(This is Part II of a 2-parter on Resto Shaman in the upcoming patch 4.3, which is currently being tested on PTR servers. Part I talked about some of the changes that Restos have waiting for them in the final tier of the expansion. This post is going to try and wrap up that preview with a discussion on healer parity).
I don’t think there’s any question that WoW has changed significantly from those first days of Vanilla. And certainly the raiding game itself has evolved by such leaps and bounds that it’s fairly difficult to compare the tank-and-spank, pallies-spend-the-entire-fight-buffing fights of Molten Core against the incredibly complex, demanding dances that populate the instances of Cataclysm. And although the large majority of the game’s evolution can be attributed to Blizzard’s guiding hand, I think a small part of it also needs to be attributed to a community that pours its collective intellect into figuring out the puzzles that Blizzard puts in front of us. But why am I talking about the evolution of raiding in a post about T13?
Because I think that at its heart, the “problem” that Resto Shaman have been experiencing since the start of Cataclysm is due to a disconnect between the raiding philosophies of Vanilla and those touted by the top guilds in the world today. We’ve seen a tightening of the ropes in Cataclysm, an attempt at narrowing the margins between all specs, and time and again, Shaman, and Resto Shaman in particular, appear to get the short end of the stick. And unless Blizzard decides to finally let go of those old Vanilla truisms, I fear that Resto Shaman might remain exactly where we’ve been for an entire expansion—looking for healer parity.
Then Versus Now
You often hear players who have been around since WoW’s beginnings talk about the glory days of Vanilla raiding, where claims of “it was harder back then” frequently abound. But the fact of the matter is that Vanilla raiding was just about as subjective an endeavor as you could get. In Vanilla, raid meters, metrics, and quantitative measurement of player performance didn’t exist. You had no gauge of your own performance other than a general sense of doing the job you were assigned to do. And so, you could easily “feel” like everyone was pulling their weight; you could “feel” like you were doing awesome with your frostbolt rotation even though you might have been struggling to beat the tank. It was a subjective game, the only certainty in which was that either the boss died or you did.
In contrast, today’s raiding environment is all about metrics. Subjectivity (or at least the perception of it) is out; hard data is in. Today’s raiders, today’s guilds, are focused on numbers, about eeking out that last bit of healing or last bit of DPS. Today’s posters and forum commenters are much more willing to talk about the math that GC asks them for, to the point that I’m willing to guess, he maybe wants a bit less of it. For me personally and others in top guilds, those numbers are 90% of the focus. I head to WoL or WMO to be able to see the math behind the game. Or I turn to CompareBot, DPSBot, or Stateofdps to tell me what spec to turn to, what I can improve on, and where my class stands in terms of performance.
Today’s raiders are on a quest to find “optimal”, to measure up to the class next to them in raid, no matter the other player’s class, spec or skill. But, as GC has said before, and I’m sure as every Blizzard developer tasked with balancing will attest, we all rely on flawed methods. Yes, I want that last bit to resonate with everyone. The ways that we determine what dps is better than others, or what a max HPS rotation consists of, is inherently flawed because the fact of the matter is, we’re working with a smaller data set than the folks whose job it is to manage that data. But, be that as it may, the fact remains that those tools we’re using are the only tools, and the best tools, we have. So we use them, copiously, and define class balance according to them. And, when it comes to healing balance, that means you end up looking at charts like the ones below:
Even with very little understanding of the data behind this chart (and man, is there A LOT of data backing this up) we can start to identify various elements. The orange line is druids, the bright white line is disc priests, the pink line represents holy paladins, the grey line is holy priests, and the dark blue line, is resto shaman. (The spikes and valleys, remember, are the result of a couple things: gearing, content, and patch/hotfix changes. So that big druid spike you see post-4.1? That’s likely due to Tranquility being shortened to a 3min CD. And the drop in HPS immediately after 4.2? That’s the differential in NM Firelands fights versus HM T11). The point here is … even if we paid no attention to the numbers, even if we had no understanding of the classes or the game, we could all answer the question: “who’s at the bottom?” We’d identify the lowest line on the chart and confidently say “the dark blue line”. And that is precisely what the community does—we look at this data and we identify that Resto Shaman are low on meters. But is there all that there is to it?
