If you were a shaman last week in WoW, then chances are you already know what this post is about. And if you weren’t a shaman, chances are … you still know. It was the raid comp heard ‘round the world—the uber-guild Paragon scored a #1 World kill of the hard-mode only boss, Sinestra, with a complete lack of shaman in their raid. More so than that, a member of the guild went on to state on the guild’s forums and on MMO-Champion that the reasoning behind their lack of shaman wasn’t a lack of resources and it wasn’t seniority—they simply didn’t need any. And nothing makes players happier than to hear that their main’s class isn’t worthy of a raid spot.
In contrast to the litany of posts that have sprung up on forums across the globe, I’m not here today to wag my finger at Blizzard say “I told you so”. That type of condescension has no place with me. Nor am I here to, like many others, bemoan the lack of a raid spots for our shaman-in-arms. (Although it’s worth noting that some top US guilds are taking the shaman performance issue to heart; thankfully FH is not one of them). Rather, my goal here is to walk through the evolution of the shaman class and potentially demonstrate how things might have gone awry; how a class which once was lauded as the Ultimate Utility Class turned out to be exactly that, in a world where utility is no longer a valuable commodity.
A Brief History
Originally created as the horde counterpart to Alliance paladins, Shaman have long been viewed as an adaptable utility class with the ability to synergize with whatever group they happen to join. Wowwiki offers us this definition of WoW’s shaman class:
The shaman is a hybrid class and depending on how players choose to customize their character’s talents, they can specialize in offensive spellcasting, melee damage dealing, or healing. As such, the class is considered one of the most adaptable and versatile in the game. Shamans can also provide support to a group in the form of stationary totems, of which when placed on the ground by the shaman, either provides various benefits to party members, or deal damage to enemies, of which the range is determined by the totem placed. (Source)
Indeed, when they were created, shaman were one of the most versatile classes in game, offering two types of dps, healing, and even tanking (to some extent; it was subsequently phased out as an Enhancement niche). Granted, most Vanilla shaman were healers, but in BC, class changes were made to attempt to make dps shaman a lot more viable. We were (and are) the only class with a built-in soulstone, in the form of Reincarnation. But our role versatility was far surpassed by our totems, the buffs from which were unmtached, and by the fact that we were the only class who could offer the biggest and best raid CD in game—Bloodlust. In Burning Crusade, Alliance were offered the shaman class through the addition of the Draenei, whereas horde gained access to Paladins through the Blood Elf race.
But what’s most important to remember about the Shaman class is that they were designed to be the ultimate buff class, a pocket knife of tools, tricks and buffs. The buffs that paladins brought to the table were originally intended to be aligned with those offered by the shaman—not exact matches but comparable in total raid effect. As described on WoW’s main site:
Shaman can choose to deploy a wide array of different totems, each providing allies with a unique effect, including improved restoration, greater damage, faster attacks, and more.
It was well acknowledged by many, both in Vanilla WoW and in BC, that the main motivating reason to bring a shaman to raid was because their totem buffs were unparalleled. Windfury, Wrath of Air, Grace of Air, Flametongue, Stoneskin, and Strength of Earth (and others) were unique, beneficial raid buffs that could be brought by no other class. And so, your diligent raid leaders made room for shaman on the roster, despite motivation to the contrary. (And do check out the comments section, some of the blast-from-the-past responses are hilarious!) Totems were the very definition of our utility, and a defining element of our class. (No one in game had to work as hard as we did, all for a few simple buffs).
The Hybrid Tax—Myth or Reality?
Although oftentimes regarded as urban legend by new players, the so-called hybrid tax was one of the cornerstones of class balancing, and constituted one of the disadvantages of stacking a raid with hybrid, utility classes like the shaman. Below is an excerpt from a WoW blue post explaining the in’s and out’s of WoW’s dps and class tax system (written by our favorite crab):
In our design, the pure dps classes (hunter, mage, warlock and rogue) should do slightly higher dps than hybrid damage-dealers all things being equal … The reason we want pures to do slightly higher damage is that pures can only fulfill one role. If your guild or raid has no more need for damage-dealers, there is no way for these classes to raid with you. By contrast, the six other classes always have the option to respec for another role either temporarily or for the long haul. (Source)
Now keep in mind that this post was written back on October 27th, 2009, when players were preparing themselves for ICC release—it wasn’t all that long ago and it clearly suggests that this rule might still be in full effect. GC goes on to give examples of where Blizzard’s design philosophy has shifted over the years, citing the preference for Warrior tanks that existed during BC (ahem, Illidan shears) and the stance that while all healing classes should be comparable, druids’, paladins’, priests’ and shamans’ dps should be lower by comparison. (Hand up to shadow priests, who felt the pain of utility all through BT.)
