It was an expansion that “changed the face of Azeroth”, that gave life where there was previously none and snuffed some out, while also altering entire landscapes. But, in addition to the geographical changes enacted as part of Cataclysm’s story, the xpac also served as the champion of a number of player paradigm shifts—from the healing game, to the way in which players approach heroic dungeons, to difficulty tuning for both 10 and 25-mans. Our world has evolved significantly over this past year and a half, moving away from the Wrath model into something much different. But as I sit here now, looking back Tiers 11, 12 and 13, in all their glory, I wonder just how many of the changes ushered in by Cataclysm are here to stay.
As is typical with me, this post started as something simple and evolved into a multi-parter; with every archived blue post I read (and I read a LOT of them!) I found more things that I wanted to write about. So, this post is going to look at 3 of the biggest healing paradigm shifts that were championed in Cataclysm—Triage, Niche Elimination, and Increased Healer Parity—and discuss how those concepts were implemented and reinforced over the course of the expansion.
Healing Shift 1: Limited mana will necessitate triage.
When I think of the major changes that I looked forward to in Cataclysm, coming from a Wrath environment of spam-spam-spam, this one absolutely tops the list.
Prior to LK, healers could run out of mana, and for the most part it worked. They didn’t just use their efficient heals, because sometimes their group would die if they did. They didn’t just use their big heals though, because they’d run out of mana (and then the group would die) … I know it sounds like we are picking on healers all the time, but once you can run out of mana again, I think everything will just feel better, your choices about what spell to cast next become more compelling, and the healing game overall will be more engaging. (Source)
The reason I see this as possibly the most important paradigm shift of Cataclysm is that healer mana is the linchpin for so many things—incoming damage, tank damage, soft enrage timers, raid execution, spell selection and diversity, and, of course, triage. Limit healers’ available mana and you can, as a encounter designer, lower incoming damage, reduce tank damage so that it isn’t a spam game, introduce soft enrage timers (like V&T or Ascendant Council) instead of hard enrage timers (like Ultraxion), incorporate penalties that require that players avoid damage, and challenge healers to use their whole arsenal instead of just 2 spells.
While it was a difficult learning experience for the majority of players who made the transition from Wrath-spam to Cataclysm-triage, I think we can agree that Blizzard delivered on their promises at the start of the expansion. Like many, I was incredibly skeptical that triage would work in a raid environment, and I’m not ashamed to admit, I was impressed when the promise of triage raiding actually came to pass. I saw effective healing percentages for Earthliving that I had never seen up until that point, Healing Stream actually was worth dropping, and Healing Wave was dusted off for use—conditions which simply weren’t present when I was in ICC. And, I remember that a lot of the advice that I handed out at the start of the expansion had the same common theme—don’t worry about keeping people topped off, because you simply won’t have the mana to do it.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that state of triage lasted too far past Tier 11. While some fights in Firelands pushed healers to the limit, we started to see more fights where increased direct-healing was required by virtue of heavy-hitting, unavoidable mechanics. For example: Baleroc HM brought back the ever-enjoyable tank 1-shot, HM Rag punished healers with a variety of heavy-hitting mechanics, and by the time we found ourselves in T13, healers’ mana was nowhere near as strained as it had been in previous tiers. This, in turn, enabled the resurgence of inefficient and yet effective playstyles as Rejuv and Holy Radiance spamming. (Not picking on either class, or saying that everyone played this way, simply that it was possible).