As you’re thinking about that last question, I think this is a good time to bring back an old but very true quote from our favorite blue crab (yes, this one dates back to the end of 2009)
I make the analogy a lot of the thermometer. If you go outside and read a thermometer nailed to the side of your house, it’s a pretty safe bet that you now know the actual temperature outside and you only need a value more accurate and precise than that if you are a meteorologist or something. You can’t in the same way go to Wow Meters Online or World of logs or Simcraft and accept that number as what your class does or more specifically how you perform individually. That is not to disparage those sites or tools at all. You just have to interpret the data in context and I fear too often players approach the forums with a preconceived conclusion and a desire to have the data support what they want it to support.
So I ask again, are these meters that we’re basing our class theory on really giving us the complete picture?
The Haunting Intangibles
Although we may not get much credit for it in the eyes of the optimal-focused community and although it never shows on any meter, Resto Shaman do offer a significant amount of the intangible. As I talked about in a post back at the beginning of this year, Shaman – The Last Vestiges of a Utility Class, Shaman are a class designed around utility. If you want to do pure dps and nothing but, roll a warlock, mage, hunter, or rogue. But if you want flexibility and the ability to make smaller teams and groups of players delight in your presence, roll a shaman. Simply put, even in a time where we talk about class homogenization, shamans’ versatility that we have to change our buffs to compliment our teammates is unparalleled. And for every shaman in 25s who doesn’t even drop totems, is a 10s team hoping for their buff-stick carrying blue box to log on.
Speaking in specific regards to Resto Shaman, we bring another layer of versatility in a class that’s come a long way since Sunwell and the days where an iconic ability was our only ability of note. We bring solid tank and raid heals, hots and direct healing, damage reduction, and some of the most powerful AOE throughput on a stacked raid of 25. We bring a Mastery designed to make us scale, slightly, with incoming damage. And if anything, this past arena season demonstrated just how powerful and versatile shamans are on a small-scale team.
So why is it that when we look at sites like those above that aggregate parses from actual players, Resto Shaman still don’t seem all that great? Why is it that we can power-heal a 3’s or 5’s team but struggle when we get into larger groups? The answer lies in the intangibles.
As a general rule, the community still focuses way too much on healing meters as a proxy for how good a healer they are. Meters aren’t even that great for comparing dps without a lot of analysis. (Source)
And therein lies the bulk of the problem. Some of the major things that Resto Shaman bring to the table, and the things that make a great healer, aren’t things that show up on any meter. The versatility that makes us powerhouses on small teams (ie: PVP) pales in comparison to the specialization that is inherent in larger team settings (ie: PVE). And so we’re left with a major disconnect in the experiences of PVE Resto Shaman and the views of the class designers, because our focus is not the same as theirs. They see the intangibles, they can assign them weights and values, whereas we can only see the meters right in front of our eyes.
This disconnect, between the tangible performance of Restos and the intangible benefits we bring, is exacerbated by the choice of Blizzard’s developers to not make those invisible benefits known. Our Mastery, which is downright amazing during progression, isn’t even measurable by looking at the combat log. Our big selling point in Ancestral Fortitude, doesn’t create any log event so there’s no way to see if it was on the tank during the big hit or not. Our raid CD (which I still think is incredibly gimp), does no effective healing and again, doesn’t show any value for amount absorbed. And this … this is the point where the wise developer would speak up and point out that none of these address parity or balance—they only address “winning on meters”.
To which I would reply … PRECISELY!