But, most important to our discussion is the following excerpt:
Likewise, druids, paladins, priests and shaman brought many unique and powerful buffs that were intended to compensate for their low dps. We spread these buffs out to a much greater degree in Lich King, and plan on refining that implementation for Cataclysm.
When I say Shaman, You say Sunwell …
I may be slightly biased, but if I had to say there was a class design moment that influenced all subsequent class design it would be the prevalence of Shamans in Sunwell. It was our time in the spotlight, and it was all due to one thing—Chain Heal—Resto Shamans’ iconic ability, and at that point, arguably the best raid heal in game. Chain Heal was the motivating factor for so many guilds to ditch their other healers in favor of bringing in as many resto shaman as possible. (They also ditched mages for warlocks, kept one holy paladin for tank healing, kicked rets in favor of rogues, and picked up a couple more shadow priests so that each group could have its very own mana battery).
Granted, Sunwell wasn’t an instance that was on the map for very long and wasn’t one that was visited by very many guilds outside of the top raiding elite, but it has since become a seminal moment in class history—a clear demonstration of the unintended side effect of leaving niches unshared and buffs restricted. As acknowledged by GC, the sunwell model was too strong a counterpoint to the “unique and special” design perspective that had dominated up until that point. And so, raid buffs were shared and as compensation to the shaman class:
… we brought up their damage a lot. It might still not be as high as rogues or warlocks, but it’s close, and if you have the right gear and really know how to play, you can even beat those classes on some bosses. No raid worth its salt would turn down an Enhancement, Elemental or Restoration shaman for fear of bringing down the raid.
Chipping Away at Utility
Thankfully, with Sunwell at the tail end of an expansion, Blizzard was able to incorporate a number of their lessons learned into the launch of the subsequent expansion—Wrath of the Lich King. As mentioned in a preceding GC quote, with Wrath the intention was to decentralize buffs while also doing away with the niche healing model that had been so demonstrated by CH-spamming Restos in Sunwell. (It bears mentioning that this philosophy of decentralized buffs and niche class application was applied to all class design, lest you think I’m trying to assert that shaman were the only ones to suffer the effects of homogenization).
In addition, WotLK also marked the formal introduction of the 10-man raiding structure, which in BC had only been present in a limited fashion (through Kara and ZA, arguably not offered up to be top tier progression challenges). In WotLK, 10-man content would mirror the content opened up to 25-man raiders, so that players could take advantage of the smaller, more intimate team environment.
But, this reduction in raiding size had an unanticipated effect on utility hybrids—instead of making them more appealing, it only served to distinguish the utility tax that was being enforced. Because the gain from raid buffs is much larger in 25’s, and even in 40’s, the performance tax that shaman paid to offer more raid buffs was worth the loss of personal dps (and was made up for by classes like hunters and rogues, who at the time, offered very few raid buffs but consistently high dps). But in a 10-man setting, the output differential became more noticeable, and the balance between buffs + lower dps versus no buffs + higher dps was put to the test. (EG: “Why do we need WF if we only have 2 tanks and 1 melee?”)
As Wrath wore on, the effects of these dps differentials and problems with healing parity could be seen in the class design tweaks and adjustments that went into every patch. But it would also be seen in class performance issues, which were addressed by GC in a mid-Ulduar Class Design Q&A:
… I know there is some concern about Restoration shamans losing their healing niche of area damage. We think that perception might exist in Ulduar just because recent talents, glyphs, and set bonuses have all propped up things like Lesser Healing Wave over Chain Heal.