This was something that developers knew was coming, however:
As damage increases, healers will need to use their largest, most inefficient heals more regularly to keep up. That’s fine and was all part of the design. We just didn’t want players to opt out of mana regeneration too early in the content because then Spirit (and mana-related procs) on gear wouldn’t be attractive, and because we’d have to balance difficulty by making the tanks die in a couple of GCDs if not healed continually … This is still a much better place to be than we were with Lich King content, where mana stopped mattering in the first raid tier. Aside from the mana changes we’ve already made to Innervate, Mana Tide Totem and paladin heals, we don’t think an overall regen nerf is necessary. (Source)
And thus, we have the reasoning behind another major change on the horizon for healers come Mists of Pandaria—the disassociation from Intellect from mana pools and regen. Whereas I started Cataclysm raiding with a mana pool just under 90k unbuffed, and ended it with over 146k, in Mists every healer will be restricted by the same mana pool cap—300,000 at level 90. From leveling greens to Best in Slot raid gear, your maximum mana pool will never budge. Likewsise, Mists will be axing the relationship between Intellect and Combat Regen introduced back in Patch 2.4; no more will your character’s Intellect increase your mp5. Instead, come the new expansion, managing your healing power and your combat regen will be a balancing act that all healers must perform. From beta testing thus far, I can at least attest that the slight mana strain is back, but whether these changes will have the desired effect or not, remains to be seen.
Healing Shift #2: No more niches
While homogenization is so often thrown around as a dirty word when it comes to class design and balancing, it was a stated goal when it came to Cataclysm’s healer changes:
In Lich King, the conventional wisdom was you had to have a Holy paladin healing the MT or you were horribly gimping yourself. You needed a Disc priest for Infest or you were going to struggle. We’d like to see more raids where the Holy priest is on the tank and the paladin is on the raid, or have the paladin join a pug and ask “Who do you want me to heal?” (Source)
If Wrath was one step away from the niche healing model, then Cataclysm was a 16-hour plane flight to the other side of the globe. Step one of breaking down niche roles occurred at the onset, when every healer was given a class-specific holy trinity of spells: the slow, efficient one; the medium, quick and expensive one; and the slow, heavy-hitting one. AOE healing tools were also addressed, and arsenal holes filled in with spells like Holy Radiance, Light of Dawn, Healing Rain, Sanctuary, and Efflorescence. But more important than the tools that each healer was given, was one theme that the developers championed early on (and yes, I remember this one because it relates to shaman):
I think it’s fair to say that the shaman was probably the closest to the Cataclysm healing style even in Lich King … The other 3 classes (a little less so Holy priests) basically had their favorite spell and used it nearly all the time, with other spells just being filler. Shaman really did feel like they had a choice between HW and LHW and then Chain Heal more situationally. (Source)
Even though I don’t entirely agree with GC’s perspective on Shaman healing in LK, that small objection is eclipsed by how much his point about choice resonates with me. The intention of providing every healer with the Holy Trinity of Heals, and other supplements, was to re-introduce choice back into the equation. By arming each healer, conceivably, with the tools to handle tank and raid damage, the intent was to not only afford healers choices on how to heal but also which healing role they wanted to fill (and conversely, for raid teams, allowing multiple healers to fill said role).
It’s also worth noting that another side effect of choice within healer arsenals was the concept of “heal weaving”, which was what I think GC was identifying as the Resto Shaman playstyle that Devs were attempting to emulate in other classes. With Cata, we saw more conditions and self-buffs incorporated into healer rotations, for example: Tidal Waves and Riptide casts for Resto Shaman, Harmony maintenance through single-target heals for Resto Druids, PW:S Rapture management for Disc Priests, Holy Power (and the now-defunct Judgment model) for Paladins, and uh … Chakra for Holy Priests? (I defer to Derevka on that one).
As far as the longevity of these changes, I’m not sure we can look back and call it a complete success, but neither can we call it a complete failure. Patch 4.1, which finally awarded Resto Shaman a raid CD in the form of Spirit Link Totem and reduced the CD on Tranquility to 3 minutes, went quite a ways to ensuring that raid teams wouldn’t be penalized by the particular healing classes they had available that evening. Because, remember, the notable distinction in Tier 11 and something that we saw in evidence in the top guilds’ first kills, was the lack of raid CDs for Resto Druids and Shaman.
