These past few months of progression, combined with a work schedule that refuses to ease up, have left me with a billion ideas about the game and a folder full of half-written, conceptualized, or hastily brain-dumped pseudo-posts that I haven’t had time to see to fruition. And amid my musings about the decline of 25-man raiding, why proc-based trinkets stink, and the rise of alts over offspecs, is one topic that I want to talk about more than anything else—the state of the healing game as of Tier 15 and Patch 5.3.
I want to talk about it not because I’m about to launch into a death-and-doom post about the state of the healing game, or about Resto Shaman (though I’d have no lack of material there), but rather because I think in these past two tiers, we’ve been watching healing themes evolve and morph from very class-specific issues into ones that are affecting healers (and healer balance) across the board. There are 4 specifically that I want to focus on: the contribution of cooldowns, the effects of burst damage, the efficacy of absorbs in mitigating raid effects, and the explosion of healer mana. Because, I think we oftentimes get so caught up in the numbers and with isolating and dissecting issues that we forget how interconnected it all really is.
Setting the Stage
When 5.3 was launched a mere 11 weeks after raid teams gained entrance to Throne of Thunder, there were 3 seemingly minor changes nested in those Escalation patch notes:
- Tranquility now targets 12 raid members (up from 5) each time it heals when used in a 25-player instance.
- Revival now has a healing cap of 15 raid members (up from 6) when used in a 25-player instance.
- Divine Hymn now targets 12 raid members (up from 5) each time it heals when used in a 25-player instance.
Forums and guild discussions were rife with speculation about the size of these impacts on throughput, and when logs started pouring in, we saw just how substantial they were. While Monks saw a nice, albeit small, boost to their throughput, Druids skyrocketed up in 25s (arguably due to the changes to Tranq *and* mushrooms) and Holy Priests, who maintained a comfortable position before, widened the gap between first and second even further. It was a 1-2 punch, which when combined with the nerfs to Illuminated Healing and Atonement, completely reshuffled the healing ranks.
Contribution of Cooldowns
But there’s more to it than that, and if you focus strictly on meters and who’s on top versus who’s on bottom (which leads to the typical lamentations about class balance), you miss the larger picture here. And that is … in the cases above and including Shamans’ Healing Tide Totem and Disc’s Spirit Shell, these massive HPS cooldowns are now wielding more influence than they ever have before. This is important because it represents a definitive change in the healing game, the strains of which we saw with Spirit Shell in Tier 14, but which I think traces even further back, to Firelands in fact.
Recall, at that time, that it was Resto Druids who were on top of charts and defending the position that they “won” healing because their sole raid cooldown (Tranquility) showed up on meters, whereas raid utility tools like Barrier, Aura Mastery, and Spirit Link’s damage reduction component, did not. (Blue Source) At that point, Tranquility was in a class by itself as the only powerhouse AOE throughput CD. (Divine Hymn was comparatively weak, which is why it saw a buff via Heavenly Voice in 4.3). But it was the usefulness of that powerful, raid-saving Tranq that, I think, laid the groundwork for the distribution of throughput cooldowns to each healing class. Which was a good thing in theory (I sure as heck argued for it), but which we’re now seeing the negative effects of, post-5.3.
Firstly, we have a problem with proliferation—the sheer number of throughput cooldowns that are available as you increase in group size, not only from mainspec healers, but from hybrids as well, is boggling. It’s not something that you’d really notice in a 5-man dungeon or smaller team, where you’re thankful for the ability to save a dying group. Even in a 10-man environment, you might still be thankful for that parity between healing classes. But when you get into a 25-man environment, where every healer (plus your Enh and Ele Shaman, Spriests, and Druids) has a mega-cooldown at their fingertips, you have the option of playing every fight like Ra-Den Phase 2, where you simply chain cooldowns for 2.5 minutes of the encounter.
Secondly, we have a problem with what I can only term power creep, which is not only a result of the increase of healer throughput over time but also the escalation of incoming damage on raids. Power creep is something that we saw in Icecrown raids, and is something we’re seeing the effects of with Patch 5.3’s buffs to AOE CDs—it is the upward spiral of needing to make mechanics that challenge and strain healers mana, but also needing healers to be well equipped, in either raid size, with or without absorbs, to handle that damage. So you buff healers, then buff damage, then buff healers … up and up and up.
Which leads to the third issue at hand: valuation. As I mentioned previously, these healing cooldowns have moved from contributing in the neighborhood of ~10% total effective healing in Tier 14, to the point in Tier 15 where they’re sometimes contributing upwards of 20% of a healer’s total effective healing. But when I talk about valuation of a spell, I’m NOT talking about its measured output on WoL.
What I am talking about healers’ ability to affect change on the outcome of an encounter. Healing is a reactive game, a way to offset the damage mechanics of a fight and account for simple human error, and so “skill” as a healer is evaluated on the ability to make decisions that have a positive effect. But when the effect of a spell, or a single choice, is so significant that it eclipses the healer’s other spells and decisions, not only does it narrow their focus onto appropriate use of that one spell (as I mentioned above), but it erodes at one of the most basic and oft reinforced tenets of healing—your decisions matter.**
But in all this talk about dominant cooldowns, it’s important remember that the power of a cooldown and the healing it does are characteristics dependent on one thing: the amount of damage your raid is taking.
