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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hybrid Theory: Shaman and the Wrath Alpha

Welcome to Hybrid Theory, where we discuss all things hybrid in the World of Warcraft. Hybrid Theory is brought to you each week by columnist/blogger Alex Ziebart.

The seedy underbelly of the internet continues to supply the goods. Just in time to follow up on our look at Druids and Shadow Priests, we're supplied with some potential Shaman information. Let's hope Paladin timing will be as convenient, though it seems unlikely.

As usual when discussing Alpha information, it's always wise to remember that much of it will likely change by launch. Stay optimistic, but cautiously so. That way you can get excited without your hopes being crushed later on. Now, with the disclaimer out of the way, let's dig right into the Shaman talents and abilities. A lot of the previous weaknesses of the class are being addressed (much like they were for Shadow Priests) with a few new interesting things tossed in, accompanied by a side of itemization band-aids.

The first thing I noticed about the Shaman talent trees in the Wrath of the Lich King alpha is that a few old talents have been changed (and a few talents have been added) to patch up the issues that would arise with the itemization homogenization (see how many times in a row you can say that out loud) in the expansion. For example, Enhancement Shaman no longer get a 5% boost to their Mana via Ancestral Knowledge. It's a boost to Intellect. At face value, it's roughly the same thing. However, when you go deeper into the talent tree, you'll find that Enhancement can turn 100% of their Intellect into Attack Power.

A little strange, considering Enhancement barely gears for Intellect at all. Your average Black Temple geared Enhancement Shaman probably hovers around 200 Intellect unbuffed, and uses a lot of leather intended for Rogues. Still, even then, that's 200 Attack Power. When you take the fact that Hunter gear has a fair amount of Intellect on it currently into consideration, this talent gives Shaman a pretty good reason to share with their predatory friends. Especially when you consider Shaman have relatively low Attack Power compared to the other melee classes, this will help fill that gap in a way other than just stacking Strength endlessly.

Another example of this is the Restoration talent tree. There's a renewed emphasis on Spell Crit that wasn't there before. There was always Ancestral Fortitude, but one minor talent doesn't dictate how you gear, usually. Usually. So far in Wrath, the most notable example of an emphasis on Spell Crit is Ancestral Awakening, a spell that automatically heals the player with the lowest health in the raid for 20% of the healing your Crit did. On top of that, the Restoration talent tree gives you 14% 'free' Crit for your Healing spells.

It's very possible that those talents supply such a large amount of passive Spell Crit so you don't need to gear for it, but I find it more likely that they're specifically encouraging Spell Crit, and we'll see a lot of it on Healing gear. Why? So Restoration and Elemental Shaman can use the same gear for each spec with the new Spell Power mechanic (combining +Damage and +Heal). A strange way to do things, but if they manage to do it right, it's a good thing for Shaman, and probably something we should hope for for all Hybrid classes. It would certainly make things easier as far as bag space goes. Really, anything that helps my Shaman, Paladin, Priest, Druid, et cetera make bag space is a good thing.

Well, that's not true. I think they may be going overboard on homogenizing loot, but this particular example is a good thing, probably. It helps the Healing spec out by letting their gear shine in their alternate spec as well. The current Healing to Damage conversion is nice, but it isn't enough to let a powerful Healer still feel powerful when their friends aren't around. They still want a set of DPS gear currently, even with that conversion.

Moving on from the Gear side of things, there is another thing I noticed. They seem to want an Elemental Shield and a Weapon Buff for each Shaman spec, which is how it probably should have been from the beginning. This is the source of a few talents, the augmentation of an old weapon buff, and the addition of a new one. Each of these things should help the viability of all of the Shaman specs in a raid and PvP setting, supplying either a boost to damage that generally does not keep up well with other classes, or a bit of utility the class previously did not have.

The most notable is the addition of Earthliving Weapon, a weapon buff for Restoration Shaman. It gives a flat +Healing buff, and has a 20% chance to proc a small HoT. This isn't something that is just a toss-away buff. It's something you'll want to keep on your weapon constantly. Shaman receiving a HoT, any HoT, is a good thing and hopefully an omen for Holy Paladins as well. We can hope, can't we?

Flametongue will be the Elemental weapon buff of choice, as it seems it will soon provide a Spell Damage boost, like Earthliving provides Healing. My guess is this won't have much of an effect on anything besides what you see on the surface, and is simply something added to diversify things a little more for Shaman.