But, when it comes to healer choice and spell selection, if you look at spell distributions for healers in Dragon Soul versus those experienced in Tier 11, you definitely do see more movement towards the heavy-hitting, high-cost heals. Certainly, for all classes, the usage of the slow, efficient heal significantly decreased as content aged, except in times of extreme boredom or mis-managed mana. By Tier 13, we saw heavy usage of expensive AOE heals, partly because of the design of encounters, and partly because healers could afford to cast them more often (again referencing point #1 above).
So while Cataclysm certainly introduced more choice into healer arsenals, and blurred the lines a bit between the classic healing assignments, I don’t think we moved into a world without any niches. Because, ultimately, niches are simply another way of identifying a class’s strengths and weakness—without those, we’d struggle to have any distinction between the various members of Group 5.
Healing Shift #3: Healer (performance) parity
Ah, the wonderful topic of healing parity, more commonly known, correctly or incorrectly, as the difference between the guy on the top of the meters and the guy on the bottom. Although players might not remember, back in the way back when of raiding, all classes were not created equal. In WoW’s starting years, low output was justifiably offset by necessity (eg: paladins as the sole tank healer), by utility (eg: shamans) or (as was the case with disc priests in BC) by faith in the fact that absorbs, although unseen, were actually helpful. Wrath made major inroads into bringing the healing classes more in line, and that was ever more the goal with Cataclysm:
… our model for healers for a long time has been that everyone has their little niche. We now think healers should just be healers. (Source)
Contrary to how you might feel, we think we did pretty well with healer balance in Lich King. All 5 healing specs were represented. We think we can erode their niches a little, such that the two druid raid can heal fine, or such that you can put a Holy priest on the tank and a paladin on the raid, without having the healer that nobody will want. We haven’t been in a situation where a healer gets sat for a long time. I don’t think it will be that way in Cataclysm either. (Source)
In fact, a number of the changes that I discussed in the previous section when talking about the elimination of niches also serve to reinforce the concept of healer parity. The introduction of the 3-heal model, normalization of raid CDs, and the distribution of healing tools were presumably aimed at closing the gap on performance, and making sure that there was never a situation where one class was underperforming on the large majority of encounters. (Remember: this is different than a class being underwhelming on a single encounter).
So how well did that plan work out for healers? For that answer, let’s take a look at one of my favorite WoW tools—Raidbots—from the start of their monitoring efforts until the time of this post. (Link to live chart) Bear in mind, I’m only looking at 25’s here; 10’s are a slightly different story.
Looking at the graph above, I’m struck by a couple things. First, and I find this actually to be in line with my recollection, is that from 4.0.6 to 4.1 (the far left side), healing output was actually fairly close between the healers. Unfortunately, Raidbots doesn’t go back to 4.0 and Cataclysm launch, so what we’re left looking at are the results of Patch 4.0.6’s buffs to Shaman, Priests and Druids, who were identified as being slightly underperforming at the time. And interestingly enough, that bump in the bright white line that represents Disc Priests is due to the buff and subsequent nerf of PW:S, that led to a number of disc priests enjoying a short couple weeks of nothing but shield spam (some more so than others). For the most part though, what I’m left with is the impression that healers were reasonably equal 4.0.6 – 4.1.
Unfortunately, post-4.1 is where things start to go a little awry. The bump in Resto Druid output post-patch can be largely attributed to the reduction of Tranquility’s CD to 3mins, meaning that Druids were able to have at least one Tranq a fight, sometimes even getting in a second or a third depending on the duration of the encounter. Post-4.2 we see druids take off once again, this time in stark comparison to Holy Priests, who struggled to get a toe-hold in Firelands prior to the nerfbat, which hit right at that point where you see the spike in HPS between 4.2 and 4.3.
Interestingly enough, Druids “winning” at healing meters was something that GC directly mentioned in his discussion of 4.2 balance changes:
Resto druids “win” healing meters now in part because their raid cooldown, Tranquility, shows up as healing. Warriors do well on Chimaeron because they take a lot of raid damage. (Resto shaman heal well on Chimaeron because everyone is wounded all the time.) Yet once you start eliminating data — “oh that’s a gimmick fight” or “oh, someone is inflating their meters by attacking an irrelevant target” — you risk skewing the results.