Back in the middle of Wrath a small mod was introduced that aggregated your item values into a single number, in order to easily evaluate your level of progression. I’m talking, of course, about GearScore. (No no, put down the pitchforks … I’m not reviving the GearScore debate). As I was saying … the community reaction to the mod was divisive, and the blue reaction was pretty darn clear:
We actually talked today about adding an item level 300 shirt that did absolutely nothing but mess with mods that attempt to boil down players to gear scores. (Source)
GearScore became a lightning rod and it was panned by blues across the board. And then, when Cataclysm came out—guess what? It was actually integrated in game, just not in the way that you were used to seeing it. The ilvl requirements tacked onto normal and heroic Cataclysm dungeons are the worked-over incarnation of GearScore, and that number is still used by players attempting to find PuGs, discuss their gear (or lack thereof), and brag to other players about progression. The point here is that sometimes, the tools players use to evaluate the game, while they may only be capturing a small piece of the picture, are nonetheless, valuable to the community.
Remember how I started this post talking about how the raiding community should receive a little credit for driving the evolution of WoW (at least in terms of endgame)? GearScore’s integration is a credit to that exact sentiment. Or how about this … back in BC, disc was starting to make itself known on the raiding scene, but they were struggling to justify their spots because the healing meters at the time could only identify healing done. Absorbs didn’t show on the combat log, and thus couldn’t be tracked by any mods (Source). So, having a disc priest in raid was more an act of faith than a simple matter of choosing the “best healer” for the task. When Blizzard finally figured out a solution and started including absorbs in the combat log, in one fell swoop, disc priests became an incredibly sought-after class to bring to any group or raid. I don’t know if it was a small change or a labor-intensive one, but I do know that in making the intangible tangible, in moving away from the Vanilla concept of “I think I’m doing good here” to “I can see if I’m doing good here”, Blizzard changed the perception of an entire spec.
Bringing Healer Parity Home
I’m quite sure that I faked a number of readers out with the title of this post, and instead of walking into a discussion about the state of healing, a comparison of HPS for all healers, and the typical plea for Resto Shaman buffs, you walked into an argument for one very simple change. Because, as I realized one night, before we can start a discussion about healer performance, we have to be able to see all the cards on the table. Since the start of the expansion, and since the first Resto Shaman PR nightmare was launched, I have been lobbying for changes for my beloved class. And as anyone on my healing team would tell you, I watch meters like a hawk. But, my argument here is not that Resto Shaman need a tool to help us win on healing meters, but rather this:
If the contention is that Resto Shaman bring more than they’re given credit for, then FFS figure out a way to demonstrate that. As the ordeal with disc priests illustrated, there is a distinct difference between Blizzard saying a class is good, and Blizzard making it possible for people to see that a class is good.
What I’m asking for here is healer parity, at its most basic level. What I want is to be able to put my arms around the complete picture, to be able to present an argument based on all the data. We’re being told time and time again that players don’t have the full picture on what a healer evaluation should entail. If Ancestral Fortitude is what’s supposedly keeping me competitive, show me that. If I’m not making good use of my RT-buffed CH hits, give me a way to see that. If my Mastery is boosting my heals in a non-uniform way, SHOW ME. And if Ancestral Vigor is somehow going to solve all of our end boss woes, then show us how.
Because in the absence of this information, healers, teammates, and raid leaders will look to the information available to them. They will look to meters and parsers, much as they looked to GearScore, to compress a difficult evaluation down to a more simplistic task. Guilds and players alike will continue to make decisions against Resto Shaman (or any healer, for that matter) if they don’t see sufficient evidence that the class can perform up to snuff. And regardless of whether Blizzard thinks those methods are valid or not or of sufficient depth, this is one case where it is not Blizzard leading the way, but rather the players. For as much as we all like feeling powerful, feeling like our class plays well, feeling like we’re among friends, and feeling like we’re doing a good job, the fact remains that this is Vanilla WoW no longer–feelings are not enough. Intangible benefits don’t cut it when it comes to raiding. And “bring the player, not the class” can’t exist in a world where the first mod a player installs is a damage meter.