… Elemental may suffer from so many fights in Ulduar requiring movement. Also, while we have given Elemental strong AoE in the form of the Magma Totem, some players feel like this comes at too high a cost to their buffs and mobility, so this is something we’ll look at.
… We’re pretty happy with Enhancement shamans in raids, though we want to continue to analyze whether their DPS is where it should be and if their buffs are comparable to other classes that can bring the same benefit.
But, despite the attention and consideration of the developers in Ulduar and beyond, World First kills still portrayed a picture much different than the one painted by developers. With mobility and AOE a consistent problem for shaman (and a consistent favorite for end-boss designers), the need for bloodlust or a specific buff (EG: windfurry for the “Brain crew” in 0 Keeper Yogg) was often cited as reason for the shaman being in raid.
Now, I’m not here to debate the value of meters in a raid setting, and yes, classes perform differently on different encounters. But, I’m fairly certain there’s sufficient visual illustration in the following to demonstrate that at least when it comes to “end-game” bosses, shamans’ class disadvantages place them at the bottom of meters time and time again.
World First Alone in the Darkness: 1 Enhan, 1 Elemental
World First HM Anub’Arak: 1 Enhan, 1 Elemental
World First Lich King: 1 Elemental, 1 Resto
World First Heroic Lich King: 1 Resto Shaman, 0 dps shaman
(Paragon declined to release meters for this kill, at least that I could find).
I’ve a strong hunch that if you asked these guilds why they brought those seemingly sub-optimal shaman the answer would be—buffs. Windfurry for the melee, an Elemental Shaman to buff the spellcasters, Resto for the mana tide, and at worst, a lone shaman to bring Bloodlust.
Cataclysm marks the latest step towards breaking down the walls of specialization. No longer are there “AOE” classes or “single-target only” dps. No longer are healers categorized by niche—tank healing versus raid healing. No longer are tanks divided between mana sponges and avoidance. As Blizzard has stated time and time again, the goal for this expansion was very simple—bring the player, not the class.
A New World Order
And so, we come to the point at which we now stand—with Paragon and their “optimized” Sinestra raid comp. It is a single fight in game, with no more merit than any others, save the fact that it is intended to be the pinnacle of Tier 11 raiding. So why does it matter that shaman were absent from the World First kill? The short answer is … it doesn’t. It didn’t matter, individually, on any of the previous World Firsts that I showed above either.
What it does demonstrate beyond the trend of low shaman performance, and what I think is missing as a point in the proliferation of QQ threads on the forums, is how incredibly far the game has come. Yes, that’s right—we’ve come such a long way from the days of Vanilla raiding. From raids where multiple shaman were used so that every conceivable buff was covered, to an expansion’s first end boss kill that had exactly zero totems, it took two expansions for WoW to progress from the Sunwell level of specificity and strict raid stacking, to a world with the diversification necessary to support a raid composition defined by qualities other than buffs.
And, ladies and gentlemen, that is my point. Having a raid formed without the constraints of buffs is a great thing. But, Shaman are a class defined by utility, defined by our buffs, told that our totems should matter, and described as having a “high degree of hybridization” by Blizzard’s most notable, and much to his credit, most vocal Designer. For a whole of the previous expansion, we were propped up by those totems and buffs which were ours and ours alone. We sat at the bottom of meters on the first kills of heroic mode encounters, brought along because of the buffs we offered to other classes. But our buffs have now been fully distributed, our massive deeps raid CD parsed out to pures, and the uniqueness of our totems stripped down (except for Resto Shamans’ Mana Tide). We have been left to stand on our class merits alone, and it is … a bittersweet victory indeed.
Ultimately, I’m left with the conclusion that if this is the direction that Blizzard wants to go–into a world where the player is more important than the class–then we also need to exist in a world where all things are equal. A place where my skill as a Resto, Enhance, or Elemental Shaman doesn’t suffer from a tax designed to encourage raid leaders to leave me on the bench. This is a time where utility should be rewarded, not punished, where raids need to have a variable healer roster for encounters, where LFD needs more people willing to tank. Games evolve, community needs evolve, and it’s time for Blizzard’s design philosophy to evolve as well.