If anything, I’m inclined to agree with GC’s perception on the druid CD being a “meter-breaker”; counting Tranquility’s effects without consideration of the damage-reduction components of PW:Barrier, Spiritlink or Aura Mastery, certainly gives a biased view of Druid performance within the tier. (Of course the counter-argument to this would be that it’s Blizzard’s own fault for creating that perception, since they control what the combat log does and does not track). Thus, it would seem, and I think the graph from Raidbots supports this, that however diverse the encounters were in Firelands, they made for an incredibly bad representation of class balance (a hypothesis that was reinforced by Watcher’s comments in the Class Balance & Design Q&A on 11/9/11, in response to an brilliant question from Lodur).
Moving into 4.3, we actually gained a little more stability with healer performance, which if we follow Watcher’s logic from the Firelands Q&A, meant that Tier 13 was less positioned from an encounter design standpoint to play into one particular healer’s strengths over another. (Although if HM Spine wasn’t a fight custom-designed for Spiritlink then I don’t know what is). And in a move that was particularly curious to me given the whole “Tranquility is a meter-breaker” stance taken in Firelands, Holy Priests seemingly low performance in T12 was boosted to an equitable level in T13 by placing Divine Hymn on par with Resto Druids’ own raid CD.
Yet, despite a seemingly more open field of play for healers, by the end of the Dragon Soul timeline, we’re left with a fair large gap between the bottom of the pack and the top. Considering that average healer performance at Patch 4.1 was around 15k HPS, with maybe a 2k HPS spread, if we assumed the same magnitude of growth for the spread as for healer output, then we should have wound up with ~30k average HPS and a 4k HPS spread. Instead, at the end of the expansion, we saw the difference between the top healer and the bottom healer around 8k HPS. Interestingly enough, this is about the same spread that you see on the DPS side of things (if you look at the top-performing spec of each class), in the same timeframe. The only difference is that DPS have maintained that disparity almost the entire expansion, with some rotation in the top slots, whereas healers’ ranks and disparities were only further highlighted by gearing and progression.
Minor, but still notable, healing shifts
In light of the above major quality of life changes made for healers in Cataclysm, there are a couple of comparatively minor shifts which might have slipped in under most players’ radars, but which I think are notable nonetheless.
- Death does not equal Bad Healer
Although I oftentimes find it annoying when a healer’s first reaction to a player’s death is to blame the player, that situation became a very real experience in those first starting dungeons and instances in Cataclysm. It was a frustrating experience for me, and I’m sure many other healers, as I was forced in those starting months to relay the facts, over and over again, that: a) I didn’t have the mana to keep everyone topped, and b) that there were things I simply could not heal through. But slowly, I do feel like the raiding populace got the message that they hadn’t in Wrath—your death does not automatically translate to healer failure. In turn, this small shift had major implications in the raiding world, opening up doors for personal accountability and, for better or for worse, raid-wipe mechanics that did not hinge on whether or not someone could be healed through the fire.
- Healers can do a little DPS
It was an almost unheard-of idea in the WotLK environment, but something that was integrated into each healing class’s talent tree during the Cataclysm revamp—healers could do a little dps if they so liked. As GC clarified in a post on the topic:
If you are the kind of healer that never, ever, ever wants to do damage under any circumstances, then don’t. You’ll have choices to avoid anything dps-related … I also don’t think you’ll be expected to dps. Your 2-3 dps talents aren’t going to let you compete with a mage. (Source)
And while for three of the healing classes, the overwhelming choice was to stay away from dps talents and spend your precious points elsewhere (except for Ultraxion progression), for Disc Priests and Resto Shamans, those dps talents contributed to a significant change in the playstyle of the class. And despite the fact that Blizzard has long claimed that Telluric Currents is optional, there’s no disputing the advantages that it afforded shaman in various fights throughout the expansion (eg: Halfus, Magmaw, Staghelm, Zon’ozz, Spine and Madness). Likewise, Atonement /Smite healing saw heavy usage at the start of the expansion and slowly established itself as a primary way to Disc. At the risk of sounding overzealous, the integration of active regen/buff models, I thought, was possibly one of the most exciting changes made this expansion.