Burst, the Anti-Triage
Perhaps what I find most interesting about the power of mega-cooldowns is that they oftentimes have a positive correlation to the amount of burst damage in an encounter (especially if that burst is spaced out at regular intervals). Whether it’s Lighting Storm, Dire Call, Discharge, Quake Stomp, Rampage, Quills, Ventral Sacks, Interrupting Jolt, Fist Smash, Nuclear Inferno, Thunderstruck, or Unleashed Vita—burst damage was front and center in Throne of Thunder. (Durumu is, in fact, the only ToT encounter without a regular raid-wide burst damage mechanic).
And, with the rise of burst frequently comes the death of triage. (I say frequently because you can have both burst and triage in an encounter, just look at T11 bosses—it simply necessitates that the burst be less intense). Regrettably, Throne of Thunder was no exception to this rule. Triage’s death knell was sounded by ever-rising Spirit values on gear, and the final nail in the coffin was put in place by the incredibly powerful healer legendary meta gem, which provides a game-changing amount of mp5. In addition to raid-wide burst damage, we also saw the resurgence of heavy tank burst, which was front and center on fights like Primordious, Dark Animus, Ji Kun, and Ra-Den, where tank deaths were, and are, still are possible in a matter of a couple seconds.
Unfortunately, not all classes are equipped to handle burst damage, which is partly why pre-5.3, both Resto Druids and Resto Shaman struggled to remain competitive with other healers. Druids have long been masters of raw throughput, the constraint on which historically has been that their hots had fairly long durations, making overhealing the inevitable result of a shorter effective healing window. Likewise, Shamans’ long cast times, mastery, and spatial constraints make them reliant on a more protracted healing window in order to achieve comparable throughput. Thus, in a burst environment, these classes are at a disadvantage simple based on class design, and in a burst environment comprised of an entire tier, they become the low men on the totem pole for every single fight. (Which is what we saw until the mushroom changes in 5.3).
Relating this back to something I mentioned above–—the heavier the burst damage, the more throughput healers need to be able to do in a short window of time. One way to control that window is to make sure you have sufficient CDs to cover the unmitigated amount (which is what the preceding section talked about), while the other way to control that window is to reduce the amount of reactive healing that your team is responsible for. Which leads me to my next talking point …
(See? I told you this all connects!)
Efficacy of Absorbs in Preventing Damage
When you think about it, it shouldn’t really be much of a surprise that when damage comes in brief, predictable waves, the best way to counteract it is through the use of proactive mitigation. It was, in fact, the reason that Discs enjoyed Sunwell-esque dominance in Tier 10, and to a lesser extent in Tier 14. The scaling back of SS with 5.2 was, I think, successful in shifting the spell distributions of Discs slightly away from SS/PoH spam, ultimately rewarding greater contributions from PW: S and Atonement healing. But it was the combination of effects, from Pallies’ Illuminated Healing and Disc’s Divine Aegis, PW:S and Spirit Shell, that ruled the time between 5.2 and 5.3.
I feel inclined to mention here that … [dramatic pause for emphasis] … there is nothing wrong with Absorbs being a strong and compelling tool in raid content. I may gripe about how they snipe my heals and I may secretly plot to disrupt our absorb classes’ internet connections, but deep down, I appreciate the breathing room that they give our team when we’re working on progression content. Interestingly enough, as Ghostcrawler recently mentioned, absorbs have taken over that very particular and valuable niche in the healing world—smoothing incoming damage so that an entire raid isn’t spiking up and down from 100% to 20% HP every time your raid takes a hit.
But, part of the problem that came to a head in T15 had to do not with Discs’ mitigation (which is seemingly making its way back to the norms of Wrath), but rather with Paladins’ mitigation, and the fact that we don’t see the same sort of pros and cons with Illuminated Healing as we do with Disc Priests. Whereas Disc has front-loaded mitigation, with little in the way of pure healing, Paladins’ absorbs are actually based on their raw throughput, gaining power not only from intellect and crit, but also from mastery, making their toolkit strongest in those situations where absorbs are typically weak, namely, consistent incoming AOE. And while the 5.3 nerfs to Illuminated Healing did serve to reduce the size of the bubbles being applied by raid healing pallies, it still doesn’t alleviate the fact that the class is straddling the line between absorbs and throughput, without suffering the downsides typically associated with either.
But the other reason that absorbs were allowed to dominate in Throne leads us further down the breadcrumb trail … mana, for most classes, ceased to be a controlling factor.
