handicapping your effectiveness.
The shape of mages to come
All of which makes me incredibly excited about the way class balance in Mists of Pandaria is looking. By revamping the talent system completely and normalizing spells and damage across the board, Blizzard has essentially reworked the entire concept of class balance.
Right now, Blizzard uses a kind of give-and-take philosophy for class balance. Every aspect of a spec is weighed against every other aspect, from PvP utility to single-target raid damage to burst damage to AoE output to crowd control. If spec A is dominant in PvP, then it needs to be less than dominant in PvE. If spec B does exceptional multi-target PvE damage, it needs to suffer a bit on the single-target front. It acts as a check and balance on any one spec becoming too big for its britches.
The problem is that when only one spec at a time can be tops at any one aspect of the class, players identify the one aspect they desire most in most situations (either PvE single-target damage or PvP dominance), and then the other specs are left behind completely, no matter what those specs tend to excel at. So we as a playerbase identify the best raid damage spec and forget about the spec that does the second most but does the most AoE damage, except in very specific encounters where that extra AoE damage outweighs the single-target damage we're losing.
That entire philosophy is being turned on its head in Mists. By streamlining the spellbooks of mages and distilling the talent choices into six tiers of essentially equal talent choices that essentially come down to personal preference, Blizzard has created a platform for themselves to balance the specs with ease.
Let's look at the areas of most concern:
Single-target PvE damage
All three specs have access to a lot of the same spells, but each spec will still have a very different main rotation, thanks to specializations. Most of those rotations will at least vaguely resemble the rotations we use now. Most of the spells that make up the standard rotations are spec-specific spells. Fire, for example, relies upon Fireball, Combustion, Pyroblast, and Inferno Blast. Will other spells get use? Of course, but as a rule, they're designed for situational use, like Scorch for movement or Living Bomb for multiple targets (if your fire mage even decides to take those talents).
Each spec will feel different, but do essentially the same single-target DPS out of the box. The numbers are leaning this way on the beta now, and of course we'll know more once raid testing goes into full swing, but this is Blizzard's stated intention, and this class redesign has certainly set them up for success. As gear and stats scale upward, Blizzard will be able to tweak each rotation's numbers and keep the outputs similar.
Thanks to the new talent system, the vast majority of mages' AoE damage is now drawn essentially from the same pool of choices. The list of AoE spells all mage specs will have access to goes like this: Arcane Barrage's potential to hit up to five targets for arcane mages or Dragon's Breath for fire mages, but none of those will alter the AoE power dynamic in any significant way. Our AoE damage output will be basically similar from spec to spec, and the freedom will come in learning to recognize which talents and spells work best in which situations and applying them thusly.
Frost has been the dominant mage spec for so long that there has almost ceased to be any sort of debate as far as PvP balance goes. And sadly, frost has also suffered mightily on the raid damage front as a result. The good news (or bad, depending upon how much you relied upon that dominance in PvP) is that the dynamic is shifting in Mists.
Frost's superiority has been largely attributable to survivability, control, and burst damage. All of those things are being equalized in Mists. All three specs have access to the best defensive spells, like Ice Barrier and the three armor spells. All three specs have been given ways to snare enemies quickly and easily. And frost's burst damage has been normalized due to Frostburn's damage bonus being reduced and spread out over more damage sources, making it more useful in PvE and less bursty in PvP.
There are some differences from spec to spec, certain unique spells that will give each spec a specific flavor and utility in PvP, but none of them offer a distinct and universal advantage over the other two specs. You can argue over whether Dragon's Breath is somehow "better" than Freeze, but you can also argue over whether cake is better than tacos -- and in both cases, you'd be a douche.
Bottom line: None of those differences, whether percieved advantages or disadvantages from spec to spec, warrant a PvE damage adjustment. For the first time in the history of this game, no spec needs to be limited in PvE or PvP due to their success in the other side of the game.
Freedom to choose
I know, the title of the column was a bit of a tease. The point of all of this is to say that if all goes as planned, come Mists of Pandaria, there will be no best mage spec. I hear complaints about homogenization of the specs, that everything is being watered down and we'll all look and act the same in the new expansion, with no unique flavor and no freedom. I feel almost exactly the opposite.
I look at the three other mages in my raid all specced precisely as I am to maximize damage output, and I welcome the simplified talent system. I love the idea that though I might be in a raid with another fire mage, that fire mage might be piling his Frost Bomb on top of my Living Bomb target or throwing down a Rune of Power while I pop an Incanter's Ward. To me, this lack of a true "best" spec provides real freedom. Just the idea of finally being able to raid as frost with impunity from the elitist asshats of the world fills me with glee.
But don't worry, I'm sure we'll all find something else to argue about on the forums. And just so you know, I'm siding firmly with cake.
Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Start out with our recent beginner's guide to being a mage, then check out our three-part State of the Mage columns on arcane, fire and frost. Don't forget to look at some of the addons your mage should probably be using.