- Haste isn’t always the answer
The end of Wrath was a grand old time; with around 50% haste and a DFO in my pocket, my chain heals were the definition of speedy. In fact, since Ulduar, the advice for most classes was simply to stack more haste, as healing became of game of spamming and hoping that bad RNG didn’t reduce your targets to a pile of mush on the floor. Or as GC put it in a post summarizing the WotLK experience:
Think of playing a healer like a real time strategy game. In the Lich King environment, your strategy is basically to crank out infantry as fast as you can and never let up. No matter what your opponent does, your job is to counter him with infantry. It doesn’t matter what kinds of units he makes or whether he’s going for a fast or slow buildup. Just make infantry. If your race has upgrades that affect things other than infantry, obviously they are of no use to you and you should ignore them. Cost is largely irrelevant too, since you are making one solider over and over. (Source)
Unfortunately, I don’t think Cataclysm did enough to drive home this shift in healer stat valuation. At the start of the expansion, most healers recognized haste as a convenience that they simply couldn’t afford, preferring healing power (HPM) over speed of delivery (HPS). However, despite the buff that crit healing got in Patch 4.2, crit rating never really saw the popularity that Mastery, and ultimately, Haste experienced.
- CD’s for everyone!
Lastly, although it wasn’t a stated goal for Cataclysm, over the course of the expansion we saw the distribution of a very important set of healer tools (ones that, I think, were definitely undervalued in previous expansions and tiers)—cooldowns. Cataclysm marked the first time that each of the healing classes had an emergency button to push when stuff hit the fan. And even though it was a small change, I can’t underscore enough how much it impacted the raiding game. When in Tier 13, we saw the further extension of tank CD’s into raid CDs, we moved into a raiding world where encounter damage is characterized by gradually-overwhelming mechanics but rather by spikes that your raid must plan for and avoid. If there was a theme to Cataclysm healing, I would say it was massive raid-wide damage (think: Electrocute on Nefarian, Traps and Seeds on Rag, or Black Phase on Zon’ozz), the likes of which healers hadn’t really seen before.
The final verdict (until I feel like writing another 4000 words)
So, now that we have the benefit of hindsight, we can answer the question: was Blizzard able to follow through with every paradigm shift that they championed? Not entirely. As I mentioned before, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to move beyond niches, because they are what makes the classes in WoW unique. So as much as the Devs may strive to normalize the playing field, class and fight mechanics will always mean that someone will come out on top. Likewise, I think it’s evident that attempts at healer parity fell a little bit short after Tier 11. My issues with Resto Shaman tuning aside (which is a post for another day), I can’t help but be slightly disappointed at seemingly being so close to a competitive healing environment post-4.0.6, and then having that slowly deteriorate over the months/year to follow.
Looking forward to Pandaria, I don’t think that the changes for healers are nearly as aggressive as they were in Cataclysm. In fact, it’s heartening to see that two of the paradigm shifts that struggled to take hold are actually being addressed through further gap-closing measures (eg: spells, talents) and the attempt to maintain a state of triage for longer (through the limitations being place on healer mana pools). But, having gone through some real class lows over this expansion, I’m quick to note that all the controls that are being put in place will require vigilant tuning from the design team. Because in an environment that is so very punishing for healers, there is the very real threat of seeing a class (or two) fall significantly behind the others.
In the end, I think it’s unfortunate that this expansion started out on such a rough note with healers. On forums, on blogs, and even in Dev posts, players were talking about how hard healers were hit with some of the biggest shifts in game. I was, and I still remain, frustrated about the burden of education that it placed on a role whose job is already inherently stressful. But regardless of my petty gripes and complaints, I do firmly believe that despite whatever bumps and bruises we (and our egos) picked up along the way, the healing game is the better for having gone through such an upheaval, such change, such a Cataclysm.