Enhancement already has their ultimate weapon buff in the form of Windfury, so their love is in the shape of an Elemental Shield. Lightning Shield, to be precise. The talent Static Shock (with 3/3 talent points) gives a 6% chance to zap your target with a Lightning Shield charge on melee hit. To help that out a little further, you can improve Stormstrike with two talent points, both reducing its cooldown and adding two more charges to the debuff. Combined, this is a pretty great boost to Enhancement DPS.

Elemental's toys mostly seem aimed at PvP. Since that's generally their niche in The Burning Crusade, it makes a lot of sense and that probably won't change much in Wrath. A Fire-based nuke in the form of Lava Burst helps the issue of all Shaman abilities besides two Shocks (and now Totems) being Nature-based. Talents give a few new ways for the Shaman to escape as well: Frost Shock gets the chance to freeze an opponent entirely for 2 seconds, being crit twice in a row procs a 3 second Blessing of Protection with a 30 second cooldown, and the most awesome of them all is Thunder, an AOE knockback that also regenerates some of your mana.

Take that, melee assist train. I'm BoPed and tossing you right out of melee range!

This one is still largely up in the air, but it also seems Shaman in general are getting Hex. I'm sure you remember Hex from Zul'Farrak and LBRS, right? You know, repeatedly getting turned into a frog, over and over again? Gosh, I hate Zul'Farrak. Anyway, yes, it seems Shaman will be getting a form of CC. Hoorah!

I think you get the idea. Shaman get a lot of pretty neat things. I didn't even mention the straight up awesome stuff like the ability to summon Spirit Wolves, Thrall style. I basically just mentioned the things that will probably have an active effect on how Shaman will play in their primary raid roles. A full rundown of their abilities is probably better suited to Totem Talk. Maybe Matt Rossi will take a look at that for all of you.

Now why did I mention these things? Well, I explained what they are probably doing to handle loot homogenization. The other thing I notice while looking over Shaman and the previous classes I've talked about is that it seems they're increasing just how much damage the Hybrids are capable of dealing. I'm sure the Pure classes will still pull ahead, but there seems to be an active effort to lessen that gap, which is something we've discussed before.

Why would they be closing that gap, though? Things seemed pretty balanced in The Burning Crusade, didn't it? Sure, Hybrid damage didn't keep up with the pure classes, but the sheer utility made it worthwhile, right? I, at least, think that was definitely the case in TBC raiding. However, Wrath is taking the emphasis off of 25-man raiding and placing it on 10-man raiding. That massive utility is not going to be as good as it used to be, and not as important.

You likely won't have an entire group benefiting from the entire range of an Enhancement Shaman's utility. Your Enhancement Shaman will probably be with two other physical DPS and your two tanks in a 10-man raid. It's possible that your 10-man fields a full physical DPS group, but it's unlikely. In 10-man raids, the raid DPS that a Shaman supplies is far smaller than if he or she were in a 25-man raid. Their utility no longer makes up for their lower personal DPS in a Wrath of the Lich King raiding scene. The gap between Hybrids and Pure classes must be smaller for a raid game that emphasizes the smaller group sizes. Plus, that potential CC in the form of Hex makes 10-man group composition more lenient in addition to its obvious PvP applications.

If you look at the spells and abilities these classes are getting so far, the heavy emphasis on buffing your group and raid has also been toned down. The group-wide buffs are mostly what they are in The Burning Crusade. Very little has been added or altered on that front. The emphasis has been taken off of buffing others, and been placed on empowering the Shaman, Druid, et cetera. This was needed to some extent, but the shift was rather fast, and indicative of the kind of game we'll see in Wrath.

As someone who adores 25-man raiding, it is admittedly a little saddening to see class design shift away from that so sharply. However, I will admit that it's probably the best move for the majority of the WoW community. Plus, some of that stuff is pretty sweet. Summoning spirit wolves? Hell yes. Again, I didn't mention every new ability and talent that Shaman are getting. There's a lot of other really cool stuff, including some fantastic PvP buffs for Enhancement Shaman. Yeah, you heard that right. PvP buffs for Enhancement.

Here's to hoping that my theories and interpretations are interesting to someone other than myself, and that Shaman will be in top form in Wrath! The love is definitely needed, and I hope that Blizzard follows through.


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