Tier 9 holds many memories for me, but none so significant as the day when I received my first Solace of the Fallen. It was only trumped by a day a month or so later, when my set was complete, and a second Solace of the Fallen was safely equipped in Slot 14. If you were a healer during this time, then you know about the heavens-parting-angels-singing effect that double Solace had on your mana pool. As a shaman, double Solace was the key not only to Haste-stacking, but also to my success in the burst healing world of ICC, where tanks and players could die in a couple GCDs. (Hey, there’s burst cropping up again). Double Solace assured that I would be able to spam the ever-loving-beejeebus out of my Chain Heal key and never go OOM, something that I hadn’t been able to do with wild abandon before.
If you recall, it was as a result of this boom time for healer mana and, accordingly, the incredible burst damage that was present in ICC encounters, that the concept of triage was introduced in Cata, in an effort to make healing decisions more meaningful and make mana a bona fide point of failure. And despite the fact that many of us were dragged kicking and screaming into that world, I think the implementation of triage was largely a success and healers, as a whole, started caring a lot more about their mana. There was something that felt smart about leaving a player at 80% HP and knowing that he’d be okay. But, even in Cata, triage was doomed to die at the hand stat inflation, so at the start of MoP healers saw yet another thematic change aimed at that same lofty goal of getting us to care about our sole resource—the capping of healer mana pools at 300k and the disassociation of Intellect from the regen formula.
Unfortunately, even with these constraints, overhealing has steadily been on the rise since T14. Whereas in the first tier of Cataclysm, I sometimes ended progression encounters with ~20% overhealing (no, I’m not even talking about Chimeron here), in the first tier of Mists my overhealing on progression was in the neighborhood of 30-45%. And when our team stepped into Throne of Thunder, that overhealing percent inched even higher, in the 40-60% range for any given encounter. Part of the problem is the proliferation of splash healing in dps and healing toolkits, but part of that is because with mana restrictions removed via gear and introduction of the healer legendary meta gem, healers are free to address challenges through pure brute force … otherwise known as spam healing … and their teammates are free to look at death logs and once again (as they did back in ICC) why 2 seconds elapsed with no direct healing on the person in question.
It wasn’t until I began writing this post and connecting the dots that I realized how similar this situation is to one we were in just several years ago. Sufficiently gorged on mana, gearing for secondary or even primary throughput stats, dealing with damage that comes in increasingly intense amounts, significantly aware of the strength of absorbs, and having the power of pure spam to counteract the mechanics we faced. We stood on the steps of Icecrown, facing a healing game governed more by stats and less by good decisions. (Oddly, it does seem like we’re hitting this milestone a little earlier than we did back then—an indication of some escalation, perhaps?)
What emerged from that previous experience was a new buzzword for a basic concept—triage. And we’ve been using that as the model of “good healing” ever since, (which, I think, should be considered a huge win on the designers’ part, because it’s not every day you sell the majority of the healing community on a concept of “how to heal properly”). Every time the healing game deviates from that model, we bandy about ideas about how to try and fix healing at that state where healers are trying to do more with less. But maybe we’ve become a little too focused on the triage model, seeing it as an enduring goal instead of what it really is—the first step of a healing cycle that moves towards inefficiency.
In that regard, I think it’s interesting to consider that none of the issues identified above would be completely absent in a triage state. Cooldowns could still be strong, healers would still be limited by absorbs, burst could still be widespread, and mana could still be toeing that line between sufficient and plentiful. So, maybe we need to add another issue to this list, because while the above healing issues are (I think) still important to discuss, we seem to be missing something hiding beneath their surface. Maybe what we should additionally be concerned about is the one thing which provides the constraints for that healing state we healers have grown to love and which we know has been on Dev’s radars since development began on Pandaria—our stats. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we’re seeing the above issues now, given the rapid stat inflation we’ve seen in the past two tiers alone.
In which case, I might have been a bit precipitous in saying that a discussion about the state of healing should be disconnected from the numbers. Maybe this discussion should, in fact, be all about the numbers. And maybe, the item squish that was postponed in Pandaria, will need to become a reality in the very near future.
** For people who still insist on misunderstanding this argument over cooldowns as being a fixation on numbers … The numbers associated with cooldowns are inconsequential. It doesn’t matter how Healing Tide measures up to Tranquility, or Divine Hymn, or Aura Mastery or whatever other 3 min CD is out there. What matters is the size of that cooldown versus the size of your other available tools. Think of it like painting a room. You have a small brush that is no bigger than your hand, and you also have a roller brush, which is as wide as keyboard. Which are you going to use to paint the majority of the room? Obviously, you’ll choose the roller brush. Your friend might even pop by and comment about how much of the room you’ve painted in so little time, which makes you feel great. But suddenly, when you’re halfway done with the room, the roller brush breaks, leaving you to finish the room with the smaller brush. Imagine how futile that would feel. And now imagine that your friend walks in again and notices that you haven’t painted all that much more since he last stopped by. That would likely be a bit frustrating, especially since it took far more effort to paint a small area by hand than it took to paint a large swath with the roller. That is the essence of the incongruity that exists between cooldowns and the rest of the healer’s arsenal. It has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with how much, after that exchange with your friend, you’re going to value that roller brush over the little brush.